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Archive for the ‘Public Spaces’ Category

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Yorkville Park / © Peter Mauss/Esto

Landscape architects are increasingly focused on the social side of sustainability, said Ken Smith, ASLA, principal of Ken Smith Workshop, in a lecture at the University of Oregon’s campus in Portland. Smith said: “in the 70s, Ian McHarg taught us to focus on the regional and large-scale in landscape architecture, not what the quality of what we were building. In the 80s, landscape architects began to focus on what we were designing, the physicality. For the past 15 years, there has been a new focus on sustainability, with the ecological side getting the most attention. Now, the social agenda has risen to the front. The social realm is the new focus of landscape architecture.”

Smith said much of William H. Whyte’s research on urban social spaces, which began in the 70s, is still valid, but the way people inhabitat spaces has changed. “Social spaces are now a little different.” And landscape architects need to up their game if they are going to continue to know how to design spaces for today’s urban populations. “Google and Facebook probably know more predictably how people use social spaces than landscape architects. We need to be as smart as the companies profiting off data. We need to tap the data to design.”

But for now, Smith’s approach to creating social spaces that matter for today’s mobile phone-obsessed urbanites is to weave in both ecology and craft. Smith mentioned the growing importance of craftsmanship in today’s culture, saying he’s spending lots of time thinking about “how we make things.”

One example is Yorkville Park in Toronto, where Smith, Martha Schwartz, and David Meyer brought in a 700-ton bedrock mountain, creating an active social world around it. Taking the best of biophilic landscape design principles — that people enjoy a prospect view as well as an intimate refuge — the designers carved the boulder so it was easy to climb on, and then set out moveable chairs and tables around it. “People hang out on the rock and can configure their own social space.”

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Yorkville Park / Steve Evans

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For TFANA Arts Plaza, the setting of the Theatre for a New Audience, part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) Cultural Arts District in New York City, Smith brought his inspiration — nightclub banquettes, a form of highly social seating — to the outdoors. “The cocoons envelope. There’s a loucheness to these banquettes that I like.” Working with outdoor furniture manufacturer Landscape Forms, Smith tinkered with the look and feel until it was right. Getting it right meant making the perforated patterns in the steel imperfect in some spots, creating a needed “fuzziness or noise.” The plaza is made up of permeable pavements, which he thinks is a first for New York City, and a silva-cell system for hydrating the trees.

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TFANA Arts Plaza at BAM / © Francis Dzikowski/Esto

Smith saved his discussion of perhaps his most ambitious remake of the social realm for nearly last. The East River Waterfront Esplanade in New York City, which will line two miles of the lower Manhattan waterfront, is being completed in phases. The first phase, which was a pilot used to test aspects of the site in real-time, was opened in 2010. Results from the site’s post-occupancy surveys informed phase 2, which opened in 2012. Two more phases are in the works.

The esplanade is part of former-Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s efforts to make the city more livable for one million new residents, which he argued the city will need to attract in order to retain its competitive edge as a global city on par with London and Shanghai. The plan includes creating whole stretches of new waterfront parks, the massive Hudson Yards development, a new 2nd avenue subway line, and lots of new public spaces. The esplanade is also central to the city’s goal of creating a central park for residents of lower Manhattan and other communities that connect via the rivers. “Cross connections will be a critical issue as the city figures out how to get people to the waterfront.”

On the esplanade design, Smith said, “I didn’t want a formal, perfectly spaced and organized esplanade like OLIN’s Battery Park City; I wanted to purposefully slow people down so they have to look up from their devices to see where they are going.”

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East River Watefront Esplanade / © Peter Mauss/Esto

The esplanade runs parallel to the FDR Memorial Drive and, in some cases, underneath it. New coastal structures were built to provide support for the soil mass needed to support enough vegetation. “The site is a series of successive walls that provide the structure for the dunes,” which Smith calls the waves of raised landscapes. Those pieces of nature were central to the design. “The ecological basis is conflated with the social purpose. We integrated the social infrastructure into the sea walls.”

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East River Watefront Esplanade / © Peter Mauss/Esto

There’s all sorts of fun places to sit along the esplanade. “The seating is a kit of parts.” There are benches set close together, which are designed to foster conversation. “You can also put your feet up and use the other bench as an ottoman.” There are wood chaise lounges for a bit of a get-away.

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East River Watefront Esplanade / © Peter Mauss/Esto

Rail-side bar stools are great for eating lunch and gazing out at the water. “Those stools are very popular.”

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East River Watefront Esplanade / © Peter Mauss/Esto

Smith was thrilled with how the lighting turned out. He said the usual New York City light pole is “horribly wrong scale, historicist, and clunky.” He ended up commissioning a new lighting system, with soft lighting reflected against FDR girders now painted lavender, and calf-level LED lighting, which will eventually wrap through the entire two-mile-long park. Smith defended the low-light approach, arguing that it’s actually safer, as “over lighting a space causes your pupils to dilate.”

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East River Watefront Esplanade / © Peter Mauss/Esto

Throughout the esplanade, there are several pavilions coming — and it seems like most of them are beer gardens. Smith laughed and said, “beer gardens are really positive activators of public space.” Each pavilion is part commercial and community space.

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East River Watefront Esplanade / © Peter Mauss/Esto

And then there’s the pop-art dog park. “Dog runs are social spaces, too. Dog runs are like playgrounds. They are supervised just like kids. There’s a social life among both the dogs and parents.” And more ominously, “there are lots of politics in dog parks.”

Dotted along the esplanade are new pier parks, some of which are still in development. One new pier park has two levels, with the upper deck made up of gardens and lawn.

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East River Watefront Esplanade / © Peter Mauss/Esto

And Pier 35, now in the works, will be an eco-park with mussel colony. “We call it mussel beach.”

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VPUU Khayelitsha / CST South Africa

One legacy of South Africa’s fragmented, racially-segregated society has been incredible violence. To change that story, the city of Cape Town and the German Development Bank are harnessing the power of design. Through an inventive program, Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading (VPUU), these players and many local non-profits are transforming Khayelitsha, one of the most dangerous townships in South Africa, into a safer, more livable place. At the World Urban Forum in Medellin, Colombia, the team behind the VPUU program said since the development of this 5-year, $11 million, community-driven project, murders are down 33 percent in Harare, one section of the township, and 22 percent in Khayelitsha overall. Furthermore, almost 90 percent of the area’s 250,000 residents say living conditions have improved.

The city assembled a team of local planners, urban designers, landscape architects, and architects to create four “safe nodes,” each serving about 50,000 residents. Leading from Harare Square all the way to the Khayelitsha railway station, these nodes provide new infrastructure, such as a well-lit pedestrian mall, which enables “safe walking,” said Michael Krause, team leader for the program.

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Khayelitsha VPUU / Skyscraper City

Along the route, there are also new public facilities, including the Peace Park community building, Ncomu road community building and urban park, and Kwamfundo school sports complex. The idea is to provide “opportunities for everyday life and spontaneous activity.” Community buildings offer spaces for meetings. These facilities are also rented out, earning income for maintaining the public spaces. There’s a new supermarket and retail area, too.

VPUU team landscape architect Tarna Klitzner designed some of the public spaces to be “learning platforms,” given only 600 of the area’s 4,000 children under 6 are in school. There’s a new interactive playground. “These educational interventions also help to create safe public spaces that foster a sense of community,” said Krause.

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Khayelitsha / Wired Communications

A sense of community seems to be forming. “People are now looking after the public spaces. Graffiti hasn’t been a problem.” If there are maintenance issues, they are fixed by an on-site crew within 24 hours or less. Also, some neighbors have been given special responsibility for maintaining the new public spaces. They are recognized with brooms.

From the photos, the landscape of Khayelitsha appears quite barren. Kathryn Ewing, and urban designer and architect with Sustainable Urban Neighborhood Development, said “planting trees is difficult given the strong winds. The native
plants are low-growing vegetation.” The few trees planted are protected with frames, but these often get stolen.

Ewing told me that Khayelitsha’s relationship with water and nature is slowly changing. Water taps are being upgraded, given they are already community gathering spots.

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Water tap redevelopment before, during “social activation,” and after / Kathryn Ewing

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The community came together around the trees planted at the water taps. The trees are supposed to be tended by the children of the area. “This is a social experiment in itself. There’s great meaning to having trees in this environment, with its harsh conditions.”

Setting up a coordinated system for dealing with excess stormwater has also proven tricky. “There are knock-off effects with stormwater, such as drainage. Where does it go? It’s going to impact someone,” said Ewing. The design team has experimented with using sand to deal with stormwater management, given applying a comprehensive system of vegetation to deal with runoff is still a ways off.

This program has become a model for other townships in Cape Town. Alistair Graham with the Cape Town city government said 10 more VPUU sites are in the works. Graham believes the first VPUU succeeded because “the development is human-scale. We also clearly defined the hierarchy of spaces, what was public, private, and semi-private.”

While these infrastructural improvements have enhanced quality of life, Graham said “we have unfortunately only scratched the surface on our gang issues.” Hopefully, this program can help show us what mix of design and social action really works to reduce violence over the long-term.

Read more about Khayelitsha in this earlier post by Cape Town-based landscape architect Tamsin Faragher.

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Dallas Museum of Art by Dan Kiley / Alan Ward, TCLF

In a lecture at the National Building Museum on the legacy of Modern landscape architect Dan Kiley, Gary Hilderbrand, FASLA, one of the founders of landscape architecture firm Reed Hilderbrand, said of Kiley, “we share a love of order, a disdain of ornament, a love of common things — the field, the hedgerow, the tree canopy. Like him, I want to return these all to glory.” Introduced by Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, head of The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF), who connected Hilderbrand to the rich Modern traditions of Kiley, the focus of a new exhibition organized by TCLF at NBM, Hilderbrand talked about both Kiley’s projects and his own, illuminating some parellels between their work in interesting ways.

For Hilderbrand, Kiley was part of the movement that steered landscape architecture away from its traditional focus on the garden. Kiley, and his fellow students Garrett Eckbo and James Rose, displaced the garden, suggesting that teaching gardens to graduate students was “disagreeably aristocratic and irrelevant.” They all felt a “greater urgency for public landscapes, the infrastructure for urbanization.” Whether their aim was explicit or not, “they caused the garden to vanish for a long time.” (Except, as Hilderbrand noted later, perhaps Kiley never fully vanquished the garden, returning to it with many small gardens and his famous Miller Garden, which created a “singular sense of modern living.”)

A Modernist, Kiley wanted to distill landscapes into their core elements, removing any excess. “He loved ordinary things like the field and the forest canopy, and he made them extraordinary.” As an example, Hilderbrand showed Kiley’s Dallas Museum of Art, with its stark rows of trees (see image above). “For Kiley, it was totally natural to plant trees in rows; it wasn’t contrived. How can that be? It’s because it’s natural for humans to plant trees in rows, like orchards, so the trees can be more easily grown, watered, pruned, and harvested. Planting in a grid is then the most natural thing.”

Kiley used Modern techniques to create a paired-down yet also heightened sense of nature. Another site, Fountain Place in Dallas is “like being in a cypress forest; it smells and feels like a forest. It’s truly remarkable.”

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Fountain Place, Dallas / Alan Ward, TCLF

The influence of Kiley can be seen in Reed Hilderbrand’s own thoughtful, minimalist projects, with their focus on the essential. Hilderbrand gave the crowd of more than 200 a tour of four sites:

The Central Park Wharf in Boston is about taking infrastructure and creating an “inhabitable landscape, a work of living architecture.” For Reed Hilderbrand, the challenge was, “how do we make the surface of this park feel alive?”

To create that feeling that the Wharf park is alive, they had to build “below ground-infrastructure.” Hilderbrand used an apt metaphor here: “You can’t create a great meal without a great staff in the kitchen.” A structure was put in place to hold up the ground and seating areas. A medium of soil, with drains that form a trellis-like system, maintain precise amounts of moisture for the 25 oak trees planted. “Sensors let us know if the trees are getting enough water.”

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ASLA 2011 Professional General Design Honor Award. Central Wharf Park / Reed Hilderbrand

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This complex system made simple really worked: the trees, which were planted large, experienced a phenomenal 10 feet of growth since they were put in the ground.

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ASLA 2011 Professional General Design Honor Award. Central Wharf Park / Reed Hilderbrand

Central Park Wharf is now “instantly recognizable for its cover canopy, with lights wired through the trees.”

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ASLA 2011 Professional General Design Honor Award. Central Wharf Park / Charles Mayer Photography

A second project, restoring the landscape around Philip Johnson’s Beck House in Texas, and then re-connecting it to the home, was challenging because the “landscape was highly degraded, a jungle, really.” But then, Reed Hilderbrand can see the “opportunity in anything.” The Beck House is a grand building in the vein of Johnson’s Lincoln Center. What was difficult was finding a way to make this fantastic home part of its surrounding landscape.

Hilderbrand said they ended up being critical of Johnson’s approach to the landscape, which was to cut it off and make it a source of panoramic views only. Their team brought trees into Johnson’s blank arcade, reduced the height of retaining walls, and built a flight of low, grassy stairs to pull the entrance outside of the building. The overall effect is to better root the building in its surrounding landscape, making it feel more like a piece of the place than disengaged from its environment.

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ASLA 2011 Professional Residential Design Honor Award. Beyond Pictorial: Revising Philip Johnson’s Monumental Beck House / Alan Ward

They then restored the creek and bridge, editing out invasive plants and trees, and set a series of long white planks that brought a further sense of order to the estate’s grounds.

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ASLA 2011 Professional Residential Design Honor Award. Beyond Pictorial: Revising Philip Johnson’s Monumental Beck House / Reed Hilderbrand

Hilderbrand then took us to Marshcourt, a historic manor by Sir Edwin Luytens in England, where his firm is reintegrating the surrounding chalk landscape back into the place. The buildings’ walls are made of chalk and flint. The nearby chalk quarry proved to be an inspiration for what Reed Hilderbrand did: create the sense that once is driving through a “cut of chalk,” then going through a “door,” upon which you open up into the copse. “The contractors thought we were out of our minds compacting chalk into steep slopes.” But the effect is worth it: the meadows planted on top of the slopes are beautiful.

Lastly, Old Quarry, a project on the Long Island Sound in southern Connecticut, tells the story of finding order in an old stone quarry. Paths are like jetties. Footpaths were created across paths of rocks. Reed Hilderbrand used a simple, coastal plant palette. Hilderbrand said this project took four years, and was like being a “kid in a sandbox.” Stone masons actually spent two years on site, forming the stone into patterns. “This was definitely a luxury.”

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ASLA 2012 Professional Residential Design Honor Award. Reordering Old Quarry / Charles Mayer Photography

According to Hilderbrand, all these examples prove that “a landscape architect never begins from scratch. We always begin with a story, maybe centuries of stories.” And those stories may not necessarily need to be understood by those seeing them. “Whether the experience is rational or emotional, we don’t have to understand everything behind a landscape.”

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Colombia’s decades of civil war displaced hundreds of thousands of people. Fleeing the countryside, they arrived in the cities like Medellin, only to discover a brutal world ruled by drug lords. Until drug kingpin Pablo Escobar was killed in 1993, the residents of Communa Trece, a community on a steep slope about a mile from the central valley of Medellin, faced incredible violence. In the early 90s, there were more than 6,000 murders per year. “Escobar corrupted Medellin. He turned kids into contract killers. Everyone wanted a motorcycle and a gun,” said Carlos Mesa, a guide with Las Buseticas, in a tour organized through the UN-Habitat’s World Urban Forum.

Years after Escobar’s death, the city’s mayors began a program of reconciliation with the former drug lords, turning them into local civic leaders. The settlements themselves changed from illegal to legal, as the city brought in clean water and made properties legitimate with official deeds. To create a sense that those living on the slopes were also citizens of Medellin, the city financed training and education targeted at the poor. And, importantly, the city began making major investments in infrastructure and urban design, like an incredible 300-foot long escalator built right into the hill, which helped give the residents of Commua Trece the sense that their lives matter, too.

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Communa Trece really started to take shape in the 1970s and 80s, said Mesa. The area is highly geologically-unstable, offering a high-risk of landslide. Homes were originally made of tin, wood, and cardboard; now, they are made of bricks. At first, the city government didn’t pay attention to this illegal settlement taking shape. “They had other priorities.”

But beginning with Mayor Sergio Fajardo in the early 00s, the city began to take notice, initiating a program of reconciliation with the gang leaders, as “many already had strong leadership skills,” said Mesa. As security improved, whole neighborhoods became legal. If a resident of a shanty wanted access to social services, they needed to have their residence surveyed to make sure it was safe, and, then, if so, it was officially formalized and legalized. In many cases, these homes were then brought into the electricity and water grid. Mesa said some houses were removed because they were found to be built on highly unstable lots.

To improve the quality of life in some of the steepest areas, EDU, the city’s urban development organization, initiated a range of projects, spending tens of millions, including $8 million on the new escalator for one of the steepest slopes. Working with Japanese engineers, the city of Medellin wanted to design a singular form of access for one of the most forgotten parts of the city.

Mesa said before the escalator started running, residents had to climb the equivalent of a 30-story building to get home; that’s nearly half an hour of stair climbing. Their commute into the city and back could take more than two and half hours in total. For the elderly or infirm, this was simply impossible. As a result, “some people hadn’t been downtown in 15 years.” With the escalator and connecting subway, the ride downtown now takes about 45 minutes, opening up lots of job opportunities.

The escalator is broken into six segments and takes residents up 300 feet in about 6 minutes. Given most of the neighborhoods’ 12,000 residents had never ridden an escalator, the city offered free training, busing people into shopping malls so they could try them out. Mesa said “some people were very worried about the escalators prior to testing them.”

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To construct the escalator, the city first had to build a road. A 800-meter-long cement trail now runs in a loop through the hills. It’s open only to pedestrian, bicyclists, and motorcyclists. Santiago Mesa Arango, a representative with EDU, said this was just the first phase. The loop will soon connect other neighborhoods, itself a major accomplishment considering it used to be fatal to cross some neighborhood lines. While gang violence and drugs are still a problem, they are much less so than in the 90s.

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Along the road, new shops have popped up to serve all the foot traffic. There are other great amenities for the community, too. A trash heap is now an excellent playground, with a satisfyingly-steep slide built into the slope.

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Above the slide is a playground and exercise area.

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Throughout these new public spaces are some wild public art, created by local artists.

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Today, 17 young people from the community work on the escalator, as engineers and a maintenance crew. One young man we met, George, who goes by G-al, is also a singer. He told us, “lots of tourists come here to see the transformation. There are many artists here who have so much talent. Now, we get to show them who we are.”

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Queens Plaza / Margie Ruddick

Design responses to New York City’s tangled infrastructure, both instant and painstaking, were the subject of a conversation between “design patron” Janette Sadik-Kahn and landscape designer Margie Ruddick, ASLA. Sadik-Kahn is best known for her recently completed tenure as commissioner of New York City’s department of transportation (DOT) under Mayor Bloomberg. Ruddick, as designer of a complex re-imagining of New York’s Queens Plaza, has been one of the beneficiaries of that design-conscious administration’s patronage. Both speakers, winners of 2013 National Design Awards from the event’s sponsor, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, turned a retrospective eye on their recent work in urban infrastructure. The last eight or so years, both speakers claimed, marks a sea change in New York City’s infrastructure and design culture, as design innovations marked a turn from privileging cars and drivers to supporting the comfort and mobility of pedestrians and cyclists.

Ruddick focused on the painstaking work of transforming the complex site of Queens Plaza from gateway and transit hub “morass” into a green refuge in a span of ten years (see image above). Ruddick argued that what was radical in 2006 has become mainstream today: the idea that urban infrastructure can operate aesthetically and ecologically is accepted in a way that was unthinkable when the project began.

Sadik-Kahn reviewed a series of pilot programs for city streets that were rapidly implemented and subsequently institutionalized under her tenure. Where previously streets encouraged speeding, visual clutter, and cycling accidents, these interventions have struck a new balance. Sadik-Kahn spoke of the city’s “new vocabulary” of designs for bike lanes, pedestrian plazas, benches, and green infrastructure. After years of “suspended animation,” the DOT showed that it was possible to change the DNA of city streets.

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Before and After: St Nicholas Ave & Amsterdam Ave / NYC DOT

Looming large over the discussion was the role of patronage and leadership in guiding better design for cities. Now that Bloomberg is gone, what might happen in New York? And who can spearhead similar changes in other cities?

For Ruddick, Queens Plaza, a complex and multi-agency project, was an object lesson in the importance of having a design process and the need to maintain a strong design vision, integrate performance, and avoid design by committee. But the story of her failure to implement a water filtration system across three jurisdictions without talking to the right people demonstrated that politics trumps design. The designer must have a firm hand, but they can’t make the project whole without the “fiat of the person at the top.”

Sadik-Kahn, one of those people at the top, emphasized the necessity of acting quickly, harnessing innovation. And as for the future of sustainable cities, it lies in selling mayors on the value of design as an economic development strategy and hoping for a “global competition of who can be greener.” Citing cities that have followed New York’s example — including Los Angeles, Portland, Oregon and Mexico City — Sadik-Kahn’s new role is to export New York’s “new vocabulary,” as codified in the Urban Street Design Guide, worldwide.

This guest post is by Mariana Mogilevich, PhD, assistant professor, metropolitan studies program, New York University.

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Medellin Metro station / Jared Green

“The turning point in our city’s history was the killing of Pablo Escobar,” said Alexander Velez, our guide during a tour of Medellin, organized by UN-Habitat during the World Urban Forum. Escobar, the most notorious drug dealer of the century, was estimated to be worth some $25 billion by the time he was killed by Colombian police forces in 1993. At his height, he controlled some 80 percent of the world’s cocaine market. According to Velez, his impact on Medellin was deeply poisonous. The gangs he controlled ruled the slums surrounding the valley of Medellin without mercy. It was dangerous to even cross neighborhood lines. Thousands of innocent people were murdered each year.

The other turning point, said Velez, was the creation of Medellin’s extensive Metro system, the first leg of which was launched in 1996. After Escobar died, the gangs were co-opted, and security began to improve, the people of Medellin discovered they could travel safely to other parts of the city. Soon, the city’s total transformation began to take root. And it only continues.

We drive along the Medellin River, a thin, polluted channel lined in concrete and surrounded by train lines and highways that cuts through the heart of the city. Velez explains that a new park will soon be built around the river. “We will bring back nature and undo the pollution. There will be pedestrian walkways, bicycle lanes. The highways will be buried.” Velez said there was an international design competition for the restoration and redevelopment project, which Latitud Taller de Ciudad y Arquitectura, a local firm, just won. The first segment will cost $300 million. Eventually, the park will extend 44 kilometers, said Velez.

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Parque Botánico Río Medellín by Latitud Taller de Ciudad y Arquitectura. Winner of the Design Competition for Medellín River Park.

The restoration of the Medellin River is just another example of how the city’s leadership is focused on improving social equity, stitching the poor and rich parts of the cities together.

This transformation is even seen in El Poblado, the wealthiest part of the city. Velez explained that this was the first place the Spanish colonialists settled in 1616. “They didn’t find gold but did find water so they stayed.” Over the centuries, the area evolved into a place where the very rich kept their country homes. In the early 20th century, there were extensive estates. One example of this is the Castle, the estate of José Tobón Uribe, who died just after he built the place in the 1930s. The castle was modeled after a Gothic castle in Loire, France. Later in the 1940s, textile magnate Diego Echavarría Misas bought the castle and then turned it into a museum.

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The Castle Museum / Jared Green

Even the richest area is now more accessible, said Velez. While the very wealthy still live in the area, along with the Mayor of Medellin and other celebrities, El Poblado is also now the neighborhood of the upper middle class. The main square, El Poblado square, where the Spanish first landed, has become a spot for locals to take a break. Gorgeous old trees provide a welcome canopy.

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El Poblado Square / Jared Green

And winding through the district is a stream that has been restored, forming the backbone of a new linear park, which opened in 2003.

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Linear park in El Poblado / Jared Green

Surprising cafes and bars appear at the edges of the park, providing another respite in a city filled with greenery.

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Small cafe space near the linear park in El Poblado / Jared Green

Heading towards the city center, Velez explains the city’s “partial plans,” an ambitious urban revitalization program aimed at improving the quality of life for residents and business owners. He said this plan will eventually result in 100,000 new, “non-subsidized” apartments. “The partial plans will bring life to areas that are industrialized. Before, they were places for the homeless and illegal drugs. Now, there will be residential apartment complexes, hotels, and hospitals.”

We could see the metamorphosis in one industrial area, with the opening of the Museum of Modern Art in an abandoned, 1930s-era steel mill. A $12 million addition is coming in behind the existing building.

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Museum of Modern Art, Medellin / Jared Green

And, again, Medellin surprises with its parks. Colombian endorphin-addicts could be seen tossing medicine balls in Parque líneal Ciudad del Río, the funky, urban park covered in street art, adjacent to the museum.

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Parque líneal Ciudad del Río / Wiki Colombia

As we gaze at the new museum, we stand right in the middle of Medellin’s budding system of bicycle infrastructure. While the lanes still seem a bit disconnected, the better ones are up on the sidewalks, away from the parked cars and traffic. Velez said “the network is not yet integrated, but the city is working on it.”

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Bicycle Lane in Medellin / Jared Green

These lanes also serve the new bicycle share system, which Velez said the city has been running for the past three years. If residents show an ID and credit card, they can use the bikes for free. Velez said there are 800 free bikes, and the system will soon scale up to nearly 1,100.

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Bike share system in Medellin / Jared Green

All of those must be put to use on Sundays, when much of the city’s streets no longer become accessible to cars, opening up into a bonanza for two-wheelers.

Throughout the city, one is struck by the small design details, too. Velez took us to Plaza Botero, which features the largest collection of local Medellin artist Fernando Botero’s outdoor sculptures.

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Plaza Botero / Jared Green

While the sculptures are stunning, the comfortable, human-scale streetscape competes for your attention, as well as the urban furniture that can be found throughout the downtown. This is a city designed for all — with places to stroll and sit. It’s the careful attention to these details that make Medellin feel so welcoming.

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Plaza Botero Pedestrian Mall / Jared Green

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Street chairs / Jared Green

The tour then headed to the northern end of the city, which has been hit hardest by poverty and violence, and, therefore, has seen the greatest transformation. Our first stop is the Ruta N complex, the center of Medellin’s efforts to lure innovative companies to participate in the city’s rebirth. Velez said it’s an innovation center that includes a lab and offices for the local Hewlett Packard center. The building features an innovative green wall system and reuses all water.

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Ruta N / Jared Green

Tropical gardens surrounding the building collect rainwater and cool the plaza and building.

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Ruta N garden / Jared Green

Next to Ruta N are a set of new parks that demonstrate the core of the city’s transition into a more equal place, at least in terms of access to beautiful public spaces. As Velez has explained, since the early 00s, the city, along with the foundation of the Empresas Publicas de Medellin (EPM), the all-encompassing public utility, have financed a wonderful program of “library-parks,” which combine places for learning, exploration, and play, with well-maintained green, public spaces. There are nine library-parks in “deprived areas.” One of these is the Park of Wishes, which was designed in 2003 by architect Felipe Uribe de Bedout, who also created the now-famous Barefoot Park, and features the city’s biggest music school. Facing the school is the city’s planetarium, which has a giant projector screen for outdoor films on one of its walls. The park offers fun “echo chambers” in the shape of moons.

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Wish Park / Jared Green

Right along side the Park of Wishes is Park Explora, which has the largest aquarium in Colombia in its extensive grounds. In the spirit of equality, “high income people pay to visit the aquarium, while low-income people just need to show their electricity bill to get in for free.”

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Park Explora / Jared Green

“Together, these two parks offer the poorest access to music, astronomy, and nature — education, which is what they need,” said Velez. “All these new amenities will help the city continue to grow in a sustainable way.”

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The Protective Shallows. Rebuilt by Design proposal by Scape/Landscape Architecture with Parsons Brinckerhoff, Dr. Philip Orton / Stevens Institute of Technology, Ocean & Coastal Consultants, SeArc Ecological Consulting, LOT-EK, MTWTF, The Harbor School and Paul Greenberg.

For more LA in the News, check out LAND, ASLA’s newsletter. If you see others you’d like included, please email us at info@asla.org.

Designing Outdoor Spaces to Fit Specific Patient PopulationsHealthcare Design Magazine, 4/1/14
“Patients using the garden could include a person awaiting minor surgery; someone recovering from a hip replacement who is urged to walk and seeks smooth pathways with frequent places to stop and rest; a person who has received outpatient chemotherapy and needs to recuperate—in the shade—before driving home; or a sick child being wheeled through a garden as respite from frightening medical procedures.”

Landscape Architects Edwina von Gal, Mikyoung Kim and Kate Orff Share their Favorite ThingsThe Wall Street Journal, 4/3/14
“Three trailblazing landscape designers are unearthing ways to improve the boundaries where man meets nature, using everything from oyster beds to interactive color walls to ensure that new developments harmoniously exist alongside their natural environments.”

10 Design Ideas to Prepare Us for the Next SandyNew York, 4/3/14
“‘If we put back what was there before, that’s a failure from the start,’ says Henk Ovink, a lean, bald, hyperintense water-management expert who organized Rebuild by Design while on loan from the Dutch government. The future will not be dry.”

Rebuild by Design Redesigns Sandy-Battered ShoreArchitectural Record, 4/7/14
“Protective sand islands in long narrow threads would run along the Atlantic seacoast from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, to Cape May, New Jersey, in one of the most ambitious proposals unveiled last week by Rebuild by Design. The program is a high-speed, invited competition sponsored by a presidential task force, guided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and supported by the Rockefeller Foundation and others.

Dan Kiley’s LandscapesThe Washington Post, 4/11/14
“From his longtime home studio in Vermont, Dan Kiley could see low-slung mountains, rippling Lake Champlain and trees grouped thickly and randomly. But when the influential landscape architect went to work, he emulated not such natural vistas but the geometric layouts of both baroque and modernist France.”

Vision 42 Design Competition Asks Designers to Re-Imagine 42nd Street without CarsThe Architect’s Newspaper, 4/15/14
“The Institute for Rational Urban Mobility is hosting the just-announced Vision42 Design Competition calling on architects, designers, and transportation gurus to re-imagine one of the most iconic (and congested) streets in New York City—42nd Street.”

These articles were compiled by Phil Stamper-Halpin, ASLA Public Relations and Communications Coordinator.

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ecocity

Yuelai Eco-city / Calthorpe Associates

Urbanization in China is the single biggest human migration in history. To accomodate the millions coming in from the countryside each year, China’s cities are tearing down their old human-scale, socially-rich neighborhoods, with their meandering, bicycle-friendly streets, and putting in highways and incredibly isolating towers set amid vacant-feeling “super blocks.” These are places only Le Corbusier could have loved. Or at least that’s the image some see in the West. At the World Urban Forum in Medellin, Colombia, a group of innovative Chinese urban planners explain how some of the latest “eco-cities” as well as design interventions in existing cities may help some Chinese mayors see the wisdom of sustainable urban development and taking those super-blocks down to size.

Dongquan He, with the Energy Foundation, said China now has more than 660 cities, with 20,000 more towns under construction. Over the next 25 years, 400 million more Chinese will move into cities. And by 2050, China will be 75 percent urban.

As China grows at incredible rates, its cities have created very wide streets that connect super blocks. “These have just a single function, moving from A to B. You really have to use a car to get around.” These planning decisions have also resulted in signficant environmental damage. The air in so many Chinese cities is basically unbreathable because cars have been let loose. He said: “China’s development problem is the super block.”

The Energy Foundation has come up with a whole set of criteria to explain urban sustainability to China’s mayors. The principles are well considered: places should be walkable; bicycling should be prioritized; networks of streets should be dense; public transit should be high-quality; developments should be mixed-use; and parking should be regulated.

To test these idea, He and his team became involved in a new thousand-hectare eco-city in Yuelai, Chongquing, one of the country’s mega-cities (see image above). He’s group worked with Calthorpe Asssociates and the eco-city developers to preserve the existing landscape. “We didn’t violate the natural systems.” They then created a plan that reduced the size of the average Chinese super block, allocating density near transit, creating small town-centers with public space every 500 meters, and also smaller grid spaces that fit high-rise, mid-rise. and low-rise buildings together in a dense, walkable street network. Parks and greenways connect people to the harbor, and a custom-designed streetcar system will also improve mobility. But He admitted that with this kind of huge development, “it’s hard to created the small spaces people like.” Indeed, in these images, the blocks still look a bit super.

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Yuelai Eco-city / Calthorpe Associates

Yang Liu with the China Sustainable Transportation Center outlined his organization’s work with the Chenggong New Town, in Kunming, which is in China’s southwest. He and his team are tackling “super blocks that didn’t feel safe crossing.” They helped increase the road network density by narrowing the streets and sidewalks considerably to improve the human fabric. Development is also now clustered around transit stations.

For EMBARQ China’s director, Haitao Zhang, the aim is to transform Qingdao, a major city in the northeast, through his Qingdao Low-carbon Sustainable Transportation study. Zhang has worked on reconnecting land use and transportation planning, putting stations where there is demand, and breaking the siloed approach to the problems of sprawl in the local government. EMBARQ is also planning a slew of “small-scale urban interventions” to improve the streetscape, turning super blocks into outdoor cafes and pedestrian-friendly plazas.

To learn more about the state of China’s cities, see a new report presented by Shi Na, with UN Habitat and the Urban Planning Society in China.

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brazil slums

Slums and high-rises in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil / Christian Science Monitor

“If a city has no structure, there will be inequality,” said Joan Clos, head of the UN Human Settlements Program (UN-Habitat) during the opening days of the World Urban Forum in Medellin, Colombia. Clos, the former mayor of Barcelona, said far too often cities in the developing world appear to have been built with a total disregard for organizational structure. These cities have set themselves up for massive social unrest.

Across the developing (and developed) worlds, there has been “metastatic growth,” much like a cancerous tumor eating its way through healthy tissue. This is because “urban growth has been developer-driven. High-rises and shopping malls are placed at random, creating disaggregation and then segregation.” This segregation happens because “low-income people are absent in developers’ considerations. Developers don’t make any money off of them.”

To avoid social unrest in increasingly unequal cities, Clos said “we need to start planning public spaces again.” Developers must learn to work within the frameworks set by planners. He added that pretty master plans are not urban planning. “If the first thing you see from a developer are renderings with all the houses filled in, then there has been no public input.”

Looking at the state of global urbanization — 80 percent of the world will be living in cities by 2050 — Clos is “flabbergasted.” He sees all the social splintering and fragmentation that is to come if there isn’t a new global investment in fair planning.

Echoing his remarks, a number of urban leaders from around the world explained how they are working towards more socially-cohesive cities.

Rossyln Greef with the city of Johannesburg, South Africa, showed a wowing video of their new “corridors of freedom” initiative, which aims to create a new spatial plan that will undo the segregation built into the city with apartheid.

Johannesburg’s corridors of freedom are really high-density, mixed-use developments along bus-rapid transit (BRT) corridors. The city’s goal is to reduce commuting costs for the city’s poor, so they are targeting those areas first.

She said: “We are moving from a deliberately exclusionary framework to an inclusive one. We are getting rid of racial segregation through planning. It’s a huge challenge.”

Ali Mandanipour, a professor at Newcastle University in the UK, pointed to the 2006 strategic plan from the city of Antwerp in Belgium as a model for how to reconnect a city and envisage a more equitable future. He also highlighted Bogota, Colombia’s huge investment in the planning and design of public spaces, which are all wheelchair accessible.

Mandanipour said “public spaces are key breathing spaces that make cities more attractive for people and investors.” However, he also cautioned, that new parks and plazas can become a tool for gentrification and exclusion if their construction pushes the poor out. “Spatial linkages must connect with existing social linkages.”

The United States has had a long history of segregation and social inequality, said Lisa Rice, with the National Fair Housing Alliance. She said the fair housing laws passed in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. helped eliminate housing discrimination and advanced social cohesion but segregation persists. Detroit, Washington, D.C. and Chicago are all “hyper-segregated,” which fuels disparities in access to education, healthcare, transportation, and food. “Detroit has huge food deserts. There are no supermarkets within the city limits. You have to drive to the suburbs.” In the U.S., her organization and others are trying to “stave off predatory lending in low-income areas.”

For the minister in charge of urban development in Argentina, Daniel Chain, the words of Pope Francis are worth heeding:”If a society abandons parts of itself, it will have no peace of mind. Inequality leads to violence because, at its essence, it’s unfair.” In Buenos Aires, Chain helped undo the damage caused by the red-lining that occurred in neighborhoods near one highway, helping to bring them back to life. The city has also undergone an intensive program of building new theatres, schools, libraries in its southern areas, its poorest sections. Chain said “poor people who live right next to the wealthy receive a slap in the face, a blow to their dignity.” It’s a “true confrontation” Buenos Aires is trying to limit.

And Jean-Marie Kazadi, head of urban development for the Katanga province in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) talked about the immense challenges in starting to plan communities where there has been no planning to date due to persistent civil war. Beyond war, the cities of Katanga must deal with the legacy of the harsh Belgian colonialism, which, he said, the DRC government just perpetuated after independence. “We must keep people at the center of our concerns.”

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Parque de la luces / Medellin culture department

This year, Medellin, the second largest city in Colombia, is the host of the UN-Habitat’s World Urban Forum, which attracts more than 15,000 urban leaders from around the world. This is a huge accomplishment for a city that had the highest number of homicides in the world just a decade ago. Now, Anibal Gaviria Correa, the Mayor of Medellin says, the city is not even in the top 50 ranking of dangerous cities. How did Medellin turn it around to win the title of the world’s most innovative city? The answer is complex — and the city continues to face many challenges — but the mayor said its amazing progress is really due to “social, not technological, innovation.”

Medellin (which is pronounced Medejin) is the largest city in the Antioquia province. The city, which is nestled in a valley some 5,000 feet up, had a population of around 250,000 in the 1940s. With “informal expansion,” the population exploded to 2.4 million by 2011. Without a plan, slums took root in undesirable locations along the slopes surrounding prime real estate in the valley. People from the countryside moved there to flee the civil war, only to find that a landslide could take away their home in an instant. Pushed up the slopes, these newly urbanized people experienced major displacement, resentment, and, later, incredible violence, fueled in part by drug lord Pablo Escobar and the many drug gangs.

Mayor Correa called 1990 to 2000 the decade of violence. Across the country, 48,000 people were murdered, with Medellin accounting for more than 20 percent of those deaths. Correa said it was no coincidence that during this decade Medellin had areas of extreme poverty and high inequality. In a clear warning to other developing world cities seeing their slums expand, he said violence and inequality are deeply connected.

To climb out of that dark place, the city’s leadership began to create a “structure for public participation” designed to bring all residents into a planning process, even in the midst of Colombia’s ongoing civil war. Three successive mayoral administrations continued the same good policies, creating momentum for the city’s long-term vision, which is to become a “city of life,” with a high-quality public transportation system, parks, and libraries accessible to all.

Empresas de Services Publico (EPM), a public-private utility that provides power, water, sewage, sanitation, and other services to the city also played an important part in making the dream become real. EPM provides hundreds of millions to the city each year, supporting the development of iconic projects like the subway, but also the extended Metro plus system, which includes a cable car that now provides connectivity to slums on the north side of the city.

On the Metro system, which is now the largest public transportation system in Colombia, Mayor Correa said “there is a real pride of the Metro, a culture of respect when you are in this space.”

The city has also financed fantastic “library-parks,” which offer both green space and a place to read. Here is the park for the Spanish Library in the hills of Santo Domingo, which used to be so dangerous the police would not even venture there.

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Parque de Biblioteca Espana / Bomb Magazine

Two new pieces of green under development include an extensive new riverfront park system, which will provide people with acccess to the Medellin river that cuts through the center of the city, and a greenway system, which will provide a “green belt” around the city, helping to reduce landslides and flooding for the poor communities along the steep slopes and perhaps pause sprawl.

Mayor Correa said green spaces are needed for both ethical and aesthetic reasons. If parks are found in all neighborhoods — rich or poor — they improve the ethical make-up of the city. Public green spaces provide “the civic realm where people can become citizens. It’s where everyone can be equal.” Parks also provide urban beauty, which Mayor Correa said is also “necessary for urban coexistence.”

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Parque Explora / Medellin 2009 blog

Another important symbol of how the city is addressing persistent inequality: new day care centers. Mayor Correa said 80,000 children have accessed these new facilities, where they get free meals and a place to play, and their parents get an opportunity to go out and work. The city’s goal is to provide 100,000 children services through 20 centers. At the other end of the educational spectrum, the city is planning two new universities that will serve low-income populations in the city. Mayor Correa wants those young people working in new innovation districts.

The mayor said Medellin still has a long way to go. The city is still far too unequal, even though it’s a bit more equal than other cities in Colombia. (Unfortunately, this is not saying that much, given Colombia is one of the more unequal countries in Latin America, itself the most unequal continent on earth).

After Mayor Correa spoke, UN-Habitat invited experts from around the world to comment on whether Medellin can really serve as a model for other cities.

Swedish Ambassador to Colombia Marie Andersson de Frutos said Medellin is a replicable model because it city government has really worked as a team with the private sector and non-profits. Medellin shows “there is no quick fix. Prescriptions can’t come from a doctor, they have to come from the whole hospital.”

Jose Carrera, Development Bank of Latin America, said Medellin correctly identified that violence was tied to inequality. The city made a great move removing one key aspect of inequality in providing clean drinking water for the whole city, rich or poor. However, he added Medellin, like many others in Latin America, still needs to do a better job of creating new jobs for unemployed youth, which face double the unemployment rates of adults just at a time when they should be most productive.

David Sims, a partner with urban design firm Gehl Architects, applauded Medellin for “incorporating terms like love, trust, equality, and pride” in its new city charter. He said these concepts are difficult to measure but vital goals. Sims said Medellin has learned that true innovation comes from “different people meeting each other and having a conversation.” He also thought the city was doing a great job of focusing on the small things that matter — how people get to work, how they live. “There is a great balance here between the tangible (the physical infrastructure) and the intangibles (the culture).”

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