Book Review: Nature and Cities

Nature and Cities / Lincoln Institute of Land Policy
Nature and Cities / Lincoln Institute of Land Policy

It’s been 20 years since the publication of Ecological Design and Planning, the collection of essays that established ecological design as the defining innovation of 20th century landscape architecture. Not only has this mode of design informed all thinking about landscape since Ian McHarg first championed it, but designs eschewing this approach have risked irrelevance.

The ensuing two decades since Ecological Design and Planning’s publication have seen two major global changes. First, climate change has emerged as a force that will shape our future. Second, cities have grown to such an extent that their populations account for half of the Earth’s total. The world has not stood still, but, as Nature and Cities: The Ecological Imperative of Urban Planning demonstrates, neither has landscape architecture.

Nature and Cities, edited by Frederick Steiner, FASLA, George Thompson, and Armando Carbonell, was intended to be Ecological Design and Planning’s successor, Steiner said. It follows a similar formula: A collection of essays from both well-established and up-and-coming landscape architects with big ideas and projects that showcase them.

Steiner believes Nature and Cities can entice readers outside the fields of landscape and planning, despite its niche topic. The book is handsome and visually rich, and the essays are warmer than they are academic. They vary in subject matter. Richard Weller, ASLA, examines urban forms and formation; Kate Orff, ASLA, and Kongjian Yu, FASLA, explore aqueous landscape design. Several of the most thought-provoking essays make valiant attempts at applying to design our growing understanding of systems, resilience, and the myth of ecological equilibrium.

If these issues don’t interest you, you can use the book to check in on the state of the “landscape architecture: science or art” debate. Nature and Cities offers several worthy contributions to it. Of course, it’s not a question of either or, but as James Corner, ASLA, writes in his essay, there’s a tendency to allow science to govern our designs to the exclusion of the subjective and aesthetic. In our current design atmosphere, improvisation and beauty strain under the yoke of performance metrics. Corner argues that more honest applications of biophilic design would incorporate the errant, much as real ecosystems do, as a means of enrichment.

The Mill River Park and Greenway, ASLA 2015 Professional General Design Honor Award. An example of the successful introduction of nature into a city's fabric / Nature and Cities, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy
The Mill River Park and Greenway, ASLA 2015 Professional General Design Honor Award. An example of the successful introduction of nature into a city’s fabric / Nature and Cities, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy

Let’s not forget metrics are good for business, Laurie Olin, FASLA, points out in his essay. And if you can put an exclamation point on those metrics with a beautiful design, all the better. His firm accomplished this with a designed marsh on Yale’s campus. Students enjoyed it so much they added fish, leading to a richer ecosystem and indirectly saving the purchase of an additional 1.8 million liters of water per year. Social buy-in can occur when sustainable design is made evident.

“The more I understand the dynamics associated with global climate change and urbanization, the more I want to make sense of it all with other human beings,” writes Kristina Hill, Affiliate ASLA, in her essay. It’s for this reason, Hill argues, that designers should create aesthetic experiences that address this rapid and destabilizing change. Rising sea levels and water scarcity can be frightening, but new aesthetic experiences can help us better understand those threats.

Part of Nature and Cities’ purpose, Steiner said, is to showcase the contributions that landscape architects have made to our cities and environment. “When Susannah Drake, ASLA, and her colleagues want to clean up the Gowanus Canal, that’s heroic,” Steiner said, referring to her essay. “And that they’ve made as much progress as they have is quite remarkable.”

gowanus-sponge-park
Gowanus Canal Sponge Park / DLANDstudio

Sizable ambition certainly shines through the successes touted in the book, but reading about them, one wonders if these efforts are adequate in scope to the environmental challenges we face. Adequate or not, isn’t it great that landscape architecture has something to say about it all?

Read the book.

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