Sunday, January 25, 2009

Questioning EcoMetropolitanism

Perhaps I missed the memo regarding a new found integration of 'wildness' into our cities as the 2009 topic to watch. Maybe it started with Fritz Haeg's Animal Estates - jumping to Tomorrow's Thoughts Today and the idea of City Zoo, shifting to the more expansive concept from _urb about Post Humanist Rewilded Eco Ethical Urbanism (PHREE) - and now sitting firmly in the realm of EcoMetropolitanism (or EcoMet) - from UBC Architecture profs Mari Fujita and Matthew Soules.

I got a heads up to EcoMet via the newly retooled and great-looking site - which often aggregates a number of interesting posts - but now does it in a way that is pleasurable to view. The site links to an article in The Tyee (from BC) 'Is Your City Boring? Make It Wild' - which outlines the concept in some detail along with commentary from Soules. Alas, I question whether it is something really groundbreaking, or another of those not new ideas that is getting the innovation treatment (or maybe both).

The idea of EcoMet involves seven key points outlined in the article. So some context (all images from The Tyee, and I've included their captions for clarity).

1. "Make EcoMAX: Measure not just simple human density but also plant and animal life and diversity."

2. "Invert the View Cone: EcoMet proposes Urban Habitat Cones, Urban Agriculture Cones, Density Release Cones, and Mixer Cones to view our newly exciting city."

3. "Intensity Use: Fujita and Soules re-imagine Vancouver's downtown tower-on-podium template to serve much richer and more varied purposes: wildlife corridors slice through the commercial space at ground level; bridges and platforms host bird habitats and micro-agriculture."

4. "Exploit Co-Existence: Don't just make a "green roof" that no one can see or feed from; design it as a source of animal food and human entertainment."

5. "Broaden Structure: EcoMet augments structure and infrastructure's extant function of supporting humans by capitalizing on their potential to service the city's expanded population."

6. "Maximize Envelope: Take the dull, predictable condo tower envelope and fold it, warp it, substract and protrude until you come up with a visually exciting and highly interactive architecture: all those new ledges and crevicess will allow plant and animal integration."

7. "Ecologize the Interior: Soules and Fujita suggest mainstreaming Vancouver's time-tested "interior agriculture" (a.k.a. grow-ops) into new crops--say, hydroponically-grown tomatoes-- that not only provide a source of fresh local food but could also generate a colourful "living wallaper" and other aesthetic qualities for the inhabitants."

All of these things sound great... and I'm 100% on board. I'm just asking the question: Is something amazingly inventive, or just a new name for many of the same things that designers, planners, and the like have been working with and integrating over many years, neatly packaged in (a weak, perhaps due to the eco-) new name, to provide a competing viewpoint to Vancouver's existing dialogue on EcoDensity - which has been devoid of many of these tenets? If so, that's great, and necessary. But there's little reference to some of the precendents that are drawn on HEAVILY in constructing this manifesto - and there's nary a word about some of the origins - many of which have been around for a while, and also similarly genericizes the concepts in manifesto form.

Some more info from the article: "EcoMet espouses a more interconnected, animated, multi-use and motley-crittered urban landscape. Specifically, it proposes a re-think of the modern city as a true ecological system, its human inhabitants balanced with plant and animal populations in a kind of sustainable symbiosis."

So the ideas of urban habitat, redefinition of public/private space delineation, proximity to urban nature, urban agriculture in public spaces and indoors for subsistence - and many other tenets they discuss are . Is the success in the integration and packaging? More from the article: "But what the Soules/Fujita team has done is conflate all these discrete sectors -- urban agriculture, animal habitat, vibrant entertainment -- into one unified field theory, literally shaped and effected by this broad new architectural paradigm. Architecture -- often the window-dressing final step in so many urban schemes -- is in this case the first step, what makes everything else possible."

There are also some major issues to address (which are brought up in the article) - the first being integration of urban habitat - particularly what is the line we as society will draw in cohabitation with urban wildlife - specifically in human/animal conflicts that have increased exponentially as we've destroyed habitat through sprawl and displacement of existing habitat. While nature in the city is laudable, we're not talking about significant habitat areas for large mammal species - and many potential issues with pest species. This is just one of the myriad challenges that would need to be addressed in the future phases. Again, a snippet from the article: "A fantastical scheme like EcoMetropolis will require not only an ace team of architects and planners, but also the experts in botany, wildlife, economics and pretty much every other professional domain you can think of."

So there's some very good ideas combined into a manifesto and visuals - that indeed need a lot of fleshing out and expertise to realize. Sounds like a litany of many other utopias or visionary proposals - many of which sputter, but all of which enlight our imagination and give us a glimpse of a better future. Again, it's our fascination with the next new things that keeps us interested - even if it's sprucing up the old and giving it a shiny new name. Not that it's a bad thing... and the repeated reinforcement of the vision is the point. "For now, such churlish reality-checks aren't the point. The issue is to paradigm-shift our collective attitudes away from the glass-tower-on-plinth-surrounded-by-green formula. ... "There's a very limited imagination of what architecture can be in the city," says Fujita. "But we live on the west coast, man! Nature is urban. Nature is eco-metropolitan. And it's our job to cultivate vibrant communities."


  1. Hello.
    The question raised has much to do with the post "got manteinance" and the separation you made between VIA and VIVA. Anyone (urbanarbolismo too) can make manifiestos and green renders, but there is an abism between making and rendering. I think that very few people would cultivate their own food in their house although they had the means.
    Is too dificult to create an ecosytem, but perharps is the only way we have to conserve nature. An ecosystem made of greenwalls and greenroofs only is very likely to fail.

  2. Utopian manifestos are nothing more than utopian manifestos. Most of this sounds like they are just putting different terminology on old ideas like you mentioned. "Wildlife corridors at ground level", sounds an awful lot like a park to me. Wild life doesn't thrive in cities for a reason, it doesn't work well. In fact, we spend plenty of time dealing with the wild life that does thrive in cities,(pigeons, rats, cockroaches etc) need we create more potential problems by introducing new species into a foreign environment? I agree with Jordi's comments, and I've said it before, that people don't have time and know-how to cultivate their own food. Simple greenhouse/roof structures can be built on any flat roof and maintained by professionals locally. This whole plan sounds like it was derived using the L_U Bullshit Generator...

  3. The proposal did ring of utopia for me as well - and the translation of vision to action is often the weak link in the chain. I think much like our visions of photoshopped eye candy (as Jordi mentions) - these ideas gestate and infuse our work in wonderful ways - it's just many of the utopias seem to get all the press.

    I agree with the sentiment of our loss of agricultural prowess, but think there is a paradigm shift in consciousness and expertise is allowing more knowledge and viable urban agriculture opportunities to emerge and be adopted more widely. That said, I agree that most people will feed themselves from food grown by others - but maybe these farms will be within cities and buildings and on rooftops - be a part of the place we inhabit.


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