Landscape before time
CITY SENSE - CITY SENSE By Paulo Alcazaren () - August 25, 2001 - 12:00am
Last week we looked at Jose Ma. Lorenzo Tan’s new book The Last Great Forest. The message was clear: We have to save the great Sierra Madre Natural Park, recover as much of our lost bio-diversity in this and other remaining forests, and ensure the sustainability of a national conservation program. Otherwise we face a bleak future of seasonal disasters that would lead to further destruction of habitats, extinction of more species and ultimately a diminishing capacity to support our ever-increasing human population.

The second book, which we look at today, shifts our focus from the natural to the constructed environment and on issues which are equally as important as those taken up last week. The book, The Last Landscape, by the famous American urbanist William H. Whyte was published over 30 years ago but the case presented is even more relevant today.
Making Sense of the Corporate
William Hollingsworth Whyte is best known for his critical writing on American corporate and middle class culture. He gained renown in the 1950s with his articles in Fortune magazine, where he was assistant managing editor. This body of work culminated in the bestseller The Organization Man, which exposed the bureaucratization of corporate America and its spreading influence of mediocrity into other spheres like the academe and research institutions.

In the late Fifties Whyte shifted his focus to the problems of open space, urban sprawl and redevelopment. He was a keen observer and supporter of smart development and open space conservation, ultimately championing the cause of vibrant city life. He devised methods of studying and analyzing public open spaces often taking a direct approach in filming the behavior of people in public spaces using a time lapse camera. His books, City: Rediscovering the Center, Securing Open Spaces for Urban America and the classic The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces are required texts for landscape architects, architects and urban designers even today.

It was Whyte’s 1968 effort, The Last Landscape that gained him a lasting following among urban sociologists, planners, public administrators and civil society. (Though ten years before that he had contributed to another similarly influential work, The Exploding Metropolis, along with other authors in the field like the famous Jane Jacobs.)
Viewing The Last Landscape
Whyte endeavored, in the book, to open the public’s eyes to the opportunities of how metropolitan areas could be improved, not by focusing on sprawl but by focusing life back on the city, conserving open and natural areas and reconfiguring the way suburbia is built using a concept of ‘clustering.’

He sought to convince his readers that the cities would be a better places to live in because more people will be living in them. This, by the way, is the situation we face in Manila in the 21st century (albeit multiplied a thousand-fold). Anyone, who says that density could be turned into an asset and that development could accommodate and conserve open and natural spaces, deserves our attention.

Whyte starts with an outline of the politics of open space in America. He states that in the post-war years America experienced a suburban boom. This boom eventually threatened the loss of cherished rural landscapes, picturesque meadows and favorite groves of trees. Local outrage led to legislation first at a local then ultimately at a federal level. The US Congress eventually embarked on several programs for recreation and open spaces finally zeroing in on the need for these by people in cities. Helping these prerogatives were acts empowering the public’s control over land use and the utilization of the concept of the right of eminent domain.

The current planning orthodoxy then was decentralist and supportive of an automobile-based transport system that encouraged sprawl. ‘New towns’ were in vogue but Whyte analyzes the failure of these ‘self-contained’ developments of the era pointing to the inefficient utilization of space in the fringes while there is still land in the city – unused land. In the US suburban boom caused an exodus from the city leaving behind old buildings that were bulldozed and turned into parking lots or left idle. (In Manila today you will notice that there still is quite an amount of open land. Most are being held for speculation, or are the subject of lawsuits or filled by informal settlers, who have no access to property or formal capital.)
Journey Through The Last Landscape
Whyte structures his book into five sections – first, he expounds on the realities and politics of open space and the ‘devices’ that can be used to conserve and defend it. Second – with open space conserved and defended, he discusses planning approaches and highlights an eco-friendly process that advocates ‘design with nature.’ Next, he looks at actual urban and suburban morphology (forms and patterns). The last two sections focus on actual landscape, a great short course (in easily digestible language) on landscape architectural design covering roadsides and the visual resource of the conserved open spaces. Finally, in the last section, Whyte makes the case for density and vibrancy in city form and city life.

Of interest, in the first section, is the author’s discussion on the economic and tax bases of cities. He makes an argument to widen the geographic tax base of metropolitan areas to offset inherent inequities in a decentralized governance structure. He makes a strong case for regional and metropolitan governance, planning and land-use management that we should seriously consider for Metro Manila.

Another issue of import to our own predicament is the ‘device’ of eminent domain and its use to consolidate, conserve and defend open space and physical as well as visual access to it. He says, "It is obvious, however, that if there is to be any permanent open-space plan, the public, through its agencies, must have the money and the power to buy land, to buy the fee simple." How I wish it were so simple indeed for our own metropolis. Fifty years ago, this was the advice of planners reconstructing war-torn Manila and the new capital of Quezon City, but we failed to heed this advice to consolidate land for public expansion.

Whyte had a particular beef with highway engineers and their never-ending quest to lay more and more concrete …even in the name of beautification! (Think concrete planter boxes and hollow block walls screening shanty towns.) The cases cited may be dated (the book was written in the 60s). But it does ring true that without an open space plan or parks and green master plan, the danger is that we will be suffocated by more and more road infrastructure (which we may not even need if we turned to and maximized eco-friendly rail-based mass transport). Engineers may just be doing their job but this does not free us from the responsibility of directing the larger picture of the metropolis’ physical development towards planning where social and environmental values are prioritized.
Physiographic Determinism, Design with Nature
With open space conserved, Whyte discusses planning approaches and criticizes helicopter-view geometric or abstract physical planning. He cites and favors the then new approach of open space planning ‘taking cue from nature.’ The operative term is ‘physiographic determinism’ or finding the best use based on the ‘lay of the land.’ This approach was developed into a practical system of physical planning by Ian McHargh head of Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning at the University of Pennsylvania. This is the basis of today’s hi-tech GIS planning systems.

Whyte also makes the case for linear open space, a perimeter concept that states that we do not need hundreds of hectares of open space a la Central Park but a network of smaller parks with park connectors. (Though large regional parks such as the Sierra Madre Natural Park are still needed in a national system.) These can be built and connect community parks, schools sites open spaces of cluster developments, roadside green and even waterfront or riverside areas. These linear parks would be more effective because of these linkages and Whyte cites the example of Europe, which has lovely open space networks intertwining older and newer parks, neighborhoods and districts of its cities.
Urban Cosmetics: More than Skin Deep
The author also looks at other elements of the city that blight it. In particular he argues against billboards. These mar scenic views and infringe on our right to enjoy the scenery without having to be pressured to buying underwear or eat fast food. He also gives practical proposals for cleaning up and establishing design control for gateways to the city (which, in the Philippines, more often than not is marked with huge billboards rather than pride-of-place monuments or markers).

Whyte addresses the debate of ‘beautification’ projects versus other interventions like urban renewal. He says, "Is there not a danger that all this will be cosmetic? Yes, there is. The danger is that people will be inhibited from action for fear it will be cosmetic. Some worry that action of such elementary and visual appeal will be a diversion from the … task, and those who push for a program involving such mundane matters as tree planting and roadside clearing must prepare themselves to be lectured on the dangers of the small view. Prettification is not the answer, goes the scolding, trees and flowers won’t solve the basic problems."

Whyte continues, "Just because we cannot solve all the underlying problems of urban growth with landscape programs is no reason to shun landscape programs. …Only in a small part, furthermore, does a landscape program have to be cosmetic …(the) argument infers a conflict that does not … exist. To plant a beautiful tree by the side of a road does not demand that we undermine the importance of the design of the route itself; or that we be heedless of the other elements of a good environment. …The usual anti-prettification critiques imply that those interested in visual beauty make up a separate category of people, and not a very hep (cool) one at that; such phrases as ...well-meaning" crop up, and if "garden club ladies" are cited, the reference is clearly pejorative. But is there this division? I have found that people who feel very strongly about their own landscape are more often than not the same people who are pushing for better comprehensive planning, water resources programs, and all the other components of the large view."

Whyte emphasizes, "But it is the landscape that commands their emotions ... planning that becomes too abstract or scornful of this aspect will miss a vital motivating factor. The landscape element of any long range regional plan will only be a small part of the total effort, but more than any other element it can enlist a personal involvement. People are stirred by what they can see. And they are right."
Final Arguments to Save The Final Landscapes
Whyte ends his book with arguments for what is today a growing trend for revitalizing central city cores (a trend that is gaining ground in the more advanced cities in South East Asia) and for the conservation of open space. He argues for sustaining vibrancy in the heterogenous and dense but not overcrowded mix of buildings, people, and streetscape that cosmopolitan life can and does bring. All it takes is to look at proper planning that ‘clusters’ and mixes uses, a live-work-play environment that eliminates long commutes, makes for more efficient delivery of services and opens avenues for socio-civic interaction that gated communities do not offer today.

Whyte also argues for a paradigm shift in urbanization. He would want us to abandon the rapacious practice of urban sprawl, a sprawl we inherited from the American-centric nature of our own city planning and real estate development (just look at how far sprawl has encroached on our once pristine and productive agricultural areas). He asks us to abandon a sprawl that endangers our larger resource of natural areas. And so we should.

Like Tan, he presses for the case of taking action now, before it is too late. We, who have gotten used to the blight around us have lost the ability to see the trees, the forests and the improved quality of life we could have if we endeavored to take more care in the way we build our cities and managed our finite natural resources.

Let’s take Tan’s and Whyte’s advice (30 years overdue) and save our last landscapes for as Whyte advices, "Vigorous action now will not preclude future choice; it will give more choice …our options are expiring. … The land that is still to be saved will have to be saved in the next few years. We have no luxury of choice. We must make our commitments now and look to this landscape as the last one. For us, it will be."
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