The several hundred students, alumni and guests that gathered at the Harvard Graduate School of Design this past Saturday were ostensibly there for the final day of the school’s 50 Year Anniversary conference, “Territories of Urbanism: Urban Design at 50.” Anticipation however, was most reserved for the afternoon session featuring the trenchant Andres Duany, who recently laid down the gauntlet in an article for Metropolis, challenging the efficacy of the GSD’s new focus on Ecological Urbanism, a showpiece of the conference.
A booklet passed out to attendees entitled “Why Ecological Urbanism? Why Now?” asserted that Ecological Urbanism will respond to climate change by situating sustainable architecture and green technology within the urban landscape through “nothing short of a new ethic and aesthetic” of design.
In Metropolis, Duany had written that the GSD’s recent hiring of landscape architect Charles Waldheim and its pedagogical shift to Ecological Urbanism indicated that it was abdicating its responsibility to teach urban design. Aptly titled “Duany vs. Harvard GSD,” the article seemed to suggest that by abandoning any and all “urbane urban design sensibility”, Duany, and by extension New Urbanism (he is the co-founder of the Congress for New Urbanism), now represents the only viable aesthetic in the vanguard of urban design.
Alex Krieger, former Chair of the GSD Urban Planning and Design Department, shot back that Landscape Urbanism has long been “the design discipline that has most consistently retained consciousness of humanity’s impact on land and environments.” Therefore, it is the most appropriate discipline to shape the future of urban design, as concern about climate change and our ecological footprint becomes more pervasive.
Tit for tat, Krieger added that Duany’s mockery was likely a “sign of uncharacteristic insecurity” and “personal worry that the term Landscape Urbanism will soon supplant New Urbanism amongst the purveyors of design sloganeering.” Krieger was correct to point out that Duany is an unabashed lobbyist for the preeminence of his New Urbanism, as the conference proceedings illustrated. The stage was set to settle the debate on whose urbanism will provide the most sustainable principles for urban design in the future.
At the GSD on Saturday, a very confident Duany listed three reasons why the recent financial and intensifying environmental crises favor New Urbanism to offer sustainable urban design solutions. First: peak oil will make it more costly to drive, thus favoring creation of the dense, walkable neighborhoods advocated by New Urbanism. Second: the mainstay metric for ecological footprint analysis is carbon emissions, which will incentivize walking and public transit over cars as favored modes of transportation. Third: the residential, mixed-use typologies championed by New Urbanism were too complicated to be included in the mass securitization of mortgages and thus were resilient to the housing crisis.
“Let’s make humane, equitable, sustainable and beautiful cities. Enough said? Any disagreements?” -Michael SorkinFinally, as Duany put it, “it’s all about age.” He pointed to the fact that the suburban landscape does not provide for the aging Baby Boomers, who eventually will be unable to drive. The professional future for the next generation of urban designers, he stated, is greyfield work. Translation: retrofitting suburban parking lots into “Jacobsian” neighborhoods according to a nifty 6-step plan.
GSD Associate Professor Pierre Bélanger provided the Ecological Urbanism counterargument. He stated that the financial and environmental crises in fact exposed a serious weakness in traditional urban forms. Dense, vertical cities formed by Euclidean zoning, he said, were totally dependent on centralized infrastructure – including water extraction, waste landfilling, oil importing, food processing, and uniform transportation – that is crumbling, costly to maintain, and environmentally detrimental.
The future of infrastructure planning, therefore, is paramount, and the project of Ecological Urbanism is to design and integrate infrastructure into the city in a way that is both environmentally sound and economically productive. Civil engineers, Bélanger argued, are the true planners of the modern city, but landscape architects will play a critical role in mediating how infrastructure meets the urban interface. Trained in constructing ecologies, landscape architects are the only professionals poised to consider how all infrastructure types – energy, food, waste, communications and transport – can be synthesized into a living system that covers the entire regional urban footprint.
Diverse and decentralized infrastructure is a critical component of sustainability that decreases a city’s ecological footprint and increases resiliency to climate change and economic unpredictability. But should infrastructure, as ecological urbanism suggests, be the ordering force of the urban form?
“Whether in slums, suburbs or skyscrapers, paradigms are changing. Dispersal is subbing in for density, pace instead of space, sequence over speed, design instead of technology, concurrency over control, culture instead of growth…Releasing the pristine ideals of the city for the sake of security or permanence or density opens a horizon of new social equities…”
The alliteration is catchy, but the concept may be misleading. Increasing density and urban growth are well-documented phenomena worldwide. An environmental expert might rightfully point out that densifying suburbs increases environmental impacts by overburdening unsustainable infrastructure and cementing unsustainable patterns of urbanization. But that same expert would probably be suspicious of encouraging unlimited sprawl, irrespective of how sustainable the infrastructure supporting it was or how artfully knitted into the environment.
Moreover, “pristine ideals of the city,” such as personal mobility, active public space, and human-scaled environments, are some of the greatest forces for social equity in a city. In reference to a plan by James Corner of Field Operations (frequently cited as a leader of the Ecological Urbanism practice), Michael Mehaffy wrote:
“Non-designers might be forgiven for wondering why designers would employ such arbitrary, even perhaps deranged, forces, at the apparent expense of requirements for walkability, social interaction, access to transit, dynamics of public space – perhaps even social justice and equity. After all, there is no reason to suppose, say, that a frail or poor or elderly person can navigate such a vast no-man’s land of space to access transit or other daily needs.”
Charles Waldheim said, at a previous lecture, that Ecological Urbanism was “specifically meant to provide an intellectual and practical alternative to the hegemony of the New Urbanism,” and it has. Ecological Urbanism points out that New Urbanism, in its slavish devotion to density, ignores the urgent need to leave space for new, sustainable forms of urban infrastructure. Conversely, New Urbanism provides a counterweight to Ecological Urbanism’s obsession with infrastructure that ignores practical patterns of human settlement.
It is probably best that these two urbanisms are fighting to dominate intellectual territory of urban design, for both will be necessary to promote real sustainable solutions. This was made quite clear when Duany suggested that the best use for Ecological Urbanism was biophilia: greening buildings to make them more aesthetically pleasing to the middle class.
Duany was right about one thing. The sustainability battle among the next generation of urban designers will be fought on fields of grey and brown – the parking lot and the post-industrial site – whether they are being “retrofitted” for mixed-use development or converted into infrastructural landscapes. Either way, it appears that there is ample room and need for both.
As the ever-entertaining and chatty Michael Sorkin (also on the panel) summarized:
“Let’s make humane, equitable, sustainable and beautiful cities. Enough said? Any disagreements? We really can’t screw around. Precipitous decline in the planetary environment may annihilate us. We need a lot of new cities and a lot of better old ones. They should assume many morphologies. We are very far from done with inventing the form of the city. Neither the reflexive reproduction of historic types … nor the ‘go with the flow’ of urban capital sluts will work it out alone. Any problems so far?
Cities need to supply their own food, energy, water, thermal behavior, air quality, movement systems, building and cultural and economic institutions. This urban self-sufficiency is a means to political autonomy and planetary responsibility. Sustainable, equitable, and beautiful. Anybody got a problem with that?”
Genevieve Sherman is currently a master’s candidate in City Design and Development at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She is interested in how urban planners can mediate the politics and science of climate change to make cities more environmentally sustainable and resilient places.
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.