Green and blue cities

CITY SENSE - CITY SENSE By Paulo Alcazaren () - February 17, 2007 - 12:00am
Most modern cities developed from settlements along rivers or around ports. This was because waterborne craft were the prevalent mode of transport for people and freight. The cars and planes took over and the water’s edge was forgotten. Today, progressive metropolises worldwide are rediscovering this urban relationship with water bodies, which is helping to define a new nature-oriented and eco-friendly concept of building cities — landscape urbanism.

I attended two events the past week in two different cities to show one city’s advanced programs in adopting this new direction of "landscape urbanism" for city growth and another city’s great new attempt to start it via a revived river ferry system.

The first city is Singapore. I flew in to the city state on the invite of the Singapore Polytechnic, a top tertiary educational institution there, to be one of the speakers at a one-day symposium on "Landscape Urbanism .... Blurring the Lines." 

I was contacted by Filipino landscape architect Sonny Saculo, who used to be an associate in a design consultancy firm I headed in Singapore called PDAA Design. He eventually moved into academe and was retained as a lecturer at the Polytechnic when it decided to start a program for landscape architecture.

The symposium focused on two aspects of landscape architecture and urbanism — the academic side and the practice of the profession. Half of the speakers were from various academic institutions in Southeast Asia and half were practitioners from Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia. I straddled both worlds as I represented the UP College of Architecture and at the same time being a practicing urban designer and landscape architect (12 years as such spent in Singapore).

The academics from Indonesia and Thailand gave overviews of landscape architectural programs and the status of the profession in their respective countries. The two countries are producing more landscape architects and the practice of the profession is advancing with public acknowledgement of the importance of landscape architectural design — as evidenced in their lovely capital cities and internationally-popular tourism destinations.

The practitioners gave insights into real-world issues of collaboration with other design professionals, the relationship with clients, and the opportunities for creative contributions to urban development — mainly in the context of booming Asian cities.

The seminar’s other speakers addressed these questions (culled from the symposium’s outline): Where does architecture stop and landscape begin? If man and his environment are to co-exist harmoniously, landscape architecture needs to play an instrumental and mediating role. Landscape urbanism has been described as a "disciplinary realignment currently underway in which landscape is usurping architecture’s historical role as the basic building block of city making.

This realignment is crucial in the development of Asian urbanism as Asia is the most dynamic landscape in the world. The transformation from "traditional" landscapes to urban ones continues at a pace never before seen. What is the impact of this rapid transformation to the identity of this region, its environment, and the environmental design professions?

The two angles of landscape urbanism were critically engaged in a talk by visiting professor Peter Weller. He critiqued the currently weak contributions of landscape architects in practice. I agree with him on his main point that landscape architecture and urban design now have a much stronger, and actually key, role to play in the shaping of future cities.

Our past approach to urban development, he emphasized, had always been led by physical planning by architects or town planners. Landscape and detailed urban design were relegated to secondary roles after much of the patterns and framework had been completed. With more progressive attitudes today that emphasize ecological balance, environmental concerns, and aspirations to humanize cities as real communities comes a new way of urban growth and physical planning. Landscape urbanism prioritizes a green approach that integrates landscape and nature into new forms of urbanism — one that does not separate parks from the city, plants from people, and green open space from civic centers or settings of daily urban life.

The keynote speakers were the winners of the just concluded "Gardens by the Bay" competition held to find designs for reclaimed areas in the city’s Marina district just next to Singapore’s CBD and historic center. Singapore hopes that the new park designs will put Singapore firmly on the map as the world’s "premier tropical garden city."

Singapore aims to create three iconic gardens on over a hundred hectares of the most expansive land by the city’s burgeoning waterfront. The unique gardens will also be linked and, in fact, are intertwined, with the planned infrastructure of the city as it expands to fill the new sites of the Marina district. From the looks of the plans presented, they will achieve these goals very quickly.

I was blown away by the audacity, scale, and scope of the landscape plans (when was the last time Manila or any other Asian city planned a new hundred-hectare central city park?). I know that the Singaporean authorities will implement these plans to the letter .... and before you can bat an eyelash, they will have achieved the goals set.

The day after the symposium, I had the opportunity to walk around the Marina and central historic district, including the Singapore River. That Sunday was also the launch of an exhibition for the nation’s Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters program — an initiative, in line with others like the Gardens by the Bay, that seeks to create a better city and one in particular that brings people closer to water resources around and on the island.

In the past, the government kept people and activity away from the river and canals in a successful effort to clean the island’s waterways. Now, they are bringing people back to rediscover the delights of (now clean) water and water-based activities. New linear parks by the water’s edge, esplanades, outdoor theaters will be set into an integrated series of "park connectors" that will ensure Singaporeans will have immediate access to clean, green open spaces wherever they live, work or play. New water transport systems are being developed. Diesel engines in river and canal ferries will be converted into electric engines — to ensure pollution (air and noise) is minimized. Residential development by rivers and the coast will be encouraged to bring back the magic of island tropical life. Fantastic!

On the flight back, I mused at how much we could improve Manila and all of our cities if only we could adopt even 10 percent of Singapore’s programs for landscape urbanism. The day after I got back, I got an invitation from the MMDA to attend the launch of a new mass transport system on the Pasig. There’s hope for us yet .…but I will leave that report and pictures for next week.
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Feedback is welcome. Please e-mail the writer at paulo.alcazaren@gmail.com..
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