In Portland, Ecotrust Builds a Hub for Sustainable Food

Redd on Salmon Street / Ecotrust
Redd on Salmon Street / Ecotrust

“Our agricultural system is broken,” said Nathan Kadish, managing director of Ecotrust Capital Partners, at SXSW Eco in Austin, Texas. Industrial farms today emit huge quantities of methane and carbon, use vast amounts of water, and are major sources of chemical runoff. To help fix the system, local producers who are committed to sustainable practices need to be given the opportunity to scale up and sell to the institutional food buyers that have multi-billion dollar annual budgets. Ecotrust, a well-known environmental non-profit based in Portland, aims to help those farmers with their ambitious Redd on Salmon Street project, expected to open in Portland in 2016. The project, which won SXSW’s Place by Design resilience competition, is being designed and built by OPSIS, Green Gables architecture, Base landscape architecture, and Walsh Construction Company.

As Ecotrust explains: “Portland is an international mecca for vibrant, seasonal food and artisan producers. But too often, developing food producers can’t move beyond niche products sold at high costs (to offset high distribution cost), afforded by only a small segment of the local community. The Redd will serve ‘ag in the middle,’ mid-size rural farmers, ranchers, and fishers who have outgrown direct-to-consumer channels, such as CSAs and farmers’ markets, and are looking to scale their business. The Redd will increase access to value-added producers, markets, and infrastructure (like warehousing, aggregation and distribution), a lack of which inhibits growth.”

The new Redd on Salmon Street will consist of a square-block 80,000-square-feet food production and distribution facility in the Central Eastside neighborhood of Portland. They are rehabilitating two buildings with the highest levels of sustainable design: the Marble, a former distribution hub, and the Foundry, an iron works plant from the early 20th century. During the design charrette, Kadish said, the EcoTrust team met with food buyers, farmers, ranchers, fisherman, and architects in order to design the space to offer lots of open space, but also a set of large and small agricultural facilities.

Redd on Salmon Street / Ecotrust Vimeo
Redd on Salmon Street / Ecotrust Vimeo

Some details from their website: “With over 20,000 square feet of warehouse space, the Marble building will serve as a cold storage, aggregation, packaging, and distribution center for the Redd, and also includes over 6,000 square feet of prime storefront and studio space for retail and ancillary businesses. Plans for the Foundry restoration include 16,000 square feet of food production space, including USDA-certified meat processing facilities and specially-equipped facilities for value-added grain production. In addition, eight smaller spaces are under design for small-scale on-site food production.”

Redd on Salmon Street / Ecotrust
Redd on Salmon Street / Ecotrust

As Kadish explained, Ecotrust wants to create a set of working spaces that can help create a “symbiotic ecosystem” with all the players involved, but with a focus on serving the needs of the institutional buyers, which serve hospitals and schools. “Redd will be demand-side driven, as opposed to a rural farm-side aggregator.” Already, the Northwest Food Buyers Alliance has been formed and gotten on board. Together, these food buyers provide 125,000 meals a day.

Kadish thinks the new agricultural campus will eventually employ 400 people, with 200 new jobs. The ripple effects in the broader agricultural economy could of course be much greater. And if Ecotrust succeeds, hopefully Redd will serve as a model to help other small-scale farmers move up the ladder.

A few other Place by Design competition finalists are worth noting: The Center for Sustainable Landscapes at Phipps Conservancy and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is one of the greenest buildings in the world, and one of the few to achieve LEED Platinum, the Living Building Challenge, and SITES 4-star certifications. Landscape architecture firm Andropogon Associates along with other designers participated in a two-year integrated design process to achieve this high standard.

In Beirut, Lebanon, local architect Adib Dada and his team are banding together with non-profits to create a plan for restoring the degraded Beirut River. Dada plans to use “biomimicry at the systems scale” with a set of green and “blue” streets, sponge parks, and green roofs to restore the river ecosystem to health.

How Autonomous Vehicles Will Change the Built Environment

Driverless vehicle highway / Natalia Beard, SWA Group
Driverless vehicle highway diet / Natalia Beard, SWA Group

Imagine a future with autonomous vehicles, ordered through a subscription service, shuttling passengers safely to any destination at up to 130 miles per hour. Now think about what this means for our streets and highways, parking infrastructure, public spaces, and even the organization of our communities. At SXSW Eco in Austin, Texas, Kinder Baumgardner, ASLA, president of landscape and urban design firm SWA Group, took us through a wild thought experiment, showing us what a driverless future could look like. He believes the majority of travel will be autonomous by 2050, with huge implications for our built environment.

According to Baumgardner, there are 1.2 billion cars in the world today, and that number is expected to grow to 2 billion by 2030 as automobile ownership surges in China and India. All of these drivers spend about 30 percent of their time looking for parking, which means about 1 billion miles annually. The U.S. alone has a billion parking spaces, and, together, they take up an area the size of Puerto Rico. As the number of cars grows, so has the number of fatal accidents. This year, 1.24 million people lost their lives in crashes, and the fatalities in places like the Middle East, where they drive really fast, are growing quickly. Autonomous vehicles could not only dramatically reduce the number of cars and, therefore, parking spaces but also make automotive travel much safer.

Baumgardner started thinking about what a future with autonomous vehicles would look like when SWA Group began working with Texan officials on ways to accommodate a bulked-up Interstate 45, which will expand to take up a whopping 26 lanes by 2050. Texas’ department of transportation needs to be able to move a million cars through every day.

He thinks the majority of travel will be autonomous in coming decades, potentially making Houston’s extra infrastructure unnecessary. Some 85 million driverless cars are expected to be sold by 2035. One of Tesla’s cars is already nearly autonomous. “It’s about when this will happen, not if.”

The move to fully autonomous vehicles will happen in steps, much like full adoption of the elevator took many years. “The elevator was viewed as dangerous at first, but then they put in a call box, alarm, and safety switch” and people’s fears were eased. In the same way, driverless cars could first include steering wheels and other controls and then slowly phase those out.

We heard a positive vision of robotic cars. People will no longer own cars but simply subscribe to car subscription services. There could be different rates for single vehicles or vans, high-end vehicles or modest ones. Users could also modify their subscription based on use — someone could hire a convertible for a ride to the beach or a truck when moving.

Driverless cars will be more fuel efficient, as they won’t need to park — they’ll simply drop you off and then pick up another customer or return to some charging station.

Autonomous vehicles will sense and even communicate with each other and therefore perhaps need their own lanes separate from human-driven cars, which will be viewed as more dangerous. They will then be able to reach speeds of up to 130 miles per hour (210 kilometers per hour) because congestion can be managed and accidents automatically avoided. Cars will also be able to share neighborhood streets with pedestrians and bicyclists better because they will sense any movement and slow down.

Driverless vehicles / Natalia Beard, SWA Group
Driverless vehicles / Natalia Beard, SWA Group

In cities, autonomous vehicles could result in the rise of multiple downtowns, a series of walkable hubs. “Cars will drive you from place to place where you can then walk around.” Robotic cars could even integrate with services like Foursquare, which map where your friends are, to automatically take you places.

Due to the reduced number of cars, there will be many opportunities to transform the built environment. “What happens to the land freed up? 22-lane highways can be reduced to 8.” All those extra lanes on the sides of now-too-wide highways could be transformed into green corridors, providing habitat for pollinators like butterflies and birds. In places, “it could be rough, untended nature” or designed “sponge-like spaces” that absorb water.

Driverless highway of the future / Natalia Beard, SWA Group
Driverless highway of the future / Natalia Beard, SWA Group

Parking structures could become flexible spaces for apartments or even artists’ studios.

Parking garage of the future / Natalia Beard, SWA Group
Parking garage of the future / Natalia Beard, SWA Group

And parking lots could become public spaces like parks or markets.

Parking lot transformed into a market space / Natalia Beard, SWA Group
Parking lot transformed into a market space / Natalia Beard, SWA Group

Baumgardner wondered what driverless cars mean for the suburbs. “Will we see the rise of walkable sprawl?” As autonomous vehicles minimize the need for cars, suburban communities will now be even more expansive on foot and need to reinvest in building sidewalks, bicycle lanes, and trail systems. As for the typical suburban forms, “cul-de-sacs can become the space for temporary pools or community centers.” And garages, now without cars, could become the new front porch, opening up to create a more lively streetscape.

One question from the audience: Will autonomous vehicles be affordable? Will we need public autonomous vehicle systems? Baumgardner sees “different systems for different income levels. For lower income users, safety and security will be most important. Entrepreneurs could create shared systems. Or local governments could subsidize use. This will definitely need planning.”

And the transition to driverless cars and trucks will not be without major challenges. Baumgardner sees a new era of messy transportation coming, with a mix of autonomous and non-autonomous vehicles duking it out. And he wonders whether the shift to autonomous vehicles can happen everywhere. For example, in India, where cars share road space with elephants, the transition will be much slower.

But in the developed world, there will still be lots of opportunities to integrate autonomous vehicles with other high-speed transportation systems, like the Hyperloop now in early stages of development.

In another talk at the conference, Dirk Ahlborn, CEO of JumpStartFund, and now Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, outlined how he and his colleagues are responding to Tesla founder Elon Musk’s call to create a “hyperloop,” a system of “reduced-pressure” tubes that would pull passengers in capsule cars through at speeds up to 750 miles per hour (1,200 kilometers per hour). Ahlborn sees a network of tubes high up on pylons, which will make them earthquake proof. “It will be the safest ride possible. No humans will be involved.” A network of tubes will then connect cities across the U.S. and world. But Ahlborn admitted local access to the Hyperloop stations is a problem that still needs to be worked out. If it’s not convenient to get to the stations, people won’t use it.

Hyperloop / Hyperloop Transportation Technologies

Like the vision for autonomous vehicles, which first appeared at the Futurama exhibit at the New York World’s Fair in 1939, the one for traveling through vacuum tubes is an old one, too. In 1904, a Swiss company filed a patent for such travel. Now, that dream may soon be realized. Prototypes are being built and tested in the Quay Valley, halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. A 5-mile stretch is expected to open by 2018.

So much faith that our technologies will only improve.

ASLA Survey: Landscape Architecture Student Body Slowly Becoming More Diverse, But African Americans Still Underrepresented

ASLA 2015 Student collaboration Honor Award. Reverse Engineering: Reconfiguring the Creek-Campus Interface. Pongsakorn Suppakittpaisarn, Student ASLA; John Whalen, Student ASLA; Qiran Zhang, Student ASLA; Fernanda Maciel, Tianyu He; Mari Mensa; Sarah Grajdura | Graduate | Faculty Advisor: Tawab Hlimi | University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign
ASLA 2015 Student collaboration Honor Award. Reverse Engineering: Reconfiguring the Creek-Campus Interface. Pongsakorn Suppakittpaisarn, Student ASLA; John Whalen, Student ASLA; Qiran Zhang, Student ASLA; Fernanda Maciel, Tianyu He; Mari Mensa; Sarah Grajdura | Graduate | Faculty Advisor: Tawab Hlimi | University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign

ASLA recently released its annual graduating student survey. This survey was completed by graduating students from 38 accredited undergraduate and graduate landscape architecture programs, a total of 323 students, up 32 percent over last year. The purpose of this survey is to gather information on post-graduation plans.

While the average age for undergraduates and graduates remained consistent with previous years, 25 and 29 respectively, and the male to female ratio also remained consistent, there was a considerable change in the race of respondents. 68 percent indicated they are Caucasian. This number continued trending down from 70 percent in 2014 and 84 percent in 2013. The percentage of Asian/Pacific Islander students increased to 20 percent, up from 15 percent in 2014. The number of Hispanic students decreased to 8 percent from 14 percent in 2014, but remained well above 2012’s 4 percent. The number of African American and Native American students remained consistent with previous years at just 1 percent.

Students enter graduate landscape architecture programs with diverse educational backgrounds. Those mentioned by two or more respondents include: architecture; art history; communications; environmental design and biology; environmental planning; environmental science; fine arts; geography; graphic design; horticulture; journalism; landscape architecture; philosophy; and urban studies. There has been no significant change in this over the last three surveys.

For the second year, the survey asked respondents about how they were funding their education and any education-related debt. 70 percent of undergraduates indicated their parents or grandparents paid or contributed to their education. Graduate students indicated scholarships and federal loan programs as the top funding sources. The average amount of debt carried by undergraduates dropped from $23,400 to $19,800 but rose from $35,100 to $36,600 for graduate students. The percentage of students with more than $20,000 or more in debt dropped slighting to 47 percent from 49 percent in 2014. The percentage of students owing $50,000 or more remained consistent with last year.

For students researching assistance with loan forgiveness, there are several federal loan assistance and forgiveness programs already in place, including the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which would provide forgiveness if a landscape architect is working in the government or not-for-profit, like a community design center.

Some 89 percent of respondents indicated they plan to seek employment in the profession, which is consistent with the previous two years, while the number of respondents planning on pursuing additional education increased from 3 to 5 percent. Of those looking for a job, 65 percent plan to seek employment in a private sector landscape architecture firm.

Respondents were asked to rank a variety of attributes, based on their importance to them in selecting job. The top two rated factors by respondents were geographic location and type of organization, which is consistent with previous years, and the third most important factor, indicated by respondents, is reputation of the organization, up from number 5 in 2014.

More than half of all respondents had been on one or more interviews during their final semester. Respondents expected starting salary decreased by $1,000 to $46,600 in 2015. However, the number of respondents that had one or more job offers increased to 50 percent, from 43 percent in 2014. The average starting salary also increased by $3,000 to $42,900.

The number of respondents who have already started a job increased to 50 percent, up from 41 percent in 2014 and 34 percent in 2013. Two-thirds of respondents who have accepted a job offer indicated that the position is with their preferred type of employer.

On benefits: the percentage of respondents reporting that they will receive major medical insurance was down to 82 percent, down from 95 percent in 2014. The percentage of respondents who will receive 401K retirement benefits also decreased to 72 percent from 83 percent in 2014. However, this number is still up from 63 in 2013. The percentage of respondents who have employers who pay their professional dues has held steady at about 25 percent since 2013. The percentage of “other benefits” reported by respondents was 27 percent, up from 19 in 2014. Other benefits listed include a continuing education stipend, Landscape Architecture Registration Board Exam (LARE) reimbursement, and bonuses.

And how did the survey respondents get hooked on landscape architecture? They were most likely to have first learned about the field from talking to a landscape architect or from reading about the field online or in a book, newspaper, or magazine. The number of respondents reporting that a landscape architect visited their school to talk about the profession increased, every so slighting, to 2 percent. Of the visits made to a school, 67 percent were to a high school, 20 percent to a middle school, and 26 percent to an elementary school.

Graduating student surveys dating back to 2002 are posted at ASLA’s Career Discovery web site. Also learn more about ASLA’s diversity efforts.

This guest post is by Susan Apollonio, ASLA Director of Education Programs.

Biomimicry Tools to Inspire Designers

Rainforest epiphyte leaf formation /
Rainforest epiphyte leaf formation /

“Biomimicry is about learning from nature to inspire design solutions for human problems,” said Gretchen Hooker with the Biomimicry Institute at SXSW Eco in Austin, Texas. To enable the spread of these exciting solutions, Hooker, along with Cas Smith, Terrapin Bright Green, and Marjan Eggermont, Zygote Quarterly (ZQ), gave a tour of some of the best resources available for designers and engineers of all stripes:

Hooker walked us through, a web site with thousands of biomimicry strategies, set up by the Biomimicry Institute. The site organizes biological information by function. “Everything nature does fits into a function. And these functions enable us to connect biology to design.”

AskNature first organizes strategies into broad functions and then zooms down into the specific. For example, a user could click on the broad function group, “Get / Store / Distribute Resources,” and then navigate to “Capture, Absorb, and Filter,” and then select “Liquids,” which has 52 strategies. One such strategy describes how the nasal surfaces of camels help these desert animals retain water. Another looks at how the horny devil, a desert lizard, uses its grooves to gather water from the atmosphere. There are just as many plant-derived strategies as there are animal ones. One such strategy looks at how the arrangement of epiphytes’ leaves aids in water collection (see image above).

All of these strategies are written in a non-technical way for a general audience. Hooker said they have selected the most “salient examples, backed with credible research citations.” Users can then go explore the citations and pull out excerpts.

Tapping into Nature

Terrapin Bright Green, a sustainable design consultancy, produced Tapping into Nature, a comprehensive online report covering the world of biomimetic design, which includes an amazing interactive graph. Cas Smith, a biological engineer, explained that the report and graph seek to “uncover the landscape of biomimetic innovation, with a roadmap that shows designs and their their stage of development: concept, prototype, development, or in the marketplace.”

“Biomimetic design is now found in almost all industries — power generation, electronics, buildings.” But to make things easier, Terrapin organizes the design strategies into the following sections: water, materials, energy conservation and storage, optics & photonics, thermal regulation, fluid dynamics, data & computing, and systems.

Tapping into Nature / Terrapin Bright Green

Using the graph, Smith picked out one story: the firm Blue Planet, which is mimicking the bio-mineralization processes of coral reefs, which pull carbon dioxide out of the water to create their unique structures, to create a new type of carbon-based building material. The firm is also creating pigments and powders. Another highlight: early exploration of termite humidity damping devices. Termites create massive mounds, mostly underground, which are equal in scale to a skyscraper for us. Within the mound, temperature and humidity levels are tightly controlled so they can grow the fungi they live on. In some of the mound’s subterranean rooms and chambers are bright yellow objects about the size of a fist. These structures are termite-created sponges that actually pull water from the air. Smith related to this to HVAC systems in human buildings, and how new systems could be created to remove humidity with giant sponges in a more energy efficient way.

Smith said the process of creating biomimetic innovations is similar to that of a typical innovation development process. “There’s just the added layer up front.” While there are risks in any process, biomimetic designs, he argued, will be the source of “breakthrough products for solving our problems.” If the designers and engineers creating these new products and processes follow nature, “they can embed sustainability throughout.”

Zygote Quarterly 

Marjan Eggermont, an instructor at the Schulich school of engineering at the University of Calgary, is the co-editor of Zygote Quarterly (ZQ), which biomimicry pioneer Janine Benyus called as “ecstatic as nature.” The magazine uses compelling imagery, interviews, and case studies to provide a historical record of the growing biomimetic design movement.

One issue explored Issus, a backyard bug, that has gears in its nymphal form. “We thought we invented gears but it turns out we were wrong. Nature already got there first.”

Issus gears / Zygote Quarterly
Issus gears / Zygote Quarterly

The gears, which Eggermont’s engineer husband modeled and then 3-D printed, were passed around so we could check them out. According to Eggermont, the gears are “remarkably self aligning, backlash free, with a one-directional timing mechanism that sweeps through a subtle 3D path.” They could potentially be applied to our world as “evolved mechanisms, ad hoc hinges, for seldom-used orchestrated movements — precise movements.” Eggermont thinks they could one day be used in space crafts.

But thinking more broadly, Eggermont sees the magazine as an educational tool. In the future, she wants each case study in the magazine to have a link to a 3D file that can be downloaded and printed. Real models could then be passed around in classrooms or design firms for inspiration.

Benyus, who was also in the session, went even further, calling on fans of biomimetic design to go to natural history museums, scan the collections and create a worldwide library of digital files that could be widely accessed as design models. “We can have a scan jam.”

Carbon Is the Root of a New, Sustainable Agricultural System

Prairie grass roots /
Prairie grass roots /

Turning the conventional wisdom on its head, Janine Benyus, author of Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature and founder of the Biomimicry Institute, argued that carbon dioxide pollution in the atmosphere can become the source of a new, regenerative agricultural system at SXSW Eco in Austin, Texas. Instead of treating carbon dioxide emissions as a waste product that needs to be reduced, it can instead fuel our food production. We can mimic the functions of prairie ecosystems to store all of that excess CO2 and create a more sustainable food production system.

“Nature has no landfills; everything has a second life,” Benyus argued. Carbon dioxide is already the basis of a complex system of “upcycling” in nature. A tree absorbs carbon dioxide, sequestering it as it grows. When it dies, it’s decomposing trunk is taken over by fungi, which consume the carbon. This fungi is then eaten by voles, which are then eaten by owls, and on the cycle goes.

We can help nature improve its ability to bio-sequester carbon. “We can undertake carbon farming in nature’s image.” This requires moving towards “ecosystem-inspired agricultural practices,” or “biomimetic agriculture.”

She explained how monocultures — rows and rows of the same crops — strip the land of its ecosystem functions: its underlying ability to sequester carbon. “With tilling and the use of added chemicals in farming, we’ve lost the ability to store carbon deep in the soils.”

In contrast, in prairie ecosystems, where there are perennial grasses like wheat, plants store carbon deep in the soil through long roots, some that go as far as 20 feet deep. Prairie grasses evolved the ability to do this. In a fully-functioning prairie, bison and other grazers would prune grasses all the way down to the ground. To survive, these grasses had to store much of their energy (and carbon) way down in the roots. Sustainable agricultural practices that preserve perennials through the use of crop diversity could then not only produce food but also help us store the excess carbon in the atmosphere.

Restoring the natural ecosystem functions of grasslands, as well as forests, has other benefits. Scientists have found that plants work together in a natural “world wood web” to communicate and share resources underground, with the aid of “common mycorrhizal networks,” systems of fungi that are helpers of plants. These fungi colonize plant roots and aid in phosphorous, nitrogen and water absorption from the surrounding soil and then they form networks in between the plants. For example, under a forest floor, there is a web of life, “a chemical conversation” that leads to constant interchange. The conversation is about opportunities, like new resources, and threats, like insects. She explained how in a functioning ecosystem carbon stored in roots under a tree could end up being transferred to where it’s most needed, perhaps to a shrub a half a mile away. Mycorrhizal networks then increase the amount of carbon that can be stored exponentially.

In monocultures, this mycorrhizal communications network has been told “we don’t need you.” Tons of bags of phosphorous and nitrogen are dumped on fields each year. In these farmlands, the underground conversation is over. There is no longer any exchange of carbon, water, and nutrients, and the subterranean communications network dies. To recreate this natural of nutrient exchange and removal, industrial corn and wheat fields in the Midwest use poorly-designed drainage pipes to carry water and chemicals, which then make their way to the Mississippi River and out to the Gulf of Mexico, where they create enormous dead zones. That system is clearly not optimal.

Benyus thinks growing demand for organic food can help restore natural agriculture systems’ bio-sequestration function. Some 70 percent of produce is grown by small shareholders, who account for a third of humanity. These farmers in Africa, India, South America, and Southeast Asia have been largely left out of the “green revolution,” which involved Western aid agencies pushing large-scale industrial farming techniques on developing countries. According to Benyus, more and more large food manufacturers are contracting out with small-scale shareholders because industrial farms can’t keep up with demand. These farmers commonly support a diversity of crops, don’t grow monocultures that strip the soils, and therefore have less need for added chemicals. It’s important that these small shareholders keep doing things the way they have been, Benyus said. And the 6.8 billion acres of degraded industrial farmland on the planet provide an enormous opportunity. If that land was healed using sustainable farming techniques, the impact could be significant.

She also pointed to other biological technologies that could make product manufacturing and building construction more sustainable. “Bottom-up” bio-driven designs are creating a slew of new products. Firms like Blue Planet are developing plastics from carbon dioxide. She says that in the future products will not be shipped around the globe; designs will be the only thing distributed. “We can harvest the CO2, build the files, print the chemicals, and then return them to the printer (the Earth) at the end,” in a continuous cycle. Architectural product manufacturers are also experimenting with coral-inspired building materials that take form when you combine seawater and carbon dioxide. “These bottom-up techniques for design are very biomimetic.”

Biomimetic approaches could also be used to improve water efficiency. New filtering technologies that mimic aquaporins pull out pollutants by attraction rather than pushing them through a membrane that can easily get clogged. “Imagine a giant tea bag that with antibiotics jumping into it.” Gardeners and landscape architects are experimenting with bio-irrigators, plants that naturally redistribute water. “Some shrubs have both shallow and deep roots. They use the deep roots to push water far down into the soil where they bank it for later use. Then, when they need it, they pump it back up and distribute via shallow roots. These plants help each other. It’s a self-watering landscape.” Another firm in Australia has created a natural septic system based in soil profiles. In this system, clean water eventually percolates back up to the surface.

Benyus said these are the “elegant solutions” we need. Her new book, Ubiquity, will look at these solutions that “use life’s principles to guide social innovation.”

To learn more about this concept, check out Peter Byck’s film Carbonnation. See some short clips and related TED talks.

Innovative Solutions to California’s Water Problems

"Grassroots Cactivism." the winner of the speculative category of the Dry Futures competition / Ali Chen via Archinect
“Grassroots Cactivism.” the winner of the speculative category of the Dry Futures competition / Ali Chen via Archinect

As the worst drought since the 1950s continues to take its toll in California, innovative solutions to alleviate the state’s water woes were recently chosen as winners of Archinect’s Dry Futures competition, which sought “imaginative, pragmatic, idealist, and perhaps dystopic” proposals. The jury chose three winners for each of the two categories: speculative projects that involve “future realities and technologies not yet imagined,” and pragmatic projects that can actually be implemented in the near term.

Speculative Winners

The first place winner of the speculative category was Grassroots Cactivism, which combines a cacti farm and wastewater treatment plant, by Ali Chen, a design assistant at Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG). Chen’s winning proposal would feature nopale cactus, “a drought tolerant plant that’s fit for both human and animal consumption, and remarkably, is able to effectively clean polluted water,” according to DesignBoom. The cacti would not only require far less water to grow than California’s almond and orchard farms, but the cactus’ inter pulp could be adapted as a low-tech solution for recycling waste water.

Nopale cacti would be used to treat wastewater on-site / Ali Chen via Archinect

According to the project description, the farm also aims to promote the use of nopale cacti as food and a sustainable lifestyle choice “by hosting an eco-resort marketed towards the health-conscious modern traveler, with cooking workshops, highly-rated fine dining, a water museum, and various resort amenities. The goal is to market the use of cacti in contemporary cuisine, grow awareness, provide funding for research, and slowly increase demand for a crop that can eventually replace other water-intensive forms of vegetable and fodder.”

Diagram explaining the multiple uses of nopale cacti in the project / Ali Chen via Archinect
Diagram explaining the multiple uses of nopale cacti in the project / Ali Chen via Archinect

The second and third place winners were Urban Swales: Subterranean Reservoir Network for Los Angeles by the Geofutures team at Rensselaer School of Architecture and Analogue Sustainability: The Climate Refugees of San Francisco by architect Rosa Prichard, respectively. Urban Swales imagines a series of excavations throughout Los Angeles that would collect stormwater run-off in micro-reservoirs that could then be stored and re-distributed to local communities, while also creating “urban caverns” for human and animal occupation. Analogue Sustainability would be an inhabited flood defense on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay that wraps around the island, housing those who have been displaced by flooding and sea level rise in the Bay.

Terraced landform and subterranean reservoirs envisioned in the Urban Swales project / Geofutures @ Rensselaer School of Architecture via Architnect
Rosa Prichard's "Analogue Sustainability: 'The Climate Refugees of San Francisco'" proposal / Rosa Prichard via Archinect
Rosa Prichard’s “Analogue Sustainability: ‘The Climate Refugees of San Francisco'” proposal / Rosa Prichard via Archinect

Pragmatic Winners

The first place winner of the pragmatic category is Liquifying Aquifers, a project by San Francisco-based designer Lujac Desautel. The project envisions multiple drains placed throughout the San Fernando Valley that drain back to the San Fernando Groundwater Basin, which are continually being over withdrawn “without any large-scale plan to replenish” it.

Rendering of Lujac Desautel’s “Liquifying Aquifers” proposal / Lujac Desautel via Archinect

Currently 165 gallons of water per second flow straight into the Pacific Ocean from the San Fernando Valley, rather than replenishing the aquifer sitting 40 feet below the surface. “Like a giant bathtub with a conglomerate of drains,” Liquifying Aquifers is a system of basins that could take root in urban areas, like easements and parking lots, providing community spaces that will also drain water back into the aquifer.

Diagram illustrating potential basin locations for water collection / Lujac Desautel via Archinect

The second place winner in the pragmatic category is Liquid Bank, by architect Juan Saez. Liquid Bank is a website and app that would offer users rewards and incentives that encourage them to use water responsibly. In exchange for developing water-saving habits, users would earn “aquos” that support water-related infrastructure projects in developing countries.

The award for third place in the pragmatic category went to Recharge City, a project by Barry Lehrman, an assistant professor at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. The project seeks to recycle the 502 million gallons of water that is dumped into the Pacific Ocean by Hyperion treatment plant and the Joint Water Pollution control plant in Los Angeles every day by identifying recharge sites throughout the city.

Potential aquifer recharge sites in Los Angeles / Barry Lehrman via Archinect
Potential aquifer recharge sites in Los Angeles / Barry Lehrman via Archinect

The inter-disciplinary jury for the competition included: Allison Arieff, former editor of Dwell and now head of Spur; Geoff Manaugh, founder of BLDGBLOG; Hadley and Peter Arnold, co-founders of the Arid Land Institute, NASA’s Jay Famiglietti; Charles Anderson, FASLA, Werk; and Colleen Tuite and Ian Quate, founders of the “experimental landscape architecture studio” Green as F*ck.

Learn more about the competition winners.

Angela Glover Blackwell on Building Communities of Opportunity

Curb cut and ramp / CSE Landscape Architects
Curb cut and ramp / CSE Landscape Architects

“Where you live in America has become a proxy for opportunity, and we have to do something about that,” said Angela Glover Blackwell, the founder and CEO of PolicyLink, a research and advocacy organization dedicated to advancing economic and social equity, at a lecture at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design (GSD). What can help is creating more “communities of opportunity.” One of PolicyLink’s goals is to “lift up what works,” which involves supporting local organizations that help create these communities.

“It took me a long time to realize that my personal story had anything to do with my work,” said Blackwell.

Blackwell grew up in one of these communities of opportunity. Although she was raised in the African American part of segregated St. Louis, it was deeply nurturing. The neighborhood was filled with family homes. The residents were exclusively African-American but diverse in income and educational background. Her family’s physician lived just down the block, giving them easy access to healthcare. The teachers at the neighborhood school were community members. Blackwell and her brothers were able to walk to school every day because the school was close to their home. The strength of her community acted as a buffer against the harsh sting of racism and segregation.

“I now go to neighborhoods that are all black and poor and I see none of that,” she said.

Blackwell then explained why we need to create more communities of opportunity today:

First: By 2044, no one ethnicity will be a majority; there will be a majority of different minorities. So “we have to invest in people of color because if they don’t become the middle class in this country, there will be no vast, stable middle class.”

Second: helping the most vulnerable helps everyone. Blackwell used curb cuts and ramps, which make it safe and accessible for people to move between a sidewalk and street, to make her point:

“Curb cuts are now in every city across this country. They are there because people with disabilities advocated for them. But how many times have you been pushing a baby carriage and been so happy you didn’t have to pick up that contraption? How many times have you, like me, been pulling a suitcase and you were able to make that train? But I bet you didn’t know this: those curb cuts have saved lives. Those curb cuts oriented people to go to the corner to cross the street safely. You were supposed to go the corner, but the curb cuts tell you exactly where to go. They are an example of how when you solve problems for the most vulnerable, you solve them for everybody.”

Blackwell’s talk ended on a hopeful note. “I have been doing this work for a long time now, since the 1970s, and I see now there is a ripeness for the change that I have never seen before.”

This guest post is by Chella Strong, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

Floating Landscape May Clean the Toxic Gowanus Canal

The GrowOnUs floating island prototype floating in the Gowanus Canal / Balmori Associates

The Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, New York, is one of the most heavily polluted waterways in the United States. The 1.8 mile long, 100-foot wide canal, which is a SuperFund site, has historically been home to many industries that contaminated it with heavy metals, pesticides, and sewage from combined sewer overflows. While efforts are underway to clean up the industrial sites surrounding the canal, a new experimental project, GrowOnUs, by the New York-based landscape and urban design firm, Balmori Associates, uses a floating landscape to decontaminate the canal’s water. It was launched last week behind the Gowanus Whole Foods, adjacent to the Third Street Bridge, and will eventually move to a final location near the 7th Street Basin.

GrowOnUs locations / Bamori Associates

GrowOnUs transforms metal culvert pipes, once used to bring polluted runoff and sewage waste to the canal, into 54 floating “test tube” planters that will clean the water through phytoremediation, a process that features cleansing plants; desalination; and rainwater collection. Each of the planters will be irrigated from one of three different types of water, according to Jessica Roberts, a designer at Balmori Associates. “Some of the planters collect rainwater in reservoirs made from recycled plastic bottles, some use canal water distilled from solar stills that allow condensation to collect,” she said. Buoyant construction material, such as bamboo, coconut fiber, and recycled plastic, allows the planters to float.

Designed by the firm’s experimental branch, BAL/LAB, the prototype draws on a year of experimentation with different plants and water types that not only have the potential to decontaminate the water in the canal, but can also adapt to rising sea levels and storm surge events.

The team will continue to monitor the prototype over the next few years through frequent site visits, according to Noemie LaFaurie-Debany, leader of the Floating Landscape BAL/LAB, and explore its full potential as a productive landscape. “We want to find out if these plants can also be productive as wildlife habitat.”

Some of the floating plants are intended to clean the water, while others are wildlife habitat or could be used to produce dyes / Balmori Associates

Lafaurie-Debany has many hopes for future floating landscapes. “Floating landscapes can do lots of things: They can protect the canal edge against erosion of surge, produce food and be productive, and absorb energy from the wave or the current. What interests us the most — what we really want to be able to do – is create an island that will have public space where people can go to play, to read a book or to use just like a regular green space, but in the canal.”

While the current prototype does not include public space, Roberts noted that people have been able to interact with the floating landscape. At the launch event, “fifth grade students from the Brooklyn New School participated in a series of demonstrations explaining how the island functions. It has also been fun for us to see a few people canoeing and kayaking by it. It could become such an active place,” she said.

Members of the BAL/LAB team installing the floating landscape on a canoe in the Gowanus Canal / Balmori Associates

This is not Balmori Associates’ first experiment with floating landscapes. In 2005, the firm collaborated with the Whitney Museum and the Smithson Estate to build a floating island on a 30 by 90-foot barge that was towed by a tugboat around the island of Manhattan. According to the firm’s website, “the barge was visible to millions of residents, commuters, and visitors along the Hudson and East Rivers.”

Smithson’s Floating Island was pulled by a red tugboat / Balmori Associates

The firm has also been working on a project in Memphis that consists of a series of landscape islands on the Mississippi River. Each of the islands will provide different public attractions, including a “river overlook, a children’s play area, a performance space and wetland gardens.”

After monitoring the success of the current island on the Gowanus Canal, Lafaurie-Debany said the team is interested in finding other locations for creating new floating islands on a larger scale. “An island in the Hudson River could be more productive than one in the Gowanus. We will have to see.”