New Cultural District Takes Shape in Hong Kong

The West Kowloon Cultural District Authority (WKCDA) in Hong Kong has released three conceptual plans for a new 40-acre, US$2.7 billion harborfront cultural district by famed architecture firms Office of Metropolitan Architecture (Rem Koolhaus’ firm), Foster + Partners, and Rocco Design Architects. The plans present three distinct visions for how this new development on reclaimed land can become a “cultural centerpiece” in one of the world’s great cities. All concepts include lots of open green space, more than 15 new cultural venues (including museums, arenas, and cultural facilities) as well as sustainable transportation and water management features. Some proposals aim for carbon-neutrality.

Henry Tang, Chief Secretary of WKCDA said each of the three cultural district plans will be evaluated to see if they:

  • “have multiculturalism as their anchor and serve as a rendezvous point for people and the arts;
  • showcase the unique features and identity of Hong Kong;
  • serve as an engine to propel the growth of Hong Kong’s culture and creative industries;
  • grow organically and synchronise the development of the site’s hardware and software;
  • are accessible to people from all walks of life;
  • are well-connected internally and externally;
  • emphasize vibrancy and sustainability – including people flow, use of public space, relation to the harbourfront, environmental friendliness, and the sustainability of business model.”

The plans will also be put through a rigorous 2nd round comprehensive public review process.  Once public comments have been addressed, a final development plan will be created and presented to the town planning board in 2012. According to The HK Standard, Chief Secretary for Administration Henry Tang Ying-yen argued that “the final shape of the long-awaited West Kowloon cultural hub will not be a mishmash of incoherent elements” — only one design will be selected.

There have already been disputes over the amount of space that will be dedicated to residential homes on the site. However, it seems the idea of a mixed-use residential, commercial, and cultural district has won out at least for now, particularly considering that affordable residential real estate is already very scare in central Hong Kong. The Standard says Stephen Cheung Yan-leung, chairman of the consultation panel of the WKCDA, “has insisted one-fifth – or 145,000 square meters – that will go on homes will not turn the hub into a property project.” Another WKCDA representatives said: “What I hope is to avoid flats from falling into the hands of speculators. Flats can also be regarded as artworks. They are not necessarily luxury flats. They can be flats with restricted prices.” At the presentation of the concepts, Rem Koolhaas, who heads the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, added that subsidized housing can be integrated into the project.

The three conceptual plans include:

City Park, Foster + Partners: “We have created the framework for an urban quarter in West Kowloon with all these ingredients – a magnificent park, a continuous waterfront, iconic cultural venues, colonnaded avenues, tree-lined streets and intimate lanes; green spaces offering tranquility, and urban spaces that are inspired by the energy and rich mix of Kowloon’s streetscapes. All these places and spaces are supported by a network of service roads below ground and a public transport system above. The whole quarter is carbon neutral.” Inhabitat has more details and images on Foster’s proposal.

Cultural Connect: Key to Sustained Vitality, Rocco Design Architects: “Health depends on a robust and un-impeded field of invisible paths through one’s body. The WKCD will establish that un-impeded cultural-urban field that ensures fluidity and connectivity. Connectivity between art forms, between life and culture, space and movement, inside and outside, art and community, Hong Kong, South China and overseas. Ultimately this would bring about not just brief flashes of brilliance, but long-term and sustained vitality.”

Project for a New Dimension, Office of Metropolitan Architecture: “This cultural masterplan works in tandem with the physical plan, each informing and empowering the other. It tries to establish a new zone of creativity, interplay, and production on the basis of an existing infrastructure that, I can already testify, makes a mockery of the notion that Hong Kong has ‘no culture’.”  Bustler also has a video presentation from OMA.

The WKCDA will need to ensure the big plans stay under the HK$21.6 billion (US$2.7 billion) budget approved by the Legislative Council. 
Check out Bustler for brief overviews and more images and go to the WKCDA Web site to keep up-to-date on developments.

Image credits: (1) West Kowloon, Skyscraper City Forum (2) Foster + Partners, (3) Rocco Design Architects, (4) OMA

Preserving Traditional Approaches to Sustainability

In India, indigenous building traditions are still relevant despite the increased availability of modern sustainable building materials and technologies, writes The Hindu. In fact, “vernacular” or native architectural techniques may be just as efficient (and even more cost-effective) than “state-of-the-art” systems. Local sustainable architecture practices in India evolved over time, and so the highly functional approaches to climate and culture can also be easily adapted.   

While there was no scientific comparison between traditional and modern sustainable building technologies, The Hindu argues a few traditional approaches to sustainability still work well:


The kaatrupandal, found in the coastal districts of Tamil Nadu, is made up of a “temporary sloping thatch placed on the roofs to suck in cold air from the outside into the house, providing natural ventilation.” One Indian architect created a brick-lined, funnel-shaped one for a farmhouse and said: “It funnels air into the living room and then on to the rest of the house through modulated openings.” The design reduces energy usage: No A.C. (or even ceiling fans) are needed throughout the year.

Self-shading device

Buildings in Jaisalmer and parts of Rajasthan feature stone ledges that jut out from walls to provide shade. Instead of using stone, some architects are applying the same technique with alumnium composite panels painted white. The white ledges help reduce the urban heat island effect in city homes and corporate offices. 

Mud blocks

Village homes continue to be made out of mud blocks. One architect built a two-story house with mud bricks strengthened with a little ash and cement. According to one architect, the mud blocks last as long as kiln-fired brick buildings. Also, there are far fewer CO2 emissions — kiln-fired bricks require lots of wood to fire. In addition, the “carbon foot print of the building gets even lower if you can make the mud blocks onsite while digging to lay the foundation.”

Clay filler-slabs

Clay tiles were once heavily used throughout India, but have have been replaced with other materials. Clay still has some advantages though: it absorbs less heat than concrete. To bring back this material, one architect decide to use clay for roof and wall filler slabs. “These one-and-half inch thick clay tiles fill up spaces inside the concrete grid and cover up to 30 per cent of the roof space and proportionally lower heat gain.”

Read the article

Image credit: Mud house / The Hindu

New Ways of Deriving Environmental Benefits

Popular Mechanics magazine featured 18 of the world’s “strangest” landscapes. For us, these don’t seem that odd, but the magazine seeks to highlight landscapes deemed particularly noteworthy around the world. Many of the man-made projects selected seem to exemplify sustainable design practices, and echo surrounding natural environments. 

According to the magazine, as “eco-friendly design prospers,” landscape architects are now using a site’s natural setting to derive as many environmental benefits as possible.

A few of the highlighted projects include:

California Academy of Sciences Green Roof, San Francisco, California (see image above): Popular Mechanics says the unique element of this green roof is their “two larger contours [that] sync up to the planetarium and rainforest exhibitions down below.” Functional and aesthetically-pleasing, the green roof’s twin mounds were designed to echo the San Francisco hills. Inspired by the site’s natural surroundings, the roof also functions as wildlife habitat and helps reduce the building’s energy usage.

Las Pozas, Xilitla, Mexico: Edward James, an English surrealist and poet, created a garden in the Mexican rainforest. “Walkways stamped with footprints, Orchid-inspired sculptures and fantastical structures looming over the landscape are just some of the features laced throughout the 40 or so acres.” Over time, the artwork and gardens have largely merged back into the rainforest. The garden then teaches visitors about the rainforest and doesn’t require chemical fertilizers.

Step Garden at Acros Fukuoka, Fukuoka, Japan: The Step Garden features a park that continues up the side of a 14-story civic center. Entrances on either side enable visitors to move up the steps, visiting the plant-rich layers. “In 1995, when the building opened, Step Garden had 37,000 plants spanning 76 varieties. Today, there are more than 120 varieties and 50,000 plants” oxygenating the building.

Host Analog, Portland, Oregon: Buster Simpson, a Seattle-based artist, created an installation for the Oregon Convention Center that features a 1,000-year-old “wind-toppled” Douglas fir from the Bull Run watershed. The downed tree, with its fungi and flora, was moved and set up again. Simpson installed an irrigation system that feeds in water from Bull Run and sprays a fine mist every 15 minutes. The site teaches visitors about the natural process of decomposition and nutrient recycling. The artist said: “Host Analog is meant to be totally wild and maintenance-free, and it really won’t be finished for another millennium.”

Watch the slideshow and see all 18 projects.

Image credits: (1) Tom Fox / SWA Group, (2-4) Popular Mechanics magazine

Designing Our Future: Sustainable Landscapes

A new expanded version of ASLA’s “Designing Our Future: Sustainable Landscapes” online exhibition highlights real-life examples of sustainable landscape design and its positive effects on the environment and quality of life. These spaces use natural systems to clean the air and water, restore habitats, create healthy communities, and ultimately provide significant economic, social, and environmental value.

Ten new case studies that range from multi-acre parks to a foundation headquarters and urban rooftop farm illustrate just what sustainable landscapes are and how they provide important benefits on a variety of scales. In the process, the case studies, written in clear, understandable language, also introduce users to what exactly landscape architects do. Some of the new case studies include Bryant Park in New York City, a model of socially-sustainable park design; Park 20/20, an example of William McDonough’s “Cradle to Cradle” concept taken to a larger scale; the Kresge Foundation Headquarters, a best practice green building and site; and Rooftop Haven for Urban Agriculture, an innovative green roof farm in inner-city Chicago.

The Web site also features new animations created by Daniel Tal, ASLA, using Google Sketchup:

Both animations also include companion guides — sustainability education resources that enable users to explore sustainable design concepts in greater depth. Check out educational resources on brownfield restoration / ecosystem rehabilitation and green infrastructure.

With the support of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, new animations and educational features will also be added later in the year.

Take a look at and use the “comments” section to share your thoughts.

Pakistan’s Monsoon Floods Not Over

Pakistan’s ongoing battle with the monsoon-caused floods continues even though the government has not received adequate foreign aid. To date, more than 1,600 have been killed, over four million displaced, and 16.8 million affected, writes BBC News. About one million displaced Pakistanis (from one million destroyed homes) have been moved into temporary tent facilities, but five million more need these emergency facilities and don’t have access. Health facilities were also destroyed by the floods, which means reduced access to healthcare even though water-borne diseases are spreading, says Voice of America. However, perhaps the worst part, according to The New York Times, is that flooding continues across the country, spreading down through the Indus Valley. Karen Allen, a Unicef official in Islamabad, the capital, said: “The Indus River is at 40 times its normal volume. Whole cities, of up to 250,000 people, have been evacuated, and people have lost everything.”

World Bank president Robert Zoellick recently put a figure on the total value of agricultural crops destroyed: $1 billion. Additional news sources have reported that non-food crops like cotton, which provides crucial employment and export income, have also been severely damaged. Beyond crops, entire communities’ housing stock and infrastructure have been submerged. Wajid Shamsul Hasan, Pakistan’s high commissioner to the United Kingdom, said rebuilding Pakistan’s housing, infrastructure, and flood control systems will require some $10-15 billion in total.

When the Asia Society asked USAID’s administator, Rajiv Shah, whether there was a relationship between the flooding and climate change, Shah said: “while it’s very hard to attribute any single event to what we’re doing to our global environment it is very clear that that trend is leading to a greater number of large hurricanes, a greater number of floods, hotter and dryer conditions in places that are dependent on weather and rainfall for agriculture, and it’s making it very difficult for the least resilient, the most lower income communities of the world to survive.” In a recent resolution, UN nations argued more strongly that the flooding shows what can happen with climate change. The unanimous resolution providing aid for Pakistan noted that the floods reflect “the adverse impact of climate change and the growing vulnerability of countries to climate change.” 

When Pakistan rebuilds, it will need a mix of both high-tech and low-tech flood control systems, worked into a new comprehensive climate change adaptation and flood control plan. As ArchDaily explains, Japan, the U.K., and the Netherlands all have complex (and expensive) flood mitigation systems in place on major rivers. Often built in local areas in the developing world, low-tech yet adaptable flood control systems may include dams built out of organic materials that channel water into reservoirs. An additional cost-effective approach includes using man-made natural systems like wetlands or other types of green infrastructure to manage floodwater. Pakistan’s flood management teams are now working with external experts on developing new approaches to changing water levels.

Watch Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Amb. Richard C. Holbrooke, and George Soros issue an emergency appeal for aid to Pakistan and see the State Department’s resources.

U.S.A. Today says some 40 U.S. and international aid groups have brought in almost half a billion in emergency relief funds while UN-organized and bilateral aid totals some $250 million. The World Bank has also pledged almost $1 billion and the Asia Development Bank has extended an emergency $2 billion dollar loan.

Still more help is needed: text the word “SWAT” to 50555 to contribute $10 to UNHCR’s flood relief efforts on the ground.

Image credit: BBC News

Interview with Kristina Hill on Managing the Effects of Climate Change

Kristina Hill, PhD, Affiliate ASLA, is Chair of the Landscape Architecture department at the University of Virginia.

At a recent conference on designing wildlife habitats, you said cities are always warmer than surrounding areas because of the urban heat island effect. Cities are then precursors to climate change. In fact, “cities are at the edge of climate change.” What can cities’ experience with elevated heat levels teach us about best and worst ways to mitigate and adapt to climate change?

The fact is, I have yet to see any “worst” – except perhaps no preparation at all! Here, in the U.S., we live in what I call the American Media Bubble – where the media aren’t using climate change to sell papers, unlike their Canadian and European counterparts. Since they don’t see the headlines the rest of the world is reading, the average American doesn’t know what’s at stake. And as a result, their elected officials are discouraged from taking action. But the rest of the world is starting to prepare. Our economic future, and the health, safety and welfare of many of our citizens, depends on learning from the best practices that are out there.

I’ll say something about the best instead. The best approach I know of can be simply described using three categories of actions: to protect, renew, and re-tool. That means, to protect the most vulnerable people and places, especially the ones that offer the greatest future diversity and flexibility; to renew our basic resources, like soil fertility, water quality and quantity, air quality, and human health; and to re-tool, altering urban systems – buildings, transit, landscapes — to use less energy (since energy use is still a proxy for CO2 generation, unless you use only clean sources), and generate fewer wastes that can’t be used by someone else, locally. I’ll give some examples, since all three categories of action require spatial strategies and create significant roles for landscape architects who have the drive to change cities. Most American cities are just at the point of taking stock of the magnitude of their exposure to climate change, but European cities have acted and offer practical lessons learned.

Cities are at the edge of climate change in several ways. First, in the sense that enough people’s lives and property are at stake to force them to take actions to adapt. Rotterdam is investing to try to make itself “climate proof” because its Europe’s biggest cargo port city, it houses an increasingly large portion of the Dutch population, and the Dutch believe in their ability to live with the changing dynamics of water. Not only do they believe in it at home, they also see it as a major export—knowledge and ability they can share with cities all over the world, for a profit. London has built one of the world’s most famous storm barriers on the Thames because the land in the center of the city is so valuable, and the population so large, that they can’t afford NOT to protect it. Hamburg has used a different strategy – also driven by the location of its cargo port inside the city limits. It will allow flooding, but designed a major new part of the city to be resilient to high water, with water-proof parking garages, a network of emergency pedestrian walkways 20 feet above the street, and no residential units at ground level. Even the parks in this new Harbor City district are designed to withstand battering by waves and storm surge, either by floating as the waters rise, or by incorporating lots of hard surfaces that only need to be washed off when the waters recede.

 Thames storm barrier

These examples fall into the “protect” category of adaptive actions. So would efforts to conserve north-facing slopes, where many of today’s native plant species may persist the longest as summer heat waves and droughts become more extreme, more common, and of greater duration. North-facing slopes might be our Noah’s Ark, bringing species with us into the future and buying them time to adapt – behaviorally or genetically — if they are able.

But from an ethical point of view, the most important way to protect cities is to protect the most vulnerable people who live in them: low-income children and their caregivers (often single mothers), people with illnesses, and seniors. All over the world, people with even modest wealth will be able to protect themselves. They’ll buy better air conditioning, pay more for electricity as fuel prices rise, stay in a hotel when floods come, get health care when they need it, maybe even relocate by buying a home in a less vulnerable location. Children born into poor families where their mothers have to both work and care for them without paid help are in a very different situation. Many people in New Orleans who lived paycheck to paycheck did not evacuate when Katrina came, not because they were stubborn or unaware but because it was the end of the month and they couldn’t afford to stay in a motel. Or didn’t own a car to evacuate with in the first place. Most people in the world are that poor. If we want to adapt, we need to help them adapt. Those children contain the seeds of our future creativity. Adapting cities without protecting children is not only unethical, it’s unwise.     

New York City, London, and other major cities have been creating detailed climate change adaptation action plans. In your mind, what do cities need to focus on the most as they develop these plans? What about smaller communities creating plans with very limited resources?

This question offers me a chance to provide examples of both the renewal and the re-tooling actions.

In the U.S., Chicago has the most detailed and strategic climate adaptation plan. Mayor Daly made the environment one of his priorities, and he and his staff have done their best work in this area. Even so, what they mostly have is a good sense of what the problems are — but not a lot of solutions. This is principally because the problems will emerge over time, and it’s difficult in our political climate to spend lots of public money before a problem is part of everyday life. This past year was a case in point – in winter, there were unusually large snowstorms in cities like Washington, D.C., and people claimed that “global warming” was a hoax. By summer, we found ourselves on track to experience the hottest year ever across the planet as a whole. The second-hottest year was 2005. People have a hard time understanding that the real problem is not a gradual warming trend; the real problem is that we’re facing an increase in climate extremes – from snowfall to heat and from floods to drought. Flooding this year in Brazil and now Pakistan has affected the health and security of millions of people, most of whom are children. Cities need to recognize that it’s not about planning for an average of 2-10 degrees warmer summers; it’s the new extremes in rainfall, flooding, drought, and the duration of heat waves that will really challenge our infrastructure and affect our lives.  Cities need to focus on these extremes, and make investments to be more resilient to them in terms of both the duration and the magnitude of these extreme circumstances.

Chicago expects to experience more than twice as many extreme heat days within 50-60 years than it does now, with impacts on its local economy, infrastructure, and even tourism.

That’s what I mean by “re-tooling.” Urban systems represent enormous investments of public money, and once built, the debt accrued by building them creates a long lag time before these expensive systems can be changed significantly. Landscape architects need to wade into some of the policy and planning debates that surround these investments of public money. If we were designing a house and landscape for ourselves and everyone we care about to live in, together, 30 years from now, we wouldn’t design it based on our income and needs today. When cities build infrastructure, or develop/re-develop large areas of land, those projects are meant to have value and perform as intended for at least 30 years; many are intended to function for 50 or 70 years, perhaps longer. We need to question whether these urban places and systems are really being designed to perform as intended during an era of increasing climate extremes, because we and almost everyone we care about will live in them, all over the world. We need to demand investment strategies that link future debt to future performance. No project should be allowed to generate public debt for 30-40 years if it won’t add to our future capacity to adapt; if it doesn’t increase our resilience, it should be paid for only out of today’s money, or not be built at all.

Taking out highways makes some sense, financially as well as in terms of new land use options, because maintaining an underutilized, polluting roadway ad infinitum is expensive. The effort in the South Bronx to remove the Sheridan Expressway is a good example; it could be replaced with a mix of public and market-rate housing, and parks that increase the resilience of that district to flooding while providing clean places to swim when it’s hot. Other cities, from Portland to San Francisco and Milwaukee to Providence, have taken out highways. That kind of capital investment is expensive in the short term, but may save public money in the relatively near future while increasing resilience. Our ways of thinking about public infrastructure have to change pretty radically from the old “more is better” attitude if we want cities to avoid spending themselves into a dead-end, with lower quality of life and reduced economic competitiveness.

Cities need to focus on resilience as they make their debt commitments. If they are investing in projects that replace old highways with new ones, but don’t add significant alternatives to driving (like public transit), they’re making a mistake. Those cities will be paying for that non-adaptive project for so long, they won’t have any money to spend on adaptation. On the other hand, projects like public transit inside growing cities should be able to extend their debt over a longer period, making them more affordable, because they will expand the options of people who live in the future. They are an investment in future flexibility, and increase our adaptability to trends like rising fuel prices. That makes them an investment in resilience. Designers, public advocacy groups, elected officials, federal agencies, and bond rating agencies should use criteria like this to demand smarter decision-making with respect to climate change, and alter the type of work designers have to do in cities. No more short-term, single-purpose infrastructure (or public space or urban district plans, which are seen as more a part of infrastructure today than they have been for 150 years).

I think big cities will have to incorporate both centralized and decentralized infrastructure into their investments. Small communities, on the other hand, will likely have to choose between encouraging density or enabling more people to live off the grid in an affordable, healthy way. With greater density, we can use centralized systems to make these small cities more livable (with less driving, more walkable neighborhoods, more affordable infrastructure services). With greater energy, water and waste independence on a house by house basis, and access to cleaner transportation technologies (electric cars), small cities can provide fewer services and make themselves more resilient by keeping their costs from growing. The latter strategy is pretty optimistic that cleaner, house-based technologies will be ready and affordable, and that people will be willing to live within the limits they generate. I’m not such a technological optimist, so I’d advocate for the density strategy.

Youngstown, Ohio offers an example of the “renewal” category of actions for smaller cities. By that, I mean renewal of basic resources like soil fertility, water and air quality, health, and food security. As I understand the story that came through the media, the elected officials decided to acquire derelict residential properties using a spatial strategy that, when the houses were demolished, created a park system that would allow higher quality of life for future residents. The vegetation and water resources of the park system could be “grown” slowly over time, using successional strategies for the plants (with limited maintenance interventions) and using biological processes to help clean soils and water. Small communities that take the long view, using a 50-year timeframe to compare alternatives and focusing on their quality of life in a healthier environment, will be attractive places to live in a geographically-flexible future economy. If the land acquisition is planned well, and short-term uses are allowed that fit today’s needs – say, local food production, or even ATV recreation if it supports a disturbance regime that helps plant succession — that same future-oriented green infrastructure can get a mayor re-elected in the short term as well.

Climate change is expected to cause mass migrations of animal and plant species. You said it’s more efficient for species escaping rising heat levels to move up in elevation as opposed to moving north. Unfortunately, for many species, there isn’t higher elevation. What design solutions can aid migration?

The most important planning and design strategies for biodiversity involve first protecting the land that has been conserved to date, in two ways. Number one, by adding buffer zones to their edges in which development is restricted or prevented. This is especially important on northern-aspect slopes, where characteristic regional species are more likely to persist in an era of increasing dryness and temperature extremes. Second, educating the public about the importance of reducing the negative impacts of what landscape ecologists call “the matrix” – which includes all the developed landscapes outside the reserves. This is a strategy ecologists sometimes call “reducing matrix hostility.” It basically means that even developed landscapes can contribute to the overall ability of a region to support sensitive species that lived there before development occurred. When each developed parcel manages the quality and quantity of its stormwater runoff, for example, it contributes to a healthier landscape with sustained regional biodiversity. If parcels contain fertile soils and plants that support native insects, and even allow some standing dead trees in the mix, they’re more likely to support “stop-over” feeding or perching by native birds. Improving air quality can make it possible for insects to locate and pollinate plants in developed landscapes. Reducing noise on roadways can benefit frogs that use sound in mating behavior in wetlands nearby. Building wildlife over- and under-passes can allow animals to migrate and disperse through heavily developed landscapes.

These are the basic spatial interventions being discussed in the conservation literature as ways to adapt existing conservation reserves to climate change.  

In addition to making sure the conserved patches are shored up with buffers and a region has reduced its “matrix hostility,” climate change creates an imperative to add corridors and stepping stones – both north-south (connecting across latitudes) and up-down (connecting across elevation gradients) – at all spatial scales. As the ecologist Stuart Pimm has pointed out in a recent article, it’s more efficient for species to move a few thousand feet laterally to move up by hundreds of feet of elevation as a way of staying cooler than it is to move tens or hundreds of miles north to get the same benefit. But going up in elevation is like walking the plank, because it means there is less area available as the species go up – and the solution is limited by the maximum height of the hills or mountains available.

This concept is one that I developed to help students understand the special functional role that cooler slopes will probably play in a warmer climate. What we now think of as native plants will persist longest on north-facing slopes, and be lost first on the warmest slopes.

The biggest questions involve timing. If species characteristic of a region start to die out, will species that could survive the new seasonal conditions be able to get there, find suitable locations, and successfully reproduce before they die out in their own regions? When will the species that are their food be available locally? When will new predators, parasites, and competitors also move in? It’s a very complicated four-dimensional chess game, not a simple progression towards the north or up in elevation. That’s why no one can really predict which species will survive where, and what traits will end up in the mix.

The potential new spatial strategy in all this involves conserving slopes with northern aspects, linking them to each other via waterways and ridges. I hope we will see legislation over the next 10-20 years that identifies these slopes as potential refuges for biodiversity in an era of increasing temperature spikes and drought events. But even without that, designers and planners can take this into account on their own and with their clients. Like the cove forests of Appalachia, these cooler, protected areas will be places where the species that have been characteristic of many regions may persist as climate change occurs – making them key elements of future habitat diversity and possibly trait diversity.

You also argue that climate change will yield changes in the distribution of plants and animals, and their traits. Furthermore, some plants and animals may even benefit from climate change. How will climate change impact species distribution? What kinds of traits will enable some plants and animals to better adapt?

This is an issue that the ecologist Stuart Pimm has drawn attention to in a very thorough, readable article that appeared in the journal Current Biology in July 2009. He’s done the very best job I’ve seen of providing examples for how complicated these dynamics might be. Pimm has provided examples of butterflies in the U.K. that have recently expanded their range because they changed host plants (the species used to be limited to only one plant); or butterflies that remain linked to one plant species, but have drastically expanded their range as a result of warmer temperatures that have helped their host plants expand geographically. He raises questions about how species will be able to take advantage of “openings” in ecosystems as certain species die out – will the resources needed by new species be in place? For instance, will the insects eaten by a particular bird already be available when the bird arrives? Will they be eaten by a new competitor when they do arrive, leaving the bird unable to find sufficient food? These changes are going to involve a lot of very specific timing issues, and will probably take decades and even centuries to “settle in” to new patterns of species distributions.

Biologists do expect some species to benefit from climate disruptions, and others to lose out. For example, one of my colleagues here at at the University of Virginia, Michael Pace, has recently found that zebra mussel populations in the Hudson River seem to be declining as temperatures have risen. We’ve been worried about the impacts of this introduced species for decades. The problem of its population expansion could actually be halted by warming waters. On the unhappy side, many species around the world are expected to become extinct as a result of these complex changes. The loss of key tree species in the western U.S. whose seeds have been staple foods for species such as grizzly bears may be a factor that drives greater conflicts between humans and bears, as another example. The recent killing of a camper north of Yellowstone has been attributed to a grizzly whose cubs were malnourished, at the same time the whitebark pine – a key food source – has been in decline from drought and an insect pest. We may wonder why bears become more dangerous, then discover a link to stresses related to climate disruptions.

It’s literally impossible to predict the interactions among predators, prey, parasites, mutualists, and competitors as the environment changes around them. We can’t just look at a hardiness zone map and shift today’s species northward a couple of states. It won’t be that simple. When you consider the impact that pathogens have had on individual tree species, for example, the idea that climate changes will produce smooth northward transitions starts to seem ludicrous. What happens if something like Dutch Elm disease comes along as climate changes? We could end up with key species missing from the new mix of “suitable” plants for a region. Their seeds may get to the new region, but they may not be able to survive, even if the climate is right.

In terms of traits, many people don’t realize that it’s actually higher trait diversity– not species diversity – that drives ecosystems to higher productivity. If we have fewer species in the future but the same or a greater number of traits, the level of functional performance generated by ecosystems (purifying air and water, or providing energy through photosynthesis, for example) may not change. But we don’t know enough to predict whether or how fast traits may diversify within species, or within ecosystems. So most people use the “proxy” of species diversity to represent trait diversity, and perhaps we should continue to do so until we have better ways to predict how traits may change.

In downtown Chicago and other cities, coyotes and other wildlife have been found digging through dumpsters, in the subway, and inside supermarkets. What kind of designs can aid animals that have taken up urban living because of changes in their natural environments?

That’s an interesting question, from a strategic point of view. Species that are already thriving in urban environments or begin to do so in the future may not need our help, since they are finding ways to survive by themselves in human-dominated environments. They may, however, provoke new attitudes, ethical debates, and management relationships. I think that’s the really interesting part—will our cultural attitudes towards these animals change? Perhaps even our sense of what it means to be human among other species may change. What would happen if an animal that represents a threat to our children becomes able to thrive in urban areas?

Coyotes are probably expanding their urban populations not just because of lost habitat outside cities, although that may be a factor in some areas, but also because of changes in their behavioral traits. They are becoming habituated to human presence as they increasingly subsist on a diet of wasted human food and cats. Juvenile animals learn from their mothers and their peers how to find food and den sites, and what dangers to avoid. Urban coyotes appear to be learning that they don’t need parks to make dens, although it’s not yet clear to researchers what elements of the built environment are suitable for them. They’re also learning that toddlers are not dangerous, and may be prey. Over the next few decades, we may have to learn to design deterrents and exclosures – fences or something equally effective — that keep coyotes out of areas where small children play, rather than design habitat for coyotes in cities. We may eventually even need to hunt coyotes to keep their urban populations small, and remind them that humans should be avoided. Coyotes have been an important part of stories that encode and convey the knowledge of Native American peoples, playing the role of trickster and teacher to humans. What happens to that relationship when the teacher comes to the city and really thrives there? Will urban people learn new things about their relationship to other species? It’s hard to fully appreciate how much that could change our self-image as urban people, over a long period of interaction.

Crows and other corvid species offer a similar example. Crows thrive in cities because of the food subsidy they receive from human food wastes available in dumpsters. As their populations grow, their impact on wild food sources also seems to increase – particularly on songbirds, when crows eat the juveniles in the nest. We could design exclosures, in the form of wire or plastic mesh structures that would keep the larger-bodied crows out while allowing smaller songbirds to fly in. Installing the mesh during nesting season could be a fun public art action, as well as change the ecological performance of urban woodlands and shrubs. Crows are another smart species that aren’t shy of humans. YouTube videos have popped up showing crows dive-bombing urban pedestrians when they walk near a tree that has a crow’s nest in it. And like coyotes, crows are a legendary teaching species, appearing in stories that tell humans how to be resourceful as they live and interact with other forms of life in North America. Crows are now associated with potential transmission of West Nile virus, and may teach us about the dangers of living with other species (or people) who are hosts for disease, and create new ethical debates about how we can make cities more resilient in the face of contagious illnesses transmitted by animal vectors. That’s a longer conversation, but again, one about renewal of fundamental resources like health as ecosystems change in response to long-term trends.

City crows, Chennai, India.

Stormwater overflow from cities also presents a major problem for natural fish habitat in surrounding areas. You cited projects in Seattle like the SEA Street, which can help ensure fish eggs don’t get flushed away during rainstorms. How can infrastructure be designed to be wildlife-friendly? 

Infrastructure can be designed much better than we have done it for the last 100 years, for both people and wildlife. Once our elected leaders and their advisors make the question of whether an investment in infrastructure will add to our resilience their top priority, planners and designers should be involved in those projects by necessity alongside civil engineers. That’s an additional, self-interested reason why we need to advocate for that change in priorities about the investment of public funds.

Before I give examples to answer this question, I want to point out that “infrastructure systems” include the point-of-use of resources (inside buildings, for example, where electricity is consumed) in addition to the transmission networks that convey resources from a place of abundance to a place of scarcity in relation to demand. These systems also include the landscapes that support the place of abundance, both inside and outside urban areas — headwaters and tributaries that drain to reservoirs, for instance. Our focus on the networks for conveyance – pipes, overhead powerlines, highways, and seawalls – when we conceive of infrastructure has drastically reduced our ability to imagine options for making cities and their supporting regions more resilient.

When designers are working on infrastructure projects designed to help cities adapt to new climate extremes (as well as population growth and economic trends), issues related to social justice and support for biodiversity should be easier to integrate. It’s useful to remember, however, that from a functional point of view, trait diversity matters to ecosystem performance more than species diversity. It is in our direct interests as humans to conserve and promote trait diversity, in order to increase the ability of the ecosystems around us to provide us with basic services – like cleaning our air and water through biological processes. The legislative process has a long way to go before we see a federal “Endangered Traits Act,” and yet that’s what the issue is for ecosystem functioning.

If infrastructure projects protect vulnerable people — especially poor families — and special places, like north-facing slopes, or headwaters of stream systems, or estuary “nurseries” for fish and shellfish, that’s the first performance issue. The second is that these projects should contribute to the renewal of basic resources (soil fertility, air quality, water quality, etc.) and not reduce the supply of these. Finally, the third is that they should contribute to re-tooling our ways of moving things around, so that we are more resilient to extreme environmental events and increasing fuel costs.

Transit, parks, and new shoreline structures that provide habitat while protecting property and utilities all look like better investments using the criteria I’ve noted above. To me, being “wildlife-friendly” isn’t the point – it’s about supporting ecosystem resilience, with humans recognized as an integral component of those ecosystems. Empirical observations and models support the conclusion that many species will become extinct or rare because of climate disruptions and increased urbanization over the next several centuries, no matter what designers do today. The real trick is to act ethically as human beings in the midst of those larger trends, advocating to protect what we can and increase our ecosystem-level resilience over time.

The port of Antwerp has implemented a strategy that provides an interesting example for infrastructure and wildlife. Biologists and planners collaborated there to identify a “habitat backbone” system of permanent wetlands to support habitat for natterjack toads. But they added the idea that port landscapes with shifting, temporary uses can also play an important role in providing temporary habitat, as part of what landscape ecologist Richard Forman once called the “shifting mosaic” of a landscape. It’s possible that many other species could be supported in and around urban areas by providing both a core habitat area (the “backbone”) and temporary zones available in different seasons, or in different years (the “shifting mosaic”).

The Bay Area Conservation and Development Commission in San Francisco is studying ways to respond to increases in sea level while supporting species that live in the Bay, using a mix of artificial marshes and hardened shoreline structures. The Dutch are experimenting with a strategy they call the “sand motor,” in which they would place dredged sand in an artificial mini-peninsula along their coast, and allow the processes of wave action and along-shore currents to redistribute it as massive sand dunes to protect their coast. I believe that this sort of “cyborg landscape” strategy, combining artifice and natural processes, holds the most promise for supporting biodiversity while achieving human goals – not the least of which might be gaining an aesthetic that appreciates processes and change. If humans see change as beautiful, adaptation will be easier.

Dutch sand motor.

Lastly, a recent article in Topos argued that landscape architects may actually be having a negative climate impact because they specify unsustainable products. Part of the problem is that in many cases sustainable product alternatives aren’t available. What can landscape architects and other designers do to help bring down greenhouse gas emissions now?

This reminds me in a funny way of the whole “paper vs. plastic” debate. Clearly, we need to attend to the materials we use and make sure they embody less energy, generate less waste, and are less toxic. Absolutely. But in the larger sense of urban resilience, the economic and material context of different cities and projects makes it difficult to generalize about which materials are best. If I use low-embodied-energy materials to build a house in a part of New Orleans that is below sea level, have I addressed the larger contextual problem? No. Is it more important that some really terrific new projects in Stockholm have used concrete and steel, which can be thought of as high-embodied-energy materials, or that they are very efficient in energy use once built, generate very small amounts of un-renewable waste, and are linked by public transit? I would say their innovations are more important than the question of material usage.

The key is for designers to pay attention to research about materials, and choose the best available components in their region. ASLA and/or the Landscape Architecture Foundation could do a lot to provide this information. Overall, I think the use of energy and generation of CO2 by buildings and transportation completely swamps the use of energy in designed landscapes. I would prefer to see designers focus on policy and spatial strategy innovations, rather than get into a “holier-than-thou” debate about materials. With that said, obviously there is a lot of common-sense advice we can give to clients and implement in our designs – my highest priorities are in relation to water use. We can use plants that need less water in most urban settings where droughts are increasing, and give more thought to using drip irrigation systems in regions that did not formerly require irrigation (the southeast U.S., for examples). We can take advantage of greenwaste recycling programs in mulch specifications, and even advocate for linking the graywater generated by buildings to our designed landscapes. In a few years to a few decades, that may be the best source of urban irrigation water available, and could transform the way urban streams function if landscape irrigation supports summertime base flows.

In terms of recent research that has broad implications, perhaps one of the most surprising to landscape architects would be the news that helping fewer trees to grow older and larger provides much more carbon storage than planting many new, young trees. Urban areas and their regions are full of early-successional forests that, according to this research, could contribute more if they were thinned to allow more individuals to reach a maximum biomass. Perhaps our “million tree programs” are misguided, if they involve planting lots of small-caliper trees that require gas-powered maintenance crews and equipment. Helping individual trees get bigger may do more to reduce carbon emissions than any other single thing that landscape architects do, outside of policy and infrastructure strategy innovations.

My preferred advice about what landscape architects can do now is to suggest that we get involved in local politics to shape major investments of public funds. ASLA and LAF can help with that as well, though local and state chapters. But it may also be that a younger generation of activist designers will lead the way here, as they have in cities like Seattle. Policy debates are messy and volatile, but our vision as a profession is needed now more than ever in that arena. We need to be bold, and share our ideas in public — every day.

Interview conducted by Jared Green.

Image credits: (1) Kristina Hill, (2) Flickr (3) Chicago Climate Action Plan, (4) Kristina Hill, (5) Kristina Hill, (6) 10,000 Birds, (7) Virtual Marquette 

Living Near Public Transportation May Extend Your Life

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) released “Evaluating Public Transportation Health Benefits,” a comprehensive survey of recent research on smart growth communities, that argues people who live near high-quality public transportation “drive less, exercise more, and live longer, and are generally healthier than residents of communities without high-quality public transportation.” The Victoria Transport Policy Institute conducted the APTA-commissioned survey of existing research studies and concluded that living in communities with public transit “provides large health benefits.”

APTA president William Millar said: “Public transportation enhances the overall quality of life of an individual and a community. Use of public transit simply means that you walk more which increases fitness levels and leads to healthier citizens. More importantly, increasing use of public transit may be the most effective traffic safety counter measure a community can employ.” The survey authors contend: “Such communities also have less pollution because public transportation produces far less emissions per passenger mile than private automobiles.”

A number of the 10 leading causes of reduced lifespan identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are transportation-related. Cancer and heart disease can be linked to transportation. The report authors sum-up: “Pollution contributes to cancer and congenital anomalies [birth defects], and sedentary living contributes to heart disease and strokes.”

In addition, smart growth communities can reduce violent death rates from vehicle accidents, another top-10 killer listed by the CDC. “10  U.S. counties with the ‘smartest,’ most transit-oriented growth have approximately one-fourth the traffic fatality rates as those counties with the most sprawling development. For example, the traffic fatality rate for the Bronx, NY was approximately four per 100,000 residents.  However, for Miami, Kansas, the rate was almost 40 per 100,000.”

The research survey found that the long-term health benefits of living near high-quality public transportation accrue regardless of income.  Also, demand for multi-modal transportation and the neighborhoods these networks help create cuts across income levels. “A growing portion of households want to rely more on alternative modes and live in more accessible, multi-modal communities.”

Read the survey and see the CDC’s recommendations for improving health through transportation policy, which calls for expanding transportation options available to communities. Also, see Millar’s comments at The Atlantic‘s Future of the City forum.

Image credit: Greenwork Sheffield / Yahoo! Green

Drawing the History of Landscape Design

Elizabeth Boults and Chip Sullivan’s “Illustrated History of Landscape Design,” leads the reader through a visual study of the pivotal themes and works of landscape design. Beginning with prehistoric constructed landscapes and concluding with a projection for sustainable design in the 21st century, this 260-page visual analysis roots design first in its chronological context and then in its geographic setting to depict how it changed as a response to human needs.

With chronologies of major historic events and lists of cultural references, the book explores the social influences that have guided the evolution of landscape design in different regions and countries.“A designed landscape is a cultural product, representing the ideals and values of its creator, owner, or patron, and situated within a unique social, economic, and political environment.”

The case studies threaded throughout provide visual narratives, which string together views of the landscapes with plans, sections, elevations, perspectives, axonometrics, and storyboards. The authors illustrate the uniqueness of particular landscape designs, emphasizing time and place as key factors. 

For Villa Lante in Bagnaia, Italy, the authors consider the axis design and the architectural elements, telling the narrative of the space through the course of water. The visual representations clearly convey the experience of moving through the designed landscape. Boults concludes that this space is a “stunning example of Renaissance design to this day.” 

Similarly, the authors relate different views of Stourhead, U.K. to its reference of The Aeneid. The illustrations enable the reader to fully understand the story of the places.

Though enjoyable to peruse, some of the analyses are somewhat distilled depictions of design principles. The design principles could have been explored in greater detail so that the link between the broader social influences and the design is made stronger. 

Still, the “Illustrated History of Landscape Design” is a good starting point for readers seeking to become familiar with landscape history as an art form that reflects society. Buyers of the book can not only enrich their landscape design vocabulary, but also get a good understanding of the evolution of landscape design. As the authors put it, “our goal is to take the reader on a visual romp through the great garden spaces of the past.”

Check out the book and see a brief video of the authors.

This post is by Amanda Rosenberg, ASLA 2010 advocacy and communications intern.

Image credit: Elizabeth Boults and Chip Sullivan / Illustrated History of Landscape Design

St. Louis Arch Landscape Design Competition Down to Five Teams

The City, The Arch, The River, the international design competition that will generate a new design for the park and riverfront around the world-famous St. Louis Arch, has announced five finalists. The winning design team will go on to create extensive new parks, facilities, and transportation networks for the grounds of the Saarinen-design monument. CityArchRiver2015, the non-profit organization sponsoring the competition, says the new landscape must be as iconic as the Arch, provide community green space, better connect the city to the Arch grounds, and improve pedestrian access (see earlier post).

The St. Louis Dispatch said Mayor Francis Slay praised the finalists: “We now can see what the world’s most prominent designers have put into images, what we all have been thinking about.” He gave the project his support, adding: “I am fully committed to this project. I have been in awe of the Arch ever since I saw the last piece being put into place.”

Some 49 teams were narrowed down to nine semi-finalists (see earlier post), and now five finalists. The five teams provided detailed presentations, including images and narratives, of their proposals:

Behnisch team: “In considering the challenges of invigorating the Arch Grounds, the greater St. Louis region and the Mississippi River, our design approach intends to utilize a strategic series of design moves, evolutionary in nature, to arrive at a transcendent, holistic, visionary statement – a ‘catalytic main event’ that resonates with an international community. The most significant part of any design rests in ‘civic sustainability’ – the ability to sustain the present and future needs and ambitions of a larger, diverse community.”

The Behnisch team, which consists of more than 20 firms and designers, also includes well-known German landscape architect, Herbert Dreiseitl, International ASLA (read an interview). 

Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates team: “Given the site’s sheer immensity, sectional complexity, and competing scales—all in a parcel surrounded by a crushing maze of infrastructure—we believe that expanding the site’s scalar and experiential range is crucial to engaging the wide-ranging competition goals. The creation of a new range of more intimate experiences, based primarily in landscape, will be the main engine for the transformation of the Memorial and its relationship with both the city and the river.”

The MVVA team includes some 15 designers and firms.

PWP Landscape Architecture, Foster + Partners, Civitas team: “PWP Landscape Architecture, Foster + Partners, and Civitas are committed to a seamless integration of architecture, landscape, and urban design that will respect the Eero Saarinen- and Dan Kiley-designed Arch and grounds while re-imagining the visitor experience, re-engaging the memorial with its natural and built environment, and elevating the meaning and performance of the landscape.”

The PWP team consists of some 20 designers and firms.

SOM, Hargreaves, BIG: “Our team will seek an eloquent vision for the Mississippi Riverfront as it is now and what it can become in the future. We will develop ideas which will strengthen St. Louis and East St. Louis relationships with the River and build new, stronger and more connected neighborhoods around the Memorial grounds. We are committed to a healthier, more accessible, and richer Riverfront.”

The SOM, Hargreaves, BIG team consists of some 15 firms.

Weiss/Manfredi team: “The Framing a Modern Masterpiece competition has the obvious potential to connect cities as well as the urgent need to bridge communities, extend economies, recover ecologies, and intertwine divergent histories for a sustainable future. From a context of social, cultural, ecological, and infrastructural complexity, an innovative and elegant design will emerge. We believe this competition represents a compelling opportunity to frame a transformative sequence of experiences that engage the complex histories and identities that define our communities, cities, and nation.”

The Weiss/Manfredi team consists of almost 30 designers and firms, including Biohabitats, an ecological restoration firm, and D.I.R.T. Studio, landscape remediation specialists.

The competition was announced in December 2009. The eight-person jury is set to pick a winning design on September 24.

The National Park Service expects the project to cost more than $300 million. CityArchRiver2015, which is organizing funding from federal and state governments, foundations, and private organizations, is hoping to complete construction by Oct. 28, 2015, the 50th anniversary of the topping of the Gateway Arch.

Image credits: (1) Michael Defilippo / The Architect’s Newspaper, (2) Behnisch team, (3) Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates team, (4) PWP Landscape Architecture, Foster + Partners, Civitas team, (5) SOM, Hargreaves, BIG team, (6) Weiss / Manfredi team.

Interview with Jeb Brugmann, Author of “Welcome to the Urban Revolution”

Jeb Brugmann is author of “Welcome to the Urban Revolution: How Cities are Changing the World,” a book Planetizen called “important and immensely engaging.” Brugmann is a strategy consultant to leaders and international organizations and a professor at Cambridge University’s Program for Industry.

In “Welcome to the Urban Revolution: How Cities are Changing the World,” you point out that half of the world’s population now lives in cities, which means that half the world has become a city. While national governments and U.N. organizations seemingly dominate, this new global city has changed the actual “concrete order” of the international system.  This global city is one of the more tangible forms of globalization.  Why the global city?  How are cities forming a global system?

This is a self-organizing process. My book is very much in the tradition of Jane Jacobs. What Jane Jacobs said was happening within a neighborhood is also actually happening at the global level. My argument is cities are primarily an economic space in our time of globalization, and we have not yet learned how to optimize those spaces.

There are three things getting in the way. One is we don’t understand natural economies of cities. Why does everyone want to be in an urban location, from the corporation to the poorest person in the world? Secondly, how do you get people who seek urban locations for their own economic purposes to align around a common strategy for that space so that multiple individual urban strategies can be served through the way the city has developed, rather than working against each other? Otherwise, you have all kinds of conflict. People in these communities are trying to design and build the city to serve a strategy that competes with the strategies of others. The third problem is the industry we turn to to build cities has a very risk-managing, standardized, mass production-type approach; it doesn’t allow us to optimize and customize solutions for different city-building communities, or for new strategies, like sustainability.

The global city system grows because people secure locations in individual cities that allow them to develop their business, become a hub of criminal activity, or form a social community of some kind, say an immigrant neighborhood. Their community creates locations in a network of other cities around the world that provide them with distinct urban economic advantages. The city in which a company or immigrant community operates is actually the network of locations they form in cities around the world. The global city system is the total outcome of this self-organizing process of everyone trying to get anchors in a network of cities in order to achieve a larger strategy.

You argue that in China increasingly widespread social protest is directly related to design efficiencies and the mismanagement of urbanization. Both developing and developed countries are experiencing problems associated with rapid urban growth, with two billion more expected to join the ranks of city dwellers by 2030.  What can cities do to better manage rapid urbanization?  Can this rapid urban migration even be managed?

This competition for urban space by all of these diverse groups that want to secure the natural economies of urban location is inherently chaotic, right? No one’s coordinating and orchestrating this. You can’t model it. In order to manage it, what one needs to do is become effective in supporting the self-organizing process of what I called city-building communities. One needs to understand the strategies of different groups struggling to secure urban locations and figure out how you can enable the design of city spaces in a way that a group of interests or communities can co-locate in the location and use it together. Through their co-location they can jointly create economic advantage together.

We see this in districts all over the world. You see different industries clustering together along with different social or demographic groups that service and are employed in those industries. This is the process of urbanism, a self-organizing of communities, often times through conflict. This can actually become a managed process. By understanding the strategic interests of the groups trying to secure urban locations, you can use urban design as the way to try to co-locate them together and align their different economic strategies.

My whole book is about what I call urban strategy. The fundamentals of urban strategy involve using rich design processes to align the competing economic interests of different communities trying to secure urban locations.

You point to Dharavi, India as a model “city system.” What is special about Dharavi?  How is this city system model superior to the others you mention in your book — ad hoc city building, city models and master-planned cities?

Dharavi is a specific user community that has particular economic strategy, which is about using cash-based economic activity to generate enough wealth to incrementally invest in property and business development. It’s a slum community that’s based on a cash economy. What they’ve done over a few generations of trial and error in Dharavi is to figure out a highly cost-effective and productive way to build urban space in order to compete  as an informal, so called slum-based, manufacturing community in the global economy. It’s different than ad hoc city building. It started as ad hoc — it started as a trial and error process and it was messy, which is why it was called a slum, right? But what they’ve done through ad hoc trial and error over a few decades is figure out a form of urban development that optimizes space for the user community.

The ‘kumbarwada’ residential pottery production district of Dharavi, Mumbai, one of numerous Dharavi enterprise districts with distinct urban design characteristics developed by its user community. / Image credit: Gabriel Britto

That’s different than what I’ve called city model. What I call a city model is basically a business model tied to a very standardized form of building product, like a condo tower. A condo is a business model for how you divide up space and sell it on the market. The model involves common ownership of property, but you sell the unit. You need building types to be relatively standardized to deliver that model. So, a city model is not customized for anyone. It is a standardized, risk-tested, value-engineered model for the developer, offering a very basic standard utility to a user.

Master plan approaches to cities can be a route to supporting a real urbanism as much as ad hoc can be. However, typically, the master plan model is a way to take a big piece of property and prepare it for the implantation of a bunch of city models. The master plan district is now a bunch of condo towers, office buildings, and shopping malls. Maybe, there’s a designed cultural facility so that you have unique identity there, too. It’s very different from this self-organizing process of a user community customizing a way of urban design and city-building to their specific needs.

In a successful city system, communities can “creatively use density to enable proximity and concentration.” What does this mean? How is this done in practice?

I think density is wrongly understood. Its planning community interpretation is the number of people located per acre or per unit of land. As an economic concept, which I think density really is, it’s a way of optimizing the use of a particular piece of urban space by increasing the number of compatible activities in a unit of space. What does that mean? Number of users, yes, that’s the quantitative dimension of it, but the qualitative aspect of density is co-location of uses within a space so that 24/7 value is created. By mixing the right uses together, they offer what’s called positive externalities; they mutually support each other’s ambitions. If you’re going to create infrastructure, let’s make sure that infrastructure is used as much as possible, 24/7 around the clock, so that you get a better return on your investment.

I come back to density as being a fundamental economic concept. There are many different kinds of density. You can design spaces for different user communities that involve more people per area or more co-location of different kinds of uses that are mutually compatible with one another to increase the overall wealth created or activity taking place. To me, that’s density, and depending on the user community and the specific location, there are many ways to build that density.

Dharavi has two to three-story building density and Hong Kong is a 40 to 50-story density. They’re very different densities, but the basic economic value of this kind of density creates in terms of a physical design is common. Also, Dharavi’s two or three-story density has probably more people per square kilometer than Hong Kong’s density at 40, 50-stories. Figure that out, but it has to do with dividing the room inside a building into a much smaller units.

People get really dogmatic that density is about high rise buildings. We only see density as high-rise buildings because all the industry offers to us when we ask for density is high-rise buildings. There are many forms of density.

You talk a lot about the role people play in shaping urban environments and how communities are, in effect, creating new urban ecosystems.  For instance, University of Arizona research in Phoenix found that the diversity of plants is strongly related to family income.  “Higher family income, higher plant diversity, lower family income, lower plant diversity.” Are these new urban environments created within neighborhoods and cities actually real ecosystems given they require external inputs — imported oil, water, fertilizer to survive?  Will they ever be sustainable?

The only way they become real ecosystems is if they become places of primary energy and nutrient production. The eco-district or eco-city of the future could be a place that internalizes its energy and nutrient production. The second dimension would be the global city system or cityscape, and actually providing inputs from within urbanized land areas. This is a big challenge in terms of planning, design, and technology, but I think it’s possible to create real urban ecosystems.

The Kronsberg eco-district of Hannover, Germany provides a view of the ecological potential of custom-designed city spaces. This 7,000-resident, public-private development for middle to middle-low income residents achieves an 80 percent reduction in typical household energy consumption and produces nearly zero storm water run-off. / Image credit: Jeb Brugmann 

Each city’s “energy metabolism,” its rate of energy consumption, depends on how compact or extended it is, you argue.  What are some best practice policies, regulations, technologies to slow a city’s metabolism — to reduce its energy use and greenhouse gas emissions?

The principle of economies of density needs to be applied to energy and transportation systems in order to optimize the efficiencies of those systems. The economies of density is a basic economic concept that needs to be applied to water, business, energy, mobility, and wealth-production. What you learn from cities that are starting to reach towards 20-30 percent reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and have targets of 80 percent is the need to create a highly-dense system of energy and transportation.The first thing they do is reduce transportation demand by co-locating peoples’ day-to-day life activities. You create options other than the automobile or even public transport for getting to work. They can ride a bike or walk.

Secondly, they invest in infrastructure. Curitiba, Brazil is a case of this. They invest in infrastructure and then create a system that  optimizes the use of that infrastructure. In Curitiba, you can get a bus within 500 meters of anywhere in the city. There’s a bus less than every 60 seconds. By creating many different kinds of services and bus routes on that infrastructure, they optimize the capital investments that they put into that –a very basic economic idea. This optimization provides people what you could call a portfolio choice of transportation solutions, the same can apply to energy solutions. The user can adjust their portfolio of transportation or energy solutions depending on their evolving needs. It’s that ability to customize the energy or the transportation portfolio day to day, month to month, year to year as they meet new economic challenges that allows them as people in the city to optimize their resource use of the city and reduce their cost.

The success of Curitiba’s customized bus rapid transit system is based in economies of density—not just high-rise residential populations abutting the transit corridors, but further ‘sweating’ of the system’s capital investment by running ten specialized types of bus service, each using customized bus designs, on the same network. Image credit: Municipality of Curitiba. 

Again, I come back to seeing people through from an economic lens. Ultimately, they are enabled by information. If I don’t know what the portfolio choices are available to me at this hour of the day and it’s not at my fingertips, I will revert to a very fixed way of thinking about my transportation options, which is get in my car because I don’t know what other options there are. Providing information loops to people so that they can say, “Well, today I can make that trip by doing this and this and this differently and that would reduce my cost and ultimately reduce my greenhouse gas emissions.”  That’s the final step in creating what I call an optimized energy or transportation system. Likewise with my household, how do I get information on how I could invest in my insulation budget this year versus consuming natural gas, and sort of manage a portfolio of energy choices year to year?

Both Chicago and Curitiba, Brazil are cited as models of the way forward.  You call them strategic cities. How have they been strategic?  How have they leveraged existing community networks?  At a very practical level, what can other cities do now to become more strategic?

If the growth of our cities is so chaotic, if there is competition to secure space for competing economic purposes, how do we somehow align that competition and make some coherent outcome? You’ll find in Chicago, Curitiba, Brazil, and Barcelona what they did is create institutions whose purpose was to develop and innovate around customized solutions for problems that weren’t being addressed by government or by the mass-market city-building industry.

Chicago has a unique set of problems with maintaining a large stock of low-income rental housing for people. They needed unique institutions that understood how to solve problems around maintaining affordability and renewing existing housing stock. They experimented in neighborhoods and scaled those things up across the city.

What I call strategic institutions are critical and they typically are located outside of government and industry. They’re a common space where industry, community, and government work together to test innovation out in the marketplace. It’s that institutional fabric that gives them the ability to generate new solutions to problems facing the city as it goes through boom, bust cycles. In Chicago, it’s the $1/2 billion Community Investment Corporation (CIC) fund that actually secures old rental properties in neighborhoods, gets them in the hands of owners, helps finance their renewal, and gets them back on the market as affordable housing so they don’t get gentrified. NeighborSpace and CIC are examples of two institutions that are sort of quasi-public. They are in the market, they’re private sector models, but they generated solutions that neither industry or government would be able to do, given who they are.

NeighborSpace is an example of a ‘strategic institution’: an organization designed to align competing interests and customize local solutions for a key development objective. In this case, NeighborSpace is a non-profit organization established by the City of Chicago, Chicago Park District, and Forest Preserve District of Cook County to align the interests of neighbors, landowners, and public agencies to establish more community-managed green spaces in the city’s abandoned lots or underused public lands. / Image credit: NeighborSpace, Chicago

Interview conducted by Jared Green.