As one might expect from a critical survey on the imperatives of ecological design, all of the essays in Nature and Cities, in their various pronouncements about urbanism, ecology, sustainability, adaptation, and resiliency, frame the subject of landscape design and planning around the land itself and the way it is perceived and shaped. This begins with the following declarative sentence: “The land tells us so much” (xviii. These six words not only capture the essence of this richly illustrated text, they also proclaim that its content should be read as a manifesto and a critical narrative history.
Highlights of the text include Richard Weller’s historical recap of the scientific ideas underlying landscape urbanism, Elizabeth Meyer’s exploration of landscape aesthetics, Carol Franklin’s continuing allegiance to McHarg and her insightful materializations of his ideas, Danilo Palazzo’s utopian history of the profession and its progressive vision of the good life, Nina Marie Lister’s lucid presentation of ecological thinking and its shift from balance to resiliency, Kristina Hill’s call for expanded compassion in the wake of environmental disasters, Kate Orff’s commitment to the accumulative agency of small-scale design interventions, and Kongjian Yu’s attention to land stewardship in the agricultural landscapes of China. Less inspiring are the essays by James Corner, Laurie Olin, and Anne Whiston Spirn, which read as perfunctory recitations of accomplishments. In tone and content, these latter essays fall short of the level of insightful critique that exemplified the authors’ earlier writings. In a similar manner, the discussion of ecological design by Chris Reed that immediately follows the more in-depth exploration provided by Nina Marie Lister seems redundant.
The authors selected to contribute essays for Nature and Cities are well-known theorists and practitioners who either teach at elite educational institutions or head prestigious design firms. This is the book’s greatest strength—the essays illustrate the insightful contributions these institutions and firms have made in shaping the way the professions of landscape architecture and urban planning perceive the land and materialize their ideas—and its greatest weakness—the essays promulgate a select and somewhat privileged way of seeing, analyzing, and designing the land that inadvertently imposes conceptual limits upon the discussion.