Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Environmental Urbanism Panel Discussion

As an addenda to the previous post, on Chris Reed's lecture, a round-about summary of the panel discussion that followed.

Panel Discussion - Environmental Urbanism: 
Ecological Design for Healthy Cities

The panel was moderated by Peter Steinbrueck, with Reed joined by additional panelists including Randy Hester (who lectured the previous evening on Design for Ecological Democracy) and Frumkin (newly installed as Dean of the UW School of Public Health).  Definitely a diverse group which ranged into ecological democracy and public health, paired with Reed's landscape urbanist approach - which offered a potentially interesting exchange of ideas, the result was less than satisfying.  A summary of some of the highlights.

The Potential for Public Health (HF)

Dr. Frumkin has written quite a bit recently about Biophilia and it's usage in a wider arena of public health, and started the discussion with a summary.  The evolutions from Environmental health (dealing with Toxicity), Urban health (focused on the urban poor), and Health Promotion (typically behavioral changes) could be married to create a new approach to urban environmental health.

The key concepts necessary for this were response to equity, considering differing health disparities, and the development of a viable body of evidence-based design strategies (proven through scientific methods) that achieved the dual public health goals of efficacy and safety.  He mentioned that design, although backed with some new environmental science, is not evidence-based, and this would make it difficult to convince public health officials of its worth, due to lack of scientific data.  While Frumkin's ideas of expanding the realm of biophilic design and evidence-based concepts to cities was interesting, a quick reading of some of his reading work shows that a mere translation of site-scale biophilic concepts to public scale is difficult.  The other issue is that there is a definite problem with balancing the cultural aspects of design with the scientific models - to avoid a overtly deterministic reading and application of ideas.

Design for Ecological Democracy (RH)

Not having a chance to hear Hester's talk from the previous evening (and only having skimmed his new book) it's difficult to capture the essence of his idea, but as he mentioned - it involves design that supports values, specifically democracy, equity, access to nature.  As he mentioned, in this context, place matters, and he outlined 3 approaches:

1. The Uniqueness of Place matters to our health (there are different flavors of democracy, much like there are different systems of ecology.
2. Awareness of Personal Ecology: Design and form matters
3. Applying Democracy and Ecology - both can be informed by key principles but are influenced by external forces (for instance free-markets) which augment their level of success.

Our typical mode of operation currently, in an age of consumerism, is that we get democracy, but rarely give back to it - and similar factors are at work in our relationship with ecology.  Take but no give.

Natural Processes & Community (RH)

Requires understanding through experience, ecology of knowledge which leads to stewardship. access to wild nature, but innately this has little evidence (other than anecdotal study - nature=good).  Connecting this back to design, Hester mentions that access to constructed nature, we want to experience nature, but also appreciate the mentorship of the designers intervention - teaching through design.  In this way, we can connect something simple, like a species of bird, to a much larger process of ecological function.

Interaction with Ecology (CR)

Reed mentions that one aspect is that it isn't a duality of nature/city that we need to provide access to, but to provide the same range of interactions to those inside the City... He defines three concepts 1) Wilderness preserve - outside; 2) Central Park - cloistered; 3) interactive ecology - inside and incorporated into the fabric of the urban area.

Landscape Urbanism Theories (CR)

The question posed was how did these connect to public health, but Reed strongly cautioned against a focus on evidence - arguing for the cultural aspects of design that can't be quantified.  In his terms, the concept of health is closely tied to ecological principles of the work - such as survivability and resilience - things found in healthy ecosystem.  Most interactions with nature are anecdotal, and the research should fit within design strategies of diversity and choice for users.
The project work, particularly small scale solutions, involve the testing of theories in metropolitan environments, trying out ideas, innovations, materials, and venues - and experimenting with small-scale ecologies.
The project work, particularly small scale solutions, involve the testing of theories in metropolitan environments, trying out ideas, innovations, materials, and venues - and experimenting with small-scale ecologies.  He mentions the role of the designer changing to accomodate monitoring over time, with landscape architects taking over more roles and responsibilities.

He also mentioned the upcoming ideas of Corner's work on the Seattle Waterfront, an opportunity to apply some landscape urbanism principles (but something developed in context).  The major opportunity is to rethink large scale systems, and redirect existing resources (waste heat, stormwater) in looped systems available in urban agglomerations.  In short, it becomes a wholly economic idea to push an ecological concept because they have value that needs to be quantified (this is where we need evidence)

Unified Field Theory of Public Health, Ecology, and Landscape Urbanism (all)

Frumkin:  Sustainability is a model - 3 legged stool and ability to specify outcomes to acheive prosperity, equity, and social goals.

Hester: The Intention of the System - develop a shared language; there are three different languages that exist: 1) those that are different, 2) those that are words for the same thing (different disciplinary languages - potential for obfuscation), and 3) those that are purposely convoluted (making something simple sound very complex - which leads to it being the next hot thing.

Reed:  Defending language, there are many ways to use it which are all appropriate (public, private, academic) - these different modes have the same principles.  We talk in public in pragmatics (design informed by professional perspectives, using disciplinary language, a different language for structuring projects and frameworks for projects,  They are in competition, but able to co-exist.  Rather than focus on language, Reed sums up the point (in what I think is the best quote of the day):
"The goal should be to use social/ecological dynamics that are flexible for futures we can't imagine."
Planning for these Spaces (CR)

There is the need to determine what we know, and what we can't know - thus the need for open-ended projects.  Some models of determination include preparedness planning - looking 30 to 40 years into the future to plan for spaces.  This will involve working at a wide range of scales - with a range of resources, for the entire lifecyle


  • Need to plan for aging populations - loss of ability to drive and less mobility (HF)
  • Look at co-benefits of designing for the old, the young, the disabled - all with specific by interrelated needs for space (RH)
  • The approach to research/evidence based design requires new ways of working together, identifying which types of issues to accomodate (HF)
  • Define the outputs for a range of systems, redirected within the city (CR)


Honestly, what could have been a really engaging dialogue of disparate (but related ideas) was somewhat handicapped by poor choices of questions from the moderator and audience led to a mishmash of  concepts - rather than a response and relation to the topics offered by Reed (which I guess I was predisposed to want)... the divergence from the original presentation was problematic, and the trying to tackle public health, ecological democracy, and landscape urbanism under a wide banner of 'Environmental Urbanism' left me feeling like in trying to do it all, nothing was accomplished.

While Frumkin had ample time to offer thoughts on public health implications, the focus on evidence based design was not fully discussed, and was divergent from concepts of ecological democracy (at least in this context.  Perhaps an all day exploration would yield results, but a short panel discussion was not enough to even ask, much less discuss, many of the relevant questions.


  1. Nice work summarizing- and while there was certainly not enough time your notes suggest a lot of ground was covered- lets hope the discussions keep moving and expanding.

  2. Interesting and important information. It is really beneficial for us. Thanks


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