Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

John Thackara / Uros Abram

John Thackara / Uros Abram

British writer and philosopher John Thackara, author of How to Thrive in the Next Economy, believes changes in the global society and economy now allow people to address environmental problems at a “bio-regional” scale. At the ASLA 2015 Annual Meeting in Chicago, he described the growth of bio-regional models that use social networks to create new forms of economic gain with significant environmental benefits. This transition to a bio-regional approach is already happening in a few sectors:


The local food movement is creating a shift of economic resources that has beneficial environmental impacts. To scale this local approach up the regional level, countries should take a “food commons approach.”

In a food commons, food distribution and retail are owned by a trust and governed by local stakeholders who manage the commons. This approach better connects local resources, so communities are able “to do things locally currently not done locally.”

Thackara looks to Denmark, where the Danish Food Cluster, founded in 2013, has facilitated regional collaboration between food companies in central Denmark. He argued that in this system, “improving the connections of an economic network is at the heart of its environmental impact.”

The three principles of a successful food commons / The Food Commons

The three principles of a successful food commons / The Food Commons


In order to better connect cities to their resource-rich countrysides, we need to reconsider how we get around, Thackara said. In Vienna, Austria, the idea of collaborative regional mobility has led to the Cargo Bike Collaborative, a donation-based bike sharing service that allows people to transport goods in a low-cost, sustainable way.

The idea of mobility as a fee-based service also has promise. While sharing mobility through services like Uber and Lyft is currently being “told in the language of hipsters in London, New York City, and Washington D.C. with not much attention to the environmental story,” Thackara said, the concept could be re-purposed at a regional scale in order to make transportation more sustainable. “Pay-per-use” frameworks could allow regions to save money on infrastructure in the long run. He said: “one calls upon all of these bits on infrastructure so you don’t necessarily need a car or as many roads at the bio-regional scale.”

A regional example: The Greenhorns, a non-profit organization run by young farmers, sailed a schooner filled with 11 tons of crops from Maine to Boston in August 2015.

The route of the Greenhorn's Maine Sail Freight / The Greenhorns

The route of the Greenhorn’s Maine Sail Freight / The Greenhorns

Lastly, Thackara said we need to combine expanded regional networks with “an absolute militant search for answers.” This requires building a global knowledge network all people can access. Prototypes and maps mean nothing if people around the world cannot learn from them. “We need to build a story that gives meaning and purpose to young people. It must be more than a story that is just something we tell to each other around a campfire, but grounds for action.”

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Headphones and maps set up for a Water Walk event in Lexington, Kentucky / Gena Wirth

Headphones and maps set up for a Water Walk event in Lexington, Kentucky / Gena Wirth

How can you get people to appreciate the invisible features of their hometown? A team led by SCAPE/Landscape Architecture and MTWTF is currently conducting a unique multi-media design experiment that aims to find out by focusing on an often-forgotten but significant culvert in Lexington, Kentucky. The Town Branch Water Walk, created for the Lexington Downtown Development Authority (DDA), is a podcast-guided one-hour walking tour of downtown Lexington’s Town Branch Creek, a long-buried hidden waterway. To further enlighten users of the podcast tours, SCAPE created a set of topographical tables that show what they will explore.

Water walk tour / Gena Wirth, SCAPE

Water walk tour, Lexington, Kentucky / Gena Wirth, SCAPE

The water walk, which can be completed in under an hour, is intended to transform the way Lexingtonians interpret their everyday landscape by revealing what exists underground: karst geology and hydrology. For those who may not know, karst is formed from the “dissolution of soluble rocks such as limestone, dolomite, and gypsum” and takes shape as underground drainage systems, with caves and sinkholes.

Lexington was founded on the Town Branch –  a karst stream — but over time this landscape has been covered over and “put out of sight, out of mind.” The tour follows the creek downstream from its headwaters on a busy highway to where it daylights in a parking lot behind the University of Kentucky’s Rupp Arena.

“The Water Walk creates links between the urban areas Lexingtonians inhabit and the rural Bluegrass region that shapes the identity of the city and region. Karst is Lexington’s hidden secret – the water that flows through this limestone bedrock is rumored to make the bluegrass grow taller, the horses’ bones grow stronger, and the bourbon taste better,” said Gena Wirth, ASLA, a principal at SCAPE.

The set of 3-minute long podcasts are modeled off of Safari 7, a self-guided tour of urban wildlife on New York City’s 7 subway. The podcasts include interviews with local experts on topics ranging from “Lexington’s green infrastructure projects to the complicated nature of Kentucky’s karst-defined hydrology.”

The free podcast and walking tour model was chosen because it can reach multiple audiences who might not typically seek out information on water quality or stormwater management. The team is also working with local schools to integrate the podcasts into the middle school science and social studies curricula.

Nels Rogers, 5, listens to the sound of Town Branch with Gena Wirth / Lexington-Herald Ledger

Nels Rogers, 5, listens to the sound of Town Branch with Gena Wirth / Lexington-Herald Ledger

The new tour also helps set the stage for the work SCAPE is doing in the city. The firm recently won an international design competition to design Town Branch Commons, a broader, long-term initiative advanced by the mayor and the Lexington DDA that will create a new linear public space downtown along the path of the karst water system of Town Branch. A number of other projects, including the construction of the Town Branch Trail, the Legacy Trail Development, and a remedial action plan as a result of an E.P.A. action on water pollution, are in the works.

SCAPE's winning design for Town Branch Commons / SCAPE / landscape architecture

SCAPE’s winning design for Town Branch Commons / SCAPE

SCAPE thinks more landscape architects should go multi-media when trying to communicate with the public. “We firmly believe in the power of systemic vision, but we also believe that visions need to be accompanied by face-to-face communication and design (or podcast-to-ear!).”

Wirth thinks these approaches can create new connections with the environment: “On the ground experience is invaluable – getting out into a new environment, occupying a familiar space in an unfamiliar space, or hearing a podcast describe the trickling stream below your feet transforms the way you experience a place and understand its potential. Landscape architects work to reveal and enhance environmental systems within urban areas, and the podcast walking tour is another way to combat inertia and catalyze appreciation and change. As designers, we need to expand our toolkit and explore more diverse techniques for speaking directly to people about the quality and potential of their built environment.”

Water walk tour / Gena Wirth, SCAPE

Water walk tour / Gena Wirth, SCAPE

So far, the Lexington DDA has hosted one of three Water Walk events. Vine Street was open to pedestrian and bike traffic to allow people to take the walk. A new Water Walk website was recently launched, and listening stations are becoming available for public use at destinations downtown.

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Driverless vehicle highway / Natalia Beard, SWA Group

Driverless vehicle highway diet / Natalia Beard, SWA Group

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Driverless vehicles / Natalia Beard, SWA Group

Driverless vehicles / Natalia Beard, SWA Group

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

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

Driverless highway of the future / Natalia Beard, SWA Group

Driverless highway of the future / Natalia Beard, SWA Group

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

Parking garage of the future / Natalia Beard, SWA Group

Parking garage of the future / Natalia Beard, SWA Group

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Hyperloop / Hyperloop Transportation Technologies

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

So much faith that our technologies will only improve.

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Placemeter in Union Square, NYC / Placemeter

Cities are increasingly loaded up with technology. Sensors now enable managers of urban water and sewage infrastructure to spot leaks as they happen. Meter maids no longer have to tromp around all day looking for violators — with new video and analytical tools, transportation departments can locate parking offenders in real-time. Cites prone to flooding now have robust-technology-enabled early warning systems. Ubiquitous security cameras can lead to rapid arrests. And smart phone apps enable citizens to report potholes and other problems in the urban environment as they find them. Many technologies aim to improve the responsiveness or resilience of city services. And while many of these new systems are sold as an easy, all-encompassing solution, like any software, they are high maintenance. Smart city technologies certainly can’t fix all of a city’s problems, particularly deep-seated structural issues like inequality and displacement.

But one technology that could actually live up to some of the hype is Placemeter, which aims to provide an “accurate, flexible, and continuous measurement of how people and vehicles move about your city.” Stumbling upon the technology at the Smart Cities Week in Washington, D.C., I was mesmerized by the little red dots moving through an urban plaza. I discovered that each red dot is a person walking through the plaza in real-time. Seen above is a view of people moving through Union Square in New York City, a place Placemeter says it’s collecting data on and offering for free via their website.

Josh Gershon with Placemeter explained how his firm’s technology can use either existing video feeds or their own sensors, which will be available in October of this year, to turn video into data that can be analyzed with a dashboard. Their software looks for certain shapes in the video feed — cars, trucks, pedestrian, bicyclist — and records their numbers along with path and speed. Placemeter anonymizes all the data so people only appear as dots.

As Gershon explained, Placemeter views the retail sector as a primary market for their tools. While stores almost always collect numbers on how many people entered and bought something, few understand “all the customers they missed and why.” Retailers could use Placemeter to see if various advertisements, window fronts, sounds, or even scents work in attracting people into retail environments.

In the same way, architects could use the technology to see how people navigate building entrances. And landscape architects could use Placemeter to conduct pre- and post-occupancy surveys of their designed landscapes and find opportunities for improvements based on pedestrian flow. Transportation officials could spot congestion and blockages and create remedies, or find out how bicyclists are actually getting around (many aren’t using the bike lanes). Developers and city government clients could find out if their expensive investments in planning and design worked out as they hoped. Given software like Placemeter can be scaled up to the city-scale, planners could even get a sense of broader use patterns.

Still, it’s still important to actually sit, watch, and analyze people using a public space. William Whyte in The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces and, more recently, Jan Gehl in Cities for People make the case for taking the time to really understand all the nuances of how different kinds of people use a park, plaza, or street. While Placemeter provides useful aggregate data in real-time, it can’t tell who’s older and needs to find a bench, who’s young and wants to play in the water, or who is really busy and looking for the shortest route from A to B. Perhaps both a qualitative and quantitative approach together can provide some new insights that yield better urban design.

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russian forest 3

Russian boreal forest biome / Frangrantica

A new study published in the journal Nature claims that a previous satellite-based estimate of the total number of trees on Earth was off by a large margin. Instead of the 400 billion trees previously thought to exist on the planet, there are an estimated 3 trillion. Almost half of these trees are found in tropical and subtropical forests, another quarter of all trees are found in boreal biomes, the vasts forests of Russia and North America, and about 20 percent are in temperate biomes found in Europe, Asia, and the United States.

Humans have had an “overwhelming effect” on trees. Since the beginning of civilization, about 3 trillion trees have been cut down, said the study’s lead researcher Thomas Crowther at Yale University, in an interview with The Guardian. And the high rate of destruction continues, with about 15 billion trees lost each year due to deforestation and the expansion of farmland. In fact, another new study from Global Forest Watch says that 46 million acres of forests were lost just in 2014. The majority of the destruction is in Russia, the United States, Canada, Brazil, and Indonesia, as it has been for more than a decade. But according to Mongabay, an environmental news site, the Democratic Republic of Congo just jumped to near the top of the list this year, as this Sub-Saharan African country lost 1 million hectares of forest.

Crowther and his team found that Russia has the most number of trees, with 640 billion, followed by Canada with 318 billion, and Brazil, with 300 billion. The United States has around 220 billion, while China has 140 billion.

The scientists used nearly a half-million ground-based sensors on every continent, except for Antarctica, to generate a tree map. Tree density estimates were linked with GIS data and other spatial, topographical, and climactic attributes, as well as land use patterns to come up with more detailed estimates.

Crowther and the other researchers conducted the study to create a real baseline for tree planting efforts. They wanted to see whether the Billion Tree Campaign and the many urban million tree campaigns can have any real impact. Crowther told The Guardian that “the message remains that a billion trees is still a huge contribution. I was concerned that providing them [such tree-planting efforts] with this final information might deter efforts and make people go ‘okay, planting a million trees is pointless’ but actually we got the opposite response.” The are efforts underway to even create a global trillion-tree campaign.

As cities ramp up their million-tree campaigns, the discussion has turned where to plant them, so everyone benefits from their health benefits equally. Living in a neighborhood with a lot of trees has shown to boost health and well-being, and some studies have even linked tree coverage with mortality rates. Doctors in Washington, D.C. are now prescribing time in the park to further test the benefits.

A new interactive tool Trees and Health App, created by researchers at Portland State University (PSU) and financed by the U.S. Forest Service, enables urban planners, non-profits, and landscape architects to plot out where trees can have the biggest health impact.


Portland Tree map / Trees and Health App

The tool’s approach to data collection and analysis was first developed in Portland, where the team used nearly 150 street-level sensors to measure pollution levels, and then determine how trees reduce the impact of pollution and therefore respiratory problems like asthma. Vivek Shandas, one of PSU researcher, told Smithsonian magazine, “We found that upward of 14 percent of the pollutants are improved by local neighborhood trees and that the kind of trees does matter. Portland is highly coniferous and those [trees] almost act like scrubbers in the summer, but deciduous trees are becoming more dominant in urban landscapes.”

Right now, 13 cities are available for analysis through the tool, but the team plans to add many more. Explore the app.

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ASLA recently surveyed practicing landscape architects, students, and university faculty from around the world to better under understand what smartphone apps landscapes architects are using to conceptualize, design, and construct projects. We recently reported the results from the survey, which received more than 150 responses, in the first two parts of this three part series. See ppart one: Smartphone Apps for Landscape Architects: Useful Tools for Site Analysis and Design and part two: Smartphone Apps for Landscape Architects: Useful Tools for Construction and Presentation.

In addition to asking respondents which smartphone apps they used, we also asked which apps they wished were available. As can be expected, we got a range of responses. Some wishes were practical and offer real opportunities for entrepreneurial app developers, while others were perhaps fantastical, given the technology isn’t there yet and won’t be for a while. Here are some of the most desired kinds of apps that don’t yet exist:

Trees and Plants

Landscape architects are hurting for better plant apps; these are the most wished-for apps by far. While some respondents said they used apps like Dirr’s Tree and Shrub Finder or Leafsnap, others mused about how much easier their lives would be if they could simply “take a photo of a tree and the app could identify it,” or if there was “an app that could size a tree from a photo.” Several respondents expressed a need for plant apps that focused on “right plant, right place,” and include sun and shade analysis of sites to help guide planting design. Still others simply want a more comprehensive identification app that shows the “form of a plant, rather than just its flower or leaf.”

One thing is for certain: many landscape architects are looking for an app that will quickly identify a plant in any region in the world, and tell them where to put it. That’s not a small order, but we’ll see what the future holds.

Topography and Grading

The next most-desired category of apps relate to topography and grading. “I would be interested in an app that visualizes and makes available GIS data for soil type, site history, zoning, flood levels, etc., in a navigable interface. This would be used less for data manipulation and more for overviews on site visits,” one respondent said.

Other respondents were especially interested in an app that could use GPS data to give topography and elevation data for a given landscape or build a topographical map based on the existing grade of a user’s location. Ideally, this app would also be able to export info to AutoCAD, RhinoTerrain, and GoogleEarth.


“I would like an app that would allow you to create material palette collages that combine site furniture, planting, and paving and other materials for your project and be able to export the layers to Photoshop,” one respondent said. Some sort of collage app that would allow users to put together different images into a single palette and export for presentation was one of the more popular responses.

Perhaps an app like PhotoGrid (free; ios / android) that allows users to design layouts and create photo collages would fill this gap. But a similar app specifically geared toward landscape architects with a variety of material and plant stock images (with an option for users to upload their own photos) would likely be more widely used.

Photo Grid App Screenshot / KS Mobile, Inc. on the iTunes App Store

Photo Grid App Screenshot / KS Mobile, Inc. on the iTunes App Store

Construction Standards

Several respondents were looking for a smartphone app that would provide them with American Disability Act (ADA) and construction standards on their mobile devices. One respondent pointed to the book Time-Saver Standards for Landscape Architecture by Charles Harris, FASLA, and Nicholas Dines, FASLA, and said a “similar app version would be very helpful.” While many respondents said they typically find this information through search engines, others would prefer to have a reference guide on the go.


Time-Saver Standards for Landscape Architecture by Charles W. Harris and Nicholas T. Dines / Amazon

One respondent suggested LandCalc (free; android), an app that can calculate and convert soil, mulch and stone volumes, as well as calculate slope and the amount of plant material needed for a given space. While this may be helpful for some landscape architects, an app that goes a little bit further as a mobile reference for construction standards would help.

LACalc Screenshot / Bristle Software Inc. on the Google Play Store

LACalc Screenshot / Bristle Software Inc. on the Google Play Store

What’s an App?

Lastly, a small but significant number of respondents are reluctant to jump on the smartphone bandwagon. “Apparently people are using apps,” one respondent wrote in. Several others reported that they don’t yet have a smartphone.

While owning a smartphone is by no means necessary for practicing landscape architecture, our survey indicates that the wide range of smartphone apps available for landscape architects is already changing the way they design and build.

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In order to better understand what smartphone apps landscape architects use to conceptualize, design, and construct projects, ASLA recently surveyed practicing landscape architects, students, and university faculty from around the world and received more than 150 responses. In part two of this three part series, we continue to summarize the results of the survey, focusing on useful apps for constructing landscapes and presenting design ideas to colleagues and clients.

Read the first part of the survey results: Smartphone Apps for Landscape Architects: Useful Tools for Site Analysis and Design

What Apps Do You Use When Constructing a Project?

Nearly 50 percent of respondents use a smartphone app during the construction process for all or most projects, while 40 percent of respondents said they never or rarely use an app for this phase of a landscape project. 67 percent said they discovered the app on their own, while 18 percent said their firm encouraged them to use it. 7 percent were encourage to use it by a construction or engineering firm and others were informed about these apps through web searches.

The most popular apps for construction identified by respondents:

Screenshot of the AutoCAD 360 app / Autodesk Inc. on the iTunes App Store

Screenshot of the AutoCAD 360 app / Autodesk Inc. on the iTunes App Store

1. AutoCAD 360 (free; ios / android): AutoCAD 360 is a drawing and drafting app that allows you to view, edit, and share AutoCAD drawings. You can upload and open 2D and 3D DWG drawings from email and view all aspects of the file during the construction process. You can also draw and edit shapes, as well as move, rotate, and scale objects just as you would in the desktop version of AutoCAD.

2. Newforma Plans (free ios): Newformas Plans is an app that eliminates the need to carry paper plans around a jobsite. This app allows you to upload current project plans to the NewForma desktop platform and access them automatically through your iPad. You can then view, markup, and email documents while in the field.

Some other interesting apps respondents suggested:

PlanGrid (free; ios / android): PlanGrid is a construction app that allows users to upload PDF drawings to plangrid.com and then sync to their smartphones and tablets. Users can then markup and annotate drawings from the field, as well as take progress photos and pin them to the construction documents. Any markups and annotations made in the app can be shared with everyone who has access to the documents.

Bluebeam Revu ($9.99 ios): Bluebeam Revu is another app that lets you access and markup PDFs on the go. The app allows you to add comments, images, symbols, and multimedia as markups that can be saved as custom markups for future reuse. In addition to these markup features, the app has a feature that allows you to verify length, area, perimeter, and other measurements in a blueprint. Using a cloud-based platform, Revu also allows you to collaborate with colleagues in real time on the same document.

Theodolite ($3.99 ios): Theodolite is a viewfinding app that uses your smartphone’s camera, compass, and GPS to create geo-tagged photos, screenshots, and movies with one app. Not only can you stamp geographical data and notes directly onto photos and movies for later reference but you can also view your location on a map and share your position with your team through a “team tracking” feature.

What Apps Do You Use When Presenting a Project?

Some 52 percent of respondents said they use a smartphone app for presenting all or most projects, while 28 percent of respondents said they never or rarely do. 66 percent said they discovered the app on their own, while 22 percent said their firm encouraged them to use it.

The most popular apps for presentation identified by respondents:

Screenshot of the Dropbox app / Dropbox on the Apple iTunes Store

Screenshot of the Dropbox app / Dropbox on the Apple iTunes Store

1. Dropbox (free; ios / android): The Dropbox app allows you to store your photos, documents, videos, and other files to the cloud or send large files that might not send via email directly to others. With this app, you can create and edit Microsoft Office documents from your smartphone or tablet, or even back up photos and videos to the cloud automatically.

2. Keynote ($9.99 ios): Keynote allows users to create presentations with animated charts and transitions on their iPod or iPad. Presentations can be built from 30 Apple-designed themes and slide layouts, animations, fonts, and style options to make presentations more dynamic.

3. Adobe Acrobat Reader (free; ios): Adobe Acrobat Reader is the smartphone version of the popular desktop application, with many of the same features. The app allows you to quickly open PDF documents from email or the web and make comments on PDFs using sticky notes and drawing tools. You can also quickly fill out forms by typing text into fillable field or e-sign documents with your finger.

4. Microsoft PowerPoint (free; ios / android): The Microsoft PowerPoint app has the familiar look and feel of the desktop version of PowerPoint and allows you to create, view, and edit presentations from your smartphone or tablet. When you edit a presentation on an app, the content and formatting remain the same across all of your devices and you can work with other simultaneously on the same presentation from different platforms.

Some other interesting apps respondents suggested:

uPad 3 ($5.99 ios): uPad turns your smartphone or tablet into a handwritten note-taking device. The app will only recognize a special touch pen, eliminating the chance that your hand or fingers will interfere with writing. uPad allows you to annotate PDF files and presentations quickly and easily and share annotated documents with any application that can read an image of PDF.

iAnnotate ($9.99 ios; free android): The iAnnotate app is a popular app for reading, marking up, and sharing PDFs, Word Documents, PowerPoint Documents, and image files. Users can choose from a variety of tools to annotate documents such as a pen, highlighter, typewriters, stamp, and many more. Users can also add, delete, and rearrange pages in documents, then compress annotations to prevent modification.

Read part 3 on the smartphone apps landscape architects wish were available.

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In order to better understand what smartphone apps landscape architects use to conceptualize, design, and construct projects, ASLA recently surveyed practicing landscape architects, students, and university faculty from around the world. In this three-part series, we summarize the results of the survey, which yielded more than 150 responses over two weeks. Our goal is to let landscape architects know about all the useful apps they might not be aware of, and how these tools can be incorporated into increasingly multimedia design processes.

Some 64 percent of survey respondents are registered landscape architects. And 78 percent are ASLA members, of which 15 percent are associate and student members and 8 percent are fellows.

The survey assessed smartphone app use during multiple phases areas of the design process: site analysis, conceptualization and design, design reference, plant identification and selection, construction, and presentation. Respondents were asked which app they use most during each of these phases, how frequently they use that app, and who recommended it to them.

What App Do You Use When Analyzing a Site? 

76 percent of respondents used a smartphone app to analyze a site for all or most projects, while 15 percent of respondents have never used an app when conducting site analysis. 75 percent said they discovered the app on their own, while 15 percent said their firm encouraged them to use it. Others were informed about these apps through their university or by co-workers.

The most popular site analysis apps identified by respondents:

Google Earth App / Google Inc. on the App Store by iTunes

Google Earth App / Google Inc. on the iTunes App Store

1. Google Earth (free; ios / android): By far, the most popular app used for site analysis. The newest version of the Google Earth app allows users to search for exact locations as well as turn on and off layers that include streets names, borders, and photography. Through the 3-D street view option, users can get a real sense of what places are like on the ground.

2. Camera (free; ios /android): Built into all smartphones, the camera app is extremely popular for documenting sites. The iPhone camera has 8 megapixels, exposure controls, and panorama options. It also can shoot HD, slo-mo, and time-lapse video. The android camera offers similar features.

3. GPS Essentials (free; android): The GPS essentials app allows users to navigate maps, trace tracks, and manage waypoints. For any given area, the app show navigation values such as latitude, longitude, altitude, and sun and moon data. Routes, tracks, and waypoints drawn in the app can be exported to Google Earth and Google Maps.

4. Sunseeker ($9.99 ios; $7.49 android): Sunseeker uses GPS and magnetometer data to show the sun’s path at a given location on both a flat compass view and as a realistic camera view. The app, which shows the sun’s location in hour intervals, its winter and summer solstice path, as well as rise and set times, can give users a feel for the change in solar angle throughout the year and how it will impact a site.

Some other interesting apps respondents suggested:

Clinometer ($1.99 ios; free android): Clinometer allows users to calculate the angle of a slope using a smartphone camera. The app can display the slope in degrees, percentage, or rise over run. It can also be used as a level for simple tasks like aligning a frame or a presentation board.

My Tracks (free; ios / android): My Tracks turns your phone into a GPS logger by recording your path, speed, distance, and elevation on a map while you walk, run, or bike outdoors. The GPS tracks are stored on your phone and can be exported to Google Maps, Google Earth, or as vector linework.

Planimeter ($7.99 ios; $3.99 android): Planimeter is another GPS tracking tool that measures land area and distance on a map, as well as perimeter, and GPS coordinates. Not only can you quickly measure lawns, lot sizes, buildings, and paving from a satellite map, you can also measure a specific area by walking or driving around it.

What App Do You Use When Conceptualizing and Designing a Project?

Some 44 percent of respondents used a smartphone app when conceptualizing and designing all or most projects, whereas 27 percent of respondents never use an app when working through this stage of a landscape project. Some 70 percent said they discovered the app on their own, while 14 percent said their firm encouraged them to use it.

The most popular conceptualization and design apps identified by respondents:

iPad Screenshot of Paper by Fifty Three / FiftyThree, Inc. on the App Store by iTunes

iPad Screenshot of Paper by Fifty Three / FiftyThree, Inc. on the iTunes App Store

1. Paper by FiftyThree (free; ios): Paper is a digital notebook app that allows you to quickly sketch, write, draw, outline, and color on a clean interface that mimics real paper. It also includes tools that allow users to quickly create charts and diagrams for quick note-taking. Special pencils and styluses can be purchased to make drawing and note-taking easier on an iPad.

2.  Pinterest (free; ios / android): Pinterest is a visual bookmarking tool that allows users to find and save photos and ideas through their social networks. Users can upload, save, and share images and videos – known as Pins – from people in their social networks or they can save content found online to their Pinterest boards using the “Pin it” feature.

3. Houzz (free; ios / android): Houzz, called the “Wikipedia of interior and exterior design” by CNN, features a database of home design ideas that are extremely useful for residential designers. Users can browse photos by style and location and save them to a “virtual ideabook” for reference. Images can also be saved for offline viewing or shared with others through the app.

4. Sketchup Mobile Viewer ($9.99 ios ; $9.99 android): The Sketchup Mobile Viewer allows users to open and view their Sketchup models on their mobile devices. Sketchup models can be downloaded from 3D Warehouse, Dropbox, or email and can be viewed from a variety of angles and with any of Sketchup’s face styles.

Some other interesting apps respondents suggested:

Autodesk Sketchbook / Sketchbook Pro ($3.99 ios / $4.35 android): Autodesk Sketchbook is an intuitive drawing app that offers more than 100-plus preset brushes, pencils, pens, and brushes. It’s designed for people of all skill levels and allows users to create everything from small doodles to detailed digital artwork. Painting layers can be controlled with different blending modes, allowing users to create artwork as they would in Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, or in real life.

Morpholio Trace (free; ios): Morpholio Trace allows uses to quickly draw on top of imported images, drawings, and photos to comment on plans, progress images, or other drawings. Users can choose from a variety of trace papers such as yellow trace, vellum, or blueprint and use a variety of pens will different line types, colors, and sizes. Just as in real life, layers of digital trace can be added on top of each to build on ideas.

What App Do You Use for Design Reference (grading standards, color palettes, project photos, etc.)?

Some 47 percent of respondents said they used a smartphone app as a design reference tool for every or most projects, whereas 28 percent of respondents have never done so. 72 percent said they discovered the app on their own, while 15 percent said their firm encouraged them to use it. The majority of respondents said they used search engine apps, Houzz and Pinterest (as discussed above). Many landscape architects identified a need for better design reference apps.

The most popular design reference apps identified by respondents:

Adobe Color CC / Adobe on the iTunes App Store

Adobe Color CC / Adobe on the iTunes App Store

1. Adobe Color CC (free; ios / android): Adobe Color CC allows users to create color themes that can be transferred to Adobe Illustrator, InDesign, and Photoshop. The app allows users to use their screen as a viewfinder and will extract colors from camera views or photos. An interactive color wheel and color slides allow users to adjust individual colors or use pre-set selections based on color theory.

2. Palettes / Palettes Pro (free or $3.99; ios): Palettes is another color palette tool designers can use for creating color schemes. Users can grab color from a photograph, website, or select a color using a variety of color models. Compared to Adobe Color CC, Palettes offers more colors per palette (up to 25) as well as a feature that allows you to display a color full screen to compare against a real world item.

3. Synthesis Mobile (free; ios / android): Synthesis Mobile aggregates information about a user’s firm and allows him or her to stay connected with news, updates, and ideas across the company – essentially it’s a social network and employee directory for firms. Users can compose and comment on posts, as well as share photos and links firm-wide through the app. The app also keeps track of employees, projects, and future opportunities.

What App Do You Use for Identifying / Selecting Plants? 

32 percent of respondents used a smart phone app to select or identify plants for every or most projects, whereas 41 percent of respondents said they rarely or never used an app for this. 72 percent said they discovered the plant identification app on their own, while 9 percent said their firm encouraged them to use it. Many respondents said they primarily use search engines or books, or that they don’t need reference materials for plants. Some identified a need for more accurate, user-friendly plant identification apps.

The most popular plant selection and identification apps identified by respondents:

Dirr's Tree and Shrub Finder / Timber Press, Inc. on the iTunes App Store

Dirr’s Tree and Shrub Finder / Timber Press, Inc. on the iTunes App Store

1. Dirr’s Tree and Shrub Finder ($14.99, ios): Dirr’s Tree and Shrub finder is a searchable plant database that allows users to search for plants by 72 criteria including hardiness zones, water and light requirements, growth characteristics, and flowers, among many others. The app covers 1,670 species and 7,800 cultivates with more than 7,600 plant images, as well as 1,120 botanical illustrations. Plants in the app can be sorted by common and scientific name.

2. Leaf Snap (free; ios): Leaf Snap was developed by researchers from Columbia University, the University of Maryland, and the Smithsonian Institution. The app uses visual recognition software to help identify trees species in the Northeastern United States and Canada from photographs of their leaves. It contains many high resolution images of trees, leaves, flowers, and bark to help with identification.

3. PlantAPP for PlantANT (free; ios / android): PlantAPP is an app associated with PlantANT – a website that provides a free wholesale plant and nursery directory that users can search by price, distance, size etc. With the app, users can search plant vendors and listings from their phone, while plant suppliers can upload pictures of their inventory through the app.

Some other interesting apps respondents suggested:

Virginia Tech Tree ID (free; android): Virginia Tech Tree Identification contains fact sheets for 969 woody plants from North America, including a detailed description, a range map, and thousands of images. The app can use a smartphone’s GPS signal or users can enter and address of zip code and the app will tell them what trees will survive in that location. The app can also identify a plant by asking the users a series of simple questions.

PRO Landscape Contractor (free; ios / android): PRO Landscape Contractor is made for landscape professionals. It allows users to select and create visual designs for a house or building by dragging and dropping more than 11,000 stock images of plants and hard-scape elements onto uploaded pictures. Users can search the image library for plants by common or botanical name and clone existing landscape elements into the new design.

Check out part two: smartphone apps for landscape architects: useful tools for construction and presentation.

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Painting with Light


From the series Decoding Scape (cropped) / Lee Jeong Lok

Contemporary artists around the world are painting with light, using photographic techniques to add layers of light art on top of real-world scenes. These layers, which take many forms, add depth, evoke awe, and are stunningly creative. These images also illustrate the changing relationship between real and digital realms, nature and technology, and the photographer and their studio tools.

Korean artist Lee Jeong Lok overlays glowing Korean characters, symbols, and stylized natural forms like butterflies and trees on the natural vistas he has photographed.


From the series Nabi (cropped) / Lee Jeong Lok

In Designboom, he writes: “I have been painting something that exists despite its invisible nature; places that correspond to the visible world, places beyond our sensual cognition, profoundly mysterious places that nevertheless cannot be separated from our world of cognition.”


From the series Nabi (cropped) / Lee Jeong Lok

Lok adds: “painting with light is the body, mind, and the soul harmoniously following the rhythm; it is an act of delivering positive energy felt by the body, rather than creating something from nothing.”

French artist Julien Breton, otherwise known as “Kaalam” is also inspired by light, translating his own movements with flashlights into gorgeous depictions of Arabic calligraphy.


Dead’s place. Abstract calligraphy. New York, USA, 2012. Calligraphy by Julien Breton aka Kaalam (cropped) / David Gallard

The characters seemingly appear out of thin air, although in a few photographs Kaalam doesn’t completely photoshop himself out, so you see the man behind the light, the precise moves that result in the alphabetic additions.


Billy and the Kid (cropped) / Morocco

As This Is Colossal writes, Kaalam is attracted to architectural backdrops as well as dark rooftops and streets. The contrast between the tightly-scripted visions of light and the organic urban scenes adds to the allure of these art works.


La lumière – The light. Arabic calligraphy. Jodpur, India, 2012. Calligraphy by Julien Breton aka Kaalam (cropped) / David Gallard.

And then there’s Italian photographer Paolo Pettigiani, whose augmented layer is an infrared filter, which completely remakes the Italian countryside into a candy-colored (or perhaps toxic) fantasy world. Designboom brings together a collection of these photographs.


Italian countryside infrared photograph (cropped) / Paolo Pettigiani

Like Lok, he is also showing us an unseen world, given humans can’t see infrared light.


Italian countryside infrared photograph (cropped) / Paolo Pettigiani


Italian countryside infrared photograph (cropped) / Paolo Pettigiani

Beaches, woodlands, and marshes become unfamiliar, their forms seem renewed.

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User ratings for Park Row, New York, NY / Liz Camuti

User ratings for Park Row, New York, NY / Liz Camuti

Most smartphone map apps give you several direct routes to get from Point A to Point B, but the quickest or most convenient path isn’t always the most enjoyable. Those interested in finding the most beautiful, walkable route to their destination can now try Walkonomics. The app, created by United Kingdom programmer Adam Davies, allows users to find more beautiful paths through seven cities across the globe using both open and crowd-sourced city data.

Walkability-related data and apps have existed for a number of years. Websites like Walk Score rate individual addresses based on a number between 0 and 100, telling you how walkable or car-dependent an area is. But according to CityLab, Walk Score has yet to incorporate “more fine-grained and diverse data about the quality of the pedestrian experience.”

Walkonomics attempts to provide just that. Not only does this free iOS and Android app allow people to check the pedestrian-friendliness of most streets in Central London, Paris, New York, San Francisco, Toronto, Buenos Aires, and Glasgow, but it also allows them to chose either the quickest or most beautiful routes between destinations in these cities.

The app provides star rankings for eight different categories of pedestrian-friendliness: road safety; easy to cross; pavement/sidewalk; hilliness; navigation; fear of crime; “smart & beautiful;” and “fun & relaxing.” These ratings are generated from open data including street widths, traffic levels, crime statistics, pedestrian accidents, and even how many trees are on each street. Visitors and  residents can provide additional ratings for each of these criteria as they walk down streets in their neighborhood, as well as geo-referenced photos.

As I tested the app, I found that certain elements are not as user-friendly as existing ones in Google Maps. For example, typing in the name of a location rather than a specific address, which typically works pretty accurately in other mapping apps, is a bit of a struggle with Walkonomics, which requires your location or a very specific address if you’re not navigating to a famous landmark.

Though I am not a native New Yorker, I also found it strange that the most beautiful route between two New York City locations took me around Central Park, while the fastest route took me almost directly through the park. Is a stroll down a tree-lined street truly more beautiful than a walk through a park? This raises the question: how does Walkonomics actually quantify the most beautiful route, when what makes something beautiful is subjective. Furthermore, it’s unclear how Walkonomics, which is intended for urban streets, incorporates parks. Perhaps, the app could benefit from more crowd-sourcing and input from people who really know these streets (Most streets in New York only have one user rating). Davies said he also has plans to provide more options, like the safest and cleanest routes, which are more easily quantified.

The most beautiful route from 186 W 80th Street to the Plaza Hotel as determined by the Walkonomics app  / Liz Camuti

The most beautiful route from 186 W 80th Street to the Plaza Hotel as determined by the Walkonomics app / Liz Camuti


The fastest route from 186 W 80th Street to the Plaza Hotel as determined by the Walkonomics app / Liz Camuti

Despite the app’s shortcomings, Davies has certainly tapped into a real demand for walkable places. Also, studies have shown that walkable streets can boost retail sales by up to 80 percent. Research indicates walkable neighborhoods reduce obesity levels, carbon emissions, and crime, among other benefits. In fact, the benefits of walkable cities have become so widely known that many big businesses are choosing to move their headquarters back to more walkable locations.

If you live in one of the seven cities available on the app and have an extra five minutes in the morning, take Walkonomics for a spin. Not only could you end up feeling less stressed at the beginning of your workday, but you’ll have the opportunity to add to a growing data source designed to make cities a little bit more livable. And, hopefully, Walkonomics will in turn open up its own data, as it could be really useful to landscape architects, urban planners, and health researchers trying to figure out what makes one route more appealing than another.

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