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Archive for June, 2014

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1950s postcard of Mellon Square / Collections of Senator John Heinz History Center, Pittsburgh

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Mellon Square restoration aerial / Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy

The Modernist design of Mellon Square is a product of the Pittsburgh’s first renaissance, beginning in the late 1940s. The plaza was a focal point in the re-imagining of what was a gritty city. Positioned above streets, storefronts, and a subterranean parking garage, the space ascended above the hustle and bustle, forming an oasis.

I gathered a wealth of documentation, observing use, studying context, and investigating details. All of this led to an analysis of the plaza’s original design and built character.

What emerged was a clear picture of the original design team’s masterful manipulation of the urban fabric to revitalize this area of the central business district. Although this was a Mitchell & Ritchey and Simonds & Simonds collaboration, documents pointed to John Simonds as the author of sketches that embodied the design concepts. These studies drew on diverse historical and contemporary sources, such as the grace of ancient Roman villa cascades, the exuberance of colorful Latin American estates, the geometries of modern French gardens, and the clarity of Japanese Zen compositions. This urban green space crystallized multiple ideas in a Modernist character. The companion elements were the new U.S. Steel and Alcoa towers flanking two corners of the plaza. This adjacency brought the views from above to the foreground of design considerations.

The intensive, compact Mellon Square design was layered, with three-dimensionally nested planes unfolding to a serene interior of skydome, sunlight, shimmering water, and native forest plants. As Simonds espoused, it served as a platform, civic monument, and oasis — both within and separate from the surrounding city. The plaza invited access from the street, fostered leisure, and supported lively events. Mellon Square was an integral part of re-imagining Pittsburgh as a place of commerce and innovation and remains an ascendant urban space today.

However, by 2008, Mellon Square had lost the clarity and grace of its original layered composition. Missing were the graceful reflective central basin, the pastel brightness of the cascade, the continuous filigree of canopy foliage, the complete green perimeter edge, the crisp geometry of harlequin paving, and the overall evidence of polish and care. With the revelation of original design concepts in hand, the effort turned to finding ways to restore the masterwork while addressing contemporary issues.

The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy’s emphasis on balancing historic integrity, current uses and functions, and operations and maintenance provided an effective framework for addressing preservation interventions at Mellon Square. To reinstate the richness and intricacy of its multi-faceted, dense and compelling design, the integrity of the Modernist composition had to be re-established.

Approaching the work of a master requires both insight and humility. The original design intent and execution must remain the paramount guide, even as multiple factors are addressed. The conservancy and Heritage Landscapes team chose to restore 85 percent of the plaza, while re-imagining the large planter above Smithfield Street as a terrace and overlook with an adjacent green roof. The project brief — addressing authenticity, use, function, durability and ongoing management — led to designing anew this vestigial planter that had twice failed.

Mellon Square’s transcendent character is palpable once again. It has been our challenge and pleasure to collaborate with the conservancy to contribute to this third renaissance of Mellon Square in the great city of Pittsburgh.

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Mellon Square fountain / Heritage Landscapes

This guest post by Patricia M. O’Donnell, FASLA, is a complement to the coverage of the renewal of Mellon Square. O’Donnell is founder and principal of Heritage Landscapes LLC, Preservation Landscape Architect & Planners

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Mellon Square restoration aerial / Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy

Pittsburgh’s Mellon Square, an icon of mid-century Modern design, has been finally restored after a six-year process. A precursor to today’s trendy green roof movement, the plaza was the first in the nation built over a subterranean parking garage. Today, Mellon Square is a showcase for urban revitalization through historic preservation, with a contemporary sensibility and the latest technologies.

Upon its initial completion in 1955, Mellon Square unified Pittsburgh’s central business district and “typified the spirit” of the city, post World War II. Locally-based architects Mitchell & Ritchey brought in landscape architect John Ormsbee Simonds, Simonds & Simonds and author of the seminal textbook, Landscape Architecture, to collaborate on the public space. The square features a majestic central fountain comprised of nine cast-bronze basins; a distinctive triangle-patterned “Rustic Venetian Terrazzo” paving, inspired by Sarah Mellon Scaife’s travels to Europe; elegant evening lighting; lush plantings; and a second multi-leveled fountain cascading down to street-level. Simonds described the square as “an oasis in an asphalt desert.”

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1950s postcard of Mellon Square / Collections of Senator John Heinz History Center, Pittsburgh

Some more thoughts on the original design: Patricia M. O’Donnell, FASLA, Heritage Landscapes LLC, lead for the park’s restoration, notes the original design team’s “masterful manipulation of urban fabric . . . layered with three-dimensionally-nested planes unfolding to a serene interior of skydome, sunlight, shimmering water, and native forest plants.” In The Post-Gazette, Arthur Ziegler, president of the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, calls Mellon Square “a fine example of mid-century Modern design, but not in the sense of so many results of that time, when urban renewal was really a harsh New Brutalism. Here you had a real attempt to still use decoration and refined design in a clean-lined modernistic statement.” And, The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) tells us that, as viewed from the buildings, “the harlequin patterned terrazzo of the sizeable plaza played against the tiles and jets of the fountain and with the diamond patterned façade of the Alcoa headquarters building by architects Harrison & Abramovitz.”

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Original artist’s sketch from early 1950s / Simonds & Simonds and Mitchell & Riley from the Heinz collections

Despite a restoration project in the 1980s, years of little maintenance resulted in cracked paving, drainage issues, broken fountains, and dying trees and shrubs. But even with these issues, the park was named one of the 2008 Great Public Spaces by the American Planning Association (APA), who noted the “striking example of Modernism with its triangular-patterned paving and asymmetrical order of planters, bronze fountains, and granite benches.”

In 2009, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy and a team headed by Heritage Landscapes developed a comprehensive restoration plan. In addition to the two year, $10 million restoration process, the funders established a $4 million fund for ongoing maintenance to ensure the park would not fall into disrepair again.

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Proposed design restoration rendering / Heritage Landscapes LLC

Post-restoration, the park’s bronze basins have been re-patinated. The paving has been restored. The cascade fountain was recreated and is flowing again; the water choreography was re-established. O’Donnell tells us: “the cascade and main fountains were both completely reconstructed using modern best practices and technologies.”

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Bronze fountains restored / Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy

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Cascade fountain restored / Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy

Other contemporary updates include an elevated terrace overlooking Smithfield Street (inspired by early design sketches discovered in the Heinz collections), energy-efficient lighting, and a new plant palette of hardy trees, flowers, grasses and shrubs which will “provide a year-round display of textures, forms, and colors,” writes Susan Rademacher, parks curator at Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, in a recent article for Docomomo US.

Now that the plaza has been restored, attention will turn to its perimeter. Along retail shops on Smithfield Street, a permanent display will highlight Mellon Square’s “history and national significance, its relationship to the Mellon family and its important role in Pittsburgh’s Renaissance,” writes Rademacher. “Garage entrances will be upgraded in keeping with the modernist aesthetic, while new site furnishings, banners, and planters will bring the four street edges into harmony with Mellon Square.” Already, the park’s reemergence has contributed to the revitalization of the surrounding business district as millions of dollars fund new restoration and development projects.

Check out a detailed history and description of the restoration process in this upbeat video from the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy:

The 2009 Mellon Square Preservation, Interpretation & Management Plan Team was led by Heritage Landscapes LLC: Preservation Landscape Architects & Planners, with contributions by Environmental Planning & Design,MTR Landscape Architects, LaQuatra Bonci Associates, and The Cultural Landscape Foundation. The 2011 Restoration Project Team included Heritage Landscapes with Pfaffmann + Associates Architects.

Yoshi Silverstein is the ASLA 2014 communications intern. He is a Masters in Landscape Architecture candidate at the University of Maryland. He focuses on landscape experience and outdoor learning environments.

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1. Pavilion Vista

Pavilion Vista / Longwood Gardens

Known for its exquisitely-crafted formal gardens, Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania has just unveiled its new meadow garden, 86 acres showcasing “best practices in ecological garden design with artistic interventions.” Designed by Jonathan Alderson Landscape Architects with a team of local artisans, the meadow garden features three miles of walking trails and boardwalks that guide visitors from the woodland edge through sweeps of native wildflowers, then along to the wetlands surrounding Hourglass Lake. To guide the landscape experience, landscape architect Jonathan Alderson, ASLA, accentuated natural patterns that celebrate the meadow’s ever-changing nature. Also, all structures — from the entrance gate and learning pavilions to the bridges and boardwalks — were crafted with local materials to reflect Brandywine Valley culture, history, and ecology.

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Meadow bridge / Longwood Gardens

“The new meadow garden is an exciting departure from the more formal gardens,” said Longwood Gardens director Paul Redman. “Guests will experience a bucolic Brandywine Valley landscape and discover the beauty and variety of native and naturally-producing plants.” Visitors will gain an “appreciation for the inter-connectedness of plants and wildlife.”

To augment the existing plant varieties already thriving in the meadow and woodland edge, over 100 species were added to create sweeps of color, texture, and diversity. These plants permeate the landscape and provide interest and habitat benefits in every season.

In spring, woody plants like Eastern redbud and flowering dogwood combine with an herbaceous groundcover layer.

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Spring in the meadow / Longwood Gardens

In summer, meadow species provide visual scenes and attract pollinators like the monarch butterfly.

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Blazing Star in summer / Daniel Traub

While in the fall, native asters and meadow grasses blend with the autumn foliage of woodland-edge species of maple and oak.

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Fall meadow / Longwood Gardens

Even in winter, dry seed pods and grasses provide subtle beauty and texture while providing important habitat amid the snow.

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Meadow Garden Winter / Longwood Gardens

Alderson designed the meadow garden as a showcase for ecological design. The new meadow “minimizes environmentally-destructive impacts by integrating itself with living processes. Land stewardship techniques are implemented with the goal of enhancing and maintaining the resilience of the existing native plant communities.”

By doubling the original meadow’s size, several species that require sizable habitat to complete their life cycle and migratory needs (the Eastern Meadowlark, for example) will have the opportunity to thrive. The plant and soil communities also function as dynamic, living water filters for the ponds, headwater streams, and wetlands throughout the gardens. “This meadow is a direct reflection of how the human and natural words interact, offering a valuable ecological and cultural experience.”

Longwood Gardens founder Pierre DuPont’s left a legacy of support for education. Following in this tradition, the meadow garden is a place for discovery and learning. Four pavilions frame vistas and provide gathering points for school groups and other visitors. The historic Webb Farmhouse has been restored and will serve as a gallery and interpretive center reflecting the site’s intricate history

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Webb House / Longwood Gardens

Efforts were made during the Webb Farmhouse restoration, along with the construction of boardwalks and other structures, to source local, environmentally friendly materials. Reclaimed historic wood beams and floor boards were used to restore the Webb House; benches are constructed from fallen trees on the Longwood property; and much of the Garden’s hardscape features stone sourced from nearby Avondale, Pennsylvania. Local masons, carpenters, blacksmiths, and others handcrafted the structures found in the landscape.

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Artisan Blacksmith / Daniel Traub

Guests are welcome throughout the year to enjoy self-guided walks or to schedule school-group visits. Meadow days in August, September, and October will offer additional opportunities for fun and exploration.

In the meantime, check out this video and start thinking about how to get yourself to Pennsylvania for this Americana landscape experience.

Yoshi Silverstein is the ASLA 2014 communications intern. He is a Masters in Landscape Architecture candidate at the University of Maryland. He focuses on landscape experience and outdoor learning environments.

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report

Five Borough Farm II – Growing the Benefits of Urban Agriculture in New York City / Trust for Public Space

Urban agriculture grows both food and communities – its direct and indirect benefits range from improved public health and strengthened ecosystems, to social cohesion and economic growth. The Design Trust for Public Space wants to fully scale up these benefits across New York City. And in doing so, they hope to integrate agriculture into the broader urban fabric.

In September 2012, we reviewed Five Borough Farm: Seeding the Future of Urban Agriculture (FBF 1) from the Design Trust and partner organization Added Value. Three years in the making, this first report sought to create a comprehensive roadmap for New York City to help stakeholders “understand and weigh the benefits” of urban agriculture in an effort to significantly increase local government support. FBF 1 thoroughly examined the policy aspects of urban farming, with the goal of connecting government policy with “the bottom-up grassroots movement led by farmers, gardeners, and landscape architects.” The report realized a need for better metrics and data. Now, the Design Trust has released its follow-up, Five Borough Farm II – Growing the Benefits of Urban Agriculture in New York City (FBF II) in partnership with NYC Department of Parks and Recreation.

The first section of FBF II shows us their new methodology for measuring benefits and details how they developed this with farmers and gardeners. Motivated by the high number of studies that only suggest there are benefits to urban agriculture but don’t actually back them up with data, the toolkit uses twelve measurements, ranging from food production and composting to skills developed on the farm and healthy eating impacts. This toolkit was field-tested throughout the 2013 growing season. Simultaneously, Design Trust collaborated with Farming Concrete to further develop their existing online data platform for interpreting and sharing farm data. (Free for download, the toolkit is available at Farming Concrete’s website, where users can also register for access to their online data platform).

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Design professionals, planners, and government officials will especially want to read sections two and three of the report, which illustrate best practices for “maximizing the benefits” of urban agriculture, and “scaling the benefits” through innovative models of integration with public land.

The report calls for integrating urban agriculture with the physical infrastructure of the city — by introducing compost facilities to ease pressure on waste-management, or creating rainwater-catching food production systems for stormwater management.

All of that integration will require design work. There are examples of creative use of landscape features (bioswales, raingardens) and structural elements (rainwater holding tanks also designed as seating), as well as special considerations for senior citizens (wider paths, more seating and shade, elevated planters to accommodate wheelchairs).

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Farm to Table Assembly: Comfortable, easy-to-reach components for intergenerational community gardening / Alison Duncan, ASLA, with Metro Planters for the Central Harlem Senior Citizen’s Center

One innovative design proposal: Ecologically-healthy borders can be used to define the border between agricultural and non-agricultural public spaces. Using native plants in these spaces can increase forage opportunities for wildlife and attract beneficial pollinators. And permacultural models — such as those which use “guilds” of cooperative perennial plants at multiple levels (groundcover, canopy, understory, etc) to mimic natural ecosystems — could then increase diversity of both habitat and food and strengthen community through stewardship.

City greenways could also become the base infrastructure to achieve these strategies. Greenways already serve as important networks, so why not use them for agriculture as well? Most interestingly, the report suggests a model for greenways as “linear food hubs” that integrate cyclical food systems (growing, processing, distribution, compost . . . back to growing). In this model, farmers markets become hyper-local, served by growers within the greenway and serving consumers from the same. These networks can also build infrastructure for shared tools and equipment, resources, and knowledge.

FBF II also raises some questions without easy answers. For example, as agricultural public spaces throughout the city start accepting food waste, what are the best (low-cost) models for composting that also deter vermin? Rats and public space are not the best combination.

And how best to integrate community gardens into public green spaces? The report suggests putting community gardens in public parks. They identify the challenge of balancing a semi-private space within a fully public space and the associated pitfalls of potential theft and vandalism of garden plots. Recommendations include grouping public-use facilities associated with community gardens (toolsheds, compost) separately from private plots, designing adjacent spaces for complementary activities (nearby playgrounds for children, as parents or grandparents tend gardens), and “programming the fence” by growing vines or building bird-feeders into structures to increase their functional and aesthetic appeal.

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Illustrative diagram of community garden in a park integrating native plant infrastructure and permacultures / Martin Barry & Barbara Wilks

These are a good start but don’t fully solve the issue of how to integrate urban agriculture into a dense city. Perhaps this is where landscape architects and other designers can more fully flesh out best practice designs to solve these issues.

With some 900 urban agriculture spaces, NYC is ripe for deeper city-community collaboration to further scale up urban agriculture. But designers, farmers and city officials elsewhere will also find some inspiration from this report.

Keep an eye out for the expansion of farmingconcrete.org and the release of instructional videos and technical support networks as Five Borough Farm phase III gets under way in the coming months.

Yoshi Silverstein is the ASLA 2014 communications intern. He is a Masters in Landscape Architecture candidate at the University of Maryland. He focuses on landscape experience and outdoor learning environments.

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sprawl

Untitlted XXXI Arizona / Christoph Gielen

“There are repeatable formulas that make up many spaces in the world,” said architect and writer Keller Easterling at the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) conference in New Orleans, showing images of nameless, identical cul-de-sac suburbs, residential towers, and shipping yards. “These forms are telling an elaborate story, but really the same one, whether they are in Milwaukee or Mongolia. The story is cities are mobile, monetized technology. Their economic and technical logic is coming into view.” In a mind-expanding talk, Easterling outlined her perception of this strange new phenomenon: the city as a place-less product, resulting from a kind of “spatial software.”

These odd yet common places — replicated, cookie-cutter communities and special economic zones (SEZs) — are all over the world. They often feature the “drumbeat of generic skyscrapers.” Their new order is written in an “architectural matrix space that is outside and additional to the state. It’s an infrastructural space that has another kind of power. It’s like there is an operating system shaping the space. It’s an updating platform unfolding in real time.” Easterling said this software makes “some spaces possible and others impossible. There are active forms, protocols, routines it manifests.”

This operating system has been created by developed economies, the World Bank, “quality assurance specialists,” and “28-year old McKinsey consultants.” For them, “space is just a byproduct.” This bad software results in some inhuman places. But Easterling wonders if designers can’t somehow hack this system, “shifting how we make places.”

The dominant spatial software for creating these global no-wheres is the 3-D tour, the interactive fly-through that stuns viewers into submission. The fly-throughs result in interchangeable special economic zones (SEZs), “perfect islands of corporate control.” Every city now wants an SEZ because “they are a clean-slate entry into a foreign country. Everyone one wants one because they are the nexus of global technology.” This program has swallowed real city-building whole. In fact, Easterling said SEZs aren’t real cities at all. “Dubai is called a city, but it’s really just a collection of zones. It’s a city in a box based on Paris, New York City, or Venice.” The reality is the places programmed by these software are “relatively dumb enclaves, not optimal. The software is kind of like MS-DOS.”

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Dubai maritime zone / Dubai Maritime

She added that Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, is “the capital as a zone.” Astana is a sign that what is popular in one zone soon spreads through all of them. She made fun of “colored lights and fountains,” which have become contagious. “There are also fantasy resorts, palaces, and golf courses.” These places sell an image of “openness and relaxation,” but really “their closed circumstances have a special stupidity.”

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Astana panoramic / Bestfon.info

Heading back to Easterling’s original question: can we hack this thing? She said mass-produced suburbs are hard to beat. “We can’t just create one home to fight this. We need a multiplier, a contagion.” Basically, there may be better, more human, more custom-designed software out there to use. Easterling pointed to Savannah, Georgia, with its “simple spatial software, a set of instructions for relationships as wards grew.” Learn more about the city’s network of squares.

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The squares of Savannah, Georgia / Wikipedia

“The SEZ is a contagious platform. We have to embed something in to this as a carrier. The zone has ambitions to become a city. Perhaps it contains its own antidote.” She showed images of how she would interfere with the protocols, “exchanging, absorbing, reusing, replacing, recasting, and subtracting.”

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The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) announces that a contract has been signed with landscape architecture firm Design Workshop to serve as lead consultant for a project greening the streets surrounding ASLA’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown. The firm has a long history of designing landscapes that combine environmental sensitivity, economic benefits, artistic vision, and community input.

The Chinatown Green Street demonstration project involves the design and installation of an interconnected series of vegetated systems and innovative technologies to manage stormwater runoff and beautify the public right-of-way in the Chinatown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. ASLA intends this project to be a world-class model and education tool for developers, designers, city officials, and the public.

Design Workshop will oversee the project through all phases from design and installation to long-term maintenance planning and educational outreach. It will collaborate with the ASLA Site Sustainability Task Force throughout all phases of the project.

“This project is an investment in our city’s future. We want to show that landscape architecture can heal the environment as well as provide a safer street design that will benefit everyone,” said Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, executive vice president and CEO of ASLA. “By implementing a more natural way to manage stormwater, it will help the District of Columbia in its goal of becoming one of the greenest cities in the United States while also providing a model for cities around the world. It will also make our neighborhood more walkable and accessible for residents and visitors.”

“Design Workshop is deeply honored to be working with ASLA on such a profound and substantial effort,” said Steven Spears, ASLA, principal and partner with Design Workshop. “In one’s career, there is truly only a handful of opportunities to make a transformative impact toward holistic sustainability. The Chinatown Green Street Demonstration project, located between the White House and the Capitol Building, will become the opportunity to showcase that street rights of way can be enjoyed and used by all forms of mobility while offering significant environmental, economic, community and artistic impacts.”

Learn more at the Chinatown Green Street demonstration project web site.

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Buhl Community Park by Andrea Cochran / Cooper-Hewitt National Design Awards. photos by Marion Brenner and Ed Massery.

For more LA in the News, check out LAND, ASLA’s newsletter. If you see others you’d like included, please email us at info@asla.org.

Does Beauty Still Matter?Planetizen, 6/1/14
“There was a time, not too long ago, when the quality of urban landscapes was determined by what they looked like and what it was like to be in them. Their ecological and human health benefits were well known, but these were seen mainly as positive by-products of what was more important: improving the quality of life for people living in cities by providing them with access to nature, or at least some semblance of it. The desire for urban parks was rooted in a simple, yet deep appreciation for the beauty of landscape.”

New Desalination Technologies Spur Growth in Recycling WaterYale Environment 360, 6/3/14
“A ferry plows along San Francisco Bay, trailing a tail of churned up salt, sand, and sludge and further fouling the already murky liquid that John Webley intends to turn into drinking water. But Webley, CEO of a Bay Area start-up working on a new, energy-skimping desalination system, isn’t perturbed.”

Levees Could Protect Lower Manhattan From Future FloodsCurbed, 6/6/14
“If another Sandy-like storm hits New York City, the city government wants southern Manhattan to be much better protected than it was during the devastating 2012 hurricane, from which recovery is still incomplete. So, the New York City Economic Development Corporation and the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency have an idea—they could not stress enough that this is just an idea—to extend Manhattan with a 1.3-mile-long living barrier made up of a multi-purpose levee system.”

Meet University of Virginia’s New Architecture Dean, Elizabeth MeyerThe Architect’s Newspaper, 6/6/14
“Elizabeth K. Meyer has been appointed as the dean for the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture. Her two-year term starts July 15th. Meyer received both her bachelor’s and master’s degree in landscape architecture from UVA before going on to teach at Harvard for four years. In 2012, President Obama selected her to serve on the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. Meyers was the only landscape architect on the panel of seven.”

Honors > National Design Awards The Architect’s Newspaper, 6/12/14
“The Landscape Architecture award went to Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture, a firm with a focus on sustainability efforts and a strong sense of detail.” See more photos of Cochran’s work.

These articles were compiled by Phil Stamper-Halpin, ASLA Public Relations and Communications Coordinator.

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urbanfarming

Edible Estates Regional Prototype #6 / Fritz Haeg

“Urban agriculture is a phenomenon today,” said Farham Karim, an architectural historian at the University of Kansas, at the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) conference in New Orleans. Upwards of 70 million people are now involved around the globe — on Farmville, at least, the popular game app, he laughed. But, in reality, there are many tens of millions farming on the ground, too. With all the growing interest, Karim played devil’s advocate, wondering: is urban agriculture scalable? And who is going to be doing all this urban farming? And if we know it’s not a cost-effective solution for solving the world’s food problems, why the persistent interest?

Food and urban life have been deeply intertwined ever since humans moved into settlements. In the modern era, there have been new conceptions of the relationship. Frank Lloyd Wright came up with his Broad Acre concept, with a “vast suburban landscape” that would be farmed. During World War II, urban agriculture actually took off, as “food production contributed to the wartime food supply.”

In different eras, there have also been “communal self-sufficiency movements.” Karim traced those all the way to contemporary artist and activist Fritz Haeg and his Edible Estate project, which aims to “attack the front lawn,” turning it from a useless, decorative object into a productive, agricultural space. Karim said new activists like Haeg “want us all to come together to toil the land.” They seeing gardening in urban areas as a way to “empower social groups and create a strong sense of community” in an age when nature and culture seem in opposition. But Karim also argued Haeg and others promoting urban gardens for social benefits are really just like the 20th century avante-garde, creating “idealized prototypes.”

The central plank of Karim’s critique of Haeg’s version of urban agriculture is that, in its promotion, it “mystifies human labor.” Urban agriculture in reality is “sweaty, painful labor.” Engaging people in cities to farm over the long-term is not easy, practical, or cost-effective. “Who is going to maintain these farms — a marginalized population? The working poor doesn’t have time.” Karim concluded that urban agriculture, at least in the West, is for the middle class who volunteer because they have time. It’s a luxury many can’t afford.

Many of Karim’s arguments are contradicted in a new book, Farming Cuba: Urban Agriculture from the Ground Up by Carey Clouse. She argues that Cuba’s unique model of urban agriculture may provide lessons for the rest of us. “Alternative models for self-sufficiency demand our attention,” given that the end of “the era of cheap oil threatens global food security” and current industrial food practices.

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Farming Cuba / Princeton Architectural Press

After the U.S. began its embargo against Cuba and the Soviet bloc fell apart in the late 1980s, leaving Cuba without any trading partners, the country initiated a massive campaign to turn cities into places for not only living and working but also producing food. “In the face of resource scarcity, Cubans responded by rethinking land use, implementing organic farming practices, and developing low-input agricultural systems, and honing techniques for independence on an island without oil.” By 2002, some 86,450 acres of urban land was farmed, creating 3.2 million tons of food. In Havana alone, some 12 percent of the city was being cultivated, with 22,000 urban and suburban producers at work.

All that local food production has not only created calories but also boosted resilience, largely because the system is so decentralized. “This is a ground-up movement in which growers have the power to choose the food they produce, the seeds they save, and the land they cultivate, and consumers gain increased control over the quantity and quality of food access.” And all that local control has also increased “social and civic engagement.”

The system of socialist self-sufficiency extends into all aspects of Cuban urban food production. Farmers are using animal traction, organic soil amendments, and “biofertilizers” or “biopesticides,” which are microbial formulations nontoxic to humans.

Clouse does a great job of explaining to the reader all the different farming types, bringing the diversity of the system to life through clever diagrams. For each type of farm, we learn the spanish and english names, the average size of these places, their prevalence, the products they create, the materials they are made of, and the kinds of people who farm them.

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And then photographer Andrew Cook shows us scenes from this agricultural infrastructure.

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Clouse explains that “Cubans hail urban agriculture as a boon for community, occasionally in all too-idealistic terms.” And in some pages of her book, she seems to apply an equally rosy lens. The reality on the ground, all that “sweaty, painful labor” Karim spoke about, doesn’t come through in this book at all.

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Sinking cemetery in Leeville, Louisiana / Mississippi Delta.org

Words, picture, video are used to convey the experience of change. But can they ever tell the whole story? In a world where all news seems ephemeral — with the next interesting tidbit just a click away — how can stories with deep complexities be easily understood and, even, remembered? At the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) conference in New Orleans, a set of great communicators took the big stage to offer their stories and tips for how designers can break through all the noise.

Richard Campanella, a Tulane University-based geographer, said the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe was the “searing result of generations of problems.” So many reporters began to realize the complexities in the tale. Soon, “all these arcane topics had become part of the global discourse.” He said in times like this, the only thing an expert with something to offer can do is “heed the call and communicate. You know more than most.” Campanella soon became stuck permanently on the “media rolodex, this worldwide juggernaut.”

Immediately after the storm, the “neighborhood recovery prioritization” was the most controversial topic. Not liking what he was hearing, Campanella waded in, offering proposals that helped shape the public debate. He said the effect of his guest op-eds in the local papers was critical. His argument: “Instead of moving residents out of lower areas, why not just encourage them to go to higher areas?” Using maps, he showed how 2,000 empty parcels were above sea level, providing space for 10,000 people. His report, Higher Ground, made the cover of the now web-only Times Picayune. Through his maps and analysis, Campanella showed how just 50 percent of the city is now above sea level, but how it used to be 100 percent. “The report showed that human activity has sunk us below sea level.” The report ended up “shaping the historical development of the city.”

Experts should “only opine when you have new arguments and data. Don’t rehash. Don’t get into the passions of the moment, as you can easily inflame them further.” Messages to the public must be “consistent and judicious.” He added that “the media is fickle and interviews are potentially dangerous.” Experts have the most control over their messages when they write op-eds. He said panel discussions are also fraught with potential dangers, as “you don’t know where the conversation will go. Be prudent when speaking improvisationally.”

For Michael Pasquier, who teaches religious history at Louisiana State University (LSU), images speak volumes. In Leeville, Louisiana, there was a shot of an old cemetery sinking into the delta, outside of the levees in the red zone (see image above). “This one image led to tons of news stories.” The New York Times covered it, saying “this fits with what’s happening here.” But “that’s an oversimplification of a larger set of problems.” Pasquier called these types of journalists “parachute artists. They interview a few talking heads and kooky Cajuns and then leave. The story I’m interested in is: what happens after they leave?”

Pasquier is a historian who has become a filmmaker, driven by the desire to capture and communicate change. His film, Water Like Stone, focuses on Louisiana fisherman, a group who have been “highly dehumanized through media coverage, but who have an intimate knowledge of these places.” Pasquier focused on these people’s stories, their history, also to humanize the local scientists, placing them in the landscape. “It’s not about trying to control this place, but being of this place.”

Nancy Levinson, the editor of Places, an online journal, pulled back from the conversation on New Orleans, saying “we are living through a genuine revolution” in how we communicate. The age of the press, created by Gutenberg centuries ago, is coming to an end. “It’s hard to see the edges. New technologies are disruptive as earthquakes. The old system is crumbling, and that’s messy.” The web was once something that could be ignored, but no longer. “The digital revolution is over. It has now entered a period of consolidation. As we enter a post-revolutionary future, we must rethink the old stuff.”

Places, for example, is now online only. But Levinson said the “very format of the journal may need to be rethought.” The traditional journal for one’s peers in a technical area is now “less important,” because, with the web, “these journals can be liberated from the specialists and can spur larger discourse and civic engagement.” While there may still be some tension between writing for one’s peers or the public, really, good writing should do both.

She added that the crisis in scholarly publications is already happening, as the momentum for open, digital access grows. The traditional journal provides a “vital services to academics but a low level of service to readers.” With the global connectivity of the Internet, there can be new types of publishing. Levinson pointed to Vector, a new journal that enables peer-reviewed multimedia scholarship to be accessed by all. She concluded, “design research can’t just circulate in the discipline; every investigation needs to be a narrative to build awareness among the public.”

Lastly, Makani Themba, who runs The Praxis Project, said too many advocates think if they simply marshal the right data and package it into a sensible argument, the other side will simply say, “wow, you are right.” She said, “sadly, it doesn’t happen that way. We come to every conversation with a set of beliefs. Any issue we are confronted with is set within a history and beliefs we have built over time.” Power relationships shape those beliefs. “They are embedded. We start east and go west. We start white and go black. This is what becomes normal for us. It’s deeply rooted.”

So when we communicate, “we shouldn’t start in the opposition. Some 30 percent of Americans side with progressive ideas. Another 30 percent side with conservatives. 30 percent can go either way, and 10 percent are just not in the conversation.” She said if the messages are inclusive, we can “easily find ourselves at 60-70 percent supporting us.” That inclusive message?: “we are all inter-connected. We should invest in each other.”

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Next Generation Infrastructure / Island Press

Between crumbling bridges, rising sea levels, growing garbage piles, and the ravages of drought and storms, we’ve grown used to bad news when it comes to infrastructure in the United States. Old systems are failing, new challenges arising, and solutions are elusive or perplexing. Into this maelstrom enters Hillary Brown, architect, infrastructure consultant and professor at the Spitzer School of Architecture. Her new book Next Generation Infrastructure: Principles for Post-Industrial Public Works, is an inspiring argument for infrastructure that behaves like nature.

Armed with simple prescriptions, Brown argues that the next generation of infrastructure cannot resemble the hard, single-function and carbon-intensive structures of yore. Rather, we need “more diversified, distributed, and interconnected infrastructural assets that simulate the behavior of natural systems.” She walks us through the principles of a new ecological infrastructure piece by piece, with abundant case studies that show that ingenious, multi-purpose, carbon-neutral, resilient systems are not a pipe dream. She pays careful attention to how they were implemented, reinforcing the argument that these case studies are models that can be applied beyond their exceptional contexts.

On a world tour of next generation infrastructure, Brown stops to describe ingenious feats of co-location, “decarbonizing” infrastructure (that is, infrastructure which emits low or no carbon), and soft-path water systems. Highlights include a Malaysian automobile tunnel that retains stormwater, a French waste recovery center that powers public buses, and a Northern California wastewater treatment wetland that also provides walking trails and wildlife habitat.

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Aerial view, Arcata Wastewater Treatment Plant and Wildlife Sanctuary, Arcata, California / Terrence McNally

Other chapters emphasize resilient infrastructures in the light of the paradoxical abundance and scarcity of water facing areas around the globe. The clever, even artful, solutions to what seem like insurmountable solutions make for an inspiring read, even if the black and white illustrations and (unfortunately not very clear) flow charts breaking down complex loops and systems are not in the same spirit.

Particularly notable in an era of tight budgets and low expectations is Brown’s attention to the social aspects of infrastructure planning and design. An important part of her problem-solving focuses on combining amenity with utility, and close attention to siting and design. This is not only important to make sure that particular groups do not unfairly bear the brunt of everyone’s waste, water, and energy systems needs. People living near such projects can benefit from the community assets, not to mention new jobs, that new infrastructure can provide.

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View from the “Ecorium,” Naka Waste-to-Energy Plant, Hiroshima, Japan / Kenta Mabuchi

In this regard, but not only in this one, Brown argues that design is key. The design implications of co-location and systems thinking are huge, as are the opportunities for landscape architects, architects, and planners. Integrative thinking, cross-disciplinary design, and spatial imagination are essential for developing the next generation of ecological infrastructure. A leading role for designers is another piece of good news in an area often lacking for it.

Read the book.

This guest post is by Mariana Mogilevich, PhD, assistant professor, metropolitan studies program, New York University.

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