Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category


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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »


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.

Read Full Post »


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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »


Hypernatural / Princeton Architectural Press

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

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

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

Here are just a few examples from the book:

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


Radiolaria / Shiro Studio

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


Windswept / Bruce Damonte

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


Bubble Building / DUS Architects

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


Radiant Soil / Philip Beesley Architect Inc.

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

Read the book.

Read Full Post »


Fractals / Mikyoung Kim Design

“This is the image that sits above my computer screen. It’s a fractal form, which explains how we work. Within fractals, there are similar forms but at different scales. The molecular scale and broad scale work together as a whole. Fractals are a system. You can’t draw an outline of a fractal and fill it in, or create a bottom-up modular system and put one together. Fractals are about the overarching structure,” said Mikyoung Kim, FASLA, head of her namesake landscape architecture firm, in a lecture at the National Building Museum.

Fractals relate to her creative process. Just as at the broad scale — or the aerial view — you can see human behavior patterns, at the molecular scale, she is thinking of “one person, and their multi-sensory experience within that place.” However, having said all of that, Kim also believes that landscape architects “can’t predict how a public space will be used and allow for flexibility.”

Kim described a few projects that show her attention to both the broad and human scales, and how they fit together into a system:

ChonGae Canal Source Point Park: Sunken Stone Garden

She won an international design competition to create the ChonGae Canal Source Point Park, with its Sunken Stone Garden in Seoul, South Korea. For Kim, it was a great experience working there, as she is a Korean American born in Hartford, Connecticut. She discovered that Seoul has 22 million people, which is about half the population of South Korea as a whole. It’s 8 times denser than NYC, with 16,000 people per square mile.

The 7-mile-long ChonGae Canal was once a river that collected water from surrounding mountains. The river was one of the reasons Seoul became the capital of Korea in the late 1300s. Over the decades, it became a conduit for wastewater and raw sewage. “By the early 1960s, it had become a symbol of poverty, and so dangerous that you couldn’t even touch the water.” It was eventually covered over with an elevated highway, dividing the city.

The Seoul government took down the highway and decided to open up the river again. They brought day light back to the corridor and improved the water quality to class 2 level, which was really difficult. The new river corridor park had to handle monsoons and 100-year storms. “But, really, it was about bringing back national pride.”

Kim worked with the international team restoring the river, but focused on one piece: a stone garden at the source point. With this project, Kim realized landscape architecture can have significant political impact. This landscape has caused the city to rethink its relationship with the water, and changed perceptions about what’s possible with public space.


ASLA 2009 Professional Awards General Design Award. ChonGae Canal Source Point Park: Sunken Stone Garden / Taeoh Kim

Also, the landscape itself is politically charged. In the era of the optimistic “Sunshine Policy” just a few years ago, when South Korean leaders thought reunification with North Korea was imminent, the ChonGae Canal Source Point Park was to be the site of the reunification ceremony.

There are ceremonial aspects of the landscape: Kim set 9 stones to represent the 9 provinces of Korea as a whole. The stones represent the “collective effort of this urban park, adding a layer of cultural significance.” Beyond the cultural aspect, Kim says the park, which has been visited by 20 million people since its opening, has led to $600 million in private sector development along the river corridor.

Through the Sunken Stone Garden, Kim came to the conclusion that the “most successful projects are ones where we don’t have to hire a photographer. If we can find lots of photos through Pinterest, Facebook, Flickr, we’ve been successful. Successful public spaces are canvases with a design language and character, but can embrace different kind of activity and discovery.”


ChonGae Canal Source Point Park: Sunken Stone Garden / Mikyoung Kim Design

Farrar Pond Residence

Kim said she does very little residential work, but she created a 3-acre landscape in Lincoln, Massachusetts, which links to Walden Pond. The clients had but one requirement: no lawn, but an outdoor space were the kids and dogs can run. They ended up deciding there would be no imperious surfaces on the property.

“The big star of show is this CorTen fence structure that contains the dogs. Our client was really two German Shephards.” The fence is designed to just keep these particular dogs in. Kim’s team measured the dogs from shoulder to shoulder to determine what the width of the fence openings should be. A dachshund that visited was able to slip right through. The fence was welded on site, so it fits the regraded landscape “like a glove.”


ASLA 2007 Professional Residential Design Honor Award. Farrar Pond Residence / Mikyoung Kim Design

On the ground are lilac bluestone pavers and granite stepping stones. As her client said, “it looks like the void of fences have fallen out to create this pattern.”


ASLA 2007 Professional Residential Design Honor Award. Farrar Pond Residence / Mikyoung Kim Design

140 West Plaza: Exhale

“We like smaller cities where we can make an even bigger impact.” In Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a “charming, historic university town, ” Kim worked with local developers to create a master plan for a new downtown park. Kim and her team concurrently looked at circulation, including bicycle infrastructure, plazas, and stormwater. They found that the mixed use developments were creating lots of surface stormwater run-off.

So Kim created a brilliant solution called Exhale. Instead of storing the run-off in gardens, she convinced them to exhale the cleansed runoff through an artful misting system. “If there is no extraneous water from the site, there is no mist.” Kim choreographed the experience, creating a score of sorts, with light and mist, which grows and dies back. “It’s like the sculpture is breathing.”


Exhale / Mikyoung Kim Design

At night, Exhale is a magnet, particularly in the hotter months when the mist is on, as it reduces temperatures by 10 degrees. “Kids are willing to get soaking wet. They run and around and engage it.”


Exhale / Mikyoung Kim Design

The Crown Sky Garden: Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago

“I’ve always really been into healthcare. And now, healthcare is interested in us. Every facility wants a garden, which is much different from 20 years ago.” Still, at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, Kim felt pressure to deliver. “We were taking 8,000 square feet out of a vertical hospital to build a garden instead of a new MRI center. How does that equal out?” While she said her husband, who is a doctor, would take issue with the statement that “gardens heal people,” gardens do “transform our bodies in ways that can’t hurt. Within 3-5 minutes, it has been proven that gardens normalize blood pressure, heart activity, muscle tension, and brain electrical activity.”

In this healing garden on the 11th floor, there were enormous constraints. Given so many young patients there have weak immune systems or just had surgery, they couldn’t be exposed to organic materials like soil or plants. There have been cases of people catching Legionnaire’s Disease from fountains, so water features were out, too.

Kim and her colleagues finally convinced the hospital to allow bamboo in raised planters that patients wouldn’t be able to access. The soil that holds them is 98 percent inorganic. “Basically, the only thing that will grow in soil like that are weeds, and bamboo is a lovely weed.” The hospital staff have committed to putting a tarp on the bamboo and spraying them three times a year to keep them clean.


ASLA 2013 Professional General Design Honor Award. The Crown Sky Garden: Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago / George Heinrich Photography

To get around the fact that no open water could be allowed, Kim created water features that bubble up through marble. And a fallen tree, which Frederick Law Olmsted planted in a park in Chicago more than 100 years ago, was reclaimed and turned into wonderfully tactile benches and interactive art pieces. Sealed together with resin and lit from within, the tree sculptures also feature kids’ hand prints, which when touched, activate sounds of water.


ASLA 2013 Professional General Design Honor Award. The Crown Sky Garden: Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago / Mikyoung Kim Design

Learn more about Mikyoung Kim’s new projects, like 888 Boylston in Boston, at her web site.

Read Full Post »


Designed for the Future / Princeton Architectural Press

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

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

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

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



Luminance Map, Belfast / Guilio Antonutto

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


Mushroom Board by Ecovative / Jonsara Ruth

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


Braddock, Pennsylvania / Kristen Taylor, Creative Commons, Flickr

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


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

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

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

Read the book.

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

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,269 other followers