Sex and the City Landscape: Desire and Sustainability

Martha Schwartz

We all know how it feels to desire something and, more poignantly, someone. We desire sex, food, social status, approval, and love, along with more mundane things like houses, shoes, cars, and cell phones. We also, when given the option, want what we think is beautiful.

Desire is a fundamental human state, derived from bodily functions. All living things have evolved strategies over the millennia for attracting the opposite sex. Those that develop better strategies for inciting desire—flashing brilliantly colored butts, insanely ruffled plumage, or large breasts—will attract more and better mates, engage in more sex, deliver more offspring, and ultimately out-compete others of their species.

Inciting desire is therefore a serious business linked directly to survival. Passing one’s DNA into the future insures continuation of the species. People that manage to spread their DNA to a number of others sustain their characteristics through succeeding generations. Thus one of the fundamental goals of sustainability is longevity.

The same process of sustainability through attraction drives financial markets. Designers (and in this category I include all who enhance the appearance of commodities—shirts, bicycles, bags, cities, communities, buildings, built landscapes …) are kept busy trying to come up with the design elixir that will best increase a product’s attractiveness and ability to be sold. “Don’t sell the steak, sell the sizzle,” the ad guys say. No matter how beautiful the watch, it is usually subordinate in advertising imagery to the sexy model wearing it. Whether you give the watch or wear it, your desire to possess beauty is seemingly fulfilled. The use of visual signals to generate desire is a serious business. In London, the creative sector generates $200 billion worth of goods and services each year.1

Creating desire is essential to sustainability. It is not the only factor, but it is still indispensable. Sexiness does not guarantee sustainability, but sustainability requires sexiness. Desire, the “human factor,” has been downplayed in sustainability, which is usually seen as a matter of function rather than form. The term tends to be applied to technology as it relates to how ecological systems maintain balance in environments or to buildings’ energy efficiency. In this context, desire seems like a pretty lightweight component in the development of sound building practices. The focus on technology is understandable, given that the great majority of our limited resources are embedded in the construction and operations of buildings. In addition, functional factors—materials, structure, utilities, etc.—are inherently more measurable and predictable than human factors and therefore more easily discussed and evaluated. But in the rush to embrace quantifiable and demonstrable technological solutions, we have overlooked the important role of human nature. In fact, if you consider design a creative rather than merely an imitative endeavor, desire is the impetus to the process. Thus design too has been under-represented in the discourse on sustainability.

If we wish to think about how to create sustainable cities, we must go beyond utilitarian approaches to include human beings as part of the ecology. “Soft” systems—governmental, cultural, social, and economic—are as necessary as “hard” systems like hydrology, waste treatment, and transportation.

In every phase of environmental planning, we must consider all the psycho-emotional traits hard-wired into our character. Without this more holistic view, ecological projects won’t get off the ground. If people don’t feel a desire for a plan or design, then no matter how well it functions, it will not survive in a free market. “Soft” systems are the particular purview of landscape architects, who must deal with many issues that are not technological. We are the professionals who are trained to fully integrate and understand all the systems that come into play in community-and city-scale projects.

One of the key measures of sustainability is longevity. Clearly, to replace materials requires additional energy and is costly in resources and impacts. This is why so many European cities insist on building with durable materials. To procure, transport, and install materials like stone may take more energy and result in greater ecological disruption, but they are still environmentally and financially preferable to cheaper materials in the long run. And most natural materials will not create toxicity.

Europeans obviously develop projects for money too, but their profit equations run over a longer time than our American get-in-and-out equations. Europeans have historically not pursued the real estate speculation that has engendered our “flip-it” economy. They know they will end up paying less money by investing more money up front and that well-built, well-maintained development will ultimately accrue more value (while raising the standard of quality for the surrounding real estate). Inherent in the European model is turning over to future generations something that will continue to have value; this our instant-profit culture routinely disregards. A long-term perspective provides social sustainability and social sustainability is necessary for general sustainability. It also demonstrates a kinder and gentler culture in which people are less greedy and more civic-minded. For America, this will require a major behavioral shift. Americans have little recognition of the adverse psychological/emotional effects that poor materials, poor design, shabby construction, and an impoverished physical environment have on people.

Well designed and funded public spaces generate long-term value in many ways. In public health, there is evidence that hospital spaces offering light, color, and green plants improve healing times. Well designed spaces that reflect investment and care are less often defaced by graffiti. When people love places, they expect them to be maintained.

We Americans “get it while we can.” In my experience as a landscape architect in public and private sectors, typically both the development community and cashstrapped city governments want to do something that will make a “statement” for the upcoming reelection or a fast buck. Rarely is quality over time considered. Because of failing materials, U.S. public sector projects built in the ’60s and ’70s have recently had to undergo (or should soon undergo) major repairs. Maintenance is chronically underfunded in the U.S., yet it more necessary because of inferior materials. Our public landscapes are blighted by years of deferred maintenance and die early deaths.

American public officials struggle under the expectation that administrations are not supposed to be paying much money for civic projects. Even the appearance of spending money on public improvement is perceived as theft. “After all, it’s the taxpayers’ money.” Not in France, where people express their pride through often extravagant gestures of exquisite public design and costly materials. In cities like New York, contractors are chosen solely on the basis of offering the lowest bids. This guarantees poor workmanship and materials. In Europe, projects generate support for maintenance, which in turn protects the original investment.

We are a nation of suburbanites, unlike our neighbors across the pond. We have used cities only as springboards to the American Dream of the detached suburban house. Americans don’t yet have much motivation to change. Developers reap rewards by snapping up cheap land and planting McMansions serviced by big-box retailers. Americans want space, easy parking, and a big green lawn. With this as our agenda, we have veneered our landscape with lowest-common-denominator development at an astonishing speed.

This default development pattern is based on an assumption that we have an inexhaustible cheap supply of land, gasoline, oil, and electricity, construction materials, water, and food. This, we now know, is false. With our dwindling resources making their shortage felt on our pocketbooks, we’re realizing that our sprawling habits may be unaffordable. Low density development is expensive in natural, social, and cultural resources. Sustainability is impossible when we pay the high cost of infrastructure for low densities. The regeneration and densification of our cities is the most important environmental strategy we can develop to deal with both decreasing resources and global warming.

Europeans have long been dealing with population density and limited resources; they are years ahead of the U.S. In some of Europe, green roofs are required by code. Europeans have always had and are more comfortable with top-down governance, so they can more easily employ rules to implement action to support energy savings. Having gone beyond the rudiments of architectural sustainability, they are now concerned with how to build sustainable cities.

If we are creating communities or cities that people want to live in, we are addressing desire. A desire-fulfilling city, one that appeals to our senses, attracts new people, and keeps its original inhabitants ensures its longevity.

Some progressive cities are focusing their planning efforts on people’s experience as well as on architecture as a planning device. In Copenhagen the planning efforts of Jan Gehl are focused on enriching and stimulating pedestrians’ experiences; Gehl was the person most responsible for the longest pedestrian-only shopping street in the world.2 His work has probably contributed to Copenhagen’s having been recently designated the world’s most liveable city.3

In contrast, Dubai is a city where the objective is to generate a new economy for the UEA by using oil billions to place a worldwide hub of finance and tourism in a desert. Dubai has been planned using a scattershot, testosterone-fuelled approach of erecting architectural spectacles. This has been accomplished, yet it is impossible to cross Sheikh Zayed Highway, the city’s main street, without hailing a taxi, driving to the next highway clover-leaf, backtracking 100 yards, and getting dropped off on the other side. The city, if built-out in its present form, could not function, because almost no cultural or environmental factors have been considered. Along with buildings you need a functioning road system and public transportation, as well as public open-space that allows for sidewalks, bicycle lanes, and crossable streets, buildings that address the streets, and engaging public open spaces.

Dubai illustrates what can happen with an architecture- or engineering-first approach to citymaking. Its collection of garish parametric buildings together create an extremely ugly city where the public’s only option is to hang around in commercial buildings, lobbies, or shopping malls. Dubai offers the shallow pleasures of conspicuous consumption and the vanities of social status, but now, with the economic meltdown, a broader, deeper quality of life will have to be engendered. The public realm (if there can be one in a Kingdom) will become urgent for Dubai if it is to last.

A sustainable community has the organization, economy, social structures, and cultural environments that invite people to stay over a long time, investing and re-investing. Prerequisites for a sustainable city include all of the expected attributes: good internal and external connectivity, efficient public transportation, walkable neighborhoods, good public schools, a good mix of uses that enables people to live in reasonable proximity to their work, plus provisions for childcare and care for the elderly. But the sustainable city also requires an aesthetically attractive and distinctive landscape system that ties the city together. Landscape is not just the “green”; it is the entire platform on which all environmental, social, and cultural activities take place.

The evaluation and rebuilding of cities to respond to these issues is crucial in many parts of Europe, where populations have flattened. City leaders are trying desperately to maintain their economic viability by keeping and attracting residents, but success will demand new ways of thinking. First-world countries are rapidly leaving the information age behind and moving toward what Daniel Pink calls the “conceptual,” in which human brain power rather than technology is the primary economic engine.4 Cities are increasingly eager to attract citizens who are well educated and creative. To do this, their cities must be safe, have lively cultural venues and good schools, adequate public transportation, and a generously green and well-kept public realm.

For this reason, the ex-mayor of London, Ken Livingston, made the enhancement of the public realm of London a cornerstone of his administration. He believed that the landscape was more important in people’s urban experience than its buildings. Considering London’s huge scale, its public realm works at an astonishingly high level, in both function and spirit. You can get around easily without a car; diverse public parks are spread throughout; the streets and sidewalks are well kept and safe. So London keeps it population and draws more.

In America, we are just discovering that cities can tap into new economic forces and reposition themselves by using their public landscape as a catalyst for change. Chicago has demonstrated that investing in green and artful public amenities and spaces can generate the same benefits as those enjoyed by London and Paris. Economic research has proven the economic benefits of New York’s Central and Bryant Parks, Chicago’s Millennium Park, Boston’s Post Office Square, and the Mesa Center for the Performing Arts in Arizona.

Making the city a functioning ecosystem will take a lot more than solar panels. We must start having conversations about what “quality of life” means and how this can be achieved for as many people as possible. Without putting a robust public realm strategy at the center of a development or redevelopment plan, the opportunities for creating a sustainable city or community are few. Landscape architects must learn to be much more convincing to city leaders about the lure of beautiful design.

Landscape architects need to collectivize, to articulate how we can inspire in people an urge to live in cities. Along with more efficient transportation; improved social and educational infrastructures, attractive housing for low- and middle-income families, and creative design for low-rise dense housing, a well-designed and maintained public realm that will promote vitality, biodiversity, health of body and mind, recreation, and civic connection. As importantly, we must not shrink from our role as form-makers. We must demonstrate the ability of design to shape environments with sex appeal: The desired city will be the sustained city.

Harvard Design Magazine Issue No. 1
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