Ecological Urbanism [gradseminar]

In addition to this week’s grad seminar discussion regarding suburban form, we will also be addressing  the topic of production in the city.  The word “production” is most frequently used in reference to the economic exchange of goods and services in a capitalist society.  With consumption at the other end, it is linear and implies progress. But production also refers to the way that organic compounds move through ecological systems, which is a cyclical process.  The distinction between these two meanings, like the distinction between the city and nature, was crystallized in the West by the Industrial Revolution.   In our attempts to re-think the relationship between mechanical, social and biological systems, we must first engage the conflicting definitions of production in the social and biological spheres.

Contemporary discourse on the future of urbanism and the environment frequently employs words and phrases like “crisis” and “impending doom” to illicit panic and progress.  Acting from a position of assumed scarcity, we brace ourselves for the worst.  When ecological problems are tackled with the logic of capitalist production and consumption, we find only 2 options:  we can put ourselves on a strict resource diet, or we can invent new technology that allows us to continue our habits of ever increasing consumption.  Felix Guattari, in his 1989 essay “The Three Ecologies,” warned that although the techno-sciences are crucial for the survival of the planet, they will not suffice without “recomposing the formation of capitalist powers.”  Architects have been particularly susceptible to the technological fix, envisioning new green utopias with limited connection to the reality of the contemporary city.

The potential of ecological urbanism as a discourse lies not in its ability to inspire new nature/city utopian synergy per se, but in its ability to re-define the relationship between nature and economic life: to view “production” as a cyclical process rather than a linear one, and to re-orient towards a position of abundance rather than scarcity.  As Sanford Kwinter states, “Among the basic issues of which we must not lose sight over the next decades is that what is required to give birth to a true ecological ‘praxis’ for our cities and our civilization cannot be found or resolved within the scope of sustainability workshops, environmentalisms, policy reforms, and technological and scientific research and their applications.  The ecological question is, by its very definition, much larger and more comprehensive.”


This week’s readings come from the book Ecological Urbanism published last spring by the Harvard University Graduate School of Design.  They are:

“Why Ecological Urbanism?  Why Now” by Mohsen Mostafavi

“Insurgent Ecologies:  (Re)Claiming Ground in Landscape and Urbanism”  by Nina-Marie Lister

Also, if you are interested, here is the link to a lecture given last spring by Charles Waldheim at UNC Charlotte.  He discusses the history and future of what he calls “landscape urbanism.”  http://vimeo.com/12992244



2 Responses to “Ecological Urbanism [gradseminar]”

  1. October 21, 2010 at 11:51 pm

    I really like the way that you brought the readings together around problematizing ‘production’ in the city, and I found the readings to be interesting. I was very, very frustrated by Moheen Mostafavi’s essay, however. “Why Ecological Urbanism? Why Now” tries to serve as a call to arms for progressive planners, landscape architects, architects, and urban designers, but Mostafavi’s arguments are weighed down by needlessly opaque language, grand utopian ideals, and a smattering of references to heady theories. As articulated by Dean Friedman at the last public event, UW’s vision of “Now Urbanism” focuses on the messy cities that we live and work in today. Mostafavi nods to a similar idea at the conclusion of his essay:

    “The recent financial crisis, with all its ramifications, suggests the ongoing need for a methodological reconceptualization of our contemporary cosmopolitan condition. In this context, it is now up to us to develop the aesthetic means – the projects – that propose alternative, inspiring, and ductile sensibilities for our ethico-political interactions with the environment. These projects will also provide the stage for the messiness, the unpredictability, and the instability of the urban, and in turn, for more just as well as more pleasurable futures. This is both the challenge and the promise of ecological urbanism” (p.50).

    I don’t disagree in the slightest with the majority of the author’s ideas, but I simply cannot understand why he would choose to right this essay with this kind of language. Mostafavi provides some interesting critiques of the current mode of planning and urban development, but he provides no realistic, concrete alternatives. He offers that cities like Detroit and New Orleans have open areas that provide interesting opportunities to “become productive domains where residences, workplaces, and spaces of leisure could be intertwined.” Ok, fine — sounds like mixed-use development, hardly novel, but ok.

    “One can also imagine that a city like New Orleans, devastated by Hurricane Katrina and with little likelihood of major reconstruction any time soon, is ripe for such a project – for an urbanism that can address the vast areas of sparsely populated territory with productive and other forms of biologically diverse urban landscapes just as effectively as it can those areas still populated by a resilient community. These spaces also carry a potential for social interaction and healing that is presumably not dissimilar to the example of the allotment gardens in Liverpool” (p. 39).

    I’m being a little facetious by saying so, but I can’t imagine that any “healing” is going to come from an essay like this. Even if designers and planners found this essay accessible and intelligible — which I’ll admit is possible, despite my misgivings — we still have not dealt with the virtual certainty that any such project of high design would result in the raising of real estate rates, likely placing it economically and spatially out of reach of many urbanites.

    If Mostafavi is interested in seeing messy, non-anesthetizing sites of social and political difference and friction in urban space, I think he takes the wrong approach in this essay. It seemed to me that he aimed to mobilize and incite a new kind of design, but here, he widely missed the mark in using the language appropriate for such an aspiration. As it stands here, his conception of “ecological urbanism” comes across as a headier, more nonsensical version of Duany and Plater-Zyberk’s ever-ridiculed “new urbanism.” Not so good.

  2. October 22, 2010 at 12:01 am

    Both articles promote an emerging approach to place-making that is based on new combinations of disparate or opposing elements – new ways of integrating ecology, industry, society, and culture to create a dynamic experience and a deeper understanding of place.

    This approach is based on the value of complexity, which embraces the urban as the;
    – necessary site of conflictual relations
    – provider of spaces of difference and disagreement
    – stage for messiness, unpredictability, and instability

    “The satisfactions of urban life are in part the pleasures of participation in the diversity of the spaces of the other. And it is physical space that that provides the necessary infrastructure for alternative and democratic forms of social interaction.” (Mostafavi
    pg 48)

    But they only briefly speak directly to the spatial qualities that define this new type of place;
    – the discovery and construction of stark juxtapositions and contrasts
    – urban recycling of remnants of the industrial city
    – the blurring of boundaries

    The projects included in the book Ecological Urbanism offer an exciting array of tangible examples. But I also wanted to share three other references that I have found instructional in their descriptions of spatial composition.

    Folded, Pliant, Supple
    In his 1993 article Architectural Curvilinearity, designer Greg Lynn argues that folded, pliant, and supple forms allow the acts of dismantling and contradicting to be combined with intentions of unity and reconstruction. He makes a point of distinguishing these forms from the concept of the hybrid. Rather, they are mixtures “made up of disparate elements which maintain their integrity while being blended.” The resulting spaces are heterogeneous, not homogeneous, and therefore cannot be reduced. They are smooth, not fragmented forms that bend rather than break to comply with or incorporate their contexts with minimal resistance. In this way, they are able to expand by incorporating the intensities of different extremes that surround them, depending on external forces for their own definition.

    Lynn, Greg (1993, March-April). Architectural Curvilinearity. Architectural Design, Vol 63, pg 8-15.

    In Saskia Sassen’s contribution to a 2006 compilation of essays on David Adjaye’s public work, he sets forth his concept of ‘borderlands’ – a way of re-conceiving the borderline – in this case between public and private, inside and outside – giving the tension between dichotomies space and terrain rather than reducing them to a single diving line. In this borderland each side of the boundary is able to maintain its specificity, yet there is a mutual conditioning where discontinuity becomes an integral part of the borderland space.

    He calls this strategy imbrication, to differentiate it from concepts like mixing and amalgamation. Imbrication is the arrangement of overlapping conditions. The two do not fuse, but instead engage with one another to create zone of dynamic possibilities, anchoring a “variety of practices that entail border crossings, including crossings perhaps not foreseen by the architect.”

    Sassen, Saskia (2006, September 25). Built Complexity and Public Engagements, pg 13-16. David Adjaye Making Public Buildings edited by Peter Allison, New York: Thames & Hudson.

    An ecotone is an ecological term for a region of transition that acts as the border between two biological communities. Econes are made up of a patchwork of heterogeneous landforms, communities, and environments that change properties and position over time. Their role is to transmit and transform material and energy between terrestrial and aquatic conditions. They are places of great species richness, retaining qualities of each bordering community, as well as habitat for species not found in the adjacent communities.


    Like the description of the physical form and function of ecotones, Lynn’s curvilinear forms and Sassen’s Borderland begin to suggest how architecture might negotiate between dichotomies in a way that is “neither in deference to nor in defiance of their contexts, but exploit them”. They are exciting alternatives to the notion of hybridization – where a middle ground can be imagined as a place enriched, rather than deluded, by the combination of polarities.


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