GSD Throwdown: Battle for the Intellectual Territory of a Sustainable Urbanism

GSD Territories of Urbanism | Photo © Justin Knight Photography

GSD Territories of Urbanism | Photo © Justin Knight Photography

The several hundred students, alumni and guests that gathered at the Harvard Graduate School of Design this past Saturday were ostensibly there for the final day of the school’s 50 Year Anniversary conference, “Territories of Urbanism: Urban Design at 50.” Anticipation however, was most reserved for the afternoon session featuring the trenchant Andres Duany, who recently laid down the gauntlet in an article for Metropolis, challenging the efficacy of the GSD’s new focus on Ecological Urbanism, a showpiece of the conference.

A booklet passed out to attendees entitled “Why Ecological Urbanism? Why Now?” asserted that Ecological Urbanism will respond to climate change by situating sustainable architecture and green technology within the urban landscape through “nothing short of a new ethic and aesthetic” of design.

In Metropolis, Duany had written that the GSD’s recent hiring of landscape architect Charles Waldheim and its pedagogical shift to Ecological Urbanism indicated that it was abdicating its responsibility to teach urban design. Aptly titled “Duany vs. Harvard GSD,” the article seemed to suggest that by abandoning any and all “urbane urban design sensibility”, Duany, and by extension New Urbanism (he is the co-founder of the Congress for New Urbanism), now represents the only viable aesthetic in the vanguard of urban design.

Alex Krieger, former Chair of the GSD Urban Planning and Design Department, shot back that Landscape Urbanism has long been “the design discipline that has most consistently retained consciousness of humanity’s impact on land and environments.” Therefore, it is the most appropriate discipline to shape the future of urban design, as concern about climate change and our ecological footprint becomes more pervasive.

Tit for tat, Krieger added that Duany’s mockery was likely a “sign of uncharacteristic insecurity” and “personal worry that the term Landscape Urbanism will soon supplant New Urbanism amongst the purveyors of design sloganeering.” Krieger was correct to point out that Duany is an unabashed lobbyist for the preeminence of his New Urbanism, as the conference proceedings illustrated. The stage was set to settle the debate on whose urbanism will provide the most sustainable principles for urban design in the future.

GSD Territories of Urbanism | Photo © Justin Knight Photography

GSD Territories of Urbanism | Photo © Justin Knight Photography

At the GSD on Saturday, a very confident Duany listed three reasons why the recent financial and intensifying environmental crises favor New Urbanism to offer sustainable urban design solutions. First: peak oil will make it more costly to drive, thus favoring creation of the dense, walkable neighborhoods advocated by New Urbanism. Second: the mainstay metric for ecological footprint analysis is carbon emissions, which will incentivize walking and public transit over cars as favored modes of transportation. Third: the residential, mixed-use typologies championed by New Urbanism were too complicated to be included in the mass securitization of mortgages and thus were resilient to the housing crisis.

“Let’s make humane, equitable, sustainable and beautiful cities. Enough said? Any disagreements?” -Michael SorkinFinally, as Duany put it, “it’s all about age.” He pointed to the fact that the suburban landscape does not provide for the aging Baby Boomers, who eventually will be unable to drive. The professional future for the next generation of urban designers, he stated, is greyfield work. Translation: retrofitting suburban parking lots into “Jacobsian” neighborhoods according to a nifty 6-step plan.

GSD Associate Professor Pierre Bélanger provided the Ecological Urbanism counterargument. He stated that the financial and environmental crises in fact exposed a serious weakness in traditional urban forms. Dense, vertical cities formed by Euclidean zoning, he said, were totally dependent on centralized infrastructure – including water extraction, waste landfilling, oil importing, food processing, and uniform transportation – that is crumbling, costly to maintain, and environmentally detrimental.

The future of infrastructure planning, therefore, is paramount, and the project of Ecological Urbanism is to design and integrate infrastructure into the city in a way that is both environmentally sound and economically productive. Civil engineers, Bélanger argued, are the true planners of the modern city, but landscape architects will play a critical role in mediating how infrastructure meets the urban interface. Trained in constructing ecologies, landscape architects are the only professionals poised to consider how all infrastructure types – energy, food, waste, communications and transport – can be synthesized into a living system that covers the entire regional urban footprint.

Diverse and decentralized infrastructure is a critical component of sustainability that decreases a city’s ecological footprint and increases resiliency to climate change and economic unpredictability. But should infrastructure, as ecological urbanism suggests, be the ordering force of the urban form?

Bélanger said:

“Whether in slums, suburbs or skyscrapers, paradigms are changing. Dispersal is subbing in for density, pace instead of space, sequence over speed, design instead of technology, concurrency over control, culture instead of growth…Releasing the pristine ideals of the city for the sake of security or permanence or density opens a horizon of new social equities…”

The alliteration is catchy, but the concept may be misleading. Increasing density and urban growth are well-documented phenomena worldwide. An environmental expert might rightfully point out that densifying suburbs increases environmental impacts by overburdening unsustainable infrastructure and cementing unsustainable patterns of urbanization. But that same expert would probably be suspicious of encouraging unlimited sprawl, irrespective of how sustainable the infrastructure supporting it was or how artfully knitted into the environment.

Moreover, “pristine ideals of the city,” such as personal mobility, active public space, and human-scaled environments, are some of the greatest forces for social equity in a city. In reference to a plan by James Corner of Field Operations (frequently cited as a leader of the Ecological Urbanism practice), Michael Mehaffy wrote:

“Non-designers might be forgiven for wondering why designers would employ such arbitrary, even perhaps deranged, forces, at the apparent expense of requirements for walkability, social interaction, access to transit, dynamics of public space – perhaps even social justice and equity. After all, there is no reason to suppose, say, that a frail or poor or elderly person can navigate such a vast no-man’s land of space to access transit or other daily needs.”

Charles Waldheim said, at a previous lecture, that Ecological Urbanism was “specifically meant to provide an intellectual and practical alternative to the hegemony of the New Urbanism,” and it has. Ecological Urbanism points out that New Urbanism, in its slavish devotion to density, ignores the urgent need to leave space for new, sustainable forms of urban infrastructure. Conversely, New Urbanism provides a counterweight to Ecological Urbanism’s obsession with infrastructure that ignores practical patterns of human settlement.

GSD Territories of Urbanism | Photo © Justin Knight Photography

L-R: Jose Luis Vallejo, Georgeen Theodore, Michael Sorkin, Andres Duany | GSD Territories of Urbanism | Photo © Justin Knight Photography

It is probably best that these two urbanisms are fighting to dominate intellectual territory of urban design, for both will be necessary to promote real sustainable solutions. This was made quite clear when Duany suggested that the best use for Ecological Urbanism was biophilia: greening buildings to make them more aesthetically pleasing to the middle class.

Duany was right about one thing. The sustainability battle among the next generation of urban designers will be fought on fields of grey and brown – the parking lot and the post-industrial site – whether they are being “retrofitted” for mixed-use development or converted into infrastructural landscapes. Either way, it appears that there is ample room and need for both.

As the ever-entertaining and chatty Michael Sorkin (also on the panel) summarized:

“Let’s make humane, equitable, sustainable and beautiful cities. Enough said? Any disagreements? We really can’t screw around. Precipitous decline in the planetary environment may annihilate us. We need a lot of new cities and a lot of better old ones. They should assume many morphologies. We are very far from done with inventing the form of the city. Neither the reflexive reproduction of historic types … nor the ‘go with the flow’ of urban capital sluts will work it out alone. Any problems so far?

Cities need to supply their own food, energy, water, thermal behavior, air quality, movement systems, building and cultural and economic institutions. This urban self-sufficiency is a means to political autonomy and planetary responsibility. Sustainable, equitable, and beautiful. Anybody got a problem with that?”


Genevieve Sherman is currently a master’s candidate in City Design and Development at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She is interested in how urban planners can mediate the politics and science of climate change to make cities more environmentally sustainable and resilient places.

The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.

22 Responses to “GSD Throwdown: Battle for the Intellectual Territory of a Sustainable Urbanism”

  1. Eric Snyder says:

    Nicely put. I’ve often wondered at the singlemindedness of those who advocate density as the answer. By stacking people on top of each other, we simply create other vulnerabilities that must be understood and offset.

  2. Eliza says:

    Krieger said that landscape _architecture_ is the “the design discipline that has most consistently retained consciousness of humanity’s impact on land and environments”. NOT landscape _urbanism_. There’s an important distinction there. Landscape Urbanism hasn’t long been anything. It’s only a recent invention.

  3. Eliza says:

    As for New Urbanism’s “slavish devotion to density”, that is a mis-characterization or at least entirely ambiguous. It would help if the critics would be more specific; it is not as if there are only two densities, low and high or density and non-density. Some prominent New Urbanists and their mentors (e.g. Leon Krier, Christopher Alexander) are skeptical of very high densities a la Tokyo or Manhattan.

    How advocating building at very low densities that require longer, wider, heavy imprint asphalt connections between everyday activities could possibly be ecologically sound is beyond me. Fragmentation of ecological systems is a big deal; that’s certainly not the solution.

  4. John Anderson says:

    It is a sloppy oversimplification to say that the New Urbanism is “slavishly devoted to density”. The New Urbanists are however, quite devoted to observing the patterns of human habitat across an robust range of scales and densities.

    They are also quite skilled at building and rebuilding the kind of places that people actually like.

  5. Randy Jacobson says:

    Architecture does not always need to move forward as a dialectic. Defining these sympathetic positions as oppositional is counterproductive. Synthesis of both positions is the future of urbanism. In this case I’d argue to have my cake and eat it too. The only real difference here is formal which as usual is arbitrary.

  6. Nathaniel Martin says:

    A veritable orchestra of Neros vigorously fiddling as Rome burns.

  7. Isaac says:


  8. Chris says:

    Is there any fundamental reason why New Urbanists cant employ Landscape Urbanist principles or vice versa? Let’s just learn from each other rather than bickering over aesthetics.

    P.S. how is NU right-wing?

  9. Carol says:

    Yes, let’s all be skeptical of NYC with its fast rebounding economy, steady stream of newcomers, lowest VMT in the nation, highest transit ridership, highest percentage of ped & bike trips in US, and low carbon per capita. Yes, indeed. Much to be skeptical of here.

  10. Robert says:

    It sure is hard to do anything right these days. But I do like Tom Friedman’s recent quote from Mark Twain: ‘A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes,’ even if Friedman’s attribution turned out to be a lie never uttered by Mark Twain. While NU works on the shoe thing LU glimmers global.

    Besides David Owen’s confirmation of New York’s A+ sustainability in Green Metropolis noted above, many less dense urban cuommunities also make the Dean’s List. But oh those po-faced sprawl advocates when fleeting petro-chemicals yank away all the toys.

    NU = community, debate, progressivism
    LU = solipsistic priapism

  11. Fast breathing… trying to catch up with the battle.
    As an adjacent outsider, “lighting urbanist”, for what it is worth. My PERCEPTION has been:
    NU – Historicist concepts that support sprawl creating pretty houses and town centers that are walking distance.
    LU – Urban space planning and design that is somehow aligned with innovative landscape architecture principles: respect and harnessing geography/topography, etc.
    I mention these perceptions to give those inside a glance at the good or bad job that the two camps are doing to disseminate their messages.
    I will continue to advocate for design + community power to enrich the urban nighttime environment through LightWalks and Light Planning charrettes worldwide. See Architect’s Newspaper article –

  12. MC says:

    This about sums it all:

    “Non-designers might be forgiven for wondering why designers would employ such arbitrary, even perhaps deranged, forces, at the apparent expense of requirements for walkability, social interaction, access to transit, dynamics of public space – perhaps even social justice and equity.”

  13. Tara Dawn says:

    It pains me to see two groups with such great ideals and visions poised oppositionally. Just like so many other attempts to progress sustainably, we’re caught at a standstill over ideology and argument when really there is no one right answer, and what we should really be doing is understanding how the two can work together to work toward the big-picture goal.

    Kudos. This message was much-needed.

  14. Genevieve Sherman says:

    To Eliza – Krieger did say that “landscape architecture” is the “the design discipline that has most consistently retained consciousness of humanity’s impact on land and environments” however the implication was that landscape architects were the group that would lead the development of landscape urbanism as a theory and practice.

    On the “slavish devotion to density,” I did not intend to suggest that NU advocates density a la Manhattan or Tokyo, but rather that NU draws a line between single-family-detached-home urban sprawl, which LU accepts, and every other level of density. Density comes in many forms and du/hectare ratios. Even NU plans have been called “sprawl in drag” by Krieger.

    There is a lot of work to be done still on determining what a sustainable level of density is and this level will be different for each city. It should include considerations of the overall carrying capacity of the region (NY metro region is arguably well over its sustainable carrying capacity) as well as how vulnerable dense conglomerations of people are to climate change.

    To some extent though, we’re stuck with the cities we have, urban sprawl and all. NU and LU are arguing over the future of urban growth and urban change. My suggestion is that both disciplines will be part of the creation of places people “like to live” as one commentator said, that are also more ecologically self sustaining and not as vulnerable to infrastructural crisis.

  15. LU seems to be saying that lower densities are needed to leave room for infrastructure and agriculture. On the contrary, higher densities are needed. Our current low-density sprawl devours the agricultural land near cities.

    But this doesn’t mean that extremely high densities are needed. Most Americans do not want to live in Manhattan and do want to own their own houses. The streetcar suburbs of 100 years ago let people own houses in walkable neighborhoods that use much less land than the sprawl suburbs of 50 years ago. One of the great accomplishments of the New Urbanism is to revive the streetcar suburbs.

    “NU draws a line between single-family-detached-home urban sprawl, which LU accepts, and every other level of density.”

    Not true. Some of the most famous NU projects are made up primarily of single family detached homes and are not urban sprawl, such as Seaside or Orenco Station.

    Many people who do not know much about NU and who have only heard of these high-profile projects believe that NU is just a way of building historicist suburbs.

  16. miguel says:

    As a practicing Landscape designer involved in both urban design from a strong landscape architectural perspective, and landscape design with inherent connection to urban, post-industrial, rural and natural contexts, all i can say is that you can take from both of these visions, which are not mutually exclusive, to seek balanced solutions. That said, I feel like LU has more of a framework and big picture strength, that can be enhanced and improved with some NU concepts. A reverse situation, I see less effective.

  17. Bruce F. Donnelly says:

    Leni, thank you for saying that your perceptions are just that, because I can tell you that there are plenty of New Urbanists who try very hard to do functional, ecologically responsible landscapes. See The difference between a functional landscape using those techniques and something like the “Santa Monica Palisades Garden Walk + Town Square” seems to _me_ to be that the former attempts a _functional_ mixed human and natural ecology, whereas the latter attempts a _symbolic_ “designer ecology,” as Charles Waldheim would call it. Have any Landscape Urbanist projects been studied for performance against its environmental claims? By the way, I would guess that the Highline would perform better than expected as a place for birds to alight, so there may be solid performance to study.

  18. JP says:

    “The stage was set to settle the debate on whose urbanism will provide the most sustainable principles for urban design in the future.”

    When the argument is over intellectual property hierarchy, we all lose.

  19. tom murphy says:

    I’m not one of you but I feel I should comment since I’m of age.
    We Baby Boomers in urban, and even un-urban, settings should be listened to closely. First, we’re planning on living longer. Second, we won’t fold-up and wait-to-die for a longer time than some might anticipate. We will still have the ability to interact, vote and set the agenda longer. And, third, we still got the bucks so we will set the agenda. We intend to walk, drive, ride the public transit and bike like everyone else for a long time. We intend to age in place. You will get our car keys, and our house keys, from our cold dead hands.
    ‘Greyfield work’, interesting stereotypical phrase.

  20. Eric says:

    This is all so completely irrelevant when supporting simple urbanism is an uphill political battle. If you walk into a restaurant with no money, it doesn’t matter if you prefer steak over pasta.

  21. Matt Korner says:

    Mr. Duany has much to criticize regarding the Landscape Urbanism because it really is not an urbanism in that it does not seek to create walkability, which demands a fabric of buildings with active uses at street level.

    People prefer streets to parks when they are walking. That observation is inescapable. So, if walking is the essential way people move through spaces, designers must understand why human beings walk in certain places while avoiding others.

    The New Urbanism does not have “a slavish devotion to density.” The movement, instead, advocates restoration of the rural-to-urban Transect with a concatenation of pedestrian-sheds that each contain a minimum of three of the six prototypical Transect Zones and that each are connected by a high-quality public-transportation system.

    This simple idea has lasting significance. Place the country in close proximity to the city. But, be sure the country remains the country, and be sure the city remains the city. When a settlement grows too big, start a new one elsewhere and connect them all together with public transportation.

    Let the Landscape Urbanists work on the T1 (Natural) and T2 (Rural/Exurban) zones and on making the T3 (Sub-urban) zone less damaging to the environment. But, never forsake walkability!

  22. Dan Morales says:

    What’s most glaring in this whole debate is that institutions like Harvard are actually having the debate in the first place. It’s not to say there shouldn’t be a lively conversation about the viability of all ideas at an institution of higher learning, but there’s a false equivalency between pitting New Urbanism and Landscape Urbanism. New Urbanism IS urbanism, period. Urbanism is any outdoor space defined by three or more buildings. You can build it, pave it, landscape it, or drain it any way you’d like, but it ain’t urban if it doesn’t create space. Again, it’s not to say you are wrong to want to live in Ville Radieuse or any such elitist nonsense, it’s just that we need a common language if we are to achieve anything as a community, and as defined, urbanism is outdoor space contained by the built environment. All naive monologues aside, most people know Architecture Schools are political hot houses, but who suffers are not only the kids who shell out obscene amounts of money only to be told beauty is a bourgeois pursuit, but the public that has to suffer in an automobile and developer driven environment, while our natural and human ecology continues to be degraded day by day while we engage in these childish arguments. Pathetic.

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