Friday, October 29, 2010

More on Ecological Urbanism

A recent post regarding Ellen Dunham-Jones talk in Vancouver highlighted the stance of new urbanism not just on landscape urbanism but on ecological urbanism.  Some notes via one of the attendees from - highlights a major disconnect between understanding and rhetoric - particularly that ecological urbanism is focused on some idea of 'city in nature' suburbia - or in others words, more 'sprawl in a pretty green dress'.  From the  Planning Picture blog, Tim Barton gives a synopsis of the talk:

"According to Dunham-Jones, while new urbanists like to plan through good design, ecological urbanists don’t. They prefer to set something in motion and see what happens. Kind of more ecology in the city, but it also seems to be more lower density suburbia where, although surrounded by hills and other natural landscapes, most people would still have to drive everywhere."
To which most would answer: Huh? and those under 35 would say: WTF?  How does one interpret ecological urbanism in this way, other than as a knee-jerk reaction that isn't addressing the actual theories of ecological urbanism, but equating it with a new methodology for ecologically-oriented sprawl?  I'll chalk it up to a lack of understanding of the nuances of EU, such as LU theories (much as those opponents of NU don't have a full understanding of the specifics in making arguments against).  I don't see, as other do, these as direct attacks on the concept of new urbanism, but as a reaction to neo-traditional urban form as an ends, not a means.  The sprawling suburbs is not the goal of any of these methodologies.  To say so is total bullshit.

:: image via Light Rail Now

Much as Michael Mehaffy previously discussed in relation to landscape urbanism, New Urbanist Dunham-Jones has a stake in the argument - mostly in holding on to the conceptual turf they have gained as a strong and organized collective movement.  I get what they are both saying... which holds true to the essence of NU ideology - plan every detail so nothing is left to chance, based on sound principles from good precedents.  Flux, therefore, is the enemyof deterministic design - but this same flux is the essence of the historical precedence that the new urbanists draw from in reinforcing their .  The principles didn't just happen and then go away, but accreted over time and experimentation, and reworking, and change of cities over millenia.  It's how this is heavy-handedly applied that seems the conceptual break.

:: Poundbury - image via Wikipedia

While laudable as a theoretical proposition - it's impossible to do this for anything of a significant scale, much something with the complexity of cities.  While planners set wide ranging, relativistic and somewhat spatial frameworks, designers (particularly architects and engineers, but the nature of their scope) are pre-disposed to want to control every aspect of every system, component, assembly, and material, along with the final end form.  Landscape architects perhaps fall in the middle, as we have the control-specific aspects of architects with the necessity for letting things evolve due to the nature of our primary materials, plants.

For someone with a goal of 'Retrofitting Suburbia' (a very important goal as well, but one with, at least in this context, a very New Urbanist aura to it) Dunham-Jones of all people, through the research on the book case studies, should be able to glean from ecological urbanism that it isn't at all about dispersed suburbia but is about a rejection of hyper-determinism, for lack of a better term.  Suburbia will not be retrofitted en masse, both due to economics and the slowness of change.  It will happen through strategic insertions and manipulations that will have ripple effects of new housing and commercial uses.  Thus it is a variation of the 'set it in motion' ideology, but in a much more strategic sense that looks at catalysts versus entire elements of reformulation (ala urban renewal).

The concept isn't just 'new' versus 'ecological' or 'landscape' in terms of urbanism.  It's putting down our egos and admitting that we don't have all the answers from day one (or two, or 100).  It is evolving from a deterministic stance to planning (a neo-utopian approach to designing every aspect of cities) to one that allows for a more process oriented approach (designing the frameworks for cities to evolve and adjusting them periodically).  It's not a question of density, as the same general approach using characteristics gleaned from LU/NU/EU can produce both neo-agrarian, elitist, rural sprawl or hyper-urban, vibrant, city densities in equal measure.  

An urban scale intervention of deterministic new urbanism is bound to fail, just due to the massive number of variables at play.  While these may be controlled in a development, there is a point where we reach the capacity of the designer to account for the complexity of a truly diverse city and any will quickly be overcome  with the task.  On the flip side, just setting things is motion and 'seeing what happens' is bound to fail as well if just left to it's own devices.  A good indication of this result is suburban sprawl (particularly in areas with softer planning regulations) or mishmash urban redevelopment.  Letting the market decide (with minimal direction or governmental intervention) what is best has led to vast dispersion of cities and significant environmental degredation.  It has also led to many great examples of density, safe and walkable communities, mixed use and income cities, and a range of inventive cases of urban ecological restoration.  But, in sum, the former is well out-pacing the much more desirable latter.

While removing this degree of hyper-determinism from the process takes some leap of faith, it isn't an all-or-nothing scenario (i.e. a leap off a cliff) but rather a less scary need for confidence in our ability to set positive frameworks, evaluate, and adjust accordingly in mid-flight (i.e. base jumping).  Cities aren't buildings, and thus shouldn't be approached with the same formula of absolute determinism.  While no architect in their right mind would leave basic foundational structures to chance, there has been more willingness to embrace change, evolution of materials, adaptability of floor plans, varied uses, which can react to changing economic and usage characteristics - saving a building from not just having to be torn down when times change.  This is also a necessity as the innate durability of buildings and infrastructure will extend long past the era where societal change makes them irrelevant - making adaptability even more important as we don't want to be left with useless dinosaurs from another age.

:: Fresh Kills - images via Metropolis

Ecological urbanism to me isn't prescriptive of any type of city, or a blank plea for more open space.  Rather, it addresses the city as an organism and collection of organisms and processes acting in concert, interrelated and interdependent.  Much as the ecologist looks at the structure of an ecosystem and determines approaches to adjusting and modifying systems, the urbanist can take the cues from the ecologist in holistic systems thinking towards cities.  For instance, and massively simplified, the field of community ecology, via Wikipedia, looks at "...distribution, abundance, demography, and interactions between coexisting populations."  Is that not a viable approach to a theory of urbanism?  Is it less valid that the Charter of the New Urbanism?  Can it provide necessary structure while allowing for fluidity and change?  Are there viable elements, such as ecotones, that provide a foundation for macro-scale interventions.

To sum up, the post did mention that Dunham-Jones "...did acknowledge that new urbanists can learn something from the less planned, more spontaneous places that seem to be so popular." which is echoed in Duany's recent call to learn from landscape urbanist theories and approaches.  Unfortuantely, the examples mentioned are boiled these down to fun, but small scale interventions like Parking DayBuilding a Better Block, determining temporary use for spaces like in Pop-Up cities, or through more socially oriented community activities like the very cool 'Pie Day'.  

:: image via Pop-Up City

These are, however, considered adjuncts to real city building, with a connotation that these are 'fun additions of spontaneity', but not valid overall approaches urbanism.  While it would be great to learn how to capture these, there are also rules to doing so, because cities must be 'planned through good design' and  that means leaving things to chance is not allowed..   Hyper-determinism is a thing of the past, and whatever the approach, there must be more flexibility in process and product when dealing with the complexity of cities.  I believe that everyone is looking for the same result - health people, healthy cities, healthy planet.  LU and EU, in overlapping and independent ways, are methods of investigating how we can utilize a different set of precedents and methods, and a radically different approach to the process - to get to what I believe is our shared goal.  


  1. Gee wiz, that's a nicely written and thought out post. I'm hesitant to make a comment because I don't wtf I'm saying regarding EU and LU.
    Given that NU is very much focused on design details, I don't understand why there's so much chatter from their side about LU and EU because what are the examples of EU and LU designs for residential, mixed-use or commercial developments that they don't like? It's all this intangible theory and principle stuff that are being tossed around (and I know are important), but what are the actual projects that are at issue? I've only seen or heard about cool parks that were designed by LUs -- but maybe that's where my ignorance comes in, which is always embarrassing.

  2. I think that's my biggest question as well - as I can't really think of many projects that would be representative of an EU or LU approach. Thus the criticism of these concepts are directed at theory, not actual application. Maybe Fresh Kills is the most poignant example, but that perhaps never will be able to be reviewed in terms of being an actual product - as it is a framework based on a long timeline and is not a 'design' in the traditional sense. We will need a whole new approach for criticism and review of these projects as they don't fit the mold of traditional analysis.

    Some mention the High Line (which I would say is just good landscape architecture with some strong LU elements). I recently heard this as a criticism of LU, that it only works with spaces that are expensive to build and maintain. Even if you take this as a valid LU product - the expensive critique is like saying that Seaside is the prototypical NU product - and that it is elitist suburbia for rich people. Same oversimplification.

    New Urbanism has a much longer history and an actual portfolio of projects - which i think gives them a great body of work in which to evaluate and determine what works and doesn't work. The goal of design products built on a system makes analysis really pretty easy. The goals are transparent and the outcomes are easy to see. This ability to get things built opens them up to easy criticism, but also gives great ammunition for validation of the approach. And for a particular type and scale of project, for a specific client, it works well. My argument is that is not a big enough market to warrant the claims that NU will save us all. It just doesn't play for cities.

  3. The same can't be said for LU or EU - not that there aren't projects that can be lumped into these groups (and is being done so, retroactively, even going back to early work of Olmsted). There is very little project work taken on specifically using these criteria. Part of it is that there isn't really a set criteria, or a 'charter' of something formalized to guide planning and design. No one has made an attempt to codify these strategies into a system - which is kind of the root of the approaches - a lack of formalized determinism. It gives them the flexibility, which be good (to provide adaptation and flexibility). The flip side of this is it can give people the opportunity to spew all sorts of hyper-academic bullshit that doesn't really make any contribution but sounds important (to provide obfuscation or at least muddy the waters and make someone seem like they know what they are talking about).

    Some will argue that lack of specificity makes it easy to dismiss EU and LU as strategies. That's ok, because they aren't provided as systems. These are not approached in terms of creating 'criteria' and a Charter of the Landscape Urbanism is not forthcoming. Rather it is more likely to provide shifts to the practices of landscape architecture, planning, urban design and architecture - making physical products better. That's what theory is supposed to do, right?

    There's plenty of territory for all approaches. A neo-traditional community designed in the spirit of LU would be kind of scary, but also interesting and not out of th realm of possibility. Conversely, cities that take on the deterministic fervor of NU with form-making would be equally dicey. Maybe even more scary because it would not be isolated to a one-off project scale enclave but affect everyone in an entire area. We probably don't have to worry about either of these scenarios.

    EU has a potential to make both of these better - providing an actual physical environment (the operational field) for interventions and processes for LU - rather than just paper. It can also give NU some much needed environmental rigor, and, by nature of the need for fluidity to accomodate changing ecological conditions, a bit less deterministic.

    Sorry for the book in response, it's just some great fodder for thought...!


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