Landscape Ruralism

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.

[the Parque del Lago- another beautiful rendered whatever in the name of 
landscape urbanism]

[yes, yes, yes]

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.

[Why, yes dear, that is a controlled burn to eliminate weeds, replenish the soil
and maintain a natural grassland.  Now run up to the house and get my
smoking jacket]

[at Nick’s Head in New Zealand, plants are grown for pilot experiments for 
restoration projects on the site]

[a hillside restoration project to combat erosion and invasive pests]

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.

[let’s do some design together]

7 thoughts on “Landscape Ruralism

  1. Regarding Bob the farmers point. I recently posted A NYT article to Archinect, researchers at HP labs have released a study/design exploring the potential for a Farm Waste (read cow manure powered) Data Center Ecosystem.And regarding the whole rural thing. As you touched on i think there is often a false dichotmy between urban vs rural in LU and other design theorizing. The upside of a LU type of approach is the emphasis by at least some practicioners on a more regional perspective. The point being that you can focus on the urban all you want but one needs to recognize that the urban requires very large water/energy/food sheds which necessarily draw in the rural/peri-urban.I think we are a long long way off from being able to design/and actually build a city that is totally a closed loop and requires no planning/conceptualizing on the regional scale.

  2. "And cities do tend to be less environmentally damaging than subsistence farming (not a given though."Does this take into account the ecological cost of factory farming practices used to support the urban populace? A cattle feedlot which is used to produce the beef in the urbanite's Big Mac produces more sewage than a small city.Any ecological accounting that doesn't include the true cost of food.

  3. nam: thanks for that link. That looks super informative. And I agree that conceptually LU (or especially landscape infrastructure) does tend to emphasize the region. and yet there is some antagonism towards residential space and the issues we face in our rural landscapes aren't yet being addressed in the praxis.edward: valid point, but don't factory farming practices also support the rural populace, and the suburban? I'm actually not sure of all of the ecological costs and just wanted to make the point that cities tend to allow you to spend less per capita on things like infrastructure, energy, transportation, etc. However, I think we are in agreement that it is not an issue that can be covered with blanket statements across the board (which I unfortunately did, but only because it was late, and I was trying to get to the point).

  4. Bravo.So is there an optimum density for ruralism? Have you seen I ask because the documentary does a good job of showing how the over industrialization of farming has inadvertently degraded the social fabric – largely by depopulating it through the massive consolidation of land.

  5. I don’t there is, or rather, it is constantly fluctuating somewhat based on specific circumstances (environment, economy, the type of agriculture, and cultural expectations). That said, I bet if we could do a survey of rural communities and identify factors- say productivity and resilience in terms of economy, ecology, and population- we would see certain trends and could define a range or “parameters” that are ideal. For instance, when we focus too much on any one part, the others suffer and while that might be fine or even desirable in the short term (such as cutting down rain forests for cattle ranching), it is rarely good over the course of a generation and often disastrous.I did see food, inc. It does a good job of driving home the point that there are just some things that shouldn’t be left up to the market (or even worse, incentivized in ways that emphasize short-term gains). This would include education, healthcare, and of course, Punisher collectible memorabilia from the 1990’s…

  6. I understand your point, and, yes, factory farms do also support many rural populaces. But since you specifically brought up urban vs. subsistence farming, I wanted to bring up the cost of food which is a hidden cost environmentally for the urban population, but a built-in cost of habitat for the subsistence farmer who, by definition, has little need of commercially grown foods.I just realized that the last few words of my last post were cut off. I'm sure my meaning is understood, but what I was trying to say was that if it doesn't include the true cost of food in addition to other inputs, then it is not a fair comparison.

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