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Archive for the ‘Development’ Category

Broadway and Flushing Ave under the JMZ subway lines / Krisanne Johnson for the Design Trust for Public Space

Broadway and Flushing Ave under the JMZ subway lines / Krisanne Johnson for the Design Trust for Public Space

During the early and mid-twentieth century, New York City constructed a massive transportation system, layering elevated highways, subway tracks, and rail lines to create the complicated web we are familiar with today. While this network has undoubtedly contributed to NYC’s physical and economic growth, it has also provided an untapped public asset: 700 miles of unused space (nearly four times the size of Central Park) beneath the city’s elevated transportation infrastructure.

In a comprehensive new report resulting from a two-year-long study, the Design Trust for Public Space and NYC Department of Transportation (NYC DOT) highlight sustainable ways to rethink these residual spaces. Addressing complex problems such as noise, safety, and lighting, the new study builds off of the success of the Design Trust’s 2002 study, Reclaiming the High Line (“the study that catalyzed efforts to save and reprogram the decommissioned rail line”). The result is a comprehensive document intended to inspire public and private investment in some of the city’s most neglected public spaces.

In an introductory essay that discusses New York’s elevated railways (or “els”), Thomas Campanella, an associate professor in Cornell University’s city and regional planning department, frames the importance of the study, stating: “The demesne of the elevated— I’ll call it “el-space” here— is neither tranquil nor serene, but it’s not without poetry. The root of its allure is the close juxtaposition of human life and heavy industrial infrastructure.”

Going Home Near Bloomingdales, 1946 / Lionel S. Reiss via the Collection of The New York Historical Society

Going Home Near Bloomingdales, 1946 / Lionel S. Reiss via the Collection of The New York Historical Society

In many ways, the elevated railroad is a relic of an age before zoning when people, especially the poor, were forced to live in hazardously close proximity to the factories where they worked. And while the els remains popular today — particularly in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx — Campanella claims that the fact that el-space “is almost universally described as dark and oppressive is an inaccurate cliché.” The quality of light beneath elevated tracks can be “exquisite” and the sense of enclosure created by the columns “yields an effect reminiscent of an avenue of mature trees … a kind of sturdy steampunk Elm Street.” Such sentiments are the first inklings of design inspiration the study provides.

Third Avenue Elevated Railway at 18th Street in 1942 / Marjorie Collins via The Design Trust for Public Space

Third Avenue Elevated Railway at 18th Street in 1942 / Marjorie Collins via The Design Trust for Public Space

Focusing in on elevated train lines rather than elevated highways, which are more relevant in other U.S. cities, the Design Trust for Public Space first assessed the inventory of existing el-space to identity opportunities and constraints. Surprisingly, these opportunities and constraints have largely remained unchanged since the 1960s when Jane Jacobs called attention to them in her seminal book, The Life and Death of Great American Cities. These physical structures divide low-incomes neighborhoods and produce noise, darkness, and dirt; on the other hand, the els have also brought people, commerce and cultural vibrancy to these areas. The call is the same now as it was then: Reconnect communities divided and affected by elevated infrastructure and turn these el-spaces into a positive resource.

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Map of Elevated Transit Infrastructure in New York City / The Design Trust for Public Space

So, in 2014, 146 year after the construction of the first el, is NYC any closer to reclaiming these spaces? The study explores the potential uses of el-spaces from site strategies to their associated policies, relying heavily on research and case studies from across the country to inspire designers, planners, and policymakers to action. The good news is that many of these spaces are already being reclaimed for a variety of public uses. Potential uses highlighted in the study include:

Environmental Sustainability

In Flushing, Queens, the Highway Outfall Landscape Detention (HOLD) System, invented by DLANDstudio, uses a low-cost, flexible, plant-based system to collect and filter stormwater from drainpipes on the elevated highways that run through Flushing Meadows Corona Park. This system absorbs and filters pollutants such as oil, heavy metals, and grease out of the water that drain off of the elevated highways, leading to cleaner runoff entering the city’s waterways. The system’s ability to retain water during heavy rain events also helps reduce flooding.

Highway Outfall Landscape Detention (HOLD) Systems to collect and filter storm water from highway scuppers / dlandstudio

Highway Outfall Landscape Detention (HOLD) Systems to collect and filter storm water from highway scuppers / dlandstudio

Parks

In 2002, the redesign of Queens Plaza was one of the first comprehensive el-space improvement projects in New York City. A group of designers and engineers was selected to transform Queens Plaza into Dutch Kills Green, a new park with well-lit green pathways in the heart of the Long Island City commercial district. In an article for Urban Omnibus, the project’s landscape architect, Margie Ruddick, ASLA, says that “rather than using a harsh, urban language, we tried to find a language through which lushness and beauty could coexist with the hard edge of infrastructure. The linear landscape of medians and streetscape meet in Dutch Kills Green, and this convergence, for me, challenges the notion of an urban park because its surroundings are so inhospitable. This juxtaposition would have seemed inappropriate several years ago. But these days it’s becoming more prevalent.”

Dutch Kills Green / The Design Trust for Public Space

Dutch Kills Green / The Design Trust for Public Space

Markets

In 2011, the New York City Economic Development Council (NYCEDC) and the City Council combined forces to modernize underutilized market space, add new retail space, and construct a kitchen incubator underneath the Park Avenue elevated train station between 115th and 116th Streets in El Barrio. Despite significant public investment in the area, “the new La Marqueta has struggled to attract visitors and retain retailers.” Yet just a block north of La Marqueta at 116th Street, salsa dancers have congregated under the tracks every Saturday evening in the summer months for years. In an attempt to revive the informal spirit the market once had, City Council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito launched La Marqueta Reto (La Marqueta Reblooms) in 2014, an initiative to bring street vendors, a farmers market, and other community events back into the space.

Children sit in front of the entrance of La Marqueta, in East Harlem / Epoch Times

Children sit in front of the entrance of La Marqueta, in East Harlem / Epoch Times

Transportation

Before New Lots Triangle Plaza in East New York, Brooklyn, was completed in 2011, subway riders exited from the train onto a narrow sidewalk with minimal protection from oncoming traffic. NYC Department of Transportation worked with the New Lots Avenue Triangle Merchants Association to join an 800-foot traffic triangle with nearby sidewalks and the exit of the three elevated train lines to create a 3,800-square-foot public space that is protected from traffic by decorative planters. According to the NYC DOT, the plaza has made the area safer for pedestrians and created “an immediate impact on business by encouraging pedestrians to linger longer in the area and visit businesses, boosting the local economy.”

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New Lots Triangle Park / Streetsblog NYC

In a dense city like New York, residual spaces under elevated transportation infrastructure can no longer be an afterthought — and these spaces in NYC are only a small piece of the more than 7,000 miles available for reclamation in cities across the country. The Design Trust for Public Space report further emphasizes the need for adaptive reuse of these spaces, looking at the infrastructure that gets us from point a to point b and creating a much-needed public space as point c.

Purchase the report.

Several years ago ASLA created an animation to introduce people to the concept of reusing transportation infrastructure as public spaces, including underpass parks. The video, which is a part of Designing Our Future: Sustainable Landscapes, a project funded by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), can be viewed below:

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Core Values: Why American Companies are Moving Downtown / Smart Growth America

In the past several years, small businesses and Fortune 500 companies alike have said goodbye to suburban office parks and moved their headquarters back to city centers. Attempting to cater to a new generation of Millennial urbanites, this trend represents a “marked shift in the preferences of American companies,” who are now choosing to invest in more walkable locations, according to Core Values: Why American Companies are Moving Downtown, a new study by Smart Growth America.

The study, which was accompanied by kickoff panel discussion at the Newseum in Washington D.C., examines the motives and preferences of companies that have moved to more walkable downtown locations between 2010-2015. The launch event supplemented the study, hosting business and planning experts from cities across the country who discussed both sides of the issue: Why are companies choosing downtown locations? And how can cities create the kinds of places these companies seek?

In the late 1960s and 70s, companies across the country began leaving downtown cores for suburban office campuses. By 1996, on average, less than 16 percent of jobs were located within three miles of a traditional city center. In recent years, however, this trend is showing signs of reversing. According to the study, “between 2007 and 2011, job growth in city centers grew 0.5 percent annually on average, while the city peripheries lost jobs, shrinking 0.1 percent annually.” By 2013, 23 percent of jobs were located within 3 miles of a city’s downtown. While the majority of American jobs are still located outside of central business districts, businesses are slowly moving back to cities.

Why? Many companies are finding that downtown locations can help them better recruit employees, particularly Millennials, which are defined as people between the ages of 18 and 34 in 2015. According to Vishaan Chakrabarti’s, A Country of Cities, 62 percent of Millennials prefer to live and work in the type of mixed-use neighborhoods found in urban centers where they are in close proximity to a mix of shopping, restaurants, and offices.

In the report, Adam Klein, the chief strategist of American Underground in Durham, North Carolina, said “we wanted to be in an amenity-rich environment where our employees could walk to get a cup of coffee and participate in arts, music, and the excitement of downtown. We’re able to show potential employees a cool office in the middle of downtown and that has definitely helped us recruit people.”

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American Underground moved to the campus of the former American Tobacco factory in Durham, NC. / Scott Faber Photography via Smart Growth America

As Mike Deemer, the executive vice president of business development for the Downtown Cleveland Alliance, echoed at the launch event, “It’s not enough to create a great space and take a ‘if you build it, they will come approach.’ We need to activate spaces and draw people in.”

While great office spaces tend to be plentiful in downtown locations, the surrounding neighborhood mix is equally, if not more, important. The study found that providing live/work/play neighborhoods with places to see and things to do is important for attracting Millennials, “who are now the largest generational segment of the American workforce, with 53.5 million people making up 34 percent of all workers — more than either Gen Xers or Baby Boomers.”

According to the study, companies chose vibrant, walkable neighborhoods where people want to both live and work. “Our younger employees don’t want to go to a suburban office park. It’s boring as all get out out there. Here, they walk outside and see cool stuff and it’s fun. I wanted to be where they wanted to be,” said Reg Shiverick, President of Dakota Software in Cleveland, Ohio.

Millennials also behave differently when it comes to transportation and are generally more likely to commute by biking, walking, or public transportation. Thus, walkability and access to public transportation are also cornerstones of this shift to downtown locations. Matin Zargari, principal at Gensler’s Oakland, California office, explained that “being so close to the 19th Street BART and many other city bus lines gives our staff the opportunity to get to work easier from all over the East Bay. Our employees like our new location and, in addition, many of our clients and projects are within walking distance of our office. That’s been a game changer for us.”

According to Jim Reilly, vice president of corporate communications at Panasonic, when Panasonic moved its headquarters from a suburban corporate campus to urban Newark, New Jersey, “the percentage of employees commuting via public shifted transportation from 4 percent of employees to 57 percent of employees.” While the environmental impacts of such a shift generally fall outside the scope of the study, a decreasing reliance on automobiles is sure to mitigate some of the negative environmental effects of suburbanization.

A key takeaway from the study is that any city can learn from companies that have moved back to central business districts. While many cities already have the kinds of neighborhoods these companies are looking for, many do not. But taking the steps to draw companies into cities provides a mutually-reinforcing smart growth strategy: Companies will invest in walkable, safe downtown environments, allowing cities the opportunity to create great, quality neighborhoods that benefit businesses and residents alike.

Read the full report.

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Miller’s Court in Baltimore, Maryland / Courtesy of Billy Michels via Metropolis

Miller’s Court in Baltimore, Maryland / Billy Michels via Metropolis

From a pool of applicants from 40 communities in 26 states, Miller’s Court in Baltimore was awarded the Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence (RBA) gold medal and a $50,000 prize. Four other projects were awarded silver medals and $10,000 each.

Since 1987, the biennial award has recognized “urban places distinguished by quality design and contributions to the social, economic, and communal vitality of our nation’s cities.” The 2013 gold medal was awarded to Inspiration Kitchens in Garfield Park, Chicago.

This year’s winning project, Miller’s Court, is a “renovation of a vacant historic tin can manufacturing building, into an affordable and supportive living and working environment for school teachers and education-focused non-profits.” Located in an economically and culturally diverse neighborhood near Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus, the project, which was conceived and developed by Seawall Development Company with Mark, Thomas Architects, was completed in 2009.

The LEED Gold-certified complex includes “40 rental apartments and 30,000 square feet of office space and shared meeting rooms with contemporary, loft-like interiors.” Other features include a teacher resource center and a cooperatively owned independent café, which has become a popular meeting place for teachers, tenants and even President Obama, who visited in January.

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Miller’s Court / Seawall Development Corporation

One of the project’s crowning achievements is generating additional investment in the surrounding community. At the urging of several building residents, Seawall purchased and renovated 30 vacant neighboring houses to create Miller’s Square. Baltimore public school teachers and police officers are eligible for $25,000 grants toward homes there. Read more about the project in Metropolis.

Renovated row houses at Miller’s Square / Courtesy of the Bruner Foundation

Renovated row houses at Miller’s Square /
Bruner Foundation

Four other projects were recognized with silver medals and $10,000 each:

Located in the center of downtown Greenville, South Carolina, Falls Park on the Reedy is an urban oasis thanks to the transformation of a forgotten 40-foot tall waterfall and overgrown river valley into a 26-acre park. Development of the park, which opened in 2006, included replacing a four-lane vehicular bridge built directly over the falls with a pedestrian suspension bridge designed by Rosales+Partners. The bridge appears to float above the river, offering a dramatic overlook of the falls. Learn more about this project at Metropolis.

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Falls Park on the Reedy in Greenville, South Carolina / Rosales+Partners via Metropolis

Grand Rapids Downtown Market is a new public space in one of West Michigan’s most challenged neighborhoods. The market “promotes local food producers, entrepreneurship, and education about nutrition and healthy lifestyles” by linking urban communities with the 13,000 farms in 11 surrounding counties and attracting a diversity of customers to the southern edge of downtown Grand Rapids. The state-of-the-art facility, designed by Hugh A. Boyd Architects, is the first LEED Gold–certified public market in the country. Learn more about the market at Metropolis.

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Grand Rapids Downtown Market / Grand Rapids Downtown Market

Quixote Village, in Olympia, Washington, is a two-acre community of tiny houses that provides “permanent, supportive housing for homeless adults, including people suffering from mental illness and physical disabilities and recovering from addiction.” Since its completion in December 2013, Quixote Village has attracted the attention of many interested in tiny houses including nonprofits and private developers, as well as The New York Times. Learn more about the project at Metropolis.

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Tiny house in Quixote Village / Courtesy of Jeremy Bittermann for The New York Times

Located three miles south of downtown Cleveland, Uptown District is the “redevelopment of a corridor that links surrounding neighborhoods with art, educational, and healthcare institutions, producing outdoor gathering spaces, retail shops and restaurants, student and market-rate housing, and public transit connections in the process.” The development has transformed two previously underused city blocks between two of the city’s most iconic cultural institutions into a “community gateway.” Learn more about the project at Metropolis.

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Uptown District in Cleveland, OH / Stanley Saitowitz, Natoma Architects Inc. via Metropolis

The 2015 RBA selection committee included: Mayor Mark Stodola, Little Rock, Arkansas; Rebecca L. Flora, Sustainable Practices Leader, Ecology & Environment, Inc.; Larry Kearns, Principal, Wheeler Kearns Architects; India Pierce Lee, Program Director, Cleveland Foundation; Mia Lehrer, FASLA, President, Mia Lehrer + Associates; James Stockard, Lecturer in Housing, Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Learn more: A blog series on Metropolis’ web site is chronicling the 2015 RBA process and case studies of the winning projects.

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Book-Cover
What does it take to not only slow the spread of sprawl but also fundamentally change how we design and build communities? And how do we “unsprawl” communities that have already been built? A new book from our friends at Planetizen, Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces and Places, by Simmons Buntin, editor of Terrain.org and Ken Pirie, who works for Walker Macy Landscape Architects, proves that there are better ways to build communities. But this isn’t a book about sprawl: It’s a book about built places, “real, human scale communities by people and for people, not cars.”

In the introduction, Galina Tachieva states, “sprawl as a built habitat has been failing for decades.” With the recent economic downturn, the fundamental inadequacies of sprawl have become apparent. The new push to “unsprawl” is a movement towards an urbanism we can all afford — one in which amenities are located centrally and walkable, where the built is balanced with the natural.

While there are clear reasons why we need to unsprawl, this is a focused how-to book. Exploring all aspects of a project from concept to design and through to its execution, there are lots of details about how projects were financed and built. We also learn about the successes and failures along the path to that “particular moment when a project becomes a true place.”

Each case study covered in the book has an accompanying question and answer section with someone who is intimately involved in the design and development of the community. Case studies of various scales are organized into four sections: new communities; in-fill and grayfield development; the redevelopment of downtowns; and examples of “green” development.

The new communities section shows that good urban design is doable in both rural and suburban communities, places that have been historically car-focused. The authors believe we can build “new and distinct places that respect the economy and heritage” of that place. One new community, Prospect New Town, located south of Longmont, Colorado, was built with a mixed-use, eclectic design aesthetic and was voted “America’s Coolest Neighborhood” by Dwell magazine.

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In the in-fill and greyfield section, the authors ask: what we do when the existing form and function of our communities cease to serve us? Do we rebuild from scratch or find “innovative ways to adapt to changing social, environmental and economic circumstances?” Built on the site of Rockville, Maryland’s vacant mall, a new town square “created a daytime, evening, and weekend activity center that is easily identifiable, pedestrian-oriented and incorporates a mix of uses and activities.”

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Buntin and Pirie acknowledge that wonderful things have been torn down in and around American cities, ranging from “native ecosystems to historic neighborhoods” but believe that replacing what doesn’t work with “dedicated planning, good urban design, and hard work” can turn redeveloped areas into “intentional and integral parts of their respective downtowns.”

For example, RiverPlace in Portland, Oregon, the initial development of which was possible through the city council’s 1976 decision to remove the six-lane freeway that separated the city from the Wilmette River, showcases an “early and ongoing example” of these principles in action.

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In the green development section, the authors feature a few projects with especially strong sustainable credentials. The authors state: “successful, sustainable communities are not a goal to be achieved, but a process to be followed and revised: an essential pursuit if we hope to build places that will last on landscapes that will last even longer.” One such example of a green development is Prairie Crossing, in Grayslake, Illinois, north of Chicago. Prairie Crossing is transit-based, energy efficient, and community focused. The project “began as a commitment from conservation-minded investors who sought to preserve and restore native prairie and farmland being lost to suburbanization.”

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The case studies provide us with an “optimistic, diverse, and common-sense direction for the future,” one in which people, and their walkable communities, live in harmony with the natural world.

Read the book.

This guest post is by Heidi Petersen, Student ASLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture candidate, Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) and ASLA 2013 summer intern.

Image credits: (1) Unsprawl / Planetizen, (2) Live/work streetscape, Prospect, Colorado / Simmons Buntin, (3) Rockville Town Square / Simmons Buntin, (4) RiverPlace’s South Water Front Park / Walker Macy, (5) Prairie Crossing / Prairie Holdings Corporation

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A bit more than 10 years ago, Ryan Gravel, a Georgia Tech architecture and urban planning master’s student, delivered a whopper of a thesis. His vision was to transform the mostly abandoned railroad lines that circle Atlanta into a new network of transit, parks, and pedestrian and bike trails. While that vision would have died in other cities, it actually took root in Atlanta and is now becoming a reality. Seven years into the wildly ambitious Atlanta Beltline, a 25-year, $3 billion project, more than 640 acres of land have been acquired and tens of millions raised. By the end of the project, more than 22 miles of modern streetcars, 1,300 acres of new parkland, and 33 miles of bike and pedestrian trails will make Atlanta a far more sustainable, livable, and inclusive place. That streetcar will connect some pretty down-on-their-heels neighborhoods to wealthy ones, creating access to new opportunities for poorer Atlantans. The new infrastructure, parks, and trails will hopefully be the tipping point that will get Atlantans out of all those cars. To make this transformation happen, some $1.8 billion will be spent on the transit, $500 million on parks, and $250 million on trails.

In a bus tour of the Beltline as part of the E.P.A.’s Brownfield conference, Heather Hussey-Coker and Lee Harrop explained how the unique industrial history of Atlanta laid the foundation for the Beltline and how a wide-ranging coalition of organizations, government agencies, and private sector firms have made the project happen.

After he completed his thesis, Gravel formed the Friends of the Beltline and started shopping the idea around Atlanta. Many presentations later, support started to build. The Trust for Public Land came in and did a research study that showed how the Beltline could become Atlanta’s Emerald Necklace. Soon thereafter, then Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin commissioned a study to determine whether the Beltline could be financed with a tax allocation district (TAD). The city found that it would raise more than 60 percent of the total cost so decided to move forward with that approach.

A TAD is basically “tax increment financing.” As Kevin Burke, ASLA, senior landscape architect for the Beltline, explained, imagine the tax value of a property goes up with rising property values. That incremental tax revenue is set aside for specific projects like the Beltline. The problem that came later was that the real estate market in Atlanta crashed, “skewing market projections of how much money the TAD would provide the Beltline.” Burke said this is the main reason “we have only delivered 60 acres” of parkland out of the planned 1,300-acre system of greenways and parks.

On top of that, the use of a TAD for the Beltline was delayed because a local resident sued, arguing that the public school portion of local taxes couldn’t be used to finance the Beltline. The case went all the way to the state supreme court, which just recently sided with the Beltline. Then, in a state-wide referendum, the voters of Georgia decided that school districts could opt in to TADs.

The Beltline is back on track though, largely because of an “aggressive fundraising campaign,” said Burke, which has brought in more than $40 million. Now in year six of the TAD, that measure will deliver money to the Beltline over the next 19 years. In reality, Burke said this will mean about “53-55 acres of parkland should be built each year.”

Hussey-Coker said the original railroad tracks that the Beltline follows were used to circulate industrial goods from manufacturing facilities on the outskirts of Atlanta to the city’s downtown, where they were then moved to other parts of the country. Residential areas then grew up around those industrial centers. “Beltlines were created to avoid the industrial downtown,” which was viewed as not a great place to live. The circular Beltline around the city served to “pause development for a long time.” Within its boundaries, “trolley suburbs” were created.

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The parkland that has been added already is pretty spectacular. As the bus drove past, everyone oohed and aahed over the new historic 4th ward park, a Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) pilot project that has spurred $400 million in development around it. In a clever landscape architecture design, the Beltline team created a new basin that doubles as a park. An example of smart multi-use infrastructure, the new park, which cost $50 million, is designed to flood in severe storm events. When not flooding, there are ledges for exercise, with a theatre in the center. “We built a 17 acre park and a new piece of infrastructure for $50 million.”

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The park also leaps and bounds through the neighborhood, with additional smaller pieces dotted through the community. The nearby skatepark, which legendary skater Tony Hawk helped finance to the tune of $25,000, looked like a skater’s paradise. Burke said a new space for beginning skaters will be added soon, given what’s there now is for pretty advanced stuff.

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Design work has already begun on a number of other parks. James Corner Field Operations, designers of the High Line, and Perkins + Will, originally created the “25 percent-level designs,” said Harrop, creating the basic language of the greenways, parks, and trails. While Perkins + Will is doing more design work, Field Operations is no longer involved. Request for qualifications are going out for each individual park. While Burke said some $75 million has been spent so far – on parks and trails, there’s a long ways to go over the next 10-15 years. He said he’s already working 10-12 hours days getting new parks online.

One exciting park will be appearing soon at the Bellwood Quarry, an old quarry that the city bought in 2006. There will rise a new reservoir, the focal point of the new Westside Reservoir Park. In a unique partnership with the city’s department of watershed management and parks department, the Beltline will develop the park around the reservoir while the city will ensure the security and safety of the water supply. Harrop also told us that a herd of American bison, which are actually native to the area, may be imported and be used to organically amend the soils. The Beltline crew likes to set herbivores on their plant problems: goats were recently let loose on kudzu in some spots and sheep on poison ivy in others.

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Still other areas near the Beltline targeted to become parks are currently brownfields. Just west of University Avenue, in the southwest segment of the Beltline, a property next to the former State Farmer’s Market, which is now a wreck, will rise like a phoenix from the ashes and become a new 5-6-acre urban farm. To make way for this transformation, several layers of asphalt were removed, along with old gas tanks, axles, and transmission tanks. Harrop said the area will be restored from an abandoned industrial site to its original use as an agricultural resource for the neighborhood. He remarked on the “poetry” of that transformation.

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The transit corridor itself will rise and fall through the city. Burke said it will look much like the St. Charles street car line in New Orleans. There will be grass below and on the sides of the tracks. Like in New Orleans, Atlantans will be able to walk or jog near the tracks. “It will be a porous transit line.” The big challenge, though, is that much of the Beltline isn’t at grade; much of the network will be above or below street level. Every street that crosses the line will offer an access point. The transit line itself will stop every half to quarter mile. While there are 10 at-grade access points, there will be lots of walking up and down stairs and ramps to get to the line. Burke said “it’s an extreme challenge to design access so that people don’t feel like they a deserve a piece of cheese when they reach the end of the ramp.”

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Once people find their way to the streetcar corridor, they will find a 14-foot concrete bike and pedestrian trail, said Hussey-Coker. The walking trail will run alongside the streetcar. In most places, there will be enough room between the two networks so that no physical divider between them will be needed. In the case where they are just 7-feet apart, the design team plans to add in low shrubs or fences.

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In some parts, interestingly, the trail actually diverges from the streetcar line. “The trail will be nearby but it’s not always side by side.” The trails are in fact designed to meander a bit to “connect isolated green spaces” near the light rail line. To ensure bicyclists can also easily access the trail, entrepreneurs in the city are looking at opening bicycle rental shops at key points. There is a feasibility study underway for a bike share program as well. “Before we can build the bicycle infrastructure, we need to build a bicycle culture,” said Hussey-Coker.

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A lighting scheme is being designed to enable access at night and enhance security. The team decided against security call boxes along the trail, but they will be in the transit stations. Harrop said the cost of adding security call boxes along the entire 22-mile line would have been prohibitive, plus “everyone has cell phones these days.” The Atlanta Police department is already putting together the Path Force, a team dedicated to patrolling the parks, trails, and nearby neighborhoods. In the beginning of the planning process, there were some fears that the Beltline could be used as a “criminal corridor, used for bad stuff.” But the market is saying something different. Harrop noted a marked improvement in the housing market in Beltline neighborhoods and said bidding wars for residences right off the line are becoming more frequent. In fact, speculators are buying up vacant properties along the Beltline in some areas, seeing opportunities to make lots of money.

The landscape design itself, which was informed by the work of Perkins + Will and James Corner Field Operations, will be built out in parts by Trees Atlanta, a local tree-planting organization. Some sections will be like an arboretum, while others will be a more straight-forward greenway. In many areas, the landscape itself needs to be cleaned up, with invasive plants removed and basic environmental remediation. Groups in the 45 neighborhoods the line transects are able to Adopt the Beltline and organize clean-up crews. The Beltline seems to have done an excellent job at involving the many diverse local communities in both planning and upkeep. “There have been no protests about the Beltline.”

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But the big question may be: Can this new streetcar and set of trails really get Atlantans to move around the city in ways the existing infrastructure has not? The Beltline team is serious about providing other forms of mobility, but will they succeed in uprooting the car culture? Can they get Atlantans to think it’s cool to bike to work, walk trails every day, or take the streetcar to connect to a subway or bus?

The relatively new MARTA subway system (at least in comparison with NYC and Chicago) seemed barely used when this blogger rode it about 10 times, with stations and trains largely empty. Local riders looked like they were among those unlucky enough to not own a car. There were some tourists and business travelers coming to and from the airport. The reality is that the 10-county Atlanta region has some 4.2 million people, yet just 200,000 use the MARTA subway each day, despite the billions that have been spent on the project. Another 200,000 use the bus system, which this carless blogger waited almost an hour for one day. When I went into a store and asked one shop owner how to get back downtown on the bus, she just laughed, saying that “nobody rides the bus.”

As the new infrastructure comes in, the Beltline team, Atlanta city government, non-profits, and private sector firms, will need to work together to change the culture of the city, so that this beautiful re-envisioning of Atlanta’s historic infrastructure is actually put to good use.

Learn more about the Beltline master plan and next steps and see more photos.

Image credits: (1) Beltline map / Atlanta Beltline, (2) Beltline / A is for Atlanta, (3-4) Historic 4th Ward Park / Steve Carrell, (5) Historic 4th Ward Skatepark / Steve Carrell (6) Bellwood Quarry / Tumblr, State Farmers Market / SwatsMatt blog, (7) Irwin Promenade / Atlanta Beltline, (8) North Highland Overpass / Atlanta Beltline, (9) Gateway to the Eastside Trail at 10 street and Monroe Drive, (10) Adopt the Beltline / Atlanta Beltline

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The design professions are at a crossroads, struggling to reconcile design’s role as an engine for consumer-driven economic growth with its role in imagining and implementing sustainable lifestyles and businesses. There’s a “meaning” gap between designers’ potential for social good and the ruthless commercialism and consumerism that serves as the context for the professions.

In my new book, Architecture & Design versus Consumerism: How design activism confront growth, I explore this gap and present examples of how designers are confronting key problems of consumerism. Here I look at a few examples from landscape architecture.

Consumerism acts as an engine for economic growth. This engine shapes design as market values increasingly outweigh civic or environmental values. One example is private suburban communities. Peter Cannavò reports that the growing trend for making new suburbs private—privatization is a requirement in a number of cities—means that more and more whole neighborhoods are managed as property rather than as communities or civic places. This type of management usually limits the variety of structures and allowable types of landscapes, often aiming for an outdated suburban ideal of big houses, big cars, and resourced-intensive landscapes, all of which drive increased consumption.


New suburbs are privatized, becoming consumption-driven commodities rather than communities. Photo Patrick Huber.

Consumerism also shapes landscape design when market actors control the location of public places. Emily Talen describes how cities such as Phoenix and Chicago implement new parks and other public spaces not according to where they are needed, but rather, according to where developers have paid impact fees. In the case of Phoenix this means that parks are planned for low-density, peripheral locations rather than strategic locations that might synergistically enrich the public landscape. This is similar to other “privately owned public spaces.” Whoever has money to pay impact fees determines location, whether or not the location adds wider value. The locations and contexts then dictate the benefit that any landscape design can bring to the urban fabric as a whole.

How Landscape Architecture is Reshaping Consumption

Despite these problems we’re also seeing cases where landscape design is shaping, or reshaping, consumerism. Here we look at the examples of sharing, appropriation and interactivity. The discussion above suggests that the location of landscape amenities can limit the way they enrich the public realm. Although we think of a landscape as stationary, recent examples of mobile urban farms and floating parks begin to question what it means to share a landscape. Two examples are the Neptune Foundation’s floating swimming pool, essentially a floating park, and “The Farm Proper,” a mobile urban farm.


Set & Drift developed this experimental, mobile urban farm using abandoned shopping carts, among other things.

Landscape architects are also looking at ways to appropriate and reassign existing landscapes that are underperforming socially, often because spaces are shaped by market efficiencies, to the exclusion of social or environmental values. In these cases designers highlight and uncover added value in tactical ways. An example is the Park(ing) Day project by ReBar, where money in the meter converts on-street parking spaces into temporary pocket parks.

Western countries are driven increasingly by “positional” consumption—for status rather than to meet basic needs. But research indicates that providing a better quality commons, including public space, could offer new means for gaining social distinction and weaken the link between status and private consumption. To this end, designers are enriching public spaces in new ways.


Play encouraged by flexible, fiber-optic “stalks” that emit sound and light as people passed near them in “White Noise, White Light” by J. Meejin Yoon. Courtesy of Howler + Yoon Architects.

Examples are experiments in interactive landscapes such as Enteractive (by Electroland Studio) and White Noise White Light. In both cases public spaces were “wired” to react to public and social activity. This interaction introduced play, but also temporarily personalized the place without privatizing it. Interesting developments occur as these interactive components are deployed in urban greenscapes as well as hardscapes.

This guest post by author Ann Thorpe is part of a virtual book tour for the book, Architecture & Design versus Consumerism (Earthscan/Routledge 2012). Thorpe currently serves as strategist with a Seattle-based startup, a social enterprise called Luum. She is also author of The Designer’s Atlas of Sustainability.

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In the past few years, the massive, 22-hectare Barangaroo redevelopment project on Sydney’s iconic harbour has been mired in controversy. First, an international competition was announced in 2006, which was won by Hills Thalis Architecture. Then, upon concerns about the transparency of the development process and that the project was out of scale with the surrounding Sydney Harbour, a new competition was launched a few years later, which was then won by starchitect Sir Richard Rogers. In those years, the scope of the project also changed to improve the commercial viability of the A$ 6 billion project. The amount of space dedicated to commercial use was increased by one-third. To accomodate all the expected business influx, Rogers, controversially, proposed a nearly 800-feet-tall hotel among the parks and commercial offices. Rogers defends his approach as appropriate for the massive scale of the development.

The site is divided into three segments: Barangaroo South, Headland Park, and Barangaroo Central. Barangaroo South is home to Rogers’ three skyscrapers, including the 800-feet-tall hotel, while Headland Park, a 6-hectare site, will be designed by Australian architecture firm Johnson Pilton Walker in association with U.S. landscape architecture firm Peter Walker and Partners. The park is expected to include 100 percent native “common” plant species growing on recycled water. Interestingly, prior to the announcement of the final designs, famed urban designer Jan Gehl said, due to the size of parkland, it can’t be anything but “a wasteland” and “fearful at night.” Given the park won’t be completed until 2015 and the other sites won’t come online for a few years after that, it will take some time to see if he’s proved to be correct.

Now, according to the Barangaroo Development Authority, an international competition is underway for Barangaroo’s 5.2-hectare central district. The development authority, which has been the subject of its own controversy — with a few of its members removed by the city for conflicts of interest, will be seeking world-class master planning services from a landscape architecture, urban design, or planning firm.  

On the upside, the project plans to be the first major climate positive development in Australia. However, on the other hand, according to The Sydney Morning Herald, the developers are already talking about creating a huge casino in the new central district, making any plans that don’t include a spot for gambling moot from the get-go.

CEO of the Authority John Tabart said, “On the western edge of Sydney’s CBD, Barangaroo is a 22 hectare former container port, being transformed into a vital new extension of the city, as a new global financial hub and the spectacular Headland Park. Playing a pivotal role between these two icons, is Barangaroo Central, planned to be a stimulating new place with commercial and cultural development, creating spaces for living work and leisure.” 

The successful team will create a conceptual vision while revising the existing concept plan, along with a new master plan, land use framework, and public domain plan. Beginning at the end of August, firms can find the RFP online. Submissions must be in by September 26, 2012. 

Image credit: Barangaroo Development Authority

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Mick Cornett
is now serving his third term as mayor of Oklahoma City. Cornett, the national president of the organization representing Republican Mayors and Local Officials (RMLO), was named public official of the year by Governing Magazine in 2010. Cornett was the featured guest of First Lady Michelle Obama at the State of Union in large part because he put Oklahoma City “on a diet” in 2007, challenging citizens to lose a collective one-million pounds. The goal was reached in January 2012. More than 47,000 residents logged their weight loss on the awareness campaign’s website.

In The Huffington Post you wrote that twenty-five years ago few companies wanted to come to Oklahoma City because of the lack of amenities. The quality of life wasn’t viewed as great, so you decided to do something about it. What did you understand to be the absolutely necessary pieces in improving quality of life? What was Oklahoma missing?

We had established low standards for ourselves. We had considered ourselves a good place to live and a nice place to raise a family, but I don’t think any of us would have maintained that it was a great place to visit. It wasn’t the city where you invited your family and friends from other parts of the country to come visit. We didn’t have a city worth showing off.

When we started about 20 years ago on this track to create some amenities we were not only proud of but that we create a city worth showing off, a lot of it was just raising the standards for what was acceptable. That included a lot of big projects like building a new ball park and sports arena and putting money into our performing arts center. But there was also water projects and beautification projects along the way — putting a canal through our entertainment district and building dams to actually put a stable body of water into our river. There were a lot of things people who lived in Oklahoma City had just never really considered. We decided to invest in ourselves. Even if no one moved here and created jobs, we’d at least have a better place for us. That was the thinking initially. It’s evolved quite a bit since then.

Since 1993, to finance your MAPS initiatives, which are viewed as a really innovative model for how cities can change themselves with their own money, you used a limited penny tax passed, which you have used to raise more than a billion for local projects. How did the penny tax come about?

The mayor at the time was named Ron Norick. We had been successful in passing some sales tax increases for economic development projects. Now for the most part those projects never came to fruition so the tax was never collected. Nonetheless, he noted that our citizens were willing to invest in themselves for something better. We were trying to kick start a really gloomy economy. The decade of the 1980s was just a horrible time in the state of Oklahoma and a pretty gloomy time in Oklahoma City.

Norick chose the five-year time frame because it was a timeframe people were comfortable with in their own lives. If you bought a new car, chances are you were going to be paying for it for about five years. It seemed like a good, finite opportunity to put something in front of the voters. It would allow them to consider whether or not they thought this was a good way to fund projects. Also, voters took comfort in the fact that it was going to go away, and secondly, that it paid cash. There was no debt in the way we funded these projects. That was fundamentally new, and it’s still new from the way most cities do it.

The first MAPS project took aim at revitalizing Oklahoma City’s downtown. With some $350 million locally-raised funds, the city built a new canal riverfront development zone, ballpark, music hall, and convention center. A huge new park is coming to complement a revamped botanic garden. Why focus on the downtown first? Why was that the priority?

Fundamentally, most people in your city care about two things: They care about their neighborhood and their downtown. A city gets its identity from its core. One of the reasons Oklahoma City succeeded, now looking back 20 years, is that we convinced people who live in the suburbs that the quality of life downtown is important. We’ve convinced them their quality of life is directly related to the intensity of the core, that you can’t be a suburb of nothing.



In way too many cities across the country, what you see is some flourishing life in the suburbs and a core that has seen its life disappear. In Oklahoma City what we tried to do was put new life into the core of the city. We want to make a city where at five o’clock people still want to stay, whether they want to live or they want to play, or they want to continue to work. We want downtown to be an inviting place. If your downtown is dead, it’s hard to imagine that life in the suburbs is going to be a whole lot better.


A new set of $777 million in investments will create a new downtown park and riverfront recreation opportunities, build out a street car system, expand sidewalks and biking trails, and create new senior wellness centers. Another $180 million was raised just to redesign downtown streets. These projects seemed designed to improve the quality of life for locals as much to draw in further private sector investment. But what do you hope to accomplish with the new projects? How are you defining success?

If we’re creating a city that our kids and our grandkids are going to want to choose to live. In the 1980s when my contemporaries and I came of age, there weren’t that many good jobs available. Most people who got an advanced degree had to leave Oklahoma City. We lost a generation of leadership. To a certain extent, some of those people are coming back now.

What we want is to create a city where if a kid grows up in Oklahoma City, they want to remain here if they can. What we’re seeing is not only is that becoming true, but a lot of people are moving here from California, the east coast, and especially Texas. Those are communities that had been a drain on our most promising citizens for generations. Now we’re attracting that human capital. That’s going to be the key to economic development because no longer do people follow jobs. Jobs follow people. We’re succeeding now because we’re attracting the top human capital available.

Are you working with landscape architects on these projects? Also, have any designers really influenced your thinking on how to design successful public spaces? What do you hope to accomplish with these new public spaces?

What we’ve learned is that there wasn’t a lack of enlightenment either at City Hall or in the business community. We had just never prioritized the landscape architecture that can really help beautify a project or a city.


The city has now got a set of standards. It’s hard to imagine that you’re going to have businesses with high standards in a city that has low standards. When the city developed higher standards — and those are standards that I continually push, given they need to be ever increasing — what you see is that the businesses in the community want to reflect those standards or maybe even exceed them. So it feeds on itself. When you have a city of low standards you’re going to have businesses that exude that same quality. You’re not going to create a city that’s all that impressive or creates interesting opportunities for pedestrians.

We have a number of landscape architects, architects, and designers here in the city who are very capable of doing great work but they had never necessarily been funded or inspired until recently.

I’ve also worked with Jeff Speck, Hon. ASLA, on a series of projects over the last few years. Jeff has helped me learn about many of the ways you can create a more pedestrian-friendly community. We have a long way to go there. Jeff has been a great sounding board for me from the outside-in on what works in certain cities across the country.

But I will say there are wonderful landscape architects right here in Oklahoma City who are now doing incredible work. I can only assume this type of work has been possible for a long, long time. It just hasn’t been standard. Now, it’s the standard and we’re seeing it.

You say that the MAPS projects have yielded $5 billion in private sector investment, much of that in new real estate. With increased residential investment and improved transit and these nice new sidewalks, are you concerned about affordability downtown? How has the population changed since private sector investment has taken off?

There’s great demand downtown. We’ve had so little downtown housing for years. The affordability is an issue, but that’s based on the idea that it almost has to be new construction. Most of the opportunity to live downtown is brand new construction, which costs more. So we are seeing price ranges that are higher than we would like. I’m somewhat concerned about that but I think over time it will start to take care of itself.

There is quite a bit of high-end housing in downtown Oklahoma City. But housing is very affordable in Oklahoma City in general. When people move to the city, they’re very surprised at how affordable our housing stock is whether they want to live in suburbs or downtown.

I can tell you this: There is great demand for downtown housing. What we have yet to resolve is making the housing as affordable as the demand would indicate. When that tipping point arrives, you’re going to see downtown housing explode. Right now, there’s a nice market for it but it’s going to really take off when the price points get closer to the average price for a house.

What are your views on the federal debate on transportation enhancements, federal financing for bicycling and pedestrian infrastructure? The senators from Oklahoma seem to be very opposed to federal support for these measures. Has Oklahoma City ever benefited from transportation enhancement funding?

Well, sure we have and, you know, I’m all for walkability and a more pedestrian-friendly environment. I am for as many of those decisions that can be made locally as possible.

I do have a slightly different take than my senators on this issue but I think both of our senators will tell national audiences how extremely proud they are that Oklahoma City is a perfect example of a city that took care of its own destiny. The fact that we’ve done so much for ourselves might be reflected in their attitudes. Because they’ve seen what can happen. They’ve seen these types of amenities that can be instituted from the ground-up. They approve of that method.

I just like the idea of anything that improves the quality of life in communities, cities tapping into those resources, but I’m not speaking for the funding like they are.

Lastly, you famously put Oklahoma City “on a diet” and recently that initiative hit a benchmark: 1 million pounds lost. Why do you think the campaign took off like it did? How are you connecting your weight loss campaign now to the new park projects, the walking and biking infrastructure?

The new prioritization on obesity here in Oklahoma City was really just a reflection on the idea that we have higher and higher standards. What I noted when I launched the campaign was we were putting higher standards on seemingly everything — except us. We really needed to put higher standards on our health and our children so the campaign was really just an attempt to get a conversation going.

We needed to talk about obesity and health in general. When I came forward and was willing to discuss my own health issues and at the same time was exposing the fact that our city had a large problem with obesity, it allowed people to be more comfortable talking about it inside their home, business, or church. That conversation has been very helpful in getting people to recognize the dangers of obesity and that we need to do something about it.

That conversation was very instrumental in us plugging in some of these healthier concepts into MAPS 3. After that campaign, we were able to say these senior health and wellness centers are going to be important. These jogging and biking trails are instrumental to creating the city that we want our kids to grow up in. We have now made an incredible amount of infrastructure improvements downtown, improving the walkability of our core city.


We are becoming a city where people want to get out and walk, which is really important. For decades, we created a life where everything revolved around the car. That’s less true today. I hope it’s less true in the coming years.

Interview conducted by Jared Green.

Image credits: (1) Myriad Botanical Gardens and Crystal Bridge Tropical Conservatory (project by Office of James Burnett) / Image credit: McNeese Fitzgerald Associates, (2) Myriad Botanical Gardens (project by Office of James Burnett) / Image credit: Carl Shortt, (3) Bricktown canal revitalization / Image credit: City of Oklahoma, (4) Central Park concept / Image credit: Hargreaves Associates, (5) Sidewalk improvements downtown / Image credit: Office of James Burnett

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After two years of internal debate among 17 different federal agencies and the D.C. government, the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) released its long-awaited plans for a new Southwest Eco-District designed to undo the worst damage of the massive “urban renewal” projects inflicted on L’Enfant neighborhood over the past decades. Designed to transform the spooky, almost pedestrian-free area just south of the Mall into a highly sustainable, people-friendly cultural and business destination, the Eco-district plan means to take on many challenges at once. As Elizabeth Miller, ASLA, the intrepid landscape architect who is guiding the project, explained, this 110-acre, 15-square block project is meant to showcase “high performance buildings and landscapes” while creating space for 19,000 new federal workers and solving some of the worst pedestrian access problems.

At the beginning of the hearing today, NCPC Chairman L. Preston Bryant, Jr said the project can go a long way to “breathing new life into the city.” While the whole Eco-District may take 20 or 30 years to design and implement, “we have a once in a generation opportunity to make this happen.” He added that NCPC and its many federal partners are eager to move forward because there are some synergies that make the timing right: The Department of Energy (DOE) building is “coming to a lifecycle decision,” meaning that it’s ready to be torn down because it’s now highly inefficient in terms of energy and water use; the Southwest waterfront plans are moving forward, with $2 billion in private sector investment set; and the D.C. government-led Maryland Avenue redevelopment project is on its way.

Miller outlined a vision for an Eco-District that provokes the imagination, at least among sustainable designers. She said the new District will “capture, manage, and reuse water, energy, and waste” and work beyond a single building, leveraging clusters of buildings to create a new system. At the same time, the plan will take aim at the incredible lack of public access — the barriers, the highways, and grade changes — that keep people away, except for the federal workers that have to go there for work.

Diane Sullivan, sustainability planner for NCPC, said a sustainable mixed-use community will arise out of a set of new “guidelines, objectives” that will frame neighborhood development efforts and the creation of new environmental systems.

On developing the neighborhood, Sullivan said that a user survey of D.C. residents found that the lack of amenities was the overwhelming reason why people didn’t want to move down there or even hang out there. So the goal is create a new tree-lined 10th street (or L’Enfant Place) that can connect the Mall to the new Southwest waterfront development while also making that connection itself an exciting cultural destination, lined with 1.2 million square feet in new space for up to 5 new museums, along with farmers’ markets and other draws.


Better pedestrian access is also key to making all this work. In the new plans, Miller said Virginia and Maryland Avenues will re-appear, carving new paths through new buildings as park-like avenues for promenading. Sullivan said the new local street designs cutting up the mega-blocks are still being worked out. She asked, “which streets should be monumental? Which should be local?”

To better get those pedestrians — all those federal workers — to the area, a “better inter-modal system” will be put in place, with a revamped, solar roofed-L’Enfant station, offering both commuter rail and Metro. To ease pressure off Union Station, more commuter rail may be directed there somehow.


The saving grace of the scary L’Enfant Place now is the fountain in Dan Kiley’s Modern-era Benjamin Banneker park, with its dramatic overlook across the Washington Channel. Unfortunately, the rest of Kiley’s park was not well realized. With spaghetti loops of highways cutting through, it’s a matter of taking your life in your own hands to go from the park to the waterfront. In the new plans, Kiley’s park will be completely redone but the area will still serve as a monument to African American surveyor Banneker. The new, more sustainable park will more easily connect to the waterfront while providing a new visual identity for the “eco” part of the district.


Now, on the systems that will make the district more eco: First, many of the old federal buildings will go, getting a revamp so they meet the goals of Obama’s Executive Order 13514, which calls for federal agencies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, water and energy use. The ones that stay, like the famed Brutalist HUD building, will be updated to be more efficient.

Sullivan said the goal is to have “zero-net energy district as measured in carbon.” Pretty near impossible unless fully renewable power is the rule for the new Eco-District. Sullivan said solar PVs and solar thermal systems (for hot water) will be added to the roofs of the new buildings wherever possible, while ground-source heat will also be tapped. A central facility run by GSA, which runs on natural gas, will still be used (but that won’t get them to zero emissions).

Heading down towards the water, the freeway that cuts off the connection between Benjamin Banneker park and the waterfront will be capped with a new layer covered in solar panels.

For water, the goal is to reduce potable water use throughout the Eco-District by 70 percent and manage all stormwater where it falls. All building greywater will be reused while blackwater will go to the new anaerobic plant. Rainwater will be caught by acres of green roofs (including edible ones), green streets, trees, and planters. What isn’t caught will be funneled into cisterns underneath 10th street and used later. Green infrastructure is then clearly a central part of the strategy. Permeable areas overall are to grow to 35 percent, while the tree canopy is to reach 40 percent (a solid target). (Right now, the barren area has just 8 percent tree cover). While we didn’t hear anything substantive about creating a wildlife-friendly landscape designed to attract diverse species, we hope that’s in the works.


There are more ambitious goals for waste reductions: Some 75 percent of construction materials for the new buildings will be reused, and 80 percent of everyday waste will be diverted from the landfill. A composting program will be put in place, too.

So, how will this all actually work? Sullivan sees some government buildings first getting a light rehabilitation and then others will undergo a full rehabilitation. Three federal buildings will be “re-purposed” as major infill development begins. Then, big redevelopment will start over the freeway. At the same time, critical projects like a new Banneker park and a new 10th street landscape will begin next year.

What’s this all going to cost? Miller and Sullivan said an economic feasibility study only provided some high-level numbers, but they did say the federal government would make back its multibillion dollar investment over 20 years through reduced energy, water, and waste fees; increased revenues from private sector developers; and improved local tax gains.

While we hope this project is a sure thing, new governance structures and partnership and financing agreements will need to be worked out among all the partners, including the private sector developers who are key to making this all happen. Let’s hope this is not a protracted process. As the Eco-District gets moving, it can become an innovative showcase for how to revamp government hubs across the U.S.

Learn more about the bold plans. D.C. residents can attend a public hearing on the proposals on July 19. The comment period will be open for three months. Comments will be incorporated into a final plan ready to go by early 2013. By the end of next year, NCPC hopes to have design competitions launched for a new Banneker park and 10th street, its two priority public projects.

Image credit: ZGF Architects, courtesy of NCPC

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At a historic church in the Shaw neighborhood of Washington, D.C., Mayor Vincent Gray said there are either two future directions for the city: “The gaps between us could further divide our city,” or the city could become “greener, more equitable, and more prosperous” for all. Outlining a bold vision for a Sustainable D.C., Gray said he wanted the city to not only be the greenest in the U.S. but among all world cities. D.C. is currently ranked 8th in a recent ranking of North American cities by the Economist Intelligence Unit so the city has quite a ways to go to get to number one in this continent, let alone the world. In the near term, can D.C. beat New York City, Vancouver, or San Francisco? That’s a stretch and only possible with deep collaboration with the non-profit and private sectors.

Gray is giving the city one generation — 20 years — to accomplish his ambitious objectives, which weave in health, economic, employment, and environmental goals. The idea is that D.C. will not only become greenest but healthiest, with the most number of green jobs. On top of this, Gray wants to continue to grow the city’s population in a big way. Gray said “sustainability will need to be a continual process.”

In terms of carbon dioxide, the city wants to cut emissions by 50 percent by 2032. In presenting the goals, Christopher Tuluo, head of D.C.’s Environment Department, said “climate change is happening. If someone says it isn’t, they are flat out wrong.” A key part of achieving this goal will be reaching objectives on energy use and efficiency. The city seeks to cut district-wide energy use by 50 percent while increasing renewable energy use to 50 percent. Given some 75 percent of emissions come from buildings, the District will push for adaptive re-use of old buildings so they can become greener. The idea is to maintain and improve the current building stock and increase the number of LEED buildings (the city is already number one for that metric). Another way to fight the effect of climate change: strengthening D.C.’s already considerable urban forest, which stores much of the city’s carbon, reaching a 40 percent tree canopy by 2032. Here Tuluo added that “trees are important when it’s 100 degrees out because of climate change.”

Investing in more sustainable transportation systems is also key to both reducing transportation-related emissions and adapting to a carbon-constrained world. The district seeks to make 75 percent of all trips walking, biking, or transit in 20 years. Harriet Tregoning, D.C.’s planning director, said “this is a stretch goal but these trips already make up 50 percent of all trips right now.” She discussed how more young people may be moving to D.C. because the city’s transportation system is so affordable. This younger generation is so in debt with college loans they can’t afford cars. In fact, just 60 percent of D.C. residents own cars and that number is falling.

Sustainability means improving D.C.’s waterways, which are amongst the most polluted in the country. Gray wants 100 percent of District waterways to be fishable and swimmable, and 75 percent of D.C.’s green space to be used as green infrastructure that captures and filters rainwater for reuse. Tuluo wants the city to become much “spongier.” He wants the city to become “a much more natural place — not just for the environmental benefits. We want return on investment” in terms of stormwater management benefits.

The process for dealing with waste, which the Economist Intelligence Unit report said was among D.C. weak points, will need to be totally transformed if the city is going to reach zero waste in 20 years. Tuluo asked, “is zero waste a pipe dream?” Perhaps not. Organic waste is already turned into compost as a matter of practice in San Francisco, one of the best cities at dealing with waste. He sees D.C. residents “becoming urban farmers,” using their compost daily, and other waste consumed by digesters that turn other garbage into energy.

The front end of the reuse chain is local food production, which will also need to ramped up if the 75 percent of all food is to be grown within a quarter-mile of the population eating it. Tregoning argued that “it used to be really difficult to find a supermarket in the District.” While that has changed, improving the availability of local produce will be sped along by a network of food-productive roofs. She wants one million square feet of these vegetated roofs in place funneling produce to local shops and co-ops. (According to Gray, the city is already number-one in terms of green roofs so this may be possible). Getting local produce to D.C. residents seems to be a key focus. Health must be at the top of a sustainability agenda in a city where 22 percent of the population is obese. Gray wants to cut that rate in half in 20 years. 

D.C.’s plan won’t work without more equitable economic and employment growth. Right now, the unemployment rates in the city differ dramatically from ward to ward. In Ward 3, it’s as low as 2 percent, while in poorer parts of the city, like Ward 8, it’s 24 percent, among the highest in the country. Gray wants to boost the number of green jobs by five times — providing opportunities at all levels, from the PhDs experimenting with biofuels to the landscape architects designing parks, from the green roof installers to the maintenance crews keeping green infrastructure and waste reuse systems working.

Explore the plan. There are a few short, medium, and long-term actions listed. As Tregoning said, “the vision is a painting of what’s possible in the District.” A design and implementation strategy with hundreds of actions comes next. To see some actions that should be considered, explore ASLA’s 30-page set of recommendations: Becoming Greenest. One big focus of ASLA’s report was the need for a climate adaptation plan. If local species in D.C.’s great urban forest were to die off due to higher temperatures, none of the other goals related to water, air quality, or health will be possible.

Image credit: City Center, Washington, D.C. / SWF Institute

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