Planters Groves: A Good Thing?

Planters, famous for their peanuts and other snacks, has announced a plan to transform unused land in New Orleans, Washington, D.C., New York City, and San Francisco into “natural, green spaces” called Planters Groves. Interestingly, leading landscape architect Ken Smith, ASLA, has signed on to design these peanut-shaped urban parks made of reclaimed materials and featuring native trees and “plants from the legume family.”  Each park will be designed to blend with the local feel of the city, but will include a well-positioned Mr. Peanut statue on a peanut bench (no joke).

Planters will partner with the Corps Network, which enrolls more than 30,000 urban young people in community service, training, and education, and also has a network of more than 250,000 volunteers across the country. Planters writes: “The Corps Network’s local member Corps will lead the maintenance, ongoing programming and seasonal planting with community partners.” Sally Prouty, president and CEO of the Corps Network, added: “We are excited to be working with Planters, our local member Corps and community partners and believe our work together will serve as a model of public/private partnerships.”

On top of all of this, a “sustainable” biodiesel-fueled Planters “Nutmobile” will be parked at these groves sometimes. Other times, the Nutmobile will drive through 12 cities in an effort to “grow stronger communities through volunteering.”  

An initial assessment of the pros and cons of the Planters Groves:


  • Cities get new parks filled with native trees and plants, which can serve as a showcase of sustainable landscape best practices.  
  • The parks will be designed for public use and it sounds like will eventually be turned over to the city governments.
  • The model may demonstrate that private firms and community groups can successfully come together to redevelop urban land.
  • Those young volunteers may learn something about landscape architecture and remediating brownfield sites.


  • Public spaces are being over-the-top “branded” by a private company, further blurring the lines between private and public domains.
  • The parks will have an over-arching peanut theme. A visitor may need to enjoy peanuts to enjoy this park.
  • It’s not clear whether Planters will make a long-term investment in the upkeep and maintenance of these parks. Does the city take on this expense? Who owns the park?
  • Does this model ensure that urban redevelopment and revitalization serves the public? Was there community input in their siting and design?

Add your thoughts below on this sure-to-be controversial project.

Image credit: Planters

Will the Eco-Cities of the Near Future Be Livable?

At The Economist magazine’s “Intelligent Infrastructure” conference, a number of developers painted pictures of the bold eco-cities of the near future. However, Vijay Vaitheeswaran, global correspondent, wondered if these visionary communities weren’t just a new variation of utopia. Are these communities sustainable, scalable as a business model, and, most importantly, livable?

Syd Kitson, Kitson & Partners, described Babcock Ranch, the world’s first solar-powered city being developed jointly by his development firm and a utility, Florida Power & Light. All the solar panels for the 18,000-acre site will be built and installed by the power company, while Kitson will build 19,000 homes and about 6 million square feet of retail, light industrial, and office space, writes Reuters. The $2 billion project is expected to create 20,000 jobs. 

While the site is a greenfield development, meaning it’s being built on undeveloped land, Kitson said 90 percent of the existing site will be preserved. (It’s not clear what state that site, which is near a ranch, is in now). Some 12 miles of trails will connect “hamlets or villages.” Within these villages, only native plants will be planted. In addition, a brand-new “autonomous” transportation system consisting of electric vehicles connected via a smart grid will also be implemented. It’s not clear how people will sustainably get to and from Babcock Ranch though.

Kitson suggested this isn’t another utopia because the technologies already exist. Furthermore, he added, “there’s a commercial reason to show this demonstration project.”

In Portugal, PlanIT Valley offers another cutting-edge model for a sustainable community, a “building technology platform with its own urban operating system.” As explained by Steve Lewis, CEO, Living PlanIT, the community’s urban operating system will get data from sensors built into the buildings’ structures. “Imagine 100 million sensors!” The sensors will send data to network centers. Data can be used to build community applications. Instead of smart phones in your pocket, there will be a smart wall that homeowners can use to access neighborhood apps.

Sensors are already being embedded into test modular, “hexagonal” building structures. Lewis sees enormous environmental value in this because the LEED Gold buildings can then also track and limit their own carbon emissions. “Every building can take care of its own energy, water, data. The buildings can improve themselves.”

The 17 square kilometer PlanIT Valley, which will be marketed to employees of high-tech firms like Cisco, will be the first community designed and developed by a technology company, says Lewis.

If there is market demand for these communities, these developments may prove to be scalable and replicable. Only the early residents who buy in can determine if these places are truly livable. However, it remains to be seen whether these new developments will actually be sustainable when all construction CO2 emissions are factored in on these greenfield sites. How are these developers accounting for those emissions?

In contrast with these bold visions, pragmatic New York City, already one of the world’s most sustainable cities, is focused on improving what it has. The city’s model climate change mitigation and adaptation plan, PlaNYC, is being used to guide smart investments in the environment, and water and energy infrastructure. Cas Holloway, Enviromental Protection Commissioner, NYC Department of Environmental Protection, said the city just passed a “historic” green buildings law, planted 460,000 trees, and turned 100 school yards into playgrounds. “Making the city more sustainable is really about making it more livable,” said Holloway.

Other good uses of funds by the city: a new green infrastructure plan announced last summer that will help alleviate pressure on its 100-year old stormwater pipes, and cost $2.5 billion less than building new underground stormwater managment infrastructure; 835,000 new wireless smart water meters to improve water efficiency in households; and the expansion of the use of bioremediation to clean up decrepit brownfields throughout the city, guided by the first-ever Mayor’s Office of Remediation.

Image credit: Babcock Ranch / Treehugger

Oyster-Tecture in Action

Sustainable designer Neil Chambers, author of Urban Green: Architecture for the Future, made the case for using natural systems to clean and manage water at a conference organized by The Economist. In Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, beach tourism had been negatively impacted by heavy water pollution. Instead of re-engineering the man-made water systems, Chambers decided to use “oyster-tecture.” In one instance of putting innovative ideas into practice, oyster reefs were built to restore the ecological health of the Withers Estuary and its surrounding areas.

Chambers outlined the multi-faceted South Carolina project, which uses an ecosystem-services approach in an innovative and low-cost manner. Formally, the project, which involved federal, state, and local governments, along with local organizations and residents, aimed at improving the water quality of Withers Estuary, Withers Swash, and its connection to the Atlantic Ocean; addressing soil and other contamination throughout the estuary and adjacent areas; and dealing with the severe ecological degradation among the eco-zones of the estuary.

Working with a team of volunteers, he led an effort that involved strategically building oyster reefs at the Withers Swash. All volunteer labor helped keep the total cost of the project to around $3,000. Some 15 reefs were constructed at a cost of $200 each, creating homes for 50,000 oysters. In this form of oyster-tecture, these (unedible) oyster are purifying more than 1.2 million gallons of water each day, restoring the health of the water reaching the beach downstream.

Other components include instituting a water quality monitoring program, establishing guidelines for re-engineering drainage into the watershed, developing ecological approaches for development along the beach, and partnering with the city to preserve the long-term ecological value of the beach.

More broadly, Chambers also calls for a return to nature when dealing with pressing water conservation issues, an approach many landscape architects would also support. For example, he believes Las Vegas is just continuing to use the outmoded approach people have been using for two thousand years: piping water far distances. Chambers explained that water infrastructure is the number one consumer of energy in any city. It takes a lot of energy to pump and convey water through those pipes all the way to homes. As a result, engineered water systems also creates water and air pollution. Instead, natural riverine systems should be allowed to transfer water. “Nature is not straight, but curves.” Calling for restoring habitats and using natural functions to solve our problems, he proposed “un-engineering systems. We need ecological not technological solutions.”

Also worth checking out is a TED talk by Katherine Orff, ASLA, a landscape architect who proposes using oysters to revive New York’s rivers. Her concept was featured in the Museum of Modern Art’s “Rising Currents” exhibition, which explored ideas for using natural systems to protect New York City’s coastline from the sea level rise expected with climate change.

Image credit: Withers Estuary Community Collaborative project / Neil Chambers

Jaime Lerner: Cities Are the Solution to Climate Change

Even though urban areas account for some 70 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions, cities aren’t the problem causing climate change, but the solution, argued Jaime Lerner, the highly influential former mayor of Curitiba, Brazil and now architect and urban designer, at a conference organized by The Economist. To avoid turning cities into a “tragedy”, city officials, planners, and designers must instead invest energy in solving critical urban problems so cities can continue to provide the density needed for more sustainable living.

Lerner has some experience in creating successful cities, which he says are like turtles, with shells “that protect and preserve them.” In Curitiba, he focused on density, or as he described it, “living and working together,” while creating the first system of bus rapid transit (BRT) in the world (see earlier post). At first, the highly cost-effective, low-carbon system only ran 25,000 passengers per day. Now, there are 2.3 million trips on the city’s BRT each day. “We used no subsidies, we just metro-ized the bus.” He said initially the biggest obstacle to getting BRT going was the car, which he said is like “your mother in law. You want to have a good relationship with her, but you can’t let her run your life. If she’s running your life, you’ve got a big problem.”

However, the success of his city’s BRT has proven hard to replicate. He commented that many of the systems he’s seen elsewhere haven’t worked as well, and, in effect, work against the BRT movement. Curitiba was successful because the BRT was just one part of a whole system. “We have a smart bus, taxi, cars, bikes, etc.” These systems don’t compete for space, but work together.

In addition to separating out garbage, closing the distance between home and work, using less energy, and creating a range of easy transportation options, Lerner said communities must also respect their own diversity and build on it, using it a resource, in order to become more sustainable.

While still promoting BRT, Lerner is working on a range of new transportation and design projects like the “dock dock,” a very tiny smart car that can provide a more sustainable transportation option; “portable streets” that enhance the urban landscape; new High Line-like projects in Sao Paulo and elsewhere that would turn existing highways into verdant, walkable parks; and the World Nature Games, which he says “don’t cost a cent because you don’t need arenas or stadiums. It’s all about using nature.”  

Learn more about Lerner’s current projects.

Image credit: Portable Street / Jaime Lerner Associated Architects

Cities Are Organisms

At The Economist magazine’s “Intelligent Infrastructure” conference, Geoffrey West, a physicist at the Santa Fe Institute and subject of an interesting profile in The New York Times Magazine, argued that companies and cities function like biological organisms and have finite lifespans. In a provocative discussion, he asked, Is Microsoft an elephant? Is New York City a big whale?

Sustainability is the “big question” these days given changes are happening to a planet that is “the mother of all complex adaptative systems.” Getting to a more sustainable path will require an intensive scientific investigation into the questions: Can we keep all that we have? Has the last 100,000 years just been one large experiment in natural selection that is about to end?

West argued that almost half of all cities created in the last few thousand years still exist in some form or another, but all companies have died, lasting only a few hundred years. Pointing to a forest, he said its complexity can be answered in predictive models. “A forest has amazing structure. Life has extraordinary scalability.” However, individual animals and people (and companies and cities) must grow and then stop.

For any organism, the relationship between the metabolic rate (which West called the most complex process in the universe) and body mass is the same. However, this relationship scales “less than linearly,” meaning that the bigger you are, the less energy you actually need. “There’s an economy of scale across all life forms.” The larger you are, the slower the pace of life as well. Bigger cities have lasted as long as they have because their metabolisms are in a sense slower.

Bigger cities have both higher wages and more taxes, higher crime rates and larger police forces. “If we doubled a city overnight, we’d have the same increase in inputs, outputs, wastes, patents, parks, etc.” Bigger cities mean bigger growth and higher wages, but also an eventual collapse.

While the book, The Singularity Is Near, famously posited that the rate of innovation will only get faster and faster, leading to an eventual hive mind on the planet, West instead thinks that you can’t have continuous biological growth. “The fundamental law is entropy.” There could be innovation in cycles, but this pattern will also include periods of decay and collapse.

Read the article in The New York Times Magazine on West’s theories on cities.

Image credit: Eastern Island Monuments / Ancient

Rockefeller Foundation: Design Needs to Improve Resiliency

Judith Rodin, the innovative leader of the Rockefeller Foundation, said the design community needs to focus on improving the resiliency of our infrastructure at a conference hosted by The Economist. Resiliency is defined as the ability to adapt and rebound from crises, and then reach an improved “base level” at the end of the process. She said a systems approach, featuring a combination of centralized and decentralized models, was needed to address the chronic crisis of today: climate change.

A systems approach is a way of thinking. “The British call it ‘joined-up’ thinking.” Given a systems-based approach is needed to solve critical environmental, social, and economic issues, design skills may be needed more than MBAs. To illustrate this point, she highlighted the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition on how to adapt the New York City coastline to rising sea levels , which yielded a range of innovative design concepts created by landscape architects. Solutions involved “fingering the coastline, using porous materials, building man-made reefs, adding houses over the coastline, and including sensors” (see earlier post).

To spur the creation of more resilient infrastructure, Rodin called for an investment in data so urban planners, landscape architects, and architects — “activist designers” — can encourage transparency. This process can also enable the general public to be better involved in decision making on designs that impact the public realm. She said even the relatively stodgy World Bank Institute is now investing in data transparency. However, some communities in developing countries, like the Kibera slum in Kenya, aren’t waiting for assistance but are mapping themselves so they can show policymakers there is real unmet demand for services.

In terms of the race for resilient infrastructure, the United States is quickly become the “Japan of the 21st century,” meaning the country is falling behind. She says this is due to the fact that U.S. infrastructure suffers from a lack of “interoperability.” In contrast, in the cases of developing countries without “legacy infrastructure,” there’s an opportunity to leapfrog current decrepit infrastructure and create new opportunities. For example, “India could be the first mobile economy.”

If the U.S. is to save itself from decay, an investment needs to be made in cities, which are the “engineers of innovation.” However, urban policymakers need to chose which forms they are going to invest in carefully. “Innovation could backfire on some cities” if they chose poorly. To ensure this doesn’t happen, the Rockefeller Foundation is focusing on networks of learning so leaders “don’t go for dead ends.” She said “dead ends get calcified.” Furthermore, in the short-term, cities can put funds towards transit-oriented development and improving walkability and bikeability to improve their options. “We need choices in the U.S.”

Learn more about how to use a systems-based approach to design through an interview with Diane Dale, FASLA, William McDonough Associates.  

Image credit: Oyster-tecture. MOMA, SCAPE / Landscape Architecture PLLC

Green Buildings Respond to their Environment

At The Economist magazine’s Intelligent Infrastructure conference last week, a number of big-name architects discussed how effective green buildings are highly responsive to their physical environment. Richard Cook, of Cook +Fox Architects and Terrapin, Elizabeth Diller, Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, Ken Yeang, Llewelyn Davies Yeang, and Thom Mayne, Morphosis discussed some of their projects, while Tristan d’Estree Sterk, from the Office of Robotic Architectural Media, presented a potential model for future green building design.

Richard Cook, designer of the Bank of America tower at One Bryant Park, the world’s first LEED Platinum skyscaper, said most buildings are highly inefficient. Some 80 percent of total carbon dioxide emissions come from the built environment. In addition, the U.S. suffers from a highly inefficient energy production system that waste 2/3 of the energy it produces in the form of heat. Another seven percent is lost in transmission. As a result, on-site, meaning “in-building,” energy generation is the answer. Cook pointed to thermal storage systems that can help heat and cool a skyscraper at low-cost.

Beyond the technological systems though, Cook made an eloquent case for biophilic design, arguing that these super-green buildings need to “make us feel good.” Pointing to internal Bank of America studies, he argued that the building’s biophilic elements and improved air quality systems helped improve employee health and productivity. Bank of America confirmed that a one percent increase in productivity actually resulted in gains of around $10 milllion. Over time, the building pays for itself. See an earlier post on Terrapin’s biophilic design work and more on Cook’s beautiful Bank of America tower.

Elizabeth Diller talked about the High Line, an “interesting reclamation project” her firm helped create. While totally neglecting to mention James Corner Field Operations, the lead designer on the project, or Piet Oudolf, the master horticulturalist, Diller described how the project design team aimed at preserving “the melancholic beauty of the ruin.” Airbone seeds had populated the derelict infrastructure over the years, creating an urban ecosystem. As a result, any design work couldn’t “sentimentalize” the project.  

With Field Operations, Diller’s team helped create stairways into the elevated park along with “pre-cast concrete planks,” which along with the benches, “become the vocabulary of the site.” Movable lounge chairs were also added. Before the first phase was even complete, the High Line had set off a “developers’ feeding frenzy.” An interesting development for a project that helps highlight “the romance of urban decay.” (See a case study about the High Line).

As the principal of Morphosis, a cutting-edge architecture firm, Thom Mayne, a Pritzker prize winner, has spent years experimenting with how buildings can dramatically reduce energy use. His new Cooper Union building is LEED Platinum, but the recent San Francisco Federal Building is even more amazing: it has no air conditioning systems, using natural ventilation alone. (See an interview that discusses this building). In addition, a new building he’s working on in France includes 4,000 data points that enable the building to follow the sun and maximize solar energy.

In New Orleans, Morphosis just created a model home for Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation project. If flooding should strike the city again, the building is designed to float. Tom Darden, Executive Director, Make It Right Foundation, later said this was the first floating building the city of New Orleans has ever approved.

Summing up, he argued that sustainability issues will need years to solve, but the current American attention span is about two years.

The Chairman of Llewelyn Davies Yeang, Ken Yeang, outlined how green design provides a “platform for sustainability.” He argued for “overlaying green design elements over grey ones.” Green design elements are natural, living systems that provide a range of ecosystem services, while grey infrastructure systems are streets, stormwater pipes, and other “hard” surfaces that often can’t be avoided but are expensive to maintain. The key he said was to create an integrated, inter-connected relationship between these two elements; they shouldn’t be separate systems. “Green design enables seamless, benign integration.”

Just like a garden needs to be tended, a green building also needs to be continually cared for over time, argued Yeang.

Tristan d’Estree Sterk wowed the audience with a demonstration of a robotic architecture that is “highly responsive to its environment.” Sterk argued that energy savings of more than 38 percent could be achieved in most climate zones with the use of more efficient building technologies. Some two percent of those savings have to do with changing a building’s color, another eight percent relate to windows, while 25-30 percent relate to changing a building’s shape.

Sterk is experimenting with “soft shells” that would be lightweight and change shape. Embedded sensors and “actuators” could help a building lean towards the sun. This would do much to increase energy efficiency because current “dumb” building materials are also the result of dumb, energy-inefficient manufacturing processes as well.

Image credit: Bank of America tower lobby / Cook + Fox

Interview with Bob Peck, GSA’s Public Buildings Commissioner

Bob Peck, Honorary ASLA, is Commissioner of Public Buildings for the U.S. General Services Administration.

The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) manages more than 370 million square feet of space for more than one million federal employees. Martha Johnson, GSA administrator, says a zero environmental footprint (ZEF) for all of GSA’s half a million buildings will take a “moonshot, and require the GSA to innovate, take risks, and get out of our comfort zone.” How is the GSA now taking risks in terms of green building and landscape design? How far has GSA progressed toward its ambitious environmental goals?

Actually, we just did a groundbreaking ceremony for the renovation of a historic federal building in Grand Junction, Colorado, which is going to be our first net zero building and apparently the first net zero project in a building that’s on the National Register of Historic Places. We’re pretty excited about that. To be candid, we have a lot of really good one-off examples of places where we’ve been innovative.

In 2000, we approved a design that’s now up and running — a federal building in San Francisco, California. The building isn’t air conditioned. The question to ask yourself is why do they even have air-conditioned buildings in San Francisco at all? The windows open. It’s a narrow floor plate. We’ve got great energy reductions in the building. We’re trying to look at our comprehensive inventory and say, what can we do? There are small interventions in buildings where you’re not doing major renovations. Huge interventions can be done in places where you’re doing a complete redo like skinning the building and taking out all the old mechanics. What can we do to make those things work?

San Francisco Federal Building, San Francisco, California. Architect: Morphosis; Dedicated: 2007 / Tim Griffith/ESTO. GSA copyright prevents the reuse of these images. Please don’t download.

The other thing we’re trying to do is to be a green proving ground for the whole building industry because, after all, we’re taking your dollars and investing them in our buildings.We think for some part of what we’re doing we can beta-test new technologies and practices, see if they work, and report out to the whole design and construction industry on what’s really working. I think there’s a hunger out there for this. Everybody is talking green and a lot of people are trying to figure out what can I do, what works,  what’s the best bang for the buck if I’m a private investor, and so we’re anxious to do that too.

A near term goal issued by the President calls for reducing federal greenhouse gas emissions by 28% by 2020. This is equal to 250 million barrels of oil or taking 17 million cars off the road for one year. What role do landscapes play in the GSA’s energy efficiency and greenhouse gas emission reduction goals?

We all know that we have developed in some of our formal landscapes unsustainable landscapes. Landscapes that require a lot of maintenance. It could be the truck that has to drive in and put down certain kinds of chemicals, which we don’t like either. In the old days, that was what was needed to make landscapes work.

Your profession knows better than anyone how you can design or plant a landscape that is appropriate to the climate, that’s low maintenance, and obviously we want to take advantage of that as much as we can.

The second side is what landscapes can contribute to a building. That’s everything from recycling greywater to including ponds that manage stormwater runoff and filter out pollutants. This enables us to reduce runoff from impervious surfaces. Then, there are obviously green roofs that we’re also using as much as we can.

GSA has been an early adopter on sustainable landscapes. Now three very different landscape projects in New Mexico, Florida, and Washington, D.C., are Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) pilot projects. What is GSA hoping to accomplish by participating in the pilot phase of this new rating system?  Just as the GSA requires new buildings to meet LEED gold levels of certification, do you foresee GSA requiring landscapes to achieve higher levels of SITES for all government landscapes?

We just kicked our new building construction standard up from LEED silver to LEED gold. We’re serious about environmental stuff. You know how they say in business, you get what you measure? If we don’t measure the landscape side of what we’re doing, we’ll do some nice things here and there but that’s it. We want to make sure they are actually as sustainable as they can be. I don’t think it’ll be a terribly long time, if we can have any confidence in the rating system. We’re prepared to test the rating systems and see what really pans out. It’s clearly something we’d like to do soon and work with the profession to make happen.

Proposal for Sustainable Sites Initiative Landscape, Pete V. Domenici Federal Courthouse, Albuquerque, New Mexico. Landscape Architect: Rios Clementi Hale Studios / Model, Rios Clementi Hale Studios. GSA copyright prevents the reuse of these images. Please don’t download.

In terms of managing stormwater, green infrastructure can be defined as man-made systems that mimic natural functions. Green roofs, bioswales, bioretention ponds, permeable pavements and all ways to turn hard asphalt surfaces into green ones. Does GSA see green infrastructure as a workable solution for its sites? Have you seen any data or analysis within the government on the costs and benefits of green infrastructure?

I haven’t seen any good numbers on the costs and benefits, and unfortunately, I think you can say that in general about a lot of green design. We’re still in that phase in part because these landscapes are long-term things. You can measure car emissions pretty fast and project them. In our business, it takes a little bit longer so I haven’t seen the numbers but we’re certainly trying to do everything we can on the green infrastructure side.

We have a lot to learn from people in the past who didn’t know they were doing green, who didn’t have the opportunity to “mechanize” the landscape and the buildings. Green infrastructure uses the land to filter runoff. I hate to say this but I didn’t know land did that until I was many years in to my career and people started making that point. I thought once you were in a city or a civilized area you always had to build a sewer system that took all of that for you. So, I think we’re all sort of feeling our way in to it but we’re sure interested in getting there and using the natural landscape and natural materials as much as we can. Substituting the hard materials that would have to be manufactured is another big benefit.

GSA installed its first green roof in 1975. Now there are more than one million square feet of green roofs across all federal government buildings. A roof on the building of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is more than 100,000 square feet alone. This is an achievement, but in terms of all GSA’s buildings a drop in the ocean. To spur the growth of green roofs has GSA been providing incentives to organizations? Is there a bigger goal for green roofs?

Instead of being prescriptive, we’re trying to be performance oriented. We’re saying to people, we’ll at least consider any idea you bring to us that will reduce the energy and resource use in our buildings and lower our carbon footprint. Those government green roofs are not a result of our design people telling somebody to do it. It’s somebody else coming in and saying, the only way I’m going to meet your standard, the only way we’re going to get to either a LEED rating or your energy reduction standard, is if I give you the following things and one of them will be a green roof.

Green Roof, NOAA Satellite Control Center, Suitland, Maryland. Architect: Morphosis; Dedicated: 2005 / GSA. GSA copyright prevents the reuse of these images. Please don’t download.

It’s quite conceivable that at some point we get to a point where we’ve measured enough that we can. I’ll give you an example from the mechanical side of things. We know there are areas where you’re going to say, don’t even talk to us about a wind turbine. There’s no wind. In other places we say, photovoltaics don’t work so well in this area. We may end up in the same business where we say, this doesn’t seem to be a terribly good place to try a green roof but we try other things. That’s a possibility.

Does GSA see itself as a model for commercial green building and landscape practices?  If so, are there any examples of organizations or developers that have taken up a GSA best practice?

We are talking about ourselves as a green proving ground. We want to try not only the things that everybody knows about like a green roof or photovoltaics, but actively solicit ideas for technologies and practices that haven’t been tried in real-life application. We’re describing it as beta-testing the next generation of green technologies. I can’t say what new technologies yet because we have a solicitation that just closed in which we asked people to give us their ideas. We haven’t selected the ones we’re going to go with but we’re actually going to put some money into a couple of these things and see what works.

I’m not sure that yet I could cite anything where we have done what you described, which is actually my dream. I hope we find something that really works well, gets adopted by industry, and then a couple things could happen that the Obama administration loves to talk about: we will create jobs for people in green technology and infrastructure. If somebody has an idea that they invented in a garage, we take it, and it becomes a big standard practice that would be a big win for us.

In the past government buildings have sometimes been sited without community input. In addition, many buildings often feature high levels of security. What steps is the GSA taking to design buildings and landscapes with the input of existing communities? Are government buildings now being designed to spur community revitalization?

We hope so. There is usually a good deal of community input on where to place government buildings. It depends on how you define community input. Sometimes it’s local elected officials who tell us where they would like us to locate a project. Often, it’s in an area where they’re hoping to spur economic development. That puts an obligation on us to design a facility in a way that actually does spur economic development. Going back to the new federal building in San Francisco. First of all, there’s a McDonald’s in a building we built on that site, on the corner. That’s a small aspect of community development but it was a vacant lot. The area has become a pretty hot area for development in San Francisco. It’s not so far from the Museum of Modern Art.

We have a number of issues that landscape architects can help us with. We are a public investment on whatever site we build on or wherever we renovate. It’s the community’s tax dollars. It shouldn’t just be a nice building for the federal employees who work there or even for people who visit. It ought to do something more. We also have a lot of security requirements these days that often work against the whole goal of being open, inviting, and creating an atmosphere of vitality around the building. If you build a building that looks and works like a fortress, that site could be a dead hand right in the middle of commercial and residential activity. We need some help on the default design responses to security. We have not tapped into the creativity of the design professions. For example, people always putting bollards around a site. We know trees of a certain caliber are as sturdy as a bollard so we can at least substitute some trees for bollards. In some cases, we’ve done that. It’s still not clear that we need to ring our buildings with bollards because we can get the security enhancements we need in other ways.

Finally, our sites need to be more welcoming, which will help create a better community around them. We really don’t need formal landscape designs that are not attractive to people. We need formal landscape design that’s sustainable and makes people want to be there. More parks and less empty plazas. That’s what we strive for.

Interview conducted by Jared Green.

Streetcars Are Central to Sustainable Communities

At the National Building Museum, Patrick Condon, ASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of British Columbia, gave a run-through of his new book, Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities, which argues that bringing streetcars back is the smartest thing cities can do become more sustainable. For older cities, unearthing “barely submerged” streetcar networks may be easy, but relatively new communities can also invest in laying streetcar infrastructure at a cost significantly less than subways or light rail. To get to a 90 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), transportation emissions must be zero. Making communities walkable and bikeable are crucial, and electric vehicles will also help, but 40-50 percent of the U.S. urban fabric is already set-up for the “Streetcar City” so it’s just a matter of investing again in an old model that worked well.

Rule 1) Restore the Streetcar City

How can we make the change to a low-carbon society in the most cost-effective way? What is remotely conceivable as a new paradigm?, asked Condon. Looking at different options, this landscape architecture professor sees streetcars as the most feasible path given these systems work well with the single-family homes that dominate the American and Canadian landscape. Streetcars can easily be added back into communities with corridors and many suburbs can also be retrofitted to include them. “It’s only in the 3rd of 4th ring of suburbs that you can problems with cul-de-sacs” and other built-in inefficiences that make the car so hard to unseat. However, Condon said lots of “friends in transportation planning don’t get this idea.” Also, many New Urbanists also haven’t taken to it.

Land use changes can help reduce 50 percent of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). When you add in greener buildings and transportation networks, communities can get to 80 percent reductions. The streetcar city is so central to sustainability because it would be the most efficient way to leverage land use and transportation changes together to reduce GHGs. In addition, every community with a population over 5,000 in the U.S. once had streetcars so they worked once. In the modern era, the Siemens Combino tram is the cleanest out of all transportation options Condon listed, with 8.3 tons of GHG emissions per passenger. Trolleybuses, with 10.3 GHG per passenger, also work OK, although streetcars are the more efficient option over the long-term because they carry more passengers. Both options are far more clean than light rail, diesel buses, or cars. (Condon left our clean, natural gas buses, electric vehicles or hybrids in his comparison).

In addition, bringing back streetcars would support density. In Vancouver, the streetcar was added first, then developers subdivided properties into lots. More than 80 years later, dense, mixed-use development was filled in, realizing the developers’ initial vision of density.

Unfortunately, for many cities that had the streetcar arterials in place, “the forces of auto sprawl” took over the inter-urban system. As a result, post-streetcar, cities and communities have moved away from dense living in townhouses to one-story bungalows that don’t make efficient use of space. Without the streetcars, cities lost mobility. For example, in Los Angeles “mobility has been degraded with the removal of the streetcar.”

Condon also outlined North America’s “Friday the 13th demographics,” arguing that the country is rapidly aging. Instead of gangs hanging out in inner-cities, it will be the elderly, and “we don’t want these people driving around.” At a cost of $20-25 million per kilometer, streetcars can be added to many communities providing low-cost access for rapidly aging baby-boomers. Hopefully, those Siemens combinos will be less screechy, slow, and packed than San Francisco’s remaining streetcar lines.

Rule 2) Design an Interconnected Street System

The U.S. continues to create hub and spoke transit systems even though jobs “are no longer in the center of those hubs.” Jobs need to be located close to home. To encourage this change, “the left-over ideas of the 1960’s” focused on the car need to be thrown out. In sprawl conditions, “there are no alternative networks, and the main intersections are highly loaded.” This enables the growth of big box stores, intersections that pedestrians can’t cross, increased traffic through those intersections, and a higher number of traffic fatalities. In contrast, interconnected streets can provide many alternative routes to reduce congestion. Condon argues cities “need to get in love with corridors” that can enable access to side streets and facilitate the growth of density.

Rule 3) Locate Commercial Services, Frequent Transit, and Schools Within a Five Minute Walk

Here, Condon argued, there is consensus among many smart growth and New Urbanists planner and landscape architects. However, many communities that are car-centric still have a hard time achieving walkable zones, particularly for schools.

Rule 4) Locate Good Jobs Close to Affordable Housing 

Sources of jobs should be close to residential areas. “The streetcar city allows for many jobs closer to corridors.” Dense, mixed-use developments in inter-connected street networks enable this kind of smart growth. Far-out, isolated industrial parks covering 80-100 acres aren’t the way to go. Instead, one-acre sites should be a model. Also, communities can “build in jobs” in strip commercial areas by building up, adding in new uses.

Rule 5) Provide a Diversity of Housing Types

For slower transit like streetcars to make sense (they average around 12mph), affordable housing must be more evenly distributed in regions. “The housing stock in many regions is set up for the Cleevers. However, demographics are changing.” There should be many different housing types on the same street close together. If done correctly, diversity doesn’t need to look dense. 

For example, Vancouver has allowed the use of “hidden secondary suites,” which are often called “illegal suites,” in single-family homes that can be rented out. “Laneway houses” are also now acceptable for renting out. Vancouver should be viewed as a model for how to re-configure single-family homes for multiple-unit dwellings.  In another model development in Vancouver, Condon pointed to a set of stacked townhouses that sit above commerical space, which then sits on top of street-level retail and an underground “big box” store.

Rule 6) Create a Linked System of Natural Green Spaces

Saying he would be remiss to add this given he’s a landscape architect, Condon pointed to linked natural parks as a good fit with streetcar networks. “Preserved nature provides a natural interface for streetcars.” For example, Frederick Law Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace system in Boston, which “is better, bolder than Central Park,” is not only an ecological solution for stormwater management, but a great example of how to use “dead space” to complement a streetcar system.

In addition, the necklace system presents a model for how to “be aggressive with nature.” He called on landscape architects to “not just put fences around the remaining remnants of natural history in a city,” but “work with nature” to create a new, vibrant environment within cities.

Rule 7) Invest in Lighter, Greener, Cheaper, and Smarter Infrastructure

Green infrastructure, which involves using man-made systems to mimic natural functions, is “smarter infrastructure.” Communities should be “preserving the natural functions of the landscape” as much as possible. “Water doesn’t runoff natural landscapes.”

The rule for green infrastructure systems should be to reduce and capture one inch of rainfall per day. As an example, Condon pointed to Pringle Creek, which he said has one of the “most advanced green infrastructure systems available at the urban scale.” There are no stormwater drainage pipes or curbs. During three 100-year storm events, there also wasn’t any flooding.

Check out Condon’s book.

Image credit: Patrick Condon / Island Press

Comments Needed: U.S. National Forest Service’s New Plan

The U.S. National Forest Service announced it was seeking broad public input into its new 97-page plan for the country’s 193-million acre forest system. The new plan, according to The New York Times, will better enable the Forest Service to respond to natural disasters and climate change, deal with lawsuits, and empower local forest managers. Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack said the updated forest management rules will encourage forest resiliency. The revamped plan, which could “potentially guide mining, logging, and wildlife protection in 155 national forests” is expected to undergo fierce public scrutiny. More than 3,000 participants in 40 public forums have already logged 25,000 comments in the first phase of review.

Forest Service officials said the new plan enables local knowledge and science to take precendence. Managers can now better draw on science related to their local areas and work out the details on the watershed areas and wildlife species that need protecting in specific forests. For example, the issues facing forests in Alaska will be far different from those in Florida.

Still, some environmental groups argue that the minimum requirements are too lax. According to The New York Times, the current forest rules, which were established under President Reagan in 1982, “require that the forest be managed to maintain ‘viable populations’ of all native fish and wildlife. Under the proposed rule, local managers could choose which species would be of ‘conservation concern’ beyond those already receiving mandatory protections under the Endangered Species Act.”

Overall, environmental groups seem split on the plan. Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife, a conservation advocacy organization, said: “The bottom line is that this is a significant rollback of required protections for wildlife and habitat compared to what currently exists. It is amazing. The public had the right to expect more from the Obama administration.” In addition, in comments to The Washington Post, he was critical of the new plans to give local forest managers more discretion over managing their lands. “They give too much discretion to individual forest supervisors. We don’t know that they’re going to protect species or not. There is no question that this is a rollback to required protection to wildlife habitat.” In contrast, the Sierra Club has said the plan “is a step in the right direction.”

The extensive commenting period is designed to help reduce the expensive litigation the Forest Service has faced in the past. Individual forest plans have taken five to eight years to move forward because of lawsuits and “other hurdles.” Vilsack says this could be reduced to three years with the new plan.

The “proposed planning rule” will be officially released on February 14, starting a 90 public comment period. Learn more about how to comment. There are also public forums, and a blog where responders can ask questions.  

Image credit: White River National Forest, Colorado / Camping Tourist