Deep Ecological Urbanism | SCALE

I’m falling quite a bit behind in my posts, I do apologize. I have indeed read so much information that I wish to share, but I seem to lack the time to do so. Alas, I must keep my posts brief as I try to catch up to review what I’m currently reading. So, where did I leave off? Oh yes, scale….

Unit 5 reviews concepts relating to scale; that is, sprawl (and all the issues created by it), the varying levels of natural integration, the sense of place established by the communities we inhabit.

 It’s a Sprawl World After All | Introduction, pp. 1-13

“In spite of all our possessions, entertainment options, and economic opportunities, many Americans still feel alienated, isolated, and alone” [p. 1].

I covered the immense disconnect from nature that we now suffer in one of my earlier units, but it bears repeating as I now discuss scale. The more we design without regard to the appropriate scale, the greater that separation becomes. Our outward growth, our move into the exurbs, has left us with sprawling development which strips us of our freedom. “The automobile was once a symbol of freedom. Now it has become a prison” [p. 8]. In the following reading, it was even said that “people who can’t drive cars are made dysfunctional” [Home from Nowhere, 125].

Sprawl began to emerge around 1945, and it led to disconnected, secluded, violent, and formless development. We, as residents of sprawl, lack the sense of belonging that is rooted in a sense of place. Instead, we must “protect ourselves from the society in which we live” [p.4].

The author criticizes, as have others, the Garden City movement. Though the original idea, and some of the earlier implementations, had been sophisticated, it has led overall to a bad case of suburban sprawl.

What we need are genuine communities. Despite an ever expanding collective intelligence, Americans are getting more confused each day, forgetting how to design quality environments. How could this happen? While technological and academic advances have made knowledge much more accessible, our changing lifestyles further divide us from some of the most basic truths of the world. As we forget those things which our ancestors understood so well (as I discussed in more detail in previous biophilic conversations) we also lose a sense of what it meant to be part of a community and local geography. Almost entirely responsible for this disconnect is suburban sprawl as described in the introduction of Douglas E. Morris’ book, It’s a Sprawl World After All.

Home from Nowhere | Chapter 5: Creating Someplace.

So why can’t we do anything about it? “It is literally against the law almost everywhere in the United States to build the kind of places that Americans themselves consider authentic and traditional” [p.109]. It’s mostly a zoning problem, we restrict the ways in which we can develop, and instead allow sprawling forms. Additionally, we separate everything—again, this goes back to zoning. “Zoning is quantitative rather that qualitative…abstract, not particular,” and its institution created unanticipated problems [122].

“As primitive settlements evolved into true towns and cities, people learned to solve many of the practical and spiritual problems of life by controlling the physical arrangement of things in their everyday world” [p. 119].

What is needed are designs that are democratic, which are able to be understood by all. The answer may lie in what is called traditional development. Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), Traditional Neighborhood Development (TND), and similar design concepts or tenets which embrace the trends which predated modern urban development are now taking root in planning and architectural fields.

Portland: A sense of Place | E2 Video Podcast

In this podcast, with Peter Calthorpe, the ingredients of a great community were listed. It all starts with a complete neighborhood, bringing a broad range of individuals to the table. Next, a mix of local destinations provide a diversity of place. Together, these elements create human scale and pedestrian friendly environments, which result in walkable places, offering pleasant experiences. The product is an attractive community that provides its residents with a positive and strong sense of place. This podcast focused on Portland as an example of this sort of design. In many other cities, however, elements of the public domain have such little value, which leads to overcompensated, private “escapes” (i.e. large yards and sprawl).

Bogota: Building a Sustainable City | E2 Video Podcast

Another great example of an environment with a positive sense of place is the Colombian city of Bogotá. Known for its effective strategies for increasing pedestrian mobility, Bogotá presents a wonderful case of how much more valuable a place may become when cities are planned for sustainability and, perhaps more importantly, for their people. Enrique Peñalosa, a previous mayor of Bogotá, is a New Urbanist (CNU mentioned above) and major proponent of pedestrian friendly environments. Included in Peñalosa’s accomplishments as mayor is a long list of transportation projects, but his ideologies are perhaps what I find most precious. Peñalosa believes that people will behave in the way that they are treated. Therefore, a city must treat its residents well if it hopes to be treated kindly in return. Peñalosa saw a need for new measures of success; instead of materials (consumerism) perhaps happiness and quality of life indicators should be considered. Additionally, we need more than just physical changes to happen. A major hindrance to the sustainability progress which is so needed in our cities may primarily be attributed to an image problem. Peñalosa noted that Portland needed to first change the image of its transportation system before it could encourage the “yuppies” to ride. This same problem faces nearly all modern cities, and disproving any poor perceptions (be them of transit or another urban element) will be crucial.

The two resources above were video podcasts. I also listened to quite a few audio podcasts during this unit, and have grown particularly fond of Michael Gosney’s Eco Evolution podcast, which is available for free on iTunes. In an October 8, 2012 episode about Arcosanti, Gosney spoke with Jeff Stein, president of the Cosanti Foundation. Arcosanti, for those who may be unfamiliar, is a dense and sustainable development that was constructed in Scottsdale, AZ in the early 1970s. The architecture is stunning, and fits perfectly with the natural landscape. Architect Paolo Soleri studied in Frank Lloyd Wright’s school, where part of the curriculum required students to be immersed in nature. The visceral sense of the land/-scape led him to develop a concept which he called “arcology.” A great deal of literature explains his idea and the basic principles of arcology. A portmanteau of the word “cosa”-meaning before-and “anti”-meaning things-Arcosanti suggests there ought to be a place for ideas which might answer the question, how shall we live? It urges us to seek for PLACE before THINGS. Soleri’s concept of Arcology is another portmanteau, combining the words architecture and ecology. Today, we trade nature for buildings and separate all entities, as if compartmentalizing life. The average amount of time spent outdoors each day is a mere 72 minutes. That’s appalling! The excess time spent indoors stands to explain how buildings account for 50% of all energy use. Moreover, our buildings are inefficiently designed. As Frank Lloyd Wright has said, today’s buildings are constructed “as if architects from past generations didn’t know what planet they were on.” Conventional architecture does not work efficiently, but as Stein says about Arcosanti, “our architecture works harder than your architecture does.” It accounts for only 1/6th of the energy used. Stein notes that there are simple but thoughtful ways that architecture can work complexly.

The Arcosanti model can be scaled-up, but if we build in tune with the size of the modern mega-lopolis, it is ever more important to integrate nature into the environment. In this podcast, Michael talks about the concept of Ecocities and Ecovillages. We need to transform existing landscapes. The smaller scale infill development projects in urban areas can become the framework for an Ecocity. Even smaller scale developments become what are known as Ecovillages.

The problem with today’s design is that we “consume ourselves into disaster.” We design for the automobile, and need to spend vast amounts of capital to support these patterns of life. People cannot make connections physically (with nature or one another) because of poor design. This goes back to the issue of democracy mentioned above. Without democratic designs, people are not pressured to act as a community. Likewise, since children are not seeing, nor are they growing up among, the patterns of nature, they will feel no pressure to act in ways which foster or protect it.

Regenerative Design and the Ecology of Leadership, March 11, 2013 | Eco Evolution

In a March 2013 episode of Gosney’s podcast, James Stark and Katia Sol, of the Regenerative Design Institute, speak about the concepts of regenerative design and the need for a new evolution, called “the great turning.” The two guests discuss their consideration of “inner-permaculture,” the internal cultivation of a balance: ecological harmony that is both within and without. I feel this is a valid consideration for the scale unit, as these same ecological concepts which I would suggest we apply to cities must also be wholly adopted by all individuals.

Cities as Sustainable Ecosystems, Chapter 6 | Sense of Place

I’ve already mentioned this briefly, but sense of place is a major contributing factor of a good city. Distinctiveness is one way that a community may develop a sense of place. It is important when considering sustainability in part because it helps to create communities that earn a lasting appreciation, but also because “care for the environment…grows out of a sense of the sanctity and worth of particular places” [Lilburne, 1989, quoted on p. 144].

Developing a sense of place requires a region to understand the local culture, geography, history (both social and natural), and the underlying indigenous context. . A life-place culture “recognizes the limitations of potentials of the immediate region” [Thayer, quoted on p, 145]. Fostering a feeling of connection, immersion in nature and attachment to a natural region instills a deeper sense of belonging in an individual, and hels us to understand ourselves within nature. This psychological enrichment encourages sustainable investment.

The reading listed five strategies for fostering a sense of place:

1)      Protect existing heritage

2)      Design to make current and historic social ena ecological processes visible

3)    Connect with the wider bioregion (through greenways, heritage and nature trails, using biodiversity corridors, etc.)

4)      Utilize culture and art

5)      Discover city “songlines”

“Songlines” are quite interesting. A customary tradition in some aboriginal cultures, songlines are phrases conveyed through the songs that pass through generations which describe the local landscape and share the stories of ancestors. Information about place is stored in these enduring traditions. Stories and storytelling are key to planning [154].

Integrating ecological processes into the urban fabric helps to further develop a local sense of place. Bioclimatic design, likewise, recognizes local conditions which are used to inform design decisions.  Processes like place profiling, bioregional mapping, and ecoliteracy initiatives help to establish and sustain a positive sense of place.

One technique which I was most fond of was the bioregional celebration. For example, in Baltimore, that might mean we host an annual harbor festival, celebrating our local natural icons.

More than just a concept of physical dimensions, scale encompasses the metaphysical realm of emotion. Our sensory understanding or perception of a place constructs an emotional feeling towards that area. Cities that have a strong sense of place offer meaningful connections for the people within them. A good sense of place is also critical for encouraging behavior which protects an area. Fostering such feelings in inhabitants is a key strategy for sustainability, and can be achieved through conscious design. This is a very good chapter, and its brevity made its lesson much more valuable.

Urbanized | Documentary

The documentary, Urbanized, was a great piece. As the title would suggest, the documentary considers what it might mean that our societies are becoming increasingly urbanized. Cities offer tremendous possibilities, but as more population shifts back into our cities, we strain existing resources. While about 50% of the population is living in a city, 1/3 of the world lives in slum-like conditions.

Since American cities developed on previously undeveloped lands, they failed to acquire the same grand legacy of European Cities. This made them much less prepared to face the auto-oriented designs of the 1950s. In the documentary, one of my favorite quotes was spoken:  “A good city is like a good party – people stay longer than really necessary, because they are enjoying themselves,”- Jan Gehl. People forget place and time, and stay simply because they are enjoying what’s there.

The documentary also reviewed the appropriate range of the daily environment. There may be cultural, economic, or social differences among us all, but we are of the same animal kingdom. At times, standardization may be useful. For example, 100 meters is accepted as the maximum distance a person will travel in a day. This measure has apparently remained fairly consistent for centuries.  But now, as our developments are sprawling, that distance is stretched further every day. In recent decades, livability is ignored and cities have been designed with economic interests in mind. Another great quote: “sprawl is like pornography, you know it when you see it.” It is now easier to communicate generally with the entire world (via internet) than it is to speak with a neighbor. I know I’m guilty of this truth.

Our cities compete with suburbs but their density offers a much more efficient lifestyle- potentially, that is. Currently, our cities are consuming 75% of the world’s energy.  Like some appliances may be considered “greedy” for using more electricity than others, perhaps our way of life may also be so “greedy.” The American lifestyle, now, has become quite distinct. And as people visit our country for eduction or other opportunities, their home countries much try harder to lure their people back. This means that developing countries are beginning to adopt the American recipe. It is unselfish for us to suggest other countries restrict their growth, but it is a sad truth that the lifestyles we currently live are not sustainability.

Escape from Suburbia | Documentary

I’m running out of time, where is it going? I have to cut back on the length of these reviews. This film covered the concept of peak oil, and our dependence on the resource. We developed our cities when it was cheaped, and we continue to operate under the belief that there would always be more. Our energy demands, however, are straining the planet. When people do not see the pressure, however, we don’t try to address it. Or, we just assume there will be appropriate technology to fix it all. Yet, more than just a shift in resources, we have to change our behaviors. No combination of “green” energy sources will be able to support our devotion to corporations like Disney, WalMart, and McDonalds.

The ecosystem is finite, and when we ignore its limits, we also lose touch with the basics. Realizing our mistakes and getting back to the basics may be difficult, but it is necessary. Are lives are too comfortable, and lack the innovative edge required to address the challenges we face. The solution partially includes focusing on local answers. Building on local strengths and communicating with neighbors is the first step.

One last key statement has stuck with me, it doesn’t matter when you probably should have started, you just need to start, whether your may be late to join the game or not.

When I began reading the selected pieces for the scale unit, it no longer made sense to me why the “local” discussion was so many units in the future. Although of lot of the content I planned was economy-based, studies of local topics go hand-in-hand with sustainability. Additionally, I may do the same with the resources unit and pull those readings forward.

 Other Notes

In addition to the readings which I enjoyed for the purpose of this unit, I came across a few valuable quotes that apply to other units, or to this independent study overall:

In the popular documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore talks about old technologies. We cannot continue to think in the same way with our evolving technologies, as the consequences will vary differently. Our technology is growing- it’s scale is increasing- and we must accommodate it so that we do not lose context in smaller scales when such grand technologies are utilized.

In her TED Talk, Janine Benyus, the wonderful visionary I mentioned in the Biomimicry discussion, had explained that it is not a lack of information which inhibits our progress or healthy development. Rather, it is a lack of integration. I believe part of this statement applies to the jumping between scales. In planning, there is not always efficient communication between local and state efforts. Similarly, the engineers may be out of the loop with the goings on in the architecture office. This gap must be bridged. As Benyus has said before, “the answers to their questions were everywhere. They just need to change the lenses with which they saw the world” [TED Talk, Benyus].

A similar relationship between the Biomimicry and Scale conversations evolved. In a Biomimicry conversation of the October 2012 Eco Evolution podcast titled Evolutionary Design through the Lens of Biomimicry, interviewer Michael Gosney speaks with Janine Benyus about how we focus on nature. The topic noted a common trend among vacationers who take pictures throughout their trips. At first, the photos are framed with a rather broad lense- the hotel, the landscape- but as the trip goes on, the photos are more macro-focused, often focusing on the details of nature.