Presenting as part of the TEDxWDC, a day-long discussion between Washington D.C.’s creative leaders, landscape architect Jeff Lee, FASLA, talks about the need to recognize the continuity between man and nature, striving to raise awareness of “planning and design strategies for creating new cities and rejuvenating existing mega-cities.”
Lee expresses the need for more environmentally-conscious urbanism. The world is urbanizing at a rapid pace, with “a majority of the projected 12 billion people to live in cities by 2050.” Stunningly, by this time “China alone will build 300 new cities the size of Chicago.” Given the ecologically devastating effects of urbanization to date, “we must find a better way” to build and live.
On a local level, the environmental consequences of reckless urbanization are undeniable. In the 64,000 square miles of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, urbanization has created vast impervious surfaces that prevent rainwater from recharging aquifers. Additionally, runoff from impervious surfaces creates an anaerobic dead zone in the Bay. In Washington D.C., stormwater systems are overwhelmed by the volume of runoff about 40 times a year, sending raw sewage into the Anacostia River.
According to Lee, to address these problems we must look to nature. Instead of collecting water into drain pipes, we can store and filter it using ecological systems. For instance, the first low-impact development in Washington D.C. was the Barracks Row streetscape, which utilizes tree pits as sponges to collect and slowly release water to reduce strain on the city stormwater system.
On a larger scale, the DC CityCenter project, a six-building mixed-use development, will use a terraced network of green roofs and streetscaping where all the water is “collected, treated, and reused.” Lee states, “We upped the ante on this one, where not only are we treating the sidewalk water, but we’re also treating the street water, too.”
At the broader urban scale, Lee described his work in Suzhou, China. Tasked with designing an entirely new city, Lee and Associates envisioned a 4,000 acre settlement that integrates urban infrastructure with the existing ecosystem. In order to not disrupt the rice harvests, which are highly dependent on the careful control of water, the infrastructure is placed at the lowest point of the site. This location also enables the city to use its municipal solid waste to achieve a dramatic increase in energy efficiency. Lee describes how “there are new technologies for treating that biomass – drying and burning it – to create fuel.”
Throughout all of his examples, Lee stresses the importance of recognizing man as part of nature and the ways good design takes inspiration from nature. He continually refers back to the golden ratio – a set of proportions that appears throughout nature and human design – as evidence of our continuity with the natural world. Not only can integrating our designs with natural systems mitigate or even reverse the destructive impacts of urbanization, it can also provide a more enriching and beautiful experience for people. Lee describes how “nature shows us the way to build and the way to live. With our awareness that we are part of nature and not over it, and with our ability to communicate and connect as never before, we can leave our grandchildren’s children something of awe and inspiration.”
This guest post is by Benjamin Wellington, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, Louisiana State University, and ASLA 2012 summer intern.
Image credits: (1) Urban Places and Spaces, (2) Gustafson Guthrie Nichol + Sir Norman Forster, Lee and Associates, (3) Lee and Associates