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Archive for the ‘Landscape Urbanism’ Category

child in magnolia tree Memphis

This enchanting image was taken by a staff photographer, Alan Spearman, in my hometown newspaper, the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Alan is also an award-winning documentary filmmaker. It has been a couple of decades since I lived in Memphis, but hometowns always have a pull on your heart, don’t they? In this case, it is a poignant, even painful, pull on my heart. I discovered Alan’s work on a chance visit back in January to the Commercial Appeal’s website. I have been haunted, in particular, by the film As I Am which won a “Top 12 of 2012” Vimeo award among other awards. If you follow the link above, be sure to scroll to the bottom for the video of the tree, April, and her friend, Faith.

Landscape plays a prominent role in Am I Am. It is a landscape of poverty that lies just south of Downtown Memphis. It would be easy to produce a film of Memphis downtown revitalization that would prompt envy among city planners and urban designers (perhaps). There is nothing to envy about the world that Alan Spearman depicts. Urban poverty in the U.S. is not really acknowledged, but it occupies a significant footprint in every American city. From my perch in academia, I cannot help but see another incongruity – the fact that “urban ecology,” “ecosystem services,” and other concepts are the fodder for academic inquiry, but what actually constitutes urban open space are places just like the neighborhood depicted in this film. Cuts through the hood. What should happen at the intersection of “sustainable urbanism” and environmental justice? What is our duty to these landscapes, these neighborhoods, these people?

Alan Spearman gives us a gift, an insight into the lives of people that the middle and upper classes never encounter, even if they live nearby (and they do). Landscape architects, city planners, urban designers, urban ecologists, and other professionals who claim the city as their subject also need to grapple with the issues raised in this film, IMHO.

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Skimming an article on biomimicry in the NY Times today revealed the usual eye-candy approach to the subject. Beautiful structures inspired by natural forms with claims to greatness, but little more. Two parts of the article, though, are worth noting. Located near the end, it would be easy to overlook these passages. The first references Skygrove (image below), the highrise concept that won first place in MOMA’s Rising Currents competition.

Daniel Williams, a practicing architect in Seattle who specializes in sustainable waterfront design, noted that Hurricanes Andrew and Katrina obliterated nearby mangrove forests in Florida. The trees’ adaptive strategies, like their tendency to clump together and utilize all of the land around them, could be more worthy of emulation than the shape of their roots, he suggsted (sic).

We should look at the ecology and botany and how the tree is functioning, rather than just copying its form,” [emphasis added] Mr. Williams said.

The really funny part, IMHO, are these lines:

When it comes to functioning optimally despite extreme weather, the octopus could be the ultimate model. Rafe Sagarin, a marine ecologist and the author of “Learning from the Octopus,” said a physical readiness to adapt, combined with a thoughtful approach to sudden change, gives the cephalopod its edge.

The octopus has this really strong, powerful brain,” [emphasis added] Dr. Sagarin said. “It’s thoughtful and can plan but also adapts in an automatic way.”

The octopus’ combination of quick and measured thinking could inform coastal cities’ approach to climate change, he said. While government must respond quickly in emergency weather situations, people on the ground can provide the other half of the octopus approach: carefully considered, long-term solutions.

“All these amazing minds out there aren’t activated for certain problems,” Dr. Sagarin said. “But if you can reactivate them, you get the aspects of adaptable systems.”

It is not clear if Sarah Amandolare, the author, meant to be funny, but concluding that the best biomimicry might come from modeling ourselves after another animal with a big brain is just that. Her words are a call for crowd-sourcing really, capitalizing on the multitude of ideas that could come from an informed citizenry, and coupling that with good urban planning.

In other words, the more people who are invested in creating to solutions to climate change, the better. But first, the public needs access to detailed information and hazard maps depicting sea-level rise.

A functional federal government would help too!

Skygrove

Skygrove

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It’s the holiday season – and I’m sitting in the mall, blogging. Somehow I feel unique… but probably not unique, though, in waiting. In the Architect’s Newspaper, Alan G. Brake writes of the ascendance of landscape architecture. Brake hits on a few themes that fit this blog well – relationships between landscape architects and architects, planners as well as the rise of urbanism as a focus of the profession. Generally, I think landscape architects are too fixated on boosterism – and we love to highlight such praise – but I’m inclined to agree with Brake here. And I hope the profession rises to the opportunities before us. Ascendency, yes.

Landscape architecture’s dynamism, however, also points to certain weaknesses in contemporary architecture and planning. Architecture has been caught in a kind of hangover from the pre-crash years. Much of the profession, not to mention architectural education, is still too obsessed with architecture-as-object. The rise of tactical urbanism is a reaction to this, and also often involves landscape-based projects. Planning seems even more stuck. Too afraid to engage with design—following the failures of much of modernist planning—planners have either buried their noses in policy or retreated into colored-pencil-clichés of urbanism that seem dated. Landscape architects have stepped into that vacuum.

For the public, my hunch is that landscape architects offer something that architects typically do not. Parks and gardens have always engaged our Edenic fantasies. In a world under strain these places must also do considerable work, absorbing stormwater, filtering air pollution, and providing refuge in an increasingly urbanized world. Landscape architects are offering redemptive visions for neglected, damaged, and underutilized places. Environmental problems may seem overwhelming and insurmountable. But landscape architects offer solutions to improve our roofs, our blocks, our neighborhoods, a nearby waterway, or the city at large. If that sounds patronizing, it’s not meant to be. In the absence of aggressive federal (let alone global) environmental action to address the myriad of challenges we face, these interventions take on a critical, if piecemeal, significance.

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newgeography.com

For years now, I have attempted to unite ecological theories and principles with design decision making in a class that I teach to undergraduate landscape architecture students. It’s no easy task! The goal is to have students move beyond a limited understanding of physical and biological site conditions, which, in studio, are typically investigated through the development of site analysis drawings, and toward a more full understanding of ecological function and its implications for design. It has been my experience that traditional site analysis drawings (1) almost always depict landscape structure alone, and (2) are incomplete, often missing crucial details. Achieving a more full understanding of landscape structure (which I describe in simple terms as the things that you can point to in the landscape – buildings, trees, soil, plants, etc.) is a great accomplishment, for students and maybe even for some practitioners… Adding an understanding of landscape function, flows of energy and materials – the often unseen ecological processes in the landscape, is really quite difficult. Recent professional projects identified as “landscape urbanism” do appear to be reaching for a better understanding of ecological processes, especially of landscape dynamics, or change over time, but a more full expression of ecological knowledge still largely eludes landscape architects, IMHO. (Feel free to counter this opinion by commenting!)

People with an interest in “ecological design” or “ecological planning” have been discussing this challenge for a long time now. The 2001 book, Ecology and Design: Frameworks for Learning, edited by Kristina Hill and Bart Johnson, explores the topic through essays by landscape architecture faculty and practitioners who had come together for the Shire Conference in 1999. Hill and Johnson urge landscape architects to “get real,” to go beyond lip service to ecological principles in ways that include follow-up monitoring of built work.

So, you could say that we have been talking about this since the 1960s, from the time of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and McHarg’s Design With Nature. And we’ve become more sophisticated in our thinking. Add to this the rise of LEED certification from the marketing juggernaut called the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). It seems like heresy to criticize LEED, at least in landscape architecture circles, but plenty of people have criticized it (see here, from 2005, and here, from 2010, for popular press/media accounts), with criticism mainly directed to building performance and energy performance in particular. And how does LEED relate to the long-sought integration of ecology and design? I see it as an umbrella for a set of techniques (especially low impact development (LID) and/or green infrastructure (GI) stormwater management techniques) that could improve the ecological performance of landscape design. These techniques are essentially codified in checklists for design, including the newer LEED program, LEED-ND (follow this link for an enthusiastic description). But it’s the distillation of ecologically-sensitive planning and design into a checklist and set of easily understood techniques that is the problem. It can be seen as an oversimplification of the design process.

Back in 2009, when LEED-ND was introduced, Kaid Benfield of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) described the program in a series of three posts, the first of which is here. The NRDC was one of two organizations that worked with the USGBC to develop the rating system. The Congress for the New Urbanism was the other. The American Society for Landscape Architects (ASLA) was not at the table, to my knowledge. (Readers, correct me if I am wrong.) I base this on the fact that I was in discussion with ASLA representatives about becoming involved in LEED-ND development back in the early 2000s and was told that no landscape architects were involved at that point. Planning for the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES), a partnership between ASLA, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at The University of Texas at Austin, and the United States Botanic Garden, got underway about the same time.

At this point, I’m asking myself why I am opening up this giant can of worms in a blog post! Well, I’d like to raise the issue and see if anyone would like to discuss it (in the comments or offline, praxislandarch (at) gmail (dot) com). There are many directions in which such a conversation might go. For now, I will conclude with a couple of quotes in a follow-up post.

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Call it what you will – tactical urbanism, DIY urbanism, etc. – many urban planners and designers are thinking creatively about how improvements to the city can be made in an era of tight budgets. The video below showcases a project in Syracuse that could be considered in this vein. The project, called A Love Letter to Syracuse, is a public art project sited in a strategically important location in the city. My personal experience of the project matches the artists’ and community organizers’ intentions, I think. It makes me happy to pass through this area and generally feel good about the city. Residents of aging cities need more of this! It is also a good example of a public-private partnership between the private university, SU, and the local government.

The video was posted on YouTube a little over a year ago, but it deserves another look and wider circulation. I have to say, I’m growing more and more interested in the use of paint as an inexpensive tool for neighborhood improvement.

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Gary Hustwit via The Atlantic

On Thursday, I watched Gary Hustwit’s film, Urbanized. It is now available from iTunes, and I highly recommend it! There is much to comment on, but I’m limiting myself to three things.

  1. The power of imagining something differently. Hustwit’s film allows the audience to imagine cities differently, and Hustwit suggests that Candy Chung’s I Wish This Was project invited New Orleans residents to imagine their neighborhoods differently, something that urban residents are not often called to do. “The idea of imagining something differently is the kernel is what I think of as design,” Hustwit says in this Urban Omnibus interview.
  2. A balance between top-down planning and bottom-up, grassroots initiatives is possible with participatory design. In the online journal, Places, Hustwit describes the relationship in this way: “It’s the top mining the bottom for ideas, and really using those ideas to drive development, as opposed to a top-down planning model, where planners get feedback from the people who are actually going to be living in the city, but only after the ideas are already formed.” He also says, “I don’t think DIY interventions are enough to change our cities. I think they are a great compass for governments and professionals to look at to see the types of interventions that people are coming up with on their own when government isn’t doing anything. You have citizens stepping in to try to change their cities on their own. The next step is for governments to use those projects as a model but then formalize them.”
  3. The promise of digital communication for addressing the future needs of cities is tremendous, but the exchange of ideas between mayors, designers, planners, and activists in different cities is just beginning. The film itself makes this point subtly in that we see ourselves in the vignettes from around the globe. Several quotes from interviews with Hustwit elaborate on the point. (more…)

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The Atlantic Cities and the Landscape + Urbanism blog note the release of this 1959 video as part of the Urban Land Institute‘s 75th anniversary. It seems that everyone is surprised by different things in this video. I’m surprised that the National Association of Home Builders would co-produce anything critical of home building, perhaps especially over 50 years ago. Granted, it was the pattern of home building that was of concern. I’m also surprised at how I think that 1959 was not really that long ago! Tracking the rise and fall of growth worries (aka rampant growth, sprawl) is as easy as tracking recessions over time. The current big slump is likely to make growth controls unpopular for the next decade (?).

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