Landscape and Survival: Thoughts on New Urbanism

and Anasazi/Pueblo Strategies
for Designing Pragmatic Desert Built Environments


Like all conservationists, I’m troubled by waste. I’m especially annoyed by wasted information and knowhow that’s no longer privileged because of its association with antiquated technologies. In a world moving too fast for any new technique to become, as the old saying has it, both “tried and true,” I’m distressed that traditional building technologies with staying power aren’t employed the modern design and construction techniques. This seems a particular shame in desert climates like the American Southwest’s where ancient and traditional builders have mastered the requirements of survival.

My dismay is tempered somewhat, however, by recalling an incident in the history of architecture in Italy. When Brunelleschi was overseeing the construction of his design for additions to the Cathedral of Florence in the mid-1400s, he had to reinvent ancient Roman construction machinery and practices to build the massive dome, considered now perhaps the most graceful in the world. In the American Southwest, however, most developers and designers act as if they didn’t know an ancient architectural and landscape tradition even exists for them to adapt to modern needs, despite virtually endless archaeological and contemporary cultural examples.

So when I first read the preamble to the “Charter of the New Urbanism” published in 2000, I was happily struck by its deep similarities to what I know about the pragmatic principles of the creation of form and space in Anasazi/Pueblo built environments, using technologies and principles deeply grounded in tradition. But I also felt a kind of despair, understanding as I do that American culture values “the new” above all else, even in poetry, as Ezra Pound’s modernist dictum of the l920s,“make it new,” attests.

The New Urbanist preamble states, in part, “We recognize that physical solutions by themselves will not solve social and economic problems, but neither can economic vitality, community stability, and environmental health be sustained without a coherent and supportive physical framework.” One can see that sentiment still at work in the physical arrangement of virtually every pueblo still extant and in the ruins of most ancient town sites. I have grave doubts about the modern world’s ability to find a synergy, a hybrid vigor, between these two world views in the service of creating cost-effective, conservationist strategies for living successfully in the resource-poor hostile environments of the arid Southwest. But it’s certainly worth a try.

To read the complete essay download the pdf pdf

Canyon Gardens is available from UNM Press remote