Landscape Architects: Get Your PARK(ing) Day on

AUB Landscape Society celebrates Park(ing) Day / outlookaub.com
AUB Landscape Society celebrates Park(ing) Day / outlookaub.com

Founded in 2005 by landscape architect John Bela, ASLA, a founding principal of Rebar, PARK(ing) Day is September 18 this year. PARK(ing) Day is a global, open-source phenomenon in which landscape architects and other designers transform metered parking spaces into temporary mini-parks, or parklets. The event helps the public visualize just how much of our public realm is given over to cars and all the other potential ways these spaces could be used by communities.

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) encourages its professional and student members to lead the design and installation of parklets and show the public how surprising designed parklets can be.

Rebar's original PARK(ing) Day in San Francisco, 2005 / parkingday.org
Rebar’s original PARK(ing) Day in San Francisco, 2005 / parkingday.org

Whether it’s simply a new place to sit and relax, or play a game, parklets will draw a crowd.

HBB Landscape Architecture / Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce
HBB Landscape Architecture parklet / Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce
SWA Group Landscape Architecture teamed up with the Bentley Reserve to set up a pop-up bocce ball court
SWA Group Landscape Architecture teamed up with the Bentley Reserve to set up a pop-up bocce ball court

PARK(ing) Day is an excellent opportunity to teach the public about landscape architecture. Parklets offer a glimpse of what landscape architects or designers can do, and the value design adds to public spaces. People passing-by will stop to check out your parklet and learn about its designers.

Happy PARK(ing) Day / The Penn Stater
Happy PARK(ing) Day / The Penn Stater

PARK(ing) Day can earn you plenty of local attention, but ASLA wants to show you and your parklet to the world. On September 18, post a picture of your parklet with #ASLAPD on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, and ASLA will share it. We’ll put our favorite student and professional-designed parklets in an ad in Landscape Architecture Magazine.

If you would like to participate in the event, visit ASLA’s PARK(ing) Day site to get started and learn about local permitting and insurance. For inspiration for your parklet, read our PARK(ing) Day 2014 recap or contact your local ASLA Chapter. Have questions? Send them to jtaylor@asla.org.

Nature: The Savior of Cities?

Conservation for Cities: How to Plan & Build Natural Infrastructure by Robert McDonald / Island Press
Conservation for Cities: How to Plan & Build Natural Infrastructure by Robert McDonald / Island Press

In my first year studying for a landscape architecture degree, our textbook for a course on environmental resources was thick, heavy, and weighed down in page upon page of extraneous jargon that obscured the portions that were legitimately interesting and useful. It’s too bad Conservation for Cities: How to Plan & Build Natural Infrastructure, by Robert McDonald, wasn’t around. Even at a quarter the length, it provides exponentially more value – not only for professionals and students in landscape architecture, engineering, planning, and the like, but also city officials, community leaders, and anyone interested in the benefits of integrating natural infrastructure into our cities.

“The twenty-first century will be the fastest period of urban growth in human history,” says McDonald, who is also senior scientist for sustainable land use at the Nature Conservancy. Will this lead to a dystopian end of nature, as predicted by some conservationists? Or will we build cities that exist in co-harmony with nature? “If the city’s plans [to integrate natural infrastructure] are conducted, what is the cumulative effect? What will the city look like? What will it feel like to live in this greener, more resilient city?”

While these are some questions we can only fully answer in the future, McDonald gives us a practical manual for getting there. McDonald’s approach – using conservation for cities – is the product of a framework rooted in the concept of ecosystem services, the many benefits nature can provide us. This is in contrast to conservation in cities, which refers to protecting biodiversity in areas or urban growth; and conservation by cities, the act of making cities more efficient in resource-use and expenditure. Conservation for cities “aims to figure out how to use nature to make the lives of those in cities better. Rather than focusing on how to protect nature from cities, this book is about how to protect nature for cities.”

Approaches to conservation - in, by, and for cities / Island Press
Approaches to conservation – in, by, and for cities / Island Press

City leaders make decisions based on qualitative and quantitative assessments and then implement strategies, which then must be tracked for success or failure. McDonald spends the core of the book going over mapping, valuation, assessment, implementation, and monitoring methods for ten key areas of ecosystem benefits, each with its own chapter: drinking water protection; stormwater; floodwater; coastal protection; shade; air purification; aesthetic value; recreation value and physical health; parks and mental health; and the value of biodiversity in cities.

When possible, McDonald refers to specific formulas, models, software, and other tools that have proven the most successful. For the more casual reader, these technical details are easy to skim. For the professional looking for practical approaches, these details will likely be useful. It’s also worth noting here that the graphics in this pre-publication proof are somewhat sparse, and tend towards the schematic. Additional footnotes, photographs, and illustrations may be included in the finished book.

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Schematic illustrations demonstrate evapotranspiration with and without natural infrastucture / Island Press
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 Beach profiles for sandy shores in a temperate climates versus coastal mangroves in tropical habitats, and the effect on tides and storm surge  / Island Press

Despite the proficient use of market valuation processes, economic indicators, and the like for assessing ecosystem services, McDonald also understands that the value of nature is simply beyond human measures. While professionals and advocates for natural infrastructure are also likely to appreciate the inherent value of nature, that value is difficult to use as an argument against grey infrastructure approaches. Value is calculated in fairly strict black and white economic terms these days.

McDonald uses the “dry and academic” term ecosystem services “because it is standard in the field now, and it makes clear the economic value of nature’s benefits. But [he hopes that] the reader haven’t lost sight of the fact that always behind ecosystem services are people’s lives.”

It’s McDonald’s hope that “rather than completely bending nature to our will, we could bend our will to match nature’s pathways, at least a little bit. The science of ecosystem services gives us some of the crucial tools to follow these other pathways, if we have the love to follow them.”

For those who feel the love, Conservation for Cities offers a compelling trail head to these pathways of the future. I kept thinking I might use that old environmental resources textbook as a resource one day. This year, I finally donated it to make room on the shelf for other books. Conservation for Cities, however, is likely to stay there for quite some time.

Yoshi Silverstein, Associate ASLA, is the founder of Mitsui Design and director of the Jewish outdoor, food, and environmental education fellowship at Hazon, the country’s leading Jewish environmental organization. 

Smartphone Apps for Landscape Architects: Useful Tools for Site Analysis and Design

Smartphone apps / Istockphoto

In order to better understand what smartphone apps landscape architects use to conceptualize, design, and construct projects, ASLA recently surveyed practicing landscape architects, students, and university faculty from around the world. In this three-part series, we summarize the results of the survey, which yielded more than 150 responses over two weeks. Our goal is to let landscape architects know about all the useful apps they might not be aware of, and how these tools can be incorporated into increasingly multimedia design processes.

Some 64 percent of survey respondents are registered landscape architects. And 78 percent are ASLA members, of which 15 percent are associate and student members and 8 percent are fellows.

The survey assessed smartphone app use during multiple phases areas of the design process: site analysis, conceptualization and design, design reference, plant identification and selection, construction, and presentation. Respondents were asked which app they use most during each of these phases, how frequently they use that app, and who recommended it to them.

What App Do You Use When Analyzing a Site? 

76 percent of respondents used a smartphone app to analyze a site for all or most projects, while 15 percent of respondents have never used an app when conducting site analysis. 75 percent said they discovered the app on their own, while 15 percent said their firm encouraged them to use it. Others were informed about these apps through their university or by co-workers.

The most popular site analysis apps identified by respondents:

Google Earth App / Google Inc. on the iTunes App Store

1. Google Earth (free; ios / android): By far, the most popular app used for site analysis. The newest version of the Google Earth app allows users to search for exact locations as well as turn on and off layers that include streets names, borders, and photography. Through the 3-D street view option, users can get a real sense of what places are like on the ground.

2. Camera (free; ios /android): Built into all smartphones, the camera app is extremely popular for documenting sites. The iPhone camera has 8 megapixels, exposure controls, and panorama options. It also can shoot HD, slo-mo, and time-lapse video. The android camera offers similar features.

3. GPS Essentials (free; android): The GPS essentials app allows users to navigate maps, trace tracks, and manage waypoints. For any given area, the app show navigation values such as latitude, longitude, altitude, and sun and moon data. Routes, tracks, and waypoints drawn in the app can be exported to Google Earth and Google Maps.

4. Sunseeker ($9.99 ios; $7.49 android): Sunseeker uses GPS and magnetometer data to show the sun’s path at a given location on both a flat compass view and as a realistic camera view. The app, which shows the sun’s location in hour intervals, its winter and summer solstice path, as well as rise and set times, can give users a feel for the change in solar angle throughout the year and how it will impact a site.

Some other interesting apps respondents suggested:

Clinometer ($1.99 ios; free android): Clinometer allows users to calculate the angle of a slope using a smartphone camera. The app can display the slope in degrees, percentage, or rise over run. It can also be used as a level for simple tasks like aligning a frame or a presentation board.

My Tracks (free; ios / android): My Tracks turns your phone into a GPS logger by recording your path, speed, distance, and elevation on a map while you walk, run, or bike outdoors. The GPS tracks are stored on your phone and can be exported to Google Maps, Google Earth, or as vector linework.

Planimeter ($7.99 ios; $3.99 android): Planimeter is another GPS tracking tool that measures land area and distance on a map, as well as perimeter, and GPS coordinates. Not only can you quickly measure lawns, lot sizes, buildings, and paving from a satellite map, you can also measure a specific area by walking or driving around it.

What App Do You Use When Conceptualizing and Designing a Project?

Some 44 percent of respondents used a smartphone app when conceptualizing and designing all or most projects, whereas 27 percent of respondents never use an app when working through this stage of a landscape project. Some 70 percent said they discovered the app on their own, while 14 percent said their firm encouraged them to use it.

The most popular conceptualization and design apps identified by respondents:

iPad Screenshot of Paper by Fifty Three / FiftyThree, Inc. on the iTunes App Store

1. Paper by FiftyThree (free; ios): Paper is a digital notebook app that allows you to quickly sketch, write, draw, outline, and color on a clean interface that mimics real paper. It also includes tools that allow users to quickly create charts and diagrams for quick note-taking. Special pencils and styluses can be purchased to make drawing and note-taking easier on an iPad.

2.  Pinterest (free; ios / android): Pinterest is a visual bookmarking tool that allows users to find and save photos and ideas through their social networks. Users can upload, save, and share images and videos – known as Pins – from people in their social networks or they can save content found online to their Pinterest boards using the “Pin it” feature.

3. Houzz (free; ios / android): Houzz, called the “Wikipedia of interior and exterior design” by CNN, features a database of home design ideas that are extremely useful for residential designers. Users can browse photos by style and location and save them to a “virtual ideabook” for reference. Images can also be saved for offline viewing or shared with others through the app.

4. Sketchup Mobile Viewer ($9.99 ios ; $9.99 android): The Sketchup Mobile Viewer allows users to open and view their Sketchup models on their mobile devices. Sketchup models can be downloaded from 3D Warehouse, Dropbox, or email and can be viewed from a variety of angles and with any of Sketchup’s face styles.

Some other interesting apps respondents suggested:

Autodesk Sketchbook / Sketchbook Pro ($3.99 ios / $4.35 android): Autodesk Sketchbook is an intuitive drawing app that offers more than 100-plus preset brushes, pencils, pens, and brushes. It’s designed for people of all skill levels and allows users to create everything from small doodles to detailed digital artwork. Painting layers can be controlled with different blending modes, allowing users to create artwork as they would in Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, or in real life.

Morpholio Trace (free; ios): Morpholio Trace allows uses to quickly draw on top of imported images, drawings, and photos to comment on plans, progress images, or other drawings. Users can choose from a variety of trace papers such as yellow trace, vellum, or blueprint and use a variety of pens will different line types, colors, and sizes. Just as in real life, layers of digital trace can be added on top of each to build on ideas.

What App Do You Use for Design Reference (grading standards, color palettes, project photos, etc.)?

Some 47 percent of respondents said they used a smartphone app as a design reference tool for every or most projects, whereas 28 percent of respondents have never done so. 72 percent said they discovered the app on their own, while 15 percent said their firm encouraged them to use it. The majority of respondents said they used search engine apps, Houzz and Pinterest (as discussed above). Many landscape architects identified a need for better design reference apps.

The most popular design reference apps identified by respondents:

Adobe Color CC / Adobe on the iTunes App Store

1. Adobe Color CC (free; ios / android): Adobe Color CC allows users to create color themes that can be transferred to Adobe Illustrator, InDesign, and Photoshop. The app allows users to use their screen as a viewfinder and will extract colors from camera views or photos. An interactive color wheel and color slides allow users to adjust individual colors or use pre-set selections based on color theory.

2. Palettes / Palettes Pro (free or $3.99; ios): Palettes is another color palette tool designers can use for creating color schemes. Users can grab color from a photograph, website, or select a color using a variety of color models. Compared to Adobe Color CC, Palettes offers more colors per palette (up to 25) as well as a feature that allows you to display a color full screen to compare against a real world item.

3. Synthesis Mobile (free; ios / android): Synthesis Mobile aggregates information about a user’s firm and allows him or her to stay connected with news, updates, and ideas across the company – essentially it’s a social network and employee directory for firms. Users can compose and comment on posts, as well as share photos and links firm-wide through the app. The app also keeps track of employees, projects, and future opportunities.

What App Do You Use for Identifying / Selecting Plants? 

32 percent of respondents used a smart phone app to select or identify plants for every or most projects, whereas 41 percent of respondents said they rarely or never used an app for this. 72 percent said they discovered the plant identification app on their own, while 9 percent said their firm encouraged them to use it. Many respondents said they primarily use search engines or books, or that they don’t need reference materials for plants. Some identified a need for more accurate, user-friendly plant identification apps.

The most popular plant selection and identification apps identified by respondents:

1. Dirr’s Tree and Shrub Finder ($14.99, ios): Dirr’s Tree and Shrub finder is a searchable plant database that allows users to search for plants by 72 criteria including hardiness zones, water and light requirements, growth characteristics, and flowers, among many others. The app covers 1,670 species and 7,800 cultivates with more than 7,600 plant images, as well as 1,120 botanical illustrations. Plants in the app can be sorted by common and scientific name.

2. Leaf Snap (free; ios): Leaf Snap was developed by researchers from Columbia University, the University of Maryland, and the Smithsonian Institution. The app uses visual recognition software to help identify trees species in the Northeastern United States and Canada from photographs of their leaves. It contains many high resolution images of trees, leaves, flowers, and bark to help with identification.

3. PlantAPP for PlantANT (free; ios / android): PlantAPP is an app associated with PlantANT – a website that provides a free wholesale plant and nursery directory that users can search by price, distance, size etc. With the app, users can search plant vendors and listings from their phone, while plant suppliers can upload pictures of their inventory through the app.

Some other interesting apps respondents suggested:

Virginia Tech Tree ID (free; android): Virginia Tech Tree Identification contains fact sheets for 969 woody plants from North America, including a detailed description, a range map, and thousands of images. The app can use a smartphone’s GPS signal or users can enter and address of zip code and the app will tell them what trees will survive in that location. The app can also identify a plant by asking the users a series of simple questions.

PRO Landscape Contractor (free; ios / android): PRO Landscape Contractor is made for landscape professionals. It allows users to select and create visual designs for a house or building by dragging and dropping more than 11,000 stock images of plants and hard-scape elements onto uploaded pictures. Users can search the image library for plants by common or botanical name and clone existing landscape elements into the new design.

Check out part two: smartphone apps for landscape architects: useful tools for construction and presentation.

Massive Artwork Floats Above Boston Greenway

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As If It Were Already Here / Studio Echelman

A grand new work of knots and colored rope from artist Janet Echelman floats 350 feet above the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway in downtown Boston. Commissioned by the Greenway Conservancy, the piece’s name — “As If It Were Already Here” — is as enigmatic as the art work itself. Echelman, who recently won the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award, is a remarkable sculptor of massive floating net installations and frequent collaborator with landscape architects. This new mesh work in Boston, her home town, is some 600 feet long, 2,000 pounds, and is comprised of 100 miles of fibrous twine 15 times stronger than steel set into a pattern only made possible through a half million hand-made knots.

As with another recent piece in Seattle for the 30th TED conference, Echelman is increasingly lacing interactive technologies into her sculptural experiences. In Seattle, visitors could use a smart phone app to paint lines across the sinuous surface of her piece. Here in Boston, this new piece, which cost some $1.25 million, uses “dynamic light elements” that react with the wind. “Sensors register movement and tension, manifesting data into the color of light projected onto the sculpture’s surface,” explains Wallpaper magazine.

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As If It Were Already Here color shifts / Studio Echelman

Echelman’s artwork hangs over the Fort Point Channel section of the 1.5-mile long greenway, which was tacked onto the notorious “Big Dig” project that replaced an elevated highway that cut through downtown Boston with an underground one. While the greenway is certainly better than the elevated highway, there have been numerous complaints over the years about the success of the urban design, largely because its many segmented parks are still separated from the city by 2-lane streets on either side. In a recent tour of the greenway, Christoper Hume, architecture critic for The Toronto Star, called it a “failure of the city and landscape architecture in general,” pointing out that few people seem to want to spend any time there. And Cathleen McGuigan, editor of Architectural Record, who was also underwhelmed, wondered “where can you sit?,” pointing to the dearth of public benches along the linear park.

However, local businesses seem to disagree with the critics. Boston Innovation reports that the greenway is increasingly a magnet for companies. “According to Avison Young’s Fourth Quarter 2014 Greater Boston Office Market Report, ‘vacancy in the 1.2-million-square-foot Greenway micromarket was 6.8% at the close of 2014, significantly lower than the overall market’s vacancy rate of 12.1%. The Greenway has seen 695,000 square feet of positive absorption over the past 10 quarters, a trend that has nearly halved the vacancy rate of 12.4% during the same time period.'”

Boston Innovation also argues that Echelman’s dramatic piece, with its “scope and dynamism,” has brought the greenway conservancy’s ambitious public art program to a whole new level, which could result in a sustained uptick in park use. “People are now actively searching out Echelman’s piece and are all the more likely to stroll the length of the park because of it.”

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As If It Were Already Here / Studio Echelman
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As If It Were Already Here / Studio Echelman

This is not the first time Echelman has been brought in to enliven a space that needed a boost. As she explained in an interview with The Dirt, “I am frequently part of a team that includes landscape architects who are addressing a fix to some previous plan, often the result of urban renewal.”

On her net sculpture now floating above the greenway, she said: “With my new project coming in, I’m part of the process of bringing this place back to the people.”

Go see it before it comes down in October.

And watch a video of the installation of “As If It Were Already Here,” which was so technically complex — it required attaching the piece to three nearby buildings — engineers at Arup were brought in:

In Defense of Density: Rethinking Jane Jacobs in the Era of Climate Change

les tower
Cooperative Village, Lower East Side, NYC, apartment complex / Beyond My Ken – Own work. Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons

What makes a strong community? If you’ve read Jane Jacobs, an image immediately comes to mind: side-by-side row houses, corner stores, parks you can see across. But the experience of life with climate change— in its early innings, anyway—suggests that this classic model may need an overhaul. A resilient neighborhood, that is, may not look very pretty.

Take my corner of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. It generally lacks awnings and stoops, and provides a view of boxy towers and empty lots for five city blocks. These features bear the legacy of top-down planning, the kind that Jane Jacobs vilified in her classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities. But my experience after Superstorm Sandy suggests density can support the formation of urban community.

Superstorm Sandy left lower Manhattan without heat or power. My cluster of brick towers, set back from the street and hulking in a manner that would make Jacobs spit, fairly glowed with civic spirit. Men in their sixties made it their business to climb stairs in the dark, checking on older neighbors. Once we had all swung back into daily life, young families organized donation runs to flooded neighborhoods in Queens.

What about the design fostered civic spirit? I’d offer three overlapping categories: pathways, networks, and scale. Gracefulness had nothing to do with it – not outwardly, at least.

High-rise developments like mine have a limited number of pathways through them. People knew each other’s routine paths, so they happened to see each other coming and going. This made it easy to keep track of who was waiting out the power failure, who had access to supplies, and who needed a check-in.

Pathways became lifelines during the crisis. A much-used community room became a relief station with big jugs of water. A sidewalk became a phone-charging outpost. The two-way street that bisects our complex became headquarters for updates.

Density can support extensive networks—virtual and otherwise. People created digital communities on Facebook and other platforms so they could organize relief runs and share updates across the city. During the outage, this entailed a certain amount of complaining, but it also prompted a trove of donations to truly devastated communities near the ocean, which neighbors delivered for weeks after power returned.

The last benefit of density is scale. For example, our apartment complex employs a large staff, made economical by a sizable tenant population. During Sandy, that meant many hands were available to coordinate volunteers and tend to emergencies. And there can be safety in numbers: Crudely, going where more people have already chosen to go often means you’ll be safer.

Of course, density has downsides, as well. One is visual. Jacobs’ ideal championed narrow streets with small buildings against Robert Moses’ vision of burly highways-spanning broad skyscrapers. She held, courageously and eloquently, that cities’ character flowed from their randomness. Make a city into a maze of spires, she insisted, and you make it a sterile pod for the elite.

She was right, if the enemy was a boundless zeal for shopping malls and superhighways. But, as America reckons with the true cost of fossil fuels, urban density becomes more defensible—even desirable, as my friend Andrew Blum pointed out years before Sandy.

Policymakers and designers must take care to craft that density in a way that protects everyone, not just the highest bidders. Today, the cost of fortifying my neighborhood against storm damage begins at $335 million and will only climb. Philanthropy and government have unveiled creative, phased ways to fund the cost of including all residents in the planning. But as costs and danger mount, I can’t promise the lucky folks uphill, where it’s drier, will voluntarily share the till to protect everyone.

Danger also lies in designing big swaths of cities to depend on cloud-stored apps and automatic elevators. These dangers become clear in a power failure. When mechanical systems fail, a high-rise cluster must include ramps, rescue crews, and backup on-site power for seniors who can’t easily manage staircases or darkness (or both).

Human contact becomes more important in cities as climate change advances and sea walls and cooling centers proliferate. That may seem a romantic notion in today’s world, in which much of our contact with others takes place online. Jacobs’ street sweeper might work several neighborhoods via an app today, and her full-time parent might be inside tapping on a screen. But in dense urban developments, you have to work pretty hard to miss noticing your neighbors.

Life in a hulking high-rise might not be the graceful “sidewalk ballet” Jane Jacobs extolled. But in an era defined by climate change, density might hold our neighborhoods together.

This guest post is by Alec Appelbaum who writes about how urban design can help cities cope with the stresses of climate change. He teaches at Pratt Institute and runs a teen urban-design curriculum called AllBeforeUs.

Balancing Old and New on Alexandria’s Historic Waterfront

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Plan rendering of the core area of the new Alexandria Waterfront Plan / OLIN

A new master plan for Old Town, the historic center of Alexandria, Virginia, just a few miles from Washington, D.C. which has been in the works for more than five years, is now well underway, as the city opens bidding on the plan’s flood mitigation improvements. The plan will transform one of the last “undeveloped” major urban waterfronts in the D.C. area. The $120 million project, designed by landscape architecture firm OLIN, will add 5.5 acres of public open space; develop a new signature plaza at the foot of King Street, the main thoroughfare through Old town; expand the marina; create walkable connections for the length of the waterfront; and incorporate flood mitigation measures. Three new mixed-use developments have also been proposed along the waterfront, including a plan to transform Robinson Terminal North. These plans come for approval by the local planning commission and city council in September.

Phase one of the project, which will not be completed until at least 2026, will focus on core utility, roadway, and other infrastructure construction required to support the subsequent street-level improvements, followed by attention to the flood mitigation elements, one of the more controversial elements of the project, according to The Alexandria Times. At a recent talk at the National Building Museum, “Alexandria’s New Front Door: Implementing the Waterfront Plan,” it became clear that the discussion on flood mitigation illuminates the key challenge in re-envisioning Alexandria’s waterfront: how to maintain the character of one of the U.S.’s most historic cities while protecting this architectural treasure-chest from the threat of increased flooding.

Old Town Alexandria was hit hard during Hurricane Isabel in 2003. According to The Washington Post, flooding from the Potomac River swamped the historic Torpedo Factory and many areas around King Street. Along Alexandria’s waterfront, streets were navigated by canoe and kayak, as water levels reached nearly 9 feet above sea level. More recent storms, such as Hurricane Irene in 2011, were also devastating. Long-term, Alexandria’s Potomac waterfront will experience sea level rises of more than 2.3 to 5.2 feet by 2100 — according to the Waterfront Small Area Plan — and certain areas of the city now flood at least once a month, so OLIN made flood mitigation a high priority in the master plan.

Old Dominion Boat Club Manager John Sterling rows a canoe on flooded King Street after Hurricane Isabel / Getty Images by Alex Wong
Old Dominion Boat Club Manager John Sterling rows a canoe on flooded King Street after Hurricane Isabel / Getty Images by Alex Wong

Based on a 2010 flood mitigation study commissioned by the Alexandria city government, OLIN proposed a comprehensive plan that balances mitigation, cost, and maintaining views. The waterfront plan will protect against nuisance flooding at 6 feet higher than sea level through drainage improvements, a combined sea wall and pedestrian walkway, and the use of green infrastructure techniques such as swales and rain gardens. Not only will this protect Old Town against the majority of flooding, this level of protection was found to be the most cost-effective and least visually intrusive for the majority of flooding events, according to a 107-slide presentation by OLIN.

However, the historic character of the city may still be at risk during major storms. “The level was set at 6 feet so it would not destroy the character of the viewshed or the city’s historic character, but this flood mitigation will be overtopped eventually,” said Tony Gammon, acting deputy director of the department of project implementation for Alexandria, at the National Building Museum. “It won’t be a surprise to us.”

Water levels on the Old Town Waterfront / City of Alexandria
Water levels on the Old Town Waterfront / City of Alexandria

Other elements of the waterfront project, which were decided based on extensive community input, strike a balance between preserving character and improving function quite well. According to the small area plan, “throughout the planning process, Alexandrians asked for more ‘things to do’ on the waterfront.” Once a working waterfront bustling with commercial activity, Old Town’s current attractions are now primarily located in-land. The new plan aims to bring a high level of activity back to the waterfront in a new form. A public boardwalk along the water’s edge will improve access to the river, while new public spaces, including a large public park called Fitzgerald Square, will bring people to parts of Old Town that were formerly industry-dominated. Old buildings will be memorialized, views to the river from King Street will be opened up, and three derelict sites will get new mixed-use development.

Existing site of Fitzgerald Square / OLIN studios
Existing site of Fitzgerald Square / OLIN
The new Fitzgerald Square park with a reflecting pool / OLIN studios
The new Fitzgerald Square park with a reflecting pool / OLIN studios

According to Robert M. Kerns, development division chief for Alexandria, who spoke on the National Building Museum panel, the crowning achievement of the project has been its ability “to balance new development with the city’s historic patterns.” Preserving historic character was not only a consideration for the flood mitigation strategies, but also for the city’s new promenades and public spaces. For example, the proposed Prince Street promenade, which will end at riverfront, will have a series of formal gardens that complement the scale of the surrounding structures. “Ensuring an historic scale was important to city identity, as was following the pattern of existing buildings,” Kerns said about the proposed promenade.

The existing view of the waterfront at the end of Prince Street / OLIN studios
The existing view of the waterfront at the end of Prince Street / OLIN
Rendering of the new proposal for the end of the Prince Street promenade / OLIN studios
Rendering of the new proposal for the end of the Prince Street promenade / OLIN

But do the character-conscious flood mitigation strategies go far enough to protect Old Town from the next super storm? While Alexandria is unique due to historic character, the careful approach to flood mitigation provides a contrast to cities like New York City and Boston, which have recently held design competitions that have yielded ambitious waterfront resiliency plans in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. The projects that have come out of Living with Water in Boston and Rebuild by Design in NYC will be designed to withstand catastrophic storm events, far more than a 6 foot nuisance flood. While New York and Boston are bigger cities, and arguably at greater risk from sea level rise than Old Town, the effort in Old Town raises questions about the depth of resilience being planned and designed.

After years of debate over the Old Town waterfront, there is now some consensus on how to upgrade this historic place with new parks, better access to the waterfront, and improved flood mitigation. However, the project, which will be in the works for the next decade, ultimately proves just how much “new” residents of one of the country’s oldest cities are willing to accept. Continued flooding may be the price.