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Archive for the ‘Urban Redevelopment’ Category

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Klyde Warren Park / Thomas McConnel

Klyde Warren Park in Houston, Texas, won the Urban Land Institute’s 2014 Open Space Award, which recognizes “public spaces that have socially and economically enriched and revitalized their communities.” Completed in 2012 by landscape architecture firm The Office of James Burnett (OJB), the 5-acre park is a green roof, decking over the sunken Woodall Rogers Freeway. As the highway was submerged, a new living, breathing space was made possible. The park now connects the city’s downtown cultural district with the mixed-use neighborhoods to the north, helping car-centric Houston become a healthier, more walkable place.

According to OJB, the park brings it all. There is a “flexible, pedestrian-oriented design, offering a mix of active and passive spaces.” Spaces are either grand or intimate. In the grand category, there is a sweeping pedestrian promenade with botanical garden and great lawn, with fountain and performance pavilion. Smaller spaces include a children’s park, reading room, games area, and dog park.

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Klyde Warren Park / Gary Zvonkovic

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Klyde Warren Park / Dillon Diers

These spaces enable all kinds of activities, ranging from “yoga classes and lectures to outdoor concerts and film screenings.” James Burnett, FASLA, said: “Great cities have great parks, and Klyde Warren Park has quickly become the new heart of downtown Dallas.”

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Klyde Warren Park / LianeRochelle Photography

The park also incorporates sustainable design elements. The landscape itself has a “continuous canopy of Pond Cypress,” and much of the design is characterized by the “use of native tree and plant species,” which are all kept alive through the Texan summer through a water reclamation and purification system. There is a high-efficiency lighting system throughout, featuring solar-powered light poles. The buildings, which have been certified LEED Gold, use geothermal energy for temperature control.

M. Leanne Lachman, Chair of the ULI Global Awards for Excellence Jury, said: “Klyde Warren is not only successful in fixing an urban fracture that isolated development and challenged the existing potential for the area; it also demonstrates that a long-term vision and commitment are critical to foster a sense of place and community, with lasting positive rippling effects.”

See more images.

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Mellon Square: Discovering a Modern Masterpiece  / Princeton Architectural Press

Mellon Square: Discovering a Modern Masterpiece / Princeton Architectural Press

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. In the foreword of Susan Rademacher’s Mellon Square: Discovering a Modern Masterpiece, series editor Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, head of The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) says the result of the restoration is “a renewed, enhanced, and revitalized Mellon Square that carefully balances the highest historic preservation standards with clearly articulated performance benchmarks and sustainability standards.”

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Henri Marcus Moran, “View of Mellon Square – Looking North,” ca. 1955, Gouache on board / Princeton Architectural Press

As Rademacher, parks curator at Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, tells the history of the civic space itself, she reflects Pittsburgh’s ups and downs throughout much of the twentieth century – from booming steel town to post-WWII slump, when it was nicknamed the “Smoky City” due to its heavy blankets of regular smog. Mellon Square was a key player ushering in Pittsburgh’s first renaissance, drawing innovation, entrepreneurs, and civic life to the downtown “Golden Triangle.” But the square also succumbed to the decline characterizing Pittsburgh through the 1960s to 90s. As Rademacher tells it, Mellon Square is a proxy for the status and reputation of the entire city of Pittsburgh.

Mayor David Lawrence with R.K. Mellon, in Life magazine, May 1956 / Margaret Bourke-White, Princeton Architectural Press

Mayor David Lawrence with R.K. Mellon, in Life magazine, May 1956 / Margaret Bourke-White, Princeton Architectural Press

Also woven into the narrative are personal histories of key players such as project architects James Mitchell and Dahlen Ritchey, and landscape architects John Simonds and Philip Simonds. Students and practitioners of landscape architecture will recognize the former Simonds as author of seminal text Landscape Architecture, still widely used as a foundational textbook for landscape architecture courses. We learn about his life and entry into the profession in the 1930s, and find fascinating glimpses of a highly tenuous time for the field. In a 1999 letter, Simonds recounts asking Walter Gropius, his mentor at the Harvard, about the future role for landscape architecture in contemporary society. Gropius “looked at [him] long and thoughtfully without speaking. It was quite possibly one of the most eloquent statements ever never stated.” Simonds would go on to graduate as part of the “infamous 1939 ‘class of rebels,’” we learn from Landscape Architecture co-author Barry W. Starke, FASLA. In these records, the mythos of the profession is alive and well.

Iconic copper fountains elegently lit and choreographed early in Mellon Square's history / Princeton Architectural Press

Iconic copper fountains elegantly lit and choreographed early in Mellon Square’s history / Princeton Architectural Press

At the heart of the book, of course, is the history of Mellon Square itself. Readers looking for historical details will not be disappointed. Design notes, sketches, photographs, and planting details are generously interspersed throughout the text. Just about every planting choice considered, implemented, and replaced is included, with nuggets, such as the “early use of the new thornless form of the honey locust tree,” now common and well-known to practitioners. And we learn that early design concepts discussed including “live animal displays within the pool, such as flamingos, penguins, and sea lions, which were favored for their comical movements and expressions.”

John Simonds' earliest known concept sketch / Princeton Architectural Press

John Simonds’ earliest known concept sketch / Princeton Architectural Press

Planting detail with circular platforms for sea lions are featured in an early concept sketch / Princeton Architectural Press

Planting detail with circular platforms for sea lions are featured in an early concept sketch / Princeton Architectural Press

Also noted is Simonds’ “elaborate and precise statement of design intent,” in which that the square must simultaneously act as a platform, structure, island, space, focal center, civic monument, gathering place, and oasis. “Simonds and his collaborators created a powerfully original landscape architecture and urban design solution . . . [placing] nature in high relief against the building-lined streets of downtown.”

Those hoping to gain insight for approaching a historic restoration in other cities will also find much to learn from. Mellon Square, which also features essays by Patricia O’Donnell, FASLA, Heritage Landscapes, lead landscape architect on the restoration effort, and Richard Bell, FASLA, champions the efforts of all involved. Rademacher is careful to give credit to all involved parties, from the first glimmers of an idea through the recent full restoration. As important as reconstructing the historic details of the copper fountains and rustic terrazzo paving was the building and maintaining of partnerships across disciplines. Though Mellon Square underwent a partial restoration in the 1980s, funding issues – along with design modifications largely reversed to better align with the original design – led to a lack of proper maintenance. Key to the future success of the square will be an ongoing $4 million maintenance fund devoted to perpetual stewardship of Mellon Square.

Editorial cartoon, Cy Hungerford, 1955 / Princeton Architectural Press

Editorial cartoon, Cy Hungerford, 1955 / Princeton Architectural Press

One of few Modernist landscapes fully preserved and restored, proponents hope Mellon Square will be not an anomaly but a model for other locations. Up next: how about designation as a National Historic Landmark?, suggests Birnbaum.

Read the book.

Yoshi Silverstein, Associate ASLA, is founder and lead designer-educator at Mitsui Design, focusing on landscape experience and connection to place. He was the ASLA summer 2014 communications intern.

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Downspout leads to a rain garden at Mary Myer’s house / Rob Cardillo. The New York Times

One Woman’s Pipe Dream The New York Times, 10/9/14
“Mary E. Myers, a landscape architect and associate professor at Temple University, had more than absorbing storm water in mind when she created a 200-square-foot rain garden beside her sloping lawn in this shady suburb north of downtown Philadelphia.”

London Mulls Plans for a £600m Floating Bike Path BBC News, 10/13/14
“In an inspired burst of think-outside-the-street strategy, a London consortium is floating an audacious plan to turn part of the River Thames into a nearly eight-mile-long, bikes-only pathway.”

Hermann Park Marks Centennial with Opening of GardensHouston Chronicle, 10/13/14
“Since its establishment in 1914, Hermann Park has served the Houston community as a place to relax, play, engage and learn. To celebrate the Park’s 100th year, the McGovern Centennial Gardens, a new park, will have its grand opening Saturday, Oct. 18.”

Creative Parks Cost Money, and They’re Worth it: HumeToronto Star, 10/13/14
“A city park can be innovative, imaginative, and carry cultural weight. In Toronto, we’re only starting to try.”

A Plan to Turn a Queens Railway Into a ParkThe New York Times, 10/14/14
“‘The advantage of leaving the site vacant for so long is that we’ve got some very large oaks, maple and walnut trees,’ said Susannah C. Drake, the principal of DlandStudio, a landscape architecture firm. ‘On the viaduct, some smaller things have sprouted up like wild roses, sumac and cedars.’”

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All photos courtesy of Line Ramstad

“Do no harm.” These are the words echoed again and again by Line Ramstad, the Norwegian-born designer who since 2009 has lived and worked in a refugee camp in a disputed zone near the border of Thailand and Burma. She sees her unique position as Norwegian woman living and working with the Karen migrants as a strength, explaining, “it is nice to travel in between, to be the bridge.” Ramstad spoke at the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture.

Ramstad studied anthropology and geography before eventually receiving a master of landscape architecture. After five years of traditional practice, Ramstad traveled with two other Norwegians to the border with the intention of using their design background to aid in development work, eventually designing and building an orphanage. When her partners returned to Norway, Ramstad stayed and founded her current design/build architecture practice, Gyaw Gyaw, with three Karen migrants.

Ramstad describes the current situation of the Karen migrants as one with few options. Possessing no official papers, the Karen have few job prospects and live largely in refugee camps. We learn about their history on Gyaw Gyaw’s website: “the Karen people are the second biggest ethnic group in Burma. Exactly how many are unknown. After World War II, Burma was granted independence from the British invasion that had lasted for 62 years. The Karen people had been loyal to the British and fought with the alliance during the war. Among other minorities, they were now promised their own state, and Kaw Thoo Lei (The Land without Evil) was founded, but the Karen people never got sovereignty of the area.”

Gyaw Gyaw, which means “slowly, step by step,” designs and builds with an ethic of sustainability. Their built work consists largely of dormitories, schools, wells and playgrounds, and frequently incorporates partnerships with local NGOs and design firms. Ramstad thinks their work creates opportunities to promote democracy and encourage self-governance, both within the organization in the camps at large. Karens learn how to design and construct buildings together and this knowledge will remain with their people.

While the organization does not accept volunteers, they do offer an annual workshop in which visitors are encouraged to participate. They only accept funds that allow them to do the work in a way that is consistent with their small-scale and specific mission; their annual budget is only $60,000.

Gyaw Gyaw builds using “traditional materials and techniques used in more innovative and sustainable ways.” Ramstad emphasizes the importance of function above all else. She speaks eloquently about the constraints of cost and material that allow the work to be driven largely by climate and environment. “It’s very liberating to not have such choice of materials.” The organization rarely works with maps or drawings, a rarity in today’s highly technical architectural world. But Gyaw Gyaw also pays attention to the details, as Ramstad takes pride in her colleague Phillipa’s innovation in crafting elegant bamboo screens. Gyaw Gyaw also carefully observes how people use these spaces: Ramstad and her colleagues live close to these buildings and as a result their design process extends to a post-occupancy analysis of the daily life of their work.

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When asked about her landscape background and her current architecture work, Ramstad readily admits her weakness in construction knowledge, for which she relies heavily on her Karen colleagues. She describes her strength in “cultural and landscape adaptation,” explaining that “to be an architect is to have an open approach to the physical space around us.”

Through events like UVA’s lecture and international design conferences, Ramstad has begun to articulate and share Gyaw Gyaw’s ethos. Ramstad co-authored In Search of a Process: Laufen Manifesto for a Humane Design Culture, which states: “We speak out to define an alternative position. We must produce spaces that counter exploitation, control and alienation, whether in urban or rural landscapes. With all our expertise, creativity and power, we need to contribute more dynamically and consequentially to the global quest for equality.”

Ramstad’s visit instigated a broader discussion within the classrooms and studios at UVA. Some students and professors raised questions about the relevance of her work, as it’s particular to a region in Southeast Asia. However, Gyaw Gyaw’s process resonated with many students who are interested in participatory design.

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As design students, we often conduct site research from afar, making our best attempt at understanding place through online research and limited site-visits. Ramstad’s work shows us another type of design model, one that relies on an intimate understanding of place, and the people who inhabit it, as essential drivers of the design process. Ramstad’s approach came across as both refreshingly personal and intentionally limited. For her, community engagement is paramount in the design process.

In every stage of this process, Ramstad and Gyaw Gyaw call for “small steps” and making absolutely sure that if one’s intention is to do good work, that one truly does “no harm.”
 
This guest post by Jenna Harris, Master of Landscape Architecture Candidate, University of Virginia

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Pioneer Courthouse Square / Kenneth Helphand, FASLA

Portland, Oregon, is more than a trendy place to visit—it has long been ahead of the curve on urban design and sustainability, thanks to smart leadership and a willingness to experiment and innovate. The Landscape Architect’s Guide to Portland, a project by the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), explains Portland’s cutting-edge approach to sustainable urban design.

The guide provides both Portlanders and the millions of tourists who visit Portland annually a deeper understanding of why Portland is one of the most livable and sustainable cities in the world. The guide is also meant to educate city leaders, urban planners, and designers across the U.S. and around the globe.

According to Mark A. Focht, FASLA, president of ASLA and first deputy commissioner of Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, Portland’s landscape architects have played a crucial role in making the city a better place to live. Their contributions trace back to the early 20th century, when the Olmsted Brothers laid out many of the critical urban plans and park system, and continue with today’s generation of landscape architects, who are creating waterfront parks, beloved urban plazas, and cutting-edge bicycle infrastructure.

“Portland’s designed landscapes are integral to its urban fabric,” says Focht. “Landscape architects have long played a major role in designing the city’s public realm, and the key spaces between buildings that serve as the connective tissue for communities. These spaces include parks, plazas, streets, and transportation infrastructure.”

Topical tours offer both printable bike maps and Google maps. The guide also includes tours by district. People will be able to view the guide on their smartphones, tablets or desktop computers.

The website was created by ASLA in partnership with its Oregon Chapter and 11 local landscape architects, who are designers of our public realm and leaders in sustainable design.

The guides are:

Brian Bainnson, ASLA, Quatrefoil Inc.
Bennett Burns, ASLA, independent landscape architect
Mike Faha, ASLA, GreenWorks, PC
Kenneth Helphand, FASLA, University of Oregon
Rachel Hill, ASLA, AECOM
Lloyd Lindley, FASLA, independent landscape architect
Carol Mayer-Reed, FASLA, Mayer/Reed Inc.
Jeff Schnabel, ASLA, Portland State University
Jean Senechal Biggs, ASLA, Portland Bureau of Transportation
Rebecca Wahlstrom, ASLA, Olson Engineering Inc.
Robin Wilcox, ASLA, Alta Planning + Design

The guide is organized by the facets of the sustainable city, with sections on:

  • The Built Environment – how building and landscape work together to enhance sustainability.
  • Food – how the city’s local food system works, from urban farms to “food cart pods.”
  • Energy – how Portland has among the highest renewable energy use in the U.S.
  • “Grand Parks” – how the original Olmstedian park system is still key to livability.
  • Health – how parks are designed for users with all kinds of disabilities, even Alzheimer’s.
  • “People Spaces” – how the city creates a sense of civic pride through its plazas.
  • Social Equity – how the city helps the homeless and addresses the impacts of gentrification.
  • Transportation – how Portland created one of the best-integrated, most people-friendly transportation systems.
  • Waste – how the city achieved one of the highest recycling rates in the country.
  • Water – how it led the country on green infrastructure.
  • Wildlife – how its park system also serves other species.

This is the third in a series of guides focused on sustainable American cities. The first, The Landscape Architect’s Guide to Washington, D.C., was launched in 2012, and The Landscape Architect’s Guide to Boston, was launched in 2013. They have been viewed more than 150,000 times to date.

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High Line Phase 3 / All photos by Allan Pollok-Morris

Getting to know the High Line in New York City over the last year, it has been lovely to discover the back story: the heroic efforts involved in saving the rail yard structure; the development of the park, with its effective design and the accomplishments of the construction; the involvement of the local community; and the raised aspirations of planners everywhere for what a small area of park might achieve in a big city. As someone from the UK, the use of the American word “yard” instead of “garden” never sits entirely comfortably, as it has a more industrial meaning, but we understand each other very clearly here in the High Line’s third phase in the Rail Yards.

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Any lover of naturalistic planting and contemporary hard landscaping can marvel at how literally millions of people are being funneled through an exquisite experience. However, leaving aside the overwhelming praise for the existing sections, the first reaction on seeing the new section is the makers, James Corner Field Operations and Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, have clearly taken on board the park’s more functional deficits and have expanded the park in new directions.

I’ll always remember landscape architect Charles Jencks’ words that the motivation for his Garden of Cosmic Speculation began by wanting somewhere for the family to swim, and that good design always begins with a function. The third section of the High Line capitalizes on its role as a latter-day addition in the life of the project by offering more practical functionality. In terms of usability, new features include tables, see saws, xylophones, a children’s play area, and a wheelchair/buggy-accessible area of track.

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For those wanting the authentic High Line experience, there are areas of the original rail tracks left to self-seed with wild plantings. A fence that acts as a stark barrier between the asphalt and area of nature is very noticeable, but I’m told it will come down eventually, although it leaves you with the suspicion there may be more development to come. This area is not lit at night and will be closed earlier than the rest. It builds on the experience of the place by providing more themed nostalgia for the abandoned aesthetic of the rail track prior to the redevelopment. Does this represent affectionate nostalgia, or a sense of loss?

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Being there for the opening, I got to hear the High Line experiences of people from all walks of life. There was something very special in talking to someone, now in their 60s, who has supported the project the whole way but used to come and play here as a kid. This was the story I heard most: tales of what it was like to sneak in and mess about when it was still a rail yard, what it looked like in its derelict state. The sense of discovery and adventure in these experiences was visceral. There was something people valued in having a space not laid out by planning convention, but a raw experience.

I met Mitchell J. Silver, the new commissioner for New York’s parks, a week earlier and discussed the further development of the open areas around the High Line. The rail yards that the new phase circles will all be covered and developed over a 5-10 year period. The city is planning a number of significant new high rises the length of the park, and another ground-level green corridor of wider parks will lead north from there.

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The success story for the city isn’t so much one of recreation, but the wider regeneration of the area and increase in property values to the point where the world’s best-known architects are now seeking permissions, which can only further exaggerate the High Line as an oasis in city life. This park has also created new opportunities for people with similar infrastructure around the world.

This guest post is by Allan Pollok-Morris, a landscape photographer. His most recent book is Close: Landscape Design and Land Art in Scotland.

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Green Village Building in Chicago / Blacks in Green (BIG)

Equitable urban revitalization means new development doesn’t displace existing communities. If we agree with this definition, what’s occuring in Washington, D.C. and many other American cities can’t be viewed as fair, said a number of African American community activists at the EcoDistricts Summit in Washington, D.C. Many blocks in historic African American communities are becoming fraught, contested ground as they rapidly redevelop and gentrify, with huge numbers of African Americans getting pushed out to due to higher rents and property taxes. The solution seems to be more community empowerment from the bottom, and more thoughtful, respectful urban planning from the top.

For Naomi Davis, CEO of Blacks in Green (BIG), city leaders need to take a more inclusive approach, because “what’s good for the African diaspora is good for everyone.” She said “increasing household income in inner-city communities helps both rich and poor people.” To boost the long-term sustainability of these communities, Davis calls for creating “green villages” that will transform waste to wealth, create new jobs, celebrate culture, and circulate wealth among local businesses. These green villages can only be built by respecting the local culture. Given culture is highly local, “true, long-term community sustainability must be built mile by mile.” And it has to be a bottom-up process: “We can’t wait for the government to save us.”

As an example, Davis described her work in West Woodlawn, “in the hood” in Chicago. There, she engaged community members in creating a new master plan, with layers of greening programs. A new orchard has come out of “the dust of 30 years of disinvestment.” 2012 was the “year of the tree canopy,” so West Woodlawn undertook a major campaign of adding new street and park trees. 2013 was the year of the backyard garden and using “private land to feed ourselves.” There are now orchards, gardens, root cellars everywhere.

For Dominic Moulden, Organizing Neighborhood Equity (ONE) D.C., “gentrification is a crime. It’s violence couched in white supremacy and aimed at uprooting black communities.” His group, a “multi-issue, multi-class, multi-ethnic” coalition, aims to critique the urban development culture of D.C.

He said many of the white tenants moving into historically African American communities seek “authentic local culture, but end up destroying it, which is a violation of our civil and human rights.” Moulden argued that African American communities — like plants that have suddenly moved — are undergoing “root shock.” With a decaying local ecosystem, social networks are failing.

Moulden says the answer is “to develop people and then place.” That way, “the community controls the plan.” As part of this goal, his group is trying to stop what he sees as illegal gentrification. They sued an African American church in Shaw for trying to displace its 50 residents in large, affordable housing units. ONE D.C. also played a role in ensuring the new Marriott Marquis hotel next to the convention center spent $2 million to train local workers and hired 700 local D.C. residents as Union employees with “living wages.” Moulden said “that’s equitable development.”

Wadi Muhammad, 270 Strategies, discussed changes he has seen in Roxbury, one of the historically African American communities in Boston. As that area gentrifies, swarms of college students are moving there. There has been nearly $100 million in investment there in recent years, leading to a new luxury condo where studios go for $2,500 a month. Muhammad said Roxbury is now for the extremely rich or poor. “Where do those in the middle go?” The community is working on a new master plan, with a long-term vision for sustainability.

To add some additional perspective, David Hyra, a professor at American University in Washington, D.C., said we must be careful what we wish for with “the new wave of urban revitalization,” less we further destroy the communities there now. One product of revitalization is new people moving in. “And all these newcomers into inner-city communities are expressing preferences that are different from those of the existing communities.”

For example, newcomers in D.C. seem to want more bike lanes, while long-time residents are less positive about them. The majority of new bike infrastructure in D.C. has come into the historically African American U. Street and Shaw neighborhoods of D.C., creating a flash point with the old-timers. For them, these lanes are sign that a neighborhood has gentrified. “In the last D.C. Mayoral debate, none of the candidates would admit they used the bike lanes, even though I know some of them are bikers,” Hyra laughed.

In addition, it seems African Americans also avoid D.C.’s bikeshare system as well. “88 percent of bikeshare users are white; just 5 percent are African American.”

While newcomers to African American communities typically want more bike lanes and dog parks, they don’t understand these amenities may be perceived as a “threat to long-term African American residents.” Walter Fauntroy, with the New Bethel Baptist Church, who was credited as saving Shaw from urban renewal in the 60s, recently told Hyra his feelings about the new wave of urban revitalization in Shaw: “I’ve given up, quite frankly.”

To combat further gentrification, Hyra said, “we need to preserve affordable housing and community political representation and minimize cultural displacement.”

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Dogpatch Arts Plaza / CMG Landscape Architecture

Why hasn’t anyone thought of this before? At the EcoDistricts Summit in Washington, D.C., two urban innovators in San Francisco, the home of so many game-changing technologies, have come up with a truly brilliant idea: the Green Benefits District (GBD), a sort of green business improvement district, designed to facilitate community investment in new tree-lined streets, parks, and gardens. Michael Yarne, with Up Urban and Build Inc. and the creator of the concept, said the GBD in the Dogpatch neighborhood of San Francisco will also aim to improve the management and upkeep of neighborhood public spaces, which they say is currently done poorly by the city government. The GBD will be like the “Uber of public space,” meaning they are adding another layer of more convenient services on top of the existing baseline service. A GBD is needed because the city government is “stuck in the 1970s.” But the GBD clearly has higher aims than just better services: Yarne sees a future with local, distributed renewable energy systems and more.

With the help of Scott Cataffa, ASLA, a partner at CMG Landscape Architecture, Yarne is in the middle of a two-year process to prototype the GBD concept. It seems creating a new assessment district in California is not an easy thing, as you first need a BID lawyer, then need to get 30 percent of the proposed assessed district to agree to a petition, and then 51 percent of the “weighted property owners” to back the idea through a ballot. Only then will the state and city governments allow you to use tax revenue to meet local ends.

Dogpatch and NW Potrero Hill, which covers some 700 acres and contains 100,000 people, has a “rich industrial heritage.” Through a survey, Yarne and his team learned the area actually has 13 sub-neighborhoods. Some of these maintain a “gritty, marginalized identity.” In contrast, some neighborhoods have a high level of “social capital,” which enables more coordinated action. Yarne decided to start in the area with higher social capital, with a history of local environmental activism and ownership of public spaces. There, a “plucky, can-do” group of locals have wrangled the state government to let them build a park where where was once transportation infrastructure. But all their efforts are “taxing.” This community clearly wants “parks and open space preserved,” but what’s the best way to do this? The neighborhood decided to pool resources into a new GBD.

The GBD will “coordinate property owners and build trust.” It will be a non-profit, public benefit corporation with an elected board and annual oversight by the city legislature. The new GBD will be “small enough to enable trust to grow and will operate in a hyper transparent manner.” It will “use an experimental ‘it’s OK to fail’ approach and aim to create long-term revenue.” Trust, he said, is the new “green,” because, without it, community action is impossible. Trust building will happen on the ground, in person, but also through a new app that will enable all GBD members to see in near real-time all reports, decisions, and expenditures.

“Like Facebook, the app will encourage GBD members to create a profile to encourage community accountability.” There will be something like the “See, Click, Fix” app, which will enable community members to report problems. The app will define the “party responsible for fixing, set the fix date, and the cost of the fix.” Yarne said listing the cost of the fix was important, because people don’t really have a clue as to cost of public services. All of the issues will be mapped, so the GBD member can see problem areas. For example, they could learn that vandalism occurs near the train stations. Like other techno-utopians in San Francisco, Yarne believes the app will “empower the community by demystifying work that’s happening.”

Landscape architect Scott Cataffa has been helping the nascent GBD map all their assets and discover where the opportunities are. Cataffa said a map of the community found only 2 percent of it is open space.  The community is already maintaining about half of the public spaces in the district, but the audit is helping the community figure out who owns what. With a list of more than 50 possible opportunities in hand, the GBD team is now figuring out what role they should play in creating new green public spaces and other sustainable features. They created a checklist to help label each project, with potential roles such as “lead, initiate, assist, or advocate.”

One proposal by CMG would create a new amphitheatre and outdoor art gallery in an unused, city-owned dead-end between two large industrial buildings. Through the audit, they also found that the very wide rights of way, which were designed for industrial use, create opportunities to create new linear parks. So they propose creating a new linear park — or green street — running from the new amphitheatre to a larger park. Cataffa said “we are looking at the right of way as a place to turn grey to green.” Other ideas being cooked up include putting a solar farm on top a freeway that cuts through the district, and creating a (black) waste water recycling system.

If they are allowed to assess the community for the GBD, Yarne says they will raise about $400,000 in their first year from taxes of about 9.46 cents per square foot of commercial and residential space and parking lots. Some non-profits would get a 50 percent discount on that tax, as would some struggling industrial site owners. Yarne expects their available funds to double over the coming years given lots of new residential complexes are coming online. He said, already, the GBD can change perceptions of new development from an unwelcome sign of gentrification into new opportunities to green.

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Barry Farm / The Huffington Post

Cities are the place to be these days, which means big changes for the historic communities that have populated urban cores. While much of the urban renewal experiments of the 1940s through the 1960s have been deemed disasters, word is still out on the new wave of “urban revitalization” that began in the 1990s and continues through to today in most of America’s cities. The supporters of revitalization say rising tides lift all boats. As wealth has come back to cities, everyone benefits. But critics of revitalization simply call it gentrification, and, as one speaker at the EcoDistricts Summit in Washington, D.C. said, “gentrification is a crime.” Furthermore, new discussions of turning existing urban neighborhoods into “ecodistricts” may just be gentrification in a green dress. How can cities encourage growth but also provide a sense of continuity? How can over-taxed city planning departments accommodate the forces of change while also respecting local communities and cultures?

According to Charles Hostovsky, a professor of urban planning at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., the speed of revitalization in D.C. has been extraordinarily rapid. Every neighborhood has cranes, signifying new development. There has been a corresponding shift in the demographics of the city. In 1970, the city was 77 percent African American. Today, it’s just 49 percent. “The number of people who have been displaced equals a small town.” Indeed: in the past decade, approximately 50,000 young, white Millennials have moved into the city while 35,000 African Americans have left.

Reyna Alorro, who works for the DC Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning, said revitalization has even spread east of the Anacostia River, perhaps the last hold out to gentrification. There, the city is supporting the redevelopment of Barry Farm, 25 acres of public housing, into a new mixed-income, mixed-use development that they hope will be an example of equitable revitalization. As HUD Hope IV funds have diminished since 2005, the District has started its own program of revamping public housing. “We want to target the areas with blight, crime, high unemployment and turn them into mixed income communities.” The theory is that reducing the concentration of the poor in communities, and relieving their isolation, will improve their conditions.

Barry Farm, a historic African American community founded by freed slaves, currently has some 400 units, with 1,200 people. The population of the housing development is 93 percent single mothers; some 86 percent are unemployed. “This is not a friendly, welcoming site.” There is only one over-priced corner store, with a bullet-proof glass wall separating the store owners from customers.

The $550 million redevelopment plan, said Kelly Smyser, DC Housing Authority, will create 1,400 public and affordable apartments at the same site. New apartments will face each other, creating open public thoroughfares that enable “eyes on the street.” There will also be a recreation center, with an indoor pool, basketball courts, and computer labs, as well as a charter school. The nearby Anacostia Metro station will get a full upgrade, with improved access to the station from the development. “We want to bring opportunity to residents. We will make the connection to Metro easier and safer.”

The District government calls this project “revitalization without gentrification,” as all current residents will be allowed to come back to the new development. “There will be zero displacement.” The city also promises it will undertake a program of “build first before demolition.” To increase the diversity of the development, some 300 of the new units will be affordable housing, rentals, or for sale. The city also wants to encourage small businesses to locate in Barry Farms. They are creating “live-work” sites that will enable people to live above their stores. “We need to get rid of the bullet proof glass.”

The neighborhood is rightly concerned about how they can preserve the best of the local culture with all the change. One example of this is the Goodman League, a basketball tournament that happens in the neighborhood every year. “People have a good time, barbequing, sitting in lawn chairs. There are no beefs on the court.” The basketball courts where this happen will remain untouched.

While Smyser was convinced this upgrade will benefit the community, one conference attendee seemed equally as convinced that with the District’s multimillion dollar investment, the city will simply be opening the neighborhood to opportunistic developers and further gentrification. Word is still out on how this urban redevelopment story will play out.

Hazel Edwards, a professor of planning at Catholic University, outlined some examples of successful revitalization without gentrification in other parts of the U.S. She pointed to Melrose Commons in South Bronx, where a group of local residents banded together in the early 1990s into a group called Nos Quedamos (We Stay) and fought back New York City government’s imposed urban renewal plan. With the help of an altruistic architect, Nos Quedamos forged their own urban design that respected the community’s unique cultural heritage. The plan and design resulted in 2,000 units of affordable housing. “There was no displacement in the community.”

In Portland, Oregon, Edwards told us about a project called Cully Main Street plan, which helped preserve one the most diverse neighborhoods in Portland, with some 40-50 percent people of color. They devised a plan to equitably bring in commercial activity to their main street while accommodating an influx of new white homeowners and preserving the neighborhood diversity.

Edwards said the key to revitalization without gentrification is “bringing residents and the community to the table often and at the beginning.” This kind of public planning process requires a great investment of time and resources by city governments, but without this investment, the only result may be inequitable, developer-led urban revitalization. “Cities have to form diverse, inclusive partnerships, foster openness, and collaborate on goals and outcomes.”

Quoting the urban leader and author, Kaid Benfield, she said, “we have to work towards a balanced solution,” and also track our progress to see whether we are living up to our goals.

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Urban Acupuncture / Island Press

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, Urban Acupuncture: Celebrating Pinpricks of Change that Enrich City Life. This set of musings, a translation of the original Brazilian Portuguese book, pulls you in with its natural, intimate tone; it’s like you are sitting and having a conversation with Lerner over a glass of wine in a cafe. Lerner is an architect and urban designer who became mayor of the Brazilian city Curitiba, where he famously brought his practical yet innovative thinking to solve some tricky urban challenges. Along the way, he created bus rapid transit, devising a low-cost alternative to subway systems for developing world cities — and now increasingly, developed world ones, too. He came up with smart ways to clean up Curitiba’s bay, partnering with local fisherman in trash collection. He turned down the World Bank, with its offer of millions in loans, to find sustainable, home-grown solutions. With his many smart alternatives, he showed other cities how to do it right, themselves.

Lerner organizes his thoughts on the city through one central theme: urban acupuncture. He writes: “I have always nurtured the dream and hope that with the prick of a needle, diseases may be cured. The notion of restoring the vital signs of an ailing spot with a simple healing touch has everything to do with revitalizing not only that specific place but also the entire area that surrounds it.” He says “good medicine” depends on a good relationship between doctor and patient. In the same way, a healthy city depends on a good relationship between urban planners and designers and the city itself, another kind of living organism. Good urban planning can awaken a city to new possibilities, creating new life. But he cautions that it’s a process. Like medical acupuncture, which is rooted in an ancient Chinese medical philosophy that calls for a sustained, long-term preventive care, urban acupuncture takes time to create cures.

What are examples of healing urban acupuncture? Lerner has traveled all over the world, carefully examining all types of pinpricks to determine their impact. These pinpricks can be buildings — like Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao but also landscapes, like the Park Guell, one of Gaudi’s masterpieces, in Barcelona.

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Bilbao Guggenheim / Karie and Scott blog

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Park Guell, Barcelona / Share the City

Size doesn’t really matter, either. “You can feel it at work in the smallest venues, like Paley Park in New York.”

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Paley Park, New York City / Wikipedia

Undoing previous damage to our urban landscape is another form of healing acupuncture. For example, taking out San Francisco freeway helped revitalize that city.

Lerner presents deceptively simple stories that reveal deeper wisdom about what makes good urban life. Brief case studies are just long enough to get you thinking in a new way. Most succeed. In one vignette, he writes: “I often say that New York should build a monument to the Unknown 24-hour Shopkeeper. This industrious group — many of them immigrants from Korea — has done the city an extraordinary service merely by keeping its grocery stores and sidewalk delicatessens open around the clock. These shops not only offer infinite shelves of merchandise but also enliven whole neighborhoods by literally lighting up countless dreary street corners.” He calls these shop owners the city’s “true lifeblood,” as they “pump oxygen into cities that must never be allowed to stop breathing.”

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Deli in NYC / Gawker

In the same vein, “street peddlers represent an institution as old as the city itself. Think of open-air markets. At a given hour, in a given neighborhood, street merchants go to work — often hours before the lights go on in traditional storefronts — and then vanish along with their wares and jerry-built booths, leaving hardly a trace.” Commerce is then kept alive day and night, which also makes streets feel safer.

Acupuncture need not be physical; it can be sensory, too, like music. “Think of Rio and you are likely to start humming ‘Copacabana,’ ‘Corcovado,’ ‘Girl from Ipanema,’ or ‘Cidade Maravilhosa.” Lerner says every city should aspire to have a song. “When a distinct song or beat takes hold of a city’s or country’s identity, then good acupuncture is at work. It has echoes in everyday living, like improvised tapping on a matchbox at a street bar in Rio, the beat of drum on the sidewalk in Bahia, or hip-hop gushing from giant boom boxes in the streets of New York.” Does your city have a song everyone knows? If not, why not?

He also points out where cities have gone astray and offers his take on how to fix these problems, using simple, common sense steps. For example, in Santiago de Cali, Colombia, he decries the destruction of the city’s identity amid “outsized avenues.” “Just to cross them, you’ll find yourself huffing up and over suspended pedestrian bridges.” Here, he argues, “good acupuncture means building things smaller and stepping aside to give way to the simple beauties of nature, like the handsome river or the caressing wind.” Those big avenues break up street life, creating tears in the urban fabric.

Gaps in the city can also kill street life. For Lerner, so many urban problems are caused by a “lack of continuity.” He points to a sad “city pocked with lifeless suburbs or tracts of urban real estate devoid of housing.” These places are just as skewed as those with “abandoned lots and ramshackle buildings.” Cities must fill in these voids, even with temporary structures. One of his strongest statements: “continuity is life.”

While he touches on so much, Lerner’s message seems to be healthy street life is central to the city. Without it, the city dies. He argues: “good acupuncture is about drawing people out to the streets and creating meeting places. Mainly, it is about helping the city become a catalyst of interactions between people.” And so, “the more cities are understood to be the integration of functions — bringing together rich and poor, the elderly and the young — the more meeting places they will create and the livelier they will become.” Here, the role of landscape architects can’t be understated. “The design of public space is important.” He goes into detail about what kinds of parks, plazas, and squares work best.

My only minor complaint with this insightful book is the sometimes mismatched text and images. We want to see the scenes Lerner gushes over. While some images speak to the scenes described in the book, some don’t. A more careful approach to images and layout would have further strengthened one of the most intriguing recent books on the city.

Read the book and an ASLA interview with Lerner.

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