Copenhagen: Step Forward or Failure?

The Copenhagen UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) discussions ended last weekend after more than two weeks of negotiations, including a last-minute intervention by President Obama. While the final text calls for limiting the warming of the earth by two degrees celsius, there was no binding committment to this increase or greenhouse gas (GHG) emission targets. The meeting resulted in a short “statement of intention,” or political statement, that has no international legal power (see a detailed review of all that was agreed in the political statement). The New York Times wrote that the contentious discussions also reflected poorly on the UNFCCC-run process, and left the future of the UNFCCC’s central role in climate change negotiations more vulnerable. There have been 15 UNFCCC-organized meetings since the 1992 Rio Summit.

Around 30 countries are responsible for 90 percent of global CO2 emissions. Some commentators see smaller groups as more effective at reaching binding agreements. Michael Levi, Council of Foreign Relations, told The New York Times: “The climate treaty process isn’t going to die, but the real work of coordinating international efforts to reduce emissions will primarily occur elsewhere.”

Climate change experts are split on whether the non-binding political agreement represents a step forward or illustrates the conference’s failures. Many countries and negotiating blocs (i.e. the G-77 or European Union) have been pointing fingers at each other for the past week. As an example, the U.K. and China have been engaged in a post-Copenhagen feud, writes The New York Times

Copenhagen Was a Major Step Forward:

Frank Loy, former U.S. climate change negotiator, and Michael Levi, Senior Fellow at Council for Foreign Relations, write: “The Copenhagen Accord is a serious step forward, if a severely limited one. It starts by establishing a concrete and demanding goal: keeping the rise in global temperature to two degrees Centigrade. Up to now we have been working with a slippery aim of avoiding dangerous harm to the atmosphere.” Read the op-ed.

John Prescott, Council of Europe Rapporteur on Climate Change, says: “The real headline is that Copenhagen has become the first global agreement on climate change. The Copenhagen accord reaffirms the science that we shouldn’t allow the temperature to rise more than two degrees, establishes a green climate fund providing $30bn from 1 January and a new form of verification. This isn’t failure. It’s not as good as it should have been but as Ban Ki-moon said, it’s another important step to control climate change.” Read the op-ed

Ed Miliband, U.K. Climate and Energy Secretary, adds: “We have also established an unprecedented commitment among rich countries to finance the response to climate change: $10bn a year over the next three years – starting to flow now – rising to $100bn a year by 2020, the goal first set out by the prime minister in June. In the months ahead, these concrete achievements must be secured and extended. We must work to ensure that developed nations in particular, such as Australia, Japan and the EU nations, deliver on the highest possible emissions cuts. And as the US Senate considers its legislation, it is important it delivers.” Read the op-ed.

Copenhagen Was a Failure:

The Financial Times wrote a scathing review: “One wonders how a conference to conclude two years of detailed negotiations, building on more than a decade of previous talks, could have collapsed into such a shambles. It is as though no preparatory work had been done. Consensus on the most basic issues was lacking. Were countries there to negotiate binding limits on emissions or not? Nobody seemed to know.” Read the op-ed.

William Gumende, author of Poverty of Ideas, adds that the deal was bad for Africa (and therefore bad for industrial nations as well): “In industrial countries, civil society organisations and individuals must expose their leaders’ bullying of African countries to their citizens and unmask the blame-shifting (to developing countries) used by their leaders to cover up the bullying. A failed climate change deal is not only bad for citizens of African and developing countries – it is for industrial nations too.” Read the op-ed.

Tom Friedman, noted New York Times columnist, called Copenhagen a “bust,” but says U.S. needs to replicate the success of the actual city of Copenhagen, Denmark, a leader in clean energy technology, and use climate change to create new green jobs: “My fellow Americans, the fact that the recent Copenhagen climate summit was a bust in terms of solving our energy/climate problems doesn’t mean that we can ignore those problems — or that we can ignore how individual countries, like Denmark, have effectively addressed them. With unemployment in Denmark at about 4 percent, compared with our 10 percent, maybe we should at least consider putting a few of its ideas on our table.”

Read New York Times, Guardian, and Climate Progress coverage of the talks, and text of the interim accord.

Image credit: Getty Images

Toronto Music Garden: Interpreting Bach with Nature

Yo-Yo Ma, world-renowned cellist, partnered with landscape designer, Julie Moir Messervy, to create a three-acre public garden based on the First Suite for Unaccompanied Cello by J.S. Bach. According to the city of Toronto, the garden includes six “rooms” – each an interpretation of the traditional dance forms featured in the cello suite’s six movements. The garden was sponsored by the City of Toronto and private donors.

The garden’s design illustrates components of the suite’s six movements:

An undulating river scape with curves & bends
The first moment of the suite imparts the feeling of a flowing river through which the visitor can stroll. Granite boulders from the southern edge of the Canadian Shield are placed to represent a stream bed with low-growing plants softening its banks. The whole is overtopped by an alley of native Hackberry trees, whose straight trunks and regular spacing suggest measures of music.

A forest grove of wandering trails
The Allemande is an ancient German dance. Interpreted here as a Birch forest, the movement invites the visitor to swirl inward to various contemplative sitting areas, that move higher and higher up the hillside, culminating in a rocky vantage point that looks over the harbour through a circle of Dawn Redwood trees.

A swirling path through a wildflower meadow
Originally an Italian and French dance form, the Courante is an exuberant movement that is interpreted here as a huge, upward-spiralling swirl through a lush field of grasses and brightly-coloured perennials that attract birds and butterflies. At the top, a Maypole spins in the wind.

A conifer grove in the shape of an arc
This movement is based on an ancient Spanish dance form. Its contemplative quality is interpreted here as an inward-arcing circle that is enclosed by tall needle-leaf evergreen trees. Envisioned as a poet’s corner, the garden’s centerpiece is a huge stone that acts as a stage for readings, and holds a small pool with water that reflects the sky.

A formal flower parterre
This French dance was contemporary to Bach’s time. Its formality and grace are reflected in the symmetry and geometry of this movement’s design. Hand-crafted with ornamental steel, a circular pavilion is designed to shelter small musical ensembles or dance groups.

Giant grass steps that dance you down to the outside world
The Gigue, or “jig” is an English dance, whose jaunty, rollicking music is interpreted here as a series of giant grass steps that offer views onto the harbour. The steps form a curved amphitheatre that focus on a stone stage set under a weeping willow tree; a place for informal performances. Shrubs and perennials act as large, enclosing arms, framing views out onto the harbour.”

Learn more at the Garden’s Web site, see how Bach’s music inspired the plants used, and also check out the new book, “The Toronto Music Garden: Inspired by Bach.”

Image credit: Julie Moir Messervy Design Studio – Landscape Design

Sustainable Residential Design: Using Low-Impact Materials

ASLA created a new online resource guide on using low-impact materials in sustainable residential landscape architecture. The guide contains lists of organizations, research, concepts and projects related to plants and sustainable landscape architecture, and includes sections on: permeable materials, certified woods, reclaimed and recycled local materials, recycled content, reflective materials, and adhesives, paints, coatings and sealants. Developed for students and professionals, the resource guide contains recent reports and projects from leading U.S. and international organizations, academics, and design firms.

This sustainable residential design resource guide is the third in a new four part series. See earlier guides in the sustainable residential design series: increasing energy efficiency,  improving water efficiency and maximizing the benefits of plants

The guide is separated into five sections:

  • Permeable Materials
  • Certified Woods
  • Reclaimed and Recycled Local Materials
  • Recycled Content
  • Reflective Materials
  • Adhesives, Paints, Coatings and Sealants

As an example, the section on “permeable materials” includes Chicago’s Green Alley handbook, as well as studies from the U.S. EPA and city of Portland on using permeable pavements to manage stormwater. There are also links to projects that have successfully incorporated these concepts in a residential context.

See earlier resource guides:

Go to the Resource Guide

Image credit: Speckman House Landscape, Highland Park, St. Paul, Minnesota. Coen + Partners, Inc.

To Create Sustainable Community, Town Returns to 1895 Olmsted Plan

In 1895, Vandergrift, a western Pennsylvanian town, was created by a steel magnate who wanted a place where his steel workers could “work, play and live.” The steel company owner hired Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York City’s central park and master landscape architect, to make this vision a reality and create a “livable community.” Now, more than 110 years later, the residents of Vandergrift are returning to the original Olmsted plan in their efforts to create a sustainable community for the 21st century, writes the Associated Press

While communities across the U.S. are creating sustainability plans, Vandergrift’s approach is multi-faceted. The town’s goal is to “create an energy independent, ecologically low-impact, economically viable town from the ashes of its postindustrial wasteland. It aims to renovate buildings with sustainable materials, from carpet textiles to solar roof panels. A farmers market has been expanded. Trees are being planted and green spaces recovered.” According to the Associated Press, the idea is to attract people back to a town that has lost residents, jobs, and the steel industry, and encourage people to “live or shop in the boutiques of the quaint town of just 5,000 people.” 

The town still uses Olmsted’s original layout, which some believe is reason enough to visit Vandergrift. “[Olmsted] designed Vandergrift, 35 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, with no right angles, instead following the curves of the river. He also used curving paths to blur movement among pedestrians and hedges to buffer commercialism. Street corners and the buildings on them were rounded. Parks dotted the hilly landscape, and the town was walkable.” The Associated Press adds that Olmsted thought “every urbanite, regardless of status, needed a sanctuary.” 

To become even more sustainable, Vandergrift plans to bring back green spaces that have been paved over for parking, and create hydro-electric power from the neighboring river. A former JCPenney will be retrofited and reused. A grant from the National Science Foundation has also helped the town bring in experts from the University of Pittsburgh. “Vandergrift is investing millions toward environmentally sustainable revitalization — a concept gaining popularity in Rust Belt towns that have few viable options for renewal.” 

Read the article

Image credit: Vandergrift river, A hundred visions blog

The Living Building Challenge

Metropolis magazine wrote about the Omega Institute of Sustainable Living in Rhinebeck, New York, one of the world’s greenest buildings. According to Metropolis, the institute creates its own energy through on-site geothermal and solar systems, and uses local, non-toxic materials — “there’s virtually no PVC, lead, or mercury to speak of.” The building was created using the International Living Building Institute‘s living building standard. Certified living buildings must consume zero energy and water, consist of non-toxic materials, restore habitat, and produce food (all of these are actually required). 

One of the more interesting features is the building’s “eco machine,” a system that clearly demonstrates for visitors how plants and fish remove human waste from water. The system was described as “a self-contained sewage system that mimics nature’s self-corrective principles by freeing plants, bacteria, micro-organisms, algae, and fish to feast on human waste, thus purify-ing it, much as a stream cleanses its own ecosystem.”

However, creating these buildings is no walk in the park. Skip Backus, executive director of the Omega Institute, told Metropolis: “To say that Living Building Challenge is a challenge—you’ve got to keep that word Challenge capitalized throughout the process.” Dan Hellmuth, the architect for Washington University’s Living Building project, added: “We knew what we were getting into, but we didn’t know how bad it was going to be.”

Inhabitat adds that data must be collected and verified through the living building certification process: “”One of the most important features […] is that it measures the actual performance of buildings. Basically this means that a year after a building was built, measurements are taken to ensure that it is, in fact, net zero in terms of energy and water, etc. This is a big distinction from existing requirements like LEED and CA’s Title 24 which measure performance models and do not hold projects accountable to live up to those models.”

The new certification may spur more stringent energy and water efficiency guidelines in the LEED rating system. “Think of the Living Building Challenge as a Port Huron Statement for the green age. Its motto, ‘No credits, just prerequisites,’ rebukes the moderate incrementalism of LEED, which favors plaques and incentives over soup-to-nuts sustainability. The rigors of the Challenge, the thinking goes, will pressure the USGBC itself to radicalize, effectively tamping the entire industry into smaller carbon footprints, one pretty little building at a time. In this era of (perhaps mythical) carbon-neutral resorts and LEED Platinum skyscrapers, it seems a logical next step.”  

In 2009, the Cascadia Region Green Building Council founded the International Living Building Institute to promote the development of living buildings and sites. There are now 70 projects pursuing certification in the U.S.

The institute’s Jason McLennan told Inhabitat it recently updated its living building certification system to address food, transportation and other issues. “The simple concept of green buildings has generally produced more efficient buildings and smaller footprints. But that is no longer enough. With version 2.0 addressing issues of food, transportation and social justice, we expect a considerable leap forward will happen once again.”

Read the article and see more photos at Inhabitat.

Also, check out a Wall Street Journal article on the U.S. Department of Energy National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL)’s work to create the country’s greenest office building. “NREL told designers bidding on the project that the new building could use no more than 32,000 BTUs per square foot a year. A typical office building in the Rocky Mountain region uses 65,000 BTUs per square foot a year, says the U.S. Green Building Council. If the building stays within its limits, all its energy use should be covered by a one-megawatt solar array being built on the NREL campus.”

Image credit: Metropolis magazine

International Design Competition: Rethinking Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway

Waterfront Toronto and the City of Toronto announced a new design competition calling for new concepts for Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway. The goal of the competition is to create a “bold solution or series of bold solutions that can generate broad consensus on the best way forward for the eastern portion of the elevated Gardiner Expressway.”

According to Waterfront Toronto, “the elevated Frederick G. Gardiner Expressway has been a controversial element of the Toronto skyline since it was completed in 1966.  In recent years, public debate has been intensifying over whether its future should be a renovation, relocation, or complete removal.  At the same time, progress on waterfront revitalization has made clear that the elevated structure and the at-grade roadway beneath, if they are to remain, must be integrated with the new waterfront districts currently being developed.  While many plans and proposals have been put forth over the years, none have produced a sufficiently compelling vision for a new urban identity and truly functional transportation system.”

Out of all submissions received, six firms or teams will be shortlisted to participate in an intense, eight-week design competition.  These six teams will receive an honorarium of CA$50,000.  At the conclusion of the competition, Waterfront Toronto and the City of Toronto may choose to retain one or more than one of the teams for continued involvement in the approved plan.

Submissions are due by January 25, 2010. There is no fee to register.  Learn more and register

Also, check out an earlier post on one architecture firm’s idea of turning Gardiner Expressway into a High Line-style park.

Image credit: Kompot Photo

Urban Agriculture Ideas Competition

Brooklyn-based architecture collective Terreform ONE announces its first annual One Prize, which will award $10,000 to the most innovative urban agriculture concept. The theme of the prize is “Mowing to Growing: A Design Competition for Creating Productive Green Space in Cities.” Terreform ONE writes: “In a country that squanders some seven billion gallons of water every day watering its 40,000 acres of suburban lawns—and in which only two percent of food is grown locally—Mowing to Growing challenges architects to devise workable means for growing more of America’s food closer to more of America’s communities, and to do so at less expense to our economy and our environment.”

Terreform ONE cofounder Mitchell Joachim said: “We want to break the American love affair with the suburban lawn.”

Submissions for vertical farming, land reclamation, hydroponic facilities will be reviewed by a distinguished panel of thinkers and designers, including:

  • Cameron Sinclair, Founder, Architecture for Humanity
  • Ben  Schwegler, Jr., Ph.D., Chief Scientist of Walt Disney Imagineering
  • DJ Spooky, AKA Paul D. Miller, electronic and experimental musician,  producer and author
  • Dickson Despommier, Ph.D., Professor in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at Columbia University and Director of the Vertical Farm Project
  • Carol Coletta, president and CEO of CEOs for Cities, Host and Producer of the nationally syndicated public radio show Smart City
  • William J. Mitchell, Professor of Architecture and Media Arts and Sciences at MIT, Director, Media Lab’s Smart Cities research group at MIT

The winning proposal will be awarded $10,000, while five finalists will receive prominent year-long exposure on the competition Web site. According to Terreform ONE, “the winning schemes will also be featured in a web symposium that will match designers with leading experts in the relevant fields of farming, urban agriculture, planning, and market analysis, with an eye towards taking the proposals to the next level.”

There is also a separate competition for high school students. The winner will receive $1,000 cash award and prominent year-long exposure on the competition Web site.

Submissions are due April 30, 2010. Go to the One Prize to learn more and register.

Image credit: / VF- Type 0, Oliver Foster, Queensland University of Technology

Copenhagen UNFCCC Meeting: U.S. Offers Multi-Billion Contribution to Global Climate Fund

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UN FCCC) negotiations entered their second week in Copenhagen. Previously stalled negotiations on a political agreement were resuscitated by U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s announcement that the U.S. government would participate in a proposed $100 billion a year fund (starting 2020) to support developing countries in their effort to mitigate CO2 emissions and adapt to climate change, writes The New York Times. The G77, a group representing some 130 plus developing countries, in part steered by China, have been critical of what they view as a lack of commitment from U.S. and European countries to finance climate change support for developing countries. 

According to The New York Times, Secretary Clinton said the funds would be a “mix of public and private funds, including ‘alternative sources of finance.'” The U.S. typically contributes around 20 percent of total financing to global funds, in an attempt to match its share of the global economy. “She said the money should chiefly flow to the poorest and most vulnerable nations and should contain a sizable amount to slow deforestation, which contributes to carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere.” 

However, Secretary Clinton added that the U.S. would continue to demand greater accountability from China, Brazil and other countries that could benefit from these funds. The Guardian (UK) writes that: “Without such transparency, she said, there would be no deal. And without a deal, there would be no money for African and low-lying countries that have the most to lose from rising sea-levels brought by climate change.”

It’s not clear whether the additional funds outlined by Clinton would also include a new global $350 million fund for renewable energy development U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced earlier at the negotiations. The Guardian (UK) adds: “Chu described the initiative as an expansion of agreements reached earlier this year with India and China for joint research on energy efficiency, electric vehicles, and carbon capture and technology. Under the initiative, the US will provide $85 million over five years to the fund. Italy will provide $30 million and Australia $5 million.” Chu said the U.S. has already invested $80 billion in green technology domestically through the recent economic recovery programs, and cited two areas as particularly promising areas for more research and investment: batteries and the development of powerful wind turbines in a more compact size.

The New York Times contends that European countries, including the UK, have been calling for more than $150 billion over ten years, but haven’t agreed to long-term financing schemes. Last week, European countries agreed to provide short-term financing totaling $10.5 billion over the next three years to help poor countries. “But the bloc has so far failed to agree how much they would give in long-term financing. European experts have recommended that the fund should total about $150 billion annually by the end of the next decade.”

African countries threatened to walk out of the conference earlier this week over efforts by developed countries to end the original Kyoto Protocal-negotiated agreements; African recently countries won that dispute. Meanwhile, U.S. Senator John Kerry gave a speech saying he could get a climate change deal through the U.S. Senate if global negotiators reached a political deal. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger also arrived to announce the importance of progress by “sub-national” actors like his state, and argued that leaders of the world’s major cities also have a key role to play in reducing CO2 emissions. Al Gore gave a speech outlining the importance of reaching a deal quickly.

With 48 hours left in the negotiating process, Yvo de Boer, head of the UNFCCC, argued that remaining hours must be used productively if any interim political agreement is going to be reached in time for the more than 100 heads of state, including U.S. President Obama, who arrive later in the week.

Read the article and see ongoing coverage of the global climate negotiations from The New York Times, Guardian (UK), and Climate Progress. Also, view the actual negotiating texts., a leading tropical forest conservation site, is also offering coverage of the Copenhagen negotiations on an anti-deforestation financing scheme, the “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation” initiative, which will provide developing countries credits for leaving their valuable carbon sinks in place. The U.S. has just announced its plans to contribute $ 1 billion to prevent more extensive deforestation in developing countries.  The New York Times argued that even if the Copenhagen climate change negotiations collapse, a deal on REDD would be a huge major step forward, and agreement on the program looks likely.

Image credit: Kay Nietfel/European Pressphoto Agency

Sustainable Residential Design: Maximizing the Benefits of Plants

ASLA created a new online resource guide on maximizing the benefits of plants through sustainable residential landscape architecture. The guide contains lists of organizations, research, concepts and projects related to plants and sustainable landscape architecture, and includes sections on: native plants, residential agriculture, residential wildlife habitat, indoor plants and residential composting. Developed for students and professionals, the resource guide contains recent reports and projects from leading U.S. and international organizations, academics, and design firms.

This sustainable residential design resource guide is the third in a new four part series. See earlier guides in the sustainable residential design series: increasing energy efficiency and improving water efficiency. One last future guide in this series will focus on how sustainable residential landscape architecture can incorporate innovative, recycled (and recyclable) materials.

The guide is separated into five sections:

  • Native Plants
  • Residential Agriculture
  • Residential Wildlife Habitat
  • Indoor Plants
  • Residential Composting

As an example, the section on “native plants” includes models for reintroducing native plants into residential landscapes, as well as plant databases and government and non-profit organization native plant conservation efforts. There are also links to projects that have successfully incorporated these concepts in a residential context.

See earlier resource guides:

Go to the Resource Guide

Image credit: Dune Side Residence, East Hampton, New York. Edmund Hollander Landscape Architect Design, P.C, New York, New York

Separating Program from Design

Should programming and design be two separate disciplines carved out by separate professionals? Are there certain benefits or disadvantages to this approach?

A number of people involved with Houston’s Discovery Green shared their thoughts with Landscape Architecture magazine.

Fred Kent, Project for Public Spaces (PPS): “You need a lot of skills to make a project work. In the beginning, you need a vision and you need a program. You don’t want a design. You don’t know the answer, but the community does….

The program needs to be independent of any designer because you know as well as I do, if you have the designer do the vision, it’s really only about the design. [When a separate programmer works with the community], the community then owns the program because they did it. There’s this healthy tension between [the programmer and the designer] that can produce really fantastic results. It’s like a check and balance.”

Mary Margaret Jones, Hargreaves Associates: “It depends on the designer. We always do public process up front before we have a design vision. Maybe some don’t, but we do. The best designs are usually the ones that grow out of what you hear about the program, what you hear about desired uses, and the site itself—its soils, its climate, its geomorphology—and out of those things you begin to work on the design. You also have to bring good design to the table.

Programming is not rocket science. It should never be seen as something that’s separate from design. In the best instances, it’s part of the design process. There have been cases where designers have had set styles that they apply wherever they go, and those have led to failed plazas and parks, but that’s not the way we work.”

George Hargreaves, Hargreaves Associates: “In architecture, they will do programming that’s not building specific, then they set about designing a building around it. The flaw in that is you often end up with a building you can’t afford. I find it very difficult to work that way.

“We actually put design as part of that process. If you put a parking lot beneath a park, that’s $30 million; it creates these problems and these opportunities. At the same time we’re trying to understand the regional landscape, trying to understand circulation flows, the microclimate. We’re not only talking about program opportunities and how much they would cost, but how they would impact what we’re trying to build.”

Bob Eury, Central Houston Inc./Board of Discovery Green Conservancy: “I feel pretty strongly about having an independent program advocate. The tension created by the two parties, the separate programmer from the designer—I think that tension is extraordinarily helpful. There are a lot of significant pieces of Discovery Green that are a direct product of the public engagement. But I sure don’t want Fred [Kent] designing it either.”

Guy Hagstette, Discovery Green Conservancy: “I feel fortunate that we had the talents of both PPS and Hargreaves. They both brought a lot of ideas to the table. I would not go so far as to say the programmer should always be separate. The public input process prepares the client to be a better client. You can do this with the design team or a separate programmer, but you need to do this.”

Jacob Petersen, Hargreaves Associates: “It appears that [programming] will be something landscape architects have to fight for to retain it in the profession.”

What do you think?

Image credit: Hargreaves Associates