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Archive for the ‘Reflective Practice’ Category

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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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Second Phase of The High Line

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: (more…)

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Nothing like a little break and a (fairly) relaxing holiday to clear one’s head. The holiday week began, though, with more news of recent graduates struggling in the weak economy. No advice from the comfortably employed seems sufficient, but I did run across these words from Forrest Church (2009) this weekend which I pass along:

I have a mantra that I’ve come to live by over the past few years, and it’s served me very well. It is “Want what you have, do what you can, be who you are.”

He explains all three parts of the mantra, but I will just relate the middle, as the other two seem self-explanatory.

Doing what you can means doing all you can, no more and no less. It’s not just mucking by, but it’s not trying to do more than you can either, not stretching yourself out so far that you can’t help but force a failure.

I’m going to focus on the part about not stretching so far as to force a failure… And while I’m on the subject of motivation, I will add the motto of my former workplace, Virginia Tech. It is ut prosim, that I may serve.

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Just as the notices reminding me of my expiring subscription to The Chronicle of Higher Education arrive in the mail, the top story in the local newspaper concerns a stinging article in the Chronicle from earlier this month. Robin Wilson’s article, titled “Syracuse’s Slide: As Chancellor Focuses on the ‘Public Good,’ Syracuse’s Reputation Slides,” is mostly hidden behind the subscription wall – unfortunate, especially, for readers of Syracuse Post Standard who attempt to follow the link to the article. The public does have access to the 43 letters to the editor written in response to Wilson’s article.

At issue are high profile initiatives by the university’s chancellor, Nancy Cantor, to actively link the university to the city surrounding it and to diversify the student population. Ms. Wilson’s article quotes several faculty members who voice concern that the university cannot afford these endeavors, that they divert the scholarly mission, that the quality of the students admitted is being compromised, and that a drop in rankings by U.S. News and World Report, from 40 to 62, is a sign that the ship is sinking. The comments section contains several rebuttals from faculty who say that they were interviewed by Ms. Wilson, but had their favorable comments excluded from the resulting article.

The issues raised regarding the role of public engagement in academia have application to praxis in landscape architecture and for landscape architecture academics whose scholarly focus is engagement. Therefore, I will focus on the public engagement side of the controversy and leave the rest of the debate to others (like this article on changing conceptions of university prestige). Here is how Chancellor Cantor’s initiative, Scholarship in Action, is described in the Wilson article.

Syracuse University, she says, “should have an impact on our democracy and do work that addresses pressing issues in the world.” She adds: “It’s not that you stop caring about the fundamentals or quality, you redefine what constitutes quality and exciting scholarly work.”

That’s exactly what Ms. Cantor has done through a campaign she calls Scholarship in Action. It involves moving students, professors, and research off the campus and into the community to work with local officials, nonprofit organizations, and businesses on projects designed to give students hands-on experience and help solve the problems of the city and its people.

How is this controversial? More after the break. (more…)

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Placemaking and community building in our neighborhoods is one of the answers to the big problems confronting us, in my opinion. And positive, creative acts feed our souls, right? Below is a video depicting an innovative approach to neighborhood community building and communal gathering space creation. It hails from Portland, but is imminently transferable (unlike some other Portland innovations). The organization featured is called City Repair.

The video includes a controversial critique of the grid, but the real actions undertaken in the neighborhoods is the key message, I think. This is praxis.

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