Diana Balmori

Describe a liv­able city.

A liv­able city resem­bles as much as pos­si­ble a liv­ing thing. It takes on mod­es of func­tion­ing that copy life; smart engi­neer­ing can realign the pat­terns and flows of the city with the lessons of biol­o­gy. And that’s what I feel is the big trans­for­ma­tion in the next ten years. That we learn from liv­ing things and how to do things in what I would call a nat­u­ral way, although we’re doing it through engi­neer­ing. We adopt bio­log­i­cal mod­els you can repli­cate in engi­neer­ing — for exam­ple, in build­ings that auto­mat­i­cal­ly adjust to tem­per­a­tures, that dark­en them­selves or light them­selves, or let light in or close them­selves, that they sort of become part liv­ing things. Their roofs are green, their walls may be green, so they’re total­ly inter­laced with liv­ing mat­ter.

We’ve learned how life is main­tained. And so our engi­neer­ing should build from that. There are lots of bio­log­i­cal mod­els that are known about already, for instance in the way that we set up cer­tain things with water. We are begin­ning to learn. And that’s what I mean by nat­u­ral­iz­ing the city, that we adopt bio­log­i­cal mod­els that are engi­neered.

How could you see this hap­pen­ing in New York, for instance?

Let’s just take waters and rivers: I would like with­in the next ten years for the whole sur­face of the city to be total­ly porous. At present, the city sim­ply builds and builds itself and then you have to col­lect all the water rush­ing down dusty streets into drainage pipes which dump it into the river; if the sur­faces are porous then rain­wa­ter is not dumped into rivers. Instead, it flows direct­ly into the earth. As it flows, it is cleaned through plant process­es, through evap­o­tran­spi­ra­tion, and through engi­neered process­es. But it goes direct­ly into the soil and feeds ground­wa­ter — and it’s not col­lect­ing all the dirt of streets and wash­ing that into our rivers.

And I would like that we learn to live with our rivers in a very dif­fer­ent way, acknowl­edg­ing that they change in height at dif­fer­ent times of the year, and accept­ing those changes. We can allow the rivers to have an enor­mous amount of excess water in places that do not flood. There are many ways of doing that.

And then we have a river that returns to life, that has all kinds of bio­ta in it, is full of fish, with clean water, healthy water, and has at its banks not hard edges but plant­ed edges, curved edges, because water always moves with a curved pro­file and plant­ed edges would clean the water and slow it down. So in ten years, that is very achiev­able. That the city be porous, that the rivers be clean, full of life, and that their edges be com­plete­ly changed.

And that we do not force rivers to be fixed enti­ties, because noth­ing in nature is fixed. We should learn that from nature – that every­thing needs to have the room to be able to change con­stant­ly. Rivers need to change con­stant­ly. Cities need to change con­stant­ly. A plan­et changes con­stant­ly. We change con­stant­ly. It’s a very deep and dif­fi­cult lesson to learn. But if we start liv­ing this way and mak­ing our city work this way, it is sus­tain­able.

So, I just men­tioned mak­ing all the sur­faces porous. I am not just say­ing that as a fig­ure of speech: I’ve been work­ing with a sci­en­tist at the School of Forestry and Envi­ron­men­tal Stud­ies at Yale and we thought of a pave­ment sys­tem that per­mits the water to come through and cleans it at the same time. We’ve even got a man­u­fac­tur­er involved in it, who agreed to build a test of it. But we haven’t been able to get fund­ing for it. It’s a mat­ter of just such a small amount of mon­ey but we can’t get it for test­ing that. Noth­ing would have a more incred­i­ble effect on a city than hav­ing its whole sur­face porous.

We some­how have to change the view of how a city needs to work. City Atlas, and I, and oth­ers have to do this. We must com­mu­ni­cate to a large pop­u­la­tion what it takes to trans­form cities into places that are not heat islands, that do not make garbage out of our rivers, and that do not con­tin­u­al­ly cre­ate prob­lems of drainage and sewage over­flow. And this is just tak­ing water as an exam­ple.

So the next step is essen­tial­ly polit­i­cal?

Well, on some lev­el the whole thing becomes polit­i­cal in the sense that we have to have the polit­i­cal will to do it. At the same time, when one encoun­ters a polit­i­cal sys­tem that doesn’t move or doesn’t react to urgent needs and new ideas, then I think that an intel­li­gent pop­u­la­tion has to take mat­ters into their own hands. I don’t mean they have to have a rev­o­lu­tion or that they have to become politi­cians. I think that we can give indi­vid­u­als the tools to go in this new direc­tion. And that’s what our pro­fes­sion allows us to do. We know cer­tain things — like what it takes to make a pave­ment porous or to reduce the heat island of cities. Every­body, every indi­vid­u­al who has a roof in New York City can turn that roof into a green roof. And we don’t need a rev­o­lu­tion for that. We just need to edu­cate our pub­lic about this. And that is so pos­si­ble to do.


The green roof on Sil­ver­cup Stu­dios, Long Island City, NY (Bal­mori Asso­ciates, 2005)


I would prefer if some­one could get the politi­cians behind it. But if they’re going to be par­a­lyzed as they are now, then I think we need to say OK, what oth­er ways are there? And — I think orga­ni­za­tions like City Atlas are pre­cise­ly the ones that can take all of the­se kinds of things on and be incred­i­bly effec­tive.

Because it’s the clas­si­cal prob­lem of get­ting the sci­ence out there to the peo­ple?

But you can also give the peo­ple tools so that they can do things on their own. Not just edu­cate them about big ideas or ask for their sup­port, reserv­ing action for polit­i­cal lead­ers. Instead, inspire peo­ple to change their own build­ings, you know? It would have an enor­mous effect on the city if you could reach enough peo­ple.

We’ve had the­se con­ver­sa­tions about, how do you engage a per­son? Do you cater to their ego in a sense by say­ing you can do this and you can look great — like, here’s the iPhone of the envi­ron­ment — you can look also real­ly great with it? Do you do those par­al­lels? Or then there’s also the scare method, where you have a very real con­ver­sa­tion which scares peo­ple into mak­ing changes.

Yeah that doesn’t work.

Exact­ly. Or do we sim­ply start prepar­ing them for the after­math of the cat­a­stro­phe? It’s not a very uplift­ing sce­nar­io real­ly…

Peo­ple are not given enough cred­it for how much they do under­stand. It’s true when they have very strong rea­sons for not doing some­thing that would be most incon­ve­nient to them, but I think that there is also a good amount of pure com­mon sense and a sort of ‘do it your­self’ char­ac­ter in the Amer­i­can social body. One can appeal to that. And I real­ly think that it’s a pow­er­ful tool and should be used more often.

That’s a good point. Some of the pride.

Yes, it is a very Amer­i­can char­ac­ter­is­tic that you don’t see in oth­er places.

Yeah, yeah. There are so many meth­ods for dif­fer­ent cul­tures, dif­fer­ent cities, dif­fer­ent neigh­bor­hoods.

Undoubt­ed­ly. That’s one of the par­tic­u­lar Amer­i­can strengths and it can be appealed to.

Where do you see the field of land­scape archi­tec­ture going?

I real­ly feel that both paint­ing and archi­tec­ture have dom­i­nat­ed most of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. Towards the end, sculp­ture sort of jumped into it. The twen­ty first cen­tu­ry is a moment that land­scape archi­tec­ture, bol­stered by archi­tec­ture and biol­o­gy, is going to be incred­i­bly impor­tant. Because we are deal­ing with liv­ing things and liv­ing mat­ter, which is where the cul­ture has moved. And it is par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing using the bio­log­i­cal mod­el because land­scape archi­tec­ture is sud­den­ly involved in this issue of sus­tain­abil­i­ty. And I think that land­scape — because it’s always been deal­ing with liv­ing things, unlike archi­tec­ture — has always had to face this test. If it sur­vives, it’s suc­cess­ful — and if it doesn’t, it isn’t. So that fits much closer to the bio­log­i­cal mod­el.

And biol­o­gy is also becom­ing much more sophis­ti­cat­ed in its analy­sis of what keeps life going. And art has to be the oth­er dimen­sion. While land­scape can main­tain that good under­stand­ing of bio­log­i­cal mod­els on the one hand, it must also re-con­nect itself to art, because it sort of dropped away from art — then I think it will remain strong and pow­er­ful. It needs, how­ev­er, to make the aes­thet­ic dimen­sion much stronger. And if it doesn’t I think it’s not going to last very long as field of impor­tance. But it is impor­tant because it’s clos­est to liv­ing things.

What is inter­est­ing too is every­thing that has to do with com­put­ers today is mov­ing towards bio­log­i­cal mod­els. Even in that very high tech field, the bio­log­i­cal mod­el is begin­ning to dom­i­nate. So I real­ly think we are in an era in which liv­ing mat­ter is the basis of what­ev­er we’re going to under­stand and do. What is sus­tain­able for life will dom­i­nate the whole cul­ture.

So land­scape archi­tec­ture has an oppor­tu­ni­ty. Whether it will take it, we’ll see. It’s cer­tain­ly a good field in which to test things because we’re dis­cussing liv­ing mat­ter today and the archi­tects are try­ing to see if their build­ings will become closer to liv­ing things. I think that’s where it’s at.


About Diana Bal­mori

Diana Bal­mori has been the prin­ci­ple land­scape design­er on many high­ly inno­v­a­tive projects, includ­ing the Mas­ter Plan for the Aban­dio­bar­ra Dis­trict in Bil­bao, Spain, where her land­scape designs run alongside the Nervion River and adja­cent to the build­ing of the Guggen­heim Bil­bao. She real­ized the extra­or­di­nary con­cept of Robert Smith­son for a float­ing island around New York City, and Bal­mori Asso­ciates were the design team behind the green­roof at Sil­ver­cup Stu­dios in Queens, New York, which is the largest sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly mon­i­tored green roof in the Unit­ed States. Balmori’s mas­ter plan for an entire­ly new city in Korea, Sejong Admin­is­tra­tive Town, is now in ear­ly stages of con­struc­tion.

Her books include A Land­scape Man­i­festo (Yale, 2010) and, with co-author Joel Sanders, Ground­work (Mona­cel­li, 2011).


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