Tectonic Shift

Posted in Vol 13 No 3 by bsaab on August 4, 2010

The High Line, Manhattan.

By tackling some of the most daunting problems of the city, landscape architects are rising to new prominence.

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Elizabeth Padjen: The last time ArchitectureBoston devoted an entire issue to landscape architecture was in 2003; our roundtable discussion was titled “Burying Olmsted.” At that time, much of the buzz in the profession was focused on what might be called the artful landscape: landscape cum art installation. But the participants in that roundtable also mentioned Millennium Park in West Roxbury — where soil from the Big Dig was used to cap an old landfill — as an example of cutting-edge thinking about ecological landscapes, and they bemoaned the lack of attention such projects were receiving. It’s astonishing to see how the profession has changed in just seven years — not only in terms of the kinds of projects that are gaining wide recognition, but also in terms of a new focus and a new energy. Terms such as landscape urbanism, ecological urbanism, and agricultural urbanism are now commonplace and are even leaking into the public lexicon. One of our editorial board members recently stated, “Landscape is suddenly the most relevant player.” Let’s start by talking about this new excitement. Where does it come from?

David Gamble: More and more, the public recognizes the fragility of the environment — look at the recent floods in Nashville and the oil spill in the Gulf. Part of the landscape profession’s rise to the top is due to the general recognition by the public that landscapes are living organisms and that we need to think very carefully about how we inhabit our environment. This increase in consciousness has helped landscape architecture play a much larger role in the public’s eye than it might have otherwise.

Laura Solano: Landscape architects are especially skilled in understanding systems, and that’s why we are deeply involved in this search for an ecologically responsible life. It’s easy to say that this focus has suddenly boiled up, but in fact, it’s been a long time coming. Frederick Law Olmsted, in the 19th century, understood systems perfectly; his talents were multivalent: he was a civil engineer, a surveyor, and an author, as well as a landscape architect. In the early to mid-20th century, Jens Jensen and Aldo Leopold were writing about these issues, but there wasn’t an audience. And then Ian McHarg blew the doors open in 1969 by introducing the idea of ecological planning.

Wendi Goldsmith: Olmsted espoused the merit of Central Park long before other people ever imagined today’s development pressures. Yet he rallied people behind a vision and was very clear about doing it for reasons of air quality, exercise, civic interaction, and creating a shared space that would reinforce community. His design of Boston’s Emerald Necklace was intended to solve some very practical stormwater flooding management problems. Both projects place landscape architecture at the foundation of what we now call sustainable community design.

Shauna Gillies-Smith: The public has long understood that landscape architects work with living elements. But a recent and significant shift is that we are starting to realize that cities are also living organisms, so the systematic thinking that has been part of the landscape discipline is now being translated to new strategies for the urban condition as well.

Jill Desimini: And of course, landscape architects bring an understanding of people and the designed experience. That means they are skilled at making spaces that work for their inhabitants that also address the complexities of urban, ecological, and infrastructural systems.


Simcoe and Rees WaveDecks, Toronto.

Simcoe and Rees WaveDecks, Toronto, part of a series of three multifunctional public walkways along the waterfront. Designer: West 8 + DTAH. Photos © West 8 urban design & landscape architecture.

Architecture and Landscape Architecture

Elizabeth Padjen: The tectonic plates of the design professions seem to be shifting. I wonder if the rise of landscape architecture means that something has changed in the ligatures that tie the professions together or if it’s evidence of fundamental differences in the ways that the disciplines respond to the challenges of the world today.

David Gamble: It’s partly because of the vacuum created by the departure of the architects. Architects haven’t been thinking about larger-scale connections and about relationships to key topographic and environmental conditions or special places in cities in which the landscape is really what’s most valued. Landscape architects have found a way to take over much of that territory by engaging themselves directly in those issues.

Jill Desimini: We like to think of projects as functioning in many ways — socially, economically, environmentally — apart from how they look. Of course, many architects do, too. But, having been trained in both architecture and landscape architecture, I would say there is a real difference in the complexity of the landscape medium and the ways in which landscape architects think about how various systems might come together. A good example is the project by Stoss for the Lower Don River in Toronto. A traditional urban-design approach might have considered the river as an entity to be squeezed into an urban fabric. Instead, Stoss asked, What does this kind of river need in order to function? The designers weren’t trying to adapt it to the city fabric and then figure out how to deal with the flooding that comes later. The challenge became how to structure the city and the neighborhood around the river. If you give the river the kind of mouth that it needs, if you understand that you’ll have fluctuating water levels, then you start to think in terms of different types of land use and you can start to develop a set of performance criteria both for the river and for the neighborhood and open spaces. Various elements start to work on multiple levels but also together in a unified, sustainable whole.

Laura Solano: The example of designing for fluctuating water levels underscores an important distinction between architecture and landscape architecture, which is that architecture usually doesn’t have to deal with something that is inherent to landscape: change, which is the driver for all natural systems, for better or worse. The arc of time and change are fundamentally different factors in the landscape design process.

The emphasis in landscape urbanism should be on the urbanism. Jill Desimini

Shauna Gillies-Smith: Something that makes landscape architecture particularly resonant right now is its verb-like quality, in comparison with some earlier, more architecture-oriented urban models, like New Urbanism — all very intelligent, but really about organizing a city or town around a more static structure. Contemporary landscape architecture is much more interested in the systems and the forces and the flows, so it is a more active approach toward designing landscapes and urban systems. As we start to re-recognize that we are connected to the larger ecological world, we realize we need a model that can respond to an ever-changing world, not just one in crisis.

Wendi Goldsmith: I think that’s right. The whole green design movement started with a focus on energy systems within the building: insulation and the efficiency of HVAC systems. And then, bit by bit, it grew to include water use, glazing, building positioning, which then evolved into new ideas about things like light and lighting, water conservation and reuse, and integrating graywater management with building plumbing. Fairly quickly, sustainable design started to bleed into the landscape and to encompass infrastructure, including power generation, and people began to understand that it’s not just about the building and what goes on inside it: We need to look at what goes on outside, on site, and what goes on beyond the site. Now we’re thinking about buildings in relation to the grid, to watersheds, and to water supplies. What I am observing is a new relationship, maybe eventually a new field, where science and engineering and landscape design all merge. Our society is just beginning to recognize the value in such an approach.


The Connecticut Water Treatment Facility in New Haven, Connecticut.

The Connecticut Water Treatment Facility in New Haven, Connecticut, contributes to a larger ecological and open-space system. Steven Holl Architects. Photo by Paul Warchol.

Urban Design and Landscape Architecture

Shauna Gillies-Smith: Landscape typologies have evolved to a fair degree, and landscape architects today feel that they can take on a much larger territory than was their traditional purview: designs for entire regions or decommissioned airports or large post-industrial sites or whole infrastructure projects. That’s by necessity, because landscape systems don’t end at the property line. I always have a hard time making the distinction between landscape architecture and urban design, probably because I’ve been trained in both fields, but I think that is one area where they are different: It’s very hard to put a circle around what defines a landscape.

Elizabeth Padjen: Is the landscape architect encroaching on the traditional turf of the urban designer? Do you envision the end of urban design as a discipline, perhaps being absorbed by landscape architecture?

Shauna Gillies-Smith: That could be a very politically dangerous idea to agree or disagree with, depending on your perspective. Clearly, both disciplines will continue to evolve. I just finished teaching what turned out to be a very exciting studio. It was called an urban design project, but it addressed landscape, ecology, and environmental dynamics. The project site was on a floodplain with a daily tidal fluctuation of about six feet; we also projected an additional rising water level of six feet over 100 years. So the students had to think simultaneously about accommodating fluctuating water levels and about creating urbanism. Typically, when we think of zoning, we think of it in a horizontal way, or as vertical envelopes of height limits. But the most critical aspect of this project was the first 10 feet of the city. The challenge was to design that sectional relationship intelligently, to foster a vibrant urban life on a ground plain that must accommodate so much natural variation.

Architects haven’t been thinking about larger-scale connections and relationships to topographic and environmental conditions. Landscape architects have found a way to take over much of that territory. David Gamble AIA, AICP

David Gamble: The design professions in general have done themselves a disservice in trying to delineate distinct territories and in believing that a project needs to begin with the urban planner, then go to the urban designer, then the architect, then the landscape architect, and so on. That type of linear thinking is one reason why we haven’t been able to foster strong interdisciplinary collaborations. Major design competitions around the world now tend to be dominated by teams including very diverse disciplines, such as landscape architects, planners, economists, and historic preservation architects, because there is so much interdisciplinary discussion that needs to occur when you look at complex urban areas. I do think that the architecture profession today has much greater respect for a landscape architect’s sense of process than it did a generation ago. The work I’m doing in China now as an architect is entirely in the service of a landscape-architecture firm that is planning large regions of the country. It’s a scenario that stems in part from the client’s intuitive understanding of the nature of their ecosystems and the desire to work with their natural settings, which requires the landscape architect’s understanding of geography and place.

Laura Solano: And that’s not an unusual scenario anymore. Clients are unbelievably sophisticated now, and they do their homework in terms of the composition of the teams they hire. In my office, we are the prime for about 80 percent of our work, big and small. Many of our teams have 12 or 15 consultants, often representing narrow areas of expertise: planners, architects, historians, ecologists, soil scientists, hydrologists, and biologists. Strong collaborations offer tremendous educational opportunities.


Teardrop Park at Battery Park City, Manhattan.

Teardrop Park at Battery Park City, Manhattan, incorporates organic soils and uses graywater and stormwater for irrigation. Landscape architect: Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates. Photo by Paul Warchol.

Landscape Urbanism

Elizabeth Padjen: Landscape urbanism is at least partly responsible for the profession’s new energy. What exactly does it mean?

Laura Solano: Charles Waldheim, who is now the chair of the department of landscape architecture at Harvard, coined the term. He has said: “Landscape urbanism describes a disciplinary realignment currently underway, in which landscape replaces architecture as the basic building block of contemporary urbanism.”

Elizabeth Padjen: That’s a shot across the bow. What are some examples?

Jill Desimini: I’d like to respond first by saying that at the core of landscape urbanism is the idea that looking at, understanding, and designing urban processes will lead to making a new kind of city that is capable both of self-regenerating and of changing the way we experience the place we live. The emphasis in landscape urbanism should be on the urbanism. With that in mind, I would point to Toronto, which has hired a number of landscape architects as leads for very big projects that are changing that city, especially the waterfront. These include West 8’s reconfiguration of the central waterfront, work by Field Operations on Lake Ontario Park, and the design by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates for the Lower Don Lands as a new metropolitan precinct. Landscape architects are also working on large projects in other cities. New York’s Freshkills Park project — the transformation of 2,200 acres of landfill on Staten Island into a new public park and urban habitat by Field Operations — is another example of an innovative approach to revitalizing and repurposing a piece of the urban fabric. The key now is to focus even more on the design of the city itself. Landscape urbanism positions landscape and landscape methods as a driver for urban infrastructural change.

David Gamble: Part of the momentum also comes from the shifting economics of cities. More and more cities over the last generation have been looking to old industrial sites or waterfronts as places to grow; large parks become the catalysts that drive economic redevelopment.

Elizabeth Padjen: But the idea of landscape, particularly in the form of public parks and open spaces, as a catalyst for development isn’t new. You can even find it codified in the 16th-century Spanish Laws of the Indies that was the basis for town planning in the Spanish colonies: put the square in the middle of the town and build out around it. What’s different?

Shauna Gillies-Smith: Landscape urbanism takes another approach — more profound in some ways — and looks at a larger force, a river, for example, as a generator of urban form and urban typology.

Jill Desimini: David is right that many cities are revitalizing industrial sites, and a lot of them are on waterfronts and thus have an ecological component. The difference is that landscape urbanism starts with looking at these sites in terms of the environmental systems that can serve as generators for the project.

Laura Solano: It’s about healing: taking derelict or brownfield sites and making them useful. We take a piece of land that nobody cares about any more, and turn it into something that people can identify as a place that has personal meaning and community value.

Shauna Gillies-Smith: I think it’s important to not conflate landscape and parks. It’s true that the idea of building a public park that is a catalyst for development is an old trick. But only part of landscape is parks. Part of it is plazas. Part of it is open space. And part of it is the system of stormwater management that gets built into our streets, into our yards, into our housing units. What is exciting about landscape urbanism is that it can define new types of space that not only accommodate ecological systems, but also define ways that we as individuals can relate to landscape and to ourselves in different ways.

Wendi Goldsmith: Not long ago, the words “landscape urbanism” would have sounded like an oxymoron. We worked on a project recently with Laura’s firm and with the architect Steve Holl that is a perfect example of this change in thinking. This project involves brownfields restoration, a large public-works facility including a major green-roof project, the preservation of some public open space, and programming that includes a significant public education and events component — all while making very tangible contributions to natural habitats in the south-central Connecticut region. It completely merges architecture and engineering and landscape architecture. I can’t think of any earlier examples in the US with the same level of interdisciplinary entanglement. The hydrology of the site accommodates these major functional components, but reverts the site back to its pre-development “water budget” in terms of its hydrological performance. So there’s this incredible melding of function and beauty and education that also transforms a stigmatized landscape into something that sets the stage for a new pattern of development in the region.


The Schools

David Gamble: A number of design schools have been very strategic about raising the profile of landscape architecture within the school, which is reverberating within the field itself. More landscape-architecture programs are opening up, in part because some leaders in the profession are finding ways to excite a new generation of students who want to shape the physical environment. They’re raising the profile of the profession from within the academic community.

Elizabeth Padjen: Conversely, the schools must also be responding to a market interest.

Shauna Gillies-Smith: All of us who are in academia know that it’s the students who are really driving the sustainability agenda. No question about it. And that generation’s interest in the environment is one of the really big pushes behind recognizing, first of all, that our world isn’t static and, second, that we need to find a different way of working with it instead of against it.

Laura Solano: One of my students gave a presentation on a recent project in Korea that turned 600 acres of landfill into a park. The park ended up as a reflection of the trash pile: it was essentially a pyramid with the top cut off. This student’s discussion centered around what might have happened instead if a landscape architect had been involved from the beginning: there would have been a grading plan for placing trash, there would have been systems to promote decomposition, and the nearby wetlands would have been engineered to support a river watershed. These kinds of issues capture the attention of students; they know that there are huge problems to solve, and they know the answers lie in innovation.


Rose Kennedy Greenway

Elizabeth Padjen: Let’s say that, instead of having just been completed, the Greenway project is just now in the concept phase and the initial planning has been undertaken by a team of landscape urbanists. What are some of the substantive changes we’d be seeing?

Shauna Gillies-Smith: One obvious answer is that there would be a very clear, probably somewhat artful but potentially also didactic, approach to stormwater, so that one would actually see how water is moved and treated. We would probably also see some form of urban agriculture — not necessarily community gardens, but perhaps some form of urban foraging.

David Gamble: I suspect that the engineering for the tunnels would be done in the service of a much larger vision of connectivity and continuity. Whatever you think about whether or not there should be development along the Greenway, there is still a very painful sense that it is not as robust in its role as it should be.

It is important to recognize the significance of the constructed landscape. Most people think of landscape as the backyard garden or the national parks. Shauna Gillies-Smith ASLA

Jill Desimini: It could perform in so many different ways. It could even have a greater social or economic agenda. Right now, it’s very neutral, and there’s nothing very neutral about a landscape-urbanist vision.

Shauna Gillies-Smith: Thinking of it as a landscape in isolation — what you would do to decorate the top of the tunnel — is fundamentally not a landscape-urbanist approach. Thinking of the whole tunnel and the buildings along each edge in conjunction with the landscape, ecology, and the social program is much more appropriate to a landscape-urbanist approach.

Laura Solano: There have been so many disastrous tries at linking architecture and landscape along the Greenway; it suffers for a lack of integration. But I’m convinced that, over time, it’s going to be redone, because we know it’s not right. The Greenway Conservancy is doing some useful and valuable things, like organic maintenance and developing a tree farm to supply trees for the Greenway, but management can’t fix the things that are inherently wrong with it.

Wendi Goldsmith: This is a case where some of the most important concerns were put last on the list. Lots of people other than landscape architects, let alone landscape urbanists, were calling the shots. And so, many other aspects of the project crystallized before there was actually anything resembling a final program for how the Greenway would operate, or how it would look and function.

David Gamble: The Greenway has served a purpose of sorts. All across the country, cities are facing similar problems of deteriorating highways and infrastructure and are recognizing the value of trying, even at a smaller scale, to take advantage of new opportunities to reconnect their cities. Other cities will learn some lessons from what happened in Boston and try to do it in a more synthetic way.

Elizabeth Padjen: If we were to re-do the Greenway now, I suspect we would keep part of the superstructure of the old Artery and rework it as an artifact or walkway.

Laura Solano: I agree with you. There was something sublime about driving up over the city streets.

Shauna Gillies-Smith: That sublime quality is one of the appeals of New York’s High Line, along with a nostalgia for the big old industrial superstructure as you’re floating through the city. And the elements are beautiful: the furniture is beautiful, the planking is clever and smart, and the planting is rich and a strong contrast to the more controlled environment. There’s no question that the High Line would have influenced thinking about the opportunities for the Greenway.


Burying Olmsted, Again

Shauna Gillies-Smith: I want to re-visit the idea of burying Olmsted, because it is important to recognize the significance of the constructed landscape. Part of the interest for me in the High Line isn’t so much the aesthetic of it, although it’s an amazing place, but that it calls into question what landscape is, and it calls into question the naturalization of landscape. When most people think of landscape, they usually think of the backyard garden or the national-park backgrounds in TV ads for SUVs. But by recognizing that what we are creating in both our green spaces and our hard spaces is a constructed landscape, we are held to a different standard. Our roads are landscape: they are designed landscapes. Our sidewalks, our traffic medians, our rooftops are designed landscapes. We learn to ignore them. But there is a lot of economic and design investment in all of those elements. The importance of burying Olmsted is that we need to recognize that our landscape is completely constructed, and that consequently, both our landscape and our work as designers must be held accountable.

Top: The High Line, the transformation of a 1.45-mile-long elevated freight rail line into a public park on Manhattan’s West Side. Designers: Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Photo by M. Altamura.


Posted in Vol 13 No 3 by bsaab on August 4, 2010

Buffalo, by Keith Johnson

Photographs by Keith Johnson

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It’s almost a cliché: a landscape takes time. The knowledge that their work may take years, even decades, after construction to fully realize their design intention puts landscape architects on a sort of moral high-ground. Such patience! Such determination! Such delayed gratification! The rest of us feel slightly shamed in the face of such worthiness. Impatience is a common vice.

Recent photographs by Keith Johnson, however, offer a new understanding of landscapes: they have an intermediate life, a larval stage, when they in fact behave as landscapes even though they have not yet assumed their final form. These are the landscapes of process and construction, their materials — hydroseed, sod rolls, hay bales, geotextiles — as familiar as rhododendrons and cobblestones.

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The photographs were made between 2003 and 2008, part of a body of work that Johnson describes as examining “the ways we claim, construct, create, and recreate space in the pursuit of development.” These, too, are designed sites, although their aesthetics are most often determined by some anonymous hand, with results that are often, in Johnson’s words, “marvelously goofy.” Who chose the aqua and teal hues of hydroseed — and did they imagine we would mistake it for natural groundcover? Who designed the ubiquitous orange oval-mesh fencing, thus ensuring that the spirit of 1970s supergraphics would never die?

This suggests a new middle ground, so to speak. In the past two decades, landscape architects have begun to address “everyday” landscapes, claiming parking lots and median strips as extensions of their professional realm. But the temporary landscape of process — a mere blink of an eye in the lifespan of a project, but an eternity in the collective banality of everyday places — has received little attention. It’s a whole new land of opportunity.

Back to the Land

Posted in Vol 13 No 3 by bsaab on August 4, 2010

From the Editor

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Chickens are hot.

An increasing number of city-dwellers and suburbanites aspire to lives as corporate hunters by day and egg gatherers by evening. Of course, it doesn’t start with chickens. Tomatoes are often the gateway crop — people start with an innocent container on the deck, then graduate to basil, and before long, the Rhode Island Reds are coming home to roost.

In addition to supplying fresh eggs, chickens provide a living, squawking metaphor for new attitudes about the city. Buried in reports about neighbor skirmishes and fevered examinations of agricultural restrictions in zoning codes is the sense that we still haven’t found the right model for the city, that the old ways of isolating nature through green ghettos (variously called parks and playgrounds) aren’t working for us anymore. When we stopped thinking of Mother Nature — an entity — and started thinking about the environment — a condition — we realized that tree museums and flower zoos weren’t enough.

The interest in sustainability and the related attention to food sources, organic agriculture, and “slow food” are obvious reasons why so many city-dwellers are suddenly listening to their inner farmer. But larger cultural forces are at work, too. ArchitectureBoston has in the past explored the trend away from classification and hierarchy that defines our era (“Hybrid,” November/December 2008, and “Blur,” November/December 2004). It makes sense that we would now think in terms of smudging the line between city and country that has existed since Roman times.

Striding into this new territory are landscape architects. Theirs is a profession long misunderstood by the public, if indeed the public knows anything about it at all. But theirs is a profession that was also long misunderstood — and certainly underestimated — by the building community, including architects and owners. That is no longer the case. Landscape architects are claiming new turf: anything that’s not a building is theirs.

The new prominence of the profession coincides with the shift in our perception of the city and in the ways we define its relationship with the natural world. We have moved from a two-dimensional treatment of surfaces through plant and paving selections to a three-dimensional understanding of space — whereby every HGTV host now blathers about “outdoor rooms,” — to a four-dimensional understanding of cities as systems.

Landscape architects are claiming new turf: anything that’s not a building is theirs.

The urban-agriculture movement is only one part of the new attitude about cities. But it has introduced the concept of the productive landscape — a landscape that is somehow useful, as opposed to all those layabout ornamental gardens and lawns. Food production is the core of the idea, but with it has come the notion that the landscape can do more, that it can serve multiple roles, mitigating environmental damage, restoring habitats and wetlands, managing stormwater, even producing biofuels, compost, and wind energy. We are at the frontier of thinking in terms of the productive landscape and of reconciling previous conceptions of the “built” and “natural” landscape. What if we overlay digital technologies on the landscape — can it produce information and new experiences? What if cities are no longer built to contain the natural world but instead are formed to respond to it?

The latter question is at the heart of the “landscape urbanism” movement, which has caught the attention of city planners and policymakers and brought fresh energy to the landscape-architecture profession. Want your kid to grow up to design cities? Forget Legos. Think mud puddles.

The Swimsuit Issue

Posted in Vol 13 No 2 by bsaab on April 28, 2010

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It was a classic editor’s dilemma: how to sex up a magazine issue devoted to an important but — let’s admit it — possibly wonky discussion of water, policy, and design.

And then the skies opened.

At this writing, New England has been hit by two storm systems producing record-breaking rainfalls and catastrophic flooding. Boston alone has received 14 inches of rain. Suddenly everyone is a policy expert: television reporters fill newscasts with spot interviews about combined sewer outfalls and FEMA maps. People understand, with painfully earned clarity, the complex relationship between infrastructure and the environment, and the effects on their health and welfare. The questions of where, what, and how we build have rarely seemed so important.

This will undoubtedly prove to be a mixed blessing for those who have been laboring to promote effective water management policy in this region. New Englanders have been famously complacent about the challenges facing this region: gardens grow, water flows from the tap, beaches seem cleaner — what’s to worry about? Plenty, it turns out. But it may be hard to focus attention on concerns such as groundwater recharge or low river flow when YouTube videos of imperilled dams and washed-out roadways are so fresh in our memory.

Focusing public attention is not the only challenge for those who care about water resources, both salt and fresh. The path from science to policy to regulation to implementation was murky enough without the recent controversies and politics associated with climate change. Those who labor in what has been called “Water World” — the dedicated army of environmentalists, scientists, researchers, engineers, planners, and lawyers working in public agencies, universities, think tanks, and nonprofits as well as in the private sector — struggle to promote prudent policy that is often at odds with individual behaviors and interests.

The inevitable result is an omnium-gatherum of regulatory devices administered by international organizations, federal and state agencies, municipal code officials, and volunteer boards. Conflicts abound, good intentions are thwarted. And no one sees this more clearly on a daily basis than architects.

Architects occupy a territory that is at the intersection between water policy and implementation — a territory perhaps better likened to a traffic rotary, with participants moving seemingly in the same direction but actually toward different destinations, with the attendant confusion, stress, and occasional crash. From that vantage point, architects can see that new approaches to wastewater management are often at cross-purposes with communities that have learned to control growth through septic-system regulations. They know that protection of coastal wetlands often conflicts with developers and cash-starved coastal communities hoping to cash in on waterfront access. They hear firsthand that federal and state conservation mandates can lead to consumer frustration with new products and appliances that fail to perform as expected. They witness well-intentioned building owners and developers discouraged by local permitting processes.

One problem is that we are not starting fresh: New Englanders in particular must contend with established building patterns and aging infrastructure. Even a quick glance at a US Geological Survey map of eastern Massachusetts is enough to identify vast tracts that environmental planners today would probably redline. But the Chelsea tank farms occupy what might otherwise be clam flats, homeowners struggle to stabilize their houses on Plum Island despite erosion of the barrier beach, and neighborhoods encroaching on Revere’s Rumney Marsh (recognized as one of the state’s most biologically significant estuaries) thrive even as their foundations settle. These are not situations easily undone.

Since the March floods, the questions of where, what, and how we build have rarely seemed so important.

Similarly, we have inherited political structures that often frustrate reform. Competing jurisdictions can be formidable roadblocks, especially to hybrid solutions that emerge from a more sophisticated understanding of complex systems. A plumbing code that is developed and administered separately from a building code makes little sense in this new world.

A more effective, integrated approach to water resources will someday be implemented, simply because it must. The question is only one of time — and the attendant cost due to waste, inefficiency, and natural calamity.

Recycling 2.0

Posted in Vol 13 No 1 by bsaab on February 19, 2010

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Who can argue with recycling? It’s sustainable, noble even. Yet, for most of us, the act of recycling is exactly like the act of disposing — except the bin colors are different. “The recycling” has come to mean a class of privileged rubbish, and recycling itself has come to represent only half of an idea: diverting trash from landfills. But a deeper understanding of sustainability — and a corresponding shift in our values — is now bringing attention to the other half of the idea: reuse. The design community — architects, industrial designers, fashion designers, landscape architects — has embraced the concept as a catalyst for creativity. The following six essays are reports from the design world illustrating small examples of this very big idea. They demonstrate that new attitudes about reuse influence not only what we recycle but how. Together, they suggest that we may be entering a new era of creative transformation.


The re-working of old clothes is hardly a new concept. Museum collections are full of 19th-century dresses that have been reconstructed multiple times to update them according to the latest fashion. Today, with the wealth of consumer goods at our fingertips and cutting-edge designers such as Thakoon at Target, we no longer have to worry about recycling our best garment. Indeed, the notion of “sustainable” seems out of place in a fashion system that is based on planned obsolescence, yet the trend for “new” garments using old materials continues to gain currency. Vogue now has a green issue and the Spring/Summer 2010 New York Fashion Week witnessed concurrent “Green Shows” for the first time, featuring eco-conscious designers.

“Lapel dress” by Junky Styling features recycled men’s suit jackets. Photo by Cory Doctorow.

“Lapel dress” by Junky Styling features recycled men’s suit jackets. Photo by Cory Doctorow.

Highlights from the Green Shows included the work of Susan Cianciolo, a New York City-based multimedia artist and designer who has been at the forefront of the re-purposed clothing movement since the mid-1990s. Cianciolo’s first collection in 1995 used recycled clothing and discarded scraps of fabric from the Chinatown factories, remade into edgy pieces with a deconstructed aesthetic. Cianciolo’s signature frayed hems and evident seaming reflect a deep-rooted commitment to the handmade, as do her do-it-yourself clothing kits. Since the conscious radicalism of her first RUN collection, Cianciolo has remained true to her mission. She still pulls clothing from her grandmother’s closet to screenprint and re-construct, breathing new life into a garment imbued with memories.

The design firm Alabama Chanin also links the present to the past, not only in the use of reclaimed textiles, but also in the reinvigoration of the Southern tradition of quiltmaking. Historically, American quilters used every scrap of fabric they could find, from flour sacks to the unraveled threads from red tobacco pouches. Founder Natalie Chanin continues in this vein, resurrecting the ubiquitous 20th-century garment — the cotton T-shirt — and turning it into fancifully embroidered and appliquéed skirts, dresses, and tops. Although the South’s once-vibrant cotton industry has long passed, the company also now sources cotton yardage that is “grown to sewn in the United States.”

Chanin is one of a number of contemporary designers who have published do-it-yourself books, testimony to the active and growing DIY movement. While some craftspeople feel that websites such as are a threat to the livelihood of academically trained designers, there are many who have embraced it, including the London-based design firm Junky Styling. Founded in 1997 by Annika Sanders and Kerry Seager, the designers transform vintage clothes into dramatic silhouettes. Junky Styling cunningly retains many of the details of the original garment — the closures, the cuffs, the collars — to create fashions that have a streetwise edge to them. With a nod to their English heritage, one can see connections to the doyenne of alternative design, Vivienne Westwood, as well as the punk look of the late 1970s, an earlier incarnation of the DIY aesthetic.

Junky Styling’s obvious use of vintage clothing differs from the design sensibility of Toronto-based Preloved, which finds inspiration in the garment’s textile. Founder Julia Greive started the business as a vintage clothing shop but changed her focus when head designer Peter Friesen came on board. Friesen skillfully deconstructs the original garment and completely transforms it, using sophisticated construction and inventive seaming. Each piece is comprised of two to five used garments that have been purchased in bulk from rag houses. Like Alabama Chanin, the design firm is eco-friendly to the core, hiring only local cutters and sewers. Preloved also exemplifies the future of remade fashion: an affordable, ready-to-wear line offering the customer a one-of-akind garment. It’s a prospect undreamed of without the imaginative reuse of old clothes.


Despite strong demand for sustainable products and materials in the United States, the amount of waste produced by the building industry remains staggering. Approximately 100 million tons per year — almost 40 percent of the entire municipal solid-waste stream — come from construction and demolition. While most of this waste could be recovered, material reuse remains limited, particularly at the commercial scale. In fact, LEED credits for material reuse are among the least sought after, with only 5 to 9 percent of all LEED certified projects having successfully received those credits.

The Portola Valley (California) Town Center, by Siegel & Strain Architects with Goring & Straja Architects. Materials from previously deconstructed buildings on the site were reworked and integrated in the new buildings. Photo by César Rubio.

The Portola Valley (California) Town Center, by Siegel & Strain Architects with Goring & Straja Architects. Materials from previously deconstructed buildings on the site were reworked and integrated in the new buildings. Photo by César Rubio.

A new tool may help to change that. The Design for Reuse Primer seeks to more clearly understand the obstacles impeding reuse and provide the design and construction industry with knowledge and tools that can help alleviate the barriers. Scheduled for release in mid-2010 as a Web-based resource, the Primer also aims to bridge the communication and knowledge gaps among the various players involved in the reuse process. Thus it is targeted to a broad audience, including designers, contractors, clients, and municipalities. The primary feature of the Primer will be a series of case studies that serve as guides to the reuse process. They will not only showcase the possibilities for reuse but also serve as models that readers can adapt to their own projects.

The Primer was developed by the San Francisco nonprofit Public Architecture, working with deconstruction and material reuse expert Brad Guy and various government agencies, and supported by a grant from the US Green Building Council. The research team has identified a diverse range of projects varying in size, location, type, budget, scope, and design intent for inclusion as case studies.

In addition to the case studies, the project website will provide a directory of resources connecting people to additional tools that can facilitate material reuse. The website is meant to be interactive, allowing users to contribute knowledge and engage in dialogue and allowing the project to continue to grow as a productive resource. Building codes, perceived environmental health and safety concerns, scheduling and storage constraints, the inertia of familiar methodologies — there are many challenges limiting the role of reuse in the design and construction industries. Yet increasing rates of material reuse can have profound positive environmental implications, affecting everything from energy consumption to landfill waste. The Design for Reuse Primer aims to stimulate the development of new systems and infrastructure to make reuse a more common component of a sustainable building strategy.


For as long as people have built, we have un-built, too. A thousand years ago, Europeans removed the physical traces of departed conquerors by repurposing Roman bricks for new construction. Viking shipbuilders reused choice timber in new vessels. The United States, colonized to supply its bounty of raw materials to Western Europe, has less experience with the concept of reuse. My father tells of moving to an old farmhouse in northern Vermont in the 1950s and finding in the barn a ball of string measuring three feet in diameter. And next to it, a shoebox that was filled with bits of string and labeled “String Too Short To Save.”

Photo courtesy Boston Building Resources.

Photo courtesy Boston Building Resources.

Today, the practice of reusing building materials is flourishing in a renaissance driven by environmental considerations as powerful as the economic motivations of the past. For Boston Building Resources (the new name, effective this spring, for the Building Materials Resource Center and the Boston Building Materials Co-op) and its Reuse Center, the financial advantages historically associated with salvage are on an equal footing with landfill diversion and embodied energy reduction. Aiming to make a positive community impact through the supply of economically accessible building materials, the Reuse Center offers a membership discount program for individuals with low to moderate incomes and for nonprofit organizations.

It was the oil crisis of the ’70s that compelled architect John Rowse to start sharing his expertise in building science and construction methods with his neighbors. In 1978, he founded the Boston Building Materials Co-op to provide homeowners with both an affordable source of insulation and training in weatherization techniques. Despite the subsequent drop in oil prices and dissipation of environmental awareness, the cooperative continued to thrive. Workshop space was added to enable members to make window repairs without investing in expensive tools, and in 1993 the Reuse Center was launched in two tractor-trailer containers on the site.

Word spread among local contractors and the trailers quickly filled with doors, windows, fixtures, and other materials diverted from landfills. Showrooms contributed new products such as lighting fixtures that were slow to sell. The less-than-ideal conditions of uninsulated trailers in blazing heat did not deter homeowners from doggedly sifting through the growing collection.

Recognizing the growing popularity of building material reuse, the staff eventually replaced their six trailers with the warehouse building that houses the Reuse Center today. In 2008, approximately 800 doors, 400 windows, and 50 kitchen-cabinet sets found new homes via the clean and orderly aisles of the Reuse Center. Boston Building Resources also sold more than 500 composters produced by the Massachusetts EPA and 250 rain barrels constructed of 55-gallon plastic containers that had been previously used for food storage. The unquestionable success of the organization demonstrates a demand for secondhand materials in good condition — and proof that more designers, contractors, and clients are following the advice of director Matthew St. Onge: “Think reuse before new.”

For more information, including donation guidelines, visit: For a directory of North American reuse centers, salvage yards, and deconstruction specialists, visit:


It may take a sociologist, or perhaps a psychologist, to one day explain the cultural puzzlement that is best described as the Modern Revival. Other architectural revivals have allowed a decent interval of at least a century to pass before dusting off pre-used forms and devices. But the current fascination with all things midcentury has barely skipped a generation. It’s the design equivalent of boomers and their kids all knowing the words to “Satisfaction.”

Photo courtesy Machine Age.

Photo courtesy Machine Age.

This fascination is especially evident in the growing interest in midcentury furniture. Although many of these designs have been in continual production, Dwell magazine (founded in 2000) and the national retailer Design Within Reach (founded in 1999) introduced names such as Breuer, Nelson, and Eames to a new, younger audience, while simultaneously demonstrating how their furniture could fit a 21st-century lifestyle.

They have also given momentum to what might sound like an oxymoron: vintage Modern. Jane Prentiss of Skinner, the venerable Boston auction house, first noticed the trend around 1990, when many of her clients — boomer professionals who were collecting fine arts and antiques — began to buy the original midcentury furniture they remembered from their childhoods for their own teenage and 20-something children. “Because they themselves enjoyed collecting,” she remembers, “they wanted to find something that their children would like, as a way of connecting with them.” Prentiss established Skinner’s 20th Century Design department at that time, which now runs at least two auctions a year (the next is March 27).

Retailer Normand Mainville noticed the interest, too, opening Machine Age in Boston’s Fort Point Channel area in 1991 to sell vintage Modern furniture; a large part of his business then was providing period props for the movie industry. Today, many of his customers are “visual people” — artists, architects, photographers; some are serious collectors, while others are young people just starting out. And competition has blossomed, both locally and nationally (not to mention regular listings on Craigslist).

So why the interest in used furniture? Why would someone buy an old Eames chair when they could buy a nice fresh new one? “Presence,” Mainville answers. His customers appreciate the authenticity and history of the furniture, as well as the sense that these pieces are often unique and more personal.

Cost can be a factor, too. While rare or unusual pieces can command impressive prices (such as the 1973 George Nakashima table that Prentiss recently sold for $213,000), some are less expensive than their new counterparts, and frequently less expensive than the goods sold by mass-market furniture retailers.

Prentiss casts the trend against a larger social context. Much of the furniture fits today’s informal lifestyles; young people especially embrace it as “theirs.” Buyers of all ages are attracted to the quality and craftsmanship, as well as the rarity of some materials such as woods that are no longer available. And, she notes, buying previously owned furniture is inherently sustainable.

As concerns about sustainability permeate our culture and influence our values, it’s hard not to wonder if vintage Modern furniture will serve as gateway antiques, introducing a new generation to a marketplace that currently bemoans the graying of its customer base. Prentiss notes that her department has brought new buyers to Skinner, who often branch out to other interests, most notably Native American and ethnographic objects, vintage jewelry, and American folk art.

Can New England antique furniture be far behind? Designed and handcrafted by local makers using local materials without oil-based synthetics or noxious off-gassing, recycled across generations, and often available at prices far less than any new furniture, these pieces embody the very essence of sustainable values. Buying a New Hampshire Chippendale tiger-maple desk might soon seem like a very modern idea.


In Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart popularized the concept of managed product lifecycles, changing how we think about the things we buy. Cradle to Cradle proposes a future where commerce achieves both economic prosperity and environmental responsibility by closing material loops. So-called “service systems” supply consumers with televisions, computers, and home appliances — by leasing in lieu of selling — and shift the burdens of maintenance and disposal back to the service provider. Goods that might otherwise be discarded are instead “remanufactured” — refurbished, reused, or recycled into new products. While conceptually appealing, in practice these systems sometimes struggle to find their feet.

Photo by © Alexei Novikov.

Photo by © Alexei Novikov.

Service systems are common in business-to-business (B2B) transactions where tax deductions on rental fees are often more appealing than acquiring depreciating assets like copiers and printers. Similar systems have struggled in household markets, where end-users value the concept of ownership and aren’t afforded the same tax advantages. Electrolux tried renting washing machines to homeowners in Sweden, charging on a per-wash-cycle basis; the units were reclaimed, refurbished, and resold at the end of the trial. It failed, as household consumers could buy comparable products at similar cost through various credit plans, allowing them to keep the product after the payments ended.

The “car sharing” company, Zipcar, has shown, however, that it is possible to reverse consumer sentiment. It capitalizes on the hassle and expense of owning a car in the city, turning nonownership into a desirable lifestyle choice, making it hip to Zip.

In Japan, where consumers pay high fees to dispose of appliances, manufacturers developed cooperative reclamation and recycling infrastructures in response to tightening legislation. Matsushita’s Eco Technology Centre went beyond recycling, by using the disassembly process as a diagnostic for new products. It assesses the ease of disassembly and recycling, and reports suggestions back to designers, so new units are easier to process.

Caterpillar and Xerox have led industry efforts to “design for loops.” Caterpillar’s highly profitable Remanufacturing Division inspects, cleans, rebuilds, repairs, recycles, and resells end-of-life machinery parts. To reclaim profitable volumes of material, it charges customers a deposit that as much as doubles the price of the part. The financial incentive of returning the product creates a reclamation rate of 93 percent, supporting the division’s $1 billion annual revenue.

Xerox has also been very successful in remanufacturing, claiming certain photocopiers have seven lives, with six diversions from landfill. Its B2B rental of reprographic equipment creates a controlled distribution of products, where Xerox can easily take back a unit at the end of its service contract. The company’s innovation is to design products specifically for disassembly and reuse of parts. Caterpillar and Xerox have both sought external expertise in remanufacturing, but found limited supporting research in business and design schools.

Despite some successes, the state of the service-system approach to commerce shows that, while altruistic and environmental motivations have created some convincing marketing stories, good intentions haven’t had enough leverage to warp the prevailing cradle-to-grave business paradigms into closed loops. The success of existing models has hinged on financial incentives, legal penalties, and the coincidental, idyllic conditions of niche markets to trigger innovative approaches to design and business. Perhaps both industry and government will take lessons from current leaders and propel mainstream business up the learning curve of a new economy. Until then, Cradle to Cradle’s concept of a self-sustaining industrial cycle will remain in its infancy.


Bette Midler with the rapper 50 Cent. Prompted by a cleanup effort in her own neighborhood, Midler founded the New York Restoration Project to redevelop “under-resourced” parks and community gardens in New York City. Last year, rapper 50 Cent funded NYRP’s renovation of a community garden in his childhood neighborhood in Queens. Photo by Johnny Nunez/ WireImage.

Bette Midler with the rapper 50 Cent. Prompted by a cleanup effort in her own neighborhood, Midler founded the New York Restoration Project to redevelop “under-resourced” parks and community gardens in New York City. Last year, rapper 50 Cent funded NYRP’s renovation of a community garden in his childhood neighborhood in Queens. Photo by Johnny Nunez/ WireImage.

What do 50 Cent, Bette Midler, Michael Pollan, and Mel King have in common?

A documented love for the transformative power of gardens.

Gardens offer one of the most elemental forms of reuse. Dead leaves and discarded coffee grounds become compost that help wrinkled, dry seeds sprout to shiny green life. Community gardens also recharge neighborhoods, transforming vacant lots and neglected parcels into well-tended places. The City of Boston has 150 community gardens, nearly all of them on properties that were once abandoned.

The practice of reusing vacant urban land for gardens began in the United States during the economic depression of 1893. The mayor of Detroit — a city particularly hard hit by the downfall of the railroad industry — asked owners of vacant land at the city’s periphery to allow the unemployed to grow potatoes. Other cities, including Boston, soon created similar “allotment” gardens of their own. As Sam Bass Warner outlines in To Dwell is To Garden, the presence of urban gardens ebbed and flowed from allotment gardens to schoolyard gardens to the “victory” gardens of WWI and WWII, and all were top-down, government-sponsored forms of philanthropy.

Today’s bottom-up, community-based approach began in the 1970s, “the child of new politics and abandoned city land,” in Warner’s words. The new politics grew from Civil Rights-era neighborhood activism, further fueled by the first Earth Day and then an energy crisis. The vacant land was a byproduct of the midcentury suburban exodus; even Boston’s population shrank by 20 percent in two decades, leaving behind hundreds of empty properties. In 1974, as a state representative, Boston activist Mel King sponsored legislation to allow gardeners to use vacant public land at no cost; in 1976, Mayor Kevin White channeled federal community-development block grant dollars into the creation of 20 gardens. Unimpressed by government management and wanting to be part of the planning process, a handful of individuals from different neighborhoods founded Boston Urban Gardeners (now the Boston Natural Areas Network) — a citizen-based advocacy coalition. Neighborhoods established gardens at an extraordinary rate: by 1982, there were 120 in Boston. In the midst of profound racial tensions and the busing crisis, boarded-up buildings and urban renewal, community gardens offered a place for people of any age or ethnicity to declare a hopeful attitude toward their city through the most humble of means, while providing affordable food and flowers in return. They still do.

What’s new now? Waiting lists to join Boston gardens have tripled in the past few years. There’s a hipness to 21st-century urban gardening. The graying ’70s activists, recent immigrants, and well-intentioned college students have been joined by locavores and Michael Pollan devotees, Martha Stewart/Patti Moreno do-it-yourself types, and Alice Waters wannabes. In the Great Recession of our day, those seeking cheaper alternatives to grocery-store produce have again taken up neighborhood gardening, as have (apparently) multi-millionaire rappers. In 2010, the community garden is once more a source of neighborhood renewal and a dynamic example of true common ground.

What else is different now? Green thumb or not, popular attitudes toward city living have changed. In part due to efforts like community gardens, urban neighborhoods are again a destination.

Second Life

Posted in Vol 13 No 1 by bsaab on February 19, 2010

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(Now that I have your attention, we’ll get back to the undead in a moment.)

Those who are the children of Depression-era babies probably grew up with the mantra “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, do without” — much as kids now are taught the somewhat more plodding “Reduce, reuse, recycle.” The transmission of cultural values, particularly those encouraging restraint of any sort, is a difficult business. Just ask the US government: from Prohibition to “Just Say No” to abstinence-only programs, its efforts to encourage the citizenry to curb their enthusiasms have been abysmal failures, if not downright laughable. Let’s face it — the boomers who grew up with the “use it up” ditty haven’t been models of frugal behavior.

Even so, frugality is suddenly the virtue of the moment, thanks to the Great Recession. In fact, years from now, we may actually give thanks to the Great Recession for turbocharging the engine of the sustainability movement at the precise moment when green values collided with rampant consumerism, yielding such silliness as LEED-certified McMansions and threatening to undermine the movement’s urgency with rampant cynicism over green marketing. The recession has made us realize that “reuse” has little meaning unless it is considered in the context of “use,” and neither has any meaning without considering the larger issue of our relationship with stuff.

These are among the most important cultural issues of our time, which means that those who are in creative fields have a job to do. Just as artists and designers colonize rundown urban areas and make them hip, so do they serve as tastemakers in our cultural terrain. They are the cool kids. And the cool kids, many of whom were among the first to embrace sustainability, are increasingly thinking about reuse.

Back to zombies. At this writing, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains”) is ranked 237 at Amazon and has been on The New York Times trade paperback bestseller list for 39 weeks. It’s a mash-up, reusing and combining existing material to create something new — which also happens to be wildly popular and wildly lucrative. At this writing also, Boston is abuzz over The Donkey Show and Sleep No More — the inventive productions at American Repertory Theater based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Macbeth. They are evidence of a new openness in the creative world toward repurposing and remixing that leads to work that is transformative — a completely new genre and experience.

Today’s attitudes toward reuse have shed the stern moralism of the “use it up” dogma and the groupthink numbness of the “reduce, reuse, recycle” chant. Reuse has a new edginess to it: witness the international attention to Single Speed Design’s “Big Dig” house, a wonderful residence in Lexington, Massachusetts constructed of materials salvaged from Boston’s Central Artery project. Even preservation architecture — long considered the stodgy corner of the profession — has a new hipness, as practitioners take on midcentury masterpieces and academics look afresh at preservation theory, with journals such as Future Anterior (Columbia) and Int/ARInterventions/Adaptive Reuse (RISD). The field has already been re-energized by its recent alignment with sustainability (“the greenest building is the one that is already built”); new appreciation of the invention and innovation that are possible with reuse will undoubtedly push it further.

“Reuse” has little meaning unless it is considered in the context of “use,” and neither has any meaning without considering the larger issue of our relationship with stuff.

Reuse, repurpose, reimagine, remix, mash-up, hack — a growing vocabulary describes a trend that is not just about the moral high ground. It’s about the sheer pleasure and frequent beauty in creating something new. And, oh yes, doing good.

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A Bridge to Somewhere

Posted in Vol 12 No 4 by bsaab on November 9, 2009


The Case for a National Infrastructure Policy

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Filling potholes and making trains run on time is not enough.

Elizabeth Padjen: Over the last year, infrastructure has become associated in the public mind with the federal stimulus package and, as a result, the phrase “shovel-ready” has become the measure of good infrastructure or, at least, infrastructure that we’ll support. Which means that timing is the real yardstick for determining what gets built. That is obviously not a good way to make policy, nevertheless it seems to be what’s driving the public discussion right now. Do you detect any real impetus or any real desire to develop a cohesive infrastructure policy?

Jeffrey Simon: The stimulus program is not just an indication of infrastructure policy — it was driven by a different goal: creating and retaining jobs. The decision to fund shovel-ready projects was a means to an entirely different end, the end being getting people back to work quickly. It was completely divorced from whether infrastructure had any inherent value or not. A lot of people say to me, “Why are you spending all this money on a bunch of paving projects?” It’s an absolutely legitimate question for everyone except for the unemployed person who now has a job paving roads. In that person’s mind, that’s a completely legitimate project. But even though this was conceived as a jobs program, each of the projects itself has value.

Hubert Murray: Just as taxes are supposed to be the price of civilization, I think infrastructure is the cement that holds our civilization together. The crisis in infrastructure — the disrepair — is a manifestation of a lack of faith in our public realm, which we had in the past, say, in the 1930s, when money went to the construction of highways and dams and electrical grids. That issue, which is both political and philosophical, has to be addressed before we can even begin to talk about the nature of the infrastructure that we need to hold us together or how to pay for it.

Elizabeth Padjen: A couple of years ago, Sarah, you wrote an essay for The New Republic that I still think is one of the smartest pieces about infrastructure that I’ve read. It appeared right after the bridge collapse in Minnesota and the Con Edison steam pipe bursting in New York. You said, “Infrastructure is one crucial point at which politics and architecture merge.” Nothing’s really happened since you wrote that piece.

Sarah Williams Goldhagen: That’s not exactly true; a lot has actually happened. The tagline of my article, which I had nothing to do with, was “Making Infrastructure Sexy.” And now infrastructure is part of the public discussion. But it’s all about putting fingers in dikes — the shovel-ready projects that are connected to stimulus. The Obama administration has lots of good intentions, but I don’t see anyone articulating what steps need to be taken to realize the goals that most people agree are necessary for a humane 21st-century urbanism: denser communities, pedestrianfriendly development, and multiple, overlapping, regional transportation systems incorporating air, fast rail, and automobile.

I think Hubert is right — nobody has faith in the public realm. But a larger issue is that the infrastructure problems we now have cannot be solved by the current political system, which is balkanized into municipalities and state systems and the federal system. Infrastructural problems now are regional: they cross municipal and state lines. That means that discussions about infrastructure must include not only big visions but also concrete plans for implementation.


Deer Island Wastewater Treatment Plant. Photo by Peter Vanderwarker.

David Luberoff: “Infrastructure” is a word that really didn’t come into play until the ’80s; before then, we had what was called “public works.” It’s very hard to get people excited about infrastructure, because it’s a conceptual word. But there are elements of infrastructure that people really like: people love trains, people love bridges. We lose something when we talk about infrastructure, although the word does capture the sense of these networks and systems that bind us together.

Sarah’s right that they’re a hodgepodge not only at different levels of government but also between public and private sectors. The telecommunications infrastructure is almost purely private, subject to public regulation, somewhat similar to electrical infrastructure. The transportation infrastructure is a mix — we provide the roads, but the cars are privately owned; we provide airports for private airlines. On the other hand, outside of the Northeast Corridor, publicly owned Amtrak trains generally use privately owned tracks.

Infrastructure is critical to regional economic development, and there’s a long history in the United States of trying to figure out whether this is a national or a regional responsibility. For the most part, we’ve regionalized most of the important forms of infrastructure, such as roads, airports, sewage treatment. But I suspect we’ll never create a cohesive regional infrastructure system, because in the American political system, we tend to solve problems one at a time. So when a crisis emerges, the response tends to be to turn it over to a regional entity, and often to govern it in such a way that is supposed to remove it from day-to-day politics by creating authorities, such as Massport, to run airports, or the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, to run water and wastewater treatment systems.

Elizabeth Padjen: One of the most enduring symbols of infrastructure implemented on the national level is the interstate highway system, which may also represent the last time there was a significant national focus on infrastructure. If we think of infrastructure as providing some kind of public good that will support economic activity and health and welfare for all of the people, are we working off old definitions and an outdated understanding of infrastructure? We now have new technologies that weren’t even imagined when the highway system was developed.

David Lazer: You just said the last big national effort was the highway system, but what about the Internet? Doesn’t that qualify as infrastructure? I’d say absolutely yes. Obviously, it’s revolutionary, but what makes it especially interesting in this discussion is its potential interplay with more traditional forms of infrastructure. For example, it allows us to collect information in a very decentralized fashion so we can use our existing infrastructure more efficiently or develop a new infrastructure that is smarter. We talk about having a smarter electricity grid. Well, one way of dealing with peak load, rather than building more electricity plants, is to program everyone’s thermostats to be sensitive to peak loads so they’ll all turn off when it’s really hot. Similarly, we can now track road use, which can lead to more efficient transportation systems. And the SENSEable City Lab at MIT has developed devices to understand trash flow. There’s a growing effort to apply data-driven processes to the use and design of infrastructure.

David Luberoff: In addition to the Internet, I would mention the parallel construction of the cellular telephone system. It has had obvious implications for traditional infrastructure, but also tremendous implications for where people are in space and time. If we are always connected, that is probably as powerfully transformative as a lot of traditional infrastructure, whether the automobile/highway system or the mass transit system. It’s less obvious because we don’t see it.

David Lazer: That’s right. With an iPhone, you have the Internet and GPS in your pocket. Suddenly people can interact with infrastructure in entirely different ways. They are more actively involved in decision-making on the personal level, such as where to drive or when to turn on the air-conditioning at home, as well as simply reporting information.

Hubert Murray: We need to think about why we are building infrastructure in the first place. The examples you’re giving of modern technology as infrastructure represent an infrastructure that supports individuation. These are centrifugal forces in society, whereas a couple of generations ago, we were talking about bridges, highways, tunnels, even airports, that brought us together as a society. Is it any coincidence that this beautiful object, the iPhone, is blossoming simultaneously with the collapse of our common infrastructure, our bridges and our tunnels and our streets?

Infrastructure both opens up and closes down opportunities. If it’s working well, infrastructure provides equal access to resources. If it’s not working well, it funnels access to resources to certain segments of society and closes out opportunities for other folks. Anne Whiston Spirn FASLA

David Luberoff: I would argue that the bridges and roads were a decentralizing force in their time. There was this new technology — the automobile. The car was the iPhone of its time — the technology that everybody wanted.

Anne Whiston Spirn: It’s not just the focus on the individual cell phone as opposed to bridges and highways, but the focus on the individual cell phone as opposed to the public telephones that used to exist throughout our cities and towns. Have you tried to find one lately? A lot of people can’t afford a cell phone. Infrastructure both opens up and closes down opportunities. If it’s working well, infrastructure provides equal access to resources. If it’s not working well, it funnels access to resources to certain segments of society and closes out opportunities for other folks. We see that especially in communication infrastructure, with access to high-speed Internet in some parts of the country and not in others, and even within some city neighborhoods but not others. Which means that certain kinds of economic activity are not going to occur in the areas that are not well-served.

Elizabeth Padjen: The Rural Electrification Project in this country was at some level a social-justice exercise, providing federal funding in support of a national goal to be implemented locally by private electrical companies. Today we largely leave the new technology networks to private enterprise, in terms of decisions about location, markets, and coverage. I have an aunt who lives just outside Madison, Wisconsin, and has dial-up service. It drives her crazy. Verizon is bringing 4G service to Boston and Seattle — logical rollout cities, from a private enterprise point of view — but when is that ever going to get to my aunt?

Jeffrey Simon: You don’t even have to go that far. Massachusetts has submitted an application under the Recovery Act to bring broadband technology to the western part of the state. Broadband is in place as far out as Route 91, but beyond that, as soon as you leave the Mass Pike, there’s nothing. There’s no G, let alone 4G. It’s shocking, especially when you think about schools and fire and police and hospitals. It’s one thing to talk about promoting medical e-records, but if you have no way to get them, it makes no sense.

Anne Whiston Spirn: The implications for national policy are enormous and the questions are tough ones. Do you subsidize new infrastructure in new areas to the same extent as funding the reconstruction of existing infrastructure that was built 100 years ago or more? Infrastructure by its very nature will structure urban development for years to come. So when we make decisions about how and where to build infrastructure, we are making decisions that are going to affect human settlement forms for centuries, as well as the lives of individuals and the well-being of communities in terms of their access to resources.

David Lazer: The issue is complicated by the simple fact that we are a large country. People like to compare infrastructure here to Europe. But it’s an unfair contest, because Europe is much smaller, with a much higher population density. Speaking very generally, you’re never going to be very far from key infrastructure in Europe, whereas we have vast tracts of rural areas. To some degree, we recognize, and even accept, that rural areas have always had inferior access to certain things. But it’s always been an interesting and important question: what should be the coverage guarantees of infrastructure? We decided, for example, that the postal system would cover everyone, regardless of the cost. And of course, if we subsidize new infrastructure, including new communication infrastructure, in the rural areas, we end up encouraging the very kind of development that many people think we should discourage.

Jeffrey Simon: Where infrastructure tends to be done especially well is where there are constraints of geography or location. I really got an appreciation for this living in Bermuda for a couple of years. Bermuda is 21 square miles: one mile wide, 20 miles long, 750 miles out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. In the US, if you need to build an incinerator, people typically say put it out of town, somewhere “out there,” wherever “there” is. You can’t do that in Bermuda. Everything has to go somewhere within that 21 square miles that 60,000 people live on. So the way they approach infrastructure is very different, with a different attitude toward efficiency. They were doing sustainable development out of necessity long before the term had even been created. When all of my drinking water came off my roof, the prospect of running out was not only real but actually happened a number of times. My habits changed very quickly.

Elizabeth Padjen: Your example is a reminder of a profound change in the way we think about infrastructure now, which is sustainability. It’s an overlay that wasn’t really part of the equation 100 years ago.


Ted Williams Tunnel. Photo by Peter Vanderwarker.

Hubert Murray: I think that global warming and the possible effects of climate change are beginning to seep into the public consciousness and give us a common purpose; and on that common purpose we can build a new infrastructure. That’s an optimistic view. Only three years ago, just before Al Gore released his film, most people were clueless about the issue. Now it’s the constant subject of tabloid newspapers and radio talk shows. A general consciousness is building up, one we have to respond to with the building of an infrastructure that goes beyond the shovel-ready, because it actually needs some thought.

Jeffrey Simon: But if I had to weigh the price of gas against globalwarming consciousness for its ability to get people mobilized quickly in the way that you’re talking about, I would go with the price of gas. You certainly could argue that the best thing we could do is to establish a five-dollar-a-gallon federal tax on gas — all of a sudden you’d find all of the incentives lining up in the right direction. But that has social impacts that are unacceptable.

Sarah Williams Goldhagen: Our land-use patterns are the result of social engineering through infrastructure that started in the 1930s and went through to the ’50s and ’60s. Now the discussion should be, can we use infrastructure to create the right kind of new land-use patterns without too much undesirable, class-based social fallout? That is not a discussion that I hear people having. What would those land-use patterns be? How do we get there, what do we use, and how does technology fit into all that?

David Luberoff: The danger of using infrastructure to push landuse patterns is that somebody will inevitably say, “Why am I paying for a thing I don’t want?” because infrastructure investments can create tremendous winners and big losers.

Jeffrey Simon: I think you’re right. Consumers want to see a direct connection between what they pay and what they get. We’re seeing that now with the Big Dig, which has vastly improved the quality of life in the city of Boston, despite the cost. But the decision to pay for it through turnpike tolls led a group of toll-payers, mostly from western Massachusetts, to pursue a lawsuit — they don’t see that the Big Dig is of any benefit to them.

David Luberoff: I recently read the state’s new plan for the South Coast Rail, which would extend the line from Fall River to New Bedford and is being touted as an economic-development project. We know there’s a link between infrastructure settlement patterns and economic productivity. But the South Coast Rail is going to be about a $2-billion project, and the state’s numbers say it will carry about 5,000 people a day, which is 2,500 round-trip riders. For $2 billion dollars, I could probably wire all of western Massachusetts, or make Fall River and New Bedford completely wireless. The communities that the railroads bypassed 150 years ago died. The communities that didn’t get highway ramps 50 and 75 years ago died. Arguably, the communities that aren’t on the grid are going to die. Which form of infrastructure do we think people really need?

Jeffrey Simon: You’re always making a choice. It’s always a tradeoff.

Elizabeth Padjen: But how do you make that choice?

Jeffrey Simon: It’s a difficult discussion because you’re not usually presented with the total cost of A versus the total cost of B. You’re always looking at the margin. The South Coast Rail is a good example of an infrastructure investment that relates to a number of complex issues. For example, is it worthwhile to connect Fall River and New Bedford to Boston? Probably. And it certainly encourages people to get out of their cars.

The 2,500 people who will ride the train daily are the ones who have the most direct benefit, but that’s just one side of the equation. The South Coast Rail is also part of a larger discussion about rail in New England. Governor Patrick has joined with the other New England governors to work on a regional rail initiative and to pursue federal stimulus funding to make that happen.

The communities that didn’t get highway ramps 50 and 75 years ago died. Arguably, the communities that aren’t on the broadband/wireless grid are going to die. Which form of infrastructure do we think people really need? David Luberoff

Sarah Williams Goldhagen: The federal stimulus program seems to be driving a lot of discussion about rail across the country. The administration’s current focus on high-speed rail seems to be the closest thing we’ve seen to an infrastructure policy or vision.

Jeffrey Simon: The stimulus program gets all the publicity, but it’s not the only thing driving infrastructure spending. Massachusetts has accelerated its program to repair bridges — it seems as though you can’t drive anywhere now without seeing some bridge being worked on. Crumbling infrastructure has a huge impact on the psyche of the average citizen. The world isn’t crumbling down in the way that spalling concrete and exposed rebars might suggest, but just seeing deteriorating bridges is discouraging. Conversely, seeing them being repaired not only creates the feeling that things are getting better, but also reinforces the fact that someone cares enough about the public to fix them.

Elizabeth Padjen: Fixing bridges is one thing, welcome as that is, but don’t we really need to fix the system that disinvests in maintenance, that encourages deferred maintenance? We developed the One Percent for Arts program a long while ago. It seems to me there should be One Percent for Maintenance associated with any public investment.

Hubert Murray: The New York Review of Books recently ran an essay by Everett Ehrlich and Felix Rohatyn on the $3-trillion deficit in deferred maintenance that we have across the country. They’re proposing a new way of financing infrastructure, the National Infrastructure Bank. And I think that the new administration is listening.

David Luberoff: When agencies such as Massport that are primarily funded by user fees borrow money for big capital projects, the lenders often require that the agency keep those new facilities in a state of good repair. In contrast, maintenance of highways and bridges often comes out of the general operating budget, which means it’s an easy thing to cut. No politician ever got any votes for cutting a ribbon on a maintained bridge; you only get that with a new bridge.

I recently talked to someone at the Deer Island sewage treatment facility — a huge piece of infrastructure — who said the most striking thing about the facility is not that it was built right, but that 15 years later, the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, a user-funded entity that built and operates the plant, is maintaining it right. They have a total schedule of maintenance; they can tell you when things are going to be replaced. What is fascinating here is that this is an agency that has become utterly obscure to the general public, yet has maintained a professional culture that says this thing’s got to keep working.

Jeffrey Simon: You think those two things are connected? I see it as cause and effect. The challenge is to have great professionalism combined with authentic transparency, to have professional decisions made in public and to have accountability for those decisions become the accepted practice.

David Luberoff: Sometimes it’s cause and effect, but sometimes agencies become obscure and then they become ossified.

Anne Whiston Spirn: One thing that we haven’t addressed yet is the issue of amenities. Some of the great landmarks in infrastructure are green infrastructure projects like Boston’s Riverway and the Fens, which were projects that addressed important issues like sewage, storm runoff, water quality, and new transportation routes. But they were accomplished in a way that provided tremendous public amenities.

Hubert Murray: And pride.

Anne Whiston Spirn: Yes, and pride. Which goes back to your comment about the public realm and the notion of finding ways to enhance and elevate projects that need to be implemented for all kinds of pragmatic reasons. The Denver Urban Drainage and Flood Control District is a contemporary example of the Fens and Riverway. Taxes were assessed on individual property owners in proportion to the amount of stormwater they were contributing to the system. These assessments funded the district, which then promoted projects that addressed flood control and storm drainage but also provided parks, trails, and bikeways. We tend to have tunnel vision, addressing one thing at a time and not looking at ways of combining functions. It leads to missed opportunities and frequently to greater expense.

Going back to Deer Island, I would not agree that it was the right solution, even though it seems to work fine now. There were many advocates of a more decentralized approach that would have included protecting groundwater supplies and watersheds in the region. That approach would have been much less expensive, and could have provided other amenities including parks and recreation, as well as the restoration of vacant land in urban neighborhoods like Roxbury and Dorchester.

How do you use short-term money to accomplish long-term goals and do it in a really responsible way? Jeffrey Simon

Hubert Murray: The outcome might be different now. There is growing interest in decentralization, especially in terms of energy infrastructure. Typically you lose 65 percent of the power just in the distribution of electricity; it’s an incredibly inefficient way of doing things, although it is very efficient politically, because one decision-maker can run the show. But Woking, a city just south of London, has converted over the last few years much of its power generation to a distributed energy network, through small neighborhood power stations using alternative technologies. They are small enough that you can individually power housing projects or institutions like schools and hospitals, too. If this model takes off, you can imagine that the structure and the politics of cities will need to change accordingly.

Anne Whiston Spirn: Although maintenance might be a challenge. The one advantage to Deer Island is that it’s one facility to focus on. On the other hand, if something goes wrong, all the sewage in Boston flows out.

Elizabeth Padjen: Where does the leadership come from that can change perceptions or create a value system that is going to support something like the Denver project?

Anne Whiston Spirn: When I stepped back after writing The Granite Garden: Urban Nature and Human Design, which is a series of success stories about how cities have adapted to their urban natural environments and ecosystems, I started to look for the common ingredients that made these successes happen. In almost all of them, it was response to disaster. Very few were the result of an idealist with a marvelous vision of what the city could be. Rather, it was a catastrophe that galvanized public support to rebuild and do things right. The Denver project emerged from a series of devastating floods of the Platte River — lives were lost, bridges wiped out, with millions of dollars of damage. So, to answer your question, I would say that every city or region is vulnerable to certain natural disasters. Know what they are and when they are likely to occur, and have a cadre of people who are ready with visions to present to the public as soon as the disaster happens. Because there’s always a lag time. If it’s shovel-ready when the catastrophe happens, then the impetus to rebuild is so strong that it can happen immediately.

Elizabeth Padjen: We’ve talked about private investments, particularly in communication infrastructure, which seems to be largely driven by the private sector. We’ve talked about public investment. Have you seen any innovations in public/private partnerships that have worked?

David Luberoff: In one sense, everything that gets done today is a public/private partnership because, unlike the ’30s when people worked for WPA and were on the government’s payroll, we made a policy decision a long time ago to move to a system of contractors.

Hubert Murray: We’re seeing highway authorities engage in what are called DBOM contracts: design/build/operate/maintain. Firms like Bechtel do this all over the world — public facilities run by private firms for profit.

Jeffrey Simon: What’s happening now is that the privatization of infrastructure is being driven by investment bankers, not engineers. Look at Macquarie Bank coming in from Sydney and buying the Chicago Skyway and the Indiana toll road.

David Luberoff: But the public reaction has not been positive and several deals proposed after the Indiana and Chicago deals have been scuttled. The result is puzzling: we have no problem putting companies like Verizon in charge of the cellular system, but we seem to always want the government to run the roads. Most toll roads have a fairly predictable revenue stream — money that can be used to pay back a large loan, particularly if you assume that tolls will rise in the future. Sooner or later, somebody in government will say, “I could really use a lot of money now, rather than a little bit of money each year for the foreseeable future, particularly if the toll hikes required to support the loan occur after I leave office.” This is basically what Massachusetts did when it had the Turnpike Authority borrow money to help pay for some of the Big Dig.

Jeffrey Simon: There is another way of looking at public/private partnerships, which is to consider how incremental actions or changes in the private sector influence public policy. The focus on sustainability through LEED certification is a fascinating example. No government policy came up with or imposed LEED certification. It was developed in the private sector and then took off as tenants and buyers started to demand it until eventually it was adopted as policy by environmentally conscious cities. The market made that happen.

Hubert Murray: It’s a very good point. I think we’re about to see another example here in Boston, which has some of the highestpriced real estate in the country. It is also in one of the most vulnerable places in the country. If the sea level rises, as it is predicted to do within the lifetime of many of these buildings, they’re going to have swamped basements at the very least. We have a huge impending crisis on our hands; perhaps this relates to Anne’s observation about preparing for catastrophes. Partners Healthcare is addressing this head-on in the development of the proposed new Spaulding Hospital. We anticipate a 24-inch rise in sea level in Boston Harbor within the projected lifetime of the building. So we’ve raised the ground-floor datum and taken all the electrical equipment out of the basement as originally proposed. The term we used for looking strategically at possible disasters is “resiliency.” Every single building on the waterfront has to think in the same way. And if I may say so, the Central Artery Tunnel has to think in that way, because within an 80-year time period, the Central Artery is vulnerable.

Jeffrey Simon: That must have been an interesting meeting. You go in and you say, “We’ve raised all the utilities up to the first floor.” They ask, “Why did you do that?” And you answer, “Well, we think the harbor’s going to rise 24 inches.”

Hubert Murray: We did a considerable amount of research and wrote a protocol that we want to share with the city and the state.

Jeffrey Simon: But this touches on something I think about a lot, which is the long-term implications of what we do. How do you use short-term money to accomplish long-term goals and do it in a really responsible way? And along the way, how can you make fundamental changes to the way state government does business? People who talk about infrastructure now invariably get around to talking about the ’30s. There’s a whole legacy from that period of beautiful work, which we’re not getting out of the current program, because it wasn’t designed with those goals in mind.

Hubert Murray: One of the things that thrilled me about coming to this country from the UK was the opportunity to see the work of the Tennessee Valley Authority. The quality of design on purely utilitarian structures, and the multi-disciplinary nature of the TVA, transformed that part of the country in a remarkable way. It was something of which the country could be proud, and for which it was known all across Europe. And somehow, we’ve lost that. Coming from Madrid Airport to Logan Airport, for example, is like going from a cathedral to a hovel.

Jeffrey Simon: We have the Zakim Bridge. We haven’t totally lost it.

Anne Whiston Spirn: The fault lies on both sides. Designers have relinquished a role in infrastructure, but on the other hand, architects and landscape architects aren’t the first professions that come to a public agency’s mind when they are planning an infrastructure project. But there’s an optimistic sign: over the past few years, we’re seeing architecture and landscape architecture departments taking on large infrastructure projects as studio projects. At MIT, for example, a collaborative workshop between the department of architecture and the civil and environmental engineering department is in the works.

Sarah Williams Goldhagen: Landscape architects right now are doing a better job than architects are of convincing the public that the design of the built environment, whether it be a public monument, a park, a sewage-treatment plant, or the High Line, directly affects people’s quality of life, both in the present and in the future. In general, landscape architects seem to view working for an improved public realm as part of their professional obligations. And the Landscape Urbanists have done an especially impressive job of creating a public profile for themselves, one that could potentially translate into their playing a major role in the public’s views of how the built environment might best be reconfigured.

David Lazer: Maybe design has been left out of the old forms of infrastructure, but it’s certainly part of the new forms. We talked earlier about the iPhone, which is all about design, as is the whole structure — in a very real way, the whole infrastructure — that Apple has built behind it.

Jeffrey Simon: Design gets left out of the discussion because designers let that happen. I heard a designer at a conference complaining about the whole role of the owner’s rep on a construction project. Well, the owner’s rep developed because architects failed to interface with their customers in an acceptable manner. It’s the same with design — the design profession has failed to communicate perceived value in good design. There was a time when the finest design was reserved for public buildings.

David Lazer: The one thing that building infrastructure has going for it is the very fact that it leaves a lasting legacy, which provides an incentive to politicians. When you leave a TVA or even a Big Dig, you get a little touch of immortality.

Caption: Form work rebars for Big Dig/Central Artery. Photo by Peter Vanderwarker.

From the Editor

Posted in Vol 12 No 4 by bsaab on November 9, 2009


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It has to rank up there with one of the great political aphorisms of all time. So good, in fact, that you wonder if it was lifted from The Art of War or The Prince: “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” (In fact, it was lifted from Stanford economist Paul Romer.)

The prospect of economic collapse focuses the collective mind wonderfully. But by now, it is abundantly clear to many Americans that a great opportunity has in fact been wasted. If the Washington mandarins are correct and we have turned the corner on this recession, then the country’s willingness to align behind a coherent vision is probably already dissipating. And if the mandarins are wrong — if unemployment figures are trapped by their own inertia, if we see the dreaded “double-dip” recovery — then the government’s earlier failure to exert leadership will yield only greater, more corrosive skepticism. Leadership is not something you get around to.

And what is this missed opportunity? By now, we could have had a national infrastructure policy.

Maybe infrastructure doesn’t sound terribly compelling compared to other national policies we could have had by now. But the healthcare thing hasn’t turned out so well, and education is a famous morass. Infrastructure, however, evokes images of a nation pulling together, a nation on the brink of greatness, a nation at work. The Hoover Dam, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Saarinen TWA terminal at Kennedy Airport, even the interstate highway system — fashionable as it is to malign it today — were all symbols of pride and all contributed to the greater prosperit as well as to a greater optimism. Another Chicagoan said, “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood.” Daniel Burnham would know that paving projects don’t count.

But the romance of infrastructure is merely political lubrication. The real significance of infrastructure lies in its essential purpose: to support commerce and the public welfare. We are a country that has been ranked 15th in the world in broadband penetration. We are a region that imports almost all of its energy. We are a state in which six municipalities recently invoked boil orders due to contaminated water supplies. Our welfare is in jeopardy, our entrepreneurs constrained by systems that make them less competitive in the global market.

The real significance of infrastructure lies in its essential purpose: to support commerce and the public welfare.

A coherent national infrastructure policy would create immediate work for many, and ripple-effect opportunity for all. It would embrace sustainability, promote new communications technologies (increasing both access and adoption), mandate regional cooperation, and solve the maintenance conundrum so that new investment in infrastructure is truly an investment, and not a spending spree. A national infrastructure policy would give context and direction to the FCC’s call for a national broadband plan. It would coordinate regional alternative-energy efforts, avoiding the recent scenario in which the New England governors were surprised to learn that their Midwestern peers were planning to sell wind-generated power to Eastern states. It would sidestep the competitive “me, too” scramble for high-speed rail funds (278 applications from 40 states) in the interest of an actual high-speed plan. It would state that “shovel-ready” is a flawed criterion for assessing which projects get funding.

The administration has indicated that at some level it knows this is what is needed; President Obama himself invoked the Burnham adage. Matt Bai, writing in The New York Times, referred to Obama as the “shuffle president,” referring to the iPod shuffle feature to suggest leaping from crisis to crisis. This was unfair. We, all of us, live in a shuffle culture. It’s time to settle down and focus.

She was one of the city’s most fearless defenders. Joan Goody FAIA, principal of Goody Clancy and longtime chair of the Boston Civic Design Commission, passed away in September. Smart and savvy (not always the same thing), Joan cared deeply about the civic life of the city, and she also understood the role of Boston’s architects in shaping a rich public realm. At the time of her death, she was a member of ArchitectureBoston’s editorial board. I shall miss her wisdom, insight, humor, and support.

From the Editor

Posted in Vol 12 No 3 by bsaab on August 20, 2009

Meet the Creatives

“Art is the handmaid of human good.”

Maybe the “handmaid” thing is a clue, but chances are, few people would associate the sentiment above with the early 19th century, let alone the birth of the Industrial Age in America. Even fewer would imagine that the phrase was chosen by a mayor as a city motto. But for more than a century and a half, “Art is the handmaid of human good” has appeared on the official seal of the city of Lowell, Massachusetts.

The origin of the phrase is unknown; given its application in a city that was dependent upon the skill of its millworkers (especially young women — handmaids indeed), the motto is often interpreted as a tribute to manual skills or a celebration of craft. Its real meaning is of course much broader.

We had only to listen to the recent Congressional debates about stimulus funds to understand how far art has since fallen in the political firmament. Too many politicians and policy-makers view support of the arts as a nonessential indulgence: art-for-art’s-sake is frivolous when Art has lost his job and can’t feed little Artie, Jr.

And so it may be a surprise that among the greatest champions of the arts are some economists and politicians — people who have not lost sight of the critical relationship between art and industry that was commonly acknowledged by our 19th-century forebears. They understand that support of the arts is not indulgence; it is vital to fostering creative thinking and the innovation that fuels our economic system. They know that if there were no art education, there would be no Apple. In this crowd, “creative” has moved from adjective to noun, and the creatives are those people who generate real and meaningful economic activity — jobs, revenue, products, services — through organizations and enterprises that are based in the arts: cultural institutions, of course, but also advertising firms, publishing houses, videogame developers, design firms, and countless others.

The focus on the Creative Economy is relatively recent — so new, in fact, that researchers are still analyzing data that will help us understand its mechanisms fully. Economist Richard Florida introduced the concept to the public with his 2002 book The Rise of the Creative Class, which famously suggested that cities with active arts communities, significant gay populations, ethnic diversity, and tolerance of bohemian lifestyles are more apt to have a competitive edge. The subsequent rush to promote local manifestations of the Creative Economy threatened to join pedestrian malls, festival marketplaces, and convention centers in the long, failed lineup of desperate measures by beleaguered economic development and planning directors.

But if we set aside the temptation to promote the Creative Economy by artificially isolating it through zoning and well-intended regulations into cultural districts that are the equivalent of petting zoos, we will find that the creatives are already all around us — invisible only because no one previously bothered to identify them, let alone count them. Some have built large businesses with impressive staffs and revenues; some are employed by larger entities that are part of other economic sectors. And still others — many others — work successfully in small businesses and proprietorships that offer a model for new entrepreneurial behaviors: nimble, fluid, collaborative.

Support of the arts is not indulgence; it is vital to fostering creative thinking and the innovation that fuels our economic system.

With our large, young, talented workforce, an impressive array of schools and institutions that prepare and sustain creative workers, and an established base of technological innovators who understand the value that right-brain thinking can add to left-brain processes, this region is perhaps better prepared than any other in the country to develop a Creative Economy of global standing. This isn’t art for art’s sake. It’s art for our sake.