Designing the Urban Landscape To Meet 21st Century Challenges

Martha Schwartz, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, explains in a Yale Environment 360 interview how creative landscape architecture can help cities become models of sustainability in a world facing daunting environmental challenges.

Martha Schwartz is one of the world’s leading landscape architects, a passionate believer in the role that landscape can play in urban sustainability. Great landscape design, she says, can moderate extreme heat, recycle water, reduce energy use, lower carbon emissions, and attract people to urban areas. Following these principles, her London-based firm, Martha Schwartz Partners, has designed such mega-projects as Dublin’s Grand Canal Square; Exchange Square, in Manchester, England; and Abu Dhabi’s Corniche beachfront area.

Martha Schwartz

In an interview with Yale Environment 360 contributor Diane Toomey, Schwartz said she wants to expand the very notion of urban landscape. It’s a lot more, she contends, than parks and green roofs. “Most of our urban environments are not waterfronts and parks — they are our streets, our sidewalks, our utility corridors, parking lots,” says Schwartz. “It’s everything outside the building. And yet there’s very little design to what they look like.”

Schwartz, a professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, believes that no matter how cutting-edge the technologies employed in a project, if people don’t feel connected to that urban landscape it won’t be successful. “How people use open space in the Middle East is very different than how they use it in China,” she says. “So if you don’t really understand people’s cultural values, you’ll get it wrong.”

Yale Environment 360: Could you give me a brief overview of some of the major projects your firm has worked on?

Martha Schwartz: We’ve actually been working internationally probably for my entire career and we started off doing projects in Japan and then over in Europe. And after that in the Middle East.

e360: Projects in the U.S.?

Schwartz: No. Nothing.

e360: What is that about?

Schwartz: You know, that’s a very good question… A lot of other countries are much more urban. They invest in their cities. And then [U.S. cities] are kind of middle aged now. Other countries are building new cities or regenerating their cities. But we don’t seem to have any of those characteristics in the United States. We’re not looking to redefine our cities… Plus, we think landscape is all about natural systems.

e360: You’ve talked about some negative consequences of that attitude.

Schwartz: Well, our idea of what landscape is always equates with this idyllic nature, this vision of what rocks and trees and streams and forests are. And people feel it’s not appropriate to bring design ideas, cultural ideas, and impose them on the landscape. This is a pretty uniquely American point of view.

I work on sites primarily where the earth itself is many, many tens of feet underground. They’re on top of structures, utilities, parking, subways, basements. And yet people live in this landscape. So the question is, since we’re building our landscape just like we build our buildings, why aren’t we bringing a more critical and cultural overlay to what we’re building? And why I think that [viewpoint] creates a downside is that if it can’t be nature, it then falls below our consideration. It’s not architecture. It’s not landscape. It’s not designed. It’s left to engineers or nobody. And we have built our urban landscapes so that it’s neither fish nor fowl. Those are the landscapes that most of us live in, and they aren’t designed or determined.

e360: Are we talking about the parking lots, the alleyways, the redheaded stepchildren of the urban environment?

Schwartz: We’re talking about probably 95 percent of the urban environment. Most of our urban environments are not waterfronts and parks — they are our streets, our sidewalks, our utility corridors, parking lots. It’s everything outside the building. And yet there’s very little design to what they look like. Or even value that they look like anything. We don’t care about it. You go to parking lots outside of big box environments. You see a few trees in the parking lot. It’s a joke.

e360: And what is the role that those forgotten spaces can play in urban sustainability?

Schwartz: The spaces and places that we actually travel on and spend our time on are the streets. People spend maybe eight to 10 times more time on the streets than they do in a park. It’s very rare people go to parks, but people are on streets every day. Jan Gehl, a great urbanist from Copenhagen, has promoted the use of streets and the awareness that these are our major public spaces. But they don’t just function to beautify. He convinced the city that if they invested in bike lanes the cost of healthcare in general for the population would go down. And that’s exactly what’s happened.

“Most of our urban environments are not our parks — they are our streets, our sidewalks.”

There’s also the deployment of the natural environment. Street trees, for example. Rob Adams from Melbourne, Australia has figured out a way in which the street trees are actually being planted in the streets. Each segment of the street actually is a catchment basin for water, which is stored under the street. And then the water’s taken out to water the trees during the dry season. But the trees actually bring down the demand for cooling buildings. And all this is an integrated system.

e360: So landscape architecture is a lot more than green roofs.

Corniche Beach Abu Dhabi
The Mesa Arts Center in Arizona, a project designed by Schwartz. MARTHA SCHWARTZ PARTNERS

Schwartz: It’s a lot more than green roofs. And the awareness that the landscape is more than a decoration… has completely changed. It’s fundamental to how a city operates — if you can plan it, create codes that protect it, deploy it in systemic ways, and then, lastly, design urban spaces that people want to be in — because we really need to get people to collectivize and live in cities.

e360: You’ve said that as long as we keep topping off architects’ buildings with green roofs we’re fiddling while Rome burns. What was the reaction you got to that statement?

Schwartz: I work with a lot of really fantastic architects. But architects are really very focused on their buildings. That’s why they’re architects. But we’re 7 billion people now. We have to really figure out how to build cities, not just buildings.

e360: You’ve coined the term “soft sustainability.” Talk to me a bit about what that means.

Schwartz: All those other systems outside of the technological ones I call “soft systems.” And in order to really create meaningful places that work, those perhaps are more critical to the success of a place or a street than the deployment of the technologies. I was just talking to Jack [John] Spengler, [professor] at the School of Public Health here at Harvard. There are many people who are on the track of being able to evaluate what the outcome is of creating spaces that work spiritually, visually, environmentally. So it isn’t such a touchy-feely subject anymore because people understand how valuable open space is.

“If you don’t really understand people’s cultural values, you’ll get it wrong.”

But of course what it looks like and how it functions on the ground is completely culturally specific. How people use open space in the Middle East is very different than how they use it in China. So if you don’t really understand people’s cultural values, you’ll get it wrong. Even to the point where color is very specific to cultures and what they mean. What kinds of shapes and forms they’re comfortable with, what they don’t like. How you actually translate your ideas, how you get their input. All of this actually is more important than the technologies. The technologies have to function. But the technologies alone don’t actually create value for a space. And if people don’t value it, then it will be wasted. It won’t be maintained. People won’t use it. It’ll go away.

e360: Which has consequences for the densification goal that you feel is one of the most important things your profession can promote.

Schwartz: That’s what I believe. The most benefit that we can bring to the table as landscape architects is to encourage people back to cities and to living together. Because it means that we will be using less resources. We can collectivize on energy, food, transport.

e360: When a city does its landscape design correctly, what kinds of environmental issues can be addressed?

Schwartz: The first one that pops up is water, because water is so precious. So the cleaning, capturing of water, retaining it, allowing it to go back to replenish aquifers — super important. Of course, planting is extremely important because planting helps to clean water, absorb water. But it also helps to cut down particulate matter, clean the air. It helps to moderate temperature fluctuations. And it makes things more beautiful as well.

And then making sure that people can walk safely on sidewalks, that people are connected on foot, that you can ride a bicycle. And then advocating to really cut down on the need for cars. Building better scaled streets so people are in street environments that are more conducive to street life. These are all really important environmental issues.

“The most benefit we can create as landscape architects is to encourage people back to cities.”

We were doing the Abu Dhabi Corniche, which is 4 ½ kilometers of waterfront. We suggested actually transplanting date palms, which are very water-intensive, to the Corniche, because they create shade. But they also create a very strong image and we wanted that because that’s the edge of the city. We want people to be able to go there. That is the most important open space.

And they said we don’t want to plant any more of those trees because they’re water-hungry. And I said, “Well, here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to take out all the palm trees that you’ve planted in the median strip on the highway from the airport into the city, and we’re going to take those out and we’re going to put them on the Corniche. So you won’t have any more water load. But we’re going to use those trees where it counts, where the people are.” Of course, that was a very controversial idea.

Corniche Beach Abu Dhabi
An artist’s rendering of Schwartz’s Corniche beachfront project in Abu Dhabi. MARTHA SCHWARTZ PARTNERS

And then we mentioned that there’s going to be sea level rise, that Abu Dhabi would be under water in 50 years. And basically they weren’t really ready to hear that. And I said, “Well, you know, we could dredge and build that up and future-proof the city, given the fact that we have 4 ½ kilometers of city edge to protect.” Their reaction was well, that’s going to be too expensive. And my reaction to that was, “Well, you need to calculate how much loss you’re going to have on the first floor of all your major real estate investments for the City of Abu Dhabi.” But places aren’t often ready to hear these things. But it’s your job to get them out on the table anyway. You don’t always win.

e360: Who’s doing it right, then?

Schwartz: The people who are doing most things right are the Scandinavians. The Germans have been very advanced in terms of the notion that sustainability can include a city. In Europe was the first time I heard sustainability being applied to a city. People were thinking that whole cities could be operated and built in a way that was culturally and socially and economically sustainable, as well as environmentally sustainable. I’m like, “Wow! That is an incredible jump in scale or awareness.”

e360: What’s your take on how American city planners and city officials view your profession?

Schwartz: Well, it depends on which cities. Some of the cities are quite aware of what the profession can do for their city. New York is on top of it. Chicago. San Francisco. There are a lot of cities, pretty much the wealthier ones, that are aware. Maybe the majority are not aware of it.

e360: Let’s talk about a project in Dubai called Jumeirah Garden City. It’s a new mixed-use neighborhood that has some impressive sustainability targets in terms of things like energy efficiency, waste water reuse. It sounds like you had a seat at the table early on in this project. So when that happens, what can be accomplished?

Schwartz: It makes a tremendous difference. While things are still fluid, what the technical systems are going to be and how that can be incorporated into the landscape starts to actually formulate how to approach the design of the landscape and how the landscape can in turn support the operations of the building. It’s like one huge machine that is operating together and that’s a thrill.

“How do we deploy the landscape to protect cities and then to rebuild in a way that the city can function as a good place to live?”

Had that project gone forward — it was a casualty of the 2009 meltdown — the landscape would have been a remarkable piece of engineering. It would have only used gray water. The water was completely captured and cleaned and re-circulated. You know, you can process [waste] water from the buildings. We always do that. You can capture water from roofs. You can capture water from the streets, from parking lots. You can use the landscape to clean it, recirculate it.

For example, we’re working on a project in Jakarta right now where the whole city of Jakarta is sinking. And it’s sinking because they have used the fresh water from the aquifer. And as the aquifer is collapsing the whole city is collapsing. So our job is to make sure that this development of 85,000 people can be free of using the aquifer, to basically recycle their water systems and use the landscape to help do this. Capture it, clean it, re-circulate it and make beautiful places where people want to be.

e360: What stage of development is that project in?

Schwartz: Initial planning. It’s highly technical.

e360: Given the destruction that the Northeast U.S. has seen recently with Hurricane Sandy and the discussion it spurred regarding infrastructure protection and the reality of climate change, what’s your take on the receptivity of city officials and planners in the U.S. to the notion that landscape design is important and a necessary element of sustainability planning?

Schwartz: I’m hoping that city leaders will take a broader view of who they need to be informed by, how they get the right information. And have landscape architects seated at the table, so that they can hear from a landscape point of view what should be done. It isn’t really just about rebuilding buildings. We’re really talking about infrastructure, and the infrastructure includes how do we rebuild a city, not just a sea wall. It’s how do we deploy the landscape to protect the cities and then to rebuild in a way that the city can function as a good place to live, a safe place, as a place where you can walk, you can ride your bike, and go to a park. All of these things are what gets sorted out at a planning/urban design scale.

But without the landscape architects to really help sort that out, and actually advocate for it, it’ll be really hard to really achieve rebuilding a city. You can’t do it just by buildings.