High Line Designers Take on Seattle’s Waterfront

James Corner Field Operations created a compelling vision for a new nine-acre park on Seattle’s waterfront, a $50 million-plus project that will be one of the most important civic projects in the city’s 150-year history, writes the The Seattle Post-Intelligencer. City officials thought Corner showed “an understanding of Seattle’s grittiness and an affinity for it, and was able to fuse the concepts of creating an urban space with a working waterfront.” Mithun, The Berger Partnership, Herrera, and Jason Toft are also playing roles in the park design.

Before the new designs can be implemented, the Seattle Transportation Department must first pull down the aging Alaskan Way viaduct and replace it with a tunnel burrowing under downtown. The viaduct is scheduled for demolition in 2016, freeing up space for a more livable waterfront filled with public spaces, boulevards, and “maybe beaches.” The goal is to also use the new waterfront to connect a chain of Seattle’s destinations, including Pike Place Market, the aquarium, sports stadium and Olympic Sculpture Park, and neighboring communities.

Crosscut.com says the initial $6 million, two-year planning phase will focus on how the waterfront can be better connected with the major sites, and neighborhoods and districts, “both mature and emerging.”  The Seattle Times adds that Corner aims to connect “the future tree-lined surface roadway with parkland and Elliott Bay, while keeping a relationship with the working harbor to the south and bringing visitors down to the water line.”  Given that nine acres isn’t that big, Corner says the space will be designed for activity — sidewalks and bike trails on the new surface streets will help people make more use of the space. Mini-beaches could appear where there is nothing but bulkheads now, enabling more people to reach the water.

Already, however, there are concerns that the high price tag of the overall waterfront redevelopment project — some $830 million — which also includes utility relocation and sea wall and waterfront construction, will force the city to give over much of the new redevelopment to private developers. According to The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, City Councilwoman Sally Bagshaw, chair of the City Council’s parks committee, said the new waterfront must not be filled with condos. She said: “We do not want this to become Miami Beach.” She also told The Seattle Times that new public access points should be included so people can “wade or launch a canoe, along with restaurants, music venues and a possible amphitheater. The whole thing can be tied together by a waterfront trail that will continue for miles, connecting the Sound to Lake Union.”

Field operations will work closely with the city’s Central Waterfront Partnerships Committee. The first phase of design work will begin next month, and a conceptual plan based on community input will be issued by 2012. During this phase, the firm will need to coordinate its initial park concepts with the early sea wall reconstruction process. A final design will be developed by 2015 — if Seattle can pay for the project. Right now, the city has about $600 million on hand, enough to move forward, notes Crosscut.com.

Learn more about the project and download James Corner’s firm’s Powerpoint presentation about the project (Big file: 100MG)

Also, check out Corner’s work on the next phase of the High Line Park in New York City (see earlier post and a case study).

Image credit: Alaskan Way Viaduct / Seattle Waterfront / Wikipedia

Metropolis and GSA Launch Next Generation Design Competition

Metropolis magazine and the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) announced the launch of a new design competition, NEXT GENERATION 2011: GET ZERO, aimed at taking an ordinary government office building in Los Angeles and transforming it into an environmentally-sustainable showcase that will have “zero environmental impact.” GSA, which manages some 350 million square-feet of office space in 8,000 buildings in 2,000 communities, is being challenged by Administrator Martha Johnson to achieve “zero environmental footprint” for its existing buildings (see earlier post). According to Metropolis, Johnson sees this project akin to “the Apollo Space Project of the 1960s.”

NEXT GENERATION 2011: GET ZERO will use the eight-story building at 300 North Los Angeles Street (in the Civic Center area of Los Angeles) as the primary test for net-zero government building design. The building is an “entirely commonplace eight-story 1960s-era Los Angeles office building that is remarkable only for being typical of hundreds of other GSA mid-century modern buildings, scattered across the 50 states.”

The competition will ask entrants to dramatically improve the performance of the building while also creating something beautiful. “Entrants may be teams working together to transform the entire building (and its surroundings), or individuals or small groups tackling one or two individual systems and elements (facade, roof, fenestration, interior furnishings and equipment, signage and way-finding, among many other details).”

Susan Szenasy, Editor-in-Chief of Metropolis, also put out a special call to landscape architects to get involved.  “It’s a great project for landscape architects. The existing paved plazas, fountain, and site landscape could be turned into a system for managing stormwater and reusing greywater. Landscape architects rarely get involved with Next Generation — this would be a good time to put forth an effort.”

To qualify, entrants must themselves be part of the next generation of designers — this includes students and design professionals who have been practicing ten years or less. The winning team will win a $10,000 prize, but also get “career-building attention” through a TV series sponsored by PBS and inclusion in the Metropolis film, Brilliant Simplicity. But perhaps more importantly, the winning design will also have broad impact as a future model for the revamp of GSA’s building stock. GSA has access to some $5.5 billion in recovery funds, $4 billion of which is to be spent on energy efficiency and design improvements.

Go to Metropolis to learn more and enter by January 31, 2011

Image credit: Metropolis magazine

How Can You Put a Price on Air? Who Would Buy It?

It seems a price on the CO2 in air can be determined, and lots of people will buy it, said Denise Farrell, Environmental Capital, at a meeting of ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability USA. In a session that explored how cities and local communities can access voluntary carbon markets to finance landfill gas elimination, wetland restoration, or reforestation projects, experts said carbon credits “can create project revenue” even without a national, regulated carbon market in place.

Lisa Jacobson, Business Council for Sustainable Energy, said the idea of a carbon market “took a huge hit” on Capitol Hill during the recent debate on the comprehensive climate and energy bill. However, there is still a growing bottom-up call for market-based approaches that can “generate revenue for good projects.”

What Is a Carbon Market?

A carbon market can be defined as a process of measuring and monitoring the reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. There are two major types of markets: regulatory markets which are used for verified greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reductions, and voluntary markets, which is the option available in most of the U.S. The E.U. currently has a regulated market, formed under the Kyoto Protocol. Under the Kyoto system, developed countries can buy GHG emission offsets structured and verified by the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which provides funds to developing countries for their GHG reduction projects. The U.S. has never signed on to the Kyoto Protocol so largely operates in voluntary markets (except for California, which has its own regulated market).

Dealing with environmental pollution through a cap and trade system, which Jacobson said will now “need a new name,” is an approach that has some history in the U.S. The approach already exists under the Clean Air Act and has been used for reducing other types of environmental air pollution. In the system proposed for GHG emissions, the government would set a cap, the E.P.A. would issue allowances equal to the cap, and capped utilities and other entities would need to retire allowances at the end of the year equal to their annual emissions. “If they are short, they can purchase allowances or they can buy offsets.”

Offsets are a financial tool designed to reduce emissions efficiently. An entity can purchase and retire offsets. One offset is usually equal to one metric ton of CO2 (or even methane). These offsets are called carbon credits when they are used for an environmental compliance program.

The American Carbon Registry (ACR), California Climate Action Registry, WWF’s Gold Standard, and the Voluntary Carbon Standard are all ways to register local GHG emissions reduction projects but each have different methodologies. Unfortunately, however, it seems registering a project’s GHG emission reductions isn’t so quick and easy. The emissions reductions still need to be verified by a 3rd party to ensure they are “real, surplus, additional, permanent, net of leakage, fungible, and transferable.” 

To be viable, the GHG emission reduction projects “can’t be business as usual.” The project designers must be targeting GHG emission reductions as a key goal. Kyoto mandates credits need to be enough to justify the project. “Real” implies they must be verifiable. “Permanent” means projects can’t be reversed. “Net of leakage” relates to the boundaries of a project, and forestry projects are especially complex in this regard. This means that “landfill methane gas capture projects are the easiest because the gas can be destroyed. Forests are the hardest because, over time, trees grow or parts of the forest gets cut down. Also, you have to estimate GHG emission reductions over a 100 year period but verify annually,” said Farrell. Other complex issues involve ownership. “Who owns the emission reductions?”

Accessing Voluntary Carbon Markets to Finance Projects Now

In 2009, some 94 million tons of GHG emissions worth nearly $400 million were traded. Despite the debate on Capitol Hill, the market has been growing, says Farrell. While there are a range of voluntary or regulated markets for nutrients, water, wetlands, and other ecosystem services, project designers seeking to tap the existing voluntary carbon market can’t get “credit in multiple places.” The concept of ecosystem services is all about “aggregating the benefits along the value chain.” In comparison, carbon markets are just about isolating out and verifying the GHG emission reductions. So while a project may provide ecosystem services naturally, designers can’t financially benefit from both markets at the same time.  In other words, either benefit from an environmental market or design the project to generate GHG emission reduction revenue, says Farrell. “Carbon finance has to be central to the inception of the project.”  

Beyond defining the project so it meets the criteria of a registry, the project designers must also actively seek out a potential buyer. “Some projects involving selling credits in five-year increments or by year” and buyers may be interested in one over the other. Designers need to put together the project with prospective buyers, which are mostly large corporations seeking to offset their own emissions through corporate responsibility programs. Google, for instance, is buying a lot of carbon credits but is mostly interested in “charismatic carbon,” or projects that have high-profile GHG emission reductions. Walmart and other major retail firms are buying carbon to meet the terms of disclosure rules.  The E.P.A.’s Climate Leader program is also a place to find some of the 300 major corporate buyers of carbon, who need to purchase a set number of tons to meet their climate leader goals. Lastly, E.U. hedge funds are also buying up American emissions. “They think the crazy Americans are totally undervaluing their carbon.”

Given the growth in demand for carbon, cities and communities are now in a position to create their own carbon mitigation projects (or even voluntary markets). “There’s lots of buyer interest in the projects of municipalities and public authorities because they are reputable agents.” Plus, municipal records are “transparent and open to the public.” Farrell sees composting, recycling, and green building efficiency as potential carbon markets, but “says you have to find buyers” interested in these specific areas.

Farrell argued that the future of the voluntary markets will be shaped by what happens on Capitol Hill. “Will existing credits be absorbed into a new federal system?” If it passes, Proposition 23 in California will also have a major impact on the Western Climate Initiative and “ripple effects” on the price of carbon throughout the U.S.

Image credit: Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment

How to Create a Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Plan

At a meeting of ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability USA, sustainability officers from cities and communities across the U.S. heard from two communities that created combined climate climate adaptation and mitigation plans, Chula Vista, California and New York City, but had very different experiences with the process. While New York City has an abundance of staff and access to some of the best universities and institutions through its office of long-term planning and sustainability, Chula Vista had to create a detailed plan with “no money or experience.”

Chula Vista’s Nimble Plan

Brendan Reed, Environmental Resource Manager with Chula Vista, said the city, which has a population of 230,000, didn’t have the funds to hire a consultant, but partnered with ICLEI. The city has a diverse population on a varied landscape, and a history of progressive thinking on climate change. Beginning in the 1990’s, the city formed a climate change working group and created a baseline inventory of its CO2 emissions and a CO2 mitigation strategy. Mitigation strategies cover transportation (they have a 100 percent clean fuel bus fleet), energy efficiency / solar retrofits (an appliance rebate program), and green buildings / smart growth (a city-wide green building standard).

To generate a climate change adaptation plan that would leverage the mitigation strategies and also focus on improving the resiliency of the community to climate change, the city formed a working group, researched and used the “best available data,” decided that consensus among the players was critical, and engaged the public in the process. The city held 12 public meetings covering three different planning phases.

The city employed a three step-process. Step one was information gathering. This also included information collected via public forums. Step two was risk analysis / measure evaluation. The group came up with 183 adaptation options. Each vulnerability was assigned a risk level. Criteria for measuring risk included: Does the city have control? Is this fiscally feasible? Does the measure complement migitation measures or duplicate? The final step involved selecting measures. These have been presented to the city’s commission and are now being reviewed.

The working group found that measures that met all criteria and had adaptation and mitigation benefits included cool (or white) roofs and pavings, shade trees, and water reuse approaches that limit greywater waste. The first two will help reduce local air temperatures as well as provide other benefits. “Dealing with the urban heat island effect wasn’t in our original mitigation strategy,” said Reed.

Reed listed a set of “lessons learned,” including engage stakeholders, stress preparedness instead of resiliency, “which is a bit hard to understand” and lowering risks, avoid analysis paralysis, focus on areas where the city can actually have influence, and integrate action plans and programs. “We actually own the development codes so can implement greywater maximization schemes.”

NYC’s Comprehensive Approach

John Dickinson, Senior Policy Advisor with NYC’s government, said the climate change impacts for the largest city in the U.S. run the gamut, and include housing, open space, brownfields, water quality and networks, transportation, energy, and air quality. The city aims for a 30 percent reduction in CO2 emissions through a variety of strategies, including new green building codes (see earlier post). But the city has also figured out that some their adaptation measures (like creating subway water pumps) actually have a negative impact on mitigation (they increase CO2 emissions).

To come up with a combined climate change adaptation / mitigation plan, New York City’s office of long-term planning and sustainability undertook its own comprehensive IPCC-like process involved more than 30 city, federal and state organizations, foundations, universities, and corporations, all funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. NYC’s Climate Change Adaptation Taskforce calls for a “risk-based” strategy, a review of development standards and codes, an incremental approach to roll-out, and monitoring program.

The city is aiming at a few key threats: heat, precipitation, and sea level rise, and has a set of initiatives that can provide multiple benefits. For instance, the city is planting a million new trees across all five boroughs. Dickinson said 600,000 were already planted, and were largely financed with private funds. The extra trees, which will lower the urban heat island effect, will also reduce asthma rates. In fact, the city is rolling out the trees areas in areas with high asthma rates first. So climate adaptation action has the double benefit of improving public health.

On a practical level, the city financed the development of new FEMA flood maps, which are used to set the insurance rates for flood risks. The FEMA maps were outdated by a few decades so NYC had to finance the new LiDAR maps themselves. This should also help bring private sector funds into climate change adaptation measures.

An Adaptation Measure Worth Financing

Cool (or white roofs) are seen as an increasingly viable and cost-effective adaptation measure, and common feature of comprehensive climate change plans. Amy Dickie with the White Roofs Alliance described how her organization is partnering with the top 100 largest cities to implement its cool roof program (see earlier post on the benefits of low-albedo roofs). Dickie said Lawrence Berkeley National Lab researchers have found that painting roofs white, very light grey, or with an infrared reflective paint can yield a 20 percent energy savings. If all commercial buildings in the U.S. had cool roofs, that would “equal a $1 billion annual savings.” Cities can also improve air quality by around 10 percent. At the global level, a world with cool roofs would take 44 gigatons of CO2 out of the atmosphere, a “major gain.”

New York City will soon have one million square feet of cool roofs. Philadelphia and California have mandated their use in new buildings. The U.S. Department of Energy has also recently released cool roof guidelines. To get cool roofs in more cities, Dickie said her group would target the the top 100 cities, the creation of a national action plan, the revision of local building and paving codes (some 40 percent of urban landscapes are street), and financing.

Image credit: New York City Street Tree Planting / New York Restoration Project

Livability to the Rescue

The Partners for Livable Communities organized a forum in Washington, D.C. to explore how federal and local governments are applying strategies that enhance livability in order to rebuild communities. Paris Glendening, former Governor of Maryland and one of the first major proponents of smart growth and livable communities, kicked off the meeting by saying for the first time an administration is focused on “place-based outcomes” for its policies. He added that terms like smart growth and eco-communities and tools like LEED-ND are no longer odd concepts for local policymakers. “All these concepts are out front now.” 

Also, in comparison with other countries developing livable communities strategies, the U.S. still has an advantage due to a “secret weapon”: non-governmental partnerships. “Businesses, philanthropies, foundations, civic groups and government” all work together to create great places.

Building Livability into Federal Policy

James Lopez, Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and Beth Osborne, Department of Transportation (DOT), outlined the approach taken by the new DOT-HUD-E.P.A. federal partnership for sustainable communities (see earlier post). Lopez said the three departments are slowly integrating their work, creating interdependencies between the different agencies and the new governmental “infrastructure for livability.” He said a key part of this has been defining high-level indicators of success, which have been crucial to developing agency-level visioning, principles, and action plans.

Osborne said for DOT “livability can be defined as transportation choice, housing choice, and multiple options close to home.” She added that the current transportation system is “broke” and livable communities can save both local governments and people money.

Communities investing in expanding transportation options where infrastructure already exists can leverage efficiencies. “Salt Lake City saved $4.5 billion by creating more transit options.” As for people, the average American is spending 55 percent of their income on housing and transportation, but 45 percent is the threshhold for an affordable lifestyle that enables saving. Market demand for livable communities still outstrips supply so one key goal of the partnership is to make more of these communities available for people who want to live there. Osborne said “around 30 percent of the market is looking for affordable, livable communities” but currently the market only meets two percent of overall demand.

Leslie Shephard from the General Services Administration (GSA), the landowner of the U.S. government, said his employer is responsible for 350 million-square-feet in 8,000 buildings in 2,000 communities. GSA has received $5.5 billion in recovery funds, $4 billion of which has been spent to modernize old buildings and make them more sustainable.

GSA just announced its partnering with Metropolis magazine on this year’s next-generation design competition. The competition for 2011 will focus on turning a clunker of an 1960’s office building in L.A. into a net-zero building. The idea is to then expand the workable concept to more of GSA’s buildings.

The organization is also rolling out a sustainable location policy in an attempt to avoid dropping huge “big box” buildings into the middle of communities, majorly disrupting them in the process. GSA is now focusing on integrating buildings into communities through master planning efforts. Also, there’s a new strategy for turning government building plazas into spaces that enable livability — farmers’ markets are now allowed in many plazas on weekends. Lastly, GSA is spending $5 million per year on public art.

Rachel Goslins, Executive Director of The President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities said arts groups look at communities through the “lens of livability.” She made a strong case for community libraries, museums, theatres and galleries, arguing that “they add local character and places are no place without them. Communities with strong personalities are ones we want to visit.” Furthermore, community cultural institutions “connect” the people that already live there and “tell us about where we live.” She cited recent research from the University of Pennsylvania that demonstrates that “art-rich neighborhoods also have lower crime activity,” which reinforces the value of arts and culture in livability.

Using Livability to Rebuild Local Communities

Joe Cartright, President of Impressa, discussed a report he did for CEO for Cities (see earlier post), which outlined how cities must invest in talent, innovation, distinctiveness, and places in order to be sustainable and livable over the long-term. Talent is about attracting smart people to live in your community. Innovation relates to a range of factors, but patents are a good indicator of levels of innovation (and future expected economic growth). Distinctiveness is about “harvesting the distinctiveness of place,” which could include distinctive behaviors. As an example, he cited Portland’s 1960’s running culture, which led to the development of sneakers and then Nike, a local firm that has become the leader in the global sneaker industry. Lastly, place matters because cities provide connections that facilitate economic and cultural activity.

Citing CEO for Cities’ report, he said being sited in walkable neighborhoods adds between $10,000 and 30,000 to a home’s value. Furthermore, people who live in these neighborhoods spend less on transportation, freeing up money that can be spent in the community. “Livability is not a thrill.”

Rob Mosher, Legislative Director for Representative Doris Matsui, added that livability is not just for young people, but “older Americans also deserve to live in communities where they can safely walk and interact with their neighbors.” Citing the integral role seniors play in community development, he said Rep. Matsui sponsored the Complete Streets Act, which aims to provide safe all for all users on all roads.

Vin Cipolla, President of the Municipal Arts Society (MAS) of New York outlined the case for New York City as one of the greenest and most livable places in the U.S., largely citing arguments made by Jane Jacobs and The New Yorker writer David Owen, author of “Green Metropolis” (see an interview). He added that NYC still has its problems though, including the influx of big box stores, crumbling mass transit stations, and crappy sidewalks.

To deal with the loss of jobs from the city center, which Cipolla sees happening with the gradual decline of the Garment District as a functioning work area, MAS is sponsoring a livability summit in the Penn District. Cipolla said this is a livability issue because garment industry jobs used to be close to the homes of workers. Now, jobs are moving out of the city or overseas. He said “livability is about creating a sense of place, and sense of neighborhood and connecting with other people.”

All panelists also pointed to the value of Web-based tools like Walkscore.com and “see these as the first of many apps.” MAS is also working with NYU on a set of Web-based tools that will enable the development of a “planning democratization platform” for New York City.

Innovative Mayors Applying Livability Strategies

Jay Williams, the Mayor of Youngstown, Ohio, said once his city was listed as one of Forbes magazine’s “fastest dying cities,” he decided to form a coalition with the other nine post-industrial, economically-devastated, and largely-Mid Western cities, called the “Living Cities Group.” In addition, he created the Youngstown 2010 Initiative which includes a set of local livability initiatives. “You have to start with the local community and build up. We had previously done nothing, feeling like someone owed us something.” William’s ultimate goal is to transform Youngstown into a “place of choice,” meaning that people will chose to live there instead of feeling as if they are stuck there.

Chattanooga, Tennessee Mayor Ron Littlefield has seen livability go from a “radical concept” to best practice. He guided the formation of the Chattanooga Venture, a multi-stakeholder partnership that launched a set of public meetings that brought in thousands of people throughout the city to talk about how the city could be improved. “We produced a workbook, not a plan, small and concise.” The city’s workbook featured small and large projects, but one-by-one the city went about implementing.

He said the investments in livability have paid off because Chattanooga has beaten out a number of other high-profile cities in luring major European firms to set up research and manufacturing plants in the city. Volkswagen U.S.A. was drawn in because of the city’s riverwalk, which was expanded to meet their new plant ten miles out of the city. “VW said the economic incentives offered by all cities were basically the same. Intangibles made all the difference and became tangible.” Now, the city is making the livable city lists.

Peter Harkness, editor of Governing magazine and moderator, lauded the increasingly popular livable community approach, but also asked: What happens when the economy bounces back? Will we return to carbon-copy developments on cheap land that contribute to more sprawl? Can the new federal partnership on sustainable communities actually stop this from happening?

Image credit: Chattanooga Riverwalk / Be magazine

The Hirshhorn Museum’s Blue Bubble Plans Move Forward

At a conference on livable communities yesterday, Richard Koshalek, Director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. said Diller, Scofidio + Renfro‘s 145-foot-tall sky-blue bubble will inflate itself out of the Hirshhorn’s central plaza by October 2012. The bubble, however, is just one piece in an ambitious new plan for “curating public spaces” within and without, and even beyond, the museum.

The lobby of the museum will be completely redone as a “classroom of the future” that will include “smart furniture and smart environments” for teaching about the role of art in contemporary culture. The current book store will be moved downstairs and nestle among the art, where it will get a new skylight that will provide some sun. “It will be the first bookstore that is part of a museum’s permanent collection,” said Koshalek.

The bubble that will inflate up out of the central plaza and over the top of the building will provide a “seasonal pavilion” in May and October and space for an “educational, cultural and research forum.” Four programs are in the works, including the first on international cultural diplomacy (to be produced with the Council on Foreign Relations); a second one on open-source technology or how technology drives our culture (to be developed with the MacArthur Foundation); a third on “art and destruction, a common theme throughout history” (to be developed with Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study); and the last one on the world of animation, which will feature commissioned works from leading animators. Koshalek argued that these fora need to be “interdisciplinary because that’s how the Museum can reach a broader audience.”

The program on animation will extend beyond the museum and include works to be staged around the National Mall. “The projects for the National Mall will redefine what a cultural institution can do” in Washington, D.C.

The Wall Street Journal notes that the Museum will need $15 million for the plans, including a $5 million endowment, but Bloomberg has already ponied up $1 million and there’s another $1.5 million from the Pearson Foundation, Nokia, and the MacArthur Foundation. In addition to raising the funds, Koshalek will need to navigate the web of organizations that have a voice in National Mall matters.

See images of the bubble.

Image credit: Diller, Scofidio + Renfro / DCist

Engineers Without Borders: A Platform for the Next Generation of Engineers

Engineers Without Borders (EWB) won the National Building Museum’s prestigious Henry C. Turner prize for innovation in construction technology for its work connecting engineering students with international development projects. NBM President Chase Wynd said EWB, which has more than 250 local chapters across the U.S., provides sustainable, low-cost critical infrastructure in the areas of water, energy, sanitation, and housing. To date, its engineered, community-led projects have benefitted more than one million people worldwide. The organization sees itself as a “platform for the next generation of engineers.”

Cathy Leslie, EWB’s Executive Director, said the organization started from a conversation University of Colorado Civil Engineering Professor Bernard Amadei had with a landscaper working in his backyard.  Amadei discovered the landscaper’s village in Belize desperately needed a clean water system but didn’t have the local expertise. As a result, villagers were getting sick. Amadei and his team of eight students created a sustainable, low-tech yet effective solution for $14,000. Since then, the organization grew from a handful of volunteers to more than 12,000 today. EWB now has 350 projects going in 45 countries covering water, sanitation, civil works, structures, energy, agriculture, and IT.

Each village EWB engages with gets a five-year committment. In each village, EWB typically completes 2-3 major projects, which cost between $10,000 and $40,000.  The organization’s team stays five years to ensure they can build the local capacity needed to keep projects running smoothly after they leave. “It’s important that projects can be maintained over the long-term,” said Leslie.

Leslie said the major issue now is how to scale-up small fixes to local problems in a world that will have two billion new people over the next two decades. In the developing world, where 90 percent of the world’s population is found, the issues will continue to be dirty water, lack of sanitation, and lack of basic civic infrastructure. In the developed world, there will be increasing problems with congestion, smog, and decreasing quality of life.

With the growth of groups like EWB and Architecture for Humanity, perhaps a “Landscape Architecture for Humanity” group will also finally get started? Projects in developing countries covered by such a group could include: master plans, sustainable transportation networks, ecosystem restoration, brownfield redevelopment, pocket parks, and playgrounds.

Past winners of the Turner Prize include the U.S. Green Building Council and Gehry Partners.

Learn more how to get involved in EWB’s work around the world.

Image credit: Water Supply and Distribution Improvements. San Lorenzo El Tejar, Guatemala / Engineering Without Borders

Interview with Fritz Haeg, Author of “Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn”

Fritz Haeg is an artist, designer, gardener, and writer currently on a 2010-11 Rome Prize Fellowship; his book “Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn” was just rereleased in a second expanded edition by Metropolis Books. www.fritzhaeg.com

In the new edition of your book, “Edible Estates: Attack On The Front Lawn,” you argue that ripping out front lawns and replacing them with fruit, vegetable, and herb gardens can “ignite a chain reaction of thoughts that question other antiquated conventions of home, street, neighborhood, city.” Why does this start with the front lawn?

The front lawn is wrapped up in our ideas of the American dream. It’s a very iconic and loaded space. When you remove it and replace it with something else, you are questioning all of the values implicit in the lawn and what it stands for. It is significant to me not just because it’s a private space that’s very public – so visible in our cities and such an obvious opportunity to reconsider – but also because of what it symbolizes. The easiest first step for the urban citizen who wants to make a visible impact on their city is to go out that front door and get their hands in the dirt. It is the leading wedge into more complex and ambitious civic activity.

While of course I have an earnest interest in growing food at home, what really excites me is the sense of attacking the archaic values of the conventional manicured landscape and replacing it with casual, wild, and handmade gardens that propose an alternative set of values which are more evolved, civilized, healthy, participatory, and full of pleasure. If you see your neighbors remove their lawn and replace it with a space to grow food, suddenly the city opens up for you. I hope this leads to the collective imaginings of a more participatory city that’s less like TV and more active, inspiring landscapes and cities that are not there for passive viewing but for active participation.

The front lawn is such an antiquated tradition that evolved with a way of living that doesn’t exist anymore. Public lawns were trimmed by grazing animals, and hidden food gardens were maintained by slaves or an underpaid staff living downstairs. Our current ideas of beauty in the landscape are still connected to this system – so I want to know what our landscapes and cities could look like when the people who actually live there are more personally involved.

In an editorial for The Guardian you wrote “We know that the lawn is essentially ecological genocide. Everything but the precious blades of grass must die in the name of that luxurious green carpet.” How do we get to a place where lawns cover more than 50,000 square miles of the country or an area the size of New York State?

Certain 19th century planners and developers were promoting the front lawn as a well-intentioned common green that would connect us all – but ironically it also perpetuated the illusion of the single family home as a refuge for complete independence and domination- bringing us to the lawn of today, which is not connective at all, but quite isolating. With the post-war period, the end of the victory garden movement, and the explosion of home ownership, the pervasive American lawn really takes off as the de-facto landscape to surround the home. The rise of the lawn in the late ’40s and early ’50s is connected to a blind celebration of industrial technology and an obsession with short-term convenience. This coincides with the crest of the modern movement, which represses eccentricities of place in favor of a truly international movement. This ideal of sameness and placelessness promotes the notion that what is right for one place is right for everywhere. The emergence of the American lawn is so wrapped up in the economic, political, and industrial system of it’s time, that you can’t separate out. The question isn’t why we started to plant lawns; but why do we continue to?

A number of cities including Detroit and San Francisco have invested in urban farming, encouraging small-scale plots to spread throughout their cities. However, in a recent discussion on the business model for urban agriculture at the National Building Museum, some experts argue that “there isn’t any money to be made from this.” Do you think urban agriculture needs to make money? Can it expand as a nonprofit model?

With my recent projects, I haven’t been going beyond the modest scale of people growing their own food at home. What happens when individuals independently go out their front door and plant food? It’s as simple as that. I’m interested, open, and excited about all of the other scales, permutations and possibilities beyond that. I am for anything that makes visible in our cities the systems that make our lives there possible. But I have been turning down invitations to pursue larger projects with more red tape and more constituents because I’m interested in operating at the cellular level of one family, one individual. Because that’s viral, it can spread, anyone can do it, and that’s powerful.

The more this activity moves back to a top-down, capitalistic, industrialized system that needs to turn a profit, the more you’re just perpetuating the problems that led us to the mess that we have inherited. While we also need top-down strategies, I don’t see any reason for me to go far beyond families growing food where they live. I don’t know why it has to be more complicated than that.

In denser urban areas like New York City where the real estate is really pricy, some apartment owners are putting in green roofs and wall gardens. What do you think of this trend? Should cities incentivize the use of these in residential or commercial high rises?

We should be actively questioning all the land-use assumptions in our cities, the lost opportunities, the space that is neglected and not fully activated. I’ve been specifically focused on that space between the front door and the street because it’s the most pervasive visible public social place for us to re-imagine. It’s also the site for the most dramatic possible change because it is typically so thoroughly isolating, polluting, and wasteful – and how satisfying to that with very little money and effort it can be transformed over a weekend into a nexus for productive, healthy, beautiful and social activity.

Of course, there are amazing opportunities for our rooftops — which I haven’t approached yet in my work. But there are people like Annie Novak, who started the Eagle Street Rooftop Farm in Brooklyn, New York, which is an excellent example of what is possible – and sometimes in just 4-6” of soil. I do happen to have a large terrace overlooking Rome this year – so I have already started to think about the possibilities for developing it into a prototypical Roman rooftop homestead. We’ll see…!

The regional prototype gardens you feature in your book are in different locations across the U.S. and Europe, and have different climates and levels of population density. The edible estates in Maplewood, New Jersey and Salina, Kansas are more suburban, while the ones in Baltimore and Manhattan present urban models. How do the design strategies need to be different in urban and suburban areas? What are the challenges for each type?

The design of the London garden, featuring a series of Arabesque shapes, was inspired by local royal parks. However, more importantly, it was designed to accommodate a lot of different people coming through the garden, including children and families with very different levels of involvement. It needed to be designed differently than a garden just for a single family –  where we know who’s going to be there tending it. The narrow beds allow gardeners to reach in and tend them without having to step in the actual planting areas, while also creating outdoor spaces for people to hangout.

Some of the gardens I’ve done for suburban front yards are wild, productive, pleasure garden landscapes that don’t even have footpaths. The design approach depends on how the family lives, what they are open to, and what’s appropriate in the neighborhood. I want every garden to be different, and respond to it’s particular gardeners and location.

In many parts of the U.S. taking out your lawn and putting in a garden breaks local zoning codes. When do you think these front-yard gardens will be widely accepted? Until then, what do you recommend to those who want to put something in now but will break the rules?

I haven’t yet had the opportunity to plant a garden in a place that’s illegal, but I would really love to take that on. Just the very notion that someone wouldn’t be allowed to grow food where they live is quite astounding. The fact that someone like me should even have to do a project about people publicly growing food at home is just kind of ridiculous! I would like to think the people defending the policies that prevent us from growing food where we live are starting to feel embarrassed.

However, the sort of people who move to places with very restrictive homeowner association covenants probably want predictable industrial landscapes, and maybe for them a wild vegetable garden in front of their neighbor’s house could be interpreted as a threat, a sign of anarchy. What could be seen by them as a sign of the unraveling of civilization, for others could be seen as real progress.

It seems anecdotally, and from the mainstream press, that there’s more interest in growing your own food at home, but when you look on the ground at what people are actually doing across the country it doesn’t seem to have made much difference at all. But I suppose these movements develop gradually and it takes a while for them to find their way to the masses. A lot of it just has to do with ideas of beauty and pleasure. One day people think that growing food is a chore and it’s work and a vegetable garden is ugly and anarchistic, but the times and circumstances change, and so do those attitudes. We can say that the junk we call ‘food’ sold at grocery stores is making us sick, and is only cheap in the very short term. We can say that lawns are isolating, toxic, wasteful, and polluting. But I don’t think people are motivated by pressure, or guilt, or even problematic evidence. People are motivated by pleasure. Having a causal, wild, productive, diverse, beautiful vegetable garden is frankly a lot more fun than watering and mowing and pouring pesticides on our lawns. For me, it comes down to pleasure and I think that’s the best point of entry into big cultural shifts like this.

Lastly, on a very practical level, so you’ve decided to take out your lawn and put in a garden. How does someone actually just get their garden started? What are the first steps?

The Edible Estate gardens I’ve done are entirely established over a weekend with the family, their friends, and local volunteers. We rip the entire lawn out in one day and plant the garden the next. That’s not a viable possibility for most families, but, you could also do it very gradually over time, slowly replacing the sterile manicured monocultures with herbs, fruit, grains, and vegetables.

What’s so great about growing food and creating your own kitchen garden, vegetable garden, fruit orchard, berry patch, is that there’s no right way. There’s no one way. It’s not like a lawn where you can do it the same anywhere. Once you go out your door and start growing food, suddenly you’re paying attention to your climate, your tastes, how you eat, what will do well there, what looks good, who your neighbors are, what the people on the street think. You don’t get this if you’re just out there mowing your lawn once a week.

Interview conducted by Jared Green.

Image credits: (1) “Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn”, Metropolis Books, 2008, 2nd expanded edition, 2010. Cover photos of Edible Estates Regional Prototype Garden #6: Baltimore, Maryland by Leslie Furlong, (2) Edible Estates Regional Prototype Garden #5, Austin, Texas. Commissioned by Arthouse. Image credit: Fritz Haeg, (3) Regional Prototype Garden #4, London, England. Commissioned by Tate Modern. Image credit: Heiko Prigge, (4) Regional Prototype Garden #6, Baltimore, Maryland. Commissioned by Contemporary Museum Baltimore. Image credit: Leslie Furlong 

Creating Safe, Low-Impact Access to the Waves

Safe Trestles is a competition that seeks to create a new design for a safe path surfers can use to cross wetlands and traintracks and get to the beach in California’s San Onofre state park. The competition also asked designers to create a plan for restoring and preserving the wetlands that have been damaged by the surfers’ makeshift pathways. The two-stage design competition yielded a winner: The Wave by the Co-Lab design office based in Los Angeles. 

The competition organizers, which include Architecture for Humanity, the Surfrider Foundation, and the San Onofre Foundation, argue that the coastal region in San Onofre state park is one of the most vital coastal wetland ecosystems in Southern California and worthy of restoration and preservation. The state beach is home to eleven federally endangered or threatened animal species. In addition, the park’s delicate local habitat is under siege from two million annual visitors. Surfers are having a particularly negative impact, crossing through the fragile wetlands an estimated 200,000 each year. Local landowners and leaseholders have threatened to restrict access unless safer, less damaging paths are put in.

According to Co-Lab, The Wave, their winning proposal, seeks to “keep it wild, make it safe, and safeguard the area for future users. The Wave’s primary goals are to increase the safety of the path to Trestles and protect its fragile beach ecology. With many close calls as people illegally cross the railroad tracks to get to this renowned park and surf break, the proposal provides a safe rail crossing so visitors may reach their destination without danger.”

In addition, the design aims to protect and restore the wetlands. “The Wave provides a single path over the wetland, bringing visitors close to this unique ecology while protecting it from rogue trails, and providing visitors with views and information about the landscape they are traversing. The Wave’s subtle re-graded path, integrated signage and beautiful form provides a unique design solution for the unique landscape at Trestles.” Learn more about the winning design idea.

Other finalists that received honorable mentions include:

Safe Trestles Transect (Lager Raabe Skafte Landscape Architects, Inc): “The proposed walk to Trestles Beach combines portions of the existing trail with a boardwalk that is subtly lifted above the existing site to honor the landscape below.”

Easy*Safe*Dry (kola+kle): “The new access should bring the visitor the shortest way from the parking lot to the beach or the other way around. That implies a very plain and straight line.”

Unveiling the Natural (ERGO4): “We propose a path that hardly touches the soil, letting space for vegetation grow underneath and connect both sides of the way. It’s a natural itinerary, made for pedestrian and bikes.”

The Long Trail (Ken Smith Landscape Architect: WORKSHOP WEST): “Our approach is straight forward incorporating ADA access and providing a safe at-grade crossing. The path follows the topography by tracing desire lines. Existing use patterns are utilized for a minimal footprint of path infrastructure. This strategy encourages ecological restoration, reduces runoff, improves water quality, and provides additional habitat.”

Safe Trestles was sponsored by Nike.

Learn more about the winner’s proposal along with the four finalists.

Also, see another design competition available via Architecture for Humanity’s Open Architecture Network: Play for all, a design competition for innovative playgrounds.

Image credit: The Wave / Co-Lab Design Office / Safe Trestles Design Competition

Restoring Wetlands to Save the Gulf

According to Places, Louisiana State University’s interdisciplinary Coastal Sustainability Studio has been exploring the post-Katrina landscape of Louisiana and the Gulf South. The group has found that New Orleans and other local communities won’t be safe from future storms and flooding until the delta is allowed to function, natural soils are allowed to build up, and the region’s extensive wetland ecosystem is restored and integrated into local communities.  The trick will be getting the powerful economic interests (shipping and industrial firms that depend on the artificially-hardened, deepend waterways) and local communities to buy into the natural protections that are needed. 

Elizabeth Mossop, ASLA, Director of the Landscape Architecture Department, Louisiana State University, and Jeffrey Carney, manager of the Coastal Sustainability Studio, have found that “without massive land-building efforts, the coastal region will disappear” by 2100. The goal of their studio is to come up with more natural development plans for a region facing rising continual severe storms and rising sea levels. However, any solution for future development must also take into account the “natural flux of the Mississippi River,” which is the result of “the geophysical forces of the Delta,” a history of large-scale civil and environmental engineering projects, and the local culture. 

Mossop and Carney say a history of resource extraction, expansion, shipping, urban development, and flood protection schemes in the region have contribute to the current problems in the region: “Today it is unmistakably clear that the results of human intervention — dramatically escalating land loss and rapid wetland destruction are only the most visible signs — are imperiling the future of Louisiana. The amplification of the impacts of these interventions has brought us to this moment in the early 21st century when, following a series of disastrous storms, the engineered landscape of coastal Louisiana has reached its breaking point.”

New Orleans has borne the brunt of misguided interventions in the natural landscape. “Again, it is human activity — the constraining of the delta with levees, the petrochemical industry’s fragmentation of coastal landscapes, and the inappropriate location of urban development — that has accelerated the loss of protective wetlands and barrier islands and created the catastrophic situation we face today. Many communities are highly vulnerable to the potential damages of future flooding and storms.”

The Coastal Sustainability Studio calls for a new approach to development in the region that is rooted in current realities. This means understanding the reality of the region’s environment, and that future severe storms and sea level rise are a given. Also, the local communities present another type of reality — there are a set of political and economic conditions on the ground that need to be considered.

The studio thinks the Mississippi River should return to its early role as a “delta builder.” Given it’s impossible to return to the early untouched landscape, coastal scientists, engineers, and designers will need to focus on how to mitigate the impact of the growth of communities, industries and shipping along the river.  A series of “spillways” could be constructed along strategic points in the gulf, which can be opened to allow in sediment. The sediment can “build up, maintain, and protect large expanses of land.” There could then be an additional set of “five diversions,” which would operate at the endpoints of delta basins. Each diversion would be a combo of “hard” and “soft infrastructure (see earlier post). “Our goal is to make the river once again flexible and powerful, with the resulting land-river dynamics working in harmony with existing and future delta communities.” 

Local communities, they argue, can adjust to a new, fluctuating, fertile landscape that is more connected to the river.” The neighborhood as we know it will have to evolve — to become better integrated with natural systems and flexible to changing water levels. Its architecture will have to become nimble, and increased open space will be needed to absorb seasonal floodwaters.” In New Orleans, Mossop and Carney call for the Lower Ninth Ward to return to its earlier wetland state, providing a flexible protective middle zone. “To do this, we propose restoring the Central Wetlands Unit — the 30,000 acres of cypress forest that once protected the Lower Ninth from hurricanes.”

Read the article

Also, check out an interview with Yale ecologist Os Schmitz, who has also argued for the return of wetlands to the region. He also says recent research proves that most ecosystems can be restored or recreated.

Image credit: New Orleans Wetland Protection System / LSU Coastal Sustainability Studio