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MIT Better World

By Carla Lane

Their survival, she explains, depends on it. “If cities are designed in concert with natural processes,” says Spirn, “they will be less vulnerable to air and water pollution, flooding, droughts, fires, and earthquakes.”

Spirn has dedicated her career to studying how best to adapt cities to their natural environment and finding ecologically sound ways to build—and rebuild—them, developing better strategies for stormwater management, improving the design and maintenance of public open spaces, studying the potential of abandoned urban land for reshaping urban neighborhoods, and promoting inner city gardening. She has helped not only planners, architects, and officials in housing and later departments, but, most importantly, the people who live in the communities to understand how best to use the natural processes affecting their cities.

The results of not paying attention to natural processes when designing cities can be disastrous, Spirn explains. Many American cities, for example, buried their streams and built on their natural flood plains as they expanded. The results are crumbling foundations, deteriorating public infrastructure, overflowing sewers, and devastating floods. In poorer urban areas, where property owners often don’t have the resources to make repairs, buildings on buried floodplains are often abandoned, which further depresses the communities’ social, economic and aesthetic assets.

For her work promoting the “harmonious co-existence of nature and mankind,” last year Spirn was awarded the International Cosmos Prize, which is sponsored by the Japanese Expo ’90 Foundation. She is the youngest person, the first woman and the first designer/planner to win the award. The prize honors all of her work—including her books, her teaching, research and photography, and her 18 years helping inner-city residents make their cities more livable. This past summer, she also was named one of three finalists for the Smithsonian Institution’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award in Environmental Design.

Using Natural Resources

Spirn believes it is critical that community members understand their city’s natural setting and take an active role in designing and implementing improvements. She has worked extensively with community gardeners, public school teachers and students, and other groups to help them explore how best to manage and use their city’s natural resources. She describes these projects in her book, The Language of Landscape.

She became committed to the integration of cities and nature when, after earning her master’s in landscape architecture from the University of Pennsylvania, she worked for a private landscape architecture firm. “Here we were designing resorts or second home developments while Philadelphia was crumbling around us,” she says. “Why weren’t we applying the principles of sound ecological design to the inner city?” she asked.

She decided to look for ways to incorporate ecological planning into urban design. “I wanted to demonstrate what should be done differently if we saw cities as a part of the natural world,” says Spirn. The result was her first book, The Granite Garden: Urban Nature and Human Design, in which she set forth principles for urban design that are in concert with natural processes.

Throughout her academic career—Spirn taught first at Harvard, then at the University of Pennsylvania, and joined the MIT faculty in 2000—she has organized her teaching and research around experimental, demonstration projects in inner-city neighborhoods. When she first joined the Penn faculty in 1986, she and her students went to the Mill Creek neighborhood of West Philadelphia, a community beset with crumbling housing and abandoned property, to educate its members about their natural environment and to help them design and implement improvements. Unknown to the inhabitants and to city officials, much of the neighborhood had been built on the buried floodplain of a river—Mill Creek—that was buried in a sewer in the 1880s.

“Learning this enabled them to make sense of what hadn’t made sense before—why there were cave-ins in their neighborhood and why houses were subsiding and their foundations cracking,” says Spirn.

From their collaborations evolved the West Philadelphia Landscape Project, a community-university partnership that has spearheaded the development of dozens of community gardens, a curriculum for middle school students, and collaborations among Penn faculty, students, and the community to explore designs that are both aesthetically pleasing and effective in managing environmental forces. In 2001, following her leadership the city won a $35 million federal grant to work with the community and set up a water management demonstration project that provides open community park and garden space, while dealing with sewer overflows and alleviating the subsidence of homes.

“The poetic and the pragmatic are connected,” says Spirn. “It is not only a matter of preserving our cities and making them more livable, but also of helping us feel and understand our connection to the natural world.”