Moshen Mostafaavi: Ecological Urbanism

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    Edited by Mohsen Mostafaviwith Gareth Doherty

    Harvard UniversityGraduate School of Design

    Lars MOiler Publishers

  • Mohsen Mostafavi

    Preamble-The world's population continues to grow, resultingin a steady migration from rural to urban areas. Increased numbersof people and cities go hand in hand with a greater exploitation ofthe world's limited resources. Every year, more cities are feeling thedevastating impacts of this situation. What are we to do? Whatmeans do we have as designers to address this challenging reality?

    For decades now, reminders have come from many sources aboutthe difficulties that face us and our environment. The Brundtland Reportof 1987, scientific studies on the impact of global warming, and formerU.S. Vice President AI Gore's passionate pleas have all made theirmark. But a growing concern for the environment is matched by a greatdeal of skepticism and resistance. The United States has not only failedto ratify the Kyoto Protocol, it is also, along with Canada and many ofthe Gulf States, among the largest per capita users of energy resources.The failure of the Copenhagen Summit to produce a legally bindingagreement further confirms the scale of the challenges that lie ahead.The concept of "one planet living" can only be a distant dream-andnot just for the worst offenders, but for everyone else as well.

    Architects have been aware of the issues for some time, of course,but the proportion of those committed to sustainable and ecologicalpractices has remained small. And until recently, much of the workproduced as sustainable architecture has been of poor quality. Earlyexamples were focused mainly around the capacities of simpletechnologies to produce energy and recycle waste. Sustainable archi-tecture, itself rudimentary, often also meant an alternative lifestyle


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    of renunciation, stripped of much pleasure. This has changed, and ischanging still. Sustainable design practices are entering the mainstreamof the profession. In the United States, LEED certification-the nationalstandard for the evaluation of sustainable buildings-is being morewidely applied. But there remains the problem that the moral imperativeof sustainability and, by implication, of sustainable design, tends tosupplant disciplinary contribution. Thus sustainable design is not alwaysseen as representing design excellence or design innovation. Thissituation will continue to provoke skepticism and cause tension betweenthose who promote disciplinary knowledge and those who pushfor sustainability, unless we are able to develop novel ways of designthinking that can contribute to both domains.

    The second issue concerns scale. Much of the work undertaken bysustainable architects has been relatively limited in scope. LEEDcertification, for example, deals primarily with the architectural object,and not with the larger infrastructure of the territory of our citiesand towns. Because the challenges of rapid urbanization and limitedglobal resources have become much more pressing, there is a needto find alternative design approaches that will enable us to consider thelarge scale differently than we have done in the past. The urban, asthe site of complex relations (economic, political, social, and cultural),requires an equally complex range of perspectives and responsesthat can address both current conditions and future possibilities. Theaim of this book is to provide that framework-a framework that throughthe conjoining of ecology and urbanism can provide the knowledge,methods, and clues of what the urban can be in the years to come.


  • The city is so vastand we have so muchto say to each other.

    -Fram~ois Perier to Giulietta Masina in Federico Fellini's Nights of Cabiria 1 (1957)


  • Ecological Urbanism-is that not an oxymoron in the sameway that a hybrid SUV is an oxymoron? How can the city, withall its mechanisms of consumption-its devouring of energy,its insatiable demand for food-ever be ecological? In onesense the "project of urbanism," if we can call it such, runscounter to that of ecology, with its emphasis on the interrela-tionship of organisms and the environment-an emphasisthat invariably excludes human intervention. And yet it is rel-atively easy to imagine a city that is more careful in its use ofresources than is currently the norm, more energy-efficient inits daily operations-like a hybrid car. But is that enough? Isit enough for architects, landscape architects, and urbaniststo simply conceive of the future of their various disciplines interms of engineering and constructing a more energy-efficientenvironment? As important as the question of energy is today,the emphasis on quantity-on energy reduction-obscuresits relationship with the qualitative value of things.

    In other words, we need to view the fragility of the planetand its resources as an opportunity for speculative design in-novations rather than as a form of technical legitimation forpromoting conventional solutions. By extension, the problemsconfronting our cities and regions would then become oppor-tunities to define a new approach. Imagining an urbanismthat is other than the status quo requires a new sensibili-ty-one that has the capacity to incorporate and accommo-date the inherent conflictual conditions between ecology andurbanism. This is the territory of ecological urbanism.

    Three Narratives-There is ample evidence all around us ofthe scope of the challenge we face. A while ago, a single issueof The Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom by chancecarried three articles that addressed fundamental questionsof sustainability.2 Such stories are now typical of what onereads on a daily basis and constitute the norm rather thanan exception.

    The first, by Canadian political journalist Naomi Klein,explored the connections between the invasion of Iraq andthe oil boom in Alberta. "For four years now, Alberta and Iraqhave been connected to each other through a kind of invisible

    Why Ecological Urbanism? 17

  • see-saw," says Klein. "As Baghdad burns, destabilizing theentire region and sending oil prices soaring, Calgary booms."Klein's article gives a glimpse of a large territory being laidto waste in the search for oil. Alberta has "vast deposits ofbitumen-black, tarlike goo that is mixed up with sand, clay,water and oil .,. approximately 2.5 trillion barrels of the stuff,the largest hydrocarbon deposits in the world." The processesinvolved in turning these tar sands into crude are both com-plex and costly. One method involves open-cast mining. Forthis, great forests have to be leveled and the topsoil removedbefore huge, specially designed machines dig out the bitumenand place it in the world's largest two-story dump trucks. Thetar is then chemically diluted and spun around until the oilrises to the top. The waste products, the tailings, are dumpedin ponds that according to Klein are larger than the region'snatural lakes. A second method involves the drilling of largepipes that push steam deep underground to melt the tar beforea second pipe transfers it through various stages of refining.

    Both of these processes are much more expensive than con-ventional oil drilling; they also produce three to four times theamount of greenhouse gases. Despite this, they became finan-cially viable after the invasion ofIraq, and resulted in Canadaovertaking Saudi Arabia as the leading supplier of oil to theUnited States. The "success" of this enterprise has led thePembina Institute, a nonprofit think-tank that advances sus-tainable energy solutions, to warn of the threat to an area ofboreal forest as large as the state ofFlorida. More recently theInstitute, together with Ecojustice, has presented evidencedocumenting the damaging effects of oil-sands developmenton Alberta's fresh-water resources. The extent of this environ-mental devastation, encompassing land, air, and water-all inaid of relatively cheap oil for the consumer and hefty profitsfor the oil companies-is a vivid reminder of the urgent needfor future conurbations to discover and design alternativeand efficient ways of using energy resources.

    The second story involved the construction of a high-riseresidence in Mumbai for one of India's richest tycoons, MukeshAmbani, chairman of the country's larg~stprivate-sector com-pany, the Reliance Group. The building, called Antilla after


  • These three stories are all facets of the multiple realities thatour individual and group actions shape in the context of thecontemporary urban domain. Taken together, they illuminateGregory Bateson's argument that, in contradistinction to theDarwinian theory of natural selection, "the unit of survival isorganism plus the environment."3 A broader articulation ofBateson's ideas can be found in Felix Guattari's The ThreeEcologies, a profound yet concise manifestation of a relationaland holistic approach to our understanding of ecological is-sues. Guattari's ethico-political concept of"ecosophy"is devel-oped in the form of three ecological "registers" (environment,social relations, and human subjectivity). Like Bateson, Guat-tari places emphasis on the role that humans play in relationto ecological practices. And according to him, the appropriateresponse to the ecological crisis can only be achieved on aglobal scale, "provided that it brings about an authentic po-litical, social and cultural revolution, reshaping the objectivesof the production of both material and immaterial assets."A

    One of the most important aspects of Guattari's argumentconcerns the interrelations between individual responsibili-ties and group actions. An emphasis on the role of the "eco-sophie problematic," as a way to shape human existence with-in new historical contexts, leads to a proposed reformulationof the "subject." In place of the Cartesian subject, whose beingis solely defined by its thinking, Guattari has "componentsof subjectification" who engage with real "territories of exis-tence," that is, with the everyday domains of their lives andactions. These alternative processes of subjectification are notrooted in science but instead embrace a new"ethico-aesthetic"paradigm as their primary source of inspiration.

    Guattari's position, developed at the end of the 1980s, isas much a criticism of a depoliticized structuralism/post-modernism that "has accustomed us to a vision of the worlddrained of the significance of human intervention" as it isan ethical and aesthetic project that promotes the "reshapingof the objectives of the production of both material and im-material assets." Such a radical approach, if applied to theurban domain, would result in a form of ecological designpractice that does not simply take account of the fragility

  • The city historically constructed is no longerlived and is no longer understood practically. Itis only an object of cultural consumption fortourists, for aestheticism, avid for spectacles andthe picturesque. Even for those who seek tounderstand it with warmth, it is gone. Yet, theurban remains in a state of dispersed andalienated actuality, as kernel and virtuality. Whatthe eyes and analysis perceive on the groundcan at best pass for the shadow of the futureobject in the light of a rising sun. It is impossibleto envisage the reconstitution of the old city,only the construction of a new one on new founda-tions, on another scale and in other conditions,in another society. The prescription is: therecannot be a going back (towards the traditionalcity), nor a headlong flight, towards a colossaland shapeless agglomeration. In other words, forwhat concerns the city the object of scienceis not given. The past, the present, the possiblecannot be separated. What is being studiedis a virtual object, which thought studies, whichcalls for new approaches.-Henri Lefebvre 5 (1968)

    Wh" l=('nlnni('~1 I Irh~ni!'lm?

  • of the ecosystem and the limits on resources but considerssuch conditions the essential basis for a new form of creativeimagining.

    Extending Guattari's suggestion that the "ecosophic prob-lematic" has the capacity to define a new form of human exis-tence, we might consider the impact of the ecological para-digm not only on ourselves and our social actions in relationto the environment, but also on the very methods of thinkingthat we apply to the development of the disciplines that pro-vide the frameworks for shaping those environments. Everydiscipline has the responsibility to constantly create its ownconditions of progress-its own instabilities-and today itis valuable to recognize that we have a unique opportunity toreconsider the core of the disciplines that help us think aboutthe phenomenon of the urban: urban planning and design.

    The prevailing conventions of design practice have dem-onstrated a limited capacity both to respond to the scale ofthe ecological crisis and to adapt their established ways ofthinking. In this context, ecological urbanism can be seenas a means of providing a set of sensibilities and practicesthat can help enhance our approaches to urban development.This is not to imply that ecological urbanism is a totally newand singular mode of design practice. Rather, it utilizes a mul-tiplicity of old and new methods, tools, and techniques ina cross-disciplinary and collaborative approach toward ur-banism developed through the lens of ecology.These practicesmust address the retrofitting of existing urban conditionsas well as our plans for the cities of the future.

    In recognizing the productive values of the relationshipsbetween reality and this project, the methods of ecological ur-banism include the feedback reciprocities that Henri Lefebvredescribed as Itransduction."6 Take the case of the PromenadePlantee in Paris, the precursor of the High Line in New YorkCity, where a disused railway line, part of which is on top ofa viaduct, has been transformed-reused-as an urban parkthat traverses a variety of conditions and prospects. Given theundulating topography of the city, the promenade affords anever-changing sectional relationship to its surroundings. Asa result, the park produces a different experience of the city

  • compared, for example, to that of a Parisian boulevard. Thisis achieved through the discovery and construction of starkjuxtapositions and contrasts that include the experience ofthe city from different horizon lines.

    This type of urban recycling of the remnants of the indus-trial city benefits from the unexpected and given context ofthe site that needs to be remade, a context far from a tabularasa. In these examples, the site acts as a mnemonic devicefor the making of the new. The result is a type of relationalapproach between the terrain, the built, and the viewer's par-ticipatory experiences. Other examples of this type of devel-opment include the Downsview competition in Toronto, andthe Forum area of the North East Coastal Park project inBarcelona, designed by Abalos and Herreros, which combinesinfrastructure and public space by juxtaposing a municipalwaste-management complex with a new waterfront beach onthe site of...