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Archive for the ‘Reflective Practice’ Category

This winter and spring, I will be posting a series on two projects I’m working on – a public health/neighborhood environment survey that I am very excited about and a studio class that I am teaching. The study area for the research and teaching are roughly the same, so there should be quite a bit of overlap. Together, both efforts allow me a rare opportunity: immersion in a set of related topics and, in this case, they are my favorites!

First a bit on the studio class. The subject, broadly, is urban transformation. By studying our home city, Syracuse, New York, the students and I will be examining forces that have and are transforming Syracuse. I’m casting Syracuse as “Everycity” – a unique place, yes, but with a set of opportunities and challenges that are fairly universal (for sure they are common to medium-sized cities and Rust Belt cities). The students will be studying the city as a whole and then shifting to a neighborhood scale. It is the neighborhood unit/scale where, I think, the lessons learned (including such lessons as how to study a city) are most transferable to other locations (i.e., all cities are composed of an array of neighborhoods). An archival search into historical records will set the stage for spatial analyses using geographic information systems: physical and biological environmental features, demographics, economic conditions, and so forth. And what shall we do with this information? Two things. First, students are charged with “telling a story” about urban transformation in Syracuse through a set of graphic representations depicting trends over time, especially the evolution of urban infrastructure and employment since 1890. This exploration will take half of the semester. The second outcome will be a project with a neighborhood group – yes, a “real” project. We have a small grant to help a neighborhood and its elementary school create a plan for its grounds, including an adjacent public park. The neighborhood might be called “disadvantaged,” so the question of how urban transformation might take place in this setting is one we will be exploring. I call it “shaping the public realm,” the intersection of design and planning. One word for this work? Fun!

The research project is worthy of a post of its own. For now, I will say that it is an interdisciplinary research project (team of 12 – medical researchers, sociologists, public health expert, and landscape architects) funded by a seed grant, by definition exploratory. Our team decided to bridge disciplinary boundaries with a survey research project. I, happily, am the lead. What are we doing? The grant was for diabetes research; our survey is aimed at gathering information for the design of diabetes awareness/prevention programs in disadvantaged neighborhoods. The central focus: relationship between health and neighborhood conditions, including social cohesion. We are attempting to conduct a simple random survey, in-home and by appointment, in a single neighborhood in Syracuse, the Southwest Neighborhood. Our survey takes 30 minutes, and we are providing a $20 gift card to respondents as an incentive for participation. The best part so far? My field survey team – five neighborhood residents paired with five graduate students, all trained to conduct human subjects research (CITI). Amazing group of people, and they are all loving it! The respondents seem pretty happy so far too. Now to get a random sample of sufficient size! More fun for winter days ahead.

I am lucky, lucky to have my days filled with such satisfying work. My plan is to post regularly over the coming months as the studio work and research project have their own “transformations”/evolutions. Stay tuned.

 

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When I launched this blog 2 1/2 years ago, I sent a link to several academic friends and acquaintances, asking them what they thought. In general, the response was “what do you think you will get from this?” and “are you sure that this is a good use of your time?” I posted a lot in the first year and, sadly, much less since (although I would like to reverse the downward trend this spring). Two and a half years out, though, I think I can answer the suspicious questions with an enthusiastic, positive response. Connecting with a global community of landscape architects and planners has been transformative for me, even though those connections have not taken the form that I thought they would.

I remain intrigued with the idea of a global landscape planning “community of practice.” At the blog’s launch, I thought I might elicit enough comments on my posts to build a fledgling community here. That has not happened for various reasons (the writing would have to be much more prolific (and perhaps just better!), I would have to actively promote it, and so forth). For me, connections have been build around a steady flow of site visitors (even without new posts people still discover the blog) which, I believe, resulted in greater numbers of people contacting me directly – prospective graduate students, professionals seeking a LinkedIn connection, etc. Academics who jealously guard their time, typically for very good reasons as demands on academic performance have increased considerably in recent years, can still find an outcome such as mine to be worthwhile, I think. We all need the steady flow of good graduate students, right fellow academics?? More importantly, though, blogging and reading to support the blog – Twitter feeds, Google Alerts, and so forth – has given me the sense that this global community of practice is within reach.

Those of us at the intersection of landscape architecture and urban planning are small in numbers. Landscape architecture alone is a small profession. A subset of a small profession is, perhaps, tiny. However, a larger group, going well beyond the narrow confines of landscape architecture, is interested in physical planning. Wouldn’t it be great if we had a platform to discuss best practices? Does such a thing already exist? If so, let me know! The prospect excites me. Our communities face such challenges. Talking with other professionals around the world who are facing remarkably similar problems (even if unique to place in obvious ways) would be so helpful. LinkedIn groups could eventually fill this need. So far, my experience says that they do not. Nevertheless, the prospects are like we have never had before. Immersion in blogging, Twitter, and other social media offers professional benefits that are obvious to those engaged in them. More academics should get on board! It’s a GREAT use of your precious time! And you get to use exclamation points – a perk!

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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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Image credit: personaldevelopmentplanning.pbworks.com

A 1992 article titled Wicked Problems in Design Thinking by Richard Buchanan in Design Issues journal is worth a fresh look, and, in fact, it continues to be cited by many authors. [A description and definition of wicked (and super wicked) problems can be found here.] I found the discussion of the communication gap between scientists and designers to be especially interesting.

Members of the scientific community, however, must be puzzled by the types of problems addressed by professional designers and by the patterns of reasoning they employ. While scientists share in the new liberal art of design thinking, they are also masters of specialized subject matters and their related methods, as found in physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, the social sciences, or one of the many subfields into which these sciences have been divided. This creates one of the central problems of communication between scientists and designers, because the problems addressed by designers seldom fall solely within the boundaries of any one of these subject matters (pg. 14).

Buchanan then speculates that the heart of the problem is the indeterminate nature of the problems addressed by designers. In other words, design problems are wicked because they are indeterminate.

Design problems are “indeterminate” and “wicked” because design has no special subject matter of its own apart from what a designer perceives it to be. The subject matter of design is potentially universal in scope, because design thinking may be applied to any area of human experience. But in the process of application, the designer must discover or invent a particular subject out of the problems and issues of specific circumstances. This sharply contrasts with the disciplines of science, which are concerned with understanding the principles, laws, rules, or structures that are necessarily embodied in existing subject matters. Such subject matters are undetermined or under-determined, requiring further investigation to make them more fully determinate. But they are not radically indeterminate in a way directly comparable to that of design (pg.16).

Buchanan further explains:

design is fundamentally concerned with the particular, and there is no science of the particular.

In actual practice, the designer begins with what should be called a quasi-subject matter, tenuously existing within the problems and issues of specific circumstances. Out of the specific possibilities of a concrete situation, the designer must conceive a design that will lead to this or that particular product. A quasi-subject matter is not an undetermined subject waiting to be made determinate. It is an indeterminate subject waiting to be made specific and concrete (pg. 17).

Buchanan explains how designers deal with indeterminacy through his theory of “placements” – signs, things, and actions organized by unifying ideas or thoughts.

This is where placements take on special significance as tools of design thinking. They allow the designer to position and reposition the problems and issues at hand. Placements are the tools by which a designer intuitively or deliberately shapes a design situation, identifying the views of all participants, the issues which concern them, and the invention that will serve as a working hypothesis for exploration and development. In this sense, the placements selected by a designer are the same as what determinate subject matters are for the scientist. They are the quasi-subject matter of design thinking, from which the designer fashions a working hypothesis suited to special circumstances.

This helps to explain how design functions as an integrative discipline. By using placements, the designer establishes a principle of relevance for knowledge from the arts and sciences, determining how such knowledge may be useful to design thinking in a particular circumstance without immediately reducing design to one or another of these disciplines (pg. 17-18).

I am particularly interested in essays like this one that explore the relationship between design and the sciences – natural, physical, and social. Landscape architecture academics often find themselves having to prove the value of design thinking in relation to the scientific disciplines that dominate university campuses. Explication of the unique role of design and its relationship to other disciplines aids this process. But, Buchanan’s work is just one perspective. Do any challenges to his stance come to mind? Or thoughts that expand on his work? Feel free to comment by following the link.

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Blogging is suffering as the intensity of the academic year reaches a peak, and most of my attention is focused on wrapping up projects. But I have also been re-reading a number of urban planning and design texts as part of a seminar class I am teaching, and I will share some noteworthy bits here. Planners are aware of the charge/risk that the plans that they work so hard to develop may end up sitting on the shelf. Lew Hopkins, Professor Emeritus of urban and regional planning and landscape architecture at the University of Illinois, wrote about the this dilemma in his 2001 book (Urban Development: The Logic of Making Plans). I was struck by the observation Hopkins makes in the first chapter.

When I am asked what I do and respond that I am a planner, people say, “Well, we can certainly use you around here. There is no planning here.” Or “Planning is not working here” (pg. 5).

Hopkins goes on to say that he has heard similar statements in locations around the world and in places that are known for planning. He then speculates about why the perception is that planning is either nonexistent or has failed in many communities, getting to the heart of what planning can and cannot accomplish. His observations are worth keeping in mind as many of us work to improve communities through planning, even in the face of its limitations.

Citizens have very high expectations of what plans can accomplish and very vague notions of what a plan is or how it actually works. If they can imagine a better living environment in their locality, there must not have been a plan. If they think that government or private developers ought to have behaved differently, there must not have been a plan. To infer that the lack of planning is the explanation of all problems of human settlements implies that plans could solve all problems of urban development. Plans, however, can only do certain things and they work imperfectly even in these situations.

Successful human settlements require much more than planning. Some of the outcomes that people often expect of plans are more likely to be achieved by democratic governance or regulation, each of which also can accomplish only certain things and works imperfectly. In simplest terms, plans provide information about interdependent decisions, governance makes collective choices, and regulations set rights. Understanding these distinctions will give people reasonable expectations with which to use all three to improve human settlements (pg. 5).

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Seems fitting for a Sunday afternoon post – a long quote from Leonie Sandercock. These are the opening paragraphs from her chapter in Story and Sustainability (Eckstein and Throgmorton, 2003).

I look into my crystal globe, and I dream of the carnival of the multicultural city. I don’t want a city where everything stays the same and everyone is afraid of change; I don’t want a city where young African Americans have to sell drugs to make a living, or Thai women are imprisoned in sweat shops in the garment district where they work 16 hours a day 6 days a week; where boys carry guns to make them feel like men, suspicion oozes from plaster walls, and white neighborhoods call the police if they see a black or a stranger on their street. I don’t want a city where the official in charge refuses to deal with the man standing at his desk because everything about him is different; where immigrants are called “blackheads” and forced to find shelter in the industrial zone; where whites pay more and more of their private incomes to protect themselves from “strangers” and vote for officials who will spend more of everyone’s tax dollars on more law and order rather than more schools and health clinics; where political candidates run on promises of cutting off services to “illegal immigrants”; where the media teaches us to fear and hate one another and to value violence in the name of “patriotism” and “community.” I don’t want a city where the advertising men are in charge and there are no circuses for those without bread. I don’t want a city where I am afraid to go out alone at night, or to visit certain neighborhoods even in broad daylight; where pedestrians are immediately suspect, and the homeless always harassed. I don’t want a city where the elderly are irrelevant and “youth” is a problem to be solved with more control. I don’t want a city where my profession – urban planning – contributes to all of the above, acting as spatial police, regulating bodies in space.

I dream of a city of bread and festivals, where those who don’t have the bread aren’t excluded from the carnival. I dream of a city in which action grows out of knowledge and understanding; where you haven’t got it made until you can help others to get where you are or beyond; where social justice is more prized than a balanced budget; where I have a right to my surroundings, and so do all my fellow citizens; where we don’t exist for the city but are wooed by it; where only after consultation with us could decisions be made about our neighborhoods; where scarcity does not build a barbed-wire fence around our carefully guarded inequalities; where no one flaunts their authority and no one is without authority; where I don’t have to translate my “expertise” into jargon to impress officials and confuse citizens.

I want a city where the community values and rewards those who are different; where a community becomes more developed as it becomes more diverse; where “community” is caring and sharing responsibility for the physical and spiritual condition of the living space. I want a city where people can cartwheel across pedestrian crossings without being arrested for playfulness; where everyone can paint the sidewalks, and address passers-by without fear of being shot; where there are places of stimulus and places of meditation; where there is music in public squares, buskers (street entertainers) don’t have to have a portfolio and a permit, and street vendors coexist with shopkeepers. I want a city where people take pleasure in shaping and caring for their environment and are encouraged to do so; where neighbors plant bok choy and taro and broad beans in the community gardens. I want a city where my profession contributes to all of the above, where city planning is a war of liberation fought against dumb, featureless public space; against STARchitecture, speculators, and bench markers; against the multiple sources of oppression, domination, and violence; where citizens wrest from space new possibilities and immerse themselves in their cultures while respecting those of their neighbors, collectively forging new hybrid cultures and spaces. I want a city that is run differently than an accounting firm; where planners “plan” by negotiating desires and fears, mediating memories and hopes, facilitating change and transformation.

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Image from Wikimedia Commons

Exactly what direct effects have flowed from Paolo Solari’s experiment in the Arizona desert I’ll leave to others. But my musings on the relationship between ecology, design, and, perhaps, greenwashing were prompted by an article on Arcosanti in this week’s New York Times. The article is titled An Early Eco-City Faces the Future. A few lines in particular caught my eye. The author, Michael Tortorello, describes how some recent trends, like “the national food-gardening craze,” have not caught on at Arcosanti, an intentional community of 56 people who would otherwise seem like exactly the type of people who would be excited about sustainable food production. Tortorello goes on to say:

Meanwhile, the project has only dabbled in popular technologies like solar panels, rain barrels and composting toilets, off-the-shelf gear that can be applied on a small scale.

“I should have them,” Mr. Soleri said during a recent visit to the project. Yet for most Americans, he maintained, chasing these technologies can become a game unto itself. “We are passionate collectors of gadgetries,” he said. “We can’t resist.”

This reminds me of a quote from the architect, Glenn Murcutt, that I often share with my students. I found this quote in a conference paper by Christopher Theis called Prospects for Ecological Design Education. Theis cites a Raul A. Barreneche (2002) article in Architecture magazine where Murcutt’s Pritzker Architecture Prize was announced.

If I were a young architect today looking at supposed eco-architecture, I wouldn’t want to do it; it’s a one-liner. When ecology becomes the major issue, you’re left with a scientific box that does nothing for the spirit. I cannot separate the idea of the poetic and the rational. If there’s not a junction, we’ve got merchandise, not architecture.

And this is from an architect renowned for what some would call eco-architecture. I think Murcutt speaks directly to this issue of “getting real,” of going beyond green gimmicks and gadgets, as Soleri suggests. So what is the role of the gadgetry? In this age of recession, one could argue that green building and green infrastructure, commonly reduced to checklists and engineering-based techniques, have been some of the few areas of growth. What are the implications of this?

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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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In Small Change, Nabeel Hamdi includes an excerpt from Italo Calvino’s Le Cita Invisibili (1972) that I find striking, especially as I consider the challenges of planning in the merging megacities of the world. It’s worth sharing, I think.

Zenobia, a city in Asia, has houses made of bamboo and zinc, with many platforms and balconies placed on stilts at various heights, crossing one another, linked by ladders and hanging belvederes, with barrels storing water, weather vanes, jutting pulleys, fish poles and cranes.

No-one remembers what need, command, or desire drove Zenobia’s founders to give their city this form, as the buildings are constructed on pilings that sit over dry terrain. But what is certain is that if a traveler asks an inhabitant of Zenobia to describe his vision of a happy life, it is always a city like Zenobia that he imagines, with its piling and suspended stairways, a Zenobia perhaps aflutter with banners and ribbons, quite different from the original but always derived by combining elements of that first model.

However, it is pointless to try to decide whether Zenobia is to be classified among happy cities or among the unhappy. It makes no sense to divide cities into these two species, but rather into a different two: those that through the years and the changes continue to give form to their desires and those in which desires either erase the city or are erased by it.

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Khayelitsha Township via The Guardian

How can designers improve the quality of life for residents of the poorest and most dangerous parts of cities? It is a daunting problem, and the temptation is either to say that the problem is too big or that a huge infusion of cash is needed to even get started. What if some of the problems of the poorest and dangerous places could be ameliorated, at least, by design that does not cost a fortune? The figure for total world population living in cities by 2050, cited in the Gary Hustwit film, Urbanized, is 75%! And 1/3 of those people will be living in slums. It’s time for creative thinking!

One of the many interviews with Gary Hustwit on Urbanized is found in Urban Omnibus. Hustwit describes a project in a township outside of Cape Town, South Africa that is striking in its success, both as participatory design and as a well-conceived, modestly priced solution to improving quality of life for area residents. In Hustwit’s words:

the idea of participatory design — of using the public as a design compass instead of just getting a reaction to projects that are already proposed — is not being employed as much as it might. It’s really inspiring when you see it happening and working, like the VPUU (which stands for Violence Prevention by Urban Upgrading) project in Khayelitsha in Cape Town.

And on the process:

They spent two years talking to residents before they even started thinking about their first plan. They trained volunteers to go out into the community and talk to people about the problems they face. The biggest priority turned out to be pedestrian walkways, which were where most crime was happening. Khayelitsha has a series of stormwater overflow channels that run through the settlement that were just undeveloped, garbage-strewn land. They weren’t lit, and harbored gang activity and all kinds of criminal activity. But those stormwater floodways were also the informal pedestrian route between the train station and the township. So what VPUU did was formalize the informal pedestrian paths, or desire lines, by paving and lighting the barren channels and turning them into these amazing walkways and public spaces. People are now turning their homes to face these routes because they’re so well designed, and that increases passive surveillance, puts more eyes on the spaces. The murder rate has dropped by 40%. It has become a great pilot program, which they’re now expanding into other townships and to other areas in South Africa. Also, they have trained the people who live in the area to maintain and program it. The project is still evolving. They didn’t just say, “here you go, we built a path, see you later” and step away from it.

 For more on Hustwit’s thoughts, check out Urban Omnibus – or see the film!

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