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Posted by on May 9, 2015 in Environment Posts

How Landscape Architects Are Leading the way in Sustainable Cities

With sustainable cities being one of the key terms in the 21st century, we take a closer look at the role that the landscape architect has to play in it all. 

When we think of sustainability we think of living in a remote natural area with solar panels, on-site sewage treatment, a large vegetable garden and maybe even some livestock. Pretty sustainable hey? Maybe not. In fact, one of the leading causes of climate change is due to people seeking escaping the city in search of nature. By living on the outskirts of the city, we increase our carbon footprint through commuting and encroach further and further into the natural environment. Thus, in order to think sustainably we need to realise that our dense inner cities are not the problem, but, in fact, the solution!

With this in mind, one would think then that the sustainable cities equal “green buildings”. While architects and engineers have great progress in these fields recently, their efforts only address a very small portion of the problem. The same goes for re-using, reducing and recycling: everyone should be doing this, but it won’t necessarily save the world.

Sustainable Cities

Landscape Architects to Save the World

This is where the landscape architect comes in. We have the ability to not only begin to make cities more liveable, but also have the ability to understand the complex relationship between the city and the natural environment. Our holistic approach allows us to see the city as an organism where urban density and natural processes can come together to create a sustainable solution.

Green Infrastructure

One of the ways in which landscape architects address this problem is by bringing nature into the city, satisfying the human need to connect with the natural environment. This is, however, not about creating green parks where people in the city and escape into nature, but involves creating green networks and habitats.

This concept has been implemented in a dramatic scale by the landscape architectural firm, Field Operations, in the High Line project in New York where the disused elevated railway was turned into a green public park. This shifted the concept of a traditional urban park, allowing nature to become part of the urban fabric.

Sustainable Cities

The Highline is a great example of a planting scheme increasing biodiversity in an urban area; credit: shutterstock.com

Landscape Urbanism

Landscape architects have, in fact, become such important role players in the future of sustainable city-making that we have had to introduce a new concept of “landscape urbanism”. This concept allows landscape (and not architecture) to become the building block of contemporary urban form while incorporating aspects such as ecology and process. Michael van Valkenburch and Associates have embraced this concept and have not only shown how landscape architecture can create ecologically functioning sites, but how landscape and processes can be experienced.

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WATCH: Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy | A Micro-Documentary


Their recent project, Brooklyn Bridge Park, focussed on the emotional power of social connection with the Hudson River while providing sustainable design solutions, creating habitat and increasing economic value.

Sustainable Urban Drainage

Water is a critical aspect of sustainability as our planet’s water quality and quantity is slowly diminishing. This is of even more importance in the context of the city due to an increase in hardened surfaces and pollutants.

Sustainable Cities

Qunli Stormwater Park. Photo credit: Turenscape

Concepts such as SUDS (sustainable urban drainage) have addressed this issue, but its implementation often fails to fully address the larger context.

Landscape architects, however, have taken this approach and have begun to extend it into the complex realm of public space combined with ecological preservation. Qunli Wetland Park by Turenscape has demonstrated this by not only implementing SUDS principles and cleaning stormwater, but have managed to rehabilitate a wetland while creating an active and beautiful green public space.

Sustainable Urban Rivers

Most great cities have been built around rivers and water bodies with the result that many urban rivers have been suffocated by urban development through canalisation or piped systems. Landscape architects have begun to lead the way in the rehabilitation of these rivers as important environment, recreational and economic assets.

Korea Seoul Cheonggyecheon. Credit: stari4ek - originally posted to Flickr as fest2-01. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0, source

Korea Seoul Cheonggyecheon. Credit: stari4ek – originally posted to Flickr as fest2-01. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0, source

A dramatic example of this is in Seoul where landscape architects from SeoAhn Total Landscape day-lighted the Cheonggyecheon Stream from beneath a major highway. The result is an increase in biodiversity by 639%, a reduction of pollution by 35%, flood protection for up to a 200-year flood and the creation of a beautiful public space.

WATCH: Cheonggyecheon River history and restoration


Planting a City

Landscape architects have also begun to find unique ways to introduce nature into the built environments. Vegetation in the city not only improves streetscapes but also creates a natural habitat, reduces of the heat island effect of built infrastructure, improves air quality and can even increase food security through growing edibles. One of the greatest examples of this is the Millennium Park in Chicago by landscape architect Terry Guen. The park is, in fact, a 24.5-acre roof garden and sits above a parking lot and railway, making it the largest roof garden in the world.

Sustainable Cities

BP Pedestrian Bridge in Millennium Park in Chicago, Illinois, USA. Photo credit: Author: Flickr user KE4SFQ. Licensed under CC-SA 2.0

So instead of feeling guilty about living in the city we should embrace the potential of the sustainable city. We should learn to live in close proximity to one another and should allow the landscape architect to guide city making in a way that will potentially save the world.

Recommended Reading:

Article by Rose Buchanan

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Featured image: Printscreen via Youtube source

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