Works in Progress - Spring 2012

Lungs of Our Cities

By Michael Van Valkenburgh | March 14, 2013


A professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and the founder and leading principal of his eponymous design firm, landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh is an advocate for innovation, including green technology, in new landscapes and in the preservation of established parks. His own works in progress include Brooklyn Bridge Park, North Grant Park in Chicago, and several projects for Princeton University. Van Valkenburgh asked three members of his staff—Danielle Choi, Matt Girard, and Tyler Krob—to pose questions about the future of American landscapes. Here are some of their queries.

1. In his book Cities in the Wilderness, historian Carl Bridenbaugh (1903-1992) selected 1742 as the end of Colonial town life in America. Today, 270 years later, 80 percent of the U.S. population lives in cities. How can we make room for wilderness—holistic, untamed, messy nature—in our urban areas?

2. With the decline of industry over the past 30 years, American city planners have turned their attention to (and spent millions of dollars on) reclaiming for new purposes former manufacturing and transportation facilities—so-called postindustrial sites. What kind of sites might the next generation of landscape architects be asked to reclaim?

3. Design pedagogy sometimes gives a false sense of control over bureaucratic, social, and even ecological systems. How can young landscape architects educate their intellectual peers who are not designers (lawyers, economists, journalists) but are in line to become future policymakers and clients?

4. Expenditures for all public works projects decline in hard times such as these. How can landscape architects effectively advocate for new public open space during governmental cutbacks?

5. With such high-profile urban success stories as Chicago’s Millennium Park and New York City’s High Line, parks are increasingly viewed as potential tourist attractions as well as public amenities. Is this emphasis on the economic value of the landscape a positive trend? What might be lost in the process?

6. Frederick Law Olmsted defined Central Park, which he designed with Calvert Vaux, as a work of art. But he also saw it as an important component of urban life, a place where New Yorkers of all social classes could find release from mental and emotional tensions imposed by the crowded city. Is there room for similarly lofty aspirations in our current era of reductionist thinking about public parks?

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