Kongjian Yu: China’s Olmsted

Designed Ecologies: The Landscape Architecture of Kongjian Yu
, a new book on the ideas and work of Kongjian Yu, FASLA, put together by former Harvard Design Magazine editor William Saunders really enriches our understanding of a landscape architect many consider to be China’s Frederick Law Olmsted. Unlike some other design monographs, there’s a lot to read and understand here because Yu’s life has been so rich and his journey so interesting. Nestled among 21 case studies of projects by Yu and his firm Turenscape across China and the U.S. are a set of essays by leading Western landscape architecture practitioners and thinkers like Peter Walker, FASLA; Professor Frederick Steiner, FASLA, at University of Texas, Austin; Professor Kristina Hill, Affiliate ASLA, PhD, at the University of Berkeley; Harvard University landscape architecture department chair Charles Waldheim, Affiliate ASLA; and Dumbarton Oaks’ John Beardsley, who each examine an aspect of this world-changing designer and place Yu’s work and ideas in global contexts.

The most personal (and perhaps finest) article in the book is by Saunders himself. He interviews Yu, tracking his path from life in a small village to university in China to Harvard Graduate School of Design (where he did his PhD) to teaching and starting his own firm, which now has more than 600 employees. It’s an amazing story that Saunders relays beautifully. Yu was born in 1963, “growing up communally raising crops and livestock.” As a boy, Saunders writes, Yu saw his parents stripped of their dignity and possessions during the Great Cultural Revolution, which Mao Ze Dong unleashed on China in an effort to upend the traditional patterns in Chinese society and instill collectivism. Yu parents had been a “well-off, land-owning” family — exactly the kind of family Mao targeted. Saunders says seeing his family undone gave Yu a powerful ambition.

Coupled with this ambition was a deep love of nature. Within the poverty of rural China, there was also natural splendor. Yu grew up in a kind of Arcadia, with a “an enchanting forest and a fish-filled creek.” He spent his time away from his farming duties exploring nature. Over the years, he saw the forest cut down and the river totally polluted. “This explains the depth of his commitment to recreating and protecting natural abundance.” In fact, Yu is now one of the most potent advocates for the environment in China. Like Olmsted, he’s also a prolific writer, creating books aimed at convincing both policymakers and the public about the dangers of environmental degradation.

Yu beat incredible odds just to make it to high school. He had to overcome the political stigma associated with his family. Riding a water buffalo, tending his duties in the fields, Yu studied hard and passed the national entrance exam to get into high school. Then, he had to walk 6 miles to get to his high school and then back, each week. Yu moved from the bottom of the class to the top, eventually beating out 600 of his class mates to become the only one in his district to get into university. In comparison, getting into Harvard years later must have been a walk in the park.

At university in Beijing, Yu was a “country bumpkin,” but he quickly got over the shock and buckled down, learning how to speak and draw for the design courses he wanted to take. He ended up studying forestry and then completing a master’s degree in landscape architecture. With great English language skills, which opened many doors for him, he became a translator for a series of speeches by Carl Steinitz at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design (GSD). In 1992, he began the PhD program there. He once again felt like a bumpkin, having never interacted with computers. He became a GIS master. Upon graduation, he worked at SWA Group for two years in California before returning to China in 1997, where “his confidence and sense of personal mission emerged full blown.” Seeing how China was destroying its environment with its rapid urbanization, Yu started a firm and won his first design competition in 1999. More than ten years later, he has an amazing body of work, winning ASLA professional design awards year after year. He is now among the top tier of landscape architects in the world.


Yu’s work is based in a deep-rooted philosophy about nature and society. His essay, “The Big Foot Revolution,” explains how ornamental gardens are about as useful as binding a woman’s feet. These ornamental approaches were created by an urban elite that saw sophistication in a lack of functionality, in rebelling against nature’s “inherent goals of health, survival, and productivity.” Yu instead offers a new landscape aesthetic based in incorporating the rural, the messy, the functional landscape into the urban realm. Yu says he’s not opposed to beautiful art that doesn’t really have a productive function — like art, dance, or music — but “that in our resource-depleted and ecologically damaged and threatened era, the built environment must and will adapt a new aesthetic grounded in the appreciation of the beauty of productive, ecologically-supporting, survival-enhancing things.” This is revolutionary landscape architecture, rooted in part in Communist ideas about elevating practicality and productivity for the common good, even though, in practice, the Communists themselves were the ones who have wrecked havoc on nature (see the current state of nature in China, Russia, the former Soviet Union states, and North Korea).

The rural, peasant aesthetic is now center stage. “We need a new aesthetics of big feet — beautiful big feet.” Productive rural landscapes (like those productive big feet) are what’s needed to fight today’s problems. There are ecological reasons for doing this, too. Those old-school rural landscapes, while productive, are highly in tune with nature and reflect a farmer’s sense of balance with the environment.


Yu sees the extent of China’s massive urbanization as a form of excess, with all those big gaudy new buildings in Beijing as “meaninglessly wild forms with exotic grandeur.” China and the rest of the planet can’t afford things like these while “anthropogenic climate change” brings “additional floods, storms, droughts, and diseases, along with the extinction of many plant and animal species and other threats to survival.” Yu then translates this ethos into an ambitious, ecologically-minded program for remaking the whole of China, and guiding cities still in the wilds of explosive and often destructive development. This is because “the Chinese urban landscape must not repeat the mistakes of past European and American methods of city beautification.” Beautification for beautification’s sake alone is a crime in today’s world, with all our problems.

In other places, Yu remakes what is past its prime, degraded into new landscapes. This may involve remaking degraded environments into new ecologically-sound ones, but also making them publicly accessible so that people benefit, too. Yu was also one of the first in China to see the beauty in modern Chinese ruins — remaking a shipyard park built by the Communists into a park, creating an urban haven out of the revolution’s past.

His other projects certainly weave in aspects of Chinese culture, creating contemporary works that also feel classic, timeless.

The fine contributions by the Western practitioners and thinkers add another interesting layer to the book. Most zoom in on a few projects; others offer multifaceted critiques of Yu’s ideas and work. They all show how Yu was also inspired by ideas he found in the West, and how his work can be appreciated in a global context. Peter Walker writes that Yu “frequently integrates sculptural references in ways reminiscent of Andre Le Notre’s huge Baroque seventeenth century gardens, which were also based in agricultural images.” John Beardsley notes that “Yu’s approach might be challenging in any context. But in the West, there is a precedent for his messy aesthetics in the tradition of the wild garden, which date back to at least William Robinson. Moreover, there are contemporary designers with whom he shares some notions of nurtured wildness.” Frederick Steiner explains Yu’s equally important role as an educator in China, how his research to “identify nationwide ecological patterns with GIS technology” is rooted in work by Ian McHarg and other Americans in the 1990s to create a “prototype database for a US national ecological inventory,” which was based on an earlier effort by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.) in the 1970s. Kristina Hill, a fellow PhD student with Yu at Harvard GSD, delves into how landscape planner Carl Steinitz’s approach to spatial analysis also influenced Yu. “In Yu’s plans for metropolitan Beijing’s ecological infrastructure, several patterns emerge directly from Yu’s exposure to the ideas of Steinitz and [landscape ecologist Richard] Forman.” Other essays by Kelly Shannon, Peter Rowe, and Antje Stokman also examine his approaches to urban ecological design.

It’s Hill in the end who also writes that “Yu’s practice model and ideas have a historical analog in the exemplary writings and practices of Frederick Law Olmsted.” And as Charles Waldheim writes in the afterword, Yu takes on the mantle of publicly promoting a sophisticated approach to landscape planning at not a moment too soon: “The first generation of Chinese professionals trained in landscape ecology and planning in the United States now embody the greatest hope for the renewed relevance of of a tradition of planning that has all but been eclipsed in the United States.”

Read the book.

Image credits: Birkhauser Press

Is There a Secret Recipe for Successful Urban Development?

Doesn’t sound like it. Both developed and developing world cities are still struggling to get urban development right, said some of the world’s leading urban experts at the Transforming Transportation conference organized by the World Bank Group and the EMBARQ program of the World Resources Institute (WRI). Successes, failures, and the places in between were examined in a set of presentations and debates.

Mexico City may be in between — not quite a total failure or success. It’s struggling with intense population growth, rapidly diminishing natural resources, and falling water tables. While Mexican civilization has 3,000 years of experience with urbanization, unfortunately, for the most part, its capital, Mexico city, hasn’t applied that accumulated knowledge well in the 21st century, said Salvador Herrera, EMBARQ Mexico. The city has grown into a massive agglomeration, with multiple sprawled-out satellite cities forming at its edges. Some five million or more people in slums. Similar patterns are seen in other Mexican cities, as now 80 million of Mexico’s 110 million people have moved into its cities.

But the city is taking steps to deal with its problems, developing more transit-oriented development (TOD) patterns, with a Mexican twist. Right now, only “the rich enjoy TOD,” said Herrera. One new project aims to remedy that by creating TOD for low-income residents. A local developer and Danish urban design firm Gehl Architects created Casas Geo, which offers low-income housing units at a cost of around $28,000, a manageable sum for its residents, which make between $300 and $600 per month. There’s running water and electricity. Instead of parking lots in front of the homes, there’s a shared road-like public space with a set of central plazas that encourage more walking, hanging out, and less car driving (see image above). “There’s less interaction between car and people,” said Herrera. If people stay in the Casas communities, they drive less. Unfortunately, most have to commute for work and these homes are nowhere near existing transit. Still, this model seems to be a hit, given it accounts for some 20 percent of the 500,000 new home created in 2012.

The local government is also now working on expanding access to people-friendly, easily accessible, affordable places by creating a set of indicators to guide future development. These include “complete streets, mixed-use buildings, density, green homes, connections to public transportation, and more open space.” (Sadly, Herrera said the city has left parks out of its indicators because it can’t afford to create more parks with lots of greenery — “there isn’t enough water.”)

Henriette Vamberg, a principal at Gehl Architects, then gave a tour of one failure and one success. She explained how her boss, Jan Gehl, one of the world’s most admired urban designers, used to be just another architect, but married a psychologist who asked him, “why do architects hate people so much?” His thinking was transformed and he became one of leading proponents of human-centric urban design. His firm now works with cities around the world to figure out “how spaces either push people together or repel them.”

It sounds like Moscow is an example of a place designed to repel pedestrians. A mega-city of 15 million, it’s now in “complete flux after communism.” With increasing wealth, everyone has the “urge to own a car.” Vamberg said “it’s quite a beautiful city, with monuments and the river,” but it has been totally marred by “uncontrolled traffic.”

Cars now take over promenades. Trees have been cut down to make way for more streets. “The green bits are all gone.” All the flood zones are gone to create more lanes.

Now, the average street is a pedestrian nightmare. More than 90 percent of each street is for cars, with just 10 percent or less for people. Vamberg showed how each intersection has an underground crossing, which means the city isn’t accessible to anyone with disabilities. Also, where there are street-level crossings, green lights for pedestrians are few and far between. As a result, lots of people jaywalk. She even showed a photo of two kindergarten teachers jaywalking with their gaggle of kids, fed up at waiting 10 minutes for the light to change.

Working in Moscow was “hard, tough work.” In contrast, Melbourne is deemed a success. In the mid-90s, when Gehl Architects first examined the city, its downtown was characterized as an “empty, useless city center.” That has changed dramatically. Streets now make up 80 percent of the city’s public space. They have “gotten away from parks and city squares as the only forms of public space.” (The new Federation Square though is still viewed as the “heart of the new city.”)

Melbourne spent lots of time and money upgrading the “quality of the built environment.” Conventional pavement were taken out in favor of new local bluestone pavers.  In addition to the bluestone, the city is adding 50,000 trees annually. With all the street level improvements, the local economy is booming. Since the mid-90s, street-level cafes are up a whopping 275 percent. There’s 830 percent more residents living in apartments that jumped in number by more than 3,000 percent. Nighttime pedestrian traffic is up nearly 100 percent. “The public ambiance feels more lively. The city now has a a pulse, it feels very different from before.”

So what can more cities do to become a Melbourne, not a Moscow (or Mexico City)? For William Cobbett, Cities Alliance, more planners need to think ahead and actually anticipate future growth. Cobbett said the 1811 grid map of Manhattan may have been the last example of good, long-term planning — the city laid out future zones that were then filled in. “Now, it’s a matter of planning after the fact, which is good for design professionals (who have to come in fix things), but not for cities.” He said there’s far too much “planning in the breach,” particularly among second-tier developing world cities, which are growing the fastest.

For Eric Dumbaugh, Florida Atlantic University, getting to successful urban development patterns means ending the love affair with cars. He said in the U.S., it actually took many years for this fantasy “love affair” to take root. At first, cars weren’t a hit so car manufacturers financed a “radical, wholesale redesign of cities.” The ideas of efficiency — in terms of moving people through space in urban environments — was turned on its head to make way for car-based “transportation system performance.” Beginning in the 1930s, “pedestrians no longer owned streets anymore.” Car manufacturers pushed lawmakers to fine people who crossed the street in the wrong places and the term “jaywalking” was invented. Today, we are still following this outmoded approach: “In 1939, the Futurama exhibit at the World’s Fair basically basically mapped out the traffic regulations that still guide us.” Dumbaugh said Copenhagen (and now, New York City, which was viewed as copying Copenhagen) are moving away from the car with new pedestrian-only zones. The question is how can developing world cities move past the original mistakes of the U.S. and leap to Copenhagen?

Michael Kodransky, Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), thinks “parking is the lynchpin of sustainable urban development,” and something far too many cities fail to get right. There has to be enough parking to enable density and street life. ITDP is now working on a way to “codify” good urban development with a new set of indicators that can help “evaluate urban developments.” These will push for true TOD development. He said too many awards go to TOD projects where “there’s no one using transit.” In reality, many projects labeled TOD are “TOD adjacent.”

UN-Habitat, the UN organization entirely focused on cities, is also now “reviewing the grammar of cities” to learn what went wrong and create a “new paradigm for the 21st century.” Andre Dzikus, UN-Habitat, said it was important to set this new pattern fast because “the majority of the world’s cities haven’t been built yet.” A simple, pragmatic urban planning approach for the future would “see the street as public space.” For any city, it should be around 30-40 percent. As an example, in Nairobi, only 11 percent of the street is public space. “Density should also be increased.” There should be around 15,000 people per square mile. All land use should be mixed-use, with 40 percent dedicated to economic activity and a mix of upper-income and low-income housing.

While looking to the future, though, Vamberg said cities can also learn from the past. Basically no developed world city, except perhaps Copenhagen, escaped mistakenly adopting the U.S. car-centric model. Shifting gears may actually mean a return to the old ways. Dumbaugh said someone once asked Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, what she thought of “New Urbanism,” a planning approach that calls for tight grids and denser development patterns. She apparently replied, “well, how about good old urbanism?” The 20th century may just be a blip (albeit a particularly destructive one) in the 8,000 year record of humans creating cities for people.

Image credit:(1) Casas Geo / Zuonda, (2) Casas Geos / People Everywhere, (3) Moscow traffic / English Russia, (4) Moscow sidewalk and parking / Horroru, (5-6) Melbourne street life / Clare’s Cafe Chronicles

Sustainable Urban Transportation Is at the Heart of a Greener Future

By 2030, 60 percent of the world’s population will live in cities. To avoid an explosion of cars, which creates air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, congestion, and traffic deaths, new, more sustainable patterns of urban development are needed, with higher-density urban cores and “sustainable transportation systems at the heart of these places,” said Zanny Minton Beddoes, The Economist, before introducing World Bank Group President Dr. Jim Yong Kim and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg at this year’s Transforming Transportation conference, which was co-organized by the World Bank Group and the EMBARQ program of the World Resources Institute (WRI).

For the past 10 years, WRI has been hosting this conference, but this was the first time a World Bank president had ever attended, perhaps indicating that sustainable urban transportation is finally moving up in the list of priorities worldwide. Kim said that in his recent conversations with the incoming Chinese president he found that the new Chinese leadership is increasingly focused on “green growth,” and sees urbanization and sustainable transportation as central to their efforts. Beyond China, more of the world’s poorer countries are also focused on urban transportation, given “clean, effective public transit gives people an opportunity to have a job, a livelihood.” Kim thought that new public transit systems — from subways to bus rapid transit (BRT) to bicycle share systems — “provide jobs while bringing order to cities and helping to tackle climate change.”

Mayor Bloomberg, who also runs his Bloomberg Philanthropies and the C40 Cities: Climate Leadership Group, also offered a global perspective, arguing that traffic is now the 5th largest killer of people worldwide. In many cities, he added that car pollution (including carbon emissions) account for up to 80 percent of the total. In contrast with these global trends, Bloomberg said NYC now has the lowest level of traffic fatalities on record and cars now only contribute 20 percent of emissions (this is because buildings are the real source of emissions in the city). The mayor is increasingly focused on redesigning roads so they work for “people, not just cars.” All the modes — “bicycling, walking, trolleys, buses” — are now in the mix. Times Square was recently closed to traffic and has become a permanent pedestrian mall (see image above). The initiative, which cab drivers hated, has been a huge success. Foot traffic is way up. “Rents on the ground floor of buildings in Times Square are now up because more people visit.” Bloomberg told representatives of developing countries in the audience that investing in public transit and creating spaces for pedestrians is the way to go because “traffic hurts your economy.” But to create demand for these public systems and spaces, “cities need to make people feel like they will benefit.” To show the benefits in NYC, Bloomberg collects immense amounts of health data. He shows communities how being near highways, interstates “explains who gets asthma” and who will ultimately benefit from more sustainable forms of transportation.

Kim agreed with Bloomberg, his golf pal, arguing that cities are now the world’s biggest polluters and where “the battle will be fought” in the coming decades. The key challenge will be “improving the living conditions of the billions in the world’s mega-cities.” While cities themselves must make the hard decisions, the World Bank, he said, is here to provide policy advice and financing. Smart policies can have an impact. In Hong Kong, the number of cars doubled over the past few decades, creating significant air pollution problems. The city undertook policy changes and the number of cars were reduced by half. “It doesn’t have to be an expensive intervention. We can intervene to save lives.” Kim also agreed with Bloomberg’s approach: get data, see where problems are happening, and tackle the problem there.

On China, where car ownership has exploded, making it the country with the most number of cars, Bloomberg was less than positive. There, “the leadership is pursuing economic development at any cost. The environment is not part of the equation.” In front of a recent Congressional hearing, Bloomberg said one Republican congressman asked him why the U.S. should reduce its pollution and greenhouse gas emissions when China continues to pollute at a high rate. Bloomberg said that’s like asking, “why should we stop killing our own people when other countries are killing theirs?” Bloomberg said this was the “single stupidest thing I’ve heard.” The mayor thinks things will change in China because the middle class (and really every class), wants “water that isn’t yellow, traffic that moves, and air you can’t see.” For their part, the Chinese government needs to “be able to answer the demands of their people.” Increasingly, they are showing that they can do this. The next five year plan of the Communist Party calls for increasing renewable energy to 15 percent of the total, which will equal more energy than the UK uses in total. The World Bank president was more sanguine  on China. His experts are now working with the Chinese leadership to collect best practices, like Hangzhou’s bike share system, canal-based transportation systems, and BRT, to show the rest of the country how to do it.

Still, Bloomberg’s primary concern seemed to be the millions of people who die from bad air in cities and traffic fatalities worldwide every year. Once again advising mayors in developing countries, Bloomberg said the first step should be a “campaign aimed at the public, explaining how many people are getting killed by air pollution and congestion.” The key is to “build constituencies, build capacity, and then create laws.” Education was also seen as key. Educating kids in schools so they go home and tell their parents to ride helmets with their motor-scooters has proven effective. In Vietnam, traffic deaths are down 300 percent because people are riding with helmets now.

Being a true NYer, Bloomberg is a mayor with some strong opinions. He believes that “mayors can’t get help from national governments anywhere in the world.” At the local city levels, mayors want to get “national bureaucrats the hell away from their programs.” On climate change, national governments may be particularly useless. “They meet every 20 years and have done almost nothing.” Cities have made the most strides. “The federal governments of the world can give tax credits, loans, finance research, but cities are where you are actually going to get things done.” The role of the federal and state-level governments is to “move money around. They don’t understand the local level.” Mayors are “executives and decide who wins and who loses. That’s what we’re elected to do. Legislatures create programs that are not practical, designed to be implemented.”

The mayor added that what works in one city may not work in another, so sharing best practices has limited utility. “There are different political structures and institutions.” Ultimately, though, mayors can share personal experiences on trying to make change happen. “Mayors around the world have the same job. People want services but they don’t want to pay for them.” Kim thought that the World Bank can bring best practices to those poor developing countries that don’t have high levels of local expertise. Both Bloomberg and Kim agreed that the private sector, which accounts for 90 percent of all jobs, will be critical to taking on the big challenges facing cities. Kim said that urban transportation must help these businesses create jobs.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for cities will be addressing climate change. Cities will have to prepare for more extreme climate events like Hurricane Sandy, said Bloomberg. “These hurricanes are going to happen more often.” Sandy, which claimed 43 lives, destroyed more than 500 homes, and created billions in damages, was a sign that climate change is happening. “Storms get their energy from the oceans. More heat means more energy.” Beyond storms, floods and droughts are expected to affect food production, leading to more “food and water wars.” The environment is “clearly changing and global warming can’t be reversed.” Those urban transportation systems of the near future then also need to accommodate a shifting climate.

Image credit: Times Square Pedestrian Mall / Dtolman. Flickr

Bike Sharing Needs to Be a Part of Public Transit

Hangzhou Bicycle share system / Wikipedia,Payton Chung, CC BY 2.0

Bike sharing became a surprising common theme throughout last week’s Transforming Transportation conference, which was co-hosted by EMBARQ and The World Bank and featured debates, panels, and lectures on the rise of sustainable urban transportation. Amit Bhatt, EMBARQ India, stood in front of a packed conference room to speak about the challenges he faced creating bike sharing programs in India. “If the cost outweighs the revenue,” he says as he scans the room, “how do you fund it?”

To say the least, bike sharing programs are expensive. A community can expect to spend $3,000 to $5,000 on a single bike in these programs, not including operations and management. These bikes are stronger than any mainstream bike one can find, but they are difficult to pitch to developing countries.

“India’s challenge is urbanization,” explains Bhatt.  “With urbanization comes higher motorization.” There are so many two-wheelers are on the streets now that there are as many reported accidents in India as there are vehicles.

In October 2011, Kerberon Automations launched ATCAG-Bikeshare in Bangalore, India. This has been one of the more successful attempts to bring bike sharing programs into India. This program has a similar functionality to Washington, D.C.’s Capital Bikeshare, using individual Smart Cards to unlock the bicycles.

Developing countries in Asia react well to successes in other Asian countries. Although there are successful programs in Europe and the Americas, it takes proven success in countries such as China and India to influence developing Asian countries to pursue these programs.

The volume of shared bicycles in China surpasses most, if not all other countries. According to Bhatt, the city of Hangzhou alone has 60,000 bicycles in their public bike system. For comparison, Paris’ Vélib’ has over 20,000 bicycles (see below) and Capital Bikeshare’s program has just 1,670.

Velib bycicles in Paris / Wikipedia, I, Rcsmit, CC BY-SA 3.0

“The Chinese program is innovative,” said Li Shanshan, Bike Sharing Program Manager of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP). Though it was originally copied from Paris, there are thousands of bikes at one station, with little more than a security guard and a turnstile in place to keep the program organized.

But the undeniable news is that cities around the world are starting to realize that it’s worth the expense. The panel agreed on many things throughout the day, but none more than that these bike sharing programs need to be considered a part of a public transit system.

According to Jeff Olson, Alta Planning + Design, the benefits of a bike sharing program outweigh the costs. “[One program] can bring around 200 more jobs,” he said. Among the other benefits are economic development, higher mobility, public health and safety.

Olson had the crowd imagine a fully-integrated transit system. One would be able to use the same fare card for buses, bikes, or the subway. When you look at bike sharing as part of the entire system, it’s easier to see the cost of bike sharing in a different light. Though it may be more than $3,000 per bike, what is the cost per passenger mile? What’s the cost when health benefits and traffic reduction is taken into account?

We don’t have all the data we need yet. That is because this is still a young industry.

“If I was asked to be on a panel for bike sharing three years ago,” Olson said, “I would have said no or had to spend [far too much] time explaining what bike sharing is.”

In the end, it’s nearly impossible to make a profit from these programs, according to the panelists. The benefit to these programs lies in reduced traffic and pollution from cars and two-wheelers; a happier, healthier community that can get from “Point A” to “Point B” as quickly as possible; and an improved economy with new jobs in the sustainable transportation field. Bike sharing may be in its infancy in many countries, but as long as it stays tied to public transit systems, it will be able to flourish.

This guest post is by Phil Stamper, ASLA Public Relations and Communications Coordinator.

Rural Communities Need Design Help, Too

The new Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design (CIRD), a partnership between the National Endowment for the Arts, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Project for Public Spaces, and other organizations, is looking for proposals from rural communities who need design help. According to the group, successful applications will receive a $7,000 grant and technical assistance valued at $35,000.

CIRD, which used to be called “Your Town,” helps rural communities with fewer than 50,000 people. Through facilitated design workshops, CIRD aims to “enhance the quality of life and economic vitality” of these places. The intensive two-day workshops bring together “local leaders, non-profits, and community organizations with a team of specialists in design, planning, and creative placemaking to address challenges like strengthening economies, enhancing rural character, leveraging cultural assets, and designing efficient housing and transportation systems.”

Since the program began in 1991, more than 60 workshops have been held across the U.S., resulting in a range of new projects like new public art and business improvement districts, new waterfront parks, and complete streets.

Communities will need to find $7,000 in matching funds to participate (cash or in-kind).

Submit a proposal by March 5.

Also, the American Architectural Foundation’s innovative Sustainable Cities Design Academy (SCDA) program is asking teams that represent public-private partnerships to apply to attend design workshops in D.C.  The program connects “project teams and multi-disciplinary sustainable design experts” in workshops that “help project teams advance their green infrastructure and community development goals.” See the kinds of communities SCDA has helped in the past few years.

Image credit: ASLA 2011 Residential Honor Award. A Farm at Little Compton. Michael Vergason Landscape Architects / Michael Thomas

Rethinking Our Relationship with Rivers


In 2011, the Mississippi River reached record levels. Massive floodgates had to be opened to divert water away from Baton Rouge and New Orleans, where the river rose to within feet of the tops of flood protection levees. Just one year later, droughts in the Midwest have dropped the river to a dangerously low level, threatening both the feasibility of freight transport and, due to rising salinity levels, the viability of New Orleans’s water supply. For the residents of Baton Rouge and New Orleans, however, the record flood of 2011 and low water of 2012 were barely perceptible events. After all, each city is largely divorced from the river, separated by the levee wall. The river has been engineered out of the daily lives of the people that live along it. Even more imperceptible is the massive environmental damage to the surrounding region that has resulted from human modifications to the river.

The Mississippi River is an extreme case of a condition facing many urban rivers, where engineering for the benefit of one use (typically commerce/industry) has come at the expense of other human and natural systems. A new book, River.Space.Design. by a team of European landscape architecture professors, says we must rethink our single-use, massively engineered rivers, offering multi-dimensional strategies for riverside design that benefit river ecology, improve flood protection, and expand human amenities. These strategies are laid out in the form of an extensive catalog that documents numerous design ideas abstracted from successful projects across Europe. These strategies for multi-functional river design are presented in a language that is intended to be comprehensible across a range of relevant disciplines: landscape architecture, ecological science, engineering, and planning. Indeed, the book states that it “can serve as a handbook for interdisciplinary teams and a basis for reaching mutual understanding.”

This design catalog forms the bulk of the first volume River.Space.Design. The book’s second volume consists of case studies documenting the sites from which the design catalog draws. The two-volume format is a unique and critical aspect of the book. Connected only by the book’s outer cover, these volumes are intended to be opened and used simultaneously: each design concept references relevant case studies and each case study references relevant design concepts.

’s meticulous organization and graphic design makes this cross referencing easy and natural. For instance, in the design catalog I read about the utility of floating islands in overcoming hard river edges. This entry references a case study in the second volume, which describes a project on the river Leine in Hanover, Germany. In this example, a private businessman has established a café floating on pontoons, accessed by a walkway bypassing the fortified bank of the river.

river3Being able to view this case study — documented through relevant maps, photographs, and narrative — while simultaneously viewing its abstracted design elements in the design catalog is incredibly useful. This format allows for a seamless transition between the conceptual and the concrete. Because we can clearly see the source of the design principles, they do not come across as prescriptive or limiting, but instead function as they should: a catalog of good ideas, derived from successful projects, that may have application in other projects.

With its clear language and impeccable organization and design, River.Space.Design. serves not only as a great resource for design ideas and examples, but also as a challenge to how we consider rivers in an urban context. The book does not view river design in terms of an idealized notion of what a river should be, but instead bases its strategies on dynamic river processes.

Dynamic river processes are not seen as something to repress or obscure, but instead as opportunities to enhance ecology, flood protection, and aesthetics. In the book’s introduction, the author writes, “What has been lacking up to date is an overview that presents the wide diversity of design possibilities for urban river spaces in a systematic and transferable way. This book aims to fill this gap and serve as a primer and reference for designers of urban spaces.” River.Space.Design. is absolutely successful in this regard and will hopefully inspire designers to find ways new ways to engage their community’s rivers.

Read the book.

This guest post is by Ben Wellington, Student ASLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture Candidate, Louisiana State University.

Image credits: (1) Birkhauser, (2-4) River.Space.Design

Detroit Is Not a Ruin

At the National Building Museum, a controversial set of two new photography exhibits asks us to consider whether a city can die, whether districts of ruined, abandoned buildings reverting back to nature can define a city that still has a population of 700,000 people. The answer is no: Detroit is still alive, but perhaps shamed by its decline. At a presentation by two photographers — Camilo Jose Vergara and Andrew Moore — Detroit was viewed as a warning of things to come, a modern-day Necropolis or city of the dead, but fortunately this storyline doesn’t tell the whole tale about that city.

Vergara, a MacArthur “genius” fellow, sociologist by training, and also an evocative photographer, covers the process of decay in many cities in the U.S. Each year, he travels to cities like Camden, Chicago, and Detroit, to document how “time, elements, scavengers, and people” do “whatever they do to fine buildings.” In Detroit, he has taken series of photographs showing the decay of the same few buildings over time. Year and year, Vergara comes back because he’s fascinated by “what is going to happen” to these buildings. “Some are engulfed in vegetation or become ruins.”

The Chilean photographer has spent a lot of time at the old Ford Packard Plant, which once churned out the cars and trucks that populated Detroit’s streets and all of America’s arteries. Once the factory closed, the mile-long building became home to over 200 businesses, beginning in the early 90s. However, those businesses seemed more focused on disassembling or scavenging. “This was now the place you took your car to be taken apart and turned into scraps.” Other businesses collected old shoes or cardboard boxes to be reused or recycled.

In a view of the old plant Vergara returns to year after year, he documents a time when there were “wild parties” organized within the walls, organized via pagers, to a period of partial demolition, to nature eventually taking over again.

Now, it’s a dangerous place filled with scavengers and homeless people. “Fires have further weakened the structures.” But a theme both Moore and Vergara returned to again is that this place and others in Detroit are also sites of creative rebirth. Within all the decay, it has become a “museum of graffiti,” where any graffiti artist of note wants to have a piece.

For Moore, a leading contemporary large-format photographer, the process of documenting Detroit’s glorious ruins are like “mental blueprinting.” His father is an architect and he grew up with the idea that “you can tell a story through a space.” He says that “buildings are an incorruptible witness of history.” Buildings inflect history; buildings can’t lie, whereas the faces of people can tell lots of different stories.

Like Vergara, Moore takes photographs of cities undergoing change, even if that change is destructive. His work has spanned New York City’s Time Square and Fulton Fish Market areas over the years. In early 2008, he began to really take photos of Detroit and was at once “amazed by the quality of the architecture.” He sees the ruins as particularly “emotionally charged” because that city’s fall is so recent.

In the Ford company’s Dry dock building, where Henry Ford first worked as an apprentice, “one guy is now living there, with a wind screen up to block the cold air.” (The historic building is now slated for condos).

A grand old theater that opened in 1928 with an appearance by Gloria Swanson is now “damaged by water, neglect.” The muted palette of the buildings create a sense of “loneliness, desolation, and abandonment.”

Both Vergara and Moore also see a “surreal” quality of the city. A theater with an amazingly beautiful ceiling was turned into a parking lot, because it was more cost-effective than tearing it down. Nature is also seen as playing a key role in creating the surreal effect. “Wherever there is a void, nature returns in full force.” For example, what Moore thinks is Henry Ford’s old corner office is now covered in moss. An old post office building’s roof has caved in. The space was once a depot for storing old books. Those books have decomposed and turned into mulch and now provide a foundation for birch trees that grow out of the hole in the roof.

Within this landscape, Moore said, there’s also good and bad. “There are black hats and white hats. The black hats are interested in destruction, blowing things up. The white hats looking at documenting, taking photos.”

Both photographers, who almost seem to view buildings as living things – with their own cycle of life and death, said the ruins are “always changing over time. Ruins aren’t static.” Vergara, though, also thinks that the ruins are indicative of what “we’ve done to the earth. The ruins are the future. I’ve internalized what I’ve seen. It has energized my life, but it isn’t positive. The experience of these desolate places has marked me.”

And while both do include photos of living people (occasionally), both said people in these places are few and far between. In their tours, there just weren’t people walking around. And perhaps because of this, both feel a greater responsibility towards the buildings — and to document the buildings, instead of the people who created them and let them decay. Vergara said: “I feel a responsibility to all those buildings. I have to know what’s going to happen to them.” By shining a “strong light on their ruin, we can bring attention to what’s happening here. That’s positive.”

For Carolyn Mitchell, a Detroit native and now Washington, D.C. resident who attended the lecture and was interviewed after, the photographers “only showed the death, but not the life of the city.” The exhibits were “misleading.” She said some great buildings were always well-maintained and others have been newly restored. “We have some of the greatest Art Deco buildings in the U.S.” Still, the exhibits brought back “memories of how the city once was.”

Many neighborhoods are still maintained like those in any other city and are real, thriving places. In neighborhoods like Woodbridge and Corktown, “homes have porch swings. There are lots of community gardens. Neighbors know each other.” This narrative isn’t really out there. The story of nature taking over, both positively in the form of urban farming and new forests, and, negatively, in the form of decay, may not be accurate. As Mitchell argued, “nature has always been in the city.”

In their presentations, Moore and Vergara admitted that they have received criticism from the local community, and there’s no way the exhibits will ever be shown there. As the moderator John Beardsley, head of the landscape studies program at Dumbarton Oaks and a professor at Harvard University, said, “well, these photos don’t paint the best portrait of the city.”

Mitchell also thinks that the photographers failed to place the ruins in a historical context. She said the exhibits could have been more powerful had they shown “the before and after, what the city once looked like, how fabulous it once all was.”

In the end, the photographs then don’t answer the real question: What happened? Why did Detroit fail while other large cities like Chicago and Los Angeles renewed themselves? Mitchell, who used to work for the Detroit city government, said it was a real “lack of vision, leadership” at the top. A series of corrupt mayors and their cronies stymied positive change and drove out business owners. City services declined with mismanagement and a falling tax base. And while there are a number of non-profits coming in to create bottom-up, community-led visions, “these can’t really replace the lack of vision from the mayor.” Detroit sounds like any other big city — with its mistakes, but not dead yet.

Learn more about the two exhibits and see a book of Moore’s work on Detroit.

Image credits: (1-3) Copyright Camilo Jose Vergara, (4-7) Copyright Andrew Stone, (8) Copyright Camilo Jose Vergara 

Landscapes Can Be Open-ended


In Operative Landscapes: Building Communities Through Public Space, Alissa North, Assistant Professor in the Landscape Architecture Program at the University of Toronto, argues that the best contemporary landscape designs are concerned with more than just aesthetics. Instead of striving for fixed, static designs, the goals of these landscapes are “operational”: they aim to guide “the transformation of urban environments over time.” By moving away from fixed form, landscapes can be open-ended and non-prescriptive, changing in response to — but also influencing — the development of their communities. North makes a case for “operative landscape design” through a collection of case studies oriented around a series of short essays. By equally weighting real-world examples and abstract theory, this book can be interpreted as an attempt to ground some of the concepts found in landscape urbanism. Operative Landscapes attempts to connect theory to practice.

Operative Landscapes is divided into five sections, each representing a phase of the design process: conceptualize, plan, develop, construct, and evolve. Each section is introduced by a short essay, followed by a series of case studies that explain the concepts in the essay. The “conceptualize” section looks at projects that build on the histories of existing sites. By establishing themselves as part of larger historical narratives, these projects strengthen connections to communities. For instance, the redesign of Cristal Park by Klotzli Friedli Landscape architects in Biel, Switzerland strategically inserts new landscape elements into an existing public space. Instead of treating the site as a blank slate, the designers carefully preserve and build on many existing elements on the site, including opportunistic vegetative growth and unplanned footpaths. By designing around existing elements, the designers retain much of the new park’s history and character while allowing for a greater diversity of recreational opportunities.


The “plan” section looks at master-planned communities that are driven by networks of public space. For instance, Masdar City, a brand-new city built in the desert of Abu Dhabi designed by Foster+Partners, is oriented around a series of flexible public spaces intended to allow for many uses. This was one example where I felt the case study did not really line up with the theory: while this project is certainly interesting, I am not sure if this kind of top-down urban design really embodies the kind of open-ended, reciprocal relationship between public space and urban form described earlier. While the public spaces in Masdar City may be flexible and non-prescriptive, the overall urban form of the city seems to be entirely designed from above. What “operative” effect will these public spaces have on Masdar over-time?

In the “develop” section, we see projects that involve the conversion of remnant or abandoned sites into public spaces, inciting reinvestment and redevelopment in their surrounding neighborhoods. “Construct” explores projects that dealt with unexpected construction challenges (frequently involving contamination), while “evolve” describes projects that change over time as they are used and adopted by their communities.

As North acknowledges, many of these projects fall across several categories. Indeed, the distinction between these categories, while each individually interesting, can be blurry. Despite this occasionally disorienting aspect, the book’s organization is appropriate to its subject matter – each section represents a way landscapes can operate in their communities.

Operative Landscapes provides a timely collection of case studies that demonstrate the capacity of landscape architecture to drive urban design. Sometimes its language tends toward impenetrable design-speak. Also, it might be more successful if it devoted more space to fewer case studies. The explanations of the presented works can be brief.

Still, by exploring urban design through the relationship between community and public space, North successfully establishes not only the aesthetic and ecological significance of landscape-driven urban designs, but the critical role these places play in the daily lives of city dwellers.

Read the book.

This guest post is by Ben Wellington, Student ASLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture Candidate, Louisiana State University.

Image credits: (1) Birkhauser, (2) Cristal Park Plan View / Klotzli Friedli Landscape architects, (3) Masdar City Master plan rendering / Foster + Partners

Cutting-edge Landscape Architecture in Europe


In Touch: Landscape Architecture Europe is the third book in a series by the European Federation for Landscape Architecture celebrating the state of landscape architecture in Europe. In Touch presents in-depth case studies of 11 European landscape projects built between 2001 and 2010, along with an array of brief snapshots of other European projects. These works were selected by a jury of five people (four landscape architects and one architect) from roughly 500 submissions, striving to capture not only the best contemporary landscape architecture in Europe, but also uncover what makes these works uniquely European. Each in-depth case study, or “feature,” is followed by a short essay and a series of one-page snapshot case studies of other works elaborating on the themes expressed. Clearly organized and beautifully presented, In Touch is recommended to anyone with an interest in the state of landscape architecture in Europe.

One featured project I found particularly interesting was Cap de Creus in Cadaqués, Spain. Designed by Estudi Martí Franch and Ardevols Assocaits, Cap de Creus converted a profitable and architecturally significant complex of vacation homes into a nature preserve. Taking into account these unusual circumstances, the project does not simply demolish the homes to restore what was there before, nor does it attempt to recreate any idealized notion of nature. Instead, the materials from the buildings were used to create an entirely new landscape. For example, the foundations of the existing buildings were repurposed as sites for pedestrian viewing platforms.


Existing roads were modified or eliminated to boost the site’s capacity to handle tourists. In this way, the designers transform the park into a natural preserve while still respecting its history as a human landscape.

Following the feature on Cap de Creus, Maria Hellström’s essay, “Perform With Nature,” elaborates on that relationship between human and natural landscapes. Hellström discusses the continued relevance of McHarg’s seminal 1969 book, Design With Nature. She concludes that modern landscape architects are now designing with nature by maximizing ecological fitness, creating a new complex relationship with nature.

Hellström writes, “While some projects confine themselves to affirming nature’s otherness with established means, others, like Martí Franch’s Cap de Creus at Cadaqués, Spain, seek to engage in or practice ‘the wild’; trying out a position for man as ‘the enzyme’ of the material world.”

Instead of simply clearing out the human environment to make way for a restored natural environment, Cap de Creus blends the two, carefully deconstructing the human environment to allow for a re-emergence of the natural.

In Touch’s 10 other case studies are equally thoughtful and interesting. In each case, the essays and additional mini-case studies paired with the features do not feel extraneous, but instead provide additional insight and context. The essays in particular manage to be both intelligent and readable, thankfully resisting the temptation to succumb to design-speak. It’s also worth noting that as a landscape architecture student in the United States I found this book particularly enlightening –- I am exposed to far more American works of landscape architecture than European works. In Touch: Landscape Architecture Europe is an excellent book for anyone interested in contemporary European landscape architecture.

Read the book.

This guest post is by Ben Wellington, Student ASLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture Candidate, Louisiana State University.

Image credits: (1) Birkhauser, (2-3) Cap de Creus Concrete Path Encouraging Exploration / Estudi Martí Franch and Ardevols Assocaits, (4-5) Cap de Creus Observation Platforms / Estudi Martí Franch and Ardevols Assocaits