The beauty of sustainability

I’m working on a grant proposal that intends to use funds provided to ‘beautify the campus’ to implement a range of sustainable site strategies. For the past few weeks, I’ve been letting the idea that sustainability is embedded in the definition of beauty (at least in the landscape) simmer in the back of my head. Here’s my first take at putting the idea into prose.

Ian Hamilton Finley, Little Sparta

This is subject that John Dixon Hunt skirts in his teaching & writings of landscape/garden history. The notion that beautiful landscapes contain the sublime is a long standing meme that can be traced to both the English landscape garden tradition and to chinese gardens that inspired Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown and more recently to Ian Hamilton Finely. The pastoral landscape attempts to create a stasis between nostalgic ruins and the ever growing and successional pressure of plants. So the modern understanding of sustainability – balance between current needs and future needs – seems quite apt.

But for me, the sublime thrill of standing on a precipice captures my feelings about trying to mitigate climate change through the practice of landscape architecture and urban design. We can see the peril and hazards on the horizon and know that there are measures that we can implement to hold those terrors at bay. It’s not just about buying some insurance as Thomas Friedman argues, but about rectifying long perpetuated injustices humans have inflicted on the biosphere.

So for a campus of higher education and research, beautification needs to be more then a few flowers or benches. Engineers, mathematicians, and scientists often use the term ‘beautiful’ to describe an elegant solution. For them, beauty is more then skin deep – it is the overall performance of a system. As a designer, this correlation between performance and beauty is key. I would argue that many of the recent examples of starchitecture hubris can not be beautiful, because they fail to perform at so many different levels. Whether the leaks of Gehry’s Strata Center, Holl’s dismal energy performance, Herzog & de Meuron’s now empty Birds Nest arena – these buildings all fail to look at long term performance and utility. Short term thinking and solutions are bound to quickly get ugly as they fail to adapt or accommodate new uses.

Does that make a green alley or a building integrated photovoltaic array beautiful? Not in the shallow world of fashion and pop culture. But like a Ferrari or a racing yacht, the pursuit of performance creates sculptural forms that are celebrated for their elegance and beauty. In our cities, neighborhoods, and campuses, we can no longer afford to build single purpose systems that degradate the environment. Concrete storm sewers; dark asphalt roads without accommodations for pedestrians, bicycles, and transit; Euclidian zoning spawning sprawl are all obsolete and ugly remnants of 20th century development.

It also seems that cheap is never pretty. As a society, we need to look towards long term value of stuff, not just the lowest up front costs of walmart culture. But this runs counter to the libertarian individuality that differentiates the New World from the Old.  Property rights reign supreme in North America, so  the challenge is to  create places that  willingly sacrifice every last sliver of profit and instead create  value for everybody by  increasing connectivity,  reducing urban heat island, and leave a little space for wild things to grow. We tried paving paradise and now we have purgatory.

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This isn’t quite what I imagined this post would be when I started, nor does it help me write that grant proposal – but it is a start in getting some of these ideas out. Gotta go and head up a jury for my studio  – if the student’s allow, I’ll post some of their maps of North Minneapolis.

[ps, a shout out to Jeff King at LandscapeandUrbanism for including Infrascapedesign as a new blog worth reading – thanks!]

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