Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

If the world could only harness the collaborative genius of gamers, many of our most intractable problems could be solved. This was the central argument of the amazing Jane McGonigal, director of game research and development, Institute for the Future, and best-selling author of Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, at the 2012 Greenbuild in San Francisco. (A similar version of her talk can be seen from TED above).

Games can effectively be a platform for engaging people as collaborators. Given the success of some of the best-selling games, the potential scale of collective action is enormous. As an example, McGonigal said Angry Birds has had 1 billion downloads and at some point 1/10 people on earth have played the game. In total, “people have spent a total of 325,000 years avenging these poor birds.” Another game with “extraordinary reach” is Call of Duty. The average players of that game spent about 170 hours a year playing, which is about the same of one full-time month of work. “They are playing like it’s a job.” In fact, the game is so popular it also interferes with work: when a new version recently came out, some 1/4 of all players called in sick to work.

Gamers may be so intently focusing on their games because they get little stimulation at work. They aren’t alone: some 74 percent of American workers were said to be “disengaged” at work, according to a Gallup poll. This lack of engagement costs U.S. employers about $300 billion annually. Plus, a lack of engagement really equates to a lack of innovation, which is a danger for the U.S. economy as a whole. McGonigal said the real story is that “there’s passion and energy but it’s being transferred to the virtual world of gaming.” Instead of seeing this as part of the decline of Western civilization, McGonigal interestingly sees it as a huge opportunity. As NYU professor Clay Shirky, who wrote Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations (a book worth a read), noted, Wikipedia took around 100 million hours of collaborative global effort to create. “That’s just three weeks of Angry Birds. We have the potential to create 7 Wikipedias every week.” McGonigal even has a new word to define this online world: the “engagement economy,” which is made possible through “mass participation and skills and abilities.”

So for all those parents out there worried about their kids rotting their minds with online games, perhaps they should put their fears aside. Game playing, which 99 percent of boys and 92 percent of girls under 18 do, actually boosts positive emotions. Gamers associate the following feelings with games: “joy, relief, love, surprise, pride, curiosity, excitement, awe, wonder, contentment, and creativity.” In games, we are also “working with others.” Being a part of a massive multiplayer community “creates confidence, a sense of agency.”

In a survey of research, gamers were found to be more creative. “And the more time they spent gaming, the more creative they were.” Gamers spend about “80 percent of their time failing. You have to try again and again.” This builds a positive sense of self. For everyone, social games actually lead people “to help each more in real life.” Even casual gaming “outperforms pharmaceuticals for anxiety and depression.”  Interestingly, those with ADHD had their symptoms disappear when they started gaming. For those with autism, playing games helped them to “collaborate better and improve their emotional intelligence.” Games “make us resilient and create super-empowered individuals.”

McGonigal then explained how the three “super-powers” of gamers could be harnessed to address some of the world’s most daunting challenges. First, gamers can “summon crowds out of thin air.” As an example, she pointed to a real-world “Farmville,” an app called Ground Crew that enables local urban agriculture organizations to find volunteers in real time based on how far they are from the farms. Ground Crew led to a “1oo-time boost in volunteer participation” for some local organizations.

Second, gamers can “solve the unsolvable.” No joke. McGonigal pointed to a site called Fold IT by the University of Washington that used gamers to manipulate infinitely complex proteins. If proteins “fold in a certain way, you get a disease.” But unraveling the folds is no easy feat: “it’s a Rubix cube with 100 sides.” In a show of force for the gaming world, gamers solved a unbelievably complex challenge related to HIV in just 10 days. Researchers with PhDs had been working on the problem for nearly a decade. Their feat was even written up in Nature, one of the world’s best science journals.

Third, “gamers can see the future.” A new Web site called the World without Oil, which asked users to play games around the idea of peak oil and explain how they would live with oil at $4 a gallon, documented some 100 thousand stories. A year later, “when the world caught up” and gas reached those prices, the stories listed actually provided “an early warning systems.”

So getting on board with games may be the way to go. Kids gaming today will soon grow into adults who game. “It’s inevitable. Soon we’ll all be gamers.”

Read Full Post »


At the opening session of the 2012 Greenbuild conference in San Francisco, the co-hosts of “Morning Joe,” Mika Brezinski and Joe Scarborough, hosted a series of panels with leading environmental experts like Majora Carter and Paul Hawken; technnology and product innovators such as Biz Stone, a co-founder of Twitter, and David Kohler, The Kohler Group; and policymakers such as Newark Mayor Cory Booker, California Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom, and former New York governor George Pataki. While Morning Joe seemed a bit obsessed by the losses of his Republican Party (he says he’s on the libertarian side of the spectrum), the morning show team still ably led the panelists through a fascinating, wide-ranging discussion on the business and ideological forces pushing forward the sustainability movement and the policy actions that enable or impede it.

Perhaps the most powerful statement to come out of the session was from MacArthur “genius” Majora Carter, who said that movements for “greater equality lead to greater prosperity for all.” Following up on USGBC President Rick Fedrizzi’s argument that the green building movement is indeed a movement and comes in a long of line of movements that have expanded rights for women, African Americans, and gay Americans, Carter said “environmental equality” was the next frontier. With environmental improvements for all, “we all benefit” and the economy grows as new jobs are created.

Hawken, the author of four bestselling books on how ecology and commerce can be better integrated, said that groups like the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) are critical because they are places “where ideas have sex.” However, both he and Carter argued that “everyone needs to be in the room: poor, rich, black, white.” When everyone is in the room, “the questions become important,” and they also change because they address the needs of the underserved. Also, Carter added that “we need to preach outside the little temple we’ve built for ourselves” and truly link jobs to environmental equality. “This will be huge opportunity, one that can be embraced by all,” not just the environmental movement.

Stone succeeded in making the case that technology – whether in the Internet or green building realm — can be an enabler if used to create more understanding. He quoted Einstein, who said that “information is not knowledge.” With the rise of the Web and big data, there’s more and more information out there, but it needs to be “turned into understanding and then action.”

Lt. Governor Newsom believes that the new digital divide exists between society and the private sectory on one hand and the government on the other hand. “Technology hasn’t radically altered governance yet.” Tools like Twitter help people “amplify their voice, connect, form new coalitions.” However, government is still using an old model: one-way communication. To really connect with young people, “two-way communication is needed.” Stone added that “technology democratizes and enables us to empathize with people across the world.”

Both agreed that technology enables policymakers to better listen and “find patterns” that can be turned into support for green programs. Technology can also improve transparency so people understand what they are buying and using everyday.

For Mayor Booker, all of these new approaches and technologies need to be harnessed so they support a grand holistic vision. “Green thinking affects everything, not just the environment. The American dream must be a green dream.” He said in Newark he has started projects saying that “green is our value, but what is the multiplier effect?” As an example of the type of projects he wants with significant multiplier effects, he pointed to a new program that puts ex-offenders to work building urban gardens, which also has huge urban heat island reduction benefits.

Governor Pataki said incentives can also help create that multiplier effect. In New York, he put out a $300 million bid for “clean hybrid buses.” His advisors told him he was crazy because “they don’t exist.” Pataki said his bid actually created the market, because, sure enough, a NY-based firm stepped up and created a solution. “Someone is now making these buses. They weren’t before. That’s leadership.”

Still, Brezinski seemed to ask the telling question, which the policymakers didn’t seem to answer at all: How do you incentivize real change when the change required is a “hard sell?” For example, New York City never built out those sea walls to protect the city because they were expensive and a “hard sell.” Climate change mitigation may be another one. The true test of the innovative new approaches and technologies will be those hard sells.

Image credit: 2012 ASLA Professional Residential Design Award of Excellence. Drs. Julian and Raye Richardson Apartments. Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture / Bruce Damonte photo copyright.

Read Full Post »


At a Casey Trees‘ conference on urban forestry, David Nowak, Ph.D, research forester at the U.S. Forest service, one of the world’s foremost experts on urban forests, and a member of the team that won the Nobel Prize at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), said out of the 20 biggest cities in the U.S., 17 have declining urban forests. “Tree cover is going down.” For example, researchers have found that D.C.’s urban forestry cover decreased by 1 percent in the last 20 years, while impervious cover (hard concrete) grew by 20 percent. Now and in the future, the key to boosting urban forests may be to make better use of innovative Web applications like iTree, which “estimate value and benefits” of the tree canopy.

Nowak said to really understand urban forests you have to look at their extent or structure. You have to know “how many trees you have and where they are.” The structure of an urban forest also impacts the benefits. For example, where trees are placed impacts who receives the environmental, psychological, and social benefits.

Forests can be measured in either a “bottom-up” or “top-down” manner. Bottom-up approaches involve counting species on the ground and looking at species, tree health, and the various health risks. Nowak and his team at the Forest Service participated in developing iTree, a bottom-up tool that helps manage forests. Top-down efforts are usually satellite-driven and involve high-resolution imagery and photo interpretation.

In an examination of urban forests, Nowak found that some 30 percent of vegetation is planted, while the other two-thirds is “naturally regenerating.” There are also varying levels of natural vegetation within key spaces in cities. In residential areas, the share of naturally-regenerating nature is relatively low because people plant or mow, while in parks and open spaces, it’s higher.

Invasive plants are also on the rise across the country. In D.C., invasive plants may even be shifting the composition of the forests. “Frontier plants are changing things.”

To track all this change, Nowak said it’s important to use tools like iTree, which can help local urban policymakers, planners, and landscape architects “better understand the canopy and the true value of ecosystem services.” Nowak said anytime you’ve heard a number about the dollar value of an urban forest, it was probably based in an iTree estimate. Using “local variables such as energy, air, water quality, and climate,” iTree can put a value on an area’s trees and help local policymakers optimize the performance of the forest.

While landscape architects and others understand the inherent value of trees, local programs to protect trees from pests and fungus are expensive and budgets are tight, so “we need to build the financial case.” Without “data and tools, it’s hard.”

With 20 years of data available, there are a number of applications where you can run and test models. iTree Canopy uses Google Maps to create statistically-valid estimate of tree cover, while iTree Species helps users identify the specific ecosystem service benefits of one tree over another. The system has about 5,000 trees in its database. iTree Hydro looks at tree canopy and stormwater, while iTree Design, which Nowak called the Sim City of landscape design, helps landscape architects and designers figure out the benefits of certain tree sizes and types in a landscape design. In the same way, the tool could be used to figure out the amount of financial benefits that are lost when a tree dies.

iTree 5.0 will include some new features like Google Maps, web-based data collection using mobile devices, the inclusion of data on the volatile organic compound (VOC) output of trees, and “benefit forecasting.” There will also be more data on “the risks each tree type faces from insects and diseases” as well as risks from a given forest structure. For example, too many species in one place means that part of the forest could be simply wiped out with an infestation, creating a vulnerability in the overall structure.

On the value of having a tool like iTree itself, Nowak said: “This is really about urban forestry technology transfer” through a “credible, USDA-approved, public domain software.”

For more on the benefits of urban forests, see ASLA’s animation: Urban Forests = Cleaner, Cooler Air. Nowak was an expert advisor on the animation.

Image credit: Aerial View of Logan Circle, Washington, D.C. / Wikipedia

Read Full Post »


In an effort to deal with deterioriating infrastructure along its 560-mile shoreline, reduce the expense of new waterfront construction, and achieve its ambitious multi-billion-dollar waterfront redevelopment agenda, New York City’s government has just issued a request for expressions of interest for “Change the Course,” a new waterfront construction competition that seeks “innovative and cost-saving solutions for completing marine construction projects.” New York City’s Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), the Hudson River Park Trust, and a host of other government groups and experts will be evaluating submissions. 

NYCEDC President Seth W. Pinsky said: “We are as committed as ever to reclaiming and transforming the city’s hundreds of miles of waterfront. This innovative competition will allow us, in an era of limited resources, to uncover new methodologies and techniques for addressing the challenges associated with our aging infrastructure, thereby ensuring its long-term sustainability.”

The first phase of the competition will seek to unearth the many factors impacting cost and sustainability. All those old, crumbling piers and sea walls that double as pedestrian promenades are clearly expensive to maintain for a number of reasons. NYC identified a few likely suspects, including “obsolete technologies, permitting processes, current regulations, environmental issues, outdated science studies, labor issues and efficiencies.”

Entrants will then provide creative solutions that are “cost effective, sustainable, and ethically sound,” addressing conditions at one of a few spots at the Lower Manhattan Waterfront: the deteriorating, expensive-to-maintain structures between Fulton Fish Market (at the South Street Seaport); Pier 35, along the East River in Manhattan; or the Hudson River Park Pier, at the substructure of Pier 40. As for using the Hudson River Park as a test-bed for cutting-edge structures, Madelyn Wils, President & CEO, Hudson River Park Trust, said: “We look forward to working together with NYCEDC to find financially sustainable solutions for the unique infrastructure challenges of waterfront parks.” 

There’s no reason why landscape architects shouldn’t partner with engineers and submit to this competition. As Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, is now demonstrating with the Brooklyn Bridge Park (BBP), landscape architects are repurposing old marine pier infrastructure to create sustainable parks. Above, see his firm’s diagram for the BBP infrastructure.

The top prize winner will get $50,000, with 2nd and 3rd place getting $25,000 and $15,000. 

The first phase request for expressions of interest are due November 16, 2012. Winners will be announced in early 2013.

Image credit: Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

Read Full Post »


There is a lot of noise out there about social media. Not only has social media’s use exploded over the last several years but it continues to generate interest at increasing rates, attracting the attention of landscape architects and related design professionals in the process. Many landscape architecture firms now connect and communicate through social media’s different variants, including Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, to name a few.

Recent global events, like the use of Facebook in the uprisings in the Middle East, have focused attention on the changes in public space and social politics prompted by the explosion in the use of social media. Some pundits see it as a new form of voluntary association and pluralism, while others see it as a force for greater consumption, or, worse, a means of social surveillance. What is often not evident in the broader discourse of social media is a description of the location of those engaged in its use. Crowdsourcing is a way to identify the geography of social media and offers great promise in further understanding the complex networked connections within the field of landscape architecture.

The remainder of my blog post introduces the results of crowdsourcing professional social media followers of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), related organizations like the American Planning Association (APA), and landscape architecture and architecture news sites like World Landscape Architect, Architectural Record, and Architizer. Hopefully, some interesting ideas came out of analyzing the location of their twitter followers at national and also global scales. 

The charts seen at top (view large version here) graphically illustrate the kinds of networks these organizations have formed, the location of their most influential users, as well as the location of all users. In examining these charts, one can see just how different the various professional organizations and news sites are in terms of their numbers, their dispersal, how intensely they communicate, and their national and global reach.

Specifically, the graphs on the left (featured below) show the conceptual forms of each network. In these graphs, the larger the circle the greater the influence of a member. The closer the circles to the center, the greater the interconnection among the most influential participants and all network followers. The greener the circle and line the more frequent the communication between network followers. 

If we compare the APA network graph with the ASLA network graph, the APA followers appear less densely connected and more connected to one center. Many APA followers are tenuously inter-connected on the periphery of the network. Most of the APA’s influential followers are on the network edge and not well interconnected with its followers. The ASLA network, on the other hand, is very dense, with many followers inter-connected throughout the network. Many of the ASLA’s influential followers are well-connected to the larger network from positions close to its conceptual center. The ASLA also seems to have many more followers than the APA in this study.

The graphs on the right (featured for a closer view below) illustrate the national and global location of the network followers and their lines of connection. The most influential followers are indicated by larger-sized circles. In these graphs, the larger, the bluer and greener the circles, the greater the influence and communication frequency of the participant. The greater the change in the lines from red to yellow to green, the greater the frequency of communication between followers. 


The national geo-location graphs on the left shows that the APA (the first row) has the most influential followers on the east coast and in Toronto and Texas, with significant traffic from several west coast cities. At a global scale, the APA followers showed fewer connections spread through most continents. 

National ASLA followers (the 2nd row) are present throughout the United States and in Canada and Mexico in substantial numbers. Many moderately influential followers with multiple lines of communication are evident throughout the United States. At a global scale, the ASLA followers showed many connections spread through most continents, but concentrated in Europe and East Asia. There were also several influential ASLA nodes in Central Europe.

In extending this comparison to all five design-focused social networks, we see greater variation in the level of connectivity, the number of members with influence, how much they communicate with each other, and the range of their international followers. Some are clearly more uni-centric while others are more multi-centric. All of the networks connect to the urbanized continents, but most connections are in North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. Nationally, some of the networks are more concentrated around New York City, the northeast, and the southern and central United States.  

An analysis closely related to a network analysis like this would explore the extent to which the twitter followers of the five design-focused social networks cover different topics. Analysis of the content of their communications is quite possible, as is the location of their messages. One can imagine understanding how landscape architecture ideas are nested in a particular place, how those places and messages inter-connect, and how followers from different places influence followers from another place. Perhaps in another blog post.

Read a more comprehensive analysis.

Robert Hewitt, ASLA, is an Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture at Clemson University. He is the author of Landscape Imprints: Culture, History, Sustainability, Technology, and Learning.

Image credit: Geoff Taylor and Brooks Patrick

Read Full Post »


Just about every news source in the world featured amazing photos of the Martian landscape earlier this week taken by the Mars rover Curiosity. NASA has sent the $2.5 billion rover to the Red Planet in hopes of getting a better sense of the history of water there and whether the planet could ever have hosted life. Using its 100mm telephoto lens, Curiosity captured photos of an “intriguing geological ‘unconformity,’” reported BBC News, which may provide more clues about how watery its past was.

Above we see an image taken by Curiosity’s mast camera, which highlights the geology of 5-km-high Mount Sharp, a mountain that actually sits within the Gale Crater, the spot where Curiosity landed. NASA writes that earlier satellite coverage of the area, below the white dots, indicated the area bears “hydrated minerals,” perhaps the residue of water that once existed on the planet. However, earlier satellite overpasses weren’t able to capture the incline above the white dots, which, interestingly doesn’t contain these minerals.

According to NASA, this “provides independent evidence that the absence of hydrated minerals on the upper reaches of Mount Sharp may coincide with a very different formation environment than lower on the slopes. The train of white dots may represent an ‘unconformity,’ or an area where the process of sedimentation stopped.” 

Another shot below shows just how similar parts of Mount Sharp are to the Grand Canyon in the western U.S., which was carved by ancient rivers. 


The next stop for the rover will be Glenelg (who names these places?), some 400 meters to the east, which is an “intersection” between different rich geological zones.

And now that NASA has gotten Curiosity warmed up, the sturdy, plutonium-powered rover will make its way to the base of Mount Sharp over the course of the next six months or so. (Interestingly, the rover is powered by plutonium from an old Soviet nuclear weapons plant).


At the base of the Mount Sharp, the rover will fire “subatomic particles neutrons at the surface to examine levels of hydrogen- and hydroxyl-containing minerals that could hint at Mars’ prior water-rich history,” writes BBC News. Another tool in its extensive kit is the ChemCam, a laser that will be used to vapourize rocks and then chemically examine the vapour. To get a closer look at the atomic makeup of rocks and soils, Curiosity will scoop up Martian materials and move them to an internalized lab for examination. 


On Monday, the rover received and then sent back a recorded message by NASA administrator Charles Bolden. Then, a song by Will.i.am was broadcast from Mars as part of an educational event. That marks the “first voice recording to be sent from another planet.”  

See more images and learn more about what NASA is after in their tour of the Red Planet.

Image credits: NASA

Read Full Post »


The worst drought in a half a century has already caused billions of dollars of losses for farmers and communities. In parts of the country where water has long been conserved, like the west, lawn painting has unfortunately long been seen as a solution. Now, with water being conserved across the country like never before, what are all those homeowners with lawns supposed to do? Instead of replacing lawns with native plants that require little water (otherwise known as xeriscaping), more may be throwing away money trying to paint their way to a lush, verdant lawn.

The Associated Press reports that homeowners across the country are now taking this path. In Staten Island, NY, Terri LoPrimo decided to hire a local entrepreneur to spray her lawn with a “deep-green organic dye.” LoPrimo said: “It looks just like a spring lawn, the way it looks after a rain. It’s really gorgeous.” Her lawn can be seen on the left:


Many landscape architects may shake their head at such a move, but at a cost of $125 to paint her 830-square-foot-lawn, it’s certainly cheaper than ripping out the lawn and replacing with native alternatives that don’t require much water or creating a new, usable outdoor space.

Indeed, these cheap and fast approaches have yielded more business for the owner of the Staten Island company, Grass Is Greener Lawn Painting. The owner told AP that he has already painted 20 lawns this summer. The dye used is a “non-toxic, environmentally friendly turf dye that [...] is commonly used on golf courses and athletic fields to give them a lusher appearance.” Just to note: There really isn’t such a thing as an environmentally-friendly dye given the huge amount of water that actually goes into producing dyes. Also, much like a spray-on tan, the green lawn look doesn’t hold forever. In about five months, homeowners going the non-natural way will need a fresh spray. 

The AP then examined the practice in the Midwest, looking to Kansas City, Mo.-based Missouri Turf Paint Inc. The company has been painting golf courses and athletic fields for years, but has seen an uptick in residential spraying. Foreclosed homes are often sprayed, the owner said, to boost resale prospects. 

In Phoenix, Arizona, homeowners are also often painting their lawns to try to sell, or out of fear of being fined by their homeowners’ associations. Brian Howland, Arizona Lawn Painting, said: “Usually it’s people who don’t feel like messing with their yard or it’s a rental or a foreclosure or a sale — something where before everything gets going they want it to look nice.” 
Howland charges $200 for up to 3,000 square feet. 

Clearly more work needs to be done to convince homeowners everywhere that there are smart alternatives to lawns, like xeriscaping. With climate change, drought-like conditions may not be going away anytime soon.

One sustainable landscape case study shows how much cheaper a native residential landscape is to maintain over time. Also, explore ASLA’s guides to sustainable residential design: improving water efficiency, and its connected guide on maximizing the benefits of plants.   

Image credit: (1) Arizona lawn painting / Green Extreme, (2) NY lawn painting / Courier Express

Read Full Post »


In Hong Kong and other wealthy enclaves in China, many upperclass Chinese have no qualms about spending big bucks for a top-notch Feng Shui consultant to evaluate their home or office to ensure their space’s energy alignment will boost their fortune. In fact, some multinational corporations have even had to move offices in Hong Kong because the building was seen as having poor flow by superstitious employees. At the American Institute of Architects (AIA) conference in Washington, D.C., Barbara Stewart, a San Francisco-based architect and trained Feng Shui practitioner, says there must be some practical value in this ancient practice if it has lasted 4,000 years. Covering a range of both “mind, body, spirt” and science-based approaches, Stewart called for a return to “intuitive, emotional” design and a move away from the cold intellectualism practiced by many contemporary architects.

“Architecture is now disconnected from other disciplines and the rest of humanity,” said Stewart, who has consulted for big-name firms like Kaiser Permanente and NBBJ Architects. Quoting one environmental psychologist, she said “architects see form, light, and color” whereas the rest of us see “walls, floors, doors.” Architects can’t help it; they’ve been trained this way. “Our approach is intellectual.” From day-one of architecture school, architects are trained to “worship novelty and originality” given the goal is to “move architecture in new directions.” However, she said “emotions are pulling our clients and end users in another direction.” As an example: When AIA polled the public on their favorite buildings, it was clear no one architectural style won. She said this proved that “people look at buildings with emotions, not intellect.” The disconnect between architects and the public is further demonstrated through architecture magazines that promote the latest bold, sharp forms that do not make people healthy or happy.

Stewart said we share 98 percent of our DNA with chimpanzees. If zoologists, who design habitat for chimps, were to design habitat for us, what would it look like? “A zoologist would design a place that reinforces our natural patterns and reduces stressors.” In nature, humans are used to short bursts of stress — say, running from a lion — but not the “low-level constant stress we find in modern life.” The modern world sets off stressors more frequently, which wear down our immune systems. “Stress is directly linked to all the diseases we face” so all buildings and landscapes must work to reduce this for everyone’s well-being and to control healthcare costs.  

Almost all civilizations have ancient forms of environmental psychology. In India, Vastu Shastra has been around for 5,000 years. Feng shui, a descendant of the Indian practice, has been around 4,000 years. Geomantic patterns were created by the Romans, Druids, Aborigines, and Native Americans. “They all designed structures according to nature and in tune with the natural environment.”

Now, with the rise of neuroscience for the built environment, biophilic design, environmental psychology, and “evidence-based design,” particularly among the healthcare field, more scientific understandings of “mind, body, spirit” designs are coming into being. Outlining a few of her “instinct-based design principles,” Stewart pulled from a mix of these approaches to make her points, many of which sounded a bit wacky at first, but on reflection are actually quite intuitive:

Interiors should be designed with humans in mind, who understand space at an instrinsic level as a savannah. The ground should be darkest, like a path, whereas the mid-range, eye-level colors should be neutral, and the ceiling should be light, like the sky. “Humans feel most comfortable in spaces that follow nature, instead of monochromatic bubbles.” She showed a photo of a hospital room well-lit, with windows, and hardwood floors, a pleasing environment. She said there’s a reason everyone wants hardwood floors — it replicates the forest floor.

As an example of what not to do, she pointed to a icky hospital ward where floor to ceiling there’s just one shade of yellow, which is highly stress-inducing. Monochromatic bubbles are not only displeasing, but also dangerous for older people. “A 75-year old sees just 1/2 the contrast of a 25-year old. A 95-year old sees just 1/5 the contrast.” These single-color hallways actually “increase stress for older people.”

Stewart said all humans want a window view. Pointing to well-known studies by Ulrich in the mid-80s, she said views of landscapes out of hospital windows significantly reduced the amount of pain medication needed and sped up recovery times. Then, studies conducted in the late 90s showed that even images of real or simulated nature can improve recovery times, although photos of real nature scenes work better. Also, patients with access to videos of nature — forests, flowers, oceans, waterwalls — used pain medicine less.

One interesting study from a mental health journal found that Jackson Pollock prints “actually increased stress in everyone,” while a National Geographic-like nature photos dramatically reduced anxiety. A landscape painting by Van Gogh “had no demonstrable effect.” Within the realm of natural scenes, there are particular types of landscape images that are more restorative. Long-distance views with sun and sky are relaxing because instinctively they mean “good weather for hunting and gathering and no predators.” Theories about prospect and refuge have been batted around by biophilic designers for some time but Stewart argues that ancient environmental designers had this down a long time ago: Feng Shui’s “command position” is all about finding a safe point and clear vista. She said in contemporary film, Mafia dons know to find the spot in the corner with views of all doors. Even dogs will sit with their back to a wall if they can.

Spring, summer, early autumn photos with lots of green are effective, while winter scenes won’t have much effect. Photos with signs of humans in the foreground are important, as they show “this is a safe place.” She said Ansel Adams-like photos of massive landscapes or shots of “uncomfortable view points” don’t help. “Restorative images are not exciting — but that’s the point.”

Incorporating biophilic design elements into interiors also soothes. Roofs can become green, or where that’s not feasible, simply covered with astroturf or painted a more pleasing natural color. In windowless offices, imitation windows and clerestories can be painted with fake views. Woods can be used throughout, and where that isn’t possible, like in a hospital setting, wood-laminates. (She didn’t mention the incredible value of daylight alone).

She said more companies need to think through the effect of colors. One client had a dull conference room that actually stymied creative discussion. Simply painting a wall orange “lifted energy levels.” She said McDonald’s has known this for years, which is why they paint all their stores in “high-energy colors like red, yellow, and orange so you eat more, faster.” Casinos and retailers are also excellent at “designing energizing spaces on purpose.” To better succeed, she thinks gyms should similarly be painted in brighter, exciting colors to get people to exercise more. In contrast, she said a hospital’s ER bereavement area would need to have more subdued tones to help staff impart more difficult information and not have emotional scenes.

Beyond colors, forms can also induce stress or relax. Angled walls and ceilings or visually unsupported forms “increase energy and tension.” She wondered whether these were appropriate in a school or office, or Alzheimer’s clinic? In some places, though, like a conference center or stadium, perhaps these bolder forms are worthwhile because they induce excitement. A crucial form often neglected is interior wayfinding. Explaining what Frederick Law Olmsted always knew, she said, people like to take the meandering path, which feels like a “path through nature.” Also, for any building, people seek a clear doorway. “As a default, the center of the building should be the location of the door.” An entry way is defined by a visible doorway, a different color or material, and higher volume.” In addition, the entry way should be clear of distracting patterns, at least 10 feet within the doorway, as people, especially older visitors, will find them confusing and become tentative about entering.

To conclude, Stewart made some practical suggestions all good designers should already know: Turn on your instinctive, emotional brain; remove your design ego; pretend you are an 85-year old and a 9-year old. Ask yourself how the design makes you feel and behave. Does the building or landscape reduce or induce stress? Does this place make people healthier and happier? She said the healthcare field is increasingly demanding “evidence-based” approaches because “time is money,” and this is slowly spreading to other domains, so perhaps there’s less room for original yet stress-inducing forms and colors.  

Stewart recommended some resources: University of Minnesota’s Informe Design, the Center for Health Design, and a book, Place Advantage: Applied Psychology for Interior Architecture. One important resource she left out: the Therapeutic Landscape Network.

Image credit: Laguna Honda Hospital / Arup

Read Full Post »


As any lighting designer will tell you, lighting shapes how we perceive spaces. Think of whether you will walk down a street or not, visit a place again or not, or think a place is significant or not. City streets with burnt-out street lamps may make you pause while well-lit ones encourage you to move through them. Joyfully-lit locations that use rich colors invite crowds, revelry, while boring ones don’t inspire us to return. Monuments in any country’s capital city are always bathed in carefully-planned lights, demonstrating their value. Lighting can scare or depress us or lift our spirits.

A French landscape architecture firm, Exit Paysagistes Associés, took a scary street tunnel through Avenue de la République in Sartrouville, France, and turned it into a lively, sophisticated pedestrian path. In Landezine, they write: “The tunnel’s envelope made of stamped stainless sheet steel adopts the light variations of the city and establishes a lightning continuity from the street to the tunnel.” The smooth surfaces and vibrant lighting scheme, which bounce off of the “sparkling asphalt,” create a contrast with the dark exterior facade of the tunnel.


Dark, long interior pathways can also be turned into thrill rides. In Washington, D.C. light artist Leo Villareal transformed the passageway between the east and west wings of the National Gallery into a rollicking trip called Multiverse. Lights flutter back and forth, moving through a set of sequences set by custom software. Comprised of 41,000 computer-programmed LEDs, the 200-foot long space, which used to be something to rush through, is now one of the highlights of the visit to the gallery. See a video below as well:

At Rice University, an underused quadrangle was transformed by the Office of James Burnett, a landscape architecture firm, into a “center of student activity on campus.” While the elegant space is filled with students and professors by day, it’s assumed that traffic would fall off at night. Not so: a subtle lighting design was created by Fisher Marantz Stone to make the moveable chairs warm and welcoming even in the Texan evenings.



Lastly, a courtyard shows how private residential spaces can also be reinvented through lighting combined with interior-lit furniture. The Court Square Press Courtyard in Boston, which is nestled in a building set in a neighborhood defined as a “post-industrial void,” comes alive at night with light box benches placed in a constructed forest. The landscape architects, Landworks Studios, Inc, write: “Similar to a camp fire experience, people gather around the lighted benches to converse, story tell, and linger in the illuminated bamboo forest.”



Image credits: (1-2) Exit Paysagistes Associés / Landezine, (3) Multiverse / bac_610. Flickr, (4-5) The Brochstein Pavilion at Rice University / Paul Hester, (6-7) Court Square Press Courtyard /Landworks Studios, Inc.

Read Full Post »

Gardening for All


Backyard, community, and therapeutic gardens are becoming increasingly popular, but not everyone gets to participate in the very social act of gardening. Older people or those with back problems have trouble bending over. That’s been solved with raised beds. Still, many older people or disabled gardeners have been left out. A new collaborative garden project from France tries to remedy this. La Valise and the Mauves Allotment Society have created Terraform, a raised garden plot for wheelchair users.

The approach allows wheelchair users easy access. An ingenious “arched pod” offers a greater degree of comfort, enabling wheelchair-bound gardeners to seed and bed at table level. 


The safe, UV-treated, recycled polyethylene pod is sculpted to fit around the wheelchair base. The team says the pod’s dimensions were carefully calculated to enable normal arm extension, preventing any repetitive stress injuries.


The terraform is insulated with a plastic layer to ensure water doesn’t damage the station. The team recommends a first layer of branches and packed soil, then a litter of leaves, fine branches, and growing medium. Finally, manure or compost can be added on top. Clearly, lots of plants can be grown in these:

Apparently, more features are in the works, including cabinets for tools, ergonomic accessories, and an integrated drip irrigation system.

In France, the team has promoted these as “healing gardens” for use in retirement communities, hospitals, and community gardens. A pilot launched in Nantes in 2010 was the first go at expanding the service there, and now some 100 kits have been installed across the country. 


Given the project is still experimental, there’s no word yet on when this will be commercially available in the U.S. 

Learn more about Terraform and see a brief slideshow of people using it.

Image credit: Terraform

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 992 other followers