Book Review: Basics Landscape Architecture: Urban Design

Basics Landscape Architecture: Urban Design by Tim Waterman and Ed Wall, published by AVA Academia, 2009. Paperback, 184 pages. (Amazon)

The first of AVA Academia's Basics series on landscape architecture focuses on urban design, the hard-to-define but increasingly accepted field that overlaps architecture, landscape architecture, planning, and other disciplines immersed in giving form to cities. That this book falls into the landscape architecture series and not architecture is an important distinction. For the better part of the fifty-plus years since urban design was articulated as a unique discipline, its focus has been on architecture. This certainly isn't surprising, given that most of the participants in the first Urban Design Conference at Harvard University in 1956 were architects. In the ensuing years urban design was basically synonymous with big buildings, megaprojects. We find that characteristic continuing until very recently with designs like Daniel Libeskind's WTC masterplan, which basically relegates landscape to just the memorial's plaza. But more recent projects--be they built (High Line) or in-progress (Governors Island), in New York City or elsewhere--point to an embrace of landscape as a primary determinant of urban form.
Here the authors introduce the subject in six heavily illustrated chapters: a history and definition of urban design, four chapters on considerations of urban design (context, measure, movement, community and culture), and some short case studies reflecting the pluralism in the field. Numerous projects along the way are highlighted as examples of what the text presents. As an introduction to urban design, the book is extremely well done, covering just about every possible aspect of the field--each time a section spurred a thought in me, something not yet covered, it would be handled in a subsequent section. Given that the book is an introduction, and can therefore only skim the subject's surface, a better bibliography would be helpful. The one provided is for the whole book; individual bibliographies for each chapter would allow for further exploration on those aspects of urban design. Additional information includes a glossary and online and print resources.
Given the book's location within landscape architecture, and the influence of landscape urbanism and sustainability, surprisingly the book does not convey a strong sense of landscape as the driving force for urban design. It is presented as an interdisciplinary field that balances landscape alongside other considerations. I anticipated a stronger stance towards a particular way of approaching the interaction between the landscape and the urban, a la Michael Hough. But in what is basically a textbook, perhaps polemics don't have a place. What Waterman and Wall do convey is the interdependence of the landscape and the urban, giving future and present landscape architects a better understanding of urban considerations, and helping them play a stronger role in projects that fall under the rubric of urban design.