Archive for the ‘Green Infrastructure’ Category

Center for Sustainable Landscapes, Phipps Conservancy, SITES 4-stars / Phipps Conservancy

Center for Sustainable Landscapes, Phipps Conservancy, SITES 4-stars / Phipps Conservancy

At the GreenBuild 2015 conference in Washington, D.C., Jamie Statter, vice president of strategic partnerships for the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and the Green Business Certification Inc (GBCI), its credentialing arm, announced that Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) certification is now available for landscape projects worldwide. Also, some form of SITES credential, a “SITES AP,” will become available at some point in the future. Speaking to landscape architects and designers, she said “you will be able to differentiate yourself as a SITES professional in the marketplace.”

SITES was developed over 10 years by the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), the Lady Bird Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and U.S. Botanic Garden. In the past few years, hundreds of projects sought certification under the SITES pilot program; 46 projects achieved some level of certification. In 2015, GBCI announced that it would acquire SITES and now certify projects under SITES v2. Already more than 15 projects, including two iconic international projects, have registered for certification under SITES, and many more are expected in coming months.

Statter said that “parks and green spaces are now more important than ever,” and they can only be improved through the use of SITES in their design, construction, and operations. She also thinks that SITES will be beneficial with mixed-use developments with a landscape component and parking lots.

SITES has a number of key goals: it will “help create regenerative systems and foster resiliency; mitigate climate change and increase future resource supply; transform the marketplace for landscape-related products and services; and improve human health and well-being.” Jose Alminana, FASLA, a principal at Andropogon Associates and a leader in the development of the SITES rating system, concurred, saying that SITES is a useful tool for helping clients and designers “stitch together systems to improve a landscape’s ability to absorb change.”

SITES is based on a different logic than LEED, GBCI’s rating system for buildings: its approach is based in living systems. He said once a building, which is a static system, has been created it begins to deteriorate. But once a landscape, an ever-evolving living system, has been installed, it only begins to take off. “Landscapes can be regenerative.”

Given landscape architects and designers must not only design for people but also all sorts of other wildlife, a system-based approach is critical. “There are forms of life that have co-developed together. With landscapes, it’s not a set of individual elements. You can’t have plants without soils.”

SITES can also have broader impacts on the design process and marketplace. Statter said “projects will now need integrated design teams from the get-go. SITES is a tool for involving landscape architects and designers much earlier on in the design process.”

Alminana added that SITES will only increase the “transactional power” of landscape architects and designers. With SITES, they will now know the “carbon impact of all the materials they source. They can then demand that things are done in a low-carbon way.”

And once the U.S. and other countries move to a regulatory environment that taxes carbon, “landscapes will become invaluable.” When carbon becomes money, “it will be critical to actually monitor the systems in our landscapes.”

U.S. and international landscape architects and designers are encouraged to seek certification for their projects. SITES v2 uses LEED’s four-level certification system: certified, silver, gold, platinum. The rating system is free and the reference guide is available for a fee. Alminana said the “reference guide took over 10 years to develop. Everyone should get one and have fun with it.”

Read Full Post »

Janine Benyus / Biomimicry 3.8

Janine Benyus / Biomimicry 3.8

Janine Benyus is the co-founder of Biomimcry 3.8 and the Biomimicry Institute. She is a biologist, innovation consultant, and author of six books, including Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, in which she named biomimicry, an emerging discipline that emulates nature’s designs and processes (e.g., solar cells that mimic leaves) to create a healthier, more sustainable planet.

Why design like nature? Why is nature’s approach necessarily the best?

Life has been on the planet for 3.8 billion years, and, in that time, it has learned what works and what lasts here on earth. That’s a long line of good ideas. Unprecedented longevity. What doesn’t work is recalled (made extinct), and what does work is optimized with each generation. Natural selection prizes those things that work best in place as well as those that create conditions conducive to life.

What we see now is a scant one percent of the species that have been on earth; they’re the best of the best. Their design solutions have been created in the context of our planet. They’re designed to tap the power of limits and make the most of opportunities—it’s a dance within the creative frame of what’s real. Organisms that tap the limits and opportunities of their habitat excel and get to stay there. This method creates context-shaped adaptations—technologies—that are earth savvy. We call this portfolio of adaptions “biological intelligence” for a reason, because there’s an embodied wisdom to these designs.

When you ask “why design using nature’s principles and patterns?” I think it comes down to this:  They just really work well on this planet in a no-regrets way. Unintended consequences?  Already shaken out of the system. I can’t think of a better model.

How has the biomimetic design movement evolved over the past few decades? Where did it start? How did you get here? What happened along the way?

In the last few years, biomimicry has moved from a meme to a movement. When I wrote Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature in ’97, the idea of looking to nature for innovation was just a faint signal in the literature. I found a few articles on leaf-inspired solar cells, prairie-inspired agriculture, spider silk and fibers, and ecology-inspired businesses, but these ideas were published in bizarre, seldom-read journals.

What I did in Biomimicry was notice that a nature-inspired approach to innovation was starting to stir, but it had no name! I baptized it biomimicry, and to my surprise, it proved to be a catchy meme. I expected the post-publication reaction that most science writers receive: profound silence. But instead, my phone started ringing off the hook. The first people who were really interested were architects. Then, a lot of companies called and said, “send biologists to our design table because we need solutions and we want to know how nature solves it.”

In 1998, Dr. Dayna Baumeister and I created this company of biologists (Biomimicry 3.8) that brings biological intelligence to innovators. We thought it was going to be about product design and engineering, which it is. We’ve created products with everyone from Boeing to Nike to Green Mountain Coffee Roasters to GE, General Mills, Interface, Procter & Gamble, and Kimberly-Clark. 250 clients. Lots of Fortune 50 companies now. We solve their toughest sustainability challenges and we train companies to practice biomimicry thinking.

But there was also interest in bringing biomimicry to the built world. Jane Jacobs was the first one who had me speak. She called me out of the blue. I had been a fan of The Death and Life of Great American Cities when I was in college, not because I was an urban planner, but because I was a writer, and her bell-clear essays taught me to write. When she called me, I was shocked because I assumed she had passed! But no—at 80-something, she had just read Biomimicry and was handing it out as Christmas presents. She was writing a new book with a “biomimic” as the main character. And then Bob Berkebile asked me to speak at the AIA Environment conference. And it just went from there. Clients like HOK and Gensler hired us, and we looked at how to apply biomimicry at the building, landscape, and all the way up to the city level.

In 2006, we created the non-profit Biomimicry Institute to get tools out to people and give people an opportunity to practice biomimicry through design challenges. Now we have AskNature.org, a global network of 31 hubs, and we’re on our 6th year of Global Design Challenges. Our latest challenge — food systems— attracted close to 2,000 people from 71 countries. Biomimicry’s gone from a meme to a movement because it just makes a lot of sense to people. It’s a whole new discipline debuting for the first time in universities, industries, and the zeitgeist, and that doesn’t happen very often.

People are now painting out the canvas of biomimicry. We’ve had engineering, architecture, city planning, computing, medicine, chemistry, robotics, product design, even finance using models from nature. Now it’s biomimicry for social innovation—management, leadership, and organizational design—that’s a new focus area.

What are the most exciting areas of biomimetic design and innovation today? What has the potential to be truly game changing?

You can’t talk about changing the game without first rescuing the game. Of the climate change mitigation strategies now being vetted, the ones that float to the top for us are two biomimetic ones.

The first strategy is bio-sequestration, which is figuring out how to get the carbon currently in the atmosphere stored in deep soil profiles. The way to do that isn’t through industrial agriculture or industrial forestry; it’s through ecosystem-inspired land use — farming and ranching and forestry in nature’s image. Ecosystems store carbon in spades and so do these emulations. I think the design principles involved in this bio-inspired land management are applicable to landscape architecture.

Landscape architects are already starting to create multi-functional landscapes. But people are going to ask a lot more of their green spaces, particularly in cities. They’re going to be looking for ways to pull carbon down. Because we’ve lost half of the carbon in our soils over the past 200 years, we’ve got this half-full bathtub that we can fill with carbon.

When you start looking at the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, they support nature-inspired mixed species agriculture or polycultures. They support agro-forestry—putting trees together with crops. They are starting to say one of the most promising tactics is rotational grazing—moving cows around the way buffalo used to roam in herds then move on. This process creates really deep-rooted grasses that place carbon way down into the soil, feeding the soil microbes and therefore storing carbon. This was seen as a wild-eyed approach when I first wrote about it. Now, it’s considered to be one of things we must do to reverse climate change, right alongside eliminating greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and moving to clean energy and wise energy use. Once we’ve stopped the madness of emissions, there’s still the final piece of the puzzle—pulling down what we already emitted.

Another biomimetic strategy is capturing carbon dioxide in useful products. We can now create carbon-storing concrete based on coral reef recipes, because corals have been storing CO2 in concrete-like reefs for a long time. We can use carbon “pollution” to create plastics that are 50 percent carbon dioxide. There are eight companies now mentioned by IPCC that take CO2 and store it in polymers, as well as concrete and building products, like the firm Blue Planet does. This year’s XPrize is called Carbon X. There will be $20 million available for teams who can take CO2 and turn it into useful products.

Now why is this process biomimetic? Plants turn CO2 into sugars, starches, cellulose. And that’s a trick. The reason we use CO2 in our fire extinguishers is that it doesn’t really react very well—it’s hard to turn it into something else. You either have to add lots of energy, or have a super enzyme to make CO2 hook up into long carbon polymer chains. But plants and corals and mollusks do it all day long. Suddenly, nature’s recipes for turning CO2 to stuff or fuel becomes essential in carbon dioxide sequestration. It’s classic biomimicry, and this time, it’s helping us reverse climate change, making use of the 200 years of our carbon exhalations.

Another area that excites me is this concept of the circular economy, the idea that instead of sending stuff to landfills, we can recoup and use materials, mimicking flows in the natural world. This comes at an auspicious time, because with 3D printing, manufacturing is about to come home, and it would be great to use local feedstocks. When print shops are on every retail corner, products won’t cross the globe but designs will. I’m excited because biomimetic structural blueprints are a great way to take common raw materials and make them functional. Life’s structures are very detailed in terms of their internal and external architecture. Think of animal shapes that reduce drag and shed water on the outside, but on the inside have this intricate cathedral of bone, strong but lightweight because of the design. 3D printers’ algorithms—generative design files—are increasingly going to come from biology.

One of the major optimizing technologies for buildings right now is a software called OptiStruct, which is based on a bone algorithm. The technology mimics how bones lay down material where it’s needed along lines of stress and take a material away from where it’s not needed. These bone algorithms are now seen in bridge and building beams, and they were used to lightweight Airbus’ new rib and wing assembly by 40 percent. Beyond shape, I think nature’s low-temperature, low-toxin chemistries are also going to be important—safe chemistry in the printer, and bio-inspired dis-assembly chemistries—so we can return products and print them into something else.

OptiStruct lattice structures for 3D Printing / Altair Corporation

OptiStruct lattice structures for 3D Printing / Altair Corporation

On AskNature.org, you have both animal and plant-based strategies. The plant-based ones are equally as fascinating. What are some key things plants can teach landscape architects about how to design?

Plants are star players in the water cycle, but there are things we are just now learning about them. A decade ago, climate scientists were trying to solve a conundrum. How is that rainforests still produce clouds above the trees in the dry season? Where are they finding moisture to transpire into clouds? It’s called hydraulic redistribution, and here’s how it works. A few shrubs in rainforests have deep tap roots and shallow roots. In the rainy season, the shallow roots soak up the rain and direct it down the taproot and out into deep soils, where it’s banked for later use. Come dry season, the reverse happens. The tap root draws the water up and releases it from the shallow roots so that other organisms in the forest can access it. Ten percent of all the rainfall in the amazon is redistributed in this way. I can see a time when landscape architects would plant a few “bio-irrigators” in their mixes, so that even in the dry season, water can be pulled from the soil vault, and then redistributed via shallow roots. It’s a self-irrigating landscape. I love that.

  Cloud over Peruvian segment of the Amazon rainforest / Wendeeholtcamp.com

Cloud over Peruvian segment of the Amazon rainforest / Wendeeholtcamp.com

Plants also show us how to extract water from the atmosphere. In the Namib Desert, plants comb moisture out of really dry areas that sometimes get some fog. Redwoods actually do it, too. A University of California at Berkeley researcher named Todd Dawson showed that a hundred foot redwood will gather the equivalent of four inches of rainfall from fog in a single night. The water condenses on its needles and drips down. That’s an enormous amount of water.

Welwitschia mirablis / Brilliant Botany

Welwitschia mirablis / Brilliant Botany

Plant-like water pulling, and the process of condensing of dew and channeling it down to the roots, could be transformed into engineered landscape solutions.

Plants are incredible in how they move water, too. They move water in very thin columns, like thin straws, through capillary action. You would think these straws go straight up the trunk of the tree, but that’s not what happens. In trees, the bundles of straws form a thin sleeve, a cylinder just under the bark. Some straws transfer sugars down to the roots (phloem), others transfer water up (xylem). Interestingly, these straws don’t go straight up and down; they wrap around the tree in a spiral from the base to the top. This means that if you lose one whole side of the root network—say it gets cut by construction equipment—the tree doesn’t die. If the straws went straight up from the roots, all the branches on the damaged left side of the tree would not be serviced with water. Thanks to the spiraling xylem, the water from the right-hand roots are swirled up and around to reach every branch. Now, that’s resilience.

And plants don’t have pier foundations; they have horizontal roots. There’s a new Engineering Research Center for Bio-mediated and Bio-inspired Geotechnics at Arizona State University, which just received several million dollars from the National Science Foundation. One of their projects is to better understand the way roots hold trees in place on steep hillsides in order to help them redesign low-impact foundations.

There’s a lot of brilliance in trees.

How can biomimicry be scaled up to the city level? What natural systems can we mimic to make our cities more efficient and livable?

The city is an exciting place for biomimicry. When our urban planning clients began to ask us: “how do you apply nature’s principles to the city?” We asked, in turn, “what does it mean for a city to function like an ecosystem?”

We decided that a biomimetic city should be functionally indistinguishable from the wildland next door. It should produce beneficial services just like the native ecosystem, because, after all, biomimicry is not about how it looks, it’s about how it functions. We started to look for nearby reference habitats that show us what would be growing here if we weren’t here. We found remnants of prairies or forests or wetlands that were relatively intact. We could measure how they’re performing today, not historically. What we measured are the things that matter most to people — they are called ecosystems services. They’re things like purifying water and storing water, retaining soils from erosion, supporting biodiversity and pollinators, managing pests, all these things forests and other natural systems do for us.

We focused not on economic values (though that could come later) but on quantities. How much carbon is being stored per acre per year? How much water is being stored in a storm? How much air and water are being purified? How many nutrients are cycled? How many degrees of cooling happen? How much soil is created? We use biological literature paired with GIS models to get those quantities on a per acre per year basis.

Then we say to the city managers and planners, or even people in the district or a block: here’s a new performance metric. Can your acre of development—buildings and sidewalks and streets and green landscapes combined—perform as well as the equivalent acre of wildland next door? We call them “ecological performance standards.” Now it’s not just a matter of providing ecosystem services in a metaphorical way—it’s a matter of meeting or exceeding local, measurable amounts. It’s an incredible, aspirational goal that we know is doable because it’s happening right next door. I like it because it’s locally relevant and because it gives communities a framework to design into. Once a visionary city signs off on these metrics, every design intervention–every green roof, every foot of permeable pavement, every self-watering landscape—would add up. Cumulative goodness. All by asking the question—how much should this city give back to the region around it?

Together, the city has a goal, and that can be met through retrofits or new build. Each building has a goal. The block has a goal. The district has a goal. Finally, we can see what all our design interventions do together. If we want a city that functions like a local ecosystem, this gives us a way to actually do it. Imagine a city achieving, and then celebrating, these milestones as a community.

For a project in Lavasa, India, we created ecological performance metrics for a new development southeast of Mumbai that will need to provide for five new urban villages with some 30,000 to 50,000 people. We worked with HOK to create a master plan but also a landscape master plan that can handle stormwater during the monsoon seasons, which cause a great deal of soil erosion. In a three month period, the area gets 27 feet of water, but in the Western Ghats forests next door, there is negligible erosion! The landscape architects at HOK were greatly excited by this challenge. They said they felt like they were back in school, up all night, researching how they could create a planting design that would result in 100 percent soil retention. We provided the ecosystem performance metrics, but the landscape architects came up with a plan to achieve it.

Lavasa Hill City, India / HOK

Lavasa Hill City, India / HOK

Returning to ecosystem-based agriculture, how much of our climate problem could be solved by storing carbon deep in the soils? What will it take to get to a more sustainable global agricultural system?

Just improving energy efficiency is not going to take out the carbon that’s currently in the air. That carbon will be there for centuries unless we find a way to recoup it, to “bring it back home,” as environmentalist Paul Hawken says. With Project Drawdown, he and his colleagues are modeling 100 possible strategies for mitigating climate change between now and 2045. The data is not all in, but it looks like the top 20 strategies are doing a lot of the work. Of that 20, bio-sequestration—deep roots driving carbon below the churn zone where it can stay put for centuries—is a large player. It’s not a silver bullet; it won’t replace slashing emissions or moving to clean energy, but it could be a big contributor to what we actually have to do, which is reverse climate change. The 2014 IPCC Framework for Policymakers was definitive: even if we cut emissions completely, we will still be dealing with the effects of climate change for centuries, if not millennia, unless we pull the carbon down.

I sense that large industrial farmers will only begin to store carbon when they have monetary incentives. Once a market for sequestering carbon dioxide appears, land management regimes may change.

But industrial farmers are not growing most of the food that the world eats. People don’t realize that 70 percent of the food eaten around the world is grown by a third of all humanity who are called smallholders. They farm on less than 5 acres, and often, by necessity, they are still growing organically—no purchased fertilizers or pesticides. The food and beverage industry is increasingly relying on these smallholders to provide the organic ingredients we crave. Suddenly, there’s a small group of intermediaries that could request healthy soil practices from their suppliers. And that’s where we as consumers come in.

If consumers asked the food and beverage industry to take a pledge that they would work with these smallholders to use not just organic practices, but biomimetic “carbon farming” techniques, we could have a huge impact. These industries could say, “we’ll buy from you if you practice biomimetic agriculture on your lands—the kind of ecosystem-inspired polyculture and plant/animal associations that lead to deep rooted species, a healthy soil microbiome, and long-term carbon storage.”

Carbon farming / Australia Department of Food and Agriculture

Carbon farming / Australia Department of Food and Agriculture

We’re already prescriptive about how our food is grown. We ask, “Does it contain GMOs? Does it contain hormones?” Years ago, I would never imagine we would be so discerning about the story of our food. Climate-friendly farming is just another layer of that. The push for this could come from consumers and from an economic market for carbon.

The countries attending the climate change summit in Paris this December will a certain quota to meet. They can cut more emissions and/or store more carbon. They will realize that improper land use—in agriculture, forestry, grazing, etc—is responsible for around one quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions. The transportation sector is only around 19 percent. When they start to look for where they can get the biggest bang for their buck, they might actually look to those industrial farmers and say, “In the next Farm Bill, we’re going to tie carbon targets to subsidies. What are you doing for carbon farming?”

So when I look at the mitigation landscape, I see biomimicry starring in some of the newest plans to draw down carbon: prairie-inspired agriculture, agroforestry, ungulate-inspired rotational grazing, and the whole realm of CO2 to useful products. We’re at the beginning of a quest to grab every carbon dioxide and methane molecule we can find. It’s going to happen in cities, too. Why not have Central Park get credit for carbon sequestration services and healthy soil creation? And besides being a vital contributor to reversing climate change, a generous city is just a better, healthier, more beautiful place to live. That’s why biomimicry at the systems level is looking so sensible—it’s just good, no-regrets design.

Read Full Post »

A drawing of Greenwave's 3D Ocean Farming system / Greenwave

A drawing of Greenwave’s 3D Ocean Farming system / Greenwave

Greenwave, a non-profit organization transforming the fishing industry, was recently awarded the Buckminster Fuller Institute (BFI)’s 2015 challenge, which comes with a $100,000 prize. Greenwave’s winning project is the “world’s first multi-species 3-D ocean farm,” a vertical underwater garden that aims “to restore ocean ecosystems and create jobs in coastal communities by transforming fishers into restorative ocean farmers,” according to BFI. Using simple infrastructure — seaweed, scallops, and mussels growing on floating ropes stacked above clam cages below — Greenwave’s founder Bren Smith has created a low-cost, sustainable system that can be easily replicated by farmers and fishers everywhere.

Drawing comparisons to last years’s BFI challenge winner, Living Breakwaters, the first large-scale experiment with “oyster-tecture” by SCAPE / Landscape Architecture, Smith’s innovative ocean farm was inspired by his time farming oysters in the Long Island Sound. “Here I was a young fisherman, pillaging the oceans in one of the most unsustainable forms of food production on the planet. Aquaculture was supposed to be the great answer to over-fishing, but it turned out to be just as destructive using new technologies. So I became an Oysterman,” Smith said in a Tedx talk.

After Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Irene destroyed 80 percent of his oyster crop, Smith began to re-envision his farm in order to rebuild it.

Now, a single underwater acre of Greenwave’s flagship farm on the Thimble Islands in New York’s Long Island Sound filters millions of gallons of ocean water each day, creates homes for marine and bird life, and absorbs nitrogen and carbon (the kelp in the farms sequester five times more carbon than land-based agriculture). With zero added inputs, the farm has the capacity to grow 10 tons of sea vegetables and 250,000 shellfish annually on a single acre.

“I went from farming 100 acres down to 20 acres as I began using the full water column. And now I’ve been growing a lot more food on the 20 acres than I was on the 100. Whereas aquaculture is obsessed with growing one thing in one place, we’re growing four kinds of shellfish, two kinds of sea weed, and salt from the 20 acres,” Smith said.

Greenwave will use the $100,000 award to train 25 new farmers on both the East and West coasts of the U.S. with the skills to implement Smith’s ocean farming model. Each of the new farmers “will receive start up grants, free seed, and two years of training and support,” Smith said. “Greenwave will also buy 80 percent of their crop for 5 years at triple the market rate.” The rest of the money will go toward research and development on “kelp-raised beef, and specialty food products.”

Since 2007, BFI has used its annual international competition to highlight paradigm-shifting designs that, in the words of the late Buckminster Fuller, “make the world work for 100 percent of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone.”

This is the second year in a row that the first place winner has “directly addressed urgent and complex issues related to our oceans: the impending collapse of marine ecosystems, the long-term effects of climate change on our coastal communities, and the economic catastrophe these communities are experiencing right now as a result,” said Elizabeth Thompson, executive director of BFI.

This year’s other finalists include:

Algae Systems is a new technology that uses native algae species to capture and treat wastewater. Powered by photosynthesis, the system produces renewable fuels and fertilizers as byproducts, at a lower cost per gallon that alternative wastewater treatment technologies.

The Community Architects Network is a regional network of “community architects and planners, engineers, young professionals, lecturers and academic institutes in Asian countries” that supports participatory design for community projects in 17 Asian countries. Projects include new housing developments, citywide upgrading, and recovery from natural disasters.

Hazel is a digital modeling tool produced by the Drylands Resilience Initiative, which, when completed, will assist arid communities in designing effective stormwater infrastructure.

Mahila Housing SEWA Trust (MHT) is an organization aimed at providing secure housing situations — including basic water and sanitation, as well as financial and legal advice — for poor women in four states of India.

A 2012 and 2014 finalist, the Nubian Vault Programme (AVN) trains people in five African countries in the Nubian Vault construction technique, a cheap and sustainable method for constructing homes from local materials.

Read more about Greenwave’s winning project and the runners-up.

Read Full Post »

Freshwater Mussels / FWS

Freshwater mussels under consideration in Texas / FWS

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) is further complicating water management in the many states struck by drought. State water management bodies are increasingly coming into conflict with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), as these organizations add more species to the endangered species list. In a panel at SXSW Eco in Austin, Texas, Robert Gulley, Texas Office of the Comptroller Public Accounts; David Sunding, University of California at Berkeley; and Kathy Robb, Hunter & Williams, LLP, waded into the issues. The general consensus seemed to be: we need to take care of diverse species but a balance is needed. Also, underlying problems with federal and state water management laws and regulations make things all that much harder.

Texas: Freshwater Mussels and Long-term Water Planning

Texas is just now recovering from years of drought, but if “El Nino doesn’t come through, we’ll be right back to where we were,” said Gulley. In its last session, the Texas state legislature agreed to put $2 billion into a fund to finance long-term water banking projects, which run the full gamut of efforts to enhance the water supply. All sorts of new technologies and private public partnership models will be tested. The goal is to dramatically increase the amount of water stored by aquifers, boosting reserves for when times are dry. But as Gulley explained, the “Endangered Species Act can be an obstacle to long-range water planning.” He added that not all endangered species are found in surface water. It can get even more complicated because “new species can also impact groundwater resources.”

Between now and 2017, the FWS will decide on whether 57 species should be added to the endangered species list, which gives them all sorts of protections. “Upcoming, there are decisions alone on 11 types of freshwater mussels found in every watershed in the state.” Water use in the state is seasonal. “When we need to use it in the drought season is just the time when the mussels will need it. This is a significant threat to water availability.”

And while the FWS investigates whether to give a local jurisdiction a permit to use water, water treatment or use can be put on hold. As FWS consultation processes can go on for years, “the ongoing consequences can be severe.” As an example, Gulley pointed to the city of Abilene, Texas, whose water supply was “almost cut off” due to the drought. The city is in ongoing consultations with the FWS on the possible impact of pouring brine, which is an output of their treatment process for reusing brackish water, into the community’s rivers. They can’t do it yet because the brine could possibly impact two endangered species. “The process is still ongoing.” In the meantime, the city’s ability to reuse water and plan for back-up reuse systems is hamstrung.

California: A Water Management Crisis

For Sunding, an economist who consults with states on water resources, water conflicts around ESA are real and ongoing. California has just initiated a statewide 25 percent reduction in water use, with exemptions for farmers. While the measures will reduce wasteful water use for lawns, California, he argued, is having a “water management crisis, not a scarcity crisis.”

While the drought is “causing a massive dislocation for other species,” the state’s faulty water management system is causing “conflicts between humans and other species to come to the foreground.”

The majority of ESA conflicts in California occur when agricultural water users divert traditional sources of water because the one source they rely on has gone dry. Conflicts can also arise when new water infrastructure takes water out of existing water bodies in a way that affects water-based wildlife.

For example, the new multi-billion water infrastructure system being planned and created in Northern California will most likely lead the state to create alternative water supplies, which will then trigger FWS consultations. Northern California desperately needs to move forward with infrastructure planning to create new sources of water but ESA considerations will lengthen the process.

Obstacles Preventing Progress 

California, Texas, and other western and southwestern states’ struggle to balance the needs of humans and wildlife will only get worse as species migrate to find new sources of water. Gulley said states will need some flexibility to deal with this, “and need to be recognized by the FWS for developing voluntary action programs.” But underlying issues in water management also need to be addressed if a balance is going to be struck long term.

For example, Sunding said the problem with the water management system in Texas is the state doesn’t recognize “conjunctive management,” meaning that it regulates surface water and groundwater in the same place differently. “They need to be able to manage both resources together to create better outcomes.” In too many states, “arcane water rules don’t match up with the reality.”

In California, the question is “can we manage scarcity with smarter policies?” When water users pay the water bill, they are paying for water treatment and the pressurized flow of water from the plant to their tap. “They are not paying for the water itself. That’s a problem because we’re not thinking of its value to other people or species. Too much water is locked up in bad uses. Livestock, cotton, hay, and rice water use are all low value uses of water.”

And Kathy Robb argued that the entire 43-year-old Clean Water Act regulatory system is outdated, and a 2014 decision by the Supreme Court to clarify the meaning of “traditional, navigable waters” in the act to now include tributaries with seasonal or intermittent flow has led to a total upheaval of the American water management system. This decision meant that power plants, waste water treatment facilities, oil and gas companies, and other industrial water users will all need to get permits to access the thousands of streams and creeks once deemed private and now labeled official “waters of the U.S.A.” In Kansas alone, there are 32,000 such tributaries. And, already, a single power plant could wait nearly 3 years and spend $270,000 in fees to get a permit.

Robb said “water lawyers are suing everyone now,” with 14 jurisdictional district court cases pending. As of now, 27 states are moving forward with the new definition of navigable waters, while 13 states have refused. She added, “this is not a sustainable way of creating water policy in the U.S. We can do better.”

Read Full Post »

Steven Nygren / Serenbe

Steven Nygren / Serenbe

Steven Nygren is the founder of Serenbe, which has won numerous awards, including the Urban Land Institute Inaugural Sustainability Award, the Atlanta Regional Commission Development of Excellence, and EarthCraft’s Development of the Year.

You founded Serenbe, a 1,000-acre community in the city of Chattahoochee Hills, which is 30 miles southwest of Atlanta, Georgia. In Serenbe, there are dense, walkable clusters of homes, shops, and businesses, even artists’ studios, modeled like English villages set within 40,000 acres of forest you helped protect. Can you briefly tell me the story of this community? What motivated you to create it?

It was a reaction. We purchased 60 acres in a historic farm in 1991 just on a weekend whim while on a drive to show our children farm animals. It seemed like a good investment. I wasn’t sure why we were doing it other than my wife and three daughters thought it was a great idea. To my amazement, every Friday when I got home, everyone was anxious to leave our big house with the pool, the media room, and all of the trappings, to go out to the country. Watching the difference in the children and our own family on those weekend times, I decided after three years to sell the company, sell the big house, and retreat to this rural area, right on the edge of Atlanta.

Seven years later, on a jog, a bulldozer was bulldozing the forest next to us. At that point, we owned 300 acres. We were fearful that the threat of development was coming. It turns out they were clearing it for a small runway for one of the neighbors. But that set me on the path of thinking what could happen.

At dinner one night when I shared my concerns with Ray Anderson, the founder of Interface Inc, who had been a good friend, he said, “Let’s bring the thought leaders in to talk about this.” So in September 2000, 24 people invited actually showed up — because of who Ray was — for a two-day conversation facilitated by the Rocky Mountain Institute, documented by Georgia Tech. At that point, I went into the session interested in how we could protect our own backyard, but I came out with an understanding of how serious the issues are. And you realize in September 2000, the first LEED building hadn’t been certified.

A lot of the things we take for granted today were way-over-the-edge thinking just a decade and-a-half ago. We began looking at what could be done. We decided that most models ended up being magnets for what they were trying to change. We set about to bring land owners together in a 40,000 acre area.

How did you and the other members of the Chattahoochee Hill Country Alliance achieve buy-in from local planners and policymakers to create Serenbe and the broader Chattahoochee Hill Country Community Plan, which protect 40,000 acres of nature from Atlanta’s ever-engulfing sprawl?

We realized we needed to create a larger vision than just buying land and trying to create a model. We brought everyone together over food. We invited the largest land owners to dinner, and after several cases of wine and several good dinners in our home, we thought we had buy-in. Next, we expanded the ring to get buy-in from owners representing 51 percent of the land.

That meeting would have reminded you of the worst zoning meeting you’ve ever sat through. Within an hour and-a-half, we had people calling each other names, even neighbors who had known each other through generations. So I realized that it was a much bigger issue. Half of the people who inherited land wanted the bulldozers to come because this meant payday, and the other half didn’t want the land touched. It was between the land speculators and us, who had found this paradise.

We put together some more research. I first reached out to a community leader who was also a property rights advocate to get agreement to come to another meeting. About ten minutes into the call, he said, “are we going to have that peach cobbler?” And so my wife kept baking and cooking and we kept calling meetings. Then, that proceeded into a public process with all the landowners, over 500. It was a two-year process. By late 2002, we passed the largest land use plan in recent history in metropolitan Atlanta, with 80 percent of the landowners paying dues into the organization we formed, with not one word of opposition. It was quite remarkable.

There has been a long history of utopian agricultural communities. Early communities in the U.S. and Europe came together for ideological reasons. They were anarchists seeking self-sufficiency, proto-communists or socialists seeking to bring social reform to serfs, and others farming to just improve human health and well-being. Some of the early communities in turn influenced Ebenezer Howard, who created his Garden City movement right before the turn of the 20th century. Where do you and Serenbe fit into this rich history?

When you look over time, you’ll see there has been a constant tension between rural and urban. But also each of these movements have responded to the issues of their time.

Serenbe certainly represents a turning point to counter Atlanta’s sprawl, which is terrible. Marie and I were urban people who believed we should develop where infrastructure exists. But at the point we got involved a decade and-a-half ago, over 70 percent of the development continued to be in greenfields. There were no good models.

Serenbe deals with the issues of our time: how do we create communities that connect urban and rural, the city and agriculture? I would like to think that history will look at Serenbe as part of a movement that returns development to responsible uses of resources in a balanced way.

The Serenbe community has a unique layout, with “serpentine omega forms.” What ideas guided the plan?

Phil Tabb worked with us as a consultant. He did his doctorate on the English village system and was also trained as a sacred geometrist through Keith Critchlow. We wanted to achieve a complete balance, very much what biomimicry pioneer Janine Benyus talks about. In nature, everything is balanced. But as developers, we don’t always respond to nature in a real way.

When Phil and I first started walking the land to understand the assets and restraints, we talked about the ridges for house clusters. We were thinking about the hill towns of Italy, where we both visited. Then when we came together for our first two-day design charrette. It became obvious that we wanted to save those ridges for public natural access. We could locate the density and the housing in the valleys, which brings you down. If you come into the valleys, you come by the streams. To really work with the streams, it became an omega — you had one crossing with the housing on each side of the stream. The omegas really emerged through our understanding of the land. The land spoke to us and and we saw where we could locate buildings with the least disturbance, and yet, really bring the land to life. At Serenbe, houses are nestled around the water, with this wonderful little stream down through the center. All the ridges have community paths.

Serenbe masterplan / Serenbe

Serenbe masterplan / Serenbe

Various movements claim Serenbe. We relate to each of these movements, such as the New Urbanists, the farm-to-table movement, the environmental movement. We are all of these things but we’re much more than any one of them. One of the areas where we differ with the New Urbanists is the grid. Our grid is pedestrian, not vehicular. There is a complete grid for pedestrians going across the streams and omegas, but our streets wander. We were really in the forefront of the movement to get people out walking, because at Serenbe you can usually walk to places in half the time that the road will take you around here.

In an interview with the journal Terrain, Ed McMahon, a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute, said “agriculture is the new golf.” The new desirable amenity is a well-maintained farm. The benefits of a community farm are food production, new revenue, and even tax breaks for preserving farmland. How do the residents of Serenbe pay for its 25-acre farm? How is the farm maintained?

When we started Serenbe, you really didn’t see farms integrated into a community. Ed was one of the early people that I turned to. The Urban Land Institute (ULI) had just released a study that said 92 percent of the people who bought golf course lots — at that premium bankers adore — played golf less than twice a year. They were buying the green space, the open space.

When I was trying to fund Serenbe, I would talk to the bankers, and say, “OK, if that’s true, wouldn’t people pay the same premium if not more to back up to a farm or a pasture?” There were no statistics to show that, so the financial community wouldn’t fund the development. The real estate community was dubious. So was Andres Duany, who didn’t think people would live that close to smelly farms. We are delighted that he is now a big supporter of this movement.

We were really pushing this idea of agricultural integration. We realized a lot of the negatives that “big ag” farms have. But a small organic farm is charming. We really pushed forward with these ideas, even though our land had been stripped of nutrients through the cotton monoculture, so it didn’t look like it could produce. Everyone said, “You’re nuts. You’re crazy.” But it seemed like such a core thing: if we were going to create a balanced, sustainable community, food was one of the critical things, along with energy and water.

Serenbe aerial view / Serenbe

Serenbe aerial view / Serenbe

Now, we operate Serenbe Farms as a teaching farm. I had initially decided we would be self-sustainable in five years. It was self-sustainable in three years. We 25 acres set aside and about half of that is under active cultivation, with cover crops on the other half. The farm supplies our three restaurants. We have a great CSA program for people outside Serenbe. There’s a farmer’s market on Saturdays.

We have a farmer hired on a base salary, and then they get a profit based on what they make. We have an intern house with four interns. The farmer makes a very nice salary and it’s profitable, and educational. So we’re growing farmers as well as crops.

Serenbe organic farm / Serenbe

Serenbe organic farm / Serenbe

Is a model like Serenbe only for the relatively well-off? Can you conceive of this model working for middle or working class communities?

Our model is essential for lower income groups. One of the critical problems in our educational system is that we’re not teaching people how to grow and prepare their own foods. It should be one of the basics of the education system and it’s just not. It takes very little land to grow all the foods you need for a family.

We’ve been able to demonstrate at Serenbe that with five acres, one member of a couple both working and paying for daycare can leave the workforce as we know it and actually tend the farm. That couple can have a higher quality of life. It’s essential thing that we have farmers in smaller lots growing local food.

Now, let’s talk about the labels organic and local. We’ve had to label these things because we’ve gotten so far away from the basics of 50 to 60 years ago. Then, we didn’t have organics, we had good nutrients. That’s what we have to get back to.

With our CSA program, a family of four can have all the vegetables they need for a week in the key growing seasons. How much does that cost a day? $4.80. That’s affordable. So this idea that fresh fruits and vegetables are not affordable is crazy.

Wholesome Wave is a fabulous program. Michel Nischan started five or six years ago. It’s one of the few programs that received increased funding in the recent Farm Bill by both Republicans and Democrats. For every dollar raised, the Farm Bill matches it by a dollar fifty. It’s for anyone on SNAP programs. If lower income folks are getting food assistance, they can turn $20 of credit into $50 dollars of fresh fruits and vegetables from a local farmer. This is stimulating the local agrarian economy, and getting fresh food into homes.

In Serenbe, sustainable homes are set close together in New Urbanist arrangements. The organic farm stores carbon. Water conservation is enabled through water-efficient appliances and green infrastructure. Waste water is treated through a natural system designed by landscape architects with Reed Hilderbrand. Yet, most of the 400 residents of your community drive to work in Atlanta, and the thousands of visitors you get each year also drive there. How does this balance out in terms of overall sustainability?

Serenbe development street / Serenbe

Serenbe development street / Serenbe


Serenbe's natural wastewater treatment system by Reed Hilderbrand / Serenbe

Serenbe’s natural wastewater treatment system by Reed Hilderbrand / Serenbe

The perceptions that everyone is driving out to work is mistaken. A recent survey we did showed that 70 percent of the people living at Serenbe worked all or part-time at home. We have moved away from the time when everyone arrives at a desk at 9 and leaves at 5. For some of our residents, the airport is their key means of transportation; they’re consultants or what have you.

We did also a survey asking if people drove more or less since moving to Serenbe. We found we’re just right on the edge of the same trends. When they lived in the city, everything seemed convenient, and so they were constantly going out for trips. In Serenbe, they’re more organized and they really don’t leave as much. With Amazon and so much e-commerce, we can live in a different way.

We are also creating jobs in our shops, restaurants, and other service sectors. People who already lived in the area around Serenbe were traveling great distances for jobs. We have created this entire local job force for people who are already living nearby. If you look at the net, we’re probably cutting down on trips.

The New York Times recently wrote about the country-wide growth of communities like Serenbe, which they call “agrihoods.” How can you explain their growth? But, also, given these communities are still far from mainstream, how do you explain their still limited appeal?

I believe that all trends begin and then grow. There is no way to walk through a threshold from no appeal to total appeal. When we put our first development in just 11 years ago, the idea of farming in a new community just didn’t exist. The fact that it’s even in the conversation a decade later means there’s a lot happening. But this is not a model in which the majority of Americans can live. That just isn’t feasible.

The broader movement that needs to happen is finding an authentic way to bring more food sources into our mainstream developments. At Serenbe, the crosswalks all have blueberry bushes.

Serenbe edible landscape / Serenbe

Serenbe edible landscape / Serenbe

Why shouldn’t that be happening in any urban area? Where we’re sitting here in Austin, why are these pots filled with ornamental plants that have no meaning? Why aren’t they full of herbs or something the kitchen can use? Our movement can help edibles integrate into our typical landscapes.

Finally, there’s an understanding that we need to daylight more of our stormwater. Wouldn’t it be incredible if all of our urban areas had these veins of bio-retention to capture our stormwater and beside those systems were edible landscapes? This is where I want to see us moving to.

The agrihood idea is the beginning of waking people up to the benefits of having food near where you live, but let’s integrate those ideas into mainstream communities.

Read Full Post »

Headphones and maps set up for a Water Walk event in Lexington, Kentucky / Gena Wirth

Headphones and maps set up for a Water Walk event in Lexington, Kentucky / Gena Wirth

How can you get people to appreciate the invisible features of their hometown? A team led by SCAPE/Landscape Architecture and MTWTF is currently conducting a unique multi-media design experiment that aims to find out by focusing on an often-forgotten but significant culvert in Lexington, Kentucky. The Town Branch Water Walk, created for the Lexington Downtown Development Authority (DDA), is a podcast-guided one-hour walking tour of downtown Lexington’s Town Branch Creek, a long-buried hidden waterway. To further enlighten users of the podcast tours, SCAPE created a set of topographical tables that show what they will explore.

Water walk tour / Gena Wirth, SCAPE

Water walk tour, Lexington, Kentucky / Gena Wirth, SCAPE

The water walk, which can be completed in under an hour, is intended to transform the way Lexingtonians interpret their everyday landscape by revealing what exists underground: karst geology and hydrology. For those who may not know, karst is formed from the “dissolution of soluble rocks such as limestone, dolomite, and gypsum” and takes shape as underground drainage systems, with caves and sinkholes.

Lexington was founded on the Town Branch –  a karst stream — but over time this landscape has been covered over and “put out of sight, out of mind.” The tour follows the creek downstream from its headwaters on a busy highway to where it daylights in a parking lot behind the University of Kentucky’s Rupp Arena.

“The Water Walk creates links between the urban areas Lexingtonians inhabit and the rural Bluegrass region that shapes the identity of the city and region. Karst is Lexington’s hidden secret – the water that flows through this limestone bedrock is rumored to make the bluegrass grow taller, the horses’ bones grow stronger, and the bourbon taste better,” said Gena Wirth, ASLA, a principal at SCAPE.

The set of 3-minute long podcasts are modeled off of Safari 7, a self-guided tour of urban wildlife on New York City’s 7 subway. The podcasts include interviews with local experts on topics ranging from “Lexington’s green infrastructure projects to the complicated nature of Kentucky’s karst-defined hydrology.”

The free podcast and walking tour model was chosen because it can reach multiple audiences who might not typically seek out information on water quality or stormwater management. The team is also working with local schools to integrate the podcasts into the middle school science and social studies curricula.

Nels Rogers, 5, listens to the sound of Town Branch with Gena Wirth / Lexington-Herald Ledger

Nels Rogers, 5, listens to the sound of Town Branch with Gena Wirth / Lexington-Herald Ledger

The new tour also helps set the stage for the work SCAPE is doing in the city. The firm recently won an international design competition to design Town Branch Commons, a broader, long-term initiative advanced by the mayor and the Lexington DDA that will create a new linear public space downtown along the path of the karst water system of Town Branch. A number of other projects, including the construction of the Town Branch Trail, the Legacy Trail Development, and a remedial action plan as a result of an E.P.A. action on water pollution, are in the works.

SCAPE's winning design for Town Branch Commons / SCAPE / landscape architecture

SCAPE’s winning design for Town Branch Commons / SCAPE

SCAPE thinks more landscape architects should go multi-media when trying to communicate with the public. “We firmly believe in the power of systemic vision, but we also believe that visions need to be accompanied by face-to-face communication and design (or podcast-to-ear!).”

Wirth thinks these approaches can create new connections with the environment: “On the ground experience is invaluable – getting out into a new environment, occupying a familiar space in an unfamiliar space, or hearing a podcast describe the trickling stream below your feet transforms the way you experience a place and understand its potential. Landscape architects work to reveal and enhance environmental systems within urban areas, and the podcast walking tour is another way to combat inertia and catalyze appreciation and change. As designers, we need to expand our toolkit and explore more diverse techniques for speaking directly to people about the quality and potential of their built environment.”

Water walk tour / Gena Wirth, SCAPE

Water walk tour / Gena Wirth, SCAPE

So far, the Lexington DDA has hosted one of three Water Walk events. Vine Street was open to pedestrian and bike traffic to allow people to take the walk. A new Water Walk website was recently launched, and listening stations are becoming available for public use at destinations downtown.

Read Full Post »

"Grassroots Cactivism." the winner of the speculative category of the Dry Futures competition / Ali Chen via Archinect

“Grassroots Cactivism.” the winner of the speculative category of the Dry Futures competition / Ali Chen via Archinect

As the worst drought since the 1950s continues to take its toll in California, innovative solutions to alleviate the state’s water woes were recently chosen as winners of Archinect’s Dry Futures competition, which sought “imaginative, pragmatic, idealist, and perhaps dystopic” proposals. The jury chose three winners for each of the two categories: speculative projects that involve “future realities and technologies not yet imagined,” and pragmatic projects that can actually be implemented in the near term.

Speculative Winners

The first place winner of the speculative category was Grassroots Cactivism, which combines a cacti farm and wastewater treatment plant, by Ali Chen, a design assistant at Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG). Chen’s winning proposal would feature nopale cactus, “a drought tolerant plant that’s fit for both human and animal consumption, and remarkably, is able to effectively clean polluted water,” according to DesignBoom. The cacti would not only require far less water to grow than California’s almond and orchard farms, but the cactus’ inter pulp could be adapted as a low-tech solution for recycling waste water.


Nopale cacti would be used to treat wastewater on-site / Ali Chen via Archinect

According to the project description, the farm also aims to promote the use of nopale cacti as food and a sustainable lifestyle choice “by hosting an eco-resort marketed towards the health-conscious modern traveler, with cooking workshops, highly-rated fine dining, a water museum, and various resort amenities. The goal is to market the use of cacti in contemporary cuisine, grow awareness, provide funding for research, and slowly increase demand for a crop that can eventually replace other water-intensive forms of vegetable and fodder.”

Diagram explaining the multiple uses of nopale cacti in the project / Ali Chen via Archinect

Diagram explaining the multiple uses of nopale cacti in the project / Ali Chen via Archinect

The second and third place winners were Urban Swales: Subterranean Reservoir Network for Los Angeles by the Geofutures team at Rensselaer School of Architecture and Analogue Sustainability: The Climate Refugees of San Francisco by architect Rosa Prichard, respectively. Urban Swales imagines a series of excavations throughout Los Angeles that would collect stormwater run-off in micro-reservoirs that could then be stored and re-distributed to local communities, while also creating “urban caverns” for human and animal occupation. Analogue Sustainability would be an inhabited flood defense on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay that wraps around the island, housing those who have been displaced by flooding and sea level rise in the Bay.


Terraced landform and subterranean reservoirs envisioned in the Urban Swales project / Geofutures @ Rensselaer School of Architecture via Architnect

Rosa Prichard's "Analogue Sustainability: 'The Climate Refugees of San Francisco'" proposal / Rosa Prichard via Archinect

Rosa Prichard’s “Analogue Sustainability: ‘The Climate Refugees of San Francisco'” proposal / Rosa Prichard via Archinect

Pragmatic Winners

The first place winner of the pragmatic category is Liquifying Aquifers, a project by San Francisco-based designer Lujac Desautel. The project envisions multiple drains placed throughout the San Fernando Valley that drain back to the San Fernando Groundwater Basin, which are continually being over withdrawn “without any large-scale plan to replenish” it.


Rendering of Lujac Desautel’s “Liquifying Aquifers” proposal / Lujac Desautel via Archinect

Currently 165 gallons of water per second flow straight into the Pacific Ocean from the San Fernando Valley, rather than replenishing the aquifer sitting 40 feet below the surface. “Like a giant bathtub with a conglomerate of drains,” Liquifying Aquifers is a system of basins that could take root in urban areas, like easements and parking lots, providing community spaces that will also drain water back into the aquifer.


Diagram illustrating potential basin locations for water collection / Lujac Desautel via Archinect

The second place winner in the pragmatic category is Liquid Bank, by architect Juan Saez. Liquid Bank is a website and app that would offer users rewards and incentives that encourage them to use water responsibly. In exchange for developing water-saving habits, users would earn “aquos” that support water-related infrastructure projects in developing countries.

The award for third place in the pragmatic category went to Recharge City, a project by Barry Lehrman, an assistant professor at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. The project seeks to recycle the 502 million gallons of water that is dumped into the Pacific Ocean by Hyperion treatment plant and the Joint Water Pollution control plant in Los Angeles every day by identifying recharge sites throughout the city.

Potential aquifer recharge sites in Los Angeles / Barry Lehrman via Archinect

Potential aquifer recharge sites in Los Angeles / Barry Lehrman via Archinect

The inter-disciplinary jury for the competition included: Allison Arieff, former editor of Dwell and now head of Spur; Geoff Manaugh, founder of BLDGBLOG; Hadley and Peter Arnold, co-founders of the Arid Land Institute, NASA’s Jay Famiglietti; Charles Anderson, FASLA, Werk; and Colleen Tuite and Ian Quate, founders of the “experimental landscape architecture studio” Green as F*ck.

Learn more about the competition winners.

Read Full Post »


The GrowOnUs floating island prototype floating in the Gowanus Canal / Balmori Associates

The Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, New York, is one of the most heavily polluted waterways in the United States. The 1.8 mile long, 100-foot wide canal, which is a SuperFund site, has historically been home to many industries that contaminated it with heavy metals, pesticides, and sewage from combined sewer overflows. While efforts are underway to clean up the industrial sites surrounding the canal, a new experimental project, GrowOnUs, by the New York-based landscape and urban design firm, Balmori Associates, uses a floating landscape to decontaminate the canal’s water. It was launched last week behind the Gowanus Whole Foods, adjacent to the Third Street Bridge, and will eventually move to a final location near the 7th Street Basin.


GrowOnUs locations / Bamori Associates

GrowOnUs transforms metal culvert pipes, once used to bring polluted runoff and sewage waste to the canal, into 54 floating “test tube” planters that will clean the water through phytoremediation, a process that features cleansing plants; desalination; and rainwater collection. Each of the planters will be irrigated from one of three different types of water, according to Jessica Roberts, a designer at Balmori Associates. “Some of the planters collect rainwater in reservoirs made from recycled plastic bottles, some use canal water distilled from solar stills that allow condensation to collect,” she said. Buoyant construction material, such as bamboo, coconut fiber, and recycled plastic, allows the planters to float.

Designed by the firm’s experimental branch, BAL/LAB, the prototype draws on a year of experimentation with different plants and water types that not only have the potential to decontaminate the water in the canal, but can also adapt to rising sea levels and storm surge events.

The team will continue to monitor the prototype over the next few years through frequent site visits, according to Noemie LaFaurie-Debany, leader of the Floating Landscape BAL/LAB, and explore its full potential as a productive landscape. “We want to find out if these plants can also be productive as wildlife habitat.”


Some of the floating plants are intended to clean the water, while others are wildlife habitat or could be used to produce dyes / Balmori Associates

Lafaurie-Debany has many hopes for future floating landscapes. “Floating landscapes can do lots of things: They can protect the canal edge against erosion of surge, produce food and be productive, and absorb energy from the wave or the current. What interests us the most — what we really want to be able to do – is create an island that will have public space where people can go to play, to read a book or to use just like a regular green space, but in the canal.”

While the current prototype does not include public space, Roberts noted that people have been able to interact with the floating landscape. At the launch event, “fifth grade students from the Brooklyn New School participated in a series of demonstrations explaining how the island functions. It has also been fun for us to see a few people canoeing and kayaking by it. It could become such an active place,” she said.


Members of the BAL/LAB team installing the floating landscape on a canoe in the Gowanus Canal / Balmori Associates

This is not Balmori Associates’ first experiment with floating landscapes. In 2005, the firm collaborated with the Whitney Museum and the Smithson Estate to build a floating island on a 30 by 90-foot barge that was towed by a tugboat around the island of Manhattan. According to the firm’s website, “the barge was visible to millions of residents, commuters, and visitors along the Hudson and East Rivers.”


Smithson’s Floating Island was pulled by a red tugboat / Balmori Associates

The firm has also been working on a project in Memphis that consists of a series of landscape islands on the Mississippi River. Each of the islands will provide different public attractions, including a “river overlook, a children’s play area, a performance space and wetland gardens.”

After monitoring the success of the current island on the Gowanus Canal, Lafaurie-Debany said the team is interested in finding other locations for creating new floating islands on a larger scale. “An island in the Hudson River could be more productive than one in the Gowanus. We will have to see.”

Read Full Post »


Charlotte, North Carolina street trees / Kenny Craft on Pinterest

The science is increasingly clear: trees are central to healthy, livable cities. New studies are only adding to this understanding. For example, recent research published in the prestigious journal Nature found that having 10 more trees on your block, on average, improves the perception of your own health in ways comparable to an increase in annual income of $10,000 or being 7 years younger. However, according to Cene Ketcham, a graduate student in urban forestry at Virginia Tech, the benefits of urban trees are rarely experienced equally across a city.

“We know trees have a lot of benefits. And if we know that having trees in our cities is important for our health, the converse must also be true — a lack of trees hurts your health,” Ketcham said at a conference organized by Casey Trees in Washington, D.C.

Ketcham noted that a lower tree canopy is often correlated with lower-income neighborhoods and communities of color – “areas that have historically been disproportionately impacted.” While non-profit and city-led tree planting programs are poised to bridge this gap, most are not designed with environmental justice goals in mind. The groups leading these urban tree-planting programs are increasingly aware of this problem, but what specific strategies are most effective for getting urban trees into the areas that need them the most?

Ketcham studied 11 different programs in six cities: Austin, Texas; Charlotte, North Carolina; Denver, Colorado; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Portland, Oregon; and Sacramento, California. Each of these programs have a different planting plan that accounts for inequalities. In Charlotte, for example, race and income are tightly tied together, so improving tree cover in underserved neighborhoods did not require a city-wide effort to make an impact in these communities. “But, of course, the closer you get to planting trees all over an entire city, the better off you’ll be,” Ketcham added.

The programs Ketcham identified as the most successful at getting trees into underserved neighborhoods are NeighborWoods in Charlotte, Friends of Trees in Portland, and CityShade in Austin. Based on the success of these programs, Ketcham identified four strategies city government and non-profit tree planting organizations can implement to make sure trees are planted where they are most needed:

Target Planting Areas

Successful tree planting programs use outreach efforts and highly targeted planting. “Portland canvassers go door to door in low-income neighborhoods advertising the benefits of trees. A lot of effort goes toward getting trees in where people want them,” Ketcham said. Of course, city-wide tree cover is the goal, but in larger cities where trees are disproportionately benefiting some neighborhoods, targeted tree-planting efforts can go a long way.

Urban forestry volunteers in Portland, OR / City of Portland

Urban forestry volunteers in Portland, OR / City of Portland

Build Strong Municipal and Non-Profit Partnerships

“It’s not just somebody some throwing labor in, it’s a tightly integrated collaboration,” Ketcham said. Programs that have been successful bring together public and private organizations. “Maybe the city buys the trees, while the non-profit runs the program.” In any case, it’s important that both groups take ownership of the tree-planting program.

For example, Treefolk’s CityShade program in Austin works very closely with Austin’s urban forestry department. From October 2014 through March 2015, the program worked with the city to plant 350 large-container trees and mulch existing trees in seven parks and greenbelts in Austin. According to CityShade, the organization also planted native trees to beautify, and provide shade and wildlife habitat in some of Austin’s lowest-income neighborhoods.

Volunteers plant trees along a highway in Austin, Texas / TreeFolks

Volunteers plant trees along a highway in Austin, Texas / TreeFolks

Reduce Property Owner Responsibility

Particularly in low-income neighborhoods, it’s important to reduce the pressure on individual property owners to plant trees. Not only are people in these areas struggling to overcome challenges bigger than increasing the tree canopy, but residents in these areas are more likely to be renters. “If you’re in an area with a lot of renters you’re not going to want to work on improving your landlord’s property. And the landlord might not even want the trees if it will change the property value,” Ketcham said. Instead, successful programs rely on volunteers and contractors to plant the trees, rather than giving trees to neighborhood residents.

However, some successful programs do provide help and guidance to residents who want trees on their own properties. Friends of Trees in Portland makes it easy for someone to plant a tree at their home with this step-by-step video.

Priotize Public Spaces

While most programs focus on getting trees onto residential properties, successful programs work on “improving tree cover, not just in residential areas but also in public spaces.” Planting trees in public spaces can provide neighborhood-wide health and environmental benefits.

For example, CityShade in Austin partnered with Austin’s watershed protection division and urban forestry department to plant thousands of small, native, tree seedlings in public areas in order to conserve water and improve water quality in Austin’s waterways. Though mainly focused on residential plantings, Charlotte’s NeighborWoods program will also help provide trees for homeowner association’s common areas when appropriate, so that everyone in the neighborhood can benefit from increased access to nature.

Read Full Post »

The Los Angeles River / The Architect's Newspaper

The Los Angeles River / The Architect’s Newspaper

Red Rocks, Conservation Corps Camp Named National Historic Landmark The Denver Post, 8/4/15
“Red Rocks Park and the camp that housed the men who built its world-famous amphitheater have been awarded national historic landmark status.”

Brooklyn Sites Get $2.6 Million to Undo Hurricane Sandy’s Toll ­– The New York Times, 8/5/15
“Hurricane Sandy isn’t over yet. Historical sites around New York City are among the many places where — nearly three years later — damage caused by the storm has yet to be fixed or cleared.”

Architect Frank Gehry is Helping L.A. With Its Los Angeles River Master Plan, But Secrecy Troubles SomeThe Los Angeles Times, 8/7/15
“Architect Frank Gehry is working with city officials to draft a new master plan for the redevelopment of the Los Angeles River, bringing the avant-garde sensibilities of one of the world’s best-known artistic celebrities to the struggle to remake 51 miles of the Los Angeles Basin’s largely desolate central waterway.”

150 Years Ago, Olmsted Released His Historic Yosemite ReportWBUR, 8/7/15
“Sunday marks the 150th anniversary of the first reading of Olmsted’s historic report, “Yosemite and the Mariposa Grove.” It’s largely credited with providing the basis for the creation of Yosemite National Park.”

Frank Gehry Agreed to Make Over the L.A. River — With One Big Condition – The Los Angeles Times, 8/9/15
“Frank Gehry and the Los Angeles River: It’s a combination that makes zero sense (if you’re looking strictly at Gehry’s resume) and follows a natural logic (if you think about the interest the architect’s work has long shown in L.A.’s linear infrastructure and its overlooked, harder-to-love corners).”

Frank Gehry, Not a Landscape Architect, Will Help Re-Work L.A. River. Why? – The Los Angeles Times, 8/11/15
“While Frank Gehry, who will draft the master plan for the redevelopment of the Los Angeles River, is certainly one of the most talented and revolutionary architects of our time, Mayor Eric Garcetti’s comparison of him to the greatest landscape architect in North America — and yes, this is a separate credentialed profession — is nearsighted.”

Into the Current The Architect’s Newspaper, 8/12/15
“News that Gehry Partners is at work on a new master plan of the Los Angeles River took Angelenos by surprise late last week. While some had heard rumors for weeks, others were caught off guard by the somewhat strange combination.”

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,292 other followers