Asia’s Largest Urban Rooftop Farm Is a Model of Integrated Design

Thammasat University Rooftop Farm / Panoramic Studio, Landprocess

At first, the images of Thammasat University Rooftop Farm seem like renderings, but they are in fact real. Designed by Landprocess, which is led by landscape architect Kotchakorn Voraakhom, International ASLA, the 1.7-acre rooftop farm in Bangkok, Thailand, is not only mesmerizing but also a model of sustainable multi-use infrastructure.

This kind of infrastructure is exactly what we need in an urbanizing world dealing with climate change, flooding, pollution, and a lack of access to high-quality fresh produce.

The most successful forms of this infrastructure use an integrated design approach in which architects, landscape architects, and engineers cross disciplinary boundaries and unite to create better projects for people and the environment.

According to Voraakhom, the initial design for the new campus building was just a building. But she convinced the architecture and engineering teams to collaborate with her on a new concept. Given a large park was being developed in front of the building, why not just continue up over the building and link the rooftop green space with the park on the ground? “In the end, the design team and the clients all agreed this option will have a bigger impact,” she said.

Thammasat University Rooftop Farm / Panoramic Studio, Landprocess

For Voraakhom, the $31 million project shows what is possible through an integrated design approach — and also what landscape architects can bring to the table. In an email, she explained her thinking:

“My profession, landscape architecture, should not be left as the last amenity to be added while finishing up a project. Landscape architecture should not take up the last of the budget for some minor greening. Instead, landscape architecture should be the source of the initial concept and be the voice for, and restorer of, a healthy urban environment. If architects and engineers work more collaboratively with landscape architects, I’m certain we can strengthen our climate-focused architecture in significant ways. At the beginning of any project, we need to bring everyone on board, at par, to openly discuss and brainstorm, especially across disciplines, without fear of judgment or domination. With that, I’d like to express my gratitude and officially thank the architects and engineers with whom we worked with on this project for allowing us to be a major part of the overall concept.”

Integrated design enabled the entire design and engineering team to layer in solutions to multiple problems.

The first big challenge was managing the vast amount of rainwater that lands on Bangkok, creating frequent and destructive floods. Inspired by traditional terraced farming found in mountainous regions across Southeast Asia, the rooftop farm uses an intricate structure and gravity to cascade rainwater down each level.

Landprocess explains: “As rainwater zigzags down the slopes, each level harvests runoff from the previous cell, forming unique clusters of micro-watersheds along the terrace to help absorb, filter, and purify rainwater while growing food for the campus.”

Thammasat University Rooftop Farm / Landprocess
Thammasat University Rooftop Farm / Landprocess

The structure slows down water 20 times more efficiently than a conventional roof, and any run-off is captured in four retention ponds at the feet of the building, which can hold up to 3,095,570 gallons of water.

To address the problem of the lack of local access to healthy organic foods, the design team created a productive rooftop landscape. To soak up all that free water, Voraakhom’s firm introduced nearly 50 kinds of edible species, including rice, indigenous vegetables and herbs, and fruit trees.

Thammasat University Rooftop Farm / Panoramic Studio, Landprocess
Thammasat University Rooftop Farm / Panoramic Studio, Landprocess

There are Jamaican Cherry, White Cheesewood, Camphor, Red Sandalwood, and Ceylon Oak trees, intermixed with azaleas, lemongrass, holy basil, amaranth, rice, and okra. Rows of dill, Thai eggplant, red and green oak-leaf lettuce, green roselle grow amid the source of Thai food’s heat: bird’s eye chili peppers.

After one season’s harvest, the team discovered the roof can grow 20 tons of organic food annually, enough for 80,000 meals in the campus canteen. Food scraps are composted and returned to the roof farm, creating a sustainable food cycle.

Another issue the project addresses: urban Thai are increasingly divorced from their agricultural heritage. The rooftop farm helps reconnect students and community members to their history and educates them about sustainable, organic growing practices.

A century ago, King Rama V created the Rangsit rice plantations and a vast network of canals on the site of the rooftop farm. King Rama’s goal was to make Thailand a major jasmine rice producer. Paved over as Bangkok expanded, the rice fields were lost, but through this project, rice production has returned in a contemporary form.

Through volunteering, 40,000 students and nearby residents learn about this cultural landscape and their heritage. They can volunteer on the roof and learn how to plant and harvest. They have access to workshops on agriculture, nutrition, and permaculture, which are embedded into the university’s sustainability curricula.

Thammasat University Rooftop Farm / Panoramic Studio, Landprocess
Thammasat University Rooftop Farm / Panoramic Studio, Landprocess

The rooftop landscape also helps solve the problem of fossil fuel use to generate power. Photovoltaic panels installed at the top of the roof generates 500,000 watts of electricity per hour.

This energy powers water pumps that pull water up from the retaining ponds to irrigate the crops during the dry season. The renewable energy is complemented by passive strategies that reduce energy use overall. The green roof further insulates the building, reducing its cooling energy needs. And air that passes over the retaining ponds is cooled before it reaches the building, creating natural air conditioning.

All of these layers of solutions are united in the building’s H-shaped form, which represents the university’s long-standing commitment to egalitarianism and democracy.

Landprocess explains: “Divided into four equally-accessible sections, each chamber represents a core element of democracy—people, liberty, equality, and fraternity.”

To realize that spirit of egalitarianism, there are 12 social spaces set within the farming terraces that function as outdoor classrooms.

Thammasat University Rooftop Farm / Panoramic Studio, Landprocess

At the very top, there is a large amphitheater space that offers 360-degree panoramic views.

Thammasat University Rooftop Farm / Panoramic Studio, Landprocess

And back on the ground, at the entrance, there is another accessible, terraced amphitheater for events, with life-sized sculptures of the two founders of the university.

Thammasat University Rooftop Farm / Dsignsomething, Jinnawat Borihankijanan

To learn more about Voraakhom, watch a recent short film produced by Mercedes-Benz:

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (September 15-30)

Mia Lehrer, FASLA / Studio-MLA

Mia Lehrer Tapped for L.A. Department of Water and Power Board of Commissioners — 09/28/20, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Mia Lehrer, founder and president of landscape architecture and urban design practice Studio-MLA (formerly Mia Lehrer + Associates), has been nominated by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti to the powerful L.A. Department of Water and Power (LADWP) Board of Commissioners.”

Design for the Future When the Future Is Bleak — 09/28/20, The New York Times
“Amid pandemics and environmental disasters, designers and architects have been forced to imagine a world in which the only way to move forward is to look back.”

The Pandemic Bike Boom Hits in Some Unexpected American Cities — 09/23/20, Bloomberg CityLab
“Coupled with the effects of a warming planet, Covid-19 has produced little good news this year. Yet the two crises did pave the way for one positive social shift: a bike boom, including in some unlikely places. New data from Strava, the fitness tracking app used by 68 million global users, shows that several U.S. cities saw significant year-over-year growth in both bike trips and cyclists in much of 2020.”

The Ambitious Restoration of Houston’s Rothko Chapel Is Now Complete— 09/22/30, Architectural Digest
“The landscape architects Nelson Byrd Woltz have been working with ARO to develop the parkland around the chapel, adding tree groves and ‘areas to sit and decompress’ from a visit, Cassell says.”

D.C. Council Unanimously Approves Vision Zero Bill Aimed at Reducing Traffic Fatalities — 09/22/20, The Washington Post
“The legislation, which passed unanimously, accelerates improvements to bike and pedestrian infrastructure, expands the city’s automated traffic enforcement program, and boosts traffic safety education.”

West 8 Debuts First Phase of Houston Botanic Garden — 09/22/20, The Architect’s Newspaper
“West 8, the award-winning Dutch landscape architecture and urban design firm with offices in Rotterdam and New York City, has unveiled the highly anticipated first phase of the Houston Botanic Garden, a years-in-the-making, first-of-its-kind horticultural hub for the Bayou City that aims to attract tourists, green thumbs, and the scientific community.”

Reducing Wildfire Catastrophies Is About Common Responsibility, Not Mismanagement

A home destroyed by wildfires in Mill City, Oregon / AP Photo/Gillian Flaccus

By Rob Ribe, FASLA, PhD

I recently joined with landscape architecture faculty colleagues Bart Johnson, David Hulse, and Chris Enright, along with other scientists, in a study of wildfire risks in the southern Willamette Valley of Oregon. Our National Science Foundation project employed complexity science to simulate prospective landscape change and wildfire scenarios over fifty years. We simulated landscape change scenarios many times across an actual large area. The factors that influenced the simulations were different climate projections, consequent vegetation changes, likely behaviors landowners told us they would engage in, and fire behavior.

Very few of our numerous 50-year simulations suggested the likelihood of as many simultaneous, intense, and extensive wildfires as were seen in western Oregon in the first two weeks of September. This suggests the incidence of large and severe wildfires in the West is not linearly related to advancing climate change, as we and others have thought. With a warming climate, there may be more of an exponential, but still variable, growth in the incidence of large, and often simultaneous, very costly wildfires.

The extensive intensity of increasingly frequent wildfires promises to consume ever more forests, lives, and property in out-of-control ways, overpowering conventional wildfire prevention, amelioration, and suppression measures.

Outbreaks of multiple hazardous and simultaneous wildfires happen when several regional factors converge to produce “blowtorch” conditions. These can include extremely dry fuels (after months of drought), high temperatures, very low humidity, high winds, accumulated fuel loads, and forests stressed by advancing diseases and mortality. The resulting wildfires often exceed those of historically natural ones. Those natural wildfires tended to foster forest health because they often burned with less intensity, more variable intensity across landscapes, and less average overall acreage.

The only effective long-term solution is to reverse climate change, which will not slow down in the near term. But in the meantime, forests can be managed to be more resilient to fire.

Fuels reduction is the only known option to increase forests’ resilience. Prescribed portions of young or smaller trees, dead wood, and shrubs could be reduced in hundreds of millions of acres in the American West, and again, later on, in the forests of the eastern states. This is happening at a growing pace, but piecemeal, wherever funding and political support coalesce. It’s not enough to meet the larger challenge.

Sporadic projects tend to occur near suburban or exurban areas where risks are appreciated due to recent wildfires. In national parks, legal mandates promote the restoration of native, low-fuel ecosystems by prescribed fire, another method of fuels reduction. Badly burned forests must be replaced by more fire-adapted forests, but this is rare.

The implementation of an adequately extensive forest fuels reduction program is beset by ideological blame-shifting and politically prohibitive costs. There is also a shortage of well-trained professionals dedicated to this task, who can manage risks and build support for projects by sensitively and creatively engaging with local landowners and communities.

Conservatives deflect blame to scientific managers and conservationists by asserting that most forests have been “mismanaged” because they have not been freely and widely commercially thinned and harvested for wealth production at no cost to taxpayers. Ecologically-oriented environmentalists deflect blame to conservatives by asserting that most forests have been “mismanaged” because they have not been managed to emulate natural processes, like prescribed fire, as opposed to ecologically-destructive management geared only toward short-term profits. Everyone else is to blame in such incendiary partisan narratives: No one takes responsibility to fix the problems or bear the costs.

This broad, divisive notion of “mismanagement” is vexing. People dealing with real forests in real places can rarely identify a simple and obviously correct management approach. There are always questions of what, why, where, and when in decisions about budgets, biological systems, interacting and conflicting goals, alternative techniques, public and logger safety, wildlife, amenities, and the politics of local and regional stakeholders. Fuels reduction must be a major goal, but the best way to achieve this must be carefully tailored to each forest in its social and ecological context.

Learning about forest fuels in an Oregon forest / Rob Ribe
Learning about forest fuels in the Oregon forest / Rob Ribe

There will be forests where commercially profitable fuels reduction is appropriate, but there are many where this will be impossible, because costs exceed the value of marketable products.

There will be forests where prescribed fire is appropriate and efficient, but not everywhere. Numerous homes have been built within many forests. This makes prescribed fires more difficult to execute. Homeowners are often averse to perceived or actual risks, the intentional production of smoke, and changes to landscape amenities.

Climate change is also reducing the frequency and duration of weather conditions and fuel moisture levels required for safe prescribed fires. Prescribed fire is also difficult to safely control in increasing areas of forest with many weak or dead trees. If poorly planned, fuels reduction can impose risks to long-term forest health, net carbon sequestration, wildlife habitats, soils, biodiversity, and long-term sustainability of local timber or recreation economies; and it can’t be universally implemented.

A national program of extensive, well-planned forest fuels reduction and increased carbon sequestration would be very costly. Forest landowners are already shouldering growing insurance costs. It would require bipartisan, constructive, sustained, and large investments in public forest capital.

A complete, valid, and public GIS database of forest conditions in all western states must be rapidly created and maintained.

A private-public partnership with a clear mandate to foster forest health and resilience would need to award funds and coordinate and enable work across states, localities, landowners, and agencies. New, well-crafted rules would need to set fuels reduction and carbon sequestration goals with strong performance standards. These must clarify how projects must not be cheap and quick, but locally-appropriate to produce long-term forest health and beautiful, diverse forests.

Professional local planning, public participation, honest environmental reviews, and carefully proficient implementation would all be imperative.

Rob Ribe, FASLA, is professor and director of the master’s of landscape architecture program in the department of landscape architecture at the University of Oregon. He holds a master’s degree in landscape architecture and a PhD in land resources. Ribe was a lead scientist in studying the social acceptability of timber harvests and forest planning in the Pacific Northwest following the spotted owl controversy. He has also studied private landowners’ forest management choices.

A New Generation of Memorials Can Help Reset Our Understanding of Racism

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice by Mass Design Group / copyright Alan Karchmer

By Richard Jones, ASLA

Contemporary memorials can be powerful tools for resetting historical narratives around racism in our country. Embracing our true past — the horrors and the triumphs — will give us the space to accurately frame the American story, so that we might accept a more accurate accounting of where we really are on the path to equality.

Americans must create new memorials that are deep and resonate and omit the hyper-simplified token gestures of the past. Let us show the world, through new places of honor and memory, the maturity of a nation that has taken ownership of its past and is resolved in stamping out inequality. Only then can our nation’s core value — that all men are created equal — be held in truth in the hearts of all of its citizens.

Denying the truth enslaves us. Accepting it sets us free.

It might be said that the problem of addressing issues of racial equality in America in 2020 is as much a matter of refusing to take responsibility for one’s actions and changing them as it is racism itself. We struggle to move past our own legacy of hatred and discrimination because we have never fully accepted the truth of it.

Instead, we have rewritten the most vile, the most evil chapters of our past, carefully molding them into neat packages that one could argue resemble scary bedtime stories rather than the graphic and horrible truth. We know the narrative: slavery to freedom, oppression and inequality to the civil rights movement. Civil liberty and voting rights to President Barack Obama and the myth of a free and just America that we live in today; and along the way, Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Tubman, Fredrick Douglass, maybe John Brown, then Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Kennedy brothers. This may be an oversimplification, but it is far less than our chosen selective collection of right-sized stories portrays.

Most everyone will know the names above. They have been memorialized countless times across our nation, revered (and in some cases reviled) for their contributions in the fight for equality. But how many of us know Daniel Hale Williams, Garret Morgan, or Anne Lowe? How many of us know the horror beset upon the slaves known only as Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsy?

Similarly, we know the stories of Selma, Alabama. We know of Birmingham, Alabama, and pride ourselves in being able to recount the significance of all that occurred in those now hallowed places. But how many know of the massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma or Ocoee, Florida? How many know the outright treasonous coup that saw a legally-elected American government overthrown in Wilmington, North Carolina?

Some of us might know the name of Emmett Till. But how many know Jesse Washington or the unimaginable horror visited upon the thousands of blacks that were lynched from the late 19th century to the 1960s? I’d wager that comparatively, very few of us do. And that is by design.

This is because the stories of these people and places were never meant to be examined. The events were never meant to be revealed. The names, like so many other notable Black figures who gave of their lives and talents either willingly or by violent force snuffed out, remain all but omitted from our nation’s history. Their stories are erased, so the favored narrative might prevail.

This narrative states that our forefathers committed regrettable acts, but acts from which we have, through a long and drawn out, reluctant, and only partial admission finally “moved on” from. In minimizing our past, we have all but absolved ourselves of any responsibility we might shoulder today for the inequality that exists from the lowest gutters of our main streets to the highest reaches of our government. As a result, we remain mired in a past that will never truly be past unless it is reckoned with in our collective attitudes and actions.

This denial of the truth threatens to tear the moral fabric of our nation. Today, I see a benign indifference to inequality and the fallout of our continued legacy of racism as much as I do the proliferation of neo-racist ideas or beliefs. In so many cases, that indifference to inequality can be attributed to the lack of will or ability to find the hard reality of our past so that we might understand who we truly are as a nation. Our history has been so carefully cleansed of the truth — so tangled in webs of deceit and distraction, misdirection, and mis-characterization — that a person seeking to understand why Black wealth, incarceration, or education levels are what they are would require a degree of investigative rigor reserved for scientific research.

Some might say to not put in the effort to understand is simply lazy. I don’t disagree, but it also shouldn’t be as hard as it is. Amid the blaring voices and opinions of the multitudes, who share their own takes on social media, and the doubling-down on old racist tropes by some of those in power, it is no surprise that some 155 years after the abolition of slavery, we are as divided as we have ever been. At times it seems a hopeless fight, but it’s one we must have.

Our footprints mark our past, but also point in the direction of our future.

The land upon which we walk marks the footprints of our history just as surely as our history books. And like those books and the stories within them, the tales we read upon that land contain only the degree of truth we choose to till into it.

When we scrape the land to create a hollow within which to build a fire, the action is recorded, unless we meticulously erase all traces of the action and allow the passing of time to heal the wound. The ground is pitted, the coals remain after the fire is spent, the ashes scattered across the ground.

But the how, the who, and for what of the fire: those are facts left for the author (or victor) to record. Such as it is for the roads we’ve built: Highways and their legacies of connection but also division. So it is with the buildings and railroads that sprang from the virgin beauty of native American lands. Land scraped of one history so that another could be written. Structures erected and hailed as symbols of American might. White houses built by Black hands — hands which belong to a people for which the ideology of a nation carried not hope and freedom, but pain and despair. The darkness was often deliberately forgotten, leaving only triumphant stories of struggle, regret, and perseverance over the land, our enemies, and ourselves.

We have achieved remarkable feats as a nation but also created fairy tales from horror stories. What we have done to the land and built upon it is in a way a memorial to who and what we are as a society. The land records only part of the story. The rest, we script to our needs.

Who we are is evident in what we build.

We erect markers to commemorate the actors and moments of our history. There are monuments and memorials that record battles won and lost that honor lives and hallowed grounds. And as with the land we’ve marked in America, the stories we choose to tell in these places speaks to who we are and what we believe in as a people.

Those stories that speak to us from bronze and granite become solidified in our individual and collective conscious. They become symbols of our belief system. But when truth and fact are not the priority of the memorial designer, what becomes made concrete in our conscious is little more than myth. Myth informs a set of beliefs that inform attitudes and dictate actions. These actions result in policies that chart the path for our future. Recalling the past is necessary to accurately feel our present and chart our future.

The ongoing controversy over what should become of the nation’s many confederate monuments highlights that struggle. We must now design a new foundation upon which we might write a new narrative about who we are, where we have been, and with a proper accounting of those things, the path we might walk in the future. But this task is not as easy as it may seem.

Following the tragedy in Charlottesville in 2017, Baltimore mayor Catherine Pugh acted quickly to remove the Confederate monuments in the city. It was a decision that was largely applauded for preventing violence and unrest. In the months following the removal, design charrettes and community-based discussions were held to discuss what stories should replace the old racist confederate narratives.

In March 2018, there was a re-dedication of the most significant of the four locations. The space that was once the home to a Confederate memorial to Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee would now be designated Harriet Tubman Grove. If the goal is to take down a symbol of an evil and replace it with one of good, Harriet Tubman is a universal symbol of all that that word describes.

Confederate monuments were removed in Baltimore, leaving marble plinths. / AP Photo/Juliet Linderman

However, taken in context, in a country that counts sincerity and simplicity as two of its of its greatest virtues, one might also argue that despite the seeming sincerity of actions like the dedication of another Tubman memorial, or the 1,000-plus streets and boulevards named after Martin Luther King Jr, we are oversimplifying the story of our past — a story of overcoming prejudice and succeeding in spite of it.

In fact, as a society, we are in a way complicit in upholding the illusion that there were but a few Blacks of note throughout American history. Or worse, we may be minimizing the atrocities and oppressive policies pushed onto Blacks from the inception of the slave trade through slavery, failed reconstruction and the Antebelum South, segregationist policies of the early 20th century, and race-based housing and lending practices through modern day poll taxes.

To acknowledge a select few individuals while ignoring the complete picture of the marred historical record relegates the suffering and contributions of so many Blacks who fought for the advancement of our nation to the most remote corners of our history — the place they were designated by the flawed beliefs of previous generation to remain.

Today, in the midst of a worldwide movement to bring awareness to the validity of black lives, when all the eyes of the world and the nation are watching, we must assure that what they see and what we show ourselves — the stories and the images of our past — are more reflective of our truth. Like the pages upon which we have documented our American history, our American landscape can serve as a place to document story.

Our public spaces are a means to tell our true story.

Landscape architects, planners, artists, and policy makers must take part in and, when we can, lead dialogue around the way in which we tell our nation’s story.

We can view our landscapes, plazas, monuments, and memorials as opportunities to re-educate current and future generations about the truth of who we are and how we came to be. We can do this in a way that is reflective, honest, and accurate, so the tragedy of our past is not repeated. On our own, we can’t retool the civics and history curricula in schools across our country, but we can assure that the narratives that people take away from the experiences they have in the landscapes we build are informative, enlightening, and ultimately encourage others to think more deeply about our place in the world and the inequities they might see in it.

Pedestal and statuary will always have a place in the act of memorialization, but if what we seek is a gesture that ultimately brings about togetherness, we should try to embody that aspiration in the fabric of the spaces we create.

If the historical intent of Confederate memorials and the empty spaces they have left behind was in large part to remind Blacks of their low position in American society, should not the opposite action be to create spaces that remind us that we SHOULD all be equal but have not been treated so, extinguish the myth that we are not, and shine a light on the realities that in our past and present contribute to ongoing inequality?

Would not a better use of the spaces that once held figures in granite and bronze be to not simply replace one figure with another or one name for another but to create spaces that evoke powerful emotion, teach lessons of “never again,” enhance the public realm, and encourage us to question contemporary life experiences?

Shouldn’t they assure that heroes and victims are appropriately cast and engage the public in a broader ongoing dialogue about racism and inequality?

And shouldn’t they also serve as a vehicle to tell stories that to date have been omitted from the pages of our history? It is not difficult to make the case that the answer to all of those questions should be yes.

We cannot veil the horror of the atrocities we have committed in our past. To understand the suffering of others, we must ourselves get as close as we can to the pain they have endured. It must be there for us to see, touch, hear, and feel. Truth. Clarity. Awareness. Change.

Contemporary memorials abroad and here in the U.S. are striking new chords. They offer a new way of shaping not only how and what we remember, but also assure that the emotions we draw from them and the awareness they create deeply resonates.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, a collaboration between the Equal Justice Initiative and MASS Design Group, challenges us to not only learn the horrific reality of slavery and Jim Crow-era racism, but to feel the oppressive weight of it, twist our minds to try to understand its breadth, and grip our hearts in a pain that reaches deep in the soul of any human being, regardless of color.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice by Mass Design Group / copyright Alan Karchmer

Too little has been documented of the facts and scope of the lynchings of Blacks in our history. For 88 years between 1880 and 1968, there were more than 4,700 documented cases of lynchings, which equates to approximately one Black life taken per week. One murder per week for 88 years. And those are only the murders that were recorded.

Yet, until the completion of the National Memorial to Peace and Justice, there were no sites that provided a means to interpret these atrocities so they might be appropriately set in the context of our history and serve as a sobering warning for future generations to stamp out the embers of hatred and violence. Located on six acres within the city of Montgomery, the scale of the memorial is impressive, and the experience is varied, employing a range of powerful interpretive methods.

Inspired by the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, the focus of the memorial is a large, central court with 805 suspended boxes, roughly the size of coffins, suspended from steel rods. Each box represents a county in the U.S. in which a lynching was recorded. Visitors slowly descend to the courtyard floor, the boxes suspended above them. The simple descent is a powerful design move, meant to evoke the unsettling feeling of walking among the dead. The boxes list the names of those souls whose lives were taken and whose stories, until now, have been all but lost.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice by Mass Design Group / copyright Alan Karchmer
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice by Mass Design Group / copyright Alan Karchmer
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice by Mass Design Group / copyright Alan Karchmer

It is an experience that is powerful; one that is free from any veiled attempt to mute the reality of what it memorializes. The horror one might feel is intentional, and one might argue, necessary in order to make one more aware of contemporary acts of social injustice and crime. The pain is one that should touch all of our souls, for there is a clarity in our tears that is unaffected by the color of the cheek upon which they fall. A clarity that can create unity and awareness, without blame or fault.

We should all remember those who have gone before us. To let the memory of the names and places of suffering fade into darkness is to allow the evil that brought it about to be reborn.

There are times when a story is meant to be told in a designated place, one that either has an inherent significance, or one that is assigned. With experiences like the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, there is a power in the symbolism bestowed upon the place that is rooted in the act of honoring and remembrance. As a result, they become the destinations for school and family trips. They are the holiest of destinations in our religious pilgrimages. However, when the stories are few and locations fewer, the challenge of maintaining awareness derived from the physical connection to the experience can be difficult to overcome.

Stolpersteine (Stumbling stones) designed by German artist Gunter Demming provides a decentralized, daily reminder of the ever looming threat of racism. Commissioned in 2001, the memorial consists of more than 75,000 bronze blocks set within the sidewalks of towns and cities across Europe. The blocks, placed in front of the homes of murdered or exiled Jews, read simply “Here lived…” followed by the name of the individual or family.

Stumbling stones / Flickr

This form of expression creates a moment of recognition that endures the passage of time, for as long as the streets and homes remain. In this way, Demming’s stumbling stones have brought awareness and the space to remember to anyone who sees its markers. The experience is impactful and is observed both in its intimate, direct connection to the individual honored, and the enormous scale of the atrocities committed against so many Jewish citizens. One cannot discount the power of connection through time and place such a memorial creates.

Stumbling stones / Wikipedia
Stumbling stones / German Embassy in UK Twitter

Such a memorial, if it were to be installed in the U.S., might provide a means to bring awareness to many of the crimes committed against Blacks that are seldom brought to light. Acts like the bombing of homes belonging to Black citizens in the first half of the 20th century. These attacks, meant to terrorize Black families, so that they were discouraged from moving into more affluent, White neighborhoods, were an unsanctioned partner to the practices of redlining and racial covenants. The records of these acts are few or often discounted, but the marks they have left on the land and in our society are evident. Evident, but without a true accounting of how they came to be.

One might argue that the invisible boundaries that have resulted from these actions in America have been every bit as effective in restricting the freedom and mobility of those behind them as the Berlin Wall in Germany and other literal barriers we have chosen to memorialize. Imagine for a moment how less coherent the fabric of the city of Berlin might be if the story of the Berlin Wall was treated as though it had never existed? To what would a lay-person attribute the differences and disparities that existed from East to West if they were not provided the truth? How will future generations in America attribute racial disparities that are often starkly evident in our cities if they not offered new markers that provide insight into their root cause? New methods of recalling this past can embed the opportunity to reframe attitudes around racial injustice into the fabric of our daily experiences.

History is not the past; it is the present.

One of the obvious challenges in telling the story of racism in America is that even when we are successful in accurately capturing the truth of our past, the belief among many persists that the past is just that. The reality that the legacy of systemic racism lives on in this country is often lost.

The challenge then becomes one of telling a story that enlightens through a lens that is contemporary, nimble, and tethered to the zeitgeist; a story that seeks less to explain what “has occurred,” than what is occurring every day, or that sets historical fact in a contemporary context. Spaces that can tell these stories have the potential to bridge the divide between the wrongs of the past and the effects of those wrongs on contemporary society. They are also important in bridging the generational gap so that the stories are presented in a way that resonates with current generations.

One example of such a memorial space is the recently unveiled Society’s Cage, which was initially installed in August, 2020 at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. and is intended to travel to multiple locations across the country. The memorial, which was designed by a team of mostly Black architects at SmithGroup, asks the question: “What is the value of a Black Life in America?”

Society’s Cage / SmithGroup

The memorial’s perfect cube form symbolizes the aspiration of our American values. However, the internal volume of the cube is constructed of uneven conduit pipes that protrude from the ceiling and floor, symbolizing the uncomfortable and fractured reality that many Blacks in society are greeted with on a daily basis.

Society’s Cage on the National Mall / DCist

Visitors are invited to move through the cube’s aesthetically violent interior. Through symbolism, text, and audio, they are offered a glimpse into an all-to-real and all-too-common Black experience in America via four statistical datasets representing different forms of racism and state violence: mass incarceration, capital punishment, police brutality, and lynching.

Society’s Cage uses unique and artful execution and its temporary nature to deliver a lesson on racial injustice within a must see experience. In doing so, it pulls at the levers of our viral social media culture to shine a powerful light on the often brutal realities of racism today. Hopefully, Society’s Cage and memorial experiences like it also push our society forward — better informed, more aware, more united.

Let us now create the spaces to remember the names, places, and events we might have forgotten, and tell those stories we have yet to hear.

Richard Jones, ASLA, is CEO and founder of iO Studio, Inc. and former president of Mahan Rykiel Associates.

References:

Books: The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein, and The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power by Diedre Mask.

Documentary films: Jim Crow of the North, 2019, Twin Cities PBS, and The Uncomfortable Truth, 2017, Taylor Street Films.

ASLA seeks to facilitate open, respectful dialogue in its public forums. Opinions expressed in the comments section are not necessarily those of ASLA. By participating in ASLA’s websites, blogs, and social media accounts, the user agrees to the Terms of Use.

Last Chance to Protect Greater Chaco from Oil and Gas Drilling

Chaco Culture National Historic Park / Wikipedia

By Grace Mitchell Tada, Associate ASLA

September may mark the end of the latest efforts to protect the Chaco Culture National Historical Park against encroaching oil and gas production. A draft resource management plan for the area, which was released by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) earlier this year, fails to guarantee a 10-mile protective zone in lands bordering the park. The plan is open for public comment until September 25.

During a recent webinar organized by US/ICOMOS, Ernie Atencio, the southwest regional director of the National Parks Conversation Association, stated that “this really could be our last chance to save one of the most important cultural landscapes in the US.”

Allowing development as close as possible to the park depreciates the site’s beauty and integrity as world heritage. More gravely, it also introduces health and safety risks to vulnerable Pueblo and Navajo communities while further cleaving them from their sacred homelands. These lands include the Greater Chaco region in the northwestern corner of present-day New Mexico and the historic national park, which is also recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage site for its outstanding Puebloan cultural complex.

Opening oil and gas leasing next to the national park would mar the landscape with roads, well pads, pumpjacks, and processing facilities. Oil extraction would cause air and noise pollution and prompt methane to leak from the ground. Bright lights and nighttime flares would taint its International Dark Sky Place designation. Already, 92 percent of the BLM surface lands in the district (among the state’s “most scenic,” according to the BLM) are leased and subjected to these damages.

Existing oil and gas operations scar the Greater Chaco landscape / Archaeology Southwest

The Chaco cultural sites are significant to the Navajo Nation and Puebloan peoples. “I myself have gone on pilgrimages during my time in office and throughout my lifetime to these sacred sites,” says Kurt Riley, former governor of the Pueblo of Acoma. But sometimes, in order to visit these places, Riley and other tribal members must receive permission from the BLM or the US Forest Service.

The existing protection afforded by both UNESCO and the National Park Service is critical to the area’s preservation, but it far from encompasses all sacred sites. The ancient Puebloan peoples occupied territories stretching across the American Southwest, and evidence of their presence can be seen today at Chaco Canyon, Mesa Verde National Park, and Bear’s Ears National Monument. Sacred sites dot the landscapes in between; over 300 occupy the Chaco landscape alone.

Riley reiterates the words of an Acoma lawyer: “All archaeological sites are sacred, but not all sacred sites are archaeological.” Any additional protections, like the 10-mile buffer around the Chaco Culture National Historic Park, contribute to preserving a network of sites largely overrun by centuries of settler colonialism.

Significant sites of the Chaco World / Archaeology Southwest

Riley and Paul Reed, a preservation archaeologist with Archaeology Southwest, argue that the Trump administration has exercised an energy dominance policy at the expense of cultural, environmental, and human health concerns. In the Chaco area, projects such as resource management plans and environmental impact statements have been railroaded forward in Washington, DC, without appropriate stakeholder consultation. Frequently, local directives from, for instance, state BLM actors, are overridden. Processes that previously involved tribal members have been fast-tracked and executed out of usual sequence, catching the tribal authorities off guard. The tribes do not have the staff or legal or financial resources to respond to the onslaught of quarterly land sales.

Oil and gas drilling surrounding the Chaco Culture National Historic Park / Archaeology Southwest

The National Parks Conservation Association and its partners — including Pueblo and Navajo groups as well as numerous conservation and preservation organizations — had been waiting years for the BLM’s draft plan for the Chaco region. At the end of February, BLM finally released it.

According to the groups opposed to the plan, the draft fails to evaluate health and safety effects of the proposed drilling. It does not include assessments from federally funded cultural resource studies. It violates numerous federal environmental and preservation laws. And just when BLM disseminated it, Covid-19 was beginning to creep across the US.

The virus especially devastated Navajo Nation and Pueblo communities near Chaco, and their focus turned inward to protecting their health. Concurrently, BLM arranged a host of virtual meetings as public engagement. For tribal leaders dealing with unreliable Internet access and cell service and a public health crisis, these already culturally insensitive meetings were unrealistic. According to Atencio, the BLM efforts amounted to “a farce of public participation.”

After months of silence and just before the comment period ended, Secretary of Interior David Bernhardt extended the comment deadline until September 25. Stakeholder requests to pause the process until the end of the pandemic were ignored.

Local tribes and others are asking for a version of the plan that retains the 10-mile protection area. “But we really feel that the plan is so deficient in its analysis of the impacts that BLM needs to revise the entire thing,” said Atencio.

President Trump signed a Presidential Memorandum in early September discontinuing new offshore oil and gas development around Florida, citing that the state’s residents “just don’t want it.” Critics argue this is an another example of discriminatory prioritization by the Trump administration that implicitly ranks the wants of different groups of people.

Through public outcry, perhaps it too can be made clear that the people of the greater Chaco region do not want oil and gas in their landscape either.

Submit your comments to the BLM directly or via Protect Chaco or the National Parks Conservation Association by September 25.

This guest post is by Grace Mitchell Tada, Associate ASLA, with Hood Design Studio and co-editor of the forthcoming book Black Landscapes Matter.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (September 1-15)

Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing Park, Jacksonville, Florida / Hood Design Studio

Building Public Places for a Covid World — 09/11/20, The New York Times
“Walter Hood’s landscape architecture firm, Hood Design Studio, has created major parks and museum gardens in Oakland, San Francisco and New York. He is also doubling down on the work he has been doing for 20 years: helping historically African-American communities rediscover history that’s been erased through abandonment or demolished by urban renewal.”

University of Oregon Experts: Wildfires across Oregon Herald One Possible Future — 09/11/20, University of Oregon
“The large, fast-spreading Holiday Farm Fire east of Springfield is a wake-up call for how quickly even worst-case scenarios for wildfire risk can be overwhelmed by reality, said Bart Johnson, a professor of landscape architecture who studies climate change adaptation planning.”

Nine Fall Gardening Tips From a Texas Landscape Architect — 09/10/20, Texas Monthly
“Dallas-based landscape architect David Hocker says the coronavirus pandemic has led to a huge increase in demand for his work, as public health guidelines have pushed us out into nature for safer socializing, dining, and exercise.”

Beyond Complete Streets: Could COVID-19 Help Transform Thoroughfares Into Places for People? –09/07/20, Planetizen
“By changing the way we traditionally use streets, people are expanding the way they think about cities in real-time. In a relatively short period of time, cities have announced plans to permanently close some of these ‘COVID streets’ to create new recreational spaces in combination with mobility corridors—essentially, linear community commons, or places for people.”

Building Bans and Affordable Housing: A Construction Conundrum — 09/03/20, The Washington Post
“Seeking to curtail gentrification and displacement, Atlanta and Chicago put construction and demolition moratoriums in place early this year.”

The Case for Making Virtual Public Meetings Permanent — 09/02/20, Governing
“The question, as has been asked in many contexts through 2020, is why can’t this COVID-19-era innovation become permanent? Rather than return to the hassle of holding most public meetings in person, why not continue to make them remote?”

Statue Suggestions Roll in for Trump’s National Garden of American Heroes — 09/02/20, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Suggestions for ‘lifelike or realistic’ representations of ‘historically significant Americans’ that could potentially populate the Trump administration’s planned National Garden of American Heroes have now been submitted by officials in various states, territories, and counties.”

Interactive Maps Track Western Wildfires

Map of active fires / ESRI

California, Oregon, and Washington, along with nine other states in the West are now experiencing record-breaking wildfires. According to experts, there are a number of reasons: climate change is creating the underlying conditions for more extreme weather events. Heat waves over the summer dried out much of Western forests, which were already impacted by years of drought and bark beetles. Unusually high winds have spread embers. And human activity in the wildland-urban interface keeps creating new sparks: downed electrical lines have set many blazes, while, infamously, a gender reveal party with a “pyrotechnic device” created a massive conflagration.

Amid the continuing devastation, an interactive map from ESRI, which creates geographic information system software, enables users to track active fires by name or location in near real time and sort by timeline and magnitude. The map indicates each fire’s estimated start date and its current level of containment. Another layer provides a smoke forecast for any given location.

Smoke forecast / ESRI

According to ESRI, the sources of fire data in the map are the Integrated Reporting of Wildland-Fire Information (IRWIN) and the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) — both of which are updated every 15 minutes. Smoke forecasts are incorporated from the National Weather Service and show 48-hour forecasts updated every hour. ESRI adds that when zoomed-in, users can see additional fire data from NOAA/NASA satellites, which detect the locations of recent “thermal activity” that indicates fire direction. (ESRI also has a map with local disaster response data).

Western states offer maps with near real-time data as well. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) is tracking containment efforts for all wildfires and providing updates on evacuation orders. The Oregon Department of Forestry is following large active fires, as is the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center in Washington State.

The National Interagency Fire Center finds that in the western U.S. more than 5 million acres have burned during this year’s fire season, which runs from May through September.

In California alone, more than than 2.5 million acres have gone up in flames. According to The New York Times, that is 20 times more than what was burned last year and a modern record. In Oregon, 900,000 acres have caught fire, causing half a million people to evacuate, which is more than 10 percent of the state’s population. And in Washington state, an unprecedented 480,000 acres have burned just in one week. There are currently 100 large active fires across the West.

Beyond the incredible loss of life and property, breathing in wildfire smoke can cause serious health issues. Blazes that consume homes and garages filled with household cleaners like Drano release other dangerous particles into the atmosphere.

According to researchers at Stanford University, the risks of toxic wildfire smoke are especially high for children, the elderly, and those with asthma. Studies have shown that after five days of major wildfires, the number of hospital visits for asthma attacks increased by 400 percent, and the number of visits for strokes by 42 percent.

For those out West, please take every precaution by closing windows and doors, running air purifiers, and regularly checking the latest evacuation orders.

In a useful primer, the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions outlines the many connections between climate change and wildfires. The organization states: “climate change causes forest fuels (the organic matter that burns and spreads wildfire) to be more dry and has doubled the number of large fires between 1984 and 2015 in the western U.S.”

Planners with Cal Fire see wildfires primarily as a land-use problem. Many communities in western states are at high-risk of wildfires because they were developed in the wildland-urban interface, which the U.S. Forest Service describes as places where “humans and their development meet or intermix with wildland fuel.” State and local governments can discourage development in fire-prone areas. This can reduce the risk of human-caused sparks and also prevent property and lives from being destroyed by fires that spread increasingly rapidly through these vulnerable areas.

Other solutions identified by communities out West are early warning systems coupled with remote sensing technologies, defensible space landscape design for homes and communities, and prescribed burns that can help clear out dead trees and accumulated biomass before they become a dangerous source of fuel for fires.

Ideas Competition: Hyperloop Desert Campus

Imagine shuttling through a large pneumatic tube at speeds up to 760 mph (1,200 kmh). In 2012, Elon Musk, founder of Tesla, proposed just that with his Hyperloop transportation system. Encased in a low-pressure tube, passengers and freight could be sped on magnetic levitation tracks from San Francisco to Los Angeles in just 35 minutes. To spur innovation, Tesla and Space X decided to make their initial Hyperloop technologies open source. A number of teams in the U.S. and Europe — including Virgin Hyperloop One, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, and Transpod — have since taken up the challenge, undertaking feasibility analyses, prototyping passenger pod and track technologies, and even building mile-long test tracks. The Wall Street Journal declared there is now a real “Hyperloop movement” around the world.

Hyperloop Transportation Technologies’ full-scale passenger capsule in Puerto de Santa Maria, Spain / Hyperloop Transportation Technologies
Hyperloop track assembly in California / Hyperloop Transportation Technologies
Virgin Hyperloop One capsule and test track / Virgin Hyperloop One

Now, Young Architects Competitions (YAC) has announced an ideas competition for a visionary (and imaginary) Hyperloop Desert Campus outside Las Vegas, Nevada, which they argue is the perfect site for experimentation. YAC hopes to build on the open source spirit of the quest for a Hyperloop by creating new models of planning and design collaboration.

The competition is also an opportunity for teams of young designers of many disciplines to get their bold ideas in front of a jury comprising architect Kazuyo Sejima, the Pritzker Prize-winning founder of SANAA; Carlo Ratti, a leading architect and engineer; and Winy Maas, co-founder and principal architect of the Dutch firm MVRDV.

Hyperloop Desert Campus / YAC

Planners, landscape architects, architects, engineers, and artists will have a major role to play in the success of any proposed Hyperloop networks. Stations and facilities need to feel safe and accessible. The tube infrastructure needs to be carefully integrated into existing communities and landscapes. This is why the organizers believe a research center is needed. “A Hyperloop is made by the whole travel experience — from purchasing the ticket to the entertainment during the ride. Thinking about Hyperloop is thinking about its stations, its communication, its impact on the world, on cities, and on governments: an intricate system that requires research, testing, and training.”

The organizers seek to inspire multi-disciplinary teams to create a livable research community in the extreme conditions of the Mojave desert. With no lack of drama, they describe the site as a place of “burning horizons inhabited by sand foxes and by a rough and hostile vegetation; a place carved by millennia of solitude that is accustomed to the rattle of the snake and the high-pitched cry of birds of prey and does not easily tolerate human beings.”

For the imagined Hyperloop Desert Campus, YAC states there are no restrictions on the height of buildings or depth of excavations. However, they do note the lack of water in Las Vegas means the campus will need to optimize water collection and use. “Landscape design will be possible through xeriscaping techniques, that is designing ‘dry gardens,’ where dazzling native species such as palm trees, cacti, and yuccas can be used.”

Hyperloopers believe the tube network will be the most energy efficient transportation system in the world. As such, the campus also needs to model sustainability by producing its own electricity.

The design concepts will need to include a public welcome center, with reception hall, museum, tour route, arena, and restaurant. The headquarters will need to include laboratories, offices, apartments, and a gym and pool for staff. Lastly, a training center will need to include classrooms and additional laboratories.

The first prize winner will take home €8,000 ($9,400), second place winner €4,000 ($4,700), and the third prize winner, €4,000 ($2,300). Two additional “gold mentions” will receive €500 ($588) prizes, and there will be 10 honorary mentions.

Registration is due September 20, 2020, and submissions on September 23, 2020. Each team needs to include at least one member aged 18 to 35. There are no restrictions on the number of team members, their disciplines, or locations.

Another competition worth exploring: Lyceum, creators of traveling fellowships, have organized a design competition open to landscape architecture students. The Governor Ames Estate in North Easton, Massachusetts, will become the heart of a new cultural district.

Lyceum

Design students are tasked with creating a 1,500 square foot (139 square meter) event pavilion near or within the Estate House footprint. The goal is for the pavilion to create a “unique relationship with the designed landscape that can enhance the visitor experience and provide a platform for community, family gatherings, and celebrations.”

Landscape architect Stephen Stimson, FASLA, founder of Stephen Stimson Associates, is a member of the jury. The first place winner will receive $12,000 and a three month traveling fellowship, with similarly enticing awards for second and third place winners. Applications are due May 14, 2021.

ASLA Announces 2020 Professional and Student Award Winners

ASLA 2020 Professional Award of Excellence in Urban Design, Dilworth Park. OLIN | Photo by OLIN / Sahar Coston-Hardy

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) announces the 2020 Professional and Student Award winners. The ASLA Awards represent the highest honor in the profession of landscape architecture.

Chosen from 567 submissions, this year’s 31 Professional Award winners represent the best of landscape architecture in the General Design, Urban Design, Residential Design, Analysis & Planning, Communications, and Research categories. In addition, a single Landmark Award is presented each year.

A full list of this year’s Professional Award winners can be found at: www.asla.org/2020awards

ASLA 2020 Student Award of Excellence in Analysis & Planning. West Oakland: From T.O.D to F.O.D. Huiwen Shi, Student International ASLA; Lide Li, Student Affiliate ASLA | Photo credit: Lide Li, Student Affiliate ASLA

Chosen from 560 submissions, this year’s 35 Student Award winners represent a bright and more inclusive future of the landscape architecture profession in the General Design, Urban Design, Residential Design, Analysis & Planning, Research, Communications, Student Collaboration, and Student Community Service categories.

A full list of this year’s Student Award winners can be found at: https://www.asla.org/2020studentawards

“ASLA’s Professional and Student Awards programs celebrate the best of our profession today, and the brightest hope for the future,” said ASLA President Wendy Miller, FASLA.

“From making sure Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) as well as other underserved individuals and communities prepare for the many challenges of the climate crisis – this year’s projects clearly demonstrate how landscape architects are designing a future that addresses the biggest problems facing our world.”

All Professional and Student Award recipients, their clients, and advisors will be honored at the awards presentation ceremony held virtually this fall.

Background on the ASLA Awards Programs

Each year, the ASLA Professional Awards honor the best in landscape architecture from around the globe. Winners of these prestigious awards are chosen by a jury that represents the breadth of the profession, including private, public, institutional, and academic practice, and exemplify diversity in professional experience, geography, gender, and ethnicity. Submissions are judged blind.

Professional Awards are presented in seven categories: General Design, Urban Design, Residential Design, Analysis & Planning, Communications, Research, and the Landmark Award. In each of the first five categories, the Jury may select one Award of Excellence and any number of Honor Awards. It is not guaranteed that an Award of Excellence will be selected each year, as it is up to the jury’s discretion. Only one Landmark Award is presented each year.

This year’s Professional Jury included: Jose Alminana, FASLA (Chair); Jane Berger; Ujijji Davis, ASLA; Mark Hough, FASLA; Mark Johnson, FASLA; Kathleen John-Alder, FASLA; Mia Lehrer, FASLA; Tanya Olson, ASLA; and Robert Rogers.

Student Awards are presented in eight categories: General Design, Urban Design, Residential Design, Analysis & Planning, Research, Communications, Student Collaboration and Student Community Service. Like the Professional Awards, the jury may select one Award of Excellence and any number of Honor Awards. It is not guaranteed that an Award of Excellence will be selected each year, as it is up to the jury’s discretion.

This year’s Student Jury included: Terry Guen-Murray, FASLA (Chair); Adam Arvidson, FASLA; Lucia Athens, ASLA; Cermetrius L. Bohannon, ASLA; Jonathon Geels, ASLA; Rikerrious Geter, Associate ASLA; Luis Gonzalez, ASLA; Melissa Henao-Robledo, ASLA; Ernest C. Wong, FASLA.

Brooklyn Bridge Competition: New Model for Sourcing Sustainable Hardwoods

Brooklyn Bridge Forest / Pilot Projects Design Collaborative and team

In rare situations, some landscape architects and designers may specify Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified tropical hardwoods for outdoor spaces because there may be no good alternatives. But imagine if instead of just placing a hardwood order and hoping the wood was actually sustainably harvested, designers partnered with conservationists and scientists to preserve the forest from which the wood is cut.

Brooklyn Bridge Forest, the winner of the Re-imagining Brooklyn Bridge design competition organized by the Van Alen Institute and New York City Council, proposes sourcing Manchiche hardwood for new promenade planks on the bridge from the Uaxactú Community Rainforest in Guatemala. At the same time, they would preserve 200,000 acres of the nature preserve.

The multi-discplinary team behind Brooklyn Bridge Forest beat 200 competitors from 37 countries to win top prize. The team was led by Pilot Projects Design Collective, which includes landscape architect Christine Facella; along with the Wildlife Conservation Society, Cities4Forests, The Nature Conservancy, Grimshaw Architects, and Silman, a structural engineering firm.

According to the team, one of the best experiences in NYC is to stroll the upper wood deck of the Brooklyn Bridge, which is why more than a million people do it each year. The genius of John Roebling, the bridge’s designer, was to “contrast iconic stone towers and graceful steel cables with the warmth and softness of a wooden boardwalk to create the ultimate setting for the pedestrian,” the team states.

Brooklyn Bridge Forest / Pilot Projects Design Collaborative and team

Pilot Projects Design Collaborative and its partners propose making Brooklyn Bridge an even better walking and bicycling experience by expanding the upper wood deck of the bridge and creating new biodiverse green spaces at either end of the bridge and areas for pop-up markets.

Brooklyn Bridge Forest / Pilot Projects Design Collaborative and team
Brooklyn Bridge Forest / Pilot Projects Design Collaborative and team

The bridge’s existing Greenheart (Ocotea rodiaei or Chlorocardium rodiei) wood promenade is a mile long and comprises 11,000 planks that are approximately 4-feet wide by 16-feet long. Tropical hardwoods like Greenheart used for boardwalks and promenades typically lasts around 30 years.

The team explored replacing the hardwood with plastic lumber, but found the planks to be too carbon intensive. They also looked at domestic hardwood, like Black Locust, which is always preferable to tropical hardwoods, but found that the lumber doesn’t come in sizes that are long enough. The team also looked at concrete and wood composites but found using those materials would require structural updates to the bridge. So they proposed replacing the existing planks, sourced from an unknown forest in South America 30 years ago, with sustainably harvested Manchiche (Lonchocarpus castilloi) from the Uaxactú Community Rainforest.

Instead of the city spending $2 million for the new wood, the public would sponsor individual wood planks at a cost ranging from $400 to $5,000 and in turn have their name laser- or fire-etched into a plank. With the funds raised, the community forest, which is found in the larger 6 million-acre Maya Biosphere Reserve, would be protected and generate wood for the promenade in perpetuity.

The communities of Uaxactún have reached an agreement with the Guatemalan government: If resources are harvested sustainably, their land management rights are respected. Through a “community concession” system, the people of the forest can “harvest fruit, medicinal, and ornamental plants, chicle (a natural chewing gum), and a limited amount of timber,” said the Brooklyn Bridge Forest team. The communities coordinate with the Guatemalan government, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and FSC.

Under the terms of the land management plan, tropical hardwood trees can be harvested at the rate of 1 tree per 40 acres using small-scale equipment. After a large tropical hardwood tree has been removed, smaller trees would be planted in the area that has been disturbed.

The scientists with the conservation organizations involved argued that “the communities’ low-impact timber harvesting provides jobs as well as resources for health and education. These opportunities in turn have given the communities a long-term stake in protecting the forest. Community-patrols defend the forest from the numerous threats in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, including wildfires, illegal logging and hunting, and in recent years, cattle ranching operations linked to international drug traffickers.” (Learn more).

Furthermore, the scientists believe that the low-impact logging practices undertaken in Uaxactún would have “very little effect on wildlife populations.” And funds from the sponsorship of planks would go to important research on the ecological impacts of controlled logging in these environments.

One of their central arguments: “Most timber harvesting in the tropics is not carried out with the level of care practiced in Uaxactún. In these other places there is often very little regulation, no long-term plan, and no research to assess impacts. Only a fully transparent model with ample opportunity for participation and investigation can guarantee that we are procuring wood in a way that supports forest protection.”

The team thinks this intentional approach could be used for other sustainable hardwood harvesting projects. They point to a few historic models: Every 20 years, the Ise Shrine in Kyoto, Japan, is rebuilt with the exact same dimensions using 10,000 cedar logs. The shrine, which has been rebuilt in this way for the past 1,300 years, has set aside a forest that will be harvested in 200 years for the ritual reconstruction. And in Sweden, in the 1800s, some 300,000 trees were planted to create wood for the Swedish navy. When they were ready to harvest in 1975, Sweden no longer built ships out of wood, but the 900-acre forest of oaks remains preserved.

NYC government is rightfully trying to eliminate the use of tropical hardwoods in its boardwalks, as the vast majority of these woods are illegally harvested, causing great damage to fragile rainforest ecosystems. So it’s unclear whether the Brooklyn Bridge Forest concept will move forward. But also worth noting: recent efforts to replace the tropical hardwood boardwalk in Coney Island with more resilient concrete mixed with recycled plastic resulted in some irate New Yorkers.

The winning submission in the young adult category may have found a solution that avoids the tropical hardwood issue altogether. Do Look Down, a proposal created by Shannon Hui, Kwans Kim, and Yujin Kim, from Hong Kong, NYC, and Berkeley, California, aims to incorporate glass instead of wood for the promenade. There would be thrills galore while looking down, at least for those not afraid of heights.

Do Look Down / Shannon Hui, Kwans Kim, and Yujin Kim