NYC Creates the Model Waterfront Plan

Mayor Mike Bloomberg and the New York City council announced a new 10-year plan and set of ambitious projects that will dramatically remake the city’s 520 miles of shoreline. The city government says the new approach, which is the first major plan focused on the watefront in two decades and the first ever for waterways, will provide a “sustainable framework” that will improve improve access to the waterfront, create new recreational spaces and natural habitats, increase the use of water-based transportation, and offer new opportunities for redevelopment and economic growth.

Along with the plan, there’s a new “action agenda” created with the Economic Development Corporation targeting 130 projects for funding and completion over the next three years. Among the major projects are more than 50 acres of new waterfront parks, 14 new waterfront esplanades, and a new commuter ferry service. These projects are expected to create 13,000 construction jobs and at least 3,400 permanent maritime and industrial jobs.

Mayor Bloomberg said: “New York City’s waterfront has always played a major role in its history and is one of its greatest assets – we have more miles of waterfront Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, and Portland combined – but for decades New Yorkers have been blocked from it and it’s become less and less a part of their lives. We’re committed to making it a part of New Yorkers’ lives again by completely revitalizing the waterfront and waterways.” Amanda Burden, the dynamic head of NYC planning and chair of NYC’s planning commission, added that “our water is the connective tissue between our boroughs and is, in effect, our Sixth Borough. We are now planning for our waterfront and waterways with the same intensity and passion that we have traditionally planned for our land.” She added: “We can […] use our Blue Network of waterways for transportation, recreation and education, for improving water quality, and for the first time addressing the challenges of global warming and sea-level rise.”

A few interesting components:

  • Water-based approaches for increasing the city’s resilience to climate change. Specifically, the program will involve improving the city’s abilty to recover from coastal storm surges and flooding. The city will work with FEMA to update the “Flood Insurance Rate Maps to reflect current risks” and also invest in mapping out new flood escape routes.
  • Investments in recreational boating on the water and new pier-based docks and public boat houses spread throughout the boroughs.
  • The implementation of “NYHarborWay,” which will “connect eight major waterfront points of interest by ferry or bike greenways.” The sites include Brooklyn Bridge Park, Governors Island, Hudson River Park, The Battery, Ellis Island, Statue Liberty Island, the East River Esplanade and Liberty State Park.
  • A new East River ferry service that will run between Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan, providing a “convenient, sustainable transit option for developing communities and helping close the gap between our boroughs.” Also, there will be better connections with subways through an integrated MetroCard system.
  • A new “New York City Water Trail” that will enable park users to canoe or kayak between more than 40 locations. 
  • A sustainable ports plan that will explore moving “express-air cargo by water, potentially with airport passenger ferry service.” There will also be new “maritime hubs.”
  • Some $50 million of investment in waterfront ecological restoration, including new wetlands and marshlands at key watefront parks, and an exploration of “opportunities for large-scale oyster restoration.” Also intriguing: a “wetlands mitigation bank”to help finance this work.

Another big plus: the plan is expected to help push forward NYC’s bold green infrastructure plans, which were approved last year. While there are some $1.6 billion in water treatment plan upgrades (including $650 million in new grey infrastructure), the green infrastructure plans will lead to $1.5 billion added for natural approaches to stormwater management over 20 years. Perhaps this is not enough, but the waterfront plan does call for revamped regulations that can “streamline design and permitting processes for the incorporation” of private sector-led green infrastructure projects. 

Burden said Vision 2020 was the result of a “year-long, participatory planning process involving multiple agencies and organizations and input from New Yorkers in every borough.” Hundreds of public comments submitted online were used to create what seems to be another model big-city plan from this city’s management team and a very suitable companion for the ground-breaking PlaNYC. 
Read the plan

Image credit: Lower Manhattan waterfront / The Independent (UK)

How to Do It: Oyster-Tecture

Historically, oysters were plentiful throughout the east coast of the United States. Folklore of New York Harbor or the Chesapeake Bay tells of specimens as big as dinner plates. Reefs of oysters counting in the hundreds of thousands, and even millions, were common from Maine to Florida to Texas. Today that is not the story. Most of these populations have disappeared.

That’s a shame. These invertebrates possess an ability to remediate water quality problems within estuaries, tidal rivers and basins, inlets and other coastal zones like no other organism – or human technology. Moreover, oysters are a keystone species, meaning that when present within a habitat or ecosystem, they provide the basis for healthy biodiversity. This in turn, offers even more positive attributes to society such as carbon sequestration by aquatic flora, fisheries for game fish, surge protection from storms and climate change protection. 

Many reasons caused oysters to vanished, however two major issues contributed to their demise – namely pollution and overharvesting. Other factors played a role such as channelization of waterways and ineffective stormwater management that uses natural estuarine areas as catch basins for runoff. All of these engineered elements of the natural landscape need to be reversed to get back to the plate-sized bivalves.

Even in some of the worse conditions, if they are given a footing to repopulate, these little creatures will colonize into populations in the size of tens of thousands. Colonies of oysters of 10,000 to 60,000 can have an incredibly positive effect on water because each oyster can filter around four gallons of water every hour. For a reef of 50,000 oysters that would mean nearly five million gallons of water per day. With estimates that almost 50 percent of estuarine areas having impaired water quality, man-assisted “oyster-tecture” can be a solution that is low cost with high return. If done correctly, a reef with the measurements of 10 to 20 feet long and 5 to 10 feet wide could be built and installed for the price of….well, almost nothing. 

I’ve been involved with a project in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina call Withers Estuary. We have installed two reefs at those dimensions and it cost us not one cent. We had to get the community engaged, and we had to collect oyster shells from local restaurants….and we had to get volunteers to help us install the reef.  But that’s good business when community involvement spells community improvement. The tricky part isn’t the final steps of building a reef – it’s getting to the point of making sure an oyster reef is the best way to solve problems. So, out of the success of the Withers Estuary project, I’ve put together a “how to” on oyster-tecture so more people and communities can build green and ecological solutions that will improve property values, enhance water quality, and create other unforeseen benefits at a fraction of the costs of more technological solutions. 

The first thing you have to do is determine if the water body is connected to the ocean. Oysters need a very specific level of salinity to survive. Salinity is the amount of dissolved salt within the water measured as parts per thousand. For oysters, the water has to be, at least, brackish –simply saltwater that has mixed with freshwater. If you are not a scientist or an oyster expert, you may be at a loss for how to test salinity levels. For the Withers project, we partnered with Dr. Keith Walters at Coastal Carolina University to help figure this out.  Strategic partnerships are essential for community and technical engagement. Oyster restoration is essentially habitat restoration. And though, it is as much an art as a science, the number of factors needing to be understood will take scientific methods. 

Once you have discovered that the salinity levels are adequate, the next critical factor is to find a reliable spot within the estuary to plant the reef. Many tidal areas are highly engineered and used as part of the stormwater management plan. This results in large amount of sedimentation and pollutants. The buildup of sediment over time means that the bed of an estuary could be caked with decades of mud. In South Carolina, the estuaries have a special kind of mud called Pluff Mud – which is a kind of airy, lightly packed mud that acts neither as solid ground nor liquid. If you run into this, you will need to make sure the bottom is strong enough to support a reef…if not, the reef will sink. We learned this the hard way.  Good ol’ field research is the best way to determine whether a location will support or not support the weight of a reef. During a low-tide event, you and your renewal recruited scientist friend should go to sites for the reef, put on waders armed with poles. You’ll need to wade into the water (if safe) and poke around with your stick. If at low-tide you sink and the pole never really finds the bottom…you can guess that it is not a good spot. It may take you several visits to find an adequate location for installing a reef depending on the size and soupiness of the estuary you are working. 

The reef itself can be made of many different materials. Oyster spat (aka, oyster larvae) will attach to just about anything as long as the object is strong enough to support them. During field trips to Withers Estuary, Walters and I found oysters growing on discarded beer bottles, concrete blocks and pieces of wood. An ideal material for a reef is recycled oyster shell.  They are coarse, sturdy and when placed in mess bags create innumerous niches for spat to attach and grow. For the Withers project, we coordinate our efforts with recycling programs that work with local restaurants to collect used shells. The shell is free, and reusing a product that is intended for harsh conditions of salty water will allow for longevity for the reefs. There is one catch – over the last several years, a pathogen has been introduced to oyster populations throughout the east coast. Known as Haplosporidium nelsoni, or commonly called MSX, this protozoan has been responsible for periodic, large-scale oyster mortality in estuaries. South Carolina has strict rules about not allowing outside living oysters to be planted in its native waters. To guarantee that efforts to restore the oysters is not inadvertently killing them off, you have to make 100 percent sure the shell is exposed to the sun and weather, away from water, for 6 to 12 months. This will make them safe for building reefs. 

The last step is the easiest. Now that you know where to put the shell, you have sanitized them, and you have bagged them in mess bags. You need only gather 10 to 12 people to place the bags into the estuary. We’ve enlisted local volunteers and Boy Scout troops to help us in the past. It’s a great way to introduce the community to a worthwhile activity. Once the bags are stacked in a rectangular shape in the water, the only thing to do is wait for the spat to attaching and grow. It takes about a year, after which you should look for small adolescent oyster that resemble fingernails. It’s best to develop a community program that installs a new reef every spring to continue engaging the community and make sure your spot is working. Overtime, you will need to investigate other ways to improve the water quality and ecological health of your local estuary. These natural eco-zones are critical for providing community-based climate change adaptation, strong tourism and biodiversity. Oyster-tecture can be the foundation in which we rebuild a thriving natural landscape that is good for people and the planet.

This guest post was written by Neil Chambers, LEED AP, Founder and CEO of Chambers Design. His oyster-tecture project was highlighted at The Economist magazine’s conference on “Intelligent Infrastructure.” His new book, “Urban Green: Architecture for the Future,” will be released in July.

Image credits: (1) Withers Estuary oyster reef, (2) Measuring water salinity, (3) Oysters in the grass / Dr. Keith Walters

Japan Earthquake and Tsunami Relief

On March 11, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake, the most powerful ever to hit Japan, struck offshore near the northeastern coast. Coincidentally, I was in Tokyo that day, meeting with representatives of the landscape architecture profession in Japan. While reasonably safe from the tsunami and the worst impacts of the earthquake, it was an experience I will never forget. My deepest sympathy goes out to the Japanese people as they struggle to recover from this terrible tragedy.

The massive quake created a tsunami or tidal wave that quickly overcame Japan’s system of sea wall protections. The Japanese police estimate more than 10,000 died. Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan said the earthquake, tsunami, and damage to a number of nuclear power plants, was the “worst crisis since World War II.”

According to Nikkei, housing damage has been massive. In Iwate Prefecture alone, about 5,000 houses in Rikuzentakata and 7,200 houses in Yamada were submerged by the quake-induced tsunami. The local government says one town center was almost entirely swept away by the rushing torrents.

More than 350,000 residents have been made homeless by the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear power plant failures. In total, some 530,000 people have been evacuated to date.

While Japan has the world’s 3rd largest economy, advanced earthquake-proof building technology, as well as well-laid plans to deal with disasters, the scale of this disaster is expected to overwhelm local authorities. Many police, fire, and medical buildings in the region have been badly damaged.

Over the long-term, Japanese landscape architects and engineers may also collaborate and share best practices with international experts in an effort to devise new sea wall strategies that can mitigate even the worst tsunami. In the interim, ASLA is also reaching out to the International Federation of Landscape Architects (IFLA) to identify areas where ASLA members can aid international recovery efforts.

In the meantime, ASLA encourages landscape architects to offer funds in support of Japanese relief efforts.

– Jonathan Mueller, FASLA, ASLA President

Please donate:

Japanese Red Cross Society
American Red Cross
Doctors without Borders
Save the Children

Image credit: Kyodo News via Reuters

Chemetoff: Sites Are a Source of Imagination and Knowledge

This year’s Dan Kiley lecture at Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) was given by Alexandre Chemetoff, a French landscape architect and urban designer, who is probably most known for his Bamboo Garden in Parc de la Villette. Chemetoff began his lecture by talking about the passage of time, which is a primary focus of his work. He was last heard speaking at Harvard in 1982 — when his current audience had not even been born yet. But some things were still the same, including the volume of the auditorium and the feeling of standing at the podium overshadowed by the stepping audience. As this was the Dan Kiley lecture, Chemetoff recounted a story of Kiley and himself driving through Germany, looking at great works of architecture and landscape and discussing the history of design. He mentioned visiting the Nuremberg Court at the Palace of Justice, which Kiley was in charge of renovating for the trials. This experience was one of the things that led Chemetoff to mix landscape architecture, urban design, and architecture – he wanted to practice in a free way, across boundaries. He wanted to face things that he was not familiar with, new challenges. 

As is common among young practitioners, Chemetoff’s first project was his own home and office, which is in the suburbs of Paris. The aim was to assemble some piece of architecture in the landscape. The project soon become a sort of “construction game,” ending in a series of structures very much like green houses opening back on to the rest of the landscape. “Time passing by becomes the material of the project.” The vegetation, “invaders of greenery” he called them, changes over the years.  

Chemetoff spends a considerable amount of time on the Ile de Nantes transformation project which was started in 2001 and continues today. One of his first moves was to “open up urban design” to more possibilities and encourage a wider variety of construction. Here he showed a map or design drawing and said this is not a master plan, but rather a document exploring the relationship between the existing place and the plan. It’s another way to imagine the possibilities of a place. Corbusier once said that the view from the airplane was not just a view of the urban plan but rather a view of the living site in totality. Much of the work here is in old industrial sites and it often looks like nothing is left. But if you look closely, Chemetoff urges, you may realize that there are still traces and many things are still there. The project enables the visitor to imagine the beauty that is already there but hidden. The viewer’s role is to reveal the quality that is hidden. 

Over the course of the project, an old warehouse-type building, which was slated for demolition, is also revealed, along with its history. However, now it’s stripped back to its structure and built upon. Chemetoff calls it “the metamorphosis of the building and the site without a program.” The program will come later. Visitors will then be able to imagine new programs based on what the building becomes. “It’s like archaeology, you start work on the site, and then you discover, and then you change and adapt your design. You redesign according to the knowledge you get from working on the site.”

Many of his projects are very limited in budget so the site becomes a resource for the project and everything is reused. “This reuse is a matter of design and a matter of money.” He shows a project transforming a parking lot into a park using a budget of only $10 per square meter. Early on, the team decided that that the money would become the program. The before and after photos are drastically different, but Chemetoff goes back through them again and points out that all the trees, light-posts, and other amenities weren’t touched, they just dug up the asphalt and used limited plantings. Economy means using the existing character of the site. 

Speaking of community engagement and process, he says that “you have to accept the project will be an open process and work with samples, because no one will believe in a drawing. But if you make a sample project, people will engage and discuss with you. People don’t discuss drawings.”  He discussed a housing flat renovation project where they renovated one flat as a sample and people told him “we can’t accept visible electricity (wire conduits on the ceiling). You’ll have to hide it. We want an apartment not a loft.” 

Also, he tells his audience of designers to work on laptops at the site, rather than in the office. He tells us to go to the factory where the material we are specifying are made. Finally, he tells us that the site is a “source of imagination and knowledge.”

Check out Chemetoff’s latest book, which includes his own “tours” of five of his works.

This is the second in a series of posts covering lectures at Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) by Andrew Zientek, RLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture (MLA) II candidate, Harvard GSD. See the previous post in this series, Vito Acconci’s Provocative Spaces.

D.C. Metro Designer Harry Weese Gets His Due

At the National Building Museum, Robert Bruegmann, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, made some progress in restoring the reputation of Harry Weese, one of the great, but nearly totally forgotten, masters of modern American architecture. Designer of the Washington, D.C. Metro system, Arena Stage, and range of other residential and large-scale government projects, Weese was a man of many talents. However, his true capabilities can only be understood if we actually look beyond his architectural work, and his role as a developer, writer, and “nag, gadfly.”

In his later years, Weese took to financing architectural journals, acting as a developer of major residential projects, and writing many “letters to the editor”, making the case for preserving some great American buildings and infrastructure. He helped make sure Chicago kept its historic elevated “L” subway in the inner loop when the city wanted to tear it down and replace it with a subway line. Bruegmann says the enormous expense involved in replacing the surface rail line kept that project from moving forward, but Weese definitely crafted the case for the L that eventually won wide public support.

While his earlier residential projects have merit and show the impact Alvar Aalto had on his design approach, his work in D.C. didn’t take off until he created the original Arena Stage (Fichhandler Stage and then the Kreeger Theatre buildings) in southwest. The buildings have since been subsumed by Bing Thom’s masterful canopy-like building, but back then, they had a huge impact on that neighborhood (see earlier post on Bing Thom’s building).  

Winning the D.C. Metro contract was “the apogee of his career,” said Bruegmann. Starting the project in 1966, Weese and his compatriot designers took a tour of the world’s subways systems. Weese was clearly influenced by the monumental underground stations in Moscow and St. Petersburg. In fact, six months after the tour, he already had the basic design scheme in place that mimiced the awesome nature of those stations.

Creating a range of options for the “bureaucracy” deciding on the design, he devised one initial design option that allowed for variations on the main Metro design theme. For example, in one option, some stations would have had “natural rock poking through into the stations.”

Despite his abhorrence for bureaucracy, it was actually the Fine Arts Commission that helped him perservere with this original vision. Two members of the Commission, Gordon Bunschaft and Aline Saarinen, argued that the Metro definitely needed one look “to maintain the integrity of the system.” The idea of a Metro made up of a hodge-podge of different stations was nixed, and ten years later, the system opened to acclaim.

Bruegmann believes the Washington, D.C. Metro is “one of the grandest examples of public space in American architecture” and “seems inevitable.” It may even be one of the greatest works of American architecture ever, he says.

Roger Lewis, an architect who writes for The Washington Post and has also worked on Metro design projects, says Weese would be displeased with the current state of the Metro. “Weese would say WMATA is mistreating this architecture.” He pointed to the many lights that have been allowed to permanently go out.

“Remedying the lighting problems” isn’t just needed so transit users can see the great architecture more clearly, but also to ensure the safety of everyday passengers. WMATA has told Lewis that a lack of funds is preventing a revamp of the outdated lighting systems.

Check out Bruegmann’s book on Harry Weese, an architect, Lewis said, who may not have gotten his due because his “style was so eclectic.”

Image credit: Metro Center Station, Washington D.C. Metro /, (2) Dark Metro Station / Travel pod

In Queens, Broken Concrete Keeps Pedestrians Safe

With the Queens Plaza Bicycle and Pedestrian Landscape Improvement Project, the New York City Department of Planning and Economic Development Corporation are moving forward with efforts to redesign the streetscape of a dysfunctional part of Queens, New York, and revitalize JFK park. The urban design project, which includes landscape architect Margie Ruddick, ASLA, Wallace Roberts & Todd (WRT), Marpillero Pollak Architects, Leni Schwendinger, a light artist, among others, and will also involve the innovative reuse of materials from the construction site. One smart application of reused materials: broken concrete medians that cover approximately 14,000 square feet of “unusable space between lanes of traffic and in Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) maintenance areas,” says WRT. While this redesign can achieve a whole set of “goods” like increasing pedestrian and bicyclist safety and creating a more artful urban landscape, it’s also a real-life example of sustainable reconstruction in action.  

WRT says Queens Plaza is an “extremely busy” vehicular corridor that provides connections for 140,000 vehicles moving between Queensboro Bridge, Manhattan, Queens Plaza Boulevards North and South, Jackson Avenue, and other streets. The area is also dangerous: over a three year period, there were 23 accidents, mostly involving jaywalkers. This is six times the national average for urban streets. As a result, one of the key goals was to improve the “accessibility and functionality of the crosswalk and bicycle path systems.” Reused materials play a major role in this. 

According to Tobiah Horton, a landscape designer with WRT, the reused concrete medians “physically block passage across vehicle lanes and visually indicate to the pedestrian who is still safely on the sidewalk that it is impossible to cross.” In addition, the textured and irregular appearance of the medians, which can perceived as looking “scary or dangerous” actually make pedestrians safer. “With a perception of danger, here perceived in texture and irregularity – a heightened sense of awareness and care is created in the user. Paradoxically, what is smooth, clean and without remarkable characteristics actually creates a dangerous environment of speed and inattention.” 

Beyond calling attention to the dangers of crossing the street in such a busy area, these pieces of reused transportation infrastructure are also artful in a shabby chic kind of way, and may even resonate with the hardened pedestrians in this evolving neighborhood. Horton adds “keeping some traces of the old neighborhood in the new design comes to mean something for a neighborhood that is undergoing a rapid stage of change. Keeping the material in a relatively unprocessed or rough state allows for it to still be perceived as sidewalk, but with some suggestion of it as a demolition waste material. These lingering identities from the former use and the demolition process combine with the new identity as landscape element to suggest a way of looking at waste as resource with potential value and meaning.” 

Importantly, this technique shows that designers working on urban redevelopment projects can safely salvage and reuse materials on site in an efficient manner. Horton says approximately “1,000 CY of broken concrete was used, saving transportation, disposal, crushing costs and impacts. Our rough calculation suggests that approximately 1.7 Billion BTUs of embodied energy is conserved in the reuse of this material in a higher form than crushing for road base. Additionally, we estimate that a release of 60 tons of C02 (principally from cement production) was avoided by not installing a typical DOT median feature composed of new concrete and other new materials.” Moreover, those rough surfaces meant no energy was wasted polishing them up.

Also worth noting: given these medians are made up of broken concrete, they are also permeable. WRT didn’t provide info on whether these new medians will function as green infrastructure and use natural systems to manage stormwater, but they say the “the uplift of the sidewalk suggests the opening of the impermeable urban surface” and opportunities for “green space, permeability, and infiltration.” Perhaps that piece will be coming soon.

The project is expected to be completed by fall 2011. See an interview from Urban Omnibus with the project designers. Also, check out an ASLA animation that explores some of these concepts, “Building a Park Out of Waste.”

Image credits: WRT

Landscape Architects Improvise with History

At Dumbarton Oaks, landscape architecture historian John Dixon Hunt examined how contemporary landscape architects deal with history, arguing that many of these designers, being artists, are actually “improvising with history.” Improvisation may even be a key part of their job, but they must do it well. Unbound from “memory and context” but still knowing a site’s history, landscape architects can then be free to invent their own versions of history.

Today, many landscape architecture students don’t want to bother with history. “They want to design something new,” says Hunt. A site’s history can be about the natural history of the site, the site’s development, the changing ownership, and also “memory,” which “doesn’t even need to be historical,” but can be “fabricated.”

Hunt pointed to a number of contemporary landscapes to illustrate his ideas. For example, at the GasWorks Park in Seattle, an old industrial site turned into a park, the site’s history literally leaches out of the ground in the form of toxic sludge. Even though park visitors can pay close attention to the site’s history if they want, much of that history has been repurposed. Old tanks are now used by scuba-divers to explore. Walls are now meant to be scaled. Bunkers are now gardens designed for meandering. In a similar example, Park Bercy in Paris features old wine storage facilities and casts embedded into the new park. In a contrasting example in Paris, Citroen, a French car manufacturer, completely demolished its old car manufacturing plants to create Citroen Park.

One Parisian park Hunt spent time exploring in his talk about landscape and memory was Park Atlantique, which sits above a high-speed rail station. The park has a maritime theme with seaside plants, games, a promenade, and weather station. “The site isn’t derived from historical events. However, it successfully creates a memory of trains and the seashore on an anonymous location.”

Jumping to New York, Hunt said Landscape architect Ken Smith, ASLA, has created a new form of history with his fake rooftop garden for the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, which can only be seen by those working in the huge buildings looking down on it. Smith created a “camouflage-like painted garden” in this instance. In another example in the UK, Martha Schwartz, ASLA, transformed history in her Manchester Exchange Square project by “designating a new boundary between the modern and medieval times.” There’s a sloping edge indicating the space where a bomb hit, and other key “story elements” incorporate into the site. In Portugal, Joao Gomes de Silva used a set of consecutive gardens to “bring home distant memories of distant colonies to Portugal.” Each garden uses native plants and design elements from those colonies, like Macao, to create a “memory of empire.”

Finally, he pointed to Maya Lin’s masterful Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., which makes a painful history abstract and accessible to all. “With its sunken descent into the ground, we follow the litany of death.” 

Landscape architecture is one of the few arts in which history can be created. “Landscape doesn’t have to honor history.” Pillaging an “endless bank of history,” landscape architects play the role of “critical historians.” That being said, these artists of the built environment should “always study history. If they are good, they can then invent their own.”

These days, Hunt said, there’s an awful lot of terrible landscape architecture out there, “really bland stuff,” that could be picked up and put anywhere. He’s also “fed up” with many landscape historians who want to spend a week on a studio trip to a foreign city. “This is just like some sort of tourist trip, and helping to create a global, homogenous view of landscape.” In other words, to invoke history properly, the landscape architect has to be “sensitive to that place.”

Check out Hunt’s book on the “afterlife” of gardens.

Image credit: (1) Seattle Gasworks Park, Ping Chen / Picasa (2) Parc Atlantique, Paris.

Vito Acconci’s Provocative Spaces

Dressed in his obligatory uniform of all black, pacing back and forth in front of room, and speaking without notes, Vito Acconci outlined the many shifts his work has taken in the last 50 years at a lecture at Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD). Acconci has had a number of different labels attached to him over the years – poet, artist, designer, landscape designer, provocateur. That last one has probably stayed consistent. The other thing that has stayed consistent, and the reason he was invited to talk about landscape architecture, is his interest in space – between things, between words, between people.

Acconci started as a writer, a poet, attending the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa. His early work focused on how to make words function as literal, concrete things. His work was about movement, from left margin to right margin, from top to bottom, shifting through the space of the page. This movement through the page soon became actual bodily movement through public space. This idea was epitomized by his “Following Pieces,” which involved Acconci selecting a person each day and following them until they went into a private space. This work looked at the urban environment as a space, and examined relations between people in different types of places. Acconci continued to evolve his practice by bringing his body, his person, more and more into the work with performance pieces such as “Conversions or Claim.” These body-based performances, eventually convinced Acconci that he was setting himself up to be too special, to be a “cult figure,” and he decided he needed to re-engage place. Acconci tried not to conceive any project prior to being offered a specific space for it. These works began to more directly involve and require user participation. 

With the start of Acconci Studio, this landscape artist decided his work now required users, not visitors or viewers. Since architecture requires users, Acconci formed a studio where he could surround himself with architects. The last 20 years of the studio’s work has seen a cycle of public art commissions, landscape architecture, architecture, other design projects and more “speculative projections.” The studio, in Acconi’s words, is “messier and louder” than most studios – the basis of all projects is group discussion. Not group discussion about how to achieve his vision, but integral, intensive arguing, and sharing. The work, even after 50 years of evolution, is still based on the word, on cultural understandings and hidden meanings of accepted phrases. 

Acconci has continually reinvented himself with the changing cultural zeitgeist, but what is even more inspiring is a singularity of focus within all of this change. Starting with his early poems and ending with the studio’s current work, there is a clear and distinct pursuit of interpersonal relations and how they are formed by space and movement. His legacy will be complicated and far reaching, but his relentless pursuit of understanding and provocation will be central to any reading.

See examples of his work. Also, watch a Web cast of the lecture and check out an interview with Acconci

This is the first in a series of posts covering lectures at Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) by Andrew Zientek, RLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture (MLA) II candidate, Harvard GSD.     

Image credit: Vito Acconci / Harvard GSD

Interview with Jaime Lerner

Beginning in 1971, Jaime Lerner was elected Mayor of Curitiba, re-elected two more times, and then served as Governor of Paraná, Brazil. Lerner has won a number of major awards for his transportation, design, and environmental work, including the United Nations Environment Award; the Prince Claus Award, given by the Netherlands; and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Architecture, given by the University of Virginia. In 2002, Lerner was elected president of the International Union of Architects. Lerner is principal of Jamie Lerner Associated Architects.

In your talk at a conference organized by The Economist, you argued that cities are the solution to climate change, not the problem. What is the case for this?

Well, my point of view is that there are many, many answers to what would be the best way to avoid climate change. A lot of people are talking about new materials. Or new sources of energy. Or wind turbines. Or recycling. They’re really important but not enough. Everything is very, very important, but not enough. When we realized that 75 percent of car emissions are related to the cities, we realized we can be more effective when we work with the concept of the city. It’s through cities that we can have better results.

When you were mayor of Curitiba, you devised a number of low-cost solutions that turned your city into a model green community where people also have incomes 60 percent higher than the Brazilian average. What kind of investments did you make in green space? What do you see as the relationship between livability and sustainability?

If you want creativity, cut one zero from your budget. If you want sustainability, cut two zeroes from your budget. And if you want solidarity, assume your identity and respect others’ diversity. There are three main issues that are becoming important, not only for your city, but for the whole of mankind. These relate to three key issues in cities: mobility, sustainability, and tolerance (or social diversity).

On infrastructure, there’s always the assumption that the government has to provide public transport. Every time we try to create a solution, we have to have a good equation of co-responsibility with the public. That means it’s not a question of money and it’s not a question of skill; it’s how do we organize your equation of co-responsibility?

For example, when I was governor we had to work hard to avoid reduce pollution in our bays. Of course, it’s very expensive to do environmental clean-up work and we didn’t have the money. Another region had taken out a huge loan from the World Bank, about $800 million. For us though, the question wasn’t about money; the question was about mentality. We didn’t have that money so we started to clean our bays through an agreement with fishermen. If the fisherman catches a fish, it belongs to him. If he catches garbage, we bought the garbage. If the day was not good for fishing, the fishermen went to fish garbage. The more garbage they catch, the cleaner the bays became. The cleaner the bay is, more fish they would have. It that’s kind of win-win solution we need. We need to work with low-cost solutions. And, of course, in public transport, we also organized a good equation of co-responsibility with the public.

Fisherman onshore collecting garbage. Image credit: Jaime Lerner Associated Architects

As mayor of Curitiba, you also created the world’s first bus rapid transit system (BRT), “Speedy Bus,” which works like a surface subway system but at far less cost. How did you come up with this highly sustainable transportation solution? How did you form the public-private partnership that made it cost-effective?

We didn’t have the money for a completely new fleet, which would have cost $300 million. What was the equation? What was the solution? We said to the private sector, private companies, we’ll invest in the itinerary as long as you invest in the fleet. We’ll get loans for the work on our side, for public works, for the itinerary if the private sector gets loans for the fleet. We paid them by kilometers and there are no subsidies. The system pays for itself. Now, there are more than 83 BRT systems around the world.

Curitiba Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) Stations. Image credit: Jaime Lerner Associated Architects

The problem is in many countries, government wants to invest in everything. That doesn’t work. I’ll give you an example. Why don’t we have a good system of transport in New York on the waterfront? This could be a very good approach for reducing congestion in the city’s bridges and tunnels. The city could have a very pleasant system of water public transport. But instead, the policymakers are holding it up, saying there are no passengers and we don’t want to invest in the fleet. First, they need to create a good partnership and create an attractive system, then they will have the passengers, and then they will have a low-cost solution. However, if don’t have passengers to make it feasible, it’s much more costly.

You also mentioned that many poor copies of your BRT are out there, and are actually setting back BRT as a transportation movement. What are other cities doing wrong? Who are the worst offenders? Why is it hard to get this system right?

BRT can’t be designed as a transportation solution. It has to be planned as a whole city. Why? Because the city is a structure of living, working, and leisure. Everything together. Transportation has to provide a structure for living and working together. It can’t just be a system of transport. You will just have a kind of commuting system, which is more difficult to make feasible. Cities always need to approach transportation as providing a structure for living and working. It’s not about living here and working in some other place. With that kind of approach, you will only use public transport twice daily, concentrated in just a few hours. If you have a system that works always and connects working and living activities, it’s more a city than just a corridor of public transport.

You were also known for innovations in the delivery of city services. One program to clean up dirty, narrow streets that were inaccessible to trash collectors gave residents bags of groceries or transit passes in return for their garbage. You decentralized garbage collection. How well did this program work? Have other cities taken up this approach?

It’s been working for more than 20 years in Curitiba. In many cities, there are places where it’s difficult to provide trucks access to collect garbage. In many cities, if the slums are on the hills or deep in valleys, they’re difficult to access. In these places, people are throwing away their garbage and polluting the streams. Their children are playing in polluted areas. In 1989, we started a program where we said, Okay, we’re going to buy your garbage as long as you put your garbage in a bag, and bring it to the trucks, where it’s more accessible. In two or three months, all these areas were clean, and these very low-income people had an additional source of income.

We also started a public education programs on the separation of garbage because we realized that we could transform one problem if we separated garbage in every household. We started teaching every child in every schools. Children taught their parents. Since then, Curitiba had the highest rate of separation of garbage in the world for more than 20 years. Around 60 or 70 percent of families are separating their garbage at home.

Now you have your own architecture and urban design firm and you are working with major city governments and private clients throughout the Americas. I saw you were designing a few projects that reuse transportation infrastructure and turn highways into elevated parks, much like the High Line. What kind of projects are you working on? How are you trying to reuse infrastructure?

Sustainability is an equation between what we save and what we waste. There are so many problems of mobility or integration of systems, but we have to work fast. If we understand the city as a structure of living, working, moving together, we can work more effectively. It’s very difficult to have a complete network of subways in many cities of the world. Even if I believe that the future is on the surface, my idea is not trying to prove which system is the best, but using what you have. For instance, in Sao Paolo, they have three subway lines. They are working on fourth line of the subway, with 84 percent of the trains are running on the surface. It’s the surface that has to operate better. At the same time, the suburb railroad is being improved.

The idea is to take advantage of the existing path of the suburb railroads and build above the rail a kind of linear park like the High Line. However, this linear park would link the whole city, where you can connect people of all income levels. In every place, you could have good public transport and you a huge park linking it all. Within this park, you could walk, bike, or take small electric car. That’s the idea that we presented for the city of Sao Paolo with the private sector and public sectors.

Sao Paulo elevated parks concept. Image credit: Jaime Lerner Associated Architects

Sometimes there’s an idea and it has to be improved. We have to understand that innovation is fast and leaves room for the idea to be improved. We’re trying to work fast in many cities and provide them with a good start. In other cases, we use “urban acupuncture.” These are small interventions that can provide new energy to the city, and provide assistance during the process of long-term planning, which has to take time. But we have to work fast.

At the street level, you’ve been experimenting with portable streets, which you say can enable vendors to set up easily anywhere, creating informal and spontaneous market street life. Why do we need this infrastructure?

Some places in some cities have become decayed. There’s no life. When that happens, it’s very difficult to bring back life because people don’t want to live in a place like that. However, the moment we bring street life, people will want to live there again. That’s why we designed the portable streets. On a Friday night, we can deliver a portable street and remove it Monday morning. We can put a whole street life in front of a university or any place, bringing street life back.

Interview conducted by Jared Green.

Portable Streets. Image credit: Jaime Lerner Associated Architects

Minneapolis’ Bold New Riverfront

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board and the Minneapolis Parks Foundation, working with creative partners Walker Art Center and University of Minnesota College of Design, announced Tom Leader, ASLA, owner of a Berkeley-based landscape architecture firm, and Kennedy & Violich Architects won a competition to design 5.5 miles of the Upper Mississippi Riverfront, beating out major firms like Ken Smith Workship, Stoss Landscape Urbanism, and Yu Kongjian’s Turenscape. More than 44 teams from 14 countries submitted design proposals.

The 14-person jury evaluated the finalists’ proposals against a set of criteria, including how well the project “establish parks as the economic engine for development along the river; knit communities on both sides of the riverfront to and across the river; and re-­focus Minneapolis and the region toward one of the three great rivers of the world.”

The winning “Riverfirst” proposal, with its focus on water, health, mobility, and the “green economy,” was deemed the best at meeting these goals. David Fisher, Superintendent Emeritus of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, said: “The team grounded their proposal in proactive outreach to the community, demonstrated extensive research, and posited several multi-­‐layered solutions unique to these 11 miles of riverfront and the habitat, communities, businesses, infrastructure, and culture intrinsic to our region.”

Riverfirst will use “landscape design, green products, and public education initiatives” to complete a “gradual transformation” of a U.S. army-run pool into a “more natural, living river.” In addition to restoring the river, the new landscape will incorporate green infrastructure technologies to improve local stormwater management. In fact, the designers argue their project will offer a “comprehensive remediation of the city’s storm water management system and its conceptual transformation into a system of ‘tributaries’ that are naturally cleaned with planted bio-filtration landscapes.”

Getting a bit technical, the team says the landscape design will actually support the rebirth of the river, and, in turn, be shaped by the water’s flow. “Where water carves and erodes, subtractive design principles are used to create water remediation ravines and terrace overlooks. Where the river deposits new material, accretive principles of design are used to mold and shape land berms for the new park.” In other words, they are leveraging natural processes in their design.

To maximize the benefits of the environmental restoration, there will be a focus on improving the health of the surrounding neighborhoods. Those man-made green infrastructure systems will feature wetlands that provide recreational opportunities. The new park will get into urban agriculture. “New opportunities are created to increase urban agriculture, provide food security and expand neighborhood access to healthy foods in ways that build community and local businesses.” To increase access for those neighboring communities, a “multi-modal, sustainable public transportation system” will be created, featuring “continuous pedestrian and bike/ski riverfront trails” and a new bus shuttle. Also, parks will be Wi-Fi enabled and there will be a “River Talk” mobile phone app explaining all the new features.

Lastly, there is some innovative reuse of materials that we’d like to see more of. “Floating Biohaven Islands made of recycled water bottles anchored to existing bridge piers provide seven acres of protected riparian habitat for migrating birds and endangered wildlife.”

Learn more about the winning design and watch a video.

Image credits: TLS / KVA via Bustler