Archive for the ‘Agriculture’ Category

John Thackara / Uros Abram

John Thackara / Uros Abram

British writer and philosopher John Thackara, author of How to Thrive in the Next Economy, believes changes in the global society and economy now allow people to address environmental problems at a “bio-regional” scale. At the ASLA 2015 Annual Meeting in Chicago, he described the growth of bio-regional models that use social networks to create new forms of economic gain with significant environmental benefits. This transition to a bio-regional approach is already happening in a few sectors:


The local food movement is creating a shift of economic resources that has beneficial environmental impacts. To scale this local approach up the regional level, countries should take a “food commons approach.”

In a food commons, food distribution and retail are owned by a trust and governed by local stakeholders who manage the commons. This approach better connects local resources, so communities are able “to do things locally currently not done locally.”

Thackara looks to Denmark, where the Danish Food Cluster, founded in 2013, has facilitated regional collaboration between food companies in central Denmark. He argued that in this system, “improving the connections of an economic network is at the heart of its environmental impact.”

The three principles of a successful food commons / The Food Commons

The three principles of a successful food commons / The Food Commons


In order to better connect cities to their resource-rich countrysides, we need to reconsider how we get around, Thackara said. In Vienna, Austria, the idea of collaborative regional mobility has led to the Cargo Bike Collaborative, a donation-based bike sharing service that allows people to transport goods in a low-cost, sustainable way.

The idea of mobility as a fee-based service also has promise. While sharing mobility through services like Uber and Lyft is currently being “told in the language of hipsters in London, New York City, and Washington D.C. with not much attention to the environmental story,” Thackara said, the concept could be re-purposed at a regional scale in order to make transportation more sustainable. “Pay-per-use” frameworks could allow regions to save money on infrastructure in the long run. He said: “one calls upon all of these bits on infrastructure so you don’t necessarily need a car or as many roads at the bio-regional scale.”

A regional example: The Greenhorns, a non-profit organization run by young farmers, sailed a schooner filled with 11 tons of crops from Maine to Boston in August 2015.

The route of the Greenhorn's Maine Sail Freight / The Greenhorns

The route of the Greenhorn’s Maine Sail Freight / The Greenhorns

Lastly, Thackara said we need to combine expanded regional networks with “an absolute militant search for answers.” This requires building a global knowledge network all people can access. Prototypes and maps mean nothing if people around the world cannot learn from them. “We need to build a story that gives meaning and purpose to young people. It must be more than a story that is just something we tell to each other around a campfire, but grounds for action.”

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A drawing of Greenwave's 3D Ocean Farming system / Greenwave

A drawing of Greenwave’s 3D Ocean Farming system / Greenwave

Greenwave, a non-profit organization transforming the fishing industry, was recently awarded the Buckminster Fuller Institute (BFI)’s 2015 challenge, which comes with a $100,000 prize. Greenwave’s winning project is the “world’s first multi-species 3-D ocean farm,” a vertical underwater garden that aims “to restore ocean ecosystems and create jobs in coastal communities by transforming fishers into restorative ocean farmers,” according to BFI. Using simple infrastructure — seaweed, scallops, and mussels growing on floating ropes stacked above clam cages below — Greenwave’s founder Bren Smith has created a low-cost, sustainable system that can be easily replicated by farmers and fishers everywhere.

Drawing comparisons to last years’s BFI challenge winner, Living Breakwaters, the first large-scale experiment with “oyster-tecture” by SCAPE / Landscape Architecture, Smith’s innovative ocean farm was inspired by his time farming oysters in the Long Island Sound. “Here I was a young fisherman, pillaging the oceans in one of the most unsustainable forms of food production on the planet. Aquaculture was supposed to be the great answer to over-fishing, but it turned out to be just as destructive using new technologies. So I became an Oysterman,” Smith said in a Tedx talk.

After Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Irene destroyed 80 percent of his oyster crop, Smith began to re-envision his farm in order to rebuild it.

Now, a single underwater acre of Greenwave’s flagship farm on the Thimble Islands in New York’s Long Island Sound filters millions of gallons of ocean water each day, creates homes for marine and bird life, and absorbs nitrogen and carbon (the kelp in the farms sequester five times more carbon than land-based agriculture). With zero added inputs, the farm has the capacity to grow 10 tons of sea vegetables and 250,000 shellfish annually on a single acre.

“I went from farming 100 acres down to 20 acres as I began using the full water column. And now I’ve been growing a lot more food on the 20 acres than I was on the 100. Whereas aquaculture is obsessed with growing one thing in one place, we’re growing four kinds of shellfish, two kinds of sea weed, and salt from the 20 acres,” Smith said.

Greenwave will use the $100,000 award to train 25 new farmers on both the East and West coasts of the U.S. with the skills to implement Smith’s ocean farming model. Each of the new farmers “will receive start up grants, free seed, and two years of training and support,” Smith said. “Greenwave will also buy 80 percent of their crop for 5 years at triple the market rate.” The rest of the money will go toward research and development on “kelp-raised beef, and specialty food products.”

Since 2007, BFI has used its annual international competition to highlight paradigm-shifting designs that, in the words of the late Buckminster Fuller, “make the world work for 100 percent of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone.”

This is the second year in a row that the first place winner has “directly addressed urgent and complex issues related to our oceans: the impending collapse of marine ecosystems, the long-term effects of climate change on our coastal communities, and the economic catastrophe these communities are experiencing right now as a result,” said Elizabeth Thompson, executive director of BFI.

This year’s other finalists include:

Algae Systems is a new technology that uses native algae species to capture and treat wastewater. Powered by photosynthesis, the system produces renewable fuels and fertilizers as byproducts, at a lower cost per gallon that alternative wastewater treatment technologies.

The Community Architects Network is a regional network of “community architects and planners, engineers, young professionals, lecturers and academic institutes in Asian countries” that supports participatory design for community projects in 17 Asian countries. Projects include new housing developments, citywide upgrading, and recovery from natural disasters.

Hazel is a digital modeling tool produced by the Drylands Resilience Initiative, which, when completed, will assist arid communities in designing effective stormwater infrastructure.

Mahila Housing SEWA Trust (MHT) is an organization aimed at providing secure housing situations — including basic water and sanitation, as well as financial and legal advice — for poor women in four states of India.

A 2012 and 2014 finalist, the Nubian Vault Programme (AVN) trains people in five African countries in the Nubian Vault construction technique, a cheap and sustainable method for constructing homes from local materials.

Read more about Greenwave’s winning project and the runners-up.

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Steven Nygren / Serenbe

Steven Nygren / Serenbe

Steven Nygren is the founder of Serenbe, which has won numerous awards, including the Urban Land Institute Inaugural Sustainability Award, the Atlanta Regional Commission Development of Excellence, and EarthCraft’s Development of the Year.

You founded Serenbe, a 1,000-acre community in the city of Chattahoochee Hills, which is 30 miles southwest of Atlanta, Georgia. In Serenbe, there are dense, walkable clusters of homes, shops, and businesses, even artists’ studios, modeled like English villages set within 40,000 acres of forest you helped protect. Can you briefly tell me the story of this community? What motivated you to create it?

It was a reaction. We purchased 60 acres in a historic farm in 1991 just on a weekend whim while on a drive to show our children farm animals. It seemed like a good investment. I wasn’t sure why we were doing it other than my wife and three daughters thought it was a great idea. To my amazement, every Friday when I got home, everyone was anxious to leave our big house with the pool, the media room, and all of the trappings, to go out to the country. Watching the difference in the children and our own family on those weekend times, I decided after three years to sell the company, sell the big house, and retreat to this rural area, right on the edge of Atlanta.

Seven years later, on a jog, a bulldozer was bulldozing the forest next to us. At that point, we owned 300 acres. We were fearful that the threat of development was coming. It turns out they were clearing it for a small runway for one of the neighbors. But that set me on the path of thinking what could happen.

At dinner one night when I shared my concerns with Ray Anderson, the founder of Interface Inc, who had been a good friend, he said, “Let’s bring the thought leaders in to talk about this.” So in September 2000, 24 people invited actually showed up — because of who Ray was — for a two-day conversation facilitated by the Rocky Mountain Institute, documented by Georgia Tech. At that point, I went into the session interested in how we could protect our own backyard, but I came out with an understanding of how serious the issues are. And you realize in September 2000, the first LEED building hadn’t been certified.

A lot of the things we take for granted today were way-over-the-edge thinking just a decade and-a-half ago. We began looking at what could be done. We decided that most models ended up being magnets for what they were trying to change. We set about to bring land owners together in a 40,000 acre area.

How did you and the other members of the Chattahoochee Hill Country Alliance achieve buy-in from local planners and policymakers to create Serenbe and the broader Chattahoochee Hill Country Community Plan, which protect 40,000 acres of nature from Atlanta’s ever-engulfing sprawl?

We realized we needed to create a larger vision than just buying land and trying to create a model. We brought everyone together over food. We invited the largest land owners to dinner, and after several cases of wine and several good dinners in our home, we thought we had buy-in. Next, we expanded the ring to get buy-in from owners representing 51 percent of the land.

That meeting would have reminded you of the worst zoning meeting you’ve ever sat through. Within an hour and-a-half, we had people calling each other names, even neighbors who had known each other through generations. So I realized that it was a much bigger issue. Half of the people who inherited land wanted the bulldozers to come because this meant payday, and the other half didn’t want the land touched. It was between the land speculators and us, who had found this paradise.

We put together some more research. I first reached out to a community leader who was also a property rights advocate to get agreement to come to another meeting. About ten minutes into the call, he said, “are we going to have that peach cobbler?” And so my wife kept baking and cooking and we kept calling meetings. Then, that proceeded into a public process with all the landowners, over 500. It was a two-year process. By late 2002, we passed the largest land use plan in recent history in metropolitan Atlanta, with 80 percent of the landowners paying dues into the organization we formed, with not one word of opposition. It was quite remarkable.

There has been a long history of utopian agricultural communities. Early communities in the U.S. and Europe came together for ideological reasons. They were anarchists seeking self-sufficiency, proto-communists or socialists seeking to bring social reform to serfs, and others farming to just improve human health and well-being. Some of the early communities in turn influenced Ebenezer Howard, who created his Garden City movement right before the turn of the 20th century. Where do you and Serenbe fit into this rich history?

When you look over time, you’ll see there has been a constant tension between rural and urban. But also each of these movements have responded to the issues of their time.

Serenbe certainly represents a turning point to counter Atlanta’s sprawl, which is terrible. Marie and I were urban people who believed we should develop where infrastructure exists. But at the point we got involved a decade and-a-half ago, over 70 percent of the development continued to be in greenfields. There were no good models.

Serenbe deals with the issues of our time: how do we create communities that connect urban and rural, the city and agriculture? I would like to think that history will look at Serenbe as part of a movement that returns development to responsible uses of resources in a balanced way.

The Serenbe community has a unique layout, with “serpentine omega forms.” What ideas guided the plan?

Phil Tabb worked with us as a consultant. He did his doctorate on the English village system and was also trained as a sacred geometrist through Keith Critchlow. We wanted to achieve a complete balance, very much what biomimicry pioneer Janine Benyus talks about. In nature, everything is balanced. But as developers, we don’t always respond to nature in a real way.

When Phil and I first started walking the land to understand the assets and restraints, we talked about the ridges for house clusters. We were thinking about the hill towns of Italy, where we both visited. Then when we came together for our first two-day design charrette. It became obvious that we wanted to save those ridges for public natural access. We could locate the density and the housing in the valleys, which brings you down. If you come into the valleys, you come by the streams. To really work with the streams, it became an omega — you had one crossing with the housing on each side of the stream. The omegas really emerged through our understanding of the land. The land spoke to us and and we saw where we could locate buildings with the least disturbance, and yet, really bring the land to life. At Serenbe, houses are nestled around the water, with this wonderful little stream down through the center. All the ridges have community paths.

Serenbe masterplan / Serenbe

Serenbe masterplan / Serenbe

Various movements claim Serenbe. We relate to each of these movements, such as the New Urbanists, the farm-to-table movement, the environmental movement. We are all of these things but we’re much more than any one of them. One of the areas where we differ with the New Urbanists is the grid. Our grid is pedestrian, not vehicular. There is a complete grid for pedestrians going across the streams and omegas, but our streets wander. We were really in the forefront of the movement to get people out walking, because at Serenbe you can usually walk to places in half the time that the road will take you around here.

In an interview with the journal Terrain, Ed McMahon, a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute, said “agriculture is the new golf.” The new desirable amenity is a well-maintained farm. The benefits of a community farm are food production, new revenue, and even tax breaks for preserving farmland. How do the residents of Serenbe pay for its 25-acre farm? How is the farm maintained?

When we started Serenbe, you really didn’t see farms integrated into a community. Ed was one of the early people that I turned to. The Urban Land Institute (ULI) had just released a study that said 92 percent of the people who bought golf course lots — at that premium bankers adore — played golf less than twice a year. They were buying the green space, the open space.

When I was trying to fund Serenbe, I would talk to the bankers, and say, “OK, if that’s true, wouldn’t people pay the same premium if not more to back up to a farm or a pasture?” There were no statistics to show that, so the financial community wouldn’t fund the development. The real estate community was dubious. So was Andres Duany, who didn’t think people would live that close to smelly farms. We are delighted that he is now a big supporter of this movement.

We were really pushing this idea of agricultural integration. We realized a lot of the negatives that “big ag” farms have. But a small organic farm is charming. We really pushed forward with these ideas, even though our land had been stripped of nutrients through the cotton monoculture, so it didn’t look like it could produce. Everyone said, “You’re nuts. You’re crazy.” But it seemed like such a core thing: if we were going to create a balanced, sustainable community, food was one of the critical things, along with energy and water.

Serenbe aerial view / Serenbe

Serenbe aerial view / Serenbe

Now, we operate Serenbe Farms as a teaching farm. I had initially decided we would be self-sustainable in five years. It was self-sustainable in three years. We 25 acres set aside and about half of that is under active cultivation, with cover crops on the other half. The farm supplies our three restaurants. We have a great CSA program for people outside Serenbe. There’s a farmer’s market on Saturdays.

We have a farmer hired on a base salary, and then they get a profit based on what they make. We have an intern house with four interns. The farmer makes a very nice salary and it’s profitable, and educational. So we’re growing farmers as well as crops.

Serenbe organic farm / Serenbe

Serenbe organic farm / Serenbe

Is a model like Serenbe only for the relatively well-off? Can you conceive of this model working for middle or working class communities?

Our model is essential for lower income groups. One of the critical problems in our educational system is that we’re not teaching people how to grow and prepare their own foods. It should be one of the basics of the education system and it’s just not. It takes very little land to grow all the foods you need for a family.

We’ve been able to demonstrate at Serenbe that with five acres, one member of a couple both working and paying for daycare can leave the workforce as we know it and actually tend the farm. That couple can have a higher quality of life. It’s essential thing that we have farmers in smaller lots growing local food.

Now, let’s talk about the labels organic and local. We’ve had to label these things because we’ve gotten so far away from the basics of 50 to 60 years ago. Then, we didn’t have organics, we had good nutrients. That’s what we have to get back to.

With our CSA program, a family of four can have all the vegetables they need for a week in the key growing seasons. How much does that cost a day? $4.80. That’s affordable. So this idea that fresh fruits and vegetables are not affordable is crazy.

Wholesome Wave is a fabulous program. Michel Nischan started five or six years ago. It’s one of the few programs that received increased funding in the recent Farm Bill by both Republicans and Democrats. For every dollar raised, the Farm Bill matches it by a dollar fifty. It’s for anyone on SNAP programs. If lower income folks are getting food assistance, they can turn $20 of credit into $50 dollars of fresh fruits and vegetables from a local farmer. This is stimulating the local agrarian economy, and getting fresh food into homes.

In Serenbe, sustainable homes are set close together in New Urbanist arrangements. The organic farm stores carbon. Water conservation is enabled through water-efficient appliances and green infrastructure. Waste water is treated through a natural system designed by landscape architects with Reed Hilderbrand. Yet, most of the 400 residents of your community drive to work in Atlanta, and the thousands of visitors you get each year also drive there. How does this balance out in terms of overall sustainability?

Serenbe development street / Serenbe

Serenbe development street / Serenbe


Serenbe's natural wastewater treatment system by Reed Hilderbrand / Serenbe

Serenbe’s natural wastewater treatment system by Reed Hilderbrand / Serenbe

The perceptions that everyone is driving out to work is mistaken. A recent survey we did showed that 70 percent of the people living at Serenbe worked all or part-time at home. We have moved away from the time when everyone arrives at a desk at 9 and leaves at 5. For some of our residents, the airport is their key means of transportation; they’re consultants or what have you.

We did also a survey asking if people drove more or less since moving to Serenbe. We found we’re just right on the edge of the same trends. When they lived in the city, everything seemed convenient, and so they were constantly going out for trips. In Serenbe, they’re more organized and they really don’t leave as much. With Amazon and so much e-commerce, we can live in a different way.

We are also creating jobs in our shops, restaurants, and other service sectors. People who already lived in the area around Serenbe were traveling great distances for jobs. We have created this entire local job force for people who are already living nearby. If you look at the net, we’re probably cutting down on trips.

The New York Times recently wrote about the country-wide growth of communities like Serenbe, which they call “agrihoods.” How can you explain their growth? But, also, given these communities are still far from mainstream, how do you explain their still limited appeal?

I believe that all trends begin and then grow. There is no way to walk through a threshold from no appeal to total appeal. When we put our first development in just 11 years ago, the idea of farming in a new community just didn’t exist. The fact that it’s even in the conversation a decade later means there’s a lot happening. But this is not a model in which the majority of Americans can live. That just isn’t feasible.

The broader movement that needs to happen is finding an authentic way to bring more food sources into our mainstream developments. At Serenbe, the crosswalks all have blueberry bushes.

Serenbe edible landscape / Serenbe

Serenbe edible landscape / Serenbe

Why shouldn’t that be happening in any urban area? Where we’re sitting here in Austin, why are these pots filled with ornamental plants that have no meaning? Why aren’t they full of herbs or something the kitchen can use? Our movement can help edibles integrate into our typical landscapes.

Finally, there’s an understanding that we need to daylight more of our stormwater. Wouldn’t it be incredible if all of our urban areas had these veins of bio-retention to capture our stormwater and beside those systems were edible landscapes? This is where I want to see us moving to.

The agrihood idea is the beginning of waking people up to the benefits of having food near where you live, but let’s integrate those ideas into mainstream communities.

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Redd on Salmon Street / Ecotrust

Redd on Salmon Street / Ecotrust

“Our agricultural system is broken,” said Nathan Kadish, managing director of Ecotrust Capital Partners, at SXSW Eco in Austin, Texas. Industrial farms today emit huge quantities of methane and carbon, use vast amounts of water, and are major sources of chemical runoff. To help fix the system, local producers who are committed to sustainable practices need to be given the opportunity to scale up and sell to the institutional food buyers that have multi-billion dollar annual budgets. Ecotrust, a well-known environmental non-profit based in Portland, aims to help those farmers with their ambitious Redd on Salmon Street project, expected to open in Portland in 2016. The project, which won SXSW’s Place by Design resilience competition, is being designed and built by OPSIS, Green Gables architecture, Base landscape architecture, and Walsh Construction Company.

As Ecotrust explains: “Portland is an international mecca for vibrant, seasonal food and artisan producers. But too often, developing food producers can’t move beyond niche products sold at high costs (to offset high distribution cost), afforded by only a small segment of the local community. The Redd will serve ‘ag in the middle,’ mid-size rural farmers, ranchers, and fishers who have outgrown direct-to-consumer channels, such as CSAs and farmers’ markets, and are looking to scale their business. The Redd will increase access to value-added producers, markets, and infrastructure (like warehousing, aggregation and distribution), a lack of which inhibits growth.”

The new Redd on Salmon Street will consist of a square-block 80,000-square-feet food production and distribution facility in the Central Eastside neighborhood of Portland. They are rehabilitating two buildings with the highest levels of sustainable design: the Marble, a former distribution hub, and the Foundry, an iron works plant from the early 20th century. During the design charrette, Kadish said, the EcoTrust team met with food buyers, farmers, ranchers, fisherman, and architects in order to design the space to offer lots of open space, but also a set of large and small agricultural facilities.

Redd on Salmon Street / Ecotrust Vimeo

Redd on Salmon Street / Ecotrust Vimeo

Some details from their website: “With over 20,000 square feet of warehouse space, the Marble building will serve as a cold storage, aggregation, packaging, and distribution center for the Redd, and also includes over 6,000 square feet of prime storefront and studio space for retail and ancillary businesses. Plans for the Foundry restoration include 16,000 square feet of food production space, including USDA-certified meat processing facilities and specially-equipped facilities for value-added grain production. In addition, eight smaller spaces are under design for small-scale on-site food production.”

Redd on Salmon Street / Ecotrust

Redd on Salmon Street / Ecotrust

As Kadish explained, Ecotrust wants to create a set of working spaces that can help create a “symbiotic ecosystem” with all the players involved, but with a focus on serving the needs of the institutional buyers, which serve hospitals and schools. “Redd will be demand-side driven, as opposed to a rural farm-side aggregator.” Already, the Northwest Food Buyers Alliance has been formed and gotten on board. Together, these food buyers provide 125,000 meals a day.

Kadish thinks the new agricultural campus will eventually employ 400 people, with 200 new jobs. The ripple effects in the broader agricultural economy could of course be much greater. And if Ecotrust succeeds, hopefully Redd will serve as a model to help other small-scale farmers move up the ladder.

A few other Place by Design competition finalists are worth noting: The Center for Sustainable Landscapes at Phipps Conservancy and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is one of the greenest buildings in the world, and one of the few to achieve LEED Platinum, the Living Building Challenge, and SITES 4-star certifications. Landscape architecture firm Andropogon Associates along with other designers participated in a two-year integrated design process to achieve this high standard.

In Beirut, Lebanon, local architect Adib Dada and his team are banding together with non-profits to create a plan for restoring the degraded Beirut River. Dada plans to use “biomimicry at the systems scale” with a set of green and “blue” streets, sponge parks, and green roofs to restore the river ecosystem to health.

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The Hills at Vallco / Rafael Viñoly and OLIN

As malls die off around the country, and more people shop online, new shopping center models are desperately needed. In Silicon Valley, the source of so much game-changing innovation, the mall appears to be the next format to get a reboot. “Starchitect” Rafael Viñoly and landscape architects at OLIN are transforming Cupertino’s struggling mall into the 50-acre Hills at Vallco, a hybrid retail, commercial, and residential hub, all covered in what they promise will be the “world’s largest green roof.” The 30-acre green roof, which will function as both community park and nature preserve, will offer 3.8 miles of “walking and jogging trails, meadows, vineyards, orchards and organic gardens, children’s play areas and a refuge for native species of plants and birds,” writes the Sand Hill Property company, the developers of the $3 billion project.

The Silicon Valley Business Journal says the unique design came out of extensive community engagement, as developers hosted 20 public meetings and received more than 3,000 ideas through their web site. Reed Moulds, Sand Hill managing director, told The San Jose Mercury News: “There will be nothing like it when we are done. We believe its community focus will make this a remarkable place to live, work, dine, play, learn and recreate.”

At ground level, the developers aim to create from scratch an “entertainment-driven downtown,” writes the Silicon Valley Business Journal. A 15-block street grid will carve out spaces for two new 3-acre “town squares,” which will offer outdoor movie nights and farmers markets, surrounded by a mix of stores and restaurants selling “local and organic food.”


The Hills at Vallco / Rafael Viñoly and OLIN


The Hills at Vallco / Rafael Viñoly and OLIN

Surrounding these squares will be 625,000 square feet of entertainment and retail space, as well as 2 million square feet of office space, reports The San Jose Mercury News. There will also be 680 apartments at market rate, with 120 set aside as affordable housing or apartments for seniors. The idea behind the mix is that the office space will bring in traffic during the daytime, while those living in the apartments will be active there on weekends.

The $300-million-dollar green roof will be accessed via a set of slopes and bridges that will take residents and visitors up to the expanse covered in trails, farms, and playgrounds. According to The San Jose Mercury News, OLIN will use recycled water to irrigate the landscape, which will feature native and drought-tolerant plants.


The Hills at Vallco / Rafael Viñoly and OLIN


The Hills at Vallco / Rafael Viñoly and OLIN


The Hills at Vallco / Rafael Viñoly and OLIN

The developers are aiming for LEED Platinum for the entire development. A mix of sidewalks, bike lanes, and trails may help to reduce car use in the development, probably to the extent other dense mixed-use developments in suburbia have. It will be up to the city of Cupertino, with its lame walk score of 45, to extend the pedestrian infrastructure into a real network.

To sweeten the deal, the developers will build a new $40-million-dollar elementary school as well as an innovation center, an “incubator,” for high school students.

The Hills at Vallco will still have to compete with the nearby Stanford Shopping Center in Palo Alto and Westfield Valley Fair in San Jose, which is perhaps why there are so many extraordinary features. But with Google’s new Mountain View headquarters, with its massive glass dome that will result in its own temperature-controlled climate, and Apple’s giant ring-shaped headquarters, with its ten thousand parking spaces, in development just a few miles away, the developers are betting they can make the Hills at Vallco a magnet for decades to come.

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aga khan

Aga Khan Park / Darren Calabrese, The Globe and Mail

Minneapolis, St. Paul Tie for Title of Best City ParksThe Star Tribune, 5/20/15
“For the third straight year, Minneapolis has been judged to have the best city parks in the country. But this year, it’s sharing that distinction with a familiar rival: St. Paul.”

We Are What We Landscape Psychology Today, 5/21/15
“What messages do we see in a lawn? Some scholars believe that the attraction is primal. Lush green foliage requires water and so do we. Perhaps the visage of a lawn with shrubs and trees gives us comfort because it signals that we can survive in this place.”

Toronto Receives New Addition to Cultural Mosaic: The Aga Khan Park Global News, 5/26/15
“The 6.8 hectare urban park is the newest part of a complex that also hosts The Aga Khan Museum and The Ismaili Centre.  Both of those buildings were opened to much fanfare eight months ago.  Together they complete a project that broke ground five years ago on the site of the former Bata Shoe headquarters.”

The $6.5 Billion, 20-Year Plan to Transform an American CityFast Company, 5/26/15
“That’s an audacious 20-year plan by Rochester, the Minnesota state government, the Mayo Clinic, and their private partners to spend more than $6.5 billion on a kind of real-life version of SimCity, designed to turn Rochester into a global biotech hub, and double its population in the process.”

The City Feeding the City: Urban Orchard Bears Fruit – The Australian Financial Review, 5/28/15
“Green space, on its own, is definitely worth adding to a cityscape. But a green space that is used to grow food is even better.”

Why Aga Khan Park Risks Becoming a White Elephant The Globe and Mail, 5/28/15
“Will the delights of this place eventually outweigh its disadvantages? Let’s hope so, because this rich museum and its gracious park bear many of the characteristics of a white elephant.”

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Vista Hermosa Park (met AB 1881 and LID requirements) / Mia Lehrer + Associates

For the past century, much of California has relied on an inherently fragile and unreliable imported water infrastructure. While the current crisis attracts the attention of the media and public, the environmental community and government have been actively pursuing solutions for decades. These efforts have resulted in long-term water conservation. For example, Los Angeles has seen a dramatic increase in population since the 1970’s, but water use has actually declined, with the largest drops in use during periods of drought and recession. Efforts are now focused on decreasing demand for imported water by increasing local supplies. A few weeks ago, we wrote about ways each of us as individuals can conserve water in our landscapes by copying nature and making choices appropriate to our local micro-climates and water availability. In addition to the smaller-scale decisions we make in our own landscapes, progressive state and local policies are helping California to better conserve its limited water resources.

Here are a few across the state:

Water Conservation in Landscaping Act of 2006 (AB 1881)
This Assembly Bill spurred the creation of the Model Water Efficient Landscape Ordinance, which established maximum allowed landscape water budgets and mandated low water-use plants and efficient irrigation strategies. AB 1881 encourages us to capture and retain on site stormwater and use recycled water. The ordinance also requires soil assessments, soil management plans, and landscape maintenance plans to accompany landscape plans submitted through municipal permit processes.

Urban Agriculture Incentive Zones (AB 551, in progress)
If passed, Assembly Bill 551 will incentivize the use of currently-vacant private land for urban agriculture. Private landowners could have their property assessed at a lower property tax rate — based on agricultural use rather than its market value — in exchange for ensuring its use for urban agriculture for 10 years. Increasing local agricultural production where recycled water is readily available can reduce water and energy use in food production and increase our cities’ self-sufficiency and resilience in the face of potential natural disasters.

In Southern California:

Recycled Water
The Los Angeles County Bureau of Sanitation and Orange County Water District (OCWD) began recycling water in the 1960s and 1970s, respectively, for groundwater recharge and non-potable uses — or uses other than for drinking, such as irrigation or industry. In 2008, the OCWD district began recharging its groundwater supplies with water treated to levels above drinking water standards for reuse as potable water. A big push to educate the public about the process and its benefits smoothed the transition. The district is now expanding production from 70 to 100 million gallons per day, or enough to supply nearly one-third of Orange County’s 3.1 million people. Los Angeles, which delayed their water recycling efforts for drinking water after negative PR alarmed the public, is now planning to expand their recycled water program, including groundwater recharge, by 2035.

In Los Angeles:

Proposition O (2004)
Los Angeles voters overwhelmingly passed Prop O to use $500 million to fund projects to:
•    Protect rivers, lakes, beaches, and the ocean;
•    Conserve and protect drinking water and other water sources;
•    Reduce flooding and use neighborhood parks to decrease polluted runoff;
•    Capture, clean up, and reuse stormwater.


Peck Canyon Park, San Pedro, funded with Prop 0 funds / Mia Lehrer + Associates


Los Angeles Zoo Parking Lot bio-infiltration, funded by Prop 0 / Mia Lehrer + Associates

Low Impact Development Ordinance (2012)
Los Angeles’ LID Ordinance ensures that new and redevelopment projects recharge groundwater aquifers to increase future water supply; protect water quality downstream; reduce flood risk by keeping rainwater on site; remove nutrients, bacteria, and metals from stormwater runoff; and reduce and slow water that runs off of properties during storms.

But there is still much more we can do. Caroline Mini, who wrote her PhD dissertation at the University of California last year, shows how urban residential water use in Los Angeles is largely determined by income. Wealthier neighborhoods on average use three times more water than poorer neighborhoods. This is despite the fact that most wealthier neighborhoods inhabit tree-covered hillsides with ample available soil moisture, while less fortunate residents occupy dryer, flatter, and less shaded areas. Better-off communities have the opportunity to use their wealth to establish well-designed, resource-efficient, and beautiful landscapes that will become models in water conservation. And cities and counties have the opportunity to create green infrastructure projects that add tree canopy and increase permeability to regain the sponge quality of soil in those low-land neighborhoods that will benefit most.

Agriculture accounts for 80 percent water of the used by people in our state. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Pacific Institute published an issue brief last year illustrating the massive water conservation potential that could come from more efficient agricultural practices. Just using the most up-to-date irrigation technologies and applying only the amount of water crops need could reduce agricultural water use by 17-22 percent. In 1975, Masanobu Fukuoka wrote The One-Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming, describing dry rice farming techniques that matched or out-produced his most productive neighbors. This poetic story about working with nature instead of against it to grow successive crops with little effort is more relevant than ever today.

More thoughtful planning for both rural agricultural and urban water use is needed. We can determine which crops and farming methods best serve our regional and exported food needs while further conserving water. We can advance urban water efficiency plans, which could generate savings that can negate the current deficit, while creating greener, more resilient and self-reliant cities.

This guest post is by Mia Lehrer, FASLA, founder of Mia Lehrer + Associates, and Claire Latané, ASLA, senior associate, Mia Lehrer + Associates.

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A park visitor is dwarfed by the 30-foot-tall Garden Mount, a focal point of the McGovern Centennial Gardens in Hermann Park – Gary Coronado / The Houston Chronicle

Yoko Ono and Project 120 Collaborate to Reimagine Chicago’s Jackson ParkArch Daily, 1/16/15
“Chicago’s Jackson Park is expected to see some big changes in the coming years. Nonprofit organization Project 120 is working to revitalize the park, restoring many of the design aspects implemented by its landscape architect, the famous Frederick Law Olmsted.”

McGovern Centennial Gardens a Sensory Experience – The Houston Chronicle, 1/16/14
“During a sneak preview last year, I was struck by the views in Hermann Park’s McGovern Centennial Gardens. As the designers intended, I immediately focused on the strong axis that surges from the parking lot path through the shimmering gateway along the expansive Centennial Green to an unexpected sight – the 30-foot Garden Mount.”

Emanuel to Unveil Ordinance Transferring Parkland for Obama LibraryThe Chicago Tribune, 1/21/14
“The mayor plans to assemble a group of community leaders and open space advocates to identify potential land in the city to be converted to green space, as well as look for opportunities to reinvest in and restore the parks designed by noted landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.”

Palo Alto Seeking Best Bridge Brainpower With Design ContestThe San Francisco Gate, 1/21/15
“So it’s no surprise that a proposed span for bicyclists and pedestrians in Palo Alto — the self-styled ‘heart of Silicon Valley’ — is the subject of a design competition with guidelines that emphasize ecological restoration and ‘the city’s commitment to innovation’ as well as the prosaic need to get from point A to point B.”

Revamped Minneapolis Sculpture Park Adds Some InformalityThe Star Tribune, 1/27/14
“A citizen group that’s advising the $10 million revamping of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden is opting toward crossing its 16th-century formality with 21st-century sustainability. Reinforcing the formality of the garden’s south end while leaving the garden’s signature Spoonbridge and Cherry where it is.”

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Gardens by the Bay: Singapore / Livia Comandini, Getty Images

Gardens by the Bay: Singapore / Livia Comandini, Getty Images

The Slow Rebirth of Dumbarton Oaks Park The Washington Post, 12/17/14
“Given the magnitude of its slide and the limits of public and private funding, restoring the park has at times seemed like an impossible dream, but in 2010 a particularly determined group named the Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy formed to take up the challenge.”

Planting for an Edible City – Metropolis POV, 12/22/14
“While these edible efforts are fairly new to New York City, the MillionTreesNYC’s fruit tree giveaway is an event to celebrate. Somewhere out there, across the five boroughs, the city has a new orchard that would comprise nearly 30 acres if planted collectively, approximating two Central Park Sheep Meadows.”

8 Incredible Green Spaces That Are Thriving In The Biggest Urban JunglesThe Huffington Post, 12/24/14
“Living and working within a system of architectural behemoths and concrete streets can be taxing, to say the least. And for many city-dwellers, a few patches of green can be a celebrated refuge from the urban landscape.”

The Biggest Arts Stories of 2014The Houston Chronicle, 12/26/14
“In October, the Hermann Park Conservancy unveiled the last major project of its long-term master plan – the spectacular $31 million John P. and Kathrine G. McGovern Centennial Gardens. Along with landscape architect Doug Hoerr’s eight acres of theme gardens, dramatic 30-foot mount and nearly seven-acre, environmentally friendly parking lot, the project features a sensitively designed pavilion of glass, stone and stainless steel designed by Peter Bohlin.”

Architecture Future: How Buildings Will Begin to Make Our Lives Better The Denver Post, 12/28/14
“This holistic attitude is architecture’s greatest promise and seems to be steering trends. More and more, landscape architects are emerging as project leaders, devising how sites will be organized, used and maintained. These days, they might be the ones to hire building architects to complete their vision.”

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Public Produce: Cultivating Our Parks, Plazas, and Streets for Healthier Cities / Island Press

Public Produce: Cultivating Our Parks, Plazas, and Streets for Healthier Cities / Island Press

We are increasingly concerned about the provenance of our food. Movements supporting local food production, urban agriculture, and more socially-equitable food systems have gained increasing traction over the last decade. Meanwhile, our industrial food systems are increasingly vulnerable due to over-centralized facilities and ownership, reliance on fossil fuels for production and transportation, and crop monocultures, which are made only more vulnerable by climate change.

Urban agriculture is frequently cited as a response to these challenges. Cities, though, still face question of where to grow food, how to maintain farms, create access, and educate citizens about agricultural production. In Public Produce: Cultivating Parks, Plazas, and Streets for Healthier Cities, urban designer and author Darrin Nordahl proposes local governments bolster local ecosystems of public food production.

Alice Waters praised the original 2009 edition as showing “how growing food on public land can transform our civic landscape.” Marion Nestle said the book gave “all the reasons why growing food in cities would be good for alleviating poverty, for building communities, and for public policy.”

A newly revised and expanded edition does these things and fills in key details by offering numerous examples of people, organizations, communities, and governments implementing all sorts of models of food production on public lands as well as partnerships between local governments and community organizations.

The first few chapters will be highly useful for those looking for a succinct and easily-readable introduction to the arguments behind local and urban food production: food (in)security, over-reliance on fossil fuels, social equity, and resilience to climate change, to name a few. But those already well versed in the works of Michael Pollan and other sustainable agriculture advocates can skim through.

Nordahl hits his stride in the third chapter as he goes beyond the general tenets of urban agriculture and makes his case for a triad between public space, public officials, and public policy. Growing vegetables in public spaces sends a powerful message. Nordahl defines public spaces as places freely accessible to the public, “whether they are truly public or merely perceived to be . . . In essence, any space where the public can enter throughout the day without being charged and admission fee . . . and is suitable for growing food, is worthy of inclusion in a network of public produce.”

Social justice advocates will appreciate the chapter on gleaning as a public produce model, and Nordahl gives many examples of places that have developed strong access networks. Fallen Fruit in Los Angeles, for example, develops freely accessible maps showing where fruit can be publicly gleaned. He also offers an interesting take on gleaning as economic opportunity – foraging for fruit rather than, say, recyclables, and trading in one’s daily harvest for money or other essentials.

Publically accessible fruit trees in Sherman Oaks neighborhood, Los Angeles / Fallen Fruit

Publically accessible fruit trees in Sherman Oaks neighborhood, Los Angeles / Fallen Fruit

Nordahl’s strongest arguments come in chapter five, in which he addresses the perennial maintenance question: “who is going to take care of it?” Indeed, this was one of my first questions – and many others may well wonder how well-received the idea will be of rotting fruit all over public spaces, which are expensive to clean up and unappealing to the aesthetic eye. But Nordahl reminds the reader that “the fantastic aesthetics of our most prized landscape plants makes it easy for us to forget that they produce an abundance of leaf litter, drip with sticky nectar, and drop unpalatable fruit by the bunches.” Planting edibles prioritizes the value of food production, while often offering an aesthetic value as well.

“There is no doubt that food-producing plants can be messy and need some upkeep,” Nordahl admits. “But the pervasive assumption that edibles require considerably more management than ornamental plants, or are not as pretty, is bogus. . . [that said], sound design principles are not thrown out the window simply because the plant palette uses fruit-bearing trees instead of sterile cultivars. As in any landscape design, the architect needs to take into account how many people will use or pass by the space; what types of activities will take place in the space; the microclimate, solar access, and water availability of the space; and a host of other variables.”

Again, Nordahl gives several examples where communities developed multi-beneficial models for maintenance, harvesting, and clean-up of edible plants. Communities who balance an appropriate “carrying capacity,” where the availability of edibles does not exceed the demand for them, help ensure that fruit is harvested and eaten, rather than left to drop and rot on the ground.

Landscape architects and designers will appreciate the examples where aesthetic and place-making qualities were woven into designs for food production. The Curtis “50-Cent” Jackson Community Garden in Queens, NY, designed by Walter Hood, ASLA, for example, integrates huge, eye-catching rainwater-collection sculptures amid the edibles planted in French-style parterres. And designers for Disneyland’s “Tomorrowland” area planted edible fruit trees, herbs, and leafy greens in lieu of solely ornamental plantings, perhaps to suggest what urban design of the future will look like.

Sculptural rainwater collection towers amidst planting beds at the Curtis "50-Cent" Jackson Community Gardens in Queens, NY / New York Restoration Project

Sculptural rainwater collection towers amidst planting beds at the Curtis “50-Cent” Jackson Community Gardens in Queens, NY / New York Restoration Project

Citrus trees in "Tomorrowland," Disneyland / FlashBulb

Citrus trees in “Tomorrowland,” Disneyland / FlashBulb

But this book is not a design manual or a how-to guide for would-be urban farmers. A good number of photos intersperse with the text, but readers will not find design schematics, planting calendars, or detailed plant lists for every climate. Examples are woven into the narrative, not broken out as researched case studies. Nordahl lays out an alluring vision, however, and his arguments are persuasive. Peas at City Hall, persimmons along public avenues, and pawpaws in city parks? Maybe not such a crazy idea after all.

Read the book.

Yoshi Silverstein, Associate ASLA, is founder and lead designer-educator at Mitsui Design, focusing on landscape experience and connection to place. He was the ASLA summer 2014 communications intern.

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