What Can Design Schools Offer Cities?

What is the role of the design academy in dealing with today’s challenges — urbanization, climate change, biodiversity loss, and population growth? Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) Dean Mohsen Mostafavi said the academy plays a unique role in a keynote speech at the Innovative Metropolis conference organized by the Brookings Institution and Washington University in St. Louis, arguing that design schools “construct knowledge, conduct research, and disseminate information,” but also “advance alternative possibilities, new ideas.” In a review of how urban design and planning have evolved over the years, Mostafavi also outlined the new directions GSD is proposing for cities, with its drive towards new theories of landscape urbanism and now ecological urbanism.

According to Mostafavi, there’s still debate as to whether “urban design is a true discipline” like architecture or landscape architecture or simply a “practice.” At GSD, where the first urban design program was founded more than 50 years ago, it’s treated as a practice area. Other programs, like the one at Washington University in St. Louis, treat it as a discipline.

At GSD, urban design and planning programs are linked, so that planning students actually get a sense of design challenges. It’s not the case, he said, at other programs. “The U.S. has very few planning programs rooted in design. Most plannng programs are like the Brookings Institution, with a focus on policy and social sciences.” GSD’s planning program is “project-based.” This was in part because the planning and urban design schools were created right after World War II, when the “world needed to reconstruct its cities.” These were the types of programs cities needed.

So what do design schools have to offer cities today? “We are not an NGO or government, but we try to have impact by constructing knowledge, conducting research, and disseminating our findings.” The goal of GSD is “not just boosting technocratic practices, but to advance new possibilities and ideas.” Design education, at its best, “can open up new questions and create new collaborations.” For Mostafavi, a rich vein of questions are around, “What does an ecological city look like? How does it actually function?”

Mostafavi explored some early urban design concepts. By the end of the 16th century in Rome, one could plot the connections between churches and see a “topography of Catholicism.” The nodes of the churches formed purposeful networks outlined in the landscape of the city. This was an early form of urban design. Then, in Paris, an actual landscape — the gardens and allees of Versaille — served as the model for the avenues of Paris. Showing photos of Paris’ axial green boulevards, Mostafavi said “this was a landscape model imposed on the city.” And while there were “military reasons for laying out the avenues as they did, landscape technique was used.” Decades later, an actual Garden City movement was formed, promoting the idea of a landscaped city.

For the past 10-15 years, Mostafavi, James Corner, ASLA, Charles Waldheim, Affiliate ASLA, and others have promoted the theory of “landscape urbanism, which used to mean quite a few things.” It’s really about “what we can learn from landscape techniques in making cities. It’s a focus on tools.” But, now, GSD’s scope has widened, with a new project on “ecological urbanism, a broader investigation at all levels of the financial, social, economic implications of merging ecology and urbanization.”

Indeed, for designers, just thinking of ecological urbanism is bound to bring up exciting visions — of a city that functions like an ecosystem, providing itself with all the resource it needs to function. For Mostafavi, it’s about “creating a new aesthetic practice, new modes of imagining.” It’s about creating new images that can relay the radical ideas found in ecological urbanism, which posits that an ecological approach is what’s needed to fix problems in cities, and can even guide the organization of new cities.

As an example, in the past, “productive landscapes,” such as agricultural, mining, or permacultural ones, were seen as functional but pretty unattractive. What about promoting their innate functionality as a new aesthetic? “We can move from only functionality and usefulness to pleasure and aesthetics.” Here, the dean showed shots of unappealing urban situations — salt being used on roads, waste piling up on streets — to show how a service infrastructure is part of the urban landscape, too. On the prettier end, he showed the High Line in New York City, and the Promenade Plantee, the precursor to the High Line, in Paris. “These places are both elements of infrastructure and elements of beauty.”

Mostafavi also seemed very interested in the idea of scales in cities. He argued that “architecture is a pre-existing condition in cities.” Cities can’t wipe out of their buildings anymore and start from scratch. Cities have to work with them, so the “middle scale of urban design” is a way to create something new. Further differentiating scales into small and large, an ecologically urbanist place could work on a “tactile, bodily level” and also as a grand organism. For example, the small and large scale could be combined in a skyscraper that also function as a garden. “There could be productive landscape within.” Or, in another instance, green facades could be placed on buildings, or even make up the exterior of buildings. Going beyond simple green walls, these “green facades could perform.” Apparently, Arup is already working on “engineering a living building.”


There are lots of new ideas. “Fusing the building and landscape” could be a new future. But, as he added in comments after the session, those futures will look different in each city. “There’s no singular notion of an innovative metropolis. Each place has its own logic due to its own culture.”

Check out Ecological Urbanism, a book by Mostafavi and Gareth Doherty, ASLA, which features articles by a number of leading landscape architects.

Image credits: (1) Ecological Urbanism / Mostafavi and Doherty, (2) Champs Elysees / Wikipedia, (3) Promenade Plantee, Paris / Wikipedia (4) Living Building / Arup

Can Cities Adapt and Renew at the Same Time?

Can cities with decades, hundreds, or even thousands of years of history adapt to economic, population, and climate change? Can they renew themselves in the process? At the Innovative Metropolis conference organized by the Brookings Institution and Washington University in St. Louis, a few urban experts, Valente Souza, iQh; Alexandros Washburn, urban design chief, City of New York; and Seng Kuan, Sam Fox School, Washington University in St. Louis, explained the legacies that are shaping Mexico City, New York City, and Shanghai, three of the world’s biggest megalopolises, and the approaches they are taking to adapt, with varying degrees of success.

All cities have deep geographic, hydrologic, geological contexts, said Souza. Mexico City, set within a volcanic range, is seen by geologists as sitting upon a “great bowl of jello,” meaning it’s seismically insecure. Early settlers in Mexico City thousands of years ago knew the city’s terrain and natural characteristics, but modern Mexico City residents have forgotten them. “We have forgotten the memory of the space. The drawing has faded out. It needs to be redrawn.”

Part of that redrawing is finding out what’s really there now. Souza has been looking at population in relation to landscape and found that people are living on ravines and other landscapes best left for stormwater management. Water then is a key line that needs to be redrawn, in large part because the “mental image now is of a flooded city.” Drawing a new picture, “why not use water to maintain the landscape?” To maximize Mexico City’s water resources instead of piping it out of the city, Souza’s organization has been mapping flood zones and creating forests in those places. To date, they’ve sequestered 4,000 acres for “mini-forests within the city.”

Mexico City is already working with people who live on the ravines critical to stormwater management, providing them with educational materials about where they live and asking them to participate in creating master plans on the new ecological functions for the city. Ultimately, this means some will need to move.

Souza added that with all the real estate investment in Mexico City, it’s important for the environment to have value, too. “We have to give value to forests, water.” To accomplish this, he’s creating a “geographical database” with tons of real data on ecological functions to prove to both policymakers and locals that some undeveloped or newly green places have enormous financial value in themselves. “This is a different approach to dealing with nature.”

Growing while maintaining and even strengthening ecological function should be a priority in every city. It seems to be in New York City, which has been adding great new parks within the city and along its shoreline. Washburn said urban design has proven to be a useful approach for managing this process. Urban design is defined as a “set of tools to change cities, techniques to address the form and function of cities.” Urban design tools include rules, plans, and pilot projects. In practice, urban design works at the “confluence of finance, politics, and design.”

According to Washburn, a few urban designers have shaped the history of New York City, and their legacy provides a framework for how the city may adapt in the future. They include Frederick Law Olmsted, the founder of the profession of landscape architecture, who provided an “oasis” in the city, with his world-famous Central Park. Washburn said “when the city commissioners laid out the grid in 1811, they didn’t include a park.” There were simply spaces for recreation at the water’s edge, which were quickly taken up with shipping docks. By putting a park in the middle of the grid and creating a respite in the middle of the city, “Olmsted changed everything.”

The second is Robert Moses, who, in the beginning of his career, accomplished a lot to “un-crowd” the city, adding parks and playgrounds, albeit in a dictatorial manner. The third urban designer with outsized influence: Jane Jacobs, who “organized, confronted, and then met (but didn’t defeat) Moses.” She was an “advocate for the fine grain of neighborhood.” Together, these two “established top down and bottom up planning” process represented in the land-use planning framework NYC uses for all new projects. “Over 7 months, both Moses and Jacobs’ approaches shape the review process for every project.”

Today, the legacy of these three can be found in new projects like the High Line, a project Washburn got behind early. Washburn said Jacobs would have approved because it “preserves the light and air of the neighborhood,” while Olmsted would have “been pleased because it’s like one of his Rambles in Central Park.” With $100 million in public funds, the High Line park has brought in $2 billion in private sector investment (perhaps something Moses would have appreciated).

Washburn said NYC and other cities are now struggling with how to deal with environment: “Should it be protected from us or managed by us?” The answer may be moot, particularly given nature is now part of the city, and “we must adapt cities to climate change that has already occurred.” While the city is contemplating bold ideas like adding oyster reefs in the harbor to mitigate waves, thousands of acres of new wetlands, and monster-sized sea walls, there are also practical implications. “How do we create a legal framework for oyster-tecture? How do you do an environmental impact statement for that?”


Lastly, in Shanghai, Seng said the city managers are taking the “Robert Moses approach.” The city’s “hierarchical structure” came out of European planning traditions. To adapt to an exploding population, the city is undergoing an amazing expansion under the “1966 network plan,” which calls for a “new center, nine cities, and 66 new towns,” all within Shanghai. To adapt, the metro system, already the world’s largest, is just trying to keep up. It now has 510 kilometers of track serving 8 million users a day. Some $30 billion USD has been put in to effectively double the network.

Unfortunately, “Shanghai’s subway doesn’t actually complement the actual structure of the city.” Stations are far apart and far from population densities. The one-kilometer square blocks make navigating the city a challenge to begin with. Seng said Shanghai must further adapt to a changing city and growing population by updating its metro and other transportation system plans. But if the city does this, it will be with the Moses way.

Image credits: (1) Mexico City by satellite / Maps.com, (2) Mexico City slopes / The bicycle diaries. Symaniak, (3) High Line Chelsea Thicket / Guillaume Gaudet (4) Oystertecture in New York City / SCAPE, (5) Shanghai Metro expansion / The Transport Politic.

Scaling up Systems to Make Cities More Sustainable

At the Innovative Metropolis conference organized by the Brookings Institution and Washington University in St. Louis, cutting-edge designers and policymakers explained how some cities can use a systems-based approach to become more sustainable. Gordon Gill, principal, Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture; Johanna Kirkinen, SITRA – Finnish Innovation Fund; Fabio Mariz Gonclaves, Professor of Landscape and Urban Design, University of Sao Paulo; and Erik Olssen, Transsolar, covered how this can work in Chicago, USA; Helsinki, Finland; Sao Paulo, Brazil; and Masdar, United Arab Emirates.

Gordon Gill, an architect, is pretty famous now in urban design circles for his ambitious decarbonization plan for Chicago. The plan was inspired by Ed Mazria’s Architecture 2030 effort, which calls for buildings to be carbon neutral by that date. But it turns out the bold plan, which covers the entire Chicago loop, also had small beginnings. He and his firm were working on making a building in the loop more energy efficient. They discovered that a redesign could yield some 60 MW of energy savings per year. But the question became, “What is that saving worth?” How could the benefits be tapped? Gill found that scaling up savings into an entire “ecosystem,” so that buildings could leverage each other’s savings, was the way to go.

He assembled a group of 25 designers who surveyed the energy use and performance of all the 450 big buildings in the loop. Buildings went through thermal energy readings. “We looked at all the details.” A 280-page document was created with the Chicago city government (for which Gill also won an ASLA Professional Analysis and Planning Design Award) that found that “there are no linear patterns for a building’s energy behavior. The interconnectedness of the buildings were more critical than the age or height or other characteristic of a building.” Transit, building use, walkability — the broader human systems running through the buildings — had much more impact. For example, “if we increase density by 50 percent, we could reduce energy use by 20 percent.”


Gill added that it’s not just about engineering solutions, it’s also about improving the quality of life for the people living and working in these buildings. “We could just build a wind farm and take the loop off the grid, but that doesn’t deal with the design challenges.”

Surprisingly, Helsinki doesn’t sound like it’s way far ahead of some of the most forward-thinking U.S. cities. Kirkinen said Finlanders have about the same carbon footprint as Americans given they drive a lot and use a lot of energy to heat buildings in winter. Her group, an independent sustainability research and innovation fund set up by the government (why doesn’t the U.S. have one of those?), is interested in pushing Finland beyond “energy efficiency to resource efficiency.” Sustainable well-being is defined as meeting “social, economic, and ecological” needs. Finland is taking a “systems-approach” to group energy efficient buildings into communities.

Her group is financing new approaches to “sustainable master planning that create sustainable lifestyles.” These communities would use 1/3 less energy. An international competition yielded some new ideas for these places that would capitalize on the country’s untapped wood resources. The result: new energy efficient buildings will now be made of local wood in a few pilot districts, with 7,000 wood apartments coming online. “We of course had to change the fire codes,” noted Kirkinen.

These communities of apartments will also incorporate solar power and community activities like urban farming and flea markets. Kirkinen said, “we have to take a comprehensive approach and deal with food, community, energy, and health together.”

Unlike Chicago or Helsinki, Sao Paulo has the hard problems facing many large developing world cities. “We have troubles with ecology, biodiversity, in an era of untrammeled growth,” said Gonclaves, a landscape architect and educator. He’s focused on what public universities can do to address these challenges — creating a human system or network to find new ways to do more environmentally-sensitive growth. Sao Paulo, as was discussed in a previous session, is sprawling out, with new rich gated communities or poor favelas or slums taking over parks and building right up to the edge of its water reservoirs. Incredible traffic is one result. So is incredible inequality.

Gonclaves said there are hundreds of universities offering architecture degrees in Brazil, but just one — the University of Sao Paulo — offering landscape architecture and urban design degrees. As a result, “Brazilians can’t talk deeply about ecology and landscape.” To remedy this, Gonclaves said his university has formed a network of landscape and urban design professionals across Sao Paulo and other cities in Brazil. He says his university is the only one doing this.

Sao Paulo is the currently the 4th greatest recipient of investment worldwide. “So many people are putting money in the city.” On top of all this investment, there are tons of new cars, which means more roads are being built. The result is a complete degradation of the stormwater management infrastructure. Remaining parks now close often because of flooding.

On top of this, many landscape architects working in Brazil are focusing on “closed, gated communities,” where there’s design work. “Design magazines all highlight the landscapes and buildings of gated communities.”


Gonclaves has set up 30 workshops, with the goal of creating “local solutions” in Sao Paulo and other cities. This is because “cities have very different issues.” He’s involving both private and public universities in the mix. To date, “private universities have been focused on selling diplomas and no research.” In contrast, “public universities are doing research but don’t want to deal with real estate.” He said “both approaches are wrong. We have to reconcile and produce good professionals who address public policy issues.”

While the designers mentioned above seek to overlay more environmentally sustainable systems on existing cities, there’s one that was designed from scratch using a systems-based approach: Sir Norman Foster’s Masdar in United Arab Emirates. The city, said Olssen, is designed to be a “carbon neutral, livable community out in the desert.” Interestingly, Olssen added that Masdar uses ancient Arabic city-making techniques but just updates them with modern technologies.

To create a livable environment, streets were purposefully kept narrow to keep sunlight off streets, like an old bazaar. Because the wind tops 100 degrees in the shade, wind was also designed to be kept out during the day, but maximized at night, when it’s cooler.

Masdar, interestingly, has a “reverse urban heat island effect”; it’s actually cooler in the city than the desert outside of it. The entire city will use 80 percent less energy than a comparable community in Abu Dhabi. Solar systems are embedded into all the buildings, while external shading systems are built into the external walls.

This is “district energy at all scales plus photovaltaic,” said Olssen. Now, the goal is to “apply the lessons of Masdar to other cities.” Already, Oman, Boston, Toronto, Dallas, are looking at how to use Transsolar’s systems in a “whole block or community.” Systems are configured based on “access to wind, solar, daylight, and the unique urban form.”

Image credits: (1-2) Chicago Decarbonization Plan / Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, (3) Pilot wooden buildings / SITRA, (3) Housing in a ravine. Sao Paulo / Urban Omnibus, (4) Reserva Granja Julieta gated community, Sao Paulo / Tishman Speyer, (5) Masdar / Copyright Foster + Partners, (6) Masdar building screens / Footprint blog.

Massive Cuts Loom as Sequestration Deadline Nears

With the “sequestration” scheduled to take effect on Friday, massive cuts to the Federal budget loom. So far, the Obama administration and Republicans on Capitol Hill have failed to reach an agreement. Some Capitol Hill watchers argue that no real negotiations are taking place (or even civil dialogue). Obama administration officials recently started a full-out push to highlight the negative impact of cuts on government services, with a different cabinet official making a statement each day. But Republicans have stood firm against Obama’s efforts to raise taxes to cover the cuts. Until we hear more, some $85 billion is expected to be cut from the 2013 budget, with $1 trillion more taking effect over the next decade. While few deny that the federal deficit and accumulated debt are becoming real problems, the scale and timing cuts have many worried that reductions in government spending could slow economic growth.

Thousands of federal employees in all agencies are expected to receive pay cuts and be furloughed. Beyond reduced staff time, here’s a blow-by-blow account of how cuts will impact programs landscape architects and other sustainable design professionals care about:

Environmental Protection

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would lose $716 million in financing this year. In a recent letter by Administrator Lisa Jackson to the senate, Jackson writes sequestration would limit the agency’s ability to monitor clean air and water, enforce rules currently in place, and help states enforce rules, too. E&E News says, “cuts to air and water programs would be especially tough because much of that money is distributed to states, many of which have already seen their budgets significantly reduced in recent years. Grant programs to the states to finance aging water infrastructure and implement Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act programs are among the largest pots of money in EPA’s budget.”

On water alone, Lisa Jackson writes, “reductions under sequestration would impact state’s ability to meet drinking water public health standards and to reduce nitrogen and phosphorous pollution that contaminate drinking water supplies, cause toxic algae blooms, and deprive waters of the oxygen fish need to survive.” In practice, this would mean eliminating 100 water quality protection and restoration projects.

More than $100 million would also be cut from the brownfield clean-up Superfund program.

Green Infrastructure

Research and technical assistance to states on critical areas like green infrastructure would be curtailed. “Under sequestration, reductions to green infrastructure (GI) research would slow the agency’s ability to provide GI best practices to municipalities dealing with costly stormwater managment enforcement actions. Other benefits of GI, such as wildlife habitat, flood and erosion control, recreational opportunities, jobs and increased property values, would also be lost.”

Sustainable and Healthy Communities

The EPA’s great work on sustainable and healthy communities, a priority of administrator Jackson, would be more limited. The EPA’s partners in sustainable community development, Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Department of Transportation, would be hamstrung.

Fellowship programs would be eliminated, while two joint EPA / National Institute of Health programs on environmental health and children would go. Research grants to help academic institutions understand the impact of the environment on health would also be reduced.

The EPA would also take big hits in terms of its climate change research programs and adaptation programs on the ground.


The National Park Service (NPS) will be hard hit, with each federally-managed park taking a 5 percent budget cut, for a total of a $110 million cut overall. According to The New York Times, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar recently said the NPS won’t actually close any parks, monuments, or refuges, but “hours for visitors centers, tours and interpretive programs, like those at the Gettysburg battlefield, would be curtailed.” In addition, access to some “back country trails and camp grounds could be limited if firefighting and rescue teams are cut back.”

Jonathan B. Jarvis, director of the National Park Service, said national parks bring in around 280 million annual visits, contributing huge amounts to the local economies near parks. “National parks generate $30 billion in economic activity and support 252,000 jobs,” so the economic impact could be much broader.

According to Salazar, the timing of the cuts are particularly “grim,” since “they hit as parks are preparing for an influx of spring and summer visitors,” wrote Federal News Radio.


According to E&E News, the Fish and Wildlife Service faces similar challenges at its 100 wildlife refuges. Desiree Sorenson-Groves, vice president of government affairs for the National Wildlife Refuge Association, said that environmental education, already a secondary priority at many refuges, may get pushed further down the list. In addition, due to staff time reductions, FWS may not have staff to “oversee the refuges’ 42,000 volunteers, a significant portion of the agency’s labor force that helps conduct wildlife surveys, band birds, raise fish and guide tours, among other tasks.”

Separately, USDA cuts would have impact on conservation. They would limit “technical and financial assistance” provided to farmers for conservation. “The department also plans to put in place a hiring freeze in the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which administers conservation programs.”


Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has been out front in the media over the past few days, calling the alarm about the possible negative effects of the cuts on air traffic control. Transportation would lose nearly $1 billion in financing, or 1.4 percent of its total budget, with a huge chunk coming out of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Beyond this, funds for the popular TIGER grant program would be cut by $41 million. The “New Starts” program, which finances new transit construction, would take a $156 million hit, while MAP-21 discretionary (non-highway) programs would be reduced by 7 percent.

Image credit: Slate

Cities That Get Mobility Right

Sustainable urban transportation — sidewalks, bike lanes, and public transit like subways, buses, and street cars — are all central to successful urban development, but no one size fits all. Smart cities large and small are using different approaches, but all are focused on improving the quality of urban mobility. At the Innovative Metropolis conference organized by the Brookings Institution and Washington University in St. Louis, Oliver Schulze, Schulze + Grassov; Jonathan Solomon, Associate Dean, Syracuse University School of Architecture; and Chandra Brown, President, United Streetcar, Portland, Oregon, explained how three very different cities — Copenhagen, Hong Kong, and Portland — have created world-class sustainable transportation systems.

Copenhagen is a “micro-metropolis, filled with tall, good-looking people,” said Schulze. Copenhageners “get up every day at 6.30am and eat oatmeal.” There is a real sense of continuity in the Danish culture. Almost everyone gets on their bike to commute to work. “There’s no lycra, we just use our bikes.”

Copenhagen has mastered the “art of soft ways of getting around” — walking, biking, and public transit. He said these “slow means of transportation actually allow you to engage the city.” Biking also builds autonomy and individual development, particularly among kids. “Half of kids bicycle to school every day.” This mobility is a form of emancipation.


But beyond the broader benefits, people there bike so much “because it’s fast, efficient, and cheap. We do it because it’s an efficient way to get around.”

Copenhagen has only increased the share of people walking and biking, which, interestingly, is counter to national trends in Denmark (they, too, fight the rise of the car). The city has an ambitious plan to become “number one in walking and biking worldwide.” To accomplish this, Schulze said the city is already “making biking more competitive with other forms of transportation — by making it more comfortable and safer.” Cycling is seen as a key tool for helping Denmark achieve its goal of becoming carbon-neutral by 2025 (never mind all the oil it exports).

In Portland, “the European capital of the United States,” carbon emissions are down 6 percent below 1990 levels and down a further 26 percent on a per-capita basis, even though the population has grown 26 percent, said Brown. A big share of this success story is due to the sustainable transportation options the city provides. Portland was the first American city to do “modern street cars.”


These street cars are “modern circulation systems, not commuter systems.” They are designed so people can jump on and off at will. While the environmental and health benefits of street cars are clear, they’ve been an economic boon as well. In the blocks surrounding the street car line, there’s been more than $3.5 billion in private sector investment. Brown said these successes were due to “changes made through policy and planning. There’s a 20 year street car plan.”

Brown said due to Portland’s successes — both in policy and practice — many more cities in the U.S. and elsewhere are looking at putting in street cars to boost economic development. Washington, D.C. will use Brown’s street cars for its new H street line, putting back in modern street cars where the original creaky ones were a long time ago.

Hong Kong, the one megalopolis discussed, provides yet another approach, with thick “masses of pedestrian networks” at the base of skyscrapers. Combined with “great public transportation system” comprised of buses, subways, and ferries, there is a truly inter-modal transportation system, said Solomon, who spent six years studying the system and eventually wrote a book on it. It’s easy to “take a taxi to a ferry to a bus and have every type of transportation waiting for you on your journey.” Among the buses alone, there are multiple, competing private companies, which means there are always buses available (and some that unfortunately may be idling, giving off emissions and air pollution).

While Hong Kong’s system is planned, there’s also a sense of “happenstance.” Hong Kong’s intense “3-D multi-modality” is the result of an “aformal urbanism” that takes advantage of both “formal” top-down rules and “informal” bottom-up, “extra-legal or illegal systems.” As an example, public right of ways seem to meander right through privately-owned malls and hotel lobbies. Shopping centers can provide vital public space. “Public activities bleed through these networks.”

The HK equivalent of the Occupy Wall Street movement actually hosted protests on foot bridges and set up camp under a major bank. Solomon said these public-private hybrid public spaces “prove that public spaces don’t need to look like a typical park or plaza.”

Beyond the fact that the combined public-private transit and pedestrian system works, Hong Kong’s public transit system actually makes money, one of the two such systems in the world to do so (the other is Tokyo’s). This is because many subway stations also function as malls. The retail opportunities pay for the infrastructure and maintenance. Private developers take part in the system designed to boost foot traffic. Now, the new planning model is “podium structures,” which maximize foot traffic, with stations, shopping malls, and residential towers built as a single piece.

Hong Kong also uses sticks to push people to use their walking and transit systems: there’s a 100 percent tax on new cars.

Image credits: (1) Copenhagen bicyclists / Streets blog DC, (2) Copenhagen children bike carriage / A bit of that, (3) Kids bicycling / Storbrittannien, (4) Portland Street Car / CPM Associates, (5) Portland Street Car Condos and Development / Metro Jackson, (6) Hong Kong Foot bridge / Bus Station, Torontoist, (7) Shopping Mall signage / Travel blog, (8) Landmark Mall in Central, HK / The HK Shopper

The Rise of the Endless City

Showing an image of sprawled-out Mexico City, Ricky Burdett, Professor of Urban Studies, London School of Economics, told the crowd at the Innovative Metropolis conference hosted by the Brookings Institution and Washington University in St. Louis that we are now living in the era of the “endless city.” These cities are endless because they are humungous and also joining up together into megapolises, region-cities. But within the endless city, there are differences. As an example, Burdett said the average commute in Mexico City is 4 hours each way, while it’s just 11 minutes in Hong Kong. In other words, some are strained to the max and not very efficient while others work pretty well.

Cities now consume 70-75 percent of the world’s energy and account for 75 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. Beyond the environmental implications of rapid urbanization, there are also social impacts. One-third of all urban residents (more than a billion people) now live in slums. These slums, the edges of cities, are ever-growing. “Every minute and a half someone has moved into a slum in a city in the developing world.” With the expansion of cities, there’s also increased inequality. In Sao Paulo and other developing world mega-cities, unplanned developments can be seen right up against gated wealthy communities, displaying the wealth inequality in a dramatic way.

While Burdett said everyone would like to be as sustainable as Copenhagen, creating true sustainability in a mega-city is a totally different story. With improved incomes, more people buy cars. Showing a graph, Burdett explained how once countries move up the human development index, their ecological footprint often climbs. The worst offenders are the U.S., Canada, and some European countries, but, increasingly, upper and middle classes in the developing world are catching up. In Sao Paulo, more than 1,000 people now commute via helicopter, around the same number as do in New York City and Hong Kong.

Many growing cities are chewing up their ecological functions. “Sao Paulo’s extraordinary city center has only grown outwards, pushing the poor out of the city.” The result: the edges have now been decimated, with people living in shacks right up to the city’s water reservoirs. Parks have almost all been totally consumed. The same story could be told for many other developing world cities.

Some developing world cities are starting to respond. Bogota, Colombia, with a population of more than 7 million, launched Transmilenio, an innovative bus rapid transit (BRT) system, to offer more sustainable transportation options that provide service to the poor who commute and also reduce congestion. For those who can’t afford the bus, there are now bicycle highways filled with bicycle commuters. Bicyclists seem to be everywhere there, supporting close-connected neighborhoods.

Other mega-cities, mostly in the developed world, are also demonstrating that growth doesn’t necessarily mean a rise in energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. London and Berlin were held up as examples of large cities using “design and physicality to create density with social and environmental benefits.” (Burdett also made a point to differentiate between housing and work density: the first relates to the number of people who live in a given area, while work density relates to the density of population using infrastructure to commute. If a city has a high work density, it must accommodate heavy periods of movement during peak times. The average commute in NYC is now 1 hour. The housing density in Hong Kong is even higher than NYC’s, but the work density is far less, with commutes around 11 minutes).

London is seen as an example of an endless city actually promoting all forms of density. “The city has actually done some really smart planning. Development stops at the green belt.” By law, London’s immovable green belt forms the outer-edge of the city. Even with one million new people expected to be added in the coming years, the city has to fill in or redevelop instead of sprawling out.

One example of a project that created density through urban redevelopment was the new Olympics site. Located in an area of East London well-connected to transportation and green infrastructure (the Lea Valley), the site was an empty rail yard and home to a number of industrial firms. There was even a depot for old refrigerators, a “fridge mountain.” London purposefully targeted this area because its population had the lowest indicators in the city. Also at the edges of the community was an artist’s colony and some of the most vibrant yet poor multi-ethnic communities. “This was a real opportunity to address inequality.”

The new site master plan, created by U.S.-based landscape architecture firm Hargreaves Associates and UK-based LDA Design, created space for 15 billion pounds worth of new parks, sports facilities, and housing for all the athletes. But the city and the design team were really smart: the site was designed at the beginning to be reconfigured into a mixed-use development with 900 new affordable condos, healthcare facilities, retail malls, and parks after the Olympics. In fact, some $400 million was actually set aside at the beginning of the project to accomplish all the reconfiguration. Some examples: Zaha Hadid’s famed swimming pool had wings that came off afterwards, shrinking the footprint of a building. Another sports facility has been deconstructed all together and the Brazilians may buy it for the Rio Olympics. A really wide bridge was designed to cut in half so visitors to the now-emptier site won’t feel like they are lost in huge Modernist plaza.  A new park by James Corner Field Operations, the landscape architects behind the High Line, will transform some 55-acres of the Olympics site. Burdett, who was an advisor to the development authority, said the site has gone being a “closed event to part of an open city.”

While the London Olympics may prove to be a success for East London, improving density and reducing inequality, can other cities undertake similarly massive and expensive urban redevelopment projects? Burdett said that the London Olympics accelerated progress in addressing entrenched problems in East London by about 70 years, but other cities can accomplish the same if they have a “long-term vision.” Incentivizing urban redevelopment and density works if cities can set limits at the edges. In many developing world mega-cities (and even developed world ones), runaway developer-led land speculation at the edges has led to sprawl. “There have to be no-go areas outside the city.”

Burdett added that city “form doesn’t necessarily determine prosperity, what does is well-connected infrastructure that enables the possibility of integrated growth and interaction.” In other words, cities with lots of different shapes can succeed. Cities have long been formed by particular geographies or hydrologies, but well-connected density is more likely to occur through tighter urban redevelopment projects than through more amorphous sprawled-out shapes.

Watch webcasts of the conference.

Image credits: (1) Mexico City sprawl / Daily Galaxy, (2) Sao Paulo / Art GB, (3) Bogota bicyclists / Traverno, (4) London Olympics Park / James Corner Field Operations

ASLA Communications Internship, Summer 2013

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) seeks a full-time summer intern for an exciting project: The Landscape Architect’s Guide to Boston. This Web site, which will include both mobile-friendly version and a more robust online exhibition, will feature both well-known and up-and-coming landscape architects discussing what makes 75+ landscapes within Boston compelling. The Web site, which is modeled after the first guide in the series on Washington, D.C., is expected to launch in fall 2013.

Instead of offering yet another brochure for tourists, the site is designed to be a guide to both landscapes and design-thinking. The goal of the project is to educate the milions of visitors who come to Boston about how landscape architects, designers of public spaces, critically evaluate the design of sites. Landscape architects will discuss the site plans, design details, interesting historic features, and sustainable design elements. Landscapes featured will include major works of landscape architects (the Emerald Necklace, the Rose Kennedy Greenway), ecological landscapes, historic landscapes, and even post-industrial urban landscapes. Local Boston residents and landscape architects and other design professionals are also target audiences for the site.


The summer intern will be expected to work full-time on this project from June through August.

The intern will research and write introductory paragraphs on site histories, using historical records and available books and Web sites; manage photographs, including securing any stock photos and image credits; coordinate outreach materials to ASLA members and aid in social media promotion; and directly interact with a number of leading landscape architects to gather their feedback on given sites and edit the text for publication.

Interns will also have the opportunity to attend educational and networking events at the National Building Museum, Harvard University’s Dumbarton Oaks, and other museums and think tanks in Washington, D.C. and write articles for ASLA publications including The Dirt blog and LAND newsletter.

Required Skills:

  • Current enrollment in a Master’s or PhD program in landscape architecture.
  • Excellent writing skills. The intern must be able to write clearly for a general audience.
  • Proven research skills and ability to quickly evaluate the quality and relevance of many different types of Web resources.
  • Excellent interpersonal skills and ability to interact graciously with busy designers.
  • Working knowledge of Photoshop, Google Maps, and Microsoft Office suite.
  • Knowledge of Boston’s contemporary and historic landscapes a plus.

How to Apply:

Please send cover letter, CV, and one writing sample (3-5 pages) to aklages@asla.org by end of day, Friday, March 15. Phone interviews will be conducted with finalists the week of March 18 and selection will be made the following week.

The internship pays a stipend of $3,500. ASLA can also work with the interns to attain academic credit for the internship.

ASLA offers a flexible work schedule. ASLA’s national headquarters is conveniently located in downtown Washington, D.C., one block north of the Gallery Place/Chinatown Metro Station on the Red, Yellow, and Green Lines. Learn more about ASLA’s green roof.

Image credit: ASLA 2008 Professional General Design Award. Boston Children’s Museum Plaza, Boston. Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates / Elizabeth Felicella

Peter Walker Is a Visionary in Urban Development

The Urban Land Institute (ULI), an organization with some 30,000 members in the fields of land use and development, recently presented Peter Walker, FASLA, world renowned landscape architect and founder of PWP Landscape Architecture, with the ULI J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development. Walker, the first landscape architect to win, is now in excellent company. The $100,000 prize, which was first awarded in 2000, has gone to Senator Patrick Moynihan, His Highness the Aga Kahn, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, architectural historian Vincent Scully, and NYC planning chief Amanda Burden. According to ULI, the prize “recognizes a person or a person representing an institution whose career demonstrates a commitment to the highest standards of responsible development.”

Upon receiving the prize, Walker said: “landscape architects spend all their time trying to make public open space. That’s what we do, so I hope I’m not the last winner.” He added that landscape architects are “trying to make spaces that work, spaces that are beautiful, and if we’re lucky and we have the right client and a little budget, to try and make something which is memorable.” He noted, though, that to this day, “most landscape architects are not the top of the power structure” so pushing for quality public space is still a challenge.

Ronald Altoon, a member of the Nichols Prize jury, noted that the selection of Walker “underscores the importance of landscape architecture and its essential role in constructing public space that fosters a sense of community.” He said, “Peter is the first landscape architect to win this prize and I think there is no better professional to represent the landscape architecture community in this pool of truly accomplished individuals. Peter is recognized as one of the most accomplished and influential landscape architects of his time, forging the renaissance of landscape architecture as a discipline. The scope of his work is expansive, ranging from the design of small gardens to the planning of cities around the world. His work process is dynamic. He listens and adapts to context and community with a subtle approach that imbues a very tangible stimulation in the spaces he creates.”

With architect Michael Arad, Walker was the co-designer of the National September 11 Memorial, “Reflecting Absence,” in New York City. His firm also recently beat out a number of top landscape architecture firms to win a major commission on the National Mall: PWP Landscape Architecture will now work with Rogers Marvel Architects to redesign Constitution Gardens. PWP has completed many more beloved, award-winning projects since the 1970s, including the Tanner Fountain at Harvard University. (Walker also previously started two other major landscape architecture practices: Sasaki, Walker Associates and SWA Group, before spinning off his own firm). For his many years exemplifying design excellence, Walker won the ASLA Design Medal, and his firm, the ASLA Landscape Architecture Firm Award, in 2012.

Beyond his practice, Walker is also known as a teacher. He was head of both the landscape architecture departments at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design and the University of California, Berkeley. And now he’s teaching the business and policy worlds about design, too. The image above is taken from a recent issue of Bloomberg Businessweek featuring the world’s leading designers. Walker, again, was the only landscape architect in the mix.

Check out a book about his firm’s work.

Image credit: Peter Walker / Bloomberg Businessweek

D.C. Wants to Be the Greenest City in the U.S.

At the Old Capitol Pump House, a restored building along the Anacostia River, Washington, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray announced the launch of the long-awaited Sustainable D.C. plan. The result of an amazing public outreach process that involved over 400 local green experts, more than 180 public meetings in front of 5,000 people, and 15 D.C. government departments and agencies, the plan is an attempt to make “D.C. the greenest, healthiest, and most livable city in the U.S.” by 2032.

Gray said D.C. is already a model for other cities. “We are what many cities hope to become.” For example, the district apparently already leads the nation in the number of green, healthy buildings, or LEED buildings, per capita. New schools must now reach the LEED Gold standard. But even more green buildings now seems to be the goal: the district has signed on to the National Better Buildings challenge, aiming for 20 percent energy efficiency improvements across all buildings by 2020. And they may be moving faster, getting 20 million square feet greener in 20 months. With the Sustainable DC Act of 2012 now signed into law, a new Property Assessment Clean Energy (PACE) program is underway, aimed at improving financing opportunities for greening commercial and multi-family housing.

The district wants to be greener looking, too (literally). There’s an accelerated tree planting campaign, with 6,400 slated to be planted this season alone. The goal is a 40 percent tree canopy, which would put D.C. in the top tier of major cities worldwide. Beyond trees, the city is implementing “high standard stormwater infrastructure investments.” For example, “we are now building more green roofs than anyone,” with 1.5 million square feet now in place. Green streets, like the first green alley built in Ward 7, are also being rolled out, with more potentially coming soon in Chinatown. Green infrastructure technologies may get a local boost, too, with the $4.5 million that has been dedicated to “innovative pilot projects.”

The district already has the biggest bike share network in the U.S., but “this may not be the case for long, as other cities are catching up.” The D.C. government now purchases 100 percent renewable energy. We have become a “number-one U.S. E.P.A. green power community.” All of this action has led to a 12 percent reduction in green house gas emissions over the past year.

Gray seemed to stress, however, that going green can’t just be the agenda of educated, liberal, white environmentalists. The diverse, multi-ethnic crowd seemed to underpin this point. “We need to focus on jobs, health, equity and diversity, and the climate.” So part of making D.C. more sustainable will involve “expanding access to affordable housing and economic development opportunities” for all, so that “we have one city.” Gray said: “We can’t push people out.”

The actual plan offers some 32 goals, 31 targets, and more than 140 proposed actions. Some goals are quite bold, like “a fishable, swimmable Anacostia River in a generation.” The Anacostia is currently one of the filthiest rivers in the U.S. Other goals: implement a zero-waste plan, with a 80 percent landfill diversion rate. Expand urban agriculture, with 20 more acres of land growing food, so that 75 percent of residents are within 1/4 mile of healthy, local produce. The city wants 1,000 new local renewable energy projects, with a dedicated wind farm for D.C. government operations.

Gray said “this is about nothing short than winning the future.” For a mayor still under federal investigation, Sustainable DC offers a positive way forward and certainly paints the city in a progressive light. As the mayor said, “who would have thought 10 years ago that we would have the biggest bike share network, 100 percent renewable energy for the district government, and 400 local people involved in crafting a new vision.”

But, as they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Pointed questions from the media at the launch event asked whether the mayor and city council will actually put the funds and government personnel behind this bold plan to “change our society.” In a telling comment, Gray said the District will need to wait to hear the results of the debate in Congress on “sequestration,” which could potentially result in billions being cut from the federal budget. Much of the district economy depends on federal government spending, which is why the mayor said the city must “diversify” into new sectors in his recent state of the district speech. In fact, much of the resurgence of the district in the past few years can be attributed to the new federal money pumped into the district (see a great New York Times article on this).

Perhaps Gray’s broader case is that Sustainable DC will help the district’s economy and people become more resilient to economic, environmental, and social shocks, and diversify into greener industries. This seems like smart local leadership that goes beyond the vagaries of federal spending. Grey also made a point of saying regardless of who is mayor in the future, the plan “reflects the interests of our community.” The plan goes beyond the mayor.

Still, it will be up to the D.C. government, private sector, and non-profit organizations to implement the plan at a very high standard. The race is on, considering many other top-tier cities have similar goals.

Read the Sustainable DC plan and also check out Becoming Greenest: Recommendations for a Sustainable D.C., ASLA’s 30-page report produced last year, which seems to have at least inspired a few of the District’s targets and actions.

Image credit: Diamond Teague Park, Washington D.C. Landscape Architecture Bureau /Allen Russ

ASLA Year of Public Service: What Are You Doing?

2013 is the Year of Public Service at ASLA. The goal is to highlight the wide-reaching public service activities performed by landscape architects and advocate for a deeper commitment by all to community service. ASLA invites current members to submit 2013 projects. Selected projects will be highlighted in the campaign’s Web site and outreach materials. Descriptions, quotes, and multimedia content may be used – with proper credit – on the YPS2013 web site, blog and The Understory Facebook page. Here are three recent public service projects just submitted by ASLA members:

Melissa Evans, ASLA: Members in Arkansas coordinated a one-day charrette as part of the year of public service to determine the best location, size, and form of a green wall to be installed this year at the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks. The garden received a donation for a green wall and reached out to ASLA for help. The landscape architects involved in this charrette were able to use their expertise to design two potential green wall installations for potential installation later this year.

The first solution is elegant and simple, allowing the garden staff to implement the design as soon as their schedule permits. The charrette team provided a section, elevation and a perspective view of the proposed wall design. This particular design would be integrated into the entrance to the event room at the garden with two small green walls situated at the edge of the covered entry.

The second wall design is larger in scale and would be constructed north of the butterfly house and west of the garden shed.  It consists of two sweeping walls with the path between.  Designers provided a perspective view of this wall and will continue to work on more detailed drawings in the next few weeks.

Kim Douglas, ASLA, Philadelphia University: In West Allegheny, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia University landscape architecture and architecture students presented design concepts for a neighborhood to a group of interested government officials. Among the attendees were Councilman Curtis Jones; Richard Redding, Director of Comprehensive Planning Division at Philadelphia City Planning Commission; SEPTA officials; ward leaders of the West Allegheny neighborhood; and community members.

The students outlined design initiatives for sites in the neighborhood that ranged from a new community center to redesigning Allegheny Avenue. All the initiatives were part of a bigger planning effort in the studio to treat the neighborhood as an EcoDistrict. The concept illustrates the opportunities for shared resources, performance goals and measures that “scale up” the sustainability initiatives. The designs all considered the need for a comprehensive framework plan that provided opportunities for shared stormwater, waste and energy management, healthy food options, economic endeavors, open space and park systems as well as social gathering spaces, all at the grass-root level.


The students’ work gathered quite a bit of attention from the city agencies as well as private developers and community organizations. Among the initiatives being explored based on the student work are a retrofit of a bus turnaround that includes rain gardens, permeable paving, new street furniture and lighting; a new gateway park that provides farmers markets, gathering areas, stormwater mitigation and signage;  and a streetscape design for Allegheny Avenue including bike lanes, stormwater bump-outs, street trees, seating, bus shelters and pocket parks. All of these initiatives have prompted City agencies to work together to pool resources and expertise.

This project illustrates the University’s commitment to its neighbor, the West Allegheny community, as well as the City of Philadelphia, to use its knowledge and expertise to help with the many issues of urban areas. We are also providing our students with hands on learning for “real work with real people with real impact.”

Lastly, a project started in 2009 is finally being completed during the year of public service. Brian Templeton, ASLA: In the Spring of 2009 design students in the landscape architecture department at Mississippi State University developed concepts for the re-development of the Oktibbeha County Heritage Museum’s site. The result of the effort was a refined 5-phase plan which could be designed and implemented over several years by students.

The plan had three overall goals: improve the museum’s landscape to create a community-wide amenity; implement sustainable site and stormwater management techniques to create a regional model for good site design practices; and provide hands-on design-build opportunities for landscape architecture students.

Two of the efforts were multi-disciplinary efforts where landscape architecture students worked with graphic design and architecture students to work in a real world working environment. In total, the efforts have involved six separate landscape architecture classes, two graphic design classes, and an architecture studio.

The five phases of the site’s development called for a rain garden, a sand filter and outdoor amphitheater, a new entryway and porch, a cistern and educational kiosks, and a green roof pavilion.

Over the past four years the projects have received 3 major design awards, raised over $50,000 in private donations, and been described in dozens of publications. Though this project has run for many years, the final construction phase will be completed during the year of public service.

Learn more about the year of public service and submit your project today.

Image credits: (1-2) Melissa Evans, ASLA (3-4) Kim Douglas, ASLA (5-6) Cory Gallo, ASLA.