The Wood For The Trees

There aren’t any people who sweep anymore
Save for a few old women who won’t be here much longer
And after they’re gone things will look much poorer
And dustier, and grungier, and smell much stronger.

But we won’t be here to suffer that fate
We’ll move up into the hills where things are much cleaner
And we’ll come back on weekends and stay out real late
But be glad that we left as the streets are much meaner.

When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.
– John Muir

The day was “bluebird” as my snowboarder friends like to say, and Main Street Blairmore was squinty in the morning sunlight of solstice June. It was a couple of minutes before ten and the walk from the local grocery store back to the car was as good a stretch as we could expect given that two hours out of Calgary we had barely scratched the surface of the day’s drive. Another fourteen or so brooded before us and our final destination, over the continental divide at the Crowsnest Pass, through the Rockies, down the Idaho Panhandle, across the arid highlands of eastern Washington, then down into and along the Columbia River Gorge, past Portland the smart growth capital of North America, and south on the I5 to the college town of Eugene, Oregon where we were competing in the weekend’s Summer Solstice Ultimate Tournament.

I was damned if I was going to take the course again if it entailed an implicit admission of interdisciplinary shortcomings on my part — at least above and beyond the shortcomings of my classmates, or the instructors for that matter.

The summer before we had made the same passage and I had read aloud from Sid Marty’s Leaning on the Wind, which is as great a love affair as it is an indictment of our life and times on the east slope montane, “under the spell of the great Chinook;” of the beauty of the land and its great shaping forces, of its prehistory, and its belated and tumultuous transition into the shadow of Western Culture’s historical umbrella. That morning, above Blairmore, the green runs of Powder Keg, the local ski hill, dominated the view and spoke of a related transition – the local transition to a completely different, but equally beleaguered economy from the coal mining that initially brought European, Eastern Canadian and American settlers in droves into the Crowsnest Pass. I mused that the wide street, a legacy of the optimism and hubris of a frontier time when little coal towns were envisaged as future “Pittsburgh’s of the Rockies,” would not seem out of place to the area’s new settlers, recreational property owners and renters from Calgary; suburbanites to whom wide roads, staples of automobile dependant suburbia, are the legacy of a much evolved breed of hubris. But my ire was up, this year I was reading to my car-mates Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, and our trip into Blairmore for groceries for our breakfast, as opposed to the ubiquitous gasoline alley fill-up, was saturated with a meticulous righteous indignation.

One of my tasks for the summer, a task that was consuming increasing amounts of my thought process, was to prepare a paper on interdisciplinary theory. This paper was the final plea bargained arrangement in the elaborate academic suicide that I had undertaken the previous school year. My natural propensity to gravitate to the centre of the maelstrom had turned deadly serious while studying abroad in Barcelona during the fall semester and a violent run-in with local gangsters in the Barri Gotic persuaded my flat mates and I to leave town in rapid fashion. While I returned three weeks later to put the finishing touches on the term’s project and present it, I had sufficiently antagonized the instructors so as to reap the whirlwind of a failing mark. Back in Calgary for the winter semester, I managed to spread that antagonism around, and after a lengthy, and embittered, appeals process, I found that I had won myself the right to either write a paper on interdisciplinary theory – which is what the appeal board found was the essential experience my absenteeism had deprived me of – or to retake the course in Calgary, in the fall of 2002.

As the act of reading this conveys, I chose to write the paper. This is in large part due to the fact that I felt a significant amount of moral outrage from my belief that the course in Barcelona was no more than interdisciplinary in title, and that my team produced one of the only projects that genuinely attempted to put interdisciplinary theory into practice. I was damned if I was going to take the course again if it entailed an implicit admission of interdisciplinary shortcomings on my part – at least above and beyond the shortcomings of my classmates, or the instructors for that matter. In fact, before interdisciplinary theory was singled out as “what I had missed,” I had advocated retaking the course in Calgary the following fall as a possible solution that I could live with. In the end, I chose to write this paper because it gave me the opportunity to examine what interdisciplinary theory is, to examine its relationship to environmental design in theory and practice in the academic and real-world milieus I have experienced, and to examine the validity of the outrage I was feeling.

I am currently pursuing my Master’s in Urban Design through the Faculty of Environmental Design at the University of Calgary. The Faculty was established in 1971 and, in keeping with the spirit of the times and the seminal nature of the environmental movement, was probably a little more radical and subversive then with its “change the world” message than it is today. The Faculty’s current literature states that “the nature and scope of the Faculty’s activities have evolved in concert with the growing awareness of the importance and complexity of human activities in and interactions with both natural and built environments.”(Tyler, Dean’s Message) Over the last thirty years, the seemingly contradictory developments of the normalization of environmental issues into everyday life, in a university, a city and a province that have increasingly embraced the capitalist pro-business attitudes of the Globalizing Free Markets that define our age, has tempered the Faculty’s core message to questioning, “how should we live in the world?” But this question too is not without its challenge to a culture that has a pathological habit of asking whether we can, while never asking whether we should. Less idealistically though, perhaps that question can also be interpreted as the Faculty’s own pragmatic soul searching; how should Environmental Design live (or survive) in this world of singular focuses and short-term bottom lines?

The Faculty’s pedagological formula involves a syllabus of three required courses. EVDS 604, 609 and 702 are intended to impart to a student body studying a diverse set of curriculums, from established programs with professional accreditation such as Planning and Architecture, through Industrial Design and Environmental Science, to choose-your-own-adventure style learning streams under the general heading of Environmental Design, a unifying, integrated and interdisciplinary theoretical approach to responsible environmental design practice: 604 lays out the theoretical basis of environmental design, introducing and discussing topics from authenticity through sustainability, in lectures and seminars; 609 is a brief foray into environmental design practice; and 702 is the major, semester-long interdisciplinary project in which teams of students with different skill sets are given real-world scenarios, often with real-world clients, and encouraged to find solutions that, responding to “context, and precedent,” and reflecting “cultural, environmental, technological, socio-economic, and communication processes,”(702 – A reference Framework) often end up offering an entirely new and more holistic way of looking at the problem in the first place. Ideally, Barcelona is the perfect test of the theory and practice of 702; can a strong grounding in the theoretical framework of environmental design translate into the ability to conceptualize responsible design interventions even in a genuinely alien environment?

The instructors, while debriefed in the concept of interdisciplinary theory and the fact that 702 is to be a thoroughly interdisciplinary experience, were neither properly prepared, experienced or supported to provide that facilitation.

I firmly believe that the project that my team put together in Barcelona delivered precisely the kind of intervention that 702 seeks to provoke. My appeal to the Faculty was based on the grounds that the design was excellent, and that my contribution to that design, in spite of my absence, had been integral. On top of that, I maintained that the quality of the work produced by my team, in the form of presentation panels and physical models, was consistent with requirements and that my contribution to that material production, again in spite of my absence, had been sufficient. It should be noted that my team received a pass, while I had been singled out by the instructors and the recommendation had been sent back to Calgary that I should fail. What the appeal process clarified for me was that the Faculty deemed assessing the quality of the design, the level of contribution to that design, and even the amount of material work produced irrelevant to the proceedings. When it was made clear that the foundation of my arguments were irrelevant to the board, I was fundamentally unprepared to proceed coherently. In the end, the product was of no consequence and the issue rested on my three week absence during the process. What I took this to mean is that interdisciplinary theory – at least as it applies to the Faculty’s conception of it – is methodological or process-based. In other words, the take home message was that interdisciplinarity is more about the act of working in close proximity with other disciplines, than about the results that working together can achieve.

Clearly, this is false. But I also believe that this is not what was intended. In retrospect, I recognize what happened. The instructors in Barcelona were paid by the Faculty of Environmental Design in Calgary to facilitate the interdisciplinary experience of EVDS 702 for a group of close to thirty students. The instructors, while debriefed in the concept of interdisciplinary theory and the fact that 702 is to be a thoroughly interdisciplinary experience, were neither properly prepared, experienced or supported to provide that facilitation. While I fully recognize the seriousness and the gravity of my preceding assertion, I also recognize that the most alarming thing about it is that it calls into question the legitimacy of 702 in Barcelona – and by extension, the Faculty of Environmental Design. That issue is a question of turf, and turf is about boundaries, and boundaries are precisely what interdisciplinarity is attempting transcend for the purposes of achieving results that would never otherwise be able to happen. But these boundaries exist, and not only delineate the dominion of different departments and faculties of knowledge, but also manifest themselves in the political and hierarchical way in which these schools are organized and funded within academia.(Moran, 2002) The simple fact is, especially in the current financial and political climate of the University of Calgary, that the Faculty of Environmental Design would not exist for long if challenges to the quality of its instruction and its ability to meet its educational mandates were allowed to be paraded through the University’s appeals process. This is not an issue that is unique to the Faculty. A significant portion of the literature on interdisciplinary theory is dedicated to discussions of how the current way our academic, public and private institutions are organized along disciplinary lines, makes things much more difficult, not only in terms of achieving interdisciplinary results, but also in terms of keeping your job when one strays outside the quantifiable boundaries of established disciplines.(Klein, 1990)

I believe that the Faculty’s method for advancing its agenda in a cultural milieu that ranges the spectrum from inertial to hostile, has been a policy of pragmatism. It really isn’t that difficult to weigh the benefits of a study abroad experience in Barcelona against the drawbacks of that experience not achieving its interdisciplinary goals. Similarly, it isn’t that hard to weigh the benefits of there being a Faculty of Environmental Design against the drawbacks of its having to make compromises in order to remain in existence. The truth is that interdisciplinary projects fail all over the place because the goal is extremely difficult and society, and academia, are structured to reward disciplinary endeavor and resist change.(Hershberg, 1988) These failed attempts often are branded by interdisciplinary theorists with the stigmatic term “multidisciplinary,” as their results fail to represent an integration or synthesis of the many disciplines that were brought together to address the problem.(Frank, 1988) It is due to this that another significant portion of the body of literature on interdisciplinary theory has dedicated itself to examining the processes of interdisciplinary collaboration. I imagine that I was assigned this paper to make up for the interdisciplinary experience that my absence deprived me of because one of the core prescriptions for fixing interdisciplinary dynamics issues is a working environment characterized by close physical proximity and frequent interaction between the various disciplines involved.(Roy, 1979) Of course, if interdisciplinary results are achieved, the interdisciplinary theorists recommending procedural modifications quickly become researchers trying to ascertain exactly what went right.

Certainly, there were many breakdowns and failures to achieve interdisciplinary results by the project teams in Barcelona. The reasons for these failures have been identified and described, and named and catalogued by researchers of interdisciplinary processes.(Qin, Lancaster, Allen, 1997) But I was not going use this essay to regale my personal experiences or observations on the multitude of procedural maladies that afflicted my team and the teams around me in Barcelona; about whether we became too hung up in Stage 1 – Singing the Old Songs, or whether a team I observed never progressed past Stage 3 – Retreating into Abstractions.(Klein, 1990) The fact is that I too can be pragmatic. I value what I learned and experienced while studying abroad in Barcelona. I am satisfied that, despite a situation and a team dynamic that is comparable to any of the war stories on interdisciplinary failures that exist in the literature, my team managed to produce a solution that was integrative, reframed the problem in a more holistic way, and was genuinely workable in the real world. And if circumstances are such that the real disciplinary boarders that constrain the Faculty make re-assessing the work a price not worth bearing, and writing a paper on interdisciplinary theory was my lot in life, then I would take that opportunity to answer some questions that were nagging at me.

There were two things in particular that were consuming increasing amounts of my thought process. The first was the scope of Environmental Design and interdisciplinary theory, and the second was the nature of the relationship between the two. The way it seemed to me was that the reach and breadth of both were very large, and while that is pretty clear to everyone, from professionals who banter the terms about everyday, to myself and my fellow students in the Faculty, to our instructors in Barcelona, to laypeople who receive the two-minuet synopsis, what isn’t clear is how Environmental

Design and interdisciplinary theory relate to each other. So far in this essay, “interdisciplinary” and its various conjugations have been used thirty times. Albeit this is a paper on interdisciplinary theory, but the term also peppers the literature of the Faculty. For example, the Dean’s Message on the Faculty website states,

No single discipline or profession embodies all the expertise required to deal with the dynamic complexity and holistic nature of environmental design phenomena. The Faculty of Environmental Design offers an interdisciplinary environment in which a synthesis of theory and practice from a number of different fields of study are brought to bear in human-environment problem solving situations.

I think the easy and obvious answer is that interdisciplinarity is a structural component of environmental design. To a certain extent environmental design and interdisciplinary theory share a systems based understanding of the world as being interdependent. Environmental Design, at its broadest interpretation, where “environment” means any milieu that humans engage with or in or next to, and “design” means any act of engagement, can be interpreted to be about everything – literally everything. Interdisciplinary theory is equally pervasive. A basic interpretation could state something along the following lines:

The processes of specialization sown into the fabric of Western Culture by the Industrial Revolution and increasingly evolved over the last hundred and fifty years, have driven much of our culture’s reaping of material wealth and all the other quality of life perks that come with living in the Western World at the dawn of the Twenty-First Century.

Now, depending on whether you’re dealing with an interdisciplinary advocate or an interdisciplinary critic of Twenty-First Century Western Culture, the need for interdisciplinary theory is stated something like this:

Advocate: While specialization has allowed for the discovery and accumulation of vast bodies of disciplinary knowledge, and that knowledge has given us the means to achieve amazing ends in the betterment of our lives and lifestyles, we have reached a point of diminishing returns. The next leaps forward will only come when we learn how to step across knowledge boundaries and integrate many disciplines to reach new understandings.

Critic: With all of these perks have come incredible hidden costs in the form of environmental and social degradations, to name a couple. Specialization has so focused our efforts on specific and often short term goals that we have lost sight of the bigger picture and how everything we do is intimately and ecologically tied to the whole. Our ability to pay these hidden costs, let alone see them, will elude us to our increasing detriment until and unless we take a more holistic and integrated approach to everything we do.

But towards the end there I become not entirely sure whether the hypothetical critic is criticizing from an interdisciplinary position, or an environmental design position. My survey of essays, books and speeches on interdisciplinarity have indicated to me that most of the time the theory and the theorists are not so ideological. Maybe interdisciplinary theory was never intended to really escape from the ivory tower of academia. Maybe the amusingly oxymoronic notion of a discipline dedicated to the integration of disciplines is simply a testament to our imprisonment within the theoretical boundaries of the knowledge systems that we have devised for ourselves.(Hershberg, 1988) Maybe interdisciplinary theory is a buzz word, like sustainability, and whatever meaning it originally possessed has been eroded by its ubiquity and an inundation of related terms like metadisciplinary, extradisciplinary, multidisciplinary, pluridisciplinary, cross-disciplinary, transdisciplinary, nondisciplinary, adisciplinary, polydisciplinary, etceteradisciplinary. Maybe its applicability has been obscured behind a specialist lingo that differentiates between up to seven types of interdisciplinarity and counting; teleological, normative, purposive, subject oriented, problem oriented, field-theory, and General Systems theory. (Kockelman, 1979) Maybe it was about brand recognition, and the cross-fertilization of its name, if not its substance through academia was the result of increasing awareness, or belief, that interdisciplinary grant applications got funded.(Frank, 1988) Or maybe, as I was beginning to suspect, and as Roberta Frank, a professor of Medieval Studies waggishly suggests in her 1988 essay tracing the etymology of the word “interdisciplinary” from its origins in the mid 1920’s to a contemporary call by fellow Medieval Studies specialists to increase their field’s acceptance of interdisciplinarity in the hopes of becoming more attractive to grant funding: “It is not surprising that the authors would rather belong to an expanding interdiscipline like Medieval Studies than to an established discipline like Medieval Studies. ‘Interdisciplinarity’ sometimes turns into a disembodied smile, a floating demilune coming to rest on whatever we already value.” (Frank, 1988, 144)

If I were to seriously wage a theoretical battle on the subject of environmental design’s relationship with interdisciplinary theory, I would retract my original observation that interdisciplinarity is a structural component of Environmental Design. I would probably state something along the following lines: essentially, interdisciplinarity is not a structural component of Environmental Design. While Environmental Design involves a holistic world view that is integrative in nature in exactly the same way that interdisciplinarity is integrative, interdisciplinary theory is a discipline that observes, studies and works to transcend the limitations of discipline-based knowledge systems. Environmental Design is something else entirely. The two words that form “environmental design” are both loaded with normative values. While the pragmatism of Environmental Design, at least at the University of Calgary, never makes aggressively direct ideological connections between “Environmental” and Environmentalism, or Ecologism, neither is the term so benign as to refer simply to milieus.

Environmentalism, in the deepest sense, is not about environment. It is not about things, but relationships, not about beings but Being, not about world but the inseparability of self and circumstance.(Evernden: 1985)

That quote by Neil Evernden in his book, The Natural Alien, I think gets to half of the heart of the matter. Whether light green, or a deep ecological shade of green, it is impossible to separate environmental design from the ideological foundations of Environmentalism; I believe that at some level, and to some extent, all Environmentalists believe all things are interrelated to the point that their relationship is as important as the individual things themselves. It seems to me that the General Systems theory that comprises a lunatic fringe of the interdisciplinary theory debate is comparable, but the majority of interdisciplinary theory is generated within disciplinary boundaries, only after the fact seeking to cross beyond into a boundary-less world for the purposes of achieving previously established ends. Environmentalism takes a couple of steps back from interdisciplinary theory’s starting point; it is not the Industrial Revolution’s physical modes of specialized production that it challenges, but rather, the philosophical foundations which produced the milieu for those modes. Environmentalism fundamentally calls into question everything from the Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to Western Culture’s core alienation of humanity from the natural world in the Judeo-Christian fall from the Garden of Eden.(Pepper, 1986) Debates on stratification vs. integration of knowledge have been ongoing in Western Culture since Ancient Greece, but what Environmentalism represents is a new and emerging ideology that has and is providing a real foundation for meaningful change.(Gibbins, Youngman, 1996) While Environmental Design is focused on real world intervention and practice, and while the Faculty is organized along disciplinary lines, I believe at its core it is intrinsically motivated, as opposed to interdisciplinarity’s extrinsic stimulations.

The other half of the heart of the matter pertains to design. Design is where the pragmatic, real-world intentions of Environmental Design are explicitly declared. But while design can be interpreted as any human engagement with their environment, the implication of consciously linking the word environment – with all its ideological significance – to the word design, speaks to a correspondingly conscious and conscientious approach to and application of that engagement. Dean Mary-Ellen Tyler in her essay,Ecology, Technology and Design, states that, “Design deals with the realm of engagement that links humanity and reality in the sense of the real world.”(Tyler, 1999) The Dean concludes her essay with the following:

Design may not be scientific in the classical sense, but it is a form giving act of epistemological value. If ecological design practice is to result in the ecological restructuring of the built environment then it must emerge as a process for giving form to a new human-technological-ecological synthesis that sustainability represents. The challenge becomes how can industrialized culture be placed in a new context? What should our goals be? How should we live? This makes ecological design an essential element in the emergence of a new cultural philosophy and a new unified architectural aesthetic.

While the Faculty may assume a pragmatic, reformist and “light green” stance in terms of its position on “environmental,” the Dean’s take on “design” speaks volumes about the deeper reasons behind the Faculty’s existence. In a practical sense there is nothing wrong with saying that Environmental Design is interdisciplinary in nature. Further, the argument has been made that any attempts to more stringently define interdisciplinary processes would be a ‘disciplining’ act.(Moran, 2002) That argument could similarly apply to environmental design phenomena. Perhaps it is unfortunate that both environmental design and interdisciplinarity have been thoroughly disciplined in that fashion. In terms then of the relationship between environmental design and interdisciplinary theory, there may be some pragmatic boons, in the form of legitimacy and synergy, gained by allying the two. I am not, however entirely convinced that this is the best, or most sincere, answer to the question “how should we [as a Faculty] live in the world.” But I am not entirely convinced that it isn’t either.

One question that was frequently put to me, and my two flat mates, by the rest of the class and the instructors, in Barcelona, was, “Who are you guys?” We told them we were Urban Designers. In retrospect, the confusion that this caused contained the same kind of passive-aggressive hostility that any discussion of interdisciplinarity or environmental design also seemed to elicit. This kind of response is typical of interdisciplinary breakdowns, and while well documented,(Klein, 1990) speaks to a definite drawback in the Faculty’s pragmatic balancing act. Too many concessions to disciplinary demands – demands for turf recognition, demands for language games, demands for establishing hierarchies with the subsequent struggles to come out on top – will wreck interdisciplinarity before it has a chance to start. The interdisciplinary environment that was intended will possess too much disciplinary delineation and as a result will be inertial and hostile to change or growth. This is unfortunate in professional environments where the results can range the spectrum from stagnation and business ruin to the maintenance of inefficient or detrimental status quos; in scholastic settings, where students are being trained to step out into a world where interdisciplinary competence is an imperative, this is inexcusable. As I understand the problem, it bears a close relationship to my own academic stream within the Faculty; I believe that my resolution of my own Urban Design dilemma is equally applicable.

By virtue of the fact that I grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, I can be a pretty odious snob about cities. I imagine that living in Calgary, which holds the world record for largest municipal land mass per capita and is as good an example of suburban sprawl as anything, anywhere, doesn’t help my bearability. But the truth is that I love both New York and Calgary and I celebrate their distinct characters and I call both ‘home.’ And while I am hateful of suburban sprawl and the multitude of deleterious side-effects its single-minded framers and consumers have visited upon Western Culture – and soon the world – I am deeply committed to finding, promoting and building integrated and workable alternatives. And where better a laboratory than Calgary? In retrospect, my discovery of Urban Design was so much of an epiphany it seems ludicrous to me now that I had ever wondered what I wanted to do with my life. I suppose it also makes sense that I would choose a profession that involves a large component of struggle as it emerges to fill the vacuum formed by Planning and Architecture’s century long evolutionary disassociation with the problems of city-scaled physical design.(Sandalack, 1997) The time I spent in Barcelona and traveling through Europe last year was invaluable in terms of the experience it gave me in European cities and in understanding generally how the nature of the issues that confront cities today are local, regional and global in scope.

I remember it was dark outside the train and the Tuscan countryside hurtling by was pitch-black. My understanding is that the entire region has committed to a development freeze that permits structures to be built only on existing foundations. As a result, in Tuscany the original relationship of the city to the country, between human habitat and the natural world, is protected and maintained; as close-knit, integrated and sustainable a model as humans have ever conceived – one that’s not bad for tourism either. As a further result, very few lights shone through the darkness. But I was more than content to read. I had left Barcelona a week or so before as staying with relatives in Italy seemed the most sensible thing to do given that my life had been threatened, my flat-mates had returned home following strong advice from the police to vacate the neighborhood at least, and the prospects for accommodation were bleak on my student’s budget, particularly considering that we were eating the rest of our lease. And Italy is wonderful.

But my thoughts were still deeply involved in our project in Barcelona and I was maintaining contact with my team through email. In my absence the instructors had leaned on my teammates to make alterations to the design. One change was perfect and fit so well into what we were trying to accomplish that I have a hard time remembering the project before that change. Other alterations represented only a scaling back of the project to a completion point a stage or two earlier than our strategized build-out, and while not affecting the integrity of the design, also served to ultimately lighten our workload. The last suggested change represented a complete disregard for the entire point underlying our intervention and after bandying about the pros and cons of including it to, “get the grade,” we decided instead to stand by the integrity of our design and relegate that suggestion to the studio dust bin.

The Project that was assigned to the teams in Barcelona involved a late nineteenth century prison that had originally sat outside the city, but today was encased in the urban fabric. In many ways the project was typical of inner-city gray or brown field redevelopment, where the current use is inappropriate and detrimental to the vibrancy of the surrounding area, but the location results in a property value that is so high that the costs of development are prohibitive. This situation was exacerbated by the fact that the prison was still operating as a medium-high security facility and the cost of redevelopment would ostensibly have to pay for the prison’s relocation. On top of that, in the area surrounding the prison several distinct neighborhoods and types of urban fabric came together, and at the joining point sat the city’s major train station. In spite of this, the entire area was in a state of decline. This decline was recognized but not fully understood, and attached to the redevelopment of the prison site by the hypothetical client of the City of Barcelona, were the hopes of revitalizing the entire area.

While the other teams played at ‘Starchitecture’ interventions involving introducing the city’s first high rises (right on the heels of Sept 11), and other pie in the sky site-specific quick fixes, my team set about attempting to understand the general context of the area and the nature of its decline. Our solution was based on the understanding that the areas of the city that were functioning really well enjoyed an inter-connectivity that had been severed in our area. This was in part a factor of the brooding prison site, but was also contributed to by a series of poor development strategies, prioritizations and site designs that served to disconnect, rather than knit together the converging neighborhoods. In a nut-shell our solution argued that the convergence of neighborhoods at the local scale was mirrored at the city, regional and international scales by the train station, and that the train station itself was the key to that convergence point’s health and success at a number of economies of scale. A relatively simple renovation of the train station would have profound effects in terms of forming connections that would resonate through the whole strata of scales, while also addressing the very local problem of neighborhood interfaces with the attendant issues of community, safety, health and economic opportunity. Our strategy argued that a commitment by the city to this program would bring new opportunities to the area and make private sector redevelopment of the prison site and other nearby grey field sites – regulated by integrated urban design guidelines – economically attractive.

I distinctly remember that train ride though because I was reading Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities and was feeling a general sense of chagrin at the fact that I had progressed so far in my studies and was only just getting around to it. I was enamored with the seductiveness of her voice, and the simple, profound wisdom of her arguments. And I was angered at how little impact her proscriptions and warnings have made on the past forty years’ worth of planning and city design. We had been struggling in Barcelona to make our arguments and had been trying to find a graphic analogy that we could over-lay on maps to depict how the area’s depressed nature corresponded to geographical situation. The analogy that we had settled on was a bed of coals where the white hot areas were the most vibrant and successful, and usually were located at the seams and meeting points of regularly sized neighborhoods which, smoldering themselves provided steady fuel. In other areas – the train station interface most notably – the fuel and the fire had been separated and the reaction had calmed, and was sputtering out. Our argument was that while this analogy in some ways described what was taking place, the best way to think about the city was not to use an analogy at all and to try to understand the city as a city. And then I came across this in Jane Jacobs:

Being a structural system in its own right, a city can best be understood straightforwardly in its own terms, rather than in terms of some other kinds of organisms or objects. However, if the slippery shorthand of analogy can help, perhaps the best analogy is to imagine a large field in the darkness. In the field, many fires are burning. They are of many sizes, some great, others small; some far apart, others dotted close together; some are brightening, some are slowly going out.(Jacobs, 1961)

Needless to say, I was both chuffed and hooked. And it is a little later in the book that Jacobs’ addresses the question as to the kind of problem a city is in such a way as to intimately tie it to questions of scope identical to what interdisciplinarity and environmental design endeavor to address. Jacobs quotes Dr. Warren Weaver, Vice-President of Natural and Medical Sciences for the Rockefeller Foundation in an essay on the eve of his retirement in the foundation’s 1958 Annual Report. The essay deals with the nature of the development of scientific thought and identifies three stages of inquiry:

  1. Problems of simplicity
  2. Problems of disorganized complexity
  3. Problems of organized complexity

Stage three, problems of organized complexity, speaks to the kind of problems that the biological sciences now refer to as ecosystems and which are recognized as being an extremely complex web of interconnected causes and effects. Jacobs argued, in 1961, that a variety of ills had been visited upon cities by the inability to treat the problems that they present as problems of organized complexity. What’s worse, she chided, is that the insistence upon employing solutions that work for stage one and two problems, solutions based on single strand cause and effect chains, or statistical analysis, will invariably set in motion a whole host of unanticipated and usually deleterious side effects through the interconnected web of the city.(Jacobs, 1961) This is General Systems theory. This is Ecologism. This is precisely what interdisciplinarity and Environmental Design are endeavoring to address in a world hell bent on treating every problem as one of simplicity or disorganized complexity. And unfortunately, in the real world, the real difficulty lies in identifying and successfully isolating examples of problems one and two, as everything is unavoidably connected to the whole.

When I first joined the Faculty of Environmental Design, my understanding was that Urban Design was on the verge of becoming an established Program in the Faculty, just as it was on the verge of becoming an established Profession out in the real world. This was a somewhat simplistic view of the situation. It’s probably more accurate to say that Urban Design’s position in Western Culture’s professional design realm is exactly analogous to its position in the microcosm of the Faculty of Environmental Design. A significant portion of the school’s research and instructional design projects either fall within the umbrella of urban design, or contain a significant component of urban design considerations, and yet, there is no established Urban Design program. The same can be said of the nature and reach of many of the design projects that are undertaken – or worse ignored, and not undertaken – by the public and private sectors.

The current administrative/bureaucratic negotiations surrounding the need for and the way in which an Urban Design program would work at the University of Calgary, parallel a deeper debate regarding the boundaries of the established programs/professions of Architecture and Planning. The question being posed within those professions is how to re-integrate into those skill sets consideration for the vital, and yet much neglected topic of city-scaled (or planning scaled) physical design. The question as to whether to expand the scopes of Architecture and Planning to include urban design, or whether to create a new program/profession called Urban Design, is at essence a question of interdisciplinarity. Is Urban Design a discipline in its own right? Or is it a synthesis, or integration, of the disciplines of Architecture and Planning? And what about Engineering, Law Enforcement, Social Work, Health and Wellness, Economics, Business and the host of other disciplines and interdisciplines that exert inexorable pushes and pulls upon the organized complexity of the city’s web?

At first I assumed that by the time I earned my degree, the bureaucratic debates would have been settled. Then I fretted over whether or not I would still be in school in time to earn my MUD (Masters of Urban Design). Now, I don’t care whether that disciplinary turf debate is ever settled. I’m content with the more open-ended ambiguity of a Masters in Environmental Design. And I’m just happy that I live in a time that is perceiving the need to re-examine our commitment to and relationship with the urban environments increasing numbers of us are calling home, to address distinct insufficiencies in our current approaches to our cities, and to generally address some integral flaws in the discipline based approach that sits at the heart of our culture. Because I believe that the world we live in is a system of organized complexity. I believe that everything we do is an act of environmental design. And I believe that the intentions motivating those actions exist on a spectrum between the holistic/integrated/interdisciplinary, and the singular/segregated/disciplinary.

That morning, on Main Street Blairemore I was feeling the implications of Environmental Design/Urban Design/interdisciplinary theory in everything around me: The amazing preposterousness of thirty two hours of driving a car to play a sport for the weekend; the impact that the ability to drive so far so easily has had on shaping the world; the fast food strip and gasoline alley that we avoided but which catering to this car lifestyle makes Blairemore functionally indistinguishable from Sparwood, down the road, and Yakima, 1000km down the road; the ski industry, looming above the town, as an example of so many different aspects of life that have been shifted in focus from vocations, pursuits or lifestyles, to ‘industries’ as part of our culture’s surrender to the industrialization that we attempted to escape in our flight to the suburbs; the conquering of lifestyle by communications technologies fueled marketing synergies, and the system of organized complexity represented in the international money markets that are paving the way for the inundation of places as far flung as Barcelona, Manila, Harare or Harbin by Western North American suburbia; the push and pull of Calgary over the mountains, out on the plains, typical of cities’ position of prominence upon the landscape of the world and now facing the choice of representing the best and most distilled characteristics of their distinct hinterlands, or as being the entry points from which their regions are washed out into Globalized cultural mush; and of course, the coal industry and the other fossil fuels that drive our culture of single focuses forward into a future obscured by a mass media short event horizon. In the end, our success as Environmental Designers rests on the success of what we make in the world; our survival also depends on that success.

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