Book Review: Nature and Cities

Nature and Cities / Lincoln Institute of Land Policy
Nature and Cities / Lincoln Institute of Land Policy

It’s been 20 years since the publication of Ecological Design and Planning, the collection of essays that established ecological design as the defining innovation of 20th century landscape architecture. Not only has this mode of design informed all thinking about landscape since Ian McHarg first championed it, but designs eschewing this approach have risked irrelevance.

The ensuing two decades since Ecological Design and Planning’s publication have seen two major global changes. First, climate change has emerged as a force that will shape our future. Second, cities have grown to such an extent that their populations account for half of the Earth’s total. The world has not stood still, but, as Nature and Cities: The Ecological Imperative of Urban Planning demonstrates, neither has landscape architecture.

Nature and Cities, edited by Frederick Steiner, FASLA, George Thompson, and Armando Carbonell, was intended to be Ecological Design and Planning’s successor, Steiner said. It follows a similar formula: A collection of essays from both well-established and up-and-coming landscape architects with big ideas and projects that showcase them.

Steiner believes Nature and Cities can entice readers outside the fields of landscape and planning, despite its niche topic. The book is handsome and visually rich, and the essays are warmer than they are academic. They vary in subject matter. Richard Weller, ASLA, examines urban forms and formation; Kate Orff, ASLA, and Kongjian Yu, FASLA, explore aqueous landscape design. Several of the most thought-provoking essays make valiant attempts at applying to design our growing understanding of systems, resilience, and the myth of ecological equilibrium.

If these issues don’t interest you, you can use the book to check in on the state of the “landscape architecture: science or art” debate. Nature and Cities offers several worthy contributions to it. Of course, it’s not a question of either or, but as James Corner, ASLA, writes in his essay, there’s a tendency to allow science to govern our designs to the exclusion of the subjective and aesthetic. In our current design atmosphere, improvisation and beauty strain under the yoke of performance metrics. Corner argues that more honest applications of biophilic design would incorporate the errant, much as real ecosystems do, as a means of enrichment.

The Mill River Park and Greenway, ASLA 2015 Professional General Design Honor Award. An example of the successful introduction of nature into a city's fabric / Nature and Cities, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy
The Mill River Park and Greenway, ASLA 2015 Professional General Design Honor Award. An example of the successful introduction of nature into a city’s fabric / Nature and Cities, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy

Let’s not forget metrics are good for business, Laurie Olin, FASLA, points out in his essay. And if you can put an exclamation point on those metrics with a beautiful design, all the better. His firm accomplished this with a designed marsh on Yale’s campus. Students enjoyed it so much they added fish, leading to a richer ecosystem and indirectly saving the purchase of an additional 1.8 million liters of water per year. Social buy-in can occur when sustainable design is made evident.

“The more I understand the dynamics associated with global climate change and urbanization, the more I want to make sense of it all with other human beings,” writes Kristina Hill, Affiliate ASLA, in her essay. It’s for this reason, Hill argues, that designers should create aesthetic experiences that address this rapid and destabilizing change. Rising sea levels and water scarcity can be frightening, but new aesthetic experiences can help us better understand those threats.

Part of Nature and Cities’ purpose, Steiner said, is to showcase the contributions that landscape architects have made to our cities and environment. “When Susannah Drake, ASLA, and her colleagues want to clean up the Gowanus Canal, that’s heroic,” Steiner said, referring to her essay. “And that they’ve made as much progress as they have is quite remarkable.”

gowanus-sponge-park
Gowanus Canal Sponge Park / DLANDstudio

Sizable ambition certainly shines through the successes touted in the book, but reading about them, one wonders if these efforts are adequate in scope to the environmental challenges we face. Adequate or not, isn’t it great that landscape architecture has something to say about it all?

Read the book.

What Can We Learn from Copenhagen?

Copenhagen bicyclists / Citi.io
Copenhagen bicyclists / Citi.io

In Copenhagen, Denmark, nearly 50 percent of people commute by bicycle. No matter if it’s a beautiful summer day or a blustery winter one, Danes use their beloved bicycle network, because it’s the fastest, most convenient, healthiest, and cheapest way to get from point A to B. In a discussion organized by the World Resources Institute (WRI) and the Embassy of Denmark at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., we learned how Denmark made bicycling the most popular form of transportation, and how other cities can create a culture of bicycling.

Klaus Bondam, a jolly artist and former politician, now runs the Danish Cyclists’ Federation. He explained that in Copenhagen 17 percent of all trips are made by bicycle and some 50 percent of destinations can be reached by bike.

Danes learn to love biking early on. Parents bring their kids out into traffic in bike carts when they are toddlers, and their kids begin navigating traffic on their own bikes starting around age 5 or 6. This is all possible because of the investments the Danes have made to make their bike infrastructure safe for everyone.

Mom and child bicycling / UCI
Mom and child bicycling / UCI

Their infrastructure is mostly comprised of protected, segregated bike lanes. “Building proper, curbed lanes” is crucial, according to Bondam, as that enables women and kids to feel comfortable.

Copenhagen bike lane / NPR
Copenhagen bike lane / NPR

The Danes built their lanes as part of a comprehensive network, which “connects the inner city to the suburbs, radiating out 25 kilometers.”

Bicycle superhighways / Metrhispanic
Bicycle superhighways / Metrhispanic

Within this network, there are “bicycle super highways” that include the fantastic bicycle bridge that take riders through the urban core.

Bicycle skyway / Dissing + Weitling, Photographer: Rasmus Hjortshøj - COAST Studio
Bicycle skyway / Dissing + Weitling, Photographer: Rasmus Hjortshøj – COAST Studio

To accomplish all of this, the Danish government created a national bicycle strategy and bicycle fund. As Bondam noted, if you spend the money and build it they will come. “There are 24 percent more cyclists where there is new infrastructure.”

Copenhagen took several generations to get to where it is now. Investments in the bicycle network started around the turn of the 20th century. It took more than 75 years for Copenhagen to get to nearly 50 percent.

A panel discussed how American cities can learn from Denmark’s example. Washington, D.C. has gone from 1 percent of people commuting by bicycle to 4 percent in just a few years. Leif Dormsjo, the head of D.C.’s department of transportation, said the city has made major investments in bike lanes and connective trails, and sees building complete streets — which work equally as well for pedestrians, bicyclists, and cars — as a primary strategy moving forward. Also, the D.C. government is investing in educating riders early on. A new program teaches every second grader in the city how to ride a bike.

While Bondam and Dormsjo noted the great progress in D.C. since he was last year in 2002, Greg Billing, executive director of the Washington Area Bicycle Association (WABA), wants to see more bike lanes transformed into protected, segregated cycle tracks. “On a sunny day, the 15th street cycle track gets 3,000 riders, which is about 30 percent of total traffic.” With more separate lanes, bike number could go up throughout the city.

15th street cycle track / Dull men's club
15th street cycle track / Dull men’s club

Sam Adams, former Mayor of Portland, Oregon, and now US director at WRI, said Portland was long stuck at a plateau of around 4 percent commuting by bike. Getting to 8 percent, where they are now, took hard work. The city had to convince women, aged 18-40, to believe biking is safe. They targeted the top 25 most dangerous intersections. Adams found these intersections were almost always dangerous for more than one mode of transit. “Redesigning these intersections created multiple benefits.” Another key element was boosting the budget for bicycle infrastructure from $1 million to $17 million.

Safe bike box, Portland, Oregon / WBUR.org
A redesigned street with safe bike box, Portland, Oregon / WBUR.org

But everyone on the panel admitted that in an era of very tight budgets, increasing investments in bicycle infrastructure isn’t easy. As lanes for cars shrink and parking is removed, “some car advocates will argue their freedom is being taken away,” said Bondam. “But I feel my freedom, as a bicyclist, is taken away if I’m stuck in a car.” Adams said Portland’s increased spending on bicycle lanes, especially on the basic safety of lanes in communities further out from the inner-core, was “highly controversial.”

Moving bicycle infrastructure forward takes leadership. Dormsjo said it was important U.S. department of transportation secretary Anthony Foxx sees bike lanes as a priority in terms of federal investment. In D.C., the “sophisticated” city council has many bike riders, and Mayor Muriel Bower understands the issues, so there has been headway.

For Billing, the next step is to implement Vision Zero, which calls for zero traffic fatalities in the district. “We need to change the transportation system to prevent fatalities. Nobody should die trying to get somewhere.” Regionally, D.C. has had 450 deaths by cars in the past year, with pedestrian and bicyclist deaths at higher proportions than their share of street use. A new report from Smart Growth America — Dangerous by Design — outlines the latest data and steps that can be taken.

And more need to benefit from bicycling. Hon. Craig Iscoe, with Cycling without Aging, promoted the use of bicycle rickshaws to take seniors stuck at home, or, worse, old-age homes out for a ride.

Cycling without aging / syklingutenalder.com
Cycling without aging / syklingutenalder.com

And Billing argued bike lanes need to be better spread throughout poorer parts of the city. As part of this, an education campaign is needed to change the perception of bike lanes and bike share as an “agent of gentrification,” said Tommy Wells, director of D.C. department of energy and environment.

Bondam quoted President John F. Kennedy, who said “nothing compares to the simple pleasure of a bike ride.” Focusing on safety, communities can use a mix of investment and education to spread that joy to everyone.

A Smart Streetscape for a High-Tech Corridor

Kendall Square, before / Klopfer Martin Design Group
Kendall Square, before / Klopfer Martin Design Group
Kendall Square, after / Jared Steinmark
Kendall Square, after / Christian Phillips Photography

Kendall Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is the center of technological innovation on the East Coast. But you would have never known it walking the broken-down, dated, 1980s-era brick streets. Home to MIT, Google, Microsoft, and many other start-ups, Kendall Square needed a new look that reflects the cutting-edge thinking happening in the buildings lining Main Street. But Cambridge, a historic district, also has a highly restrictive, limited palette of materials to chose from.

Working with real estate developers, the university, and other entities, a team led by local landscape architects with Klopfer Martin Design Group and engineers at HDR came up with an inventive solution, taking the standard Cambridge brick, concrete, lighting and building materials and coming up with something entirely new. The results are as innovative as anything created by the techies who work along the street.

As Kendall Square has experienced rapid growth over the past few decades, it also had to better “perform as an inter-modal transportation hub,” said Kaki Martin, ASLA, a principal with Klopfer Martin. The high-tech firms and university alike wanted easier inter-connections among the subway station and sidewalks, bike lanes and bikeshare system, and corporate shuttles and buses.

“Increased commercial development with lots of food establishments also meant that the streetscape had to not only reflected the character of the place, accommodate increased inter-modal transportation, but also become a place to not just move through, but also to linger and eat, meet up and gather.”

The design team removed the central median with “dated flag poles” to give more room for bike lanes.

Kendall Square / Christian Phillips Photography
Kendall Square / Christian Phillips Photography

Along the streets, new spaces were created for “furnishings, bus shelters, farmer’s market tents.” Scattered around major entry points are more contemporary benches, pre-cast concrete star-shaped benches, and unique bike racks that came out of a competition organized by the city’s % for art program.

Kendall Square / Christian Phillips Photography
Kendall Square / Christian Phillips Photography
Kendall Square / Jared Steinmark
Kendall Square / Jared Steinmark

A custom cover and bench was created for an “immovable vent pipe” the subway system needs.

Kendall Square / Christian Phillips Photography
Kendall Square / Christian Phillips Photography

Klopfer Martin layered in double rows of trees in order to create “spatial structure.”

Kendall Square / Jared Steinmark
Kendall Square / Jared Steinmark

The most interesting part of the project is the new palette of bricks. Klopfer Martin worked with the city’s brick supplier to create “custom palettes of varying percentages of the darkest and lightest bricks in the city’s standard mix,” set within 10 feet-by-10-feet swatches.

As Martin explained, “we went with a pixelated pattern for its techy connotation, and because there was no preciousness to the pattern.”

Kendall Square / Christian Phillips Photography
Kendall Square / Christian Phillips Photography

Furthermore, the random pattern is very low maintenance. “When the head of the Department of Public Works asked me how I would feel when a gas line repair comes through the brick and messed it up, we said, ‘it didn’t matter.’  The brick could just be put down again without concern, because it’s about the percentages between darker and lighter bricks in a 10-foot-by-10-foot zone, not about a specific pattern.”

Use Video to Tell the Story of Landscape Architecture

Landscape architecture is well behind the curve of using video to distinguish itself in the digital age, a trend I don’t see changing anytime soon. However, the opportunity is there for the taking. And if you don’t watch out, other design professions will seize the moment before landscape architects do. We’ve already had Architecture School, a Sundance TV miniseries, but that was six years ago and not much has been offered up since. But mark my words, it’s coming, and this is precisely where my own passions have intersected in recent years.

As a landscape architecture graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley, I opted to make a documentary film for my capstone thesis instead of creating a landscape design. I was interested in hearing what people on the street had to say about an urban design project going on right under their feet. I completed the 25-minute long documentary This Is Market Street about San Francisco’s Better Market Street Project, a multi-million dollar streetscape project that will eventually replace 2.2 miles of San Francisco’s most prominent thoroughfare.

An issue that stuck with me was the danger posed by car traffic to pedestrians in a walkable city like San Francisco. The pedestrian advocacy group Walk San Francisco, which helped me promote the documentary, has been at the forefront of advocating for a safer, more walkable San Francisco since 1998. Last year, they commissioned me to create a public service announcement about Safe Streets for Seniors, and I jumped at the chance to use film to talk about cities once again.

My team and I created a 3-minute long short film, There’s Always a Way, using stop-motion animation to tell the story of a young boy whose grandmother is killed at a busy crosswalk (see video at top). We built models reminiscent of design school projects, studied traffic design solutions, constructed tiny crosswalks, and even fabricated some angry drivers for good measure. The process was analog, with us cramped in a tiny studio for weeks of animating and inching model cars along painted roads, frame by frame. The response has been exciting and supportive. To my satisfaction, the video has encouraged a discussion about our lives and environments.

Stories are the tool missing from the landscape architecture, a field which intertwines with people’s daily lives. Stories can get lost in the policies, the plant lists, and the concept drawings. We should pause to hear stories more often, and, if so inspired, make some of our own.

This guest post is by Darryl Jones, ASLA, who recently worked at PWP Landscape Architecture in Berkeley, California, and is now a filmmaker based in Oakland, CA. More of his film work is available at darryljonesfilms.com.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (December 16 – 31)

capture
Keller Fountain Park / Jeremy Bittermann, via the Cultural Landscape Foundation

Expand Sanctuary Concept Beyond the UndocumentedPhilly.com, 12/18/16
“I believe now is the time to expand this sanctuary city concept; to make all our cities refuges for learning, for health and safety, for tolerance and inclusion, and environmental quality.”

Revamped City Planning Aims at Neighborhood Revivals The Detroit Free Press, 12/19/16
“The City of Detroit’s Planning Department used to do remarkably little planning. Mostly the staff processed federal grant money for public housing or demolitions. One director of the Planning department confided to me years ago that he had more accountants on his staff than planners.”

Seaport District May Find Its Soul in Park Named for Martin Richard The Boston Globe, 12/21/16
“If our gleaming new Seaport District lacks a soul, it won’t after Martin’s Park is built.”

Celebrating a Rugged Vision of Landscape Architecture The New York Times, 12/23/16
“These bold environments, strung across an eight-block section in the city center, were designed by the modernist landscape architect Lawrence Halprin and his firm between 1965 and 1970.”

Eight Rooftop Gardens That Top the Lot The Sydney Morning Herald, 12/26/16
“When summer rolls around, as it will be doing before much longer, there’s absolutely nothing better than spending all day on a rooftop garden with friends, a fridge full of cold drinks, good music and never-ending views.”

New Ideas Needed to Solve the “Crisis of Maintenance”

A maintenance worker in Riverside Park / The New York Times
A maintenance worker in Riverside Park / The New York Times

The Urban Design Forum sees a “crisis of maintenance” in New York City, which has an estimated backlog of $50 billion in unmet infrastructure repair needs. In an innovative new ideas competition, they invite landscape architects, urban planners, developers, and architects to respond to the question: “How can we use design thinking, creative financing, new technology, and community organizing to maintain our physical and social infrastructure?”

They are looking for novel ways of improving maintenance for streetscapes, parks and plazas, in addition to housing, transportation systems, and civic and social infrastructure.

“We are looking for bold ideas with real world applicability. We welcome napkin sketches, policy proposals, detailed designs, essays, videos, etc. Ideas may apply to sites in the City of New York or the greater New York area. Examples from other cities that can be applied to New York City are also acceptable.”

The Urban Design Forum asks those who submit to think through the hard issues involved in maintenance, to ask themselves questions like: “How can we design public assets that minimize maintenance costs and adapt for future uses? How can we more equitably maintain parks and public spaces beyond high-income neighborhoods? How could we engage new stakeholders in the stewardship of public assets and public space?”

The winning ideas will become part of the forum’s “Maintaining” program, which will feature presentations and roundtable debates from March through September 2017. Winning ideas will also be included in a publication to be released in December 2017. The Forum expects the winning ideas to spread beyond New York.

Register by January 30 and submit by March 1.

Also, in Bandirma, a city of 143,000 on the Sea of Marmara in northwest Turkey, officials have announced an international design competition for a new park that can serve as a gateway to this port city. The first-place winner will receive 100,000 Euros. Register by February 3 and submit by February 24.