Personal reflections on urbanism, urban life and sustainable urban design in Wellington, New Zealand.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Urbanism Down Under: in review, part 3

This is the third instalment of my long-drawn-out report on the Urbanism Down Under conference (see also parts one and two).

The title of Catherin Bull's keynote speech sounded promising: The Future City as "New Nature". With her abstract suggesting that "we need a new paradigm for the future city where it, rather than what is beyond, becomes nature", I was looking forward to some radical investigations that could break down the city/nature binary and inspire a new way of looking at the built environment.

I agree with her call that we need to be less anthropocentric. Many urban designers still see unbuilt spaces as sites for human activity, not ecology (though she mentioned Waitangi Park's wetlands as a good exception). Her suggestion that we should "integrate functional natural systems at every scale within the city" is a powerful challenge and opportunity, but from her talk, it seems that she's only giving concrete solutions at very large scales.

Specifically, Bull called for absorption of national parks, wild areas and even productive agricultural lands within the city region. Her examples - Canberra, the Gold Coast, the Pearl River Delta – don't strike me as inspiring visions of "new nature", but simply as placeless, decentralised sprawl interspersed with remnants of nature. Perhaps Wellington, with its Town Belt threading through the city, is already a better example of city/nature integration at this scale.

EborBut what about integration at smaller scales, such as the neighbourhood, the street or even the building? I asked whether elements such as street trees, green roofs, Hundertwasserian "tree tenants" and living walls counted as "new nature". Bull laughed and said that I must be an architect (some people assume that anyone who likes buildings must be an architect!), then said that she had done research showing that green roofs don't work (they're apparently too difficult to maintain) and claimed that they were a distraction from the "real issue". This seems astonishing to me, given that green roofs are becoming more popular worldwide. I've already posted some local examples of greenery on and around buildings, showing that nature can exist in the city, and from what I've read, many of these techniques do have real ecological value.

While Ian Bentley's message was familiar (as you would expect, given the influence that his Responsive Environments concept has had on urban design), but his clarity, geniality and very English pragmatism made for an inspiring speech. He demonstrated the interrelationships between permeability, vitality, variety and legibility, as well as their individual contributions to a good city environment.

He gave a concrete example of putting these principles into practice: the regeneration of the Angell Town estate in Brixton. This shows a similar approach to New Urbanism in terms of planning, but without their insistence upon traditional architecture. I wonder what Hank Dittmar would make of these crisp Bauhaus-like homes? What's more, the architectural style wasn't imposed upon the inhabitants by arrogant architects, but chosen by the residents, who wanted to present a forward-looking image.

Bentley also made the good point that there is often more biodiversity in the town than in the "country", which has in many cases been cultivated into a highly artificial monoculture. He pointed out that humans may see a wall as a barrier, but that to other creatures (such as lizards or birds) it offers little or no barrier and to some creatures (such as insects) it may even be a habitat. I think that this simple observation might be the key to a more nuanced understanding of the city as "new nature".


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