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William Wenk / Wenk Associates

William Wenk, FASLA, is the founder and president of Wenk Associates. This interview was conducted at the ASLA 2014 Annual Meeting in Denver. 

Denver has made great strides in its efforts to become one of the more sustainable cities in the US. What have been the major successes over the past 20 years? Where does the city still need to make progress?

The urban corridor, along the front range of the mountains between Colorado Springs and Fort Collins, is one of the fastest growing metropolitan corridors in the country. The most significant improvement has been the new regional light rail network that Denver Metro area voters approved approximately 10 years ago. This system has generated opportunities for transit-oriented developments (TODs), a” hub and spoke” system well on its way to being built out. It will be one of the most comprehensive in the country. The goal is to create more urban environments on sites often found in a suburban context.

In the heart of Denver, there has been tremendous interest in development at the rail stops. But increased density along the rail corridors can’t possibly handle the levels of growth and need for housing. In addition — with the exception of a few light rail stops — the expansion of transit in the heart of Denver is proving to be especially difficult. A number of established neighborhoods are being transformed by much denser infill development where there’s no transit other than our bus system, which isn’t very well-used. Increased density, especially in older central city neighborhoods, has been tremendously controversial. For example, the Cherry Creek District, which is an upscale shopping area two miles from downtown Denver, is achieving urban density, but isn’t served by transit. The same is true for the Lowry infill, New Urbanist development, where higher densities are being criticized because of increased traffic in surrounding streets. Controversy surrounding increased densities in the center of Denver will continue to be an issue for years.

To provide a better transit option the heart of the city, Denver is considering on-demand transit or circulators, which Boulder has found to be very successful. A system of circulator buses in Boulder called the Hop, Skip and Jump, has been a hit. We also have Zipcars and BCycle, our bike share system, that provide other options to owning a car, especially in areas close to the downtown. Because we’re such a car-oriented city, getting a typical family to shift from two cars to one car is a big deal, in spite of all of the innovations to date.

The state’s population is increasing at about 2 percent per year. As a result, we are once again seeing sprawl — low-density development at the urban fringes. Since 2008, sprawl had slowed down considerably, but it has been heating up again.

Among the city’s sustainability goals: by 2020, Denver seeks to increase transportation options so only 60 percent of commuting trips are made by single-occupant vehicles. How will the city achieve this? Is compact urban development the way forward here?

Colorado has 5 million people now but is projected to grow by 2 million people in the next 15 years. Accommodating that level of growth is going to be an enormous challenge. Colorado is a very popular destination to move to both for Millennials and Baby-Boomer seniors who are following their kids who now live here.

We have daunting issues related to growth along the front range, which is where most of the growth will occur. We can’t accommodate it all with denser infill development, although there are currently thousands of units of apartments under construction right now in the heart of Denver. We’ll also see more units coming in the TODs along the light rail system.

Some of the most dramatic examples of growth are in aging industrial areas near downtown Denver. For example, we’re currently working on the Brighton Boulevard corridor, the spine of an old industrial area that is rapidly transforming into a hip mixed-use arts and tech-oriented district.

Developers in the area are insisting we incorporate bike lanes, broader sidewalks, and stormwater treatment in the right of way. Unlike many older coastal and Midwestern cities, Denver’s not being pressured by the federal government to improve stormwater quality to the degree that these older cities are. Instead, the development community has really been pushing the city to innovate to create green infrastructure systems that also enhance the public realm at a district scale. It’s a very interesting time here, as we re-imagine the infrastructure in those neighborhoods that will be populated primarily by Millennials who don’t want to own a car.

But multiple barriers remain. The city, in partnership with the development community, is trying to identify the appropriate finance and maintenance strategy to transform the area’s infrastructure. The city is trying to catch up with the most innovative of national trends, but they don’t don’t quite know how to do it. Denver isn’t alone in this: Most larger cities are facing the same issues. I only wish we could move more quickly, be more willing to experiment with new ideas, and implement those that prove to be most feasible on a wider basis.

Another of the city’s goals is to make all rivers and creeks swimmable by 2020. How will the city achieve this goal?

All water in Colorado is owned. It’s bought and sold as a commodity, unlike water in wetter climates. There’s an old saying: “in the West, water flows uphill toward money.” Most of the water for front range communities comes from across the Continental Divide through a network of tunnels, canals, rivers. Like most rivers in the West, the South Platte River, which flows through the heart of Denver, serves as an integral part of this network to convey water that has been historically used for agricultural use. During periods of high diversion for agricultural and urban uses, rivers can be literally drained dry.

Until recently, there was no water allocated that would maintain river flows for recreation and habitat. Many rivers in the West face this issue, which will continue to be of concern far into the future because of high demands on water. Coliform, a bacteria; metals; and nutrients are a problem in the South Platte River, as they are in many urban rivers. For multiple reasons, I think the goal of making the cities, rivers, and creeks swimmable by 2020 simply isn’t possible given how we’re approaching the problem today.

It is difficult to remove coliform through passive treatment methods. Meeting that goal may always be a problem because we don’t have a complete understanding of many of the sources yet. That said, there’s a great deal that could be done if there were the political will and funding to tackle it, especially at a watershed or district or neighborhood scale. Because Denver isn’t under a federal consent decree, an improvement in the quality of urban rivers and streams will only occur through public pressure and creative means of financing and maintenance.

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Swimming in the South Platte River at Confluence Park / Wenk Associates

What is really interesting is there is significant interest on the part of a growing number of developers to be more responsible stewards of our urban water resources. For example, we are currently working developers, such as Zeppelin Development, Perry/Rose, and Urban Ventures who care deeply about Denver and are saying “We’ve got to do this.” They’re putting political pressure on the city to move beyond traditional stormwater management to employ green infrastructure approaches in a way that is good for business and the environment. Millennials are looking for green infrastructure in their living and working environments.

Denver Housing Authority, another of our long term clients, which has been instrumental in transforming a number of derelict areas the core city, is taking the same approach. As Chris Parr, their director of development, says “We want to be nutty green,” because they believe, as long-term owners of these projects, green approaches to development make good business sense. For example, the redevelopment of an outdated public housing project spanning several blocks at a light rail station very close to the downtown used stormwater infiltration as a primary management strategy to reduce development costs. Significant challenges remain though: Long-standing development standards for stormwater management and street design are still on the books, which limit change.

According to a report published in 2014, Denver is in the top 10 for U.S. cities with the highest percentage of green commercial real estate. Is the city also moving to greener commercial landscapes? If so, can you provide some examples?

We are moving towards more water-conservative landscapes. I wish to make that distinction because Denver Water, the primary regional water supplier, has emphasized water conservation for the last 20 years, resulting in at least a 10 percent reduction in water use. There is an almost universal emphasis on the use of xeriscape principles for commercial landscape design. In 2050, Colorado will have a 163 billion gallon shortage of water available for urban uses, so we’re going to have to explore further means of conservation, as well as rethinking what the larger concept of landscape means in our semi-arid climate.

Because of our water laws, we cannot harvest rainwater. Much of our effluent cannot be reused for the same reasons. That said, there is great potential to transform the urban environment using more regionally appropriate, gray/green landscapes that are more integral with natural processes, which you emerging in Portland and Philadelphia as a result of stormwater mandates.

There are some experimental green roofs here, but they tend to need irrigation because of our solar gain, which is counter to water conservation goals. Because of anticipated shortages, there is talk of “toilet to tap,” but given the vast majority of our domestic supply goes to landscape irrigation, we’ve only begun to explore the possibilities of a sustainable regional landscape aesthetic and ethic.

Our work at Taxi is a good example of a sustainable commercial landscape. We’ve worked within Colorado water law to infiltrate stormwater. We’ve used nonliving materials extensively. The plant palette consists of a broad range of native and non-native xeric plants.

Denver is in the top 10 on the Trust for Public Land’s ParkScore, which ranks cities on the quality of their park systems. What parks best exemplify the city’s commitment to providing high-quality green public spaces?

Denver has one of the more notable City Beautiful-era systems of parks and parkways. It’s on the National Register. Cheesman Park, Washington Park, City Park, and Speer Boulevard are just remarkable historic resources. The system’s been expanded significantly as part of the development of Stapleton and Lowry’s park and open space networks.

In Stapleton and Lowry, the historic Olmstedian park aesthetic has evolved to be much more regionally appropriate, in terms of incorporating large areas of more native and naturalized landscapes driven by managing stormwater on site.

Also, the city is investing heavily in an expansion of parks and natural areas along the Platte River Greenway, which was established over 40 years ago as one of the first greenway systems in the country.

We are currently involved in the $4 million first phase redevelopment of Confluence Park along the river, which is part of a $40 million long-term makeover. Confluence has become overwhelmed with out-of-town visitors and daily users who now live in the Central Platte Valley. We’re looking at public private partnerships to create landscape architecture that better manage conflicts between bikes and pedestrians. There is a level of urban use that demands new types of management and maintenance, something you find in major urban centers but Denver is only beginning to see.

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Confluence Park rendering / Wenk Associates

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Confluence Park rendering / Wenk Associates

There are some wonderful new parkways, especially in Stapleton, designed around the natural qualities of the West. These naturalized qualities make you feel like you’re in the West rather than in Cleveland or in Washington, D.C. Those parkways have been controversial, but people are getting used to them and see their inherent beauty.

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Stapleton Walking Path / Wenk Associates

Denver Parks is looking to the future in terms of how we begin to serve our rapidly expanding population, the thousands of new residents who are going to be living downtown. Existing parks in the downtown tend to be oriented to major civic events and festivals. The master plan is proposing an expansion with a range of traditional and nontraditional park types. They seek to incentivize public-private partnerships, which will lead to more private parks in ways that you see in the core of Manhattan — streets as parks, pop-up parks, for example.

Bicycling Magazine ranks Denver 12th in the country for its bicycle infrastructure, behind leaders like New York City, Portland, and even Boulder, which ranks sixth. What are the plans for improving bike infrastructure in the city?

Bike use has gone up dramatically, especially for commuting, over the last 10 years. The U.S. Census Bureau ranked us in the top 10 given some 2.3 percent of residents commute by bike. BCycles, our bike sharing system, has been really successful and expanded beyond the downtown.

There are aggressive proposals for enhancing the cycling network downtown. Our downtown business association is currently crowdsourcing funding to physically separate bike lanes because public funding isn’t currently available. Denver Public Works department has a bicycle coordinator. There’s a major initiative to create a comprehensive system of new bike lanes and sharrows. These all are a testament to the city’s commitment to enhancing our on and off street system for our outdoor-oriented population.

But in spite of all of the improvements, we have some major gaps and barriers in the system and entrenched street standards that aren’t bike friendly. These issues are going to be difficult and expensive to solve.

Why is Denver so keen on adaptive reuse? Many of your projects, such as the Taxi Redevelopment and Northside Park, reimagine old infrastructure to create parks and commercial spaces the city can use today.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, we lost a tremendous number of fabulous buildings to urban renewal, like most other cities. There was huge resistance, which resulted in the preservation of Larimer Square, the establishment of a number of historic districts, and new landmark status for many remaining buildings. These efforts also spawned Historic Denver and other preservation organizations and programs that have resulted in the preservation of a number of historic districts and buildings: our warehouse district, known as Lower Downtown (LODO), is a prime example. It has been hugely successful as a real estate venture. Although we’ve lost a great number of really valuable resources, today, there is widespread adaptive reuse of warehouses and old industrial buildings.

Taxi was a derelict taxi dispatch center surrounded by rail yards, along the Platte River. Our client, Micky Zeppelin, saw this gritty infrastructure as a place creative individuals wanted to live and work. He’s always been a student of cities around the world. He wanted us to be responsible about water use as part of a much broader agenda of creating a creative community. He wanted a rich environment that was both urban and natural, and one where natural processes could function in the heart of the city.

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Taxi redevelopment / Wenk Associates

Northside Park was a decommissioned sewage plant, an incredibly stout infrastructure too expensive to tear down, Our solution to retain the plant was primarily practical. We needed to reduce demolition/construction costs and create space for two soccer fields. Personally, I’ve always been fascinated with layers of history in the land — both visible and invisible — and the richness of expression that is possible by revealing those layers.

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Northside Park / Wenk Associates

Adaptive resuse is messy, but it’s a wonderfully rich way of way of thinking about the world. The world is not a clean and tidy place. The landscapes a lot of us want to live in aren’t necessarily clean and tidy, but they’re vital. They’re alive. This line of thinking can lead us toward the next generation of urban landscapes in the semi-arid West.

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Mesa City Center / all images Colwell Shelor, West 8, and Weddle Gilmore

Colwell Shelor Landscape Architecture, West 8 Urban Design + Landscape Architecture, and Weddle Gilmore have won a design competition to create Mesa City Center, a new civic space destined to accelerate urbanization in Mesa, a city of more than 450,000 in the greater, sprawled-out suburban area surrounding Phoenix, Arizona. A major investment in making this part of the country more walkable, the new 19-acre town square will be a “catalyst for the next 100 years of urban growth in downtown Mesa,” argued Colwell Shelor, the lead landscape architects. The new downtown public spaces will be financed with park bonds, approved by voters in 2012. This project, like the new Klyde Warren Park in Dallas and the Newport Beach Civic Center in California, indicates that more heavily car-centric cities are making ambitious investments in high-quality public space, because people everywhere want these amenities and are willing to pay for them.

“Today, the site is a mix of parking lots and municipal buildings. When complete, Mesa City Center will feature a signature public space that will catalyze new development and enliven Mesa’s downtown core,” said Michele Shelor, ASLA, principal, Colwell Shelor. And from design partner West 8’s Jamie Maslyn Larson, ASLA, we hear: “Cities around the country have been shaped around their ‘village green’ or town square. These places are oases in the city. We started thinking, this is what Mesa wants — its own town square, but with a twist, so that it’s a place people from all over the state will revisit again and again.”

The new space is “characterized by generous spaces for flexible uses, inviting landscapes celebrating the Sonoran desert, and ground floor uses with public-oriented programs that draw people into and through Mesa City Center to Main Street, the Arts Center, Convention Center, and residential neighborhoods.”

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The center piece of the design is a new events space that will both accommodate larger festivals along with weekly events like a farmer’s market, exercise classes, and movies in the park.

The new space features a unique copper shade structure with an “evaporative cooling tower,” which will “mitigate the dry, hot climate with added moisture and a consistent, cooling breeze.” According to Colwell Shelor, “similar constructions have been shown to drop air temperatures by fifteen to twenty degrees. The surface will also host a projection screen for performances and movie screenings.”

Part of the structure is set within a pool of water. In the renderings, this undulating form will also provide the frame for swings, making this a mecca for kids.

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And the pool will become an ice-skating rink in winter.

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An upper terrace will create have a more informal feel, with Sonoran Desert-themed gardens and smaller plazas.

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A promenade will connect the plaza and upper terrace, with a path lined with seating and trees.

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Sustainability is a focus. Allison Colwell, ASLA, a principal at Colwell Shelor, explained: “A guiding principle of the design is to incorporate sustainable measures into all aspects of the design so that the Mesa City Center will be a model for environmentally sensitive and energy-efficient development. A few of the strategies we will consider are adaptive reuse of existing buildings, an evaporative cooling tower, bio-retention planters, rainwater harvesting, solar power, use of grey water, and permeable paving.”

Furthermore, “the overarching landscape strategy is to use native plants as the backbone of different plant communities for seasonal beauty, diversity, and habitats, and to use stormwater and greywater to support these plant communities.”

City Hall itself may also contribute to the the sustainability of the overall design. The team proposes a 150 kW solar parasol over the roof, creating an inviting rooftop public space with great views.

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The parasol will provide shade but also generate approximately 260,000 kWh/yr. power.

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Christian Gabriel / Taylor Lednum, GSA

Christian Gabriel, ASLA, is the National Design Director for Landscape Architecture for the U.S. General Service Administration’s Office of Chief Architect in Washington, D.C. At the GSA he works to set design standards in the realm of public space, landscape, site security, and sustainability. He reviews and approves design proposals, serves on team selection panels, assists on special projects, and advocates for innovation. Prior to joining the GSA, he practiced as a senior design associate at Thomas Balsley Associates and Workshop: Ken Smith Landscape Architect.

Since you began as the National Design Director for Landscape Architecture at the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) two years ago, what has changed? Where is GSA now on landscape architecture?

In the last two years, GSA has established a landscape architecture presence that acknowledges the value of the field. When I arrived, landscape architecture issues and opportunities were addressed indirectly through other disciplines, sometimes falling through gaps between general design, architecture, art, or urban planning.

But GSA wanted to shift to a more holistic approach that acknowledged the value robust landscape architectural design can bring to our projects. We have been realizing that shift through the creation of policy guidance on landscape architecture; the selection of prominent landscape architects as national design peers; identification of project opportunities, including landscape exclusive projects and ecological services; and a new landscape architecture voice in capital project design review.

GSA has long-excelled at the art of sustainable building development, and now we’re beginning to bring the same attention to site design.

During the past two years GSA’s new construction budget was slashed. In 2010 the budget was $800 million, but two years later that budget was down to just around $50 million. For this year though, Congress has allocated more than $500 million for some new facilities, such as the San Ysidro Point of Entry in California and an FBI complex in San Juan, Puerto Rico. What is your role in these high-profile projects? How will they showcase design excellence in landscape architecture?

It’s easy to hang on the overall numbers because, like any federal agency, our budget ebbs and flows. Even when our overall capital construction budget goes down, our portfolio remains considerable since it takes quite a while to develop the large projects and programs in our pipeline. And we have a huge maintenance program to boot. Even those maintenance projects can be quite large and have the ability to catalyze change. For example, the Javits Federal Plaza project in New York City, designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, is an eloquent example of a major, well-designed work of landscape architecture that began as a waterproofing project identified and completed through our repair and alterations program.

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Jacob Javits Federal Building Plaza, New York City / Alex Maclean / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

In terms of the role of landscape architecture in major projects moving forward, it will be like the role I established during leaner times: seek to be a clear-headed voice at the table, but also bring forward the value of landscape architecture in a variety of performance areas — whether it’s through ecological services or public space design.

The public realm in many of our projects is vitally important. For example, the San Ysidro point of entry is one of the busiest land ports in the world. It sees 30,000 to 50,000 pedestrians every day, and 60,000 to 80,000 vehicles a day. Public spaces there see volumes you rarely find anywhere outside of Times Square.

Another part of your job is educating GSA’s 12,000 plus employees who manage nearly 9,000 buildings about the value of landscape architecture. That seems like a herculean task. What is your strategy for improving awareness? What landscape architecture issues do you think are most misunderstood there?

First, you have to get to the right people. There are people at the beginning of projects who provide significant direction, like chief architect Les Shepherd who shape the look, the feel, the design team. Another critical step is working closely with our regional design and construction teams and project champions, the folks that push the projects along, ensuring that they’re meeting all of the intended objectives and aspirations of the project. Then, when the project is turn-key and facility management takes the reins on behalf of one of our client agencies, it’s critical to touch base and clarify the “care and feeding” of the projects to ensure the longevity of our landscapes and public spaces.

More broadly, we’re focused on the education of all of our staff. We’re providing continuing educational units for our professional staff on a near monthly basis. Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center and other outside institutions and practitioners provide education on landscape architecture topics. We’re also entering into the “landscape analytics” portion of our work where we’re looking at some relatively sophisticated and complex landscapes that have a lot of embedded green infrastructure and are beginning to verify the performance of those projects. Many of our staff are incredibly knowledgeable about both design and construction and have demonstrated a real interest in understanding how complex landscape projects perform under field conditions.

During an ASLA-hosted webinar on how landscape architects can contract with GSA, you mentioned a short selection process that would allow local LA’s to pre-qualify for GSA projects. Can you offer any more details on this process? When you expect GSA to roll it out?

We are always exploring how to enhance our contracting mechanisms and have been looking at two elements related to that: One has been the renewal of our indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity teams. The other is the potential for a short-selection process, which is really a pre-qualification for landscape specific firms. The latter element is only in a discussion stage.

Sustainability is now a key goal for the landscapes GSA manages, but GSA must also prove the benefits of sustainable design practices like green infrastructure outweigh the costs, so it has undertaken a broad effort to collect data and make the case. What kind of data are you collecting? Are there any interesting findings so far?

We’re trying to bring forward the value of landscape architecture in measurable terms. Part of that is making clear the contributions of the landscape if we’re suggesting that public money be spent on creating more intense functional landscapes to treat stormwater, sequester carbon, and produce electricity. There needs to be a commissioning process, similar to how we would commission a furnace in a building, proving to us all that it’s functioning at a certain capacity. Often green infrastructure is assumed to be functioning at maximum capacity. We know in practice, however, that it’s actually very rare, because these are living systems not typically maintained at a perfect level or performing at a consistent level.

We’re planning to work with Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) on two projects we identified for our landscape analytic study, which explore these issues:

First is the new United States Coast Guard headquarters at the old Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital site in Washington, D.C. It is a massive structure, set against a hillside in an historic campus, which hosts the third largest green roof in the world. The combination of on-grade and on-structure elements working together to provide diverse ecological services and zones for the overall project is astounding. We’re planning to verify the performance of hydrologic networks and other sustainable features through a combination of on-site and secondary research, examining the construction, installation, and care.

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US Coast Guard Headquarters, Washington, D.C. / Taylor Lednum, GSA

Second is the Domenici Courthouse in Albuquerque designed by Rios Clementi Hale Studios. This is a SITES-certified project, on a much smaller scale, and in a totally different eco-region, demonstrating an entirely different approach to sustainable landscape. The two projects should prove complementary.

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Domenici Courthouse, Albuquerque, New Mexico / Robert Reck

Carbon, water, and electricity are the three defining design issues of our day. We’re hoping to tackle two of them within the realm of landscape. We are not alone in our interest: Our colleagues at Andropogon Associates, lead designers of the United States Coast Guard Headquarters landscape, have started similar research on other non-federal facilities. We’ve also recently been in touch with Reed Hilderbrand, a firm also looking at something similar, essentially a commissioning process for their Clark Institute of Art project in western Massachusetts.

Your work must incorporate security. Is there a new approach from GSA for using the landscape to improve security? You were talking about these point-of-entry projects where security needs to be visible. You need to know you’re entering this secure environment, so there are symbols of security. But how do you balance creating a sense of security while also providing access and transparency?

There is the issue of preemptive security, the visual definition of security, so people understand a legible and secure envelope on a building or site as a deterrent. That is of great interest to our security-minded client agencies.

At this point, nearly all federal client agencies essentially self-identify the risk level of their own facility on a pre-defined scale. The Interagency Security Council develops all the standards and protocols, the hardening requirements of each level facility, if you will. So this issue is deceptively complex.

Regardless of the risk level however, the best path is integrated design. For example, the Los Angeles Courthouse, now in design and construction on a highly urban site, has a series of walls, planters, and bollards. It’s the idiosyncratic deployment of those things, not in a singular, monolithic monotony that make it less pointed. That site was designed by Mia Lehrer + Associates and peer reviewed by Jennifer Guthrie, ASLA.

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Los Angeles Courthouse / SOM and Mia Lehrer + Associates

By contrast, at the federal campus down in Puerto Rico, where we have more real estate, we can explore more use of tactical topography and water courses as security devices.

Lastly, with colony collapse disorder, honey bees and other crucial pollinators are dying off in great numbers. They are being affected to such an extent that President Obama has issued a memorandum to use buildings and landscapes managed by GSA and other federal agencies to help these important insects. What is GSA specifically doing to help honey bees and other pollinators? How are you going to measure progress?

Pollinators contribute more than $25 billion in value to the American economy every year. Some 60 percent of pollinator populations have been significantly reduced, or have disappeared completely, in the United States, over the past 60 years. Some estimate that 40 to 50 percent of our food would not be available without pollination. Now, we put an economic value on these creatures, but, clearly, they’re irreplaceable.

GSA provides an enormous educational opportunity because we are responsible for office space for 1.2 million federal workers every day. Through our facilities, we have the ability to touch people’s daily lives about this issue while also providing an ecological service.

We’re interested in providing both habitat and foraging opportunities for pollinators; it’s in the realm of what can do through design as an agency. GSA is not one of the big land agencies. We’re not the Department of Interior, Department of Agriculture, or the Forestry Service, but many of our facilities occupy an important part of the built environment. If you follow Richard Foreman’s theory of land mosaics, our facilities can be considered critical stepping stones for pollinators to move from one site to another. Our urban and ex-urban landscapes are fragmented and we can do our part to improve the conditions for pollinators.

For design and construction, we have a facility standard that guides our process — essentially setting the minimum of what we’re trying to achieve across the board for design performance. Now we have a baseline standard for plant diversity that attempts to provide foraging opportunities for pollinators throughout the year and can be applied across the nation for projects of varying size. There may be exceptions because we’re writing a standard for Phoenix, Arizona and Portland, Maine at the same time, but it gives us the opportunity to force an issue as critical as pollination up to the front in design considerations. We can ask our design teams to think critically about pollinators as it relates to a design and then allow a discussion to emerge.

GSA also worked closely with the White House Council on Environmental Quality, White House Office for Science and Technology Policy, Smithsonian Gardens, the U.S. Botanic Gardens, and other federal partners on writing the new addendum to federal landscape guidelines to support the health of honeybees and other pollinators.

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All James River Park images / Jared Green

Richmond, Virginia, and Portland, Oregon, may not seem to have much in common, except they both have rivers that cut through their cities. In the case of Portland, it’s the Willamette River, and in Richmond, it’s the James River. Portland has invested in a wonderful loop along its waterfront parks and bridges, which connects the east and west sides of the Willamette in a seamless experience for bicyclists and pedestrians. And, soon, Richmond will have a similarly transformational circuit along its 600-acre James River Park, created as part of its smart riverfront plan, which is destined to boost revitalization efforts in this newly resurgent city.

The city’s planning department has partnered with landscape architecture firm Hargreaves Associates, which is leading a team of designers and engineers, to make the vision of a more connected Richmond a reality. The first priority in the multi-year plan is the Brown’s Island Dam Walk, which will convert old dam infrastructure into a new pedestrian and bicycle bridge across the river, connecting the city’s downtown to Manchester right through some glorious urban wilds. It’s smart reuse of a charismatic piece of old infrastructure. And the impetus for getting new circuit done fast, in this most southern of cities? The UCI World Championship bike race, which will set off bikers in a 10 mile course throughout the city in 2015.

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The old dam once powered Richmond’s economy, explained Nathan Burrell, the superintendent of the James River Park, in a tour organized by The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) as part of their What’s Out There weekend in Richmond. Energy from the river supported flour mills along the riverfront. “Richmond was known to have the best flour” in part because of how well ground it was. As the dam fell into disrepair and was further damaged by Hurricanes Agnes and Camille, we just see the bones of it today.

While the storms caused hundreds of millions in damage across Richmond, there may have been one benefit, said Burrell. These storms cleared out decades of accumulated industrial sludge that had sunk to the bottom as well as raw effluent that had been captured by the river. Nature, in combination with a 30 million gallon sewage containment tank built to deal with the city’s combined sewage overflows, had, in effect, restored the river to a healthier state. While there are still the occasional combined sewage overflows with heavy rains, the river is in much better shape than it was decades ago.

The day we visited, kayakers were enjoying the park’s rapids.

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Burrell said he even takes his family down to the park’s beaches so they can go snorkel and see the migrating fish, including giant sturgeons, return.

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The islands that dot the river are home to migratory birds. “We have spotted 35 different species of birds, including Blue Herons.” Burrell said older residents of the area still think of the river as a filthy place, but perceptions in the region have dramatically changed in the past few years. Now, just 40 percent of the 700,000 visitors who have come to the park since summer began are from the city.

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Efforts to clean up the river and further restore the ecosystem have gotten a boost from Richmond’s stormwater management tax. And the riverfront plan will further promote the use of green infrastructure, including wetlands, to deal with runoff from the city and improve water quality. As Burrell explained, the goal is to show the James River Park’s value as a “habitat, not just pseudo-wilderness.”

Indeed, as one moves across the novel pedestrian bridge hanging from an expressway and lands on Belle Isle, it’s easy to forget you are in a city. The 64-acre island feels increasingly isolated from the city as you move further in and also feels like a true nature park, an effect only enhanced by the appealing industrial ruins.

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David Johannas, an architect and planner on Richmond’s planning commission, told me that much of the riverfront plan came out of earlier hard work on the downtown master plan. “I feel that the downtown master plan was the real turning point in our perceptions of our city. Hundreds of residents were very active in the process, which began in 2007. The study area reached to the east just past the Shockoe Bottom neighborhood to the city docks, north to interstate 95, west to include Virginia Commonwealth University, and across the river to the Manchester district. Reaching across the James River to Manchester became a defining element of the plan, as it made the James River and its natural parkland Richmond’s Central Park.”

The dam bridge really is just the first piece of an ambitious plan to further integrate the city and nature and put the James River Park at the heart of that connection. Learn more at Richmond’s planning department.

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The Alleys of The Fan / all photos by Jared Green

From Monroe Park, The Fan, a spatially-unique neighborhood, literally spreads out, with the spines of the unfolding fan taking the form of long avenues that stretch through Victorian-era residences, parks, and alleys. Through a tour organized through The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF)’s What’s Out There weekend in Richmond, Virginia, Beth Marschak, a guide with the Valentine Richmond History Center, gave us a close-up look at the alley, an often-overlooked yet vital piece of infrastructure, and how neighborhood groups are coming together to green these spaces, turning them into a rugged form of linear parks.

Marschak said that after the Civil War, “there was nothing here.” Monroe Park, the city’s first public park, was the far edge of the city. Beginning in the 1880s, the strangely-shaped district began to take shape as it was divided into subdivisions given over to developers. Together, these distinct neighborhoods formed a “sort of streetcar neighborhood.” The homes closer to Monroe Park were richer, with carved wood instead of cheaper iron decorative arts, and taller, at three stories instead of two. While Richmond was already highly segregated, the restrictive Jim Crow laws enacted in the 1870s, further institutionalized the division of the races, making The Fan entirely white.

Alleys are multi-purpose public infrastructure. They were established to provide air space between homes in case of fire, as well as access for fire trucks. Deliveries were made through alleys. When The Fan fell into decline in the 1950s through the 1970s, some neighbors banded together to enclose and wall off their alleys, to increase security. Still, the vast majority remain open.

In contrast to the sidewalks of The Fan, which are made of bricks organized into a unique herringbone pattern, the alleys feature solid granite pavers organized into a running bond pattern, except for a strip in the middle.

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Terry Clements, FASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at Virginia Tech, told me that the difference in paving patterns can be explained by cost and use. Herringbone-patterned brick sidewalks, which are found nearly everywhere in The Fan, hold up better to cross traffic as they lock together and resist sliding. The paths of the alleys were designed to be able to handle heavier loads, like fire trucks, so the running bond is laid perpendicular to the direction of traffic, making it more resistant to being pushed forward by heavy wheels. The middle of the alley subtly dips and has a vertical strip of pavers to help convey storm water out of the alleys.

As Marschak descibed, local neighborhood associations or residents have shaped the look and feel of many alleys, adding their own green spaces. In one, we see wall planters and even a sort of mini curbside parklet, just created one day by some residents.

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However, this alley was really just the appetizer for a splendid one covered in gravel and planted with a soft palette of plants by a neighbor, who decided to extend his own private garden into the public space. Over the decades, he and his neighbors have created an alley arcadia.

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Given paved, impermeable surfaces like streets and parking lots can easily cover 30-40 percent of cities, urban policymakers and designers are increasingly redesigning the alley, in large part because of stormwater management issues. Chicago, Philadelphia, and Boston are all experimenting with applying permeable pavement to their ubiquitous back roads. While this material provides great environmental benefits, it really just look like pavement. The approach taken by the neighborhood groups in The Fan not only offer environmental benefits but also create beautiful public spaces and help build communities. These approaches should also be in the mix when cities consider how best to green their alleys.

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Downspout leads to a rain garden at Mary Myer’s house / Rob Cardillo. The New York Times

One Woman’s Pipe Dream The New York Times, 10/9/14
“Mary E. Myers, a landscape architect and associate professor at Temple University, had more than absorbing storm water in mind when she created a 200-square-foot rain garden beside her sloping lawn in this shady suburb north of downtown Philadelphia.”

London Mulls Plans for a £600m Floating Bike Path BBC News, 10/13/14
“In an inspired burst of think-outside-the-street strategy, a London consortium is floating an audacious plan to turn part of the River Thames into a nearly eight-mile-long, bikes-only pathway.”

Hermann Park Marks Centennial with Opening of GardensHouston Chronicle, 10/13/14
“Since its establishment in 1914, Hermann Park has served the Houston community as a place to relax, play, engage and learn. To celebrate the Park’s 100th year, the McGovern Centennial Gardens, a new park, will have its grand opening Saturday, Oct. 18.”

Creative Parks Cost Money, and They’re Worth it: HumeToronto Star, 10/13/14
“A city park can be innovative, imaginative, and carry cultural weight. In Toronto, we’re only starting to try.”

A Plan to Turn a Queens Railway Into a ParkThe New York Times, 10/14/14
“‘The advantage of leaving the site vacant for so long is that we’ve got some very large oaks, maple and walnut trees,’ said Susannah C. Drake, the principal of DlandStudio, a landscape architecture firm. ‘On the viaduct, some smaller things have sprouted up like wild roses, sumac and cedars.’”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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ASLA 2012 General Design Award of Excellence. A Green Sponge for a Water-Resilient City: Qunli Stormwater Park. Haerbin City, Heilongjiang Province, China. Turenscape and Peking University, Beijing

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) has launched a guide to explain the many benefits of “green infrastructure” — designed systems that harness nature to create proven benefits for communities and the environment.

Green infrastructure includes park systems, urban forests, wildlife habitat and corridors, and green roofs and green walls. These infrastructure systems protect communities against flooding or excessive heat, or help to improve air and water quality, which underpin human and environmental health.

The idea that nature is also infrastructure isn’t new, but it’s now more widely understood to be true, according to Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, executive vice president and CEO of ASLA. Researchers are amassing a body of evidence to prove that green infrastructure actually works: these systems are often more cost-effective than outmoded models of grey infrastructure—a term used for the concrete tunnels created to move water—and also provide far more benefits for both people and the environment.

“At all scales, green infrastructure provides real ecological, economic, and social benefits,” added Somerville. “Cities need as much green infrastructure as possible, and landscape architects are implementing it in communities across the country.”

Here are just some of the many benefits that these systems provide all at once: green infrastructure absorbs and sequesters atmospheric carbon dioxide (C02); filters air and water pollutants; stabilizes soil to prevent or reduce erosion; provides wildlife habitat; decreases solar heat gain; lowers the public cost of stormwater management infrastructure and provides flood control; and reduces energy usage through passive heating and cooling. In contrast, grey infrastructure usually provides just a single benefit.

The guide, part of ASLA’s series of sustainable design resource guides and toolkits, includes hundreds of research studies by leading scientists, news articles, and case studies on innovative uses of green infrastructure.

Resources are organized into seven sections that go from large scale (the region, the city) to the small scale (constructed wetlands, green streets, and green roofs and walls). Specifically, there are sections on forests & nature preserves; wildlife habitat & corridors; cities; constructed wetlands; green streets; and green roofs & walls. There are descriptions of the many types of green infrastructure, their quantifiable benefits, and the role of landscape architects in creating these systems.

For example, in the section on cities, there are two powerful examples showing the benefits of green infrastructure:

In Philadelphia, a comprehensive green infrastructure approach is estimated to cost just $1.2 billion over the next 25 years, compared to over $6 billion for “grey” infrastructure. The city is expecting up to 1.5 billion pounds of carbon dioxide emission to be avoided or absorbed through green infrastructure each year, the equivalent of removing close to 3,400 vehicles from roadways. The city estimates 20 deaths due to asthma will be avoided, and 250 fewer work or school days will be missed. Lastly, the economic benefits are also outstanding: the new greenery will increase property values by $390 million over 45 years, also boosting the property taxes the city takes in.

New York City’s green infrastructure plan is projected to cost $1.5 billion less than a comparable grey infrastructure approach. Green stormwater management systems alone will save $1 billion, at a cost of about $0.15 less per gallon. Also, sustainability benefits in NYC range from $139-418 million over the 20 year life of the project, depending on measures implemented. The plan estimates that “every fully vegetated acre of green infrastructure would provide total annual benefits of $8.5 in reduced energy demand, $166 in reduced CO2 emissions, $1,044 in improved air quality, and $4,725 in increased property value.”

Landscape architects were deeply involved in the creation and management of these visionary plans. Many more contribute to making these plans a reality by planning and designing urban forests, parks, and green roofs and walls.

Explore the guide.

This guide is a living resource, so the public is invited to submit additional research studies, news articles, and case studies. Please e-mail them to ASLA at info@asla.org

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Boardwalk Devastation / Chang W. Lee via New York Times

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

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

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Wave pattern in the concrete pavers / RBA Group

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Ramps from the boardwalk allow beach access / RBA Group

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

Yoshi Silverstein is the ASLA 2014 communications intern. He is a Masters in Landscape Architecture candidate at the University of Maryland. He focuses on landscape experience and outdoor learning environments.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Urban “cleanway” / OLIN & PennDesign

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

Yoshi Silverstein is the ASLA 2014 communications intern. He is a Masters in Landscape Architecture candidate at the University of Maryland. He focuses on landscape experience and outdoor learning environments.

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