Innovations in Sustainable Site Technology

The National Building Museum (NBM) held a session on the Sustainable Sites Initiative, which outlines voluntary national guidelines and performance benchmarks for sustainable land design, construction, and maintenance practices. Nancy Somerville, CEO of ASLA, said the Sustainable Sites Initiative focuses on the “connective tissue between buildings” and will fill gaps in the existing rating systems, including LEED. The Sustainable Sites Initiative will be integrated into LEED (and be a part of its “bookshelf” system), and also serve as a stand-alone rating system. The final draft report will be released Fall 2009, followed by a call for pilot projects designed and built using Sustainable Sites’ pre-requisites and credits. The full rating system will be rolled out in a few years.

Jose Alminana, ASLA, Principal, Andropogon: Alminana explained the importance of the Sustainable Sites Initiative. Alminana argued that “blue is the new green,” and highlighted figures that show humans rely on one percent of the earth’s water for all their needs. As a result, buildings and sites need to be re-thought in terms of their water use. Green sites can cut down water and energy use, C02 emissions, and the amount of solid waste produced. Alminana also said “buildings need to be alive,” and “built environments need to be built like a tree — they must regenerate, renew and restore.” Alminana highlighted Berlin’s “biotrope ratio,” (Berlin has among the world’s best ratios of green space to built environment), as well as Seattle’s Green Factor, as examples of cities creating productive environments.

Alminana highlighted projects that exemplify Sustainable Sites principles and credits. First, Alminana focused on a key principle of Sustainable Sites: “Provide regenerative systems for inter-generational equity.” In other words, use restorative design to create living buildings and leave a positive legacy to future generations; don’t consume all resources now. Alminana argued that sustainable sites must regenerate, produce, upcycle. “All sites, even brownfields, can provide ecosystem services.” The Sustainable Sites Initiative will aim to protect and enhance ecosystem services, while minimizing the use of materials.

In an example that highlights one of the “potable water” credits in the Sustainable Sites Initiative, Alminana pointed to a project for Thomas Jefferson University’s Lubert Plaza, which “reconnects to the natural water cycle” by using water from the roof of the building, and air conditioning condensation, to irrigate a nearby park. “Trees act as pumps” and circulate the water through man-made soil systems layered to help move water. This complex system resides above a parking garage, so is, in effect, a green roof park. In an example of the “manage water on-site / clean water on-site” credits, the Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C. uses a man-made wetland system to recycle, cleanse, and re-use water. (see a great post on this by Pruned). Sidwell Friends School said they wanted the “best use of water resources,” and the “productive use of all land” in their site. As a result, the building and site work together — there was “total equal collaboration.” Sidwell Friend’s building dashboard is used to monitor performance. 

Susan Olmsted, ASLA, Architect and Landscape Architect, Mithun: Olmsted asked: “How do you develop urban areas without compromising the ecology and degrading existing ecosystem services?” In projects Olmsted has worked on with Mithun, project teams often map solar energy budgets, water, and habitat by examining what the ideal, “pre-development conditions” would be like, and then test the effects of various designs on these conditions. Olmsted said waste water was particularly expensive to deal with — there is a cost for bringing clean potable water in, and then removing used water, so consumers often effectively pay twice for water usage. As a result, re-using groundwater and limiting potable water usage is always a goal. Stormwater, which is also costly for cities to deal with, can be addressed through bioswales or stormwater basins. Olmsted also recommended resource management associations for “integrated design” green developments, so communities can get involved in keeping their integrated design systems working well.

All speakers discussed how to get to a carbon-neutral site. Alminana argued that peatlands and wetlands are the greatest carbon sinks. With a carbon tax, or trading system coming into place, “it’s only a matter of time before ecosystem services will have a financial value.” As a result, developers and users of landscapes need to create economic analyses involving the maintenance costs and carbon sequestration rates of different types of landscapes. For example, forests are more complex systems to set-up, but have lower maintenance costs over time, and higher C02 sequestration rates. Bioswales, while providing important stormwater management services, are higher-maintenance.

Also, Alminana asked: “should we restore to the past, or restore to the future?” Current systems are centralized. However, “nature doesn’t work this way. Nature de-centralizes and is self-sustaining.” Alminana argued cities, in turn, also need to de-centralize their infrastructure, trace inputs and outputs, and re-make cities so they work through an integrated, natural design. “Drains are unreal.” Water infrastructure, the transmission lines for waste water, costs 5-6 times more than an wetland system, and produces C02 emissions. A paradigm shift is needed in infrastructure.

Learn more at the Sustainable Sites Initiative, an inter-disciplinary effort led by the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), U.S. Botanic Gardens, and Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Sustainable Site Initiative stakeholder groups include the U.S. Green Building Council, Environmental Protection Agency, the Nature Conservancy, and a range of other organizations.

Also, check out an interview with Jose Alminana.

Image credit: Andropogon Associates

Forested Urban Roofs

magazine highlighted a new form of green roof: the forested roof. In Manhattan, on top of a building designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, NY-based landscape architect, Thomas Balsley, FASLA, designed a “a monoculture of evergreens that emulates northern forests.” Metropolis writes that Balsley’s designs are “undu­lating stands of Austrian pines [that] deliberately avoid the usual sedum carpets and overly manicured containers of roof greenery.”

Balsley said to Metropolis that a forest roof wasn’t what the client initially had in mind: “The developer asked me to design a roof garden, but when I heard about his love of art and the architect’s commitment to Modern design, I decided to look past doing a busy roof garden.” The forest has added value to the property, and apartments with views of the trees are viewed as more valuable. “All residents have access to the tree-covered roof, but the views it creates became a major selling point for the high-end condos, which helped to justify the installation costs.” 

The roof landscape includes more than a hundred 25-to-35-tall trees set in mounds of earth hidden by shrubs. Each tree sits in a four-and-a-half-foot-deep soil bed, which are designed to hold the deep root systems. (The soil beds for these trees are much deeper than those for more conventional green roofs). “In addition to the standard benefits of storm-water retention and insulation for the building, the trees improve air quality.” The trees may eventually reach 60-feet high.

Read the article and see more photos

Image credit:  Shigeo Kawasaki / Thomas Balsley Associates

Obama Administration Releases Study on Impact of Climate Change on U.S.

Today, the U.S. government released the first detailed report from the new administration on the impact of climate change on the U.S.. “Global Climate Change Impacts in the U.S.” confirms UNFCCC findings, and states that temperatures in the U.S. have risen 1.5 degree F over the past 50 years. Jane Lubchenco, Administrator of the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), said at a White House press conference: “Climate Change is happening in the U.S. now, and in our backyards.” Furthermore, Lubchenco added the report proves the science, and now the science offers a real foundation for policy decisions.

“Global Climate Change Impacts in the U.S.” provides a view on worst case scenario impacts, assuming no action is taken to cut emissions. According to the Guardian (UK), these worst case scenarios include: “floods in lower Manhattan; a quadrupling of heatwave deaths in Chicago; withering on the vineyards of California; the disappearance of wildflowers from the slopes of the Rockies; the extinction of Alaska’s wild polar bears in the next 75 years.”

The report outlines a number of key findings, including: climate change is unequivocal and human-induced; climate changes are already occuring in the U.S.; impacts from climate change are occuring and will increase; climate change will stress water resources; crop and livestock production will be challenged; coastal areas are increasingly at risk; threats to human health will increase; climate will interact with social and enviromental stress in new ways; threshholds will be crossed, leading to major changes in ecosystems; and future impacts depend on changes today.

The report also outlines regional impacts. According to a summary provided by the Guardian (UK), for the Northeast, “the winter snow season could be cut in half in southern New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine — maybe as short as a week or two, under the higher emissions scenario. This would destroy winter traditions like skiing and skating and outdoor ponds. Native cranberries and blueberries would disappear; dairy herds, the biggest agricultural industry, would decline under the higher emissions scenario.” In the Southeast, “summer temperatures in Florida could rise by 4.1C (10.5F), with the heat effect multipled by decreased rainfall under the higher emissions scenario. There would be increased hurricane intensity and rising sea levels leads to loss of wetlands and coastal areas. It would lead to a severe decline in quality of life.” In the Midwest, Chicago would be particularly hard-hit. “Frequent, severe and longer lasting heatwaves in cities – as many as three a year in Chicago under the higher emissions scenario. Water levels in the Great Lakes could fall by up to two feet by the end of the century under the higher emissions scenario.”

The Guardian also outlines the costs of climate change, summarized from the report:  

Human health: Rise in deaths due to heatwaves, decline in health because of poor air quality and increase in water borne and insect borne diseases.
Agriculture: Although some crops will benefit from the longer growing season, heavy downpours could wreak havoc on others. Farmers will be forced to use more pesticides and weed killers against invasive plants. Poison ivy will bcome more abundant and more toxic. Higher emissions scenario would cause a 10 percent decline in dairy herd in Appalachia.
Energy: Rising heat index will increase demand on electricity for air conditioning. But water shortages could restrict electricity generation. Oil infrastructure, along coast of Louisiana and Florida, is also vulnerable to rising sea levels and intensifying hurricanes.
Transport: Storm surges and rising sea levels could block the use of ports and coastal airports, roads and rail lines. Six of the top 10 freight gateways are threatened by rising sea levels. Entire road networks on the Gulf Coast could be at risk.
Ecosystems: Large-scale shifts in species likely to continue. Deserts will become hotter and drier, oceans more acidic. Salmon and trout populations will contract.”

U.S. government researchers say the extent and timeline of precise effects are still not known, and depend on the extent to which Co2 emissions can be reduced in the U.S. and globally. Additionally, a number of areas, including the effect of the increasing acidification of oceans, and effect of climate change on water resources more broadly, require additional research.

Read the article

Watch the White House press conference, and read the full report from the U.S. Global Climate Policy Research web site

770,000 in the U.S. Already Have a Green Job

Wired Science wrote about a few new reports outlining the growth of green jobs in the U.S. A new Pew Charitable Trusts report states that there are now 770,000 green jobs among 62,800 businesses. Wired Science writes: “While that’s a tiny slice of the overall American jobs pie, it is already approaching the same scale as the traditional energy sector — coal mining, utilities, big oil — which employs 1.27 million people. As a job creator, it stacks up even better against biotechnology, which (despite a longer history and greater investment) employs only 200,000 people.”

The report also found that the rate of growth in green jobs in the U.S. exceeds other job sectors by a wide margin — green jobs grew 9.1 percent between 1998 and 2007, as opposed to 3.7 percent for the overall job market. California, Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York (in this order) are the biggest sources of green jobs. South Dakota, North Dakota, Alaska, Montana, and Vermont, were at the bottom of the list (see state-by-state chart here).

The report divides green jobs into five categories: clean energy, energy efficiency, conservation and pollution mitigation, environmentally friendly production, and training and support. Pew’s report argues that the majority of green jobs aren’t in the clean energy sector, but in recycling — 65 percent of green jobs fell into the “conservation and pollution mitigation” category. Clean technology sector jobs totaled just 89,000. These numbers will need to expand dramatically to meet the demand for renewable energy sources that can reduce GHG emissions, and U.S. dependence on oil and coal.

In a separate 2009 report noted by Greenbiz, University of California Berkeley researchers found that renewable energy industry was more labor intensive than traditional fossil-fuel business. The researchers from Berkeley’s department of agricultural and research economics: “Renewable energy generation is more job-intensive than the traditional carbon fuel supply chain, captures more benefits within the state economy, and reduces our vulnerability to uncertain global energy markets.”

To increase the number of green jobs, and the mega-watts of renewable energy produced in the U.S., the Pew researchers recommended a “comprehensive, economy-wide energy plan,” along the lines of the Waxman-Markey bill under consideration in the U.S. House of Representatives. 

To strengthen the focus on green jobs within the administration, President Obama appointed Van Jones, founder of Green for All, as Special Advisor for Green Jobs, Enterprise, and Innovation to the Council of Enviromnetal Quality. The Obama administration has been pointing to green jobs as an important source of job growth, and plans to use some recovery funds to re-train out-of-work auto workers. In a recent post on the White House blog, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis wrote: “The Labor Department officially announced plans to release $500 million from the Recovery Act for grants to prepare workers for careers like these. These funds will help both dislocated and incumbent workers, at-risk youth and underserved communities. $50 million of that money will assist communities affected by auto industry restructuring. The competition for grant money is anticipated to begin in June 2009.”

Read the article

Land Matters: Expressing a World of Hurt

What kinds of memorials are fitting for disasters that are almost too horrible to contemplate? As school massacres, airliners flown into buildings, and similar horrors proliferate, should their memorialized expressions move us to tears—or should they strive to be bright and cheery?

A recent memorial installed in Canberra, Australia, demands that we ask this question. It commemorates the deaths at sea of 353 people, mostly women and children, all of them refugees from Indonesia seeking illegal entry into Australia. They were crowded on a small, leaky vessel that sank when a violent storm struck them on the high seas. The final anguish of the passengers, especially mothers who saw their children being swept under the raging waves, must have been horrible beyond words.

As chronicled in this month’s Critic at Large, the event spurred a small group of activists to create a memorial to publicize the plight of refugees who, like the drowning victims, are denied entry by Australia’s tough immigration policies. The effort pulled in thousands of Australians, including schoolchildren, who competed to create the best design. The winning entry by a 14-year-old schoolboy consists of 353 white poles, each bearing the name of a drowning victim, and decorated by school and church groups across Australia. Some of this decoration reminds me of candy canes or the cheery designs on a baby’s crib. Were the volunteers struggling to put a benign face on the dark and terrible event?

Maya Lin had a different idea in her design for the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington, D.C. “I really did mean for people to cry,” Lin said. “As you read a name or touch a name, the pain will come out. Then you can, on your own power, turn around and walk back up into the light…. You have to accept that this pain has occurred in order for it to be healed.”

Memorial designers like those in Australia seem to make the opposite assumption—that when the pain and grief are too great, the designers must cover them over with a sweetened (or at least neutral) expression. Sometimes grieving families mandate this, as in the case of the Pentagon 9/11 Memorial, where families insisted on “no flames and no planes” in the design. And who can blame the bereaved for wanting a place of solace?

It’s sometimes said that the process of design is cathartic for families who increasingly drive the design of memorials such as the one to the Columbine High School massacre. The resulting Columbine memorial (see “Private Grief, Public Place,” Landscape Architecture, October 2008) is, to my eye, the blandest thing anyone could imagine, but if taking part in its design comforted any of the bereaved, who cares what it looks like? Put another way, is the visual form of a memorial as important as the process that brought it into being?

J. William “Bill” Thompson, FASLA
Editor, Landscape Architecture Magazine

Photo credit: Gweneth Newman Leigh, International ASLA

Amsterdam’s Smart City Program

Amsterdam recently began implementing a wide-ranging “smart city” program, which will involve adding energy saving systems, solar panels, and wind turbines to households, as well as power hook-ups for electric cars, all of which will be connected with a new “smart grid” platform. These measures will make Amsterdam’s already carbon-conscious infrastructure more eco-friendly, says BusinessWeek. In some of the first steps of a larger program, 1,200 households installed an energy saving system designed to cut energy costs, writes BusinessWeek. “Others were given fresh access to financing from Dutch banks ING (ING) and Rabobank to buy everything from energy-saving light bulbs to ultra-efficient roof insulation. And on Utrechtsestraat, a major shopping avenue in the center of the Dutch capital, solar-powered panels on local bus stops were installed to transform the road into a ‘Climate Street’ piloting clean technology.”

According to BusinessWeek, Amsterdam aims to complete its first round of investments in creating a “smart city” by 2012. By 2012, Amsterdam’s energy providers, city government, and private firms are expected to invest more than “€1.1 billion ($1.5 billion) in Amsterdam’s smart city programs over the next three years. That includes a €300 million ($420 million) investment by local electricity network operator Alliander in smart grid technology that uses network sensors and improved domestic energy monitoring to trim electricity use. Also part of the plan: up to €200 million ($280 million) to be spent by local housing cooperatives on boosting household energy efficiency, and €300 million from companies including Philips (PHG) and Dutch utility Nuon to be invested in other energy-efficient technology.”

While creating the basic technology platform — a smart grid– for energy efficiency is a key part of the plan, Amsterdam hopes to then use this smart grid infrastructure to boost energy production, and create a “virtual power plant,” which will enable households to sell excess energy from house and community solar panels, wind turbines, and biomass plants back to the city for a profit. “All told, the plan could add 200 megawatts of renewable energy, roughly the size of a large wind farm, to Amsterdam’s electricity generation.” Other plans include “remote energy management” technology to enable Amsterdam’s households to access the smart grid using their cellphones and control energy usage remotely. 

The Economist recently wrote about the great potential of smart grids to empower consumers, cut energy usage, and reduce C02 emissions: “The cure, many believe, is to apply a dose of computer power to the grid. Adding digital sensors and remote controls to the transmission and distribution system would make it smarter, greener and more efficient. Such a “smart grid” or “energy internet” would be far more responsive, interactive and transparent than today’s grid. It would be able to cope with new sources of renewable power, enable the co-ordinated charging of electric cars, provide information to consumers about their usage and allow utilities to monitor and control their networks more effectively. And all this would help reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.”

To create the technology infrastructure needed for charging electric vehicles, Amsterdam will create 300 electric vehicle charging points by 2010. “The first one already has been installed, with the remaining hookups—set to be placed in local parking lots and other public spaces—on track to be ready by mid 2010.” A smart grid is critical to making electric vehicles a reality. Once the smart grid is set up, vast numbers of electric vehicles could even run off current electrical capacity. As an example, in the case of the U.S., The Economist recently wrote: “And when it comes to electric cars, a study by America’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) found that there is already enough generating capacity to replace as much as 73% of America’s conventional fleet with electric vehicles—but only if the charging of those vehicles is carefully managed.”

BusinessWeek contends other cities are now looking to Amsterdam as a model for how to reduce C02 emissions. As more of the world’s population moves into cities, and into mega-cities in developing countries, city governments will be more responsible for reducing overall C02 emissions, and under greater pressure to find sustainable ways to produce energy and sequester carbon. Reducing C02 will cost, but the planners involved also hope to reap efficiency gains and create a positive cycle of innovation through a smart grid. According to BusinessWeek, Amsterdam’s plans, which are expected to cut emissions by 40 percent by 2025, will “cost $438 per household over 15 years to install smart grid technology alone. Additional outlays, particularly costs of up to $280 million needed to make the city’s homes more energy-efficient, could be a tough sell for consumers already suffering in the economic downturn.”

Read the article and an article from The Economist on how smart grids work

Image credit: The Economist

Interview with Os Schmitz, Yale University Ecologist, on Restoring Ecosystems

Professor Os Schmitz, Professor of Population and Community Ecology, School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Yale University, argues that most polluted ecosystems can be restored within a generation with sustained effort.

In recent research conducted with Holly Jones, Schmitz discovers that logging, agriculture, and multiple types of damages (for example, pollution, climate change and logging happening all at once) are the hardest types of damage for ecosystems to get over.  Human-caused damages, such as farming or logging, may also be harder to repair than natural causes such as hurricanes or cyclones. However, sustained restoration efforts by communities can speed recovery. Schmitz says: “For example, a hurricane will knock trees down, but there’ll be still the understory and the seed bank. A hurricane creates a light gap but it doesn’t transform the land. The light gap allows the seed bank to sprout. That’s why you can get a speedier recovery after a natural disaster like a hurricane than you can after agriculture. When people have transformed the land base into one kind of use and they want to revert it back to another kind of use, they have to actively help nature along a little bit if they want it to happen quickly. They can also help by restoring the plant species that were originally indigenous to those areas.”

Schmitz argues that viewing urban areas as having their own ecology is useful, and restoring natural habitat in urban areas should be a major focus: “That’s probably one of the biggest growth areas for restoration, and I think it’s critically important to do these kinds of things, because it kindles a sense of connection to nature among urban people. It’s really important to get them to think that they’re part of an ecosystem — be it an urban or other ecosystem– rather than simply be drivers of ecosystems.  When we restore parks, or when we think about creating green spaces, we have to be careful and get our values in order and identify collectively what it is that we mean by green space. For example, I can imagine that we could restore shrub lands in cityscapes. We could also have small forests throughout cityscapes.”

One of Professor Schmitz’s most powerful arguments: Nature often does a better job of protecting human settlements against natural disasters like hurricanes than any built environment. As a result, restoring nature in urban areas not only has its own reward, but also helps mitigate the effects of climate change, and is a crucial adaptation strategy. “Thinking about urban systems as ecosystems that require green spaces to be healthy and functioning is a useful way to go forward, I think. A good example is New Orleans: The mangroves that used to grow there were excellent buffers for hurricanes before there was much settlement. These mangroves were a highly cost-effective way of controlling hurricane damage. When those were removed and the wetlands were removed and the dikes were put in their place, the human built environment became less resilient. The mini-experiment that sort of proved this was a year after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, there was another hurricane of I believe close to or equal in magnitude to Katrina that hit the Yucatan in a tourist area. The people in the Yucatan were really worried that the hurricane was going to destroy a lot of the hotels. But, they still have their mangroves in place. They still had those marshlands in place. These features acted as terrific buffers against that hurricane. The resort areas were spared a lot of damage because nature helped buffer the winds and the tidal surge. Here’s an example of where nature provides an important service to humankind.”

Professor Schmitz argues that it shouldn’t be nature vs. the built environment. Natural systems should be restored, or, in the case of urban areas, re-incorporated, when it’s most efficient and beneficial to do so. Once people recognize the enormous value of ecosystem services, they may then invest more in restoring damaged ecosystems. “It isn’t about fighting nature and getting rid of nature in favor of built environments. It’s the idea that nature can be beneficial to us. The message of our paper is that if we want to think about nature that way, we need to restore. We can be successful in a lot of cases, and in a good many cases we can be quite successful within the time span of a human generation or less.”

Read the interview

Early Reviews of NYC’s New High Line Park

The High Line Park, designed by James Corner, ASLA, and Field Operations, with architectural support from Diller Scofido + Renfro, opened this week in lower Manhattan. The High Line has been a story in many major newspapers, as well as more focused sustainable design and environmental news sources. Bringing attention to the ability of landscape architects to restore post-industrial environments, create habitat for both people and wildlife, and make urban renewal engaging and attractive, the High Line may prove to be one of the major sustainable design and urban renewal stories of 2009. Here are some of the early reviews:

Nicolai Ouroussoff, Architecture Critic, The New York Times: “Designed by James Corner Field Operations with Diller Scofidio & Renfro, the first phase of the High Line, which opened on Tuesday, is a series of low scruffy gardens, punctuated by a fountain and a few quiet lounge areas, that unfold in a lyrical narrative and seem to float above the noise and congestion below. It is one of the most thoughtful, sensitively designed public spaces built in New York in years.” Read the full review and see slideshow

Metropolis P.O.V: “I was relieved this afternoon to find that the project—which officially opened to the public today—lives up to expectations. It is not only a beautiful and novel urban park, but a remarkably serene and even understated space.” Read the review, which includes lots of photos.

Richard Laermer, The Huffington Post: “Although the High Line is a major urban renewal effort, the park’s construction is emblematic of a core value that I hope will stick around once Wall Street bulls come out of hiding: We should reuse resources to create value for our audience and our customers.” Read the review

Yuka Yoneda and Jill Fehrenbacher, Inhabitat: “So what was our verdict? Well, while we view slick renderings of concepts for urban green spaces almost everyday, it is an entirely different thing to actually step into a completed project and see it with our own eyes. We weren’t sure if it was going to be possible for a starchitect-designed renovation to maintain the simple, stark beauty of the original, overgrown High Line – the one that had captured the imagination of so many Manhattanites in 2000. But we were impressed and pleasantly surprised! The feeling at the High Line today was one of excitement, optimism and pride that our city was able to take something that was just a gleam in our eyes a few years ago and turn it into something that we, and hopefully generations to come, can enjoy. For New Yorkers like myself, who are just witnessing the beginnings of an urban space revolution, the High Line is a tangible manifestation of what the future could look like.” Read the review, which includes lots of pictures.

Justin Davidson, New York Magazine: “The park itself is a pleasant stroke of green that revives the romance of industrial brawn. A lithe, glass-walled steel staircase hangs from a superstructure on Gansevoort Street, leading to a hole cut in the trestle. It’s a fine way to make an entrance into this Jack-and-the-Beanstalk world, where nature and design have been arranged to simulate neglect.” Read the review

James Russell, Architecture Critic, Bloomberg News: “The trees give way to shade-loving, rust-red ground coverings, spreading in the shadows of the Standard Hotel that straddles it on comely haunches. This is carefully coaxed wildness involving 210 varieties of trees, shrubs and plants that offer pinpoints of color and an endless variety of textures. A lot of effort has gone into making the plantings look as if they’ve always been there.” Read the review

Alex Bozikovic, The Global and Mail (UK): “The High Line’s in-between approach reflects a new set of ideas among landscape architects, who are focusing their efforts on the scars in the fabric of cities – like garbage dumps and railway lines. The park is an instrument to remake the city, aesthetically, environmentally and culturally.” Read the review

The Wall Street Journal offers a video tour, including brief interviews with some of the key figures involved.

In another article, the New York Post notes that not everyone is happy with the new park. The High Line may be seen as getting more security than other parks in other boroughs in New York City. Geoffrey Croft, NYC Park Advocates, said to the Post: “It’s outrageous. One park is being adequately secured with taxpayer money while the rest of the park system is abandoned.” Read the article 

Also, Majora Carter, Founder of Sustainable South Bronx, in an interview with ASLA, argues that a project like the High Line is less likely to occur in places like the Bronx, and wonders whether this is environmentally just. “The High Line is just a couple blocks from the Hudson River Greenway – one of the coolest parks in the City in one of its wealthiest areas; but in the South Bronx, we have 1/5 the amount of green space per person as the citywide average.”

Image credit: New York Times / Iwan Baan, 2009, Courtesy of Friends of the High Line

Leadership Needed from Architects and Designers

In a review of progress on Ed Mazria’s 2030 Challenge, which calls for all buildings to be carbon neutral by 2030, World Changing argues that still more leadership is needed from architects, landscape architects, and planners to change already out-dated “green” building codes, and reach the goals of the 2030 Challenge. “We need a massive change in the very way buildings and places are planned, regulated and seen by the public.”

As Ed Mazria and others have noted, the building sector accounts for some 50 percent of global C02 emissions (see earlier post on his plan). Mazria provided a vision for green building development. World Changing argues: “his message became a rallying cry that professional groups, politicians, designers and journalists could stand behind: If we want to fight emissions, we must fundamentally change the building sector, the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.” World Changing argues that the technology and tools already exist for making this vision happen, it’s really just a matter of implementing on a wider scale.

World Changing says, while design organizations have signed on to Challenge 2030, now that we are nearly at the first marker in Mazria’s vision, it’s clear there has been little real progress. “Such adoptions have been largely aspirational, with little enforcement. Now we’re nine months from Architecture 2030’s first incremental goal: by 2010, the Challenge expected all new buildings and major renovations to meet a 60 percent fossil fuel reduction standard, with an equal number of buildings retrofitted to the same standard as those built new.” LEED buildings are breaking into the mainstream, but remain “a novelty to nearly everyone, still the stuff of awards ceremonies.”

One big problems remains out-dated building codes, which were designed to prevent things from happening, as opposed to encouraging green design. World Changing contends: “Part of the solution will be to get regulators — and voters — on board. Outdated zoning codes can stop designers from incorporating new technologies. One story making the rounds has a team of city employees in a Washington town designing a theoretical dream green development, and then seeing how well it met local code — they found, so the story goes, more than 50 rules that would prevent the project from moving forward before they stopped counting.”

World Changing argues for the importance of: new energy policies to encourage the inclusion of renewable energy components in buildings (so buildings can generate their own energy); greater involvement by designers in policy making through letter-writing, running for office, and working with local chapters of major design organizations; new continuing education focused on sustainability to dramatically change current practices among the design professions; and the active involvement of local designers in local zoning boards and government.

Read the article and another World Changing article on the building code changes outlined in the new Waxman-Markey legislation making its way through Congress. Also, check out an interview with a former owner of a landscape architecture firm who won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, Kathy Dahlkemper (D-PA), as well as ASLA’s advocacy work on Capitol Hill.

Image Credit: Sidwell Friends School / Andropogon

The Rise of Solar-Thermal Power

The Economist magazine wrote that BrightSource Energy recently signed the world’s two largest deals for solar power. BrightSource Energy will use “concentrating solar-thermal technology,” which involves using mirrors to concentrate sunlight to produce heat. The heat created by the mirrors, which is collected in either troughs or towers, is then used to generate steam, which drives a turbine. Construction will begin shortly on the first in a series of “14 solar-power plants that will collectively supply more than 2.6 gigawatts (GW) of electricity—enough to serve about 1.8m homes.”

According to the Economist, about 12 gigawatts (GW) of solar-thermal power is in development worldwide. This is an enormous jump in production, considering only 500 megawatts (MW) of such capacity has been built to date. Sun-baked areas like the U.S. Southwest are aiming to become leaders in solar energy production in the U.S.. In Europe, Spain is investing in solar power. “To maximise the energy that can be collected from the sun, solar-power facilities are being constructed in regions that enjoy daily uninterrupted sunshine for much of the year.” Theoretically, solar power plants based in the U.S. Southwest could provide enough power to run the U.S.. “According to Mark Mehos of America’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, solar-thermal power could in theory generate 11,000GW in America’s south-west. That is about ten times America’s entire existing power-generation capacity.”

Solar-thermal technology may be better than solar-photovaltaics (otherwise known as solar panels): “They are typically built on a much larger scale, and historically their costs have been much lower. Compared with other renewable sources of energy, they are probably best able to match a utility’s electrical load, says Nathaniel Bullard of New Energy Finance, a research firm. They work best when it is hottest and demand is greatest. And the heat they generate can be stored, so the output of a solar-thermal plant does not fluctuate as wildly as that of a photovoltaic system. Moreover, since they use a turbine to generate electricity from heat, most solar-thermal plants can be easily and inexpensively supplemented with natural-gas boilers, enabling them to perform as reliably as a fossil-fuel power plant.”

Photovaltaics were in the lead as solar producers of energy for the past decade, but once the tax incentives in place for solar-thermal energy disappeared in the early 1990’s production fell. As a result, photovaltaics, which do not require the massive investment needed for large-scale solar-thermal plants, gained in usage. By 2007, worldwide installed capacity of solar photovaltaics reached 9.2GW, even though solar panels are more expensive than solar-thermal on a per-KW hour basis. A few other reasons for solar panels’ success: solar photovaltaics are easy to apply in small-scale, modular form (roofs, yards), and can also generate power off the grid. 

Solar-thermal may be making a come-back, largely because they are viewed as more cost-effective for large-scale installations. According to MIT Technology Review, a study conducted by the University of California’s Energy Institute in 2008 argues that solar thermal power will “become cost competitive with other forms of power generation decades before photovoltaics will, even if greenhouse-gas emissions are not taxed aggressively.” Additionally, solar-thermal may more easily integrate with other types of power systems such as natural gas or coal plants, creating hybrid systems. The Economist argues: “because solar-thermal plants have a power block and turbine already in place, the extra cost is marginal. Hybridisation could also be done the other way around, by using steam generated from solar-thermal collectors to help drive the turbines at existing coal or gas plants.” Furthermore, MIT Technology Review notes that solar-thermal could be specifically used to cut the carbon footprint of existing coal power plants: “feeding heat from the sun into coal-fired power stations could turn out to be the cheapest way to simultaneously expand the use of solar energy and trim coal plants’ oversize carbon footprints.”

A few challenges remain for large-scale solar-thermal plants. Solar-thermal plants planned for the U.S. Southwest are often far off the grid, so extra infrastructure in the form of transmission lines is required to tap these energy sources. MIT Technology Review notes storing power for use in bad weather is also critical to making the plants cost-effective. The current business climate means less available funds for investing in renewable energy — many projects have been put on hold.  Additionally, while solar-thermal plants produce no C02 emissions, they suck up vast amounts of water, creating problems for communities in the Southwest and elsewhere already dealing with water limits. “Both power-tower and trough-based systems are typically water-cooled, and require millions of gallons of water annually. That can cause big problems, especially in desert environments.”

Read the article. Also, check out Abengoa’s solar-thermal “power tower.”
Image: Abengoa Solar (Spain)