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.

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.

Blue Urbanism: A Mutually Sustainable Relationship between Cities and Oceans

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Blue Urbanism / Island Press

Timothy Beatley, professor of sustainable communities at the University of Virginia, has done it again. His excellent book from a few years ago, Biophilic Cities: Integrating Nature into Urban Design and Planning, has been followed-up by an equally well-written and persuasive new one, Blue Urbanism: Exploring Connections between Cities and Oceans. In this book, Beatley expands his purview beyond the “green urbanism” of Biophilic Cities to the vast oceans that make up 70 percent of the face of the Earth and contain 97 percent of its water. While he still argues that cities must integrate green — really ecological design principles at all levels — into dense urban environments, he cautions that cities can’t ignore oceans and marine environments. He admits that he basically left out oceans in Biophic Cities. He certainly makes up for it in this book, which argues that we also have biophilic connections to the oceanscape, and that connection is essential to building a more “complementary, mutually sustainable relationship between city and ocean.”

It seems much of the inspiration for Blue Urbanism came out of a fortuitous experience Beatley had in Perth, Australia. There, he witnessed how “urbanites, under the right circumstances, can take on ocean conservation.” A real estate developer wanted to build a massive hotel resort along the coast facing the vulnerable Ningaloo Reef. The spot proposed was apparently the “worst location for preserving marine biodiversity.” Beatley was amazed by the collective sense of outrage, manifested in everything from bumper stickers to rallies and letter writing campaigns. Under pressure, the state’s premier (similar to a U.S. governor) shut down the plans. Beatley says “this story has stayed with me as a remarkable example of how urbanites, even those hundreds of kilometers away, can care for and advocate on behalf of the ocean world.”

The trick is turning all those good feelings about oceans — and the charismatic sea creatures we all love: whales, sea turtles, sea stars, to name a few — into real urban policies and plans that protect oceans. Beatley points to a few examples of local governments that have taken the lead, from San Francisco, with its ban on plastic bags; to Hong Kong, with its burgeoning movement to stop the consumption of shark fins; to Wellington, New Zealand, which has forged a deep and sustainable connection with its coastal environment. Still, Beatley thinks most cities can go much further than they are now, creating “blue belts,” to protect ocean spaces in the same way cities create designated “green belts” on land.

The world’s oceans — and their rich coastal zones — are in dire need of protection. While ocean diversity is important in its own right, our protection of it is really self-interested. This is because our “urban future and ocean world are intimately connected in numerous ways.” The world’s oceans are major carbon sinks, soaking up 2 billion tons of CO2 annually. Ocean related jobs total 350 million worldwide. Seafood generates $108 billion in economic value, while eco-tourism to reefs creates another $9 billion alone. We also get energy from the ocean — in the form of undersea oil deposits, and, hopefully, in the future, more offshore wind farms. Beatley says offshore wind farms could provide today’s energy needs four times over, if we were smart. Oceans are also our main transportation channels. But all of these interactions with our oceans must be done in a more considered, sustainable fashion to prevent more of what Beatley calls “ocean sprawl,” which negatively impact the “integrity of ocean ecosystems.”

Ocean sprawl has had terrible impacts. Those huge gyres — garbage patches — will continue to grow for the next 500 years, even if we stop putting any plastic in the ocean right now. Coal-burning power plants send huge amounts of mercury into the oceans. Here’s just one scary stat Beatley cites: “A recently released United Nations Environment Program report documents a doubling of mercury levels in the top 100 meters (300 feet) of ocean water over the past 100 years.” Then, there are events like the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Too many cities don’t understand their connection to oceans. Beatley explains how a number of local non-profits are trying to change that. In Seattle, a group called Beach Naturalists is helping locals understand the magic of their coastline. “The program trains several hundred volunteer naturalists in the ecology and life found in the intertidal zone, and these volunteers patrol the city’s parks to help people understand more about life in tidal pools.” And then there’s the group called LA Waterkeeper, which aims to build awareness of the massive kelp forests just off the coast of Los Angeles. Did anyone know they were there?

Returning to Wellington, New Zealand, Beatley explains how that city has “created a new marine reserve on one of its shores, a marine education center providing children and adults alike the chance to touch and see marine organisms, the world’s first marine bioblitz (engaging the citizens in the recording of marine biodiversity), and a powerful new vision of its ‘blue belt,’ a complement to its historic and prized greenbelt system.” Imagine if New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco — and all the major coastal cities around the world — took their marine environments as seriously as Wellington does, and actually extended the marine world into the city.

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Dive instructor with sea stars in the Wellington harbor / Mark Coote

In a few sections of the book, Beatley dives into what blue urbanism looks like. Of interest to planners, architects, and landscape architects, he outlines how the “redesign of buildings and public spaces to foster resilience to climate change and rising ocean levels” can also extend “urban spatial planning and conservation into marine environments.” He points to innovative examples in Singapore, Rotterdam, Toronto, and Oslo.

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ASLA 2009 Professional General Design Honor Award. Spadina Wavedeck, Toronto, Ontario, Canada / West 8 + DTAH

Read Blue Urbanism and check out the review of Beatley’s earlier book, Biophilic Cities.