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

Azuma Makoto’s Plant Sculptures

Azuma Makoto, a Japanese artist who runs a high-end flower shop — the Jardins Des Fleurs — in a trendy neighborhood in Tokyo, just held a new exhibition of his beautiful plant sculptures called Collapsible Leaves. Indeed, the exhibition title is apt: Makoto carefully manipulates thousands of leaves, twisting and turning them into biomorphic sculptures defined by their forms and rich textures.

He likes ball shapes but also creates larger amoebas.

Makoto uses different plant leaves to create astounding visual effects. Waxy leaves organized into concentric rings reflect the light, presenting a vortex of plant life.  

Plants with lighter tones look like woven baskets — but in their original green form.

Makoto’s earlier work, as noted by the design blog, This Is Colossal, is just as great. In Leaf Man, we see a man seemingly becoming a plant. It’s like something out of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

In Botanical Sculpture #3 Lump, Makoto introduces mechanical objects into his hanging plant sculptures, perhaps exploring the idea of the mechanisms of nature at work. In any case, the contrasting materials in his impermanent work are evocative.

His latest exhibition is now on in the Gyre gallery in Omotesando, Tokyo.

Image credits: Azuma Makoto

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

Parks Are Part of Our Healthcare System

“Parks are a part of our healthcare system,” said Dr. Daphne Miller, a professor of family and community medicine, University of California, San Francisco, at the Greater & Greener: Reimagining Parks for 21st Century Cities, a conference in New York City. She said these green spaces are crucial to solving hypertension, anxiety, depression, diabetes — “the diseases of indoor living.” The more someone spends outdoors, the less likely they are to suffer from mental or physical disorders. But she said parks officials and the medical profession still needs more data to take aim at the many “naysayers on the other side” who don’t believe in what every landscape architect values.

Lucky for all of us, a few scientists are doing innovative research, trying to capture that data. In a separate panel on healthcare and parks, Dr. Deborah Cohen, senior natural scientist at RAND, and Sarah Messiah, a research professor at the University of Miami presented some exciting results.

In a National Institute of Health (NIH)-financed study, Cohen has used “systematic observations” measuring “play in communities” to determine if and how people burn calories in parks (see downloadable app). Every hour 3 or 4 days a week, her team of researchers visited and counted people in target areas. Cohen was particularly interested in “vigorous” physical activity — the healthy kind of activity needed to get hearts pumping. Vigorous activity is defined as brisk walking, jogging, or running.

She said some 50 percent of all vigorous activity occurs in parks. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean all that much for most because “hardly anyone engages in vigorous activity anymore.” For boys, the average is 2 minutes a day, and girls — just 1 minute a day. She found that while parks are the sites of that rare vigorous activity, they are still “underutilized.”

To measure the impact of new parks on the activity levels of people using these facilities, Cohen did a before and after study. She examined the activity levels of residents before three pocket parks came into low-income, high-crime areas in Los Angeles and then after. These are tiny parks (less than half an acre), mainly playgrounds, which aren’t staffed. She found that for two of the new parks, “the parks were better used than the larger parks serving larger areas.” People were “more likely to walk to the smaller neighborhood parks, which were perceived to be safer than the larger neighborhood park.” Walking gets the heart pumping.

Then, Cohen evaluated 12 “fitness zones,” otherwise just known as outdoor exercise equipment areas, installed by the Trust for Public Land (TPL), in Los Angeles. She found that these 12 fitness zones served a possible half a million people. Of the 23,500 people who used the parks, some 2,500 were in the fitness zones. Cohen found 2-4 people using them each hour on average. She said these fitness zones led to “increases in moderate, vigorous activity.” In comparison with neighborhood parks, there was a boost “but not a statistically-significant one.” Fitness zone use increased where they were accessible in higher density areas. Overall, she concluded these systems were “relatively cost-effective.” At $45,000 a piece, with a 15-year lifespan, these systems offer 11 cents per metabolic equivalent of task (MET), referring to the metric for measuring the energy use of physical activities. She said “anything under 50 cents per MET is worth it.”

Next, Cohen looked at the MET value of new facilities costing upwards of $1 million. In one L.A. park, she found that after the major improvements, the actual use of the park fell from 2,000 to 1,500 a day. She said this shows how important park programs are and how parks aren’t effective as calorie burners without them. The loss of people was due to “reduced hours, cut programs, less maintenance, and a shorter baseball season.” In the park, “less was happening so people went less.” She also added that the data told her “improved safety” isn’t a guarantee of improved use.

Looking at 50 parks in a randomized survey, Cohen went on to examine the impact of outreach or programs. One “control group” of parks didn’t receive any money. Another set was given $4,000 to do signage, courses, activities, really anything they want. The “control parks saw user levels fall, while the intervention parks saw increased users.” Each intervention saw an increase of about 174 more users per week, expending 521 more METs. Her conclusion: “There’s lots of competition for leisure time. Parks need to compete. That attention requires a modest investment” (but perhaps not a million dollar one).

Sarah Messiah with the Miller School of Medicine at the University of Miami and the Miami-Dade parks and pediatrics department is focusing her research on parks and childhood obesity. She said First Lady Michelle Obama was right: there is a national crisis with childhood obesity, with some 30 percent of American children now obese. She’s now seeing lots of kids with scary adult diseases like fatty liver disease and metabolic syndrome. “This generation could be the first that has a shorter lifespan than their parents.”

Miami-Dade has the third largest park system in the U.S.,with some 260+ parks over nearly 13,000 acres used by 2.5 million and visited by 10 million annually. With the park system as a platform, Messiah and her team wanted to test the effectiveness of after school programs in reaching a set of goals. Applying Fit2Play, a national “interactive, fun wellness program” locally, the parks officials and researchers wanted to measure success on: (1) increasing physical activity, (2) eating right (nutrition), (3) improving school performance, and (4) building social skills and self esteem. The team also used SPARK after school programs, which offer a 400-page binder of activities, to train staff on activities to do in parks.

After school, kids from “dangerous” low-income neighborhoods were bused in. They spent an hour doing homework and then an hour of SPARK programs in the park for a year. Health and fitness coordinators and interns worked with park staff to obtain certification in fitness and wellness. Looking at Fit2Play outcomes, the researchers then collected a range of data on the 5-13 year olds, entering the actual data at parks. BMI, blood pressure, physical fitness, nutrition knowledge was all collected. The mean age for the study group was 9.3 years old, and there were half boys and girls.

The researchers found that the after-school programs were extremely beneficial. “The kids were growing normally,” said Messiah, instead of ballooning up abnormally. “There were statistically significant decreases in blood pressure,” which is “just important as weight.” Test performance “significantly improved over the year.” Nutrition knowledge improved, too.

Messiah said the key to the program’s success was the partnership between the parks system and university. “This was a team approach with lots of fluid communication both ways.” She realized that parks officials were really busy so the researchers had to “compromise on the time dedicated to measurement and data collection.” These people “can’t be expected to collect data all the time.” She also said it was also important to get parents to buy in and “sign those participation forms.”

Messiah and Cohen’s programs show that parks not only provide a safe place for people (and especially kids) in dangerous neighborhoods but are possibly key to their health and wellbeing. However, park space alone isn’t enough. The park programs are equally as critical. Without these opportunities, Messiah said, kids in these dangerous neighborhoods just sit inside, playing video games, eating junk food, growing into sedentary unhealthy adults disconnected from nature. While the investments needed clearly don’t need to be huge, parks still “must be competitive in making their pitches in this tough financing environment.”

Image credit: ASLA 2011 Professional General Design Award / Manassas Park Elementary School Landscape, Manassas Park, Virginia. Siteworks, Charlottesville, VA

Miniature Landscapes

Paula Hayes
 is the first comprehensive monograph of this American artist’s work. Famous for her exquisitely detailed terrariums, Hayes also does full-scale landscape designs. Both are represented equally here. Her terrariums in particular are visually striking, provocative pieces that make a strong statement about our relationship with the natural world.

The word “terrarium” seems inadequate for describing what Hayes creates. Encased in hand-blown glass and meticulously arranged, her terrariums are living sculptures and their glass containers are as important as their contents. Every aspect of each terrarium is deliberate and highly detailed, from the living plants to the layers of substrate. The overall effect is that of a miniaturized, self-contained ecosystem enclosed in a bubble. These terrariums have a level of artistry that elevates them above something like a ship in a bottle or a bonsai tree, though they do achieve a similar miniaturized quality.

Precisely crafted and sculptural, Hayes’s terrariums are undeniably works of art. Unlike most art, however, her work uses living things and therefore requires constant maintenance. This required maintenance is deliberate: In his introductory essay, Richard D. Marshall writes that Hayes “considers the watering and feeding of the plants, that is, the daily human-plant interaction, as the actual art form.” He elaborates on this point, writing “this forced interaction of caring for and protecting nature on a small scale will ideally expand into a fuller appreciation of the entire environment and an understanding of the fragile relationship that exists between humans and nature.”

In other words, Hayes’s work uses living components not only for aesthetic effect but to achieve a very specific “forced interaction” between people and nature. An individual’s responsibility toward his piece of living art illustrates our larger responsibility toward our land.

Entirely self-contained, Hayes’s terrariums have an insular quality. This is true of her landscape designs as well. Full of detailed plantings and small elements such as sculptural planters and rock arrangements, these landscapes feel personal and enclosed.

Like her terrariums, Hayes’s landscapes are also designed to be nurtured. Hayes describes, “You could say when the landscapes or pieces are installed, that’s the end of the process, but that’s not true. They will continue to grow and the interaction with them will develop over time.” Her garden designs are highly controlled; each plant is carefully chosen.

Apparently, Hayes practiced landscape design before moving into terrarium design. This makes sense, as her terrariums clarify the relationships hinted at in her landscapes. By addressing her terrarium designs first and landscape designs second, the book frames her landscapes in terms of the issues addressed by her terrariums. And while I found her terrariums to be the more compelling part of the book, this ordering does lend additional layer of interest to her gardens, which are beautiful in their own right. I found it difficult to view her gardens as anything but human-scaled terrariums.

Still, the terrariums are the real attraction of the book. With them, Hayes explores a variety of interesting possibilities. She also experiments with double-layered glass, turning the terrariums into lenses to alter the perception of their contents. With her exhibitions, the arrangement and context of the terrariums becomes important (one exhibition featured one hundred tiny hand-blown terrariums, appearing almost as scattered beads of glass).

Some projects even house living fish and corals, taking her theme of stewardship to a new extreme. Blurring the distinction between landscape and sculpture, Hayes’ art is worth a look.

Explore Hayes’ terraniums.

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: Monacelli Press