Archive for the ‘Public Spaces’ Category

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Burnham's Plan of Chicago / University of Chicago

Burnham’s Plan of Chicago / University of Chicago

For Daniel Burnham, the Chicago architect and planner who created the 1909 Plan of Chicago, civic and infrastructural improvements in Chicago could only happen simultaneously. This approach continues today. Using Burnham’s plan as launching point, Marshall Brown, Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) and Marshall Brown Projects, moderated a discussion at the ASLA 2015 Annual Meeting in Chicago on three new works of “civic infrastructure,” with presentations by Sarah Astheimer, ASLA, James Corner Field Operations; Matthew Bird, ASLA, Michael Van Valkenburg Associates (MVVA); and Gina Ford, ASLA, Sasaki Associates.

In the Plan of Chicago, Burnham’s approach was an “integration of landscape and architecture,” creating hybrid places infrastructural in nature. The three new Chicago parks and landscapes discussed in the session – Navy Pier Pierscape by James Corner Field Operations, Maggie Daley Park by MVVA, and the Chicago Riverwalk by Sasaki – are also hybrids. All required a high level of performance, a “contemporary green and sustainable design,” as Astheimer put it.

Ford called Chicago a “uniquely infrastructural city,” and the projects reflect this. The Navy Pier, built in 1916, has a direct line to Burnham’s plan, as it is the only pier he proposed that was actually created. The new pierscape reoriented the entrance to the pier, opening a “free and clear view of the lake” as you approach, while also changing the perception that the pier is disconnected from Chicago and too commercial.

Navy Pier pierscape / James Corner Field Operations

Navy Yard Pierscape / James Corner Field Operations

The two other landscapes required building significant new infrastructure:

Maggie Daley Park required construction of a large park filled with activities, but also a naturalistic garden, all built over a parking garage. MVVA then unified “a complex site through topography” and created an “integration of ideas and programs” that resulted in a landscape to be enjoyed year round, providing opportunities for both play and relaxation.

Maggie Daley Park / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

Maggie Daley Park / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

The Riverwalk required that land literally be built on the river. For Ford, “creating a landscape on water” in a tight space was a challenge but by “knitting together” the existing walkways to create a continuous path, as well as creating new places for gathering, socializing, and recreation, the Riverwalk “allows the life of the city and the life of the river to interact.”

Chicago River Walk / Sasaki Associates

Chicago River Walk / Sasaki Associates

These new pieces of civic infrastructure can “get people out of their homes and into their community,” as Bird said. And while landscape architects and designers might not be able to change the world in as broad strokes as they may like, they can at least, as Ford put it, “create a comfortable bench for different people to engage with each other, to have a conversation they might not normally have.” It’s clear that since the days of Burnham, Chicago only continues to build on its legacy of creating and supporting large-scale civic and infrastructural improvements.

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"Parc de Bagatelle's rose garden was designed by the landscape architect Jean Claude Nicolas Forestier, who also designed the Maria Luisa gardens in Seville." / Getty Images, Vogue

Parc de Bagatelle’s rose garden was designed by the landscape architect Jean Claude Nicolas Forestier / Getty Images, Vogue

Landscape Architects See Creations Evolve over Time The San Francisco Chronicle, 11/3/15
“In our world that craves quick-draw drama, the most rewarding urban spaces can take years to show their stuff.”

Daniel Bennett on Landscape Architecture and Liveable Cities The Fifth Estate, 11/5/15
“The Australian Institute of Landscape Architects’ newly appointed president Daniel Bennett aims to arm the organization’s members with sound economic arguments for the importance of landscape in achieving livable and sustainable cities.”

For Landscape Architect Kate Orff, Sunday Morning Means Having to Say ‘Sorry!’ The New York Times, 11/6/15
“Kate Orff, a landscape architect, first captured the public’s attention in 2010 with her passionate promotion of a plan proposed by her firm, Scape, to bring oysters back to New York Harbor (the bivalves filter water and form reefs that can buffer against storm surges).”

Rethinking Maintenance of Urban Trees The Landscape Architecture News Feed, 11/9/15
“If you’re a municipal arborist, you probably got into the field of tree care because you love working with trees and you could make a modest living. You know that that in cities maintenance is the only way that trees get large – and that size matters when we talk about the kind of ecosystem services we want street trees to provide.”

Revamp Possible for Way Hong Kong’s Trees Are Handled The South China Morning Post, 11/9/15
“The much criticized way in which the authorities handle the city’s trees could be in for a revamp when a newly commissioned study is released late next year, according to the government’s new chief landscaper.”

Highland Park Considers Renaming Park Due to Designer Jensen’s Views The Chicago Tribune, 11/10/15
“Landscape designer Jens Jensen’s legacy as a creator of open space can be found in the Chicago park system, the Cook County forest preserves, the Illinois state parks and the Indiana Dunes.”

First Look at Ludlam Trail: A Green Dream amid Traffic-Clogged Southwest Miami The Miami Herald, 11/10/15
“During Ludlam Trail Fall Fest, a community event held over the weekend at A.D. Barnes Park in southwest Miami, people of all ages biked the peak of a 12-foot high grassy hill, extending just over six miles in length, where the train tracks from Florida East Coast Railway used to lay.”

Explore a Landscape Architect’s Most Inspirational Secret Gardens and Quiet Parks From Around the World Vogue, 11/13/15
“The job of a landscape architect is to dream up fantastical hedges, forests, and flowerbeds. It’s a task informed by imagination, of course, but also by a deep understanding of horticultural history.”

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Newtown Creek Nature Walk / Quennell Rothschild & Partners

Newtown Creek Nature Walk / Quennell Rothschild & Partners

Gentrification replaces diversity with homogenized people and places. This process has “rippling social and cultural effects,” said Winifred Curran, a professor at DePaul University at the ASLA 2015 Annual Meeting in Chicago. There are many reasons why gentrification has been happening across American cities — and the process may prove nearly unstoppable — but there are ways landscape architects and other designers can ensure they don’t further contribute to the problem. Instead of creating “shiny new parks” that spur on redevelopment, they can work with existing communities to design public spaces that are “just green enough” and celebrate a community’s diversity. Landscape architecture firms can create internal ethical policies to ensure they are supporting diversity rather than supplanting it through designed spaces produced in a fundamentally non-democratic way.

The most damaging effect of gentrification is displacement, which can affect cultures, industries, and people alike, said Curran. “Ethnic communities and manufacturing factories can be pushed out, and low-income communities left out of the democratic process.” Gentrification results in higher property values, eventual upgrading or homogenization of the environment, and the privatization of public spaces.

One big problem, Curran said, is that city policymakers and planners are in effect encouraging gentrification, with results that exclude existing populations. “Cities love higher property values, which means higher taxes.” In many cities, urban policies have been put in place to grow the tax base. This often involves tearing down what is there in favor of new condo towers that all look alike. And to generate appeal for these new buildings, city leaders use public private partnerships to create and manage public spaces. “These public-private partnerships create landscapes without a democratic process. They may look better, but they aren’t democratic.”

City leaders may also be pursuing a process of “environmental gentrification.” Under the rubric of becoming more sustainable, city planners and developers are investing in new parks and rails-to-trails projects to “sell upgraded neighborhoods.” Sadly, this may put many long-term residents of neighborhoods in the unfortunate position of not supporting a much-needed park because it could cause displacement. The fears are real, Curran said.

For example, the High Line in New York City has raised nearby property values by 103 percent. But Curran says “here, landscape architecture is not the problem, but the symptom” of a deeper condition. “The High Line is the physical expression of an underlying system — it couldn’t have happened without rezoning, and it was only accomplished with lots of private money.” The result is that Chelsea today has just two discrete populations — those who make less than $30,000 annually and live in the few remaining public housing blocks, or those who make well over $100,000 a year. In reality, this means the lower-income people still in Chelsea have to do their grocery shopping out in New Jersey, because they can’t afford the prices in their own neighborhood.

And in Chicago, housing along the Bloomingdale Trail, now called the 606, which cuts through multiple residential neighborhoods, including a number actively fighting gentrification, has seen “a spike in value after the trail opened.” The trail was financed by the Trust for Public Land and the Chicago city government. The Trust for Public Land, Curran argued, was “not responsive to the democratic process. And now they direct any local concerns about raising rents and property values to the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, which has no power or resources. The association pushes for property tax caps, but gets nowhere.” Between the “city and the Trust for Public Land, the community has no place to go.”

For Curran, the solution for communities may be to “just green enough.” She pointed to the Newtown Creek Nature Walk in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, designed by Quenell Rothschild & Partners, as an example of a “community-driven” improvement that improves access to the water while providing new public space. Greenpoint is gentrifying but the existing Polish community has forged partnerships with newcomers, in part by educating them about the history of the toxic creek, which is a Superfund site. While the creek is still highly poisonous, “the community can at least still get down to the waterfront, where they can see any pollution violations from nearby factories.” But it’s strictly no-frills: there are “no cafes or boat launches. It’s not so green that it’s desirable. The area is still a functioning manufacturing district that just accomplished some greening.”

Newtown Creek Nature Walk / Gowanus Lounge

Newtown Creek Nature Walk / Gowanus Lounge

Dan Pitera, University of Detroit and the Detroit Collaborative Design Center, echoed many of these ideas, but talked about what Detroit is now doing to slow gentrification, which is already happening in some areas. His Detroit Collaborative Design Center only works in communities where they have been invited. In some communities they’ve been active for more than 10 years.

He differentiated between participation and engagement, arguing that participation is project-based and episodic while engagement is systemic and long-term. He said landscape architects and designers need to take the long view and truly engage all community members when working in places dealing with gentrification, building relationships and spending the time to understand the local history and context. He opposes design charrettes, thinking there are no “single solutions,” only dialogues that are part of a broader process. And he urged designers to be careful with their language, understanding that the meaning of terms can change depend on one’s frame of reference.

At the beginning of the talk, Kathleen King, Associate ASLA, a landscape architect with Design Workshop, outlined her fears about whether she is inadvertently contributing to the process of gentrification through a park project she is working on in the Latino community of Elyria Swansea in Denver. Perhaps the most direct response to those concerns came from Jennifer Wolch, a professor of urban planning at the University of California Berkeley, who told her and other landscape architects assembled that firms “need to think through for themselves whether to come into a process cold when things have already been decided. It’s important to understand the history, context, and look upstream at the organizations that promulgate or repress discourses, and who will benefit or not from a project.”

The reality is that many landscape architecture firms “can’t actually practice in 80 places at once if they truly want to do this well. Don’t parachute in. Accumulate knowledge about a place.”

Wolch also supports the “just green enough” approach, which can go a long ways to helping a community meet its needs without making it too appealing to outsiders. She called for “appropriate design and high quality materials that resonate with the community,” but told landscape architects to avoid “‘bright shiny object’ designs that trigger adjulation.” As an example, she pointed to Augustus F. Hawkins Nature Park in Los Angeles, a well-designed park that improves quality of life but without contributing to gentrification.

Augustus F. Hawkins Nature Park / Where do the children play Los Angeles

Augustus F. Hawkins Nature Park / Where do the children play Los Angeles

Landscape architecture firms, she said, need to develop a set of ethical principles and policies, which can be helpful to both firms and clients. “Establish expectations. Find out what you are willing to do or not. Be prepared to walk away.”

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Solar power farm in Saudi Arabia / Evwind.us

Solar power farm in Saudi Arabia / Evwind.us

“If Saudi Arabia can do this, any place can,” said Anica Landreneau, director of sustainable consulting at multi-disciplinary design firm HOK, at SXSW Eco in Austin, Texas. The conservative Muslim country is planning a move away from oil towards clean energy and a shift away from totally car-centric communities to those that offer public transit and encourage walking and biking. Saudi Arabia realizes it must go green to survive.

Saudi Arabian government officials see peak oil coming by 2028, with exports declining precipitously after that. This is a major issue for the Saudi Arabian economy because oil accounts for 80 percent of total gross domestic product (GDP). In addition, Saudi Arabia, with a population of 28 million, expects to have 35 million more people by 2040. This means the country needs to further diversify its economy away from the oil industry, which offers relatively few jobs, while concentrating population growth in cities as soon as possible. Landreneau said Saudi leaders recognize that “the economy will collapse” if they don’t move to a more sustainable approach.

Working with Saudi Aramco, which is tasked with leading a country-wide plan for sustainability and a new mandatory energy efficiency policy, HOK created new urban plans, including zoning schemes and low-carbon transportation systems, all vital parts of a more sustainable approach. Landreneau and her team proposed a set of sustainable urban development best practices to improve diversity and increase density for mixed-use developments. Saudi Arabia’s cities are now in the process of bringing their zoning up to HOK’s standards.

While HOK found that a new, sustainable urban development strategy could save 50 percent of the energy consumption and carbon emissions from the built environment, Saudi Arabia really wants to transform their cities in order to improve quality of life, safety, affordability, and health. Health is a major focus because obesity rates are around 35 percent due to the car-centric environment and sedentary lifestyles in the kingdom. These numbers are even higher than those in the U.S.

HOK and Saudi planners laid out plans that take aim at cars, finding that “there could be a 30 percent reduction in emissions with public transit.” But to get there, even bus stops will need to provide shade and air conditioning for a country with summer temperatures that top 120 degrees, and be designed to separate the sexes.

And even with widely-available mass transit, reducing car use will be a real challenge. A typical family may own up to 5 cars, in part because subsidized gasoline is so cheap. “Getting them down to 2,3 or just 1 will take cultural change.” Nevermind other ways to reduce car use: “car sharing was laughed out of the room, and the idea of charging for parking was like culture shock.”

Contrary to popular perceptions, “Saudis will walk” and the younger generation may bicycle. Traditional neighborhoods have pathways that act as shortcuts, which Saudis often walk. And corniches — seaside promenades — can attract pedestrians. “Designing a beautiful public realm will get Saudis outside.” As for bicycling, “the young generation will contemplate it.”

Saudi Arabian cities also need comprehensive water management strategies. While the country is often dry, flash storms can overwhelm and create flooding problems. “Shared green spaces could handle runoff.” And on the flip side, dealing with water efficiency issues, Landreneau’s team told the government “not to develop landscapes that cannot be irrigated with what you have.”

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Steven Nygren / Serenbe

Steven Nygren / Serenbe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Serenbe masterplan / Serenbe

Serenbe masterplan / Serenbe

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

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

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

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

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

Serenbe aerial view / Serenbe

Serenbe aerial view / Serenbe

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

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

Serenbe organic farm / Serenbe

Serenbe organic farm / Serenbe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Serenbe development street / Serenbe

Serenbe development street / Serenbe


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Serenbe edible landscape / Serenbe

Serenbe edible landscape / Serenbe

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

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

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

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Mothership / O.N.E. Detroit

Mothership / O.N.E. Detroit

Anya Sirota, an artist, was perusing Bon Marche, a famous bookstore in Paris, and discovered a whole section on Detroit, filled with mostly “ruin porn” books. In its decline, Detroit, she said, is one of the most “imagined cities in the world.” And it’s now connected with stories of great loss and lament — it went from a city of 2 million to 680,000.

The story is either “this terrible neglect, or perhaps a DIY gestalt — young, talented, non-conventional types can come here and make a new life, create an alternative lifestyle.” To appeal to that DIY audience, Detroit has also become the “scenic backdrop for the marketing of the authenticity of products.”

As Sirota explained at SXSW Eco in Austin, Texas, she decided to go to the city and see for herself. She ended up partnering with some local African American designers, artists, and activists to write a new story. Sirota calls what she eventually helped create “generative cultural infrastructure.” She believes it’s different from the usual “placemaking” experiences, which have become too “institutionalized” for her tastes.

Sirota called for new thinking about Detroit. Instead of treating Detroit as a “shrinking city,” how about relabeling it a “shifting city?” From the perspective of the African American community who have lived there for decades, the city hasn’t really shrunk — it has expanded.

She also questioned whether the city is really post-industrial. The massive, often illegal, process of recycling Detroit’s abandoned buildings is part of an international industrial economy. “As building development has boomed in China, the rate of deconstruction in Detroit has also increased. It’s a city fully embedded in industrial processes. Those scrappy, metals workers are just not considered part of the formal economy.”

But she really got to work when she saw that remnants of Motown were on the verge of being destroyed for good. Detroit’s city government had initiated a blight remediation program with the goal of tearing down abandoned, decrepit houses. They partnered with Data Driven Detroit and Loveland Technologies to create Motor City Mapping, a website and app that enabled surveyors to examine thousands of damaged empty homes that need to be dealt with. “The survey looked at all structures in the landscape. After 15 minutes of training, surveyors post photos and evaluate the properties.” But it turns out some famous African American clubs where Motown started were added to the list for demolition. Sirota said these technology-enabled surveyors had no clue about the history of many of the places they were evaluating. “That’s not fair.”

Sirota eventually met up with Bryce Detroit, a local record producer, who “uses entertainment arts to create media that project African American identity.” Through his work, he has gotten involved with the climate justice and social justice movements, but he doesn’t call himself an activist. “The community calls me an activist though.”

Bryce Detroit in Mothership / O.N.E. Detroit

Bryce Detroit in the Mothership / O.N.E. Detroit

Together, Detroit and Sirota and many others came together to form the O.N.E. Mile project in Detroit’s North End, which is home to legendary musical venues like Phelps’ Lounge along the Oakland Avenue artery in Paradise Valley. What was once the hub of a “30-year Motown music economy” had become derelict, targeted for demolition. For Detroit and Sirota, this was incredibly sad. “There was no marker of the extraordinary history of the music here that impacted the world.” Instead, “someone used an app for 15 minutes and decided this place didn’t fit into the vision of the new city.”

Detroit, Sirota, and many others started to revitalize some spaces along a one mile stretch of Oakland Avenue. A part of the Oakland Avenue Artists Coalition, a collection of artists, industrial designers, and architects, they created a vision for a new arts corridor that will undo the blight. New gardens appeared in empty lots. Buildings were turned into makeshift galleries and meeting spaces. “We rehabilitated a garage, really without permission.” There, they launched the Mothership, a mobile DJ unit, which comes with smoke machines (see above).

And for the grand opening of the rehabilitated space, 12 original members of Parliament Funkadelic, the legendary funk band who created the original “Holy Mothership” in the 70s, played a free concert. Some 700 people from the neighborhood turned up.

This collective is constantly “prototyping, programming,” creating new “experimental music and catalyzing the development of new organizations.” They branded the Mothership, with local artists creating t-shirts and earrings. They created a new magazine. As Detroit explained, “we wanted it to be beautiful all the way, with the highest possible production values.” There are pop-up shops were no money is exchanged; it’s all barter. There’s now a North End Urban Expressions Art Festival to showcase local talent.

North End Urban Expressions Art Festival / Oakland Avenue Artists Collective

North End Urban Expressions Art Festival / Oakland Avenue Artists Collective

North End Urban Expressions Art Festival / Oakland Avenue Artists Collective

North End Urban Expressions Art Festival / Oakland Avenue Artists Collective

Sirota said this all constitutes a new model for community revitalization. In the usual placemaking process, community groups, she said, have to work with foundation’s funding cycles. But the problem is they can’t “create complex cultural products in 18 months. Foundations really need to revisit that.” With their bottom-up approach, “there was true collaboration across disciplines. The cultural products were produced locally — not overlaid. This makes it sustainable and self-generating.”

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Wolfgang Oehme and James van Sweden / Photograph © Volkmar Wentzel, ca. 1990, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation

Wolfgang Oehme and James van Sweden / Photograph © Volkmar Wentzel, ca. 1990, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation

The default American landscape before game-changing landscape architecture firm Oehme van Sweden & Associates (OvS) came along was a great expanse of lawn, really an ecological wasteland, with perhaps a fringe of flowers. But all of that changed with James van Sweden and Wolgang Oehme’s New American Garden style, which burst onto the scene in the early 1960s. A new exhibition at the National Building Museum (NBM) in Washington, D.C. honors this still-evolving approach inspired by Native American landscapes. As NBM explains, “the New American Garden is characterized by large swaths of grasses and fields of perennials.” The style re-creates the seasonal splendor of the American meadow while “celebrating its inherent ecological, sustainable, aesthetic, and ornamental values.” Eric Groft, FASLA, a principal at OvS, one of the firm’s second generation leaders, added that this approach was “sustainable before it was even called that.”

When it first appeared, the New American Garden was a departure from landscape architect Dan Kiley’s formal geometric Modernism. As Groft explained, “Oeme and van Sweden wanted to overwhelm you with horticulture, movement, and color.” van Sweden once told him, “all color is good.”

Linda Jewell, FASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at University of California at Berkeley and fellow at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., said the exhibition “shows that the world needs color and life more than lawns. It also shows us who they were personally. It’s exhilarating.”

The exhibition, which is the largest monographic landscape architecture one in NBM’s history, takes visitors from their early residential landscapes to their more ambitious civic works. We see 28 of OvS’s residential and civic projects, explained with 50 fantastic large-scale photographs, original plans and drawings, and the historic artworks that played an important role in their development. Three generations of OvS landscape architects’ work are included. Given OvS designed more than 1,000 landscapes since 1975, it’s clear how much work went into curation.

Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, president of the Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF), which partnered with NBM to organize and design the exhibition, pointed out some of their most significant works, focusing first on the now-famous residential landscape, the Rosenberg Residence in Water Mill, New York, which “galvanized the world of landscape architecture, put OvS on the map, and made the Rosenbergs famous.”

Rosenberg Residence / Photograph © Andre Baranowski, 2014, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation

Rosenberg Residence / Photograph © Andre Baranowski, 2014, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation

Birnbaum then asked us to focus on the Federal Reserve Board Garden in Washington, D.C., which was a “hinge point” that showed how the New American Garden aesthetic could be scaled up in a civic setting.

Federal Reserve Board Garden / Photograph © Amy Lamb, 2015, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation.

Federal Reserve Board Garden / Photograph © Amy Lamb, 2015, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation.

Groft explained how the New American Garden style continues to evolve. “It has been changing since its inception. Landscapes are ephemeral, always evolving.” As an example, he mentioned the Slifka Beach House in Sagaponack, New York, which is the project nearest and dearest to him, as he has guided its growth and change for decades. “It’s my life’s work, in a way. It’s the garden I’ve learned the most from over the years.”

Slifka Beach House / Photograph © Sara Cedar Miller, 2015, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation

Slifka Beach House / Photograph © Sara Cedar Miller, 2015, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation

Another way the New American Garden style is evolving: OvS is always discovering and applying new plants, even from places as far as South Africa.

But for Groft, this evolution hasn’t been spurred by our shifting climate. “Climate change doesn’t really change anything for us. We’ve always taken out lawns and planted perennials that require very little maintenance. Oehme and van Sweden were always deeply focused on sustainability and managing water using perennials.”

Sadly, Birnbaum said many of OvS’s landscapes are under threat. Pershing Park in Washington, D.C., which OvS created with landscape architect M. Paul Friedberg, FASLA, may get bulldozed if a new National World War I Centennial Commission has its way.

Pershing Park / Photograph © Volkmar Wentzel, undated, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation

Pershing Park / Photograph © Volkmar Wentzel, undated, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation

And some 9 of 21 of OvS’s gardens featured in Oehme, van Sweden, and Susan Rademacher’s important book, Bold Romantic Gardens, have already disappeared. Birnbaum explained that this is the 25th anniversary of the book, which was “revolutionary and completely changed how landscape architects used plants.”

He wants to see many of OvS’s landscapes added to the National Register of Historic Places and documented through the Historic American Landscape Survey (HALS). “We need a real strategy for keeping these places around. This exhibition will build awareness, but we need to include owners and use tools, like easements, to protect these landscapes.”

Explore a companion website for the exhibition created by TCLF.

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The lights in Buffalo Bayou Park change with the phases of the moon. / Photo: Buffalo Bayou Partnership

The lights in Buffalo Bayou Park change with the phases of the moon. / Buffalo Bayou Partnership

Lighting and Leaves at Buffalo Bayou Park The Houston Chronicle, 10/1/15
“Come fall — not the one on the calendar, but the Houston version that kicks in around December — the cypresses will glow copper. Come spring, the redbuds will sprout purple and pink, Houston’s version of the famous cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C. This is what landscape architect Scott McCready of SWA says is in store at Buffalo Bayou Park.”

A Champion for Balboa ParkSan Diego Downtown News, 10/2/15
“When landscape architect Samuel Parsons, one of Olmsted’s protégés, designed Balboa Park in 1901, it was considered a municipal park to serve San Diego’s population of less than 50,000, not a destination park that would have the 14 million visitors a year it does today, making it the fifth most-visited park in the nation.”

L.A.’s Olympic Ambitions Could Boost River Restoration – But at What Cost? The Los Angeles Times, 10/4/15
“For years, politicians, activists and community groups have been laying the groundwork for a transformation of the Los Angeles River, one that would rip up stretches of concrete and add parks, wetlands and other natural spaces.”

Substance, Style, and the Success of the 606 Planetizen, 10/5/15
”At a time when the direct link between public open space and public health is more established fact than hopeful supposition, and cities are increasingly willing to invest in their urban landscapes, the focused program and straightforward design of the 606’s centerpiece, the Bloomingdale Trail, provides an exhilarating breath of fresh air into an urban realm in need of a few good surprises.”

An Inside Look at Denver’s Best Outside Spaces – The Denver Post, 10/9/15
“Parks can seem like static places in busy cities, especially Denver circa 2015, where everything around them is growing at full speed. But open spaces, such as plazas, pedestrian malls and public campuses, are constantly changing, too, just at their own pace.”

Growing Chicago: A Flourishing City in a Garden The Chicago Tribune, 10/9/15
“In 2013 we asked readers for ideas to help Chicago prosper in our New Plan of Chicago series. Many pitched the same smart thought: Why not divert empty or underused land to urban farms? Let oases of fresh produce flourish in food deserts. Don’t force local residents to trek miles for fresh kale or collards.”

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Driverless vehicle highway / Natalia Beard, SWA Group

Driverless vehicle highway diet / Natalia Beard, SWA Group

Imagine a future with autonomous vehicles, ordered through a subscription service, shuttling passengers safely to any destination at up to 130 miles per hour. Now think about what this means for our streets and highways, parking infrastructure, public spaces, and even the organization of our communities. At SXSW Eco in Austin, Texas, Kinder Baumgardner, ASLA, president of landscape and urban design firm SWA Group, took us through a wild thought experiment, showing us what a driverless future could look like. He believes the majority of travel will be autonomous by 2050, with huge implications for our built environment.

According to Baumgardner, there are 1.2 billion cars in the world today, and that number is expected to grow to 2 billion by 2030 as automobile ownership surges in China and India. All of these drivers spend about 30 percent of their time looking for parking, which means about 1 billion miles annually. The U.S. alone has a billion parking spaces, and, together, they take up an area the size of Puerto Rico. As the number of cars grows, so has the number of fatal accidents. This year, 1.24 million people lost their lives in crashes, and the fatalities in places like the Middle East, where they drive really fast, are growing quickly. Autonomous vehicles could not only dramatically reduce the number of cars and, therefore, parking spaces but also make automotive travel much safer.

Baumgardner started thinking about what a future with autonomous vehicles would look like when SWA Group began working with Texan officials on ways to accommodate a bulked-up Interstate 45, which will expand to take up a whopping 26 lanes by 2050. Texas’ department of transportation needs to be able to move a million cars through every day.

He thinks the majority of travel will be autonomous in coming decades, potentially making Houston’s extra infrastructure unnecessary. Some 85 million driverless cars are expected to be sold by 2035. One of Tesla’s cars is already nearly autonomous. “It’s about when this will happen, not if.”

The move to fully autonomous vehicles will happen in steps, much like full adoption of the elevator took many years. “The elevator was viewed as dangerous at first, but then they put in a call box, alarm, and safety switch” and people’s fears were eased. In the same way, driverless cars could first include steering wheels and other controls and then slowly phase those out.

We heard a positive vision of robotic cars. People will no longer own cars but simply subscribe to car subscription services. There could be different rates for single vehicles or vans, high-end vehicles or modest ones. Users could also modify their subscription based on use — someone could hire a convertible for a ride to the beach or a truck when moving.

Driverless cars will be more fuel efficient, as they won’t need to park — they’ll simply drop you off and then pick up another customer or return to some charging station.

Autonomous vehicles will sense and even communicate with each other and therefore perhaps need their own lanes separate from human-driven cars, which will be viewed as more dangerous. They will then be able to reach speeds of up to 130 miles per hour (210 kilometers per hour) because congestion can be managed and accidents automatically avoided. Cars will also be able to share neighborhood streets with pedestrians and bicyclists better because they will sense any movement and slow down.

Driverless vehicles / Natalia Beard, SWA Group

Driverless vehicles / Natalia Beard, SWA Group

In cities, autonomous vehicles could result in the rise of multiple downtowns, a series of walkable hubs. “Cars will drive you from place to place where you can then walk around.” Robotic cars could even integrate with services like Foursquare, which map where your friends are, to automatically take you places.

Due to the reduced number of cars, there will be many opportunities to transform the built environment. “What happens to the land freed up? 22-lane highways can be reduced to 8.” All those extra lanes on the sides of now-too-wide highways could be transformed into green corridors, providing habitat for pollinators like butterflies and birds. In places, “it could be rough, untended nature” or designed “sponge-like spaces” that absorb water.

Driverless highway of the future / Natalia Beard, SWA Group

Driverless highway of the future / Natalia Beard, SWA Group

Parking structures could become flexible spaces for apartments or even artists’ studios.

Parking garage of the future / Natalia Beard, SWA Group

Parking garage of the future / Natalia Beard, SWA Group

And parking lots could become public spaces like parks or markets.

Parking lot transformed into a market space / Natalia Beard, SWA Group

Parking lot transformed into a market space / Natalia Beard, SWA Group

Baumgardner wondered what driverless cars mean for the suburbs. “Will we see the rise of walkable sprawl?” As autonomous vehicles minimize the need for cars, suburban communities will now be even more expansive on foot and need to reinvest in building sidewalks, bicycle lanes, and trail systems. As for the typical suburban forms, “cul-de-sacs can become the space for temporary pools or community centers.” And garages, now without cars, could become the new front porch, opening up to create a more lively streetscape.

One question from the audience: Will autonomous vehicles be affordable? Will we need public autonomous vehicle systems? Baumgardner sees “different systems for different income levels. For lower income users, safety and security will be most important. Entrepreneurs could create shared systems. Or local governments could subsidize use. This will definitely need planning.”

And the transition to driverless cars and trucks will not be without major challenges. Baumgardner sees a new era of messy transportation coming, with a mix of autonomous and non-autonomous vehicles duking it out. And he wonders whether the shift to autonomous vehicles can happen everywhere. For example, in India, where cars share road space with elephants, the transition will be much slower.

But in the developed world, there will still be lots of opportunities to integrate autonomous vehicles with other high-speed transportation systems, like the Hyperloop now in early stages of development.

In another talk at the conference, Dirk Ahlborn, CEO of JumpStartFund, and now Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, outlined how he and his colleagues are responding to Tesla founder Elon Musk’s call to create a “hyperloop,” a system of “reduced-pressure” tubes that would pull passengers in capsule cars through at speeds up to 750 miles per hour (1,200 kilometers per hour). Ahlborn sees a network of tubes high up on pylons, which will make them earthquake proof. “It will be the safest ride possible. No humans will be involved.” A network of tubes will then connect cities across the U.S. and world. But Ahlborn admitted local access to the Hyperloop stations is a problem that still needs to be worked out. If it’s not convenient to get to the stations, people won’t use it.


Hyperloop / Hyperloop Transportation Technologies

Like the vision for autonomous vehicles, which first appeared at the Futurama exhibit at the New York World’s Fair in 1939, the one for traveling through vacuum tubes is an old one, too. In 1904, a Swiss company filed a patent for such travel. Now, that dream may soon be realized. Prototypes are being built and tested in the Quay Valley, halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. A 5-mile stretch is expected to open by 2018.

So much faith that our technologies will only improve.

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