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Posts Tagged ‘praxis’

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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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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Zombies? Well, you’ll have to read past the break for those! Until then, some rather dry … that is, critically important … discussion of research in landscape architecture.  : )

Practitioners in the academy are often an awkward fit. Professional education (e.g., landscape architecture) sits alongside natural science, social science, and humanities disciplines in university settings, and yet the culture of academic programs in the professions can differ sharply from the rest of the campus. Longer hours spent in studio classes, more time spent on outreach/service to communities, and research focused on applied problems are typical differences for faculty in professional design programs. Research productivity differences between practice-oriented faculty and faculty in other academic disciplines can be significant. On university campuses across the U.S., there is increasing demand by administrators for greater research output by all academic units, and these demands have created consternation in some landscape architecture circles. How do we maintain the traditional culture of professional education in landscape architecture and also begin to resemble more our research colleagues in natural science, social science, or the humanities?

The answer for some landscape architecture academics has been to adopt the research strategies of either natural science, social science, or the humanities, in some cases aided by Ph.D.s in a traditional research discipline. Urban and regional planning programs are largely populated with Ph.D.s in political science, economics, and other social sciences (usually with a lawyer thrown in for good measure), but with few faculty who have ever practiced planning. Could that be the future of landscape architecture education too?  Some clues to another possible future after the break. (more…)

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On Thursday, around the time I was showing the Waldheim video (mentioned here) to my class, the video that includes the West 8 Dutch “Shell Project” as an example of landscape urbanism, an interesting post was going up on the new Landscape Urbanism website. The author, Laura Tepper, discusses the ephemeral nature of the project, a fact that she says is not mentioned when this project is used as an example today (true of the Waldheim video also). The key graph is this one, in my opinion, but the entire article is definitely worth reading.

The contrast between the barrier’s austere utility and West 8’s erstwhile shell installation force us to confront challenges beyond the project’s early acclaims. The storm surge barrier—with its complex programmatic functions, sophisticated engineering, and costs—illustrates what landscape architects and urbanists face with ambitious infrastructural projects. Generally speaking, when infrastructure washes away unintentionally, it is considered a failure. The integration of infrastructural and public programming can impel social, ecological, and practical transformations. However, we must take on the seemingly contradictory synthesis of permanent armatures and dynamic cycles. We must modify our objectives against empirical evidence and clarify our intentions, lest the works of the landscape urbanist discussion become decorative and slip away unnoticed.

As it turns out, stripes of white and black shells on a surge barrier are not sustainable. Perhaps they washed away; it is unclear what happened to them. Of course, there are ways to explain this as being the original intent of the project, but that fact is omitted when this project is referenced. This is where theory and concept meet praxis. Can the ambitious ideas of landscape urbanism, especially those that suggest that ecological systems can be effectively harnessed to meet design goals, become realities in the sense that we usually ascribe to landscape architecture, or is the emphasis on temporality and long-term dynamics a mask for pure speculation?

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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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Where is this blog headed? Continue reading to find out. (more…)

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