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Archive for the ‘Urban Redevelopment’ Category

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William Wenk / Wenk Associates

William Wenk, FASLA, is the founder and president of Wenk Associates. This interview was conducted at the ASLA 2014 Annual Meeting in Denver. 

Denver has made great strides in its efforts to become one of the more sustainable cities in the US. What have been the major successes over the past 20 years? Where does the city still need to make progress?

The urban corridor, along the front range of the mountains between Colorado Springs and Fort Collins, is one of the fastest growing metropolitan corridors in the country. The most significant improvement has been the new regional light rail network that Denver Metro area voters approved approximately 10 years ago. This system has generated opportunities for transit-oriented developments (TODs), a” hub and spoke” system well on its way to being built out. It will be one of the most comprehensive in the country. The goal is to create more urban environments on sites often found in a suburban context.

In the heart of Denver, there has been tremendous interest in development at the rail stops. But increased density along the rail corridors can’t possibly handle the levels of growth and need for housing. In addition — with the exception of a few light rail stops — the expansion of transit in the heart of Denver is proving to be especially difficult. A number of established neighborhoods are being transformed by much denser infill development where there’s no transit other than our bus system, which isn’t very well-used. Increased density, especially in older central city neighborhoods, has been tremendously controversial. For example, the Cherry Creek District, which is an upscale shopping area two miles from downtown Denver, is achieving urban density, but isn’t served by transit. The same is true for the Lowry infill, New Urbanist development, where higher densities are being criticized because of increased traffic in surrounding streets. Controversy surrounding increased densities in the center of Denver will continue to be an issue for years.

To provide a better transit option the heart of the city, Denver is considering on-demand transit or circulators, which Boulder has found to be very successful. A system of circulator buses in Boulder called the Hop, Skip and Jump, has been a hit. We also have Zipcars and BCycle, our bike share system, that provide other options to owning a car, especially in areas close to the downtown. Because we’re such a car-oriented city, getting a typical family to shift from two cars to one car is a big deal, in spite of all of the innovations to date.

The state’s population is increasing at about 2 percent per year. As a result, we are once again seeing sprawl — low-density development at the urban fringes. Since 2008, sprawl had slowed down considerably, but it has been heating up again.

Among the city’s sustainability goals: by 2020, Denver seeks to increase transportation options so only 60 percent of commuting trips are made by single-occupant vehicles. How will the city achieve this? Is compact urban development the way forward here?

Colorado has 5 million people now but is projected to grow by 2 million people in the next 15 years. Accommodating that level of growth is going to be an enormous challenge. Colorado is a very popular destination to move to both for Millennials and Baby-Boomer seniors who are following their kids who now live here.

We have daunting issues related to growth along the front range, which is where most of the growth will occur. We can’t accommodate it all with denser infill development, although there are currently thousands of units of apartments under construction right now in the heart of Denver. We’ll also see more units coming in the TODs along the light rail system.

Some of the most dramatic examples of growth are in aging industrial areas near downtown Denver. For example, we’re currently working on the Brighton Boulevard corridor, the spine of an old industrial area that is rapidly transforming into a hip mixed-use arts and tech-oriented district.

Developers in the area are insisting we incorporate bike lanes, broader sidewalks, and stormwater treatment in the right of way. Unlike many older coastal and Midwestern cities, Denver’s not being pressured by the federal government to improve stormwater quality to the degree that these older cities are. Instead, the development community has really been pushing the city to innovate to create green infrastructure systems that also enhance the public realm at a district scale. It’s a very interesting time here, as we re-imagine the infrastructure in those neighborhoods that will be populated primarily by Millennials who don’t want to own a car.

But multiple barriers remain. The city, in partnership with the development community, is trying to identify the appropriate finance and maintenance strategy to transform the area’s infrastructure. The city is trying to catch up with the most innovative of national trends, but they don’t don’t quite know how to do it. Denver isn’t alone in this: Most larger cities are facing the same issues. I only wish we could move more quickly, be more willing to experiment with new ideas, and implement those that prove to be most feasible on a wider basis.

Another of the city’s goals is to make all rivers and creeks swimmable by 2020. How will the city achieve this goal?

All water in Colorado is owned. It’s bought and sold as a commodity, unlike water in wetter climates. There’s an old saying: “in the West, water flows uphill toward money.” Most of the water for front range communities comes from across the Continental Divide through a network of tunnels, canals, rivers. Like most rivers in the West, the South Platte River, which flows through the heart of Denver, serves as an integral part of this network to convey water that has been historically used for agricultural use. During periods of high diversion for agricultural and urban uses, rivers can be literally drained dry.

Until recently, there was no water allocated that would maintain river flows for recreation and habitat. Many rivers in the West face this issue, which will continue to be of concern far into the future because of high demands on water. Coliform, a bacteria; metals; and nutrients are a problem in the South Platte River, as they are in many urban rivers. For multiple reasons, I think the goal of making the cities, rivers, and creeks swimmable by 2020 simply isn’t possible given how we’re approaching the problem today.

It is difficult to remove coliform through passive treatment methods. Meeting that goal may always be a problem because we don’t have a complete understanding of many of the sources yet. That said, there’s a great deal that could be done if there were the political will and funding to tackle it, especially at a watershed or district or neighborhood scale. Because Denver isn’t under a federal consent decree, an improvement in the quality of urban rivers and streams will only occur through public pressure and creative means of financing and maintenance.

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Swimming in the South Platte River at Confluence Park / Wenk Associates

What is really interesting is there is significant interest on the part of a growing number of developers to be more responsible stewards of our urban water resources. For example, we are currently working developers, such as Zeppelin Development, Perry/Rose, and Urban Ventures who care deeply about Denver and are saying “We’ve got to do this.” They’re putting political pressure on the city to move beyond traditional stormwater management to employ green infrastructure approaches in a way that is good for business and the environment. Millennials are looking for green infrastructure in their living and working environments.

Denver Housing Authority, another of our long term clients, which has been instrumental in transforming a number of derelict areas the core city, is taking the same approach. As Chris Parr, their director of development, says “We want to be nutty green,” because they believe, as long-term owners of these projects, green approaches to development make good business sense. For example, the redevelopment of an outdated public housing project spanning several blocks at a light rail station very close to the downtown used stormwater infiltration as a primary management strategy to reduce development costs. Significant challenges remain though: Long-standing development standards for stormwater management and street design are still on the books, which limit change.

According to a report published in 2014, Denver is in the top 10 for U.S. cities with the highest percentage of green commercial real estate. Is the city also moving to greener commercial landscapes? If so, can you provide some examples?

We are moving towards more water-conservative landscapes. I wish to make that distinction because Denver Water, the primary regional water supplier, has emphasized water conservation for the last 20 years, resulting in at least a 10 percent reduction in water use. There is an almost universal emphasis on the use of xeriscape principles for commercial landscape design. In 2050, Colorado will have a 163 billion gallon shortage of water available for urban uses, so we’re going to have to explore further means of conservation, as well as rethinking what the larger concept of landscape means in our semi-arid climate.

Because of our water laws, we cannot harvest rainwater. Much of our effluent cannot be reused for the same reasons. That said, there is great potential to transform the urban environment using more regionally appropriate, gray/green landscapes that are more integral with natural processes, which you emerging in Portland and Philadelphia as a result of stormwater mandates.

There are some experimental green roofs here, but they tend to need irrigation because of our solar gain, which is counter to water conservation goals. Because of anticipated shortages, there is talk of “toilet to tap,” but given the vast majority of our domestic supply goes to landscape irrigation, we’ve only begun to explore the possibilities of a sustainable regional landscape aesthetic and ethic.

Our work at Taxi is a good example of a sustainable commercial landscape. We’ve worked within Colorado water law to infiltrate stormwater. We’ve used nonliving materials extensively. The plant palette consists of a broad range of native and non-native xeric plants.

Denver is in the top 10 on the Trust for Public Land’s ParkScore, which ranks cities on the quality of their park systems. What parks best exemplify the city’s commitment to providing high-quality green public spaces?

Denver has one of the more notable City Beautiful-era systems of parks and parkways. It’s on the National Register. Cheesman Park, Washington Park, City Park, and Speer Boulevard are just remarkable historic resources. The system’s been expanded significantly as part of the development of Stapleton and Lowry’s park and open space networks.

In Stapleton and Lowry, the historic Olmstedian park aesthetic has evolved to be much more regionally appropriate, in terms of incorporating large areas of more native and naturalized landscapes driven by managing stormwater on site.

Also, the city is investing heavily in an expansion of parks and natural areas along the Platte River Greenway, which was established over 40 years ago as one of the first greenway systems in the country.

We are currently involved in the $4 million first phase redevelopment of Confluence Park along the river, which is part of a $40 million long-term makeover. Confluence has become overwhelmed with out-of-town visitors and daily users who now live in the Central Platte Valley. We’re looking at public private partnerships to create landscape architecture that better manage conflicts between bikes and pedestrians. There is a level of urban use that demands new types of management and maintenance, something you find in major urban centers but Denver is only beginning to see.

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Confluence Park rendering / Wenk Associates

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Confluence Park rendering / Wenk Associates

There are some wonderful new parkways, especially in Stapleton, designed around the natural qualities of the West. These naturalized qualities make you feel like you’re in the West rather than in Cleveland or in Washington, D.C. Those parkways have been controversial, but people are getting used to them and see their inherent beauty.

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Stapleton Walking Path / Wenk Associates

Denver Parks is looking to the future in terms of how we begin to serve our rapidly expanding population, the thousands of new residents who are going to be living downtown. Existing parks in the downtown tend to be oriented to major civic events and festivals. The master plan is proposing an expansion with a range of traditional and nontraditional park types. They seek to incentivize public-private partnerships, which will lead to more private parks in ways that you see in the core of Manhattan — streets as parks, pop-up parks, for example.

Bicycling Magazine ranks Denver 12th in the country for its bicycle infrastructure, behind leaders like New York City, Portland, and even Boulder, which ranks sixth. What are the plans for improving bike infrastructure in the city?

Bike use has gone up dramatically, especially for commuting, over the last 10 years. The U.S. Census Bureau ranked us in the top 10 given some 2.3 percent of residents commute by bike. BCycles, our bike sharing system, has been really successful and expanded beyond the downtown.

There are aggressive proposals for enhancing the cycling network downtown. Our downtown business association is currently crowdsourcing funding to physically separate bike lanes because public funding isn’t currently available. Denver Public Works department has a bicycle coordinator. There’s a major initiative to create a comprehensive system of new bike lanes and sharrows. These all are a testament to the city’s commitment to enhancing our on and off street system for our outdoor-oriented population.

But in spite of all of the improvements, we have some major gaps and barriers in the system and entrenched street standards that aren’t bike friendly. These issues are going to be difficult and expensive to solve.

Why is Denver so keen on adaptive reuse? Many of your projects, such as the Taxi Redevelopment and Northside Park, reimagine old infrastructure to create parks and commercial spaces the city can use today.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, we lost a tremendous number of fabulous buildings to urban renewal, like most other cities. There was huge resistance, which resulted in the preservation of Larimer Square, the establishment of a number of historic districts, and new landmark status for many remaining buildings. These efforts also spawned Historic Denver and other preservation organizations and programs that have resulted in the preservation of a number of historic districts and buildings: our warehouse district, known as Lower Downtown (LODO), is a prime example. It has been hugely successful as a real estate venture. Although we’ve lost a great number of really valuable resources, today, there is widespread adaptive reuse of warehouses and old industrial buildings.

Taxi was a derelict taxi dispatch center surrounded by rail yards, along the Platte River. Our client, Micky Zeppelin, saw this gritty infrastructure as a place creative individuals wanted to live and work. He’s always been a student of cities around the world. He wanted us to be responsible about water use as part of a much broader agenda of creating a creative community. He wanted a rich environment that was both urban and natural, and one where natural processes could function in the heart of the city.

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Taxi redevelopment / Wenk Associates

Northside Park was a decommissioned sewage plant, an incredibly stout infrastructure too expensive to tear down, Our solution to retain the plant was primarily practical. We needed to reduce demolition/construction costs and create space for two soccer fields. Personally, I’ve always been fascinated with layers of history in the land — both visible and invisible — and the richness of expression that is possible by revealing those layers.

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Northside Park / Wenk Associates

Adaptive resuse is messy, but it’s a wonderfully rich way of way of thinking about the world. The world is not a clean and tidy place. The landscapes a lot of us want to live in aren’t necessarily clean and tidy, but they’re vital. They’re alive. This line of thinking can lead us toward the next generation of urban landscapes in the semi-arid West.

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Mesa City Center / all images Colwell Shelor, West 8, and Weddle Gilmore

Colwell Shelor Landscape Architecture, West 8 Urban Design + Landscape Architecture, and Weddle Gilmore have won a design competition to create Mesa City Center, a new civic space destined to accelerate urbanization in Mesa, a city of more than 450,000 in the greater, sprawled-out suburban area surrounding Phoenix, Arizona. A major investment in making this part of the country more walkable, the new 19-acre town square will be a “catalyst for the next 100 years of urban growth in downtown Mesa,” argued Colwell Shelor, the lead landscape architects. The new downtown public spaces will be financed with park bonds, approved by voters in 2012. This project, like the new Klyde Warren Park in Dallas and the Newport Beach Civic Center in California, indicates that more heavily car-centric cities are making ambitious investments in high-quality public space, because people everywhere want these amenities and are willing to pay for them.

“Today, the site is a mix of parking lots and municipal buildings. When complete, Mesa City Center will feature a signature public space that will catalyze new development and enliven Mesa’s downtown core,” said Michele Shelor, ASLA, principal, Colwell Shelor. And from design partner West 8’s Jamie Maslyn Larson, ASLA, we hear: “Cities around the country have been shaped around their ‘village green’ or town square. These places are oases in the city. We started thinking, this is what Mesa wants — its own town square, but with a twist, so that it’s a place people from all over the state will revisit again and again.”

The new space is “characterized by generous spaces for flexible uses, inviting landscapes celebrating the Sonoran desert, and ground floor uses with public-oriented programs that draw people into and through Mesa City Center to Main Street, the Arts Center, Convention Center, and residential neighborhoods.”

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The center piece of the design is a new events space that will both accommodate larger festivals along with weekly events like a farmer’s market, exercise classes, and movies in the park.

The new space features a unique copper shade structure with an “evaporative cooling tower,” which will “mitigate the dry, hot climate with added moisture and a consistent, cooling breeze.” According to Colwell Shelor, “similar constructions have been shown to drop air temperatures by fifteen to twenty degrees. The surface will also host a projection screen for performances and movie screenings.”

Part of the structure is set within a pool of water. In the renderings, this undulating form will also provide the frame for swings, making this a mecca for kids.

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And the pool will become an ice-skating rink in winter.

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An upper terrace will create have a more informal feel, with Sonoran Desert-themed gardens and smaller plazas.

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A promenade will connect the plaza and upper terrace, with a path lined with seating and trees.

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Sustainability is a focus. Allison Colwell, ASLA, a principal at Colwell Shelor, explained: “A guiding principle of the design is to incorporate sustainable measures into all aspects of the design so that the Mesa City Center will be a model for environmentally sensitive and energy-efficient development. A few of the strategies we will consider are adaptive reuse of existing buildings, an evaporative cooling tower, bio-retention planters, rainwater harvesting, solar power, use of grey water, and permeable paving.”

Furthermore, “the overarching landscape strategy is to use native plants as the backbone of different plant communities for seasonal beauty, diversity, and habitats, and to use stormwater and greywater to support these plant communities.”

City Hall itself may also contribute to the the sustainability of the overall design. The team proposes a 150 kW solar parasol over the roof, creating an inviting rooftop public space with great views.

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The parasol will provide shade but also generate approximately 260,000 kWh/yr. power.

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Metropolitan Zone of the Valley of Mexico, 66 miles wide and 68 miles long. Top: hydrology and agriculture. Below: hydrology and urban systems. The Texcoco Lakebed is the large blue area at center-right / INEGI topographic charts. Maps by Gabriel Diaz Montemayor.

Last September, the Mexican government announced the construction of a new airport for Mexico City. The current airport is the second busiest, per number of passengers, in Latin America, just after Sao Paolo, Brazil. The airport was recently declared to be at full capacity. It has two runways that cannot be operated simultaneously and it’s surrounded on three flanks –north, west, and south – by dense neighborhoods. Along its east site, the airport is adjacent to the Texcoco Lake bed. There is no more space for growth, so a new airport is needed.

The new airport master plan, as presented by Sir Norman Foster and Fernando Romero from Mexico, the architects who won an international design competition, is located just 5 miles north of the current airport and will occupy 17.5 square miles of the Texcoco lake bed. The remains of this formerly grand lake covers some 50 square miles. Spared by urbanization but partially used for agriculture, the lake bed has both permanent and temporary water bodies. Although miniscule in comparison to the original lake system, the lake bed sits at the lowest part of the basin, helping concentrate and infiltrate water, supporting the unstable soils of Mexico City. The lake remnant protects the city from more flooding. And the water it collects keeps the city afloat by infiltration.

Mexico City drinks more than half of its water from the valley of Mexico’s aquifer. This valley is a closed basin draining serviced, storm, and waste water towards the Gulf of Mexico via a deep and massive underground system. The load pressing on this desiccated, lake landscape, along with aquifer exploitation, has led to Mexico City actually subsiding by over 30 feet in its central area in the last century.

A recent public presentation about the new airport plan failed to discuss how the project will address these critical environmental issues and improve water quantity and quality, support soils, recover wildlife habitat, and create a regenerative relationship between the city and its lakes.

There are ways landscape architecture can be used to help the lake system recover. Among some existing concepts is Ciudad Futura (Future City) by Alberto Kalach, Teodoro Gonzalez de Leon, their Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) architecture students, and other collaborators. Published in La Ciudad y sus Lagos (The City and its Lakes) in 1998, this project proposes the recovery of the lacustrine system through the construction of infrastructure for water management and treatment, the definition of active lake edges, the creation of new public spaces, and the development of a new airport as an island in a regenerated Texcoco Lake.

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The Future City / City of the Lakes project. The new airport as an island in the regenerated Texcoco Lake / Alberto Kalach, Teodoro Gonzalez de Leon, UNAM students, and other collaborators.

A more radical concept would be to turn the current airport into an ecological reserve and park, performing water and soil management and providing wildlife habitat. Parque Texcoco (Texcoco Park) by Iñaki Echeverria doesn’t address where to place a new airport though.

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Texcoco Park. The recovered Texcoco Lake with no airports / Iñaki Echeverria

With the new airport plans, the Mexican government promises not only first-rate architecture but also a place that creates ecological value, largely through a 1,730-acre public forest. But it remains to be seen whether the new airport’s master plan project can create a reconciliation between the built and natural environments, and this project can become a global best practice from an under-developed country. The health of the underlying ecological systems must be considered. Let’s demand this happens.

This guest post is by Gabriel Diaz Montemayor, Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture, The University of Texas at Austin

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The playground in Riverstone master-planned community, Big Adventrue Park, incorporates the natural environment as much as possible.

The playground in Riverstone master-planned community, Big Adventure Park, incorporates the natural environment as much as possible. / Houston Chronicle

FIU Students Seek Flooding Solutions if Sea Level Rises Throughout Miami-Dade CountyThe Miami Herald, 11/20/14
FIU professors Marta Canavés and Marilys Nepomechie worked with students for three years to research sea level rise projections at three, four, and six feet, and created models and proposals to keep existing city infrastructure and neighborhoods habitable. The models, designs and collected data are on display at the new Coral Gables Museum exhibit through March 1.”

S.F.’s Newest Public Space Provides Invitation to Sit, LingerThe San Francisco Chronicle, 11/25/14
“The new plaza is a patch of asphalt at Mission Street, closed to cars but with plenty of room for bicycles to coast through, below a gateway-like frame of salvaged wood adorned with hanging rat tail cactus. Its counterpart at Market Street behind the Palace Hotel spent decades as a deliberate green oasis with formal planters, until it declined to the point where now it is hidden behind construction barriers.”

Parks, Playgrounds Get New Attention in Planned CommunitiesThe Houston Chronicle, 11/26/14
“The latest amenity at River­stone creates a shady and colorful play area for families in the Fort Bend County master-planned community. On two acres of land, colorful pathways and play structures are set among the trees and twisting trails.”

A Guide to Denver’s Best Landscaped Spaces, Deep and FreeThe Denver Post, 11/28/14
“None of it got there by accident, as the new ‘What’s Out There Denver’ online guide reminds us in inviting detail. Our natural places were planned by generations of forward-thinking civic leaders and landscape architects who understood how preserved green spaces balance all of the asphalt and concrete of city life.”

New York’s High Line: Why the Floating Promenade Is So PopularThe Washington Post, 11/30/14
“It has become an archetype for cities everywhere craving their own High Line mojo. In Washington, it is the inspiration for a proposed elevated park where the old 11th Street Bridge crossed the Anacostia River and, separately, for a component in the long-range redevelopment of Union Station.”

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Urban acupuncture / Island Press

Looking for the perfect present for your favorite landscape architect, designer, or planner? Or taking time off during the holidays to delve into the latest thinking on design, cities, and the environment? Well, The Dirt‘s picks for the top ten books of 2014 are worth exploring:

Urban Acupuncture: Celebrating Pinpricks of Change That Enrich City Life (Island Press, 2014)
Jaime Lerner, one of the most influential urban leaders of our time, has written down all of his hard-earned wisdom about the city in one slim yet rich volume. Read the review in The Dirt.

Berlin: Portrait of a City Through the Centuries (St. Martin’s Press, 2014)
From the book: “Berlin tells the volatile history of Europe’s capital over five centuries through a series of intimate portraits of two dozen key residents.” The Washington Post: “Berlin is the most extraordinary work of history I’ve ever read. To call it history is, in fact, reductive.”

Composite Landscapes: Photomontage and Landscape Architecture (Hatje Cantz, 2014)
This book, which releases at the end of December 2014, is based on the exhibition at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston curated by Charles Waldheim, Affil. ASLA. Composite Landscapes examines one of landscape architecture’s most recognizable representational forms, the montage view. Learn more about the exhibition.

Landscapes of Change: Innovative Designs and Reinvented Sites (Timber Press, 2014)
University of Oregon landscape architecture professor Roxi Thoren, Affil. ASLA, explores 26 case studies from around the world that highlight how “site can serve as design generator.” Case studies include Queens Plaza in Queens, New York; the Buffalo Bayou Promenade in Houston, Texas; and the Jaffa Landfill Park in Tel Aviv, Israel.

The Landscape Imagination: Collected Essays of James Corner, 1990-2010 (Princeton Architectural Press, 2014)
As the author of canonical texts — and now built projects like the High Line in New York City — James Corner, ASLA, founder of Field Operations, has achieved a unique stature in contemporary landscape architecture. Read the review in The Dirt.

Mellon Square: Discovering a Modern Masterpiece (Princeton Architectural Press, 2014)
Recently restored to much ado through a six-year process, Mellon Square in Pittsburgh was the first Modernist space in the nation built over a subterranean parking garage. Considered a precursor to today’s green roof movement, Mellon Square is a showcase for urban revitalization through historic preservation, with a contemporary sensibility and the latest technologies. Read the review in The Dirt.

Next Generation Infrastructure: Principles for Post-Industrial Public Works (Island Press, 2014)
Architect and planner Hillary Brown’s new book is an inspiring argument for infrastructure that behaves like nature. She writes: “We need more diversified, distributed, and interconnected infrastructural assets that simulate the behavior of natural systems.” Read the review in The Dirt.

People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities (Island Press, 2014)
Influential blogger and advocate F. Kaid Benfield’s new book argues that sustainable places are really just places people love. Think of those places where you most feel like yourself. Would you want anything to happen to them? Read the review in The Dirt.

Projective Ecologies (Harvard University Graduate School of Design and Actar, 2014)
This new collection of essays, edited by Chris Reed, ASLA, founder of Stoss Landscape Urbanism, and Nina-Marie Lister, Affil. ASLA, professor at Ryerson University, is a timely overview of contemporary thinking about ecology and design. Read the review in The Dirt.

Urban Bikeway Design Guide, 2nd Edition (Island Press, 2014)
The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) has released an updated second edition as part of their “sustained commitment to making city streets safer for everyone using them.” Reformatted in an attractive hardcover with improved structure, it features photos, diagrams, and 3-D renderings of wide-ranging best practices in design for bike infrastructure. Read the review in The Dirt.

For more, check out Books by ASLA Members, a hub offering up hundreds of books written over the years (all available via Amazon.com), and the top 10 books from 2013.

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Projective Ecologies / Harvard University Graduate School of Design, Actar

Projective Ecologies, by Chris Reed, ASLA, founder of Stoss Landscape Urbanism, and Nina-Marie Lister, Affil. ASLA, professor at Ryerson University, is a timely overview of contemporary thinking about ecology and design. The book is organized conceptually, moving from critical foundations to the connections between nature and culture, the relationship between urban design and ecology, and, finally, to new ways of unifying ecology and design. Previously-published seminal essays in ecological and design theory are interspersed with new contributions, effectively reframing and clarifying some of the concepts explored in the landscape urbanism movement. Projective Ecologies uses ecology as a lens for understanding the role of design in a complex, interconnected, and changing world.

Reed and Lister describe how ecological thought has shifted from classical determinism — epitomized by the notion of linear ecological succession toward a stable climax state — to a complex systems approach in which ecological systems are interconnected, self-organizing, relatively unpredictable, and constantly changing. With this new thinking, human settlement is not separate from nature. Instead, human activity and nature are inextricably bound. Therefore, we can never successfully control ecological systems from a top-down perspective; we can only manage our own activities within them.

This shift in thinking demands new approaches to large-scale environmental design. What does it mean to design within a complex and dynamic ecological system? What constitutes success in ecological design when the end goal isn’t a predefined climax community?

When a successful system is no longer defined by a predictable, steady end state, Reed and Lister write, “adaptation, appropriation, and flexibility [become] understood as the hallmarks of ‘successful’ systems, and it is now widely accepted (if not fully understood) that it is through an ecosystem’s ability to respond to changing environmental conditions that persistence is possible.”

Now, instead of imposing order on an ecological system to achieve a desired end state, the designer works within the ecological system to guide it to a state of relative stability. A truly sustainable complex-systems approach to large-scale design involves the adaptive management of systems not entirely within our control. This approach may become more critical as global climate change threatens to destabilize and alter the ecological systems we depend upon.

Jane Wolff’s excellent contribution, “Cultural Landscapes and Dynamic Ecologies: Lessons from New Orleans,” explores the catastrophic failures of New Orleans’s infrastructure and flood control policies to align with the ecological reality of its dynamic delta environment. Notably, Wolff stresses the challenge of implementing a complex systems approach to flood management, writing: “Though design professionals and scholars have made a wide range of interesting proposals that capitalize on landscapes’ fluctuating tendencies, there has been much less conversation about the challenge of implementing such ideas.” Wolff stresses the need for public education about ecological problems in order to implement solutions, and suggests that in the case of New Orleans, the greatest barrier to implementing such an approach may be cultural.

I wished more of the essays explored these kinds of hurdles to implementing large-scale ecological design. Reed and Lister describe Projective Ecologies as the beginning of a more ambitious project, writing, “the bigger project initiated by this volume is to better and more critically understand both the context for and the implications of the various relationships that have developed between ecological and design thinking.”

Projective Ecologies lays out an effective course for designing within a complex and changing world, and, in this sense, it’s successful. As the project develops, the next step may be to consider strategies for implementation, including how to communicate the adaptive management of complex ecological systems to the general public.

Read the book.

This guest post is by Ben Wellington, Associate ASLA, designer, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, recent Louisiana State University Master’s of Landscape Architecture graduate, and former ASLA summer intern.

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Barangaroo Final Plan. From top (Headland Park, Barangaroo Central, and Barangaroo South / PWP Landscape Architecture

After nearly ten years of planning and development, Barangaroo, a 22-hectare port on the Sydney waterfront, is coming together as a rich, $6 billion, mixed-use development that will fill in missing gaps in the city’s waterfront promenade and offer a stunning, one-of-a-kind park with an embedded Aboriginal cultural center. As Peter Walker, FASLA, PWP Landscape Architecture, described at the ASLA 2014 Annual Meeting in Denver, “it’s the most amazing project I’ve ever worked on.”

Walker explained how the original port had been “engineered to death.” Flat, covered in asphalt, and completely separated from the surrounding residential areas by a 60-foot cliff, the port had long severed parts of the city from the waterfront. PWP fleshed out a new landscape plan that dramatically improves connectivity to the water, while designing a new park that recalls the landscape early settlers would have seen.

Throughout Barangaroo, there will be a 50/50 split between buildings and parks. Headland Park, in the north, will be entirely green public space, while Barangaroo South will be entirely developed, with a new casino and a set of 40-story towers offering a mix of residential, commercial, and retail space.

In the middle, Barangaroo Central has an even mix of private development and parks. As Douglas Voight, SOM, explained, Barangaroo Central will feature a new set of “Sydney steps” that mimic Spanish steps, taking people down from the upper level at the top of the cliffs to the water. “There, we will introduce a civic element, a cultural space.” Views from Observatory Hill, one of the city’s best vantage points, will be protected, and the old building there will be made more accessible, so as to enable views “from water to stars.”

According to Brian ten Brinke, with the Barangaroo Delivery Authority (BDA), the goal of the Headland Park portion of the project was to replace the rectilinear edges of the port with the meandering, nature-carved shoreline of the 1700s. Examining maps from the early 1800s, they found a coastline they could recreate, which, amazingly, they did.

As PWP designed Headland Park, they also “established a design vocabulary for the whole precinct’s waterfront walk,” said Jay Swaintek, ASLA, PWP. From Headland Park all the way to Barangaroo South, “we engaged with the casino and building owners to ensure the foreshore worked for the public and read as public domain.”

Dave Walker, ASLA, also with PWP, then delved into the challenges of creating a naturalistic landscape where there was once flat asphalt. (This brief video enclosed of the construction process is really worth a watch):

First, they created a 60-foot cliff with the yellow sandstone found throughout Sydney, in order to recreate an edge that connects with the surrounding communities. “We married it up to the existing cliff face.”

All that height created an opportunity to build down within the cliff and create a new memorial and cultural center for Australia’s first inhabitants, the Aborigines. Walker said this was critical as for hundreds of years, “there was an apartheid-like situation” between the Aborigines and whites. Sunshine will trickle down into the building from gaps in the surface.

Park visitors will wind their way through a reconstituted bush landscape filled with Eucalyptus trees. Dave Walker said while these bush landscapes look quite dense from the outside, within, they offer a scrim with many views looking out. Parallel to a 2-meter-wide path through the bush and down the slope, there will be separate bicycle and pedestrian pathways that wind through.

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Headland Park bush path / PWP Landscape Architecture

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Headland Park waterfront promenade / PWP Landscape Architecture

Wrapping the shoreline are 10,000 rectangular, hand-carved sandstone blocks that recall patterns in remnant coastal landscapes. Organized into geometrical shapes, “these striated forms have a natural precedent,” said Dave Walker. Each GPS-tagged stone was individually set to create intricate patterns that connect with the nature. “In high tide and low tide, the transitional patterns change.”

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Headland Park waterfront / PWP Landscape Architecture

With hundreds of trees being planted now, Headland Park is expected to open early next year. More and more of Barangaroo will also come online in the following few years. BDA is already expecting more than 12 million people a year to visit.

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New South Mall campus plan / BIG

The new master plan for the Smithsonian’s South Mall campus, which runs from the Hirshhorn Museum all the way to the Freer Museum, is a shocker. It obliterates the existing landscape, filled with intimate nooks that invite exploration, in favor of “improved connectivity” and open plazas that extend the grand expanse of the Mall in between the buildings. While the current set-up is perhaps rightfully criticized for being difficult to navigate and uninviting in parts, with so many walls separating museum from museum, the new plan by Danish architecture and urban design firm BIG and San Francisco-based landscape architecture firm Surface Design, as well as many other collaborators, may leave visitors feeling exposed. Given full design and implementation of the $2 billion plan is expected to take more than 20 years and won’t even start for the next 5-7 years, we can expect elements of this plan will certainly change. The Smithsonian just began its public comment phase of the process.

For the past two years, the Smithsonian has invested $2.5 million in developing these plans, seemingly under the radar. Wayne Clough, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, said the impetus for the new plan came from all the negative public feedback about the experience at the South Mall campus. The subterranean Ripley Education Center, for example, is nearly impossible to find, as is the entrance to the Sackler Gallery. Underground, good luck getting from the Freer to the Sackler or the Ripley Center; the passages are incredibly confusing. These museums, set deep within the Mall, are dark. At night, the whole campus is devoid of light. Visitors can’t walk directly from the Hirshhorn to the Freer, but must zig and zag. As a result, Clough believed the Smithsonian needed to totally “reimagine the experience and transition the Smithsonian into the future.”

This new master plan is then meant to be a road map to guide how to get there, added Smithsonian Undersecretary Albert Horvath. “It’s fluid and provides opportunities and options for us.”

Bjarke Ingels, the founder of BIG, explained the key facets of the plan for a site that may be the “most heavily regulated piece of real estate on Earth”:

The centerpiece of the redevelopment — and the first phase the Smithsonian will tackle — is updating the Castle and protecting it from earthquakes, like the one that heavily damaged it in 2011. The entire building will be set on rollers, a system of “base isolation,” to guard against future seismic anomalies. Given “we are digging anyway,” said Ingels, a new underground interactive exhibit is planned, which will outline all the resources the Smithsonian provides. The building’s interiors, which have been broken up into shops selling knick-knacks and offices, will be reunited in a grand hall, as it once was.

As visitors exit the Castle from the rear, heading toward the Enid A. Haupt garden, visitors will discover a contemporary landscape that peels up in the corners. Each corner will be home to a bright, glass-enclosed entrance that leads visitors either down into the Sackler Gallery or the African Art Museum. Ingels said: “These will be entrances to a much bigger experience. No more hidden pavilions.”

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Visitors will also be able to go up the top of the slopes or picnic on this green roof deck.

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Given the current Haupt garden isn’t under any historical protection, it could actually find new life in this form. One architect with BIG said the team would keep Jean Paul Carlhian’s Moongate Garden, which people love, “just putting it back even better.”

The Sackler Gallery and African Art Museum will also now be viewable from the revamped garden, providing a preview of the art below. “The skylights will give people a sneak peek into the museums, making them intuitively accessible.”

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The spaces themselves will be flooded with light, an improvement everyone can appreciate.

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One reason for all the walls separating these museums from each other is that there are three separate loading docks for the museums. BIG proposes consolidating them into one loading dock and creating a subterranean road that will enable artworks to be safely transported. Paralleling this route will be underground passages, all sky-lit, that allow visitors to travel directly between the Hirshhorn to the Freer, perhaps bypassing having to have your bag checked by security again. With one dock, the walls separating the museums can then be pulled down and direct, above-ground paths can also be created cutting through all the sites, too.

BIG then proposes further exposing the museums to the expanse of the Mall, first by removing the high walls around the Hishhorn Museum, and creating a new landscape design at near-Mall level with a pattern or circles that appear to be radiating off the building. One architect from BIG said they saw the original drawings for the site, and this new concept actually returns this space to the original design intent.

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According to Skip Graffam, ASLA, a partner at OLIN, who created a tour of the existing Hirshhorn landscape, “architect Gordon Bunschaft designed the austere and minimalist building and site, which was later refined by landscape architects Lester Collins and James Urban.” Many may appreciate the understated landscape, always a welcome respite from the Mall.

The sculpture garden, which is in sore need of maintenance, will instead be similarly gutted under this new plan, replaced with a design encased in glass.

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The museum’s central fountain will also be further sunk in.

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A new subterranean space, which will also provide access to a new cafe, will enable visitors to directly connect between the museum and sculpture garden. Now, visitors have to leave the Museum go up over the road, and then go back down into the sculpture garden.

Throughout, BIG proposes major improvements to building and landscape systems, gutting all the 50-year old systems and replacing them with the most energy and water-efficient models. The proposal promotes green infrastructure, energy efficiency, as well as localized renewable energy sources. Ingels said: “Energy use will be reduced by 39 percent and carbon emissions will go down 40 percent.” At the same time, the amount of space available for the museums will increase by 30 percent. “It’s a significant upgrade.”

The changes to the landscape, however, are perhaps mis-characterized as “subtle, surgical interventions.” This is a wholesale redesign of this part of the Mall, but Ingels says his team can “recreate the romantic, meandering nature of the space, so people can get lost in the plants,” while also dramatically improving connectivity. Also important will be creating connections with the ambitious new plans for L’Enfant Plaza and Southwest Eco-District, which is expected to bring in tens of thousands more federal workers, dramatically upping the density in the area.

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Horvath said the “landscape portion of the plan is least developed. The gardens are really integral to the design.”

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Christian Gabriel / Taylor Lednum, GSA

Christian Gabriel, ASLA, is the National Design Director for Landscape Architecture for the U.S. General Service Administration’s Office of Chief Architect in Washington, D.C. At the GSA he works to set design standards in the realm of public space, landscape, site security, and sustainability. He reviews and approves design proposals, serves on team selection panels, assists on special projects, and advocates for innovation. Prior to joining the GSA, he practiced as a senior design associate at Thomas Balsley Associates and Workshop: Ken Smith Landscape Architect.

Since you began as the National Design Director for Landscape Architecture at the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) two years ago, what has changed? Where is GSA now on landscape architecture?

In the last two years, GSA has established a landscape architecture presence that acknowledges the value of the field. When I arrived, landscape architecture issues and opportunities were addressed indirectly through other disciplines, sometimes falling through gaps between general design, architecture, art, or urban planning.

But GSA wanted to shift to a more holistic approach that acknowledged the value robust landscape architectural design can bring to our projects. We have been realizing that shift through the creation of policy guidance on landscape architecture; the selection of prominent landscape architects as national design peers; identification of project opportunities, including landscape exclusive projects and ecological services; and a new landscape architecture voice in capital project design review.

GSA has long-excelled at the art of sustainable building development, and now we’re beginning to bring the same attention to site design.

During the past two years GSA’s new construction budget was slashed. In 2010 the budget was $800 million, but two years later that budget was down to just around $50 million. For this year though, Congress has allocated more than $500 million for some new facilities, such as the San Ysidro Point of Entry in California and an FBI complex in San Juan, Puerto Rico. What is your role in these high-profile projects? How will they showcase design excellence in landscape architecture?

It’s easy to hang on the overall numbers because, like any federal agency, our budget ebbs and flows. Even when our overall capital construction budget goes down, our portfolio remains considerable since it takes quite a while to develop the large projects and programs in our pipeline. And we have a huge maintenance program to boot. Even those maintenance projects can be quite large and have the ability to catalyze change. For example, the Javits Federal Plaza project in New York City, designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, is an eloquent example of a major, well-designed work of landscape architecture that began as a waterproofing project identified and completed through our repair and alterations program.

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Jacob Javits Federal Building Plaza, New York City / Alex Maclean / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

In terms of the role of landscape architecture in major projects moving forward, it will be like the role I established during leaner times: seek to be a clear-headed voice at the table, but also bring forward the value of landscape architecture in a variety of performance areas — whether it’s through ecological services or public space design.

The public realm in many of our projects is vitally important. For example, the San Ysidro point of entry is one of the busiest land ports in the world. It sees 30,000 to 50,000 pedestrians every day, and 60,000 to 80,000 vehicles a day. Public spaces there see volumes you rarely find anywhere outside of Times Square.

Another part of your job is educating GSA’s 12,000 plus employees who manage nearly 9,000 buildings about the value of landscape architecture. That seems like a herculean task. What is your strategy for improving awareness? What landscape architecture issues do you think are most misunderstood there?

First, you have to get to the right people. There are people at the beginning of projects who provide significant direction, like chief architect Les Shepherd who shape the look, the feel, the design team. Another critical step is working closely with our regional design and construction teams and project champions, the folks that push the projects along, ensuring that they’re meeting all of the intended objectives and aspirations of the project. Then, when the project is turn-key and facility management takes the reins on behalf of one of our client agencies, it’s critical to touch base and clarify the “care and feeding” of the projects to ensure the longevity of our landscapes and public spaces.

More broadly, we’re focused on the education of all of our staff. We’re providing continuing educational units for our professional staff on a near monthly basis. Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center and other outside institutions and practitioners provide education on landscape architecture topics. We’re also entering into the “landscape analytics” portion of our work where we’re looking at some relatively sophisticated and complex landscapes that have a lot of embedded green infrastructure and are beginning to verify the performance of those projects. Many of our staff are incredibly knowledgeable about both design and construction and have demonstrated a real interest in understanding how complex landscape projects perform under field conditions.

During an ASLA-hosted webinar on how landscape architects can contract with GSA, you mentioned a short selection process that would allow local LA’s to pre-qualify for GSA projects. Can you offer any more details on this process? When you expect GSA to roll it out?

We are always exploring how to enhance our contracting mechanisms and have been looking at two elements related to that: One has been the renewal of our indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity teams. The other is the potential for a short-selection process, which is really a pre-qualification for landscape specific firms. The latter element is only in a discussion stage.

Sustainability is now a key goal for the landscapes GSA manages, but GSA must also prove the benefits of sustainable design practices like green infrastructure outweigh the costs, so it has undertaken a broad effort to collect data and make the case. What kind of data are you collecting? Are there any interesting findings so far?

We’re trying to bring forward the value of landscape architecture in measurable terms. Part of that is making clear the contributions of the landscape if we’re suggesting that public money be spent on creating more intense functional landscapes to treat stormwater, sequester carbon, and produce electricity. There needs to be a commissioning process, similar to how we would commission a furnace in a building, proving to us all that it’s functioning at a certain capacity. Often green infrastructure is assumed to be functioning at maximum capacity. We know in practice, however, that it’s actually very rare, because these are living systems not typically maintained at a perfect level or performing at a consistent level.

We’re planning to work with Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) on two projects we identified for our landscape analytic study, which explore these issues:

First is the new United States Coast Guard headquarters at the old Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital site in Washington, D.C. It is a massive structure, set against a hillside in an historic campus, which hosts the third largest green roof in the world. The combination of on-grade and on-structure elements working together to provide diverse ecological services and zones for the overall project is astounding. We’re planning to verify the performance of hydrologic networks and other sustainable features through a combination of on-site and secondary research, examining the construction, installation, and care.

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US Coast Guard Headquarters, Washington, D.C. / Taylor Lednum, GSA

Second is the Domenici Courthouse in Albuquerque designed by Rios Clementi Hale Studios. This is a SITES-certified project, on a much smaller scale, and in a totally different eco-region, demonstrating an entirely different approach to sustainable landscape. The two projects should prove complementary.

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Domenici Courthouse, Albuquerque, New Mexico / Robert Reck

Carbon, water, and electricity are the three defining design issues of our day. We’re hoping to tackle two of them within the realm of landscape. We are not alone in our interest: Our colleagues at Andropogon Associates, lead designers of the United States Coast Guard Headquarters landscape, have started similar research on other non-federal facilities. We’ve also recently been in touch with Reed Hilderbrand, a firm also looking at something similar, essentially a commissioning process for their Clark Institute of Art project in western Massachusetts.

Your work must incorporate security. Is there a new approach from GSA for using the landscape to improve security? You were talking about these point-of-entry projects where security needs to be visible. You need to know you’re entering this secure environment, so there are symbols of security. But how do you balance creating a sense of security while also providing access and transparency?

There is the issue of preemptive security, the visual definition of security, so people understand a legible and secure envelope on a building or site as a deterrent. That is of great interest to our security-minded client agencies.

At this point, nearly all federal client agencies essentially self-identify the risk level of their own facility on a pre-defined scale. The Interagency Security Council develops all the standards and protocols, the hardening requirements of each level facility, if you will. So this issue is deceptively complex.

Regardless of the risk level however, the best path is integrated design. For example, the Los Angeles Courthouse, now in design and construction on a highly urban site, has a series of walls, planters, and bollards. It’s the idiosyncratic deployment of those things, not in a singular, monolithic monotony that make it less pointed. That site was designed by Mia Lehrer + Associates and peer reviewed by Jennifer Guthrie, ASLA.

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Los Angeles Courthouse / SOM and Mia Lehrer + Associates

By contrast, at the federal campus down in Puerto Rico, where we have more real estate, we can explore more use of tactical topography and water courses as security devices.

Lastly, with colony collapse disorder, honey bees and other crucial pollinators are dying off in great numbers. They are being affected to such an extent that President Obama has issued a memorandum to use buildings and landscapes managed by GSA and other federal agencies to help these important insects. What is GSA specifically doing to help honey bees and other pollinators? How are you going to measure progress?

Pollinators contribute more than $25 billion in value to the American economy every year. Some 60 percent of pollinator populations have been significantly reduced, or have disappeared completely, in the United States, over the past 60 years. Some estimate that 40 to 50 percent of our food would not be available without pollination. Now, we put an economic value on these creatures, but, clearly, they’re irreplaceable.

GSA provides an enormous educational opportunity because we are responsible for office space for 1.2 million federal workers every day. Through our facilities, we have the ability to touch people’s daily lives about this issue while also providing an ecological service.

We’re interested in providing both habitat and foraging opportunities for pollinators; it’s in the realm of what can do through design as an agency. GSA is not one of the big land agencies. We’re not the Department of Interior, Department of Agriculture, or the Forestry Service, but many of our facilities occupy an important part of the built environment. If you follow Richard Foreman’s theory of land mosaics, our facilities can be considered critical stepping stones for pollinators to move from one site to another. Our urban and ex-urban landscapes are fragmented and we can do our part to improve the conditions for pollinators.

For design and construction, we have a facility standard that guides our process — essentially setting the minimum of what we’re trying to achieve across the board for design performance. Now we have a baseline standard for plant diversity that attempts to provide foraging opportunities for pollinators throughout the year and can be applied across the nation for projects of varying size. There may be exceptions because we’re writing a standard for Phoenix, Arizona and Portland, Maine at the same time, but it gives us the opportunity to force an issue as critical as pollination up to the front in design considerations. We can ask our design teams to think critically about pollinators as it relates to a design and then allow a discussion to emerge.

GSA also worked closely with the White House Council on Environmental Quality, White House Office for Science and Technology Policy, Smithsonian Gardens, the U.S. Botanic Gardens, and other federal partners on writing the new addendum to federal landscape guidelines to support the health of honeybees and other pollinators.

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Starry Night Bike Path, The Netherlands / Daan Roosegaarde

Future Forecasting: Landscape Architects Might Save the WorldArchitecture & Design Australia, 11/3/14
“I predict we’re going to hear a lot more from landscape architects in the coming years. There has long been a misunderstanding about what they actually do – ‘something about gardens’ being a common response.”

Minneapolis Picks Architecture Finalists for Stadium-Area Park Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal, 11/6/14
“The city of Minneapolis named three finalist teams to design the two-block park near the new Vikings stadium. The three finalists are Olin Studio, Philadelphia and Snow Kreilich Architects, Hargreaves Associates and Damon Farber Associates, and WORKSHOP Ken Smith and Perkins + Will.”

Frick’s Plan for Expansion Faces Fight Over Loss of Garden The New York Times, 11/9/2014
“The Frick Collection’s plan to build a six-story addition, which destroys a garden design by landscape architect Russell Page, has met resistance. More than 2,000 critics have signed a petition organized by a consortium of preservation groups in protest of the expansion.”

In Urban Farming, a Different Taste of L.A. The Los Angeles Times, 11/12/14
“Instances of urban farming in Los Angeles have become increasingly common. From the roof of 120-year-old private clubs to local high schools, urban farming is proving its worth with gardens yielding up to $150,000 in produce annually.”

Daan Roosegaarde Opens Solar Powered Van Gogh Bike Path in the NetherlandsDesignBoom, 11/13/14
“Running 600 meters along the Brabant, the Netherlands site where Vincent Van Gogh lived from 1883 to 1885, dutch designer Daan Roosegaarde has opened the ‘Van Gogh-Roosegaarde cycle path’, comprising thousands of solar powered stones arranged in swirling compositions likened to the painter’s renowned ‘starry night.'”

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