Today I went back to my old place of work, DS Landscape Architects, for a celebratory lunch. Two of my colleagues recently returned from Paris with a two kilo côte de boeuf which provided the foundation of our lunch time feast – fried in butter, of course, and accompanied with a fall mushroom risotto and a tiramisu velocità (thank you Jamie Oliver.)
A good glass of red wine later we were also celebrating the fact that I was accepted to the Rijksbouwmeester’s Onderzoekslab – which are the research labs set up by the State Advisor on Architecture here in the Netherlands for those of us who suddenly became available, shall we say, in the economic crisis. After an application process designers were selected to work on a number of topics relevant to actual situations in Dutch cities. I am in lab 01 which is looking at the redevelopment of inner Utrecht. Questions include new typologies for open space, modulating between private, semi-private and public space, new types of housing variants for a dense central urban context (a Dutch specialty), and my point of focus, the question of sustainability and new ways to define it for future development.
Talking with my old boss Maike van Stiphout brought up a lot of ideas about the role of landscape architecture in urbanism, and how questions of green in cites, as well as issues like air and water quality, biodiversity, and public space are leading us to have a stronger voice in the urban question. In addition to spaces for people, landscape architects also think about the housing for non-humans. I just saw DS’s fascinating collection of habitats for insects, birds, and mammals like hedgehogs and squirrels – all inhabitants of our cities who need shelter as well. The presence of green as well as animal species relates to a discussion about the qualities of urban space we design. Program content is not just about throughput, commercial activities, or the marking of space by a formal language, but also about materiality, texture, sonority, presence, integration of nature, genus loci.
The meaning of sustainability in urban space is up for debate. It’s an unanswered question that points to an enormous need that no one can really clearly articulate. We know our cities should be different somehow. I believe that there is an attitude shift happening, a change in values and mentality that will help us to shed light on the question. Perhaps looking at sustainability in the urban context becomes about the values we have as a society in regards to the other living organisms with whom we share the planet. This is what I will be exploring with my colleagues in the Onderzoekslab in the next three months.