Rebuilding with Design

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In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, “the U.S. needs to work on its long-term resiliency planning,” said Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Shaun Donovan, at The Atlantic’s Energy + Infrastructure forum in Washington, D.C. To give that effort a major boost, HUD launched the Hurricane Sandy Recovery Task Force, as well as the Rebuild by Design international design competition to find the “best architects, landscape architects, engineers” to create real-world models of climate-resilient design in Sandy-affected areas. HUD has some $2 billion to spend on the winning designs.

Rebuild by Design attracted 110 teams from 40 countries. After the initial set was reviewed, 10 teams were selected, offering nearly 45 projects. From there, 10 projects have been selected across the region impacted by Sandy to move to the final stage of the competition. The ten finalists can be explored in depth.

The teams who came up with the designs are all deeply multi-disciplinary. Each involves a major landscape architecture firm. Firms involved include Balmori Associates, Hargreaves Associates, H+N+S Landscape Architects, OLIN, SCAPE, Sasaki, Starr Whitehouse, and West 8.

HUD has made a point of creating a highly participatory review process. All the finalists had numerous sessions with community leaders, non-profits, and public to create their projects and then revise the final 10.

According to the Rebuild by Design web site, the next stage of the design competition will be “guided by the Municipal Art Society, Regional Plan Association and the Van Alen Institute. The teams will transform their chosen design opportunities to implementable and fundable design solutions. The partners will assist each team in setting up local coalitions that may comprised of government agencies, state and local officials, community stakeholders and experts where applicable. Those coalitions will work to engage the public as the teams refine their design solutions.”

Once workable projects are selected, HUD will finance the design and build out of a few projects, with additional financing from the private sector.

For Donovan, the results of the competition will help shape a new approach to resiliency planning and design in the era of climate change. [In addition to managing affordable housing, HUD handles long-term disaster recovery, while FEMA handles short-term emergency response.]

He said “this is real. We need to find out what we can do to protect our communities.”

He believes climate change can become a bipartisan issue, arguing that New Jersey governor Chris Christie is seriously looking at “how to build resiliency into our grids. There’s an enormous amount of cooperation and interest.”

Beyond Sandy, Donovan said much more work was needed to “update our national disaster recovery framework” and better coordinate national and local efforts. “Local government actually leads recovery.”

To further improve resiliency, Donovan called for looking to the Netherlands as well. He said “they have spent a lot of time on how to protect their communities.” Whether building a park or a sidewalk, resiliency there is embedded in every design.

Explore the 10 finalists and submit your comments.

Image credit:

Can L’Enfant Plaza Become a Place for People?

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“Where else is the National Mall right in your backyard?,” said Marcel Acosta, executive director of the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), at his organization’s latest public review of the new plans for 10th street southwest, with its widely-detested, urban renewal-era, I.M. Pei-designed L’Enfant Plaza. As part of the new Southwest Eco-district plan, which ambitiously aims turn a stultifying part of the city into a true mixed-use neighborhood, a new L’Enfant Plaza would become a more diverse, forested space, culminating in terraced stairs leading to the Washington Channel and a new waterfront development. Now, visitors must cover walking down a Stalinist-era pedestrian mall, then jump a treacherous off-ramp and run across the highway to get from the plaza’s terminus at Benjamin Banneker Park to the water.

Acosta said the goal of the new conceptual designs, which were created with ZGF Architects, were to provide a people-friendly “connection between the Mall and waterfront.” He said “this is one of the most unique parts of all of Washington, D.C. There are many opportunities.”

Diane Sullivan, a senior urban planner with NCPC, outlined how the point where L’Enfant Plaza meets the Smithsonian Museum at the National Mall will be redesigned as a “magnet,” attracting visitors further in. Now, visitors must pass under a building only to be confronted with a seemingly endless expanse totally absent of trees. As Otto Condon, the lead architect with ZGF, explained, the magnet will draw visitors in with “tactical urbanism” strategies, making “the entry more like a gateway.” There could be a variety of water features, with lush nature in view.

As visitors are drawn in, they will come across a green street, then a “cultural node,” followed by another green street, an urban plaza, a third green street, followed by Banneker Park, the “prospect to look out over the river.” Benjamin Banneker Park is a protected landmark designed by famed Modern landscape architect Dan Kiley. This segment of L’Enfant Promenade is managed by the National Park Service. It will not likely change although a cultural landscape report now in progress may lead to a much-needed restoration.

Green streets will be “urban garden promenades.” Condon and Sullivan said the “rhythm of the trees” will set the tone, providing shade as well. They are planning on adding hundreds if not thousands of trees along the stretch, which is perhaps the most exciting part of the new design.

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These linear gardens will be asymmetric, with trees grouped on the south side of the street for more sun exposure amid the tall buildings.

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As visitors approach the end-point, Benjamin Banneker park and the stairs to the waterfront, “there will be an organic, less formal feel.”

bannekerAt first, it may seem odd that some segments of L’Enfant Plaza will be jam-packed with trees, while others will be open spaces, but there is a logic to this. Sullivan said “we can’t maximize the tree canopy throughout because some parts of 10th street are a bridge.” Where there is soil underneath, larger trees can be planted. In the bridge areas, it will be trickier to plant anything more than smaller trees grouped together and plants.

Beneath the bridges, NCPC proposes adding gigantic cisterns to catch rainwater for reuse in the landscape. They are looking at adding 500 – 700,000-gallon tanks, which are the same size as the ones added under the National Mall. These will help ensure 10th street reaches the Eco-district’s ambitious new stormwater management targets.

The 150-foot-wide right-of-way will stay the same but be broken up differently. The central median, where much of the vegetation and water features will go, will expand to 52-feet-wide, while the road will be 40 feet-wide and there will be new 10-feet-wide bike lanes. It’s a scary place to bike now, so that will be a needed improvement, if the bike lanes are protected from cars.

The urban plaza zone will be programmed as a “festival zone,” designed to “create energy to pull people in,” said Condon.

Finally, at Banneker Park, with its protected central fountain and space, there will be a new staircase that winds its way around the monument down to the waterfront. The handicapped-accessible pathway will be flanked with green walls, and meander through terraces, “providing a gradual transition.” Condon said the new path design had a “sympathetic curve,” which will offer views of a new sculpture garden.

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Once visitors make it down the waterfront level, there will be a new 100-foot-wide corridor moving pedestrians from Banneker across the highway to the new mixed-use area coming in by developer PN Hoffman.

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Sullivan explained that all of this will happen in phases over many years, even a decade or more. But as Elizabeth Miller, ASLA, a landscape architect who is head of the physical planning division at NCPC noted, there will be a set of interim connections made to make the path from Banneker to the waterfront less onerous and dangerous.

While NCPC has not announced any budget numbers for this project, it’s clear that redesigning L’Enfant Plaza to be a well-trafficked, people-friendly, green space will be a costly, monumental effort of landscape architecture. These early concepts are an incredible improvement on what’s there now. But, it’s not clear whether NCPC and its designers can succeed in making this place, which has so many challenges, a real people-friendly place and true connector to the waterfront.

Even if Benjamin Banneker park is restored so the fountain actually works, the terminus needs to be redesigned to serve as a draw. There must be more to emphasize the role of this remarkable figure in African American and D.C. history. There’s early discussion of a large statue or museum along the plaza but nothing definite. Currently, there are some inadequate signs.

Making the Banneker park area exciting will be doubly hard because a number of large residential buildings are coming in at Washington Channel, largely destroying the views from Banneker. There may no longer be a grand prospect worth the hike. This is a real concern, as this is the pay-off now for hiking the plaza.

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The conceptual designs are at a very early stage, but, as of now, NCPC offers no concrete plans for adding cafes or restaurants further in on 10th street, which will also be critical to drawing people further along the half-mile-long concourse all the way to the channel. While a more inviting stretch filled with trees, plants, and water will help immeasurably in attracting people, are they enough? Some great new cafes or restaurants along the route could really help people make the connections.

Explore NCPC’s design concepts and offer your comments by December 31.

Image credits: NCPC

The Humble Public Bench Becomes Comfortable, Inclusive, and Healthy

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“People now want to be comfortable when they sit on a bench,” said Erik Prince, ASLA, Stoss Landscape Urbanism, in a session on urban furniture at the 2013 ASLA Annual Meeting in Boston. “It’s no longer about making benches uncomfortable for vagrants and the homeless.” In a tour of the humble public bench’s past — and its potential future — Prince, along with Jane Hutton, assistant professor of landscape architecture, Harvard University, and architect Robyne Kassen, Urban Movement Design, explained how a shift in public furniture design may reflect broader societal changes and could be leading us towards healthier, more inclusive public spaces.

Prince said some contemporary benches, like the one Stoss just hand-designed and fabricated for The Plaza at Harvard University, provide a “new organization of social space” (see image above). These “more ergonomic” benches allow for “multiple functions, like stretching, playing, and lounging.” These new functions are only made possible through a revolution in design practices, like 3D modeling and fabrication. Some of these new benches are designed to be inherently flexible, with “changeable forms” that can create a “new sense of community.”

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The History of Public Furniture

Hutton said the many types of benches throughout history have offered unique ways of sitting and interacting with the surrounding environment. “Different materials and inclines generate different social realities.” Benches can either be “solitary or social, exclusive or inclusive.” While they are often “invisible in the landscape,” public benches are actually central to our appreciation of landscapes, as they “organize the scope and our scoping strategy.”

In the 14th century, Tuscan civic benches were built into plazas, enabling small public spaces to form for “theatrical or tribunal purposes.” These benches helped “convey the sense of civic action and stimulated popular use.” They were about half a meter wide, so you couldn’t sleep on them.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, communities started creating the “rustic twig bench,” which reflected a “transcendental, natural philosophy.” As an example, “crude” benches in Central Park, NYC, worked with a “pastoral ideology.”

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In the 19th and 20th centuries, garden chairs started to be mass produced. Carved wood chairs, which were never comfortable, were now made out of iron, with “intricate plant and animal motifs.” Hutton said these were “very uncomfortable,” largely because they were meant to be “show seats when not occupied.”

In the 1860s, the first comfortable, mass-produced, iron garden chair was created, along with a low-cost folding chair, which was iconic in the military arena and also featured prominently among colonizers in Africa and Asia. These light-weight garden or foldable chairs were soon available for rent in public parks. In the gardens of Versailles, there was a garden chair with a fold-able back.

The Central Park settee, one of the first designed, stationary public benches, was made with a mix of iron handles with wood slats. “It was just under relaxing,” Hutton added. From then, there was a proliferation of “benches in street furniture.” None were particularly comfortable because then the thought was “you should hold your own posture, not rely on the chair.”

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In the 20th century, there were experiments about the human figure and ideal reclining positions. Furniture studios examined “free-form ergonomics,” exploring how a mix of “rigid and contoured” cement and fiberglass could be created to create an ideal form. This era led to some of the “iconic chaise lounges” that populated Garrett Eckbo’s “modern landscapes for living.” Marcel Breuer created his famous lounge recliner. Later, Panton explored the use of plastics. “These were for play and pleasure.”

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For a period of time, public benches were purposefully made uncomfortable in order to deter unwanted elements. “They were defensive or deterrent furnishings.” But today, Hutton said, the shift is towards more comfortable and relaxing public furniture, which even enable “splaying in public,” a posture once only allowed in the “medical or residential spheres.” There’s now a potential for “new positions in public spaces.”

Ergonomic Positions Made Possible by New Technology

With 3D modeling and fabrication, new possibilities like Stoss’ benches for Harvard are now possible. The bench, Prince said, has “numerable, inter-changeable seating positions,” which were mapped out using the software program Rhino, with a Grasshopper add-on. “We use parametric modeling tools.”

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There are 17 benches, made up of 7 types, each with similar ergonomically-sound geometries. Some have high backs, some have low. Some are upright, while others are low-to-the ground. Prince said Stoss “applied rules to the types.”

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Each bench type was created as a 1-to-1 prototype to “incredible precision” using advanced fabrication technologies. Getting all the joints to meet properly required an incredible attention to detail.

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The wood used was found in one of Harvard’s depots. Leftover from a new Renzo Piano-designed building, the “temple-grade cedar wood” was Alaskan first-growth forest wood. While he said they would never usually use wood like this, it was local sourcing of reusable materials in this instance.

The Bench That Boosts Your Health

Robyne Kassen, an architect and yoga instructor, said a bench or chair changes your body as you sit in it. She said we are “constantly becoming our bodies,” so a chair or bench has significant impact.

Sitting at a computer all day long — and not getting up to move around — is the health equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. Spending all that time in one position is particularly dangerous, given we are “always training our bodies and they are becoming. We are the filters through which we experience the world.”

Our nervous system — a key part of how our bodies experience the world — is also taxed all day long. Blinking, loud signage affects our nervous systems. Too much stress from the built environment can damage our sympathetic systems’ flight or fight response. Our para-sympathetic system, which enables relax and release, can then get out of balance, causing illnesses.

To maintain health and well-being, “we must nourish our para-sympathetic system,” which she said involves sitting at your “zero point” for a period of time during the day.

To enable the public to reach their zero point more often, Kassen and her team created Unire/Unite, an installation in a plaza near the new MAXXI Museum in Rome. The plaza’s benches are made of wood frames covered in “concrete canvas,” a special material that has concrete on the inside and canvas on the outside. The material was invented to help with water conveyance in infrastructure projects.

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The installation features an “infinity system,” which enables visitors to take on a variety of body positions and do yoga-inspired exercises meant to “activate, strengthen, cleanse, and balance the mind and body.” Here’s Kassen’s zero point:

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The plaza was purposefully designed to be accessible to everyone, with pathways of recycled rubber and low access points that enable even visitors in a wheelchair to transfer to the edge of the benches. “This landscape, play, park, space enables 66 different positions,” said Kassen.

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In contrast with the 14th-century Tuscan plaza-bench or the purposefully-uncomfortable iron garden chair, these zero-point-inducing benches clearly reflect today’s obsessions with comfort, technology, health and well-being.

Image credits: (1-2) The Plaza bench / Stoss Landscape Urbanism, (3) Park Bench by William Merritt Chase / Wikipaintings, (4) Central Park settee / Central Park Conservancy, (5) Panton Chair / Wikipedia, (6-8) The Plaza bench / Stoss Landscape Urbanism, (9) Unire/Unite / © Cecilia Fiorenza via Urban Daily, (10) Unire/Unite / Urban Movement Design, (11) Unire/Unite / © Cecilia Fiorenza via Urban Daily

The New Philadelphia Story Is About Green Infrastructure

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“Philadelphia has the first and only EPA-approved green infrastructure plan,” said Mark Focht, FASLA, first deputy commissioner, Philadelphia Parks & Recreation and ASLA President, at the Dupont Summit, a meeting of the Policy Studies Organization in Washington, D.C. He said Philadelphia even needs to “train the EPA on how to evaluate our plan,” which provides a cutting-edge, low-cost approach for dealing with his city’s stormwater run-off problems.

A grey infrastructure system was estimated to cost more than $6 billion. The green infrastructure plan Philly is moving forward with will only cost $1.2 billion over 25 years. Some $800 million of that will go directly to green infrastructure projects in the city, while $200 million will go to further strengthening the city’s water treatment plants. Another $200 is reserved for “adaptive management,” which will address “future technological changes.” Focht said even if future mayors tried to undo this 25-year plan, they can’t. The agreement, which he emphasized is “not a consent decree,” has been signed.

Green infrastructure provides many benefits beyond cost savings. There’s a “triple bottom line effect,” with multiple environmental, social, and economic benefits. On environmental benefits side alone, the potential payoff is massive. Focht said the greening plan could absorb or help the city avoid  some 1.5 billion pounds of carbon dioxide annually, which is equal to removing 3,400 cars off the road. “This number will compound each year.” With improved air quality due to all the new trees, green roofs, and parks, communities will benefit on the social or health side, as well. Focht estimated 20 deaths due to asthma will be avoided, and 250 fewer work or school days will be missed. Deaths due to excessive urban heat could also be cut by 250 over 20 years. Lastly, the economic benefits are also outstanding: the new greenery will increase property values by $390 million over 45 years, also boosting the property taxes the city takes in. In the short term, all those green roofs and parks need to be constructed, creating 250 local green jobs.

Focht said in contrast to grey infrastructure, green infrastructure creates a wider range of jobs, with more opportunities for convicts reentering society. “Grey infrastructure really just employs engineers.” Green infrastructure benefits are immediate across all levels, while grey infrastructure has a “different curve” to kick-in and starting paying back.

Philadelphia’s new plan is based on the “greened acre.” According to Focht, “one greened acre is equivalent to one inch of managed stormwater from one acre of impervious drainage area, or 27,158 gallons of stormwater.” There’s even a formula: GA = IC * Wd. The city decided to come up with the greened acre concept to help communicate with the public about their goals over the coming decades. Over the next 25 years, Philadelphia wants to convert 9,600 impervious acres into permeable greened ones. That means 34 percent of the city’s now impervious surface (or 15 square miles) will become permeable.  Greened acres can include rain gardens, trees, green roofs, permeable pavements, and green “bump-outs.”

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To implement this bold vision, the Philadelphia water department has steered city investment in city-owned properties in a greener direction and set the standards for all new construction projects. There’s a green streets design manual that shows how permeable pavements should function. Focht said one street just put in had no drains. The water simply drains down into the permeable asphalt and the earth.

Strong new regulations will also move the private sector to act. “Water bills are now based on how much water you use and manage.” One site with huge amounts of paved areas saw their water bill shoot up from $400 a month to more than $2,500, while another with no paved surfaces saw their bill go from $4,700 to $100. Focht made a point of saying that “the new regulations are not a revenue generator.” But there are clearly winners and losers. “Losers include big box retailers, retail malls, and car dealerships.”

Focht said, if smart, a condo could put on a green roof and get its water bill to zero. To push buildings to go this route, the city is offering a range of grants and loans modeled after NYC’s program. “If a project increases the visibility of green infrastructure, it also gets more credits.”

For the parks department, the new green infrastructure plan is a bonanza, creating opportunities for lots of new multi-functional green spaces. The parks department is already racing ahead: One new playground is 92 percent permeable, with new permeable pavements and plants. As a big plus, the neighbors love the pavement because it also absorbs the sound of basketballs bouncing. Green schools are coming. There’s even a green homes program that provides small grants to volunteer, non-profit groups to teach homeowners how to capture their own runoff.

One exciting project, deemed the “big green project,” shows how these green infrastructure tactics can coalesce into larger systems. The new Kensington Creative + Performing Arts High School, which is LEED Platinum, has green roofs, rainwater cisterns, and an underground detention facility. Surrounding it is a newly permeable sports area, a “geothermal well field,” and tree trenches.

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So how did Philadephia make this happen, forming a partnership among so many different city agencies when so many other cities have failed to accomplish this? Focht said a “strong mayor” was central, as well as “city-wide planning framework that enabled real partnerships.” Focht also mentioned how many people leading agencies now came up together through the ranks. When he and others were all middle managers at agencies, they formed an extra-curricular working group to discover how they could collaborative on green space, water management, and public health. Those efforts eventually bubbled up into Philadelphia’s 2009 GreenWorks plan.

Importantly, Focht said green infrastructure initiatives have retained public support because city officials have made a point of making “the same investment in every neighborhood,” rich or poor.

To learn more, download Focht’s full presentation (7MB) and also read a report ASLA co-wrote with a number of organizations, Banking on Green: How Green Infrastructure Saves Municipalities Money and Provides Economic Benefits Community-wide.

Image credits: (1-2)  7th and Washington / Philadephia Parks & Recreation, (3) Expanded tree pit / Philadelphia Water department, (4) Kensington High School / Paul Rider

Interview with Thomas Balsley on Resilient Waterfront Parks

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Thomas Balsley, FASLA, is the founder and principal of Thomas Balsley Associates, a firm he has run for 35 years. Balsley has taught and lectured at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, the University of Pennsylvania, the National Building Museum, and Seoul National University.

This interview was conducted at the ASLA 2013 Annual Meeting in Boston.

Last year, during Hurricane Sandy, Hunter’s Point South, your new park in Long Island City, Queens, was submerged under four feet of water as it was being constructed. Amazingly, the park survived this first test and drained as it was designed to. How did you and your design partners prepare for this? How is this a new model for dealing with climate change and improving resiliency?

The park has a purpose beyond resiliency, but we believe it’s a new model for 21st century urban parks in all respects. Sustainability underpinned the design approach right across the board, from the environmental and ecological to the social, economic, and cultural. Hunter’s Point South Park is a design collaboration between Thomas Balsley Associates and Weiss/Manfredi.

Part of our job when we work anywhere near the shores is to anticipate the effects of global warming, the storm surges. We had co-designed Gantry Plaza State Park and the whole Queens Park master plan prior to this park, so we had a chance to study that site and understand the East River. Gantry Plaza State Park was not affected to the extent others areas were hit by Sandy, but waters had breached the top of the bulkhead walls and the piers, so flooding was already on our minds.

At Hunter’s Point South, as we did at Gantry Plaza State Park, we started with the idea that these were at one time industrial sites; there was rail use in this case. Our approach was committed to conveying a message, a subliminal message of toughness and ruggedness, not preciousness. I don’t know what parallel to draw, but some projects we all love and admire are really precious to the point where they have a fragility to them. We purposely wanted this park from the very beginning to be muscular, to reflect its blue-collar, industrial history, and that of its upland community.

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With these rugged materials and detailing, we were way ahead of the game in terms of resilience. Because the river is actually a tidal body with strong currents of saltwater, we avoided catchment areas that might catch surges and hold them. Long-term exposure to the saltwater can be pretty harmful, so the park had to drain itself, with water eventually finding its way back out over to the river as the waters receded.

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Obviously, the employment of native plant material was important, too. We had a very tight budget, so there was no chance of using automatic irrigation, even with recycled water. It just wasn’t going to happen, so we focused on low-water use native plants that have proven themselves along the shorelines of local saline rivers. The park’s plant palette was purposely selected to be resilient, low maintenance, and provide visual integrity.

Hunter’s Point South is really just one of a hundred parks and plazas in New York City you have designed over your decades-long career. The one that really leapt out at me, among many, was Gantry Plaza State Park. Why was that so successful?

I referred to this park earlier when we were talking about Hunter’s Point South because that’s the next park component along the east shore of the Queens side, the Long Island City side, but it was done 20 years earlier. Gantry Plaza State Park was important to us as individual designers, but it was also, in our minds, really important for the future waterfront development of New York.

It’s hard for people to imagine now, but 30 years ago, NYC was probably one of the most conservative places to practice the art of landscape architecture in the country. During that same period you couldn’t have found a notable building being built in New York City either. The city had horrible fiscal and safety troubles, which made it very conservative and fearful. There just wasn’t courage or the will on the private or the public side to go out and take chances. There wasn’t a contemporary landscape precedent to be able to point to that would have said, “See? We can do this.”

Well, something happened 30 years ago, not with public money, but over at Battery Park City. It was a new model of urban planning. The developers were ingenious in securing public approvals. Battery Park introduced the notion that you can build parks first and then develop the parcels. To get this approach approved, the designers strategically harked back to New York at the turn of the century. The character of a park promised New Yorkers wouldn’t be controversial. Everyone said, “Oh, that’s great. We like that period.” It was that kind of climate. [30 years ago there was some of us saying, “I promise. I’ll make it look just like Central Park if you just let me out of this room because it’s one o’clock in the morning.”] So the Battery Park City Authority had private money behind it in the form of bonds. They had a very good tactic for getting a design approved. When it was built, Battery Park was pointed to as the great urban waterfront success and the “latest and the greatest” of waterfront park design.

But there is also a problem that comes with those successes: the next client asks you to do one just like it. When our team of Thomas Balsley Associates and Weintraub di Domenico was commissioned to design the Queens West Parks, the approved park plan was promising another Battery Park City across the river in Long Island City.

After its approval, a new client was brought in who decided, maybe from past experience from working with us, that they wanted something different. She said, “we’re going to do something innovative. We’re going to show New York how to take the next step.” So we had a client that encouraged us to do just that and we rushed through that door of opportunity. As The New York Times architecture critic wrote of the park at the time, “the curse has been broken.”

At Gantry Plaza State Park, we were doing things there that were unheard of in New York. Number one: don’t fill, use and celebrate the diverse shoreline. Number two: don’t erase history, celebrate history and culture. Number three: make it a blue collar place, not a corporate downtown place. Make it look like it doesn’t have money, like it’s a real park for real people.

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Gantry Plaza State Park demonstrated that we can celebrate history, heritage, culture, and, at the same time, express the future with contemporary design. That’s why that park is so special to us. It became the new paradigm for 21st century waterfront parks, the park everyone pointed to in New York and said, “Let’s make all the rest of our waterfronts like this.” I can take you around the shoreline now and you will see that Gantry Plaza State Park ideas have found their way in other places. And it really launched a whole new era in landscape architecture in New York.

Many of those hundred urban parks and plazas you’ve designed are small privately-owned public spaces (POPS). You have often said these places are unloved. Why?

POPS used to be called bonus plazas. Plazas have been stigmatized as the receptors of all of society’s misfits and ills, so it’s no surprise that our profession hasn’t embraced them. NYC POPS were considered “dirty”, because you were doing work for developers, not the public sector. Until recently, NYC landscape architects treated them like they are lepers. They didn’t want anything to do with them. As a result, some 95 percent of POPS in New York City are designed by architects. Taken together, there are 84 acres of POPS in Manhattan alone.

These are a great untapped opportunity for landscape architects to touch millions of lives, yet, for the most part, these chance have been squandered by the local professionals. I’m proud to have done more than anyone and get a great deal of satisfaction as I pass by and do my Holly Whyte analysis.

Heritage Field at Yankee Stadium is another fantastic community asset you’ve designed. The park takes the history and makes something contemporary, but on top of that, the park is so many different things at once. It’s a place for locals to play ball, a park, a playground, a conduit from the subway station, the stadium. So how did you get all those things to fit within one design?

That’s the classic 10-client pound program for the 5-pound bag, isn’t it? Of course, we had to find a way. The politics behind that project were extraordinary. Most people don’t realize that Yankee Stadium was in a New York City park. And the Yankees are basically saying, “we’re going to take part of the park next door to build a new stadium.” You could tell that’s got a little bit of a problem flying, especially with locals. The team of Thomas Balsley Associates and Stantec had to come up with a strategy that downplayed the existing stadium and history and transformed it into a community park with a landscape narrative.

Our goal was to get all these programs into the space, but at the same time make it look like it was ball fields that had been carved out of parkland. We wanted the edges to be lush native grasses and the plantings and to manage and filter stormwater. That’s unlike most active recreation areas you’ll find, especially in a tight, urban setting in which you’ll normally see a fence, and maybe a hedge. We kept insisting that within the park there was enough space for those in the Bronx to feel like that this was the parkland they had once been promised. It’s a very big part of the character and the feeling you get as you walk through the spaces or to the new stadium.

One of your older projects that I was very interested in was your work on the Columbia University campus. Can you tell me about what you achieved with that planning project, which involved trying to get the newer parts of the campus to look more like the historic center? What has happened since then? How has it evolved there?

Getting the newer parts to be part of the original was certainly one of the goals, but the bigger challenge was that the McKim, Mead, and White-designed campus never had a landscape master plan. It had an architectural master plan, but it never had a landscape master plan. In our historical research we even found some records of when the president of Columbia University was reluctant to buy into the McKim, Mead, and White urban campus vision, because it wasn’t a leafy Princeton-like campus. Your client may say, “Yes, that’s what we want, an urban campus.” But, once they saw renderings of just buildings and barren landscape, then they started to get a little worried.

They asked to bring in Olmsted to comment. He never did any work on the campus but he cited an example of going in the forest and encountering a pine stand, just pure pine and pine needle, and maybe the wind whistling. I’ll never forget this observation because it inspired another piece of work I did called the Pine Forest at 101. And it’s almost a religious experience to be in that place. It’s almost Zen-like. It’s not asking you to look around for visual stimulation. So he had a little bit of an influence, in getting that campus master plan approved.

But it became very clear over the years that it had a certain sterility to it, at least to the mainstream. Campuses suffer because they get $100 million donations to build a new building but not new landscapes. They needed a campus landscape master plan, a vision for a landscape donor.

The goal of the project was to adapt the historic campus landscape, movement systems, social systems, to 21st-century culture of campus life. Then we wrote a very strict set of design guidelines. Your building, your $100 million donation, will have to follow these. We’re also going to take a little bit of money for the overall campus landscape. As the university expands or improves on the Morningside campus, they’ll have uniformity and integrity.

Going overseas where you’ve also done a lot of work, I was struck by your projects in Japan. Two really exciting ones for me were the World Trade Center in Osaka and the Kasumigaseki Plaza in Tokyo. These plazas boldly emphasize color and form, but you also describe these places as responding to the tall buildings and kind of countering them. Can you talk about how you humanized those spaces around these huge buildings?

We’re all faced with that when we’re working in an urban setting, especially with high-rise projects. Humanizing space is part of what we all do. We’re very much social-space designers, not just space designers. These parks are in an urban setting and require a delicate balance between their urbanity, their urban context, and the individual.

There must be a hierarchy of space that helps strike this balance. There has to be a large space to reflect that urban scale and yet be flexible enough to accommodate different uses that we haven’t yet anticipated, concerts, festivals, etc., yet be accessible for daily enjoyment.

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Movement systems and program frame the larger space, creating a network of other spaces that vary in scale and character — from me and my co-workers having a conference, to just you sitting in a corner reading your book. All these smaller spaces must have good sight lines to the street, which is a lesson from New York. These are but a few approaches we’ve applied throughout the U.S., and now abroad in our urban place-making.

Image credits: (1) Thomas Balsley / Thomas Balsley Associates, (2-3) Hunter’s Point South / © Albert Večerka/Esto, (4) Gantry Plaza State Park / Betsy Pinover Schiff, (5) World Trade Center, Osaka / Thomas Balsley Associates  

MIT’s Advanced Urbanism

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“Here at MIT, we have the infinite flexibility to innovate,” said MIT landscape architecture professor Alan Berger, in a tour of the new Center for Advanced Urbanism (CAU), an ambitious program that seeks real-world impact. Berger said the role of the new CAU, which includes 27 different planning, landscape architecture, architecture, and engineering professors from five different MIT schools, would be to challenge existing notions about urban development through research into what’s actually happening.

At MIT, almost every faculty has a lab. Some of those labs form together into centers. The goal of the centers is to get students and professors to share research, to force “everyone to find out what’s behind all those closed doors.” As such, each project the new CAU will take on will be a “full-blown collaboration between disciplines.”

Berger and architecture professor Alexander D’Hooge co-direct the CAU, rooting it in a set of clear principles. First, the projects the center will take on must have real-world sponsors and aim for real-world impacts. Second, each project will be collaborative from the get-go, with a mix of architecture, landscape architecture, engineering, and planning professors. “Everyone brings equal knowledge.” He even said one assistant director’s role will be to simply ensure that true collaboration happens between the disciplines, and “no one is a sub-contractor.” Berger said that’s needed because collaborating on research is “really hard, time consuming, and socially complicated.” (Berger is one of four research-focused professors of landscape architecture at MIT, a school that interestingly doesn’t offer any landscape architecture degrees, but is rightly famous for their world-class planning school.)

One of CAU’s first projects is a collaboration with the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the Clinton Global Initiative, on Health + Urbanism. Out of 40 cities first examined, some eight cities were further evaluated and then three cities finally selected to work with the center. The goal, said Berger, is to identify “real players” in each city, a local constituency that “can construct a new infrastructure that will change the health situation.” Los Angeles, Houston, and Atlanta, cities all facing exploding growth — and sprawl — are the cities moving to the next stage. Over the next decade, the CAU hopes to transform one of these cities, and their residents’ health performance.

What worries CAU and AIA is a “new wave of suburban explosion is coming.” He said already 67 percent of Americans aren’t lucky enough to live in that ideal “live, work, play” environment. Many people also chose suburbs because “there are better services, these places are closer to jobs, and they get a better deal, a bigger home.” Berger argued that the data shows “suburbs will continue to be a huge growth area, and no one is ready for this.”

Unfortunately, Berger sees this as inevitable because “too many cities don’t have land use controls.” While New York City, Seattle, and other cities have “hard controls, some 60 percent of cities don’t.” And the truth may be many people actually “want suburban development.”

As an example, he pointed to trends he and other researchers at MIT have examined in Chicago and its burbs. Between now and 2040, population growth within Chicago’s core will be 14 percent, and employment will increase 18 percent. However, within the broader Kendall county suburbs, population growth is expected to be 81 percent and employment growth, a whopping 173 percent.

He said a clear understanding of these kinds of future growth trends is crucial “if we are going to redirect landscape architects to places of urgency.” He sees his mission as “informing our discipline and enlisting practitioners” to focus on the real problems coming.

In the case of Atlanta, where he sees suburban growth exploding as well, he largely views the new, multi-billion-dollar Atlanta Beltline initiative as a misguided effort. “You have to look at where the jobs are being created, they are all out in the suburbs.” The Beltline, he fears, will do nothing to stop those trends. While the Beltline may provide a great way to walk or bike in Atlanta, Berger says the real health problems aren’t in that part of the city.

Furthermore, his research argues that “suburban development doesn’t cause obesity,” but that “more obese people chose to live in car-centric suburbs.” He said “we have to be careful about causality” when looking at large amounts of data. He added that there is a dearth of data on obesity, as hospitals don’t collect and report that information. In fact, data on diabetes is often used as an indicator of obesity. He also poked holes in recent data on obesity rates in New York City, saying that was collected through faulty “voluntary questionnaires.”

Berger questioned the whole notion as to whether cities are really healthier environments than suburbs, countering the messages promoted by so many public health and design organizations. He said “there are no silver bullets, each place has their own health context.” As an example, he pointed to one new “live, work, play” development put up next to a major interstate in Los Angeles, in an area with some of the worst air in America. While Los Angeles is trying to do right, the city planners and developers, in effect, made the health outcomes of the people living in that community even worse. “That’s what I mean by the fact that we need to find about the real issues and then design changes.” He said “we have to uncover those problems and then solve them.”

While AIA may have sponsored the report, Berger sees the focus on their new research, which has taken the form of a new report, Health + Urbanism, as fundamentally a problem for landscape architects. He said “evaluating problems at the broad scale of cities and their suburbs — and then finding solutions — is truly an Olmstedian undertaking.”

Image credit: Chicago sprawl / Urban research blog

Boston’s Evolving Urban Wilds

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In the 1970s, landscape architect Elliot Rhodeside, FASLA, Rhodeside & Harwell, created a program with immense, lasting value for Boston: the 1,400-plus-acre urban wilds program. Not quite parks, urban wilds are in-between natural open spaces — wetlands, shorelines, hilltops, meadows, woodlands — saved from development. To this day, they have a “unique hybridity,” and are still not part of Boston’s official park system. In a session at the ASLA 2013 Annual Meeting in Boston, Harwell, the program creator; Paul Sutton, the current manager of the urban wilds at the Boston Parks and Recreation department; and Jill Desmini, a professor of landscape architecture at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design (GSD), discussed the challenges involved in both preserving and maintaining Boston’s wild urban places.

Protecting Wild Beauty in the City

As a young landscape architect, Rhodeside said Boston’s wild urban spaces had a “profound effect on me.” He felt that “developing these natural areas was the wrong way to go,” because only in Boston can “someone walk out of their house and come across a Puddingstone rock cropping right in the middle of their urban backyard.”

To make conservation a reality, Rhodeside, who was then chief landscape architect for the Boston Redevelopment Authority, had to get a plan in place. After winning a $100,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) with some $50,000 in matching funds from the city, Rhodeside began reaching out to the local communities to connect them to the vision. “The idea wouldn’t work unless we could tie it to the neighborhoods.”

Rhodeside said he was inspired by San Francisco’s hilltop parks, with their unique micro-climates. “These places provide relief from the city.” Palo Alto has these wild wetland trails. He also looked to Frederick Law Olmsted, Charles Eliot, and Ian McHarg for models.

At first, the goal was pretty conservative: to simply identify 10 sites with natural value, some 100 acres in total. But his team soon set-up a database and recorded all known threatened sites. Using an aerial photographic analysis, they covered the entire city. They decided to focus on “scenic, vacant land next to park lands, undeveloped land, vacant land next to water bodies, and highly publicized areas.” Combing the whole city, they discovered more than 2,000 acres of land possessing “scenic beauty and natural value.” If all these ecologically-valuable lands were protected, they would expand Boston’s park system by 50 percent.

The next step was to create an implementable plan. For that, they had to find out who owned what. Through their investigation, they discovered that the city already owned 25 percent of the prospective urban wilds. “They were just sitting there unprotected.” Collaborating with community leaders and the Boston Conservation Commission, they began pushing the city to protect those.

One advocacy tool was a “beautiful report” that was both “poetic and comprehensive.” A companion education piece was put up in Boston’s subway showing people how they connected to existing natural areas. Then, Eugenie Beal, a local conservation advocate, came in and set up a $250,000 line of credit from the bank to buy up urban wilds and then hand them over to the city. She created the Boston Natural Areas Network (BNAN), “accomplishing an enormous amount.”

Rhodeside said their efforts succeeded in saving 2,000 acres in part because the timing was right. “We were in a recession, so we had a respite from the development era. It was the era of conservation.” He added that a burst of “renewed interest in the great landscape architects of the past helped,” as did the new federal programs that were created in the 70s like the Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.) and others.

Managing the Wilds Without a Budget

After BNAN was set up, it became “extremely active,” said Sutton. Through the 80s and 90s, the program became “adept at purchasing private property and transferring it to the parks department.” But while there were victories, with large parcels added to the network of wilds, the overall condition of these natural places declined, all the way through the 90s. This decline began with the economic downturn in the early 80s and statewide tax cuts. The result: “There was no maintenance, and lots of graffiti, litter, vandalism, drugs, and invasive plants.”

Still, one victory was purchasing Allandale Woods in West Roxbury, some 100 acres of forested wetlands near the Arnold Arboretum. Another was adding 25 acres of woodland near Hyde Park. To connect Boston’s MBTA transportation system with the Arnold Arboretum, the arboretum was given Bussey Brook Meadow, adding another 25 acres.

In the 90s, the city hired a urban wilds consultant who focused the parks department on creating a master plan for these places. Then, beginning in 2000s, there was a renewed effort to purchase and set aside ecologically-valuable land. The city got Belle Island Marsh, “one of the most ecologically-productive systems in the city,” a wetland that is being further restored.

Nira Rock was renovated. “It’s a success story.” The urban wilds program “piggy-backed of a nearby playground restoration,” leveraging the activist neighborhood. There has also been a “subtle, hidden restoration of larger sites,” multi-year initiatives that involve a real “hodge-podge” of local groups. Volunteers now deal with invasive plant removal and trail improvements throughout the system of urban wilds.

Sutton said the urban wilds program is “still a stepchild. We can’t use the park system logo.” There’s no budget, given most of the parks department’s finances go to active recreation areas and historic parks. “We have to market ourselves to the city.” But he said realtors are starting to see the value of the restored areas. And universities and non-profits are getting involved.

Within an increasingly revitalized system, the big challenge remains how to deal with sites spread all over the city and “getting new stewardship groups formed.” For the future, he wants these urban wilds to be “fun, inviting, and accessible,” but he also worries about how the city is going to “market these spaces to the next generation” so they remain valued.

Redefining These Places as Novel Ecosystems

Desmini, who teaches landscape architecture at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design (GSD), said there were 143 urban wilds covering some 2,000 acres in 1976. In 2010, there were  just 105 wilds covering 1,414 acres. Of that, 785 acres are permanently protected.

She said in the Allston / Brighton areas of Boston, “lots of urban wilds were lost.” In East Boston, segments near the airport are also gone. Other sites have been “dramatically transformed” over the past 40 years. Many places now have a “unique hybridity.”

Desmini said the definition of an urban wild has also changed over the years as these places have evolved. “Urban wilds are not parks or wilderness,” but something in between. Urban wilds are “unorganized scraps of nature,” celebrated for their “indigenous qualities.”

Urban wilds are “places of natural beauty and reflect a history that predates the American revolution.” They are a living story of “urban ecology and abandonment.” These are spaces “where nature instead of man shapes the space,” yet humans’ influence is still felt. They can be defined as novel ecosystems.

As with any novel ecosystem, they will not be pure, but they can still be celebrated. They have an “openness,” so they can be viewed as either “orphans or opportunity-filled.” They are rich with “vegetative succession and continuously evolving.” They can also have different hybrid uses. As an example, she pointed to an urban wild in Berlin where the local authorities actually allow graffiti spraying during certain hours.

Today, preserving an urban wild is about “conserving spontaneously-vegetated sites.” She said the future will be about “innovative maintenance” that takes into account the unique qualities of these spaces.

She said it’s also important the city starts treating the urban wilds as a comprehensive system of novel ecosystems. “The city can amp up the hybrid qualities.” Otherwise, they will “continue to struggle with fragmentation.”

Image credit: Allandale Woods / Boston Exotic Flowers

Buckminster Fuller: World Man

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Buckminster Fuller was way ahead of his time. While he is famous for his geodesic dome, which took form in Disney’s “Spaceship Earth” Epcot Center and other buildings, as well as his innovative maps, Fuller’s deeper impact may be on our thinking. He was one of the first modern Western thinkers to connect architecture to ecology and the environment. In a fascinating new book edited by Daniel Lopez-Perez called R. Buckminster Fuller: World Man, Alejandro Zaerao-Polo writes that he was one of the first to describe “the modern world as an ecosystem to be reconciled with nature.” Back in the mid-60s, way before the sustainable design movement took root, he was talking about “energy, fossil fuels, food, and pollution.” He was one of the first systems-thinkers, serving as one of the intellectual godfathers of today’s integrated approach to sustainable design.

His geodesic dome, which was featured at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), brought him fame, but he was perhaps more interested in using these large-scale illustrations to promote the “concepts or operative principles” behind these works, writes Lopez-Perez. In the late 1920s, Fuller wrote, “I made a bargain with myself that I’d discover the principles operative in the universe and turn them over to my fellow man.” Arguably, Lopez-Perez says, Fuller’s conception of these operating principles became more widely known than his inventions.

When invited to give a major lecture at Princeton University by Princeton School of Architecture dean Robert Geddes in the nascent field of environmental design in 1966, Fuller outlined his unique approach, which cut across disciplines. As Geddes describes, Fuller was “hard to classify … either [an] engineer or architect or inventor or geographer or mathematician or all of these.” Early on, Fuller was promoting the spaces in between disciplines, saying they were the places where true innovation happens.

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For a “globe map,” a project with Princeton architectural students created in conjunction with his lecture, he demonstrated some of his discipline-breaking ideas about the universe and architecture. The model was described in the Princeton Alumni Weekly as a nothing less than “the characteristic structural principle of the universe.” It’s no accident that the “sphere is 400 feet in diameter. Mr. Fuller believes that the discontinuous compression principle is the characteristic structural principle of the universe. And with a 40-foot diameter, his sphere becomes a sort of scale model of the world, at 1:1,000,000.” He was using the globe map as a sort of experiment. While the globe map was useful for cartographers — it apparently was more accurate in its depiction of the planet than the conventional map at the time — it was meant for architects and other designers. His goal was to “provide a better comprehension of world geography to help architects plan their work in a larger perspective.”

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In his lecture, which is republished in full in World Man, we get insights into his thinking. He speaks in non-disciplinary terms, as he says designers must also act like entrepreneurs and inventors. He elevated the role of the inventor, saying, “If his invention works, it is a facility for man. It will very probably decrease the frustrations of man’s realization of his highest potential.”

He believes we must design — and create inventions — with a clear understanding of the systems in which we work. “The earth can be a system, because clearly there is that which is interior and that which is exterior to it. Some part of the universe has to be invested in the system to differentiate what is in or outside at a given moment. That is what I mean by a system.”

By more fully understanding the Earth system, humans can participate more “consciously” in its “evolutionary transformation and success.” Just as his globe map enabled visitors to both view it as an object — and then also stand within it and look out of it — people can place locate themselves in the broader system. If they do that, “I think all of humanity is about to be born into a new kind of relationship to the universe.” Fuller was articulating a concept we all now know: local actions have global effects.

He goes on to make the case for sustainability within the Earth system, calling for increased use of wind power, arguing that “the burning up of fossil fuels” is an error. He also foresaw the need for a way to capture and store wind power, which is what many wind power manufacturers are working on right now. He called for capturing power from tides. He saw the need for more energy-efficient fuels.

He put a lot of faith in the young — future generations — to do better than the ones before, finally arguing that “the best I can prophesy to myself is the young world is about to take the initiative as inventor-scientist, and in the employing of principles which are operative in universities immediately make available to them and will succeed in converting the resources available to us to such high order of effectiveness as to care of 100 percent of humanity.”

Read the book and explore the work of the Buckminster Fuller Institute, which promotes his ideas through their annual design competition.

Image credits: Princeton Architectural Press