The Divide Between Architecture and Landscape Architecture

The Western Tradition of Landscape Architecture:

Bosco Verticale, Milan. A prime example of disjointed relationaship between Architecture and landscape elements.

Bosco Verticale, Milan. A prime example of disjointed relationaship between Architecture and landscape elements.

Recently, I came across Yale Professor and architect Joel Sander’s book, Ground Work. In it he discusses the divide between the architecture and landscape architecture. According to Sanders, “at least since the late nineteenth century, architecture and landscape architecture have been professionally segregated… more often than not, landscape architects are hired to ‘decorate’ freestanding buildings designed by architects.” Sanders traces back this schism to deep-seated Western polarity: the opposition between humans and nature.

However, I found that this schism between humans and nature, or in other words between architecture and landscape architecture, is not rooted in some deep-seated Western Polarity between Humans and nature, rather in the climate and geographical context of Western Europe. The western tradition of gardening grew out of western landscape, which is cold and wet, and always had an abundance of water and greenery; there was a need to control and separate nature from human residence.

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Also in western cultures, woods were a place to fear where spirits lived, and were to be avoided. For example, this can be seen in children’s stories like Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel, or the common phrase about someone who is seriously ill, that he is not out of woods yet.

In contrast, if you look at another, and much older, tradition of gardening or landscape architecture emerging out of ancient Persia, you will see this same schism between nature and man does not exist; perhaps because in arid environments, greenery and water both were scarce and needed to be protected and nurtured. In equatorial regions where the climate was mild or semi-arid, rivers like Nile and Tigris were life givers and considered sacred.  The forests and trees were revered, like in the legend of Buddha finding enlightenment under a Bodhi tree.  Perhaps this climatic explanation is why you see a separation between architecture and landscape architecture in the western tradition, and a much better integration of the two in the eastern tradition.

With the help of two posts, I will show how two different traditions in landscape architecture grew out of their two different landscapes, one from West and the other from East.

Heidelberg Castle (1410), Germany

Heidelberg Castle (1410), Germany

Western and Northern Europe generally have wet and cold climates with an abundance of water and greenery. In this cold and damp environment, there was little need to bring water and plants inside the house.  Instead, there was a need to tame the unruly nature outside the walls of one’s home.  I believe this resulted in a tradition of landscape architecture where nature was organized and controlled.  

Villa D'Este (1572), Rome

Villa D’Este (1572), Rome

Villa D’Este is one of the most beautiful Late Renaissance Italian garden.  In this example, nature was brought to order, the gardens were laid out in terraces, and water was brilliantly incorporated into the landscape.  

Gardens of Versailles (1672), France

Gardens of Versailles (1672), France

The Gardens of Versailles, outside of Paris France, may be some of the most beautiful gardens you will see anywhere in the world. The famous landscape architect Andre Le Notre designed them in French Formal style, and imposed a more rigid symmetry and order than the Italians did in Villa D”Este.

Central Park (1873), New York City

Central Park (1873), New York City

Moving across the pond to New York City. Central Park was designed in English Naturalistic Style, which was a reaction to the French Formal Style of gardening.  English generally eschewed symmetry and tried to recreate nature as they saw it.  Central Park is completely man-made park, designed as a “natural” looking park, yet still a very controlled space.

Topiary and Maze from English Gardens

Topiary and Maze from English Gardens

Topiaries and mazes are also common features in English gardens. These are another set of examples of nature being molded into rational forms in the western landscaping tradition.

High Line, Before and After, NY City (Arch Daily)

High Line, Before and After, NY City (Arch Daily)

The High Line  is a contemporary example of this tradition.  In the before picture nature had taken hold of the elevated rail tracks, and after redesign, nature was contained and controlled by landscape architects.

Farnsworth House (1951), Chicago

Farnsworth House (1951), Chicago

Mies van der Rohe was perhaps the best-known architect who bridged the divide between architecture and landscape. In 1929, he built the Barcelona Pavilion in Spain, and 20 years later he built the Farnsworth House outside of Chicago. Mies, used plate-glass windows in both cases to diminish the separation between indoor and outdoor spaces, while at the same time he left the nature out doors untrammeled.

Mies said, ”Nature, too, shall live its own life. We must beware not to disrupt it with the color of our houses and interior fittings. Yet we should attempt to bring nature, houses, and human beings together into a higher unity. If you view nature through the glass walls of the Farnsworth House, it gains a more profound significance than if viewed from outside. That way more is said about nature–it becomes a part of a larger whole.”

In the next and final part II, I will discuss the eastern tradition of landscape architecture and how it was better integrated into architecture.

Saving Brownsville, Brooklyn

Canadian author Doug Saunders suggests in his book “Arrival City” that poor immigrant neighborhoods can thrive when certain conditions, such as access to property and education, and a minimum of social infrastructure is provided. How can these lessons be applied to one of the poorest and neediest neighborhoods of New York City, Brownsville?

The past two hundred years or so, since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in Britain in the late 1700s, have seen the dramatic social and economic transformations that has turned a largely rural, agricultural population of peasants and farmers into city dwellers. In the U.S, in 1800, only 5.11 percent of the population lived in cities, compared to almost 80 percent in 2000, according to the U.S. Census. During the same period of time, the population increased by a factor of almost 45, from six million to more than 280 million. This process of urbanization is still ongoing,This could happen the other way round too with positive opinions when the price breaks the support level after many touches. The ideal method is to trade only the first and the second touches of the level. After that the levels become weak and thus it is best to stay away from the level especially in the developing world, and by the end of the 21st century, the vast majority of the world’s population will live in cities. New York City is very much part of this process, with more than one third of its population being foreign born, although we do not necessarily know if they are truly “rural” arrivals.

In his Book “Arrival City” Canadian-British author Doug Saunders proposes that successful urbanization hinges on particular places called arrival cities. According to Saunders, arrival cities are not purely the point of entry where the rural population lands, but they have important functions in the transformation of peasants and farmers into city dwellers, a process that takes a generation or two. How successful this transformation is depends on how well the arrival city functions, and Saunders provides some of the factors that make the arrival city work. Arrival cities provide a network of contacts and connections that help the new arrivals finding housing and jobs; often, these networks consist of people that come from the same regions or even villages as the newcomers. Also, the arrival city must be easily connected to the labor market and services of the core city, either by sheer proximity or cheap transit access. Other factors include some form of legal status, such as citizenship or work permits for arrivals from abroad which allowthe newcomers to enter the (legal) job market, including opportunities for small businesses; and rudimentary services such as basic infrastructure, health care and banking. The two most critical factors, however, according to Saunders, are the ability to own property (which helps building equity that could be leveraged for investments in new businesses) and education, which allows the newcomers to enter the middle class. Says Saunders: “poverty is, fundamentally, not the dearth of money or lack of possessions or a shortage of talent and ambition, but the absence of capacities (i.o.)” (p. 280).

If one follows Saunders’s thought, there must be two kinds of poverty, then. The first kind is signified by lack of material wealth, but with the opportunity of change and social mobility; the second one is lack of material wealth without the opportunity of change. While both forms of poverty look the same on the surface and in the statistics – a low or very low income – the prospects of either one are vastly different. The first one carries the promise of social ascendancy and a better life in the future, while the latter one perpetuates poverty with all its negative side effects for generations to come.

When wandering the streets of New York, I often wonder why poor neighborhoods often look (and feel) dramatically different. Take Washington Heights or Astoria, and Brownsville, for example. While Brownsville clearly ranges at the very bottom when it comes to income in New York City – Brownsville residents’ income was 36% of the City’s median income, according to this nifty map –  Washington Heights and Astoria are by no means rich, with 40% of the city’s median income and 59%, respectively. Yet Astoria is bustling with the activity of small stores and restaurants, while the main shopping strip in Brownsville, Pitkin Avenue, feels sleepy even on the best of days, lined with empty store fronts, dollar stores and fast food joints. There is also a contrast in the amount of violent crime. For example, while in Brownsville, 26 people were murdered in 2011, only 8 were murdered in Washington Heights, according to NYPD’s CompStat, even though more than twice as many people live there  and though not too long ago, Washington Heights also had a serious violent crime problem . The neighborhoods described here also share the distinction of being arrival cities – although  immigration has taken place at different times. Many newcomers in Washington Heights and many other neighborhoods in Queens, the Bronx and Brooklyn, are populated by recent arrivals. While Brownsville has also seen its share of quite recent immigration, a large proportion came in an earlier wave, as a result of the “Great Migration” that brought African Americans from the rural Southern States to the industrial centers of the north after World War II.

Shops without shoppers at Brownsville’s main retail strip, Pitkin Avenue

What, then is the difference between these two Arrival Cities/Neighborhoods?

The difference between thriving poor neighborhoods, like Washington Heights or Astoria, and stagnating ones, like Brownsville, is not a result of the wealth but of the capacity and the outlook of the residents. Brownsville, as an arrival city, has largely failed. Arrival cities, per Saunders’ definition, function mainly as conduits for social mobility, and while the people who live there are often poor, they don’t stay poor. Brownsville stayed poor. The reason for this was that the African-American immigrants here were faced with significantly higher obstacles than more recent immigrants – virtually no access to credit, and little opportunity to build equity as homeownership was (and is) limited, compounded by an educational system that has been failing for decades and chronic crime.

Despite the rumbling 7 train above, Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens, is bustling with activity

From a planning perspective, the question beckons – what can be done to fix a place like Brownville? In his book, Saunders gives encouraging example of Slotervaart, an Amsterdam suburb. Until the early 2000s, Slotervaart faced similar, or even worse problems  than Brownsville. Immigrants living there, mostly from Arab countries, lived in poverty and isolated from mainstream Dutch society in low-density public housing projects leaving them virtually no avenue for integration and upwards social mobility. The neighborhood became a hotbed for Islamic radicalism. The murderer of Theo van Gogh, a Dutch filmmaker (and, yes, a distant relative) who had made a film highly critical of Islam, a crime that shook the Netherlands, was a radicalized Dutch-born second-generation immigrant from Slotervaart. The crime created some significant backlash, giving rise to an anti-immigrant movement and calls for tough punishment and deportations. It did, however, also lead to significant changes in Slotervaart, empowering the residents of this arrival city. Residents established self-government, and, with the help of the municipal government, policing was increased and radical mosques shut down, complemented by heavy investments in education. Most dramatic, however, were the changes to the urban landscape. When built in the 1960s, Slotervaart was the Corbousian dream of low-density development with wide-open spaces and a strict separation of uses, limiting retail to a small shopping strip surrounded by public housing. After the van Gogh murder, zoning rules were relaxed and high-density infill took place:

“Gone were the quiet meandering lanes. Gone were the green spaces between buildings. In their place were noisy, shop filled market plazas, straight streets designed for vehicle and pedestrian traffic, and blocks of buildings, all in different plans and designs and heights, packed tightly together in a solid wall facing the street, with apartments on top and commercial spaces below, playgrounds and shopping courts behind”. (Saunders, Arrival City, 292)

Also, home-ownership opportunities were added to what formerly was rent-only public housing, allowing for people from other parts of town to move in and attracting the middle class.

What does the example of Slotervaart mean for the equally failed arrival city of Brownsville? First, that there is hope. Second, that there is no cheap or simple solution. To be successful, the issues of crime, education, governance, property structures and the physical form of the city need to be addressed comprehensively and simultaneously and it would be an illusion to believe that this could be done on the cheap.

Amsterdam: The Bicycling Capital of Europe

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Amsterdam is the most bicycle friendly city in Europe with 881,000 bikes in a city of 780,559 people.  Amsterdam  has approximately 280 miles of cycling lanes, and close to 58%  of its residents use bicycles on a daily basis, 43% of them are commuting to work by bicycle.  There are two reasons why Amsterdam is such a conducive place for bicycle use:

Firstly, the topography of the city lends itself to bicycling.   Amsterdam is a small city, compact and flat, only 85 square miles in land area,

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approximately the size of San Francisco without hills.  Therefore, Amsterdam is an ideal city for bicycles as a preferred mode of  transportation.

The second reason for the popularity of bicycles in Amsterdam is the concerted effort by city officials and planners to promote the use of bikes for public commute over the past few decades.  Between 1955 and 1970 cars were beginning to take over Amsterdam like many other cities, many old canals were paved over to make room for cars but the traffic jams would not ease.  Then, in 1970 the citizens of  Amsterdam voted in favor of bikes and the city planners started to invest more time and money in bicycle infrastructure. Special bike lanes were created to connect neighborhoods to the city center, and bicycle parking were created at various bus and train stations. At the same time the use of cars in city center was discouraged by limiting car speeds and car parking.  To park a car in city center now costs approximately $7 to $8 an hour, and due to low-speed limits it takes longer to drive than bike.


Recently, Amsterdam has announced plans to spend 120 million Euros on bicycling infrastructure over the next 8 years.  The city will fund additional 38,000 parking spaces for bicycles, spread out over the city’s railroad and public transportation hubs, as well as other popular destinations. Most impressive, is the plan to build a new indoor storage place that can accommodate up to 17,500 bikes in the city center.

The other reason for the abundance of bicycles in Amsterdam is the relative low-cost of a bicycle.  In Amsterdam a bicycle can be picked up for 50 Euros as opposed to American and Canadian cities where bicycles are much more expensive and can not be left unlocked on city streets.

Bicycling has its benefits in reduced air pollution and better health benefits for the residents of Amsterdam but it has its drawbacks as well.  Between 2001 and 2011 as the cycling trend increased by 14%, the cycle related injuries in accidents increased to 56%.  Most of these accidents are a result of collisions on narrow and crowded cycle pathways.   There is an increased number of old cyclists and mothers with children who are less agile and are competing for the same narrow lane with racing cyclists and powered scooters.  There are suggestions by the Cyclists’ Union to widen the cycle lanes, while others are demanding that powered scooters should not be allowed in cycle lanes and instead should use the car traffic roadways.

What does Amsterdam’s success mean for American cities which are not compact and were built for cars?  May be we should not try to create bicycling networks which would compete with cars and our public transport systems.  Rather, we should create  bicycling networks and integrate them into the existing bus-subway and suburban rail networks.  The subway and suburban railroads should provide bicycle racks in their cars to let bikers ride part of the way on trains.   At the same time selected cycling pathways in the bicycle friendly neighborhoods should get legal priority over cars and be provided with signage and traffic lights exclusively for the convenience and safety of bicyclists.


You have to admit, New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is quite efficient at keeping the trains running on time. But oftentimes, they don’t seem to pay enough attention to many other important parts of their infrastructure that commuters face everyday: Turnstiles, Metro Cards, Public Address Systems, Subway Furniture, and Public Art.

I believe these short comings are not due to lack of money, but may result from an outdated thinking, where train schedules take precedent over everything else. Perhaps when MTA planners picked new turnstiles or metro card designs they were less concerned about how riders will experience

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them and more concerned about how expedient it would be for them as operators. In the end, expediency tends to win over riders’ comfort, time and money. For this post, let’s just look at turnstiles and metro cards…

Old Turnstile with flat tops.

Old Turnstile with flat tops.

New Turnstiles with slanted tops.

New Turnstiles with slanted tops.


Our newer turnstiles are not so new. MTA introduced them in 2003 when the system was switched over from metal tokens to plastic metro cards.  The new turnstiles have slanted tops instead of  flat-topped turnstiles which the MTA used prior to 2003.  I do not know what the specific reasons were for the MTA to make the turnstile tops slanted, but it is obvious that the MTA engineers did not want riders to use them to put their bags, folios, folders, or in a rare instance a cup of coffee, while they are pulling out the metro card from their wallets.

To slide a metro card properly through the turnstiles magnetic reader, one needs a free hand, and cannot do it with a file folder under the arm.  People often hesitate to rest their bags on the floor which are not always clean, or can be wet on rainy days.

If the turnstile tops were flat, like their predecessors, people could use the flat surface to rest their bags momentarily as they slide the metro card though the turnstile.  I believe for every rider with bags in hands it requires an extra 10 or 20 seconds to pull out the card and slide it through the turnstile.  Considering there are two million riders a day, that is almost 720 million trips a year. Even if 10% of the riders take 10 extra seconds to pass through the turnstiles, that adds up to close to 200,000 hours of time wasted by New Yorkers.

Metro Cards

The choice of the new metro card may not have been thought through properly either. When riders buy metro cards, they think of the number of trips they will make. In contrast, the MTA sells them by the dollar amount.  As a result, there is always some money left over on cards. This leftover amount, which when combined with multiple leftover cards can amount to a substantial amount of money, is sometimes not redeemed by riders. They are either unsure of how much is left over on their cards or find it too much of a hassle to collect old cards and go to the few open ticket booths to combine them.

New York City - Metrocard

New York City – Metrocard

Beside millions of new yorkers, there are also 47 million tourists visiting the city every year. They often buy cards in amounts of $25 or $50 and leave the city without using the full amount.  Perhaps another reason the MTA should sell cards by the number of trips.

Furthermore, the present metro cards come in only one color, yellow, with no distinguishing marks, and can often get mixed up with old cards in purses or wallets. As an everyday user I would like to have monthly and weekly passes in different colors from individual ride cards.  There should also be a mark boldly indicating the date and time of purchase, and number of trips.

Is this too much to expect from MTA?  While I believe the MTA thinks their job is to get the rider from point A to point B quickly and safely, the other stuff need not be ignored. Those little things add to the quality of experience riders have, while traversing through 468 MTA stations in this city.

Note: Next week I will opine about Subway public adressing system, subway furniture and art.

Beyond Zuccotti Park

New York City has these strange beasts called Privately Owned Public Spaces (or POPS) which were put to some significant tests for the first time in recent history during the Occupy Wall Street protests. Many planners were watching the protests to see if privately owned spaces, like Zuccotti Park, could truly operate as public spaces for protest and debate, as the public realm in a democratic republic like ours should. This is an important issue, because there are so few truly public spaces (that are not parks or streets) in this big city. I can think of Police Plaza and Cadman Plaza, which is mostly a park, but the area near the courthouse and municipal buildings is utilized for protests,

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announcements, ceremonies, celebrations, performances, farmers’ markets and general hanging about. Union Square also seems to function this way too. My brain stubbornly refuses to identify any others right now, anyone out there know of others? Also are there other cities that you know of that have lots of public open spaces that aren’t just parks (not that parks are any less valuable)? It would be interesting to hear what DC planners and residents think of their public open spaces and how well they work in this regard.

For those wanting to discover more about specific POPS, NYC Open Data has a database that is free to download. It is a Microsoft Access database with some gaps especially for the earlier ones that were built in the mid-twentieth century.

Anyway, I am very excited about the book Beyond Zuccotti Park being released later this year. For transparency’s sake, note that I have studied under both an editor and a contributor, but even if that lends some fuel to my enthusiasm, this is a topic that is very important to Americans being able to utilize their rights.

Below is an excerpt from the notification about the book’s release from one of the editors, an incredibly dedicated community planner in NYC, Ron Shiffman:

Three-dozen social scientists, planners, architects, artists, activists and civil liberties experts have contributed essays exploring the definition, use, role, and importance of public space for the exercise of democratic rights to free expression in a time of profound social change. This original, foundational work puts issues of democracy and civic engagement back into the center of dialogue about the built environment at point in our history where much of our public space in jeopardy of being privatized. All of the contributors have donated their creative energy to this effort.

Beyond Zuccotti Park is a key component of a larger initiative—Democracy, Equity, and Public Space—which includes a traveling multimedia exhibit, public forums, popular and academic study groups, policy advocacy, and a website. Book tours, forums, and exhibits are slated for New York, Newark, Oakland/Berkeley, Chicago, Seattle, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, Washington DC, and Boston. The initiative aims to engage the public in discussing democracy and equity and improving the design, use, and access to public spaces for social inclusion, the right to assemble and free creative expression. We believe that the right to assemble and the right to freedom of expression are fundamental to the functioning of an informed and accountable democracy. Public space is truly democratic in that it serves all income, racial and ethnic groups and does not differentiate based on one’s religious or political beliefs. Public space enables us to engage in recreational activities –both passive and active. Public space allows us to meet old friends, seed new friendships, engage in discussions and learn from one another so that we can emerge from the narrow recesses of our own experiences and gain a greater understanding of the issues and the aspirations and needs of our neighbors. Public space provides us with the place to assemble to help make our democracy and our nation a more perfect place for all of its people.

It is an impressive list of contributors, and looks like it will be good urbanist brain food!

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