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Archive for the ‘Green Infrastructure’ Category

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Russell Square, London / Ali Amir Moayed.com

“Just as all parts of an ecosystem must be healthy if the system is going to work,” an environment for people — a “people habitat” — must have “homes, shops, businesses, and an environment that fit in a harmonious way,” said urban thinker and author F. Kaid Benfield at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. For the past 50 years, “we have not been living in harmony with our environment.” To undo the damage, Benfield proposes a wiser approach, set out in his new book People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities. He covered a few ways to achieve these healthy environments in his talk:

Focus on Regions and Neighborhoods, Not Cities: Regions, Benfield argues, actually define the way we live today. Cities extend far beyond their jurisdictional boundaries. For example, “the functional region of Atlanta is 12 times the size of the city of Atlanta.” Only city governments and cartographers care about boundaries. “The environment, commerce, transportation, and people all cross borders.”

Neighborhoods, at the other end of the spectrum, are the center of people habitats and the agents of change on the ground, as they are where people spend much of their time.

Create Walkable Places: “Americans don’t walk much, and I don’t blame them.” Among a list of 20 plus developed countries, America ranks dead last in the amount they walk. Just 26 percent of Americans want often or sometimes. In 1969, Benfield says 48 percent of children walked to school; in 2009, it’s just 13 percent. There’s are many reasons for this, but the built environment is a major culprit.

Think of all those cul-de-sac neighborhoods designed for cars, or strip malls without sidewalks or crosswalks. There, people take their own lives into their hands going out for a walk. Why don’t kids walk anymore? It’s because so many suburban schools are now “bigger than Disneyland,” isolated and disconnected. Showing photos of the typical suburban school, Benfield wondered if it was a school, mall, or prison.

The death of walking has had negative ripple effects as well: It’s no surprise that places where you cannot walk face an epidemic of obesity. “Weight-related diseases are connected to a lack of walkable environments.” Today, many states’ obesity rates top 30 percent.

Integrate Nature into Cities: Benfield believes in the power of urban parks, particularly small neighborhood parks, to improve the health of a community. As an example, he pointed to Russell Square park in London (see image above), which is “big enough so you known you are in nature, but small enough so you know you are in a city.” He strongly believes that “bringing the function and beauty of nature into a neighborhood” has many positive benefits, including a boost in our health and well-being. “When we are immersed in nature, our blood pressure goes down and our mental acuity increases.”

Consider the Whole System of Energy Use and Emissions: “What is called green development in many places really isn’t green.” When examining the sustainability of a residential development, for example, we need to look at that development’s energy use and carbon expenditures vs. the amount of energy used and carbon expended by transportation getting to and from that place.

Using Prairie Ridge, a “net-zero development” outside Chicago, Benfield showed how the use of the term “net-zero” there is a misnomer because the community failed to consider the whole system of energy use and carbon emissions. While the development may produce as much energy as it consumes, its residents are expending huge amounts of energy and creating a lot of pollution getting there. This is because Prairie Ridge’s Walk score is literally zero.”It’s next to a corn field.” Residents of Prairie Ridge expend 4 times the amount of carbon as those in downtown Chicago.

For city after city, Benfield showed how different the carbon profile of people can be depending on where they live. “If you are living on the fringe of a city, you are driving larger distances.” In contrast, people living downtown are putting far less carbon into the atmosphere getting around.”

Preserve the “Continuity of Places”: “If a place has a sense of continuity, it has a calming, reassuring effect.” In contrast, a place without it can be jarring, “disorientating.” Places treated with respect are the result of a slow accrual of layers, carefully thought out so they fit into a harmonious whole. These kinds of places spur “cultural engagement,” they invite us to “use our imaginations.” And they are the places with the most “civic vitality.” These places are mixed-use and feature building of different sizes and ages.

On a related theme, Benfield argued that preserving the continuity of old buildings is also important: “the greenest building is the one already built.” Even replacing an inefficient older building filled with embedded energy with a new “green building” means starting at zero with carbon emissions. “It will take years for the new building to make up for the carbon emissions.” Benfield argued that “we have forgotten about the energy efficiency of thick old walls, solar orientation, windows, air, the basic principles. Now, it’s about gizmo green.”

Take Advantage of the Future Trends Here Now: “The future will be different from the past.” To be successful, communities need to take advantage of some emerging trends. First, cities are sprawling less today. “Greenfield development peaked in the 90s.” Second, Millennials prefer to live in the core of cities twice as much as other generations. Some 2/3 want walkable places, even in suburbs. “They value density, connectivity, and convenient access to jobs.” Third, people are driving less. The vehicle miles traveled per person per year has been falling since 2005 and staying down. Today, 46 percent of 18-year-olds don’t have a driver’s license. The miles driven by 16-34-year-olds has also fallen 40 percent in the past decade. Lastly, among all generations, bicycle use is up 24 percent and walking 16 percent.

Invest in Lovable Places: “People will take care of places they love, which makes them sustainable” (read more on this). Lovable places can be complex, like Quincy Market in Boston, or simple, like a small street cafe in Barcelona. They can be old or modern, but lovable places — like the French Quarter in New Orleans — always have culture. While many in the smart growth movement have focused solely on density and connectivity, Benfield argued that these projects ultimately fail because “they are not great places.” Great places need green spaces to attract people. “We can have both compact development and green spaces together. We can have it both ways.”

Read People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities.

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Taxis submerged in nine feet of water during Hurricane Sandy / Alan Blumberg

Taxis submerged during Hurricane Sandy / AP Photo/Charles Sykes

Fifty percent of Americans live in coastal cities now threatened by extreme storms brought on by climate change, said AIA NY President Tomas Rossant at a recent event sponsored by ASLA NY and AIA NY at the Center for Architecture in New York City. Architects, landscape architects, urban designers, and engineers need to collaborate to save our coastal cities. As ASLA NY Chapter President Jennifer Nitzky, ASLA, argued, “effective resilience planning takes great collaboration.”

Kicking-off the event, Stevens Institute of Technology professor Alan Blumberg and urban designer and professor Alexandros Washburn, Affil. ASLA, showcased their work at the new Center for Coastal Resilience and Urban Excellence (CRUX) modeling interactions of “water on cities and cities on water.” Blumberg hopes these models — if well communicated to the public — can help us better prepare for the next Sandy.

Communicating what we know is vital. One of the main issues during Sandy was researchers could predict where water would enter urban locations, but had trouble communicating this information to the public in advance. In Hoboken, New Jersey, which thought it was protected from the Hudson River swells, water would ultimately enter from the south and north. In one dramatic example, taxi companies seeking to evacuate to drier ground moved from an area where water would rise three feet to an area that would ultimately be submerged in nine feet of water, information Blumberg says he could have told them.

Can we use new technologies to communicate all the data we have? What if we could check our Google Maps before a storm to see predicted conditions for a location and an overlay showing the range of water levels in street view?

Flood level predictions via Google Maps? / CRUX

Flood level predictions via Google Maps? / CRUX

Washburn described the hybrid fluid-solid modeling he and Blumberg have been working on at CRUX. To date, software for fluid modeling and solid architectural modeling have existed in separate worlds. At CRUX, they seek to create hybrid “surf and turf” modeling programs to understand “how water affects the city and how the city affects the water, as well as ways to bring in data whether from fluid hydrological systems or topography and buildings to make the models comprehensible, accurate, and plausible.”

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“Surf and Turf” hybrid models would integrate fluid modeling software with architectural software / Alex Washburn / CRUX

Such models take grid-based software for fluid modeling and attempting to create fully three-dimensional grids. But such modeling needs to focus on specific locations since creating such grids requires tremendous computational power. Researchers need to understand where the hot spots are in the first place, then direct modeling efforts there. But Washburn believes things are looking bright with this technology: “Ten years ago, we couldn’t even come close to modeling of this type. Now, we are at the edge of being able to define the problem and finding the solution.”

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Grid mesh models are used to simulate fluid dynamics / CRUX

Urban designer Walter Meyer, ASLA, founding partner, Local Office Landscape Architecture, presented several projects seeking to implement innovative and effective approaches to resilient coastal design. Meyer described the process of what Local Office calls “forensic ecology” to assess existing “nature-based features.”

Meyer showed how wetlands could be used for “wave storage” and absorb water and energy from incoming waves.  The type of wetland, however, is critical. Herbaceous wetlands, in one study, showed only a 13 percent effect on wave energy from storm surge, whereas woody wetlands, such as afforested mangroves in India, had a 50 percent effect on surge attenuation.

Meyer also showed how sand dunes are really “root” dunes and suggested ways to “horizontally turbo-charge” these dune structures to get similar functionality in narrow spaces such as the Rockaways.

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“Forensic ecology” applied to several situations / Local Office

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Planted “double” dunes “horizontally turbocharge” ecological functionality in narrow spaces / Local Office

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Proposed planted coastal dunes in the Rockaways / Local Office

Beyond wetlands and dunes, manipulating underwater topography could also have an impact on coastal resilience. Meyer used forensic ecology to explain how “Hudson Canyon,” a gully in the sea floor just off the Rockaways in New York, correlated to hot spots of wave energy that caused further erosion. Such findings suggest that topography could be used to focus wave energy on particular hot spots of heavy impact on the coastline where more intensive infrastructure might be built to cost-effectively mitigate storm damage.

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Wave energy channeled by the “Hudson Canyon” at the Rockaways / Local Office

How can projects that use these novel approaches take root? Anthony Ciorra, US Army Corps of Engineers NY district chief of coastal restoration and special projects branch, said the Army Corps’ has its hands tied to a great extent as it awaits funding approvals and marching orders from Congress, but there has been a shift in culture there in recent years. Ongoing studies are exploring more sustainable and adaptable solutions, and the Corps is trying to integrate resiliency thinking into its projects. That said, for the Army Corps financial feasibility is primary and “recreation is secondary . . . any project must first show that risk reduction choices equal a cost benefit.”

The best approach, agreed on in theory by all presenters, is to find ways to collaborate regionally, across state lines and beyond election cycles. “Nothing happens in the city without aligning money, politics, and design,” said Washburn, recalling something he learned while working with US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynahan. “And if you can’t hold them together through an election cycle, it falls apart.”

Washburn added that “nothing will help speed our preparation for the next storm more than our ability to make decisions better at the federal and state level and do something that America as a nation was not set up to do, which is to have politicians work regionally.”

Yoshi Silverstein, Associate ASLA, is founder and lead designer-educator at Mitsui Design, focusing on landscape experience and connection to place. He was the ASLA summer 2014 communications intern.

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Schuylkill River Dog Park / FSRP.org

“Many people think parks are easy, but parks are one of the hardest things for governments to do because of the physical and human aspects,” explained Peter Harnik, Hon. ASLA, director of The Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence, while introducing a panel of experts at the New Partners for Smart Growth conference in Baltimore. The complex undertaking of how to best to create and maintain parks — for both governments and non-profits — is a thread that connected all speakers.

Mark A. Focht, FASLA, first deputy commissioner of Philadelphia Parks and Recreation and former president of ASLA, gave an overview of the amazing progress made in Philadelphia’s expansive park system over the past few years. Some 80 percent of the city’s residents are already meeting Mayor Michael Nutter’s “goal of everyone being within a ten-minute walk away from a park.” Examples of recently built green spaces and amenities that help the parks department to reach all city residents include Paine’s Park, a skate park and public space; the Schuylkill River Dog Park; and the Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk.

As part of Philadelphia’s innovative, 25-year Green City Clean Waters plan, the parks department has also “made strategic investments to stabilize, improve, and green existing recreation centers and playgrounds.” It also is implementing green infrastructure for innovative stormwater management in existing neighborhood parks and bringing “high-quality amenities” like trail systems to communities.

Baltimore residents Stephanie Murdock and Jennifer Robinson described how non-profits — not the city government — are leading a resurgence in Baltimore’s parks, helping to make the city more livable. Murdock, the president of Skatepark of Baltimore, talked about her non-profit’s ten-year journey to build a public, concrete, destination skatepark in Baltimore. The first phase – a 5,000 square-feet concrete bowl — was completed last May in Roosevelt Park, a late-nineteenth century park in the Hampden neighborhood.

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Skatepark of Baltimore / Explore Baltimore County

“For a young person in Baltimore to have a place where they can be free, that’s huge,” said Murdock. She told the audience the skatepark will soon add more “shade, seating, walkways, and restrooms” so that all members of the community can enjoy the space.

Robinson, the director of Friends of Patterson Park, another park in southeast Baltimore, said her non-profit’s efforts showed her that “parks become very personal for the people who use them.” Her non-profit is transforming the once-neglected Patterson Park, an Olmsted-designed space, into the city’s “best backyard.”

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Patterson Park / Patterson Park

The group’s involvement began with the renovation of the park’s historic pagoda, which had fallen into disrepair. Today, the group ensures the park remains “a green space for all sorts of users” through community events and programs. The group is now “looking at a formal conservancy model that will elevate the friends’ role in management of the park.”

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At the New Partners for Smart Growth conference in Baltimore, a panel of experts called for using green infrastructure to make communities “climate smart,” which can also boost their resilience to natural disasters.

According to Breece Robertson, the Trust for Public Land’s geographic information systems (GIS) director, climate-smart cities use green infrastructure in four ways (see a brief video above). They create “safe, interconnected opportunities to walk or bike; cool down the city by planting trees and creating parks; absorb stormwater to save energy and recharge aquifers; and protect cities through green shorelines.”

In a pilot study with New York City government, Columbia University, and Drexel University on how to use green infrastructure to protect New York City’s waterfront, the team created a GIS data tool to model priorities. According to Robertson, the models found that “green buffers really do improve resilience.”

Pete Wiley, an economist with the NOAA’s office for coastal management, spoke about a post-Hurricane Sandy assessment of the restoration of living shorelines in New York and New Jersey. According to Wiley, one of the challenges is communities and policymakers “think about restoring what was” because they only regard a “narrow range of benefits based on a specific issue.”

Instead, policymakers must “consider the full range of the benefits for all restoration options.” For instance, more resilient coastal designs that apply green infrastructure can provide a range of benefits, including “recreation, carbon sequestration, storm surge protection, and wildlife habitats.”

Hilarie Sorensen, an educator with Minnesota Sea Grant, described how Duluth, Minnesota is assessing how to use green infrastructure in the wake of a massive storm. Th city, which is located in the Great Lakes Basin, suffered from an estimated $100 million in damages after a catastrophic flash flood hit the region in 2012. The organization selected a 4,400-acre site called Chester Creek for an economic assessment of using a green infrastructure approach, because “it had sustained the most damage from the flood and discharged into Lake Superior.”

A cost-benefit analysis explored the use of green infrastructure to reach 76-acre-feet of water storage, with the goal of a 20 percent reduction in peak discharge for a 100-year storm event. The researchers walked through green infrastructure options and selected the “most viable” during meetings with the local NOAA team. They then worked with the local planning department to “preserve existing green spaces and wetlands.” They “calculated the square footage of roofs” and identified potential “green or blue roofs;” they also examined “tax-forfeited properties to preserve parcels of land.” The group received a $250,000 Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grant in 2014 to fund restoration projects that also support green infrastructure.

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Living Breakwaters / SCAPE Landscape Architecture with Parsons Brinckerhoff, Dr. Philip Orton / Stevens Institute of Technology, Ocean & Coastal Consultants, SeArc Ecological Consulting, LOT-EK, MTWTF, The Harbor School and Paul Greenberg

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, “HUD didn’t want to move at the speed of government” in its effort to create more resilient coastal designs in New York and New Jersey, said Marion McFadden, deputy assistant secretary at HUD, at an event at the American Institute of Architects (AIA). To avoid this, HUD decided to partner with non-profits and universities running the Rebuild by Design competition as well as the Rockefeller Foundation, which underwrote the competition. Using a little-known feature of the America Competes Act, HUD used the competition to spur government innovation. And it continues to do so, with its newest $1 billion competition for local resilience.

From the get-go, the intensely-collaborative Rebuild by Design competition was different from other design competitions. Usually, there is just one winner, but with Rebuild by Design, a total of six projects received $930 million in funds. According to Scott Davis, a senior adviser at HUD, “each team was competing against the standard. There were 10 places, 10 problems.”

The competition set-up was tough because of the “compressed time frame and raw emotions. It was a really difficult design environment.”

Each design team was either led by an architect or landscape architect and purposefully structured to be multi-disciplinary, with planners, engineers, ecologists, scientists, and communication specialists included. Davis said, “we brought tons of resources to these teams, including workshops at universities that covered all the latest research.”

Designers were immersed in the latest climate science and asked to create elaborate cost-benefit analyses as well as meet with community groups hundreds of times.  It was also important for the design teams to be able to “know how to conceive of their efforts in economic terms. It may be boring, but it’s vital for policymakers.” The solutions that ended up being financed made the best case for how to meet a range of social, ecological, and economic requirements.

McFadden said the teams worked with a high level of uncertainty, given HUD was never sure if the $930 million was even going to be allocated. “But we learned that people can live with uncertainty if they have their hearts in it.”

Now, projects are starting to be implemented in phases, over the next 5-8 years. HUD’s funds are really meant as a kick starter, as they won’t pay for the entire projects, which must now be carried forward by the local governments tasked with coming up with action plans to be sent to HUD.

Based on the success of Rebuild by Design, HUD has now launched a new $1 billion competition to finance resilience open to state and local governments declared disaster areas in the past few years. Davis said, “we are asking cities and states to rethink from scratch and emphasize planning.” HUD is once again partnering with the Rockefeller Foundation and its resilience academies as well as local non-profits.

Davis said with its latest competition, HUD will be again be promoting the innovative use of green infrastructure in its efforts to improve local resilience to disasters. Where relevant, “we will maximize the role of green infrastructure.”

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Chris Reed, ASLA / Stoss

Chris Reed, ASLA, is founding principal of Stoss, which won the National Design Award for landscape architecture in 2012. Reed is associate professor in practice of landscape architecture at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. His most recent book, co-edited with Nina-Marie Lister, Affiliate ASLA, is Projective Ecologies.

This interview was conducted at the 2014 ASLA Annual Meeting in Denver.

You recently started work on Trinity Riverfront, a nearly 500-acre development in Dallas that will create three new neighborhoods set within a landscape of wetlands and gardens along the river, connected by light rail. You say this project will make Trinity floodplain “the most exciting public space in Texas.” Given what we know about car-centric Dallas, that phrase is a bit shocking. What do you think this project says about Dallas and where it’s going?

Dallas is at this incredibly important turning point. It’s building right now on a very short legacy of rediscovering its downtown, the value of civic urban life and the arts, and the potential for landscape and open space to play a role. Over the last 10-20 years, philanthropic institutions, individuals, and the city government have created the arts district, with what are now very famous cultural attractions, museums, and theaters. All of these have been done by top-level landscape architects and architects from around the world, including Peter Walker, Lorenzo Piano, and others. In doing this, Dallas sent a signal to the world that they’re ready to play, right? Dallas now values urban life. They’re willing to put the money and the commitment behind it to make it happen.

Since then, we’ve seen large-scale initiatives on the Trinity River itself, as well as smaller-scale initiatives in downtown, turning vacant lots and other city-owned properties into new public spaces. The riverfront work I’m involved in is the next generation of this.

Dallas’ city government has found unique ways of doing creating projects: they team philanthropists with private developers, in concert with the city government, all coordinated by the urban design studio run by Brent Brown. The city has created an amazing coalition to help move really good projects forward. It’s all about rediscovering the center, the value of civic life, the value of being able to live and walk downtown to set a of cultural and open space resources.

The riverfront work we’re doing occupies this gap between downtown and the Trinity River, the future Trinity River Park. It’s a messy area. It’s got old stormwater “sumps,” they call them. It’s got rail infrastructure, highway clover leaves. Really, a jumble, a mess. We’re trying to use landscape to frame out some of that infrastructure, to take some of it simply out of play. Within this new context of vibrant forests, water gardens and infrastructure, these will be dense, livable mixed-use neighborhoods, places to live, work, play.

In some ways, Dallas has the opportunity to set a model for what is really the new normal for North American cities. If you think of San Francisco, New York, and Boston as being exceptions, places like Dallas, Atlanta, Houston, Phoenix, Denver, Toronto are 20th century metropolises. This work signals how we might tackle some of the problems faced in many other places.

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Trinity Riverfront / Stoss

You’ve also been deeply involved in the Detroit Future City Project, which aims to create a more hopeful, long-term vision for this shrinking formerly-bankrupt city that still has so much potential. What is the vision of the future articulated by this group? What can Detroit be like in 50 years?

Everybody talks about the problems associated with Detroit — the vacancy, the economic woes, the fact that it’s just gone through a bankruptcy. We wanted to see how we could turn some of the challenges into opportunities no other city has. Take vacant land, for instance. No other city have the quantity of land available within the city borders like Detroit has, right? That allows Detroit to do things that other cities absolutely cannot do. The city can treat stormwater on the surface through a set of blue and green infrastructure.

We were just a small part of a very large collaborative team that worked for five years on the project. Our work looked at ways to take liabilities and turn them into assets. Everybody knows Detroit has a very active urban agriculture movement. We want to build on that energy. But we’re also very careful to say, urban agriculture alone cannot save the city. There’s too much land available and some of the problems go far deeper than just food.

We’re not worried about the population. Seven-hundred-thousand people is a very large city already. We’re not worried if that goes up or down. For us, it was more how do we create the right economic opportunities? How do we create employment districts on the ground? How do we create the infrastructure that allow people to get from their home to their job? How do we create the training opportunities that take a largely unskilled labor force, and train it to be able to tackle 20th century and 21st century industries and opportunities? How do we begin to think about land use, neighborhoods, and landscape?

This is where the project, from the land-use perspective, becomes quite interesting. Landscape becomes a significant component of the urban form of the city. Over 50 years, large areas will be given over to innovative and productive landscape uses, whether that’s blue and green infrastructure, food production, energy production, research, art landscapes, successional landscapes. Landscape becomes a robust contributing factor to define what urban life in this city can be in the next 50 years. This is an opportunity other cities don’t have, because they simply don’t have that land available. Landscape is a great starting point and driver for bigger questions.

In Green Bay, Wisconsin, your firm completed CityDeck, a novel riverfront park that features a design filled with “folds,” as you call them. You say these folds create diverse seating types: benches, chaise lounges, angled decks. Your goal is to give people real choice about where to sit. Is this a new thing? Why is seating choice so important?

The folds extended to larger-scale infrastructure that moved out over the water and brought you up to an elevated perch or down to the water. All of this worked together as a system at different scales. At the larger scale, the folds offers different opportunities for how to engage with the river. It was designed to create a very lively civic space that people want to come back to, because they can begin to experience the river in different ways each time they return.

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Green Bay City Deck / Mike Roemer

At the level of an individual, the folds are designed to be as comfortable when you’re there alone or just with a friend, as when you’re with a big collective of people, attending events.

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Green Bay City Deck / Mike Roemer

Ideas about choice and flexibility are really derived from the idea that we all have different body types, so we all want to sit in different ways. Sometimes that’s just the shape of our body and sometimes it’s mood-based.

It’s important that a civic space give people these opportunities because otherwise people will create their own opportunities anyway, right? They will take a planter and find ways to inhabit it. They’ll take a bunch of rocks and figure out a way to lie down, lie against, put up a laptop.

There’s a great opportunity to start to design that into public space. Some of these ideas go back to the writings and observations of William Whyte, who was really looking at the behavior of people and thinking about how to translate that into making lively public spaces. We take that research seriously.

Some of our research began earlier with a playscape we did for a garden installation in Métis, where we wanted to fold rubber surfaces to allow people to play. We had encountered a certain level of resistance from public authorities, because they had never seen something like this. The installation at Métis in rubber gave us an opportunity to test it out and to document the various ways that people would kind of engage. Of course, kids are really good at it. They’ll make up games, you know? But adults started to get involved, too, and they’d roll up and down the hills and jump and dive.

For The Plaza at Harvard University, you also create lots of seating choice — with movable café tables and chairs but also with these great ergonomic benches that enable interchangeable seating positions. These were made possible with 3-D parametric modeling and fabrication. Why did you want to reinvent the bench? And have people taken to them?

Should we all be sitting on the same kind of bench all the time? The standardization process that marked the evolution of the 20th century made it cheap and easy to manufacture repetitive elements. What we got was the same bench repeated over and over again. Today, technology allow us to do something different.

We can script out forms that use a set of components or techniques, but the overall form can change. We’re taking advantage of a set of technologies that allow us to make different variations, in this case, benches that appeal towards people’s desire to find their own place and what’s comfortable for them. The benches are sculpted in such a way so that people can lean back, sit up, sit with somebody in their lap, lounge back, snuggle. Kids can jump and play on them. People are able to inhabit these benches in any number of ways.

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The Plaza at Harvard University / Charles Mayer

In any one of those benches, if a single rib becomes damaged, it can be replaced because it’s numbered. All we have to do is go back to the fabricator, and they can very easily reproduce using their C&C machines and fit it right back in.

The benches contribute to a public space people want to come back to over and over again. They’re wildly popular. In fact, we were getting phone calls the first day that university officials started to unwrap the benches. Students immediately started to sit on them, lie on them, do all the things that we had imagined. And it surprised the university administrators. They had a certain confidence in what they were telling us, but on the other hand, they weren’t sure if people would really do the things that we were imagining them to do. And they have. And so we’ve seen it on a daily basis and are documenting it. People really love them.

The benches have become iconographic, but they’re also quite inviting. In a space really designed to host a lot of different events, the benches, in combination with the movable tables and chairs, allow for the accommodation of the every day. People feel like they’re invited to take part in this space.

Your landscapes have a unique look. They’re angular, planar, folded, and often feature zigzag shapes. These shapes have a contemporary feel, a technological vibe. We sense these shapes are only made possible through the latest modeling technologies. Is your intent for us to see the technology, process, and the end-result in the design? What attracts you to this aesthetic? Where did it come from?

We want to take advantage of all the best technologies available and use them to craft landscapes. But it’s not just about form-making, it’s about how these shapes can perform from a social and ecological standpoint. While we’re generating strong forms, they are influenced by how things need to work to create rich environments.

Design should reflect the cultural ambitions and technologies available to us at that moment. This means the tools we use change, the applications we use change, and the shapes that emerge from those tools and applications also change. They signal a particular time, place, and cultural ambition.

With landscape, somethings are age-old: how trees grow, how seeds move, how water filters through a landscape. For me, it’s about taking these new technologies in the forms and shapes they afford and allowing them to set up conditions where water, seeds, and plants, and even the movement of people begin to change. The tools set up interrelationships where it’s never just about the form but about what the form affords from a social, ecological, and economic point of view.

Eerie Street Plaza is a great small riverfront park, a stop-off spot along a three-mile pedestrian and bicycle route in Milwaukee. It’s a designed landscape that’s also integrated with the ecological functions of the river. How does this project represent the new thinking on ecological systems outlined in your book with Nina-Marie Lister, Projective Ecologies?

I think two things are at work. One is how we used underutilized resources available. In this case, stormwater, even river water, was redirected so we didn’t have to install a new set of water systems to first drain all the water that’s there away, and then second, introduce a new set of water outlets and run water to the site. We’re much more interested in being resourceful and redirecting something already at work.

The second piece is an inherent flexibility and adaptability built into the project, which goes back to the design competition proposal that really appealed to the jury. The site was surrounded by not a whole lot of anything. The question was: what kind of public space should this be? There wasn’t really a local constituency to engage.

So we developed a system through interspersed paving and planting that could actually be reconfigurable over time. It could change the combinations of hard and soft surfaces that were in the plaza, depending on future uses, desires, and activities. Some of the plants we embedded into the space could begin to inaugurate vegetal change. The plaza was set up with zones: low and wet, high and dry. Different plant materials occupied different parts of the site. As the site changes over time, there is this kind of inherent adaptability that’s designed into the project that’s really quite unique to a public space.

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Eerie Street Plaza / John December

These elements hint at the Projective Ecologies project, which looks at the opportunities involved in using complex, adaptive ecological systems and applying them to the design of public space.

Can you get specific about the rise of more creative approaches to ecological research and design, as you and Nina-Marie outline in Projective Ecologies? What ideas are you most excited about?

The book project is an opportunity to take stock of ecology and its relationship to design, as it has evolved over the last 20 years. But, also importantly, we want to look at how to reformulate the relationship between ecology and design moving forward.

Ecology has become such a part of commonplace term that we think it’s important to step back, think critically about the terms we’re using, and then use that critical reflection to think about other pathways that might emerge. Visualization tools are one pathway. New tools and technologies are another. The technologies are often borrowed from other disciplines, like engineering or hydrology. We can take the modeling tools engineers use in a very analytical way and inject into them not just an understanding of how things work, but what we want them to do, right? We can begin to think creatively about manipulating water flow that could create new types of public spaces. Functions could perform ecologically, but create entirely new experiences within the city.

The work Bradley Cantrell has been doing is really important. I’ve been experimenting in design studios at the Harvard Graduate School of Design where we use the program real flow aqua to model a set of water flows and then start to translate those into gardens and public spaces simply designed for the experience of those water phenomenon in an abstract way. They don’t necessarily have to simply perform in a functional way. They can perform in an experiential way. Bradley Cantrell’s work looks at multiple systems simultaneously and how the realms of design, ecology, and engineering can be modeled and mapped together. So, on the one hand, this becomes a common tool for people to work through some  problems. But importantly, it also becomes a creative tool for designers to begin to think in different ways.

Whether we are talking about new visualization methodologies, new tools and technologies, design labs and collaborative situations, or anthropology and social relations, these are all just different starting points for broader investigation that can inform design in the coming decades.

We’re trying to find ways to push what is possible in contemporary practice. For landscape architecture to be relevant as a discipline, it needs to do more than just check the sustainability boxes. It needs to set out a broader set of cultural, social, and environmental ambitions that allow the discipline to evolve with an evolving world. Design can enable us to address some of the bigger challenges acted out on the world stage. It’s an incredibly ripe opportunity for landscape architects to be leaders. But to take leadership, we need to be more expansive and creative about the way we think and practice.

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Anne Whiston Spirn, FASLA, is a professor of landscape architecture and urban planning at MIT. Her most recent book is
The Eye is a Door: Landscape, Photography, and the Art of Discovery (2014). She is also the author of The Granite Garden (1984 ASLA President’s Award of Excellence), The Language of Landscape (1988), and Daring to Look: Dorothea Lange’s Photographs and Reports from the Field (2011 ASLA Honor Award). The Web site www.annewhistonspirn.com is a gateway to her work and activities.

This interview was conducted at the ASLA 2014 Annual Meeting in Denver.  

This year is the 30th anniversary of your book, The Granite Garden, which argued that cities are part of nature and should be designed with nature. Since 1984, how much progress have we made? Where are we still going wrong?

We’ve made enormous progress, particularly with water. Ironically, we’ve done less well on climate and air quality. I say ironically because there’s so much awareness of climate change these days. There’s been a lot of attention paid to design proposals aimed at adapting to rising sea levels, but less to the enormous potential that the design of cities holds for reducing the factors that contribute to climate change in the first place. We need to truly reimagine the way we design cities.

Scientists and engineers are focused on technical solutions, social scientists on policy. And that’s where the public debate is focused. We designers and planners are not getting our message across as well as we should.

On the other hand, it’s a tremendous challenge for us to keep up with the latest and best scientific knowledge that would directly affect the way we design. We’re awash in information. You can’t expect a practitioner to stay abreast of all this literature, which is why we at MIT are proposing to do a monograph series on knowledge related to the urban natural environment — air, earth, water, ecosystems — and make that bridge to design. These monographs would be authored by teams of designers and scientists.

We hope to make these available at no cost, to anyone in the world. We hope that they’ll be valuable to scientists too, because most scientists don’t really know how their discoveries apply to design and planning. We are seeking funds to start with urban climate and air quality and then do our next monograph on water.

My hope is that this will prompt new experimentation and research that will give landscape architects the information we need. Right now, scientists develop their research agendas for their own purposes, mainly to document, record, and predict, but not to alter the world or make it more beautiful.

Thirty years ago, there was a sharp divide between proponents of ecological design and landscape as an art form. Examples of urban design that were both ecologically functional and artful were few and far between. I wrote “The Poetics of City and Nature: Toward a New Aesthetic for Urban Design” in 1988 and my book, The Language of Landscape, to argue for design that fuses ecology and art. Others made that argument, too. Now we have many great models of artful ecological design. So that’s another area where we have made real progress.

What do you think of the theoretical discussions born out of your book: ecological urbanism and landscape urbanism?

They’re very important in several ways. Both movements have appealed to architects, and that’s really important. Green infrastructure is something that landscape architects have been talking about for many decades, but architects weren’t thinking in those terms. Landscape urbanism and ecological urbanism were deliberately aimed to capture that audience. And that’s good. On the other hand, some proponents have claimed their approach is radically new, which it is not, and have ignored the contributions of many others to both theory and practice. Certain built projects have captured the public imagination, but for the most part, the landscape urbanism and ecological urbanism literature has been aimed at the design disciplines, not the larger public. There is a need for publications that are valuable to  designers and planners and are also challenging, interesting, and enlightening to a broader audience.

I first set out to accomplish that with The Granite Garden. It probably took me an extra 3-4 years to write the book because I had to learn how to write to this larger audience, use no jargon, and explain the concepts in a way that wouldn’t be boring to my professional colleagues but at the same time would be engaging to the public. I learned the power of that approach when The Granite Garden was reviewed in The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, and then abroad. It was picked up so widely because it was published as a book for a general audience, not solely as a professional text.

Landscape architects are not doing a good enough job at reaching that broader audience.

You say some things have improved; some haven’t. How would you change the way we’re communicating today? What’s the best way to reach the public?

The Web and electronic publishing have opened up powerful new opportunities. Twenty years ago, in 1995, the West Philadelphia Landscape Project Web site was in the works. Within two years, we’d had millions of visitors to the Web site, from 90 countries. This is the extraordinary power of the Web. I maintain several web sites, all geared to both a professional and a general audience, related to my research, writing, and teaching.

At AnneWhistonSpirn.com, I make available all of my writings except my books. I retain copyright and distribution rights to my articles, and so I can make them free for download on my web site. All of my courses have been online since 1996. They’re all available at no cost.

I’ve been part of the open-access movement before there was an open-access movement. I’ve always wanted to reach the broadest possible audience. There’s no single way to reach the public, but we shouldn’t dumb things down. We can engage both professionals and the public, if we go beyond the PR stuff and really try to reach the public in a serious way. As my editor would say, “Anne, your readers are not like your students. They don’t have to read. They can go get a beer and put down your book and never pick it up again, so you have to keep them engaged. You have a duty to your reader.”

E-publishing affords new ways to expand readership. With its many color photographs, a print edition of my new book, The Eye Is a Door: Landscape, Photography, and the Art of Discovery, would have been priced beyond the reach of many readers. To make it affordable, I composed and published it as an e-book.

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The Eye Is a Door / Anne Whiston Spirn

New e-book editions of The Granite Garden and The Language of Landscape will be published later this year. You will be able to read them in two ways: through verbal text (with links to images and captions) or as an essay of images and captions (with links to the book’s text). I envision this as a new kind of reading experience.

Looking at innovation today, what do you see 30 years ahead?

In the epilogue to The Granite Garden, I imagined two visions of the future: the infernal city and the celestial city. A lot of what I envisioned then is now commonplace. On the other hand, much has happened that I did not imagine. A lot can change in 30 years. Just think: the original Macintosh, the first personal computer with a mouse and graphic interface, was released in January 1984, the same month as The Granite Garden.

Today, we have the Internet and social media. Our phones can collect and upload all kinds of data. We’ve got crowd sourcing of data. 30 years down the pike, clothing, and vehicles that gather data will be commonplace. We’re going to be overwhelmed with data, so we need to be even smarter about figuring out what this data means and how to use it.

Climate change and the gross disparities in economic means and access to education and employment across the world are threatening the human species. They’re equally threatening, and social upheavals can only get worse as disparities in income and opportunities continue to get wider. Many people won’t have anything to lose. They won’t have a stake in society.

For the past 30 years, since I wrote The Granite Garden, I’ve focused on restoring the natural environment of cities at the same time as rebuilding inner-city communities and educating and empowering young people who don’t have access to a high-quality education that will set them up for having a stake in society. Those are areas where I’ll continue to devote my efforts.

What has the last 30 years of your work with the West Philadelphia Landscape Project taught you about achieving social justice through environmental action in cities?

The West Philadelphia Landscape Project, which builds on work I did in Boston from 1984 to 86, has been an investigation into how to improve environmental equality and social equity at the same time. There are obstacles, but  I’ve learned that it’s not difficult to conceptualize issues and mobilize people. Then it’s just a matter of lining up the resources and getting the administrative framework in place. It’s possible. There are many great examples. In Philadelphia alone, there are many, from the Urban Tree Connection at the grassroots to the city government’s Green City Clean Waters program.

Designers are optimistic. People don’t go into landscape architecture to create a worse world or even to maintain the status quo. We are in this business because we want to make the world a better place. I’m really worried, but I also believe we can do it. It’s possible.

Much of your writing and photography has been focused on learning how to “read” a landscape. What do you mean by this phrase? How is that different from seeing a landscape?

It’s like the difference between merely looking at a picture and understanding how it was constructed and what it means. Landscapes are full of stories. There are natural histories: stories about how a place came to be in terms of its geology, climate, and plants. There are also political stories and folk stories and stories about memory and worship. People’s gardens hold their own stories. In shaping landscape, individuals and societies express  their values, beliefs, and ideas. All these stories are embedded in landscape, and they can be read.

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Glen Loy, Scotland / Anne Whiston Spirn

Landscape literacy – the ability to read and tell such stories – is fundamental to being a landscape architect. I wrote my book The Language of Landscape because I realized that lack of fluency in the language of landscape was a barrier to more fluent and functional design, more expressive design, more eloquent design.

The West Philadelphia Landscape Project was a laboratory for working out ideas about the language of landscape and landscape literacy. It was extraordinary working with 12- and 13-year-olds in  Mill Creek, a low-income African-American neighborhood in West Philly, as they learned how to read that landscape.

So what was the best way to teach these kids landscape literacy?

Their neighborhood was called Mill Creek, but there wasn’t any creek you could see. My students showed them old maps, photographs, and other kinds of documents that described the neighborhood  at different historical periods from pre-colonial times to the present. Each week was a different period. Gradually, they came to understand through looking and investigating these old maps, newspaper articles, and planning documents that there was once this creek, Mill Creek. They found out that it was buried in a sewer and that there were cave-ins over the sewer. That’s where a lot of the vacant lands were, including in blocks  right around the school. The creek literally flowed right alongside where the school is located.

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Buried Floodplain in Mill Creek, West Philadelphia / Anne Whiston Spirn

The children also learned about socioeconomic issues of the 1930s and political decisions that led banks to stop lending money for small businesses and home mortgages in their neighborhood. And they came to understand that their neighborhood today is the result of all these things that happened in the past.

Then they took the historical maps and went out to compare them with the present neighborhood and discovered: “Oh, my goodness, this huge vacant lot block was once six blocks, and there were houses here,” and, “Oh, my gosh, there’s a fire hydrant in the middle of these woods that grew up on these lots.” It really turned their whole attitude about their neighborhood around.

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Learning Landscape Literacy at Sulzberger Middle School / Anne Whiston Spirn

Before learning to read its history, the children didn’t believe their neighborhood could ever change. When my students  had asked them how they would like to see their neighborhood in the future, they  had said, “Nothing’s going to change.” They were very cynical. After learning about its history, they began to say, “The neighborhood could change. It hasn’t always been the way it is. It could change in the future. Why couldn’t it? We know how it’s changed in the past.” Using that knowledge, what kinds of policies and actions could lead to change in the present?

About that time, I started reading Paulo Freire, who was a Brazilian community organizer. He developed literacy programs, for adults in poor, informal settlements in Brazilian cities. His findings about verbal literacy were exactly the same findings I was having in landscape literacy. He found that the most effective way to teach literacy was to collect oral histories of older people in the community, put them into text, and then teach people to read from those texts of the oral histories of their place.

So these kids were learning to read from the primary documents about their own neighborhood. The landscape itself became a primary document. They then became ambassadors. As a 12-13-year-old, to know more than the adults know is tremendously empowering. They went home and told their parents, “Guess what? This happened here and that happened there. See where that vacant land is? There was a creek there.” This is landscape literacy.

If I were working with those kids today, I’d also have them out taking photographs. My new book, The Eye Is a Door: Landscape, Photography, and the Art of Discovery, is a guide for using the camera as a tool to discover the stories that landscapes hold. Through photography, I want to inspire people to look deeply at the surface of things and beyond to the stories landscapes tell, the processes that shape human lives and communities and the earth itself. To pick up a camera and use it to see, think, and discover.

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Landscapes of Change: Innovative Designs and Reinvented Sites / Timber Press. Images taken from Landscapes of Change © Copyright 2014 by Roxi Thoren. Published by Timber Press, Portland, OR. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved

What is the purpose of landscape architecture in the 21st century? Is it to beautify public and private spaces with well-chosen plants and pavers? To increase ecological health by mimicking natural systems and processes? Or to manage stormwater and cool our built environment by incorporating green infrastructure? In Landscapes of Change: Innovative Designs and Reinvented Sites, University of Oregon professor Roxi Thoren, Affil. ASLA, argues that 21st century realities demand that landscapes do not just one but all of these things. Works of contemporary landscape architecture must connect neighborhoods, provide wildlife habitat, absorb stormwater, and combat the urban heat island effect.

The book profiles twenty-five landscape projects that meet these hybrid needs in response to the “changing context of landscape architectural design.” For example, Jaffa Landfill Park, designed by Braudo-Maoz Landscape Architecture of Tel Aviv, Israel, “used the removal of a landfill and reconstruction of a seashore to ameliorate a painful past and serve as a springboard for social discourse . . . [reestablishing] visual, climatic, and physical connections to the sea that reaffirm the identity of the city.”

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Jaffa Landfill Park / Braudo-Maoz

According to Thoren, some of the changes in landscape architecture are due to shifting perspectives internal to the profession, “as designers increasingly explore material processes, seek a theoretical basis internal to the discipline, embrace a landscape praxis of ‘reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it,’ and engage the challenges and opportunities of complex, multidisciplinary projects.”

Much of the change, however, is driven by factors external to the profession: urban growth (and decay), population growth, and global “reorganization of industry” have created a groundwork for urban redevelopment. For example, Paddington Reservoir Gardens in Sydney, Australia by JMD Design landscape architects and Tonkin Zulaikha Greer architects “combines aspects of sunken plazas, the romance of industrial ruins, and green roof technology . . . providing urban refuge, rootedness, and continuity.”

Paddington Reservoir Gardens in Sydney, Australia (JMD Design landscape architects and Tonkin Zulaikha Greer architects) “combines aspects of sunken plazas, the romance of industrial ruins, and green roof technology . . . providing urban refuge, rootedness, and continuity.” / Brett Boardman

Paddington Reservoir Gardens in Sydney, Australia  / Brett Boardman

Above all other external factors, climate change has increased demand for landscapes “that are resilient in the face of storms, flooding, or drought.” Buffalo Bayou Promenade by SWA Group, which won an ASLA Professional Award of Excellence in 2009, provides flood control, ecological restoration, and recreation in downtown Houston.

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ASLA 2009 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Buffalo Bayou Promenade by SWA Group / Tom Fox

Profiles of projects – most built, but a few that are conceptual – demonstrate that a multi-disciplinary response is needed to address these changing internal and external contexts. Profiles are organized into five categories: infrastructure, post-industrial landscapes, vegetated architecture, ecological urbanism, and edible landscapes.

An example from each:

Infrastructure: Marco Polo Airport Car Park in Tessera, Italy, by MADE Associates incorporates mature trees, porous pavers, and a “graphic soil” to propose that parking lots “can be locally specific, visually engaging, ecologically productive, and verdant.”

Infrastructure: Marco Polo Airport Car Park in Tessera, Italy (MADE associates) incorporates mature trees, porous pavers, and a “graphic soil” to propose that parking lots “can be locally specific, visually engaging, ecologically productive, and verdant.” / MADE associates

Marco Polo Airport Car Park in Tessera, Italy / MADE associates

Post-industrial Landscapes: Northala Fields Park in Northolt, West London — by Peter Fink, an artist; Igor Marko, architect, FoRM Associates; Peter Neal, ecologist; LDA Design, landscape architect — was self-financed through tipping fees “to solve the pragmatic problems of the park while also providing recreation opportunities, biodiversity, and extraordinary earth forms that attract and energize people.”

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Northala Fields Park / Chris McAleese

Vegetated Architecture: Seymour-Capilano Filtration Plant in Vancouver, British Columbia by Sharp & Diamond Landscape Architecture has a vegetated roof over a new metropolitan water filtration plant linking up with the local recreation system. Lupine, a common early successional species in the Pacific Northwest, adds color and improves the soils. This landscape recreates the early successional meadows and shrub lands estimated to have once covered a third of the Pacific Northwest landscape.

Vegetated Architecture: Seymour-Capilano Filtration Plant in Vancouver, BC (Sharp & Diamond Landscape Architecture Inc.) built a vegetated roof over a new metropolitan water filtration plant linking up with the local recreation system. Lupine, a common early successional species in the Pacific Northwest, adds color and improves the soils. Along with woody debris and other meadow species, the site recreates the early successional meadows and shrublands that are estimated to have once covered up to 35 percent of the Pacific Northwest landscape. / Sharp & Diamond

Seymour-Capilano Filtration Plant in Vancouver, BC / Sharp & Diamond

Ecological Urbanism: Wijkeroogpark in Velsen-Noord, the Netherlands, by Bureau B + B urbanism and landscape architecture and Atelier de Lyon is “an elegant, streamlined watercourse that performs a host of ecological functions” within a highly engineered landscape. It restores and newly creates “portions of a freshwater stream that was once imprisoned in a culvert,” reclaims brackish marsh habitat, and provides recreation paths and sports fields.

Ecological Urbanism: Wijkeroogpark in Velsen-Noord, the Netherlands (Bureau B + B urbanism and landscape architecture in collaboration with Atelier de Lyon) is “an elegant, streamlined watercourse performs a host of ecological functions” within a highly engineered landscape, restoring and newly creating “portions of a freshwater stream that was once imporisoned in a culvert,” reclaiming brackish marsh habitat, and providing recreation paths and sports fields. / Bureau B + B

Wijkeroogpark in Velsen-Noord, the Netherlands / Bureau B + B

Edible Landscapes: Gary Comer Youth Center Roof Garden in Chicago by Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects and John Ronan Architects, which won an ASLA Professional Honor Award in 2010, serves as a model for urban agriculture, teaching students “the skills of growing, processing, preserving, and cooking food” along with business, math, and environmental science classes.

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ASLA 2010 Professional Honor Award. Gary Comer Youth Center Rooftop Garden by Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architecture / Scott Shigley

While I would like to have seen a project or two more explicitly tackle drought issues — as most of the climate-related projects skew towards challenges of too much water — the book presents a compelling and modern vision of landscape architecture.

Yoshi Silverstein, Associate ASLA, is founder and lead designer-educator at Mitsui Design, focusing on landscape experience and connection to place. He was the ASLA summer 2014 communications intern.

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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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