Native Ground

Native Ground (work in progress)

Cognitive linguist George Lakoff argues that“(m)eaning is not a thing; it involves what is meaningful to us. Nothing is meaningful in itself. Meaningfulness derives from the experience of functioning as a being of a certain sort in an environment of a certain sort.” (Lakoff 1987, 292)In urban environments the certain sort starts with the way in which we think about the function of everyday environments.  For the urban resident, streets are the main corridors of exchange and places for developing embodied knowledge on a daily basis.

In order to develop a meaningful aesthetic, on-going cultural and ecological narratives must be researched and interpreted. In the nineteenth century, industrialization brought a rapid shift towards urban environments that resulted in the decline of an agrarian community structure.  Living in cities has weakened an individual’s understanding of the native ecological structures that existed prior to urbanization.  The homogenization of the urban living environment has resulted in placelessness, which is characterized by banal and generic building typologies that neglect regional identities.  Given the homogeneous development patterns in cities it is difficult to decipher the unique regional context, and the local environmental language becomes mute.

The implementation of homogonous development that neglects existing ecological foundations reduces the resiliency of cities.  That said, a resilient city relies on a healthy dialogue between the endemic ecological systems and a built environment that accommodates dynamic fluctuations. Anne Spirn, another of McHarg’s students, has taken a leading role in exploring how homogenous building methodologies have severed of the interconnected relationship between humans and nature.  In Language of Landscape Spirn argues that the “loss of knowledge (about nature) limits the celebration of language as a partnership between people, place and other life and further reduces the capacity to understand and imagine possible human relationships with nonhuman nature.”(Spirn 1998, 23)Creating a new language for the city focused on contextual and adaptive principles provides an important point of departure for sustainable design. Reimagining the potential of urban infrastructure as a multifunctional network that incorporates dynamic ecological fluctuation will aid in reconnecting urban environments with their native identity or genus loci. Developing sustainable urban environments, therefore, requires a bottom up approach that begins with reading and understanding the local language of the native landscape.

A shift in language should embrace and promote an ongoing dialogue between humans and their environment rather than the monologue that has obfusticated our knowledge of how we depend on natural services for survival.  Postmodern architect Lucian Kroll embraced a dialectical processes rather that prescriptive, deterministic structure for constructing the built environment.  He argues that architects should take an ethnological attitude towards design by embracing it as a process, not a procedure-[which] receives and transmits, not wanting to master anything . . .  It promises, then a much better understanding of reality which is fluid, moving and unknowable. To allow things to happen themselves is much more efficacious than to prescribe everything.(Ellin 1996, 253). Ethnology interprets, analyzes and compares human culture in terms of language, beliefs and social structure. The designs of environments that affect change understand places as an evolving cultural event.   It can be likened to the theatre of the everyday. The performance space of the public realm should layer different components of place together to create a dialogue between the environment and the surrounding context.  The way in which a designed environment will affect an individual is impossible to predict.  However, the design of environments has the possibility to spark inquiry and engender a higher level of respect towards the environment by revealing our inherent dependency on it.

In 2010 the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, CABE, conducted a study on Ideas about Beauty to help quantify how beauty is perceived and valued among a diverse group of individuals.  The study concluded that there are significant differences in the meaning of beauty and the places that it is experienced depending on the age of the participant.   The study found intergenerational difference in the “experience of buildings and parks; whilst only one in five (21%) of 15-24 year olds has experienced beauty in this way, more than half (54%) of those age 45-64 have.” (CABE 2010, 1) The statistics flipped when survey assessed consumer products as a source of beauty; the younger generation was twice as likely to associate beauty with consumer products rather than nature.   The differences between generations could be caused by increasing urban densities and/or the increasing dependency on entertainment based in technology.  What remains consistent is that there is a decline in the direct experience with nature for the younger generation.  The trend sets up a strong argument for the need to bolster the opportunities younger generation to experience nature in their immediate environment.

New Orleans provides a vivid example of a city that has suppressed natural function.  The urban structure of New Orleans needs to be retrofit to improve its ecological function and ability to adapt to future climate fluctuations.  Although a large portion of the city is built on reclaimed marshes and swamps it is difficult to find even traces of these ecosystems in the existing spatial language of the city.  Furthermore, the citizens of New Orleans are denied access to an even greater environmental narrative due to a system of protective levees and walls that limit their accessibility to the Mississippi River. The city’s relationship with the Mississippi River is complex because it represents both a life line and a threat for the region. As a delta city, the city of New Orleans should take an active role in designing a safe environment to reduce water related threats.  As the city rebuilds from the damage caused by hurricane Katrina it is left with critical choices.  The city can continue to wage a war against its inherent dynamic qualities by fortify and expanding the fortress around the city.   Alternatively it can be designed in a way that positively integrates water into the everyday narrative.  The best approach for the overall welfare of the city would depend on a hybrid approach to water management that makes space for daily fluctuation in water levels and provides a secondary level of fortified protection for extreme events.


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