ERA Architects

The city as garden

Recently ERA’s Brendan Stewart gave a talk at Toronto’s Metro Hall, sponsored by LEAF and Park People, on the design potential of trees in cities. After setting the context of modern landscape design, beginning with André Le Nôtre’s French tradition and William Kent’s English tradition, the talk moved on to survey several interesting historical and international projects, including…

from Landscape for Living (1950), a drawing by Garrett Eckbo. “One of the important contributions of modernist landscape architects was their exploration of trees and plant material as space-creating design elements.”

Woodland Cemetery, Stockholm, by Gunnar Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz. “Through the architecture of buildings and the landscape, the Woodland Cemetery creates a phenomenological and poetic journey as visitors attend services and move through the grounds.”

Washington Square Park, New York. “Like many park squares in Manhattan, Washington Square Park is robustly designed to accommodate heavy use by focusing people on hardscaped avenues and plaza spaces, meanwhile protecting trees and allowing understory planting to create a garden-like setting.”

Having reviewed these and several other projects, the question posed was, What can we learn from these examples and how can we apply the knowledge to Toronto? Brendan proposes a handful of conclusions:

  • “We should be imagining a 21st century version of the ‘garden city’; a city where the best qualities of the urban environment and the best qualities of the rural environment are woven together. As a metaphor, the city as garden implies an urban landscape that includes the wild and the ordered, and everything in between, and recognizes our collective role in its cultivation and stewardship. It also recognizes the important role design plays in building an urban landscape that is nuanced, layered, and rich. There is so much to work with: sightlines, perspectives, textures, qualities of light, sequences of repetition and difference, senses of expanse and enclosure, and the engaging of all our senses.
  • “When we think of the urban landscape, we should think ambitiously and creatively. As cities grow in density, the demands placed on the public realm intensify, and therefore the quality and robustness of our designed landscapes should increase.
  • “Toronto has vast cultural and environmental resources at its fingertips. Imagine how the Toronto of tomorrow could learn from the garden and design traditions of its diverse cultural groups.
  • “Designed landscapes should mimic how nature functions, but not necessarily how nature looks. In fact some evidence shows that ‘natural looking’ designed landscapes are more likely to be neglected as they age because they are not seen as something that needs to be maintained. When human authorship is readable in designed urban landscapes we are more likely to conserve and manage them as functioning systems for generations to come.”*

*For more on the relations of aesthetics and sustainability, see Elizabeth K. Meyer’s “Sustaining Beauty” published in the Journal of Landscape Architecture, Spring 2008.