Monday, August 10, 2009

Urbanism for Expanding Cities

My friend and colleague Brett Milligan and I were fortunate enough to have an article published in 'Landscape Architecture China' a new journal that recently published its second issue covering Landscape Urbanism. Our article titled 'Urbanism for Expanding Cities: Designing the conjugal interface of contrasting systems' outlined the urban frameworks that were key to our work on the Integrating Habitats winning submittal 'Urban Ecotones'.

And let me tell you, it's pretty cool to see your words translated into Chinese.
(all images via Landscape Architecture China)

The full text:

'Urbanism for Expanding Cities: Designing the conjugal interface of contrasting systems' by Brett Milligan and Jason King (US)

Throughout the industrial era, natural systems and the materials they provided to cities were largely taken for granted. This relationship to the natural environment was due to many cultural factors, including the seemingly inexhaustible resources, humanity’s newly-discovered and unprecedented ability to harness energy and transform these materials, and a limited understanding of the fragility of our ecosystems.

Today we are fully aware of the impact many of our expanding cities are having on the natural systems they depend upon. As cities grow, they degrade or destroy self-sustaining ecosystems, such as forests, streams and rivers. At the same time, urbanization places continually heavier demands on these systems to maintain modern lifestyles for larger numbers of people worldwide. Many functions of urban environments are being steadily undermined due to the failing of the surrounding and global ecosystems they rely on. The United Nations International Millennial Ecosystem Report (2005) has scientifically documented worldwide ecosystem decline, and has popularized the idea of “ecosystem services”, which are defined as “the benefits people obtain from ecosystems.” The report states that “…the human species, while buffered against environmental changes by culture and technology, is fundamentally dependent on the flow of ecosystem services”. The concept of ecosystem services fundamentally alters our industrial-era relationship to the environment, and questions the very ideas of materiality and urban processes.

In order to investigate the contemporary challenges presented by a globally expanding urbanism, it is essential to re-conceptualize the relationship between “natural” systems and systems that are considered “cultural” or “urban”. Rather than dividing, or opposing these systems, urban design should seek to explore how all of these complex systems operate and interact in order to identify opportunities for design interventions. An emphasis on systems and processes is also a central tenant of landscape urbanist thought and practice. Landscape urbanism interventions seek to find ways of creating connective synergies among cultural and natural systems. This design emphasis fosters a more inclusive notion of ecology that attempts to integrate all systems operating within the urban realm.

Urban Ecotones: Transitional Spaces for Commerce and Culture is the title of the winning entry for the Metro Integrating Habitats international design competition held in 2008. Urban Ecotones provides a comprehensive vision for how innovative processes of commercial development can regenerate, rather than destroy natural systems within the rapidly urbanizing city of Portland, Oregon. Specifically, Urban Ecotones provides an adaptive model for how an innovative building center can thrive economically, while simultaneously regenerating critical habitat corridors and other ecosystem services at both a site specific and regional scale. This regenerative capacity is achieved by transforming how material is circulated and processed within urban systems.

This design strategy restructures economic and ecological systems to provide a development model that supports movement away from fossil fuel dependency towards more localized, regenerative processes. Retail development serves as a metabolic machine for the transformation and redeployment of cultural and natural material flows that continuously circulate through the city. Discarded urban items such as unwanted yard debris and food wastes are brought on site and transformed into compost to assist with the regeneration of habitat areas and to create economic capital. Demolition and construction waste is sorted and re-circulated as new building material. Stormwater strategies utilize existing site topography and hydrology to collect and cleanse water with technologies that replicate wetland processes and habitats.

Similar to contemporary landscape urbanist strategies, Urban Ecotones attempts to bridge the gap between urban planning and site specific, spatial design by performing at a range of scales. Two regional concepts informed the final design solution. First, the regional planning agency efforts provided an established framework for sustainable growth and the generation of future scenarios, emphasizing trends of infill and transit-oriented development. Second, the local planning process for responding to peak oil, offered insight and opportunities into the dramatic change that will occur with transportation, commerce, and urban lifestyles due to widespread fossil fuel shortages that will likely occur within the next 30 years. The development model taps into Portland’s market for sustainable building practices and lifestyles, and fosters community by creating service-oriented building centers near regional and town centers to meet the urban challenges of alternative energy sourcing and regenerating natural systems.

The title Urban Ecotones references the attention placed on the thresholds at which commercial development meets natural systems. Rather than seeing these interactions as points of confrontation, they are reframed as environments of conjugation – a marrying of contrasting systems. The combination creates a synergy of both environments (cultural and natural) akin to an ecotone: the transitional area between two ecosystems containing more diversity and biotic activity than singular habitats. Rather than impinging upon natural systems on site for development, increased habitat buffers provide a shared zone of mutually-beneficial interaction to regenerate the expanding city.

More Information:

UN Millennium Assessment Report (2005)

Urban Ecotones – Integrating Habitats

Metro’s 2040 Growth Concept

Descending the Oil Peak: Navigating the Transition from Oil and Natural Gas

1 comment:

  1. Congratulations on your winning entry in the shopping center retrofit category, Jason! I was originally thrilled with the Integrating Habitats competition and had planned to do a magazine story and otherwise get word out.

    But I was so disappointed that all of the entries in the "mixed use" category were so suburban in nature—no street connectivity, no strong emphasis towards the existing neighborhood street leading to the light rail transit stop, etc.—that I dropped my plans. This was partly because the competition regs, while emphasizing integrating wildlife habitat failed to emphasize good human habitat through good urban design.

    Entrants put in lots of “green” features, but not a single one had good urban design. Instead, they were set back like suburban enclaves with no street connecting to the industrial area on its west side and no street grid within the 6.7 acres. None took advantage of the fact that the site sloped towards the neighborhood street on the east to do a bioswale-sidewalk cafe with interpretive signage that could have captured the imagination of the whole neighborhood.

    My point is that even in a place like Metro that is known for a planning model that stresses urbanism and TOD, unless you put some emphasis into the regs, you may see some regression.

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