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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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William B. Callaway / SWA Group

William B. Callaway, Noted Bay Area Landscape Architect, Dies – The San Francisco Chronicle, 12/5/14
“His Bay Area work was equally varied, be it Refuge Valley Community Park in Hercules with its gazebo and lake that are a popular backdrop for wedding and quinceañera photographs, or the ascending stacks of triangular granite in the plaza outside the 101 California St. office tower in San Francisco.”

Restoration of Mellon Square Inspires Book About the Modernist LandmarkThe Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 12/6/14
“As president and founder of The Cultural Landscape Foundation in Washington, D.C., Mr. Birnbaum championed the project because he knew of other significant landscapes that had already disappeared from cities and parks. Six months later, in June 2007, Meg Cheever, president and chief executive officer of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, took Susan Rademacher on a tour of the city’s historic parks — Frick, Schenley, Riverview and Highland — plus the Hill District.”

Presidio Park Project Lands Architect Behind High Line in N.Y. The San Francisco Chronicle, 12/9/14
“The selection of James Corner and his firm Field Operations comes after an unusual competition where five teams were asked to submit conceptual visions for the 13 acres that will blanket two automobile tunnels now under construction. The competition was overseen by the Presidio Trust, which manages nearly all of the 1,491-acre park at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge.”

2014’s Notable Developments in Landscape Architecture The Huffington Post, 12/10/14
“This year the single most notable development came courtesy of the New York Times architecture Michael Kimmelman critic who wrote: ‘Great public places and works of landscape architecture deserve to be treated like great buildings.'”

Why We Need Horticulturists The Washington Post, 12/10/14
“Horticulture is not a field that attracts enough young people — this is a constant lament of garden directors I meet. For all its imagined bliss, the life of a professional gardener can be hard, stressful, and anything but lucrative. It is a world of insect bites, near-heatstroke, and the steady degeneration of the spinal column.”

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ASLA 2008 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Lurie Garden, Chicago / Gustafson Guthrie Nichol

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) has released its call for presentations for the 2015 Annual Meeting and EXPO, which will take place November 6-9, 2015, in Chicago. More than 6,000 attendees are expected to attend.

The meeting will feature a diverse spectrum of industry experts speaking on a wide range of subjects, from sustainable design to active living to best practices and new technologies.

More than 130 education sessions and field sessions will be presented during the meeting, providing attendees with the opportunity to earn up to 21 professional development hours under the Landscape Architecture Continuing Education System™ (LA CES™).

Many of the sessions will also qualify for continuing education credit with the Green Building Certification Institute (toward LEED AP credential maintenance), the American Institute of Architects, the American Institute of Certified Planners, and other allied professional organizations and state registration boards.

Education session speakers selected from this process will receive a full complimentary registration to the ASLA 2015 Annual Meeting and may also be eligible for reimbursement for one night’s hotel stay at an official ASLA hotel (estimated $750 value). Landscape architecture professionals wishing to present at the Chicago meeting need to be active members of ASLA. Allied professionals are encouraged to both submit presentations and speak but are not required to be members of the Society.

The deadline for education session proposals is January 29, 2015. Submit your session proposal now.

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Fracking equipment in Pennsylvania / University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health’s Center for Healthy Environments and Communities via Why Files

High Volume Horizontal Hydraulic Fracturing, commonly known as “fracking,” is creating soul searching among the landscape architects unlucky enough to have to deal with the mess caused by this destructive form of resource extraction. Fracking involves pumping chemicals and vast amount of water into shale formations underground, in order to break them open to release the natural gas found in the seams in the rock layers. Once the gas is captured, fracking fluids are then partially recovered and moved by trucks and pipelines to questionable disposal sites. Sometimes, toxic fluids have leaked into groundwater channels and aquifers, contaminating water supplies for thousands. The ecological damage can be massive and long-term.

At the ASLA 2014 Annual Meeting in Denver, Darla Callaway, ASLA, Design Workshop, said on the negative side, fracking “taints water and destroys landscapes.” Once a gas company extracts what it needs, it also then “abandons the community.” On the positive side, fracking can create new jobs in deeply depressed rural areas and a new sense of community, at least while it lasts. Fracking is pitting community against community, neighbor against neighbor in Pennsylvania and other states.

The question for Callaway is whether landscape architects have an ethical obligation to involve themselves in mitigating the impacts of fracking if communities decide to move forward with it. “Can landscape architects make the communities affected more resilient?” In other words, can getting involved do any good?

The Impacts of Fracking

Kim Sorvig, a research professor at the University of New Mexico’s School of Architecture and Planning, gave an overview of “oil and gas 101,” and the possible negative impacts of fracking.

He explained how just .007 percent of the earth’s radius — the thin biosphere that covers Earth — hosts 90 percent of its life. This thin layer we rely on is “under threat because of efforts to get at the resources underneath it.”

The problem is almost anywhere on this thin layer can be turned into a “wasteland overnight” given oil and gas companies are “exempt from land use regulations.” Under the split-estate ownership rights scheme in the U.S., “there are different owners for the surface and subsurface.” When they come into conflict, “mineral rights are dominant.” Sorvig argued that “reforming split estate is the elephant in the room.”

Oil and gas companies lease rights to drill on a property from the surface owner, paying fees and royalties. The product — the oil or gas — is then sold to the highest bidder on international energy markets. “The industry is highly dependent on global prices.” The result: local jobs can’t be considered reliable given such a variable market.

“The industry promotes jobs and economic growth, but it’s actually a boom and bust cycle that is highly chaotic and undermines the existing structure of communities.” He added, “just as a giant truck can ruin existing infrastructure, thousands of new fracking jobs can ruin the existing economic infrastructure.”

In addition, there are real environmental impacts. “The drilling process causes surface impacts that are not just cosmetic. There can be erosion, compaction, toxic pollution. Methane can be introduced into water wells. Contaminants can be introduced into the air.” In some states, Sorvig added, “it’s even legal to dump toxic fracking chemicals into open ponds,” where they will aerate and create clouds.

Some communities can regulate how fracking will occur. However, many others have no control over what matters, like the safety of the aquifer. In some places, “there’s no flexibility to protect aquifers because well spacing has a rigid format.”

Directional drilling, in which drills extend up to 7 miles sideways underground, is one way to mitigate surface impacts, by clustering wells into one area. This approach also “enables us to do site selection to avoid aquifers.” Sorvig said some industry players are doing this voluntarily. “It’s possible with planning for landscape architects to have a good impact and create a stopgap before we shift to alternative energy.”

Mitigating the Damage

Brian Orland, FASLA, Pennsylvania State University, asked whether landscape architects who try to mitigate the damage of fracking are “idealists, realists, or cadaver cosmeticians?” Pennsylvania is at the front lines of fracking. In some counties where they have banned the practice, “people feel cheated.” In others where it’s going ahead, “it’s a source of money.” However, not everyone in those towns are financially benefiting. “It’s a real social equity issue.”

When deciding whether to allow fracking or not, people face “too much information, too many hidden or moving parts.” There’s an advantage to the energy industry to “obscure the information.” In considering a ban, local leaders face “inexorable choices.” People just “don’t know what to expect.”

One issue is that communities are largely prevented from planning the minimization of impacts. This is because “the industry is exempt from environmental regulations. Zoning is absent in rural areas. Landowners are ill informed. Mineral rights dominate.”

As a result, landscape architects are ill equipped to help communities. In theory, these designers can help “contain and repair what has happened, shape what is yet to happen, or design landscapes to be more resilient to the unexpected or accidental.” Landscape architects can help communities figure out how to create any “long-term benefits.”

In fracking communities, Orland has been trying to help. “Our strategy is storytelling, exploring relationships, providing many examples of what could happen, and creating designs. We can help communities project the impacts of wells and pipelines. We can look into the future based on past impacts.” For example, a company may say a new gas pipeline will remove 8,000 acres of forest; but the reality based on past experience may be 25,000 acres of forest. “We can model the stormwater and flooding impact of that loss of forest cover.”

Orland helps communities route pipelines strategically to “minimize the number of forests, wetlands, streams, and homes impacted.” In Tioga County, Pennsylvania, Orland even helped the community “minimize the impact of visual scenic resources.” There are ways to “disguise pipelines and fracking structures.”

The Soul Searching

The questions remain for Orland, though: “Are we cadaver cosmeticians? Are we green washers? We can mitigate the impacts of a destructive industry, but we also risk the criticism of environmental groups. We can be accused of hiding the ills of fracking. Are we working for the people, industry, or landscape?”

He seem to conclude it’s better to get involved: “Communities deserve jobs but also a clean environment. Landscape architects can help communities make an informed decision.”

Sorvig provided another perspective. “You can think you are a good person who cares about the environment, but what happens when you have to work with people who are doing bad things. How do you reconcile? Will you be an environmentalist or industry hack? Everybody will criticize you. It’s brave to be in the middle. We have a responsibility to make the landscape as healthy as possible. Fracking isn’t going away.” Still, actually working on mitigating the impacts of fracking was for him, “the most painful thing in my life.”

To ban fracking in more states, there may need to be a broader political shift, which can only happen through public pressure on elected officials and regulators and direct lobbying in state capitals. Gail Schwartz, a state senator in Colorado, discussed Colorado’s regulatory approach to fracking — and the recent conflicts between the state, which allows fracking, and the local communities, who have been trying to ban the practices and have in turn been sued by the state. She said local ASLA chapters need to be more involved in lobbying. “You must have a seat at the legislative table. You need to watch every proposal and create relationships in your statehouse. The door needs to be open for you when it matters.”

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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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Metropolitan Zone of the Valley of Mexico, 66 miles wide and 68 miles long. Top: hydrology and agriculture. Below: hydrology and urban systems. The Texcoco Lakebed is the large blue area at center-right / INEGI topographic charts. Maps by Gabriel Diaz Montemayor.

Last September, the Mexican government announced the construction of a new airport for Mexico City. The current airport is the second busiest, per number of passengers, in Latin America, just after Sao Paolo, Brazil. The airport was recently declared to be at full capacity. It has two runways that cannot be operated simultaneously and it’s surrounded on three flanks –north, west, and south – by dense neighborhoods. Along its east site, the airport is adjacent to the Texcoco Lake bed. There is no more space for growth, so a new airport is needed.

The new airport master plan, as presented by Sir Norman Foster and Fernando Romero from Mexico, the architects who won an international design competition, is located just 5 miles north of the current airport and will occupy 17.5 square miles of the Texcoco lake bed. The remains of this formerly grand lake covers some 50 square miles. Spared by urbanization but partially used for agriculture, the lake bed has both permanent and temporary water bodies. Although miniscule in comparison to the original lake system, the lake bed sits at the lowest part of the basin, helping concentrate and infiltrate water, supporting the unstable soils of Mexico City. The lake remnant protects the city from more flooding. And the water it collects keeps the city afloat by infiltration.

Mexico City drinks more than half of its water from the valley of Mexico’s aquifer. This valley is a closed basin draining serviced, storm, and waste water towards the Gulf of Mexico via a deep and massive underground system. The load pressing on this desiccated, lake landscape, along with aquifer exploitation, has led to Mexico City actually subsiding by over 30 feet in its central area in the last century.

A recent public presentation about the new airport plan failed to discuss how the project will address these critical environmental issues and improve water quantity and quality, support soils, recover wildlife habitat, and create a regenerative relationship between the city and its lakes.

There are ways landscape architecture can be used to help the lake system recover. Among some existing concepts is Ciudad Futura (Future City) by Alberto Kalach, Teodoro Gonzalez de Leon, their Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) architecture students, and other collaborators. Published in La Ciudad y sus Lagos (The City and its Lakes) in 1998, this project proposes the recovery of the lacustrine system through the construction of infrastructure for water management and treatment, the definition of active lake edges, the creation of new public spaces, and the development of a new airport as an island in a regenerated Texcoco Lake.

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The Future City / City of the Lakes project. The new airport as an island in the regenerated Texcoco Lake / Alberto Kalach, Teodoro Gonzalez de Leon, UNAM students, and other collaborators.

A more radical concept would be to turn the current airport into an ecological reserve and park, performing water and soil management and providing wildlife habitat. Parque Texcoco (Texcoco Park) by Iñaki Echeverria doesn’t address where to place a new airport though.

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Texcoco Park. The recovered Texcoco Lake with no airports / Iñaki Echeverria

With the new airport plans, the Mexican government promises not only first-rate architecture but also a place that creates ecological value, largely through a 1,730-acre public forest. But it remains to be seen whether the new airport’s master plan project can create a reconciliation between the built and natural environments, and this project can become a global best practice from an under-developed country. The health of the underlying ecological systems must be considered. Let’s demand this happens.

This guest post is by Gabriel Diaz Montemayor, Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture, The University of Texas at Austin

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Ellsworth Commons, Malta, New York / Fun Saratoga Blog

As more sprawled-out suburban and rural communities attempt to turn abandoned, outdated shopping malls and other underused spaces into walkable downtown destinations, the chances of things going wrong seem to rise. Developers may fail to understand context and the appropriate scale needed for a new mixed-use development. At the 2014 ASLA Annual Meeting in Denver, Ian Law, ASLA, Place Alliance, explained how even the best laid plans for retrofitting suburbia can go haywire.

According to Law, it’s particularly challenging to create a comprehensive plan that can sustain a dense, walkable downtown if there are many small landowners in a community. Ideally, “one developer will be in control of the entire development.” Also important is that “the goals of the developer are in synch with the goals of the community.”

Even with a single developer in synch with the community, things can go awry though. Some common errors made by developers are “a disregard for context and creating downtowns out of scale.” If a community tries to add too much retail but has a low-population density, those stores are bound to fail, making the entire place much less appealing. If a development doesn’t fit the existing structure and organization of a community, it will also feel isolated and out of scale.

As perhaps a cautionary tale, Law explained the story of Malta, a small community of 25,000 in upstate New York. The community realized it needed to update itself to accommodate a new silicon chip plant that will bring in 2,000 jobs. However, they ended up creating an overly ambitious downtown revitalization plan. Instead of one downtown to replace what wasn’t working, they ended up creating three, said Law. These isolated, disconnected developments had “too much retail for the scale of Malta.”

One mixed-use development, Ellsworth Commons, broke ground, which created “lots of optimism,” but this “5-story  development that looked like it fell into a field” was destined to have problems. “There was no complete package.” While New Urbanist principles were applied — the building fronted the street — the street, in this case, was a multi-lane highway. The sidewalk ended just a few feet from the building. “There is no place to go. It’s a pretend Main Street. The sidewalks don’t connect.”

Furthermore, the entire development has “poor height ratios,” meaning the entire place feels out of scale. “With the lack of detail in implementation, there is no vibrancy, so people are missing.” Just 4,000 square feet out of the 70,000 square feet of retail planned is now being used, for a coffee shop and frozen yoghurt shop.

Law said this was a case of a developer and community out of synch: the developer could make money just from rental apartments, so they are focused less on the success of the development’s ground-level stores.

In its three downtowns, Malta is planning for some 2 million square feet of retail, which Law argues is out of scale with its current population and organization.

Law and Rosemary Wallinger, ASLA, Place Alliance, then pointed to some successes in retrofitting suburbia. Mizner Park in Boca Raton, Florida; Belmar in Lakewood, near Denver; and Mashpee Commons in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, all show “how good urbanist principles can lead to success.”

Mizner Park succeeded because a “single developer had control over the whole parcel.” What was once a tired mall is now a haven of stores, restaurants, and condos. “It has become the cultural center of Palm Beach, with many connections to the surrounding neighborhoods.” What is critical for Mizner Park is the surrounding context: there are some 170,000 people within five miles of the new development. As a result, the developers can make money off of the nearly 270,000 square feet of retail space built.

Belmar in Lakewood, Denver, is now the largest retrofit of a mall in the U.S. Some 104 acres were turned into 1,300 apartments set within 9 acres of open space. There’s also 700,000 square feet of retail. Again, the surrounding population of nearly 150,000 and broader Denver population of 3.2 million made this possible.

While Mashpee Commons in Cape Cod doesn’t have the high density population immediately around it, the 20-acre development, which created a new outdoor shopping center, works because everyone driving from Boston to the Cape passes right by it. “It’s a drive-to-walk Mall.”

As rural and suburban areas with lower density attempt to revitalize their town centers, it’s important to note that “these places need the population to support the context and scale. Not all of suburbia will see growth.”

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curb

Curb Appeal / HGTV

More than 41 million Americans watch home design shows on TV each week. In a wide-ranging panel at the ASLA 2014 Annual Meeting in Denver, Dean Hill, ASLA, greenscreen, moderated a discussion among the stars on camera as well as the executives and producers behind the scenes who make these design docudramas, often set in suburbia, a reality. John Gidding, star of Curb Appeal; Steven Lerner, an executive at HGTV and DIY at Scripps Networks Interactive; Michael Williams, Green Harbor Productions; and Mia Holt, Johlt Productions, offered candid advice for residential landscape architects and designers who want to become a home design show star:

  • It’s getting harder to find fresh talent without experience. If you are looking to star on your own home design show, a sizable number of Facebook and Twitter followers is key.
  • It’s all about how you are on TV, not in person. For those interested, make a video demo. Production companies often cast via Skype.
  • Extroverts do better. A TV show star needs to be comfortable being out there. You must be telegenic.
  • It’s less about expertise than about passion. Passion reads well.
  • Viewers need to trust what a design show host is telling them to do to their home.
  • TV can provide the gift of design. Home design shows offer broad rules and expose people to the design process.
  • Landscape design concepts have to be conveyed in a way that people can easily understand and apply at home. Viewers want something that’s doable, not overly complex or expensive.
  • HGTV and similar networks are for homeowners interested in improving the value of their home. A $1 investment in a residential landscape will result in $1.22 in added value.
  • Before and after shots, showing the transformational effect of design, work best. A highly educational or altruistic approach causes ratings to plummet. People can go on YouTube to find out how to actually implement a technical solution.
  • TV is not reality: a $20,000 project in TV world costs about $100,000 in the real world.
  • To get one 22-minute episode of a home design show, producers will film over 420 hours of video. When editing, production companies look for humor and drama.
  • For landscape architects and designers: it will be hard to keep your business going and have a TV show at the same time, but a show can also help in real world business promotion.
  • Taste is constantly changing. What didn’t work just two years ago may work now. And what works now may not in the future.

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The playground in Riverstone master-planned community, Big Adventrue Park, incorporates the natural environment as much as possible.

The playground in Riverstone master-planned community, Big Adventure Park, incorporates the natural environment as much as possible. / Houston Chronicle

FIU Students Seek Flooding Solutions if Sea Level Rises Throughout Miami-Dade CountyThe Miami Herald, 11/20/14
FIU professors Marta Canavés and Marilys Nepomechie worked with students for three years to research sea level rise projections at three, four, and six feet, and created models and proposals to keep existing city infrastructure and neighborhoods habitable. The models, designs and collected data are on display at the new Coral Gables Museum exhibit through March 1.”

S.F.’s Newest Public Space Provides Invitation to Sit, LingerThe San Francisco Chronicle, 11/25/14
“The new plaza is a patch of asphalt at Mission Street, closed to cars but with plenty of room for bicycles to coast through, below a gateway-like frame of salvaged wood adorned with hanging rat tail cactus. Its counterpart at Market Street behind the Palace Hotel spent decades as a deliberate green oasis with formal planters, until it declined to the point where now it is hidden behind construction barriers.”

Parks, Playgrounds Get New Attention in Planned CommunitiesThe Houston Chronicle, 11/26/14
“The latest amenity at River­stone creates a shady and colorful play area for families in the Fort Bend County master-planned community. On two acres of land, colorful pathways and play structures are set among the trees and twisting trails.”

A Guide to Denver’s Best Landscaped Spaces, Deep and FreeThe Denver Post, 11/28/14
“None of it got there by accident, as the new ‘What’s Out There Denver’ online guide reminds us in inviting detail. Our natural places were planned by generations of forward-thinking civic leaders and landscape architects who understood how preserved green spaces balance all of the asphalt and concrete of city life.”

New York’s High Line: Why the Floating Promenade Is So PopularThe Washington Post, 11/30/14
“It has become an archetype for cities everywhere craving their own High Line mojo. In Washington, it is the inspiration for a proposed elevated park where the old 11th Street Bridge crossed the Anacostia River and, separately, for a component in the long-range redevelopment of Union Station.”

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urban

Urban acupuncture / Island Press

Looking for the perfect present for your favorite landscape architect, designer, or planner? Or taking time off during the holidays to delve into the latest thinking on design, cities, and the environment? Well, The Dirt‘s picks for the top ten books of 2014 are worth exploring:

Urban Acupuncture: Celebrating Pinpricks of Change That Enrich City Life (Island Press, 2014)
Jaime Lerner, one of the most influential urban leaders of our time, has written down all of his hard-earned wisdom about the city in one slim yet rich volume. Read the review in The Dirt.

Berlin: Portrait of a City Through the Centuries (St. Martin’s Press, 2014)
From the book: “Berlin tells the volatile history of Europe’s capital over five centuries through a series of intimate portraits of two dozen key residents.” The Washington Post: “Berlin is the most extraordinary work of history I’ve ever read. To call it history is, in fact, reductive.”

Composite Landscapes: Photomontage and Landscape Architecture (Hatje Cantz, 2014)
This book, which releases at the end of December 2014, is based on the exhibition at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston curated by Charles Waldheim, Affil. ASLA. Composite Landscapes examines one of landscape architecture’s most recognizable representational forms, the montage view. Learn more about the exhibition.

Landscapes of Change: Innovative Designs and Reinvented Sites (Timber Press, 2014)
University of Oregon landscape architecture professor Roxi Thoren, Affil. ASLA, explores 26 case studies from around the world that highlight how “site can serve as design generator.” Case studies include Queens Plaza in Queens, New York; the Buffalo Bayou Promenade in Houston, Texas; and the Jaffa Landfill Park in Tel Aviv, Israel.

The Landscape Imagination: Collected Essays of James Corner, 1990-2010 (Princeton Architectural Press, 2014)
As the author of canonical texts — and now built projects like the High Line in New York City — James Corner, ASLA, founder of Field Operations, has achieved a unique stature in contemporary landscape architecture. Read the review in The Dirt.

Mellon Square: Discovering a Modern Masterpiece (Princeton Architectural Press, 2014)
Recently restored to much ado through a six-year process, Mellon Square in Pittsburgh was the first Modernist space in the nation built over a subterranean parking garage. Considered a precursor to today’s green roof movement, Mellon Square is a showcase for urban revitalization through historic preservation, with a contemporary sensibility and the latest technologies. Read the review in The Dirt.

Next Generation Infrastructure: Principles for Post-Industrial Public Works (Island Press, 2014)
Architect and planner Hillary Brown’s new book is an inspiring argument for infrastructure that behaves like nature. She writes: “We need more diversified, distributed, and interconnected infrastructural assets that simulate the behavior of natural systems.” Read the review in The Dirt.

People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities (Island Press, 2014)
Influential blogger and advocate F. Kaid Benfield’s new book argues that sustainable places are really just places people love. Think of those places where you most feel like yourself. Would you want anything to happen to them? Read the review in The Dirt.

Projective Ecologies (Harvard University Graduate School of Design and Actar, 2014)
This new collection of essays, edited by Chris Reed, ASLA, founder of Stoss Landscape Urbanism, and Nina-Marie Lister, Affil. ASLA, professor at Ryerson University, is a timely overview of contemporary thinking about ecology and design. Read the review in The Dirt.

Urban Bikeway Design Guide, 2nd Edition (Island Press, 2014)
The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) has released an updated second edition as part of their “sustained commitment to making city streets safer for everyone using them.” Reformatted in an attractive hardcover with improved structure, it features photos, diagrams, and 3-D renderings of wide-ranging best practices in design for bike infrastructure. Read the review in The Dirt.

For more, check out Books by ASLA Members, a hub offering up hundreds of books written over the years (all available via Amazon.com), and the top 10 books from 2013.

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