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Archive for the ‘Cities’ Category

portland

Pioneer Courthouse Square / Kenneth Helphand, FASLA

Portland, Oregon, is more than a trendy place to visit—it has long been ahead of the curve on urban design and sustainability, thanks to smart leadership and a willingness to experiment and innovate. The Landscape Architect’s Guide to Portland, a project by the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), explains Portland’s cutting-edge approach to sustainable urban design.

The guide provides both Portlanders and the millions of tourists who visit Portland annually a deeper understanding of why Portland is one of the most livable and sustainable cities in the world. The guide is also meant to educate city leaders, urban planners, and designers across the U.S. and around the globe.

According to Mark A. Focht, FASLA, president of ASLA and first deputy commissioner of Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, Portland’s landscape architects have played a crucial role in making the city a better place to live. Their contributions trace back to the early 20th century, when the Olmsted Brothers laid out many of the critical urban plans and park system, and continue with today’s generation of landscape architects, who are creating waterfront parks, beloved urban plazas, and cutting-edge bicycle infrastructure.

“Portland’s designed landscapes are integral to its urban fabric,” says Focht. “Landscape architects have long played a major role in designing the city’s public realm, and the key spaces between buildings that serve as the connective tissue for communities. These spaces include parks, plazas, streets, and transportation infrastructure.”

Topical tours offer both printable bike maps and Google maps. The guide also includes tours by district. People will be able to view the guide on their smartphones, tablets or desktop computers.

The website was created by ASLA in partnership with its Oregon Chapter and 11 local landscape architects, who are designers of our public realm and leaders in sustainable design.

The guides are:

Brian Bainnson, ASLA, Quatrefoil Inc.
Bennett Burns, ASLA, independent landscape architect
Mike Faha, ASLA, GreenWorks, PC
Kenneth Helphand, FASLA, University of Oregon
Rachel Hill, ASLA, AECOM
Lloyd Lindley, FASLA, independent landscape architect
Carol Mayer-Reed, FASLA, Mayer/Reed Inc.
Jeff Schnabel, ASLA, Portland State University
Jean Senechal Biggs, ASLA, Portland Bureau of Transportation
Rebecca Wahlstrom, ASLA, Olson Engineering Inc.
Robin Wilcox, ASLA, Alta Planning + Design

The guide is organized by the facets of the sustainable city, with sections on:

  • The Built Environment – how building and landscape work together to enhance sustainability.
  • Food – how the city’s local food system works, from urban farms to “food cart pods.”
  • Energy – how Portland has among the highest renewable energy use in the U.S.
  • “Grand Parks” – how the original Olmstedian park system is still key to livability.
  • Health – how parks are designed for users with all kinds of disabilities, even Alzheimer’s.
  • “People Spaces” – how the city creates a sense of civic pride through its plazas.
  • Social Equity – how the city helps the homeless and addresses the impacts of gentrification.
  • Transportation – how Portland created one of the best-integrated, most people-friendly transportation systems.
  • Waste – how the city achieved one of the highest recycling rates in the country.
  • Water – how it led the country on green infrastructure.
  • Wildlife – how its park system also serves other species.

This is the third in a series of guides focused on sustainable American cities. The first, The Landscape Architect’s Guide to Washington, D.C., was launched in 2012, and The Landscape Architect’s Guide to Boston, was launched in 2013. They have been viewed more than 150,000 times to date.

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High Line Phase 3 / All photos by Allan Pollok-Morris

Getting to know the High Line in New York City over the last year, it has been lovely to discover the back story: the heroic efforts involved in saving the rail yard structure; the development of the park, with its effective design and the accomplishments of the construction; the involvement of the local community; and the raised aspirations of planners everywhere for what a small area of park might achieve in a big city. As someone from the UK, the use of the American word “yard” instead of “garden” never sits entirely comfortably, as it has a more industrial meaning, but we understand each other very clearly here in the High Line’s third phase in the Rail Yards.

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Any lover of naturalistic planting and contemporary hard landscaping can marvel at how literally millions of people are being funneled through an exquisite experience. However, leaving aside the overwhelming praise for the existing sections, the first reaction on seeing the new section is the makers, James Corner Field Operations and Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, have clearly taken on board the park’s more functional deficits and have expanded the park in new directions.

I’ll always remember landscape architect Charles Jencks’ words that the motivation for his Garden of Cosmic Speculation began by wanting somewhere for the family to swim, and that good design always begins with a function. The third section of the High Line capitalizes on its role as a latter-day addition in the life of the project by offering more practical functionality. In terms of usability, new features include tables, see saws, xylophones, a children’s play area, and a wheelchair/buggy-accessible area of track.

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For those wanting the authentic High Line experience, there are areas of the original rail tracks left to self-seed with wild plantings. A fence that acts as a stark barrier between the asphalt and area of nature is very noticeable, but I’m told it will come down eventually, although it leaves you with the suspicion there may be more development to come. This area is not lit at night and will be closed earlier than the rest. It builds on the experience of the place by providing more themed nostalgia for the abandoned aesthetic of the rail track prior to the redevelopment. Does this represent affectionate nostalgia, or a sense of loss?

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Being there for the opening, I got to hear the High Line experiences of people from all walks of life. There was something very special in talking to someone, now in their 60s, who has supported the project the whole way but used to come and play here as a kid. This was the story I heard most: tales of what it was like to sneak in and mess about when it was still a rail yard, what it looked like in its derelict state. The sense of discovery and adventure in these experiences was visceral. There was something people valued in having a space not laid out by planning convention, but a raw experience.

I met Mitchell J. Silver, the new commissioner for New York’s parks, a week earlier and discussed the further development of the open areas around the High Line. The rail yards that the new phase circles will all be covered and developed over a 5-10 year period. The city is planning a number of significant new high rises the length of the park, and another ground-level green corridor of wider parks will lead north from there.

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The success story for the city isn’t so much one of recreation, but the wider regeneration of the area and increase in property values to the point where the world’s best-known architects are now seeking permissions, which can only further exaggerate the High Line as an oasis in city life. This park has also created new opportunities for people with similar infrastructure around the world.

This guest post is by Allan Pollok-Morris, a landscape photographer. His most recent book is Close: Landscape Design and Land Art in Scotland.

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Participant of Peerby, and the new sharing economy, in the Netherlands / Consumentenbond

“We are still making and selling too much stuff,” said James Slezak, the founder of Peers, a sharing economy advocacy organization, at the EcoDistricts Summit in Washington, D.C. This is a “waste of wealth” because more people could simply rent or borrow what they need in our burgeoning “sharing economy.” Why buy a car when you can simply order up a ride on an app? Why book a hotel room when you can stay in someone’s spare bedroom for much less? And why buy something when someone next door has what you need and will lend it to you for free? According to the proponents of the sharing economy, there are so many untapped opportunities to both make money and help other people. This new sharing economy then has huge implications for cities.

Slezak said the average car spends 90 percent of its engine switched off. And then, even when it’s in use, a big percentage of the time the car is idle, stuck in traffic or circling for parking. Why not share a car so it’s used more efficiently? Firms like Uber and Lyft enable this through a “less centralized model of ownership.” The same can be said for places to stay. Some people only use their apartments — or rooms in their apartments — some of the time. On Airbnb, users can rent out that extra space and make some money, while providing someone with a low-cost place to stay. “Instead of saying we have 600,000 hotel rooms, cities should say they have 600,000 apartments available.”

Still, many cities are only tip-toeing into the sharing economy, as there are many issues to work out. For one, how should sharers be regulated, given they are providing a form of service? The companies themselves still seem to be wading through these issues, too. Slezak said some questions still need to be answered, like: “What’s the impact on local communities? What’s the impact on people with jobs in the old model economy? Will the new sharing economy be equitable? What if someone has nothing to share?”

As Sharon Feigon, head of the Shared-Use Mobility Center, explained, at its best, sharing “increases options and helps us do things in a more efficient way.” But, there are definitely winners and losers. NYC taxi drivers, who can spend up to $1 million for a medallion, are fending off unregulated drivers taking their business. In San Francisco, the city is having a hard time finding cab drivers because drivers see Uber or Lyft as better opportunities.

She is focused on ensuring all ages — not just Millennials — benefit from sharing. This may be getting harder as the sharing economy is increasingly driven by a new set of corporations, whereas in the past sharing was a mostly non-profit endeavor. The private company Uber, with 1.2 million car sharers, is now worth $18 billion. Many other car sharing services have been purchased by established car rental companies (Avis, Hertz, etc).

For Daan Weddephol, founder of Peerby, sharing has great social value, but it won’t be lucrative for him unless he can convince everyone to do it. Peerby enables users of their web site to share “power tools, camping gear, things you only use once in a while.” Weddepohl said “80 percent of things we own could be shared. We have all this overcapacity that we can put into a system.”

Peerby matches those who need something with someone close by willing to lend it. “We fulfill 85 percent of requests in 30 minutes.” The web site makes money by offering optional insurance for damage or loss.

In Amsterdam, where the service started, there are already 60,000 users sharing one million objects. The service has spread throughout Europe and is now being piloted in multiple major U.S. cities. The goal is to launch the service in 50 U.S. cities by 2015.

Weddepohl seems the growing sharing economy as a return to the spirit of Medieval times, when communities were strong and sharing was done as a matter of practice. In that spirit, Peerby enables urbanites to “meet new people and connect.” The service improves sustainability because it means reduced greenhouse gas emissions from product consumption. The challenge, he said, is to create enough scale. With margins so small on the high-social value, but low-monetary value transactions, “we need many transactions to make money.”

Airbnb, if you haven’t heard, is a “platform for renting space in your home,” said Anita Roth, Airbnb. Already more than half a million worldwide have provided rooms for 11 million visitors. Roth said “the services allows people to move to a new city more easily and cheaply and enjoy new experiences.” It’s changing the “nature of hosting.”

To convince cities to create supportive regulations for Airbnb, the company has undertaken a series of economic impact studies. The company has found that 75 percent of Airbnb rooms are outside the main urban center. As a result, “tourism dollars are spread through the city.” Visitors spend about “50 percent of their total budget in the neighborhood” they are staying in.

The social benefits — amorphous yet valuable things like “cross cultural connections” or “increased neighborhood engagement” — are proving more difficult to measure, but Roth said they exist. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Airbnb played a role in helping people find new temporary housing. She said these kinds of social services only improve the resilience of a community.

While Airbnb ran right into New York City’s tough hotel laws, Roth said other cities are more open to letting people rent their apartments. Amsterdam, which was “skeptical at first,” has since “realized all the benefits and become a sharing city.” The city has changed its laws so people can legally rent our their apartment for up to two months a year. They have created regulations to address concerns and have done a lot to educate locals about how to rent out their apartment correctly, with fliers that have info about who to call if there’s a problem.

And there are so many more companies entering the sharing marketplace, with different degrees of success. Weddepohl thinks there is ultimately a limit to this new sharing economy — “you can’t share paper clips” — and the balance of what you can share or not share is coming near. These new services will need to partner with city governments to scale up these services in a way that also addresses cities’ concerns. Services offered by sharing companies need to be regulated, but they should also widely available — if only for the potentially positive economic and social impacts on all those neighborhoods beyond downtown.

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Green Village Building in Chicago / Blacks in Green (BIG)

Equitable urban revitalization means new development doesn’t displace existing communities. If we agree with this definition, what’s occuring in Washington, D.C. and many other American cities can’t be viewed as fair, said a number of African American community activists at the EcoDistricts Summit in Washington, D.C. Many blocks in historic African American communities are becoming fraught, contested ground as they rapidly redevelop and gentrify, with huge numbers of African Americans getting pushed out to due to higher rents and property taxes. The solution seems to be more community empowerment from the bottom, and more thoughtful, respectful urban planning from the top.

For Naomi Davis, CEO of Blacks in Green (BIG), city leaders need to take a more inclusive approach, because “what’s good for the African diaspora is good for everyone.” She said “increasing household income in inner-city communities helps both rich and poor people.” To boost the long-term sustainability of these communities, Davis calls for creating “green villages” that will transform waste to wealth, create new jobs, celebrate culture, and circulate wealth among local businesses. These green villages can only be built by respecting the local culture. Given culture is highly local, “true, long-term community sustainability must be built mile by mile.” And it has to be a bottom-up process: “We can’t wait for the government to save us.”

As an example, Davis described her work in West Woodlawn, “in the hood” in Chicago. There, she engaged community members in creating a new master plan, with layers of greening programs. A new orchard has come out of “the dust of 30 years of disinvestment.” 2012 was the “year of the tree canopy,” so West Woodlawn undertook a major campaign of adding new street and park trees. 2013 was the year of the backyard garden and using “private land to feed ourselves.” There are now orchards, gardens, root cellars everywhere.

For Dominic Moulden, Organizing Neighborhood Equity (ONE) D.C., “gentrification is a crime. It’s violence couched in white supremacy and aimed at uprooting black communities.” His group, a “multi-issue, multi-class, multi-ethnic” coalition, aims to critique the urban development culture of D.C.

He said many of the white tenants moving into historically African American communities seek “authentic local culture, but end up destroying it, which is a violation of our civil and human rights.” Moulden argued that African American communities — like plants that have suddenly moved — are undergoing “root shock.” With a decaying local ecosystem, social networks are failing.

Moulden says the answer is “to develop people and then place.” That way, “the community controls the plan.” As part of this goal, his group is trying to stop what he sees as illegal gentrification. They sued an African American church in Shaw for trying to displace its 50 residents in large, affordable housing units. ONE D.C. also played a role in ensuring the new Marriott Marquis hotel next to the convention center spent $2 million to train local workers and hired 700 local D.C. residents as Union employees with “living wages.” Moulden said “that’s equitable development.”

Wadi Muhammad, 270 Strategies, discussed changes he has seen in Roxbury, one of the historically African American communities in Boston. As that area gentrifies, swarms of college students are moving there. There has been nearly $100 million in investment there in recent years, leading to a new luxury condo where studios go for $2,500 a month. Muhammad said Roxbury is now for the extremely rich or poor. “Where do those in the middle go?” The community is working on a new master plan, with a long-term vision for sustainability.

To add some additional perspective, David Hyra, a professor at American University in Washington, D.C., said we must be careful what we wish for with “the new wave of urban revitalization,” less we further destroy the communities there now. One product of revitalization is new people moving in. “And all these newcomers into inner-city communities are expressing preferences that are different from those of the existing communities.”

For example, newcomers in D.C. seem to want more bike lanes, while long-time residents are less positive about them. The majority of new bike infrastructure in D.C. has come into the historically African American U. Street and Shaw neighborhoods of D.C., creating a flash point with the old-timers. For them, these lanes are sign that a neighborhood has gentrified. “In the last D.C. Mayoral debate, none of the candidates would admit they used the bike lanes, even though I know some of them are bikers,” Hyra laughed.

In addition, it seems African Americans also avoid D.C.’s bikeshare system as well. “88 percent of bikeshare users are white; just 5 percent are African American.”

While newcomers to African American communities typically want more bike lanes and dog parks, they don’t understand these amenities may be perceived as a “threat to long-term African American residents.” Walter Fauntroy, with the New Bethel Baptist Church, who was credited as saving Shaw from urban renewal in the 60s, recently told Hyra his feelings about the new wave of urban revitalization in Shaw: “I’ve given up, quite frankly.”

To combat further gentrification, Hyra said, “we need to preserve affordable housing and community political representation and minimize cultural displacement.”

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Dogpatch Arts Plaza / CMG Landscape Architecture

Why hasn’t anyone thought of this before? At the EcoDistricts Summit in Washington, D.C., two urban innovators in San Francisco, the home of so many game-changing technologies, have come up with a truly brilliant idea: the Green Benefits District (GBD), a sort of green business improvement district, designed to facilitate community investment in new tree-lined streets, parks, and gardens. Michael Yarne, with Up Urban and Build Inc. and the creator of the concept, said the GBD in the Dogpatch neighborhood of San Francisco will also aim to improve the management and upkeep of neighborhood public spaces, which they say is currently done poorly by the city government. The GBD will be like the “Uber of public space,” meaning they are adding another layer of more convenient services on top of the existing baseline service. A GBD is needed because the city government is “stuck in the 1970s.” But the GBD clearly has higher aims than just better services: Yarne sees a future with local, distributed renewable energy systems and more.

With the help of Scott Cataffa, ASLA, a partner at CMG Landscape Architecture, Yarne is in the middle of a two-year process to prototype the GBD concept. It seems creating a new assessment district in California is not an easy thing, as you first need a BID lawyer, then need to get 30 percent of the proposed assessed district to agree to a petition, and then 51 percent of the “weighted property owners” to back the idea through a ballot. Only then will the state and city governments allow you to use tax revenue to meet local ends.

Dogpatch and NW Potrero Hill, which covers some 700 acres and contains 100,000 people, has a “rich industrial heritage.” Through a survey, Yarne and his team learned the area actually has 13 sub-neighborhoods. Some of these maintain a “gritty, marginalized identity.” In contrast, some neighborhoods have a high level of “social capital,” which enables more coordinated action. Yarne decided to start in the area with higher social capital, with a history of local environmental activism and ownership of public spaces. There, a “plucky, can-do” group of locals have wrangled the state government to let them build a park where where was once transportation infrastructure. But all their efforts are “taxing.” This community clearly wants “parks and open space preserved,” but what’s the best way to do this? The neighborhood decided to pool resources into a new GBD.

The GBD will “coordinate property owners and build trust.” It will be a non-profit, public benefit corporation with an elected board and annual oversight by the city legislature. The new GBD will be “small enough to enable trust to grow and will operate in a hyper transparent manner.” It will “use an experimental ‘it’s OK to fail’ approach and aim to create long-term revenue.” Trust, he said, is the new “green,” because, without it, community action is impossible. Trust building will happen on the ground, in person, but also through a new app that will enable all GBD members to see in near real-time all reports, decisions, and expenditures.

“Like Facebook, the app will encourage GBD members to create a profile to encourage community accountability.” There will be something like the “See, Click, Fix” app, which will enable community members to report problems. The app will define the “party responsible for fixing, set the fix date, and the cost of the fix.” Yarne said listing the cost of the fix was important, because people don’t really have a clue as to cost of public services. All of the issues will be mapped, so the GBD member can see problem areas. For example, they could learn that vandalism occurs near the train stations. Like other techno-utopians in San Francisco, Yarne believes the app will “empower the community by demystifying work that’s happening.”

Landscape architect Scott Cataffa has been helping the nascent GBD map all their assets and discover where the opportunities are. Cataffa said a map of the community found only 2 percent of it is open space.  The community is already maintaining about half of the public spaces in the district, but the audit is helping the community figure out who owns what. With a list of more than 50 possible opportunities in hand, the GBD team is now figuring out what role they should play in creating new green public spaces and other sustainable features. They created a checklist to help label each project, with potential roles such as “lead, initiate, assist, or advocate.”

One proposal by CMG would create a new amphitheatre and outdoor art gallery in an unused, city-owned dead-end between two large industrial buildings. Through the audit, they also found that the very wide rights of way, which were designed for industrial use, create opportunities to create new linear parks. So they propose creating a new linear park — or green street — running from the new amphitheatre to a larger park. Cataffa said “we are looking at the right of way as a place to turn grey to green.” Other ideas being cooked up include putting a solar farm on top a freeway that cuts through the district, and creating a (black) waste water recycling system.

If they are allowed to assess the community for the GBD, Yarne says they will raise about $400,000 in their first year from taxes of about 9.46 cents per square foot of commercial and residential space and parking lots. Some non-profits would get a 50 percent discount on that tax, as would some struggling industrial site owners. Yarne expects their available funds to double over the coming years given lots of new residential complexes are coming online. He said, already, the GBD can change perceptions of new development from an unwelcome sign of gentrification into new opportunities to green.

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Barry Farm / The Huffington Post

Cities are the place to be these days, which means big changes for the historic communities that have populated urban cores. While much of the urban renewal experiments of the 1940s through the 1960s have been deemed disasters, word is still out on the new wave of “urban revitalization” that began in the 1990s and continues through to today in most of America’s cities. The supporters of revitalization say rising tides lift all boats. As wealth has come back to cities, everyone benefits. But critics of revitalization simply call it gentrification, and, as one speaker at the EcoDistricts Summit in Washington, D.C. said, “gentrification is a crime.” Furthermore, new discussions of turning existing urban neighborhoods into “ecodistricts” may just be gentrification in a green dress. How can cities encourage growth but also provide a sense of continuity? How can over-taxed city planning departments accommodate the forces of change while also respecting local communities and cultures?

According to Charles Hostovsky, a professor of urban planning at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., the speed of revitalization in D.C. has been extraordinarily rapid. Every neighborhood has cranes, signifying new development. There has been a corresponding shift in the demographics of the city. In 1970, the city was 77 percent African American. Today, it’s just 49 percent. “The number of people who have been displaced equals a small town.” Indeed: in the past decade, approximately 50,000 young, white Millennials have moved into the city while 35,000 African Americans have left.

Reyna Alorro, who works for the DC Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning, said revitalization has even spread east of the Anacostia River, perhaps the last hold out to gentrification. There, the city is supporting the redevelopment of Barry Farm, 25 acres of public housing, into a new mixed-income, mixed-use development that they hope will be an example of equitable revitalization. As HUD Hope IV funds have diminished since 2005, the District has started its own program of revamping public housing. “We want to target the areas with blight, crime, high unemployment and turn them into mixed income communities.” The theory is that reducing the concentration of the poor in communities, and relieving their isolation, will improve their conditions.

Barry Farm, a historic African American community founded by freed slaves, currently has some 400 units, with 1,200 people. The population of the housing development is 93 percent single mothers; some 86 percent are unemployed. “This is not a friendly, welcoming site.” There is only one over-priced corner store, with a bullet-proof glass wall separating the store owners from customers.

The $550 million redevelopment plan, said Kelly Smyser, DC Housing Authority, will create 1,400 public and affordable apartments at the same site. New apartments will face each other, creating open public thoroughfares that enable “eyes on the street.” There will also be a recreation center, with an indoor pool, basketball courts, and computer labs, as well as a charter school. The nearby Anacostia Metro station will get a full upgrade, with improved access to the station from the development. “We want to bring opportunity to residents. We will make the connection to Metro easier and safer.”

The District government calls this project “revitalization without gentrification,” as all current residents will be allowed to come back to the new development. “There will be zero displacement.” The city also promises it will undertake a program of “build first before demolition.” To increase the diversity of the development, some 300 of the new units will be affordable housing, rentals, or for sale. The city also wants to encourage small businesses to locate in Barry Farms. They are creating “live-work” sites that will enable people to live above their stores. “We need to get rid of the bullet proof glass.”

The neighborhood is rightly concerned about how they can preserve the best of the local culture with all the change. One example of this is the Goodman League, a basketball tournament that happens in the neighborhood every year. “People have a good time, barbequing, sitting in lawn chairs. There are no beefs on the court.” The basketball courts where this happen will remain untouched.

While Smyser was convinced this upgrade will benefit the community, one conference attendee seemed equally as convinced that with the District’s multimillion dollar investment, the city will simply be opening the neighborhood to opportunistic developers and further gentrification. Word is still out on how this urban redevelopment story will play out.

Hazel Edwards, a professor of planning at Catholic University, outlined some examples of successful revitalization without gentrification in other parts of the U.S. She pointed to Melrose Commons in South Bronx, where a group of local residents banded together in the early 1990s into a group called Nos Quedamos (We Stay) and fought back New York City government’s imposed urban renewal plan. With the help of an altruistic architect, Nos Quedamos forged their own urban design that respected the community’s unique cultural heritage. The plan and design resulted in 2,000 units of affordable housing. “There was no displacement in the community.”

In Portland, Oregon, Edwards told us about a project called Cully Main Street plan, which helped preserve one the most diverse neighborhoods in Portland, with some 40-50 percent people of color. They devised a plan to equitably bring in commercial activity to their main street while accommodating an influx of new white homeowners and preserving the neighborhood diversity.

Edwards said the key to revitalization without gentrification is “bringing residents and the community to the table often and at the beginning.” This kind of public planning process requires a great investment of time and resources by city governments, but without this investment, the only result may be inequitable, developer-led urban revitalization. “Cities have to form diverse, inclusive partnerships, foster openness, and collaborate on goals and outcomes.”

Quoting the urban leader and author, Kaid Benfield, she said, “we have to work towards a balanced solution,” and also track our progress to see whether we are living up to our goals.

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Urban Acupuncture / Island Press

Jaime Lerner, one of the most influential urban leaders of our time, has written down all of his hard-earned wisdom about the city in one slim yet rich volume, Urban Acupuncture: Celebrating Pinpricks of Change that Enrich City Life. This set of musings, a translation of the original Brazilian Portuguese book, pulls you in with its natural, intimate tone; it’s like you are sitting and having a conversation with Lerner over a glass of wine in a cafe. Lerner is an architect and urban designer who became mayor of the Brazilian city Curitiba, where he famously brought his practical yet innovative thinking to solve some tricky urban challenges. Along the way, he created bus rapid transit, devising a low-cost alternative to subway systems for developing world cities — and now increasingly, developed world ones, too. He came up with smart ways to clean up Curitiba’s bay, partnering with local fisherman in trash collection. He turned down the World Bank, with its offer of millions in loans, to find sustainable, home-grown solutions. With his many smart alternatives, he showed other cities how to do it right, themselves.

Lerner organizes his thoughts on the city through one central theme: urban acupuncture. He writes: “I have always nurtured the dream and hope that with the prick of a needle, diseases may be cured. The notion of restoring the vital signs of an ailing spot with a simple healing touch has everything to do with revitalizing not only that specific place but also the entire area that surrounds it.” He says “good medicine” depends on a good relationship between doctor and patient. In the same way, a healthy city depends on a good relationship between urban planners and designers and the city itself, another kind of living organism. Good urban planning can awaken a city to new possibilities, creating new life. But he cautions that it’s a process. Like medical acupuncture, which is rooted in an ancient Chinese medical philosophy that calls for a sustained, long-term preventive care, urban acupuncture takes time to create cures.

What are examples of healing urban acupuncture? Lerner has traveled all over the world, carefully examining all types of pinpricks to determine their impact. These pinpricks can be buildings — like Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao but also landscapes, like the Park Guell, one of Gaudi’s masterpieces, in Barcelona.

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Bilbao Guggenheim / Karie and Scott blog

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Park Guell, Barcelona / Share the City

Size doesn’t really matter, either. “You can feel it at work in the smallest venues, like Paley Park in New York.”

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Paley Park, New York City / Wikipedia

Undoing previous damage to our urban landscape is another form of healing acupuncture. For example, taking out San Francisco freeway helped revitalize that city.

Lerner presents deceptively simple stories that reveal deeper wisdom about what makes good urban life. Brief case studies are just long enough to get you thinking in a new way. Most succeed. In one vignette, he writes: “I often say that New York should build a monument to the Unknown 24-hour Shopkeeper. This industrious group — many of them immigrants from Korea — has done the city an extraordinary service merely by keeping its grocery stores and sidewalk delicatessens open around the clock. These shops not only offer infinite shelves of merchandise but also enliven whole neighborhoods by literally lighting up countless dreary street corners.” He calls these shop owners the city’s “true lifeblood,” as they “pump oxygen into cities that must never be allowed to stop breathing.”

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Deli in NYC / Gawker

In the same vein, “street peddlers represent an institution as old as the city itself. Think of open-air markets. At a given hour, in a given neighborhood, street merchants go to work — often hours before the lights go on in traditional storefronts — and then vanish along with their wares and jerry-built booths, leaving hardly a trace.” Commerce is then kept alive day and night, which also makes streets feel safer.

Acupuncture need not be physical; it can be sensory, too, like music. “Think of Rio and you are likely to start humming ‘Copacabana,’ ‘Corcovado,’ ‘Girl from Ipanema,’ or ‘Cidade Maravilhosa.” Lerner says every city should aspire to have a song. “When a distinct song or beat takes hold of a city’s or country’s identity, then good acupuncture is at work. It has echoes in everyday living, like improvised tapping on a matchbox at a street bar in Rio, the beat of drum on the sidewalk in Bahia, or hip-hop gushing from giant boom boxes in the streets of New York.” Does your city have a song everyone knows? If not, why not?

He also points out where cities have gone astray and offers his take on how to fix these problems, using simple, common sense steps. For example, in Santiago de Cali, Colombia, he decries the destruction of the city’s identity amid “outsized avenues.” “Just to cross them, you’ll find yourself huffing up and over suspended pedestrian bridges.” Here, he argues, “good acupuncture means building things smaller and stepping aside to give way to the simple beauties of nature, like the handsome river or the caressing wind.” Those big avenues break up street life, creating tears in the urban fabric.

Gaps in the city can also kill street life. For Lerner, so many urban problems are caused by a “lack of continuity.” He points to a sad “city pocked with lifeless suburbs or tracts of urban real estate devoid of housing.” These places are just as skewed as those with “abandoned lots and ramshackle buildings.” Cities must fill in these voids, even with temporary structures. One of his strongest statements: “continuity is life.”

While he touches on so much, Lerner’s message seems to be healthy street life is central to the city. Without it, the city dies. He argues: “good acupuncture is about drawing people out to the streets and creating meeting places. Mainly, it is about helping the city become a catalyst of interactions between people.” And so, “the more cities are understood to be the integration of functions — bringing together rich and poor, the elderly and the young — the more meeting places they will create and the livelier they will become.” Here, the role of landscape architects can’t be understated. “The design of public space is important.” He goes into detail about what kinds of parks, plazas, and squares work best.

My only minor complaint with this insightful book is the sometimes mismatched text and images. We want to see the scenes Lerner gushes over. While some images speak to the scenes described in the book, some don’t. A more careful approach to images and layout would have further strengthened one of the most intriguing recent books on the city.

Read the book and an ASLA interview with Lerner.

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Cyborg Landscapes / Bradley Cantrell, Kristi Cheramie, Jeffrey Carney, and Matthew Seibert, Louisiana State University Coastal Sustainability Studio, the design firm Invivia, and Urbain DRC.


Design Profile: Q&A with Marcel Wilson of Bionic Landscape Architecture
The San Francisco Chronicle, 9/2/14
“Marcel Wilson, the principal of San Francisco-based Bionic Landscape Architecture, sees every project as a possibility for invention.”

Grand Park Benefits Made in America, but Is the Reverse True? – The Los Angeles Times, 9/2/14
“Luckily, even as concertgoers were tramping across Grand Park’s lawns and through its flower beds, they were also helping demonstrate pretty clearly where its design might be tweaked and improved. They made up a huge and unwitting landscape-architecture focus group.”

Unveiled: 5 Visions for Landscape Above Crissy FieldThe San Francisco Chronicle, 9/4/14
“They vary widely in looks, but each of the five new conceptual visions for the landscape above Crissy Field have two things in common. Each has seductive aspects – and each tries too hard to bedazzle, in a setting where flash is not what we need.”

Changing Skyline: Dilworth Park Has Many Irresistible Features, but It’s Stiff, Uncomfortable The Philadelphia Inquirer, 9/6/14
“They’ve reconstructed the space in front of Philadelphia’s palatial City Hall, furnished it with a cafe, a high-tech spray fountain and movable chairs, and rebranded it Dilworth Park. But the vast granite prairie is still very much a plaza, with all the weaknesses the word implies.”

These Synthetic Landscapes Respond to Nature in Real Time to Protect Us — and the Planet Fast Company, 9/8/14
“Bradley Cantrell, a landscape architect and TED fellow who will speak at the upcoming TEDGlobal2014 conference, is one of the pioneers exploring how the human-built world may begin relating differently to the natural world. ‘The goal is to embed computation, but with this kind of conservationist viewpoint,’ says Cantrell.”

“Dice Park” Fiasco Holds Lessons About Rising Expectations for Civic Design in Cleveland: Commentary The Plain Dealer, 9/12/14
“The brief life and rapid death last week of the Horseshoe Casino’s concept for the so-called ‘Dice Park’ in downtown Cleveland may have set a speed record for the public condemnation of a weak design idea.”

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Shoreline green infrastructure at the new Water Institute Campus in Baton Rouge / Voorsanger Architects

At a lecture on resilient waterfront design at the Center for Architecture in New York, two projects now in the works show how public spaces can still be created on shorelines, even in the era of the monster storm: the Water Institute Headquarters, Research, and Interpretive Center proposal in Baton Rouge, Louisiana by SuperMass Studio; and the Rockaways Boardwalk Reconstruction Plan in Queens, New York, from CH2M HILL, with the RBA Group and WXY. Both use green buffers to protect the shoreline and add biodiversity, but are designed to ensure easy public access.

Baton Rouge has had their share of storm events, but new shoreline green infrastructure could help mitigate the impacts of future ones. Taewook Cha, ASLA, founding principal of SuperMass Studio, presented their landscape plan for the Water Institute. Built on the old city dock, the main campus building will be parallel to the main circulation corridor between the dock and city center. This orientation creates a physical and symbolic connection to the Mississippi River.

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The Water Institute’s Headquarters is oriented parallel to the main thoroughfare to maintain public connection to the waterfront / Voorsanger Architects

Along the opposite side of the throughway, SuperMass will recreate six distinct coastal-riparian ecosystems: coastal wetland, floodplain forest, wet meadow, shallow marsh, upper prairie, and backwater marsh.

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WI-Section-1 Diverse coastal ecosystems on the Mississippi shoreline / SuperMass Studios

These constructed ecosystems will provide a range of services. They will protect the shoreline and structures, stabilize the banks, help restore the ridges, divert sediment, and enable the creation of new marshes and channels. These new systems will provide stormwater and flood management while creating new wildlife habitat.

At Rockaways beach in New York, the devastation of Hurricane Sandy is still fresh; the community won’t soon forget. The old wooden boardwalk there was torn apart by storm surges that turned the wooden planks into destructive projectiles that destroyed homes along the shoreline. In response, the New York City Parks and the Department of Design and Construction have rebuilt areas with concentrated amenities, and then filled in the stretches along the five-mile long shoreline. Future boardwalks will be made from concrete and recycled plastic lumber so they don’t splinter. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been dredging sand from the ocean floor to build massive sand berms between homes, boardwalk, and beaches to protect the community from the next Sandy.

Boardwalk-Devastation

Boardwalk Devastation / Chang W. Lee via New York Times

The challenge, said Jackson Wandres, director of landscape architecture and planning at the RBA Group, was to create a new boardwalk that was not only structurally sound but also maintained the public space and beach access of the old boardwalk. To accomplish this, RBA Group proposed rebuilding the boardwalk along its original route, but raising it up between three and eight feet, as appropriate, to match the height of the Army Corps berms. In essence: “one giant earthwork with a giant public esplanade running along top of it – that’s the public open space we’re creating.”

Ecologically-appropriate vegetation will be planted both along the boardwalk and the berms themselves. In addition, concrete pavers, designed with a neat wave pattern that made the audience say “whoa!,” will allow bike access for the first time. Ramps will allow beach access over and down the berms. The project will be built over the next two years with federal funds, at a cost of somewhere between $200 and $260 million.

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Wave pattern in the concrete pavers / RBA Group

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Ramps from the boardwalk allow beach access / RBA Group

Should another storm surge hit Rockaways hard, much of the sand will again be wiped out. But the boardwalk is high enough above the surge line that sand will be swept out from under it. The concrete infrastructure should be left intact, avoiding the projectile damage caused during Sandy.

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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Levee Lab at Hunts Point tests designed ecologies, materials, and techniques for climate-adapted industrial waterfronts to develop new regulatory frameworks / OLIN and PennDesign

Levee Lab at Hunts Point tests designed ecologies, materials, and techniques for climate-adapted industrial waterfronts to develop new regulatory frameworks / OLIN & PennDesign

Is resilience ecological, economic, cultural, or social? For Red Hook and Hunts Point, two communities in New York City, the answer is all of the above, argued Barbara Wilks, FASLA, and Richard Roark, ASLA, at a talk at the Center for Architecture in New York City.

Wilks spoke about the Red Hook community in Brooklyn, which was the focus of their Commercial Corridor Resiliency Project, a proposal submitted to the department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Rebuild by Design competition by HR&A Advisors, Inc., with Cooper, Robertson & Partners and W-Architecture & Landscape Architecture, where Wilks is principal and founder. Their proposal, which unfortunately didn’t win, explains: “In Red Hook, resiliency involves integrating flood protection through measures that maintain and enhance waterfront maritime and industrial activity while allowing for public access to the waterfront.”

Focusing on public corridors could help create social resiliency and civic spirit. Re-integrating the historic maritime legacy more closely with other parts of the community could strengthen local identity. And embracing the importance of water as not only threat but also opportunity could be important in a community that had some streets under as much as five feet of water following Hurricane Sandy. “Every nook and cranny in Red Hook is different,” said Wilks, so many different solutions would be needed to create redundancies across scales.

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The Gowanus Canal, typically a source of flooding in Red Hook, could become a revitalized “Maker’s District” for manufacturing and production business. A raised promenade encourages access to the space for pedestrians / HR&A Advisors

The project could also bring the community closer to the waterfront edge to create pedestrian and recreational opportunities that blur the border between water and community, rather than trying to create hard separations.

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Renderings show a new wave barrier protection to reduce wave action in a storm events while providing recreational waterfront amenities during normal conditions / HR&A Advisors

A one-mile section of Hunts Point peninsula in South Bronx is “the hub of the food supply for 22 million people, a $5 billion annual economy, over 20,000 direct jobs, and livelihoods of people in the poorest U.S. Congressional District.” Up to 60 percent of New York City’s produce, meat, and fish supply comes from Hunts Point – also home to the Food Bank for New York City. And it’s all in a floodplain, said Roark, who works at OLIN. He presented Hunts Point Lifelines, a winning Rebuild by Design proposal from OLIN and PennDesign that will receive $20 million.

The community escaped major impacts from Sandy, but if the floods had moved differently during that event, the one million pounds of food Hunts Point provided to the region in the five days following the storm could have been decimated. This would not only impact New York’s food supply. The floodwaters combined with decaying food following power outages could turn the entire neighborhood into a toxic waste site.

The economic value – and vulnerability – of Hunts Point is clear. But Roark also asked the audience to consider the social and cultural value of Hunts Point: “We sit at a tipping point where communities can become incredibly bifurcated: either wealthy places, or islands of extreme poverty.” In wealthier communities, residents who can afford flood insurance can either take a hit and rebuild, or leave altogether. With both historically impoverished residents and a large influx of poor immigrants, Hunts Point residents have neither of these luxuries. But the economic disadvantages belie the cultural contributions the area has given to not just the region but the world with a thriving street art scene and its historic legacy as the “birthplace” of hip-hop.

Hunts Points is a test site – a “crucible,” in the language of the design proposal – for the sort of future we want. For OLIN and PennDesign, the future includes a flood protection levee lab that combines protection of Hunt Point’s food hub with recreational and research opportunities.

A proposed open market honors Hunt Point's food production legacy and increases food access to residents / OLIN & PennDesign

A proposed open market honors Hunt Point’s food production legacy and increases food access to residents / OLIN & PennDesign

There will be new jobs associated with stormwater infrastructure, maritime emergency supply lines, and a state of the art “trigeneration” plant, designed to meet the district’s large refrigeration demands. These jobs will be accessible via “cleanways.”

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Urban “cleanway” / OLIN & PennDesign

Both projects drive home an important point: resiliency is ultimately about the people at the heart of the places we’re trying to keep safe. Both Wilks and Roark called for using resilient design to improve social equity, preserving community identity and historical legacies, and embracing multiple solutions across scales rather than attempting to find one catch-all “universal” solution.

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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