China’s Climate Negotiator: “We Are Serious About Climate Change. We Mean What We Say.”

Su Wei, China’s lead climate negotiator, said that while “climate change is still a sensitive issue” in the United States, China is “serious about climate change. We mean what we say,” at the kick-off of the World Resources Institute (WRI)National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) partnership focused on creating low-carbon cities in China, Brazil, and India. Funded by Caterpillar, the partnership will include a study tour by China’s lead climate negotiators of the U.S. Su Wei said “what’s happening at the state level in the U.S. is very interesting.” The team will also examine California’s new carbon trading system to see if similar models can be implemented in China’s provinces.

Clayton Lane, Global Lead, WRI Sustainable Cities Initiative, said by 2030 more than one billion people will live in China’s cities, with some 40 percent being new residents. Their lifestyle choices, consumption habits, energy and transportation use are incredibly important. Lane argued that with China’s new cities, the state of the world may hang in the balance: How Chinese urban residents consume has enormous implications for the rest of us. He added that “city design matters a lot.” As an example, he pointed to Toronto, where the outer sprawl suburbs have residents who average 13 tons of CO2 emissions annually, while those in denser suburbs average 6.6 (almost half), and those in the inner-core average just 1.3 tons. “The structure of cities has a huge impact.”

The way cities are designed also has a impact on health. New York City, which has the lowest per-capita level of CO2 emissions in the U.S., also has the highest longevity rates. “NYC residents live longer and are safer than elsewhere in the U.S.” The point is that New Yorkers walk more, and sprawled out communities have higher traffic fatalities.

The questions for WRI were then: Can China set the example? Can China leapfrog past bad models established in the U.S. and Europe and be the leader in low carbon development?

Su Wei argued that China is making some progress. The 2006-2010 national development plan put climate change front and center. The country set energy intensity targets: 20 percent reduction by 2020. China has “achieved those targets,” which means some 1.5 billion tons of CO2 emissions were avoided. The new 5-year plan calls for low-carbon development. “We want to become a conservation society, and have green, sustainable development as our guiding principle.”

New policies will focus on mitigation, which will involve restructuring the economy, boosting energy conservation and efficiency, and increase the share of non-fossil fuels to 11.4 percent by 2020. “We are also investing in increasing forest coverage, enhancing our carbon sinks.” A second focus area is technological innovation. China is already investing heavily in research and development, and creating a new “low-carbon product labeling system” to raise awareness among the public. Lastly, China is looking to “market mechanisms” like cap and trade systems to “mainstream climate considerations.” As for climate change adaptation, China is initiating programs to preserve freshwater and agricultural and forest lands, and protect coastal development.

Zou Ji, WRI’s China Country Director, said China is still a developing country, with some 50 percent of the population living in rural areas, where “living standards are still poor,” so the country still faces major challenges in implementing its broad vision. While there has been massive growth, the levels of industrial efficiency are still “very low.” Coupled with these inefficiences are the “increasing constraints of limited energy and natural resources.” Any policy for China will have to accomodate “diverse provincial development levels and natural endowments.” WRI is working with Chengdu and Qingdao, two cities exploring low-carbon development.

China can look to U.S. states as decent models and Germany as an excellent model. Given the U.S. seems stuck on climate change legislation, the U.S. may move towards a regulatory approach to reduce emissions. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.) has executive powers to regulate greenhouse gas emissions and may start using them. Jennifer Morgan, Director, Climate and Energy Program, WRI, said she spoke with Chinese climate change negotiators who were very surprised the “U.S. is moving towards a regulatory path.” She said the Obama administration has moved on reducing car and truck-based emissions, which will mean 2 million metric tons of CO2 reduced and 4 million barrels of oil not bought. California is moving forward with its own cap and trade system, and a number of states are working on making renewable energy as competitive as fossil fuels.

Nevertheless, Germany may have some better answers: The country has shut down 7 nuclear reactors out of safety concerns, but is still on track to achieve zero carbon emissions and 60 percent renewable energy use by 2050. There, “feed-in tariffs work” to boost renewable energy use, and there has been heavy investment in a new smart grid, along with progress towards creating a central agency to manage it.

Still, China won’t be able to reduce CO2 emissions unless it also comes up with a robust sustainable transportation strategy. The UNFCCC offers data showing that 23 percent of global emissions are related to transportation. “If we can’t tackle transportation, we can’t tackle climate change,” said Holger Dalkmann, Director, EMBARQ, WRI’s Sustainable Transportation group. At a per-capita basis worldwide, “we need 0.5 tons per year.” However, in large part due to cars, the U.S. is already at 6 tons annually per person and Germany is at 2 tons or more. Reducing car use will not only benefit the environment, but also save lives: Some 1.3 million people die in traffic fatalities each year worldwide.

China is already doing the best in the world on Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), a model of sustainable urban transportation invented by Jaime Lerner, when he was Mayor of Curitiba, Brazil (see an interview). “China now has 10 BRT systems, and the largest in the world.” 

But to avoid the bigger, most costly mistakes made by the U.S. and Europe, where there are far-flung suburbs that create sprawl, China will need to undertake three approaches, said Dalkmann: Avoid, which means reduce the distance or number of car trips; Shift, which involves turning towards modes of transportation with lower CO2 emissions like biking and walking or public transit; and Improve, which relates to investing in systems that not only provide mobility but also improve health, quality of life, and energy efficiency.

As one World Bank official in the audience noted, though, urban cores with BRT systems are nice, but they often lead to fast-rising rents, which push out the urban poor to the suburbs where there are no good transportation options. Affordability in dense urban cores is expected to be as big of a problem in China as it is in the U.S.

Image credit: BRT System, Guangzhou, China / Metro Magazine

To Frack or Not to Frack?

New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation is poised to make a long-awaited decision that will determine if and how High Volume Horizontal Hydraulic Fracturing (or fracking) should proceed.

The controversial practice of fracking involves pumping toxic fluids and other materials thousands of feet below the surface of the earth in order to release natural gas trapped within rocks. Once the gas is captured, these fracking fluids are then partially recovered and moved by trucks and pipelines to questionable disposal sites. In the case of New York, the area fracked would be the state’s share of the Marcellus Shale geologic formation.

The economic boom from natural gas exploration and extraction, already full steam ahead in neighboring Pennsylvania, has the potential to pump billions of dollars into New York’s economy. Some estimate New York’s natural gas reserves (largely in the state’s Southern Tier) to be almost 500 trillion cubic feet.

Such a large and accessible energy resource is undoubtedly welcome news to our energy hungry nation. But many are questioning if this boom (and likely future bust) is worth the costs to our state’s environment as we watch the poisoned wells, toxic spills, stress to the rural transportation system, and minor earthquakes the practice has produced elsewhere.

From an ecological perspective, fracking would bring a landscape-scale threat to New York’s natural heritage. Its impacts could include habitat fragmentation, pollution of water bodies, alterations and contamination of groundwater, injuries to species of concern, and other types of natural resource damages. Add into the equation the future unavoidable accidents like broken pipelines and breached containment ponds and the risks to the ecological communities many have fought so hard to protect become even greater.

Amphibians like the endangered Eastern Tiger Salamander are key indicator species of toxicity in the environment and may be further threatened with fracking.

Regulations in New York State are likely to be stiffer than in Pennsylvania, but many believe not enough is known about the practice to create effective monitoring and enforcement procedures. In the past few years, investigative reporters have started to bring to light many of the ills that come with this such as spoiled agricultural land, contaminated well water, over-stated gas reserves, and reduced property values. More details and scientific data will undoubtedly be revealed in the years to come.

Governor Cuomo should not allow fracking to move ahead in New York until the practice can be shown without doubt to be safe and protective of the environment. As a society, we need to start making our decisions from the perspective of future generations. The short-term gains of fracking are hard to resist, especially in this down economy, but the protection of our drinking water and the health of our ecosystem are much more important.

This guest op-ed is by Bryan Quinn, ASLA, a member of the NYASLA Board of Directors and an ecological consultant for Applied Ecological Services, Inc. Read NYASLA Downstate’s position paper, which was recently submitted to the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation during public deliberation on the state’s fracking policies.

Footnotes: (1) American Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA),  Sept. 7, 2011, (2) NYSDEC Revised Draft SGEIS, 2012, (3) National Conference of State Legislatures,  July 2011, (4) “Fracking and Biodiversity”, Hudsonia, Fall 2011

Image credit: (1) Kaaterskill Fall, Catskill, New York /, (2) Eastern Tiger Salamander / Lisa Powers Copyright, via Chattanooga Arboretum.

Breaking New Ground

Diana Balmori and Joel Sanders’ new book, Groundwork, is “an appeal to designers to overcome the false dichotomy between architecture and landscape.” Balmori, FASLA, and Sanders are both founding principles of New York-based design studios: Balmori Associates, a landscape and urban design studio, and Joel Sanders Architects, an architecture firm. They have collaborated on several projects that seek to establish a meaningful integration between what are commonly considered two separate disciplines with two separate agendas. They argue that transcending this distinction and allowing the two professions to join forces could provide a “catalyst for creativity” that in turn could have a substantial impact on the environment. Rather than perceiving buildings as isolated objects floating in a natural landscape, designers might instead begin to understand buildings and landscapes as “linked interactive systems that heal the environment.”

Forging these hybrid systems requires designers to consider the “interface” between landscape and architecture, or “the space where indoors and outdoors meet and where there is a fluid connection between natural and synthetic and exterior and interior space.” Balmori and Sanders argue that imagining a more robust integration within this overlapping space between buildings and landscapes would allow for new possibilities appropriate to contemporary notions of what it means to live with nature. One major impediment to this is the persistent idea that humans are separate from nature, a separation mirrored in the distinction of buildings from the landscape. It has bred a nostalgic idealism for unspoiled nature free from human intervention, which has in turn resulted in “a deep and persistent suspicion of designed nature that still endures.” Consequently, designers are faced with the dilemma of trying to reconcile the idea of unspoiled nature with the need for human design, often resorting to a natural, “invisible” aesthetic that tries to mask the highly constructed and technological qualities of the built environment.

In supporting their argument, Balmori and Sanders presents 25 different projects that challenge the separation between landscape and architecture as well as such distinctions as “artificial” and “natural” or “virtual” and “real.” The projects are divided among three categories of contemporary design directions: topography, ecology, and bio-computation. Balmori and Sanders acknowledge that several of the projects overlap categories or fall somewhere between them but they indicate that the categories are only one way of distinguishing the projects. Furthermore, certain projects’ ability to defy these distinctions are part of their significance. Fundamentally, they represent a broad range of explorations into new ways of engaging the built environment that challenge shifting perceptions of human interaction with the natural world.

The topographic projects manipulate the ground in an attempt to merge the elements of building and landscape by treating built form as inhabitable landform. Unlike invisible natural designs, these projects represent “unapologetic human interventions” that boldly accept the fact that human design must alter the landscape. They are driven by concerns that nevertheless strive to respect a site’s context. Of the nine projects presented, some attempt to build within their site’s existing hillsides. The renovation and addition for the campus of the Lycée Jean Moulin in Revin, France, is one such example. Duncan Lewis Scape Architecture with OFF Architecture designed a series of stepped ribbon-like structures with green roofs set into sloping hillsides to house the facilities. From a distance, these structures camouflage the complex, while up close they form a spectacularly constructed series of green canopies that offer extensive vistas from within the structures.

Other projects attempt to transform flat, marginalized areas on the outskirts of cities with uniquely constructed landforms that confound distinctions between ideas of nature and artifice while providing spaces for public amenities. Seattle Art Museum Olympic Sculpture Park by Weiss/Manfredi (see earlier post) transformed an industrial brownfield along the waterfront in Seattle, Washington, into a sculpture park and satellite exhibition space for the city’s art museum. The site was capped with two hundred thousand cubic yards of clean soil and sculpted with a continuous Z-shaped pedestrian ramp to account for a 40 foot grade change in order to connect the city to the waterfront. The landscape channels and cleanses stormwater and features a progression of plantings from temperate evergreen to deciduous forest as well as tidal areas for salmon and saltwater vegetation.

The ecological projects address a range of scales from the surfaces of buildings to plans for parks and cities. They attempt to develop environments that both provide public space and address issues of natural resource management such as water retention, terrain remediation, and energy efficiency. In doing so, they surpass the typical agenda of sustainability by creatively considering issues of form and program in addition to performance and efficiency. Some of the projects also focus on revitalizing marginal sites and often work with found or recycled materials that evoke a site’s history. For example, Batlle i Roig transformed a long, narrow tract of land located between two highways on the outskirts of Santander, Catabria, Spain, into the Parque Atlántico. The park’s composition is derived from an abstracted representation of the Atlantic Ocean translated into a series of planted terraces that accommodate a wide range of public uses. The site also includes an existing waterway featuring a large native colony of reeds, the unique landscape of which was preserved in the park.

Several of the projects also challenge the idea of invisible green design. A residence by R & Sie(n) in a shared courtyard of Paris, France features a 130-square-meter cabana wrapped with wide-gauge steel netting to support a vertical garden of 1,200 hydroponic ferns. Misting nozzles sustain the ferns with collected rainwater, while a constellation of three hundred suspended blown-glass vases interwoven throughout the garden cultivate rhizobia, a bacterial soup that serves to nitrogenize the ferns without the assistance of soil (see earlier post).

The bio-computation projects feature structures modeled on systems derived from biology, which emulate the performance of living organisms. They employ computer-aided design to script digital codes to generate forms and patterns that capture the adaptive and self-organizing properties of living systems. They operate at different scales and disrupt the established notions of an orderly nature while blurring the boundaries between what is natural and artificial. On the smaller scale is the Northside Copse House located in West Sussex, England. Ecologic Studio designed the residence to be site-specific and respond to the surrounding environment, accounting for forest density and solar access and orientation. The house features irregularly-spaced frames that provide structural stability and channel collected rainwater. These members also allow for intervals of apertures that correspond to environmental stimuli, providing for natural ventilation and daylighting.

On the larger scale is Magnus Larsson’s project, DUNE: Arenaceous Anti-Desertification Architecture. It proposes to reverse desertification in the spreading Sahara Desert with a six-thousand-kilometer beltway of crystalized sand dunes forming an instant oases stretching from Mauritania to Djibouti. These dunes are created from a nonpathogenic microorganism (Bacillus pasteurii) that turns sand into sandstone and, when deployed across balloon molds, creates a network of hardened, inhabitable interiors suitable for water harvesting and plantings. The project is particularly compelling for its self-generative logic: the same winds that cause desertification propel the microbes.

These projects are just a sampling of the 25 presented in the book, which represent a wide range of cutting-edge experiments for merging landscape and architecture and addressing pressing environmental issues in the process. Balmori and Sanders present compelling arguments for increasing collaboration between the two disciplines, a process that can help deal with the growing complexities in the built environment. They examine both the outdated notions of nature and design that support the existing gap between the two professions along with the growing understanding of ecology that argues the gap needs to be closed. As the book demonstrates, “designers need to see [projects] as an accumulation of independent processes.” When integrated, these projects can then be “as complex as any machine or, indeed, any creature.”

Read the book.

This guest post is by Shannon Leahy, Masters of Landscape Architecture Candidate, University of Pennsylvania

Image credit: Monacelli Press

What’s Happening to Orange County Great Park’s Master Plan?

Is Orange Country Great Park’s master plan becoming irrelevant or simply evolving in the face of new economic and political realities? According to The Orange County Register, the master plan for the nearly 1,500-acre park, which was created by Ken Smith Workshop West along with Mia Lehrer + Associates, is being dramatically altered, raising questions as to whether the nearly $50 million spent in planning documents and designs is being wasted. On the other hand, some argue, the Great Park, with its massive scale, will take decades to complete, and perhaps it’s only natural that components of the park evolve over time and diverge from initial plans.

For The Orange Country Register, it’s about the money spent and the credibility of Irvine’s planning process. Changes to the master plan may raise questions about the “philosophy” of the Great Park leaders, “who brushed off early calls to speed up construction and instead developed detailed plans for the entire park that cover hundreds of thousands of pages. Should officials, in retrospect, have put off extensive designs until projects were set in stone?” 

Background on the Planning and Design Process

Irvine is apparently known for investing heavily in planning. An international design competition yielded proposals from around the world. After Ken Smith, ASLA, won the competition, the first step was creating a master plan at a cost of $10 million. The master plan, which won an ASLA analysis and planning award, called for turning the site, the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, into a “living landscapes” bigger than Balboa Park in San Diego and setting a “new standard for sustainability, ecological restoration, and public space in Southern California.”

In September 2007, the planning commission of the city of Irvine approved Smith’s ambitious master plan, which kicked-off a process of creating “schematic design that includes nearly 90 reports and nearly 1,000 sets of drawings” at a cost of $40 million. Those more detailed designs analyzed the entire park and provided about 30 percent of the detail needed before construction.

The Orange County Register writes that planning and design phase took “months and eventually years,” and some city officials began to lose patience with the process. In a 2008 letter, Supervisor Bill Campbell said: “I’m disappointed to see so much rhetoric and attention surrounding the Great Park without the results to back it up.” A Irvine businessman and former council candidate Mitch Goldstone also made a campaign out of: “Where is the Great Park?”

In 2009, the schematic designs were completed. To defend the time and money spent on planning and designing this massive park, Councilman Larry Agran said: “I think this provides an answer to those who, largely out of ignorance, have asked, ‘What have you been doing the last few years?’ and ‘Where have the tens of millions of dollars been spent?'” If you want to do something on this scale that is this great, you have to invest the money up front in planning and design, because the payoff is enormous.”

Changes to the Plan

The original intent of the designs are still in place, but there have been major revisions:

First, the upper segment of a proposed 2.5-mile man-made canyon is “dramatically narrower than originally envisioned, the result of adjustments in the layout of privately built homes that will surround the park.” According to Ken Smith’s master plan, the original vision of the Canyon was a recreational space, ecologically restored:

“The Canyon is a beautiful oasis—a place to wander and daydream—a place for families to picnic and for children to explore. Within the Canyon, a perennial stream and ponds, reflective of southern California’s foothill and lowland aquatic habitats, will support a wide variety of native plants and animals. The Canyon will also showcase unusual habitats, including vernal pools, rock outcrops, and fern grottoes.”

Second, another area called the “Cultural Terrace” is also facing changes. The original master plan called for demolition of existing buildings to create space for four new buildings for museums and a library. The new plan calls for reusing existing buildings, meaning the new museum buildings proposed may not be built. A planned 26-acre lake may shrink, while a 68-feet-long “conservatory bridge” over the lake may be cut. A 90-acre botanical garden with 2,500 fruit trees will be moved and reconfigured. A “promenade of senses” will now be a parking lot (creating a new promenade of exhaust fumes and oil leakages). 

Lastly, in areas where there has been construction, there have been additional changes. The Orange Country Register writes that “they include moving a planned aviation museum to a different section of the park, placing a parking lot where sports fields were expected and possibly building a meadow and ice-hockey center where a soccer field and parking lot were anticipated.” Learn more about aspects of the completed segment, the Observation Balloon Preview Park

A New Economic Reality

The changes are said to all be efforts to save money and provide “amenities that park leaders say will maximize public benefit.” The recession has meant that private development at the Marine Corps Air Station has been postponed, which has then delayed financing for crucial park infrastructure. Great Park CEO Mike Ellzey told them: “Master plans change. We will be able to use a substantial part.”

The issues may be political as well. Councilman Jeff Lalloway, one of two Republicans on the Democrat-dominated council, said: “They spent all this money up front to plan things, (but) market conditions and a whole variety of variables come into play. Determining what should be built is an evolving concept.” For example, Lalloway and others doubt whether initial plans for the man-made 2.5-mile long canyon will actually get built. However, Democrat city officials, including the Mayor, still support the canyon, which will “build some type of contour” into a remarkably flat brownfield site. The designers also included the canyon to help restore the ecological health of the site and region, providing a wildlife corridor in a place previously unfriendly to nature.

In making a case for investing in a comprehensive master plan for a park that is nearly double the size of NYC’s Central Park, Councilman Agran said: “There are folks who are frankly just plain ignorant – and determined to stay ignorant – about what it means to master-plan a community and master-plan a park. We could do things on a piecemeal basis without a master plan, chunk by chunk, hiring a new designer every time. But that’s not the Irvine way, and the Irvine way has proven successful.” 

Learn more about the evolving plan, and see the original, approved comprehensive plan as well as the first completed segment, the Observation Balloon Preview Park. Smith collaborator, Mia Lehrer, FASLA, also talks about the vision of the park.

Image credits: (1) Orange County Great Park (see larger, uncropped image) / Great Park DESIGN STUDIO, (2-3)  Orange County Great Park Canyon / Great Park DESIGN STUDIO

A Fracked Landscape in Wyoming

After three years of study, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released the first report arguing that chemicals used to hydraulically fracture or “frack” rocks in the search for natural gas polluted local water. In this case, the pollution is occuring in the Pavillion field in central Wyoming. According to CNN, immediately after the draft report was released, the Wyoming Department of Health and Human Services then told local residents to find alternative sources of water for drinking, cooking, and use ventilation when showering due to dangerous chemicals in the water. 

Hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” involves using a wellbore drill and then pressurized fluids made up of chemicals and water to create fractures and channels deep in rock beds. The fissures then help release trapped petroleum, natural gas, or coal seam gas. Once a fissure is made, “proppants” are injected into the rock beds to keep the fractures in place.

Fracking fluids are in large part made up of water. According to some estimates, an initial drilling operation can use between 60,000 and 600,000 gallons of water, and then consume 5 million gallons over the life of the excavation. Also, some 750 chemical additives are used with the water to make fracking fluid. According to a 2011 U.S. House of Representatives report, “more than 650 of these products contained chemicals that are known or possible human carcinogens, regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, or listed as hazardous air pollutants.” The problem is that these chemicals seep into the aquifers and are then drunk by those living near the wells. 

According to The New York Times, the E.P.A. report in Wyoming was prompted by complaints by locals about the poor smell and taste of the water. To find the source of the problems, the E.P.A. tested the groundwater supply. “The agency’s analysis of samples taken from deep monitoring wells in the aquifer indicated the presence of synthetic chemicals, like glycols and alcohols consistent with gas production and hydraulic fracturing fluids, benzene concentrations well above standards in the Federal Safe Drinking Water Act standards, and high methane levels.” The E.P.A. added that “data suggest that enhanced migration of gas has occurred within ground water at depths used for domestic water supply.”

Encana Oil & Gas (USA), which bought the Pavillion field in 2004 and has put in almost 170 wells there since then, basically argued that nature polluted the local water supply. One spokesman said that “finding methane and benzene in two deep test wells drilled for the study is what you would expect in a gas-rich zone.” In addition, the process of extracting natural gas didn’t pollute the water: “enhanced migration of gas as a result of drilling was unlikely in the Pavillion field, since drilling had reduced pressure in the underlying rock, thus reducing forces that can lead to gas seepage.” Matt Mead, governor of Wyoming, added that the study didn’t have enough data and was “scientifically questionable,” calling for additional research.

Forbes argues that the study only zooms in one site but could mean that the E.P.A. is moving to create more stringent rules nationally or even ban the practice. Limiting fracking use could mean more expensive energy prices and lost opportunities, given some “90 percent of gas wells drilled today require fracking for completion.” In addition, oil wells in North Dakota thought to contain 24 billion gallons may also require fracking for extraction. To ensure fracking continues, Forbes calls for more stringent federal rules, which would make the process more expensive for energy firms, but also safer for communities.

While Wyoming is dependent on oil and gas drilling for a major part of its economy, the local community around Pavilion indeed finds current fracking practices unsafe. John Fenton, the chairman of Pavillion Area Concerned Citizens, told The New York Times: “This investigation proves the importance of having a federal agency that can protect people and the environment. Those of us who suffer the impacts from the unchecked development in our community are extremely happy the contamination source is being identified.”

As hydraulic fracturing grows in use and fracked areas come closer to major suburban areas in Oklahoma, Colorado, Pennsylvania, “anxieties about the hydraulic injection process and its consequences” are also increasing. The eye-opening film GasLand, which was recently nomimated for an Oscar for best documentary, may have also spurred local communities into demanding tougher regulations from state and federal regulators to protect drinking water.

Still, the battle is now state-by-state. The Guardian writes that New York is currently debating whether to follow Pennsylvania’s lead and open its lands up to fracking. One NYC hearing on the proposals brought more than 900 irate organizations and individuals. Local environmental and community organizations across the U.S. also want fracking practices to be more closely examined for their possible connections with earthquakes, high levels of air pollution, and increased greenhouse gas emissions.

Explore the full draft report, which is now being peer-reviewed. Also, read a recent article in The New York Times Magazine, “The Fracturing of Pennsylvania,” which examines that state’s experiences with fracking in thousands of sites over the past three years. 

Image credit: Hydraulic Fracturing Rig / NPR

Power Freshkills Park with Art

In partnership with the NYC Department of Parks & Recreation, the 2012 Land Art Generator Initiative (LAGI) ideas competition asks landscape architects, architects, planners, artists, and engineers to submit proposals for a 100-acre “pragmatic art installation” in Freshkills Park, Staten Island, New York City that can generate power from renewable energy sources.

According to Freshkills Park, the park will total 2,200 acres when completed, making it almost three times the size of Central Park. In an amazing transformation of what was formerly the world’s largest landfill, a decrepit garbage dump of a landscape may become a “symbol of renewal and an expression of how our society can restore balance.” Designed by James Corner Field Operations, the park will provide hundreds of acres of recreational opportunities. A full-scale ecological restoration by ecologist Steven Handel is also underway, which will underpin the environmental education programs.

LAGI’s idea competition, like the one held in 2010 in Abu Dhabi, is designed to unleash wildly creative thinking about how renewable energy can be made beautiful. The idea this year is to design a public artwork for Freshkills that will not only have “conceptual beauty” but can also harness energy from nature and convert it into electricity. The group’s organizers emphasize that they don’t want a timid public art work, but instead seek to leverage the “expansiveness” of Freshkills to create a massive 100-acre art project that can power thousands of nearby homes from Freshkills’ East or North parks. 

Specifically, entries must include a “three-dimensional sculptural form” that can inspire visitors to think deeply about “broad ideas as ecological systems, human habitation and development, energy and resource generation and consumption,” but can also sit within the historical and ecological context of the site. The artwork must capture energy from nature (in the form of wind, solar or solar thermal, or another renewable energy mechanism), convert it into electricity, and be capable to transmitting energy via a power grid connection point. “Consideration should be made for artfully housing the required transformer and electrical equipment within the project boundary.”

Entries cannot have negative environmental impacts on the park or release greenhouse gas emissions. Each submittal must then include a brief environmental impact assessment. Given the park rests on top of a landfill cap, the designers will also need to discuss how the project will fit in with those carefully engineered systems. “The cap shall not be penetrated in any manner for any reason.” 

Furthermore, LAGI asks teams to use scalable and tested technologies. “It is recommended that the design team make an effort to engage the manufacturers of existing technology in preliminary dialogue as a part of their own research and development of the design entry.”

Submit your concepts before July 1, 2012. The jury considering the entries includes top designers like James Corner, ASLA, and Bjarke Ingels, as well as senior officials from Staten Island, the NYC Departments of Sanitation and Parks & Recreation, the NYC Public Art Commission, and U.S. Department of Energy.

Winners will take home $20,000 in award money. LAGI writes that the award will not guarantee a construction commission, but the “most pragmatic and aesthetic” designs will be promoted to local NYC stakeholders. Separately, a competition for high school students interested in how to power NYC with art will be open at the same time, with $1,000 up for grabs.

Image credit: Freshkills Park, North Park / NYC Department of Parks & Recreation

Jim Sanborn’s Landscape Projections

In a series of photographs exhibited at the Nevada Museum of Art’s The Altered Landscape exhibition earlier this year, contemporary photographer and public artist Jim Sanborn fit in with a long line of modern landscape photographers who have examined how human and natural worlds intersect. In his work, Sanborn, who is said to come after the 1970s wave of “New Topographic” photographers, actually overlays human design over natural scenes, expressing in artistic form how people continually shape the environment.

Sanborn, who was born in D.C. and has shown his art and photograpy around the world, discussed the process he undertook to create his series of “topographic projects and implied geometries:” “These images were produced by direct, large format, light projection. The projector, powered by a mobile generator, was moved from site to site. All of the pieces were photographed at night using long exposures. On moonless nights, the landscape was lit with searchlights. The landforms themselves are quite large, requiring the projector and camera to be, on average, 1/2 mile away from the subject landscape.”

The exhibit at the Nevada Art Museum, which featured Sanborn’s work along with some 50 other contemporary landscape photographers, sought to inspire a dialogue on the “human activity on natural landscapes” and move away from the idealized images of pristine wilderness created by Ansel Adams and promoted by the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations. Cultural critic Dave Hickey said: “These photographers aspire to portray nature differently and, in doing so, portray another nature altogether.” 

Spanning 30 years, the exhibit shows the work of the New Topographics photographers, who wanted to show landscapes, even highly degraded ones, as they really are. They created images of “natural landscapes marked by tract housing projects, mining and military installations, and artificial waterways,” says the Nevada Museum of Art. Jim Sanborn and his compatriots then further departed from Ansel Adams by altering colors, creating montages, and using visual jokes to “suggest levels of humor and irony related to our contemporary landscapes.” 

Explore the whole series of photos by Sanborn (uncropped and larger). Also, check out the 288 page book on The Altered Landscape exhibit.

Image credit: Jim Sanborn