Colonial urban landscapes illuminate some of the most fundamental tensions within the discipline of landscape architecture. When we discuss and criticize urban landscapes, we commonly maintain that they are designed and realized as spatial and material harbingers of positive experiential, social, and economic change. They bring open space and air to the city; they introduce green and urban nature; they offer spaces for leisure, relaxation, or even food production. From this perspective, landscape designs are sometimes even considered prime loci of modernization and development, as well as sites of acculturation and emancipation where newcomers to the city are confronted with urban mores and practices.

Colonial urban landscapes, however, also rather explicitly reveal another set of characteristics of landscape architecture which are far less emancipatory and can more aptly be described as ‘confirmative’ and ‘limiting’. They illustrate how landscape design can also have the capacity to firmly locate, restrict and even divide citizens.

This chapter maintains that these colonial conditions bring to the surface one of the most fundamental paradoxes of the discipline: urban landscapes have the power to create new social and cultural possibilities, but they simultaneously sustain the capacity to restrict or negate social and cultural practices. This paradoxical condition requires us to rethink the very premises and perspectives from which we analyse urban landscapes, and more particularly how we conceive of their reciprocal relations to political, social and cultural practices. In this chapter, French colonial planning offers a point of departure from which to reflect upon this paradoxical capacity of urban landscapes, and more specifically on the methods and theories we use to approach it.