Eco-City Beautiful

Yes. When I was talking of green, urban infrastructure for McMillan 2, this is what I was talking about.

From the comments on my post here and at GGW, mammoth weighs in with some fantastic links.

I find the plan’s approach to the nature/city interface deeply troubling, as the plan claims to create a great deal of new land through the channelization of the river, but a quick comparison of the before-and-after plans shows that the vast majority of the “new land” is actually acquired by altering land-use patterns on existing land, which makes it hard not to think that the plan (a) expresses a deep-seated distaste for wetlands (exactly the sort of retrograde classicism which New Urbanists work hard to assure us their opponents are projecting onto them) and (b) is interested in channelizing the river for the sake of channelizing the river (because, that way, it looks more like cities built in the heyday of classicism look).

This is more or less in line with my initial critique of the plan.  To capture it in a phrase, the central element of the plan, narrowing the Anacostia River, is a solution looking for a problem.  Instead of teasing apart the elements that make Paris’ urban waterfront successful, it simply attempts to recreate it in a completely different ecosystem and context.

The affirmation of the my critique is nice, but the citation of a better way is what really caught my attention:

A comparison with Michael Van Valkenburgh’s Toronto Port Lands project, which also adds a great deal of density at the mouth of a river, but does so while “balancing.. the needs of the environment and the needs of the city” (in the words of Andrew Blum’s excellent essay) is not favorable. The Van Valkenburgh team arrived at urban form through intensive collaboration with ecologists and hydrologists; fans of the Anacostia plan seem to assume that ecology and hydrology can be safely ignored in the design of cities, thinking that so long as the overall density of the metropolitan area increases, the plan must have beneficial environmental impacts.

Toronto’s Port Lands is the exact kind of approach I’d like to see taken with the Anacostia.  Given the different context of Toronto’s port compared to the Anacostia, the form would likely be quite different, but the process the design team took (a team that includes architects, planners, hydrologists, and a litany of other experts as well) is the key.  Instead of a solution looking for a problem, you’ve got a team that’s analyzing the problem to develop the solution. From Andrew Blum’s essay, cited in mammoth’s quote:

This collaboration between landscape architects and ecologists is complex, and not without conflict. There is a basic difference in stance: landscape architects necessarily apply a design intention to a landscape, while ecologists observe and compare a landscape with an idealized theoretical framework of undisturbed nature. Landscape architects eager to respond to practical ecological concerns must reconcile these fundamentally different approaches to achieve substantial functional improvements — especially if those improvements are to operate both technically and metaphorically, for their own sake and as legible symbols of the Eco-City.

Torontos skyline from the Port Lands

Toronto's skyline from the Port Lands

Speaking of Toronto’s Port Lands specifically, Blum notes the tensions between the urban and the natural:

This is not an ecological restoration. Instead, it uses ecology as the foundation of a specific design intent. “Our shapes are related to the hydrological cycles of the river,” MVVA’s Matthew Urbanski said to me, “but we didn’t just let nature take its course. The river didn’t design the scheme, it informed the scheme.” By example, Urbanski points to the north tier of the site, which has a “mock natural” shape, like the bends of a river. It’s not meant to mimic nature, but instead is designed to create an experiential unfolding, encouraging a re-engagement with the landscape at each bend in the path.

What’s most notable here is the connection between the formal and ecological. While Urbanski may insist that the scheme is not merely imitative of nature, nature here is not fully flexible. The river may not have designed the scheme, but the scheme definitely designed the river — with the goal of creating ecological benefits. By restoring the mouth of the Don, the project doesn’t merely minimize the environmental impact of the neighborhood, but improves the ecological health of the site. And, as Steve Apfelbaum points out, those impacts are verifiable through soil samples and hydrographs. Ecology, unlike experience and aesthetics, is quantifiable.

Equally striking is the resolution of the traditional conflict between city and nature. The Port Lands proposal does not put a hard line between the park and the neighborhood, but rather intertwines the two to create a place at once more natural and more urban. As MVVA writes, the vision is to “make the site more natural, with the potential for new site ecologies based on the size and complexity of the river mouth landscape, and more urban, with the development of a residential district and its integration into an ever-expanding network of infrastructure and use.”

In my mind, the specific form of this urbanism would be different with DC’s river, its ecology, and its design heritage than it is in Toronto – with a smaller river, the lake, and former industrial areas to be redeveloped.

Simply being urban is not green enough.  Nir Buras suggested it was to a caller during his Kojo interview, and BeyondDC echoed that sentiment:

If we can focus a few hundred million square feet of development along the Anacostia by taking a few wetlands there, how many wetlands out in the suburbs will we save from development?

The rhetorical question is certainly an axiom of smart growth.  Dense, urban growth need not hurt the ecology of the river, however.  This doesn’t need to be an either/or proposition, as these concepts are not mutually exclusive.  BeyondDC also noted that the vast majority of the McMillan 2 plan is basically offering a classical aesthetic to projects that will happen regardless – Poplar Point, Reservation 13, etc.  Adding that density is more or less a given – we just need to add eco-functionality.

That kind of green infrastructure and process can truly improve the general concepts of McMillan 2.  As McMillan’s original plans embraced both the beauty and the functionality of City Beautiful infrastructure, this plan can help pave the way for the new Eco-City Beautiful.

5 comments to Eco-City Beautiful

  • Instead of a solution looking for a problem, you’ve got a team that’s analyzing the problem to develop the solution.

    Exactly. While I’m sympathetic to a lot of the aims of New Urbanists (sure, I love old European cities, and hurray for density), it’s frustrating how often their projects seem to be designs in search of sites, rather than the other way around. And the idea that “simply being urban is green enough” (to cut out your ‘not’) is shockingly dismissive of the possibility that maybe, just maybe, we’ve learned a thing or two (from our mistakes, if nothing else) about how to reconcile the city and nature in the past century.

  • J.D. Hammond

    Yes, yes, yes. Man, I love Mammoth.

    This is the direction we should be going in with the Anacostia – and looking at other estuarine urban rivers on the northern humid-subtropical fringe, like the Huangpu, the Sumidagawa, the Han, even the lower Danube.

  • […] was the excellent constructive criticism by Alex Block. But he outdid himself with another article arguing for an ecologically balanced solution, which built on a post […]

  • […] entrant in the design competition for Toronto’s Port Lands (following up on some of the discussion about McMillan Two).  The project, called River+City+Life, aims to re-imagine urban wetlands rather than simply […]

  • […] low-impact development infrastructure.  These bioretention areas should be a great example of the new kind of both urban and environmentally sustainable infrastructure can […]

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