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Book Review of "Toward an Urban Ecology" by Kate Orff

Book Review of "Toward an Urban Ecology" by Kate Orff

Kate Orff’s “Toward an Urban Ecology” (2016) sets the stage for a potential (hopeful) direction for the discipline of landscape architecture and its allies. Most strikingly, SCAPE and Orff have pushed the norm for what a small, landscape architecture and urban design-focused firm can accomplish. If you haven’t heard of SCAPE or Kate Orff, recent

by Katie Poppel February 19, 2018 4 comments
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Kate Orff’s “Toward an Urban Ecology” (2016) sets the stage for a potential (hopeful) direction for the discipline of landscape architecture and its allies. Most strikingly, SCAPE and Orff have pushed the norm for what a small, landscape architecture and urban design-focused firm can accomplish.

If you haven’t heard of SCAPE or Kate Orff, recent MacArthur Fellow, “Toward an Urban Ecology” is a great primer (I would also recommend Petrochemical America). SCAPE has branded itself and its work as research and practice-based, which is rare in the fields of urban planning/design and landscape architecture. They work on public landscapes from a systems-based approach. As briefly mentioned in “Toward an Urban Ecology,” a systems-based approach promotes integration rather than the more traditional, mono-functional or interventionist process of the past. With the systems thinking also comes the principles of SCAPE’s foundation.

“Toward an Urban Ecology” leads readers through the four principles of SCAPE’s foundation: revive, cohabit, engage, and scale. Revive aligns the cultural and natural systems for interaction and acknowledgment. Cohabit marries the terminology of ‘social justice’ with ecological justice. Engage focuses on reimagining the stereotypical, linear planning process. Lastly, scale exemplifies how all large questions, problems, interventions (and more!) can be deconstructed and assimilated through multiple scales. The first three chapters give a brief introduction to SCAPE’s take on the principle, followed by an exemplary project which demonstrates the principle (and the overlap with other principles) in greater detail. The best part of “Toward an Urban Ecology,” in my opinion, are the strategies following the precedent projects; each chapter contains strategies via other projects that SCAPE embraces and a supporting interview and/or essay with a related professional. The interviews and essays truly show the depth of expertise SCAPE attempts to grapple with for each project and the willingness the firm puts forth to reach the best possible outcomes for their work.

Instead of focusing on projects and strategies mentioned throughout the book, it is more important to pull out the major shifts SCAPE/Orff bring to landscape architecture and urban design thinking and practice that allow “Toward an Urban Ecology” to flourish as a ‘monograph, manual, and manifesto.’ Orff frames urban ecological design as a base for SCAPE’s starting point, among other aspects; urban ecology is the joining of the social and natural systems. Each of the following principles is approached through multiple lenses, the urban ecological design is the concept that ties the lenses together.Book Review of "Toward an Urban Ecology" by Kate OrffUnderstanding scale is vital. Starting with a more basic, more widely understood and approachable level, the neighborhood, SCAPE scales up and down to tackle the larger ‘wicked’ problems we face today. Orff and SCAPE feel that not only is scale important, but it also provides the integration needed for all the moving parts of the previously listed principles to come together in a working, successful manner.

At a time where the negatives seem to outweigh the positives, Orff did a noteworthy job at envisioning a bright, positive future for landscape architecture and allied professions. The ease at which SCAPE’s design process has adapted to take on multi-faceted projects like Living Breakwaters, Town Branch Commons, and Oyster-tecture with ease. Stacking SCAPE with amazing designers is one thing, but pushing the firm to branch out in terms of gaining a deeper knowledge and understanding of the given context is not as popular as most would logically think. SCAPE’s push for activism is exemplified in each and every project, strategy, and intervention mentioned in the book; it provides a hopeful, obtainable, and positive backdrop for the ‘wicked’ problems we face as a society today and in the future.

Book Review of "Toward an Urban Ecology" by Kate Orff

SCAPE provides proof that scaling is vital, which is something not always taught in academia. ‘Going big’ and cool looking graphics are great to get creative minds going, but, in the end, a solution, or an attempt at a solution, should be plausible in practice. I think the push SCAPE makes in terms of on-the-ground practice-based applications is astounding… when realizing not many other professionals attempt the same caliber of testing.

The simplicity in graphics is noticeable in “Toward an Urban Ecology;” in order to reach all - community members, allied professionals, and more - it’s vital to have graphics that are easily understood. More than that, Orff states SCAPE’s shift in the understanding towards community engagement in summation: “SCAPE is trying to chart a path for community engagement centered on education, information, and interaction that can set a broader stage for informed, meaningful dialogue.” Instead of classically, working with the city and speaking to community members, SCAPE has created a routine of a circulatory feedback loop between all; the firm acts a catalyst, pulling everyone together, but also as an information interchange hub taking in and giving out data versus the traditional, linear planning outreach and engagement process. SCAPE should pride themselves on welcoming community engagement of all measures to the design process; in a way, SCAPE attempts to incorporate the positive aspects from the traditional community planning and outreach meetings into their design processes.

Book Review of "Toward an Urban Ecology" by Kate Orff

The intersection of the city (urban) and nature is prevalent in “Toward an Urban Ecology;” leading through the book’s introduction with Ian McHarg, Eugene Odum, and Richard T.T. Forman, and many others, Orff grounds the following projects and interventions SCAPE has produced. By setting the stage for the intersection, mostly in a clashing manner, SCAPE can more easily tackle the problems that have arisen in a world with a threatened climate through the lens of the human and natural ecosystems at play.

As much as Orff and SCAPE would not say the firm is using the theoretical backing of landscape urbanism, ecological urbanism, and the like, it seems logical to see the practical applications of SCAPE’s work as ‘proof’ of legitimate standing for the previously mentioned theoretical concepts. In her introduction, Orff mentions a few of these concepts as aspects of ‘Nature and the City,’ among others; what’s important to note is that Orff (and SCAPE) take them further in practice with the social (or community) understanding. Living Breakwaters is a great example of the balance of a systems-based approach to landscape and urban design; not only is risk reduction important, or perhaps highlighted as the main objective of the project, but SCAPE balances their interventions with the social and ecological understanding that will, in the end, actually help carry the legitimacy and realization of the project to fruition. SCAPE’s Park Raising, the 103rd Street Community Garden (New York), is another great example: “regenerating underutilized public space in collaboration with community members as co-builders.” Orff and SCAPE use themselves as the catalyst to encourage community members to view the landscape and its ecology as part of the system they are a part of. All projects, interventions, and strategies in “Toward an Urban Ecology” approach multi-scalar issues and problems through the lens of the landscape and its ecology, rather than that of solely the built environment.

Book Review of "Toward an Urban Ecology" by Kate Orff

The interdisciplinary approach to all projects mentioned within “Toward an Urban Ecology” positively sets a worthwhile standard for the future of landscape architecture.

Orff sets the stage with big questions in the introduction: “moving forward, we need to think analytically about the interconnectedness of social and physical systems, knit these strands together, and derive new territories for action.” For more than two decades now, since the notable Brundtland Report in 1987, sustainable development has been touted as the right direction; the trifecta of aspects (economic, equitable, and positive environmental consciousness) still resonate in many projects today. While many are over the buzzword, the aspects can be seen fairly clearly in SCAPE’s Living Breakwaters project, among others: risk reduction (economic), community (equity/social), and ecology (environment).

While the boundaries in more recent takes on ‘resilience’ and/or sustainability have started to blur (can an aspect be both economic and environmental, environmental and social, etc?), it is still vital to understand the approach to such ‘wicked problems’ of urbanization and climate change must approach obstacles with the three tenets in mind. Living Breakwaters did an excellent job, and continues to do so, approaching the larger problem of climate change through multiple viewpoints of those involved: all living organisms and their built and natural environments, with this project specific to Staten Island and the Raritan Bay. Giving credit where credit is due, Orff and SCAPE broke down the often too-large-to-understand tenets (economy, equity, environment) with more direct aspects and solutions. For example, instead of classifying the environment as a component, SCAPE chose to focus on the ecology, as they do with most of their projects. By focusing on the ecology, SCAPE could more easily tackle “reviving ecologies.”

“Toward an Urban Ecology” does a stupendous job as a proponent of deconstructing the idea of the master plan we, as landscape architects, planners, and urban designers have come to so heavily to rely on in the past and still today. The idea of the master plan is superb: a perfect solution to achieve the most promising future/outcome. However, the master plan, as indirectly mentioned in “Toward an Urban Ecology,” is often unattainable; there are so many moving parts either glossed over or completely ignored to reach the static idea of perfection outlined in the plan. While academia might be shifting towards an ever-evolving final product, the public sector is still a bit behind on the uptake. Can public entities (cities) accept that there is a true gray area in the ‘final’ outcome, or perhaps, there are multiple positive outcomes that all can be positive and beneficial? SCAPE tackles the myth of the master plan by, most importantly, eyeing projects and problems with a ‘layered approach,’ of which Orff credits Ian McHarg and “Design with Nature” (1969).

Book Review of "Toward an Urban Ecology" by Kate Orff

McHarg stemmed the thinking of layers, rather than an even, deflated understanding: “power relationships and order of cause-and-effect can be comprehended more effectively in section or in animation through time.” By adding another dimension and figuratively exploding the classic 2D plan, more relationships and interrelationships are exposed and, eventually, understood. Orff notes this as “shifting baselines” in her introduction. In tandem with leaving the flat, singular plan or understanding, Orff pairs SCAPE’s approach to large-scale problems like urbanization and climate change with a notion of moving towards (or finally accepting) the systems-based thinking established within urban ecology, among other disciplines: Climate change requires us to imagine a systems-based thinking at multiple scales of action, to generate a magnified understanding of the interconnectedness of systems and processes, to be science-based, and to scale up our work to affect larger behavioral modifications. And we need to do it now. There is no single avenue, nor answer, for any problem at any scale when thinking about the systems affecting each.

In truth, “Toward an Urban Ecology” is not only readable, but could also be classified as imperative for students, emerging professionals, or even seasoned professionals within the allied disciplines (landscape architecture, planning, urban design, architecture, and others). Students and emerging professionals will be inspired by the almost-hypothetical sounding projects SCAPE has proposed and presented in recent years – projects students are often told in school are stunning but hard to carry through in reality. To a certain extent, the book outlines an easy-to-follow manual for students to break down the bigger problems of rapid urbanization and climate change to an incremental, scalable set of goals, interventions, and solutions. On the opposite end of the spectrum, seasoned professionals will be proud of what SCAPE has accomplished, in terms of establishing real-world projects and grounding the conceptual understanding of the interconnectedness of the present and future projects landscape architects and others will encounter. SCAPE exemplifies that “practice is a stance, an attitude, a way of thinking and operating in the world;” whatever the field, the practice should always be looked at as multidisciplinary. There is something to be said by the part manifesto “Toward an Urban Ecology” puts forth: how energizing and awe-inspiring that Orff/SCAPE has pulled together so many of the bits and pieces many of us grapple with in our projects, to be so clearly laid out within revive, cohabit, engage, and scale. With that said, Orff and SCAPE give a great primer on landscape architecture and urban (ecological) design for anyone outside of the allied disciplines, as well as a start to addressing the problems of today.

Have you seen as much social cohesion (outreach, understanding, etc.) in similar projects in your community? How effective or possible is it for firms to approach urban design or landscape architecture projects with a systems-based approach? Share your thoughts and your city’s stories in the comments area below.

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Credits: Images by Katie Poppel.

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Katie Poppel comes to The Grid as a student constantly on the go. Set to graduate from the University of Cincinnati in 2014, she is studying for a bachelor of urban planning with focuses in urban design and sustainability. Her program has allowed her...

  • SD

    It is hard, but possible to approach landscape architecture projects with a systems-based approach.
    To me it even looks like the only reasonable way to do it.
    But for bigger change, first and foremost a change in the study program in the related fields is needed. And then other changes will follow.
    Considering my city, Skopje, I have heard of small scale community projects with similar thought done by activists, but not about projects done by firms, and certainly not on a larger scale.
    Among architects and engineers still the modernist overly-engineering approach is predominant and even seen as “the alternative for the common good” when opposed to the prevalent (even worse) profit driven urbanism…
    I follow Scape and similar practitioners/thinkers and find their approach refreshing, reasonable, optimistic and resonating with my views. I can’t wait to read to book 🙂

    • Katie

      Those are great points! In tandem, a change in academia must happen simultaneously with a push from current firms testing the waters with the larger systems-based thinking. I believe it’s a fine line between theory and practice; both are vital in my opinion.

  • Kevin Vega

    Small groups like Scape are shoeing what can be done with a view of landscape architecture that applies urban ecological thought from the beginning of a projects design while simultaneously bringing in and engaging with communities.

    • Katie

      I agree! It’s super vital to bridge urban (ecological) design and community engagement! I’m glad the design and planning communities have SCAPE to use as a positive model.

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