Sunday, May 13, 2007

Summer Reading--The Granite Garden, by Anne Whiston Spirn

Summer break is the time for me to do a catch up on reading. It seems the first couple of weeks of summer and the first couple of weeks of a new semester I am really fired up about reading.

I have shelves of books on my to-read list. First up is the Granite Garden, Urban Nature and Human Design by Anne Whiston Spirn.

I found this book to be a pretty quick read. I have read a lot of other books that really covered this same information, so I found it as a broad over view to the city, nature and human activities.

There were several really good points of design I would like to take away and explore. The first is trees in the urban landscape. I know that trees have a very short life span, Spirn says 10 years, in class we learned 7 years. This is a problem. After driving around and looking at trees in this new light, I really believe we have a problem. I don’t think that stunted and dwarf trees are performing the tasks we need them to. We need more from them. They cannot exchange the amount of carbon dioxide for oxygen and absorb the large amounts of pollutants, or increase the amount of shaded surfaces if we mummify them through starvation of vital needs.

What I really wonder, is how come some neighborhoods have trees that cover the streets and some neighborhood trees never get to size? Why? Is it compacted roots? Smaller growing space for roots? Is our building and construction techniques destroying the ground?

Spirn suggests planting trees in groves in plazas and along streets. This gives them more root space. Larger root and canopy provide more shade, a cooler root zone and less temperature fluctuation. Some thought and design needs to be put into this for parking lots, side walks, streetscapes and plazas. I see single trees planted in parking lots struggling to survive. Their thick flaking bark is an indication they are stressed and resorting to survival mode in attempts to reduce the amount of heat baking the cambium layer. Leaves are small and few in attempt to reduce the amount of water transpiring and escaping. Their root zones are circled in molten asphalt and exposed to drying winds. There has to be a better solution. A more aesthetic solution. A solution that is humane to the living organism that cannot escape our prison of pavement and impoundment of persecution.

The urban forest is much more important that I previously had thought about. It should be treated as a membrane to temper incoming solar radiation. To capture and absorb pollution. To make a much more aesthetically pleasing and desirable environment to live and breath in.

I need to explore this more.

After reading Spirn’s book, I would have completely changed my last studio project. My project was a wild and natural park in downtown OKC. I don’t think that it is appropriate. The grid and formality of the urban fabric is too intense and doesn’t relate enough to a complete wild garden. We need more order and measure to the intensely ordered and measured downtown area. I love formal gardens and natural gardens with formal characteristics. There has to be a place that is appropriate to put them, and the downtown area is.

In researching some of the pioneers of the Landscape Architecture during the Country Place Era, I identified with the truly American idea of formality close to the house and less formality as you get further from the house. The city should work in this same manner. Formal and modern gardens towards the core of the city and the outskirts of the city should be natural links like greenbelts and wild gardens that bridge and transition from city to country. The further from the core the more native plants should be used.

Now I just have to reconcile exotic plants within the core of the city with regional identity, which I think is very important. So I will need to explore how the exotics I chose for the core correspond and relate to the genus loci of the place.

The city is of human invention. It is a machine and ecosystem of its own. We control much of the dynamics of the city. Water runoff, heat island effect, vegetation, wildlife and human activity are driven by human activity and only guided by the laws of nature. Our roofs are designed impermeable. We control the amount of urban forest covering our parking lots. So we should use all the tools at our disposal to influence nature in a positive manner in our cities. That means we should plant an exotic species if it will reduce heat island effect better than any native can.

This is kind of a break through for me in justifying the planting of exotics. I so want to be a purist. However, complex problems require complex solutions that are rarely in black and white.

Spirn’s book definitely has helped me resolve and clarify some issues. Modern landscape architecture and a deeper look into the Country Place Era are my next destinations. So much to learn and formulate in my mind--so little time.