What Can Design Schools Offer Cities?

Ecological Urbanism / Mostafavi and Doherty

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.

Avenue des Champs-Élysées / Wikipedia, Josh Hallett – Flickr: The Champs, CC BY-SA 2.0

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.”

Promenade Plantee, Paris / Wikipedia

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.”

Living Building / Arup

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.

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.

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

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.

Sweet and Salt: Water and the Dutch

The Dutch have a complex, inescapable relationship with water, which makes them virtual experts in water management, said Chase Rynd, head of the National Building Museum. The ambassador from the Netherlands, Rudolf Bekink, agreed that water has played a huge part in shaping the culture and institutions of his country. Interestingly, though, for a people who are so deeply confident about their system of dykes and sea walls that there is no flood insurance or evacuation plans in place, New Orleans really scared the country. Bekink asked, “Are we as safe as we believe?” To see if they are, the Dutch government recently formed a new Delta Commission. The first was put in place after a flood in the early 50s, which killed nearly 2,000 people. The new commission has found that “with a modest amount of investment, the Dutch don’t have to move to Germany,” as Al Gore once jokingly said (to the endless irritation of the Dutch). To hear about how the Dutch have managed water — and how their strategies and tools have changed over the years to address new threats — journalist Tracy Metz, Delta commission member and co-author of Sweet & Salt: The Dutch and Water, gave a talk at the National Building Museum.

American-Dutch Metz said public interest in water issues has only grown over the years, with the rise of “extreme water — water that is either too much or too little.” Her main point was that the rise of extreme water presents “new threats but also opportunities,” particularly, if we are, like the Dutch, “more adaptable, flexible, and resilient, if we use water to improve our cities and communities.” And while centuries of Dutch innovation in managing water can’t be easily copied and pasted into other countries’ environments, their “thinking can.” Their approaches can translate into local solutions that fit.

The Dutch have been “building in their soggy little delta since they settled there.” Dyke building has always been an intensive process. Instead of adding landfill and pushing water out with new land forms, the Dutch have actually been pumping water out. Dykes give the country shape. They can be viewed as “inert, passive piles of dirt,” but also as having a “shaping effect.” Whether you find them boring or not, “they have a story to tell. Dykes are Dutch landscape poetry.”

Through World War II and after, the system of dykes the Dutch relied on had received little maintenance. As a result, in 1953, dykes burst in 50 different places at once. The result is that 1,835 people + 1 died. The “+1” is the young, unnamed child who drowned in her mother’s arms along with her mother. There are memorials everywhere to them. Some 700,000 people lost their homes and more than 1 million animals died. The Dutch vowed never again. Their answer to the flooding was “hard, concrete solutions.” Huge dams and sluices went in, which amazingly separate out salt and fresh (or sweet) water. As boats move into position, “salt water is sucked out and fresh water moves in,” and then gates open, letting the ships pass. “There’s an amazing intelligence in these systems, a domination of nature,” said Metz. New sea walls were constructed to protect against storm surges. Each arm of the massive sea gates protecting Rotterdam is longer than the Eiffel Tower.

But with the rising ecological cost of these hard systems and the new threat of climate change, the Dutch began to shift their thinking. Metz said water infrastructure now has to have multiple functions. There are lots of examples of how “dykes are becoming parks, roads. They are no longer stand-alone empty objects.” The new Dutch approach incorporates water measures into the design of public amenities. That new way of thinking has spread to building, urban, and landscape design. For buildings, Metz showed a series of slightly futuristic renderings of floating homes, but also said in some places they are becoming a reality.

In Amsterdam, a new neighborhood now features a dense village of 75 floating homes. Parking spaces for the floating homes were simply moved inland and attached to homes with landscapes.

More fantastic ideas envision a whole floating city. While these designs may not be realistic, “they show where the creative visions are for the future.”


At the urban scale, Rotterdam is looking into rolling out “water squares,” which are hollowed-out basins designed to capture and store rainwater. Designed by Dutch urban design firm De Urbanisten, these public squares would transform from playgrounds into water retention basins. In summer, if there is flooding, they could form mini-lakes kids could play in. In winter, mini-ice skating rinks. Metz, said “this looks a bit kinky and utopian,” but in reality, “how many would you actually need to deal with flooding?”

In another example, she point to a canal where there is a walking promenade and an interior green space that is designed to accommodate floods. In one photo, a pedestrian bridge span simply cuts off halfway, as one end is submerged water on purpose. It was designed that way to show people not to go to the area when it’s wet.

Another fantastical idea would use a “super dyke,” a model created in Japan. The super dyke is “flat and long” because with earthquakes in Japan, they can’t be built tall. The super dyke is a public pool also designed to prevent flooding.

At the broader landscape scale, Metz said “the urgent threat is not rising sea levels, but increased fresh water flow from the Alps.” A new $2 billion EU program, Room for the River, is about giving the rivers room to move and expand. In one example, a new brand of river was created. If there’s flooding, water flows into this new man-made river space. Islands form between the natural and man-made rivers. Metz showed images of undulating rivers guided by massive land berms. “The idea is to catch and slow down the river in the landscape.”

An another approach is to use sand to block up water flow in certain areas. Instead of adding tons of sand to beaches — only to see the sand washed out to sea again — the Dutch have been studying currents and dumping millions of cubic feet of sand upstream. “This way you don’t have to decide where to take the sand. Nature decides where to take it.” The Dutch are closely monitoring to see where the sand ends up and adjusting. But in another example of multi-use infrastructure, the new sand forms have been a paradise for surfers. They are now a heavily trafficked recreation area now, too.

But not everyone is convinced of these new ecological approaches. Part of Room for the River calls for lowering dykes and creating spillover zones, or spillways. Spillways are being put in areas with low populations to ‘reduce lawsuits.”

Still, some communities don’t want to leave their homes so they are “banding together” to create “built mounds.” On the mounds, they can “farm without disturbance.” They will now be little islands in a sea of water, but together.

Even with all the innovative thinking and high levels of spending on water management, Metz still raised a note of caution about the Dutch preventive approach. Dykes are currently under-maintained, but “people seem blissfully unaware that they are even there.” With over 60 percent of GDP under sea level, Metz worries that the investment in dyke maintenance has not kept up with the amount of value the dykes actually protect now. There’s still no flood insurance (because the cost of disaster would be more than any company could bear) or evacuation plans (except for animals). This is because of the innate faith in the system. “The Dutch aren’t scared of disasters. The responsibility has been outsourced to government and engineers.”

But it sounds like New Orleans scared at least some in the Dutch government out of a complacency, which was why the second Delta commission was formed. Collectively reaching for a solution, Metz said the Dutch government has now passed almost all the recommendations from the commission, created a new government position — a non-political minister for the delta, and put $800 million a year towards Delta fund prevention measures.

Metz said the Dutch go for these types of national solutions because they see water as a collective issue, while Americans think they’re own their own. The Dutch are geared towards prevention, spending nearly $1 billion a year on maintenance. “The U.S. just thinks things will happen, then they will repair.” The damage of Hurricane Sandy cost upward of $50 billion. “Was that a good use of money?”

To respond to Metz’s presentation and bring a U.S. context, Kathy Poole, a U.S.-based landscape architect, said the Netherlands have had “no choice to do what they’ve done. Unfortunately, the U.S. doesn’t recognize that it doesn’t have a choice.” Poole said that “water is not part of the American imagination. The U.S. has tons of land.” With limited developer timelines, there’s “no vision” for a long-term water management approach. “Within the government, there’s limited competency.” The “federal system is anti-collaboration.” She also thought that “Americans are spoiled, and not willing to give up things up. If I presented to developers the idea of separating parking spaces from homes (as was found in the Dutch floating village), I’d lose the contract.” She said innovative ideas like water squares also wouldn’t fly here given all the health regulations surrounding water and public spaces. Here, if water fountain water can be touched, it’s been disinfected to the max.

Metz agreed that the U.S. has a lot of work to do to become water-resilient. Just getting all the buildings in New York City to move their HVAC equipment and servers out of basements will be a “huge task” costing billions. Like the Netherlands, the U.S. will need a system of “green and grey infrastructure,” which could also save money in infrastructure costs over time.

Indeed, New York City and other northeastern cities (Philadelphia, Washington, D.C.) have begun making significant investments in green infrastructure to boost the resiliency of their hard, grey infrastructure and decentralize water management. Governor Andrew Cuomo recently announced a plan to create even more, spending $400 million to buy out homeowners in flood plains, leaving “some places just for nature.” According to NBM curator Chrysanthe Broikos, who is putting together a new NBM exhibition called Designing Against Disaster, set to open next year, “this is crucial because the federal government has subsidized building in the flood plain.” While the flood insurance system has been revised somewhat, new rules are needed to create more natural buffers and leave some area free of development.

Poole also thought bold new thinking was required, which would translate into “more malleable designs that could change over time.” “We need to design differently, to adapt over time – to both climate and economic changes.” As an ecological designer, she said she’s used to “seeing ecological systems change.” The same “core patterns can be applied to the built environment to improve adaptability.” She added that this is “not biomimicry, which I have real issues with,” but building in true resiliency.

As to whether countries should centralize all their water infrastructure in the form of sea walls or totally decentralize in the form of green infrastructure, everyone seemed to think both approaches are needed. Poole said “you can’t centralize everything, but also can’t disperse everything.” Some infrastructure begs for centralization. It would be stupid to have small local sewage plants, as no one wants those in their backyard. But back-ups are really what’s necessary. “That’s the reason to diversify.”

Americans, Poole said, need to see “sea water as infrastructure.” But the only Americans who understand that are farmers, who “constantly use water as a system.” Water is ultimately related to our security, and “eventually will be a national security issue” if the U.S. runs out of water and needs to import water from Mexico to grow crops.

Read Tracy Metz and Maartje van den Heuvel’s fascinating book, Sweet & Salt: Water and the Dutch.

Image credits: (1) Sweet and Salt cover photo by Han Singels, 2005, (2) Floating housing / Marlies Rohmer, (3) Floating city / DeltaSync, (4-7) Water Squares / De Urbanisten, (8) Superdyke / De Urbanisten, (9) Expected Flow of Water

The Goal: Truly Sustaining Landscapes

The author of Principles of Ecological Landscape Design, Travis Beck, ASLA, landscape and gardens project manager, New York Botanical Garden, offers a daunting proposition in his introduction: “From now on, the ecological function of our planet can only come from a network of preserved, restored, managed and constructed landscapes.” This is based on the premise that human interventions have substantially altered the natural balance of our ecosystem to the point where their ability to function will not endure without our conscious assistance. He continues: “To maintain the function of this network and the quality of life that it offers, we will have to change the way we think about landscape design.”  This call to arms sets the platform upon which the book is based — to integrate ecology into landscape design and address the mounting environmental crisis.

Beck defines an ecological landscape as a “designed landscape based on the science of ecology.” He further quantifies them as “constructed landscapes,” which may incorporate the restoration of a degraded ecological system, but do not seek to “put things back the way they were.” Rather, the goal is to apply our knowledge of nature to create high performance landscapes in which our design goals and natural processes coexist symbiotically.  The author advocates a change in landscape design within the context of environmental change (or impending crisis). This requires assessing landscapes based on a set of ecological and performative criteria.

The book presents a well-researched and scientific explanation of ecological concepts. Beck suggests theoretical approaches to ecological landscapes and offers case studies. In chapters on biogeography, plant selection, microclimates, plant populations, and natural competition within plant communities, the author distills what could have been volumes of technical data into clear explanations of key botanical processes that are critical to establishing symbiotic plant communities, one of the basic elements of a sustainable landscape. Going a step further, he provides general suggestions and guidelines for integrating these concepts into actual designs.

However, this is not a landscape manual with step-by-step instructions. The information is intended for experienced landscape architects, designers, and ecologists who can interpret and apply this data to infuse complex landscape designs with increased ecological value and biodiversity. The wealth of information presented provides a deeper understanding of plant function and community, from which the designer is then expected to make more informed decisions appropriate to the specific conditions of a particular project and site.

The chapters on the design and management of ecosystems and biodiversity present these broader topics clearly, while illustrating the critical link between them. Beck emphasizes that biodiversity is essential if landscapes are to provide increased ecological function. The chapter on soils is particularly relevant to the landscape architecture profession as consulting with a soil scientist is commonplace, if not the norm. He presents an in-depth breakdown of soil formation, properties, and criteria relative to landscape performance. Since soils are the foundation of all landscapes, the information in this chapter should be mandatory reading for all designers.

The final chapters delve into applied landscape ecology and creating landscapes in an era of change. By integrating ecological principles within design, landscapes can be high-performance and adaptable, qualities critical to sustaining an ecological balance sufficient to support the planet’s growing needs.

Overall, Beck provides clearly-presented science, ecological concepts and processes, and suggested strategies for implementation. These are not ready-made solutions but provide a solid foundation for designers to broaden their understanding of the ecological principles in nature that can be factored into landscape design.

If landscape architects are to expand their role in the design process and attain truly sustaining landscapes, the ideas in Principles of Ecological Landscape Design provide an additional layer of technical information to help us achieve those goals.

Read the book.

This guest post is by James Royce, ASLA, LEED AP, Principal, Studio2112 Landscape Architecture.

Image credit: Island Press

A Week with Adriaan Geuze Learning the Poetry of “Unreasonability”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a “vortex” as a swirling mass of cosmic matter around a center. For a week in January at the University of Virginia (UVA) School of Architecture, that center was guest lecturer and landscape architect, Adriaan Geuze, International ASLA, founding principal, West 8 Urban Design & Landscape Architecture.

For the second year in a row, over 400 UVA students and faculty members participated in an all-school design competition called the vortex. Orchestrated by intrepid architecture chair Iñaki Alday, the aptly named vortex invites the Jaquelin T. Robertson Visiting Professor to Charlottesville to oversee this maelstrom of disorder, creativity, and unorthodox scheduling. The vortex mixes graduate and undergraduate students from landscape architecture, architecture, urban planning and architectural history to intentionally provoke the buzz, stress, and excitement similar to a professional design competition.

This year, 30 teams were given one reasonable prompt and shared one self-proclaimed “unreasonable” guest lecturer and critic: Geuze. Rooted in the extraordinary Dutch heritage of land-making, West 8 has been recognized for its pragmatic and playful landscapes that respond to urban identity and ecology. West 8’s unique approach to public design has won it recent competitions for Governors Island in New York, Playa de Palma in Mallorca, and Toronto’s Central Waterfront.

The vortex prompted teams to re-imagine a three-mile urban river corridor in Charlottesville. Geuze directed teams to focus, form an opinion, take a position. From the beginning, he challenged students to fight reasonability. “Don’t be too reasonable,” was one of the first statements he made, which was met with a mix of head-nodding, smiles, and questioning looks.

Later that night, Geuze began his keynote lecture with a poem. Via Skype, he called upon Irish poet Michael O’Loughlin to read an ode to Dublin’s Tolka River, recalling its position as a “strangely untouched” playground in childhood memories, its transformation into a concrete channel, open sewer, and now its “return to life,” with reports of salmon spawning.

Geuze was appealing to the power of place within the stories of our own childhoods. The project site, the Rivanna River, was in need of such a story. In Mr. O’Louglin’s poem, “the river was not part of topography or a concept,” the landscape architect said. “The river was a narrative. It became a character.” This emphasis on narrative would be the “inevitable” approach for the week. He asked us to consider how designers could “perform by first introducing a narrative, or relating our own intuition, with all the sources of our childhood, our traumas, nightmares, and euphoria, to a project.” And indeed, these same feelings followed during the vortex competition.

He shared another story, that of his encounter with Shigeyoshi Koyama, a Japanese painter living in a Spanish coastal town where the Pyrenees meet the Mediterranean. Koyama’s rich paintings portray a vision of an amplified landscape. The Blue Ridge Mountains are our Pyrenees, he said. He encouraged students to approach the Rivanna River with this heightened sense of awareness. “If we are able to see a landscape or urban site or the planet like Michael O’Loughlin or Koyama, then we are really somewhere,” Geuze said.

During the week, each of the 30 teams received two desk critiques (“crits”) with Geuze, where many students reported his style as being tough and often beguiling. While many teams struggled with their own group dynamics or even the scale of the site, many others struggled during the often-brutal desk crits. In many cases, Geuze would prompt teams for a series of new ideas on the spot, or lambast the students for “wanting to marry the first idea that came along.”

His style was fast paced, witty, and often sarcastic, full of curious comments that had some puzzled, some delighted, and some slighted. But Geuze’s main point was not to encourage a well-developed, synthetic proposal, rather he pushed the students to focus on one central research concept. He argued that with the big idea, all the other elements would fall into place.

In the case of Team 26, who had just 24 hours before their deadline, Geuze encouraged the team to take their narrative of industrial history to the next level. Working through the night, the team then cut and sanded over 800 feet of lumber to produce nearly 10,000 pieces of stackable 1”x 3” “brick” blocks. The project, “Holy Smokes[tacks]” and its two towering 10-foot-tall models were recognized with an Honorable Mention Award.

The week culminated in a day of public presentations and awards. UVA’s guest professor opened ceremonies with another poetry reading and a final lesson on how design can take on new life after our jobs as designers are complete. Proposals included models with lights and working fountains; one fountain, in dramatic fashion, began pouring out the rear during the team’s presentation. Other groups like Team 17, titled “Iñaki’s Greatest Show on Earth” and Team 1, “A Flood Stage: A Drama in 4 Acts,” gave rousing theatrical performances, clearly inspired by Geuze’s lectures.

Within all the projects, though, one could glean a compelling narrative and feel the poetry of unreasonability that Geuze had imparted to his new students.

This guest post is by Katherine Cannella, Student ASLA, and Asa Eslocker, Student ASLA, both Master of Landscape Architecture candidates, University of Virginia.

Image credits: (1) Team 30: “Urban Rivanna” Presentation by Sarah Schramm, Student ASLA / Asa Eslocker, (2) Painting by Shigeyoshi Koyama / Vinyaivo, (3) Team 11 desk crit with Adriaan Geuze / Marcus Brooks, (4) Team 26: “Holy Smokestacks” Model / Asa Eslocker