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A vision for resilience in a post climate change world

Marc Lefkowitz  |  09/08/17 @ 10:00am  |  Posted in Climate, Explore, Transform

“Landscape is not scenery; it is not a political unit…it is never simply a natural space, a feature of the natural environment; it is always artificial, always synthetic, always subject to sudden and unpredictable change…[Landscape] is where the slow, natural processes of growth and maturity and decay are deliberately set aside and history is substituted. A landscape is where we speed up or retard or divert the cosmic program or impose our own…There are many who say that salvation of [the landscape] depends on our relinquishing this power to alter the flow of time and on our returning to a more natural order. But the new ordering of time should affect not only nature, it should affect ourselves. It promises us a new kind of history, a new more responsive social order, and ultimately a new landscape.” –John Brinckerhoff Jackson (1984) in “Discovering the Vernacular Landscape”

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I have been reading Resilience in Ecology and Urban Design an important book published in 2013 that captures the research and the state of the art in making cities more resilient. Resilience carries great weight in the post-climate changed world where New Orleans, New York, Houston and soon Miami are facing dire challenges wrought by rising and warming seas.

The book has many good ideas on how to deepen the connection between ecology and design for cities. Resilience means cities will better absorb the shocks of a rapidly changing and more hostile planet. It presents cases where urban designers, mayors, and environmentalists have made efforts to meld the worlds of science, politics and social movements into what theorists like JB Jackson in 1984 called a Vernacular Landscape. Or what Nan Ellin more recently calls Integral Urbanism.

Bottom line, climate scientists have produced a great body of work modeling the impact of climate change, but the art of green and blue urbanism is still in its infancy. And to make it successful, it cannot stand alone as some early examples of eco-cities have, but must be relevant in every day living.

That's because Jackson believed that all landscapes are or will be human dominated. Suburbs and exurbs are producing the fastest rate of change. To make human-dominated landscapes resilient means translating the science of environmental processes into a vernacular, which means landscapes integrate environmental processes and can make landscapes more visible.

“Rather than attempting to return to a more natural order, mimicking nature, ecological design invites the invention and realization of new, resilient landscapes that visibly embody societal values, thoughtfully incorporate our best knowledge of environmental processes and are adaptable to surprising change,” Jackson writes. “To achieve this, ecological design must employ ecology not merely as a metaphor, but as an analytical engine that propels designers to work with dynamic environmental and human phenomena, anticipate surprises, and formulate…intentional landscape change.”

Ellin believes that the future city will be resilient when we move toward Integral Urbanism, which is “inspired by ecosystems and derives inspiration from thresholds, ecotones, tentacles, rhizomes, webs, etc.”

How is this theory applied? Cities are no longer single gathering points with less important “sub-urbs” radiating outward (interesting historical footnote, suburbs literally grew up around the walled city and were burned to the ground before marauding armies invaded). Sprawl is a landscape that has a connection to urban places. Integrating suburban and urban will need a vision of interconnected spaces. Ellin suggests looking at transit lines, wildlife corridors, waterways, flight paths, and contour lines. Where modern cities treated these natural corridors and features as annoyances to be erased, Ellin writes, we need a new vision; one with incentives acting as “attractors”. Ellin adds that this will happen in the form of investment in infrastructure in cities. Cities will “absorb the wave (of climate change), offer positive reinforcement, rendering walls unnecessary, so that people and resources don’t pour out of them.”

The infrastructure that will make cities more resilient are renewable energy systems, living systems for handling the massive growth in urban population such as “living machines” to manage waste, and permaculture or permanently weaving natural, built and cultural systems to enhance biodiversity, reduce heating loads and pollutants, bringing nature into the city, provide food, encourage walking, raise property values, etc.

Where to focus these green urbanism efforts are at the existing edges of human and natural places. Currently, our model for cities has fragmented the edge, but even in less obvious places like suburban gathering places and urban rivers the idea can manifest that we make landscapes visible and functionally achieve porosity and integration.

Examples of this locally are the West Creek Stewardship Center, the wildlife corridor that is being encouraged in the Cuyahoga River valley and the Cleveland Flats, even the recent move toward more biologically functional green space like the Beachwood “train median” parkway.

The cities we live in now are a product of Modernism which modeled cities after machines. The coming of climate change and information technology will precipitate a shift to cities that gain inspiration from ecology. Form will have to follow the function of environment, emotion, symbol, and spirit.

“It is time to stop designing in the image of the machine and start designing in a way that honors the complexity of life itself,” said urbanists Sim Van der Ryn and Stuart Cowan. “We must mirror nature’s deep interconnectedness.”

What, then, do we need from urban design? Rachel Sara in “The Pink Book” calls for more feminine values in design such as empathy, collaboration, community evolution, holism, diversity, negotiation, enabling and responsiveness.

Resilience theorists like Steven Holl observe that paradigm shifts seem likely because of information technology. IT in all its incarnations has already begun the hybridization and dissolving of place while increasing connectivity and porosity–of information. Holl calls our new IT influenced places “Cyburgs” where in the positive we will see simultaneous uprising of local cultures and expressions of place.

Porosity has also been at the center of the movement of ecological urban design for the past decade. In the chapter, Sponge City, Ignacio Bunster-Ossa collects examples of large to small scale green infrastructure and ecological restoration sites. At the city scale, Philadelphia has embarked on a project to meld ecology and equity — installing porous basketball courts at schools. Also, building bio-filtration gardens at schools as outdoor classrooms to help teach kids the value of sound environmental stewardship. New Orleans has a city scale project, post-Katrina, to build flood retention into local thoroughfares, school yards and community parks. The same with the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative in a predominantly low to moderate income neighborhood of Washington, D.C. with aspirations to daylight the Anacostia River tributaries, build up biiofiltration areas, wetlands and habitat to absorb contaminants and restore the river.

Closer to home, the Tom Ridge Environmental Center in Erie, PA and the Idora neighborhood restoration project in Youngstown stand as nationally recognized examples of integrating ecology and equity.

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