At the close of Climate Week NYC in September, a group of scholars, designers, and concerned citizens gathered to reconsider settlement patterns and competing land uses in new ways given the reality of climate change. The 5KL: Land symposium, organized by The Architectural League and co-sponsored by The Cooper Union Institute for Sustainable Design, was the latest convening in the League’s initiative The Five Thousand Pound Life on new ways of thinking, talking, and acting on architecture, climate change, and our economic future. Experts ranging from an ecological historian to an industrial real estate developer spoke in three sessions: Nature and the City, Spatial Logistics, and Density. Video of those presentations and discussions are now available on ArchLeague.org.
In his opening remarks on Land as a System, Director of The Cooper Union Institute for Sustainable Design Kevin Bone contextualized the day’s conversations through a look at the role that grasslands have played in pulling carbon out of the air and into the soil, a process known as carbon sequestration. If part of the challenge is to re-design our settlements and transportation systems, Bone argued that we also must recognize, value, and strengthen our land’s natural capacities for climate change mitigation.
The Nature and the City panel brought together two experts in ecological history to present New York City’s natural history and development and debate how we value — or don’t value — nature today. Eric Sanderson, Senior Conservation Ecologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society and author of the influential Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City, traced the previously rich ecology of Manhattan, warning that the modern economy has treated nature as a free good. Ted Steinberg, Professor of History and Professor of Law at Case Western Reserve University and author of Gotham Unbound: The Ecological History of Greater New York, detailed the 300-year-old view of New York City as a “limitless proposition,” cautioning that development driven by the growth imperative will lead to increased habitat loss, nutrient pollution, and coastal flooding. In conversation with Rosalie Genevro, Executive Director of The Architectural League, Sanderson and Steinberg discussed the role of politics and economics in the transformation of the natural environment and debated how to take ecological decisions out of the hands of class interests and into the public realm.
The Spatial Logistics panel convened an industrial real estate developer and two designers and academics to unpack the spatial dimensions of the sometimes hidden networks of logistics and debate their consequences — the good, bad, and unknown — for design and society. Alex Klatskin, General Partner of Forsgate Industrial Partners, showed how climate change has affected the distribution of goods and people, arguing for the importance of our logistical landscapes such as waterfront container terminals that will provide crucial impact attenuation in a major storm event. Rob Holmes, an assistant professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Florida, detailed the unpredictable consequences of landscapes produced by logistics through a case study on the expansion of the Panama Canal, which ignited an “engineering shockwave” that led to marsh restoration in Jamaica Bay using clean sand dredged from New York Harbor. (Read more about logistical landscapes and the work of the Dredge Research Collaborative in “A City Built on Dredge.”) Jesse LeCavalier, an assistant professor of architecture at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and author of a forthcoming book on the architecture and logistics of Walmart, revealed the extent to which logistics governs the circulation of goods, people, and resources around the world through dissection of a United Parcel Service advertising campaign and Walmart’s distribution sequence. In conversation with Coral Davenport, who covers environmental policy for The New York Times, the three discussed what design might learn from logistics and the pursuit of efficiency.
Participants in the Density panel drew on their backgrounds in architecture, landscape architecture, geography, city planning, and urban theory to discuss the value of density and the forms that it takes — or should take — to mitigate ecological impact. Emily Talen, professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning at Arizona State University, pointed to the benefits of walkable urbanism and the enormous disconnect between supply and demand for these neighborhoods, creating a crisis of affordability in dense, walkable places. Albert Pope, Gus Sessions Wortham Professor of Architecture at Rice University, urged us to “be in panic mode” in response to climate change, and the need for designers to leave affinity for grid-based urbanism behind and respond to the spine-based urbanism that predominates today. Charles Waldheim, John E. Irving Professor and Chair of Landscape Architecture at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, built a case for a new professional identity for the design disciplines based around a framework of ecological thinking and a performative model for city building that accounts for carbon, water, and renewable energy sources. In conversation withVishaan Chakrabarti, a principal at SHoP Architects and author of A Country of Cities, the panel debated the designer’s role and responsibility in the socioeconomic segregation attendant to different settlement patterns and the need to consider morphologies beyond the grid when considering urban form.
Stay tuned for documentation of the final discussion of the day, a conversation between writer and activist Rebecca Solnit and Urban Omnibus Editor Cassim Shepard on Land, Climate, and Culture that probed questions of American cultural identity in relation to the environment. Details on the next 5KL symposium, on the topic of water, will be announced soon.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.