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Boston's long history with landscape urbanism

Posted by Rob Anderson  January 30, 2011 12:01 PM

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Who knew a feud between two competing schools of architectural thought could be this interesting?

In the Ideas section this weekend, Leon Neyfakh tells the story of two rival factions of urban planners — the New Urbanists, a dominant force in American urban planning since the 1970s, and the landscape urbanists, a group of environmentally focused upstarts seeking to challenge the New Urbanists' primacy. Ground zero in that battle, it turns out, is Harvard University's Graduate School of Design, where a group of landscape urbanists has taken over the influential architecture and planning school.

It's fitting that this battle is playing out in Cambridge. It was from there, after all, where Frederick Law Olmsed, the father of American landscape architecture, rose to prominence during the 19th century. Olmsed is responsible for Boston's cherished Emerald Necklace (as well as some other park in a city south of Boston). Landscape urbanists are direct descendants of Olmsted, Neyfakh explained to me, and the Back Bay Fens, in particular, are an example of proto-landscape urbanism.

While the differences between today's competing groups are grounded in theory — New Urbanists focus on creating population-dense urban cores while landscape urbanists attempt, as Neyfakh explains, to weave "nature and city together into a new hybrid that functions like a living ecosystem" — their ideological differences have resulted in much political drama as well. Take this article, for example, which Neyfakh mentions in his piece. In it, New Urbanists leader Andres Duany mockingly describes his up-and-coming rivals as "a classic Latin American-style" coup. The landscape urbanists respond in kind in the same publication. In his response, Alex Krieger, chairman of Harvard's Department of Urban Planning and Design, writes that Duany's theoretical potshot "is, well, a sign of uncharacteristic insecurity on his part." Another site Neyfakh mentions, the landscape urbanism b.s. generator, is a hilarious byproduct of the feud.

While these fireworks may not be as exciting as something you might see on, say, "The Real Housewives of Atlanta," for the world of academia, it's pretty saucy stuff.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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