Friday, April 26, 2013

German 'Algae Experiment' Powers Houses

Can you imagine a house powered not by sun, wind or coal, but by living algae? A group of graduate students at the University of Cambridge can … and their idea has won them international recognition. Practising what they call “algaetecture,” the students designed an “Algae House” they say could provide a model for future energy-efficient living. In such a model, the house’s residents would get the energy they need from the hydrogen and bio-mass created by the cultivation of algae.

The Algae House design, created by graduate students in the university’s Departments of Architecture and Engineering, was awarded first prize in an international design competition run by SASBE2009 — the third CIB International Conference on Smart and Sustainable Built Environments. The competition challenged students to propose a concept of a small home that produces enough sustainable energy to equal out energy consumption.

The Cambridge team’s winning design uses in-built algae tubes and a photo bio-reactor to generate hydrogen. A glazing system and water pool are incorporated into the design to mitigate — reflect and cool — the sunlight the algae need to thrive. According to the students’ estimates, the house would produce 4,100 kilowatt-hours of hydrogen and bio-mass per year — enough to drive an electric MINI E car from London to Beijing and back twice over .

“Algae and people may not present themselves as obvious bedfellows, but through this project we hope to show that the integration of algae as an energy generator within a house is not only feasible, but that it opens up many exciting architectural possibilities for green living,” said Karuga Koinange from the Department of Architecture.

The competition, held at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, was organised and sponsored by the International Council for Research and Innovation in Building and Construction (CIB), the Passive and Low Energy Architecture association (PLEA) and the International Initiative for a Sustainable Built Environment (iiSBE). The students presented their work throughout the week-long proceedings to a variety of conference attendees, including the Dutch Crown Prince, Willem Alexander.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Phyto-remediation: Healing Urban Landscapes

Aspects of Phytoremediation

by Marti Gil 

There is no doubt that we, as humans, contaminate our environment by activities related to our lifestyle. For instance, the production of energy, food, clothes, infrastructure, and industries produce a concentration of substances that enter the Earth, affecting the conditions of the air, water, and soil ecosystems.

There are many procedures to eliminate these contaminants from the environment. One especially interesting method is the use of living organisms or bioremediation such as bacteria, mushrooms, algae, protozoa, and plants. Through this procedure the concentrations of the pollutants are decreased, taking advantage of their capacity to degrade these elements.

In a Landscape Architects Network article titled “Phytoremediation: Healing Urban Landscapes”  Yuliya approached the subject by using a great theoretical example from the Netherlands and this article begins by explaining how the healing of an environment with plants functions and the types of plants that we should use in order to eliminate specific contaminants.

Active Modular Phytoremediation Wall System, CASE

Phytoremediation is a set of methods, performed by plants that degrade, detoxify, assimilate, or metabolize contaminants deposited in the soil, water, or in the atmosphere. These contaminants are: pesticides, metals, organic compounds, herbicides, explosives, and other compounds that in many cases, cannot be degraded, but can be assimilated by the harvestable part of a plant.

The advantages are that this process is cost-effective because it is a natural process that uses solar energy and it is in situ. Furthermore, it can be an excellent method to implement in large areas, and it has been widely accepted by society and can be performed in an aesthetic manner. Some of the limitations are that it requires lengthy periods of time. Additionally, the contaminants cannot exceed the maximum level that the plants can assimilate. Phytoremediation does not work on profound soils or water due to the size of the plant’s roots and lack of research on a particular topic.

Living Machine

In order to select plants we need to investigate the concentration of the pollutants, the cost of the irrigation, the related maintenance, the length of time, the risk of pests, and the planting scheme. Plants that can be used to heal an ecosystem may vary depending on the characteristics of the environment, but we can generally expect healing from plants with deep roots (due to their scope), pastures (due to soil retention), legumes (due to the fixation of Nitrogen), and aquatic plants, which can be found worldwide.

According to Alejandro Mentaberry, Ph.D. from the Universidad de Buenos Aires in Argentina, there are six basic mechanisms in which plants do their work with the help of chemical and physical processes:
  • Phyto-extraction: Mainly for the concentration of metals and other inorganic toxic compounds in the harvestable parts. It is important to consider plants with an important biomass, principally on the aerial part such as sunflowers, dandelions, and mustard.
  • Rhizo-filtration: The roots are used to absorb, precipitate and concentrate heavy metals and organic compounds in liquid effluents. The plants should have roots that grow fast and abundant ramification like different algae and Thypha latifolia.
  • Phyto-stimulation: Uses the roots exudates to promote the growth of degradation organisms like mushrooms and bacteria, efficient with organic hydrophobic compounds like oil sub products. Phreatophyte plants (with the roots in the water), trees from the genus Populus, pastures like Rye, phenol compounds producers like apple, and aquatic plants are great performers.
  • Phyto-stabilization: Plants resistant to metals are used to avoid and reduce the movement both in air and to underground layers. The use of phreatophyte trees and pastures are recommended.
  • In both Phyto-degradation and phyto-volatilization a transformation of the contaminants are present so the use of phreatophyte trees (Populous sp.), pastures and legumes are recommended. The plants are used to capture and metabolize organic compounds to produce less or non-toxic sub products in the degradations, and to collect heavy metals and organic compounds releasing them into the atmosphere through transpiration on the volatilization.
All these techniques and technologies are improving daily and becoming more efficient.  It is important to consider that collectively they can be part of a system that combines different kinds of mechanisms to heal our ecosystems improving the results.

Shanghai Houtan Park, Turenscape

Of course, it does not mean that we can continue polluting without remorse just because we have found a way to clean the world naturally. It means that we can change what we, as humans, have done and begin to produce more environmentally friendly methods of eliminating contaminants not only in big, gray facilities, but in projects such as the Shanghai Houtan Park, which maintains a beautiful landscape with a practical use.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Ecozoic City

 By John Thackara

Authors Note: For an exhibition that has opened in The Hague called Yes Naturally I was asked to contribute a text for the book about what nature might mean for cities, and vice versa, in the near future. Here is an extract. 

The writer Thomas Berry described the ecozoic as the “reintegration of human endeavours into a larger ecological consciousness”. The ecozoic, Berry believed, would supplant the Anthropocene age, that we live in now, in which human needs take precedence over the health of the earth’s forests, oceans, and other living systems. Our species will only begin to make true progress, Berry believed, when we learn to cherish the vitality of all life-forms equally — not just our own.

Berry’s ideas could be dismissed as charming, but implausible — were it not for many small signs that just such a cultural shift may be brewing underneath the shiny surface of business as usual.

Over the ages we’ve invested huge amounts of effort and energy to keep cities and nature separate. The intensity of that effort was obscured until, in 1971, a geologist called Earl Cook developed a technique to measure the energy ‘captured from the environment’ in a modern city. A hunter-gatherer 10,000 years earlier, Cook reckoned, got by on 5,000 kilocalories a day. A New Yorker or Londoner today, by contrast, needs about 300,000 kilocalories a day once all the systems, networks and gadgets of modern life are factored in. That’s a difference in energy needed for survival, between lives that were part of nature, and lives lived apart, of60 times — and rising.

Paving over the soil, and filling our lives with media, obscured our interdependency with living systems for a centuries. Now, as awareness of energy precarity grows, so do nagging questions about the ways we think about, and inhabit, our cities: How much energy does that skyscraper use each day? what level of resources are embedded in that flyover? What was it like here, before we paved it over?

In 2009, the Mannahatta exhibit began to answer that last question. It exposed New Yorkers to Manhattan’s ecosystem in 1609 — just before the first settlers arrived. Today’s city of asphalt and skyscrapers, it turned out, was once a diverse and life-filled landscape. Times Square was once a forest. Harlem was a meadow. A landscape of forests, fields, freshwater wetlands, salt marshes, springs, ponds and streams was home to bears, wolves, songbirds, and salamanders. Clear waters jumped with fish. Porpoises and whales were at home in the harbor.

Mannahatta’s curator, the landscape ecologist Dr. Eric Sanderson, was not intent on returning New York to its primeval condition — but he did hope that the show would sensitise New Yorkers to the living systems that continue to support their city. And a question was posed: Could these hidden ecological functions be relevant to the city’s future development?

growing worldwide movement is looking at cities through the lens of living systems. In countless practical projects, city dwellers are re-connecting with the soils, trees, animals, landscapes, energy systems, water, and energy sources on which all life depends.

For the moment, this movement is mostly bottom-up, small-scale, and low-budget. It’s a barely visible mosaic in which rivers are restored by volunteers, car parks are depaved by activists, trees are planted by community teams, rainwater is harvested by neighbours, gadens are tended by school students, and nesting boxes for birds are installed by twitchers.

A lot of this work is carried out by community groups working street-by-street. As more small projects are completed,the to-do list expands. People notice that there are neglected parks to transform, gardens to revive, roadside verges to plant, empty roofs to green. There are vacant lots, abandoned buildings and empty malls to put to new use.

The fact that most of these actions are small does not diminish their significance. Change bubbling up from the bottom is how complex systems change — and cities are no exception. Besides, this proliferation of green shoots creates new work for for city managers and policy makers to do: Nurturing these thousands of tiny patches, removing obstacles, linking them together.

A startling question begins to be heard: Pull that weed out of its crack in the sidewalk — or let it grow?’

A growing number of people are inclined to welcome back the weeds in the cause of biodiversity. It turns out that there is more biodiversity in many cities than outside them. The lesson here is that cities, and not just rain forests, can provide ecosystem services when they are filled with plants and trees. When researchers in the UK visited parks, golf courses, abandoned warehouses and household gardens around the city of Leicester, they discovered that urban vegetation stores ten times more carbon dioxide than previously assumed.

Private gardens, too, have enormous potential to act as archipelago-like nature reserves for pollinating insects, whose populations have been plummeting across the U.S. and Europe. The UK’s 15 million backyard gardens cover about 270,000 hectares — more than the all the country’s official nature reserves combined.

Seattle’s Pollinator Pathway Program links together urbanism, farming and wilderness recovery in a connected whole. The artist and ecological designer Sarah Bergmann coordinates with citizens, urban planners, engineers, and parks departments to replant and connect small areas of public and privately owned urban land; the resulting corridors mimic the healthy systems commonly found in rural and wild environments. Each planting strip — usually a band of grass between sidewalk and street — is transformed into a pollinator-friendly garden that offers viable food and habitat to vitally important insects. Fifteen Pollinator Pathway gardens are now in place on Columbia.While motivated in part by concern for honeybee colonies, the project takes a long term perspective on support for regional food systems and emphasises support for a variety of native pollinator species and their favourite plants.

The English writer Richard Mabey was one of the first to suggest that the concepts of ‘urban’ and ‘rural’ no longer apply. In The Unofficial Countryside, first published in 1973, Mabey describes his explorations of crumbling city docks, railway goods yards, sewage farms, and disused factory wastelands. He tells of his realisation that even the most unpromising, blasted and neglected urban landscape is capable of supporting life. “A crack in the pavement is all a plant needs to put down roots” Mabey recorded; “provided it is not actually contaminated there is scarcely a nook or cranny anywhere which does not provide the right living conditions for some plant or creature”

Many of these plants turn out to be edible. Herbal fruits, leaves and edible flowers grow on walls and roadsides, between paving stones, and in other untended spaces.

Urban biologist Claudia Biemans, an edible plants researcher in The Hague, identified about 300 different species in one square km of her city compared to 50 different species found in the same area of industrially-farmed countryside nearby. “Bees know this very well, and are more to be found in cities these days” she points out. On walks called ‘Stalking The Wild’, Biemans guides people to ecological niches in the city where plants don’t just survive, but thrive. Lynn Shore in Amsterdam, trading as Urban Herbology, is among a growing band of urban foragers who help citizens find herbs, use them in cooking, and learn about medicinal preparations. Shore’s activities include seed and plant swaps, urban herb walks, and ‘gatherings for urban herbies’.

In Los Angeles, a so-called ‘rock star of foraging’ called Pascal Baudar has turned foraging into a thriving business; Angelinos pay $100 a head to join his ‘Gourmet Foraging Sunset Experiences’ in which they learn about the culinary uses of weeds found in the local landscape. Baudar’‘s wild food classes sell out weeks ahead.

Less prosperous foragers — the majority — are using a free mobile phone app called Boskoito map the edible landscape; they share the location of wild-food in public spaces in an activity called ‘augmented foraging’.Boskoi, say its Dutch developers, combines the ancient knowledge of hunter-gatherers with today’s mobile technology. The word Boskoi, which is taken from Greek, dates back to the tradition of desert hermits the South Egyptian and Sudanese desert. This hardy band survived exclusively on wild herbs and rainwater, and were said to graze with wild herds of cattle.

Scientific researchers, following in the steps of these ecological artists, are unearthing plants and animals that are unique to cities — from mice and fish, to bugs and bacteria. In New York, scientists have identified mutations in more than 1,000 genes in the city’s mice — far more than than are found in mice from out of town. Not all change has been positive for biodiversity, of course: Manhattan was once home to 21 native species of orchids; these are now all extinct due to the replacement of woodland by open urban spaces.

Or are they? Their seeds may still be there. The notion that older ecologies lie beneath our cities, just waiting to self-resurrect, has long fascinated artists – and now scientists, too. Paleobotanists have discovered that ten square feet of urban soil can contain tens of thousands of dormant seeds. In his essay ‘City of Seeds’, the writer Daniel Mason reflects that,unlike the managed green of parks and gardens, which only grow in pockets of protected isolation, the wild plants of a city need “the cracks, the pavement split, the palace abandoned”. Beyond the managed gardens and the wild invaders of our roads. Mason concludes, is “a hidden, potential flora, an idea of a forest, not in competition with the city but existing alongside it, patiently, waiting to become manifest”.

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Sunflower Forest: Ecological Restoration and the New Communion with Nature.

Posted below is Liam Heneghan’s review of William R. Jordan III’s: The Sunflower Forest: Ecological Restoration and the New Communion with Nature.

The review recently appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books—one of the brightest new book discussion and commentary sites on the web. With reviews, essays, and author interviews, LARB’s site offers numerous ways to search genres, titles and author names.

LARB notes that: William R. Jordan III is director of the New Academy for Nature and Culture and co-director of DePaul University's Institute for Nature and Culture. He was senior editor of Restoration Ecology: A Synthetic Approach to Ecological Research (1987) and was founding editor of the journal Ecological Restoration and a founding member of the Society for Ecological Restoration.
The Sunflower Forest: Ecological Restoration and the New Communion with Nature. University of California Press; Reprint edition, 2012
Restoration Ecology and the Shame Thing: William Jordan III’s "The Sunflower Forest," 10 Years On, review by Liam Heneghan
LARB, April 12th, 2013
WHEN I FIRST BROUGHT a group of my undergraduate students to meet William Jordan III at Cafe Mozart in Evanston, Illinois, he told them that each year we should ritualistically destroy a small plot of virgin prairie, of which there is virtually none left in this state, in order to dramatize its importance to us. I assured them that he did not mean this sacrifice literally; he assured them that he did.
At that time, around the turn of the new millennium, William (Bill) Jordan was working on The Sunflower Forest: Ecological Restoration and the New Communion with Nature, which came out in 2003 (reissued in paperback 2012). More than any other writer I know, Bill rehearses his arguments in countless conversations and prepared talks before commuting them to the written word. I can trace remarks he made at a Christmas gathering years ago through several iterations until they became the fully formed ideas that made up his most recent book Making Nature Whole: A History of Ecological Restoration, written with George M. Lubick (2011). So, when Bill assured us he was serious about the ritualistic sacrifice of prairie a decade ago, it anticipated a theme that would emerge sometime later in The Sunflower Forest.
Several ecological restorationists with whom I have spoken over the years confess bewilderment with The Sunflower Forest; they read it hoping to get insights into the “how” of restoration, whereas the book focuses primarily on its performance, ritual and the creation of meaning. However, The Sunflower Forest and its companion Making Nature Whole were not written to appeal to the most immediate pragmatic needs of restoration. They were written to address questions about our troubling relationship with nature. In providing a new paradigm for relating to nature, Bill claimed to offer a “friendly critique” of contemporary environmental thought: of “wilderness” and of Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic, for example. The reception to this friendly criticism has been frosty.
It is a matter of pride among some of my humanist friends to point out that ecological restoration is vacuous for at least two related reasons. Firstly, nature is ever changing, and therefore there is no turning back the ecological clock. Secondly, because nature is in flux, determining a particular moment or time period to which to return an ecological system is necessarily arbitrary. In the United States, it has been common to discuss returning a system to “pre-settlement” times, though, as critics note, this is to underestimate the role of indigenous peoples in shaping the landscapes in which they lived. Should we not, in the interest of purity, return systems to early post-Pleistocene times in order to eliminate all human influence? Such cautioning was perhaps helpful a few decades ago when ecological restoration was in its infancy and some of its practitioners exercised a certain laxity in describing what they were up to.
Since Jordan is primarily concerned with the subjective experience of restoration as a relationship with nature, examining his definition of ecological restoration is a promising place to start a discussion of his work. Besides, it was Jordan who coined the term “ecological restoration.” In doing so, he named a practice that remarkably was unnamed before. Jordan had been working since 1977 at the University of Wisconsin’s Arboretum in Madison, where, 40 years earlier under the influence of famed conservationist Aldo Leopold, attempts were made to recreate ecological communities on several hundred acres of land near Madison. At the time, Jordan was in charge of public outreach at the Arboretum and it occurred to him that these projects, by then relatively neglected and regarded as irrelevant to conservation efforts, were an interesting way of telling the Arboretum’s story. He would later describe the Arboretum’s early work in habitat recreation as the “Kitty Hawk” of restoration. Initially, Jordan and his arboretum colleague Keith Wendt wanted to call such efforts “synthetic ecology,” but since this brought to mind chemistry rather than ecology, that term was later substituted with “restoration ecology.” The term “restoration,” in general, could then be applied retrospectively to the range of projects being undertaken globally that sought to return ecological systems to a former state.
Jordan is not insisting on the historical aspect of restoration because he is a purist; rather, he argues that it is this negotiation with the past condition of a site, and our role in altering it to its current state, that gives restoration its distinctive value. We restore because we are culpable, and not because we necessarily need more from a system. Despite this, Jordan’s definitions (there are more than one) are not, at first glance, especially promising. “Ecological restoration,” he wrote, “is the attempt, sometimes breathtakingly successful, sometimes less so, to make nature whole.” The way to accomplish this is to do whatever is possible “to heal the scars and erase the signs of disturbance.” Restorationists may “rehabilitate soil, recontouring it, adding nutrients to promote growth of native plants, or in some cases finding ways of removing nutrients to discourage the growth of fast-growing, weedy species.” In other words, restoration activities may involve more than just a direct manipulation of species; restorationists may also alter ecosystems’ processes to achieve their results, recognizing in this that ecological systems are dynamic. A more accurate definition of restoration will, therefore, recognize the practice as being more than a simple return to an original condition. Restoration must include “everything we do to a landscape or an ecosystem in an ongoing attempt to compensate for novel or ‘outside’ influences on it in such a way that it can continue to behave or can resume behaving as if these were not present.”
Restoration therefore links an ecosystem’s past to a possible future by eliding the present and using any means available to the restorationist. It represents a deliberate erasure of the human component from the landscape. Jordan’s insistence on the restoration of “all” means that rattlesnakes, mosquitoes, and other creatures inimical to human welfare should be reintroduced to a restored system. Projects that don’t meet Jordan’s definition would include those that merely renew “natural capital” — that is, when such projects do not restore elements less inclined to be helpful to the human enterprise.
Jordan developed the idea of “ecocentric restoration” — his term for restoration directed at making nature whole — in tandem with his friendly critique of other categories of environmental thought. Those categories of thought, roughly speaking, are ones that regard our relationship with the natural landscapes as purely colonial, or alternatively in the wilderness tradition, as an encounter with the sacred. Finally, there are those environmental traditions that regard humans as simply one ecological entity among others. The first of the traditions gets expressed in resource exploitation, the second in wilderness preservation, the third in a kind of distress that we still have not fully connected with the natural community of which we are but one member among many.
For some restorationists, if we could merely see ourselves as plain members and citizens of this natural community, as Aldo Leopold would have us do, then our problems would be solved. However, in Jordan’s view, there is a limitation to this line of thinking. Community, at least in the manner used by environmentalists, is a notion that conjures up good feelings without typically confronting us with difficulties that accompany real community. Those of us who have sat down at the family dinner table — hopefully, all of us — will recognize that, with every slice of apple pie possibly comes a surly uncle’s remarks on how poorly it has been prepared. Missing from the community concept is an account of the negative elements of human experiences of community: envy, selfishness, fear, hatred, shame and so on, the neglect of which, Jordan claims, leads to “a sentimental, moralizing philosophy that […] insists on the naturalness of humans […] but that neglects or downplays the radical difficulty of achieving such a sense of self, and also downplays the role of culture and cultural institutions in carrying out this work.” As Jordan soberly comments, the “entirely positive conception of community has very little basis in actual experience.”
Not only does environmentalism generally fail to deal effectively with the unseemly in humans, it fails also to take productive account of the monstrous in nature. After all, the engine of evolutionary change in the Darwinian-Wallacean account is not afternoon tea; it is the often violent struggle for existence that stirs the evolutionary pot. As a consequence, Jordan claims “environmentalism has offered a story that is thin and sentimental and that fails to deal with our profoundest doubts about the world and our place in it.”
Since none of our environmentalisms has, he argues, dealt productively with “the scandal of creation,” he advocates pursuing a new way forward. Central to his thesis is the problem of shame.
As the circle of enthusiasts for Jordan’s work has grown over the past decade (and I count myself among them), the question of what to do with “the shame thing” has grown. Considering, once again, the problem of consumption concretizes the situation somewhat. Food sharing, breaking bread and so on, are the classic occasions for the creation and nurturing of community. Yet, in order to subsist, humans must kill and dine. Even the most scrupulous of vegetarians must be embroiled in the violence of agricultural production. Every nut and berry ingested is an infant flower unblossomed. Though nature may ultimately win the battle and have us moldering in the grave, every time we sup we have at least won that skirmish. At the very least, the contemplation of consumption makes the notion of community somewhat more challenging. To use Jordan’s terms for these complications, consumption is an occasion for shame. Shame, of course, is an old fashioned thing and most of us, I suppose, would elect to be rid of it. Though it is precisely because we have become shameless in our approach toward nature that, Jordan claims, contemporary environmentalism is so attenuated. He argues that none of our various environmentalisms provide the wherewithal to deal with these problematic aspects of our experience of nature in psychologically productive ways, and that this limits its value as a way of coming to terms with our array of “environmental problems.” It is not an exaggeration to say that contending with shame is one of the core issues of The Sunflower Forest.
Making shame central to his work creates, it seems, its own occasion for shame. Sympathizers have ransacked the thesauri looking for more palatable substitutes: limitation, humility, existential awareness, embarrassment, grief and so on. Though Jordan declares himself willing to drop the term, I think, in fact, that he is not likely to substitute it.
The treatment of shame in The Sunflower Forest builds upon the work of anthropologist James S. Hans, and on literary critic Frederick Turner who draws in turn upon the work on ritual of his parents, anthropologists Victor and Edith Turner. Jordan repurposes their distinctive treatment of shame to think about the value of ecological restoration. However, shame is meant here in a very specific sense. The term generally denotes an emotion deriving from one’s awareness of being dishonored, ridiculous, or having behaved in an inappropriate fashion. Guilt seems to be related to shame, and in common usage indicates responsibility for an action, or having been at fault for a particular failure, crime, or other event. The emotional register for shame seems higher than that of guilt, though the latter may, of course, have considerable charge. Guilt can occasion shame, but one does not typically feel guilty for experiencing shame. Shame seems the more fundamental emotion.
Jordan sees guilt as responding to a consciousness of what one does, whereas shame is a consciousness of what we are. To give a very prosaic example: when, after a long days’ labor, you become aware of your own displeasing body odor, you experience shame, in Jordan’s sense: we are sweaty primates upon whom the perfumed veneer of civilization has but a temporary hold.
Jordan rightly argues with Turner and Hans that shame is a “universal and inescapable (though deniable) aspect of human experience.” Given its universality, it should surprise us little that restoration is an encounter with shame, in the face of our killing unwanted vegetation and exerting our control over the land. This is especially shameful when we assure ourselves we are engaging in restoration precisely in order to give life back to degraded systems, and that our intention is to relinquish control over the land. Restorationists cannot simply wave their divine hands, as a god might, and turn back the ecological clock. Restorationists have to address the very real limitations of their skills. But it is precisely by experiencing shame that restoration produces value. As Jordan puts it: “The great value of ecological restoration, I now believe, is that it provides an ideal, even unique context for negotiating […] the development of a relationship between ourselves and the classic landscape.”
In this way, Jordan has radically transformed the terms of the environmental debate. Other environmental ideologies posit either a fallen nature given to exploitation by a redeemed and therefore innocent humanity, or posit a pristine and inviolate nature immeasurably disturbed by an irretrievably wretched humanity. Since there is a little monstrousness — a certain loss of sentimental innocence — on both sides of the divide between humans and the rest of nature, this acknowledgment can generate a newer solidarity with nature. There is, Jordan says, a “continuity of shame” between humans and the rest of nature.
The acknowledgment of shame, of our mortification at our human limitations, and of the troubling brutality of nature, is not an end in itself. To merely stare across the gulf between us and the rest of nature is to court horror, not relationship. Relationship and its rewards come from dealing with shame. So, what is the recipe for developing true community with nature through restoration?
As we concluded, say, the last winter holiday season, several of us were probably relieved that the drama of gifting was over. Rarely is a gift just a simple offering — certainly not when it is wrapped and placed under a dying tree. There is more to gifts, as I think we all appreciate, than first meets the eye. The gift, etymologically, is at the root of community. According to Jordan, the gift is the “munus” in community. One can make too much of such roots, of course; after all, “munus” has a range of meanings, duty and service included. Using Marcel Mauss's essay "The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies," Jordan makes the case that gift exchange, viewed in a serious way, plays a key role in thinking about the laborious task of community formation. Gifts, earnestly inspected, have some peculiar properties. They are often public, characteristically unnegotiated, and though obligatory in a sense, they should not appear to be offered under duress. A gift never leaves the matter settled, but is merely one exchange in an interminable round. Drawing from Turner’s book The Culture of Hope, Jordan concludes that “every exchange of gifts is fraught with uncertainty, which [Turner] expresses in terms of the shame or sense of unworthiness that is inseparable from an exchange of gifts.”
To offer a gift is in its own small but surprisingly vexatious way to take a risk; it creates an occasion for uncertainty that can’t be easily resolved. Will my gift be big (or modest) enough, appropriate to the occasion, sufficiently thoughtful? Restoration, then, is a risky gift given in acknowledgment of our debts to the natural world. It contains the recognition that the damage we inflict on the natural world is inevitable — it is the lot of humans to consume, metabolize, egest, and excrete. But “restoration as gift” also contains the recognition that it is small recompense for the magnitude of the debt. The bull in the proverbial china shop becomes disconcertingly aware of the fearful havoc he has caused and makes amends by offering afternoon tea served in the sundered cup. We are that bull.
Ecological restoration, meant in Jordan’s full sense, purportedly brings us into community with the rest of nature in a number of distinctive ways. The practice makes us aware of the repercussions of our ongoing involvement in sullying natural systems. It provides a means of direct engagement with nature since, in contrast to wilderness protection, for instance, it involves beneficent trammeling (the restorationist is armed with a bow-saw rather than binoculars). It is also redemptive insofar as it is “the first phase in the cycle of giving and taking back that is the ecological foundation for any relationship.” To be sure, the gift is inadequate and “unworthy.” If restoration culture enables us to figuratively but productively deal with shame and with transcending shame, then, arguably, we get to so-called higher values, including, Jordan argues, beauty.
One the thrills of a walk I took in a Chicago-area prairie shortly after my arrival there in 1998 was the discovery of Rattlesnake Master, Eryngium yuccifolium, a rare prairie plant associated with sites of exceptional quality. However, learning that it had been planted by Steven Packard, the site’s restoration steward, markedly lessened my pleasure. A restored ecosystem seems a disappointing thing — a fake, not at all the authentic article. The claim that restoration creates fakes is, in fact, the grounds for one of the most influential critiques of restoration by Australian philosopher Robert Elliot in his book Faking Nature: The Ethics of Environmental Restoration. Jordan, however, points to alternatives to associating value with authenticity or autonomy. For instance, he discusses traditions in which value is associated with relationship, such as the creation myths of “archaic” people (Mircea Eliade’s term) and anthropologist Roy Rappaport’s analysis of ritual performance that brings the universe to order. These enable Jordan to argue that “the restored ecosystem, to the extent that it has been implicated in the frontier of creation through engagement with humans, is not less but actually more natural, more real in this sense than its less self-aware ‘original’ counterpart.” Making this assertion may be strategically important — after all, restoration has been compared with forgery in art — but it doesn’t convince me on a gut level that a restoration site is more “natural” than a wilderness location. To say that they both have value seems good enough to me.
Even if one is not convinced that finding a planted rarity is heart-leaping, the point about performed or relational being is an important one. This is because it may convince us that doing things to ecosystems rather that setting them aside, as is the case in wilderness protection, produces value. Perhaps this should not be such a novelty considering that the products of human creativity are regarded as the pinnacle of the human enterprise, but environmentalists historically have esteemed most what they leave undone, even, oddly enough, when (as in the creation of a National Park) this forsaking requires monumental effort.
For the gift-exchange with nature to have value and to work as the basis for relationship, the asymmetry and ambiguity of the exchange must be resolved. Even if we regard an acre of restored prairie as having enhanced value by virtue of the attention, labor and care that went into its management, it is poor recompense for the destruction of hundreds of thousands of prairie acres. Restoration a la Jordan can only work “through the spiritual and psychological technologies of performance, ritual, and the arts.”
Drawing on varied literatures on ritual, performance, and liturgy, Jordan depicts the gift of restored habitat as a “ritual commutation” where a small offering is substituted for a larger one than might be called for. In the same spirit that Abraham substitutes a ram for his son Isaac, so a restored prairie fragment is offered back to Nature as something more than a gesture, but less than a full discharging of debt. A problem with environmentalism, from the perspective that Jordan develops here, is that it has been too eager to find literal compensations for the damage inflicted on nature. Ecological restoration, by contrast, has, the merit of being achievable and realistic.
What about outcomes? Although some restorations are very successful, we are still in the early days of this discipline. Jordan is suggesting that the process itself has a very distinctive, revolutionary, perhaps therapeutic value beyond the product. The process can serve as a model for emerging environmentalisms that seem at variance with those that are older and less friendly to the management of nature, and that, Jordan argues, may not be able to provide the same internal as well as external benefits. He once told me that he might have ended up with similar conclusions from any number of starting points that entail what he calls “strong engagement with nature.” I took him to be suggesting that there exist a range of practices — spiritual, artistic, therapeutic and so on — that all recognize the challenge in establishing how best to orient ourselves towards nature, yet which are nonetheless psychologically productive. The fact is that, for all of its claims to radicality, environmentalism is of a piece with the shame-denying aspects of the broader culture it critiques. Restoration ecology, by contrast, provides a new paradigm for thinking about humans and nature.
Despite Jordan’s insistence to my students more than a decade ago that a prairie sacrifice would be a useful thing, he has not, as far as I know, strenuously advocated for this. Rather, on occasions I have seen him replace this exercise with the burning of a few leaves of prairie grass — a fitting commutation for an immense sacrifice.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Streams Stressed by Pharmaceutical Pollution

Antihistamines Alter Sensitive and Essential Habitat

Pharmaceuticals commonly found in the environment are disrupting streams, with unknown impacts on aquatic life and water quality, according to a new ecological applications paper released by the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, N.Y.

The paper, written with input from researchers at Indiana University and Loyola University Chicago, highlights the ecological cost of pharmaceutical waste and the need for more research into environmental impacts. Globally, lakes and rivers are polluted by an array of pharmaceutical and personal care products. Freshwater fish and the invertebrates they eat are increasingly bathed in a weak solution of caffeine, estrogen, antibiotics, and antihistamine drugs – but little is known about the levels at which these compounds become toxic or lethal, or what the effect on our drinking water may be.
“Pharmaceutical pollution is now detected in waters throughout the world,” said lead author Dr. Emma Rosi-Marshall, a scientist at the institute. “Causes include aging infrastructure, sewage overflows, and agricultural runoff. Even when wastewater makes it to sewage treatment facilities, they aren’t equipped to remove pharmaceuticals. As a result, our streams and rivers are exposed to a cocktail of synthetic compounds, from stimulants and antibiotics to analgesics and antihistamines.”

With colleagues from IU and Loyola, Rosi-Marshall looked at how six common pharmaceuticals influenced similar-sized streams in New York, Maryland, and Indiana. Caffeine, the antibiotic ciprofloxacin, the antidiabetic metformin, two antihistamines used to treat heartburn (cimetidine and ranitidine), and one antihistamine used to treat allergies (diphenhydramine) were investigated, both alone and in combinations, using pharmaceutical-diffusing substrates.

“We focused on the response of biofilms – which most people know as the slippery coating on stream rocks – because they’re vital to stream health,” Rosi-Marshall said. “They might not look like much to the naked eye, but biofilms are complex communities composed of algae, fungi, and bacteria all living and working together. In streams, biofilms contribute to water quality by recycling nutrients and organic matter. They’re also a major food source for invertebrates that, in turn, feed larger animals like fish.”

Healthy streams are slippery streams, Rosi-Marshall said. And it turns out that antihistamines dry more than our noses. The most striking result of the study was diphenhydramine’s effects on algal production and microbial respiration. Exposure caused biofilms to experience up to a 99 percent decrease in photosynthesis, as well as significant drops in respiration. Diphenhydramine also caused a change in the bacterial species present in the biofilms, including an increase in a bacterial group known to degrade toxic compounds and a reduction in a group that digests compounds produced by plants and algae.

Results suggest that this antihistamine is disrupting the ecology of these sensitive biofilm communities. “We know that diphenhydramine is commonly found in the environment,” Rosi-Marshall said. “And its effect on biofilms could have repercussions for animals in stream food webs, like insects and fish. We need additional studies looking at the concentrations that cause ecosystem disruption, and how they react with other stressors, such as excess nutrients.”

The other pharmaceuticals investigated also had a measurable effect on biofilm respiration, both alone and in combinations. More work is needed to understand how drug mixtures, which most natural streams experience, impact freshwater systems, the report noted.

Society’s dependence on pharmaceuticals is not likely to wane. Nor is its need for clean, fresh water. This study adds another piece of evidence to the case calling for innovations in the way we manage wastewater, Rosi-Marshall said. Currently, only a fraction of the world’s wastewater is treated, and the infrastructure in many developed nations is aging, she said.

Rosi-Marshall received funding from the Wallace Genetic Foundation, Inc. and the Cornell-Douglas Foundation to help build an artificial stream facility on the Cary Institute's campus, to facilitate the research. She said few places exist without some level of these contaminants, so scientists need artificial streams to serve as control waters for research.

Contributors to the project included Dustin Kincaid and Heather Bechtold of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, Todd V. Royer from the School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Indiana University, and Miguel Rojas and John J. Kelly from the Department of Biology, Loyola University Chicago.

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Puzzles of Preserving Historic Landscape Architecture

Frank Edgerton Martin

 In our work at Jeffrey L. Bruce on projects integrating historic landscape preservation with sustainble design, we often find that there are no simple or easy answers to such questions as:

What is the actual “period of significance” for an historic campus or estate landscape?

When is something just “out of date” and needing replacement and when has a landscape become “historic”?

In the last several years, the Cultural Landscape Foundation has led the fight to document and preserve many of the most threatened historic modern works of landscape architecture across the country. Designed by M. Paul Friedberg, FASLA, Peavey Plaza in Minneapolis is one of them.

This essay is an updated version of an original article that I wrote for Architecture Minnesota magazine in 2008. The future of Peavey Plaza is still uncertain.

For current updates, visit the Cultural Landscape Foundation and the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota who have  joined in legal action to preserve Friedberg’s design and the integrity of public review in a much-needed rehabilitation.

 Peavey Plaza: Riding out the Storm

 How do we know when to save a building or landscape that is currently out of fashion? Where’s the tipping point between rehabilitating a tired place and redoing it beyond recognition?

By Frank Edgerton Martin

 The cycles of fashion and the churning of time add to the perceived value of buildings and landscapes. The problem is that Americans don’t wait around for places to become “historic” and “in-style” again. We tear-down or redo civic landmarks (think of Ralph Rapson’s Guthrie or Lawrence Halprin’s Nicollet Mall) when they’re in their awkward “tween years”—old enough to be a bit dysfunctional and worn, but too young to be widely valued as seasoned and wise, as contributing members to society. Imagine if we did this to our children.

The 1976 film of the novel Logan’s Run poses a simple answer to this aging problem: willing execution at age 30. That’s essentially what we’ve been doing for a long time in Minneapolis to make more room for novelty. The problem is that our downtown looks increasingly like a shopping mall (albeit, a failing one) and a sterile office park with block-scale projects.

 The much beloved and mourned Metropolitan Building was doomed because it was in the wrong style and in the wrong place. In the 1960s, this mixed-use skyscraper (which now sounds pretty innovative) by architect Townsend Mix was the wrong style for the Space Age, and for the Gateway renewal project, and for prospective investors in coveted nearby projects like the Sheraton-Ritz Hotel (also recently torn down, age 30). Had the Metropolitan survived just another ten or fifteen years into the Victorian return to fashion in the 1970s, it would be our Brown Palace Hotel, our Wainwright Building, our Monadnock Building. This is not news.

What should be news is that we are still ripping out our landmarks during their awkward teen years. Today’s topic: Why are we even discussing a possible re-construction of Peavey Plaza, once (and surely 40 years from now) a nationally-recognized landmark of urban design by New York landscape architect M. Paul Friedberg? The answer is that we are stuck in the conundrum of not knowing how to recognize superb design from the recent past. What makes a nationally-significant work of modernism different from a drive-thru bank? What were the national an international influences of the time and how well were they interpreted at Peavey?

As to potential rehabs for Peavey, we face the second conundrum of not knowing how much “updating” this modern landscape can take before it becomes a different landscape. Because it is currently out-of-fashion and rundown, promoters of a total re-build see no hope in bringing humanity back to the place as it is. Perhaps they want a new Bryant Park with more grass, more visibility from the street, wrought iron gates. Perhaps, a jumbo flat video screen and stage jutting out from Orchestra Hall. Now, that’s pretty hip. So why bother trying to save Peavey’s concrete steps and staggered tree canopy, its “character-defining features?” They’re ugly and Brutalist (a pejorative term these days) anyhow. But, if you took any group of Orchestral Association Board members and city officials back to around 1980 when Peavey was new and sparkling and bursting with activities, they might see the quality of design that landscape architects and historians like myself see underneath the cheap recent landscape timbers and tar patches.

The challenge for preservationists is—through images and historic narrative that explains Peavey Plaza in the context of its era—to show how well-designed and innovative it was for its time and basically remains today. The bones of the cast concrete and the immersive sounds of falling water and sunken, quiet space are still there, though less inviting and actively used than it its youthful prime.

Somehow we have to make the annoying adolescent seem like that charming five-year old again; and we have to show how, with the right rehabilitation and guidance, we can help Peavey Plaza turn into a wonderful and multi-functional adult. This will not be easy because, as with many historic parks, Peavey suffers from deeply misguided (but fortunately reversible) city maintenance. Neighbors and city officials who see it as cold and uninviting have a firmly-established gestalt in their minds of concrete and hard surfaces. People like myself who remember what Peavey was and know a little bit about its history, see the architectural photos that appeared in this magazine thirty years ago.

As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said of people who speak in different languages, citizens who have different pictures of Peavey Plaza in their minds “live in different worlds.” That gulf in perception, as also happened in debates over the former Guthrie Theater and Lutheran Brotherhood Building, makes communication difficult between our two camps. But, not impossible.

The response should be a conversation in which contending parties don’t just throw out abstractions from their own language worlds such as (from preservationists), “historic, nationally-significant, and exceptional” and (from reconstructionists) “ugly, cold sterile, dangerous.” We should instead seek to bridge our cultural outlooks through visiting Peavey Plaza (and this is true for other contested sites) together. Rather than repeating assumptions, we should physically point to what we mean to explain our stands. The more specific—this stained pipe, this hiding place for crime, that sound of fountain water, this bland wall—the better. Sharing and pointing to such “ostensive” definitions is often the way that children communicate what they want before they know the words for things. 

Secondly, much has been learned since the 1960s and 1970s about plant materials, lighting and sustainability. We have more choices now to preserve Peavey’s essential character that preservationists defend while creating new color, activities and seasonal character. With a pending renovation of Orchestra Hall’s lobby and facility, the Minnesota Orchestral Association is, as seems appropriate, thinking of their downtown block as a whole. Indeed, that is the way the block was originally conceived in the early 1970s: an urban oasis for musical performance that could draw people from throughout the region.

Peavey Plaza’s early sketches and completion photographs show a place that is cared for, occupied, and programmed throughout the year. If a design team is hired to work with Peavey Plaza, either for the City (that owns it) or another client, they should be fully-versed in this history and The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties and the Guidelines for the Treatment of Cultural Landscapes. These guidelines, if interpreted wisely, offer a great range of flexibility in materials and technologies while protecting the spatial patterns, views and sunken volumes that will one day make Peavey eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. As of this writing, the City of Minneapolis is considering local historic designation to protect Peavey Plaza from radical change.

In the Spring of this year, the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota announced its most “Endangered” list in a press conference right at Peavey Plaza. Peavey was included because of its poor maintenance and the swirl of rumors concerning its potential re-design. In a recent article reporting the Endangered list: Bonnie McDonald, the Alliance’s executive director, argued that the preservationist’s task is to create a clear vision and guidelines for how to soften and improve Peavey without losing its essence. "Our challenge is to try to bring forth a vision of what that could look like. What would a renovation of that space look like that would be sensitive to the original design?"

No easy question. But it must be asked if Peavey Plaza is going to make it into adulthood and achieve the eventual consensus it deserves on its historic value. Landscape preservation is especially rich in puzzles. But, with the right balance of design and historical expertise, along with a mutually-respectful and specific conversation among all constituencies, Peavey Plaza may yet grow old, grow better, and richer in the temporal layers of its character.
Further Reading:
For further background on Peavey Plaza and its dilemmas, click here to see Frank Edgerton Martin’s article from the Spring 2008 issue of  _SCAPE:

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Science for Designers: Scaling and Fractals

By Michael Mehaffy and Nikos Salingaros

With apologies to real estate agents, we’d like to say that the three most important factors in design are scale, scale, and scale. One reason is that many of the worst environmental design blunders of the 20th century have been mistakes of scale — especially our failures to come to terms with the linked nature of scales, ranging from small to large. The cumulative consequence of these failures is that the scales of the built environment have become highly fragmented, and (for reasons we detail here) this is not a good thing. Can we correct this shortcoming?

Most designers know something about “fractals,” those beautiful patterns that mathematicians like BenoĆ®t Mandelbrot have described in precise structural detail. In essence, fractals are patterns of elements that are “self-similar” at different scales. They repeat a similar geometric pattern in many different sizes. We see fractal patterns almost everywhere in nature: in the graceful repetition at different scales of the fronds of ferns, or the branching patterns of veins, or the more random-appearing (but repetitive at different scales) patterns of clouds or coastlines.

Figure 1. The beautiful structure of fractals, patterns that are repeated and sometimes rotated or otherwise transformed at different scales. Left, a natural example of ice crystals (Photo: Schnobby@wikimediacommons). Right, a computer-generated fractal coral reef that, helped by color and shading effects, could be mistaken for a natural scene (Photo: Prokofiev@wikimediacommons).

We can also reproduce fractal patterns in a computer, often with strangely beautiful results. Some graphic designers use fractal methods to reproduce very realistic-looking landscapes and other natural phenomena. These, too, seem to trigger something in our perception. We somehow recognize them as being “natural” and connect with them emotionally.

We seem to be wired to “read” fractals in our environment, probably for two key reasons. One is that biological structures are largely fractal in their patterning, and we are innately interested in other biological structures because they might be food, or predators, or other people, or just a key component of the biologically supportive environment.

The other reason goes deeper into geometry. When we look at a long vista, structures that repeat (trees for example), repeat at smaller apparent scales when they are farther away. This fractal information helps us read distances and depth in the environment. Doing so gives us an effortless understanding of the geometrical order of our environment. We’re aware of this only as a pleasurable sense and not, coincidentally, as an important survival need, from an evolutionary point of view.

Fractal structures also give us other kinds of useful information, like complex relationships among environmental elements. The order of an essential but non-graspable structure, like an ecosystem, is more intelligible to us because we can detect the symmetrical fractal patterns of its plants and animals — another important evolutionary need. In modern times we have a greater need for urban environments to be legible to us, and there is evidence that we do this by reading fractal relationships in buildings and details (after all, we have evolved with this sense).

From an evolutionary point of view, it’s evident that we perceive these relationships because they are supremely useful to us. They help us understand the structure of choices that our environments present, and how the different alternatives might offer us different benefits. It is an innate skill.

Importantly, fractal urban structures typically provide multiple combinations of benefits that work in synergy. And our pleasurable perception of fractals is probably related to this too. For example, the branching, layered, fractal-like paths we can take within a city help us carry out many different tasks simultaneously. People moving along such paths for the purpose of higher-level information exchange (going to a business meeting) can thus carry out lower-level information exchange (having informal “spillover” exchanges with other people, or perceiving pleasurable scenes). The time required for higher-level exchange is therefore used more effectively, and the net effect is a synergy of activities that often translate into economic, social, and other benefits.
Figure 2. The fractal pattern of self-organizing urbanism. On the left is a simple fractal pattern called a “Cantor Gasket” (Drawing by Nikos Salingaros). On the right is a much more complex and irregular pattern with recognizably similar fractal properties, a traditional urban neighborhood in Baghdad, Iraq. Notice the similar patterning at different scales of bordering spaces and alternating patterns of indoor-outdoor space (Photo: G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection, Library of Congress).

This “fractal loading” means that each high-level exchange carries with it simultaneous exchanges on many smaller levels. An ensemble of exchanges on different scales is supported by a physical infrastructure that permits mixed information exchanges, but does not let other competing exchanges squeeze out the weaker or lower-level exchanges.

Fractal loading is important at all scales. But it becomes especially important at the scale of a human being. For instance at the scale of a region there are not that many structural choices that are relevant to an individual going about his daily activities. But as we approach the scale of a human being (in fact, a group of scales ranging from 1mm to 10m), more and more structural choices begin to crowd into the picture, so that by the time we are at that scale, the environment often presents a rich set of structural choices that a person might make on a daily, hourly, and even instantaneous basis.

At this scale, the fractal loading of our environment vastly expands the structural options, and builds synergies between them. If I am in a well-connected, fractal-loaded spot at this human scale, I can read the newspaper, I can talk to a friend, I can say hello to a passerby, or I can run one errand or more. And I can easily connect these activities into a web of choices.

This is very likely a key reason that, within urban systems, well-structured pedestrian networks are so important. As our work has shown, there is reason to believe that there are important synergies of economics, resource conservation, psychological health, and other benefits, which are only provided by pedestrian networks that have this key property of fractal loading.

Figure 3. The pedestrian networks of medieval Rome have a fractal structure, extending into the buildings and even the rich ornamental details of the buildings themselves. These “place networks” offer pedestrians a dense and overlapping set of choices of movement, views, and other enriching experiences (Drawings/Photos: Michael Mehaffy).

Fractal loading is one example of a “scaling phenomenon” in complex network structures like cities, and an active area of urban research. Another related phenomenon is that as the scale of a structure like a network increases, the phenomena that happen at a smaller scale often do not increase at a linear (proportional) rate. Often they are “super-linear” (they increase more than proportionally) or “sub-linear” (they increase less than proportionally).

These phenomena, such as economic growth and resource use per person, are very important to us. If we get more economic growth per person at a larger scale, or less resource use per person, then our quality of life can improve. This may be one important reason why people are attracted to large cities. Dense settlements really do offer more quality of life for proportionally less cost than sprawl does. And by understanding scaling, we can deal better with challenges like resource depletion and climate change.
But notice that this phenomenon occurs as a result of the specific network structure of the city, and its “metabolic” interactions and synergies (such as fractal loading). A collection of entirely separate individuals all “doing their own thing” would likely not benefit from such scaling phenomena. It is in the multi-scale interactions that these phenomena, and the synergetic benefits they bring, come about.

Interestingly, this characteristic of fractal loading tends to emerge spontaneously within urban systems that are allowed to self-organize within the natural processes of human culture — that is, within traditional urban environments. We all recognize this intuitively in the fractal-rich environments of popular tourist destinations like Bruges or Edinburgh. (And we recognize its absence in engineered environments that are decidedly not tourist destinations, like London’s Docklands, or Paris’ La Defense.)

Figure 4. On the left is the highly fractal structure of urbanism in Bruges, Belgium. On the right, a much more sparse, fractal-free environment in the modern suburbs of Bruges — which is also far less walkable, and has other negative impacts (Photos: Michael Mehaffy).

What does this tell us? Are fractal urban structures just nostalgic remnants of an obsolete pre-modern era? Or do they offer crucial lessons for designers today?

While there are certainly ideologically dogmatic theories of style and history that support the nostalgic remnant proposition, they are unsupported by real scientific evidence. And, critically, there is important evidence for the crucial lessons for today’s designers proposition. To see what these lessons might be, we will discuss how fractal structures are formed in nature — and, it appears, in human nature — and why they might be such important attributes of a well-functioning environment.

Fractals have two related characteristics: They show complexity at every magnification. Their edges and interfaces are not smooth, but are either crinkled or perforated.

Figure 5. Some essential properties of fractals. (a) Fractal loading uses a basic scale as a carrier for other successively smaller mechanisms and structures. Far from being monofunctional and simplistic, every structure becomes richly complex and carries information on several distinct scales. (b) Longitudinal compression forms a “folded” fractal, creating a crinkled line that then generates crinkles on its crinkles. This interface can catalyze urban interactions, mimicking the non-smooth surface of a chemical catalyst. (c) Longitudinal tension and breaking along the entire line form a “perforated” fractal, here shown at its first stage. This is a natural mechanism for defining an urban colonnade and any semi-permeable urban boundary, such as a row of bollards that protect pedestrian from vehicular traffic (Drawings by Nikos Salingaros).

Fractal patterns tend to form naturally for one simple reason: there is a “generative process” that creates the geometric pattern, and it does so at more than one scale. For example, in a blooming flower, the genetic code that creates the pattern does so in a time sequence, while the previously generated patterns grow larger.
In a computer-generated fractal, the generative process is called an “algorithm,” a bit of code that generates the pattern from a complex interaction with what has been generated previously. In a city the generative processes are carried out by people doing what people do in making cities. They articulate spaces with boundaries that are shared to varying degrees. They create spaces that have degrees of publicness, somewhere along the spectrum ranging from public to private, from the most public streets and squares to the most private bedrooms and baths.

The boundaries of living spaces are not simple structures either, but complex membrane-like structures offering their own set of structural choices, either to maximize privacy (by closing a curtain) or publicness (by opening a door). These boundaries are wonderfully complex structures in themselves and self-organize into larger patterns (doors or windows that become shared types over time, and neighborhoods that develop characteristic interface patterns of porches or colonnades).

How are the different scales linked? Just as biological structures and computer algorithms spontaneously repeat their geometric patterns at different scales, so do we, unless we’re forced to do otherwise either by legislation or by ideology. Individuals might make small repetitions of a pattern (a rectangular room shape) while groups might make larger versions of the same pattern (a courtyard) and larger groups might make a still larger one (an urban plaza).

But as with biological and computer structures, the story does not end at any particular scale. The boundary of a room is perforated with smaller structures like rectangular doors and windows. The boundary of larger spaces might be perforated with colonnades (we are talking about living spaces and not the dead spaces characteristic of post-war architecture and urbanism).

These repetitive perforations at smaller scales — the fractal loading that results from the characteristic “generative algorithm” of fractal structure — will often continue on down to the scales of detail and ornament. Why is this? It seems likely that we, the users, making our way through these places find such complex environments (complex in a very precisely ordered sense) easier to comprehend, more intelligible, more usefully organized, and more beautiful. We are very good at reading the multiple scales of these “place networks”.

But there is a serious problem. If we are not users, but designers educated in our industrial/artistic culture, we might have another agenda: to impose another kind of order on the built environment. And that agenda might come from a very different set of criteria than the environmental experience of humans.

Such is indeed the case. To put it simply, our current methods of making cities are over-reliant on economies of repetition and scale, which do offer narrow advantages but are also extremely limited, and from a human perspective, very crude and destructive. Natural systems never use those strategies in isolation, but are always combined with economies of differentiation and adaptation. Surprisingly, we haven’t really figured out how to employ these in our current strategies (though many people are working on this problem, and our own work takes up this challenge).

Choosing to work with a severe technological limitation, modernist designers argued that a more sophisticated approach was to strip down buildings into “minimalist” compositions, much easier and cheaper to produce under the crude industrial processes of the early 20th century. It was the compositions of these elementary “Platonic” solids that were most beautiful, postulated architects like Le Corbusier, because they were “pure” expressions of form. The old Gothic cathedrals, with their fractal tracery, were “not very beautiful,” he said infamously. Nor were the lively streets that he despised! Indeed, Corb and other designers made a strong ideological case (still persuasive today) that the old ornamented designs were bourgeois, contemptible, even (in the famous words of Adolf Loos) “a crime”.

In this ideologically driven design movement, we have come to accept the incorrect idea that fractals are somehow primitive, whereas smooth, undifferentiated “Platonic” forms are “modern” and sophisticated. Ironically, the opposite is the case: The most advanced theories of today’s science are all about complexity, differentiation, networks, and fractals — a dramatic contrast with the straight, smooth industrial geometries of early modernism.

Recognizing this, many architects and urban designers are speaking in terms of fractals, scaling laws, and “morphogenetic design.” But the question remains: Are these individuals really engaging such principles to create human-adaptive structure? Or are they only using them to create attention-getting aesthetic schemes, tacked onto what is essentially the same failing industrial model of design? These questions are at the heart of the debate on the future of the built environment.

What, then, are the lessons to be drawn? Fractal structure is not just an aesthetic gimmick. It is an important characteristic of sustainable human environments. And this structure does not arise from the well-meaning top-down schemes of old-mode art-designers, but from those with a skilled application of processes of self-organization, as part of a new way of thinking about what it is to design.

And yet, we designers have been exceedingly stubborn in taking on this lesson. Under a misguided theory of environmental structure that confuses simplicity with order, we have been stripping away the critical connected scales and fractal relationships within our environment. We have replaced a world of richly connected urbanism with a disordered geography of artfully packaged, catastrophically failing art-products.