Measuring the Success of a Landscape

At the national Brownfields conference, James Royce, ASLA, a landscape architect with Stephen Stimson Associates, explained how the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES), a new rating system now in the pilot testing phase, can be used to answer the question: How can we measure the success of a landscape? He added SITES may also help answer the question clients are now most concerned with: What do I get out of it?

The economy has changed, which means that the climate for sustainable solutions has also changed, argued Royce. Many commercial and residential clients still need to be sold on sustainability. However, he believes institutional clients mostly get it and now demand the most sustainable options they can afford.

SITES is a useful tool for understanding and quantifying the range of ecosystem services landscape provide. However, Royce added, areas like human health and wellbeing are still very difficult to quantify at the landscape scale.

Working with the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) to create a “durable, low-maintenance ecological landscape,” Royce was thrilled to discover the innate sense of responsibility in his client. Instead of doing extensive work on a new greenfield site they purchased in Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts, they decided to build their new headquarters on a nearby five-acre brownfield, leaving the natural landscape alone. While this project isn’t part of the SITES pilot testing phase, Royce added that SITES would give him credit for this approach in an effort to incentivize the redevelopment of brownfields or greyfields over greenfields.

In addition, SITES encourages the use of smart site planning to contribute to building performance. In this case, Royce convinced IFAW and its architects to position the buildings appropriately for passive solar heating and cooling, saving on energy usage. Royce added meadows, not lawns, wherever possible on the remediated brownfield, which would earn SITES credits for using native plants. Green infrastructure techniques were incorporated to manage stormwater on site. Furthermore, some 6,000 cubic yards of contaminated soils were excavated and reused to create slopes within new landscape. Both of these sustainable practices would earn additional SITES credits.

Royce was able to quantify a range of benefits and provided some impressive data. One big number that leapt out concerned onsite stormwater management. Using sustainable green infrastructure design techniques he was able to save his client $50,000. Royce added, “being exempted from the local water permitting process alone was priceless.” In addition, Royce also cited a large number in terms of the savings from reusing soils onsite: $250,000, which would have been the cost of trucking new soils in and old ones out. There also would have been additional costs in terms of carbon dioxide emissions added to the atmosphere.

Beyond water and soils, however, actually quantifying worker health benefits gets tricky. Royce believes the new landscape creates microclimates that enable employees to be outdoors comfortably longer, increases worker productivity, and improves employee retention but he couldn’t point to hard data on these. He called for the use of pre and post-occupancy user surveys to find out this information.

Image credit: IFAW headquarters / Boston Society of Landscape Architects

Interview with Jan Gehl

Jan Gehl, an architect and urban designer, is principal of Gehl Architects – Urban Quality Consultants, based in Copenhagen. Gehl has worked with a number of cities, including Copenhagen, London, New York City, and Guangzhou on how to become more people friendly. His most recent book is
Cities for People.

In your new book Cities for People, you say that the way cities have been planned and developed dramatically changed over the past few years, much for the worse. What happened to many cities? What went wrong?

The big change in paradigms happened around 1960. At that time, we had a modernist ideology but we didn’t use it very much because we were still adding small units to existing cities. It’s only when cities took off and planning really went up in scale and there was a rapid expansion of cities did the modernist principles become applied in practice. That meant that we were able to mass produce big buildings that could fill the whole landscape.

At the same time, planning took off as a profession. They took off in airplane so they could organize the new optics of the big city. Typically on a big model, you push around with the optics until bingo you had something that looks like some wonderful composition. Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, is a great example. From the air it’s very interesting. It’s interesting for a bird or eagle. From the helicopter view, it has got wonderful districts with sharp and precise government buildings and residential buildings. However, nobody spent three minutes to think about what Brasilia would look like at the eye level. That was typical — planners were to look after the plan, the architects were to look after the buildings. With modernism, they were free of the context of the city. They placed it on open lands surrounded by grass. Nobody was responsible for looking after the people who were to move in these new structures.

You would think that the landscape architects were the ones. At least they were down at eye level and were moving around. But as far as I’m concerned, some landscape architects have done great jobs for people, but most of the work is not great, just silly benches. They’re more occupied with plans and form. There’s a general pursuit of form in the area of architecture and also in the profession of landscape architecture. So, what really happened was that the eye level stuff were handled by the traffic engineers. They are the ones who mostly shaped our environments in our cities.

I sum up that in 50 years nobody has systematically looked after a good urban habitat for Homo sapiens. We have written very few books about it. There’s been very little research done. We definitely know more about good habitats for mountain gorillas, Siberian tigers, or panda bears than we do know about a good urban habitat for Homo sapiens. Nobody has taken an interest. If you look at the planning schools, you will find they don’t have a systematic education around the people scale and the small stuff. Look at the architecture school, are there any psychologists, sociologists, or doctors? No. They have a little bit of insight but then they go on making their funny perfume bottles. The landscape architects, maybe they are the nicest. I always felt, visiting landscape schools, that they had a nicer atmosphere. They were closer to the ground. But still the education concerning people is very weak if nonexistent. 

You argue that caring for people in the city is central to achieving “lively, safe, sustainable and healthy cities.” What are the best ways cities can care for their people?

It is my very firm point of view that if we take a more systematic approach and take these “cities for people” more seriously we will find that the cities would be considerably more friendly, livable, and lively because people will be in these cities more. We will find that the cities will become more attractive because the scale will be smaller and the pace and noise is lowered. The cities would be dominated by other people, which is the most interesting thing in our lives. They would be safer because if people are using a city it will be safer. They would be more sustainable because suddenly it’d be much easier to make cities where we can have a good quality public transportation system, where we can walk in style and dignity to and from the station day and night in safety and have a good time doing it. A good public transportation and a good public rail, they’re brothers and sisters. Finally, and this may be the most important thing, we would have natural activity built into the day.

In many countries, a world has been organized where you don’t have to move at all. In the old days, most of us had manual work. We had to shovel or brick lay or paint or plow the whole day. Now the great majority in the Western world is sitting throughout the day, sitting in the morning, sitting on the transport, sitting during work, sitting on the transport and sitting in the evening, tired and looking at television. In this way there is no natural activity built into the day. You have to set aside special fitness time. Some do but most don’t. That is why cities like Copenhagen, Melbourne, Sydney, New York and Vancouver now have a specific policy. These cities will do whatever they can to invite people to walk and bicycle as much as possible in the course of their daily activities. Only one hour of moderate exercise like walking for half an hour to work and half an hour back, or bicycling, can give you an extra seven years of life. If people will please start to move around themselves again, it will also give a much lower health bill to society.

To facilitate this, we can do a number of things. We can simply make sure that car parking lots are far away from where you have to go and there are many stairs in front of you instead of many escalators. There’s a number of things we can do to make a bicycle system really efficient — like in Copenhagen — so we hardly consider taking the car. I have a car and it could easily be three weeks where I don’t touch it because it’s smarter to walk, bicycle or take the bus or metro to most destinations. It’s only when I have to go out in the country then the car starts to be smart. This is a new type of city which is becoming more and more prominent because more and more city councils are deciding to do this. In Copenhagen, where they put all the expenses into a big computer, they are analyzing the cost of a person bicycling for one kilometer for society vs. the cost of a guy doing the same in a car. They found that every time there was a bicyclist doing a kilometer, the society picked up a quarter of a dollar and every time the same distance was driven in a car, society lost 16 cents.

You talk about how important it is to design for the human dimension or scale (not the building scale) and how critical our senses are in experiencing cities. What is the human scale? How can landscape architects make sure they’re incorporating this approach into their work?

Ah, that’s easy because I use about 30 or 40 pages in my book to painstakingly detail what human scale is and how you can find out about it. It is of course based on Homo sapiens, the speed with which we move, the way we move, how our limbs are organized, how our movement system, how our senses are geared to our being a walking animal, and are geared to see everything horizontally. We see everything horizontally but we see very little up and a little bit more down. We can see when we communicate with people, we have a very, very precise system. If it’s intimate, we are at a close distance. If I was to tell you about a big sad story I just had with one of my grandchildren, I would lean over and it would be very personal. If it’s sort of more common, we have the public, the social distance where we yak, yak, yak, and do interviews on landscape architecture. Then we have the public distance which is the distance between the priest and his congregation, teacher, pupil, whatever. We have a number of distances which are part of our instincts and upbringing.

We have been through all this evolution over all these millions of years. We are basically Homo sapiens with the same body worldwide. I’ve been able to expand my studies, which started in Italy and Scandinavia, to Bangladesh, India, China and the Middle East, and South America, where you will find all the basics are the same. If people are waiting for a bus, they will all the time stand with arm’s length between them until the bus comes because that’s part of the body, that’s part of the body whether you are Catholic or Muslim or whether it’s hot or cold. There are a number of rules that are basics that come from the body. I really have the feeling that in all cities where we feel really comfortable they correspond very nicely to the body. I can go to Venice and suddenly I relax, “ah, this is for me.” I could go to Portofino, I could go to Greek Islands, I could go to a number of places designed before the second world war, before the cars really blew the scale.

In this scale story, I have something that I call the five kilometer an hour scale. If we are to walk at five kilometers an hour, things have to be close so we can see them. There has to be frequent interesting things to see for it to be a nice walk. If you are in a car going 60 kilometer per hour, everything is blown up, the signs are blown up and there has to be something with great intervals for it to be a little bit exciting. If you, as a person, are out in a 60 kilometer per hour environment, you have the most boring time in your life. I do think that architects, landscape architects, and planners have gotten confused about scale. They constantly confuse car scale with people scale. Sometimes they make a mix, but most of the time they make car scale and say, look, there’s a sidewalk, people can walk here. What’s the problem? That is not at all exciting.

Which cities are getting the human scale right? Which did the worst job over the last 50 years? Which early offenders are doing the best at undoing the damage?

We do know now that it’s very difficult to undo damage. During the ’60s, European countries built social housing in big hig-rise buildings found on blocks based on modernist ideas. They had enough grass and tap water but they had nothing else. No squares or streets, maybe a playground far away. They had to go down from the 13th floor to play and, when they’re finished playing, go up again. Not easy, not easy. Many of these have become disasters. They are now occupied by the families with least resources and the most problems. They are a big problem area in England, Holland, Scandinavia, and Germany. Going in and improving them is quite difficult.

To fix this mess in the no man’s land between the buildings, they tried to articulate it very tightly so there will be allotment gardens. This is your garden. There will be areas for teenagers and younger children but also they use all the space to build new row houses. There will be a higher density. There are now some people living on the ground floor who can look for bicycle thieves and muggers and all the problems that go with all these problem-families being concentrated.

Also, I’ve been involved with some new towns where they were promised a fantastic urban environment and they just got the normal concrete desert. Again, it’s very expensive when they have invested all the money to come and change all the doors out on the sunny side, move the cafes away from the north and into the sun and south, and put all the benches up against the walls when they have systematically placed benches six meter from any back support. Of course, it’s much more comfortable to sit against a warm wall than sit without a back lean six meter out. So we talk about these cases where one has to parachute the little scale in: build pavilions, small gardens, and intimate spaces. We have this tendency today to over-scale everything in the public realm. We make far too many greens, boulevards, streets, roof terraces and promenades for fewer and fewer people in these new areas.

What are the unique challenges facing cities in the developing world? What are some examples of smart investments emerging cities can make in transportation, parks and street space?

In my book I end up by saying that it’s very well to take the cars out of Broadway on Times Square and make a nice space there. It’s very nice that we can turn Melbourne around and they would have a jolly good time in Melbourne with 15,000 café seats. But the real problem in all this is that people have not been properly taken care of for a long period because no profession has been responsible for making sure that happened. Everybody thought they knew about or that somebody else was doing it. This has been bad for Western cities, our city centers, our suburbs, our new districts, but it’s even worse now in the fast developing cities in the third world, where more and more cars or motorcycles are coming in each day, where people are being more and more suppressed, and their living conditions are falling. Livability is plunging while the economy may be going up. Of course, with this fast expansion, that’s where the major concerns should be.

I have no fast answers but luckily there are a number of people there who have done marvelous things. Jaime Lerner, the former mayor of Curitiba, has done this with bus rapid transit (BRT) in Curitiba and the former mayor of Bogota, Enrique Penalosa, has done with this parks, sidewalks, and the bicycle system. So, some of the things are being done in a few places. It’s lovely, wonderful that somebody has the strength to do it. Those models really showed the way. Now there are so many copying them.

A city’s edge, particularly the lower floors of a building, has a decisive influence on life in the city space. What’s the difference between hard and soft edges? Why are soft edges so important?

The hard edges are easy to define. If you have a blank wall or just glass, maybe black glass or whatever, you can, as a human being, do nothing and there’s no interest. The words “soft edge” mean a façade where a lot of things happen. It could be many doors, niches, or the vegetable seller putting out his tomatoes on the street. Soft edges could be the front yard where the kids are playing and grandma is sitting knitting just behind the hedge. We have found, of course, the ground floor is where the communication between building inside and outside occurs. That’s what you see. So if the ground floor is rich, the city is rich and it doesn’t matter what you do further up. Ralph Erskine said always make the ground floor very rich, use all the money on the ground floor, it doesn’t matter what’s further up because nobody sees that.

In my book, I point to several popular shopping streets where they have a shop every five meters, which coincides with the stimuli humans need every five seconds. If you walk at normal speed and there is a new door and a new exhibition every four, five, six meters, that will be just the ideal stimulation for your senses. But it also keeps room for one door and three meter of selling area. We have done some research in Copenhagen that compared a stretch of bad or dead façades with active, lively façades. There was was seven times more activity on that sidewalk. There was the same stream of pedestrians, but suddenly they stopped, looked, went in and out, and started to speak in mobile phones, and parked their bicycles.

You point to the world famous Piazza del Campo in Sienna, Italy, as a “100 percent place,” a model of how to design for the human scale. What is it about this 700 year old plaza that works so well? Are there are any modern parks and plazas that work equally as well?

If you take that the toolbox in the back of my book, you will find there are 12 quality criteria. If you go to Sienna you will find that all of them are carefully observed.

I know a number of new ones where they have also carefully observed them. In Copenhagen we have a place called Sankt Hans Square. In Norway they have a square in a new development called Aker Brygge. I do think that quite a few of them would be observed in the central square in Portland.

I know of one place where out of 12 they have blown 13. That’s about the worst place I know. In this place, there are people in great numbers. It’s an important rail junction and there’s a shopping mall. What people hit that square, they run as fast as they can from the metro over to the shopping mall and then back again. They are in the square an average of 22 seconds. So, with the quality of the space you offer, you influence what people do enormously.

Lastly, your book includes a great toolbox with dos and don’ts that every landscape architect should know. If you could magically fix just one of your don’ts everywhere, which would you choose?

How the building lands is the most important of all issues. It’s all about how the land falls. Also, very few (and closed) doors, along with sleek corporate surfaces, are also a big don’t. Communities need to offer little gardens, groceries and children playing. The battle for quality is won in the small scale. This is even more true where the buildings touch the city.

Interview conducted by Jared Green

Image credits: (1) Island Press, (2) Brasilia, (3) Melbourne Federation Square, (4) Social Distances, (5) Example of soft edges, (6) Piazza del Campo, Sienna, Italy / Gehl Architects

Cities Use Brownfields to Go Solar

New York City, Chicago, and Philadelphia increasingly view their contaminated inner-city brownfield sites as natural locations for large-scale solar installations. At the national Brownfields conference, each city explained how solar farms can be set up in the unlikeliest places, saving the money involved in cleaning up some of the worst sites.

Chicago Launches Largest Urban Solar Installation in U.S. 

In Chicago, Dave Graham, who works on the city’s brownfield program, said the City Solar project just “fell into our laps.” He was called into a meeting in the mayor’s office with representatives from Exelon and SunPower, and found they wanted to create a massive solar farm on a derelict brownfield site. Actually, massive is an understatement for this project: it’s the largest urban solar plant in the U.S. Its 32,000 photovoltaic (PV) panels provide 10 MW of energy, enough for 1,500 local homes. In addition, GPS tracking systems help tilt the panels, ensuring the most efficient use of solar energy.

Heavily contaminated sites can cost up to $150,000 per acre to clean up. The West Pullman site for City Solar, which “has a variety of issues,” would have cost $20 million alone to clean up, “something no one in the city wanted to invest in.” As a result, Exelon simply put solar panels on top of the site, leaving the worst soils untouched underground. In some cases, where PV structures need to be installed, the team did actually discover underground storage tanks, which they then removed.

Throughout the process, the local community was consulted. Some residents had concerns about living so close to the new power facilities. Graham said one plus is that the facility is totally quiet.

In the construction process, some 200 jobs were created, “all local labor.” Additional jobs may be created if Exelon moves into the abandoned lead-ridden site next door.

Philadelphia Takes Advantage of Solar America Grants

Philadelphia won a Solar America Cities grant, which they will use to help create renewable power purchasing agreements. Kristin Sullivan, Philadelphia Mayor’s Office for Sustainability, said a number of city-owned sites are already being prepped for solar. In an example of multi-use infrastructure, Philadelphia Water Department’s treatment facilities will also host panels, generating 250 KW of power.   

In addition, the city will soon be issuing a request for proposals for a new three MW facility. Sullivan said Philadelphia hopes to encourage private sector developers to take the lead on creating solar power plants, even on city-owned lands. This makes more financial sense for the city then owning and operating its own solar power facilities.

The city government will soon release a solar hotspots map covering underutilized centers. The idea is to identify places, including brownfields, with little or no shading issues. Philadelphia also hopes to encourage large-scale distributed power via residential rooftops.

New York City Incentivizes Reuse of Brownfields

New York City launched SPEED, a searchable database of brownfield properties, a “real estate search engine”, that has gotten great traffic from the local developer community. Dan Walsh, Mayor’s Office of Operations, New York City government, said SPEED includes historical maps so developers can “toggle through time” and explore some 3,150 vacant commercial and industrial brownfield sites spread throughout the city. The idea is to use some of these sites for solar power plants.

To make it even easier for developers, the city launched a $9 million brownfield reinvestment fund. Each developer of a brownfield site gets $60-140,000 “fast” if they commit to cleaning-up a brownfield or redeveloping for energy uses. The grants can be used to cover expenses involved in design, investigation, clean-up, or insurance, says Walsh.

For brownfield sites that will be used by the public, the city has also launched a Green Property Certification program, which can be shown on site as proof that the area is fit for its intended use. “This is a voluntary, not regulatory program.”

Interestingly, none of these urban policymakers discussed how to turn parts of these new solar facilities into public spaces. Solar facilities need not be cut-off from neighboring communities. If designed well, they can also offer green space or even wildlife habitat. As an example, see Walter Hood’s model solar campus project at the University of Buffalo, which will be both public art installation and 1.1 MW solar power facility.

Image credit: Chicago City Solar / Northwestern University

Reconnecting Philadelphia to its Riverfront

In one sesssion at the national Brownfields conference, a number of local officials and development organizations discussed how Philadelphia has taken back its riverfront after years of industrial decline. Over the past 300 years, the center city lost its connection to its two rivers, the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers. Railroads, expressways, massive industrial sites, and later, toxic brownfields, acted as a barrier preventing local residents from accessing the rivers. Working with some prominent planners, developers, universities, and landscape architects, the city devised a smart set of plans, designs, and programs for recreating the connection to the river. The goal was to create people-centric, accessible greenways, making the riverfront a core part of the city again.

The History of Philadelphia’s Decline and Rebirth

Larry Silver, a lawyer with Langsam, Stevens & Silver, explained how for years, residents of Philadelphia traveled to the Jersey Shore, despite the fact that the waterfronts of the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers are the city’s “real waterfront.” This wasn’t supposed to be like this. William Penn’s vision of the city was a “green country town.” Over the years, the city laid a grid network, and there were trolleys along Market street, with easy access to vibrant commerical and shipping ports. Over time, this “workshop of the world” had transformed its riverfront into one big industrial site.

After World War II, the city experienced a manufacturing decline and all those industrial sites turned into “vacant, derelict properties.”  In addition, the U.S. interstate carved a “path of least resistance” along the east coast. In the case of Philadelphia, the easiest path was through the undeveloped land along the rivers. An eight-lane highway helped sever “neighborhoods from the riverfront.” This highway came at the worst time though with the decline of Philadelphia’s manufacturing base. “This was the start of three decades of decline.” However, with the city slowly moving towards a service-based economy, some wise political decisions helped lay the foundation for riverfront renewal.

The Vision for Schuylkill Banks

Joseph Syrnick, Schuylkill River Development Corporation, said great cities all have great rivers, but other cities have done their waterfronts better. Focusing in on the last eight miles of the Schuylkill river, which passes through more than 20 neighborhoods and under 15 bridges, the new master plan for “Schuylkill Banks“, created in 2002, presents a vision for reconnecting Philadelphia to its waterfront. The plan uses private public partnerships to drive investment in new riverfront access and connectivity, specifically focusing on improving the conditions of the riverbanks and building bike and pedestrian trails.

So far, 1.2 miles of trails out of the 8 mile trail network have been completed. Trails flow through a new bridge over the river, which helps connect the trail network to the rest of the city. The site of the trail passes through the old Dupont Crescent, a “highly contaminated site”, which included soils filled with “testpaints and metals embedded in asphalt.” The development corporation took the hazardous concrete out. “It was barren on the bottom.” New trees and paths were added. 

In an example of a smart reuse of old transportation infrastructure, the development corporation also plans on turning an old abandoned railroad bridge into a new bike path, which will create a single path all the way through to Bartram’s Garden, a historic botanical garden. 

Syrnick said the project has real environmental benefits but also acts as an economic engine.

The Critical Role of the University of Pennsylvania in the Delaware River Revitalization

To ensure the public got a say in what happened to the revitalized Delaware riverfront, the city invited PennPraxis to lead a public process to help determine a vision. In this case, Harris Steinberg at the University of Pennsylvania said his university took on the role of the planning commission.

Before PennPraxis started this initiative, the area had “very little public access and was a hotbed of civic action, a highly contested area.” In the “heady days” before the market crash, there were some 28 big real estate projects planned for the riverfront, none of which provided much public green space or access. The city instead needed a “honest broker and planning partner.”

With a $1.6 million grant from the Penn Foundation, PennPraxis undertook a citizen-driven process. Some 4,000 people contributed ideas, and the planning process led to 150 news stories in the local press. Wallace Roberts & Todd, the landscape architects hired to create the design plans, led a community charrette. “The civic dialogue drove the design plans though,” said Steinberg. The city, as a people together, decided to reconnect the city and watefront and invest in ecological restoration, including new wetlands.  

Steinberg said the public process created a “forcefield” that helped keep “special interests at bay.” This civic forcefield helped prevent the riverfront from being turned into a massive casino with spaces for 10,000 parking lots. Instead, there was a new grid network with 327 acres of green space, trails, and parks every half mile to serve the 100,000 people who live nearby.

Steinberg said the forcefield has held and the new mayor, Michael Nutter, has “embraced all of this whole-heartedly.” A new action plan is in the works and PennPraxis’ recommendation to reform the river development corporation for this part of the city has finally been heeded. Already, James Corner Field Operations is finishing work on Race Street Pier, the newest park on the Delaware river.

North Delaware River Extends the City’s Greenway

North of the Delaware river project Steinberg discussed is a new project to create a north Delaware river greenway. Led by James Corner Field Operations, the project will take a “very industrial landscape,” said Patrick Starr, Pennsylvania Environmental Commission, and recreate a new waterfront with “green and grey infrastructure zipped together.” The design calls for reconnecting the community with the river, extending the street grid almost down to the water’s edge, using ecological restoration techniques to restore the actual river’s edge, and adding new parks throughout. In addition, the area’s new trails will connect with the east coast greenway, which leads up through multiple states.

Starr said the restoration will actually create habitat for targeted individual species. Apparently, parts of the river are a shad run. In addition, once the some brownfields were cleaned up, bald eagles returned. A new point park will feature “inter-tidal wetlands” to provide shoreline habitat for birds and other wildlife. There’s also a broader regional restoration plan that the north Delaware river plan synchs up with.

Lastly, Duane Bumb, City of Philadelphia, noted that work is underway on a new mixed-use community in the old Navy Yards. The project will include laying out seven miles of new trails, preserving and reusing 200 historic buildings, and creating 15-20 million square feet of new office space. The new facilities have already attracted Urban Outfitters, which will bring its headquarters there, along with major pharmaceutical companies like GlaxoSmithKline. The site is also one of the last functioning shipyards in the U.S. Bumb laughed at the vision of “blue-haired” Urban Outfitter workers having lunch next to weathered ship builders in one of the Navy Yards’ new outdoor cafes.

Image credits: (1) Martin Luther King Drive, Schuylkill Banks, (2) Schuylkill River Banks Connector Path /Schuylkill Banks, (3) Schuylkill Bridge Plans at Grays Ferry / Schuylkill Banks, (4) ASLA 2009 Analysis & Planning Honor Award. A Civic Vision and Action Plan for the Central Delaware River, Philadelphia / Wallace Roberts & Todd, LLC

Robert Irwin on the Mechanics of Experience

Robert Irwin was the keynote speaker at the Parsons conference, “Aftertaste 2011: Immaterial Environments,” this past weekend. His lecture, “On the Nature of Abstraction,” was a meditation on the “mechanics of experience.” Sitting on a simple stool with his typical sunglasses (he has glaucoma) and baseball cap, Irwin begins the lecture by claiming to be dumfounded by the praise that was lavished by Jonsara Ruth and Sanford Kwinter who handled his introductions. Irwin then began an hour of speaking and drawing which was both humble in presentation and humbling in clarity and power. 

On the chalkboard wall behind him he writes the following list:

Sentient Being              Cognitive Self
Immaterial                      Material
Visceral                           Cerebral
Perception                      Conception
Feelings                          Thinking
Beauty                            Truth
Actual                              Factual

Irwin explores Edward Husserl‘s “phenomenological reduction.” He recalls the simple optical trick most of us have experienced — there is a red triangle which we concentrate on and, when it’s removed, there is a green after-image. Irwin says the green is more brilliant to us because the red is “coded.” We understand red and don’t need to actively engage in its perception. The green is brilliant because it’s “phenomenologically experienced in a direct manner.” It’s the relationship and tension between the experience of the sentient being and the cognitive self that is a miracle for Irwin. “What more could an artist or human want than to examine the complexity and richness in this tension and use this inquiry to ask how the world is constructed and also how can it be otherwise?” There’s no answer, but it’s a beautiful conundrum. 

The history of abstraction in modern art is one of “phenomenal abstraction.” Irwin shows a slide pairing the painting The Coronation of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David with White on White by Russian artist Kazimir Malevich, explaining that during a hundred years we moved from a pictorial, recognizable approach to the “nature of seeing” to dealing with a “desert of pure feelings,” as Malevich would later claim. This is a fascinating history. 

Irwin then highlights the progression through to Piet Mondrian’s work, in which we see a very linear, gradual movement from pictorial work into that of pure energy. This is not an exercise in abstraction, but an observation about the nature of seeing. Modern art had witnessed almost the end of the pictorial and arrived at the world of pure relations. Mies’ famous dictum “less is more” was actually “Less is more, only when less is the sum total of more.” This is a world of relationships. It’s a pursuit of stripping experience down to its essence. Unfortunately, as a style in the hands of everyday practitioners, it became a “vacuous style and died.” It takes a meditation over a long period of time to understand things; it takes a hands-on approach for intense pursuit. 

The ability to create so much power with less really is a reflection of the power of a human being and the act of seeing. Irwin now describes his meditation over a long period of time, describing how he spent two years moving lines on paintings up or down by a quarter of an inch to try and find how this small act reorganized the whole painting (see image at top). These line paintings gave way to the “dot” paintings which Irwin claimed was the best thing he had done in his life at that point. This field of pure energy was a work that the “eye couldn’t solve and thus the eye was caught up in the continuous process of looking.” 

Despite the personal satisfaction in these paintings, Irwin was now confronted with the frame. He had succeeded in painting a work that had no subject and no mark, but was structured and contained in a frame. This frame had never been questioned in the history of painting, but was in direct contrast to the way we experience the world. “There are no frames in the world.” 

This brings Irwin to his continual focus – the mechanics of experience and how all perception is subjective. The world is not given to us, we actively construct it. We construct it by valuing certain things over others in our perceptive system. We notice some things and not others. In this sense, perception is the foundation of ecology. “What we place a value on we let into our lives and care for.” Think of the language describing the desert: desolate and solitary. This language was written by early pioneers who were homesick for wet landscapes and this language came back and created policy and structured cultural values. (This idea was actually offered by Dean Bill Morrish in the roundtable discussion, but fits Irwin’s long standing interest in the capacity for pure experience in the desert.) 

Irwin concludes his lecture by claiming that “art in public places is bullshit. It’s just another form of graffiti.” For an artist working the world, the question is simply: “Does it work?” Irwin also ends by wondering aloud whether “we will we honor the ecology of our world and value it” or just screw it up like we have been doing? Both of these questions come back to our experiences in the world. As designers of public and private space, we are charged with revealing and honoring this relationship.

Check out some of Irwin’s recent work.

This guest post is by Andrew Zientek, RLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture (MLA) II candidate, Harvard GSD. 

Image credits (1) Robert Irwin / Transformational Tools Energy and Mind, (2) Jacques-Louis David, The Coronation of Napoleon / Wikipedia, (3) Suprematist Composition: White on White, Kazimir Malevich /

E.P.A. Administrator Jackson Fights Back

At the national Brownfields conference in Philadelphia, which was attended by more than 7,000 national and local policymakers, engineers, designers, and artists, E.P.A. Administrator Lisa Jackson said Republican members of Congress are trying to cut funding to the E.P.A. and limit its ability to regulate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Jackson said some members of Congress see the E.P.A. as “over-reaching and only out for power.” While this “back and forth is important to our democracy,” the E.P.A. will “continue to do its job, which is to protect the health of the American people, while moving ahead.”

Jackson said much of the country is scaling back due to the tough economic times and the federal government “also needs to take responsibility.” However, she believes there’s a “reasonable way to scale back.”

While some Republicans are convinced that the E.P.A. is trying to “grab power” and any attempt to regulate the GHG emissions will, in effect, cost jobs, Jackson said Republicans should just look at the work local communities are doing to restore brownfield sites and see how many jobs are being produced through this environmental clean-up work.  Jackson said, “if they could only see the before and after of this vital brownfields work.”

According to a recent poll by USA Today, some 60 percent of Americans believe the E.P.A. “needs to hold polluters accountable,” said Jackson. In addition, some “three-fourths of Americans favor tougher regulations on pollution in order to protect our air and water.” She believes “the contamination of our soil and water is the number one issue for Americans.” If there’s more pollution, we’ll only “see more sickness and more contaminated sites.”

Within the E.P.A., brownfield work is a “point of pride.” Some 17,500 properties have been cleaned up recently, creating 70,000 jobs. Jackson said she would make brownfield remediation a continued priority. She added “brownfield redevelopment can be a part of conservation efforts as well.”

Jackson also highlighted the new sustainable community building block program that is a part of the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, which was formed with the U.S. Department of Transporation and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Some 32 communities just received grants that will bring in private sector experts to help conduct “walkability audits.” Both large cities and small communities won grants. 

Before getting her second standing ovation, Jackson said, “these are challenging times but we need to uphold the environmental laws of this country.”

Image credit: E.P.A. Administrator Lisa Jackson / DC Streets Blog

Ecosystems: Forever Changing

At a conference organized by the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER), Kathy Poole, ASLA, a landscape architect and urban designer who focuses on “ecological infrastructure,” argued that ecosystems are “forever changing and emerging” because people are intimately linked with their evolution. Instead of thinking of “new types of ecosystems,” Poole believes it’s more useful to look to the past given “nothing new has been happening.” Also, for older projects and ecosystems, “the data sets are so much better and richer.”

Looking to the past, Poole said the Emerald Necklace, Frederick Law Olmsted’s masterpiece park in Boston, was not an ecological restoration project but it did provide many critical ecosystem services. Before the creation of the Emerald Necklace, Boston was suffering from cholera outbreaks due to improper sewage treatment. Human waste was spilling out of the city’s combined sewage and water management systems and washing up on Boston’s shores. “The carrying capacity of the city’s water infrastructure was overwhelmed.”

Olmsted was tasked with creating a park that also doubled as green infrastructure. The park needed to help solve the city’s water management problems. However, Olmsted didn’t use the site to restore “anything.” There were no native plants. Given the salinity of the soils, “native plants wouldn’t have worked anyway.” In addition, the eventual underground water conduit system put in place bypassed the Back Bay Fens, which is why “the landscape works at all.” Poole said the system “was technically sophisticated but not a natural solution.” She added, “millions of people living tightly together in one urban area isn’t natural” so how could the infrastructure solution be “natural”? In these man-made urban environments, the systems are what matters.

Olmsted only planned for the water management, health, and aesthetic components of the Emerald Necklace. “He did look at soil formation but not at biodiversity.” Aesthetics was a primary focus, “perhaps it was the focus too much. There was no thinking about the trajectory of the ecology put in place there.” Nowadays, Poole added, landscape architects have to be “much more rigorous about initial goals and objectives” for ecological restoration.

When restoring a site now, Poole asks herself a number of questions:

  • How can we keep from degrading things further?
  • What ecological functions can I preserve?
  • What eco-types can I define?

In a project at the 2,600-acre Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in the Chesapeake Bay region, Poole is creating a new ecological system for the Mathias Lab building. The project, which the Smithsonian calls “the machine in the garden,” will integrate “experimental wetland pools” into the landscape. These pools will serve multiple functions — they will be test beds for Smithsonian researchers; serve as public education tools; recycle water; nourish nearby native plant meadows; and manage stormwater onsite. “This is a highly calibrated system because they need to be able to do experiments with it.” (As a practical tip for landscape architects working in an era of limited budgets, Poole added that “making your project part of the building means it will be harder to cut.”)

Poole argues that humans, as a species, are “selfish, ignorant, and oppressive” but not invasive. People are inherently a part of ecosystems – intrinsically “native.” As a result, there isn’t any “pristine” nature free of human influence. “People are running the show. We have to leave moralism aside.”

Having said that, Poole said she has “walked away from projects that wreck havoc on the environment.” Getting political, Pooled added that we can’t all be “Saint Al Gore, nor do I want to be, but we do have to ask scientists what to do before we try to restore an environment.”

Poole said in the future landscape architects and restoration ecologist must use “more robust adaptation strategies.” However, in the end, the decision to do this kind of work needs to be made by communities. “It’s a social problem.” What we really need is “brave people who can create new environments without moralism, with science, and with adaptation strategies.”

Image credit: The Emerald Necklace, Boston / Flickr

Restoration Ecologists Must Focus on New Challenges

During a talk at a Society of Ecological Restoration (SER) conference, Alex Felson, ASLA, an Assistant Professor at Yale University and practicing landscape architect, argued that demand for the skills of restoration ecologists is only going to increase as more governments focus on how best to adapt to urbanization and climate change. However, many restoration ecologists aren’t addressing these burgeoning challenges and are trapped in “traditional practices,” like getting degraded ecosystems to work again, which is “understandable” given they have “their hands full enough just with this work.” Furthermore, these ecologists are at a disadvantage because much of their work is research-intensive and “site-specific.” Still, restoration ecologists need to think more broadly and consider how restoration work can serve “science, climate adaptation, and the public good” if they are going to remain relevant and solve today’s pressing environment and social issues.

To serve the public well, restored urban landscapes must be both sanctuaries and public landscapes. However, Felson said there’s “no happy medium.” A restoration project can be a wildlife habitat (an oasis). It can feature bridges over the habitat to improve public access, which would raise infrastructure costs, or it can simply be an open access park, which may mean negative impacts on the restored environment. As an example of one balance that was reached, Felson discussed the recent Presidio Trust afforestation project, which involved creating a new seed bank and trying to strike a balance between ecological and recreation requirements. He also pointed to Michael Van Valkenburg Associates’ Brooklyn Bridge Park, which has both open parks and new constructed wetlands. However, he asked, “How functional is that system?”

Felson argued that restoration ecologists and landscape architects work with imperfect knowledge, but urban spaces provide a range of opportunities for “constructing nature.” The line between public space and restored habitat is blurring. Urban ecosystem functions can now be the focus. “We can rethink urban watersheds in terms of the function of the city.” In addition, all those current public landscapes serve as opportunities for “embedding restoration.”

Felson said artful representations of nature are needed to get people to care about a site’s natural qualities. However, this type of nature need not be conventional. Indeed, he made a plug for the “aesthetics of experimentation.” Parks can be a “collection of patches,” separate lots spread through a neighborhood. Parking lots can be “replicated wetlands.” A collage aesthetic can be used, like a prairie shifting over time. “In fact, the idea of an ecological system as a collage has influenced many artists over the years.”

With James Corner Field Operations, Felson experimented with creating a small prairie on the new section of the High Line Park in New York City. In a sort of urban experiment, Felson set fire to the prairie grasses in the same way farmers would do controlled burns on real prairies. Working with Ken Smith Workshop, Felson also created a design for East River planters in New York City, which would create a pier that also acted like a food chain, “a catalytic food web.” There are also opportunities for “experimentaiton” with climate change adaptation. In Connecticut, he’s working on a coastal resiliency project with The Nature Conservancy to “collaboratively develop restoration projects through adaptation.”

New York City is investing in ecological research in its Million Trees NYC program. As a director of the ecological research program, Felson is helping to incorporate cutting-edge ecological research into the largest urban forestry project in the U.S. He’s struggling with questions like: How can we set up ecological research in a public environment? He’s using plots or clusters set in the landscape to test the performance of a variety of tree and shrub combinations. The innovative NYC government views its million tree campaign as a way to test the impact of different types of replanted nature to see which has the best impact on biodiversity.

Still, when recreating nature in urban spaces, it’s not clear to Felson whether the “naturalist aesthetic” is the way to go. “Naturalist design lays out complexity; it looks like nature.” Playing devil’s advocate, he wondered whether these sites actually function like nature though?

Image credit: Presidio Forest / eWallpaper

How to Recreate a Waterbird Habitat

At a conference organized by the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER), Michael Erwin, a Research Professor and Wildlife Biologist at the University of Virginia, described how he’s leading the massive $450 million Poplar Island restoration project that is creating critical waterbird nesting grounds on islands in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay. Lost to erosion and rising water levels, the islands are being restored, even re-created, at great expense in order to save valuable species in a threatened ecosystem.

The Chesapeake Bay is in “dire straits,” says Erwin. Increased pollution has caused nitrogen levels to go through the roof. With climate change, islands are rapidly disappearing, which has had an impact on native species populations and diversity. On Watts Island alone, a 35 percent loss in island territory has resulted in a 65 percent species loss. Ducks are down 62 percent, laughing gulls down 72 percent.

To restore the waterbird population on the 1,550-acre Poplar Island, an island that was fast disappearing, Erwin said there were “hundreds of meetings” to determine the “suite of species” to be selected for repopulation. To create a safe location for the species, new granite rock walls were brought in on barges. These walls provide a solid frame for adding new soil, beach sands, and 550 acres of wetlands. “The goal is restore, but it’s as much a creation as restoration site. We are creating new wetlands.”

The U.S. government required that uncontaminated soils be brought to Poplar Island. This means materials couldn’t get shipped from excavated brownfield sites in Baltimore. He said it’s a good thing “$450 million will buy you a lot of new soil.” Heavy machinery-dredged sludge is now pumped into the site. The sludge, which he described as “chocolate mousse,” is cleaner yet easy for construction workers to get stuck in. New sand was also shipped in.

A wide range of tern species have returned, but monitoring showed that their numbers dipped in the past few years. This fall in the tern population was due to early invaders, foxes and owls, which threatened nesting grounds. Erwin said some foxes had been “disposed of,” but owls may be more challenging. “Which is worse – a fox or owl?,” he wondered. In addition, diamondback terrapins also like it there.

Restoration “takes a long time.” The project is expected to take some 10-20 years. Still, the bay’s residents remain fascinated and the project’s public education campaign has yielded successes: locals, bird watchers, and conservationists are flocking to the island to witness the ongoing restoration. It’s gotten to the point where the project had to buy a bus.

Learn more about how to take a tour.

Image credit: (1) Poplar Island restoration / University of Maryland, Center for Environmental Science, (2) Poplar Island tern / Trailpixie on Flickr

The Rise of Novel Ecosystems

Novel ecosystems are new combinations of species and result from the influence of people, said Marilyn Jordan, Senior Conservation Scientist, The Nature Conservancy at a conference organized by the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER). Starting in the 1700’s, classic “biomes” started to reflect human changes. Now, more than half of natural wilderness has been impacted by people, with just 22 percent of the original wild left relatively untouched. Within this new human-dominated globe, some 37 percent of all ecosystems are novel. These could be former agriculture sites or new forms of urban ecosystems. In terms of biodiversity, this has meant a shift from native to non-native. For land-use, this process has meant a shift from functional uses for nature to simply ornamental ones. Both these trends need to stop and be rolled back.

To ensure people can continue to use nature for common benefit and gain from nature’s many ecosystem services, genes found in nature’s diversity must be maintained. Genetic richness is also needed for climate change — future adaptations can’t happen without a wide gene pool. As Jordan put it bluntly, “you can’t evolve if you’re dead.” Conservationists, however, are still debating whether it’s important to “save the stage and lose the actors” or focus on the “place, which is more important than any species there.” Instead, Jordan thinks it’s about ecosystem stability and productivity. 

Ecosystems are fragile. She explained that an ecosystem is like a plane. “If you start taking parts of out of the plane, it may continue to fly, but eventually it will crash.” Ecosystems all have breakpoints. “We can remove species but when we hit a certain point, there’s a rapid decline.” For example, many insect species – even “generalists” – are able to eat only a few plant species. If the native plants they rely on are pushed out of the way by non-native invasives, the insect species die. Looked at another way: in its native range, one plant may support 170 species, but outside its normal range, only supports five species. In ecosystems where 90 percent is non-native, there is no functioning food web left. Jordan says “butterflies can’t be supported by non-native species.” In these instances where native habitat has been taken over by non-native invasives, “we may need thousands of years to return to previous levels of diversity.”

To prevent ecosystem change, restoration ecologists focus on “early detection and rapid response.” To manage inevitable change, they focus on “eradication, containment, exclusion, and suppression.” Managing involves creating refuges for native species and genotypes. In these instances, “we’ll have to accept novel ecosystems.” Still, Jordan argued for not giving up. “We can take an ecosystem-level approach” or a wide view of restoration. “Eventually, this means we’ll need to manage that complex matrix though.”

Residential homes are a central part of novel ecosystems and homeowners can take some positive action on their own in the near-term. She made a pitch to homeowners: shrink lawns, remove non-native plants in favor of native ones, and leave leaf litter, which is habitat for bugs. These steps are actually crucial because lawns now make up more habitat in the U.S. than native land. Furthermore, to make novel ecosystems more amenable to biodiversity, “we actually need to make it illegal to sell non-native invasives” in the residential landscape marketplace.

Image credit: Example of sustainable residential design with use of native plants. ASLA 2008 Residential Design Honor Award, San Juan Island Residence, San Juan Islands, Washington. Paul Broadhurst & Associates, Seattle, Washington