The Eco-City Beautiful
When I was growing up in New York City, on summer weekends my family would often drive to Jones Beach, the great park that Robert Moses built on the southern shore of Long Island. It wasn’t wilderness by any stretch, but it was cool and open, more than enough to put the stifling city at a distance, if only for an afternoon. But what I remember as clearly was the drive back: Manhattan appearing out of the haze, emitting wavy lines of heat like a cartoon pie. Then being back in the thick of it, with the buzz of hundreds of thousands of air conditioners making the city itself feel like a single massive machine. The contrast was clear: the ocean air and the incredible physical presence of the water were invigorating, literally life-giving in their feeling of connectedness to broader natural processes. The city was hot, dirty, disconnected; nature was hidden.
Today that division has eroded. Confronting climate change and ecological collapse, environmentalists increasingly see urban areas as the most promising engines of sustainability. Two converging realizations — the efficiency of cities, and the global demographic trend towards urbanization — are inspiring a new generation to focus on urban and technology-based solutions to environmental problems. The political moves have been swift. In American cities, mayors have overreached the federal government with promising policies and infrastructure projects: mandated reductions in carbon emissions, sustainable building codes, green roofs, transportation initiatives (bike lanes, congestion pricing, hydrogen buses) and remediated industrial areas. 1 Undoubtedly, the green movement has gained momentum with these new urban agendas.
Yet the old metaphors retain their power. The mainstream environmental movement remains rooted in images of wilderness, revealing a stubborn anti-urban bias. We know we have entered a new “urban age,” and we know the dangerous realities of climate change, but the connection between the two still needs to be reinforced as a mainstream cosmology. 2 Alongside green energy technologies and new principles of economy, the environmental movement of the near future desperately requires metaphor remediation: an urban image to elbow aside Half Dome as the Mona Lisa of environmentalism.
In this spirit I will explore the current relationship between landscape architecture and ecology, focusing on two projects of Michael van Valkenburgh and Associates: the competition entry for the High Line in New York and the evolving designs for Toronto Port Lands at the mouth of the Don River. My intent is not to highlight these projects’ technical aspects — any ecological remediation they may provide — but rather their metaphorical benefits. Beginning with disused industrial landscapes, both projects explore a new paradigm for integrating cities and nature by creating landscapes that attempt to operate ecologically as well as metaphorically. Their designs reveal highly functional natural systems that connect us emotionally to broader natural processes.This is a crucial departure from past approaches to landscape architecture, and MVVA is not alone in it. The next generation of parks — including the large-scale work of James Corner, Adriaan Geuze, George Hargreaves, Ken Smith and Tom Leader — is unencumbered by musty divisions between nature and city. Rather than smooth over the presence of the city and the sordid elements of its past, they eagerly reflect them, with a 21st-century transcendence of ideology (which one could call Obamaian). A barge becomes a garden. An elevated railroad line becomes a meadow. A tidal bed becomes a playground. The liabilities of the industrial past are transformed into the amenities of the sustainable future. These designs are meant neither to repress the disorder of the city with the serenity of natural landscapes nor to smooth it out beneath a modernist veneer. 3
There is historical precedent to this approach, most notably via Frederick Law Olmsted, Ian McHarg and Robert Smithson, who in different ways leveraged the technical in service of the metaphorical. Even more strikingly, it has begun to emerge as something like city policy in New York, in the form of Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC environmental agenda. While the next generation of major parks is far from completion, New York’s park building boom (with close to $3 billion budgeted for capital improvements) demonstrates an effort to define a new relationship between nature and the city. 4 In “Civic Virtue By Design,” a brief essay published on the website of Metropolis magazine, Alexandros Washburn, the chief urban designer for New York City’s planning department, describes “a new definition of civic virtue for the 21st Century”: “Civic virtue is the cultivation of habits important for the success of the community. The ideas Mayor Bloomberg laid out are nothing short of a new compact with nature for the urban dweller, an acknowledgment that the success of our city will in large part be determined by our success in managing our environment.” 5 It’s in his conclusion that Washburn lays out the most interesting challenge: it is the task of design to “transform the rigidities of architecture into the adaptations of nature.” He adds: “We seek form for the new paradigm.” This is the task taken up by MVVA. They have embraced a new agenda for landscape architecture reflective of our global-scale understanding of environmental degradation and the potential of cities to counter it.
The Uses of Ecology
To do this — to define the poetics of a new kind of Eco-City Beautiful — landscape architects are tightening the links in their work between the scientific and the aesthetic and the ecological and the metaphorical. MVVA’s work in particular demonstrates a move beyond “postage-stamp” examples of urban nature that are easily contained, labeled and trumpeted. Beginning with the design of Mill Race Park, in Columbus, Ohio, and clearly evident now in the scheme for the Toronto Port Lands, the scale of MVVA’s interventions demonstrates a concern for ecological processes that is not merely illustrative, treating nature as if it were a museum exhibit, but rather that is necessarily rooted in a holistic understanding of site ecology. 6 More strikingly, it requires an agnostic approach toward nature’s coexistence with urban experience: accepting (indeed, insisting on) the presence of nature in the city, while being flexible as to the “truth” of that nature. The future landscapes described in their schemes suggest that there is no such thing as an orthodoxy of nature in an urban park, and that nature cannot be held at arm’s length.Yet what strikes me as more significant in MVVA’s work is the insistence on the metaphorical potential of well-engineered landscapes. Rather than nature being apparent as a small-scale and localized “petting zoo,” the schemes suggest that nature could be legible as an integrated part of urban experience — a perspective crucial to reimagining cities as the keystone of a more sustainable way of life. Parks can inspire a shift in the public understanding of city ecology, and parks can help connect that understanding with a broader understanding of the ecology of the planet. Indeed, the illegibility (so far) of these leaps of scale — from the ecology of the park to the ecology of the city to the ecology of the planet — strikes me as one of landscape architecture’s greatest challenges in the coming century of global climate change.
Recognizing (however counter-intuitively) that cities may be the lightest way to live on the land (for the vast majority of us, at least) is inherently difficult. Urban parks can help tell that story, by being not only respites but also positive reflections of the city that work to correct the dissonance between nature and city. Parks have always been public institutions; now they need to stand not merely for the health of the public but also for the health of the planet and the city’s vital role in its continuity. Rather than being understood as an antidote to the city, they must buttress the public’s sense of the city’s sustainability.
Yet the uses of ecology in the city aren’t as self-evident as they might seem. In recent years, existing strategies for urban landscapes mostly put ecology merely “in” the city — with naturalized shorelines, bird-watching programs or model tidal pools. 7 The challenge today is to create an “ecology of the city”: a more holistic approach to an ecological urbanism both technical and metaphorical. This requires addressing greater geographic and broader systemic scales. Cities have to be conscientious in their connection to the region and the planet, across a range of inputs and outputs, including water, power, waste and food production. These strategies are being prominently addressed within their own realms, whether through regional farming, clean power generation or recycling. They are a primary ambition of landscape architecture today.
Landscape architecture operates as part of a larger, open system of ever-increasing scales — from the flowerbed to the watershed and on up to the planet. Inevitably, increasing scale brings increasing complexity, and the straightforward facts architects count on from engineers dissolve into the theoretical models and opinions (however well-informed) of ecologists. In nature — even in the city — the facts on the ground never suggest straightforward actions. Here is where landscape architects begin a balancing act between the needs of the environment and the needs of the city.
In MVVA’s work of the last two decades, ecological thinking informs landscape making. Throughout, they have drawn on the help of professional consulting ecologists, including Stephen Handel, Steve Apfelbaum and Mark Laska, in search of a richer understanding of the possibilities for best incorporating natural processes into post-industrial urban landscapes. 8 This collaboration between landscape architects and ecologists is complex, and not without conflict. There is a basic difference in stance: landscape architects necessarily apply a design intention to a landscape, while ecologists observe and compare a landscape with an idealized theoretical framework of undisturbed nature. Landscape architects eager to respond to practical ecological concerns must reconcile these fundamentally different approaches to achieve substantial functional improvements — especially if those improvements are to operate both technically and metaphorically, for their own sake and as legible symbols of the Eco-City.
Using landscape architecture to produce an ecological urbanism is not about nature qua nature. Using the tools of ecology to create urban landscapes fulfills other needs: it reduces the environmental impact of cities, and it makes cities more pleasant places. To put this in ecological terms: parks help make cities a more suitable habitat for humans. “We can disagree whether it’s a necessity, but I think by and large human beings are extremely interested in their natural side, for want of a better word,” Valkenburgh said to me, voicing an article of faith among landscape architects. “There is a kind of connection through bodily experience that tells us who we are, that makes us aware of the quality of our lives.” Even beyond the scope of landscape architecture, this is the global imperative: the “quality of life” of cities is key to making medium and high-density urbanization work as a sustainability strategy.
But what does this mean for our experience? What does landscape architecture that enhances the city’s overall sustainability look like?
Metaphorical Implications for Ecological Interventions
It’s a well-noticed phenomenon that for a few days in June and a few days in July the Manhattan grid aligns itself with the cosmos — or at least the sun sets at the ends of the streets. On those evenings New Yorkers are confronted with a broader scale of space and time; the city senses the context of a world beyond itself, rather than being a world unto itself. I would like to think that this is a moment of heightened environmental consciousness. Certainly, the same impulse is at play in architecture that seeks to connect inside and out — whether the moon-viewing platform of a Japanese temple, or the foldaway walls of a modernist shack in the woods. The logic is clear: if you’re aware of nature you’ll protect it. In landscape architecture the window is not a window but a park; and the strategy is conceived to foster a connection to broader ecological processes, as well as to benefit those processes directly.MVVA’s schemes for the High Line and the Toronto Port Lands demonstrate the trajectory of their use of ecology: the High Line examined the metaphorical implications of ecological interventions on a constrained and highly unusual site; the Port Lands extended that approach to a broader urban scale — neither without challenges. The High Line is a tiny piece of real estate that looms large in the life of the city; it opens the door wide for symbolic meaning, while narrowing the opportunities for intervention. The Port Lands is a massive slice of Toronto with almost no public profile; it demands bigger gestures for (at least at first) smaller symbolic points. But both make use of an “ecological logic” (to borrow a term from the High Line proposal) to buttress the public’s sense of the city’s overall sustainability. Both place ecology before form-making as the basis for metaphor.
The High Line
In their entry for the High Line competition, MVVA partnered with landscape architect Julie Bargman (D.I.R.T. Studio), urban designer Neil Kittredge (Beyer, Blinder, Belle), and a bevy of engineers and storytellers, from Les Robertson to James Turrell and Luc Sante. They called their team TerraGRAM, in homage to Archigram, the radical 1960s design journal and group. The written proposal asserted their intentions to think grandly: “TerraGRAM sees the existing eco-corridor as an open invitation to create a new space that, using the living materials of the landscape, recasts ideas of park, of public space, and of nature.” 9 Indeed, this was a general premise of the project. More than a mere park or promenade, the abandoned elevated railway line running from the West Village through Chelsea to the Hudson Rail Yards was a chance to imagine a prototypical public space for the post-industrial city — something that embodied the city’s abandonment of the production of objects in favor of the production of ideas. The surprise of TerraGRAM’s scheme — reflected as well in Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s competition-winning design — was the extent of its ambition to “recast ideas” not merely of park and public space, but also of nature. The abandoned High Line offered the perfect opening for this project: with the photographs of Joel Sternfeld and a brilliant PR campaign on the part of the neighborhood group Friends of the High Line, the hidden landscape of the High Line burst onto the city’s consciousness as an industrial landscape more natural than many natural landscapes. 10 Like a meadow in the sky, it revealed a hidden aspect of the city as if out of a dream. The High Line overturned our expectations for how nature and the city intersect.So what kind of nature — or, what kind of urban ecology — was it? “The prevailing assumption,” TerraGRAM wrote in their proposal, “is that human intervention is rarely productive within an ecological system; that the hand of nature and the hand of culture are non-cooperative.” 11 The High Line scheme intended to replace that prevailing assumption with a better understanding — if not an outright celebration — of the “disturbance regime” that had taken root on the railroad tracks. The scheme viewed nature as an evolving ecological process, not a sacred absolute; therefore the landscape of the High Line would not be fixed, but would evolve over time. This intention was rooted in an ecological understanding of the site, yet there was undoubtedly also an aesthetic choice in this tendency towards letting the wild stay wild. Or, as the proposal puts it, “TerraGRAM will radicalize landscape-making by defining the park in terms of its ongoing natural processes rather than attempting to arrest growth in the interests of some idealized landscape form.” 12
The metaphorical implications are clear: just as the landscape of the High Line would be unfixed, so would we-the-public be unfixed — newly awakened to the urban ecology hiding in plain sight. TerraGRAM imagined that the High Line would not just reflect our values and views toward nature and the city, but would crack open new possibilities for those values. Not “arresting” the High Line’s ongoing natural processes becomes a symbolic stand-in — one you can walk through — for not arresting our ecological consciousnesses. The scheme begins with both ecology and form in order to result in both metaphor and experience; the nature of the site evolves and our understanding of nature evolves.
Crucially, the ambition is for this transformation in consciousness to extend beyond the High Line itself, to its immediate surroundings and the city as a whole. TerraGRAM imagined not that you visit the High Line, experience nature, and return to the city; but that you leave a visit to the High Line (a stroll through the air . . .) recognizing it as a microcosm of the broader relationship between nature and the city. This is intended practically: “the master plan should also be formed within a district-wide conception of environmental sustainability,” the plan states. And it is meant emotionally: “TerraGRAM believes that public interest is founded in the delight that New Yorkers feel when we discover irrefutable evidence of natural forces at work, undermining the city’s manmade environment.” 13
There lies a big idea in a little landscape package: natural forces bring delight, and delight brings public interest. It exhibits a startling faith in the redemptive powers of landscape architecture.
The Toronto Port Lands
MVVA’s scheme for the Lower Don Lands — which they’ve called the Port Lands — extends the approach and agenda tried out within the tiny and eccentric landscape of the High Line to a new scale: a new urban neighborhood conceived to house up to 25,000 people, located on a major river estuary. 14 (And this time, the scheme has been selected and has a shot at being built.) The project is the most recent of Toronto’s attempts to revitalize the Don River Valley, most notably through the work initiated by Michael Hough in his 1989 report “Bringing Back the Don.” 15 Where MVVA’s scheme for the Port Lands dramatically differs from earlier approaches is in its efforts to intensify urbanization, rather than cling to the Don River as a precious (and aestheticized) bit of wilderness in the city. As the geographer Bruce Braun writes, for Hough, “the presence of the ‘wild’ is given most value, while ‘rational’ and ‘planned’ spaces are valued far less, mirroring the instinctive romanticism of North Americans.” 16MVVA, in contrast, has approached the site by considering the best way of “recycling the industrial past” into a “sustainable green city,” as the presentation book puts it. 17 Process, rather than form, is the key to their project. In Toronto, as with the High Line, the process begins with ecological understanding. The difference here, however, is that the Lower Don Lands encompass the mouth of the Don River, a crucial point of a major watershed. The ecological stakes are far higher. Working with Steve Apfelbaum of Applied Ecological Services, as well as Great Eastern Ecology and Limno Tech hydrology consultants, MVVA determined that the form of this new urban neighborhood should take its initial cues from river morphology. Or, as the presentation book succinctly puts it, “Where does the river want to be?” 18
But the question was only a starting point — and not to be confused with an intention to restore the Don River’s historic path. (And which historic path would one restore? Pre-industrial? Pre-European? Pre-human?) As the proposal says, “It is neither possible nor desirable to replace the past. Likewise, it is neither possible, nor desirable to replicate what nature had placed here before.” 19
This is not an ecological restoration. Instead, it uses ecology as the foundation of a specific design intent. “Our shapes are related to the hydrological cycles of the river,” MVVA’s Matthew Urbanski said to me, “but we didn’t just let nature take its course. The river didn’t design the scheme, it informed the scheme.” By example, Urbanski points to the north tier of the site, which has a “mock natural” shape, like the bends of a river. It’s not meant to mimic nature, but instead is designed to create an experiential unfolding, encouraging a re-engagement with the landscape at each bend in the path.
What’s most notable here is the connection between the formal and ecological. While Urbanski may insist that the scheme is not merely imitative of nature, nature here is not fully flexible. The river may not have designed the scheme, but the scheme definitely designed the river — with the goal of creating ecological benefits. By restoring the mouth of the Don, the project doesn’t merely minimize the environmental impact of the neighborhood, but improves the ecological health of the site. And, as Steve Apfelbaum points out, those impacts are verifiable through soil samples and hydrographs. Ecology, unlike experience and aesthetics, is quantifiable.Equally striking is the resolution of the traditional conflict between city and nature. The Port Lands proposal does not put a hard line between the park and the neighborhood, but rather intertwines the two to create a place at once more natural and more urban. As MVVA writes, the vision is to “make the site more natural, with the potential for new site ecologies based on the size and complexity of the river mouth landscape, and more urban, with the development of a residential district and its integration into an ever-expanding network of infrastructure and use.” 20
There is a crucial real estate component to this as well. The curves of the site plan increase the number of places where the neighborhood directly abuts the park, creating additional (and more desirable) park-front housing. The scheme is intended to simultaneously create ecological value (to be good for the river), and to create economic value (to be good real estate). The goal is not to create a dichotomy between nature and the city, but rather to merge them in order to arrive at the elusive triple bottom line: a new place that is good for the environment, good for quality of life and good for business. MVVA is struggling to bring the ecological, aesthetic and economic into successful alignment via landscape architecture.The aim is to create a remarkable new urban neighborhood that is part and parcel of the city, not a relief from it. As with the High Line, an additional goal is symbolic, with the Port Lands suggesting a monument to the Eco-City (as Toronto’s CN Tower serves, for instance, as a monument to the media city). In part this is accomplished by relocating the mouth of the Don River so that it is visible from downtown Toronto, as if it were a Statue of Liberty for a green ideology. Similarly, within the Port Lands, the constant visibility of the river and its daily and seasonal fluctuations will bring the natural processes underlying the city to the forefront. As Apfelbaum says, “Ideally what the [restoration of the] Don River mouth will do is elevate the conversation about the entire water shed.” 21 The proposal puts this grandly: “The health of the [Port Lands] environment is not just “green for green’s sake” but fundamental to a broader aim, one that supports a civic imagination that embraces the entire spectrum of cultural and natural expressions.” 22 Rather than cordoning off ecology either for its own protection or as sacred ideal, the landscape design suggests a means by which the city and nature (“the entire spectrum of cultural and natural expressions””) can co-exist.
The symbolic meaning of the watershed is brought into the fold of urban life to become part of the civic imagination. And as with the High Line (and as with nature itself), the landscape isn’t built out and fixed but rather is allowed to evolve according to its own processes. “The ecological transformation of the site will engage the public imagination as it is being realized,” the proposal adds 23 — explicitly linking ecology and civic ideals.