Infinite Suburbia

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Until recently, our city’s margins were neglected by researchers. Precisely how much neglect seems to have corresponded with the margin’s distance from its urban core, the city’s beating heart and a real draw for analytical minds. But Infinite Suburbia, a mammoth collection of 52 essays edited by MIT landscape architecture professor Alan Berger, geographer Joel Kotkin, and environmental urbanist Celina Balderas Guzman, seeks to elevate the discourse on our suburbs. The compendium is the result of a yearlong study at MIT’s Center for Advanced Urbanism, and, like suburbia itself, is sprawling, often beautiful, and a bit relentless.

We have, over the last decade, heard repeatedly that the 21st century is the age of the city. But Infinite Suburbia’s editors rightly recognize the vast majority of people who have moved to cities do not populate the cores but rather the edges. In the United States, for example, 69 percent of the population lives in suburbs. Our edges are rapidly shifting and expanding, demanding meaningful evaluation.

Still, the term suburbia isn’t specific; it has a vagueness with which many of the essays engage. Historian Jon Teaford writes about the myth of the homogeneous suburb, noting that industrial suburbs differ from those pocketed with shopping malls or others that serve primarily as wealthy enclaves. The variety of activity present in suburbs today is as rich as the variety present in urban cores.

Espen Aukrust Hauglin and Janike Kampevold Larsen, professors of urbanism and landscape at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design, write about how in Norway, suburbia springs up in the pockets of limited spaces between geographical features. One clear example is the Grorud Valley. The valley’s history and geomorphology create a fabric of land use that contrasts with more traditional ideas of suburbia. In the valley, farmland, residential communities, and old mining infrastructure are adjacent to one another. Nature and recreation were large influences on the design of Norway’s satellite towns, so the path systems that gird these towns create a transition between the city and surrounding environment that enables recreation. Recent developments suggest that inner-city parks are gaining prominence in the valley, though.

Dr. Margaret Grose, landscape professor at the University of Melbourne, asks in her essay the pertinent question, “how can we design ecologically-richer suburbs?” It turns out biodiversity is not high on many planners lists of goals, if it’s considered at all. Grose suggests inverting the planning process so that ecological goals come first. Designing backwards through the planning stages and analysis can help give ecology its due in suburban design.

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A development in Fowler, California, shows how suburbs can be situated within the existing landscape fabric / Matthew Niederhauser and John Fitzgerald

The expansion of cities outwards in the last few decades and the resultant land use change has been both rapid and irreversible. As both editor and author of Infinite Suburbia, Berger investigates how planners in the past sought to “belt” suburbia with agrarian and recreational landscapes.

But with the clustering of cities into polycentric city-regions, greenbelts are being ask to function in new and peculiar ways. Rather than serving as a container for development, greenbelts can connect regions. Berger warns that they must be employed intelligently and compatibly with demands for growth, or they risk being ineffectual. For some examples of greenbelting done right, Berger recommends the Brussels capital region of Belgium as well as Hamburg, Germany.

Despite the potential ecological benefits of greenbelts or prioritizing biodiversity, experts still consider suburbia the most ecologically-destructive form of development. Consider the growth of the east coast megalopolis, a region defined decades ago by French geographer Jean Gottman, running from Washington, D.C. north to Boston. What habitat it hasn’t destroyed it has badly fragmented.

Alex Wall, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Virginia, asks in his essay what a counter-figure to this megalopolis might look like. While his essay doesn’t quite describe such a figure, it does make a strong argument for analyzing development at the regional scale in order to better understand the true ecological scope.

Book Review: Cityscapes of New Orleans

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LSU Press

Set Tulane University professor Richard Campanella down at any intersection in New Orleans, and he can likely deduce what economic, political, or environmental forces determined that street’s spatial qualities. This knowledge and much else has been inscribed in Campanella’s latest book, Cityscapes of New Orleans.

Cityscapes is a compendium of essays that examines New Orleans’ landscape through the lenses of design, planning, and history. It is more than a rote demonstration of knowledge, though. The book is an energetic engagement with Campanella’s two great passions: New Orleans and geography.

Geography, though it has taken a backseat in the landscape discourse, has the unsettling ability to illuminate the larger patterns and systems in which we’re embedded. Consider the work of Allen Gathman, a biology professor at SE Missouri State University. After the 2008 presidential election, Gathman took interest in a string of counties, arcing across the southeast United States, that Barack Obama had won. These blue counties, surrounded by a sea of red, coincided with the cotton belt of the antebellum south, and thus had a primarily black populace. And why was the soil in those counties so well-suited for cotton production? It is a loamy, alluvial soil, deposited by a cretaceous-era ocean, the coastline of which would roughly align with those same blue counties. Past, as they say, is prologue.

That is one example of the insight that geography affords; Cityscapes offers many such insights. Like Gathman, Campanella is interested in the “why behind the where.” Take Campanella’s investigation of New Orleans’ “accidental forest,” for instance. How did a 27-acre patch of remnant forest in the heart of Gentilly survive this long without being developed? A series of near-misses and happenstance, it turns out. But it’s a part of the tapestry of curiosities that add to the city’s character.

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Accidental forest

New Orleans’ larger geographic context is perhaps as interesting as the city itself, and Campanella devotes a section of the book to exploring aspects of New Orlean’s regional relationships. This includes a portrait of the “Ozone Belt,” a pinewood landscape upland of Lake Pontchartrain that city residents previously visited like a health retreat. Certain that the swamplands of Lake Pontchartrain were the source of miasmas and sickness in the city, New Orleans residents who could afford to would stay at therapeutic inns in the Ozone Belt and enjoy what they believed to be the curative properties of the pine’s effervescence.

Staying on the subject of swamps, Campanella also devotes several essays to how their presence and eventual draining impacted the city’s entire terrain. City-wide drainage began in the 1890s with the development of a sophisticated runoff system that funneled water into surrounding water bodies. The effect was “nothing short of revolutionary,” according to Campanella.

The result was the withdrawal of the swamplands and the migration of inhabitants into these areas. The unforeseen effect was soil subsidence, which triggered the collapse of certain built structures. Continued draining in the following century led to the subversion of in-ground infrastructure. “Topography matters,” Campanella writes.

Book Review: Paradoxes of Green

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Paradoxes of Green: Landscapes of a City-State, a new book by Gareth Doherty, ASLA, director of the masters in landscape architecture program at Harvard University Graduate School of Design, is a successful hybrid of landscape writing and ethnography focused on the island nation of Bahrain. It presents a portrait of Bahrainis’ rich and evolving relationship with their landscape as well as a model for future studies.

“Landscape, when perceived through color, reveals aspects of relationships previously hidden,” Doherty writes in his book’s introduction. Paradoxes’ main inquiry is into Bahrain’s relationship with the color green. Why green? Because it’s associated with greenery, and greenery “is at the heart of the political struggles over the land,” Doherty tells us. Why Bahrain? “Bahrain is small.” Good enough.

While Doherty’s approach may seem like a gimmick, the results are truly novel. Situated in the milieu of ethnography, Doherty spends a year in Bahrain speaking with laborers, real estate developers, farmers, and government officials, constructing a forensic composite of green. The book satisfyingly explores green’s tendencies, as well as the social and built infrastructures that support it.

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Green carpet of house in Gafool, Manama. Photo by Gareth Doherty / University of California Press

If green is the book’s central character, then the central conflict revolves around water and its accompanying politics. Bahrain is seeking to maximize its green space and improve its sustainability metrics — these are admirable but directly conflicting goals. As it is, almost half of Bahrain’s freshwater goes towards watering lawns and washing cars in the hot, dusty city-state. Doherty figures that parks and roadside planting strips need 18 liters of water per day per square meter. Would Bahrain’s leaders be open to using grey water or native desert vegetation to conserve precious freshwater? That’s a step too far, at least for now. But as water’s strategic relevance overtakes oil’s in the Gulf, attitudes will change.

Before oil and the unsustainable pursuit of beautification in the form of lawns and noodle-shaped beaches, Bahrain’s green was most prominent in the form of date palm groves. The groves have diminished over the last century, but Doherty finds them still incredibly impactful. Their grey-green fronds stand in stark contrast to the surrounding environment, and their presence creates a micro-climate in the desert. In the past, the groves supported a culture that saw farmers name their trees as they would children. Their decline has coincided with the rise of residential compounds, some with green-painted roofs. Needless to say, Doherty is skeptical if this paint represents fair compensation for what’s been lost.

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Water channel, 1963, from Glob and the Garden of Eden. Torkil Funder, Moesgaard Museum / University of California Press

Doherty insists on walking to get where he’s going in Bahrain. He meticulously catalogs his encounters with green, and walking allows him to encounter very many. This penchant recalls similar tendencies in the writers Bruce Chatwin and Rory Stewart. Both are known for their travel writing (and, to greater and lesser extents, their interest in the Middle East).

Intentionally or not, there’s an element of the travelogue in Paradoxes. It’s no Road to Oxiana, nor does it aspire to be. It’s undeniable the book has benefited from its glimpses into Bahraini culture and life. Future writings on landscape would benefit from an ethnographic, travelogue approach.

Visionary Landscapes: Japanese Garden Design in North America

Visionary Landscapes / Tuttle Publishing

In Visionary Landscapes: Japanese Garden Design in North America, Kendall H. Brown explores the work of five contemporary Japanese-style garden designers whom he has designated masters of the art.

What does it mean to be a master of the contemporary Japanese garden design? To answer this, once must consider what constitutes a Japanese garden. The first images that come to mind might be of bamboo, or perhaps coy fish, or raked patterns in gravel. Japanese gardens are more than their components, though; they are a set of principles. And because principles should be transferable, it is possible for Japanese gardens to manifest themselves in very un-Japanese ways.

As Brown notes, Japanese gardens nowadays are less microcosms of Japan than they are “Japanese-inspired microcosms of nature.” Hence the flourishing of Japanese gardens outside of Japan, to the extent that they outnumber those inside Japan.

There is of course a fraught social history of Japanese gardens in the West, one that Brown fully recognizes. Taken out of their regional and historical context beginning in the late 19th-century, Japanese gardens became curios and projections of status and sophistication (the irony being that constructing a Japanese garden can, at least now, be in questionable taste).

To suggest one has mastered the art of Japanese gardens is to therefore suggest mastery of the art’s principles, as well the ability to reapply those principles without creating, as Brown puts it, a “garish pastiche.”

Perhaps none of the designers featured in the book more deftly graft the Japanese style into the North American context than David Slawson. Born in Ohio, Slawson spent a number of years in Japan studying the art of garden design before returning to the mid-West and applying his knowledge on college campuses and residences.

In recounting the story of his time spent in Japan, Slawson speaks reverently of power: the power of the dry landscape at Daisen-in, the power of rocks “disposed in space” at Ryoanji. These gardens moved him, and his designs seek to reproduce that impact.

At the Hoeschler residence in Minnesota, Slawson evoked Lake Superior’s north shore with a formidable river of stones.

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David Slawson’s Hoeschler residence garden / Tuttle Publishing

Power can overwhelm, however, and this dramatic garden left the rest of the yard feeling weak. So Slawson complemented the initial design with an equally adamant garden entrance, replete with boulders that call to mind a north shore gorge.

Shin Abe, another of the book’s featured designers, has at times demonstrated a tremendous capacity to abstract the natural world. He pushes this traditional Japanese technique to its extreme at the Education First office building in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At the building’s entrance, slabs of stone suggesting frozen waves emerge from “dry” pools, geometric patterns filled with blackish aggregate and gravel. Low-sitting granite rectangles serve as benches, and the whole design gives the sense of water represented through rock.

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Shin Abe’s dry pools outside of EF Building II / Tuttle Publishing

Several of the book’s featured designers evoke Japanese landscape painting in their work. Marc Peter Keane’s Tiger Glen Garden, which refers to a work titled The Three Laughers of Tiger Ravine, possesses what Brown describes as a “gentle intensity.” A miniature stone ravine, patterned like a roman road, winds through the tiny courtyard garden, a rocky gash amidst moss and an elegantly-branching Tanyosho pine.

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Marc Pete Keane’s Tiger Glen Garden / Tuttle Publishing

For all the talk of adapting the Japanese style to North America, many of the book’s gardens are still loaded with features some might consider cliché: Sand raked just so, a smattering of Buddhist paraphernalia, the unmistakable preference for Ponderosa pine. And then there are the lanterns. Modest, often camouflaged, they beg not to be considered kitsch.

And maybe they shouldn’t be. Maybe there is something we still don’t understand about our attraction to Japanese-style gardens, and how we can’t seem to adopt the principles without indulging in a bit of the exoticism that Japanese culture represents to the West. And maybe a little indulgence is good now and then.

Sowing Beauty: A Guide to Designing Meadows

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Sowing Beauty. Copyright 2017 by James Hitchmough. Published by Timber Press, Portland, OR. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

In Sowing Beauty: Designing Flowering Meadows from Seed, James Hitchmough tells us about what we’ve lost. “Meadow-like vegetation” was once “much more abundant.” He traces its decline to industrial agriculture and development.

Hitchmough saw the design potential of meadow communities early in his career as a horticultural ecologist. He has spent the last few decades studying their characteristics and experimenting with their composition. The resulting knowledge compiled in Sowing Beauty will push meadow design forward.

Planting meadows is a departure from planting gardens. It isn’t planting with particularity; it’s painting with broad strokes. That isn’t to say meadows lack sophistication. Change can be observed in sown communities, and there is “nearly endless variation.” Spontaneity informs meadow communities more than gardens, which partially explains their charisma.

Artistic intention in the design of meadows appears through seed mixes, what you scatter on the soil to materialize a meadow. A good seed mix requires an understanding of how natural meadow communities occur and function. However, seed mixes don’t have to have to be identical to naturally-occurring communities. Hitchmough encourages experimenting with seemingly incongruous seeds to produce novel results.

Southern Hemisphere Garden, London Olympics park / James Hitchmough

“The choice of plants is the central challenge in all planting design,” Hitchmough writes. The planting site must factor heavily into any decisions. Meadows are complex communities, with ground, middle canopy, and upper emergent layers to consider.

Oxford Botanic Garden, UK / James Hitchmough
Meadow garden / James Hitchmough

Management of meadows must also be considered. Cutting helps manage weeds, but the cut material must be removed. Other practices, such as grazing and mowing are more suitable in some climactic zones or scales.

The complexity of meadows offers a lot of opportunities for the meadow designer, but also several possible pitfalls. Sowing Beauty, gracefully, does not deal in vagaries. Need to know a handful of species with high-design potential found within Rocky Mountain steppe communities? That’s on page 77.

The back half of the book is composed of case studies of Hitchmough’s own projects. Each case study is documented with species used, target numbers for seedlings, and the total plants required for each project. The projects discussed range in scale a from a couple hundred feet to over 24 acres (Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London). Each study has a “What Worked and What Didn’t” section, where Hitchmough discusses in detail the successes and failures of the project.

Planting a meadow / James Hitchmough
James Hitchmough at work / James Hitchmough

At one point during the film, I Heart Huckabee’s, the main character, an environmental activist, bemoans the over development of our landscape to the point “you can’t remember what happens when you stand in a meadow at dusk.”

“What happens in the meadow at dusk?,” asks an earnest Jonah Hill.

Some of us might smile at Hill’s ignorance, but too many others can relate. It would be wonderful if the advice and knowledge offered in Sowing Beauty resulted in many more of these endlessly-interesting and beautiful landscapes.

Cities and Biodiversity Hotspots on Collision Course

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The western hemisphere’s conflict zones / © 2017 Richard J. Weller, Claire Hoch, and Chieh Huang, Atlas for the End of the World, http://atlas-for-the-end-of-the-world.com.

Nearly 400 cities around the world are currently on a crash course with irreplaceable ecosystems, according to new research from Richard Weller, ASLA, professor and chair of the landscape architecture department at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, and researchers Claire Hoch and Chieh Huang. Weller shared his findings at the launch for the Atlas for the End of World, which maps these biologically-rich areas and the threats they face.

Agriculture and urbanization, fueled by population increase, pose the greatest threats to these ecosystems. Weller’s team discovered the coming conflict zones by overlaying cities’ 2030 growth projections with maps of threatened species’ habitats.

Some 142 nations preside over biological hotspots. Under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, a multilateral treaty that sets guidelines for protecting biological assets, each signatory nation must set forth a strategy for protecting its biologically-rich areas. Using the Atlas, a country’s officials can determine where they should focus their conservation efforts.

Global conservation efforts have been underway for some time. Policies have been enacted to protect certain species and rehabilitate or fence off biologically-rich habitat. One of the Atlas’ maps visualizes all large-scale restoration projects, both planned and underway, globally. These efforts are “historically unprecedented and mark an evolutionary paradigm shift,” Weller said.

But, unfortunately, these conservation efforts are also fragmented and diminished in impact, as most occur outside of the hotspots. Weller drove this point home with an image of what he termed a “global archipelago,” the Earth’s landmass minus its unprotected areas. The result of this subtraction is a system of small, isolated patches of conserved land.

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What’s left of the world’s biodiversity in protected areas / © 2017 Richard J. Weller, Claire Hoch, and Chieh Huang, Atlas for the End of the World, http://atlas-for-the-end-of-the-world.com.

For conservation to have a meaningful impact, it must protect biologically-rich areas, and these areas must connect with one another. A new era of large-scale landscape planning is needed.

Complicating the issue, Weller acknowledged, is the fact that many hotspots occur within countries struggling with poverty and corruption. The man who logs illegally for lack of other work won’t abide by policies that favor habitat over his family.

At the launch, Eugenie Birch, professor of urban research at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, suggested the protection of hotspots was tied up not just with food production and development, but larger themes of inequality and conflict. Solving conflicts would help to solve the other issues.

Weller emphasized the Atlas’s goals are modest. To solve the complex issues facing these hotspots, planners and landscape architects must get on the ground and work with stakeholders to intelligently guide development. Now, at least, they have maps to point them in the right direction.

Read Weller’s summary of the research.

Book Review: Seeing The Better City

Seeing the Better City / Island Press

In her book The Eye Is a Door, landscape architecture professor Anne Whiston Spirn, FASLA, contemplates the ubiquity of the digital camera. “Never have so many people owned cameras,” and never have images been disbursed so widely.  “Our world is being recorded,” Spirn writes. “But to what end?”

Author Charles Wolfe proposes an end in his new book Seeing the Better City. And that end, suggests this environmental and land-use lawyer, is the improvement of urban environments. The first job of the book, a how-to guide on maintaining a photographic diary, is to answer the obvious question: what role do photographs play in improving cities?

Every day, Wolfe writes, people living in cities encounter changing skylines and neighborhoods. They often have strong opinions on those changes. Oral arguments are made and editorials are written advising on what changes should be made, and often these arguments lack even the most basic visual aid of a photograph. Perhaps the term “multi-family housing” conjures a specific image in your head. But if assessing whether a multi-family unit belongs in your neighborhood, you’d have an advantage if you could view precedents.

Still, there’s a gulf between taking photos and improving cities. How does one apply what can be gleaned from photographs to the world of decision makers and developers? Wolfe offers several case studies of projects that make use of community photography to inform civic debates.

WALKscope in Denver has users submit photos of sidewalk quality, obstructions, amenities, and maps those observations. California King Tides invites users to submit photos of the sea taken at high tide to spread awareness about sea-level rise. Beyond these novel uses of photos, the simple incorporation of photos into presentations that inform civic decisions would greatly improve the decision-making process, Wolfe argues.

As a guide for becoming a better observer, Seeing the Better City is highly successful. Wolfe provides a structured template for an urban diary, but invites readers to construct their own.

As for actually shooting photos, Wolfe eschews prescribing techniques in favor of offering basic guidelines. He draws upon well-regarded photographers such as Ansel Adams and other visual thinkers. Diarists should know to make a photo, not just take one. Light is critical, as is where one stands. People are more critical still. Visit locations multiple times; light changes, but so do uses, the presence of people and animals, and small details such as litter. Juxtaposing the old and new can be interesting, if a bit derivative. Juxtaposing form, material, and use can yield rich photos.

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Google Street View can be very useful for discussing elements of the urban environment, Charles Wolfe suggests. / Google Street View

Wolfe wants us to ask ourselves: what is being evaluated through our lens? Wolfe provides 10 parameters for seeing the city. The relation of building to street, standards for roads and signage, and the role of nature are just a few.

Wolfe also suggests activities for inaugurating a diary, such as visiting your five favorite neighborhoods and recording the sights and sounds you encounter, filming your next bike ride, or writing a couple paragraphs about your morning commute.

Many people effectively keep an urban diary without realizing it. The next step is to organize one’s thoughts and photos, reflect on them, and build off them.

Scattered through Seeing the Better City are Wolfe’s anecdotes on his own diary keeping. His observations often demonstrate a deep knowledge of urban policy and land-use issues. Your observations may not, at least initially. But at the very least, urban diaries expand the diarist’s understanding of their city, and that’s enough to start the process of improvement.

Toward a Unified Theory of Landscape Architecture

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Landscape Architecture Theory / Island Press

Our ecological practices tend to lag behind our ecological understanding. We know, for instance, the unmitigated release of greenhouse gasses destabilizes the climate, yet we’re slow to act on this knowledge. This can be frustrating. But often it benefits a cause to stop and reflect on what is known. This can help bring our knowledge and actions into alignment. Landscape Architecture Theory: An Ecological Approach by Texas A&M University emeritus professor Michael Murphy, ASLA, does exactly this, codifying what landscape architecture knows, so that thoughts and actions may one day be on the same page.

So what does landscape architecture know? More than you might realize. Landscape Architecture Theory is intended as a sort of textbook, so Murphy does his best to cover a lot of ground in relatively few pages. The reader is first introduced to terms like landscape, architecture, and design, as well as the importance of the cultural vantage point from which we view landscape. (Landscape is a tract of land, yes, but also a commodity). The rest of the book is divided into two parts covering substantive and procedural theory. The former “describes the knowledge used to frame and inform design interventions.” The latter gets at how that knowledge is applied.

The result of this approach is an instructional, highly-narrative book that strikes on the fundamentals while stepping lightly through complex subjects. Within a matter of pages, the reader is acquainted with the human propensity for resource extraction inefficiency, the prospect-refuge theory, and a systems approach to landscape. And, surprisingly, the progression feels quite natural.

This distillation of a huge number of important ideas into a quick and coherent format is the blueprint for a go-to book. Landscape Architecture Theory is eminently useful and widely applicable. It’s difficult to recall another book that serves as a primer on the behavioral dimensions of space, traffic circulation, and hydrologic dynamics, among other subjects. There is not a single landscape architecture student who wouldn’t benefit from reading this book cover to cover, and general readers will appreciate its simple and direct treatment of even widely understood subjects.

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The author refers to the Via Appia, in Rome, as an example of the human-dominated landscape. / Wikimedia Commons

Murphy outlines the knowledge that can help us reach goals. Here, he gets abstract, proposing landscape architecture’s purpose is “to change, with each new design, our concepts about how to learn from and reform the ordinary landscapes that shape and inspire our daily lives.” Experimental and innovative design, underpinned by theory, is what moves landscape architecture forward. But while designs may take on extravagant forms, the purpose of landscape architecture remains humble: to benefit “the streets, parks, neighborhoods, schools, shops, offices, and factories where people work and play each day of their lives.”

“We are still in the early stages of forming a coherent theory of landscape architecture,” Murphy cautions. Despite the impressive body of knowledge contained between its two covers, design excellence won’t be achieved by all those designers who read Landscape Architecture Theory. As Murphy acknowledges, one of the main challenges in achieving design excellence is the body of knowledge informing landscape architecture keeps growing while each design success pushes the bar for excellence higher. Viewed in a certain way, that’s a very exciting prospect.

Clean Water for Everyone Who Lives in a City

Water Infrastructure / Columbia University Press
Water Infrastructure / Columbia University Press

Water Infrastructure: Equitable Deployment of Resilient Systems is an important, timely book. Synthesized from discussions leading up to Habitat III, the United Nations conference on housing and sustainable urban development, held in Quito, Ecuador last October, the book explains how to better provide clean water to everyone in the world’s cities by making water systems more equitable and resilient to shocks. A perfunctory foreword by Kate Orff, ASLA, demonstrates how refreshingly unpretentious this book is: lines crammed together, a minor typo halfway through, as if to say, who cares about formatting? Get the ideas out there.

With that, Water Infrastructure, written by Columbia University professors S. Bry Sarte and Morana Stipisic, hits the ground running. What threatens the sources of clean water in cities? The authors offer a highly-visual drive-by tour of the risks: water pollution, sea level rise, terrestrial flooding, drought, and failing infrastructure. The tremendous speed of urbanization increases the risks and leaves us in need of better solutions.

Water Infrastructure doesn’t offer sure-fire solutions, but does provide exciting real-world innovations. These innovations aren’t just technological, but fall into the realms of ecology, finance, and equity. All share a similar DNA: they’re decentralized, adaptable, and rational.

The book diagrams which innovations can be applied to specific risks. Confronted with aging infrastructure? Integrated micro-infrastructure centers (IMICs) could help. These are modular water systems that can stand alone or complement aging infrastructure. They can be tailored to local conditions and mitigate damage in case of a centralized system’s failure. IMICs are an ideal response to aging infrastructure, but one can see how they could help reduce water pollution by reducing the overall load on a system.

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Emory University’s IMIC reduces the load on public water infrastrucuture / Water Infrastructure

Landscape architects will be familiar with the ecological innovations Water Infrastructure touts. “The integration of high performance ecology in an urban context” (the unartful name of one innovation) covers both hard and soft coastal buffers, floodable parks and public spaces, and methods for reducing the urban heat island effect. It’s a concern, though, that these items are considered innovations, with the edginess that label connotes, and not standard practice. But one should consider that 20 years ago, at the time of the Habitat II conference, these ideas were fringe at best. Resilient and sustainable landscape design has come a long way.

What constitutes a financial innovation? New ways of sourcing money, and new sources of said money. This section is a bit light. And some of the innovations’ intent could be compromised through privatization. The authors make two useful suggestions: encourage community-based implementation of water infrastructure, akin to Grameen Bank’s model, and use public health benefits to drive funding for these systems.

Innovations in equity, leadership, and governance pick up where these community-centric ideas leave off. The authors’ key policy suggestions here include designing legal and financial systems for community ownership of water infrastructure. The authors write that the “personality of a community can be expressed by the choice of infrastructure and its implementation.” More than that, communities would hold a vested interest in that infrastructure, which would likely lead to greater appreciation and upkeep.

A noteworthy recommendation is leveraging infrastructure’s “cool factor” to create more of it. This is an astonishing comment on the state of things, that plumbing can be art. Any yet it’s increasingly the case, with examples such as Google’s data Center in Douglas County, Georgia, and Ned Kahn’s Cloud Portal in San Francisco.

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Google’s data center in Georgia uses recycled water for cooling operations. / Georgia Globe Design News

Leveraging coolness in a project isn’t always possible. And this recommendation, while alluring, shouldn’t overshadow the book’s other solid and potentially transforming ideas. But its inclusion shows that the authors and participants of Habitat III have considered all aspects of water infrastructure and are excited to share their findings.

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.