Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (July 1 – 15)

U.S. Embassy in London / OLIN, Dennis McGlade, via Metropolis

How the U.S. Embassy in London Uses Landscape as an AmbassadorMetropolis, 7/1/19
“The project, which includes design by KieranTimberlake and OLIN, features public spaces that plug into the surrounding neighborhood as well as plantings that evoke American landscapes.”

When You Couldn’t See the Arboretum for the Trees – The Houston Chronicle, 7/5/19
“The death of almost half the trees at the Houston Arboretum and Nature Center might have saved the place.”

This Brazilian Artist and Landscape Architect Was Bound Only by the Limits of His Imagination – The Washington Post, 7/8/19
“The Brazilian modernist Roberto Burle Marx liked to tell the story of his arrival in Berlin in the late 1920s as a young man, in the German capital to steep himself in European culture. When he checked out the city’s botanical garden, the scales dropped from his eyes.”

The Nation’s Most Exciting Park Project Is Taking Shape in North Carolina – Curbed, 7/9/19
“If you’ve ever wondered how different cities’ signature parks, like New York’s Central Park or Chicago’s Lincoln Park, would look if they were designed in the 21st century, keep your eyes on Raleigh, North Carolina.”

A First-Rate Waterfront Park Is Transforming a Historic Greek City – CityLab, 7/12/19
“Thessaloniki’s New Waterfront is the centerpiece in an effort to transform the local economy, and other cities are taking notice.”

Latest Innovations in Bicycle Infrastructure

Nelson-St2
Nelson Street Cycleway / Monk Mackenzie and LandLAB

50 percent of trips on bicycles by 2030. That is the goal of BYCS, the organization behind the Bicycle Architecture Biennale (BAB). This year’s event, the second BAB has held, highlights fifteen projects from around the globe that feature bicycle paths, parking, and crossings. NEXT Architects served as the jury, selecting 11 built projects and 4 in the conceptual or planning phases.

Each project offers innovative ways of weaving bicycles into the city through three approaches: routes, connections, and destinations. BYCS says these themes “convey the balance between moving and staying that bicycle architecture employs to create thriving, livable places.”

The exhibition opened in Amsterdam, as part of the WeMakeThe.City, the biggest city-making festival in Europe. The exhibition will travel to Rome, Oslo, and Geneva, over the next two years.

A few standout projects include:

Xiamen Bicycle Skyway: The Xiamen Bicycle Skyway in Xiamen, China, designed by Dissing and Weitling Architecture, is an 8 kilometer (5 mile) elevated bike path that runs under and around the Xiamen bus rapid transit (BRT) system. The path, painted green, hovers nearly 5 meters (17 feet) above traffic, accommodating 2,000 bicyclists at one time without impediment from motor vehicle traffic.

The skyway has 11 entry points throughout, connecting it to 11 bus stops and 2 metro stops, further integrating bikes into the transportation system. In several locations, the skyway diverges from the BRT in order to maintain comfortable grade changes or to navigate existing infrastructure.

Xiamen-Bicycle-Skyway
Xiamen Bicycle Skyway / Dissing + Weitling Architecture

Cycling Through the Trees: Biking 10 meters (32 feet) in the arboreal canopy is now a reality outside the town of Hechtel-Eksel in Belgium, where a 700 meter (2,300 foot) circular path ramps up and then back down through the forest. The length of the circular path ensures the grade stays below 4 percent, keeping the path comfortable for bikers and pedestrians alike. The large ring, designed by BuroLandschap, is an offshoot of an existing cycling network, ensuring cyclists will ride through this unique experience.

Cycling through the trees / BuroLandschap

Limburg, the province Hechtel-Eskel is in, bills itself as a “cycling haven.” Cycling through the trees is the latest project to help build that reputation. In 2016, an award winning project, Cycling through water, was implemented along the same bike network.

Nelson St Cycleway: When a highway off-ramp was closed in Auckland, New Zealand, the city saw an opportunity to convert existing, unused space along an urban highway into a cycleway, extending existing bike trails into the downtown area. The conversion into the Nelson St. Cycleway, designed by Monk Mackenzie and LandLAB, creates a 600 meter (2,000 foot)-long hot pink strip next to the highway.

Slender rectangular lights were incorporated into the fencing. The color of the lights gradually change along the ramp, creating a rhythmic glow that heightens the brilliance of the pink ground. The vibrant colors transform transportation infrastructure into a playful space for people.

Nelson-St
Nelson St. Cycleway / Monk Mackenzie and LandLAB

Utrecht Centraal Station Bicycle Parking: To create deeper connections between public transit and bicycle infrastructure, cities need to create more bicycle parking. Utrecht Centraal Station, the city’s largest rail station, has parking spaces for 12,500 bikes. The removal of a structure connecting the train station and a nearby shopping mall opened up space for Ector Hoogstad Architecten to design a new public square and bicycle storage facility.

The parking facility has a cycling path that branches off to available parking stalls, which are indicated as open or full through an electronic signage system. Bicycle commuters ride through the building directly to their parking stall, making the connection between parking and the public spaces and transit easy.

biggest-cycle-parking
Utrecht Station Bicycle Parking / Ector Hoogstad Architecten

Explore the other 11 projects showcased in the 2019 Bicycle Architecture Biennale.

Book Review: The Architecture of Trees

The Architecture of Trees / Princeton Architectural Press

The Architecture of Trees was first published by Cesare Leonardi and Franca Stagi, two versatile Italian furniture, landscape, and architectural designers, in 1982. This “scientific tome” and “original ‘labor of love and obsession'” has been re-issued by Princeton Architectural Press in all its arboreal glory.

The book features 212 trees species depicted through 550 intricate quill-pen illustrations, each drawn to 1:100 scale. A handy paper ruler is included to help readers better understand the full breadth of these beauties. Each tree is depicted with and without foilage, showing summer and winter forms. The shape of each tree’s shadows and the hues of their seasonal color are also vividly conveyed.

According to an introduction to the new edition by Andrea Cavani and Guilio Orsini, curators of the Cesare Leonardi archive, Leonardi studied at the University of Florence, which encouraged a “liberal interpretation of the discipline of architecture, an interpretation that abandoned schematic rationalism and instead was open to visual art, design, landscape, graphic design, communications, philosophy, and sociology.”

In Florence, Leonardi interacted with trees he didn’t recognize. “Their sizes and shapes impressed him, and he felt ‘more drawn to them than to architectural forms.'” While creating a landscape design for a new city park in Modena, he realized that “it would be impossible to design a park without a deep understanding of its elements, meaning trees.”

The Architecture of Trees / Princeton Architectural Press

But he found that just reading about trees wouldn’t cut it; he needed to more deeply understand them. In the areas surrounding Florence and Modena, he “studied specimens, photographed them, and took note of their names and dimensions; and, then, with an eye to using them in his plans, he drew the trees in India ink on transparent film, using photographs for guidance and working on a scale of 1:100.”

Tree specimen from The Architecture of Trees / Princeton Architectural Press
Tree specimen from The Architecture of Trees / Princeton Architectural Press

Drawing, Cavani and Orsini argue, enabled Leonardi to isolate the tree from its surroundings, focus on its architectural elements, and clearly depict the features that make a species unique. Over time, Leonardi found that climate, exposure, and soil conditions impacted the growth rate and character of specimens, so he accommodated for those differences, too.

Cavani and Orsini note that The Architecture of Trees wasn’t just a result of tree appreciation, but used to support a series of landscape projects in Italy, including Parco della Resistenza in Modena, swimming pool complexes created in Vignola and Mirandola, and a study for the expansion of the Modena cemetery.

The tree studies were also brought to the design of Parco Amendola in Modena, which opened in 1982. Leonardi and Stagi chose trees based on their “size, shape, shadow, and their changing colors over the course of the year.” A 40-meter (131-foot)-tall sundial tower was designed to “illuminate the center of the park at night with a multiple rotating projector that completed one full turn every hour, creating shadows that morphed continuously.”

Those shade studies are included in the beginning of the book, followed by a color analysis, and the drawings of the trees themselves, which are organized by botanical families, genera, and species. At the end, detailed drawings of tree elements — branches and leaves — are included with relevant notes about how the trees change over their lifespan, their fruit, their smells, and planting notes.

Color analysis from The Architecture of Trees / Princeton Architectural Press

While the publisher honors the original edition’s organization, moving back and forth between the color analysis, drawings, and detailed drawing notes simply using plate numbers and trees’ Latin names can be a chore. It takes some digging to find the English or common names as well.

In the forward, Laura Conti writes that trees are increasingly critical to making cities more humane and resilient to climate change. And urban leaders need to adopt policies and regulations to enhance the quality of green spaces.

But to actually design and build beautiful and functional urban green spaces, landscape architects and designers must first understand the form and nature of trees, which are inherently malleable. “If man is going to ask trees to help him survive in this prison he has constructed, he cannot simply rely on that plasticity, but must acquire information about the characteristics that each tree inherently assumes in an area’s climate.”

“Competent” landscape architects then naturally take into account “a tree’s size and shape, the pattern of branch growth, the look of leaves in different seasons, and the amount of shade it offers.”

These timeless botanical drawings help us see the aesthetic value of trees themselves — complex, living objects that define the quality and character of any designed landscape.

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

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Copacabana beach promenade designed by Roberto Burle Marx / Wikipedia

At The Gardner, ‘Big Plans’ Looks At How Big-Thinkers Reformed Our Cities 90.9 WBUR, 6/18/19
“They were four intellectuals famous in the world of culture and art. Frederick Law Olmsted was a journalist and social critic turned landscape architect. Lewis Wickes Hine was a sociologist-photographer. Charles Eliot was a landscape architect and city planner, and Isabella Stewart Gardner was an art collector and philanthropist.”

Serpentine Pavilion Designed to Be “Part of Surrounding Landscape” Says Junya Ishigami Dezeen, 6/19/19
“In this exclusive Dezeen video, Japanese architect Junya Ishigami explains how his design for this year’s Serpentine Pavilion was built to resemble a ‘stone hill.'”

A Brazilian Vision Blooms Anew in the BronxCityLab, 6/21/19
“The New York Botanical Garden pulls out all the stops for its new exhibit on Modernist garden designer Roberto Burle Marx.”

Designing Women Sacramento Magazine, 6/21/19
“What makes a city great? Landscape architect Kimberly Garza believes public spaces—our parks, waterfronts, plazas, gardens and other gathering spots—are the foundation of a vibrant city.”

How a Landscape Architect’s Vision for a Roadless Area Led to the Boundary Waters The Star Tribune, 6/28/19
“A young landscape architect’s vision of a roadless wilderness laid the groundwork for the Boundary Waters.”

A First Peek at Michael Van Valkenburgh’s Bennett Park, Coming Soon to Streeterville Curbed Chicago, 6/28/19
“As Streeterville’s recently completed One Bennett Park skyscraper welcomes residents, the adjacent green space that gives the building its name is coming together ahead of an anticipated grand opening later this summer.”

In 19th Century Argentina, Nature Served Eugenic Agenda

9 de Julio Avenue, Buenos Aires / Wikipedia

From the 1860s to the 1930s, Argentina welcomed some 3.5 million European immigrants as workers in its growing meat production industry. Argentinian policymakers sought to improve the hygiene of the cattle slaughtered but also the “social hygiene” of the incoming workers. These technocrats were influenced by the eugenics movement that had spread across Europe and was later adopted by the Nazi regime in Germany. In this instance, the idea was to perfect humans through the selection of desirable traits and exposure to nature.

According to Fabiola López-Durán, an associate professor at Rice University, hygienics and eugenics in Argentina were, “in fact, connected, revealing a bio-political coupling of the city and countryside; human and animal bodies; and land and resources.”

Beliefs about the “cleansing” benefits of exposure to nature guided the creation of new parks, playgrounds, open-air schools, and sports facilities. Technocrats, physicians, industrialists, and landscape architects were driven to use “health, hygiene, fresh air, cleanliness, sunlight, productivity, and ‘whiteness'” in service of this broad national goal to create a more perfect, rational society.

At the Dumbarton Oaks’ symposium on landscape, sport, and the environment, López-Durán revealed the findings of her investigation into this disturbing chapter in modern Latin American history.

In a push to modernize Argentina in the mid 1800s, the country’s leaders sought to “rationalize production and reproduction,” re-organizing human life. Upon arrival in Argentina, immigrants were categorized, with those demonstrating more desirable “white” traits sent to the cities to power the new industries, and those with less desirable “middle eastern” traits sent to the countryside to work in farms. Native populations were the target of mass killings.

In the midst of this brutal reconfiguration of society, nature played a strange role, too. Intensive exposure to nature was selectively used to strengthen those with “weak characters.” And natural spaces were also strategically inserted into the urban realm in order to improve the moral health of cities.

Argentina’s leaders were inspired by France, which had undertaken a “social hygiene” campaign in an effort to strengthen the health and character of the French people after the collapse of the Napoleonic Empire in 1815. “There was widespread fear of degradation and decay.” French doctors and technocrats called for integrating nature into the built environment in order to build a stronger population.

As Sun-Young Park at George Mason University argued in an earlier talk, urban gymnasiums, which integrated nature play, were built in French cities to enhance the physical and moral education of the population. “They became social theaters to display fit bodies, a secular basilica, that would remove the germs of degeneration,” Park said.

Buenos Aires is itself inspired by Paris, which was viewed as the most civilized city. Carlos Thays, a French-Argentine pupil of famed French landscape architect Édouard André, designed the tree-lined boulevards and public gardens that make Buenos Aires feel so Parisian. López-Durán said the goal was to use “green space to revitalize the blood of the cities, to oxygenate them.”

In Argentina, there was the added fear of “pestilence and disease” coming from the dirty work of meat production. The industry was modernized with the latest hygienic standards. Workers were placed in campuses designed for maximum sunlight and clean air, but often next to slaughterhouses. In these complexes, industrialists built parks in which workers participated in mass physical exercises. These places helped “transform human being into productive citizens.”

One example is the Parque Patricios, which was built for workers and their families next to a slaughtering facility. López-Durán said its playgrounds, which were away from the street, was designed “to save children from bad influences.”

Parque Patricios / Wikipedia

Urban children deemed particularly weak or at risk from bad influences were sent to open-air schools outside the city. This approach was guided by the ideas of French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, which are now described as Lamarckism (or Lamarckian inheritance). His idea was that negative environmental impacts on a body, or misuse of a body, can create acquired characteristics that are inheritable. Healthy environments can then prevent or undo the acquisition of undesirable characteristics that can impact later generations.

López-Durán said children exposed to malnutrition or who had syphilitic or alcoholic parents could be regenerated through exposure to natural spaces, what she called “clinical landscapes.” Children studied under shady trees, farmed garden patches, undertook physical education, sun bathed, and studied in hygienic facilities overseen by doctors and teachers.

Every day, the children would be evaluated by the doctor and measured on their intelligence, body metrics, and cognition. “Any children perceived to be defective would stay; if they were deemed ‘normal,’ they were returned to the city to regular schools.” The idea was that children could be made perfect through a system of surveillance and control. All this was part of an effort to “improve the bio-capital of the nation.”

Back in cities, social engineering continued throughout a worker’s lifespan. The state built sports facilities to “improve meat workers’ bodies.” Outdoor physical education facilities incorporated soccer fields, volley ball courts, and exercise areas to improve labor performance in the slaughterhouses. “Teamwork values drove organizational behavior.” Women were also controlled by the state through the healthcare they were given. The idea was to make the industrial complex into a kind of utopia of productivity.

In her disturbing conclusion, López-Durán asserted that “eugenics is alive and well today,” despite widespread condemnation about its long-time association with racism, sexism, discrimination, the genocidal horrors of Nazi Germany, and mass sterilizations around the world.

“Everyday in the news, we can read about the rise of epigenetics,” the chemical modification of our genes through environmental exposure and our own actions. The study of epigenetics is focused on determining “how the environment changes the body.” These studies are leading to new evaluations of the impact of nature exposure on our genetic health, and new planning and design approaches that play out in the therapeutic landscape and equitable “parks for all” movements.

One on side is the idea that all of society should reap the many health and cognitive benefits of regular exposure to nearby nature. We need to democratize access to green space. But with a look towards the strange history of these ideas, it may be interesting to ask: is a new, subtler, “therapeutic” form of social hygiene effort now underway?

Round Two Opening for Salesforce Transit Center Park

Salesforce Transit Center / 3D rendering by steelblue for Pelli Clarke Pelli, Transbay Joint Powers Authority
Salesforce Transit Center / 3D rendering by steelblue for Pelli Clarke Pelli, Transbay Joint Powers Authority

Nine months ago engineers found cracks in two structural beams holding up the relatively new Salesforce Transit Center, a $2.2 billion regional bus and perhaps future rail terminal in downtown San Francisco. A $6 million investigation of all the structural components found the center is safe. While metro buses are still being re-routed, the 5.5-acre rooftop park designed by PWP Landscape Architecture will open again July 1.

According to an article by San Francisco Chronicle architecture critic John King in Planning magazine, the new Salesforce Transit Center, which replaces an outdated regional bus terminal, is the culmination of the broader 21-block Transit Center district plan, a redevelopment effort for a previously commercial and light industrial zone south of Market Street and the Financial District. The plan killed two birds with one stone: it both created a new, dense mixed-use neighborhood that can accommodate 6.5 million square feet of new office space and 4,400 new apartments, including affordable ones; and generated the land sales and developer fees needed to pay for the multi-billion-dollar terminal.

The development has resulted in a number of new skyscrapers, including the 1,070-foot-tall Salesforce Tower, the tallest building in San Francisco and one that Salesforce paid some $100 million over 20 years to put its name on; 181 Fremont, which, at 55 stories, is the tallest residential building on the west coast; and One Rincon Hill, two 50-story-plus residential towers. In addition to a 190-unit, 8-story affordable housing complex at Folsom and Beale streets, a new 392-unit tower by architect Jeanne Gang will reserve approximately half of the units for sale at “120 percent of regional income level, which means a couple making $114,000 would be eligible,” King wrote.

The transit center, which links up with the Salesforce Tower, is managed by the Transbay Joint Powers Authority and designed by a multi-disciplinary team including Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects, PWP Landscape Architecture, Atelier 10, BuroHappold engineers, and artist Ned Kahn. The center was pre-configured to handle a subterranean high-speed rail station, but progress on that front is stalled indefinitely as California governor Gavin Newsom and then the Trump administration pulled funding. There are plans underway to build a $6 billion tunnel to connect the transit center to the Caltrain regional train system, but there are also concerns about the new station’s projected capacity.

Salesforce Transit Center diagram / Ned Kahn

Transit and cost woes aside, the park on its roof is a marvel of engineering and adds a major new amenity to the area. In an interview, Adam Greenspan, ASLA, a partner at PWP Landscape Architecture, said the design team was determined that the terminal “not be like Port Authority” in New York City, a grim space people want to get through as soon as possible. The park made ample room for rooftop skylights and opaque glass surfaces that can be stood on, which bring natural light streaming down through to lower-level bus platforms, shops, and restaurants.

Skylight at Salesforce Transit Center / Wikipedia
Opaque structural glass floors let light stream in below / PWP Landscape Architecture

Greenspan said the 5.5-acre park is about one block wide and about 3-4 blocks long, a space equal in size to Union Square, Yerba Buena, and South Park, the other nearby green spaces, combined.

Salesforce Transit Center park / Wikipedia

Amid green roofs, there are meandering paths, play areas, cafes and restaurants, hilly lawns, plazas and an amphitheater for free community exercise and art classes, and intimate chill-out nooks.

Meandering paths at Salesforce Transit Center / PWP Landscape Architecture
Lawns at Salesforce Transit Center / PWP Landscape Architecture
Plazas at Salesforce Transit Center / PWP Landscape Architecture
The amphitheater at Salesforce Transit Center / PWP Landscape Architecture

Green infrastructure systems capture stormwater and recycle greywater from the building in rooftop wetland gardens.

Wetland Garden at Salesforce Transit Center / Marion Brenner for PWP Landscape Architecture

An art piece by Kahn includes linear fountains that jet in response to the flow of buses below.

Art work at Salesforce Transit Center / PWP Landscape Architecture

Like the High Line in NYC, the Salesforce Transit Center features unusual mixes of plants to draw you in and keep your interest. Here, they are grouped into botanical exhibitions such as the fog garden, the Australian garden, and the Chilean garden, which features the strange and charming Monkey Puzzle tree, a spiky evergreen and “living fossil” native to Argentina and Chile.

Desert garden at Salesforce Transit Center / Marion Brenner for PWP Landscape Architecture
Monkey puzzle tree in the Chilean Garden / Flickr

PWP also ensured multiple forms of access — there are stairways, elevators, and an accessible gondola that take visitors from the street to the park and back.

Like PWP’s new Jewel Changi terminal in Singapore, the Salesforce Transit Center Park shows the way to the future, successfully making the case for integrating high-quality green space into future large-scale transit projects, particularly those in dense cities.

The Case for Quality Public Spaces for All

Palaces for the People / Random house

“Try to imagine how many relationships have developed because two sets of parents or caretakers pushed their kids on the same swing set on the same afternoon. They might try and stay immersed in their phone, but inevitably they’ll end up acknowledging the humanity of the other person and at some point one will spark a conversation.”

Over time, a mutual trust or friendship develops, and maybe even a life-saving connection. A public space like this playground, where interactions are sparked, differences are spanned, and, as a result, communities are strengthened is what sociologist Eric Klinenberg would call a piece of “social infrastructure.” In a recent Oculus book talk at the Center for Architecture in New York City, Klinenberg discussed his recent book, Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life.

Good social infrastructure does not spring up by chance — it exists because of decades of hard work by activists who believed in the public good and have fought to make spaces like libraries, parks, plazas, playgrounds and childcare centers accessible and democratically available.

Highbridge Park Pool in Washington Heights / NYC Parks and Recreation
Washington Square Park, NYC / Wikipedia

Unfortunately, Klinenberg said, “we’ve neglected our social infrastructure just when we need it most. We are living in it the way a prodigal child lives on their inheritance.” Investment in our social infrastructure means designing, building, programming and maintaining it well. Without committing to these four important steps, we will feel the personal and societal effects of its absence, which could actually have life-threatening effects.

Klinenberg’s doctoral research studied the Chicago heat wave of 1995, in which survival rate in two demographically identical, impoverished neighborhoods was determined by proximity to social infrastructure. The one that fared worse was blighted, with residents living isolated lives, while the one that fared better even than wealthier Chicago neighborhoods had spaces for informal community interaction, making it easier for neighbors to check in on the community’s most vulnerable residents during the heat wave.

Klinenberg’s research on the life-saving benefits of public space lead to a role as research director for Rebuild by Design, the design competition initiated by HUD after Hurricane Sandy. His role was to advise the winning design teams on how to address environmental inequality and incorporate social infrastructure into their designs.

In the wake of the storm, Klinenberg was troubled by the many voices publicly calling for a massive seawall to be built around Manhattan. “364 days a year you don’t need a storm barrier. If you just design for the storm you’re probably going to make the city uglier, less efficient and less pleasant,” he said.

Thanks to Klinenberg’s input and influence, winning projects such as the Big U demonstrated that climate infrastructure can double as social infrastructure. The original design included what was called “a bridging berm,” which featured protective walls that serve as a public park with amenities like athletic fields, space for open air markets, bike and walking paths. “If you completely blow up the concept of climate resilience infrastructure by adding social infrastructure, something really special happens,” said Klinenberg. (Plans for those berms were recently replaced with one that will lift waterfront parks up by 10 feet and create a sea wall).

East River Park / Bjarke Ingels Group, NYC Government

Making and maintaining a well-designed space is not a silver bullet when it comes to successful social infrastructure. True democratic accessibility is a critical component.

Klinenberg worries about the implications of the increase in philanthropist-funded public parks, many of which are well designed, built, programmed and maintained, but remain less accessible to those who would benefit from them the most. “If you are lucky enough to live in a place that gets that philanthropic support your public space gets supercharged,” says Klinenberg, while other spaces must rely on tax dollars, creating a profound difference in the quality of these public spaces.

To ensure all public spaces in a city receives the same investment, Klinenberg argues that we would get a better outcome from taxing billionaires rather than depending on their benevolent whims to create and maintain our social infrastructure.

Speaking to an audience of mostly planners and designers, Klinenberg inevitably got asked a question about the mechanics of social infrastructure — how can we make this happen in our own designs?

Klinenberg urged designers to carefully consider access, what it means to make a space  welcoming to all, and to de-prioritize efficiency. If mingling and chance encounters between people of all different backgrounds are the substance of social infrastructure, then landscape architects and designers should focus on creating the spatial conditions for these to occur.

This guest post is by Chella Strong, Assoc. ASLA, a landscape designer with Ecopolitan.

Berms Aren’t Enough: NYC Shifts Course on “Big U” Resilience Plan

East River Park / Bjarke Ingels Group, NYC Government

To protect against future super storms and long-term sea level rise, New York City proposed creating a set of landscaped berms around the southern tip of Manhattan, a plan deemed the “Big U.” The city secured some $330 million from the U.S. department of housing and urban development (HUD)’s Rebuild by Design competition in 2014 to kick start the project. After four years of intensive community engagement, the city suddenly switched gears last fall, throwing out those plans in favor of raising the first proposed segment of the Big U — the waterfront park between 25th street and Montgomery Street on the east side — by 10 feet. Instead of berms, the existing 60-acre East River Park will be buried under landfill and its new higher edge will become a wall holding back the East River, which is expected to rise with the Altantic Ocean by 2.5 feet by 2050.

In conjunction with retractable flood gates set within neighborhoods, the park will provide flood protections up to 16 feet above current sea level, protecting 100,000 residents along the east side and the Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) Drive.

At a Dumbarton Oaks symposium on landscape, sport, and environment, landscape architect Simon David, ASLA, a founder of OSD|Outside and former director of the project for Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), explained the facets of the $1.5 billion project, which he said provides both “recreation and resilience in the era of climate change.”

The East River Park revamp is a central component of the East Side Coastal Resilience Project (ESCR), just one piece of what will be wall, gate, and park infrastructure that run down the east side, around the financial district, and up the west side of Manhattan. The east side design team includes Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), AKRF, One Architecture, and Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects (MNLA).

The area near this first segment has an interesting history. Famous (and infamous) city builder Robert Moses cleared the area of “slums” in order to create the FDR Drive (then the East River Drive) highway and to its west, affordable housing complexes. To the east of the drive, the shoreline was built up over landfill into the East River, creating new park space and sports fields for the complexes’ residents, who now cross a less-than-ideal caged bridge over FDR Drive to get there.

David called the park itself a “gallery of fences,” separating the various sports areas, with few pleasant green spaces. Salt water intrusion has killed off a number of the trees. And the ones that remain are “reaching the end of their lives.”

East River Park / Wikipedia

The new vision released by the city last fall has been controversial. According to The New York Times, elements of the community feel like they weren’t consulted on the new sea wall approach approved by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration.

To raise the entire park up, what’s there now will be covered in landfill, which upsets some long time residents, particularly because the city just spent $3 million to renovate it. There are also concerns about the increased project costs. The original plan with the berms would have cost $765 million, while the new raised park will cost nearly $1.5 billion. Carlina Rivera, a councilwoman from the East Village, told The New York Times: “The new plan represents a fundamental departure from anything the City had discussed. The mayor’s office has failed to provide detailed analyses on why the cost increase is necessary.”

NYC parks and recreation commissioner Mitchell J. Silver told The Times that raising the park up is the only way to save it from sea level rise. City representatives have also said they are moving forward on an accelerated planning and design schedule in order to begin construction next year. They have to or will forfeit the $330 million from HUD.

Flood protections are expected to be in place by 2022. But in a compromise with the community, the city will stagger construction so as to reduce impact on the community that depends on the park and all the vehicle drivers who rely on FDR Drive.

The challenge for the design team has been to integrate the sea wall, retractable inland gates, pedestrian bridges, sports facilities, and social spaces bisected by a highway into one cohesive design.

In the latest and nearly final designs, the team widened the important Delancey Street Bridge and created a continuous, accessible pathway across FDR Drive to the park.

Delancey Street Bridge / Bjarke Ingels Group, NYC government

The city and design team kept soccer and football fields, basketball courts, tennis courts, but also added an amphitheater, open lawns, and a playground near the north end. “We created more green space in between the fields, creating parks for non-sports people,” said David. Those green spaces will include more than 50 species of trees, much more than the three species there now, including water-friendly black tupelos and cypresses.

East River Park / Bjarke Ingels Group, NYC Government
East River Park / Bjarke Ingels Group, NYC Government
East River Park / Bjarke Ingels Group, NYC Government
Nature playground / Bjarke Ingels Group, NYC Government

Green infrastructure will be incorporated throughout to manage stormwater coming in from the city and FDR Drive. To accommodate major storm events, the park will also include a cistern with a 40-million gallon capacity. “This is for the super storm that happens once every 50 years.”

Caren Yglesias, Affil. ASLA, a landscape historian and author, now based at the University of Maryland, asked David: “what will happen when the sea levels rise and don’t come back down? What will happen after 2050?”

David said the “park will be effective for a period of time, and many lives will be improved.” But the city and team have really only planned for 2050. “Things are changing rapidly. This buys us more time. There is no great solution.”

The Next Generation of Landscape Architecture Leaders (Part 1)

LAF 2018-2019 Fellows for innovation and leadership. From left to right: Davi de la Cruz; Andrew Sargeant; Sanjukta Sen; Pamela Conrad; Lauren Delbridge; Karl Krause; Maisie Hughes

The Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) is helping to grow the next generation of leaders in landscape architecture. At a symposium at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. seven of the 2018-2019 LAF fellows for innovation and leadership, who each received a $25,000 grant, presented the results of their year-long investigations into climate change and sustainable design, community development, visual representations of landscape, and other topics.

Below are summaries of four fellows’ TED-like talks. Read part 2 for the other three.

Maisie Hughes: Investigating the Sense of Belonging through Video

The Urban Studio, a non-profit organization founded by Maisie Hughes, owner of Design Virtue, and Kendra Hyson, aims to help communities of color design their own neighborhoods. This is because Hughes believes “we have yet to fulfill the promise of landscape as common ground.”

Inspired by the intrusive thought, “Do I belong here?”, while at Dumbarton Oaks, a garden in Georgetown, Hughes began to explore how comfortable people felt in spaces through the documentary web series, Belonging. Hughes felt a certain sublime quality that she felt wasn’t meant for her, deciding instead to reclaim and redefine the word as: Rare+Awe.

The reclamation of an often unapproachable concept was the first step towards learning to “claim a space,” which Hughes defines as “getting comfortable being uncomfortable.” Hughes discussed the complex community identity issues associated with Malcolm X Park (officially known as Meridian Hill Park) in Washington, D.C. where a drum circle forms every Sunday, creating a diverse collective from the surrounding community. This is a claim to the space, one born from the community, which demonstrates the large gap between the official name of the park and the community that enlivens it.

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Still from Becoming web series with people dancing at the Malcolm X Park Drum Circle / Maisie Hughes

Daví de la Cruz: Collective Storytelling in South Los Angeles

Working as the Studio South Central component of The Urban Studio, Daví de la Cruz, a project manager with the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust, works to empower youth in the Pueblo del Rio community in south Los Angeles. De la Cruz develop youth leadership within the community by helping them create their own narratives. The program also encourages youth to reengage with nature in their neighborhood.

De la Cruz offered seven workshops, each focusing on a different form of collective storytelling that expands the communication skills of the students. These ranged from the creation of a group poem to photographing their own neighborhood. An upcoming workshop focuses on the story of South Central Farm, the largest urban farm east of the Mississippi. The farm operated from 1994 to 2006, when it was sold amid controversy.

Continuing to work with The Urban Studio, de la Cruz intends to develop and expand the workshop program to strengthen the community’s connection to local green space.

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Workshops de la Cruz ran for the youth of Pueblo del Rio / Daví de la Cruz

Andrew Sargeant: New Forms of Landscape Representation

Disillusioned with the typical sunny renderings of landscape architecture, Andrew Sargeant, Assoc. ASLA, a landscape designer with Lionheart Places, is instead exploring how to use virtual reality (VR) to bring landscape representations to life. Sargeant contrasted the before and after perspectives of Humphrey Repton with an immersive video produced with the video game design engine Unity, to display the power of visually depicting the passage of time.

Sargeant decided to spend the year of the fellowship to dive into the Unity software. Although Unity has a steep learning curve, Sargeant was able to develop representations beyond the classic sunny landscape images. The final video displayed was a stormy day, complete with lightning, booming thunder, and pouring rain. Showing different, often undesirable, conditions like flooding can help clients and communities understand how landscapes can change and adapt.

Sargeant wants to encourage the spread of this technology in landscape architecture educational programs. To spur this along, he has created a competition focused on VR landscape representation, at Utah State University (USU) this fall.

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Still from Sargeant’s flooded landscape virtual reality simulation / Andrew Sargeant

Karl Krause: Spaces that Build Community in Public Housing Complexes

Karl Krause, ASLA, a landscape architect with OLIN, developed a set of principles for how to better integrate small green public spaces into public housing. He traced the history of public housing from its beginning in the 1930s through the fall of Pruitt Igoe in 1972, highlighting the role of the courtyard in the success, or failure, of community development.

A recent trend is to incorporate public housing into larger market-price developments in order to create mixed-income communities. Residents of these communities Krause spoke to felt the new developments had ruined the sense of community that was present in dedicated housing complexes for low-income residents. After interviewing many members of low-income communities that have undergone redevelopment, Krause recommends designing with the following principles:

  • Let plants create place: Keep existing trees to create a sense of character and retains the spirit of the place;
  • Create places for good neighboring: Spread public space throughout the community, offer many small places for socializing;
  • Places for people, not cars: Eliminate oversized parking lots and offer more public space instead to improve social life.
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Old trees maintain character and create places, High Point Neighborhood in Seattle / Karl Krause

Read part two featuring the other three LAF Fellows.

The Next Generation of Landscape Architecture Leaders (Part 2)

LAF Fellows. From left to right: Davi de la Vida; Andrew Sargeant; Sanjukta Sen; Pamela Conrad; Lauren Delbridge; Karl Krause; Maisie Hughes

The Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) is helping to grow the next generation of leaders in landscape architecture. At a symposium at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. seven of the 2018-2019 LAF fellows for innovation and leadership, who each received a $25,000 grant, presented the results of their year-long investigations into climate change and sustainable design, community development, visual representations of landscape, and other topics.

Below are summaries of three fellows’ TED-like talks. Read part 1 for the other four.

Sanjukta Sen: Landscape Resilience in New York City

Hurricane Sandy flooded 51 square miles of New York City, killing 43 people, damaging 12,000 homes, and causing $19 billion in property losses. But you wouldn’t think NYC’s policy makers or developers have learned from what can happen when you develop in areas that naturally flood. Former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration further opened up the waterfront and floodplains to development, a process that continues unabated under Mayor Bill de Blasio. Just one example: 3,500 new apartments will be built in the floodplain in Williamsburg and Greenpoint, Brooklyn. According to Sanjukta Sen, a senior associate at James Corner Field Operations, the “ludicrous” part is that the “net value of property in the floodplain has gone up.”

NYC’s expanded waterfront development fills Sen with both “pride and dread.” Pride because there are all these “amazing new places on the waterfront, which is now much more accessible.” Dread because she worries the city has not effectively and equitably created resilience to rising sea levels. “There are islands of protection that developers can afford but low-income communities don’t have the same protections.”

After Hurricane Sandy, the city quickly mandated that buildings build in protections, like elevating themselves or moving critical infrastructure out of ground or basement levels. But there is no cohesive landscape resilience strategy along public waterfront spaces. One solution is to take more waterfront land from developers for natural flood protection systems that can reduce the entire community’s risks. Sen proposed mandated setbacks and floodwater storage systems and incentives for developers. “Resilience is a social obligation and requires a long-term investment.”

Pockets of resilience across private parcels / Sanjukta Sen

Lauren Delbridge: Rethinking Wastescapes

In 2015, communities had to find a safe storage place for or re-use 117 million tons of coal ash, a by product of coal energy production that accounts for half of all municipal waste. According to Lauren Delbridge, Assoc. ASLA, a landscape designer with Land Design, coal ash is often pumped into poorly-designed ponds that can spill and seep. Coal ash sludge in these ponds, which can span 50 acres, is loaded with dangerous metals like arsenic, mercury, lead, and chromium that can poison groundwater supplies. Even more terrible, these ponds can break their banks, as in the case of the Kingston Fossil Plant in Tennessee, which released 1.1 billion of coal fly ash slurry into nearby communities and rivers. This kind of disaster could happen to any of the 735 active coal ash ponds in the U.S., many of which don’t meet safety requirements.

In 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined coal ash to not be a hazardous waste product, putting the management of this toxic material into the hands of state governments. Some 60 percent of coal ash is recycled into concrete or grout or used to fill up old mines. Some ash fly is being “de-watered” and moved into sealed mounds that have a protective bottom layer and landscaped cap.

Delbridge called for more “imaginative solutions” for these unsightly ash fly-filled mounds, pointing to educational and artful places in Europe that have arisen out of industrial and waste landscapes in Germany, like Zollverein coal mine complex in Essen, which has been “left as is” and now functions as a park; the Tetraeder on Halde Beckstrasse in Bottrop, an inventive art piece on a slag heap mound; and the Metabolon in Lindlar, which includes fun trampolines at the top of the giant mountain of garbage.

Metabolon in Lindlar, Germany / Lauren Delbridge

Pamela Conrad: Climate Positive Design

Landscape architecture projects can be carbon-intensive but they don’t have to be. Specifying low-carbon materials and low-maintenance green spaces and planting more trees and shrubs helps to ensure projects sequester more carbon than they emit through their life spans. For Pamela Conrad, ASLA, a principal at CMG Landscape Architecture in San Francisco, it’s as simple as doing the math: sources (materials used in a landscape) subtracted from sinks (the carbon captured in a landscape) added to the costs (carbon embodied through long-term maintenance) equals a landscape’s carbon footprint. With this algorithm, landscape architects can achieve carbon positive landscapes in just 5 years for parks and 20 years for plazas.

To spread this approach in the marketplace, she has invented an easy-to-use website and app that will help landscape architects and designers find appealing ways to reduce their project’s carbon footprint.

Climate Positive Design / Pamela Conrad

Material amounts and site dimensions are inputted and then the app calculates the number of years it will take for the project to be carbon positive. The tool also offers recommendations, like cement substitutes, ways to reduce paved surfaces and lawn, add more trees and shrubs, and minimize soil disturbance — all to reduce the time needed to reach a state of carbon positivity.

Climate positive design / Pamela Conrad

Conrad said environmental product declarations for landscape materials will soon be incorporated as well, making it easier to find products with transparent carbon profiles. (The landscape product marketplace is far behind the architecture product marketplace in providing this information).

Conrad believes that if all landscape architects around the world adopted a climate positive approach, the reduction in carbon emissions would equal a gigaton, putting landscape architecture among the top 80 solutions listed in Paul Hawken’s Drawdown book.

Check out the website and app at ClimatePositiveDesign.com.