Guerilla Street Artist JR Wins TED Prize

TED writes that street photographer and artist JR shows his work in the “biggest art gallery on the planet” — the streets. His work features colossal blown-up photos of everyday people taken in their neighborhoods and then pasted illegally on the side of buildings and structures for the whole community to view. The group says his work focuses on both “art and action and talks about commitment, freedom, identity and limit.”  The prize comes with $100,000, which can be used to “make a wish” and garner broader support for any major project.

In outlining their reasons for giving JR the prize, TED writes: “JR creates pervasive art that spreads uninvited on buildings of Parisian slums, on walls in the Middle East, on broken bridges in Africa or in favelas in Brazil. People in the exhibit communities, those who often live with the bare minimum, discover something absolutely unnecessary but utterly wonderful. And they don’t just see it, they make it. Elderly women become models for a day; kids turn into artists for a week. In this art scene, there is no stage to separate the actors from the spectators.”

In Brazil, Cambodia, and Kenya his outsize photographs have been printed on waterproof vinyl and double as roofs in inner-city slums, says The New York Times.  However, the 27-year old artist, who remains anonymous by only using the initials “JR” and sporting sunglasses and a hoody, said his “photo graffiti” acts are illegal most places. Currently, he’s in Shanghai (acting illegally), using his camera to document the demolition of the city’s beautiful old hutongs and “pasting a 20-foot-tall wrinkled face around the facade of an old water tower he spotted from the highway.”

According to TED, earlier powerful public works includes “Portrait of a Generation,” large-format portraits of suburban “thugs” in Paris; “Face 2 Face,” which involved relying on local Israeli and Palestinian communities to paste gigantic portraits of both Israelis and Palestinians “face to face” on either side of the West Bank barrier; and “Women Are Heroes,” a project focusing on the “dignity of women who are the target of conflict.”

Some work, including “Portraits of a Generation” have actually gone legal — the photos were later wrapped around Paris’ City Hall. Other photos recently sold in the mid five-figures at Sotheby’s, helping to finance the artist’s work.

See a great slideshow from The New York Times and watch TED’s video on his work.

Image credits: (1) Women are Heroes, JR / TED, (2) Face2Face, JR / TED.

Building Support for San Francisco’s Pavement to Parks Program

John King, architecture critic for The San Francisco Chronicle, says the city’s innovative Pavement to Parks program (see earlier post), which reclaims unused stretches of streets and turns them into public parks and plazas created with salvaged materials, will needs lots more public or private support and investment if it’s going to expand from five to 25 parklets. The five parklets now in place are a form of “bootstrap urbanism,” but unless the city finds “the resources to craft resonant lasting spaces, it runs the risk of squandering the promise of the low-budget, high-concept nooks that have been conceived.” King says the new public spaces could become as unused as the earlier streets where they are sited.

Despite the pro-bono services of landscape architects and architects and free labor of the local communities, not all the parklets in place now have achieved their potential. “Three took awkward intersections and made them over into car-free plateaus. The other two […] slap a deck on parking spaces as a way to add slivered chill space to shopping streets with narrow sidewalks.” 

One parklet at 22nd and Bartlett streets sits across from three cafes. “Rebar Group takes the decking of dark-stained bamboo and folds it up and over to form seating space and a small counter, with additional room for plants and bicycle racks.” King says, in comparison with another parklet outside the Mojo Cafe near Divisadero and Grove streets, the parklet has a “strong visual identity,” but visitors are still left feeling exposed given their backs are exposed to car traffic. Also, the parklets just seem like extra cafe seating instead of new public spaces. “These aren’t public spaces so much as clever ways to add seating options to crowded blocks.”

The three others are asphalt plazas that can serve as neighborhood spaces, but there were few visitors when he went. “That pedestrian hum is what’s missing from Guerrero Park, which replaced the confusing overlap of Guerrero and San Jose avenues and 28th Street near St. Luke’s Hospital.” In addition, King says, some neighbors don’t like the salvaged material look. “Some neighbors loathe the sight of tree trunks laid on pavement to form planting beds, or the tall stainless steel tubes topped by live bamboo.” On the positive side: plantings were taking root in the parks and on the day King visited, “bees and butterflies were as plentiful as people were scarce.”

Like NYC’s experiment with making Times Square a pedestrian mall, the spaces have a temporary feel, in part created by the materials salvaged from city dumps. Recently, though, NYC’s government has decided to make the pedestrian mall in Times Square permanent (see earlier post) and invest in some big-name design talent. Snohetta, an architecture firm, is leading a design team including lighting guru Leni Schwendinger (see an interview) to actually redesign the spaces as a plaza. San Francisco may also need to decide if it’s going this route, or at least require parklets to have ample private support, because the concept is quickly moving from “test case to full-blown initiative this month with the release of a request for proposals from the city’s Planning Department.” If business groups pony up the funds needed for construction and maintenance, up to 25 new parklets could be installed. 

Read the article and learn more about the program.

Also, check out San Francisco’s Better Streets program, which is creating green, complete streets in key areas.

Image credit: San Francisco Parklet / Matthew Roth, San Francisco Streets blog

World’s Largest Solar Thermal Plant Coming to the Mojave Desert

At a forum organized by The Atlantic magazine, David Hayes, Deputy Secretary of the Interior Department, said the department just gave approval for the world’s largest solar thermal facility in California’s Mojave desert. The Blythe Solar Project, a $6 billion project, will generate more than 1,000MW of renewable energy and span 7,000 acres in an area 200 miles east of Los Angeles. To date, five major solar projects on public lands, including the controversial Cape Wind project off the shore of Martha’s Vineyard, have received approval. 

The Obama administration has actively promoted the use of public lands for utility-scale renewable energy plants, says Hayes. With climate change and energy legislation dead on Capitol Hill, Hayes argued these types of projects “are the way to make all the talk about the green economy a reality.” The administration has not been able to move as fast as it would have liked because “national environmental impact statements take 18 months.”

The new Mojave desert facility will use solar thermal energy systems (see earlier post) instead of the traditional photovoltaic cell array. Solar thermal systems use curved mirrors and parabolic troughs filled with mineral oil to heat steam and power turbines that create energy. Other systems use solar concentrators, or dishes, that focus on a solar “power tower.” Given many conventional solar systems actually consume lots of water, Hayes said the Interior Department has made sure they only approve “dry water systems” (However, it’s not clear whether the solar thermal system contains water). He added water is also needed to periodically clean the solar systems. Given that the facilities can cover thousands of acres, all that cleaning water add up to a lot. Interior is asking the energy firms involved to create water treatment systems that can reuse effluent water from nearby communities’ industrial facilities.

Plans for the new Mojave desert solar thermal plant were also altered to accomodate the needs of two endangered species: the desert tortoise and Mojave fringe-toed lizard. In the case of the desert tortoise, Hayes argued, “we need to ensure the tortoise is better off after the completion of the project.” The department will work with the firms involved in the new facility to ensure we “invest in great habitat for this species.” Biologists are also expected to help round up and move any endangered tortoises found on the site before construction begins.  

Beyond direct adverse impacts on local endangered species, massive solar plants can also negatively impact local communities. Despite these concerns, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) supported the new solar power plant, because: “It is located adjacent to developed lands, including industrial and agricultural lands; It is located near a new non-controversial transmission line that has already been approved; and a large part of the project is located in an area that environmental groups identified for study for potential solar energy development.” Under the new administration, 24 parts of the country have been determined to be “places where we can do solar power generation without adverse environmental impact,” says Hayes.

California and other states with renewable energy mandates are driving demand for solar power. California has issued new rules saying that 33 percent of its energy must be from renewable sources by 2020. The new solar facility in the Mojave will power more than 300,000 homes and is expected to create thousands of jobs.

New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts are other states with strong renewable energy rules. As a result, the Atlantic seaboard’s off-shore wind energy is increasingly viewed as a untapped resources. “The government is now actively developing the Atlantic wind resource,” says Hayes. Public lands, which once only provided access for coal, oil, and gas production, will increasingly be used to provide platforms for renewable energy as well.

Image credit: Solar thermal system / Solar Ninja

Goldhagen: “Democracies Need Physical Spaces”

Sarah Williams Goldhagen, architecture critic for The New Republic, argues that America’s public realm is best served by physical urban spaces that can enable “non-structured and non-goal-orientated” interactions among many kinds of people. The best places for these types of interactions? Great urban parks. She covers the role parks have played in enabling democracy, traces the impact  of Frederick Law Olmsted’s pioneering urban parks, explores a few contemporary parks that fit the “great urban park” name, and outlines the rise of landscape urbanism, a theory that may be encouraging designers to better serve the public realm.  

Goldhagen believes that American society “has become more an archipelago than a nation, increasingly balkanized into ethnic, class, faith, and interest groups whose members rarely interact meaningfully with people whose affiliations they do not in large measure share.” This balkanization, which has helped destroy the public realm, has taken the form of flight to the suburbs starting in the 1950’s, and, more recently, the ubiquitous World Wide Web. “The Internet preaches an ideal of ‘customization’ and a cult of ‘communities of interest,’ creating ever-dividing microsplinters of social affinity and similarity, which are then further hardened by the new specialized channels appearing on cable television seemingly every month.” The Web is, in effect, filtering us out by our interests, to the detriment of the off-line public realm. 

For a long time now, urban and social theorists have been lamenting the decline of social spaces that give community form. Many see the public realm as something physical — “it is an actual place, a place in the city, a place to which people from various classes and walks of life routinely come.” In the past 30 years, cultural institutions, streets, and malls have been providing physical space for the public. The interest in street and neighborhood design started with Jane Jacob’s “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” and continues on in new mixed-used, pedestrian-friendly urban developments (see an interview).  However, streets can’t provide a true social meeting space; “there’s too much chance of injury.” Cultural institutions and malls may help shape the public space, but perhaps to our detriment: they are causing the “commodification” of the public realm. Also, people may too busy looking at art or shopping to communicate with each other in a meaningfulway.

Instead, public spaces actually need to be designed for interactions that are “unstructured and non-goal-oriented, because humans, wired to concentrate on goals when goals are set before them, will focus on people whom they might not otherwise see (or whom they might otherwise choose to ignore) only if the pursuit of concrete goals is withdrawn.” Goldhagen argues that only in places that have been designed to foster these social interactions can people once again enjoy the company of strangers not interested in your specific “community of interest.” The obvious physical space for the public realm then is public parks, in all their forms, but particulary, the “great urban parks.”   

In Boston, Chicago, New York City, St. Louis, Seattle, some good and some bad major new urban parks have just opened, and other major cities like Houston, Philadelphia, and Toronto are planning more.  She describes the great urban park as “not be so large that inside it one loses a sense of the city. This type of park is typically important enough (and expensive enough) that municipalities work hard to weave it into the overall identity of the city. Over the course of a given year, many different activities and events happen there—concerts, rallies,festivals, fairs.” In addition, many are the result of opportunistic thinking — “Many sit on, or incorporate into their design, defunct artifacts of the American industrial landscape: railroad yards, lines, and depots; underutilized or disused ports— acres upon acres of cracked concrete or yarrow-covered property, asking to be re-purposed for clean living” (see earlier post).

Given the world is moving into cities at a rapid rate, making urban spaces as livable as possible is increasingly important. City administrators must invest in urban infrastructure, revamp existing transportation systems to include more options, and create affordable housing options. But perhaps, most importantly, as Katherine Gustafson, ASLA, argued in a recent interview, parks need to restorative, green open spaces if people are expected to live in high-density areas. “What is important about urban parks is that they are the only way to stop urban sprawl. Urban sprawl is linked with the energy crisis. Sustainability means trying to live in harmony with the planet. This isn’t possible if we don’t densify our cities to stop urban sprawl. The only way to densify a city is to have urban space.”

As models of new urban parks that succeed in large part, Goldhagen points to Chicago’s Millennium Park, the CityGarden in St. Louis (see earlier post), and the High Line in New York City (see a case study). For failures, she points to Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston, which “offers a dispiritingly high number of cautionary tales and directives about the obstacles that lie in wait to stall out such projects.” The $22 billion project (the largest and most expensive public works project in U.S. history) is “not merely bad, it is dreadful, a useless wind tunnel bordered by busy multi-lane streets and skyscrapers of unfortunate pedigree.” It’s also underused, features “incoherent and eye-injuring” landscape design, and lawns park-goers aren’t allowed to step on. Goldhagen reviews a number of the issues that caused the mess, highlighting the lack of leadership and intra-bureaucratic squabbles, concluding: “The Boston experience suggests that for a major urban park to develop, there must be leaders with a strong vision and political clout, garnering public support and funding for the project, shepherding it from design to completion, ensuring that countervailing forces do not derail it.” 

To get a sense of what landscape architecture can do to positively shape to the public realm, we must return to Frederick Law Olmsted, America’s great landscape architect, who designed Manhattan’s Central Park and Brooklyn’s Prospect Parks. “Olmsted understood that the great urban park is more than a place for people to appreciate the structure of tulips and feel the grass beneath their feet; and more even than a place where different sorts of people could come at any time for free. Three distinctive features make Olmsted’s parks more than simply nice: aesthetic coherence, a deep narrative richly told, and the possibility of a transformative personal experience in the city.” As an example, in Central Parks’s 843 acres, there are many functional areas, including game fields, gardens, skating rinks, a boating lake, and winding paths, but these “dozens and dozens of different kinds and moments of experience do not compromise the park’s aesthetic coherence.”

Today’s landscape architects need to follow Olmsted’s lead and “embrace the full responsibility that naturally falls to them” with regards to their role desiging the public realm. The three new urban parks cited (Chicago’s 26.5-acre Millennium Park, St. Louis’s 2.9-acre Citygarden, and New York City’s High Line) have all managed to revitalize underused real estate, catalyze economic development, raise local property values, provide ecosystem services, and attract tourists, but what impact have their had on the urban public realm?

“Millennium Park is a collection of great moments rather than a great urban park,” says Goldhagen.  The initial master plan, drawn up in the 1990s by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, broke up the gently sloping site into ‘rooms’ delineated by architectural elements and planting. While not an innovative idea, it is not in principle a bad one, having been used in formal gardens and parks for centuries. As private funds played an ever-greater role in covering the park’s $490 million cost, the sponsorship of these ‘rooms’ was doled out to various donors ($220 million from private private donors, though it must be pointed out that this figure includes the cost of the public sculptures and architectural elements).” As a result, all the different areas sponsored by different firms have created a “sadly incoherent” park, “aesthetically speaking,” almost rescued by Crown Fountain, AT&T Plaza, and Gustafson Guthrie Nichol’s Lurie Garden.  

In fact, only in Gustafson’s Lurie Garden is there a “successful public realm that bears the characteristics of a great urban park. Architecturally controlled, spatially and topographically varied, Lurie Garden offers visitors a powerful experience of quietude within the city, moments full of wildness, wildflowers, and an ever-changing story about the climate and flora of the Midwestern plains. Here Gustafson and her collaborators elegantly demonstrate how aesthetic coherence, spatial definition, and narrative poesis can create an excellent urban amenity.” The two other parks mentioned, the High Line, designed by James Corner Field Operations, and CityGarden, created by Warren Byrd of Nelson Byrd Woltz, are examples of smaller urban parks and will be the likely model for future urban parks. “The High Line is the superior design, but Citygarden is the more compelling example of the social good that a great urban park can bring.” However, Goldhagen sees both as legitimate successes that learned well Olmsted’s lessons.

On the designer of the High Line, James Corner, ASLA, Goldhagen says he’s perhaps the primary thought-leader in a new theory of landscape architecture: landscape urbanism, which aims to”reclaim landscape architecture from the preciousness of garden design by marrying it with regional planning and, especially, with urban design.” Part of landscape urbanism’s agenda is to throw out “coherent aesthetic programs and legible narratives” in favor of “networks and systems.” Designers should focus on developing “neutral forums that can host an ever-changing series of appropriations and ‘events.” Perhaps landscape urbanism then plays a key role in helping to ensure landscapes are designed for the public realm.

Read the article

Image credit: Lurie Garden, Millennium Park, Chicago. ASLA 2008 General Deisgn Award of  Excellence / Mark Tomaras

U.S. Announces 70 Transportation Projects Will Receive $600m

The U.S. Department of Transportation says it has applied a “merit-based selection process” to award 42 capital construction projects and 33 planning projects in 40 states nearly $600 million from its popular Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) II program, which covers major infrastructure projects like highways, bridges, ports, mass transit, and rail systems. Demand for this second round of financing was overwhelming: DOT received nearly 1,000 construction grant applications asking for more than $19 billion from all 50 states. According to DOT, almost 30 percent of new funds goes to road projects, 26 percent is alloted for transit, 20 percent is for rail projects, and 16 percent is for ports. Unfortunately, only four percent goes to improving walking and biking access bike and five percent is for sustainable transportation planning. 
The DOT listed a few examples of construction projects that received funding: 

  • The City of Atlanta will get $47.6 million to create a new streetcar line that will connect important downtown sites in a network, facilitating non-car access in the core city. 
  • The New Hampshire Department of Transportation will receive $20 million to replace its deteriorating Memorial Bridge. “The bridge is at the end of its service life and has a bridge sufficiency rating of six out of 100.”  
  • $140 million is reserved for projects in rural areas. 
  • In addition, Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority will receive a $546 million TIFIA (Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act) loan to a new light rail ine connecting the city to the airport, which DOT describes as a major piece of “Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s 30/10 initiative to construct 12 major transit projects in 10 years rather than 30.”

For the planning grants, U.S. Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development (HUD) joined forces to fund “localized planning activities that ultimately lead to projects that integrate transportation, housing and urban development.” Some 700 applicants sought $35 million in TIGER II planning grants and $40 million HUD Sustainable Community Challenge grants (see earlier post). The new combined grant review process, which also involves the Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is one result of the Partnership for Sustainable Communities (see earlier post). New HUD funds will be used for “localized planning efforts, such as development around a transit stop and zone or building code updates and improvements,” says DOT.  

DOT says the projects were selected based on the following criteria: “their ability to contribute to the long-term economic competitiveness of the nation, improve the condition of existing transportation facilities and systems, increase energy efficiency and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, improve the safety of U.S. transportation facilities and/or enhance the quality of living and working environments of communities through increased transportation choices and connections.  The Department also gave priority to projects that are expected to create and preserve jobs quickly and stimulate rapid increases in economic activity.”

While TIGER II has proven extremely popular, President Obama has also recently called for a “fundamental overhaul” of how infrastructure is funded and $50 billion to “renew American’s roads, railways, and runways.” According to The New York Times, his plan includes a new “infrastructure bank,” which would take transportation funding decisions out of the hands of Congress and give them to a panel that could make “merit-based” decisions about financing. The new infrastructure bank would “pool tax dollars with private investment.”

Already, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, Governor Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania, and Michael R. Bloomberg, Mayor of New York City, have lent their support and “would like to see it finance a broader range of projects, including water and clean-energy projects.” Obama said: “It will change the way Washington spends your tax dollars, reforming the haphazard and patchwork way we fund and maintain our infrastructure to focus less on wasteful earmarks and outdated formulas, and more on competition and innovation that gives us the best bang for the buck.”

Learn more about Obama’s plan and read his announcement at the White House. Also, see a brief from Clifford Winston, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, which argues that the infrastructure bank plan would likely have the same problems as Congressional financing of transportation projects — it wouldn’t be insulated from political decisions. Instead, Winston argues “privatization, instead of a bank, is the real long-term solution to the nation’s transportation infrastructure problems.”

Image credit: City of Atlanta Streetcar, Central Atlanta Progress, Atlanta Downtown Improvement District

Interview with Diane Dale, FASLA

Diane Dale, FASLA, JD, is Director of Community Design at William McDonough + Partners. Dale has won numerous awards for planning work and frequently speaks as conferences and universities. William McDonough + Partners, recognized internationally for leadership in sustainable design, won the 2004 Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award for Environment.

Joining up with William McDonough + Partners in the late ’90s, you started working on some of the earliest forms of sustainable communities as Director of Community Design. Before the term “sustainable community” became fashionable what were you calling these communities? How were you thinking about the key elements in community design? How have your thoughts evolved over time?  

The evolution in my thinking about communities started while I was working in the Washington D.C. area in the mid ’80s and early ’90s. The results of this really go-go economic growth during that period was rapid suburbanization outside of downtown D.C. – a development pattern that eventually became known as “sprawl.” Watching the sprawl consume the landscape, even participating in this growth with award-winning projects, had a great impact on me and I began to question the role of landscape architecture. After all, many of us can claim some authorship in sprawling landscapes across the country. Was anyone asking: “Is this development really in the right place? Does this project make sense? What’s the cumulative effect of what we’re doing here?” It seemed to me that sprawl was the outcome of communities making perhaps well-intended, but poorly conceived decisions about land use. Larger contextual issues such as regional ecological health and connectivity weren’t being given the same value as, say, tax revenue for new schools. Local governments were still operating under conventional planning and economic development policy and comprehensive regional planning was still just an idea.

This is one of the reasons why I went to law school after 15 years of practice as a landscape architect. I felt that in some projects that I worked on the person who seemed to have the most authority about what was going to happen on the landscape was the land-use attorney! While the designers created art and beauty in the new places, the important larger issues of location and land use were being determined by other influences – legal, regulatory, and economic – that would have greater and more lasting impact. I admit that I went to law school with a somewhat romantic notion of the law. I was really interested in law as a proactive tool for land use and environmental concerns but came to understand that the law in effect, is reactive. The law follows society’s values rather than drives them. While I’m glad to have had the opportunity to develop the analytical and strategic thinking skills that come with the study of law, by the time I was mid-way through school I realized I wasn’t really going to go out and change the nature of land development practices with this degree.  I also discovered that the design process was far more interesting.

I joined William McDonough +Partners in 2000 as Director of Community Design. While the firm is primarily known for its architecture practice, they were being asked to take on planning or planning-like assignments with increasing frequency to apply the firm’s sustainable design philosophy to a larger scale. My job very quickly became operating at that edge or transition zone between architecture and planning and site design. My working model was the ongoing transformation of architecture from design through construction with the sustainable design and green building movement.  I have learned a great deal through the collaborations with my architect colleagues and, in fact, this is an important distinction about our practice. There is a constant and almost seamless dialogue between our planning and architecture studios; the work of the community design studio has been heavily informed by input about architecture and systems. Conversely, our architectural practice is equally shaped by robust collaboration with landscape architects. But, a decade ago we were just beginning to put together ideas about integration at that scale. We’d set out on a process, “making it up as we go along,” but convinced we were asking the right questions. How can we take the process that has profoundly transformed the way we design and construct buildings and use that approach and sensibility to have an equally compelling impact at the community scale? How should energy, water and waste systems inform the organization and pattern of community?

It’s easy to focus on the environmental aspects and site systems of sustainable communities because they are more tangible, but of course, communities are for and about people.  The social and economic systems that support the health and well-being are impacted by many challenging externalities. They are harder for the designer to address and are too easily short shifted. Of course, sustainable communities also embrace location and culture, and create compelling place for people who use them.

In my decade working at William McDonough + Partners, my thought have evolved from those initial concerns about visual and ecological impacts to, more recently, thinking about how to apply the Cradle to Cradle design framework articulated by Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart to the scale of cities and regions. Cradle to Cradle philosophy provides a positive framework for design, encourage us to rethink the frame conditions that shape our design so, rather than seeking to minimize the harm we inflict, design is reframed as a beneficial, regenerative force, Bill describes a view of the city as a collection of material metabolisms, energy and water flows, and cultural and ecological diversity, as  inputs and outflows as safe and healthily biological and technical nutrients flows.  A goal of our work with cities and communities is to apply this philosophy at the urban scale, to create new design models for the next generation of leadership, and to address the global challenges of climate change, carbon emission reduction and resource recovery.

You’re also an early proponent of using integrated systems-based approaches to land-use in which energy, water, waste and transportation systems are part of comprehensive plans. Have you seen this approach become more widespread? What obstacles are preventing more use of this approach?

Yes, this integrated approach is certainly become more and more widespread. It’s still innovative but terms like “sustainable urbanism” and “integrated urbanism” is what it’s about at the community scale. The Congress of New Urbanism (CNU) has stepped up to sustainability. LEED Neighborhood Development (ND) and the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) are evidence of the great work that’s being done. Integrated system approaches have flowed out of integrated building design. What makes an integrated green building work is the requirement that the energy and structural engineers and the other design and technical   consultants are at the table from the very first day.

We practice the same approach in planning. At the onset of a project, we have the planner, landscape architect, architect, transportation planner, field ecologies, hydrologist – and yes, the energy engineer – in place at the table. We advocate starting a project with this type of multi-disciplinary planning team because that is what allows innovation to happen. Not just at WM+P but at other very good firms that have also understood that integration at the site and community scale from the earliest stages of design is what has to happen if we are going to create more positive outcomes.

Another obstacle is resistance to change. It’s a different way of doing design. Some clients will feel that bringing in all these different disciplines on the front side is not cost effective, because it creates upfront costs that aren’t typical. At WM+P we are fortunate in that our clients havee been somewhat self-selecting. We have benefited from terrific clients who have come to us specifically because they have very strong environmental values and want to pursue more environmentally intelligent outcomes. These clients are ready to see a broader definition of value. Of course, we still deal with the typical things like codes that don’t allow what you’re trying to do or concerns about delaying the entitlement process. Not to mention the need for financial sustainability. Time is money in our world too.

Another big obstacle is the phasing of a project, particularly in the design of district-based approaches. Phasing is challenging and can cause larger upfront capital costs for infrastructure.

One of your projects featured by the National Building Museum’s Green Communities exhibit, the Hali’imaile Sustainable Development Framework in Maui, examined how to reduce demand for energy and water in a new housing development while preserving the environment and respecting the local culture. How was this accomplished?

Actually, Hali’imaile is a great example of our early thinking about the integrated site systems we discussed in the previous question. Our collaborator on that work was Peter Sharratt and his team at WSP Environmental in London. Peter and I recently talked about how Hali’imaile was fundamental in developing approaches to communities for both our firms as it was the first time we were asked to look at sustainable systems at a larger scale. We started that project in 2004. We were cutting our teeth on this work.

The goals for Hali’imiale were to create a new community grounded in sustainable design principles that would provide affordable workforce housing.  The client also wanted the design to reflect their close ties andrespect for the traditions of Hawaiian culture. Sustainability is such a natural fit in the Hawaiian culture. The ancient culture developed in isolation, living with the natural resources at hand. Clearly, there was no boat coming from the mainland with relief supplies if there was a problem. Hawaiians developed a system of Ahupua’a, a resource management approach that separated the land into self-sustaining communities that extended from the mountain to the sea. It most closely resembles contemporary watershed management practices.

Our work at Hali’imaile quickly focused on energy and water. Most of Maui’s energy is supplied with fossil fuels shipped to the island – so it’s expensive and dirty. The water supply is stretched to meet competing agricultural and residential demand. These systems are directly tied to the sustainability of the built environment as well as to the affordability of living in what’s built.

There are two prongs to addressing sustainable energy: first reducing demand, and then supplying energy from renewable sources. Passive design plays an important role in reducing energy demands. We can take tools of passive architectural design and scale them up to site design –  the important role of orientation, shade-specific detailing on the buildings, ventilation, site planning, and not just the orientation of the building, but orientation of the rooms. For instance, in Maui if you live in a house with a bedroom on the west side so that it bakes all afternoon in the harsh raking sun, in the evening when it time to go to bed, you’re going to flip your air conditioning on, right? But a bedroom on the north or east side will have reduced energy demand to meet comfort levels, as would one with higher ceilings and windows scaled and placed to optimize ventilation.

In our education session on energy, I talked about the importance of integrating energy demand reduction strategies in all levels of design. We look toward a future of renewably sourced energy; however, in the meantime, another generation of conventional coal plants are being permitted and built. This means that many designers will spend their careers working within the context of an unrenewable energy supply. Although we advocate effective design solutions and optimization over mere efficiency, we recognize the importance of efficiencies and conservation as first steps as the path to a more sustaining future is still being charted. And after all, a kilowatt avoided through energy efficiency strategies does just as much work as a kilowatt produced in a power plant.

In addition to addressing the direct use of energy, there’s also the use of energy in other site systems, most notably, on Maui,the extensive water irrigation systems. Every time water is piped, cleansed, and treated it is an energy issue. Energy strategies are also about compact design, walkability, localized food production –  all the different components of a community that drive the energy use. We have to think about integrated approaches and an integrated energy portfolio.

The issue of affordability is inherent in the energy and water strategies – they can greatly impact the cost of living. So, for example, while photovoltaics are an appropriate renewable energy source on Maui we also need to consider the current high cost of PVs. Reducing energy demand in the houses will reduce the surface area of PVs needed to provide energy and that begins to make the strategy more cost-effective. Minimizing energy use in the supply of potable water, localized food production, walkabilty and other sustainable design strategies collectively support affordability.

For the University of California at Davis you came up with a solution for a community that was constitutionally-mandated to grow but didn’t really want to grow. Your team examined individual building energy, water, waste, and infrastructure needs and considered the impacts at the lot, block, and neighborhood scales. What is the value of using a small-to-large scale approach?

First of all, just to be clear on our work at the University of California Davis, another firm was hired to do the long range development plan. We were brought on as a consultant to help them address sustainability in the long range planning.  This was 2001, a very brave new world for sustainability and planning. The project administrator, Bob Segar, a landscape architect by training, created a great opportunity for us. (He’s now assistant vice chancellor for campus planning.) Every WM+P project that has won acclaim has had a fantastic visionary client behind it. We don’t get asked to do projects by people who are resistant to change. We get great projects because we have great clients. Bob understood that addressing growth in the context of sustainability would be important to deal with the no-growth resistance to change. The long range plan was going to have to be a really good story. I don’t mean story lightly: I mean a compelling story of why this growth should happen. We were brought into the process because of our positive message of not just being ‘less bad,’ but of trying to do ‘more good.’ While giving a keynote address to the community early in the planning process Bill McDonough redirected the discussion from a debate about growth- no growth to ask “What do we want to go?”

At Davis, we started with the lot as our basic unit and proceeded to the block scale because we first had to begin with simple elements impacting design to put it all together, to understand larger design implications. We literally were building a kit of parts, a toolkit of understanding for what we could achieve. In those days (in contrast with 2010), we had no way to model and measure these influences. We had to start with things that we could understand and that was at the building scale. Now, there are great advances in modeling, terrific computer tools, to analyze exterior influences.In 2004, you worked on the Ford Rouge Center in Michigan, the first industrial plaint in the U.S. to get a sustainable revamp. The facility now features an integrated green storm water management system, including green roofs, rain gardens, bioswales, and porous pavements. This landscape-based solution for dealing with the site’s toxic runoff problem is also highly cost effective. What was the business case for the project? How applicable is it to other industrial facilities? Why aren’t there more facilities using this approach?

In 2004, you worked on the Ford Rouge Center in Michigan, the first industrial plaint in the U.S. to get a sustainable revamp. The facility now features an integrated green storm water management system, including green roofs, rain gardens, bioswales, and porous pavements. This landscape-based solution for dealing with the site’s toxic runoff problem is also highly cost effective. What was the business case for the project? How applicable is it to other industrial facilities? Why aren’t there more facilities using this approach?

Ford was in a unique situation because they were facing a large and expensive environmental cleanup liability. They were going to have to construct conventional storm water treatment facilities that had a very high price tag. That liability created a terrific opportunity for innovation. Our integrated site systems approach made great economic sense because the integrated system of green roofs, conveyance swales, and rain gardens cost significantly less than the price tag for a conventional wastewater treatment plant. This is why the project has won business awards as well as sustainable design awards.

By the way, WM+P’s work at Ford benefitted from terrific collaboration with landscape architects. Nelson Byrd Woltz and the Dirt Studio worked on the master plan for the redevelopment of the Rouge Complex and we worked with Harley Ellis and W.H. Canon on implementation. Cahill Engineering consulted on the stormwater systems and Professor Clayton Rugh did the pioneering research on phytoremediation.

Why isn’t what happened at Ford used elsewhere? It goes back to the same obstacles – educating clients, and resistance to change. At Ford, one of the biggest obstacles to implementing our ideas was dealing with middle management. There was great vision and leadership at the executive level but the vehicle operations and facilities guys within Ford were very resistant to change. It was counter to the way they had been doing business for decades. For instance, they were very suspicious of the porous pavement, an important part of the storm water management system. I sat through so many meetings where they would say, “We’re going to lose productivity.  It’s not going to work; it’s going to break up. What’s going to happen when it freezes in the winter?” All I heard was just negative, negative, negative. Then, the pavement was installed and, after a few months, I realized no one was complaining about the pavement anymore. It had just stopped. So I finally asked: “Where’s the complaints about the porous pavement?” And the vehicle operations fellows said, “Oh, we love it.” What happened was, and we didn’t even realize this, there was an unintended benefit of the porous pavement. In the wintertime, it snows all the time in Detroit. The snow hits the black pavement, melts quickly and goes right through the porous layer so there’s much less ice buildup. We didn’t even anticipate that. What they got was actually more productive days out of the porous pavement system, not less. This was an unintended consequence that was a real benefit and led them to use porous pavements at other plants and spread that usage.

When I first started working with Bill McDonough, and he said, “Commerce is the engine of change,” I, coming out of a more tree-hugging environmental sensibility, didn’t quite embrace that idea at first. Over my decade-plus with Bill, I’ve come to understand that models from the commercial sector really do have the great power to demonstrate and provide leadership for change. When I was asked to work on a Ford auto plant, I think that earlier in my career I would have thought, “Oh, my God, what a failure as a designer. I’m doing auto plants.” I didn’t fully understand what it would mean to  take on this assignment at the Rouge. And yet, over time, I’ve seen how the power of that iconic green roof, the functioning landscape, and the project’s business case has brought the issue of green roofs into the corporate board room unlike any project before it. Some years ago I went to the Green Roof Healthy Cities conference to accept the award we received for the design of the green roof and, while I was there, different green roof vendors came up to me and said, in their own way, basically the same thing, “Gee, I wish I was your vendor on the project, but the truth is you’ve done more business development for me than anybody I’ve ever worked with.”

Much of your recent work with William McDonough is in the Netherlands. The Park 20/20 master plan is the first large-scale development to use McDonough’s regenerative, waste free, “Cradle to Cradle” design philosophy. There are layers of different plans, including interconnected green spaces and wildlife habitat, mixed use, walkable communities, “closed-loop” water systems that reuse grey water, and a renewal energy system featuring solar power. How did you get the team to actually integrate all these plans? Was that a management nightmare?

We designed a master plan that laid out a slightly different development model than is typical in this locality in the Netherlands, where smaller areas of land are released for development. Some of the innovative strategies that we wanted to pursue would not work well within this tradition approach. We successfully made the case for a larger development parcel  that allowed us to apply district-scaled solution that wouldn’t make sense with a building by building or lot by lot approach. It’s a comprehensive approach to systems integration and implementation. When we moved from master planning to the design phase, the overall expectation from the entitlement process was this would be an integrated approach.

In the Netherlands, a great deal of knowledge about sustainable strategies energy and water already exists. The understanding of sustainability is very high. The idea that working there might in some way be a nightmare makes me laugh. I’ve loved working in The Netherlands. The quality of the design dialogue is very high, very engaging. I am always very impressed with the talent and professionalism found in the public sector. I once had the pleasure of spending several hours with planners from the City of Almere discussing the meaning of nature in a landscape that had been reclaimed from the sea. Imagine that.
Park 20/20 has brought the knowledge about sustainability up to another level of integration.  Integrated within the urban plan are strategies to address energy, water, waste treatment, ecological connectivity, and transitability. For instance, following Cradle to Cradle protocol, the storm and waste water are reconceived as a ‘nutrient management’ system rather than waste liabilities, to be captured, cleansed, and reused on site, Park 20/20 has been a very effective model out in the marketplace, even in this challenging recession. Five of the buildings in the master plan are now under various stages of design. There are many reasons why it’s succeeding — it’s right at the edge of a growth area. It’s well situated on transit. Another is the branding of the complex as a model of integrated Cradle to Cradle design.

Park 20/20 is not just about balancing systems, but also a balancing of tenants to achieve the sustainability goals. There must be synergies to match the needs of inputs and outputs. For instance, the office uses will create heat waste during the day that will heat the water for hotel use at night.  There needs to be these types of compatible uses within the integrated approach.

Where are sustainable communities heading?  What about Bill Clinton’s recently launched climate positive cities program which strives to reduce the amount of CO2 emissions from cities to below zero?  Do you see this ever actually happening?

I haven’t had the pleasure of working within the Clinton Initiative city program.  I’m glad that climate issues are being addressed at a high and prominent level. and would be delighted to have the opportunity to work with one of the cities. I’m also very excited that there are new initiatives happening at the federal level under the Obama administration, like the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. For the first time, the Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.), Department of Transportation (DOT) and Depart of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) are having integrated dialogues about sustainable cities and communities and that represents a sea change, a transformation from siloed agency decision-making into integrated thinking. The key to sustainable communities is the capacity to be integrated at all different scales. The evidence that this is happening at the federal level, the understanding that solutions are going to be about integration, is really very encouraging. Of course, the E.P.A, DOT, and HUD aren’t the developers and designers of communities, they’re the resource people. So, it still will really come down to what happens at the community level.

With transformation, as with any major change, it’s about education and getting people involved because, after all, communities are about people, individuals who are coming together in a communal way that express their values. People came together in their concern about Katrina and more recently about the oil spill in the Gulf. People are becoming increasingly aware of the very large-scale consequences to things that we as a society are often ignorant about until it hits us over the head. As designers we have the opportunity to help people become more aware of the array of those less dramatic events that can have as great an effect on their health and well-being.

We can promote public awareness and facilitate the design dialogue, but we can’t create or define a community’s values. Our job as designers is to reflect a community’s values. We can help a community articulate their values and then give those values form. I find the engagement in this design dialogue with people about their vision, their goals and their aspirations to be one of the more gratifying aspects of our work. Increasingly, I find the younger generation is bringing well-informed values about environmental sustainability into the discussion. They do see a threatened world and they’re helping to change the dialogue. What we can bring to this dialogue is an educated position on sustainable thinking and, hopefully, a positive agenda for change.

Interview conducted by Jared Green.

Image credits: (1) William McDonough + Partners, (2) Copyright Roy Feldman, Ford Photomedia , (3) William McDonough + Partners, (4) William McDonough + Partners.

Tragedy of the Commons: Himalayan Glacier Melt

The tragedy of the commons is the idea that individuals all acting independently in their own self-interest in the short-term can destroy valuable shared resources over the long-term. This idea is often used to explain how it’s very difficult to get individual people, communities, or even countries, to take the initiative on reducing their own adverse long-term impact on the environment — there’s simply no short-term benefit to do so. One instance where the short-term thinking of the commons has had far-reaching global impact is on the 16,000-feet-high Tibetan plateau, where some 35,000 glaciers are found. There, glaciers are melting at an “accelerated rate,” says Orville Schell, Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society.

Never-ending policy debate, which resulted in the failure of the Copenhagen meeting, reflects this narrow regard for short-term self interest (see earlier post). Schell said “climate change policy is getting less and less traction. Governments are paralyzed.” To bring the debate back to the actual effects on the glaciers, Schell partnered with world-renowned photographer and adventurer David Breashers, who works with GlacierWorks, on “using the narrative of the expedition as a way to show climate change in action.” The Tibetan plateau used to be considered “a wasteland with some romantic overtones,” but is now rightly understood as the “center of Asia’s hydrology.” Some 40 percent of Asia’s population will be impacted by reduced long-term freshwater flow from the plateau’s glaciers.

Breashears, who created the iMax movie on the Himalayas, said the 800 mile mountain range includes some 30-35,000 glaciers, of which only a very small sample have been studied. Glacier meltwater flows constitute 1-10 percent of inflows into major rivers like the Yangtze, Yellow, Mekong, Ganges, Indus, Irrawaddy, and others. However, Breashears added that “the glacier water’s importance to biodiversity isn’t commensurate with its volume.”

He called the glaciers “a canary in a big mine” — In the case of Antartica, glaciers are falling off into the sea (which does impact overall sea levels), but Tibetan glacier meltwater is going straight into “people’s wells and farms” in India, Pakistan, Nepal, and China.  In the short term, climate change will lead to “meltwater accelerating exponentionally.” However, over the long-term, glaciers will be further reduced in size, meaning less water trickling down to communities. Water scarcity threat levels will rise over the long-term; the issue won’t be floods but droughts. Breashears pointed to the Mississippi basin in the U.S., Central and Western Europe, Yellow River Basin in China, and the Indus River basin as areas facing extreme water scarcity over the long-term.

The adventurer and photographer has been finding “datapoints” of specific Himalayan glaciers and comparing past with current views. He accomplished this by digging through archives, finding old photos of distinct mountains and glaciers made by some of the first British photographers and cartographers, and then taking new photos of the same spots to compare the changes. In photo after photo, Breashears pointed to dramatic losses of glacier size and depth over a 100-year period. In one case, there is a 350-feet-drop in ice levels over huge expanses.

Global and regional climate change, black soot, and monsoon variability (which is linked with climate change) are the main drivers of the recent and accelerating glacier melt, said Syed Iqbal Hasnain, the Chairman of the Glacier and Climate Change Commission for the State of Sikkim in India and a fellow at the Stimson Center. However, instead of trying to deal with the mitigation of the effects of climate change, it’s effectively too late for that and regions must quickly come up with adaptation plans. “Mitigation has failed. The planet already traps 2.6-3.2 wm2 of radiant energy. We’ve passed the threshhold by 20 percent. We need to look towards regional assessments of climate and adaptation plans.”

Hasnain reiterated the points made about flooding in the near-term and droughts in the long-term by pointing to the recent floods in Pakistan, which he argues were caused by climate change (see earlier post). “Why did these floods happen now? Why hasn’t something like this occured over the past 100 years?” Increased monsoon rains (and variability) along with a surge from Karkoram sub-glacier lakes, all caused by climate change, were the main factors behind the floods. In the case of surging glacier lakes, the “ice became separate from the rock,” allowing melted water to flow faster, creating a deluge in the Pakistani low-lands. “Water was released all of the sudden from sub-glacier lakes.” Even scarier: there are some 52 “dangerous” glacier lakes in Pakistan alone and many more in India and China that could also create flooding conditions.

Regional black carbon or soot (see earlier post) from cooking stoves, trucks, and factories, which “causes a brown cloud to form over India;” permafrost melt; as well as emissions from local military vehicles in the Himalayan region were also cited as areas where coordinated regional action is needed. Hasnain said local leaders were particularly important in sharing knowledge and generating regional approaches (a point echoed by Breashears), but pointed to the great mistrust between China, India, and Pakistan as a major inhibitor of coordinated regional action. As a result, any action must be “bottom-up” because “top-down has clearly failed” (as was demonstrated through the UN process).

Schell was even more pessimistic, adding that “there’s going to be a major increase in CO2 emissions over the next 20 years regardless of what new technology is rolled-out.” Futhermore, India, China, and Pakistan, countries that have all fought wars with each other, “may go to the death over water scarcity. How can they create an agreement on water usage?”

Watch a brief video of Breashers’ presentation and see the online exhibition. Also, check out an op-ed from Nicholas Kristoff in The New York Times on the exhibition, where you can also see before and after photos of a glacier.

Image credit: David Breashears / Asia Society

Nathaniel Rackowe’s Garden Fence Uprising

Sculptor Nathaniel Rackowe has turned the everyday materials that make up a backyard fence and shape our daily aesthetic experience into a sculpture that offers a critique of the suburbs, writes Icon magazine. The artist is taking aim at “the subtle, subliminal components […] that remain once you remove all architectural interventions.” Rackowe explains:A lot of my work deals with in-between spaces and temporary structures. The material of garden fencing belongs in this category.”

Rackowe was inspired by the boxed-in suburban communities he passes on the train. “I take the train frequently from Dalston going west. Looking out of the window, I can see into the gardens of terraced houses. A huge component of urban space is these little hidden gardens. Each space usually has a shed. It’s all very private and personal and it’s very structural. Yet people don’t really think of gardens when they think of cities.” Icon adds that by rearranging the components of the garden fence and adding in new forms and light, Rackowe is taking the suburban garden fence and creating something bold.

Another piece, “Black Shed Expanded,” which was shown at Art Basel Miami Beach, also explodes the everyday aesthetics found in backyards. “The eerie lighting and yellow cables highlight this constellation of fencing panels and force the viewer to acknowledge the spatiality and significance of the lowly garden shed.”

Read the article and learn more about Rackowe’s sculptures.

Also, check out Scott Jerrett’s urban sculptures created using found objects.

Image credit: Icon magazine / Nathaniel Rackowe

Los Angeles Green District Competition Winners Offer Visions of a Sustainable City

The Architect’s Newspaper and Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) sponsored the Cleantech Corridor and Green District competition, which asked designers to come up with bold concepts for a 2,000-acre redevelopment zone at the eastern edge of downtown Los Angeles (see earlier post). According to The Architect’s Newspaper, the city has set aside the zone as a base for future clean tech manufacturing. L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa seems to be investing his own political capital in making the area a center for L.A.’s green economy and a showcase for sustainable urban redevelopment. The City of Los Angeles, Community Redevelopment Agency of Los Angeles, and the L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority all participated as partners in the early conceptualization of the new district.

Winning entries offered bold new architectural designs, planning and land-use approaches, and infrastructure that could enable energy and water self-sufficiency:

A group of Norwegian designers, Constantin Boincean, Ralph Bertram, Aleksandra Danielak, nabbed the first prize for “Project Umbrella,” which centers around a “large mushroom-like structures” that function as solar evaporators and also treat black-water and distribute clean water. The Architect’s Newspaper writes: “the clear water is distributed and released into the streets through a process of evaporation and condensation triggering a transformation of the conventional streets into a network of lush, cultivated landscapes. Green webs spreading out from the evaporators generate incentives for new, sustainable developments within and around them. The central urban plazas become focal points within a gradual process of transformation that will affect the way people will see, use, and experience their city.” Learn more.

The second prize went to L.A.-based Labtop’s “Greenoplasty,” which create a new light rail line  and set of lightweight housing that could sit on top of the district’s warehouses. The designers write: “The urban approach we took in designing the Cleantech Corridor was to compress the nearly four mile site by implementing a local tram way, then rezoning specific areas in order to give space back to the pedestrian. At the local scale this translates into the opportunistic retrofitting of the existing environment along with the inclusion of highly visible urban markers.” Learn more.

Buro Happold, Mia Lehrer & Associates (see an interview), Elizabeth Timme, and Jim Suhr won the third prize, which would combine renewable energy, waste management, transportation, and stormwater runoff mitigation systems in an integrated approach. The designer contend that “the Cleantech corridor is a perfect site for a case study in creating a modern, performative landscape. There is a great deal of latent potential energy in the corridor, from the landscape and streets to the footprints of outmoded industrial buildings. The river to the east of the site is an enormous asset that if accessed appropriately could be a powerful input within a system that renews and recycles energy, water and waste for the greater Los Angeles area as a whole. We have also been interested in challenging the notion that a productive, urban, manufacturing district is inherently anti-pedestrian and unsafe.” Learn more.

All concepts propose innovative, site-specific ideas. The winners got $11,500 in prize money. Hopefully, the final result will be bigger than that prize money though, and L.A.’s Mayor will muster the political will and the city’s developers will structure the financing needed to turn parts of these visions of a sustainable downtown L.A. into reality.

Learn more about the winning projects and see the top three student winners. If you are near L.A., also see the concepts in person at SCI-Arch until October 27.

Image credits: (1) The City of Los Angeles, (2) Constantin Boincean, Ralph Bertram, Aleksandra Danielak, (3) Labtop: Thomas Sériès, Vincent Saura, Vuki Backonja, Amanda Li Chang, Eduardo Manilla, Benjamin Sériès, (4) Buro Happold, Mia Lehrer & Associates, Elizabeth Timme, Jim Suhr.

Using Abandoned Coal Mines as a Platform for Restoring Nature

Abandoned coal mines, which are some of the most dramatic examples of human interventions in the landscape, are being used as platforms for restoring nature in Germany and the U.S. Appalachian region. In two very different examples, governments, foundations, and local communities are creating and implementing positive visions for ecosystem development or restoration.

One involves creating an ecosystem from scratch out a vast set of mines. In the Lusatia region in east Germany, a “barren moonscape” of abandoned mines some 50 by 22 miles, will be filled in with water, creating a new man-made lake district, writes Der Spiegel

In another case, a key tree species has been reintroduced to restore an ecosystem destroyed by blight and mining. In the U.S. Appalachian region, mountaintop coal mines are now serving as a home once again for the blighted American chestnut, says Solutions journal.

Creating a New Lake Region in East Germany

In Lusatia, coal mines created by the former communist East German government led to the removal of 40,000 people and destruction of 80 villages, along with the destruction of the natural landscape. Der Spiegel writes: “Now, belatedly, the region has embarked on a dramatic and costly project to revamp the derelict and deeply scarred landscape. Vast craters, left behind by the coal mines, are being filled with water, creating a brand new lake district, the biggest of its kind in Europe.” The project director, Rolf Kuhn, a former director of the Bauhaus design school, is leading the $11.7 billion project, which uses national and local funds along with some $30 million in E.U. funds.  

The ambitious project will involve “channelling rivers into the leftover craters.” Several new lakes have already been created, but a total of 23 lakes, which will be joined by canals, are in the works. The idea is to make the lakes “havens for water-sport fans and cyclists.” Local residents are also thrilled by the prospect of doing away with the moonscape. Karin Mietke, a local entrepreneur told Der Spiegel: “Many of those who were expelled from their villages are happy that they don’t have to live with the moonscape for much longer.”

In fact, local entrepreneurs like Mietke are already investing in plans for floating houses and a “floating holiday village” on the lakes. The idea is to recreate the destroyed villages on the lake. On the new Lake Parwitzer, named after a village that once stood there, a new floating wooden house has gone up. According to Der Spiegel, there’s also a new floating diving school and new hotel called “Lake Hotel.” In Scado, a local firm called SteelTec37 aims to create a set of steel houses on the lake at a price of €400,000 each. The new buildings and tourism expected to grow when the lakes are in place are also expected to create lots of new local jobs in a region suffering from 15 percent unemployment.

Kuhn said it’s also important that the region preserve its industrial past. Der Spiegel writes: “The move did not make Kuhn popular at first. Now, though, local tourist attractions include the long-derelict Plessa power station which has found a new life hosting art events. Not far away is a lookout post atop the massive wastewater treatment facilities belonging to the former coking plant in Lauchhammer.” In addition, one of the largest pieces of post-industrial equipment has been transformed into a viewing platform for tourists. “By far the leading tourist attraction in the region is also a dormant post-industrial giant. The overburden conveyor bridge F60 looks something like an Eiffel tower laid flat on the ground. Measuring 500 meters in length, it once munched enormous gashes into the landscape. These days, it provides a viewing platform for tourists.”

The project is expected to be completed by 2015. Read the article and see a slideshow

Restoring American Chestnuts to the Appalachian Region

The Appalachian region, another part of the world scarred by mountaintop coal surface mining, has also lost its American chestnuts, a hardwood species “once known as the redwood of the east,” writes Solutions. The trees could reach 100 feet high and several feet in diameter. “So dominant was this tree that it grew in pure stands up to 100 acres, numbered in the billions, and accounted for nearly one out of every four trees throughout its range.” The timber was also widely used and prized for its versatility and strength, and its nut crop were relied upon “by humans and wildlife alike.”

Beginning in the the early 1900’s, chestnut blight, or Cryphonectria parasitica, began to impact the chestnuts of North America, to devasting effect. Solutions writes: “Traveling about 50 miles each year, the blight left decimated forests in its wake. By the 1950s, the entire range of the chestnut had been affected and approximately 4 billion trees had perished. Through this blight we lost an important wildlife and timber tree and nearly one-quarter of the canopy cover of our forests. Many consider the loss of the American chestnut to be the greatest ecological disaster of the twentieth century.”

Starting in the 1980’s, the American Chestnut Foundation (TACF) has focused on restoring the “once-dominant tree” throughout its region by crossing surviving American chestnuts with blight-resistant Asian chestnuts, creating a tree that can stand up to the parasite. However, their end goal is to breed all Asian chestnut characteristics except for blight-resistance out of the American trees. In addition, TACF is also working on fighting Phytophthora root rot, another disease which affected trees in southern regions. 

American chestnuts’ range is located in the same area as Appalachian coal fields. Reforestation projects have already used the Forestry Reclamation Approach to prove that former mining sites can provide a platform for new American chestnut groups. Solutions outlines the many reasons why this approach can work so well: “First, loose mine spoils reclaimed using FRA techniques have shown good growth and high survival rates for other native Appalachian hardwood species and may also be suitable for chestnuts. Second, many surface mines exhibit light and soil chemical characteristics that are similar to higher elevation and ridgetop positions where chestnuts were dominant. Third, loose mine spoils are initially devoid of vegetative competition, a hindrance to many reforestation efforts. Fourth, fresh mine spoils may initially be devoid of pathogenic microbial communities such as Phytophthora, which have hindered TACF’s breeding and restoration efforts elsewhere. Moreover, loose mine spoils are well drained, which may hinder the establishment of Phytophthora. Lastly, the Appalachian coal region falls almost entirely within the natural distribution of the American chestnut.” Still, researchers are watching the trees carefully to ensure the old blights don’t affect the trees on former mining sites. 

Operation Springboard, an initiative of TACF and the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative (ARRI), aims to promote reforestation on mine lands and restore the American chestnut. According to Solutions, the initiative has already garnered the support of a set of groups that doesn’t usually agree: the mining community, local citizen groups, and environmental organizations. Volunteers are already aiding in the reforestation effort: “In 2009, 520 volunteers and nine separate nonprofit watershed groups held tree-planting events on 36 acres of surface mine land and planted 27,500 trees. In 2010, over 175 acres have been committed for volunteer planting events, and nearly 115,000 trees will be planted.” Furthermore, mining, environmental, and local citizen groups are now engaged in dialogue on the future of the region, which Solutions argues, may be one of the most important outcomes.

Read the article

Also, send in your ideas about how abandoned mines could serve as a platform for restoring nature.  

Image credits: (1) Der Spiegel, (2) Der Speigel, (3) Richard Morin / Solutions