What is ecological urbanism?

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    Robert Schäfer

    What is ecological urbanism? The term ecological urbanism was coined at gsd Harvard probably. See or read the brick-like book documenting a seminar there. Now a bunch of well known urbanists and architects will move to this years Architecture Biennale in Venice, Italy. Guess how many landscape architects will be involved in this ecological urbanism event?
    Who is going to tell me why this is no field of interest to this profession? We tried to give some input into the debate with Topos 71 on Landscape Urbanism. By the way: Is anybody (except me) still reading printed media?

    Andrew Spiering

    I just received my copy yesterday of Topos 71. I skimmed through it very quickly, but plan on finding time today to read through it more in depth.

    Nic Wurzbacher

    I still love printed media,magazines,books. I have an extensive landscape and architecture library of books that I would never give up. Too much research now shows only reading digital media actually makes you absorb/process less of what you read,

    Robert Schäfer

    You are right. But we just experience that students never use libraries. And so many publishers do not believe in the future of print!. But I do. To my opinion a review such as Topos is not much worth in a digital version. So we have to build up other media aside, digital and daily updated. There is many fresh information to be sent out immediately, but there is the real thing we like to hold in the hands.


    I thought this would be a discussion about ecological urbanism. I had not heard of it but it sounds interesting. Is it sustainable urban design, or is it design that purports to connect the urban fabric with the larger environment?

    Robert Schäfer

    Yeah, I threw 2 baits in the pond. The reading aspect was eaten first. I agree, it is much more interesting to investigate new terms and find out if they are hollow.
    Karen Weintraub wrote in the Boston Globe April 19 this year that landscape architects reinvent roles and link diciplines at Harvard. I think this is another proof that issues only exist in reality when Harvard pretends to discover or develop them.
    Oh boy, the history of landscape architecture is one of ongoing interdisciplinaary work.
    But nothing against Harvard spending the grant from the Canadian Irving family (money they made with gas stations), to move the field of Landscape Architecture forward. John K.F. Irving is right when he identifies needs of ” … intellectual rigor and thought and science …” in our profession. But couldn’t we build on knowledge and technics and even terms already there?

    Trace One

    I have to vote for the written word – I read the NYT every day, and there is no WAY one gets as much out of any on-line version – you just don’t get the scope, of turning every page of the paper..sometimes the photo-essays are pretty good, but I cannot do Kindles, I just don’t read like that..I’m a skimmmer..

    As for ecological urbanism, it seems like ‘urbanism’ would be to focus on cities, and ‘ecological’, would refer to sustainable growth- so it would seem to perhaps be seeing sustainable cities as some sort of utopian goal? It makes me think of Frank L. Wright and his vision of the future – all high-rises..

    What would be the opposite of ‘ecological urbanism?”
    Just idle thinking out loud – or in writing, as it were..


    This thought reminds me of an article I read recently that transcribe a discussion from last year’s ASLA Annual Meeting centered upon the role of research in practice (Making Research Matter, LAM January 2010). The panel cited a lack of research that can be practically applied to practice. Academics look for quantifiable data, where as practice oftentimes must rely on data garnered through less formal survey and trail and error in the field. There are great ideas in the making, but there isn’t the time or money for many firms to continue developing those ideas beyond the scope of their current project.


    John, have you read Inquiry by Design by John Zeisel? It’s a really excellent discussion of how the iterative process (our design process at its best) can be an effective research tool. I read it while I was preparing to do my Master’s Project, which incorporated design and research, and it was a great book. And readable. We talked about Praxis in school and I think really made some effort to incorporate our research and design. I’m not sure how successfully since our designs were never actually built. It’s definitely something I need to think about more.

    So, did you bring this subject up because it’s what the Harvard book talks about? I’m still trying to get to the bottom of the original question here.

    david maynes

    for what it’s worth…
    I went to the 3-day GSD conference that explored this question (a couple years ago). It featured many notable folks…R.T. Foreman, Rem K, Herb Dreseitl, Walter Hood, Walheim, Mitchell Joachim (sp?), Andrea Branzi, and numerous others who tried to figure out what exactly ecological urbanism is. After hours and hours of discussions, lectures, roundtables and the like, the concensus was:
    we dont know, but we should keep trying to figure it out.
    I personally was a fan of Branzi and his so-called 3rd industrial revolution concept. High-tech favellas!!!!

    haven’t read the book yet, but I think I got enough of a jist from the 3-day marathon.
    One thing was certain; the discussion of how people themselves create urbanism was a bit sparse. Green infrastructure, urban ag, soft cars, no cars, more bikes…these were beaten to death while the social aspects of urbansim were merely mentioned.

    Am I missing something? I thought urbansim is about people



    “We don’t know but we should keep trying to figure it out” seems to be the answer to all hypothetical design questions. I guess it’s why process is emphasized so much in some of the more theoretical M.L.A. programs.

    Why do you think the conference ignored people? Maybe the social aspects of urbanism were not mentioned because they are understood. People are the drivers and beneficiaries of urban form, and as designers are all trying to be driving, so to speak, the forms. Maybe we’re assuming too much by assuming we can design great social structures along with buildings, parks and streets. Utopian hubris, or something like that.

    Thomas J. Johnson

    Ecological Urbanism means appreciating, acknowledging the importance of, and incorporating natural systems into the practice of urban design as a matter of habit rather than as an after thought. It means placing the same, or greater value on natural resources as we have historically placed on square footage values or parking units. Ecological Urbanism means recognizing the fact that water ways and open space are desirable, enhance our quality of life and actually increase property values.

    As noted earlier, this is nothing new… its just that we forgot about our values and what makes us human for the last 75 years. You only need to look as far as Central Park (NY), Lincoln Park (IL), or the Golden Gate Park (CA) to see that preserving open space greatly increases the value of the surrounding community and enhances the lives of those far beyond it’s borders.

    These are spaces that were designed around the turn of the century +/-. It is difficult to think of modern examples that can compare in scale or grandeur. Unfortunately, I see more examples of cities turning their backs on some of their greatest assets. For instance, there is a prime section of the Chicago River (3 miles from the loop) that recently, within the last 10 years, had a big box development plopped on it’s banks, across the street from dilapidated public housing. To ad insult to injury, the shipping/delivery (back) side is what faces the river. Whoever allowed that abomination of nature to be designed like that should be tarred, feathered and run out of town. The Chicago River has great potential as a non-motorized transportation corridor, “emerald necklace” park system and natural resource but we continue to create developments along its banks that will prohibit such a vision from ever occurring.

    Meanwhile Chicago is creating “green” alleys. Tearing out old, perfectly good, asphalt and installing permeable pavers. In a climate with a fierce freeze/thaw cycle and in the center of a 99.9% compacted concrete jungle, permeable pavers make about as much sense as planting palm trees.

    Which brings me to my final point about Ecological Urbanism; it has to work. If we, as landscape architects, propose outlandish and expensive ideas in the name of Ecological Urbanism and they fail, not only does the concept of E.U. lose credibility but our profession loses credibility. In 5 years, those permeable pavers in Chicago are going to be cracked and buckled. They are going to need to be torn out and replaced and people are going to wonder whose idea that was and why they wasted the tax payers money. That money could be better spent on highly visible, accessible and life enhancing improvements such as reinventing the river way, rehabilitating the neglected South/West side parks or by adding to the cycling infrastructure.

    You could write volumes on E.U. but at it’s core is the idea of integrating nature into the design of our cities. Under that umbrella are a number of subcategories such as storm water management, urban forestry, non-motorized transportation, material selection/sourcing, rooftop gardens, lighting, irrigation, etc.. It’s all related and it’s not as complicated as we like to make it out to be. I guess that’s part of being a good designer, knowing when to less more… all of the classic parks are malleable, loose and versatile. They allow for a variety of activities and they enable the visitor to create their own experience. They are not overly stylized, they don’t have a heavy hand, the don’t dictate how you should feel. Much of the design of today is going to go the way of 60’s architecture; “what were they thinking…” Landscape architecture has become like fashion. Ecological Urbanism needs to look farther than the next trend…

    Thomas J. Johnson

    Pardon some of the spelling/ punctuation. It’s past my bed time…

    Thomas J. Johnson

    What are some examples modern parks, storm water management systems, transportation systems, etc. that exemplify Ecological Urbanism?

    In my early post, I neglected to mention Millennium Park as an example. Combining modern and classical design, it transformed a sub-grade rail yard into the largest green roof (on structure) park in the world. In doing so, the park simultaneously eliminated an industrial eye sore and reconnected the Loop with the lake shore. To say it’s been a success would be an understatement!

    Another recent example is the Park at Lakeshore East by James Burnett.
    While small in comparison at 5.3 acres, the park provides a much need break from the surrounding city-scape and begins to create a hop-scotch connection of parks between Millennium Park to the South and Lincoln Park to the North.

    With all due respect to Mr. Burnett, who’s office is in Southern California and whose practice I greatly admire, this raises another question; Does part of Ecological Urbanism involve hiring local designers? No matter how much an out-of-town designer attempts to understand a region, it can take a lifetime to understand the nuances of a place and it’s environmental / climatic behavior. There are numerous examples in the ASLA awards of projects being completed by designers who live half way around the world from the site. I have a hard time believing that there isn’t a local designer, who has a thorough understanding of the region, that could have done as good a job or better. This disconnect becomes obvious when materials fail, sites flood, plants dies, etc. Any thoughts?



    You make a very good point in your last paragraph. As I understand it (and have experienced in the office I used to work in), when a large firm hires a local firm, it is usually to take the lead on construction administration and assistance performing CDs. Perhaps non-local firms should set a different precedent, while preserving their marketability in other markets, by hiring local firms from the beginning and including them in the inventory/analysis phase. The primary design concept will still receive the larger firm’s style and stamp, but local firms can use the opportunity to build equity locally and assist with the project’s long term success. How sustainable, that sounds!

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