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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