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We can delight in the aesthetics of other necessities.


Sixteenth-century city engineers in Rome used the same system to provide water both to the walled gardens of the rich and to the drinking fountains on the exterior garden walls for the mass of the people on the outside.

Water can be enjoyed as well as being necessary, after all, as also demonstrated later with the fountains at San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane or those in Piazza Navona.

We can delight in the aesthetics of other necessities besides water, but we first have to be aware of them. There are some contemporary parallels with the Roman example of enjoyment and use of water, such as the formation of pocket parks in the city of New York or a range of major waterfront developments such as those in Baltimore, San Francisco, Monaco, Dubai, Singapore and Sydney. But on the whole we miss out on opportunities to derive enjoyment from necessity. These opportunities are everywhere hidden in plain sight in new ecological practices and in existing maintenance operations. Let’s talk about them.

Our approach to the city has become more anesthetized, lacking the sense of wonder and achievement that characterized many urban projects in the past. We still cling to the inheritance of an Enlightenment philosophy that, for example, regarded cemeteries in the midst of the city as unhealthy and unhygienic, something to be banished to the outskirts at the first possible opportunity.

Given the limitations of space, maybe we should do the same today, not just with the bodies of the dead but also with the waste of our own consumption. Who really has a sense of the mountains of garbage that are produced by most cities (unless you happen to have been in Naples during one of the frequent strikes by city workers): out of sight, out of mind. But … if we don’t see the garbage of our culture, both literally and metaphorically, then we are not confronting the reality of what that garbage actually says about us. One can only imagine that in New York City, with its enormous appetite for fast food and takeout, the relation between consumption and waste would produce some frightening statistics. This interrelation can also be seen as an ethico-aesthetic, cultural and environmental project, an opportunity based on viewing the garbage as a measure of who we are, rather than as yet another difficulty, a hindrance to be overcome technically. We must find new ways not only of dealing with the problems of waste management and recycling but also of addressing garbage more forensically, for clues of what we are doing to ourselves.

We have already witnessed an increasing interest in new ways of producing food closer to and within cities. The global transportation and distribution of food is being supplemented by more local growers, whose farmers’ markets create temporal events in many cities. But in some places, such as Havana, urban allotments and other forms of productive urban landscapes are being cultivated on a larger scale and in a more commercial manner than ever before. These developments suggest designing such terrains as the continuation of the urban territory – in part as new forms of public space.

Mohsen Mostafavi is Dean at the Harvard School of Design. This is an excerpt from his article “Why Ecological Urbanism? Why Now?” in Harvard Design Magazine #32.[cherry_banner image=”4688″ title=”Adbusters #93″ url=”″ template=”issue.tmpl”]The Big Ideas of 2011[/cherry_banner]