Critical Grounds

Month: May, 2011

The Obdurate Form of Landscape Urbanism: Neoliberalism, Design, and Critical Agency

The following is an essay written for an Indian journal of Landscape Architecture and its special edition on Landscape Urbanism (forthcoming). It is a critique of the standard and lazy jargon in which landscape urbanism is described as novel, and the limits this places on the discipline’s capacity to critically reflect upon its own complicity with neoliberal imperatives. It offers some thoughts on how form, especially architectural form, as opposed to the fetishisation of process, may afford landscape urbanism the potential to operate as an agent for interests other than those of an absolute flexibility geared to the demands of the market.  Thanks to Ross Adams for his advice on Cerda’s thinking on urbanism and the issue of circulation. 


The territories now placed at the leading edge of rapid and large-scale urbanisation, such as China and India, find themselves exposed to the full force of neoliberal mechanisms of creative destruction. Subjected to processes of continuous transformation and wholesale reconfiguration these territories experience a now familiar series of effects such as the mass displacement and mobilisation of populations, environmental degradation and increasing economic disparities. The competing and contested interests of speculation, investment, development, health, food security, and the ‘rights to the city’, collectively constitute the critical and precarious urban ecologies whose performance is played out on the ground of these regions.

Despite its claims to have invented a design model apposite to the new conditions of contemporary urbanism, landscape urbanism has largely failed to engage effectively with these conditions, or even adequately to theorise them. Rather than identifying the mechanisms of territorial transformation as interrelatedly historical, economic, political, social and environmental, landscape urbanism has tended to promote empty formal paradigms – smoothness, surface, interconnectivity, networks, fields, folds, flows, etc. – through which the putative novelty of its approach has been claimed.

This essay is a critique of landscape urbanism’s failure to identify and respond effectively to the conditions of contemporary territorial transformation, and offers a suggestion of how it might, after all, gain some purchase on these through its engagement with the grounds in which such conditions are materialised.

Smooth Operators

That the urban has only in recent years been transformed, from a form composed of static architectural objects, into a ‘field’ of processes, networks, mobility and infrastructural connectivity, is one of the founding myths of landscape urbanism. In his essay ‘Field Conditions’,[i] Stan Allen — a figure significant both to the development of landscape urbanism and to the ‘post-critical‘ discourse in architecture — locates the emergence of what he identifies as a generalised shift from ‘object to field’ amidst science, technology and culture in the postwar period of the twentieth century. Citing as examples of this shift scientific theories of complexity, the turn from analog to digital technologies and post-minimalist sculpture, Allen defines this ‘field condition’ as one of ‘loosely bound aggregates characterized by porosity and local interconnectivity…bottom-up phenomena, defined not by overarching geometrical schemas but by intricate local connections.’[ii] The use of these concepts in design, which Allen then recommends, places it, he argues, ‘in contact with the real’.[iii]

Alex Wall, in an essay equally significant to the theoretical development of landscape urbanism, ‘Programming the Urban Surface’, writes that with contemporary urbanisation, ‘infrastructures and flows of material have become more significant than static political and spatial boundaries…The emphasis shifts here from forms of urban space to processes of urbanization’.[iv] Consequently, he continues, we are now experiencing ‘a fundamental paradigm shift from viewing cities in formal terms to looking at them in dynamic ways. Hence, familiar urban typologies of square, park, district, and so on are of less use or significance than are the infrastructures, network flows, ambiguous spaces, and other polymorphous conditions that constitute the contemporary metropolis.[v]

Rather than novel, concerns over networked connectivity, mobility and infrastructural relations over those of urban form are in fact constitutive of modern urbanism at its inception in the mid-nineteenth century. ‘For urbanization, form is nothing’ wrote Ildefons Cerdà, in his General Theory of Urbanization of 1869, ‘adequate and perfect satisfaction of human needs is everything.’[vi] The purpose of urbanisation, he asserted, was to ‘fulfill the aim of establishing relations and communications among the shelters.’[vii]  The movement and coordination of pedestrians and traffic flows was one of the chief concerns for Cerdà in his planning of the expansion of Barcelona as an urban circulatory system, and his then controversial refusal to accommodate within his grid such conventional city forms such as large public plazas — which he viewed as outdated relics of older, pre-democratic, modes of city governance — already transcended the ‘familiar urban typologies of square, park, district’ which Allen argues need now to be left behind.

The tendency to misrepresent contemporary processes of urbanisation as entirely novel and uniquely concerned with connectivity, mobility and process follows from landscape urbanism’s general failure adequately to engage with questions of urban political economy, governance and the historical resonance of these matters. The privileging of circulation over form, as epitomised in the work of Cerdà, emerged in response to historically specific economic and governmental imperatives, which demanded the rapid and large-scale transformation of territories from the largely self-contained cities of the older monarchical, and autocratic regimes to the networked urban systems of bourgeois capitalism. What we are witnessing now is the re-emergence of imperatives towards circulation, mobility and connectivity, under determinate historical circumstances through which they are intensified in scope and extent, rather than their first appearance as a ‘new condition’ or ‘paradigm shift’.

Neoliberal Urban Entrepreneurialism

Following a period of relative stability around the mid-twentieth century, when the purely economic valorisation of the city was held in check by Keynesian and social democratic modes of governance, neoliberal imperatives have sought to transform the urban into a pure space of capital accumulation and corporate managerialism. As urban theorists Neil Brenner and Nik Theodore have argued:

In a geoeconomic context defined by massive upheavals of entrenched scalar relations, local (and regional) spaces are now being viewed as key institutional arenas for a wide range of policy experiments and political strategies. These include new entrepreneurial approaches to local economic development as well as diverse programs of institutional restructuring intended to enhance labor market flexibility, territorial competitiveness, and place-specific locational assets.[viii]

The mechanisms of neoliberal urban entrepreneurialism demand the erasure not only of the built environment produced to sustain earlier modes of production, but too the older regulatory mechanisms of the management of the city invested in civic authorities. Through such processes of creative destruction urban space can be made fully accessible to speculative development with its ‘creation of privatized, customized, and networked urban infrastructures intended to (re)position cities within supranational capital flows’, and its projects of ‘place-making’, urban regeneration, mega-events, etc. through which urban space is rendered ‘competitive’ and ‘marketable’.[ix]

Whilst Western Europe and North America have experienced this marketised makeover of the city within the context of post-fordism and post-industrialism, its effects have been most acutely felt and dramatically experienced in the territories newly-exposed to the mechanisms of the market.  In China, for instance, following the programme of economic reform initiated there by Deng Xiaoping in 1978, state-communal territories have been transformed into town-village enterprises (TVE’s) and the country has embarked upon a project to produce 400 new cities in the space of a mere 20 years.  This programme of ‘reform’ and rapid and large-scale urbanisation, in which territories are continually made-over to accommodate intensive cycles through agricultural, industrial, business and touristic bases of production, has produced increasing disparities between rural and urban incomes, mass migration from rural to urban territories and the creation of vast labour reserves in the city. Over 70 million farmers have been cleared from the land and over 100 million citizens rendered permanent migrants. Huge environmental problems have also followed from these transformations, including soil exhaustion and pollution resulting in a loss of arable land and serious concerns over food security.

Unengaged directly with such concerns landscape urbanism has too often been content simply  to reproduce formulaic arguments for mobility, flexibility and connectivity as, in themselves, responses supposed to be adequate to the conditions of contemporary urbanisation.  Wall, for instance, wishes to emphasise ‘the extensive reworking of the surface of the earth as a smooth, continuous matrix that effectively binds the increasingly disparate elements of our environment together.’[x] ‘The function of design’ he continues, ‘is not only to make cities attractive but also to make them more adaptive, more fluid, more capable of accommodating changing demands and unforeseen circumstances.’ Yet the type of infinitely reprogrammable urban surface argued for by Wall, and the flexible interconnectivity of the ‘field conditions’ proposed by Allen, function in effect as the ideal means by which territories are made accessible to neoliberal imperatives, and their need to continually remake the circulatory and governmental order of the city so as to facilitate shifting modes of capital accumulation. The ‘real’ that the ‘field condition’ puts design in ‘contact’ with is the ‘real’ of capital. Where it fails to acknowledge the mechanisms of neoliberal urban entrepreneurialism, then, landscape urbanism only serves to affirm for these the unquestioned paradigm of absolute flexibility.


If landscape urbanism is to realise its potential to operate as an agent of intervention within the critical conditions of contemporary territorial transformation, it must move beyond the straightforward affirmation of the paradigms of mobility and flexibility which it shares with neoliberal urban entrepreneurialism.  It is to a critique of both the abstract principles of contemporary urbanisation and their concrete manifestation in specific locales that landscape urbanism must turn; a turn which is evident in the development of the Landscape Urbanism Master’s programme at the Architectural Association, London, (AALU), and in the landscape urbanist practice, ‘Groundlab’ with which it is associated.

Rather than straightforwardly affirming processes of urban transformation and servicing the neoliberal imperatives that drive them, as a form of urban managerialism, AALU director Eva Castro has sought out the opportunities and means to critically intervene within them through design as a practice of critical agency. In her essay, ‘Thickening the Ground’, she writes:

The design industry is very permeable to external influences and, of all these, it is probably neoliberalism that has had the strongest effect on urbanism. Possibly as an outcome of the public funds exhaustion, the government’s incapacity to diligently respond to the growing cities and an ever-increasing urban population, the identity of the city has gradually fallen solely subject to the interests of private developers. We believe that it is under this constellation that a ‘new’ urban discourse advocating extreme connectivity, flexibility and adaptability, and capable of catering to the indeterminacy of programmes was born. In other words, this is a discourse that happily complies with the overall uncertainties of the free market.[xi]

Informed with this critique, and addressing itself to the concrete specificities of particular territories, Castro argues that it is through form that landscape urbanism attains its agency as a design practice and is able to commit itself toward specific urban scenarios:

…We don’t renounce form as a means to structure our environment. Form becomes the vehicle through which we challenge and face the different possible urban scenarios. The objective, on the one hand, is to avoid the pitfalls of a traditional masterplan as deterministic, controlled and inflexible, and on the other the looseness of an open framework catering to an infinite number of scenarios, able to host any brief or given future…In short, Groundlab advocates for highly articulated environments that commit themselves to specific scenarios, briefs and contexts [these] arise from a dialogue between the territory’s requirements (infrastructure) and our capacity to respond to current trends not purely as service providers, but as cultural producers.[xii]

In practice, it is the ground, and the working of the ground, from which form is derived. The ground becomes, as Castro refers to it, a ‘design tool’. Many of the sites with which AALU and Groundlab have been engaged, for example, particularly those in China, suffer from soil pollution and degradation requiring processes such as excavation, cutting, filling and capping in order to remediate these.  More than a problem-solving exercise, however, this type of ‘groundwork’ also provides an opportunity to generate artificial topographies with the formal capacity to structure relations between environmental, social, cultural and economic factors on a given site. Whilst the techniques employed for this type of groundwork may be borrowed from those used in conventional techniques of landscaping, however, it is through their architectural elaboration that these forms achieve the greatest potential to articulate determinate — though not deterministic — urban relationships. As Castro argues:

In order to use the ground as a design tool, we see it coming from the landscape practices as a concept but becoming architectonic in its development. Here is where architecture, as a model for urbanisation, becomes deeply relevant. Architecture, like no other medium, is able to structure the city, its functional, cultural, social and even political implications, into a coherent assemblage.[xiii]

The fashion in which the relations between the ground plane, architecture, and also infrastructural elements are configured — as an articulation between form and programme — holds the capacity to organise the relationships that the designer, as an active and critical agent, seeks to retain, reinforce, or reconfigure within the urban terrain. Thus, for example, certain projects by Groundlab and the students of AALU have sought through these means to render infrastructural elements instruments of socially inclusivity, to configure networks through which the practice of urban agriculture and its products can be integrated within local economies, and to challenge the spatial (re)production of social exclusion.

Not only do these practices challenge the orthodoxy of the urban as ‘smooth space’ of circulation and accumulation for neoliberal urban imperatives, but they may also offer significant resistance to its project of continuous reprogramming and creative destruction. As more than a mere ‘surface’, the urban may acquire, through the deployment of topographic groundwork and architectural form, together with the determinate relations it might establish through these, a certain obdurate resistance to being ‘made over’, again and again, by capital.

Douglas Spencer

April 2011

[i] Stan Allen, ‘Field Conditions’ in Points + Lines, (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1999).

[ii] Ibid., 92.

[iii] Ibid., 92.

[iv] Alex Wall, ‘Programming the Urban Surface’ in James Corner, editor, Recovering Landscape: Essays in Contemporary Landscape Architecture, (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1999),

[v] Ibid., 234.

[vi] Ildefonso Cerdà, The Five Bases of the General Theory of Urbanization, ed. Arturo Soria y

Puig, trans. Bernard Miller and Mary Fons i Fleming (Madrid: Electa España, 1999), 50.

[vii] Ibid., 44.

[viii] Neil Brenner and Nik Theodore, ‘Preface: From the “New Localism” to the Spaces of Neoliberalism’ in Brenner and Theodore, editors, Spaces of Neoliberalism: Urban Restructuring in North America and Western Europe, (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002), v.

[ix] Neil Brenner and Nik Theodore ‘Cities and the Geographies of “Actually Existing Neoliberalism”, in Brenner and Theodore, Ibid., 23.

[x] Wall, ‘Programming the Urban Surface’, 246.

[xi] Eva Castro, ‘Thickening the Ground’, in Michael Hensel, editor, Design Innovation for the Built Environment – Research by Design and the Renovation of Practices, (London and New York: Routledge, forthcoming 2011).

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Ibid.

Iain Boal and Lyla Mehta on Scarcity at SCIBE

1 June 2011: Iain Boal and Lyla Mehta on Concepts of Scarcity

Scarcity and Consumption is part of Scarcity Exchangesa series of exchanges on and around the topic of scarcity, bringing together some of the leading thinkers in the field to expound on one of the most pressing, but often avoided, issues of the day.

Iain Boal is a social historian and co-founder of the Retortcollective, an association of radical writers, artisans, and artists in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has taught at Harvard, Stanford, and the University of California, Berkeley and Santa Cruz. He is presently Research Fellow of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, University of London. In his remarks, “Scarcity and the necessities of life”, Boal will review the Reverend Malthus’ definition of economics as “decision under scarcity”, and asks whether another economics, indeed another world, is possible.

Lyla Mehta is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex and an Adjunct Professor at Noragric, Norwegian University of Life Sciences. She is a sociologist and her work focuses on the politics of scarcity, water and sanitation, gender, forced displacement and resistance, rights and access to resources and the politics of environment/ development and sustainability. Several of her publications have been concerned with scarcity including the recently edited work‘The Limits to Scarcity: Contesting the Politics of Allocation’. Her talk is entitled ‘Taking the scare out of scarcity: Why ‘perfect storm’ narratives serve to keep the poor poor’.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011, 6.30 pm, University of Westminster, Marylebone Campus, London

This event is free but registration is required.