Photo Essay

Is Your City Boring? Make It Wild

Two BC architects want to transform cities into literal urban jungles.

By Adele Weder 19 Jan 2009 | TheTyee.ca

Adele Weder is a widely published architecture critic. Read Weder's Tyee series Focus on BC Architecture.

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EcoMetropolitanism in your kitchen.

Two of Vancouver's smartest young architects have something ferociously ambitious in mind.

Mari Fujita and Matthew Soules of the University of British Columbia School of Architecture have co-created what they call EcoMetropolitanism or EcoMet for short.

It's a conceptual framework for transforming the modern city into a literal urban jungle.

Fujita and Soules recently unveiled their manifesto at a Beijing architectural conference and in the pages of the influential design journal Praxis.

Their proposal is based on seven tenets that run the gamut from buildings that multitask as homes, offices, farms and reefs to facades reshaped with warps, folds and hollows.

(Click on the illustrations accompanying this article to get a sense of how those tenets look and feel.)

The hypothetical result of this schematic approach, say Fujita and Soules, is a future city that's not only ecologically self-contained, but also much more exciting to live in.

Lengthen that 'habitat skirt'

Consider the almost-completed Vancouver Convention Centre, which now boasts an underwater concrete bleacher that will act as a "habitat skirt" for barnacles, mollusks and starfish. The more ambitious EcoMetrified version would have a mid-rise habitat skirt that steps above and below the water, generating a spawning ladder for salmon, a fishing perch and scuba-diving oasis for humans and a nesting nook for bald eagles.

The EcoMet tenets can be applied to any generic modern metropolis, but use Vancouver as a laboratory and inspiration, partly because Fujita and Soules live and work here. The city also has plenty of raw material close by, what with all the stray coyotes and nearby marine life.

What's more -- and there's no polite way to put this -- Vancouver could really use the help: it has become an architectural monoculture, the urban equivalent of a tree farm.

Jungles aren't laid back

"The problem with Vancouver," says Soules, "is that while it may be very livable, it's not that exciting a city to be in." And though the term 'EcoMetropolitanism' itself sounds like that other eco-prefixed concept recently touted by civic leaders, the two couldn't be more different.

"It's very much a critique of EcoDensity," says Soules. "There's many different ways in which density can occur, but EcoDensity makes no specific claims really about what form density will take. So EcoMet is an attempt to be more specific about what kind of density can occur."

EcoMet espouses a more interconnected, animated, multi-use and motley-crittered urban landscape. Specifically, it proposes a re-think of the modern city as a true ecological system, its human inhabitants balanced with plant and animal populations in a kind of sustainable symbiosis.

Rather than carving out token sections of manicured green space for condo-dwellers to gaze upon and the occasional squirrel to scamper across, EcoMet conflates and synergizes the human and animal habitats.

Private postage stamps

So, for starters, it requires that we rethink our collective fixation on private micro-fiefdoms. "There are very clear ideas about property lines in Vancouver," notes Fujita, with everyone having (or wanting) a private parking spot or balcony.

The urban philosophy of EcoMetropolitanism is predicated more on the idea of borrowing and sharing and overlapping -- imagine human spaces multi-tasking as climbing-vine and/or bear habitats.

What EcoMet effectively posits, then, is that the reduction of privacy and public property is more than compensated for by the new quality of life in the city.

"We can get people even more excited about living closer to each other if you have the lively natural systems flowing through in close proximity," says Fujita.

Considered separately, the defining characteristics of EcoMetropolitanism are not particularly new in the urban imagination. The restoration of salmon streams, and the need to make Vancouver look and feel more exciting are worthy, well-discussed causes.

The will for inner-city agriculture and community gardens has been gaining steam for a while now. (In fact, in her brilliant and under-read 1970 book The Economy of Cities, Jane Jacobs took the lone-wolf view that agriculture and animal husbandry actually began in the city -- not the countryside, as is almost universally assumed -- and served as the beginnings of the contemporary metropolis. If Jacobs was correct, we may be vastly underrating our potential urban capacity for multispecies accommodation.)

But what the Soules/Fujita team has done is conflate all these discrete sectors -- urban agriculture, animal habitat, vibrant entertainment -- into one unified field theory, literally shaped and effected by this broad new architectural paradigm. Architecture -- often the window-dressing final step in so many urban schemes -- is in this case the first step, what makes everything else possible.

A city with bite?

How, though, could wild plants and animals co-exist with squeamish soccer moms and the like? How would we keep the urban dingoes from snatching babies right out of their strollers?

The EcoMetters haven't reached that stage yet. A fantastical scheme like EcoMetropolis will require not only an ace team of architects and planners, but also the experts in botany, wildlife, economics and pretty much every other professional domain you can think of.

Soules has incorporated EcoMet concepts in a schematic design within his current architectural practice, but he concedes it will be some time before EcoMet can pragmatically manifest itself on a broad real-world scale.

"For now, it's a conceptual exploration," clarifies Soules. "That quantification and those sorts of analyses lie outside of our particular domain."

Nonetheless, Soules envisions the day when you can drive into the city, glance at the "Welcome to Vancouver" sign, and right beneath the population figure for humans would be the number of raccoons and coyotes. (Although one would have to question the logistics of census-taking...)

"It's clear that there's zoning implications in the conceptual work," allows Soules. "But it would take a whole series of additional steps to see what sort of literal zoning language there would be to align with the conceptual positions."

"It would have to have a kind of re-imagination of the language to account for things that aren't bounded by [city] blocks."

For now, such churlish reality-checks aren't the point. The issue is to paradigm-shift our collective attitudes away from the glass-tower-on-plinth-surrounded-by-green formula.

"There's a very limited imagination of what architecture can be in the city," says Fujita. "But we live on the west coast, man! Nature is urban. Nature is eco-metropolitan. And it's our job to cultivate vibrant communities."

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