Unraveling Urban Life and Space
The statues are coming down. Some are surprised how easy it is to physically remove a statue, or just pull it down. It’s true: removing a bronze statue can be as simple as cutting through a handful of bolts, far less effort than it takes to reach consensus about whether the statues should stay or go. Statues of this kind, that commemorate famous men (and sometimes women) in public places outdoors generally sit upon a plinth or platform of some kind. That pedestal is by far the more difficult piece to remove, being a large block of solid stone or other masonry extending well below the soil’s surface.
The pedestal is essential to the statue - it keeps Stonewall or whoever from sinking into the ground or tipping over - but people don’t have strong feelings about plinths. It’s just the stage for the main event. A grand pedestal makes its statue higher, but also elevates it figuratively, saying that whatever stands atop it is worthy of attention, if not veneration. When the statue goes, that stage becomes empty. The way things are going, we may soon have quite a few of them.
What hen happens to the empty pedestals? The obvious choice is removal. Removing a pedestal is not so emotionally fraught, just a surprisingly expensive bit of demolition. Demolish the plinth, excavate its substantial footing, fill in the hole, and cover the spot with grass or pavement. You can make it look like no statue was ever there. That’s erasure, and some will say that is exactly what should happen. That park or avenue can look as though this entire argument we are living through never happened at all.
From an urban design standpoint, statues are more than who or what they honor. They are often the focal point of a space. The kind of traditional statues of soldiers and statesmen in question here typically form part of a symmetrical, classical layout, as the center of a circle or endpoint of an axis, for example. As focal points, they do not simply say “look at this person,” but also “look at this spot,” highlighting a location where lines cross or an important space is entered. If that focal point is totally erased, it will be odd, like a missing tooth. In other places, Confederate statues are one memorial among many, grouped on a courthouse lawn or in a park. In those situations, one memorial more or less won’t matter so much.
What else can you do with an empty pedestal? You can put something else atop it, a new player on the stage. This could be another permanent (sort of) memorial to a less controversial hero. Or you could sidestep permanence and use that spot as a rotating gallery of sorts, like the Fourth Plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square. Replacement is erasure, too, in a different, more dynamic form.
The empty pedestal itself calls to mind cathedral niches deprived of their saints during the Reformation. Those niches speak eloquently of the history of their churches and abbeys, before the Reformation and after. The empty pedestal and the void above it are themselves history. They are questions rendered in stone: what was here? why is it gone? why was it here in the first place?
Over 150 years have passed since the end of the Civil War, and we are arguing, bitterly, over these statues and what they mean and to whom. One hundred fifty years far surpasses the duration of the war itself, from 1861 to 1865. Our divisions over race, which are inextricable from the Civil War and its memory, are of course far older, essentially beginning with European settlement of North America. As a shaping force, these centuries-long divisions may be more influential than any war, even one as bitter as our civil war. If our public space should highlight important elements of our history, perhaps these divisions deserve a mention. But how do you memorialize a rift?
The empty pedestal makes a statement of its own. Here something was venerated, for some reason, and then it was not, for some reason. Perhaps these questions and the rifts they highlight deserve a spot among our war heroes and founders. A few of our soon-to-be empty pedestals could remain vacant, filled with questions about who we’ve been, and who we are.
(Also posted on Medium here.)
A new guest column out today in Microgrid Knowledge, featuring the big story from the microgrid-revitalization-replicability study I did last year at Syracuse University. Read the whole thing here.
Lots of talk these days about a wall on our southern border, but walls aren’t built with words. They’re built with concrete, masonry, reinforcing materials, excavation, drainage…the everyday palette of landscape architecture practice. It’s not often that the national conversation overlaps with site construction expertise, so… let’s talk about walls.
Walls are major construction. They are big and heavy and not flexible, so they need foundations - footings. An ordinary wall that screens a dumpster or encloses a garden is about six feet high above ground, and a few more feet below ground, depending on frost depth. Larger walls require larger footings.
Footings require excavation, and some idea about the stability of the soil or rock below and around that excavation. It’s especially important to have material down there that won’t shift or expand and contract, such as with water absorption. Some soils do this during ordinary seasonal rains or storms. Since properly constructed walls last a long time - see Great Wall of China and Hadrian’s Wall - they must be designed not just for ordinary storms, but once-in-a-lifetime or once-in-several-lifetime storms. Stronger walls use more materials for each linear foot of wall, so greater storm resistance = more money.
For a structure this size, especially if soils are less than ideal, an engineer likely would recommend tying the footing to the underlying bedrock. So how far down is the bedrock? How do you do find out? You do it the same way you determine what the elevation and slope of the soil surface is along the path of the wall and what pre-existing obstacles require demolition or adjustment of the wall’s path: you hire someone to do a survey and soil borings. This preliminary work is not minor; it takes time and expertise. You can’t skimp on it, because if it’s done poorly, it will ruin the project. My only comment about an unstable 1000 mile long 25’ high wall: liability nightmare.
These surveys must happen before any realistic, buildable final design can be done. It’s common for design work to be delayed while waiting for the survey, even on small projects. How long does it take to do a survey for a 1000 mile long corridor? A while. A long while. It’s a whole lot of work.
All of this footing and survey and money and time stuff is a big part of the reason why much of our border has fences, not walls. Fences only attach to the earth at their posts, making them more of a connect-the-dots kind of exercise than a continuous, inflexible structure that will crack (fall, collapse) if the ground beneath it shifts. Fences are cheaper and faster to build because of this, and they allow some adjustment of construction details in field, meaning you can figure some of it out as you are putting it up. It’s like fencing in a garden plot or field at your house, just bigger, obviously. Over rough terrain like arroyos or rock outcroppings, it’s not easy to build a fence, either, which is part of the reason why some of our southern border has no fence, either.
Once you’ve got a survey and design, you still have to build the wall itself. The simplest possible structure would be a massive project, since it stretches over 1000 miles. If it has, for example, a walkway on top, that adds time and expense. If it has occasional lookout towers or guardhouses or gates, like, again, the Great Wall or Hadrian’s Wall or that iconic fictional wall of our time, The Wall in Game of Thrones, all of those additional features must be designed and constructed and supported structurally. A guardhouse is essentially a building attached to the top of the wall or sitting within the wall itself, and buildings take time to design and build, and they, um, aren’t free. I’ve heard little detail about how the border wall should look or what features it should include, but any structure this large will take a long, long, long time to build. The astonishing cost estimate of the border wall reflects this - bigger structures cost more to build because they use more materials, but also because they take more design time, more survey time, more engineering time, and a whole lot more construction time on site. All that time is someone’s time, and all of it costs money.
How long will it all take? Given the time it takes to put out a call for bids, go through the bidding process for public projects, allow the selected companies to gear up and assign people to work on this, how long until the border becomes more difficult to cross than it is today? I’d bet longer than four years, longer than eight years, in fact. China’s Great Wall is 13,170 miles long (really! although it's more ambiguous than you'd think) and took about 2000 years (!!) to build. Hadrian’s Wall is only 73 miles long and took at least six years to build. (The Game of Thrones Wall was built by magic, and (spoiler alert!) doesn’t exist. Plus it’s made of ice, which is not the material of choice on the Mexican border.) These were built without modern technology, so we’d do it faster. How much faster? Ten years seems like a safe bet, although if anything is certain in life, it is that large construction projects always encounter delays. So bet on delays.
If you want to keep people out of the country with a wall, would you give them ten years’ notice about it? People - in this case, that’s professional smugglers, criminals who do this for a living and charge potential immigrants crippling sums of money - have all kinds of ways of getting around, over, under, and through the existing barriers on the border. How will this be different? In ten years, couldn’t you figure out how to get around (over, under, through) a wall?
Maybe we take another look at building it with magic - somebody call George R.R. Martin! While you’re at it, check with Merriam-Webster, too: you’re gonna need this term.
It’s that time of year again - time for crows to congregate in the most unfortunate of city parks, streets, and yards. Sinister seems invented to describe the atmosphere of hundreds of crows roosting in the darkness above you, rustling and softly calling to each other, unseen yet…sinister, a scene out of Poe appropriate to this season. And, as an author in the Michigan Daily noted during my time in grad school, “the crow sh*t falls like rain.”
Places like the University of Michigan’s campus and Forman Park and Oakwood Cemetery in Syracuse struggle with how to pull the crow welcome mat back in. Screeching recorded bird calls seem to be a favorite tactic of campuses. Other places try fireworks or gunshots. Really, not much seems to work reliably. Of interest here is that crows are recognized as being remarkably intelligent birds, with recently published research even reporting their use of tools. A memorable 2010 episode of PBS' Nature showed how crows remember the appearance of people who hassle them, and react when the same person returns. This same intelligence and responsiveness to their environment must be the key to persuading crows to roost in places we deem acceptable.
In the winter months I often see flocks of crows flying overhead, high enough and dispersed enough that you don’t notice them at first glance. As you watch, though, you realize that crows continue to pass overhead, on and on, because there are a very large number in the flock. They are all going somewhere, and I speculate that when I see these flocks in the late afternoon, they are heading for roosting spots in town (an attempted murder! Sorry. There had to be at least one “murder” pun). If they are flying from out here, 15 miles away, to spots in town, the choice of those roosting spots must be intentional, because it’s obviously not proximity or convenience at play. What makes a good spot for a murder? What dictates the landscape preference of crows?
I don’t know. Crows aren’t my thing. But revealing the physical environment as a key factor in life in cities is, and so I say: there are environmental characteristics that must matter here, and if we identify them, we can manipulate them, and make the crows decide to sleep somewhere else. There’s got to be somewhere else, though - like every “undesirable” in the city, crows have to be somewhere, so banishing them from one place means their arrival somewhere else. The task of research-based urban crow management might then be to eliminate those characteristics from places where we don’t want crows, and add those characteristics to places where we do want them. For a bonus point, we could draw crows to places where their abundant droppings (falling like rain!) could add needed fertility to the soil. You probably don’t want that to be any place you’re growing food for human consumption, but a degraded brownfield could be the ideal site.
So what do crows like? If I list sites where I’ve personally witnessed mass roosting of crows, I list the north edge of Syracuse’s Oakwood Cemetery, Syracuse’s Forman Park, and the University of Michigan’s Diag (a central campus quad). Far from an exhaustive list, but even with just these three sites, we can compile a short list of possible crow-attracting environmental characteristics. First, most obviously: mature deciduous canopy trees. In these three sites, those canopy trees have open understory beneath them, with either lawn or low-growing perennials and shrubs. Perhaps the crows feel more secure with open space beneath the canopy and less cover for predators. All three sites also have substantial masonry buildings adjacent to them, and at least some paving - perhaps the thermal mass raises the nighttime temperature? It’s interesting that all three sites have a fair amount of human activity, including both cars and pedestrians. These aren’t isolated natural areas. The cemetery edge abuts the edge of campus, specifically a back drive serving faculty parking, a busy place at dusk in the fall and winter. Given the demonstrated attention of crows not just to human activity, but to specific humans, it seems implausible that this is a coincidence. Perhaps the crows want to be near us because we scare off more dangerous wildlife. Perhaps they know we generate tasty trash and roadkill. Perhaps they like the heat from our buildings and cars. Maybe we’re just entertaining.
To you and me, a tree might just be a tree (well, really, to me a tree hasn’t just been a tree since 1992, when I took my first plant identification class), but to a crow, I very much doubt trees are all the same. Might the species matter? Is an elm better than a maple, but not as good as an oak?
Crows don’t mind noise, artificial light, and urban air quality. Do these environmental characteristics actually attract roosting crows? The question here is whether crows really prefer urban sites to rural ones for winter roosting, or whether we humans only notice them in urban sites. If a murder roosts in a forest and no one is there to complain, would we know about it? Urban heat islands would seem to be a likely explanation, but surely these intelligent birds have their reasons for selecting between the many possible roosting areas available in the warm city. We have to look at the wild city through crow’s eyes to see those reasons.
(A written iteration of some of the material from my March 8, 2016, talk “Disruption and Design Thinking,” in the Syracuse University School of Architecture Spring 2016 Lecture Series. This is post #1 of 2, with a second on Disruption to follow…soon.)
A buzzword is a curious balance between popularity of use and definition of meaning. Buzz seems to equate to being all things to all people. At some point, meaning can stray so far from origins that even a knowledgeable observer can lose track of what’s being said.
Take, for example, “design thinking.” Design thinking is a huge trend, a very profitable trend - and one nearly devoid of designers. Design thinking is celebrated in business and start-up culture as a way to innovate and solve complex problems. One can receive training in it by no less than Stanford, Harvard, and Ideo and see it used at corporate giants like GE and PepsiCo.
What is it? Ideo says design thinking's benefits are: fun, better collaboration, "getting unstuck", individualized solutions (true), effective solutions, and "more creative confidence."
Or, from Harvard Business: “A set of principles…empathy with users, a discipline of prototyping, and tolerance for failure chief among them.”
As someone with 20+ years of experience as a working designer, I am bemused by the rise of design thinking. If design thinking is not how designers (like me) think, then what is it? And if it is how we designers think, why aren’t we the ones doing the training modules and seminars instead of the business folks? This leads to a rather disruptive (**buzzword alert!**) yet logical notion: that designers are experts at design thinking. Perhaps we should believe the hype and apply our fearsome skills to problems outside of our narrowly defined design disciplines. The rise of design thinking’s popularity tells us that lots of people cherish what we have to offer – but we need to be fearless in applying those skills to broader problems, problems outside our fields.
So what are these skills? Opinions vary on that. Show me 20 different designers and I’ll show you 20 different version of design skills or design process or “how to do design,” but here’s my take.
We designers offer the outside world:
Spirit of the place to storm water We learn from assessing existing conditions, needs, and opportunities to see the given conditions that really exist, not what we believe to be there, or what we think should be there. We become adept at making these observations across boundaries, from theory to art to practicalities, because good design must address all given conditions, not just the ones in your particular specialty. We also learn to be value-neutral in observing and assessing these existing conditions - that a particular condition simply is, rather than whether it is good or bad.
Design is an omnivore We become adept at drawing connections between radically different spheres of knowledge, without being limited by the prison of expertise (eg: to a chemist, the world may be nothing but chemistry). We become skilled at weighing the relative promise or urgency of competing needs, and at home with doing this examination and analysis in a goal-driven way. That goal - and this is important - is the development of ideas, solutions, and designs. The goal isn't merely to draw attention to the problem or place blame for it or clarify its relationship with other variables. We operate at multiple spatial scales at once and involving multiple systems and their interactions at once. This is the antithesis of “siloed” thinking (and yeah, "siloed thinking" is pretty buzzword-y as well).
Solutions linking function with form and spirit No one is better at ideation (the buzzword) or idea generation (the term used in ca. 1995 design studios). The keystone of working as a designer is rapid generation of multiple ideas, without personal allegiance to any single idea. It's vital to keep each idea from being too precious, because there's always some way it can be altered to make it better. I once heard a psychology prof call this separation of one's identity from one's work; I call it confidence that there will always be another idea. An extension of this is the hallowed design tradition of critique as a constructive, positive force: that more voices are better and everyone has something to contribute.
Does it stand up? Does it sing? Finally, we designers are experts at giving visionary ideas physical form – at developing practical application out of poetic inspiration. This seems to be a skill we develop after college, when the realization dawns that design firm work is about 80% construction-related tasks and 20% everything else. An awful lot of what working designers do is figuring out how to make ideas work with the inconvenient realities of real-world conditions, like weather, properties of materials, and of course, budget. The art lies in learning to do this without losing all of the art.
For some years now, I’ve had at least one foot in research focused on people in urban environments, particularly during economic transformation. Without question this is beyond the normal boundaries of environmental design and/or landscape architecture, even a bit past urban design. I’ve kept a hand in (to mix a metaphor) through teaching design studios, even a bit of construction, but for the most part, my business has been doing research. I’ve often characterized myself as a designer who does research, but really, isn’t this applying design thinking (and research rigor) to urban issues and economic transformation? Issues like immigration, the transition to clean energy, and urban wilds and neglect?
These endeavors are all design beyond the boundaries, and there’s plenty more where these came from. There’s no shortage of urgent problems to focus on, and no shortage of people and organizations who want solutions. We designers need to not limit ourselves to work labeled “architecture” or sanctioned by whatever your favorite glossy design magazine is. The world needs your good mind and, yes, your designer's thinking, doing what you do now, just a little farther outside the box.
Assorted drafts, previews, and outtakes from the book I'm currently writing about the impact of vegetation and neglect on urban life. I also take other thoughts for a test drive here, including nascent design and research ideas.