Culture and Climate Change – Architecture and Urbanism

How Cities Can Reconnect With The Landscape

Serie Las Vegas; © Alex S. MacLean für Akademie der Künste, 2009Serie Las Vegas; © Alex S. MacLean für Akademie der Künste, 2009What do Venice and Las Vegas have in common? Both cities evolved in an extremely hostile environment – one of them in the sea and the other in a desert. Both cities have to deal with similar ecological problems: urban sprawl, air pollution, water scarcity. Both cities - the gambling capital as well as La Serenissima on the Lido – have more visitors than residents.

A copy of Venice was built in Las Vegas, but the casino was in fact actually invented by the Venetians. In the main hall at the “Return of Landscape” exhibition at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin the focus is on these two famous cities. They represent different historical epochs, but in their own way they have both come to terms with their landscape.

Venice was reclaimed from a marshy lagoon, yet engineering skills, a realistic approach to commerce and clever political dealings have ensured the city’s survival over the centuries. The Republic of Venice adapted to its surrounding landscape. Back in 1602 the brothers, Iseppo and Girolamo Paulini, had already submitted a petition to the Senate that analysed the effects of environmental damage, water pollution and the over-exploitation of the forests. The rulers of Venice knew how to avail themselves of their natural resources. They exploited them, but they did not exhaust them. This is why every house had its own drinking water tank. The house however was not allowed to have more residents than it could support. The fishermen built breeding pools that were flooded in winter so that they could renew themselves. The branches of the estuary flowing into the sea near Venice were re-routed so that the lagoon would not silt up.

Frightening parallels

Venedig; © Alex S. MacLean für Akademie der Künste, 2009Today this natural balance is in danger. Venice is not silting up, but is on the verge of sinking into the sea. The level of the ground there has fallen 23 centimetres since 1900. More and more Venetians are moving into the outlying suburbs like Mestre. The expensive apartments in the city have been bought up by rich foreigners who spend only a few months there. The plain of the river Po that borders on the city is one of Europe’s most air-polluted regions. The urban sprawl there is as widespread as it is around Las Vegas.

The gambling town in the desert was built on a bubble of groundwater that today is no longer able to supply the town with enough water. Las Vegas is a symbol of the American Dream: the extreme climate, the scarcity of water, the lack of arable land – no problem at all, simply a question of transport and money. Today there are about two million people living in Vegas, in 12 year’s time – according to the ambitious urban planners – it will rise to four million. The Hoover Dam is still providing water and electricity, but if things go the way they have been going up to now, in 20 years it will have been drained dry. Not to worry – if we are to rely on the daring plans of the urban planners, the waters of the Mississippi Delta are to be tapped, even though it is about 2,500 kilometres away.

Serie Las Vegas; © Alex S. MacLean für Akademie der Künste, 2009They seem however to be running out of ideas. Even the most sophisticated engineering skills can only maintain a town like Las Vegas by destroying a natural habitat somewhere else. Venice had huge flood gates built in the sea in front of the lagoon, but they will be of little use if sea-levels continue to rise as a result of climate change.

So what did we learn from the way these two cities developed? Cities, large-scale settlements can only survive if they reconnect with their surrounding landscape. The cities of the 19th and 20th centuries were built in conflict with their natural surroundings – “anything goes” seemed to be the motto in the age of technological feasibility. Throughout all the preceding centuries cities were only able to survive, if they adapted to their surrounding landscape – the landscape had to offer them protection from enemy attack. The food and water supply from the surrounding areas had to be secure. Trade was only able to flourish in the cities if they were located close to the transport routes.

Developing in accordance with the landscape

Serie Las Vegas; © Alex S. MacLean für Akademie der Künste, 2009The city in the 21st century has to develop in accordance with the landscape. What is necessary are creative and sustainable solutions and a new emotional approach. This is the idea behind the “Return of Landscape” exhibition. “The question will not be whether we want to live in cities, but more how do we want to live in them,” says Donata Valentien, landscape architect and curator of the exhibition. In collaboration with Anna Viader Soler, an architect from Barcelona, she designed and organised the exhibition over a period of two years. Landscaping, urban development, the ecological reconstruction of a region – for her it is not just a question of technology, but of culture, too. “The design of urban living space will require the merging of all social and creative forces.”

How this might be achieved is on show in hall three at the exhibition – eleven pilot projects, all from very different regions of the world, provide a small ray of hope for the future of urban settlement.

Pilot projects all over the globe

Battle i Roig Arquitectes (Barcelona), Renaturierung der Mülldeponie Vall d'en Joan bei Barcelona; © Jordi SurrocaFor example, the renaturation of the Vall d’en Joan landfill. For decades the city of Barcelona had been dumping its rubbish and waste into this valley. The lower layers are so toxic that they had to be sealed over with special coverings. A system of drains allowed the contaminated water to flow out. The layers above were covered with soil and planted with trees and grass. The valley was turned into an artificial terraced landscape, fully in harmony with its surrounding landscape.

Another famous example is the Emscher Project – also part of the Ruhr European Capital of Culture Year 2010. More or less a cesspool, a river flowing through the Ruhr area that had been degraded to a sewer, it has now been restored step by step to its original condition. This has affected the overall structure of the Ruhr area. Ugly industrial wastelands have suddenly been turned into popular excursion destinations.

Whether the warehouse roofs at the harbour of Koper (Slovenia) will become green spaces, whether the former airport in Orange County (California) will be transformed into a nature park – one thing the landscapers and urban developers have learnt is that they have to reconnect with their natural environment. There are no easy answers. There is no mention at all at the exhibition of mega-cities like Mexico City, Cairo or Istanbul, whose population has grown to ten, twelve, 20 million and is still growing. In China alone there has been such a rural exodus that the amount of abandoned arable land is the equivalent of Germany’s total area under cultivation. Curator, Donata Valentien, has observed that stretches of the most fertile land are to be found just a few kilometres outside the mega-city of Rio de Janeiro. “It lies unused and abandoned, because the former residents think there are better ways of making a living in the city. As long as this way of thinking prevails, nothing will change.”

Recommended Reading: Wiederkehr der Landschaft / Return of Landscape (Ger./Eng.) Donata Valentien for the Akademie der Künste, Berlin. With a photo-essay by Alex S. MacLean, published by Jovis Verlag, Berlin 2010, Hardcover, 272 pages, 38 EUR, ISBN 978-3-86859-056-2.

Volker Thomas
is a freelance journalist in Berlin and director of a press and PR agency (

Translation: Paul McCarthy
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
May 2010

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