Hero Image
Toward an Urban Ecology
Julia Czerniak

Kate Orff SCAPE
New York: Monacelli Press, 2016

272 pages, $50.00

Toward a Manufestograph
Manufestograph: this is how SCAPE playfully refers to its new book. Those familiar with landscape architecture and urban design today are no doubt already aware of the originality of this practice and would likely expect this book—part manual, part manifesto, and part monograph—to follow suit. The book’s ambition is nothing short of reconceiving urban landscape design as a form of activism. Informed by her experience practicing landscape architecture and urban design in the context of global crises affecting climate, water, food, and housing, Orff issues an urgent call-to-arms: “What is the agency of the urban designer?” she asks. “How do we not just make landscapes, buildings and public spaces, but make change?” (7).

What follows is an innovatively structured, image rich, and convincingly argued design publication that leaves the reader energized and, more importantly, empowered. The book is organized into four chapters. The titles of the first three—“Revive,” “Cohabit,” and “Engage”—describe both the principles of and framework for the work contained therein; the final chapter, “Scale,” integrates each of the prior ones. All of the chapters are similarly structured. For example, “Cohabit” (which argues for the need to design for both human and non-human species) begins with a short essay articulating the theme, followed by its comprehensive examination as it manifests in one of SCAPE’s projects, presented through plan drawings, perspectival images, maps, and photographs (in this case, Oyster-tecture, the firm’s widely known and much discussed project to reintroduce oysters to Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal, Red Hook, and Manhattan’s Governors Island). The chapter’s theme is then amplified through analyses of other projects, and brilliantly augmented and advanced through interviews with various experts, community members, and collaborators. Each chapter concludes with a brief essay, authored by a colleague, which theoretically contextualizes the theme more broadly within the discipline.

The question here becomes, how does the book achieve each of these format aspirations? Who is their audience, and most importantly, what agency might they have in realizing the book’s overarching ambition to catalyze change?

Manual: A ‘How-to’ Guide
SCAPE regularly delivers “how-to” manuals as design products. Urban Flyway: Bird Safe Building Guidelines (a freely downloadable publication produced in conjunction with the New York City Audubon Society), Safari 7 (a self-guided tour of wildlife along New York City’s number 7 subway line), and even Glossary of Terms & Solutions for a Post-Petrochemical Culture (an insert included in Orff and photographer Richard Misrach’s book Petrochemical America) provide useful instruction for those of us designers working in the Anthropocene. This book shares their ambition.

So how, precisely, does Toward an Urban Ecology serve as a manual, and for whom? Although I can imagine a wide and varied audience for such a work, including designers and scientists, politicians and policy makers, developers and neighborhood advocates (as well as students of these respective disciplines), Orff explains that “The spatial and physical tools explored [in the book, and in the work, aspires to] help designers and citizen activists to conceptualize their local environment in new ways and inspire them to sustainably remake the built-natural world.” (7). In order to achieve this, the firm promises not simply to share the design strategies for or the products of the work (which it does, thoroughly, throughout the project documentation) but also to “highlight what happens behind the scenes” (7), presumably to make the design process understood and, one imagines, replicable. “Behind the scenes” unfolds largely, from what I can see, through images recording community engagement events (Oyster-tecture’s Fuzzy Rope Weaving Evening) and consensus building efforts (public education events held during the Rebuild by Design competition), as well as through the interviews with non-traditional experts who enable SCAPE’s novel work (a Watershed Steward, Aquaculture Teacher, Social Infrastructure Advocate, and Urban Diver).

As successful as these examples are, I find myself wanting a bit more information about “how to” get urban landscape projects done, from the teams of experts one needs to assemble, to innovative ways to collaborate, to the drawing types needed to communicate to a host of constituents, to the way public processes work. Many of the book’s full-spread images—a woman pointing an iPhone down a storm drain, divers looking at bi-valves, a group gathered around models of what appears to be the 7 train’s path—remain uncaptioned. Although powerful in their own right, these images might have been paired with short texts explaining to readers how what they saw fit within the overall process of working within a complex, urban ecological milieu.

Manifesto: Taking a Stance
As a manifesto, the book advances a plea for all designers to take a stance in their work; not just an ecological one, as Orff’s mentor Kenneth Frampton urged years ago in his essay “Towards an Urban Landscape” (published in Columbia University’s Documents in 1994), but also an urban ecological stance, which SCAPE continually strives for in its projects. The title “Urban Ecology” is also the firm’s frame used to describe “the joint social and natural, systems-based interdependency [it] seeks to define and regenerate in [all of its projects]” (10). As most contemporaries will recognize, “urban” here moves beyond just the “city” to include networks of energy, food, infrastructure, and living systems that support human settlement, and “ecology” signals more than nonhuman relationships, to now describe interactions between all organisms (including people) and their constructed environments.

As important as the urban-ecological stance, Orff argues for an activist one, which she sees as essential to any endeavor to affect change. To position oneself to make change, she maintains, requires multiple actions, including forming coalitions, asking questions about stewardship, and developing time-based approaches to solutions. It would require what she describes as drawing “visually intuitive, deeply explanatory maps that integrate previously separated silos of information” (12) as well as defining a “new platform of multiparty engagement scaled according to the needs of diverse coalitions of partners” (13).

So how do these stances play out across the book’s pages? In “Revive” (which focuses on restoring both the use and memory of urban water systems), the urban-ecological stance is quite evident and compelling. The Town Branch Commons project introduces a new water-based public realm with deep ties to the city’s regional karst geology as a method for rethinking the public realm of downtown Lexington, Kentucky. The design proposes a series of “water windows” (pools, pockets, fountains, and filter gardens) that evoke and expose an underground stream. Inherent in the work, and the words that describe it, are two important ambitions. First is the (very optimistic) belief that uncovering and rebuilding the hydraulic properties of a region can not only improve water performance but “renew wonder and curiosity” (20) about how systems work, thereby generating a stance toward future, improved water projects. Second is a critique of more conventional urban water projects such as South Korea’s Cheonggyecheon River project (essentially a long, linear decorative fountain that serves as a veneer to the actual water systems of the city), which Orff suggests “represents a fantasy world” (21). Orff’s criticism is energizing, and, as a manifesto, the book could benefit from more of it.

What is abundantly present in these pages—seen through images and interviews and prose—however, is evidence of SCAPE’s effort to advance landscape architecture as a form of activism. It takes its activist stance most notably through the argument that “representation”—both as a drawing technique and as public engagement—plays an essential role in producing urban landscape. Orff’s Introduction suggests that the “primary task of the designer is to visualize landscape history and interconnectedness” (10), which requires new forms of drawing as a starting point for design. She refers to the firm’s use of the “thick, rendered, and heavily notated section” (11) as a means to convey the complexity of the city. Members of the practice believe that new ways of seeing and sharing information is essential to communicate and shape common purpose.

Here, Orff and her office colleagues certainly join a distinguished group of landscape architects who share similar interests, including Elizabeth Meyer, James Corner, Anuradha Mathur, Pierre Bélanger, and Alan Berger; each investigates the relationship between seeing, valuing, representing, and acting on landscape as living material, shifting systems, and political and logistical phenomena. As richly illustrated as the book’s projects are, I miss examples of the sorts of drawings to which Orff refers—the ones that gather and communicate the complexity of SCAPE’s sites and its work to the public. In its place, however, are vivid images in which the practice’s passionate stance on public engagement is clear. These images depict various publics being represented in the process of making urban landscapes—landscapes that are not simply for them, but by them.

Monograph: Sharing Work
Out of all the genres to which this book aspires, perhaps “monograph”—in the conventional sense of a highly-detailed study of a specific field of inquiry, often focused on a single person—does the least justice to its contents. Although SCAPE’s built projects, installations, exhibitions, and speculative projects are thoroughly presented, the focus is on urban landscapes that have been collaboratively produced. This is their distinguishing characteristic. While the projects are both urban and ecological in the broadest sense, the practice excels at innovating community-based design. Landscape architecture has always been a field in which public process plays a key (if not always peaceful) role in the formation of urban landscapes. So any contemporary concern with public engagement and process is not, in and of itself, notable. Moreover, in the last ten years both the discipline and profession have increasingly been focused on engagement work characterized by constructing creative partnerships, relying on interdisciplinary expertise, and utilizing creative venues for doing work with communities. What sets SCAPE apart—as landscape entrepreneurs—is their tremendous emphasis on and capacity for advocacy. This is not only through new publication formats (such as this one), disciplinary alignments, and modes of dissemination, but also of new forms of public space. This is extremely important in a discipline that too often calls its work public but fails to reach its audience through contemporary venues and technologies.

Some might look at SCAPE’s monograph and feel slightly disappointed. When assessed through the lens of “appearance” (i.e., in the projects’ formal, spatial, and visual preoccupations) the built work seems less compelling. In this way, one could say the practice has proudly, and successfully, moved beyond “landscapes to look at” in service of producing “landscapes that work,” which has been the promise of landscape urbanism since its formal inception. In Orff’s case, landscape not only works, but works for you, and for us, and for the public good, and as an advocate for itself. I can think of no better future for the field.

How to Cite this Article: Czerniak, Julia. Review of Toward an Urban Ecology, by Kate Orff. JAE Online. September 27, 2017. https://jaeonline.org/issue-article/toward-urban-ecology/