Best Books of 2012

This past year shows us all that the publishing world isn’t dead yet. A number of must-have books on landscape architecture, urban design, and ecology came past our desks this year. All would make great presents for your favorite landscape architect or designer. Here are our top ten books of 2012:

Architecture Now! Landscape by Philip Jodidio (Taschen, 2012). Landscape architecture finally gets the world-famous Taschen book treatment in this 416-pager filled with tons of color photographs. Jodidio, who has written on starchitects for Taschen for years, features many of the big-name landscape architects practicing around the world today, along with a few architects who have crossed over to the landscape side. And it’s nice to note that this book’s scope truly is global: everyone from Ken Smith, FASLA, to Vladimir Djurovic, International ASLA, to Adriaan Gueze, International ASLA, at Dutch firm West 8 is included. Check out the book and then let Taschen know your thoughts for the next edition.

The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water by Charles Fishman (Free Press, 2012). Keynote speaker at the ASLA 2012 Annual Meeting in Phoenix, Fishman takes readers on a journey around the world — but all focused on water, its history and use, and, increasingly, on how it’s being wasted.  Still, despite all the discussion of a global water crisis, Fishman is optimistic that “smart water use” can help solve the challenges facing many communities. Landscape architects, who he calls “water revolutionaries,” are also seen as playing a key role in educating the public about how to more intelligently use water.

Carrot City: Creating Spaces for Urban Agriculture by Mark Gorgolewski, June Komisar, and Joe Nasr (Monacelli Press, 2012). Written by a group of Ryerson University professors, this full-color, photo-rich text book presents nearly 50 case studies that examine food production, processing, distribution, and marketing. These proposals, some visionary and others built or underway, explore how food production works — from the small components for growing, like raised beds and greenhouses, to city-scale systems of urban agriculture. The authors show how urban agriculture can re-integrate food production into the urban fabric in meaningful ways, eventually becoming, as the authors argue, as central to a city’s functioning as public sanitation utilities. Read the full review in The Dirt.

Designed Ecologies: The Landscape Architecture of Kongjian Yu by William Saunders (Birkhauser Architecture, 2012). To many, Kongjian Yu, FASLA, is the Frederick Law Olmsted of China. Winner of innumerable ASLA professional design awards, Yu and his Beijing-based firm, Turenscape, which has a staff of more than 500, gets an in-depth review by William Saunders, former editor of Harvard Design Magazine and now the books editor for Landscape Architecture Magazine. This book offers up 18 case studies and 10 essays by both leading landscape architecture practitioners and thinkers like Peter Walker, FASLA, and John Beardsley, Dumbarton Oaks. Read an ASLA interview with Yu, and learn more about his innovative ecological design approach.

Lawrence Halprin’s Skyline Park by Ann Komara, ASLA, with a forward by Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, and contribution by Laurie Olin, FASLA (Princeton Architectural Press, 2012). Lawrence Halprin’s now defunct Skyline Park in Denver gets the full treatment in this brand-new book by Komara, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Colorado, Denver. In more than 140 pages filled with beautiful drawings and photographs, Komara delves into the economic and social trends that spurred the creation of Halprin’s park and led to its eventual decline. Read the full review on The Dirt.

Petrochemical America by Kate Orff, ASLA, and Richard Misrach (Aperture, 2012). According to the publishers, this book combines “Richard Misrach’s haunting photographs of Louisiana’s ‘Chemical Corridor’ with landscape architect Orff’s ‘Ecological Atlas’–a series of speculative drawings developed through intensive research and mapping of data from the region. Misrach and Orff’s joint effort depicts and unpacks the complex cultural, physical and economic ecologies of a particular region along 150 miles of the Mississippi River, from Baton Rouge to New Orleans–an area of intense chemical production that became known as ‘Cancer Alley’ when unusually high occurrences of the disease were discovered in the region.” Read more on Orff’s discussion of the book at the University of Virginia.

Recycling Spaces: Curating Urban Evolution: The Work of Martha Schwartz Partners by Emily Waugh (ORO Editions, 2012). The iconic landscape architect Martha Schwartz hasn’t been the subject of a major book since the 1990s so this welcome new edition may be the only source for her more recent, international work. This new book by Waugh, a lecturer in landscape architecture at Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), uses Schwartz Partner’s work to focus on “four critical urban conditions of the late 20th and early 21st century city: dying city centers, depleted resource landscapes and affiliated towns, non-existent urbanisms, and changing populations.” The book argues that “one of the most important questions facing urban centers today is how to keep people attracted to live in, invest in, and participate in the city.” Read an ASLA interview with Schwartz.

The Social Conquest of Earth by E.O. Wilson (Liveright, 2012). Famed Harvard University biologist and Pulitizer Prize-winning author Wilson delves into how humans came to take over the planet in this highly readable book (which also includes a fascinating discussion on why humans do landscape architecture in the first place). According to The Atlantic, “[His] new book is not limited to the discussion of evolutionary biology, but ranges provocatively through the humanities. Its impact on the social sciences could be as great as its importance for biology, advancing human self-understanding in ways typically associated with the great philosophers.”

Visible | Invisible: Landscape Works of Reed Hilderbrand by Douglas Reed, FASLA, and Gary Hilderbrand, FASLA (Metropolis Books, 2012). While this book won’t officially be available until January, 2013, it’s worth adding because it’s gorgeous. A range of essays by Peter Walker, FASLA; William Saunders; Gary Hilderbrand, FASLA; Niall Kirkwood, FASLA; and others provides a frame for this Massachusetts-based firm, which has won numerous ASLA professional awards. Hundreds of lush black-and-white and color photographs and beautiful master plans show this firm’s elegant projects at their best. As Walker writes in his forward, “this monograph is a wonderfully real and mature contribution to the art of landscape architecture.”

Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time by Jeff Speck, Honorary ASLA (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2012). Speck, one of the country’s leading urban planners and a consultant to many of the most-cutting edge mayors, offers up a new book on walkability and how to make it happen. Washington, D.C.’s planning director Harriet Tregoning is obviously a fan: “Companionable and disarmingly candid, Jeff Speck perches on your shoulder and gets you to see your community with fresh eyes. He gradually builds a compelling case for walkability as the essential distillation of a vast trove of knowledge about urbanism and placemaking. The case he makes has you both nodding at the intuitive and seemingly obvious wisdom presented, and shaking your head at why those basic principles of fixing our cities have eluded us for so long.”

Also, here are a few notable books for sustainable design educators, students, and practitioners: Designing the Sustainable Site: Integrated Design Strategies for Small-Scale Sites and Residential Landscapes by Heather Venhaus (see The Dirt review); Rethinking a Lot by Eran Ben-Joseph (see The Dirt review); The Sustainable Sites Handbook: A Complete Guide to the Principles, Strategies, and Best Practices for Sustainable Landscapes by Meg Calkins, ASLA (see The Dirt review); and Urban Ecological Design: A Process for Regenerative Spaces by Fritz Steiner, FASLA, and Danilo Palazzo (see The Dirt review).

For more, check out Books by ASLA Members, a hub offering up hundreds of books written over the years (all available via, and the top 10 books from 2011.

Image credit: Taschen

Harnessing the Genius of Gamers

If the world could only harness the collaborative genius of gamers, many of our most intractable problems could be solved. This was the central argument of the amazing Jane McGonigal, director of game research and development, Institute for the Future, and best-selling author of Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, at the 2012 Greenbuild in San Francisco. (A similar version of her talk can be seen from TED above).

Games can effectively be a platform for engaging people as collaborators. Given the success of some of the best-selling games, the potential scale of collective action is enormous. As an example, McGonigal said Angry Birds has had 1 billion downloads and at some point 1/10 people on earth have played the game. In total, “people have spent a total of 325,000 years avenging these poor birds.” Another game with “extraordinary reach” is Call of Duty. The average players of that game spent about 170 hours a year playing, which is about the same of one full-time month of work. “They are playing like it’s a job.” In fact, the game is so popular it also interferes with work: when a new version recently came out, some 1/4 of all players called in sick to work.

Gamers may be so intently focusing on their games because they get little stimulation at work. They aren’t alone: some 74 percent of American workers were said to be “disengaged” at work, according to a Gallup poll. This lack of engagement costs U.S. employers about $300 billion annually. Plus, a lack of engagement really equates to a lack of innovation, which is a danger for the U.S. economy as a whole. McGonigal said the real story is that “there’s passion and energy but it’s being transferred to the virtual world of gaming.” Instead of seeing this as part of the decline of Western civilization, McGonigal interestingly sees it as a huge opportunity. As NYU professor Clay Shirky, who wrote Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations (a book worth a read), noted, Wikipedia took around 100 million hours of collaborative global effort to create. “That’s just three weeks of Angry Birds. We have the potential to create 7 Wikipedias every week.” McGonigal even has a new word to define this online world: the “engagement economy,” which is made possible through “mass participation and skills and abilities.”

So for all those parents out there worried about their kids rotting their minds with online games, perhaps they should put their fears aside. Game playing, which 99 percent of boys and 92 percent of girls under 18 do, actually boosts positive emotions. Gamers associate the following feelings with games: “joy, relief, love, surprise, pride, curiosity, excitement, awe, wonder, contentment, and creativity.” In games, we are also “working with others.” Being a part of a massive multiplayer community “creates confidence, a sense of agency.”

In a survey of research, gamers were found to be more creative. “And the more time they spent gaming, the more creative they were.” Gamers spend about “80 percent of their time failing. You have to try again and again.” This builds a positive sense of self. For everyone, social games actually lead people “to help each more in real life.” Even casual gaming “outperforms pharmaceuticals for anxiety and depression.”  Interestingly, those with ADHD had their symptoms disappear when they started gaming. For those with autism, playing games helped them to “collaborate better and improve their emotional intelligence.” Games “make us resilient and create super-empowered individuals.”

McGonigal then explained how the three “super-powers” of gamers could be harnessed to address some of the world’s most daunting challenges. First, gamers can “summon crowds out of thin air.” As an example, she pointed to a real-world “Farmville,” an app called Ground Crew that enables local urban agriculture organizations to find volunteers in real time based on how far they are from the farms. Ground Crew led to a “1oo-time boost in volunteer participation” for some local organizations.

Second, gamers can “solve the unsolvable.” No joke. McGonigal pointed to a site called Fold IT by the University of Washington that used gamers to manipulate infinitely complex proteins. If proteins “fold in a certain way, you get a disease.” But unraveling the folds is no easy feat: “it’s a Rubix cube with 100 sides.” In a show of force for the gaming world, gamers solved a unbelievably complex challenge related to HIV in just 10 days. Researchers with PhDs had been working on the problem for nearly a decade. Their feat was even written up in Nature, one of the world’s best science journals.

Third, “gamers can see the future.” A new Web site called the World without Oil, which asked users to play games around the idea of peak oil and explain how they would live with oil at $4 a gallon, documented some 100 thousand stories. A year later, “when the world caught up” and gas reached those prices, the stories listed actually provided “an early warning systems.”

So getting on board with games may be the way to go. Kids gaming today will soon grow into adults who game. “It’s inevitable. Soon we’ll all be gamers.”

Governor “Moonbeam” Takes on His Critics at Greenbuild

California Governor Jerry Brown, aka Governor “Moonbeam,” took on his many critics at the 2012 Greenbuild in San Francisco, saying the people who originally called him that are “no longer around, while I still am.” To huge laughs, he said “apparently, moonbeams have more durability than other beings.” In a rousing speech designed to rally the green building community, Brown walked the crowd through his profound “eco” philosophy, while also laying out a path for attacking climate change in California and across the U.S.

In ancient Greek, Brown said “eco” means house. As an example, “economy” means “rules of the house.”  “Logos” means “lord, god, or the deep principles or patterns of nature.” So ecologos or “ecology is the bigger house we all live in – the environment. It’s more fundamental than economics. Economics sits within ecology. Not the other way around. This means through our economy, we can’t repeal the laws of nature.” Furthermore, humanity “can’t mock the laws of nature or thumb our noses at the climatic system. We have to learn to work with nature.”

Unfortunately, the reality is that climate change is the “least important item on the agenda.” Climate change gets some lip service from politicians, but is still seen as a “little too out there” so politicians focus on the day-to-day issues of “crime, taxes, jobs, roads.”

The only positive trend may be that “we know far more than we did 50 years ago about the climate.” With Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring, which launched the modern environmental movement, and the Earth Summit, the 1992 UN conference in Rio, which effectively launched the sustainability movement, “there has been progress.” Today, scientific academies all around the world have independently expressed themselves on the climate, saying that “long-term, there are irreversible consequences.” The Union of Concerned Scientists even recently wrote a letter, a “warning to humanity,” saying that “people are on a collision course with nature.”

In California, Brown has pursued an ambitious agenda, which builds on a legacy of environmental action. Under Brown’s first term as governor, California was the first state to create fuel efficiency standards for appliances, leading the charge across the U.S. Now, the state has the only functioning cap and trade system for reducing carbon emissions in the union. As part of this effort, California is now quantifying greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) and moving down the emissions quotas each year. “Year after year, this has required a collaboration among powerful forces.”

Today, California also has the most number of green buildings in the U.S., two times more than Texas, its nearest competitor. The state is also putting “more investment into renewable energy than anyone else. We are not waiting.” Still, Brown wants to go further: “We we need to get to zero-net energy buildings across the state. We need to get to a surplus of energy.” The state is now aiming for all residential buildings to be zero-net by 2020, and all commercial buildings to reach that goal by 2050. In addition to achieving net-zero buildings, Brown wants all of these buildings to be healthy. “People want healthy buildings — they want indoor spaces to be as healthy as outdoors.”

To move forward the effort to make indoor spaces healthier, Scott Horst, senior vice president at the U.S. Green Building Council and the man in charge of LEED, said the upcoming LEED version 4 will be moving forward with a controversial effort to provide credits for those buildings that “disclose chemicals in materials.” The effort, apparently, created “blow back” by groups aligned with some chemical and building product manufacturers. The result was an onslaught of letters from Senators and Congressional representatives “threatening that the federal government and state governments would stop using LEED as a rating system and benchmark.” Comparing USGBC’s efforts to Rachel Carson’s efforts to end the use of DDT, the chemicals in sprayed agricultural fertilizers, Horst said the backlash reflected “old patterns of industry versus the environmental movement.” Horst said “we can’t have an us versus them approach. We have to have business at the table.”

As William McDonough, one of the world’s leading thinkers on materials and ecology, showed, at least some businesses have gotten the message and are joining commercial and environmental goals. Announcing the official launch of his Cradle to Cradle (C2C) rating system, which “assesses a product’s safety to humans and the environment and design for future life cycles,” McDonough brought out a number of leading building product manufacturers to talk about how they use C2C, a “fulcrum for change,” to do business differently now, more in tune with the environment. The overall goals: to treat “materials as nutrients” and use these materials to achieve targets related to “revitalization, renewable energy, water stewardship and breaking social barriers.”

McDonough said his C2C approach is critical because “there are now 2,500 chemicals in mothers’ milk.” He asked, “is this our intention, to poison each other? How about the intention to improve our shared health and well-being?” The movement for healthier materials is “fundamentally a question of social justice. Do we want to tyrannize the next generation?”

Image credit:  Governor Jerry Brown / Wikipedia

Do Landscape Architects Need to Open Up the Conversation?

When landscape architects get together formally to talk about the profession these days, their conversations all seem to follow a similar arc. They begin by addressing the “big” problems we will face in the near future, then quickly settle into a bout of modest soul-searching and existential angst, and finally conclude with some well-meaning but not very practical advice to students and young professionals to “pursue your dreams, follow your passion,” and so on. I graduated with a Master’s in Landscape Architecture from University of California, Berkeley, this spring and have been to more than a handful of these panels lately. I am getting a little frustrated. Instead of providing any real answers, these forums and panel discussions only seem to regurgitate the same questions.

Earlier this month, I attended a forum hosted by the North Carolina State University College of Design called, “Changing the Conversation: Landscape Architecture Beyond 2012.” It featured four local designers along with Mark Johnson, FASLA, founder of Civitas, who was visiting from Denver, Colorado. The panel was comprised of Charles “Chuck” Flink, FASLA, the president of Alta Planning and Design, Christine Hilt, FASLA, the president of CLH Design, Mark Hough, ASLA, the campus landscape architect of Duke University, and Paul Morris, FASLA, the Deputy Secretary for Transit for the North Carolina Department of Transportation. The forum was moderated by Dan Howe, ASLA, the Assistant City Manager of the City of Raleigh, NC.

I had been looking forward to an evening of new ideas, and while the forum was rousing and often entertaining, it left me somewhat frustrated. The topics discussed ran the usual gamut from international work and climate change to professional ethics and even Twitter, mixed with a spattering of direct, if not confrontational, questions from the audience. My gripe about the forum is the same as about others I have attended:  it was a room of landscape architects talking about landscape architecture with a bunch of other landscape architects.

The potential value of these types of discussions, especially for landscape architecture students and emerging professionals, can’t be understated. Hearing directly from working professionals as they speak candidly about their careers has certainly made an impact on me. However, if practicing landscape architects have experienced successful collaborations with the public and other professionals (to which the panel testified), then why is the discussion still so exclusive? It seems that in order to really change the conversation, the conversation needs to open up to a lot more people.

Hilt, the only woman on the panel (another conversation that needs having), made the point indirectly while she was explaining how to defend the profession from becoming a commodity. “Our profession is about a lot of people with limited resources,” she said, “We collaborate with a lot of allied professionals, and it’s absolutely critical we get them involved in [the design process].”

Her point seems obvious but is worth reiterating. The ability to collaborate with other disciplines is one of the things that makes landscape architecture so great. Although she refers specifically to our collaborators in allied professions, I would argue that we need to involve everyone – the public – in the process.

This won’t be easy, but it’s possible. There are a few examples of this type of interaction already happening that are worth mentioning: ASLA’s public awareness campaign – The Understory – which was initiated on August 11, 2011 as a “day of action” encouraged landscape architects to get out on the street to make themselves known in all sorts of ways, including holding signs in public plazas reading “Designed by a Landscape Architect.” James Corner, principal of Field Operations, appeared in Gary Hustwit’s (director of Helvetica) city-focused documentary Urbanized, discussing the High Line in New York City. “Tactical urbanism” darlings Rebar and their revolutionary Park(ing) Day, held once a year on a Friday in September, brings public space curbside, directly engaging the public in conversation and interaction. These are all great examples of how we can engage a wider audience.

Furthermore, the role of landscape “starchitects” came up during the discussion, but it didn’t get as much focus as I had hoped. Flink mentioned Ian McHarg and his 1960 CBS television show, The House We Live In, but didn’t offer a contemporary comparison to McHarg or his communication efforts.

Howe followed a lengthy and circular exchange between the panelists and the audience about how to define what landscape architects do by posing the question “do we,” referring to our profession, “need another personality?” The panel looked at each other, quietly shook their heads, and only Johnson replied with “I know who I am and I just go be me. I’m unapologetic about the consequences.”

The panel seemed to agree that the struggle to educate clients and the public about the wonders of landscape is a market-driven struggle. Speaking from the audience, Swink reminded the panel and the other guests that “this is a great time to be a landscape architect. We are more understood than we’ve ever been.”

Overall, “Changing the Conversation: Landscape Architecture beyond 2012” didn’t break any new ground, but it did end on a high note, suggesting that the circular discussion was close to finding a new direction. Howe wrapped things up with, “this is a navel we have been picking for generations.” Sensing some unrest from the mostly young audience, Hough declared, “we are the status quo,” referring to himself and the other panelists, “it’s up to you to change the conversation.”

Challenge accepted.

This guest post is by Darryl Jones, ASLA, recent Master’s of Landscape Architecture graduate, University of California, Berkeley.

Image credit: Phillips Garden’s Parking Day Installation / Phillips Garden, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Why We Need Cities in Tune with Nature

In a session on a new planning and design theory called “biophilic urbanism” at the 2012 Greenbuild conference in San Francisco, Judith Heerwagen, a professor at the University of Washington; Timothy Beatley, Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities at the University of Virginia; and Bert Gregory, head of Mithun Architects + Designers + Planners argued that cities can be in tune with nature, actually embody nature in physical design, and foster deeper connections with natural systems.

For Professor Heerwagen, biophilia is best defined by the amazing biologist E.O. Wilson, who came up with the actual concept. It relates to the “innate emotional connection of humans to all living things.” In cities, for example, this means that people are attracted to trees and will pay more to live in areas with them. People will pay more for hotel rooms with views of nature. “These are things we intuitively know. We chose places that are greener.” Dr. Richard Jackson, former head of environmental health at the CDC, also made a similar point but connected nature with physical and mental health. Heerwagen quoted him: “In medicine, where the body is really matters.” Health is essentially place-based.

Research on the Benefits of Nature

Heerwagen outlined some fascinating recent research: In a recent study that examined the impact of exercising in nature vs. working out in areas devoid of nature, researchers found that “green exercise” in natural spaces “lowered tension, anxiety, and blood pressure,” beyond the benefits of exercise itself.

For kids, playing out in nature also has big benefits: “nature play is more imaginative.” Kids playing in nature play longer and more collaboratively. In contrast, in a closed-off playground, the play was “more aggressive and shorter.” While playing in nature, kids are “particularly attracted to spaces that offer protection and safety,” or “prospect and refuge.”

Researchers in the Netherlands recently looked at the benefits of what they call “Vitamin G.” Examining 10,000 residents in a massive study, the researchers found that the amount of green space in a 5-km zone around a person really impacts their health. “A 20 percent increase in nearby green space was effectively equivalent to another 5 years of life.”

Nature, said Heerwagen, also promotes positive emotions, psychological resilience, and wellbeing. Pleasant environments, researchers have demonstrated, stimulate opioid receptors so we actually feel a sense of pleasure.

How Do We Create Biophilic Urbanism?

For Professor Beatley, who not too long ago wrote a very smart book, Biophilic Cities, it means building nature into our daily lives, not just accessing nature once or twice a year on vacation. In fact, Beatley showed off a novel concept: minimum daily requirements for nature, based on the famed food pyramid. At the base of the pyramid, “we need hourly, daily foundational experiences in the city.” At the top of the pyramid are intense vacations in nature, while the mid-level are regional experiences, such as hikes.

To show why minimum daily requirements are needed, Beatley shared results from surveys he does across the country, in which he shows a set of corporate logos and then a set of birds. “There’s 100 percent identification for the logos, and just about 0 percent identification for the birds.” People have even confused butterflies with hummingbirds. He said that these people aren’t just missing out on visual knowledge, but also aural experiences. Knowledge of bird song has also nose-dived.

Beatley’s new Center for Biophilic Cities at the University of Virginia, which is financed by the Summit Foundation, is also now studying best practices for improving access to nature that can be implemented anywhere. For example, he pointed to Japanese “forest bathing” treatments that relieve “stress and improve immune systems.” Amateur wildlife trackers studied were found to have “higher natural social capital,” while a 90-year old working in a Scottsdale, Arizona nature conservancy, is out every day, being a steward of the environment.

As for existing cities that are doing well, Beatley pointed to Helsinki, where “there is an integrated network of green spaces,” and Askerselva part of Oslo, in which two-thirds of its land is protected forest. In Vitoria-Gasteiz, the capital of the Basque region in Spain, a ring of green surrounds the city, and is now being brought into the center. In Germany, the famous, almost-entirely car free city of Vauban, near Freiburg, is highly biophilic, while Eva-Lanemeer in the Netherlands is also among the most nature-loving.

Singapore is also dramatically expanding its residents’ access to nature in a dense urban area, with Bishan Park. The city-state has created 180 kilometers of “park connectors,” much of which are elevated and dramatically cut through the tree tops. The city is also incorporating nature into its buildings: The Solaris building is wrapped in a 1.4 kilometer forest. A new hospital may be perhaps the greenest in the world, with garden window boxes and 140 fruit trees in the lobby and roof. Apparently, a survey demonstrated that patients actually love watching farmers within the hospital pruning and managing the fruit. The hospital is now using the number of birds and butterfly species as an indicator of success. (To learn more, Beatley recommended watching this 45-minute movie on biophilic design in Singapore).

Why Biophilic Urbanism Is Important

According to Gregory, humans, as a species, can’t afford to not live in a low-density world. Biophilic urbanism can help ensure people live closer together, in less carbon-intensive environments. With nature built into cities, “the tensions between the natural and built environments” can be reduced and the “sins of poor planning” can be undone.

Cities should follow nature. As an example, Gregory showed Paris wrapping itself around the Seine river, organically responding to the shape and flow of the river. “This shows that cities can respond to something other than the car.”

In a flash of images, Gregory said how biophilic urbanism is about “sensory richness, variation of themes, prospect and refuge, serendipidity, motion, resilience, and creating a sense of freeness.” Materials facilitate haptic, tactile or kinesthetic learning. “There’s a real connection to place in the materials.”

“Light, air, water, sound, temperature, humidity, order, harmony, and fractal geometries” are central.  But the “unexpected within the order also serves as a counterpoint.” These biophilic urban spaces “capture human movement, but are flexible and adaptable.” Imagine a street grid with durable central spaces. “We can let nature be our guide. A walk through the city can be like a walk on the beach or through a forest.”

Image credit: ASLA 2009 Residential Design Honor Award. Crack Garden, San Francisco / CMG Landscape Architecture

Cities Advance on Climate Change

According to a panel of environmental officials from some of the most sustainable cities in the world, cities make up 2 percent of the world’s landmass, but account for two-thirds of the world’s energy and 70 percent of the carbon emissions. As a result, mayors play a central role in alleviating the climate crisis and leading the world to more sustainable patterns of development. In a session at the 2012 Greenbuild in San Francisco, officials from member cities of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group — Vancouver, Melbourne, San Francisco, Tokyo — discussed how their cities are taking action now to deal with climate change, reduce energy use, and make the built environment greener.

Rohit Aggarwala, advisor to the C40 group, said a majority of the 63 cities that make up the C40 group “want to focus on green buildings.” These mayors want to “encourage green building retrofits now.” Aggarwala added that mayors, who are “managers, and by nature impatient,” are looking for “smart, pragmatic solutions.”

Sadhu Johnston, City of Vancouver (and former chief sustainability officer for Chicago), said his city’s population has grown 27 percent and jobs have grown 18 percent since 1990. However, during the same time frame, carbon levels have been reduced. “At 4.6 tons of carbon per person per year, we have the lowest emissions per capita in North America.” Vancouver’s success is in part due to programs that capture landfill gas for energy, expand public transit, and build mixed-use communities. Johnston said there has also been a focus on increasing density downtown: “There’s been a 75 percent increase in people downtown.” The city has seen a 48 percent increase in LEED-certified buildings, and now there’s now a minimum LEED gold certification level for new buildings.

Still, the big challenge is to reduce carbon emissions by 33 percent by 2020, which isn’t far off. How can the city do this? Johnston says LEED-Neighborhood Development (ND) Platinum “districts” have acted as a key catalyst, leading to a new energy system based off old infrastructure. These new super-sustainable districts are now “connected to the sewer mains” where they capture heat from the existing legacy system. “The idea is to reuse waste heat and reuse the legacy steam systems of the city.” The private-owned systems are now being connected to more and more developments. Indeed, new developments have to make a connection, while older developments can make one on a voluntary basis. Johnston said a key to the program’s success was that the Vancouver city government tested it first. “You have to lead by example. You have to do this before telling the private sector to do it. Running your own utility system, you find the issues first.”

For Krista Milne, City of Melbourne, getting to carbon neutral by 2020 will be a challenge because the city doesn’t have the power to limit carbon emissions from all sources. The city government also has to deal with the state and national governments. In Melbourne, 53 percent of emissions come from buildings, so retrofitting buildings is a key goal. Over the next 10 years, the city aims to revamp 1,200 buildings. This is expected to require some $2 billion in investment. But the program is expected to create some 8,000 new jobs.

Milne said the city has discovered an “information barrier — the business case for private property owners isn’t clear.” Banks also thought fnancing for these building retrofits was risky given many of these buildings already have large mortgages. So the city council recently created a new scheme for “environmental upgrade financing” that enables financiers to off-set the risks. Essentially, the city guarantees that the financing will be paid back, which lowers the cost of financing. Property owners are also now allowed to pass on some of the costs of upgrading buildings to tenants, as “they benefit too.”

To date, some $5.6 million in deals have been made. Just 2-3 years into the 10 year program, Milne said some 10 percent of the goals have been accomplished. But the most valuable impact may be that the governments of Sydney and New South Wales are now following Melbourne’s model. Another big push will focus on “decarbonizing the energy supply,” in the same way Vancouver has.

San Francisco has an equally as ambitious program, befitting its status as the greenest city in North America (see earlier post). This hub of new technology development on the west coast seeks to reduce carbon emissions by 25 percent by 2017 and 80 percent by 2050. A key target in its program is greening buildings, which account for 53 percent of all emissions. The city’s new “world class green building policy,” said Melanie Nutter, San Francisco Department of the Environment, means “all new buildings will be LEED gold.” Nutter also said the “existing green building ordinances” mean property owners have to “report energy use to the city every year and audit their energy systems every 5 years.” This “transparency helps inspire the use of retrofits.” The city has a retrofit financing policy, too.

Nutter focused most of her talk on the city’s innovative zero-waste policy, which is truly one of the most ambitious in the world. Currently, the city has a 80 percent diversion rate — which means that 80 percent of trash is not going to landfill, but is being turned into compost or recycled. The city has partnered with a set of private firms to implement its programs but new policies and regulations have also helped. Plastic bags and styrofoam containers have been totally banned. All retailers have to participate in mandatory “composting and recycling programs.” Small and medium businesses now get “financial incentives” to improve their compliance with composting and recycling measures. “They can offset their garbage bills by 70 percent.” Some 65 percent of building demolition waste is also now diverted from landfills. To reach a 100 percent total diversion rate, the city needs to improve its compliance rate, Nutter said.

In Tokyo, Teruyuki Ohno, Bureau of Environment, Tokyo Metropolitan Government, said a new cap and trade system has been used to encourage the growth of green buildings. The building sector there accounts for some 48 percent of total emissions. Under the city’s cap and trade system, a 6-8 percent reduction in emissions is required by 2014, and another 17 percent of reductions are needed by 2019. Some 1,300 buildings are also now being targeted for retrofits. 

Tokyo now has a mandatory reporting system. Ohno said the system was voluntary in the past, but that proved not to be enough. So reductions — and the reporting needed to measure real reductions — are now required. “A reporting foundation was necessary. You need data.” 

Image credit: ASLA 2011 Student Collaboration Award of Excellence. Plant Lab / Rockne Hanish, Ileana Acevedo and Chris DeHenzel

Permaculture = Permanent Agriculture

That’s at least one definition of this innovative practice, explained Jillian Hovey, the Toronto-based head of Sustainable Living Network at the 2012 Greenbuild in San Francisco. Another possible definition: “a holistic design methodology to access the intelligence of natural ecosystems.” Really, the goal of the ever-growing tribe of permaculturists is to “co-create with nature.” Permacultural projects include organic food, edible landscaping, forest farming, and other small forms of urban agriculture.

Hovey said one of the central tenets of permaculture is regenerative design. While sustainable design involves simply mitigating the negative impacts of humans on the planet, regenerative design goes beyond and seeks to create a “positive role for people on earth.” Practitioners of permaculture seek to merge landscape, people, and technology to create “food, shelter, and energy.” Hovey said it’s a “philosphical approach to land use” in which “intricately conducted ecosystems, consciously designed” are put to work. (Still, she said some critics argue that, in these permacultural systems, humans are at the center of the regenerative effort, so the approach is still too human-centric, and doesn’t truly benefit “life in all forms,” as permaculturalists say they do).

Bill Mollison, the Australian founder of the movement, wrote Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual, back in the 1980s. Early permaculturalists  in Australia wondered whether it could actually be replicated in other places, but they decided that other temperate climates could make the systems work. So a slew of Australian books came out, followed by American and European guides. Recent how-to literature includes Designing and Maintaining Your Edible Landscapes Naturally and Edible Forest Gardens.

Standing on Greenbuild’s oddest “dog-bone”-shaped center stage, Hovey walked in circles showing off photographs of permaculture projects being designed and built. One practitioner she showed, Austrian outlier Sepp Holzer, is well-known for his “crater gardens,” stepped, terraced landscapes, which involve moving earth to dig out gardens, creating more surface area for agriculture and microclimates for different plants.

Holzer was recently brought in by Hovey’s group to help build a stepped crater garden at a school in Detroit. With the use of a translator, Holzer communicated to the bulldozer operator to create a set of steep walls out of the earth, adding in wood joints made of out sticks to “increase the productive edges.” Wood was also put in so that it decomposed and made richer soils. Once the area was seeded, straw was put on top. As Hovey described, “nature hates bare soil. Weeds happen when soil is left bare.”

The project, and others like it, demonstrate how “nature can be used as a model.” Hovey said permaculturalists use a design process wherein “everything is connected, every function should be supported by multiple elements, and every element should serve multiple functions.” This type of design process “builds in redundancy and resiliency.”

Permacultural design also enables feedback to be incorporated throughout the process. “This is a cyclical, iterative, spiral approach.” This kind of approach allows permaculturalists to “eliminate pollution.” While waste is abundant in nature — because it produces so much — pollution is not. Pollution is the “concentration of waste to such a degree that nature can’t handle it.” Interestingly, Hovey said lawns are a form of pollution because they “suppress existing ecosystems.”

Hovey went into great detail on the benefits of compost (if done right, it shouldn’t smell), along with the application of permaculture in parks, small urban plots, and even windowsills. 

Closing with a thoughtful take on regenerative design, Hovey argued that if these systems are designed to be self-sustaining, “the agricultural output is theoretically unlimited.” And if designers understand “ecological succession,” these landscapes can be “self-maintaining and even replicating.” Hence, permaculture as a state of permanent agriculture.

Check out Sepp Holzer’s book on permaculture at the small-scale.

Image credit: Powell Street Promenade, San Francisco / Hood Design / image copyright Marion Brenner and Beth Amann

Goldberger on Architectural Criticism in the Age of Twitter

Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic Paul Goldberger gave a talk—“Architectural Criticism in the Age of Twitter”—before he was presented with the fourteenth Vincent Scully Prize at the National Building Museum. Goldberger, currently a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, examined the state of architectural criticism today, why it should exist, and whether it makes any real difference in public discourse. He says it does “truly shape the city.”

While he noted that “architecture critics have never been plentiful,” Goldberger also spoke about a “greater sense of engagement that people almost everywhere now seem to have with the built environment, a heightened sense of caring about what their neighborhoods, streets, downtowns, and public spaces will look like and feel like to use.”

Architectural criticism is “on the front line,” a way into architecture for most people. It’s not just entertainment for just a few readers. Its implicit mission is to help people better understand the forces, usually beyond their control, that have “imposed” the architecture that they experience.

Goldberger addressed the disappearance of journalistic hegemony and the advent of electronic media. While mainstream publications with an ongoing commitment to architecture criticism continue to possess a degree of authority, they are struggling to make themselves heard in this noise. It is clear to Goldberger that “the playing field may be level, but the players are not equal.”

To Goldberger, new media appeals to architecture because of the ease in transmitting images. He admitted to a certain pleasure in tweeting, and said that Twitter really isn’t such a bad vehicle for architecture criticism—“after all, some buildings aren’t worth more than 140 characters.” However, he acknowledged that some of most meaningful ideas cannot be transmitted through this brief medium.

What, then, is the critic’s role in this era of 140-character tweets, Tumblr posts, and Pinterest boards? In Goldberger’s view, it is too late to “go back to an age of celestial authority,” for the world has changed too much. The critic is still needed to show people that architecture matters and its effect on their lives:

“Crowdsourcing is not the express train to wisdom. The most popular is not always the best. The new is not always easy to understand. And the last word will always be history’s. But this is always the critic’s challenge. In an age in which attention spans are ever shorter, it is the critic’s job to take the long view. Maybe that’s the most important thing of all that criticism can give us, to help us step back from the noise, to try and maintain the luxury of extended thought, to think long term. Architecture, after all, is about the long term. And it is the critic’s job how it performs its alchemy, how it does its magic, how it affects us, and to encourage and support that process, enhancing the impact of architecture as a resonant presence in all of our lives.”

This guest post is by Karen Trimbath, ASLA’s Public Relations Manager.

Image credit: Paul Goldberger / © Anne McDonough Photography

Using Healthy Soils to Manage Stormwater

In cities, healthy soils could be a powerful tool for managing stormwater, but unfortunately the status-quo is compacted, degraded soil covered in asphalt, said Zolna Russell, ASLA, Floura Teer Landscape Architects, and Stu Schwartz, Center for Environmental Research and Education, at the 2012 Greenbuild conference in San Francisco. Outlining novel techniques — “subsoiling,” which involves the use of agricultural de-compaction machinery, along with adding “soil amendments,” otherwise known as compost — Russell and Schwartz made the case for rebuilding the ecosystem function of soils in urban areas and creating new opportunities to manage stormwater through the ground itself. They also noted that the Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES®) would provide credit for approaches like these that boost soil health.

According to Russell, the ecosystem services of soils play a large part in determing the quality of our landscapes. Healthy soils provide water absorption, groundwater recharge, food for plants, habitat for decomposers, and sequester carbon. Without healthy soil, stormwater management needs to be accomplished through green infrastructure techniques that rely more heavily on plants.

Soils can be evaluated along many lines. Their “biology, fertility, and structure,” which are all inter-related, are key to soil quality. Russell said “bugs, microbes, roots, naturally occuring chemicals all work together to affect the structure.” Zooming down to dirt-level, healthy soils have “open spaces” that let oxygen flow and water to infiltrate. Infiltration, unfortunately, works less well as we move from a forest to an urban environment. In the dense urban core, there’s often less interflow and groundwater recharge, even if there are parks and street trees.

The fact is then that “green in our urban environments doesn’t necessarily mean the system functions.” Lawns, for example, have the “bulk density of cement,” which actually prevents root penetration and plant health. In contrast, “deep, rich soils with long roots are a sign of a functioning landscape.”

So, given soil is so crucial to our ecosystems, why is it abused so much? She said unfortunately the common landscape architecture practice was to strip top soil and sell it, stockpile soils for later use in berms (degrading it in the process), amend old soils with compost, or import new soils, releasing lots of carbon in the process through hauling new soils in from other areas. In many of these human interactions with soil, soils are basically compacted, which means the essential ecological and hydrologic functions have been removed.

Schwartz said typical road building projects involve stripping vegetation, removing top soils, grading, and then compacting soil to form roads, foundations, and berms. Then, the “landscape is put back on top at the end.” The “engineered topography” — the earthern berm — is where all that valuable topsoil goes. While these berms can be useful sound and visual barriers, it’s a “wholesale disruption of the soil.”

Residential developments are often just as bad, leaving “material formerly known as soil” in their wake. Thin layers of turf are rolled out over the degraded soil, meaning that the lawn will need lots of fertilizers and water to live — as there will be no soil for the grass roots to grow into. With heavy rains, this thin veneer of grass provides no help in capturing rainwater, so there’s lots of runoff. “Modern practices are totally decoupled from the function of the landscape.” Schwartz went on to say that rain gardens in residential areas are basically useless if all the soils are damaged.

Instead of impoverishing soils and then adding asphalt on top, Schwartz said developers could use permeable pavers or pavements. But then, while those systems can help infiltrate water, the soils underneath still need to be in good enough shape to soak up the water. “It has to be a whole system.”

To address the challenges of soil quality in urban and suburban areas, a novel practice, subsoiling, may be the way to go. This practice involves adapting agricultural techniques to highly disturbed soils. In agricultural fields, farmers have long used decompactors to “reliably increase their crop yields.” Once the soil has been ripped, “soil amendments” or compost can be added to restore landscape function.

While the decompactors themselves looks like “medieval equipment,” with large hooks at the end of tractors, they are necessary for creating a deep enough rip. Schwartz outlined a pilot study his organization has done at a school in Baltimore, Maryland. Using a “5-bladed parabolic ripper” and adding 3-inches of “vegetated organic compost,” creating a 2-to-1 soil to compost ratio with a 9-inch depth of incorporation, his team is demonstrating a “new practice.” Schwartz showed photos clearly demonstrating how the new soils and lawn on top better handle stormwater and require no chemical fertilizer. A standard thin veneer of grass nearby flooded when it rained, while the ripped and decompacted soils with turf simply absorbed the water. The grass was deep and rich and even hard to get one’s hands into, whereas the standard lawn was patchy and fillled with weeds.

But not every site will be ideally suited to subsoiling. Russell said some sites may not have space for the equipment or be the appropriate size. She said some ideal early adopters would be long-term land holders like the U.S. department of defense, transportation department, or highway administrations. Sensitive watersheds would also be ideal spots for healthier soils that can absorb water. Other potential adopters include urban sites like schools or parks. She said athletic fields could also be a possibility, but recompaction could happen there. Some sites may also not work because of tree roots, utility lines, or naturally poor soils (for example, you can’t really aerate heavy clay soils). She noted that with these systems, “no one size fits all.”

Russell and Schwartz said for subsoiling to work an integrated design process must be used, bringing in all contractors early on in the process. Maintenance practices also need to be figured out in the beginning and their costs factored into project scopes. Russell said she’s seen too many projects put in thousands of dollars worth of plants, only to see them die because the soil wasn’t providing the right support. So including measures that maintain long-term soil health is need for the system to pay for itself. She said keeping soils healthy over the long-term also means you don’t have to create retention ponds or lay down pipe infrastructure. There’s no need for fertilizer, irrigation. Still, to achieve those benefits, landscape architects should factor in maintenance over the long haul.

To maintain this new sustainable design practice, there then needs to be lots of testing throughout the design and build process. At the beginning of the project, there should be soil testing and aftewards, too. Doing research will also help landscape architects and engineers get regulatory approval. In many communities, these practices may be illegal.

Demand for landscapes with hydrologic function is only growing. In many cities, the demand is driven by the need to meet local stormwater regulations, which call for managing stormwater on site or paying a hefty fine. The goal is to get local policymakers and designers to see healthy soils as a “cost effective stormwater management technique.” Schwartz said: “we really want this to go mainstream.”

Image credit: ASLA 2010 Professional Residential Design Award. San Francisco Residence. Lutsko Associates, Landscape / image copyright Marion Brenner

This Public Art Can Revolutionize Urban Planning

Candy Chang, a daring young urban planner, artist, and graphic designer, said “small interventions” in the public realm can lead to bigger, smarter ones, at the 2012 Greenbuild conference in San Francisco. Increasingly well-known for her informational public art projects around the U.S., Chang walked the crowd through her latest works, which aim to improve community self-organization and empowerment, and create a feeling of a shared experience in neighborhoods that are “giant hotels of passing neighbors,” urban places with little civic realm. Chang’s work may also provide the model for 21st century community visioning; her amazing web sites may offer a new way forward for gauging demand for planning initiatives.

While many designers aim to “transform cities through art and design,” Chang, a TED Fellow, may actually be doing it. Chang said her role model was gardener / architect Joseph Paxton, who was the first person in England to grow giant lily pads, the biggest flowering plants in the world. Amazed by the support structures — the veins — of the lily pad leaves, Paxton would actually put his young daughter on top of them to test how much weight they could hold. “He then somehow borrowed 5 or 6 other people’s kids and also put them on the pads,” discovering that these highly flexible structures can hold incredible amounts of weight. His discovery then pushed him into making experimental greenhouse structures, which translated into the famous Crystal Palace in the London Expo of 1851. For his discovery of the inherent powers of ribbing structures, he won a knighthood.

Chang said Paxton’s sense of curiosity, his love of learning, helped him break down barriers. Disciplines, as we have defined them today, didn’t seem to matter. In the same vein, Chang is also trying to break down barriers between design professions, studying architecture, graphic design, and urban planning to create a new hybrid approach to solve the complex problems facing communities.

For her, many local urban communities lack information about how their own communities are run and decisions are made, so, in turn, their communities often don’t reflect their needs and desires. Chang believes that “local communication tools are an infrastructure system” as important as water, energy, or transportation. Communications infrastructure is about providing access to information and building platforms for sharing information that everyone can use. With these tools, “more residents can self-organize, and more communities can have places that reflect their values.”

Studying at Columbia University and later working as a graphic designer at The New York Times, Chang was stunned by the colorful, informal nature of the public realm in New York City. Lamp posts are bulletin boards. Fliers – for lost dogs, band performances, job opportunities – are informal information sharing systems, which she studied for her thesis project. Chang was also interested in how these physical manifestations of informal information sharing work together with online forums. She made the point that “it’s hard to reach an entire neighborhood online” so you do need some sort of physical connection.

One of Chang’s first projects was “Post-It Notes for Neighbors,” which enabled residents to detail the amount they spend for their apartments in neighborhoods throughout New York City. Another early project for GOOD magazine created a cut-out “Can I Borrow?” tag to hang on neighbor’s doors, which enables neighbors to communicate with each other without bothering each other at inconvenient times. In New Orleans, where she lives, she covered vacant storefronts in rows of vinyl “I Wish This Was” stickers and markers, which enable residents to outline their dreams for the space. Systematically documenting these wishful notes, she finds what’s actually in demand in neighborhoods, from fresh produce and farmers’s markets, to restaurants and liquor stores. She’s now been playing with the “I Wish This Was” concept, using a wide range of media, including digital billboards in a central plaza in Minneapolis.

A more ambitious web-based project financed by Tulane University and the Rockefeller Foundation called enables residents to “self-organize around shared ideas.” Users can add their own ideas for the neighborhood or simply select “Me, too,” building steam for initiatives. She said apps like these are critical because too often in public planning meetings, a “few voices drown out everyone else” or the same 10 people show up. In New Orleans, Neighborland initiatives have led to spontaneous night markets in vacant lots and other bottom-up happenings.

A wonderful project in Fairbanks, Alaska, helped the community reimagine the future for its tallest building, which has also been abandoned for the past 10 years. The Polaris building got a new sign, “Looking for Love Again, which is a beacon of love” on a derelict space. Residents were invited to use chalk to write in their memories of the place and their hopes. She said the project shows how “meaningful cities are in our lives, and the value of introspection in public places.”

Her most famous project maybe the walls asking residents to say what they want to do “Before I Die.” In New Orleans, the first wall received hundreds of responses in just a day. Now there are 50 walls around the country. “Before I Die” was inspired by the death of one of Chang’s loved ones. The death set her on a journey to think about the nature of death and enabled her to “not caught get up with the little things in life.” “Thinking about death clarifies life.” The walls, she said, now reflect “the hopes and dreams of communities.”

Another new project in Las Vegas plays with that city’s tagline, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” Her “Confessions,” inspired by Catholic confessionals and Japanese Shinto prayer markers, which are usually hung in trees, asks residents and visitors to make their private secrets public. She said this project helps build a “safe place in the community,” yet is still a mix of “catharsis and voyeurism.”

Returning to Paxton, Chang said there’s great value in “serendipidity,” and following small ideas so they become huge, world-changing ones. With wisdom beyond her years, she said: “the world becomes far more rewarding when you look beyond what you are searching for.”

Image credit: ASLA 2012 Residential Design Honor Award. Urban Spring, San Francisco. Bionic / Bionic.