Sustainable, Equitable and Beautiful Cities
Interview with Terreform’s Michael Sorkin
By Belen Llera, Managing Editor
Issue 13 Fall 2014
Terreform is an alternative, non-profit, urban research studio and advocacy group founded in 2006 by Michael Sorkin. Informed and inspired by his critical writing and design practice, Terreform’s mission is to investigate the forms and practices that will yield equitable, sustainable, and beautiful cities for our urbanizing planet.
Terreform also initiates investigations into both local and global issues and makes themselves available to community and other organizations to support independent environmental and planning initiatives. Terreform first won critical acclaim in 2006 with Project Loisada 2106, a proposal for the History Channel’s City of the Future competition. At the 2010 Venice Biennale, the project New York City (Steady) State explored the morphologies and technologies that might enable a completely autonomous New York. Terreform’s projects have also included speculations on sites in such vexed environments as Gaza, post-Katrina New Orleans, post-Sandy New York, Lower Manhattan and the East River, and Upper Manhattan as it responds to the dramatic expansion of Columbia University. To spread their ideas and foster the debate, Terreform has just launched their journal titled UR.
In this interview, we explore the goals and projects of Terreform and how their proposals can impact the development of the cities.
CATALYST: How do you define the terms sustainability, health and creativity for your clients and constituents, and how did you identify a void not previously met?
TERREFORM: These are three very big questions. To begin, I founded Terreform with the idea that we would pursue research and interventions without traditional clients, working on behalf of raised expectations. We sought forms and social arrangements for more sustainable, equitable, and beautiful cities – and we think our independence is critical to the integrity of our results. The model was a variation on the amicus curiae – the friend of the court. To support this conviction, we have also just launched a journal – UR – to share our results and the work of other people and organizations working on behalf of these same goals.
Our main project has, for some years, been New York City (Steady) State. The idea behind it is to determine how self-sufficient New York City can become, a thought experiment that grows from the wide familiarity with the idea of the “ecological footprint.” We are trying to find out what might happen if New York’s ecological footprint were declared co-terminus with its political footprint.
The question we want to ask is about the degree to which a city can take literal responsibility for its impact on the planet and what steps might be taken if the answer was truly radical.
The problem of limits is very real, and situates us in the world both environmentally and ethically: if everyone on earth had an American footprint, we would need another four planets to support ourselves. Impractical!
In thinking about such tremendous inequality, we look to the logical sites for solutions and believe that, in our era of incompetent nations, states, and predatory multi-national corporations, the most logical increment of remediation and resistance is the city.
And so we have sited our experiment in the place we know best, one in which the problem initially seems almost impossible. Not simply is the city dense and largely built out; nature has no particular regard for political boundaries. For us, this only makes the problem more interesting and we are inspired by the sort of “patch dynamic” research ecologists do in which the predicate is precisely the artificiality of the boundary.
Our study examines food, waste, water, air, climate, movement, construction, and manufacturing; key respiratory systems for the city. We begin by looking at the marginal possibilities for 100% autonomy and then adjust our sights to examine “sweet spots” that are practical.
In completing our work on food, we discovered vertical agriculture could provide enough space, but the energy inputs – equivalent to 25 nuclear plants – were insane. The scale of the enterprise suggested the same agri-business model our vision of localism seeks to critique, would be hard to resist. We also discovered the possibility for much higher levels of local self-reliance with many good consequences for the city.
This allows us both to look at many specific transformations in New York but also to compile an encyclopedia of technologies and morphologies that might be used both here and in other cities, if the decision were made to take more responsibility for a city’s effects. We are looking at all scales, assuming everybody must be involved. Our prejudice calls for disaggregated solutions to neighborhood, building, and on the individual level, so all can be a visible, engaged, part of making this work.
When thinking about both the form and organization of the city, neighborhoods are central for us, the most basic increment of governance, sociability, production, and environmental accountability. A comprehensive neighborhood is a place where you can walk from your home surrounded by culture, work, recreation, commercial activity, education, etc. Once you stipulate this fullness of possibility, many issues are solved.
For example, if all the necessities of daily life can be reached on foot, one eliminates need for a car; and transit demand is reduced. At the same time, if the neighborhood includes a very wide range of employment by those who live in the neighborhood, there must be accommodation for diverse groups that make the urban economy go, a condition of greater equality and sharing.
CATALYST: Listening to you, I begin to realize how political your proposal is.
TERREFORM: The history of environmental progress is highly politicized and that is one of the reasons why progress is slow. In the United States, we have too much faith in the capacity of the market to solve our problems, and contempt for the government has never been higher. It is a formula for marching backwards. But there is hope! We have just elected a mayor in New York for whom social equality is at the center of his concerns.
The movement for environmental justice is growing in numbers and influence. And, in so many ways, green has become the new red!
Many environmental problems are connected to our obscene income gap. In New York, asthma rates track poverty. We have just reached the point where the world holds equal numbers of obese people and starving people and both conditions are heavily correlated with poverty. Food is very political!
CATALYST: What is the role of creativity in your work? Do you believe your work is generating creative cities?
TERREFORM: I am cautious about this because we do not share the concept of “creative cities” promoted by Richard Florida and his cohort that, in the end, seems a formula for gentrification and trickle-down economics. But there are very difficult problems that require creative solutions – technical, social, political, and artistic.
One of the big issues for architects and urbanists nowadays is the homogeneity that comes from the growing global hegemony of multinational culture – the Starbucks and Starchitects syndrome. In thinking about cities, we feel that we must urgently defend the idea of difference. Where can this be found in the design of cities? We look to three primary sources: the first lies in the particulars of bioregion, the second in the cultivation and extension of actual existing culture-culture that is still genuine, and the third springs from the freedom of artistic innovation.
CATALYST: As you work in NYC, what vision do you foresee for the city? Which are its challenges and how can creative economies help achieve that vision?
TERREFORM: One of the great things about New York is that it is such an intensely organized city. Part of this springs from the amazing diversity of our population, our history as a jostling immigrant city and our habits of working out the ways in which we share space. We also have a long history of struggle by these and other groups to find justice and opportunity, which has yielded a fantastic network of institutions and habits.
Finally, we are a city in which we have developed a planning culture that is spurred by capital (and its avatars, like Robert Moses) and resisted by citizens. Although we have technically made progress in creating public means for participation – for example, the system of Community Boards– the real power has always been elsewhere. Revitalizing the capacity for effective collaboration and initiatives by local communities should be high on the agenda of our new mayor and his team.
CATALYST:How does Terreform collaborate with stakeholders such as other companies, non-profits, policymakers and communities to create viable programs and projects?
TERREFORM: Here, I have to talk about the two components of our practice, Sorkin Studio and Terreform. The Sorkin Studio is a more nominally conventional “for profit” design firm. Like Terreform, we are committed to highly sustainable design and we try to follow our formal bliss, but we do work for clients. My original idea was that Sorkin Studio would be able to subsidize Terreform from its profits, but that has not quite happened yet!
As I mentioned before, Terreform works without paying clients – we depend on grants and volunteers – and our mission is to advance a progressive discourse of the city. Of course, we are out in the world, but we are utopians, and we work – through research and design – to make propaganda for ideas about the good. Our project is both invention and the more general expansion of the space for constructed fantasies about social and environmental change. We genuinely believe in the power of visionary thinking in raising expectations at every scale.
There are many important conversations nowadays about the so-called “right to the city,” a concept first formally articulated in 1967 by the great French urbanist Henri Lefevbre. Of course, part of this right is expressed in access, in the freedom to move and live all over town, to enjoy the benefits offered by the metropolis. But, an even more crucial right in Lefevbre’s formulation was the right to imagine the kind of city in which you would like to live, to move towards the future of your desires. This is a central theme for Terreform – giving expression to dreams.
CATALYST: Does culture play a role in your work? How does it present itself with regard to quality of living?
TERREFORM: I hesitate here as I am not very sure about what you mean by culture. We are soldiers in the struggle to promote the flourishing of design differences. If that is what you mean by culture – the freedom to form affinities, the freedom to love your history, the freedom to express yourself loudly – all are components of a culture we trust in. But, I do not exactly believe in the freedom of the melting pot, the idea that America insists you surrender all the things that make you different. Our task is to support freedom for difference, not from it.
CATALYST: In terms of scale, Terreform is more focused on creating public space for communities. How do you define your target markets and what would have to change/shift to broaden your markets/audience and fulfill the needs of our urban centers?
TERREFORM: More than public space, let us say that we are focused on urban space. Certainly, we are always looking to broaden our audience and that is why we have begun UR, our journal, and why interviews like this are important. We are a small number of people but we have lots of ideas and we are trying to get the word out however we can. Many thanks for your help!
CATALYST: Could you give us some best practices examples of cities or neighborhoods domestic or internationally that align with your practices? Could there be possible collaborations to broaden the impact you are making and extend the reach of your vision to the global community?
TERREFORM: Best practices are everywhere. For example, the organoponicos in Havana are an inspiring “low tech” solution with wide applicability for cities with relatively benign climates. Due to both the embargo and the economic incompetence of the Cuban government, agriculture is a misery there. However, a remarkable decision was made some years ago to try to grow all the produce required for the city within the boundaries of Havana. It has been a great success and they are now growing 80-90% of what they require.
We are also interested in a wide variety of self-organized systems of urban renovations elsewhere in Latin America. I recently visited Medellin where the government and local citizens collaborated to produce stunning neighborhood transformations. But, we are also interested in high-tech solutions, in the vertical farms being built in Singapore and Sweden.
What is especially inspiring, though, are the innumerable grass-roots efforts to ameliorate the urban condition. Another organization I am involved in – The Institute for Urban Design – organized the US Pavillion at Venice Biennale two years ago under the theme “Spontaneous Interventions.” The show documented hundreds of examples of so called “do-it-yourself” urbanism in which individuals and communities undertook a wide variety of small-scale interventions to leverage local change. Some of them had to do with urban agriculture, some had to do with using digital media to facilitate community information and participation, some with the appropriation of street space, some with artistic enhancements of fatigued environments. Nothing could be more inspiring or hopeful.
CATALYST: What is your ideal vision for Terreform and for the global community?
TERREFORM: We would like to export all the lessons we are learning from our New York City (Steady) State project to other cities around the world. Years ago we did a very simple scheme looking at one of the most troubled and least sustainable places on earth, Gaza. We are ready to apply what we know, to join the fight for autonomy and sustainability, almost anywhere!
CATALYST: Could you shed light on upcoming trends/forecast for health, sustainability and creative spaces?
TERREFORM: Without question we are confronting an immensely serious crisis and we need to find ways to accelerate the process of remediation and reform. But, there is no magic bullet and we Americans too often think that sustainability is a technical problem, something that will be solved by hydrogen cars or cheap photo-voltaics. But, as I hope this interview has made clear, the core of the issue is equity. For Terreform, the most important site for this struggle is the city.
In thinking about social inequality, the most logical increment of remediation and resistance is the city. A crucial right formulated by the urbanist Henri Lefebvre was the right to imagine the kind of city in which you want to live. This is the central theme for Terreform- giving expression to dreams.
STRATEGIES IN ACTION:
Promote the flourishing of design differences.
Believe and endorse the power of visionary thinking in raising expectations at every scale.
a positive impact for equity within cities.
Inquire about the degree to which a city can take responsibility for its impact on the planet and what steps might be taken if the solution was truly life changing.
About the Author:
Michael Sorkin is the principal of Michael Sorkin Studio in New York City, a global design practice focused on urbanism and green architecture, President of Terreform, a non-profit organization dedicated to research and intervention in issues of urban morphology, sustainability and equity. Sorkin also serves as a Distinguished Professor of Architecture and the Director of the Graduate Urban Design Program at the City College of New
York, and President of the Institute for Urban Design. His books include Variations on A Theme Park, Exquisite Corpse, Local Code, Giving Ground, Wiggle, Some Assembly Required, Other Plans, The Next Jerusalem, After The Trade Center, Starting From Zero, Against the Wall, Indefensible Space, Twenty Minutes in Manhattan, and All Over the Map.