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.”

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

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 Neighborland.com 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.

Majora Carter: “Greater Environmental Equality Will Lead to Greater Prosperity”


At the opening session of the 2012 Greenbuild conference in San Francisco, the co-hosts of “Morning Joe,” Mika Brezinski and Joe Scarborough, hosted a series of panels with leading environmental experts like Majora Carter and Paul Hawken; technnology and product innovators such as Biz Stone, a co-founder of Twitter, and David Kohler, The Kohler Group; and policymakers such as Newark Mayor Cory Booker, California Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom, and former New York governor George Pataki. While Morning Joe seemed a bit obsessed by the losses of his Republican Party (he says he’s on the libertarian side of the spectrum), the morning show team still ably led the panelists through a fascinating, wide-ranging discussion on the business and ideological forces pushing forward the sustainability movement and the policy actions that enable or impede it.

Perhaps the most powerful statement to come out of the session was from MacArthur “genius” Majora Carter, who said that movements for “greater equality lead to greater prosperity for all.” Following up on USGBC President Rick Fedrizzi’s argument that the green building movement is indeed a movement and comes in a long of line of movements that have expanded rights for women, African Americans, and gay Americans, Carter said “environmental equality” was the next frontier. With environmental improvements for all, “we all benefit” and the economy grows as new jobs are created.

Hawken, the author of four bestselling books on how ecology and commerce can be better integrated, said that groups like the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) are critical because they are places “where ideas have sex.” However, both he and Carter argued that “everyone needs to be in the room: poor, rich, black, white.” When everyone is in the room, “the questions become important,” and they also change because they address the needs of the underserved. Also, Carter added that “we need to preach outside the little temple we’ve built for ourselves” and truly link jobs to environmental equality. “This will be huge opportunity, one that can be embraced by all,” not just the environmental movement.

Stone succeeded in making the case that technology – whether in the Internet or green building realm — can be an enabler if used to create more understanding. He quoted Einstein, who said that “information is not knowledge.” With the rise of the Web and big data, there’s more and more information out there, but it needs to be “turned into understanding and then action.”

Lt. Governor Newsom believes that the new digital divide exists between society and the private sectory on one hand and the government on the other hand. “Technology hasn’t radically altered governance yet.” Tools like Twitter help people “amplify their voice, connect, form new coalitions.” However, government is still using an old model: one-way communication. To really connect with young people, “two-way communication is needed.” Stone added that “technology democratizes and enables us to empathize with people across the world.”

Both agreed that technology enables policymakers to better listen and “find patterns” that can be turned into support for green programs. Technology can also improve transparency so people understand what they are buying and using everyday.

For Mayor Booker, all of these new approaches and technologies need to be harnessed so they support a grand holistic vision. “Green thinking affects everything, not just the environment. The American dream must be a green dream.” He said in Newark he has started projects saying that “green is our value, but what is the multiplier effect?” As an example of the type of projects he wants with significant multiplier effects, he pointed to a new program that puts ex-offenders to work building urban gardens, which also has huge urban heat island reduction benefits.

Governor Pataki said incentives can also help create that multiplier effect. In New York, he put out a $300 million bid for “clean hybrid buses.” His advisors told him he was crazy because “they don’t exist.” Pataki said his bid actually created the market, because, sure enough, a NY-based firm stepped up and created a solution. “Someone is now making these buses. They weren’t before. That’s leadership.”

Still, Brezinski seemed to ask the telling question, which the policymakers didn’t seem to answer at all: How do you incentivize real change when the change required is a “hard sell?” For example, New York City never built out those sea walls to protect the city because they were expensive and a “hard sell.” Climate change mitigation may be another one. The true test of the innovative new approaches and technologies will be those hard sells.

Image credit: 2012 ASLA Professional Residential Design Award of Excellence. Drs. Julian and Raye Richardson Apartments. Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture / Bruce Damonte photo copyright.

Landscape Architecture vs. Consumerism


The design professions are at a crossroads, struggling to reconcile design’s role as an engine for consumer-driven economic growth with its role in imagining and implementing sustainable lifestyles and businesses. There’s a “meaning” gap between designers’ potential for social good and the ruthless commercialism and consumerism that serves as the context for the professions.

In my new book, Architecture & Design versus Consumerism: How design activism confront growth, I explore this gap and present examples of how designers are confronting key problems of consumerism. Here I look at a few examples from landscape architecture.

Consumerism acts as an engine for economic growth. This engine shapes design as market values increasingly outweigh civic or environmental values. One example is private suburban communities. Peter Cannavò reports that the growing trend for making new suburbs private—privatization is a requirement in a number of cities—means that more and more whole neighborhoods are managed as property rather than as communities or civic places. This type of management usually limits the variety of structures and allowable types of landscapes, often aiming for an outdated suburban ideal of big houses, big cars, and resourced-intensive landscapes, all of which drive increased consumption.


New suburbs are privatized, becoming consumption-driven commodities rather than communities. Photo Patrick Huber.

Consumerism also shapes landscape design when market actors control the location of public places. Emily Talen describes how cities such as Phoenix and Chicago implement new parks and other public spaces not according to where they are needed, but rather, according to where developers have paid impact fees. In the case of Phoenix this means that parks are planned for low-density, peripheral locations rather than strategic locations that might synergistically enrich the public landscape. This is similar to other “privately owned public spaces.” Whoever has money to pay impact fees determines location, whether or not the location adds wider value. The locations and contexts then dictate the benefit that any landscape design can bring to the urban fabric as a whole.

How Landscape Architecture is Reshaping Consumption

Despite these problems we’re also seeing cases where landscape design is shaping, or reshaping, consumerism. Here we look at the examples of sharing, appropriation and interactivity. The discussion above suggests that the location of landscape amenities can limit the way they enrich the public realm. Although we think of a landscape as stationary, recent examples of mobile urban farms and floating parks begin to question what it means to share a landscape. Two examples are the Neptune Foundation’s floating swimming pool, essentially a floating park, and “The Farm Proper,” a mobile urban farm.


Set & Drift developed this experimental, mobile urban farm using abandoned shopping carts, among other things.

Landscape architects are also looking at ways to appropriate and reassign existing landscapes that are underperforming socially, often because spaces are shaped by market efficiencies, to the exclusion of social or environmental values. In these cases designers highlight and uncover added value in tactical ways. An example is the Park(ing) Day project by ReBar, where money in the meter converts on-street parking spaces into temporary pocket parks.

Western countries are driven increasingly by “positional” consumption—for status rather than to meet basic needs. But research indicates that providing a better quality commons, including public space, could offer new means for gaining social distinction and weaken the link between status and private consumption. To this end, designers are enriching public spaces in new ways.


Play encouraged by flexible, fiber-optic “stalks” that emit sound and light as people passed near them in “White Noise, White Light” by J. Meejin Yoon. Courtesy of Howler + Yoon Architects.

Examples are experiments in interactive landscapes such as Enteractive (by Electroland Studio) and White Noise White Light. In both cases public spaces were “wired” to react to public and social activity. This interaction introduced play, but also temporarily personalized the place without privatizing it. Interesting developments occur as these interactive components are deployed in urban greenscapes as well as hardscapes.

This guest post by author Ann Thorpe is part of a virtual book tour for the book, Architecture & Design versus Consumerism (Earthscan/Routledge 2012). Thorpe currently serves as strategist with a Seattle-based startup, a social enterprise called Luum. She is also author of The Designer’s Atlas of Sustainability.

Lawrence Halprin’s Skyline Park Is Now History


Lawrence Halprin’s now defunct Skyline Park in Denver gets the full treatment in a new book by Ann Komara, ASLA, 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.

Komara writes that Halprin, who recently died, is one of the most substantial and influential landscape architect of the second half of the twentieth century. His Sea Ranch in Sonoma, California is rightly famous in the design world, while millions of visitors love the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C. Halprin, who won innumerable design awards and the highest American presidential medals, also designed the landscape approach to Yosemite National Park.

In this book, it’s his designs and design process for the park, more than his design theories, that we see and understand most vividly. Komara writes: “While a critical appraisal of his legacy is still needed, it is possible to glean insights into his design process, his design expression, and the experimental aspects of his works by taking a closer look at one of his works — Skyline Park.”

Skyline Park came out of urban renewal efforts in the late 1960s in downtown Denver. Occupying a central 100-foot-wide swath of downtown, the 3.2-acre park, which was finally completed in 1976, was seen as a way to create a vital community space in a dense downtown while also boosting commercial activity. The park was one of the first designed to be a “cooling microclimate” in tune with the local natural environment. It’s certainly a prime example of Mid-Century Modern, but in landscape form. The park is almost more sculpture than park, with its “experimental materials, spatial forms, or images.”


Komara is thoughtful about the history and has clearly done her homework, but uses a light touch with all the historical information. She delves into the history of downtown Denver’s development but seems to take off when she gets to Halprin’s design process, which was detailed and intense. Enlivened with drawings from Halprin and his designers, you get a real sense for how Halprin worked with the local development authority and developers and conceptualized, designed, and implemented the park.

At the start, Halprin set the park in its local natural environment. He “studied local landforms and ecologies to create a design for the park that would resonate with Denver residents and visitors.” His notes and drawings show the influence of the Colorado foothill landscape and the sand stone rock formations of the Rocky Mountains. The region’s arroyos, deeply cut streams or channels, which “support cooler, moister micro-climates with indigenous trees and shrubs,” are clearly represented in Skyline Park’s designs.

The park’s rich material palette also refer to Red Rock’s sandstone. “As sandstone itself was deemed too expensive, concrete mixed with a local sandstone aggregate was specified to simulate the stone. A tawny rose color tint was fully blended throughout, and the stone matrix was visible on all surfaces once they have been sandblasted, thus forging the local connection through color and also somewhat through texture.” Halprin and his team also introduced Native American beadwork patterns into the original design, but they were later abandoned.

The park’s overall design also shows Halprin’s unique take on urban renewal. Streets were transformed into “linear spatial structures threaded into a system of pedestrian movements that hold a linear directional flow regardless of where they are entered.” The plazas show how Halprin’s skill in designing public spaces that could provide “nuanced experiences for visitors.”

The mix of trees and signature use of water helped make the place a “connected and unified whole.” “From the consistent planting and the line of street trees to concrete coloration and treatment, from custom lights to trash receptacles,” all worked together to form a new, unique place. The fountains also succeeded in drawing people in. Komara eloquently states: “It was not a traditional park; it was an experience of place, a choreographed sequence of spaces in a sculptural landscape.”  


When the park came online in the mid-1970s, it was celebrated. In a local publication, it was highlighted as among the best Denver had to offer, a “restful spot in the center of a major metropolis.” But Komara says its success may have also ultimately undermined it. As taller buildings came in, this “small yet significant public space” was subsumed. People “desired more from the adjacent park,” calling for its renovation. Komara lists the many “points of vulnerability” that led to its decline: new development messed with the access points so that the surrounding storefronts no longer “activated it;” an “elevated pedestrian system around the park had become “outdated;” a new mall siphoned people off the park; programming and maintenance dropped off; and, lastly, the park had become vulnerable politically, seen as a “haven for young ‘mall rats,’ a destination for the homeless, and a hidden zone for outre behavior such as drug use.” Perhaps equally as important as those other causal factors: the park’s “style,” its design, may also have been come to be seen as outdated. It’s strong sculptural forms “did not mesh with popular conceptions of parks as grassy, leafy, rolling terrain, reminiscent of natural meadows.”

Beginning in the 1990s, the park spurred a debate about how downtown Denver should look. The park had declined (Komara says relatively slowly) and the business community that had once supported the park now actively sought to replace it. As Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, head of The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) just argued in a recent Huffington Post article, many factors, including the lack of maintenance or programming, can undo masterful Modern landscapes like Skyline. In his intro to this book, he also adds that in contrast to buildings, “landscapes…often die quiet deaths.”

Perhaps with the death of Skyline Park along with the recent demise of Peavey Plaza, more cities will work a bit harder to keep their Modern jewels shining brightly. Who knows? They may come back in style again.

Read the book.

Image credits: (1) Princeton Architectural Press, (2) From the RSVP Cycles: Creative Processes in the Human Environment, George Braziller, 1970, (3) Lawrence Halprin & Associates, (4) photo courtesy of Gifford Ewing

Measuring the Benefits of Urban Forests


At a Casey Trees‘ conference on urban forestry, David Nowak, Ph.D, research forester at the U.S. Forest service, one of the world’s foremost experts on urban forests, and a member of the team that won the Nobel Prize at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), said out of the 20 biggest cities in the U.S., 17 have declining urban forests. “Tree cover is going down.” For example, researchers have found that D.C.’s urban forestry cover decreased by 1 percent in the last 20 years, while impervious cover (hard concrete) grew by 20 percent. Now and in the future, the key to boosting urban forests may be to make better use of innovative Web applications like iTree, which “estimate value and benefits” of the tree canopy.

Nowak said to really understand urban forests you have to look at their extent or structure. You have to know “how many trees you have and where they are.” The structure of an urban forest also impacts the benefits. For example, where trees are placed impacts who receives the environmental, psychological, and social benefits.

Forests can be measured in either a “bottom-up” or “top-down” manner. Bottom-up approaches involve counting species on the ground and looking at species, tree health, and the various health risks. Nowak and his team at the Forest Service participated in developing iTree, a bottom-up tool that helps manage forests. Top-down efforts are usually satellite-driven and involve high-resolution imagery and photo interpretation.

In an examination of urban forests, Nowak found that some 30 percent of vegetation is planted, while the other two-thirds is “naturally regenerating.” There are also varying levels of natural vegetation within key spaces in cities. In residential areas, the share of naturally-regenerating nature is relatively low because people plant or mow, while in parks and open spaces, it’s higher.

Invasive plants are also on the rise across the country. In D.C., invasive plants may even be shifting the composition of the forests. “Frontier plants are changing things.”

To track all this change, Nowak said it’s important to use tools like iTree, which can help local urban policymakers, planners, and landscape architects “better understand the canopy and the true value of ecosystem services.” Nowak said anytime you’ve heard a number about the dollar value of an urban forest, it was probably based in an iTree estimate. Using “local variables such as energy, air, water quality, and climate,” iTree can put a value on an area’s trees and help local policymakers optimize the performance of the forest.

While landscape architects and others understand the inherent value of trees, local programs to protect trees from pests and fungus are expensive and budgets are tight, so “we need to build the financial case.” Without “data and tools, it’s hard.”

With 20 years of data available, there are a number of applications where you can run and test models. iTree Canopy uses Google Maps to create statistically-valid estimate of tree cover, while iTree Species helps users identify the specific ecosystem service benefits of one tree over another. The system has about 5,000 trees in its database. iTree Hydro looks at tree canopy and stormwater, while iTree Design, which Nowak called the Sim City of landscape design, helps landscape architects and designers figure out the benefits of certain tree sizes and types in a landscape design. In the same way, the tool could be used to figure out the amount of financial benefits that are lost when a tree dies.

iTree 5.0 will include some new features like Google Maps, web-based data collection using mobile devices, the inclusion of data on the volatile organic compound (VOC) output of trees, and “benefit forecasting.” There will also be more data on “the risks each tree type faces from insects and diseases” as well as risks from a given forest structure. For example, too many species in one place means that part of the forest could be simply wiped out with an infestation, creating a vulnerability in the overall structure.

On the value of having a tool like iTree itself, Nowak said: “This is really about urban forestry technology transfer” through a “credible, USDA-approved, public domain software.”

For more on the benefits of urban forests, see ASLA’s animation: Urban Forests = Cleaner, Cooler Air. Nowak was an expert advisor on the animation.

Image credit: Aerial View of Logan Circle, Washington, D.C. / Wikipedia