The Fear Sustaining Sustainable Urbanism

The Fear Sustaining Sustainable Urbanism

In this article, originally published on the Australian Design Review as "Longing For a Greener Present", Ross Exo-Adams examines the fear that lies behind the trend toward sustainable urbanism, and finds that the crisis we find ourselves in might not only be confined to an ecological one.

Over the past decade, architects have found themselves increasingly commissioned to design districts, neighbourhoods, economic free zones and even entire new cities: a phenomenon that has been accompanied by a commitment to ‘sustainability’, which now seem inseparable from urban design itself. While ‘sustainability’ remains a vague concept at best, it nonetheless presents itself with a sense of urgency similar to that which galvanised many of the great movements of modern architecture vis-a-vis the city. Underlying such urgency is a rhetorical reference to a collective fear of some palpable sort, whether it be fear of revolution (Le Corbusier), fear of cultural tabula rasa (Jane Jacobs, Team X) or our new fear: ecological collapse. It is obvious that the myriad ‘eco’ projects that have popped up all around the world would not be viable if not for the fact that they appear against a background of imminent catastrophe – a condition of terrifying proportions. Yet the essence of this fear is far from clear. Indeed, in light of ecological catastrophe and amidst any fetish for windmills or vegetation, architects have cultivated what seems to be a curious nostalgia for the present – a pragmatism whose lack of patience for the past seeks a kind of reconstitution of the present in imagining any future. So if not for climate mayhem, what is the true nature of fear that lies at the core of today’s urban project, ‘ecological urbanism’?

Find out after the break

Fresh Hills, a runner up in a design competition for Freshkills Park in Staten Island, NYC by Matthew Rosenberg, Matt Melnyk, Emmy Maruta and Robbie Eleazer;. Image Courtesy of LAGI

Future: Ecological Urbanism

Of course, to speak of sustainability today means to speak of a projected future while avoiding at all costs the pretensions of planning it: in the world of sustainability, the future appears as an array of data, statistics and targets, which themselves objectively respond to impending ‘tipping points’, benchmarks and other universal registers of approaching catastrophe. It is a future not to be planned, but rather to be managed. Designing within this world is a delicate play between the perils of this future and the promise of salvation, all transcribed in the objective language of fact. Urban design integrates the future as a scientific projection of the present. If such projections are architecturally vague, this is offset by the sturdy economic projections around which the urban project truly bends, sustaining a future not only on ecological grounds, but also on economic grounds.

Indeed, to give such projects their force, the rhetoric of sustainability mobilises a new sense of morality in regard to ecological catastrophe. In this way, the discourse on sustainability bears an implicit yet unavoidable humanitarian call-to-duty. Because such ideals feed off an economy of good intentions, they remain beyond scrutiny, shrouding the project in a silent suspension of judgement. The language of sustainability plays a crucial role in the propagation of such work, for, far from radically transforming the city, the task of urban design today ultimately remains to equip the otherwise ordinary design with a rhetorical supplement of moral goodness. Thus, the project of sustainability unfolds as a promise for a future apprehended only in its statistical consistency, while never to be considered in its material concreteness.

To speak of the design of such projects is itself a convoluted task, since a truly ‘ecological’ project, rather than resulting from an architectural formalism, must instead emerge from the multiple systems of nature that prefigure it: it is now the task of the architect to identify spatial systems of nature. The suspension of judgement also helps to grant the urban project a kind of formal liberty, whose indeterminacy reflects the new complexities of reality that ecological urbanism must now make use of. Various organisations of nature are mapped onto the site to provide the basic structural discipline to which the urban shall now humbly submit. Complementing gestures like this, so-called ‘green corridors’ are planned, which gently percolate through the urban, ‘reconnecting’ the natural passageways that the city would have otherwise blocked. Building roofs are now dense forests and urban walkways appear as woodland paths. As a material and formal entity, architecture must disappear: it is but an unfortunate necessity of the city that it has not yet been able to do without. Instead, it must compensate for its burden to nature with an overuse of glass – architecture’s triumphant act of self-annihilation.

Peruri 88 by MVDRV. Image © RSI Studio

Past: Liberalism, Nature, Urbanism

Despite all of the apparent methodological newness of contemporary (ecological) urbanism, its novelty is questionable. If we can trace the birth of the term ‘urbanism’ back to the nineteenth century – a category ideologically tied to the emergent politics of liberalism – we can observe several important connections with the present notion of urbanism and urban design. Nearly a century after the physiocrats’ discovery of the ‘naturalness’ inherent to social and economic relations, the transformations of the state would begin to realise the full potential of this ‘nature’ through a nineteenth-century program of political liberalism. And just as liberalism has its roots in physiocracy (the ‘government of nature’), so too did urbanism materialise a pseudo-scientific discourse of nature, which, instead of impeding the inherent ‘naturalness’ of society, sought to make use of its contingencies, realities and natural phenomena. By the nineteenth century, planners had fully reformulated the city as a ‘biological organism’, whose naturally ‘functional parts’ were enabled through strategies of infrastructural connectivity. The focus of city planners and politicians turned toward optimising systems of circulation to unleash the supreme capacities of a society left to its own nature — a ‘naturalness’ to be realised through a massive deployment of modern infrastructural systems. Furthermore, envisioning the city through a scientific lens assisted in draining it of its political consistency. In doing so, urban form was rendered independent from the actual organisation of the city, which became rather an expandable system of circulation and dwelling. Principled in this way, the city’s form, whether rigidly composed, or loosely ‘organic’, would increasingly belie a common indeterminacy at the heart of the city’s organisation. This condition only intensified during the twentieth century, from Howard’s Garden City, to modernist experiments in functionalism, to the Metabolist movement and countless other fascinations with natural systems.

As even a cursory recollection of the basic schema proposed by ecological urbanism makes clear, the new ‘sustainable’ urbanism sits comfortably within this history of urbanism. At a fundamental level, the operative locus of any ‘sustainable’ design remains faithfully within systems of infrastructure and the strategies of their deployment in space. Furthermore, indeterminacy and interchangeability play an even stronger role in the category of ‘mixed use’ – a category of commercial development that displaces all decision from the realm of design to the whims of the market, guaranteeing the schism between urban form and organisation. As such, an ecologically designed city optimised by considerations for pweather and wind patterns, light, water drainage, etc. can just as conveniently be ‘sustainable’ as one paying homage to a client by patterning itself as an extruded corporate logo. Lastly, the ‘scientific’ claims accompanying sustainability are, by and large, a simplistic rehashing of the same metaphors that were applied to the nineteenth century city, re-proposing the same adherence to a dogma of positivist, infrastructure-based urbanism. This history of urbanism is perpetuated through its reproduction into the present, whose presence is immediately covered over by the novelties and spectacle of technology. As such, ecological urbanism is nothing more than the product of the centuries-old program of liberal urbanism, whose novelty now includes infrastructural strategies for the distribution of nature. This novelty attempts to render the opposition between nature and city obsolete, since the city now appears as a kind of provider of nature’s salvation. Yet to say that ecological urbanism is simply the current iteration of modern urbanism would reveal little else about the ideological objectives of such design. Firstly, the incorporation of nature within the domain of infrastructural control is new insofar as it produces a rhetorical inversion in regard to the inherent virtue of the urban: no longer the source of ecological catastrophe, the urban appears now as its remedy. Secondly, due to the neo-liberal climate in which sustainability has matured, the city as a whole has become an object of private investment, creating for perhaps the first time in modern history the possibility of the private city. This shift has attained its apogee thanks in part pto the emergence of ecological urbanism, exposing purely capitalist urban development to a discourse laden with notes of salvation. Just when it was becoming clear that the history of modern urbanisation coincided with the history of ecological disaster, the figure of the city was radically transfigured into a technological structure of redemption, granting a kind of eschatological urgency for large-scale real estate development. Fear, mobilised by ecological crisis, will remain at the heart of this urgency.

The design for Cornell's new campus on Roosevelt Island. Image Courtesy of Cornell University

Present: Crisis, Fear, Reform

Bound between an unknowable, unplanned future and a perpetually forgotten past, our present moment has become one given over to and over determined by crisis. ‘Crisis’, at the end of the eighteenth century, became a ‘structural signature of modernity’, according to Reinhart Koselleck. Through the modern concept of crisis, its expanded meaning has lent itself as a motivational historical force, legitimising the categories of reformist ‘progress’. Crises, from the nineteenth century, would be seen as a cyclical register of history, whose flip side would be reform. Planners and architects alike have made use of this crisis-reform cycle to generate political and economic force behind projects. Le Corbusier’s famous maxim, ‘architecture or revolution’, is precisely such a cry for reform. And, in its more contemporary proliferations, Koselleck tells us: ‘[t]he concept of crisis, which once had the power to pose unavoidable, harsh and non-negotiable alternatives, has been transformed to fit the uncertainties of whatever might be favoured at a given moment.’

The lack of determinacy evident in the discourse of sustainability and reproduced in the practice of ecological urban design is only explainable by the apparent indeterminacy of the very nature with which ecological crisis is treated. Yet, if the very consistency of ecological crisis is so vague, what is the true source of our fear? Examining any of the hyperrealist renderings that have become commonplace representations of such projects, it becomes apparent that, rather than approaching the true depth of ecological catastrophe, such projects address an altogether different anxiety. Because the appeal to sensation remains so prominent in such images, they often conceal a clear reading of the image’s actual content. For within the saturated ambiance and the lack of a distinction between foregrounds and backgrounds, there lies an implicit injunction to view the image with a kind of melancholia, as if it is a ‘snapshot’ of a life that seemingly ‘once was’ – an image which, indicating neither past nor future, asks not what could be, but what should be. Compounded by the rhetoric of climate disaster embedded in ecological urbanism, we can view this imagery as a kind of visual catalogue of all that is threatened and must be preserved. Far from a concern for the annihilation of nature – for nature in such images appears not as an endangered wilderness, but as an abundant and manipulable surface, an (overused) accessory to the urban – such imagery makes visible another far deeper and indeed politicised fear. What is conveyed is the fear of loss, not of a threatened nature and its capacity to sustain life, but the loss of the conditions that sustain a threatened liberal utopia. By simply stripping the technological and vegetal accessories from such imagery, this fear of loss becomes clear: the compositions propose little more than a liberal nostalgia for the present – a present that is ethereal, simulated. The moral echoes in this rhetorical structure ultimately serves to discipline the architectural imagination, reducing it to a pathological reinterpretation of the present.

If, over the course of modernity we have cultivated a perception of the future as something to be planned, today we bear witness to a new attitude toward the future, which purports instead to manage it. The effect of this change is a rather odd paralysis of the present, which is then to be perpetually monitored, adjusted and re-administered continuously into the future. In this way, perhaps the real crisis the profession faces is the persistently liberal treatment of ‘crisis’ itself, for, as Koselleck states, such a ‘tendency towards imprecision and vagueness […] may itself be viewed as the symptom of a historical crisis that cannot as yet be fully gauged’.

Ross Adams holds a Master of Architecture from the Berlage Institute in Rotterdam, NL, and a BS in Biomaterial Science from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He has worked as an architect and urban designer in offices such as MVRDV, Foster & Partners, Arup and Productora. Currently, he is completing his PhD at the London Consortium.

About this author
Cite: Ross Exo Adams. "The Fear Sustaining Sustainable Urbanism" 24 Feb 2014. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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