Archive for June, 2011

Some links of interest.

  • From design competition a few years ago to finished plan for an “iconic urban national park”, Gateway National Park is making the news.
  • Stormwater green infrastructure is big business and mainstream, as contracts in places as diverse as NYC and Chattanooga show.
  • More reports of emerald ash borer in New York State, while Toledo says goodbye to the last of its ash trees.
  • An answer to my question about how people handle the stream of bad news about the environment – an article titled “Do environmentalists need shrinks?” about the work of psychologist and architect, John Fraser.
  • Nice article about walkability guru, Dan Burden, in the Washington Post.

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PlaceMatters, a nonprofit that developed from the Orton Family Foundation, recently published Bridging the Divide Between Science and Planning: Lessons From Ecosystem-Based Planning Approaches to Local and Regional Planning in the United States. There are six case studies in the report, chronicling the efforts of a partnership between PlaceMatters, the Packard Foundation, and NatureServe to better integrate ecosystem science into community planning. The subjects of the planning efforts are quite varied, and the locations range from Maine to Hawaii. The report is a welcomed contribution, especially given that there are not enough documented cases like the ones detailed here. I was struck, though, by a key finding:

Throughout all of the case studies and lessons, one underlying theme becomes apparent: although good data, robust models, and a logical decision process all matter, the politics matter even more. How effectively a community planning process unfolds is determined in large part by who participates, how they participate, and what power they each wield. How effectively such a planning process incorporates good scientific information depends on how much credibility the experts and their tools have in the process. In other words, community planning efforts are not exercises in abstracted rationality, but rather they are fundamentally political processes involving multiple parties with divergent interests. All community planning processes and decisions, not to mention subsequent implementation, are subject to the politics of their communities, and any approach to EBM that fails to recognize this is much less likely to produce effective implementation of a scientifically appropriate plan. [Emphasis added.]

Whoa, how was this not known from the outset? Because of the gulf between the science of the landscape and the real world of land use decision making. And this is precisely why efforts like this are needed, and why the title, Bridging the Divide is so appropriate. Using scientific knowledge to enhance land use decision making is valid and important, but the local politics of place have to be acknowledged from the get-go, or the planning effort will be doomed.

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And you get an article in the New York Times. (The shooting stick reference is found in this earlier post.) The Times featured a proposal by the architectural firm, Taller 13 Regenerative Architecture, to daylight three rivers in Mexico City and turn the now-buried rivers into urban amenities. If you read between the lines, the article reveals both the promise of this landscape urbanist vision (a bold re-imagining of the cityscape that is intoxicating in its sweep) and the pitfalls if the proposal is totally unrealistic. At some point, bold vision has to meet scientific knowledge, technical expertise, and implementation savvy. From the article, “Prophets and young dreamers are rarely very good at diagnosis.” Where is the balance found between dreamy proposals and practical issues of implementation?

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If you have followed active living research over the past few years, you are very familiar with maps that track the incidence of obesity in this country. Today, Kevin Drum of Mother Jones calls this “the map of the day”. It looks very familiar, but the message is still appalling. These are rural Southern and Midwestern counties, for the most part, where obesity rates are high. As stated in the Population Health Metrics article, decline of life expectancy in a developed nation is rare.

Population Health Metrics journal, Kulkarni et al. 2011

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What do you do with the relentless stream of bad environmental news? The local newspaper today featured an angry reader comment that said we’d better enjoy the little time we have left in response to what is possibly the most significant environmental news of the week, the release of an IUCN report and UN presentation today on the dire condition of the world’s oceans. So, what do you do with information like this? Compartmentalize it? Use it as fuel for action? Feed depression? What? Does it feel like a disconnect to visit and enjoy some beautiful, “natural” landscape and then think that we’re on the verge of catastrophe?

Can designers be pessimists? Personally, I think we have to remain optimistic to act and to design. In teaching about the relationship between ecological science and design, I choose not to dwell on depressing information, but instead to focus on what positive actions are possible. Young people today have heard since childhood that the earth is on life support and that they were going to be the ones responsible for fixing it. That is an overwhelming message. At some point, the bad news becomes so great that action seems futile. The challenge is to acknowledge the bad news, but still see a way out, actions that you personally can undertake to make a difference. Designers, in particular, have much to offer, as they can often see potential where others cannot, and they can help others visualize new states of being, alternative realities. That’s a powerful response to otherwise overwhelming distress.

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Are cities really looking around for elevated structures to turn into their own versions of the High Line? Apparently Philadelphia is considering it.

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One of my favorite stories about discovering the profession of landscape architecture comes from the autobiography of Ian McHarg (A Quest For Life, 1996). I am reminded of this story when I read about some landscape urbanist proposals. First, the story, and, later, an explanation of what it might have in common with landscape urbanism.

For several years now, I have asked students in my classes if they have heard of McHarg. Routinely, in a class of 40 ro 50, one or two hands go up. For a quick introduction, I refer them to the classic book, Design With Nature, and often – even though I hate to use them – one of the obits written after his death in 2001, like this one from the NY Times. Wikipedia is always a choice too. McHarg was born in Scotland in 1920. At the age of 16, he spoke with a career counselor who suggested that he might try landscape architecture. It still amazes me that this happened in Scotland in 1936. McHarg tells the story (pp. 21-22):

Then he said, “Have you ever considered landscape architecture?” I had never heard of it. “I have a friend who is a landscape architect,” he said. “His name is Donald Wintersgill. I will arrange to have you meet him.” (more…)

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