Landscape Optimism

As part of our occasional series of conversations, architect Quilian Riano talks with landscape architect Chris Reed about his recent work and about the rise of landscape urbanism from an academic movement to an influential professional and pedagogical framework.

Chris Reed. [All images courtesy of Stoss Landscape Urbanism, except as noted]

In 2000 landscape architect Chris Reed founded StossLU, or Stoss Landscape Urbanism. Since then the Boston-based office has emerged as one of the leading advocates for enlarging the scope and scale of landscape projects and practices. As Reed wrote in an essay in The Landscape Urbanism Reader, “Contemporary landscape practices are witnessing a revival of sorts, a recovery of the broader social, cultural, and ecological agendas. No longer a product of pure art history and horticulture, landscape is re-engaging issues of site and ecological succession and is playing a part in the formative roles of projects, rather than simply giving form to already defined projects.” 1

In the past decade Stoss has indeed played a formative role in a range of ambitious projects, both built and proposed. Its growing portfolio encompasses the redevelopment of urban waterfronts, including the Fox Riverfront in Green Bay, Wisconsin and the Lower Don Lands in Toronto; the remediation of contaminated landscapes, including the Silresim Superfund Redevelopment Study, on the site of a former chemical plant in Lowell, Massachusetts; and the design of parks at multiple scales, from the recently completed, quarter-acre Erie Plaza in Milwaukee, to Streamlines, a finalist in the competition to redesign an extensive section of the Mississippi Riverfront in Minneapolis.

Along the way Stoss has racked up numerous awards, including the 2010 Landscape Award from Topos Journal, and been the subject of national and international publications, including a 2007 monograph. The firm has tenaciously articulated and acted upon the ambition not only to engage in but also to lead multidimensional and cross-disciplinary projects that blend landscape, architecture, urbanism, planning, ecology and economics; in this way it has made good on its name: stoss, from the German, means “to kick, as in ‘kick in the pants,’ to initiate, activate.” 2 And Reed and his colleagues have seen the concept of landscape urbanism emerge and grow, from an academic movement in the mid-1990s to an increasingly influential set of ideas to, most recently, the focus of lively debate on the future of urbanism.

Erie Street Plaza, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Stoss Landscape Urbanism
Erie Street Plaza, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. [Bottom two photos by John December]

Earlier this year I interviewed Chris Reed at his office at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard, where he is an Adjunct Associate Professor. We focused on the evolution of his design ideas.

Quilian Riano: You were recently one of four finalists in the Minneapolis Riverfront Design Competition. How has this large-scale project allowed you to develop your thinking about landscape urbanism?

Chris Reed: The competition called for remaking 5.5 miles of the Mississippi riverfront in Minneapolis, running from the center of the city to its northern border. Notably, the RFP emphasized parks as a catalyst for new development — yet it was clear from the start that a traditional park, bordered by the kind of mixed-use waterfront development that’s become typical, wouldn’t be possible here. The territory is too large, the economy wouldn’t support that much development, and there weren’t any funds available to build conventional single-use — that is, recreational — parks. There were also questions about whether it was wise to displace existing industrial uses, and the jobs they provided.

Our proposal is as much about bringing the river and river-life into the city as it is about bringing the city’s inhabitants to the river. To this end we imagine not just one or two green strands — essentially, linear parks — along the river, but a whole series of new landscape and infrastructure strands that weave around and across the river, and permeate the urban fabric, both existing and new. It was this concept that gave our proposal its name: Streamlines.

It’s important to emphasize that what we are calling strands are not simply parks. They are designed to be catalysts for change that sponsor new social, cultural, ecological and economic life in the city and along the river. The goal here is to render landscape — and large-scale landscape processes like ecological succession and adaptation — as a new type of infrastructure and a new framework for retrofitted and diversified urban neighborhoods. More importantly, Streamlines focuses not just on the elements we proposed but also on the processes by which those elements would be created. How to reclaim the river as civic space in a part of the city where it has been severed and forgotten? How to build public interest and political support for the conversion of complex (and in part contaminated) industrial sites? How to develop financing strategies for hybrid landscape-infrastructure-development projects, and how to plan for long-term management and administration? These are the elements that make Streamlines truly a project of landscape urbanism.

Chris Reed, Stoss Landscape Urbanism
Top: Minneapolis Riverfront Streamlines overview. Middle: Mussel ecology. Click image to enlarge. Bottom: Industrial Cultural Complex with refashioned barge.

A major element of the proposal is a series of working fields in the old port of Minneapolis. Some of these fields would be dedicated to new park uses, such as running, fishing, skating and playing, while others would be left to non-noxious industrial or productive activities, such as phytoremediation and tree nurseries. These fields would be structured by a new network of canals and channels whose primary purpose would be to clean the stormwater runoff from adjacent sites; the clean water would in turn help establish new mussel beds and spark the regeneration of native and adapted river ecologies. The result: dirty water from the city that catalyzes ecological diversification. Who would expect that!

Across the Mississippi, we imagine a series of botanic overlooks, smaller-scale open spaces which would amplify both the connections and the differences between the natural and urban systems at work here. Waste heat from a nearby power plant would be captured and used to fuel a series of steamy hot tubs set amid botanical gardens. The captured heat would also be used throughout the district to warm the water for public swimming pools; to heat new public greenhouses-cum-community centers; and to power several “snow-melt plazas” that would reduce the volume of contaminants and sediments that flow into the river.

Streamlines also features new landscape spines that move out from the river into the city. Here, sports trails and water plazas along an old railroad right-of-way and a linear energy forest along an existing highway corridor double as stormwater and transit infrastructures. These are linked to new bridges that connect neighborhoods across the river; these bridges also function as social spaces — amphitheaters, viewing platforms, a public sauna, a headquarters for the National Park Service, etc., all hovering over the river. Here infrastructure is not only utilitarian but also social and urban: it allows for experiences of the river not otherwise possible.

Other components of the proposal are more directly tuned to development opportunities. Remnant industrial structures are re-imagined as cultural and recreational facilities; an industrial district is re-tooled to provide work/live accommodations; new commercial spaces and a distribution hub are proposed to span an existing highway and generate revenues that would fund open spaces and street-grid connections to neighborhoods that are now disconnected. Most spectacular of all, a new network of islands is carved into the river, offering different options for city living. Dense housing set amid public orchards, on islands in the heart of the city. The kind of place where a school kid can bite into a juicy apple she helped cultivate, with an immediate experience of the mighty Mississippi and downtown Minneapolis at hand. Fantastic.

Chris Reed, Stoss Landscape Urbanism
Top: Minneapolis Riverfront, Botanic Overlooks Sauna. Bottom left: Welcome Bridge. Bottom Right: Sauna Bridge.

All these designs are, of course, underpinned by implementation strategies; these days, cities and public agencies can’t rely on public money, especially for long-term projects. So we proposed funding mechanisms — associated developments whose revenues could pay for public spaces, situated partnership opportunities, grant resources, integrated strategies (e.g., using waste resources, like heat, to reduce capital and operating costs), and cultural and philanthropic entities that would help support the new facilities (the Walker Art Center and the Guthrie Theater, for instance, could sponsor satellite programs in the River Park’s industrial domes). To complete the proposal, we also imagined early-stage events and activities that would generate momentum and public support. These included a large-scale light installation by the public artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer that would record the movements of the river against the night sky; the re-fashioning of river barges as public amphitheaters, swimming pools and ferries; and the deployment of crystalline rowboats that would encourage people to get out onto the river before the new parks were built.

QR: Government at all levels is facing a tough economy. Are you concerned that major infrastructural systems — water, energy, transportation — are being neglected? And that the kinds of large-scale projects that define landscape urbanism will be scarce?

CR: No. In fact, I think the current strain on resources actually spurs innovation. Public agencies can no longer afford projects that respond to only a discrete set of goals. Projects must now do multiple things; they’ve got to meet many goals simultaneously. In this sense it’s actually easier for us to hybridize agendas — to mix infrastructure, landscape, urbanism, ecology — because in this way we can create efficiencies and cost savings in both the short and long term. Landscapes that perform utilitarian or ecological functions — that process stormwater, produce energy, grow food, and so on — and that also create new types of civic space and generate revenues, or at least set up robust frameworks for economic development, are likely to gain both popular and political support.

But it’s important that landscape architects and urban designers provide leadership. We can’t simply wait around for clients or patrons to invent projects for us. We need to take a more proactive, entrepreneurial role in showing potential clients the extraordinary range of possible projects and the various tools that will help realize them. We need to break down traditional disciplinary distinctions and professional versus academic divides. And we also need to tap into broad networks of colleagues – such as applied ecologists, housing specialists, anthropologists, community organizers, economic advisors, local foundation officers and management consultants. And we must integrate research and funding initiatives that can help propel projects forward, and positively test the limits of knowledge.

The CityDeck, Green Bay, Wisconsin, Stoss Landscape Urbanism
The CityDeck, Green Bay, Wisconsin.

To give a concrete example: Stoss’ work on the Fox Riverfront in Green Bay has been very entrepreneurial, and it’s developed from both formal and informal associations. It all began years ago when an interested citizen, who teaches planning at the local college, saw an opportunity for a project along the Fox River. He contacted an architecture firm in Milwaukee that in its own work was taking on a development role, and introduced them to city officials. It was at this point that we were invited aboard to think more broadly about a whole series of downtown and riverfront development sites; ultimately we framed a larger proposal about infrastructure systems and landscape and ecological systems that were physically, fiscally and operationally linked to these potential developments, spanning the river at the heart of downtown. We met with Green Bay leaders to discuss possibilities — and we worked with a mayor so clearly interested in economic development as a tool for community building that he spent six hours with us over the course of two days. What a commitment!

After another round of meetings and workshops with city leaders and staff, our firm and the architect-developer presented a full proposal — infrastructure and landscape plans, development programming, urban design parameters, financing mechanisms — to local agencies and eventually the city council. This kind of integrated ecological/cultural/social project — on one side of the river it features an urban boardwalk lined with mixed uses, on the other an eco-forest, new wetlands and stormwater-processing terraces — was an entirely new idea for Green Bay. It was quickly approved as the city’s comprehensive plan for the downtown riverfront — and not because it just featured nice open space, but because it was a multifaceted renewal and redevelopment framework for an important piece of the city.

The project moved ahead as an integrated package and as the result of an entrepreneurial partnership between public, private and not-for-profit entities. Remarkably, in the last few years — during the severe economic downturn — the Mayor and the City of Green Bay have managed to complete two new buildings (low-rise riverfront condominiums and a mid-rise apartment house with ground-floor retail), begin construction on a third (a development that includes the Children’s Museum, restaurants and shops, and office and residential space), and execute about $10 million worth of infrastructural and landscape improvements (reconfigured roads and sidewalks and the first phase of The CityDeck, a riverfront promenade and event space). This is incredibly impressive for a city of 100,000. Yet it was not a project that followed traditional norms in the States: the usual sequence of non-integrated planning studies and responsive proposals confined to predetermined site, programmatic and policy limits. Rather, in dialogue with the city and engaged citizens and organizations on the ground, a team of landscape architects, architects, urban designers, developers, financiers and engineers spawned a renewal process — an extended set of dialogues, really — that is significantly remaking Green Bay, and which continues to unfold as we speak.

The CityDeck, Green Bay, Wisconsin, Stoss Landscape Urbanism
The CityDeck, Green Bay, Wisconsin. [Bottom left photo by Jeff Mirkes]

QR: The Landscape Urbanism Reader was published in 2006, and inspired by a conference held in 1997. Landscape urbanism is now established as an intellectual and disciplinary framework; it’s become a significant influence on pedagogy and practice. This became especially clear last November when, in a widely discussed editorial in Metropolis, Andres Duany charged that landscape urbanism had infiltrated the urban design program at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in a tactical “coup”; in effect he set up landscape urbanism in opposition to new urbanism. A few months later the debate was taken up in a news story in the Boston Globe in which the reporter argued that “both the landscape urbanists and the traditionalists they’re trying to unseat … are competing not just for commissions, but for the hearts and minds of a generation …” What do you make of this debate, of “new urbanism versus landscape urbanism”? And how well is landscape urbanism understood by potential clients and the broader public?

CR: I’ve been blown away to see this discussion appear in the mainstream press — a fifteen-year-old dialogue is coming out of the academic closet!

In many ways, the timing makes sense. I think it’s a result of a convergence of issues. First, there’s the economic crisis, which is forcing people to rethink how resources are used. Everyone is looking for new and good ideas — specifically, ways to be efficient and effective, to extend existing resources. Second, there’s this recent amplification of a longstanding academic debate about urbanism, a debate that is most pointed — as you’ve indicated — among advocates of new urbanism, on one side, and professionals and academics whose work and ideas can be described under the rubric of landscape urbanism, on the other. This latest round of debate has been spurred by recent initiatives at schools like the Harvard Graduate School of Design — where I now teach — where issues of ecology, sustainability, landscape, and urbanism have been put front and center by the dean, Mohsen Mostafavi, and by landscape department chair, Charles Waldheim.

And third, I think that landscape urbanism, as a theory or body of knowledge, represents the most cogent alternative idea about the city that has confronted New Urbanists in a long time; so I think they’re getting nervous. I think landscape urbanism better addresses contemporary needs for the city and for global societies: it can deal with large scales, with complexity, and with urban and infrastructural systems that are more open and integrated with existing city networks. It is also flexible, able to accommodate changes in economies, politics and even design expressions — all of which makes this movement perhaps better able to cope with what is really happening in cities today.

Lower Don Lands, Toronto, Stoss Landscape Urbanism
Lower Don Lands, Toronto, Ontario.

In contrast, New Urbanism — which has impressively gained a strong foothold among planners and urbanists in the past three decades — has lost its freshness and also its ability to deal with the complexities I just cited. It tends to be more prescriptive in its design language — harkening back to past eras rather than dealing head-on with contemporary technologies and the design languages that might emerge from them. And it tends to reinforce a more homogeneous suburban condition; many New Urbanist developments are, in fact, relatively isolated from other neighborhoods and communities, often on the exurban outskirts. It’s ironic that a movement which ardently espouses walkable communities has often produced greenfield developments with limited public transportation — places that require an automobile to access! Why can’t we be honest and simply say that the current urban situation requires a full mix of transportation options, some of which are public and shared, others of which are individual and privatized, and still others which require expending our own body’s energy?

Beyond this debate, there’s an interesting and growing tendency for more mainstream landscape architecture and planning practices to label their work as “landscape urbanism” and “landscape infrastructure.” I take this to mean that more and more clients and citizens are hearing projects being described this way — as part of an expanded agenda for landscape — and are increasingly turning to landscape architects to lead broader urban initiatives. For instance, the prominence of recent projects like New York’s High Line and Brooklyn Bridge Park — which are often cited as landscape urbanist — is reinforcing the primacy of landscape in contemporary discussions about the city

It helps that so-called green infrastructures (such as rain gardens and infiltration meadows, which were first developed and implemented in Europe) have gained acceptance as best practices across the United States and around the world (Portland, Oregon, pioneered their use in the States). It helps that projects like Richard Haag’s Gas Works Park in Seattle, Peter Latz’s Emscher Park at Duisburg-Nord in Germany, and Kathryn Gustafson’s Westergasfabriek in Amsterdam have demonstrated how landscape can structure the re-use of vast, abandoned industrial sites as new kinds of parks and cultural facilities which cleanse contaminants and water, provide new open spaces and even generate revenue. Landscape is proving to be malleable — it can absorb a range of agendas — and it fits so well in a world striving to confront (and remedy) the effects of climate change and limited resources, especially food, water and energy.

Laaglandpark, Antwerp, Belgium, Stoss Landscape Urbanism
Laaglandpark, Antwerp, Belgium.

In general, though, I do not find that clients or the public are asking specifically for landscape urbanist strategies — at least not yet. Until recently, the label has been meaningless beyond the profession and the academy. But I do find that the specificities of our proposals have real resonance — no matter the particular language. That design projects should engage ecological and built systems that inevitably extend beyond the legal boundaries of a site in order to function more sustainably; that proposals should have the flexibility to negotiate political, fiscal or environmental changes over time; that agendas should be broad enough to tap into new resources (whether of money and people or energy and waste); that plans should include both short- and long-term initiatives — all of these goals make sense to political leaders and civic administrators and even to so-called ordinary citizens involved in the shaping and ongoing sponsorship of projects.

QR: Landscape urbanist projects require significant collaboration among design disciplines and related fields such as engineering, ecology, economics, etc. For the most part these collaborations are based upon specific projects. Do you see any advantage to making these alliances more structural? Would this drive changes in the profession or academia? In how projects are proposed, advocated for, and financed?

CR: There are advantages to the flexibility we currently enjoy — it allows us to re-tune our collaborations to respond to specific issues, projects and sites, and also to re-form teams across disciplinary distinctions as well as academic and professional divides. We’re increasingly working with research centers; for the Silresim Superfund Redevelopment Study in Lowell, Massachusetts, for instance, we worked with the Center for Technology and Environment at the GSD, which gave us access to resources and research databases that helped inform our recommendations — resources that aren’t usually available in a more typical fee-for-hire arrangement. This kind of work challenges and reinvents the nature of professional and academic collaboration in ways that are fruitful to both research and practice.

Conversely, innovations in implementation techniques, or questions raised by practice on complex sites, can be fed back into academia for further testing, refinement and reformulation. Some of the questions raised in the Silresim project, for instance, sparked ideas about how to differently apply the systems logics and operations of remediation initiatives — questions that were better tackled initially in an academic setting. These investigations led to a studio I taught on remediation strategies and alternate futures for the Massachusetts Military Reservation on Cape Cod with student groups from Toronto, Penn, and Harvard. Other questions of infrastructure and urbanism that we confront continually — whether at Silresim; or on the re-use of drinking water reservoirs in Portland, Oregon; or in regional recreational trail projects in Phoenix and Salt Lake City — have led me to conduct studies of Los Angeles (the best example of a North American city whose physical form and extent are governed by infrastructure) in research seminars, studios and even thesis projects at the GSD.

Again, these more challenging questions, which are being posed by real-world issues of human habitation and global climate change, require a new breed of professional designer — more project coordinator, choreographer, or curator, perhaps — who can nimbly move across disciplinary silos and academic versus professional distinctions. Our new role is and should be not only designer but also entrepreneur, political stage-setter and planner, drawing on the deep knowledge of allied professionals and academics in diverse fields to develop synthetic and flexible schemes for metropolitan environments.

Mt. Tabor Reservoirs and Papago Trail, Stoss Landscape Urbanism
Top and middle: Mt. Tabor Reservoirs, Portland, Oregon. Click image to enlarge. Bottom: Papago Trail, Phoenix, Arizona.

Within this expanded context, landscape architects are emerging as cultural leaders; in part this is because our field already deals with complexity at very large scales, with details at very small scales, and with time and change in both the short and long run. We also accept uncertainty as part of the life of a project — landscapes are beyond our full control. Cities and metropolitan regions — among the most complex of human inventions — require this mix of big, strategic thinking and tactical, on-the-ground agility. And they demand a comfort level in dealing with change, especially unanticipated change. Projects for large areas of existing cities — like the redevelopment of 300 acres of contaminated former portlands in Toronto, or of 5.5 miles of largely industrial riverfront in Minneapolis — will take decades to be realized, through a succession of economic highs and lows, political administrations, demographic shifts, environmental challenges (like major storms), and so on.

The strategies that landscape architects develop for such places should set out strong frameworks to initiate transformation, but also be able to absorb the kind of external changes I just described. So, rather than defining strict master plans for the Toronto and Minneapolis territories — master plans which try to limit change and prescribe physical or programmatic relationships — we chose to develop strong framework plans whose contents could shift or adjust to outside influences or even internal rules, but whose final results would only come through time. This is a very different way of thinking for designers and planners — but it is, in fact, the way landscapes and cities work anyway.

This is our zone. You can see this coming into focus over the past decade, when large and complex urban projects have increasingly been led by landscape architects, and where landscape is increasingly central in the discourse on the city. You see this in work on the Toronto waterfront by the Dutch firm West 8 or in New York by the firm Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, and you see it in projects for the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan and the Seattle Waterfront by Field Operations. These examples — and, hopefully, our own work — should give the emerging generation of landscape architects the confidence to step forward to deal with complex issues and large scales, and to assemble and coordinate the diverse teams required to address them.

I’m an optimist. Informed by a wide range of allied fields, we can continue to develop a responsive urbanism driven by the ideas and processes of landscape.

Chris Reed in conversation with Quilian Riano, “Landscape Optimism,” Places Journal, September 2011. Accessed 02 Oct 2023.

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