In Local Code, Nicholas de Monchaux pushes us to assign new value to forgotten pieces of our urban fabric – the dead-end alley, the vacant corner lot; infrastructure’s leftovers. While many cities deem vacant parcels as unusable remnants of development, Local Code makes the case for aggregating them to build urban resilience.
To visualize the opportunities, de Monchaux, an associate professor of architecture and urban design at the University of California, Berkeley, uses data on vacant public land in four cities – San Francisco; Los Angeles; Venice, Italy; and New York City. He then translates the data into a series of diagrams and drawings that show the scale and types of these dormant landscapes.
In San Francisco, for example, what the city’s department of public works refers to as “unaccepted streets” – right-of-ways the city does not maintain — make up the equivalent surface area to Golden Gate Park (over 1,000 acres). New York and Los Angeles have “underutilized parcels.” Los Angeles also has space under billboards, while Venice has a “lagoon” of abandoned islands.
De Monchaux highlights what he calls the “institutional invisibility” of these spaces, showing how they coincide with higher levels of household poverty, urban heat islands, crime, and asthma. Then, de Monchaux shows how bioswales, drought-tolerant planting, and porous paving could help reduce these problem areas.
The result is a multitude of diagrams and drawings that demonstrate a scope of opportunities, rather than predetermined results. By addressing sites where these issues are most acute, de Monchaux argues that cities can build a spatial network to improve environmental circulation and function of urban ecosystems, which can even help cities spend more wisely on public works.
Proposals also focus on intertwined social issues. In New York City, where as de Monchaux notes, there have been many resiliency-related rebuilding efforts since Hurricane Sandy in 2012, but most of which haven’t focused on improving quality of life in low-income neighborhoods. De Monchaux writes: “Combining stormwater and heat-island mediation with the creation of shared public space, the investment proposed here is one equally focused on the everyday resilience of communities as in episodic resilience to disaster.”
Scattered between the case studies are essays about the lives and professional contributions of three key figures – artist Gordon Matta-Clark, urban theorist Jane Jacobs, and architect Howard Fisher. In recalling these stories, Local Code acknowledges the painstaking data collection efforts of visionaries in urban design before the instant gratification of geographic information systems (GIS), which makes possible the book’s 3,659 proposals.
These essays make up a substantial portion of the text and give Local Code a character-driven quality to an otherwise data-heavy book. De Monchaux acknowledges in the introduction that “an abundance of data is not knowledge.” To that end, the historical essays give context on how cities function and adapt in response to environmental and social change.
To fully grasp Monchaux’s planning and design proposals may require experience in design, or at least visual communication, but the historical essays speak to a broader audience interested in cities, as does the optimistic approach to vacant parcels. Ultimately, Local Code encourages us to read between the lines, or buildings, and see new opportunities in forgotten spaces.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and his parks commissioner Mitchell Silver, Hon. ASLA, want the city’s massive park system — which covers 30,000 acres, some 14 percent of the city’s land — to be fairer. For too long, some neighborhoods have had wonderful, high-quality public spaces, while others have had parks that don’t meet contemporary needs and have fallen into disrepair. As Silver said in an interview with The Dirt: “Every neighborhood deserves to have a quality space. We want everyone to be within a ten minute walk to a park. But it’s not just the proximity, we want that park to be a quality park.” The park department’s Community Parks Initiative (CPI) — which rebuilds or significantly improves parks that have not seen any capital investment in 25 years — is one of the central efforts for achieving this goal. At the American Planning Association’s annual conference in New York City, Silver and others explained how the city’s already improving park equity — and setting a new model for other cities to follow.
Exploring all of NYC’s five boroughs, Silver has discovered people want the parks department to “break up all the pavement and add more green. They want more spray showers, dog runs, adult fitness equipment, and colorful places.” Communities also want “multi-generational social seating,” with benches for older residents and playgrounds for kids.
The CPI uses a “data-driven methodology” to identify the parks it will redesign or improve, explained Alyssa Konon, with the NYC parks department. They have identified 215 parks, plazas, and playgrounds in areas with high levels of poverty and inequality that especially need help. Some 56 comprehensive park redos have been started, and 11 more will start this fall. There have been targeted improvements in another 86. To date, some 55 neighborhoods, which are home to half a million NYers, now enjoy improved park space.
While about $1 billion in capital is needed for all 215 spaces, they also need “support, partnerships, programs, and maintenance.” Konon said NYC Parks is also ramping up programmatic support for these parks, partnering with other city departments and non-profits. NYC residents have already benefited from 130 outdoor exercise classes organized by the parks department. There are 15 staff members who just focus on partnerships, helping to coordinate the 33,000 volunteers who donate their time in hundreds of parks. There are now some 48 parks friends groups.
Susannah Drake, FASLA, DLandStudio, a landscape architect who is a consultant with the parks department, believes “every community can have an incredible park.” She is redesigning a few older parks and playgrounds in Staten Island, working with communities to explore the “ecology, history, culture” of these spaces and strike the right balance between “passive and active uses.” She said parks department-led public planning sessions are particularly “humane,” as they schedule them when single parents can attend and also offer good food, so those parents can bring their kids along. “It’s a small thing, but it makes a huge difference.”
So that communities don’t get “park fatigue” waiting forever for changes to happen, Silver and his team have “transformed the capital development process,” Drake said. “Parks now happen a lot more quickly — in just two years,” instead of the typical four-to-five year cycle. “Whereas before we had five community design meetings, now we have two.” Silver said his goal has been to “streamline the process, because there are just too many regulations.”
New York City Council member Mark Levine explained how many of the city’s parks got into such dire straits in the first place. “In the 70s and 80s, the rough years in the city, the parks budget dropped and never recovered.” Now, parks only get 0.5 percent of the city budget, just $344 million out of $70 billion.
Levine thinks the CPI is a great initiative, but parks overall just need more money, particularly in neighborhoods like East Harlem and the South Bronx, which have been up-zoned and are becoming more dense, and, therefore, need more high-quality public spaces. “Parks need to be considered part of new infrastructure.”
Seoul is the latest cities to reclaim a piece of aging infrastructure for public use. Last month, South Korea’s capital city opened Seoullo 7017 Skygarden, an inner-city freeway transformed into a pedestrian artery and botanical garden.
The elevated public park was designed by Dutch architects and urban designers MVRDV as a series of gardens with 24,000 trees, shrubs, and flowers. Fifty plant families and 228 species and sub-species are organized according to the Korean alphabet along the pedestrian-only walkway.
Ben Kuipers, lead landscape architect on the project, said the unique arrangement highlights plant nuances. “The species are organized by genus and family. So people can experience the differences between species,” he wrote in an email. “There are small, themed gardens, like the maple garden and the pine tree garden, and a surprising contrast walking from family to family, in Korean alphabetical order.”
Over 600 concrete planters dot the approximately 3,000-foot linear park, which stretches across the city’s central train station and connects the Namdaemun market area to the east and neighborhoods to the west. Each pot has nameplate identifying the plants in both Latin and Korean. At night, the pots are illuminated in blue and white.
“The trees are the stars,” Kuipers said. “We turned the bridge into a ‘walk of fame’ with every tree in a pot like on a pedestal. And every season shows different features.”
With over one million visitors in the first 10 days, Kuipers said the high volume shows the concept resonates. “We wanted to create not just a pedestrian connection, but also a place to visit, be, and meet people. Therefore, we also added ‘activators,’ such as little shops and cafes.”
MVRDV won an international competition in 2015 held by the Seoul Metropolitan Government for the design of the park with their entry, The Seoul Arboretum.
The original freeway, known as the Seoul Station overpass, was built in 1970 at the heart of a city undergoing rapid economic and population growth. The structure was slated for demolition after a 2006 safety assessment determined it would soon be unsafe for vehicular use. Officials ultimately decided to recycle the freeway, incorporating the structure into its plan to make the city more walkable.
“This overpass has special meaning because it represents Seoul’s modernity,” Kim Joon Kee, deputy mayor of safety management for the Seoul Metropolitan Government, told CNN in 2016, as construction was underway. “It was built to relieve traffic congestion and, after 30 years, it became worn down, so we saw an opportunity for the city’s development.”
The name, Seoullo 7017, pays homage to the transformation of the freeway over time. The word Seoullo means “Seoul road,” and the numbers 70 and 17 reference its original constructed and when it reopened to pedestrian traffic, according to The Korea Times.
Implementing such a diverse planting design on an aging freeway structure came with a unique set of challenges. Kupiers explained there was little space for soil for the roots, given the load-bearing limitations and the inclination of the bridge destabilizes the soil. Designers also considered the safety of pedestrians and vehicles, ensuring no branches or trees would fall on the road or railway tracks below.
Furthermore, in a region with hot summers, cold winters, and typhoons, Seoul’s varied climate also posed a challenge. “We decided to create the right conditions for trees, shrubs and plants [by] making huge tree pots. These pots are isolated to prevent freezing and have a drainage, irrigation, and aeration system,” Kuipers explained.
The arrangement of over 600 pots, in varying sizes and depths, adds a distinctive, constructed quality to the design, a departure from the more organic style seen in many landscape designs in Asia, Kuipers said.
MVRDV’s design envisions the skygarden as an “urban nursery.” Kuipers said they plan to use the bridge in combination with the city’s own tree nursery to grow new trees and species, eventually distributing the pots along pedestrian routes in additional neighborhoods.
Seoul is hardly the first city to build an elevated urban walkway. Many have drawn connections between this project and New York City’s High Line. In fact, Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon was inspired by the famous James Corner Field Operations’ project, according to the The Korean Times. Still, the projects differ in their relationship to the surrounding urban fabric and the way they use plants.
“Although the High Line is a great example, Seoullo is different in many ways,” Kuipers said, noting the Seoullo Skygarden’s elevated views of the city and central location at Seoul Station in the heart of the city.
Planned WWI Memorial in D.C. to Use Pool Concept, Restore Park – Curbed DC, 5/19/17
“This Thursday, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) evaluated the concept plan for the planned WWI Memorial in Washington, D.C.’s Pershing Park, a memorial plaza only blocks from the White House that for years has been neglected.”
MVRDV’s Elevated Skygarden Opens on Former Highway in Seoul– Designboom, 5/22/17
“Weaving its way through the urban landscape of Seoul, South Korea, a new sky garden realized by MVRDV has been built on a former inner city highway. Named ‘Seoullo’, the public 983-meter-long park has been planted with 50 families of greenery, including trees, shrubs and flowers displayed in 645 tree pots, collecting around 228 species and sub-species.”
West 8’s Proposal for NYC’s Largest Private Garden at One Manhattan Square– 6sqft, 5/23/17
“The proposal, designed by urban planning and landscape architecture firm West 8, includes more than an acre of garden space for residents to both work and socialize, boasting indoor and outdoor grilling spaces, ping-pong tables, a putting green, children’s playground, adult tree house, tea pavilion, and an observatory made for stargazing.”
Mud Makes a Comeback in Suburbia– The Houston Chronicle, 5/30/17
“Generations ago, vast swaths of wetlands were tilled for space to grow rice, and a few generations later those rice fields were turned into posh sprawling suburbs, like Riverstone in Sugar Land.”
Take a Look at the Renderings for First and Broadway Park in Los Angeles – Archinect, 5/30/17
“Back in June of 2016, Mia Lehrer + Associates won the competition, beating out Eric Owen Moss Architects, Brooks + Scarpa, and AECOM, to design the two-acre park at First Street and Broadway. After winning the competition, the firm has taken suggestions from the Downtown community, altering their plans for the design.”
In 1960s New York City, gay men and lesbians were routinely harassed by the police vice squad. The few bars in Greenwich Village that would serve them were frequently raided. Gay men would also be assaulted by the police walking down the street. An estimated 100 gay men were arrested each week for gross indecency or public lewdness. On June 28, 1969, a typical police raid at the Mafia-run Stonewall Inn ended up very differently though: it led to a rebellion that launched a global civil rights movement. Patrons refused to leave the bar, telling the police that they can either let them dance in the bar, or they will dance out in the streets, but the harassment must end, explained Richard Landman, a land use lawyer who was actually there. He led us on a walking tour of LGBTQ history in the West Village at the American Planning Association annual meeting in New York City.
Landman, who himself was brutally gay-bashed four times, explained that the Stonewall Inn doesn’t look like it once did. The bar was bare-bones, with little seating. It was one of the few places were gay men and lesbians could dance. It has gone through a number of lives over the decades. It was gutted and became Bagel Nosh for a while, then renovated to look like a collegiate bar, as it does today. Part of it has since become a nail salon. But, with its designation as a historic landmark in 2000 by New York City, the facade was protected. And when President Obama created the Stonewall National Monument in 2016, the bar facade, nearby Christopher Street Park, and the surrounding sidewalks became protected in perpetuity.
The park and surrounding streets were critical to the rebellion, explained Michael Levine, an urban planner who was also at Stonewall Inn the night the movement began. As “Puerto Rican drag queens faced off against Irish cops, shouting ‘we’re not leaving,'” the open space in the triangle just south of Christopher Street Park became important — it allowed the crowd to expand and the protest to grow in strength. “Open space in the public realm invites things to happen.” (That space was covered in trees and plants in 2001).
Levine said the rebellion was about making a statement. “If you don’t let us dance inside, then we’re going to dance outside in the streets. It wasn’t a riot; it was a rebellion.” Levine said it was a simple message, but so significant. “We wanted to stand up for our rights. We’re coming out and standing up.”
After the first night of rebellion on a Friday, protestors came back five or six consecutive nights. “On Saturday night, we danced again in the streets. That really embarrassed City Hall, so they sent reinforcements, and there was a nasty confrontation. Sunday night was really frightening, because the Mayor had had enough. Tactical police arrived and blocked 6th and 7th avenues. By Monday, the national press had broken the story.” Levine emphasized that drag queens, who started the rebellion against the police, “gave us gay liberation. We can never forget that.”
The vice squad police who raided the bar weren’t from the local precinct, so they didn’t know the tangle of streets down in the Village well. “Protestors would run down side streets and circle back, eluding the police. The lack of the grid then also enabled the rebellion,” Levine explained.
“It couldn’t have happened without the irregular streets and open space.” He added, laughing: “the police were really embarrassed — gay bar patrons had them running in circles.”
Continuing the tour over drinks at the Stonewall Inn, where they are crafting a new cocktail called “The Park Ranger,” Joshua Laird, commissioner of the National Parks of New York Harbor, which is responsible for the national parks that surround New York City, said the National Park Service (NPS) realized it wasn’t telling the story of civil rights well. “Our new focus is to cover the stories of Latino immigration, LGBTQ civil rights, and Japanese internment.” LGBTQ heritage in the U.S. has become one of the park service’s thematic areas, but it took a number of years to finally happen.
The NPS carefully examined Stonewall before proposing its designation as a National Monument. “We looked at a number of other sites, but Stonewall was really the turning point. Organizations around the world put Stonewall in their names.”
Christopher Street Park is the “legal heart” of the monument, but it extends to the surrounding sidewalks and the Stonewall Inn building facade, all spaces important to the rebellion, as Levine explained.
Next, the NPS will undertake a planning process in which they will reach out to scholars, the LGBTQ community, and general public to figure out how we can “best tell the story.” The NPS hopes to go beyond Stonewall. “This is the beginning, not the end of the story,” Laird explained.
Indeed, Stonewall, which is still a functioning gay bar, and Christopher Street Park, an active neighborhood park, are “living history,” so the NPS needs to create a new model. “We can’t just plant a park ranger there with some brochures,” Levine said. “But we also don’t want it to turn into a circus.”
“A thousand years ago, China was very corrupt and chaotic. During the New Year celebrations, it was especially chaotic. This upset the gods. They didn’t like people to indulge too much,” explained artist Cai Guo-Qiang, in his New York City studio. “On the 15th of January, they decided to punish people by putting fire to the city. The god’s daughter was worried and came down to notify the people about the plan. The people lit thousands of lanterns. The god, looking down from the sky, saw the city was already on fire. He was pleased; the job had been done.” While there are many versions of the folk tale that inspired the Chinese Lantern Festival, Cai Guo Qiang connects with this one.
Now, Cai is bringing his story of Chinese lanterns to Philadelphia’s Benjamin Frankin Parkway this September. Fireflies, his first public work since 2009, will bring 27 custom-built, lantern-laden pedicabs up and down the parkway in a choreographed pattern. Seen from above, they will dazzle like a summer evening alive with fireflies.
People will be able to jump on and off for rides. But amid all the fun, Cai seeks to “warn society against the indulgence we are now enjoying.” If we look at the lanterns, “we can guard against that.”
Fireflies is organized by Philadelphia’s excellent Association for Public Art, headed by Penny Balkin Bach, and guest public art curator Lance Fung, founder of Fung Collaborative. Cai was receptive because he knew Philadelphia from his 2009 art work there: Fallen Blossoms, a giant firecracker flower that exploded in the front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
At the preview of Fireflies in Cai’s studio in New York City, Balkin Bach said the illuminated art work will bring “new life to the parkway at night, making it a destination.” She said in contrast to Cai’s famous exploding art works, this piece has a lightheartedness.
Fung said, in the past, “Chinesey-ness was a derogatory term.” But Fireflies makes the stories from Cai’s upbringing, the stories from this gifted Chinese American immigrant, accessible to a wider audience. “Fireflies is social advocacy, with a deep empathy and understanding.”
Cai himself said he was inspired by Benjamin Frankin Parkway, with its rows of flags of countries around the world. “The parkway commemorates the diversity of immigrants.” The light from hundreds of lanterns will “illuminate” the uniquely American melting pot.
Fireflies opens September 14 and runs 6-10 pm, Thursday through Sunday, until October 8. Rides will be free and open to everyone.
See a brief video of this exciting artist’s work:
First video credit: Cai Guo-Qiang Fireflies, video by Studio 33.
As our cities evolve, and what people want from their public spaces changes, should Modernist parks, plazas, and streets be saved? For lovers of Modernism, the answer is always yes. But, in reality, if the public, and their representatives, choose to keep these spaces, many will need to better respond to contemporary expectations. The question then is how can they be “respectfully honored and adapted?,” asked Brad McKee, editor of Landscape Architecture Magazine, in an event at the National Building Museum at Washington, D.C.
First, we better answer: what are Modernist landscapes? For Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Virginia, they are characterized by their use of “spatial free plans, which have intentionally volumetric spaces that are not bound.” These landscapes came out of the functionalism movement, other Modernist arts and design fields, and asymmetrical aesthetics. These parks, plazas, and streets were designed and constructed after World War II and into the 80s. They often feature a juxtaposition of forms, textures, and colors, creating duality between “soft and hard, permanent and ephemeral.”
Modernist landscapes can’t be separated from the economic, political, and social environment that generated them. Many Modernist urban parks and plazas are deeply political, loaded sites. Many are intrinsically linked with the mistakes of urban renewal, in which communities were uprooted, due to racism, and replaced with new “monumental” buildings, infrastructure, and public spaces.
But they also came out stated good intentions, or at least some would argue. The goal behind those moves was to “improve the quality of life for everyone,” Meyer said. President Lyndon Johnson and his 1965 White House Conference on Natural Beauty, which was greatly influenced by his wife Lady Bird Johnson, argued that “everyone had the right to live in decent surroundings.” The American inner city, with its blight and poverty, then became a target for revitalization. The idea was to replace the dysfunction of the old with a modern urban world.
And these landscapes were the result of innovation. Modernist landscape architecture created new forms of public spaces, “hybrid spaces” that mixed plazas, parks, and playgrounds in new combinations, and built public spaces where none existed before. For example, in Seattle, landscape architect Lawrence Halprin turned an industrial site into a park and capped a freeway with another park (see image at top).
Beyond the racist history associated with some of these places, Meyer seemed to argue that Modernism doesn’t really work well at the grand scale of the most ambitious renewal-era projects. “The qualities of these spaces don’t operate when construed just as openness.” Despite the intentions of the designers, the reality is many of these places make visitors feel small and isolated. For example, the expansive plaza around Boston City Hall creates a “sense of exposure and unease, not sensuousness. It’s a difficult place to love.”
As noted urban designer Jan Gehl, author of Cities for People, remarked on Brasilia, the Modernist capital of Brazil, which was created by architect Oscar Niemeyer and planner Lucio Costa: “From the air it’s very interesting. It’s interesting for a bird or eagle. From the helicopter view, it has got wonderful districts with sharp and precise government buildings and residential buildings. However, nobody spent three minutes to think about what Brasilia would look like at the eye level.” These Modernist places are designed as forms first, he argues, then as spaces for humans to occupy second. As such, they aren’t really designed with the needs of people in mind.
So why preserve these places, some of which don’t work well for people who don’t have helicopters? Meyer seemed to argue that it’s important to keep some Modernist landscapes, because they are a record of an “era of modernization and urbanization.” Neighborhoods where poor African Americans and immigrants lived were bulldozed to make way “large new landscapes.” But also equally as important were the “small spaces” that were inserted into the existing urban fabric and meant to improve quality of life. “They were part of urban renewal efforts, too.”
Modernist landscapes were also the result of design and material innovations, as the field of landscape architecture grew dramatically in the post-war era. Given these spaces can be defined by experimentation, “it’s not surprising that some have failed. Some can’t survive.” But some can and should. As an example, Meyer pointed to the landscape created by I.M. Pei and Dan Kiley between the east and west wings of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. as a masterpiece.
And she argued that instead of letting these places decline due to lack of maintenance, they should be adapted, especially for climate change. Many of these “experiments for living” can benefit from strategic interventions to make them acceptable and relevant again while preserving their unique spatial designs.
Gary Hilderbrand, FASLA, a co-founder of Reed Hilderbrand, showed his firm’s efforts at respectfully update Modernist landscapes in Boston — the Boston City Hall Plaza, a “whopper,” and the Christian Science Plaza. For Hilderbrand, it’s important to “understand the original design intention and then how to interpret it” for our current era.
For the Boston City Hall, the intention was to create a “sense of monumentality.” Furthermore, the entire government center master plan by I.M. Pei aimed to create a sense of openness and connection between the city and state government offices. “Boston had been a corrupt place for 50 years. They were pitching a new Boston and using the landscape as a recuperative device.”
Clearing city block after block, which had been red-lined for disinvestment, the city government built a new center in the late 1960s.
Hilderbrand said the “problem was the new buildings were too large and the spaces too vast.” While the plaza was envisioned as a civic event space, and has been used as such in the past, it’s now wind swept and barren.
After Mayor Marty Walsh launched an ideas competition that Reed Hilderbrand won, design work has begun to move public functions in City Hall down to the ground level; punch holes for more windows in the looming Brutalist building, which was designed by Kallmann McKinnell & Knowles and Campbell, Aldrich & Nulty; create ramps up to the building; and add 100 trees to the courtyard. “We will increase shade cover from 3 percent to 9-10 percent, treat stormwater, and get people to the door accessibly. This is actually a return to some of the original intentions.”
And Reed Hilderbrand helped persuade the Christian Science Church not to cut a pathway through the 700-foot-long reflecting pool in their 14-acre Christian Science Plaza, designed by Araldo Cossutta of I. M. Pei & Associates and landscape architects at Sasaski Associates. Hilderbrand’s firm created a healthier environment for the 200 original Linden trees arranged in allees and created new sustainable gardens amid the seating along the pool. He said there’s a “compulsion to move around the pool.” It’s another vast space without much shade.
The debate over whether Modernism is good for cities will no likely continue, but some argue that remnants of this singular era in American urban planning and design shouldn’t be destroyed but renewed. Organizations like The Cultural Landscape Foundation advocate for the preservation and adaptation of Modernist landscapes. As McKee noted, “just ‘pickling’ a project,” meaning preserving a project exactly like it was when it was created, “doesn’t work anymore.” Meanwhile, residents of cities decide with their feet where they want to be, and, at public meetings, use their voice to make clear what they want in public spaces.
John Beardsley, director of garden and landscape studies at Dumbarton Oaks, opened the Landscapes of Pre-Industrial Cities symposium in Washington, D.C. with a promise that the invited speakers would explore “the origins and future trajectories of urban landscapes” — shedding light, through case studies spanning millennia, on the complex evolutions and experiences of urban settlements over time.
Two days later, after 13 scholars of archaeology, art, and anthropology had presented their work, Beardsley, asked: “When we look back at these pre-industrial cities, are we seeing what we want to see? I’ve heard a lot about flexibility, resilience, multiplicity, diversity, ecological socialism, self-organization — these are all very contemporary values and things that we want to see in our cities now.” Beardsley posed: “Are we projecting these values back in a mistaken way, or are we excavating earlier adaptations that provide useful lessons for us?”
Tim Murtha, a professor at Pennsylvania State University, offered a response: “I think the answer is both. And that’s the hardest thing for an archaeologist to say, but I’m okay saying it because I teach in a landscape architecture department.”
Murtha continued: “What if that’s not a problem? What if that allows us to start thinking about present cities and future cities and exposing those values as part of our archaeological imagination?”
Murtha’s work in the ancient Mayan lowlands has challenged the archaeological imagination of his predecessors, who largely focused on the structural and engineering feats of population centers and treated regional landscapes as peripheral and less significant. Murtha has used LiDAR, a remote sensing technology, and climate and hydrologic modeling to explore regional landscapes from eastern Veracruz to the northern tip of Yucatan (see image above).
He found evidence of intricate and highly-varied patterns of terraces, reservoirs, and field boundaries, seemingly formed in response to their geological surroundings and without reference or connection to the nearest city.
“Households dominated these landscapes in a regionally-expressive mosaic,” Murtha said, suggesting that archaeologists and planners “need to concentrate less on the potential exceptionalism of our places and density-dependent analysis, and pay more attention to the regional narratives of landscapes and households as expressions of coupled human and natural systems.”
Archaeologists are also using LiDAR in Cambodia to enrich our understanding of an ancient landscape that today is dominated by temple architecture. J. B. Chevance, with the Archaeology and Development Foundation’s Phnom Kulen Program in Cambodia, and Christophe Pottier, Ecole francaise d’Extreme-Orient in Paris, said remote sensing technology coupled with field work has allowed archaeologists to situate the spectacular historic temples of Angkor within a similarly spectacular historic landscape, which over hundreds of years saw deforestation, diversion of rivers, and the construction of hydraulic channels and agricultural fields to serve shifting human settlements.
Chevance’s work focuses on Phnom Kulen, the birthplace and early capital of the Khmer empire, located close to the Angkor World Heritage Site but largely unexplored. Chevance said that for years the archaeological approach to the Khmer empire considered only the remains of monumental architecture, sculpture, and inscriptions. “Studies were therefore mostly oriented toward the elites, religious architecture and religion, whereas the common life and the territorial approach were not relayed.”
Pottier said the emergence of LiDAR technology in the mid-1990s allowed archaeologists to see beyond the narrative of Angkor urbanism as “a story of boxes and squares,” a narrative that he said was developed largely by architects taken by the geometries of Angkor’s monumental remains.
Pottier instead traced the more recent LiDAR-enabled discoveries of regional networks of roads, canals, rice fields, and small-scale ponds and temples that defined the forms of dispersed population centers, which themselves shifted over hundreds of years, often rebuilding in a way that incorporated sites that had been abandoned but were formerly significant. He contrasted this new understanding of a complex human landscape with the popular vision of Angkor as a city of temples amid a green jungle.
“These are two completely different versions of urbanism and territorial development,” Pottier said. “The vision of Angkor itself is only a matter of how you map it.”
Georges Farhat, a symposium organizer from the University of Toronto, also addressed the role of representation, along with the potential pitfalls of examining ancient cities through a modern Western lens.
“We heard over the course of these two days issues of representation suggesting that what we see defines what we think, and what we are able to visualize will determine what we will be able to understand,” Farhat said. “We also heard about the importance of excavating patterns the way you excavate fossils — it determines what you conclude or draw from the field.”
Timothy Pauketat, a professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said that in his work to understand Cahokia, a pre-historic Native American city in present-day Illinois, he attempts to align his “scientific Western approach” with a sensory one, imagining how the experience of the swampy site along the Mississippi River might have inspired the people who built the waterways, residential neighborhoods, and monumental precincts that defined Cahokian urbanism.
Early archaeologists at Cahokia assumed the site was never inhabited by humans, Pauketat said, because of their own inability to imagine that people might select to live among what Charles Dickens described, when he passed through Cahokia’s eroding earthen monuments on an American tour, as “a swamp, the bush, the perpetual chorus of frogs, the rank unseemly growth and the unwholesome steaming earth.”
Pauketat offered: “But what if the auditory affects of the frogs that bedeviled Dickens were positive, entangled with the experiential aspects of a place of fertile soil, life-giving rains, and sweet flavors of an exotic and water-sensitive plant? That it’s quite possibly the pre-urban landscape of this region, with embodied spiritual energies of water and weather and fertility, that might attract people?”
Michael Heckenberger, a professor at University of Florida who studies the experiential aspects of past and present Amazonian building and planning practices, has worked with the indigenous Kuikuro community in the Upper Xingu region of Brazil to uncover pre-Columbian roads that connected a dense network of towns and villages nestled within the Amazon. Heckenberger said that from the scale of the house to the scale of the region, the design of places was in relation and proportion to the human form and physical context, in what he called “a corporeal and relational calculus.”
In describing his ongoing partnership with the Kuikuro, Heckenberger advocated more broadly for dialogue with peoples and places that can offer lessons about the design of settlements that serve human and ecological health.
Priyaleen Singh, at the School of Planning and Architecture in New Delhi, advocated the same in her case studies on the disparate development trajectories of Old and New Bhubaneswar in India. Old Bhubaneswar was built from the sixth to ninth centuries C.E. as a pilgrimage center, with distinctive temple architecture, a network of pools, or tanks, and a wealth of open spaces integrated into the urban fabric in the form of courtyards and shade-giving groves. New Bhubaneswar, planned by Otto Koenigsberger in the 1950s, adhered to Western planning practices of the time, separating districts by use and, Singh argues, eschewing the human scale.
“Natural ecology and cultural ecology were overtly interwoven and expressed in design forms and other cultural expressions of the open spaces in Old Bhubaneswar,” Singh said. “Temple tanks and groves — besides constituting the genius of the place and giving meaning to the landscape — also ensured that nature was both respected and integrated with the everyday life and experience of the people. Traditional design vocabularies encouraged a participatory relationship with nature, encouraging an experiential aesthetics as opposed to a purely visual one.”
Singh pointed in contrast to mono-functional green spaces, slick nature-themed marketing, and the growing dominance of non-native plant species within New Bhubaneswar development. “In New Bhubaneswar, nature and its elements have been reduced to a mere beautification exercise, and image-making has overshadowed the more real ecological demands.”
Over two days, speakers at the Landscapes of Pre-Industrial Cities symposium at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. grappled with questions like: How do cities evolve? Why do they form in the first place? To what extent are they shaped by their place, and to what extent by their inhabitants?
Monica Smith, University of California at Los Angeles, made a claim that continued to surface and provoke throughout the symposium: “Rural places do not need cities,” she said. “After all, dispersed rural settlement is the ancestral condition of our species. For a million years, our species was grouped into configurations no larger than the number of people in this room.”
Smith studies the history of human settlement in the “monsoon belt” of the Indian subcontinent, where sweltering-hot summers end with long deluges of rain. Smith is interested in how dramatic climates and abundant water affect the form and lived experience of cities and how they define the relationship between cities and their rural hinterlands.
She described “landscapes of provisioning,” in which urban cores draw food, resources, and labor from their rural surroundings, and in which a variety of rural settlements, including small towns and monasteries, continue the flow of resources to cities, even in times of catastrophic flood or earthquake.
Despite the risks in relying on such an arrangement, Smith said, “in the relatively short archaeological time period of about 6,000 years, we went from a world that had no cities, to a world that is full of cities, and there must have been something in our cognitive makeup that made that possible, necessary, and compelling.”
Many speakers outlined ancient processes of urbanization that were organic and self-organizing. A dramatic exception was J. Cameron Monroe, a professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, who has been surveying urban settlement systems in tropical West Africa. He believes that 18th-century urban settlement and growth in Cana, a Dahomey city in present-day Benin, was the direct result of the Atlantic slave trade.
Monroe’s surveys and oral histories with local residents suggest that predatory slave raids depleted rural populations. As Cana emerged as a major player in the slave trade, other people migrated to the city in search of job opportunities created by the wealthy elite. The political, social, and economic dynamics of the slave trade “drove the process of urbanism itself.” (see image above).
Jason Ur, Harvard University, offered a different vision of urbanization, using the example of early Mesopotamian cities. He argued against previous archaeological theories that those cities, with their walls and geometric forms, must have been the result of top-down planning.
“These interpretations share the assumption that behind structured features, at the scale of the neighborhood or the entire city, one or a few powerful decision-makers must be lurking,” Ur said. “In some cases. these top-down processes are plausible. In most cases, however, such thinking limits agency to a subset of humanity and renders the rest as pliable non-actors.”
Ur instead suggested that Mesopotamian cities first emerged as informal settlements ringed by agricultural fields. Farmers and herders walked to the fields by the shortest paths possible without trampling crops. And as the population grew, settlement areas expanded into the closest possible farmland. Ur says these basic social and spatial principles established the earliest forms of roads and settlements, which were later formalized and walled-in as cities grew in size and sophistication.
A term uttered often at the symposium was palimpsest, or something that has taken multiple shapes over time but still bears traces of its earlier form. It’s an apt term to describe urban landscapes and cities’ accumulated layers of history, culture, significance and meaning. Hendrick Dey, a professor at Hunter College City University of New York, shared stories of the physical layers that shed light on 12th-century planning and development in Rome.
Dey described a history in Rome characterized by population decline and recovery; multiple new cities emerging within the structures of the old; and earthquakes and maintenance decisions that saw the crumbling of monuments that once lined the Via Triumphalis, the route for Roman imperial processions. As that route transformed into a commercial center and as flooding and maintenance backlogs left it regularly in poor shape, Dey argues that church leaders of the 12th century made the decision to move the papal procession route just north to the Via Papalis — and to elevate the entire length of that road by three meters to protect it from flooding.
“How do you increase ground levels by three meters? Rome provides you with the greatest store of rubble that any ancient city could possibly have,” Dey said. “We have this complex interaction between the surviving bones of the Roman city, the natural environment, and the priorities of the human actors who are animating it as it becomes this densely developed settlement in the 12th century. None of it would have been possible without the fact of the largest field of ruins that exist anywhere in the western world.”
Jordan Pickett, University of Michigan, focused on the farthest reaches of the Roman empire from the first to eighth centuries where massive aqueducts were constructed to carry coveted spring water to even the most arid urban areas. Pickett traces the empire from the first century — defined by elite and monumental cities, and the power conveyed by conspicuous consumption and advanced engineering — to the Byzantine world centuries later, when aqueducts were most often abandoned as impractical or adapted to serve new industrial or agricultural uses, providing “a flexible framework from which a new set of alternatives for low-density, ruralized cities, fragmented and decentralized, could emerge.”
Pickett emphasized that Byzantine administrations had retained the capacity to maintain and repair the aqueduct network; what changed was the cultural and political approach to water. “This system was walked back, there was in fact a withdrawal,” Pickett said. “There was a decision to walk it back and to say this is a system that shouldn’t exist everywhere.”
The fluidity of city forms was apparent across the presentations and the places and times explored. Urban populations could change dramatically across wet and dry seasons. Past infrastructures could be put to new use or rendered obsolete. In Cahokia, the entire settlement of monuments, waterways, and neighborhoods might have been intended as a temporary religious installation.
Even in the study of walled cities in early West Africa, Suzanne Preston Blier, a professor of African art and history at Harvard, rejected the idea that walls denote a static or fixed order, particularly within an aesthetic culture that often intentionally rejected symmetry and rigidity. Blier called the West African city walls “lines of multiplexity” that demonstrated “the ability of one form, one way of engagement, one kind of plan, to carry multiple meanings, like a telegraph wire.” She said the walls were adaptable, built in reaction to their context, and used to order interior spaces and reflect shifting social patterns, rather than to define hard boundaries.
Attempts to define or reject urban boundaries animated discussions throughout the symposium. Alan Kolata, University of Chicago, proposed that we can have it both ways, recognizing the physical and cultural demarcations of cities and urban centers, in addition to the physical and cultural networks that render them part of their regional surroundings.
Kolata applies the concept of autopoiesis to his work uncovering the political and physical makeups of indigenous cities in the Americas. In its earliest biological definition, autopoiesis refers to the ability of a living cell to maintain and reproduce itself. Kolata draws from the term’s later use in systems and communications theories, in which the focus is on a system’s ability to maintain and reproduce its distinct identity, even as it is connected to and interacts with larger surrounding systems.
He uses autopoiesis as a metaphor that describes not only the importance of cities as complex social and ecological systems, but also as the settings for complex individual lives — “macro sociological features and processes of urban life with the micro sociological realities of lived human experience.” Kolata proposed this idea: “Cities are inherently autopoietic phenomena, deploying multiple social networks of communication to sustain the material requirements of life as well as to create a sense of urban identity — that is to say, a culture of place.”
This guest post is by Lindsey Naylor, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, North Carolina State University.
A New Yorker can put their arm up in the street in Manhattan and flag down a taxi in a few minutes. Taxis are readily available because it’s a dense urban environment. But with a smart phone and an app like Uber or Lyft, anyone can find a ride fast and experience the benefits of density without needing to live in it. Furthermore, autonomous vehicles (AVs) — which will likely travel in highly-efficient packs via routes optimized for demand — could bring even more of the advantages of dense places to those that aren’t. Rohit Aggarwala, former director of NYC’s office of long-term planning and sustainability and now co-head of Sidewalk Labs, wonders whether autonomous vehicles will then be good for cities. Will they further reduce the relative benefits of city life? Will they even encourage sprawl?
According to Aggarwala, who spoke at the American Planning Association (APA) annual meeting in New York City, there are six primary attributes of density — three positive efficiencies and three causes of “friction,” or disadvantages. On the positive side, high levels of density mean lower consumption of energy, water, and carbon on a per capita basis. “If you have less space, you consume less.” There is also higher asset utilization — less space and resources are wasted. There are easier physical interactions. With density, the number of unplanned interactions — so critical to everything from market and community development to finding friends and a life partner — increase.
Frictions include a greater reliance on central systems, which can cause problems if those systems are over-capacity or break down. There’s also a greater need for courtesy. In dense places where people are nearly on top of each other all the time, people must expend more energy to avoid annoying each other. And there’s also the need for more coordination. “There are more hassles in dense urban life, hence the need for more coordination to resolve them.”
If there is a positive balance between the efficiencies and frictions, people move into cities. If the costs get too high, they move out, Aggarwala contends. Technology plays a critical role in maintaining this balance. Technology can either make urban living easier or, if these systems are poorly applied, add to the costs. And if they make the many benefits of density, such as physical interaction, less important, that also serves to undermine the value of places like Manhattan.
Aggarwala argued that the telephone, one of the most important technologies of the last century, “undermined physical interaction. The telephone became the agent of sprawl.” In the same way, Uber and Lyft also make hailing a taxi, which used to require physical interaction, something digital that “works in sprawl.” Over time, the “urban convenience of hailing a taxi has become universal.”
Now imagine a highly-efficient, high-speed, coordinated system of AVs, which could make access to centralized transportation systems even less of a necessity. There will no longer be a need to live near a subway, bus, or rail station, or even own a car, with a community sharing rides in AVs. Furthermore, “if everyone is their own transit stop, will we even need transit-oriented development?”
With delivery of products via drones or autonomous delivery services, there is also less of a need to live near a shopping district. “Shopping could just become a destination luxury experience.” With the rise of ubiquitous, high-speed broadband, working from home will be even easier, as employees can create tele-presences for themselves in virtual work environments. And with distributed renewable energy facilities, suburbs could become as energy-efficient as dense cities, removing the appeal of living an environmental lifestyle in the city.
With these expected changes coming, will the value of density continue to outweigh the disadvantages in the future?
For Aggarwala, it will be critical for cities to get technology right in order to further reduce the frictions of density and make future urban life as pleasing as possible. “We need to use big data to make centralized systems higher performing.” For example, that will mean using data to make New York City’s urban transportation system much smarter and more responsive.
Today, the city’s subway seems to be a near-universal source of frustration, as outdated systems mean a power outage shuts down whole lines for hours and rush hour congestion makes the daily commute nearly unbearable. The answer, for Aggarwala, is to “layer digital and physical infrastructure” to make these systems work better.
Furthermore, “we need apps that enable people to share things more easily. We need ubiquitous monitoring systems, so police will treat people better. We need to reduce the coordination problems.” We need subways and bike share systems to connect seamlessly with AV stations.
“Technology can make density more attractive or not, urban life better or not. And reduce demand for cities and increase sprawl, or not.” It will really depend on urban communities and their political leaders to drive improvements that will maintain the appeal of city life and save the environment from sprawl.