Friday, May 21, 2010

CNU 18: The Big Green Box

By and large, to specialize in one (sub-)discipline or practice is to regard the concerns of all other disciplines and practices as existing in black boxes. The labels on those boxes may be invoked from time to time, but the contents of those boxes, the gritty little details that may be the obsessions of other disciplines, are simply unimportant.

At this Congress, there has been much talk about professional and disciplinary silos and the obstacles they pose to good and thoughtful policy, planning, and design. In fact, the overarching theme of the Congress - “Rx for Healthy Places” - signals concerted effort to more fully integrate urban planning with public health.

"Silo-busting" is all the rage.

Before researchers and practitioners started to explore the connections between the two fields, planners could use "health" as the label of a box, one that is sometimes hidden in the much larger box labeled “quality of life.” Likewise, public health practitioners might talk about “environment” - usually built environment - in general, leaving it to others to work out the details of how built environments are put together and how they function.

Once the lids have been pried off these various boxes, it becomes possible for urban planners and public health practitioners alike to trace out the concrete connections between particular places and particular health outcomes.

All of this, I think, is to the good.

I note, though, that “nature” and “environment” and “green” are still, for the most part, treated as black boxes – or one Big Green Box – at this Congress.

In that regard, it’s not too much of an oversimplification to say that CNU 18 is the photo negative of the Interfaces conference I attended just a few blocks from here last month. This struck me most forcibly at a session late this morning, entitled “Intersection of Green and Gray Infrastructure.”

At the Interfaces conference, ecologists, conservation biologists, and foresters (and, yes, planners and economists) got together and examined in fine detail the functioning of natural systems in particular places. But what, they were asking, should we do with all this gray stuff?

Here at CNU 18, architects, urban planners, developers (and others) have gotten together to examine in fine detail the functioning of human (especially urban) systems in particular places. But what, they occasionally ask, should we do with all this green stuff?

The Big Green Box is usually not opened. Sometimes its labels are read off in order to evoke the appropriate reverence: this kind of development is Green, that kind of development is Sustainable, and the other kind of development gets Children to go Outside, so they can have encounters with Nature.

All of these things are, of course, Good . . . which introduces The Big Box of Ethics, which has also largely gone unopened at the Congress.

Sometimes, there are hints about what might be inside the Big Green Box, and how its contents might be important for connecting the particular, concrete choices and actions of planners with particular, concrete outcomes:
  • Nature has amenity value, which we know because the presence of green stuff tends to raise the market value of adjacent property.
  • Nature has aesthetic value, because people feel better when they look at green stuff.
  • Nature has historical or heritage or cultural value, because this is the green stuff our forebears enjoyed looking at or needed in order to survive.
  • Nature has health value, because this green stuff provides us with clean air, clean water, and locally grown, wholesome food, and it encourages people to engage in physical activity.
Even when we get a peek inside the box, there are still efforts at containment, often by the reduction of complex natural dynamics to a single metric. In David Owen’s book and for some presenters at the Congress, that metric is per capita energy consumption. At a session late this afternoon, one presenter collapsed ecology into hydrology, such that stormwater management becomes the signature practice of environmental responsibility.

(As it happens, in his opening contribution to New Urbanism 101 the other day, Andres Duany derided stormwater management as “the new god,” the object of worship in what he characterized as a primitive religion. Devotees of the stormwater cult hold that all you have to do to make your development Green is to make sure the pavement is permeable. This isn’t to say stormwater management is unimportant, I think Duany meant to imply, only that  it isn’t a sufficient condition for sustainability or environmental responsibility.)

I wondered aloud, in a question I posed to the panel in the session on Green and Gray Infrastructure this morning, whether there might be an opportunity for some serious “silo-busting” here. In this case, silo-busting would consist of getting urban planners together with ecologists and conservation biologists to peel the lid of The Big Green Box (and, for the environmental scientists, The Big Gray Box), to investigate green space not just as commodity or an amenity, and certainly not as an aesthetic band-aid, but as part of vital, functioning intertwining of human and natural systems – an ecotechnological environment, perhaps? - in which the local details matter very much.

I could imagine, for example, using patch dynamics (from landscape ecology) to consider whether and how an aesthetically pleasing and amenity-creating green space might also serve as part of a larger network of patches and corridors that create habitat for distinctive local species of flora and fauna.

(The Karori Sanctuary springs inevitably to mind.)

I did not receive a full answer to my question in the Green and Gray Infrastructure session, but there were hints that some planners and designers are already doing some of this in working out the details of particular projects.  The design director of the Atlanta BeltLine project, for example, referred to the work of a subcontractor through which were discovered patches of relatively undisturbed native vegetation along the BeltLine route. To me, this suggested that the “emerald necklace” idea that rests at the heart of the BeltLine project might also become a modest sort of project in ecological restoration.

New urbanists need not aim as high as ecological restoration - let alone the seamless integration of human and natural systems - to benefit from looking inside the Big Green Box. As a modest beginning, they might just consider how a particular green space might be configured to provide habitat for something other than robins and house sparrows, or how their stormwater management plans might serve broader wetland conservation projects.

Or, to be even more modest still, they might follow the suggestion from an ecologist who spoke to me after the session that, in their plans and renderings, they present plant life as something other than amorphous and anonymous blobs of pretty green stuff.

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