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Feature - Issue #6

Rethinking the American City

Modern US cities have adopted sustainable practices and eco-friendly construction with the intention of building toward a greener future. But too often in practice this means focusing on single prestige projects rather reconceiving the city as part of a larger ecosystem in which the built environment works in conjunction with political, cultural, and social systems.

According to UN figures, 68% of the world’s population is projected to live in urban areas by 2050, and in North America 82% already do. As we build for the future, cities have begun to take climate breakdown and sustainability into consideration to create an urban environment that appears to be interconnected with nature and technology. A simple search for “future city” will yield images of shiny and green urban landscapes, with parametrically designed skyscrapers and lush, forested rooftops. The idea of a sustainable future city is often seen as one that is verdant and full of tech-embedded infrastructure. But why is this what we think of as a future city? And is devotion to this idea actually preventing real sustainable design from taking root?

Designing a functional future city requires reconciling the ideals created in renderings with the existing environment, but many projects categorised as ecological or biophilic don’t seem to be rooted in reality. Belgian architect Vincent Callebaut’s speculative design for Aequorea - proposed as an upside-down skyscraper resembling a jellyfish, sited off the coastline of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and made using ocean plastics that are 3D printed into building materials - raises questions about the intention of the project. Is this a genuine aspiration for the future? Or is it meant to remain as science fiction? Is an aspirational eco-future the best for the planet and people?

Another project, the proposed Amazon Campus in Arlington Virginia, designed by multinational design and architecture firm NBBJ, is a tall spiral made of metal and glass and landscaped with cascading trees and hedges. A recent Curbed article by Audrey Wachs categorised this type of building as an “eco-fantasy project”, a term coined by Daniel Barber and Erin Putalik in 2018 in their essay, Forest, Tower, City: Rethinking the Green Machine Aesthetic. These eco-fantasies are imagined as connected to the natural world, even using local plant typologies, but in actuality are totally disconnected from their surrounding environments.

As noted in Barber and Putalik’s essay: “These high-tech eco-towers and eco-cities are visions of a future imagined as coexistence and connection with the natural world, but they are undergirded by another story, an Enlightenment conception of nature, and of forests specifically, as a resource to be optimised, scientifically managed, and administered by experts in order to enable dense settlement, nation-building, and maintenance of the population.”

A projection of Amazon’s HQ2 in Arlington, Virginia, which is set for completion in 2025. (Photograph: NBBJ / Amazon).

Projects that follow this concept of managed nature are contributing to the public image of what is expected of a sustainable city, even if it is not, in fact, sustainable. Could these buildings that embody eco-tech ideals serve as promotion for sustainable policy and action, or are they to function as an end goal - the epitome of tech and nature existing in the built environment?

If this type of project is the expected reality of future cities, it may only be realised as a few innovative projects held up as examples of progress, while the rest of the urban fabric remains unchanged. In these projects, the aesthetics of greenery and sustainability are deployed in specific sites and catered to the vision of a client, such as Amazon, and elite interests. This eco-tech utopian vision promotes the idea that humans must be separate from nature to support sustainability, that, in the words of An Ecomodernist Manifesto - authored by academics and campaigners in the US, India and Australia - we must “decouple human wellbeing from environmental destruction”.

The manifesto, presented in 2015, rejects the idea that humans should aspire to be in harmony with nature, and affirms the traditional environmentalist view of conservation to prevent economic and ecological collapse. But this line of thinking ignores the negative effects of the conservationist conception of a protected wilderness, placing humans outside the environment, and promoting further development of a society alienated from the greater ecosystem.

The emphasis on technology and managed nature as a saviour for climate breakdown refocuses the dialogue on a scientific rather than human approach to our environment, and reinforces a perspective that nature is a place outside our everyday experience. Our complex relationship with the environment is reduced to either appreciating it or using it - going on trips to protected national parks or supporting green energy.

A 1938 map of Brooklyn, New York, from the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation. Green areas were the most desirable through to red areas, the least desirable places to underwrite mortgages. (Map: “Mapping Inequality,” American Panorama, ed. National Archives and Records Administration).

Yet, we affect the environment just as it affects us. Climate activist and lawyer Colette Pichon Battle, speaking as a guest on the podcast How To Save A Planet, finds the dissociation a problematic human, racial justice issue: “We have beautiful parks and things that have been outlined as a place to go experience nature, but we don’t have nature throughout our existence. We don’t see ourselves as part of an ecosystem. We see the ecosystem as a thing over there to go drive to on the weekends and be a part of. We commodify the very thing we need to survive when the environmentalists do not bring in racial justice.”

The design of the urban environment goes hand in hand with a long history of imbalanced ethics that continues today. In the US, urban environmental issues that are exacerbated by climate change, such as air pollution and extreme heat, affect those in lower income areas at a much higher rate, and the racial profile of residents in these areas is typically black people, Indigenous people, and people of colour. The reasons for this stem from systemic disadvantages that have yet to be reconciled, such as historic redlining, which the Brookings Institution defines as “the practice of outlining areas with sizable black populations in red ink on maps as a warning to mortgage lenders, effectively isolating black people in areas that would suffer lower levels of investment than their white counterparts”, and the construction of urban highways. These disadvantages continue today as environmental racism. Environmental racism, as defined by environmental educator Isaias Hernandez, is a concept from the environmental justice movement that looks into the policies and practices that discriminate against black people, Indigenous people, and people of colour. Hernandez says: “It looks into the economic inequalities and injustices that communities often face with how they are designated in location based on socioeconomic status and race. These communities are often forced to live in areas that are near landfills, sewage plants, and other toxic facilities.”

The Brooklyn Grange, opened in 2010, is the world’s largest soil-based rooftop growing space. The Brooklyn Grange hosts events, educational programmes and partners with non-profit and service organisations to promote healthy and strong local communities. (Justin / srslyguys / Flickr CC by 2.0).

From the beginning of the modern environmental movement in the US in the 60s and 70s, and the publication of Rachel Carson’s influential book Silent Spring in 1962, post-industrial society has acknowledged that the environment affects us, but that knowledge has not - yet - led to the level of collective action that is required to avert climate breakdown. The movement, predominantly fronted by the white middle class, lacked representation from marginalised low-income communities and so overlooked their knowledge and concerns. Today’s environmental movement continues to undervalue the need for community and systemic change, positing that we achieve a green future by switching to renewable energy sources and consumer choice. The emphasis on concepts like “your carbon footprint” and objects like the reusable water bottle puts the fault of the climate crisis on the individual. This cultural action, while often well intentioned, perpetuates the idea of sustainability as arduous exceptionalism. And it is this mindset that leads to the desire to distance ourselves further from nature, claiming it is the only way that both humans and nature can thrive.

When it comes to building sustainable cities, we cannot afford to focus on exceptional, utopian projects. According to the United Nations Environment Program, buildings and their construction together account for 36% of global energy use and 39% of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions annually. Heating and cooling our homes and buildings uses enormous amounts of power. And the construction of new buildings, including the production of the building materials, has huge environmental consequences as well. There is an effort in the architecture industry to make buildings more sustainable, for example through developing rating systems such as the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, and promoting net-zero buildings. These ratings, certifications, and energy offsets all function to sell a tangible sustainability but arguably do not truly make a city sustainable. It is aimed at new builds, and by fixating on the efficiency and impact of individual buildings, misses the forest for the trees. Climate breakdown is a global issue, and when designing for that we need to consider how everything that is going into our cities, including individual buildings, is a conscious part of that larger ecosystem.

‘Projects that promote the idealised eco-city and perpetuate the Enlightenment idea of nature, often herald the gentrification of an area.’

Urban resilience will not be achieved without a fundamental shift in the process of creating new buildings and infrastructure. In the face of climate breakdown, designers must see the creation of a new built environment as inherently political, cultural, and ecological. Projects that promote the idealised eco-city and perpetuate the Enlightenment idea of nature, often herald the gentrification of an area. This eco-city plays into the notion that climate-conscious design is a commodity for those who can afford it. In her article, Green City Promises and Just Sustainabilities, Vanesa Castán Broto, a professor of climate urbanism at the University of Sheffield, UK, writes: “Achieving a green city is not merely a question of delivering specific sustainability projects in transport, housing, and services; it is also about catalysing broader cultural changes and fostering the development of institutions directed towards reimagining society and the economy.”

But those innovative urban design projects that aim to provide larger scale resilience and sustainability are often hindered in a way that singular exceptional projects are not. After Hurricane Sandy wrecked the east coast of the US in 2012, a federal design competition called Rebuild by Design sought entries to increase urban resilience. Many of these entries were experimental and innovative, such as SCAPE’s Living Breakwaters, yet years later many of them are stalled or curtailed.

In his 2019 article Design and the Green New Deal, published in Places Journal, Billy Fleming - the Wilks Family Director for the Ian McHarg Center at the University of Pennsylvania Stuart Weitzman School of Design - critiques this dissonance between the competition and its reality: “As these proposals wind their way through New York City’s review and documentation process, they look less like the products of an innovative design competition and more like the kind of coastal protection and living shoreline projects proposed by Mayor Bloomberg’s Special Initiative for Recovery and Resilience report - works of civil engineering rather than landscape architecture.”

The Long Meadow of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park - the largest open meadow in New York City. (Photograph by Avery Robertson).

Even when innovation is invited in the planning stage, when it comes to execution these ideas are often moulded to fit current political and economic interests. Fleming makes the case that the design industry must change as a whole from a client-driven enterprise to become more active in public service and policy: “We need to dismantle the philosophies of neoliberalism and philanthrocapitalism that underwrite many urban development projects, and withdraw support for disruptive urban tech startups.” In other words, we need to rethink the future city: not electric vehicles but traffic, not buildings but the built environment, not parks but ecosystems.

In the US, designs such as Living Breakwaters, with real potential for sustainability and resilience, are locked into a minimum viable project designed to placate stakeholders, zoning and historic district regulations, and public aspirations. Meanwhile, innovation is instead given life in projects such as the Amazon Campus. Is the root of this issue the site, the funding, or the aspirational vision? It may be all three. In the unique urban condition where there is effectively no “nature” left, what options are available for cities to build resilience in a way that does not contribute to the issue of ecosystem degradation, pollution, and environmental racism? Can the idea of an eco-city be done differently? The first step to creating a truly sustainable city is realising that a city is not just an aesthetic exercise for individual projects. Urban planning is a political act.

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