Originally published in Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates: Reconstructing Urban Landscapes edited by Anita Berrizbeitia, and re-printed online at Places Journal.
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.  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.  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. 
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.  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.” 
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.
(Click here to continue, and for footnotes.)
October 12, 2009