Friday, February 25, 2011
Urban Design For Thriving Vs. Sustaining
DAZZLED BY VERY real achievements of material technology, design has the problem of succumbing to a focus on parts. It is not unlike the fable of erroneously describing the elephant and misunderstanding it by focusing on its parts and never looking for the whole. And in an ecological context, “looking for the whole” when looking at the city requires looking even further than the fable goes, to include the city’s integration with other events beyond it that shape it. For example, new concepts such as the “ecological footprint” dramatically demonstrate urbanization’s huge consumption of external resources that threaten the internal urban landscape by diminishing the external landscape.
Recently, there has been a constructive shift in urban environmental concerns, moving from “livability” to “sustainability” due specifically to degrading environmental feedback that is global in scale and compromising global public human health. With sustainability in mind, environmental quality has become a more visible priority. “Sustainability” implies a growing concern that environmental dilemmas not only limit the quality of life but also have become a threat if resources are not available.
Positively, sustainability fits with the crucial shift that is occurring in cities, that of migration toward the city as a place of residency. Sustainability is a natural concern of residents rather than pioneers. Negatively, sustainability does not envision the city itself as ecologically adaptive. “Sustainability” continues to be viewed as an essential environmental action, but it is envisioned as limiting human development due to costs of retrofitting infrastructure. “Sustainability” in urban design is nearly synonymous with green technology. In the intentional eco-vill, sustainability is viewed differently than in traditional urban planning and design. There, traditional and alternative technology offer important adaptations, but they are secondary to a large objective, that of thriving in an organic habitat.
Positively, sustainability challenges the city to be environmentally sensitive, but it does not challenge the city to be “living,” only less damaging. Sensitivity to the environment identifies the environment as separate, rather than including human life and seeing human life as a natural expression of the Earth ecosystem as in a view of the city as ecological. Excising the “disease of excess use” without a larger goal of thriving as a living system may lead to a redirection of consumption and often to increased consumption rather than reduced consumption. In the name of sustainability, for example, “green” architectures are promoted as more energy-efficient but that still use more energy because they are often larger structures.
As a major beginning point, thriving focuses on optimizing health while sustainability tends to focus on the problem. We are good at identifying problems but we are very poor when it comes to identifying health. We become so focused on problems that there is always the danger of seeing everything as a problem. We do this with cities and miss their health—their adaptability—that offers us an opportunity. We presume health to be the absence of problems when this is not the case. We tend to settle for surviving and compensating and define this as “sustaining.” But there is no real optimal future in this approach. Events can sustain for a time on life support, but not thrive and be healthy and endure.
Design for the living city needs to shift dramatically to reach beyond traditional problem solving if it is to move from being environmentally sensitive to be authentically ecological. While design and planning can be beneficial in any human settlement, thriving cannot be designed because design can never account for all the variables, and may overlook important ones by focusing on a problem such as increasing energy efficiency. In the uncertain context of any contemporary “conurbation,” aspiring to solve problems presumes a degree of certainty that is both not present and not the way that a city-form ultimately develops. Such design misses the inherent forces that have contrived the city and continue to design it in response to the changing conditions of existence.
Contemporary urban design tends to be problem solving or “solution-based.” Design for thriving is design for uncertainty because it aspires to create options rather than solve a problem. Designing-for-thriving tends to begin by “un-designing” or by exploring what we overlook. Shifting from problems to opportunities requires a shift to explore existing inherent health and to then enhance it. For example, to create satisfying housing in global urbanism, we might end up doing something radically different than creating comprehensive human-scale communities if we were to first explore what is happening in urban living that seems satisfying to inhabitants.
Thriving aspires to exceed rather than reduce, to increase our options. It aspires to look at the city from different and/or broader perspectives. Thriving requires expansive thinking “out of the box—“thinking like a mountain” [i]—or in a “new key” to overcome the way that we overlook or even proscribe experiences that are not yet reflected in language[ii] to optimize perception. Thriving is a natural perceptual orientation as conditions of living change and inhabitants look to new ways of adapting. Degrading global environmental feedback begins to draw attention to creatural dimensions of human life. And it is primarily occurring without intentional design or in spite of urban design.
We aspire to see a species such as eagle thrive rather than just survive or sustain as a species, or else the eagle really wouldn’t be fully alive. We would not design a landscape for an eagle. We would see what the eagle chooses and then try to optimize “an ecology of thriving.” Were we to design an optimal landscape for urban inhabitants, we would begin by trying to describe an inherent urban health and develop literacy with regard to the components of a healthy city. We would explore optimal, satisfying human activity patterns that are already operant that soften the grid as well as reframe the city as the living system rather than as a machine to see what this perspective might reveal.
Wildness in any species is focused on survivability rather than livability or sustainability. And “survivability” really involves a focus on subtle thriving and optimizing rather than maintenance of the status quo. Thoreau’s “Wildness is the preservation of the World” remains the prime directive for any species, and preservation is fundamentally a process of keeping alert to change, and an emphasis upon a strategy of integration rather than a strategy of exclusion/separation or a strategy that aspires to achieve permanent stasis.
A major problem with the term “sustainability” is the problem that nothing really sustains. That which predictably sustains across the long run of events is change. Events are always in a process of succession in any landscape whether it is built or not. In For the Time Being, Annie Dillard writes,
New York City’s street level rises every century. The rate at which dirt buries us varies. The Mexico City in which Cortez walked is now thirty feet underground. It would be farther underground except Mexico City itself has started sinking. Digging a subway line, workers found a temple. Debris lifts land an average 4.7 feet per century….
Scratching under a suburb of St. Louis, archaeologists recently found thirteen settlements, one on top of the other, some of which lasted longer than St. Louis has. [iii]
If the city is organic and not mechanical, an authentic sustainability in the city can be different from sustainability in a rainforest or desert, but not an opposite. Like “designing for a rainforest,” urban design should not be “easy.” The city, like the rainforest, is multi-influenced and a complex process of succession. Interesting, urban designers might visit designed rainforest environments in zoos to develop an appreciation of the difficulty of intentional design and its failure in those attempts. In such zoo environments, most species are contained in small enclosures hidden by the design of a vast open ceiling, leading visitors on pathways through elaborate unwalled cages. The rainforest design is primarily a display rather than anything approaching even a meager sustainable ecosystem.
In a discussion of the dynamics of the city, such accretions of human culture as described by Annie Dillard might be suggested as evidence that culture is both well developed and sustainable by building on top of the existing human habitation, and so deep in time so as to have become primarily cultural and no longer natural. What tends to be missed is the enduring dynamic of change as the key design element, as well as human accommodation to the change rather than an unchanging human settlement through time.
[i] For example, Aldo Leopold, “Thinking like a mountain,” A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There. New York: Oxford University Press, 1949, pp. 129-132 .
[ii] Susan Langer, Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957 [1942).
[iii] Annie Dillard, For the Time Being, pp. 123 and 124 respectively.