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Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Microalgae
In a session at the 2013 Greenbuild in Philadelphia, Taimur Burki, Global Green Building Program Manager for Intel Corporation, and Joshua Wray, Graduate Research Assistant (PhD) at Arizona State University, discussed the possibility of using algae as an industrial emissions control strategy.

The session picked apart the results of an experiment between ASU and Intel to analyze algae’s impact on the industrial sector. Wray, a self-professed algae farmer, has been involved in many bioremediation projects in the past that involved capturing nutrients from waste streams, but, in this case, the algae was intended to draw carbon and nitrogen from flue gases.

After identifying the many alternate uses of algae—biofuels, pharmaceuticals, even cookies—researchers found that some strains are very adaptable. Picking and choosing the best strains for this was incredibly important. Essentially, only specific strands of algae will feed on carbon dioxide and help reduce emissions.

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The desert is used as a perfect test site for many reasons. These dry places offer a lot of sun (which is key to photosynthesis), heat, access to wastewater and non-arable land. Not to mention, many world-renowned algae scientists live there.

ASU worked with Intel to erect flat panel bioreactors on the roof of one of their fabrication buildings to capture boiler emissions and convert them into biofuel. These reactors were filled with algae grown from ponds or other bioreactors.

Researchers studied the bioreactors to see if they could grow algae, whether the CO2 was filtered out and if this process could be used to create clean-burning fuel. There is still much research to be done and many follow-up experiments on the docket, but they had great success in growing algae and filtering carbon and nitrogen oxides out of the flue gas.

[See what the bioreactors look like; learn more from Intel’s Brad Biddle in this video].

Though the desert light and heat are desirable to the algae farmers, this process happening all over the country. In a similar partnership, Duke Energy and University of Kentucky will soon start using algae to convert flue gas emissions into biofuel.

It doesn’t just stop in America. In a recent article in The Times of India, the country’s largest generation utility has launched a project to use algae to minimize CO2 from their power projects.

It’s still a process that researchers are learning about every day, but its potential is outstanding. A key to sustainable building is to reduce carbon emissions, and if something as small and plentiful as microalgae can help bring plants to near-zero emissions, it means exciting possibilities for the future.

This guest post is by Phil Stamper, ASLA PR and Communications Coordinator.

Image credit: (1) Microalgae / Spirulina Info, (2) Flue Gas / Think Progress

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The Art of Rendering

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Rendering in SketchUp: From Modeling to Presentation for Architecture, Landscape Architecture, and Interior Design
is a comprehensive manual designed to teach SketchUp users how to generate photo-realistic images using integrated rendering programs (IRPs). The author, Daniel Tal, ASLA, is a licensed landscape architect who has been working in the architecture and site design industry for over fifteen years. Tal has tailored the book to suit the needs of a wide range of professionals who want to digitally render models and produce inspired images. They include architects, landscape architects, interior designers, set and stage designers, and product engineers. The book is useful for students of those professions who are new to the rendering techniques that are increasingly becoming a standard in many design programs.

Several levels of SketchUp users can benefit from the book, but it’s not appropriate for absolute beginners. The book doesn’t offer basic instruction, so users need to know the essentials of modeling in SketchUp before getting started. The book also focuses on three IRPs, third-party plug-ins that are installed and work within SketchUp. They are Shaderlight by ArtVPS, which the book references most often, and SU Podium and Twilight Render, which Tal covers in the accompanying online chapters. These companion chapters are a useful resource. They review settings and tools for the IRPs, which are constantly changing.

The manual consists of ten parts ordered in linear progression. Part one gives an overview of the general concepts, including the order and objectives of each step in the rendering process. The book explains how rendering actually works and provides computer specifications and requirements for optimum performance. Parts two through seven cover the three-part process for rendering. This process includes preparing models for rendering in SketchUp, using IRPs to create graphic images, and enhancing final images in post-production. Part eight demonstrates the entire modeling and rendering process with a step-by-step example that uses the various programs’ tools and settings. The last two parts are the companion chapters for IRPs available online.

The first part of the rendering process covers preparing a model in SketchUp. The manual describes how to create and edit textured surfaces, insert, and adjust details that provide context and scale, and add appropriate lighting. The book also explains how to use the camera tools to compose and adjust different views. In addition to technical advice, Tal shares helpful tips for organizing and expediting this process. He shows users how to build an external texture library and link it to SketchUp. Tal also tells them where to find details like pre-made models of elements like furniture and vegetation.

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The second part covers using the IRPs to provide render values to a model. The book demonstrates the various settings of the IRP Material Editor, which accentuates textures so they take on realistic qualities when rendered. These settings affect elements like an object’s surface condition and reflectivity. Here, Tal describes the IRPs’ various light settings, as well as how to insert and adjust the different types of light sources. This portion of the process requires extensive trial and error. The manual offers helpful suggestions for optimizing it, such as how to determine the resolution for draft versus final renders to save time when working through multiple iterations. It also offers a method for saving and organizing draft renderings, and a criteria by which to evaluate them for final output.

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For the third part, Tal demonstrates how to use external photo-editing software to enhance the generated images. He mainly refers to Adobe Photoshop for CS 5.5 for the post-production process. He explains how to make light and color adjustments and how to add atmospheric effects such as haze, blurred objects, and light lens flares. The book also demonstrates how to make entourage modifications by  placing realistic vegetation, enhancing water, and including backgrounds, skies, and objects in the images. These tips are merely a starting point for finalizing a rendering. The guide suggests a couple comprehensive post-production guides for further information.

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Overall, the book delivers a clear and thorough explanation of the rendering process. Tal covers the technical aspects in detail, guiding users through complete step-by-step examples. He also instructs users to approach rendering as an art form to create hyper-realistic images. The book provides numerous examples of rendered images, most in various stages of completion to highlight the effect of different techniques. It also suggests several outside references to aid in developing graphic image making ability. With its thorough approach, Rendering in SketchUp is an ideal guide for those who want to refine their digital design process.

Explore the book and the sustainable design SketchUp animations Tal created for ASLA.

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

Image credits: (1) Wiley, (2) Daniel Tal, ASLA

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boston
“My whole life has been leading up this presentation,” said Jack Dangermond, ASLA, founder and president of ESRI, to an audience of thousands of landscape architects at the opening session of the 2013 ASLA Annual Meeting in Boston. He was trained as a landscape architect, but couldn’t find a job when he graduated, so he started his own firm focused on digitizing geography. That small firm grew into ESRI, which now has 9,000 employees across the globe. Dangermond said his life has been focused on creating accessible geographic information systems (GIS) that can help us reach a “better, more sustainable future.” But to achieve this, Dangermond said we must also “apply the logic of landscape architects,” merging design and technology into “geo-design.”

“The world is facing incredible challenges,” including climate change, population growth, and urbanization. “Sometimes I feel like things are not going to work out for humanity.” When Dangermond gets down though, he starts thinking about a 50-100 year plan for the planet, which involves harnessing the “best design talent and science and technology.” He believes the framework for this effort is really the “landscape architect’s methodology,” boosted with the power of the Web.

Landscape architecture provides a systematic approach for creating a more sustainable future. He said Ian McHarg, who wrote the seminal book, Design with Nature, was right, “landscape architects have the skills to deal with our common problems.” GIS is then how we can “bring science to that design process.” Dangermond’s goal is to “geo-empower landscape planning and architecture through a set of applications.”

He said GIS tools are central to efforts in public health, agriculture, forestry, resource exploration, urban and transportation planning and design. They are now being used to monitor climate and other planetary changes, and respond to natural disasters. Furthermore, conservation organizations are using GIS to “analyze and design strategies to protect our landscapes.”

GIS technologies are becoming more pervasive. Dangermond said a few million people now use these systems. To further expand the reach of these tools, the new approach is to put “geo information into the cloud, like Steve Jobs did with music.” With geo data in the cloud, “we can better mash-up and analyze.” There’s now no “need to download software, we can just use our browsers.” Dangermond called Web GIS a “transformation.”

With faster machines and web-based services, landscape architects can “analyze changes in real time,” and also make changes instantly, creating a “living atlas.” Furthermore, designers can “integrated tweets, spreadsheets, enterprise data, and sensor from infrastructure to interpret data dynamically.”

As with open-source GIS systems like Harvard’s World Map and others, the Web now allows ESRI to more easily share data and designs, “further breaking down barriers between professional design disciplines.” Today, “more than a million maps are now shared via the cloud.”

In the new iteration of Web GIS, ESRI GIS specialist Suzanne Foss said there’s a “suite of base maps,” which include “authoritative sources, not just commercial sources – but the owners of the data.” She said “these are intelligent maps about people – including demography, health, and even behaviors.” Income is provided down to the census area.

Designers can then use ESRI’s GIS systems to overlay data, which can be weighted to create different “suitability maps.” This will enable users to “determine how well we are achieving goals, and use analysis to inform design.” As an example, she demo-ed how to find the most biodiversity-rich and endangered areas to protect from sprawl in Santa Cruz, California.

Another ESRI expert, Eric Wittner, introduced ESRI’s “procedural modeling” technology, which can be used to create 3D designs on top of existing maps. “These maps are data-driven and rules-driven. It’s not like Sketchup; it’s more intelligent.” In a preview, he showed how an entire urban design can be created on the fly, and even show how much sunlight would hit the community at different times of the day. Once these dynamic 3D designs are created, they can then be saved and shared as PDF files so clients and community groups can fly-through them, too.

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Dangermond believes these technologies will “transform landscape architecture,” as they will scale-up the ability of landscape architects to affect change. But for them to work, landscape architects need to actually use these GIS tools, not just “pass off the work to the CAD guy.” Geo-design represents a more “rational-based design” approach that will ultimately help the planet.

Image credits:ESRI

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eletric
While Google is racing ahead to create a data-driven, self-driving car, one Dutch designer is working on the opposite end: designing a smart highway that will communicate with your car. As one of the winners of this year’s Index awards, which comes with a €100,000 prize, Daan Roosegaarde, collaborating with Hijmans Infrastructure, will test out a road that will “communicate with its drivers in order to promote both traffic safety and efficiency.”

Roosegaarde writes: “We live in cities of endless gray concrete roads, surrounded by steel lamps and they have a huge visual impact on our cities. But why do the roads remain so rough and without imagination? Why not turn them into a vision of mobility – a symbol of the future?”

His smart highway concept is pretty mind-bending. He wants to embed highways with technology that can “visually communicate when the road is slippery,” actually charge your electric vehicle as you drive, and use its own electricity to create spot lighting as needed. “The goal is to make roads more sustainable and interactive by using light, energy and road signs that automatically adapt to the traffic situation. New design concepts include the ‘Glow-in-the-Dark Road’, ‘Dynamic Paint’, ‘Interactive Light’, ‘Induction Priority Lane’ and ‘Wind Light’.”

The roads would be covered in a kind of responsive paint so that if the temperature dropped below freezing and it started raining, the paint would turn on, covering the road in snowflakes.

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At night, the road could actually light itself, which Roosegaarde thinks would be more efficient. “Glow-in-the-dark paint treated with photo-luminizing powder could reduce the need for auxiliary lighting. Charged in daylight, the glow-in-the-dark road illuminates the contours of the road at night for up to 10 hours.”

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With his pot of money, Roosegaarde wants to further develop and even patent these technologies. He sees other wild applications, like “taking the bioluminescence of jellyfish or fireflies and applying this to nature, thus making roadside plants and trees glow at night as an alternative to public lighting – resulting in a 100 percent new natural lighting.”

A few other projects also won Index awards. One certainly worth highlighting is Copenhagen’s climate change adaption plan. Index writes: “Denmark’s capital, Copenhagen, found a way to connect and address the climate changes in one master plan. The city’s Climate Adaptation Plan aims to prepare Copenhagen for the future by developing the Danish capital as a climate proof, attractive, and green city.”

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While municipalities in Denmark must create climate action plans, Copenhagen has actually gone a step further, creating a plan that “can be of pleasure and benefit to the city immediately.”

They write: “The Copenhagen Climate Adaptation Plan really stands out with its main focus on seeing flooding and climate adaptation as a resource rather than a problem, benefiting businesses and citizens alike. Thus, by rethinking climate adaptations as a whole, via in-depth analyzes, the Danish capital will use excess water as a vital resource – while implementing flexible design solutions that reduce construction work and saves money for the city.”

Index: Design to Improve Life is a Danish non-profit organization “under the patronage of HRH The Crown Prince of Denmark.”

Image credits: (1-3) Smart / Highway / Index: Design to Improve Life, (4) Copenhagen Flooding / Index: Design to Improve Life,

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blier_blog
Suzanne Blier is Allen Whitehill Clowes Professor of Fine Arts and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. She is an historian of African art and architecture in both the History of Art and Architecture and African and African American Studies Departments. She also is a member of the  Institute for Quantitative Social Science. She is Co-Chair of an Electronic Geo-Spatial Database AfricaMap, a site that expanded into WorldMap.

WorldMap is an open source GIS tool that enables anyone anywhere in the world to create their own maps and overlay them with data for free. Why did Harvard create this?

GIS has been transformed in the last 20 years. I was using it in a project when I moved up to Harvard from Columbia in the early 1990s. I received some outside funding to put together a GIS mapping system of Africa. When that project came to a conclusion, I applied for some additional funding for innovative computing. At that time, Harvard had established a new center for geographic analysis. They hired a really brilliant young GIS scientist named Ben Lewis, who is a graduate of University of Pennsylvania program in urban planning. It was his belief that one could actually put together a system, making it available to everyone using open source technology. This is what became WorldMap.

We began with Africa. The idea was to bring together the best available mapping anywhere in a format that would allow us to overlay different kinds of data. Soon, other people around Harvard began to look at it. From the sociology to the geology to the history departments, other scholars said, “we’d love to do that as well.” And there was serendipity: this was the first large project at the new Center for Geographic Analysis. There, lots of people contributed ideas.

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Why not just use Google maps engine or ArcGIS?

You can go into WorldMap, create a project there, and upload it to Google Earth. We do bring in Google mapping and other mapping data. The two are not at odds in that way but you can do more with WorldMap. For example, if you are creating a project in Google Earth, you can’t bring in other mapping data and then share with others as you can in WorldMap. With our site, you can bring in your own historic mapping data. You can bring in text, images, or video. With the system one is encouraged to draw on any available mapping resources to build one’s own. You can also create and visualize things as you want in your own way, give them your own look, and have your own data symbolized and presented as you like.

ArcGIS is a terrific product. It’s still very effective, used by many, as well it should be. As you probably know, it’s very complex to learn. I’ve approached how many undergrads and grad students, trying to convince them that it’s worth the time spent to do it. But it’s still like climbing up a cliff with a bicycle. There are cost factors, too, for people using ArcGIS. Granted, you can use it in part online now, but we didn’t think there was the same kind of potential for bringing in your own data, historic maps, sociological data into the system, then being able to share it with other people in the same kinds of ways. We’re collaborating with ESRI, too. There’s plenty of room for both kinds of products. Each of them offers something slightly different.

In some ways, WorldMap can be more easily grasped by the less technically astute among us, whether a landscape architect, planner, historian, or student. I also really love the way we can share our projects with people anywhere in the world.

I’ve seen map makers on WorldMap already overlaying river systems, poverty rates, ethnic groups, and then showing how these have changed over time. What other types of layers are people using? What are the most popular mash-ups?

We should be hungry to learn not just from what our own individual disciplines are offering, but from what everybody else is doing. This technology allows one to do that. So sociologists are bringing in different kinds of data than we might be, a lot of demographic data, information on transportation systems, neighborhoods, etc. Landscape architects and urban planners offer new data on some environmental questions, ecosystems, and city plans.

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You can go through all of the different layers people have brought in and see what are the most popular. These tend to be environmental — river systems like you mentioned — and ecosystems, but also transportation, railroads, etc. A number of projects have taken up historical data we brought in from Euro Atlas, which shows the history of Europe going back to the earliest period. And because WorldMap users are generally happy sharing their data, there is a lot to chose from. Almost 90-95 percent of the map data can be used by anyone.

You can bring those layers into your own layers. It’s a little bit like Wikipedia in this sense. You can build your own map in part out of what other people put together, but done in new ways that suit your research interests.

You mentioned AfricaMap, your project that then created this larger World Map. In Africa Map, users can overlay religions and ethnic groups. They can see areas where there’s high population density. They can use the map to imagine transatlantic trade routes. There are historical maps, which I really love, dating back to 1606, which seem to magically appear over the baseline Google maps. How is this powerful tool being used? Is it being used in ways you didn’t expect?

I’m also fascinated with the seeming magic of taking early maps and laying them on top of current ones. One the most fabulous additions in the development of the system was when we created our map warper or map rectifier. This means you can take any historical map or any map, whether it’s of the world, a continent, a country, a city, a neighborhood, a street corner, and very quickly add three or four points — more if it’s a very historic map, because of discrepancies. You can then co-join the lat-longs and bring this map into your own mapping system.

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You can also take a map or plan that may be poorly done or is under copyright, but you’re really interested in the data. Well, we’ve also provided the means so that you can in essence use WorldMap like tracing paper. You can basically copy it by adding lines, points, and shapes on top of it, stylize it in new ways, and create your own particular manifestation of that plan.

Some interesting work is being done within or on the perimeters of a new project in WorldMap called TweetMap. This project in WorldMap has been used to harvest all of the geo-referenced data in Twitter. You can do a search within that. You can frame it by time or a particular area for any term or phrase you might want. That could be really useful for thinking through perceptions of the city.

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Twitter Map was developed originally by Todd Mostak, a student in Middle Eastern studies, and the Kennedy School here. He was interested in the Arab Spring and locating how that was being framed in Twitter.

Another fascinating map by Professor Colin Gordon, University of Iowa, maps decline in St. Louis, showing how blight took over parts of the city. The map tells a powerful visual story of blight and then redevelopment. What kind of urban stories are you also seeing told? What else could this tool be used for in terms of urban policy, advocacy, or even design?

His project is a fascinating one. There’s a corollary in Chicago, another important map in WorldMap by another sociologist named Robert Sampson. One important thing with both Professor Gordon’s and Professor Sampson’s projects is they’ve actually integrated their WorldMap projects into books that they’ve recently published.

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A graduate student here is using WorldMap to analyze New Orleans, thinking through the early history of the city where the slave markets were, how the concept of neighborhoods were changing in the city from the early Spanish and French periods to the later American period. You can even correlate that with building design changes.

I’ve been fascinated with the impact of World’s Fairs on cities so I’ve put up a series of World Fair plans, whether it’s St. Louis, San Francisco, Chicago, Brussels, or New York City. You soon realize how important some of these World’s Fairs were in terms of the changing dynamic of the city. That brings in plans from great landscape architects such as Frederick Law Olmsted.

We also have a plan up of the 1876 World’s Fair in Philadelphia. Of course, as you know, some of the World Fair buildings are still standing. You can overlay on top of this not just the plan of the fair, but also the plans of the landscapes and buildings at the fair. You can then embed into this project photographs taken at the fair. Within WorldMap, you can link directly to photographs and add points by creating particular symbolic icons so that once you click on them, you’ll be able see what was the view in 1876 or whenever.

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Landscape architects, planners, and other design professionals could really use WorldMap to root designs in local social and economic contexts and even histories. These maps could also be used to create compelling presentations of different design alternatives. How do you think designers should be using WorldMap? What features do you think would be most useful for them?

There’s some terrific work being done by Europeans using WorldMap to evaluate economic disparities in European cities. There’s one on Athens. There’s another fabulous set on Barcelona. One of the great things about World Map is you can actually make it a collaborative project — not just for landscape architects per se, but also for the people who are living in and with these landscapes. You can bring in the informal. We have provided people in these communities with the tools to upload their own data, let’s say their own experiences in a landscape through text, video, or photographs. That could be a really positive addition to landscape architecture preservation, and help outline the importance of these places as lived space.

You can use this tool to promote the importance of landscape architecture in school systems, from K to 12, getting teachers and students to use this to upload information about their own experiences with their landscape and help to preserve them at the same time — to not just preserve them historically, but also to become caretakers for these spaces. You could compare the area of X plot of land versus Y plot of land or distances or simply add cell phone and other imagery of a particular landscape.

We are increasingly thinking about pooling resources in documenting the works of key individuals, whether it’s Frederick Law Olmsted or Frank Lloyd Wright. People who use these parks or live in these structures can create a project on WorldMap, with people in different locations adding information. Making these maps available on the site to the world — and really using these people to do some of the more labor intensive and expensive work of geo-referencing plans — is a great idea.

Lastly, are you worried that people will misuse these maps, display false data to build specious cases? If data can be manipulated, is there any truth in maps?

Well, personally, I would love to see the creation of fictional maps, imaginary places based on real places. That’s the positive side. Another positive side is that we now have a tool to evaluate maps, meaning that we are providing a means for users of WorldMap to tag maps and identify those that are really well done versus those that are problematic. That’s the open source nature of it.

We don’t have enough staff to go through and evaluate maps, nor is it something we want to do. We would rather keep this as a toolbox available to everyone and rely on people who are using these maps to let us know if there’s something that is indeed really problematic.

Maps are things that have this necessary complexity. There will always be disagreements on borders, for example, now between China and India. At WorldMap, we’re perfectly happy to have a Chinese and an Indian version and various ones in between. Some of these disagreements are enriched or complicated by the possibility of creating competing maps.

In the same way that river systems notoriously change over time, which is why you shouldn’t geo-reference from them, these kinds of discrepancies are great within a system.

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It’s far easier to create or change something in WorldMap than in a printed book. WorldMap allows for more creative approaches and different opinions in map making.

Image credits: (1) Image credit: Suzanne Blier, (2) AfricaMap by Suzanne Blier / image credit: WorldMap, (3) Chicago Map, poverty rates in 2000 by professor Robert Sampson / Image credit: World Map, (4) Federico de Wit map, 1675 in Suzanne Blier’s AfricaMap / Image credit: WorldMap, (5) TweetMap of Manhattan / Image credit: WorldMap, (6) St. Louis map by professor Colin Gordon / Image credit: WorldMap, (7) Philadelphia Centennial Expo, 1876 / Image credit: WorldMap, (8) Rivers of Africa map / image credit: WorldMap

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Frost flowers, sharp-edged, ice-cold blossoms, grow off of imperfections in the surface of ice at extreme sub-zero temperatures. More than just amazing natural phenomenon, these spiky structures are home to islands of psychrophiles, or “cold-loving microbes.” Design blog This Is Colossal tells us that we’re seeing photos of these beautiful natural formations because Jeffrey Bowman from the Integrated Graduate Education and Research Training (IGERT) program and his mentor Professor Jody Deming of the University of Washington Department of Oceanography broke cracks in the ice up in the Arctic Ocean.

Once room was created for these structure to take shape, “the cold, moist air above the open cracks becomes saturated and frost begins to form wherever an imperfection can be found.” Then given the opportunity, “flower-like frost structures” quickly grew vertically, rising to centimeters in height. “The hollow tendrils of these ‘frost flowers’ begin to wick moisture from the ice surface, incorporating salt, marine bacteria, and other substances as they grow.”

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The frost flowers are fascinating to these researchers because the microbes within them may provide answers as to how life survives in extreme conditions. “These delicate ice structures turn out to host microbes that survive to extremely cold temperatures, informing us about the limits of life when we search on other ice-covered planets and moons for possible extraterrestrial life. They also produce chemicals such as formaldehyde that may give clues about the origin of life on the early Earth.”

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Astrobiological studies are then also occurring on earth — as we are part of the same system, too: “Since many of the planets and moons in our solar system that might harbor life are very cold and covered in ice, determining the habitability of these planets and moons requires an understanding of the limits of life (as we know it) in the very coldest environments on Earth.”

According to the IGERT web site, Bowman and Deming are now working on an “ultra-clean chamber” where they can artificially grow these frost flowers, in order to determine how life can survive elsewhere in the universe.

Image credits: Matthias Wietz / IGERT

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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.”

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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.

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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

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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

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