How Do the Parks in Your City Rank?

On the heels of WalkScore and the new BikeScore, the Trust for Public Land (TPL) just launched its own park rating system: ParkScore. Covering 40 major cities in the U.S., ParkScore enables any park lover to create customized maps for each city, evaluate park access by neighborhood, and determine where parks are still most needed, writes Peter Harnik, ASLA, Director, Center for City Park Excellence at TPL. The goal of the project is to help communities lobby for more parks and better parks. “We hope that city leaders, park providers and park advocates will use the information at ParkScore as a valuable tool to help plan park improvements. Over the long run, a rising ParkScore will mean healthier people, higher property values, and more vibrant and livable communities.”

The new tool ranks the park systems of the 40 most populous U.S. cities on a scale of 0-100, with an easy rating system of 0-5 park benches. The top 10 cities:

1. San Francisco (74.0)
2. Sacramento (73.5)
3. New York (72.5)
3. Boston (72.5)
5. Washington, D.C. (71.5)
6. Portland (69.0)
7. Virginia Beach (68.5)
8. San Diego (67.5)
9. Seattle (66.5)
10. Philadelphia (66)

And the five cities at the bottom of the list:

35. San Antonio (35)
36. Indianapolis (31.0)
36. Mesa (31.0) 
38. Louisville (29)
39. Charlotte (28.5)
40. Fresno (21.5) 

TPL goes into some detail about their methodology. Ratings are determined by data on three factors: “park access, which measures the percentage of residents living within a 10-minute walk of a park (approximately a half-mile); park size/acreage, which is based on a city’s median park size and the percentage of total city area dedicated to parks; and services and investment, which combines the number of playgrounds per 10,000 city residents and per capita park spending.”

For access, a ten-minute walk to a public park is defined as a “half-mile to a public park entrance, where that half-mile is entirely within the public road network and uninterrupted by physical barriers such as highways, train tracks, rivers, and fences.” Going through the data, TPL found that 26 percent to 97 percent of the population of a given city lives within the ten-minute range, with a median score of 57 percent. 

To determine acreage, TPL weighted two measures equally: “median park size and park acres as a percentage of city area.” They say that including overall park acreage helped account for the “importance of large destination parks.” City park agencies provided the data for that metric. Median park size was determined to be nearly 5 acres. Data aggregated by TPL shows that park acres as a percentage of the whole city area range from 2.3 percent to 22.8 percent, with a median of 9.1 percent.

For the “services and investment” component, ParkScore awards points based on two equally weighted measures: playgrounds per resident and total spending per resident. “Playgrounds are a basic amenity for any city park system. They also serve as a reliable proxy for the presence of other recreational facilities. In our national sample, playgrounds per 10,000 residents ranges from 1 to 5, with a median of 1.89.” Spending, which is calculated on a three-year average to “minimize the effect of annual fluctuations,” includes federal, state, and local financing. Spending per resident, which could also in part be a proxy for maintenance, ranges from $31 to $303, with a median of $85.

While the methodology covers a lot, in future iterations, we would love to see points offered for aesthetic quality (the quality of park design and maintenance), cultural value, and even ecological value. There has been some debate over how to quantify the benefits of aesthetics and the numbers would clearly be hard to come up with. Perhaps one proxy for design quality would be the number of local, regional, or national design awards a park has won. Or points could be given for positive user survey results on the overall quality of the park’s aesthetic experience. On cultural value, points could be awarded for parks with sites of great historical, cultural, or design value. Francesco Bandarin, head of the UNESCO World Heritage Program, spoke with us about the value of cultural landscapes and the global movement to protect them. The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) does much of this work in the U.S. on identifying and preserving cultural landscapes, particularly ones threatened with the wrecking ball. Still, there has been lots of discussion, but no clear metrics on how to determine whether one park has more cultural value than another. Lastly, ParkScore could also begin to factor in ecological value. How well does a city’s parks handle stormwater runoff? How much oxygen does a city’s parks produce? What’s their contribution to biodiversity? One future proxy for this could be the number of Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES)-certified parks in a city. Or park systems could actually begin to collect data on ecosystem services.

TPL invested lots of time and resources in this ambitious, well-produced Web project. But it’s all worth it. As Harnik writes, “parks are important to communities. Close-to-home opportunities to exercise and experience nature are essential for our physical and mental well-being. Studies show that parks can encourage physical activity, reduce crime, revitalize local economies, and help bring neighborhoods together.” It’s clearly worthwhile to measure the incredible value of a city’s parks across every dimension.

Image credit: Trust for Public Land

It’s Definitely Time to Rethink the Parking Lot

In a fascinating new book, Rethinking a Lot, M.I.T landscape architecture and planning professor Eran Ben-Joseph tells us there are now 600 million cars worldwide, and more than 500 million surface parking lots in the U.S. alone. In some cities, parking lots take up one-third of all land area, “becoming the single most salient landscape feature of our built environment.” Given cars are immobile 95 percent of the time, Ben-Joseph argues that it doesn’t matter whether you have a Prius or a Hummer, you have the same environmental impact, taking up the same 9-by-18 foot paved rectangle. All of those paved spaces “increase runoff and affect watersheds,” create heat islands, increase glare and light pollution, and impact the “character” of our cities. But, to this day, Ben-Joseph writes, “parking lots are considered a necessary evil; unsightly, but essential to the market success of most developments.” Unfortunately, the story goes that the parking lot hasn’t really changed much since the 1950s. So, the time is definitely ripe to redesign the lot and turn it into multi-use infrastructure that offers communities both environmental and social benefits.

Ben-Joseph’s book is so clearly written and designed and includes such great photos you find yourself interested in what could be a really dull subject. In a bit more than 130 pages, he explores the “planning and design approaches to the parking lot” along with commentary on “cultural and artistic attitudes and uses,” the actual history of the lot (how it formed, developed, and evolved), and “lots of excellence,” paradigm-changing examples that demonstrate how ecologically-sustainable and flexible a parking lot can be if it’s well-designed.

To start, he argues that too little attention is paid to how parking lots are designed and their impact upon the land. “They influence the way we drive, the destinations we chose, and the way we behave while looking for a parking space. They can breed feelings of both danger and dependency.” Communities fail to spend much time designing their parking infrastructure. The result is many places must now contend with oceans of these “generic, ordinary spaces.”

Still, these unexciting spaces aren’t “no-places;” they are actually imbued with social, cultural values, no matter if the primary value is “mediocrity.” The idea that a parking lot could win design awards, as Peter Walker, FASLA, predicted in a planning magazine in the early 90s, just hasn’t taken off. Only one parking lot by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates for the Herman Miller furniture and manufacturing plant in Georgia has won an ASLA design award since 1990. Parking lots reflect a culture that doesn’t take one its central public spaces seriously, yet there’s something still there and they do serve a crucial function.

Back in 705 BC, Assyrian King Sennacherib posted signs on his highway to ensure it was cleared of parked chariots. The signs read: “Royal Road — let no man decrease it.” Whereas nowadays, you’d just get a ticket, then an improperly parked chariot could result in death by beheading. Later, the Romans actually implemented parking laws. Julius Caesar instituted rules preventing chariots from entering busy commercial zones during peak hours to limit congestion. Two millennia later, as cars, the “horseless chariots,” overtook horse-drawn carriages, they started to consume too much road space so needed to be stored somewhere. To “ease this ever-growing need,” municipalities and entrepreneurs started to offer off-street parking.

Beginning in the 1930s, off-street parking began to appear in planning and urban zoning strategies. Guidelines were produced over the years, culminating in the Institute for Transportation Engineer’s handbooks Trip Generation and Parking Generation in the 1980s, which Ben-Joseph says are still the go-to guidelines for many transportation and community planners. The guides helps communities estimate the number of parking spaces needed for a particular development. The only problem: a simplistic use of these guides alone has resulted in masses of under-utilized parking lots.

The aesthetics of a parking lot were considered important back in the 1920s to 1940s, but over the years, the design of these spaces was increasingly left up to developers. Even very progressive cities like Cambridge, Massachusetts offer over 30 pages of regulations on parking lots size and organization, but no rules about how they should look. The result was that many developers simply cut corners, creating the most basic parking lot possible. Many communities now treat these spaces as something to be mitigated as opposed to using them as opportunities to create something attractive that improves the quality of life.

Much of the rest of the world has simply followed the very poor model created by the U.S. While this country still leads with the highest numbers of cars per capita (814 per 1,000), Qatar and Australia are close behind. The Netherlands has the highest density of cars per square kilometer, with 246 vehicles per kilometer, followed by Japan and Belgium. China is the biggest concern, though. It’s estimated that in 2010 China had some 60 million cars occupying parking lots. 

All of those parking lots are not only expensive but represent an opportunity lost. The average per-space parking lot cost is $4,000, with a lot in an above-grade structure costing $20,000 and a lot in an underground garage, $30,000-$40,000. To give us some sense of the opportunity lost, Ben-Joseph says 1,713 square miles (the estimated size of all surface parking lots in the U.S. put together) could instead be used for spaces that generate one billion KWH of solar power. With just 50 percent of that space covered with trees, this space could handle 2 billion cubic meters of stormwater runoff, generate 822,264 tons of oxygen, and remove 1.2 million tons of carbon dioxide annually.

Still, so few communities impose even basic landscape requirements to make these places just a bit more green and permeable. He points to many well-designed examples created by landscape architects and architects but, unfortunately, they remain very rare birds. In Turin, Renzo Piano created a beautiful parking lot without parking islands and curbs, just rows of trees in dense grids inter-mingled among the spaces. Other high-performing parking lots incorporate solar panels or wind turbines, add new trees or even preserve old ones, and incorporate bioswales and permeable pavement. One parking lot in Duck, North Carolina, is even designed to serve as a detention pond during minor flooding. Ben-Joseph says a well-designed parking lot can accomodate a changing environment. To make this happen, more communities need to redevelop their parking regulations so that more creative landscape design is allowed, even required, and these spaces can become more flexible. In the future, he wonders whether parking lots could even become regenerative. Imagine phytoremediation used to turn a brownfield into a living, restorative parking space.

Beyond the environmental benefits, more flexible parking spaces help communities build social connections. Already, as Ben-Joseph notes, in parking lots, children learn how to ride bicycles, teenagers learn how to drive cars, and high school students hang out after school “where the drama of youth plays out.” In many communities, farmer’s markets and flea markets take over lots on weekends. In Manhattan’s Lower East Side, there’s Shakespeare in a Parking Lot. Outside of stadiums, there are tailgaiting parties. In Wal-Mart lots, you can find RVs “boon-docking.” In a number of cities, festivals of food trucks turn a sad parking lot into a space for food, beer, and bands. What’s important is that community leaders and planners actually enable these activities and remake regulations so that parking areas can provide multiple social functions.

Parking lots can also become sites for activism. One landscape architect, John Bela, ASLA, created REBAR and launched their annual Park(ing) Day, which has become a global movement. In 2009, some 700 parking spaces were designed as mini-parks in 21 countries and 140 cities. Some have even been made permanent in San Francisco, Vancouver, and other cities. These spaces can also become sites for art. Martha Schwartz, FASLA, created a funky parking lot for an amusement park, while artist Toshihiro Katayama and landscape architecture firm Halvorson Design created a stunning shared space for cars and pedestrians in Boston. Ben-Joseph seems to love the parking lot for the Dia art center. For him, it may be a work of art in itself.

Read the book.

Image credit: MIT Press

China’s Landscape Architects Undo the Damage

Chinese landscape architects are buffeted by two trends changing the planet: the information technology revolution coming out of the U.S. and one of the largest mass migrations in history, the current process of urbanization in China, said Liang Wei, PhD, a landscape architect and professor at the Beijing Tsinghua Urban Planning & Design Institute (THUPDI), at the American Institute of Architects convention in Washington, D.C. Liang said 10  million new residents are moving into Chinese cities each year, with one billion new square feet being built to accomodate the influx. By 2020, China will be 65 percent urban, which means landscape architects, planners, and architects have an unbelievable amount of work to do to make these new cities more livable, sustainable, and scalable while also undoing the worst environmental damages.

The incredible rate of urbanization has led to changes in how design is taught in China. Since the 1980s, the number of landscape architecture, architecture, and planning programs has exploded, with 10,000 students now being taught in 200+ schools. There are now 100,000 architects working in China (some 40,000 are licensed). About 40 percent are found in Beijing and Shanghai, which means it’s harder to find a design professional in the rest of the country. With all the development, each architect is doing something like 10 million square feet of new buildings each year. Similarly, China’s landscape architects are working with thousands of hectares annually.

Tsinghua, which is equivalent to a top Ivy league school in the U.S., has adapted itself to address the market demand for designers. Forging connections with the market, much like M.I.T. or Stanford does, Tsinghua has set up a set of institutes that “bridge the school and market and fill in the gaps by addressing practical problems.” THUPDI, where Liang teaches and works, scaled up from a staff of 30 in 2000 to more than 800 these days, with 1,000 or more Tsinghua design students coming through to learn about how design is actually practiced.

Putting the landscape in the center of one of his models, Liang explained how landscape architecture connect urban development, ecology, architecture, and infrastructure. Liang said instead of starting with common infrastructure issues as the basis for planning new developments — roads, housing, stormwater pipes — perhaps green space can become the point of creation. “Through landscape, we can create a new structure for the city.” Outlining a few examples of landscapes that provide multiple ecological services, Liang said “landscape architects can also be infrastructural engineers.” 

One example of this is the new 680-hectare Beijing Olympic Forest Park, designed by Hu Jie, ASLA, head of the landscape architecture department at THUPDI. The project, which has picked up an ASLA professional award among others, was a team effort led by Hu that included some 200-300 experts from many disciplines. A new mountain, Yangshan Hill, was built out of the reclaimed debris from the new Beijing subway and Olympic stadium construction projects. In the same way, the new 20-hectare lake was filled with reclaimed water. The lake water, which is residential grey water, as well runoff, rain, and flood water, is cleansed through a man-made 4-acre wetland, where it’s then used to maintain the landscape. Hu said this system also helped preserve the native “mountain and water tradition” while creating a new landmark.

There are incredible benefits for a city engulfed by new development: 300 new species of plants spread throughout the site, which create new habitat for birds and insects, produce 5,400 tons of oxygen, detain more than 4,900 tons of dust, and suck up 32 tons of carbon dioxide annually. The team even created the kind of ecologically-rich wildlife corridor that many communities in the U.S. only dream of.

Another remarkable project by THUPDI is the Tangshan Nanhu eco-city central park, which won the Torsonlorenzo international prize last year. According to Hu, a 630-acre wasteland was turned into the “largest central park in northern China in three years.” A deeply polluted site, the area was a place to dump coal mining waste. Using a GIS system, Hu and his team found that among all the layers, there were some 4.5 million cubic feet of trash, which was then covered, contained, and turned into a hill, where trees were planted. A new ecologically-restored park starts at the base and works its way up the top of the trash-filled mountain, which is a new scenic destination.

At the edge of the water, willow trees took root and actually create a new habitat in place of the old brownfield. Throughout, the landscape architects only used “low-cost material with low-impact.”

Then, landscape architect Zhu Yu-fan, PhD, explored some of his beautiful sites using his “depth of field” theory as a guide. The Quarry Garden in the Shanghai Botanical Garden used to be “dangerous to use,” but a new stairwell, walkway, and terraces were created, which offer a safe path down to the deep pools at the center. The entrance provides a portal into another ecologically-restored landscape. 

Zhu said “now, you can experience a thrill but there will be no danger.” 

THUPDI clearly demonstrates that landscape architects all over the world are now taking aim at brownfields, and beautiful, high-performing ecological designs aren’t just being built in the U.S. and Europe. Learn more about THUPDI’s ambitious projects (12 MB).

Image credits: THUPDI

Biophilic Building Design Held Back by Lack of Data

Biophilic design is still at the bleeding-edge of green building design and hasn’t taken off yet. The obstacle may be the lack of data on the impact of biophilic design on health and well-being. Or perhaps it’s because there still hasn’t been that one model site that makes current practice irrelevant. Other possible reasons: “collective ignorance” or a “lack of imagination.” At a session at the American Institute of Architects (AIA) conference in Washington, D.C., some of early innovators in this field, Bill Browning, Founder, Terrapin Bright Green, Jason McClennan, CEO, International Living Future Institute / Cascadia Green Building Council, and Bob Berkebile, a principal at BNIM and an early green building innovator, discussed the many obstacles preventing more widespread use of these approaches and argued for rapidly stepping up research and promotion efforts.

Biophilia, which has been defined in earlier posts, is “the innate emotional affiliation of humans with all living things.” Defined by famed biologist, E.O. Wilson, the concept of biophilia has kicked off rich areas of research and practice in the fields of biophilic and bio- or eco-mimetic design among all kinds of designers.

To make the case for biophilic building design, Browning repeated arguments he has made at other conferences, but also highlighted some interesting example projects. Administrators at a U.S. post office building where people sorted mail kept careful records of how many pieces were actually sorted per hour. With the redesign of the building to let in natural sunlight, a biophilic design enhancement, “levels of productivity went up dramatically.” In another project, Walmart tested the impact of sunlight, creating a store with one half with a regular roof, and the other half with a skylight. The sky-lit side had “much higher sales.”

He described how our opioid receptors tell us when we are having a biophilic reaction. For example, when we see a plain grey background, we don’t get much excitement. However, when we see a lush garden under a clear sky, with a foreground and background, paths, and water, our brain says “I like, I like, I like,” with our opioid receptors firing full blast.

Fractal patterns are something we also like. The dense organic network of forests, waves rippling on the ocean, or a roaring fire can be stared at for hours. And looking at these things may actually be not only interesting for our brains, but also soothing, emotionally. In Japan, there’s Shinri-yoku or “forest bathing,” which involves sitting out in a fractal-rich forest for a few hours to simply soak in the natural environment. In one Japanese study, stress hormones were found to simply “drop away in the forest.”

But despite these few interesting studies, the International Living Future Institute still isn’t sure about how to research the effects of biophilic design, said Jason McClennan. Which types of design are most critical? Through one of his initiatives, the Cascadia Green Building Council, McClennan started the Living Building Challenge, a very tough rating system now in it’s second iteration. The Living Building Challenge now has 140 projects under its belt worldwide, with a few hundred more in different stages of development. In comparison with LEED, these are tiny numbers, but each one of those projects serves as a model because it’s nearly-impossible to get through their rating system, which calls for net-zero energy and water use and no waste. The first projects were small, but now they are more complex and diverse. In Seattle, one project by architect Peter Bohlin will use a full-roof photovoltaic system that looks like the top of a tree canopy to create all the building’s energy needs. Another school project in Seattle actually has a wonderful biophilic design element: a small encased river flowing through the science classroom’s floor. The Omega Center for Sustainable Living, now famous in regenerative design circles, recycles all wastewater into a lobby pond where it’s cleansed by a “Living Machine,” bringing nature right into the heart of the center.

For McClennan, biophilic design, which his team is now carefully studying to determine how to best incorporate into the Living Building Challenge, will need to be scaled up to the city level. Biophilic design needs to be embedded in the fabric of cities, with “ecotones brought into communities.” The idea is to “reconnect people to nature.” Inspired by Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, McClennan said kids in urban areas particularly need to be the focus of these efforts.

“Before, my designs may have been sophisticated but had no connection to deeper ecological context. They were clumsy, ignorant of the function of a place,” said Bob Berkebile, one of the leading sustainable architects around. A man in tune with nature, his firm, BNIM, has won a whopping 8 AIA COTE Top 10 awards, but he still isn’t happy with his work. Perhaps it’s because he believes that “all natural systems worldwide are in decline” and we still haven’t “built biophilia into our designs in any meaningful way.” For Berkebile, biophilic design is key to smarter resource use. If, through a smart biophilic design, you come to love nature, you will be more likely to protect it. In fact, humans may need to do this for selfish reasons: Without functioning natural systems and more sustainable resource use, people won’t last.

BNIM’s projects range from more sustainable models for golf courses to a highly sustainable headquarters for Applebee’s (see image at top). The firm worked on the Omega Center for International Living’s Living Machine. In all projects, he tries to “recapture the synergistic relationship with nature and enhance the landscape.” He said if more urban projects were designed with nature, fewer people would move out to the countryside. This will help because “if people continue to flood the countryside, nature there will be degraded.”

Browning, interestingly, noted that all the landscapes people want — parks, lawns, golf courses — are really just savannahs, the earliest human landscape. So, to encourage people to live in denser cities that are more sustainable, more of these mock savannahs are needed to fullfil those biophilic connections. He added that biophilia was also why people immediately “got” Patrick LeBlanc’s green walls and Herbert Dreiseitl’s artistic water treatment facilities. To add, the design work of the majority of landscape architects is innately biophilic, given parks and gardens, as Browning noted, create connections to nature, and the many plants used essentially grow in fractal formations. Architects may simply be starting to catch up to landscape architects in this regard. Crucially, though, data is still needed for all design professionals to make the case to their clients.

To dig deeper into this field: Read Biophilia, the book by E.O. Wilson that started the theoretical understanding of what many lansdcape architects may have known all along. Explore the work of Stephen Kellert and others who are bringing biophilic design to buildings in Biophilic Design: The Theory, Science, and Practice of Bringing Buildings to Life and Timothy Beatley, who wants to scale up biophilic design to the city scale, in Taking Nature to the City. For those interested in regenerative landscape design, check out The Sustainable SITES Handbook by Meg Calkins, ASLA. And listen to Bjork’s latest album, Biophilia, her startling homage to everything from viruses to the solar system.

In other news, another early sustainable design innovator, Sam Rashkin, the driving force behind the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star for Homes program, deservedly won a $50,000 prize from the Hanley Foundation for Vision and Leadership. Rashkin, an architect and urban planner, used a tiny staff (around 6 people) and budget (just a few million) to overcome some serious early opposition from builders and create a program that would eventually bring in 9,000 building industry partners. Rashkin has also been instrumental in USGBC’s LEED for Homes, NAHB’s Green Building Guidelines, and the EPA’s WaterSense program. Learn more about Rashkin’s work in Ecohome magazine.  

Image credit: (1) Applebee’s Restaurant Support Center / BNIM, (2) ASLA 2011 Professional General Design Honor Award. Jon Piasecki, ASLA, Housatonic / Jon Dolan, (3) Living Machine / LiveModern, (4) Biophilia / Bjork

An Exciting Way to Visit the Plants

The Brooklyn Botanic Garden (BBG) is not only very serious about its plants but also about design. Assembling a top-notch multidisciplinary team led by architecture firm Weiss/Manfredi and landscape architecture firm HM White, the BBG just added 100,000 plants with its new, model-breaking 3-acre visitor center, which provides a vivid starting point into the 52-acre garden. Of these 100,000 plants, some 45,000 have taken root on the visitor center’s 10,000-square foot roof meadow that blurs the lines between building and landscape. The other 55,000 — including cherry, magnolia, and tupelo trees, viburnums, roses, and “water-loving” plants — are spread throughout the new garden. A total of 100 plant species are represented, 90 of which are new to the garden. 

On the new entry way experience, Scot Medbury, president of Brooklyn Botanic Garden, said: “The visitor center is both an extension and elevation of the garden’s topography, softening the transition from the gray to the green and underscoring the garden’s long-standing commitment to connecting the urban and natural worlds in new and forward-thinking ways.” NYC Cultural Affairs commissioner Kate D. Levin added: “This dynamic new Visitor Center will teach audiences about horticulture through cutting-edge, green infrastructure.”

HM White tells us about how visitors enter through their new landscape: “The visitors are greeted along Washington Avenue by an arrival plaza with two garden basins carved out of the concrete surface and a steep sculptural berm as backdrop. As one progresses through the gateway of two buildings, the unanimity is maintained by an undulating living roof meadow above that slips through the hillside. As the architecture peels away, a 3-acre landscape slowly unfolds in swaths of horticultural diversity.” The site is a “stage set” designed to bring visitors into a “native woodland, a grassland palette, which was absent from the Garden’s extensive plantings.”

The design purposefully creates views along the paths, but is also engineered to ecologically manage stormwater. “New topographic features allow for views from as high as 25 feet above ground level, crested by a mature Ginkgo allée, and form the edge of the garden and the spine of the visitor center project. The sculpted berm landform spreads and slows the flow of rain water through planted depressions and direct surface run-off to stone-filled stormwater channels and, ultimately, to terminal raingardens. These function as bioinfiltration basins at the center’s entry and event plazas and absorb stormwater and avoid discharge to the city’s combined sewer system. Similarly, all water not held on the living roof is directed to the basins.”

Unlike some other landscape projects, there’s no need for any “subsurface water retention basins,” or below-ground cisterns to store water. There’s a new “landscape infrastructure” comprised of soils, plants, and water conveyance systems that keep the landscape alive. HM White says: “Bio-engineering technology was fused with sustainable horticulture design and soil engineering to reveal a captivating landscape infrastructure. Collectively, these efforts are expected to conserve significant amounts of water each year: 200,000 gallons of water from the living roof alone.”

Stormwater is then designed to be funneled via a “diffuser system” set up to spread water to the plant communities. The salvaged and re-engineered soils work together with carefully-chosen and placed plants to make the overall system work. “The soil profiles were specifically designed to increase volume capture, facilitate ground-water recharge and filter pollutants. The multi-layered riparian plant community has evolved to survive seasonal cycles of inundation and drought. Water quality is improved through filtration, sedimentation, and biological processes.” 

Hank White, a licensed landscape architect, said the project was a true collaboration with the client, architects, civil engineering firm Weildlinger Associates, and soil scientist Pine & Swallow, to make the system not only technically-sound but also educational. White said: “We envision that visitors will now be able to observe and witness native plant communities actually performing a vital role in absorbing and cleaning stormwater.” 

According to Weiss/Manfredi, the 20,000 square-foot building itself, which houses “interpretive exhibits,” event spaces, and a store selling garden products and plants, is designed to be as sustainable as the landscape. They write about the building’s sensitivity to its environment: “The curved glass walls of the visitor center offer veiled views into the garden; there is fritted glass filtering light and deterring bird strikes. Its clerestory glazing—along with the fritted glass on the south walls—minimizes heat gain and maximizes natural illumination. A geoexchange system heats and cools the interior spaces.” The team is hoping for LEED Gold certification (and perhaps SITES certification?)

Stay tuned: More cutting-edge landscape architecture is coming. Weiss/Manfredi tells us a new “herb garden, woodland garden, and an expanded native flora garden” are in the works for the north side, while at the southern end, there will also be a new water garden (a water conservation education project), a new children’s discovery garden (designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates), along with an “expanded and redesigned public entrance at Flatbush Avenue by Architecture Research Office.”

Explore the Brooklyn Botanic Garden when next in NYC.

Image credits: (1-2) Weiss/Manfredi, (3) Ksenia Kagner / HM White, (4-5) Aaron Booher / HM White (6) Weiss/Manfredi 

The Psychology of Interior Design

In Hong Kong and other wealthy enclaves in China, many upperclass Chinese have no qualms about spending big bucks for a top-notch Feng Shui consultant to evaluate their home or office to ensure their space’s energy alignment will boost their fortune. In fact, some multinational corporations have even had to move offices in Hong Kong because the building was seen as having poor flow by superstitious employees. At the American Institute of Architects (AIA) conference in Washington, D.C., Barbara Stewart, a San Francisco-based architect and trained Feng Shui practitioner, says there must be some practical value in this ancient practice if it has lasted 4,000 years. Covering a range of both “mind, body, spirt” and science-based approaches, Stewart called for a return to “intuitive, emotional” design and a move away from the cold intellectualism practiced by many contemporary architects.

“Architecture is now disconnected from other disciplines and the rest of humanity,” said Stewart, who has consulted for big-name firms like Kaiser Permanente and NBBJ Architects. Quoting one environmental psychologist, she said “architects see form, light, and color” whereas the rest of us see “walls, floors, doors.” Architects can’t help it; they’ve been trained this way. “Our approach is intellectual.” From day-one of architecture school, architects are trained to “worship novelty and originality” given the goal is to “move architecture in new directions.” However, she said “emotions are pulling our clients and end users in another direction.” As an example: When AIA polled the public on their favorite buildings, it was clear no one architectural style won. She said this proved that “people look at buildings with emotions, not intellect.” The disconnect between architects and the public is further demonstrated through architecture magazines that promote the latest bold, sharp forms that do not make people healthy or happy.

Stewart said we share 98 percent of our DNA with chimpanzees. If zoologists, who design habitat for chimps, were to design habitat for us, what would it look like? “A zoologist would design a place that reinforces our natural patterns and reduces stressors.” In nature, humans are used to short bursts of stress — say, running from a lion — but not the “low-level constant stress we find in modern life.” The modern world sets off stressors more frequently, which wear down our immune systems. “Stress is directly linked to all the diseases we face” so all buildings and landscapes must work to reduce this for everyone’s well-being and to control healthcare costs.  

Almost all civilizations have ancient forms of environmental psychology. In India, Vastu Shastra has been around for 5,000 years. Feng shui, a descendant of the Indian practice, has been around 4,000 years. Geomantic patterns were created by the Romans, Druids, Aborigines, and Native Americans. “They all designed structures according to nature and in tune with the natural environment.”

Now, with the rise of neuroscience for the built environment, biophilic design, environmental psychology, and “evidence-based design,” particularly among the healthcare field, more scientific understandings of “mind, body, spirit” designs are coming into being. Outlining a few of her “instinct-based design principles,” Stewart pulled from a mix of these approaches to make her points, many of which sounded a bit wacky at first, but on reflection are actually quite intuitive:

Interiors should be designed with humans in mind, who understand space at an instrinsic level as a savannah. The ground should be darkest, like a path, whereas the mid-range, eye-level colors should be neutral, and the ceiling should be light, like the sky. “Humans feel most comfortable in spaces that follow nature, instead of monochromatic bubbles.” She showed a photo of a hospital room well-lit, with windows, and hardwood floors, a pleasing environment. She said there’s a reason everyone wants hardwood floors — it replicates the forest floor.

As an example of what not to do, she pointed to a icky hospital ward where floor to ceiling there’s just one shade of yellow, which is highly stress-inducing. Monochromatic bubbles are not only displeasing, but also dangerous for older people. “A 75-year old sees just 1/2 the contrast of a 25-year old. A 95-year old sees just 1/5 the contrast.” These single-color hallways actually “increase stress for older people.”

Stewart said all humans want a window view. Pointing to well-known studies by Ulrich in the mid-80s, she said views of landscapes out of hospital windows significantly reduced the amount of pain medication needed and sped up recovery times. Then, studies conducted in the late 90s showed that even images of real or simulated nature can improve recovery times, although photos of real nature scenes work better. Also, patients with access to videos of nature — forests, flowers, oceans, waterwalls — used pain medicine less.

One interesting study from a mental health journal found that Jackson Pollock prints “actually increased stress in everyone,” while a National Geographic-like nature photos dramatically reduced anxiety. A landscape painting by Van Gogh “had no demonstrable effect.” Within the realm of natural scenes, there are particular types of landscape images that are more restorative. Long-distance views with sun and sky are relaxing because instinctively they mean “good weather for hunting and gathering and no predators.” Theories about prospect and refuge have been batted around by biophilic designers for some time but Stewart argues that ancient environmental designers had this down a long time ago: Feng Shui’s “command position” is all about finding a safe point and clear vista. She said in contemporary film, Mafia dons know to find the spot in the corner with views of all doors. Even dogs will sit with their back to a wall if they can.

Spring, summer, early autumn photos with lots of green are effective, while winter scenes won’t have much effect. Photos with signs of humans in the foreground are important, as they show “this is a safe place.” She said Ansel Adams-like photos of massive landscapes or shots of “uncomfortable view points” don’t help. “Restorative images are not exciting — but that’s the point.”

Incorporating biophilic design elements into interiors also soothes. Roofs can become green, or where that’s not feasible, simply covered with astroturf or painted a more pleasing natural color. In windowless offices, imitation windows and clerestories can be painted with fake views. Woods can be used throughout, and where that isn’t possible, like in a hospital setting, wood-laminates. (She didn’t mention the incredible value of daylight alone).

She said more companies need to think through the effect of colors. One client had a dull conference room that actually stymied creative discussion. Simply painting a wall orange “lifted energy levels.” She said McDonald’s has known this for years, which is why they paint all their stores in “high-energy colors like red, yellow, and orange so you eat more, faster.” Casinos and retailers are also excellent at “designing energizing spaces on purpose.” To better succeed, she thinks gyms should similarly be painted in brighter, exciting colors to get people to exercise more. In contrast, she said a hospital’s ER bereavement area would need to have more subdued tones to help staff impart more difficult information and not have emotional scenes.

Beyond colors, forms can also induce stress or relax. Angled walls and ceilings or visually unsupported forms “increase energy and tension.” She wondered whether these were appropriate in a school or office, or Alzheimer’s clinic? In some places, though, like a conference center or stadium, perhaps these bolder forms are worthwhile because they induce excitement. A crucial form often neglected is interior wayfinding. Explaining what Frederick Law Olmsted always knew, she said, people like to take the meandering path, which feels like a “path through nature.” Also, for any building, people seek a clear doorway. “As a default, the center of the building should be the location of the door.” An entry way is defined by a visible doorway, a different color or material, and higher volume.” In addition, the entry way should be clear of distracting patterns, at least 10 feet within the doorway, as people, especially older visitors, will find them confusing and become tentative about entering.

To conclude, Stewart made some practical suggestions all good designers should already know: Turn on your instinctive, emotional brain; remove your design ego; pretend you are an 85-year old and a 9-year old. Ask yourself how the design makes you feel and behave. Does the building or landscape reduce or induce stress? Does this place make people healthier and happier? She said the healthcare field is increasingly demanding “evidence-based” approaches because “time is money,” and this is slowly spreading to other domains, so perhaps there’s less room for original yet stress-inducing forms and colors.  

Stewart recommended some resources: University of Minnesota’s Informe Design, the Center for Health Design, and a book, Place Advantage: Applied Psychology for Interior Architecture. One important resource she left out: the Therapeutic Landscape Network.

Image credit: Laguna Honda Hospital / Arup

Blink and You Will Miss These Urban Memes

Street art can be elegant, enigmatic, or just plain goofy. In a new addition to our series of posts on how the built environment can be transformed through new forms of “rebel” or street sports, games, and art work, here are a few new “memes” worth mulling over. Perhaps the urban form of flash-in-the pan Internet memes, which last often just long enough to catch on and then disappear, these new temporary works are often in place long enough just to make you smile or reconsider a space before they are consumed by an ever-shifting urban environment. Some are created by groups of random people working towards the same end while others are the work of professional artists who inspire others to create their own memes. We are already most likely behind on these wild urban happenings, but here are a few unique ones that caught our eye:

Eye-bombing: As the Web site home of this funny trend explains, googly eyes “humanize the world.” Cheap and easy to apply, they also also come off fast, unlike graffiti, which can be a nightmare to remove. Core 77, a design blog, writes that Kim Nielsen and Peter Dam coined the term: “Eye-bombing is the act of setting googly eyes on inanimate things in the public space. Ultimately the goal is to humanize the streets, and bring sunshine to people passing by.” Traditional graffitti and vandalism are viewed as “egocentric behavior to [get respect],” while eye-bombing is “only about the message itself:” humor.

Core 77
has more interesting thoughts about the difference between craftier forms of “bombing” the built environment, like Yarn Bombing, and eye-bombing. “Where Yarn Bombing, a similarly absurd variant of street art, is characterized by tactility and a sort of Oldenburgian scale that ultimately comes across as rather abstract, Eyebombing is altogether Tweet-like in brevity (suffice it to say that Tumblr is the proper venue for the movement). The fact that it’s frivolous and disposable is precisely the point…” We just think these eyes make even the ugliest infrastructure cuddly.

Geodes: This is Colossal, a design blog, tells us about A Common Name, an anonymous graphic designer and artist, who started a beautiful public art project in Los Angeles, adding man-made geodesic forms to the most unlikely spots in typical urban scenes. 

She explains: “Rather than using traditional paint or wheat paste methods in a 2D platform, I’ve been using paper in 3D. These sculptures come in all sizes and fit in the holes of buildings and pipes found while walking around. The finished shapes represent geodes, crystal, quartz, or any mineral formation that you would normally find in nature, now in our planned out cities.”

The artist sees these are small “treasures,” in part because they are randomly stumbled upon. “I enjoy the fact that many people will not notice these, but some astute people will; that these will not last forever and the weather will affect them as naturally as it might in nature.”

Moss Graffiti: Inspired by the work of artist Anna Garforth, who uses living plants to make art and has been creating temporary installation in London side-streets, design site Apartment Therapy has pushed the idea of simply doing it yourself, in an effort to spread the use of “moss grafitti.”

While Garforth inserts her work in abandoned spaces in Grow, Apartment Therapy wants these everywhere and public, a meme if you will: “All you need is moss, sugar, buttermilk, water, a container, a paint brush, a blender, a great idea and you’re off. Pick your favorite word, quote or create a fabulous stencil or drawing and get painting.” (We’re not sure it’s all that easy).

Lastly, a Belgian artist is also playing with bringing non-conventional green forms to walls, but in this case, by taking things away using a pressurized water spray.

Image credits: (1-4) Eye-bombing, (5-8) A Common Name, (9-11) Anna Garforth, (12) This is Colossal

A Yankee Ballpark for the Locals

It’s not often that a new work of landscape architecture makes it on to the front page of The New York Times, even if it isn’t described as such. In April, that paper ran a story about the successful conclusion to a major local dispute in the Bronx, which had flared up because of the closing of the many parks surrounding the old Yankee Stadium. When the city decided to build a new ballpark on top of the bones of two old public parks and close nearby parks during the construction process, Bronx residents were rightly irate that their parkland had disappeared. The city finally made amends with an ensemble of eight new or restored parks, designed and built at a cost of more than $190 million. The new 10.8-acre Heritage Field ballpark designed by Stantec and Thomas Balsley Associates, which is found across the street from the new stadium and on the site of the old, demolished one, cost $50 million alone, but it may be the best public ballpark ever if you are a Yankees fan.

The New York Times writes: “Nearly every inch, from the pavement stones underfoot to the three natural grass ball fields, has been elaborately designed to pay homage to the Yankees and their celebrated former home. Even the sod is the same that the Yankees, professional baseball’s biggest spender, chose for their new stadium.” That was intentional. According to Adrian Benepe, the city’s parks commissioner, “We felt an obligation to deliver superb parks to this community in particular because of the disruption they had to endure.” 

Thomas Balsley, FASLA, the landscape architect who leads Thomas Balsley Associates, says the new public ballpark was built with “extensive community input.” The idea was to commemorate the “history and heritage of the stadium in a vibrant space with broad appeal throughout the seasons.” Stantec’s Gary Sorge, FASLA, Practice Leader, Planning and Landscape Architecture, added: “This is sacred ground for the community and baseball fans all over the world.”

Other projects completed by the same team include Mill Pond Park along the Harlem River and Macombs Dam Park (site of the new Heritage Field), which fans out across from the new stadium. These parks bring back what was lost but also totally reconceive these spaces, making them more flexible and accomodating of multiple uses, as well as more sustainable. The cost of these projects were largely out of the hands of the designers — the numbers grew because of the clean-up challenges. According to The New York Times, the timeline was ultimately extended by a year to deal with the poor soils and left-over structures.

Thomas Balsley Associates clearly thinks the wait was worth it though. The Macombs Dam Park, an adaptive reuse of the old space, now offers “active and passive recreation and fosters social connections and healthy lifestyles. The new park partners with Yankee stadium to bring activity and economic vibrancy to the neighborhood beyond the obvious game days.”  

Heritage Field, the community ball fields, which sits where the old Yankee Stadium once stood, now features lots of commemorative design elements that cost a bundle but tie the site to its illustrious sports history. The New York Times writes: “The city splurged for $1.2 million in commemorative touches to enhance Heritage Field, including $450,000 for a 12-ton chunk of the old Yankee Stadium frieze that has been preserved like the Berlin Wall in one corner. Another stadium relic — a 130-foot-high chimney shaped like a baseball bat — cost $120,000 to refurbish, though it no longer serves a purpose other than as a local landmark. Even the old diamond and outfield have been saved, delineated with five-foot-wide swaths of blue polymer fiber stitched into the sod by a Desso Grassmaster machine that had to be shipped over from the Netherlands.” 

In a non-scientific survey of local residents by the Times, many locals seemed thrilled with the new site. Oldanny Morillo, 18, who plays second base for the nearby Cardinal Hayes High School baseball team, said: “Usually when we run in the outfield, we have to watch for ditches and bird poop, and there’s none of that. Here it’s like a carpet.” 

Now, many want to play in the places where Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle played so many years ago. Apparently, there’s been an explosion in applications from teams who want the “chance to swing a bat on the same site.”

Read the article.

Also, check out another landscape designer who made it into The New York Times. Melissa Potter Ix, ASLA, a principal of SiteWorks, a landscape architecture firm, is now teaching middle school students in Queens how to design the eco-playgrounds the Trust for Public Land is building in five NYC schools.

Image credits: Thomas Balsley Associates and Stantec

The Power of the “Four Horsemen of the Livability Apocalypse”

At ASLA’s advocacy day on Capitol Hill, Congressman Earl Blumenauer, Democratic Representative from Oregon’s 3rd District, said landscape architects, architects, planners, and engineers, the “four horsemen of the livability apocalypse,” must work together to create a more positive narrative on Capitol Hill. In an “flat-out broken” political system “disconnected from the realities of what people demand,” design professionals can explain to policymakers what communities actually want: more sustainable transportation infrastructure, more green infrastructure, and more livable environments.

At the same time, Blumenauer said design professionals may need to work on their language. Talking about “densifying neighborhoods” doesn’t really cut it with policymakers. “I don’t want to be densified.” Instead, designers should call for “developing amenities” and “restoring communities to their historic population size.” Also, with aging baby boomers, it’s important to discuss the needs of the growing group of seniors. “Seniors want to be able to walk down nice streetscapes” (really, so does everyone).

While localities must forge their own visions for more livable communities, the federal government also has some impact, largely through funds for local bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure made available through the transportation bills. While the Senate recently passed a transportation bill with some 74 votes, “the House still doesn’t have a bill.” A comprehensive transportation bill that provided more “funding certainty” for bicycle and pedestrian projects would be a great way to create “thousands of jobs.” Blumenauer added that “landscape architects, architects, engineers, and planners collectively represent millions of people, and thousands of small and medium businesses, all people with visions for how communities can be better.”

Blumenauer thinks the design professions should also push the federal government to be greener. If the government actually became a model for what it wanted to accomplish, think of the possible positive impact. As an example, green infrastructure systems can save the government lots of money. Just basic things like taking out lawns that need to be mowed in favor of native wildflower gardens cuts down expenses.

There could also be a bolder program of retrofits. The many post offices going into retirement could be transformed into exciting new public spaces. Cutting the military budget by 20 percent over 10 years and directing some of that funds to cleaning up some 4,000 military Superfund and brownfield sites could really help revitalize many communities. All those cleaned-up sites and new open spaces could help increase local property values (and taxes). “Think about all the opportunities that would create for landscape architects, too.”

Blumenauer really wants to expand farmer’s markets across the U.S., too, arguing that adding 1,000 over the next few years would have a “transformative effect” in our communities, changing interactions at the street level. The Congressman took aim at the Farm Bill, which he said fails to incentivize local food production, simply providing more subsidies for big agriculture.

Speaking to the crowd of ASLA leaders, Blumenauer said that “people like you, like what you do. It’s not ideological or partisan. The U.S. needs to be more sustainable and you are at the center of it all.” Furthermore, landscape architects can help push “bike-partisanship.”

In a separate speech, Congressman Russ Carnahan, Democratic Representative from Missouri’s 3rd District, who is chair of the High Performance Building Caucus, said “green infrastructure starts from the ground-up, actually under ground.” Focusing on rural areas, he said the green infrastructure legislation ASLA has been promoting on Capitol Hill could “help alleviate water pollution in rural communities.” Understanding that water is a precious, finite resource, Carnahan said “water we use comes back to us again and again.” More green spaces are then “vital to the well-being of our citizens.”

Echoing Blumenauer, Carnahan said “the government is divided and dysfunctional now,” but there are “necessary things like transportation that must come together.” Infrastructure, though, perhaps can become more bottom-up, coming from the communities themselves. Telling the ASLA representatives, he said “think about what you can do in your community.”

Join ASLA’s campaign and tell your Congressional representative and Senator about green infrastructure.

Image credit: Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Durer / Simon Fraser University

A City Among the Villages

Rapid and somewhat disturbing changes are overcoming China as it pursues economic development, said professor Margaret Crawford, University of California, Berkeley, at the Food & The City symposium at Dumbarton Oaks. In Guangzhou, where the land and water have “inter-penetrated” for centuries, the Pearl River Delta region, which was once a maze of rivers, streams, and canals, is increasingly being taken over by land and development. Much of the estuary landscape is being reclaimed and filled-in. The old village-centric agricultural landscape is becoming either industrial farms or a sea of high-rise towers punctuated by spotty patches of urban farms. Of the 1,100 agricultural villages in Guangzhou, many have simply been swallowed whole by an expanding metropolis. “It’s now a city among the villages.”

Historically, the Pearl River Delta has been a “very rich agricultural landscape,” enabling up to three crop harvests per year. There has also been a diversity of crops, with the area being a major zone for producing rice, fruit (some tropical), sweet potatoes, peanuts, and safflower oils. Until 1985, the Delta was made up of small agricultural villages defined by a unique social structure. Often entire villages shared the same surname, demonstrating their same lineage. Villagers left these compact settlements by boat for market towns. Given Cantonese food is all about the freshest ingredients, markets were busy trading produce constantly. Now, the cities of the urbanizing Guangzhou have engulfed the villages of the Delta, and there are reasons for this based in the political economy of China. 

When the Communists took over in China in the late 1940s, the “social order was inverted.” Landlords became “bad elements,” while the poor, landless underclasses rose to the top. Land was redistributed via People’s Communes. Later, the Communes, which proved to be too unwieldly due to their size, were then broken apart, becoming smaller “production bridages” about the size of the old villages. By 1985, the central government has de-collectivized the land, and 90 percent of all agricultural land became marketized.

With the marketization of land (which is still all owned by the state and only leased out), the municipal governments in Guangzhou (and really everywhere else in China) saw buying cheap farm land and selling it as development land as a key way to raise funds. Given localities receive so little from the provincial and central governments in China, this system quickly became a way to raise city revenue. The effect: explosive development everywhere. Crawford said municipal leaders also all need a “mega-project in order to get promoted,” which only further contributed to the push to grow bigger and faster. 

At the same time, the old “Hukou” residency permit system, which had been established in the 1950s and gave each citizen a pass card that provided them with rights to education, healthcare, and other services in the community where they have received a permit alone, was having an impact on development patterns. The Hukou system, which created a two-class system with people having either rural or urban Hukous, created opportunities for some in Guangzhou and not others. “The system is still in existence,” said Crawford. 

Basically, the marketization of land opened up lots of opportunities for those lucky few who had urban Hukous. They had “negotiated positions” that enabled them to re-categorize their agricultural land as development land. At the same time, since the economic opening in the late 70s, Guangzhou has been growing 60 percent annually, with much of the influx coming from more poorer provinces. In this new Guangzhou, there were now many different categories of people mixing — those native residents with urban hukous, people with residency permits from other poorer cities, and migrants with rural residency permits. Migrants have very limited access to schools or healthcare in their new homes. They often open stores that cater to other migrants. Interestingly, in many of the old Guangzhou villages, the residents have all made land deals and have left, leaving only migrants.

Examining Panyu, one part of Guangzhou, Crawford and her students found an incredible mix of new types of development reflecting all these development deals and changing demographics: high-rises, restaurants with live seafood, California-style villa subdivisions, and gaming industry buildings. Leftover parcels of agricultural land dot the new urban landscape. In a “messy” process of redevelopment, these parcels are often simply left vacant or rented by incoming migrants to “farm so they can augment their own diets.” They found that if Panyu’s communities actually put these leftover urban farms to productive use, some 220 families could be fed annually. Given the incredible water pollution, there may still be food safety issues in using what could be contaminated semi-urban plots to grow food.

The Chinese government is increasingly focused on “complete food security” for all its citizens. The general public is now more interested in organic, safe food products. But Crawford thinks that industrial farming will entirely take over agriculture in the area, leading to even more water pollution.

While “urban agriculture has to be rebranded in a cultural context” given it’s viewed as “something you stop doing as soon as you can,” some agriculture and design universities are starting to see the opportunities. New values brought in from Chinese who have studied overseas means the cultural understanding of urban farming may be slowly changing.

Crawford also thought these dense environments with their incredibly high land values would be the perfect locations for vertical farms.

This is the third in a series of posts about Food & The City, a symposium at Dumbarton Oaks.

Image credit: Urban development at the edge of Guangzhou / Pop colcha