Seeing Landscape

Images from The City Forest by Percy Yeomans

A lot of Yeomans’ criticisms of city design are based around the idea that we’ve lost our ability to “see” the landscape. (I’m still exploring ideas from his book The City Forest, 1971…)

His argument is that a farmer living on an acreage for some time (if s/he is that way inclined) can get to know it intimately: the topography of the land, the different minerals, soil-types, and micro-climates which prevail within the property boundaries. This knowledge of the land (the ability to see it properly) comes from a lot of time spent living and working on it.

In cities, by contrast, the density of buildings often distracts from our capacity to read the rise and fall of the land. We are tempted to see vast areas of space as largely undifferentiated, even thought they do still consist of ridges and valleys which determine water flows. The much smaller parcelling up of land boundaries contributes to this problem – it’s that much harder to see “the bigger picture”.

Images from The City Forest by Percy Yeomans

Besides which, no individual (or team) is ever given the jurisdiction over the design of the bigger picture:

The professions have produced many masterpieces of design within the environment, but for the landscapes of town and country, which should have been planned to last indefinitely, there is no logical basis of design. The best of cities appear to be Topsy planned – they just grew and grew out of a series of accidents into the malignancies they are now.

(Note Yeoman’s use of the words “planned to last indefinitely”. These days, the term “sustainable” would surely be used to signify the same thing.)

Much of Yeomans’ teachings, then, are an attempt to get us to “read” landscape topography, as this will aid in our development of more intelligent urban/rural designs.

I have to say I agree with him about the difficulty in reading urban land. When Ian and I visited the Nevallan property, I could see (or least I imagined I could see) the contours of the land. (This perception was, of course, assisted by the inscribed lines in the landscape formed by strips of trees, and the judicious placement of dams.)

But in the city, it’s much harder to see this topography. Take downtown Sydney, for instance. The only reason I know that there are ridges and valleys in Sydney is because, when I ride my bike through town, I feel gravitational resistance. But apart from that, my perception of the city horizon is muddled by tall buildings, and water flows are sequestered underground through drainage. The natural undulations of the land have been experienced by urban designers as an inconvenience to be tolerated or flattened, rather than as a potential asset.

I reckon it’s reasonable to suggest that Yeomans’ work here — attempting to educate the public (and professionals) in techniques of perception — is a good example of what we’re trying to call “art”.

He uses his skill and experience to push us to see the world with fresh eyes; his work grants us an improved intimacy with our immediate environment; it expands our horizons of understanding. It’s a kind of landscape-literacy.

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