Montgomery: “Social Ties Are the Most Important Contributor to Happiness”

Charles Montgomery, a dynamic young Canadian author and speaker, who will soon publish Happy City, a work he has spent a “half decade researching,” gave one of the keynotes at the 2011 ASLA Annual Meeting. He argued that “places, stories, rituals control our behavior,” but indeed place may matter the most for our collective happiness. Landscape architects must focus in on the urban forms and qualities that make people happiest.

Montgomery went to the World Urban Forum run by UN-Habitat when it came through Vancouver. The news was dire: half of the world’s population will soon live in cities. The world is facing combined challenges with peak oil, climate change, and reduced availability of water. However, it doesn’t have to be so bad. We can focus on happiness instead of the relentless pursuit of GDP growth. As Enrique Penalosa, former Mayor of Bogota, Columbia, argued “why not make happiness a goal,” considering most countries in the world will never catch up to the U.S. in terms of economic performance.

What do we mean by happiness? The concept has obsessed philosophers and urban planners for thousands of years. “Aristotle wondered if it’s in heaven or earth?” Leading very public debates in ancient Greece, Aristotle ended up defining happiness as “to be guided by a positive spirit.” Greeks saw happiness as a balancing act between prosperity (a larger family, more wealth and power) with virtue (being engaged with the community, being good).

In the 18th century, pleasure gardens arose in Europe because of greater wealth. “There was enough money, prosperity so the idea was that everyone could have a chance of happiness on earth.” It quickly became a demand on policymakers: provide more happiness.

Economists soon defined happiness as money. It became about “maximizing purchasing power and minimizing pain.” American sprawl became the model for happiness but proved to be the most “expensive, polluting,” and “ambitious” project undertaken. Then, a new group of scientists – psychologists – found that you can ask people how happy they are and get a pretty good gauge. MRIs can be used to determine when someone’s happy. Also, blood tests can be taken to see levels of hormones in the bloodstream.

These researchers found that happiness doesn’t equal money. It’s more linked with status, social ties, security, health (and feeling healthy), along with a sense of meaningfullness or mastery. “Social ties though are the most important contributor to happiness.” In America, suburbs expanded, incomes rose, home size grew, but happiness remained flat, at 1950 levels.

Robert Sapolsky, an innovative neuroscientist (see image above), started doing research on baboon social lives. Those pushed around by alpha males had much “higher stress levels.” Stress can be OK when dealing with lions but long-term can be “toxic.” Baboons with “higher stress levels got sick more often and died younger.” However, low-status baboons had great tools. “They had friendships with other low-status baboons.” Also, alpha males, once weakened and older, were often pushed out of the community, meaning they “died alone, scared.” In the human world, it’s the same: strong social relationships with higher levels of trust mean increased life satisfaction. “The more you trust your neighbors, the happier you are.”

Montgomery reviewed the case of the Chicago heat waves, which killed more than 700 people. Researchers found that those who died weren’t in hotter areas but were those with the weakest social ties, the fewest friends. Environment, however, played a big role in this. The “high modernists” who created social housing projects helped create dangerous, socially-isolating environments for people. They still are: the palm project in U.A.E. is “sprawl on the water.”

Research shows that “super-commuters” who face 2-4 hours of commuting daily are really at risk. In neighborhoods with high levels of these super-commuters, there’s “zero trust.” These people “don’t have dinner with their children.” These people also vote less and fail to “maximize utility.” Sprawl then creates the conditions so people have fewer friends and close social ties. Montgomery sees the American sprawl model as broken, part of the reason behind the collapse of government finances, and “at the end, perhaps leading to a new beginning.” But, ultimately, “happiness is a choice, a personal choice. We are affected by the places we live in.”

Penalosa had a simple idea: create streets made for people, not cars. Instead of building freeways, he invested in libraries, schools, water systems and complete streets, with bus rapid transit (BRT) systems. With TransMilenio (see earlier post), “poor people can get around as fast as rich people with cars.” Bogota won lots of environmental awards for this. Mongtomery didn’t note that the BRT system was copied from Curitiba, Brazil. (See an interview with Jaime Lerner, the inventor of comprehensive BRT systems).

Living close together, while beneficial to social tie creation, can be stressful. “People being near each all the time can be stressful.” But humans have made ways to deal. Handshakes, polite gestures like opening doors for someone, even falling in love, they all lead to boosts in endorphin systems.

“We are also very responsive to our environments and react to environmental systems.” Disneyland has figured this out. Going out with a neuroscientist, Montgomery tested trust levels in one of Disney’s theme parks. Dropping his wallet, it was always returned. Bumping into people aggressively, the response was more muted or polite. Hugs were reciprocated. He said Disney’s urban designers and landscape architects knew exactly what kind of experience to design to maximize trust. In one “great” book, The Neighborhood Project, David Sloan Wilson found that just by looking at different houses on a block people had higher or lower trust levels. “Unconsciously we make decisions about much we can trust landscapes, people.”

Further testing out these ideas, Montgomery started an urban lab project in the Lower East Side of Manhattan with funding from the Guggenheim. Wearing “skin conductive cuffs,” a set of people tested out the “warmth or brutality of spaces.” There were high arousal levels when crossing big streets like Houston. In contrast, “in senior’s gardens, people felt happiest.” Streets with many openings instead of stark facades also raised happiness levels. These are ideas urban designer Jan Gehl has promoted (see an interview). Of course, people feel the happiest when surrounded by nature. Biophilia is true: there are great benefits to “being in nature, you feel good, comfortable.”

Communities can turn things around for themselves and veer away from “empty cul-de-sacs.” Green matters. Just adding in trees or vegetation can “lead to a dramatic difference in affect.” Gardens, green streets, all designed by landscape architects, “matter a great deal.” Penelosa turned streets into parks on Sundays, providing a space for communities to interact without cars. Many other cities have copied his approach since, including, most recently, New York City, with its new pedestrian malls.

The Build a Better Block experiment in Houston, which just won an ASLA professional award, provides another example of how to reimagine transportation infrastructure. In Portland, residents also got together to redo their own intersection, adding a gazebo and paintings throughout the streetscape, creating this community’s own “piazza.” An example of an “intersection repair intervention,” the project showed the importance of doing projects together. In the community, “everything changed. There were new connections. These are people who know their neighbors.” As one younger resident said, “why would we be scared, we have each other.”

Montgomery’s lasting point for landscape architects: while designing with artistry is important, projects can only suceed to the extent to which they bring communities together and involved in the process.

Image credit: Robert Sapolsky and a baboon / Copyright Robert Sapolsky 2006.

Is Your Firm an Elephant or a Cheetah?

At the ASLA 2011 Annual Meeting, Mark Johnson, FASLA, Civitas, ably moderated a session on how mid-size firms can better compete with the big multidisciplinary shops, asking pointed questions of some of leading landscape architects practicing in the U.S. and Europe today, including Martha Schwartz, ASLA, Martha Schwartz Partners, Peter Walker, FASLA, PWP Landscape Architecture, Lucinda Sanders, FASLA, OLIN, James Corner, ASLA, james corner field operations, and Adriaan Gueze, International ASLA, West 8. Johnson said “we are all friends, we all like each other, we are competitors, and want to get ahead of each other so this should be interesting.”

The marketplace is changing. Big firms like AECOM are getting bigger and becoming “one-stop shops” so how can small landscape architecture firms of around 30-40 people compete? How can these small firms accept the “risks and liabilities” associated with increasingly complex projects?

Each firm described their own current predicament: OLIN has grown through the recession and is 35 years old. There are now 11 partners but the main question is one of succession with the expected retirement of Laurie Olin, FASLA, one of the world’s leading landscape architects. Martha Schwartz, whose firm yo-yos between 30 and 70 people, said she has worked her way out of the U.S. and now does most of her work in Europe and the Middle East. In contrast to her earlier work, she now focuses on “sustainable strategies bigger than the site scale.” James Corner’s office has about 35-45 people. From 1998 to 2011, he grew very quickly, adding about 25 people. The lead designer of the High Line park, Corner focuses on “complex projects in the public realm.” Peter Walker, landscape architect behind the new 9/11 memorial in New York City, has around 35 people, “goes where the projects are,” but usually focuses on “slow, big, public” projects. West 8 has around ten staff in New York and another 50 in the Netherlands. 

Here are just some highlights from the topics covered in this free-wheeling debate:

On Elephants vs. Cheetahs

Schwartz immediately turned the session’s premise on its head, said either-or dichotomies are “really stupid.” Doing her research, she said elephants live together, with women playing a central role in raising children while men are on the outskirts. They eat all day long, destroying their environment in the process, but only digest about 40 percent of what they eat, meaning that they “aren’t very efficient. They can’t sustain themselves. They are going extinct.” So, she said she definitely didn’t want to be an elephant. However, cheetahs also have their issues: They can go from 0-60 in 3 seconds but “aren’t very smart.” To catch prey, they have to “trip up the animal.” Then, they take 30 minutes to recover. “They are also going extinct” so she didn’t want to be a cheetah either. “I don’t want to be either. I have my own model.”

The Threats to Smaller Firms

Many of the design leaders on the panel discussed how many of their trusted vendors and partners are being bought up by the big multidisciplinary firms. Sanders at OLIN said “there are not many firms that we trust so I see that as a threat to our industry. They are taking away resources we rely on.”

Corner was more concerned that the AECOMs of the world are becoming more sophisticated with their designs. Corner said AECOM won the Rio Olympics project with a fairly smart design. “Some of these big firms are starting to push the design edge. That threatens our capacity, but competition is healthy.”  He wants landscape architecture firms to take on these multidisciplinary, complex projects – “maybe this is where we can lead.”

The Particular Value of Landscape Architects

When Corner was starting out as an intern, he worked on the Royal Dock Works project in London. In one of the early examples of a multidisciplinary project, there were architects, landscape architects, ecologists, transportation engineers. However, “nobody could speak outside their disciplines. No one was listening to anyone else. There was lots of scoffing.” This was because “no one had been trained to deal with these projects. Nobody could orchestrate a bigger synthesis.” Corner said this is where “we need to target the entire field” because there’s “something about our creativity. We are good listeners, work well with systems, and are not control freaks.” Furthermore, a “smart landscape architect can offer more direction and orchestration,” and not just add in the trees at the end of the project. 

Schwartz agreed, adding that “big firms can’t go where we go” providing “strategic conceptual approaches.” Landscape architects are focused on “systems but also materials, the texture of projects.” However, she also said big firms, unlike smaller ones, can get “infrastructure going, they can get a beachhead into places like China.” Then, once they create the ecosystem, the “little animals” (i.e. smaller firms like hers) can benefit and come in. She added that mass-produced landscapes aren’t possible – the conditions are “so different, variable” so in that sense, there would always be work for firms that do quality work.  

How Can Small Firms Get the Edge?

Schwartz thinks that “design has to be exemplary to beat AECOM.” Gueze at West 8 said that a design “needs to be outstanding. It can’t be mediocre. To get a job, you have to deliver.” It also pays to have a network. “You have to know people. There’s not just one client. They have issues, communities, problems they are dealing with.” Furthermore, “you need to have outstanding rhetorical quality. You need words, metaphors because your ideas will be constantly undermined.” He believes that this is not related to firm size.

Corner thinks that’s of course true but wanted to focus on “management structures,” arguing that “structures can give us a shot” at the big projects.

Is Firm Size Important?

Schwartz felt that “size creates an agenda. We need a work volume to feed the size of it.” She asked whether, strategically and artistically, do we want to do this? In her case, the answer is no. “We all have a heavy hand in the size of our firms.” Also, big firms “need to feed this big thing. It’s not about desire anymore.”

Walker seemed to disagree, arguing that he’s “resentful of people who say the profession should do this or that,” adding that Corner can “go big if he wants” and scale up his practice to take on the big firms.

“There are lots of assumptions about the motivation of our office,” Sanders said, if the firm grows larger. “We understand people’s profit agendas but it’s a personal decision to decide to go big or small.” She thinks there are also other agendas: “It’s not always about making money.” Large firms don’t make more profit than smaller firms as a percentage of revenue.

Walker thought that Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who recently died from pancreatic cancer, had it right: Making the perfect thing can lead to more money. It’s not a choice at the start between the perfect thing and making more. He added that quality should be “recognized at every scale.” Sanders whole-heartedly agreed, saying that “quality does matter. We still do lots of precious jewels.”

Where do your firms need to go?

“Everyone is up here because we invented something. We create value, edge, and that moves the culture forward,” said Schwartz, and this is increasingly something that clients want. As a whole, she said landscape architects are far better now than 30 years ago in meeting the needs of clients.

For her, Europe is the next big market. “The U.S. is a first world country but is behind the 8 ball. Scandinavian countries are reinventing their cities and, there, landscape is central to the public realm. There’s a big desire for landscape architects there.” Here, she’s tired of playing the advocate, “campaigning.” She said “green roofs are nice, but what about sustainable cities?” 

Corner said he can never get 100 percent of what he wants in advance but focuses on being a good conversationalist. “An outcome is the best I can hope for.” He also wants landscape architects to become “stronger advocates for a more coherent built environment.”

OLIN is more focused on growing its own people. “To do this creatively, effectively, it takes concerted effort.” Sanders’ firm is focused on “creating places for people,” and will always value quality. To ensure this, the firm has started a research department to “compliment, bolster our efforts, enriching our conversations with clients.” OLIN wants to make sure their senior people are credible.

Gueze was concerned about the “American obsession with business” – design is about “much more than business practices.” He added that Frederick Law Olmsted’s business was a “mess.” He said West 8 “fails all the time,” but “if it’s in the stars, the client will recognize something in our proposals.” In a sense then, the ideas, designs are far more important than the management structures. “Some projects are organized well but fail to deliver.”

Where does landscape architecture need to go?

Gueze: “We are engineers with a certain illusion or romance. We need to bring this knowledge to the contemporary culture. Landscape is still tied to 19th century ideas.”

Corner: “Cities are where it’s at. Spectacular spaces. We’ve lost a sense of that. We can get mired in environmental subjects like ecology, but need to create a new level of experience.”

Sanders: “Those two ideas, plus we need to have conversations without using the word sustainability. We need to understand what we are saying when we use that word.”

Walker: “I can’t affect the field through some new theory; I can only provide an example. The separation of landscape architecture and planning was a disaster so I am going to dedicate my remaining time and energy to getting this dialogue to work easier. When the fields separated, planners took away politics, sociology. Landscape architects took away botanical knowledge, knowledge of spaces.”

Schwartz: “Climate change. We as a profession and in our individual capacities need to educate people on a personal basis and apply ourselves to this problem. I feel personally responsible. I fly a lot – am I worth it? I feel compelled to work on this. Cities need to more efficiently use resources. Art and landscape can create real connections to landscapes. We can’t leave behind human connections in our attempts to fight climate change and create cities of density.”

Net-Zero Park Design

John “Bill” Taylor, ASLA, of Carol R. Johnson Associates, and Mark Walsh-Cooke and Tom Kennedy of Arup, gave a talk on “The Next Generation of Net-Zero Park Design” at the 2011 ASLA annual meeting.

Problem: the earth’s resources are finite. The amount of usable freshwater, air, and, of course, oil, make up a very small amount of the planet. And, with the population growing, scarcity is bound to increase. Complicating matters, climate change is real. We will continue to see more flood events as the amount of rain is concentrated in fewer, stronger storms. More and more, our lives will be interrupted by unpredictable weather patterns. Tom Kennedy with Arup asked, “Where do we draw the line?”

“Net-zero” parks may be part of a global effort to deal with these changes. Bill Taylor, a landscape architect with Carol R. Johnson Associates, said that “the next generation of parks will be part of a massive urban and regional retrofitting.” Net-zero is a term used to quantify sustainability by paying close attention to a project’s impacts and resource consumption – usually in terms of water, carbon, and energy. When it comes to designing net-zero parks, however, there are more questions than answers. How is net-zero defined? According to Kennedy, net-zero is a lot like the term “sustainability” in that there are almost as many definitions for it as there are references to it. For landscape purposes, should net-zero refer to operational or lifetime costs? Does it involve offsetting carbon or energy expenditures? Does it consider the carbon impact of deliveries made to the site, or of importing water? “Net-zero is not really well defined yet,” said Kennedy. He proposes that while the definition is flexible, one should decide on their own definition of net-zero early on in a project’s lifespan. 

Taylor indicated there has been growing momentum around net-zero concepts in parks. Some precedents for net-zero park parameters may be found in New York City Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC and his Parks department’s “A Plan for Sustainable Practices within New York Parks.” In addition, the National Park Service has recently declared their intention to focus on energy efficiency in future projects, avoiding the use of any fossil fuels where possible. Taylor also pointed to environmental concerns abroad. A recent article published by Harvard Business School asserts that over $500 billion dollars are projected to be spent on building “environmentally-sound” cities from scratch over the next decade. 

Several examples from practice were used to describe components of net-zero park design. Shams, in Dubai, which is to be located on a man-made island, is an example of “net-zero passive cooling of the public realm.” The design promises to use passive cooling to lower ambient temperatures by 4 to 7 degrees C. This is accomplished by creating 75 percent tree canopy, lowering the park level by 8 meters below surrounding streets, using cold deep sea water to flush canals that run along pedestrian corridors, and by surrounding the park with air-conditioned retail shops that exhaust cool air into low-lying areas.  The temperature difference between the air and the cold water canals will also enable heat exchangers to be used to cool surrounding buildings. Taylor acknowledged that irrigating trees in the public realm with water from desalination comes at a high energy cost. 

Another Central Park, this one in New Songdo City, South Korea, demonstrated rainwater harvesting strategies that would result in no civic water being needed for irrigation. A Jack Nicklaus Golf Park was used to demonstrate a low-tech solution to maintaining water level in the site’s ponds. The ponds were retrofitted with large diameter sub-surface pipes that connect them to each other so that water is distributed evenly without the use of pumps.   

Mark Walsh-Cook with Arup then outlined a landscape modeling strategy dubbed Integrated Resource Management (IRM), which optimizes strategies for development. This came out of the need for a more rigorous planning tool to maximize resource efficiency.  As Walsh-Cook says, “We need to achieve more with less.” IRM compares different design scenarios, which includes land use percentages, and measures the results through the lens of key performance indicators such as carbon, energy, and water use. 

Ultimately, said Kennedy, we need to reduce our per-capita demand for finite resources. Unfortunately, there’s very little in the way of governance in this matter, forcing us to change our behavior. As far as landscape architects, “We are the governance.  We need to self-police, and push each other.” Perhaps this means pushing forward with defining and implementing net-zero design. As Taylor said, “our future will be determined by our involvement in setting parameters.”  

This guest post is by Dakotah Bertsch, Associate ASLA, Design Associate, Design Ecology

Image credit: Shams Park / Construction Week

It Takes a Village to Raise a Mayor

Smart mayors who get the value design and its ability to transform communities don’t just grow on trees. They are the product of lots of different advisors and their thinking is shaped by organizations like the Mayor’s Institute on City Design (MICD), an initiative founded in the mid-1980s by the American Architectural Foundation, U.S. Conference of Mayors, and National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). At a session at the 2011 ASLA Annual Meeting, MICD director Story Bellows, Mitchell Silver, director of planning, Raleigh, North Carolina and president of the American Planning Association (APA), Mark Dawson, ASLA, Sasaki Associates, and Mami Hara, ASLA, Wallace, Roberts & Todd and Philadelphia Water department, discussed how MICD has helped educate and empower mayors. They also covered the role the various design professions play in advising elected officials, and how they are all more effective if they work collaboratively.

The Value of Design Professionals in City Design

Some 873 mayors from 500 communities have gone through MICD’s program in the last 25 years. In sets of eight, mayors are expected to bring a major issue that confounds them. The problems are then discussed with design teams comprised of eight expert architects, urban designers, landscape architects, and planners. The goal, said Bellows, was to give mayors a “great set of strategies,” and a deeper understanding — that “design is more than just pretty parks.”

For APA president Mitchell Silver, it’s important to educate elected officials that great cities “don’t just happen by accident.” In 1959, Raleigh became the first city to create a research park. As a result, beginning in the 1990s, the city became a top place to do business and live. In addition, part of the process of education is explaining to elected officials the true nature of demographic change. “We have to understand who were planning and designing for.” Building in diversity for different generations is crucial. “Their values drive consumer preferences and what the community looks like.” It’s increasingly important for planners and design professionals to design for a younger generation as well: “We can’t be building a polaroid community for a digital generation. Communities fail if not designed for the right demographic.”

Silver made the point that planners and design professionals are crucial to ensuring that communities guide development efforts. “Do you want communities to define character of new development or have new developments guide the character of the community?” He said people know if something isn’t authentic so it’s very important to get that right. Silver pointed to Savannah as an example of a city that understands this, and “builds off its local anatomy.”

Furthermore, planners can also value by using land differently. High-rise residential buildings in downtowns provide a much better return on investment, tax-wise, in comparison with a sprawled-out suburban development. “By not investing in downtowns, mayors will be saying I will raise your taxes.” He also tells his own planning staff it’s the role of planners to “create an experience,” but it can’t be done alone – it must be a multi-disciplinary process with landscape architects and other design professionals, and mayors are also demanding this as well.

Mark Dawson, ASLA, a landscape architect with Sasaki Associates, said MICD has helped “elevate the understanding of key objectives” and the “value of landscapes.” He added, however, that it’s important to forge an understanding with communities. “Sometimes this is rewarding. Other times this is very hard work. It can be a struggle, but once the communities informs the designers and the designers inform the communities, solutions are found.”

Mami Hara, ASLA, WRT and interim chief of staff at the Philadelphia Water department, now works with elected officials, including federal and state representatives. She creates briefings for the Philadelphia mayor on green infrastructure. She said, funnily, that it really “takes a village to raise an elected official.” Like anyone, they use an iterative learning process and glean things from many different advisors. So it’s important for landscape architects, in the context of MICD programs and elsewhere, to collaborate with other designers to build consensus and “circle the wagons” so elected officials feel compelled to make the right decisions. As with anyone, elected officials get things better if they connect their ideas to personal experiences.

MICD’s Recommendations Put Cities First

Recently, MICD convened 300 attendees, including some 50-60 mayors, the heads of the major U.S. federal departments, and leaders of philanthropies, to discuss how to “set the agenda for cities for the next 25 years.” Key recommendations that came out of a 2-day series of workshops included:

  • Break down government barriers and silos
  • Government needs to change the 20th century regulations that stand in the way of innovation
  • Support and reward innovation
  • Direct funds towards cities instead of states
  • Incorporate urban design into the structure of government.

In the area of design and transportation, MICD recommendations included:

  • Create a new, more sustainable federal vision that can be translated at the state and local levels
  • Generate revenues through local transportation and services
  • Level with the American people about the true cost of transportation
  • Shift thinking away from single-modal and towards multi-modal transportation and balanced transportation systems.

To generate new models of development, recommendations were:

  • Take advantage of existing building stock
  • Make under-utilized land more available for redevelopment
  • Get the federal government to assist with brownfield remediation and reuse
  • Encourage developers to “provide necessities”
  • Prepare for market shift to urban development.

To more towards 21st century cities, recommendations focused in on:

  • Revisit ways to evaluate success. What about public health?
  • Leverage new technologies to engage the public
  • Focus on operational elements. Maintenance is critical
  • Find new models of public engagement.

All agreed that perhaps the central recommendation was directing funds towards cities, not states. Hara said “sometimes the federal government trusts cities and sometimes they don’t. It’s important to gain and keep the federal government’s trust by being consistently responsible with the use of funds.” Cities need to prove their capacity to manage their own development, but aren’t many already doing this? As Mayor Michael Nutter said at MICD’s summit, “give me the money. I know what to do with it.” Silver added that in one closed session, Nutter also stuck it to some  of Obama’s top appointed officials, saying “if I behaved like the federal government, I’d be fired.” Silver said the focus on cities is crucial, but funds should really go to metro areas more broadly.

Another point of agreement was the need to undo the legacy codes stifling innovation. Silver said codes turn into “bloated homeowner association documents.” There needs to be a shift to “form-based codes.” Still so many things he wants to do in Raleigh are technically illegal.

There was some disagreement as to whether small-scale projects really add value. Hara believed that small, grassroots projects are an “important trend today,” given “single, large-scale projects are harder to do.” Pragmatic design is the new approach, but mayors are still pushing the boundaries. Dawson agreed, asking the question: “what is small scale?” He believed these projects are easier to scale up. However, Silver thinks it’s time to go big scale. “We need to press the reset button. America is demanding big solutions to big problems. I don’t want ‘It’ll do’ to be good enough.” 

No More Divide and Conquer Among the Design Professions

Design professionals must better sell their own value. “It can’t just be an attractive landscape. A project has to transform a place.” Parks do create more value but their value must be communicated in economic terms, “the currency of today,” said Silver. Hara agreed that landscape architects think they are providing great value, but they may be the only ones who do. “We can synthesize all the elements that go into urban systems better than anyone, but we have to learn the language people on center stage, the bankers and financiers, use. Our language is not mainstream.” Silver said designers and planners are actually more critical to public health than doctors, and have more impact and responsibility. “The bumper sticker should read: Landscape architects: We make you healthy.”

One irate planning professor, who stormed out of the room after delivering his missive, put it to Silver that “landscape architects have eaten our lunch, and have taken over the role of planners, while planners have been regulated to code enforcement.” He wondered why planning organizations have been talking about revising codes for 30 years but have made so little progress? Also, public finance is tapped out, so when will planners get serious about leveraging private financing? Silver said there were a number of reasons landscape architects have begun to take the lead in creating master plans, but largely agreed, saying he was elected APA president to fix this. He added: “Planners are in the public sector. We can’t approve codes.” He also called for expanding the use of private-public partnerships (PPPs). But his big point was that all design professions need to collaborate.

While the architecture, landscape architecture professions and “social reformers,” who later became planners, were born around 1909, their divergence has been to their detriment. “We need more collaboration between urban designers, architects, engineers, landscape architects, and planners. They all need to be at the table. It can’t be the destructive divide and conquer approach among the design professions. We have to work together.” Hara added that consolidation among government departments reflects this attempt to become more multidisciplinary. She and Dawson also called for the rise of new hybrid “landscape architect / engineers” who can add credibility. Silver said “plan-gineers” are already doing great work on transportation infrastructure in Raleigh.

Lastly, another audience member, Ignacio Bunster-Ossa, FASLA, principal at WRT, also called for the formation of a new “Institute of Community Design,” saying that community-driven design presents an enormous “untapped opportunity.” “More and more communities have to realize their own visions in the absence of coding.” In other words, elected officials don’t have the monopoly on cities. It may be important to grow the efforts of communities themselves.

Image credit: City of Raleigh Moore Square Redevelopment / City of Raleigh

Communities Rally to Get into Planetizen’s List of the Top 100 Public Spaces

and the Project for Public Spaces (PPS) started a crowdsourcing project earlier this year to get a sense for what communities, planners, and designers see as the top 100 public spaces in the U.S. and Canada. However, instead of presenting an “impartial list of the most revered, tested, and acclaimed public spaces” that reflects a dispassionate assessment of sites’ qualities, Planetizen and PPS instead announced a list today that is in part a result of communities’ active lobbying and efforts to boost votes for their local spots. Still, Planetizen says topping the list this way may just be another measure of success: these are places communities are really passionate about.

By this measure, The Circle, a small roundabout park in Normal, Illinois, designed by Chicago-based Hoerr Schaudt landscape architects, is the number-one public space, beating out New York City’s Central Park and High Line Park, as well as Millennium Park in Chicago. Planetizen spoke to Mayor Chris Koos of Normal, who said: “I do believe the Circle as a Public Space stands on its own as a truly unique, inviting and innovative space.” Indeed, the park is one of the more innovative models of the past few years and was the subject of one of the most popular ever posts on this blog, but can it be more popular than Central Park? Perhaps New Yorkers are too busy to vote.

While this may cause some to scratch their heads, Planetizen and PPS seem fine with this feistier, more democratic view of the top 100 public spaces. “It seems highly appropriate that we celebrate the local, people-driven spots over the Olmsted ‘Emerald Necklace.’ In this era of fine-grained urban planning, change is happening in the streets, not in the grand parks and municipal plazas. Place today is being made with a handful of chairs and a planter in a parking space.”

The top ten places include:

1. The Circle, Uptown Normal, Illinois
2. Temple Plaza, New Haven, Connecticut
3. Campus Martius Park, Detroit, Michigan
4. Cal Anderson Park, Seattle, Washington
5. CityArt Walking Sculpture Tour, Mankato, Minnesota
6. Bryant Park, NY, NY
7. Pittsburgh Market Square, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
8. Arts District at Bay Street, Bellingham, Washington
9. Balboa Park, San Diego, California
10. Church Street Marketplace District, Burlington, Vermont

The rest of the top 100 list includes many of the parks, streets, and important public places you’d expect but, here, they don’t place very highly, which, in this case, means they didn’t get that many votes among Planetizen readers. Iconic and amazingly well-visited Central Park in New York City, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, comes in at a suprisingly low 32nd place, while art-deco Lincoln Road in Miami, a must-stop for any visitor to Miami Beach, is further down at 62nd place. The great Ferry Building/Farmer’s Market and Crissy Fields in San Francisco only got 31st and 39th place. Yosemite National Park is in 58th place. Meanwhile, the High Line Park, designed by James Corner Field Operations, was at 12th place. Just to note, Canada is not lacking in great public spaces, but only lacking support in this list: Canada only comes into the list at 71st place with Stuart Park in Kelowna, British Columbia. Canadians must not have heard of this project.

If anything, this list may help promote the littler-known, yet loved parks that are changing local communities, like The Circle in Uptown Normal or Campus Martius Park in Detroit. Try to make sense of the list yourself.

Review all top 100 public spaces.

As a companion to this project, Planetizen also asked three leading architecture critics, an author on cities,  two landscape architects, and a smart growth expert for their top 10 public spaces. James Russell, architecture critic, Bloomberg News; John King, urban design critic, The San Francisco Chronicle; Inga Saffron, architecture critic, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Anthony Flint, author of Wrestling with Moses (see an interview); Nicole Horn and David Gal, ASLA, two landscape architects with SWA Group; and Sam Zimbabwe, Director of the Center for Transit-Oriented Development added their picks. Interestingly, there was little agreement among the critics and designers, except for the High Line, which got four votes. Central Park, NYC, Millennium Park, Chicago, and Stanley Park, Vancouver, also got multiple votes.

Gal, though, made the case for San Diego’s great park, demonstrating that design professionals are equally as passionate about their favorites as communites are with theirs: “My favorite public space is The Prado in Balboa Park, San Diego. Strolling on a warm southern California afternoon through the many museums and lush landscaping amongst the eclectic Spanish-Colonial Revival architecture (built nearly a century ago for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition) is pure bliss…it doesn’t get much better than that.”

Image credit: Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects

Cleveland Gets Serious About Fixing Its Problems

Facing continued economic decline and an ever-shrinking population, Cleveland, which has some of the highest foreclosure rates in the country, has come up with an aggressive plan to bring the city back. The new Reimagining Cleveland sustainability vision aims to reinvest in dense urban neighborhoods, build “catalytic infrastructure,” and turn vacant, abandoned lots into green open space, commercial and residential farms, even vineyards.

At the 2011 AICP Symposium held at the National Building Museum, Robert Brown, Director of Cleveland’s City Planning Commission, says Cleveland was once the 5th most populous city in the country, but is now in 44th place, with a population of less than 400,000. Over the past few decades, 86 percent of manufacturing jobs have been lost, cutting down the 223,000 jobs the city had in the 1940s. In the past five years, there have been 40,000 foreclosures, a trend, which, unfortunately, put Cleveland on the cover of The New York Times Magazine. During the same period, the city has demolished some 5,000 abandoned homes. Still, there are approximately 20,000 vacant lots, of which 8,000 are now in the city’s “land bank.” For the city, the primary challenge is how to retain an urban form while losing half of its population. The city sees mixed-use development; “catalytic infrastructure;” green open space, urban agriculture, and greenways, as key to dealing with these immense challenges. 

Development is to now be “concentrated in stronger areas.” To decide what these areas are, the planning commission undertook a lengthy mapping process and identified “walkable urban areas,” town centers like downtown, with its comedy clubs, cafes, restaurants, and shops. There are also efforts to revitalize the city center with a new “medical mart,” a one-stop medical facility, which will be linked to rebuilding the city’s older convention center. Nearby, Ohio’s first casino will open in an abandoned department store, all in an effort to increase people density, and bring in more restaurants and stores. “We want to get people on the streets.” Neighborhood arts districts, which Brown said “work much bettter in older urban cores,” are also key areas for investment, along with “live-work” districts in these communities. One former printing press now provides housing for artists. Other areas targeted for investment: Cleveland’s lakefront, which has been cut off by freeways and railroad. On the lakefront, there’s a new mixed-use development.

Cleveland sees bus rapid transit (BRT) as catalytic infrastructure and has invested $200 million in bring fast bus service and infrastructure to the central Euclid Avenue. There’s 4.5 miles of dedicated BRT lanes, 36 stations, 4 miles of parallel bike lanes, and new streetscapes and public art. Like many cities that have put in BRT (see earlier post), the results have been dramatic: Brown said the new system and streetscapes have led to $4.3 billion in new development, with 11.4 million square feet of new building space. Along this corridor, there’s mixed-use and mixed-income developments, including “supportive housing” for homeless, along with a new Museum of Contemporary Art. 

One new infrastructure project, the “Cleveland Opportunity Corridor,” will create Complete Streets through vacant, underutilized neighborhoods. Brown made a point of saying these “weren’t freeways” but will include bike paths, sidewalks, and green infrastructure. Another will create a new path under the freeways so there will be easier access to the beaches from neighboring communities. Also included in those plans are new multi-use trails and a lakefront development.

For the land that has “no market for development,” Cleveland is starting to think more creatively. Brown said the land will be used for green infrastructure, soil remediation, urban agriculture, or renewable energy. Much like Detroit, another large-yet-shrinking city (see earlier post), Cleveland is putting its natural resources to work in an effort to improve health equity throughout the city. As Brown noted, the average life expectancy within parts of the city is 64 years, while 88.5 is the average lifespan for residents in wealthier suburbs. Brown said about half of the difference is due to “diet and exercise.”

To “water our food deserts” and provide healthier food alternatives, Cleveland has totally revamped its codes on urban agriculture. Vineyards, orchards, and bee hives are now acceptable, along with small-scale and large, commercial urban farms. One 6-acre site is farmed by refugees, while a 26-acre “urban agriculture innovation zone” is in the works with USDA and local universities acting as key partners. One 5-acre indoor, worker-owned cooperative greenhouse will be put up in a low-income neighboorhood in an effort to create green jobs. Farmer’s markets are sprouting up everywhere.

In some areas, new rules enable urban gardens and also prohibit other uses, meaning that some land can only be used for urban gardening. Chickens, ducks, and rabbits (up to 6) are now permitted. For spots with further set-backs, gees, roosters, turkeys, and even pigs, sheep, and goats are now allowed. New ordinances mean that the “principle” use of some residential areas can be farms, with farm stands for selling produce and composting. There are also smart incentives: Like Detroit, Cleveland now offers to lease vacant land from its land bank for $1 if the tenant agrees to create and maintain a commercial urban farm (see earlier post). These farmers can get $3,000 to buy seeds, fertilizers, and equipment. Other pilot projects focus on applying phytoremediation to brownfields (see an animation) and introducing native landscapes. The goal is to ensure every Cleveland resident lives walking distance from a community garden. The city is also going to start using “health impact assessments” to measure the impacts, if any, of all their re-zoning efforts.

Explore Reimagining Cleveland’s growing list of innovative projects.

Image credit: Chateau Hough, Cleveland / Reimagining Cleveland

Green Infrastructure Means Jobs

At a packed briefing on Capitol Hill, an official from a regional wastewater management authority, a New York-based landscape designer, and the head of a niche-yet-growing green infrastructure engineering firm made the case that green infrastructure means more jobs for skilled designers and engineers as well as less-skilled maintenance crews. The meeting, which was organized by American Rivers, the American Society of Landscape Architects, the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, and the Water Environment Federation, was set up to show how green infrastructure can create more “permanent” local jobs while improving water quality and the environment.

Jeff Egar, Executive Director, Water Environment Federation, said the E.P.A.’s latest report to Congress on the country’s water quality clearly states that stormwater runoff is a “major source of water pollution.” As an example, the Chesapeake Bay is “still impaired because of runoff.” Also, the “dead zones” in the Gulf of Mexico continue to grow due to unabated runoff and overflow problems coming from delta communities upstream. Within cities, the issue is runoff that taxes systems and leads to overflow: older, combined sewage and stormwater infrastructure can be easily overcome by storms, which leads to flooding, with raw sewage pouring into rivers. This is one reason Washington, D.C. is investing billions in a new “large water storage tunnel.” Unfortunately, D.C.’s solution is “not holistic,” and doesn’t take into consideration the capacity of green infrastructure, which includes green roofs, rain gardens, bioswales, and bioretention systems, to catch rainwater where it falls.

Still, there are signs some local governments and wastewater utility authorities get it: “the enforcement community is slowly showing signs of acceptance.” He also pointed to his own projects when he was at a wastewater authority, which involved rebuilding a stream and creating “constructed wetlands” to deal with excess runoff, which ended up saving his district huge amounts of money.

Regulations Can Be Opportunities If You Are Creative

Ted Scott, Executive Vice President and Founder, Stormwater Maintenance, said there’s been a paradigm shift towards green infrastructure. Oils, greases, chemicals, and actual bits of old bottles and trash transform street stormwater runoff into a toxic stew. “Urbanization really equals pollution.” In the past, engineers have used “efficiency engineering,” which creates grey infrastructure that is “out of sight, out of mind.” That approach will no longer work considering a “plastic bottle you throw on the street in New York City now ends up in a huge garbage patch in the middle of the ocean,” said Scott (see an earlier post on the massive garbage patches.) Not only does runoff and trash spoil the maritime environment, they’re also now a public health issue for those in these urban communities.

Thirty years of research on green infrastructure systems has led to new knowledge. “Retention basins aren’t effective; they just push pollution downstream,” argued Scott. Permeable pavements, green roofs, bioswales — “distributed small-scale practices” — are far more effective than large ponds. To embed green infrastructure, then, there also needs to be a shift in land-use, with denser areas for development and lots of open space and dedicated areas for natural stormwater mitigation systems. These can now be “amenities, instead of hidden out of sight.”

Scott says while these systems have been in use since the early 90s, but it was really just in 2000 that he started to see green infrastructure projects take root. And even then, “many developers have resisted the changes.” In Maryland, when the state simply recommended these practices, few were doing it. Now, with the 2009 requirements mandating green infrastructure use on every site, we are seeing “urban micro-habitats” taking shape.

With the new rules, labor has shifted as well. In the face of more regulation, “cookie-cutter” solutions don’t work. “It takes creativity to get cost savings.” As a result, “landscape architects and more creative-minded engineers who don’t think linearly” are becoming more prominent. Maintenance has also changed. With more landscape design work, there’s more people and less equipment. “There’s been a move to landscape-based contractors, which provides more opportunities for unskilled labor.” Overall, Scott says his business has boomed as a result of new green infrastructure regulations. In an economic downturn, his employees are up 417 percent, revenue is up 540 percent, and profits have increased nearly 400 percent.

Demand Grows for Green Infrastructure

Tricia Martin, ASLA, WE Design, and president of the New York chapter of ASLA, sees growing demand for green infrastructure solutions. As a result, this has led to a shift within the landscape architecture community. Her small design business, which she owns with her husband, now integrates green infrastructure into most urban sites she works on. For Phoenix House, a program that educates youth in the city, rain barrels combined with comprehensive site system helped the non-profit save on water irrigation costs. The site itself was also built by the students in the program as part of a “green jobs training program.”

New York City is “plagued by polluted runoff” and overrun from combined sewer systems, which ends up in the local rivers. In fact, she said right now “80 percent of rain events result in sewage entering the rivers. This is totally unacceptable.” However, Martin likes that NYC is thinking big on stormwater management, with its new green infrastructure plan modeled on Philadelphia’s innovative program. The goal of NYC’s plan is to cut 12 billion gallons of stormwater runoff by 2030, a 40 percent reduction. Part of the plan involves converting 10 percent of the city’s impervious surfaces into permeable ones.

One project Martin is working on is the Brooklyn Greenway, a 14 mile bike and pedestrian path that is a “template for future green streets” in the city, and a “top priority” of the city government. Her firm is adding in “infiltration basins” around street trees. “These are basically bathtubs with plants.” The greenway is expected to the “spine of the system,” and provide a “methodology for the city” to follow for other green streets. Her work on the broader greenway neighborhood plan has involved “mapping steets and sidewalk widths,” figuring out where the opportunities are for green roofs on large institutional buildings, and identifying nearby schools, which can be used for educational green infrastructure. She wants to leverage capital improvement projects coming up and use those opportunities to retrofit existing streets. 

Martin argued that because of their interdisciplinary nature, green infrastructure projects are “challenging and fun.” These projects “mean more jobs for landscape architects, which means more jobs for engineers, horticulturalists, scientists, and maintenance crews.” She added that it’s not “about just doing good, but making good economic sense. We can’t afford big wastewater treatment plants anymore.”

Cleveland Creates a Green Infrastructure Index

While Philadelphia and New York City have gotten all the press on their big green infrastructure plans, Cleveland has been quietly moving forward with its own innovative program. Kyle Dreyfuss-Wells, Manager of Watershed Programs, Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District and Chair, NACWA Stormwater Management Committee, said Cleveland’s approach represents “regionalism in action” because they’ve taken a broader view of the watershed. She pointed to examples of flooding and erosion, and how some homeowners have even tried to solve the problems on their own by devising railings to hold back collapsing soils. She said those homeowners were facing a losing battle because the source of flooding and erosion is “upstream, it’s from all those impervious surfaces” across the region.

For Dreyfuss-Wells, grey and green have to go together. With $3 billion in investments planned over 25 years and an annual stormwater management budget of just $38 million, every piece of green infrastructure “must add value.” So, the city mapped out and targeted all the overflow zones, creating a “green infrastructure index.” Some of these green zones are vacant lots, which have been “repurposed” through the addition of bioretention basins. Other more urban sites still in use get new bioswales and rain gardens. In one example, the Collonwood Recreation area, which was a vacant big-box store lot, was redeveloped as a community center, with “bioretention islands” that reduce off-site runoff to zero. She joked that “when you visit Cleveland, you’ll want to camp on some of these beautiful sites.” 

Dreyfuss-Wells concluded that these types of projects are responsible and “solve the problem, instead of moving it to another community.” Green infrastructure “supports local experts,” who can “ensure correct design and construction practices.” She urged water authorities to “partner with developers on redevelopment opportunities” from the get-go, integrate green infrastructure into current parks and large common areas, and find site-specific solutions.

Image credit: (1) 2011 Green Infrastructure Grant Project, NYC / WE Design (2) Brooklyn Greenway Map / WE Design

Developer Financed, Community Designed

A 4.2-acre park is slowly taking shape where a huge parking lot now exists on the southwest waterfront in Washington, D.C. Interestingly, the park, which is just a tiny piece of the $1.5 billion, 51-acre redevelopment project moving forward along the Washington Channel, is developer financed but community designed. Developers PN Hoffman and MadisonMarquette responded to community demands for their park to be moved up in the queue. Now part of the first phase of development, the park is getting expedited treatment, with designs completed by the beginning of 2013 and the official opening expected a few years later.

The new redevelopment along the waterfront will use a denser development strategy for the buildings and wharfs, with some 50 percent open space, said Elinor Bacon, a representative of the developers. “We will use five different landscape architecture firms. The firms all have different talents so will address different zones.” The waterfront community park, which is still unnamed, is just one of four “distinctive” public parks in the works.

Nelson Byrd Woltz and Jeff Lee & Associates are turning community input into actual park concepts and designs. Warren Byrd, FASLA, award-winning designer of CityGarden in St. Louis, said he started to understand what the community wanted during his first community meeting last December. The second community meeting then resulted in a set of very early concepts. Then, 5-6 concepts were boiled down to two through a design charrette with some 40 southwest community leaders. Listening to the group, which was separated into two teams in order to generate even more ideas, Byrd found that the community wanted to preserve the great views across the Channel, keep the 50-year old Willow Oak trees, create quiet spaces with sitting areas and gardens, and use sustainable best practices. Byrd also advised the community to extend the park up to the National Park Service waterfront promenade in order to “gain as much land as possible” and leverage the site’s natural 10-feet grade for stormwater management.

The eventual concept agreed upon by the community members (above) features an oval lawn surrounded by a pergola, with multiple paths. The lawn itself will be an “open formal green,” set amid diverse trees that will help create seasonal effects. An interactive water element will be added along one of the lawn’s curves. Shrubs will be set at a lower height for security reasons. Byrd said there may be a distinct “horticultural area” among the bioswales, rain gardens, and porous pavements (see image below). To be even more sustainable, the pergola may function as a sort of green wall or be solar-powered.

Parts of the park’s grade will be increased to 19-feet to enhance the power of the views. In addition, there will be a new pavilion closer to the access road, which, unfortunately, needs to be there for the police and fire departments and nearby condo residents. To preserve the sight lines, the pavilion may be covered in a green roof, effectively hiding it from those sitting above it. A separate children’s play area will also be added.

Carolyn Mitchell, former president of the Southwest Neighborhood Assembly and charrette participant, said “Nelson Byrd Woltz is first class. These are people of integrity.” She said community input yielded results: there are separate zones for kids and adults, and the pavilion is closer to the water. This design provides “something for everyone.” She added that Nelson Byrd Woltz was willing to go farther than the requirements of their contract in order to create something the community really wanted: a park all the way up to the waterfront. The landscape architects will now work the National Park Service to find ways to repair their broken sidewalks lining the edges of the park.

K Williams, President, Harbour Square, added that a “beautiful landscape is art, our living art,” in this case even more valuable because the community designed it. Also a plus: to ensure they sell condos, the developers are going to maintain the park, keeping it at a “very high standard,” and have agreed to do this over the long-term.

Image credits: Nelson Byrd Woltz

ArtPlace Offers $14m in “Creative Placemaking” Grants

ArtPlace, an innovative private-public organization that sees arts as a key driver of economic development and community revitalization, has $14 million in grants available for “creative placemaking” projects. Non-profit organizations, local governments, artists, designers, and even companies are eligible to apply.

The organization’s first round of grants, which were announced in September, resulted in $11.5 million in investments in 34 local projects. Each project received somewhere between $150,000 and nearly a million. ArtPlace writes: “Grants were given to initiatives to revitalize neighborhoods, stimulate job growth and economic development, increase the appeal of transit corridors, provide artists’ housing and workspace, foster research in creative placemaking and more.” The group also believes each project it finances “represents a new model” for towns and cities. The idea may be to test many new concepts and see what works.

ArtPlace gets support from some big-time philanthropic organizations: Bloomberg Philanthropies, The Ford Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation, and others.

U.S. government organizations, including the National Endowment for the Arts; the departments of Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, Agriculture, Education and Transportation; and the White House Office of Management and Budget and the Domestic Policy Council, don’t provide funding but participate in ArtPlace’s council and operating committees. 

Initial letters of inquiry are due by November 15, 2011.

In other news, Odebrecht, a humungous Brazilian engineering and construction conglomerate, has started a new Obebrecht Award for undergraduate students in the U.S. This is the first year the award, which is held in Angola, Brazil, Dominican Republic, Panama, Peru, and Venezuela, has been offered here. Talented students from landscape architecture, architecture, and engineering programs can take home $65,000 for writing a paper that offers a “revolutionary,” scalable approach that dramatically improves sustainability outcomes in building construction or materials or chemical production. “Whether related to new building techniques, new chemical and petrochemical processes, or alternative uses of sustainable materials, projects should explore innovative practices, methods, and ideas that can be implemented on a variety of real-world ventures.” Learn more.

Image credit:
ZERO01 garage / ArtPlace

Interview with Bjarke Ingels

Bjarke Ingels is founding partner of Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG). Ingels, who rated as one of the 100 most creative people in business by
Fast Company, is also a visiting professor at Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

You’ve been calling for a new approach, “hedonistic sustainability,” which is “sustainability that improves the quality of life and human enjoyment.” What are some examples of this?  Why is it important for sustainability to enhance pleasure?

We shouldn’t forget what we are here to do in the first place as architects and landscape architects. It’s to improve the quality of life for everyone and not at the expense of the quality of life for other people or other life forms, for that matter. The whole discussion about sustainability isn’t popular because it’s always presented as a downgrade. The position has been there’s a limit to how good a time we can have. We have to downgrade our current lifestyle to achieve something that is sustainable. That makes it essentially undesirable. People can be to the left and maybe shop a little bit green, but they’re not going to drop their car if they have to pick up their kids from football and go to the movies. It becomes an impossible mission.

However, there’s nothing in our lifestyle that necessarily requires CO2 emissions. It’s just an unforeseen side effect of all of the increases in quality of life that we have been able to deliver through modernization and industrialization. As we get smarter and more aware of these side effects, we can factor them in and start delivering urban mobility without emissions by switching to fuel cells or batteries.

My two favorite examples from Copenhagen: 37 percent of the Copenhageners today commute by bicycle so they are never stuck in a traffic jam. You know how unenjoyable it is to sit stuck in traffic, especially if you do it every day. So 37 percent of the Copenhageners never experience that because they have the convenience of going from A to B on a bicycle. Also, our port has become so clean you can swim in it. You don’t have to commute to the Hamptons to have clean water. You can actually jump in the port downtown. So these are basic examples where sustainability actually starts becoming an upgrade rather than a downgrade.

In your large-scale master plan and park projects, you often feature landscape loops. For example, in your Stockholmsporten project, “a continuous bike and pedestrian path reconnects different areas in an un-hierarchical and democratic way.” In Clover Block, there’s a perimeter loop surrounding a massive lawn.  In another project still in the idea phase, you propose a loop city in the Copenhagen suburbs. What’s the attraction to these loop forms? How well do they work?

They have to do with connectivity. You can see it in the loop city idea. The old paradigm for Copenhagen a city was the five finger plan, where from the central orientation of downtown Copenhagen you have these corridors of urban tissue that extend, leaving gaps between the fingers of green and agriculture. But, of course, this is a hierarchical and central model where the further you get out in the finger, the further you are away from the concentration of connectivity and activity. Given a lot of the Copenhageners live out in the fingers, and a lot people actually work in this finger and live in this finger and play football in this finger, another kind of connectivity starts becoming interesting. Since Copenhagen is actually the other side of the Oresund by Malmö and Lund and Elsinore, you have a whole suburbia over there. Historically, because it’s on the Swedish side (ten years ago, we didn’t have the bridge between Copenhagen and Malmö), there’s never been any kind of central planning authority considering these Swedish/Copenhagen suburbs as part of the metropolitan area of Copenhagen because they’re in another country. They’re eight hours away from Stockholm but only 30 minutes away from Copenhagen.

So what we are proposing with the loop city is to create a bi-national continuous urban tissue where people are no longer condemned to live in the outskirts and commuting into downtown Copenhagen and back out again. There will be a continuous ability to interact between these kind of urban areas that now house the majority of the population of the area. You have 500,000 people living in Copenhagen inner city and you have three and a half million people in the region. 

You are well-known for integrating building and landscape in your large-scale residential projects.  In The Mountain, terraced apartments are arranged so each gets sunlight and has its own individual garden. Other projects, including you upcoming West 57th Street residential complex in New York City, Vilhelmsro School, and the 8HOUSE project in Copenhagen beautifully combine building and landscape in the form of green roofs. What comes first: the building or landscape? How do they mesh? How do you deal with the different disciplines within your firm? Is it architecture versus landscape architecture?

As you mentioned, it is often hard to distinguish where one discipline begins and another one ends. We’ve had lots of collaborations with landscape architects. We’ve been working a lot with Topotek1 and Man Made Land and recently Martha Schwartz and !Melk. It’s an interplay. In the case of the 8HOUSE, we wanted to include the typology of the townhouse with the small garden and all of the social interaction that happens when people have a little piece of their private life happening in the semi-open, like the porch in an American suburban setting. Sitting out on the porch, you can holler at the neighbors and see who’s home and who’s not. You’re at home and sort of semi-private but people can actually access you and there’s the possibility of spontaneous interaction. We simply tried to introduce that social typology found in a dense urban block by simply allowing it to invade the three-dimensional space of the open block. To really make it townhouses with gardens, we wanted to make sure that there were trees and plants. To recreate the social possibilities, we had to include the element of landscape.

In the West 57th project, the entire architecture is created as the framework for the courtyard. Somebody called it a Bonsai Central Park. It’s probably 1/500 the size of Central Park but by insisting on creating an urban oasis for the residents, the whole volume of the block, the whole architecture was dramatically reconfigured and we can no longer rely on the traditional boxy typology. We created this highly asymmetrical roofscape that allows in daylight and creates views into a sort of oasis. It was really the Central Park of the Copenhagen courtyard. We arrived at a completely different architecture because of Central Park.

Your upcoming project in Umeå, Sweden, the Umedalen Sculpture Park, seems to take these ideas even further, fully integrating the building into the landscape and using the landscape to guide the shape of the buildings. What were the challenges with this approach? When does this approach work or not?

In this case, the brief was that there was an existing man-made valley. It was an excavation site where they had dug out the sand for the construction nearby. They were just trying to fit in a hockey rink and they didn’t want some big, fat hockey rink that would ruin the whole neighborhood. It essentially became a vanishing act trying to put in a really big sports hall without dominating the area. We also tapped into the tradition of the place, where they have made summer spectacles in the ditch because it is almost like a little mini amphitheater. In that case, it was about recognizing and emphasizing the existing activities of this mini valley and just adding a cover to give it an indoor and all-year component. In many ways, I think it has to do with discovering, reinterpreting, and reemphasizing the qualities, attributes, and potential already there and just taking them one step further. 

In Copenhagen, you are designing a smart example of multi-use infrastructure, a 100-meter tall waste-to-energy plant that will double as a ski slope and civic center. What did Copenhagen figure out that other cities haven’t? Why aren’t more cities designing and building imaginative public works projects that solve multiple problems at once? Lastly, what advice do you have for other designers who are trying to get these types of innovative solutions through bureaucracies?

I am seeing tendencies. We are quite interested in this new genre of projects that we call social infrastructure. A major part of any city’s annual construction budget goes into improving highly utilitarian structures that are purely in the domain of civil engineering. The holistic, integral thinking that architecture and landscape architecture can contribute, where it’s not technology-driven but actually human-centered, can be transformative. Instead of getting your nasty highway overpasses that create shaded areas for dodgy activities, you start incorporating social attributes and making sure that when a necessary piece of infrastructure like a train connection, a bus line, a roadway, a power cable, is carried through that it’s done in such a way that it actually increases connectivity and creates new activities, so that the sheltered spaces become sort of sports facilities or market halls.

There are tons of examples where decommissioned infrastructure turns into new programs. In Paris, Berlin, or London, you have galleries and marketplaces occupying the archways under the train lines. You have the High Line in New York. You have tons of examples where, after the fact, we can re-imagine the infrastructure. But what if we, from day one, can actually turn the power plant into a public park?

The power plant has a budget of $700 million USD so the configuration of the roofscape is nothing compared to the overall budget. As a result, people don’t feel that we’re dumping a big boxy factory that blocks their views and casts shadows into their neighborhood. They feel that we’re actually creating a public amenity. Normally we would get not-in-my-back-yard (NIMBY) letters and complaints about the project. Now, we’re actually getting letters from people asking when it’s going to open. So it’s also a way of integrating the necessary infrastructure into our urban fabric rather than sort of putting it in some kind of industrial wasteland in the periphery of our city.

I saw you discussing your buildings in the context of parkour in the film My Playground. Do you think through how your buildings and spaces could be reappropriated?  What are the most unexpected uses of your buildings, uses you didn’t imagine? 

We do try to wedge in as much potential and possibility into our work. The driving force of our design is to saturate it with possibility. We like the whole notion of parkour. What architects do is put potential out there and what parkour people do is to expand the preconceived or pre-planned possible use and take it one step further, essentially to expand the human realm of the city. That said, take a project like the 8HOUSE, where we made this mountain path that allows people to walk and bicycle all the way to the tenth floor for the residents. Sociological studies from the ’70s indicate that children living higher than the third floor rarely come down and play because of the disconnect whereas, here, if you were living on the tenth floor, you could actually just walk four houses down and play with your neighbor to create this spontaneous social interaction. That’s also why the 8HOUSE is actually a loop. Everybody’s connected to everybody.

Because Copenhagen is completely flat, there is no landscape, there is no vista where you can go and enjoy the view and hold your girlfriend’s hand, blah, blah, and enjoy the beautiful scene except now, at 8HOUSE, there actually is. So what we didn’t imagine is people from around Copenhagen actually go to 8HOUSE on weekends for a walk because this is the only place you can actually enjoy the view of the city and get this sort of three-dimensional experience that you get in a lot of other cities naturally. That means the café in the southwest corner of the 8HOUSE where the two roofscapes dive down has actually become a busier business than originally anticipated.

You told Metropolis magazine that one of your goals is to put architecture on the public school curriculum, “given nobody has thought of giving students a basic understanding of how our cities have evolved.” What about the other disciplines and forces shaping cities: landscape architecture, urban planning, climate, and ecological sciences? How must they be taught in schools?

I see them all as part of the same curriculum in that sense. Holistic design awareness. We’ve actually had a little revolution or evolution in Denmark. We recently had elections and we got a very photogenic female left-wing prime minister and we have an incredible cultural minister. Five or six years ago, I was on the cultural ministry’s educational council. Architecture, art, design, and planning are all under the cultural ministry rather than the ministry of education. My first proposal to the cultural minister was to give them back to education so that the whole range of architecture, including landscape architecture, is seen as an investment in the future rather than a form of high-brow entertainment. This can really ensure these subjects are seen with the seriousness of education, instead of just as a luxury, like culture is sometimes peceived. Now they’re actually proposing to do it and it’s causing a lot of debate in Denmark. I really believe it’s the right thing to do. I wouldn’t be surprised if architecture and design is not part of the public curriculum in Denmark in the next five years.

Interview conducted by Jared Green.

Image credits: (1) Loop City. BIG / Glessner, (2) 8HOUSE Garden. Dwell Magazine, (3) W57. BIG / Glessner, (4) Amagerforbranding. BIG / Glessner, (5) 8HOUSE. Dragor Luftfoto