The on-going debate on LU/NU is interesting less for any content (of which there has been little beyond posturing and uninformed rhetoric), and more than its continuation of a history of binary discussions between oppositional actors that has occurred in many arenas, including a long history within urbanism and design. Lest we think there is something special about this particular debate, it’s important to remember some of those ‘debates’ (such as the visible rift between Mumford & Jacobs to name one of many – which is a fascinating dialogue worth some future exploration) have existed in the past. These, instead of merely creating factions of us v. them, expand our understanding and discussions of larger, complex, urban issues. A few thoughts on binary distinctions in general, therefore, is worthy of further exploration.
I always turn back to Elizabeth Meyer’s essay in Ecological Design and Planning (Thompson & Steiner, 1997) where she elaborates on ‘The Expanded Field of Landscape Architecture’ and the tendency to provide ‘binary sets’ within discussions, such as architecture/landscape, culture/nature, and art/ecology. The dualism in these positions are too distinct and limits potentials, positing that: “The scholar can develop theories for site description and interpretation that occupy the space between nature and culture, landscape and architecture, man-made and natural, and that are along the spatial continuum that unites, not the solid line that divides, concepts into binary opposites.” (p.74) Instead, in the terms of landscape architecture, this requires “The rediscovery of the space between the boundaries – the space of hybrids, relationships, and tensions – allows us to see the received histories of the modern landscape as the ideologically motivated social constructs that they are… the gap between man and nature will be replaced with the continuum of human nature and nonhuman nature.” (p.51)
Having always been fascinated by the nature/culture debate, another resource worth mentioning is Placing Nature: Culture & Landscape Ecology (Nassauer, ed. 1997), which offers a range of essays in this realm, specifically focusing on blurring disciplinary and theoretical silos. As Nassauer mentions in her concluding remarks: “Landscape ecology insistently confronts us with the complexities of connection. Rather than establishing boundaries to separate ecosystems or disciplines, it repeatedly points out their connectedness… [it] suggests that we should go beyond the boundaries precisely because sufficient answers are unlikely to lie solely within them. Respect for the complexity of the ecological relationships must balance out human propensity for know the world by simplifying it.” (p.165)
How we do that matters, but ecology offers some interesting parallels in thinking of urban systems, as both can no longer be perceived as closed, static, homogeneous collections, but rather are constantly evolving due to disequilibria, instability, disturbance, and flux based on a similar interactivity through reciprocal relationships between organisms and their environments. This point is made thoroughly in Human Ecology (Steiner, 2002), who melds ecological thinking into our social construct at scales ranging from habitat to globe – describing an extension of the shift from deterministic ecological thinking towards a new ecology where humans are vital participants in the process. In explaining this ‘Subversive Subject’, Steiner makes a case for ecological thinking as a new method for framing discussions, stating that “…human ecology emphasized complexity over reductionism, focuses on change over stable states, and expands ecological concepts beyond the study of plants and animals to include people. This view differs from the environmental determinism of the early twentieth century.” (p.3)
I would make the case that this is the main thrust of landscape urbanist theory (i.e. it’s not about landscape in a physical sense) in exploring a similar distaste with the concept of environmental determinism and looking to evolve this into more ecological thinking is mirrored in our changing from totalitarian urbanist schemes and deterministic urban strategies (closed systems) to methods that allow for temporality, market forces, chaos that fit within the complex mosaic that represent the modern metropolis. These open systems, as mentioned by Steiner as possessing “…fluid, overlapping boundaries across several spatial scales from the local to the global,” (p.4) and subsequently changes our approach to design and planning, where “…individual designed objects, be they buildings or gardens, are not viewed independently, but rather as parts of dynamic landscape systems.” (p.10)
This sort of thinking is missing from any single scheme of urbanism that claims to have ‘the answer’ to all of our problems. Perhaps this is the inherent polarity in the distinction between NU (i.e. we have the answers) and LU (i.e. we have more questions) which leads to disagreement. This is also represented in modern green building systems like LEED which are building-specific, because they can only exert influence over one distinct level of a complex, nested hierarchy of the entirety of the urban realm. A series of one-off, ultra-green buildings or dense, walkable communities are beneficial within a certain scale for sure. The real question is to what extent to they solve larger problems of sustainability and issues of urbanism beyond their selected boundaries? The either-or dialectic is not the issue but rather how we connect interventions within their larger (and smaller) contextual hierarchies, and how we general multiple solutions to deal with the complexities we face in addressing modern cities. LU theory, for all its inability to articulate projects and its acknowledgment (not acceptance) of current urban issues (i.e. autos, suburbia) in my thinking isn’t trying to occupy a binary opposite to NU (sorry Waldheim) but rather to offer a counterpoint to a larger urban methodology that is focused on product instead of process.
In this context, and shifting gears back to conflict for a second, I was struck by the parallels when delving into the great collection of essays ‘Uncommon Ground’ (1996), edited by one of my favorite writers, William Cronon, offers a wide discussion on the idea of nature in our modern thinking. More exploration of that soon, but for now let’s focus on the similarities inherent in debates on urbanism, in relation to binary thoughts related to ‘environmentalism’ and ‘nature’ Cronon mentions, “…once we recognize that not all human groups and cultures view nature in the same way, it becomes at least more complicated to assert that one group’s ideas of nature should take precedence over another’s. At a minimum, we need to enter into a dialogue with other people about why they think as they do… [and] we should be willing to question some of our own moral certainty in an effort to understand why we ourselves think of nature as we do, and why others do not always agree with us.” (p.21)
By making a leap that substitution of the word ‘urbanism’ the same framework could inform our thinking in similar terms. In conclusion, a wonderful quote can illuminate the recent LU/NU debate, particularly in relation to binary modes of thinking and the type of rhetoric that it has spawned due mostly to the previously mentioned, and much misguided feeling of moral certainty in one’s particular viewpoint:
“We live in a time when political discussion favors extreme positions and sound bites. In the struggle to attract attention and support for one’s own views, the temptation if very great to caricature those of one’s adversaries. The result it a rhetorical landscape of polarities, in which start oppositions arise and cartoons become our most common way of conducting what passes for reasoned debate. In such a world, your either for the environment or against it, and any inquiry that points towards more challenging ways of framing the discussion can seem threatening. The crucial task of self-criticism is all to easily avoided because it can seem to lend aid and comfort to the enemy.” (p.22)