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Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

1_30000 Dredge Anth + 2008 islands

Jamaica Bay / Drudge Design Collaborative

To dredge simply means to scoop up sediment, often underwater, and move it to another location. While this process is often associated with moving contaminated soils to a place where they can be safely capped, today, dredging is also increasingly about harnessing natural processes to create new landforms and ecological systems. New “dredge landscapes,” man-made systems, offer opportunities for ecological restoration, said Brett Milligan, ASLA, Dredge Research Collaborative, at the ASLA 2014 Annual Meeting in Denver.

Sediment is dynamic and dramatically differs from place to place. Studying the natural flow of sediment in rivers and deltas, we can begin to understand how the movement of sediment can be “choreographed” to achieve ecological goals. However, given sediment flow happens within complex ecosystems impacted by human activities, like the deepening of channels for large ships, using dredge to create new landscapes is a highly complicated process.

As an example, Milligan pointed to efforts to dredge sediment into new landforms that can support wetlands in Jamaica Bay in New York. At current rates, “the wetlands will totally disappear in 10 years. Water regimes have changed due to stormwater runoff and deeper shipping channels.” While efforts are underway to rebuild the low-lying islands that can support wetlands in the bay, he asked how dredge can be used to restore a natural environment “where everything has changed?”

According to Hugh Roberts, Arcadis, we must “design with nature” when dredging, and a changing nature at that. Coastal land loss plus sea level rise means using dredged sediment to create wetland habitat is incredibly complex, hence the need for his job, numeric modeling lead. Wetlands require multiple flushings of water per day and they only exist at sea level, so there are “narrower number of places where they can survive. It’s a fine balance.”

In the Mississippi River delta, Roberts has been working on the White Delta diversion project, which aims to create the most efficient interventions for spreading out sediment in the widest possible fan from the river into the delta. Flow paths are dredged to enable the reconstitution of sediment far into the delta plains. All of this is part of an effort to undo the man-made system of containing the river, which looks like “a plumbing diagram,” in favor of letting the river flow and deposit sediment where it’s most needed, ecologically.

Roberts also pointed to the innovative Sand Engine project in the Netherlands as a great example of how dredging can work with nature. The Dutch have created a “changing land form that distributes sand along the Dutch coast.” They have placed large “nourishment mounds.” Nature then “spreads out the sand where it needs to.”

This process is the opposite of the conventional approach of pumping sand directly onto eroding beaches, an approach often called botoxing beaches. Like botox, this pumping approach only works for so long before the beach needs to be re-sanded.

The Sand Engine, Roberts says, is about “increasing resilience through nature.” Models, like the ones he creates, can help nature optimize its efforts. Today, one can see the Sand Engine has actually resulted in “natural dune formations” and the return of endangered plant species.

Zandmotor vlucht-30 10-01-2012 foto: Rijkswaterstaat/Joop van Houdt

Dutch Sand Engine / Topos Magazine

Milligan said up to 45 gigatons of earth is dredged per year, about 30 tons per person in the U.S. According to engineer and dredger Chris Dols, Great Lakes Dredge and Dock, there are a number of different dredging technologies. There’s the cutter suction dredge, which turns mud underwater into a slurry then moved through massive hydraulic pumps. Then there’s hopper dredging, which involves using a mobile dredging vessels that vacuums up material then stores it within the boat only to be sprayed or pumped to other locations. Both can be used to support restoring ecosystems.

Sean Burkholder, ASLA, a landscape architecture professor at University at Buffalo, wants landscape architects to see dredging as a real design opportunity. Today, in the Great Lakes region, only 25 percent of sediment is reused; the rest is dumped on land or sent out to sea. Instead of treating contaminated sediment as merely waste that needs to be moved and capped, contaminants can be separated out, leaving material to create new dredge landscapes. “We can use this material more creatively in our own work.”

Also, existing dredged landscapes can become environmental education opportunities. These landscapes are typically near cities. “We can create access and interpretation for legacy sites.”

For those interested in learning more about dredge landscapes, Milligan organizes DredgeFest every year.

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3d printing

3D printer / Gigaom

Landscape architects can bypass contractors and participate directly in the fabrication and manufacturing of all sorts of objects like benches or even pavers, if they are confident enough to delve into 3D modeling and 3D printing, said Steven Bishop, ASLA, Stoss Landscape Urbanism, and John Pacyga, ASLA, Verdant Design, at the ASLA 2014 Annual Meeting in Denver. “This can really disrupt the product development process. We can now actually make products the way we want,” said Pacyga. With 3D printing, landscape architects can both enable new forms, leaving the old standardized ones in the past, and begin building.

Multiple technologies are found under the umbrella term “3D printing.” There is Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), also sometimes known as FFF, which involves turning wires of plastic into forms. This is the most common and popular 3D printer technology out there. Then, there’s stereolithography printers, which are slow at creating models but offer an incredible level of detail. With this technology, resin is turned into a solid form. “You start with a sort of pot of goo,” said Pacyga. There’s also selective laser sintering, which uses a laser to melt materials into a form, as well as CJP/3DP, which adds up thin paper or powder layers. Any excess is broken off to reveal the form.

FDM printers can be either desktop machines, which run from $500 t0 $4,000, or industrial size printers, which are found at 3D printing centers, now found in most major cities. A good desktop printer for a landscape architectural office could run $1,500 to $2,500. Pacyga cautioned that you really get what you pay for so it’s worthwhile to invest in a good one, which can be found in Make magazine’s annual consumer report released in the fall. Pacyga also noted the real expense of these tools is staff time spent “calibrating and maintaining them.” If you need to send a job to a 3D printing center, an average job can take 2 weeks to a month to do, so “plan ahead,” said Pacyga. The cost can range from $16 to $22 per cubic inch. Prices are calculated either according to volume or on a time and materials basis.

All these technologies, Bishop said, enable landscape architects to communicate with clients and stakeholders about their ideas in a more compelling way. “It’s one thing to fly through a 3D model and another to let them see what we want to make.” 3D printed models can also demonstrate the value of an iterative design process. For their Plaza at Harvard University, which includes innovative ergonomic, cust0m-designed benches, Stoss used 3D printed models to create one idea, then four, and then eight, followed by a range of iterations to show the “formal language” of their bench designs. The eventual models they created in Rhino were sent straight to the fabricator to prototype and then the manufacturer. “There was no construction documents and no middle man.”

plaza

Plaza at Harvard University / Stoss Landscape Urbanism

For Erie Street Plaza in Milwaukee, Stoss created models of a novel paving pattern and delivered that straight to Wausau Pavers, who then created a steel mold for the 60,000 square feet of pavers they needed for the plaza. Using 3D printing for the paver design was important because the steel mold alone cost more than $100,000.

erie

Erie Street Plaza / Stoss Landscape Urbanism

Pacyga said Rhino or Sketchup works great for creating 3D models that can then be turned into models to be fed into a 3D printer. However, landscape architects will first need to ensure their 3D print model is “manifold and watertight before sending to the printer.” This means that if you, theoretically, put water inside your model, there would be no leaks. In practice, this mean “everything must have a depth.” Pacyga recommended using Cleanup3, Solid Inspector, or SUsolid.com, services that analyze your models to find any “dangling lines or holes.”

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Postcard from “Gotthard Landscape: The Unexpected View,” 2014 Architecture Biennale, Venice, showing a multi-layered perspective / Department of Architecture, ETH Zurich

We need to find a word that brings us back to common ground. In a lecture at Harvard University Graduate School of Design, Christope Girot, professor and chair of landscape architecture in the architecture department at the ETH (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) in Zürich, Switzerland, suggests that “topology” may be the word, for it speaks to the logic and intelligence of a landscape. Girot acknowledges his unique way of viewing: “I believe in the landscape as a body.” He means this in a very literal sense, emphasizing landscape’s physical qualities.

One of the first slides Girot flashes before the audience shows topology’s etymological roots: Topos (place) and logos (reason). Topology, he claims, is about sensing and conceiving landscape. Rather abstractly, topology, then, can define a way in which constituent parts are interrelated or arranged. This approach can be applied to landscape architecture through multi-layered visualizations, and new, multi-scalar methods of design.

(Girot borrows the term topology from philosophy, but also reclaims its original meaning from its contemporary mathematical association. Girot makes reference to Hans Kollhoff, who retrieved the term “tectonics” from the realm of volcanoes and inserted it into the core of architecture).

In practice, his use of point cloud modelling for large-scale projects emphasizes landscape’s elevational information. This means designing on a “skin,” an abstracted land form developed by filtering raw data and draping a point cloud. The raw data to which he is referring is what his team collects by sending flying drones with laser scanners over a landscape. Girot uses an incredibly complex coordinate system to achieve a level of precision previously unknown to landscape architects. If his lecture could be summed up by a single statement it would be this: Landscape architects must become masters of simulating reality for this is the future.

A term that Girot employed even more than topology is precision. Point cloud modelling, he argues, is the optimal tool for achieving precision because it achieves a precision competitive with the instruments employed by structural engineers. It elevates the position of the landscape architect, granting a heightened level of control and broadening the landscape architect’s territory. Girot reminds us of a time when engineers, architects, and landscape architects each practiced within their respective scalar domains (1:1-1:1000 versus 1:10,000-50,000, etc.). In contrast to this, today, point cloud modelling enables landscape architects to reverse the order by teaching engineers something about sensitivity.

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Detail of a perspective generated from a point cloud model / Department of Architecture, ETH Zurich

What is astounding is how Girot has been able to apply this methodology, translating a seemingly infinite set of tiny informational dots into more than a pretty pointillist picture. (It is worth mentioning, however, that this does not preclude the possibility of an unlimited number of instant perspectives exported from zooming around in the point cloud model dimension.) While it is easy to gape at the seductive visualizations, such as the 20-meter projection of a fly-through made for Gotthard Landscape: The Unexpected View, the ETH’s contribution to the 2014 Architecture Biennale in Venice, Girot wants to make clear that this method is not just for show; it is a tool.

His animations present a new way of perceiving landscape, allowing viewers to experience an x-ray-like vision of the alps that situates the tunnel beneath a massive load, a measurable “void” beneath the modeled surface. The tunnel itself will alter the way in which visitors make their way “through the alps” by promising a 1-hour 40-minute journey without a single alpine view. In this case the model becomes a tool for communication rather than a tool for design.

fig4_biennials-ch-postcards-gotthard-ethz

Postcard from “Gotthard Landscape: The Unexpected View,” 2014 Architecture Biennale, Venice / Department of Architecture, ETH Zurich

While point cloud technology introduces new design methods to the field, it by no means guarantees the quality of a design. This technology can only bring us one step closer to a desired level of precision. For example, point cloud modelling is a tool that measures, with surprising accuracy, the extent of flood events on existing topography. For the ongoing project with the Future Cities Laboratory in Jakarta, Indonesia, Girot and his team use point cloud modelling to give definition to a landscape that lacks topographical data.

Girot generated a model of the polluted Ciliwung River to achieve the information required for a systems approach to dealing with a region where informal settlements established within the narrowing riverbed suffer from frequent flooding. With a virtual topography, or a “skin” of the river district, the lab succeeds in developing what Girot calls “the new Nolli plan,” an “urban bas relief” that reveals useful information for an urban strategy.

fig5_chiliwungRiver-jakarta-girot-ethz-ch

Detail from a bird’s eye view rendering made by the Future Cities Laboratory for the Ciliwung River project / Department of Architecture, ETH Zurich

Girot introduces to us a new design approach: communication through simulation. Here, precise data-based 3D modeling precedes the design of a landscape.

This guest post is by Lara Mehling, Master’s of Landscape Architecture candidate, Harvard University Graduate School of Design

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share

Participant of Peerby, and the new sharing economy, in the Netherlands / Consumentenbond

“We are still making and selling too much stuff,” said James Slezak, the founder of Peers, a sharing economy advocacy organization, at the EcoDistricts Summit in Washington, D.C. This is a “waste of wealth” because more people could simply rent or borrow what they need in our burgeoning “sharing economy.” Why buy a car when you can simply order up a ride on an app? Why book a hotel room when you can stay in someone’s spare bedroom for much less? And why buy something when someone next door has what you need and will lend it to you for free? According to the proponents of the sharing economy, there are so many untapped opportunities to both make money and help other people. This new sharing economy then has huge implications for cities.

Slezak said the average car spends 90 percent of its engine switched off. And then, even when it’s in use, a big percentage of the time the car is idle, stuck in traffic or circling for parking. Why not share a car so it’s used more efficiently? Firms like Uber and Lyft enable this through a “less centralized model of ownership.” The same can be said for places to stay. Some people only use their apartments — or rooms in their apartments — some of the time. On Airbnb, users can rent out that extra space and make some money, while providing someone with a low-cost place to stay. “Instead of saying we have 600,000 hotel rooms, cities should say they have 600,000 apartments available.”

Still, many cities are only tip-toeing into the sharing economy, as there are many issues to work out. For one, how should sharers be regulated, given they are providing a form of service? The companies themselves still seem to be wading through these issues, too. Slezak said some questions still need to be answered, like: “What’s the impact on local communities? What’s the impact on people with jobs in the old model economy? Will the new sharing economy be equitable? What if someone has nothing to share?”

As Sharon Feigon, head of the Shared-Use Mobility Center, explained, at its best, sharing “increases options and helps us do things in a more efficient way.” But, there are definitely winners and losers. NYC taxi drivers, who can spend up to $1 million for a medallion, are fending off unregulated drivers taking their business. In San Francisco, the city is having a hard time finding cab drivers because drivers see Uber or Lyft as better opportunities.

She is focused on ensuring all ages — not just Millennials — benefit from sharing. This may be getting harder as the sharing economy is increasingly driven by a new set of corporations, whereas in the past sharing was a mostly non-profit endeavor. The private company Uber, with 1.2 million car sharers, is now worth $18 billion. Many other car sharing services have been purchased by established car rental companies (Avis, Hertz, etc).

For Daan Weddephol, founder of Peerby, sharing has great social value, but it won’t be lucrative for him unless he can convince everyone to do it. Peerby enables users of their web site to share “power tools, camping gear, things you only use once in a while.” Weddepohl said “80 percent of things we own could be shared. We have all this overcapacity that we can put into a system.”

Peerby matches those who need something with someone close by willing to lend it. “We fulfill 85 percent of requests in 30 minutes.” The web site makes money by offering optional insurance for damage or loss.

In Amsterdam, where the service started, there are already 60,000 users sharing one million objects. The service has spread throughout Europe and is now being piloted in multiple major U.S. cities. The goal is to launch the service in 50 U.S. cities by 2015.

Weddepohl seems the growing sharing economy as a return to the spirit of Medieval times, when communities were strong and sharing was done as a matter of practice. In that spirit, Peerby enables urbanites to “meet new people and connect.” The service improves sustainability because it means reduced greenhouse gas emissions from product consumption. The challenge, he said, is to create enough scale. With margins so small on the high-social value, but low-monetary value transactions, “we need many transactions to make money.”

Airbnb, if you haven’t heard, is a “platform for renting space in your home,” said Anita Roth, Airbnb. Already more than half a million worldwide have provided rooms for 11 million visitors. Roth said “the services allows people to move to a new city more easily and cheaply and enjoy new experiences.” It’s changing the “nature of hosting.”

To convince cities to create supportive regulations for Airbnb, the company has undertaken a series of economic impact studies. The company has found that 75 percent of Airbnb rooms are outside the main urban center. As a result, “tourism dollars are spread through the city.” Visitors spend about “50 percent of their total budget in the neighborhood” they are staying in.

The social benefits — amorphous yet valuable things like “cross cultural connections” or “increased neighborhood engagement” — are proving more difficult to measure, but Roth said they exist. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Airbnb played a role in helping people find new temporary housing. She said these kinds of social services only improve the resilience of a community.

While Airbnb ran right into New York City’s tough hotel laws, Roth said other cities are more open to letting people rent their apartments. Amsterdam, which was “skeptical at first,” has since “realized all the benefits and become a sharing city.” The city has changed its laws so people can legally rent our their apartment for up to two months a year. They have created regulations to address concerns and have done a lot to educate locals about how to rent out their apartment correctly, with fliers that have info about who to call if there’s a problem.

And there are so many more companies entering the sharing marketplace, with different degrees of success. Weddepohl thinks there is ultimately a limit to this new sharing economy — “you can’t share paper clips” — and the balance of what you can share or not share is coming near. These new services will need to partner with city governments to scale up these services in a way that also addresses cities’ concerns. Services offered by sharing companies need to be regulated, but they should also widely available — if only for the potentially positive economic and social impacts on all those neighborhoods beyond downtown.

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mia

Mia Lehrer / Metropolis

Mia Lehrer & the L.A. River – Metropolis, August 2014
“Defining large swaths of the city, it is perhaps the best lens through which to understand how Lehrer works … Her version of landscape architecture is more like alchemy, addressing landscape in a deeper, social sense.”

Will Toronto’s Ambitious Push to Grow its Urban Canopy Pay Off? – The Globe and Mail, 8/8/14
“The urban forest is an important part of the city’s identity, and city hall has made a formal commitment to increasing the number of trees – citing their environmental benefits as well as their positive impact on the city’s streetscapes.”

Do Evolving Neighborhoods Mean Dissolving Communities? Planetizen, 8/11/14
“As societal mores have loosened up and people become more willing to live next door to those who are different from them, these neighborhoods have come to seem less exotic and more desirable. In a certain way, places like Capitol Hill have become victims of their own success.”

New Queens Public Plaza Shows Public Space Doesn’t Take All That Much – The Architect’s Newspaper, 8/13/14
“Frankly, there’s not all that much to it – save for a new sidewalk, some planters, and a handful of bright bistro tables and chairs. But here’s what Bliss Plaza does have: People. And that’s the key.”

Geograph’s Quixotic Effort To Get Photos Of Every Square Kilometer Of Great Britain And Ireland FiveThirtyEight, 8/15/14
“Smartphone and digital-camera owners are collectively carrying out a worldwide data-collection task: photographing every nook and cranny of the world.”

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ozone

Danica Lombardozzi / National Center for Atmospheric Research

Community Radio of Northern California asks: “What if you could look at the plants in your garden in order to learn if the air around you is clean or dirty?” Turns out the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado, enables us to do just that with their new ozone garden. There, the plants show a visible reaction when ozone reaches a certain level.

Ozone is an oxidant in our atmosphere that can be harmful to both people and plants. NASA, which also has an ozone garden for research, further explains: “One of the primary components of air quality is the amount of ozone found in the air we breathe (troposphere). While ozone in the upper atmosphere (stratosphere) protects life from harmful ultraviolet radiation, ozone in the lower atmosphere (troposphere) is a pollutant that damages plants and human lung tissue.” Surface-level ozone can reach dangerously high levels on hot, sunny days, causing create breathing problems, especially for children.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set the limit for humans at 75 parts per billion, but Community Radio writes that it’s considering lowering that level. Some plants start showing effects at 40 parts per billion.

NCAR’s test garden has four types of plants, which have been selected for their “sensitivity to ozone.” These include “milkweed, snap bean, potato and cutleaf coneflower.” When ozone begins to take its toll, Danica Lombardozzi, a postdoctoral researcher at NCAR, told Community Radio: “You start to see damage on the leaves. A bunch of little black spots.”

These plants are “like a canary in the coal mine,” said Lombardozzi. When the plants react to the ozone, some of the chlorophyll cells in the plant’s leaves die. “The effect isn’t instant, though – the leaf blackening depends on how long the ozone is in the air and how long the plants are exposed.” Typically, the worst ozone comes in later July and August.

As NASA explains in a comprehensive report about their bioindicator ozone garden, ozone could also be very bad news for the plant world, and, in turn, us. During high periods of ozone, there have been known negative impacts: “Ozone air pollution has been known since the late 1950s to cause significant injury and economic losses to many agricultural crops, herbaceous ornamentals, and native plants.” Forests could also be affected.

Here’s a guide on how to set up an ozone garden as a monitoring station. NASA also created a toolkit that explains how educators and middle school students can create their own ozone garden as a scientific learning exercise.

If you have kids or existing breathing problems and are concerned about ozone, you can also check out OzoneMatters.

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things
“My success is built on a mountain of failure.” This bit of wisdom among others is from Biz Stone, one of the co-founders of Twitter, who shared stories from his new book, Things a Little Bird Told Me: Confessions of the Creative Mind, at an event organized by the Greater Washington Board of Trade in Washington, D.C.

Stone, who is regularly cited as one of the most influential people of the information age, believes failure is inevitable, at least before stumbling upon success. “With each failure, you learn something new. You cross off the list all of the things you shouldn’t do.” Now aged 40, Stone is certainly a success. He has earned hundreds of millions from his share of Twitter, the now-ubiquitous micro-blogging services that attracts 240 million visitors each month. Twitterers send out 500 million tweets each day.

Some of Stone’s lessons learned will be useful for all design professionals:

On being entrepreneurial: “Most people think opportunity is defined. But no one takes a step back and looks at the circumstances. I made the circumstances and then took the opportunity.”

On your designer ego: “Don’t love ideas so much that other people can’t participate. Take your ego out of it.”

On creativity: “Creativity is an endlessly renewable resource.” As a part of this, Stone talked about his time designing book covers. He said he learned that “there is no one perfect book cover. There are infinite perfect covers.” If your client doesn’t like one book cover — or landscape or building design, for that matter — simply create another.

On being vulnerable: “There is value in vulnerability. We put a human face on our early failures at Twitter. Twitter wasn’t built for success. We had to do that. Our underdog image helped us.”

On leadership: “Always be positive, the north star. You have to keep your employees happy, laughing. You can’t yell at people when they are stressed out.”

On profit: “If you love what you are doing and believe that a company or product will do better by aligning with a meaningful cause, then passion will be aligned with profit. Find value and then amplify that value through a business model.”

On creating value: “You will always win if you are doing right by your users.”

On major credit card debt: “I had faith my future self would be smart enough to solve this.”

On great wealth: “It amplifies who you are. If you are a jerk, you will become the biggest jerk. If you are a thoughtful, empathetic person, you will go into philanthropy.”

On philanthropy: “You don’t need to be rich to start giving. You should give early on. In fact, giving has compound impact.”

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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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forest

Global Forest Watch

Global Forest Watch, a new $25 million dollar, web-based tool — which was created through a partnership of the World Resources Institute (WRI), ESRI, United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), Google, and a slew of other environmental groups — aims to provide a “near-real time” view of deforestation (and reforestation) around the world. According to data from Google and the University of Maryland, the world has lost 2.3 million square kilometers of trees from 2000 to 2012 from logging, diseases, and storms. BBC News tells us this is the equivalent to 50 football fields of trees being lost “every minute of every day over the past 12 years.” But during the same time frame, about 800,000 square kilometers of new forest were also planted. Still, this means the world has lost forest cover equal to the size of Mongolia in little more than a decade. The world can’t keep going at this rate given only about 15 percent of the planet’s original forest cover now remains.

Since the late 1990s, WRI has led the development of the forest watch service, which “unites satellite technology, open data, and crowdsourcing to guarantee access to timely and reliable information about forests.” The program uses more than half a billion high-res images from NASA’s Landsat program, which are organized with new algorithms created by the University of Maryland, and then made available for easy online access thanks to the cloud computing power of Google’s Earth and Maps engines. BBC News writes that high-res images of global tree loss and gain are updated annually while data on tropical forests is updated monthly.

The program’s ability to crowdsource information is particularly interesting. Campaigners and local communities can also submit data, pictures, and video on the ground. This picks up on an existing trend: “In Brazil, the Paiter Surui people are already using smart phones and GPS software to monitor illegal logging.”

The watch service will visualize protected areas, as well as concessions for logging, mining, and palm oil. For example, any user can look up whether a given area is protected or whether a company has the right to take down the trees there. Policymakers and regulators can now point to the map to see if laws are being followed on logging in vulnerable areas. Multinational companies like Nestle say it will enable them to better track where they supply palm oil and other ingredients. And sustainable forestry companies can better prove their products are coming from sanctioned places. Dr. Andrew Steer at WRI said: “Global Forest Watch is a near-real time monitoring platform that will fundamentally change the way people and businesses manage forests. From now on, the bad guys cannot hide and the good guys will be recognized for their stewardship.”

The world no longer has to rely on guesstimates. As Rebecca Moore, engineering manager with Google Earth, explained to Reuters: “With the exception of Brazil, none of the tropical forest countries have been able to report the state of their forests. Now it will be possible to have near real-time updates of the state of the world’s forests, open to anyone to use.”

The trick will be getting out some final kinks, writes The Christian Science Monitor. Critics of the program say it currently can’t distinguish between forests and industrial plantations, a major problem given rows of palm trees shouldn’t really be counted as a forest, given these mono-cultures provide very few ecosystem services.

Also worth reading is “Networking Nature: How Technology Is Transforming Conservation,” a phenomenal article in the past issue of Foreign Affairs magazine. Conservation scientist Jon Hoekstra gives us many reasons to be optimistic about the power of new technologies. “Conservation is for the first time beginning to operate at the pace and on the scale necessary to keep up with, and even get ahead of, the planet’s most intractable environmental challenges. New technologies have given conservationists abilities that would have seemed like super powers just a few years ago.”

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worldman
Buckminster Fuller 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. In a fascinating new book edited by Daniel Lopez-Perez called R. Buckminster Fuller: World Man, Alejandro Zaerao-Polo writes that he was one of the first to describe “the modern world as an ecosystem to be reconciled with nature.” Back in the mid-60s, way before the sustainable design movement took root, he was talking about “energy, fossil fuels, food, and pollution.” He was one of the first systems-thinkers, serving as one of the intellectual godfathers of today’s integrated approach to sustainable design.

His geodesic dome, which was featured at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), brought him fame, but he was perhaps more interested in using these large-scale illustrations to promote the “concepts or operative principles” behind these works, writes Lopez-Perez. In the late 1920s, Fuller wrote, “I made a bargain with myself that I’d discover the principles operative in the universe and turn them over to my fellow man.” Arguably, Lopez-Perez says, Fuller’s conception of these operating principles became more widely known than his inventions.

When invited to give a major lecture at Princeton University by Princeton School of Architecture dean Robert Geddes in the nascent field of environmental design in 1966, Fuller outlined his unique approach, which cut across disciplines. As Geddes describes, Fuller was “hard to classify … either [an] engineer or architect or inventor or geographer or mathematician or all of these.” Early on, Fuller was promoting the spaces in between disciplines, saying they were the places where true innovation happens.

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For a “globe map,” a project with Princeton architectural students created in conjunction with his lecture, he demonstrated some of his discipline-breaking ideas about the universe and architecture. The model was described in the Princeton Alumni Weekly as a nothing less than “the characteristic structural principle of the universe.” It’s no accident that the “sphere is 400 feet in diameter. Mr. Fuller believes that the discontinuous compression principle is the characteristic structural principle of the universe. And with a 40-foot diameter, his sphere becomes a sort of scale model of the world, at 1:1,000,000.” He was using the globe map as a sort of experiment. While the globe map was useful for cartographers — it apparently was more accurate in its depiction of the planet than the conventional map at the time — it was meant for architects and other designers. His goal was to “provide a better comprehension of world geography to help architects plan their work in a larger perspective.”

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In his lecture, which is republished in full in World Man, we get insights into his thinking. He speaks in non-disciplinary terms, as he says designers must also act like entrepreneurs and inventors. He elevated the role of the inventor, saying, “If his invention works, it is a facility for man. It will very probably decrease the frustrations of man’s realization of his highest potential.”

He believes we must design — and create inventions — with a clear understanding of the systems in which we work. “The earth can be a system, because clearly there is that which is interior and that which is exterior to it. Some part of the universe has to be invested in the system to differentiate what is in or outside at a given moment. That is what I mean by a system.”

By more fully understanding the Earth system, humans can participate more “consciously” in its “evolutionary transformation and success.” Just as his globe map enabled visitors to both view it as an object — and then also stand within it and look out of it — people can place locate themselves in the broader system. If they do that, “I think all of humanity is about to be born into a new kind of relationship to the universe.” Fuller was articulating a concept we all now know: local actions have global effects.

He goes on to make the case for sustainability within the Earth system, calling for increased use of wind power, arguing that “the burning up of fossil fuels” is an error. He also foresaw the need for a way to capture and store wind power, which is what many wind power manufacturers are working on right now. He called for capturing power from tides. He saw the need for more energy-efficient fuels.

He put a lot of faith in the young — future generations — to do better than the ones before, finally arguing that “the best I can prophesy to myself is the young world is about to take the initiative as inventor-scientist, and in the employing of principles which are operative in universities immediately make available to them and will succeed in converting the resources available to us to such high order of effectiveness as to care of 100 percent of humanity.”

Read the book and explore the work of the Buckminster Fuller Institute, which promotes his ideas through their annual design competition.

Image credits: Princeton Architectural Press

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