Industrial Landscapes Reborn

Landscape architects are increasingly recognized as the most critical designers of post-industrial sites, perhaps the only ones capable of transforming abandoned and often toxic industrial infrastructure into vibrant new parks and event spaces that also show a deep respect for the past. Like the ASLA award-winning Steel Yard Park in Providence, Rhode Island, or the Paddington Reservoir Gardens Park in Sydney, Australia, these three new projects from around the world, each with very different vibes, show how the bar is constantly being raised as landscape architects transform beautiful ruins into exemplars of public design.

In Genk, Belgium, Hosper Landscape Architecture and Urban Design created C-M!ne square, a new cultural center on the site of a former coal mine, writes Landezine. Forming a “spectacular” open space, the square also plays host to revamped former industrial buildings, a new theatre, cinema, restaurants, and Genk design academy.

Hosper’s team design writes: “An obstacle-free surface ensures that the square can be used for a wide variety of purposes.” Anticipating both heavy use and just a few pedestrians, the square is paved with “black slate slabs,” set with different sizes and laid in an informal pattern. The black slate seen below is a visual reference to the “black gold,” the coal dug up from the mines.

Together with the lighting, which is embedded into zig-zagging paths within the pavement in some places (see image at very top), the custom-designed, removable chairs and stools made of stainless steel plate “glitter like diamonds” among the coal-black pavement. The chairs are red so they have a warm glow at night. 

Across the globe on the Waverton Peninsula in North Sydney, Australia, landscape architecture firm Hassell led a huge team that also transformed a coal mine, this time the Coal Loader and Caltex industrial site, into parkland. Decommissioned in the early 1990s, the site had been vacant for more than 40 years by then. The site used to be a “bunkering and distribution point” since the early 1900s, and then used to store oil throught the 1950s.

In Landezine, Hassell writes the primary challenge was to “preserve the site’s timeless quality, to resist the temptation to embellish the structure with artifice, and to ensure that the place became a viable recreation resource for the local community.” In practice, this meant “minimal interventions” and “meaningful spatial relationships.”

Like C-M!ne square, the Coal Loader, as the site is now called, now hosts a range of festivals and private events, offers new office space and cafe. To showcase how sustainable adapative reuse of old industrial infrastructure can be, there’s a new sustainability learning center in the old caretaker’s cottage.

The sustainability center is also there to teach visitors about all the sustainable design practices used. Hassell writes that best practices like “water harvesting, treatment and re-use, waste water treatment, energy capture and storage, community gardening and the use of recycled materials” were incorporated.

Lastly, Tom Stoelker at The Architect’s Newspaper takes us on a tour of a former steel plant in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, which “had to rethink its identity” after the plant went bankrupt. Between a new, redesigned streetscape and bandshell called Levitt Pavilion, which were both done by Philadelphia-based landscape architecture firm WRT, the plant is now in a prime spot, where, with dramatic lighting, it has been re-conceived as a “cultural magnet.”

WRT’s Antonio Fiol-Silva was particularly struck by how the plant created the steel for the Empire State Building and Golden Gate Bridge so really had an industrial heritage in a league of its own. The Architect’s Newspaper explains how the site was closed off for years, but as the gates came down and redesign work began, the workers came back to see the process. WRT landscape architect David Ostrich said: “They would just sit quietly and stare.”
The new “asymetric and cantilevered” addition — the Levitt pavilion — was designed to provide a vivid contrast to the plant in the background. 

But some details help the new pavilion and lawn, which can hold up to 2,500 for concerts, feel like a part of the larger site. “Beveled planes of rusted steel, concrete, and ivy beds shore up the lawn in angled gestures that recall bent metal. Unabashed use of bolts and rivets add graphic punctuation to the detailing, while blond bonded-aggregate paving ushers families toward a play area.”

Image credits: (1) C-M!ne / Hosper, Pieter Kers, (4-6) The Coal Loader / Simon Wood, (7-8) Bethelem Steel Plant / Paul Worcher, (9) The Architect’s Newspaper.

Another Winner: The London Olympics’ Landscape

While the architecture of the London Olympic games certainly won the U.K. a lot of press, there seemed to be a real dearth of coverage on the Games’ highly successful landscape architecture. Nearly 250 acres were turned into a spectacular setting. According to John King, Hon. ASLA, architecture critic for The San Francisco Chronicle, that success was due to a team of landscape architecture firms, including U.K.-based LDA Design and U.S.-based landscape architecture firm, Hargreaves Associates, who came in at the proverbial last minute to update the master plan in key spots, along with English planting designers Nigel Dunnett, Sarah Price, and James Hitchmough.

King reports that the Olympic Delivery Authority in the U.K. “wasn’t happy with the open space elements” of their master plan. George Hargreaves, FASLA, said to King: “The client told us, ‘We’ve got this product, we don’t like it, we’re not sure why.'”

Working with LDA Design, Hargreaves changed the planned river, creating “wider and more natural banks,” which were then cloaked in a sea of greenery, including a wildflower meadow planted by Dunnett and his colleagues. (The meadow, an iconic English landscape, is said to be the largest ever planted in the U.K).

Also, King reports, the plazas in the master plan were reduced in size in order to create space for new hillocks, or what Hargreaves called “sculptural tectonic forms.” These hillocks provide a platform for visitors to see the city, beyond the Olympic Village, and also help create a “softening” of the transition from the busy avenues packed with throngs of visitors.

On their Web site, Hargreaves says the plan developed with LDA Design “restores a river and transforms former industrial land, much of it contaminated through years of industrial neglect” into 100 hectares of parklands. Furthermore, the design was inspired by “the Victorian and post-war pleasure and festival gardens.”

LDA Design says the masterplan provided a solid foundation for the entire site, helping make the London Olympics one of the more sustainable ones to date. “The hour-glass shape of the Olympic Park naturally divides the park into a ‘wilder’ green northern half, The North Park and a more urban South Park. The previously canalised River Lea has been transformed into a three dimensional mosaic of new habitats – wetland, swales, wet woodland, dry woodland and meadow – that together form an absorbent flood-control measure. Specific habitats and wildlife installations have been integrated into the design to support key species identified in the Olympic Park Biodiversity Action Plan, such as Kingfisher, Sandmartin and European eel.”

Dunnett, one of the planting designers, added more about the specifics of the planting approach: “The Olympic Park comprises two different character areas: the North Park which has a more extensive and informal character, and the South Park, which includes the main Olympic Stadium and has a more urban character. Plantings in the North Park largely represent designed versions of native habitats and celebrate native biodiversity. They include species-rich meadows of different types; wetland plantings, including rain gardens and bioswales; woodland underplantings, and dramatic perennial ‘lens plantings.’ Plantings in South Park focus on visual drama and have a strong horticultural basis. They include the 2012 Gardens, Display Meadows and the ‘Fantasticology’ art installation.”

King says the city, at least the local design press, was thrilled by the park. LDA Design’s Web site lists a whole set of positive critical reviews, including one by Kieran Long, Evening Standard: “The real star of the Olympic site is the landscape design. It’s simply beautiful, with borders packed with mixed wildflowers, all blooming gaily thanks to the wet weather. Its hillocks and valleys, ordered by the waterways that run north–south through the park, make it a unique place, and give a flavour of what will be a wonderful public space after the Games.”

The London Olympics just ended with a bang so the landscape will now become public parkland. According to LDA, the park will be expanded, reopening as the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in 2014. A 55-acre piece of that bonanza of a project will go to who else but James Corner Field Operations, designers of the High Line and winners of the Chicago Pier design competition.

See lots more photos of the Olympic landscape.

Image credits: (1) Nigel Dunnett, (2) Andy Harris, Hargreaves Associates, (3-4) Nigel Dunnett, (5) Peter Neal, Hargreaves Associates, (6) Master plan concept, LDA Design, Nigel Dunnett, Hargreaves Associates, (7-8) Nigel Dunnett.

With Drought, Lawn Painting Spreads

The worst drought in a half a century has already caused billions of dollars of losses for farmers and communities. In parts of the country where water has long been conserved, like the west, lawn painting has unfortunately long been seen as a solution. Now, with water being conserved across the country like never before, what are all those homeowners with lawns supposed to do? Instead of replacing lawns with native plants that require little water (otherwise known as xeriscaping), more may be throwing away money trying to paint their way to a lush, verdant lawn.

The Associated Press reports that homeowners across the country are now taking this path. In Staten Island, NY, Terri LoPrimo decided to hire a local entrepreneur to spray her lawn with a “deep-green organic dye.” LoPrimo said: “It looks just like a spring lawn, the way it looks after a rain. It’s really gorgeous.” Her lawn can be seen on the left:

Many landscape architects may shake their head at such a move, but at a cost of $125 to paint her 830-square-foot-lawn, it’s certainly cheaper than ripping out the lawn and replacing with native alternatives that don’t require much water or creating a new, usable outdoor space.

Indeed, these cheap and fast approaches have yielded more business for the owner of the Staten Island company, Grass Is Greener Lawn Painting. The owner told AP that he has already painted 20 lawns this summer. The dye used is a “non-toxic, environmentally friendly turf dye that […] is commonly used on golf courses and athletic fields to give them a lusher appearance.” Just to note: There really isn’t such a thing as an environmentally-friendly dye given the huge amount of water that actually goes into producing dyes. Also, much like a spray-on tan, the green lawn look doesn’t hold forever. In about five months, homeowners going the non-natural way will need a fresh spray. 

The AP then examined the practice in the Midwest, looking to Kansas City, Mo.-based Missouri Turf Paint Inc. The company has been painting golf courses and athletic fields for years, but has seen an uptick in residential spraying. Foreclosed homes are often sprayed, the owner said, to boost resale prospects. 

In Phoenix, Arizona, homeowners are also often painting their lawns to try to sell, or out of fear of being fined by their homeowners’ associations. Brian Howland, Arizona Lawn Painting, said: “Usually it’s people who don’t feel like messing with their yard or it’s a rental or a foreclosure or a sale — something where before everything gets going they want it to look nice.” 
Howland charges $200 for up to 3,000 square feet. 

Clearly more work needs to be done to convince homeowners everywhere that there are smart alternatives to lawns, like xeriscaping. With climate change, drought-like conditions may not be going away anytime soon.

One sustainable landscape case study shows how much cheaper a native residential landscape is to maintain over time. Also, explore ASLA’s guides to sustainable residential design: improving water efficiency, and its connected guide on maximizing the benefits of plants.   

Image credit: (1) Arizona lawn painting / Green Extreme, (2) NY lawn painting / Courier Express

Breathing New Life into Old Materials

Italian designer Marco Stefanelli is breathing new life into old pieces of wood and stone for his Brecce collection of sustainable indoor and outdoor lighting. Cast-off sawmill byproducts, left-over firewood, or broken concrete building parts are embedded with resin and long-lasting LEDs so they glow from within.

On his blog, Stefanelli writes about the idea of material reuse, or hand-made cradle to cradle manufacturing: “The idea that generates my new work is transforming a generally one-shot productive process (just think of wood and stone) into a serial one.”

Stefanelli emphasizes that he’s looking for materials seemingly on their last legs, turning what everyone views as waste products into something useful and beautiful: “In order to realize Brecce’s project I wanted to take inspiration from natural objects that in some ways have reached their final step in the life cycle. They are sawmill’s outlets, pieces of urban architecture, logs carried by the river, firewood…”

For his pieces, the “formwork” is made of wood or stone but divided into multiple segments. Resin is the middle layer that keeps the work together.

Stefanelli wrote: “I’ve tried to give these pieces a second chance, tempting the light to come out from the material and amplify the sensory experience.”

See more images at This is Colossal.

Image credits: Marco Stefanelli

Wade into Barangaroo’s Central District

In the past few years, the massive, 22-hectare Barangaroo redevelopment project on Sydney’s iconic harbour has been mired in controversy. First, an international competition was announced in 2006, which was won by Hills Thalis Architecture. Then, upon concerns about the transparency of the development process and that the project was out of scale with the surrounding Sydney Harbour, a new competition was launched a few years later, which was then won by starchitect Sir Richard Rogers. In those years, the scope of the project also changed to improve the commercial viability of the A$ 6 billion project. The amount of space dedicated to commercial use was increased by one-third. To accomodate all the expected business influx, Rogers, controversially, proposed a nearly 800-feet-tall hotel among the parks and commercial offices. Rogers defends his approach as appropriate for the massive scale of the development.

The site is divided into three segments: Barangaroo South, Headland Park, and Barangaroo Central. Barangaroo South is home to Rogers’ three skyscrapers, including the 800-feet-tall hotel, while Headland Park, a 6-hectare site, will be designed by Australian architecture firm Johnson Pilton Walker in association with U.S. landscape architecture firm Peter Walker and Partners. The park is expected to include 100 percent native “common” plant species growing on recycled water. Interestingly, prior to the announcement of the final designs, famed urban designer Jan Gehl said, due to the size of parkland, it can’t be anything but “a wasteland” and “fearful at night.” Given the park won’t be completed until 2015 and the other sites won’t come online for a few years after that, it will take some time to see if he’s proved to be correct.

Now, according to the Barangaroo Development Authority, an international competition is underway for Barangaroo’s 5.2-hectare central district. The development authority, which has been the subject of its own controversy — with a few of its members removed by the city for conflicts of interest, will be seeking world-class master planning services from a landscape architecture, urban design, or planning firm.  

On the upside, the project plans to be the first major climate positive development in Australia. However, on the other hand, according to The Sydney Morning Herald, the developers are already talking about creating a huge casino in the new central district, making any plans that don’t include a spot for gambling moot from the get-go.

CEO of the Authority John Tabart said, “On the western edge of Sydney’s CBD, Barangaroo is a 22 hectare former container port, being transformed into a vital new extension of the city, as a new global financial hub and the spectacular Headland Park. Playing a pivotal role between these two icons, is Barangaroo Central, planned to be a stimulating new place with commercial and cultural development, creating spaces for living work and leisure.” 

The successful team will create a conceptual vision while revising the existing concept plan, along with a new master plan, land use framework, and public domain plan. Beginning at the end of August, firms can find the RFP online. Submissions must be in by September 26, 2012. 

Image credit: Barangaroo Development Authority

Green Streets Cut Pollution More Than Previously Thought

A new research study by Professor Thomas Pugh at Lancaster University and other scientists in the UK has found that adding trees, bushes, innovative systems like green walls, or even ivy or other creeping vines, can cut street-level nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and microscopic particulate matter (PM), two of the worst forms of pollution, by eight times more than previously thought. Many urban streets have high levels of these types of pollution, far exceeding healthy amounts for humans.

According to Science Daily, previous research has said trees and other greenery can only improve urban air quality by around 5 percent. ASLA’s recent animation on the positive impact of urban forests on air pollution used U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and National Park Service-cited results, which pointed to around 10-13 percent improvement in air quality from major increases in urban greenery. 

The new study focused on better understanding the effects of adding greenery in the stagnant corridors of cities, what the authors termed “urban street canyons.” Science Daily says the team concluded that “judicious placement of grass, climbing ivy, and other plants in urban canyons can reduce the concentration at street level of NO2 by as much as 40 percent and PM by 60 percent, much more than previously believed.”  

Green walls in particular could be used to further increase the amount of pollutant-absorbing foliage available in these spaces. Co-author Rob MacKenzie from the University of Birmingham told BBC News: “The benefit of green walls is that they clean up the air coming into and staying in the street canyon. Planting more [green walls] in a strategic way could be a relatively easy way to take control of our local pollution problems.”

According to the team, researchers found trees were also effective, but “only if care is taken to avoid trapping pollutants beneath their crowns.”  

To ensure these systems work, Pugh also mentioned to the BBC that “more care needs to be taken as to how and where we plant vegetation.” Street trees, which have up to a 30 percent mortality rate in big cities like New York City, need better treatment if they are going to work effectively as filters. In the same way, green walls need to be protected from heat stress and a lack of water.

Beyond these issues, others in the UK debated the value of green walls for addressing air pollution on a cost basis. Given the higher maintenance costs associated with elaborate installed green wall systems, the Trees and Design Action Group wondered whether ivy or other creeping vines weren’t easier and cheaper to use. We’d just add that any comparison between green walls and ivy should also examine the stormwater management, urban heat island effect, and noise reduction benefits of both approaches, too.

Image credit: ASLA 2011 Professional General Design Award. Adding Green to Urban Design / City of Chicago and Hitchcock Design Group

A Digital Break in Paris

So this is probably the world’s classiest outdoor Wi-Fi hotspot. A new project in Paris by French designer Mathieu Lehanneur, who has done innovative, sustainably designed products, and JCDecaux, a British firm said to have invented the idea of embedding advertising in outdoor furniture, got lots of attention from the major design blogs a few months back and just last week The New York Times’ “Home” section also picked up the trail.

Called Escale Numérique (or Digital Break), the new Wi-Fi hotspot is a green-roofed pit-stop at the busy corner of Rond-Point des Champs-Elysées, a few blocks from the Grand Palais, writes Urban Gardens. Inspired by the Wallace fountains, “which since the end of the 19th century, have offered Parisians the free drinking water circulating beneath their feet, Escale Numérique allows everyone to benefit from a high-speed Wi-Fi connection by raising it from beneath the ground,” said Lehanneur, in comments to that Web site. 

The new piece of urban infrastructure comes with a large multimedia touch screen that provides maps, guides to city services, and local news, along with free Wi-Fi.

As Architizer remarked, “Evidently, if the 19th century flâneur needed drinking water to fuel his meandering journey, the flâneur of the 21st century needs a means to check Facebook.”

Just the beautifully-sculpted yet sturdy-looking concrete swivel seats may be worth a visit alone. These have built-in electrical outlets for a quick laptop or phone charge and mini-tables to rest weary elbows.

The New York Times
 writes that they profiled Lehanneur because he’s seems so unlike the usual designer interested in creating yet another high-end chair. Lehanneur is well-known in the product design world for creating smart sustainable products like a household air purification system using plants and a small tank to raise fish and vegetables that can fit into an average kitchen. Increasingly, he’s also interested in designing for the public realm, with new chess player tables and urban infrastructure for skaters in the works.

While Wi-Fi is free in all Parisian parks, Lehanneur makes this ubiquitious and invisible infrastructure a destination. The green roof and warm woods are inviting, the touch screen looks useful, and the chairs comfortable. According to Lehanneur, Paris may do more if the project is successful. It looks like that’s actually a possibility, too: the designer said, “It’s not easy to insert one more object in the city, which already has so many things on the street. But it seems to be very natural. Five minutes after it was set up, people were using the map, sitting and making calls.”

Image credits: copyright Felipe Ribon

Giving Urban Retail a Competitive Edge

With Principles of Urban Retail Planning and Development, Robert J. Gibbs, ASLA, a landscape architect and planner, has written a comprehensive guide to revitalizing retail in old urban centers. In the forward to the book, Stefanos Poloyzoides describes the post-World War II decline of old American cities and the corresponding rise of automobile-dominated sprawl, writing “During our lifetime, ‘suburbia’ and ‘slaburbia’ have together come close to destroying nearly 400 years of city making in the United States.” This expansion of sprawl has precipitated an exodus of urban retail and suburban shopping centers now dominate the retail industry. Gibbs writes, “This book focuses on explicating the retail principles for restoring neighborhoods, villages, towns, and urban commercial districts to their traditional roles as the local and regional centers for commerce and trade.” Addressing issues including convenience, parking, store type, and scale, Principles of Urban Retail aims to “give merchants on the street the same competitive advantage that those in the most profitable shopping centers enjoy.”

With more people moving back into old urban areas, this book is timely. Gibbs emphasizes that thriving retail is a crucial component of a vibrant community, and therefore retail planning and design is critical to urban revitalization. Simply building at a high density does not necessarily lead to vibrant street life; retail and shopping areas must be as carefully designed, and Principles of Urban Retail is a truly comprehensive resource for their development.

Gibbs discusses all of the various ways that design influences how people shop. For instance, while trees are generally good to have, small trees that block storefronts are detrimental to retail. As evidenced by the failed attempts at converting city streets into pedestrian malls in the 1970s, on-street parking is critical for urban retail as are anchor stores. Gibbs covers seemingly insignificant details such as sidewalk design (sidewalks should be nice, but not so nice that they distract from storefronts) and site furnishings (furnishings such as lamp posts should be replaced every eight to ten years in order to stay fashionable).

Principles of Urban Retail does a great job at covering the major and minor principles of retail and gives extensive recommendations on pretty much everything. If you’ve been agonizing over an acceptable angle of pitch for your awning, this book is for you (steeper than 25 degrees is unacceptable). Still, this flood of recommendations can be a little overwhelming. For instance, the chapter on “Shopping Center Built-Form Types” discusses the relative advantages and disadvantages of different kinds of shopping centers. We must consider the strip center, the linear strip center, the single L center, the U courtyard center, the double reverse L center, the lifestyle center, the dumbbell center, the market square center, the double market square center, the floating main street, the linear square center, the half block center, the retail crescent center, and the deflected blocks center. While these definitions can feel overly prescriptive for designers, it’s likely an invaluable toolkit for planners and developers.

In general, I found this book to be most intriguing as a guide to revitalizing old urban shopping districts. I was less convinced by Gibbs’ discussions regarding the design of new town centers. For instance, the book uses the mixed-use development Mashpee Commons as a case study of a successful new town center. Gibbs writes, “Mashpee is especially noteworthy for its pioneering new urbanism adaptation of an existing strip shopping center into a walkable mixed-use town center, as well as for its authentic vernacular architectural design.”

A few years ago I had the privilege of eating at a restaurant in Mashpee Commons with my family. Located off of the highway, among the shopping malls, Mashpee Commons is disconnected from its surroundings. Given no other options, we accessed the Commons by car as we would any suburban shopping center. The development had a Disney-urbanism feeling about it, a kind of movie-set approximation of a small New England town. In fact, everyone in my family remarked that it felt “fake” and “surreal.”

And how walkable is an area that you have to drive to? After all, any mall is walkable once you are inside it. While I do think that its mixed-use design was a step in the right direction for its time, I do not think simply mixing commercial and residential uses is good enough anymore. Our new retail centers should certainly be walkable and mixed use but they should also be drawn from their ecological, social, and physical contexts. Ignoring context and trying to recreate 19th century urbanism feels, at least in the case of Mashpee Commons, weirdly simulated.

Gibbs’ examples of new town centers are perhaps successful from a retail standpoint, but they are also presented as successful examples of urban design, and I am not convinced that all of them work in this regard. Furthermore, ecological sustainability is barely mentioned. Shouldn’t ecology be central to any discussion about urban form, even one oriented around retail?

To be clear, this book should be required reading for urban planners trying to revitalize old town centers, or anyone with an interest in the mechanics of urban retail. I just wish Gibbs were a bit more critical about how we approach urban design. Suburban sprawl is indefensible, but that doesn’t mean imitating what came before it is the solution.

Read the book.

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

Image credit: Wiley & Sons

Jeff Lee: Man Is Part of Nature

Presenting as part of the TEDxWDC, a day-long discussion between Washington D.C.’s creative leaders, landscape architect Jeff Lee, FASLA, talks about the need to recognize the continuity between man and nature, striving to raise awareness of “planning and design strategies for creating new cities and rejuvenating existing mega-cities.”

Lee expresses the need for more environmentally-conscious urbanism. The world is urbanizing at a rapid pace, with “a majority of the projected 12 billion people to live in cities by 2050.” Stunningly, by this time “China alone will build 300 new cities the size of Chicago.” Given the ecologically devastating effects of urbanization to date, “we must find a better way” to build and live.

On a local level, the environmental consequences of reckless urbanization are undeniable. In the 64,000 square miles of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, urbanization has created vast impervious surfaces that prevent rainwater from recharging aquifers. Additionally, runoff from impervious surfaces creates an anaerobic dead zone in the Bay. In Washington D.C., stormwater systems are overwhelmed by the volume of runoff about 40 times a year, sending raw sewage into the Anacostia River.

According to Lee, to address these problems we must look to nature. Instead of collecting water into drain pipes, we can store and filter it using ecological systems. For instance, the first low-impact development in Washington D.C. was the Barracks Row streetscape, which utilizes tree pits as sponges to collect and slowly release water to reduce strain on the city stormwater system.

On a larger scale, the DC CityCenter project, a six-building mixed-use development, will use a terraced network of green roofs and streetscaping where all the water is “collected, treated, and reused.” Lee states, “We upped the ante on this one, where not only are we treating the sidewalk water, but we’re also treating the street water, too.”

At the broader urban scale, Lee described his work in Suzhou, China. Tasked with designing an entirely new city, Lee and Associates envisioned a 4,000 acre settlement that integrates urban infrastructure with the existing ecosystem. In order to not disrupt the rice harvests, which are highly dependent on the careful control of water, the infrastructure is placed at the lowest point of the site. This location also enables the city to use its municipal solid waste to achieve a dramatic increase in energy efficiency. Lee describes how “there are new technologies for treating that biomass – drying and burning it – to create fuel.”

Throughout all of his examples, Lee stresses the importance of recognizing man as part of nature and the ways good design takes inspiration from nature. He continually refers back to the golden ratio – a set of proportions that appears throughout nature and human design – as evidence of our continuity with the natural world. Not only can integrating our designs with natural systems mitigate or even reverse the destructive impacts of urbanization, it can also provide a more enriching and beautiful experience for people. Lee describes how “nature shows us the way to build and the way to live. With our awareness that we are part of nature and not over it, and with our ability to communicate and connect as never before, we can leave our grandchildren’s children something of awe and inspiration.”

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) Urban Places and Spaces, (2) Gustafson Guthrie Nichol + Sir Norman Forster, Lee and Associates, (3) Lee and Associates

City Bountiful: The Rise of Urban Agriculture

At the Greater & Greener: Reimagining Parks for 21st Century Cities conference in New York City, Laura Lawson, ASLA, Professor and Chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture at Rutgers University, described how urban agriculture has experienced explosive growth in recent years. According to a survey produced by the American Community Gardening Association and Rutgers University, community gardens are now found in all 50 states. Some 445 organizations responded to the survey, listing a total of 9,030 gardens. Of these organizations, 90 percent have seen increased demand over the past five years. Also, some 39 percent of the gardens listed were built just in the past five years. These organizations have a variety of goals, including food production and access, social engagement, nutrition, education, and neighborhood revitalization.

Sarita Daftary then discussed her work as Project Director of East New York Farms. East New York is the easternmost neighborhood of Brooklyn. A community of 180,000 residents, East New York is underserved by fresh food markets. The East New York Farms program (see image above) seeks to engage the community through its 30 backyard gardens and 24 community gardens, employing 33 youth interns, 80 gardeners, and 100+ volunteers.

The program addresses neighborhood food access through its farmers markets, growing and selling a diversity of unusual foods that reflect the diversity of the neighborhood.

Ben Helphand, Executive Director of NeighborSpace, said his organization is the only non-profit urban land trust in Chicago, working to protect gardens on behalf of community groups. NeighborSpace collaborates with a variety of city and state organizations to secure land titles and provide basic liability insurance for community gardens.

Unlike East New York Farms, NeighborSpace is not oriented around food security: Out of NeighborSpace’s 81 gardens, roughly 1/3 are ornamental, 1/3 are food gardens, and 1/3 are an ornamental/vegetable hybrid. Some of these gardens have become spaces for public art.

Maitreyi Roy, Senior Vice President for Programs and Planning at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, described her organization’s City Harvest program. Due to severe budget cutbacks, the Philadelphia prison system has an abundance of unused greenhouses, land, and water. City Harvest utilizes these facilities to grow seedlings for community gardeners. The program also works with local community gardeners, expanding access to gardening supplies, nutritional education, and fresh food.

The tension between for-profit urban farming and community-driven initiatives was a recurring theme throughout the discussion. After all, simply growing food in a neighborhood doesn’t necessarily expand the neighborhood’s access to healthy food. For example, for-profit operations often sell their produce to high-end restaurants located outside of their communities. Organizations will need to continue to address these complicated social and economic issues as urban agriculture spreads.

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: (1-2) East New York Farms, (3-4) Britni Day, (5) Pennsylvania Horticultural Society Online