Using Nature to Reinvent Cities

Dan Kaplan, who runs the urban design practice for FXFOWLE, argued for integrating innovative green designs into buildings and streets at a session at the National Building Museum. To reinvent cities, planners, landscape architects, and architects can create “regenerative places” that provide multiple benefits.

The two major U.S. development models – Orange County, California, and New York City – present two extremes. In terms of carbon dioxide emissions, the Orange County model is highly polluting: each single family home spews 44,000 lbs of CO2 and each car adds another 20,000 lbs of C02 into the atmosphere every year. In comparison, the average New Yorkers’ home adds 17,000 lbs into the atmosphere and riding the subway every day just adds 7 lbs of C02 annually. 

The debate over how to live has gone on for many years, Kaplan said. Ebenezer Howard came up with the concept of the Garden City, and created his “three magnets” diagram that outlined the forces shaping peoples’ demand for living spaces. Kaplan said a key question asked by Howard was: “Where will people go?” In the end, “they will live somewhere they find attractive,” and Howard’s hybrid “town-country” model became the most desirable, attractive model.

However, Kaplan believes that while this town-country model, otherwise known as suburbia, has ruled as a development pattern, it may be fading as the de-facto model. “People thought suburbia would be the best of both worlds – nature and the city. In reality, it may be the worst of both worlds.” To create a more “naturalized” version of the city, urban policymakers and designers need to “integrate an expansion of nature within the city.” While this vision competes with the many other urban design ideas out there, and also overlaps with some existing theories (ecological urbanism, landscape urbanism), Kaplan says his ideas focuses explicitly on the “regenerative effects” of nature.

For example, FXFOWLE is working on a new 180,000 square foot palliative care center for the HealthCare Chaplaincy, a non-profit health organization, along the East River  in Manhattan (see image above). The building will curve or “butterfly out” so patients in the 108-room assisted living facility, who are all facing fatal illnesses, can get views of the river. The LEED Platinum building’s exterior is sheathed in a combination of vegetated and passive cooling ledges, and solar panels. The vegetation cleans the air circulating up from F.D.R. expressway and provides the structure of the facade. “The landscape architects we worked with basically made the walls out of planting material.” Kaplan said the building, which uses half the energy of a standard building of its size, proves that “vegetative facades” will become the norm. “Integrating nature into a vertical building is an up and coming approach.” In addition, for patients, “this will be the last room they have on earth.” The idea is that nature should be used to enhance their wellbeing as much as possible.

At a larger scale, FXFOWLE is partnering with landscape architecture firm Starr Whitehouse to reconfigure Water Street in downtown Manhattan so it better integrates nature and offers a more people-friendly environment. “The current street level is an absymal place.” There are 8 acres of privately owned public space separated into 20 underused plazas along Water Street running from Battery Park to Fulton Street, but “they are diffuse, not well-designed.” Redistributing the public space, creating a new boulevard, strengthening the connection to the water, and redesiging the public ground floor spaces to enhance street life will help turn Water Street into a sustainable, regenerative urban space.

Right now, Water Street has “too much street.” It’s 60 feet wide. Much of that space will be taken up by new street trees, bike lanes, and wider sidewalks with benches and amenities. The entire project, which is being financed by NYC Planning Department streetscape improvement funds and the private storefront owners, is expected to cost just $7-9 million. Also, Wall Street, which now ends up at the river as a sort of “service exit” will become a “hybrid street” and public space with water features and a farmer’s market. To deal with all the blank, negative facades, Kaplan said FXFOWLE and Starr Whitehouse will encourage storefront owners to create “art, display, or green walls” where they can’t convince owners to create new stores, coffee shops, or other storefront space. In addition, lighting will be a focus, with the “canopy of trees lit at night.”

To conclude, Kaplan quoted William Whyte who said “we design human ecosystems whether we acknowledge this or not.” Given that, it’s “best to design these ecosystems intentionally.” Agreed, but perhaps in the future, New York City will also direct some of their streetscape funds towards outer-borough, lower-income neighborhoods with abysmal street corridors.

Image credits: (1) HealthCare Chaplaincy / FXFOWLE, (2) Howard’s Three Magnets / Tomorrow’s Garden City, (3) Water Street Redesign / Starr Whitehouse and FXFOWLE, (4) Wall Street redesign / Starr Whitehouse and FXFOWLE

4 thoughts on “Using Nature to Reinvent Cities

  1. Travis Longcore 05/25/2011 / 11:32 am

    As an ecologist, I’ve worked on ways to integrate nature into cities since the mid-1990s, so designs such as these are welcome and appreciated. I would note, however, that lighting the canopy of trees is, frankly, a bad thing. Both humans and wildlife area adversely affected by light pollution (e.g., birds sing at the wrong time of day, people have higher rates of certain cancers; the list is extensive). Especially in the city, landscape architects should be using lighting that respects the night as an integral and essential part of nature that both humans and other species need. Lighting designs can accomplish objectives and minimize the collateral impacts on other species if approached with some thought and background knowledge.

    • Josh 06/05/2011 / 8:39 am

      How do you feel about LEDs? From what I understand, they do not attract bugs. I think a subtle “moonlight” approach using LEDs can take care of public safety at night without causing light pollution.

  2. Paula Zimmerman 05/26/2011 / 11:04 am

    So glad you quoted William White; he is the master of eco-environment planning. The business district downtown NYC has so much potential, City Hall Park could be an example for other green spaces down there. It is a shame that after 9/11, they are constructing only more behemoths down there.

  3. Elizabeth Westling 05/30/2011 / 8:25 am

    Thank you for the interesting and informative article. I would recommend a reading of Christopher Alexander’s, A Pattern Language. It’s an old book but it has lots of detail precisely on point.

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