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Archive for the ‘Public Spaces’ Category

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Mid Main Park / all images from Hapa Collaborative

At Main Street and 18th Avenue in Vancouver, the Palm Dairy and Milk Bar, an old ice-cream shop, was a popular spot for more than 30 years, until it closed in the late 80s. In its place, Mid Main Park speaks to what must be the community’s nostalgia for that community gathering place. Landscape architecture firm Hapa Collaborative worked with the Vancouver Park Board and local residents to create a one-of-a-kind park that harks back to that old Milk Bar. This new gathering spot is part of Vancouver’s “greenest city” initiative.

The history of the place is found everywhere in the new park. Within the concrete paving are “large, random ‘milk bubbles.’”

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The trellis looks like giant “bendy-straws.” (The trellis itself supports kiwi vines growing fruits locals can snack on).

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And, lastly, there are dairy-bar stools set within the park, even with spinning seats. All powder-coated steel elements are painted with Palm Dairy’s orange-red color.

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The space taken up by Mid Main Park was an “underused slip lane” set within the Main Street right-of-way. It was transformed with curvy seat-walls, earth mounds, layered plants, and lighting schemes. The designers tell Landezine they used rounded paths to take the edge off an awkward triangular site.

The park also has lots of sustainable design features. According to Hapa, permeable concrete paving convey stormwater into a “detention gallery buried in the central mound behind the main seatwall, reducing runoff rate and quantity discharged into the city’s storm sewer.”

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Fun, sustainable, and popular.

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The one-of-a-kind Janet Echelman, who creates monumental net sculptures all over the world, just unfurled Skies Painted with Unnumbered Sparks, her largest piece yet for the 30th TED conference in Vancouver.

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Skies Painted with Unnumbered Sparks / All photos courtesy Studio Echelman

With data artist Aaron Koblin at Google’s Creative Labs, Echelman went interactive, enabling visitors to this nearly 750-wide floating cloud to paint beams of light across the face of the mesh using their smartphones. Amazingly, the pulsing lights on the sculpture are made possible by embedded technology. The giant sculpture essentially acts as a “single full-screen Google Chrome window over 10 million pixels in size,” writes the design team.

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The title of the sculpture, Skies Painted with Unnumbered Sparks, comes from a line in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Echelman said: “it’s about each one of us being one of those stars – those sparks – and being able to paint the skies.”

The sculpture has 145 miles of braided fiber, tied up in 860,000 hand and machine-made knots to form intricate patterns. The piece weighs nearly 3,500 pounds, which is still light enough that it can be tied to many buildings, given there are so many foundation lines.

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Digital elements are embedded within the mesh, which is made of Honeywell Spectra Fiber manufactured in Washington state. Echelman told Arch Daily, pound-for-pound, it’s “fifteen times stronger than steel but light enough to float.” Spectra Fiber is “ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene using a patented gel-spinning process.”

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As Echelman explained in her talk at the 2013 ASLA Annual Meeting, collaboration is key to her work. She was worked with fabricators, landscape architects, architects, engineers, lighting designers — and now technologists — to realize her vision. Check out an exciting project she is doing with OLIN at Philadelphia’s City Hall.

Unnumbered Sparks will be in Vancouver until March 22 and then it will begin traveling to other cities around the world.

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all photos: Fengming Mountain park / Martha Schwartz Partners

Martha Schwartz, FASLA, now works mostly outside the U.S., having moved to London and taken up shop there some years ago. Now a perma-expat, she has done many big master plans and parks in the Middle East and is now taking on projects in China. In Chongqiing, a massive metropolis in western China, Schwartz and her team just created the 16,000-square-meter Fengming Mountain Park, a place where visitors can be taken on a “dynamic journey via a series of iconic mountain-shaped follies, plazas, greenery and water features,” right up to the sales office for a new development. This is a bold, modern park rooted in Chinese culture, but also a place meant to encourage you to buy a new apartment.

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The park helps create an identify for a new urban development, Vanke Golden City. Like some developers in the U.S., this group seems to be working on the landscape first in order to create some sense of “there” there, before the buildings come in. In Washington, D.C., developer Forest City used this approach with their winning Navy Yard redevelopment on the Anacostia riverfront, which Witold Rybczynski called one of the most successful redevelopment projects in the U.S. Schwartz Partners say the park is meant to stimulate sales at first, but will evolve with the new development as it takes shape. The park is then also a permanent amenity for this community.

Schwartz’s firm tells us that the “extreme topography” was both a challenge and opportunity. The steep slope made it tricky to get people from the upper car park to the sales center. On the other hand, the place gave them a chance to create a distinctive park that speaks to the surrounding mountainous landscape.

“The vision was to create a strong connection between the setting of the site and the surrounding backdrop of the mountainous peaks, valleys of the Sichuan Basin; the agrarian patterning of rice paddy terraces; the Chang Jiang river; and the mysterious white, grey misty sky of Chongqing. These elements provide the inspiration for the mountain pavilions, zigzag patterns, orchestrated terrain and the use of vivid colors (to contrast against the sky).”

As for the visitor’s experience, the park is designed to provide a “triumphant journey.” As visitors come in off Fengxi Road, there are a series of bright orange and red triangular pavilions that speak to the surrounding mountains.

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The pavilions offer shade during the day and are lit from within at night.

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The path zig zags to ensure the deep slope is accessible for all visitors. Schwartz’s firm tells us that “the path also becomes a geological pattern language, as if one is a walking on trails winding up a steep mountain.” At each zag, there’s a spot to sit and check out the view.

Water also flows through, from the arrival spot all the way to the sales area. “Channels, pools and jets to assist with cooling, provide sounds and atmosphere to what is a captivating landscape.” A local Feng Shui master must have approved.

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See more images and check out a recent interview with Schwartz.

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Bourbon street scenes from the late 1930s (left column) paired with 2013 views (right). Image credits: The WPA, courtesy of the Library of Congress and the Louisiana State Museum; and Richard Campanella, LSU

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.

Hating Bourbon StreetThe Design Observer Group, 3/3/14
“Hundreds of millions. That’s how many people, over the past two generations, have crammed themselves into a minor and rather middling artery in a secondary city on America’s Third Coast.”

Soil as Carbon Storehouse: New Weapon in Climate Fight?Yale e360, 3/4/14
“Today, just three percent of North America’s tallgrass prairie remains. Its disappearance has had a dramatic impact on the landscape and ecology of the U.S., but a key consequence of that transformation has largely been overlooked: a massive loss of soil carbon into the atmosphere.”

Seattle’s Waterfront: Visions of Hot Tubs & Gardens, but Where’s the Cash?  – Crosscut, 3/6/14
“The cold realities of public finance and broken boring machines aside, the design offers a sweeping contrast to the downtown waterfront as it is today, separated from the rest of the city by the viaduct and the din of traffic flowing on top of the structure.”

Five Teams in the Running for London’s Natural History Museum Civic Realm CompetitionThe Architect’s Newspaper, 3/10/14
“Deeming them to be not ‘appropriate to a world-class institution nor effective in accommodating day-to-day use,’ trustees of London’s Museum of Natural History put out a call for redesigns to the grounds surrounding the building. The competition has now reached its second stage, with five firms selected as finalists for the project, though who is responsible for which proposal has yet to be revealed. The winning selection will have to ease access for the museum’s growing number of visitors and create a new civic ground for the city of London.”

A 38-Foot-Tall Hill of Slides Is Coming to Governor’s Island ParkInhabitat, 3/17/14
“Construction workers are working on erecting a 38-foot-tall hill that will eventually be covered with slides. Called Slide Hill, the play area will be just one of four themed waterfront zones planned for the island.”

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

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On the Benthemsquare in Rotterdam, Dutch landscape architecture firm De Urbanisten has finally achieved what they set out to do seven years ago: create a water park for the community fed entirely by storm water. Instead of hiding runoff in underground pipes and cisterns, the square has been designed to make water the main feature. The designers say this is the world’s first “water square.”

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Watersquare Benthemplein / De Urbanisten

Storm water is channeled through stainless steel gutters into three basins. Two shallow ones collect water whenever it rains, while another deeper basin is reserved for overflows from heavier storms. To help people understand what will flood or not, everything that can flood is painted in shades of blue.

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Watersquare Benthemplein / Millad Pallesh

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Watersquare Benthemplein / Millad Pallesh

And all that transports water is shiny metal.

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Watersquare Benthemplein / Millad Pallesh

In summer, if there is flooding, the main basin could become a pond. If it’s not gunked up with oily residue and leaves, perhaps kids will be playing there. In winter, maybe there’s ice-skating. At least, this is the vision of the designers and community. (Apparently, this is OK in Rotterdam, unlike in the U.S. where there would be lawsuits galore).

The designers came up with the concept in collaboration with students and teachers from Zadkine college and the Graphic Lyceum; members of the adjacent church, a nearby youth theater, and gym; and locals from the Agniese neighborhood of Rotterdam.

The say over the course of three public workshops, “we discussed possible uses, desired atmospheres, and how the storm water can influence the square. All agreed: the water square should be a dynamic place for young people, lots of space for play and lingering, but also have nice, green intimate places. And what about the water? This had to be excitingly visible while running over the square. Detours obligatory! The enthusiasm of the participants helped us to make a very positive design.”

The park doesn’t just work only when it’s raining. When it’s dry, the deep basin is a “true sports pit” as well as a sort of urban theater where people can see and be seen.

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Watersquare Benthemplein / Ossip Van Duivenbode

De Urbanisten also interposes the basins and walkways with green infrastructure made up of trees, grasses, and flowers, all “self-irrigated.”

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Watersquare Benthemplein / Millad Pallesh

See more images of Water Square and other water square concepts, and learn more about the innovative ways in which the Dutch manage water and create community assets.

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The 11th street bridge, which connects Washington D.C.’s historic Capitol Hill and Anacostia neighborhoods, is being rebuilt, opening up a new opportunity to create a 900-foot-long elevated park. A new design competition launched by Building Bridges Across the River at THEARC and the D.C. Office of Planning aims to transform this old freeway bridge into a new venue for “healthy recreation, environmental education, and the arts” for the nearly 80,000 people who live near the bridge as well as the greater district.

This new park will become the High Line of the district, but with even better views: it will span the Anacostia River and provide vistas of the nearby Navy Yard and Diamond Teague parks.

According to the design organizers, the 11th Street Bridge Park will accomplish four goals: “connect two diverse communities, re-engage residents with the Anacostia River, improve public health, and become an anchor for economic development.”

The organizers have already started on an in-depth public design process, conducted through over 200 meetings with church leaders, business owners, and residents on both sides of the Anacostia river. Landscape architects and architects will need to incorporate these ideas into their design proposals. The community wants the park to provide an environmental education center, a performance area, urban agriculture, an “accessible and multi-generational playscape,” a cafe, and kayak and canoe launches for the river below.

Tendani Mplubusi-El, Ward 8 artist and resident said: “I think the bridge is going to bring a lot of people together who normally don’t cross paths.” Deborah Ratner Salzberg, president of Forest City Washington, the developer of the Navy Yard, added that: “The creation of vibrant public spaces is so critical to effective urban revitalization. The adaptive reuse 11th Street Bridge Park project will result in yet another very valuable asset for connecting the community in this area of the District.”

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11th Street Park rendering by Ed Estes / D.C. Office of Planning

An esteemed jury that includes Dr. Howard Frumkin, a leading public health scholar at the University of Washington, and Carol Mayer Reed, FASLA, head of landscape architecture at Mayer / Reed, will be advised by an additional “design oversight committee.”

Submit qualifications for stage one by April 22. Teams must be lead by a landscape architect and architect. The jury will then interview the top 6-8 finalists. By stage two, each team will be given $25,000 to create full design renderings, which will be evaluated for cost and constructability. These final proposals will be publicly displayed at the District Architecture Center and online. The organizers expect the project to cost somewhere in the range of $25 million. About $500,000 has been raised so far.

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Tree Wood / Tochihiro Oki Architects

For millennium, designers of our built and natural environments have positioned the viewer in nature, setting benches in just the right spots with gorgeous vistas, or even creating pavilions or pagodas that offer both a respite from the world and a vantage point for engaging with it. Contemporary landscape architects and architects are creating singular platforms for experiencing nature. In these examples, the biophilic platforms are as appealing as the surrounding nature.

Japanese architect Tochihiro Oki created Tree Wood for last year’s “folly” competition in Socrates Sculpture Park in Astoria, New York. With this project, a simple wood frame set amid the forest looks over a grove awaiting the visitors’ discovery. Inside, the visitor is enveloped by the trees but also the skeletal frame made of 2 x4 planks held together with studs and nails.

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Tree Wood / Tochihiro Oki Architects

A chandelier sits at the top of the structure, creating the sense that one is in a room.

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Tree Wood / Tochihiro Oki Architects

Speaking to DesignBoom, Ohn Hatfield, juror and executive director of Socrates Sculpture Park, said Tree Wood “blurred lines and definitions, eliciting bewilderment, consternation, aesthetic pleasure,” adding that it “performs this feat by interweaving our built environment with nature’s chaos, setting in motion a dialogue, argument and narrative.”

Another example, Viewpoint, created by the Finnish Institute in London and the Architecture Foundation, is a floating platform on Regent’s Canal in Camley Street Natural Park, London. Designed by Finnish design firm AOR, the floating pavilion provides a way to bring visitors up close to London’s central nature reserve and the rich urban wildlife found there.

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Viewpoint / The Finnish Institute in London, Architecture Foundation

ArchDaily writes: “The inspiration for Viewpoint comes from the rocky islets and islands of the Nordic. For Finns, these islands are places of sanctuary, to relax the mind and get away from hectic city life.”But the platform’s actual form was also inspired by the simple, temporary structure created by fishermen and farmers. In Finland, these triangular structures are created out of tree branches, moss, and leaves.

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Viewpoint / The Finnish Institute in London, Architecture Foundation

Viewpoint seems to be a natural draw for those walking through the park. Visitors are likely to see Daubenton’s bats, whooper swans and the elusive Kingfisher.

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Viewpoint / The Finnish Institute in London, Architecture Foundation

The structure will be used by the London Wildlife Trust for educational programs for kids. Special triangular openings are set at different heights, giving kids of all ages a special view into the canal and the wildlife that it attracts.

Lastly, Fort Werk aan ‘t Spoel, an old fort in the Netherlands has been redesigned into a new kind of viewing platform for nature, except this one takes the visitor deeper into the ground for a new perspective. The fort is a national monument dating to 1794 and was part of the military defense line that enabled “intentional flooding,” to protect one of the inundation locks, writes RAAAF and Atelier de Lyon in Landezine.

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Fort Werk aan ‘t Spoel / © Rob ‘t Hart

Sculptured grassy steps lead the visitor down into the lock, which is surrounded by trees. It has become a major attraction in the “New Dutch Waterline,” says the design firms.

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Fort Werk aan ‘t Spoel / © Rob ‘t Hart

The new design, commissioned by the city of Culemborg and the Foundation Werk aan ‘t Spoel, is inspired by the old infrastructure but forges something new from it.

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Fort Werk aan ‘t Spoel / © Rob ‘t Hart

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How to Study Public Life / Island Press

“I graduated at the first worst point in city planning,” said Jan Gehl, the famed urban designer, at a crowd of hundreds at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. The 1960s were the era “when the architect was big and the city was small.” Eventually, Gehl, who is trained as an architect, saw the light. He married a psychologist, who asked him, “why do architects hate people so much?” He soon realized there was a great “void of knowledge” about how to create buildings and public spaces people actually want to inhabit. So for the past 40 years, Gehl has picked up where activist and author Jane Jacobs left off, and “studied the life of the city in the way same a traffic engineer studies the flow of traffic.” This Danish architect is now appropriately small and the city is big.

Gehl’s six books, many of which are viewed as seminal reads in urban design, have been translated into 28 languages. “They are even in Chinese,” he added, but considering many Chinese cities have not taken up his lessons about creating cities for people, “perhaps they haven’t had time to read them yet,” he laughed. He wasn’t singling out the Chinese for special criticism though. “It really took us about 50 years for the West to really read and absorb Jane Jacob’s messages.”

Two Destructive Paradigms

Over the past 50 years, we’ve had two major paradigms, said Gehl. While Modern city planning ideas were first conceived in the 1920s, with Le Corbusier and his “Contemporary City,” which would be filled with freeways and gargantuan skyscrapers, it wasn’t until the 1960s when they were first implemented. Then, “planners started laying out cities from the airplane.” They would go up in helicopters to “get the full site view.” Modern architects and landscape architects followed their lead, so no one “looked after the people scale anymore.” Gehl calls this the “Brasilia syndrome:” the “city looks fantastic from the air, but is shit on the ground.”

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Brasilia Modernist City / Skyscraper City

Unfortunately, the Brasilia model has not breathed its last gasp yet. China is creating Brasilias everywhere. Dubai is creating “bird shit architecture, just a collection of funny buildings. They hope they can just plop these down and a city will form around them. This doesn’t happen.”

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Dubai / Dubai Dhow blog

The other paradigm is the “car-centric city, or the car invasion.” People in cities have been pushed out in favor of creating an environment for cars. “This is a landscape of cheap gasoline.” This landscape almost took over lower Manhattan as Robert Moses sought to bulldoze Soho, the West Village, and parts of Chinatown to create huge freeway off-ramps and high-rises. Only Jacobs, with her “ceaseless” efforts, was able to stop him. She taught us that “if the Modernists and motorists dominated cities, they will become dead places.” She taught us “we must look at how people use cities to understand how to shape them.”

A New Paradigm

It was only taken us 50 years to process Jacob’s messages, but people now want “lively, attractive, safe, sustainable, healthy cities.” Through new research, “we now know the relative importance of rich public life, its value for democracy, public inclusion, and our happiness.” Successful cities are “people-oriented and smaller scale.” This is because “the greatest attraction of cities is other people.”

Cities where people can walk, bike, and use public transportation are better for people, too. “The cheap petroleum society has major health risks. Lack of daily physical exercise is worse than smoking.” Gehl’s goal is to “move people naturally through city design.” Investment in this design pays for itself: “We save on health costs.”

Gehl said Copenhagen, Denmark, has successfully moved from a “traffic place to a people place.” In the 1960s, the city took car traffic out of its main street. This effort coincided with the publication of Jacob’s book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Gehl said since then Copenhagen has “improved every day” — and continues to do so, with its new goal of becoming the best city in the world for people (and bicyclists) by 2025. The city is accomplishing this through “distinctly people-oriented policies” created by the city’s office of public life. Bicycling rates have doubled over 10 years, and now 37 percent commute to work every day by bike, in comparison with just 27 percent by car. In fact, the issue now is “serious congestion on bike lanes.”

Melbourne is another city that has thrown off the shackles of the car. “The city started out with traffic ridden streets.” The downtown was deemed the “donut” because there was nothing in the center. “It was a useless city center.” Now, there has been a “transformation, and it’s one of the nicest cities in Australia, Asia — even the world. It’s an Australian Paris.” Downtown, daytime foot traffic has increased 40 percent and nighttime traffic, 100 percent. There are now Copenhagen-style bike lanes, which use parked cars to protect bicyclists. Sydney has also become a better place for people, transforming itself with new bicycle infrastructure.

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People-sized street in Melbourne / Buytaert

Amazingly, Moscow is also making great progress. After they hired Gehl Architects, they have made great gains in returning the sidewalks to the people, at least downtown. “We are trying to humanize the city in a place inundated with cars, where the car is king.” Gehl said post-communism, Muscovites felt it was their god-given right to drive and park anywhere. “For a few years, this worked OK and then it didn’t.” Now, Gehl laughed, “if you park your car in the wrong place, it will be sent to Siberia.” He said the “transformation has been a miracle. There are now routes for people, which were nonexistent before.”

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Moscow pedestrians / Gehl Architects

In the U.S., New York City is doing the most to “discourage commuting by car and increasing the use of subway, biking, and walking to get around.” NYC has also put in “more bicycle lanes in five years than Copenhagen has in 50 years.” Closing Times Square to car traffic has been a “huge success,” and a “fantastic influence on other cities,” because “if you can make it in New York City, you can make it anywhere.” Gehl really hopes more pedestrian malls will open where there was gridlock across the U.S.

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Times Square Pedestrian Plaza / Project for Public Spaces

Studying People in Cities

After the success of Cities of People, Gehl and co-author Birgitte Svarre just released How to Study Public Life, which outlines the “field of public life studies.” Here, Svarre took the stage and explained how the field came about. “People knew something was missing in the suburbs but they didn’t know what. They didn’t know how to grasp the issues. There would be greenery and air but no life. Researchers had to start from scratch and treat the city as a lab. They had to go out and learn how to really experience a place.”

Early on, Gehl would go sit in a well-loved square in Italy, spending the whole day studying how people used the space. He found that “people prefer to stand at the edges.” Using that lesson, she asked us to think of all those awkward public spaces that have no edges. Are they human scale?

Gehl and others’ research on public space sits on the shoulders of many others. “William Whyte, Clare Cooper Marcus, Donald Appleyard, Peter Bosselmann, Allan Jacobs, and Fred Kent all tried to figure out the tools for researching public space.” These researchers were part of various schools, which Svarre defined as the Berkeley, New York, or Copenhagen schools.

Svarre said “we know a lot today” because of these people, and their analytical methods still hold water. While new technologies and big data have increased the capacity to collect and analyze data, old-school “observational studies,” which are “cheap and easy to do,” are still important. “Otherwise, you just have lots of data, and then what do you do with that? You can’t replace being there, capturing the nuances.” Svarre said perhaps “we’ve gone from complex back to simple.”

Gehl made a point about how a simple observation can reveal much. When one woman who worked at the Danish embassy in Vietnam went to Copenhagen, she told Gehl, “wow, there are so many children.” Gehl was surprised she said that because Denmark is actually shrinking and can’t even maintain its own population. What this woman witnessed was that every parent who had a child brought them out “because it was safe for them to be out.” In contrast, in Vietnam, which actually has a baby boom, “it’s difficult to see children anywhere because it’s not safe for them in the traffic.”

Parents in Copenhagen actually get their children on bicycles as early as age four, letting them bike to school. Some 30 percent of families in the city also have “family bikes,” in which all the kids pile in. Gehl said “good, safe bike lanes were a condition for all of this.” Furthermore, this really shows that “if there are many children in the city, it’s a sign of a good quality of life and livability. Same with older people and the handicapped.”

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Danish bicyclist with kids / The Times (UK)

Read Gehl and Svarre’s latest book, How to Study Public Life, and check out an interview with Gehl.

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Study area for The Vortex competition, UVA. Charlottesville US 29 corridor / Charlottesville Tomorrow.org

This winter at the University of Virginia School of Architecture, graduate and undergraduate students from each of the school’s four disciplines — Landscape Architecture, Architecture, Urban and Environmental Planning, and Architectural History — participated in the invigorating third annual all-school design competition, appropriately named “The Vortex.” The event provides students exposure to design competitions, fosters interdisciplinary collaboration, and engages the local community in high-stakes urban design projects.

In previous years, the Vortex focused on large-scale landscape and infrastructure issues, including bridging connections to the local Belmont neighborhood and re-imagining the link between Downtown Charlottesville and the Rivanna River. This year, students re-imagined Charlottesville’s US Route 29 corridor, the main transportation artery bisecting the city and providing an economic locus. This ten-mile commercial corridor, which connects Charlottesville to its airport and major metropolitan areas beyond, is also the source of a host of traffic, safety, and development problems.

While 29 has been the topic of debate among Charlottesville and Albemarle County government entities for decades, its future remains unknown. Students were challenged to envision US 29 not as a place for automobiles traveling at 45 miles per hour, but for pedestrians walking at 2 miles per hour. As opposed to focusing solely on the ease of the commuter, the teams considered a more intelligent road design that accommodated alternative modes of transportation, such as walking, biking, and public transportation.

Each year the Vortex competition invites a renowned designer to partake in the event and lead project critiques. This year’s invited guest was Xaveer de Geyter, founding principal of Belgian firm XDGA, a landscape and urban design practice in Europe. De Geyter’s lecture on the first day of the competition provided a framework for the event, encouraging students to consider issues of density, mixed-use, architecture, public space, time and transportation. De Geyter’s book, After-Sprawl: Research on the Contemporary City, and much of his design work “analyze how urban sprawl is growing throughout Western Europe, creating a diffuse urbanization confronted to the compact urban tradition of the old continent.” He said: “I am very much interested in not so much how architecture or urbanism should be but to have a very good look at what exists,” said De Geyter.

To kick-off the event, a panel of officials from local news, government, environmental and economic development agencies discussed the corridor – its history, challenges, and opportunities.

Some of the questions that emerged from this conversation that guided students’ thinking included: How does a city grow without compromising qualities of life aspects of preservation and evolution? How can the corridor serve as both a commercial boulevard and a U.S. highway? What type and degree of density is necessary along the corridor? What design will allow for connectivity both across and along the corridor, and how can it accommodate multi-modal transportation? How does one minimize negative environmental impacts?

Students were encouraged not to feel constrained by realistic limitations of the project, but instead to explore all possibilities. “They won’t come to pass exactly as you play them out, but you’re pushing the envelope,” said Neil Williamson, president of the Free Enterprise Forum, a nonprofit organization that analyzes local government policy and monitors more than 100 boards and commissions in Central Virginia.

Following this introduction, approximately three hundred students and faculty members strapped in neon yellow construction vests went on a five-mile excursion along the entire corridor. Accompanied by police escorts and the local press, including NBC 29 and The Daily Progress, the journey began at the intersection of Emmett Street and Ivy Road and concluded at the bridge where the Rivanna River crosses under US 29.

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Students and faculty walk the project’s entire 5 mile stretch / Sanjay Suchak

Following the walk, students broke into teams and launched into an energetic week of collaborative design. The school’s intensive competition culminated in a public presentation of each team’s vision for US 29 in Charlottesville’s Carver Recreation Center. Students presented their boards and models to de Geyter, the architecture school faculty, fellow students, and the public.

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Student teams collaborating on their design proposals / UVA

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Students present their work to the public / Charlottesville Tomorrow

The winner of both the student and public awards was the project entitled “Resi[dense]city.” The proposal focused on “housing density, efficient transportation, economic growth, and interactive culture,” which intended to create “dense, mixed-use communities at nodes along US 29.” The team sought “to stitch together the corridor that currently acts as a boundary, rather than a means of connection.”

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Resi[dense] City / Silvia Stefi – Student

The group that took home the competition’s biggest prize, the Xaveer de Geyter Award, as well as the faculty award, was called “Generative Urbanism.” The design focused on re-imagining US 29 “as the generator, pipeline, and lifeblood of the Charlottesville and Central Virginia region” that uses a “light rail system at current grade, maximizing spatial, visual, and auditory comfort for the pedestrian.” The design aimed to “create a central core that harnesses wind, solar, water, geothermal and kinetic energy.”

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Generative Urbanism / Chad Miller

All told, the Vortex competition helped to catalyze conversation and re-invigorate creative thinking among the students and entire community around the exciting potential of this corridor in Charlottesville.

This guest post by Chad Miller and Matt Scarnaty, Master’s of Landscape Architecture Candidates, University of Virginia

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Place Schuman / XDGA

The University of Virginia (UVA) School of Architecture kicked off its third annual all-school design workshop with a lecture by visiting critic Xaveer de Geyter, founding principal of Brussels-based practice XDGA urban design and landscape architecture. De Geyter acted as a critic for 300 undergraduate and graduate students throughout the week of “The Vortex” competition, titled “Route 29: After the Sprawl.” His presentation revealed a methodological approach to design in the public realm. “We make no difference between architecture and urbanism,” the architect explained. “For us, they are not two different disciplines. Both are about dealing with different scales at the same time.”

Speaking to an audience about to embark on a week-long charrette, de Geyter brought with him an expertise in competitions. His office submits entries for about ten a year. “When we are lucky, we win two of them,” he said. In Europe, the best way to access large-scale urban projects is through competitions, a system imposed by the European Union and used by public officials when they are seeking answers to problems in the urban realm. De Geyter estimated that most of these projects take ten years from competition to completion. “So competitions do not solve everything,” he joked.

De Geyter worked with Rem Koolhaus at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) for ten years in the 1980s and 1990s. He began his own firm in 1988, and in 2002, published the book After Sprawl: Research on the Contemporary City, an atlas of six European urban networks.

He began his lecture with the topic of “underground.”

He said some people view his firm’s interest in the subterranean as a “fetish.” “For us it is really a contemporary aspect of the city,” he explained. Many of XDGA’s projects fill in the missing link “between traditional urban space and a complex underground network.

The relationship between below and above ground was highlighted through a spectrum of projects. One such design, won through competition and currently in construction, with landscape design by Michel Desvigne Paysagiste, is the Place Rogier on the Boulevard Botanique in Brussels.

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Place Rogier / XDGA

XDGA envisioned the square as more than a “knot of transport” where metro and bus lines came together. By proposing vertical movement where there was horizontal movement, the firm created, in essence, “an underground building.” XDGA gave the street a new identity by crowning this new structure with a massive canopy patterned with perforated triangles.

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Place Rogier / XDGA

Place Rogier is an example of the opportunities for design in Brussels, which de Geyter refers to as “a fantastic landscape to work in” compared to “perfect cities like Paris, where everything was defined a few centuries ago.” He characterized Brussels as “half destroyed” in the early 1960s, when modernistic interventions and infrastructure interrupted the coherence of the pre-existing urban fabric. Now, a tension exists where the conglomerate of urban parts meet, bringing what he finds to be “a very interesting energy to the city.”

De Geyter discussed a 2003 competition entry for Les Halles, a transit station on the Parisian periphery, in collaboration with OMA, One Architects, and landscape architecture firm Agence Ter. Paris, he said, is only able to exist through it periphery, where 80 percent of its people live. This ring around the city also allows inner Paris to maintain its glamor. Les Halles used to be the belly of the city, the place of slaughterhouses, until their removal in the 1960s. As it exists today, the web of infrastructure is disjointed from the “boring green space” on its surface.

The design team proposed a new city gate and modern form for the area, where one million people pass through daily. The project restructured the underground as well as the new landscape and proposed replacing the underutilized park with circles of programmed spaces that vary in climates and atmospheres.

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Les Halles / OMA, XDGA, One

New buildings were interspersed among these public spaces.

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Les Halles / OMA, XDGA

Lastly, XDGA won first prize in 2011 for their entry in a competition for Place Schuman in Brussels, proposing an iconic public square that de Geyter compared to the National Mall in Washington D.C. Currently a roundabout that welcomes daily car traffic from the eastern part of Belgium, Schuman is on the Rue de la Loi, an axis installed by Belgian King Leopold II (a “very good urbanist,” noted de Geyter), along which institutions of Belgian and European political power have settled.

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Place Schuman / XDGA

The competition called for new entrances to a proposed train station. An earlier concept envisioned the entrance to be a large glass box standing in the axis of the street. In contrast, XDGA proposed a strong symbolic representation of a European civic democracy — a “real public space.” It’s an open shell, an amphitheater whose lifted edges allow for people to flow into the transportation network below. The underside also gives room for small shops and a bicycle station.

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Place Schuman / XDGA

The design respects the integrity of the axis, framing the arch at the entrance to the Park Jubilee, a few blocks away. Desvigne served as the project’s landscape architect. They helped create a place for all scales of public events, meeting, debate and demonstration.

Throughout the lecture, de Geyter presented XDGA’s projects very clearly and logically, from context, concept, and then design. This highly rational approach prompted an audience member to ask, “When does the beauty appear?”

“It is difficult to talk about what you find beautiful,” the architect responded. “In our case, beauty comes more from an in-depth analysis of the layers of relationships that exist. But, at the same time, I have to contradict myself, because we are really convinced that a project should not just be the fruit of this kind of work. It has to be something that survives if you take all of this analysis and knowledge away.”

Katherine Cannella, Student ASLA, is a Master of Landscape Architecture candidate at the University of Virginia.

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