Archive for the ‘Sustainable Design’ Category

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reading Terminal, Philadelphia, a “cosmopolitan canopy” / John Greim, fotolibra

Reading Terminal, Philadelphia, a “cosmopolitan canopy” / John Greim, fotolibra

“In this day and age, is a hybrid approach a panacea, a cure-all?” This question was posed by Paola Antonelli, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)’s senior curator of architecture and design, who was host of a recent salon at Harvard University Graduate School of Design (GSD), which brought together an unusual group of professionals, all who engage with hybrid approaches in their work. The event sparked a conversation that was in itself a hybrid of sorts, which I would venture to guess was one of Antonelli’s ambitions.

Unburdened by the limitations of a single disciplinary focus, the speakers were free to engage with each others’ work, asking questions, making suggestions, comparing and contrasting experiences. For the designers in the audience, mostly millennials who are not scandalized by the cross-pollination of disciplines, the conversation was provocative.

Antonelli began with a whirlwind presentation about all things hybrid today and its historical trajectory in both groups and individuals. She discussed its roots in biology, in which it is defined as the offspring of two different species, and then how this concept has been used in fields such as artificial intelligence, art, and industrial design.

She covered hybrid organizations that have corporate profit and public benefit, the inter-disciplinarity of universities, and the liminal space so many of us now inhabit between the physical and digital world. Throughout, she asked us to consider who defines people, projects, or spaces hybrids.

Elijah Anderson, a professor of sociology at Yale, then spoke about his research on cosmopolitan canopies, the “islands of civility in a sea of racial segregation” – hybrid spaces within cities in which people of all races and ethnic groups can intermingle with ease, like Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia (see above).

Next up was Eric de Broche des Combes, architect, graphic designer, and lecturer in landscape architecture at the GSD, who discussed the representation of landscapes in video games, a hybrid between the physical and digital realms. He maintained that “99 percent of the feelings you experience in video games are physiologically the same ones you experience in real life.”

NYCVISION rendering / Eric de Broche des Combes

NYCVISION rendering / Eric de Broche des Combes

Jane Fulton Suri, partner and chief creative officer at IDEO, a multi-disciplinary design firm, another practitioner of hybrid approaches, discussed how she has learned to manage hybrid teams. Her team recently made a machine that emits a single perfect bubble when your calendar says it’s time for a meeting. To get this team to work together, Suri used a variety of strategies, including nurturing mutually-admiring relationships, finding common ground through leveling activities, and iterating forms early in development to spark productive conversations.

Lastly, Alexa Clay, researcher, author of The Misfit Economy, defined her research interest as “where worlds collide.” As a personal experiment with hybrid approaches, she employs an alter-ego of an Amish woman who goes to tech conferences and asks the participants simple questions to raise consciousness about the rapid adoption of needless technologies.

Antonelli believes that “it’s the spaces that provoke and engender hybridity that are the most interesting.” Ultimately, in a time in which so many of the world’s problems — from climate change to geopolitical unrest — are issues that cross disciplinary boundaries, hybrid approaches used wisely can be indispensable.

This guest post is by Chella Strong, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

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Pollinator Garden / Celeste Ets-Hokin

Pollinator Garden / Celeste Ets-Hokin

The natural habitats of pollinators are increasingly fragmented. The overwhelming majority of American agricultural landscapes use chemical pesticides and fertilizers. These factors contribute to the declining health of bees. At the ASLA 2015 Annual Meeting in Chicago, Heather Holm, Holm Design and Consulting; Danielle Bilot, Associate ASLA, Kudela & Weinheimer; Laurie Davies, executive director of the Pollinator Partnership; and James Schmelzer, building operations and management, General Services Administration (GSA) showed how landscape architects and designers can better design for bees. As Holm explained, 81 percent of plants are pollinated by insects, birds, or mammals. Of those plants, 33 percent are food crops.

Most people’s idea of a pollinator is the honeybee, a domesticated insect integral to modern U.S. agriculture. Hives of these bees are shipped throughout the country, following the blooms of food crops. The plight of the honeybee has gotten a lot of attention in recent years. We have learned how we should support them through the thoughtful planting of bee-friendly plants, but less has been written about native bees, let alone the other pollinators.

We must not forget about other pollinators like native bees. North America boasts upwards of 4,000 native bee species, with 200-500 individual species per state. These native species are proven to be more efficient pollinators than the honeybee. As Bilot explained, 200 native bees have the efficiency of 10,000 honeybees. The difference is one of range: the larger the bee, the further they can travel to forage. The honeybee is able to travel a few miles from its hive to foraging opportunities, while the smaller native bee is only able to travel slightly under 1,000 feet. So this means native bees can accomplish more intensive pollination in a small area.

Native Sweat Bee / Ben Kolstad

Native Sweat Bee / Ben Kolstad

Designing for the smallest specialist bee to the larger generalist bee requires a thoughtful approach. Recognizing that “every urban center has at least 10 percent of its land use area dedicated to parking,” Bilot proposed a plan to connect rural and suburban foraging habitats of the native bees through urban parking lots. This would provide even the smallest bee with foraging opportunities through habitat corridors.

Pollinator median (before) / Danielle Bilot

Standard roadway median / Danielle Bilot


Pollinator-friendly median / Danielle Bilot

Pollinator-friendly median / Danielle Bilot

Adams urged all landscape architects and designers to incorporate pollinator-friendly designs “into everything you do.” The Pollinator Partnership has info for everyone from clients to designers, and all resources are free. As Adams said, there’s “a lot of good information out there. You don’t have to invent it, you just have to access it.”

Learning about the different pollinators in your community is the first step. Then, bring passion and commitment to creating a space for pollinators. Even small spaces can go a long way in bolstering declining populations of bees and butterflies, while helping to create healthy, sustainable, and beautiful communities for us, too.

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Janine Benyus / Biomimicry 3.8

Janine Benyus / Biomimicry 3.8

Janine Benyus is the co-founder of Biomimcry 3.8 and the Biomimicry Institute. She is a biologist, innovation consultant, and author of six books, including Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, in which she named biomimicry, an emerging discipline that emulates nature’s designs and processes (e.g., solar cells that mimic leaves) to create a healthier, more sustainable planet.

Why design like nature? Why is nature’s approach necessarily the best?

Life has been on the planet for 3.8 billion years, and, in that time, it has learned what works and what lasts here on earth. That’s a long line of good ideas. Unprecedented longevity. What doesn’t work is recalled (made extinct), and what does work is optimized with each generation. Natural selection prizes those things that work best in place as well as those that create conditions conducive to life.

What we see now is a scant one percent of the species that have been on earth; they’re the best of the best. Their design solutions have been created in the context of our planet. They’re designed to tap the power of limits and make the most of opportunities—it’s a dance within the creative frame of what’s real. Organisms that tap the limits and opportunities of their habitat excel and get to stay there. This method creates context-shaped adaptations—technologies—that are earth savvy. We call this portfolio of adaptions “biological intelligence” for a reason, because there’s an embodied wisdom to these designs.

When you ask “why design using nature’s principles and patterns?” I think it comes down to this:  They just really work well on this planet in a no-regrets way. Unintended consequences?  Already shaken out of the system. I can’t think of a better model.

How has the biomimetic design movement evolved over the past few decades? Where did it start? How did you get here? What happened along the way?

In the last few years, biomimicry has moved from a meme to a movement. When I wrote Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature in ’97, the idea of looking to nature for innovation was just a faint signal in the literature. I found a few articles on leaf-inspired solar cells, prairie-inspired agriculture, spider silk and fibers, and ecology-inspired businesses, but these ideas were published in bizarre, seldom-read journals.

What I did in Biomimicry was notice that a nature-inspired approach to innovation was starting to stir, but it had no name! I baptized it biomimicry, and to my surprise, it proved to be a catchy meme. I expected the post-publication reaction that most science writers receive: profound silence. But instead, my phone started ringing off the hook. The first people who were really interested were architects. Then, a lot of companies called and said, “send biologists to our design table because we need solutions and we want to know how nature solves it.”

In 1998, Dr. Dayna Baumeister and I created this company of biologists (Biomimicry 3.8) that brings biological intelligence to innovators. We thought it was going to be about product design and engineering, which it is. We’ve created products with everyone from Boeing to Nike to Green Mountain Coffee Roasters to GE, General Mills, Interface, Procter & Gamble, and Kimberly-Clark. 250 clients. Lots of Fortune 50 companies now. We solve their toughest sustainability challenges and we train companies to practice biomimicry thinking.

But there was also interest in bringing biomimicry to the built world. Jane Jacobs was the first one who had me speak. She called me out of the blue. I had been a fan of The Death and Life of Great American Cities when I was in college, not because I was an urban planner, but because I was a writer, and her bell-clear essays taught me to write. When she called me, I was shocked because I assumed she had passed! But no—at 80-something, she had just read Biomimicry and was handing it out as Christmas presents. She was writing a new book with a “biomimic” as the main character. And then Bob Berkebile asked me to speak at the AIA Environment conference. And it just went from there. Clients like HOK and Gensler hired us, and we looked at how to apply biomimicry at the building, landscape, and all the way up to the city level.

In 2006, we created the non-profit Biomimicry Institute to get tools out to people and give people an opportunity to practice biomimicry through design challenges. Now we have AskNature.org, a global network of 31 hubs, and we’re on our 6th year of Global Design Challenges. Our latest challenge — food systems— attracted close to 2,000 people from 71 countries. Biomimicry’s gone from a meme to a movement because it just makes a lot of sense to people. It’s a whole new discipline debuting for the first time in universities, industries, and the zeitgeist, and that doesn’t happen very often.

People are now painting out the canvas of biomimicry. We’ve had engineering, architecture, city planning, computing, medicine, chemistry, robotics, product design, even finance using models from nature. Now it’s biomimicry for social innovation—management, leadership, and organizational design—that’s a new focus area.

What are the most exciting areas of biomimetic design and innovation today? What has the potential to be truly game changing?

You can’t talk about changing the game without first rescuing the game. Of the climate change mitigation strategies now being vetted, the ones that float to the top for us are two biomimetic ones.

The first strategy is bio-sequestration, which is figuring out how to get the carbon currently in the atmosphere stored in deep soil profiles. The way to do that isn’t through industrial agriculture or industrial forestry; it’s through ecosystem-inspired land use — farming and ranching and forestry in nature’s image. Ecosystems store carbon in spades and so do these emulations. I think the design principles involved in this bio-inspired land management are applicable to landscape architecture.

Landscape architects are already starting to create multi-functional landscapes. But people are going to ask a lot more of their green spaces, particularly in cities. They’re going to be looking for ways to pull carbon down. Because we’ve lost half of the carbon in our soils over the past 200 years, we’ve got this half-full bathtub that we can fill with carbon.

When you start looking at the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, they support nature-inspired mixed species agriculture or polycultures. They support agro-forestry—putting trees together with crops. They are starting to say one of the most promising tactics is rotational grazing—moving cows around the way buffalo used to roam in herds then move on. This process creates really deep-rooted grasses that place carbon way down into the soil, feeding the soil microbes and therefore storing carbon. This was seen as a wild-eyed approach when I first wrote about it. Now, it’s considered to be one of things we must do to reverse climate change, right alongside eliminating greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and moving to clean energy and wise energy use. Once we’ve stopped the madness of emissions, there’s still the final piece of the puzzle—pulling down what we already emitted.

Another biomimetic strategy is capturing carbon dioxide in useful products. We can now create carbon-storing concrete based on coral reef recipes, because corals have been storing CO2 in concrete-like reefs for a long time. We can use carbon “pollution” to create plastics that are 50 percent carbon dioxide. There are eight companies now mentioned by IPCC that take CO2 and store it in polymers, as well as concrete and building products, like the firm Blue Planet does. This year’s XPrize is called Carbon X. There will be $20 million available for teams who can take CO2 and turn it into useful products.

Now why is this process biomimetic? Plants turn CO2 into sugars, starches, cellulose. And that’s a trick. The reason we use CO2 in our fire extinguishers is that it doesn’t really react very well—it’s hard to turn it into something else. You either have to add lots of energy, or have a super enzyme to make CO2 hook up into long carbon polymer chains. But plants and corals and mollusks do it all day long. Suddenly, nature’s recipes for turning CO2 to stuff or fuel becomes essential in carbon dioxide sequestration. It’s classic biomimicry, and this time, it’s helping us reverse climate change, making use of the 200 years of our carbon exhalations.

Another area that excites me is this concept of the circular economy, the idea that instead of sending stuff to landfills, we can recoup and use materials, mimicking flows in the natural world. This comes at an auspicious time, because with 3D printing, manufacturing is about to come home, and it would be great to use local feedstocks. When print shops are on every retail corner, products won’t cross the globe but designs will. I’m excited because biomimetic structural blueprints are a great way to take common raw materials and make them functional. Life’s structures are very detailed in terms of their internal and external architecture. Think of animal shapes that reduce drag and shed water on the outside, but on the inside have this intricate cathedral of bone, strong but lightweight because of the design. 3D printers’ algorithms—generative design files—are increasingly going to come from biology.

One of the major optimizing technologies for buildings right now is a software called OptiStruct, which is based on a bone algorithm. The technology mimics how bones lay down material where it’s needed along lines of stress and take a material away from where it’s not needed. These bone algorithms are now seen in bridge and building beams, and they were used to lightweight Airbus’ new rib and wing assembly by 40 percent. Beyond shape, I think nature’s low-temperature, low-toxin chemistries are also going to be important—safe chemistry in the printer, and bio-inspired dis-assembly chemistries—so we can return products and print them into something else.

OptiStruct lattice structures for 3D Printing / Altair Corporation

OptiStruct lattice structures for 3D Printing / Altair Corporation

On AskNature.org, you have both animal and plant-based strategies. The plant-based ones are equally as fascinating. What are some key things plants can teach landscape architects about how to design?

Plants are star players in the water cycle, but there are things we are just now learning about them. A decade ago, climate scientists were trying to solve a conundrum. How is that rainforests still produce clouds above the trees in the dry season? Where are they finding moisture to transpire into clouds? It’s called hydraulic redistribution, and here’s how it works. A few shrubs in rainforests have deep tap roots and shallow roots. In the rainy season, the shallow roots soak up the rain and direct it down the taproot and out into deep soils, where it’s banked for later use. Come dry season, the reverse happens. The tap root draws the water up and releases it from the shallow roots so that other organisms in the forest can access it. Ten percent of all the rainfall in the amazon is redistributed in this way. I can see a time when landscape architects would plant a few “bio-irrigators” in their mixes, so that even in the dry season, water can be pulled from the soil vault, and then redistributed via shallow roots. It’s a self-irrigating landscape. I love that.

  Cloud over Peruvian segment of the Amazon rainforest / Wendeeholtcamp.com

Cloud over Peruvian segment of the Amazon rainforest / Wendeeholtcamp.com

Plants also show us how to extract water from the atmosphere. In the Namib Desert, plants comb moisture out of really dry areas that sometimes get some fog. Redwoods actually do it, too. A University of California at Berkeley researcher named Todd Dawson showed that a hundred foot redwood will gather the equivalent of four inches of rainfall from fog in a single night. The water condenses on its needles and drips down. That’s an enormous amount of water.

Welwitschia mirablis / Brilliant Botany

Welwitschia mirablis / Brilliant Botany

Plant-like water pulling, and the process of condensing of dew and channeling it down to the roots, could be transformed into engineered landscape solutions.

Plants are incredible in how they move water, too. They move water in very thin columns, like thin straws, through capillary action. You would think these straws go straight up the trunk of the tree, but that’s not what happens. In trees, the bundles of straws form a thin sleeve, a cylinder just under the bark. Some straws transfer sugars down to the roots (phloem), others transfer water up (xylem). Interestingly, these straws don’t go straight up and down; they wrap around the tree in a spiral from the base to the top. This means that if you lose one whole side of the root network—say it gets cut by construction equipment—the tree doesn’t die. If the straws went straight up from the roots, all the branches on the damaged left side of the tree would not be serviced with water. Thanks to the spiraling xylem, the water from the right-hand roots are swirled up and around to reach every branch. Now, that’s resilience.

And plants don’t have pier foundations; they have horizontal roots. There’s a new Engineering Research Center for Bio-mediated and Bio-inspired Geotechnics at Arizona State University, which just received several million dollars from the National Science Foundation. One of their projects is to better understand the way roots hold trees in place on steep hillsides in order to help them redesign low-impact foundations.

There’s a lot of brilliance in trees.

How can biomimicry be scaled up to the city level? What natural systems can we mimic to make our cities more efficient and livable?

The city is an exciting place for biomimicry. When our urban planning clients began to ask us: “how do you apply nature’s principles to the city?” We asked, in turn, “what does it mean for a city to function like an ecosystem?”

We decided that a biomimetic city should be functionally indistinguishable from the wildland next door. It should produce beneficial services just like the native ecosystem, because, after all, biomimicry is not about how it looks, it’s about how it functions. We started to look for nearby reference habitats that show us what would be growing here if we weren’t here. We found remnants of prairies or forests or wetlands that were relatively intact. We could measure how they’re performing today, not historically. What we measured are the things that matter most to people — they are called ecosystems services. They’re things like purifying water and storing water, retaining soils from erosion, supporting biodiversity and pollinators, managing pests, all these things forests and other natural systems do for us.

We focused not on economic values (though that could come later) but on quantities. How much carbon is being stored per acre per year? How much water is being stored in a storm? How much air and water are being purified? How many nutrients are cycled? How many degrees of cooling happen? How much soil is created? We use biological literature paired with GIS models to get those quantities on a per acre per year basis.

Then we say to the city managers and planners, or even people in the district or a block: here’s a new performance metric. Can your acre of development—buildings and sidewalks and streets and green landscapes combined—perform as well as the equivalent acre of wildland next door? We call them “ecological performance standards.” Now it’s not just a matter of providing ecosystem services in a metaphorical way—it’s a matter of meeting or exceeding local, measurable amounts. It’s an incredible, aspirational goal that we know is doable because it’s happening right next door. I like it because it’s locally relevant and because it gives communities a framework to design into. Once a visionary city signs off on these metrics, every design intervention–every green roof, every foot of permeable pavement, every self-watering landscape—would add up. Cumulative goodness. All by asking the question—how much should this city give back to the region around it?

Together, the city has a goal, and that can be met through retrofits or new build. Each building has a goal. The block has a goal. The district has a goal. Finally, we can see what all our design interventions do together. If we want a city that functions like a local ecosystem, this gives us a way to actually do it. Imagine a city achieving, and then celebrating, these milestones as a community.

For a project in Lavasa, India, we created ecological performance metrics for a new development southeast of Mumbai that will need to provide for five new urban villages with some 30,000 to 50,000 people. We worked with HOK to create a master plan but also a landscape master plan that can handle stormwater during the monsoon seasons, which cause a great deal of soil erosion. In a three month period, the area gets 27 feet of water, but in the Western Ghats forests next door, there is negligible erosion! The landscape architects at HOK were greatly excited by this challenge. They said they felt like they were back in school, up all night, researching how they could create a planting design that would result in 100 percent soil retention. We provided the ecosystem performance metrics, but the landscape architects came up with a plan to achieve it.

Lavasa Hill City, India / HOK

Lavasa Hill City, India / HOK

Returning to ecosystem-based agriculture, how much of our climate problem could be solved by storing carbon deep in the soils? What will it take to get to a more sustainable global agricultural system?

Just improving energy efficiency is not going to take out the carbon that’s currently in the air. That carbon will be there for centuries unless we find a way to recoup it, to “bring it back home,” as environmentalist Paul Hawken says. With Project Drawdown, he and his colleagues are modeling 100 possible strategies for mitigating climate change between now and 2045. The data is not all in, but it looks like the top 20 strategies are doing a lot of the work. Of that 20, bio-sequestration—deep roots driving carbon below the churn zone where it can stay put for centuries—is a large player. It’s not a silver bullet; it won’t replace slashing emissions or moving to clean energy, but it could be a big contributor to what we actually have to do, which is reverse climate change. The 2014 IPCC Framework for Policymakers was definitive: even if we cut emissions completely, we will still be dealing with the effects of climate change for centuries, if not millennia, unless we pull the carbon down.

I sense that large industrial farmers will only begin to store carbon when they have monetary incentives. Once a market for sequestering carbon dioxide appears, land management regimes may change.

But industrial farmers are not growing most of the food that the world eats. People don’t realize that 70 percent of the food eaten around the world is grown by a third of all humanity who are called smallholders. They farm on less than 5 acres, and often, by necessity, they are still growing organically—no purchased fertilizers or pesticides. The food and beverage industry is increasingly relying on these smallholders to provide the organic ingredients we crave. Suddenly, there’s a small group of intermediaries that could request healthy soil practices from their suppliers. And that’s where we as consumers come in.

If consumers asked the food and beverage industry to take a pledge that they would work with these smallholders to use not just organic practices, but biomimetic “carbon farming” techniques, we could have a huge impact. These industries could say, “we’ll buy from you if you practice biomimetic agriculture on your lands—the kind of ecosystem-inspired polyculture and plant/animal associations that lead to deep rooted species, a healthy soil microbiome, and long-term carbon storage.”

Carbon farming / Australia Department of Food and Agriculture

Carbon farming / Australia Department of Food and Agriculture

We’re already prescriptive about how our food is grown. We ask, “Does it contain GMOs? Does it contain hormones?” Years ago, I would never imagine we would be so discerning about the story of our food. Climate-friendly farming is just another layer of that. The push for this could come from consumers and from an economic market for carbon.

The countries attending the climate change summit in Paris this December will a certain quota to meet. They can cut more emissions and/or store more carbon. They will realize that improper land use—in agriculture, forestry, grazing, etc—is responsible for around one quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions. The transportation sector is only around 19 percent. When they start to look for where they can get the biggest bang for their buck, they might actually look to those industrial farmers and say, “In the next Farm Bill, we’re going to tie carbon targets to subsidies. What are you doing for carbon farming?”

So when I look at the mitigation landscape, I see biomimicry starring in some of the newest plans to draw down carbon: prairie-inspired agriculture, agroforestry, ungulate-inspired rotational grazing, and the whole realm of CO2 to useful products. We’re at the beginning of a quest to grab every carbon dioxide and methane molecule we can find. It’s going to happen in cities, too. Why not have Central Park get credit for carbon sequestration services and healthy soil creation? And besides being a vital contributor to reversing climate change, a generous city is just a better, healthier, more beautiful place to live. That’s why biomimicry at the systems level is looking so sensible—it’s just good, no-regrets design.

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A drawing of Greenwave's 3D Ocean Farming system / Greenwave

A drawing of Greenwave’s 3D Ocean Farming system / Greenwave

Greenwave, a non-profit organization transforming the fishing industry, was recently awarded the Buckminster Fuller Institute (BFI)’s 2015 challenge, which comes with a $100,000 prize. Greenwave’s winning project is the “world’s first multi-species 3-D ocean farm,” a vertical underwater garden that aims “to restore ocean ecosystems and create jobs in coastal communities by transforming fishers into restorative ocean farmers,” according to BFI. Using simple infrastructure — seaweed, scallops, and mussels growing on floating ropes stacked above clam cages below — Greenwave’s founder Bren Smith has created a low-cost, sustainable system that can be easily replicated by farmers and fishers everywhere.

Drawing comparisons to last years’s BFI challenge winner, Living Breakwaters, the first large-scale experiment with “oyster-tecture” by SCAPE / Landscape Architecture, Smith’s innovative ocean farm was inspired by his time farming oysters in the Long Island Sound. “Here I was a young fisherman, pillaging the oceans in one of the most unsustainable forms of food production on the planet. Aquaculture was supposed to be the great answer to over-fishing, but it turned out to be just as destructive using new technologies. So I became an Oysterman,” Smith said in a Tedx talk.

After Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Irene destroyed 80 percent of his oyster crop, Smith began to re-envision his farm in order to rebuild it.

Now, a single underwater acre of Greenwave’s flagship farm on the Thimble Islands in New York’s Long Island Sound filters millions of gallons of ocean water each day, creates homes for marine and bird life, and absorbs nitrogen and carbon (the kelp in the farms sequester five times more carbon than land-based agriculture). With zero added inputs, the farm has the capacity to grow 10 tons of sea vegetables and 250,000 shellfish annually on a single acre.

“I went from farming 100 acres down to 20 acres as I began using the full water column. And now I’ve been growing a lot more food on the 20 acres than I was on the 100. Whereas aquaculture is obsessed with growing one thing in one place, we’re growing four kinds of shellfish, two kinds of sea weed, and salt from the 20 acres,” Smith said.

Greenwave will use the $100,000 award to train 25 new farmers on both the East and West coasts of the U.S. with the skills to implement Smith’s ocean farming model. Each of the new farmers “will receive start up grants, free seed, and two years of training and support,” Smith said. “Greenwave will also buy 80 percent of their crop for 5 years at triple the market rate.” The rest of the money will go toward research and development on “kelp-raised beef, and specialty food products.”

Since 2007, BFI has used its annual international competition to highlight paradigm-shifting designs that, in the words of the late Buckminster Fuller, “make the world work for 100 percent of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone.”

This is the second year in a row that the first place winner has “directly addressed urgent and complex issues related to our oceans: the impending collapse of marine ecosystems, the long-term effects of climate change on our coastal communities, and the economic catastrophe these communities are experiencing right now as a result,” said Elizabeth Thompson, executive director of BFI.

This year’s other finalists include:

Algae Systems is a new technology that uses native algae species to capture and treat wastewater. Powered by photosynthesis, the system produces renewable fuels and fertilizers as byproducts, at a lower cost per gallon that alternative wastewater treatment technologies.

The Community Architects Network is a regional network of “community architects and planners, engineers, young professionals, lecturers and academic institutes in Asian countries” that supports participatory design for community projects in 17 Asian countries. Projects include new housing developments, citywide upgrading, and recovery from natural disasters.

Hazel is a digital modeling tool produced by the Drylands Resilience Initiative, which, when completed, will assist arid communities in designing effective stormwater infrastructure.

Mahila Housing SEWA Trust (MHT) is an organization aimed at providing secure housing situations — including basic water and sanitation, as well as financial and legal advice — for poor women in four states of India.

A 2012 and 2014 finalist, the Nubian Vault Programme (AVN) trains people in five African countries in the Nubian Vault construction technique, a cheap and sustainable method for constructing homes from local materials.

Read more about Greenwave’s winning project and the runners-up.

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Rainforest epiphyte leaf formation / Reforestation.me

Rainforest epiphyte leaf formation / Reforestation.me

“Biomimicry is about learning from nature to inspire design solutions for human problems,” said Gretchen Hooker with the Biomimicry Institute at SXSW Eco in Austin, Texas. To enable the spread of these exciting solutions, Hooker, along with Cas Smith, Terrapin Bright Green, and Marjan Eggermont, Zygote Quarterly (ZQ), gave a tour of some of the best resources available for designers and engineers of all stripes:


Hooker walked us through AskNature.org, a web site with thousands of biomimicry strategies, set up by the Biomimicry Institute. The site organizes biological information by function. “Everything nature does fits into a function. And these functions enable us to connect biology to design.”

AskNature first organizes strategies into broad functions and then zooms down into the specific. For example, a user could click on the broad function group, “Get / Store / Distribute Resources,” and then navigate to “Capture, Absorb, and Filter,” and then select “Liquids,” which has 52 strategies. One such strategy describes how the nasal surfaces of camels help these desert animals retain water. Another looks at how the horny devil, a desert lizard, uses its grooves to gather water from the atmosphere. There are just as many plant-derived strategies as there are animal ones. One such strategy looks at how the arrangement of epiphytes’ leaves aids in water collection (see image above).

All of these strategies are written in a non-technical way for a general audience. Hooker said they have selected the most “salient examples, backed with credible research citations.” Users can then go explore the citations and pull out excerpts.

Tapping into Nature

Terrapin Bright Green, a sustainable design consultancy, produced Tapping into Nature, a comprehensive online report covering the world of biomimetic design, which includes an amazing interactive graph. Cas Smith, a biological engineer, explained that the report and graph seek to “uncover the landscape of biomimetic innovation, with a roadmap that shows designs and their their stage of development: concept, prototype, development, or in the marketplace.”

“Biomimetic design is now found in almost all industries — power generation, electronics, buildings.” But to make things easier, Terrapin organizes the design strategies into the following sections: water, materials, energy conservation and storage, optics & photonics, thermal regulation, fluid dynamics, data & computing, and systems.

Tapping into Nature / Terrapin Bright Green

Using the graph, Smith picked out one story: the firm Blue Planet, which is mimicking the bio-mineralization processes of coral reefs, which pull carbon dioxide out of the water to create their unique structures, to create a new type of carbon-based building material. The firm is also creating pigments and powders. Another highlight: early exploration of termite humidity damping devices. Termites create massive mounds, mostly underground, which are equal in scale to a skyscraper for us. Within the mound, temperature and humidity levels are tightly controlled so they can grow the fungi they live on. In some of the mound’s subterranean rooms and chambers are bright yellow objects about the size of a fist. These structures are termite-created sponges that actually pull water from the air. Smith related to this to HVAC systems in human buildings, and how new systems could be created to remove humidity with giant sponges in a more energy efficient way.

Smith said the process of creating biomimetic innovations is similar to that of a typical innovation development process. “There’s just the added layer up front.” While there are risks in any process, biomimetic designs, he argued, will be the source of “breakthrough products for solving our problems.” If the designers and engineers creating these new products and processes follow nature, “they can embed sustainability throughout.”

Zygote Quarterly 

Marjan Eggermont, an instructor at the Schulich school of engineering at the University of Calgary, is the co-editor of Zygote Quarterly (ZQ), which biomimicry pioneer Janine Benyus called as “ecstatic as nature.” The magazine uses compelling imagery, interviews, and case studies to provide a historical record of the growing biomimetic design movement.

One issue explored Issus, a backyard bug, that has gears in its nymphal form. “We thought we invented gears but it turns out we were wrong. Nature already got there first.”

Issus gears / Zygote Quarterly

Issus gears / Zygote Quarterly

The gears, which Eggermont’s engineer husband modeled and then 3-D printed, were passed around so we could check them out. According to Eggermont, the gears are “remarkably self aligning, backlash free, with a one-directional timing mechanism that sweeps through a subtle 3D path.” They could potentially be applied to our world as “evolved mechanisms, ad hoc hinges, for seldom-used orchestrated movements — precise movements.” Eggermont thinks they could one day be used in space crafts.

But thinking more broadly, Eggermont sees the magazine as an educational tool. In the future, she wants each case study in the magazine to have a link to a 3D file that can be downloaded and printed. Real models could then be passed around in classrooms or design firms for inspiration.

Benyus, who was also in the session, went even further, calling on fans of biomimetic design to go to natural history museums, scan the collections and create a worldwide library of digital files that could be widely accessed as design models. “We can have a scan jam.”

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Beauty Redeemed / Birkhauser

Gas Works Park in Seattle. Landscape Park Duisburg-Nord in Germany. Ariel Sharon (Mount Hariya) Park in Tel Aviv. Freshkills Park in Staten Island, NY. And The High Line, in Manhattan. These landmark places transform the remnants of industrial landscapes into new parks.

Is this “transformation of formerly industrial areas for new purposes, a widespread phenomenon happening before our eyes,” simply a trend? Or are these transformations, which address our post-industrial needs, here to stay? In Beauty Redeemed: Recycling Post-Industrial Landscapes, Ellen Braae, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Copenhagen, argues the latter, writing that the emergence of post-industrial landscapes is a new kind of design that is engaged in an ongoing dialogue with the landscapes of past, present, and future.

There have been plenty of books, articles, and blog posts written on post-industrial landscapes, including quite a few on The Dirt. So why write another? Braae answers this question herself, breaking her argument into three pieces:

First, the re-use of “ruinous” post-industrial areas contributes to the practice of sustainability; this approach encourages us to reinterpret existing resources.

When most of the design proposals for Landscape Park Duisburg-Nord, which was built on a former industrial site in Germany, were presented in the early 1990s, most firms opened their project by clearing away all the old infrastructure and starting anew. Landscape architect Peter Latz, Latz + Partner, went a different route, choosing “to accept the area with all its traces and structures.” As Braae explains, “the innovation in Latz’s proposal lay in the decoding of features and qualities and the way they were highlighted and reworked.” The theme of the park became the interplay between the relics of industrialism and the processes of nature already underway in the years since the area’s industrial use.

Pedestrian bridge across old ore bunkers at Landscape Park Duisberg-Nord / Latz + Partner

Pedestrian bridge across old ore bunkers at Landscape Park Duisberg-Nord / Latz + Partner


Aesthetics combined with remediation for contaminated soils at Duisburg-Nord / Latz + Partner

Aesthetics combined with remediation for contaminated soils at Duisburg-Nord / Latz + Partner

Second, industrial landscapes can become new cultural heritage, as they can represent the convergence of preservation, re-use, and transformation.

The 19th and 20th century landscape has been shaped by industry — both the processes and infrastructure of industry itself, and the impact of the industrial products on urban planning and design. For example, the industrial-scale production of automobiles shaped Detroit, which Braae refers to as “a monument to the principles of Fordism, transcending our physical-spatial structures as the capital of the 20th century.”

Former Packard plant, Detroit, 2006 / Camilo Jose Vergara

As we move further into the 21st century, Braae asks what the “physical expression of the capital city of the 21st century” will be. Looking to Paris, France, and Ruhr, Germany, the emphasis on building upon “the ruins of industrialism” suggests a shift towards a relationship with history and cultural heritage that is generally reflected by post-Modernism.

Rather than History with a capital H, history and cultural heritage today are “embedded in our everyday culture and thus in our culture of remembrance. They are associated with the working lives of a large proportion of the population of the Western world. Seen in that light, the originally worthless relics of a vanished production process become suitable objects of study for a new form of cultural heritage. Preservation, re-use and transformation of what is in principle worthless become linked. These are the new interpretations of cultural heritage.”

Lastly, transforming industrial landscapes is not only an interesting creative exercise, but has created an “epistemological breakthrough in design” that emphasizes the temporary nature of things and the process of constant change.

According to Braae, we are undergoing a radical transformation in the practice of design. Whereas much of design in the 20th century may have been modeled on novelty, with its main focus on space, structure, and expression, design in the 21st century is focused on change. In doing so, the focus becomes less entirely on form and more on process.

Braae says this new thinking will fundamentally shape the way we build and create in the 21st century:”What does it imply when we no longer invent things from the beginning but create them through interaction with what already exists? It is a central question: In what ways can we decode the materials available to us?”

Sculptural reuse of demolition material at Terra Nova, Germany / Herman Prigann, Courtesy of Herman Prigann Estate

Sculptural reuse of demolition material at Terra Nova, Germany / Herman Prigann, Courtesy of Herman Prigann Estate

Beauty Redeemed is dense, with Braae’s arguments thoroughly detailed. Academics and landscape architects are the ones who will spend any significant time with the book. But the public will be also affected by the ideas found here.

Urban landscapes, which more and more people rely on for recreation and escape, tend to be “a cacophany of different forms of use, appearances, and topography, often without any mutual connection or visual significance.” The disordered nature of these urban landscapes can result in a lack of identity and aesthetic quality. But Braae’s hope is that the shift in design thinking, as demonstrated by these landmark post-industrial landscapes, will help move us towards a new 21st century post-industrial model. In this sense, Beauty Redeemed is a worthwhile read for, as Braae says, “everyone interested in visual and spatial culture, with a liking for ruinous industrial areas.”

Yoshi Silverstein is founder of Mitsui Design and director of the Jewish outdoor, food, and environmental (JOFEE) fellowship at Hazon, the country’s largest Jewish environmental organization.

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Hypernatural / Princeton Architectural Press

All living creatures employ technologies to gain evolutionary advantage. For example, bats have evolved the use of echolocation to find their way as well as things to eat. A tortoise has evolved a shell to protect itself. There are countless examples. These technologies are tools for survival. Humans are equally a part of nature and now harness new “hypernatural” tools to “amplify, extend, or exceed natural capabilities.” Novel approaches are resulting in advances in the most essential technologies: shelter, or, in its cultural form, architecture. These new hypernatural forms be the “very aim of evolution itself,” write University of Minnesota architecture professors Blaine Brownell and Marc Swackhamer, in Hypernatural: Architecture’s New Relationship with Nature, their brilliant new book.

Although, they add that “evolution is a complex, messy process.” Hypernatural architecture, with all its technological advancements, is then subject to the same evolutionary development processes facing all new tools: these technologies will duke it out with others in a long-term struggle to see which is the most resource-efficient and cost-effective, which give individuals and communities the most advantages, and perhaps which benefit humanity the most. Furthermore, climate change, the loss of biodiversity, and reduced freshwater resources, among other environmental challenges, create a new set of conditions that will further shape the evolution of these human tools. New environmental conditions will evolve technologies, just as they will evolve new environments. But the whole goal of designing with nature — instead of wrecking havoc on nature in pursuit of profit — is to create a relationship between the environment and our tools that is more sustainable.

Perhaps the primary value of Hypernatural is that it organizes all the projects that relate to “nature-focused movements,” like geo-design, bio-engineering, and bio-mimicry, creating a clearer understanding of how architects, interior designers, artists, and others are “designing with biology.” They delve into all the ways projects incorporate biology, explaining the difference between behavioral, genetic, and epigenetic (environmental) projects. And they organize the array of new projects — some of which are truly mind-boggling — into broad groups that follow the founding domains of life: the geosphere, atmosphere, and hydrosphere. There are also examples that relate to the microbial, botanical, and zoological biospheres, as well as a final chapter on the “noosphere,” the domain of purely human thought, which Brownell and Swackhamer argue is also a legitimate “natural sphere.” (Another plus of this book is will serve as a useful refresher of all that introductory biology that has been forgotten; there are also tons of interesting factoids about the earth and its natural systems).

Here are just a few examples from the book:

In the geosphere section, which focuses on how humans can better harness the rock cycle, which works like the water cycle but just on a much slower scale, we learn about Radiolaria, created by Shiro Studio in 2009. This project learns from the “slow system of deposition found in the geological process of sedimentary rock formation,” but speeds it up with the use of 3-D printing technology. Radiolaria is actually the “first successful use of architectural-scale printing with natural rock dust.” A 953-cubic-foot “freestanding pavilion” was constructed out of sandstone and inorganic binder. “It effectively transforms marble dust, sand, or rock particles into a solid mineral with micro-crystalline characteristics that are chemically neutral and easily recyclable.”


Radiolaria / Shiro Studio

For an example of a project that highlights the atmosphere, Brownell and Swackhamer show us Windswept, a project by artist Charles Sowers, which was created for the Randall Museum in San Francisco in 2012. Windswept features a field of “vertical wind instruments to map not just the general wind direction but the intricate movements of air across a building facade.” The pieces makes visible the invisible movement of a natural force. Some museum visitors described it as reminiscent of a “field of undulating wheat or a rippling school of fish.”


Windswept / Bruce Damonte

The hydrosphere section has many intriguing projects, but one that particularly leaped out was Bubble Building by DUS Architects, which was created in the Netherlands in 2012. In a pavilion in Rotterdam, the architects composed 16 hexagonal, shallow pools filled with a thin layer of soap and water. “By lifting metal rings that circumscribe these hexagons, membranes of glassy, rainbow-colored film stretch to form temporary pavilion walls.” While architect Frei Otto and others have long been inspired by bubbles, this project actually uses them to build something, albeit temporary. It disappears when unoccupied.


Bubble Building / DUS Architects

In the microbial section, we come across a wondrous yet also disturbing project called Radiant Soil created by Canadian architect and professor Phillip Beesley in 2013. Radiant Soil is a “suspended, responsive ceiling system that behaves like biology.” The piece responds in real-time to the “movement and proximity of people by lighting itself along LED-lined arteries, moving its biochemical fronds to generate air currents and releasing unique odors into the air through scent-emitting glands.” Brownell and Swackhamer say it has “profound implications for a new dialogue between humans and their built environment.”


Radiant Soil / Philip Beesley Architect Inc.

While the focus is on buildings in Hypernatural, there are enough great ideas to interest any designer focused on the future of design and biology. If there are any criticisms, it’s some of the botanical examples fail to impress: it seems natural botanical forms are still far more interesting than hypernatural ones. And too many of the projects are one-off artistic or architectural experiments that don’t seem particularly scalable or accessible, unless they have been explained to you. But, then again, didn’t so many innovations we take advantage of and so many aesthetic movements we appreciate today start out the same way, misunderstood in some lab or studio? Fast forward a hundred years into the future and it will be fascinating to see what small glimpses of the future displayed here will be mainstream.

Read the book.

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Miller’s Court in Baltimore, Maryland / Courtesy of Billy Michels via Metropolis

Miller’s Court in Baltimore, Maryland / Billy Michels via Metropolis

From a pool of applicants from 40 communities in 26 states, Miller’s Court in Baltimore was awarded the Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence (RBA) gold medal and a $50,000 prize. Four other projects were awarded silver medals and $10,000 each.

Since 1987, the biennial award has recognized “urban places distinguished by quality design and contributions to the social, economic, and communal vitality of our nation’s cities.” The 2013 gold medal was awarded to Inspiration Kitchens in Garfield Park, Chicago.

This year’s winning project, Miller’s Court, is a “renovation of a vacant historic tin can manufacturing building, into an affordable and supportive living and working environment for school teachers and education-focused non-profits.” Located in an economically and culturally diverse neighborhood near Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus, the project, which was conceived and developed by Seawall Development Company with Mark, Thomas Architects, was completed in 2009.

The LEED Gold-certified complex includes “40 rental apartments and 30,000 square feet of office space and shared meeting rooms with contemporary, loft-like interiors.” Other features include a teacher resource center and a cooperatively owned independent café, which has become a popular meeting place for teachers, tenants and even President Obama, who visited in January.

miller's court

Miller’s Court / Seawall Development Corporation

One of the project’s crowning achievements is generating additional investment in the surrounding community. At the urging of several building residents, Seawall purchased and renovated 30 vacant neighboring houses to create Miller’s Square. Baltimore public school teachers and police officers are eligible for $25,000 grants toward homes there. Read more about the project in Metropolis.

Renovated row houses at Miller’s Square / Courtesy of the Bruner Foundation

Renovated row houses at Miller’s Square /
Bruner Foundation

Four other projects were recognized with silver medals and $10,000 each:

Located in the center of downtown Greenville, South Carolina, Falls Park on the Reedy is an urban oasis thanks to the transformation of a forgotten 40-foot tall waterfall and overgrown river valley into a 26-acre park. Development of the park, which opened in 2006, included replacing a four-lane vehicular bridge built directly over the falls with a pedestrian suspension bridge designed by Rosales+Partners. The bridge appears to float above the river, offering a dramatic overlook of the falls. Learn more about this project at Metropolis.

IMAGE 1 Falls Park Signature Image

Falls Park on the Reedy in Greenville, South Carolina / Rosales+Partners via Metropolis

Grand Rapids Downtown Market is a new public space in one of West Michigan’s most challenged neighborhoods. The market “promotes local food producers, entrepreneurship, and education about nutrition and healthy lifestyles” by linking urban communities with the 13,000 farms in 11 surrounding counties and attracting a diversity of customers to the southern edge of downtown Grand Rapids. The state-of-the-art facility, designed by Hugh A. Boyd Architects, is the first LEED Gold–certified public market in the country. Learn more about the market at Metropolis.


Grand Rapids Downtown Market / Grand Rapids Downtown Market

Quixote Village, in Olympia, Washington, is a two-acre community of tiny houses that provides “permanent, supportive housing for homeless adults, including people suffering from mental illness and physical disabilities and recovering from addiction.” Since its completion in December 2013, Quixote Village has attracted the attention of many interested in tiny houses including nonprofits and private developers, as well as The New York Times. Learn more about the project at Metropolis.

nytimes quixote village

Tiny house in Quixote Village / Courtesy of Jeremy Bittermann for The New York Times

Located three miles south of downtown Cleveland, Uptown District is the “redevelopment of a corridor that links surrounding neighborhoods with art, educational, and healthcare institutions, producing outdoor gathering spaces, retail shops and restaurants, student and market-rate housing, and public transit connections in the process.” The development has transformed two previously underused city blocks between two of the city’s most iconic cultural institutions into a “community gateway.” Learn more about the project at Metropolis.


Uptown District in Cleveland, OH / Stanley Saitowitz, Natoma Architects Inc. via Metropolis

The 2015 RBA selection committee included: Mayor Mark Stodola, Little Rock, Arkansas; Rebecca L. Flora, Sustainable Practices Leader, Ecology & Environment, Inc.; Larry Kearns, Principal, Wheeler Kearns Architects; India Pierce Lee, Program Director, Cleveland Foundation; Mia Lehrer, FASLA, President, Mia Lehrer + Associates; James Stockard, Lecturer in Housing, Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Learn more: A blog series on Metropolis’ web site is chronicling the 2015 RBA process and case studies of the winning projects.

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Designed for the Future / Princeton Architectural Press

“What gives you hope that a sustainable future is possible?” In Designed for the Future: 80 Practical Ideas for a Sustainable World, Jared Green — the same Green who edits this blog, and, full disclosure, was my boss when I was a communications intern at ASLA — offers 80 thought-provoking and frequently inspiring answers to this question from landscape architects, urban planners, architects, journalists, artists, and environmental leaders in the U.S. and beyond. The book’s tone is highly conversational and reflects the voices of the book’s contributors. Each passage is the result of an interview with Green, who serves largely as curator for this reading experience.

To those in the field, the names are like a who’s who of respected leaders in these professions. But while professionals will certainly enjoy it, this book is aimed squarely at the public, as it’s as scrubbed-free of design jargon as possible and offered in bite-size pieces easy to pick up for a few minutes at a time or read entirely through on a weekend afternoon.

It’s largely successful in this aspect, capturing the essence of the ideas at the core of each real world example without losing the reader in technical terms and excess detail. However, in a few cases, the description is so sparse as to leave uncertain exactly what the project is about.

Some of the projects feature new technologies applied in innovative ways. Lighting designer Leni Schwendinger, now with Arup, is inspired by Illuminate, a three-year research program in six European countries showing the way to the future of light-emitting diode (LED) lighting in public spaces. The study examined not only at energy savings and carbon reductions, but also the quality of light in terms of brightness, color temperature, and color rendition (whether the object illuminated looks true to life). It’s the artificial nature of these latter qualities that tend to sway many designers away from LEDs, despite their energy savings, but this study shows they are being improved, and LEDs may soon be able to use “intelligent controls to create malleable lighting” in our parks, plazas, and museums.



Luminance Map, Belfast / Guilio Antonutto

Jonsara Ruth, a professor at The New School / Parsons, discusses Mushroom Board from the firm Ecovative, a product that uses mycelium, the “roots” of mushrooms, to literally grow an organic Styrofoam replacement. Styrofoam is an incredibly polluting material, but Mushroom Board, a cutting-edge use of bioengineered materials that can be grown to almost any shape and size, is completely biodegradable. Imagine appliances coming packed in Mushroom Board or homes insulated with mushroom in the walls instead of spray-in foam.


Mushroom Board by Ecovative / Jonsara Ruth

Many projects feature materials and infrastructures from the past that have been given new life to serve contemporary needs. Landscape architect Thomas Woltz, FASLA, Nelson Byrd Woltz, describes how Braddock, Pennsylvania, is in the process of transforming much of its abandoned and toxic industrial lands, re-envisioning them as a place for urban farming and healthy community initiatives.


Braddock, Pennsylvania / Kristen Taylor, Creative Commons, Flickr

And Peter Harnik, Hon. ASLA, director, Center for City Park Excellence, Trust for Public Land, describes how Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis is a railway that has been converted into one of the most successful trails for cyclists and pedestrians. Built in a trench to not interfere with auto traffic, it’s a delight for its users who can go for long stretches without having to negotiate intersections and vehicle conflicts.


Midtown Greenway, Minneapolis / Ed Kohler, Creative Commons, Flickr

One overarching theme is the need to further connect social, environmental, aesthetic, and economic benefits that have been considered for too long in isolation. For decades, we’ve known, in theory, that achieving quadruple-bottom line benefits is essential for sustainability. These existing projects show how multiple benefits can be achieved in the real world, and the positive impact they can have on communities and the environment.

Green offers a lovely quote in his introduction from science fiction writer William Gibson: “The future is already here, but it’s just not evenly distributed.” Environmental advocacy and action can so easily just focus on the negative or emphasize only the compromise and sacrifice necessary for “saving the planet.” The examples in Designed for the Future show that not only is our future not all doom and gloom, but there’s plenty to be excited about here and now. The future is here. Now let’s start spreading today’s successes around as widely as possible.

Read the book.

This guest post is by Yoshi Silverstein, Associate ASLA, founder and lead designer-educator at Mitsui Design.

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