Suspended animation, with some promising stirrings of change. That is my assessment of the past year. Expectant waiting, but little change overall in the U.S. economy. In the coming year, there will be a U.S. presidential election, meaning that any significant new action (economic, environmental) is at least a year away. New economic uncertainties have arisen in countries around the globe. The planning and design professions do not exist apart from these circumstances. Four years into the Great Recession, what does seem to be changing is interest in activism, highlighted in the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) demonstrations this past fall. Activism in planning and design circles means community empowerment, innovative, insurgent urban design, and continued attention to all things local, including food systems, infrastructure, and alternative transportation. These stirrings of change portend exciting developments in 2012, I think, but not the scale of excitement seen in the bubble years. That could be a very good thing, really.
The short 160-year or so history of landscape architecture doesn’t appear to be much of a guide to the present, although there are some parallels. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, some landscape architects continued to plan gardens for the owners of great estates (the 1% of that time), while others planned and carried out New Deal programs, finding employment with the federal government. To date, there have been no new New Deal initiatives in the U.S., although our aging infrastructure begs for investment. Perhaps after the election… Meanwhile, some landscape architects and land planners serve the global elite, while others serve local communities in a host of ways, often with nonprofit organizations as government jobs at all levels continue to be cut.
An emerging trend is the latter – design that serves the public good (admittedly, a loaded phrase) – an impulse that is closely aligned with the fall’s significant uprising, OWS. The website, Archinect, reflects this in its top 10 design milestones of 2011 and top 10 design initiatives to watch in 2012. Local is big, and getting bigger. The New York Times made the case this week, as it tracked major changes in environmental organizations, many of which are shifting their activism toward local issues as a means of survival. People have little faith in the big aims these days, like cap-and-trade or new New Deals, so they are focusing more on creating change in their own communities, something that seems much more tangible. Urban agriculture and tactical urbanism are manifestations of this urge to take matters into one’s own hands (individually and collectively) and make change happen.
A scan of other top 10 lists and year-in-review posts reveals the following causes for optimism:
Planetizen’s top 10 books: 7 to 9 are about cities – from “agile” cities that employ 100s of small tactics [read: trend] to combat climate change, to agricultural cities espoused by the new spokesperson for urban ag, Andrés Duany! The “promise” and “triumph” of the city are noted in two books, and we are encouraged to foster “love” of cities. The phenomena of “instant” cities like Karachi is acknowledged in the list, as well as tactical urbanism. Also on the list are books covering infrastructure, walking, and bicycling, all subjects that have dominated planning and design discourse over the past year. ArchNewsNow has a list of top 10 books in architecture here.
Writing for Huffington Post, Charles Birnbaum has a list of top 10 “notable developments” in landscape architecture, including Miami’s Lincoln Park Soundscape and a number of cultural landscape preservation achievements. Another list of projects, both architectural and landscape architectural, that emphasizes international work is found on the polis blog.
While not a top 10 list or year-in-review, the last month of Metropolis POV blog posts by Michael Mehaffy and Nikos Salingaros concern “frontiers of design science,” identified as self organization, biophilia, the network city, and evidence-based design.
Ruin porn and the natural bridges of Meghalaya, India (living infrastructure) made the Architizer top 10 list.
Inhabitat asks readers to vote for their favorite stories from 2011, including favorite green energy story, and lists the completion of the 9/11 Memorial and the second phase of the High Line among the top news of the year. (High Line image at the top of the post is from this Huffington Post article.)
Archinect’s coverage of past and future design trends focuses on design for the public good, as noted above. Among the landscape design highlights are the High Line (#2 on list of what has happened) and the new NEA initiatives, Our Town (grant for “creative placemaking,” modeled on the NEA program that my department head, Richard Hawks, runs called Your Town: The Citizen’s Institute on Rural Design) and ArtPlace (website quote: “It is all about the local.”). Overall, the whole Archinect list of 2011 is worth reading. The Archinect list of what to expect in 2012 reinforces the point that “public interest” design is on everyone’s and every organization’s radar. A quote about the Venice Biennale stands out:
In August, as it does every two years, the U.S. will present the best of American design in the Venice Biennale. A sign of the times, this year’s installation will showcase “Spontaneous Interventions: Design Actions for the Common Good.” Expect a image-based display and archive of community gardens, citizen-designed bike lanes, poster campaigns, apps and crowd-sourced public processes. As curator Cathy Lang Ho explains, “With the slow-down of actual architectural production, we are seeing some of the nation’s most thoughtful, original practices pursuing personal projects that are motivated not only by the urge to create, but by a heightened social and political awareness.”
The trends revealed by these lists seem very hopeful and promising. After a long period of waiting for the economic downturn to end, that period of suspended animation, everyone it seems is turning to what can be done now, in the present circumstances, in the post-bubble world. As long as the angst and frustration can be channeled into creative acts of placemaking, good things will come of this. Happy New Year!