A New Vision for Pennsylvania Avenue

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Pennsylvania Avenue today / National Capital Planning Commission

Pennsylvania Avenue has one of the nation’s most famous addresses – The White House, at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It forms a physical and symbolic connection between that address, which represents the president and the executive branch, and the people, represented by the U.S. Capitol building. But beyond this, what is the role of the avenue for both the District and nation in the 21st century? What does the avenue say to the rest of the nation and the world?

The National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) wanted participants to answer these questions at its first public workshop on the Pennsylvania Avenue Initiative. In partnership with the General Services Administration and the National Park Service, the initiative will “develop a vision for how the avenue can meet local and national needs in a 21st century capital city.”

The workshop began with opening remarks from Elizabeth Miller, FASLA, NCPC. Miller noted the avenue’s dual role as not only a national symbol but also a place where people visit, work, and live. Recognizing and celebrating this dual role is one of the challenges the initiative faces as it crafts a vision to guide the next thirty to forty years.

Sarah Moulton at NCPC then presented some history. In particular, she noted the accomplishments of the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation (PADC), which helped turn the avenue around, after its post-WWII decline. PADC was dissolved in 1996.

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1962 was the final year street cars ran up and down Pennsylvania Avenue / National Capital Planning Commission

Without a single voice advocating for the avenue, the street today is in a bit of a slump, showing wear and tear from increased use. It’s aging infrastructure. Its deterioration may have arisen out of the jurisdictional challenges stemming from the multiple agencies responsible for planning, designing, and maintaining various areas along the avenue.

Jurisdiction issues are one of the existing challenges for Pennsylvania Avenue
Jurisdiction issues are one of the existing challenges for Pennsylvania Avenue / National Capital Planning Commission

But change along the avenue is already underway, for good or bad. The old post office is being redeveloped as a Trump conference center and hotel; the FBI is looking into possible relocation; private redevelopment is in the works for E Street; and efforts are underway to redesign historic Pershing Park as a new national WWI memorial.

Following the presentation, participants were invited to visit stations around the room, which included a gallery of posters showing comparably prominent streets in capital cities around the world. Some stations sought participants’ feedback on their visions for the future.

For example, one poster asked, “What is the role of Pennsylvania Avenue in 2040?” Responses included:

  • “The city – one great public space; iconic, walkable, wayfinding (take that tourists!)”
  • “An iconic image of Main Street USA – people, interactivity, heritage”
  • “Should be the horizontal guidepost to the Washington Monument’s vertical”
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Ideas from the public workshop / National Capital Planning Commission

The initiative intends to address four central issues: operations and maintenance; governance; program and animation; and planning, design, and economic health. This last issue encompasses everything from security for federal buildings to sustainable design practices, from safe transportation routes to the needs of the residential community. At the heart of all of this is ensuring economic vitality, said Moulton.

NCPC is starting a robust public outreach effort, with this initial public workshop just the beginning. To submit your thoughts, e-mail NCPC at PennAve@ncpc.gov; visit their website; or  tweet with the hashtag #MyPennAve.

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.

A Technicolor Sea of Nemophilas

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Nemophilas / Kobaken on Flickr

Imagine being immersed in a sea of blue, but on land. At the Hitachi Seaside Park in Ibaraki, Japan, Nemophilas (or baby blue eyes) create a stunning, natural blanket of technicolor, like a set from the Wizard of Oz. This effect is called the “Nemophila Harmony.”

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According to Bored Panda, there are some 4.5 million baby blue eyes in bloom through May each year.

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Nemophilas / Kobaken on Flickr
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Nemphilas / Atsushi Motoyama on Flickr

The 190-hectare garden is also known for its vast tulip, poppy, zinia, lavender, and Narcissus fields.

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Tulip fields / Ryougo Ohtani on Flickr

What stunned us were the puff-ball red Kochia, which seem right out of a Dr. Seuss book.

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Kochia field / Jejustinkumar on Flickr

The kochia is a herb native to Eurasia, but it’s commonly found in North America, too, where it’s part of desert and grassland ecosystems. It’s also known as burningbush or ragweed.

If you are in Japan, Hitachi provides a useful flower calendar that explains the year-round bloom times.

Help Value the World’s Ecosystem Services

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ASLA 2011 Professional Analysis and Planning Honor Award. Making a Wild Place in Milwaukee’s Urban Menomonee Valley, Milwaukee by Landscapes of Place / Nancy Aten

The Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), an international organization committed to strengthening the role of science in public decision-making on biodiversity and ecosystem services, seeks expert landscape architects, ecologists, and others with policy experience to assess its latest research. The call for more engagement was made at a recent presentation at the Ecological Society of America (ESA) in Washington, D.C.

IPBES explains the reason for its existence on its web site: “Biodiversity from terrestrial, marine, coastal, and inland water ecosystems provides the basis for ecosystems and the services they provide that underpin human well-being. However, biodiversity and ecosystem services are declining at an unprecedented rate, and in order to address this challenge, adequate local, national and international policies need to be adopted and implemented. To achieve this, decision makers need scientifically credible and independent information that takes into account the complex relationships between biodiversity, ecosystem services, and people. They also need effective methods to interpret this scientific information in order to make informed decisions. The scientific community also needs to understand the needs of decision makers better in order to provide them with the relevant information. In essence, the dialogue between the scientific community, governments, and other stakeholders on biodiversity and ecosystem services needs to be strengthened.”

To reiterate, Douglas Beard Jr., National Climate Change and Wildlife Center, U.S. Geological Survey, and a co-lead for the science component of IPBES for the U.S. Delegation, said: “It’s always better to hear from a diverse group of people.”

Established in 2012, IPBES has convened multi-disciplinary groups of experts to conduct public assessments around the globe. With 114 member countries, IPBES is dedicated to becoming the leading international organization on ecosystem services.

Assessors will help make progress on the status of pollinators, pollination, and food production; scoping for a set of global and regional assessments of the status of biodiversity and ecosystem services; and scoping for a thematic assessment of land degradation and restoration.

If you are interested in nominating someone or being nominated for an upcoming call, please contact Clifford Duke at ESA, which coordinates the U.S. stakeholders.

Helsinki Aims to Be Car-free by 2025

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Helsinki / Wikipedia

The Guardian‘s excellent environmental coverage has been supplemented by a new section on cities, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation. Here, we learn about an ambitious plan in Helsinki, Finland, to create a revolutionary “mobility on demand” system by 2025. The system would enable all “shared and public transport” to be paid for with a single payment network available via smartphones. People would create their own transportation infrastructure from scratch. This is a complete rethinking of urban mobility for the age of ubiquitous connectivity.

The Guardian writes: “The hope is to furnish riders with an array of options so cheap, flexible, and well-coordinated that it becomes competitive with private car ownership not merely on cost, but on convenience and ease of use.”

Helsinki residents will use a new app to simply indicate start and end points, with perhaps a few preferences for mode of transit. “The app would then function as both journey planner and universal payment platform, knitting everything from driverless cars and nimble little buses to shared bikes and ferries into a single, supple mesh of mobility.” The app would be like Google Maps mated with a public Uber, but across all transportation options.

This city-wide mobility-on-demand system may build off of the Helsinki Regional Transport Authority’s new minibus service, Kutsuplus, which already lets riders indicate their own origins and destinations. With Kutsuplus, “requests are aggregated, and the app calculates an optimal route that most closely satisfies all of them.” Kutsuplus is expected to reduce car ownership, and even Zipcar membership.

The Guardian wonders whether this system can actually work in practice for everyone though. Riders would need a smartphone to be able to buy in. While this may work for upwardly mobile segments of Helsinki, does everyone there actually own a smartphone? What about the elderly, or people with disabilities?

Getting cost right will also be important. As an example, “Kutsuplus costs more than a conventional journey by bus, but less than a taxi fare over the same distance – and Goldilocks-style, that feels just about right.” How much will people pay extra for mobility on demand? And should they even pay extra, if this is to be a publicly-managed service?

Furthermore, could this model actually work elsewhere? The Guardian asks whether mobility on demand will be as effective in the spread-out, low-density suburbs of Helsinki.

And further afield, is this model transferable? Cities in the developing world that don’t have well-established public transportation systems (buses or subways) already rely on a network of private mini-buses and vans to move people around. These form a decentralized network that also responds to supply and demand. Could a Helsinki model be superimposed on such systems? And could it augment recent developments? Many developing world cities are moving towards more a more integrated public transportation network, often with new bus-rapid-transit (BRT) systems as the backbone. According to The City Fix from EMBARQ, 31 million urbanites now use BRT.

App-based urban transportation experiments are underway, perhaps showing the way to a new form of mobility. Almost all major urban transportation systems in the U.S. and Europe have their own apps that enable easy route planning; that’s a new thing. San Francisco is even testing an app to manage supply and demand for parking spaces. Uber and other taxi-on-demand services are now ubiquitous in the developed world, and have even caused widespread protests in Europe. But can an app really kill the car?

New Survey: What Makes a City Great?

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What Makes a City Great? / Sasaki Associates

A new survey commissioned by planning and design firm Sasaki Associates asked 1,000 urbanites in San Francisco, Chicago, Austin, New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C. what they love most about their city. The findings, which cover diverse aspects of city life, offer truly fascinating insights for urban planners, landscape architects, and architects. One example: 60 percent of residents of these cities say they will still be in the city five years from now. Here are some other highlights.

What do urbanites love most about their cities? 

More than 40 percent cited the restaurants and food; while 32 percent said local attractions; 24 percent said historic places and landmarks; 21 percent said cultural offerings; 17 percent said parks and public spaces; and 16 percent said fairs and festivals. Some 15 percent said “the people,” while another 10 percent said they like the architecture the most, and 9 percent said the local sports scene.

And when asked, “what would get you out of your neighborhood?,” the findings are largely consistent with preferences listed above: 46 would venture out for a new restaurant; 25 percent would travel for a new store; 24 percent for a new cultural event; while just 18 percent would schlep to check out a new park or green space.

Where do urbanites’ favorite experiences happen?

While only 18 percent will travel across town for a new park, interestingly, a majority of people (65 percent) remember their favorite city experience taking place outdoors — either in a park or on a street. (A minority [just 22 percent] said their favorite experience happened in a building).

Of outdoor spaces, 47 percent say waterfronts are their favorite. Another 31 prefer large open parks, while 14 percent prefer small urban spaces, and 8 percent love their city’s trail system the most.

So where should cities make future investment in parks and open space? “41 percent support investment in making the waterfront more accessible and appealing; 40 percent would like to see more large parks that support both passive and adventurous activities; 37 percent wish their cities would make streets more pedestrian/bike friendly; 36 percent support adding outdoor music and entertainment venues; and 31 percent desire more small urban parks.”

What makes a city’s buildings iconic?

Some 36 percent said the historic nature of the building, while 30 percent said “great architecture,” and another 24 percent said a building’s “unique design.” A majority (57 percent) will stop and look at a historic building, while just 19 percent will do the same for a modern one.

What do urbanites like least about getting around in cities?

More than 40 percent said there’s “too much traffic,” while 23 percent cited the lack of parking. Some 14 percent said public transportation is not up to par, and 9 percent said biking is dangerous. Another 7 percent pointed to things being “too spread out,” while another 7 percent complained that sidewalks are too crowded.

These complaints reveal how Americans, even urbanites, get around: 58 percent use cars frequently, while 29 percent use public transportation. Another 10 percent try to walk everywhere and just 2 percent use bikes.

Surveys like Sasaki’s are important. We need to attract as many people as possible to cities, because urban life is central to a more sustainable future. In cities, per-capita carbon emissions and energy and water use are all much lower. But beyond the metrics, cities can just be great places if they are designed to be livable and beautiful, filled with outdoor spaces, historic buildings, and efficient transportation systems.

In keeping with Sasaki’s multidisciplinary approach, the team who put together the survey is comprised of a planner, landscape architect (Gina Ford, ASLA), and an architect, as it should be when dealing with all things related to our built environment.

Herzog & de Meuron’s Gorgeous Ecological Swimming Pool

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Helen Schneider / Naturbad Riehen

The people of Riehen, a small city near Basel in Switzerland, have long wanted a new public swimming pool to replace their “obsolescent baths” by the River Wiese. In the late 1970s, the city government even launched a design competition. Unfortunately, the initial vision was never realized, but, just a few years ago, the Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron got to thinking about new possibilities. They write: “the changed perspectives brought by the intervening years prompted the idea of abandoning the conventional pool concept, with its mechanical and chemical water treatment systems, in favor of a pool closer to a natural condition with biological filtration.” The citizens liked the idea, giving it the thumbs-up in a municipal vote.

Herzog & de Meuron say their new approach enables “technical systems and machine rooms to vanish.” Their all-natural approach means no chlorine or other chemicals are added; filtering plants help keep the water clean.

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Biological water treatment basins, which are the “heart of the baths,” also play a major role. DesignBoom tells us: “The process is modeled after natural, terrestrial water purification, through layers of gravel, sand, and soil.” Herzog & de Meuron worked with Swiss landscape architecture firm Fahri und Breitenfeld on the system.

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Amazingly, this all-natural approach enables the bath to accommodate up to 2,000 people a day, who enter as they would a small pond. DesignBoom writes: “Its edge takes an irregular and vegetated boundary, with various methods for guests to enter the water. These include a gently sloping gravel beach, staircases, as well as wood docks that allow for a jump.”

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The structures around the natural pool are modeled on the local “Badi,” or Basel’s “traditional wooden Rhine-side baths.” Timber walls provide screen on the north and west sides, with built-in recliners for sunbathing.

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The southern view, which faces the river, is open. On the east side, the wood wall opens for the entrance.

There are also open-air showers and a small cafe.

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See more images at DesignBoom.

To Measure Summer Smog, Plant an Ozone Garden

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Danica Lombardozzi / National Center for Atmospheric Research

Community Radio of Northern California asks: “What if you could look at the plants in your garden in order to learn if the air around you is clean or dirty?” Turns out the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado, enables us to do just that with their new ozone garden. There, the plants show a visible reaction when ozone reaches a certain level.

Ozone is an oxidant in our atmosphere that can be harmful to both people and plants. NASA, which also has an ozone garden for research, further explains: “One of the primary components of air quality is the amount of ozone found in the air we breathe (troposphere). While ozone in the upper atmosphere (stratosphere) protects life from harmful ultraviolet radiation, ozone in the lower atmosphere (troposphere) is a pollutant that damages plants and human lung tissue.” Surface-level ozone can reach dangerously high levels on hot, sunny days, causing create breathing problems, especially for children.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set the limit for humans at 75 parts per billion, but Community Radio writes that it’s considering lowering that level. Some plants start showing effects at 40 parts per billion.

NCAR’s test garden has four types of plants, which have been selected for their “sensitivity to ozone.” These include “milkweed, snap bean, potato and cutleaf coneflower.” When ozone begins to take its toll, Danica Lombardozzi, a postdoctoral researcher at NCAR, told Community Radio: “You start to see damage on the leaves. A bunch of little black spots.”

These plants are “like a canary in the coal mine,” said Lombardozzi. When the plants react to the ozone, some of the chlorophyll cells in the plant’s leaves die. “The effect isn’t instant, though – the leaf blackening depends on how long the ozone is in the air and how long the plants are exposed.” Typically, the worst ozone comes in later July and August.

As NASA explains in a comprehensive report about their bioindicator ozone garden, ozone could also be very bad news for the plant world, and, in turn, us. During high periods of ozone, there have been known negative impacts: “Ozone air pollution has been known since the late 1950s to cause significant injury and economic losses to many agricultural crops, herbaceous ornamentals, and native plants.” Forests could also be affected.

Here’s a guide on how to set up an ozone garden as a monitoring station. NASA also created a toolkit that explains how educators and middle school students can create their own ozone garden as a scientific learning exercise.

If you have kids or existing breathing problems and are concerned about ozone, you can also check out OzoneMatters.

Design a Memorial for Earthquake Victims in New Zealand

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A Memorial for the Canterbury Earthquakes / Christchurch Central Development Unit

In New Zealand in 2010, an earthquake 7.1 on the Richter scale shook open the earth in a previously unknown fault. Over the next three years, some 14,000 aftershocks hit the residents of the Canterbury region. One particularly devastating quake in February 2011 killed 185 people and damaged much of the city of Christchurch. In fact, up until July 2013, the center of Christchurch was totally cordoned off. Clean up and reconstruction has been intensive and ongoing. One sad statistic: only 20 percent of the city’s original buildings will remain when demolition is complete, writes the Christchurch city government.

In a sign of this city’s great resilience, Christchurch has sponsored a new design competition for a Canterbury Earthquake Memorial. The memorial is designed to be a “unique and lasting tribute to the tragic events that have so dramatically reshaped the Canterbury region and people.” The memorial seems to be needed: “people continue to mourn the losses and deal with the challenges of living in a damaged city.”

The memorial will be on a stretch of Ōtākaro/Avon River, between the Montreal Street bridge and Rhododendron Island. The Christchurch government says the site was chosen because it offers a “quiet, contemplative space” that can conversely also host large events for crowds up to 2,000. A tree-lined route, which includes a “bridge of remembrance,” will connect the memorial to the inner city.

The design competition is open to everyone, all over the world. The entries will be judged anonymously, with only an ID number accepted on the submission form. This is mean to eliminate any possible “professional or personal bias” among the judges.

Entries are due August 22.

Another opportunity: Princeton Architectural Press (PAP) is seeking submission for its cutting-edge Pamphlet Architecture series, made possible through support by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). “Pamphlet Architecture is again offering an opportunity for … landscape architects to publish their projects, manifestos, ideas, theories, ruminations, insights, and hopes for the future of the designed and built world. With far-ranging topics including the alphabet, algorithms, machines, and music, each Pamphlet is unique to the individual or group who authors it.”

PAP seeks concepts that “possess the rigor and excitement” found throughout the history of the series. Landscape architects: Register by August 1 and submit your best ideas by September 1. Winners will receive $2,500 to flesh out their proposals.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (July 1 – 15)

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Dr. Robert Zarr leads a hike through a park in Washington, D.C. / Diana Bowen and National Park Service

For more LA in the News, check out LAND, ASLA’s newsletter. If you see others you’d like included, please email us at info@asla.org.

The Music City’s New Urbanism: The Nine Projects Leading Nashville’s Transformation – The Architect’s Newspaper, 7/2/14
“New riverfront parks are transforming Nashville’s connection to the Cumberland River, bikeshare docks have appeared around downtown, bus rapid transit is in the works, and the city’s tallest tower is set to rise. And that’s just the start of it. Take a look at the city’s dramatic transformation and a peek at where it’s headed.”

America’s Leading Design Cities – CityLab, 7/8/14
“Where are the key clusters and geographic centers of design in America? Which are its leading design cities?”

How Chinese Urbanism Is Transforming African Cities Metropolis Magazine, 7/8/14
“The factory of the world has a new export: urbanism. More and more Chinese-made buildings, infrastructure, and urban districts are sprouting up across Africa, and this development is changing the face of the continent’s cities.”

To Make Children Healthier, a Doctor Prescribes a Trip to the Park – NPR, 7/14/14
“About 40 percent of Zarr’s young patients are overweight or obese, which has led the doctor to come up with ways to give them very specific recommendations for physical activity. And that has meant mapping out all of the parks in the District of Columbia — 380 parks so far.”

AILA Launches the Program for Australia’s First Landscape Architecture Festival – World Landscape Architecture, 7/15/14
“The festival to be held in Brisbane from 16th to 18th of October to explore, define and forecast Landscape Architecture from differing perspectives. The Festival program includes exhibition, walks, self-guided walks, a research forum and conference.”

Christoph Gielen’s Aerial Photographs Document the Failures of Sprawl

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All photographs from the book Ciphers, cropped / Copyright Christoph Gielen

In his compelling new book Ciphers, Christoph Gielen shows us the amazing shapes of suburbs, which he captures while hanging out of a helicopter. Gielen’s goal is to use his aerial photography to show us how “off-kilter” our sprawled-out communities have become. He hopes to “trigger a re-evaluation of our built environment, to ask: what kind of development can be considered sustainable?”

The physical forms of these communities in Florida, Arizona, Texas, and California and overseas in Scotland, Germany, and China are otherworldly in themselves. The photographs titles are equally as abstract, mostly marked as Untitled or perhaps simply the development’s name, like Sterling Ridge or Eden Prairie, which are themselves ironic, given how divorced they are from their environment. The photographs of these places, taken together, truly are ciphers, in that they help us understand the underlying logic, the code that shaped these sprawled-out places.

The photographs show us that when a community is totally detached from its surroundings, all kinds of forms are possible. In his introduction, Geoff Manaugh, long-time editor of BLDGBLOG, says “the suburbs are, in a sense, intensely original settlement patterns tiled over the landscape in ways our species could never have anticipated. We are living amid geometry, post-terrestrial screens between ourselves and the planet we walk upon.”

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Gielen tells Manaugh that many of these communities, being so separated from their surrounding nature, are “absolutely self-contained.” Many of them are “not changing any more.” In particular, Manaugh describes the Sun Belt suburbs as “static, crystalline, and inorganic.” He adds, “Indeed, many of these streets frame retirement communities: places to move to once you’ve already been what you’ve set out to be. This isn’t sprawl, properly speaking. They are locations in their own right, spatial endpoints of certain journeys.”

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In another essay in the book, Susannah Sayler and Edward Morris, co-founders of The Canary Project, describe why these places are so bad for the environment. They point to arguments eloquently made by Kongjian Yu, FASLA, president of Turenscape. In an ASLA interview they quote from, Yu says: “We’ve misunderstood what it means to be developed. We need to develop a new system, a new vernacular to express the changing relationship between land and people…It should address the issue of survival, not pleasure making, or ornament. It should be for survival, because we are now, as human beings, at the edge of survival.”

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According to Sayler and Morris, Yu sees survival-based planning and development as fundamentally based in “ecological awareness and environmental ethics.” Yu begins all of his projects with an aerial analysis. He looks for the “ecological infrastructure that will guide urban development.” Yu defines ecological infrastructure as the “structural landscape network composed of critical landscape elements and spatial patterns.” In other words, Sayler and Morris write, “everything that was ignored in the developments that Gielen highlights in this book.”

Galina Tachieva, a partner at Duany, Plater-Zyberk and author of the Sprawl Repair Manual, says the photos illustrate how we are now stuck using a model that doesn’t work. “Such communities do not live up to the promise of an idyllic suburban alternative to the stress and hardship of dense city life — but have failed economically,  socially, and ecologically. Yet planning practice in the United States continues to promote and subsidize this type of settlement pattern through codes and policies that would make building traditional cities and towns illegal today. These trends are perpetuated despite what we know about more efficient use of land, energy, and water.”

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Tachieva argues, “the time has come to switch from auto-dependent and single-use monocultures to complete, human-scale communities.” Our only option, she says, is to “repair the worst excesses of sprawl — to find ways to restructure and redefine as much of it as possible into livable and robust neighborhoods.” This can happen by introducing new transit options, reconfiguring suburban blocks into denser ones, transforming dead malls into new town centers, and converting vacant sprawled-out communities back into open spaces and farmland. Sprawled-out places can devolve or shrink back.

Following the lead of developers and elected officials, the urban planning and design professions really enabled these kinds of developments to happen. Solving suburban sprawl — really, fixing the mess we created — will then require a long-term, collective effort. And, for some, these places may not even be seen as a problem. As a recent article from The Washington Post explains, liberals see dense urban environments as the answer, while conservatives are fine with their McMansions set within the endless sprawl.

Explore the book.