Walmart Is Coming to D.C. Is This Good or Bad?

The D.C. planning department is moving forward with allowing Walmart to set up four new stores within the district. According to a panel at the National Building Museum, there may be some positive and negative impacts with this. Positives: There are food deserts within the district and the new Walmarts, which will emphasize groceries, will increase the supply of fresh produce. There’s a significant untapped market: Harriet Tregoning, D.C. planning director, says D.C. residents spend $1 billion annually in neighboring districts. That money could be spent here instead. Also, the inner-city is a significant “emerging market” with underserved populations, but one that few big retailers are ready to tap. Negatives: Walmart’s labour practices haven’t really changed. In instances where they have moved into downtown areas (such as Chicago), there were increased small store closings and job losses in a four mile radius of the new Walmart. Walmart often picks up and leaves if it doesn’t see a market in a community, meaning that huge stores could become vacant, acting as a drain. Lastly,  these large stores may encourage more driving, and may not be environmentally or economically sustainable.

D.C. Focuses on Groceries and Good Design

Harriet Tregoning said D.C. only has 8.6 square feet of retail per capita, far lower than the national average, which is 23.3 square feet per capita. As a result, D.C. residents spend $1 billion in neighboring districts each year. To remedy this, the D.C. planning department is trying to bring more retail to the city. “Many neighborhoods have unfilled retail potential, with an unbalanced mix, and a lack of basic services.” She added that the “perceived weaknesses” in the D.C. market have limited retail growth in emerging areas. Still, she thinks D.C. is a great market: “We have a population of 600,000 that grows to 1 million during the day. We have 14 million visitors annually. Our density is eight times the national average. There is spending power here.”

D.C. wants these four new Walmarts to focus on groceries because there are many food deserts within the district. “There’s been a dearth of supermarkets, although a dozen have come in in recent years.” However, the district wants to protect the growing “clusters” of small retail businesses that have taken root, such as those around 14th street and H streets. Also, she pointed to young entrepreneurs who have “taken advantage of regulatory loopholes” and started food trucks. “There are dozens now, many associated with bricks and mortar stores.”

There is some precedent for bringing in Walmart. The Columbia Heights project, which brought in Target, has been a “major success” for the city. There has been $1 billion in investment in a one-square mile area, including 81 projects, 4,000 units of housing, and 800,000 square feet of retail. “This is one of Target’s best stores.” However, she pointed to missteps with the project: At a cost of $42 million, the city built 1,000 parking spaces into the main shopping center that houses Target. “We built more than was necessary. A whole level hasn’t even opened.” To make back some of the debt payments, the city is now leasing out many of those parking spaces for daily or monthly use. D.C. learned its lesson and is now “getting rid of our parking requirement, and allowing shared parking.” This enables stores to contract someone else’s spaces.

Tregoning concluded that what people want is a good “shopping experience,” an urban form for retail, and stores accessible to transit. As a result, the “location and form of big box retail in D.C. needs to be different.” For example, she pointed to the Home Depot on Rhode Island Avenue, which is not doing well because it can only be easily accessed by car and “could be in any suburbs.” She added that “having existing activity at big box destinations is important.” In an effort to ensure the city’s experiment with Walmart succeeds, the city has required Walmart to up the ante on its design and fit within the district’s strong urban design guidelines.

Mitigating the Neighborhood Impacts of Walmart in Cities

Kennedy Smith, principal, the Community Land Use and Economic Group, argued that all communities want “good jobs, good retail variety, increased tax revenues from stores, and good schools, services.” She wondered whether there is market demand for four new Walmarts in D.C. Based on her calculations, the proposed stores in Union Square, Brightwood, New York Avenue, and 58th and East Capitol, would bring in around $183 million a year, and “may capture a chunk of some of that $1 billion lost.” The big question, though, is whether these new Walmarts will kill off existing businesses.

On the west side of Chicago, Walmart opened a store in 2006. A study Smith summarized surveyed businesses in 2006 (before Walmart moved in), 2007, and then 2008. The study found that 28 percent of businesses within a four mile radius of the store failed after Walmart took hold. Also, the number of jobs that were lost were equal to those brought in by Walmart (around 300). Overall, though, Smith said finding accurate data on the economic impacts of Walmart is very hard. The government categorizes data into categories based on store type. However, as an example, someone could buy toothpaste from a number of different types of stores so it’s hard to determine how people are shifting their spending to Walmart on specific items.

She said D.C. has a chance to mitigate some of the negative neighborhood impacts of Walmart because it’s requiring the company to focus on groceries. Also, the city is serious about ensuring good urban design. She recommended the district carefully measure the impact of the first few stores before letting others in. Smith says Walmart will need to hand over “transparent data.” To guard against any negative impacts, district policymakers will need to “act quickly to bolster local businesses.” She pointed to new models, such as community cooperative supermarkets, community investors and venture capitalists, and innovative stores that have raised funds by paying in products instead of interest.

I Live on Top of a Walmart

Jay Klug, principal, JBG Rosenfeld Retail, will be building the world’s first mixed-use Walmart development, including hundreds of apartments and condos on top of the actual store. When asked by an audience member if someone spending half a million on a condo is going to want to shop at the Walmart downstairs (or will even want to live above one), he laughed and said “this is something we’ve obviously been thinking quite a lot about giving we are investing millions in this.”

The new Walmart on H street will be “architectually contextual,” and include a relatively small store space (at least for Walmart), with an “energized front.” The energized front includes space for an indoor/outdoor cafe or restaurant, and spots for smaller local stores. There’s a significant glass element and modern design features. The entrance for the condo will be off on another street, away from the heavy foot traffic, which will help further differentiate between the store and apartment complex entrances. In addition, the loading dock, which will be on a level plane, will be in back.

Klug pointed to other successful examples of enlightened big box developments his firm has done, including two developments that mix Whole Foods and condos in North Bethesda, Maryland, and Alexandria, Virginia. He said both those mixed-use big box retail models are doing extremely well. Only time will tell if the Walmarts are as successful in this model. “The one thing I’ve learned is that everyone has an emotional reaction to Walmart.”  

Smith still thinks the Walmart projects could be risky but thought it was good the stores are on the smaller side so another store could be swapped in if it didn’t work out. Tregoning argued the fact that Walmart is “embedded” into these mixed-use developments is a good thing. If these Walmarts do actually offer lots of fresh produce in locations that are food deserts, it may be worthwhile: As she noted, D.C. has some of the highest obesity rates in the country, particularly among children.

Add your thoughts. Is Walmart coming to D.C. a good or bad thing?

Image credit: Rendering of H street Walmart / JBG Rosenfeld

ASLA Announces 2011 Student Awards

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) has announced the winners of the 2011 Student Awards. More than 450 submissions were received and 40 were selected for recognition. ASLA will present awards in the categories of General Design, Residential Design, Analysis and Planning, Communications, Research, Community Service, and Student Collaboration during a ceremony that will take place on Wednesday, November 2, at the ASLA Annual Meeting and EXPO  in San Diego.

This year’s prestigious jury included Mario Nievera, ASLA, Chair; Thomas W. Balsley, FASLA; Gary A. Brown, FASLA; James Burnett, FASLA; Shane A. Cone, ASLA; Diane Dale, FASLA; M. Elen Deming, ASLA; John King, Hon. ASLA; and Karen A. Phillips, FASLA

Highlighted are the select projects that won Awards of Excellence:

General Design Award of Excellence
Tempelhof Wasserpark
Johanna F. Barthmaier, Associate ASLA, Graduate, University of Pennsylvania
Faculty Advisors: Martin Rein Cano and Yadiel Rivera Diaz
(see image above)

Project statement: “Berlin, Germany lies close to the water table and with an overwhelming amount of annual rainfall, the city has more water than its infrastructure can handle. Tempelhof airport provides a clear open space inside the city to test a new form of water management in Berlin, where storm and ground waters are reserved, absorbed and filtrated through pools, plantings and landforms. A module based on the folds of a paper airplane helped generate the design, which allows water to move and collect throughout the site. Depending on the weather, the ephemeral movement of water sets the stage for unique programs to develop and informs visitors about the local hydrology.”

Residential Design Award of Excellence
Vegetation House: House for Being the Medium of Plant Growth
Jheng-Ru Li, Student Affiliate ASLA and Chieh-Hsuan Hu, Student Affiliate ASLA, Graduate, National Chiao Tung University
Faculty Advisors: Yu-Tung Liu, Yuan-Rong Li, Shiau-Yun Lu and Chor-Kheng Lim

Project statement: “Concerning the problem of farmhouses in the suburban areas.This project is aimed to focus on whether the building creates a suitable environment for many different types of plants to grow naturally. Just as a stone in the forest is attached to a plant by the local environment, the building should not change or, worse, destroy the original ecosystem; it should coexist in harmony with the ecosystem and allow a diversity of plants to grow smoothly alongside it.”

Analysis and Planning Award of Excellence
UPGRADE / RETROFIT: Strategies for Re-Urbanization of Haiti’s Hillsides
Jeff Powers, Student ASLA and Byron White, Student ASLA, University of Toronto
Faculty Advisor: Liat Margolis

Project statement: “UPGRADE/RETROFIT is an hybridized architectural and landscape design plan that envisions a new possibility for Haiti’s development beyond the short term disaster relief solutions currently in use. The earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010, was another chapter in a series of events that have systematically destroyed the Haitian landscape and communities. Within  the  current framework for redevelopment, sustainable systems are not adequate. Instead, we envision a strategy for rehabilitation, augmentation and surplus.”

Communications Award of Excellence
Lorna Allen, Student Associate ASLA; Tucker Beeninga, Student ASLA; Sarah Elsaesser, Associate ASLA; Matt Evans, Student ASLA; Benjamin Hood, Student ASLA; Michael Lynskey, Associate ASLA; Preston Montague, Student ASLA; Leslie Morefield, Associate ASLA; Lindsay Ruderman, Student ASLA; Scott Simmons, Associate ASLA; Caitlin Smolewski, Associate ASLA; Matt Tomasulo, Student ASLA; David Toms, Associate ASLA and Luke Wallenbeck, Associate ASLA, Graduate-Undergraduate, North Carolina State University
Faculty Advisor: Andrew Fox, ASLA

Project statement: “SHIFT:infrastructure is an annual student produced publication sponsored by the North Carolina State University Student Chapter ASLA. Recognizing that students represent the next generation of leaders and design innovators, we created SHIFT: to provide a scholarly and provocative forum for professional-reviewed student research into emerging issues at the forefront of landscape architecture theory and practice. We seek to foster creative interaction across disciplinary boundaries and raise awareness of emerging trends within academic and professional communities.”

Community Service Award of Excellence
Adams Elementary School Garden for Experiential Learning
Amanda J. Dunlap, Student ASLA, Graduate, Utah State Universiry
Faculty Advisor: Keith Christensen, PhD, ASLA

Project statement: “In a time when art programs are being removed from schools as educational funding is cut short, an opportunity surfaced to combine core elementary school curriculum with the arts through landscape architecture. Based on the hands-on, experiential learning environment of the studio, the creation of twenty lessons integrated landscape architecture, mathematics, creative writing, science, and art into fourth grade curriculum. From inception to implementation, students worked through the design process to create a school entryway.”

Explore the 2011 student award winners.

Image credits: (1) Johanna F. Barthmaier, (2) Jheng-Ru Li and Chieh-Hsuan Hu, (3) Jeff Powers and Byron White, (4) SHIFT:infrastructure team, (5) Amanda J. Dunlap

National Mall Design Competition Open to All

The Trust for the National Mall announced the kick-off of a National Mall design competition in Washington, D.C., which will be open to established and emerging U.S. teams of landscape architects, urban designers, architects, and sustainable designers. Trust Chairman John Ackridge said the goal of the competition was to make the National Mall, which receives 25 million visitors annually, the “best park in the world.” Caroline Cunningham, President, said the Trust, which is partnering with the National Park Service and is expected to raise nearly $350 million or half of the total budget, is looking for the “best talent” in the world for this multi-year restoration initiative. The Interior Department, of which the National Park Service is a part, has agreed to match any private funds raised, with the goal of bringing in a total of $700 million for the entire Mall restoration project. There are still “critical deferred maintenance” issues — compacted soils, endangered trees, and collapsing sea walls that are being addressed or still sorely need to be.

Cunnigham sees value in taking on three separate design projects in one big design competition. “Incorporating projects together is important for addressing them in a contextual manner collectively in the park itself.” She added that the Mall has a long history with design competitions, and their results have been “integral” to the current shape of the space.

The competition will yield final designs for three main areas to be “respectfully refurbished and rehabilitated” in the next few years: 

Union Square: According to the National Park Service’s National Mall plan, which is the basis of the design competition, the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial will serve as a “focal point of a symmetrical and formally laid out civic square based on historic precedents. The highly symbolic foreground to the U.S. Capitol will be redesigned as a an attractive flexible stage for democracy.” In addition, the space will need to be redesigned so it’s flexible enough to transform and accomodate larger crowds as needed. Part of the design plan involves reducing the size of the reflecting pool in favor of an “interactive water feature, highlighting more sustainable water management practices.” Other changes related to the grade of the site, addition of multi-purpose facilities and restrooms, and places for “recreation equipment rentals.” The idea for a Union Square design competition came out the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA)’s Blue Ribbon panel.

The Trust’s specific design competition guidelines zoom in on the details of what designers will be expected to cover in their proposals. In addition to creating a “flexible multipurpose destination that symbolizes our nation and the idea of of – E Pluribus Unum (out of many – one),” the new Union Square will need to improve security along the western edge of the site; demonstrate sensivity to historic context; maintain water as an element of the site, utilize water features in a sustainable manner, and incorporate green stormwater management design elements; improve pedestrian connections between the institutions along the Mall; and build in multi-use facilities and infrastructure within the site.

Washington Monument Grounds at Sylvan Theatre: The National Mall plan calls for the Washington Monument Grounds, which were recently redesigned by OLIN, to be further updated. Also, the National Park Service wants the “infrastructure to be provided to make them more sustainable.” Part of this effort involves replacing the Sylvan Theatre and nearby restrooms with a multi-purpose facility. “An architectually unique indoor/outdoor visitor services facility” will have cafes and restaurants and flexible performance spaces.

The design guidelines call for a “flexible outdoor space” to be used for a variety of performances from large concert venues to smaller educational programs. The hillside lawn seating area will be better oriented. Again, the designers will need to respect historic sensitivities, address on-site pedestrian circulation and connections to other monuments, and incorporate a range of functions in the facility, including parking, visitor information kiosks, retail, restrooms, and restaurants.

Constitution Gardens: The last major piece of the competition, Constitution Gardens, was originally intended to provide a “pastoral setting for passive recreation,” says the National Park Service. The area is expected to continue to accomodate smaller scale demonstrations and events. The end goal: “a restful, multipurpose visitor destination.” However, many issues with poor soils and pedestrian circulation systems need to be dealt with. In addition, the concrete-lined lake needs to be “reconstructed to be self-sustaining, using a nonpotable water source for filling.” The entire man-made lake is expected to be redesigned as a stormwater management retention basin and part of a larger green infrastructure system. Also, there needs to be new facilities and performance spaces.

The design competition manual adds that the revamped Constitution Gardens will need to “connect with the filtration and pumping system under development for the Lincoln Reflecting Pool to provide clean water.” The new site also needs to address pedestrian circulation issues between the different memorials, “restore and relocate the historic canal Lockkeeper’s House,” and incorporate multi-use facilities.

Donald Stastny, an architect and urban designer, will manage the nearly one-million dollar competition process. He said that the Trust is now working on putting together a high-profile jury and advisory panel. He has also settled on a fairly involved process for the competition:

Stage 1) There will be a call for portfolios, which will include a statement of design intent or philosophy. Here, teams will indentify which of the three sites they want to work on (they can select all three).

Stage 2)
Some 8-10 teams will be selected for each of the three sites. By this stage, the teams will need full technical partners in place. The jury will want to see that real teams that could implement the project are in place.

Stage 3)
Some 4-5 teams will be selected as finalists for each site and the actual design work will begin. The Trust didn’t say how much they would provide teams to create actual design concepts.

All finalists’ design concepts will be on display in April of next year. Winners will be announced in May.

The competition registration period is now open and teams are invited (but not required) to make their way to D.C. for a pre-submittal briefing and site visit later in September. The registration period ends October 8.

Learn more about the design competition and download the design manual.

Image credit: National Mall /

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

Design a New Navy Pier in Chicago

In an effort to draw in more people year-round, Chicago’s Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority and Navy Pier, Inc. announced the launch of a new $155 million redevelopment framework and design competition aimed at creating “more aesthetically appealing public spaces” on Chicago’s Navy Pier, which already attracts more than nine million visitors a year. The idea is to create new spaces that are “authentically Chicago” but steer that part of the city away from becoming a permanent theme park, which is a bit how it feels now. Landscape architects, architects, and urban designers are invited to submit their visions for reinventing Chicago’s “pierscape.”

Under the new framework, existing piers will make room for new cultural institutions — the Chicago’s Childrens Museum and Chicago Shakespeare Theater — and a new boutique hotel at the Pier’s east end, along with additional retail and dining. Sarah Nava Garvey, newly elected by the NPI Board to serve as its first Chair, said: “The Centennial Vision reflects our belief that we can create a popular attraction that is also a high-quality attraction, such as Millennium Park.” Navy Pier General Manager Marilynn Gardner added that “inviting and intriguing public spaces are essential to Navy Pier’s future success.”

The competition’s scope is massive: Public spaces up for a revamp include Gateway Park, Crystal Garden, Pier Park, the South Dock and East End Park, in addition to smaller areas tucked along the length of the pier. According to the organizations, “recreating the ‘Pierscape’ would include changes to the landscape and streetscape, introduction of public art and water features, and relighting the Pier’s exterior. Special emphasis will be put on environmentally sustainable solutions in reprogramming and redesigning public spaces.”

The framework aims to create a “more cohesive visitor experience, and improved traffic flow and vehicle-pedestrian interface at the entrance to the Pier.” In addition to improved access, designers must also focus on the addition of public art, lighting, signage, graphics, street furniture, and other street design elements in their proposals. It sounds like the city is looking for more park and less theme park. 

Much of the new vision is informed by a report developed by the Urban Land Institute (ULI) critiquing the pier and offering ways to improve it. Already, public input into the vision is being collected in an effort to further refine the plan before designers start creating options.

In the first round, teams will submit expressions of interest of October 16. Then 10 teams will be asked to submit more detailed presentations. Following this stage, five finalists will be given $50,000 to create design proposals. A winner will be selected in February 2012. 

Learn more about how to submit a proposal. For those in Chicago, submit comments about the redevelopment vision.

Image credit: Navy Pier Inc.

An Urban Escape for Grown Ups

Strootman Landscape Architects, a Dutch firm, transformed a set of courtyards in a conventional office building in Arnhem into an escape for grown ups. There, playful, textural design elements are abstractions of iconic Dutch rural scenes. “Giant pebbles refer to a river beach, pines refer to the Veluwe, a green hillside refers to undulating landscapes, ferns to the forest, ladybirds to sunny fields, and a ‘white-picket- fence’ to horse ranches.” In Landezine, Strootman writes that these scenic references offer visitors an opportunity to distance themselves from their day-to-day routine. 

The “voorhof” or forecourt functions as an “urban lobby.” Visitors enter here and can take a seat before heading inside for appointments. Within the forecourt, the paving is made up of dark-grey concrete filled with stone chippings. “The colour of the stone chippings is grey-green and has the same shade as the natural stone slabs on the façades of the surrounding building.” 

A large red outdoor circular seating element acts like a tree basin (see image at top). Made of polystyrene, the seat-sculpture enables visitors to either sit upright or lounge about. Pines planted within the seat will eventually fill the forecourt. Around the trees, pine cones are arranged as a textural element. 

In contrast, the “binnenhof” or inner courtyard is designed for employees and has a “softer and greener” feel than the forecourt. An “ornamental garden,” the courtyard features a large green hill made of light-weight polystyrene blocks covered in a thin layer of soil. Strootman adds that they used plastic blocks because trucking in all that soil would have been too costly.

The hill, which is ringed by a white picket fence, also includes “parking spaces” for 20 moveable “cart-seats,” which are “panelled-stone wheelbarrows.” The landscape architects designed the seating to encourage visitors to grab their own car-seat and drive to their favorite location. “After use, the cart-seats are placed in their storage racks again.”

One of our favourite elements of this urban playscape: “Cheerful mowing robots that look like ladybirds” move about silently trimming the lawn, doing their own ballet for visitors. 

In other news, FASLANYC announced their second annual Waits awards, named in honor of singer and actor Tom Waits. To win a Waits, a project must be “highly tactical and lo-fi, simple and sophisticated, ultimately working to demystify the act of intervening in the landscape.” Read through the winners, which are each matched with a song.

Image credits: Strootman Landscape Architects

Scientists Estimate Planet Has 8.7 Million Species, Give or Take 1.3 Million

A new study published in PLoS Biology, a scientific journal, estimates that there are 8.7 million different species on Earth, give or take 1.3 million. Previous estimates have ranged from 3 million to nearly 100 million. According to The Guardian (UK), this study finds that some three-quarters of all species are on land, and a majority of these are insects. Only one quarter reside in the oceans, even though 70 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered in water. As famed biologist E.O. Wilson explored in The Future of Life, estimating the number of species is incredibly difficult, largely because a huge share of species are still undocumented. Attempting to put a number on our collective ignorance of the world’s biodiversity, the report argues that some 86 percent of all plant and animal species and 91 percent of ocean species have not been “named and cataloged.” Climate change make things even worse: Scientists estimate mass extinctions of up to 10 percent of all species, meaning that many unknown species will die off before they are even identified.

Dr. Camilo Mora of the University of Hawaii and Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia told The Guardian that counting all species accurately is important for setting a base line: “Scientists have been working on this question of how many species for so many years. We know we are losing species because of human activity, but we can’t really appreciate the magnitude of species lost until we know what species are there.”

The researchers analyzed data on 1.2 million species, and used Carl Linnaeus’ taxonomical “tree-like” system to determine “patterns between […] hierarchical groupings which they could use to infer the existence of missing species that scientists have not yet described. That allowed them to use data from higher orders – such as anthropods, where there is a lot of data – to predict the number of creatures at the species level.” Their final estimate: 7.8 million species of animals; almost 300,000 different types of plants; more than 600,000 different species of fungi, mushrooms, and molds; some 36,000 species of single-celled organisms; and 27,000 species of algae. The authors didn’t delve into bacteria.

Robert Mays, a UK government advisor, said the findings were realistic: “It is sort of saying that the trunks and lower branches of the tree seem similar from group to group. At one end of the thing, you have birds and mammals that really are completely known. At the other end, you have just got a handful of branches and twigs. But if you do the big assumption the trees are similar, then it seems sensible.”

However, others are critical of the estimate, arguing that if the methodology was changed, an entirely new estimate could easily be calculated. For example, other approaches have tried to classify the Earth’s species based on patterns derived from the size of species or their location, or their relationships with other species. According to The New York Times, Robert May, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Oxford, argued in the late 1980s that the diversity of land animals grows as they shrink in size. “He reasoned that we probably have found most of the species of big animals, like mammals and birds, so he used their diversity to calculate the diversity of smaller animals. He ended up with an estimate 10 to 50 million species of land animals.”

Terry Erwin, a carabidologists or beetle expert, found more than 1,100 species of beetle from a single tree in the rainforest of Panama. He estimated more than 30 million species of insects in tropical rainforests alone. On the approach taken in the new study, Erwin told The Guardian: “These guys base these on classification of animals, and classification of animals are human constructs. The reason it is predictable is that humans are predictable, especially in the scientific field. What they are measuring really is human activity. It is not real activity out in the wild.” Also, a specialist focused on fungi, David Pollack at University of Colorado, agrees and argues that there are far more fungi out there, up to 5 million (not the 600,000 estimated in this paper’s approach). Lastly, microbiologists argue that the diversity of microbes will only dwarf animals. “A single spoonful of soil may contain 10,000 different species of bacteria, many of which are new to science.”

The Guardian writes that one problem is that identifying and cataloging new life forms is “expensive and slow,” with only 14 percent of life forms represented in databases. Scientists point to a lack of funding. “At the current pace, it would take 300,000 specialists 1,200 years to go through the laborious process of describing the new discoveries in scientific journals, and then entering them in electronic databases.” The lack of funding may be due to a lack of interest in these efforts among the public given most of the species to be discovered will be very small, and concentrated in remote areas.

Still, scientists are making big finds almost every day. “Last week, scientists at the Smithsonian Institution reported the discovery of a primitive eel in a reef off the coast of the South Pacific island nation of Palau. The new species, Protoanguilla palau, bore little relation to 19 other forms of eel currently in existence and some of its characteristics – such as a second upper jaw – were more in line with fossils from 65m years ago.”

Read the article and the study.

Image credit: Cristalino State Park, Alta Floresta, Mato Grosso, Brazil / Daniel Beltra Conservation Photography