Moshen Mostafaavi: Ecological Urbanism

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  • ECOLOGICALURBANISM

    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.

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  • 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)

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  • 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

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  • 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 subjec