Everybody Wants a High Line

With the success of the High Line park in New York City, it seems almost every city now wants one. Toronto has long been batting around ideas for its Gardiner expressway, while Los Angeles is trying to dream up the money for new parks to cap old freeways. Philadelphia is moving forward with reusing parts of its old rail infrastructure at the Reading Viaduct, while Chicago has already created plans for its own High Line: the Bloomingdale Trail. Now, London wants to get in on the game, with the launch of a new international design competition to create some ideas for a British High Line.

Sponsored by the The Landscape Institute, Garden Museum, and the Mayor of London, A High Line for London: Green Infrastructure ideas competition for a new London landscape is clearly inspired by NYC’s recent success story, which they argue “transcended the commonly-accepted role of urban parks to become one of the world’s most popular landmark.”

Still, they say they don’t want to copy the High Line exactly: “The judges are looking for proposals which similarly engage communities with green infrastructure. Green infrastructure is the network of open and green spaces, including features like green roofs, designed and managed to provide benefits such as flood management, urban cooling, green transport links and ecological connectivity – an approach which can have a huge and exciting impact on the way in which we live in the capital.”

Judges include High Line founders Joshua David and Robert Hammond; landscape architects Kim Wilkie and Johanna Gibbons; Matthew Pencharz, Environment Advisor to the Mayor of London; and Dr Penelope Curtis, Director of Tate Britain.

The winning team will get £2,500 and the runner-up £500 as prize money. The finalists will also be displayed in the Garden Museum.

Submit your ideas by September 14, 2012.

Also, read more about the “real” High Line effect in a recent op-ed in The Huffington Post by The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) president, Charles Birnbaum, FASLA. Birnbaum says that instead of trying to copy the High Line in an effort to spur economic development and boost tourism, cities should understand that a unique set of circumstances led to the High Line in Chelsea. “In fact, the ‘High Line effect’ should be viewed more broadly as a holistic approach to urban design that suggests how to transform existing urban landscapes to meet contemporary needs. The High Line was almost magically reawakened by a team of landscape architects, architects, horticulturalists, engineers and others, led by James Corner Field Operations. What really happened there is, first and foremost, a triumph of historic preservation and design.”

Image credit: High Line. 2010 ASLA Professional General Design Award / copyright Iwan Baan.

Back Up New Jersey: Think Again about Tacha’s Masterwork

By name, Athena Tacha may be little known beyond the art and landscape architecture worlds, but her work is beloved by many, particularly all those who experience her 50 plus public sculptures first hand in cities across the world. In Greece, her home country, a recent 40-year retrospective brought in thousands. The High Museum in Atlanta also did a major retrospective of her work in the late 1980s. But these days, Tacha, who teaches art at a number of U.S. universities, is no longer creating her unique environmental sculptures, which are so closely related to landscape architecture, like she once did — so there’s even greater reason to save one of her masterworks in New Jersey from the wrecking ball.

Created in the mid-1980s in honor of Green Acres — New Jersey’s famed land conservation program — right in front of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection building downtown, her work, also entitled Green Acres, is 77 by 85 feet. It’s an example of “site-specific environmental sculpture,” an art form Tacha helped create. These kinds of pieces are different from land art found out in the wilderness because they are rooted in social contexts, often taking shape in city plazas and other high-trafficked areas.

Tacha out-competed many other artists to get her piece in that place. Winning a competition by the New Jersey State Council for the Arts’ % for Art program, all 1.5 percent of the state’s alloted budget for the environment department building project went to her $417,000 sculpture. 

According to The Cultural Landscape Foundation, which is lobbying to save the project, “The sculpture […] contains 46 slabs of green granite onto which photographs of state landscapes, plants and animals (many of them endangered species) have been sandblasted. Crescent shaped planters with stepped seating ring the edges and the whole design recalls Roberto Burle Marx’s biomorphic modernism.”

Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, head of TCLF, says a number of experts think the sculpture also works perfectly well with its surroundings. On three sides, there are three 7-story concrete buildings; another side is a lane of Sycamore trees, which act as a buffer to the cemetery next door. The work acts a badge for the building, offering a sense of quietude for the cemetery.  

Unfortunately, Artinfo.com writes, the New Jersey government is no longer feeling it. Larry Ragonese, a representative from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, said: “It’s not that we don’t like it. The intent is just to do something different, something that would characterize what we are preaching and set an example for others.” That something different would be a rain garden designed by environmental protection department staff. (While we applaud public education on green infrastructure, isn’t there a way to accomodate both the historic sculpture and those efforts?)

In April, the New Jersey Treasury Department sent Tacha a letter saying Green Acres was to go by the end of July unless it could be removed on the artist’s own dime. Arguing that the maintenance would be too high and not available in these economic times, the New Jersey Treasury seems at odd with the state’s legislature, which recently appropriated a million for restoration of the courtyard. Seems the crucial piece is that the building’s tenants no longer want it.

Birnbaum told us: “There’s a huge irony here. Some want to tear out an environmental sculpture designed to honor the Green Acres program and send it to the trashheap. It’s a hell of a way to memorialize the program, one of the most respected environmental programs in the U.S.” How could “ripping out the work and replacing it with something new be a good example of sustainable financial practices?” To preserve the sculpture, Birnbaum said Tacha’s career could be “bracketed” so that her work can be “assessed under criteria C of the National Register of Historic Places  — the work of a master.”

The New Jersey Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) has also stepped up the pressure, telling the state, “We urge you to reconsider your decisions and investigate the potential to restore the paving that is in disrepair instead of completely removing the art piece.” Richard Bartolone, ASLA, the New Jersey chapter president, also argues that “relocation, one of the suggested options offered to the artist, is completely inappropriate as it is a site-specific sculpture; the etchings of New Jersey flora and fauna are uniquely related to the DEP core mission ‘to protect the air, waters, land and natural resources of the state to ensure the continued public benefit.’ The removal of the art work will result in the loss of this significant and defining work of social art.” Basically, you can’t relocate an art work designed for a special place and have it make sense; the work is also embedded into the ground plane. 

Bartolone concludes: “There are so few significant, socially relevant art works in New Jersey, let alone in our state’s capital. I hope you can understand our frustration with the potential loss of this artwork.”

If you want Tacha’s work to stay, let New Jersey know. Write to: Guy C. Bocage, Deputy Director of the N.J. Department of Treasury, P.O. Box 034, Trenton, NJ 08625-0229. 

Image credit: (1) Athena Tacha, (2) Richard Spear

New Park in Singapore Shows What Rivers Can Do

Singapore is heavily dependent on Malaysia for its water supply but is now creating new sustainable parks designed to reduce its reliance, said Herbert Dreiseitl, International ASLA, Atelier Dreiseitl, at the Greater & Greener: Reimagining Parks for 21st Century Cities, a conference in New York City. As an example, his amazing new 62-acre Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park recreates nature, transforming a 2.7-kilometer concrete-channel lined river into a 3-kilometer natural meandering system. At the same time, the new system slows down and stores some of the rainfall that hits the city-state. The park is a model for how cities can transform outmoded, broken systems into natural systems.

Singapore has to import so much water because all its hard surfaces funnel water straight into the ocean. In the tropical heat, much is also lost to evaporation. “They can’t keep their water they have.” To address these problems, the city-state has created a new strategic master plan to reduce reliance on Malaysia and capture more of its own water for reuse. The new plan, which includes water guidelines Dreiseitl created for the Singaporean government, focuses on “collecting, slowing down, and storing rainwater.”

A central catchement — the Kallang River — is part of the larger system providing drinking water to the city-state. In the past, the river was actually set within a concrete channel in many key places so in heavy monsoons it would flood and then evaporate.

Dreiseitl convinced the government to let the river escape its concrete channel and meander through the park, turning an “old-fashioned park and canal” into green infrastructure system that teaches the community about how nature actually works. The new system is actually a lot safer — the previous concrete channel actually killed many residents who were playing soccer down there when flash flooding struck.

In Dreiseitl’s cutting-edge approach, the “blue and green are integrated.” To achieve this, he has to convince the city departments that handled water and parks to abandon their siloed approaches and better communicate with each other. “Now, territories, finances, and maintenance overlap.”

To make this seismic change happen, Dreiseitl said he had to get the Singaporean government to trust his new approach, so he actually used his own design fee to create a test site. Exploring 12 different “bioengineering techniques,” Dreiseitl commissioned a set of in-depth hydraulic and materials studies. He was floored by how “crazy” the plants grow in Singapore so he had to adjust his models based on plant growth. He figured out what kinds of soil conditions would ensure slope stability in those temperatures. Lastly, he invested heavily in training the construction workers. “We couldn’t just show them pretty drawings of the new systems because they had no experience with these systems. We had to train them.”

With the approval of the government in place, Dreiseitl moved towards creating a new stream while the river was still flowing. In a feat of sequenced engineering, Dreiseitl managed to re-engineer soils, add bio-engineered plant systems along with trees, break up the existing concrete channel and reuse the rubble to stabilize the entire system — all while the river was still running. No artificial fertilizers were added. All materials on site were reused. In fact, some of the excess rubble was used to create a new hill, a look-out point over the park.

Importantly, the new system actually works. Dreiseitl said the new river “can hold lots of capacity and cuts in half the peak floods.” The new, cleansing biotope digest pollutants and creates oxygen in millions of gallons of river water each day. Some of the cleansed river water is diverted and reused in the watery playscapes. Before the water touches people, it’s further cleansed by a UV radiation filter. “It’s not only a purification system, but also a beautiful garden.”

The German landscape architect said for the project to work Singaporean officials just needed to be “learn how to behave with risk.” They had wanted to put a fence around the meandering river to keep people out of the flood plain, but Dreiseitl threatened to quit over that, arguing that it would not only ruin the design but break the human connection to the natural system. Instead, Dreiseitl’s team worked with the government to create an “amazing” early warning system, with towers that flash lights and use loudspeakers to make announcements in 6 languages so people can still sit down there but get early warnings when the river is going to overflow.

He thinks this kind of experience with nature in Singapore, the “most artificial of cities,” is critical. In Singapore, everyone “lives in of air-conditioning. They use underground subways and go to underground shopping centers” to escape the heat. As a result, much of the population is cut-off from nature. He said kids are particularly blown away by the wildlife in Bishan. Since the park was redesigned, biodiversity is up 30 percent. There are now 59 species of birds, including sea eagles, and 23 kinds of dragonflies.

To add proof to a recent U.S. National Park Service report that being near a wildlife preserve raises property values, Dreiseitl said the nearby apartments are up 48 percent in value since the park opened. To laughter, he added, “I should have bought a place before it opened.”

Dreiseitl believes that to implement such a game-changing system landscape architects need to have a “strong, logical argument.” Designers “must convince with a narrative.” There has to be inter-disciplinary planning with engineers and architects to capture all the benefits. He also said climate change can be a “engine” for convincing clients to move forward with new models like these. “In the past, cities thought water was a problem to get rid of, but with climate change we need to focus on water security and reuse all water.”

Read an interview with Dreiseitl on designing with water.

Image credits: Atelier Dreiseitl

Brooklyn’s Evolving Riverfront

I had the privilege of attending a tour of Brooklyn Bridge Park as part of the Greater & Greener: Reimagining Parks for 21st Century Cities conference. The tour was led by Regina Myer, President of Brooklyn Bridge Park, and Matthew Urbanski, a principal of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates and a lead designer of the park. Brooklyn Bridge Park is being built on the site of former shipping terminal. Containing a series of massive piers, the terminal went vacant in the 1980s with the advent of container shipping. Planning efforts for the site began in the late 1990s, the design process took place from 2003 – 2008, and construction began in 2008. Braving the sweltering heat, Urbanski and Myer led a group of intrepid parks officials, landscape architects, and community activists through the site’s six formerly industrial piers, providing insight into its design and construction.

The tour began at Pier 6, the southernmost section of the park. Located at the terminus of Atlantic Avenue, Pier 6 represents one of the significant entrances to the park. Because of its connection to the adjacent Brooklyn Heights neighborhood, the entrance to Pier Six is dedicated to children’s play areas. These take the form of themed playgrounds, including “Slide Mountain” and “Sandbox Village.” During our tour these playgrounds were full of neighborhood children. As Urbanski noted, a good park “must be a good neighborhood park.”

The areas of the park built on top of shipping piers are ringed by lighting attached to metal frames. These metal frames are remnants of the old pier warehouses. Urbanski described that the issue of “what to keep and what to change” was central to the design of Brooklyn Bridge Park. Faced with the difficult task of creating a park on a site not originally designed as public space, certain areas of the site had to be completely changed. Other elements, such as the metal frames or several of the piers themselves, were preserved and allowed to “come through as a unique expression” of the site’s industrial past.

Many elements of the park relate to the site’s location within New York City. Regina Myer described how numerous features of the park have been built using salvaged materials: The Granite Prospect on Pier 1 is built out of granite salvaged from the reconstruction of Theodore Roosevelt Bridge and the wood for the concession stand on Pier 6 was salvaged from the pre-existing warehouse buildings.

The post-industrial site of the park presented several interesting design challenges. Urbanski described how areas of the park built on piles had to be designed as thin landscapes in order to not exceed capacity, while heavier landscapes could be built on land composed of fill. Another challenge was the Brooklyn-Queens expressway, which forms the eastern edge of the park. In order to overcome noise from the expressway, an artificial hill will be constructed along the edge of the park. Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates worked closely with sound engineers to design the form of the hill, using audio modeling software to determine how to most effectively reduce the sound level of the freeway.

Brooklyn Bridge Park explores different ways of engaging the East River’s edge. In addition to traditional “hard” edges formed by piers and industrial infrastructure, certain edges have been “softened” to allow people to more closely experience the water. For instance, the spiral Tidal Pool can be used as a boat launch. Additionally, its shallow slope causes it to be submerged to varying degrees depending on tidal variation. Urbanski described this aspect of the Tidal Pool as a “poetic registration of the tide.”

Still in a much earlier stage of construction, Piers 5 through 2 provided a glimpse of the pre-park site. The tour ended up on Pier 1, the most complete section of the park (construction of the park started on the northern and southern ends of the site and is working its way to meet up in the middle). Unlike the other piers, Pier 1 is built entirely on fill and can therefore support a heavier landscape. Cut into the fill on the southern end of Pier 1 is a restored salt marsh, providing wildlife habitat as well as an interesting counterpoint to the heavily constructed piers. Other plantings throughout the park are also designed to engage both site ecology and the surrounding neighborhood. Stormwater is filtered through a series of water garden cells and then stored for irrigation; this system should eventually provide for around 80 percent of the park’s water demands. Urbanski was careful to point out that these water gardens are not just there for water filtration; they also provide an intimate experience for people.

Brooklyn Bridge Park is a fascinating example of designing around extreme constraints, from the abandoned industrial waterfront to the highway bording the site (beyond the highway, Brooklyn Heights looms 60 feet above the park). So far the park seems to be a success: despite the scorching heat and being only partially built, many people were using the park during our tour. It will be exciting to see how it transforms in the coming years.

This guest post is by Benjamin Wellington, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, Louisiana State University, and ASLA 2012 summer intern.

Image credits: Brooklyn Bridge Park / (1-4) Elizabeth Felicella, (5) Alex Maclean, copyright 2012, (6-7) Elizabeth Felicella

Parks = Jobs

While the U.S. interior department sees the great value of restoring rivers, preserving “landscapes of historic national significance,” and expanding urban parks, there’s a new focus on justifying the money that goes into conservation and park projects by citing jobs numbers. In a speech at Greater & Greener: Reimagining Parks for 21st Century Cities, a conference in New York City, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said national park and recreation jobs now total 9 million in the U.S. Of those numbers, fishing, hunting, and boating take up 6.5 million. However, he noted that consulting firm McKinsey & Co has estimated 14 million jobs could come from the parks and recreation field; it remains an untapped opportunity.

Salazar made the economic case for increasing investment in urban parks, too, arguing that the most economically vibrant cities are those with the greatest parks. As an example, he pointed to the $350 million river and park restoration projects in San Antonio that will expand the riverfront beyond downtown, creating many new jobs in the process. Given tourism is so huge there, there’s already relatively little unemployment.

In another session, similar arguments were made by Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, eco-entrepreneur Majora Carter, and Kofi Bonner, the developer of the gigantic Hunter’s Point project in San Francisco: parks mean economic development and jobs.

Oklahoma City, which has experienced a renaissance under Cornett, is investing heavily in its downtown, adding botanic gardens, street cars, bike trails, and a new canal. A new 70-acre central park is coming soon at a cost of $120 million, creating jobs for many landscape architects, construction firms, and local maintenance workers (see image above). However, Oklahoma City is different from other cities because it has financed all this public development with a penny sales tax, which means there has been no debt. Cities in California and elsewhere could do well to follow OKC’s example.

To rousing applause, Cornett made the point that cities must invest in downtowns because you “can’t be a suburb of nothing.” He added: “the quality of the urban core is directly related to their quality of life.” Perhaps, more depressingly, he added, cities must increasingly do this heavy lifting on their own, because they “can expect less federal money from here on out.” Cities will need to “pro-actively guide their own destinies.” In the past, the federal government has been levelling the playing field but “no more.”

Carter described how she transformed a park Hunts Point in the Bronx from a dump into a vibrant green space. She said improving a community’s health through parks is a great way to improve their economic outcomes. A human community is as much an ecosystem as a community of plants. Carter, who has won a MacArthur “genius” grant for her work, said she’s now focused on building out a green street with green medians, lots of trees, and pop-up stalls and shops, which can all create local jobs. She’s been making the case for green jobs for some time (see earlier post), arguing that park maintenance, green roof and street installation, and recycling can be done locally in poorer communities if there is an investment in creating skills.

For Bonner, making money and doing right, environmentally, seems to the right approach. In the largest urban redevelopment in the U.S., the 720-acre Hunter’s Point in the southeast corner of San Francisco will include more than 320-acres of green open space, with some 12,500 new homes, 30 percent of which will be affordable. Bonner said Hunter’s Point has been a depressed area since the Navy shut down the naval base in the mid-70s, killing off 30,000 jobs. Now, with the 49ers leaving the nearby Candlestick Park, freeing up the Candlestick Point area for redevelopment, Bonner said there’s a real opportunity to turn the entire area around. Venture capitalists have long been looking for a large enough campus for a major green tech hub.

To pull in these green firms and tenants, Bonner said the green open space was key, which is why they will be putting $240 million to build the area’s parks, covering $8 million in annual maintenance through assessments on homeowners. “Park amenities are really key to quality of life.” All that maintenance will hopefully mean local jobs, too.

Image credit: (1) Rendering of new Oklahoma City Central Park / City of Oklahoma, (2) Hunts Point Riverside Park / Environmental Justice blog, (3) Hunter’s Point development / Lennar Urban

Preview: Prospect Park’s Upcoming Lakeside Center

For many landscape architects, Central Park isn’t Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s masterpiece. It’s Prospect Park, a 585-acre urban park in Brooklyn. Amazingly, Olmsted and Vaux carved a 60-acre lake and created a 90-acre meadow out of a swamp. A forest was planted, making it the only forest existing in Brooklyn today. Given the park receives some 8 million visitors a year, it needs to be continually updated and actively preserved, and all that takes money. In the case of a new project that will restore Olmsted and Vaux’s original vision for a key piece of the park and build out a new esplanade and ice-skating and hockey rink, the Prospect Park Alliance raised some $75 million from the federal, state, and city government, along with board members.

In a tour of the new project at Greater & Greener: Reimagining Parks for 21st Century Cities, a conference, Christian Zimmerman, FASLA, the landscape architect leading the work at the Prospect Park Alliance, said he’s been focused on historic preservation, ecological restoration, and modern design.

Man-made islands had once offered a way to visually wade into the vast 60-acre lake from Olmsted’s main promenade. They had been covered by a huge ice-skating rink plopped right in the middle of one of the most gorgeous vistas around. To undo the damage, Zimmerman’s team removed the crumbling rink and filled in 5 acres of the lake to re-create the original islands (seen above).

Removing the rink, the team found some of the original stone slabs separating the promenade from the lake. Designed by architect Thomas Wisedell (who also created the fountains at Central Park), they were dug out and re-set. New walkways were built with local blue granite.

Given the lack of historical documentation on Olmsted’s planting schemes, a new one was created for the islands and added to the park’s comprehensive planting plan.

Zimmerman’s contemporary addition — an esplanade around the corner from this spot — is respectful of Olmsted’s design. Providing access to the lake, people will use the esplanade to launch kayaks. The granite textures used play well with the setting.

So where will all those ice-skaters now go? According to Prospect Park administrator Emily Llloyd, it will be to a new LEED-Gold Lakeside Center, a few hundred feet over, where a parking lot once was. Tod Williams and Billie Tsien Architects, the team who recently designed the new Barnes Foundation Museum in Philadelphia, are creating a combined hockey and ice-skating rink, which will be topped in green roofs that in some places will connect to the ground through berms. The idea is for spectators to stroll up the low-incline berms to roof decks where they can look down at the players.

In the summer, the smaller ice-skating rinks will become a water play area. The different jets will resemble those in Millennium Park.

In the same way, the larger hockey rink will also transform in warmer temperatures, becoming a rollerskating derby. Lloyd said they had brought in one of the world’s top rollerskaters to design the best course.

The new esplanade by Zimmerman will open in late 2012, with the rinks coming in late 2013.

Image credits: (1-4) Ryan Donahue, (5-6) Prospect Park Lakeside Center / Tod Williams and Billie Tsien Architects

Interview with Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett on the Power of Downtowns

Mick Cornett
is now serving his third term as mayor of Oklahoma City. Cornett, the national president of the organization representing Republican Mayors and Local Officials (RMLO), was named public official of the year by Governing Magazine in 2010. Cornett was the featured guest of First Lady Michelle Obama at the State of Union in large part because he put Oklahoma City “on a diet” in 2007, challenging citizens to lose a collective one-million pounds. The goal was reached in January 2012. More than 47,000 residents logged their weight loss on the awareness campaign’s website.

In The Huffington Post you wrote that twenty-five years ago few companies wanted to come to Oklahoma City because of the lack of amenities. The quality of life wasn’t viewed as great, so you decided to do something about it. What did you understand to be the absolutely necessary pieces in improving quality of life? What was Oklahoma missing?

We had established low standards for ourselves. We had considered ourselves a good place to live and a nice place to raise a family, but I don’t think any of us would have maintained that it was a great place to visit. It wasn’t the city where you invited your family and friends from other parts of the country to come visit. We didn’t have a city worth showing off.

When we started about 20 years ago on this track to create some amenities we were not only proud of but that we create a city worth showing off, a lot of it was just raising the standards for what was acceptable. That included a lot of big projects like building a new ball park and sports arena and putting money into our performing arts center. But there was also water projects and beautification projects along the way — putting a canal through our entertainment district and building dams to actually put a stable body of water into our river. There were a lot of things people who lived in Oklahoma City had just never really considered. We decided to invest in ourselves. Even if no one moved here and created jobs, we’d at least have a better place for us. That was the thinking initially. It’s evolved quite a bit since then.

Since 1993, to finance your MAPS initiatives, which are viewed as a really innovative model for how cities can change themselves with their own money, you used a limited penny tax passed, which you have used to raise more than a billion for local projects. How did the penny tax come about?

The mayor at the time was named Ron Norick. We had been successful in passing some sales tax increases for economic development projects. Now for the most part those projects never came to fruition so the tax was never collected. Nonetheless, he noted that our citizens were willing to invest in themselves for something better. We were trying to kick start a really gloomy economy. The decade of the 1980s was just a horrible time in the state of Oklahoma and a pretty gloomy time in Oklahoma City.

Norick chose the five-year time frame because it was a timeframe people were comfortable with in their own lives. If you bought a new car, chances are you were going to be paying for it for about five years. It seemed like a good, finite opportunity to put something in front of the voters. It would allow them to consider whether or not they thought this was a good way to fund projects. Also, voters took comfort in the fact that it was going to go away, and secondly, that it paid cash. There was no debt in the way we funded these projects. That was fundamentally new, and it’s still new from the way most cities do it.

The first MAPS project took aim at revitalizing Oklahoma City’s downtown. With some $350 million locally-raised funds, the city built a new canal riverfront development zone, ballpark, music hall, and convention center. A huge new park is coming to complement a revamped botanic garden. Why focus on the downtown first? Why was that the priority?

Fundamentally, most people in your city care about two things: They care about their neighborhood and their downtown. A city gets its identity from its core. One of the reasons Oklahoma City succeeded, now looking back 20 years, is that we convinced people who live in the suburbs that the quality of life downtown is important. We’ve convinced them their quality of life is directly related to the intensity of the core, that you can’t be a suburb of nothing.

In way too many cities across the country, what you see is some flourishing life in the suburbs and a core that has seen its life disappear. In Oklahoma City what we tried to do was put new life into the core of the city. We want to make a city where at five o’clock people still want to stay, whether they want to live or they want to play, or they want to continue to work. We want downtown to be an inviting place. If your downtown is dead, it’s hard to imagine that life in the suburbs is going to be a whole lot better.

A new set of $777 million in investments will create a new downtown park and riverfront recreation opportunities, build out a street car system, expand sidewalks and biking trails, and create new senior wellness centers. Another $180 million was raised just to redesign downtown streets. These projects seemed designed to improve the quality of life for locals as much to draw in further private sector investment. But what do you hope to accomplish with the new projects? How are you defining success?

If we’re creating a city that our kids and our grandkids are going to want to choose to live. In the 1980s when my contemporaries and I came of age, there weren’t that many good jobs available. Most people who got an advanced degree had to leave Oklahoma City. We lost a generation of leadership. To a certain extent, some of those people are coming back now.

What we want is to create a city where if a kid grows up in Oklahoma City, they want to remain here if they can. What we’re seeing is not only is that becoming true, but a lot of people are moving here from California, the east coast, and especially Texas. Those are communities that had been a drain on our most promising citizens for generations. Now we’re attracting that human capital. That’s going to be the key to economic development because no longer do people follow jobs. Jobs follow people. We’re succeeding now because we’re attracting the top human capital available.

Are you working with landscape architects on these projects? Also, have any designers really influenced your thinking on how to design successful public spaces? What do you hope to accomplish with these new public spaces?

What we’ve learned is that there wasn’t a lack of enlightenment either at City Hall or in the business community. We had just never prioritized the landscape architecture that can really help beautify a project or a city.

The city has now got a set of standards. It’s hard to imagine that you’re going to have businesses with high standards in a city that has low standards. When the city developed higher standards — and those are standards that I continually push, given they need to be ever increasing — what you see is that the businesses in the community want to reflect those standards or maybe even exceed them. So it feeds on itself. When you have a city of low standards you’re going to have businesses that exude that same quality. You’re not going to create a city that’s all that impressive or creates interesting opportunities for pedestrians.

We have a number of landscape architects, architects, and designers here in the city who are very capable of doing great work but they had never necessarily been funded or inspired until recently.

I’ve also worked with Jeff Speck, Hon. ASLA, on a series of projects over the last few years. Jeff has helped me learn about many of the ways you can create a more pedestrian-friendly community. We have a long way to go there. Jeff has been a great sounding board for me from the outside-in on what works in certain cities across the country.

But I will say there are wonderful landscape architects right here in Oklahoma City who are now doing incredible work. I can only assume this type of work has been possible for a long, long time. It just hasn’t been standard. Now, it’s the standard and we’re seeing it.

You say that the MAPS projects have yielded $5 billion in private sector investment, much of that in new real estate. With increased residential investment and improved transit and these nice new sidewalks, are you concerned about affordability downtown? How has the population changed since private sector investment has taken off?

There’s great demand downtown. We’ve had so little downtown housing for years. The affordability is an issue, but that’s based on the idea that it almost has to be new construction. Most of the opportunity to live downtown is brand new construction, which costs more. So we are seeing price ranges that are higher than we would like. I’m somewhat concerned about that but I think over time it will start to take care of itself.

There is quite a bit of high-end housing in downtown Oklahoma City. But housing is very affordable in Oklahoma City in general. When people move to the city, they’re very surprised at how affordable our housing stock is whether they want to live in suburbs or downtown.

I can tell you this: There is great demand for downtown housing. What we have yet to resolve is making the housing as affordable as the demand would indicate. When that tipping point arrives, you’re going to see downtown housing explode. Right now, there’s a nice market for it but it’s going to really take off when the price points get closer to the average price for a house.

What are your views on the federal debate on transportation enhancements, federal financing for bicycling and pedestrian infrastructure? The senators from Oklahoma seem to be very opposed to federal support for these measures. Has Oklahoma City ever benefited from transportation enhancement funding?

Well, sure we have and, you know, I’m all for walkability and a more pedestrian-friendly environment. I am for as many of those decisions that can be made locally as possible.

I do have a slightly different take than my senators on this issue but I think both of our senators will tell national audiences how extremely proud they are that Oklahoma City is a perfect example of a city that took care of its own destiny. The fact that we’ve done so much for ourselves might be reflected in their attitudes. Because they’ve seen what can happen. They’ve seen these types of amenities that can be instituted from the ground-up. They approve of that method.

I just like the idea of anything that improves the quality of life in communities, cities tapping into those resources, but I’m not speaking for the funding like they are.

Lastly, you famously put Oklahoma City “on a diet” and recently that initiative hit a benchmark: 1 million pounds lost. Why do you think the campaign took off like it did? How are you connecting your weight loss campaign now to the new park projects, the walking and biking infrastructure?

The new prioritization on obesity here in Oklahoma City was really just a reflection on the idea that we have higher and higher standards. What I noted when I launched the campaign was we were putting higher standards on seemingly everything — except us. We really needed to put higher standards on our health and our children so the campaign was really just an attempt to get a conversation going.

We needed to talk about obesity and health in general. When I came forward and was willing to discuss my own health issues and at the same time was exposing the fact that our city had a large problem with obesity, it allowed people to be more comfortable talking about it inside their home, business, or church. That conversation has been very helpful in getting people to recognize the dangers of obesity and that we need to do something about it.

That conversation was very instrumental in us plugging in some of these healthier concepts into MAPS 3. After that campaign, we were able to say these senior health and wellness centers are going to be important. These jogging and biking trails are instrumental to creating the city that we want our kids to grow up in. We have now made an incredible amount of infrastructure improvements downtown, improving the walkability of our core city.

We are becoming a city where people want to get out and walk, which is really important. For decades, we created a life where everything revolved around the car. That’s less true today. I hope it’s less true in the coming years.

Interview conducted by Jared Green.

Image credits: (1) Myriad Botanical Gardens and Crystal Bridge Tropical Conservatory (project by Office of James Burnett) / Image credit: McNeese Fitzgerald Associates, (2) Myriad Botanical Gardens (project by Office of James Burnett) / Image credit: Carl Shortt, (3) Bricktown canal revitalization / Image credit: City of Oklahoma, (4) Central Park concept / Image credit: Hargreaves Associates, (5) Sidewalk improvements downtown / Image credit: Office of James Burnett

Vacant Lots Can Catalyze Positive Change

At Greater & Greener: Reimagining Parks for 21st Century Cities, a conference in New York City hosted by the City Parks Alliance, Nate Berg, a staff writer for The Atlantic Cities moderated a session that explored approaches for dealing with vacant urban land. Through sensitive design, a number of panelists who are working around the world explained, vacant sites can become catalyze positive change.

According to Tamar Shapiro, Senior Director of Urban and Social Policy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States,  Germany has undertaken a number of successful strategies for dealing with vacancies stemming from deindustrialization in Germany.

The City of Leipzig, located in eastern Germany, (seen above) experienced a complete industrial collapse after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Rapid suburbanization and migration to the west led to a drastic loss of population, resulting in massive vacancy rates across the city. In 2000, Leipzig had an overall vacancy rate of 20 percent, and many neighborhoods had vacancy rates of over 50 percent.

To address these vacancies, Leipzig employed a strategy where the city would enter into 10-year contracts with property owners to temporarily reuse vacant land as green space. Citing numerous examples, Shapiro made the point that while temporary, these green spaces were carefully designed and strategically located. She argued that in order for a park to help turn a neighborhood around, it cannot simply be a lawn. Instead, the park must be professionally designed. By heavily investing in the design of these parks, Leipzig has seen dramatic reinvestment in many of its urban neighborhoods.

Heather McMann, Executive Director of Groundwork Lawrence, spoke about her organization’s efforts to improve the City of Lawrence, Massachusetts. Vibrant but economically distressed, Lawrence has long been a gateway community. Most recently it has been a destination for immigrants from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Once a thriving mill town, de-industrialization has left Lawrence with significant vacant properties. McMann described how Groundwork Lawrence led to the development of the Spicket River Greenway Plan, “helping the community achieve the dual goals of riverfront restoration and neighborhood revitalization.”

Several components of the greenway have been successfully built so far, including the redevelopment of an abandoned mill site as Dr. Nina Scarito Park. McMann explained the success of these projects depended on extensive collaboration with multiple community and governmental organizations.

Walter Meyer, Founding Principal of Local Office Landscape and Urban Design, spoke about his work on Parque del Litoral, in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico. Given the river was turned into a concrete channel and the creek buried, this urban waterfront site contained seven stormsewer outfalls that sent the city’s runoff and sewage directly into the Caribbean Sea. To address these issues, Local Office analyzed virgin rivers in undeveloped areas of northeastern Puerto Rico. Meyer described how this exercise was not about nostalgia; instead, their goal was to replicate the performance of these virgin rivers in an urban context. Local Office observed several critical river systems such as meandering curves, tree roots, and dunes. Applied to Parque del Litoral, Local Office’s design employs an extensive system of terraced plantings (filled with phytoremediating plants that remove toxins) to filter stormwater, protected by a new system of dunes. Developed as part of the preparation for Mayaguez’s hosting of the 2010 Central American Games, many elements of Parque del Litoral are designed to be repurposed and reused. For instance, parking areas for the Central American Games can be converted into a variety of uses including garden plots, sports facilities, and playgrounds.

Meyer also discussed his work on Miami Grand Central Park. Located on the old Miami Heat Arena site, the park is built on a 2 – 3 year lease and is therefore a potentially temporary use. The park is designed for maximum flexibility, allowing program to change quickly to generate revenue. Meyer described how it can contain a farmers market in the morning, accept overflow parking during the day, and host film screenings and concerts at night. Designed to be inexpensively built and maintained, the park utilizes a rainwater collection system for irrigation. Despite its temporary nature, the park has been the site of numerous concerts and social events, and is already starting to have a transformational effect on its surrounding neighborhood.

Throughout all the presentations, the benefits of temporary uses came up repeatedly. Tamar Shapiro explained that short-term leases and temporary uses allow for real flexibility, a critical quality in areas where the futures of vacant lots are unclear. As demonstrated in Leipzig and Miami, these potentially temporary parks can provide tremendous benefits to their communities, even if they are not necessarily permanent works.

This guest post is by Benjamin Wellington, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, Louisiana State University, and ASLA 2012 summer intern.

Image credits: (1) City of Leipzig / Permaculture and Regenerative Design News, (2) Groundwork Lawrence / Hammer + Walsh Design Inc, (3-4) Local Office Landscape and Urban Design

Bloomberg: “Parks Are a Vital Resource”

At Greater & Greener: Reimagining Parks for 21st Century Cities, the 4th international urban parks conference organized by the City Parks Alliance, New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg told an audience of 900 city parks leaders, landscape architects, and activists from 210 cities and 20 countries that “parks are a vital resource.” Under Bloomberg’s administration, some 730 new acres of parkland have been added to the 29,000 existing acres of green space. Bloomberg thinks NYC’s high-quality parks also have a lot to do with the fact that for the first time ever NYC got more than 50 million tourists last year.

Parks are a “haven” from a busy world but they also make communities more vibrant and attractive. Beyond that, these social green spaces can spur economic growth. With $3 billion in capital investment in parks over the past 10 years, Bloomberg clearly thinks all this money is well-spent: “The investment is paid back multiple times.” As an example of what a park can do, Bloomberg said the High Line, the now world-famous park in Chelsea, has generated $2 billion in private sector investment. “Revitalizing infrastructure can simply mean recasting it in new ways,” he added. Lots more investment will go into “reconnecting New Yorkers to their waterfront.”

New York’s parks mayor outlined three points he said were critical to the city’s recent success with parks:

1) Expand collaboration within city government. Instead of preserving the silo-based approach wherein parks, transportation, and water departments work in their separate domains, Bloomberg forced them to collaborate.  One result of this collaboration, PlaNYC, the city’s far-reaching sustainability and climate change plan, has called for every New Yorker to be within a 10 minute walk of a park or playground. While many scoffed that this goal was unrealistic when the plan was first announced, the city has been methodically making this happen through collaborations within city government.

In another example, water, transportation, and parks departments now partner on creating green streets, which are now being rolled out across thousands of sidewalks. These systems, which help with stormwater management, can also make more streets — key public domains — more appealing. The city is so serious about this that they are investing a big chunk of their $1.5 billion green infrastructure budget in swales, mini-street parks, and deep tree pits.

2) Partner with the state and federal government. One example Bloomberg mentioned was the 18,000-acre Jamaica Bay park project, where the city will work with the National Park Service to create a more sustainable park, with a new multimillion dollar research center on urban parks sustainability.

3) Maximize public-private partnerships. Bloomberg said the High Line could never have happened without private sector developers. The same story goes for Brooklyn Bridge Park, which was financed with city, state, and private funds.

He said even NYC’s massive tree planting campaign, Million Trees NYC, is being “spearheaded” by well-endowed non-profits like Bette Midler’s New York Restoration Project. To date, more than 600,000 trees have been planted, with some 100,000 trees each year (in comparison with just 7,500 each year prior to the campaign).

In earlier comments, Katherine Nagel, the head of City Parks Alliance, made a similar argument as Bloomberg, saying “parks are more than just fun and games — they are essential urban infrastructure. This infrastructure is part of a larger social, ecological, environmental, and political system.” In parks, she added, “our culture happens. This is where we awaken to the natural world.”

Mickey Fearn, deputy director at the National Park Service (NPS) for communications and community assistance, also made a powerful case for connecting urban youth to parks. He said “we need to prepare our children for the world” by offering creative, nurturing experiences for them in parks, while “preparing our world for our children” by making parks safe and accessible to all. Parks can help kids “build self-esteem, hope, and strengthen relationships.” These spaces help them create a “sense of mastery.” Fearn said, like everyone, kids need “power” but power that is disconnected from violence. He said the real challenge for NYC and many other cities in the 21st century will be creating a “sense of power in multicultural diversity.” Multiculturalism is the real asset.

Given kids will be the future environmental stewards, they also need to feel connected to nature and understand parks as “habitat, ecosystems.” Fearn pointed to one program in the Bronx as a model: Rocking the Boat, a fascinating program that teaches youth how to build watercraft to use on the Bronx River, NYC’s only freshwater river. “Once they learn about shipbuilding, they learn about watersheds, then they learn about careers in conservation.”

Image credit: Central Park / Wikipedia

In D.C., New Eco-District Plans Unveiled

After two years of internal debate among 17 different federal agencies and the D.C. government, the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) released its long-awaited plans for a new Southwest Eco-District designed to undo the worst damage of the massive “urban renewal” projects inflicted on L’Enfant neighborhood over the past decades. Designed to transform the spooky, almost pedestrian-free area just south of the Mall into a highly sustainable, people-friendly cultural and business destination, the Eco-district plan means to take on many challenges at once. As Elizabeth Miller, ASLA, the intrepid landscape architect who is guiding the project, explained, this 110-acre, 15-square block project is meant to showcase “high performance buildings and landscapes” while creating space for 19,000 new federal workers and solving some of the worst pedestrian access problems.

At the beginning of the hearing today, NCPC Chairman L. Preston Bryant, Jr said the project can go a long way to “breathing new life into the city.” While the whole Eco-District may take 20 or 30 years to design and implement, “we have a once in a generation opportunity to make this happen.” He added that NCPC and its many federal partners are eager to move forward because there are some synergies that make the timing right: The Department of Energy (DOE) building is “coming to a lifecycle decision,” meaning that it’s ready to be torn down because it’s now highly inefficient in terms of energy and water use; the Southwest waterfront plans are moving forward, with $2 billion in private sector investment set; and the D.C. government-led Maryland Avenue redevelopment project is on its way.

Miller outlined a vision for an Eco-District that provokes the imagination, at least among sustainable designers. She said the new District will “capture, manage, and reuse water, energy, and waste” and work beyond a single building, leveraging clusters of buildings to create a new system. At the same time, the plan will take aim at the incredible lack of public access — the barriers, the highways, and grade changes — that keep people away, except for the federal workers that have to go there for work.

Diane Sullivan, sustainability planner for NCPC, said a sustainable mixed-use community will arise out of a set of new “guidelines, objectives” that will frame neighborhood development efforts and the creation of new environmental systems.

On developing the neighborhood, Sullivan said that a user survey of D.C. residents found that the lack of amenities was the overwhelming reason why people didn’t want to move down there or even hang out there. So the goal is create a new tree-lined 10th street (or L’Enfant Place) that can connect the Mall to the new Southwest waterfront development while also making that connection itself an exciting cultural destination, lined with 1.2 million square feet in new space for up to 5 new museums, along with farmers’ markets and other draws.

Better pedestrian access is also key to making all this work. In the new plans, Miller said Virginia and Maryland Avenues will re-appear, carving new paths through new buildings as park-like avenues for promenading. Sullivan said the new local street designs cutting up the mega-blocks are still being worked out. She asked, “which streets should be monumental? Which should be local?”

To better get those pedestrians — all those federal workers — to the area, a “better inter-modal system” will be put in place, with a revamped, solar roofed-L’Enfant station, offering both commuter rail and Metro. To ease pressure off Union Station, more commuter rail may be directed there somehow.

The saving grace of the scary L’Enfant Place now is the fountain in Dan Kiley’s Modern-era Benjamin Banneker park, with its dramatic overlook across the Washington Channel. Unfortunately, the rest of Kiley’s park was not well realized. With spaghetti loops of highways cutting through, it’s a matter of taking your life in your own hands to go from the park to the waterfront. In the new plans, Kiley’s park will be completely redone but the area will still serve as a monument to African American surveyor Banneker. The new, more sustainable park will more easily connect to the waterfront while providing a new visual identity for the “eco” part of the district.

Now, on the systems that will make the district more eco: First, many of the old federal buildings will go, getting a revamp so they meet the goals of Obama’s Executive Order 13514, which calls for federal agencies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, water and energy use. The ones that stay, like the famed Brutalist HUD building, will be updated to be more efficient.

Sullivan said the goal is to have “zero-net energy district as measured in carbon.” Pretty near impossible unless fully renewable power is the rule for the new Eco-District. Sullivan said solar PVs and solar thermal systems (for hot water) will be added to the roofs of the new buildings wherever possible, while ground-source heat will also be tapped. A central facility run by GSA, which runs on natural gas, will still be used (but that won’t get them to zero emissions).

Heading down towards the water, the freeway that cuts off the connection between Benjamin Banneker park and the waterfront will be capped with a new layer covered in solar panels.

For water, the goal is to reduce potable water use throughout the Eco-District by 70 percent and manage all stormwater where it falls. All building greywater will be reused while blackwater will go to the new anaerobic plant. Rainwater will be caught by acres of green roofs (including edible ones), green streets, trees, and planters. What isn’t caught will be funneled into cisterns underneath 10th street and used later. Green infrastructure is then clearly a central part of the strategy. Permeable areas overall are to grow to 35 percent, while the tree canopy is to reach 40 percent (a solid target). (Right now, the barren area has just 8 percent tree cover). While we didn’t hear anything substantive about creating a wildlife-friendly landscape designed to attract diverse species, we hope that’s in the works.

There are more ambitious goals for waste reductions: Some 75 percent of construction materials for the new buildings will be reused, and 80 percent of everyday waste will be diverted from the landfill. A composting program will be put in place, too.

So, how will this all actually work? Sullivan sees some government buildings first getting a light rehabilitation and then others will undergo a full rehabilitation. Three federal buildings will be “re-purposed” as major infill development begins. Then, big redevelopment will start over the freeway. At the same time, critical projects like a new Banneker park and a new 10th street landscape will begin next year.

What’s this all going to cost? Miller and Sullivan said an economic feasibility study only provided some high-level numbers, but they did say the federal government would make back its multibillion dollar investment over 20 years through reduced energy, water, and waste fees; increased revenues from private sector developers; and improved local tax gains.

While we hope this project is a sure thing, new governance structures and partnership and financing agreements will need to be worked out among all the partners, including the private sector developers who are key to making this all happen. Let’s hope this is not a protracted process. As the Eco-District gets moving, it can become an innovative showcase for how to revamp government hubs across the U.S.

Learn more about the bold plans. D.C. residents can attend a public hearing on the proposals on July 19. The comment period will be open for three months. Comments will be incorporated into a final plan ready to go by early 2013. By the end of next year, NCPC hopes to have design competitions launched for a new Banneker park and 10th street, its two priority public projects.

Image credit: ZGF Architects, courtesy of NCPC