Meaningful Aesthetic

Building on the foundation of a resilient ecological infrastructure, it is important that an urban design simultaneously integrate meaningful experiences that foster an ongoing relationship between human begins and their environment. Landscape architecture has the potential to play a vital role in developing a sustainable future in cities by creating spaces for the development of kinesthetic experiences in urban ecosystems.  In the face of a daunting environmental crisis a meaningful design aesthetic could translate intangible concerns and transform them into tangible experiences that have the potential to change perceptions about the way in which we live. In partnership with the resilient ecological foundation this thesis will explore understanding through a meaningful aesthetic by utilizing principles of cultural pluralism, revealing the native ground, promoting social equity, and creating the potential for transitive experiences.


Cultural Pluralism

Cultural Pluralism (work in progress)

A narrative rooted in ecological process is essential for sustainable design, but the manner in which it is articulated in the built environment is equally important.  Values and biases fluctuate across generations, cultures and economic levels.   There is no universal aesthetic that crosses differential boundaries.  Therefore a meaningful aesthetic promotes experiences that respect local priorities, values and stories.

Without public participation in the development of the built environment, an opportunity to connect environment and culture would be missed.  The French philosopher, Pierre Bourdieu conducted studies to evaluate and quantify the way in which an individual develops aesthetic values.  From his research he found that there was a strong correlation between personal experience and aesthetic perception.  He argued that

a signifier which signifies nothing other than itself, does not consist of considering it ‘without connecting it with anything other than itself, either emotionally or intellectually’ . . . but rather of noting its distinctive stylistic features by relating it to the ensemble of works forming the class to which it belongs, and to these works only.(Weber 2011, 36) In his study of aesthetics and perception Bourdieu argues that art as a signifier is not universally understood due to variations in socialization processes among different individuals and cultures.  A key component of his philosophical research explored how human perceptions are based in an individual’s habitus.  Bourdieu defines habitus as the way in which schema is constructed over time through an individual’s experiences and environment. The experiences and memories that construct an individual’s habitus shape a person’s identity by defining meaning and values.   A sustainable and meaningful aesthetic should therefore recognize the values and narrative of the local community to develop designs that are relevant and significant to the community.

Similar to Bourdieu’s studies on the importance of habitus in shaping an individual’s values, Randolph Hester, a landscape architect, promotes community driven design as a way to create meaningful places for the immediate users.  In Hester’s seminal book, Design for Ecological Democracy, he outlines his philosophical approach for community building that focuses on relationships and interconnectivity between people and their environments. He argues that because social class is “the single most telling indicator of environmental values and behavior, city designers need to have a sympathetic understanding of the power play but also in nuanced expressions of symbolism.” (Hester 2006, 114).   Design for Ecological Democracy embraces two critical post-modernist methods of thinking that include principles from ecological science and participatory democracy.  His design philosophy strives to engender interdependency and understanding between people, cultural narratives and urban ecological systems. The development of the public realm, therefore, can aid in the development of a sustainable future by revealing endemic narratives and promoting cultural equity that fosters a multivalent dialogue between diverse communities.

St. Roch // ground truthing

St. Roch, New Orleans 2010/09   +   2011/02
St. Roch Ave

St. Roch Culture built environment + adaptation + residents

St. Roch Streetscapes condition and drainage

St. Roch // Living in St. Roch survey

St. Roch // Living in St. Roch survey 2011/02

St.Roch Survey_08.PDF

Summary The goal of the survey is to gain a better understand of what is important to the residents and to develop an understanding of significant cultural narratives for the neighborhood.    I was able to collect 27 surveys using the 3 survey methods in a period of 24 hours.

Methods I used three different methods to conduction the survey.

Door to Door

Nika, a member of the St. Roch Community Church, and I walked down Marigny St. from Derbign St. to St. Claude Ave for two hours.  Of the three survey methods, door to door allowed me to meet some of the elderly and less mobile members of the community.  My general impress was that there was a sense of hopelessness, a fear of leaving the home and disappointment that the neighborhood was ‘not what it used to be.’  Nika made this method possible. I would not have been able to do it without someone from the community.

St. Roch Community Church (following an evening event)

A church leader made an announcement after the meeting and encouraged individuals to participate in the survey.  The meeting was racial mixed group of younger residents.  In general there was a greater sense of hope and optimism for the community at SRCC than on I experienced walking on the streets.  This was the most effective survey method that I used, although if I used it by itself, it would not be representative of the larger community.

St. Roch Neighborhood Association Meeting

After a brief introduction from the president of the St. Roch Neighborhood Association (NAM) meeting I gave a statement about the research project. I laid out the goals and emphasized that I would be sharing the research with the community at the end of the process. In attendance was a small group of residents, a couple of neighborhood police officers, and non-profit representatives.  On the same evening, at a different event there was a meeting about neighborhood schooling options.  The residents did not want to have the Carter (?) school return as a KIPP school. ( Many of the members attended that event instead of the NAM because educational opportunities are underrepresented in St. Roch. Anecdotally it was explained that may of the children are bussed uptown at 7 in the morning and do not return until after 7 in the evening.     The image below is the flyer that was e-mail to the NAM members.


Critic of Process

1.   The way that the questions were worded on the survey effected the quality and depth of the responses.  After the narrative based questions I added some possible suggestion to stimulate ideas thinking that this would help to stimulate responses. In many of the surveys this resulted in circling the suggestions and the participant did not expand on the ideas.   As a result the why/what/who part of the question was not answered.

2. The cognitive mapping component of the survey was largely left blank. For a community that has been inundated with surveys since Katrina the mapping question was a different method for conveying knowledge. I think it was not well understood and it way the last question on the survey.  In the future more time would need to be spent explaining the approach and its value.

Southern Louisiana // context research

Big Branch Marsh, Louisiana 2011/02

Context Big Branch March Refuge (BBM) comprises over 18,000 acres of managed lands (U.S. Fish and Wildlife) and it is located on the northern shore of Lake Pontchartrain. I went to the BBM refuge because I wanted to experience a hardwood fresh water marsh (pine flatwoods).   The predominate canopy species were the Slash and Longleaf Pines.  The flatwoods lacked an understory. The ground plane consisted of saw grass, cord grass, bulltounge (tubers) and the Louisiana iris.  Many of the species in the wild life refuge are only found in Southern Louisiana.

While I was on the north shore of lake Pontchartrain I saw an American Bittern- a bird only seen every 2 to 5 years.  A rare sighting and it was amazing to watch it sneak back in to the safety of the dense grass.  Is birding in my future?

Synthesis I was seeking an alternative fresh water ecosystem because bald cypress ecosystems are difficult to adapt to an urban context.  Bald cypress is perceived by many residents of New Orleans as a mess species when it is grown in neighborhoods because it is deciduous.  I was struck by the interesting patterns and rhythms created by the Longleaf Pines.  The bark is coarse and intricate.   The trees grow in two formations- thinner smaller trees close together and wider, taller trees spaced farther apart.    The Longleaf pine is an interesting alternative to the bald cypress because it is not deciduous- which means there is no seasonal mess- and it is adapted to live in hydric soil conditions.

Inquiry How would Longleaf pines adapt to urban environment?  Are there any scientific studies analyzing the affect of lead toxin levels on the long-term health of Longleaf pines?  Do any of the grasses help to remove environmental pollutants like lead?

The pictures above are from my commute between New Orleans and the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain.


It is critical that the design of urban environments helps to reveal the importance of ecological services by amplifying their value in sustaining life and hopefully translate the experiences into the development of an environmental ethic. This thesis will use two primary ethical parameters to link the relationship between the environments and human survival: (1) the design will be grounded in a resilient ecological foundation; and (2) it will create opportunities to develop understanding through a meaningful aesthetic. The ecologically resilient framework will be grounded in adaptive strategies, promote functional trait diversity and incorporate in situ scientific experimentation.  Creating a meaningful aesthetic will promote social equity, respond to the local context, incorporate cultural pluralism and create transitive experiences.

Utilizing the ecological and aesthetic parameters, the thesis will explore sustainable design strategies that integrate dynamic water flows into the built environment of the community of St. Roch in the city of New Orleans.   The thesis will assess the potential of integrating a multifunctional framework that engages existing infrastructural systems and social networks. It will focus on amplifying components, such as water systems and accessibility, which are currently undeveloped in the community.  The physical armature of the design will be rooted in the dynamic hydrological flows, including naturally occurring and human constructed systems.  The design will be structured by a network of points, lines and a plane that expand the public realm.