Interview with Mia Lehrer on Revitalizing Communities

Mia Lehrer, FASLA, is principal of Mia Lehrer + Associates.

Mia Lehrer + Associates often works at the large scale creating master plans that integrate landscape and community infrastructure, creating major public spaces in the process. Why should cities and communities invest in these plans? What are the connections between open spaces and sustainability?

Sustainable communities are about being able to offer people good places to live, jobs, transportation, and education.  However, sustainable communities are often communities within communities, because in large cities you’re really not creating one community, one place, it’s a series of spaces and places and smaller communities. This is especially true when you’re building in areas that are repurposed, using land that was originally industrial or commercial. You really have to start thinking of the big picture and how to knit these new developments into the community.

Jeff Speck, co-author of The Smart Growth Manual, argues that it’s precisely the lack of planning that results in the “dreck of the suburban sprawlscape.”  Do you agree that there can never be too much planning if your aim is to create a sustainable community?

I agree with that. It’s about planning, but it’s really important for there to be good collaboration and communication between public agencies, elected officials, and the private sector so that everybody understands the benefits of these projects.  People are starting to understand smart growth, but there’s always some mid-level politician or bureaucrat who make things hard to get accomplished. So, it’s really important for there to be really good cross-communication.

In a recent interview, Andrea Cochran, FASLA, argues that urban planning needs to be “more adaptable and less prescriptive physically, encouraging adaptation over time. That’s a much more innovative approach when you’re working on a planning level.”  On the other side, how do you leave room for adaptation in sustainable community planning?

When you’re doing a certain level of planning, you’re not getting into the level of detail that allows for adaptation. You have to be thinking of what the possibilities are for the next generation of designers. When you’re doing the kind of planning, for example, like we did on the Los Angeles River, you understand that these are big strokes. We were setting forward a vision. We created a series of 20 different typologies, and an approach to urban planning for the project.

You have to take satisfaction that these large-scale planning efforts become a canvas for the next generation of designers. The end goal is not to design every inch of a large-scale project, but to allow for flexibility, educate, and communicate in a healthy way with your clients at these agencies about what the possibilities are.

You recently won an ASLA professional award for the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan, which aims to transform 32 miles of concrete-lined river into public green space, “an ecological and recreational corridor.” Please describe the project.  Why is it so central to Los Angeles’ plans to become a more sustainable, less car-dependent city?

The Los Angeles River Master Plan is 32 miles of a civic piece of infrastructure that has the opportunity to transform the city. It’s 32 miles in length, but the sphere of influence on either side of this river ends up being thousands of miles, and involves thousands of streetscapes and potential parks in potential new communities. Economic opportunities relate to new jobs. There’s also housing and alternative modes of transportation. People are already using the river, which is just this channel, as a bikeway. We found that people are using it to commute. The river overlay zone has the potential to change the face of the many communities that it traverses — 32 miles is many communities.

The question is how to break that down into a really effective set of changes, and bring people from their schools and libraries down to the river. Another questoin is how do you actually make the area more connected. How can we use green streets and affect change across the whole overlay zone, not just with signs that say, the river’s down there, but actually make it a new kind of space within the city that has a different sense of place. We are proposing to plant thousands and thousands of Sycamore trees there. 

The federal mandate is to deal with flood protection and water quality. There are huge fines coming down in the next decade. Starting in 2012, the Federal Government will issue guidelines on water quality, outlining quality standards for the water you’re emitting. Anything that eventually goes back to the ocean has to achieve a certain level of water quality. The motivation is to create projects that enable you to clean water, but at the same time provide other benefits. Instead of putting a filter at the end of a pipe, you can actually clean the water through a park with a higher benefit to the community. It’s a wonderful large-scale project, an infrastructure project that can have multi-benefits.

 A high speed rail project has been proposed for California. It happens to coincide downtown with areas that are considered very sensitive for the L.A. River. We now have this tension between high speed rail and river benefits. Ideally, there will be an opportunity to make sure these two projects make the best out of the situation. Whatever dollars there are to implement should actually benefit the community. Hopefully, it’s not an either/or situation but a plus, plus situation for the city.

You also collaborated closely with Ken Smith on the Orange County Great Park, a massive 1,300 acre park now in development.  Most recently, you were involved in the Great Park’s Observation Balloon Preview Park, a 27 acre visitor’s center.  Ken Smith said the park is trying to build a clear connection between sustainable design and healthful, active living.  How do you make this connection clear for people in the design?

A project of this scale develops over a long period of time. We are opening up 28-acre sites every year.  Every July, we have an opening. The first project was the Observation Balloon, which created areas that allow people to access the site. The site is an old Marine base with a lot of concrete. It’s very hot out there in the middle of the summer. We restored an old hangar, the visitor’s center, and some visitor servicing facilities, all of which created a destination. We have about 30 concerts and plays and dance performances that happen from May through October and they’re very thoughtfully sort of put together.

When you get to the site, you basically see a 28-acre demonstration garden. We’ve tested benches, bioswales, low-water use grass, solar-powered garbage cans that actually compact the garbage. Our goal is to create a park that’s culturally and environmentally sustainable.  It happens to be in the heart of a county and connect the Cleveland National Forest with the Laguna Preserve. It’s an incredible opportunity for habitat connection, which we aim to celebrate. Of course, until we can do some of the bigger wildlife corridor connections, which are two and a half miles long, that’s going to be a little illusive, but by definition we’re recycling an old base and turning it into a healthful sort of new landscape.

We’re also celebrating the culture of the place. Agriculture is a very important aspect in that part of the state. We have a community garden that was built this year, and a very active group of community gardeners who actually give classes. We have classes on bee keeping, carrot growing, ethnobotany, and ecology in the community garden under a shade structure. There was a bee keeping class and 200 people showed up. You have to understand this is right in the middle of nowhere, except that there’s an energy that’s building around the park now.

People watch the balloon go up and down. The balloon is like a large observation tower. People going up and watching the park grow. The idea was to involve the community in the activities, that’s part of healthful living. We also have a lot of 5K and 10K runs on the site because it’s very navigable. We have had several donations of trees creating a nursery on the site. As of next spring, we are going to be opening up 200 acres of agricultural land, meaning that we’re land-banking 200 acres for produce. We’ve been producing an enormous amount already. We’ve all ended up with huge bags of onions from just a 10-acre parcel. We are also bringing school groups there and helping young people understand the process of growing food. That’s all part of turning the site over, and making sustainability tangible.

You also lecture around the world discussing the public realm of landscape architecture.  What have been your experiences in developing world giants like Brazil, India, China? How do their approaches to planning public spaces differ?  Which cities or communities are doing the most interesting work in your mind?

The difference between the way other countries do community participatory work is either they don’t do it all and it’s just a top- down decision. This is what you’re getting. Decisions are made at a professional level and there’s work involved in convincing people that what you’ve done is the right thing. In Korea, for example, that’s what they do. In South Korea, they get these billion dollar projects built every other day. They’re doing three major river projects: $19 billion worth of work in a five year period. It’s changing large areas of agricultural land. What they do is is probably really excellent landscape architecture — it relates to ecology, urban planning, water use, food production, and integrating these. But the outreach is explaining to people why they’re proposing to dislocate them from where they lived for 10 generations.

There’s a longer history of landscape architects in Brazil. It’s probably a more organic and less autocratic process there. There’s poverty, but it’s not that level of desperation and agglomeration in the urban areas you see in India. It’s not the level of intensity. There are favelas, but as chaotic as life in a favela, it’s 100 percent better than some of the shanties in India I’ve studied.  So, there’s an opportunity to do more.

I’m active in the International Federation of Landscape Architects (IFLA) with whom ASLA should be doing more work and more cross-pollination. It would be a great opportunity for both organizations because they’re doing really fabulous work in Brazil and in countries where landscape architecture is barely recognized. They need the support of educators from well-established institutions.

On a very practical level, you interact with a range of stakeholders in all of your projects. What are the key obstacles to achieving community buy-in on projects? What are the usual holdups? What strategies do you use to overcome these challenges?

I see the community outreach as an opportunity to help people understand landscape architecture, understand the process, and what it is we’re actually able to do. We can design, but we can’t necessarily deliver a project if the funding isn’t there. The politicians hold a lot of cards. As we start and educate people about choices, they need to understand that they have a choice between certain kinds of interventions. If it’s restoration work, we describe what it will look like so that they are not surprised. If you ask people what they expect their park to look like — even if we’re in an arid climate, everybody always expects Central Park, a verdant oasis with 200 year old trees and a lake. That’s not always possible so it’s really important to educate people about the realities, which involve economic, environmental, and political factors.

If you ask people what they want and they give you a long list of ideas, it’s disingenuous to then leave the workshop and lead them to believe they’re going to be able to get everything they ask for. It’s about being good listeners because that’s part of what we do, but it’s also about being clear about what the expectations should be and give them tools to succeed.

About 99 percent of the time I’m dealing with new immigrants, and they are learning how to communicate and deal with their elected officials. You can embolden people, allow them to feel comfortable that it’s their right to communicate, not necessarily demand, but be part of a dialogue. It’s education, creating a set of tools, and allowing people to understand they can be advocates for their own needs. However, each project isn’t going to be the solution for every one of their problems in the city they live. Many times you’ll show up and you’ll become a therapist. They’ll have a problem, and even though the project might be a park let’s say, they’ll start talking about how terrible the school is and their housing condition. I think that’s an interesting situation.

I’m participating in a series of discussions with a foundation that’s starting to figure out how to get involved in urban planning projects and give funding. They’re trying to figure out who to give funding to and how and should they get funding for designers.  I’ve been giving this some thought and think that it’s really important neighborhood councils actually work at a neighborhood level with these groups to address issues. If there are other people at the table, you can take them on and be more effective. 

One of the important things I’ve learned in community participatory is that allocating enough funds for enough meetings to work through the issues is really important. That’s about convincing your client, the agency, or the non-profit, that it’s important. There actually has to be time so these people can participate during the planning and construction phases. People need to stay engaged and understand their input is important. That way, they don’t become cynical and not participate in the future. Ideally, what you’re creating is a constituency that becomes interested in all the projects in their neighborhood. They become community leaders. That’s part of a healthy attitude toward your environment and becoming engaged.

I didn’t grow up in the U.S. but my parents were community activists. We all don’t have a choice but to be engaged and educated about what the dire situation is that we’re all in. If we don’t have water, we can’t use a lot of water. We’re going to have parks that don’t have a lot of lawns, but that’s okay. We’re going to find a way of making them beautiful and going to understand why we did that as a group. We’re going to turn part of our parks into a community garden and we’re going to dedicate the area that might have been some fancy playground into a community garden because we’re all going to grow 100 pounds of food a week for ourselves. We’re going to find community members who want to participate in the maintenance of the park and the maintenance of the community garden. We’re entering a new era.

Interview conducted by Jared Green.

New Design Standard Creates Metrics for Social, Economic Sustainability

A group of architects, designers, activists, and community leaders interested in “public interest design” came together in 2005 at Harvard University Graduate School of Design and conceived of a set of principles and tools that would feature a greater focus on the social and economic facets of buildings and neighborhoods. Five years later, a team has launched a new standard called SEED (Social Economic Environmental Design). SEED is designed to provide guidance, evaluation, and certification on the social, economic, and environmental aspects of buildings and neighborhoods.

According to Residential Architecture, one of the key forces behind SEED is Bryan Bell, AIA, founder and executive director of the non-profit Design Corps. Bell said: “SEED is a guide, a combined wisdom that hopefully is transferrable. I don’t think people have taken this rigorous of an approach before.”

There’s a focus on local community participation in the standard. SEED’s Web site outlines this idea: “SEED maintains the belief that design can play a vital role in the most critical issues that face communities and individuals, in crisis and in every day challenges. To accomplish this, the SEED® process guides professionals to work alongside locals who know their community and its needs. This practice of ‘trusting the local’ is increasingly recognized as a highly effective way to sustain the health and longevity of a place or a community as it develops.”

SEED’s guiding principles include:

  • Advocate with those who have a limited voice in public life.
  • Build structures for inclusion that engage stakeholders and allow communities to make decisions.
  • Promote social equality through discourse that reflects a range of values and social identities. 
  • Generate ideas that grow from place and build local capacity.
  • Design to help conserve resources and minimize waste.

In addition to setting principles, the group also released the SEED Evaluator, an online tool to guide the process of creating a socially, economically, and environmentally- sensible building or community. “The Evaluator addresses issues such as public safety, job creation, and sanitation. And it requires strong evidence of community participation and input for a project to be eligible for SEED certification,” writes Residential Architecture

The SEED team says that completing the SEED Evaluator can lead to SEED Certification, which “allows communities to develop their leadership and decision-making from within while using a proven method and recognized standard of success.” Certification will require third-party verification.

SEED team member Kimberly Dowdell, Assoc. AIA, LEED AP, of HOK, told Residential Architecture SEED can be used at many levels “it could be applied to a project of almost any scale.”

Eric Field of the University of Virginia School of Architecture, R. Steven Lewis, AIA, president of the National Organization of Minority Architects, and Maurice Cox, former National Endowment for the Arts design director, were involved in SEED’s conception and development.

Learn more about the new SEED Standard and see their case studies outlining “community design in action.”

Image credit: Hollygrove Market and Farm, Louisiana / SEED Case Study

Toronto’s New Park Brings Light to the Underpass

Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg, a leading landscape architecture firm, is working with The Planning Partnership to create a new underpass park, which will be located near the firm’s hybrid park / water treatment facility now under development (see earlier post). The degraded area beneath the highway overpass in Toronto’s West Don Lands will become a 2.5-acre park. The underpass park adds another piece to the ambitious Waterfront Toronto redevelopment. 

John Campbell, president and CEO of Waterfront Toronto, said the park “is a crucial step in delivering on our promise to revitalize the West Don Lands into Toronto’s next great neighbourhood. Influenced by the massive overpass structures, the park’s design transforms the derelict and underused space into a bright, fully accessible urban neighbourhood amenity that will contribute to the success of the developments being built in the community.”

The park will feature athletic courts, recreation areas for seniors, community spaces, cafes, and playgrounds, as well as lots of trees and community gardens. Greg Smallenberg, ASLA, partner, Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg, said: “The design takes full advantage of the existing site’s eccentricities and its free-for-the-taking weather protection, transforming something that might otherwise be incidental into a delightful urban patch.”

To make pedestrians who use the park feel safe at all times, lighting has been carefully thought-out. According to Daily Commercial News and Construction Record, the park is lit by a “combination of LED lighting on the columns, shielded in-ground and in-wall lights and illuminated concrete ribbons at the seating areas. The more than 50 overpass columns will be lit using diffuse LED spotlights.”

The landscape is also designed to be sustainable. Daily Commercial News adds the park will feature the application of sustainable materials, including granite cobblestones reclaimed from an avenue, and recycled rubber. The landscape architects will plant more than 50 trees, adding green areas to the spaces between the ramps. The plant system is designed for minimal irrigation.

The park budget is $5.3 million, and includes site preparation, demolition and soil remediation, design and construction costs and public art. Waterfront Toronto is aiming for LEED-ND Gold.

Learn more about the new Underpass Park, and see images, fact sheets and context maps.

In related news, Ken Greenberg, a prominent Toronto urban planner, has resigned from the Lower Dons Land redevelopment project. The Toronto Star writes: “A prominent Toronto urban designer has resigned from a contract to integrate a controversial sports complex and hockey arena into the city’s east waterfront area, charging that the vision for the neighbourhood has been ‘squandered.’ The resignation of Ken Greenberg is sure to ignite debate over the future of Toronto’s urban renewal.”

Image credit: Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg / Azure Magazine

The Future of Cuba’s Urban Agriculture

Due to the collapse of aid from the Soviet Union and U.S. sanctions in the early 1990’s, Cuba moved from a centrally-planned, fossil-fuel based agriculture system to a locally-organized organic urban one, writes Solutions journal. However, with lessening tensions and growing trade with the U.S., there are new concerns that Cuba’s model of self-sufficient green agricultural production will be scrapped.  

Farmers and agronomists responded to economic isolation by localizing food production, which has now taken off across Cuba’s urban areas. In fact, urban farms in “vacant lots in the capital, Havana, and a network of producers across the country” now provide 80 percent of the country with local, organic produce and helped turn Cuba into an “unintentional leader of the green movement,” says Solutions. CBS News adds that most urban farms where organic produce is grown are walking distance from residents.

The fall of the Soviet Union meant the end to external support, and green agricultural practices had to be scaled up quickly. In the early 1990’s, “agricultural production in Cuba, dominated by sugar cane production for export, following Spanish colonial practice, shrank from 88.1 Million Metric Tonnes in 1990 to around 2.2 MMT in 1993. Supplies of corn, Cuba’s other main product and a staple of the Cuban diet, fell by 70 percent. In Havana, the average caloric intake over the same period fell from 3,052 calories per day to 2,099. Some reports suggest that many were surviving on only 1,500 calories a day.” To save Cubans from starvation, agronomists and farmers pushed for the decentralization of agriculture,  an end to collective farms.

Farmers diversified local agricultural production and explored how to combat pests without oil-based fertilizers. One practice involved mixing complementary crops naturally resistance to pests, a “technique that drew on neglected traditional practices.”  In 1992, the Asociacion Cubana de Agricultura Organica (ACAO) was formed to spread organic agricultural practices. ACAO grew to 30,000 members by 1999 and won international awards. However, the organization was viewed as increasingly independent and a threat to socialism, and was shut down by Castro.

Strangely, given that Cuba is deeply reliant on sustainable practices, sustainability is often viewed as a threat to the regime because its associated with local bottom-up organization. To preserve green agricultural practices in the future, sustainability may need to be made official agricultural policy. Fernando Funes Monzote, a Cuban agronomist who received his Ph.D in the Netherlands, told Solutions: “On the one hand, we need the power of the central government to defend sustainable agriculture. On the other, we need the government to cede some of its traditional powers in food production. Have the ideas of sustainability successfully permeated the regime’s thinking? If sanctions lift and we have lots of oil again, will the government continue to support our agriculture?

In the event of widening trade, it’s not clear whether the Cuban government will let the current system stand. To date, no new sustainable agriculture policy has been issued. Monzonte believes sustainability can survive only if it’s built into the revolution: “Cuba has commanded the world stage in its opposition to American capitalism. If we can convince our leaders that sustainability gives us a new platform for leadership and for renewing the revolution, I think we can succeed.”

Read the article

Image credit: Urban Habitat / Race, Poverty and the Environment / REDI

What Role Can Landscape Architects Play in Designing Wildlife Habitats?

The 2010 Dumbarton Oaks Garden and Landscape Studies Symposium will gather designers, scientists, and historians to explore the question: What role can landscape architects play in conserving or restoring wildlife diversity? 

Protecting wildlife habitat has never been more critical because many species face increased threats of extinction. “Whether threatened by habitat destruction or climate change, displaced by urbanization or invasive species, poisoned by industrial toxins, or hunted to extinction, many wild animals have failed to thrive in the company of people. There is growing scientific consensus, most recently reported in an Elizabeth Kolbert essay in The New Yorker, that we are in the midst of the sixth great extinction in earth history—and the first caused by human activities. By some estimates, as many as half of earth’s species will be gone by the end of this century.”

The Symposium organizers argue that ecological conservation practices can create new hope for wildlife, and landscape architects have a key role to play through “reserve design for focal species and biodiversity; sizing and spacing of habitat patches, corridors, and edge conditions; and the analysis of food webs and predator-prey dynamics.” Furthermore, the organizers believe “ecosystem services, restoration ecology, and designer-generated ecological experiments” all provide new opportunities for landscape architects in developing productive wildlife habitats.

To date, landscape architects have succeeded in integrating botanical diversity into projects, but more research is needed on how to restore or create wildlife habitat through conservation design practices. The symposium will explore a range of questions related to wildlife habitat restoration: “From niche habitats in urban parks to biosphere reserves, what role can design play in facilitating wildlife conservation at different scales? Given extinctions and habitat fragmentation, can designers become involved in reconfiguring wildlife communities in the same way they have reconfigured plant communities? What are the opportunities and dangers of designing ecosystems with incomplete species composition, including missing keystone species or disjointed food webs? Are species introductions an option?”

There will also be questions around the optimal relationship between people and nature: “How should human inhabitance and use be managed? At one extreme, is it necessary for the survival of wildlife to exclude humans? At the other, many cities are now developing biodiversity plans: can urbanized areas be made more habitable for wildlife? How can designers address regional to global issues, including the impacts of invasive species and climate change on habitat quality and species distribution?”

The diverse set of speakers, representing many disciplines, includes:

  • B. Deniz Çalış, Assistant Professor & Vice Chair, Department of Architecture, Bahçeşehir University, Istanbul, Turkey, “The Wild and Wilderness in Ottoman Gardens and Landscape”
  • Jane Carruthers, Professor, Department of History, University of South Africa, “Designing a Wilderness for Wildlife: The Case of Pilanesberg, South Africa”
  • Joshua Ginsberg, Senior Vice President, Global Conservation Program, Wildlife Conservation Society, New York, “From Elephants to Mice: the Impact of Ecology and Spatial Scale on the Design of Conservation Strategies”
  • Stuart Green, Principal, Green & Dale Associates, Melbourne, Australia, “Biodiversity of Wildlife Habitats as an Educational Resource: Two case studies, Alice Springs Desert Park and Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary”
  • Steven Handel, Professor of Ecology, Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Natural Resources, Rutgers University, “Restoring Habitats to Degraded Urban Areas: Dreams and Nightmares”
  • Kristina Hill, Affiliate ASLA, Associate Professor and Chair, Dept. of Landscape Architecture, University of Virginia, “Climate Change and Biodiversity in Urban Regions”
  • Shepard Krech Ⅲ, Professor of Anthropology, Brown University, “That’s real meat: Birds, Native People, and Conservation”
  • Nina-Marie Lister, Associate Professor, School of Urban and Regional Planning, Ryerson University, Toronto, “Adaptive Infrastructure: Network Strategies for Urban Ecology”
  • Jianguo (Jack) Liu, Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability & University Distinguished Professor, Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability, Michigan State University, “A Coupled Human and Natural Systems Approach to Research and Design: The Case of Wolong Nature Reserve for Giant Pandas”
  • Shahid Naeem, Professor of Ecology and Chair, Department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology, Columbia University, “Biodiversity, Ecosystem Functioning, and Ecosystem Services: A Useful or Useless Construct for Wildlife Habitats?”
  • Harriet Ritvo, Arthur J. Conner Professor of History, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “Edging into the Wild”
  • Kari Stiles, Associate ASLA, Associate, Jones and Jones Architects, Landscape Architects, Planners, Seattle, WA, “Conserving for the Future: Design Without Borders”
  • Thomas Woltz, ASLA, Partner, Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, Charlottesville, VA, “Biodiversity and Farming: Defining a role for contemporary landscape architecture that encourages plant and wildlife biodiversity within the context of productive agricultural land”
  • Kongjian Yu, International ASLA, Professor of urban and regional planning, and founder and dean of the Graduate School of Landscape Architecture, Peking University, Beijing, China, “Integration across Scales: Landscape as Infrastructure for the Protection of Biodiversity” (see an interview with Kongjian Yu)

The symposium is organized by John Beardsley, director of Garden and Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks, and Alexander Felson, a joint Yale University professor in the Schools of Forestry and of Architecture. 

Learn more about the Symposium held May-14-15, 2010 at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C.

If you are in D.C. in May, also check out the new exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum on Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s “Running Fence” land art installation, which covered more than 20 miles of Sonoma and Marin counties in the 1970’s. Viewed as one of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s most lyrical pieces, “this monumental temporary artwork was made of 240,000 square yards of heavy woven white nylon fabric, 90 miles of steel cable, 2,050 steel poles, 350,000 hooks, and 13,000 earth anchors. Paid for entirely by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, the completed Running Fence existed for only two weeks in September of 1976.”

Image credit: 2008 ASLA Analysis and Planning Honor Award. New Terrain for the North Lake Region of Chongming Island, Shanghai, China. SWA Group, Los Angeles, California

West Palm Beach’s “Living Dock” an Oyster-based Water-filtration System

The redevelopment of the waterfront in West Palm Beach Florida, a 12.5-acre project featuring a new park, water gardens, boat piers, and new paths, also includes a new “living” dock that doubles as a water-filtration system, writes GreenSource magazine. The dock is designed to support natural systems — mangroves, grasses, and oysters that create habitat and provide water-cleansing services.  

According to GreenSource, the living dock system is multi-layered and includes geotextiles: “Measuring approximately three times wider than a normal dock, the living dock is made of concrete over a foam core and its public surface is clad in sustainably harvested Ipe planks. A series of indentations of varying sizes runs down the center of the 400-foot-long living dock; each is surrounded by an aluminum safety railing as well as seating for visitors. For the floating mangroves and spartina, a special soil mix is sandwiched between layers of geotextiles.”

The geotextiles, which are embedded with oyster shells from restaurants, help create a growing substrate for native oysters. The oyster shells were brought it to help spur natural oyster growth. “The volume containing the oysters is more perforated to boost water flow. Oyster shells discarded from restaurants fill the bottom, since those shells are ideal for prompting subsequent oyster colonization.”

Each oyster can filter 40 gallons of water per day. From the photos, it also looks like the oyster water-filtration area is clearly visible to users of the floating dock. The green infrastructure is accessible, adding an educational component to the project.

However, GreenSource notes there are some limitations to the geotextile substrate — they are not pervious, and may limit the erosion-control capabilities of the mangroves. “Because the geotextiles cradling the spartina and mangroves are almost impermeable (and these root balls are becoming more sealed as barnacles accrete to their planting substrates), they aren’t necessarily controlling erosion as they would in a natural setting.”

Even more ambitious plans are in development. More than $2 million has been raised to rehabilitate another portion of the area’s Intracoastal Waterway. “When completed, this undertaking will feature entire oyster reefs and, one-upping even the innovative living dock, it will include stepped tidal gardens whose mangroves and spartina will filter stormwater, build underwater habitat, and provide safe haven for birds.”

The waterfront’s park includes Lake Pavilion, a LEED certified municipal building featuring a 17-KW photovoltaic roof system. The waterfront’s development was led by Michael Singer Studio, and the landscape architecture was designed by Carolyn Pendleton Parker, ASLA, at Sanchez & Maddux and Connie Roy-Fisher, ASLA, Roy-Fisher Associates.

Read the article and see a slideshow.

Image credit: Michael Singer Studio / GreenSource

Straw: Ideal Building Material?

The Economist
writes that straw buildings may be making a comeback, even if use of the material breaks local building codes. Straw may be an ideal building material for some types of buildings– it can be embedded with other materials to create adobe or stucco. It’s a great insulator. It’s often a waste material so can be recycled for low-cost. Additionally, straw buildings are highly earthquake-resistent because the material is inherently flexible and absorbs seismic energy better than steel, brick or glass. 

In some areas, the benefits of using straw may not be realized because local building officials prevent its use. The Economist points to Californian officials who recently tried to dump heavy fines on Warren Brush, owner of a non-profit farm, for building straw-bale buildings on his property. “The problem is that California’s building codes make no provision for the use of straw. And Mr Brush has many defenders—among them several university scientists and David Eisenberg, the chairman of the United States’ Green Building Council’s code committee.”

Perhaps with all the support from the USGBC, more local officials will see the utility of making low-cost earthquake-resistant material widespread. The Economist writes that straw has beaten other materials in earthquake tests. “A year ago, a test conducted at the University of Nevada’s large-scale structures laboratory showed that straw-bale constructions could withstand twice the amount of ground motion recorded in the Northridge earthquake that hit Los Angeles in 1994.”

It’s the combination of materials that make straw buildings highly resilient. Straw building begin with a foundation of gravel contained in plastic bags covered with soil mortar. “The walls are made of tightly packed straw bales held together with bamboo pins and lined with fishing nets. These are then coated with a clay-based plaster. Aesthetically, the final product is similar to stucco or adobe.”

Complicated work can also be done with the material. One structural engineer was able to create a two-story, three bedroom house with the straw mix. Additionally, in areas where there aren’t rules against using straw, there’s been a growth in projects, including a new post office in suburban Albuquerque and a Quaker school in Maryland.

Read the article and an indepth article from on applying straw building material. See HOK’s LEED Gold straw bale building.

Also, check out a new book on Shigeru Ban’s Paper Architecture. Ban has also faced a range of permit challenges, but has created stable, sustainable large-scale buildings out of paper.

Image credit: HOK / Inhabitat

San Francisco’s Pavement to Parks Program Expands

San Francisco’s innovative “Pavement to Parks” program, which reclaims unused stretches of streets and turns them into public plazas and parks, is expanding with the addition of more sites. There are currently four new plazas across the city, with four more in the works. According to the project, streets and public rights-of-way make up 25 percent of the city’s land area, more than all space alloted towards public parks. “Many of our streets are excessively wide and contain large zones of wasted space, especially at intersections.” For San Francisco, unused streets presents an opportunity to generate new public space at relatively low cost.

San Francisco was inspired by New York City’s efforts to turn its streets into pedestrian plazas. In New York City, excess roadway has been transformed into plazas and seating areas “simply by painting or treating the asphalt, placing protective barriers along the periphery, and installing moveable tables and chairs,” writes Pavement to Parks. There’s also the new Times Square pedestrian plaza, which was recently made permanent (see earlier post).

It’s not clear whether each Pavement to Parks project will seek permanence like NYC’s Times Square. San Francisco’s new public spaces were initially designed to test the “potential of the selected location to be permanently reclaimed as public open space.” Given the low-cost nature of the materials and relatively simple designs, the new plazas can be left in place of picked up and plugged in elsewhere in the city. 

Pavement to Parks says the locations are selected based on a set of criteria:

  • Sizeable area of under-utilized roadway
  • Lack of public space in the surrounding neighborhood
  • Pre-existing community support for public space at the location
  • Potential to improve pedestrian and bicyclist safety via redesign
  • Surrounding uses that can attract people to the space
  • Identified community or business steward

Some of the new spaces are also not exactly public plazas, but a new configuration called a “parklet.” As an example, the new 22nd Street Parklet will feature the “creative use of a parking lane” where sidewalks are narrow and pedestrian activity high. “This pilot application will explore the idea of modularity, allowing for a ‘kit of parts’ to be developed for possible future installations.”

Learn more about the program and see images of recent projects.

Image credit: Good Magazine

ASLA Communications and Advocacy Internship, Summer 2010

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) is seeking applicants for its 2010 summer semester (May – August) internship program. This summer, ASLA seeks two full-time interns.

A summer internship with ASLA provides an excellent opportunity for graduate or undergraduate students studying landscape architecture, architecture, urban planning, sustainable development, or environmental studies. Students with an interest in policy, advocacy, and web communications are encouraged to apply.


  • Research, track, and analyze federal and state legislation focused on transportation, natural resources, environmental, water resource management, and sustainability issues, particularly as they relate to landscape architecture.
  • Assist with the Society’s direct advocacy with the Congress, the administration, and the federal agencies.
  • Assist with drafting, editing, and compiling government affairs communications, correspondence, and publications.
  • Develop original content for The Dirt.
  • Contribute to biweekly electronic newsletter, LAND Online
  • Support chapter communications and resource development.


  • Current enrollment in a Master’s degree or Bachelor’s degree program in landscape architecture, architecture, urban planning, public policy or administration, environmental studies, or related field.
  • Passionate interest in policy issues related to design, land use, sustainability, and the environment.
  • Experience or familiarity with federal and state government affairs and the federal appropriations process.
  • Ability to write congressional correspondence, news stories, reports, and presentations.
  • Working knowledge of Microsoft Office (Word, Outlook, Powerpoint, Excel) and proven Internet research skills.

The 2010 summer internship is unpaid. Applicants must demonstrate they are using the internship to fulfill internship requirements. Applicants are also required to receive funding through their university or an external fellowship in order to be considered.  

The summer intern should be present at ASLA offices for at least three full days per week. ASLA offers a flexible schedule. Please send cover letter and résumé to


Gilberto Esparza’s Plant Robot

 magazine wrote about Mexican artist Gilberto Esparza’s plant robot, a roving art installation. Called “Nomadic Plant,” the robot is part of an exhibition organized by LABoral Gallery in Asturias, Spain. Iconeye says the project is inspired by “natural processes whereby plants adapt to hostile environments and colonise new territories.” The nomadic plant is autonomous and leads an “unthreatening existence,” living off industrial waste.

Esparza told Iconeye: “Nowadays robots are a waste of energy: they dance and they move all the time.” To make his plant robot self-sufficient but also productive, he designed it so it runs on bacteria found in waste. “When these microorganisms need nourishment the machine seeks out dirty water, which is then decomposed to create energy; any surplus is used to emit a noise and sustain plants carried on its back. The machine and plants becomes co-dependent.”

Iconeye says Esparza has long explored the relationship between organisms and systems. “In a previous project, Urban Parasites, creatures made from recycled electronic goods infested urban environments, feeding of a city’s electricity and telephone wires.”  

The installation is open from March 25 to June 7 at LABoral Centro de Arte y Creación Industrial.

Read the article and see more images.

Image credit: Gilberto Esparza / Iconeye Magazine