“The Granite Garden”
20 November 2007 |
Anne Whiston Spirn, 1984
Green Urbanism and Ecological Infrastructure
Spirn, who is a professor of landscape architecture and planning at MIT, is in many ways the godmother of the current green city-sustainability movement. She was one of the first to think of the city not as an aberration of nature but as its product, a point-of-view now being pursued across the world. But in 1984 saying “The realization that nature is ubiquitous, a whole that embraces the city, has powerful implications for how the city is built and maintained and for the health, safety, and welfare of every resident” fell mostly on deaf ears. The subsequent twenty years saw little that represented Spirn’s vision.
That wasn’t because she spent her time in the Ivory Tower. Instead, while at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design, she invented the West Philadelphia Landscape Project, which was an attempt to engage Mill Creek community members in a holistic reclamation—if not of the lost, piped creek itself. Spirn was the first here in Philly to remind us that the city was built by filling in, grading, and manhandling the natural environment.
And yet The Granite Garden reminds us that every city lives in nature. The book itself is a combination of manifesto and manual. Spirn wants to alter our concept of cities as anti-nature; to do so, she reviews, recounts, and prescribes modes of understanding urban air, earth, and water; mineral extraction, waste, and energy. She sites projects from Boston to Denver, LA to Chicago. “The modern city is an infernal machine that consumes and squanders enormous quantities of energy and materials, produces mountains of garbage, and puffs and spews out poisons,” she writes and then ingeniously seeing this as an opportunity, tells us how to use sludge for community gardens, how to properly plant street trees, how to manage storm water, reduce flooding, how to avoid earthquakes—all making cities better places to live.
Being avant-garde, Spirn thought all that was needed to understand the city as garden was better data. “The greatest obstacle to preparing a comprehensive plan and to designing projects that respond to the city’s geology and soil is lack of detailed information,” she says, reciting the progressive manifesto. Not so today, 23 years later. We’ve plenty of information; and in The Granite Garden, a thorough blueprint.