The Authentic Garden

The Authentic Garden: Naturalistic and Contemporary Landscape Design / The Monacelli Press
The Authentic Garden: Naturalistic and Contemporary Landscape Design / The Monacelli Press

In The Authentic Garden: Naturalistic and Contemporary Landscape Design, Richard Hartlage, affiliate ASLA, and Sandy Fischer, ASLA, founders of Land Morphology in Seattle, show us the planting designs that have shaped landscape architecture, featuring “never-before-published” examples of 60 influential gardens. Organized by design movement, the book features more than 250 full-color photographs highlighting the work of well-known designers such as Andrea Cochran, FASLA, Raymond Jungles, FASLA, Christine Ten Eyck, FASLA, Michael Vergason, FASLA, and many others. The book’s strength is its breadth, even within the seemingly-narrow focus on planting design.

Plants as Architecture

Plants can create structure for a larger landscape. This idea is the very “essence of landscape architecture, and essential to garden- and place-making,” the authors write in the book’s first chapter, which focuses on how plants can be used to divide and manipulate spaces. The chapter begins with the history of English topiary gardens dating back to the 1700s before transitioning to more contemporary interpretations.

OLIN’s design for the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is a contemporary standout, with mature trees creating a striking division between the museum and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The mottled trunks on these London plane trees also provide a complement to the fossilized limestone of the buildings’ façade, while drawing attention to their height.

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Barnes Foundation by Olin Partnership / By Michael Moran for the Architectural Review

Artfully Naturalistic Gardens

Those familiar with naturalistic planting design, an approach that appears seemingly natural but is actually constructed, will undoubtedly recognize the names of William Robertson and Gertrude Jekyll who pioneered the style in the late-1800s. While the approach has remained popular over the last 125 years, The Authentic Garden delves into how it has evolved from the 1800s to present day. Over the centuries, two design principles came to the forefront: first, create multi-seasonal gardens and, second, make them ecological. These principles, according to the authors, have helped to ensure the naturalistic approach endures as designers adapt English traditions to their own climates.

One of the most compelling examples of this evolution is California-based Elysian Landscapes’ design for a courtyard beside an Isabel Marant store in Los Angeles, California. Using native plants adapted to the dry southwest climate, the firm formed “casual massings,” out of “loose tufts of perennials” that are bright and exotic, but subtly pay homage to a more traditional planting system. Such examples, found throughout The Authentic Garden, provide inspiration to designers in all climates.

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Isabel Marant in Los Angeles by Elysian Landscapes / The Monacelli Press

Graphic Planting Design

Graphic planting design — which incorporate plants in large, often mono-color blocks to create a graphic effect of the landscape — were perhaps made most famous by Brazilian landscape architect, artist, and ecologist Roberto Burle Marx. Known for his affinity for strong forms and bright colors, Marx has inspired many generations of designers. However, as with other traditional planting styles, graphic planting design has evolved over the decades since Marx, becoming even more popular today, the authors assert.

Attracted to the strong aesthetic of these designs, as well as the ease of maintaining larger masses of plants, firms such as Sonoma, California-based Roche+Roche have made this style their own in the 21st century. Using massings of copper, blue-green, and lavender plants “that hold up well in strong light” at a Napa Valley residence, the firm created a memorable landscape striking within the pages of the book.

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Residence in Sonoma by Roche + Roche / The Monacelli Press

Subsequent chapters highlight more contemporary planting design styles, such as ecological, seasonal, and temporary planting. The authors show how climate-sensitive adaptations of traditional, European-style planting approaches can be achieved in gardens in dry and tropical climates, too.

Though the book is defined by its large, vibrant imagery, The Authentic Garden is more than just a coffee-table book. A must have for landscape architects and horticulturalists alike, it serves as reminder that even as beauty should be ecological today, there is still nothing wrong with adding in some “beauty for beauty’s sake.”

Design Collaborations for Conservation

Oakencroft Farm / Nelson Byrd Wolz Landscape Architects
Oakencroft Farm / Nelson Byrd Wolz Landscape Architects

Designing agricultural landscapes that protect biodiversity has become a high priority for some landscape architects, scientists, and farmers. And designing the right collaborations can be just as important as designing for conservation itself. “There are some advances that can only occur through collaboration, which is why conservation requires design,” said Dr. James Gibbs, a conservation biologist and professor at SUNY’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry at the ASLA 2015 Annual Meeting and Expo in Chicago. Gibbs shared his experience with master farmer Zachary Wolf and Thomas Woltz, FASLA, Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, who worked together on Oakencroft Farm in Virginia and Overlook Farm in Pennsylvania.

Using “private land as their laboratory,” Gibbs, Wolf, and Woltz are collaborating to design a balance between agricultural production and ecological conservation on these farms. Each brings different expertise to the table, but their ultimate goal is to create landscapes that are not only productive and beautiful, but also biodiverse. The future of “biodiversity conservation lies in the intricacies of these working landscapes,” Gibbs said.

Achieving beauty is actually a central goal of the conservation projects. According to Gibbs, aesthetics is an essential ecosystem service. “We ask ourselves is this good for both biodiversity and aesthetics, or is there a trade-off? We think through the designs to answer this important question,” Gibbs said.

For landscape architect Woltz, combining forces to create landscapes that are both ecological and productive has shown him that “science and design belong together at every scale.” Before and after the ecological restoration projects on the farms, the team measures both ecological and agricultural production values. They then have a better understanding of the balance between the two goals. “We wanted to create a landscape that can be wild, productive, and expressive of this legacy of agricultural inheritance,” Wolf said.

The collaborators also treat these places with inherent respect and consider them cultural landscapes. These properties have cultural significance that requires re-interpretation “for the 20th century, but with a new set of values,” Woltz said.

Overlook Farm in Dalton, Pennsylvania / Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects
Overlook Farm in Dalton, Pennsylvania / Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects

Gibbs, Wolf, and Woltz credit the success of their efforts to their partnership. “Part of working together on these projects is admitting what you don’t know and building trust with different players,” Wolf said. “You can then step into the land with fresh eyes and assess the potential of these places.”

New Ways to Promote Smart Growth

Smart growth in California data / Calthorpe Associates
Data on smart growth in California / Calthorpe Associates

“Climate change is the one thing that clearly unifies the planet — every city in the world has to cope with these issues,” said Peter Calthorpe, principal of Calthorpe Associates, in his keynote address at the Louisiana Smart Growth Summit. At the two-day conference in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, climate change was a hot issue for many of the speakers, who discussed strategies for combating it with smart growth policies, not just in Louisiana, but across the country.

Calthorpe identified several new avenues for promoting smart growth, which concentrates urban development in walkable downtowns and connects regions:

Use Data to Show Smart Growth Is Low Cost

We need to talk about smart growth in terms of its cost-saving benefits. Policymakers, planners, and the public all increasingly desire quantifiable data on environmentally-sound policies. It’s not enough to harp on the health or environmental benefits of walkable downtowns — if the cost-saving benefits are not highlighted, smart growth policies will not be implemented.

As Calthrope said, “smart growth is fiscally the most responsible thing to do if you get the data on the table. A lot of conservative Republicans who don’t believe in smart growth or climate change were at least on board for the least-cost scenario.”

One way to help policymakers and the public understand the cost-saving benefits of smart growth is by presenting them with the costs of various scenarios. “People will say we can’t afford $94 billion for high speed rail in California but the reality is, if we don’t build it and we still have those same trips taking place, we’d have to expand airports and highways to accommodate them and that would cost $180 billion dollars.”

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Plan for the California high-speed rail system when completed / UC Davis and Esri

Though it might seem “geek-ish” to make a hard sell for design based on so much data, according to Calthorpe, presenting policymakers and the public with cost-benefit scenarios can can help them clear their minds of the rhetoric that “we should do nothing because we can’t afford anything.”

Christopher Leinberger, president of LOCUS, made a similar point in his presentation about the importance of selling the least-cost scenario.

“Why would you ever invest your limited capital dollars into roads and sewers when, if you put them into walkable urban development, you can bring in 6-12 times the revenue for the same cost per mile,” he said. Not everyone cares about the environment. Not everyone acknowledges climate change. But presenting thoughtful, environmentally-sensitive projects through an economic lens can provide a backdoor for implementation.

Use Autonomous Vehicles to Better Connect Regions

While Calthorpe argued that technology is not a “silver bullet” for creating better cities, he acknowledged that new technologies may help us change some of the behaviors that have contributed to sprawl. Innovation will come out of a transportation revolution centered on autonomous public transportation.

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Google’s prototype for a driver-less car / Google

While autonomous private vehicles companies like Google are prototyping have the potential to perpetuate the negative environmental impacts of regular vehicles — by encouraging sprawling development — there is a compelling case for autonomous public buses, Calthorpe said.

“If you take that same technology companies like Google are thinking about and apply it in place of large buses in dedicated right of ways, you’ll be able to create a transit system that is equitable and affordable without drivers,” he said. “Connecting communities at a regional scale is also crucial.”

Leinberger argued that new autonomous vehicle technologies, without a concurrent change in our lives or our cities, are not going to solve anything. But tailoring technology to inspire behavioral changes can provide a great tool for changing the underlying chemistry of broken systems.

Use Mixed-Income Developments to Build Resilience

Discussing the inevitable trade-offs involved in promoting smart growth, Calthorpe called gentrification “good news for the U.S,” because of the environmental and social benefits associated with its driving forces. For example, gentrification often occurs in mixed-use areas that are designed to be the most resilient to climate change.

“They call it gentrification, but I call it mixed income,” he said. “I believe many communities would love to have a broader mix of incomes, more services, better schools. Displacement is not nearly as draconian as it is portrayed to be.”

Policy makers, planners, and designers in every city are going to have decide the right balance of walkable mixed-use development given environmental and social constraints. Sometimes building walkable, healthy downtowns will lead to gentrification, but, as Calthorpe said, “there are trade-offs in everything.”

New Park Under Toronto Expressway Will Connect City and Waterfront

A nighttime section of Under Gardiner at Strachan Avenue / Project: Under Gardiner
A nighttime section of Under Gardiner at Strachan Avenue / Project: Under Gardiner

Toronto will soon transform the space beneath one of its elevated expressways into a multi-use public park and trail system. Project: Under Gardiner, situated beneath a mile of the Gardiner Expressway, will connect seven neighborhoods in the eastern part of the city, including Toronto’s revitalized waterfront. Drawing comparison to Miami’s Underline, Under Gardiner, designed by urban designer Ken Greenberg with Adam Nicklin and Marc Ryan of Public Work, is centered around a bike and pedestrian trail that will stretch from Stratchan Avenue to Spadina Avenue.

Although significantly shorter than the 10 mile-long Underline, the trail is equally connective to surrounding trails and green spaces. Under Gardiner will link to an extension of the West Toronto Railpath, expected to be completed in 2018, as well as a pedestrian foot bridge extending from a new series of parks near Fort York Boulevard, which will begin construction in 2016.

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Under Gardiner / Project: Under Gardiner

Under Gardiner is more than a trail. The columns holding up the expressway will serve as dividers for a series of up to 55 covered “outdoor rooms” that will host a “kaleidoscope of year-round destination and activities including gardens, an adventure playground, public markets, art fairs and exhibitions, festivals, theatrical and musical performances,” according to a press release.

More specifically, the western portion of the project near Strachan Avenue is slated as a “Creative Action Hub,” with maker spaces and galleries, as well as urban agriculture plots. The central portion between Fort York and June Callwood Park will become a more “Passive Hub” with contemplative spaces, native plantings, and gardens that provide winter interest. To the east, near the Waterfont, community amenities such as public markets, fitness areas, and community gathering spaces, are the priority. According to The Globe and Mail, “the designers imagine that later phases of the project could include buildings, such as an ‘innovation hub’ of art, design and fabrication studios.”

A view of wintertime at Wintertime at Fort York Boulevard / Project: Under Gardiner
A view of wintertime at Wintertime at Fort York Boulevard / Project: Under Gardiner

Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway has long been the subject of controversy. It has been on the chopping block for more than twenty years, with the Toronto City Council finally voting against tearing it down in June. At one point it was even envisioned as a $600 million dollar High Line-style park. However, a $25 million donation from philanthropists Judy and Wil Matthews – the entire cost of the project — makes Under Gardiner much more feasible as a “suture for the city’s downtown neighborhoods and the waterfront,” according to The Star.

The city is currently investigating if Under Gardiner can be managed by a non-profit park conservancy that would work in conjunction with the city. Toronto’s park and public spaces have never seen this sort of partnership nor a donation this large, according to The Globe and Mail.

The Toronto City Council will decide in early December “whether they should accept the $25 million” and begin work on the project in 2016, according to Citylab. One of the first steps after approval will be giving the project a new name that is “uniquely Torontonian,” through a “Reclaim the Name” campaign.

Watch a video about the project:

We Can Mimic Nature to Better Manage Water

Bison in Yellowstone National Park / Yellowstone National Park
Bison in Yellowstone National Park / Yellowstone National Park

If it weren’t for us, bison and beavers might still roam Chicago, Illinois, the location of the ASLA 2015 Annual Meeting and Expo. The absence of these keystone species, which once provided important roles in the continental water cycle, represents a marked shift in ecosystem functioning. However, landscape architects and engineers from Andropogon Associates and Biohabitats are thinking about how to bring back the ecosystem services these species once provided in order to more sustainably manage water.

“We’re not bringing bison back to the edge of Chicago where they would have been, but looking at their functionality, the lessons that can be learned from them,” said Keith Bowers, FASLA, president of Biohabitats. “We need to ask ourselves how we can turn it around and be these species.”

One way to start this process is by “thinking like a watershed,” Bowers said. “How different would our water management systems be if our states were configured around our watersheds?,” he asked. While humans have made political boundaries irrespective of these watersheds, ecosystems – and their associated wildlife – simply don’t follow suit. The divide between human perception and ecological realities is ubiquitous. Just as an example, 73 percent of people polled in Baltimore, Maryland, do not believe they live in a watershed. This misconception is even more present in other parts of the country.

Thinking like beavers or bison in their native watersheds could provide solutions. Bison, for example, create holes, or “wallows,” in the ground that are perfect for collecting rainwater. Beavers also play a critical ecological role by building dams, which increase riparian habitat and can help store millions of gallons of water underground, among other benefits. Perhaps one way for California to adjust to drought would be to think more like these creative animals, “with their small, highly-distributed water management systems” that are more aligned with the functionality of a watershed. Their smart approach is the “the exact opposite of water engineering that happens in California,” said Erin English, a senior engineer at Biohabitats.

A beaver dam in Sonoma, California / Cheryl Reynolds
A beaver dam in Sonoma, California / Cheryl Reynolds

Thinking about how nature functions on the molecular level can also offer solutions said Jose Alminana, FASLA, a principal at Andropogon Associates. It’s at the molecular level “where life starts and where the future of the life on this planet will reside.”

Both Andropogon and Biohabitats have been leading the charge in designing landscapes that think like watersheds. The new U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington D.C. designed by Andropogon Associates and HOK was highlighted. This constructed landscape uses gravity and a set of planted terraces to move and cleanse water.

U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters / Taylor Lednum/GSA
U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters / Taylor Lednum/GSA

Mimicking nature’s functionality creates opportunities for more sustainable urban water management. Bowers said “we have to make that a priority.”

John Thackara Looks to Bio-Regions

John Thackara / Uros Abram
John Thackara / Uros Abram

British writer and philosopher John Thackara, author of How to Thrive in the Next Economy, believes changes in the global society and economy now allow people to address environmental problems at a “bio-regional” scale. At the ASLA 2015 Annual Meeting in Chicago, he described the growth of bio-regional models that use social networks to create new forms of economic gain with significant environmental benefits. This transition to a bio-regional approach is already happening in a few sectors:

Agriculture

The local food movement is creating a shift of economic resources that has beneficial environmental impacts. To scale this local approach up the regional level, countries should take a “food commons approach.”

In a food commons, food distribution and retail are owned by a trust and governed by local stakeholders who manage the commons. This approach better connects local resources, so communities are able “to do things locally currently not done locally.”

Thackara looks to Denmark, where the Danish Food Cluster, founded in 2013, has facilitated regional collaboration between food companies in central Denmark. He argued that in this system, “improving the connections of an economic network is at the heart of its environmental impact.”

The three principles of a successful food commons / The Food Commons
The three principles of a successful food commons / The Food Commons

Mobility 

In order to better connect cities to their resource-rich countrysides, we need to reconsider how we get around, Thackara said. In Vienna, Austria, the idea of collaborative regional mobility has led to the Cargo Bike Collaborative, a donation-based bike sharing service that allows people to transport goods in a low-cost, sustainable way.

The idea of mobility as a fee-based service also has promise. While sharing mobility through services like Uber and Lyft is currently being “told in the language of hipsters in London, New York City, and Washington D.C. with not much attention to the environmental story,” Thackara said, the concept could be re-purposed at a regional scale in order to make transportation more sustainable. “Pay-per-use” frameworks could allow regions to save money on infrastructure in the long run. He said: “one calls upon all of these bits on infrastructure so you don’t necessarily need a car or as many roads at the bio-regional scale.”

A regional example: The Greenhorns, a non-profit organization run by young farmers, sailed a schooner filled with 11 tons of crops from Maine to Boston in August 2015.

The route of the Greenhorn's Maine Sail Freight / The Greenhorns
The route of the Greenhorn’s Maine Sail Freight / The Greenhorns

Lastly, Thackara said we need to combine expanded regional networks with “an absolute militant search for answers.” This requires building a global knowledge network all people can access. Prototypes and maps mean nothing if people around the world cannot learn from them. “We need to build a story that gives meaning and purpose to young people. It must be more than a story that is just something we tell to each other around a campfire, but grounds for action.”

Designing Landscapes in a Changing Arctic

View of the Legislative Assembly building and the Capital Area Park, in Yellowknife, Canada by Cornelia Hahn Oberlander / Cliff LeSergent
View of the Legislative Assembly building and the Capital Area Park, in Yellowknife, Canada by Cornelia Hahn Oberlander / Cliff LeSergent

Landscape architects working in the fragile ecosystems of the arctic have been forced to confront some of the most severe environmental impacts associated with climate change. “We’ve have to address climate change with great seriousness in all the work that we do and we must alter our designs and attitudes. The planet is finite and land is a resource. We must think about how to motivate people to understand this,” said Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, FASLA, at the ASLA 2015 Annual Meeting in Chicago.

Oberlander, and Virginia Burt, ASLA, Virginia Burt Designs, discussed their primary strategy for working with climate change in the arctic: plant what you see. Taking time-consuming and labor-intensive measures to preserve the character and ecology of these landscapes by only using native plants, Burt and Oberlander said their efforts have been well worth it. “From the tallest trees to the tiniest lichen on the granite shore, if we put it there, nature starts to bring it back. Nature truly does prevail in the end,” Burt said.

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Acadia Point in Blandford, Nova Scotia, Canada by Virginia Burt Designs / Virginia Burt Designs

With few nurseries in many of the Canadian towns in which they work, Burt and Oberlander typically collect soil and plants from areas near their projects. The soil and plants, with their embedded mix of lichens and mosses, are then propagated in greenhouses, and finally blended into the the landscapes they are working in.

Yet, climate change has made the task of collecting and transporting native plants to landscape restoration projects even more difficult. Discussing a project she worked on Inuvik, a town in Northwest Canada, Oberlander noted that the changing Canadian landscape presents challenges to even small-scale reclamation projects. When trying to transport plants from Vancouver to Inuvik to restore a Boreal forest shelter belt next to the Inuvik School, “the truck transporting the plants got stuck. There was a landslide and the ferry couldn’t take them across the Mackenzie River. Luckily, my truck with those plants was the last to be hauled across the Mackenzie river,” Oberlander said. “This was all caused by climate change.”

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Shelter Belt along the Inuvik School by Cornelia Hahn Oberlander / Cornelia Hahn Oberlander

Working in the arctic has forced Hahn and Oberlander to deal with climate change and environmental degradation head on. “Why do we approach design in this way?,” Burt asked. “Because it’s the only way. We’re working in spaces that are in a delicate transition, so we must borrow from nature as gently as we can and create an opportunity to heal these places.”

Ocean Farm Wins 2015 Buckminster Fuller Challenge

A drawing of Greenwave's 3D Ocean Farming system / Greenwave
A drawing of Greenwave’s 3D Ocean Farming system / Greenwave

Greenwave, a non-profit organization transforming the fishing industry, was recently awarded the Buckminster Fuller Institute (BFI)’s 2015 challenge, which comes with a $100,000 prize. Greenwave’s winning project is the “world’s first multi-species 3-D ocean farm,” a vertical underwater garden that aims “to restore ocean ecosystems and create jobs in coastal communities by transforming fishers into restorative ocean farmers,” according to BFI. Using simple infrastructure — seaweed, scallops, and mussels growing on floating ropes stacked above clam cages below — Greenwave’s founder Bren Smith has created a low-cost, sustainable system that can be easily replicated by farmers and fishers everywhere.

Drawing comparisons to last years’s BFI challenge winner, Living Breakwaters, the first large-scale experiment with “oyster-tecture” by SCAPE / Landscape Architecture, Smith’s innovative ocean farm was inspired by his time farming oysters in the Long Island Sound. “Here I was a young fisherman, pillaging the oceans in one of the most unsustainable forms of food production on the planet. Aquaculture was supposed to be the great answer to over-fishing, but it turned out to be just as destructive using new technologies. So I became an Oysterman,” Smith said in a Tedx talk.

After Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Irene destroyed 80 percent of his oyster crop, Smith began to re-envision his farm in order to rebuild it.

Now, a single underwater acre of Greenwave’s flagship farm on the Thimble Islands in New York’s Long Island Sound filters millions of gallons of ocean water each day, creates homes for marine and bird life, and absorbs nitrogen and carbon (the kelp in the farms sequester five times more carbon than land-based agriculture). With zero added inputs, the farm has the capacity to grow 10 tons of sea vegetables and 250,000 shellfish annually on a single acre.

“I went from farming 100 acres down to 20 acres as I began using the full water column. And now I’ve been growing a lot more food on the 20 acres than I was on the 100. Whereas aquaculture is obsessed with growing one thing in one place, we’re growing four kinds of shellfish, two kinds of sea weed, and salt from the 20 acres,” Smith said.

Greenwave will use the $100,000 award to train 25 new farmers on both the East and West coasts of the U.S. with the skills to implement Smith’s ocean farming model. Each of the new farmers “will receive start up grants, free seed, and two years of training and support,” Smith said. “Greenwave will also buy 80 percent of their crop for 5 years at triple the market rate.” The rest of the money will go toward research and development on “kelp-raised beef, and specialty food products.”

Since 2007, BFI has used its annual international competition to highlight paradigm-shifting designs that, in the words of the late Buckminster Fuller, “make the world work for 100 percent of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone.”

This is the second year in a row that the first place winner has “directly addressed urgent and complex issues related to our oceans: the impending collapse of marine ecosystems, the long-term effects of climate change on our coastal communities, and the economic catastrophe these communities are experiencing right now as a result,” said Elizabeth Thompson, executive director of BFI.

This year’s other finalists include:

Algae Systems is a new technology that uses native algae species to capture and treat wastewater. Powered by photosynthesis, the system produces renewable fuels and fertilizers as byproducts, at a lower cost per gallon that alternative wastewater treatment technologies.

The Community Architects Network is a regional network of “community architects and planners, engineers, young professionals, lecturers and academic institutes in Asian countries” that supports participatory design for community projects in 17 Asian countries. Projects include new housing developments, citywide upgrading, and recovery from natural disasters.

Hazel is a digital modeling tool produced by the Drylands Resilience Initiative, which, when completed, will assist arid communities in designing effective stormwater infrastructure.

Mahila Housing SEWA Trust (MHT) is an organization aimed at providing secure housing situations — including basic water and sanitation, as well as financial and legal advice — for poor women in four states of India.

A 2012 and 2014 finalist, the Nubian Vault Programme (AVN) trains people in five African countries in the Nubian Vault construction technique, a cheap and sustainable method for constructing homes from local materials.

Read more about Greenwave’s winning project and the runners-up.

A Hidden Waterway Is Found Through Podcast Tours

Headphones and maps set up for a Water Walk event in Lexington, Kentucky / Gena Wirth
Headphones and maps set up for a Water Walk event in Lexington, Kentucky / Gena Wirth

How can you get people to appreciate the invisible features of their hometown? A team led by SCAPE/Landscape Architecture and MTWTF is currently conducting a unique multi-media design experiment that aims to find out by focusing on an often-forgotten but significant culvert in Lexington, Kentucky. The Town Branch Water Walk, created for the Lexington Downtown Development Authority (DDA), is a podcast-guided one-hour walking tour of downtown Lexington’s Town Branch Creek, a long-buried hidden waterway. To further enlighten users of the podcast tours, SCAPE created a set of topographical tables that show what they will explore.

Water walk tour / Gena Wirth, SCAPE
Water walk tour, Lexington, Kentucky / Gena Wirth, SCAPE

The water walk, which can be completed in under an hour, is intended to transform the way Lexingtonians interpret their everyday landscape by revealing what exists underground: karst geology and hydrology. For those who may not know, karst is formed from the “dissolution of soluble rocks such as limestone, dolomite, and gypsum” and takes shape as underground drainage systems, with caves and sinkholes.

Lexington was founded on the Town Branch –  a karst stream — but over time this landscape has been covered over and “put out of sight, out of mind.” The tour follows the creek downstream from its headwaters on a busy highway to where it daylights in a parking lot behind the University of Kentucky’s Rupp Arena.

“The Water Walk creates links between the urban areas Lexingtonians inhabit and the rural Bluegrass region that shapes the identity of the city and region. Karst is Lexington’s hidden secret – the water that flows through this limestone bedrock is rumored to make the bluegrass grow taller, the horses’ bones grow stronger, and the bourbon taste better,” said Gena Wirth, ASLA, a principal at SCAPE.

The set of 3-minute long podcasts are modeled off of Safari 7, a self-guided tour of urban wildlife on New York City’s 7 subway. The podcasts include interviews with local experts on topics ranging from “Lexington’s green infrastructure projects to the complicated nature of Kentucky’s karst-defined hydrology.”

The free podcast and walking tour model was chosen because it can reach multiple audiences who might not typically seek out information on water quality or stormwater management. The team is also working with local schools to integrate the podcasts into the middle school science and social studies curricula.

Nels Rogers, 5, listens to the sound of Town Branch with Gena Wirth / Lexington-Herald Ledger
Nels Rogers, 5, listens to the sound of Town Branch with Gena Wirth / Lexington-Herald Ledger

The new tour also helps set the stage for the work SCAPE is doing in the city. The firm recently won an international design competition to design Town Branch Commons, a broader, long-term initiative advanced by the mayor and the Lexington DDA that will create a new linear public space downtown along the path of the karst water system of Town Branch. A number of other projects, including the construction of the Town Branch Trail, the Legacy Trail Development, and a remedial action plan as a result of an E.P.A. action on water pollution, are in the works.

SCAPE's winning design for Town Branch Commons / SCAPE / landscape architecture
SCAPE’s winning design for Town Branch Commons / SCAPE

SCAPE thinks more landscape architects should go multi-media when trying to communicate with the public. “We firmly believe in the power of systemic vision, but we also believe that visions need to be accompanied by face-to-face communication and design (or podcast-to-ear!).”

Wirth thinks these approaches can create new connections with the environment: “On the ground experience is invaluable – getting out into a new environment, occupying a familiar space in an unfamiliar space, or hearing a podcast describe the trickling stream below your feet transforms the way you experience a place and understand its potential. Landscape architects work to reveal and enhance environmental systems within urban areas, and the podcast walking tour is another way to combat inertia and catalyze appreciation and change. As designers, we need to expand our toolkit and explore more diverse techniques for speaking directly to people about the quality and potential of their built environment.”

Water walk tour / Gena Wirth, SCAPE
Water walk tour / Gena Wirth, SCAPE

So far, the Lexington DDA has hosted one of three Water Walk events. Vine Street was open to pedestrian and bike traffic to allow people to take the walk. A new Water Walk website was recently launched, and listening stations are becoming available for public use at destinations downtown.

Innovative Solutions to California’s Water Problems

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

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

Speculative Winners

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pragmatic Winners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learn more about the competition winners.