Monthly Archives: November 2015

Why we toss it. The paradox of polluting our own environment.

Colin Ellard, of the University of Waterloo, spoke to  Scientific American‘s Gareth Cook in 2009 about his book You Are Here.  He talked about getting lost and speculated on its implications for our tendency to not see the consequences of polluting the environment:

“ELLARD: …We have this tremendous ability to cast ourselves mentally through space and time. What I mean by that is just that it is very easy for us to imagine other spaces, places, and times. This ability to project ourselves mentally from one place and time to another is very powerful. For one thing, it helps us to plan ahead and remember our past experiences.

But I also think that this ability is connected in an interesting way with one of our crowning cerebral accomplishments — self-consciousness. I think that to be aware of oneself as a causal agent in the world, one has to have this kind of ability to imagine other spaces and other times.

COOK: So, you are arguing that our propensity for getting lost is the flip side of this powerful set of mental abilities. But beyond getting lost, what deeper problems come with this ability to “cast ourselves mentally through space and time”?

ELLARD: In the second half of my book, I try to walk through all of the implications of how human beings connect (or don’t) with space, and I think there are many.

When we think about how we engage with built spaces at every scale — from the insides of our homes to the urban scale spaces of our cities, I think that what works and what doesn’t work is conditioned by the way our minds understand spaces. This can have a tangible impact on everything from how we interact with other members of our family or our co-workers in a building to how best to organize rapid transit systems in large cities or how to build great public spaces.

Towards the end of my book, though, I also talk about my fear that some of our basic inabilities to understand how spaces are connected to one another and how we fit into the picture is a part of what is responsible for our failure to protect our environment. How is it that an animal with such a magnificent mind as ours has been unable to do what’s necessary to protect our own planetary home?

Many have said that an important part of the root cause is that we fail to connect our actions with their consequences, and I think there’s much truth to this. What I would add to this argument is that we may fail to make those connections in ways that are explicitly spatial. It’s difficult to understand at a gut level, for example, that when we allow our car to idle for a long time, we’re making a contribution to climate change that will have many geographically remote effects. The intellectual argument is not that hard to understand, but we don’t feel the connection in part because of our fragmented understanding of space. The great evolutionary biologist and science writer Stephen Jay Gould said “we will not save what we do not love.” But if, in our insular city spaces we don’t feel a connection to the rest of the planet, it can be a supreme effort to feel the kind of love that Gould was talking about.”

I wager that it is the task of the social networks in which we live is to stand in for and make us mindful of consequences we cannot comprehend on the basis of our individual neuropsychological processes.  Tools such as social norms, morals and taboos would be the basis for stabilizing a collective ecological relationship, and building up habits and institutions that extend these norms across multiple communities and across time and space.

Rob Shields, University of Alberta


The Promise of Urban Agriculture

IMG_9125Allmende Kontor at the Templehof airport in Berlin

Once the center of the global automotive industry, Detroit has become the archetype of the modern ruin, attracting artists and writers interested in exploring the poetics of ruins and the dystopian sublime. The ruins of Detroit are, in one sense, a critique of modernity – an allegory for the myth of unending accumulation, prosperity and progress (Benjamin, 2000). But the post-industrial city is also a place of possibility. Tim Edensor (2005) argues that ruins constitute subversive counter-spaces that “contain the promise of the unexpected” (p. 4). In post-2008 Detroit this promise bloomed in abandoned lots throughout the city as residents began producing their own food outside the circuits of the local state.

But how unexpected was this sudden turn to urban food growing? As Laura Lawson (2005) reminds us, urban food production and economic crisis have long gone hand in hand, and this history has deep roots in Detroit. During the depression of 1893, Mayor Hazen Pingree famously implemented the potato patch plan. Faced with economic upheaval and mass unemployment, Pingree encouraged the residents of Detroit to farm vacant lots to feed the city, setting an example that was copied and adapted across the US and Canada.

Continue reading The Promise of Urban Agriculture

Slavoj Žižek, Yanis Varoufakis & Julian Assange @ Europe is Kaput!

Slavoj Žižek, Yanis Varoufakis & Julian Assange  at ‘Europe is Kaput!’ in London Nov. 16 2015.  What was said:  Video.   Alainah Rook has provided a transcript  of the evening at Southbank Centre.

hovat zizek varoufakis

Crucially, solidarity with Paris includes recognizing that similar experiences of bombing has been endured throughout Syria and Iraq by civilians.  Why is there no discussion of the role of the Gulf States?  Rather than repeating the tragedy of ‘us’ against ‘them’ in which countries declare that they are at ‘war’ with the Other, attention to the root causes of inequality and inhumanity are required.

War on the Other

Declaring war is the easy way out.  It panders to desires for revenge which perpetuate a cycle of violence on an international scale.  We need to confront the fear of difference and the operation of states for corporate interests rather than the rights and interests of citizens.

War on the ‘Grey Zone’

Assange points out how Clinton and Hollande are in effect consenting to Isis’ stated strategy of eliminating the ‘grey zone’ of tolerant, secular societies centred on human rights and creating a polarized, intolerant situation instead.  There is no ‘exit option’ being pursued for radicalized Muslims that would allow them to to see a more compassionate but still religious alternative.

‘You end capitalism; you end Isis’

Zizek’s closing call is to remove the competition over oil resources for which the Middle East is been an imperial playground for over a century.


Assange calls the Trans Pacific Partnership a “rebordering” of the economic and legal world.  A geostrategic shift such as this unites multiple, heterogenous forces in an ‘economic NATO’.  It locks in neoliberalism across continents but has not been engaged intellectually.

This is a provocative conversation for Canadians, sitting on vast energy reserves and themselves trying to grapple with these challenges: how not to be shunted aside by foreign, often state-owned, corporations; and how to move from an economy based on fluctuating ‘rent’ from the value of raw resources to ‘profit’ from the ingenuity of its people; how to courageously extend an ethics which is neither charity nor humanitarianism to welcome new refugees.

Listening to the Chair’s struggle to allow all three of his speakers to be heard, the last word to Rook for her hard work:

‘I believe it is not simply just that the content of the evening many will find either compelling or arguable, but that the success is in having the conversation at all. If there is a movement towards those who wish to unite, globally, sharing ideas and perspectives, reforms and solutions, many more conversations such as this will need to take place. But if the potential for its success is already laid out in available means: the Internet, discussion, and education – it is not unattainable.’

-Rob Shields, University of Alberta

Topologies and Landscape Architectures 1: Topology. Landscript 3

Vrin, Val Lumnezia, Switzerland

Topology, Landscript 3.  Christophe Girto, Anette Freytag, Albert Kirchengast, Dunja Richter (eds). Institute of Landscape Architecture ETH Zürich. Berlin: Jovis. 2013.

Landscript 3 Topology is the outcome of a workshop and the project ‘Topology – on designing landscape today’ that looked at the integrative role of landscape architecture and sought a theoretical foundation that would strengthen the aesthetic theory and pedagogy of landscape architecture in the context of new, interdisciplinary perspectives on buildings, the environment and cities. Shortcomings in the translation makes for some difficult reading. Topology here refers to changing the extent, scale and dimensions of the tasks that landscape architecture has set for itself. Stepping beyond the garden of traditional landscape architecture, or the vista of landscapes, the profession is now interested in spatial relations more generally. Topology builds on Aristotle’s definitions of topoi and topic as a rhetorical concern with sorting out what the parts of an argument will consists of and preparing them.

There are a few nuggets that leap out of the text:

Design is understood as the taming of complexity, (Kirchengast p.26).

Lucius Burckhardt, a Swiss sociologist and urban planner, and André Corboz, an architectural historian, are introduced for their theory of landscape as a social product (2006) and as a concept projected onto the environment. In Die Kunst, Stadt un Land zum Sprechen zu bringen (Basel 2001) Corboz emphasizes that and territory is an historical palimpsest. Links to the American landscape historian J.B. Jackson are noted. A later post will compare with the work of Augustin Berque.

In Warum ist Landschaft schön? die Spaziergangswissenschaft (Berlin: Schmidt 2006) Burckhardt argues: “Since spatial landscape – as in the case of an English garden – his first produced through the eyes of a viewer, it is not only pictorial also significantly structured by time”. Burckhardt suggested taking “walks as an instrument in order to adequately involve this dimension of time. Strolling denotes a time-based organization of the space from a subjective perspective enables the formation of spatial relationships.”

“He did not consider planning and design to be active processes of creation an organization that resulted in “good form” and “clear systems”… ([But] the recognition and direction of the invisible impetus within systems… Determined scratch that no longer determined by the objects and their technical, practical functions.”

Landscape “flows” with the times and changes constantly. It is not an objective entity that can be defined as synthetic product of interaction relation that needs to be situated within the system of reference.  This provides links to my position that landscape as an intangible virtuality is both real and ideal and distinct from the actually existing fauna and flora.

This position is summarized in Gion Caminada’s development planning of the isolated Swiss village of Vrin, which exploits its remoteness in a manner that provides lessons for planners in other rural communities everywhere.

-Rob Shields, University of Alberta