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Posts Tagged ‘urban planning’

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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Next City published an excerpt from a new book, The Metropolitan Revolution, by Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley, and it has stayed in my mind for the past few days. I’m sharing the first few paragraphs from the Next City article here. What Katz and Bradley lead with is the research of the economic sociologist Sean Safford on the role of networks in Youngstown and Allentown, Pennsylvania. Short version: networks matter to urban vitality, and “networks must cut across class, social and political boundaries to be effective.”

When economic sociologist Sean Safford first began comparing midcentury board lineups of local Boy Scout chapters and garden clubs in the cities of Youngstown and Allentown, the idea that such data could have any bearing on the future of a city seemed shaky at best. Safford’s research, about who knew who and from where, was coming at a time when communities had begun to take seriously the idea that civic participation, even participation in something as seemingly superfluous as a bowling league, mattered to the health of a community. Even so, his question — how the structure of civic relationships shapes economic trajectories — seemed rather far afield. Networks mattered. Did their composition matter to a region’s economy?

That was the early 2000s. A decade later, Safford’s argument that networks must cut across class, social and political boundaries to be effective — laid out in the book Why the Garden Club Couldn’t Save Youngstown — is particularly on point. Through his careful reading of archived society pages and board minutes dating from 1950 through 2000, Safford determined that Youngstown, Ohio, a fading steel industry hub, was actually stymied by its most powerful insiders. The network of elites that called the shots in the city were too tightly enmeshed, intertwined and isolated from other groups in the region to effectively guard against the steamroll of change that would gradually wipe out the local economy. In other words, there were too many strong ties and not enough weak ties.

These elites, marooned on their own small island, lost power as the domestic steel industry declined all around them, leaving behind a fragmented and uncoordinated region. Allentown, Pa., by contrast, had looser networks that provided alternative relationships that cut across social, class and political lines, encouraging new alliances and exchanges. All this meant that while these two areas of the Rust Belt had very similar demographics, economic structures and challenges, Allentown was better equipped to bounce back from the decline of the steel industry, specifically because it had individuals and organizations that could serve as bridges between the various groups that needed to be engaged in the region’s recovery. It turns out it did matter who was on the board of the Boy Scouts.

When telling stories of transformation and turnaround, it is tempting to shape them into personal stories about heroes. One charismatic visionary — a mayor, school superintendent, entrepreneur, outraged citizen — steps up and, with unrelenting vigor and inspirational leadership, starts an irreversible cascade of change. But there is a growing body of research suggesting that, as a system or problem becomes more complex, arriving at a solution requires multiple minds from multiple sectors or perspectives. As Safford found in Youngstown, this search for the lone superhero, or one lone team of superhero buddies, is misguided. Metropolitan areas are so big, complicated and diverse that they don’t need heroes. They need networks.

Check out the Next City article called The Post-Hero Economy and then the new book!

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Given that the United States once set global precedents for environmental protection and physical planning, it is hard to grasp just how far we have fallen. The U.S. Supreme Court, though, has now made the reversal clear. In a “A Legal Blow to Sustainable Development,” the New York Times details the impact of the latest blockbuster court decision on planning.

In simple terms, the Koontz vs St. Johns Water Management District case involved a development permit decision. The developer, Koontz, applied for a permit to build a small shopping center, and his plan included filling three acres of wetlands. In a common negotiation practice, the water management district suggested changes to Koontz’s plan that would make it more likely that his permit would be approved. Koontz could either reduce the size of his development, or he could pay a fee for wetland restoration elsewhere and proceed to fill the wetlands on his own property. Koontz refused to negotiate, and the water management district denied his permit. Koontz sued, and the case went all the way up to the Florida Supreme Court which sided with the water management district. Koontz has since died, but his case went on from Florida to the U.S. Supreme Court. Yesterday, the justices delivered a 5/4 decision to reverse the Florida Supreme Court’s decision. In this blockbuster decision, Koontz has achieved a measure of immortality.

From the Times:

Lost amid the Supreme Court’s high-profile decisions on affirmative action, voting rights and same-sex marriage was another ruling that may turn out to have a profound impact on American society. The court handed down a decision on Tuesday that, in the words of Justice Elena Kagan, will “work a revolution in land-use law.”

While that may sound obscure, the decision in Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District will result in long-lasting harm to America’s communities. That’s because the ruling creates a perverse incentive for municipal governments to reject applications from developers rather than attempt to negotiate project designs that might advance both public and private goals — and it makes it hard for communities to get property owners to pay to mitigate any environmental damage they may cause.

As for implications:

As Justice Kagan correctly explains in her dissent, the decision will very likely encourage local government officials to avoid any discussion with developers related to permit conditions that, in the end, might have let both sides find common ground on building projects that are good for the community and environmentally sound. Rather than risk a lawsuit through an attempt at compromise, many municipalities will simply reject development applications outright — or, worse, accept development plans they shouldn’t.

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Earlier this month, the Pritzker Prize jury declined to retroactively include architect Denise Scott Brown in the 1991 award given to her husband and design partner, Robert Venturi. The jury’s action came in response to a petition created by two Harvard design students. An award-winning planning blog in my hometown, Smart City Memphis, used the occasion to remind readers about the last downtown plan that Brown worked on – the plan Downtown Memphis from 1986-87. In a post titled, Cobwebs Greeted Prestigious Downtown Plan, Tom Jones of Smart City Memphis relates the discouraging side of long-range planning as revealed by Brown’s experience in Memphis:

Downtown Memphis became the canvas for her firm’s last plan of its kind, primarily because they were losing money on them.

If it was her swan song, it was a magnificent one.  The Center City Development Plan was released in 1987 and its erudition, insights and recommendations were captured in the most impressive report ever delivered to Memphis.  There were about 20 volumes [!! emphasis added] replete with drawings, thoughtful insights, and provocative and solid recommendations.  As an associate with Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, respected Memphis architect James Williamson – now an associate professor of architecture at University of Memphis – was a vital part of the team that developed the downtown plan and was instrumental in weighing options.

Unfortunately, the ambitious and impressive plan was largely ignored.  Instead of funding the summary volume that would lay out next steps and implementation, the Center City Commission took that money and paid for yet another redesign of Court Square Park.  It was also a time of leadership transition at Center City Commission and a time when government and developers were largely unreceptive to a scholarly approach to the future of downtown, instead of quick fixes like festival market places.  The failure of Memphis to embrace the plan was another factor in her firm’s decision to end planning of this kind.

Jones goes on to evaluate why the plan floundered.

It’s likely that her work was doomed from the beginning.  Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates selected by a one-vote margin.  Developer-friendly representatives on the selection committee supported a firm whose trademark was festival marketplaces.  The other half of the committee was people more interested in the urban fabric and the historic character of downtown.  At the end of the selection process, the votes were divided down the middle, and the deciding vote was cast by the chair of the selection committee.

In retrospect, while the plan was excellent, its impact and import were undermined by lack of support by some key downtown interests.  They criticized Ms. Scott Brown’s style, her approach to planning, the extensive public input process, and her openness in public discussions.

As one of these people said at the time, “we could have had a festival marketplace but instead we got a lot of preservationist talk.”  Over time, they would be proven wrong as festival marketplaces opened with banners and fanfare and closed some years later.  The public wanted authenticity and governments and downtown agencies were delivering up artificially contrived shopping arcades.

A video of Denise Scott Brown discussing the Memphis plan:

In Her Own Words

 

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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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Medellín, Columbia, a city once known for catastrophic levels of drug violence and now considered by many to be “reborn,” was the subject of an article in the New York Times yesterday. New public architecture, infrastructure, and public space are noticeable drivers of change in this city, and the author, Michael Kimmelman, describes the physical changes and illustrates them with a slideshow. Kimmelman also calls our attention to an essential fact of urban renaissance – there has to be a mechanism for financing it. Medellín has a vehicle for transformation that no U.S. Rust Belt city has.

Medellín, by contrast [with Bogotá, a city now struggling to maintain its achievements], still counts on an almost fierce parochial pride, a legacy of decent Modernist architecture dating back to the 1930s, a cadre of young architects being aggressively nurtured and promoted, and a commitment by local businesses to improve social welfare that begins with the city’s biggest business: its state-owned utilities company, E.P.M.

You can’t begin to grasp Medellín’s architectural renaissance without understanding the role of E.P.M., the Empresas Públicas de Medellín, which supplies water, gas, sanitation, telecommunications and electricity. It’s constitutionally mandated to provide clean water and electricity even to houses in the city’s illegal slums, so that unlike in Bogotá, where the worst barrios lack basic amenities, in Medellín there’s a safety net.

More than that, E.P.M.’s profits (some $450 million a year) go directly to building new schools, public plazas, the metro and parks. One of the most beautiful public squares in the middle of Medellín was donated by E.P.M. And atop the slums of the city’s Northeast district, E.P.M. paid for a park in the mountaintop jungle, linked to the district by its own cable car.

Federico Restrepo used to run E.P.M., before he became the city planner under Mr. Fajardo. “We took a view that everything is interconnected — education, culture, libraries, safety, public spaces,” he told me, pointing out that while fewer than 20 percent of public school students here used to test at the national average in 2002, by 2009 the number exceeded 80 percent.

“Obviously it’s not just that we built and renovated schools,” he said. “You have to work on the quality of teaching and nutrition in conjunction with architecture. But the larger point is that the goal of government should be providing rich and poor with the same quality education, transportation and public architecture. In that way you increase the sense of ownership.”

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