According to The New York Times, second-generation dairy farmers in Connecticut have devised a way to re-use smelly cow manure: Developing pots for plant and flower seedlings made out of dried, deoderized manure fibers. With eight years of development, and “countless grim experiments,” Ben and Mathew Freund, owners of 225 Holstein cows, produced CowPots, bio-degradable seed-starting containers, which are being made on the farm and sold to commercial and backyard growers. Connecticut’s Agricultural Businesses Cluster provided the dairy farmers with a $72,000 grant to explore ways to combat the environmental effects of excessive cow manure. (Cows, on average, produces 120 pounds of manure daily).

Buyers of the pots prefer these over plastic pots, says The New York Times. CowPots “hold water well, last for months in a greenhouse and can then be planted directly into the ground, sparing the seedling transplant shock and letting tender new roots penetrate easily. As the pots decompose, they continue to fertilize the plant and attract beneficial worms.”

Re-using the cow manure may have a range of broader environmental benefits. Run-off excess nitrogen and phosphorus fill watersheds in areas where there are dairy farms. Additionally, cows release significant amounts of methane through gas and their waste. According to the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), livestock contribute 37 percent of global methane, 9 percent of all CO2, and 65 percent of nitrous oxide emissions.

Read the article

Go to CowPots

Orchids as Art

The New York Times
wrote about Raymond Jungles, a Miami-based landscape architect, who is designing the New York Botanical Garden exhibit The Orchid Show: Brazilian Modern, which opens on February 28. According to The New York Times, the modernist forms and sculptural plants are a reference to Roberto Burle Marx, Brazil’s great landscape architect. Jungles said: “When I first saw [Burle Marx’s] work, the freedom, the boldness, the clarity of it changed my life. His gardens are all encompassing.”

Burle Marx advocated the use of Brazilian native plants, which he featured in minimalist gardens built for Le Corbusier and other modernists.  Jungles commented: “Other landscape architects before Roberto used boulder formations and native plants, but not to the level he did. He designed gardens from different ecosystems, and showed the beauty of those natural systems.” Using Burle Marx’s work as inspiration, the New York Botanical Garden’s exhibit either masses the orchids, palm trees and other tropical plants together, or sets them apart like treasured objects.

Read the article

Also, see an earlier post on a Roberto Burle Marx exhibit in Rio

Photo of exhibit by The New York Times

Interview with Mario Schjetnan, FASLA, Mexico’s Renowned Landscape Architect

Mario Schjetnan, FASLA, spoke with ASLA about his work on the Chapultepec Park in Mexico City, his own garden in Malinalco, and environmental justice in Mexico City.

On working in the 500-year old Chapultapec Park in Mexico City, Schjetnan says: “The challenge was to intervene in the park through a restoration which addressed important issues, such as infrastructure and forestry conditions, services, vendors and redistribution of visitors (several places were under-used and others over-used). In other words, we could not do a “cosmetic” intervention. Also, we need to re-establish the notion of Chapultepec as an important historical and botanical place, not just the accumulation of masses of people visiting certain popular “attractions.””

Schjetnan describes the vision behind his own house and garden in Malinalco, which won a 2007 ASLA Residential Design Honor Award. “My house in Malinalco represents an oasis for me and my family, a place away (but fairly close) from Mexico City, to entertain and have friends and family. A place to think and read. To establish a contrast to the lifestyle of Mexico City in a traditional Mexican town. The concept was to have a house and garden, or maybe a garden and a house, inextricably intertwined. To erase the outdoor-indoor dichotomy. To have a microcosmos of stone, water, trees and plants, with an architecture of timeless quality and a reference to traditional houses in the town without trying to copy or reproduce.”

Mexico City is both a first world and third world city, Schjetnan contends. “Mexico City and surroundings is an enormous conglomerate, a megalopolis of many contrasts. There is the world class city with its great museums, a few great parks and its deep history, with many European, pre-Hispanic and North American influences. A city with a certain sophistication in the arts, music, cinema and architecture, and a center with many important universities. But it’s also a third world mega-city of contrasts and contradictions: chaotic traffic, rapid growth and development, including an informal sector of enormous dimensions which erupt in street markets and vendors, uncontrolled squatter settlements, sub-cultures, illegal taxis and air pollution. Parks and open space play an important role within this described context — not only as social spaces for people of poor and middle incomes, but as urban elements of order and reference, and ecological balance. Parks are spaces that make the city “breath”.”

Read the interview

Land Matters: On Shifting Ground

I was angry the last time I was on the National Mall for anything related to politics. That was exactly two years ago, when I joined the mass protest of tens of thousands of other Americans against the war in Iraq (Land Matters, March 2007).

What a difference an election makes. The mood on January 20 was one of mass jubilation, and from my perch on the flank of the Washington Monument, I could catch glimpses up and down the mall. There, 1.8 million Americans—the largest crowd this city has ever seen—stood shoulder to shoulder in the freezing cold under that bright blue sky, all of us awaiting the inauguration of Barack Obama as 44th president of the United States.

When our new president finally began to speak, his opening remarks were sobering, even challenging. He spoke of “this winter of our hardship” in a faltering economy. He told us that “the ground has shifted” and that we need to make hard choices and prepare the nation for the demands of a new age. Later, waxing eloquent about our liberty, he reminded us that people of every race and faith “can join in celebration across this magnificent mall.”

But is the National Mall really magnificent? As I stood there on that thrilling morning, yes, “America’s Front Yard” seemed a mass gathering place like no other. After all, it’s steeped in the history of our nation’s capital, from Pierre L’Enfant’s conception for an axial open space stretching from the Capitol to the Potomac River, through the McMillan Plan that established its baroque sense of monumental grandeur, to Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech—and Obama’s inauguration.

But what about day-to-day use? My friends at Project for Public Spaces (PPS) have relegated the mall to their Hall of Shame, charging that it “is experienced mostly as a place to move through between destinations,” lacking outdoor cafés, movable chairs, and other PPS-style amenities. And in truth, there may not be a lot for tourists to do on the mall except walk from one museum or monument to another.

Still, there’s a fair amount of activity for locals along the two-mile-long corridor when the weather is decent. I happen to walk across the mall at lunch to one or another of the adjoining gardens almost every weekday, and I usually see a Frisbee game going on. There’s kite flying on weekends and ball games in the shadow of the Washington Monument. In the summer it hosts events such as the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and July 4 fireworks. All this activity is the reason the grass on the mall is so patchy and the soil so compacted.

More seriously, the mall is in need of repairs to its infrastructure (see “Pall Over the Mall,” April 2007). These extend far beyond resodding the lawns—for example, the Tidal Basin seawall at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial has sunk nine inches in the past year and needs to be replaced. Apparently, Obama thinks the mall is important to our national identity, because he included $200 million for it in his economic stimulus package. As I write this, Congress has eliminated that funding. Given other funding needs such as creating jobs and recharging a faltering economy, should the mall be a funding priority for the first year of the Obama administration?

J. William “Bill” Thompson, FASLA
Editor /

Ecological Urbanism Conference at Harvard Design School

While climate change, sustainable architecture, and green technologies are increasingly written about in the media and becoming more widely understood, issues surrounding the sustainability of the city may be less so.  To address issues surrounding the sustainability of cities, the Harvard Graduate School of Design will host Ecological Urbanism: Alternative and Sustainable Cities of the Future, a conference to be held at the Harvard Graduate School of Design on April 3-5, 2009 at the GSD, Gund Hall, 48 Quincy Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
In promoting “alternative and sustainable forms of urbanism,” Harvard’s Ecological Urbanism conference will focus on questions such as:

  • What are the key principles of an ecological urbanism?
  • How might they be organized?
  • And what role might design and planning play in the process?

According to Harvard, the event is organized around the idea that an ecological approach is urgently needed both as a remedial device for the contemporary city, and an organizing principle for new cities. “Ecological urbanism represents a more holistic approach than is generally the case with urbanism today, demanding alternative ways of thinking and designing.”

Keynote speakers include Rem Koolhaas, Principal of Office for Metropolitan Architecture and Professor in Practice of Architecture and Urban Design at the GSD, and Homi Bhabha, Anne T. Rothenberg Professor of the Humanities and Director of the Center for the Humanities at Harvard University. The conference will bring together design practitioners and theorists, economists, engineers, environmental scientists, politicians and public health specialists. Participants will engage in a series of lectures, roundtables and discussions.

Go to Harvard GSD Ecological Urbanism Conference Site

Green Wall Variations


The New York Times reported in its Home section on a new type of green wall that can be created without soil.  The Bardessono hotel in Napa Valley, California has four panels containing epiphytic air plants (tillandsias), which are clipped onto metal rods.

The plant-based wall installation was conceived late in the development process, so there’s no internal irrigation system. The drought-resistant plants are instead misted every few days. Ms. Flora Grubb, a landscape designer, who created the wall installation, told The New York Times: “Our first instinct was to really pack the plants in, but then as we pulled them apart, they became so much more special, like abstracted sea creatures.”


Metropolis magazine in its February issue did a piece on the green wall in the restaurant The Moss Room, which is within Renzo Piano’s Academy of Sciences building in San Francisco. The Moss Room contains a 28-foot tall moss wall. According to Metropolis, the wall actually includes a range of plants: moss, ferns, succulents, and grasses. The plants are tacked onto wall panels. Unfortunately, due to faulty planting material, the plans have been shocked into dormancy, and now appear light brown. The mixture is expected to be replaced.

Read The New York Times article

Read the Metropolis magazine article

Photo of wall plant by Max Whitaker for the New York Times. Photo of moss wall by Ryan Hughes, courtesy Lundberg Design

A Plan for Energy Efficient Buildings by 2030

Edward Mazria, a well known architect and founder of Architecture 2030, an organization focused on increasing energy efficiency in buildings while confronting climate change and stimulating the domestic housing market, gave a presentation yesterday at the National Building Museum. Mazria and John Podesta, President of the Center for American Progress, both took part in the NBM’s “For the Greener Good” lecture series.

Mazria gave a powerful Inconvenient Truth-like presentation outlining the dangers of climate change and the impact of a three-feet rise in sea levels on the coastal U.S., which would result in a submersion of parts of New York City, Miami, San Francisco, and much of the state of Louisiana and destruction of over a trillion dollars of infrastructure and real estate. The building sector, according to Mazria accounts for close to 50 percent of total U.S. carbon emissions – 42 percent from the energy use in buildings, and 8 percent from the energy used to construct buildings, so increasing U.S. buildings’ energy efficiency is imperative to bringing down U.S. carbon emissions. 

While the energy use of the transportation and industrial sectors has increased at a relatively slight pace, buildings continue to suck up enormous amounts of energy at a rapid and expanding rate. In one graph, the amount of total energy used by the building sector can be seen as sharply curving upwards, while the energy consumed by the transportation and industrial sectors rose below at a nearly flat rate.  Mazria then described how his 2030 stimulus plan can address the inter-connections between the U.S. housing crisis and environment — the U.S. can re-design and retro-fit its buildings, making them more energy efficient, while significantly reducing carbon emissions, increasing renewable energy use and reducing U.S. dependence on coal and oil.

Mazria’s 2030 Challenge Stimulus Plan calls for almost USD 200 billion in investment in the private building sector to provide a ‘housing mortgage interest rate buy-down’ and a ‘commercial building accelerated depreciation program’ for buildings that meet energy reduction targets of the widely-adopted 2030 Challenge. Marzia contends that this stimulus will create 9 million new jobs, and USD 1 trillion in direct, non-federal investment and spending while opening up a USD 236 billion renovation market. Mazia re-iterated that the plan would pay for itself through the new tax base it would generate, and can be implemented through existing federal programs.  Also, Mazria says the U.S. public sector building sector, which account for 7 percent of total U.S. building stock, and includes schools, government buildings, court houses, etc, could provide an impetus for making all U.S. buildings compliant with the 2030 challenge. In 2007, President George Bush signed into a law a rule mandating zero-emission U.S. federal buildings by 2030.

According to the Architecture 2030 website, the 2030 challenge targets include:

“All new buildings, developments and major renovations shall be designed to meet a fossil fuel, GHG-emitting, energy consumption performance standard of 50% of the regional (or country) average for that building type.

At a minimum, an equal amount of existing building area shall be renovated annually to meet a fossil fuel, GHG-emitting, energy consumption performance standard of 50% of the regional (or country) average for that building type.

Fossil fuel reduction standard for all new buildings and major renovations need to be increased to:

  • 60% in 2010
  • 70% in 2015
  • 80% in 2020
  • 90% in 2025
  • Carbon-neutral in 2030 (using no fossil fuel GHG emitting energy to operate).

These targets may be accomplished by implementing innovative sustainable design strategies, generating on-site renewable power and/or purchasing (20% maximum) renewable energy and/or certified renewable energy credits.”

John Podesta, President of the Center for American Progress, took another approach and discussed the global impact of climate change. While Podesta and Mazria converged on many issues, Podesta highlighted the need for the U.S. to prepare for the national security threats climate change may bring. Podesta said India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, the Horn of Africa and Nigeria would be hit particularly hard by climate change. Podesta said Bangladesh could be releasing millions of eco-refugees with rising sea waters, while India is preparing a massive fence on its border with Bangladesh. Nigeria faces the double challenge of rising sea levels, which would submerge much of Lagos and other coastal cities, and increased desertification, with the loss of fertile land in the North. Global warming could lead to less drinking water, and spark wars in already tense parts of the world. Podestra agreed that working closely with China on climate change and getting Chinese buy-in on clear targets was crucial, if not difficult to achieve.

Even with every U.S. building  made energy efficient, it’s not clear whether developing countries can get their building stock in the same place by 2030. Both Podesta and Mazria said not all knowledge resides in the U.S., and solutions will be local, and come in all forms.

Interestingly, both Podesta and Mazria focused solely on policy and regulatory fixes for increasing energy efficiency and didn’t mention collaborative, community-driven, bottom-up approaches like LEED, or the Sustainable Sites Initiative, perhaps concluding that voluntary, collaborative programs will not be enough.

Go to the 2030 Architecture web site to see Mazria’s stimulus plan in greater detail

Go to the Center for American Progress’s work on Energy & Environment

Re-defining the Role of Landscape Architects

Construction Week Online spoke with the global design consultancy Aedas about the role of landscape architects. Dastin Hillery, senior associate, at Aedas, says: “landscape architecture is not just beautification; it’s about creating a space, creating the ambiance of a development, initiating lifestyle and it’s creating a new public realm and at the end of the day it’s also about creating a quality built environment. And if you are talking about a quality built environment, you cannot avoid talking about the ecological footprint and the environmental framework.”

Aedas has offices in 40 countries and sees growing global awareness of the complex work in which landscape architects are involved. “Both locally and internationally, there has been a gradual shift in awareness with the landscape architect slowly becoming a more prominent figure in the design and construction process.” However, Hillery says only clients that understand the importance of landscape architecture see the value of landscape planning.

In the Middle East, Hillery thinks this understanding is still missing. “People are still not interested in discussing the ecological components of the landscape, the impact on the ecological footprint, the human comforts aspect that landscape could offer in this extreme climate condition, or [about] how landscape could reshape the future of a city. In Dubai, the landscape role is to beautify and repair the mistakes while others look at landscape as the lead of the development because of the ecological component.” Hillery views Hong Kong or Kuala Lumpur as examples of cities where there is interest in ‘greening masterplans,’ and where “landscape is viewed as a backbone of urban structure that will guide the growth of a community throughout a span of a history.” 

Construction Week Online goes on to discuss the importance of clients’ understanding of landscape planning, the role of landscape architects in the development and construction process, and the need for greater incentives to encourage landscape planning and sustainability.

Read the article

How the Crash Will Re-shape the U.S. Landscape, Infrastructure

Richard Florida, author of The Rise of The Creative Class, and most recently, Who’s Your City?, wrote an article in this month’s Atlantic Monthly on How the Crash Will Reshape America.

Florida argues that the the economic downturn has and will damage some places more than others. The economic landscape of the U.S. will look different. As a result, the physical landscape of the U.S. may change, with major impacts on suburbs and mega-cities. The Atlantic asks: “Which cities and regions can come back strong? And which will never come back at all?”

Florida writes the downturn may end up being positive for New York City by helping to bring back greater professional diversity to the city: “The great urbanist Jane Jacobs was among the first to identify cities’ diverse economic and social structures as the true engines of growth. Although the specialization identified by Adam Smith creates powerful efficiency gains, Jacobs argued that the jostling of many different professions and different types of people, all in a dense environment, is an essential spur to innovation—to the creation of things that are truly new. And innovation, in the long run, is what keeps cities vital and relevant. In this sense, the financial crisis may ultimately help New York by reenergizing its creative economy. The extraordinary income gains of investment bankers, traders, and hedge-fund managers over the past two decades skewed the city’s economy in some unhealthy ways.”

Florida also argues that cities that succesfully build ‘talent-clusters’ may weather the downturn better: “Big, talent-attracting places benefit from accelerated rates of “urban metabolism,” according to a pioneering theory of urban evolution developed by a multidisciplinary team of researchers affiliated with the Santa Fe Institute. The rate at which living things convert food into energy—their metabolic rate—tends to slow as organisms increase in size. But when the Santa Fe team examined trends in innovation, patent activity, wages, and GDP, they found that successful cities, unlike biological organisms, actually get faster as they grow. In order to grow bigger and overcome diseconomies of scale like congestion and rising housing and business costs, cities must become more efficient, innovative, and productive. The researchers dubbed the extraordinarily rapid metabolic rate that successful cities are able to achieve “super-linear” scaling. “By almost any measure,” they wrote, “the larger a city’s population, the greater the innovation and wealth creation per person.” Places like New York with finance and media, Los Angeles with film and music, and Silicon Valley with hightech are all examples of high-metabolism places.”

Lastly, Florida says suburbanization is intimately tied to the housing bubble and economic crisis, and a new ‘spatial model’ is needed to ensure future growth: “If there is one constant in the history of capitalist development, it is the ever-more-intensive use of space. Today, we need to begin making smarter use of both our urban spaces and the suburban rings that surround them—packing in more people, more affordably, while at the same time improving their quality of life. That means liberal zoning and building codes within cities to allow more residential development, more mixed-use development in suburbs and cities alike, the in-filling of suburban cores near rail links, new investment in rail, and congestion pricing for travel on our roads. Not everyone wants to live in city centers, and the suburbs are not about to disappear. But we can do a much better job of connecting suburbs to cities and to each other, and allowing regions to grow bigger and denser without losing their velocity.”

Read the article

Also, see Florida’s interactive map plotting patents per capita in the U.S.

Update: With a different perspective on infrastructure, Metropolis magazine recently ran a piece on Timo Stammberger’s photos of subway infrastructure from around the world, seen in various states of decay and renewal. The photos demonstrate that “infrastructure is being revealed, in the sense that it’s attracting more attention than it has in decades. But that attention is divided between repair and renewal, despair and hope.”