Sunday, February 20, 2011

Brief Thoughts on Binary Thinking

The on-going debate on LU/NU is interesting less for any content (of which there has been little beyond posturing and uninformed rhetoric), and more than its continuation of a history of binary discussions between oppositional actors that has occurred in many arenas, including a long history within urbanism and design.  Lest we think there is something special about this particular debate, it's important to remember some of those 'debates' (such as the visible rift between Mumford & Jacobs to name one of many - which is a fascinating dialogue worth some future exploration) have existed in the past.  These, instead of merely creating factions of us v. them, expand our understanding and discussions of larger, complex, urban issues.  A few thoughts on binary distinctions in general, therefore, is worthy of further exploration.

I always turn back to Elizabeth Meyer's essay in Ecological Design and Planning (Thompson & Steiner, 1997) where she elaborates on 'The Expanded Field of Landscape Architecture' and the tendency to provide 'binary sets' within discussions, such as architecture/landscape, culture/nature, and art/ecology.  The dualism in these positions are too distinct and limits potentials, positing that: “The scholar can develop theories for site description and interpretation that occupy the space between nature and culture, landscape and architecture, man-made and natural, and that are along the spatial continuum that unites, not the solid line that divides, concepts into binary opposites.” (p.74)  Instead, in the terms of landscape architecture, this requires "The rediscovery of the space between the boundaries – the space of hybrids, relationships, and tensions – allows us to see the received histories of the modern landscape as the ideologically motivated social constructs that they are… the gap between man and nature will be replaced with the continuum of human nature and nonhuman nature.” (p.51)

Having always been fascinated by the nature/culture debate, another resource worth mentioning is Placing Nature: Culture & Landscape Ecology (Nassauer, ed. 1997), which offers a range of essays in this realm, specifically focusing on blurring disciplinary and theoretical silos.  As Nassauer mentions in her concluding remarks: "Landscape ecology insistently confronts us with the complexities of connection. Rather than establishing boundaries to separate ecosystems or disciplines, it repeatedly points out their connectedness... [it] suggests that we should go beyond the boundaries precisely because sufficient answers are unlikely to lie solely within them. Respect for the complexity of the ecological relationships must balance out human propensity for know the world by simplifying it.” (p.165)

How we do that matters, but ecology offers some interesting parallels in thinking of urban systems, as both can no longer be perceived as closed, static, homogeneous collections, but rather are constantly evolving due to disequilibria, instability, disturbance, and flux based on a similar interactivity through reciprocal relationships between organisms and their environments.  This point is made thoroughly in Human Ecology (Steiner, 2002), who melds ecological thinking into our social construct at scales ranging from habitat to globe - describing an extension of the shift from deterministic ecological thinking towards a new ecology where humans are vital participants in the process.  In explaining this 'Subversive Subject', Steiner makes a case for ecological thinking as a new method for framing discussions, stating that "...human ecology emphasized complexity over reductionism, focuses on change over stable states, and expands ecological concepts beyond the study of plants and animals to include people.  This view differs from the environmental determinism of the early twentieth century."  (p.3)

I would make the case that this is the main thrust of landscape urbanist theory (i.e. it's not about landscape in a physical sense) in exploring a similar distaste with the concept of environmental determinism and looking to evolve this into more ecological thinking is mirrored in our changing from totalitarian urbanist schemes and deterministic urban strategies (closed systems) to methods that allow for temporality, market forces, chaos that fit within the complex mosaic that represent the modern metropolis.  These open systems, as mentioned by Steiner as possessing "...fluid, overlapping boundaries across several spatial scales from the local to the global," (p.4) and subsequently changes our approach to design and planning, where "...individual designed objects, be they buildings or gardens, are not viewed independently, but rather as parts of dynamic landscape systems." (p.10)  

This sort of thinking is missing from any single scheme of urbanism that claims to have 'the answer' to all of our problems.  Perhaps this is the inherent polarity in the distinction between NU (i.e. we have the answers) and LU (i.e. we have more questions) which leads to disagreement.  This is also represented in modern green building systems like LEED which are building-specific, because they can only exert influence over one distinct level of a complex, nested hierarchy of the entirety of  the urban realm.  A series of one-off, ultra-green buildings or dense, walkable communities are beneficial within a certain scale for sure.  The real question is to what extent to they solve larger problems of sustainability and issues of urbanism beyond their selected boundaries?  The either-or dialectic is not the issue but rather how we connect interventions within their larger (and smaller) contextual hierarchies, and how we general multiple solutions to deal with the complexities we face in addressing modern cities.  LU theory, for all its inability to articulate projects and its acknowledgment (not acceptance) of current urban issues (i.e. autos, suburbia) in my thinking isn't trying to occupy a binary opposite to NU (sorry Waldheim) but rather to offer a counterpoint to a larger urban methodology that is focused on product instead of process.

In this context, and shifting gears back to conflict for a second, I was struck by the parallels when delving into the great collection of essays 'Uncommon Ground' (1996), edited by one of my favorite writers, William Cronon, offers a wide discussion on the idea of nature in our modern thinking.  More exploration of that soon, but for now let's focus on the similarities inherent in debates on urbanism, in relation to binary thoughts related to 'environmentalism' and 'nature'  Cronon mentions, "...once we recognize that not all human groups and cultures view nature in the same way, it becomes at least more complicated to assert that one group's ideas of nature should take precedence over another's.  At a minimum, we need to enter into a dialogue with other people about why they think as they do... [and] we should be willing to question some of our own moral certainty in an effort to understand why we ourselves think of nature as we do, and why others do not always agree with us." (p.21)

By making a leap that substitution of the word 'urbanism' the same framework could inform our thinking in similar terms.  In conclusion, a wonderful quote can illuminate the recent LU/NU debate, particularly in relation to binary modes of thinking and the type of rhetoric that it has spawned due mostly to the previously mentioned, and much misguided feeling of moral certainty in one's particular viewpoint: 

"We live in a time when political discussion favors extreme positions and sound bites.  In the struggle to attract attention and support for one's own views, the temptation if very great to caricature those of one's adversaries.  The result it a rhetorical landscape of polarities, in which start oppositions arise and cartoons become our most common way of conducting what passes for reasoned debate.  In such a world, your either for the environment or against it, and any inquiry that points towards more challenging ways of framing the discussion can seem threatening.  The crucial task of self-criticism is all to easily avoided because it can seem to lend aid and comfort to the enemy." (p.22)


  1. "the distinction between NU (i.e. we have the answers) and LU (i.e. we have more questions)"

    Having been in university after exposure to New Urbanism, my take on why universities clashed with NU was a fundamental disconnect between academia and practice (another binary, oh well). In practice you have no choice but to "have the answers" as least insofar as you're going to build something (or worse yet, convince someone else to build it). Whereas in academia it's questions that keep everyone going. So I wonder if that distinction doesn't have more to do with context than ideology as (at least currently) landscape urbanism seems largely university-based. Also being 20 years junior to NU it makes sense that LU would be on that side of the curve.

  2. Absolutely - I think that's a great point... (and also shows it's hard to get away from the binary mode!) This shapes the type of language that is used (LU theory seems rife with academic language - because that is the audience that much of this is directed toward - NU language is more concise and directive due to its focus on applied methods). Both are appropriate. Chris Reed at Stoss had a great point that the language used is appropriate to whom you are talking to... and shifts accordingly if you are writing an academic paper, talking to a public forum, discussing with other designers.

    I think the big issue for me is the binary 'gulf' between academia and practice, which I think leads to that sort of duality... In academia, there is often a disconnect of the thinking from any real-world applications, which makes me dubious of it's relevance to anything that actually matters.

    In practice, the 'reality' that drives the race for the solution often overwhelms any sort of critical thinking or exploration beyond what is considered feasible (oh we just don't have time or budget for that!)

    I say this as both an academic and practitioner, so I understand the balance is difficult. But balance between the two camps - or better yet a conversation where research informs practice which in turn informs research seems to make the most sense. I think at this point, due to age, LU needs to evolve from academia to practice (or more likely continuing to inform a range of existing disciplines) whereas NU would benefit from re-engagement with academia to provide a critical lens to expand, evaluate and place their more applied, functional agenda.

    Academia and practice in general (hopefully in tandem) can also work to vet certain approaches, identify gaps, and propose additional urbanisms to meet wider needs of cities.

  3. I'm glad you're saying that Landscape Urbanism theory isn't trying to occupy a binary opposite to New Urbanism. While binary absolutism is great for attracting ephemeral media attention, a more integrative approach will be necessary if the various camps hope to learn from each other.

    Many new urbanists, especially academics, agree that NU would benefit from a greater engagement with academia. In the years that I've been involved with NU, I've seen quite a few academics from a broad variety of disciplines. As a generality, NU attracts more of the practice-oriented scholars and less of the theorists (pointing out that there are aspects of binary organization even within academia).

    At the upcoming CNU Congress in Madison in June 2011, both Charles Waldheim and William Cronon will be featured speakers at plenary sessions. See

  4. Thanks Laurence.
    I'm not sure what Waldheim's motivation for the position in opposition to NU was, but my guess is that his presence at the CNU Congress will improve attendance and be a hot ticket - just for that fact.

    I am in the midst of pretty comprehensive literature review of NU for a paper, and there is a fair amount of academic writing, both critical and laudatory. I think it's typically coming from a binary position as well - people isolate and focus research on what result they want to obtain - either a tacit support of NU principles or as a justification for criticism. What's really lacking is critical dialogue, particularly in the efficacy and in my thinking, the scope/limits of NU and it's ability to effect positive change in dynamic, contemporary, cities.

    This may be happening within the community itself, as you mention it is practice-oriented, but the entire NU project would benefit from more self-reflection, maybe as a means to generate validation for the work, but more positively to expand and continue to shape the process in new ways.

    Thus I think the unified, negative reaction to LU theory from the NU camp specifically is pretty mystifying, as it seems as if there is a lack of wanting to listen to any other viewpoint (binarily-opposed or note) as a way of expanding the overall success of the work. It seems more of a reaction to a threat than a rational assessment.

    Nonetheless, it may be too much to ask of any side to not take the temptations mentioned by Cronon, and use the binary mode for a proxy for real dialogue.


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