A Park for the Nostalgic

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Mid Main Park / all images from Hapa Collaborative

At Main Street and 18th Avenue in Vancouver, the Palm Dairy and Milk Bar, an old ice-cream shop, was a popular spot for more than 30 years, until it closed in the late 80s. In its place, Mid Main Park speaks to what must be the community’s nostalgia for that community gathering place. Landscape architecture firm Hapa Collaborative worked with the Vancouver Park Board and local residents to create a one-of-a-kind park that harks back to that old Milk Bar. This new gathering spot is part of Vancouver’s “greenest city” initiative.

The history of the place is found everywhere in the new park. Within the concrete paving are “large, random ‘milk bubbles.'”

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The trellis looks like giant “bendy-straws.” (The trellis itself supports kiwi vines growing fruits locals can snack on).

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And, lastly, there are dairy-bar stools set within the park, even with spinning seats. All powder-coated steel elements are painted with Palm Dairy’s orange-red color.

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The space taken up by Mid Main Park was an “underused slip lane” set within the Main Street right-of-way. It was transformed with curvy seat-walls, earth mounds, layered plants, and lighting schemes. The designers tell Landezine they used rounded paths to take the edge off an awkward triangular site.

The park also has lots of sustainable design features. According to Hapa, permeable concrete paving convey stormwater into a “detention gallery buried in the central mound behind the main seatwall, reducing runoff rate and quantity discharged into the city’s storm sewer.”

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Fun, sustainable, and popular.

Public Art Goes Interactive with “Unnumbered Sparks”

The one-of-a-kind Janet Echelman, who creates monumental net sculptures all over the world, just unfurled Skies Painted with Unnumbered Sparks, her largest piece yet for the 30th TED conference in Vancouver.

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Skies Painted with Unnumbered Sparks / All photos courtesy Studio Echelman

With data artist Aaron Koblin at Google’s Creative Labs, Echelman went interactive, enabling visitors to this nearly 750-wide floating cloud to paint beams of light across the face of the mesh using their smartphones. Amazingly, the pulsing lights on the sculpture are made possible by embedded technology. The giant sculpture essentially acts as a “single full-screen Google Chrome window over 10 million pixels in size,” writes the design team.

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The title of the sculpture, Skies Painted with Unnumbered Sparks, comes from a line in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Echelman said: “it’s about each one of us being one of those stars – those sparks – and being able to paint the skies.”

The sculpture has 145 miles of braided fiber, tied up in 860,000 hand and machine-made knots to form intricate patterns. The piece weighs nearly 3,500 pounds, which is still light enough that it can be tied to many buildings, given there are so many foundation lines.

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Digital elements are embedded within the mesh, which is made of Honeywell Spectra Fiber manufactured in Washington state. Echelman told Arch Daily, pound-for-pound, it’s “fifteen times stronger than steel but light enough to float.” Spectra Fiber is “ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene using a patented gel-spinning process.”

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As Echelman explained in her talk at the 2013 ASLA Annual Meeting, collaboration is key to her work. She was worked with fabricators, landscape architects, architects, engineers, lighting designers — and now technologists — to realize her vision. Check out an exciting project she is doing with OLIN at Philadelphia’s City Hall.

Unnumbered Sparks will be in Vancouver until March 22 and then it will begin traveling to other cities around the world.

Tracking Global Deforestation (and Reforestation)

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Global Forest Watch

Global Forest Watch, a new $25 million dollar, web-based tool — which was created through a partnership of the World Resources Institute (WRI), ESRI, United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), Google, and a slew of other environmental groups — aims to provide a “near-real time” view of deforestation (and reforestation) around the world. According to data from Google and the University of Maryland, the world has lost 2.3 million square kilometers of trees from 2000 to 2012 from logging, diseases, and storms. BBC News tells us this is the equivalent to 50 football fields of trees being lost “every minute of every day over the past 12 years.” But during the same time frame, about 800,000 square kilometers of new forest were also planted. Still, this means the world has lost forest cover equal to the size of Mongolia in little more than a decade. The world can’t keep going at this rate given only about 15 percent of the planet’s original forest cover now remains.

Since the late 1990s, WRI has led the development of the forest watch service, which “unites satellite technology, open data, and crowdsourcing to guarantee access to timely and reliable information about forests.” The program uses more than half a billion high-res images from NASA’s Landsat program, which are organized with new algorithms created by the University of Maryland, and then made available for easy online access thanks to the cloud computing power of Google’s Earth and Maps engines. BBC News writes that high-res images of global tree loss and gain are updated annually while data on tropical forests is updated monthly.

The program’s ability to crowdsource information is particularly interesting. Campaigners and local communities can also submit data, pictures, and video on the ground. This picks up on an existing trend: “In Brazil, the Paiter Surui people are already using smart phones and GPS software to monitor illegal logging.”

The watch service will visualize protected areas, as well as concessions for logging, mining, and palm oil. For example, any user can look up whether a given area is protected or whether a company has the right to take down the trees there. Policymakers and regulators can now point to the map to see if laws are being followed on logging in vulnerable areas. Multinational companies like Nestle say it will enable them to better track where they supply palm oil and other ingredients. And sustainable forestry companies can better prove their products are coming from sanctioned places. Dr. Andrew Steer at WRI said: “Global Forest Watch is a near-real time monitoring platform that will fundamentally change the way people and businesses manage forests. From now on, the bad guys cannot hide and the good guys will be recognized for their stewardship.”

The world no longer has to rely on guesstimates. As Rebecca Moore, engineering manager with Google Earth, explained to Reuters: “With the exception of Brazil, none of the tropical forest countries have been able to report the state of their forests. Now it will be possible to have near real-time updates of the state of the world’s forests, open to anyone to use.”

The trick will be getting out some final kinks, writes The Christian Science Monitor. Critics of the program say it currently can’t distinguish between forests and industrial plantations, a major problem given rows of palm trees shouldn’t really be counted as a forest, given these mono-cultures provide very few ecosystem services.

Also worth reading is “Networking Nature: How Technology Is Transforming Conservation,” a phenomenal article in the past issue of Foreign Affairs magazine. Conservation scientist Jon Hoekstra gives us many reasons to be optimistic about the power of new technologies. “Conservation is for the first time beginning to operate at the pace and on the scale necessary to keep up with, and even get ahead of, the planet’s most intractable environmental challenges. New technologies have given conservationists abilities that would have seemed like super powers just a few years ago.”

Detours Obligatory: Rotterdam’s Water Square

On the Benthemsquare in Rotterdam, Dutch landscape architecture firm De Urbanisten has finally achieved what they set out to do seven years ago: create a water park for the community fed entirely by storm water. Instead of hiding runoff in underground pipes and cisterns, the square has been designed to make water the main feature. The designers say this is the world’s first “water square.”

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Watersquare Benthemplein / De Urbanisten

Storm water is channeled through stainless steel gutters into three basins. Two shallow ones collect water whenever it rains, while another deeper basin is reserved for overflows from heavier storms. To help people understand what will flood or not, everything that can flood is painted in shades of blue.

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Watersquare Benthemplein / Millad Pallesh
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Watersquare Benthemplein / Millad Pallesh

And all that transports water is shiny metal.

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Watersquare Benthemplein / Millad Pallesh

In summer, if there is flooding, the main basin could become a pond. If it’s not gunked up with oily residue and leaves, perhaps kids will be playing there. In winter, maybe there’s ice-skating. At least, this is the vision of the designers and community. (Apparently, this is OK in Rotterdam, unlike in the U.S. where there would be lawsuits galore).

The designers came up with the concept in collaboration with students and teachers from Zadkine college and the Graphic Lyceum; members of the adjacent church, a nearby youth theater, and gym; and locals from the Agniese neighborhood of Rotterdam.

The say over the course of three public workshops, “we discussed possible uses, desired atmospheres, and how the storm water can influence the square. All agreed: the water square should be a dynamic place for young people, lots of space for play and lingering, but also have nice, green intimate places. And what about the water? This had to be excitingly visible while running over the square. Detours obligatory! The enthusiasm of the participants helped us to make a very positive design.”

The park doesn’t just work only when it’s raining. When it’s dry, the deep basin is a “true sports pit” as well as a sort of urban theater where people can see and be seen.

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Watersquare Benthemplein / Ossip Van Duivenbode

De Urbanisten also interposes the basins and walkways with green infrastructure made up of trees, grasses, and flowers, all “self-irrigated.”

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Watersquare Benthemplein / Millad Pallesh

See more images of Water Square and other water square concepts, and learn more about the innovative ways in which the Dutch manage water and create community assets.

D.C. Businesses Positive about Bikeshare But Most Don’t See Sales Boost

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Washington D.C. Capital Bikeshare / All Life is Local blog

A new research study from Virginia Tech’s Mobility Lab found that the vast majority of local businesses near five of the busiest Washington D.C.’s Capitol Bikeshare stations can’t tell if the stations have had any economic impact, but largely view them as having a positive effect on the neighborhood. Only 10 percent perceived an increase in store foot traffic and 20 percent, an uptick in sales, due to the installation of nearby stations. None of the 140 local businesses surveyed near the most-heavily trafficked stations thought they were negative for their business though. Washington, D.C. has the 2nd largest bikeshare system in the U.S., with 300 stations.

Planning professor Ralph Buehler and grad student Andrea Hamre say previous studies demonstrate bicyclists spend more than car drivers, creating a more positive economic impact in their local economies. One study in Portland, Oregon, found that while car riders may spend more per trip, bicyclists visit nearby stores more frequently and therefore make up a “larger share of overall per person spending.” Another analysis by Smart Growth America showed that the installation of a new bike lane boosted sales in the stores along one street in San Francisco by 60 percent. Still more reports have surveyed the sentiment of businesses near new bicycle lanes and found businesses are uniformly positive about this infrastructure and other amenities like bike corrals, parking, curbs, etc. However, until their own study, no research had actually tried to quantify the local economic impact of bikeshare stations and their use.

Sending out graduate students to survey more than 600 local bikeshare users, they found that “73 percent of respondents were motivated to use CaBi because of shorter travel times, while 42 percent reported enjoyment, 41 percent reported exercise, and 25 percent reported lower travel costs.”

Some 66 percent of bikeshare users traveled to a destination where they expected to spend money. Of those, 63 percent planned to spend $10-$49 and 30 percent planned to spend more than $50. The researchers found that most users would spend money at businesses near CaBi stations, with 39 percent reporting spending would occur within 2 blocks of the station and an additional 40 percent indicating spending would occur within 4 blocks. According to the research, about 16 percent said they wouldn’t have made the trip had a CaBi station not been nearby. (While interesting, these figures would have been made more useful had they been compared to the amounts pedestrians, regular bicyclists, and car users expected to spend near the same stores).

As for the 140 businesses surveyed, the vast majority didn’t know whether CaBi had any effect on customer traffic levels, just 10 percent perceived an increase. About 20 percent thought that CaBi had directly and positively impacted sales, while the rest were unsure or neutral. The good news may be none thought CaBi hurt their sales. The vast majority of businesses (70 percent) also thought CaBi had a positive effect on the neighborhood. The rest weren’t sure or neutral. Again, no negative perceptions.

Here’s where the CaBi bike rubber hits the road though: almost 60 percent of businesses wanted more CaBi stations put in, but only “22 percent said they would have a positive reaction to replacing sidewalk space with a CaBi station and additional 26 percent would be neutral.” This means more than half thought sacrificing sidewalk space for CaBi stations was a bad idea. In addition, only “29 percent of businesses would have a positive reaction to replacing car parking and an additional 32 percent would be neutral about removing car parking in favor of a bikeshare station.”

Explore the report.

Platforms for Experiencing Nature

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Tree Wood / Tochihiro Oki Architects

For millennium, designers of our built and natural environments have positioned the viewer in nature, setting benches in just the right spots with gorgeous vistas, or even creating pavilions or pagodas that offer both a respite from the world and a vantage point for engaging with it. Contemporary landscape architects and architects are creating singular platforms for experiencing nature. In these examples, the biophilic platforms are as appealing as the surrounding nature.

Japanese architect Tochihiro Oki created Tree Wood for last year’s “folly” competition in Socrates Sculpture Park in Astoria, New York. With this project, a simple wood frame set amid the forest looks over a grove awaiting the visitors’ discovery. Inside, the visitor is enveloped by the trees but also the skeletal frame made of 2 x4 planks held together with studs and nails.

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Tree Wood / Tochihiro Oki Architects

A chandelier sits at the top of the structure, creating the sense that one is in a room.

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Tree Wood / Tochihiro Oki Architects

Speaking to DesignBoom, Ohn Hatfield, juror and executive director of Socrates Sculpture Park, said Tree Wood “blurred lines and definitions, eliciting bewilderment, consternation, aesthetic pleasure,” adding that it “performs this feat by interweaving our built environment with nature’s chaos, setting in motion a dialogue, argument and narrative.”

Another example, Viewpoint, created by the Finnish Institute in London and the Architecture Foundation, is a floating platform on Regent’s Canal in Camley Street Natural Park, London. Designed by Finnish design firm AOR, the floating pavilion provides a way to bring visitors up close to London’s central nature reserve and the rich urban wildlife found there.

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Viewpoint / The Finnish Institute in London, Architecture Foundation

ArchDaily writes: “The inspiration for Viewpoint comes from the rocky islets and islands of the Nordic. For Finns, these islands are places of sanctuary, to relax the mind and get away from hectic city life.”But the platform’s actual form was also inspired by the simple, temporary structure created by fishermen and farmers. In Finland, these triangular structures are created out of tree branches, moss, and leaves.

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Viewpoint / The Finnish Institute in London, Architecture Foundation

Viewpoint seems to be a natural draw for those walking through the park. Visitors are likely to see Daubenton’s bats, whooper swans and the elusive Kingfisher.

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Viewpoint / The Finnish Institute in London, Architecture Foundation

The structure will be used by the London Wildlife Trust for educational programs for kids. Special triangular openings are set at different heights, giving kids of all ages a special view into the canal and the wildlife that it attracts.

Lastly, Fort Werk aan ‘t Spoel, an old fort in the Netherlands has been redesigned into a new kind of viewing platform for nature, except this one takes the visitor deeper into the ground for a new perspective. The fort is a national monument dating to 1794 and was part of the military defense line that enabled “intentional flooding,” to protect one of the inundation locks, writes RAAAF and Atelier de Lyon in Landezine.

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Fort Werk aan ‘t Spoel / © Rob ‘t Hart

Sculptured grassy steps lead the visitor down into the lock, which is surrounded by trees. It has become a major attraction in the “New Dutch Waterline,” says the design firms.

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Fort Werk aan ‘t Spoel / © Rob ‘t Hart

The new design, commissioned by the city of Culemborg and the Foundation Werk aan ‘t Spoel, is inspired by the old infrastructure but forges something new from it.

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Fort Werk aan ‘t Spoel / © Rob ‘t Hart

Loveable Places Are Sustainable

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People Habitat Communications

Influential blogger and advocate Kaid Benfield’s new book, People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities, argues that sustainable places are really just places people love. Think of those places where you most feel like yourself. Would you want anything to happen to them? We feel that way about certain places because they are “people habitats,” designed not for cars but for the every-day person walking or biking. They create an irreplaceable sense of community and are healthy for both people and the environment. Benfield points to many people habitats in the U.S. and abroad. As an example, New Orleans is highlighted because it’s rich in culture, design, and, perhaps most importantly, community.

Unfortunately, Benfield writes, too much of our country has been taken over by throw-away housing and nowhere “town centers” in sprawled-out developments. These are habitats designed for cars. In so many of these places, there’s no there there.  Even “smart growth” developments are too often lackluster, he argues. While they may be better than sprawl — with their emphasis on dense, walkable, transit-oriented development — they too often lack green space and any unique character that makes a place lovable.

At his book launch party, Benfield said he’s increasingly seeing the world through the eyes of a designer, and that’s apparent in many of these essays. He speaks to the power of design to create places that matter, particularly the ability of landscape architects to harness green infrastructure to make places more livable and design public spaces central to communities’ identity. The essay, “Cities Need Nature,” which explains why green infrastructure offers so many social and ecological benefits, is worth the price of the book alone. Here, Benfield shows he is no dogmatic New Urbanist; he really understands the value of design and nature.

Benfield also shows up how green-washing has been applied to sell communities as green when they are actually “brown.” He takes aim at the U.S. Green Building Council, and its certification of green buildings and even whole new developments only accessible via car. Debunking the marketing of one such “green” development out in the middle of nowhere, he asks, “how can you be ‘net-zero’ if you have to drive long distances to anything?” For Benfield, the greenest places are the older, revitalized ones, adding a new layer upon existing historic assets. He just worries that revitalization can have unintended consequences, namely gentrification. Benfield has spoken elsewhere about how equitable revitalization can happen.

Like public health experts Drs. Richard Jackson and Howard Frumkin, Benfield sees the deep connections between health and the built environment. He delves into both the negative health impacts of sprawl and the positive health impacts of dense yet nature-laden communities. In sprawled-out places without sidewalks, it’s no wonder people don’t walk, as it’s very dangerous. He uses data on pedestrian fatalities to show this. But he also includes new studies showing the positive side of the ledger: how walking, biking, and access to nature provides a range of mental and physical health benefits. He also gets a bit “woo-woo,” as he says, about describing the many spiritual benefits of beautiful places, explaining how living in a great place increases happiness.

So what makes a sustainable, livable community? Benfield explores the many tangibles and intangibles, arguing that creating these places is as much an art as a science. It’s not just about nature and design. While he offers evocative examples and the best available data, some clever but apt “tests” really help make his points. He asks: “Can a child comfortably walk to buy a popsicle and walk back home? Does the neighborhood attract kids walking door-to-door on Halloween? Can you meet most of your daily needs within a 20 minute walk or transit ride?” For one friend, the test is “is this place good enough that people want to vacation there?” And then there’s another interesting one: “how many drinking establishments are within walking distance?” Neighborhood bars and pubs, Benfield writes, are key “third places,” which aren’t work or home, but help create community. Sustainable, livable communities have so many layers.

Unlike other environmentalists, Benfield sees cities, and, really, the greater metropolitan regions in which cities sit, as a huge piece of the answer. Cities were once viewed as a place to escape from. Suburbs were the answer to oppressive social and environmental conditions. Today, mayors and planners increasingly understand that if we want people to live in denser, more sustainable communities, these places must be well-designed, lush with greenery, and trick-o-treater-friendly. Furthermore, metropolitan areas may provide the ideal people habitat, but they also concentrate development so our vital natural resources can be conserved. Making these places loveable is really central to a more sustainable future.

Read the book.