Urban Design & the American West
By William McDonough
Just over twenty years ago, eminent author John McPhee made a series of now famous trips across the United States on Interstate 80 in search of the “annals of the former world,” the geological story of North America. McPhee and the geologists he traveled with were drawn to the interstate because roadcuts are an unrivaled window into geological history, revealing millions of years of volatile flux—pulsing glaciers and colliding tectonic plates, the thrust of mountain ranges and the avid force of molten matter—all of it there in the exposed roadside rock.
While the geology of the eastern United States was certainly interesting, McPhee found the forces at work there had grown “stable and conservative.” Meanwhile, the “far-out stuff was in the Far West of the country—wild, weirdsma, a leather-jacket geology in mirrored shades, with its welded tufts and Franciscan mélange…its strike-slip faults and falling buildings, its boiling springs and fresh volcanics, its extensional disassembling of the earth.”
In other words, the West was where it was at: mountain-building in all its forceful glory was happening today. It was, as the East had been so long ago, “radical…unstable, reformist, revolutionary.”
We could say the same about the urban West today. Geologically, the show will be running for thousands of millennia yet, but it is largely a subterranean show and while radical, its pace is, well, glacial. Not so the tectonic force of urban development. In the past two decades Denver, Phoenix, Seattle, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, and a host of other western cities have boiled over and poured across the landscape like fresh lava. In their own way, they too are disassembling the earth.
Consider Las Vegas. Booming in the southern reaches of the Great Basin, Las Vegas is the fastest growing city in the United States, with 20,000 housing starts annually and new acreage coming under development every day. If only it were becoming ever more beautiful, representing a thoughtful response to the natural western landscape. Instead, we see housing tract after housing tract planted with irrigated turf, each lot projecting onto the desert the grassy, pastoral world of another time and place. We see the sheep meadows of Scotland shrunk to one-half acre lots, each with a miniature barn and a miniature tractor. We see the English heath overlaid on arid ground, watered greens and fairways replacing the sagebrush steppe, golfers roaming the rolling hills like bored shepherds whacking stones with their staffs.
Projecting other worlds onto the American West is nothing new. When, in 1847, Brigham Young led Mormon pioneers into the Great Basin desert, completing their arduous migration from Missouri, he declared, “This is the place!” But the place he saw was not the place before him, for he immediately began to change it.
Marc Reisner observes in Cadillac Desert that “within hours of ending their ordeal, the Mormons were digging shovels into the earth, forming canals to channel the streams draining the Wasatch Range into the surrounding desert soon to be converted to fields. Without realizing it, they were laying the foundation for the most ambitious desert civilization the world has seen.” By the mid-1960s, when the Bureau of Reclamation’s ostentatious century of dam-building came to a close, the great rivers of the West had been marshaled for irrigation and power-generation, and “great valleys and hemispherical basins” across millions of acres of the region “metamorphosed from desert blond to semitropic green.”
But long before Young and the Mormons settled in Utah and built Salt Lake City, the U.S. Congress had set the course for westward expansion and urban design. It has been said—wisely said—that “the map is not the territory,” but when Congress created the Public Land Survey System in 1785, the map became the territory, projecting onto the land a rigid, standardized grid that was, and still is, used for dividing and developing property. Landscape historian J.B. Jackson wrote that, the National Survey “determined the character of our whole rural landscape” and became “the characteristic national design for the environment.”
The grid was a Jeffersonian idea. Believing that “small landowners are the most precious portion of the state,” Jefferson thought a formalized system for surveying and selling small parcels of government land in the western states and territories was the surest way to create a class of the ideal American citizen—the independent yeoman. The system he embraced surveyed land in a north-south, east-west rectangular grid, mapping 640-acre sections within 36-square mile townships. Sections were sold for as little as one dollar an acre, and following the Homestead Act of 1862, quarter-sections were virtually given away. While selling land, granting homesteads, and establishing towns on the grid did help put land into the hands of the common man and woman, it also made the mapmaker’s projection the foundation of western settlement. Prairie and desert were “conquered” section by section, lot by lot in the service of an ideal, regardless of the conditions of the land. Just so, western cities grew block by block—surveyor’s cities.
The implications of these projections are writ large in the West. Flying over the western United States the checkerboard grid is hard to miss—it’s part of the landscape. But its effect is also deeply cultural. The grid system is a way of seeing. When the grid, or any other projection, is the lens through which we see the world, the map becomes the territory and the land itself remains unseen. Like a trace on the prairie, this is a cultural artifact, an American quality of mind. Landscape architect Elizabeth Meyer has pointed out that land in America is often seen as empty and ripe for the taking rather than full and fully realized in and of itself—it is there to be transformed. In the late nineteenth century, this was gospel. Western boosters took up the slogan “Rain Follows the Plow,” which came to define the American stance toward the arid West. It is gospel still, in rural and urban places alike. Looking at a desert lot on the edge of a booming western metropolis, conventional developers tend not to see a living place with an ages-old evolutionary history once inhabited by Arapaho, Diné, Susquamish, Paiute, Yakama, and many other indigenous peoples—they see a wasteland overlaid with blueprints for one-stop megastores.
But rain follows hot tarmac no more than it follows the plow and after years of drought the western reservoirs are severely depleted. Perhaps it is time to remove the layers of projections that obscure the processes that shape land and life so that we can inhabit each particular place in ways that are both ecologically intelligent and culturally rich.
We might begin with the geologist’s perspective. Geologists carry a map in mind that attempts to visualize the unseen, but unlike the projected grid, it is a map based quite literally on a rock-hard foundation—the earth itself. As McPhee’s geologist companions would tell you, understanding the ever-disassembling earth requires a time scale that sees far into past and future, a sense of time that allows one to imagine both geological and biological evolution. The structure of the earth also reveals climate and hydrology—where the water comes from and how it flows—which in turn tells us much about the living systems of a place. Indeed, a close look at the Colorado River reveals that geology and hydrology are a constant theme in the story of the West. When we can begin to see these themes, these forces, coursing through the life of our cities, shaping the way we design and inhabit the urban environment, we will have come a long way toward becoming conscious and responsible inhabitants, not only of this continent, but of the planet.
Perhaps it is strange, even counterintuitive, to think of this more integrated environmental awareness arising from a sophisticated twenty-first-century urbanism, for nature and the city in America have almost always been seen in opposition—and largely they still are. As J. B. Jackson pointed out, Jefferson and Thoreau each “established a distinct antiurban tradition, still honored by many who know nothing of its origin.” Jefferson’s interest in developing an agrarian society grew out of his hostility toward cities, which he saw as “sores on the body politic.” Thoreau’s regard for nature came in part out of his antipathy for urban life: he saw “man as an inhabitant, or part and parcel of nature, rather than as a member of society.” As we’ve seen, Jefferson’s anti-urbanism yielded the grid, but virtually no ideas about urban design. Thoreau’s, meanwhile, has given us the Romantic suburb where, as Jackson writes, the desire to free oneself from society is expressed in “profusely planted” lawns and dwellings “as isolated as possible from [their] neighbors.”
In the wake of Jefferson’s and Thoreau’s powerful influences, urbanists and planners have continued to try to discover the “right relation” between cities, their citizens, and the natural world. In the early twentieth century the garden cities movement, led by the English planner Ebenezer Howard, sought to create a new relationship between city and nature by abandoning the likes of dirty, squalid London and building new cities from scratch.
Howard’s garden cities had a modest town as their hub, with concentric belts of farmland, industry, and open space connected to the center by tree-lined parkways. The idea was to bring people into contact with nature as they went about their daily rounds, from home, to work, to shop, to park. This offered a real alternative to both the cities and the suburbs of the time, but garden cities ultimately failed to create new urban communities. Howard’s vision, which tried to define a whole way of life with an urban plan, proved to be too rigid, while his focus on creating utopian, self-sufficient towns overlooked the increasing interconnectedness of city and region. Ultimately, the Garden City was anti-urban and its legacy in America can be seen in the low density, auto-dependent developments that have made the United States a suburban nation.
While Howard’s Garden City hit hard times, the idea that city and nature were opposed did not. In 1927, when the hugely influential Swiss architect and theorist Le Corbusier imagined the future of cities, he foresaw a new industrial aesthetic that would free urban design from the constraints of the natural world. The city, he declared, “is a human operation directed against nature” and the house, “a machine for living in.” He imagined architecture worldwide shaped by a “mass production spirit” and saw the perfect urban plan—a Radiant City of uniform high-rise towers separated by open space—as a reflection of that ideal.
While Le Corbusier’s rhetoric could be mechanistic and rarified, it was propelled by a very humanistic desire to create clean, bright, comfortable housing for all. If architecture could offer universal rather than politically freighted solutions to human needs, it could, he hoped, undermine the power of the nationalist ideologies of his day while solving the persistent urban problems of overcrowding, poor sanitation, and class resentment.
Unfortunately, in the hands of less inspired practitioners, and sometimes even in his own, the rendering of Le Corbusier’s dream in the real world tended to destroy the urban fabric. Taken to its lowest common denominator, a dream of equality became a pursuit of sanitary isolation and machine-like structures independent of place—an obvious precursor to dehumanizing housing projects and lifeless urban plazas.
We can do much better than this.
And we are. Running parallel to the streams of thought that have, intentionally or not, produced the twin problems of lifeless cities and demoralizing sprawl, are others that suggest a more fruitful, pleasing marriage between city and nature, people and place. One such stream addresses the structure and behavior of city neighborhoods, and it has come to matter because it flows from a deep love for cities, not a desire to do them in.
Jane Jacobs, perhaps the first and foremost proponent of this perspective, believes that American cities can be great cities, and she discovered the source of urban greatness by watching closely how cities work, on the street, day by day, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood. Today that seems like common sense, but in 1961, when Jacobs wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities, it was heresy. Urban planners were rebuilding cities based on the dreams of Howard and Le Corbusier, but Jacobs launched a self-described “attack” on the conventional wisdom. The design of the Garden City and the Radiant City, she wrote, were “irrelevant to the workings of cities” and she dismissed them as “an intellectual dish of mush.”
No matter how vulgarized or clumsy the design, how dreary and useless the open space,
how dull the close-up view, an imitation of Le Corbusier shouts “Look what I made!”
Like a great, visible ego it tells of someone’s achievement. But as to how the city works,
it tells, like the Garden City, nothing but lies.
Jacobs gave urban planners a new, compelling set of principles that turned the old rulebook on its head, offering a window into the way thriving neighborhoods actually work, a lens planners from Boston to Seattle could look through themselves. They are still looking. Jacobs’s call for urban plans that support the “intricate and close-grained diversity” of the dynamic city neighborhood rings through the principles of today’s New Urbanist planners, who are using them to revitalize old cities and build alternatives to sprawl. Like Jacobs, the New Urbanists favor plans that include a mixture of dwellings, shops, and civic buildings; walkable blocks; a variety of building types; and dense concentrations of residents, all of which provide ample opportunities for sociability and mutual support.
The influence of New Urbanism is growing in the West, its Bay Area roots inching across the landscape. Although easterners Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater Zyberk, the designers of Seaside, Florida, and other “new towns,” have perhaps drawn more attention to New Urbanism, West Coast planners such as Peter Calthorpe are making it a real option for fast-growing western cities. Calthorpe, for example, created the New Urbanist master plan for the $4 billion, 4700-acre redevelopment of Denver’s former Stapleton Airport, which is designed to recreate the fabric of Denver’s traditional urban neighborhoods. Similar designs that seek to ease the social and environmental impacts of growth are popping up from Portland to Salt Lake City to San Francisco, creating an alternative for people who feel, as one Bay Area reporter wrote, “that the bland juggernaut of suburban growth has created a horrible framework for daily life.”
But there are limits to the New Urbanism. Its core principles have been so widely plundered some have come to call New Urbanist developments “sprawl with a happy face.” If that charge is unfair to principled practitioners, it does describe many new town knock-offs. And while many of today’s urbanist strategies do create more livable cities—pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods, more vital street life, plentiful green space—they often don’t see cities in the overarching context of the natural world and, thus, they ultimately fall short of a truly sustaining urbanism. Energy and transportation systems still burn fossil fuels; building materials sometimes harmful to human and environmental health continue to be used; precious water daily runs off impermeable surfaces; urban manufacturing remains wasteful and unsafe; and economic activity is still not considered a part of the designer’s domain.
Here, from our vantage at the beginning of a new millennium, it is vital that we look back before we move forward. We cannot have a new vision for the future until we see ourselves and what we have created—or failed to create—clearly, accurately, objectively, and critically. What lens will we use to see the true nature of our designs? The true nature of cities? Of nature itself? Le Corbusier and the other modernists did not see what our generation did: an image of the planet from outer space—this azure orb, our home, a living, fragile anomaly in the solar system. Nor did they have a sophisticated microscopic or systemic view, a scientific vision that today allows the structure of molecules and the dynamics of ecosystems to inform our designs. With these lenses in mind, both telescopic and microscopic, we can begin to re-envision cities. We can move from piecemeal solutions to those inspired by an urban vision that extends from the molecule to the region and is informed by the laws that govern life itself. A vision that sees nature as part of the city and the city as part of nature; the garden in the machine and the machine in the garden. A vision that empowers architects and planners to design buildings, communities, manufacturing systems, and urban plans that enhance environmental health, social wellbeing, and economic growth, allowing industry and ecology, people and nature, to flourish side by side.
These interwoven currents of ecology, economy, and equity in urban design have their roots in the great tradition of the urban landscape architects, beginning with Frederick Law Olmsted. While Romantics such as the poet John Clare were lamenting nineteenth century cities as “nothing less than over grown prisons that shut out the world and all its beauties,” Olmsted was inviting beauty in. Remembered chiefly for his 1857 design for New York’s Central Park, Olmsted’s legacy is much broader and far-reaching. Not only did he and his son design urban parks throughout the country—including parks, grounds, and arboretums in Tacoma, Palo Alto, Seattle, Boulder, Spokane, and San Diego—Olmsted made the park an integral part of urban design. “Through the design of parks and parkways,” notes landscape architect Anne Spirn, Olmsted sought “to improve the city’s climate, to alleviate air and water pollution, to mitigate floods, and to provide a naturalistic counterpoint to the city’s buildings and bustling streets.”
Building on Olmsted’s legacy, contemporary landscape architects, including Spirn herself, have extended nature’s reach in the city, creating designs attuned not just to beauty and embellishment but to integrating natural processes into urban life. And so today we can begin to see urban building and street designs that use natural air flows to cool the city. We see urban rivers unearthed, riparian corridors reforested, wetlands reclaimed and reconstructed within the city to purify the urban water supply. We see a profusion of community gardens where urban residents have daily interactions with natural processes. We see living roofs—rooftops covered in soil and vegetation designed to mirror the local landscape—that effectively filter storm water and provide urban habitat for native species of plants, birds, and insects. We see solar collection on skyscrapers and geothermal heat rising into buildings from underground. We see an emerging marriage between nature and the city that has the potential to create a life-affirming urban realm.
In the cities of the West this marriage can only be sustained if each strategic planning choice makes ecological, social, and economic sense, not just for the present, but well into the future. Revitalization is possible when urban design is based on timeless principles, which can serve as a reference point as a city develops holistic, integrated plans for its future.
This is not just wishful thinking. The City of Chicago has recently been engaged in such a planning exercise to serve Mayor Richard Daley’s quest to make Chicago “the greenest city in America.” The fruits of this labor, The Chicago Principles, were characterized by one city official as “a set of guiding ‘green’ principles…that describe the city’s ideals, set its course and define its means.”
The Chicago Principles will embrace the commitment to sustainability set forth in the nine declarations of The Hannover Principles, the design guidelines my colleague, the German chemist Michael Braungart, and I crafted for the city of Hannover, Germany, in 1992 . The Hannover Principles, among other things, insist on the right of humanity and nature to co-exist in a healthy, supportive, diverse, and sustainable condition; recognize the interdependence between elements of human design and the natural world; are committed to the elimination of waste; and emphasize the reliance on natural energy flows.
These principles offer an inspiring and encompassing approach to urban design in stark contrast to those that seek to merely minimize human impact. Consider the design of Gap Inc.’s office building in San Bruno, California. Aiming to enhance energy effectiveness and the qualities of the local landscape, my colleagues and I designed the building with an undulating roof blanketed in soil, flowers, and grasses that echoes the local terrain, reestablishing several acres of coastal savannah ecosystem. The living roof also effectively absorbs and filters storm water and provides thermal insulation, making the landscape an integral part of the building design. In addition, a raised-floor cooling system allows evening breezes to flush the building while concrete slabs beneath the floor store the cool air and release it during the day. The windows are operable so that the delivery of fresh air is under individual control, and daylight provides natural illumination.
Recognized as one of the most energy-efficient buildings in California, the Gap office demonstrates the effectiveness of ecologically intelligent systems. By tapping local energy flows, integrating building and landscape, the design outperforms buildings that set energy efficiency as their highest goal. It also enables the building and its inhabitants to participate in natural processes in ways that allow an ongoing celebration of the rich relationship between human creativity and the abundance of the natural world.
Imagine this writ large in western cities. Imagine the Salt Lake City Principles, the Denver Principles, the Los Angeles Principles. Imagine urban designs that create more positive effects, not fewer negative ones. Imagine buildings, neighborhoods, transportation systems, factories, and parks all designed to enhance a city’s economic, environmental, and social health. Imagine an urban design that reaches beyond sustainability to enrich lives.
We can do this by recognizing the operating system of the natural world as the unrivaled model for human designs. In essence, natural systems operate on the free energy of the sun, which interacts with the geochemistry of the earth’s surface to sustain productive, regenerative biological systems. Human systems designed to operate by the same laws that govern the natural world can approach the effectiveness of the earth’s diverse living systems in which growth is inherently good and there is no waste.
These laws can be distilled into three key principles that allow designers to apply the intelligence of natural systems to human designs: equate waste with food; use current solar income; celebrate diversity.
Waste does not exist in nature because the processes of each organism contribute to the health of the whole. A fruit tree’s blossoms fall to the ground and decompose into food for other living things. Bacteria and fungi feed on the organic waste of both the tree and the animals that eat its fruit, depositing nutrients in the soil in a form ready for the tree to take up and convert into growth. One organism’s waste becomes food for another and nutrients flow perpetually in regenerative, cradle-to-cradle cycles of birth, decay and rebirth.
An upholstery fabric I designed with Michael Braungart, for example, woven of wool and ramie and processed with completely safe chemicals, can be tossed on the ground to nourish the soil when it wears out, becoming food for biological systems. High-tech materials can flow in cradle-to-cradle cycles too. They can be designed for closed-loop systems in which valuable polymers and metals circulate in perpetual cycles of production, recovery, and remanufacture—food for technical systems. Safe manufacturing and cradle-to-cradle material flows are crucial to urban design. Not only do they ensure that the materials we build with will be healthful and beneficial, they provide a clean, productive economic base for healthy urban growth. By eliminating the very concept of waste, human industry can become a regenerative thread in the urban fabric.
Nature’s cradle-to-cradle cycles are powered by the energy of the sun. Trees and plants manufacture food from sunlight, an elegant, effective system that uses the earth’s only perpetual source of energy income. Buildings can tap into solar income using direct solar energy collection or passive solar processes such as day-lighting, which makes effective use of natural light. The winds—thermal flows fueled by sunlight—can also be tapped, and along with direct solar collection, can generate enough power cost-effectively to meet the energy needs of entire cities and regions, and indeed, entire nations. Encouraging the development of wind and solar power across the rural West could transform the region’s energy infrastructure, reconnect rural areas to cities through the cooperative exchange of energy and technology, and even end the West’s reliance on hydro-electric power. Clean energy, economic development, thousands of jobs—all by using the energy of the sun.
The third key principle of intelligent design, diversity, is found in all healthy ecosystems; those complex communities of living things, each of which has developed a unique response to its surroundings that works in concert with other organisms to sustain the system. Each organism fits in its place and in each system the most fitting thrive. Rather than offering Le Corbusier’s “one building for all nations and climates,” urban designers can celebrate the diversity of western landscapes and grow ever more effective as they do so.
Urban designers aiming for what “fits” attend carefully to the local landscape. They assess the natural systems of a place—its geology, hydrology, vegetation, and climate. They tap into natural and cultural history; investigate local energy sources; explore the cycles of sunlight, shade, and water; study the vernacular architecture of the region and the lives of local flora, fauna, and grasses. Combining an understanding of building and energy systems with this emerging “essay of clues,” designers discover appropriate patterns for the development of the landscape. By doing so they create possibilities for good growth—growth that supports life.
Imagine everything we make as a gesture that supports life, inspires delight, and expresses intelligence in harmony with nature. Buildings like trees that harvest the energy of the sun, sequester carbon, make oxygen, distill water, provide habitat for thousands of species as well as generate more energy than they consume. Buildings with on-site wetlands and botanical gardens recovering nutrients from circulating water. Fresh air, flowering plants, and daylight everywhere. Birds nesting and feeding in a building’s verdant footprint. Imagine, in short, buildings and communities as life-support systems in harmony with energy flows, human souls, and other living things.
With this vision in mind, we can begin to imagine cities participating ever more creatively with nature; cities where skyscrapers harvest the energy of the sun, where rooftop gardens capture rain and become part of the watershed; where food and materials grown in the surrounding countryside, using implements and technology created in the city, are absorbed by the urban body and returned to their source as a form of waste that can replenish the system. Everything moves in regenerative cycles, from city to country, country to city, in natural and cultural networks that circulate biological nutrition—food, fiber, wood, water—and technical nutrition—the hardware and software of the twenty-first century. The metabolism of a living city encourages such flows of nutrients and thus allows human settlements and the natural world to flourish side by side. If we are to make our cities truly sustaining, we need to take this as a literal, strategic truth that informs all of our designs.
And as a poetic truth. Discovering the wonderful confluences of nature and human purpose is a local, cultural activity. How will the poets of the urban West, the place makers, revitalize the city? There is a great tradition of western literature, from John Muir to Wallace Stegner to Terry Tempest Williams, that celebrates the wild landscapes of the West, what Stegner famously called the “geography of hope.” The poetry of place they have created has removed the scales from our eyes, allowing us to see through the static map to the lively territory. Designers informed by this tradition understand our place in the world more clearly and are perhaps better equipped to respond to the western land with vision and grace.
But the city, by and large, is rarely included in these fine renderings. Perhaps it is time for a new, parallel tradition, a distinctly western, poetic urbanism. Claude Lévi-Strauss, though he was not from the American West, captured this sense of the city as a place where “nature and artifice meet.”
A city is a congestion of animals whose biological history is enclosed within boundaries, and yet every conscious and rational act on the part of these creatures helps to shape the city’s eventual character. By its form as by the manner of its birth, the city has elements at once of biological procreation, organic evolution, and esthetic creation. It is both a natural object and a thing to be cultivated; individual and group; something lived and something dreamed.
Cities are designed, but cities are also organisms; something lived and something dreamed. As makers of living places we cannot help projecting ourselves onto the landscape. The human species has an image-making mind and the city is always something of a dream. But as we dream of our ideal cities, as we conjure the human weft on the geological warp of the land, we can begin to see more clearly the lineaments of the place we inhabit, the true character of the territory, its genius loci. And then, as we shape the character of our cities, we will be making places that celebrate both human creativity and a rich, harmonious relationship with the living earth. We will be creating a new geography of hope.
Howard, Ebenezer. Garden Cities of Tomorrow. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1965.
Jackson, J.B. Landscapes. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1970.
Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Vintage, 1992.
Levi-Strauss, Claude. [need source]
McDonough, William, and Michael Braungart. Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We
Make Things. New York: North Point Press, 2002.
——, The Hannover Principles: Design for Sustainability. New York: William
McDonough Architects, 1992.
McPhee, John. Basin and Range. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1981.
Reisner, Marc. Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water. New
York: Penguin, 1993.
Spirn, Anne Whiston. The Granite Garden: Urban Nature and Human Design.
Something Lived, Something Dreamed © 2003 William McDonough
Red Butte Press
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