Contemporary micro-apartments, which are between 50 and 350 square feet, started appearing en masse in New York City a few years ago. Marketed mostly to Millennials as an affordable housing option, they are actually a modern reincarnation of the single occupancy unit (SRO), which was popular in Manhattan in the 1950s and 60s. The new version of the micro-apartment units have often been added amid conventionally-sized units in apartment buildings; a few buildings are even dedicated to them.
In Guangzhou, China, the model has been scaled up into an entire community of tiny urban living spaces for young tech workers and their families. The Guangzhou Vanke Cloud City in Guangzhou, China, is a mixed-use community made up of four residential towers with 5,000 micro-apartments combined with office space for high-tech firms, a middle school, shopping, and restaurants.
The cloud in Cloud City refers to the information technology platform that enables data sharing. That cloud also helps defines the physical platform of the community. Just as an image is comprised of many pixels, hosted in a cloud, the landscape of Guangzho Vanke Cloud City arises out of a modular, grid system.
Vanke, a major developer in China, with some $33 billion in revenue in 2018, has mixed-use developments across the country. For the Guangzhou Vanke Cloud City, they brought in Chinese landscape architecture firm Lab D+H to create a fun, game-oriented landscape for the young tech workers they hope to attract.
According to the firm, “with small apartments, young people can continue living in first-tier cities, enjoying rich career opportunities, modern facilities, comprehensive public services, and access to cutting-edge information.”
In the northwest corner of the community is the 6,000-square-meter Tetris Square, which shares elements of the design language of that classic game. From the aerial view, pieces of the plaza seem like they could turn and slot into place at any moment.
In Landezine, states that there are playgrounds on either side of the square corridor. These include the Family Pocket, a place to swing in hammocks, and the Free Island, which is a “three-dimensional play facility for kids to explore spaces and exercise.”
There are more tech-inspired public spaces: the Cloud Curtain, the Cloud Mount, and the Cloud Pavilion. In front of the shopping mall, there is an amphitheater that also acts as an outdoor classroom for the middle school.
Lab D+H argues that trees are often minimized in Chinese plazas because they are seen as blocking views of shops and restaurants. The firm managed to slip in a grove of trees by integrating it into Family Pocket and Free Island. Trees are also arranged in a “dense-to-sparse” gradient order heading towards the mall.
The firm designed a pixelated approach to the landscape design and construction. “From softscape, to paving, to outdoor furniture and installation, landscape elements are arranged on this modular system so that they are easy to construct, assemble, and replace.”
The modular format also helped save money and reduce construction challenges. “The grid system of squares not only makes material fabrication and arrangement much cheaper, but also make construction costs more predictable and controllable, especially in China where construction quality is often unpredictable.”
Furniture is designed out just two modules of precast concrete, which are then assembled into 20 combinations. Pixels form the image.
San José, California, a major hub of Silicon Valley, was once home to a 207-foot-tall steel “moonlight tower” that used arcing incandescent lights to illuminate the city’s downtown. The tower was designed by J.J. Owen, the owner of the San Jose Mercury newspaper, who crowd-sourced some $3,500 in 1881 to build it. Some 34 years later, after suffering damage from wind storms, the tower collapsed.
The organizers invite teams of landscape architects, artists, architects, urban planners, lighting designers, students, designers, engineers — “anyone with a passion for place-making” — to transform 5 acres of Arena Green, an existing city park in San José, into a true destination for Silicon Valley. Three finalists will receive $150,000 to further flesh out their proposals.
The organizers seek a “transformative design complete with dramatic lighting, a net-zero energy approach, and an impressive physical presence that will become a powerful and enduring symbol of how Silicon Valley operates as a bridge from past to present to future. Urban Confluence Silicon Valley can be a structure, an object, a sculpture, a work of architecture—with an activated landscape enjoyed both day and night.”
The Corporation proposes the 14.3-acre Arena Green at Guadalupe River Park and Gardens as the site for the project because of its central location. The park is across the street from a mixed-use development now in development: the 6-8 million-square foot, transit-oriented Google Downtown West. Arena Green is also two blocks from Diridon Station, which is being re-envisioned as a multi-modal hub for bus, light rail, BART regional transit, Amtrak, and high-speed rail, with an “expected ridership of 140,000 per day by 2040.” The new landmark is expected to help support “the growth of restaurants, bars, retail stores, hotels, service businesses, and residences within the area.”
The Arena Green area is also a true urban confluence: it is set within riparian corridors for the Guadalupe River and Los Gatos Creek, so just 5 acres of the site can be redeveloped — and it must be done in an ecologically-sensitive manner. Project proposals will need to demonstrate an understanding of the site’s river and creek ecosystem, lighting limitations given the proximity to Norman Y. Mineta San José International Airport, and existing site-specific public art that can’t be removed.
A public community panel will review all submissions and pick the top 50, which will be sent to a jury that includes Jon Cicirelli, San José director of parks and recreation; Susan Chin, former head of the Design Trust for Public Space; and landscape architect Jerry van Eyck, International ASLA, founder of !Melk.
Miami Is the “Most Vulnerable” Coastal City Worldwide — 2/4/20, Scientific American “Several major tourist attractions, including the Everglades, Biscayne National Park, and Miami Beach, are largely situated on land less than three feet above the high-water mark and may become permanently submerged by the end of the century.”
OLIN Receives Design Approval for D.C. Desert Storm Memorial — 2/6/20 The Architect’s Newspaper “Once the site was secured (a location just north of the Lincoln Memorial and west of the Vietnam War Memorial) adjustments needed to be made to the design. The new design has lower walls that meld into the ground and includes a central water feature, which symbolizes a desert oasis as well as the international coalition that participated in the operations.
National Indigenous Landscape Architecture Award Announced — 2/9/20, Architecture & Design “Planning for the [National Arcadia Landscape Architecture Award for Indigenous Students] has been in progress for almost twelve months, but the recent [Australian] bushfires brought a renewed focus on how Indigenous knowledge and traditional land and fire management practices can prevent fire damage and enable the return of healthy landscapes and ecosystems.”
A Native Plant Guru’s Radical Vision for the American Yard— 2/12/20, The Washington Post “The idea of planting gardens for wildlife and shrinking the lawn isn’t new, but [entomologist Doug Tallamy] wants to enlist every home garden in the battle to address the loss of biodiversity. The need has never been more urgent, he says.”
Abandoned Amusement Park to Gain New Life as a Nature Park in Suzhou— 2/13/20, Inhabitat “In Suzhou, China, an abandoned amusement park is being transformed into a 74-hectare nature park that will include a decommissioned roller coaster transformed into a habitat for birds. … Named ‘Shishan Park’ after its location at the foot of Shishan (Chinese for ‘Lion Mountain’), the urban park will provide a variety of family-oriented recreational amenities to cater to a rapidly growing, high-tech hub.”
A Daughter’s Disability. A Mother’s Ingenuity. And the Playground That’s Launching a Revolution — 2/14/20, Palo Alto Weekly “Magical Bridge was inspired by [Olenka] Villarreal’s daughter, Ava, who has developmental disabilities, and by the utter lack of safe, public play spaces suited to Ava and others like her. Tucked in a corner of Mitchell Park, the brightly colored Magical Bridge includes a wheelchair-usable spinner and slides, swings that keep a user upright and fastened in, wheelchair-friendly surfaces, a wheelchair-usable treehouse and a stage — features that are friendly to people with visual impairments, autism and cognitive disabilities.”
Kotchakorn Voraakhom, International ASLA, is founder of Landprocess and the Porous City Network. Voraakhom is featured in TIME magazine’s 2019 TIME 100 Next, a list that spotlights 100 rising stars who are shaping the future of the world, along with their list of 15 women fighting against climate change. Voraakhom is chairwoman of Landscape Without Borders of the International Federation of Landscape Architects, Asia Pacific Region (IFLA APR). She is a TED Fellow and Echoing Green Climate Fellow. She received her master’s in landscape architecture from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design.
Interview conducted at the ASLA 2019 Conference on Landscape Architecture in San Diego.
The 12-acre Chulalongkorn University Centenary Park in Bangkok, the first new park in the city in 30 years, is a model for how to design with nature. Tilted at 3 degrees, the park funnels storm water into a retention basin that can safely double in size amid heavy rains. How did you come up with this idea to incline the entire park?
Bangkok is a city of water but we don’t know how to drain our water. We’ve been through many floods: either disastrous flash floods or the ones that are part of our daily life in Bangkok. This happens because we don’t know where the water should go. We don’t use the canal system as it should be used. In Bangkok, it is very sad that the canal department is under the sewage department. Canals have been destroyed through urban development.
The city, along with the entire center of the country, is flat because of sedimentation. So I wondered: how can we create a water container in the city? I thought about our legendary Monkey King, and his “monkey cheek” approach to storage. Do you know about the monkey cheek? The monkey holds food in its cheek. When he is hungry, he just continues eating. If not, he just holds the food there. It’s very simple way; no deep theory or anything, but just a natural way of being.
If you don’t have hilly topography, like in Bangkok, you create the topography and just tilt it.
At the detention basin’s edge, there are stationary bicycles. When visitors peddle the bikes, they turn wheels that aerate the water. Why is it important to engage visitors this way?
Because it’s so human. I remember walking my dad to the park. He’s a designer and said: “This is the highlight.” You know when you get complimented from your parent, it’s the best.
The park addresses climate change and flooding in a very technical way. But at the end I wanted people to feel they can be part of the solution by just being there, peddling the water bike. The water level in the detention basin also changes. Just the physical nature of pedaling is quite direct.
In your TED Talk, you said the 15 million residents of Bangkok are living on a “shifting, muddy river delta.” Bangkok, New York City, Shanghai, New Orleans and many other delta cities are slowly sinking as sea levels rise. How can landscape architects help solve this problem?
We try to fix problems, but we are actually the problem. The reason our city is sinking is systematic. The issue doesn’t just come from building a city on top of this delta; it also because there is no more sediment coming from upstream. Dams that create electricity are blocking sediment flow. We also don’t let the land absorb rain. We have to see the problem systematically and fix what you have done rather than try to fix nature.
As landscape architects, we work with the land. We know how these systems should function. We can teach people how to live with water again, which is much better than fearing it. Living with water is the vernacular way in Thailand. We have long had homes on stilts and floating platforms. We even have floating markets. We are used to living on the edge between land and water.
In the future, floating cities are even possible. But they are not really futuristic, as they have already happened in the past. The future is about knowing where you’re from and using that in a new context. I don’t think the future will be these flying cyborgs or something, nothing so inhuman.
In the past, flooding meant food. Sediment was part of seasonal change. Thailand would flood for one or two months and we would just deal with it. Today, we forget that flooding is about transformation. It’s only our relationship with water that has changed in a negative way. Landscape architecture can help people see a different relationship with water is possible.
For Bangkok’s 250th anniversary, which is in 2032, city leaders are creating the Bangkok 250 Plan, a major redevelopment effort that aims to create a more livable city in 17 districts in the urban core. By then, the city’s population is expected to grow to 11 million, an 18 percent increase over today, and the number of vehicles on the road is expected to grow by 1 million to 10 million. As a consultant on this planning effort, what are you advising the city to do?
We have a big team of urban designers, architects, and urban planners, and then there’s me, the landscape architect. Of course, we want to revitalize the canal system. We want to incorporate much more green space. But we don’t want to be naïve and just hope for more green space if there is no land. We have to be innovative about how we insert green spaces.
There is one project we are implementing right now with the current mayor to reuse a failed governmental mega-project. In Asian cities, there are many projects like this that were built and then stopped. There’s so much that can be renewed. But this also means the city is a challenging context.
At the Ramathibodi Hospital, we removed a helipad and replaced it with a healing garden. Green roofs are one of the key solutions for how to make a city more porous and sustainable.
The Thammasat University in Bhutantanang, which is in the greater Bangkok area, will become the biggest urban farming green roof in Asia at 7,000 square meters (75,000 square feet). The roof mimics the structure of rice terraces and how farmers use topography to absorb rain, slow down runoff, and grow food.
You have also planned and designed many health care environments that provide patients with access to nature, including the Siriraj Hospice Center. How do you incorporate Thai cultural and spiritual beliefs about nature?
The other hat I wear is creative art therapist. I have many questions about death: What does it feel like? How can I help these people?
When it comes to healing, no one can help you. Doctors can cure you, but they cannot heal you. You have to heal yourself. And how do you heal yourself? You heal yourself through natural processes.
Perhaps with my Buddhist beliefs, I feel there’s so much suffering in these hospices. Too many hospitals only think about more patients without thinking about how to create healthy spaces for them. I’m talking about government hospitals in Thailand; you can’t imagine how crowded they are. These people deserve healing environments, so we are trying to find the right space in hospitals. I’m helping many other hospitals as well.
In addition to the work with your firm, you’re also founder of Porous City Network, a nonprofit that co-designs water management solutions with vulnerable communities. What have been the results of the effort so far?
Porous City Network was started two years ago. Traditional client-based practice can only solve some problems. If we want to really tackle big problems, we need public education and advocacy. I’m going to try to expand the network into other cities in Southeast Asia where they are facing the same problems.
We helped a community along the coastline on the border of Cambodia, which is actually at the narrowest part of Thailand. The people are Thai but have no land rights on paper, so they build into the ocean. The government deemed them invaders and tried to displace them.
We helped them negotiate with the government and create a plan that allows them to inhabit land in the ocean, which also involves restoring mangrove forests. They are the first community that has received government permission to do that.
This means the solution can be implemented in Thailand’s other 7,000 fishing villages, rather than just displacing these communities.
I also bring landscape architecture students so they can learn about community participation processes. I use landscape architecture to help these communities.
Three City Parks That Encourage Inclusion in Their Communities — 1/16/20, Urban Institute “Parks and green spaces can tremendously benefit a community. But if parks aren’t designed and activated with residents’ interests in mind, they can go underutilized, or the opposite—they can increase property values and price long-time residents out of the neighborhood.”
UGA Student Designs Winning ‘Kinda Tiny’ Home — 1/26/20, Athens Banner-Herald “One of things that made her design stand out, after talking to some of the judges, is the fact that her building really specifically relates to the site. She took into account the topography, and I think it was her landscape architecture background that gave her the insight to how the building and the site would interact together.”
A Novel Plan to Fix One of New York’s Worst Highways: Remove Lanes — 1/30/20, The New York Times “The idea of shrinking the highway to four lanes from six is a remarkable shift for the city, which, like the nation, has been shaped by a car-centric culture and is now wrestling with the consequences, including gridlocked streets, polluted air and rising pedestrian and cyclist deaths.”
Plans Unveiled for Hamtramck’s Veterans Memorial Park — 1/31/20, The Detroit News “In the coming years, Hamtramck’s Veterans Memorial Park could be transformed into a major destination brimming with features such as a splash pad, wooded trails, even outdoor ‘living rooms.’ ”
Amsterdam Leads the Way on Wetland Restoration — 1/31/20, CityLab “To find a way to restore the marshlands and pastures while maintaining its agricultural capacity, the Amsterdam Wetlands project will plow $9 million of funding into experiments. The scheme, a a collaboration between three nature preservation agencies, is intended to incorporate more water into low-lying areas instead of damming and pumping it out.”
ASLA Awards are the oldest and most prestigious awards program in the profession of landscape architecture. They honor the best and most innovative landscape architecture projects from around the globe and give a glimpse into the future of the profession.
This year, a new award category, Urban Design, will recognize projects that activate networks of spaces that mediate between social equity, economic viability, infrastructure, environmental stewardship, and place-making in the public and private realm.
Award recipients receive featured coverage in Landscape Architecture Magazine and are honored at the awards presentation ceremony during the ASLA Conference on Landscape Architecture in Miami Beach, October 2-5, 2020.
ASLA bestows Professional Awards in General Design, Residential Design, Urban Design, Analysis & Planning, Communications, Research categories. In each of these categories, juries select a number of Honor Awards and may select one Award of Excellence. One Landmark Award is also presented each year.
This year’s Professional Awards Jury includes:
Chair: Jose Alminana, FASLA – Andropogon
Jane Berger – Writer
Ujijji Davis, ASLA – SmithGroup
Mark Hough, FASLA – Duke University
Mark Johnson, FASLA – Civitas
Kathleen John-Alder, FASLA – Rutgers University
Mia Lehrer FASLA – Studio-MLA
Tanya Olson, ASLA – Tallgrass Landscape Architecture
Robert Rogers – Architects+Urban Designers
Stephanie A. Rolley, FASLA – Kansas State University
Gale Newman, ASLA – Texas A&M University
ASLA bestows Student Awards in General Design, Residential Design, Urban Design, Analysis & Planning, Communications, Research, Student Community Service, and Student Collaboration. In each of these categories, juries select a number of Honor Awards and may select one Award of Excellence. One Landmark Award is also presented each year.
This year’s Student Awards Jury includes:
Chair: Kristina Hill – University of California, Berkely
Adam Arvidson, FASLA – Landscape Architect, Writer
Lucia Athens, ASLA – Office of Sustainability, City of Austin
“New forms of mobility, autonomous vehicles (AVs), and e-commerce will impact everything we care about in cities,” said Nico Larco, professor of architecture at the University of Oregon and director of the Urbanism Next center, at an event at the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA)’s Center for Landscape Architecture in Washington, D.C.
Technology-enabled transportation systems have scaled up at an incredible rate. There will be even more rapid change coming, along with new forms of transportation not yet envisioned. The coming changes make smart street design that can create equitable access to multiple forms of personal mobility even more important.
A few examples of the shifts underway:
“There were 4.2 billion trips with Uber and Lyft in 2018; ten years ago, these companies didn’t exist,” Larco said.
In many cities, e-scooters essentially started in 2018 and, by the end of the same year, they accounted for some 38 million trips. “It took bike share systems nine years to reach the same number of trips.”
“Waymo is now testing driver less vehicles with select families in Arizona.” The company, which was formerly known as Google’s driverless vehicle company, has already purchased 82,000 vehicles from a Detroit manufacturing center that turns conventional vehicles into autonomous ones. “Waymo will run these AVs as part of their fleet.” (A recent Brookings Institution survey found that 61 percent of Americans are not inclined to ride in self-driving vehicles).
E-commerce has increased to 14 percent of total retail sales in the U.S. In contrast, the number of walk-ins to brick and mortar stores has fallen 6-9 percent each year, and last year saw the largest number of store chains closing yet.
In 2018, some 15 billion packages were delivered in the U.S., which equals 118 packages per household, or one every three days. As the number of delivery packages continues to increase, what does that mean for malls and downtowns?
There are some 1-2 billion parking spaces in the U.S. The rise of Uber, Lyft, and other rideshare and carsharing services, which only need pick-up and drop off zones, will reduce the need for parking. And “when we have fully autonomous vehicles, the need for parking could be reduced by 80 percent.”
By reducing parking spaces, AVs could then generate demand for denser nodes in suburbia, create opportunities for urban infill in cities, and result in new parks and open space.
Furthermore, both commercial and residential buildings would no longer need to “carry the cost” of parking spaces. “Housing subsidizes parking, which means parking also increases the cost of housing.”
Without the need for parking spaces, the available land supply could also increase, and the price of land, particularly in suburbia and exurbia, could drop. So the net result of fleets of roving AVs could mean more vacant land, reduced property taxes, and lower revenues for communities — that is unless the AVs themselves are taxed.
Larco foresees considerable debate over curbside access fees for future rideshare, carshare, and AV services. Imagine crowded pick-up and drop-off areas in downtowns. How will access be guaranteed or prioritized? State and local governments will play an important role in deciding fees, perhaps by location, distance from popular destinations, or time.
With an increasing number of personalized modes of transportation competing for street space, a central challenge will be how to organize streets. If poorly planned, e-commerce delivery boxes will litter sidewalks, AVs could stop in bicycle / e-scooter lanes, and public transit could get squeezed out. “The new streets are a huge opportunity to show the importance of design.”
Furthermore, given transportation options will be more plentiful and ordering online will be even easier, location may be less important. The question that will increasingly matter is: “Where will you spend your time? Quality design is a magnet, so design will matter even more.”
For Sakina Khan, deputy director at the Washington, D.C. office of planning, AVs and other new transportation technologies pose new challenges as the capital city moves towards achieving “livability, equity, and safety,” which are the goals D.C. residents identified through surveys as the most important.
An update of the transportation, land use, and urban design portions of the Washington, D.C. 1,600-page comprehensive master plan is currently underway. As part of the process, D.C. is seeking to create more a more equitable transportation system, with multi-modal transit-oriented developments (TODs), traffic-calming measures to reduce traffic fatalities and accidents and achieve Vision Zero, and “transportation equity pilots” in the lower-income Wards 7 and 8.
Khan said D.C. has moved away from “vehicle carrying capacity” in their analysis of streets towards “person carrying capacity.” This reflects the increasing focus on personalized mobility options like e-scooters.
She discussed how critical access to transportation is to achieving a healthier population in D.C. Policymakers in the district are increasingly looking towards the “non-clinical social determinants of health, which account for 80 percent of health outcomes.” Non-clinical determinants of health could include access to good food, jobs, green spaces, and healthcare within walking distance.
In Ward 7 and 8, the city seeks to increase access to Metro through a subsidized taxi to rails program along with “heavy subsidies” for Capital Bikeshare, taking the subscription rate down from $85 a year to just $5 for low-income residents that qualify. The goal is to improve equitable transportation access and therefore health outcomes in some of the poorest neighborhoods.
As far as AVs, the city will incentive the use of shared rides instead of “zero or single rides.” Zero rides sounds fantastical, but fleets of AVs could roam the streets, waiting for rides, causing congestion. “AVs needs to be supplemental to transit, bicycle, and pedestrian networks — not a replacement.” The city is working with AV companies to map the entire district. But for Khan, it’s still unclear whether AVs will lead to infill or sprawl, and how they will impact jobs.
Ken Ray, ASLA, deputy director of landscape architecture at Toole Design, based in Silver Spring, Maryland, which has developed innovative multi-modal transportation systems like Jackson Street in Saint Paul, Minnesota, argued that as modes change — for example, from docked bike share to dockless bikes and e-scooters — the fight for access is increasingly happening at sidewalks, the curb, and in bicycle lanes.
To figure out a way forward, the city of Boston, which recently released its Go Boston 2030 transportation plan, is piloting micro-mobility hubs in eight neighborhoods. Toole Design is working with city’s new mobility team, other agencies, and neighborhood groups to plan, design and implement the new hubs. According to Ray, these projects are the “first-of-its-kind at filling last-mile gaps in Boston’s transportation network by co-locating transportation mode choices.”
Designing for a few modes of transit is fairly straightforward, but “if you have to layer everything, including package delivery, AVs, pedestrians, bicyclists, vehicles, and app-enabled transportation systems, the street fills up quickly.”
Ray sees these hubs as potential models for balancing modes if they can also broaden access for users in an equitable way. He described work Toole Design has done to create “neighborhood mobility stations, where dockless bikes and e-scooters could be gathered and made available in centralized locations.” With geo-fencing, it’s possible to incentivize app-based transportation providers to drop off e-scooters in specific locations.
But he also cautioned that more work needs to be done to reach urban populations who are low-income or don’t have a credit card or smart phone and therefore can’t access app-driven forms of transportation. To be truly equitable, these systems need to provide other options as well.
In San Francisco, Toole Design is working with SPIN, a dockless bike provider, to redesign an equitable access program required by the city government to “lower barriers to entry.” The approach requires them to sign up one “access user” for every five scooters deployed. One issue is that SPIN had a “burden of proof” issue, forcing potential users to “jump through hoops, which is a huge barrier to sign-ups.” The redesign project aims to increase the number of SPIN access users by redesigning access points to make the process much easier.
In the Q&A, Larco said state and local governments need to work with technology companies through collaborative pilots that can help undo the combative relationship companies like Uber have had with cities.
Miller and Ray also made an argument for using design, prototypes, and pilots to find solutions to complex street design challenges.
Ray said “things are changing so fast that policy can’t keep up. It’s important for policymakers to set goals and principles but allow landscape architects flexibility in meeting goals where possible.”
Khan argued that future transportation infrastructure design must be “start with people first.” This will help reduce the “huge disconnect between how we live and the infrastructure we have now.” Key goals include “sustainability, resilience, equity, and economic opportunity.”
Larco believes that “urban planners are looking ahead to the issues that AVs and other technologies will bring. Developers are just starting to, but architects and landscape architects are still far behind.”
In an 100 percent AV future, space freed up by the reduced need for parking could be transformed into green spaces, making cities more livable and healthy. But with this AV future, which would create demand for narrower lanes moving vehicles faster, there could also be “pressure to add more lanes,” said Larco.
“It will be hard to fight against the economic potential of AVs and focus on the ecological potential.” There will be increased demand to “cram as much as possible into spaces,” but it’s important to remember the economic, social, and health benefits of nearby green spaces. “One urban park can raise the value of the entire block.”
My Internship at Palm Beach County Parks and Rec– FIU News, 1/3/20 “During my time, I met landscape architects, directors, contractors, commissioners, as well as many other types of people. I didn’t try to only talk to designers or those who would help me in the future. I was just friendly and enjoyed each day as it came. By doing this, I would just stumble across friends.”
Seattle’s Asian Art Museum Readies for Reopening After Renovation and Expansion– Designboom, 1/14/20 “following a 24-month-long renovation and expansion, Seattle’s asian art museum will reopen to the public on February 8, 2020. the museum’s historic 1933 building closed in early 2017 to address critical needs of infrastructure, accessibility, and program space. now enhanced with a design by LMN Architects, working alongside landscape architect walker macy, the building reopens as ‘a modern museum within an historic icon’.”
Interview conducted at the ASLA 2019 Conference on Landscape Architecture in San Diego.
Over the past few decades, how much progress have we made towards achieving sustainable landscapes? What practices promoted through the Sustainable SITES Initiative® (SITES®) have landscape architects now widely adopted? What low-impact material alternatives do landscape architects now widely use?
In general, we have made strong progress toward sustainable landscapes in some areas. Green infrastructure — including bioretention, bioswales, rain gardens, even green roofs — are now pretty widely used, especially in urban environments. Their performance and cost benefits are well-documented.
Landscape architects are getting a handle on how to employ them in a functional and artful way. Landscape architects are also starting to speak the language of civil engineers and doing great collaborations in the area of stormwater management. This whole area of SITES and sustainable site design has been really successful.
Landscape architects are also designing with native plants and plant communities in mind, and many are avoiding invasive plants. If only we could get the nursery industry to not stock invasive plants, we would be OK. But even in urban settings, landscape architects are conceiving of plant communities as habitat as well as having aesthetic value.
Where are the major gaps? Where does progress need to happen the most?
Use of materials with reduced environmental and health impacts are lagging behind. This is because clear and comparable information about the carbon footprint, resource use, manufacturing impacts, and toxicity of materials and products is not widely available.
Information transparency is perhaps the biggest challenge when trying to reduce the environmental and human health impacts of materials and products. LEED, SITES, and the Living Building Challenge offer credits encouraging information transparency, but these credits are still among the least achieved.
Product manufacturers do not provide information on embodied carbon, resource use and waste, energy and water use, and toxicity impacts. Human health impacts may be the most challenging to identify given many manufacturers claim the constituents of their products are proprietary and therefore will not release information on the types of chemicals used or produced and their quantities.
The habitat and cultural impacts of raw material extraction are often an out of sight out of mind issue. For example, we don’t see the impacts of harvesting tropical hardwood lumber from the Amazon, so it doesn’t seem so problematic to use it. We don’t see the ecosystem decline after the removal of the keystone species tree that is cut to make tropical hardwood lumber. We don’t hear about the murders of indigenous people to intimidate them to leave their protected land so tropical hardwoods can be harvested. And we don’t know that there is a 78 percent chance that the tropical hardwood we are using was harvested illegally (Greenpeace 2014).
Through Climate Positive Design, Pamela Conrad, ASLA, has devised a comprehensive approach for designing and constructing landscapes so they sequester more carbon than they emit over their lifespans, transforming them into net carbon sinks. Through her design toolkit, she recommends swapping carbon-intensive materials with lower-carbon options and planting more greenhouse gas-absorbing trees and shrubs. As you just mentioned, one of the issues you have identified is the lack of third party-verified environmental product declarations with publicly accessible data. How can we get full transparency around the environmental impact of landscape products?
First, I want to say that balancing carbon onsite is a critical aim, and Conrad’s design toolkit is wonderful. It’s going to have a transformative impact on site design and material and product specifications.
Embodied carbon of materials is a far more accurate indicator of the impact of producing a building material or product than embodied energy. Embodied energy is not as accurate because all energy sources do not have equal impact on the environment. Some will be almost carbon neutral, like wind power, and others, like coal, will have very high embodied carbon and a substantial environmental footprint.
But while carbon considerations are heavily prioritized in decision making in the building fields, they do not tell the whole story. The human health impacts of materials and products, which can be very substantial, tend to fly under the radar.
PVC, a plastic that is used in countless construction products, has lower embodied carbon than some other plastics, but it can be extremely toxic to humans in manufacture, use and disposal, particularly if it is burned or heated to very high temperatures. Designers need to consider these impacts, but the only way they’re going to know about them is for manufacturers to tell us exactly what is in the products and what by products are produced.
Information transparency by product manufacturers is an area that lags behind other sustainability considerations. I did a content analysis study back in 2012 of the websites of all exhibitors at the 2012 ASLA conference. We looked at what kind of information they’re providing on the impacts of their materials and products, and the steps they’re taking to make them more sustainable. Less than 1 percent provided either life cycle assessment (LCA) or environmental product declarations (EPD).
I’m replicating that study right now, seven years later. I don’t have the results yet, but I suspect it’s going to be closer to 10 percent providing that kind of information. There is progress being made, but we still not enough information for designers to use to compare similar products.
SITES and LEED have likely had a slight transformative impact on the information that product manufacturers provide. But the fields of architecture and interior design are ahead of us. If we did a content analysis of their product websites, we would probably find somewhere between 20 and 30 percent provide environmental product declarations.
The main way to address the lack of information is for landscape architects and designers specifying site construction products to talk to product manufacturers and ask for information about the environmental and human health impacts of their products. Telling manufacturers — “Well, I’m considering using your product but your competitor, Company X, has an environmental product declaration, so I’m going to go with them” — is only way to make it happen.
Of course, one can earn LEED and SITES credits for companies that offer some material transparency. But I don’t know if that’s making change as much as designers constantly asking for that information.
Concrete production accounts for around 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Cement, which is a primary ingredient in traditional concrete, is the second-most used natural resource after water. You have written about the many low-carbon concrete options companies are developing, including carbon-sequestering concrete, concrete that requires lower amounts of energy to produce, and concrete primarily made up of fly ash and other waste products. What will it take to replace the conventional polluting concrete with these new alternatives?
These alternatives are so new that many are not widely available on the market yet. Some are still in development. But of those on the market, only the earliest adopters are specifying them. They’re better used in Europe, because many are European technologies.
In the U.S., landscape architects oftentimes don’t specify concrete mixes. Landscape architects need to convince the people who do — the engineers, the contractors and the Departments of Transportation — to do it.
Contractors are understandably nervous about using new concrete mixes and are not easily convinced to change. Durability is such a key consideration in the performance of concrete, and it is still a question with the new low carbon technologies and mixes. It’s just going to take time and experimental applications. If the applications are monitored and the data on performance published, adoption of these technologies will happen.
Solidia Technologies’ Solidia cement (low Portland Cement) and Solidia concrete (injected with carbon) was successfully tested in multiple applications by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) in east coast locations. This is one way that these technologies can trickle down into the site construction market. If the FHWA or U.S. Department of Transportation believes in it and has it as either a standard or alternative specification, then the contractors in that area are much more likely to want to use that product.
D.I.R.T. Studio artfully integrated recycled concrete, bricks, and rusted metal found onsite at the Urban Outfitters headquarters at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, creating a rich, layered environment that demonstrates sustainable values. Do you see this recycled landscape aesthetic becoming more popular? What trends do you see in the use of recycled materials?
The answer is both yes and no. There’s a type of project that can use reclaimed material successfully. Not all clients want that aesthetic and not all project budgets can afford it.
Some projects will never be able to incorporate reclaimed materials because of the budget and bid structure. In a public bid project where the contractor is not onboard until after the bid set is complete, there may be insurmountable obstacles to use of reclaimed materials. It is best if one can design with reclaimed materials in hand, rather than setting out to find them after the bid documents are complete. If you set out to find a nine-by-nine reclaimed cypress post for the pergola that is fully detailed, you’re never going to find it. You need to find the material first and then design with it.
Cost can also be an issue. Once located, reclaimed materials sometimes need to be stored for several months until construction. And the material may need work such as removal of nails, cleaning, resurfacing and even regrading.
I don’t want to discourage this: if it’s a landscape architect can pay this kind of attention to the reclaimed materials, that’s great, but it’s just not feasible for every project.
There has been a growing movement to end the extraction of Ipe and other tropical hardwoods, which is highly destructive to rainforest ecosystems. Landscape architects like yourself and Michael van Valkenburgh, FASLA, have instead promoted the use of native hardwoods like black locust. There are also composite, thermally modified, polymerized, and acetylated wood products. Help us navigate the landscape of tropical hardwood alternatives. How should landscape architects make a decision?
There is absolutely NO reason to use tropical hardwood lumber anymore. There are good alternatives that exist that perform in some cases better than tropical hardwoods and have far lower impacts to ecosystems. Ipe, Cumaru, some of the other tropical hardwoods are keystone or umbrella species in their ecosystems.
Once that one tree is removed, studies show that the forest, plants, and animals for acres around it that depended on that one tree will decline. Within five years that land is usually turned over to grazing land for cattle. Because of this fact, even selective harvesting is not a good practice for rainforest trees.
There are also unseen social impacts to using tropical hardwood lumber. Tropical hardwood extraction has devastating social impacts to indigenous communities. Few designers know that since 1985 there have been 1,700 deaths in the Amazon over land disputes that primarily have to do with illegal logging. Also, tropical hardwoods are not a renewable material because it takes 90 to 200 years to grow a comparable tree, but the lumber from that tree is only going to be in use for about 30 years.
There are many alternatives to tropical hardwoods now on the market. Thermally modified wood, acetylated wood, polymerized wood– all three of those use heat and either steam or acetic anhydride or a polymer cross-linking agent, furfuryl alcohol, to modify the sugars of the wood, so that decay organisms no longer recognize them as food. All three of these lumber treatments are non-toxic. They make the wood more dimensionally stable, harder, and much more competitive with the durability of tropical hardwoods. And they are easier to build with than the extremely dense tropical hardwoods.
Another alternative to tropical hardwoods is fused bamboo, which has been on the market in China for close to ten years. It’s a really hard product similar to Ipe, so it needs carbide blades to cut and drill it. It’s a very durable product, and unlike, Ipe, uses a clip system that avoids the pre-drilling and screwing necessary for Ipe boards. It is a rapidly renewable product, with rapid growth of the bamboo every three to five years.
Fused bamboo is essentially stripped, carbonized, and impregnated with phenolic resin, which may or may not have some toxicity issues. It does contain formaldehyde, but the jury’s still out on that. Anyway, it performs and weathers really well. It’s easily oiled and rejuvenated, guaranteed for 10 years in commercial applications and 30 years in residential applications.
And then of course black locust is also a good alternative. It can be challenging to use because black locust trees do not grow straight, so when you cut it into lumber, it tends to want to return to its irregular form. But it is starting to be grown on plantations and should have a straighter habit when farmed. Also, use of shorter lengths can prevent its tendency to warp.
Innovative new materials in development include concrete that can absorb air pollution and clean the air, bricks that can be grown, and plants that can be engineered to produce light. What emerging material technologies are you most excited about? Which have the greatest potential to improve our built environment?
The process increases the surface area of these particles, creating micro-cracks and dislocations of structure at the nano scale, allowing for greater surface area and greater reactivity with respect to the processes of cement. It’s possible to achieve a concrete with 70 percent fly ash and just 30 percent cement. Once this finds its way into the market, it’s going to really transform concrete. That said, fly ash is only around as long as we’re burning coal. In Europe, for instance, they’re burning a whole lot less coal, so fly ash is not nearly as prevalent as it is in the U.S. anymore.
The other thing I’m excited about is recycled plastic aggregate concrete (RPAC), which is in the testing and case study application phase. There’s a whole lot of waste plastic in this world and if we can find a way to use it instead of non-renewable virgin aggregates, we should. The technology is still in the research phase, but preliminary results of RPAC as fine aggregate show an increased flexural strength, tensile strength, and density. There is so much on the horizon to improve the environmental and human health footprint of concrete.
Instead of chopping down 10 fully-grown poplar trees and 8 gingko trees to make way for a new glass-box pavilion in front of the Architecture College of Beijing Jiaotong University, Bo Zhang, ASLA, and his colleagues convinced the university to create an open, canopied exhibition space that works around the trees.
Zhang, a landscape architect and assistant professor of landscape architecture at the Oklahoma State University, partnered with Zhongzhong Zeng, associate professor of architecture, and Yongquan Chen, also on the faculty of architecture at Beijing Jiaotong University, to create a tree-first pavilion that both preserves nature and creates a charming space for exhibitions and events.
The tight site along the glass-fronted wall of the college is just 21 feet wide by 183 feet long. Within these challenging parameters, Zhang and his colleagues developed a set of hexagonal structural units made of Douglas Fir, carefully siting them to avoid hurting the trees and their roots.
At top, gaps between the forms allow trees to penetrate through; and below, spaces in the elevated wood floor covering the trees’ roots enable stormwater to permeate into the ground.
Other gaps between the forms are covered in glass, creating more usable spaces.
Zhang tells us the hexagonal forms were prefabricated and trucked into Beijing, where they were assembled onsite. “The whole process of construction took only ten days.” In that short time, the design team also avoided using heavy machines and vehicles that would compact the top soil.
Zhang and his colleagues purposefully kept the space open so it can be configured for multiple uses, such as lectures, meetings, or exhibitions. Removable wood exhibition panels and chairs give the university flexibility.
College administrators have also opened up the space to the surrounding neighborhood: residents use the space to teach classes, practice Tai Chi, dance, or just relax.
“Our vision was achieved by blending architecture and landscape, civility and nature, people and space. We hoped to create a model relationship between educational institution and surrounding community.”