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Archive for the ‘Sustainable Design’ Category

portland

Pioneer Courthouse Square / Kenneth Helphand, FASLA

Portland, Oregon, is more than a trendy place to visit—it has long been ahead of the curve on urban design and sustainability, thanks to smart leadership and a willingness to experiment and innovate. The Landscape Architect’s Guide to Portland, a project by the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), explains Portland’s cutting-edge approach to sustainable urban design.

The guide provides both Portlanders and the millions of tourists who visit Portland annually a deeper understanding of why Portland is one of the most livable and sustainable cities in the world. The guide is also meant to educate city leaders, urban planners, and designers across the U.S. and around the globe.

According to Mark A. Focht, FASLA, president of ASLA and first deputy commissioner of Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, Portland’s landscape architects have played a crucial role in making the city a better place to live. Their contributions trace back to the early 20th century, when the Olmsted Brothers laid out many of the critical urban plans and park system, and continue with today’s generation of landscape architects, who are creating waterfront parks, beloved urban plazas, and cutting-edge bicycle infrastructure.

“Portland’s designed landscapes are integral to its urban fabric,” says Focht. “Landscape architects have long played a major role in designing the city’s public realm, and the key spaces between buildings that serve as the connective tissue for communities. These spaces include parks, plazas, streets, and transportation infrastructure.”

Topical tours offer both printable bike maps and Google maps. The guide also includes tours by district. People will be able to view the guide on their smartphones, tablets or desktop computers.

The website was created by ASLA in partnership with its Oregon Chapter and 11 local landscape architects, who are designers of our public realm and leaders in sustainable design.

The guides are:

Brian Bainnson, ASLA, Quatrefoil Inc.
Bennett Burns, ASLA, independent landscape architect
Mike Faha, ASLA, GreenWorks, PC
Kenneth Helphand, FASLA, University of Oregon
Rachel Hill, ASLA, AECOM
Lloyd Lindley, FASLA, independent landscape architect
Carol Mayer-Reed, FASLA, Mayer/Reed Inc.
Jeff Schnabel, ASLA, Portland State University
Jean Senechal Biggs, ASLA, Portland Bureau of Transportation
Rebecca Wahlstrom, ASLA, Olson Engineering Inc.
Robin Wilcox, ASLA, Alta Planning + Design

The guide is organized by the facets of the sustainable city, with sections on:

  • The Built Environment – how building and landscape work together to enhance sustainability.
  • Food – how the city’s local food system works, from urban farms to “food cart pods.”
  • Energy – how Portland has among the highest renewable energy use in the U.S.
  • “Grand Parks” – how the original Olmstedian park system is still key to livability.
  • Health – how parks are designed for users with all kinds of disabilities, even Alzheimer’s.
  • “People Spaces” – how the city creates a sense of civic pride through its plazas.
  • Social Equity – how the city helps the homeless and addresses the impacts of gentrification.
  • Transportation – how Portland created one of the best-integrated, most people-friendly transportation systems.
  • Waste – how the city achieved one of the highest recycling rates in the country.
  • Water – how it led the country on green infrastructure.
  • Wildlife – how its park system also serves other species.

This is the third in a series of guides focused on sustainable American cities. The first, The Landscape Architect’s Guide to Washington, D.C., was launched in 2012, and The Landscape Architect’s Guide to Boston, was launched in 2013. They have been viewed more than 150,000 times to date.

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Dogpatch Arts Plaza / CMG Landscape Architecture

Why hasn’t anyone thought of this before? At the EcoDistricts Summit in Washington, D.C., two urban innovators in San Francisco, the home of so many game-changing technologies, have come up with a truly brilliant idea: the Green Benefits District (GBD), a sort of green business improvement district, designed to facilitate community investment in new tree-lined streets, parks, and gardens. Michael Yarne, with Up Urban and Build Inc. and the creator of the concept, said the GBD in the Dogpatch neighborhood of San Francisco will also aim to improve the management and upkeep of neighborhood public spaces, which they say is currently done poorly by the city government. The GBD will be like the “Uber of public space,” meaning they are adding another layer of more convenient services on top of the existing baseline service. A GBD is needed because the city government is “stuck in the 1970s.” But the GBD clearly has higher aims than just better services: Yarne sees a future with local, distributed renewable energy systems and more.

With the help of Scott Cataffa, ASLA, a partner at CMG Landscape Architecture, Yarne is in the middle of a two-year process to prototype the GBD concept. It seems creating a new assessment district in California is not an easy thing, as you first need a BID lawyer, then need to get 30 percent of the proposed assessed district to agree to a petition, and then 51 percent of the “weighted property owners” to back the idea through a ballot. Only then will the state and city governments allow you to use tax revenue to meet local ends.

Dogpatch and NW Potrero Hill, which covers some 700 acres and contains 100,000 people, has a “rich industrial heritage.” Through a survey, Yarne and his team learned the area actually has 13 sub-neighborhoods. Some of these maintain a “gritty, marginalized identity.” In contrast, some neighborhoods have a high level of “social capital,” which enables more coordinated action. Yarne decided to start in the area with higher social capital, with a history of local environmental activism and ownership of public spaces. There, a “plucky, can-do” group of locals have wrangled the state government to let them build a park where where was once transportation infrastructure. But all their efforts are “taxing.” This community clearly wants “parks and open space preserved,” but what’s the best way to do this? The neighborhood decided to pool resources into a new GBD.

The GBD will “coordinate property owners and build trust.” It will be a non-profit, public benefit corporation with an elected board and annual oversight by the city legislature. The new GBD will be “small enough to enable trust to grow and will operate in a hyper transparent manner.” It will “use an experimental ‘it’s OK to fail’ approach and aim to create long-term revenue.” Trust, he said, is the new “green,” because, without it, community action is impossible. Trust building will happen on the ground, in person, but also through a new app that will enable all GBD members to see in near real-time all reports, decisions, and expenditures.

“Like Facebook, the app will encourage GBD members to create a profile to encourage community accountability.” There will be something like the “See, Click, Fix” app, which will enable community members to report problems. The app will define the “party responsible for fixing, set the fix date, and the cost of the fix.” Yarne said listing the cost of the fix was important, because people don’t really have a clue as to cost of public services. All of the issues will be mapped, so the GBD member can see problem areas. For example, they could learn that vandalism occurs near the train stations. Like other techno-utopians in San Francisco, Yarne believes the app will “empower the community by demystifying work that’s happening.”

Landscape architect Scott Cataffa has been helping the nascent GBD map all their assets and discover where the opportunities are. Cataffa said a map of the community found only 2 percent of it is open space.  The community is already maintaining about half of the public spaces in the district, but the audit is helping the community figure out who owns what. With a list of more than 50 possible opportunities in hand, the GBD team is now figuring out what role they should play in creating new green public spaces and other sustainable features. They created a checklist to help label each project, with potential roles such as “lead, initiate, assist, or advocate.”

One proposal by CMG would create a new amphitheatre and outdoor art gallery in an unused, city-owned dead-end between two large industrial buildings. Through the audit, they also found that the very wide rights of way, which were designed for industrial use, create opportunities to create new linear parks. So they propose creating a new linear park — or green street — running from the new amphitheatre to a larger park. Cataffa said “we are looking at the right of way as a place to turn grey to green.” Other ideas being cooked up include putting a solar farm on top a freeway that cuts through the district, and creating a (black) waste water recycling system.

If they are allowed to assess the community for the GBD, Yarne says they will raise about $400,000 in their first year from taxes of about 9.46 cents per square foot of commercial and residential space and parking lots. Some non-profits would get a 50 percent discount on that tax, as would some struggling industrial site owners. Yarne expects their available funds to double over the coming years given lots of new residential complexes are coming online. He said, already, the GBD can change perceptions of new development from an unwelcome sign of gentrification into new opportunities to green.

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ASLA 2011 Professional General Design Honor Award. Central Wharf Plaza by Reed Hilderbrand / Charles Mayer Photography

Do sustainable landscapes live up to the lofty goals promised by landscape architects? How can we know? I am investigating this with University of Oregon professor Chris Enright in the department of landscape architecture and professor Yizhao Yang in the department of planning. I want to understand the role of post-occupancy evaluation (POE) in the field of landscape architecture. Though environmental, social, and economic performance goals are often identified during planning and design stages of landscape projects, most lack effective post-construction monitoring and observation to determine if — and how well — project’s design goals are being met.

Evidence-based design has gained more attention since the International Federation of Landscape (IFLA), the ASLA, and Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture (CELA) identified the topic as a research priority. The Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF)’s Case Study Investigation (CSI) program—born out of a need to encourage and support design firms in assessing the performance of sustainable landscape projects—is now in its fourth year. And now many leading firms are increasingly investing in in-house research on performance. Yet little is known about perceptions of POE within the profession as a whole.

So I invite landscape architects and others interested in landscape performance to participate in my study by taking a brief survey. I will report back the findings of this survey on The Dirt.

As a second part of my research, I will examine Facilitated Volunteer Geographic Information (F-VGI) as a tool for POE by comparing it with traditional approaches like direct observation and intercept surveys. I want to see how well-suited F-VGI is for post-occupancy landscape performance analysis. This technology increases the capacity for analysis by crowd sourcing data collection to users. The process is also relatively low cost, offers the opportunity for longitudinal study, and could be more objective than traditional methods, since there is less chance for bias from volunteers.

Using a project by landscape architecture firm Reed Hilderbrand, Central Wharf Plaza in Boston, I am developing a framework for using F-VGI to evaluate landscape performance. I chose this project because it already established social, economic, and environmental performance goals and baseline data. It’s a high-traffic, urban site with a public audience. Central Wharf Plaza has a simple but clearly defined program, and it’s small enough in size for a person to objectively evaluate the whole site.

This guest post is by Andrew Louw, a graduate student at the University of Oregon.

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next

Next Generation Infrastructure / Island Press

Between crumbling bridges, rising sea levels, growing garbage piles, and the ravages of drought and storms, we’ve grown used to bad news when it comes to infrastructure in the United States. Old systems are failing, new challenges arising, and solutions are elusive or perplexing. Into this maelstrom enters Hillary Brown, architect, infrastructure consultant and professor at the Spitzer School of Architecture. Her new book Next Generation Infrastructure: Principles for Post-Industrial Public Works, is an inspiring argument for infrastructure that behaves like nature.

Armed with simple prescriptions, Brown argues that the next generation of infrastructure cannot resemble the hard, single-function and carbon-intensive structures of yore. Rather, we need “more diversified, distributed, and interconnected infrastructural assets that simulate the behavior of natural systems.” She walks us through the principles of a new ecological infrastructure piece by piece, with abundant case studies that show that ingenious, multi-purpose, carbon-neutral, resilient systems are not a pipe dream. She pays careful attention to how they were implemented, reinforcing the argument that these case studies are models that can be applied beyond their exceptional contexts.

On a world tour of next generation infrastructure, Brown stops to describe ingenious feats of co-location, “decarbonizing” infrastructure (that is, infrastructure which emits low or no carbon), and soft-path water systems. Highlights include a Malaysian automobile tunnel that retains stormwater, a French waste recovery center that powers public buses, and a Northern California wastewater treatment wetland that also provides walking trails and wildlife habitat.

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Aerial view, Arcata Wastewater Treatment Plant and Wildlife Sanctuary, Arcata, California / Terrence McNally

Other chapters emphasize resilient infrastructures in the light of the paradoxical abundance and scarcity of water facing areas around the globe. The clever, even artful, solutions to what seem like insurmountable solutions make for an inspiring read, even if the black and white illustrations and (unfortunately not very clear) flow charts breaking down complex loops and systems are not in the same spirit.

Particularly notable in an era of tight budgets and low expectations is Brown’s attention to the social aspects of infrastructure planning and design. An important part of her problem-solving focuses on combining amenity with utility, and close attention to siting and design. This is not only important to make sure that particular groups do not unfairly bear the brunt of everyone’s waste, water, and energy systems needs. People living near such projects can benefit from the community assets, not to mention new jobs, that new infrastructure can provide.

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View from the “Ecorium,” Naka Waste-to-Energy Plant, Hiroshima, Japan / Kenta Mabuchi

In this regard, but not only in this one, Brown argues that design is key. The design implications of co-location and systems thinking are huge, as are the opportunities for landscape architects, architects, and planners. Integrative thinking, cross-disciplinary design, and spatial imagination are essential for developing the next generation of ecological infrastructure. A leading role for designers is another piece of good news in an area often lacking for it.

Read the book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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ecovative

Ecovative natural Styrofoam / Greener Package

The Buckminster Fuller Institute is looking for solutions to the world’s toughest problems. They just released the call for entries for their 2014 Fuller Challenge, “socially-responsible design’s highest award.” Landscape architects, architects, planners, artists, entrepreneurs, and students from everywhere are invited to go for the $100,000 prize for most outstanding strategy.

Buckminster Fuller, who died in 1983, was way ahead of his time. While he is famous for his geodesic dome, which took form in Disney’s “Spaceship Earth” Epcot Center and other buildings, as well as his innovative maps, Fuller’s deeper impact may be on our thinking. He was one of the first modern Western thinkers to connect architecture to ecology and the environment.

According to the institute that bears his name, Fuller called for a “design revolution to 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 worthy goal is now being pursued through the Fuller challenge, which seeks to identify global change-makers. Winners haven’t just taken on a building or landscape but a whole broken system.

Last year, an amazing group of materials innovators at Ecovative took home the prize for their game-changing Styrofoam made of mycelium and agricultural waste. The year before, the Living Building Challenge won for showing the world how a green building could become a self-sustaining system.

Submit your concept by April 11, 2014.

Another competition is a bit of good news for Ukraine, which faces challenges on so many fronts at the moment. A new ideas competition from the Can-action 2014 festival will award 5,000 EU for the best user-generated public space concept. Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei is one of the judges. Submit ideas by April 17.

 

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Mark Simmons sets fires. He uses prescribed fires as a technique for land management to improve the ecological health of a system. These fires are carefully plotted and designed to self-extinguish. They are employed to control brush, which could feed wildfires, and selectively remove invasive species and restore native ones. Simmons is the director of the ecosystem design group at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at The University of Texas. His team engages in scientific research, sustainable design, and environmental consulting.

American Indians on the plains also set fires. They used controlled burning to both attract and drive game, get rid of ticks, and harvest lizards and insects. Simmons says this practice demonstrates that they had a mutually influential relationship with nature. They melded the landscape and in turn were melded by it.

Americans today are found in different landscapes. We primarily occupy landscapes like suburban strip mall parking lots, which Simmons believes are dysfunctional and polluting. If these landscapes are melding us, then they may be adversely affecting our health and behavior. He believes that providing more green spaces could control epidemics like childhood obesity and ADHD.

In order to combat environmental and social hazards, Simmons wants to bring nature back into the built environment using ecological design. He envisions an “eco-metropolis” in which we keep, fix, and build using “nature’s technologies.” Simmons believes these approaches can inform techniques for land management and restoration, as well as the research and design of greenroofs and walls, rain gardens, sustainable lawns, and ecological roadsides.

Our current situation is about maintaing an “industrial, not ecological, system on life support,” Turf grass covers 40 million acres of land in the U.S., with 20 million acres just residential lawns. This landscape requires 580 million gallons of gasoline and up to 60 percent of urban fresh water to maintain. Desert communities have begun banning lawns out of necessity. Simmons finds gravel lots and other available alternatives lacking in both functionality and aesthetic quality. He is promoting alternatives that are sustainable, useful, and desirable.

Simmons grew up mowing his family’s lawn in England with a push mower. His dad no longer needs to mow because the lawn is now a multi-species landscape that has evolved into a stable ecological system that maintains itself. Inspired by this discovery, Simmons and his team created a biodiverse lawn made up of five native species that only has to be mowed two to three times a year and does not require pesticides or herbicides. There are eight acres planted at the George W. Bush Presidential Library. Simmons calls this “ecology 101 applied to landscape architecture.”

Landscapes like Simmons’s lawn that deploy nature’s technologies can perform critical functions like carbon sequestration, low level ozone absorption, and stormwater management.

Grasslands in fact provide the most efficient means of carbon sequestration. They absorb less carbon dioxide than boreal forests, but because they have evolved with fire and grazing, they store 95 percent of it below ground as insurance. In contrast, trees store carbon dioxide above ground in their trunks, branches, and leaves and release it back into the atmosphere when they die. In grasslands, when the roots die, the carbon melds with the physical and chemical structure of the soil and can be held there for hundreds of thousands of years.

These landscapes are also desirable. Simmons shares several examples of their success and growing popularity. Residents of a suburban tract in Austin, Texas liked the prairie that was planted along the perimeter so much that they requested it be continued through their yards. A homeowner who wanted a meadow constructed on his roof is so pleased with the result that he supports the idea of creating a preserve of the Texas blackland prairie ecosystem on roofs and along roadsides.

Simmons demonstrates that we can use nature differently. He encourages us to preserve nature but also feel liberated and empowered to use it more like we would engineering. “Nature’s technology is free and it’s waiting. All we have to do is bring nature home.”

This guest post is by Shannon Leahy, Master’s of Landscape Architecture graduate, University of Pennsylvania, and former ASLA summer intern.

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Pete V. Domenici U.S. Courthouse Sustainable Landscape Renovation, Albuquerque, New Mexico / Robert Reck

The Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES™) has certified new landscapes at a federal courthouse in New Mexico; an elementary school and campus plaza in Washington, D.C.; and an urban plaza in Washington state. The four projects certified by the nation’s most comprehensive rating system for sustainable landscapes are: Albuquerque’s Pete V. Domenici U.S. Courthouse, which received a two star certification; Brent Elementary School in Washington, D.C., which received one star; Square 80 Plaza at The George Washington University, also in D.C. with one star; and East Bay Public Plaza in Olympia, Washington, with one star.

SITES is a collaboration of the American Society of Landscape Architects, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center of The University of Texas at Austin, and the United States Botanic Garden. The program was created to fill a critical need for a comprehensive set of guidelines and a system for recognizing sustainable landscapes based on their planning, design, construction and intended maintenance. This voluntary national rating system and set of performance benchmarks can be applied to projects of all sizes and on sites with or without buildings.

“It is exciting to see a growing number of projects across the country that have applied an integrative design process to meet rigorous sustainability guidelines, while finding ways to address urgent environmental and social challenges,” said SITES Program Director Danielle Pieranunzi, who is based at the Wildflower Center. “We are thrilled to certify these four new projects that truly exemplify the breadth of approaches to sustainable site design and development.”

The newly certified projects applied the 2009 SITES Guidelines and Performance Benchmarks and met the requirements for pilot certification. There are now 30 landscape projects at universities, businesses and public spaces that have achieved this recognition. The SITES rating system was created by dozens of the country’s leading sustainability experts, scientists and design professionals.

The four newly certified projects each incorporate sustainable features that were evaluated using a rating system with certification levels of one to four stars. These landscape projects include the following sustainable features:

Pete V. Domenici United States Courthouse Sustainable Landscape Renovation, Two Stars, Rios Clementi Hale Studios, Albuquerque, N.M. (see image above). This federal courthouse is the first project constructed by the General Services Administration to achieve SITES certification. Originally constructed in 1998, the underused hardscape plazas, overwatered lawns and faulty water feature of the existing courthouse exemplified resource inefficiency, disconnection from its environment, and distance from the public. The landscape renovation reconceives the site as a cohesive park-like landscape rooted within the rich cultural, climatic and hydrological fabric of the Rio Grande Basin. Innovative strategies include the selective removal and re-use of excess concrete paving to create seat wall terraces that direct site stormwater into a series of native habitat rain gardens. The project creates a bold landscape and dignified setting for court operations while enhancing the efficiency and sustainable operations through improved water management, decreased energy use and increased urban habitat.

Brent Elementary Schoolyard Greening, One Star, Sustainable Life Designs, Washington, D.C. Located five blocks from the nation’s Capitol, this greyfield site with asphalt-dominated grounds was transformed into a sustainable landscape that educates students, parents, and neighborhood residents about green infrastructure. Improvements include the removal of 1,600 square feet of asphalt and the installation of pollinator gardens, stormwater management features, new play equipment, and 7,000 square feet of outdoor classrooms to enhance outdoor play and learning that were achieved through numerous volunteer hours. The stormwater management features include a rain garden, rain barrel, and bio-retention swale. A formerly trash-strewn space behind the school building is now an “urban canyon” that helps manage stormwater and provides native habitat.

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Brent Elementary Schoolyard Greening / Michael Lucy

Square 80 Plaza at The George Washington University, One Star, Studio 39 Landscape Architecture, Washington, D.C. The Square 80 Plaza project converted an existing parking lot into a park that creates pedestrian connections and open space at an urban university campus. The project retains 100 percent of its stormwater runoff on site through the use of biofiltration planters, permeable paving, hardscape diversion through use of small channels, and the collection of site water into a system of inter-connected cisterns. All plants used on the site are native and adapted species, and all water used for irrigation and the sculptural water feature is fed by the rainwater collected in the cistern, which uses no potable water.

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Square 80 at George Washington University / Studio 39

East Bay Public Plaza, One Star, Robert W. Droll Landscape Architect, Olympia, Washington. East Bay Public Plaza is a vibrant public urban space located in the Puget Sound region that showcases the benefits of reclaimed water and the efforts of the LOTT Alliance, an Olympia-based wastewater treatment company. The former brownfield includes new educational elements such as discovery markers, interactive stream features, a series of interpretive panels, and a ground plane timeline that playfully charts the past, present and future of reclaimed water to inspire and inform visitors.

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East Bay Public Plaza / Kelly Carson

Based on the experiences of many of the pilot projects, a refined set of guidelines and rating system, SITES v2, will incorporate additional recommendations from technical experts. This updated version of the 2009 SITES rating system will be published and available for distribution and use by the general public in 2014.

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In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, “the U.S. needs to work on its long-term resiliency planning,” said Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Shaun Donovan, at The Atlantic’s Energy + Infrastructure forum in Washington, D.C. To give that effort a major boost, HUD launched the Hurricane Sandy Recovery Task Force, as well as the Rebuild by Design international design competition to find the “best architects, landscape architects, engineers” to create real-world models of climate-resilient design in Sandy-affected areas. HUD has some $2 billion to spend on the winning designs.

Rebuild by Design attracted 110 teams from 40 countries. After the initial set was reviewed, 10 teams were selected, offering nearly 45 projects. From there, 10 projects have been selected across the region impacted by Sandy to move to the final stage of the competition. The ten finalists can be explored in depth.

The teams who came up with the designs are all deeply multi-disciplinary. Each involves a major landscape architecture firm. Firms involved include Balmori Associates, Hargreaves Associates, H+N+S Landscape Architects, OLIN, SCAPE, Sasaki, Starr Whitehouse, and West 8.

HUD has made a point of creating a highly participatory review process. All the finalists had numerous sessions with community leaders, non-profits, and public to create their projects and then revise the final 10.

According to the Rebuild by Design web site, the next stage of the design competition will be “guided by the Municipal Art Society, Regional Plan Association and the Van Alen Institute. The teams will transform their chosen design opportunities to implementable and fundable design solutions. The partners will assist each team in setting up local coalitions that may comprised of government agencies, state and local officials, community stakeholders and experts where applicable. Those coalitions will work to engage the public as the teams refine their design solutions.”

Once workable projects are selected, HUD will finance the design and build out of a few projects, with additional financing from the private sector.

For Donovan, the results of the competition will help shape a new approach to resiliency planning and design in the era of climate change. [In addition to managing affordable housing, HUD handles long-term disaster recovery, while FEMA handles short-term emergency response.]

He said “this is real. We need to find out what we can do to protect our communities.”

He believes climate change can become a bipartisan issue, arguing that New Jersey governor Chris Christie is seriously looking at “how to build resiliency into our grids. There’s an enormous amount of cooperation and interest.”

Beyond Sandy, Donovan said much more work was needed to “update our national disaster recovery framework” and better coordinate national and local efforts. “Local government actually leads recovery.”

To further improve resiliency, Donovan called for looking to the Netherlands as well. He said “they have spent a lot of time on how to protect their communities.” Whether building a park or a sidewalk, resiliency there is embedded in every design.

Explore the 10 finalists and submit your comments.

Image credit:

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Thomas Balsley, FASLA, is the founder and principal of Thomas Balsley Associates, a firm he has run for 35 years. Balsley has taught and lectured at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, the University of Pennsylvania, the National Building Museum, and Seoul National University.

This interview was conducted at the ASLA 2013 Annual Meeting in Boston.

Last year, during Hurricane Sandy, Hunter’s Point South, your new park in Long Island City, Queens, was submerged under four feet of water as it was being constructed. Amazingly, the park survived this first test and drained as it was designed to. How did you and your design partners prepare for this? How is this a new model for dealing with climate change and improving resiliency?

The park has a purpose beyond resiliency, but we believe it’s a new model for 21st century urban parks in all respects. Sustainability underpinned the design approach right across the board, from the environmental and ecological to the social, economic, and cultural. Hunter’s Point South Park is a design collaboration between Thomas Balsley Associates and Weiss/Manfredi.

Part of our job when we work anywhere near the shores is to anticipate the effects of global warming, the storm surges. We had co-designed Gantry Plaza State Park and the whole Queens Park master plan prior to this park, so we had a chance to study that site and understand the East River. Gantry Plaza State Park was not affected to the extent others areas were hit by Sandy, but waters had breached the top of the bulkhead walls and the piers, so flooding was already on our minds.

At Hunter’s Point South, as we did at Gantry Plaza State Park, we started with the idea that these were at one time industrial sites; there was rail use in this case. Our approach was committed to conveying a message, a subliminal message of toughness and ruggedness, not preciousness. I don’t know what parallel to draw, but some projects we all love and admire are really precious to the point where they have a fragility to them. We purposely wanted this park from the very beginning to be muscular, to reflect its blue-collar, industrial history, and that of its upland community.

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With these rugged materials and detailing, we were way ahead of the game in terms of resilience. Because the river is actually a tidal body with strong currents of saltwater, we avoided catchment areas that might catch surges and hold them. Long-term exposure to the saltwater can be pretty harmful, so the park had to drain itself, with water eventually finding its way back out over to the river as the waters receded.

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Obviously, the employment of native plant material was important, too. We had a very tight budget, so there was no chance of using automatic irrigation, even with recycled water. It just wasn’t going to happen, so we focused on low-water use native plants that have proven themselves along the shorelines of local saline rivers. The park’s plant palette was purposely selected to be resilient, low maintenance, and provide visual integrity.

Hunter’s Point South is really just one of a hundred parks and plazas in New York City you have designed over your decades-long career. The one that really leapt out at me, among many, was Gantry Plaza State Park. Why was that so successful?

I referred to this park earlier when we were talking about Hunter’s Point South because that’s the next park component along the east shore of the Queens side, the Long Island City side, but it was done 20 years earlier. Gantry Plaza State Park was important to us as individual designers, but it was also, in our minds, really important for the future waterfront development of New York.

It’s hard for people to imagine now, but 30 years ago, NYC was probably one of the most conservative places to practice the art of landscape architecture in the country. During that same period you couldn’t have found a notable building being built in New York City either. The city had horrible fiscal and safety troubles, which made it very conservative and fearful. There just wasn’t courage or the will on the private or the public side to go out and take chances. There wasn’t a contemporary landscape precedent to be able to point to that would have said, “See? We can do this.”

Well, something happened 30 years ago, not with public money, but over at Battery Park City. It was a new model of urban planning. The developers were ingenious in securing public approvals. Battery Park introduced the notion that you can build parks first and then develop the parcels. To get this approach approved, the designers strategically harked back to New York at the turn of the century. The character of a park promised New Yorkers wouldn’t be controversial. Everyone said, “Oh, that’s great. We like that period.” It was that kind of climate. [30 years ago there was some of us saying, “I promise. I’ll make it look just like Central Park if you just let me out of this room because it’s one o’clock in the morning.”] So the Battery Park City Authority had private money behind it in the form of bonds. They had a very good tactic for getting a design approved. When it was built, Battery Park was pointed to as the great urban waterfront success and the “latest and the greatest” of waterfront park design.

But there is also a problem that comes with those successes: the next client asks you to do one just like it. When our team of Thomas Balsley Associates and Weintraub di Domenico was commissioned to design the Queens West Parks, the approved park plan was promising another Battery Park City across the river in Long Island City.

After its approval, a new client was brought in who decided, maybe from past experience from working with us, that they wanted something different. She said, “we’re going to do something innovative. We’re going to show New York how to take the next step.” So we had a client that encouraged us to do just that and we rushed through that door of opportunity. As The New York Times architecture critic wrote of the park at the time, “the curse has been broken.”

At Gantry Plaza State Park, we were doing things there that were unheard of in New York. Number one: don’t fill, use and celebrate the diverse shoreline. Number two: don’t erase history, celebrate history and culture. Number three: make it a blue collar place, not a corporate downtown place. Make it look like it doesn’t have money, like it’s a real park for real people.

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Gantry Plaza State Park demonstrated that we can celebrate history, heritage, culture, and, at the same time, express the future with contemporary design. That’s why that park is so special to us. It became the new paradigm for 21st century waterfront parks, the park everyone pointed to in New York and said, “Let’s make all the rest of our waterfronts like this.” I can take you around the shoreline now and you will see that Gantry Plaza State Park ideas have found their way in other places. And it really launched a whole new era in landscape architecture in New York.

Many of those hundred urban parks and plazas you’ve designed are small privately-owned public spaces (POPS). You have often said these places are unloved. Why?

POPS used to be called bonus plazas. Plazas have been stigmatized as the receptors of all of society’s misfits and ills, so it’s no surprise that our profession hasn’t embraced them. NYC POPS were considered “dirty”, because you were doing work for developers, not the public sector. Until recently, NYC landscape architects treated them like they are lepers. They didn’t want anything to do with them. As a result, some 95 percent of POPS in New York City are designed by architects. Taken together, there are 84 acres of POPS in Manhattan alone.

These are a great untapped opportunity for landscape architects to touch millions of lives, yet, for the most part, these chance have been squandered by the local professionals. I’m proud to have done more than anyone and get a great deal of satisfaction as I pass by and do my Holly Whyte analysis.

Heritage Field at Yankee Stadium is another fantastic community asset you’ve designed. The park takes the history and makes something contemporary, but on top of that, the park is so many different things at once. It’s a place for locals to play ball, a park, a playground, a conduit from the subway station, the stadium. So how did you get all those things to fit within one design?

That’s the classic 10-client pound program for the 5-pound bag, isn’t it? Of course, we had to find a way. The politics behind that project were extraordinary. Most people don’t realize that Yankee Stadium was in a New York City park. And the Yankees are basically saying, “we’re going to take part of the park next door to build a new stadium.” You could tell that’s got a little bit of a problem flying, especially with locals. The team of Thomas Balsley Associates and Stantec had to come up with a strategy that downplayed the existing stadium and history and transformed it into a community park with a landscape narrative.

Our goal was to get all these programs into the space, but at the same time make it look like it was ball fields that had been carved out of parkland. We wanted the edges to be lush native grasses and the plantings and to manage and filter stormwater. That’s unlike most active recreation areas you’ll find, especially in a tight, urban setting in which you’ll normally see a fence, and maybe a hedge. We kept insisting that within the park there was enough space for those in the Bronx to feel like that this was the parkland they had once been promised. It’s a very big part of the character and the feeling you get as you walk through the spaces or to the new stadium.

One of your older projects that I was very interested in was your work on the Columbia University campus. Can you tell me about what you achieved with that planning project, which involved trying to get the newer parts of the campus to look more like the historic center? What has happened since then? How has it evolved there?

Getting the newer parts to be part of the original was certainly one of the goals, but the bigger challenge was that the McKim, Mead, and White-designed campus never had a landscape master plan. It had an architectural master plan, but it never had a landscape master plan. In our historical research we even found some records of when the president of Columbia University was reluctant to buy into the McKim, Mead, and White urban campus vision, because it wasn’t a leafy Princeton-like campus. Your client may say, “Yes, that’s what we want, an urban campus.” But, once they saw renderings of just buildings and barren landscape, then they started to get a little worried.

They asked to bring in Olmsted to comment. He never did any work on the campus but he cited an example of going in the forest and encountering a pine stand, just pure pine and pine needle, and maybe the wind whistling. I’ll never forget this observation because it inspired another piece of work I did called the Pine Forest at 101. And it’s almost a religious experience to be in that place. It’s almost Zen-like. It’s not asking you to look around for visual stimulation. So he had a little bit of an influence, in getting that campus master plan approved.

But it became very clear over the years that it had a certain sterility to it, at least to the mainstream. Campuses suffer because they get $100 million donations to build a new building but not new landscapes. They needed a campus landscape master plan, a vision for a landscape donor.

The goal of the project was to adapt the historic campus landscape, movement systems, social systems, to 21st-century culture of campus life. Then we wrote a very strict set of design guidelines. Your building, your $100 million donation, will have to follow these. We’re also going to take a little bit of money for the overall campus landscape. As the university expands or improves on the Morningside campus, they’ll have uniformity and integrity.

Going overseas where you’ve also done a lot of work, I was struck by your projects in Japan. Two really exciting ones for me were the World Trade Center in Osaka and the Kasumigaseki Plaza in Tokyo. These plazas boldly emphasize color and form, but you also describe these places as responding to the tall buildings and kind of countering them. Can you talk about how you humanized those spaces around these huge buildings?

We’re all faced with that when we’re working in an urban setting, especially with high-rise projects. Humanizing space is part of what we all do. We’re very much social-space designers, not just space designers. These parks are in an urban setting and require a delicate balance between their urbanity, their urban context, and the individual.

There must be a hierarchy of space that helps strike this balance. There has to be a large space to reflect that urban scale and yet be flexible enough to accommodate different uses that we haven’t yet anticipated, concerts, festivals, etc., yet be accessible for daily enjoyment.

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Movement systems and program frame the larger space, creating a network of other spaces that vary in scale and character — from me and my co-workers having a conference, to just you sitting in a corner reading your book. All these smaller spaces must have good sight lines to the street, which is a lesson from New York. These are but a few approaches we’ve applied throughout the U.S., and now abroad in our urban place-making.

Image credits: (1) Thomas Balsley / Thomas Balsley Associates, (2-3) Hunter’s Point South / © Albert Večerka/Esto, (4) Gantry Plaza State Park / Betsy Pinover Schiff, (5) World Trade Center, Osaka / Thomas Balsley Associates  

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