Pulsating Public Art Brings New Life to Dilworth Park

Pulse, a new work by artist Janet Echelman, may be the stickiest public art ever conceived. Sticky is a term used by web developers to explain compelling design elements that bring users back again and again. In the case of Pulse found in Dilworth Park, at the western edge of Philadelphia City Hall, you wait there — and also return later — because you are uncertain when the sculpture made of light and mist will appear and, once it does, each sequence of color and motion is unique. Later, you realize the blasts of atomized water and light actually mark the arrival in real-time of the green line subway pulling into the central transit station just beneath the park.

Pulse / Jeff Fusco

Dilworth Park opened in 2015 after a two-year, $55-million revamp by landscape architects at OLIN and architects at KieranTimberlake, as part of an effort led by the Center City District. The new park — perhaps really more a plaza — was designed to be a flexible event space, with fountains, a small lawn, restaurant, and moveable tables and chairs set within lush gardens. But the park itself was designed from the beginning to incorporate the work of Janet Echelman. As Susan Weiler, FASLA, partner at OLIN explained, “there was a consensus decision to integrate Pulse into the project, which removed the potential of it not being installed later.”

Dilworth Park, Philadelphia / KierenTimberlake

Echelman is known for deeply researching a site where her works will be. This research adds depth and meaning to her enigmatic, enveloping sculptures. Echelman said two elements of Philadelphia history inspired her: water and transportation.

Philadelphia’s industrial and manufacturing success was only made possible by the Schuykill and Delaware Rivers that flank its sides. “So I decided water needed to be used as a material.”

Transportation has also been critical to Philly’s development. “In the 1960s, they tore down the old Penn railroad, but from vintage photographs, you can see trains running on steam.”

Furthermore, just below Dilworth Park is a central transit hub for the subway — a key node in the city’s circulatory system. “I wanted to reveal through a simple gesture above ground what was happening below ground.”

Pulse actually pulsates with mist — mimicking the steam trains of old, but also to express “the pulse of the city.” Echelman didn’t want the pulsations, which only appear when the green line train pulls in below, to be predictable, but “fun and playful.” Indeed, when I visited kids were lined up on the pathways between fountains waiting for the explosions of steam to envelope them and would joyfully scream when they did.

Pulse / Jeff Fusco
Pulse / Sean O’Neill, Arup

The light that infuses the mist is made of three different colors — a predominant color that is tied to the subway line’s color and two undertone colors — that are programmed via computer algorithm to never be exactly alike. Thirteen different pulsations are sequenced that way, too. The result is each combination of pulsation and color is unique.

Pulse / Melvin Epps

“God bless OLIN for protecting the artwork.” By working Pulse into the final construction documents, the landscape architects prevented the artwork from being value engineered later. Pulse was purposefully embedded into the entire park’s complex water and energy systems.

Weiler said the project was a “huge collaboration” between Echelman, OLIN, CMS Collaborative (the fountain designers), and Arup (the lighting designers). In Palm Springs, California, the team evaluated full-scale mock-ups of the art work, tinkering to make sure the system would work in a highly-trafficked area amid Philly’s rugged environment.

There was a multi-year lag in building Pulse because when the park opened, “there wasn’t money for the art,” Weiler said. Philadelphia-based philanthropists and foundations stepped in to make it happen.

Susan Weiler with OLIN enjoys the art / Melvin Epps

The artful illumination of the green line is just the beginning. A similar art work for the orange line will soon cut through the length of the park, and one for the blue line will run perpendicular to the west entrance of Philadelphia City Hall. Also, worth noting: the center court of City Hall will soon be revamped by WRT.

Interview with Hitesh Mehta: The Spiritual Side of Sustainability

Hitesh Mehta, FASLA / HM Design

Hitesh Mehta, FASLA, is president of HM Design, which has completed planning, architecture, and landscape architecture projects in more than 60 countries. He is an international expert in sustainable tourism, including wildlife conservancy planning and eco-lodge development. Mehta is also the author of Authentic Ecolodges (Harper Design).

Interview conducted at the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting in Philadelphia.

In more than 60 countries, you have worked on some of the finest sustainable tourism planning and eco-lodge projects in the world, including the Crosswaters Ecolodge in China, which won two ASLA professional awards. National Geographic has called you a pioneer of sustainable tourism. What are the top three lessons you have learned from your many projects working with local and indigenous communities?

Lesson number one: Never judge people from the way they look. Indigenous people have lived on their land for thousands of years. Through storytelling and personal experiences that have been passed over generations, they have built knowledge and wisdom crucial to every project.

Lesson number two: Empower local people from day one, especially women and children. At home, women make a lot of the decisions, and youth are the future. Bringing them into a project on day one helps ensure a sustainable project. You want to give them ownership. It’s a ground-up approach rather than top-down.

Lesson number three: No matter how much of an international expert you are, no matter how much research you have done, and how much knowledge you have acquired, always go into every project without an ego. Go with good listening skills first. Once you’ve heard local peoples aspirations, needs, etc.; gathered on-site information; walked the site with the locals; and have conducted a metaphysical site analysis, slowly share what you can bring to the table, making sure you let them know what they bring to the table is equally important.

Indigenous communities are in the front lines in the fight against climate change. How do you empower them in their fight to protect endangered ecosystems and their own livelihoods? Are there any projects that serve as models?

Indigenous communities, especially in the less developing world, are greatly affected by climate change. A lot of these communities live in the tropics. Especially in Africa, drought and the lack of drinking water are big issues. This in turn, causes food security problems. In Kenya, where I am still a citizen, the Maasai look at their cattle as their economic lifeline. That’s what keeps them going. If there is drought, there is no grass. There’s nothing to feed the cattle, and it can become a serious issue, because this is their security.

A project that serves as an exemplary model is one in which I led a team of local Kenyan consultants and where we worked together with the clients — the Koiyaki Maasai community — to help create an ecotourism and conservation destination called Naboisho Wildlife Conservancy. Previous to our intervention, the community had subdivided their 50,000-acre land into 50-acre parcels owned by 500 families. But every family had their cattle and goats, which caused the land to be overgrazed. Lack of grass and presence of cattle kept all the wild animals away.

The Maasai decided to consolidate all their land and brought in private lodge operators — eco-tourism companies — as a way to generate income for them. The Maasai all moved to neighboring lands they also owned. The private partners contracted us as protected area ecotourism planners, and, together with the Maasai, tourism and conservation stakeholders, we created an integrated sustainable tourism, biodiversity, and grazing master plan for the conservancy.

Planning with the Koiyaki Maasai community / HM Design

With five small twelve-room tents and lodges, money started flowing directly into every Maasai’s home at the end of each month via their mobile cell-phones. They no longer had to rely solely on cattle for their livelihood. Wild animals started coming back, because cattle mainly grazed in neighboring areas. And the tourists are paying big bucks to have quality guided safari experiences. Creating a wildlife conservancy was a win/win for everyone: the tourists, the private partners, flora and fauna and of course the Maasai and their cattle. During droughts, cattle are only allowed into the conservancy in certain controlled areas. The conservancy fees provide the Maasai community with a sustainable livelihood and ensure the conservation of the wildlife in this vital corridor of the Maasai Mara ecosystem.

As populations grow around the world, but also in sub-Saharan Africa, human and wildlife conflicts are becoming more prevalent. How can we protect endangered species while also ensuring people’s livelihoods? Are there models that show the way?

There are many models, particularly in Africa, and it has become mainstream to go in this direction. A project that I worked on many years ago that is still a good case study is the Virunga Massif Trans-Boundary protected area. Virunga Massif straddles and borders of three East and Central African countries: Uganda, Rwanda, and Democratic Republic of Congo.

Each country has a national park along their respective borders. This region protects the only remaining populations in the world of mountain gorillas. The parks are bordered by dense populations of local peoples, and there are human-wildlife conflicts with gorillas going out into the fields. We prepared an integrated sustainable tourism and biodiversity master plan for the whole region. When we began the master plan in 2005, there were only 600 mountain gorillas, and the latest count is 1,004!

Virunga Massif integrated master plan / HM Design

Apart from conserving important habitat, the master plan also proposed several eco-lodges at the edge of the parks. All of them have now been built and are financially successful. The demand to see the mountain gorillas is so high that eco-tourists are paying $1,500 for one hour to be with these great apes. There’s a one-year waiting list!

What’s great is that some money is channeled straight to local communities, which now see the importance of maintaining the gorillas’ habitat. The communities no longer take firewood from the forest because they earn a living from gorilla tourism and the eco-lodges bring in a lot of money from guests, with part of the profits used to benefit these communities.

A heart-warming part of the master plan just got realized five months ago on the Uganda side of the Virunga Massif in Mgahinga National Park. The Batwa, indigenous peoples, who used to live in the forest but had been chased out when the National Park was created in 1991, have now been re-located to a new village at the edge of the park and act as guides, taking visitors into the forest in the National Park, and showing them about their lives and connections with the forest. An eco-lodge where I had provided site planning consultancy, funded the Batwa village and Visitor Center, so the Batwa community could share their culture and live closer to the forest instead of the nearby urban town of Kisoro.

You have said we cannot have true sustainability without incorporating the spiritual. This belief is central to your metaphysical or sixth-sense approach to planning and designing projects, which you have also trained other planners and designers to apply. What is the core idea you want people to understand?

For the longest time, pragmatic environmentalists have been talking about the triple bottom line of sustainability — environmental, economic, and social. But in my work, I have found that without respecting the fourth element — spiritual — one cannot have sustainability. What do I mean by spiritual? Spirituality is the energy embodied in any place. The metaphysics of a place. The intangible aspects that cannot be measured by modern science. We need to respect this embodied energy to create a sense of place. The sacred space.

Feng Shui is a well-used example of the spiritual aspects of sustainability — the yin and the yang, the chi, and how to use that energy to create an amazing experience in which you have a spiritual connection with the site. Similarly, for over 8,000 years, the Indians have been applying principles of design, layout, measurements, ground preparation, space arrangement, and spatial geometry called Vastu Shastra, which is even older than Feng Shui. Vastu Shastra is the ancient Indian science of harmony and prosperous living by eliminating negative energies and enhancing positive energies.

Native Americans also have a strong spiritual connection with their lands. When they take you on a walk of their country, they will point at a hill and say “this is our sacred hill” and when you look around, there are probably several others that look the same. So why is that hill sacred and not the others? It’s because there is a sacred energy embodied in that particular hill. My job as a landscape architect is to work with indigenous communities, so they can identify all those areas sacred to them. And then protect them.

If the clients do not believe in these traditional ways of looking at the land, I propose the use of each one of our six senses to immerse into the site to understand the energy. Connect deeply to the land through the ears, mouth, eyes, nose, fingers, but most importantly through the sixth sense: when you become a part of the site and feel its energy. That is the crucial element of trying to create a project that’s sustainable, but also which creates a beautiful sense of place.

Metaphysical analysis of a place through touch / HM Design
Metaphysical analysis of a place through sound / HM Design

As part of your work of Landscape Architects Without Borders, you have provided pro-bono planning and design services to aboriginal tribes in Australia and other communities. How do you enable them to incorporate their landscape spirituality into a contemporary place designed for themselves but also tourists?

We worked with the Quandamooka peoples of Queensland in Australia. They were the first aboriginal tribe that managed to get their land back from the white government in an area so close to a major city; Brisbane in this case. The land they got back was part of an island and has the second most popular camping sites in Australia.

However, the aboriginal peoples do not have camping site management experience, so we came in to help them build an ecotourism experience that would help them share their culture with guests and help make more money than before. We designed and built two glamping eco-shacks as examples of what they can achieve with enhanced camping experiences.

In the gardens, we proposed for the planting of bush tucker plants. The aboriginal peoples, who live in the outback have these special plants they eat called bush tucker. With their knowledge and wisdom, we created a beautiful indigenous garden that included both bush tucker and medicinal plants.

Planning landscape with the Quandamooka peoples of Queensland in Australia / HM Design

You are a proponent of ego-less design, which is characterized by a deep respect for the environment and all of its inhabitants, existing cultures, and vernacular styles. Can you explain how you came across this design philosophy? What about your upbringing, your religious heritage, shaped that?

My childhood has heavily influenced the work I do in landscape architecture. My upbringing is in the philosophy of Jainism, which is one of the four main philosophies that came out of India. It’s by far the least known, because Jains don’t believe in preaching.

One of the main tenets of this philosophy is a Sanskrit concept called Ahimsa, which means non-violence to fellow beings, and non-violence to all other beings as well. In my family, we’ve been vegetarians for at least 3,000 years. The respect is so deep for other beings that Jain monks in India sweep the floor before they walk so they do not step on and kill any ants.

In true Jainism, they believe plants have feelings. In fact, modern science is confirming this, but my ancestors have believed this since 1,000 BC. True Jains don’t eat anything that grows below the ground — no potatoes or carrots — because every time you pick that plant, it’s dead. So you only pick a vegetable or fruit from a tree that continues living after you picked what you want. That is deep respect, even to plants. It’s all about low-impact living. This is the conservation ethic I practice in my work.

My projects are low-impact designs that respect everything. I practice a non-homocentric approach to planning, where everything is equal. You can call it vegan or ahimsa design and planning. I design non-violent spaces. For example, I identify all native species and make sure none of them are cut. And in all our projects, we only specify native plants.

And, personally, I have been practicing a vegan lifestyle for 13 years.

Lastly, you have called yourself a “holistic, contextual designer.” How do you think this is different from being a planner or landscape architect?

For me, there’s a big difference between holistic and contextual design. Holistic is when in my projects I look at animals and plants as my clients, too. So, when human clients come to me, I tell them: I see you as half of my clients, but the other half are the animals and plants. And when I perform a beautiful marriage of the two, we will have a holistic yet sustainable project.

Local communities are an important part of the holistic process. I involve them from the beginning. Local consultants also bring in amazing knowledge and wisdom. So, I consider the local consultants and communities, fauna, flora, and, of course, the clients’ financial needs, because a project has to be profitable for it to function. That is the holistic side.

I also look at myself as a contextual designer. I like to create projects in context with their cultural and physical environments. For me, placing in a glass, aluminum, and concrete building in the middle of a remote area with rich cultural architectural heritage is not contextual. My office carries out research both off-site and on-site in order to discover the local vernacular styles before starting on any project. We use a landscape design approach called the “continuity of the vernacular.”

Kwanari Eco-lodge, Dominica / HM Design
Kwanari Eco-lodge, Dominica / HM Design

This Is Your Brain on Nature

Edinburgh, Scotland research subject / Mobility, Mood, and Place research study

Neurosurgeon Edie Zusman, a real-life Doogie Howser who started medical school at 19 and has completed some 6,000 brain and spinal surgeries, said what landscape architects do saves far more lives than what she does. The early prevention of disease reduces the need for surgeries. Prevention is made possible by eating healthy foods and walking and getting exercise in green environments that lower stress and improve well-being.

At the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting, Zusman and a number of landscape architecture professors delved into research proving that access to nature improves our health and well-being.

According to Sara Jensen Carr, a professor at Northeastern University, landscape architecture and public health have been intertwined since the beginning. Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of the profession, started his career as a public health officer and writer. His first projects were the “siting and planning of camps so soldiers wouldn’t get sick.”

In our contemporary era of science, the brilliant intuition of Olmsted has only been proven by study after study. Most recently, a study in Philadelphia by five doctors with the University of Pennsylvania found that greening vacant, derelict lots led to “significant decreases” in feelings of depression and worthlessness among those in low-income communities living near the lots.

Studies on the health benefits of integrating nature into the built environment are also being conducted by design professors. William Sullivan, ASLA, professor of landscape architecture at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has been trying to figure out the “dose of nature” people need to recover from stress and regain the ability to pay attention.

He gave an overview of his intriguing research into how views of green streets “increase the rate of recovery from stress.” In one study with his associate Dr. Bin Jiang, the research team purposefully elevated stress levels in a few good-natured human guinea pigs, then asked them to watch videos of streets with different degrees of tree canopies — ranging from 2 percent tree cover to 62 percent. He found that “the greater the percentage increase of tree canopy, the faster the recovery.”

And in another study, Sullivan and his associate Dongying Li randomly assigned 94 students, equally male and female, to three settings: a classroom with no windows, one with a window view looking out on a barren landscape, or one with a window view looking out over greenery.

After students had completed 30 minutes of classroom activities in these different rooms, the students were given a 10 minute break. Sullivan and Li discovered those who had a green view bounced back, attention-wise, and were less stressed. This group “performed significantly better on standard tests of attention and showed significantly greater stress recovery than their peers who were assigned to classrooms without a green view.”

Impact of views to school landscapes on recovery from stress and fatigue by Dongying Li and WIlliam Sullivan / Landscape and Urban Planning.

Then Jenny Roe, an environmental psychologist who is director of the center for health and design at the University of Virginia, explained her research in Edinburgh, Scotland. Her team got some game folks to wear a device measuring alpha and beta brain waves, which looked somewhat similar to what Rick Moranis’ character was asked to wear in the Ghostbusters to determine if he was human or gatekeeper (see image at top).

Some very extroverted locals — who else who parade through town wearing EEG measurement devices? — followed a path through Leith, Edinburgh, a “rough area,” to a park. Others simply meandered through the city with their brain meter on. Roe found that among her research subjects, soothing alpha waves increased in the park while alert-state beta waves decreased. Alpha waves also decreased in busy urban areas.

But she found that “irrespective of which route people took” — through city or nature — “everyone’s stress levels were reduced after a 10-15 minute walk.” Walks, particularly for her older research subjects, increased exposure to “nature, color, wildlife, memories, and social interaction” — all good things.

Sullivan said all this research is meant to arm landscape architects, planners, and others who care about this with the facts they need to make the case to policy makers and legislators in their community.

Zusman wants designers to influence the big decisions — those key pivot points — that can help shape a healthier built environment. In Sacramento, where she practices medicine, Zusman is now part of the Design 4 Active advisory board, a multi-disciplinary group of health providers, planners, and design professionals, helping to integrate healthy design principles and guidelines into city projects.

Architecture Critics Win Vincent Scully Prize

Commonwealth Avenue, Boston / Wikipedia
Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia / Wikipedia

There are just a few full-time architecture critics left at national and metropolitan newspapers in the U.S. But as Robert Campbell, long-time architecture critic for The Boston Globe, noted: “We’ve survived without architecture critics in the past — and will do so again.”

With the rise of highly-local and specialized blogs and Facebook pages examining all aspects of design and development, architecture critics may indeed go the way of the dodo. But it will be a loss for us all.

At the National Building Museum, Campbell and Inga Saffron, architecture critic for The Philadelphia Inquirer, both Pulitizer Prize winners, were given the Vincent Scully Prize for their role in elevating public discourse on the built environment. They are influential voices who have not only shaped the debate in their own cities but have also informed other communities around the world.

Here are some highlights from a panel discussion led by Blair Kamin, Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic for The Chicago Tribune.

On the rapid pace of urban redevelopment:

“Cities have really changed over the past twenty years. Before, the fear was Philadelphia would become the next Detroit and go into free fall, but now there is too much construction and the fear is gentrification.” — Saffron

“Banks and developers are now driving architectural forms. Architects have become an afterthought. They have so little control; I feel bad for them. The heroic architect myth is not reality.” — Saffron

“Developer-driven buildings aren’t very good. There are three firms that do about 90 percent of buildings in Boston. Redevelopment work is built quickly to minimal standards.” — Campbell

On the importance of place:

“I write about places, not buildings. There is an art to making great places. A great place can be a bedroom, lawn, neighborhood, city, or region.” — Campbell

Kamin then asked both Campbell and Saffron to name a great place.

For Campbell, a prime example is Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, which has “rows of homes dressed up in their tuxedos,” and for Saffron, Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, “which is permeable and enables you to flow through.” (see images above).

On Washington, D.C.:

Saffron, who is known for her cutting critiques, had nothing good to say about the new NoMA district:

“It looks like the world’s biggest office park. They will likely run out of window patterns eventually. These buildings maximize every inch of floor space. They are all the same shape. It’s dispiriting.”

NoMA District in Washington, D.C. / Curbed DC

But Campbell is a big fan of the Washington, D.C. Metro system, designed by architect Harry Weese. As Kamin remarked: “It looks like civilization — those concrete vaults.”

Washington, D.C. Metro / Wikipedia

On their learning and writing process:

“If you don’t know what you are looking at, it forces you to look more closely.” — Campbell

“I’m a civilian, like every other citizen. We have a civic obligation to know how our cities are being built. I’m a big explainer. I don’t use jargon because I don’t want to lose my audience.” — Saffron

“I’m very embedded in a city. I’m a militant pedestrian and bicyclist. Walking and biking offers a more intimate pace. But dull stretches of streets will affect your whole mood.” — Saffron

“It’s easy to see the built world as a bar graph, a result of all these legal, financial, and political developments, nourished by bankers and developers deep in the caverns. But the physical environment merits its own evaluation, without looking at the subterranean forces.” — Campbell

And, lastly, advice for other writers of the built environment:

“Always go to the building or site. There is no substitution for being present. Renderings and photography can lie. See it with your own eyes.” — Saffron

“Inhabit the space. That’s the only way to see the relationships with other things — the context with other buildings and surroundings.” — Campbell

Rotterdam Redesigns Itself to Handle More Water

Port of Rotterdam / Wikipedia

Rotterdam in the Netherlands is the largest port in Europe. This 800-year-old city, which has a population of 630,000, is split into north and south sides by the River Nieuwe Maas. While the river is a major asset, it also increases vulnerability to climate change as sea levels rise. In a session at the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, Dutch government officials, landscape architects, and planners discussed efforts to adapt Rotterdam and the rest of Holland to new realities.

After flooding in the early 1950s killed some 1,800 people, the Dutch were determined this would never happen again. According to Tim Van Der Staaij, a resilience officer with the Rotterdam city government, the country created a multi-layered system of “delta works” — a series of dikes, polders, and sluices to defend land against water. This system made Rotterdam, most of which is 6-7 meters below sea level, and its port possible.

But in recent years, climate change has made the intricate system that protects Rotterdam vulnerable. Van Der Staaij said the water management system has become “more unpredictable due to sea level rise, river discharge, groundwater rise, and excess rainfall.”

Given the city is already below sea level, Rotterdam has taken the approach that “we must accept the water; it’s better than fighting.” Once that conclusion was reached, city leaders saw an opportunity to redesign the city as part of a new Rotterdam resilience strategy, a set of “holistic, multi-level, multi-stakeholder” approaches.

In the past few years, the Dutch have invented new ways to “accept water,” including the water square by landscape architecture firm De Urbanisten, which is usually a public plaza with basketball court, but in extreme rain events becomes a temporary water storage space that “holds the water while the sewage system is over-taxed and then lets the water go later.”

Water plaza / Rotterdam Resilience Strategy

Van Der Staaij said the city is now working on redesigning all public spaces to store water, including the new central station now in development. As part of this, Rotterdam has invested heavily in putting all that water to good use through its “water sensitive city” program, which invests in green roofs, tree planting, street-level gardens, and new green “tidal parks” along the river.

Water sensitive Rotterdam / Urban Green-Blue Grids

Han Dijk, an urban planner working with the city on its resilience plans, highlighted the tidal parks along the Nieuwe Maas — also to be designed by De Urbanisten — as central to creating a Rotterdam that can bounce back from repeated flooding. “The city will build new land with fill, soften the river’s coasts, and open up and connect islands.”

Proposed tidal park in Rotterdam / De Urbanisten, Rotterdam Climate Initiative

And Gerda Roeleveld, a landscape architect with Deltares, a independent research institute, explained how the Netherlands has invested in 3D simulated models to help local policymakers, planners, and designers — as well as the general public — understand the potential impacts of climate change.

She showed off some sophisticated animations that visualize climate impacts, including the distribution of water — from the national to the site-levels. A set of these adaptation support tools, based in real-time data, are supporting Dutch communities in their efforts to devise new climate resilience and adaptation strategies, which they obligated to create by 2019.

Climate resilience planning tool / Deltares

Learn more about Rotterdam’s resilience and adaptation strategy.

Iceland Blends Renewable Energy into the Landscape

Icelandic landscape / Landsvirkjun

Iceland, a land of glaciers and volcanos found directly over the Mid-Atlantic ridge, is entirely powered by renewable energy. More than 70 percent of the country’s energy comes from hydro power, while the rest is from geothermal sources — the incredible heat found just below the surface caused by red-hot subterranean lava fields. As the millions of tourists who visit each year cause the country’s power needs to grow, Iceland is expanding its geothermal systems. In the face of intense public protests that these systems are marring the stunning landscape — not to mention the usual Not-In-My-Backyard (NIBMY) complaints — Landsvirkjun, the national power company of Iceland, created a new landscape policy designed to create a more harmonious relationship between land and energy. And landscape architect Björk Guðmundsdóttir took the initiative to make this all happen.

At the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, Guðmundsdóttir explained that when she started her multi-year effort, there wasn’t a single design guideline for renewable energy projects. Her task was to create a new national landscape policy for these systems, while being the only women — and landscape architect — working with a team of all-male engineers.

Her first step was to understand the geothermal energy system development process, the legal frameworks that shape energy production, and the broader energy policies. One important high-level Icelandic policy guided her work: energy systems “should operate in harmony with the landscape.”

She spent time finding the gaps in the renewable power plant operations that were “open to the influence of design.” Establishing a working group within Landsvirkjun, she ended up creating a process that brings design into every stage of the renewable energy project development process — from the early environmental and visual impact assessments to the design concept, detailed landscape plans, and maintenance approach.

Guðmundsdóttir said creating design guidelines required thinking through all the ways how development touches the landscape. For example, “do you require buildings to be white so they blend in with the snow that covers Iceland for much of the year? Or instead should they be a neutral color so they blend with the summer landscape, when there are the most numbers of tourists?”

Landsvirkjun eventually settled on a series of design guidelines — seemingly simple but with a positive impact on new projects — that also create new roles for landscape architects. Guidelines include: create projects in harmony with their surrounding landscape, including careful site selection to minimize impact and roads that follow the topography. Minimize cut and fills. Re-vegetate, re-forest, and restore the landscape. Re-use all natural surface materials. Orient pipelines, which must be on the surface due to the extreme heat found in some places just a few feet below the surface, so they blend in as much as possible. And design every power-related building to be multi-use.

Aðalheiður Atladóttir, with A2F Architects, showed how the new landscape policy is shaping their work on a geothermal power station — Hagonguvirkjun, near Hagongulon Lake in the center of the country — and associated worker housing and hotel.

Hagonguvirkjun / Landsvirkjun, A2Architects

A2F created a power plant with a warm, inviting restaurant and visitor center — its entire form mimics the glacier and mountain ranges in the background.

Hagonguvirkjun / Landsvirkjun, A2Architects

And nearby there is a building that is both housing for the plant workers and a hotel that features a spa and greenhouse — a “nice place to chill.” The team will build gabion walls from stones collected nearby, so the “building looks like it grew out of the landscape.”

Hagonguvirkjun / Landsvirkjun, A2Architects
Hagonguvirkjun / Landsvirkjun, A2Architects

To bring in some fresh thinking and expand the conversation with her engineer colleagues, Guðmundsdóttir partnered with SUNY Syracuse landscape architecture professor Matthew Potteiger and his graduate students, who spent a semester studying in Iceland. The Americans completed a two-week planning and conceptual design charette with Landvirkjun in the very-hot landscapes of Krafta in northern Iceland, where both the first geothermal power plants and the newest are found. The goal was to create a new interpretation system for a geothermal power plant for Icelanders and tourists.

Potteiger said interpreting the “landscape of geothermal power” was challenging because the unique geophysical forces at work under the ground and the surface engineering systems are equally enigmatic. Plus, there are sheep, who strangely only hang out in groups of three, randomly grazing amid all the “industrial sublime.”

Exploring the site and all its sensory experiences, Potteiger and his students proposed some inventive, small ways design can enhance the visitor experience. For example, plumes from the geothermal vents can be used to create “steam paths that act as a wayfinding device.” Once a geothermal well has gone cold and its equipment is removed, the original soil, stones, and vegetation could be returned to the site, which would create a marker revealed through stages of vegetative growth. And sheep, which are “heat-seeking devices who love to cuddle in winter,” could be given designed social spaces, protective structures along pipelines, so they can cuddle in style.

Experience Brooklyn Bridge Park in Virtual Reality

ASLA 2018 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Brooklyn Bridge Park, Brooklyn, NYC / Alexa Hoyer

Experience Virtual Reality! Immerse yourself in Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York City, which won the ASLA 2018 Professional Award of Excellence in General Design. Explore this unique park built in part over abandoned piers, guided by landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, president and CEO of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc.

Viewing Options

Option 1: Watch a 360 Video on YouTube

If you are on your phone reading this page, simply click on this URL and watch it in your YouTube mobile app: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nQ2geeXMThI (please note that this video will not work in your mobile browser)

Be sure to turn around while watching so you can see all angles of the park!

Or if you are on a desktop computer, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nQ2geeXMThI using your Chrome browser.

Go to settings and set the resolution to 2610s.

Use the sphere icon to navigate through the park! Note: the 360 video will not work in Firefox or Internet Explorer.

YouTube 360 on mobile / YouTube
YouTube 360 on mobile / YouTube

Option 2: Watch a 3D 360 Video on Samsung Gear VR

If you own a Samsung Gear VR headset and compatible Samsung phone, go to Samsung Gear via the Oculus App and search for “Brooklyn Bridge Park” or “ASLA” to find our video.

Samsung Gear VR / Samsung
Samsung Gear VR / Samsung

Why Brooklyn Bridge Park?

ASLA selected Brooklyn Bridge Park because it won the ASLA 2018 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Less than one percent of all award submissions receive this honor.

Our esteemed jury, made up of leaders in the field, described Brooklyn Bridge Park this way: “The plan allows for and encourages different experiences in the different spaces, from being wide open and being fully engaged with the people around you to intimate, forested places. It’s remarkable.”

The award also highlights Brooklyn Bridge Park because it’s a prominent example of how to transform abandoned post-industrial waterfronts into spaces for people and wildlife. These spaces litter cities and represent so much untapped potential.

Brooklyn Bridge Park VR / ASLA
Brooklyn Bridge Park VR / ASLA

Why Virtual Reality?

The communications world is increasingly image- and video-driven. With video, you can pack in even more information about a work of landscape architecture, much more than you can in simply a photo or text. With video, you can get a sense of the sight, sound, and “feel” of a place. You can see people interacting with the design, bringing it to life.

Virtual reality takes video to the next level. As you move your phone or VR headset, you control your experience in the landscape. It more closely mimics the experience of exploring a place in person. In part, it recreates that sense of discovery one gets in real life.

Why did ASLA make this VR film?

Virtual reality has proven to be a powerful tool for explaining how the places people love – like Brooklyn Bridge Park – are designed experiences. Virtual reality can educate the public about landscape design in a compelling way.

The video has multiple goals: promote the potential of virtual reality among the landscape architecture community, which totals approximately 25,000 design professionals in the U.S. and Canada; explain the incredible value of landscape architecture to the public; and demonstrate the ability of landscape architects to turn an unloved place like a cut-off, post-industrial waterfront into a beloved community park.

Why should landscape architects use VR?

Virtual Reality is a powerful tool for landscape architects, architects, planners, and developers – really anyone involved in designing our built and natural environments. In the example of Brooklyn Bridge Park: many will never have the opportunity to visit the park in person, but with our video, they can get a good sense of what’s it like to be there.

For landscape architecture firms, this is an excellent way to really show clients that a place they’ve designed works – that people enjoy hanging out there, that kids love playing there, that people are drawn to events there.

ASLA VR Film Credits

Producer: American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA)
Production Company: DimensionGate, Toronto
Director: Ian Tuason
Director of Photography: Ian Tuason
Production Assistants: Ward Kamel and Idil Eryurekli
Narrator: Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, President and CEO, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates Inc.
Post Production: Callum Wilkin Gillies

Thank you to Jamie Warren and Onika Selby at Brooklyn Bridge Park for making this all come together. At Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc, we appreciate the kind assistance of Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, Hilary Archer, Jane Lee, and Lucy Mutz.

To Limit Global Warming, We Must Transform the Planet

Permafrost thaw ponds on peatland in Hudson Bay, Canada / Flickr

To limit planetary warming to 1.5° Celsius (C), we need to undertake an immediate, multi-trillion-dollar transformation of global energy, land-use, food production, transportation, and urban systems, stated the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in a new report that aggregates the findings of thousands of scientific studies. Humanity can only put a maximum of 420 more gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere if we want a good chance of only increasing temperatures by 1.5° C (2.7° Fahrenheit), instead of 2° C (3.6° Fahrenheit). At the current pace, our remaining carbon budget will be used up by 2030. The transformation that has already begun in many parts of the world must accelerate and scale across the globe.

To date, global temperatures have increased 1° C (1.8° F) above pre-industrial levels. The IPCC argues that limiting warming to just another half a degree Celsius will still have terrible global impacts, but stave off some of the worst effects and make a major difference for several hundred million people.

Achieving the 1.5° C limit can only happen in the very near term. IPCC states if the planet can achieve net-zero emissions in the coming decades that would essentially halt warming. But if emissions reductions instead occur at a much slower pace up until 2100, then planetary feedback loops — like defrosting permafrost perpetuating warming trends — would make halting warming at 1.5° C impossible.

There are significant differences between 1.5° C and 2° C increases. A 1.5° C temperature increase would mean about 4 inches less of sea level rise by 2100, and at a much slower rate of rise. This would buy time to help the hundreds of million of people who live on coasts and deltas to adapt their infrastructure with resilient natural systems that can also restore and bolster important coastal habitats.

With a 1.5° C increase, some 6 percent of insects, 8 percent of plants, and 4 percent of vertebrates are projected to “lose over half of the climatically-determined geographic range” — meaning their habitat will disappear. While this is awful, the scenario at 2° C increase is far worse: 18 percent of insects, 16 percent of plants, and 8 percent of vertebrates. Impacts from forest fires and invasive species would also be commensurably more at 2° C.

The chance of an ice-free Arctic Ocean during summer is far less with a 1.5° C scenario. But coral reefs face a dire future under both 1.5° C and 2° C scenarios: either a 70-90 percent loss with 1.5° C or near-total extinction with 2° C.

Climate change is also expected to have major impacts on food production, resulting in reduced yields and less nutritious crops. Limiting warming to just 1.5° C would result in “smaller reductions in yields of maize, rice, wheat, and other cereal crops, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and Center and South America.” The report authors are also semi-confident that limiting warming to 1.5° C would also reduce the populations affected by water shortages by 50 percent. Still, millions of people would be impacted.

The IPCC report outlines potential pathways to zero carbon. Essentially, greenhouse gas emissions must drop by 45 percent by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050. This would require “rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban, and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems.”

IPCC admit that the changes are unprecedented in terms of scale — but not speed. Previous economic and social transformations have occurred with a few years; think of the US economic transformation during World War II or the appearance of smartphone apps in 2007 and their widespread application today.

The report estimates the damage of a 1.5° C increase to the global economy to be tens of trillions a year as soon as 2040. To avoid this, major investments must be made. The report calls for investing $2.4 trillion a year on renewable energy through 2035, which would be about 2.5 percent of global GDP annually, while weaning off coal. The planet would also need another 10 million square kilometers in forests, taken back from agricultural land, and a dramatic reduction in emissions from buildings and transportation systems through energy efficiency and smart growth.

A recent analysis conducted as part of Drawdown, a publication that ranks the 80 most effective ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, yielded solutions where landscape architects and planners can help accelerate the transformation. These include: afforestation (#15); mass transit (#37); water savings at home (#46); restoring and protecting coastal wetlands (#52); walkable cities (#54); bike infrastructure (#59); and green roofs (#73). There are also some landscape architects involved in siting renewable energy infrastructure, restoring farm land, managing forests and peatlands, which all rank highly.

IPCC is confident this global transformation can occur. If a mix of adaptation and mitigation measures can be “implemented in a participatory and integrated manner,” they can enable a “rapid systemic transition.” Adaptation measures don’t have to be purely defensive — they can also help communities improve, ensuring “food and water security, reducing disaster risks, improving health conditions, maintaining ecosystem services, and reducing poverty and inequality.” Now, the political will is needed to act.

Read about the recommendations of the ASLA Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change and Resilience, which span adaptation and mitigation, and explore ASLA’s guides to climate change mitigation and resilient design.

Parks Are a Critical Solution to Climate Change

PS 15 The Roberto Clemente School in the East Village neighborhood of Manhattan, a “state of the art green infrastructure playground” / Maddalena Polletta, The Trust for Public Land

Parks boost community resilience because they offer a place to develop deeper neighborhood connections. They improve community health by reducing stress, restoring cognition, and providing a place to exercise. Parks mitigate the urban heat island effect, improve air quality, and absorb carbon from the atmosphere. They support local biodiversity and can act as buffer zones for flooding or mudslides. Parks are both important social and environmental infrastructure.

To sum it up: “we need more parks if we want our cities to be more resilient to climate change,” said Joshua Alpert, director of special projects for C40, at an event organized by The Trust for Public Land and JBP Foundation during the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco.

“We need public space if we want to know our neighbors,” explained Joshua Stanbro, with the city and county of Honolulu, Hawaii. Parks are the “platform for social interaction,” but if designed and built with the community, they can also help forge stronger community connections.

Those connections are more likely to happen in parks that communities actually want. So it’s important that “we meet communities where they are,” said Diane Regas, president and CEO of The Trust for Public Land.

In New York alone, The Trust just built their 200th green schoolyard in an effort to build social networks so these communities can then better fight for climate equity.

Regas said some one-third of the population of the US doesn’t have a park within a 10-minute walk. Through their innovative 10-minute walk campaign, The Trust and its partners aim to undo that inequity.

Brady Walkinshaw, CEO of Grist, said the campaign is the kind of clear, simple communication that is needed because it successfully distilled complex urban planning ideas into an easy-to-understand message people can get behind, like the $15-an-hour minimum wage movement.

Urban parks are also important because they provide the foundation of urban forests, which help cities both mitigate carbon emissions and adapt to a changing climate. According to Jad Daley, CEO of American Forests, urban forests absorb some 100 million tons of carbon each year, about 2 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Trees found in these green areas can reduce energy use up to 7 percent because they provide wind blocks for homes in the winter and cooling in the summer.

In an effort to achieve equity, American Forests is now working with vulnerable urban populations to plant millions of trees. Daley said this work is more critical than ever because deaths from extreme heat are expected to increase ten fold by 2050.

Arturo Garcia-Costas, program officer for the environment with the New York Community Trust, said a more connective approach needs to be taken with green spaces in cities. He pointed to the Ramblas in Barcelona and the High Line in New York City as examples. “We need to think of the broader system and greater connectivity, with green space as the priority.”

Ramblas, Barcelona / Wikipedia

Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, CEO of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), said ubiquitous “pave the planet” approach to development hasn’t been “healthy or climate-smart.” In fact, the approach make communities even more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. To increase safety, communities must instead create built environment systems that work in concert with natural systems. This is because “we are never going to tame Mother Nature.”

As an example, she said there is a great opportunity to design parks — and cities more broadly — to act like natural sponges that absorb stormwater. The great additional benefit of this green infrastructural approach: “It’s a much healthier system.”

ASLA 2009 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Buffalo Bayou, Houston, Texas, SWA Group / Bill Tatham

But Somerville also called for better science and data-based models in order to optimize design interventions in cities. With more accurate data-based geographic models and maps, policymakers can understand where the worst urban heat islands are, the most flooding is, the areas most impacted by mudslides, and then create the most effective parks that solve those challenges. “The lack of modelling remains a key gap.”

In comments on the session, landscape architect Mia Lehrer, FASLA, CEO of Studio-MLA, noted that in dense cities, the only remaining spaces that can be turned into parks are brownfields. Remaking those contaminated spaces is a “complicated and expensive process” that requires expert landscape architects.

Adrian Benepe, Hon. ASLA, senior vice president at The Trust for Public Land and former head of NYC Parks and Recreation, agreed, arguing that “landscape architects are system thinkers” who can help communities maximize park benefits.

Lehrer, Alpert, Somerville, and Walkinshaw saw further densification as a critical future challenge for cities. Walkinshaw said: “densification is the cause of most fights in cities, as it brings up racial, civil rights, public space, and climate issues.”

Alpert believes green public space in the ultra-dense mega-cities of the near-future may end up being dis-aggregated into networks of not only parks but also rooftops and terraces, wherever space is available.

Jane Goodall: To Protect Forests, We Must All Become Vegetarians

Jane Goodall and Alec Baldwin at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco / The Paper

At the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, actor and UN ambassador Alec Baldwin asked the iconic Jane Goodall straight-up: “Why should we protect the forests?”

“On a spiritual level, it’s about preserving the interconnectedness of all living things, the tapestry of life. Some small creatures may seem insignificant, but everything has a purpose.”

In Sub-Saharan Africa, where Goodall has spent her career researching chimpanzees, our closest living relatives, forests are rapidly disappearing. According to the World Wildlife Fund, some 91,000 square kilometers of forest, an area three times the size of Belgium, has been lost since 1990. Deforestation has been caused by population growth, which has led to the expansion of farms and cattle ranches, and international logging companies.

Goodall remembers cruising over Gombe National Park in Tanzania in a small plane in the early 90s and being shocked to discover the extent of the deforestation near a zone where she was researching chimps. Local farmers had been cutting down the forest to plant crops, but soon the soils became overworked and infertile, so they would cut down more forest, repeating the cycle.

Conservation organizations and European governments have been purchasing vast swathes of the tropical rainforest in South America in order to protect it. But Goodall said in Africa, “purchasing land is usually not a solution. Instead, partnerships with local communities are key.” Communities near forests must be educated on more sustainable and intensive farming techniques that enable them to grow more food while also restoring soil fertility. Communities must have enough food and income if we expect them to protect forests.

The ever-increasing demand for beef is also threatening the world’s remaining forests. There are now some 1.3-1.5 billion cows on Earth that need to be fed immense amounts of grain. Goodall said “more grain feeds animals than people.” All that grain requires unsustainable amounts of land and water. One analysis found just a single pound of beef requires some 1,800 gallons of water if the entire food production cycle is considered.

For Goodall, vegetarianism is then critical to saving the forests. We must stop eating beef, as “we need forests for our spiritual and psychological development.” And we must preserve forests as habitat for Goodall’s beloved chimps and all the other vitally-important tree and animal species.

Goodall travels some 300 days a year in an effort to create hope for a more sustainable future. She has witnessed amazing restoration projects, often including indigenous people. Indigenous people are key to forest conservation because “they understand forests and don’t overpopulate, anymore than chimps do.”

She added that planting trees through massive reforestation efforts is prohibitively expensive in most developing countries. “Leaving land fallow works best; the trees come back.”

Lastly, this global environmental phenonemon reiterated that people need to change their diets and eat less beef. Baldwin asked: “Are people ready for that?” Goodall believes so. “Even in Texas, you can now easily find a vegetarian restaurant. You aren’t looked at like you are some weird freak, some tree hugger.”

In reality, a recent Gallup report found just 5 percent of Americans are vegetarian and 3 percent are vegan. In contrast, some 29 percent of the population of India is vegetarian.

In a related session, Carole Saint Laurent, deputy director of global forests and climate change with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), said her organization is helping countries achieve the Bonn Challenge, which aims to restore 160 million hectares of degraded or deforested land by 2020 and 350 million hectares by 2030. (For reference, 150 million hectares is about four times the size of California).

Today, some 7.6 million hectares are lost each year to cattle ranches and farms, and pressures on forests will only increase as the Earth’s population hurtles towards 10 billion. To protect forests for the long term, IUCN and other organizations have launched the 30 x 30 Challenge, which has brought together many important players across sectors. The goal is deeper economic, environmental, social, and cultural changes in land use.

Naoko Ishii, head of the Global Environment Facility (GEF), which steers billions towards climate and environmental projects in developing countries each year, believes the 30 x 30 Challenge can “transform global food and agricultural systems.”

GEF will be putting a half billion dollars to this effort over coming years. “We need to produce 300 percent more food with population growth. This production expansion is a huge challenge for forests, and the problem is particularly acute in Africa.” Solutions will require more “science-based planning at the landscape level” in order to “get out of fragmented, small-scale actions.”