Landscape urbanism: the sound of the suburbs

Paul Raven @ 31-01-2011

As the human species becomes majority-urban, the planning and maintenance of cities becomes an increasingly important matter… and where importance goes, there too goes profound philosophical disagreement on best practice. Meet the Landscape Urbanists, the newest new school of architecture and civic planning [via BigThink]:

The landscape urbanist vision propounded by Waldheim and his allies comes down to two central insights. The first is that American cities in the 21st century are not like American cities from the 19th century, and should not be expected to function the same way. The second is that the best way for urban designers to protect the environment is to prioritize the natural landscape. Design should accommodate the waterways and the wildlife that were there before you arrived; it should preserve the rainfall instead of shunting it into sewers, and perhaps use it to irrigate nearby vegetation.

Taken together, those two positions add up to a vision of city planning that doesn’t put a priority on city life over suburban living; it focuses instead on resource protection, the creative use of natural infrastructure, and so-called systems thinking — that is, exactly what landscape architects are trained to do. There are, as yet, few examples of the ideas put into practice: Supporters tend to point to projects still under construction, like the park being built on top of a landfill in Staten Island, N.Y. But Waldheim has said that his program is “specifically” and “explicitly” meant to dislodge the New Urbanists from their perch in the American planning world.

[…]

Proponents of the New Urbanism have not been taking the accusations of obsolescence sitting down. In a widely circulated November essay on the website of Metropolis magazine, Duany mockingly cast the rise of landscape urbanism at Harvard as a “classic Latin American-style…coup.” His fellow New Urbanists have weighed in with more substantive critiques that have been equally harsh. One planning professor in Arizona attacked the landscape urbanists for caring more about nature than humans; on the planning website Planetizen, the Portland, Ore.-based urban design theorist Michael Mehaffy published an indictment of landscape urbanism called “Sprawl in a Pretty Green Dress?”

The underlying argument between the groups goes beyond the relative merits of density, or the question of whether you should start a planning project with the buildings or with the watershed. It’s an argument about whether human beings should adapt to the conditions in which they find themselves, or try to change them. Is sprawl inevitable, or isn’t it? At what point does it make sense to come to terms with it and try to find pragmatic, incremental solutions that don’t rely on any paradigmatic cultural shift?

This is one of those moments where I find myself entertaining the idea of immersing myself in an entirely new academic discipline; I’m in no way qualified to take a side on that argument at this point, but its importance to the near future is blindingly obvious, and I’m a sucker for big questions waiting on an answer.


Portugal plans ‘smart’ eco-city

Paul Raven @ 12-10-2010

OK, so ‘smart’ is a persistently misused word in the modern context (my smartphone isn’t smart; damn thing can’t hold a decent conversation for more than a minute or two), but nonetheless: the northern end of Portugal will, if all goes to plan, play host to a designed and networked ecological city, wired to the gills with sensors and systems to control the consumption of energy and water. Unsurprisingly (and in keeping with the general trends in ecological product marketing) it has a stupid smug pun of a name:

Like other sustainable cities, PlanIT Valley will treat its own water and tap renewable energy. Buildings will also have plant-covered roofs, which will reduce local temperature through evapotranspiration, as well as absorbing rainwater and pollutants.

Yet that is where the similarities with other eco-cities end, according to its makers Living PlanIT based in Paredes. For a start, PlanIT Valley will be built closer to existing transport links than the likes of Masdar. More significantly, its “brain” will use data collected from a network of sensors akin to a nervous system to control the city’s power generation, water and waste treatment (see “Brains and nervous system”). It’s a kind of “urban metabolism”, says Steven Lewis, chief executive of Living PlanIT.

While this network of sensors sounds expensive, the cost of installing it will be offset by using more efficient building techniques.

Rather more utopian and blue-sky than the Cisco city-in-a-box, then, which – one presumes – focusses more closely on the infrastructural bang for the buck required in the rowing economies of Asia than on touchy-feely eco-gubbins; one suspects some sort of mid-point between the two might be an ideal worth aiming for.

While PlanIT Valley is obviously a well-meaning project, the designed city doesn’t have a wonderful history of successes, at least not here in the UK; anyone who has ever visited Milton Keynes will know what I’m trying to say here. As pointed out in the article above, it’s all very well to build a technological marvel of an urban space, but all bets are off until people move in and actually start building a community there… and as even the most casual student of utopias will be aware, it’s usually the people that cause the problems rather than the buildings that house them.

[ Why, yes, I am feeling rather pessimistic today – how did you guess? ]


Downsizing the city

Paul Raven @ 22-06-2009

Abandoned building, Flint, MichiganTough times call for tough decisions: faced with long-term urban decline accelerated by the global economic SNAFU, the US Government is considering razing sections of some failing cities in order to keep them from collapsing. What were once bustling industrial towns  are now underpopulated, underfunded and poorly maintained, and pruning them back like a rosebush might just enable them to survive.

Mr Kildee said he will concentrate on 50 cities, identified in a recent study by the Brookings Institution, an influential Washington think-tank, as potentially needing to shrink substantially to cope with their declining fortunes.

Most are former industrial cities in the “rust belt” of America’s Mid-West and North East. They include Detroit, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Memphis.

In Detroit, shattered by the woes of the US car industry, there are already plans to split it into a collection of small urban centres separated from each other by countryside.

“The real question is not whether these cities shrink – we’re all shrinking – but whether we let it happen in a destructive or sustainable way,” said Mr Kildee. “Decline is a fact of life in Flint. Resisting it is like resisting gravity.”

If things don’t get a lot better very soon, I imagine there will be some small cities that collapse entirely, littering the country with hollow remnants of the late industrial age, a series of Twentieth Century ghost-towns inhabited by wildlife and a few back-to-the-land loners. Meanwhile the larger cosmopolitan centres – anywhere with a diverse enough economy to attract a newly itinerant workforce – will presumably keep growing as the ongoing urbanisation of the world gathers pace.

It’ll be interesting to see whether we’ve gotten much better at urban planning in the last half century or so; many of Britain’s planned cities of the post-war period were less than glowing successes, as the architectural philosophies of the day were based on principles that we’d now consider naive at best. But downsizing for survival is a time-honoured tactic in nature as well as economics; perhaps we’re living in the last days of suburbia. [via Slashdot; image by NESJumpman]


What is the Buxton index?

Tom James @ 16-02-2009

buxtonAn interesting science-fictional concept concerning intitutional longevity, via the late pioneering computer scientist Edsger W Dijkstra, in this essay (EWD 1175):

The Buxton Index of an entity, i.e. person or organization, is defined as the length of the period, measured in years, over which the entity makes its plans.

For the little grocery shop around the corner it is about 1/2,for the true Christian it is infinity, and for most other entities it is in between: about 4 for the average politician who aims at his re-election, slightly more for most industries, but much less for the managers who have to write quarterly reports.

The Buxton Index is an important concept because close co-operation between entities with very different Buxton Indices invariably fails and leads to moral complaints about the partner.

This is an interesting concept: and one that helps explain a lot of attitudes and responses towards issues like climate change, environmental destruction, and DRM.

In each case there are two different parties that are thinking in terms of two completely different Buxton indices. Short term profit vs. longterm survival in AGW or short term data security vs. longterm preservation of cultural artefacts in DRM.

[via this comment in Charlie’s Diary][image from Parksy1964 on flickr]


The paradoxical nature of traffic jams

Paul Raven @ 30-12-2008

Following on from the ULTra transit post, here’s a question about urban transport: what’s the best way to solve sluggish traffic flow around a busy street? Well, you could try shutting the street down entirely

To mathematicians, this may be a real-world example of Braess’s paradox, a statistical theorem that holds that when a network of streets is already jammed with vehicles, adding a new street can make traffic flow even more slowly.

The reason is that in crowded conditions, drivers will pile into a new street, clogging both it and the streets that provide access to it. By the same token, removing a major thoroughfare may actually ease congestion on the streets that normally provide access to it. And because other major streets are already overcrowded, diverting still more traffic to them may not make much difference.

There are links to some research papers and reports on traffic flow studies over at MetaFilter, but you might want to start with the more accessible Wikipedia article on Braess’s paradox. I don’t know about anyone else, but I find it strangely comforting to realise that the world doesn’t always work the way we expect it to… though that could be because I don’t drive.