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.

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.