Rethinking Urban Complexities

When searching for ways to improve the urban life in US metropolises, it is hard to avoid the issue of homelessness. Homeless people are highly visible around inner-city locations. This could be experienced in immediate ways at and near the Philadelphia Convention Center, where this year’s ASLA conference took place. Therefore, it makes perfect sense that homelessness was also one of the several social topics that the US landscape architecture scene discussed in Philadelphia. According to current statistics, more than 900 people are homeless in Philadelphia – which is a lot, even though significantly less than the 5,600 people living in the streets of San Diego (where next year’s ASLA conference will take place) or the over 50,000 humans without residence in Los Angeles. But whatever the respective local numbers – when creating urban spaces, landscape architects in all developed nations have to consider the fact that homelessness exists. This was the tenor at a panel on how to “build community through landscape” (see also the video). The panelists agreed: landscape architecture has the potential to support social resilience.

ASLA Conference 2018 Philadelphia
Detail from the show “Pen to paper: Urban Sketching in Philadelphia” which accompanied the ASLA conference and the product expo

While the ASLA conference did not shy away from addressing pressing social questions, there was a sense of optimism in the air in Philadelphia. This also pertained to the issue of urban mobility. Several panels engaged with the topic of car-based mobility. They did not so much condemn the car altogether as think through the opportunities that new technologies such as driverless mobility can bring. One good example was delivered by Nilay Mistry (Illinois Institute of Technology): “Autonomous driving creates an opportunity to use inner-city parking spaces differently,” he argued. “Offshoring” is what experts call this approach of having driverless cars navigate independently to the outskirts of the cities, where they will wait until needed.

Now, of course this might not be not our preferred solution. In an ideal urban world, people would no longer need cars in cities. But in Philadelphia, a certain realism prevailed: for the time being, people need (and like) cars. This is why initiatives such as the research project “Driverless City” that Nilay Mistry presented are important. And landscape architects, quite simply, have to make the best of the situation.

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And cities have to as well. It was therefore interesting to hear Raymond Gastil, City Planning Director of Pittsburgh, outline his city’s cooperation with mobility provider Uber. He defended the project, countering recent criticism that this public-private partnership had encountered from Pittsburgh citizens. However, Gastil also conceded that “robots will always have a certain limit in terms of understanding and predicting human behavior.“ Funnily, the citizens of Pittsburgh who are critical of the project seem to want to demonstrate just that – by making it a public space game to try and trick the driverless cars through pretended movements. Robot irritation as a (mild) form of counter-capitalist subversion?