How Algorithms Shape the Landscape

Is the work of artist Michael Najjar, which splices the images of landscapes with the peaks and troughs of indexes like the Dow Jones, a metaphor or a prophecy? Leading his TEDTalk with this question, Kevin Slavin, the chairman and co-founder of game development company Area/Code, demonstrates how algorithms are starting to impact our landscape at the grand scale. “The landscape was always made by the weird, uneasy collaboration of nature and man. There’s now a third evolutionary force,” Slavin says.  

Slavin walked the audience through concrete examples of how algorithms are not only driving financial trading but also shaping culture and the physical landscape. The public, especially since the financial crisis, knows that algorithms are the foundation of the financial system. But Slavin also demonstrates their growing influence in other areas of our lives: they provide the underlying logic for cleaning robots and “destination control elevators,” and allow Netflix to analyze movie plots, which makes them better at serving up movie recommendations. Slavin calls this the “physics of culture,” and then introduces the way the way these efficiencies are “terraforming,” or taking physical shape.

In an effort to maximize the earning power of algorithms, landscapes are being altered in both subtle and dramatic ways. The hidden “carrier hotel,” for example, is a building gutted to host telecommuications and data networking service centers by companies like FiberNet and Google. Wall Street financial firms now vie for spaces closer to these buildings so their financial transactions can occur just that much faster than their competitors. The landscape of firms in Wall Street is subtly shifting to gain advantage using this new infrastructure.

And now the physical landscape is actually being altered: Spread Networks dynamited paths through mountains in order to create a 825 mile trench from New York to Chicago for higher-speed fiber optic cables, which can transfer one signal 37 times faster than you can click your mouse. “When you think about this, that we’re running through the United States with dynamite and rock saws so that an algorithm can close the deal 3 microseconds faster all for a communications framework that no human will ever know, that’s a kind of manifest destiny. We’ll always look for a new frontier,” Slavin said.

Studies show that the drive to make money may lead to grander landscape transformation. Slavin says, “it’s not the money that’s so interesting, actually, it’s what the money motivates –that we’re actually terraforming the earth itself with this kind of algorithmic efficiency. And in that light you look back at Michael Najjar’s photos and you see that they’re not metaphor. They’re prophecy for the seismic terrestrial effects of the math that we’re making.”

Slavin predicts how financial industries and telecommunication infrastructure will increasingly shape of our landscape and built environment. But is anyone discussing how these enormous infrastructure projects could impact our ecosystems, our original networks?

Watch Kevin Slavin’s TEDTalk. Check out Michael Najjar’s High Altitude Series.

This guest post is by Amanda Rosenberg, ASLA 2010 Intern.

Image credits: (1) Chicago to New York ICT infrastructure / Spread Network, (2) High Altitude Series / Michael Najjar

City Landscapes, Urban Habitat

The landfill of Kearny, New Jersey, is the site of Steven Handel’s early work restoring urban habitat. It is constructed on top of a wetland. The fill material specified for landfill cover make poor soils, and the railroads, interstates, and cloverleaf interchanges work as barriers to dispersal. His work began with a question: “What can a field botanist do to help this?”

The University of Virginia department of landscape architecture recently hosted restoration ecologist Dr. Steven Handel of Rutgers University for a presentation and discussion of his work in restoring urban habitat. Handel is the Director of the Center for Urban Restoration Ecology (CURE), a joint partnership between Rutgers University and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. In the last decade he has worked as a consultant with landscape firms such as SCAPE, James Corner Field Operations, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, and Ken Smith on projects that have helped establish restoration ecology as an important component of urban landscape design. His presentation focused on the importance of ongoing monitoring and adaptation and the concept of stewardship in the creation of vital urban landscapes.

Handel discussed some of his early work at the Keegan Landfill in Kearny, New Jersey, and how that project led to work on Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island, New York, and, eventually collaborations on landscape projects in Europe, China, and across the U.S. This work is best characterized not by the resulting images and supporting data that have become key components of landscape architectural presentations, but by the ecological approach itself. Each project is a dynamic constellation of actors and agents: gravel contractors, city bureaucracies, ecology students, groundwater, and honey bees. In this constellation the ecologist is not the mastermind, but rather one of the primary catalysts. The ecologist joins this willow tree with that robin, this compost depot with that acre of landfill cover in the interest of creating landscapes that include a wealth of inhabitants, from mushrooms and chimney swifts to willow trees and teenagers.

Maintenance and Ecological Thinking

Looking south over Fresh Kills landfill in 2002 empty debris barges from the World Trade Center site can be seen in the lower right hand corner. Steven Handel’s partnership with the Department of Sanitation began here in 2000 and took on new significance after 9/11: “what was a hated place became a sacred place.”

In the presentation, Handel outlined the two most important objectives when beginning any urban ecological restoration project: what is the ecological target for restoration?, and how can we rebuild the soil? Everything else follows from those two questions. For any kind of restoration project, whether it a piece of colonial architecture or a 2,000 acre municipal landfill, defining the desired outcome is the fundamental problem. The second objective is particular to urban ecological restoration projects. Handel noted that urban soils are notorious for their inability to support healthy ecosystems due to compaction, contamination, and a lack of microbes. What is more, they are extremely varied — one block is contaminated with high levels of lead and the next is choked with concrete and asphalt dust.

For Handel, the maintenance budgets of city agencies are poorly conceived and misappropriated. Maintenance takes on an entirely new definition when it is informed by an ecological approach. Tasked with the unenviable job of trying to maintain landscapes in a static state, current maintenance practice too often resists the other organisms at work in the landscape while doing too little to monitor and observe change. Project budgets are designed for major capital investments up front followed by a maintenance plan that aims to protect the landscape from change. Handel throws into relief the fundamental misalignment between maintenance policies and funding mechanisms that tend toward static and compartmentalized concepts of landscape and an ecological approach to creating vital urban habitat.

In many urban projects, the ecological constraints – opportunity for dispersal, regeneration of soils, disturbance regimes – are in conflict with the regulatory structures set by rigid engineering norms. Handel noted that scale-dependent ecological processes rely on a lapse of time, and, therefore, landscape projects need instruments and mechanisms that can hold a portion of the budget in reserve so that monitoring can occur over 10 years and adaptations to initial strategies can be incorporated. For him, the idea of ecosystem services–a movement to quantify the benefits of natural systems as economic value– is useful in this discussion because it inserts the animals, plants, topography, and other aspects of ecosystems into the budget and profit strategies that dictate the terms of development and management of most of our urban land. 

The Importance of Rhetoric

The concept of ecosystem services is contentious. In addition to being difficult to quantify, it suggest that costs that have traditionally been externalized (such as CO2 emissions) be accounted for. Nonetheless, in specific, localized situations, the idea that restoring a healthy ecosystem to a former municipal landfill so that it can serve as bird habitat and a community recreation area is one that is gaining traction and is worth an investment. 

Handel noted that prior to 9/11, the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island was a “hated landscape.” People wanted it gone, and if they could not make it go away then they certainly did not want to spend money on it. As the final resting place for the remains and debris from the World Trade Center, the landfill overnight became a “sacred landscape.” It was worth investing in. While undertaking his project there, he was working with communities and trying to help them understand the importance of bees in pollinating plants and creating healthy plant communities. He told an anecdote of going to a community meeting and trying to convince people that bringing bees back to this place would provide many benefits. This was not well-received. He realized that by simply referring to them as “pollinators” (the benefit they provide) and not “bees” (their cultural symbol with some negative connotations) the project won their support. This observation is the real contribution of Handel’s work: For him, ecosystems are not pristine examples of natural systems, but are messy networks of social and natural entities, all mashed together and trying to find ways of going about their business, whether that is pollinating a stand of service berries or trying to catch the 7 train.

A NYC subway car in 1973. This is an ecology too.

Scientific Stewardship and a Future Ecological Ethic

The presentation culminated with the importance of stewardship of the land and the development of tools and methods for engendering a more responsible environmental ethic. The stewardship concept itself is contentious, with notable scholars such as Carolyn Merchant rightly pointing out that the idea dates back to the origins of Judeo-Christian society and comes with a whole host of gender specific and anthropocentric connotations. At the end of her book Reinventing Eden, she suggests that the idea of kinship–a partnership among equals–might be the future environmental ethic, a suggestion that seems more in line with ecological thinking.

This emphasis of Handel’s would seem to be antithetical to the ecological approach, with the honey bee and the fungus carrying an important role in the ecosystem, right alongside the park user and the bulldozer operator. As a steward, you might care for the land, but you still survey it, decide what should be done, and then go back to your dwelling. There is a hierarchy and the human is at the top. It is the opposite of amongst-ness. But then, Handel is actually out there, digging in the stinking muck of Keegan Landfill and counting preying mantis on Staten Island. You don’t get much more among things than that.

A new ecological policy for the landfills of Jamaica Bay is the legacy of Steven’s work. Located in the center at the top of the image, the landfills are currently being maintained as an ecological restoration project, with the mowed grassy hills slowly changing into thriving upland ecosystems on the edge of the bay.

This guest post is by Brian Davis, Master’s of Landscape Architecture candidate, University of Virginia School of Architecture, and editor of FASLANYC.

Image credits: (1) Landfill of Kearny, New Jersey / Google Earth , (2) Fresh Kills Landfill / Cryptome, (3) NYC Subway Car, 1973 / U.S. National Archives, (4) Landfills of Jamaica Bay / Google Earth

Best Books of 2011

Last year, we only have five top books (see earlier post), but this year we’ve expanded the list. A range of great books came past our desk and any of these may be of interest to your favorite landscape architect. Here are the top ten books of 2011, along with five other notable books:

Landscapes in Landscapes by Piet Oudolf (Monacelli Press, 2011)
In his complex, endlessly interesting landscapes, Oudolf says he prizes form and texture as much as color. He almost exclusively uses perennials, which he values for their “beauty throughout their natural life cycle.” Requiring little maintenance, his naturally sustainable landscapes, which feature drought-resistant plants, evolve over time. As Charles Waldheim, chair of the landscape architecture department at Harvard University Graduate School of Design (GSD), wrote in The New York Times, “he’s gotten away from the soft pornography of the flower. He’s interested in the life cycle, how plant material ages over the course of a year.” Read the full review.

The Altered Landscape: Photographs of a Changing Environment by Ann M. Wolfe (Editor) (Skira Rizzoli, 2011) 
From the book: “This comprehensive look at the work of 100 contemporary photographers captures the impact of human activity on natural landscapes. The Altered Landscape is a provocative collection of photographs representing a wide range of artists, techniques, visual styles, subjects, and ideological positions. Organized chronologically, the more than 150 images-by artists such as Andy Goldsworthy, Chris Jordan, Catherine Opie, and Edward Burtynsky-reveal the ways that individuals and industries have marked, mined, toured, tested, developed, occupied, and exploited landscapes over the last fifty years.”

Field Notes from Science and Nature by Michael R. Canfield  (Editor), Edward O. Wilson (Foreword) (Harvard University Press, 2011)
The Los Angeles Times writes: “This gorgeous book reproduces samples from the notebooks of 12 naturalists in all their glory, accompanied by short essays on methodology and why field notes are still so critical to the art of science. These drawings, notes (in spectacular handwriting), photos, and maps are a reminder that natural history is the root of all biology, and observation is a critical skill. George Schaller’s drawings of a lion hunt in the Serengeti, Bernd Heinrich’s delicate drawings of leaves, Kenn Kaufman’s lists, Jonathan Kingdon’s drawings of acacia trees in Kenya, Jenny Keller’s spectacular drawings of moon jellies–these and others make science look not only appealing, fascinating and fun but human and creative as well.

Genius of Life: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted by Justin Martin (Da Capo Press, 2011)
Genius of Place: the Life of Frederick Law Olmsted, a new biography by Justin Martin, illuminates Olmsted’s major achievements as a visionary artist, social reformer, pioneering environmentalist, and founder of the modern profession of landscape architecture. Olmsted is best known for creating several noteworthy landscapes, including New York City’s Central Park. Martin, a journalist who has written two acclaimed biographies on Alan Greenspan and Ralph Nader, paints a portrait of Olmsted as a preeminent American figure, revealing that “as a park maker, environmentalist, and abolitionist, Olmsted helped shape modern America.” Read the full review.

High Line: The Inside Story of New York City’s Park in the Sky by Joshua David and Robert Hammond (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2011)
The New York Times writes: “This lushly illustrated volume showcases the range of imaginative designs [Joshua David and Robert Hammond] explored and, in some cases, rejected. In recounting their decade-long experiment, they provide an inspiring primer for grass-roots urban planning.” Paul Goldberger at The New Yorker writes: “In this book Robert Hammond and Joshua David, who led the grass-roots movement to rescue the High Line from demolition, tell with energy, passion, and refreshing candor the story of how this industrial artifact became, against all odds, a magnificent park.” 

Making Healthy Places: Designing and Building for Health, Well-being, and Sustainability by Andrew Dannenberg (Editor), Howard Frumkin (Editor), and Richard Jackson (Editor) (Island Press, 2011)
Dr. Richard Jackson (see earlier post) and Dr. Howard Frumkin (see earlier post) have been long-time advocates of marrying public health and design. In this book, they offer a how-to that is essential reading for all landscape architects. “The authors have crafted an exemplary look at the various components of community design that promote and support health. Through their perspective we see clearly how much community design matters to our health and well-being; and it matters a lot.” – Georges C. Benjamin, MD, Executive Director, American Public Health Association. Read the full review.

MAPS by Paula Scher (Princeton Architectural Press, 2011)
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 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.” Read the full review.

The New American Landscape: Leading Voices on the Future of Sustainable Gardening by Thomas Christopher (Editor) (Timber Press, 2011)
Instead of exacerbating environmental issues, gardeners must harness the many ecosystem services provided by natural systems and design gardens that support and strengthen local ecologies. This how-to guide clearly demonstrates how gardeners’ sustainable practices can positively shape our shared enviroment. Read the full review.

Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier by Edward L. Glaeser (Penguin Press, 2011)
“Edward Glaeser is one of the world’s most brilliant economists, and Triumph of the City is a masterpiece. Seamlessly combining economics and history, he explains why cities are ‘our species’ greatest invention.’ This beautifully written book makes clear how cities have not only survived but thrived, even as modern technology has seemingly made one’s physical location less important.” – Steven D. Levitt, co-author of Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics, professor of economics at the University of Chicago.

The View from Lazy Point: A Natural Year in an Unnatural World by Carl Safina (Henry Holt & Co, 2011)
From the Booklist review: “From his home base, this celebrated scientist and activist travels to places where the impact of climate change and environmental abuse is starkly evident. With the spiral of a year as his structure and with what Einstein termed the ‘circle of compassion’ as his moral compass, MacArthur and Guggenheim fellow Safina illuminates the wondrous intricacy and interconnectedness of life in a book of beautifully modulated patterns and gracefully stated imperatives.”

Other notable books in 2011:

The Agile City: Building Well-being and Wealth in an Era in Climate Change by James Russell (Island Press, 2011) Read full review.
Gateway: Visions for an Urban National Park
by Alexander Brash (editor), Jaime Hand (editor), Kate Orff (editor) (Princeton Architectural Press, 2011) Read full review.
Pulled: A Catalog of Screen Printing by Mike Perry (Princeton Architectural Press, 2011) Read full review.
Small, Gritty, and Green: The Promise of America’s Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-carbon World by Catherine Tumber (The MIT Press)
Urban Green: Architecture for the Future by Neil Chambers (Palgrave MacMillan, 2011) Read an interview.

In addition, check out a few other best book lists: Planetizen offers their top 10 planning books for 2011. The University of Cambridge compiled a list of the top 50 books on sustainability.

Lastly, these “painstakingly hand-printed” t-shirts of some great U.S. cities by City Fabric aren’t books but they make great presents.

Image credit: Montacelli Press

The Next Wave of Modernism: Healing Urban Landscapes

“The first wave of modernism was about beauty and sensuality, but the second wave may be about confrontation – confronting the mistakes of the past,” said Brad McKee, Editor, Landscape Architecture Magazine, at The Second Wave of Modernism II: Landscape Complexity and Transformation, a day-long conference organized by the Cultural Landscape Foundation at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City. McKee described the changes that have overcome American cities: the rise of global competition and the decline of large-scale manufacturing, the mass number of companies and people who fled industrial waterfronts, leaving toxic wastelands. “This is the industrial legacy designers confront.”

He added that toxic brownfield sites have proliferated over the years with devastating but often undiagnosed effects on families. The idea that human health and the built environment are linked has only been gaining steam in the past 10 years. But now at least, “obesity, diabetes, asthma, depression, anxiety can all be attributed to factors in the environment.” For McKee, the public is also now skeptical about “big ideas”, grand concepts imposed by policymakers and designers. Urban dwellers can see the damage these ideas can cause so the next waves of Modernism in cities may focus more on “places for people,” and integrating public health and ecological sustainability into design.

Some high-profile landscape architects described how they are tackling some of these challenges:

The Beauty of Derelict Landscapes

Julie Bargmann, ASLA, Founding Principal, D.I.R.T. Studio, said Modern architects and landscape architects thought of their starting point as a cleared site or site that was “not a site at all.” All the better to build their idealized forms on top of a blank slate. Now, thinking has changed: site matters. “Site specificity has become important for those not caught in formalism.” 

Bargmann grew up in New Jersey. “The turnpike was my landscape.” Industrial sites form a specific landscape, a landscape shaped by machines. These landscapes are the effects of the “ambitious imprint of labour” as represented by Diego Rivera’s murals of labourers, which exemplify the romance of industrial labour. Because of this, “we can’t clear these embedded histories.” They are important.

With Thomas Woltz, FASLA, Bargmann worked on River Rouge, helping Michigan understand that this industrial riverfront is actually a “cultural landscape, and not a landscape to be wiped clean.” Her team helped “add a layer with restraint, being respectful of the contradictions” in the site. Another well-known project is the Navy Yard in Philadelphia, which she transformed into a new corporate home for Urban Outfitters. The challenge: half of the site is still an active Navy base. Taking cues from the site’s rugged productive history, she said the site had to be “built like a motherf**cker.” Site elements, like the dramatic ship crainways, were unearthed and used to inform the new design, forming a new promenade. The “arabesque” pattern of the old railways helped create the paths. Within the water-filled crainway, she added ecological floating wetlands, spelling out the word “URBAN,” which she noted are viewable by planes flying overhead (see photo above). She stockpiled all debris piled up on the site, all the dug-up asphalt, and reused as pavers she lovingly named “Barney Rubble.” Then, she put “pink flowery trees over the tough stuff, just for fun.”

As many speakers described their early influences, Bargmann said she always admired Eva Hesse, and the post-minimalists. Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, her teacher at Harvard Graduate School of Design, instilled in her a “passion for the specifics of a landscape.” She also talked about public artist Mel Chin and her work with him on making the problem of toxic soils more transparent. Chin is focused on raising awareness and funds to deal with the massive soil lead problems in New Orleans (see earlier post).

Lastly, Bargmann made a powerful case for the derelict “urban voids” that are a “byproduct of urbanization but are vital to contemporary culture.” She said these “left-over places,” the space abandoned near waterfronts and highways in cities, which are so often featured in Jim Jarmusch films, “can’t be designed with a capital D.” These “orphan, wild landscapes with no author or title” are valuable, as they represent growth and decay. She wondered if a new form of urban park could be created out of these places, basically leaving them as they are, but removing the toxicity.

A Rational, Systems Approach

James Corner, ASLA, founder of Field Operations, designer of the High Line, and professor of landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania revealed his influences and inspirations. Growing up in Manchester, an industrial city, “I had a tough environment.” The counter-culture was raging, with bands like The Smiths at center stage. It was a place where “you had to be tough to survive.” But now, as then, it was also a “city of fashion, art, music.” The industrial center was dramatically different from the North lake district Corner went on the weekends. There, he would “mess around in nature,” and was awed by the “weather-bound atmospherics” of the landscape. “It was a very strong pairing with the city, with the scale and weather.”

Corner fell into landscape architecture. “In the UK, there’s a matrix that tells you what to do.” He said he “didn’t know what he was getting into,” but three years of being at art and design school pushed me into “conceptual thinking, thinking outside the box.” His first project as an intern was with Richard Rogers & Partners, where he worked on the Royal Docks project, a huge urban redevelopment project. He said no one could orchestrate the entire scheme – each discipline was narrowly focused on their own concerns (see an earlier post on these ideas). The result was a project that had no public realm, no one was representing the “environmental, infrastructural point of view.”

At the University of Pennsylvania, he was blown over by Ian McHarg and his Design With Nature. Then, he began to understand that “landscape architects could play a stronger role at a bigger scale and could do regional scale work.” He learned how to nest local landscapes in urban ones and regional ones, a “layering approach.” Corner then became inspired by theories and models that didn’t just view layers analytically, but offered “projective layers” that came from “future programs.” The intelligence of these types of layers could form a “montage.” As an example, he pointed to Peter Eisenman’s work, which deals with “archeologies, not analytic layers or projective layers, but archeological layers – the thick matte network of spaces and milieu.” Other influences and inspirations included Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City, a “fantastic vision,” and Robert Rauschenberg’s “flat-bed canvases,” which were important because they “didn’t represent anything, had no top or bottom; they were just paintings as work” (see image below). Rome, the city, also inspires him because its “fabric grew in an organic way. There was no big city put down.”

Corner then explored the idea of aggregate forms that can be “bottom up or top down, easily grown or replicated.” As an example, he pointed to beads of sweat on skin, arguing that the surface of skin is “biologically living, self-regulating. It’s a surface whose formal properties are limited by its process.” In the same way, a forest is “something that grows up out of small aggregates.” These aggregate forms can come together as different types of systems – some are “super pragmatic engineering monoliths,” while others are “inter-relational layers” that allow for blending and folding and new situations and programs. The big idea: form and process are inter-related, “intrinsically connected.” He added that this isn’t “a sidebar or conceptual; it’s a way to deal with problems.”

For example, FreshKills park, a project Corner has been working on for some time, is four square miles, a “massive project.” To deal with the massive scale of the project, Corner and his team “designed a process, a series of techniques” that can “self-evolve, emerge” to address the difficult ecological restoration challenges within the site. “Then, we make more places within it,” places that can bring people in. For the QianHai Water City, a new city for two million people Corner is designing outside of Shenzhen, near Hong Kong, there are “five streams that serve as a big armature for organizing the site” (see image below). The only problem is that the water is highly polluted so the water is now “retained and processed” before it reaches the central bay. This is green infrastructure at a massive scale – central parks, which also provide aesthetic public spaces, become a key part of the city. Corner is also organizing a city grid with smaller blocks (the Chinese, he said, like mega-blocks), and a schematic for how new mixed-use buildings and density can be layered in over time. But, he said, the “landscape infrastructure is being built first.” Lastly, Corner also sees the High Line park in New York City as a big system. “We were concerned with the organization of systems. Of couse, we pay attention to places, detail, craft, but it’s really about how to build a system.”

Give People a Sense of Discovery

Kathryn Gustafson, ASLA, Founding Partner and Director, Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, grew up in Yakoma, Washington, where there are “some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world.” There, the “natural hues of the desert” were contrasted with the canals and water-intensive fruit orchard and agricultural landscapes. Her upbringing gave her a “love of water, channelized water.” Gustafson went to Versaille, France for landscape architecture school, where they “did teach me monumentality.” One of her early influences was “little known French landscape architect Jaques Sgard, who was a master at creating place.” He created contemporary, sculptural, playful spaces for leisure “but they weren’t defined by that.” Isamu Noguchi’s small scupture also inspired her because even within the small shapes, “your imagination soars.”

“I also work in layers,” Gustafson said, refering to Corner’s earlier presentation. She said over the years, more layers have been added for landscape architects to deal with. “Landscape architecture is becoming complex. Just providing the program is not enough. All the layers need to come together.” She added that where all these layers need to come together is in “urban parks, which are what is important.” She added that “it may sound boring but it’s not all about systems”: it’s all about public health and environmental sustainability. “Parks are key to urban sustainability.”

Gustafson introduced her own theoretical approach, “contemporary picturesque,” to describe what she’s trying to accomplish. She said contemporary picturesque landscapes are “places that pull you through the landscape. This is landscape as theatre, creative journey.” Within this are views, scales, principles and hierarchies. She made a point of saying that hierarchy is very important. For her, the forefather of the contemporary picturesque is Frederick Law Olmsted (designer of NYC’s Central Park). Nowadays, Gustafson added “nature is the program. Landscapes are becoming functional; they are cleaning things up.”

One of her new large-scale projects is the 130-acre Centennial Park in Nashville, Tennessee. “Over time, it had become a non-functional park.” There’s a beautiful lake, a replicated Parthenon, and places to go but now it’s filled with cars. “It’s totally stuck in the 1960s.” She said it was politically challenging to get the parking lots out but she managed to do this. Also, her team is creating a new plan for both formal and natural areas, a glass house winter garden, restaurants, and experimental gardens, along with a stormwater management plan. “Some spaces will be very intimate, natural, while others will be formal. It’s about creating a place to be in. Parks can’t just be one thing. Some like flowers and meadows,” while others want sports spaces. She added that “lawn will only be used for programs, for festivals.”

In Valencia, Spain, she’s managing a 125-acre urban redevelopment project (see earlier post). Train tracks are moving underground, freeing up an enormous amount of space. She said the challenge here was “how to create a park that feels like it is of that place.” She can’t “bring in a system from somewhere else.” Using the concept of a bowl, which is about “food, giving, growth,” she aims to connect multiple elements. She wants to create place there “that you want to go to.” There will be six bowls within the park, all providing different functions. Within, there will be “poles of attraction” drawing visitors through the park so there’s a “constant experience.”

Gustafson concluded that “it’s important to have systems but people need to have discovery.” Landscape architects need to “create what people need in cities, need to create poetry.”

Image credits: (1) Urban Outfitters Headquarters / Bloomberg News (2) Urban Outfitters Headquarters “Barney Rubble / D.I.R.T. Studio, (3) Untitled (formerly titled Collage with Horses) by Robert Rauschenberg / Wikipaintings, (4) Qianhai Water City / Field Operations. Shenzhen Daily News, (5) Centennial Park Master Plan / Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, (6) Valencia Parque Central / Gustafson Guthrie Nichol

Rethinking Urban Renewal

Landscape architects were implicated in misguided urban renewal schemes, said Thaisa Way, PhD, ASLA, Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture, University of Washington at The Second Wave of Modernism II: Landscape Complexity and Transformation, a day-long conference organized by the Cultural Landscape Foundation at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City. Before Jane Jacobs and the many urban activists she inspired put a stop to the most egregious errors, habitats and landscape were destroyed, leading to the mass alienation of urban residents. Renewal was a horror, but then again, “people love the view of the Coloseum” in Rome (which really was one of the original urban renewal projects). Way said in some cases we still may have to refrain from harsh judgements on big urban renewal projects  because “rarely are these projects all good or all bad.”

Now, with a broad public process, communities are renewing their cities, but this time remaking the urban image in their own form. “There are now broad, complex narratives.” One new approach is to “renew, not replace works of modernism” that still pervade most cities. Old urban renewal projects are now being re-intepreted by today’s dynamic, sustainability-minded landscape architects, creating very different projects in the process.

Raymond Jungles and Herzog + de Meuron Renew Miami

Raymond Jungles, FASLA, said he was “born as a Jungles in Nebraska.” As a kid, he was deeply inspired by nature. Trips to a Sequoia forest “made a huge impact.” Later, he discovered Luis Barragan in an architecture magazine in a doctor’s office. He was so enamoured with the work, he stole the magazine. Attending the landscape architecture program at the University of Florida, he was then awed by Roberto Burle Marx, who would later become his friend and mentor up until that great Brazilian landscape architect’s death.

Jungles relayed a set of inspirational ideas that have guided him: “Study nature, stay close to nature, it will never fail you” (Frank Lloyd Wright). “Always do what you say you are going to do” (his mother). Also, “do right, fear not.” For him, another inspiration is nature in Florida. Even in his urban, man-made projects, he tries to project this view of nature, adding that “gardens are for man, they are not natural, but should be complimentary to nature.”

In Miami, Jungles collaborated with Herzog + de Meuron on their 1111 Lincoln Road project, creating a new streetscape, plaza, and two lush interior courtyards inspired by Modern sidewalk designs planned but unrealized in Miami (see image at top and below). For his new streetscape, Jungles created combined platforms that serve as benches, house bioinfiltration and silva cell system to keep the islands of rich vegetation healthy, and feature plants from the Everglades, bringing native Floridian landscape back to the city.

He called the project “bringing back the mangroves.” He added that “kids love it” and he’s really happy about that.

Charles Renfro on the Role of Glass in Contemporary Urban Renewal  

Charles Renfro, Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, largely veered away from Modern landscape architecture, instead talking about glass. He said it’s a material that has “transformed cities,” creating a “new level of engagement,” so perhaps we need to “rethink what glass is about.” He said glass can be used to frame a new relationship with the city, just as James Corner Field Operations and his firm have done to great effect in segments of the High Line park.

“Glass performs best when you least understand its presence,” said Renfro. In the case of Philip Johnson’s Glass House, the absence of structural elements – just walls of glass – bring nature right into the house.

Unfortunately, he added, with post-modernism, “glass, minimalism, functionalism had fallen off the map.” Post-modernism grew up because many architects thought “architecture had lost its meaning.” Modern buildings were no longer embodied with meaning but dull and characterless.

Rem Koolhaas then brought a focus on “seeing,” making the process of seeing “layered and complex.” One of his preoccupations then became “looking at looking.” For Renfro, glass could become about “manipulation, turning things on its head.” As an example, in the High Line, glass holes in the girders provide views. The 10th avenue overlook turns the city into a theatre. Glass helps accomplish this.

In their revamp of Lincoln Center, Diller Scofidio + Renfro also used glass to try to “undo much of the damage” of that massive urban renewal project. In that case, “a thriving neighborhood was turned into a stark, unfriendly place.” The great modern architects who worked on Lincoln Center didn’t see the dense brownstone-filled streets as a neighborhood, merely a slum ready for a new concept. To remedy their errors, his firm “stripped the base from the buildings” of Alice Tully Hall, creating a new sense of “inside/outside” urban appeal. By blurring inside and out, he hopes they helped “correct urban wrongs.” One important piece of the project was the Illumination Lawn, a new slanted public green roof park on top of one of the area’s most pricey restaurants.

In contrast with the rave reviews of the new Alice Tully Hall and their work on the High Line park, The New York Times didn’t give the firm’s landscape work in Lincoln Center a positive review, arguing that famed Modern landscape architect Dan Kiley had done a better job with some of the original, challenging plaza spaces.

In addition, in a rare public rebuke from a conference organizer, Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, President and Founder, The Cultural Landscape Foundation, found Renfro’s reference to the Lincoln Center lawns, which he said “were for all you landscape architects,” “offensive.” Birnbaum clearly wanted Renfro to focus on how architects and landscape architects work together on urban projects, and said “we need to stop playing the game” that pits different design fields against each other.

Elizabeth Meyer and Michael Van Valkenburgh Use Nature to Renew the Arch Grounds in St. Louis

Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA, Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture, University of Virginia, and Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, Principal, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, teamed up to discuss the St. Louis Arch grounds restoration and redesign project now underway. Van Valkenburgh beat out many firms to win that competition (see earlier interview).

Meyer said the public focus has always been on Eero Saarinen‘s great arch, with little attention paid to the important work of his key partner, Modern landscape architect Dan Kiley, who designed the grounds. Perhaps this is because the grounds took so long to complete: While the design for the grounds were completed in 1965, the design wasn’t fully implemented until 1981.

Stepping back for a moment, Meyer said many urban renewal projects were “biophysical wastelands,” featuring compacted soils, low oxygen levels, heavy runoff, and other complex ecological problems. “Parks and gardens were grafted onto guilty urban renewal sites” but little there was little thought to the biotic health of the systems. She said the sustainable re-design effort is a challenge, because “remaking some of these original elements makes no sense.” Since the park was designed, concepts of environmental sustainability have dramatically changed. “Sustainable design would remove key aspects like lawns.” On the other side, there are those who argue for the preservation of all materials to ensure the integrity of the design.

As for the design, Kiley’s “matrix of abstracted woods” and allees, boscs, and groves were set within Saarinen’s curved forms and planes. Guided by Kiley’s design, Meyer (who is a consultant to Van Valkenburgh on this project) found that there were different spatial and natural types that could be defined. These in turn can be used to create “landscape maintenance zones.” She said this will help Van Valkenburgh and the team’s environmental consultants work in zones now, which is “easier than dealing with materiality.” The lessons from her research: the site has a “complex landscape matrix,” there can be a “working urban ecosystem,” and the project was a “historical collaboration” between a great architect and landscape architect.  

Van Valkenburgh said it’s an “extremely complicated project.” His team focused on the theme of nature, naturalism, and the woods. Exploring the site, they found that “the further you go from the Arch, the less the design follows Saarinen and Kiley’s original ideas.” So they focused in on the edges and how to “hotwire this Modern masterpiece into the city.” For Van Valkenburgh, it’s critical that visitors “experience the city as part of the grounds.”

The team will remove parking lots and create “at grade” connections to make pedestrian access a lot easier. New entry ways will deepen the connection between the city and park. While nothing can be done about the train tracks framing one edge of the site (which Saarinen failed to get the railroad companies to divert), walkable pathways cut underneath the train lines will move visitors into the park. Dishing “large meadows of land,” which were the “biomorphic preoccupations of the era,” will, of course, be preserved given how central they are to the overall design. Furthermore, the park will now meet “contemporary disabilities standards.”

The landscape, which will be remade with sustainable design best practices, will put and end to the “mow, blow, and go” approach used so often. The National Park Service is eager to apply more sustainable landscape maintenance approaches, asking for new ecological management approaches for the lawns and woods. To get rid of the algae, which is due to excessive runoff, Van Valkenburgh will separate the pond from the lawns, building in intermediary wetland systems and changing the chemical balance of the water bodies.

For Van Valkenburgh and many other landscape architects during the conference, many of these projects represent literal re-makings of their idols’ works. Early on, Van Valkenburgh was inspired by Kiley’s gardens, including the Miller Garden. He said Kiley represents a “controlling idea of nature, which is very different from how we dance with nature now.” When asked what happens when one of the trees in his carefully set grids die, Kiley responded that “that’s when the bosc gets good, when chance comes in, it becomes better.” Nowadays, as a result, Van Valkenburgh said, “we are more comfortable with things we can’t control.”

Read the next post in this series on the conference: The Next Wave of Modernism: Healing Urban Landscapes.

Image credits: (1-3) 1111 Lincoln Road, Miami Beach, Florida / Raymond Jungles, (4) 10th Avenue Overlook, The High Line, NYC / Broccoli Designs, (5-6) St. Louis Arch Grounds Redesign / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates   

The New Wave of Modern Landscapes

The Second Wave of Modernism II: Landscape Complexity and Transformation, a day-long conference organized by the Cultural Landscape Foundation at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City, argued that Modern landscape architects no longer start projects with the idea of a site as blank slate, ready be transformed by an artist’s vision. Now, it’s about “complexity and transformation.” Landscape architects must now work with complex systems, including cultural and ecological systems, and have been transforming early modernist sites into more functional, people-friendly spaces that also enhance the natural environment.

Moving from small-scale residential and urban projects up through large-scale urban redevelopment projects, the conference sought to explore the “legacy of Modernism and how it drives landscapes types today,” and how “this generation of landscape architects are responding to sites with modern histories,” said Jane Amidon, ASLA, Professor and Director, Urban Landscape, Northeastern University, School of Architecture. For her, the demands of public health and new information and communication technologies, along with changing social morays, are changing how landscapes are created and used.

Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, President and Founder, of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, added that it was important that the conference, which is a follow-up to a 2008 conference in Chicago, was held at MoMA in New York City, where innovative parks projects are “propelling landscape architecture in this city and worldwide.”

The first panel dealt with how today’s landscape architects are transforming Modern residential landscapes:

Revitalizing Richard Neutra’s Kun 2 House

Lisa Gimmy, ASLA, Lisa Gimmy Landscape Architecture, explained how she created a new landscape for famed Modern architect Richard Neutra‘s Kun 2 house in Los Angeles. The building, created in 1950, has large windows with unobstructed views. However, oddly, vines were hung down blocking views, which she found “puzzling.” In addition, in 1997, a landslide lead to the failure of one slope, meaning work was needed to shore up the building, which is perched on a steep site.

“Neutra approaches every project from the landscape perspective,” said Gimmy. His more famous projects like the Kaufmann Desert House in Palm Springs almost recede into the landscape. To preserve this effect here, Gimmy applied an elegant, modern, but also ecologically sound approach to ensure that the house was also safe from landslides. A “dry-stacked bolder wall” was created at the base of the house and the side of a re-graded driveway. At the base of the house, the rough granite borders and succulents, which Neutra used to great effect with his partner landscape architects, Lockwood de Forest and Ralph Stephens, were put in place to “contrast with the sleek building.” Korea grasses, rich and lush, look like waves lapping against the house (see image at top and below). An impact wall was put in that will be increasingly hidden as shrubs grow in. Gimmy’s work revitalizes the project while preserving Neutra’s unique Modern vision.

Bringing Ecological Science to Norman Jaffe’s Work

Christopher LaGuardia, ASLA, principal, LaGuardia Design, spoke about Modern architect Norman Jaffe, who designed contemporary residential beach houses in eastern Long Island that included evocative sculptural forms made of wood. An early proponent of using natural materials, he also explored passive design. His porfolio, LaGuardia said, was more varied than people realize, and included a synagogue in the Hamptons, which many architecture critics thought was his greatest work.

According to LaGuardia, Jaffe thought every building “did violence to the landscape” so he used the earth to bring down the scale of the home and make his homes “closer to the ground.” His sleek “barn forms,” which started his career, were the ones he also returned to later in his life.

In one restoration of a degraded landscape around a Jaffe home, LaGuardia quietly re-set the grade moving towards the house so it slightly rises. Meadow grasses “highlight the sculptural qualities of the gradings.” The use of a single native material – beach grassses – is elegant, in keeping with Jaffe’s use of simple forms and woods. In addition, LaGuardia actually created a pond from scratch to the building recede further into the landscape. All native plantings now surround a vital man-made ecosystem.

Renewing Philip Johnson’s Beck House

Gary Hilderbrand, FASLA, of Reed Hilderbrand said the Philip Johnson-designed Beck House in Dallas, Texas, was highly degraded, and the “latent spatial power of the trees” was largely invisible. An aging Mrs. Beck had abandoned the site for two decades. In 2002, the home was sold to a young family of four, who undertook the renewal process the site needed.

Hilderbrand said Johnson and Mrs. Beck got on famously. He “brought his theatricality to Dallas,” which Mrs. Beck loved. The Texas work of his period, which represents a sort of Texas – New York exchange, was a “significant departure from the international style and a move towards more figurative work.” A “faberge glamour” pervades the stairway within the home, but there’s also a “deliberate dettachment” in the procession of landscape views.

The recovery process was “disruptive and require the removal of dozens of trees,” including invader plants. The trees cleared actually helped the canopy, giving space for hearty trees to grow. “There was an amazingly tough crop of trees to work with.” A whole new “drainage regime” was created, addressing soil structure and moisture issues. It took three times for the biological reserve created on the sites’ river banks to take hold.

For the ecological recovery, Hilderbrand also had to get deeply involved in “Johnson’s spatial structure,” and “revive, transform, and tamper with Johnson’s procession of views.” The young family who purchased the site wanted to “make this domestic, but also an outdoor space for sculptural works.” Hilderbrand and his team redid the driveways, created a new garden passageway through one part of the house, and altered the stairs to the landing in the rear of the house. The “larger order to us” was the creek so new plinths were set in parallel to the water. He said the new work simply “added a layer on top of the existing work.” The site is now in a place of “active stewardship, and hopefully will be more enduring and beautiful.”

Learn more about this ASLA award winning project.

Also, learn more about some of the pioneers of American Modern landscape architecture through a recent book by Charles Birnbaum and Stephanie Foell: Shaping the American Landscape: New Profiles from the Pioneers of American Landscape Design Project.

Read the next post in this series on the conference: Rethinking Urban Renewal.

Image credits: (1-2) Kun 2 House, Los Angeles / Deniz Durmus, (3-4) Beck House / Alan Ward

Interview with Kevin Conger, CMG Landscape Architecture

Kevin Conger, ASLA, is one of the three founding partners of Conger Moss Guillard (CMG) Landscape Architecture, a San Francisco-based studio. Conger, who is president and CEO of CMG, has taught at the Rhode Island School of Design, University of California at Berkeley, and Boston Architectural College.

Repurposing more than 480 acres of an old naval base, the new Treasure Island redevelopment project will feature a 60-story tower and buildings housing 15,000 people, a mix of condos and affordable housing opportunities, bioswales of wetlands, some 300 acres of parks and public spaces, along with an integrated system to protect against sea level rise. The project was one of the select few identified as a “climate positive” model for sustainable urban development by the Clinton Climate Initiative. How will the project achieve climate positive standards?

The project is aiming for a 60 percent per capita reduction in emissions, which is 10 percent lower than experts have estimated is necessary to reduce emissions to stabilize global warming. What’s interesting about the Clinton Climate Initiative is that they require you to have a rigorous system for measuring actual performance. They combine that with an adaptive, flexible strategy that in theory allows you to adjust strategies as these big projects are developed over time. In the case of Treasure Island, that will be two decades. You can measure and adjust the strategies as you move forward.

That’s the big move, which says, Let’s not just say we’re going to do it, but let’s set some metrics, measure, and if necessary, adjust as we go. It’s a pretty big commitment for the partnership, which is between the city and the developers, to say we will enter into a kind of a partnership where we will allow for the agreement to change, or the commitments to change as we move forward, based on how it actually works.

Your firm has also been working with the Yerba Buena Community District to create a new vision for the “next generation of public space” in this central part of San Francisco. The 10 year plan includes both large scale projects and short term design interventions. The goal is to promote street life and increase social interaction. What are the key problems facing the community? What are the central elements of the new plan and the many design proposals?

This part of San Francisco, within the South of Market district, is pretty large. It covers 11 miles of streetscape around the Moscone Convention Center. The SFMoMA and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts are located there. There are a lot of hotels that have come into this area. All of that redevelopment happened in ’80s and ’90s. Along with that, there has been quite a bit of housing, some of which was there before. There’s a lot of senior and low-income housing, as well as just some older housing built after the earthquake. The area was largely light industry until the mid ’80s, a lot of auto shops and service-oriented light industry you typically saw in inner cities. As the big redevelopment moves came in, it changed the land uses and use identities of the neighborhood but the public realm didn’t change. All the roads are still too wide, the sidewalks are too narrow, there are very few street trees. The things you might typically associate with a mixed-use community where people live, work, and visit are missing.

We realized that the public realm needed to catch up with the new identity that was created through all these redevelopment efforts but that a big move in the public realm wasn’t really what was needed, or even appropriate. A better strategy would be a lot of small moves that were more tactical and that incrementally could add up and make a big overall change in the community. What was interesting is that this was a community design initiative. It’s a non-profit, community benefits district that the residents within this community approved to establish. There’s a tax they impose upon themselves. That money goes to the benefit district and then back into their community. This public realm improvement plan was a community design initiative so we did a lot of community workshops to identify what is important to the people living there, what their values are, what their problems are, and what they wanted to do about it. Many of the ideas came directly from the community, and the goals were things that were obvious: We want it to be safer, look better, cleaner. We want to have wider sidewalks.

The project ended up being a long-term, 10-year plan that has about 36 projects, which can be implemented as funding and partnerships become available. For each of the projects, we generated a budget and a potential partnership model — in terms of who the CBD might partner up with — to generate the funds to do the project, and then a schedule for what the fundraising program and implementation might look like. They now have a big, flexible tool that allows them to prioritize and re-prioritize all of these projects over the years.

We just finished the plan in the summer. We’ve implemented two of the very small projects already, and we’re now working at a couple of other ones that are going to get implemented in the next six months. In the meantime, fundraising is ongoing for some of the larger ones, including street closures and new plazas. The hope is that all the little things, all the small projects, can add up and lead to bigger change. It’s less about remaking this district and more about adding onto it, building on the identity that’s there. Through a more organic process of accrual and small scale change, the district can have a bigger change in the long term.

In Glendale, Arizona, a nine-acre organic farm and market plaza are being incorporated into the new 60-acre Bethany Central Business District. The farm will provide food for a central market and nearby restaurants. Edward Glaeser, a Harvard professor, however, recently came out against urban agriculture of this scale, arguing that these projects actually lower density. What do you see as the benefits of urban agriculture?

Urban agriculture can put the production of food closer to the place where it’s consumed, reduce food miles, and cut the carbon footprint of food production. Given the way the big agricultural industries work, agriculture is not the most sustainable practice. By doing it on a more small scale, you have the opportunity to do it more intensively and more sustainably on a local basis. But I think there’s a couple of other points in your question on density. Glendale is a very low density suburb outside of Phoenix. It’s a first generation suburban subdivision that might have a density of four dwelling units per acre, and it’s surrounded by cotton fields, which is a really unsustainable agricultural industry out in the desert. Cotton requires a lot of water.

On an 80-acre site, this project puts in about 250 or 300 dwelling units at a density of about 30 to the acre. It’s not dense like New York City, but it’s a huge density increase for this part of town. It puts in a lot of office space and open space, which is this farm. The project is the catalyst for an urban center in this growing suburban community. The hope is that doing something that incrementally increases density will become a kind of catalyst for more redevelopment. This is a huge step in the right direction compared to what’s there.

The other point to make is that all open space is theoretically a reduction in density, but we all agree that open space – parks – is necessary. What the agricultural park at Glendale is trying to do, and the CBD is trying to do, is to say, Let’s make the open space productive. We believe that we can hybridize the other open space functions: recreation, beauty, a place for people to socialize. We believe we can hybridize those into a purposeful landscape that is both ecological, in terms of its infrastructure, and productive, in terms of growing food for people. That’s what we’re really interested in: trying to get more value out of the open space we’re creating. We’re basically taking away from places where you could otherwise put buildings. It’s more of a comprehensive strategy.

Through a series of trusses, set over an incredibly steep site, the new UCSF Institute of Regenerative Medicine building makes amazing use of a site thought to be “unbuildable.” The building itself got a lot of attention, but many missed that it also includes a half-acre of wild flower and native grass-covered green roof terraces. CMG used an ecological approach mirroring coastal bluff systems. Can you talk about the design of the green roofs? Also, so far, how have the green roofs contributed to the actual research conducted in the building?

We did the concept through design development. Because it was a design-build project, they brought in a different build team. They had to bring in another landscape architect, which was the Guzzardo Partnership. So they did the detailed design and implementation and there’s another person to credit here. The design, as it got built, obviously, evolved so it’s not really the same as what we initially designed. We wanted to create an ecological green roof that was less controlled and allowed to change as a response to natural forces. We would start the landscape and then allow the ecological conditions of the roof to inform how the landscape evolved over time. We were looking at things like how does decomposition occur. For example, there’s a fallen tree and the log begins to decompose. Other ecologies emerge out of that. We were interested in trying to initiate some of those processes and then stand back and just let those happen, and see what kind of landscape emerges out of that.

We thought there would be a compelling relationship between the sciences and landscape in that the researchers would appreciate watching the processes happening out in the landscape. As it turns out, probably through budget cuts and value engineering, it’s a much more simplified landscape, where it’s essentially big terraces that are hydro-seeded with mixes of native grasses and other types of plants with pathways and little patios and places for people to sit and stuff. It’s actually quite beautiful.

A lot of the research labs have windows that look right out across these landscaped terraces. Those are probably of great value to the people in those buildings because they get to look at that space and also move out into these series of terraces associated with each of the lab pods. But the original idea that we had, and maybe you could argue it’s still there, is to instill this appreciation for ecological processes using a low maintenance or non-maintained landscape. I think what’s there is a little less poignant than what we had originally intended.

Mint Plaza in San Francisco, which recently won a smart growth award from the E.P.A., not only transformed an unused alley into a new public space, but also incorporates some smart green infrastructure. How do the systems function? How well do they perform in comparison with other types of green infrastructure?

The system that we developed deals with stormwater runoff. We developed the system with Sherwood Engineers, a civil engineering group in San Francisco. It’s a large infiltration basin that sits under the plaza, captures all the runoff, and allows it to infiltrate into the ground before it goes into the storm drain system. We are fortunate to have a pretty sandy soil condition there so the infiltration rate is quite high. We’re able to capture everything up to a five-year storm event before anything overtops and goes into the storm drain system. In the four years since the project has been built, I don’t think that any water has discharged into the storm drain system yet. That’s a big deal in this part of San Francisco because we have a combined sewer overflow system where the stormwater in a big event goes to the sewage treatment plant. Then, in a larger event, the stormwater quantity becomes more than the treatment plant can handle so stormwater, combined with sewage, is mixed and discharged in an untreated way, deep out into the ocean, which is just terrible.

Systems like this are really important where we have old combined sewer overflow systems. It’s a good example of how smaller individual infrastructure pieces can contribute to the bigger picture. It’s why every little bit counts. We need to go after these things pretty aggressively as if they are required urban infrastructure like fire hydrants.

We were fortunate on a project like Mint Plaza. It’s a big plaza so we’re able to utilize a fairly large area under the plaza to treat the stormwater. We make a positive contribution but even the smaller streetscape stormwater projects really add up. I anticipate that we’ll just see those as the norm in cities in the next 10 or 20 years.

The SFMoMA Rooftop Sculpture Garden extends the exhibits outdoors and features garden walls and other natural elements. The garden also includes unique textural elements, like a lichen-covered wall. Why did you use lichen? On your website, you write: “By planting a lichen wall, we take a bullish position on improving air quality.” Can you explain that story?

The sculpture garden was a competition we did with Jensen Architects. They invited us to join their team. When we were in the early stages of the competition, we realized that it’s not a really big area, only about 16,000 square feet. Their program for art was pretty all consuming. What they really needed was a big outdoor gallery that would give them a lot of flexibility for putting sculptures and different types of art in there. They wanted as much flexibility as they possibly could get because they didn’t want to limit what artists in the future could do. Their need was really for a big outdoor gallery, or a big box, that allowed them maximum flexibility.

But we really wanted it to be a garden. To us, a garden meant a few things. It meant that there was a increased connection between the people that would be visiting or using the space, the art, and the nature, the forces of nature. To us, that meant it should be about the passsage of time. A garden brings a sense of change and temporality. That was important to us. It should be about beauty and explore how to control or not control nature. Those are all the cultural aspects that make gardens so compelling and essential for our civilization.

The idea of lichen came about because lichen is very slow growing. We became interested in it because it’s kind of the antithesis of the art world, where everything is very fast, immediate, and available to you right away, for the most part. We thought where everything is so fast, where you’re so quick to consume it, we would do something that was really slow. It was essentially a slow garden. It would be something we would start but you would really have to wait for literally hundreds of years before it fully grew in. It was all about the potential of the lichen.

People were pretty excited about the idea of the lichen during the competition phase. We had done some Internet research and found someone who claimed they had propagated lichen, so it all seemed pretty straightforward. After we won the competition we came to realize that our Internet source was bogus, and in fact no one had actually propagated lichen before, so we had to admit that we didn’t know if it was possible or not. Fortunately, SFMOMA is a fantastic client, and they were still interested in the idea, so we commissioned a lichenologist named Tim Milliken and a researcher, Elise Brewster, to work with us to find a way to cultivate lichen.  We collected samples and made hundreds of tests with different formulas applied to all different base materials and put under different sun and moisture conditions. After a year we finally got some tiny specs of life in some of the samples, and that was enough for SFMOMA to give us the green light.

On day one of the garden, we inoculated the walls with this organism. It’s really one of the organisms that first colonizes places where nothing else is growing. As the lichen grows, it begins to gather a little bit of dirt, that then grows a little bit of moss, that then eventually gathers more dirt, that then, maybe a plant will colonize in there, so it’s an early colonizer. We liked that idea of the slowness, the fact that you can’t control it, you just have to kind of watch it. It’s an experiment and conceptually interesting at the same time.

What’s interesting is that lichen does not exist in cities for a couple of reasons. Things are power washed and always cleaned so the lichen is erased before it has a chance to really take hold, perhaps with the exception of places that are really neglected, and then you might see it take hold. Lichen also doesn’t grow where there’s poor air quality. In some cities, they map what they call lichen islands. They’ll take lichen panels or stones that have lichen on them and put them on roofs of buildings and see over time if the lichen actually survives. So for our project, we are optimistic that the air quality will remain good enough that it’s suitable for this lichen to grow long term. You have to be optimistic to be in this profession anyway, but the idea of planting something that may not be visible for a decade, and not really highly visible for 100 years, is a new level of optimism in garden design.

Your firm is also known for creating innovative urban spaces, like the Brainwash Plaza, a kind of parklet, and new parkmobiles that are part of the Yerba Buena street-life plan. Do you have any anecdotal evidence or even data on how these new types of mini parks are performing?

I don’t have any data, but there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence. San Francisco has a parklet program now. There are now probably 10 or 12 of these small parklets in the city. Most people really like them. The communities and the business owners that are sponsoring them in front of their businesses or properties like them. Of course, you know, not everybody likes them. Especially in the blog world, there’s always to be plenty of people who hate things. Some say there’s a sort of a risk by going too far with these short-term temporary landscapes, especially when they cost a lot. The argument is why not just spend that money and do it permanently or aggregate the money that you’re going to spend on 10 little things and do one bigger thing? That’s a risk, for sure, but I think what we’ve come to appreciate is that you need to do it at all scales and all levels.

The smallest things, incrementally, add up, accrue, and begin to make a big change. We’re definitely not advocating to replace the permanent, larger improvements with the temporary and small. We’re just saying, let’s do it all. The benefit of doing small and temporary things is that they can get approved really quickly. These are some of the things we’ve done in the Yerba Buena district, which is where the parkmobiles are. In fact, at the launch of the street-life plan at the SPUR Urban Center, which is in the district, we had an opening exhibition. As part of the exhibition, we installed a bench and attached it to the front of their building, facing the sidewalk. There’s really very little seating in that block. It’s about a 15-foot long bench that spans across their glass storefront building. We did it in a way where we could unbolt it and take it away. They didn’t have to consider that much in terms of allowing us to do it because it was a very small commitment on their part. As soon as we put that bench in for the exhibition, people immediately started gathering on it, and now, in front of the SPUR Urban Center, there’s people hanging out. Almost any time when you go by there during the day, there’s people sitting on this bench. It’s fantastic and they love it so they’ve decided to keep it as a permanent or, at least, semi-permanent thing. It just goes to show that the littlest things all make a difference. They all really add up.

The Parkmobiles are trying to do that in a similar way. They’re really low cost. They’re basically custom dumpsters that cost, believe it or not, about 3,000 bucks built to your specs, so they’re really economical. You still have to fill it up with dirt and plants. There are six of them. They move around the district every month or two. They show up in a new location. They’re meant to be an amenity and an improvement in terms of creating a place to sit, fostering social interaction, creating some beauty on the street, but they’re also trying to be sort of provocative at the same time by being fun, catchy, and getting people to talk about these issues. Instead of parking a car there, there’s a bench with plants. Isn’t that nice? Maybe we should be thinking about how much space parking is taking up in our communities and discussing whether that is the highest priority or the right allocation for that public space. Gee, there’s other things that we could be doing with that public space, other than storing private cars there on the public right of way. To answer your question, we really believe the mini parks and parkmobiles are effective. They are causing change for the better.

Interview conducted by Jared Green.

Image credits: (1) Kevin Conger / CMG Landscape Architecture, (2) Bethany Central Business District / Will Bruder + Partners, (3) Mint Plaza / CMG Landscape Architecture, (4) Mint Plaza / Sharon Risedorph, (5) SFMoMA Rooftop Sculpture Garden / Jensen Macy Architects, (6) Lichen close-up / CMG Landscape Architecture, (7) Parkmobiles / Julio Duffoo

Dunham-Jones: “Underperforming Space Is an Opportunity to Retrofit”

On day two of The Atlantic Magazine’s Green Intelligence forum, Ellen Dunham-Jones, Professor at Georgia Tech and co-author of Retrofitting Suburbia: Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs, talked about how some of the detritus of suburbia—the vacant big box stores, crumbling parking lots, dying strip malls—can be re-purposed. Today, a third of enclosed shopping malls are dead or dying. More than 28 percent of homeowners are underwater on their mortgages, owing more than the current value of their homes. The result is “zombie subdivisions.” But, says Dunham-Jones, “the proliferation of underperforming space is an opportunity to retrofit. We can redirect development to more walkable, affordable communities.”

Promising to focus on two Washington, D.C. area case studies, she first sketched out three categories of retrofits: re-greening, reinhabitation, and redevelopment. The first she characterized as “re-greening of areas that shouldn’t have been built on in the first place.” An example was Phalen Village, Minnesota, where a wetland was reconstructed on the site of a failed shopping center. She described reinhabitation as replacing retail with something different, as when a big box store in Denton, Texas, was turned into a public library. With redevelopment, an area is made more dense and urbanized. An example is Belmar in Lakewood, Colorado, where a former enclosed mall is being turned into a mixed use, walkable urban community.

Turning to the case studies, Dunham-Jones described University Town Center in Hyattsville, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C. This former office park was surrounded by surface parking. The opening of a Metro stop nearby resulted in a zoning change that encouraged mixed-use development. The owner built a parking deck and inserted a road over the surface parking, along with some apartments. The first retrofit steps encouraged others. The area became more walkable, which increased property values.

In the case of University Town Center, the redevelopment was encouraged by the arrival of mass transit and led by the developer. In the second case, that of Columbia Pike in suburban Virginia, densification came first. The question became, could the increased density trigger and pay for transit? The additional tax revenue that came with a more urbanized area was envisioned as a way to fund a streetcar along a stretch of the Pike. Also, along Columbia Pike, new zoning was proposed at commercial nodes, rather than along the entire route, so that existing affordable housing could be preserved.

Critical to this strategy was the use of form-based zoning codes. Unlike the traditional use-based codes, which say only how the zoned area may be used, form-based codes determine where a property sits in relation to the street—close to it or set back.

What’s next in revitalizing the suburbs according to Dunham-Jones? Scaling it up.

To learn more, watch a TED talk with Dunham-Jones.

This guest post is by Rachel Shaw, Manager, Professional Practice, American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA)

Image credit: Phalen wetland restoration project / Daytons

The U.S. Needs a National Renewable Energy Standard

At The Atlantic Magazine‘s Green Intelligence forum, which has become an annual event in Washington, D.C., Carol Browner, who was very recently climate change “czarina” at the White House and once head of the Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.); Jim Connaughton, Constellation Energy, and former head of the Council for Environmental Quality under President George W. Bush; David Hawkins, Natural Resources Defense Council; and Dave McCurdy, American Gas Association, all emphasized the need for a national renewable energy standard given no big climate change and energy legislation will be coming out of Congress in the next 18 months to 2 years. A new national standard, many said, could also help achieve many of the goals of the failed 2010 climate change and energy legislation. As Senator Amy Klobuchar noted in an earlier speech that day, Minnesota’s “aggressive” renewable energy standard (25 percent renewable energy by 2025) had led to skyrocketing growth in wind, solar, and biofuels in her state.

No Big Climate Change Legislation Coming Soon

Asked by Ed Luce, The Financial Times, how the debate in Washington could get steered back to climate change, the panelists punted a bit. Browner said “we could pass legislation, but not large legislation anytime soon.” She said there’s a set of tools available to the administration, including new rules and standards, which are now being used to ensure cars hit 54 mpg by 2015. Browner noted that 65 percent of total emissions in the U.S. can be dealt with through existing laws, regulations, and administrative tools.

For Connaughton, who is said to be Mitt Romney’s choice as the head of the E.P.A., there are already “six different types of regulatory programs” in the U.S., including the mandatory cap and trade program approved in California. Also, at the Federal level, the House and the most recent administrations, through their many attempts to pass major climate change legislation, have already laid an important “foundation.” This solid base has led to “10 billion tons in carbon reductions.” He said the foundation is now in place for moving many smaller pieces of legislation, like a national renewable energy standard, that would help with the climate.

NRDC’s David Hawkins thought the big climate change legislative failure in 2010 was due to the economy, the slogan that got associated with climate change – it’s “a jobs-killing energy tax,” and the growing belief that “this is not a problem that needs to be addressed.” He thinks these issues are just a “dam and not a permanent fixture in the U.S. political economy,” meaning all these obstacles can be overcome.   

According to Dave McCurdy, American Gas Association, which has been promoting fuel efficiency, there are “more opportunities on efficiency,” including fuel economy standards. He wants smarter incentives that can push firms to work with state governments and environmental groups, and said there needs to be a stronger emphasis on state action.

What Does Solyndra’s Failure Mean?

Will the failure of Solyndra, a major U.S. solar panel producer, which received nearly half a billion in recovery funds, do permanent damage to the case for investing in clean energy in the U.S.?, asked Luce. Browner said the U.S. has been making investments in energy and technology for more than 100 years, including long-term investments in the oil industry and nuclear power. “If we want a different future, we need to use the appropriate incentives.” She added that 100 years of pro-oil tax policies “have been enough.” Incentives, in the form of a national renewable energy standard, could lead to “huge investments” in cleaner energy. Connaughton basically argued that Solyndra was an “unfortunate, sad lesson” but it doesn’t change the overall program of government investment in clean energy.

For Hawkins, the government played its role. “Governments don’t give loan guarantees to companies that have no risk. If there was less risk, the private sector would do it.” He said Solyndra, which set its business model on rising prices for solar panels, was the “victim of progress in the solar industry.” Prices came down dramatically, which is good for the solar industry and consumers, but “bad for them.” McCurdy thought it was the “dynamic of the stimulus funds,” which had to “push lots of money out the door fast.” The result: some projects “fail, spectacularly.”

What Can Happen in the Near Term?

Connaughton says Congress was already questioning the value of big investments in clean energy before Solyndra failed. He wants mandates that are “performance-based,” meaning incentives that can enable the market’s competitive forces to do their stuff.

“Waxman-Markey (the 2010 comprehensive climate change and energy legislation) got too big, there were too many add-ons.” Interestingly, he added that cap and trade was “originally a Republican idea,” but in this instance got swamped by excessive add-ons so the legislation lost its shape. He sees “phased-in standards” organized by sector as the way to go, then a process of “national simplication” to align the sector standards into a bigger picture.

He used a range of examples to show how “market structures have had impact on energy efficiency.” Browner seemed to agree in part, but added that what’s really key is “incentives, investments, and creating demand so the private sector can make the changes needed. ”

Hawkins reminded everyone that some Republicans are set on limiting the powers of the E.P.A. to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. “We can’t dismantle these tools that exist” while hoping to make progress through standards and other approaches.

Interestingly, none of the panelists mentioned two of the most important recent stories that should figure in this conversation. The world’s population recently hit 7 billion, which means a complete “rethink of climate approaches” is needed, says National Geographic. According to its Newswatch site, climate change, population, and food production are all deeply linked: “Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University, famous for his book The Population Bomb, said people will have trouble feeding themselves as climate change worsens. But it’s a catch-22, he said, because we need to expand agriculture, but as it’s practiced today, it is also one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases.”

Also, according to The Guardian, World Energy Outlook 2011, a recent International Energy Agency (IEA) report, was very negative on the prospect of the global energy system changing enough to effectively combat climate change. The report said that “the world is likely to build so many fossil-fuelled power stations, energy-guzzling factories and inefficient buildings in the next five years that it will become impossible to hold global warming to safe levels, and the last chance of combating dangerous climate change will be ‘lost for ever.'”

Image credit: Biomass power plant, Cadillac, Michigan / We Are Michigan

A Call for Strategic Interventions

“Architecture has remained an island for too long,” stated Ronald Rietveld during a lecture at the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture. Rietveld founded his Amsterdam-based firm, Rietveld Landscape, along with his brother Erik, an economist and fellow in philosophy at Harvard. This detail begins to hint at Rietveld Landscape’s approach, which is collaborative and extends well beyond the boundaries of a site. Arguing for “strategic interventions,” Rietveld presented visionary landscape solutions that address a range contemporary problems.

“Strategic interventions are precisely chosen and carefully designed urban or landscape interventions that set desired developments in motion,” Rietveld told the audience. Setting out to “make relevant contributions to the big problems society faces,” the brothers Rietveld penned A Call For Strategic Interventions, a design manifesto that argues for interdisciplinary collaboration and the employment of existing processes across multiple scales to create fertile ground where both designed and yet-unknown opportunities can develop.

Rietveld offers Generating Dune Scapes as an example of strategic intervention. Winner of the 2006 Prix de Rome Architecture, this proposal is a flexible system that incorporates large scale dredging equipment, the nearby steel industry, and the largest canal lock in the world. In so doing, it would create a new “hybrid landscape” of restored ecology, new urban development, and recreation against a backdrop of industrial steel plants and dunes.

He proposes regenerating the dunes by removing the top 25 cm of ground and colonizing the space with native vegetation. Over time, the dunes would “grow like lasagna” by adding sand and sediment dredged from the canal (up to 1.4 million cubic meters / year). In addition, three strategies would create a series of hybrid landscapes within the dunes and industry. Using residual heat of the steel industries, Rietveld proposes a system of heated pools, utilizing ruins of bunkers for bathhouses (see image at top). Noting the native birds of the coast have taken to nesting on the canal locks to stay out of reach of predators, Rietveld consulted with conservationists to propose breeding areas for birds among dunes between the locks. Finally, drawing on research from the Technical University of Delft, Rietveld proposes adding structures for housing and development on the dunes by injecting bacteria into the sand, making it harder than concrete. Rietveld described this approach to the existing landscape, saying, “So much development is already going on; we just make use of it. It’s easy to deliver quality for tomorrow, but what happens after is not fixed. Too much design, not enough thinking of what we can do with it. What does it contribute to social cohesion? This is the relevant question.”

Notions of public space and social cohesion run deep in Rietveld Landscapes’ work and are perhaps nowhere more evident than in his proposal for New Amsterdam Park. Rietveld asked, “Starting from the idea that strangers become familiar strangers, how do we create social cohesion by creating a park?” As part of Trusted Subcultures, a research project on social cohesion funded by the Dutch government and headed by Rietveld Landscape, the project aims to use “vacant space in the canal to create a park for different kinds of groups, a floating park for a water city, a vision of social cohesion. Strangers become familiar strangers.”

New Amsterdam Park consists of a modular grid of floating barges connected by a network of paths and waterways. Within the barges are places designed for (and in some cases designed by) specific subcultures. Rietveld challenged the notion of a one-size-fits-all public space by carving out places specific to its occupants asking, “Public space for everybody—is that true? Should it be for everyone all the time?” By drawing on a variety of subcultures any one person may prescribe to—dog owners, punks, DJs, or students to name a few—and the social elements which draw them together, Rietveld offered a formula that allows strangers to become familiar with one another, saying “social affordances times subcultures equals trusted strangers. It’s a place to explore and pick up some of the affordances that motivate other subcultures.”

When asked whether the design would actually encourage interaction among different subcultures, Rietveld answered that the design is about “tempting conflict, emphasizing conflict. Right now, the public domain is about avoiding each other. The public domain should become more specific, so that you choose to join or not. Easy to enter, but easy to observe and pass by as well.” Through maximized visual access and shifting, modular spaces, New Amsterdam Park creates a flexible urbanism that sow seeds for new social interaction.

As the lecture concluded, Rietveld reflected on the genesis of ideas, noting the extent to which the questions we ask ourselves frame the problems we choose to address. “The concept must be real sharp and have no compromises,” he said. “The best part of the design process is when you have so many ideas and you can do anything. The hardest part is choosing one and remaining absolutely steadfast throughout.”

Explore Rietveld Landscape’s projects, and see an earlier post that explores their transformation of bunkers into unique landscapes.

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

Image credits: (1) Generating Dune Scapes / Rietveld Landscape, (2) New Amsterdam Park / Rietveld Landscape