Recently Urban Tick ran an ecotastic review of the Ecological Urbanism book that recently came out. Much of the content is available for free through the dowloadable webcasts, but if you’d like to pay money for it and you love neologisms, it’s interesting. At about that same time, we here at FASLANYC were busy listening to podcasts that middle-aged white people listen to: NPR. A few weeks ago Energy Secretary Steven Chu appeared in On Point With Tom Ashbrook. It wasn’t that interesting but at about the 40-minute mark, a farmer (Bob from Wisconsin) called in with a question for the Secretary, which I will now quote verbatim:
“I’m a farmer and would like to get off the public grid but it’s very exorbitant to do that now. So, I’m suggesting that the government at least give us very low-interest or no-interest loans where we can pay them back with the surplus energy we produce. But there’s no reason why every farm in the US can’t produce its own energy plus surplus energy to use in the neighborhood.”
Instead of reading about Harvard’s symposium like good urbanists/urbanites should, we found ourselves taken with Bob’s idea (certainly not a new one, but still so good): farms not merely producing food, but also producing power by farming wind and solar energy. And of course there are serious issues to confront, some technical, some cultural and environmental, and also some serious benefits. But that is not the point we hope to discuss today. Rather, it is the tendency in the contemporary discourse to discuss the entire landscape, especially the rural areas, in terms of the city that we want to pick on. The rural should not be sublimated to the urban.
Many of the tenets of landscape urbanism (its focus on the region, systems and patterns, landscape ecology) would seem to lend themselves directly to the study of agricultural and energy farms-productive systems- in the hinterlands. Of course, this would exclude the phenomenological or embodied experience of the rural- that is not covered in the LU manual. In fact, the Ecological Urbanism book/conference/webcast series has some projects that deal directly with the productive systems of rural areas (see the OMA proposal for Zeekracht, recently highlighted by F.A.D.) and yet it is always framed in terms of the urban. A quote from Urban Tick’s introductory post on the book is illuminating:
“The key to address the conundrum [of fast urban growth with “destroying” the earth] seems to be “density”, since it relates and affects each and every subject within the book. Density is the factor that puts in relation humans to city scale, therefore reflecting the soul of both. Density might be the only factor that can have a remarkable impact on sustainability both on a large and small scale. Can we define a socially and morphologically “right density”? What kind of urban visions would that bring?”
Granted, more people live in cities now than in the country, a historical first; so the hysteria is understandable. And cities do tend to be less environmentally damaging than subsistence farming (not a given though. Those United Nations numbers showing an urbanized world include the suburbs, which are environmentally catastrophic in per capita terms). But it is unfortunate and limiting to the practice of landscape design that still we fetishize urban environments to the detriment of the rural landscape. Now, at a unique moment in our culture and profession we should be expanding our skills and purview to honestly deal with the entire landscape.
Much of the conceptual justification for the landscape approach to urbanism finds firm footing in current climate change and ecology science (apologies for the orgy of alliteration) and the discussion of crisis. Yale 360 (and Seed Magazine) just recently published a great article which brings in to focus a bit the other crisis facing our world- providing food for 2 billion more people while simultaneously phasing out destructive agricultural practices and dealing with the nasty legacy we created for ourselves in the last 50 years of industrial agriculture. Landscape architects can help here, too. Instead of wasting our best years begging for the scraps from the big boys’ table (which are primarily just the scraps from developers’ and politicians’ tables anyway), another possibility is to fan out and fight guerilla-style against all of these nasty problems that landscape architects can help with. Instead of clambering over one another for the next glamorous commission we can put that same effort into a group that is organized and ready to mobilize and just needs vision or technical expertise (both of which landscape architects can provide)- farmers are one group. We need more guerrilla landscape architecture, more landscape ruralism, more embodied urbanism, more landscape ecology. We need more everything. We cannot be dogmatic about landscape, which is why landscape urbanism, despite its broad conceptual ambition (grounded a bit by this excellent essay), and its bias towards urban spaces must be noted.
One example of landscape ruralism is the work being done by Nelson Byrd Woltz through their “conservation agriculture” studio. Organized as a subset within the office, the stated intent is to “tie a family of project together for the purpose of sharing information and interweaving sustainable agriculture with the best management practices for conservation of wildlife, indigenous plants, soil, and water.” The most notable of these projects is Nick’s Head Station in New Zealand (see Beth Meyer’s article on the project in the Harvard Design Magazine’s 2nd Volume on “Sustainability and Pleasure”. Also great in that issue and available for free download is the essay “Big Beautiful Feet” by Kongjian Yu of Turenscape). Granted, these projects smack of the “gentleman farmer” (note Mrs. Meyer’s article is in not in a volume about “sustainability and productivity”). Nonetheless, the projects are interesting and instructive.
This type of organization of institutional memory and progressive action toward agriculture and its processes is a great example of landscape ruralism and the added-value that landscape architects can bring to the agricultural systems and processes shaping the rural landscape. Working closely with scientists from the School of Natural Resources at Syracuse University, they have been able to orchestrate the deployment of tactics both for controlling invasive vermin and weeds as well as maintaining natural meadows through controlled burns. All of this is orchestrated according to strategies for maintaining productive agricultural lands, increasing biodiversity, and restoring functioning riparian and woodland ecologies.
We should stop following our leaders so much, though I’ve nothing against working with them. But if they want us to fall in line and wait our turn to do the same work, I’d just really rather not. There’s a ton of work to be done. We should make our own work, seed some disruptive innovation, and figure out more ways of doing more things.