Kicking off this year’s UQ Architecture Lecture Series In-Terre-Vention was respected landscape urbanist Kelly Shannon, a professor of Urbanism and Architecture at the University of Leuven (Belgium). As a designer and educator with a foot in architecture and another in landscape, I was more than eager to hear about her experience balancing the competing forces of development and environment in the rapidly urbanising Asia Pacific.
Shannon began by acknowledging the central environmental and political crises currently facing humanity: a perfect storm of climatic threat and political inaction, only exacerbated by the reemergence of nationalistic politics across the globe. While one may be inclined to throw up their hands in despair, Shannon argues that there is still an important role for urbanists, architects and landscape architects in amongst the growing chorus of activists, scientists, journalists and writers endeavoring to wake society up from its sleepwalk towards the precipice.
To illustrate this point, she first presented a number of her ongoing design research projects (based in Belgium, Vietnam and the US) that investigate how processes of urbanisation might counter the effects of climate change through structuring urban development with the use of adaptive blue and green infrastructure (read landscape urbanism). Much of the work presented was undertaken in conjunction with the Vietnamese government, with a particular focus on a territorial understanding of the Mekong Delta: a uniquely rich condition of hydrological, ecological, agricultural and infrastructural systems. These projects consider how the rapid urbanisation of the territory might be best placed to work with these systems and facilitate better outcomes than the generic ‘erase, fill, build’ form of development all too common to globalising regions.
One of the reasons landscape urbanists have been drawn to this region is the relative political stability that comes with the entrenched ruling-party states of the Asia Pacific (particularly China, Vietnam and Singapore), coupled with the rapid development that has followed their opening to the market economy. This is in contrast to the US and Continental Europe, where the shortness of the political cycle often proves a hindrance to long-term planning, thereby sentencing many landscape urbanism projects to a life on paper only.
Returning to the Vietnamese context, Shannon illustrated – with detailed cartographic mapping – that the McHarg-ian method of landscape-driven urban planning (which, in Vietnam, mainly concerns water) is still as relevant and imperative today as it was when first introduced in 1969. Here, landscape systems are mapped in order to guide the optimal placement of urban development in a way that negates environmental damage. Shannon’s particular take on the method sees flooding and drought choreographed and accepted as natural landscape conditions with which urban systems can co-exist, while connective green corridors are infused with public program, parks and transport.
It all sounded ideal, yet, as the lecture progressed, one began to wonder how these intentions would translate from the detached scale of the macro plan to the complex reality of the ground condition.
For example, how is the planning staged? Would the system still work if only partly realised? And how much flexibility is built into the planning? Apart from a few idealised transects and renderings, I was left somewhat unsated by the lack of on the ground propositions.
Herein lays the major issue. Despite the incredible detail and rational arguments inherent to these planning methods, Shannon herself acknowledges the reality of their restricted agency. It is often the case that such territorial-scale plans have no real mandate, and when they do, are frequently restricted by political boundaries and borders outside the scope of the landscape systems considered. The Mekong proves a perfect example of this dilemma, given its location as a trans-boundary river passing through China, Mynamar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Nevertheless, there is still projective capacity of working at this scale – even if idealistic. If anything, it proves that architects, urbanists and landscape architects have the tools, methods and abilities to shape our environments in a holistic and considered way. What we really require is the collective and political will to make it happen.