conference paper
A sense of place: Site specificity as a way to foster resilient urban landscapes
15 Oct 2021
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Cristina Cristina Wong
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Discipline
Landscape ecology
Urban planning (urban design)
Keywords
Site Specificity
Climate Change Adaptation
Resilience
Landscape Urbanism
Track:
Human-centred And Nature-based Approaches In Cities
Abstract
The understanding of site specificity as a process-based approach is required to achieve sustainable landscapes, meaning that the final product is the intertwining of design processes, instead of arriving to a predetermined final form, it unfolds with the systems found in place, by the exploration of geographical, cultural and social formations. The aim of this research paper is to explore the idea of site specificity as a tool to achieve sustainability in social-ecological systems. Moreover, long-term sustainability requires the capacities of resilience and adaptation as its essential components. The emergence of proposing a landscape urbanism project arises from the need to mitigate the ravages caused by natural disasters in Lambayeque, Peru where the relatively untouched countryside represents more than half of the region, however, it is totally unrelated to the cognitive map of the inhabitants. It is worth noting that the disconnection between landscape patterns represents a potential for the construction of a sustainable urban dimension. In addition, this void can create a sense of opportunity for new relationships of codependency within the socio-ecological system, by implementing resilient and adaptive green and blue infrastructure.

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Type of the Paper: Peer-reviewed Conference Paper / Full Paper

Track title: Human-centred and nature-based approaches in cities

A sense of place. Site specificity as a way to foster resilient urban landscapes.

Cristina Wong 1

Names of the track editors:

Claudiu Forgaci
Rene van der Velde

Names of the reviewers:


Journal:
The Evolving Scholar 

DOI:10.24404/61549b7f1e981500089d3ed7

Submitted: 15 October 2021

Accepted:

Published:

Citation: Wong, C. (2021). A sense of place. Site specificity as a way to foster resilient urban landscapes. The Evolving Scholar | IFoU 14th Edition.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution CC BY (CC BY) license. 

©2021 [Wong, C.] published by TU Delft OPEN on behalf of the authors. 

1 Universidad de Piura; cristina.wonglent@gmail.com; ORCID ID 0000-0003-2348-2842  

Abstract: The understanding of site specificity as a process-based approach is required to achieve sustainable landscapes, meaning that the final product is the intertwining of design processes, instead of arriving to a predetermined final form, it unfolds with the systems found in place, by the exploration of geographical, cultural and social formations.

The aim of this research paper is to explore the idea of site specificity as a tool to achieve sustainability in social-ecological systems. Moreover, long-term sustainability requires the capacities of resilience and adaptation as its essential components.

The emergence of proposing a landscape urbanism project arises from the need to mitigate the ravages caused by natural disasters in Lambayeque, Peru where the relatively untouched countryside represents more than half of the region, however, it is totally unrelated to the cognitive map of the inhabitants. It is worth noting that the disconnection between landscape patterns represents a potential for the construction of a sustainable urban dimension. In addition, this void can create a sense of opportunity for new relationships of codependency within the socio-ecological system, by implementing resilient and adaptive green and blue infrastructure.

Keywords: site specificity; climate change adaptation; resilience; landscape urbanism

1. Introduction

Contemporary urban planning shows an enormous polarisation when comparing the ubiquitous built environment with the natural and rural landscapes, which end-up as residual spaces in most cases. This phenomena is reflected in metropolises and cities around the world, causing an array of environmental, social and economic challenges, such as climatic variability, occupation of dangerous areas, urban 'heat island' effect, alteration of the hydrological regime, loss of biodiversity, uncontrolled population growth, urban expansion, as well as greater vulnerability to climatic changes and natural phenomena.

The socio-ecological system approach highlights the symbiotic relationship among the human dimension –people, communities, economies, societies, cultures– and the ecological dimension, and how these shape each other through time. Disturbances are embedded within socio-ecological systems, which are subject to sudden and unpredictable change (Lister, 2007). However, this should not be considered a weakness, but as the basis for innovation since change is deep-rooted in system dynamics (Erixon et. al., 2013). Moreover, this panorama can be taken as the long-awaited path for collaboration between the disciplines of urban planning, landscaping, ecology, architecture, geography, engineering and sociology.

A slow trend encompassing landscape ecology into urbanism discourse has risen during the past few decades. ‘Landscape has emerged as a model for contemporary urbanism’ as stated by Waldheim (2006, p. 37), borrowing principles from ecology, geography and engineering in order to react to the traditional urbanism of the first half of the twentieth century (Girot, 2006).

Site specificity puts in the same level of importance idiosyncrasy of a community and physical features of landscapes. The aim of this research paper is to explore the idea of site specificity as a tool to achieve resilience in socio-ecological systems, and as a way to foster sustainable cities and territories.

A research by design case in the northern part of Peru in the region of Lambayeque, is taken as an academic testing ground. The rapid urban growth of the last decades currently dominates the natural environment of Lambayeque, creating a false sense of self-sufficiency at the city level, comprising most functions at an urban scale.

Due to climate change, natural disasters are intensified, leaving behind productive land, infrastructure and devastated towns, affecting mostly vulnerable population. In the Peruvian case, El Niño phenomenon affects the country resulting in heavy rains, floods caused by higher levels of river streams, landslides, extreme temperature, diseases such as cholera and finally, large losses of endemic fauna and flora. In addition, in 2017 a new climate pattern emerged called El Niño Costero, which caused greater havoc: 14 of the 25 existing regions were declared in a state of emergency, disease outbreaks occurred, thousands of people died and vast agricultural areas flooded. It could be said that in the years in which these natural disasters affect the country, the national GDP is reduced by 5-7%, which represents approximately 10 billion dollars.

The working hypothesis is that site specificity, a process-based approach, is required to achieve sustainable landscapes, acknowledging that the site results from an array of cultural, geographical, topographic and social practices, where the greater patterns such as geomorphology and hydrology are of the outmost importance (Berrizbeitia, 2007).

The methodology in which all the aforementioned panorama unfolds is Research Through Design –RTD–, a 'research method in which spatial design plays the main role' (Nijhuis & de Vries, 2020, p. 87), allowing for exploration by thinking and producing, where the agency of mapping plays a fundamental facet.

An aspect of novelty to put forward with this paper is first, the notion of existing landscapes as the canvas where not just new landscapes are designed but new codependency of associations, relating this process to the milieu (Corner & Hirsch, 2014). This performance is a result of reading the territory under the umbrella of site specificity, understanding the geographical, cultural and social formations of the region. Second, the capacity of natures —with certain degree of manipulation— to become the stitching element throughout a dispersed territory, in the form of green and blue networks running across the region, as part of sustainable urban water landscapes.

2. Theories and Methods

Landscape urbanism focuses mainly on structures or contexts that adapt to conditions, not to the mere shape of the place, resulting in an aesthetic design (Berrizbeitia, 2007) that is capable of hosting innumerable forms of processes, relationships and interactions. It is important to mention the omnipresent role of ecology in this approach, which in turn harbours processes of codependency.

When discussing ecology, it is impossible not to mention the place or the site where these interactions coalesce. In words of Czerniak ‘to think about the landscape is to think about the site’ (2006, p.107), demonstrating the symbiotic relationship between landscape and site. There are certain differences in scale and characteristics when describing place and site, which are explored in the following lines. On the one hand, the reading of the place tends to be an overview related to its history, been opened to interpretations in a certain period of time. On the other hand, site concentrates its efforts highlighting features related to the space, such as its ‘scale, topography, the position of the earth, or the ephemerality of color and light’ (Berrizbeitia 2007, 176). That is, the term ‘site’ has no fixed limits, while the term ‘place’ describes singular. Site specificity is a design method and tool used by landscapers for design on multiple spatial and temporal scales, where both conceptual and tangible site exploration is possible.

Corner (2014) describes specificity of site as an approach that takes into account its ‘environment, culture, politics and economies, as program unto itself’ (Corner & Hirsch, 2014, p. 286). However, for this study the combination of this position is merged with the one from Berrizbeitia (2007), where the specificity of site places the experiences and physical attributes of a given landscape on the same level of importance (Berrizbeitia, 2007). By placing experiences, not just programs or events, in such an assertive scene, the human agency is taken as a crucial piece of the ecosystem. Moreover, ecology from the classical view of an equilibrium paradigm is usually analysed without the human component or its anthropogenic interactions as part of the whole matrix, which results in an incomplete reading of the ecosystem. On the other hand, the non-equilibrium paradigm –the one used on this paper– considers humans as ‘learning and active agents of change’ within ecosystems (Pickett et. al., 2004, p. 376). Likewise, the latter paradigm pays special attention to the dynamics and processes drawn within systems.

The equilibrium and non-equilibrium paradigms are two definitions closely related to how resilience is conceptualised in ecology. On the one hand, te equilibrium paradigm describes it as the capacity of systems to return to its previous stable state after an extreme event. On the other hand, the non-equilibrium paradigm describes resilience as the ‘ability of a system to adapt and adjust to changing internal or external processes’ (ibid., p. 373), which aligns better with urban planning and design disciplines since the urban landscape is considered as a system of change, where the built environment and its dynamics constantly alter our habitable world.

Unlike the architectural object, a landscape urbanism project develops, adapts, evolves and even improves over time. Moreover, it will possibly suffer change in its composition or structure over time (Pickett et. al., 2004). For the present paper, the course of time is comprised by two components: first, the course of time through seasons or in some latitudes in the form of rainy or dry seasons. Second, time as uncertainties arising from extreme events such as the Niño Phenomenon, Niño Costero, among others.

Research through design –RTD– is a methodology where design is used as an umbrella for research, as a way to explore spatial possibilities to generate innovative results. In this context, the term design is understood as a form of research in itself and as a 'research method in which spatial design plays the main role' (Nijhuis & de Vries, 2020, p. 87).

In addition to the initial approach described above, this study takes the principles of spatio-temporal multiscalarity, in order to determine the degree of manipulation of the landscapes to achieve water security facing contingency and change. Moreover, the spatial scales are the regional scale, the Chancay-Lambayeque sub-basin scale, the Chongoyape –city– scale and, the streetscape scale. The temporal scale is explored through seasonal changes and disruptive changes, which in the particular case of Lambayeque is mainly comprised by the threat of natural disasters related to water, such as flooding.

3. Results

3.1 Site specificity as a process-based approach

Traditionally, the understanding of a place has had a static, aesthetic and purely visual approach, mostly limited to the present time. With the evolution of landscape architecture, and the intertwining of ecology within the discipline, the dynamic atmosphere came into play (Berrizbeitia 2007). As it did other ‘borrowed’ terms or metaphors from ecology such as: community, disturbance, competition, succession and evolution (Pickett et. al., 2004).

Process comprises the dynamic features of a certain landscape. Moreover, dynamic is embedded within the ecological principles to achieve sustainability, given that it complies landscape as the mixture of biotic and abiotic elements that function, interact and interrelate over fluctuations of time, climate, temperature, light, size, plant composition, function, programmes, regimes, among others.

A process-based approach requires creative thinking, where the final outcome if to design processes, not to achieve a final form. This approach is closely related to the agency of mapping, which enjoys a privileged position in this research, since the term ‘mapping’ is considered as the key for ‘processes of gathering, working, reworking, assembling, relating, revealing, sifting, and speculating’ (Corner & Hirsch, 2014, p. 212).

In words of Folke (2016), it is possible to convert different vulnerabilities and uncertainty into windows of opportunity, basing the transformation of landscapes on multiscalarity, resilience and flexibility, also adding the ability to adapt to design.

Figure 1. Diagram of spatial scales used in the case study.

Figure 2. The reading of the territory using site specificity and mapping as a tool results in the suitability map for the Chancay-Lambayeque sub-basin.

3.2 Resilience and adaptive capacity thinking

Long-term sustainability requires the capacities of resilience and adaptation as its essential components. Landscape ecology sustains the condition of maintaining dynamic processes that change over time, encompassing abiotic, biotic and cultural components, which are also transformed by the different vulnerabilities that arise over time. (Ahern, 2007)

The dynamic characteristic of ecosystems mentioned in the previous section, urges to design dynamic processes as resilient and adaptive systems that are able to steer paths in case of any –known or unknown– disturbances, in order for them to ‘adapt to changing conditions over time’ (Berrizbeitia 2007, p. 183). In this context, resilience is measured by how much uncertainty and change an ecosystem might absorb before changing paths or regimes (Czerniak, 2007; Erixon et. al., 2013). In the Chancay-Lambayeque sub-basin that would be translated into the amount of rainfall that the river can accommodate –after a natural disaster– before ‘flipping’ into a new behaviour of flooding. In addition to this, ‘watersheds are integrators of diverse processes’ given that subterranean water from aquifers, aquitards, aquiclude and aquifugues accrue sediments and minerals that can be helpful or polluting agents downstream of the basin (Pickett et. al., 2004,p. 376).

Figure 3. The proposal at the sub-basin level results in a structural map proposing an Agriculture–natural park along the Chancay-Lambayeque river corridor, which functions as the linking element at the meso and macro scale, where an array of landscapes intertwine, profiting and retrofitting among each other achieving a new equilibrium of coexistence.

3.3 The making of a transformative model

Landscape urbanism aspires in the first place to carry out a reading of the current urban landscapes and thus, consequently, to propose various solutions depending on the initial reading of topographic, climatic and cultural patterns in determined timeframes, although by underlying incorporating the discipline of ecology, these terms are open-ended, given that biotic and abiotic factors are taken into account, as well as the time they need to fully develop, thus making emphasis on the relationships and forms of processes between both factors. (Pickett et. al., 2004, p. 374).

Figure 4. Explorative model showing the restoration of a section of the river and protection of endemic fauna and flora, as part of the ecological performative agenda.

Site specificity is a way of understanding the landscape by engaging with it. Engagement modes include: observe, modeling, drawing mapping, among others. Moreover, the agency of mapping is used not just as a tracing method, but as a tool for discovery of the landscape, resulting in a transformative model that unfolds at the same time that constructs the project step by step, not being able to foresee its final form, drawing a line with planning, which leads to a fixed end (Corner & Hirsch, 2014, p. 212).

Figure 5. Explorative model showing the diversity, multifunctionality and temporal phasing in architectural seed projects, as part of the programmatic performative agenda.

4. Discussion

Urbanism discourse is usually stirred towards a broad urban connotation where natural and rural landscapes are relegated to the secondary and third place. However, with the emergence and diffusion of landscape urbanism, the trend is moving towards awarding the same importance to urban, natural and rural landscapes.

Landscape is defined as a place for interaction composed by new possibilities, which carry the opportunity to become agents of change, where design focused on social, ecological and built environmental dimensions not necessarily mean to put aside economic or political vitality. Furthermore, Folke (2016) argues that the interaction among these dimensions outlines resilience from the local to global scales.

Nowadays, natural landscapes are seen as a tabula rasa for urbanising, creating agriculture, grazing and livestock land, and overpopulating, which in turn, leads the humanity to unsustainable consumption, ecological disruption and loss of biodiversity, which makes territories prone to zoonotic infections, that can lead to pandemics as COVID-19 (IPBES, 2020). Therefore, the potential for ecological design is greater than ever.

The efforts for linking urban design and planning with other disciplines underlie in the idea that the built environment is a dynamic construction, an iterative process where an array of relationships evolve through space and time, where the human figure plays an influential role, as ‘human individuals, societies, groups and institutions’ (Pickett et. al., 2004, p. 374), shaping the landscape conditions for further transformation. In the case of Lambayeque, new relationships of codependency are drawn within the region taking the Chancay-Lambayeque river as the carrying structure, proposing an agriculture-natural park, where both ecological –for protecting coastal dry forests and endemic fauna – and programmatic –in the form of architectural seed projects– dimensions are managed as performative agendas, along with functions, formal and spatial attributes, and processes (Czerniak, 2006) in order to achieve a new sustainable equilibrium of coexistence with exceedance of water resulting from unexpected climate related events.

Future research direction. The research project Intertwined Natures, is currently under way in the rural town of Chongoyape, Lambayeque, where participatory design workshops are planned for the next months. Community engagement and participatory design are taken as key tools in order to inform resilience in the bigger scale, since it is pointed out by Folke (2010) that ‘transformational change at smaller scales enables resilience at larger scales’. Moreover, the project aims for high levels of participation and collaboration among the different stakeholders, community involvement and high levels of participation in order to achieve a sense of appropriation of the proposed spatial interventions and a ‘sense of belonging’. Furthermore, the small scale functions as ‘driver for innovation, and thus for slow change and adaptation at larger scales’ (Erixon et. al., 2013, p. 278). Finally, the prospective idea of creating dialogs and cooperation bonds between academia and local communities is one of the objectives of the project in order to inform resilience.

5. Conclusions

The starting point of this research project raised the idea of ​​landscape urbanism in the Lambayeque region, taking into consideration the range of tools, methods and interventions that emerge from the coalition of urbanism, landscape architecture and ecology to understand natural and man-made landscapes as living ecologies, as agents of change. It should be considered that the essence of this type of approach is not to claim to be specific configurations destined for success, since multiple variables come into play throughout processes; with which the city functions as a 'living ecology' (Corner & Hirsch, 2014) in which the greater or lesser manipulation of it results in different interventions. Furthermore, the final result is a provisional set of structures that accommodates to growth and evolution, in case of future uncertainties (Berrizbeitia, 2007).

Site specificity is not the whole vision of a place, it is not the definitive lenses that result in a final design, it is a tool for exploration across multiple spatial and temporal scales, and cutting through different design disciplines. (ibid.).

Adaptive landscape urbanism projects have shown positive social-ecological impacts in territories all around the globe. However, this approach has not been applied in the North-Peruvian context. On the other hand, as stated by Bacchin (et. al., 2014) 'there is a knowledge gap in the planning and design of green and blue infrastructure in a systemic way', and at multiple spatial scales. This study aims to reduce this gap, addressing unique issues in each scale, resulting in a range of spatial solutions, trying to generate an order, thus responding to the specificity of the place, appropriating the territory itself, as a claim for the countless decades of spontaneous urban growth, taking landscape designed as infrastructure as its main axis, achieving climate adaptation for the transition to a new balance. From this panorama, it can be concluded that a network of green and blue infrastructure is necessary to improve –and even guide– access to natural areas that over time have been disappearing to accommodate highly urbanised environments (Bacchin, 2015).

By viewing the city through the lenses of landscape urbanism, this hybrid discipline does not offer predetermined solutions, but a tool for exploration and discovery, creating transformative models. A set of possibilities that allows, inter alia, for connections between the natural and man-made landscapes, and infrastructure, thus generating correlations between different components of each system while engaging local communities in the decision making and design processes, which is one of the principles to achieve adaptive planning, as it is argued by Kato & Ahern (2008). Moreover, the early involvement of the whole array of stakeholders gives them a sense of ownership, which allows for appropriation of spaces and for the community to be an strategic part of the monitoring and maintenance processes.

This performance is a result of reading the territory under the umbrella of site specificity, understanding the geographical, cultural and social formations of the region. Finally, the capacity of natures —with certain degree of manipulation— to become the stitching element throughout a dispersed territory, in the form of green and blue networks running across the region, as part of sustainable urban water landscapes.

Contributor statement

Cristina Wong conceived the presented idea, contributed to the design and implementation of the research, to the analysis and design of the project, and to the writing of the paper.

Acknowledgments

Support was provided by the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure (CDRI) as part of the Fellowship programme 2021-2022.

References

  1. Bacchin, T. (2015) Performative nature, urban landscape infrastructure design in water sensitive cities. Delft University of Technology, Unesco–IHE Institute for Water Education

  2. Bacchin, T., Ashley, R., Sijmons, D., Zevenbergen, C., van Timmeren, A. (2014). Green-blue multifunctional infrastructure: An urban landscape system design new approach. 13th International Conference on Urban Drainage, Sarawak, Malaysia.

  3. Berrizbetia, A. (2007) Re-Placing Process. In J., Czerniak & G., Hargreaves (Eds.). Large Parks. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

  4. Corner, J., & Hirsch, A. B. (Eds.). (2014). The landscape imagination: collected essays of James Corner, 1990-2010. New York: Princeton Architectural Press

  5. Czerniak, J. (2007) Legibility and resilience. In J., Czerniak & G., Hargreaves (Eds.). Large Parks. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

  6. Czerniak, J. (2006) Looking back at landscape urbanism. Speculations on site. In Waldheim, C. (2006). The landscape urbanism reader. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

  7. Erixon, H., S. Borgström, S. & Andersson, E. (2013). "Challenging dichotomies - exploring resilience as an integrative and operative conceptual framework for large-scale urban green structures", Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 14(3), 349-372.

  8. Folke, C., Carpenter, S., Walker, B., Scheffer, M., Chapin, T., Rockström, J. (2010). Resilience thinking: Integrating resilience, adaptability and transformability. Ecology and Society, 15(4), 20-20. doi:10.5751/es-03610-150420

  9. Folke, C. (2016). Resilience (Republished). Ecology and Society, 21(4). doi:10.5751/ES- 09088-210444

  10. Girot, C. (2006). Vision in Motion: Representing Landscape in Time. In Waldheim, C. (2006). The landscape urbanism reader. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

  11. Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (2020) Workshop on Biodiversity and Pandemics. Retrieved from: https://ipbes.net/pandemics

  12. Kato, S., Ahern, J. (2009). ‘Learning by Doing’: Adaptive Planning as a Strategy to Address Uncertainty in Planning, Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 51:4, 543 — 559

  13. Lister, N. (2007) Ecological design or designer ecology?. In J., Czerniak & G., Hargreaves (Eds.). Large Parks. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

  14. Nijhuis, S., & de Vries, J. (2020). Design as Research in Landscape Architecture. Landscape Journal, 38(1-2), 87-103. https://doi.org/10.3368/lj.38.1-2.87

  15. Waldheim, C. (2006). The landscape urbanism reader. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

  16. Wong, C. (2018). Intertwined Natures. Towards territorial cohesion & flood risk adaptation in Lambayeque, Peru. Delft University of Technology.

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Wong, C. (2021). A sense of place: Site specificity as a way to foster resilient urban landscapes [preprint]. The Evolving Scholar | IFoU 14th Edition. https://doi.org/10.24404/61549b7f1e981500089d3ed7