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Garden and Landscape Studies Symposium

Posted On June 17, 2015 | 15:08 pm | by meredithb | Permalink
“River Cities: Historical and Contemporary”

The annual symposium in Garden and Landscape Studies, organized by Senior Fellow Thaisa Way and held May 8–9, 2015, was the inaugural event of the new Mellon Program in Urban Landscape Studies. “River Cities: Historical and Contemporary” presented urban rivers as city-making landscapes deserving of careful reading and analysis. The symposium examined the dynamic relationships between cities and their rivers, notably the adaptations required by too much or too little water or from changes in river courses, and probed historical and contemporary perspectives on resilience, one of the key elements of viable urbanism. To further the aims of the Mellon program, the symposium brought together the work of contemporary designers with the historical perspectives of scholars—some in collaborative presentations on the same river—encouraging practitioners and historians to bridge the gaps between their professional modes of thinking. Presentations ranged from ancient Rome and the fourteenth-century Yellow River Basin to contemporary New Orleans and Los Angeles, and presented both cultural adaptations and design responses to river systems. In a sign of the expanding reach of our program, we received over 180 abstracts in response to a call for papers; of the 16 speakers ultimately selected for the symposium, all but two were new to Dumbarton Oaks.

Five current master in landscape architecture students and recent graduates in the field attended this year’s symposium as recipients of Bliss Symposium and Mellon Travel Awards. Bliss Symposium Awards, sponsored by Dumbarton Oaks, make it possible for Harvard students to attend Byzantine, Garden and Landscape, and Pre-Columbian Studies symposia. The Mellon Travel Awards are part of the new program, funded by the Mellon Foundation. Modeled on the Bliss Awards, they provide funding for graduate students in landscape studies and related disciplines to attend urban-themed academic events at Dumbarton Oaks. Below are the reports of the award recipients.

Brooke Morris, Mellon Travel Award, recent MLA recipient from Louisiana State University

It is at the edge of disciplines, where they meet and overlap, that we develop new techniques and perspectives. The “River Cities” symposium embodied just that in practice and subject matter, with a balance of speakers from landscape architecture, architecture, history, planning, and the humanities, representing private, public, and academic sectors, all speaking on rivers, which in themselves are edge conditions.

The flux of rivers spatially and culturally was a core issue raised in almost every discussion. Los Angeles, founded on a river, channelized it to a point that it is no longer recognized as such. Various representation techniques aided discussions, such as the mass void drawings used in conjunction with timelines to illustrate the means by which urban lakes were created in China’s Yellow River Delta. The contrast of a creek in Vienna with the larger river systems highlighted how all the principles discussed in the symposium could be applied to a range of scales. The discussion of cultural and physical flux was aided by the variety of scales both temporally and spatially by which the speakers approached their sites.

Some of the speakers discussed proposed designs for river cities. These presentations helped to tie how the historic and spatial analysis conducted by other speakers could be applied to create change in the future.

Overall, I was mesmerized by the speakers and found great joy in the connections the different discussions had with each other. The subject matter perfectly aligned with my academic interests in changing the way people view storm water in urban settings. The diverse speakers and the discussions that tied them together supported my firm belief that the best understanding and designs come from the convergence of disciplines. By looking back and forward, near and far, large and small, the symposium provided a well-balanced, critical, but still energetic and optimistic, view on the future of our cities and rivers.

Jinhee Ha, Mellon Travel Award, MLA student at Cornell University

Urban rivers embody power regimes, cultural arenas, and industrial economies, all of which manifest as a result of a wide spectrum of biophysical forces and human values throughout history. The “River Cities” symposium discussed different geographies, approaches, and narratives that illustrate seamless connections and moments of departure between the river and its urban environment. As a student of landscape architecture, I became most interested in the relationship between the use of narrative and design approaches in addressing a river’s history, especially when they do not necessarily fit perfectly nor resonate strongly with the public.

Several of the speakers, such as Vittoria Di Palma and Alexander Robinson, David Malda, Lei Zhang, and Edith Katz, discussed how important narrative is in framing discussions of river conditions, issues, and potential. I was very interested in how the historical narrative revisits the possibility of ecological restoration, but also how its negotiation with current uses and future projection provides nuances. Ecological restoration comes with its own set of issues, elevating systematic, biological concepts over landscape-based approaches. The emphasis on measurement and performance metrics occasionally results in the lack of attention to how a landscape functions culturally and socially. What does it mean to have an ecological, wetland-like, messy edge versus a modern, city plaza–like, clean edge at the river?

As a student from an East Asian cultural background, the talks on Chinese rivers and waterfronts by Zhang and Katz particularly resonated with me. It made me question the export of design and what happens when Western designers do not get an opportunity to consult with local expertise, or when the design fails to address the specific conditions of that geography. It brings about the challenge of how to push design to address the questions of the river in a context that may not have the same questions. I would speculate that one narrative is never enough; a targeted multiplicity of voices and narratives that are situated temporally are needed for realizing the future potential of the design of urban rivers and their context.

Logan Littlefield, Mellon Travel Award, recent MLA graduate from the University of Toronto

The symposium was wonderfully framed as bridging the gap between scholarly research and contemporary practice in order to discuss the relationship between cities and their rivers and the environmental, social, political, and spatial implications of such relationships.

Within this framework, I found particularly interesting the focus on narrative in understanding the fluvial identity of urban areas in a historiographical way. Whether an ecological, sociopolitical, or cultural narrative, or a mixture of these, there is a fascinating discussion that arises around the history that rivers as dynamic systems write for themselves and the history or narrative that we project on to them. Similarly, challenging common assumptions of what a river is and should be and what makes a “river city” was especially relevant. This became evident in the discussions surrounding cities, where, though managing hydrology is of great importance, rivers themselves may have tenuous fluvial identities. This allowed for a more expansive discussion about the potential relationship we might have with the fluvial domains that are increasingly becoming part of urban and peri-urban areas in an urbanized world.

Furthermore, the understanding of rivers not only in the context of their identities as singular biophysical or cultural artifacts, but in the context of their use over time compels us to think critically about the extremely loaded notions of preservation and revitalization.

A few of the lectures projected specific ideas for the present, but overall, what we received was an incredibly diverse menu of precedents, methods, insights, and techniques to draw upon for understanding the complex relationships and multivalent meanings of the urban-fluvial paradigm. In this sense, the symposium was incredibly valuable for professional practice and scholarly research alike, as the environmental and social issues that manifest themselves in this paradigm are increasingly at the forefront of landscape and planning disciplines.

Emily Drury, Bliss Award, MLA candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Design

As a student new to the discipline of landscape architecture, the “River Cities” symposium provided a unique opportunity to hear the design research of contemporary practitioners in dialogue with the historical perspectives of landscape scholars. Lectures exemplified diverse approaches to historical inquiry. Methodologies shared by scholars and practitioners provided me with varied models of design research, and generated an inspiring, multidisciplinary conversation centered on the urban river.

I appreciated the geographies and timeframes articulated through the construction of the urban river as a site of investigation, and as framework within which the cultural/social and ecological intersect. The study of this intersection—its spatial and metaphorical choreography as dynamic urban process—yielded terrific ethnographic potential. This included the particular textures and shared patterns of urban river use; the vernacular, designed and engineered management of fluvial processes as distinct cultural landscapes; the interaction of rivers and governing bodies; and the interplay of rivers, urban identity, and value.

Thinking toward the development of my own research interests and practices, I am inspired by the work and further possibilities suggested during the symposium. These will serve as precedent for critical, historical examination of urban landscape as I refine my design research and writing practice.

Thomas Nideroest, Bliss Award, MLA student at the Harvard Graduate School of Design

Not only do I want to thank and congratulate the organizing team for a remarkable event, I also want to restate the presented narratives with the notion of “context versus autonomy.” This notion is connected to the question of the political stand as well as the agency of landscape architecture.

The presented narratives were all derived from the historic legacy of a river, addressing cultural, socioeconomic, political, and ecological issues. This historic legacy, illustrated on maps, reveals the constant transformation of a river vis-à-vis the urban fabric. This direct juxtaposition reflects the interaction between human settlers and the river. Leading up to the present, designers develop trajectories that either continue or discontinue the historic narrative. David Malda’s presentation on “Landscape Narratives and the San Antonio River” was extremely successful in this regard. The design process connects and reconnects the local society with the river.

Only a few presentations addressed the larger issues connected to water. Water scarcity becomes more important in the years to come. The continuous growth of urban cities, especially in the so-called undeveloped world, as well as natural phenomena such as the current drought in the American West, reminds us of the larger problematic. Today, water demands are exceeding availability. Food production, for example, in the Central or Imperial Valley stresses the immediate watersheds. By looking at the Colorado River, we start to understand that the river not only connects cities along it, but also regions outside the watershed. The issue of water becomes a territorial question and the notion of water diplomacy becomes inevitable.

The work presented by Brian Davis and Amelia Jensen (“Rivers as Urban Borderlands”) carries this notion of the territorial. The project unpacks the greater region of Sao Paulo by breaking it down to individual water retention infrastructures. These urban spaces ultimately have the potential to become part of an alternative water system—a system that is not centralized, but rather works as a small grain network of energetic connections that unravels local residents and the urban life. The work of landscape architects in this regard is never neutral, as we make decisions along the lines of context versus autonomy. We need to take position and become so-called political landscape architects.