Interview with Laurie Olin, FASLA

In a wide-ranging interview with ASLA, Laurie Olin, one of the world’s best known landscape architects, discusses the ideas and processes behind award-winning projects, such as the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., and Columbus Circle in Manhattan. Olin also add his thoughts on landscape architecture’s relationship with sustainability, and the effects of globalization on his practice.

Olin has worked in Washington, D.C. for years, and understands both the history of the city, and the history of its landscape architecture. He reflects on his dual work on the base of the National Monument, and the National Gallery of Art Sculpture garden. “When working on the Sculpture Garden, I was thinking about Downing and his plan for the Mall that partly got built — parts around the Oval near the White House. I was thinking about the plant palette he wanted to use. He wanted it to be a great arboretum of American plants and trees. That led to those thoughts. That great open shaft of space, the Mall, wanted to be clear, wanted to be simple, wanted to be bold, wanted to be open. The Sculpture Garden didn’t want to be like the Mall as it is today. The thing about Washington is paying attention to where you are and what portions of the city you’re dealing with and their relationship to, not only the city, but to its visitors and to the nation and to our imagination about the city.”

On transforming Columbus Circle from a pedestrian nightmare into a true destination in mid-Manhattan, Olin says: “I had this simple idea. It is so elementary: that if you could just do this slight berm all the way around the outside that would be up above the wheels of the car. People standing could look over it. When you sat down you would be enclosed. It was just like those office partitions that are in all those open offices. You sit down and you’re in your cubicle. You stand up and you can see all around.  I thought, “Well, if we just had a berm that size that would cut out a lot of the auto noise, and help isolate it.”  And then if you just flip the water — it seemed so clear, Columbus was a mariner, right? It should be about water. You should have more water. The thing was he didn’t discover a continent — he discovered islands.  This should be an island. You should walk out to an island. This monument to Columbus should be on an island in the water, very simple.”

In order for the general public to better understand the deep relationship between sustainability and landscape architecture, Olin believes landscape architects need to become more political, more involved in planning decisions. “How can landscape architects get other people to understand that’s how we think?  I think to do more work, show it, talk about it, and invite people to see it.  A lot has happened in the last ten years. People now have a sense of it that they didn’t before. They know that we do that. We need to be at the table when people start planning. We need to be involved when people are doing site selection. We should be helping people say, “No, you shouldn’t build there. This would be a better site.” We have to get involved in a lot of the more troublesome planning decisions.  We need to be involved in politics. Some of us have been political off and on, especially when we were young, but we got tired doing it.  It’s wearing. Each generation needs its ten years in the barrel fighting the politics when they have so much energy and altruism. People don’t realize that landscape architecture is political. In a democracy it probably should be. We should debate about who suffers and gains, who gets what, what are the benefits, where are they, what’s the cost. Those are things you’d hope in a democracy people would debate publicly.”

In terms of the effects of globalization on his own work, Olin argues that landscape architects must look at the social and economic implications of sourcing materials. “The confusing thing is not what you think of a European tree grown in Oregon, and shipped to Europe. It’s not whether you approve of that material, or whether it works and is successful or is handsome, or does its job or is durable or is healthy, but what is going on with the social aspects of it, in terms of finance and people’s lives and the instability of their society and their social support systems.  That is the confusing part, and the part that we don’t really understand.  What are we doing for those people in New England who lost all the factories to North Carolina that have gotten shipped to Indonesia and Thailand?  Now, the people in North Carolina are in as much trouble as the people in Lowell, Mass or New Haven. You can see that the people in Thailand and Indonesia are going to be in trouble when it moves to Ceylon or East Africa. We’re shipping the problem around, aren’t we?”

Olin also discusses the landscape of the financial community, which landscape architect’s work he particularly appreciates in Asia and Latin America, and the importance of rehabilitating war-ravaged landscapes in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine.

Read the full interview

Actions: What You Can Do with the City

Design Under Sky wrote about an exhibit at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) in Montreal entitled Actions: What You Can Do with the City. The exhibit runs through April 19, 2009.

CCA’s site lists 99 actions that instigate positive change in contemporary cities. According to CCA, “The 99 actions featured include projects related to the production of food and possibilities of urban agriculture; the planning and creation of public spaces to strengthen community interactions; the recycling of abandoned buildings for new purposes; the use of the urban fabric as a terrain for play such as soccer, climbing, skateboarding, or parkour; the alternate use of roads for walking, or rail lines as park space; the design of clothing to circumvent urban barriers against resting on benches or sliding on railings; among others.”

Some interesting actions:

Go to the full list, where you can decide whether the idea is either “genius,” or “old news.” Also, CCA encourages people to submit their own ideas. Entries they deem the best will be added to their exhibit.

Design Thinking by IDEO

Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, a firm that continually tops Fast Company’s rankings of the most innovative companies, wrote an article in Harvard Business Review entitled “Design Thinking.” The article says “thinking like a designer can transform the way you develop products, services, processes – and even strategy.”

Brown outlines “some of the characteristics to look for in design thinkers:”

  • Empathy
  • Integrative Thinking
  • Optimism
  • Experimentalism
  • Collaboration

Read the article and Tim Brown’s blog
Also, check out an interview ASLA did with Steven Bishop, IDEO’s Sustainability lead.  Finally, go to Fast Company’s latest innovation rankings. (Strangely, no major landscape architecture firms, or even architecture firms, ever seem to make it on to these lists).

World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2009

The World Economic Forum 2009 Annual Meeting began yesterday in Davos, Switzerland. Andrew Schneider, Chief Operating Officer of the Forum, said in an interview last week: “We need to rethink the business model in view of sustainability and ethical frameworks.” Clearly, a goal worth focusing on. The environment, transportation, green jobs, and sustainability are all on the Forum’s agenda.

One interesting session coming up on Friday is entitled: Climate Justice: Basis of  a New Global Solidarity?

From the Forum website:

“Over three-quarters of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions — the principle cause of climate change — come from the EU, the United States, China, Russia, India and Japan. The 49 least developed countries account for just 1% of global emissions. Though they are certainly not responsible for climate change, the world’s poorest are suffering from it the most since poverty increases vulnerability to its effects.

1) What would be the most equitable solution to the injustices of climate change?
2) What overlap exists between adaptation and development? To what extent can compensation and assistance in dealing with climate change also contribute to development?
3) What scope is there for action at the international level to ensure protection of the most vulnerable populations and to reduce emissions sufficiently to deal with climate change and the suffering it causes?
4) How can such responsibility — “climate justice” — be established as a guiding principle in the ongoing negotiations for a successor to the Kyoto Protocol? ”

Other sessions include: From Green Tech to Green Jobs and Economic Growth, as well as The Challenges of Sustainable Mobility:

“Transportation systems face serious challenges ranging from growing infrastructure constraints, safety concerns and impending climate change regulations. How can we develop the technologies, regulations and new business models necessary to deliver clean, efficient and affordable transport?”

The Forum’s website will include live webcasts of events all week.

Go to the WE Forum site for updates in English, and other major languages

Update: Tom Friedman moderated an interesting panel, which included Al Gore, on what needs to be accomplished at the UNFCCC Meeting in Copenhagen in December, 2009. Watch the video.

Using Energy Efficiency to Support the Economic Recovery

Charles Ebinger, Director, Energy Security Initiative, at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C., has written an op-ed on how energy efficiency could be a key tool for ensuring that “the economic recovery leaves no one behind.”

While President Obama pitches the Economic Stimulus Plan on Capitol Hill today to critics who view the USD 150 billion environmental and clean energy components of the stimulus plan as wasteful spending, some like Mr. Ebinger argue that the energy efficiency and conservation parts of the plan need to be further expanded.

Ebinger argues: “Despite notable advances in the efficiency of energy production, transportation and consumption, President-elect Obama needs to make energy efficiency and conservation the cornerstone of both his economic stimulus program, which is designed to revitalize the American economy and create American jobs, and his Energy Efficiency Plan, designed to address climate change while improving the security of the nation’s electricity grid. These programs, taken in tandem, will provide jobs, put more money in consumer wallets, reduce the need for additional expensive generating capacity to meet peak load electricity demand, and reduce carbon emissions.”

Ebinger argues that those making $50,000 or less could benefit even more than they currently would under the programs in the planned stimulus.  He outlines a few ideas:

  • “Seize all abandoned buildings in the United States’ four poorest cities (Miami, Newark, Cleveland and Detroit) – on a pilot program basis and under a new eminent domain federal statute to be passed by Congress – and retrofit them with the most commercially cost-effective energy efficiency construction, lighting and appliance technologies. Upon completion, lease them for 40 years to credit-worthy families making under $50,000 per year at rates not to exceed 15% of after-tax family income indexed for inflation. 
  • Refine a model program in effect in Berkeley, California by enacting a low-interest (2%) 30-year loan for up to 100% of the cost of home and small business energy retrofits that will save at least 35% of total energy utilization against the average consumption of the previous 3 years. Such loans would lead to new technological innovations as local small business entrepreneurs respond to these incentives by creating jobs, putting money into consumers wallets from the energy savings achieved, and revitalizing work in communities across the nation.
  • Enact a low-interest loan (5% indexed for inflation for a period of 30 years) under a new “Revitalize American Home and Hearth Act,” with the government fronting the capital cost for the installation of solar roofs on medium and large-scale commercial buildings that can obtain an energy savings of at least 25% based on the average consumption during the previous three years. The commercial firms would rebate to the government not only the interest, but 25% of the energy savings during the life of the loan.”

Read the policy statement and other ideas
Also, check out a transcript from a recent event: “Remaking the Suburbs in a Carbon-Constrained World: A Case Study of Maryland’s Purple Line

Flower Game for PlayStation 3

Sony will soon release a new game “Flower,” which explores the path of an urban flower that seeks to escape to the countryside.  Sony’s designer says the game is an interactive poem, which uses abstract landscapes, and the “flower is the gamer’s dream.” According to Wired, “flower lets the player explore the dreams of city blooms trapped in urban decay, longing to caress the soft grasses of the countryside.” 

Sony designed the game to be “attractive and meaningful” for adults, and wanted to make it simple and accessible. Players can control the path of the flower, and its pollination of the landscapes. The game explores the relationship between cities and nature, the complexities of ecology.

Watch the video preview of the game

Energy Exports vs. the Environment in Norway

In a sense, Norway is home to one of the world’s most environmentally- conscious populations. 98-99 percent of Norway’s domestic energy comes from hydro-electric plants. According to The Economist, in 1991, Norway became one of the first countries to implement a carbon tax. Also, it was one of the first countries to capture and store carbon underground.

Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, and his center-left coalition, have also announced that Norway will become carbon neutral by 2030, and the government has continue to actively push for a new, more stringent post-Kyoto global climate change treaty.

However, for all of its clean energy investments at home, Norway is still an enormous polluter. According to The Economist, Norway spews out more carbon emissions on a per capita basis than any other country in Europe. Also, since implementing the carbon tax in 1991, emissions have risen 15 percent. As the world’s third biggest exporter of oil, and fourth largest exporter of natural gas, it is also exporting damage to the environment on a massive scale.

Norway benefits enormously from the export of these fuels, and oil is one reason why it has one of the highest per capita incomes globally (USD 100,000 GDP per capita). Norway’s government estimates that 2008 revenue from the petroleum sector was 413 billion kroner. Its oil-revenue fund is one of the world’s biggest at 2.1 trillion kroner.

Critics argue that Norway, while doing much to become a carbon-neutral state, can really only accomplish this goal if it takes into account the carbon emissions from its energy exports. Should Norway cut back on exporting oil and natural gas, in favor of exporting cleaner hydro-electric or wind power? Before Norway can move towards full clean energy exports, does it have a responsibility to use its enormous energy trust fund to pay for the off-sets of its global energy exports? Will this ever happen?

Add your thoughts.
Read the full article

Climate Change Thinning Western U.S. Forests

According to a new study by the U.S. Geological Survey and researchers at various U.S. universities, trees in the Western U.S. are dying at faster rates, and climate change seems to be the reason.

According to the study, temperatures across the Western states have risen by 0.5-0.9 degrees Fahrenheit every ten years. The warming has resulted in reduced snowfall, less dense winter snow, and earlier spring melting. “Trees are under more drought stress,” said USGS ecologist Nathan Stephenson, a co-author on the study. According to Wired, increased temperatures may be helping bark beetles grow faster, as well as pathogens that feed on trees. 

Michael Goulden, an ecologist at the University of California, Irvine, who was not involved in the research, said in an interview with Wired that: “Something large and important is happening to Western ecosystems, in correlation with climatic shifts.”

Read the full article
Read “Widespread Increase of Tree Mortality Rates in the Western United States” in the journal Science

Governor’s Island Becoming Eco-Park

West 8 , a Dutch landscape architecture firm, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and Roger Marvel Architects are proceeding with plans to turn Governor’s Island in New York City into an “eco-park.” Governor’s Island, which was purchased by New York State and City for $1 in 2003, was previously used by the Coast Guard. The park is expected to open in 2012.

The re-development will include 172 acres of landscape and architecture, including new paths, waterways, restaurants, botanical and aquatic research centers, and free wooden bicycles for use on the island.

Diller Scofidio + Renfro says the park “uses the man made topography of lower Manhattan as a starting point; the southern tip of the island is transformed into an artificial landscape with hills constructed of reclaimed materials from existing Governors Island buildings.” West 8 partner Jerry van Eyck says of the park design: “We wanted to give it the attitude of a national park, one with primal nature, robustness, where you don’t feel the hand of man.” According to INHABITAT, visitors will encounter a “vertical landscape” of man-made mountains that will incorporate recreational, cultural, and educational functions at the southern end of the island.

Read the full article

U.S. Ban on Illegally Sourced Wood

Jonathan Nash, President of the World Resources Institute (WRI), argues that the “most interesting and overlooked” environmental victory of 2008 was the extension of the Lacey Act to cover the U.S. import of illegally sourced plants, including trees, and wood products, such as flooring, furniture, and paper.

According to WRI, illegal logging may make up 8-10 percent of primary wood production. In some places, illegal logging accounts for 50 percent of harvested wood. Given much of these wood products are making their way to the U.S. for use in commercial and residential buildings (the U.S. imports 17 percent of the world’s wood products), a U.S. import ban may have an effect. Research has indicated that 10 percent of current wood product imports are sourced illegally.

Under the amended Lacey Act, forest and plant products imported to the U.S. must include basic declarations on where they originate. Importers are now responsible to exercise “due care” to ensure wood products are sourced legally. The amended Lacey Act can now be used to fight illegal logging, and deforestation in critical tropical forest areas in Brazil, Indonesia, and Malaysia.

Read the article by Jonathan Nash
Also, check out this report by the Environmental Investigation Agency: No Questions Asked: The Impacts of U.S. Market Demand for Illegal Timber, and the Potential for Change