Category Archives: ecology

Review: Human-built environment relations as a necessary component to architectural designs

Lindsay, G. and Morhayim, L. (Eds.). (2015). Revisiting “Social Factors”: Advancing Research into People and Place. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. ISBN: 978-1-4438-7734-3. 

In Revisiting Social Factors, Georgia Lindsay and Lusi Morhayim take on an ambitious set of questions both reflective and forward-looking: What is the status of social and behavioral research in environmental design? How can the rich, fifty-year history of Social Factors continue to shape, for the better, the places we design and inhabit and inform scholarship at the intersection of culture, space, and place?

(Lindsay and Morhayim, 2015)

We begin in Berkeley, California, where the first Social Factors program in an Architecture department began in the 1960s and where, in 2011, a conference entitled “The Death and Life of ‘Social Factors’: A Conference Reexamining Behavioral and Cultural Research in Environmental Design” convened to investigate the state of “research regarding the relationship between culture, individuals, and the built environment.” As a young Social Factors scholar at Berkeley, the “d” word—death—haunted me: how could Social Factors be dead? Undoubtedly, the field has undergone substantial change since its 1960s heyday, and, in some ways, is marked by the patina of time: neither the behaviorist origins nor the language we use to talk about Social Factors is adequate for today’s research and practice agenda. Yet this book, born from the papers presented at the “Death and Life of ‘Social Factors’” conference, testifies to the long and still robust life of the field. Echoing Jane Jacobs, who both acknowledged the lifelessness of ‘renewed’ urban space to contrast (and attempt to preserve) the promise and joy inherent in historic, diverse city life, the chapters that follow do not chronicle or foretell the death of Social Factors, but rather celebrate its life, then and now.

In fact, as Galen Cranz argues in the Foreword to this book, a social perspective reaches farther into architectural education, scholarship, and practice today than ever before: the National Architectural Accrediting Board requires that all students engage in courses that expose them to social and cultural concerns, the rise of interest in architecture for the public good demonstrates a profound appreciation for contextually sensitive design, and, according to Cranz, “approximately half of the research in building science entails social variables” like comfort and use. Further, the eight essays that comprise this book show how the previous accomplishments of the field and the innovative, interdisciplinary work being done by researchers and practitioners regarding people and their spaces continue to reverberate—and make significant contributions to architectural theory and practice—today.

Though rooted in its Berkeley origins, Revisiting Social Factors boasts broad appeal in the breadth of subject matter it takes on. The book, divided into two sections, begins with a series of essays that orient the reader to the linguistic, historic, and methodological underpinnings of Social Factors and chart a course for future scholarship. In “The Words We Choose,” Karen Franck explores how the language we use to talk about Social Factors research can obscure the value, scope, and disciplinary edges of this field. For example, though “tremendously inclusive,” the terms environment and behavior tend to atomize and stagnate concepts and, in so doing, belie the complex co-influence of people and their places. Instead, we might say space and use—as in the social use of space—or choose other words that convey something multiple, relational, dynamic, and, yes, alive.

Next, Suzanne Cowan and Ayda Melika offer a critical reflection on the history of the Social Factors field—which they articulate as two separate yet parallel strands, one attempting to apply social science methods to social problems and the other aiming to integrate partnerships and participatory methods into design—from the pioneering work of Edward T. Hall and Berkeley’s Clare Cooper Marcus, to the more contemporary contributions of Rem Koolhaas and Teddy Cruz. In considering the origin, successes, and critiques of Social Factors, Cowan and Melika highlight the uneven legacy of this field: its institutionalization in design schools is both its enduring success and its great limitation. Still, the authors suggest a way forward: “This type of research can serve to ground and substantiate the fervor of good intentions and desire for social reform that seem to remain a fundamental part of contemporary architectural discourse.”

Similarly bridging past and present, Dominic Fisher investigates whether the findings of William H. Whyte’s seminal 1971 study of New York City’s small urban spaces remain true today. In a comparative study of two parks—Paley Park, the darling of Whyte’s study, and its predecessor, Harlem’s Collyer Brothers Park—Fisher demonstrates how contextual factors shape the success of a park (Paley) or its neglect (Collyer). Ultimately, he concludes that, in today’s changing urban fabric, Whyte’s praise of small urban spaces as “multipliers” of activity “is still invaluable, but cannot be applied verbatim to seemingly similar spaces in communities underserved by healthy streets and opportunities.” Fisher’s work demonstrates how a contemporary approach to Social Factors research can—and should—continue to inform urban design practices.

If Part 1’s orientation to Social Factors suggests a modern approach to long-standing questions in the field, Part 2 makes good on this promise by showcasing people doing social factors research in both academic and professional settings. Comprised of five studies “that assume the user perspective, with human responses and needs as the unit of measurement,” Part 2 conveys how Social Factors is uniquely poised to address some of the most pressing concerns of our time.

Designing for people with disabilities has long been an interest of socially-minded architects. Yet Ann Heylighten challenges normative approaches to designing for disabled bodies by focusing not on positivist universal design standards, but rather on how people with a range of disabilities—lack of sightedness, hearing deficiencies, and autism—experience built settings in unique ways; such insights can inform new understandings about both definitions of disability (which she defines relationally in the context of person-environment fit, rather than as an inherent individual condition) and spatial experience more broadly.

Programmer Emily Golembewski similarly urges the reader away from a normative practice, this time of programming, a distinct discipline from design, though equally integral in ensuring person-environment fit. Informed by her work at Francis Duffy’s innovative office programming firm, DEGW (now AECOM), Golembiewski offers a toolkit for programming methods: she introduces readers to the strengths and limitations of “formulaic” and “messy” approaches to user research, with the ultimate goal to “identify needs and project drivers, which may be organizational, financial, functional, or cultural in nature.” Though Golembewski’s audience ostensibly is professional programmers and designers whom she hopes will integrate user research into architectural practice, she also makes a compelling plea for architectural educators to “explore the (sometimes tense) relationship between programming and design,” in order to achieve the best possible design outcome.

Marie-Alice L’Hereux also considers the role of education in Social Factors work, particularly regarding sustainability. L’Hereux sees sustainability through a decidedly social lens: “aesthetics, behavior, and technology,” she argues, “all need to be engaged for projects to be successful from both a community and a climate change perspective.” Translation: to be sustainable, buildings must be designed for human use and must perform socially as much as environmentally. Yet L’Hereux demonstrates how easy it can be to neglect social needs when residents are not consulted as part of the design process and social factors are not an explicit part of the curriculum or design criteria. For example, students in a Design-Build Studio focusing on sustainable affordable housing ignored “the fine-grained features of daily life and…maintenance and utility costs,” such that, in the end, according to one student builder, “we did not really design a house that people would live in…it had a neat effect, made good pictures” but did not meet the needs of clients. This chapter reinforces the importance and role of social factors as a primary tenet not just of sustainable design, but of design itself.

A chapter by Yael Perez and colleagues complements that of L’Hereux by offering digital and methodological tools to design sustainably with people; in other words, to engage in co-design to create sustainable housing. Reflecting on their work with the Pinoleville Pomo Nation (PPN), a Native American Nation near Berkeley, CA, Perez and colleagues demonstrate the power of co-design to support a sustainable design approach. Additionally, they show how social media technologies—including Facebook, email, blogs, Google Maps, YouTube videos, and Twitter— can facilitate dialogue among participants and designers in order to articulate how architecture is experienced and—ultimately—design buildings that celebrate community needs.

Such an understanding of people-place interactions—and their translation to meaningful policies and practices—is one of the important legacies of the Social Factors field. A contemporary example of this comes from Cecilia Bodelmann and a team of colleagues from the United States and Sweden. Recognizing two parallel shifts—the rise of sedentary behavior among children and the expansion of preschooling—Bodelmann and colleagues studied the health promotion potential of preschool outdoor environments. After scoring a range of environments based on factors such as size and integration of vegetation and play areas, the authors found that resource-rich environments correlated with increased levels of physical activity among preschool-aged children. This study has clear implications for policy and design practice, especially regarding the need to create healthy learning environments for young people as a means to combat deleterious impacts of sedentary behavior. It also is an inspiring model for how interdisciplinary collaboration can fruitfully address person-environment concerns.

This book began with a lofty promise: to show how questions and research regarding people and place are very much alive today. Though the case studies included are limited in breadth, as is the nature of case studies, they prove nevertheless that the basic priorities of Social Factors serve a vibrant and important role in education, research, and practice today. Indeed, though difficult to convey in just a few chapters the full depth—or potential—of the social factors field, the “cross-section” approach employed by Lindsay and Morhayim successfully uncovers the range of questions alive in person-environment studies as well as the many voices—emerging and seasoned scholars, different disciplines, local and international perspectives—they engage therein.

Importantly, this text is not simply for those of us already familiar with, drawn to, or invested in revisiting Social Factors: in fact, it can inform research and practice in other fields as well. First, it offers an agile framework for thinking about and designing for the intersections of people and place, a topic of interest to geographers, historians, and public health researchers, to name just a few. Second, its authors collectively call for reform in design education—a timely topic as we consider the challenges of designing in a world defined by increasing diversity and complexity—and offer case studies that would be at home in many (interdisciplinary) course syllabi. Finally, this book is edifying reading for designers of all types: a reminder of the value of the social perspective and a toolkit for how to think about and design for the social use of space.

Caitlin DeClercq (University of California, Berkeley)

Does anyone care when a Russian rocket crashes in the Arctic?

Like the proverbial tree falling in the forest, does anyone care when a rocket crashes in the Arctic?

Russia plans to ditch a launch stage of a satellite rocket into the North Water Polynya on Saturday June 4 violate both state sovereignty and the integrity of Inuit residents who depend on the resources of this environmentally-sensitive area for their livelihoods. North Water, a 19th century whaling name for the sea area between Greenland and Ellesmere Island in the northern reaches of Baffin Bay, is kept open by wind and currents year round. A rich fishing area, currents take any pollutants south along Devon Island into Lancaster Sound.

North Water map - Pew Trusts
North Water (Courtesy Pew Trusts)

The assumption appears to be that this is not only an “empty” wilderness but a no-man’s-land, terra nullis. Worse is the assumption that no one and nothing will be damaged, and that no one cares. This is what I have called a reduction of the ecosystem to “Bare Nature”, ethically without value and consequences to which we have a reigning “non-relation”/ Although the hydrazine fuel degrades, it is toxic.

“If Canada was launching a rocket and some of it was going to be landing in the Russian Federation,. you can imagine what kind of reaction we’d have there. The Government of Canada should be defending out territorial integrity” (Paul Crowley, World Wildlife Fund Arctic Program quoted in The Globe and Mail Sat. 4 June 2016 p. A14).

Rape by rocket, however, is indicative of the attitudes of non-residents, ‘southerners’, to the Arctic. The region has been treated as an inconsequential ‘sink’ for global pollution and a margin of global disrespect for the environment. This is in part a counterpart to the romantic attitudes toward the Arctic that developed in the 19th century period of European imperialism and a search for a Northwest Passage from Atlantic to Pacific — Baffin Strait to the Bering Sea.

A further irony is that the Arctic is so poorly served by communications, satellite programs notwithstanding. This summer will see further increased in shipping through the Northwest Passage. Many countries regard this as international waters despite its proximity to the northern coastline of mainland Canada. The result may become a free-for-all, as commercial interests including fishing begin to access these waters during ice-free summer months despite the lack of navigational aids. There is almost no search and rescue capacity, which is a risk to the rising numbers of tourist cruises, now carrying tens of thousands annually.

This contradictory spatialisation in which the Arctic is exoticised as an adventure margin for tourists while being relegated to the null status of a nowher aof blankness, absence and emptiness is a serious flaw in the spatialisation of the globe as a context for human action and activity. Both positions do not truly engage with the concrete reality of the North but indulge in an abstract metropolitan imaginary in which the region virtually becomes a kind of non-place. Rockets are dumped in regions not out of necessity but because they are thought to be empty in the ideological understandings of ill-informed people whose parochial geographies and politics leads the world to crisis.

Rob Shields (University of Alberta)

The Politics of Scale: David and Goliath

Is that Salmon versus LNG or LNG versus Salmon?

Like David and Goliath, there is a mismatch between the scale at which environmental impacts are assessed under Canadian legislation and the geographical scale of environmental, human rights and economic risks. The Provincial Government of British Columbia is promoting the development of liquified natural gas (LNG) shipping terminal at the mouth of the Skeena River estuary by Petronas.   Based on both cultural attitudes to the environment and scientific research, the proposal and and offer of $1.5B compensation has been rejected by the Lax-Kw’alaams First Nation on whose territory the LNG terminal would be located.  Effectively this would be a form of expropriation approved by the Provincial government and is reminiscent of 19th century scrip practices in Canada, by which indigenous individuals were offered rations and money to extinguish their aboriginal rights to land and traditional hunting and gathering.  An article published in Science (7 Aug 2015) by Jonathan Moore and others (Moore et al 2015) notes that this estuary is the site of the second-largest salmon-production in Canada, largely by First Nation communities. ‘Although terminal proponents and government have recognized interests of First Nations from the estuary during environmental assessment, they have ignored interests of upriver First Nations who also harvest salmon’ (see Stantec Consulting Ltd. Pacific Northwest LNG Environmental Assessment Certificate Application (Burnaby BC 2014) cited in Moore et al 2015).

Lax Kw’alaams in title action on Lelu Island Lax Kw’alaams in title action on Lelu Island

‘Identifying the proper spatial scale for environmental decision-making is a fundamental challenge for environmental policy and ethics. Whether it is migratory animals like salmon that transmit impacts, hydro-electric dams that deprive downstream farming communities of water (see Glenn et al 1995 in Biology 10.1175), or carbon emissions from industrialized countries that raise ocean levels and threaten low-lying islands (see Barnett et al 2003 in Climate Change 61, 321), decisions can impact distant ecosystems and people. Science can and should inform the scale at which environmental decision-makers weigh risks to the environment and human rights against potential economic benefits’ (Moore et al 2015)

-Rob Shields (University of Alberta)

After Moore et al 2015 Selling First Nations down the river. Science (7 Aug) Online: accessed 20 Mar. 2016.

See Lukacs, Martin 2016 By rejecting $1bn for a pipeline, this First Nation has put Trudeau’s climate plan on trial Guardian (20 Mar.) Online: accessed 20 Mar. 2016.

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

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

World of Matter: Exposing Resource Ecologies

Exhibition at Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery, Concordia University. February 20 – April 18, 2015.

The world of matter has been forcefully sculpted in the last several centuries by the twin projects of colonialism and capitalism. The very movement of human activity under modernity has rested on the formation of a standing reserve of nature, a category whose flexibility has variously expanded and contracted to include both humans and non-human others as targets for exploitation and extractive energy. Carbon industries, forestry, mining, agribusiness, construction, mega-farming and fishing participate in worlding the world as mere matter, asserting deep and unforgiving property rights in dispersed territories around the globe. Nevertheless, at each point in this cartography of extraction one finds committed points of resistance and un-ceded terrains, both material and symbolic. This symposium and exhibition asks how the fields of contemporary art and media studies, indigenous studies and resistance movements, critical environmental studies, new ethnography and science and technology studies might bring into focus the globalizing dynamics of extractive ecologies. It seeks to build substantive discursive grounds for resisting incursions into sovereign land, denials of the rights of nature, and the persistent dispossession of indigenous and First Nation peoples. It asks, What un-ceded terrains precede and interrupt the depths of imperial ecologies? What interventions ensure the defense of land, labour, survival and species diversity in the globalized present?

World of Matter is an international art and media project investigating primary materials (fossil, mineral, agrarian, maritime) and the complex ecologies of which they are a part. Participants: Mabe Bethonico, Ursula Biemann, Emily Eliza Scott, Uwe H. Martin & Frauke Huber, Paulo Tavares, Elaine Gan, Peter Mörtenböck & Helge Mooshammer, Lonnie van Brummelen & Siebren de Haan. Visit our multimedia web platform here.  

February 20 – April 18, 2015  Organized by Krista Lynes and Michèle Thériault.

Review by Brian Holmes here

-Rob Shields (University of Alberta)