Archive for the ‘Cities’ Category


Queens Plaza / Margie Ruddick

Design responses to New York City’s tangled infrastructure, both instant and painstaking, were the subject of a conversation between “design patron” Janette Sadik-Kahn and landscape designer Margie Ruddick, ASLA. Sadik-Kahn is best known for her recently completed tenure as commissioner of New York City’s department of transportation (DOT) under Mayor Bloomberg. Ruddick, as designer of a complex re-imagining of New York’s Queens Plaza, has been one of the beneficiaries of that design-conscious administration’s patronage. Both speakers, winners of 2013 National Design Awards from the event’s sponsor, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, turned a retrospective eye on their recent work in urban infrastructure. The last eight or so years, both speakers claimed, marks a sea change in New York City’s infrastructure and design culture, as design innovations marked a turn from privileging cars and drivers to supporting the comfort and mobility of pedestrians and cyclists.

Ruddick focused on the painstaking work of transforming the complex site of Queens Plaza from gateway and transit hub “morass” into a green refuge in a span of ten years (see image above). Ruddick argued that what was radical in 2006 has become mainstream today: the idea that urban infrastructure can operate aesthetically and ecologically is accepted in a way that was unthinkable when the project began.

Sadik-Kahn reviewed a series of pilot programs for city streets that were rapidly implemented and subsequently institutionalized under her tenure. Where previously streets encouraged speeding, visual clutter, and cycling accidents, these interventions have struck a new balance. Sadik-Kahn spoke of the city’s “new vocabulary” of designs for bike lanes, pedestrian plazas, benches, and green infrastructure. After years of “suspended animation,” the DOT showed that it was possible to change the DNA of city streets.



Before and After: St Nicholas Ave & Amsterdam Ave / NYC DOT

Looming large over the discussion was the role of patronage and leadership in guiding better design for cities. Now that Bloomberg is gone, what might happen in New York? And who can spearhead similar changes in other cities?

For Ruddick, Queens Plaza, a complex and multi-agency project, was an object lesson in the importance of having a design process and the need to maintain a strong design vision, integrate performance, and avoid design by committee. But the story of her failure to implement a water filtration system across three jurisdictions without talking to the right people demonstrated that politics trumps design. The designer must have a firm hand, but they can’t make the project whole without the “fiat of the person at the top.”

Sadik-Kahn, one of those people at the top, emphasized the necessity of acting quickly, harnessing innovation. And as for the future of sustainable cities, it lies in selling mayors on the value of design as an economic development strategy and hoping for a “global competition of who can be greener.” Citing cities that have followed New York’s example — including Los Angeles, Portland, Oregon and Mexico City — Sadik-Kahn’s new role is to export New York’s “new vocabulary,” as codified in the Urban Street Design Guide, worldwide.

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

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Thames barrier, London / The Greenwich Phantom

“Urban resilience can be defined as the capacity of the system of cities to survive, adapt, and grow no matter what acute shocks occur,” said Judith Rodin, president of The Rockefeller Foundation at the World Urban Forum in Medellin, Colombia. “There have always been shocks throughout history, but, today, they are different — with globalization, climate change, and the immense scale and pace of shocks.” Rodin said shocks are occurring in cities based in increasingly fragile ecosystems, which puts people at unprecedented risk.

On Medellin, which is increasingly viewed as a model of a sustainable city, Rodin said the city’s ability to innovate and incorporate new ideas about its infrastructure shows that it’s becoming a more resilient city. “Medellin was trapped in a cycle of violence and mass incarceration, but it had the capacity to think differently.” Medellin’s city leadership worked on connecting its poor, isolated communities through new transit, libraries, and parks, bringing them into the mainstream. She said this was critical because the poor and vulnerable are the ones who are always most impacted.

Perhaps Rodin’s central point was that “we can’t always predict or prevent catastrophes, but we can control the physical and spiritual damage. It’s not just about how a city operates on its best days, but whether it can operate on its worst.”

So how can cities become more resilient? They have to make “an up-front investment.” While those up-front investments in resilience can be expensive, they can create jobs and improve social cohesion. Improving resilience is not just a task for the public sector either. “Businesses have self interest in becoming involved, too.” Rodin pointed to a World Bank study that argued 25 percent of all businesses that fail after a major disruption don’t reopen.

New technology may also provide hope. “Look at the advances in 3D-printing, which enable us to print parts when distribution systems break down, or on-site manufacturing of emergency shelters.”

To bolster the ability of cities to adapt to changing circumstances, the Rockefeller Foundation announced it will dedicate $100 million to its new 100 Resilient Cities program. By increasing the focus on resilience among 100 world cities, the foundation hopes to create a market for resilient products and services, so more companies have an incentive to serve this market. Cities can use the foundation’s funds to find chief resilient officers, who will be charged with creating a city-wide resilience strategy.

Other global experts also weighed in on the move towards urban resilience. Katherine Vines, C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, which includes 40 of the 50 largest cities in the world, said mega-cities face a “huge job adapting to climate change, shocks, and chronic stresses.” A recent report by the group found that 82 percent of C40 cites are already dedicating staff and funds to urban resilience, including early warning systems and emergency preparedness, and green infrastructure systems, like green roofs and permeable pavements, in order to cool cities and deal with flooding.

As an example, she point to Rio de Janeiro, where Mayor Eduardo Paes is implementing a robust resilience strategy, with an emergency response center, long-term climate risk assessment, and actual construction work to improve slope support and drainage. And there’s also a real human component to the efforts: “Part of the emergency warning system will involve training local nurses.” Vines also mentioned an innovative new “rains app” from the city of Sao Paulo, which enables local residents to see their risk of summertime flooding in real time.

And then Stefan Denig, Siemens Sustainable City program, offered some scary data. Due to flooding in the 1950s, London spent $8 billion on its huge Thames barrier. Over the next few decades, London only had use the gates twice. However, in the past decade, the city had use the gates 40 times. It’s expected the city will soon need to use the gates up to 30 times per year.

While heavy infrastructure like London’s Thames barrier are critical, unfortunately, not all cities can afford the expense. Denig said Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam would need a 170-kilometer-long dam to really protect itself but “no one has the money for that,” so they have to use other approaches.

Resilience will then cost money, which is difficult given cities face so many competing demands for limited funds. What costs is creating redundant systems. For example, London’s subway, the tube, has its own power generation system in case the city’s system fails. “This is high cost and used rarely.”

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On the Benthemsquare in Rotterdam, Dutch landscape architecture firm De Urbanisten has finally achieved what they set out to do seven years ago: create a water park for the community fed entirely by storm water. Instead of hiding runoff in underground pipes and cisterns, the square has been designed to make water the main feature. The designers say this is the world’s first “water square.”


Watersquare Benthemplein / De Urbanisten

Storm water is channeled through stainless steel gutters into three basins. Two shallow ones collect water whenever it rains, while another deeper basin is reserved for overflows from heavier storms. To help people understand what will flood or not, everything that can flood is painted in shades of blue.


Watersquare Benthemplein / Millad Pallesh


Watersquare Benthemplein / Millad Pallesh

And all that transports water is shiny metal.


Watersquare Benthemplein / Millad Pallesh

In summer, if there is flooding, the main basin could become a pond. If it’s not gunked up with oily residue and leaves, perhaps kids will be playing there. In winter, maybe there’s ice-skating. At least, this is the vision of the designers and community. (Apparently, this is OK in Rotterdam, unlike in the U.S. where there would be lawsuits galore).

The designers came up with the concept in collaboration with students and teachers from Zadkine college and the Graphic Lyceum; members of the adjacent church, a nearby youth theater, and gym; and locals from the Agniese neighborhood of Rotterdam.

The say over the course of three public workshops, “we discussed possible uses, desired atmospheres, and how the storm water can influence the square. All agreed: the water square should be a dynamic place for young people, lots of space for play and lingering, but also have nice, green intimate places. And what about the water? This had to be excitingly visible while running over the square. Detours obligatory! The enthusiasm of the participants helped us to make a very positive design.”

The park doesn’t just work only when it’s raining. When it’s dry, the deep basin is a “true sports pit” as well as a sort of urban theater where people can see and be seen.


Watersquare Benthemplein / Ossip Van Duivenbode

De Urbanisten also interposes the basins and walkways with green infrastructure made up of trees, grasses, and flowers, all “self-irrigated.”


Watersquare Benthemplein / Millad Pallesh

See more images of Water Square and other water square concepts, and learn more about the innovative ways in which the Dutch manage water and create community assets.

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MoMA Sculpture Garden / Flickr – La Citta Vita

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

MoMA’s Proposal for Sculpture Garden Pleases and RilesThe New York Times, 2/4/14
“’It’s a ludicrous idea,’ said the landscape architect Michael R. Van Valkenburgh. ‘They fail to understand what’s brilliant about the garden and what makes it great — this cloistered isolation.’”

Green MachineThe Architect’s Newspaper, 2/11/14
“The 24,000-square-foot, $18 million plaza, which Diller, Scofidio + Renfro is planning with Oakland-based Hood Design Studio, will extend from Grand Avenue with a grove of 100-year-old Olive trees, interspersed with crushed stone paving, flowering groundcover, and tree stump tables.”

UK Floods Crisis: How Do You Stop Flooding?International Business Times, 2/11/14
“With areas of the UK experiencing the worst flooding in years, attention has been turned to how it can be prevented or alleviated.”

Is the MoMA Sculpture Garden Doomed?Architect, 2/12/14
“If MoMA throws open its garden, what could happen? How do stewards of cultural landscapes, whether an individual site (like the garden), a larger site (like New York’s High Line), or a much, much larger site (like the City of Savannah) manage the visitor experience, which ranges from restorative contemplation to active stimulation?”

Feature> City of Designerly LoveThe Architect’s Newspaper, 2/14/14
“It would be hard to imagine the city’s great landscaped thoroughfare, Benjamin Franklin Parkway, without the influence of Penn faculty, from Cret who helped design the boulevard to Venturi and Scott Brown and Olin.”

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

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How to Study Public Life / Island Press

“I graduated at the first worst point in city planning,” said Jan Gehl, the famed urban designer, at a crowd of hundreds at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. The 1960s were the era “when the architect was big and the city was small.” Eventually, Gehl, who is trained as an architect, saw the light. He married a psychologist, who asked him, “why do architects hate people so much?” He soon realized there was a great “void of knowledge” about how to create buildings and public spaces people actually want to inhabit. So for the past 40 years, Gehl has picked up where activist and author Jane Jacobs left off, and “studied the life of the city in the way same a traffic engineer studies the flow of traffic.” This Danish architect is now appropriately small and the city is big.

Gehl’s six books, many of which are viewed as seminal reads in urban design, have been translated into 28 languages. “They are even in Chinese,” he added, but considering many Chinese cities have not taken up his lessons about creating cities for people, “perhaps they haven’t had time to read them yet,” he laughed. He wasn’t singling out the Chinese for special criticism though. “It really took us about 50 years for the West to really read and absorb Jane Jacob’s messages.”

Two Destructive Paradigms

Over the past 50 years, we’ve had two major paradigms, said Gehl. While Modern city planning ideas were first conceived in the 1920s, with Le Corbusier and his “Contemporary City,” which would be filled with freeways and gargantuan skyscrapers, it wasn’t until the 1960s when they were first implemented. Then, “planners started laying out cities from the airplane.” They would go up in helicopters to “get the full site view.” Modern architects and landscape architects followed their lead, so no one “looked after the people scale anymore.” Gehl calls this the “Brasilia syndrome:” the “city looks fantastic from the air, but is shit on the ground.”


Brasilia Modernist City / Skyscraper City

Unfortunately, the Brasilia model has not breathed its last gasp yet. China is creating Brasilias everywhere. Dubai is creating “bird shit architecture, just a collection of funny buildings. They hope they can just plop these down and a city will form around them. This doesn’t happen.”


Dubai / Dubai Dhow blog

The other paradigm is the “car-centric city, or the car invasion.” People in cities have been pushed out in favor of creating an environment for cars. “This is a landscape of cheap gasoline.” This landscape almost took over lower Manhattan as Robert Moses sought to bulldoze Soho, the West Village, and parts of Chinatown to create huge freeway off-ramps and high-rises. Only Jacobs, with her “ceaseless” efforts, was able to stop him. She taught us that “if the Modernists and motorists dominated cities, they will become dead places.” She taught us “we must look at how people use cities to understand how to shape them.”

A New Paradigm

It was only taken us 50 years to process Jacob’s messages, but people now want “lively, attractive, safe, sustainable, healthy cities.” Through new research, “we now know the relative importance of rich public life, its value for democracy, public inclusion, and our happiness.” Successful cities are “people-oriented and smaller scale.” This is because “the greatest attraction of cities is other people.”

Cities where people can walk, bike, and use public transportation are better for people, too. “The cheap petroleum society has major health risks. Lack of daily physical exercise is worse than smoking.” Gehl’s goal is to “move people naturally through city design.” Investment in this design pays for itself: “We save on health costs.”

Gehl said Copenhagen, Denmark, has successfully moved from a “traffic place to a people place.” In the 1960s, the city took car traffic out of its main street. This effort coincided with the publication of Jacob’s book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Gehl said since then Copenhagen has “improved every day” — and continues to do so, with its new goal of becoming the best city in the world for people (and bicyclists) by 2025. The city is accomplishing this through “distinctly people-oriented policies” created by the city’s office of public life. Bicycling rates have doubled over 10 years, and now 37 percent commute to work every day by bike, in comparison with just 27 percent by car. In fact, the issue now is “serious congestion on bike lanes.”

Melbourne is another city that has thrown off the shackles of the car. “The city started out with traffic ridden streets.” The downtown was deemed the “donut” because there was nothing in the center. “It was a useless city center.” Now, there has been a “transformation, and it’s one of the nicest cities in Australia, Asia — even the world. It’s an Australian Paris.” Downtown, daytime foot traffic has increased 40 percent and nighttime traffic, 100 percent. There are now Copenhagen-style bike lanes, which use parked cars to protect bicyclists. Sydney has also become a better place for people, transforming itself with new bicycle infrastructure.


People-sized street in Melbourne / Buytaert

Amazingly, Moscow is also making great progress. After they hired Gehl Architects, they have made great gains in returning the sidewalks to the people, at least downtown. “We are trying to humanize the city in a place inundated with cars, where the car is king.” Gehl said post-communism, Muscovites felt it was their god-given right to drive and park anywhere. “For a few years, this worked OK and then it didn’t.” Now, Gehl laughed, “if you park your car in the wrong place, it will be sent to Siberia.” He said the “transformation has been a miracle. There are now routes for people, which were nonexistent before.”


Moscow pedestrians / Gehl Architects

In the U.S., New York City is doing the most to “discourage commuting by car and increasing the use of subway, biking, and walking to get around.” NYC has also put in “more bicycle lanes in five years than Copenhagen has in 50 years.” Closing Times Square to car traffic has been a “huge success,” and a “fantastic influence on other cities,” because “if you can make it in New York City, you can make it anywhere.” Gehl really hopes more pedestrian malls will open where there was gridlock across the U.S.


Times Square Pedestrian Plaza / Project for Public Spaces

Studying People in Cities

After the success of Cities of People, Gehl and co-author Birgitte Svarre just released How to Study Public Life, which outlines the “field of public life studies.” Here, Svarre took the stage and explained how the field came about. “People knew something was missing in the suburbs but they didn’t know what. They didn’t know how to grasp the issues. There would be greenery and air but no life. Researchers had to start from scratch and treat the city as a lab. They had to go out and learn how to really experience a place.”

Early on, Gehl would go sit in a well-loved square in Italy, spending the whole day studying how people used the space. He found that “people prefer to stand at the edges.” Using that lesson, she asked us to think of all those awkward public spaces that have no edges. Are they human scale?

Gehl and others’ research on public space sits on the shoulders of many others. “William Whyte, Clare Cooper Marcus, Donald Appleyard, Peter Bosselmann, Allan Jacobs, and Fred Kent all tried to figure out the tools for researching public space.” These researchers were part of various schools, which Svarre defined as the Berkeley, New York, or Copenhagen schools.

Svarre said “we know a lot today” because of these people, and their analytical methods still hold water. While new technologies and big data have increased the capacity to collect and analyze data, old-school “observational studies,” which are “cheap and easy to do,” are still important. “Otherwise, you just have lots of data, and then what do you do with that? You can’t replace being there, capturing the nuances.” Svarre said perhaps “we’ve gone from complex back to simple.”

Gehl made a point about how a simple observation can reveal much. When one woman who worked at the Danish embassy in Vietnam went to Copenhagen, she told Gehl, “wow, there are so many children.” Gehl was surprised she said that because Denmark is actually shrinking and can’t even maintain its own population. What this woman witnessed was that every parent who had a child brought them out “because it was safe for them to be out.” In contrast, in Vietnam, which actually has a baby boom, “it’s difficult to see children anywhere because it’s not safe for them in the traffic.”

Parents in Copenhagen actually get their children on bicycles as early as age four, letting them bike to school. Some 30 percent of families in the city also have “family bikes,” in which all the kids pile in. Gehl said “good, safe bike lanes were a condition for all of this.” Furthermore, this really shows that “if there are many children in the city, it’s a sign of a good quality of life and livability. Same with older people and the handicapped.”


Danish bicyclist with kids / The Times (UK)

Read Gehl and Svarre’s latest book, How to Study Public Life, and check out an interview with Gehl.

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Transects, University of Pennsylvania

Transects: 100 Years of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning at the School of Design of the University of Pennsylvania by Richard Weller and Meghan Talarowski, Associate ASLA, celebrates the transect of time: 100 years of people, events and ideas that have shaped the department. What began as a series of lectures in 1914 on landscape design by George Burnap, landscape architect for the United State Capitol, has grown into an internationally-renowned design program. Recognized in 2010 at the Barcelona Biennial as the best landscape program in the world, the department today hosts a diverse collective of practitioners and students from all over the world dedicated to investigating the implications of a rapidly developing world.


Off the Reservation: A Seed for Change / Meghan Storm (2012)

Transects follows a narrative and illustrative timeline of the program’s development. A striking theme emerges: the continuous effort to remain creative, experimental, fluid and competitive while establishing a critical design dialogue across the international community. Robert Wheelright, a founding member of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), established the first official landscape degree program at Penn in 1924. He acknowledged “the complexity of the problems which the landscape architect is called upon to solve”, involving a knowledge of engineering, architecture, soils, plant materials, ecology, etc., combined with aesthetic appreciation.”


A country estate by L.B. Ambler, Jr. (1931) / University of Pennsylvania Bulletin

Ian McHarg, who became chair in 1957, left an indelible mark on the program and the profession when he broadened the department’s scope to include a regional planning component. McHarg emphasized the need to address environmental concerns within large-scale planning projects using practices beyond the bounds of traditional landscape architecture and urban planning. His interest in mapping, layering, and analyzing features such as geology, hydrology, and land form produced decades of research studies and design projects. His belief in the responsible stewardship of nature, outlined in his seminal work, Design with Nature, remains the profession’s raison d’etre. In 1990, he became the first landscape architect to receive the National Medal of Arts.


The Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania. (Col. 122).

Since McHarg enacted that major shift, the program has expanded to explore new directions in urbanism, infrastructure, cartography, representation, theory and process. Over the past decade, the focus has increasingly become urban design in the global community. As chair, James Corner, ASLA, emphasized the importance of training students such that they “could work not only with traditional forms of landscape and public space, but also become sufficiently competent to help orchestrate the complex ecologies of the city, including built form and infrastructure.” Students participate in real world studios in both the greater Philadelphia region as well as around the world in places like Brazil, Morocco, and Singapore. They analyze the ecological as well as the cultural, political, and economic systems impacting these sites.


Tempelhof Wasserpark / Johanna Barthmaier (2011)

Today the program appears poised to undertake bold new tasks. Richard Weller became chair this past year, inheriting 100 years of design innovation. Under his direction, the department is building a research platform to apply design intelligence to landscapes of critical biodiversity, which are under pressure from rapid urbanization. Weller envisions landscape architects, armed with “the skills of the planner, the politician and the artist,” leading the process by which nations can reach the goals of the United Nation’s Convention on Biological Diversity. He shares the following hope: “McHarg called it stewardship, but the world should come to know it as simply landscape architecture.” The transect continues.

Read the book.

This guest post is by Shannon Leahy, Master’s of Landscape Architecture graduate, University of Pennsylvania, and former ASLA summer intern.

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Study area for The Vortex competition, UVA. Charlottesville US 29 corridor / Charlottesville Tomorrow.org

This winter at the University of Virginia School of Architecture, graduate and undergraduate students from each of the school’s four disciplines — Landscape Architecture, Architecture, Urban and Environmental Planning, and Architectural History — participated in the invigorating third annual all-school design competition, appropriately named “The Vortex.” The event provides students exposure to design competitions, fosters interdisciplinary collaboration, and engages the local community in high-stakes urban design projects.

In previous years, the Vortex focused on large-scale landscape and infrastructure issues, including bridging connections to the local Belmont neighborhood and re-imagining the link between Downtown Charlottesville and the Rivanna River. This year, students re-imagined Charlottesville’s US Route 29 corridor, the main transportation artery bisecting the city and providing an economic locus. This ten-mile commercial corridor, which connects Charlottesville to its airport and major metropolitan areas beyond, is also the source of a host of traffic, safety, and development problems.

While 29 has been the topic of debate among Charlottesville and Albemarle County government entities for decades, its future remains unknown. Students were challenged to envision US 29 not as a place for automobiles traveling at 45 miles per hour, but for pedestrians walking at 2 miles per hour. As opposed to focusing solely on the ease of the commuter, the teams considered a more intelligent road design that accommodated alternative modes of transportation, such as walking, biking, and public transportation.

Each year the Vortex competition invites a renowned designer to partake in the event and lead project critiques. This year’s invited guest was Xaveer de Geyter, founding principal of Belgian firm XDGA, a landscape and urban design practice in Europe. De Geyter’s lecture on the first day of the competition provided a framework for the event, encouraging students to consider issues of density, mixed-use, architecture, public space, time and transportation. De Geyter’s book, After-Sprawl: Research on the Contemporary City, and much of his design work “analyze how urban sprawl is growing throughout Western Europe, creating a diffuse urbanization confronted to the compact urban tradition of the old continent.” He said: “I am very much interested in not so much how architecture or urbanism should be but to have a very good look at what exists,” said De Geyter.

To kick-off the event, a panel of officials from local news, government, environmental and economic development agencies discussed the corridor – its history, challenges, and opportunities.

Some of the questions that emerged from this conversation that guided students’ thinking included: How does a city grow without compromising qualities of life aspects of preservation and evolution? How can the corridor serve as both a commercial boulevard and a U.S. highway? What type and degree of density is necessary along the corridor? What design will allow for connectivity both across and along the corridor, and how can it accommodate multi-modal transportation? How does one minimize negative environmental impacts?

Students were encouraged not to feel constrained by realistic limitations of the project, but instead to explore all possibilities. “They won’t come to pass exactly as you play them out, but you’re pushing the envelope,” said Neil Williamson, president of the Free Enterprise Forum, a nonprofit organization that analyzes local government policy and monitors more than 100 boards and commissions in Central Virginia.

Following this introduction, approximately three hundred students and faculty members strapped in neon yellow construction vests went on a five-mile excursion along the entire corridor. Accompanied by police escorts and the local press, including NBC 29 and The Daily Progress, the journey began at the intersection of Emmett Street and Ivy Road and concluded at the bridge where the Rivanna River crosses under US 29.



Students and faculty walk the project’s entire 5 mile stretch / Sanjay Suchak

Following the walk, students broke into teams and launched into an energetic week of collaborative design. The school’s intensive competition culminated in a public presentation of each team’s vision for US 29 in Charlottesville’s Carver Recreation Center. Students presented their boards and models to de Geyter, the architecture school faculty, fellow students, and the public.


Student teams collaborating on their design proposals / UVA


Students present their work to the public / Charlottesville Tomorrow

The winner of both the student and public awards was the project entitled “Resi[dense]city.” The proposal focused on “housing density, efficient transportation, economic growth, and interactive culture,” which intended to create “dense, mixed-use communities at nodes along US 29.” The team sought “to stitch together the corridor that currently acts as a boundary, rather than a means of connection.”


Resi[dense] City / Silvia Stefi – Student

The group that took home the competition’s biggest prize, the Xaveer de Geyter Award, as well as the faculty award, was called “Generative Urbanism.” The design focused on re-imagining US 29 “as the generator, pipeline, and lifeblood of the Charlottesville and Central Virginia region” that uses a “light rail system at current grade, maximizing spatial, visual, and auditory comfort for the pedestrian.” The design aimed to “create a central core that harnesses wind, solar, water, geothermal and kinetic energy.”


Generative Urbanism / Chad Miller

All told, the Vortex competition helped to catalyze conversation and re-invigorate creative thinking among the students and entire community around the exciting potential of this corridor in Charlottesville.

This guest post by Chad Miller and Matt Scarnaty, Master’s of Landscape Architecture Candidates, University of Virginia

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Place Schuman / XDGA

The University of Virginia (UVA) School of Architecture kicked off its third annual all-school design workshop with a lecture by visiting critic Xaveer de Geyter, founding principal of Brussels-based practice XDGA urban design and landscape architecture. De Geyter acted as a critic for 300 undergraduate and graduate students throughout the week of “The Vortex” competition, titled “Route 29: After the Sprawl.” His presentation revealed a methodological approach to design in the public realm. “We make no difference between architecture and urbanism,” the architect explained. “For us, they are not two different disciplines. Both are about dealing with different scales at the same time.”

Speaking to an audience about to embark on a week-long charrette, de Geyter brought with him an expertise in competitions. His office submits entries for about ten a year. “When we are lucky, we win two of them,” he said. In Europe, the best way to access large-scale urban projects is through competitions, a system imposed by the European Union and used by public officials when they are seeking answers to problems in the urban realm. De Geyter estimated that most of these projects take ten years from competition to completion. “So competitions do not solve everything,” he joked.

De Geyter worked with Rem Koolhaus at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) for ten years in the 1980s and 1990s. He began his own firm in 1988, and in 2002, published the book After Sprawl: Research on the Contemporary City, an atlas of six European urban networks.

He began his lecture with the topic of “underground.”

He said some people view his firm’s interest in the subterranean as a “fetish.” “For us it is really a contemporary aspect of the city,” he explained. Many of XDGA’s projects fill in the missing link “between traditional urban space and a complex underground network.

The relationship between below and above ground was highlighted through a spectrum of projects. One such design, won through competition and currently in construction, with landscape design by Michel Desvigne Paysagiste, is the Place Rogier on the Boulevard Botanique in Brussels.


Place Rogier / XDGA

XDGA envisioned the square as more than a “knot of transport” where metro and bus lines came together. By proposing vertical movement where there was horizontal movement, the firm created, in essence, “an underground building.” XDGA gave the street a new identity by crowning this new structure with a massive canopy patterned with perforated triangles.


Place Rogier / XDGA

Place Rogier is an example of the opportunities for design in Brussels, which de Geyter refers to as “a fantastic landscape to work in” compared to “perfect cities like Paris, where everything was defined a few centuries ago.” He characterized Brussels as “half destroyed” in the early 1960s, when modernistic interventions and infrastructure interrupted the coherence of the pre-existing urban fabric. Now, a tension exists where the conglomerate of urban parts meet, bringing what he finds to be “a very interesting energy to the city.”

De Geyter discussed a 2003 competition entry for Les Halles, a transit station on the Parisian periphery, in collaboration with OMA, One Architects, and landscape architecture firm Agence Ter. Paris, he said, is only able to exist through it periphery, where 80 percent of its people live. This ring around the city also allows inner Paris to maintain its glamor. Les Halles used to be the belly of the city, the place of slaughterhouses, until their removal in the 1960s. As it exists today, the web of infrastructure is disjointed from the “boring green space” on its surface.

The design team proposed a new city gate and modern form for the area, where one million people pass through daily. The project restructured the underground as well as the new landscape and proposed replacing the underutilized park with circles of programmed spaces that vary in climates and atmospheres.


Les Halles / OMA, XDGA, One

New buildings were interspersed among these public spaces.


Les Halles / OMA, XDGA

Lastly, XDGA won first prize in 2011 for their entry in a competition for Place Schuman in Brussels, proposing an iconic public square that de Geyter compared to the National Mall in Washington D.C. Currently a roundabout that welcomes daily car traffic from the eastern part of Belgium, Schuman is on the Rue de la Loi, an axis installed by Belgian King Leopold II (a “very good urbanist,” noted de Geyter), along which institutions of Belgian and European political power have settled.


Place Schuman / XDGA

The competition called for new entrances to a proposed train station. An earlier concept envisioned the entrance to be a large glass box standing in the axis of the street. In contrast, XDGA proposed a strong symbolic representation of a European civic democracy — a “real public space.” It’s an open shell, an amphitheater whose lifted edges allow for people to flow into the transportation network below. The underside also gives room for small shops and a bicycle station.


Place Schuman / XDGA

The design respects the integrity of the axis, framing the arch at the entrance to the Park Jubilee, a few blocks away. Desvigne served as the project’s landscape architect. They helped create a place for all scales of public events, meeting, debate and demonstration.

Throughout the lecture, de Geyter presented XDGA’s projects very clearly and logically, from context, concept, and then design. This highly rational approach prompted an audience member to ask, “When does the beauty appear?”

“It is difficult to talk about what you find beautiful,” the architect responded. “In our case, beauty comes more from an in-depth analysis of the layers of relationships that exist. But, at the same time, I have to contradict myself, because we are really convinced that a project should not just be the fruit of this kind of work. It has to be something that survives if you take all of this analysis and knowledge away.”

Katherine Cannella, Student ASLA, is a Master of Landscape Architecture candidate at the University of Virginia.

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Meet the Pioneers of Sustainable DesignForbes, 1/16/14
“In an in-depth interview with Douglas Smith, President of EDSA, a landscape architecture and urban design firm, we discussed their efforts for more than 50 years to create sustainable places to live, work, learn and play.”

If You Build It, She Will ComeThe Huffington Post Blog, 1/21/14
“Wilkus knows something about working with guys. As the founding principal of SiteWorks, a landscape architecture firm, she works in a testosterone-dominated field. She often walks into meetings of 20 people, she says, and is the only female present.”

A Life-saving Proposal for San Francisco’s SidewalksThe Architect’s Newspaper, 1/22/14
“Can better design save lives? That question is at the center of a proposal by Ogrydziak Prillinger Architects (OPA) to transform crosswalks along San Francisco’s Divisadero Street. The project, Sous Les Paves, originated in a GOOD design challenge by the Center for Architecture and Design. With help from AIA San Francisco, OPA partnered with local advocacy organization Walk San Francisco in a bid to improve pedestrian safety at street crossings.”

The Landscape Architecture Legacy of Dan Kiley Dexigner, 1/24/14
“The Landscape Architecture Legacy of Dan Kiley, on view at the National Building Museum from February 8 through May 18, 2014, will showcase a selection of newly commissioned photographs of projects by Dan Kiley, one of the most important and influential Modernist landscape architects of the 20th century.”

Best of Design Awards > LandscapeThe Architect’s Newspaper, 1/24/14
“On December 6, in New York City, six jurors convened to parse the merits of the more than 250 projects submitted to AN’s first annual Best of Design Awards.”

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

Image credit: Hunter’s Point South Waterfront Park by Thomas Balsley Associates and WeissManfredi / Albert Vecerka / Esto

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John Bela, ASLA, is a founding principal at Rebar. He is an urban designer and landscape architect focused on public space design. As Rebar, Bela created Park(ing) Day, The Panhandle Bandshell, The Civic Center Victory Garden, Parkcycle Swarm, and other projects. Bela teaches at the California College of Arts in San Francisco and University of California, Berkeley. This interview was conducted at the 2013 ASLA Annual Meeting in Boston

What is the adaptive metropolis, the title of a conference you recently co-curated at UC Berkeley? Does this already exist, or is this an ideal to aspire to?

It’s an ideal to aspire to. The conference, which is organized by UC Berkeley and Rebar, looked at emerging practices in built environment disciplines, such as open source design and public participation, new tools and instruments, new design approaches for flexible urbanism, and then some new ways of funding urban change such as crowdsourcing and crowd equity. We explored these emerging phenomena and then evaluated them according to a set of values we share with a lot of people in the built environment professions, such as livability, resilience, and social justice, social equity.

We ended up creating more questions than answers, but it’s the beginning of a dialogue. We’re carrying that dialogue forward with a new adaptive metropolis alliance, basically an association of practitioners who are doing this kind of work. We will continue the conversation in a more focused way with a series of salons and other events.

What is user-generated urbanism? How is this different from tactical urbanism and other buzzwords that have been floating out there? Can you provide some examples?

Tactical urbanism, DIY urbanism. There are a lot of buzzwords floating around out there. We came up with the term user-generated urbanism to capture the change happening in the built environment professions. In the same way that media and communication technologies have radically altered many industries, we feel like that same kind of change is occurring in planning and design, where the role of a designer is shifting from one who delivers the design products or services to one who’s more creating a platform, in some cases, for participation. The traditional authority of the designer has been deposed. Basically, the designer’s role is shifting to be one of a teacher, or cultivating platforms for participation. User-generated urbanism describes the synthesis of top-down and bottom-up practices engaged synergistically to cultivate greater participation. This synthesis help us achieve the goals we outline with the adaptive metropolis of resilience and social justice.

In 2005, you and your design partners designed to turn a parking space into a park for the day, launching Park(ing) Day, which nearly 10 years later is now a global movement. Amazingly, more than 1,000 parking spaces were transformed for Park(ing) Day just this year. Why do you think this idea spread? Has it translated into real changes in how cities address streets and public spaces?

The idea spread through the anachronism of the how-to manual we created for parking, which was a guerrilla art installation which enabled a one-off two hour design intervention. This one-off urban intervention became a global public participatory art and design project. This how-to manual, which is an example of open-source design, enabled the transformation from one-off thing into a meme. We intentionally created the code so anybody on the planet who has metered parking spaces can create one. Anyone can take the seed of the idea we created in San Francisco and recreate it in their own environment for their own purposes, their own values, their own kind of social and political agendas. It’s an interesting example of open source design.

We have attempted to guide or control the growth of the movement to avoid its over-commercialization. We have attempted to make it free, make it an act of generosity, as much as it has been about design firms or other businesses promoting their own business. There’s a fundamental value about making Park(ing) Day an act of human generosity. You’re setting up something for others to enjoy for free. That’s the ethos of the piece.

Has it translated into real changes in how cities address streets in public space? I think so. Park(ing) Day and other projects like that are examples of participatory design, what we call user-generated urbanism or tactual urbanism. Over the past decade, it has been fascinating to witness these projects being created and produced by not only artists and design activists, but now major city governments and planning entities in both the public and private sector around the world under the rubric of pilots and trials. The idea of a temporary urban intervention as a way to catalyze change and demonstrate new possibilities has really matured. It’s now being used again across many sectors, translating into real changes. In San Francisco, Park(ing) Day have now been absorbed into public policy framework, what’s called the Pavement to Parks program, run by the San Francisco Planning Department, and the creation of the Parklet Program.

You were involved in some of the first parklets in San Francisco with your modular Walket system. You’ve said these are a cost-effective way of creating public space for cash-strapped cities. However, I’ve talked with some people who are concerned that the temporary nature of these parklets could undermine investment in long-term parks and plazas. Do you think there’s a real trade-off?

Yes, that’s a problem. If you look at a traditional sidewalk widening project in many cities, that’s a multimillion dollar, multi-year project. It results in a well-built, generous investment. It represents a generous investment in the civic realm, and investment in infrastructure of the U.S. We don’t have the same set of values around creating public and civic spaces as other kind of industrialized nations do. We’ve fallen behind in terms of investing in our public realm.

Tactical urbanism projects in the U.S. are an effort to improve the public realm through public participation. I agree that temporary is not always a great replacement for greater investment in public space, in the civic resources of cities. However, the parklet program is different from a more traditional sidewalk widening program. Parklets can created highly-nuanced city-scapes. They really do an interesting job of representing the values, interests, and aesthetic sensibilities of the project sponsors. They lend this kind of richness, an informality to places, in a way that top-down city-led projects don’t.

You’re mobile parklet concept, Parkcycle, fascinated me. I love the idea of swarms of parks forming and reforming where needed. Was this just an idea, a concept to illustrate some sort of future? Or could you see Parkcycle actually being used? What was your motivation?

We actually created them. I collaborated with a group in Copenhagen called N55 and we actually built Parkcycle Swarm. We shipped it to Baku, Azerbaijan, in the context of a public art installation. We literally pedaled around these four mobile public parks and created a pedal-powered open source distribution system. The idea is you can deliver open space anywhere, when and where it’s needed. Multiple users could could come together to create their own mini parks working together, aggregating together to form a larger open space. It’s conceptual, but it’s actually taken form with this Parkcycle Swarm.

It’s fun, playful idea. It’s also about demonstrating new possibilities for landscape in terms of mobility, flexibility, and adaptation. I don’t know exactly where it’s going to lead. It’s certainly not a replacement for other investments in public space, but it adds a new dimension which is flexible, playful, and fun.

You’re are doing some interesting work on the East Coast with streetscape and public realm design guidelines for a 20 year revitalization effort in D.C.’s capitol riverfront area. How does this project reflect your ideas on the adaptive metropolis and user-generated urbanism?

We were brought onto a team led by AECOM to do the streetscape and public realm guidelines. Our role was to develop an early activation plan. In the case of many larger-scale developments, there’s a 10, 20, or 30 year time frame. There’s an increasing desire to take advantage of temporarily vacant spaces to insert new programs, to test spatial ideas, and to fulfill some unmet needs in the community prior to the full build-out of the project.

The old approach was a project is complete when the last brick of the final streetscape or building is complete. The new approach is more iterative, where you test ideas and use temporary programs to inform your longer term strategic thinking. Increasingly, this is an approach that’s being used in both the public and private sector under the rubric of early activation, or phase-zero projects, or what we sometimes call interim use and cultural activation. It’s a way of changing the way that people perceive a place prior to brick and mortar construction.

Lastly, please tell me about some other projects you aren’t working on but think are intriguing or inspiring. What projects excite you these days?

At the ASLA Annual Meeting, I went to a talk by Kate Orff, ASLA, at SCAPE Studio. I was surprised to hear how she is adopting some of the approaches we have at Rebar in terms of creating open source platforms for participation. Where our work diverted — and what I found extraordinarily interesting — was with her approach to the idea of distributed infrastructure and ecological infrastructure. She is exploring how we are going to solve the pressing environmental crises facing the globe today. Is it going to be through government-led top-down initiatives, or is there a role for user-generated or community-generated projects? Kate Orff’s work represented soft infrastructure versus hard infrastructure. She’s exploring how smaller groups and community members in partnership with government can solve really pressing problems, which is a different way of thinking in comparison with 20 or 30 years ago.

I’m really interested in work I’ve seen in Europe recently, especially the Urban Play Project in Koge, which is southeast of Copenhagen. There, a real estate developer has formed partnership with the small town of Koge. They’re testing the idea of culture as a driver of development.

Some of the most radical work in urban planning today is where people are literally abandoning the idea of a master plan and looking at other approaches that are more participatory, inclusive, and iterative. These experiments acknowledge that circumstances change over time. You can’t always predict what a site, or a community, or an environment is going to look and feel like, what its needs will be 20 years from now. There’s this urge to build in adaptive capacity. That’s what we mean by the adaptive metropolis.

Image credits: (1) John Bela / Rebar, (2) Park(ing) Day / Rebar, (3-4) Walket system in San Francisco / Rebar, (5) Parkcycle Swarm in Baku / Rebar, (6) Parkcycle swarm in San Francisco / Rebar, (7) Parkcycle Swarm meets Parklet / Rebar

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