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Essays

"Ecological Urbanism: A Framework for the Design of Resilient Cities."

This essay was written for publication as a chapter in Resilience in Ecology and Urban Design, edited by S. T. A. Pickett, M. L. Cadenasso, and Brian P. McGrath
(Springer Verlag, 2013). I withdrew it after the publisher and I were unable to reach agreement on the publishing contract.

Ecological urbanism weds the theory and practice of city design and planning, as a means of adaptation, with the insights of ecology and other environmental disciplines. Ecological urbanism is critical to the future of the city and its design: it provides a framework for addressing challenges that threaten humanity, while fulfilling human needs for health, safety, and welfare, meaning and delight.

This essay describes the roots of ecological urbanism, with an emphasis on the Anglo-American tradition, and identifies fundamental concepts and principles. It provides historical context and a framework to guide future research and to advance the practice of ecological urbanism as a means to achieve cities that are more life-sustaining and more resilient, more functional, meaningful, and artful.

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“The Conquest of Arid America”

Topos: International Journal of Landscape Architecture and Urban Design
2007/59.

It was late July up on Dead Ox Flat in eastern Oregon, just past sunrise. The air cool, no hint of the heat to come (43 Celsius by afternoon). Scent of sage. Sound of water gushing from siphon into canal. This land was desert in the nineteenth century when the wagons lumbered along the Oregon Trail not far from here, and Dead Ox Flat was still desert in 1939 when the great photographer, Dorothea Lange, photographed the Malheur Siphon, built in 1937 to bring the water that transformed sagebrush desert into fields of alfalfa, corn, and sugar beets.

“Six years ago national irrigation was a dream; to-day, the dream has come true,” William E. Smythe wrote in 1905 in the foreword to a revised edition of his 1899 book The Conquest of Arid America. Smythe’s “dream come true” was the National Reclamation Act of 1902, which authorized the US Government to plan and construct “irrigation works for the storage, diversion, and development of waters.”“Without water, the West is nothing,” one farmer told me in 2006.

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“Restoring Mill Creek: Landscape Literacy, Environmental Justice, and City Planning and Design,”

Landscape Research 30:5
(July 2005): 359-377.

Mill Creek is shaped by all the processes at work in inner-city America. It was laid waste by the flow of water and capital, and by the violence of redevelopment and neglect. Known locally as “The Bottom,” Mill Creek is one of many such “Black Bottoms” in the US. They are at the bottom, economically, socially, and topographically. Here, harsh socio-economic conditions and racial discrimination are aggravated by hazards posed by a high water table and unstable ground. Landscape literacy is a means for recognizing and redressing those injustices through urban planning and design and community development, just as verbal literacy was a cornerstone of the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

“You mean, there really was a creek!?” a thirteen-year-old exclaimed as she examined a photograph from 1880 showing stream, mill, workmen dwarfed by the huge sewer they were building, new rowhouses in the distance. Studying her neighborhood’s natural and built features brought the place alive for this student and her classmates. The understanding of their own landscape also opened wider vistas. It introduced them to broader social, political, and environmental issues, promoted other learning, and provoked action.

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“Reclaiming Common Ground: Water, Neighborhoods, and Public Spaces,”

in The American Planning Tradition: Culture and Policy, edited by Robert Fishman
(Woodrow Wilson Press and Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000).

Without a shared vision to guide its development, a city’s future form is determined by the politics of expedience. For hundreds of years, Bostonians have proposed visions for their city which, whether built or unbuilt, contributed to public discourse about its future. This essay was conceived and written in this tradition. The time was April 1985, the place, the Boston Public Library, the occasion, an invitation by the Boston Society of Architects to give a public lecture on the future shape of Boston.

The proposal sketched here weaves together several sets of concerns (environmental, social, and aesthetic) and scales of interest (local and regional) to show how solutions can address multiple purposes rather than a single, narrowly-defined problem. This proposal was shaped by place and time – Boston 1985 – but it is still widely applicable, for the problems it addresses, despite their apparent diversity, are part of a single, larger failing: the neglect and deterioration of the public realm. This is not Boston’s problem alone. All across America, it threatens to become a pervasive symbol that will characterize our time for future generations.

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“Rebuilding Urban Communities and Restoring Natural Environments,”

in Planning for the New Century, edited by Jonathan Barnett
(Island Press, 2001)

Some of the most challenging problems facing the United States today are the result of well-intentioned policies that had far-reaching, unanticipated consequences beyond their desired effect. Public funds are squandered by programs conceived as single-purpose solutions to narrowly-defined problems which address symptoms rather than causes. Not only do such programs fail to realize opportunities, they produce new problems that may cause social and economic distress and lead to environmental disaster. Social and economic issues, on the one hand, and environmental and aesthetic issues, on the other, compete for attention and scarce funds. Given limited resources, we can not afford to address these issues separately. We must define multi-purpose solutions to comprehensively defined problems and seek common solutions to social, economic, and environmental problems.

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“The Poetics of City and Nature: Toward a New Aesthetic for Urban Design,”

Landscape Journal
(Fall 1988)

The city has been compared to a poem, a sculpture, a machine. But the city is more than a text, and more than an artistic or technological artifact. It is a place where natural forces pulse and millions of people live: thinking, feeling, dreaming, doing. A poetics of urban design must therefore be rooted in the normal processes of nature and of living.

This essay describes a new aesthetic for urban design. The approach encompasses both nature and culture, embodies function, feeling, and meaning, and embraces both the making of things and places and the sensing, using, and contemplating of them. It is concerned equally with everyday things and with art, with small things like fountains, gardens, and buildings and with large systems like those that transport people or carry wastes. This aesthetic celebrates motion and change, encompasses dynamic processes rather than static objects and scenes, and embraces multiple, rather than singular, visions. This is not a timeless aesthetic, but one that recognizes both the flow of passing time and the singularity of the moment in time, that demands both continuity and revolution.

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“Urban Nature and Human Design: Renewing the Great Tradition,”

in Classic Readings in Urban Planning, edited by Jay M. Stein (McGraw-Hill, 1995). Originally published in Journal of Planning Education and Research (Fall 1985)

The city is part of nature, a fact that has profound implications for how cities are designed, built, and managed. For centuries, city designers have exploited nature to promote human purposes. The roots of this tradition are as diverse as the many ways in which nature contributes to human health, safety, and welfare. An overview of this tradition is outlined here, along with an assessment of existing knowledge and prospects for city design.

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“Constructing Nature: The Legacy of Frederick Law Olmsted,”

in Uncommon Ground: Toward Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, edited by William Cronon
(W.W. Norton, 1995)

Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) left a legacy of wonderful places, from Central Park to Boston’s Emerald Necklace, from Niagara Falls to Yosemite. Few people now recognize these as built landscapes. Most are startled to learn that New York’s Central Park was constructed, that even The Ramble is an artful wilderness, and that Boston's Fens and Riverway were molded out of polluted mudflats, planted to grow into tidal marsh and floodplain forest. Even those few who recognize Central Park and The Fens as constructions are surprised at how extensively the experience of Niagara Falls and Yosemite are shaped by design, for these have come to stand as monuments of nature untouched by human artifice.

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“Frank Lloyd Wright: Architect of Landscape,”

in Frank Lloyd Wright: Designs for an American Landscape,
1922-1932, edited by David De Long (Abrams, 1996). Winner of the International Book Award from the American Institute of Architects.

Frank Lloyd Wright saw land as architecture and shaped its outward appearance to express his vision of its inner structure. Writings, drawings, and built work all testify to Wright's lifelong passion for nature and landscape. He wrote dozens of essays on the subject, more than any other architect, living or dead. He was a keen observer of natural form, an experienced architect of landscape; hundreds of drawings display his interest and insight: rhododendron and pine captured in a few pencil strokes, plans covered with detailed notes on planting and grading, sections showing deft modifications to terrain. Like the Japanese landscapes he admired, some of Wright’s greatest works were large compositions of buildings and gardens, roads and waterways, fields and groves. He believed that architecture – of buildings and landscapes – could express the unity of nature and humanity. The aim of his art was “truly no less than the creation of man as a perfect ‘flower of Nature.’”

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“Ian McHarg, Landscape Architecture, and Environmentalism: Ideas and Methods in Context,”

in Environmentalism and Landscape Architecture, edited by Michel Conan
(Dumbarton Oaks, 2000)

Ian McHarg promoted landscape architecture as the instrument of environmentalism and helped shape national policy on the environment; he is among the very few landscape architects since Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. who have commanded widespread notice, respect, and influence outside the design and planning fields. But what, exactly, are his contributions to landscape architecture within the context of environmentalism? While there is consensus on the importance of his influence, there is disagreement over the nature of his legacy. A perplexing figure, McHarg has always generated controversy within the profession. The conflicts and inconsistencies embodied in his words and actions are those of the profession itself: the tensions between preservation and management, nature and culture, tradition and invention, theory and practice. This essay describes the development of McHarg’s ideas and practices, his greatest contributions, and explores certain contradictions of the man and his work as they illuminate the potential tensions between landscape architecture and environmentalism.

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“The Authority of Nature: Conflict and Confusion in Landscape Architecture,”

in Nature and Ideology, edited by Joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn
(Dumbarton Oaks, 1997)

Gardens are shaped by rain and sun, plants, and animals, human hands and minds. Whether wild or clipped, composed of curved lines or straight, living plants or plastic, every garden is a product of natural phenomena and human artifice. It is impossible to make a garden without expressing, however unconsciously, ideas about nature.

For thousands of years, nature has been both mirror and model for gardens, has been looked to for inspiration and guidance. Over time and place, quite different sorts of gardens have been claimed as natural, much the same way opposing nations claim to have God on their side. There are conflicting ideas of nature: whether humans are outside or inside nature, whether human impact is inevitably destructive or potentially beneficial, whether one can know an objective nature apart from human values. Differences in basic assumptions are so fundamental they may make it impossible to resolve the conflicts, but it is possible to clarify differences and dispel confusion. Much confusion comes from launching the debate without defining its terms. Anyone who invokes the authority of nature, implies that they are privileged to speak for nature. But who confers that privilege and why, and what is nature anyway?

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For a full list of publications, see web.mit.edu/spirn

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