Pittsburgh’s Mellon Square Is Restored to Its Modern Glory

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Mellon Square restoration aerial / Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy

Pittsburgh’s Mellon Square, an icon of mid-century Modern design, has been finally restored after a six-year process. A precursor to today’s trendy green roof movement, the plaza was the first in the nation built over a subterranean parking garage. Today, Mellon Square is a showcase for urban revitalization through historic preservation, with a contemporary sensibility and the latest technologies.

Upon its initial completion in 1955, Mellon Square unified Pittsburgh’s central business district and “typified the spirit” of the city, post World War II. Locally-based architects Mitchell & Ritchey brought in landscape architect John Ormsbee Simonds, Simonds & Simonds and author of the seminal textbook, Landscape Architecture, to collaborate on the public space. The square features a majestic central fountain comprised of nine cast-bronze basins; a distinctive triangle-patterned “Rustic Venetian Terrazzo” paving, inspired by Sarah Mellon Scaife’s travels to Europe; elegant evening lighting; lush plantings; and a second multi-leveled fountain cascading down to street-level. Simonds described the square as “an oasis in an asphalt desert.”

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1950s postcard of Mellon Square / Collections of Senator John Heinz History Center, Pittsburgh

Some more thoughts on the original design: Patricia M. O’Donnell, FASLA, Heritage Landscapes LLC, lead for the park’s restoration, notes the original design team’s “masterful manipulation of urban fabric . . . layered with three-dimensionally-nested planes unfolding to a serene interior of skydome, sunlight, shimmering water, and native forest plants.” In The Post-Gazette, Arthur Ziegler, president of the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, calls Mellon Square “a fine example of mid-century Modern design, but not in the sense of so many results of that time, when urban renewal was really a harsh New Brutalism. Here you had a real attempt to still use decoration and refined design in a clean-lined modernistic statement.” And, The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) tells us that, as viewed from the buildings, “the harlequin patterned terrazzo of the sizeable plaza played against the tiles and jets of the fountain and with the diamond patterned façade of the Alcoa headquarters building by architects Harrison & Abramovitz.”

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Original artist’s sketch from early 1950s / Simonds & Simonds and Mitchell & Riley from the Heinz collections

Despite a restoration project in the 1980s, years of little maintenance resulted in cracked paving, drainage issues, broken fountains, and dying trees and shrubs. But even with these issues, the park was named one of the 2008 Great Public Spaces by the American Planning Association (APA), who noted the “striking example of Modernism with its triangular-patterned paving and asymmetrical order of planters, bronze fountains, and granite benches.”

In 2009, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy and a team headed by Heritage Landscapes developed a comprehensive restoration plan. In addition to the two year, $10 million restoration process, the funders established a $4 million fund for ongoing maintenance to ensure the park would not fall into disrepair again.

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Proposed design restoration rendering / Heritage Landscapes LLC

Post-restoration, the park’s bronze basins have been re-patinated. The paving has been restored. The cascade fountain was recreated and is flowing again; the water choreography was re-established. O’Donnell tells us: “the cascade and main fountains were both completely reconstructed using modern best practices and technologies.”

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Bronze fountains restored / Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy
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Cascade fountain restored / Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy

Other contemporary updates include an elevated terrace overlooking Smithfield Street (inspired by early design sketches discovered in the Heinz collections), energy-efficient lighting, and a new plant palette of hardy trees, flowers, grasses and shrubs which will “provide a year-round display of textures, forms, and colors,” writes Susan Rademacher, parks curator at Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, in a recent article for Docomomo US.

Now that the plaza has been restored, attention will turn to its perimeter. Along retail shops on Smithfield Street, a permanent display will highlight Mellon Square’s “history and national significance, its relationship to the Mellon family and its important role in Pittsburgh’s Renaissance,” writes Rademacher. “Garage entrances will be upgraded in keeping with the modernist aesthetic, while new site furnishings, banners, and planters will bring the four street edges into harmony with Mellon Square.” Already, the park’s reemergence has contributed to the revitalization of the surrounding business district as millions of dollars fund new restoration and development projects.

Check out a detailed history and description of the restoration process in this upbeat video from the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy:

The 2009 Mellon Square Preservation, Interpretation & Management Plan Team was led by Heritage Landscapes LLC: Preservation Landscape Architects & Planners, with contributions by Environmental Planning & Design,MTR Landscape Architects, LaQuatra Bonci Associates, and The Cultural Landscape Foundation. The 2011 Restoration Project Team included Heritage Landscapes with Pfaffmann + Associates Architects.

Yoshi Silverstein is the ASLA 2014 communications intern. He is a Masters in Landscape Architecture candidate at the University of Maryland. He focuses on landscape experience and outdoor learning environments.

Scaling Up Urban Agriculture

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Five Borough Farm II – Growing the Benefits of Urban Agriculture in New York City / Trust for Public Space

Urban agriculture grows both food and communities – its direct and indirect benefits range from improved public health and strengthened ecosystems, to social cohesion and economic growth. The Design Trust for Public Space wants to fully scale up these benefits across New York City. And in doing so, they hope to integrate agriculture into the broader urban fabric.

In September 2012, we reviewed Five Borough Farm: Seeding the Future of Urban Agriculture (FBF 1) from the Design Trust and partner organization Added Value. Three years in the making, this first report sought to create a comprehensive roadmap for New York City to help stakeholders “understand and weigh the benefits” of urban agriculture in an effort to significantly increase local government support. FBF 1 thoroughly examined the policy aspects of urban farming, with the goal of connecting government policy with “the bottom-up grassroots movement led by farmers, gardeners, and landscape architects.” The report realized a need for better metrics and data. Now, the Design Trust has released its follow-up, Five Borough Farm II – Growing the Benefits of Urban Agriculture in New York City (FBF II) in partnership with NYC Department of Parks and Recreation.

The first section of FBF II shows us their new methodology for measuring benefits and details how they developed this with farmers and gardeners. Motivated by the high number of studies that only suggest there are benefits to urban agriculture but don’t actually back them up with data, the toolkit uses twelve measurements, ranging from food production and composting to skills developed on the farm and healthy eating impacts. This toolkit was field-tested throughout the 2013 growing season. Simultaneously, Design Trust collaborated with Farming Concrete to further develop their existing online data platform for interpreting and sharing farm data. (Free for download, the toolkit is available at Farming Concrete’s website, where users can also register for access to their online data platform).

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Design professionals, planners, and government officials will especially want to read sections two and three of the report, which illustrate best practices for “maximizing the benefits” of urban agriculture, and “scaling the benefits” through innovative models of integration with public land.

The report calls for integrating urban agriculture with the physical infrastructure of the city — by introducing compost facilities to ease pressure on waste-management, or creating rainwater-catching food production systems for stormwater management.

All of that integration will require design work. There are examples of creative use of landscape features (bioswales, raingardens) and structural elements (rainwater holding tanks also designed as seating), as well as special considerations for senior citizens (wider paths, more seating and shade, elevated planters to accommodate wheelchairs).

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Farm to Table Assembly: Comfortable, easy-to-reach components for intergenerational community gardening / Alison Duncan, ASLA, with Metro Planters for the Central Harlem Senior Citizen’s Center

One innovative design proposal: Ecologically-healthy borders can be used to define the border between agricultural and non-agricultural public spaces. Using native plants in these spaces can increase forage opportunities for wildlife and attract beneficial pollinators. And permacultural models — such as those which use “guilds” of cooperative perennial plants at multiple levels (groundcover, canopy, understory, etc) to mimic natural ecosystems — could then increase diversity of both habitat and food and strengthen community through stewardship.

City greenways could also become the base infrastructure to achieve these strategies. Greenways already serve as important networks, so why not use them for agriculture as well? Most interestingly, the report suggests a model for greenways as “linear food hubs” that integrate cyclical food systems (growing, processing, distribution, compost . . . back to growing). In this model, farmers markets become hyper-local, served by growers within the greenway and serving consumers from the same. These networks can also build infrastructure for shared tools and equipment, resources, and knowledge.

FBF II also raises some questions without easy answers. For example, as agricultural public spaces throughout the city start accepting food waste, what are the best (low-cost) models for composting that also deter vermin? Rats and public space are not the best combination.

And how best to integrate community gardens into public green spaces? The report suggests putting community gardens in public parks. They identify the challenge of balancing a semi-private space within a fully public space and the associated pitfalls of potential theft and vandalism of garden plots. Recommendations include grouping public-use facilities associated with community gardens (toolsheds, compost) separately from private plots, designing adjacent spaces for complementary activities (nearby playgrounds for children, as parents or grandparents tend gardens), and “programming the fence” by growing vines or building bird-feeders into structures to increase their functional and aesthetic appeal.

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Illustrative diagram of community garden in a park integrating native plant infrastructure and permacultures / Martin Barry & Barbara Wilks

These are a good start but don’t fully solve the issue of how to integrate urban agriculture into a dense city. Perhaps this is where landscape architects and other designers can more fully flesh out best practice designs to solve these issues.

With some 900 urban agriculture spaces, NYC is ripe for deeper city-community collaboration to further scale up urban agriculture. But designers, farmers and city officials elsewhere will also find some inspiration from this report.

Keep an eye out for the expansion of farmingconcrete.org and the release of instructional videos and technical support networks as Five Borough Farm phase III gets under way in the coming months.

Yoshi Silverstein is the ASLA 2014 communications intern. He is a Masters in Landscape Architecture candidate at the University of Maryland. He focuses on landscape experience and outdoor learning environments.

The Same Place, Programmed by Dumb Software

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Untitlted XXXI Arizona / Christoph Gielen

“There are repeatable formulas that make up many spaces in the world,” said architect and writer Keller Easterling at the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) conference in New Orleans, showing images of nameless, identical cul-de-sac suburbs, residential towers, and shipping yards. “These forms are telling an elaborate story, but really the same one, whether they are in Milwaukee or Mongolia. The story is cities are mobile, monetized technology. Their economic and technical logic is coming into view.” In a mind-expanding talk, Easterling outlined her perception of this strange new phenomenon: the city as a place-less product, resulting from a kind of “spatial software.”

These odd yet common places — replicated, cookie-cutter communities and special economic zones (SEZs) — are all over the world. They often feature the “drumbeat of generic skyscrapers.” Their new order is written in an “architectural matrix space that is outside and additional to the state. It’s an infrastructural space that has another kind of power. It’s like there is an operating system shaping the space. It’s an updating platform unfolding in real time.” Easterling said this software makes “some spaces possible and others impossible. There are active forms, protocols, routines it manifests.”

This operating system has been created by developed economies, the World Bank, “quality assurance specialists,” and “28-year old McKinsey consultants.” For them, “space is just a byproduct.” This bad software results in some inhuman places. But Easterling wonders if designers can’t somehow hack this system, “shifting how we make places.”

The dominant spatial software for creating these global no-wheres is the 3-D tour, the interactive fly-through that stuns viewers into submission. The fly-throughs result in interchangeable special economic zones (SEZs), “perfect islands of corporate control.” Every city now wants an SEZ because “they are a clean-slate entry into a foreign country. Everyone one wants one because they are the nexus of global technology.” This program has swallowed real city-building whole. In fact, Easterling said SEZs aren’t real cities at all. “Dubai is called a city, but it’s really just a collection of zones. It’s a city in a box based on Paris, New York City, or Venice.” The reality is the places programmed by these software are “relatively dumb enclaves, not optimal. The software is kind of like MS-DOS.”

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Dubai maritime zone / Dubai Maritime

She added that Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, is “the capital as a zone.” Astana is a sign that what is popular in one zone soon spreads through all of them. She made fun of “colored lights and fountains,” which have become contagious. “There are also fantasy resorts, palaces, and golf courses.” These places sell an image of “openness and relaxation,” but really “their closed circumstances have a special stupidity.”

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Astana panoramic / Bestfon.info

Heading back to Easterling’s original question: can we hack this thing? She said mass-produced suburbs are hard to beat. “We can’t just create one home to fight this. We need a multiplier, a contagion.” Basically, there may be better, more human, more custom-designed software out there to use. Easterling pointed to Savannah, Georgia, with its “simple spatial software, a set of instructions for relationships as wards grew.” Learn more about the city’s network of squares.

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The squares of Savannah, Georgia / Wikipedia

“The SEZ is a contagious platform. We have to embed something in to this as a carrier. The zone has ambitions to become a city. Perhaps it contains its own antidote.” She showed images of how she would interfere with the protocols, “exchanging, absorbing, reusing, replacing, recasting, and subtracting.”

Is Urban Agriculture Utopian?

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Edible Estates Regional Prototype #6 / Fritz Haeg

“Urban agriculture is a phenomenon today,” said Farham Karim, an architectural historian at the University of Kansas, at the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) conference in New Orleans. Upwards of 70 million people are now involved around the globe — on Farmville, at least, the popular game app, he laughed. But, in reality, there are many tens of millions farming on the ground, too. With all the growing interest, Karim played devil’s advocate, wondering: is urban agriculture scalable? And who is going to be doing all this urban farming? And if we know it’s not a cost-effective solution for solving the world’s food problems, why the persistent interest?

Food and urban life have been deeply intertwined ever since humans moved into settlements. In the modern era, there have been new conceptions of the relationship. Frank Lloyd Wright came up with his Broad Acre concept, with a “vast suburban landscape” that would be farmed. During World War II, urban agriculture actually took off, as “food production contributed to the wartime food supply.”

In different eras, there have also been “communal self-sufficiency movements.” Karim traced those all the way to contemporary artist and activist Fritz Haeg and his Edible Estate project, which aims to “attack the front lawn,” turning it from a useless, decorative object into a productive, agricultural space. Karim said new activists like Haeg “want us all to come together to toil the land.” They seeing gardening in urban areas as a way to “empower social groups and create a strong sense of community” in an age when nature and culture seem in opposition. But Karim also argued Haeg and others promoting urban gardens for social benefits are really just like the 20th century avante-garde, creating “idealized prototypes.”

The central plank of Karim’s critique of Haeg’s version of urban agriculture is that, in its promotion, it “mystifies human labor.” Urban agriculture in reality is “sweaty, painful labor.” Engaging people in cities to farm over the long-term is not easy, practical, or cost-effective. “Who is going to maintain these farms — a marginalized population? The working poor doesn’t have time.” Karim concluded that urban agriculture, at least in the West, is for the middle class who volunteer because they have time. It’s a luxury many can’t afford.

Many of Karim’s arguments are contradicted in a new book, Farming Cuba: Urban Agriculture from the Ground Up by Carey Clouse. She argues that Cuba’s unique model of urban agriculture may provide lessons for the rest of us. “Alternative models for self-sufficiency demand our attention,” given that the end of “the era of cheap oil threatens global food security” and current industrial food practices.

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Farming Cuba / Princeton Architectural Press

After the U.S. began its embargo against Cuba and the Soviet bloc fell apart in the late 1980s, leaving Cuba without any trading partners, the country initiated a massive campaign to turn cities into places for not only living and working but also producing food. “In the face of resource scarcity, Cubans responded by rethinking land use, implementing organic farming practices, and developing low-input agricultural systems, and honing techniques for independence on an island without oil.” By 2002, some 86,450 acres of urban land was farmed, creating 3.2 million tons of food. In Havana alone, some 12 percent of the city was being cultivated, with 22,000 urban and suburban producers at work.

All that local food production has not only created calories but also boosted resilience, largely because the system is so decentralized. “This is a ground-up movement in which growers have the power to choose the food they produce, the seeds they save, and the land they cultivate, and consumers gain increased control over the quantity and quality of food access.” And all that local control has also increased “social and civic engagement.”

The system of socialist self-sufficiency extends into all aspects of Cuban urban food production. Farmers are using animal traction, organic soil amendments, and “biofertilizers” or “biopesticides,” which are microbial formulations nontoxic to humans.

Clouse does a great job of explaining to the reader all the different farming types, bringing the diversity of the system to life through clever diagrams. For each type of farm, we learn the spanish and english names, the average size of these places, their prevalence, the products they create, the materials they are made of, and the kinds of people who farm them.

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And then photographer Andrew Cook shows us scenes from this agricultural infrastructure.

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Clouse explains that “Cubans hail urban agriculture as a boon for community, occasionally in all too-idealistic terms.” And in some pages of her book, she seems to apply an equally rosy lens. The reality on the ground, all that “sweaty, painful labor” Karim spoke about, doesn’t come through in this book at all.

How Can We Best Communicate Change?

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Sinking cemetery in Leeville, Louisiana / Mississippi Delta.org

Words, picture, video are used to convey the experience of change. But can they ever tell the whole story? In a world where all news seems ephemeral — with the next interesting tidbit just a click away — how can stories with deep complexities be easily understood and, even, remembered? At the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) conference in New Orleans, a set of great communicators took the big stage to offer their stories and tips for how designers can break through all the noise.

Richard Campanella, a Tulane University-based geographer, said the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe was the “searing result of generations of problems.” So many reporters began to realize the complexities in the tale. Soon, “all these arcane topics had become part of the global discourse.” He said in times like this, the only thing an expert with something to offer can do is “heed the call and communicate. You know more than most.” Campanella soon became stuck permanently on the “media rolodex, this worldwide juggernaut.”

Immediately after the storm, the “neighborhood recovery prioritization” was the most controversial topic. Not liking what he was hearing, Campanella waded in, offering proposals that helped shape the public debate. He said the effect of his guest op-eds in the local papers was critical. His argument: “Instead of moving residents out of lower areas, why not just encourage them to go to higher areas?” Using maps, he showed how 2,000 empty parcels were above sea level, providing space for 10,000 people. His report, Higher Ground, made the cover of the now web-only Times Picayune. Through his maps and analysis, Campanella showed how just 50 percent of the city is now above sea level, but how it used to be 100 percent. “The report showed that human activity has sunk us below sea level.” The report ended up “shaping the historical development of the city.”

Experts should “only opine when you have new arguments and data. Don’t rehash. Don’t get into the passions of the moment, as you can easily inflame them further.” Messages to the public must be “consistent and judicious.” He added that “the media is fickle and interviews are potentially dangerous.” Experts have the most control over their messages when they write op-eds. He said panel discussions are also fraught with potential dangers, as “you don’t know where the conversation will go. Be prudent when speaking improvisationally.”

For Michael Pasquier, who teaches religious history at Louisiana State University (LSU), images speak volumes. In Leeville, Louisiana, there was a shot of an old cemetery sinking into the delta, outside of the levees in the red zone (see image above). “This one image led to tons of news stories.” The New York Times covered it, saying “this fits with what’s happening here.” But “that’s an oversimplification of a larger set of problems.” Pasquier called these types of journalists “parachute artists. They interview a few talking heads and kooky Cajuns and then leave. The story I’m interested in is: what happens after they leave?”

Pasquier is a historian who has become a filmmaker, driven by the desire to capture and communicate change. His film, Water Like Stone, focuses on Louisiana fisherman, a group who have been “highly dehumanized through media coverage, but who have an intimate knowledge of these places.” Pasquier focused on these people’s stories, their history, also to humanize the local scientists, placing them in the landscape. “It’s not about trying to control this place, but being of this place.”

Nancy Levinson, the editor of Places, an online journal, pulled back from the conversation on New Orleans, saying “we are living through a genuine revolution” in how we communicate. The age of the press, created by Gutenberg centuries ago, is coming to an end. “It’s hard to see the edges. New technologies are disruptive as earthquakes. The old system is crumbling, and that’s messy.” The web was once something that could be ignored, but no longer. “The digital revolution is over. It has now entered a period of consolidation. As we enter a post-revolutionary future, we must rethink the old stuff.”

Places, for example, is now online only. But Levinson said the “very format of the journal may need to be rethought.” The traditional journal for one’s peers in a technical area is now “less important,” because, with the web, “these journals can be liberated from the specialists and can spur larger discourse and civic engagement.” While there may still be some tension between writing for one’s peers or the public, really, good writing should do both.

She added that the crisis in scholarly publications is already happening, as the momentum for open, digital access grows. The traditional journal provides a “vital services to academics but a low level of service to readers.” With the global connectivity of the Internet, there can be new types of publishing. Levinson pointed to Vector, a new journal that enables peer-reviewed multimedia scholarship to be accessed by all. She concluded, “design research can’t just circulate in the discipline; every investigation needs to be a narrative to build awareness among the public.”

Lastly, Makani Themba, who runs The Praxis Project, said too many advocates think if they simply marshal the right data and package it into a sensible argument, the other side will simply say, “wow, you are right.” She said, “sadly, it doesn’t happen that way. We come to every conversation with a set of beliefs. Any issue we are confronted with is set within a history and beliefs we have built over time.” Power relationships shape those beliefs. “They are embedded. We start east and go west. We start white and go black. This is what becomes normal for us. It’s deeply rooted.”

So when we communicate, “we shouldn’t start in the opposition. Some 30 percent of Americans side with progressive ideas. Another 30 percent side with conservatives. 30 percent can go either way, and 10 percent are just not in the conversation.” She said if the messages are inclusive, we can “easily find ourselves at 60-70 percent supporting us.” That inclusive message?: “we are all inter-connected. We should invest in each other.”

Next Generation Infrastructure Behaves Like Nature

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Next Generation Infrastructure / Island Press

Between crumbling bridges, rising sea levels, growing garbage piles, and the ravages of drought and storms, we’ve grown used to bad news when it comes to infrastructure in the United States. Old systems are failing, new challenges arising, and solutions are elusive or perplexing. Into this maelstrom enters Hillary Brown, architect, infrastructure consultant and professor at the Spitzer School of Architecture. Her new book Next Generation Infrastructure: Principles for Post-Industrial Public Works, is an inspiring argument for infrastructure that behaves like nature.

Armed with simple prescriptions, Brown argues that the next generation of infrastructure cannot resemble the hard, single-function and carbon-intensive structures of yore. Rather, we need “more diversified, distributed, and interconnected infrastructural assets that simulate the behavior of natural systems.” She walks us through the principles of a new ecological infrastructure piece by piece, with abundant case studies that show that ingenious, multi-purpose, carbon-neutral, resilient systems are not a pipe dream. She pays careful attention to how they were implemented, reinforcing the argument that these case studies are models that can be applied beyond their exceptional contexts.

On a world tour of next generation infrastructure, Brown stops to describe ingenious feats of co-location, “decarbonizing” infrastructure (that is, infrastructure which emits low or no carbon), and soft-path water systems. Highlights include a Malaysian automobile tunnel that retains stormwater, a French waste recovery center that powers public buses, and a Northern California wastewater treatment wetland that also provides walking trails and wildlife habitat.

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Aerial view, Arcata Wastewater Treatment Plant and Wildlife Sanctuary, Arcata, California / Terrence McNally

Other chapters emphasize resilient infrastructures in the light of the paradoxical abundance and scarcity of water facing areas around the globe. The clever, even artful, solutions to what seem like insurmountable solutions make for an inspiring read, even if the black and white illustrations and (unfortunately not very clear) flow charts breaking down complex loops and systems are not in the same spirit.

Particularly notable in an era of tight budgets and low expectations is Brown’s attention to the social aspects of infrastructure planning and design. An important part of her problem-solving focuses on combining amenity with utility, and close attention to siting and design. This is not only important to make sure that particular groups do not unfairly bear the brunt of everyone’s waste, water, and energy systems needs. People living near such projects can benefit from the community assets, not to mention new jobs, that new infrastructure can provide.

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View from the “Ecorium,” Naka Waste-to-Energy Plant, Hiroshima, Japan / Kenta Mabuchi

In this regard, but not only in this one, Brown argues that design is key. The design implications of co-location and systems thinking are huge, as are the opportunities for landscape architects, architects, and planners. Integrative thinking, cross-disciplinary design, and spatial imagination are essential for developing the next generation of ecological infrastructure. A leading role for designers is another piece of good news in an area often lacking for it.

Read the book.

This guest post is by Mariana Mogilevich, PhD, assistant professor, metropolitan studies program, New York University.

Do Curves Matter?

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Curved path in Central Park, New York City / Wikipedia

Why do images of nature have such a positive impact on us? Is it the colors? The patterns? Or the shapes? At the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) conference in New Orleans, Hessam Ghamari, a graduate student in environmental design at Texas Tech University, is trying to figure out the impact of contours on our brain behavior. Ghamari and his colleagues have explored the reaction to both sharp and curved as they relate to objects, architectural interiors and exteriors, and landscapes. As part of the experiment, they also tested to see whether prepping people to think they were in a hospital had an any impact on their response to the shapes.

Ghamari said Texas Tech won a grant to review all the neuroscience literature related to nature. They were particularly interested in one study from Harvard University researchers, who showed different behavioral responses to sharp and curved objects. They found that “sharp objects created a feeling of threat. People disliked them on a primal level.” Ghamari said, “that was a big a-ha moment, but they were only looking at objects. What about three-dimensional environments?”

Texas Tech put 36 adults in an fMRI machine to test their “behavioral responses and neural activations” to sharp, balanced, and curved objects, architectural interiors and exteriors, and landscapes. There were three sets of participants: one group was in their 20s, another in their 40s, and the last in their 60s. Stock images were selected if they were extreme representations of sharp or curved or a mix. Participants were shown multiple versions of tons of image, in black and white, high frequency, low frequency, or as a sketch. Each participant got to see each image for just 2 seconds. They were given two clickers — one to indicate like and one to express dislike.

Participants were then put through a pre-screening anxiety test. In the priming session, they listened to “hospital sounds” and were shown images of a hospital.

Ghamari said when asked — so when they provided voluntary responses — people preferred curved in all categories. For landscape, a whopping 80 percent pressed the like button. “Curves are just more pleasing.” (That’s something Frederick Law Olmsted and other landscape architects figured out ages ago).

At the same time, the researchers created a brain map that was an average for each category. They looked for any change in activation in the amygdala, which handles emotions and fear. The found that with objects and landscapes, the response of people’s amygdalas were consistent with the Harvard University findings: sharp objects create a sense of danger. However, with interior and exterior architecture, the amygdala was activated more when there were images of contours. This was a strange inconsistency, at least when dealing with architecture as participants were thinking about a hospital.

In a follow-up survey done without the priming, there was a “significant difference in participants’ judgements.” As Ghamari explained, “the expectation of what a hospital should look like created a different response. Context makes a difference.” More research is coming on what shapes people prefer in different contexts, which seems important.

In another presentation, we learned from Cherif Amor, chair of interior design at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar, that in learning environments, “warm color light is least satisfactory for those with ADHD.” Students with attention deficit issues preferred cool whites or natural daylight. He and his colleagues determined this because “cognitive areas were most activated with cool white light.”

Amor said “neuroscience is a beautiful field. How we behave is an environmental paradigm. Why we behave is a neuroscientific paradigm.” One doubtful audience member said, “the only thing this study proves is that people have brains.”

A Democratic Approach to Therapeutic Gardens

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Fisher House / My Life So Far blog

“Democratic design is inclusive, affordable, functional, usable, practical, non-stigmatizing, accessible, attainable, and aesthetically pleasing,” said Naomi Sachs, ASLA, landscape architect and founder of the Therapeutic Landscapes Network, at the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) conference in New Orleans. Furthermore, democratic design is “responsive to both ecological and community needs. It grows up from the community.” A democratic design process is then fully collaborative, including all stakeholders, but with a focus on those least acknowledged.

Sachs’ colleagues presented a few interesting examples that illustrate the idea of democratic design for therapeutic gardens:

Daniel Winterbottom, FASLA, a landscape architect and professor at the University of Washington; Amy Wagenfeld, a occupational therapist; along with students from the landscape architecture department at the University of Washington, designed a new healing garden for Fisher House, a facility at the Veteran’s Affairs hospital in Puget Sound for loved ones of those undergoing intensive surgery.

Unfortunately, the garden is found in a parking lot, within a sea of cars. On top of that, the original garden had “poor way-finding, so you felt a loss of control as you entered the place,” said Wagenfeld. It was a place where you have “very little say over your environment.” Most visitors are also coming from rural areas to the city so “they already feel a sense of displacement.”

Winterbottom said he and his students conducted intensive research, using focus groups, games, simulations. Guests of Fisher House were shown different photos and asked their preferences. They were asked to rank designs. Others simply sketched their ideas.

The new garden, which was then designed and built based on the guests’ feedback in just 10 weeks, features vegetable and fruit plants, “creating a domestic feeling.” Given many people are there for months, “we wanted to bring an icon of home — the kitchen garden.” Emphasizing the democratic aspects of the design, the team created multiple types of planting beds. There are those for people who want to sit and those for who want to stand. There’s even a wheelchair-accessible one. Visitors can plant whatever they want, too.

There’s a new children’s play area. “The kid’s area is kid-sized.” There’s a walking trail that loops around the garden, too. “The goal is to deal with the whole family,” said Winterbottom.

The designers created a fully wheelchair-accessible rain garden that treats water falling on the site. Within this area, there is a sculpture that is about “mending broken hearts and bodies, bringing them together.”

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Fisher House / Lyon Landscape Architects

The new garden is set up so that people can interact or just be by themselves. “There are a range of spaces, so you can find your own appropriate one.” Wagenfeld said it’s widely used. “There’s a sense of escape in the garden.”

According to Winterbottom, some of the challenges creating the garden were eliciting participation among guests, who were all going through some emotionally taxing times. The design team was also really young. “With young designers, it’s all about them, not about other people.” Lastly, perhaps the biggest challenge was some long-time staff members, “who often berated patients” and thought they knew what the visitors wanted, when in fact they did not.

In another example, we learn about Nikkei Manor, an assisted living facility for Japanese Americans of the internment camp generation in Seattle. Many residents of the manor feel a sense of “displacement, loneliness, abandonment, and loss of identity” when they move into assisted care, said Wagenfeld.

The original idea was to create a Japanese garden, said Winterbottom, but “to even touch a Japanese garden, you need about 10-20 years of experience. To design one, you need to find a master.” So he and 17 landscape architecture students created a Pacific Northwest-style Japanese garden for just $75,000 in just one semester.

Every space in the garden is easily visible, as many residents have dementia. There are railings everywhere — both for security and exercise.

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Nikkei Manor garden / Daniel Winterbottom

Wagenfeld said the space has “active flexibility, with a stage for performances.” The garden uses “universal design principles to create a sense of familiarity.” It’s also a popular spot for neighborhood gatherings. (see more images).

Really, it sounds like democratic design is just good design.

In New Orleans, a Delicate Balancing Act

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Site of new NOCCA urban farm / Jared Green

“A city-wide approach to dealing with water has failed in New Orleans. We must now go neighborhood by neighborhood,” said Wes Michaels, ASLA, a partner at Spackman Mossop and Michaels (SMM), a landscape architecture firm. To address the challenges of water, “we must be tactical, strategic, nuanced, and very culturally sensitive, as New Orleans has one of the highest percentages of native-born residents. We have to focus on the ecological but also the cultural. We must create a balancing act between the two. Any ecologically-designed landscape must also work for the community.” In a wide-ranging afternoon tour of the city nearly 10 years after Hurricane Katrina, Michaels showed how his firm and others are helping the city achieve that delicate balancing act.

Our first stop is the new urban farm for the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA), an innovative high school that musicians Wynton Marsalis and Harry Connick, Jr. attended. In four unused lots dotted with iron pilings (see image above), SMM is creating Press Street Gardens, which will enable NOCCA students to learn about urban agriculture and produce green vegetables for the local “farm to table movement.”

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Press Street Gardens rendering / Spackman Mossop and Michaels

Michaels told me this kind of project is one of the few large-scale landscape developments moving forward in New Orleans these days (most others are trapped in a variety of morasses). “We must work at the small-scale and in-between places in this city. But we can still do really meaningful projects with low budgets.” He argued that, in a way, New Orleans has benefited from its lack of money. “The city didn’t have money to rebuild itself over and over again as other cities have.” So what you get is all that old character that draws million of tourists every year.

As we left Bywater and drove over to the Lower 9th Ward, the scene of so much turmoil ten years ago as the community was completely inundated by the failure of New Orleans’ water infrastructure, Michaels said “large-scale planning for the Lower 9th Ward broke down for historical, political reasons. Post-Katrina, there was the ‘Green Dot’ plan, a planning project that envisioned turning the lowest parts of the city into parks and green infrastructure to deal with excess stormwater. Well, the people who actually lived under this big green dot freaked out. There are some sensitive cultural issues. So the broad landscape approach was lost. But we must still deal with the stormwater problems.”

The new strategy from the New Orleans Development Authority (NORA) is to turn many of the thousands of abandoned parcels in the city into a useful green infrastructure system that also works culturally. The problem, Michaels said, is an empty lot filled with vegetation may provide a useful role in dealing with stormwater and providing wildlife habitat, but “there are negative connotations with places that aren’t taken care of. It’s like the Broken Window Syndrome.” The answer may be to create places that are “ecologically robust but have cues to care. We need to find a landscape language that gets people to value these places, instead of seeing them as ‘other’ in their cultural understanding of their neighborhood.”

To that end, a new effort by NORA will attempt to organize empty lots into a green infrastructure network that can test cultural perceptions.

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Location of test lots / Spackman Mossop and Michaels

The Louisiana State University (LSU) Urban Landscape Lab is working with NORA to experiment with 23 lots, which will range from managed forest to meadows to some hybrid in between those, a “wildflower lawn.” The goal will be to see how intensively these need to be maintained and “how these lots function in these neighborhoods.”

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Test empty lot / Jared Green

There will be low fences around the empty lots to see if they create the perceptual cue that these places are being maintained. An MLA student will be doing a two-year study, interviewing everyone around the test lots. “We’ll see how the community responds.” Michaels is cautiously optimistic that the community will be OK with managed nature “if we do it on purpose. But who knows? If they are left unmowed, people complain and then the city comes in and mows. I’m hoping that if we can show these places are cared for, maybe others will want them.”

Michaels explained that NORA also created the Growing Home program, which incentivized people who own properties next to empty lots to purchase that lot for just $4-5,000. To help sell this to the community, SMM created overlays for the web site to show how people could “build landscape credits” needed to keep ownership. NORA would refund them on the cost of materials used. Some 800 lots were turned into useful places — vegetable gardens, children’s play areas, workshops, or just places to relax.

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Growing Home example in Lower 9th Ward / Jared Green

We then move onto a part of Lower 9th Ward made famous by Brad Pitt and his Make It Right Foundation, which has financed the development of green residences for those affected by Katrina. A slew of big-name architects have come in to create some very architecture-y buildings. Mixed in all these buildings is a new park that NORA, LSU’s Urban Landscape Lab, SMM, Make It Right, and Common Ground got together. There are test beds for stormwater management, including a wetland demonstration garden.

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Make It Right Foundation community park wetland demonstration / Jared Green
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Make It Right Foundation community park wetland demonstration project / Jared Green

Amid all the pieces that deal with stormwater are some nice spots to sit and chill.

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Make It Right Foundation community park / Jared Green

Our tour then took us to where the balance between culture and ecology truly broke down. We stop at the new viewing platform created by LSU professor Austin Allen and his landscape architecture students, the University of Colorado at Denver, and community members. Once you get up to the top of the deck, you are momentarily stunned by the view of Bayou Bienvenue — a broad expanse of a “ghost swamp,” a dead Cypress forest, killed by salt water.

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Bayou Bienvenue / Jared Green

As you read the educational materials on the deck, you learn that one million acres of wetlands and forests have been lost around the Mississippi River. Wetlands are a natural buffer. “The energy in storms is dissipated by wetlands. They create friction. If a wetland is lost, it becomes open water, which only adds to a storm’s power,” Michaels explained.

As Louisiana has spent $13-14 billion rebuilding New Orlean’s pumping stations — protecting them from being destroyed themselves as they were during Katrina — the city continues its careful balancing act between the cultural and ecological. Underneath it all, creating even more challenges, the city is sinking, perhaps at an accelerated rate.

Adaptation for All

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Empty lot next to mowed lot, New Orleans / Jared Green

At the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) conference in New Orleans, the focus was on change — and how change will impact cities’ search for social equality. Much of urban infrastructure will need to be bolstered to survive a range of shifts: population booms or busts, economic growth or stagnation, and climate change and increasingly frequent natural disasters. But as cities adapt to these changing social, economic and climatic circumstances, are the most vulnerable being heard? When cities bounce back from all kinds of disasters, are all communities in the city, both rich and poor, equally as resilient?

Jeff Hebert, executive director of the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA), said, at its peak in 1960, New Orleans had a population of 630,000. After Hurricane Katrina, the “costliest natural disaster in U.S. history,” the population fell to 220,000. Now, it’s up to 369,000, still way off its peak. “We’ve been losing population for decades. Pre-existing patterns just tend to reinforce themselves in the aftermath of a disaster.” Since 1960, the population has grown in the suburbs while the core has lost density. By 2004, the number of vacant parcels was around 20-30,000. Detroit or Cleveland have a similar amount.

New Orleans is found along the banks of the Mississippi River. Land at the edges of the river is actually highest, as it has slowly accumulated there over thousands of years. Beyond these high points along the river, the city’s geography dips, forming a bowl. The French Quarter and other historic settlements are all found on high ground, meaning they are really just a few feet above sea level. Many low-Income communities like the lower 9th ward are under sea level. These neighborhoods were made possible by a pump system invented by the city. “We started building in swamps, exacerbating other environmental issues. Maybe our ancestors had it right building just on high ground.”

After Katrina struck, some 34 affected coastal parishes and New Orleans began to receive assistance through the federal Road Home Homeowner Assistance Program. As “there was no comprehensive plan, the feds took a piecemeal, local approach.” On a one-by-one basis, people could either come back to their old houses and received funds to rebuild, or got funds to rebuild somewhere else. Some 130,000 people got $8.9 billion in grants through this program. The result: “They left us with a patchwork of land.”

NORA was handed all the leftover, empty lots. They have gotten the inventory down from 5,000 to around half that. “Most of the remaining inventory is on lower ground. Some of those neighborhoods came back and others didn’t.”

So NORA initiated an innovative adaptation program for many low-income areas, with “green infrastructure, lot stabilization, alternative maintenance, and two technical assistance programs: growing green and growing home.” Hebert said these programs are about “connecting with the community about local stormwater and beautifying neighborhoods through great landscape design.”

Getting many locals in the poorer parts of the city to buy into empty lots as stormwater management systems has been tricky. “We have to change what is seen as a black eye into something beautiful that increases the quality of life and property values.” A big part of the campaign is educating many who have been there for generations about hydrology and geology. At least New Orleans is focusing on how everyone must adapt.

Roberta Feldman, an architectural activist and founder of the UIC City Design Center, then discussed how “urban redevelopment screws people,” particularly in cities like Chicago. Cities must be more sensitive to existing populations as they make way for new ones. She said Chicago’s latest housing plan will create “high-density, high-price public housing that is not socially just or cost effective.” Instead of redeveloping existing public housing complexes, the city often just tears them down and asks the poor living there to move into apartments somewhere else in the city or join in a public mixed use development. The problem is their existing community has been dismantled, “and these residents don’t want to move.” These efforts are also not cost-effective, Feldman argued, because creating new housing invariably costs much more per square foot than simply revamping older buildings. If the city had used the money more wisely, more public housing could have been developed. “The housing authority could have renovated 25,000 units for the same price as 9,000 new units.”

Cecilia Martinez, recently head of the UN-Habitat in New York, said “we must blame architects for much of the mess” we face trying to adapt cities to change. “They assume a lot. By World War II, they had initiated the Modern City movement and assumed the car would re-organize the city. Because of the car, we had super-blocks, so no one walks anymore. They said ‘let’s do low density. Let’s put towers in the middle of gardens.'” Graphed on top of this car-based system is a developer-led system, which marginalizes the poor. As a result, “Latin America is either super-highways and super-blocks or slums.” Martinez said this urban model is clearly broken because some 800 million people live in slums without access to public spaces. “While New York City, one of the world’s wealthiest cities, is comprised of some 60 percent public space — when you add in streets, parks, and plazas — the slums in Kenya have maybe 1 percent public space.” To enable everyone to adapt, “we need to focus on walking and biking, public spaces, and mixed social structures.”

“In all of the world’s deltas, large changes are taking place,” said Han Meyer, a professor at Delft University in the Netherlands who offered a broader framework for adaptation. The problem is these deltas and other coastal areas are the site of much of the world’s urbanization. There are multiple dynamics happening at once. “There are the dynamics of the natural environment. One thousand years of land-water relations change. The way deltas carry sediment changes over time. These changes have been caused by climate change since the Ice Age, and the process has been ongoing for a long time. Then, there’s the societal use of the delta. Dynamic land-uses plus nature means a very complex system that will continue to change. We need to be able to adapt both types of environments. They are at different frequencies, rhythms. The problem is nature has a different time scale for change than societies.” So his answer for how to adapt to change: “There can be no final plans. We can only build different scenarios. “