If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water…. Its substance reaches everywhere; it touches the past and prepares the future; it moves under the poles and wanders thinly in the heights of air. It can assume forms of exquisite perfection in a snowflake, or strip the living to a single shining bone cast up by the sea. -Loren Eisley

As urban designers we are at once moved by the tremendous challenges facing our urban imprint upon the land—the city; and its affect upon our planet—her atmosphere, oceans, and living systems. In our search for solutions, we look to nature for guidance; that perhaps within her experimentation with complex outcomes and interdependence there exists a clue to our built environment. The following three projects are an exploration of this relationship between nature and the city; of not only a latent attempt to emulate her beauty, but her processes as well.

In The Art of Ecology we attempt to paint urban solutions as an artist paints the landscape, with an eye towards boldness; but understanding that our limited attempt is only the first step in unlocking the relationship between ecology and urban development.

The inspiration behind Jining New City, Rugao District, and the Shunde Guipan Riverfront lies in capturing what is unique and most beautiful about the place and enhancing it. In all three, we explore the most fundamental landscape element of the site, the river, and its affect upon urban pattern.

In all three, though representing various scales of development, the idea of water or canal is rooted in the history of the place and has influenced the growth of their respective locations since their inception. In all three, emulating the art of ecology is less about imitating her physical beauty, but more about learning from her processes.

Imitating Ecology

Beyond the mere inspiration of her beauty and formal language, we must begin to understand natures processes in our attempt to imitate her. From the air, we are inspired by natures patterns; of vast forests and grasslands, weaving mosaics of color, but must ask ourselves, what is the science behind this painted canvas? Are there natural laws that govern her art?

For example, flat terrain often leads to braided water systems that seek to find paths of least resistance, responsive to the forces of fluid dynamics. The end result are often tree-like patterns that grow and branch, moving and changing relative to fluctuating environmental conditions. As the finer-grained water systems branch out, increased edge conditions result, giving way to a variety of opportunities. Environmentally these opportunities manifest in the increased ability for nutrient exchange (along the edges of wetland marsh) and organism exchange (predator and prey along open water edges versus protected grassy waters). Maximizing edge surface area increases opportunity for exchange. Within the urban context, a similar relationship can be said to exist between circulation (roads) and real estate (commercial property); and yet again between residential property values and green space (parks). And so the opportunity exists to exploit this corollary between edge intensity; namely water and real estate, evolving this braided ecology into a kind of braided urbanism.

Filtering Ecologies, Filtering Urbanism

At the same time, all three sites exhibit a need to improve water quality. At Jining, the project area exists at a critical threshold between existing city and major lake; at Rugao, the proposed development straddles a key bend along a polluted river; and at Shunde the proposed river park lies between a new city and a culturally important waterway. As an ecological principle, braided systems have the ability to increase filtration capacity through increased edge condition and nutrient exchange. Thus, by incorporating this braided design as a fundamental framework for urban development, we can conceptually increase the filtering capacity of city-making.

These braided water patterns then give rise to braided districts and braided neighborhoods, each varying in land use (commercial, residential) and density. Furthermore, density (apartment towers versus single family) can have a direct correlation with water pattern; more course and larger waterways create larger islands and greater flexibility for higher densities, while finer-grained waterways create opportunities for more secluded low densities (single-family residential). A wholistic pattern begins to emerge in which real estate and development objectives coincide with and compliment environmental ones. A braided ecology becomes a braided and filtering urbanism.

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