A New Metaphor: Urban Acupuncture?

Courtesy Nicholas de Monchaux

This past weekend at the NC ASLA conference keynote speaker Paul F. Morris, FASLA, in his presentation Active Living by Deign, spoke about the role landscape architects play in public health. Part of what Morris was suggesting is that we need to return to our professions social and political origins. This is not a new concept for landscape architects—from the beginning Fredrick Law Olmstead’s work was viewed as a public health endeavor. In fact, as Morris mentioned, Fredrick Law Olmstead was the first Executive Secretary (the head of administration) of United States Sanitary Commission, an early version of the Red Cross.

The discussion of this legacy reminded me of an article I recently stumbled upon, and one you might already be familiar with, Earth in the Balance by Jane Holtz Kay, published in 2000 for the 100th anniversary of the profession. Kay’s article addresses the historical context of landscape architecture and also questions why it is so undervalued. She does not directly address LAR’s role in public health, per se, however she recognizes a shift took place where “landscape architects saw their role in public service evaporate, their supremacy in the public presence slide.” Morris’s presentation showed anticipation for the profession’s public service presence to return. Although times have changed immensely from Olmstead’s day, our missions are fundamentally similar, but the context we now work within is much more complex. So I began to wonder, what is a good example of a 21st century project that shows a clear evolution from what it meant to have a positive effect on public health in Olmstead’s day to what it means today? And I think I found a good one for you consider, Local Codes:

“If, in the 19th century, it was a biological metaphor that fueled the creation of Central and Golden Gate parks, the idea that a city needs hearts and lungs to grow, there’s now a networked metaphor. The city is a dense network of relationships. The best way to provide infrastructure is to not go in with a meat ax but to practice urban acupuncture, finding thousands of different spots to go into.”

-Nicholas de Monchaux

Local Code (video here), developed by Nicholas de Monchaux, an assistant professor of architecture and urban design at the University of California, Berkeley and his students, proposes a systemic re-greening of leftover pavement space on a large scale. Using G.I.S. in conjunction with parametric design tools, Local Code suggests a set of individual landscapes for each site with the goal of mitigating larger urban performance variables like storm-water retention and heat-island effects. Together, the aggregated sites project an alternative green infrastructure with potentially measurable benefits to safety and public health as well. Read more in an opinion piece from the New York Times.

What I like about Local Codes is that it represents innovation in our field (or inextricably related fields). In addition to being activist and participating in local health boards, part of what Morris suggests, we also need to think about what the opportunities are for public health innovation in the projects we design.