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"Roads Were Not Built for Cars" by Carlton Reid / Island Press

“Roads Were Not Built for Cars” by Carlton Reid / Island Press

Many people assume roads became the way they are today because of the rise of automobiles. In Roads Were Not Built for Cars, Carlton Reid explains that infrastructure for bicycles, tricycles, and more were the precursors to the later transportation system dominated by automobiles. Cycling enthusiasts will enjoy learning about the influence of early cyclists on roadway development. But while Reid spends much of his time on cycling, he is also careful to examine the history of roads as thoroughfares, transportation networks, public spaces, as well as the roles they have played in broader trends.

For the typical reader, though, Reid’s arguments would be more usefully condensed into a long-form article in, say, The Atlantic or The New Yorker. Even for someone like me — who is more interested than the average bear in cycling, infrastructure, and urban planning — the amount of detail became tedious. Unless you’re a cycling history and policy aficionado, you probably won’t be sitting down to read this book cover to cover. For students, researchers, practitioners, and those interested in the history of infrastructure, however, it’s a worthwhile reference. Many will recognize historical figures like Carl Benz and Henry Ford among the automobile makers who, to varying degrees, got their start in the world of cycling. Others who are technically-minded will appreciate learning the difference between streets made of cobble and sett, asphalt and tarmac, tar and bitumen.
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Carl Benz’s first automobile factory used technology and manufacturing processes adapted directly from cycle manufacturing / Island Press

Early automobile technology utilized cycle tech like the knuckle hinge, allowing for better steering and handling / Island Press

Early automobile technology used cycle tech like the knuckle hinge, allowing for better steering and handling / Island Press

Reid being a Londoner, the book is biased towards London, with parallel sections examining historical developments in the U.S. But his explanation of how roadways first started out as public space but then began to be carved in spaces that are “mine” or “yours” and how this process led to unproductive roadway behaviors, laws, and planning and design resonates anywhere. “Roads were not built for cars,” writes Reid. “Nor were they built for bicycles. They were not built for sulkies, or steam engines, or any form of wheeled vehicle. Roads were not built for horses, either. Roads were built for pedestrians.” You know, people.
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Early illustrations already showed conflict zones between cyclists and motorists / Island Press

Early cyclists came mostly from the upper class / Island Press

Early cyclists came mostly from the upper class / Island Press

Not that those with power wanted it that way. Reid notes how wide roads were not built just for cars, but to increase the ability to “control” social gatherings and protests. “Air circulation for health [was important] but crowd control was a major impetus. Narrow roads can be used for throwing up barricades. The use of compacted crushed stone instead of setts, or tarred-wooden blocks, reduced the availability of ready-made missiles and fire starters.”

It’s fascinating to read about how the public associated independence with cycles and, later, automobiles, while railways were viewed as faster but restrictive. “Cyclists and, later, motorists would complain about the fixed schedules of railways, citing a lack of independence.” Reid doesn’t mention Russia much, but, for what’s it’s worth, this sentiment was shared by Russian thinkers as well. For example, Tolstoy had a deep discomfort with trains, feeling they brought an unwanted pre-destinationism (see Anna Karenina which, spoiler alert, involves a train and doesn’t end well).

Contrast this with a passage quoted from a 1896 New York Evening Post editorial on bicycles: “As a social revolutionizer, it has never had an equal. It has changed completely many of the most ordinary processes and methods of social life. It is the great leveler, for not till all Americans got on bicycles was the great American principle that every man is just as good as any other man, and generally a little better, fully realized. All are on equal terms, all are happier than ever before.”

Early debates about whether to merge all traffic into one system of streets, or separate them out mirror the debate today: “The widest and grandest path of them all — the Coney Island Cycle Path in New York — was loved by many cyclists, but not all. Some refused to ride on it, believing that such dedicated routes, while superior to the rutted roads of the day, would become the only ways open to cyclists. They feared being restricted to a small number of recreational bicycle ways, and banned from all other roads. Many in the wider Good Roads movement wanted cyclists to keep fighting for the improvement of all roads, and not be diverted by improvements to just part of the highway.”

Separate cycle paths or fully integrate them with roadways" The debate continues . . . / Island Press

“Coo, look — There’s a cyclist!” Separate cycle paths or fully integrate them with roadways?” The debate continues / Island Press

And anti-cyclists like The Washington Post‘s Courtland Milloy, whose 2014 tirade against “bicyclist bullies” is also mentioned in the book, might find solace in knowing that “scorchers, cyclists with arched backs and grim ‘bicycle faces,’ who treated the Queen’s Highway as their own — and woe betide anyone who got in their way” — were as much a problem a century and a half ago as they can be today.

There are other interesting tidbits. For example, Broadway in New York City was originally the “Wickquasgeck Trail,” stamped into the brush of Mannahatta by Native American tribes people. US Highway 12 began as the Great Sauk Trail, named after the Sauk people’s hunting trail, originally trodden down by buffalo, with paleontological evidence that it was first blazed by migrating mastodons. And “motorists driving today between Washington, D.C. and Detroit are following a route padded out 10,000 year ago by now-extinct megafauna.”

In the end, the big takeaway is that with the resurgence of cycling and changes in public perception about our auto-centric lifestyles, cars are not the way of the future, especially for dense cities. “Motor cars came to dominate our lives not by design but by stealth. Few predicted the motor car’s eventual dominance and it’s reasonable to assume that the same inability to accurately predict the future afflicts us, too. Cars ‘will become redundant in cities,’ something that’s already ‘happening organically’ because cars ‘cannot be fully enjoyed or used to potential'”, says Britain’s Automobile Association. As Reid notes, “Today, cars in ‘rush hour’ London creep along at 9 miles per hour, an average speed not much greater than capable of horse-drawn carriages in the 19th century. Some progress!”

What new, fascinating future for public roadways might await us just around the bend?

Yoshi Silverstein, Associate ASLA, is the founder of Mitsui Design and director of the Jewish outdoor, food, and environmental education fellowship at Hazon, the country’s leading Jewish environmental organization. 
Cities Safer by Design, a report by the World Resources Institute

Cities Safer by Design, a report by the World Resources Institute / WRI

Globally, 1.24 million people are killed in traffic accidents every year, with more than 90 percent of these deaths occurring in low and middle-income countries. Traffic-related incidents are the eighth-leading cause of death worldwide, and the number-one leading cause of death for those between the ages of 15-29. A response to the United Nations’ declaration to create a “Decade of Action” on improving traffic safety, Cities Safer by Design, a new report by the World Resources Institute (WRI) Ross Center for Sustainable Cities, offers urban design best practices and real-world case studies both developed and developing world cities can use to put an end to traffic deaths and injuries.

Cities Safer by Design presents five basic urban design elements that create safer travel environments: block size, connectivity, lane width, access, and population density.

Block Size

Safe urban design is about reducing motor vehicle speeds. The faster a driver goes, the more difficult it is for him or her to avoid hitting a pedestrian in their path. Due to less frequent interruptions, larger blocks allow vehicles to accelerate more freely. More junctions mean more places where cars must stop and pedestrians can cross. According to the report, to improve safety and walkability, blocks should be 75-150 meters long. If blocks are any larger than 200 meters, mid-block pass-throughs with signals or raised crossings should be added every 100-150 meters.

Smaller block sizes have been successfully implemented in central areas of Shanghai, such as Xin Tian Di, to create more walkable neighborhoods. More Chinese cities that had mistakenly built “super blocks” are starting to apply the same approach.

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A street for pedestrians in Shanghai / Jamie Sinz

Connectivity

The report recommends increasing connectivity to multiples modes of transit in order to decrease travel distances and improve access to destinations. Creating multiple routes for pedestrians and cyclists also helps disperse traffic, discourage car use, and reduce travel time.

Mexico City has also created walkable urban landscapes around its Metrobús bus rapid transit (BRT) system that enables safe bicycle and pedestrian access.

Bikers and BRT passengers outside of the Mexico City Metrobus / EMBARQ by  Alejandro Luna

Bikers and BRT passengers outside of the Mexico City Metrobus / EMBARQ by Alejandro Luna

Vehicle Lane Width

The amount of a street devoted to vehicles shapes the amount of street available for pedestrian crossings, bike lanes, parking lanes, and landscape curb extensions. Reducing street widths creates a safer pedestrian experience because they shorten pedestrian crossing distance and exposure to cars and also slow traffic by “increasing drivers’ perception of impediments.” Again, slower traffic mitigates the potential severity of crashes.

According to the report, evidence from Mexico City shows that as the maximum pedestrian crossing distance at an intersection increases by 1 meter, the frequency of pedestrian crashes increase by up to 3 percent. Other studies highlighted in the report show the most significant relationship to injury crashes is street width and street curvature. As street width widens, crashes per mile per year increase exponentially.

Access to Destinations

Neighborhoods should be designed to include transit, parks, schools, and stores within walking distance, which is defined as 0.5-kilometers. Having a variety of destinations in neighborhood clusters encourages people to meet close to home, decreasing the need for vehicular travel and improving overall safety.

In the Coyoacan neighborhood of Mexico City, the prevalence of shops and public spaces encourage walking while discouraging vehicular traffic. Recalling an earlier area before sprawl took over the city, Coyoacan’s cobbled streets lead to garden plazas where street vendors gather.

Santa Catalina Plaza and Church located on Avenida Sosa in the Coyoacan borough of Mexico City / Thelmadatter

Santa Catalina Plaza and Church located on Avenida Sosa in the Coyoacan borough of Mexico City / Thelmadatter

Population Density

A 2009 study cited in the report found that for an increase in density of 100 persons per square mile, there was a 6 percent reduction in injurious crashes and a 5 percent reduction in all crashes after controlling for vehicle miles traveled, street connectivity, and land use. In contrast to more sprawling cities, high-density cities not only reduce the need for vehicle travel, but also reduce the need for their associated infrastructure, such as roads and sewers.

Tokyo has successfully developed high-density mixed-use neighborhoods near rail and bus stations. According to the report, Tokyo has a traffic fatality rate of 1.3 per 100,000 residents. Compare this rate to Atlanta, Georgia, one of the most sprawled-out cities in the U.S., which has 9.7 traffic fatalities per 100,000 residents.

Street in Jiyugaoka,Tokyo

Street in Jiyugaoka, Tokyo / Cozyroom_mimi (Flickr)

With the percentage of the world’s population living in cities expected to hit 70 percent by 2030, reducing traffic fatalities from unsafe streets should be a priority. Safer streets also increase the quality of life for urbanites, particularly for those in developing countries. WRI’s report shows policymakers, urban designers and planners, and landscape architects what works: designing for pedestrian safety means improving urban health and sustainability overall.

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From the series Decoding Scape (cropped) / Lee Jeong Lok

Contemporary artists around the world are painting with light, using photographic techniques to add layers of light art on top of real-world scenes. These layers, which take many forms, add depth, evoke awe, and are stunningly creative. These images also illustrate the changing relationship between real and digital realms, nature and technology, and the photographer and their studio tools.

Korean artist Lee Jeong Lok overlays glowing Korean characters, symbols, and stylized natural forms like butterflies and trees on the natural vistas he has photographed.

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From the series Nabi (cropped) / Lee Jeong Lok

In Designboom, he writes: “I have been painting something that exists despite its invisible nature; places that correspond to the visible world, places beyond our sensual cognition, profoundly mysterious places that nevertheless cannot be separated from our world of cognition.”

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From the series Nabi (cropped) / Lee Jeong Lok

Lok adds: “painting with light is the body, mind, and the soul harmoniously following the rhythm; it is an act of delivering positive energy felt by the body, rather than creating something from nothing.”

French artist Julien Breton, otherwise known as “Kaalam” is also inspired by light, translating his own movements with flashlights into gorgeous depictions of Arabic calligraphy.

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Dead’s place. Abstract calligraphy. New York, USA, 2012. Calligraphy by Julien Breton aka Kaalam (cropped) / David Gallard

The characters seemingly appear out of thin air, although in a few photographs Kaalam doesn’t completely photoshop himself out, so you see the man behind the light, the precise moves that result in the alphabetic additions.

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Billy and the Kid (cropped) / Morocco

As This Is Colossal writes, Kaalam is attracted to architectural backdrops as well as dark rooftops and streets. The contrast between the tightly-scripted visions of light and the organic urban scenes adds to the allure of these art works.

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La lumière – The light. Arabic calligraphy. Jodpur, India, 2012. Calligraphy by Julien Breton aka Kaalam (cropped) / David Gallard.

And then there’s Italian photographer Paolo Pettigiani, whose augmented layer is an infrared filter, which completely remakes the Italian countryside into a candy-colored (or perhaps toxic) fantasy world. Designboom brings together a collection of these photographs.

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Italian countryside infrared photograph (cropped) / Paolo Pettigiani

Like Lok, he is also showing us an unseen world, given humans can’t see infrared light.

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Italian countryside infrared photograph (cropped) / Paolo Pettigiani

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Italian countryside infrared photograph (cropped) / Paolo Pettigiani

Beaches, woodlands, and marshes become unfamiliar, their forms seem renewed.

User ratings for Park Row, New York, NY / Liz Camuti

User ratings for Park Row, New York, NY / Liz Camuti

Most smartphone map apps give you several direct routes to get from Point A to Point B, but the quickest or most convenient path isn’t always the most enjoyable. Those interested in finding the most beautiful, walkable route to their destination can now try Walkonomics. The app, created by United Kingdom programmer Adam Davies, allows users to find more beautiful paths through seven cities across the globe using both open and crowd-sourced city data.

Walkability-related data and apps have existed for a number of years. Websites like Walk Score rate individual addresses based on a number between 0 and 100, telling you how walkable or car-dependent an area is. But according to CityLab, Walk Score has yet to incorporate “more fine-grained and diverse data about the quality of the pedestrian experience.”

Walkonomics attempts to provide just that. Not only does this free iOS and Android app allow people to check the pedestrian-friendliness of most streets in Central London, Paris, New York, San Francisco, Toronto, Buenos Aires, and Glasgow, but it also allows them to chose either the quickest or most beautiful routes between destinations in these cities.

The app provides star rankings for eight different categories of pedestrian-friendliness: road safety; easy to cross; pavement/sidewalk; hilliness; navigation; fear of crime; “smart & beautiful;” and “fun & relaxing.” These ratings are generated from open data including street widths, traffic levels, crime statistics, pedestrian accidents, and even how many trees are on each street. Visitors and  residents can provide additional ratings for each of these criteria as they walk down streets in their neighborhood, as well as geo-referenced photos.

As I tested the app, I found that certain elements are not as user-friendly as existing ones in Google Maps. For example, typing in the name of a location rather than a specific address, which typically works pretty accurately in other mapping apps, is a bit of a struggle with Walkonomics, which requires your location or a very specific address if you’re not navigating to a famous landmark.

Though I am not a native New Yorker, I also found it strange that the most beautiful route between two New York City locations took me around Central Park, while the fastest route took me almost directly through the park. Is a stroll down a tree-lined street truly more beautiful than a walk through a park? This raises the question: how does Walkonomics actually quantify the most beautiful route, when what makes something beautiful is subjective. Furthermore, it’s unclear how Walkonomics, which is intended for urban streets, incorporates parks. Perhaps, the app could benefit from more crowd-sourcing and input from people who really know these streets (Most streets in New York only have one user rating). Davies said he also has plans to provide more options, like the safest and cleanest routes, which are more easily quantified.

The most beautiful route from 186 W 80th Street to the Plaza Hotel as determined by the Walkonomics app  / Liz Camuti

The most beautiful route from 186 W 80th Street to the Plaza Hotel as determined by the Walkonomics app / Liz Camuti

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The fastest route from 186 W 80th Street to the Plaza Hotel as determined by the Walkonomics app / Liz Camuti

Despite the app’s shortcomings, Davies has certainly tapped into a real demand for walkable places. Also, studies have shown that walkable streets can boost retail sales by up to 80 percent. Research indicates walkable neighborhoods reduce obesity levels, carbon emissions, and crime, among other benefits. In fact, the benefits of walkable cities have become so widely known that many big businesses are choosing to move their headquarters back to more walkable locations.

If you live in one of the seven cities available on the app and have an extra five minutes in the morning, take Walkonomics for a spin. Not only could you end up feeling less stressed at the beginning of your workday, but you’ll have the opportunity to add to a growing data source designed to make cities a little bit more livable. And, hopefully, Walkonomics will in turn open up its own data, as it could be really useful to landscape architects, urban planners, and health researchers trying to figure out what makes one route more appealing than another.

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Hypernatural / Princeton Architectural Press

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

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

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

Here are just a few examples from the book:

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

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Radiolaria / Shiro Studio

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

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Windswept / Bruce Damonte

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

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Bubble Building / DUS Architects

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

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Radiant Soil / Philip Beesley Architect Inc.

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

Read the book.

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Crawick Multiverse / Charles Jencks

As Scotland becomes one of the first countries to run solely on renewable energy, communities face the question of what to do with the country’s abandoned mining infrastructure. In one Scottish village, Sanquhar, the answer is to transform a former coal mine into a 55-acre, $1 million work of land art. Conjuring images of Stonehenge, Crawick Multiverse, which opened July 10 with a ceremony of music and dance, was built from materials found on-site, including 2,000 boulders half-buried below ground.

At the urging of local residents, the landowner, Richard Scott, the Duke of Buccleuch, commissioned landscape artist Charles Jencks to build something dynamic that would benefit the region, which has been struggling economically. Crawick Multiverse, “represents the cosmos, from the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies to a spiral of rocks that make up the multiverse.” While Jencks often draws inspiration from astronomy, at the nearby Garden of Cosmic Speculation for example, Fast Company writes that it was also a natural fit for this site, where prehistoric stone art and Celtic gold necklaces designed to represent the moon have been found nearby.

Traditionally, former coal mines in the country are bulldozed and returned to the pastures they once were, but this misses an opportunity to reflect the cultural significance of a site. “Around the world, mines produce an environment which is depressing, and derelict and desolate and deserted, full of junk,” Jencks told Fast Company. “There have been laws put in place to restore these areas to their pristine original quality — that often means putting grass over the site, plowing it back, and returning it to the cows. We wanted to build something positive for the community instead.” By using on-site materials to create the dramatic earthworks rather than flattening the site, construction costs were also reduced.

A network of paths weave through the sites four different ecosystems (grassland, mountain, water gorge and desert), while navigating landforms represent the sun, universes, galaxies and comets. At the heart of the project is a 5,000-person amphitheater inspired by a solar eclipse.

5,000-person amphitheater inspired by a solar eclipse / Charles Jencks

5,000-person amphitheater inspired by a solar eclipse / Charles Jencks

Dramatic earthworks include the two galaxy mounds – Andromeda and the Milky Way – which stand at 25 and 15 meters high, respectively. The mounds represent “the cosmic ballet of the two galaxies coming together,” and each have lagoons that add to their visual impact.

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Andromeda and the Milky Way Earthworks / Charles Jencks

The site was once valued for its industrial purpose, but there is a beauty in the surrounding landscape that Jencks sought to emphasize in the design. The comet walk — a ridge trail with white-yellow sandstone emulating comets’ tails — leads to the Belvedere, a lookout offering a panoramic view of the surrounding countryside. Again, stones from the site have been repurposed, this time into a stone hand with a finger pointing to the North Star.

Intersection boulders – the largest rocks on the entire site – mark the start of the Comet Walk / Charles Jencks

Intersection boulders – the largest rocks on the entire site – mark the start of the Comet Walk / Charles Jencks

The lookout from Belvedere / Charles Jencks

The lookout from Belvedere / Charles Jencks

“Destroyed sites are an opportunity to renew. It’s wonderful to see this park used in different ways. For a designer, such as me, that’s the pay-off,” Jencks explains in a video for the project. “This site is big enough to absorb 10,000 people a day and you wouldn’t feel crowded, so I’m really happy about that. It’ll take time to get there, but I’m sure it will be used in thousands of different ways we can’t even predict. All successful parks have to embed themselves with the locals who will use them in new ways.”

The project is potentially the beginning of an exciting series of reclamation projects poised to take hold in Scotland’s post-industrial landscape. As coal mining becomes increasingly obsolete across the country, Crawick Multiverse, in its striking whimsy, offers a practical strategy for industrial redevelopment at the landscape scale.

See a video of Jencks discussing his inspiration for the project:

And see more images.

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Labyrinth at St. Joseph Memorial Hospital, Santa Rosa, California / Clare Cooper Marcus

Labyrinths have become increasingly popular in healthcare settings like hospitals, outpatient clinics, hospices, and elder care facilities. Designers often include them in their plans, sometimes encouraged by the client or the funding donor. However, labyrinths are not always appropriate for healthcare gardens. While they can be very successful, there are now too many examples of labyrinths that are poorly sited, badly designed, or just shouldn’t be there. As with any element of a healthcare garden, the design intention must be to provide what will most benefit the users–patients, visitors, and staff. Clare Cooper Marcus and I discuss this issue in our book Therapeutic Landscapes: An Evidence-Based Approach to Designing Healing Gardens and Restorative Outdoor Spaces, from which some of this text is excerpted. Please understand: I have nothing against labyrinths per se. In fact, in the right place and context, I think they are wonderful and very much enjoy walking them.

First, What is a Labyrinth?

The classical labyrinth consists of a continuous path that winds in circles into a center and out again. This basic form dates from antiquity and is intended for contemplative walking. A labyrinth is sometimes erroneously referred to as a maze, which consists of a complex system of pathways between tall hedges, with the purpose of getting people lost. The aim of a maze is playful diversion, whereas the aim of the labyrinth is to offer the user a walking path of quiet reflection.

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Labyrinth at St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada

The Labyrinth Trend

I’m not sure what led to the uptick in labyrinths in healthcare gardens (as well as other gardens), but here are some guesses:

Labyrinths are immediately recognizable as contemplative spaces that encourage silent walking and meditation. Like “Zen gardens,” they symbolize peace and relaxation.

They are usually easy to install and, unlike planting beds, require very little maintenance. However, most labyrinths are paved and according to many research studies, people prefer less paving and more plants in healing gardens.

Here is why labyrinths are often not the right choice for healthcare gardens:

They take up a lot of space that could be used for plants, a covered gathering area, or a more flexible activity space. Because people view labyrinths as somewhat sacred, they are reluctant to walk across them to get from Point A to Point B. Unless the garden is quite large, a labyrinth is probably not the best use of space.

Labyrinths are usually not sheltered by trees or another shade structure. People in hospitals – especially patients – are extremely vulnerable to sun and glare.

They take a long time to walk, which may not be good or even possible for some patients.

They are usually not wheelchair accessible. So people who have limited mobility — anyone in a wheelchair, scooter, walker, or even with a large stroller — can’t use them, which, especially in a hospital environment, is rather sad.

How to Design a Labyrinth for a Healthcare Garden

If you plan on including a labyrinth in a healthcare garden, consider the following design guidelines from Therapeutic Landscapes:

The classical labyrinth consists of 11, 7, or 5 concentric circles. The path of the 11-circuit labyrinth is 860-feet long and thus should not be considered for a healthcare garden. Walking that far would likely tax the energy of patients or the time of visitors or staff. The 7- or 5-circuit labyrinth is more appropriate, both in terms of the length of the path and in terms of the space it claims.

People walking a labyrinth are in a contemplative, introspective mood and do not want to be stared at. Site the labyrinth in a secluded location out of sight of other garden users and nearby windows.

Since some people view the process of walking a labyrinth to be a spiritual experience, site it where others will not be forced to walk across to get from one destination to another.

Since many people may be unfamiliar with the purpose of a labyrinth, provide information nearby indicating how to walk the path.

Consider a “finger labyrinth” – they take up far less room and can still provide people with a meditative practice.

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Finger labyrinth at the American Psychological Association / Naomi Sachs

This guest post is by Naomi Sachs, ASLA, and Clare Cooper Marcus, Hon ASLA. Sachs is founder of the Therapeutic Landscapes Network and Naomi Sachs Design. Some of the text for this post was excerpted with permission from the publisher, Wiley, from Therapeutic Landscapes: An Evidence-Based Approach to Designing Healing Gardens and Restorative Outdoor Spaces by Clare Cooper Marcus and Naomi A. Sachs. Copyright 2014.

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SuperPope Francis graffiti in Rome / NPR

Last month, Pope Francis released Care for Our Common Home, a powerful encyclical designed to build the moral case for improving the environment and fighting climate change. He calls the climate a “common good” and decries the “abuse” of the environment that supports all of humanity. The Vatican published the encyclical in advance of Pope Francis’ just-concluded tour of South America, his September tour of the U.S., and the critical UN climate change summit in Paris in December. At each stop in his South American tour, he made the case for environmentally and socially-responsible development, arguing that it’s the only way to save both the environment and help the poor. For example, in Ecuador, he said: “The goods of the Earth are meant for everyone, and however much someone may parade his property, it has a social mortgage.” Pope Francis join hands with the environmental movement, rallying the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics to pressure global leaders to act.

Pope Francis isn’t the first pope to weigh in on environmental issues. As he writes in the encyclical, Saint John Paul II “warned that human beings frequently seem ‘to see no other meaning in their natural environment than what serves for immediate use and consumption.'” And his immediate predecessor Benedict XVI also proposed “eliminating the structural causes of the dysfunctions of the world economy and correcting models of growth that have proved incapable of ensuring respect for the environment,” essentially calling for a new, sustainable approach to development.

However, Pope Francis goes further than his predecessors. He writes: “The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all.” He backs the scientific consensus that humans have caused climate change. He blames over-consumption and rampant capitalism for our predicament. “Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production, and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it.”

Pope Francis doesn’t just focus on climate change; he also addresses the health problems associated with pollution, the growth of non-biodegradable waste, the lack of fresh drinking water, the loss of biodiversity, and, finally, the “decline of human life and the breakdown in society” caused by environmental degradation.

He blames the lack of global action on the environment on money-driven self-interest and campaigns of disinformation led by special interests. “It is remarkable how weak international political responses have been. The failure of global summits on the environment make it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance. There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected.”

To create a sustainable long-term solution, Pope Francis calls for a new relationship between humanity and nature. As Naomi Klein writes in The New Yorker, it may be one of the most radical policy changes by a major religion ever.

Klein writes: “Challenging anthropocentrism is ho-hum stuff for ecologists, but it’s something else for the pinnacle of the Catholic Church. You don’t get much more human-centered than the persistent Judeo-Christian interpretation that God created the entire world specifically to serve Adam’s every need. As for the idea that we are part of a family with all other living beings, with the earth as our life-giving mother, that too is familiar to eco-ears. But from the Church? Replacing a maternal Earth with a Father God, and draining the natural world of its sacred power, were what stamping out paganism and animism were all about.”

She adds: “By asserting that nature has a value in and of itself, Francis is overturning centuries of theological interpretation that regarded the natural world with outright hostility—as a misery to be transcended and an ‘allurement’ to be resisted.”

Beyond the new understanding of nature as an ecological system is a renewed focus on the world’s poor. Pope Francis believes the rich have an obligation to aid the world’s poor, who will be most negatively impacted by climate change. This is the crux of the moral argument for action.

He writes: “We have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. Leaving an inhabitable planet to future generations is, first and foremost, up to us. The issue is one which dramatically affects us, for it has to do with the ultimate meaning of our earthly sojourn.”

To be Catholic now is to be an ecologist and activist. This can only be a step in the right direction.

But Pope Francis will face tough critics in the U.S., particularly in the U.S. Congress, where he has been invited to speak in September. Already Republican Presidential candidates Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio have dismissed his efforts, inviting him to “stay out of politics.”

It’s too soon to tell the impact of the encyclical and the Vatican’s broader efforts on climate change, but Professor Ottmar Edenhofer, chief economist of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, says in The Guardian that “you should never underestimate the soft power of moral arguments.”

cso

Combined sewer overflow point, Anacostia, D.C. / Chesapeake Bay.net

While the Potomac and the Anacostia Rivers gave birth to the District of Columbia, they have suffered years of contamination from raw sewage, which spill into the rivers when the aging combined sewer and stormwater infrastructure overflows. To address this issue, in 2010 the District initiated the DC Clean Rivers Project (DCCR) and began constructing massive underground tunnels that will convey contaminated runoff into the Blue Plains wastewater treatment facility. While a deep-bore tunneling machine affectionately named Lady Bird digs its way 100 feet each day at great expense, D.C. is now finally able to move forward with a more cost-effective green infrastructure plan, like New York City and Philadelphia. A new agreement with the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Justice (DOJ) finalized in May allows DC Water, the city’s water utility, to remove one of the proposed tunnels and instead invest in turning hundreds of acres of impervious surfaces into green, absorbent ones. However, it appears not everyone will benefit equally from the new green infrastructure plan.

Under the new consent decree with the EPA and DOJ, DC Water eliminated the previously-planned underground tunnel for Rock Creek and will instead build green infrastructure that covers 365 acres. Phases of this work will start soon and the whole plan will be complete by 2030.

DC Clean Rivers Project Plan in 2010 / DC Water

DC Clean Rivers Project Plan in 2010 / DC Water

New Clean Rivers Project Plan in 2015 / DC Water

New Clean Rivers Project Plan in 2015 / DC Water

The neighborhoods of Columbia Heights, Takoma, Petworth, and others surrounding the Rock Creek watershed will get rain gardens, bioswales, porous pavement, and green roofs designed to capture and clean runoff, replacing the originally-planned tunnel. Near Georgetown, there will still be a tunnel but gravity, rather than an energy-intensive pumping station, will passively transfer water to the wastewater treatment plant, explains CityLab. That stretch will also get some new green infrastructure.

However, as some local activists who attended a recent briefing at the National Building Museum made clear, there are deep concerns about whether the new green infrastructure approach will benefit the Anacostia River communities any time soon. Over the years, the Anacostia, which is considered one of the most polluted waterways in the nation, has borne the bulk of environmental abuse. This is why DC Water made creating a new tunnel to address the Anaocostia River’s problems the highest priority. However, the community won’t see the benefits until at least 2022 when the new tunnel finally opens. Then, it’s expected to remove about 98 percent of the river’s pollution, making it potentially clean enough to swim in.

Meanwhile, along the Anacostia’s 8 miles, combined sewer overflows continue to occur in 17 different places, reports CityLab. So, according to these activists, the new plan has raised some environmental justice issues: it’s about who reaps the many benefits of green infrastructure first, and who gains the most long-term.

This desire for green infrastructure isn’t simply about cleaner rivers. Green infrastructure creates additional green space for the neighborhoods, reduces the heat-island effect, and improves air quality while creating jobs and increasing property values. The discrepancy in property values and income levels between the neighborhoods that will receive these benefits sooner and those that will receive a mostly-grey infrastructure fix is clear.

Despite the fears that green infrastructure can lead to gentrification, many argue that access to green infrastructure empowers communities and further marginalizes those without it. Even with the slow progress of the Anacostia tunnel, green infrastructure projects should be started sooner along the Anacostia. There are so many opportunities.

For example, along Buzzard’s Point in Southwest D.C., there are opportunities to create a new waterfront promenade that can also capture runoff with natural systems. Vacant houses in the area could also be turned into stormwater cisterns or redeveloped as parks. But, as of now, the only real plans are to create a new D.C. United soccer stadium there, which will only increase impervious surfaces, unless green infrastructure is better integrated into the design. With new incentives, green streets and roofs could spread throughout these neighborhoods, too.

A green roof that was installed over an existing drinking water reservoir located at Fort Reno as part of the Clean Rivers Project / American Academy of Environmental Engineers and Scientists

A green roof that was installed over an existing drinking water reservoir located at Fort Reno as part of the Clean Rivers Project / American Academy of Environmental Engineers and Scientists

The new 11th Street Bridge Park will help restore the Anacostia River ecosystems, but this project is still many years away. The new South Capitol street corridor project will bring some green infrastructure to the Anacostia area as well, but perhaps not enough. DC Water, which has been pushing for its new green infrastructure approach for years, has limited resources to fulfill its mission, and the tunnel and green infrastructure plan are great expenses. It certainly wants to bring more green infrastructure to the District, but, hopefully, these green infrastructure opportunities can be widespread so everyone benefits equally.

Craftsman-style Lafayette home and landscape / David Thorne Landscape Architect, Treve Johnson, via The San Francisco Chronicle

Lafayette Landscaping Inspired by NativesThe San Francisco Chronicle, 7/2/15
“The drought has many home gardeners pushing the pause button on major projects and plantings, but we can still garden vicariously through social sites and “pin” (and pine over) gardens that have inspiring ideas.”

Companies Harness Environment to Help Workers Smell the RosesThe Irish Times, 7/3/15
“In recent years, companies have begun looking to incorporate more of the outside into their workplaces to create a better environment for employees.”

Fernando Caruncho’s Shock Waves The New York Times, 7/7/2015
“Instead of planting in a traditional, rigorous grid, Fernando Caruncho, the celebrated Madrid-based minimalist landscape architect, conceptualized the 250 acres as a green sea of voluptuous, undulating waves that ‘traverse the landscape of this ancient place.’”

District Government Gives Green Light to Parks in Parking SpacesThe Washington Post, 7/11/15
“In the past week, carpenters screwed 10 banana-and-mustard-colored triangular planters, a bench and a table to a plywood platform taking up two parking spaces on K Street NW. Then they came back and touched up the paint and put up reflective safety posts. On Sunday, ferns and lavender are set to go in.”

Outdoor Rooms with Not-So-Secret GardensThe Houston Chronicle, 7/13/15
“Christopher D. Ritzert’s quarter-acre garden behind his 1930s stone Colonial in Washington started out as an unremarkable backyard with a jumble of weeds. To fix that, Ritzert worked with a landscape artist to design a series of outdoor rooms that ascend the hill behind the house.”

Resilience: A New Conservation Strategy for a Warming WorldYale Environment 360, 7/13/15
“As climate change puts ecosystems and species at risk, conservationists are turning to a new approach: preserving those landscapes that are most likely to endure as the world warms.”

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