Programming the Moon’s Cycle

Tidal Radiance
, a new large-scale interactive sculpture by light artist and designer Leni Schwendinger, created for the new Port Pavilion on the pier along San Diego’s waterfront, is designed to be seen both by boaters on the water and strollers moving along the Embarcadero promenade. At night, this installation will be hard to miss given its lighting is programmed to follow the lunar cycle, while also changing for seasonal compositions, including whale watching and cruise season.

According to Schwendinger, during the moon cycle, the full moon phase emanates pale blues, while the new and quarter moon phases are represented by deep and medium blue hues (see image above). In addition, the lighting design moves beyond the sculpture to the base of the building: “Light projections onto the ground plane create an immersive environment–a visual and experiential installation to engage the public.”

The sculpture itself is purposefully a bit staid by day: the goal is to the set the stage for a dramatic nightime transformation. Schwendinger says: “I envisioned a monumental sea creature emerging from the shed at night.” 

The project uses light to explore change, both natural and programmed: “Whether animated patterns or a calendar of seasonal light sequences, one of my continuing challenges is to utilize the property of light to brighten, fade, and disappear – and to respond to controlled voltages through highly sophisticated computer programming. This element of controlled changeability – combined with color symbolism – allows me to create public art that not only pleases the eye but communicates and displays nuanced messages about the environment we live in.”

Indeed, Schwendinger, who has done major projects for the New York Port Authority, and is working on redesigning the lighting for a new pedestrian-friendly Times Square (see earlier post), has long used “controlled changeability” to powerful effect. Her work on the Coney Island Parachute Jump, “Brooklyn’s Eiffel Tower,” transformed a theme-park landmark into a shifting beacon of light, reflecting seasons, holidays, and, again, the moon’s cycle.

Read an interview with Schwendinger and check out her blog, which covers her “NightSeeing Lightwalks,” or guided evening tours of lighting, in various cities.

Image credits: Leni Schwendinger Light Projects

Documenting Beijing’s Real and Imagined Urban Landscape

Architect and artist Li Han from Atelier 11 | China documents China’s rapid urbanization in intricate, elegant renderings, part architectural drawing, part anime still. According to Alison Furuto at ArchDaily, Li presents the “spontaneous interaction between the urban environment and human activities.” The drawings not only document current conditions but also offer bold environmental visions for neighborhoods in China’s capital. 

Two of Beijing’s metro lines connect at Xi Zhi Men metro station (see image above). “The endlessness, crowdedness, and chaos shown in this one of the busiest spots in Beijing make the place a typical example of how people’s daily life and the urban space exert influence on each other.”  Here, Li isolates the busy transfer route within the station, visualizing the complex path.

In his drawing of Xi Ba He, which is described as a “a typical Beijing-style residential community built in the 1990s,” a neighborhood is transformed into an “environmental zoo,” a “paradise for animals and a city for human at the same time, without the fence between animals and human in the regular zoos.” Furuto says the drawing depicts a “beautiful fairytale,” but stories still matter: “As commented by architect Wang Xin, ‘(story) is always a long-term fulcrum for a city…is a invisible city structure…With stories, we will see life.'”

San Li Tun, the street where locals and expats meet in bars and restaurants and shop at high-end stores, is an example of a part of the city that has lost its “approachable and authentic Beijing-style atmosphere.” Now the area is a mix of local and global, a new kind of Beijing. Zooming in on building No.42 in South San Li Tun, Li sees a “6-floor apartment building constructed in 1980s and the apartments on the first and second floors are all transformed into bars, restaurants, DVD stores, tattoo stores, adult shops, and fashion boutiques.”

On the drawing itself, Furuto writes: “What this piece cares about is how the whole space is used and its atmosphere, and the interaction between the city and its inhabitants. The size recorded in the final piece may not be accurate, but the scale and atmosphere are very precise. A mechanical way for presentation – explosive axonometric projection – is used in this piece to depict the urban phenomenon.”

For 798, the art district in Beijing, Li and Atelier 11 created a drawing that shows not only the architecture but the roads, greenery, infrastructure, along with the “furniture, mechanical equipments, plantations, billboards, displays, and even tableware in the restaurants.” Li overwhelms with detail, but in doing so shows the “complexity and diversity” of the district, and perhaps all urban landscapes.

Read the article and see more of Li’s drawings.

Image credits: Li Han copyright / ArchDaily

The Rediscovery of Wonder

In a recent TED talk about taking imagination seriously, Janet Echelman, creator of billowing, voluptuous fabric installations the size of buildings, described the unexpected trajectory of her fascinating career. Echelman’s work has evolved from large-scale fishnet sculptures created from traditional craft methods to engineered installations designed with software and made from high-tech materials. This is an unlikely occupation for Echelman who did not train as an engineer, architect, or sculptor.

Fourteen years ago, Echelman was a painter traveling in India on a Fulbright. At that time, she had been pursuing painting independently after applying to and receiving rejections from seven art schools. She planned to exhibit a series of paintings in India but her paints never arrived. She tried to switch to bronze casting instead but found the process too expensive and the results too heavy. Unsure of how to proceed, Echelman took what became a fortuitous walk along the beach that took her career in a new direction.

While walking on the beach, Echelman noticed the local fisherman bundling their nets into mounds on the sand. Though she had passed by the same scene numerous times before, she suddenly saw it with fresh eyes as a potential new approach to sculpture, “a way to make volumetric form without heavy, solid materials.” She began collaborating with the fisherman, learning their techniques and creating her own variations, fashioning the fishnets into large sculptural pieces. She hoisted her first work, a self-portrait humorously titled “Wide Hips,” on poles to be photographed and found the result “mesmerizing”: “It revealed every ripple of wind in constantly changing patterns.”

Echelman continued studying craft traditions and collaborating with artisans. She began working with lacemakers in Lithuania, appreciating the result of the fine detail in her work but also came to realize that she wanted to make larger pieces. Rather than creating an object to look at, Echelman wanted to make something more experiential, “something you could get lost in.” She returned to India where she again worked with fisherman, this time to create a net of 1.5 million hand-tied knots. The sculpture was temporary installed in Madrid where one of the thousands of people who saw it was urbanist Manual de Sola-Morales, who at the time was redesigning the waterfront in Porto, Portugal. He asked Echelman to create a permanent installation in a traffic circle in Porto. Though Echelman had doubts that she could create something durable, engineered, and permanent that would express her work’s idiosyncratic, delicate, and ephemeral qualities, she nevertheless accepted the challenge.

The Porto installation took three years to complete. Echelman spent two years searching for a fiber that could survive ultraviolet rays, salt air, and pollution, and was soft enough to move fluidly in the wind but strong enough to survive a hurricane. In an effort to give the form a precise shape that would allow for gentle movement, she sought the help of Peter Heppel, an aeronautical engineer who designed sails for the America’s Cup Racing Yachts. Since a hand-tied net would not survive a hurricane, she also worked with an industrial fishnet factory where she learned how to create lace from their machines. Lastly, in order to support the net, she had a 45,000 pound steel ring erected in the traffic circle. When the 50,000 square foot lace net was finally installed, it gave Porto a sense of place, and though it was a permanent, engineered piece, Echelman felt her aesthetic was not lost in translation. Standing under the net, she said she felt sheltered but also connected to the limitless sky, and the moment was life altering. She decided she wanted to “create an oasis of sculptures in spaces of cities around the world.”

Echelman has gone on to create installations in several other cities, including one for the Biennial of the Americas in Denver, where she determined a new soft structural method that would enable her to model and build structures at the scale of skyscrapers. The Biennial committee commissioned Echelman to create something that would “represent the 35 nations of the Western Hemisphere and their interconnectedness.” Echelman had read about the earthquake in Chile and the tsunami that rippled across the entire Pacific Ocean. She was fascinated by the fact that the event shifted the earth’s tectonic plates, sped up the planet’s rotation, and shortened the length of the day. She obtained data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and translated it into a sculpture entitled 1.26 for the number of microseconds the day was shortened. Since the sculpture’s shape was too complex to support with a steel ring, Echelman replaced the metal infrastructure with a soft, fine mesh of fiber fifteen times stronger than steel. The result was a sculpture that was entirely soft and light enough to tie in into buildings, literally becoming part of the city fabric.

As a result of this piece, Echelman has decided that she wants to “create voluptuous, billowing forms at the scale of buildings” in cities around the world, especially in places she feels need them the most. She is also exploring new methods for other installations, including one for the Historic Philadelphia City Hall where she wants to create something lighter than netting to compliment the building’s architecture. Instead of working with lace, she has been experimenting with tiny atomized particles of water to create a dry mist that could be shaped by wind and that people could interact with and move through without getting wet. Using this capability, she wants to trace the paths of subway trains above ground in real time, revealing an “X-ray” of the city’s circulatory system.

In the meantime, Echelman says her artistic horizons continue to grow. Recently a friend called to tell her that an attorney in Phoenix who had never had an interest in art and had never visited the local art museum asked everyone in the office to go outside and lie under one of Echelman’s sculptures. They all lay out there together in their business suits sharing a feeling Echelman knows well, “the rediscovery of wonder.”

Explore Echelman’s work.

This guest post is by Shannon Leahy, ASLA 2011 Summer Intern

A Ray of Light in Utrecht

According to Landezine, Dutch landscape architecture firm Okra just completed a project that creates a line of light to elegantly highlight an archeological treasure at the heart of Utrecht, a city in the Netherlands. Utrecht is actually built on top of a castellum, a Roman fort once used as a watchtower or signal station. In this project, the castellum wall, which lies more than 12 feet underground, now becomes a new “reference point” in the street and square. 

Okra decided to intensify the ancient wall’s “dramatic potential” with a clearly “recognizable and mysterious dividing line.” The firm wanted the line to remain “silent,” just like the “quiet archaeological witness underground.”

At night, the ray of light only stops at the castellum gates. Okra also designed the project so “fragments of smoke” come out of the gutter’s metal plates, adding mystery to the light. It’s not clear what the smoke is or what system generates it. 

In addition, the light line is even more visible when it rains or mists.

Check out more photos.

Explore Landezine, a photography blog focused on global landscape architecture works. Also, delve into Vulgare, another photography blog that features a number of beautiful contemporary landscape projects in Europe.

Image credit: Okra / Landezine

Harnessing the Power of Social Media

In Yale University’s Environment 360, environmental journalist Caroline Fraser argues that social media, like many technologies, may alienate people from nature and be a major time-waster, but also has the capacity to connect scientists with the public and empower a “green army” to act on their behalf. This decentralized army of naturalist volunteers can do some useful grunt work by monitoring species, observing behavior, reporting the presence of invasives, and documenting changes in climate, populations, or plant life, all while learning about nature in the process. For scientists, interacting with the public via social media may be key to getting a “grasp on complex ecological change,” made even more complicated by climate change. For society as a whole, social media could, hopefully, also be used to get people to care about biodiversity again.

Fraser bemoans the current state of awareness on today’s environmental crises: “Last year, the spectacle of 80 million people flocking to the faux greenery of FarmVille, a social networking game on Facebook, held particular irony for environmentalists who have ritually bemoaned low levels of public interest in biodiversity. Every traditional method and media has been tapped to penetrate this elephantine indifference, from documentaries to dire predictions.” However, she also notes that the Web has made citizen science or “natural history” even easier to do for those who are already enthusiasts. New technologies also empower scientists. In this regard, new technologies may be a “force multiplier.” A few powerful examples of this force multiplier in action: Namibia’s government announced a new SMS hotline people can use to call in anonymous rhino poaching tips (Five fives for rhino). In an other example, the U.S. Smithsonian institution issued an “emergency call” on Facebook asking specialists to identify some 5,000 fish specimens collected from Guyana for export paperwork. “Within 24 hours, ichthyologists around the world supplied partial or complete answers for almost 90 percent.” 

There are a number of open source taxonomy and monitoring projects that try to harness social media. Project BudBurst from NEON/Chicago Botanic Garden enables users to share observations on plants first leaf, flower, and other phases. “Many offer training in species identification and invite the public to post targeted observations: the number of gray vs. fox squirrels (Project Squirrel), the appearance of buds in spring and other seasonal plant phases (Project BudBurst), the migratory behavior of Monarch butterflies (Monarch Watch) or hummingbirds (Operation Ruby Throat).”  Other Web projects seek to analyze the data collected from BioBlitzes (see earlier post).

Cornell professor Harry Greene, a snake specialist who increasingly connects with members of the public who e-mail him photos of local snakes, worked with one of his graduate students to create NatureWorm, a social media site designed to spark widespread interest in nature. One community site,, which was created by students at University of California, Berkeley’s School of Information, enables users to upload photos and discuss sightings of different species. A more commercial site, Project Noah, is an app developed by an entrepreneur and students at NYU and now has more than 100,000 users who have made more than 60,000 sightings. “Recent caches feature everything from the inevitable white-tailed deer and common garden flowers (‘rose,’ ‘lantana’) to images of a red-eyed tree frog, an Arctic fox, a Plains zebra rolling in dirt, a griffon vulture in flight, and mating common Indian toads.” Contributors to Noah earn “patches” and join “missions,” scientific projects. The National Geographic Society is getting in on this and investing in the project.

While some view these sites as the “amateurization of everything,” Project Noah’s founders believe these sites are “gateway drugs” into more “hardcore science.” Still, beyond the educational value, there is also some useful data being collected. For example, “Project BudBurst, sponsored by NEON, the National Ecological Observatory Network, has registered nearly 12,000 volunteer observers since 2007. Participants have uploaded tens of thousands of observations on their chosen plants’ first leaf, first flower, first pollen, and other phenological phases (lilac is among the most popular), yielding datasets that have allowed scientists to extend a 50-year botanical study of Cook County, Illinois. Comparing historical data with three years of BudBurst observations has revealed that, as temperatures rise, forsythia is blooming 24 days earlier, black locust 19 days earlier, and red maple 14.”

Online multiplayer environmental games may also have great influence, Fraser believes. The University of Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay Game, an “interactive computer simulation,” enablers users to see change over a 20 year window,  and allows teams to play the part of “oysterman, crabbers, dairy farmers, real-estate developers, and policy-makers, everyone with an impact on one of the world’s most endangered watersheds.” By role-playing, teams can learn about the tough trade-offs between economic development and environmental quality. Its 10,000 data points have proven to be so useful IBM has selected it for the World Community Grid program.

Other sites have extended the reach of mass environmental movements: Bill McKibben’s used its site to organize more than 5,000 events in 180 countries. Also, “Avaaz, the Web-based social justice movement, has inspired more than a million to sign a petition to protect bee populations by banning neonicotinoid pesticides in the U.S. and EU.” Unfortunately, Fraser says, none of these Web-driven social movements have made much real-life impact yet.

Read the article.

Also, it’s important to add that the Web and social media sites have also made collaboration between scientists easier and more open to the public. An important site in this regard was started by E.O. Wilson: The Encyclopedia of Life.

Image credit:

Interview with Neil Chambers, Author of Urban Green: Architecture for the Future

Neil B. Chambers, founder of Chambers Design, Inc. and Green Ground Zero, is an award-winning green designer with nearly 20 years of experience in the field of green building and infrastructure. He is the author of Urban Green: Architecture for the Future, and a contributing author to Treehugger. He is a national fellow with the Environmental Leadership Program, has taught at New York University and the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), and been featured in Architectural Record, Civil Engineering, BBC News, and The Economist.

In your new book, Urban Green: Architecture for the Future, you argue that the number of green building projects in the U.S. (4,000) is abysmally low. Even with an anticipated 30,000 projects in the pipeline, these green buildings are a drop in the bucket and won’t solve our core problems. A far more comprehensive approach is needed if we are going to reduce energy and water use, restore wildlife habitats, and develop sustainable cities over the long-term. What approach is missing and still needed?

We need to revolutionize the entire system of how buildings, real estate, infrastructure, and capital projects are approached, designed and implemented. The green buildings of today are a fair start but not anywhere near what needs to take place in the architecture, engineering, and construction world. We are basically still dealing with water, energy, and buildings the same way we were 150 years ago. I don’t want to come across as anti-green, because I’m not. But the current green building industry is only addressing a small percentage of the problems. In fact, dealing with climate change and energy efficiency is like polishing the silverware as the Titanic sinks. That may sound crazy to anyone within the green building movement.

But the truth is that climate change and many other issues would disappear if we adhered to the ecological principles that govern nature and ecosystems. In my book, I talk extensively about the power of old growth forests, estuaries, and prairies ability to sequester carbon, modulate temperature, manage stormwater, reduce flooding, and purify water better than any technology known to humans. I use specific projects that have re-established habitat and natural lands which provide incredible amounts of clean water, habitat, and better quality of life to people. Everyday there are new inventions that are promising to make our lives better – but if you look at ecological solutions, you’ll find that they outperform every cleantech idea currently in the market. Ecological solutions cost a fraction of what technological solutions cost, and need far less maintenance than the new green gadgets and gizmos being pushed as the great hope for our future.   

You are against electric cars, saying they won’t be great for the environment given they will run on electricity generated from coal, at least in the near term. However, you don’t discuss the fact that car transportation CO2 emissions are some 30 percent of the total. Also, cars create air pollution. On these fronts, isn’t the move to electric vehicles a plus?

Lots of people are in love with EVs, but these new cars are not the answer to any of problems we face. EVs will cause more pollution, more carbon emission and more environmental impact than they solve. This is because of a few factors: the growth of EVs is too dependent on other technologies also growing at the same rate or faster to offset any negative ramifications they may create. These tandem technologies include things such as smart grids, renewable energy production and battery technology. It is unrealistic, and quite frankly misleading, for EV advocates to say these will happen as recommended and hoped. For example, EV advocates expect renewable energy generation to grow fast enough to feed a growing fleet of electric cars in the United States green energy. However, the percentage of U.S. electricity produced by non-hydro renewable energy sources will increase from 4 percent in 2009 to 12.3 percent in 2030, according to the “Annual Energy Outlook 2010″ released by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration (EIA). That’s about half of what EVs will need to not use fossil fuels like coal. Moreover, under the current view of EVs, they will be using all of the renewable energy generated in the U.S., so there won’t be any left for buildings. The shortfall of green power will lead to an increase in coal production, which would mean more emissions, particulates, toxins, and pollution. Though oil is dirt, unit to unit, oil emits less carbon. Also, EVs don’t resolve any of the fragmentation problems caused by massive highway infrastructure. So I think it’s a huge waste of time and money to create an alternative to the combustion engine that doesn’t make our lives better, reduce our environmental impact, and improve climate change.

Instead of big renewable energy plants, you call for a decentralized approach to energy production within buildings. What is the benefit of large-scale use of on-site solar panels over big power plants? Also, while you note the possible environmental damage of other renewable energy approaches, you don’t discuss the fact that solar panels require mining elements and the use of chemicals. What are the possible negative environmental impacts of widespread use of solar? Are there more environmentally-sound ways to produce panels for use in buildings?

Decentralized power production is a much more democratic way of generating and distributing energy. Also, building integrated photovoltaic panels (BIPV) don’t take up additional space that large-scale arrays do. For me, it seems counter-productive to build these huge solar energy plants in the middle of nowhere when you can produce the same amount of energy within and on top of buildings where people are. I think one of the unseen benefits for BIPV for houses n this economy is that a PV array would increase the value of your home. Many of the large-scale solar farms that are proposed are sited in wilderness that is extremely fragile. This is the same mentality about energy production as that of coal and petroleum. As the dialogue of sustainability disregards the health of natural lands for the good of society, the movement has broken down and become dysfunctional. I feel the same way about advocates for nuclear power based solely on the fact that these facilities don’t emit carbon during energy production…and they call it clean. However every step in the process before and after the energy is created is highly dangerous and toxic to all living things. 

You do point out that solar panels just like every other type of energy generation device will cause environmental damage – it’s part of the problem with how we conceive of energy from the very beginning. All of the electricity we use is artificially created, meaning it’s not naturally formed electricity such as that from lightning. If we want to really look at how to deal with the energy issue in our society, we should first look to nature and ask the question, “Why aren’t other species using power?” I really think that should be the basis of how we resolve the huge problems with energy production, consumption and conservation. On-site energy production is not that far fetched. Most homes and buildings have their own boilers and cooling systems. This hasn’t always been the case.

In places like NYC, there are large steam networks for heating buildings. Solar panels aren’t the best energy producers out there so I don’t usually advocate for them too much. I really like them but it’s hard to show return of investment without government incentives. I really see hydrogen fuel cells as the future for on-site energy. Everyday, more buildings and homes are disconnecting from the grid because they have hooked up to a fuel cell. There are communities throughout the world that run completely on hydrogen now. The costs of residential size fuel cells are falling too.

You state: “While architects and city planners are the one who design our megalopolises, only conservation biologists are looking at issues of ecological and land management at that scale.” This is false on a few fronts: Landscape architects have long played a central role in integrating nature into cities and, since Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of NYC’s Central Park, have been focused on expanding the amount of green space available in urban areas to maximize public health. You seem to omit landscape architects from your discussion. Why leave out a whole professional field?

When I say architects, I’m including landscape architects. I agree that many designers have contributed to the state of cities and regions around the world. You mention Frederick Law Olmsted and Central Park (a park that is dear to my heart having lived in NYC for more than a decade). Central Park and other urban parks serve as respite from the density and crowdedness of cities. Central Park has recorded nearly 200 different kinds of bird species within it. But it’s not a habitat – at least not in the sense that I layout in Urban Green. Conservation biologists point to specific criteria for what habitat is. For example, wilderness should be able to sustain a large population of megafuana while also contributing to continental conservation strategies of interlinking wild lands together to function as a true ecological system. Many design professionals call their work ecological – in a simpler way as your question suggests. But green buildings and the majority of park spaces, greenscapes, and landscape architecture have not made the jump to a backdrop for total conservation biology. People like Josh Donlan, Illka Hanski, Viviana Ruiz, Reed Noss, Dave Foreman, and Michael Soule are envisioning a world that uses biology to paint a picture for restoring habitat at grand scales – both in size and content. Noss has worked with developers in the past to rethink real estate development in Florida to maintain panther populations. Other conservation biologists have re-examined highway design so that less species are killed by cars. The problem for designers, and I would say landscape architects the most, is that the scope of a project as well as the education and training they receive fight against the level of implementation needed to marry conservation biology with architecture and city design…that is the continental scale. 

I would also say that landscape architecture should be leading the charge for change within building design and construction. You are right to suggest that landscape architects have many of the pieces to really shift the paradigm, but in my experience, landscape architects are so often too dependent on civil engineers and typically never takes a lead role in projects. There are some landscape architects who are the exception, but in general landscape architects are not running projects when a site is dominated by building. I wish landscape architecture and architecture were the same thing…we shouldn’t have them separated. Nor should conservation biologists and ecologists be separated from architecture. Until the entire design professions reinvent themselves to discard methods and mentalities that pre-date our discovery of evolution and understanding of ecosystems, we will, most likely, continue to build buildings and design parks that are no more aligned with biodiversity than, say, a parking lot.   

Caroline Fraser, who writes on conservation for The New Yorker, thinks beavers are the “original landscape architects” given the way they manipulate and redesign the environment, but ultimately provide valuable ecosystem services. In your book, you say more community developers actually need to think like beavers, who may seem to wreck environmental havoc in the near term, but are sustainable in the long-run because they move to new locations when they run out of trees to use to build dams. What lessons can we take from the beaver’s approach?

I love beavers and the lessons they can teach us about ourselves. First, they let us know we are not as unique as we would like to believe – meaning, we are not the only species on this planet that is unsustainable. I realized that as I wrote Urban Green. I had the great fortune of speaking with Dr. Clive G. Jones, Terrestrial Ecologist, Senior Scientist at Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies. He pointed out that beavers are incredibly destructive – potentially as destructive as human civilization, except that the way they build things differs from us in three major ways:

1. Their structures are not built to last forever. In my book, I have images of a beaver dam that had to be removed using dynamite. It was that strong! But in general, their lodges and dams will degrade fairly quickly once they leave the area to settle in another place. Our dams like the Hoover Dam would take thousands of years to fall apart if people just suddenly disappeared or stopped managing it.

2. Though they have a large environmental footprint within a forest, they do not take over the entire ecosystem. The resulting beaver ponds will not flood the entire forest nor are they able to eat their way through all of the trees in the forest. This is a critical difference between human development and beaver development. It says that we would be much more intertwined in the natural world, if we built cities, parks, buildings and other things in a way limited in its domination of the natural lands it is within. 

3. The third thing we can learn from beavers is that disruption doesn’t have to equal fragmentation. This is the biggest sin of human development. We build things in a way that cuts off valid pathways for species, and we demolish large chucks of land while also putting under control other parts of the land – the end result is that ancient corridors to feeding, hunting, and mating grounds are completely separated from other areas that would provide water and protection. Beavers definitely build things and cause a disruption – they can flood acres and acres of a forest, they reorient the natural hydrology and have even been shown to cause certain riverbank species to become locally extinct. But the difference is that we don’t create a condition where other animals can’t thrive. For example, though their ponds are a big change to the habitat, they create hunting areas along their edge for fox and raccoon to find food. Birds of prey can hunt fish within the ponds. Moose find saplings along the shores of the beaver’s artificial lake while many other species thrive in the changed environment. The flooding of the forest floor also sets up a good opportunity for enriched soils, because all of the sediment trapped behind the beaver dam will settle and be ideal for new growth once the beavers leave and the water slowly drains.

I think one of the greatest lessons we can learn from beavers is that complex structures and extensive influence on ecosystems can co-exist with living in harmony with nature. In essence, only a few principles within society must change, and not society as a whole.

In your vision of ecological urbanism, you argue that nature can serve as a guide to the design of the built environment using a “ecomimicry approach.” Ecosystems could serve as the “foundation of design.” Ecologically-sound networks of green roofs, eco-corridors, and parks can serve as a foundation that enables co-habiting with nature. However, you also say: “Perhaps the next generation of green roofs will be designed not by architects but by urban designers and planners in partnership with ecologists and conservation biologists. Or maybe there will be no designer at all, and biologists will design the essential parts of our future cities.” Why leave landscape architects out of this mix considering they have long served as an intermediary between architects and biologists and have professional training in ecology and plant biology?

I wasn’t my intention to leave landscape architects out of the mix. Landscape architects should take a leadership role in redesigning the way we design our cities and buildings. I think that landscape architecture should begin to incorporate into their training all of the fundamentals of architecture, engineering, planning, energy, ecology and biodiversity. One of the points I make in Urban Green is that we should become keystone species – and I think that landscape architects have a leg-up on other design professionals such as architects or mechanical and electrical engineers. But for us to really reverse the problems we see throughout the natural world, design projects will need to interconnect with larger topics such as ecological history, biogeography, and meta-populations to insure a much more robust and spirited transformation of our current civilization. When every designer, be it landscape architect or engineer or city planner, is using biogeography – vast wilderness and species reintroduction – as guiding principles of designing the many parts of our society, we will see less and less problems like energy storage, water pollution, climate change, and resource depletion.

Lastly, you argue that people can learn from nature and become a “keystone species.” What are some positive examples of how people are acting like keystone species? What are the models that need to be scaled up?

A project I’ve been involved with is restoring oysters to an area in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, to help improve the water quality of the area. Others are also taking this approach to restore shorelines, stabilize tourism, and maintain real estate values. The side effect of using oysters instead of filtration facilities is that you also create nodes for biodiversity for game fish, crab and shrimp. Oysters are also being found to improve the air quality. Such projects are happening throughout the Gulf of Mexico and from Florida to Rhode Island. These are examples of design doing more with ecology instead of always depending on technology. With many of these projects, people aren’t yet the keystone species, but they are beginning to function in the same way beavers do within a forest. You might call these people ecosystem architects. Right now, these oyster restoration projects are not interconnected, and are only locally beneficial. Several challenges face scaling up these efforts to have national and international benefits. For example, some states do not allow oyster restoration projects to be established within estuaries and tidal basins. Of those that are lawfully installed, they have to continue to cultivate new spat to introduce to the colonies because a meta-population of oysters does not exist within the Atlantic seaboard. 

In Urban Green, I also point to the Florida Everglades Restoration Project as a viable example of how people can de-engineer an area to improve the ecological functionality of an ecosystem. The efforts in the Everglades has shown that less engineering is actually better than more…and that ecology serves cities and people better than technology. Likewise, the biggest challenge is to see the Everglades as the tip of the iceberg for a much more encompassing plan to save nature and society because what starts in the swamps of southern Florida should continue up into the evergreen forests of Maine and then across Canada to British Columbia and then back down to Mexico City. This is the size we need to begin to think in as we talk about green buildings and landscapes. This is how we will become keystone species.

Interview conducted by Jared Green.

Image credits: (1) Urban Green / Palgrave|MacMillan, (2) Suburban California highways. Image credit: Conversions XXIII, 2008. Christoper Gielen, (3) Building fuel cell education project. UTC Power / Image credit: Connecticut Science Center, (4) Beaver dam before and after. Image credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, (5) Everglades Restored. Image credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Against Local Community, Trump Protests Offshore Wind Farm

new $2 billion set of golf courses being built by Donald Trump on 500 acres in Aberdeenshire, Scotland is set to open in 2012, despite the protests of local conservationists and environmental groups that the courses will wreck environmental havoc in a “site of special scientific interest” not to mention an example of pristine North sea coast landscape. Now, Trump is threatening action against a new offshore wind farm planned for 1.5 miles off the coast of the two 18-hole courses. According to The Guardian (UK), Trump has said he will use “any legal means” to block the offshore sustainable energy development.

Marine Scotland is considering the nearly $400 million program put together by the European Offshore Wind Deployment Centre (EOWDC), which will use the latest generation of windfarm technology. Already, the energy facility’s scale has been cut back to a maximum of 11 turbines after safety concerns were raised by shipping groups. Trump’s concern isn’t about safety though, but about sight lines from his courses: The 195-metre tall turbines will interfere with views. George Sorial, managing director of the Trump Organisation, told The Guardian: “We are here to stay and I don’t think it’s a good idea to interfere with our investment. We are not going to support a project that compromises what we have done. We will use any legal means in our jurisdiction.”

The Guardian, however, seems skeptical that Trump can succeed in blocking the new project, largely because the windfarm is backed by regional and local governments. The European Commission and Scottish government see this project as a critical pilot, part of a series of “test centers” used to help the UK reach a goal of 7,000 offshore wind turbines, which may actually be possible given the country is currently the world’s leader in offshore wind. Local supporters of the renewable energy project, such as the Aberdeen Renewable Energy Group and Robert Gordon University, are backers of Trump’s golf course, and may help influence his views. In any case, it’s not clear how his objections could stop the project. What is more important is that there is a local debate on the project and all voices are heard on whether to move forward.

Read the article. Learn more about the global environmental impact of golf courses. Read about industry and Audubon International (not National Audubon Society) and USGA programs to improve the sustainability of courses by building in wildlife sanctuary zones, lowering water usage, eliminating chemical use, or even reusing and including brownfields. Scottish industry groups are also focusing on the issues.

Also, understand the complexity around offshore wind farms. In many sites of natural beauty, offshore windfarms are less than unanimously popular. Cape Wind: Money, Celebrity, Class, Politics, and the Battle for Our Energy Future tells the story of the 10 year battle in Cape Cod between liberal and conservative, environmental and energy, and local Indian tribe interests, along with intense public debate on the pluses and minuses of adding 130 wind turbines in the middle of Nantucket Sound. Only last year did the federal government agree to move forward with the project. Now, there are at least 12 offshore wind projects along the east coast, meaning the U.S. is slowly catching up with Europe and China. 

Image credit: Site of Trump Golf course, Aberdeenshire, Scotland /

The Future is Here: Sherbourne Common

From here on, all major urban parks need to be like Sherbourne Common in Toronto, which not only provides a remarkable public space but also doubles as water treatment infrastructure. In a marvel of thoughtful design and engineering, the new 3.6-acre, $30 million park commissioned by Waterfront Toronto and designed by a team led by landscape architecture firm Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg uses ultraviolet light to clean polluted water coming in from Lake Ontario. Given not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) obstacles in cities are only expected to persist in the near term, these types of hybrid park-infrastructure projects make great sense, particularly given few communities can afford to build expensive, single-use “dumb” infrastructure. Many communities may jump at the chance for a beautiful park that does so much more. IMBY please? 

Lisa Rochon from The Globe and Mail argues that the park also represents a major change in how societies integrate natural systems into cities: “Nature no longer exists. New nature is what we cultivate in our cities. Today, the urban farmers are planners, landscape architects and clean-tech innovators who plot to remediate the toxins left behind by the city’s industrialists. Historically, parks have been designed as picturesque snapshots – psychological escapes from urbanity. ”

In addition to zones that span from Lake Shore Boulevard to Queens Quay, and to the edge of Lake Ontario, there’s a complex water treatment system that is central to the park design: “Water cleaned with UV light shimmers as it flows down chain-mail screens – held by curved nine-metre-high concrete arms – into raised pools that extend generously to Queens Quay. From there, the water gushes south into long troughs densely planted with native grasses selected for their ability to help clean water through bio-remediation. It then flows across the street toward Lake Ontario, nudging pedestrians to one side, before bursting above ground in spikes erupting from the splash pad.” During winter, that “splash pad” will turn into a skating rink framed by “fantastically frozen fountains.”

The Globe and Mail
explains that the core functionality of the sewage-treatment facility is hidden from view though. Underneath the public bathrooms, there’s “a series of disinfecting machines that use ultraviolet light – not the chlorine of yesteryear – to clean water from the lake and the run-off of surrounding roads, highways and buildings. In North America, where dirty water tainted with E. coli bacteria can be found flowing like nasty rivers into our lakes, this cleaning process is a rare phenomenon.”

As for the park itself, the review is positive: “the tectonic detailing is superb: in the chic ipe wood and back-lit acrylic benches; in the custom recessed lighting on the ground; in the park pavilion’s panels custom cut to fit custom curves.” (Unfortunately, though, there’s more of that unsustainable ipe hardwood [see earlier post]). 

Light artist Jill Anholt’s use of light to create an “eerie blue aura” helps create the sense that advanced technologies are at work, but when visitors pass by a set of “watery veils,” motion detectors briefly turn the lights green. 

In total, the park is “like a chess set. It takes some time, and contemplation, before its rewards pay off (and more expository signage would be useful to reveal the underground masterworks invisible to the eye). Still, no matter the pummelling the city is getting these days by its own mayor, citizen expectation for invigorating, intelligent public parks will be aroused by the Common.”

Overall, the city spent $27 million Canadian to not only transform an “underused land” in the city, but also create a public asset that will provide a great return on investment through “enhanced tourism for Toronto, “invigorated neighborhood communities,” and a “rebranding of the city as a place with an intelligent future.” Along with the city’s parks department, Waterfront Toronto, the innovative public program to transform the way the city connects with its waterfront and revitalize the city in the process, played a major role in ensuring “what might have been another pretty park has become a subtle intertwining of public art, architecture, landscape and sustainable infrastructure.” Their imaginative, award-winning landscape architecture plans and projects, including the new Spadina Wavedeck and HtO park, and upcoming underpass park, have already helped set the model for what a city can do. More projects are underway: a total of 800 hectares are targeted for redevelopment over 25 years.

Public artist Jill Anholt created the “blue light monuments” and Toronto architect Stephen Teeple created the pavilions. Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg also brought in the Municipal Infrastructure Group Ltd. for the stormwater management systems, and Trojan Technologies for the ultraviolet water disinfection system.

Learn more about this park, and see more photos and videos.

Also, check out the final designs of the upcoming Oregon Sustainability Center, which will achieve net-zero energy and water use.

Image credits: Watefront Toronto

New Forms of Public Space: Parkmobiles

With the exception of maybe New York and Philadelphia, San Francisco may be the most innovative city in the U.S. when it comes to creating new forms of public space. In contrast with those east coast cities, though, San Francisco is also remodelling its public space at very low cost, with lots of support from its local business community. Its parklet models, which took shape with the help of local community groups and businesses, are already proving so successful it’s possible other cities will be copying them soon (see earlier post). One new element in its low-cost, yet effective pop-up park repertoire: the parkmobile, which John King at The San Francisco Chronicle defines as “portable landscapes.”  

King say the parkmobiles at $6,000 each represent the city’s “most ambitious effort yet to improve the large, urban landscape in small, fluid ways.” Found in red steel bins 6 feet wide by 16 feet long, which kind of look like painted dumpsters, these parkmobiles are “intended as a shot of mobile nature offering passers-by visual relief from asphalt and concrete.” In the first project, six parkmobiles will be set around Yerba Buena Gardens, each with its own “horticultural theme.” CMG Landscape Architecture, the firm behind the new Mint Plaza, which won an E.P.A. Smart Growth award this year (see earlier post), designed the installations. Calder Gillin at CMG told King: “We want each one to be showy and eye-catching, but also easy to maintain.” 

The dumpster park idea came out of an eight-month planning process led by the local benefit district, which is financed by nearby property owners, and included neighborhood residents and businesses and CMG acting as the design team. The result: a 10-year blueprint that is meant to serve as a “a vision and road map for a next generation of public space in the Yerba Buena District.” The new plan also calls for a new dog run, widening some sidewalks, and creating new “shared streets” where pedestrians can more easily walk during business hours, among other projects. King worries about some aspects of the overall urban revitalization plan and also notes that the neighborhood, one of the nicest in the city, is already doing pretty well in comparison with some other areas that could use some investment.

King reports that the parkmobiles will stay in a space for a few weeks or months and then be moved to another spot. The space inside the parkmobile will be “off-limits” but there will be benches so people can sit and look at the greenery. Two set on Mission Street featured different plantings: One includes arbutus trees and cotoneaster shrubs, while the other has Tasmanian tree ferns. Some are parked in tow-away zones so can’t stay for very long. “The hope is that the bucolic bins will draw people onto blocks that otherwise get little foot traffic – and that the design and vegetation will survive the moves and the crowds.” Gillen also added that the plants were chosen for their ability to survive in the urban jungle.

Image credit: Parkmobile / Michelle Terris. The San Francisco Chronicle

Student Design Competition: Parks for the People

Parks for the People, a student design competition organized by the U.S. Park Service, Van Alen Institute, National Parks Conservation Association, and financed by the National Endowment for the Arts and Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, aims to “reimagine America’s most spectacular public places — its national parks — by using design as a catalyst to creatively rethink their connections to people and their role as revered natural, social, and cultural destinations.” Parks for the People wants landscape architecture, architecture, ecology, planning, urban design, and social science students and professors to create a “common foundation of design principles” for seven selected sites in different regions across the U.S. so the U.S. National Park Service can move forward with a new toolkit for park design.

In describing the rationale for the competition, the organizers write: “In this new century, America’s national parks are facing unprecedented challenges: shifting demographics, climate change, rapidly changing communications technologies, new transportation prototypes, and economic constraints are but a few of the urgent issues confronting today’s national park designers, planners, and managers.” However, expanding public interest in parks also presents a great opportunity: “How we plan and design our national parks in response to these changing imperatives will have an enormous impact on how successful we are at creating welcoming, meaningful, healthy, and enduring places that last well into the future.”

The competition process will also give students and professors practical experience working with park administrators, and “engage with the Park Service and its rich cultural and historic assets, including access to park leadership, in-depth encounters with park sites, and the chance to build long-term relationships with park staff and resources.”

The organizers want students to answer some bold questions and come up with some big ideas about park design:

  • “How can design enhance the park experience?
  • How can parks become more accessible?
  • What is “preservation” and how can it evolve?
  • What new ventures or partnerships could help connect parks to people?
  • What is “sustainability” and what is its future role?
  • What part can technology play in parks?”

Some design principles, established during a 2008 Designing the Parks conference, are already in place, and may serve as a reference for the new design concepts:

“1. Reverence for place
2. Engagement of all people
3. Expansion beyond traditional boundaries
4. Advancement of sustainability
5. Informed decision-making
6. An integrated research, planning, design, and review process.” 
Any American university can send in a stage 1 proposals due by November 1. Seven studios will then be selected by a high-profile jury, which includes a number of leading landscape architects, to move forward to stage 2. By May, 2012, all final submissions are needed. Winners will be announced on June 1, 2012. While there are no big cash prizes, the organizers say winners will get paid summer internships within parks, be featured in an online exhibition, receive significant media coverage, and get to showcase their designs for park leadership.

Learn more about the competition.

Image credit: (1) Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site / Randy F. Panaramio, (2) Civil War Defenses of Washington / National Park Service