Plants Go on High Alert

The New York Times writes that new research from Colorado State University indicates progress has been made towards a “plant-kingdom early warning system.” Plants’ ability to sense the slightest chemical changes can be manipulated so they change color when exposed to tiny amounts of airborne TNT molecules. Instead of intrusive scanners, perhaps air passengers will soon be walking past security gardens. In addition, these early warning plants could even be integrated into important public spaces: “How about a defensive line of bomb-sniffing tulips in Central Park in New York, or at the local shopping mall’s indoor waterfall, or lining the streets of Baghdad?”

In a study recently published in the peer-reviewed journal, PloS ONE, the plant reseachers say they are focused on how “computationally re-designed periplasmic binding proteins (PBPs) provide a means to design highly sensitive and specific ligand sensing capabilities in receptors. Input from these proteins can be linked to gene expression through histidine kinase (HK) mediated signaling.” They are in fact manipulating the chemical reactions of plants so their leaves are designed to “drain off chlorophyll” when bomb chemicals are detected. Without chlorophyll, plants turn a much lighter shade. June Medford, a a professor of biology at Colorado State, says the color change must be dramatic if plants are going to work as an early detection system.

Plants have evolved a system of sensors for detecting subtle chemical changes in their environment. This has been used to detect and ward off pests. Their chemical sensory power potentially makes plants an ideal (and sustainable) bomb-sniffer. “Plants in the lab, when modified to sense TNT, the most commonly used explosive, reacted to levels one one-hundredth of anything a bomb-sniffing dog could muster.”

The research, which has been funded by the U.S. Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, is now moving towards improving plants’ response time to threatening chemical compounds. Right now, the plants are responding slowly to chemicals, and take hours to indicate the presence of molecules. “Practical application requires a signal within minutes, and a natural reset system back to healthy green in fairly short order.” In addition, these plants must be kept healthy — an ailing plant could give a false signal. Sean R. Cutler, an associate professor of plant cell biology at the University of California, Riverside, said: “What you want is something that is extreme on-and-off and reliable, and I don’t think they’re there yet.”

Read the article and see the research study.

In another use of plants for security, Agence-France Press writes that a French businessman hopes to replace cement walls and razor wire with thorny security hedges in the cities of Iraq and Afghanistan. “The idea of establishing security barriers made of plants has many benefits, both from the psychological side and for the beauty and attractiveness of the city.” Dense, nearly impenetrable hedges could also be used in combination with high-tech sensors along border regions to slow illegal immigrants. “When you have five or six rows of thorny trees it will take at least an hour to cross, and that is more than enough time to capture [a] guy.”

Image credit: Central Park Flowers, NYC / Bertoco, Panoramio

The Explosive Growth of Bus Rapid Transit

Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) existed in just a few cities twenty years ago but has quickly turned into a viable solution for the massive transportation challenges facing cities. With more than half of the world now living in cities and total global population expected to reach nine billion, perhaps more cities should be looking at how to include BRT, a relatively cheap, sustainable, and flexible transportation option in comparison with building more highway overpasses and underground metro systems.

Dario Hidalgo with EMBARQ, the sustainable transportation think tank at the World Resources Institute (WRI), kicked off a session at Transforming Transportation 2011 by explaining that 120 cities now have BRT with bus corridors. Worldwide, there are now 200 dedicated bus corridors running over 4,000 kilometers. These networks have 7,000 stations, providing stops for 30,000 buses. Each day, 27 million people, or about one percent of the global urban population, is now riding BRT. Los Angeles, the site of one of the few major BRT systems in the U.S., is in the lead in terms of number of kilometers covered, but falls behind when considering the number of residents using the system each day. Both China and India are seeing exploding growth in BRT ridership.

In addition, more cities are catching on — more than 15 cities started BRT operations in 2010, representing 13 per cent growth over 2009. Another seven cities are expanding their systems, 49 cities have BRT under construction, and 31 are starting to plan out new systems. Still, with the rapid expansion of BRT, there are growing issues as well, including “rushed implementation, tight financial planning, high occupancy rates, deterioration of infrastructure, and fare system fragmentation.”

BRT Expands Across the Developing World

Walter Hook, head of the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy (ITDP), outlined some of the better designed BRT in developing countries as well as those facing challenges.

In Guangzhou, China, the BRT is a “hybrid full-featured direct service” system that carries some 800,000 passengers each day. Combined with a set of walkable, bikeable paths along the BRT stations, the system “has totally transformed the way the city feels.” The system is very smart: Existing municipal bus lines can rapidly enter and exit the dedicated BRT lane, which enables the city to leverage existing municipal “feeder” bus networks. Stations along the BRT route are off-set so there’s “more right of way.” In addition, BRT is integrated with the undeground metro system — “there’s a seamless network” and “no transfer penalty.”

In contrast with Guangzhou’s system, TransJakarta, the BRT in Indonesia’s largest city, has had some teething pains. The buses run on clean natural gas (CNG), but the CNG refueling depots were placed way off the BRT paths, creating lots of logistical issues that raised the cost of running the network. While CNG was used to address Jakarta’s air quality issues, Hook says it’s important to deal with the “logistical problems” first when trying to reach environmental goals. In addition, lane enforcement in Jakarta has been “lax” in many places, meaning cars and bikes have taken over the lanes dedicated to rapid bus.

In Ahmedabad, India, there’s a 30 kilometer long system that serves 50,000 each day. It has all the features of BRT but includes new “squared roundabouts” that have been tricky because they require faster timing with traffic lights if only BRT is going to use them.

In Johannesburg, South Africa, Rea Vaya, Sub-Saharan Africa’s first BRT, is off to a solid start. Created in advance of the FIFA World Cup soccer tournament, Rea Vaya has “world class stations” and European buses. There are also plans to implement express and limited stop services, only possible because the city’s BRT infrastructure has multiple dedicated lanes. In addition, in some areas, stations were plopped down in the middle of one way streets, which was “very bold,” but they’ve largely worked.

Still, rolling out that city’s BRT system wasn’t easy. “There were regulatory and institutional issues,” largely due to the number of taxi associations involved and their ongoing wars with each other. “The taxi wars have led to a number of deaths.” One result of all of this has been revised certification processes for the city’s cabs, with the goal of making it easier to track cabs and deny some access to new BRT paths. This has been controversial because while denying cabs access to some routes is needed to preserve demand for BRT, it also means a loss of revenue for cab drivers. To address the cab drivers’ losses, the city had to spend extra, an almost 30-40 percent premium, to get the BRT in place.

Bogota’s Model BRT

Bogota’s BRT, TransMilenio, has been going for more than ten years now. There are 1.7 million daily trips but still “lots of politics” around BRT in the city, said the system’s general manager, Fernando Paez, largely because they’ve meant removing car lanes. The network is now 52 miles in length and will soon reach 72 miles. That’s just the first few phases — more than eight phases are planned. The city’s BRT has one control center, 1,215 buses and 515 feeder buses. More than a quarter of all bus trips in the city are now on TransMilenio’s dedicated lanes.

Interestingly, Paez said there were some two million square meters of public plazas and parks along the BRT network. When asked, Paez said the BRT network and plazas were developed together as part of an “integrated design strategy.” The adjacent parks and plazas help drive BRT usage. Research has been done on per capita usage of the public spaces around the BRT stations. In addition, Paez said they now have a “green street” pilot project along one of the lines to test how they can leverage the BRT infrastructure for stormwater management.

Overall, there have been many upsides — economic development, an increased sense of civicness caused by the positive identity of the BRT, and improved safety and security. However, Paez said the city still needs to do more to “consolidate opportunities in urban development” offered by the BRT. Also, the city needs to increase the number of buses to deal with high occupancy rates, and address traffic control through feeder buses, an issue caused by congestion.

Implementing BRT in “Challenging Situations”

Colin Brader, a consultant for the World Bank, reviewed some challenges in implementing the BRT in Lagos, Nigeria and other cities like Jakarta and Johannesburg. He explained that “all have BRT in place so have been successful.” However, getting each system live “involved significant institutional or regulatory changes,” quite a bit of compromise, and flexibility so systems could “evolve to optimize and meet changing demands.”

Lagos residents previously faced horrendous travel conditions: Public buses had “variable fares,” passengers were subjected to “violence and intimidation,” and on top of that, there were “multiple transfer points.” A 12 kilometer ride could take 2-3 hours, certainly not unheard of in many big developing world cities like Bangkok. “Users want safety, security, and reliability” and the city largely gave them what they wanted. All major local politicians in the city got behind the concept, seeing it as a “people’s project,” and a massive consultation helped “depoliticize the implementation.”

Now Lagos’ BRT, which runs at 13 km per hour, has “dramatically improved” the lives of 170,000 people each day at a cost of $1.4 million per kilometer. In addition, it also exemplifies gender-sensitive design. Before the addition of queues, only the strongest could push their way aboard. “Women appreciated the imposition of the queuing systems.”

In a separate session, there was discussion on the need to collect better transportation data worldwide in order to build the case for more sustainable transportation options. While almost all countries have pretty good international air and rail travel data, very few have solid local data on walking, biking, or transit, which is crucial to putting funds behind more sustainable, low-cost urban options. Given good data is often at the foundation of good policy, more funds should be allocated to gathering and sharing data and even getting existing pockets of local data moved up to the national and international levels, enabling comparisons in the process.

One group, the Partnership on Sustainable Low-Carbon Transport, is calling for “Global Transportation Intelligence.” The Inter-American Development Bank also called for a set of urban “observatories” that can track transportation usage in cities and help inform sustainable transportation investments. As Sanjiv Lohia, Ministry of Urban Development in India, said, “instead of gazing at the stars, these observatories should be rooted at the ground level” where there is still so much unknown about human travel behavior.

Image credit: TransMilenio, Bogota / Fast Company

Designing for Active Living

Watch an animation from ASLA’s Designing Our Future: Sustainable Landscapes online exhibition that explains how to transform a car-centric community into one that enables active living. Learn how designing communities for walking, biking, and increased social interaction in open green spaces improves health:

According to the Center for City Park Excellence at the Trust for Public Land, almost half of all Americans get less than the recommended amount of physical activity, and more than a third don’t get in any leisure-time physical activity at all. Dr. Richard Jackson, former head of the Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Environmental Health and now Professor at UCLA, adds that this overall lack of physical activity, along with Americans’ taste for fatty, unhealthy foods, has helped turn obesity into a “common cause epidemic” in the U.S. Furthermore, the cost of healthcare in the U.S., which now ranks as the most obese nation on earth, has reached 17 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). What’s the cause of this increasingly expensive health epidemic? – Some answers can be found in the built environment. Communities are often planned and built to enable constant car use, creating a “deep-rooted structural issue” impossible to remedy with medicines alone. (Source: Center for City Park Excellence Trust for Public Land and “Dr. Richard Jackson: “We are No Longer Creating Wellbeing,” The Dirt, ASLA General Session, October 2010 )

“Designing for Active Living” is a new approach to community design that aims to design communities for all users, not just those driving in cars. Even older communities are retrofitting infrastructure to provide multiple transportation options and easier access to outdoor activities, improving health in the process. Designing for Active Living involves creating safe access to transit; “Complete Streets,” which offer wider sidewalks and bike lanes; bike share networks and stations; community trail networks; parks with exercise equipment; and community gardens — anything that gets people outdoors. In fact, new research demonstrates just being outside provides physical and mental health benefits. Interacting with nature improves cognitive ability, provides a range of social benefits (like making people nicer), and shortens rehabilitation times among those recovering from illnesses. (Source: “Nature Makes Us More Caring,” University of Rochester, Marc Berman, Marc, John Jonides, and Stephen Kaplan, “The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting with Nature,” Psychological Science, Volume 19, Number 12, 2008 and “Dr. Richard Jackson: “We are No Longer Creating Wellbeing,” The Dirt

Improving access to outdoor activities not only provides physical and mental health benefits for the residents of these communities but also creates environmental and economic value. Complete streets are lined with trees, which clean air, reduce asthma rates during hotter months, and mitigate the urban heat island effect. More walking and biking means fewer car trips and less carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere. Community gardens can be designed to increase local biodiversity, creating food sources for people as well as bees and bird species. Health communities also provide economic benefits: homes in walkable areas are worth more. According to a study by CEO for Cities, a “one-point increase in a community’s Walk Score rating was associated with an increase in value ranging from $700 to $3,000, depending on the market.  The gains were larger in denser, urban areas like Chicago and San Francisco.” (Source: Walking the Walk: How Walkability Raises Home Values in U.S. Cities)

Better Crossing Design Can Reduce Collisions between Wildlife and People

The ARC International Wildlife Crossing Infrastructure Design Competition, the first international competition of its kind, says collisions between wildlife and cars in the U.S. have increased by 50 percent in the past 15 years. Not only do these collisions take a huge toll on both wildlife and people, but they also cost the U.S. some $8 billion per year. To create a new wildlife crossing model that can enable animals with extensive migratory ranges — like bears, wolves, and lynxes — to better coexist with people, ARC asked designers to submit concepts that allow for safe mobility for a variety of species along separate but integrated transportation networks (see earlier post). Out of some 36 concepts submitted from teams worldwide, the design concept devised by HNTB and Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates was unanimously judged to be the best for its cost-effective approach using “ordinary materials, such as concrete, in an extraordinary way.”

“HNTB+MVVA’s design is cost-effective, modular, easy to construct, provides greater material control, and uses a unique built-in drainage system,” says the ARC competition. Nina-Marie Lister, the ARC competition advisor and professor at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada, adds: “The jury chose this design because it is not only feasible, but because it has the capacity to transform what we think of as possible – a novel design solution to a growing problem that could serve as a model for the world.”

New research shows that wildlife crossings do actually reduce collisions between wildlife and cars. ARC points to a study done in Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada, which demonstrated that a “series of 22 underpasses and two overpasses has resulted in an 80 percent reduction in total wildlife fatalities because wildlife was allowed to roam free uninterrupted of human transportation. As a result, there have been approximately 240,000 crossings (and counting) of 11 species of large mammals, including wolf, grizzly bear, elk, lynx, mountain lion, and moose across these paths.” 

The HNTB+MVVA design features a single span across a highway; there’s no central pier. “This single span is a unique feature that will provide a much safer experience for drivers by creating a more open experience.” The winning team’s design is innovative because it’s approximately four times wider than other crossing structures and includes fences that guide different types of wildlife across through safe passages. “This provides an ideal setting to accommodate wildlife movement and a diversity of habitats on top of the bridge.” The design was also judged to be among the more sustainable and low-cost options with its use of pre-fit modular concrete pieces.

The next step will be to implement the design somewhere in Colorado. The design competition’s site is West Vail Pass on I-70 in Colorado, about 90 miles west of Denver. The site was selected from a range of candidates. HNTB and Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates received prize money and a preferential position for an upcoming state-financed wildlife crossing project on a site yet to be determined in the state. 

Clearly, there are numerous opportunities to deploy this solution, saving the lives of wildlife, which almost invariably die in these traffic accidents, and drivers in the process. Crafting a public-private financing model for the widespread roll-out of these overpasses should be a priority.

Learn more about the winning design concept, and explore ideas discussed in a conference on wildlife habitat and crossing design held last year.

Image credits: HNTB and Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc.

Help Create Clear, Universal “Complete Street” Design Guidelines

According to “Re:STREETS,” a new project focused on “inclusive design for the public realm,” streets occupy more than thirty percent of all public spaces in cities. Over the coming decades, billions will be spent at the local level on their design and development. To ensure this massive investment in streets enables equal access for all users, a new universal street design is needed to balance the needs of pedestrians, bicyclists, transit riders, and car riders of all ages and abilities. Re:STREETS is taking a stab at creating an easy-to-download and plug-in green “Complete Street” template (see earlier post). The end goal of the project is a “comprehensive manual demonstrating design tools for building streets that promote healthy living, social interaction and commerce, as well as the movement of people and goods, while regenerating the ecosystem.”

The group says guidelines will be developed during a working conference hosted at the UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design in July. At the conference, attendees will cover issues like green infrastructure; “smart technology;” play and recreation; signage, wayfinding, and interpretation; urban agriculture and food production; and commerce. Before the conference starts, conference participants will get a technical manual and working group assignment, and will be tasked with creating solutions for specific problems. The manual will come out of the working conference reports, and will be available both in book format and online. The idea is to have the manual function as a “toolkit for implementing the Complete Streets policies that are being adopted throughout the United States.”

Private and public-sector professionals are invited to attend. Re:STREETS says “interested professionals from a wide range of disciplines are encouraged to participate, including urban planning and design, landscape architecture, architecture, civil engineering, traffic engineering, disability advocacy, public health, pedestrian advocacy, bicycle advocacy, transit, housing, economics, ecological sustainability, parks and recreation, maintenance, social services, materials manufacturers, and fire, police and safety.” 

Re:STREETS will be held at the UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design, July 21-23, 2011. The conference costs $250 to attend. Re:STREETS is funded in part by The National Endowment for the Arts and is being developed by PLAE, Inc., in partnership with the urban planning and design firm MIG. Project supporters include The National Complete Streets CoalitionAmerica Walks and UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design’s Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning.

Learn how to apply to attend the conference. For more information, also contact Kirsten Negus at

Image credit: Mayor Fenty on 15th Street NW Bike Lane, Washington D.C. / Flickr

Sharing Climate Adaptation Strategies

Island Press and EcoAdapt recently launched the Climate Adaptation Knowledge Exchange (CAKE), a Web site designed to enable “practitioners to manage the natural environment in the face of climate change.” The group argues that the varied effects of climate change are already being felt. In addition, species loss and ecosystem degradation are posing immediate challenges for policymakers, resource managers, planners, and designers. Island Press President Charles Savitt said: “Despite the attention now focused on mitigating global warming, the reality is that some level of it is inevitable. Unfortunately, the field of climate adaptation is still in its infancy.”

CAKE aims to fill the gap by providing a ton of useful adapation resources in one place. The site features a growing body of research and tools, including case studies, a virtual library, community forums, a directory, and online tools. Case studies show a range of plans and programs that can help communities model adaptation initiatives. The site’s virtual library offers “vetted resources such as journal articles, presentations, reports, book chapters, and grey literature.” The community area provides access to a discussion forum, bulletin boards, and adaptation gurus who can answer questions, while the directory contains a list of professionals and organizations doing adaptation work. The online tools section offers a set of interesting comparison, impact analysis, and visualization tools — software like SLAMM, Climate Wizard, and PRECIS, and others.

Resources seem pretty focused on North America so far, but CAKE says it’s expanding so more global content is available. Users are encouraged to submit case studies and research articles.

Learn more about CAKE’s resources.

Also, a number of organizations are investing in creating and making adaptation resources available to local policymakers — see ICLEI’s new adaptation program.

Image credit: Celsias

Making Renewable Energy Beautiful

At the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi, the Land Art Generator Initiative (LAGI) announced the winners of its innovative design competition aimed at coming up with new models for integrating renewable energy facilities into existing communities and ecologically-sensitive landscapes.

The design concepts for three proposed sites in the United Arab Emirates not only had to be beautiful, but also “capture energy from nature, convert it into electricity, and store, and/or transform and transmit electrical power to a power grid connection point to be supplied by others” (see earlier post). In addition, the artistic solar facility must not create pollution, additional CO2 emissions, or have any local environmental impact: “Each entry should provide an environmental impact assessment in order to determine the effects of the project on the ecosystem into which the installation is to be constructed. Mention should be given to a mitigation strategy that will address any foreseeable issues.” According to The New York Times, winning projects may be built in United Arab Emirates sometime over the next few years.

The jury reviewed hundreds of projects from 40 countries and selected three winners:

1st place: Lunar Cubit, Robert Flottemesch, Jen DeNike, Johanna Ballhaus, and Adrian P. De Luca (see image above)

“Using frameless solar panels reduces embodied energy by nearly 30%, reducing time to be energy positive from seven years to five years. Around the pyramids flow natural stone paths in a repeating pattern that mirrors buried electrical cables, conducting electrons from the outer pyramids to the central pyramid where inside they are transformed into AC energy and transmitted to the Utility Grid. Co-locating walking paths and conduit runs minimizes the footprint of disturbed land during the construction allowing the maximum amount of natural ecosystem to remain untouched.”

2nd place mention: Windstalk, Darío Núñez Ameni and Thomas Siegl, with Atelier dna (concept and design), Gabrielle Jesiolowski (narrative), Radhi Majmudar PE, with ISSE Innovative Structural and Specialty Engineering (structure and engineering), Ian Lipsky, with eDesign Dynamics (ecology and renewable energy strategy).

“Our project consists of 1203 stalks, 55 meters high, anchored on the ground with concrete bases that range between 10 to 20 meters in diameter. The stalks are made of carbon fiber reinforced resin poles, 30 cm in diameter at the base and 5 cm at the top. The top 50 cm of the poles are lit up by an LED array that glows and dims depending on how much the poles are swaying in the wind. We roughly estimate that the overall output of our project is comparable to that of a conventional wind turbine array. While a single wind turbine that is limited in height to 55 meters may produce more energy than one of our Windstalks, our Windstalks can be packed in denser arrays.”

3rd place mention: Solaris, Hadrian Predock, John Frane (principals) and Chris Schoeneck, Johanna Beuscher, Heinrich Huber (design team)

“A curved, mirrored, mylar surface is designed to concentrate the sun’s rays of energy onto a cell of highly efficient photovoltaic material. The concentrated cell produces around 300-400 times the energy than that of a conventional cell. With close to 25,000 solar cells the Solar Canopy will produce on average 73,000 megawatt-hours per year – enough to power the country of Chad for a year.”

Explore all the entries, read through LAGI’s blog, and learn more on the background of the competition in The New York Times.

Image credits: (1) Lunar Cubit, Robert Flottemesch, Jen DeNike, Johanna Ballhaus, and Adrian P. De Luca, (2) Windstalk, Darío Núñez Ameni and Thomas Siegl, (3) Solaris, Hadrian Predock, John Frane (principals) and Chris Schoeneck, Johanna Beuscher, Heinrich Huber (design team)

Revitalizing Communities with Parks

Watch an animation from ASLA’s Designing Our Future: Sustainable Landscapes online exhibition that explains how to revitalize an under-served urban community with a new park. See how communities without green space can thrive when provided with valuable space for social interaction:

Many U.S. cities don’t offer equal access to green space. For example, Los Angeles has 23,000 acres of parks, which puts the city in the top 15 in terms of total green space, but much of this parkland is near the mountains so most of the city’s low-income, inner-city communities don’t have any parks at all. Peter Harnik, director, Center for City Park Excellence at the Trust for Public Land, says in reality 3.8 million residents of L.A. are too far from “a park to use one easily, conveniently, or frequently.” Similarly, in New York City, high-quality parkland is found in greater abundance in wealthier districts, while low-income communities don’t enjoy the same access. More than half of the city’s 59 community board districts were found to have less than 1.5 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents. A University of Chicago study found that communities with lower incomes, higher poverty rates, and higher proportions of racial and ethnic minorities also had the “fewest opportunities for community-level physical activity.” Lack of green space is then not just about unfairness, it’s about health. Low-income communities may have higher rates of health problems like obesity and asthma in large part because they don’t have parks. 
(Source: “Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities,” Peter Harnik, Island Press, 2010 and  “Healthy Parks, Healthy Communities: Addressing Health Disparities and Park Inequalities through Public Financing of Playgrounds, and Other Physical Activity Settings,” Trust for Public Land, Policy Brief, November 2005)

New parks can sprout up in the unlikeliest places. Low-income, inner-city communities are characterized by hardscapes – asphalt surfaces. When a community organizes and creates a plan for a new park, local governments can respond and purchase asphalt-covered areas like parking lots and transform them into public community parks. The average neighborhood park can run into the millions, but including a park budget in the initial master plan helps ensure local governments will finance it, and even partner with developers, local foundations, or conservancies to get it built. These types of projects can also come about if they are part of broader public-private urban redevelopment schemes aimed at providing housing, improving access to transit, and investing in the local environment. Transportation infrastructure like boulevards, rail lines, and trails can be expanded, greened, and designed to become easily-accessible parks. In addition, even landfills, rooftops, reservoirs, and cemeteries can be turned into parks. 
(Source:“Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities,” Peter Harnik, Island Press, 2010) 

Park design needs to be compelling so people visit and forge community ties there. Parks that are designed for local residents and include them in the design process often do the best. New York City’s famed Central Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, and Bryant Park, designed by Laurie Olin, FASLA, are two examples of great community parks designed for people. The 843-acre Central Park has many “functional areas,” including game fields, gardens, skating rinks, a boating lake, and winding paths that offer “dozens and dozens of different kinds and moments of experience “ says Sarah Goldhagen, architecture critic for The New Republic. Bryant Park’s movable café table and chairs set under a rich tree canopy and spread around a central lawn enable people to easily form groups or stay on their own. The park is now viewed as a model for how public places can facilitate human interaction. Human interaction isn’t just needed to make a popular and sustainable park, new research demonstrates that people with strong community ties also live longer healthier lives. Parks provide the space for communities to form.
(Source: “Goldhagen: ‘Democracies Need Physical Spaces,” The Dirt and “Bowling Alone,” Robert Putnam)

Also, check out sustainability education resources on urban parks.

AIA Announces Urban Design Awards

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) announced its 2011 Institute Honor Awards, “the profession’s highest recognition of works that exemplify excellence in architecture, interior architecture and urban design.” More than 700 submissions were received and 27 projects won awards. 

In the regional and urban design category, one landscape architecture firm won and a number of firms were also included as part of winning integrated design teams. Projects focused on sustainable urban redevelopment, open space development, “de-carbonization strategies,” green infrastructure, and ecosystem restoration. More information on project teams along with image slideshows can be found via the project pages. 

Winners in the regional and urban design category:

Beijing CBD East Expansion; Beijing, China
Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP (with landscape architecture by the Office of James Burnett)

“Accommodating up to 7 million square meters of new development over a 3 square kilometer site, the plan calls for a restored commitment to public open space and a heightened focus on connectivity and mobility through advanced public transportation systems. A district-wide intelligent infrastructure system, composed of integrated utilities and controlled by smart technology, enables the CBD to function at optimum efficiencies and creates a model for large-scale, low-carbon, urban development.”

Chicago Central Area DeCarbonization Plan; Chicago
Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture

“The project team developed a database (energy use, size, age, use, and estimated carbon footprint) of more than 550 buildings. The team used that database, tied to a 3-D model, to develop the DeCarbonization Plan, which interweaves energy engineering, architecture and urban design. In the DeCarbonization Plan’s synergistic approach, eight key strategies work together with a parametric model.”

Community | City: Between Building and Landscape. Affordable Sustainable Infill for Smoketown; Louisville, Kentucky
Marilys R. Nepomechie, FAIA; Marilys R. Nepomechie Architect + Florida International University and Marta Canavés, ASLA, IIDA; Marta Canavés Design + Florida International University (along with a range of other organizations, including the Louisville Metro Parks department and Olmsted Conservancy).

“This project remediates existing brownfields and re-activates a long-neglected connection among an African American residential neighborhood, an historic Olmsted park, and the Ohio Riverfront. By introducing a range of housing typologies, social service spaces, and new collective green spaces, it fills gaps in an existing 19th century neighborhood fabric, increasing density while sensitively reinforcing its historic urban structure. The project re-activates long-neglected interstitial neighborhood spaces to produce a newly robust public realm.”

Gowanus Canal Sponge Park™; New York City
dlandstudio llc

“The Gowanus Canal Sponge Park™ is a public open space system that slows, absorbs and filters surface water runoff with the goal of remediating contaminated water, activating the private canal waterfront, and revitalizing the neighborhood. The total proposed area for the Gowanus Canal Sponge Park™ system is 11.4 acres: 7.9 acres of esplanade and recreational open spaces, and 3.5 acres of remediation wetland basins. The most unique feature of the park is its character as a working landscape: its ability to improve the environment of the canal over time while simultaneously supporting public engagement with the canal ecosystem.”

This project also won a 2010 ASLA professional award.

Low Impact Development: a design manual for urban areas
University of Arkansas Community Design Center

“The 230-page publication, ‘Low Impact Development: a design manual for urban areas’ is designed for use by those involved in urban development, from homeowners, to institutions, developers, designers, cities, and regional authorities. Low Impact Development (LID) is an ecologically-based stormwater management approach favoring soft engineering to manage rainfall on site through a vegetated treatment network. The objective is to sustain a site’s pre-development hydrological regime by using techniques that infiltrate, filter, store, and evaporate stormwater runoff close to its source” (see an earlier post on the manual).

Townscaping an Automobile-Oriented Fabric; Farmington, Arkansas
University of Arkansas Community Design Center

“Once a vibrant farming community, central to one of the nation’s largest strawberry and apple-producing regions in the early 1900s, Farmington is now a bedroom community. Unlike the totalizing pattern of a master plan, townscaping employs a serial organization of nodes to create a walkable urban environment within an automobile-oriented fabric. The townscape plan for Farmington integrates multiple placemaking strategies in: 1) context-sensitive highway design, 2) public art planning, and 3) agricultural urbanism. Placemaking in the townscape vocabulary offers a strategic pedestrianization of automobile-oriented patterns without denying the automobile’s fundamental role in servicing contemporary development.”

Also, see larger images of the winning projects at Bustler.

Image credit: Beijing CBD Expansion / Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP

Big Piece of L.A. River Revitalization Plan Held up

The Architect’s Newspaper writes that a “transformative blueprint” for 150 acres along the Los Angeles River has been held up due to the lack of approval and dedicated funds. While Los Angeles’ city government has given the OK for the 32 mile L.A. River revitalization master plan and aspects of that broader plan are moving forward, one big piece that would tie the restored river to the community, the Piggyback Yard (PBy), is still stuck. PBy, also known as the Los Angeles Transfer Container Facility, may be a key component though, because it’s one of the only riverfront sites where a single large-scale project can work. It’s also owned by just one entity: Union Pacific Railroad. Unfortunately, the railroad doesn’t seem likely to sell the site soon.  

A few years ago, Friends of the Los Angeles River asked a group of landscape architecture and architecture firms, Mia Lehrer + Associates (creator of the broader L.A. River revitalization master plan), Perkins + Will, Michael Maltzan Architecture, and Chee Salette Architecture Office, to volunteer to create a new plan for Piggyback Yard, a vision for a railroad site in a “critical downtown junction.” The group forged their plans in conjunction with the local government and the community.

 A year later, the group released a plan that aims to “replace the river’s concrete bottom with a soft riverbed, reintroduce plants and wildlife, and set the stage for educational, cultural, commercial, health care, and minor industrial buildings. The midsize structures would include green roofs and photovoltaic panel arrays. Building vertically means more space for the proposed 130-acre public park, which would include soccer fields, sports amenities, walking and biking paths, and a botanical garden.” Jessica Varner, an architect from Michael Maltzan Architecture, added that the project would “bridge, through architecture and landscape design, the gap between isolated neighborhoods and districts.”

Union Pacific has recognized the site is used “below capacity,” but may be worried about giving up such valuable property. Environmental requirements and real estate prices may also make finding an alternative site very costly. While Union Pacific still considers its options, pieces of the broader plan are moving forward.

Perhaps to help meet the E.P.A’s water quality requirements, the Army Corps of Engineers has agreed to fund a “Los Angeles River Ecosystem Restoration Feasibility Study by 2012. Part of the area being studied for restoration and flood control is a stretch of river adjacent to the PBy.” In addition, L.A.’s plans for a high speed rail and clean tech corridor (see earlier post) may also involve the site.

Mia Lehrer, FASLA, told The Architect’s Newspaper the plan is still only part of an “ongoing investigation” about the potential of the site also being conducted by county, city and high speed rail officials. In an interview last year, she said the broader riverfront area is being considered as a site for both high speed rail lines and stations as well as the core ecological restoration and urban redevelopment work. Striking a balance may be tricky: “A high speed rail project has been proposed for California. It happens to coincide downtown with areas that are considered very sensitive for the L.A. River. We now have this tension between high speed rail and river benefits. Ideally, there will be an opportunity to make sure these two projects make the best out of the situation. Whatever dollars there are to implement should actually benefit the community. Hopefully, it’s not an either/or situation but a plus, plus situation for the city.”

Read the article.

Also, learn more about the PBy plan, the broader L.A. River revitalization master plan, and check out an interview with Mia Lehrer, FASLA, the landscape architect behind the new vision of a sustainable river community in L.A.

Image credit: (1) PBy concept / PBy  (2)  Riverfront view / Perkins + Will