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Ecocity

Ecocity

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03/24/2011

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The Light Community

VENKATESH PRABHU - CARLETON UNIVERSITY – AZRIELI SCHOOL O F ARCHITECTURE AND URBANISM ‘Sustainability’is destroying our humanity and our planet. While the architects’ and developers’ packaged technological prescriptions of architectural ecology proliferate throughout our communities as proof of their dedication to an ecological and sustainable future, they address only the symptoms of the real problem: a system of government and industry which forces our communities farther and farther away from the privileged urban core, fostering individualism and civic apathy. Mass consumer hysteria driven by fear has divided our communities and convincedus that our escape route is paved with convenient products available at our retail stores. We are unable to see beyond the boundaries that have been drawn up to enslave us, the barricades that imprison us in this fantasy of consumer sustainability, maintained in part by our refusal to give up the comfort and luxury of the ‘quick fix for a dollar’. The only thing sustained by the current approach is profit, not our planet. There is no such thing as sustainable architecture unless it is focused on tearing down these barricades through the community-oriented redistribution of space. PART 1: REFRAMING SUSTAINABILITY - AN INSTANT MANIFESTO
“Never has so little been asked of so many at such a critical moment…” - Michael Maniates, Professor of political and environmental science, Washington Post (Nov.22/07)

Our contemporary diet of magazines and newspapers promoting the ’10 easy steps to greener living’ deter the solutions to our sustainable future by promoting and cashing-in oncomplacence disguised as ‘awareness’ or ‘green activism’. Michael Maniates points out not only the passive acceptance of our subservience to the urban planners, but also the disproportionate response to the magnitude of the problem at hand. This is not a time for green trinkets and baubles, light bulbs and showerheads – they are the blindfoldpulled down over our eyes. We must get off this road and beat a new path right through the lifeless concrete junglesuffocating the latent natural landscapes of our urban cores. Our tendencies to speak loudly but tread lightly must be put to rest.

“Build a better gewgaw, doodad, or thingamajig and the world will beat a path to your door; design a better future and it will suspect and marginalize you.” - Richard Register, Ecocities: Building cities in balance with nature,2001, p.53

Thus far, we have been plied with the product-oriented ‘fashionably green’ symptomatic of our culture of consumption; offered largely cosmetic and superficial solutions to a systemic illness; and denied the kind of urban redistribution of spacewe so desperately require. Our unwavering capitalism of the ‘green trend’ plainly betrays the decline of our awareness of ‘self’ and of our symbiotic relationships with our architecture, our community, and nature. Those dark towering bastions of the free-market stand tall in our city-centers while our beaten and broken communities beg for rejuvenation and freedom. Any possible ecological design is little comfort to the lifeless streets and the contemporary urbanite’s undesired and unsolicited anonymity.

“To the extent that sustainable development agents move from crisis to crisis, using technological fixes to patch up larger structural problems, they tend to strengthen the systematic relations supporting unsustainability – especially when such “band-aid” solutions lead to instances where these deeper problems fall below the threshold of public attention and the political momentum for more fundamental change dissipates.” - Richard S. Levine, Sustainable Development, in conference report of the first International ecocity conference, Berkeley: Urban ecology, 1990 – p.24.

Therein lies the key to urban sustainability: public attention and fundamental political momentum – for any architecture to have a chance of promoting sustainability, it must unite communities by addressing the most basic needs of the human being: our desire for social engagement, proximity to nature, and jurisdiction over our personal health and subsistence. The circumvention of the community’s autonomy and self-determination has affected its ability to foster local relationships. Metropolis-wide zoning regulations meant to subdivide the city into discrete-use districts ultimately destroy the urban diversity required for a sustainable future, and gradually draw out of our collective memory that which makes us human, that which keeps healthy the symbiosis between our mind, our body, our community and nature. PART 2: REBUILDING MOMENTUM
“We mistake the order of magnitude of what we are dealing with.” - Thomas Berry, 1991 lecture to the Schumacher Society, ‘The Ecozoic Age’

Although we recognize that a systemic solution to the problem of sustainability would require a transformation of the roots of our urban neighborhoods, the few proposed systemic solutions, such as Paolo Soleri’s desert ‘arcologies’, or the fantastical vertical cities, serve only as examples of new encapsulated cities based on a single stand-alone vision, rather than proposals for funneling market forces through the patchwork aspirations of our existing communities, the only possible foundation for a sustainable future. The fact that architects such as Soleri begin their visions on virgin or abandoned land highlights the main difficulty in developing a solid foundation for sustainability within existing communities: the presence and inertia of the community itself. The behavioral inertia of the community is both a challenge and an opportunity for change. ‘What happened to community involvement, and community pride?’ is a question which has no single answer, but the continuing degradation of social ties within the community is undeniable: our foundation is crumbling. It has not simply been pushed aside due to urbanization and increases in population densities, to be rekindled by town-hall meetings and posters promoting community involvement as many hope to believe. Rather, it has migrated to, and built momentum in, another type of community: the virtualcommunity. The intentional community. As opposed to the geographically and politically bounded incidental and accidental communities in the ‘real’ urban environment, the intentional communities in virtual space are overflowing with the enthusiasm and social interactions of their millions of members. We must take the opportunity to drive this primal community foundation back into ‘real’ communities through architectural incursions in our urban cores, rebuilding momentum by igniting the spark of transformation. We must learn to transform what already exists rather than dropping new architectural ideals into unoccupied spaces.

“If ecological buildings are not about their relationship to other structures, public open spaces, and the life of the whole community, what are they about?” - Richard Register, Ecocities: Building cities in balance with nature,2001, p.29

Although Register believes that the most promising sites for transformation are those that have been abandoned, the greater challenge is the seeding of an existing dysfunctional community with an architectural incursion where urban spaces characterized by eight-hour days can be redistributed to thriving twenty-four-hour communities. Increasing residential and agricultural densities in these intermittently lifeless spaces immediately and drastically improves quality of life and the integrity of key infrastructural services such as water or transportation. The introduction of community-building elements in hostile urban areas is the most challenging but most significant manner in which a sustainable community can be born. To drastically alter the behavior and the lifecycle of a community with a targeted architectural incursion can generate the fundamental shift in its ability to re-unite with their members and with nature. It is only through a fundamental redistribution of space in our urban cores that the blindfold can be lifted.

PART 3: IF YOU LIVED HERE, YOU ’D BE HOME

“In understanding the nature of the city, distance is a key factor. The principle of access by proximity applies to living organisms and cities alike. Gathering people together reduces distances, which in turn reduces the need for travel and expenditure of transport energy, the level of pollution produced and the quantity of land paved.” - Richard Register, Ecocities: Building cities in balance with nature, 2001, p.57

Three towers of the Toronto Dominion Center, two by Mies van der Rohe plus a third tower on the same block, are not only an eye sore in a city of eye sores, but a slap in the face of community building and infrastructure efficiency. It is not their style that is abhorrent but their impact on the fabric of the community they inhabit. The dark, shadowy triad in Toronto’s financial district looms ominously as an uncomfortable reminder of the modernist response to increasing urban commercialdensity. Its limited use of the PATH, Union Station, and the Skydome Stadium Walkway, appears arrogant and elitist, alive only eight hours a day – a terrible waste of urban infrastructure and land. The strictly commercial nature of the towers is a blatant misuse of the amenities of the urban core, especially at a time when the financial sector is retreating from public outrage. It is from this unfortunate scenario that ambitious opportunity is born. As the banks flee to the tops of their dark towers, we are offered a unique opportunity to commandeer the structural

carcass of a failed space and re-imagine the urban core as a clustered community based on longterm health rather than the survival of the contemporary product-oriented economy.
“to forget how to dig the earth and tend the soil is to forget ourselves.” – Mahatma Ghandi

The opportunity to transform the towers into a mixed-use community of primarily residential and agricultural spaces would drastically alter our inhabitation of city-centers. The transformation of the ‘dark towers’ into a symbiotic community of agricultural and residential co-existence would impact the city in a profound way, altering the fundamental perception of the city-center as a lifeless grouping of office towers and business-related activities, and affording the new urbanite previously unexplored possibilities for livelihood. The Light Community would re-connect us with our humanity and with nature,something that is not afforded by commercialized sustainability. Co-operation between community members can lead to a shift towards micro-agriculture, providing healthy organic produce and eliminating thousands of kilometers of agricultural transportation emissions while reuniting us with our roots. The development of a water purifying system can localize water infrastructure. The space for technological innovations is not being erased – they are taking their place as enhancements to the systemic solution rather than being promoted as solutions themselves. The attempts of contemporary ‘incredible-machine’ style architecture at sustainability fall short of a systemic solution because it looks towards a product-driven solution, rather than a community-led evolution. True sustainability comes from the pedestrianizingof streets, the localization of infrastructure, and the connections between the architecture, rather than the architecture itself. These aspects of sustainability require united community efforts, not the singular efforts of any innovative architect. It is the daily activities and the interpersonal relationships of community members that will support our sustainable future, not the marketing of energy efficient light bulbs or low-flow showerheads. The free-market economy is a river which carries product-oriented solutions complimentary to a sustainable future, however it is the community which determines the borders and direction of that river, and the relationships between community members which prevents the erosion of the river beds.

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