Starkvillage, an Example of Ecological Urbanism Part One: Up to Speed on EU theory

Posted: 2011,November 23 in Uncategorized

In light of previous posts regarding Ecological Urbanist (EU) theory, I would like to point out an excellent project from one of my classmates this semester entitled “Starkvillage” but first I need to bring everybody up to speed on what exactly EU theory is.

First of all let me reiterate the distinction between EU and new urbanist (NU) theory (im going to try to boil this down to the bones of it all). First of all EU theory espouses an indeterministic approach to design focusing on processes over time. The term ‘ecological’ is meant as a metaphor as much as it is specifically referring to ecological processes. EU theory is sort of a “biggest picture possible” approach to understanding processes and systems at play that influence urban form. This is where the ecological metaphor comes in. Just as there are a mind boggling complexity of interrelationships between organisms, geography, hydrology and climate that all play a role in shaping the dynamics of an ecosystem, so is there a similar complexity of ecological, cultural, societal and economic interrelationships that play roles in shaping the dynamics of urban form. The goal of EU practice is to acheive urban sustainability through a TRUE integration of ecological processes that is only possible through an honest understanding and acceptance of the forces at play.

And so where is the discrepancy between EU and NU approaches? Well the difference as I see it is mainly philisophical, with a high likelihood of both approaches arriving at the same end. New Urbanists tend to think of creating density through architecture as a means to an end, whereas Ecological Urbanists believe that approach is at best backwards, if not largely unnecessary in many instances. This main philisophical distinction has created quite a devisive rift amongst a lot of people.

But I see where both sides are coming from. An EU advocate would argue that plopping down density through architecture without understanding what underlying frameworks are at play leads to a great failure in terms of sustainability. They claim that NU is a failure of modern urban planning because of this. In fact it is true, that while very recently there have been some successful NU infill developments, by and large most NU projects are greenfield developments – outside of any existing urban context, and are essentially high-dollar enclaves for the rich. Charles Waldheim, the founder of the EU movement, has stated that if you take an honest look at contemporary urbanism, economics and automobility shape urban form more than anything else – and so why not try to understand those forces in order to achieve your end instead of simply denying them.

Here is an analogy. So you understand that there is a problem and that problem is that due to habitat destruction, there is an ever decreasing ammount of wetlands. So one approach to this would be to build more wetlands wherever you can, regardless if it is on an upland site (which I have seen this done by the US Forest Service before) or somewhere else that doesnt make sense. Or do you try to understand the the forces that are leading to habitat destruction and look for opportunities to preserve and create wetlands in a sensible context.

For this I am reminded of an inherent conundrum in urbanization. Is it better to fully destroy a smaller section of land for super high density (as in the case with NY City and an approach that Duany espouses), or halfway destroy a larger section of land (this would be an instace of urbanism where you would try to preserve as much habitat as you can – thus sprawling out more). It seems to me that EU theorists would say that it is not necesarily the case that this has to be one way or the other. Ecological Urbanists are searching for ways in which to completely conflate the two conditions of urban and ecological. Once you can get over the notion that only pristine, untouched-by-human “nature” is a functioning ecosystem – then you can understand that it is possible for urbanity and high functioning ecosystems to be one in the same.

I think the EU folks win out on this because of one singularity. An ever increasing population. If you take either of the above mentioned approaches to density and follow along a course of population growth that leads to a maximum carrying capacity of humans, you either get a planet that is covered in New York City, or one that is covered in New York City with a few ecological “museums” that used to be streams and creeks and woods.

That being said, I will throw out just one argument for New Urbanism (allthough I could argue more for the case of NU, I am focusing on EU right now). That argument is that NU approaches to desity as in mixed use, walkable and community sustaining neighborhoods is the appropriate habitat for humans (ecological metaphor). Thats not to say that suburban, single family detached housing is pure evil and must be done away with. In terms of ecological function – i have certainly seen older, more established suburban neighborhoods with mature forest canopies that are walkable AND highly ecologically productive. But in the end humans are social animals, and too much decentralization leads to social disease.



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