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Posts Tagged ‘reflective practice’

Each year, I begin my course on Ecology and Design with quotes from astronauts who have seen Earth from space, and I remind my students of the first time humans were able to get this awe-inspiring view of Earth. After 40 years of Earth imagery, we take this perspective for granted, I’m afraid. The 40th anniversary of the Blue Marble image, shot by the crew of Apollo 17 in 1972, is celebrated in a short film by Planetary Collective.

The quotes that I use in my class are the following:

Suddenly, from behind the rim of the moon, in long, slow-motion moments of immense majesty, there emerges a sparkling blue and white jewel, a light, delicate sky-blue sphere laced with slowly swirling veils of white, rising gradually like a small pearl in a thick sea of black mystery. It takes more than a moment to fully realize this is Earth . . . home.
- Edgar Mitchell, USA

For the first time in my life I saw the horizon as a curved line. It was accentuated by a thin seam of dark blue light – our atmosphere. Obviously this was not the ocean of air I had been told it was so many times in my life. I was terrified by its fragile appearance.
- Ulf Merbold, Federal Republic of Germany

The Earth was small, light blue, and so touchingly alone, our home that must be defended like a holy relic. The Earth was absolutely round. I believe I never knew what the word round meant until I saw Earth from space.
- Aleksei Leonov, USSR

Before I flew I was already aware of how small and vulnerable our planet is; but only when I saw it from space, in all its ineffable beauty and fragility, did I realize that human kind’s most urgent task is to cherish and preserve it for future generations.
- Sigmund Jähn, German Democratic Republic

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My research on the potential for design to positively affect low income communities led me to an editorial in the New York Times from May of last year. The article’s title is Hands Off Our Houses, and it was a response to a competition to design a $300 house for the world’s poor. The authors, Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava, work in Dharavi, a neighborhood in Mumbia “that has become a one-stop shop for anyone interested in ‘slums’.” They give us a glimpse into a world that outsiders, especially Westerners, do not understand. Without an understanding rooted in the uniqueness of place, and of the lives of people living in that place, designers cannot offer solutions. The $300 house, an idea with good intent, will not help the poor of Dharavi for these reasons:

To start with, space is scarce. There is almost no room for new construction or ready-made houses. Most residents are renters, paying $20 to $100 a month for small apartments.

Those who own houses have far more equity in them than $300 — a typical home is worth at least $3,000. Many families have owned their houses for two or three generations, upgrading them as their incomes increase. With additions, these homes become what we call “tool houses,” acting as workshops, manufacturing units, warehouses and shops. They facilitate trade and production, and allow homeowners to improve their living standards over time.

None of this would be possible with a $300 house, which would have to be as standardized as possible to keep costs low. No number of add-ons would be able to match the flexibility of need-based construction.

In addition, construction is an important industry in neighborhoods like Dharavi. Much of the economy consists of hardware shops, carpenters, plumbers, concrete makers, masons, even real-estate agents. Importing pre-fabricated homes would put many people out of business, undercutting the very population the $300 house is intended to help.

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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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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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For academics anyway. After nearly 3 months of this blog “experiment,” I find the reaction to it among academics to be curiosity and skepticism. The academic world is very conservative and has long shunned “opinion.” So blogging and social networking stretch the imagination in ways that academics find uncomfortable. I am personally excited by the possibilities, especially for landscape architecture – and for landscape architecture in the university setting. I think this media offers some interesting possibilities for linking multiple worlds – professional practice, academia, those in developing and in developed countries, etc. Outside of the university, these possibilities are well-known. I take comfort in the fact that at least one well-known Nobel Prize winner spends a little time each day blogging. Good company!

With relatively little advertising (mostly emails to people I know), this blog has received several thousand page views since it went online. That is encouraging, and I hope to keep the content frequently updated even as the hectic semester gets underway. What is less exciting is that I am finding the blog format to NOT be particularly interactive (through reader comments). It would be great if the number of comments increases over time! Otherwise, the potential of this media would seem to be more limited than it could be. I hope that readers are finding interesting and useful information here! Thank you for stopping by.

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Or do we? We are inclined to think that “our time” is the most extraordinary ever. But then we stumble upon something from the past – people’s previous preoccupations, thoughts, ideas – and realize that we are not the first ones to be thinking these thoughts. That’s my feeling when I find references to the problem of traffic jams and urban congestion … in the 1920s. Or when I read about the how overwhelming the world has become as a result of technology and available information … in the 1960s.

In The Reflective Practitioner (1983), which I am re-reading, Donald Schön discussed the crisis in public faith in professional knowledge stemming from that turbulent period, the late 1960s. Schön noted an unprecedented need for adaptability, and that professionals faced the dilemma that they were being asked to “perform tasks for which they had not been educated” (p. 14). Catching up with new demands on professional practice would be transitory, at best, because of the rapid pace of change. “The patterns of task and knowledge are inherently unstable” (p.15) – doesn’t that sound familiar? Everything seems inherently unstable today … too. And about those wicked problems:

The situations of practice are not problems to be solved but problematic situations characterized by uncertainty, disorder, and indeterminacy.

Here Schön is following the ideas of John Dewey. And he goes on to quote Russell Ackoff, a founder of the field of operations research (the ultimate in positivism and rational problem solving), who had his own terminology for wicked problems.

managers are not confronted with problems that are independent of each other, but with dynamic situations that consist of complex systems of changing problems that interact with each other. I call such situations messes. [Emphasis added] Problems are abstractions extracted from messes by analysis; they are to messes as atoms are to tables and charts … Managers do not solve problems: they manage messes.

Citation: (1979) Journal of Operational Research Society 30 (2): 93-104.

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