Archive for the ‘land use’ Category


Sublime gestures in the infrastructural urban park context

June 11, 2009

The first section of the High Line is open and people are walking it in a semidaze, looking around everywhere, pointing at sites through view corridors previously closed to them, engaging with the west side of the city in an entirely new way.

By its nature the High Line is a liminal space, and even though the environment is rigorously planned, sculpted, and landscaped, we react with disorientation and delight, as if we still aren’t really sure we are meant to be there.


Perform, don’t tell, land use interpretation

May 11, 2009

newtown creek nature walk

The Times published a piece by Chris Ruen highlighting the improbable idyll of the Newtown Creek Nature Walk. Designed by George Trakas and administered by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, this site now embraces the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant; the creek, which divides Brooklyn from Queens, is historically notorious  for the slow-motion underground oil spill went ignored for decades. The article is an excellent example of bringing land use interpretation into a mainstream context. My Twitteresque attempt at defining it in the past was pretty weak (“Land use interpretation is what we think about what we do with the land”), revealing the inherent difficulty in describing a practice that seems both obvious and esoteric at the same time. I send people to the Center for Land Use Interpretation site for more information, but as with everything CLUI, their up-front definition is slightly cheeky and detached; overall you have to infer what they do from their collective activities.

The Newtown Creek site itself seems to be a prime example of land use interpretation principles in action (I regretfully missed the Trakas-led tour set up by WNYC and Urban Omnibus). As their literature says, “The Nature Walk does not divide the industry and nature between which it is situated, but instead actively integrates this space as a vibrant intersection where multiple histories, cultural identities, and geologic epochs intersect, drawing the visitor into a dynamic narrative of Newtown Creek throughout time.” The diagram on the brochure reads like something Robert Smithson would have proffered if he had been commissioned, replete with such features as “industrial scenes” and “watershed bollard.”

A view from the Newtown Creek Nature Walk. Photo by Ozier Muhammad, The New York Times

A view from the Newtown Creek Nature Walk. Photo by Ozier Muhammad, The New York Times

And Ruen’s piece introduces the concepts of land use interpretation without using the phrase, and makes it accessible simply by reporting the walk itself. He sums it up nicely thus: “The nature walk occupies an unsavory wedge of land . . . yet, this contradictory nature walk, with its bleak concrete paths, holds truth for our confounding times.”


The new breakdancing

March 19, 2009

At first it was thrilling. It’s like buff French guys took the final confrontation of Blade Runner and ran with it. Really ran with it.

Foot chase scenes, stuntsmanship, modern dance, gymnastics—all mashed-up in the urban hardscape of fences, roofs, walls, bollards, any city feature. Parkour. It made for good watching: Banlieue 13, Casino Royale, Nike ads.

You know, the Monkey Vault

You know, the Monkey Vault

It went on. The success of Casino Royale seemingly obligated the Fleming/Broccoli franchise to repeat it in Quantum of Solace. And of course there is instruction for you and for me: “The Outdoor Classes guide you in applying the movements of parkour to the urban terrain, and encourage creativity and mental focus.”

Yet I never saw it out there in real life. Wondered what kind of audience experience that would be like: the city staged as stagey obstacle course. But wait, it’s not a spectator sport, it’s a *sport. Or a discipline. At least, free running. Or a way for fast people to subvert theory and really *experience architecture.

And then Geoff kind of killed it outright:
“Parkour is the new breakdancing. Over-theorizing it as a kind of subaltern use of the city will look ridiculous in 10 years.”


Paint it Green

February 16, 2009

I was with my brother’s family late last summer in Vienna, Virginia. We walked to a nearby park, incidentally one of the parks where Robert Hanssen made some of his infamous dead drops to his Russian clients (but that’s another story). A new all-season baseball field was nearing completion, its artificial turf gleaming emerald, far more intense than the material I remember as a kid.

A landscaping tanker pulled up. Men with hoses emerged and started to spray down an area away from the fake grass with a hose, with what I assumed was a fertilizer mix.


When I got closer I saw something unexpected. The brown chaff around the perimeter of the diamond was glistening green. They had used a dye to turn the rest of the area artificially verdant (perhaps this stuff—safe! Nontoxic!). It’s a landscaping technique that seems to be growing in popularity, and not just for civic projects like this, nor even for proud homeowners anymore.

Welcome to the deep-recession grassscape, which seems to not have as many homeowners around to actually tend to it. Now these dyes are being used to keep up appearances of lawns of foreclosed homes, which overhauls the logic of modern landscape maintenance. Keeping up with the Joneses is irrelevant, because the Joneses are gone. A new lawn and garden industry niche has opened up: not sustained watering and fertilizing, but people who will paint your lawn, are of particular interest to real estate agents and neighborhood associations.


Nick Terlouw of Greener Grass Co., photo by Craig Sanders of the Record

A kempt yard is a miniature landscape that presents a responsible, prosperous, and disciplined family. The front lawn used to be one of the main units of the “good neighborhood”; its upkeep symbolized the neighborhood contract to keep the area nice, and property values up. A natty green lawn represents prosperity, and the implications are obvious when the lawns start dying.

So here’s a notion that only sounds radical because we are still conditioned by outdated notions of stability and affluence. Let the lawns die. Reframe our deeply held notions of suburban order via our small residential plots and transform lawns to gardens. In the process we’ll get much closer to our food and maybe even save money. Huge crises like this one are prime opportunities for huge cultural shifts, and the suburbs are fertile ground for this innovation, stereotypes notwithstanding.

For a photographic meditation on what the foreclosed future may look like, check the fine work of Eve Morgenstern. I see little farms just waiting to be seeded.