Review: Ecodesign for Cities and Suburbs

Originally published on April 19, 2016 in the Journal of Urban Design

By Ann Forsyth

Ecodesign for Cities and Suburbs is the work of two practitioners turned academics. Jonathan Barnett, emeritus Professor of Practice at the University of Pennsylvania, has practised internationally and is the author of five previous books, starting with the classic Urban Design as Public Policy (Barnett 1974). Larry Beasley, currently a Distinguished Practice Professor of Planning at the University of British Columbia, retired from government service in 2006 after over a decade as Director of Planning for the City of Vancouver. This appears to be his first book.

Ecodesign is a concept bringing together various ideas about good urban design and planning in a time of change. As the authors outline in the introduction, eco-design is:

A way of looking at cities and their hinterlands that integrates considerations of environmental soundness and resilience with human health and well-being. it is an attitude about how the city needs to be built or transformed, but also managed and operated, to find harmony between urban systems and natural systems in a way that also contributes to human experience and social life.

The authors elaborate on this concept through set of broad axioms about ecodesign related to managing complexity, promoting sustainable growth, using interdisciplinary processes, incorporating public involvement, respecting both natural and built context, and drawing on multiple design methods.

The book is organized around four broad ecodesign themes each with a major chapter: adapting to climate change; balancing transportation modes; developing more progressive regulations; and creating a better public realm. in covering this material Barnett and Beasley touch on a variety of topics from regional planning to housing affordability, from developing higher density areas for families with children to marketing new kinds of environments. As they explain:

Ecodesign concepts can inform the details of specific places, such as clusters of buildings, streets, and gathering areas. They can help mold the structure of neighborhoods, districts, and whole cities. They can guide the systems that handle the dynamics of full city regions. Ultimately, they can reconcile the human presence in in broad ecological zones: the setting for the city, its suburbs, and its rural hinterlands. 

Among all these axioms and themes, the book’s main argument is that the exemplary should become commonplace. Barnett and Beasley point out that “urban growth is produced by the interaction of many component parts, and each of these components has been significantly improved somewhere. if all these improvements could be put together, they would produce a far different and superior growth pattern”. They see climate change ‒ sea level rise, storms, floods, droughts and fires – as an enormous threat needing urgent action in urban areas. As they conclude, “ecodesign, as an amalgam of environmental responsibility and progressive urban design ethic[s] and practice … must become the new status quo” (241).

The book covers a lot of familiar material. Reflecting the authors’ experiences there is a great deal about vancouver (“a partial success” [7]), substantial material on the US and other Canadian cities, and some relevant minor cases from elsewhere. The book provides a broad overview of topics such as climate change and the authors mention a few earlier books such as McHarg’s (1969) Design with Nature or Sprirns’ (1984) The Granite Garden. However, the main focus is on solutions and examples that seem based on direct experience; the book itself is minimally sourced so in order to find out more about various projects, programmes and policies the reader would need to go to google. However, it is not meant to be an academic book; rather, it reflects the wisdom and opinion of two experienced practitioners who have worked hard to change urban areas for the better. Barnett and Beasley very obviously want to share that experience in a relevant and updated way that engages with some of the large issues of our times, particularly related to climate change.

There are many ways books in this general subject area approach this task. They variously pro- pose specific guidelines and tools in some detail; have lavish photography and drawings; create strong and explicit theoretical or conceptual frameworks for creating better cities; or translate research evidence into lessons for urban areas. This book does none of these, at least in great detail. Barnett and Beasley certainly make it obvious that the world is facing large ecological challenges requiring regional and local solutions; higher densities and more balanced transpor- tation will help make urban areas better; public spaces need to be well crafted for both people and nature; and implementation requires better interactions between public and private interests and better coordination within governments. The book is illustrated, although more in some chapters than others, and the lengthy captions really add to the overall readability of the book. However, it is written as a narrative reflection on lessons learned from years of experience rather than a specific set of guidelines or a tight proposal for a model community.

Peter Hall’s (2014) Good Cities, Better Lives, with contributions from practitioner Nicholas Falk, covers very similar material from a european perspective. Ecodesign for Cities and Suburbs is some- what more based on experience and general knowledge, but there are many parallels in content and tone. while i did not agree with every one of Barnett and Beasley’s interpretations or pro- posals, generally their approach has much to admire and reflects a very deep understanding of how difficult it is to change the trajectory of a large urban area. i liked the term ‘ecodesign’ ‒ so much better than yet another ‘-ism’. They point to many examples of better design and planning already implemented that may be modest individually if pulled together in one place could make a difference. This core argument of the book is something that would make sense to the public and political leaders who are key in any change. overall this is a thoughtful compendium of examples from an experienced team with much to offer urban design.

 

References:

Barnett, Jonathan. 1974. Urban Design as Public Policy. New York: Architectural Record Books. Hall, Peter. 2014. Good Cities, Better Lives. London: Routledge.
McHarg, ian L. 1969. Design with Nature. New York garden City: Natural History Press.
Spirn, Anne whiston. 1984. The Granite Garden. New York: Basic Books.

 

Ann Forsyth

Department of Urban Planning and Design, Harvard Graduate School of Design, Cambridge, MA, USA

aforsyth@gsd.harvard.edu

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