Monday, November 22, 2010

Parsley On the Building

A great overview on Urban Omnibus features some of the recent site specific events in the 50th Anniversary of the GSD celebrating the half century of urban design (which at least in a modern perspective evolved from Harvard and mid-twentieth century theorists).  While the author seems to incorrectly equate concepts ecological urbanism and landscape urbanism, and does reinforce some anti-density precepts that have been tacked on to landscape urbanism, the overall tone is pretty evenhanded and worth checking out.  My goal here, then, is not to rehash the recent 'wars' which have received a ton of attention, but to point out a few new conceptual tidbits worth exploration.  The first one that got me a bit riled was attributed to Duany in the following paragraph:

"It is probably best that these two urbanisms are fighting to dominate intellectual territory of urban design, for both will be necessary to promote real sustainable solutions. This was made quite clear when Duany suggested that the best use for Ecological Urbanism was biophilia: greening buildings to make them more aesthetically pleasing to the middle class."
Yes, biophilia is a powerful concept that will continue to become more integrated into landscape and architecture and urban planning, as a metaphorical and formal framework to achieve needed access to nature (both visual and physical).  The fact that this becomes Duany's 'best use' for ecological urbanism, making buildings palatable for the middle class, definitely counts as another over-simplification at best.  While the notion of the vegitectural as aesthetic 'parsley on the building' has definitely become commonplace with architects - at least in photoshopped forms (it has also been vilified, rightly so, for it's simplication as inert green garb - used as an inert architectural material, applied like any other inert material) - preferrably for architects in a aggregated 'system' that can be specified and purchased on a square foot basis.

There is an innate ecological value in the process of attaching vegetation to buildings, so to reduce it to aesthetics is belittling both that value and the value of those working in these areas of practice.  One aspect of a true ecological urbanism would be to incorporate not merely biophilic (which is valuable, but non-performative), but bioclimatic principles (incorporating ecological systems into the fabric of building systems to augment and replace mechanical systems, improve indoor air quality, increase comfort, and provide myriad other benefits beyond those of the biophilic).  It can't just be appliqu├ęd - but rather must be integrated, using interdisciplinary approaches (not photoshop) resting on ecological principles.  The result is centered on building users, environmental concerns and reduced impacts to natural resources, and a vital connections to local context that is necessary for optimum performance.

The second quote involves the framing of NU for sustainable urban design.
"... Duany listed three reasons why the recent financial and intensifying environmental crises favor New Urbanism to offer sustainable urban design solutions. First: peak oil will make it more costly to drive, thus favoring creation of the dense, walkable neighborhoods advocated by New Urbanism. Second: the mainstay metric for ecological footprint analysis is carbon emissions, which will incentivize walking and public transit over cars as favored modes of transportation. Third: the residential, mixed-use typologies championed by New Urbanism were too complicated to be included in the mass securitization of mortgages and thus were resilient to the housing crisis."
The concepts of adaptability and indeterminacy (and I'd say, a renewed focus infrastructure) will have more benefit than those of New Urbanism in responding to peak oil, as although we can see the crisis looming, we have no way of predicting what impact it will have on cities, and the impacts of individual investigations at a site scale will be minimal.  While the 'nifty' six point plans for suburban retrofits make for good soundbites for new sustainability initiatives and plans for reducing ecological footprints, they involve a recontextualizing of the same principles, not a reformulating of an approach to urbanism.  Yes, we will fight out the new urban condition in fields of grey and brown, but will: "...restructuring and redevelopment of suburbia - so that retrofitted centers are walkable, diverse and environmentally sustainable..." actually mean anything substantive and repeatable beyond a few American enclaves... while the rest of the world decays at an alarming rate and at a vastly different scale.  Furthermore, the typologies mentioned I'd say were immune to the mortgage crisis purely due to lack of affordability, as those buying these houses are not those specifically impacted in the economic malaise. The packaging and reformulating of the ideas will provide some solutions to these crises, and incorporating walkability, diversity, and sustainability are laudable goals.  But with few viable and repeatable examples (particularly in terms of diversity) so far realized, making it's tough to see how this will be 'the' solution.

Talking 'bout My Generation
I found it doubly interesting, to put it in perspective, that the GSD Urban Design Program is 50, the principles of New Urbanism recently turned 30, and the theories Landscape Urbanism barely clocks in over 10 (a wee bit over perhaps)... give or take a few years a span of a generation between each.  Take in for a second the concepts of maturity and growth, as new concepts are born, learn, adapt, and mature - sometimes rigidly dismissing their elders, often becoming a new hybrid 'adult' formulation worthy of adoption or dismissal.  While I'd love to say my 10 year old self was correct, it would be good to note how these ideas have changed and grown (for instance, new urbanism developing a much more successful concept of sustainability long after it was 10 years old), or urban design learning from 'modernist' experimentation (success and failure), incorporating new ways of seeing cities, such as those of Jane Jacobs) and developing a level of maturity.

Much as new urbanism did not throw out the foundations of urban design but framed them in specific ways, landscape (and ecological) urbanism does not aim to disregard a history of theory and practice gleaned by many professionals over the years - but rather aims to re-evaluate these principles through new lenses.  These lens promote sprawl or focus solely on infrastructure.  They also don't preclude walkability, cities for seniors, appropriate density, or 'practical patterns of human settlements' - but rather acknowledge a  reality that is complex beyond a simplified deterministic approach.

I'd like to agree with Michael Sorkin's point in Urban Omnibus that we can merely use the lens of humanity, equity, sustainability, and beauty (all good concepts that seem aptly homogenized in reductive strategies like LEED) but perhaps we need these arguments to frame a real approach to urbanism that is both realistic and beneficial to all.  Maybe not calling it anything (although that seems hard to market) would be helpful, but I think we all still project and promote urbanisms as frameworks and use the ensuing dialogue for good, healthy, progress, not just a staking out of territory and proclaiming oneself the victor.  

The result will be closer to the goals Sorkin mentions:  
"We need a lot of new cities and a lot of better old ones. They should assume many morphologies. We are very far from done with inventing the form of the city. Neither the reflexive reproduction of historic types … nor the ‘go with the flow’ of urban capital sluts will work it out alone"

Probably neither of those are LU or NU, but both have much to offer to conversation.  

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