Are Urban Bats the Future?

Urban bats at Congress Bridge in downtown Austin, Texas / Flickr

The plight of the honeybee has been well-documented since the term colony collapse disorder made its way into news headlines about a decade ago. The phenomena fueled public interest in the health of bee populations, ushering in a new generation of bee-keeping enthusiasts. And justifiably so. Pollinators like bees are essential to our nation’s economy and food supply.

Another, albeit less popular, pollinator is also facing a precipitous population decline. Bats are dying at an alarming rate due to an invasive fungal disease that’s wiping out entire species, and the unlikely savior may be one of their own.

Bats pollinate over 500 species of plants around the world, including cocoa and agave — fans of chocolate and tequila, take note. What’s killing them is called White-Nose Syndrome (WNS), a fungal disease that grows on bats’ skin and wakes them up during hibernation. Repeated waking during the hibernation period depletes winter fat storage and causes starvation. The fungus needs high humidity and low temperatures to survive, typical cave-like conditions.

Millions of bats in North America have died from the disease since it was first documented in a cave in New York in 2007. Now, WNS has spread to 30 U.S. states and five Canadian provinces and is reaching the west coast. Last year, a bat in Washington state tested positive for the disease.

“Populations will likely never return to where they were,” said Amanda Bevan, lead for the Organization for Bat Conservation’s Urban Bat Initiative.

Bats in urban areas are less affected by the disease because they tend to hibernate in man-made structures that stay warmer than caves. And migratory species, like the Hoary Bat, do not spend the same amount of time in caves as bats that hibernate, and therefore have limited interaction with the fungus.

With more opportunity and reduced competition, Bevan says, it’s possible that some of these urban and migratory bats could push into the realms of cave and forest-dwelling bats.

“They are what’s going to be the saving grace for white-nose syndrome,” Bevan said. The Evening Bat, for example, more often found in southern regions of the U.S., has recently been discovered in caves in Wisconsin and Michigan where it’s possible it could help rebuild the states’ cave-dwelling bat populations. This is a relatively new, but potentially promising, phenomena that could help bolster species in decline.

Bevan thinks, given current trends suggesting changing behavior, urban bats are likely to become the majority population.

But there is a significant lack of research on the urban bat, and more broadly, trends in bat populations over time. Migratory bats especially are challenging to track because they are hard to catch multiple times. In absence of robust data, it’s difficult to understand movements and patterns across species.

To date, research has focused largely on cave-dwelling bats, but now ecologists seek a better understanding of bat activity in urbanized landscapes. In 2012, researchers from Fordham University published an acoustic monitoring study of bat activity in the Bronx. The report, which was the first of its kind documenting urban bats in the northeast, found five different species at various sites. A subsequent study reported increased bat activity over green roofs, compared to conventional roofs in the Bronx, indicating green roof provide habitat benefits for bats.

Urban gardeners who want to support their fellow urban-dwelling mammal can create habitats like bat houses and supply pollinator-attracting plants. Plants like milkweed and evening primrose attract night pollinators, like moths – a diet staples for bats. Gardeners can also use plants that bloom late in the day, are scented at night, and have a lighter in color. One of the biggest threats to urban bat populations are pesticides, which can affect a bat’s ability to navigate using echolocation.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (June 16 – 30)

SF
Shades of Green’s 630-square-foot Pacific Heights rooftop garden / Ive Haugeland

San Francisco Rooftop Terraces That Rise Above It All The San Francisco Chronicle, 6/16/17
“Just in time for summer, three local landscape designers share the San Francisco rooftop terraces they’ve transformed from barren wastelands to inviting urban escapes.”

Planned WWI Memorial Would Harm Historic Park, TCLF ArguesCurbed, 6/20/17
“It shouldn’t be any surprise that The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) is pushing against the National Park Service’s planned WWI Memorial in Washington, D.C.”

Lack of Coordination on Obama Center, Tiger Woods Golf Course Threatens Jackson Park RedesignThe Chicago Tribune, 6/23/17
“Before he became America’s foremost landscape architect, shaping Chicago’s Jackson and Washington parks as well as New York’s Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted was a fervent abolitionist.”

Creating a Garden Oasis in the CityThe New York Times, 6/23/17
“Samira Kawash and Roger Cooper bought their Park Slope brownstone five years ago with the idea of giving big dinner parties and enjoying lazy afternoons in the extra-large backyard.”

Highland Park’s First ‘Green’ Stormwater System CompletedThe Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 6/26/17
“The first, and so far only, green infrastructure solution to flooding in Highland Park’s valleys is completed along Negley Run Boulevard — a 1,100-foot bioswale that will intercept an estimated 600,000 gallons of water running off pavement annually.”

This Is the Landscape Architect Nantucket’s Elite Have on Speed DialArchitectural Digest, 6/27/17
“Neighbors on Nantucket’s eastern end have more than faded red chinos and a desirable zip code in common; many have landscape artist Marty McGowan, too.

Engagement by Design

Staten Island Living Breakwaters Community Meeting / Rebuild by Design

It’s been just over three years since the winners of the Rebuild by Design competition were announced. Since then, there have been almost 400 meetings with communities around each of the seven project sites in the New York metro region. The competition, launched by President Obama’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, called for large-scale, cross-sector, hybrid solutions to make communities more resilient to future storms.

Long before construction begins, teams in charge of design and implementation are helping community stakeholders visualize the project, the goal being to stimulate dialogue. At each step, community feedback is integrated into plans and designs.

Staff of Rebuild by Design — a research and design organization that was formed after the competition — attended public meetings held by every design team, where they have catalogued the most effective community engagement practices. Engagement by Design, an event put on by the organization at New York University, showcased them:

Living Breakwaters, which was presented by Nans Voron, SCAPE Landscape Architects, and Victoria Cerullo, Living Breakwaters Citizens Advisory Committee, is an innovative project off the coast of Staten Island that will use constructed offshore oyster reefs to attentuate waves in future storms and reduce shoreline erosion. In addition, the project will increase biodiversity and social resiliency by providing educational and stewardship opportunities and increased access to the shoreline.

Living Breakwaters is unusual for an urban landscape design, in that much of it is underwater and over 500 feet offshore. This proved to be a challenge when it came to communicating the project to the public. “Even though we were producing renderings to try to envision the future, at the end of the day it’s still very hard to communicate the experience a boater, a swimmer, or even an oyster will have next to one of the breakwaters,” said Voron.

The team began to use virtual reality (VR) goggles to help the public visualize the project. Voron believes VR offers the opportunity for a more visceral and immersive understanding of the effects of climate change. When classic flood maps fall short in their ability to communicate urgency, VR has the potential to create a deeper emotional impact.

Hoboken, a city hit especially hard by hurricane Sandy, recently released the draft Environmental Impact Statement for an urban water management strategy with four components: Resist, Delay, Retain and Discharge. Most of the Rebuild by Design competition funding is going to the “resist” features, which keep storm surges out of the city. The resist features morph into various forms depending on surroundings, so the team decided to make a flyover animation to give context and scale to this complex infrastructural intervention.

Alexis Taylor, outreach team leader for the New Jersey department of environmental Protection, narrated as a flyover animation of the current preferred design for the urban water management plan played. The animation followed the path of the resist feature through city, as it changed from a berm with a serpentine path and integrated recreational spaces to a floodgate closure and then a way-finding device.

At certain points, Taylor interjected to tell the audience that features had been added or amended based on community recommendations. The absence of a fixed audio narrative for the animation allows anyone presenting it to describe the project in their own voice — whether they are a city official or a Hoboken community member.

All teams admitted the engagement process is not without conflict. Angela Tovar, The Point Community Development Corporation (CDC) in the Bronx, urged project teams to be patient with the “planning fatigue” of community members reticent to participate, especially in under-served communities such as the Bronx. For decades, these communities have been subjected to broken promises by city officials, discriminatory housing policies, and environmental injustices, so promises of improved quality of life can be met with justified skepticism.

For David Kooris, director of Rebuild by Design & national disaster resilience for Connecticut, community engagement is not a necessary evil, but critical to evaluating the progress of the project: “I would be very nervous to follow just the bare minimum standards, and once every few months go to a public hearing not having any idea what people were going to show up and say.” By meeting with the stakeholders in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on a near-weekly basis, “I know what all the issues are. I know the ones we can address and the ones we can’t, and we can tweak the project in response to them.”

“I think the most important thing is to arm people with information,” explained Taylor. “Whether or not they are going to come out in support or opposition is fine, at least we are giving them the tools to communicate.”

This guest post is by Chella Strong, Assoc. ASLA, landscape designer at SWA/Balsley in New York City.

Landscape Architects as Futurists

Delivery robot / Starship Technologies

We learn about landscape architecture through a study of context. Technical courses teach students to see the physical characteristics of a site. We learn to identify slope, follow the point of steepest grade in a trail of mud following a rainstorm, identify ecosystems. Theoretical courses teach students to see the intangible qualities of a site — the implications of design decisions upon usability. We learn about the exciting but unpredictable ways a site may develop and come to be used differently than originally intended.

Forward-thinking landscape architecture practice usually involves re-combining the physical and intangible characteristics of a site. Excellent waterfront and post-industrial redevelopment landscape projects have inspired a generation of landscape architects. “What can this become?” is the question that sets most of us on fire.

We imagine a behemoth dump as a park, breathing life back into a great metropolis. A concrete drainage channel transforms into a living waterway, mixed-use development, and microbreweries springing up like eddies along its length. Disused utility easements become oases for habitat in the most unexpected of urban places. We have also seen an increasing amount of “futuristic” landscapes, with high-tech features, such as interactive light or water, app-enabled components, and more.

But what of the impact of new technologies in our built environment? We have anticipated autonomous vehicles for some time (to little effect in our design decisions), but what of the possibilities of autonomous delivery vehicles, or average urban dweller navigating their day with the aid of a reality-enhancing headset, or the convenience/intrusion of biometric scanning as an Apple Pay-inspired method of negotiating daily life?

Without the human element, landscape architecture is not landscape architecture. Yet humans do not remain static and are now in the process of technology-assisted development. In light of these impending realities, what can landscape architects do to maintain an edge on the design of public spaces?

As a profession of such varied talents and individual specialties, there is a place for landscape architects as futurists. There exist landscape architects as ecologists, living systems designers, food system engineers, and health care amenity designers. Leafing through the ASLA annual meeting presentations is enough to inspire the most dispirited of practitioners with new possibilities.

A “futurist” is “a person who studies the future in order to help people understand, anticipate, prepare for and gain advantage from coming changes,” writes the Association of Professional Futurists (APF). This should resonate with landscape architects.

Whether we study the condition of a breakwater and local weather patterns in order to recommend an appropriate intervention or recommend a green roof or living system at an urban development project to address the urban heat island effect, we are in essence studying current conditions and predicting future trends in order to help people prepare for and gain advantage from coming changes.

A recent string of articles caught my eye. First, from an article on CNBC, April 21st, 2017: Robots are Now Delivering Food in San Francisco. Next, on Eater, May 17th, 2017: San Francisco Declares War on Food Delivery Robots. Also from May 17th, 2017, this time on technology blog Wired: San Francisco Tries to Ban Delivery Robots Before they Flatten Someone’s Toes.

The first article reports the San Francisco robots in question are run by a company called Marble, founded to re-think the “last mile” of the delivery supply chain. Their solution is meant as a step toward relieving vehicular and courier snarls during the final stage of delivery of small packages and items. The article goes on to refer to companies, such as Amazon, Alphabet, and Uber, which have also been investing this facet of the supply chain.

Following initial roll-out of the automated delivery system there was an offended backlash that follows an unanticipated offense, with calls to ban these small robots. The Eater article pegs the issue as one of insufficient policy paired with infrastructure. San Francisco city supervisor Norman Yee told them: “Our streets and our sidewalks are made for people, not robots. This is consistent with how we operate in the city, where we don’t allow bikes or skateboards on sidewalks.” When asked if he thought robots could safely run in a bike lane, Yee agreed it was something to think about: “Maybe in the future there will be robot lanes.”

It’s true that progress in urban policy integrating “last mile” delivery robots across the United States and internationally is being driven by robot companies that lead planning and policy initiatives, which can then result in a narrow definition of a municipality’s approved specifications that apply exclusively to that company’s product.

But the uproar was strange for a few reasons. First, given the city’s location adjacent to Silicon Valley, San Francisco residents and managers should not be unprepared for the introduction of automated systems to perform mundane tasks. Starwood Aloft hotels have been using a mobile automated system to delivery sundry items such as toiletries to hotel guests since 2014. Silicon Valley company Knightscope manufactures security robots which have been roaming buildings and industrial complexes in the Bay area for at least a year prior to deployment of Marble’s food delivery robots.

Second, as a dense West coast city with progressive urban development policies, it is surprising that San Francisco is resisting the benefits of a potentially-advantageous technological advancement. Delivery robots, especially when automated to follow given paths and arrive at specific locations (very possible using satellite mapping technology), represent a potential solution to a number of traffic headaches. The narrow streets of historic cities are often clogged by delivery trucks, a trend which is on the rise. Millennials in particular continue to invest in the convenience of home-delivered groceries, meal plans, clothing sampling services, and Amazon Prime for everything else.

This human behavior pattern has consequences for the health and function of our cities, and the policy and design response must adjust itself dynamically to accommodate such trends.

It is common in conversations with landscape architects and planners to arrive at mutual agreement about the antiquated views of traffic congestion wherein the cyclical solution is to simply add more lanes. Many praise the benefits of multi-modal transportation planning, transit-oriented development, and walkable complete streets to create healthier cities.

We must ask, however, if these views are becoming as antiquated as the automotive-focused interventions we disparage. Don’t we have technologies that can work now, complementing evolving human behavior, to produce a healthier system?

The landscape architect as futurist may be any of us of different professional specialties. We are, at heart, a profession made up of practitioners who study variations of environmental context and human influence. We have the opportunity to look to the future in order to help people understand, anticipate, prepare for and gain advantage from coming changes.

Our lifetimes will see dynamic shifts in the way humans co-evolve with technology. It is time for landscape architects to look creatively upon these changes, and ask with a futurist’s eye: what can this become?

This guest op-ed is by Alison Kelly, ASLA, LEED AP ND, a landscape designer at O’Dell Engineering in Modesto, California. She has presented on culture, landscape, and learning at the Society for Applied Anthropology national conference and the Children’s Outdoor Environments professional practice network (PPN) at the ASLA Annual Meeting.

Inside the Garden, and Mind, of Peter Marino

The Garden of Peter Marino / Rizzoli USA

Peter Marino’s garden is about as unexpected as you would expect from the celebrity architect, whose name has become synonymous with high-end fashion lines like Chanel and Luis Vuitton. The Garden of Peter Marino offers a look inside the designer’s sprawling 12-acre Hamptons property, where over the course of two decades he has carefully curated a series of gardens that blend formal landscape elements with unexpected details.

The Garden of Peter Marino, azaleas / Jason Schmidt via Rizzoli USA

Marino organizes his garden by color. But he also agrees with a friend’s assessment that he’s created a network of outdoor rooms, which are home to his 42-piece collection of Italian artists Claude and Francois-Xavier Lalanne’s surreal, cast-iron sculptures. Spread after spread reveal a pristine, manicured garden dotted with art, often placed to interact with the plants. In lieu of a masterplan, these photographs of the sculptures orient the transitions between colors.

The Garden of Peter Marino/ Jason Schmidt, Artwork: 2017 ARS, NY, ADAGP, Paris

But perhaps equally as interesting as the images is the book’s insight into Marino’s design process, which is both thorough and technical, and random and personal. Sometimes, he goes to great lengths to explain the layers and spacing of planting, where at other times, he states unqualified preferences: “I don’t care for yellow flowers mixed with other colors, so I planted them all together in what I intended to be one big explosion of yellow.” He will detail his plant choices with Latin names and variety, and in the same paragraph use phrases like “mad amounts” to account for the density of hydrangeas.

The Garden of Peter Marino, yellow garden / Jason Schmidt via Rizzoli USA

Marino also gets personal. He describes the whimsical forest section of the estate as “Harry Potter-esque,” imagined for his daughter.

The Garden of Peter Marino woods / Jason Schmidt via Rizzoli USA

The Zelkova trees in this section of the garden date back to the Civil War, he was told by an arborist. One was among 16 trees lost in Hurricane Sandy. “I was devastated,” Marino writes. “But nature has a way of doing its thing, which is why I will never really consider any garden as ‘finished.’”

The Garden of Peter Marino / Manolo Yllera via Rizzoli USA

These moments, coupled with the photos, offer an absorbing visual essay of a decades-long pursuit of an architect designing a home for his art in the unpredictable medium of the garden.

Renewable Energy Is Soaring, but Debate Rages on How Far It Can Take Us

Wind farm in Guazhou, China / Carlos Barria, Reuters via National Geographic

Renewable energy is gaining momentum. Within a quarter of a century, one third of global electricity generation will be supplied by wind and solar, according to a report from Bloomberg Renewable Energy Finance (BNEF) released this month.

BNEF, which produces long-term forecasts on the global energy sector, says wind and solar will make up nearly half of installed capacity and 34 percent of electricity generation globally by 2040, a significant increase from today’s 12 percent and 5 percent respectively. The plunging cost of renewable energy is making it cheaper than coal generation in many countries. The cost of solar photovoltaic (PV) panels will fall by 66 percent and onshore wind, by 47 percent. The report predicts a $7.4 trillion investment, approximately $400 billion per year, in new renewable energy generation globally by 2040.

Meanwhile, the United States just hit a renewable energy milestone. Last week, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) announced for the first time wind and solar made up over 10 percent of the nation’s electricity generation in the month of March.

This record-breaking share was aided by low demand, common in the spring and fall months, longer days with more sunlight, also typical of spring months, and higher winds in parts of the country like Texas and Oklahoma. Wind and solar will likely hit double-digits again in April before dipping in the summer.

Some experts argue the U.S. could run solely on renewable energy by mid-century – and that’s caused some controversy among the scientific community.

Last week, a group of over 20 researchers published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) assessing the feasibility of that 100 percent target. The assessment is a response to a 2015 paper, also published by PNAS and led by Mark Jacobson, a professor at Stanford University, which argued that wind, solar, and hydroelectric power could meet U.S. electricity needs affordably and without risk to grid stability between 2050 and 2055.

Jacobson’s report has been both popular and contentious. It has been supported by many environmental organizations and touted by public figures, like former presidential candidate and U.S senator Bernie Sanders.

Now, researchers led by Christopher Clack, founder of Vibrant Clean Energy, are taking issue with Jacobson’s paper, arguing this week in PNAS that its analysis “involved errors, inappropriate methods, and implausible assumptions.” The rebuttal contends that Jacobson’s paper does not make a sufficient argument against previous analysis holding that a diverse set of technologies beyond wind, solar, and hydroelectric power are needed in the transition to a low-carbon future, and that a target of 80 percent is more feasible renewable power generation goal.

Jacobson fired back with a counter response, also published in PNAS, and in an interview with the MIT Technology Review, he called into question his critics’ motives. “They’re either nuclear advocates or carbon sequestration advocates or fossil-fuels advocates,” Jacobson told the online publication. “They don’t like the fact that we’re getting a lot of attention, so they’re trying to diminish our work.”

Those questioning a fully renewable-power U.S. electricity system say some nuclear and carbon capture and storage as well as continued use of some fossil fuel-based sources are also needed, because of the intermittent nature of wind, solar, and hydroelectric power, and, as of yet, there is insufficient storage capacity.

The Trump administration is among critics who say a large-scale conversion to renewable energy could be destabilizing to the U.S. electric grid. Energy Secretary Rick Perry is expected to release a report in the next month reviewing federal regulations to determine whether policies supporting renewable energy, like the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, have made the national electricity grid less reliable. Anticipating the department of energy analysis, two industry organizations released their own report this week, finding that wind and solar have not threatened the reliability of the grid.

It’s no secret President Trump supports the coal industry. Earlier this month he announced plans to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate accord, making good on a promise he reiterated throughout his White House bid and isolating the U.S. from the 194 other countries supporting global carbon reduction efforts. Previously, he ordered Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Scott Pruitt to scrap the Clean Power Plan, which was expected to reduce power sector emissions by 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

Regardless, the U.S. will come close to achieving those power sector emission reductions even without the federal policy. According to the BNEF report, the U.S. is expected to reduce emissions by 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. And renewable energy sources are giving coal and fossil fuels a run for its money. The BNEF report also predicts that by 2040 coal consumption will have dropped 51 percent and be replaced by cheaper renewables and natural gas.

“Portals” Blends Curated with Organic

Portals by Sandra Muss at the Kreeger Museum / Colin Winterbottom

Moving through the pristine vastness of the Great Hall at the Kreeger Museum in Washington, D.C. is like being inside a monument on the National Mall. But the museum’s new installation and permanent foray into the woods offers a different experience.

Just beyond the structured lines of the architect Phillip Johnson’s Modernist residence-turned-museum are “the woods.” Far from wild, this curated, yet un-manicured portion of the sculpture garden is found in the forested back area of Kreeger’s 5.5-acre property in the residential Foxhall neighborhood north of Georgetown.

Kreeger Museum / Pinterest

Here are a series of mirrored columns clustered among the oak, maple, tulip poplar, and beech trees, and scattered along a wood chip path. These are the Portals.

Artist Sandra Muss designed the piece specifically for the Kreeger as it expanded its sculpture garden into the woods. Muss’ piece is a series of seven ten-foot mirrored steel rectangular columns, wound with rusted wire and vines.

Portals by Sandra Muss / Colin Winterbottom

Despite the size, the columns are unassuming and easy to gaze over, reading as green foliage when viewed from the concrete walkway that wraps around the museum.

But once down in the woods, the scale of the column becomes more palpable, and what appears from above to be a carefully-curated placement of columns becomes a more compelling maze of reflections. Moving through the mirrors distorts the carefully-orchestrated sculpture garden experience — reflecting, and at times framing, bending, and pulling images of the museum and other sculptures down into the woods.

Portals by Sandra Muss / Colin Winterbottom

The woods are a welcome juxtaposition to the hushed, untouchable quality of the building above and offer a more organic component to the museum’s sculpture garden.

“In general, the planting is pretty simple, because it’s the art that wants to be the focus,” said Julie Patronick, landscape designer with McHale, who designed the forested sculpture garden expansion and worked with Muss to incorporate vines on the columns from the surrounding area.

Ultimately, she said, as new pieces are added to the forest, the intention will be to let the art decide its surroundings — be it exposed with only ground cover underneath, or more hidden, and seamless like Portals.

Finding Opportunity in Leftover Urban Spaces

Local Code: 3,659 Proposals About Data, Design & the Nature of Cities / (c) 2016 Nicholas de Monchaux, published by Princeton Architectural Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

In Local Code, Nicholas de Monchaux pushes us to assign new value to forgotten pieces of our urban fabric – the dead-end alley, the vacant corner lot; infrastructure’s leftovers. While many cities deem vacant parcels as unusable remnants of development, Local Code makes the case for aggregating them to build urban resilience.

To visualize the opportunities, de Monchaux, an associate professor of architecture and urban design at the University of California, Berkeley, uses data on vacant public land in four cities – San Francisco; Los Angeles; Venice, Italy; and New York City. He then translates the data into a series of diagrams and drawings that show the scale and types of these dormant landscapes.

Flow diagram of proposed interventions, San Francisco case study / Local Code: 3,659 Proposals About Data, Design & the Nature of Cities, (c) 2016 Nicholas de Monchaux, published by Princeton Architectural Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.
Additional proposals, San Francisco case study / Local Code: 3,659 Proposals About Data, Design & the Nature of Cities, (c) 2016 Nicholas de Monchaux, published by Princeton Architectural Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

In San Francisco, for example, what the city’s department of public works refers to as “unaccepted streets” – right-of-ways the city does not maintain — make up the equivalent surface area to Golden Gate Park (over 1,000 acres). New York and Los Angeles have “underutilized parcels.” Los Angeles also has space under billboards, while Venice has a “lagoon” of abandoned islands.

De Monchaux highlights what he calls the “institutional invisibility” of these spaces, showing how they coincide with higher levels of household poverty, urban heat islands, crime, and asthma. Then, de Monchaux shows how bioswales, drought-tolerant planting, and porous paving could help reduce these problem areas.

Intervention for vacant parcel, New York City case study / Local Code: 3,659 Proposals About Data, Design & the Nature of Cities, (c) 2016 Nicholas de Monchaux, published by Princeton Architectural Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

The result is a multitude of diagrams and drawings that demonstrate a scope of opportunities, rather than predetermined results. By addressing sites where these issues are most acute, de Monchaux argues that cities can build a spatial network to improve environmental circulation and function of urban ecosystems, which can even help cities spend more wisely on public works.

Proposals also focus on intertwined social issues. In New York City, where as de Monchaux notes, there have been many resiliency-related rebuilding efforts since Hurricane Sandy in 2012, but most of which haven’t focused on improving quality of life in low-income neighborhoods. De Monchaux writes: “Combining stormwater and heat-island mediation with the creation of shared public space, the investment proposed here is one equally focused on the everyday resilience of communities as in episodic resilience to disaster.”

Vacant alley at 1717 Lincoln Place, New York City case study / From Local Code: 3,659 Proposals About Data, Design & the Nature of Cities, (c) 2016 Nicholas de Monchaux, published by Princeton Architectural Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

Scattered between the case studies are essays about the lives and professional contributions of three key figures – artist Gordon Matta-Clark, urban theorist Jane Jacobs, and architect Howard Fisher. In recalling these stories, Local Code acknowledges the painstaking data collection efforts of visionaries in urban design before the instant gratification of geographic information systems (GIS), which makes possible the book’s 3,659 proposals.

These essays make up a substantial portion of the text and give Local Code a character-driven quality to an otherwise data-heavy book. De Monchaux acknowledges in the introduction that “an abundance of data is not knowledge.” To that end, the historical essays give context on how cities function and adapt in response to environmental and social change.

To fully grasp Monchaux’s planning and design proposals may require experience in design, or at least visual communication, but the historical essays speak to a broader audience interested in cities, as does the optimistic approach to vacant parcels. Ultimately, Local Code encourages us to read between the lines, or buildings, and see new opportunities in forgotten spaces.

A New Vision for the C&O Canal in Georgetown

C&O Canal / Jonathan Fitch, ASLA, from the Landscape Architect’s Guide to Washington, D.C.

Like so many national parks, the C&O Canal National Historic Park has been loved to death. Some 4.8 million people visited the park last year, more than the number of visitors to Yellowstone or Yosemite. Partnering with the non-profit Georgetown Heritage, the local business improvement district (BID), and D.C. department of planning, the National Park Service (NPS) has initiated a new comprehensive plan to revitalize the one-mile stretch of the canal running through Georgetown, which is just one segment of the 184-mile-long canal that goes all the way to Cumberland, Maryland. The year-long process will result in a final plan identifying the costs of improvements.

Canal ally Georgetown Heritage hired James Corner Field Operations, the landscape architects who designed the High Line, to find out what people who love and use the canal want and craft a new vision. For some, the canal is a place to stroll and relax or exercise, a restorative respite from the busy commercial corridors along M Street and Wisconsin Avenue. For others, it’s a tourist destination and a place to eat a cupcake and chat with friends. Improving the experience for these different types of users and reconciling conflicting needs, all the while maintaining the canal’s historic character will be tricky.

Last week, nearly 200 community members met in small groups, debating how to update the canal while preserving its character. The canal is a significant piece of transportation history and an engineering marvel, explained Kevin Brandt, NPS superintendent. The 184-mile-long canal, which was was constructed from 1828 to 1850, was primarily used to bring coal from the Allegheny Mountains to waterfront mills found in Georgetown. The canal required building more than 70 locks, 11 aqueducts to cross major rivers and streams, and 240 culverts to traverse smaller streams. After the mills closed in the early 1900s, the canal fell into disuse. In Georgetown, a $6.5 million effort is already underway to restore just one historic lock as a tourist attraction.

C&O Canal lock pre-restoration effor / copyright M. Druckenbrod, 2016, via Flickr.

James Corner, ASLA, offered insights from his team’s analysis of the one-mile stretch under consideration. He wants to “build on the canal’s innate personality, and concentrate the poetics of the found experiences.” The canal is now used for “strolling, romantic promenades after dinner, biking and jogging,” depending on the time of day. The canal also has a “broader constituency” than just the residents of Georgetown, including the millions of tourists who visit and residents from nearby states who walk or bike the trail.

He was taken with what he called the “beautiful mineral nature” of the canal, the stone walls and large rocks that line the towpaths, along with the water lines, the “visceral” expressions of water found in the rock.

C&O Canal stone walls / Raoul Pop

He was also intrigued by the vegetation that has grown in over time — “the moss, lichens, and ferns that have moved in,” and the “trees, meadows, and habitat” that slowly greened the site over the past century.

Trees along the canal / Palomar Hotel, D.C.

The relatively-narrow towpaths present challenges — in some stretches there’s just one towpath  — but there are open areas, such as the fish market, overlooks, and aqueduct that can be enhanced as public spaces. Corner organized spaces with unique spatial characteristics into zones, which together “form a rich sequence of experiences.” Throughout these zones, there are real accessibility issues — many of the bridges and paths only offer stairs, not ramps.

C&O canal towpath / Erik on Software

At the public planning session, groups explored what to preserve and enhance or what new uses could be incorporated. Our group wanted to preserve the canal’s rustic, chill vibe; re-introduce the local ecosystem and create gardens with native plants; clean the water; make the canal more accessible by adding ramps, seating, drinking fountains, and restrooms; enliven it with high-quality public art; create new educational opportunities with better signage and tours; and perhaps open up the canal to recreational boating and kayaking on weekends.

What was also heard from many groups: don’t turn the C&O Canal into High Line, which has become a tourist destination and is crowded at almost all hours. To allay those fears, Corner said the NYC park, built on an old rail line, “is not a useful comparison, because the context is very different.”

And as Alison Greenberg, head of Georgetown Heritage, explained, “our goal is not to overhaul the canal, but to enhance its essence.”

However, just improving access to the C&O and creating shiny new amenities like gardens or plazas will likely increase the number of visitors. How can people enjoy the restorative experience of the canal amid mobs of people? Let’s hope this special place maintains its low-key charm.

Submit your comments as part of the C&O public planning process by July 14.

NYC Is Building a Fairer Park System

Community Parks Initiative launch / NYC.gov

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and his parks commissioner Mitchell Silver, Hon. ASLA, want the city’s massive park system — which covers 30,000 acres, some 14 percent of the city’s land — to be fairer. For too long, some neighborhoods have had wonderful, high-quality public spaces, while others have had parks that don’t meet contemporary needs and have fallen into disrepair. As Silver said in an interview with The Dirt: “Every neighborhood deserves to have a quality space. We want everyone to be within a ten minute walk to a park. But it’s not just the proximity, we want that park to be a quality park.” The park department’s Community Parks Initiative (CPI) — which rebuilds or significantly improves parks that have not seen any capital investment in 25 years — is one of the central efforts for achieving this goal. At the American Planning Association’s annual conference in New York City, Silver and others explained how the city’s already improving park equity — and setting a new model for other cities to follow.

Exploring all of NYC’s five boroughs, Silver has discovered people want the parks department to “break up all the pavement and add more green. They want more spray showers, dog runs, adult fitness equipment, and colorful places.” Communities also want “multi-generational social seating,” with benches for older residents and playgrounds for kids.

The CPI uses a “data-driven methodology” to identify the parks it will redesign or improve, explained Alyssa Konon, with the NYC parks department. They have identified 215 parks, plazas, and playgrounds in areas with high levels of poverty and inequality that especially need help. Some 56 comprehensive park redos have been started, and 11 more will start this fall. There have been targeted improvements in another 86. To date, some 55 neighborhoods, which are home to half a million NYers, now enjoy improved park space.

Community Parks Initiative project map / NYC Parks

While about $1 billion in capital is needed for all 215 spaces, they also need “support, partnerships, programs, and maintenance.” Konon said NYC Parks is also ramping up programmatic support for these parks, partnering with other city departments and non-profits. NYC residents have already benefited from 130 outdoor exercise classes organized by the parks department. There are 15 staff members who just focus on partnerships, helping to coordinate the 33,000 volunteers who donate their time in hundreds of parks. There are now some 48 parks friends groups.

Shape Up exercise class at West Harlem Piers / NYC Parks

Susannah Drake, FASLA, DLandStudio, a landscape architect who is a consultant with the parks department, believes “every community can have an incredible park.” She is redesigning a few older parks and playgrounds in Staten Island, working with communities to explore the “ecology, history, culture” of these spaces and strike the right balance between “passive and active uses.” She said parks department-led public planning sessions are particularly “humane,” as they schedule them when single parents can attend and also offer good food, so those parents can bring their kids along. “It’s a small thing, but it makes a huge difference.”

LT Petrosino playground proposal, under CPI / DLandStudio

So that communities don’t get “park fatigue” waiting forever for changes to happen, Silver and his team have “transformed the capital development process,” Drake said. “Parks now happen a lot more quickly — in just two years,” instead of the typical four-to-five year cycle. “Whereas before we had five community design meetings, now we have two.” Silver said his goal has been to “streamline the process, because there are just too many regulations.”

New York City Council member Mark Levine explained how many of the city’s parks got into such dire straits in the first place. “In the 70s and 80s, the rough years in the city, the parks budget dropped and never recovered.” Now, parks only get 0.5 percent of the city budget, just $344 million out of $70 billion.

Levine thinks the CPI is a great initiative, but parks overall just need more money, particularly in neighborhoods like East Harlem and the South Bronx, which have been up-zoned and are becoming more dense, and, therefore, need more high-quality public spaces. “Parks need to be considered part of new infrastructure.”