Penn Park: A Coherent Public Space Forms Out of a Mess of Infrastructure

Penn Park, a new $46-million 24-acre park designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA) on the eastern edge of the University of Pennsylvania campus, manages to create a coherent space out of a mess of transportation infrastructure. The main goal of the park, which used to be a giant parking lot for mail trucks, is to provide a mix of park and sports facilities for the university. In addition to play fields for the public, Penn Park expands UPenn’s athletic facilities, creating two new multi-purpose turf fields, a softball field, a natural grass hockey field, twelve tennis courts, along with a press box, concession stand, restrooms, and spectator stands. There are now two acres of open space and more than 530 newly planted native trees. Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, told us: “The University of Pennsylvania showed great foresight in recognizing the potential of this challenging post-industrial site. The combination of programs—athletic fields and leisure space all mixed together—is a potential model for other urban universities that are running out of space.”

Designed and built in just 18 months, the park features a set of “large sculptural landforms” that organize the site, enable pedestrian circulation, and connect the park to the campus and Philadelphia. Indeed, a lot of connectivity design work was needed: Tom Stoelker at The Architect’s Newspaper writes that the space is “between a fully functioning high-speed rail corridor, a commuter train line, a freeway, freight tracks, and two major downtown arteries.”

In addition to responding to the infrastructural challenges, MVVA also had to address the 30-foot grade change between the park and street. To accomplish the design goals, the land formations, which were engineered by Arup, “swoop up toward two bridges.” The “connections form a giant arc that gently flows down into the park and back up to street level.”

MVVA writes that the landforms serve multiple functions: “Inside the spaces created by their curvilinear form, the landforms articulate the boundaries between the different sports fields. Mediating between the higher elevations of the surrounding context and the low lying topography of the park, the landforms provide the transitions that will make pedestrian access to the site effortless. Along their top ridges, the landforms will provide a pedestrian experience that is completely independent of the athletic program below, affording the visitor a memorable promenade with long views into the park and the city beyond. On their sides, the landforms will accommodate spaces for sitting and planting. Interspersed between the fields and landforms are smaller park spaces, planted loosely with canopy trees, for passive recreation and relaxation.” 

Martin Roura, project manager at MVVA, told The Architect’s Newspaper that because the site sits on a flood plane and is composed of soft material, more than 2,000 25-to-50 foot pilings were put in to support the landforms and bridges running across the site. On top of the pilings are 45,000 cubic yards of soil trucked in to create berms and the four feet layer of planting soil. Also, $12 million in underground work included cisterns with the capacity to store 300,000 gallons of stormwater runoff.  

Amy Gutmann, Penn’s president told Jennifer Lin at The Philadelphia Inquirer: “It’s the first time that, by design, we’ve set aside open space for the use of the Penn community and beyond. It’s an open, accessible, green, people-friendly connection between Center City and West Philadelphia.”

The park was entirely financed by university funds and donations. Penn security will patrol and the park will be open to the public from 6am to midnight.

Learn more about the park and see more images.

Also, to explore other innovative ideas for urban redevelopment, see an interview in Places with Chris Reed, ASLA, Stoss Landscape Urbanism and Adjunct Associate Professor at Harvard Graduate School of Design, who discusses his firm’s recent design proposals and projects.

Image credits: (1) MVVA, (2-4) Tom Stoelker / The Architect’s Newspaper

Should SITES Offer a Professional Credential? Take a Survey

There may be a new green professional credential for design and construction professionals on the horizon. The Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES™) has launched a survey to gauge market demand for a new SITES credential and project certification. In one possible future scenario, credentialed professionals would use a “SITES AP” or something similar after their names.

SITES – a partnership between the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower at the University of Texas at Austin and the U.S. Botanic Garden – created a new rating system for sustainable land design, construction and maintenance in 2009. Now, SITES is working with the Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI), which manages the certification and credentialing programs for the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating Systems™.

The survey consists of approximately 70 questions and will take around a half an hour to complete. While the survey is on the long side, it will help the SITES and GBCI teams understand the potential market for a new credential and project certification. The survey is open until Wednesday, November 2, and respondents are eligible to win a $100 Amazon gift card. Any questions about the survey should be direct to Will Terrill with the subject “SITES Survey” at

Take the survey.

Image credit: SITES

ASLA Releases More than 475 Green Infrastructure Case Studies

The Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.) recently started a national rulemaking process, with the goal of creating a new, comprehensive program to reduce stormwater runoff. The E.P.A. announced that during this rulemaking it will evaluate green infrastructure design techniques that mimic natural processes to evapo-transpire, infiltrate and recharge, and harvest and re-use stormwater. Typical green infrastructure systems for managing stormwater include green roofs and walls, bioswales, rain gardens, bio-retention ponds, and permeable pavements. Street and park trees also provide great stormwater management benefits.

The E.P.A. asked ASLA to collect case studies on projects that successfully and sustainably manage stormwater. More than 300 ASLA members responded with 479 case studies from 43 states, the District of Columbia, and Canada. Not only do these projects showcase landscape architecture, but they also demonstrate to policymakers the value of creating green infrastructure policies and investing in these approaches.

Green infrastructure and low-impact development (LID) approaches, which are less costly than traditional grey infrastructure projects, can save communities millions of dollars each year and improve the quality of our nation’s water supply. Also, these systems provide multiple benefits: They store carbon, provide wildlife habitat, and clean and cool the air, creating more livable communities in the process.  

Here’s an analysis of the 479 stormwater case studies:

Project type:
Institutional/Education — 21.5% 
Open Space/Park  — 21.3%
Other  — 17.6%
Transportation Corridor/Streetscape  — 11.9%
Commercial  — 8.6%
Single Family Residential  — 5.5%
Government Complex —  4.2%
Multifamily Residential  — 3.7%
Open Space-Garden/Arboretum  — 2.9%
Mixed Use  — 1.8%
Industrial  — 1.1%

Estimated cost of green infrastructure:
$100,000–$500,000 — 29.2%
$1,000,000–$5,000,000 — 22.1%
$500,000–$1,000,000 — 13.2%
$50,000–$100,000 — 12.9%
$10,000–$50,000 — 12.1%
$10,000 — 3.5%

Green infrastructure type:
Retrofit of existing property — 50.7%
New development — 30.7%
Redevelopment project — 18.6%

How much impervious area was managed?
1 acre to 5 acres — 34.5%
5,000 sq/ft to 1 acre — 31.3%
greater than 5 acres — 24.8%
less than 5,000 sq/ft — 9.5% 

Did use of green infrastructure increase costs?
Reduced costs — 44.1%
Did not influence costs — 31.4.7%
Increased costs — 24.5%

Green infrastructure design approaches used:
Bioswale — 62.1%
Rain garden — 53.2%
Bioretention facility — 50.8%
Permeable pavement systems — 47.3%
Curb cuts — 37.9%
Cistern — 21.2%
Downspout removal — 18.1%
Green roof — 16.5%
Rain barrels — 5.7%

Other facts about the case studies:

  • 55 percent of the projects were designed to meet a local ordinance.
  • 88 percent of local regulators were supportive of the green infrastructure projects submitted.
  • 68 percent of the projects received local public funding.

Along with this effort, ASLA continues to work with Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and American Rivers to promote green infrastructure policies.

View the 479 case studies organized by state.

Also, to learn more about green infrastructure, delve into Philadelphia’s cutting-edge program, watch an animation, and read an interview with Congresswoman Donna Edwards on her legislative proposal.

Image credit: Seattle Green Factor. City of Seattle Department of Planning and Development / Vulcan

The Primacy of Pathways

At Dumbarton Oaks, Suzanne Preston Blier, a professor at Harvard University, said not all landscapes are enchanted in the ancient Yoruban city of Ife in southwestern Nigeria, but many are.

Combining landscape architecture with a rich cosmological system, the Yoruban kings and Ifa priestly castes laid out Ife as a giant turtle, with criss-crossing pathways embedded with deep cultural and religious meaning. Much of this has been unknown to the outside world, until Blier and others at Harvard created AfricaMap, an open-source geospatial mapping Web site, to unearth the patterns underneath the buildings and vegetation. She said “technology may actually be key to uncovering the past.”

Some scholars put the earliest settlements at Ife at 350 BCE, with the kingdom reaching its peak as an artistic and cultural center around 1300AD.

Arriving in the area, Blier was “stunned by the landscape,” and the “amazing system of spatial engagement, buildings, and ritual pathways” that form the city.

The topography is like a “bolder hat,” with a palace and temple in the middle, and then a set of hills circling. The lowlands are continually covered in rain, providing fertile soils. Nowadays, the city is 50/50 Muslim and Christian. She said this “hybridity” is also reflected in the landscapes, which mixes baobab trees from the savannah with palm trees from the south.

The archeological elements of Ife follow closely the current city. Yoruban cities were “centrally planned.” Ife’s palace was an “ancient center, with a garden environment.” The back of the palace was a historic forest used to grow herbs and medicinal plants. Buildings formed a square courtyard in the center where rainwater was collected. In ancient Yoruban culture, when people died, they were buried in their living or bedrooms. She discussed how this was important in the distinction between interior and exterior spaces.

Yoruban mythology centers around two primary figures: Obatala and Odudua. Obatala was sent down from the heavens (on a chain or boat) to create earth, but instead got drunk on palm wine. So the supreme god sent down his younger brother who managed to finish the job.

As a result, Obatala is considered the sky god, and is associated with ritual power, while Odudua is associated with earth, and earthly political power. “These are the cosmological heroes,” but they also stand for “the division of Ife and different dynastic rulers.” Obatala is connected with the first dynasty, while Odudua is with the second.

Along with sky and earth, there is light, which is represented in the mica Yoruban kings where in their crowns. Mica is spread throughout the soil in Ife so “when it rains, the pathways become glittery and enchanged landscapes, powered by light.”

Unearthing the city’s turtle shape via AfricaMap, Blier found that each of the four main gods in Yoruban religion had different spaces associated with different roles, which “coincide with Ife divination.”

There were also divisions according to family, and a ward system that follows those lines. Each have different pathways.

She emphasized the “primacy of pathways” and their role in preserving “time – past, present, and future.”

Also, chiefly compounds with old and new dynastic leaders have specific locations around the palace, with guaranteed “viewsheds” that allow the priestly caste to “keep the king in view and in check.” The viewsheds actually represent the political landscape as well.

Kings in Yoruba never die but turn into natural elements, “skeuomorphs,” kind of large stone sculptures. In the same vein, she said “buildings never die” here. Earth homes crumble and then locals reuse the mud to create new homes. Buildings are simply reinvested with new life. “You can see very modern buildings next to decrepit ones on the same street corner.”

Blier added there is a larger renewal of life in Yoruban culture and “pathways are key to this.” The pathways to one temple, for example, need to be freshly cut for each ceremony, but according to ancient plans. Once cleared, these paths that “quietly engage with history” become “very public spaces” in which anyone can go in. There are also vertical paths or “holes” that priests use to connect with the spiritual world.

While each ancient city in Africa is unique and can’t really be compared, Blier said AfricaMap is also uncovering “similar” examples elsewhere. The ancient Dahomey kingdom is actually organized around the model of a serpent eating itself. “It has a python urban plan.”

Learn more about the Ifa religion and Yoruban culture through the Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Also, check out Harvard University’s WorldMap, a beta version that builds on AfricaMap. It can be used to “overlay historical maps, including period maps,” provides “base mapping for different contexts,” along with geospatial visualizations of data on population, ethnicity, and economic and environmental indicators.

Image credit: Ife /

Solar Decathlon 2011 Innovations: Constructed Wetlands, Edible Landscapes, Rain Gardens, and More

The Solar Decathlon, a design competition and public education program run by the U.S. Department of Energy, returns to the National Mall this year, where it will be open September 23 – October 2. Like the competition two years ago (see earlier post), teams of architecture and landscape architecture students from universities around the world compete to design, build, and then operate the most “cost-efficient, energy-efficient, and attractive” solar-powered home. The team that reaches optimal energy production, maximizes all efficiencies, and combines design excellence with affordability, takes home the top prize. 

In 2009, Team Germany beat out all the top talent from the U.S. and Asia with their innovative cube home entirely covered in solar panels. Given all the fundraising needed to create these projects (some of these model homes cost hundreds of thousands to create), not many of the schools from 2009 appear again this year. A whole new set of competitors are in play.

All projects have the requisite solar photovoltaic or solar thermal systems installed in various places on or around the home, but in terms of integrated site design, the University of Maryland’s WaterShed was the most innovative project this year. An attempt to create a “micro-scale ecosystem,” the project truly integrates building and landscape and uses “living systems,” or constructed wetlands to recycle and reuse greywater from sinks and showers. In combination with the wetland, exterior native plantings, edible gardens and walls, and a green roof mean the site will not only be highly energy efficient but will also be extremely water efficient and have zero stormwater run-off. 

Using plants native to this region, which creates habitat for local birds and insects, architecture and landscape architecture students at UMD constructed the wetland right outside the home’s floor-to-ceiling bathroom window so it’s clear that water from the sinks and shower flow outside to the wetlands, where the water is then cleaned and reused to irrigate the landscape.

However, their landscape also does more than clean and recycle wastewater, it also produces food. Veronika Zhiteneva, a student with the UMD team, explained that a garden plot with vegetables can help a family in their model home “live more sustainably and with greater self-reliance.” Near the garden plot, there’s also an edible wall made of twisting grape vines. 

The building’s green roof, which was grown by LiveRoof, is comprised of 150 2.5-inch deep trays, which feature six different types of sedum. Placed on the north side, the green roof not only reduces energy use by 25 percent, but also slows down and absorbs any stormwater. Any excess rainwater not captured by the roof is then soaked up by the surrounding native plants. 

In fact, the entire project, from the wetlands and native plantings to the garden and edible wall to the green roof, are designed to ensure the home only offers positive impacts on the surrounding environment. Scott Tjaden, another team member, said “our inspiration is the Chesapeake Bay,” which has suffered major impacts from agriculture and stormwater run-off. Indeed, of all the projects in this year’s Decathlon, WaterShed seemed to offer the more thoughtful approach — it places high value not only on energy efficiency, but stormwater management, water efficiency, and biodiversity too.  

Among the other 19 model homes on the Mall, a theme this year was edible landscapes. A student from the Middlebury College team (see below) said these homes “offer an opportunity to produce your own food.” Their project had an indoor “greenhouse wall shelter” for growing herbs and seedlings that could be moved outside to the garden plot once they grow larger. “The local food movement is part of living sustainably.” The team from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign also added an edible garden around the exterior of their home.

Parsons The New School of Design and Stevens Institute of Technology worked with Habitat for Humanity to create a real home that will be turned over to a family in the Deanwood neighborhood of Washington, D.C. once the competition is over. Parsons said the family was actually brought into the design process early on and they requested a rooftop food garden, which will be accessible via the second floor of the home. One fun element was a Parsons-designed cookbook offering recipes for the foods grown in the home. In addition, their home is designed to have zero stormwater runoff: a rain “spigot,” which funnels water into a rain garden, captures any stormwater coming off the roof. Any excess runoff will be stored in a 2,000 gallon tank buried under the house and then reused for irrigating the landscape. Eventually, when the home is put in place in Deanwood, two bioswales will be installed at either ends of the house to capture stormwater. Their project is also designed using PassiveHaus technologies, including extra thick walls and glazed windows.

Victoria University of Wellington, which is representing New Zealand in the competition, elegantly integrated a range of New Zealand landscapes into the form of their home. As visitors enter the house, they “begin at the beach,” with a landscape of grasses and sand-binding plants that “mimics the New Zealand coastal landscape.” Further in, around the home, there are a “mosaic of shrub land,” here innovatively incorporated into plots around bench seating. Behind the house, there’s a “forest edge” that replicates the “conifer-broadleaf forest which the most complex and diverse in New Zealand.”

Lastly, there are alpine zones featuring “unique flora” and another productive landscape offering opportunities for growing herbs, veggies, and fruits. The landscape provides water efficiency and stormwater management value.

Team New York from the City College of  New York came up with another unique approach that uses 30 percent less water than the conventional home: Shower and sink wastewater is recycled and reused. Also, some 30,000 gallons of rainwater will be captured via external banks of native plants that a landscape architecture faculty advisor helped select and install. New York’s project is designed to be placed on top of the roof of an existing New York City building in an effort to “increase density and encourage car-free living.” This approach is made possible by a “dunnage” system that distributes load through steel beams. The idea is to then plant a green roof around the rooftop home that will function as a yard and garden.

Innovative use of materials, including non-conventional materials and building waste, was another big theme running through the homes. The best example of this was the team from Appalachia State University, which beautifully reused corrugated iron as siding and internal walls, along with a natural, locally-sourced bark siding that is “soaked, flattened, and then kiln-dried” into sheets that last up to 80 years. One student said the bark is a “by product of the lumber industry.” Very smart reuse of a little-considered material.

Explore the 20 teams on the National Mall this year. In 2009, more than 300,000 visited the Decathlon in 10 days. Get there early this year to avoid long lines.

Image credits: Krista Sharp / ASLA

Making the Case for Sustainable Streets

Riding high on the announcement of New York City’s bike-share program just a day earlier, NYC Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan gave the keynote lecture at the two-day conference A Roadmap to Sustainable Infrastructure & Green Cities at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. Striding through her talk as briskly as New Yorkers like to move through their streets, Sadik-Khan reviewed the transportation initiatives that have had a substantial impact on New York’s streets and psyche in only a few short years. The visible pace of change in the city is all the more remarkable when we take into account, as Sadik-Khan pointed out, that the streets reflect a planning ethos that is more than fifty years old; the last significant alterations to New York City’s streets was the elimination of two-way avenues in the 1950s and 60s.

Instead of facilitating traffic flow, in New York the rules of the game now focus on “making more space for people” on streets, and making streets safer for everyone. The creation of pedestrian plazas where cars used to go has been the most visible intervention in what was until recently “a city without seats.” Before-and-after photographs of Times Square (see above), where with the help of some paint and tables and chairs, a busy stretch of Broadway has become a vibrant space for tourists and workers alike, elicited oohs and aahs from the audience. Sadik-Khan was quick to point out that such investments pay big economic dividends—in Times Square, “making more space for people has been great for business.” But new plazas and reclaimed parking spots across town are really about sociability; here design is “playing to New York City’s strengths” by facilitating impromptu meetings and social interaction. City streets, said Sadik-Kahn, “are the original social network.”

New York’s bus network has also been seeing changes, with two new bus rapid transit lines meant to expand service and capacity fast. But of late bicycles have been the visible, and sometimes controversial, face of New York City’s new transit strategies. Especially in Manhattan, where journeys are short and traffic is snarly, enhancing safety is the key to getting the city’s less intrepid commuters onto bikes. The protected bike lane, with a row of parked cars isolating cyclists from moving traffic, has been the fundamental design innovation in this regard. Next year a new 10,000 bike, 600 station bike-sharing program will launch, in the hopes of luring even more riders on two wheels.

The new bikeshare program is expected to run at no cost to the city, and with a wireless solar power system, it won’t require digging under city streets. The key to many of the changes Sadik-Kahn discussed is that they’re “inexpensive and fast to implement”—that is to say, fast and cheap. Bike lanes and plazas are “basically done just with paint.” It’s a brilliant strategy to get projects off the ground, but whether they can grow to a city-wide scale remains a question. Big plans for bus rapid transit in the boroughs look great, but what will it take to make them reality?

New York City loves to start (or embrace and blow up) a trend, and even in this economy, the city has significant resources at its disposal. Sadik-Khan concluded with a discussion of the major challenges to making changes in smaller cities, where local agencies with less professionals and resources at their disposal are hamstrung by outmoded guidelines. By providing clear new rules, new guidelines for street design and for the design of dedicated bikelanes, among others, have the ambition of changing policy and city streets nationwide.

The challenges of implementation at the local scale were the focus of a panel of public works officials earlier in the day. For the owners and operators of infrastructure, the fundamental challenge is “making smart investments when we’re investing in the environment,” as panel moderator George Crombie, President of the American Public Works Association, put it.  Joanne Massaro, Commissioner of Public Works in Boston, which is in the process of developing its own street design guidelines, spoke of the very real and never-ending need to justify every decision—replacing of old street lights with LEDs or introducing permeable paving—to the budget office. Making the case for green investments is fundamental, and to that end, Massaro argued, effective and practical ratings systems and technological advancement are key. Cities striving to be green can benefit from all sorts of great ideas and new technologies, but when it comes to the ultimate goal of moving “from pilot to norm,” all our utopianism must come to terms with the practical and challenging world of budget-cycle decisions.

Robert Moylan, Commissioner of Public Works for Worcester, Massachusetts, emphasized the “triple bottom line” and argued that economic viability is being overlooked in favor of environmental and social benefits. For public officials responsible for the allocation of the public’s money, “sustainability can’t be achieved if economics are ignored.” Moylan advocated incentives for good behavior, and questioned the validity of legislation that sets absolute demands for improvement at enormous expense, suggesting the public won’t always find this the best use of its money. This was the point made by Sue Hann, who tries to implement sustainable policies in the less receptive community of Palm Bay, FL, where she is City Manager. The local political climate, according to Hann, is the “elephant in the room.” Sustainable infrastructure starts with the “community culture,” and when the idea of sustainability—so exciting for professionals—doesn’t resonate with the community, professionals have to be strategic and communicate value to citizens in a language that resonates with them.

New Yorkers might learn something from Palm Bay. Introducing Commissioner Sadik-Kahn, Aaron Naparstek, the founder of, made light of her detractors, who are not insignificant and sometimes quite vehement. Rather than dismiss the naysayers as unenlightened, city officials and design and planning professionals would do better to more carefully listen to and respect their concerns. Finding ways to educate the public and increase dialogue around questions of sustainability, infrastructure, and public expenditures is critical. Increasing alternatives for sustainable streets are coming from inspired planners, designers, engineers, but at the end of the day, getting new practices off the ground is a political process.

This guest post is by Mariana Mogilevich, Ph.D. Candidate, Harvard Graduate School of Design

Image credits: (1-2) Times Square Pedestrian Plaza / NYC Department of Transportation

Designing Views of Nature

Lonely Planet, producer of travel guides, has just put out a new book on the 1,000 Ultimate Sights. One can spend hours just looking through the different lists of “ultimate” natural sights around the world, including sections on the “greatest wildlife spectacles,” “most iconic trees,” and “most impressive waterfalls.” There are also segments that explore extraordinary forms of human interaction with the natural world, such as “most stunning gardens,” “most interesting bridges,” and “greatest roman sites.” Our favorite was a list of viewing platforms, often designed by landscape architects and architects to create closer connections with nature:

Pulpit Rock, Norway

Lonely Planet writes that viewing platforms created by nature may be the most impressive. “Preikestolen – Pulpit Rock – looms 604m above Lysefjord, one of myriad incisions along Norway’s west coast. There are mountains aplenty hereabouts, but this summit seems built for purpose: its almost perfectly flat top juts out over the water (no safety barriers here), commanding uninterrupted if vertiginous views.”  If you are intrigued by Pulpit Rock, also check out this session at the National Building Museum on how Norway’s landscape architects and architects have designed a subtle yet beautiful set of platforms along the national tourist route.  

Sky Tower, Auckland, New Zealand

Auckland’s 328-meter-tall Sky Tower enables visitors to interact with the views and heights in different ways: “A handful of high adrenalin options are available, 192m up: gaze out from the enclosed glass rotunda; don a harness to walk a dizzying lap outside; or plunge (with safety wire) at 85km/h to the plaza below – less lookout than leap-off.”

Illawarra Fly Treetop Walk, Australia

If you want to learn more about how birds live close-up, the Illawarra Fly Treetop Walk sets you within the forest canopy of Australia’s Southern Highlands. “Hovering 25m above the ground, between stands of eucalyptus, sassafras, blackwood and mulberry, this 500m-long platform gives the wingless a glimpse of the avian lifestyle. And the bird’s-eye views are spectacular, from close-ups of tree-dwelling flora to sweeping panoramas of the surrounding escarpment.”

Grand Canyon Skywalk , Arizona, USA

At one of the most-visited sights in the U.S., there’s the Grand Canyon Skywalk, which was created in 2007. The 20 meter-wide glass and concrete “horseshoe” with a see-through floor jutting out over a “side canyon” of Arizona’s gorge has been controversial. Some would rather leave nature’s work alone. However, Lonely Planet says that the Hualapai Indian tribe, which manage the site, approved the project. Visitors are charged $30 per use.

Knife-Edge Point, Victoria Falls, Zambia

Victoria Falls, one of the world’s greatest falls at 100 meters high, has a spectacular viewing bridge at Knife-Edge Point. “Walk over the footbridge to this sturdy buttress where – if the mist is being blown in the opposite direction – you can gaze at the falls and the churning abyss below.”

Waterfall Trail, Iguaçu Falls, Brazil

Instead of a viewing station, the Iguaçu Falls in Brazil actually has a viewing trail that takes visitors through the cascade. “This South American cascade – a 3kmwide, 80m-high tumble of 275 separate falls, dripping in tiers through the jungle – is shared between Brazil and Argentina. And it’s on the Brazilian side that the Waterfall Trail leads out to the viewpoint below the Garganta do Diabo (Devil’s Throat) – Iguaçu at its most thunderous and spectacular.”

Il Binocolo, Merano, Italy

In Italy’s South Tyrol, Architect Matteo Thun created a look-out “suspended over the trees” as an addition to Trauttmansdorff Castle. “It gives a fine focus to those who dare step out onto its transparent gantry: over the vineyards, orchards, rooftops and mountainsides around the sophisticated town of Merano. It’s a grand garden to gaze over, too. Arranged around the neo-Gothic palace are swaths of rhododendrons, terraced water gardens, exotic palms, a house of bees and the world’s oldest vine.”

Dachstein Sky Walk, Austria

Dachstein Sky Walk peers out over this 2,700 meter mountain in Austria, offering panoramic views across state lines and international borders. “If you can bear to look, that is – it’s a dizzying prospect. And the wind and snow frequently flurry, making this an exposed, if exhilarating promontory. The journey up is even more hair-raising: the cablecar from the Türlwandhütte rises nearly 1000m to the Hunerkogel station, skimming the limestone cliff face (you can see every crack and crevice) by what feels like mere inches.”

Aiguill e du Midi, Chamonix, France

The viewing platform of the Aiguille du Midi gives awesome views of Mont Blanc. The Aiguille itself is quite a mountain at 3,842 meters. “But it’s a democratic peak: a two-part cablecar ride from the town of Chamonix below zips from valley bottom to the top – a 2,800m altitude gain – in just 20 breathtaking minutes. This enables anyone with a head for heights to get intimate with the legendary massif – a perspective usually reserved for expert mountaineers.”

Petronas Towers, Sky bridge, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

For a few years at least, Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers were the world’s tallest buildings. That record was recently beaten by the World Financial Center built in Shanghai, and now the just-opened built Burj Khalifa  in Dubai. A Sky Bridge at the 41st and 42nd floors is an “engineering marvel; with its huge supporting ʻlegs’ it looks like the bolt holding the twin 452m-high skyscrapers together. At night it’s even more impressive, when the entire complex glitters brighter than a Christmas tree.” At 170 meters up, the views from the Sky Bridge, which are accessible via a “super-fast lift” are worth seeing.  

Check out Lonely Planet’s 1,000 Ultimate Sights.

Image credits: (1) Pulpit Rock / Pixelhaus, (2) Pulpit Rock / Sandro Mancuso. Flickr, (3) Sky Jump / Auckland Now, (4) Illawarra Fly Treetop Adventures, (5) Grand Canyon Sky Walk / Fodsup, (6) Knife Edge Bridge / Dave Clark. Smug Mug, (7) Iguazu Falls waterfall trail / Argentina’s Travel Guide, (8) Trauttmansdorff Castle Tree Lookout / Holiday Check, (9) Dachstein Sky Walk / Miradores Del Mundo, (10) Aiguill e du Midi / Nathan A. Flickr, (11) Petronas Towers Sky Bridge / Science Photo Library

New Web Site Tries to Answer the Question: What Is Landscape Urbanism?

Landscape Urbanism, a relatively new theory that took more solid form through a book released in 2006 and is now actively promoted by the likes of Professor Charles Waldheim, Affiliate ASLA, chair of the landscape architecture department at Harvard University, and James Corner, ASLA, the head of Field Operations and chair of the landscape architecture department at the University of Pennsylvania, has been widely discussed but little understood. Much of the discussion among the broader design community has been about how this new theoretical approach has come into conflict with New Urbanism. While some argue that landscape urbanism is a needed corrective to outdated urban design theories that focus too much on buildings and offers a far more sustainable approach to urban development, others dismiss the theory as either not truly sustainable, or pure academic jargon, with little real meat. The Boston Globe ran a nice piece outlining some of the controversy. The New Urban Network has more on the “street fight” between the theories. On top of all this, there’s the proliferation of other “urbanisms,” namely Ecological Urbanism, another theory that has come out of Harvard. Others are very tired of all the new theories and think successful projects speak for themselves.

Among this abundance of new thinking on cities, there’s a new Web site, Landscape Urbanism, that looks like an effort to better define landscape urbanism, promote the concepts more broadly, and perhaps stir debate among academic and design communities. The team behind the site argues that their overall goal is to promote the idea that “process matters in design, that collaboration between disciplines is critical, and that complexity should be embraced as part of urbanism and landscape architecture. While many have argued that the ideas of landscape urbanism are too undefined or complicated, we think that through this publication and website, we can better explain and explore the ideas.” The group has also put together a diverse advisory board to help get the word out.

The Web site producers encourage visitors to explore the first issue, which focuses on “indeterminancy and multiplicity.” The articles by a number of different authors seem set on tying the new ideas to actual projects and cities, outlining how the ideas outlined in landscape urbanism theory can be understood in practical terms. One interesting article covers Dutch landscape architecture firm West 8’s installation along the Eastern Scheldt storm surge barrier in the Netherlands. There are also articles from practicing landscape architects; academics, including Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA, at the University of Virginia; writers; designers; and blogger Jason King, ASLA. There’s a set of “strategies” that they argue “advance the practice of landscape urbanism and landscape architecture.” Lastly, visitors are encourage to submit comments, essays, photos, projects, or concepts of their own.

While many landscape architects and other designers may not be aware of the ongoing theoretical debate, current students and future practitioners at a few top schools are being steeped in these new theories, and this process alone may have some impact on future practice. Some view landscape urbanism as a powerful new analytical approach that, as Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, said, is central to the “emancipation of landscape architects.” Others may view the theoretical debate as irrelevant, or, worse, a confusing distraction from the budding public understanding of landscape architects as leaders in sustainable urban design, but these theories can be expected to have some influence. Perhaps it’s important to explore and understand what’s being debated.  

Check out the Web site.

Also, for those attending the ASLA 2011 Annual Meeting, be sure to check out the sure-to-be-interesting conversation between Professor Charles Waldheim (the coiner of landscape urbanism) and Andres Duany (the father of New Urbanism), and other leading urban design thinkers such as Laurie Olin, FASLA; Diane Balmori, ASLA; and Maurice Cox, University of Virginia, which will be moderated by John King, Hon. ASLA, San Francisco Chronicle.

Image credit: Installation along the Eastern Scheldt storm surge barrier in the Netherlands / West 8

Research Shows Nature Helps With Stress

Michael Posner, professor emeritus at University of Oregon who studies attention, says that our brains gets fatigued after working for long periods of time, “particularly if we have to concentrate intensely or deal with a repetitive task.” Taking a break may or may not help deal with stress during high-pressure times. What’s crucial is the type of break taken: According to The Wall Street Journal, taking a stroll in the park “could do wonders” while drinking lots of coffee will just be further depleting. Also, in other instances, not taking a break at all may be the best course, simply powering through can be “more effective than pausing.”  

Recent research shows that taking a stroll through a natural setting can boost performance on “tasks calling for sustained focus.” “Taking in the sights and sounds of nature appears to be especially beneficial for our minds.” In fact, Dr. Marc Berman and fellow researchers at the University of Michigan found that “performance on memory and attention tests improved by 20 percent after study subjects paused for a walk through an arboretum. When these people were sent on a break to stroll down a busy street in town, no cognitive boost was detected.” (see an earlier post on Berman’s research).  

Even just looking at photos of nature in a quiet room has a greater cognitive boost than walking down a busy urban street. “In a follow-up study, the researchers had participants take a break for 10 minutes in a quiet room to look at pictures of a nature scene or city street. Again, they found that cognitive performance improved after the nature break, even though it was only on paper. Although the boost wasn’t as great as when participants actually took the walk among the trees, it was more effective than the city walk, says Dr. Berman.” 

You may actually not even have to enjoy the park, botanical garden, or arboretum to get the benefit. Dr. Berman said: “You don’t necessarily have to enjoy the walk to get the benefit. What you like is not necessarily going to be good for you.” For them, just looking at images of nature engages “our so-called involuntary attention, which comes into play when our minds are inadvertently drawn to something interesting that doesn’t require intense focus, like a pleasing picture or landscape feature. We can still talk and think while noticing the element.” In contrast, walking down a busy street is exhausting over long periods because we are on the look out for cars and bicyclists, and people bumping into us.

Important information for landscape architects working in dense urban areas: People also don’t have to live near a nature-rich environment to get some benefits. “A quieter city street with interesting natural elements to look at, such as containers of plants, could do the trick, too.” Berman and his researchers are still trying to figure out what kind of natural elements work best in terms of cognitive boosts. He is now at the Rotman Research Institute in Toronto where he and his colleagues are also trying to find out whether nature can help people with anxiety or depression.   

More and more exciting research is coming out on how nature can improve mood (see earlier post) or lower hospital rehabilitation times (see earlier post). Urban designers like Jan Gehl (see an interview) have long argued that landscape architecture educators and, really, those from all design professions, need to make courses on improving human health and well-being a central component of curricula. While therapeutic garden designers have long focused on these issues in the healthcare realm, perhaps some innovative landscape architecture programs will start adding required courses that cover all the research done by the Dr. Bermans of the world, which seem to be quickly zooming in on what forms of nature have the greatest health impact.

Public health, epidemiology, and medical programs would also do well to bring in landscape architects and other design professionals into research tracking the causes of epidemics like cancer, obesity, diabetes, depression, and nervous disorders, using positive and negative examples of urban landscapes as test-beds for research.

Read the article.

Image credit: Harvard University Arboretum / Photo Challenge. Pingsi

Vancouver Gets Parklets

San Francisco may have started something with its innovative Pavement to Parks or “parklet” program, which turns transportation infrastructure into public spaces. New York City is also a leader, given its recent decision to redesign sections of Broadway as permanent pedestrian malls. Now, Vancouver has gotten on board with its own Viva Vancouver program that features a set of eight streets that have become new mini-parks. Vancouver says these new spaces are “people places” designed to give residents “extra space to walk, bike, dance, skate, sit, hang out with friends and meet your neighbours.”

One brand new parklet, Parallel Park, which cost just $18,000, features a new deck-like structure in place of two parking spots and includes built-in seats and wood-cubed tables. Designed by Travis Martin, Associate ASLA, currently employed with landscape architecture firm van der Zalm + Associates, this pocket public space is made of clear cedar.

On the Facebook site for Parallel Park, there are more details on how the space is designed: “There is a lean bench on the left. The benches along the back alternate between working and lounging heights. The box seats or tables are placed to provide seating for individuals, couples or groups of 4-8.”

According to The New York Times, turning underused transportation infrastructure into new public spaces isn’t just happening at the small scale either. With the success of the second phase of The High Line park (see earlier post), cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and St. Louis are also now looking at how to reuse their own abandoned railways.  

Learn more about the projects in Viva Vancouver and see more photos. Explore San Francisco’s Pavement to Parks initiative, which recently expanded.

Also, see a Google Sketchup animation focused on how to transform transportation infrastructure into public spaces.

Image credits: Parallel Park / BriteWeb and Viva Vancouver