Ian McHarg’s legacy to landscape architecture & landscape urbanism

Ian McHarg’s legacy to the landscape architecture profession was threefold:

  1. He wrote a brilliant book, on Design with nature (1969)
  2. He made an important contribution to the development of Geographical Information Systems and one of his students, Jack Dangermond, developed the industry-leading GIS software, ArcGIS
  3. Ian McHarg did some great projects  which demonstrate an ecological approach to Design with nature. My favourites are his Plan for the Valleys, outside Baltimore, and his firm’s design for The Woodlands new community in Texas

Despite this, few landscape architects have ‘followed in McHarg’s footsteps’ by adopting his layered approach to land use planning. Nor are landscape architects significant users of Geographical Information Systems (GIS). Part of the explanation is that the overlay method was unbalanced to the extent of being flawed. For use on design projects, it was too scientific and too determinist. The clearest illustration of this is McHarg’s statement that ‘any man, assembling the same evidence, would come to the same conclusion’. Design can’t be like this. It rests on beliefs, and on judgements and on whatever facts are considered to be most important.

Landscape architects now agree that both artistic and scientific inputs are essential. But holding the balance is difficult. As I see it, most twentieth century landscape architects neglected the sciences and Ian McHarg’s overlay method neglected human culture and the arts. But it needn’t have. I see the theory of Landscape Urbanism as way of complementing McHarg’s stack of scientific layers with a second stack of cultural layers. This approach is post-Postmodern and is, I hope, the next stage in the escape of landscape theory from blow it suffered from The Three Stakes after 1800.

Additional Notes on McHarg’s Legacy:

– Ian McHarg was born in Clydebank, which is 65 miles from the birthplace of Patrick Geddes. Geddes was the first European to use the term ‘landscape architect’ in its Olmstedian sense, and the most important influence on McHarg’s approach to landscape architecture. Beyond a doubt, they are Scotland’s most significant landscape architects.

PennDesign has set up a website and announced that  ‘In recognition of McHarg’s legacy, the department of landscape architecture at Penn is establishing The Ian L. McHarg Center: Urbanism and Ecology, a nexus of research, teaching, and advocacy for improving the relationship between cities and their landscapes, and processes of urbanization and ecosystems’.

Ignacio Bunster-Ossa, who worked for WMRT (now WRT Design and the firm that designed The Woodlands in Texas) is a leading practitioner of landscape urbanism. In a book on Reconsidering Ian McHarg (2014) he argues for

  • Green Infrastructure, as the means to integrate a ‘working nature’ in the urban midst
  • Localism, as the means to reaffirm the value of culture and community life; and
  • Public Art, as the means to exact from everyday life a measure of rooted meaning, beauty, and sublimity.

Firms and public bodies often respond to environmental problems by saying the right things while  doing the wrong things

Posted in landscape planning, landscape urbanism

Bad landscape architecture 1: Creekside non-village in Deptford, London

Inspired by James Kunstler’s Ted talk  How bad architecture wrecked cities (video above) I am planning some blog posts on Bad landscape architecture.  Much of it, of course, is designed or commissioned by architects. But you can’t blame them. They have no education in the subject. If you asked me to design a big bridge  I too might make a terrible job of it.

My first video study is of a project described by the Deptford Dame, rather flatteringly,  as a ‘leering lump of steel and glass’. The architects were Squire & Partners.

Seen from Deptford Creek, this statement on Squire & Partners website is utterly preposterous: Squire and Partners’ approach responds to the unique heritage and context of each site, considering established street patterns, scale and proportions, to create timeless architecture rooted in its location.

Posted in landscape architecture

London requires a Comprehensive Greenway Network for green transport and active leisure journeys

Greenways are a key aspect of landscape planning for London’s green infrastructure and the city has been building greenways since they were included in the 1943-4 Abercrombie Plan. They include medieval alleys, garden streets, shared streets, pedestrian streets, canal towpath walks, cycleways, bridleways, bridges, beaches, promenades, long-distance paths (like the Thames Path, the Capital Ring and the Loop) and part-time greenways (like The Mall on Sunday and the main avenue in Greenwich Park). Many of these greenway routes are wonderful. But they all suffer from not forming part of a planned network. So the time has come for landscape architects to lead the planning, design and construction of a comprehensive London Greenway Network.

The work of joining up London’s rich assortment of greenways should begin with the planning of north-south and east-west greenway routes

Posted in green infrastructure, green streets, greenways, landscape planning

You’ve got to hand it to the Grand Canal in Venice

‘Giant Hands’ at the Ca’ Sagredo Hotel on the Grand Canal during Venice Biennale 2017. The sculpture Support is by Lorenzo Quinn (an Italian and a son of actor Anthony Quinn).  The hands were modelled in resin-coated polyurethane foam and based on the hands of the sculptor’s son. Each weighs 2,200 kilograms. They show how Venice will need support when climate change raises water levels. I hope a more permanent home is found for them: they’d be welcome in the Thames.

Posted in flood prevention, landscape architecture

Cambridge greenway cycleway planning, review by Tom Turner

Cambridge tops the lists for UK economic growth and  cycle commuting. It  is near the bottom of the list for car ownership. With 29% of trips done by bike it is far ahead of other UK cities but still behind Dutch university towns (eg Groningen  37%,  Leiden 70%). So congratulations to Cambridge for its ambitious cycle way planning. The Cambridge Greenways project could make it a world leader in sustainable urban design.

The above video is of a lecture, on 21st November 2017, in which I reviewed Cambridge’s greenway plans.  The chief points are (1) it is an excellent project (2) but the network should be planned for leisure cycling as well as for commuter cycling (2) there are in fact several categories of leisure cyclist and several categories of commuter cyclist (3) it’s great that it is called a ‘greenway network’, instead of merely a ‘cycle network’ (4) the term ‘greenway’ should be used in a broad sense (meaning ‘multi-objective’) instead of the narrow sense of ‘non-motorised transport’, NMU). (5) the Cambridge greenway objectives should include, at least, scenic quality,  water management, leisure, conservation, biodiversity, physical health, mental health and social justice (6) each of the greenway routes should be localised as a work of context-sensitive landscape architecture, instead of using a standardised ‘mini-road’ formulaic design (7) the greenway network should  do more to ‘bring the country into the town’ and less to ‘take the town into the country’ (8) it should provide green infrastructure within and outwith the Cambridge city boundary.

Web links re Cambridge UK greenway planning

Nigel Brigham Cambridge Area Greenways Review

Cambridge Greenways Partnership

CamCycle response to Cambridge Greeways proposal

David Hembrow 2011 comment The Truth about Cambridge

cambridge cycling: heaven or hell?

Cambridge is in a state of purgatory. This is better than being in hell but not as good as the Cyclist’s Heaven Cambridge could become if the bicycle greenways project is well designed.

Posted in cycleways, landscape planning

Greenway and cycleway landscape architecture

These paths are all cycleways. They are not all greenways. Sustrans National Cycle Route NCN1 on the Isle of Dogs is not a greenway, not a green street and not a promenade. It is a badly conceived, planned and designed exercise is worthless signposting. Thankfully, other sections of NCN1 are much better.
Charles Little, in a 1990 book, said the term ‘greenway’ was coined from the ‘green’ in greenbelt and and the ‘way’ in parkway. He probably took greenbelt in its  UK sense to mean ‘a belt of open countryside surrounding a town or city’ and parkway, in its US sense, to mean ‘a broad arterial road planted with trees; an open landscaped highway or boulevard’. Little used  greenway to mean ‘a linear open space established along either a natural corridor, such as a riverfront, stream valley, or ridgeline, or overland along a railroad right-of-way converted to recreational use, a canal, scenic road or other route’.

The term ‘greenway’ acquired momentum from a 1995 special issue of Landscape and Urban Planning edited by Ahern & Fabos, which led to a series of conferences. The 5th Fábos Conference on Landscape and Greenway Planning was held in 2016. My short definition of the term greenway is ‘a route which is good from an environmental point of view’. As a longer definition, I like Jack Ahern’s explanation that ‘greenways are networks of land containing linear elements that are planned, designed and managed for multiple purposes including ecological, recreational, cultural, aesthetic or other purposes compatible with the concept of sustainable land use’.

Sustrans, a UK non-profit set up to promote cycleway planning, explain their use of the term greenway It includes the 1/3rd of the National Cycle Network that is traffic-free (eg along old railways, canal towpaths, riverbanks, forest roads and tongues of open space leading into urban areas). For the continuation of these Greenway routes along roads in towns, Sustrans uses the term Green Streets . For traffic-free urban routes Sustrans use the term  Promenades

Sustrans’ terminology is muddled. Non-cycleable paths are obviously ‘green’ ‘ways’.  Only some sections of the Thames Path are cycle ways but I would describe most of it as a greenway. It runs through urban and rural areas and, in the east, beside salt water. ‘Green street’ is a very useful term but, again, many green streets are not cycleways. ‘Promenade’ is a posh term. But it derives from the French promener (‘to walk’) making it unsuitable for cycle routes (the OED definition is ‘a leisurely walk, esp. one taken in a public place so as to meet or be seen by others’).

I am critical of the Sustrans philosophy of cycleway planning, but for what they don’t do rather than for what they do do. As argued in a lecture on Cambridge Greenway Planning, which was planned by a former Sustrans engineer, cycleways should not be blinkered single-purpose engineering projects.  They should be an aspect of urban and rural landscape design. In Ahern’s words, they should be ‘planned, designed and managed for multiple purposes including ecological, recreational, cultural, aesthetic or other purposes compatible with the concept of sustainable land use’.

The Cambridge cycle way planning project begun in 2017 has the name Cambridge Greeways. I believe this was used in Sustrans’s sense but am delighted that it is being implemented as a multi-objective greenways project.

Posted in cycleways

Save Victoria Tower Gardens from London’s Second Holocaust Memorial


Artist’s impression of the design concept underlying David Adjaye’s Second London Holocaust Memorial. Victoria Tower Gardens is a classic nineteenth century London public park. It is the wrong site for London’s Second Holocaust Memorial. Nor should the information centre be buried.

However good the design, Victoria Tower Gardens is the wrong place for London’s Second Holocaust Memorial:

  1. It is a classic London park, made before sport became a dominant aspect of park design. It was designed for local residents to be at peace in a quiet green environment
  2. Parks should not be regarded as vacant land that can be used for building projects. They are key components of a city’s green infrastructure. The 2017 London Draft Environment Strategy calls for London’s green cover to be raised from 47% to 50%. There is no mention of it being OK to build on historic parkland.
  3. The initiative for the establishment of Victoria Tower Gardens came from a private benefactor: WH Smith (who also had the idea of placing newsagents beside railway stations). Benefactors should be encouraged. Their gifts should be respected.
  4. London has very few Thamesside parks. They should be conserved.
  5. The Westminster Area is thronged with tourists. It will not benefit from the extra 1 million/year predicted visitors to the Second Holocaust Memorial.
  6. The design brief for the competition was badly conceived and insensitive to landscape considerations. Public parks should not be ‘sombre’. They should be places of joy.
  7. As argued in the video, below, the symbolism of placing a Holocaust Museum and Information Centre underground is completely wrong. Great evil should be exposed to the full light of day, to the sun, to the wind and to the rain.
  8. The Imperial War Museum has a Holocaust section that already attracts almost 1 million visitors/year. It is opening a new wing in 2020. The IWM is highly experienced in the management of historical information.
  9. There is a section of Hyde Park called the Dell Garden. It has no public access at present and adjoins London’s first Holocaust Memorial. The Dell could be re-designed as a Holocaust Memorial Garden, relating to London’s First Holocaust Memorial.

Hyde Park’s Dell Garden could become a Holocaust Memorial Garden. At present, it has no public access.

Posted in landscape architecture, public parks Tagged with:

A day in the life of Regent’s Park

Regent’s Park is a brilliant work of landscape composition. On what must have been an unremarkable site, buildings, land, water, trees, wildlife and gardens have been composed into a place that should by on many London visitors’ bucket lists. It is one the best public places to see London’s famed expertise in gardens. The above video was taken on Sunday 5th November 2017 – Guy Fawkes Day. I have been there often but was most impressed by Regent Park’s harmony and beauty, by the late-blooming roses and by the rich variety of its wildlife. Having learned from Loyd Grossman that the park has the only breeding population of hedgehogs in a London Park I was sorry to meet one of his prickly pals. I used to work near the Park but have never been there in the dark.

30 No. hedgehogs in Regent’s Park is too few for me


Posted in landscape architecture, public parks

The landscape architecture of the London Holocaust Memorial

Government plans to make Victoria Tower Gardens (left) ‘sombre’ by installing an evocation of a shipwreck as a memorial to the Holocaust (right)

The winning entry has, in Kathryn Gustafson, a very good landscape architect who worked with winning architect,  David Adjaye, on a great project for the Mall in Washington DC. So what went wrong in London? The problem lies with the choice of site and the brief. We should ask ‘why place the memorial in Victoria  Tower Gardens?’ The above-ground part of the winning entry is at the west end of the gardens but, as the other finalist’s designs reveal, the entirety of the gardens was made available as a site for the memorial. So the question to ask is ‘why should the Victoria Tower Gardens become a memorial?’. There is no satisfactory answer and I hope Westminster Council will refuse planning permission. Victoria Tower Gardens is a cheerful public garden, much used for eating lunch and sunbathing. The competition brief (see  excerpt  below) called for the design to be ‘outstanding, ambitious’, ‘sombre’ with ‘design, landscaping and place-making to enhance Victoria Tower Gardens’ and yet ‘be a logical and harmonious addition to the existing memorials in the Gardens’. There is no logic in this: (1) why should a holocaust memorial be ambitious? (2) landscape design is placemaking, so how can it be combined with placemaking? (3) how can the Gardens be enhanced by them sombre?

Victoria Tower Gardens is managed by the Royal Parks charity and its Chairman, Loyd Grossman, is opposed to its conversion to a memorial.

I remember a conversation with Dame Sylvia Crowe about the Second World War, in which she served, and agree with her that most of what the Nazis did was on a par with other events in Europe’s blood-soaked past – but the Holocaust stands out as an act of exceptional infamy. So, at the going down of the sun and in the morning. We will remember them. But how should we be reminded of the need to remember? There should have been an ideas competition before writing the brief for a design competition. I might have suggested a landscape memorial. It could use the sun, the seasons, the land, the waters, animals and plants as reminders – combined with a powerful political declaration. While remembering the horrors of yesterday we could lay a symbolic platform for the dawn of better tomorrows.


Design Values for the Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre should:

  • Be an outstanding, ambitious, sensitive design that creates an emotionally powerful place for reflection and learning.
  • Become a landmark of national significance, highlighting the importance and relevance of the Holocaust to the United Kingdom’s history.
  • Establish a place where current and future generations can come to remember the Holocaust and commemorate its victims, and which is also a focal point for annual national commemorations.
  • Affirm the United Kingdom’s commitment to stand up against prejudice and hatred, inspire reflection and compassion, and encourage visitors to respect and embrace difference.
  • Be sombre but not shocking; convey the magnitude of what happened in a meaningful and comprehensible way: give visitors a deeper understanding of the Holocaust and its victims.
  • Combine design, landscaping and place-making to enhance Victoria Tower Gardens – improving the visual and sensory experience of the green space, giving it focus and civic presence, both for visitors and existing users.
  • Be a logical and harmonious addition to the existing memorials in the Gardens, all of which can be viewed as a physical representation of the United Kingdom’s conscience and values.
  • Address the sensitivities of the historic, political and national importance of the exceptional setting, adjacent to the Palace of Westminster, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the River Thames – and in one of the most visited, and recognisable parts of London.
    Be widely accessible and communicate to all visitors – regardless of age, faith, background, nationality, language, or knowledge of the Holocaust – attracting and involving people outside the established audience.
  • Convey the enormity of the Holocaust and its impact, reflecting the centrality of the destruction of European Jewry to Nazi objectives.
  • Appropriately represent the fate of all other victims of Nazi persecutions, Roma, disabled people, Slavs, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and all other political opponents of the Nazi regime
Posted in public parks

The landscape architecture of healthy cities

Great to hear a landscape architect speaking about health, urban design, ecology and new towns. Graham Marshall sees essential connections between

  • people & places are bonded
  • mental health & physical health are inter-dependent

He rightly criticises James Stirling’s now-demolished Southgate Estate in Runcorn New Town and is pleased to be involved with its NHS supported rebuild as the Halton Lea Health & Wellbeing Campus. Stirling did not share Marshall’s concerns. Commemorated in the RIBA Stirling Prize, Stirling was a starchitect but much more an ‘architects’ architect’ than a ‘people’s architect’.  Jonathan Meades put it like this: ‘his buildings, like their bombastic maker, looked tough but were perpetual invalids, basket cases.’ They were bad for mental health and bad for physical health. Graham, as explained in the video, admires Lawrence Halprin’s conception of modernism. I see this as having taken the social use of outdoor space as a function that should be used in a ‘form follows function’ design process.

As argued in an eBook on LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE: What, Why, When, How, Where, Who and What Next?  landscape architecture, having its roots in urban design and garden design, owes as much to Vitruvius’ formulation of professional aims as do the other design professions. I  support Ian Thompson’s landscape architectural formulation of these aims as Ecology, Community and Delight (Routledge, 2000). And I am delighted that Graham is taking them forward. Landscape architects have a distinguished record in the planning and design of new towns. It too should be carried forward.

Graham uses the name Prosocial for a practice that takes an evidence-based approach to urban design and landscape architecture. He also works, pro-bono, with Placed Urban Education, an organisation that involves young people with the built environment.


Posted in landscape architecture, urban design