Archive for the ‘Climate Change’ Category


Dry river bed. Darcha, India / Wikipedia

In the second in a series of new reports, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said the impacts of climate change are already being felt in every continent and every ocean, and the effects will only worsen as greenhouse gas emissions enter the atmosphere at an accelerated rate. Also, while some countries have started adaptation planning in earnest, the world, according to a global coalition of scientists, is largely “ill-prepared for risks from a changing climate.” The 300 scientists from 70 countries who wrote the report were assisted by 430-plus contributing authors and another 1,700 expert reviewers.

The report, Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, outlines the impacts of climate change thus far, the future risks, and opportunities to reduce those risks. The report focuses in on the “vulnerable people, industries, and ecosystems around the world.”

According to The New York Times, the report itemizes immense environmental change: “ice caps are melting, sea ice in the Arctic is collapsing, water supplies are coming under stress, heat waves and heavy rains are intensifying, coral reefs are dying, and fish and many other creatures are migrating toward the poles or in some cases going extinct.” And it emphasizes that these changes are happening now. For example, in the American West, mountain snowpack is declining, threatening drinking water supplies. And coastal erosion due is increasingly widespread.

Environmental changes will have a certain impact on people. Communities everywhere are vulnerable but often for different reasons. “Climate change often interacts with other stresses to increase risk.”

According to the report’s scientists, climate change is now affecting “agriculture and people’s livelihoods.” For example, a coastal community may not only face sea level rise but their fishing-based economy will see dramatically decreased yields with ocean acidification. Inland tropical communities not only face increased heat and reduced water supplies, but food production will become more challenging.

Across the board, the report states that in the coming decades, “climate-change impacts are projected to slow down economic growth, make poverty reduction more difficult, further erode food security, and prolong existing and create new poverty traps, the latter particularly in urban areas and emerging hotspots of hunger.”

But it may not be all doom and gloom, at least for those communities with enough money to adapt. Chris Field, Carnegie Institute for Science and co-chair of the report, said: “We definitely face challenges, but understanding those challenges and tackling them creatively can make climate-change adaptation an important way to help build a more vibrant world in the near-term and beyond.”

The report found that an increasing number of governments and major corporations are initiating far-reaching adaptation adaptation plans. As an example, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) will spend $2 billion on its Rebuild by Design program. And coastal cities like New York are taking a hard look at their infrastructure. The New York Times reports that Consolidated Edison, the power utility in NY, will spend $1 billion to storm-proof its systems.

While wealthier countries have opportunities to adapt, poorer ones may not. The World Bank estimates that developing countries need $100 billion in assistance from wealthier ones to better bear the brunt of the effects. Climate change could create massive food insecurity, increasing hunger in places already vulnerable to food shortages.

Further explore the key findings through these useful infographics. The third in the series of reports will be released in April, with the final synthesis report in October 2014.

Also, see new web-based resources recently released by the Obama administration, including a set of apps to help U.S. communities adapt, as well as new tools from the World Bank for developing countries.

Read Full Post »

Climate change will have an impact on our urban forests. The change in temperature and precipitation will shift the suitable habitat for virtually all tree species. Using West Philadelphia as a lens to examine these changes, this video not only explores the impacts of climate change but also how we can adapt the urban forest to the coming challenges.

During my three years studying landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, hardly anyone was interested in discussing climate change. Most people tuned out when I brought it up. I think it’s the issue of our time. In fact, it’s a big part of the reason I decided to study landscape architecture after the bottom fell out of professional photography market in 2008.

Someone I talked to recently compared being a landscape architect now to being an engineer at NASA in the ’60′s. And I agree, it’s the chance to work to solve one of the great challenges of our time. There is an unprecedented opportunity to have a real impact on cities of the 21st century and beyond.

Hurricane Sandy, sadly, changed the game. I lived in NYC for eight years before graduate school and when I told acquaintances that I was going to study landscape architecture, no one cared. I stopped in New York after the ASLA Annual Meeting in Boston last November and when I mentioned that my degree was in landscape architecture, everyone was all of sudden interested. Literally, some of the same people three years before who couldn’t be bothered, visibly showed interest and asked questions. Hurricane Sandy shattered New Yorkers’ comprehension of reality.

Unfortunately, most landscape architects have failed to realize the sheer potential of the situation. But that does not excuse us from being leaders and bringing our talents and skill sets to bear on the problem. Ignoring the problem will not make it go away, as much as I have wanted that at different points in my life.

One of my goals for this video was to bring climate change action down to a much more localized and manageable level. Part of the problem is the issues are so large and beyond human comprehension that it’s almost impossible to think about how one person can do anything. I intentionally avoid grand solutions and instead proffer ideas, like planting adapted trees today. These are things any concerned citizen can do.

We need to start connecting the ideas and possible solutions of climate change from the stratosphere to the ground of everyday existence.

This guest post op-ed is by Barrett Doherty, a recent Master’s of landscape architecture graduate, University of Pennsylvania, and professional photographer.

Read Full Post »


Indian woman cooks with efficient cook stove / Global Education

Terry Tamminen, CEO of 7th Generation advisors, polled about two thousand climate scientists at the National Council on Science and the Environment (NCSE) in Washington, D.C., asking them to raise their hands if they were optimistic or negative about the prospects of our ability to halt climate change. The optimists won, but only very slightly. In a session that explored the reasons for optimism, experts from the government, non-profit, and private sectors discussed some positive developments in the global fight against climate change.

Clay Nesler, Johnson Controls International, said one lesson learned from the recent meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, was that all the world’s business leaders “want to do something about climate change.” They are looking for “new innovations in business models, financing. It’s not just about technology.”

Under President Obama’s leadership, the U.S. federal government is “beginning to up its game,” said Nesler, but city governments are further out ahead still. The positive involvement of the government at all levels is critical because they “set the standards and create demand.” Nesler gave a shout-out to Boston’s government for its ground-breaking building performance disclosure program. Now, Boston’s large and medium buildings must make annual reports of their water and energy usage. He said it’s crazy that people “buy buildings without knowing whether they are efficient or not.” This is a prime example of an “innovative policy” needed to move the private sector to action.

“In the early 2000s, I was almost fired for talking about climate change,” said Dr. Richard Jackson, speaking of his days as director of environmental health at the Centers for Disease Control. Jackson, who is now a professor at University of California Los Angeles, said things have changed since then, given health advocates are increasingly leading the charge on climate action.

As an example, he pointed to California’s climate legislation (AB 32), and how the efforts to overturn it (Prop 23) were in turn defeated in part through the involvement of the medical and public health communities. “There was a huge shift in public opinion against Prop 23 as the health community pointed out the negative air impacts of climate change. CO2 is really another form of air pollution.” He said, everyone, including poor voters, were more “worried about their future health,” than any of the supposed negative economic impacts of the bill. Now that the climate legislation is law in California, Jackson said some 25 percent of the revenue earned from its cap and trade system is going to poor communities. “They bear the biggest burden of climate impacts.” The lesson: in the broader debate about climate change, “we really need health people stepping up.”

Boston is successfully acting on climate change because its better communicating the dangers, said Brian Swett, chief environment officer, City of Boston. “We are translating science speak into sidewalk speak to drive behavioral change.” For example, he said “natural hazard preparedness” works much better when communicating with the lay person than “climate change adaptation.”

The city is starting to measure how much carbon it puts out through its innovative building performance disclosure program. “We’re making the system competitive. People keep score.” The city is taking all this performance data and doing something about it, too. It’s now partnering with private sector developers to implement measures that will cut emissions by 25 percent by 2020. He said this first 25 percent cut in emissions is relatively easy to achieve in a “top-down” fashion, but the next leg, reducing emissions by 80 percent by 2050, will only be achieved through “bottom-up behavioral change.” The city plans a new awareness campaign to seed the ground-up efforts.

Lastly, a perspective from the developing world: “South Asia is a recipient of climate change created elsewhere,” said Priya Shyamsundar, South Asian Network for Development and Environmental Economics, but, increasingly, the area is also a contributor. She said there are solutions to climate change in place like India, but they are complex — and must integrate adaptation with mitigation. She said studying the behavior of locals is important when examining global efforts to limit climate change. For example, while the United Nations’s REDD program, which pays money to developing countries to leave trees standing, is a global mechanism, its success is dependent on how it interacts with local communities. We are now studying “what communities will give up to keep their forests. We are piloting, learning by doing.”

She also pointed to global efforts to reduce the use of wood-burning cook stoves, which create black carbon and kill millions of women and children each year by dirtying indoor air. Her organization is challenging ingrained local behavior that prevents the uptake of healthier filters and more efficient stoves. “Why are these filters not accepted?” She said one has to look at a woman’s power in a family. If it’s low, she is less likely to get a filter. She said studies of behavior can lead to more effective messaging, and perhaps lead to broader societal change, like the amazing growth of cell phone use by poor farmers, who can now get text updates of weather data.

Read Full Post »


Darmstadt – Kranichstein Passive House, Germany / International Passivehaustagung

At a conference organized by the National Council on Science and the Environment (NCSE) in Washington, D.C., Diana Ürge-Vorsatz, director of the Center for Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Policy at Central European University, said “spreading today’s best building practices could hold energy costs steady,” but the big question is “how to get the public and private sectors to work together to make transformational change.” That was one of the key takeaways in a session moderated by The New York TimesAndrew Revkin.

Here are some more problems limiting action on climate change, and the transformational solutions needed to solve them:

The problems

David Hales, president of Second Nature, thought “higher education should be leveraged to promote the transition to a sustainable society.” However, “all educational institutions think they are eternal and plan to be around forever.” Hales noted that “we’re not prepared to deal with the gap between aspiring for eternal existence and living in our future climate.” Plus, most university endowments don’t take materials’ effect on the environment into consideration. About “seven percent of endowments are invested in fossil fuels.”

Robert Dixon, vice president at Siemens Infrastructure and Cities, worried that “our decision-making methodology is broken.” Thinking about the life of a building tends to be short term rather than long-term, considering the building’s entire life cycle.

Jennifer Jurado, director of the Natural Resources Planning and Management Division, Broward County, Florida, noted that in southeast Florida, “water is recognized as a vulnerability, impacting now just coastal communities but inward ones as well.” Measures are not in place within the water system to deal with the massive flooding associated with storm events.

Also, boosting renewable energy is challenging, with “very few incentives for anyone to do anything.” She said “our energy prices are already very low.” Accordingly, the risk in renewable energy is transferred to the individual.

According to Ürge-Vorsatz, “there is a way to get more energy wisdom.” She provided a European perspective, with “systemic approaches to energy waste.” A “transformational change in the building sector gives us tremendous opportunities. It’s good for everyone.” She noted that “we know how to build and retrofit buildings that use one tenth of energy, get rid of allergens, and are more comfortable, but a lot of people don’t believe this.” Incremental change, for instance replacing a roof or light bulbs, is “doing more harm than good,” given “systemic deep retrofits are more cost effective.”

Anthony Michaels, co-founder and managing director of Proteus Environmental Technologies and chief scientist at Pegasus Capital Advisors, said “you can make money reducing emissions. Why aren’t companies doing this?” He asked us to think about material waste. We “haul oil out of the ground, pour our ingenuity to turn it into products that end up in the dump and don’t commingle.”

Some solutions

Is the academic side too slow? “Yes and no,” said Hales. “What colleges and universities have done well is to grab the low-hanging fruit, but they haven’t looked systemically at how to produce change.” He urged “starting with research and refocusing the mission of higher education on this critical issue of the twenty-first century.”

Dixon called for a push to build awareness of the environmental return on investment. “Building owners have a choice, and there’s no imperative to do anything.” The “real challenge is economics—a new roof will take 50 years to pay back.”

“Europe has a very different approach to regulations,” said Ürge-Vorsatz, who cited their quite strong legislation and strict building performance standards. “I do see tremendous behavioral changes in Europe”—for instance, “one third of people commute by bicycle”—but “there is still a tremendous educational need.” She saw a need to be “more innovative with business models,” really educating business leaders to use economic models that capture long-term interest.

Finally, Jurado saw “the consequences of elected officials always dealing with post-event effects rather than the long term.” She observed that “local communities have a greater understanding of sea level rise, but this conversation isn’t happening at the state level.” She described a 2009 partnership between several counties in southeast Florida, including Broward, that resulted in “uniform planning tools and sea level planning projections being formally integrated” into local government.

This guest post is by Karen Grajales, ASLA Public Relations Manager.

Read Full Post »


Drought in American farmlands / News3 New Zealand

In the past year, the world has seen more heat waves, droughts, and sea level rise than before — and conditions are expected to further worsen in the near future. In a session at a conference by the National Council on Science and the Environment (NCSE) in Washington, D.C., experts debated the types — and extent — of major challenges that will test the global community in coming decades.

For Molly Brown, research scientist, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, the big issue will be food security. She is examining satellite imagery, connecting climatic change to food prices. Through this analysis, NASA has found “the relationship is very complex,” but it’s clear that weather is “very important in agricultural areas.” She cautioned that “food security can become a problem in places you can’t see.” For example, a community may import produce from 50-100 miles away, so any impacts in adjacent agricultural areas will be felt in the community as well.

Edward Maibach, director, center for climate communications, George Mason University, worries that “people see climate change as a threat to the environment — penguins and polar bears — as opposed to a threat to themselves.” His group conducts annual interviews with thousands of Americans. These have shown that “people don’t understand the implications for humanity; they don’t see the coming food issues.” Among the 18,000 people last interviewed, Maibach said no one talked about the “human health implications of climate change either.” He said this was a function of people’s “mental models, our innate internal frames.”

How can scientists get through to people? “What we have learned from the public health community is that a single, clear message repeated often by trusted authorities works,” said Maibach. To date, climate change has been portrayed in the media as a “complex issue with lots of moving parts. We are not good at telling a simple story about what we know. Simplification is important.”

Maibach also voiced concern about the “culture of science,” which is to constantly “move onto the next thing.” But he also believes there is hope: “The public has learned over time that the hole in the ozone layer is bad.”

“We’re especially concerned about the connections between climate change and air quality,” said Bryan Bloomer, applied science division, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Bloomer said a study by a professor at Harvard University concluded that “climate change makes air pollution worse, which means it has health impacts.” He pointed to the three billion people around the world who still use wood cook stoves every day, burning branches to make dinner. Those stoves not only increase the amount of potent black carbon in the air, but kill about 4 million people a year. These are the types of “linkages we need to quantify.”

What about the challenges for the poorest countries? Maggie Opondo, Institute for Climate Change and Adaptation, University of Nairobi, and a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), said “disadvantaged people will be disproportionately hit by climate change.” Foremost include the one billion people who live on less than $2 per day.

Poor urban dwellers will be especially hard-hit, given “when there are environmental disasters in cities, they can’t contain the problems themselves.” As an example, she pointed to the Kibera slum in Kenya where more than one million people live without any infrastructure. In 2011, there was a heavy downpour that submerged the community. “People’s life savings, which were sometimes found in a sack, floated away. After the flood, the diseases came because there was no sanitation system.” Opondo argued that “climate change in Africa is real.” She said just look at the climate change-fueled outbreak of malaria and cholera in the late 90s in eastern Africa.

More thoughts from their discussion, which was moderated by Peter Thompson, Public Radio International:

Why Is Satellite Data So Important?

Brown said satellites can show “when the extreme events will occur,” but, equally as important, can measure the “subtle shifts over time.” She said as base temperatures rise, the maximum temperatures may not increase in a given area. If livelihoods are based on what’s happening 5-10 years ago, people will then be unprepared 5-10 years in the future, as conditions will only change ever so slightly each year. “All of the sudden people can no longer make a living; they can no longer adapt.” Brown said a whole sale shift in livelihoods will then be needed, requiring considerable support by governments.

NASA now has 30 years of data to examine. “We can look at changes in agriculture over that time, changes in the start and end of growing seasons, places where there is crop stress.” She added that ground-based observational data is needed to correlate broader shifts with cultural change on the ground. “We need 100,000 data points” based in ground observations.

She made the case for open data policies, too. While NASA makes its images freely available, some African countries actually have satellites but don’t make the data available. “In Nigeria, no one can get access to the data, not even the scientists.”

What about Communicating with the Disadvantaged?

Opondo said it’s also important to tap “indigenous knowledge,” like that of Kenya’s famed “rain makers.” Traditional agriculture communities are going to be hard-hit and they need messages tailored for them. “Farmers want to know how much rain they can expect and when they can plant.” She said not all farmers have “access to the radio or Internet,” even though more and more have mobile phones.

How Can We Combat Food Insecurity?

Brown said “we need to boost the food supply globally.” One way to do this is through new agricultural technology. Brazil, which harvests “half of the world’s soybeans,” is running their farms on U.S. technology. “We need to further boost production in Africa by introducing new information and irrigation technologies, and new seeds.” The world will need “twice as much food in 2050 as it does now,” with population growth and changing diets in developing world. Opondo thought adding all this new technology in Sub-Saharan Africa would be a challenge, given “one size doesn’t fit all.”

Read Full Post »


Flooding in Fells Point, Baltimore, 2003 / Reuters

“Sea level rise is a definite,” said Richard Alley, professor of geosciences at Pennsylvania State University, at a conference by the National Council on Science and the Environment (NCSE) in Washington, D.C. “There will also be significant heat impacts on agriculture,” particularly corn and rice production, given those crops are often grown in areas already a bit too hot for them. “The average summer will be hotter than we’ve ever seen. In the tropics, it may be too hot to work outside during the day.” And what’s the worst that could happen? Alley said “it could get so hot people could no longer live in the tropics. And sea level rise could wipe out territory where one-tenth of humanity now lives.” These are the “‘mights,’ the risks.”

To spur the globe to action on the climate, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is now finalizing its latest assessment report. To improve national efforts, the United States is also working on its new national assessment report. Katharine Jacobs, director, National Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions, University of Arizona, who is coordinating the creation of the national report, said the goal is not just to write a report by the federal government outlining its actions, but a multi-sector analysis that will “build a community of people who are working on these issues” at the federal, state, and local levels. While Congress is not expected to act on climate change anytime soon, there are tons of state and local initiatives underway that could be further connected and boosted.

Anthony Janetos, director, Pardee Center for the Study of Longer-range Future, Boston University, said these new reports will have a greater focus on adaptation, a shift in itself. “It’s not about adaptation in the future, it’s about efforts happening now.”

Virginia Burkett, chief scientist for climate and land use, U.S. Geological Survey, and a member of IPCC, said the last assessment report five years ago documented a one degree rise in temperature. In the upcoming report, the increase will grow to 1.5 degrees. She’s most worried about the “hot spots, places of most vulnerability, where people are not equipped to adapt.” She said in the tropical countries, “there are a number of people who can’t adapt.”

For Jack Kaye, associate director for research, Earth sciences division, NASA, the fear is “some little change” will lead to “tipping points, thresholds.” He’s looking to collect as much data as possible to “reduce uncertainties in models.” He added that while climate change may be “beyond anyone one of us, it’s not bigger than all of us.”

Some interesting thoughts in their wide-ranging discussion moderated by Richard Harris, science correspondent, NPR:

How Can We Factor People into Our Climate Models?

Jacobs said “the physics of climate change is quite simple, but adding human factors into the equation” makes it more complicated. “The intersections of the physics and our behavior is what’s complex.” As a result, she said there needs to be stronger partnerships between physical and social scientists.

Kaye agreed, adding that “we need to study human decision-making processes to understand the broader process of change.” The issue is “very few physical scientists are trained to do this.” The only way forward is to “underpin climate solutions in both physical and social sciences.”

On the positive side, “university students can now major in sustainability” at some schools, said Burkett. Some geospatial programs are also already merging physical and social science curricula, creating “future Earth” programs. Kaye said “things are morphing in that direction.”

The central idea here was articulated by Jacobs: “addressing climate change can’t just be the realm of scientists, but also something that involves society.”

How Can We Deal with Apathy among the Public?

Jacobs said it’s important to turn away from the U.S. Congress, a source of major frustration, and look at “state and local-level heroes.” There’s a lot of people out there who “really care.” If the general public is apathetic about climate change, “that shows there is an issue with how we are framing it.”

Harris at NPR said when he visited Stanford University, the president of the university told him “10 percent of students are dealing with climate change.” He added that students studying technology may feel differently, more positive.

What about Geo-engineering the Climate?

For Janetos, geo-engineering the climate is worth considering. “We all have home insurance. We make some kind of investments to achieve a future goal or guard against some outcome.” Perhaps, we also need to coming up with geo-engineering as a sort of insurance scheme for the planet, in case our collective efforts to limit emissions fail.

Kaye added that the “question is not going to go away soon,” so more questions need to be asked to reduce the uncertainties with intervening in the climate: “What could be the unintended consequences? What’s the viability?”

Read Full Post »

Thomas Balsley, FASLA, is the founder and principal of Thomas Balsley Associates, a firm he has run for 35 years. Balsley has taught and lectured at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, the University of Pennsylvania, the National Building Museum, and Seoul National University.

This interview was conducted at the ASLA 2013 Annual Meeting in Boston.

Last year, during Hurricane Sandy, Hunter’s Point South, your new park in Long Island City, Queens, was submerged under four feet of water as it was being constructed. Amazingly, the park survived this first test and drained as it was designed to. How did you and your design partners prepare for this? How is this a new model for dealing with climate change and improving resiliency?

The park has a purpose beyond resiliency, but we believe it’s a new model for 21st century urban parks in all respects. Sustainability underpinned the design approach right across the board, from the environmental and ecological to the social, economic, and cultural. Hunter’s Point South Park is a design collaboration between Thomas Balsley Associates and Weiss/Manfredi.

Part of our job when we work anywhere near the shores is to anticipate the effects of global warming, the storm surges. We had co-designed Gantry Plaza State Park and the whole Queens Park master plan prior to this park, so we had a chance to study that site and understand the East River. Gantry Plaza State Park was not affected to the extent others areas were hit by Sandy, but waters had breached the top of the bulkhead walls and the piers, so flooding was already on our minds.

At Hunter’s Point South, as we did at Gantry Plaza State Park, we started with the idea that these were at one time industrial sites; there was rail use in this case. Our approach was committed to conveying a message, a subliminal message of toughness and ruggedness, not preciousness. I don’t know what parallel to draw, but some projects we all love and admire are really precious to the point where they have a fragility to them. We purposely wanted this park from the very beginning to be muscular, to reflect its blue-collar, industrial history, and that of its upland community.

With these rugged materials and detailing, we were way ahead of the game in terms of resilience. Because the river is actually a tidal body with strong currents of saltwater, we avoided catchment areas that might catch surges and hold them. Long-term exposure to the saltwater can be pretty harmful, so the park had to drain itself, with water eventually finding its way back out over to the river as the waters receded.

Obviously, the employment of native plant material was important, too. We had a very tight budget, so there was no chance of using automatic irrigation, even with recycled water. It just wasn’t going to happen, so we focused on low-water use native plants that have proven themselves along the shorelines of local saline rivers. The park’s plant palette was purposely selected to be resilient, low maintenance, and provide visual integrity.

Hunter’s Point South is really just one of a hundred parks and plazas in New York City you have designed over your decades-long career. The one that really leapt out at me, among many, was Gantry Plaza State Park. Why was that so successful?

I referred to this park earlier when we were talking about Hunter’s Point South because that’s the next park component along the east shore of the Queens side, the Long Island City side, but it was done 20 years earlier. Gantry Plaza State Park was important to us as individual designers, but it was also, in our minds, really important for the future waterfront development of New York.

It’s hard for people to imagine now, but 30 years ago, NYC was probably one of the most conservative places to practice the art of landscape architecture in the country. During that same period you couldn’t have found a notable building being built in New York City either. The city had horrible fiscal and safety troubles, which made it very conservative and fearful. There just wasn’t courage or the will on the private or the public side to go out and take chances. There wasn’t a contemporary landscape precedent to be able to point to that would have said, “See? We can do this.”

Well, something happened 30 years ago, not with public money, but over at Battery Park City. It was a new model of urban planning. The developers were ingenious in securing public approvals. Battery Park introduced the notion that you can build parks first and then develop the parcels. To get this approach approved, the designers strategically harked back to New York at the turn of the century. The character of a park promised New Yorkers wouldn’t be controversial. Everyone said, “Oh, that’s great. We like that period.” It was that kind of climate. [30 years ago there was some of us saying, “I promise. I’ll make it look just like Central Park if you just let me out of this room because it’s one o’clock in the morning.”] So the Battery Park City Authority had private money behind it in the form of bonds. They had a very good tactic for getting a design approved. When it was built, Battery Park was pointed to as the great urban waterfront success and the “latest and the greatest” of waterfront park design.

But there is also a problem that comes with those successes: the next client asks you to do one just like it. When our team of Thomas Balsley Associates and Weintraub di Domenico was commissioned to design the Queens West Parks, the approved park plan was promising another Battery Park City across the river in Long Island City.

After its approval, a new client was brought in who decided, maybe from past experience from working with us, that they wanted something different. She said, “we’re going to do something innovative. We’re going to show New York how to take the next step.” So we had a client that encouraged us to do just that and we rushed through that door of opportunity. As The New York Times architecture critic wrote of the park at the time, “the curse has been broken.”

At Gantry Plaza State Park, we were doing things there that were unheard of in New York. Number one: don’t fill, use and celebrate the diverse shoreline. Number two: don’t erase history, celebrate history and culture. Number three: make it a blue collar place, not a corporate downtown place. Make it look like it doesn’t have money, like it’s a real park for real people.

Gantry Plaza State Park demonstrated that we can celebrate history, heritage, culture, and, at the same time, express the future with contemporary design. That’s why that park is so special to us. It became the new paradigm for 21st century waterfront parks, the park everyone pointed to in New York and said, “Let’s make all the rest of our waterfronts like this.” I can take you around the shoreline now and you will see that Gantry Plaza State Park ideas have found their way in other places. And it really launched a whole new era in landscape architecture in New York.

Many of those hundred urban parks and plazas you’ve designed are small privately-owned public spaces (POPS). You have often said these places are unloved. Why?

POPS used to be called bonus plazas. Plazas have been stigmatized as the receptors of all of society’s misfits and ills, so it’s no surprise that our profession hasn’t embraced them. NYC POPS were considered “dirty”, because you were doing work for developers, not the public sector. Until recently, NYC landscape architects treated them like they are lepers. They didn’t want anything to do with them. As a result, some 95 percent of POPS in New York City are designed by architects. Taken together, there are 84 acres of POPS in Manhattan alone.

These are a great untapped opportunity for landscape architects to touch millions of lives, yet, for the most part, these chance have been squandered by the local professionals. I’m proud to have done more than anyone and get a great deal of satisfaction as I pass by and do my Holly Whyte analysis.

Heritage Field at Yankee Stadium is another fantastic community asset you’ve designed. The park takes the history and makes something contemporary, but on top of that, the park is so many different things at once. It’s a place for locals to play ball, a park, a playground, a conduit from the subway station, the stadium. So how did you get all those things to fit within one design?

That’s the classic 10-client pound program for the 5-pound bag, isn’t it? Of course, we had to find a way. The politics behind that project were extraordinary. Most people don’t realize that Yankee Stadium was in a New York City park. And the Yankees are basically saying, “we’re going to take part of the park next door to build a new stadium.” You could tell that’s got a little bit of a problem flying, especially with locals. The team of Thomas Balsley Associates and Stantec had to come up with a strategy that downplayed the existing stadium and history and transformed it into a community park with a landscape narrative.

Our goal was to get all these programs into the space, but at the same time make it look like it was ball fields that had been carved out of parkland. We wanted the edges to be lush native grasses and the plantings and to manage and filter stormwater. That’s unlike most active recreation areas you’ll find, especially in a tight, urban setting in which you’ll normally see a fence, and maybe a hedge. We kept insisting that within the park there was enough space for those in the Bronx to feel like that this was the parkland they had once been promised. It’s a very big part of the character and the feeling you get as you walk through the spaces or to the new stadium.

One of your older projects that I was very interested in was your work on the Columbia University campus. Can you tell me about what you achieved with that planning project, which involved trying to get the newer parts of the campus to look more like the historic center? What has happened since then? How has it evolved there?

Getting the newer parts to be part of the original was certainly one of the goals, but the bigger challenge was that the McKim, Mead, and White-designed campus never had a landscape master plan. It had an architectural master plan, but it never had a landscape master plan. In our historical research we even found some records of when the president of Columbia University was reluctant to buy into the McKim, Mead, and White urban campus vision, because it wasn’t a leafy Princeton-like campus. Your client may say, “Yes, that’s what we want, an urban campus.” But, once they saw renderings of just buildings and barren landscape, then they started to get a little worried.

They asked to bring in Olmsted to comment. He never did any work on the campus but he cited an example of going in the forest and encountering a pine stand, just pure pine and pine needle, and maybe the wind whistling. I’ll never forget this observation because it inspired another piece of work I did called the Pine Forest at 101. And it’s almost a religious experience to be in that place. It’s almost Zen-like. It’s not asking you to look around for visual stimulation. So he had a little bit of an influence, in getting that campus master plan approved.

But it became very clear over the years that it had a certain sterility to it, at least to the mainstream. Campuses suffer because they get $100 million donations to build a new building but not new landscapes. They needed a campus landscape master plan, a vision for a landscape donor.

The goal of the project was to adapt the historic campus landscape, movement systems, social systems, to 21st-century culture of campus life. Then we wrote a very strict set of design guidelines. Your building, your $100 million donation, will have to follow these. We’re also going to take a little bit of money for the overall campus landscape. As the university expands or improves on the Morningside campus, they’ll have uniformity and integrity.

Going overseas where you’ve also done a lot of work, I was struck by your projects in Japan. Two really exciting ones for me were the World Trade Center in Osaka and the Kasumigaseki Plaza in Tokyo. These plazas boldly emphasize color and form, but you also describe these places as responding to the tall buildings and kind of countering them. Can you talk about how you humanized those spaces around these huge buildings?

We’re all faced with that when we’re working in an urban setting, especially with high-rise projects. Humanizing space is part of what we all do. We’re very much social-space designers, not just space designers. These parks are in an urban setting and require a delicate balance between their urbanity, their urban context, and the individual.

There must be a hierarchy of space that helps strike this balance. There has to be a large space to reflect that urban scale and yet be flexible enough to accommodate different uses that we haven’t yet anticipated, concerts, festivals, etc., yet be accessible for daily enjoyment.

Movement systems and program frame the larger space, creating a network of other spaces that vary in scale and character — from me and my co-workers having a conference, to just you sitting in a corner reading your book. All these smaller spaces must have good sight lines to the street, which is a lesson from New York. These are but a few approaches we’ve applied throughout the U.S., and now abroad in our urban place-making.

Image credits: (1) Thomas Balsley / Thomas Balsley Associates, (2-3) Hunter’s Point South / © Albert Večerka/Esto, (4) Gantry Plaza State Park / Betsy Pinover Schiff, (5) World Trade Center, Osaka / Thomas Balsley Associates  

Read Full Post »

Seven years ago, architect Ed Mazria started Architecture 2030, which issued the bold 2030 Challenge, asking the global architecture and building community to become carbon neutral by 2030.

“By 2030,” Mazria explained at the 2013 Greenbuild in Philadelphia, “the world will build (and tear down and rebuild) about 900 billion square feet of buildings in cities worldwide.” For perspective, that’s about 3.5 times the amount of area currently taken up by buildings in the U.S.

If all of those buildings are re-built with better standards and benchmarks — if we “design out” carbon emissions — Mazria said green builders can essentially reverse the effects of climate change. To do that, it’s generally believed that we must peak by 2020. Carbon pollution cannot keep increasing past that point, or else catastrophic impacts will soon come.

Why Is “Getting to Carbon Neutral” So Important?

According to leading scientists, our atmosphere can only safely hold 350 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide. At the moment, the world is well over that amount. Burning fossil fuels has become an imminent problem, and if steps aren’t taken soon—in developed and developing countries—we will find ourselves on the path to a severe climate emergency that cannot be reversed.

The other issue is obvious at this point: the world is running out of conventional oil and gas. If the world stays on its current path, the oil and gas reserves will be drained in a matter of decades.

Though the world’s emissions still climb, the United States can boast its lowest emissions since 1994. This is achieved thanks to many, new cleaner technologies. This brings developing countries to light. Countries that will see the biggest growth in the next 50 years such as India or China must put similar goals into place.

How Do Green Builders Get to Carbon Neutral?

“We need a shared vision to mitigate climate risk,” Mazria said. He called for all of the green building professions to stand together to eliminate greenhouse gases (GHG)s and other pollutants and greatly reduce fossil fuel energy consumption.

Landscape architects, planners, architects, and other related professions can get to carbon neutral quite easily if they introduce low-carbon processes from the beginning.

As much as 70-80 percent of emissions can be designed out of a space, and the rest can be counteracted with renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind and hydropower. To help these professions “design out” the emissions, Architecture 2030 presented their new web tool during the presentation: the 2030 Palette.

The 2030 Palette    

“The energy consumption patterns of the built environment are set during the early stages of the design project,” the video explains. “So, architects, planners and designers need the best information to guide their decisions at this stage, and that’s where the 2030 Palette comes in.”

Once you sign up for an account, you are taken to your homepage. Design strategies, called “swatches”, are immediately listed near the top of the page, arranged by contexts or locations. For example, Heat Island Mitigationis listed in the “city/town” area.

Another example, Solar Shading, gives explicit instructions on how far to extend overhangs to produce the best results at different latitudes. If your building falls between 44°L to 56°L, the overhang designed should extend to exactly one half the height of the opening.

Swatches that might be of use to landscape architects include Parks, Urban Bikeways, New Growth Areas, Shared Streets, and many more.

More information and palettes are being added monthly. As the program takes flight, Mazria hopes this will become a one-stop-shop for all of the related design professions to join together to eliminate emissions and bring the built environment to carbon neutral by 2030.

This guest post is by Phil Stamper, ASLA PR and Communications Coordinator.

Image credit: (1) Ed Mazria / Recyecology, (2) Climate Change Statistics / Architecture 2030, (3) Solar Shading at Edward Gonzales Elementary School / 2030 Palette

Read Full Post »

In a session at the 2013 Greenbuild in Philadelphia, Taimur Burki, Global Green Building Program Manager for Intel Corporation, and Joshua Wray, Graduate Research Assistant (PhD) at Arizona State University, discussed the possibility of using algae as an industrial emissions control strategy.

The session picked apart the results of an experiment between ASU and Intel to analyze algae’s impact on the industrial sector. Wray, a self-professed algae farmer, has been involved in many bioremediation projects in the past that involved capturing nutrients from waste streams, but, in this case, the algae was intended to draw carbon and nitrogen from flue gases.

After identifying the many alternate uses of algae—biofuels, pharmaceuticals, even cookies—researchers found that some strains are very adaptable. Picking and choosing the best strains for this was incredibly important. Essentially, only specific strands of algae will feed on carbon dioxide and help reduce emissions.

The desert is used as a perfect test site for many reasons. These dry places offer a lot of sun (which is key to photosynthesis), heat, access to wastewater and non-arable land. Not to mention, many world-renowned algae scientists live there.

ASU worked with Intel to erect flat panel bioreactors on the roof of one of their fabrication buildings to capture boiler emissions and convert them into biofuel. These reactors were filled with algae grown from ponds or other bioreactors.

Researchers studied the bioreactors to see if they could grow algae, whether the CO2 was filtered out and if this process could be used to create clean-burning fuel. There is still much research to be done and many follow-up experiments on the docket, but they had great success in growing algae and filtering carbon and nitrogen oxides out of the flue gas.

[See what the bioreactors look like; learn more from Intel’s Brad Biddle in this video].

Though the desert light and heat are desirable to the algae farmers, this process happening all over the country. In a similar partnership, Duke Energy and University of Kentucky will soon start using algae to convert flue gas emissions into biofuel.

It doesn’t just stop in America. In a recent article in The Times of India, the country’s largest generation utility has launched a project to use algae to minimize CO2 from their power projects.

It’s still a process that researchers are learning about every day, but its potential is outstanding. A key to sustainable building is to reduce carbon emissions, and if something as small and plentiful as microalgae can help bring plants to near-zero emissions, it means exciting possibilities for the future.

This guest post is by Phil Stamper, ASLA PR and Communications Coordinator.

Image credit: (1) Microalgae / Spirulina Info, (2) Flue Gas / Think Progress

Read Full Post »

Hurricane Sandy has changed the national conversation on climate change. Unlike Hurricane Katrina, which much of the country was happy to pin the blame for on New Orleans itself (“they shouldn’t have built there in the first place!”), Sandy revealed climate change to be a growing threat to nearly all coastal settlements. Formerly abstract warnings of growing inundation risk, stemming from rising sea levels and increasing storm frequency, suddenly became concrete and impossible to ignore. A new found sense of vulnerability descended on coastal cities. In this light, urban design cannot be dismissed as merely a luxury or an aesthetic consideration. The discipline has taken on a new relevance and sense of urgency: cities, particularly in coastal settings, must reconsider their built form in order to adapt to radically altered environmental conditions. Three new books by Island Press approach these issues with renewed sense of the value of the urban design.

Entertaining and attractively designed, Alexandros Washburn’s The Nature of Urban Design: A New York Perspective on Resilience provides a fantastic introduction to the discipline of urban design for non-designers. Washburn, the chief urban designer for New York City, uses that city as a case study to explain what exactly urban designers do and why it matters. He broadly defines urban design as “the art of changing cities, guiding growth to follow new patterns that better meet our challenges while improving our quality of life.” Of course, perhaps the biggest challenge facing cities today is climate change, and The Nature of Urban Design uses Hurricane Sandy to illustrate the need for adaptation, and how urban design can act as an agent of change.

Washburn includes the suburbs in his definition of the city, stating that the suburbs simply represent low-density cities, thus breaking down the false city/suburb dichotomy. Washburn’s inclusion of the suburbs is important because it allows him to expand the purview of urban design beyond the city center to the entire metropolitan area. Urban design isn’t about recreating a single notion of what the city is, but instead about adaptation and improving living conditions, regardless of location within the metropolitan region. Instead of seeking a rigid urban design toolkit, Washburn asks, “Is there a form of the city that can survive new extremes of weather, that can accommodate millions more citizens in dignity and prosperity, that can avoid contributing more to climate change, and still be worth living in?”

He methodically walks us through why urban design matters, how urban designers work, how urban design can be a catalyst for transformation (using the High Line as a case study), and how it can lead to resilience in the face of climate change. He discusses two strategies for resilience: mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation means reducing greenhouse gases in order to prevent adverse climate change, while adaptation involves reducing vulnerability to projected climate change. With a certain degree of environmental change now inevitable and a dramatic, global reduction in greenhouse gas production seeming less and less likely, Washburn’s approach to resiliency is both idealistic and practical.

Like Washburn’s book, The Hidden Potential of Sustainable Neighborhoods: Lessons from Low-Carbon Communities, by Harrison Fraker, uses global climate change to frame the new importance of urban design. Unlike Washburn’s broad overview of the profession, however, Fraker’s is more narrowly focused, using four European case studies to dig into the specifics of several low-carbon urban design projects. Fraker describes how sustainability issues such as energy efficiency have historically only been considered on the building scale. The neighborhood scale, however, represents new opportunities for carbon reduction. Fraker argues that the neighborhood scale has the “potential to integrate the design of transportation, buildings, and infrastructure while engaging the design of the public realm as part of the system.” He refers to this as a “whole-systems approach,” where all urban systems are considered together, greatly expanding the potential for resiliency.

The Hidden Potential of Sustainable Neighborhoods is about mitigation, citing examples of low-carbon urban design projects. This does not mean, however, that Fraker is merely presenting a series of utopian designs. Each of the examples in the book is actually built, and Fraker looks back at commonalities between each project’s implementation and subsequent performance. Furthermore, he applies the lessons learned from the four European examples to sprawling, patchwork American urbanism, describing the potential for infill opportunities. Fraker could have spent more time addressing how to retrofit existing development rather than concentrating on new development. Still, as he states, new models can catalyze paradigm shifts, and we should appreciate his effort to translate European lessons to messy American cities.

If The Nature of Urban Design is a layperson’s introduction to urban design, and The Hidden Potential of Sustainable Neighborhoods is a case-study resource for urban designers, The Guide to Greening Cities, by Sadhu Aufochs Johnston, Steven S. Nicholas, and Julia Parzen, is probably of most interest to urban planners. Like the other two books, The Guide to Greening Cities lays out the challenge of designing cities in the face of climate change. Johnston and his co-authors also refer to Hurricane Sandy, as well as other climactic events, to establish the new urgency of resilient city design.

Instead of studying the design of resilient cities, however, Greening Cities explores how city leaders can implement new sustainability projects. Johnston and team state that the book is “written from the perspective of green city leaders and champions who are working inside city governments in North America and who have succeeded in pushing forward innovative green projects.” Rather than emphasizing the design of sustainability, Greening Cities walks through how city leaders can make a case for, fund, implement, and subsequently monitor green projects. In this way, The Guide to Greening Cities is a useful book for urban planners wishing to increase the resiliency of their communities.

Cities are now faced with the task of both adapting to inevitably changing environmental conditions and minimizing their contributions to future climate change. The political, economic, environmental, and technological challenges associated with this task are bewilderingly complex. However, recent events such as Hurricane Sandy have shown inaction to be an increasingly tragic prospect.

The complexity of designing for urban resilience requires a broad cultural shift across many different disciplines. These three books address the same problem of designing in the face of global climate change, but do so for different audiences – the general public, urban designers, and urban planners. With the consequences of global warming no longer abstract, hopefully the sense of urgency that inspired these books will not abate.

This guest post is by Ben Wellington, Master’s of Landscape architecture graduate, Louisiana State University and ASLA 2012 summer intern.

Image credits: Island Press

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 992 other followers