Review: NACTO’s New Urban Bikeway Design Guide


In an effort to create Complete Streets that are also safer for bicyclists, the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) announced the release of a new Urban Design Bikeway Guide last week. At the report launch, Janette Sadik-Khan, NACTO president and NYC Transportation Commissioner, Ray LaHood, U.S. Transportation Secretary, and Congressman Earl Blumenauer all emphasized that smart bicycle infrastructure design can not only make roadways safer for all, but can also boost economic growth, reports EMBARQ’s The City Fix

According to NACTO, the guide is designed for both urban transportation policymakers and planners and the actual designers of this infrastructure, including landscape architects and engineers. “First and foremost, the NACTO Urban Bikeway Design Guide is intended to help practitioners make good decisions about urban bikeway design.” The best practices included are based in the experience of the “best cycling cities in the world.” The authors of the report, which include landscape architects, planners, transportation engineers, and consultants in the U.S. and Europe, also conducted a comprehensive review of international design guidelines. 

The actual recommendations are broken into segments:

Bike Lanes, including conventional, buffered, contra-flow, and left-side variations;
Cycle Tracks, with a focus on one-way, raised, two-way versions;
Intersections, including “bike boxes,” crossing markings, two-stage turn queue boxes, median refuge islands, through bike lanes, combined turn lanes, and cycle-track intersection approaches; 
Bicycle Signals, including signal heads, detection and actuation, “active warning beacons for bike routes at unsignalized intersections,” and hybrid signals for crossing major streets;
Signs & Markings, with sections on colored bike facilities, shared line markings, and wayfinding signage and marking systems.

The recommendations are well-considered and most seem to be common sense. If widely implemented, they could help futher improve safety for bicyclists. This is an increasingly critical issue given more and more bicyclists, including older, and less experienced riders, are starting to commute on their bikes (see earlier post). According to some data, women may also be biking in fewer numbers due to perceived safety issues.

The real added value of this initiative may be the great Web site. Each recommendation features slideshows of images and 3D renderings, lists of benefits, typical applications, and detailed design guidance. Also useful: recommendations in the report are broken into levels: required, recommended, and optional, with different design details for each level of compliance. Lastly, there are maintenance recommendations, and lists of cities that have adopted these measures so transportation officials and designers can easily call their pals in other cities to talk about the nitty-gritty design and implementation problems.

As with any standardized design guidelines, they can be tweaked depending on location. “In all cases, we encourage engineering judgment to ensure that the application makes sense for the context of each treatment, given the many complexities of urban streets.”

Explore NACTO’s Urban Bikeway Design Guide.  

Image credit: NYC one-way bike lane / NACTO

Paula Scher’s Paintings of Distortions


Map making is not just about creating visual representations of physical spaces, but can also be about documenting impressions and emotions. Paula Scher, a partner at Pentagram and one of the most influential graphic designers of her generation, has a new book, MAPS, that conveys the rich, complex feelings she has for the process of map making itself. As she writes in the introduction, “I began painting maps to invent my own complicated narrative about the way I see and feel about the world. I wanted to list what I know about a place from memory, from impressions, from media, and from general information overload. They are paintings of distortions.”


For Scher, there’s a deep connection with map-making: Her father, who became the coordinator of mapping for the U.S., invented stereo templates, which are now critical to removing the distortion of perspective in aerial photography. She says technologies her father helped develop were necessary for advances like Google Maps, which increase accuracy beyond any man-made attempts at map-making.  

Still, Scher thinks “distortions always exist, and you can always find them in places you know well: the mistaken curve, and odd foreshortening, something disappearing in a shadow. Someone has decided what information should be put in or left out.” As her father said, “all maps are distorted, they are not literal fact.”


Graphic design, Scher says, is closely related to map making in that both involve organizing and laying-out information. Just as in map making, graphic designers inadvertantly distort: “Articles are cut to fit into specific formats, and sometimes the cuts alter meaning. Hierarchies are created to help readers navigate texts, sometime distorting the emphasis of specific content. Pull quotes (those sexy excerpts from an article that are blown out of scale to entice readers) can mislead by making the article appear to be about something different. Info graphics make an opionated article appear scientific, and are more and more appearing as unbiased stand-alone data, often disguising the dogmatic intent of an author. To make matters worse, the blogosphere completely democratizes such distortions. Anyone can make them, and they do.”

For Simon Winchester, who writes the foreward to the book, Scher’s “useless and essential” maps (some of which can span 20-feet) are both “detracted from reality and yet and the same time become an entirely new reality.” Obsessively made and “deliciously satiric,” Scher’s maps are the antithesis of the “cold blinking GPS.” These maps are a last effort to stave off the total transition to maps made up of “ones and zeroes, algorithms and screens, […] with siren-like voices.”


For anyone into maps and map making, this book is worth exploring.

Also, see full (uncropped) versions of the four images above: 1, 2, 3, 4.

Image credit: Paula Scher / Princeton Architectural Press

Crowdsourcing Feedback on Public Spaces in San Diego


As the smart phone market continues to grow, more and more people are using these devices to access social networks such as Twitter and Facebook. The amount of location-based data (i.e. text, photos, video) being created everyday has created an unprecedented opportunity for landscape architects to learn more about how their projects, particularly major public spaces, are being used. In fact, the two-way communication of social networks coupled with GPS technology makes it possible for landscape architects to engage with users in real time. Social networks can also help facilitate a “community inventory” process as well as enable easier post-occupancy survey and analysis of built projects.

Throughout this year’s ASLA Annual Meeting and Expo in San Diego (October 30-November 2nd), a crowdsourcing event titled #LandarchSD will be held to demonstrate social media’s potential. However, in this case, we will use the Twitter hashtag, #LandarchSD, to harness the talent and expertise of the more than 6,000 landscape architecture professionals from across the United States and the world descending on San Diego. #LandarchSD will provide an opportunity for landscape architects themselves to collectively share their observations and discoveries about major public spaces in San Diego. In addition to creating a unique collection of information about the city’s public spaces and urban environment, sharing these insights from our perspective can raise the public’s awareness about how our profession enriches their use of public spaces and their lives.

Information will be captured through the use of mobile devices and shared by location-based posts on Twitter and the event’s Facebook page. Posts can contain text, photos, video, and more. Examples of content include statements, photos, or videos highlighting interesting design solutions or illustrating principles of good public space design in action, or comments on why users are using or not using a space and identifying opportunities for improvements.

If you are going to the ASLA Meeting or live in San Diego, we invite you to participate by using a social media application from your smartphone (whether it’s on a Android, Blackberry, or iOS browser) or your desktop computer. To participate or even just follow the event on Twitter, the hashtag #landarchSD will be used to compile the information. (For those unfamiliar with hashtags and their use, a hashtag is a word or string of words without spaces or symbols proceeded by the “#” symbol created by any Twitter user as a way to categorize messages. Hashtags facilitate finding related information or following conversation strings on Twitter. Learn more about what hashtags are. You can also just follow the hashtag.)

The event is being organized in conjunction with our education session “Social Media Strategies for Landscape Architects” held on Wednesday November 2, 1:30-3:00pm. At the education session, the panel will touch upon using social media for inventory and post-occupancy surveys and discuss the information collected through this initiative.

This guest post is by Brian Phelps, ASLA, Hawkins Partners, Inc.

Image credit: #LandarchSD

Vergason: Drawing Trains Your Eye to See “Beautiful Arrangements of Parts”


“Drawing is a privilege,” stated Michael Vergason, FASLA, principal of Michael Vergason Landscape Architects, speaking at the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture during the launch of Sketching + Drawing + Describing, an exhibition of his sketchbooks spanning over thirty years. During the talk, Vergason used sketching as a thread to weave together ideas about exploration, inquiry, comprehension, and memory, drawing stories from his life, including ones from when he was a student at University of Virginia pursuing his Masters of Landscape Architecture degree and through his professional career.

Vergason began by linking travel with drawing, stating “it was traveling that got me drawing…you travel to see; you draw to see better.” In 1975, funded by the sale of his beloved Austin-Healey, Vergason traveled to Vicenza, Italy, first as a student and later as a teaching assistant at University of Virginia. These excursions proved to be formative for him. Not knowing what to draw first, he eventually drew nearly everything. He recalls a process of sketching the facades of each building and pasting them to a 7 by 7-foot base map of Vicenza. From this, he developed a notational system sketched onto several layers of vellum, recording data including the material of façades, the type of businesses operating in each building, how people moved through the site, and where they congregated. Through this process of sketching and mapping, he developed a rich understanding of the city and used the map as a way “to keep in touch with the place when away from it.”

Describing the process of learning how to draw, Vergason spoke of the discipline he employed to hone his skills. He was influenced early on by architect Carlton Abbott’s pencil drawing techniques— shading, smudges, line weights— and later by the English illustrator Paul Hogarth, whose drawings taught him to “loosen up, relax a little, and draw quicker.” He pointed to the works of Leonardo da Vinci and John Ruskin, who used sketching as a tool for both inquiry and comprehension, as a way to peel back the superficial and understand the inner workings of things.

Vergason recounted the creation of a series of sketches of the Laurentian Library he completed while traveling in Florence. He produced an incredible series of drawings in 45 minutes (he often notes how long it takes him to sketch), but not wanting to “face another blank page,” he made a composite of these sketches on a single sheet that inform and relate to one another. The sketches jumped from body-level details to the broader urban context and included plans, sections, and perspectives. Vergason’s thought process was evident on the page yet he also emphasized the new relationships that revealed themselves through sketching.

Winning the Rome Prize in 1979 brought Vergason back to Italy, where he used Rome as a base for further travels into Germany, Istanbul, Greece, and northern Africa. In addition to expanded horizons, this period was marked by experimentation. He sought to incorporate pen and ink drawings and watercolors into his sketchbook, as well as a broader variety of styles — quick and rough sketches, composite sketches, studies of just the shadows cast, and more. He joked that the evolution of his drawings was the result of newly-afforded comforts: they took a slightly higher perspective as he was now seated sketching at the cafe with glass of wine, no longer relegated to street curbs. During this period, he also began to draw a range of subjects which encompassed friends, dinners, statues, and animals. What came out of this period is an evocative and unique slice of his travels, from soaring Baroque architecture to everyday meals, from colleagues to camels, whose sensual qualities were put to paper as a kind of souvenir, “what we take away.”

Following this heightened period of exploration, Vergason talked about re-working his sketch book as a tool for professional practice. There was an initial period of culture shock, joking there was a “lack of inspiration” to draw in professional practice and noting his notebook became an inconvenience, or “just another thing to carry around.” To ensure that his notebook wouldn’t be left behind, he bought a larger sketchbook and taped his calendar on the inside cover. Eventually he found himself drawing regularly again, on trains and planes and amusingly, during meetings for projects. His sketching became a way to comprehend particular aspects of a site, such as its geomorphology or stream hydrology. In his typical self-deprecating humor, Vergason remarked he only truly understands the seasonal movement of the sun as he is sketching it out, forgetting the details soon after his finishes. He also spoke of sketching as a way to articulate thoughts visually, elegantly, and most importantly, quickly, even during meetings.


When asked about how digital drawings affected his sketching, he said it hadn’t had much impact. Interestingly, in works on a touchscreen laptop, he combines digital sketches with renderings to mix the texture of a sketch with the sleekness of digital renderings. He’s not always happy with the results, but remarked that he would need to apply the same level of discipline to sketching on screen that he employed while first learning to draw.

Vergason emphasized sketching as a process of inquiry. It’s an exercise that “increases your ability to understand what makes a good composition. It’s about training your eye to see beautiful arrangements of parts.”


For those in the area, an exhibition of Vergason’s work, Sketching + Drawing + Describing: A Field Book Practice, is on display now through December 16, 2011 in the Dean’s Gallery, School of Architecture, University of Virginia. Also, check out more images from his most recent award-winning project, “A Farm at Little Compton.”

This guest post is by Peter Malandra, Student ASLA, Masters of Landscape Architecture candidate, University of Virginia School of Architecture.  

Image credits: 2011 ASLA Honor Award for “A Farm at Little Compton” / Drawings by Michael Vergason. Photography by Nic Lehoux

Weiss/Manfredi: Chameleon Territory


Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi think of themselves as designer-chameleons. Among the traits they share with that species, they claimed at a lecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design entitled “Evolutionary Infrastructure,” are the ability to change color and excellent peripheral vision. Both have served the practice of Weiss/Manfredi well in the uncertain and interdisciplinary environment of design today. Claiming the whole of the built environment as the territory of architecture, Weiss and Manfredi have a fair amount of blending-in to do as they traverse a “hybrid terrain” and bridge the disciplines of architecture, landscape architecture, urban design, infrastructure, and fine art. While such a varied terrain provides all sorts of challenges, for Marion Weiss, “it is in these intersections where the heart of design lies.”

No matter what color its skin, the chameleon is always a chameleon, and within their expanded field of pracitice, Weiss/Manfredi remain architects, with a vision of a larger territory for architecture, which “rather than simply occupying a site has the capacity to give shape to it.” The shapes their projects take are what link architecture and landscape. Weiss and Manfredi discussed a number of recent projects at a variety of scales which go far beyond an architectural object on a site, and are concerned instead with forging their own topography.

At the smaller scale of operation, they explore the concept of the path. A Visitor Center for the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, currently under construction, mediates between the Olmstedian garden and its highly urban setting with a building that forms a path between the two, providing a space of “transition between the reality of the city and the magic of the garden.” As it leads visitors from the city to the interior system of paths, the building disappears into the garden. Similarly, the recently completed Campus Center at Smith College has as its spine a pathway that connects from a Main Street to the heart of the campus. The path defines the Center’s shape and is inscribed on the building in the long skylight that illuminates the gathering spaces inside.

Weiss/Manfredi has been very productive in academia and two other recent projects demonstrated how the architects have resolved conflicts at more complex sites. At Barnard College, the design of a student center became the opportunity to connect the public spaces of the campus and public thoroughfares of New York City on a difficult site, with a building once again serving as a pathway—now vertically—between Barnard’s two quads and Broadway. A Museum of the Earth at Cornell is part building, part landform, and part ecological process, as it accomodates parking and exhibition space on a steep site, which it manipulates to collect and treat stormwater and provide lake views. In both cases the solution is highly sectional. Weiss and Manfredi have clearly never met a steep site they didn’t love, even at larger and far more complex scales. The master plan for Taekwondo Park (see image at top), a much larger site in South Korea now under construction, uses a series of water terraces in a procession from a dramatic stadium up through a valley where landscape becomes more prominent, and a retreat. The landscape also has a symbolic dimension, with a series of bridges and oaths through the site alluding to the journey of taekwondo practice, a symbolic touch that is frequent—but subtle—in their work.

Weiss and Manfredi revisited their award-winning Seattle Art Museum, reinterpreting it as “a chameleon landform.” That project for a sculpture park bridging a highway and railroad tracks and descending to the water’s edge resolves art, architecture, infrastructure and ecology—even a salmon habitat and Richard Serra’s precise demands for the placement of his sculptures are folded into the site’s layers. That project fundamentally connects the city and nature.


That was also the goal of their complex and interesting proposal for the competition for the re-envisioning of St. Louis’s Gateway arch and park. The architects make room for human and ecological history and the natural ebb and flow of water and people. The park’s connection to overlooked East St. Louis across the Missisisippi River marks a new direction in their “evolutionary” thinking. The project’s treatment of water, accomodating the rise and fall of the erratic river speaks to the passage of time embodied in the Native American landforms across the river which are also integrated with the site. The passage of time and history has been alluded to by landforms and natural growth in the architects’ earlier projects, but the thoughtful and dynamic treatment of these themes points to how Weiss/Manfredi’s practice is evolving, too.

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

Image credits: (1) Taekwondo Park / Weiss/Manfredi, (2) Seattle Art Museum, Olympic Sculpture Park, Seattle, WA, 2007 / Weiss/Manfredi. Photo: Ben Benschneider

Three Years Later: California Academy of Sciences’ Living Roof Also Educates the Design Community


Three years ago the California Academy of Sciences museum re-opened in San Francisco. The original projections of annual visitors were for 1.6 million, a head count that has been far exceeded in the past three years. Some of the building’s popularity is undoubtedly due to its iconic 2.5 acre-“living roof”, celebrated in the early reviews for its innovative energy saving properties. The roof was, however, criticized for the high price tag it came with, and the unknown cost of its future maintenance. The technology used in this design is a part of the museum’s educational curriculum and it’s been the model for other green roofs since its completion. If green roofs are going to be a viable part of the infrastructure systems of our cities in the future, we need to openly evaluate what is working and what isn’t.

The California Academy roof contains enough solar panels to prevent the release of 405,000 pounds of greenhouse gases per year. The large glass canopy that surrounds the living roof contains 60,000 photovoltaic cells. The arrangement of the panels on the canopy shades pedestrians below and generates some 213,000 kilowatt-hours of energy per year.

In addition to energy savings, the roof helps cool the interiors beneath it. Those eye-catching mounts send cool air down into the open-air plaza while warm air from inside the building vents through the skylights. Sensors in the skylights gauge the interior temperatures and automatically open at a given threshold. The roof keeps the interior temperature an average of 10 degrees cooler than a standard roof would.

The 106,500 square foot green roof absorbs 3.5 million gallons of rainwater each year, a stormwater runoff reduction of 93%.

But does it mitigate the urban “heat island,” as green roof proponents promise? While studies show that expansive use of green roofs in a city can help cool air, this particular roof is in the middle of Golden Gate Park and not in an urban area where green roofs offer the most potential for heat island mitigation. Anecdotally, the fact that this living roof is irrigated year-round does contribute to lowering temperatures, both inside and around the building. And since the new building’s footprint is 1.5 acres less than the original building was, the acres returned to the site as green space help cool the area.

Even with all the advantages of the living roof, there are a few controversial items related to the project that are still subject to debate. While year-round watering contributes to cooling the building and its surroundings, the original intent was less resource intensive. Significant effort and testing went into creating a native California landscape on the roof, using plants that are indigenous to the area and that would survive its particular micro-climate. The design proposed that the plants would go dormant during the warmest months. But as long as the allure of the green roof is in its “greenness” it will be difficult to pull the plug on irrigation and the Academy misses the opportunity to educate the public that the green roof’s native plants have a dormant season.

Something for the Academy to consider: integrate semi-native, adaptive species that are evergreen and / or flower during the time when the native grasses go dormant. It goes against the “all native” approach, but perhaps this is true aesthetic of sustainability.

Also under debate is how the roof will hold up over time. Most buildings require periodic weathering and re-waterproofing. And since this is such an innovative project, it’s hard to predict the procedures that will be needed in 40 or 60 years to update and maintain the roof and building itself.

Dubbed a “high maintenance superstar” by Landscape Architecture Magazine, the living roof at the Academy of Sciences cost almost twice as much as a traditional green roof does. Typically, such roofs cost $15 – $20 per square foot versus the $28 – $35 per square foot for this living roof. With the unknown maintenance and upkeep costs in the future, the roof could continue to be expensive.

My suspicion is that much of the Academy’s green roof maintenance budget is spent pulling weeds and replacing plants. Perhaps the Academy could structure a funding program aligned with local universities (e.g. the funding grants come through the universities) offering students a chance to learn about green roof technology via a set of stewardship initiatives that could, among many things, include pulling invasive plants. This approach could free the Academy of out-of-pocket expenses and further its commitment to education.

Even with these drawbacks, the roof effectively teaches millions of people, communicating that design and sustainability matter. Its form and construction have inspired dozens of new green designs. These positive outcomes cannot be quantified by the price per square foot method. After all, the roof’s role in promoting public awareness of living roofs was part of the reason the California Academy of Sciences project was awarded LEED Platinum certification.

Gerdo Aquino, ASLA, is president of SWA, an adjunct associate professor of the Master of Landscape Architecture program at the University of Southern California and the co-author of Landscape Infrastructure (Birkhauser 2011). John Loomis, ASLA, SWA’s Sausalito office, was the landscape architect for the new California Academy of Sciences building.

Image credits: ASLA 2009 Professional General Design Honor Award. California Academy of Sciences. SWA Group / Tom Fox

Friedman: We Need a Green Revolution


The 2011 GreenBuild in Toronto drew some 23,000 architects, landscape architects, planners, engineers, and product manufacturers. While sessions explored the nitty-gritty of designing and implementing green communities, landscapes, and buildings, Tom Friedman, columnist for The New York Times and co-author, most recently, of That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back, took a step back and discussed the need to transform the growing yet still niche green building industry into a broad-based movement. Then, the U.S. Green Building Council, through its choice of headline speakers, also made the case that more effective public communications strategies, along with publicly-accessible data and clearer data visualizations, will be central to making this revolution happen.

Friedman, who took quite a while to get to the core of his argument at the GreenBuild opening session, eventually made some powerful statements: There’s a lot of greenwashing out there right now. Making things greener seems to be like a “big party,” where everyone benefits. However, what’s really needed is a green revolution in the vein of the information technology revolution, where companies survived or died based on how fast they innovated. In other words, an economic environment needs to be created in which businesses that fail to go green simply go out of business. The other side of a total and pervasive green revolution would be the removal of the word “green” before the “green building industry.” In effect, the U.S. Green Building Council would become the U.S. Building Council. Friedman believes all of this will happen only when the U.S. puts a price on carbon. (While his argument holds great merit, it’s also worth noting that Friedman didn’t discuss how many communities are putting prices on other types of pollution, like toxic stormwater runoff. Innovative cities like Philadelphia are setting the trend in ramping up fees for stormwater runoff, which has the added benefit of incentivizing green infrastructure).

To make this green revolution happen, GreenBuild organizers seemed to say via their speaker selection, there needs to be more effective public communications strategies, more publicly-accessible data, and clearer data visualizations. Natalie Jeremijenko, a funny and innovative artist, engineer, and professor at NYU (see earlier post), brilliantly illustrated how to communicate that the “environment is directly implicated in our collective health” through creative installations designed to garner attention.

John Picard, an early innovator in the green building movement, went on to call for an easy to understand Web-based tool for visualizing the energy buildings use, which could be accessed by both homeowners and building managers. He called this “game changer” SoftPower, and said it would be the “Facebook of Energy.” Picard then saw a new market coming out of energy efficiency, with energy-smart buildings becoming “ibuildings” that only grow in value. Data from all buildings would be hosted in the cloud, enabling comparisons across buildings, neighborhoods, cities, and countries.

Lastly, Lisa Strausfeld, formerly a top information architect and data visualization designer at Pentagram, explained the importance of smart energy data visualizations. She explained how “bruteforce” innovations like Google Maps and its amazing Google street view system, along with new “protocols” such as Twitter, Facebook, Email, and TCP/IP are changing the world. In the same vein, she said LEED is on the “same trajectory of success.” With all these powerful new technologies, data is “what’s next.” Furthermore, in order to measure our impact on the environment, we need to “visualize that data.” However, these visualizations need to be smart and turn the “unfamiliar into the familiar.” As an example, she pointed to her firm’s work for G.E. visualizing data on household energy use. Also, the visualizations need to make “real time data transparent,” so predictions about future energy use can be more easily made.

Image credit: ASLA 2011 Student Awards General Design Honor. Co-Modification Joseph Kubik, Student ASLA, Graduate, University of Pennsylvania. Faculty Advisor: Mark Thomann

Designing for Human Health


In a session at the 2011 GreenBuild in Toronto, architects and engineers discussed how cities can employ novel approaches to improve public health. Efforts to restore rivers, and also create earthquake and wind-proof buildings, can help communities become healthier, and also more resilient to population growth and catastrophic weather events.

The Value of Cleaning up Mexico City’s Rivers

Elias Cattan, Taller13 Arquitectura Regenerativa, proposed unearthing and restoring Mexico City’s network of rivers. Cattan said this project, while ambitious and somewhat costly, is crucial to “meshing our way of being with our ecosystems.” He pointed to other major cities like Los Angeles and Seoul that are planning or have already implemented major river restoration projects as models.

In Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City, Eric Anderson shows how Manhattan looked before Europeans arrived. While it’s nearly impossible now to see the rich ecosystem that once existed on the island, in Mexico City, Cattan believes, it’s still apparent, just sullied. As a result, restoring that ecosystem “wouldn’t be a hard task.” Mexico City is a big sponge, with soil types that absorb water runoff from buildings. There are also some 45 rivers and more than 200 tributaries throughout the city. 

With this megalopolis’ “catastrophic” population growth, there’s effectively been an “ecocide.” It didn’t need to be like this. Cattan asked what the ultimate purpose of Mexico City is in nature? “What is the vocation of Mexico City?” Relaying the ideas of Richard Lovelock, with his conception of Gaia and Earth as one large living organism, Cattan said “everything in nature has some purpose.” While the “process or purpose” of Mexico City may now be in a “state of constant oscillation,” the soils and river system of the city can still offer a range of valuable ecosystem services. For example, the rivers, once revitalized, could provide clean water again. He said “the rivers here, when they are born, are clean. They only become toxic as they make their way through the urban fabric.”

Mexico City’s rivers are 80 percent clean water, 20 percent human sewage. “Rivers here are lubricants for sewage flow.” While Cheongyecheon in Seoul and the L.A. River revitalization projects aim to accomplish a lot, Cattan’s plan would combine restored rivers with different “mobility systems.” Rivers would be lined with restored wetlands filled with “native flora and fauna,” and provide an “axis for public transport.” On either side of the river, there would be Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), which Cattan sees as central to alleviating Mexico City’s major traffic problems. Also, these wetland and river systems would function as parks – something that is vitally important in a city with only 3.7 square meters of green space per person (a level far lower than the U.N.-recommended 14-16 square meters per person). However, it’s not clear whether Cattan’s plan, which he estimates would cost some $350 million, also includes a low-cost waste management system that doesn’t take rely on the rivers.

Getting Serious About Earthquake and Wind Proof Buildings

If restoring rivers are crucial to human health in urban environments so is making sure buildings don’t kill during catastrophic weather events. Moving towards the realm of buildings, Ronald Mayes and Leonard Morse-Fortier, engineers with Simpson Gumpertz & Heger, argued that no matter what level of green certification a building achieves, it shouldn’t be considered green if it isn’t earthquake and wind-proof.  Right now, most buildings, even green ones, are simply designed to protect people and don’t survive structurally, meaning all that material is wasted. Using “performance-based design” approaches, buildings can be designed to survive major earthquakes and storms.

Mayes said there’s a 60 percent chance an earthquake stronger than 6.7 will strike San Francisco in the next few years. A quake the strength of the one in 1906 would result in $111 billion in damages today. He wondered what the cost-benefit analysis is, what the threshhold is for paying extra for earthquake-proof structures. Right now, the extra cost “pay back is 3-7 years” on average.

A variety of new technologies, including “viscuous dampers, base isolation, rubber platforms” help make a 8.0 earthquake behave like a 5.5 one. Japan, with its high risk of major earthquakes, has taken these technologies seriously, building some 2,000 buildings using these approaches. In the U.S., there are just 200.

Mayes proposed a rating system or “report card” that could be posted on every building as a “communications tool for the general public.” He also called for “seismic resilience” to be adopted by LEED, perhaps as regional credits in earthquake-prone zones.

Morse-Fortier made an equally-sound case for wind-proof buildings. Right now, building codes “equal minimum standards.” In reality, trying to follow code is a “confusing process.” Still, he thinks buildings “shouldn’t fly apart in a hurricane,” meaning many developers and architects will need to go way beyond code to achieve true safety.

Making buildings wind-proof can be a costly undertaking. As a result, businesses and people need to do a cost-benefit analysis, and weigh the cost of creating a building that can survive high category hurricanes. Some buildings, like nuclear reactors and hospitals, “meet the criteria” for higher investment.

Wind can damage buildings through vibrations, “induced pressures and flows,” “windborne debris,” and “aero-elastic phenomena.” He thinks we should be able to “avoid cladding blow-out due to wind pressure.” Roofs gone missing are another avoidable problem. Furthermore, there are some types of roofs that are actually really dangerous. For example, he said “ballasted roofs” actually attack other roofs in a storm.

Morse-Fortier called on large-scale developments in windy areas to invest in wind tunnel studies. Even though these studies are an up-front cost, they help building owners figure out where they need strong structures and where they don’t. He said LEED should incentivize the use of wind-proof approaches and materials. It would have been interesting had he also discussed how green roofs perform in high-wind scenarios.

Image credit: ASLA 2011 Student Awards General Design Honor. Co-Modification Joseph Kubik, Student ASLA, Graduate, University of Pennsylvania
Faculty Advisor: Mark Thomann

Becoming Greenest: Recommendations for a More Sustainable Washington, D.C.

Washington, D.C. leadership has requested input from a range of organizations as it develops a new “unified vision” and “comprehensive framework” for a more sustainable Washington, D.C. The end goal: to connect sustainability with economic development and become the number-one, most sustainable city in North America. Washington, D.C. is currently ranked eighth in a recent Economist Intelligence Unit report sponsored by Siemens.

As part of this process, the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) polled members from its Potomac, Northern Virginia, and Southern Maryland chapters and incorporated their input into a set of bold recommendations in the priority areas identified by the city government. Because the categories of recommendations will be evaluated by different D.C. agencies, recommendations are repeated when appropriate and relevant. Among them:

Energy: Reuse brownfields as solar energy farms. Through revised building codes and local tax incentives, expand use of smart tree placement and green roofs and walls. Reduce building energy use through green infrastructure. Incentivize the use of rooftop solar panels. Read research and recommendations >

Climate Change / Mitigation: Reduce total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by expanding urban park land, further improving bike and pedestrian infrastructure, incentivizing the growth in the number of bicycle and pedestrian commuters, creating highly walkable pedestrian-only areas, and introducing new innovative forms of public space such as parklets and underpass parks. Read research and recommendations >

Climate Change / Adaptation: Increase coverage of street trees for shade and expand use of green and cool (white) roofs in order to adapt to higher average temperatures along with more varied temperature fluctuations within the District. Improve building and landscape water efficiency measures. Develop resiliency plans for Washington, D.C.’s plant and animal life within parks and green spaces, including the introduction of wildlife migration corridors and heat and drought-tolerant plants. Read research and recommendations >

Water: Develop a comprehensive green infrastructure plan that leverages existing grey infrastructure. Use Sustainable Site Initiative™ (SITES™) guidelines to improve water efficiency measures, require the use of appropriate plant species in public and residential landscapes, and enable rainwater capture and filtered or treated greywater (and even blackwater) reuse for landscape irrigation. For stormwater management, require the use of green roofs for new buildings exceeding a minimum size. In addition, approve the use of rainwater cisterns for irrigation of green roofs and other green infrastructure. Improve the permeability of the District’s park surfaces and their ability to capture and store water. Create multi-use infrastructure, or rain gardens or bio-retention systems in District parks, turning them into green infrastructure and water treatment systems. Increase the use of bioswales near transportation systems, and add in permanent green street corridors and green alleys. Continue to expand urban tree canopy and preserve larger trees to manage stormwater runoff. Spread use of tree boxes and permeable pavements for stormwater capture. As part of a public education campaign, parks and public green space should follow the highest water efficiency standards. Read research and recommendations >

Transportation: Expand bike and pedestrian infrastructure. Create safe bicycle infrastructure. Connect the Metro system with bike infrastructure and bikeshare stations. Require secure bike parking within office and residential buildings. Incentivize the growth in the number of bicycle and pedestrian commuters. Create highly walkable pedestrian-only areas, and introduce new innovative forms of public space such as parklets and underpass parks. Read research and recommendations >

Waste: Set clear, ambitious targets and deadlines for achieving zero waste in the District and measure progress against targets. Ensure all building materials are reused in new buildings (if the materials are non-hazardous). Use Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES®) guidelines for park maintenance and eliminate grounds waste generated from Washington, D.C., parks through composting. Read research and recommendations >

Built Environment: Invest in turning more brownfields into parks. Apply bio-remediation and other safe environmental remediation technologies during park development. Develop an Internet-accessible inventory of all brownfields in the city to enable easier remediation and redevelopment of derelict sites by local developers. Create a certification program for remediated brownfields to facilitate faster reuse. Invest in retrofitting older school buildings to make them LEED Platinum and also integrate green school redesign activities into school curricula. Ensure all schools apply Safe Routes to Schools design guidelines. Read research and recommendations >

Nature: Develop a biodiversity and environmental education action plan based on the concept of biophilia. Recreate wetlands along riverfront edges and reintroduce native wildlife. Reduce the mortality rate of trees and extend their lifespan by enabling them to grow in larger tree pits with structural soils and under permeable pavements. Use appropriate trees grown locally for urban forestry campaigns. Experiment with growing trees in park nurseries. Read research and recommendations >

Food: Develop a comprehensive urban agriculture plan. Evaluate all available empty lots (including brownfield sites) as potential opportunities for commercial and community urban agriculture. Develop new codes enabling local food production. As a priority, target food desert communities with high numbers of brownfields. Allow local residential food production. Develop new soil testing and clean-up requirements for growing food in former brownfield sites. Allow and also increase tax incentives for rooftop food production. Read research and recommendations >

Green Economy: Invest in bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure improvement projects to boost job growth. Use green infrastructure systems, including green roofs, to increase number of local, non-exportable green jobs. Launch a comprehensive green jobs program, training chronically unemployed and former convicts in brownfield remediation, green roof installation, and other tasks. Launch a national campaign in an effort to lure the best green talent to the District. Read research and recommendations >

Governance: Organize watershed councils at the local level and appoint ward-level sustainability advocates to help implement and align SustainableDC initiatives. Use Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) guidelines as a management tool for achieving high-performing landscapes across the district. Read research and recommendations >

Go to the report Web site and explore the recommendations in detail, or download the PDF version of the report.

Also, be sure to add your comments below on how D.C. can become greenest.

Image credit: ASLA 2011 Professional Design Honor Award. Monumental Core Framework Plan, Washington, D.C. AECOM, the National Capital Planning Commission, and the U. S. Commission of Fine Arts, Washington, D.C.

Neri Oxman’s Materials Revolution


At the 2011 GreenBuild, Neri Oxman, director of Mediated Matter at MIT Media Lab and one of the few who made Fast Company’s top 100 creative people list, wants to “introduce a new dimension or sensibility” into materials production. Proposing to turn the design and engineering worlds on their heads, she said we should no longer “design against an objective function, but instead design for multiple functions in one system. It’s about continuity, not repetitive, modular approaches.”

Oxman is focused on how to use design processes to “mediate between matter and the environment.” She said the natural world uses a range of principles, which is why we easily recognize so many forms. Natural objects are the result of some internal logic that generated the form. She thinks this logic can be harnessed to create building, medical, and even furniture innovations, but is still trying to figure out whether this would lead to a more sustainable future.

She used a few examples that demonstrate how nature creates forms that serve multiple functions. A chicken egg, for instance, is nearly impossible to break if squeezed at the vertical ends. This is because it needs to be strong while it’s being warmed. The horizontal edges are soft, though, and easy to crack: This is because the chick will eventually need to break through. This is a smart “material distribution strategy.”

People, in contrast, aren’t that smart when creating their own buildings and cities. “Nature has not designed buildings, habitable environments at mass scale.” (some sociobiologists may disagree with that statement). She said that biologists and architects have been discussing the ideas of architecture and ecology since Darwin released his theory of evolution. In recent years this dialogue has led to biomimetic design, a term she called “over or mis-used,” but is used to explain how to design and build using natural systems. For example, she showed images of a pine cone, and how the structure could be inverted to serve as a new can for Coca-Cola. It would hold more soda and be impossible to crush in transit. Shark skin, with its “micro-dermal teeth” served as a model for a new wall with patches that can respond to its environment. She also explored the idea of “form-finding, or discovering the form that a material wants to take.”

Within the architecture profession, she said there was a divide between the “formalists” and the sustainable designers. Formalists are primarily focused on, well, form, while sustainable designers are interested in following criteria, which usually leads to “new glass boxes that are more and more efficient.”

Also, since Mies Van Der Rohe first offered a design for a skyscraper in Chicago, the idea has been to create a form and then apply material. (However, some architects would disagree and say his skyscraper wasn’t possible without one material: steel). She said this skyscraper shows a process that hasn’t really changed for a hundred years: model, analyze, and then fabricate. In contrast, in nature, the modeler, analyzer, and fabricator are combined in one. A leg bone in a pregnant woman expands and grows denser as she puts on more weight, responding to signals from the body. Tree fibers change form depending on how much structural load is required to hold up a plant. “From trunk to leaf, it’s the same material.”

Some examples from her studio show her using natural logic to digitially fabricate forms that can serve multiple material functions. A chaise lounge is made up of just one silicon-like material broken into two types – soft and hard. Using the body to determine where the structural load would be greatest, she created a Zaha Hadid-like undulating form. “It varies its properties – it’s stiff and soft where it needs to be.” For the medical world, she said eastern medicine celebrates “continuity,” while western medicine separates everything into body zones. Using an eastern approach, she asked people suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome to create their own “pain map,” which she uses to generate a material, again, with hard and soft zones to provide both structural support and flexibility. In the realm of buildings, she wondered why concrete columns are solid all the way through, wasting materials, when they can be like bones or palm tree trunks, which are denser at the base and more hollow at the top. “We can relate to loading patterns instead of forms or ornamentation.”

Some future predictions: In 10 years, Oxman sees materials as “the new software,” and integrated into everything we do. The circuit board will be obsolete. The material itself will be smart. Materials will know how to change for its distributions. For example, buildings could have breathing skins that help modulate the interior temperature. By 2100, there will be “biofabrication and construction.” Then, one thousand years in the future, there will be “CAM-DNA.” In this example, a chair would be created out of DNA material and would grow with humans over their lifetime. Materials would think, respond, and compute things themselves. When hearing all of this, one professor at Harvard told her that the ideas were great, but the cost would be out-of control high.