What Can Design Schools Offer Cities?

Ecological Urbanism / Mostafavi and Doherty

What is the role of the design academy in dealing with today’s challenges — urbanization, climate change, biodiversity loss, and population growth? Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) Dean Mohsen Mostafavi said the academy plays a unique role in a keynote speech at the Innovative Metropolis conference organized by the Brookings Institution and Washington University in St. Louis, arguing that design schools “construct knowledge, conduct research, and disseminate information,” but also “advance alternative possibilities, new ideas.” In a review of how urban design and planning have evolved over the years, Mostafavi also outlined the new directions GSD is proposing for cities, with its drive towards new theories of landscape urbanism and now ecological urbanism.

According to Mostafavi, there’s still debate as to whether “urban design is a true discipline” like architecture or landscape architecture or simply a “practice.” At GSD, where the first urban design program was founded more than 50 years ago, it’s treated as a practice area. Other programs, like the one at Washington University in St. Louis, treat it as a discipline.

At GSD, urban design and planning programs are linked, so that planning students actually get a sense of design challenges. It’s not the case, he said, at other programs. “The U.S. has very few planning programs rooted in design. Most plannng programs are like the Brookings Institution, with a focus on policy and social sciences.” GSD’s planning program is “project-based.” This was in part because the planning and urban design schools were created right after World War II, when the “world needed to reconstruct its cities.” These were the types of programs cities needed.

So what do design schools have to offer cities today? “We are not an NGO or government, but we try to have impact by constructing knowledge, conducting research, and disseminating our findings.” The goal of GSD is “not just boosting technocratic practices, but to advance new possibilities and ideas.” Design education, at its best, “can open up new questions and create new collaborations.” For Mostafavi, a rich vein of questions are around, “What does an ecological city look like? How does it actually function?”

Mostafavi explored some early urban design concepts. By the end of the 16th century in Rome, one could plot the connections between churches and see a “topography of Catholicism.” The nodes of the churches formed purposeful networks outlined in the landscape of the city. This was an early form of urban design. Then, in Paris, an actual landscape — the gardens and allees of Versaille — served as the model for the avenues of Paris. Showing photos of Paris’ axial green boulevards, Mostafavi said “this was a landscape model imposed on the city.” And while there were “military reasons for laying out the avenues as they did, landscape technique was used.” Decades later, an actual Garden City movement was formed, promoting the idea of a landscaped city.

Avenue des Champs-Élysées / Wikipedia, Josh Hallett – Flickr: The Champs, CC BY-SA 2.0

For the past 10-15 years, Mostafavi, James Corner, ASLA, Charles Waldheim, Affiliate ASLA, and others have promoted the theory of “landscape urbanism, which used to mean quite a few things.” It’s really about “what we can learn from landscape techniques in making cities. It’s a focus on tools.” But, now, GSD’s scope has widened, with a new project on “ecological urbanism, a broader investigation at all levels of the financial, social, economic implications of merging ecology and urbanization.”

Indeed, for designers, just thinking of ecological urbanism is bound to bring up exciting visions — of a city that functions like an ecosystem, providing itself with all the resource it needs to function. For Mostafavi, it’s about “creating a new aesthetic practice, new modes of imagining.” It’s about creating new images that can relay the radical ideas found in ecological urbanism, which posits that an ecological approach is what’s needed to fix problems in cities, and can even guide the organization of new cities.

As an example, in the past, “productive landscapes,” such as agricultural, mining, or permacultural ones, were seen as functional but pretty unattractive. What about promoting their innate functionality as a new aesthetic? “We can move from only functionality and usefulness to pleasure and aesthetics.” Here, the dean showed shots of unappealing urban situations — salt being used on roads, waste piling up on streets — to show how a service infrastructure is part of the urban landscape, too. On the prettier end, he showed the High Line in New York City, and the Promenade Plantee, the precursor to the High Line, in Paris. “These places are both elements of infrastructure and elements of beauty.”

Promenade Plantee, Paris / Wikipedia

Mostafavi also seemed very interested in the idea of scales in cities. He argued that “architecture is a pre-existing condition in cities.” Cities can’t wipe out of their buildings anymore and start from scratch. Cities have to work with them, so the “middle scale of urban design” is a way to create something new. Further differentiating scales into small and large, an ecologically urbanist place could work on a “tactile, bodily level” and also as a grand organism. For example, the small and large scale could be combined in a skyscraper that also function as a garden. “There could be productive landscape within.” Or, in another instance, green facades could be placed on buildings, or even make up the exterior of buildings. Going beyond simple green walls, these “green facades could perform.” Apparently, Arup is already working on “engineering a living building.”

Living Building / Arup

There are lots of new ideas. “Fusing the building and landscape” could be a new future. But, as he added in comments after the session, those futures will look different in each city. “There’s no singular notion of an innovative metropolis. Each place has its own logic due to its own culture.”

Check out Ecological Urbanism, a book by Mostafavi and Gareth Doherty, ASLA, which features articles by a number of leading landscape architects.

Sweet and Salt: Water and the Dutch

The Dutch have a complex, inescapable relationship with water, which makes them virtual experts in water management, said Chase Rynd, head of the National Building Museum. The ambassador from the Netherlands, Rudolf Bekink, agreed that water has played a huge part in shaping the culture and institutions of his country. Interestingly, though, for a people who are so deeply confident about their system of dykes and sea walls that there is no flood insurance or evacuation plans in place, New Orleans really scared the country. Bekink asked, “Are we as safe as we believe?” To see if they are, the Dutch government recently formed a new Delta Commission. The first was put in place after a flood in the early 50s, which killed nearly 2,000 people. The new commission has found that “with a modest amount of investment, the Dutch don’t have to move to Germany,” as Al Gore once jokingly said (to the endless irritation of the Dutch). To hear about how the Dutch have managed water — and how their strategies and tools have changed over the years to address new threats — journalist Tracy Metz, Delta commission member and co-author of Sweet & Salt: The Dutch and Water, gave a talk at the National Building Museum.

American-Dutch Metz said public interest in water issues has only grown over the years, with the rise of “extreme water — water that is either too much or too little.” Her main point was that the rise of extreme water presents “new threats but also opportunities,” particularly, if we are, like the Dutch, “more adaptable, flexible, and resilient, if we use water to improve our cities and communities.” And while centuries of Dutch innovation in managing water can’t be easily copied and pasted into other countries’ environments, their “thinking can.” Their approaches can translate into local solutions that fit.

The Dutch have been “building in their soggy little delta since they settled there.” Dyke building has always been an intensive process. Instead of adding landfill and pushing water out with new land forms, the Dutch have actually been pumping water out. Dykes give the country shape. They can be viewed as “inert, passive piles of dirt,” but also as having a “shaping effect.” Whether you find them boring or not, “they have a story to tell. Dykes are Dutch landscape poetry.”

Through World War II and after, the system of dykes the Dutch relied on had received little maintenance. As a result, in 1953, dykes burst in 50 different places at once. The result is that 1,835 people + 1 died. The “+1” is the young, unnamed child who drowned in her mother’s arms along with her mother. There are memorials everywhere to them. Some 700,000 people lost their homes and more than 1 million animals died. The Dutch vowed never again. Their answer to the flooding was “hard, concrete solutions.” Huge dams and sluices went in, which amazingly separate out salt and fresh (or sweet) water. As boats move into position, “salt water is sucked out and fresh water moves in,” and then gates open, letting the ships pass. “There’s an amazing intelligence in these systems, a domination of nature,” said Metz. New sea walls were constructed to protect against storm surges. Each arm of the massive sea gates protecting Rotterdam is longer than the Eiffel Tower.

But with the rising ecological cost of these hard systems and the new threat of climate change, the Dutch began to shift their thinking. Metz said water infrastructure now has to have multiple functions. There are lots of examples of how “dykes are becoming parks, roads. They are no longer stand-alone empty objects.” The new Dutch approach incorporates water measures into the design of public amenities. That new way of thinking has spread to building, urban, and landscape design. For buildings, Metz showed a series of slightly futuristic renderings of floating homes, but also said in some places they are becoming a reality.

In Amsterdam, a new neighborhood now features a dense village of 75 floating homes. Parking spaces for the floating homes were simply moved inland and attached to homes with landscapes.

More fantastic ideas envision a whole floating city. While these designs may not be realistic, “they show where the creative visions are for the future.”


At the urban scale, Rotterdam is looking into rolling out “water squares,” which are hollowed-out basins designed to capture and store rainwater. Designed by Dutch urban design firm De Urbanisten, these public squares would transform from playgrounds into water retention basins. In summer, if there is flooding, they could form mini-lakes kids could play in. In winter, mini-ice skating rinks. Metz, said “this looks a bit kinky and utopian,” but in reality, “how many would you actually need to deal with flooding?”

In another example, she point to a canal where there is a walking promenade and an interior green space that is designed to accommodate floods. In one photo, a pedestrian bridge span simply cuts off halfway, as one end is submerged water on purpose. It was designed that way to show people not to go to the area when it’s wet.

Another fantastical idea would use a “super dyke,” a model created in Japan. The super dyke is “flat and long” because with earthquakes in Japan, they can’t be built tall. The super dyke is a public pool also designed to prevent flooding.

At the broader landscape scale, Metz said “the urgent threat is not rising sea levels, but increased fresh water flow from the Alps.” A new $2 billion EU program, Room for the River, is about giving the rivers room to move and expand. In one example, a new brand of river was created. If there’s flooding, water flows into this new man-made river space. Islands form between the natural and man-made rivers. Metz showed images of undulating rivers guided by massive land berms. “The idea is to catch and slow down the river in the landscape.”

An another approach is to use sand to block up water flow in certain areas. Instead of adding tons of sand to beaches — only to see the sand washed out to sea again — the Dutch have been studying currents and dumping millions of cubic feet of sand upstream. “This way you don’t have to decide where to take the sand. Nature decides where to take it.” The Dutch are closely monitoring to see where the sand ends up and adjusting. But in another example of multi-use infrastructure, the new sand forms have been a paradise for surfers. They are now a heavily trafficked recreation area now, too.

But not everyone is convinced of these new ecological approaches. Part of Room for the River calls for lowering dykes and creating spillover zones, or spillways. Spillways are being put in areas with low populations to ‘reduce lawsuits.”

Still, some communities don’t want to leave their homes so they are “banding together” to create “built mounds.” On the mounds, they can “farm without disturbance.” They will now be little islands in a sea of water, but together.

Even with all the innovative thinking and high levels of spending on water management, Metz still raised a note of caution about the Dutch preventive approach. Dykes are currently under-maintained, but “people seem blissfully unaware that they are even there.” With over 60 percent of GDP under sea level, Metz worries that the investment in dyke maintenance has not kept up with the amount of value the dykes actually protect now. There’s still no flood insurance (because the cost of disaster would be more than any company could bear) or evacuation plans (except for animals). This is because of the innate faith in the system. “The Dutch aren’t scared of disasters. The responsibility has been outsourced to government and engineers.”

But it sounds like New Orleans scared at least some in the Dutch government out of a complacency, which was why the second Delta commission was formed. Collectively reaching for a solution, Metz said the Dutch government has now passed almost all the recommendations from the commission, created a new government position — a non-political minister for the delta, and put $800 million a year towards Delta fund prevention measures.

Metz said the Dutch go for these types of national solutions because they see water as a collective issue, while Americans think they’re own their own. The Dutch are geared towards prevention, spending nearly $1 billion a year on maintenance. “The U.S. just thinks things will happen, then they will repair.” The damage of Hurricane Sandy cost upward of $50 billion. “Was that a good use of money?”

To respond to Metz’s presentation and bring a U.S. context, Kathy Poole, a U.S.-based landscape architect, said the Netherlands have had “no choice to do what they’ve done. Unfortunately, the U.S. doesn’t recognize that it doesn’t have a choice.” Poole said that “water is not part of the American imagination. The U.S. has tons of land.” With limited developer timelines, there’s “no vision” for a long-term water management approach. “Within the government, there’s limited competency.” The “federal system is anti-collaboration.” She also thought that “Americans are spoiled, and not willing to give up things up. If I presented to developers the idea of separating parking spaces from homes (as was found in the Dutch floating village), I’d lose the contract.” She said innovative ideas like water squares also wouldn’t fly here given all the health regulations surrounding water and public spaces. Here, if water fountain water can be touched, it’s been disinfected to the max.

Metz agreed that the U.S. has a lot of work to do to become water-resilient. Just getting all the buildings in New York City to move their HVAC equipment and servers out of basements will be a “huge task” costing billions. Like the Netherlands, the U.S. will need a system of “green and grey infrastructure,” which could also save money in infrastructure costs over time.

Indeed, New York City and other northeastern cities (Philadelphia, Washington, D.C.) have begun making significant investments in green infrastructure to boost the resiliency of their hard, grey infrastructure and decentralize water management. Governor Andrew Cuomo recently announced a plan to create even more, spending $400 million to buy out homeowners in flood plains, leaving “some places just for nature.” According to NBM curator Chrysanthe Broikos, who is putting together a new NBM exhibition called Designing Against Disaster, set to open next year, “this is crucial because the federal government has subsidized building in the flood plain.” While the flood insurance system has been revised somewhat, new rules are needed to create more natural buffers and leave some area free of development.

Poole also thought bold new thinking was required, which would translate into “more malleable designs that could change over time.” “We need to design differently, to adapt over time – to both climate and economic changes.” As an ecological designer, she said she’s used to “seeing ecological systems change.” The same “core patterns can be applied to the built environment to improve adaptability.” She added that this is “not biomimicry, which I have real issues with,” but building in true resiliency.

As to whether countries should centralize all their water infrastructure in the form of sea walls or totally decentralize in the form of green infrastructure, everyone seemed to think both approaches are needed. Poole said “you can’t centralize everything, but also can’t disperse everything.” Some infrastructure begs for centralization. It would be stupid to have small local sewage plants, as no one wants those in their backyard. But back-ups are really what’s necessary. “That’s the reason to diversify.”

Americans, Poole said, need to see “sea water as infrastructure.” But the only Americans who understand that are farmers, who “constantly use water as a system.” Water is ultimately related to our security, and “eventually will be a national security issue” if the U.S. runs out of water and needs to import water from Mexico to grow crops.

Read Tracy Metz and Maartje van den Heuvel’s fascinating book, Sweet & Salt: Water and the Dutch.

Image credits: (1) Sweet and Salt cover photo by Han Singels, 2005, (2) Floating housing / Marlies Rohmer, (3) Floating city / DeltaSync, (4-7) Water Squares / De Urbanisten, (8) Superdyke / De Urbanisten, (9) Expected Flow of Water