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Greening the City
Alex Steffen, 20 May 04

I'm somewhat in love with The Greening of the City, Jane Jacobs' latest essay:

"Even the most startling cultural and economic developments do not arise out of thin air. They are always built upon prior developments and upon a certain amount of serendipity and chance. And their consequences are unpredictable, even to their originators and the pioneers who believed in them and initiated them. After all, the first financially successful railroad in the world was an amusement ride in London."

Jacobs goes on -- by way of discussing sprawl as a by-product of the cheapness of suburban parking and a agro-business planning mindset ("Look at them: monocultural housing tracts, erected on ever-larger scales, like so many endless fields of cabbages...") -- to say that landscape architecture is not only more organic and vibrant than most other branches of planning, but is at the forefront of a much wider movement to redefine the relationship between the built and the natural...

"In a sense, today's urban landscape architects are picking up the revolutionary view of nature that dissipated more than two centuries ago, but this time around they are viewing mankind and nature as partners, with nature as the senior partner and human beings the apprentices.

"To see the difference in these two approaches, there is no better place to look than Vancouver, where a partnership with nature is altering the urban skyline. The glass-and-masonry downtown courthouse at Robson Square has a ''green roof'' -- meaning a planted roof where natural evaporation in summer and natural insulation in winter curb the waste of energy. The city's massive new public library has also acquired a green roof. Equally striking are the otherwise ordinary Vancouver houses now topped by plants. Nor are all the roofs flat. The building trades have learned to conserve water and energy while lending beauty to buildings with sloping roofs, gables and other complications.

"Many other places -- from Long Island City in Queens to Portland, Ore. -- now display green roofs, or are acquiring them. In Toronto, a huge recycled factory building has combined the practical virtues of the roof garden with charming outdoor nooks for snacking, a site for university experiments with vertical planting beds and a supply source for an in-house cafe's fresh herbs, tomatoes and other vegetables.

"The quiet revolution wrought by today's landscape architects and ecologists owes much to the environmental movement and its influence. In the 70's, landscape architects in cities like Winnipeg and Toronto took the initiative of converting lawns that were called ''meadows'' into actual meadows: they did this by leaving them unmowed and allowing native grasses, daisies and buttercups to creep in and seed themselves. The usual objectors to anything new called the vanishing of standard green carpets uncouth, messy and a sign of the loss of disciplined civilization. But eventually, a significant sector of the population formed the necessary political groupings to change entrenched bylaws and practices in some areas. Some cities supplied backyard composters at cost to households and instituted programs for picking up the compost at curbside and taking it to nearby parks. Fan-shaped drainpipe extensions have been distributed to allow rainwater and snowmelt from roofs to seep into the ground."

Of course, if you've been following along, you'll already know that we're deep into greening the city. Green roofs, street trees, native plants used for erosion control, eco-villages like BedZED, urban art/eco-restoration projects like Fresh Kills, waterfront reclaimation projects (like those in Portland, San Francisco, and soon, hopefully, Seattle)... we're into the whole project of not only reconnecting the urban to the natural but intertwining them in new ways (and here's where the possibilties of neo-biological design, green building, "smart" distributed power grids, and way new urbanism come into play...), creating a wholy new hybrid which is both radically more sustainable and entirely more enjoyable.

I think Jane would be down with all this, but, as always, she's already way out ahead of the rest of us:

"In all of these efforts, urban landscape architects and their progeny have been influenced by the study of ecosystems. Unlike plantations, ecosystems are never monocultural. Their ideal scale is a size capable of sustaining populations of greatly diverse natural inhabitants that offer direct or indirect benefits to one another. Their mature forms are potentially unpredictable. Who could have predicted redwood forests?

"In the age of the great plantation, it was widely supposed that cities and their people were unproductive parasites, idly battening on wealth created by rural and wild places. Many a smidgen of rural pasture, minus the grazing sheep, horses, mules, cattle or swine, has been inserted into cities with the deliberate intention of combating urban decadence. But this is a misunderstanding of social life and of nature alike. Indeed, in its need for variety and acceptance of randomness, a flourishing natural ecosystem is more like a city than like a plantation. Perhaps it will be the city that reawakens our understanding and appreciation of nature, in all its teeming, unpredictable complexity."

This idea is something that I've been wrestling with trying to find a way to say for a long time now (for an early fumbling towards it, you can check out my 1995 piece Cities are Rad and other environmental heresies, a title I'm afraid I used with a straight face [piece also below]), but which, thankfully, others (like Jacobs and Anne Spirn) have articulated with much more beauty and precision: that not only are cities inescapably intertwined with the natural, cities want to become indistinguishable from nature. The destiny of cities is to become more like parks than parking lots.


Cities are Rad, and other Environmental Heresies
by Alex Steffen

I have a lot of friends who are going to hate this story.

Living in Seattle, I have a lot of buddies who are hard-core
wilderness junkies. They live to get out. They work scrub jobs all winter
in order to spend the summer guiding or just screwing around outdoors. At
parties they compare notes on gear. They kayak, they climb, they mountain
bike, they go on long hikes in the North Cascades. And they're damn touchy
about the idea of anyone messing with their wild lands. Their cars sport
Sea Shepherd logos and "Back to the Pleistocene" bumperstickers. They are
truly rad Deep Green Treehuggers, and they'll tell you so to your face.

So it's probably going to wig a few of them out when I say that
the wilderness I'm worried about most these days is in the middle of
cities. It's going to damn well piss them off when I say that I'm no longer
sure what nature is, but that I think the environmental movement's not
really doing much to protect it.

We are trained-- that's the environmentally-conscious we-- to see
cities as piles of blacktop and cars and factories and buildings that have
nothing to do with the world that's "out there," the world of forests and
rivers and mountains. We're taught to think of one (the city) as a place we
have to live, but to think of the other (the wilderness) as our "real"
home. They're different places, worlds apart. One's artificial, twisted,
wrong, and the other's, well, natural.

I think there is, for many of us, an unspoken promise in wild
lands. Cresting a ridge in the North Cascades and coming to the head of a
long, open valley, we pause. We look out, over the clumps of fir, over the
bushy scrub, over the small stream that runs out into a marshy flatland,
and we say to ourselves, silently, "This is how it all must have looked

What we don't say, though we mean it anyway, is that this is how
it all may be again in some unspecified future: that somehow we may find a
way back into the Garden. The assumptions are twofold. First there's the
idea that wild nature provides the template: that we should be working to
make as much land as possible look like our wilder public lands. Second is
the promise-- rarely spoken aloud-- that, if we can just hold on to enough
wild places, there will come a day when the wild will spread back out and
we will again live in a world of wilderness. Nature, then, becomes the
seedstock for a Neo-primitive utopia.

Bouncing around the fringe of the environmental movement, one can
hear that promise spoken aloud. People talk about the collapse of
industrial society, and the emergence of new tribes. In certain
neo-primitive circles, you can even find explicit descriptions of the wild
recolonizing the ruins of our cities left by some undescribed apocalypse.

[assumption: That nature-- the nature in our public lands-- is the
template, and that at some point we're going to get rid of cities all
together and live in a natural system that looks like the pristine lands
that are left. Related to the old climax model: that left alone, nature is
unchanging over time. New model: disturbance, constant and never cyclical,
except by chance.]

If it was this clear all would be cool. If there was pristine
nature to work with, we could fight to protect it all costs, and let the
rest of the region go to pot. As long as we had the template, as long as we
had the seedstock we'd come out on the other side of the coming disaster
in good shape.

This, unfortunately, is a completely fucked idea.

It's fucked for a number of reasons. First because we're dealing,
in our wild lands, not with the primeval world, but with land that's been
intensively managed. Nature-- in the sense of places that humans haven't
made changes, where Nature continues Her Millennia-old processes unchanged
by people's actions-- just doesn't exist anymore. I'm not talking about
the way the climate's changing as we put the planet on simmer with
Greenhouse gasses, though those changes are real. The real changes go
deeper than that. Ever since European folks got to this edge, there have
been big changes: alien species, like Spartina grass and the opossum;
extinctions, like the Olympic wolf; clearcuts and strip mines, air and
water pollution, nuclear waste and fire suppression.

So, if we went back, before white people got here, we'd have
nature, right? Well, not really. Native peoples dramatically changed the
landscapes they lived in over the last 40,000 years. They hunted-- some
people think they drove the mammoth and countless other animals into
extinction-- they cleared land for camas root, they started fires, they
generally went to town on the landscape.

So, as much as it helps our morale to go out in the woods and say
"this is what it must have looked like here two hundred years ago" (with
the unstated hope that this is how it'll be again), it just ain't true.
"This" is just how it is right now. We're stuck with a world that is
something completely unknown and unprecedented: a world of naturally
chaotic systems that we've torqued completely with thousands of years of
every kind of manipulation.

In such places, choosing to do nothing-- to let fires burn as they
will, say-- is to make a management choice: to chose inaction as our
response to our previous actions. Having suppressed fire for nearly a
century, to now choose to let wildfires burn as they will is not choosing
the natural balance, it's merely ignoring how far we've already disturbed
these systems. It's choosing catastrophic fires that destroy everything,
like the Wenatchee fires of a couple years back. It's a cynical

It's an equally bad self-delusion to turn away from technology and
the extent to which we're not just managing some of the dynamics of
nature, but actively rearranging the basic structures of genes, of the
climate, of molecular biology. We've already bought the ticket on molecular
chemistry. We've released millions of tons of thousands of kinds of
chemicals into the world. Now we're having to admit we don't really know
what those chemicals are doing to our ecosystems or our bodies. But
ignoring them won't make anything better.

Like it or not, we're in the awkward position of managing nature.
We couldn't leave it responsibly alone even if we wanted to. We need to
figure out how to get a grip on what our priorities are. We can't afford
any romantic, self-deluding shinola.

This is not an argument for destroying wilderness areas, or
selling of the National Parks, or letting technology run unchecked. To
admit that nature is completely reliant on our actions-- that even our
inaction is a management choice at this point, that "pristine" nature is a
pipe-dream now-- is not to say that wild lands have no value. Nor is it to
say that caution isn't still a wise policy...

Wild land, big chunks of it, are in fact all the more vital.
Conservation biology is teaching us that is we want to preserve genetic
diversity we need to preserve big chunks of habitat, whole ecosystems
really. "The first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save all the
parts," wrote Aldo Leopold, and we should heed him. If we're going to
tinker, we'd better do it right. Leaving aside all the social benefits of
wilderness, all the aesthetic reasons why we need wild lands around, it
has direct practical benefits: we are dependent on ecosystems and their
functioning for our food, our water, our air.

But to fight to preserve wilderness while ignoring cities is
flat-out dishonesty. Our cities-- and by extension, our economies-- are
what's chewing up the countryside. Our economy may be changing to an
information economy, but until it changes to a sustainable economy, we're
still using resources that come from somewhere. That our copper now comes
from the vast sprawling open pit mines of New Guinea's Bouganville Island,
and that our wood comes from Siberia, doesn't get us off the hook one bit.
Being an urban environmentalist who lives in a big, drafty house, drives a
beat up Volvo, shops at the PCC and gives money to a couple conservation
groups still makes you a cog in an economy that is hell-bent on tearing
the shit out of the natural world. If you want to keep the parts of our own
regional ecosystems intact-- much less slow down the global tidal wave of
environmental destruction-- it's going to take more than just crushing
your cans for recycling [the squash-a-can-for-Gaia movement].

It's damn hard to live a life of doing no harm in today's cities:
meeting our daily needs often involves compromises, and our mitigating
actions, like recycling, are just drops in the bucket. Meanwhile, the real
damage continues to accelerate. No, the most important step for urban
environmentalists-- which in the Northwest is most environmentalists-- is
to fix the place they live.

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This essay is part of The New York Times Magazine's theme issue on the transformative power of landscape architecture.

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 20 May 04

Brilliant article. I'm currently taking an applied ecology class at UCLA and one of our textbooks is _Conservation Biology_ by Andrew Pullin, who is British. It was a bit startling to see that a restoration plan to enhance biodiversity in certain English wetlands involves bringing back traditional management practices! Still, I think this is a healthy attitude as it acknowledges that humans are part of nature.

With all that said, I still want to live a decidious forest. :-) It doesn't have to be "wild" -- it just has to be that type of forest.

Posted by: Jane Shevtsov on 20 May 04

"not only are cities inescapably intertwined with the natural, cities want to become indistinguishable from nature"

Yes, forest cities! Like the Elves and the Ewoks :D Or for a bit more obscure reference, the Templar world of God's Grove (in Hyperion :)Bioengineer massive intelligent sequoias to live among and in!

Posted by: Babel 5 on 21 May 04

Alex, I agree and like, much of what you say here. Cities are chewing up the counryside and I love the idea of greening our cities so that they're more like parks than parking losts.

However sometimes I wonder where you get this shit from you know? Statements like:

"Nature-- in the sense of places that humans haven't
made changes, where Nature continues Her Millennia-old processes unchanged by people's actions-- just doesn't exist anymore."

May well be true in _your_ experience but to make such a sweeping generalisation - well I feel that the truth of such a statement is subservient to your need to make a point.

And this one:

"Native peoples dramatically changed the landscapes...they
generally went to town on the landscape."

Yes, I agree that native people changed the landscape - but to say they generally 'went to town' is a ridiculous statement when you consider what modern society has done to the landscape. In comparison they did _not_ but rather had minimal impact. Especially when you consider nomadic lifestyles.

Posted by: Zaid Hassan on 21 May 04

Hey, just following up on Emily's tip:

There were a bunch of neat articles, but particularly apropos, I thought, was this one :D Be sure to witness the accompanying 'interactive feature'!

"Life Forms: Growing a New Urban Landscape," offers a long-range program that imagines the entire fabric of Lower Manhattan as a synthetic, productive landscape -- an alternative to the traditional model of clearly defined parks. The best tribute to the tragic history of the World Trade Center site is life -- evolution, profusion and creativity. This transformation would be effected over decades, beginning next year:

2005: Propagation. The "bathtub" of the World Trade Center site would be turned into a tree nursery as part of a regenerative landscape of tree farms, growing new life. Vertical garden aviaries and a temporary memorial "forest" of trade-center building remnants would be arrayed along the western half of the site. New tree-lined public promenades along Vesey and Liberty Streets would connect to the Hudson River.

2020: Reforestation. The trees grown in the bathtub nursery would be used in an extensive reforestation of public spaces and streets. The tree farm will become a memorial arboretum -- a large sunken garden of extraordinary tree specimens, flowers and wildlife from all over the world.

2050: Landscape Urbanism. A built fabric emerges, synthesizing natural materials, air, light, water and energy into radically new amalgams of nature and urban life. Building skins that respond to air and temperature changes, ecological roof gardens, gardens that recycle water and air, geothermal heating and cooling systems, solar and wind energy producers, biochemical super-decomposers of waste and other ecotechnologies create a sustainable environment in which landscape functions less as a backdrop and more as a productive, living machine. The sunken arboretum memorial grows into a synthetic water garden, a petri dish of diverse and exotic life forms.

2200: Bio-Urbia. With rising sea levels and changes in global climate, Lower Manhattan may one day become an island with extraordinary beaches. The World Trade Center site would link the new island to Manhattan, serving as a metropolitan transit hub, exotic water garden, perimeter promenade and nucleus of a global Earth.

Posted by: Babel 5 on 21 May 04


Well, buddy, nature everywhere *has* been impacted deeply by humanity. The climate, planetwide, has changed and appears to be changing faster. We've dumped countless tons of all sorts of chemicals into the air and water - chemicals which show up in the tissues of plants and animals a long way from anywhere. We've drastically altered the species make-up of the vast majority of the planet's ecosystems (see any mammoth? any dodos? and passenger pidgeons?). I could go on, but perhaps I'll just end with the fact that scientists attempting to find baseline ecosystems to study, uncontaminated by human activity, are finding it essentially impossible. And of course, all these trends are accelerating.

That the world we live in is profoundly altered is not my "experience," it's a pretty objective statement of fact. I am making a point, but it's also the truth.

Re: traditional native peoples, point taken that we moderns live in glass houses. (do remember that I wrote that piece liek ten years ago) That said, at least in North America, native impact had huge, collosal ecosystem-wide impacts. I assume the story is pretty similar around the planet. There's been a lot of environmental history work done on this.

I get this shit, as you put it, from reading the research.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 21 May 04

I guess that you're right in a technical sense - human chemicals have spread far and wide. However to go from that statement to a position which states that no pristine states of nature exist is a stretch - in the sense that such a statement will only make sense if you clearly state _why_ you're making such a statement, for what purpose and in what context.

Posted by: Zaid Hassan on 21 May 04

We have started to bring life back to the soils around us by using Actively Aerobic Compost Tea (AACT). This is very important for those of us living in the concrete. Repairing the soil foodweb is the base of living cities. Making a good compost available to city people is an important task. In the meantime, we go to the finest source we can find, pick up a small load and bring it home to brew it up. This is cheaper and less bulky than hauling a mass of it. We learn to give back in quality some of what we take out. The life in it can chew thru some of the toxins and change them, given tending.

Posted by: Kim McDodge on 21 May 04



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