Is Ecological Urbanism the next big thing? Landscape architect Eleanor Atkinson reviews

Images courtesy of Lars Müller Publishers
nside spread from Ecological Urbanism by Moshen Mostafavi and Gareth Doherty Images courtesy of Lars Müller Publishers

Ecological Urbanism, the latest flagship work from Harvard Graduate School of Design, made me re-evaluate the way I interact with the city and what I expect from it, says Eleanor Atkinson, graduate landscape architect at Lloyd Bore Landscape & Ecology.

While the book is titled Ecological Urbanism, I found it helpful to picture the city (or the urban) as an ‘ecosystem’, where ethics, economics and the built form are the parameters in which a city operates, feeds and flourishes.

The city, then, is an ecosystem with certain threholds of resilience [ref: founding father of resilience theory, Buzz Holling]. It never achieves a plateau or state of equilibrium, it is rather in a state of constant evolution within a series of parameters. If we look at the city in this way, it helps us to understand that small measures can help to achieve substantial changes and improvements to the urban ecosystem.

The book is suitably global in its outlook, comprising short essays by sociologists and architects, including Koolhaas, Herzog and de Meuron, Schwartz, MDRDV and Farrell. As a whole, it provides a snapshot of our cities today, commenting on trends, population and culture, with each article focusing on a particularly complex challenge faced by a city, whether it be related to social, economic, cultural, energy, or population parameters.

From an article challenging our preconceptions about the slums of Mumbai, to an answer to Europe’s impending energy crisis, the articles are varied and provoking. A number of the articles identify ecological awareness and financial constraint as catalysts for change and reduced consumption, while all of them stress our collective responsibility for the future of our cities.

What did I get from the book?

Ecological Urbanism is mind-bogglingly full of ideas, facts, figures and experiments, and I found the sheer size of it at 650 pages rather overwhelming. But it has been an education. Its emphasis that we are, all of us, participants in the evolution of our cities and that our ability to adapt is being challenged, is a thought-provoking one. The future is an exciting time: we need to be prepared to accept change. We need technologies that evolve, rather than constrain the city.

Cities are living, breathing systems in their own right and we need to encourage this process with imagination. Politicians and the general public have a very fixed view of what a city is and, as designers, we should all be taking on a more visionary role, putting forward ideas for alternative futures.

As a city dweller and a designer within the urban realm, so much of this book is applicable to me, it has made me re-evaluate the way I interact with the city and what I expect from it. I have found it great reading, as the bite size articles are fantastic to dip in and out of, and the book is structured in a way that enables the reader to find their own path through it.

I found the following quote from ‘ECObox’, written by AAA, appropriately motivating: “Architect’s don’t need a client, a budget and a site to practice architecture but can rely on their status as citizens to create nomadic space through urban tactics.” So, what am I waiting for?

Ecological Urbanism by Moshen Mostafavi, Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design and Gareth Doherty, a doctoral candidate at Harvard University Graduate School of Design is available from Ecological Urbanism



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