Bringing nature back to the city while still accepting cars and suburbs?

In modern history, the city has often been seen as the antithesis of nature or the countryside. With dirty factories, a multitude of noisy vehicles, and buildings crammed on top of each other, Americans (and others) responded in part by moving out from the city and into suburbs when the opportunity arose.

But there are still arguments about whether nature can return to the city and what exactly it might mean:

The following lies at the heart of the agenda of a growing number of designers and architects who refer to themselves as “landscape urbanists”: “the notion that the most important part of city planning is not the arrangement of buildings, but the natural landscape upon which those buildings stand.”…

“Proponents envision weaving nature and city together into a new hybrid that functions like a living ecosystem. And instead of pushing people closer together in service of achieving density … landscape urbanism allows for the possibility of an environmentally friendly future that includes spacious suburbs, and doesn’t demand that Americans stop driving their convenient cars. Americans have decided how they want to live, they argue, and the job of urban designers is to intelligently accommodate them while finding ways to protect the environment.”

And that’s the rub—the bit about cars and “spacious suburbs.” Architects who believe that a fresh commitment to urban living offers the best path to a sustainable future are deeply disconcerted by this quasi-green rhetoric, and by the way it’s catching on at trendy architecture schools. They call it a “a misguided surrender to suburban sprawl.”

This is part of a larger debate about land, density, lifestyles, and government funding: can we be truly “green” as long as there are any suburbs and cars? It sounds like one side says we need to compromise with the pro-suburban forces in America while another is holding out for a more urban world. Such a dividing line affects issues including sprawl, gas taxes, land use, high-speed rail, and more.

I’m not sure why it has to be an either/or question. Cities could adopt different tactics. Is Central Park a failure because it is compromised by several roads running through it? This seems more like an ideological battle rather than a discussion about what could happen in American cities in the near future.

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