Saving Lives with Smart Urban Design

Cities Safer by Design, a report by the World Resources Institute
Cities Safer by Design, a report by the World Resources Institute / WRI

Globally, 1.24 million people are killed in traffic accidents every year, with more than 90 percent of these deaths occurring in low and middle-income countries. Traffic-related incidents are the eighth-leading cause of death worldwide, and the number-one leading cause of death for those between the ages of 15-29. A response to the United Nations’ declaration to create a “Decade of Action” on improving traffic safety, Cities Safer by Design, a new report by the World Resources Institute (WRI) Ross Center for Sustainable Cities, offers urban design best practices and real-world case studies both developed and developing world cities can use to put an end to traffic deaths and injuries.

Cities Safer by Design presents five basic urban design elements that create safer travel environments: block size, connectivity, lane width, access, and population density.

Block Size

Safe urban design is about reducing motor vehicle speeds. The faster a driver goes, the more difficult it is for him or her to avoid hitting a pedestrian in their path. Due to less frequent interruptions, larger blocks allow vehicles to accelerate more freely. More junctions mean more places where cars must stop and pedestrians can cross. According to the report, to improve safety and walkability, blocks should be 75-150 meters long. If blocks are any larger than 200 meters, mid-block pass-throughs with signals or raised crossings should be added every 100-150 meters.

Smaller block sizes have been successfully implemented in central areas of Shanghai, such as Xin Tian Di, to create more walkable neighborhoods. More Chinese cities that had mistakenly built “super blocks” are starting to apply the same approach.

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A street for pedestrians in Shanghai / Jamie Sinz

Connectivity

The report recommends increasing connectivity to multiples modes of transit in order to decrease travel distances and improve access to destinations. Creating multiple routes for pedestrians and cyclists also helps disperse traffic, discourage car use, and reduce travel time.

Mexico City has also created walkable urban landscapes around its Metrobús bus rapid transit (BRT) system that enables safe bicycle and pedestrian access.

Bikers and BRT passengers outside of the Mexico City Metrobus / EMBARQ by  Alejandro Luna
Bikers and BRT passengers outside of the Mexico City Metrobus / EMBARQ by Alejandro Luna

Vehicle Lane Width

The amount of a street devoted to vehicles shapes the amount of street available for pedestrian crossings, bike lanes, parking lanes, and landscape curb extensions. Reducing street widths creates a safer pedestrian experience because they shorten pedestrian crossing distance and exposure to cars and also slow traffic by “increasing drivers’ perception of impediments.” Again, slower traffic mitigates the potential severity of crashes.

According to the report, evidence from Mexico City shows that as the maximum pedestrian crossing distance at an intersection increases by 1 meter, the frequency of pedestrian crashes increase by up to 3 percent. Other studies highlighted in the report show the most significant relationship to injury crashes is street width and street curvature. As street width widens, crashes per mile per year increase exponentially.

Access to Destinations

Neighborhoods should be designed to include transit, parks, schools, and stores within walking distance, which is defined as 0.5-kilometers. Having a variety of destinations in neighborhood clusters encourages people to meet close to home, decreasing the need for vehicular travel and improving overall safety.

In the Coyoacan neighborhood of Mexico City, the prevalence of shops and public spaces encourage walking while discouraging vehicular traffic. Recalling an earlier area before sprawl took over the city, Coyoacan’s cobbled streets lead to garden plazas where street vendors gather.

Santa Catalina Plaza and Church located on Avenida Sosa in the Coyoacan borough of Mexico City / Thelmadatter
Santa Catalina Plaza and Church located on Avenida Sosa in the Coyoacan borough of Mexico City / Thelmadatter

Population Density

A 2009 study cited in the report found that for an increase in density of 100 persons per square mile, there was a 6 percent reduction in injurious crashes and a 5 percent reduction in all crashes after controlling for vehicle miles traveled, street connectivity, and land use. In contrast to more sprawling cities, high-density cities not only reduce the need for vehicle travel, but also reduce the need for their associated infrastructure, such as roads and sewers.

Tokyo has successfully developed high-density mixed-use neighborhoods near rail and bus stations. According to the report, Tokyo has a traffic fatality rate of 1.3 per 100,000 residents. Compare this rate to Atlanta, Georgia, one of the most sprawled-out cities in the U.S., which has 9.7 traffic fatalities per 100,000 residents.

Street in Jiyugaoka,Tokyo
Street in Jiyugaoka, Tokyo / Cozyroom_mimi (Flickr)

With the percentage of the world’s population living in cities expected to hit 70 percent by 2030, reducing traffic fatalities from unsafe streets should be a priority. Safer streets also increase the quality of life for urbanites, particularly for those in developing countries. WRI’s report shows policymakers, urban designers and planners, and landscape architects what works: designing for pedestrian safety means improving urban health and sustainability overall.

Walkonomics: What Makes the Best Route?

User ratings for Park Row, New York, NY / Liz Camuti
User ratings for Park Row, New York, NY / Liz Camuti

Most smartphone map apps give you several direct routes to get from Point A to Point B, but the quickest or most convenient path isn’t always the most enjoyable. Those interested in finding the most beautiful, walkable route to their destination can now try Walkonomics. The app, created by United Kingdom programmer Adam Davies, allows users to find more beautiful paths through seven cities across the globe using both open and crowd-sourced city data.

Walkability-related data and apps have existed for a number of years. Websites like Walk Score rate individual addresses based on a number between 0 and 100, telling you how walkable or car-dependent an area is. But according to CityLab, Walk Score has yet to incorporate “more fine-grained and diverse data about the quality of the pedestrian experience.”

Walkonomics attempts to provide just that. Not only does this free iOS and Android app allow people to check the pedestrian-friendliness of most streets in Central London, Paris, New York, San Francisco, Toronto, Buenos Aires, and Glasgow, but it also allows them to chose either the quickest or most beautiful routes between destinations in these cities.

The app provides star rankings for eight different categories of pedestrian-friendliness: road safety; easy to cross; pavement/sidewalk; hilliness; navigation; fear of crime; “smart & beautiful;” and “fun & relaxing.” These ratings are generated from open data including street widths, traffic levels, crime statistics, pedestrian accidents, and even how many trees are on each street. Visitors and  residents can provide additional ratings for each of these criteria as they walk down streets in their neighborhood, as well as geo-referenced photos.

As I tested the app, I found that certain elements are not as user-friendly as existing ones in Google Maps. For example, typing in the name of a location rather than a specific address, which typically works pretty accurately in other mapping apps, is a bit of a struggle with Walkonomics, which requires your location or a very specific address if you’re not navigating to a famous landmark.

Though I am not a native New Yorker, I also found it strange that the most beautiful route between two New York City locations took me around Central Park, while the fastest route took me almost directly through the park. Is a stroll down a tree-lined street truly more beautiful than a walk through a park? This raises the question: how does Walkonomics actually quantify the most beautiful route, when what makes something beautiful is subjective. Furthermore, it’s unclear how Walkonomics, which is intended for urban streets, incorporates parks. Perhaps, the app could benefit from more crowd-sourcing and input from people who really know these streets (Most streets in New York only have one user rating). Davies said he also has plans to provide more options, like the safest and cleanest routes, which are more easily quantified.

The most beautiful route from 186 W 80th Street to the Plaza Hotel as determined by the Walkonomics app  / Liz Camuti
The most beautiful route from 186 W 80th Street to the Plaza Hotel as determined by the Walkonomics app / Liz Camuti
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The fastest route from 186 W 80th Street to the Plaza Hotel as determined by the Walkonomics app / Liz Camuti

Despite the app’s shortcomings, Davies has certainly tapped into a real demand for walkable places. Also, studies have shown that walkable streets can boost retail sales by up to 80 percent. Research indicates walkable neighborhoods reduce obesity levels, carbon emissions, and crime, among other benefits. In fact, the benefits of walkable cities have become so widely known that many big businesses are choosing to move their headquarters back to more walkable locations.

If you live in one of the seven cities available on the app and have an extra five minutes in the morning, take Walkonomics for a spin. Not only could you end up feeling less stressed at the beginning of your workday, but you’ll have the opportunity to add to a growing data source designed to make cities a little bit more livable. And, hopefully, Walkonomics will in turn open up its own data, as it could be really useful to landscape architects, urban planners, and health researchers trying to figure out what makes one route more appealing than another.

A Post-industrial Stonehenge Rises in Scotland

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Crawick Multiverse / Charles Jencks

As Scotland becomes one of the first countries to run solely on renewable energy, communities face the question of what to do with the country’s abandoned mining infrastructure. In one Scottish village, Sanquhar, the answer is to transform a former coal mine into a 55-acre, $1 million work of land art. Conjuring images of Stonehenge, Crawick Multiverse, which opened July 10 with a ceremony of music and dance, was built from materials found on-site, including 2,000 boulders half-buried below ground.

At the urging of local residents, the landowner, Richard Scott, the Duke of Buccleuch, commissioned landscape artist Charles Jencks to build something dynamic that would benefit the region, which has been struggling economically. Crawick Multiverse, “represents the cosmos, from the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies to a spiral of rocks that make up the multiverse.” While Jencks often draws inspiration from astronomy, at the nearby Garden of Cosmic Speculation for example, Fast Company writes that it was also a natural fit for this site, where prehistoric stone art and Celtic gold necklaces designed to represent the moon have been found nearby.

Traditionally, former coal mines in the country are bulldozed and returned to the pastures they once were, but this misses an opportunity to reflect the cultural significance of a site. “Around the world, mines produce an environment which is depressing, and derelict and desolate and deserted, full of junk,” Jencks told Fast Company. “There have been laws put in place to restore these areas to their pristine original quality — that often means putting grass over the site, plowing it back, and returning it to the cows. We wanted to build something positive for the community instead.” By using on-site materials to create the dramatic earthworks rather than flattening the site, construction costs were also reduced.

A network of paths weave through the sites four different ecosystems (grassland, mountain, water gorge and desert), while navigating landforms represent the sun, universes, galaxies and comets. At the heart of the project is a 5,000-person amphitheater inspired by a solar eclipse.

5,000-person amphitheater inspired by a solar eclipse / Charles Jencks
5,000-person amphitheater inspired by a solar eclipse / Charles Jencks

Dramatic earthworks include the two galaxy mounds – Andromeda and the Milky Way – which stand at 25 and 15 meters high, respectively. The mounds represent “the cosmic ballet of the two galaxies coming together,” and each have lagoons that add to their visual impact.

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Andromeda and the Milky Way Earthworks / Charles Jencks

The site was once valued for its industrial purpose, but there is a beauty in the surrounding landscape that Jencks sought to emphasize in the design. The comet walk — a ridge trail with white-yellow sandstone emulating comets’ tails — leads to the Belvedere, a lookout offering a panoramic view of the surrounding countryside. Again, stones from the site have been repurposed, this time into a stone hand with a finger pointing to the North Star.

Intersection boulders – the largest rocks on the entire site – mark the start of the Comet Walk / Charles Jencks
Intersection boulders – the largest rocks on the entire site – mark the start of the Comet Walk / Charles Jencks
The lookout from Belvedere / Charles Jencks
The lookout from Belvedere / Charles Jencks

“Destroyed sites are an opportunity to renew. It’s wonderful to see this park used in different ways. For a designer, such as me, that’s the pay-off,” Jencks explains in a video for the project. “This site is big enough to absorb 10,000 people a day and you wouldn’t feel crowded, so I’m really happy about that. It’ll take time to get there, but I’m sure it will be used in thousands of different ways we can’t even predict. All successful parks have to embed themselves with the locals who will use them in new ways.”

The project is potentially the beginning of an exciting series of reclamation projects poised to take hold in Scotland’s post-industrial landscape. As coal mining becomes increasingly obsolete across the country, Crawick Multiverse, in its striking whimsy, offers a practical strategy for industrial redevelopment at the landscape scale.

See a video of Jencks discussing his inspiration for the project:

And see more images.

The Politics of Green Infrastructure in D.C.

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Combined sewer overflow point, Anacostia, D.C. / Chesapeake Bay.net

While the Potomac and the Anacostia Rivers gave birth to the District of Columbia, they have suffered years of contamination from raw sewage, which spill into the rivers when the aging combined sewer and stormwater infrastructure overflows. To address this issue, in 2010 the District initiated the DC Clean Rivers Project (DCCR) and began constructing massive underground tunnels that will convey contaminated runoff into the Blue Plains wastewater treatment facility. While a deep-bore tunneling machine affectionately named Lady Bird digs its way 100 feet each day at great expense, D.C. is now finally able to move forward with a more cost-effective green infrastructure plan, like New York City and Philadelphia. A new agreement with the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Justice (DOJ) finalized in May allows DC Water, the city’s water utility, to remove one of the proposed tunnels and instead invest in turning hundreds of acres of impervious surfaces into green, absorbent ones. However, it appears not everyone will benefit equally from the new green infrastructure plan.

Under the new consent decree with the EPA and DOJ, DC Water eliminated the previously-planned underground tunnel for Rock Creek and will instead build green infrastructure that covers 365 acres. Phases of this work will start soon and the whole plan will be complete by 2030.

DC Clean Rivers Project Plan in 2010 / DC Water
DC Clean Rivers Project Plan in 2010 / DC Water
New Clean Rivers Project Plan in 2015 / DC Water
New Clean Rivers Project Plan in 2015 / DC Water

The neighborhoods of Columbia Heights, Takoma, Petworth, and others surrounding the Rock Creek watershed will get rain gardens, bioswales, porous pavement, and green roofs designed to capture and clean runoff, replacing the originally-planned tunnel. Near Georgetown, there will still be a tunnel but gravity, rather than an energy-intensive pumping station, will passively transfer water to the wastewater treatment plant, explains CityLab. That stretch will also get some new green infrastructure.

However, as some local activists who attended a recent briefing at the National Building Museum made clear, there are deep concerns about whether the new green infrastructure approach will benefit the Anacostia River communities any time soon. Over the years, the Anacostia, which is considered one of the most polluted waterways in the nation, has borne the bulk of environmental abuse. This is why DC Water made creating a new tunnel to address the Anaocostia River’s problems the highest priority. However, the community won’t see the benefits until at least 2022 when the new tunnel finally opens. Then, it’s expected to remove about 98 percent of the river’s pollution, making it potentially clean enough to swim in.

Meanwhile, along the Anacostia’s 8 miles, combined sewer overflows continue to occur in 17 different places, reports CityLab. So, according to these activists, the new plan has raised some environmental justice issues: it’s about who reaps the many benefits of green infrastructure first, and who gains the most long-term.

This desire for green infrastructure isn’t simply about cleaner rivers. Green infrastructure creates additional green space for the neighborhoods, reduces the heat-island effect, and improves air quality while creating jobs and increasing property values. The discrepancy in property values and income levels between the neighborhoods that will receive these benefits sooner and those that will receive a mostly-grey infrastructure fix is clear.

Despite the fears that green infrastructure can lead to gentrification, many argue that access to green infrastructure empowers communities and further marginalizes those without it. Even with the slow progress of the Anacostia tunnel, green infrastructure projects should be started sooner along the Anacostia. There are so many opportunities.

For example, along Buzzard’s Point in Southwest D.C., there are opportunities to create a new waterfront promenade that can also capture runoff with natural systems. Vacant houses in the area could also be turned into stormwater cisterns or redeveloped as parks. But, as of now, the only real plans are to create a new D.C. United soccer stadium there, which will only increase impervious surfaces, unless green infrastructure is better integrated into the design. With new incentives, green streets and roofs could spread throughout these neighborhoods, too.

A green roof that was installed over an existing drinking water reservoir located at Fort Reno as part of the Clean Rivers Project / American Academy of Environmental Engineers and Scientists
A green roof that was installed over an existing drinking water reservoir located at Fort Reno as part of the Clean Rivers Project / American Academy of Environmental Engineers and Scientists

The new 11th Street Bridge Park will help restore the Anacostia River ecosystems, but this project is still many years away. The new South Capitol street corridor project will bring some green infrastructure to the Anacostia area as well, but perhaps not enough. DC Water, which has been pushing for its new green infrastructure approach for years, has limited resources to fulfill its mission, and the tunnel and green infrastructure plan are great expenses. It certainly wants to bring more green infrastructure to the District, but, hopefully, these green infrastructure opportunities can be widespread so everyone benefits equally.

Tree Church Grows in New Zealand

The Tree Church by
The Tree Church designed by Barry Cox / Barry Cox

While some aspire for grand pools or tranquil gardens in their backyards, New Zealand resident, Barry Cox, had other ideas for a 3-acre space in his own yard. Yearning for an old stone church like those he had admired on his travels through Europe, Cox united his passions for religion and tree relocation to create a 100-seat chapel at his Ohaupo, New Zealand home made almost entirely from mature trees. According to the New Zealand Gardener, as a child, Cox wanted to be the Pope, but instead, settled for the position of head altar boy in his hometown church. His interest in Christianity, coupled with his encyclopedic knowledge of trees, came full circle in the creation of Tree Church.

Cox, who owns the mature tree rescue and relocation business, Treelocations, spent only four years “growing” the church. By re-homing semi-mature trees, he accelerated the maturity of the structure, giving it the appearance of a project 20 years in the making.

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Barry Cox with one of his dogs, Scruff / New Zealand Gardener by Sally Tagg

Cox carefully selected from a wide variety of trees for the chapel. He writes on his website that he used live cut-leaf alder trees for the roof canopy and copper sheen for the walls, as well as camellia black tie, Norway maple, and pyramidal white cedar. These species were specifically chosen for their flexibility and their ability to be trained around the iron frame of the chapel. Some of these trees have stone-colored trunks, while others have sparse foliage, ensuring that the church can always be illuminated by sunlight.

Inside the church, rows of wooden benches form a pathway to an altar that holds special significance for Cox. The altar come from his family’s church in Shannon, New Zealand and is made of marble from Lake Como, Italy, where his ancestors are from. The copper-sheen walls of the church’s interior have thick, stone-colored foliage that must be trimmed every six weeks to maintain their lush quality.

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The inside of the church / New Zealand Gardener by Sally Tagg

Across from the church, Cox designed a labyrinth walk based on the walls of the ancient city of Jericho, created in 460 BC. He also constructed a large canopy from military cargo parachute to be used for after-event gatherings. Preparing for these events at the church is demanding for Cox, who told New Zealand Gardener it generally takes “five hours to mow the lawns and at least three hours of final primping to get the gardens and Tree Church to the standard to be happy for an event.”

Aerial view of the church and labyrinth / Barry Cox
Aerial view of the church and labyrinth / Barry Cox

While Tree Church was originally “designed to show how an instant garden can be created” using a tree spade, since its opening to the public in January 2015, the church is now not only “a welcomed retreat from society” for Cox, but for others as well. After urging from his friends and relatives, he decided to open the church to the public twice a week and it’s now a popular spot for photo shoots, events, and, of course, weddings. While it’s currently closed for the winter, it will open again October 2015.

Watch a video about the project

Beyond Gas Works Park: The Life and Legacy of Richard Haag

The Landscape Architecture of Richard Haag: From Modern Space to Urban Ecological Design / University of Washington Press
The Landscape Architecture of Richard Haag: From Modern Space to Urban Ecological Design / University of Washington Press

If landscape architect Richard Haag had stopped with Gas Works Park and Bloedel Reserve in Seattle, Washington, “these two projects alone would have assured his place in American landscape architectural history,” Marc Treib asserts in the forward to the new book, The Landscape Architecture of Richard Haag: From Modern Space to Urban Ecological Design, by Thaïsa Way, ASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Washington. Yet these two projects are but a fragment of the works that have earned him fame in the realm of urban ecological design. In the book, Way places Haag’s nearly five decade-long careers as a landscape architect, activist, and teacher in the context of “changes in the practice of landscape architecture,” ultimately providing a lens through which landscape architects can study urban ecological design.

The book is organized both thematically and chronologically, starting with Haag’s humble upbringing in rural Kentucky. Haag’s family was closely tied to the land in their agrarian community of Jeffersontown, and the legacy of successful farmers and growers there “shaped Haag’s view of the world as he has described it: living and working with nature as a lover.” This mindset intersected with an increasing focus on the scientific understanding of ecological processes that was taking hold in profession just as Haag began learning about it. His curiosity about landscape architecture led him to academia. But despite his extensive education at the University of Illinois, the University of California at Berkeley, and Harvard’s Graduate School of Design — as well as his apprenticeships under Modernists Hideo Sasaki and Dan Kiley — Haag remained true to his roots. As Way states, he has been known to frequently quip that one should “never trust a landscape architect without mud on his shoes.”

Haag on a tractor / Washington University PRess
Haag on a tractor / University of Washington Press

Perhaps much of Haag’s success can be attributed to the many contrasts he created for himself in his professional life. Though he had a deep tie to his rural hometown, and always sought to return to it, he pursued his interests in Japanese design through a Fulbright scholarship. Way’s portrayal of Haag’s time in Japan is enough to convince any budding landscape architect to study in Kyoto. He then jumped on the bandwagon of California residential design in the early 1950s and finally headed to the Pacific Northwest where he made a name for himself.

He is portrayed throughout the book as a highly-adaptable individual whose design style closely follows suit. Way notes that Haag’s teachings in the classroom at The University of Washington, where he founded the landscape architecture department, emphasized landscape architecture as not only a profession, but a life perspective. “In the 1960s, the practice of landscape architecture as a civic engagement that addressed growing concern for the environment and cultural practices offered one of the most exciting opportunities in any design field,” Way writes.

Richard Haag teaching "Poetic Response." Drawing by Laurie Olin for the College of Architecture and Urban Planning yearbook, 1960-61 / Washington University Press
Richard Haag teaching “Poetic Response.” Drawing by Laurie Olin for the College of Architecture and Urban Planning yearbook, 1960-61 / University of Washington Press

Though Way states it was not necessarily her intention to celebrate Haag’s work, it is difficult not to celebrate a landscape architect who has made such significant contributions to the field. Of the many projects highlighted in the book – entire chapters are dedicated to Gas Works Park and Bloedel Reserve – some of the Haag’s more fascinating and less recognized contributions are his dedication to the Pacific Northwestern landscape and his use of landform as art.

With his interest and training in Japanese design, Haag was uniquely suited to practice in the Pacific Northwest where there was a Japanese character to both the architecture and landscape architecture. Haag has created hundreds of residential gardens in the Pacific Northwest from Seattle to Vancouver to Portland, Oregon. While these gardens are not only expressive of Pacific Northwestern regionalism, they are also reflective of Haag’s own design intentions. The result is an identity intrinsic to both the landscape and the designer. To say it another way: Haag was inspired by the Pacific Northwest, and the style we now consider pervasive there is undoubtedly Haag-inspired.

As fascinated as Haag was by the idea of public place as democratic space, the art of form-making with earth was of equal importance to him in its ability to shape spatial experience, ecological process, and convey infinite narratives. One of his most dramatic use of land forms before the great mound at Gas Works Park was at Jordan Park in Everett, Washington. Using five thousand cubic yards of sand from the recently dredged marina, Haag experimented with this remove-and-reuse process that he would later refine at Gas Works Park. Though the park was demolished in 2008 with the intention to develop the site for mixed residential use, its memory provides a replicable example of one of Haag’s most iconic design approaches: “One man’s waste is another man’s treasure.”

Richard Haag's Jordan Park in Everett, Washington / Washington University Press
Richard Haag’s Jordan Park in Everett, Washington / Washington University Press

Even at 90, Haag still continues to practice in Seattle. Though his work is not entirely finished, his legacy is already well established. His work continues to provide an alternative to a profession that often still struggles to move away from its perception as a “luxury-oriented practice of garden design.”

If anything, Haag’s thinking and experimentation related to remediation and reclamation will only become increasingly important to a post-industrial society, making this book, and a deeper consideration of his novel design thinking, a necessity for all landscape architects.

Read the book.

30 Years of Emerging Voices

30 Years of Emerging Voices / Princeton Architectural Press
30 Years of Emerging Voices / Princeton Architectural Press

The Emerging Voices Award was created in 1982 by the Architectural League of New York to showcase the work of early- to mid-career American architects, landscape architects, and urban designers. Each year, through an invited competition, a jury selects practitioners or firms with a “significant body of realized work that represents the best of its kind and has the potential to impact the future of architecture and landscape design.” 30 Years of Emerging Voices: Idea, Form, Resonance, a new book by the Architectural League of New York, documents and assesses the first three decades of the League’s Emerging Voices program, highlighting firms that have been recognized for their innovation, insight, and influence.

Organized chronologically by year of submission and interspersed with essays by leading design critics, this book is a true reference, valuable as a comprehensive snapshot of the past three decades of design. The Emerging Voices award is unique in that it recognizes professionals who are no longer students, but are not yet “fully mature practioners.” As Ashley Shafer, an associate professor of architecture at the Ohio State University, states in the book’s first essay, this career phase often gives way to work that is “idealistic, experimental, and formally clumsy on occasion.” While some of the work in the book may have been “dismissed as hypothetical, utopian, or even naïve,” it’s work we now look at with appreciation.

Take for example Steve Holl’s Bridge of Houses proposal for the then-abandoned High Line in Chelsea, Manhatttan, which was recognized among several of Holl’s other projects with the 1982 Emerging Voices Award. The firm’s proposal for the disused High Line was to construct many different houses over the rail. Each villa is, in itself, a slightly different looking bridge that provides pedestrian passage. While the ambitious project was merely conceptual, it served as a precedent for James Corner Field Operations’ High Line park, which was recognized with the award in 2001 and is also featured in the book. While seemingly unrelated projects, “a host of newly created buildings” engage the High Line as was intended by Holl almost two decades earlier.

Bridge of Houses, New York, NY, proposal, 1979 / Steve Holl Architects via Princeton Architectural Press
Bridge of Houses, New York, NY, proposal, 1979 / Steve Holl Architects via Princeton Architectural Press

The same phenomena is true of Reiser + Umemoto’s 1995 design for Yokohama’s International Port Terminal, which was recognized by the Architectural League of New York in 1996. The complex network structure for the building seemed fantastical and impossible to construct at the time of its conception. However, Jesse Reiser and Nanako Umemoto’s Taipei Pop Music Center, which is arguably just as structurally complex as their design for the International Port Terminal, is currently under construction. While many of their ideas were considered outside the realm of possibility in the mid-late 90’s, Reiser + Umemoto’s designs became not only feasible, but well-received, at the turn of the 21st century.

Taipei Pop Music Center Competition images / Reiser + Umemoto via E-architect
Taipei Pop Music Center Competition images / Reiser + Umemoto via E-architect

While the majority of the book is devoted to architects, several landscape architects are also featured, including Susannah Drake, FASLA, Dlandstudio; Chris Reed, FASLA, Stoss Landscape Urbanism; Elana Brescia, ASLA, and Kate Orff, ASLA, SCAPE; Gary Hilderbrand, FASLA, and Douglas Reed, FASLA, Reed Hilderbrand; Ken Smith, FASLA, Workshop: Ken Smith Landscape Architect; and Julie Bargmann, ASLA, D.I.R.T. Studio.

Bargmann was one of the first, if not the first, landscape architect to be recognized with the award when she won in 2000. While she has since gone on to design many recognizable projects, such as MASS MoCa in North Adams, Massachusetts, and the Urban Outfitters Headquarters in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 2000, she was best known for her work at the Ford River Rouge Plant in Dearborn, Michigan. This regenerative project transformed an industrial icon into a model of twenty-first century sustainability through the use of ambitious ecological systems, creating “a new model of environmentally integrated manufacturing.” Bargmann is a true example of the kind of practitioner the award seeks to recognize — someone who has been a novel thinker from the beginning of her career and has made this innovation a career-long pursuit.

Ford River Rouge / D.I.R.T Studio
Ford River Rouge / D.I.R.T Studio

The most recent landscape architect featured in the book is Susannah Drake, Dlandstudio, who was recognized with the award in 2013. Applauded for her unique voice in projects like BQ Green and Gowanus Canal Sponge Park, both in Brooklyn, New York, Drake has quickly proven that interdisciplinary design is the way of the future. Each of Dlandstudio’s projects emphasizes the integration of ecology, infrastructure, and design at the urban network scale — using the United States’ largest city as a primary testing ground for new ideas in a way few firms have dared to try.

BQ Green: Reviving South Williamsburg / Dlandstudio
BQ Green: Reviving South Williamsburg / Dlandstudio

Focused on firms and individuals who have tested limits and pressed the design profession forward, rather than those who are solely focused on making names for themselves, 30 Years of Emerging Voices is a unique book in its genre, prioritizing innovation over recognition and setting the stage for design breakthroughs to come.

Read the book.

Under the Highways and Rails, NYC Has 700 Miles of Unused Space

Broadway and Flushing Ave under the JMZ subway lines / Krisanne Johnson for the Design Trust for Public Space
Broadway and Flushing Ave under the JMZ subway lines / Krisanne Johnson for the Design Trust for Public Space

During the early and mid-twentieth century, New York City constructed a massive transportation system, layering elevated highways, subway tracks, and rail lines to create the complicated web we are familiar with today. While this network has undoubtedly contributed to NYC’s physical and economic growth, it has also provided an untapped public asset: 700 miles of unused space (nearly four times the size of Central Park) beneath the city’s elevated transportation infrastructure.

In a comprehensive new report resulting from a two-year-long study, the Design Trust for Public Space and NYC Department of Transportation (NYC DOT) highlight sustainable ways to rethink these residual spaces. Addressing complex problems such as noise, safety, and lighting, the new study builds off of the success of the Design Trust’s 2002 study, Reclaiming the High Line (“the study that catalyzed efforts to save and reprogram the decommissioned rail line”). The result is a comprehensive document intended to inspire public and private investment in some of the city’s most neglected public spaces.

In an introductory essay that discusses New York’s elevated railways (or “els”), Thomas Campanella, an associate professor in Cornell University’s city and regional planning department, frames the importance of the study, stating: “The demesne of the elevated— I’ll call it “el-space” here— is neither tranquil nor serene, but it’s not without poetry. The root of its allure is the close juxtaposition of human life and heavy industrial infrastructure.”

Going Home Near Bloomingdales, 1946 / Lionel S. Reiss via the Collection of The New York Historical Society
Going Home Near Bloomingdales, 1946 / Lionel S. Reiss via the Collection of The New York Historical Society

In many ways, the elevated railroad is a relic of an age before zoning when people, especially the poor, were forced to live in hazardously close proximity to the factories where they worked. And while the els remains popular today — particularly in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx — Campanella claims that the fact that el-space “is almost universally described as dark and oppressive is an inaccurate cliché.” The quality of light beneath elevated tracks can be “exquisite” and the sense of enclosure created by the columns “yields an effect reminiscent of an avenue of mature trees … a kind of sturdy steampunk Elm Street.” Such sentiments are the first inklings of design inspiration the study provides.

Third Avenue Elevated Railway at 18th Street in 1942 / Marjorie Collins via The Design Trust for Public Space
Third Avenue Elevated Railway at 18th Street in 1942 / Marjorie Collins via The Design Trust for Public Space

Focusing in on elevated train lines rather than elevated highways, which are more relevant in other U.S. cities, the Design Trust for Public Space first assessed the inventory of existing el-space to identity opportunities and constraints. Surprisingly, these opportunities and constraints have largely remained unchanged since the 1960s when Jane Jacobs called attention to them in her seminal book, The Life and Death of Great American Cities. These physical structures divide low-incomes neighborhoods and produce noise, darkness, and dirt; on the other hand, the els have also brought people, commerce and cultural vibrancy to these areas. The call is the same now as it was then: Reconnect communities divided and affected by elevated infrastructure and turn these el-spaces into a positive resource.

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Map of Elevated Transit Infrastructure in New York City / The Design Trust for Public Space

So, in 2014, 146 year after the construction of the first el, is NYC any closer to reclaiming these spaces? The study explores the potential uses of el-spaces from site strategies to their associated policies, relying heavily on research and case studies from across the country to inspire designers, planners, and policymakers to action. The good news is that many of these spaces are already being reclaimed for a variety of public uses. Potential uses highlighted in the study include:

Environmental Sustainability

In Flushing, Queens, the Highway Outfall Landscape Detention (HOLD) System, invented by DLANDstudio, uses a low-cost, flexible, plant-based system to collect and filter stormwater from drainpipes on the elevated highways that run through Flushing Meadows Corona Park. This system absorbs and filters pollutants such as oil, heavy metals, and grease out of the water that drain off of the elevated highways, leading to cleaner runoff entering the city’s waterways. The system’s ability to retain water during heavy rain events also helps reduce flooding.

Highway Outfall Landscape Detention (HOLD) Systems to collect and filter storm water from highway scuppers / dlandstudio
Highway Outfall Landscape Detention (HOLD) Systems to collect and filter storm water from highway scuppers / dlandstudio

Parks

In 2002, the redesign of Queens Plaza was one of the first comprehensive el-space improvement projects in New York City. A group of designers and engineers was selected to transform Queens Plaza into Dutch Kills Green, a new park with well-lit green pathways in the heart of the Long Island City commercial district. In an article for Urban Omnibus, the project’s landscape architect, Margie Ruddick, ASLA, says that “rather than using a harsh, urban language, we tried to find a language through which lushness and beauty could coexist with the hard edge of infrastructure. The linear landscape of medians and streetscape meet in Dutch Kills Green, and this convergence, for me, challenges the notion of an urban park because its surroundings are so inhospitable. This juxtaposition would have seemed inappropriate several years ago. But these days it’s becoming more prevalent.”

Dutch Kills Green / The Design Trust for Public Space
Dutch Kills Green / The Design Trust for Public Space

Markets

In 2011, the New York City Economic Development Council (NYCEDC) and the City Council combined forces to modernize underutilized market space, add new retail space, and construct a kitchen incubator underneath the Park Avenue elevated train station between 115th and 116th Streets in El Barrio. Despite significant public investment in the area, “the new La Marqueta has struggled to attract visitors and retain retailers.” Yet just a block north of La Marqueta at 116th Street, salsa dancers have congregated under the tracks every Saturday evening in the summer months for years. In an attempt to revive the informal spirit the market once had, City Council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito launched La Marqueta Reto (La Marqueta Reblooms) in 2014, an initiative to bring street vendors, a farmers market, and other community events back into the space.

Children sit in front of the entrance of La Marqueta, in East Harlem / Epoch Times
Children sit in front of the entrance of La Marqueta, in East Harlem / Epoch Times

Transportation

Before New Lots Triangle Plaza in East New York, Brooklyn, was completed in 2011, subway riders exited from the train onto a narrow sidewalk with minimal protection from oncoming traffic. NYC Department of Transportation worked with the New Lots Avenue Triangle Merchants Association to join an 800-foot traffic triangle with nearby sidewalks and the exit of the three elevated train lines to create a 3,800-square-foot public space that is protected from traffic by decorative planters. According to the NYC DOT, the plaza has made the area safer for pedestrians and created “an immediate impact on business by encouraging pedestrians to linger longer in the area and visit businesses, boosting the local economy.”

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New Lots Triangle Park / Streetsblog NYC

In a dense city like New York, residual spaces under elevated transportation infrastructure can no longer be an afterthought — and these spaces in NYC are only a small piece of the more than 7,000 miles available for reclamation in cities across the country. The Design Trust for Public Space report further emphasizes the need for adaptive reuse of these spaces, looking at the infrastructure that gets us from point a to point b and creating a much-needed public space as point c.

Purchase the report.

Several years ago ASLA created an animation to introduce people to the concept of reusing transportation infrastructure as public spaces, including underpass parks. The video, which is a part of Designing Our Future: Sustainable Landscapes, a project funded by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), can be viewed below:

From Corporate Campus to Downtown

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Core Values: Why American Companies are Moving Downtown / Smart Growth America

In the past several years, small businesses and Fortune 500 companies alike have said goodbye to suburban office parks and moved their headquarters back to city centers. Attempting to cater to a new generation of Millennial urbanites, this trend represents a “marked shift in the preferences of American companies,” who are now choosing to invest in more walkable locations, according to Core Values: Why American Companies are Moving Downtown, a new study by Smart Growth America.

The study, which was accompanied by kickoff panel discussion at the Newseum in Washington D.C., examines the motives and preferences of companies that have moved to more walkable downtown locations between 2010-2015. The launch event supplemented the study, hosting business and planning experts from cities across the country who discussed both sides of the issue: Why are companies choosing downtown locations? And how can cities create the kinds of places these companies seek?

In the late 1960s and 70s, companies across the country began leaving downtown cores for suburban office campuses. By 1996, on average, less than 16 percent of jobs were located within three miles of a traditional city center. In recent years, however, this trend is showing signs of reversing. According to the study, “between 2007 and 2011, job growth in city centers grew 0.5 percent annually on average, while the city peripheries lost jobs, shrinking 0.1 percent annually.” By 2013, 23 percent of jobs were located within 3 miles of a city’s downtown. While the majority of American jobs are still located outside of central business districts, businesses are slowly moving back to cities.

Why? Many companies are finding that downtown locations can help them better recruit employees, particularly Millennials, which are defined as people between the ages of 18 and 34 in 2015. According to Vishaan Chakrabarti’s, A Country of Cities, 62 percent of Millennials prefer to live and work in the type of mixed-use neighborhoods found in urban centers where they are in close proximity to a mix of shopping, restaurants, and offices.

In the report, Adam Klein, the chief strategist of American Underground in Durham, North Carolina, said “we wanted to be in an amenity-rich environment where our employees could walk to get a cup of coffee and participate in arts, music, and the excitement of downtown. We’re able to show potential employees a cool office in the middle of downtown and that has definitely helped us recruit people.”

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American Underground moved to the campus of the former American Tobacco factory in Durham, NC. / Scott Faber Photography via Smart Growth America

As Mike Deemer, the executive vice president of business development for the Downtown Cleveland Alliance, echoed at the launch event, “It’s not enough to create a great space and take a ‘if you build it, they will come approach.’ We need to activate spaces and draw people in.”

While great office spaces tend to be plentiful in downtown locations, the surrounding neighborhood mix is equally, if not more, important. The study found that providing live/work/play neighborhoods with places to see and things to do is important for attracting Millennials, “who are now the largest generational segment of the American workforce, with 53.5 million people making up 34 percent of all workers — more than either Gen Xers or Baby Boomers.”

According to the study, companies chose vibrant, walkable neighborhoods where people want to both live and work. “Our younger employees don’t want to go to a suburban office park. It’s boring as all get out out there. Here, they walk outside and see cool stuff and it’s fun. I wanted to be where they wanted to be,” said Reg Shiverick, President of Dakota Software in Cleveland, Ohio.

Millennials also behave differently when it comes to transportation and are generally more likely to commute by biking, walking, or public transportation. Thus, walkability and access to public transportation are also cornerstones of this shift to downtown locations. Matin Zargari, principal at Gensler’s Oakland, California office, explained that “being so close to the 19th Street BART and many other city bus lines gives our staff the opportunity to get to work easier from all over the East Bay. Our employees like our new location and, in addition, many of our clients and projects are within walking distance of our office. That’s been a game changer for us.”

According to Jim Reilly, vice president of corporate communications at Panasonic, when Panasonic moved its headquarters from a suburban corporate campus to urban Newark, New Jersey, “the percentage of employees commuting via public shifted transportation from 4 percent of employees to 57 percent of employees.” While the environmental impacts of such a shift generally fall outside the scope of the study, a decreasing reliance on automobiles is sure to mitigate some of the negative environmental effects of suburbanization.

A key takeaway from the study is that any city can learn from companies that have moved back to central business districts. While many cities already have the kinds of neighborhoods these companies are looking for, many do not. But taking the steps to draw companies into cities provides a mutually-reinforcing smart growth strategy: Companies will invest in walkable, safe downtown environments, allowing cities the opportunity to create great, quality neighborhoods that benefit businesses and residents alike.

Read the full report.

Revitalizing Urban Projects Win Rudy Bruner Awards

Miller’s Court in Baltimore, Maryland / Courtesy of Billy Michels via Metropolis
Miller’s Court in Baltimore, Maryland / Billy Michels via Metropolis

From a pool of applicants from 40 communities in 26 states, Miller’s Court in Baltimore was awarded the Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence (RBA) gold medal and a $50,000 prize. Four other projects were awarded silver medals and $10,000 each.

Since 1987, the biennial award has recognized “urban places distinguished by quality design and contributions to the social, economic, and communal vitality of our nation’s cities.” The 2013 gold medal was awarded to Inspiration Kitchens in Garfield Park, Chicago.

This year’s winning project, Miller’s Court, is a “renovation of a vacant historic tin can manufacturing building, into an affordable and supportive living and working environment for school teachers and education-focused non-profits.” Located in an economically and culturally diverse neighborhood near Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus, the project, which was conceived and developed by Seawall Development Company with Mark, Thomas Architects, was completed in 2009.

The LEED Gold-certified complex includes “40 rental apartments and 30,000 square feet of office space and shared meeting rooms with contemporary, loft-like interiors.” Other features include a teacher resource center and a cooperatively owned independent café, which has become a popular meeting place for teachers, tenants and even President Obama, who visited in January.

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Miller’s Court / Seawall Development Corporation

One of the project’s crowning achievements is generating additional investment in the surrounding community. At the urging of several building residents, Seawall purchased and renovated 30 vacant neighboring houses to create Miller’s Square. Baltimore public school teachers and police officers are eligible for $25,000 grants toward homes there. Read more about the project in Metropolis.

Renovated row houses at Miller’s Square / Courtesy of the Bruner Foundation
Renovated row houses at Miller’s Square /
Bruner Foundation

Four other projects were recognized with silver medals and $10,000 each:

Located in the center of downtown Greenville, South Carolina, Falls Park on the Reedy is an urban oasis thanks to the transformation of a forgotten 40-foot tall waterfall and overgrown river valley into a 26-acre park. Development of the park, which opened in 2006, included replacing a four-lane vehicular bridge built directly over the falls with a pedestrian suspension bridge designed by Rosales+Partners. The bridge appears to float above the river, offering a dramatic overlook of the falls. Learn more about this project at Metropolis.

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Falls Park on the Reedy in Greenville, South Carolina / Rosales+Partners via Metropolis

Grand Rapids Downtown Market is a new public space in one of West Michigan’s most challenged neighborhoods. The market “promotes local food producers, entrepreneurship, and education about nutrition and healthy lifestyles” by linking urban communities with the 13,000 farms in 11 surrounding counties and attracting a diversity of customers to the southern edge of downtown Grand Rapids. The state-of-the-art facility, designed by Hugh A. Boyd Architects, is the first LEED Gold–certified public market in the country. Learn more about the market at Metropolis.

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Grand Rapids Downtown Market / Grand Rapids Downtown Market

Quixote Village, in Olympia, Washington, is a two-acre community of tiny houses that provides “permanent, supportive housing for homeless adults, including people suffering from mental illness and physical disabilities and recovering from addiction.” Since its completion in December 2013, Quixote Village has attracted the attention of many interested in tiny houses including nonprofits and private developers, as well as The New York Times. Learn more about the project at Metropolis.

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Tiny house in Quixote Village / Courtesy of Jeremy Bittermann for The New York Times

Located three miles south of downtown Cleveland, Uptown District is the “redevelopment of a corridor that links surrounding neighborhoods with art, educational, and healthcare institutions, producing outdoor gathering spaces, retail shops and restaurants, student and market-rate housing, and public transit connections in the process.” The development has transformed two previously underused city blocks between two of the city’s most iconic cultural institutions into a “community gateway.” Learn more about the project at Metropolis.

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Uptown District in Cleveland, OH / Stanley Saitowitz, Natoma Architects Inc. via Metropolis

The 2015 RBA selection committee included: Mayor Mark Stodola, Little Rock, Arkansas; Rebecca L. Flora, Sustainable Practices Leader, Ecology & Environment, Inc.; Larry Kearns, Principal, Wheeler Kearns Architects; India Pierce Lee, Program Director, Cleveland Foundation; Mia Lehrer, FASLA, President, Mia Lehrer + Associates; James Stockard, Lecturer in Housing, Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Learn more: A blog series on Metropolis’ web site is chronicling the 2015 RBA process and case studies of the winning projects.