Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Deconstructed City

Amazing new maps from an L+U favorite, Strange Maps, featuring 'A Taxonomy of City Maps:  "Imagined cities built from the fragments of real ones: something similar is happening in Tout bien rangé, a cartography-based artwork by French artist Armelle Caron. It consists of a series of map pairs, one a blind, but recognisably real city map, the other what looks like an assembly kit for that same city, with the its blocks impracticably but neatly arranged by shape and size."

A few selected cities such as New York (top) and Berlin (bottom) - click to enlarge images:

And a closeup of the two panels from Paris - to see some more detail:

As mentioned, "Caron strips cities of their spatial context. Roads and rivers become irrelevant, districts and parks disappear. The relationship between built-up areas and empty spaces is obliterated."  See more on Armelle Caron's website

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)

Reading, Thinking, Observing: A New Direction for L+U

Forgive my self-indulgent post, but my lack of blogging is not an indication of lack of thinking (and walking) - as my attention has shifted from following the various blogs (i used to follow many, and now have reduced this to around a dozen) and their myriad paths of discussion towards a more rigorous engagement with some literature, journal articles and  books to read and reflect.  This shift has happened for a range of reasons, including a dramatically different engagement in work (btw, running your own firm is amazing), exposure to a dramatically different sphere of influence due to academic pursuits (btw, higher education is also amazing), and a general decline in interest (exhaustion?) in the ephemera of the digital realm.

This seems a turning point in the content and focus of the blog, where capturing the zeitgeist (a common theme over the past three years) has become much less important to me (and has been picked up beautifully by a number of other bloggers) - shifting instead to a more comprehensive depth in specific topics.  A blog is always a personal reflection - and it's hard for me to reconcile this new-found focus, being a pure generalist.  Perhaps, I hope, this signals a sign of 'maturity'?  In that vein, exploration of major themes, historical origins, theoretical underpinnings and observations 'from the field' seem to occupy most of my time nowadays, and it's given my a wonderful context in which to think about landscape + urbanism. The source materials range from the hyper-academic to the more mainstream - including historical tracts to modern writings, including journal articles (which i now have unprecedented access to).

So stay tuned for some writings (probably not book reviews) in the form of ruminations on recent readings.  In addition to our upcoming group reading of the Landscape Urbanism Reader (Waldheim, ed., 2006),  I started previously (read here and here) but have finished the large tome Ecological Urbanism (Mostafavi & Doherty, 2010) including the afforementioned Urban Design (Krieger & Saunders eds., 2009), as well as two recent popular books: Makeshift Metropolis (Rybczynski, 2010) and Green Metropolis (Owen, 2009).  Some other books I've made it through recently, one quoted previous is the collection Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature (Cronon, 1996), as well as The Machine in the Garden (Marx, 1964): Placeways: A Theory of the Human Environment (Walter, 1988); Human Ecology (Steiner, 2002); After the City (Lerup, 2000); Changes in the Land (Cronon, 1983); and Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (Banham, 1971).

In addition to books, I will intersperse a number of journal references into the mix, particularly as I continue to expand on my studies in ecological urbanism, historical urbanism & ecology, and methods for research (both social & ecological science-based) study of the urban conditions.  Any recommendations for key readings and sources that have influenced you, please comment - and I'm always up for intriguing guest posts on a range of topics. Looking forward to a new chapter in the blog and an expanded focus in my personal exploration of all things landscape and urbanism.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Guest Post: The Human Benefits of Green Building

by Krista  Peterson

While it may initially seem like the only benefits of “green building” efforts go to the environment – at the cost of human comfort and expense – this is not the case. Proponents of eco-friendly architecture take a holistic approach to the concept of environmental health, including human well-being in their calculations. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lists three goals of green building programs: to increase efficiency in the use of water, energy, etc.; to protect the health and increase the productivity of the building’s residents; and to reduce pollution and waste.

Greater Efficiency

According to the EPA, in 2002, buildings accounted for 67.9% of the total electricity consumption in the United States. It has been said many times already, but decreasing energy use is not only good for the environment – it’s good for the wallet. When a building is more energy efficient, less HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning) equipment is necessary. Since heating and cooling the air accounts for roughly half of a building’s energy expenditure, improving efficiency can significantly reduce operating costs. Other small measures, such as upgrading insulation and sealing any air leaks, can make a big difference in a monthly electricity bill.

:: image via Treehugger
The high costs commonly associated with going green are usually a result of installing new technology in a new building or retrofitting an older one. On-site renewable energy generators from sources such as photovoltaic solar panels or wind power can include prohibitive start-up costs and may not be feasible for every structure. However, efficient appliances with the Energy Star label often cost the same as traditional appliances, and installing ceiling fans to reduce the need for air conditioning is a simple step that makes a measurable difference. For new buildings, passive solar heating principles that take advantage of the orientation of the sun and the landscape go a long way toward improving energy efficiency.

Better Health

Another goal of green building is to improve air and water quality within structures, as well as the productivity of their occupants. One EPA report states that indoor air pollutant levels are about two to five times higher than those of outdoor air. Some of these pollutants, such as radon gas, are attributable to natural conditions, while others such as second-hand smoke are a direct result of human behavior. However, many of these pollutants are a byproduct of the materials used to construct or furnish the building. Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, can cause serious health consequences in large enough concentrations. These chemicals may occur naturally, but they can also be manmade, and are found most commonly indoors in products such as paints, solvents, carpets, cleaning products, and some household appliances.
:: image via Sun Sentinel

Asbestos is another dangerous pollutant. While this thread-like mineral is no longer used in the manufacture of new building materials, it was widely used in nearly every aspect of construction until the 1980s and can still be found in most of these buildings. When breathed in or ingested, asbestos fibers can cause serious health problems such as lung scarring, asbestosis, and mesothelioma cancer. Mesothelioma symptoms include shortness of breath, coughing, and pain in the chest, very similar to other, less fatal lung conditions, which can mean that the cancer often goes undiagnosed until its later stages. Green building efforts take into account the human costs of building with certain materials – though asbestos makes for an effective source of insulation, it is severely dangerous to a structure’s occupants, and thus alternative materials are used instead.

Less Waste

One simple way that green architecture produces less waste is by using renewable materials, such as plant matter and sustainable lumber, or reusing traditional materials, such as recycled stone or metal. It is even possible to reuse industrial byproducts like coal combustion products, foundry sand, and demolition debris. Ecologically responsible construction can also help the occupants of the building waste fewer resources when going about their daily lives – greywater can be used as irrigation, or treated and used for other non-drinkable purposes.
:: image via Eco-trees

Moreover, green building furthers the concept of “smart growth,” an umbrella term for architecture and urban planning that takes into account sustainability, human health and safety, and economic expansion. It is not enough to simply substitute one building material for another; an entire change of outlook is necessary if we want to be able to sustain our quality of life, and green building is one way to start. The benefits are highly visible – mesothelioma symptoms, for example, can be prevented almost entirely by avoiding exposure to asbestos. Looking beyond individual health, the EPA estimates that buildings contribute 38.1% of the country’s carbon dioxide emissions, but this figure can be reduced through the use of environmentally responsible architecture and urban planning.

Ms. Peterson an advocate of the Green movement with a goal of spreading the word and increasing awareness about green issues. She is a recent graduate and currently resides in Florida, where she is an aspiring writer with a passion for the health of our environmental as well as the health & safety of our community.  You can each her at krista.peterson925@gmail.com

Friday, February 4, 2011

Walking the Turtle

While familiar with the concept of the flâneur, the inquistive wanderer, or  "...detached pedestrian observer of a metropolis, a gentleman stroller of city streets".  Reading After the City last night, Lars Lerup, in discussing the idea of the 'speed' of the modern metropolis, made a passing reference to a 19th century custom of using a turtle to set the pace for the observer.  I was intrigued.

 :: walking the turtle - mixed media oil by michele maule - via etsy

A quote from the nonist (a post that also has some great links) entitled: "Taking the turtle for a walk and letting him set the pace." reinforces this idea in an uncredited quote.

"There was the pedestrian who wedged himself into the crowd, but there was also the flâneur who demanded elbow room… Around 1840 it was briefly fashionable to take turtles for a walk in the arcades. the flâneurs liked to have the turtles set the pace for them."

Another reference on One-Way Street - expands on this in the post on f 'A Turtle on a Leash':
"The second development in urbanism leading to the rise of flâneurie was the construction of the Paris arcades in the early nineteenth century. The arcades offered a respite from the bustling crowd outside. Dandies began to frequent the fashionable arcades, taking in the sights and offering themselves up as spectacles in their own right. Around 1839, Benjamin reports, it was fashionable to walk through the arcades with a turtle on a leash in order to enforce the slow pace really determined looking required."

The concept of speed in our modern city makes one appreciate the idea of a pace-car to offset the rapidity of our contemporary life.  This includes the physical (high speed rail, bus rapid transit, more horsepower, higher speed limits), as well as the virtual (rapid access to information via rss, web, smart phones, wi-fi) make just sitting (or strolling) and observing somewhat of a novelty. 

A recent exercise in a class on research methods reinforced that for me - by sitting in a space (namely a local plaza here in Portland) for three separate occasions to merely 'observe' and take notes was jarring in its simplicity.  I wasn't counting or doing anything qualitative, merely going for a rich description of activity and use of space.  The experience made me think of what we miss in our fast-paced lifestyle in car windows, or even on bike or just walking 'to get somewhere'.  Opening oneself up to observation at a slow(er) speed is invigorating and the polarity of our   We stare at computers, magazines, books, or other media, but when the subject is the city (urbanism), it is easy to forget this isn't a detached idea, hypothesis, or theory - but something right outside your door.   

Grab the turtle... its time for a walk.

The Urbanism Wars: AD v. CW

Turns out you have to read and write a bit in doctoral studies - which sometimes cuts down on the time for blogging... who knew?  But glean and collect I still do, and lots of good reading since the last dispatch on the ongoing dispute/feud/discussion/turf-war on who controls urbanism - aka the LU/NU debates (which should actually be the AD/CW debates for Mr. Duany and Mr. Waldheim). 

My google alert for landscape urbanism has literally blown up in the last couple of weeks - mostly due to the debate emerging from some more mainstream media - which is an interesting twist... bringing a smallish academic squabble out into the open.

:: image via Boston Globe

I make my bias clear as a landscape architect, I find much of LU compelling in both the potential to expand the practice of landscape architecture (process over product) and in larger ideas of dealing with modern cities (flexibility in responding to rapid change).  I like the concept of NU, but also take issue with some tenets (level of control for instance, determinism, generic transects, equity issues) feeling it's a great formula for a certain problem type that will continue to be relevant, but in it's present form is ill-equipped to handle many urban issues that need to be addressed.  Both will evolve through discussion, not through 'swallowing up' or destroying the other.  Others think differently - and dialogue is the generator of new ideas and solutions.  Unfortunately, we are not witnessing or participating in a dialogue, and  neither Waldheim or Duany is the prophet to lead us out of this. 

LU comes from an academic base, and is attempting to refine the inherent conversation (or add to it) by recognizing the need to acknowledge (i.e. accept, not promote) that cities are different, people are different, there is sprawl, there are lots of roads and cars, some people don't like density, the line between 'city' and suburb is not longer clear, etc.  Right now it is theory and discovery (i call that urbanism in the true defintion which should come from academia) that is trying to expand a conversation.  Thus there is not charter, and there are no rules or regulations in which to critique at this point, and there are few built works to evaluate as well.  This may come, or more likely it will assimilate into professional practice in a number of disciplines - not emerge as either a professional position (i.e. I am a landscape urbanist) or become codified into a system (such as NU).

NU comes from an established professional base that has a body of work and a well-tended methodology that produces good results for walkable, mixed use, community plans.  The successes and limitations are well documented, and the proponents have much sway of many types of developments (and many vocal adherents).  So, the questions are:   Does it have a wider relevance in cities, retrofitting suburbs, attacking rapidly expanding global mega-cities?  Can it apply to a wider demographic?  Can it adapt a transect model based on a monocentric model to the reality of messy, polycentric cities?   What it is is method and application (i call that planning, urban design, architecture) resulting in work but in need of new, wider discussion about how to deal with our changing cities and spaces.  How does this discussion take place if the response to any new idea is to hunker down and fight.

That said, neither is a panacea, and believe there is much to be found in a dialogue.  The conversation and media has been mostly to misrepresent the LU agenda (i'm sorry but that's what it is, plain and simple - hint - despite Waldheim's claims, there isn't an agenda).  Thus the reaction is not to reality and disagreement with a position, but knee-jerk, uninformed reactions to a constructed version by people feeling threatened by a different (note I didn't say opposing) viewpoint and wanting to tear it down.  The similar practice is done and has been for a while by those in opposition to NU (i am as guilty as anyone else of this) - oversimplification of complex issues.  This need to stop on both sides.  Criticism is one thing.  Uninformed criticism is useless, or worse, moves the discussion backward instead of forwards.  
Sidebar:  Can any other LU proponent beyond Waldheim out there (i know you are there, now hiding behind 'ecological urbanism') step up to this conversation, or are ya'll all too busy now getting high profile commissions?   Conversely, can we get some response from the West Coast school of NU, particularly from Calthorpe et. al?
 I blame the word 'landscape' which is just too loaded with preconceptions for people to get over the fact that we're not talking about sprawling density with green spaces and parsley in the urban sphere (just look at the image from the Boston Globe article - buildings and cars draped in greenery.  People think of landscape as landscaping, not the opposite of building.  Thus in looking at a fundamentally different way of approaching cities in an 'un-architectural' manner the word landscape detracts from what is fundamental (an un-architecturally driven urbanism).  This doesn't preclude buildings and density, and sidewalks and people - but rather isn't driven by building and then filling in the spaces in between.  Ecological urbanism, I daresay, is an even worse title.  Then again, the oxymoronic use of 'new' in New Urbanism has shown much success by focusing on the exact opposite of their name... so maybe there's hope. 

Or wait.  Better yet, let's all take a time out for a sec. 

Let's sit down and read each other's stuff rather than making stuff up. 

Or, rather than perpetuate this dueling - perhaps we can look at the larger issues of urbanism that could draw from many urbanisms, rather than the drama of a cat fight. 

Then again, our culture of reality TV and polarizing politics seems to appreciate a cat fight and drama over an informed conversation... on that note...  or your reading pleasure:

Recent Dialogue

Green Building by Leon Neyfakh (Boston Globe) with the sidebar Where its Happening
(yields another class Duany quote... that really gets to the heart of the debate)...

"“What you’re seeing is the New Urbanism about to swallow the landscape urbanists,” Duany said. His plan now, he said, is to systematically “assimilate” the language and strategies that have made his opponents such a white-hot brand. “We’re trying to upgrade ourselves. I’m not gonna say, ‘We’re gonna flick ’em off the table because they’re a bunch of lawn apologists.’ I’m gonna say, ‘For God’s sake, these guys took over Harvard!’ ”
A actually had a really great email exchange with Mr. Neyfakh prior to and after publication about some aspects of landscape urbanism, which is echoed in a follow-up piece discussing the historical development of the Back Bay Fens by Olmsted as a prototype for modern LU:  'Boston's long history with landscape urbanism'

A Tire in the Park  by Emily Talen (The New Urban Network)

Landscape Urbanism: sometimes an enemy is good to have by David Sucher (City Comforts)

James Howard Kunstler on Landscape Urbanism by Sam Newberg (CNU)
I can't find the actual article on Orion so if anyone has a link... anyway per this quote he's just parroting what others are saying in his 'clusterfuck' lens... for what it's worth.

The War Over 'Landscape Urbanism'   by Tim Halbur (Planetizen)

New Urbanism, Landscape Urbanism and the Future of Settlements by Christopher Ryan (Post Carbon Institute)

Landscape Urbanism vs. The New Urbanists (Brookline Perspective)

Discussion on Cyburbia from the Boston Globe Article

Isms, Ideology, & Landscape: Boston Globe Edition (Eric Papetti)
(a landscape architect's perspective)

Landscape Urbanism, New Urbanism, and the Future of Cities (Alex Steffen)

As you see, these aren't all anti- or pro- positions - but are reacting more to the war than the point of the war... which I think will happen with time.  Next year's CNU conference may be the biggest ever due to Waldheim & Duany there together.  Good for ratings.

Along a similar timeline, the Minneapolis Riverfront competition is definitely infused with a landscape urbanist perspective with teams from Ken Smith Workshop, Stoss Landscape Urbanism, Tom Leader Studio and Turenscape as mentioned by Archinect - 3-1/2 of the proposals hint at landscape urbanism. 

Another article from the WSJ talks with Adriaan Geuze of West8, making ample references to LU...

There's also some great dialogue about the concept of urbanism and the role of urban design in the book 'Urban Design' by Krieger and Saunders - a look back at the origins and development of modern urban design since 1956, and well worth exploring (stay tuned for a book review here) and giving some perspective on our constant ability to disagree, which will continue well past this debate and others... 

A related but not specific to LU story on Slate by Witold Rybczynski entitled: "A Discourse on Emerging Tectonic Visualization and the Effects of Materiality on Praxis: Or an essay on the ridiculous way architects talk"  revisits the tired metaphor of professional language to exclude, given the fact that most of this language emerges (yes i said it) from academic discourse (said that too) and not from praxis (again, guilty!).   Any journalism that uses Ted Mosby as an architectural model is suspect.


Also we kick off Reading the Landscape with timely discussions of 'The Landscape Urbanism Reader' later in February, which is sure to yield some great discussion from a diverse group of folks from all backgrounds, regions, and discplines... entry for the group is closed, but there will be dispatches at points to capture the conversation... stay tuned.