Green Infrastructure and Landscape Architecture

More and more, experts worldwide recommend „GI“ as the best remedy for all kinds of unwelcome side-effects related to current changes in the environment such as climate change, agricultural revolution, urban transformation and so on. Within the strategy “Europe 2020”, the EU for example wants to enhance Europe’s natural capital1, and the board of the German Association of Landscape Architects (bdla) recently declared “green infrastructure” as the future central theme for landscape architecture. “Green infrastructure” sounds up to date but proofs to be a very generalizing term that can be randomly interpreted according to the given context. A clear definition of this term does not exist. “Green infrastructure means […] all human activity in landscape in the broadest sense. It includes structures close to nature as well as anthropogenic elements of open space – in Germany, almost all cultural landscape can be interpreted in this way.” In the end the bdla board arrives at the astonishing equation: “green infrastructure = landscape architecture!” 2*

Is this new term really useful? This question was answered 2002 by the American environmental and urban planners Mark Benedict and Edward McMahon in their publication „Green Infrastructure: Smart Conservation for the 21st Century“. “Where-as green space is often viewed as something that is nice to have, the term green infrastructure implies something that we must have. Protecting and restoring our nation’s natural life support system is a necessity, not an amenity. […] Green infrastructure is a new term, but it’s not a new idea“, the experts admitted 3*. In the middle of the 1990s this term was used for the first time in the USA but Benedict and McMahon identify no one less than Frederick Law Olmsted as the inventor of green infrastructure. In 1903 he promoted that green spaces in a city should be linked to a network in order to improve the quality of life in the urban environment. Looking at the history of urban green systems in Europe we might identify other additional “inventors” and we would surely arrive at an earlier birthdate of the idea of green networks. In any case, landscape architecture as a profession obviously did not succeed in 100 years to firmly anchor the awareness for the essential relevance of green urban networks in the public, the media or the political system.


The design by vetschpartner landscape architects for the Sulzerareal in Winterthur (Switzerland 2014) illustrates very clearly that the colour of nature in the city is not only green but also grey or in this case even brown. Future-oriented landscape architects avoid to play the clichéd role of ‘advocates of the green’. photo: Udo Weilacher


Obviously great hope is associated with the implementation of a new buzzword in order to gain more acceptance when dealing with important environmental and development agencies and more respect in the economic and scientific communities. In public and professional discourses, “green infrastructure” as a new key term is afflicted at least with two problems. Firstly it is risky to use the predicate green again in spite of the long established understanding that nature in the city is not only green but also grey. This “colour-neutral” understanding, clearly promoted by the Swiss landscape architect Dieter Kienast in the 1990s, liberated landscape architecture from its fixation to a traditional and stereotype self-concept. New freedom of design was offered, especially in cooperation with neighbouring disciplines such as architecture or urban planning. In addition, urban ecologists have been stressing the fact for many years that it is impossible to secure the “natural life support system” of a city with green alone. Therefore they were asking to respect and develop the complex variety of all urban biotopes no matter if they are green, grey, blue or of any other colour. Landscape architects were esteemed as competent planning partners in recent years precisely because they refused to play the role of the “advocates of the green” any longer.


A roof water farm in Berlin-Kreuzberg. If the infrastructural approach to open green spaces in the city is too much focussed on the technical aspects, it is most likely that the full potential of nature in the city will stay unused and that urban dwellers will treat these areas with neglect. photo: Udo Weilacher

The second problem of GI is connected with the technical connotation of the term “infrastructure”. Even though “social infrastructure” is also used as a key term in planning projects now and then, it seems to be more self-evident to use “infrastructure” in the context of project concerning traffic, energy, communication or logistics for supply and disposal. This technical focus is embraced by the promoters of GI, because it underlines the usefulness of nature, its practicability as an instrument and its functional service aspects. In 2013 the European Commission declared: „GI is a successfully tested tool for providing ecological, economic and social benefits through natural solutions. It helps us to understand the value of the benefits that nature provides to human society and to mobilise investments to sustain and enhance them. It also helps avoid relying on infrastructure that is expensive to build when nature can often provide cheaper, more durable solutions. [It is] a strategically planned network of natural and semi-natural areas with other environmental features designed and managed to deliver a wide range of ecosystem services.“ 4* Wolfgang Haber, renowned German landscape ecologist criticized recently: “The term ‘services’ and the very idea that we utilize nature because we want it to deliver supply of services is principally very absurd”. Haber fears that the essential qualities of the environment will be sacrificed to the primacy of economy, just because these qualities are not financially measurable. “Everything has to be evaluated on an economic basis, even the feeling of happiness when looking at a beautiful landscape. And the questions about functions and purposes are always raised.” 5* The step backwards towards a merely functionalistic planning profession, as established in the 1960s, suddenly seems to be very small for contemporary landscape architecture.

Nevertheless “green infrastructure” also carries an important and true message: it is right to underline the necessity, that we have to deal with landscape – especially in the urban context – in a structuralistic approach. Landscape is no longer perceived as a green total work of art (Gesamtkunstwerk) that has to be preserved in an ideal static state. Instead, landscape is a complex living organism and has to change constantly in order to stay alive – but it must not loose its structural integrity. The existence of networked structures is therefore one of the most important characteristics of landscape. These structures secure a certain stability as well as a permanent flow of energy, matter and information. Many structural networks, such as water systems, traffic systems, energy systems, green systems or communication systems ensure the liveliness of todays landscape as well as their changeability, versatility and viability. The networks are so closely cross-linked that it is very risky to analyse them in a sectoral manner in order to improve their functionality and usefulness in a purely rational design approach. The structural systems of the environment are complementary and reinforce each other by interdependence, overlay and mutual permeation.


The Donauinsel (Danube Island) in Vienna is 21 kilometres long and only up to 120 meters wide because it was originally planned an infrastructure to prevent flooding. The structuralistic approach of the planners back in the 1970s turned the dam into one of the most valuable green spaces in the open space system of Vienna. photo: Udo Weilacher

Structuralist architects and urban planners in the 1960s, fighting against the disaster of pure functionalism, were already aware of these correlations and developed trend-setting planning approaches, dealing with living structural systems.6* However a current study at the TU Munich illustrates, “that structuralism in landscape architecture reaches far beyond the structuralistic approach in architecture” and states that this theory should be definitely developed far more in the future as a “versatile strategic instrument for the landscape architectural design practice.” 7* The success stories of the Donauinsel in Vienna in the 1970s, the international building exhibition IBA Emscher Park in the 1990s or the current transformation of the Fresh Kills dump site in New York are showing exemplarily the strength oft he structuralistic design approach. In these projects the planners do not differentiate between green, grey or blue structures, not between current or historical, social, technical, natural or artificial ones. The strength of these projects is based on the intelligent combination of all networks and on the creation of manifold polyvalent spaces, open for the active acquisition by man and nature. This seems to be the only way for a landscape to change its face without loosing its face.

1 cf. European Commission: Green Infrastructure (GI) — Enhancing Europe’s Natural Capital, COM(2013) 249 final. Brussels 2013
2 bdla press release July 16 2014 “Grüne Infrastruktur – Ein Zukunftsthema der Landschaftsarchitektur”
3 Benedict, Mark A./ McMahon, Edward T.: Green Infrastructure: Smart Conservation for the 21st Century. Washington D.C. 2002; pp.7/8
4 European Commission: Green Infrastructure (GI) — Enhancing Europe’s Natural Capital, COM(2013) 249 final, Brussels 2013; pp.2/3
5 Haber, Wolfgang: „Mit Leidenschaft kommt man heute nicht weit“ in: nodium #5, magazine of the Aumni- Club Landscape at the TU München, München 2013; p.11
6 cf. Lüchinger, Arnulf: Strukturalismus in Architektur und Städtebau. Stuttgart 1981
7 Peisl, Julius: Strukturalismus in der Landschaftsarchitektur. Eine theoretische Untersuchung am Beispiel Peter Latz. Master Thesis at the TU München 2013/14

Udo Weilacher (engl. translation of an article, published in „Garten+Landschaft“ 3/2015)

Published on May 30, 2017

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