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

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The design for Cleveland Public Square / James Corner Field Operations

Saving the TamarindThe Bangkok Post, 2/7/16
“For over a century, 783 tamarind trees have encircled the sacred ground of Sanam Luang. They were there, like stoic sentinels, during ceremonial pomp and political upheavals, come rain or shine.”

Channeling Steve Jobs, Apple Seeks Design Perfection at New ‘Spaceship’ Campus – Reuters, 2/7/17
“Apple Inc’s sprawling new headquarters in Cupertino, California, will be a fitting tribute: a futuristic campus built with astonishing attention to detail. From the arrangement of electrical wiring to the finish of a hidden pipe, no aspect of the 2.8 million-square-foot main building has been too small to attract scrutiny.”

Well-Designed Public Squares Can Enhance Tolerance During Volatile Political Times, Says James Corner – CLAD News, 2/8/17
“Speaking exclusively to CLAD, Corner explained how well-conceived public city squares can be “conducive to more tolerance” at a time when “democracy is being challenged.”

Rejuvenating SF Civic Center Plaza: A Challenge Beyond Design San Francisco Chronicle, 2/11/17
“Planners and politicians have long wrestled with how to “fix” Civic Center Plaza and the blocks around it — a grand governmental hub, but also an often troublesome void.”

Eleven Practices to Complete $2 Billion Waterfront Development in Washington D.C. – Arch Daily, 2/11/17
“Eleven of the United States’ most prestigious architects have been selected by developers Hoffman-Madison Waterfront (HMW), to commence Phase 2 of The Wharf, a $2 billion neighborhood situated on the southwest waterfront of Washington D.C.”

Waterfront Upgrade Phase 2: Time for Public to Pipe up The San Diego Union Tribune, 2/13/17
“Three years after jacarandas, a hip cafe and a widened bayside promenade transformed a section of the downtown waterfront, the San Diego Unified Port District is jumpstarting talk of Phase 2.”

Good Design Is Sustainable

Perk Park, Cleveland by Thomas Balsley Associates / Land Studio
Perk Park, Cleveland by Thomas Balsley Associates / Land Studio

Good landscape design is intrinsically sustainable. While a certain level of ecological sustainability may be achieved by adhering to a checklist of environmental best practices, long-term sustainability is achieved by engaging broader cultural, economic, and socio-economic goals. It’s now widely recognized that city dwellers tend to live a less wasteful and more energy-efficient lifestyle than those who live in the suburbs or rural areas. So if well-designed urban public spaces are able to counteract the discomforts of high density, then more people will live happily, and sustainably, in cities. This was the crux of the argument made by landscape architects Martha Schwartz, FASLA, Ken Smith, FASLA, and Thomas Balsley, FASLA, in a recent panel discussion organized by the New York chapter of ASLA.

During the course of their long careers, these renowned designers have experienced two major shifts in the field of landscape architecture. One is the greater inclusion of ecological principles in design. The other is a shift in our cultural attitudes towards cities — from viewing them as unfavorable to celebrating them.

Each presented projects that engage sustainability on multiple levels and time scales.

Perk Park, a one-acre park in downtown Cleveland, was a vestige of 1970s-era landscape architecture, when parks were designed as places to protect oneself from the stress of the surrounding city. “What happened, in fact, is that the space became inaccessible, it didn’t have sight lines. There were places to hide. Eventually, people wouldn’t even go in there, so it really held back the growth and vitality of the neighborhood,” said Thomas Balsley. His firm, SWA/Balsley, re-designed the park so it celebrated and engaged with the surrounding environment, blurring the edges between the park and the city (see image above).

One popular element of Perk Park is its “urban porch,” a linear pergola covering seating that lines the sidewalk. “You can sit at the porch and be in touch with the streetscape but also the park and be in dialogue with both.” The park became so vibrant that local corporations and retail began to occupy the surrounding buildings, just to be near the park.

By preserving existing trees and including new permeable green space in the densest and most impervious area of a major city, basic elements of urban ecological sustainability were achieved. Moreover, by providing what Balsley calls “a stage for daily urban life to happen,” the park achieves a long-term and nuanced form of sustainability.

“Really great design makes a difference, and it makes more of a difference than OK design,” said Schwartz. “What we see affects us psychologically and emotionally. How a space looks can determine whether or not it will be used, and therefore maintained.” The public will become active stewards of a well-designed space, but if a space is not considered valuable, “all the technologies and the well-meaning environmental practices we bring to it will disappear over time.”

For Schwartz, a successful public space is both resilient and heavily used. She achieves these goals by weaving a narrative specific to each site, as well as creating landscapes that challenge and intrigue the public. Grand Canal Square by Martha Schwartz Partners in Dublin, Ireland, uses towering, off-kilter red poles, criss-crossing paths, and a paved red “carpet.” Built before much of the surrounding development, the square’s acclaim has ushered in economic resilience. The Dublin offices of Google and Twitter are now the square’s neighbors, and the property values surrounding the square stayed steady during a time of economic downturn.

Grand Canal Square Dublin by Martha Schwartz Partners / Martha Schwartz Partners
Grand Canal Square Dublin by Martha Schwartz Partners / Martha Schwartz Partners

As part of the East River Waterfront Esplanade in Manhattan, which Ken Smith Workshop has been working on for a decade, Smith and his studio designed and built a prototype mussel habitat. Working with ecologists and marine engineers, Smith selected a concrete-textured substrate and designed a gradient of rocks to encourage the growth of mussel colonies.

In terms of providing a measurable ecological boost in the context of the East River, this 65-foot-long prototype of a constructed mussel habitat is likely only a drop in the bucket. However, being able to see the tides move up and down a slope as it fosters aquatic life is a unique sight in New York City, where hard vertical edges dominate the waterfront. Reminders that these natural processes occur amid the industry and infrastructure of the city can bring a sense of wonder to visitors, and perhaps encourage stewardship.

East River Waterfront mussel habitat pilot project / Ken Smith Workshop
East River Waterfront mussel habitat pilot project / Ken Smith Workshop

The common belief is that good design means sacrificing sustainability or vice versa. But these landscape architects challenged this assumption. Schwartz said: “To have something work sustainably in terms of its ecological processes, it doesn’t have to look a certain way. Sustainability doesn’t have an aesthetic. If you use your creativity, there’s no reason why there is any separation between design and sustainability.”

This guest post is by Chella Strong, Assoc. ASLA, a recent master’s of landscape architecture graduate, Harvard University Graduate School of Design. 

Harnessing the Power of Nature to Improve Our Cities

Handbook of Biophilic City Planning & Design / Island Press
Handbook of Biophilic City Planning & Design / Island Press

People feel happier, healthier, and more social when they engage with nature. Their cognitive abilities go up and stress levels go down. So why is nature so often thought to be found only “out there” in the wilderness, or perhaps suburbia? For Timothy Beatley, a professor at the University of Virginia, nature should be found everywhere, but especially in cities. Cities must remain dense and walkable, but they can be unique, memorable places only when they merge with nature. If well planned and designed, a city’s forests, waterfronts, parks, gardens, and streets can make out-sized contributions to the health and well-being of everyone who lives there. In his latest excellent book, the Handbook of Biophilic City Planning & Design, Beatley brings together all the established science, the important case studies, the innovative code and design practices from around the world in one place. Even if you think you already know a lot about how best to incorporate nature into cities, there will be some interesting new facets in this book for you to explore.

Some 54 percent of the world’s population now lives in cities, some 4 billion people. That number is expected to reach 70 percent by 2050. As more of the world goes urban, we have a fundamental task ahead: to make the world’s cities ecologically-rich and emotionally satisfying. As Beatley puts it, we must use the “power of nature” to improve the experience of city life. As has been laid out elsewhere, increased amounts of urban nature and improved access to it can boost happiness, creativity, and cognitive abilities, reduce stress and crime, make communities wealthier and more social and resilient. Study after study demonstrate these benefits.

But Beatley unearths fascinating examples like the Mappiness Project in the UK. More than 60,000 Brits out and about in their daily lives were pinged by an iPhone app that asked them at random times to indicate how happy they were. Responses were then geo-coded to locations, with their relevant natural features. The study found “people are happiest when they are in nature. This is one of the main conclusions of the project.”

He also details the many ways cities can create room for nature. While creating connections to waterfronts and planting more trees are no-brainers, he calls for “an integrated, multi-scalar approach,” in which biophilic experiences are embedded at “interconnected scales and levels.” Biophilic encounters reinforce each other, and as they accumulate, the benefits increase. On a daily basis, people experience “doses” of urban nature in different ways — on their porch, walking down the street, on a park bench — and together these make up their overall “urban nature diet.” He recommends spending time a park or greenspace at least once a week, but the science is still out on what that ideal amount of time is. Beatley argues for direct contact in outdoor settings, like sitting under a tree, over indirect exposure to nature, like found in indoor environments or natural history museums.

Beatley has long held up a few cities as model biophilic cities, but he goes into more detail about what they offer. He explores Singapore’s sky-bridges that course through forests and vertical gardens set in skyscrapers, and Wellington’s comprehensive efforts to bring back bird song by restoring habitat and its pioneering launch of the world’s first marine bioblitz.

Telok Blangah Hill Park, Singapore / Travelog
Telok Blangah Hill Park, Singapore / Travelog

But he also includes lesser-known success stories, like Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where 3,000 vacant parcels are being re-imagined as gardens and urban farms, and San Francisco’s Please Touch community garden, designed so the blind and visually impaired so can also have a multi-sensory nature experience.

Please touch community garden / Ekevara Kitpowsong, for S.F. Examiner
Please touch community garden / Ekevara Kitpowsong, for S.F. Examiner

We then get to the nitty-gritty of how to make biophilic cities happen — through smart policies, thoughtful urban planning regulations, and breakthrough designs. There are 80 pages of interesting examples, with many works of landscape architecture, including Paley Park in New York City, designed by landscape architect Robert L. Zion, which he rightfully identifies as a unique multi-sensory experience that demonstrates the “power of water.” With its 20-foot-tall fountain, this tiny park, at just one-tenth of an acre, demonstrates the incredible potential of small, left-over urban spaces.

Paley Park / Pinterest
Paley Park / Pinterest

So many other projects are worth reading about — like the Aqua in Chicago, which is a bird-friendly skyscraper; the Philadelphia Orchard Project, which plants fruit trees in poor communities; Milkweeds for Monarchs in St. Louis, which incentivized citizens to plant hundreds of gardens for threatened Monarch butterflies; the Healthy Harbor Initiative in Baltimore, which is taking steps to achieve a swimmable, fishable harbor by 2020; the Vertical Forest, a residential tower in Milan, Italy, which extends trees upwards through 27 stories; and the 54-acre Qiaoyuan Park in Tianjin, China, which repairs a damaged ecosystem while storing stormwater and creating wildlife habitat.

Beatley concludes with a few thoughts that resonated with me about how the whole biophilic cities movement needs to evolve. As we green cities, we must aim to achieve a “just biophilia” in which everyone benefits. Given study after study demonstrate that access to nature can improve and even lengthen lives, it’s deeply unfair that not every community gets to have the healing benefits of nature. Plus, we must also must figure out how to reach an increasingly technology-fixated public, who are often interacting with nature through their phone’s camera. He promotes Sue Thomas’ book Technobiophilia, which argues we can better foster connections to nature through cyber-parks — real parks that leverage the Internet. 

The First Phase of the QueensWay Takes Shape

QueensWay elevated track / The New York Times.
QueensWay elevated track / The New York Times.

“The QueensWay reminds me of those dreams all New Yorkers have of finding a room in your apartment you never knew was there. It’s as if we’ve found 47 acres of parkland that had been sitting in the middle of Queens, unnoticed all these years,” said Gregory Wessner, executive director of Open House New York, host of a discussion on the QueensWay, a linear park being built on an abandoned rail line in Queens. In a city where space is at a premium, the prospect of a new 47-acre park creates a lot of buzz. After many years of discussion and planning, designs for the QueensWay are finally moving forward.

The 3.5-mile rail line that will become the QueensWay was the northern stretch of the Long Island Rail Road’s Rockaway Beach line, which was closed in 1962 and left abandoned. It runs through six neighborhoods that are some of the most culturally-diverse areas on the planet, as well as the 538-acre Forest Park.

In 2011, a group of people who live near the rail line came together as Friends of the QueensWay to advocate for the park’s creation. They partnered with the Trust for Public Land (TPL) and together made a strong case for the QueensWay — at least 322,000 people live within a mile radius of it.

“Just to put this into perspective, if this area were an actual city, it would be larger than St. Louis, Pittsburgh, or Orlando,” said Travis Terry, with the Friends of the QueensWay steering committee.

The QueensWay will provide a safe north-south bike route. Parts of the rail line are dark, strewn with litter, with evidence of drug use. Turning it into a park will improve lighting and security. Twelve public schools and two little league facilities are within a 5-minute walk. Those nearby schools lack open space. One of the schools doesn’t even have a playground, so to give the kids the exercise required by the department of education, teachers must walk them around the block. The QueensWay will give this school and others space to take students for recess or outdoor classroom experiences.

The QueensWay started with a grant from the state of New York, and, with this, the Friends of the QueensWay and TPL conducted a feasibility study, developed a plan, and held community workshops. With endorsements from elected officials, they received another state grant to cover the design of the first half mile, which is called the Metro Hub and will serve as a prototype that can help attract funding for the remaining 3 miles of the park. The team is about halfway through schematic designs for the first phase, which are being created by landscape architects at DLANDstudio and urban designers and planners with WXY Studio. The project is expected to cost some $120 million in total.

QueensWay phase 1 design / DLANDstudio
QueensWay phase 1 design / DLANDstudio

Susannah Drake, FASLA, DLANDstudio, showed an image of the current rail line, lush and green. “Parts of the rail line are incredibly beautiful. It almost looks like the Adirondacks. We want to draw upon that poetry and beauty and bring that to the project.” This beauty, along with a rigorous process for gathering community input, will guide the design.

QueensWay trail / The New York Times
QueensWay trail / The New York Times

The richly varied conditions, and their juxtaposition with the surrounding urban fabric, fascinate Drake. Since rail lines need to stay relatively flat, the southern portion runs through an embankment. In the middle stretch, where the terminal moraine of a past glacier rises up, the rail passes over a ravine. And at the north end, it becomes a raised structure.

“Fundamentally, what we are dealing with are landscape layers: we have ground, understory, and canopy layers. What we’re trying to do is make very careful adjustments to these layers so they function better and are more beautiful.”

Many of the existing trees will be kept, but the tangled underbrush will be removed. “Here we have a landscape that has grown, un-bothered, for 60 years. You just can’t buy that time, you couldn’t put in 60 year old trees,” said Drake.

The landscape design refers to the past practice of the Dutch farmers of Queens: it delineates spaces with walls built with stones from the moraine. In areas that run through dense residential neighborhoods, the design will encourage trail users to move through quickly, so they remain quiet and secure.

QueensWay Phase 1 design / DLANDstudio
QueensWay Phase 1 design / DLANDstudio

The incredibly popular High Line in Manhattan looms large in discussions about the QueensWay. In truth, the projects are quite different. The Queensway is not expected to be the tourist magnet the High Line is. At least 95 percent of visitors to the High Line are tourists from other parts of New York City or outside the city, whereas early projections predict that 75 percent of visitors to the QueensWay will be from adjacent neighborhoods. The Queensway will allow bikes and dogs while the High Line does not. And the QueensWay will be 2.5-times longer than the High Line.

With the High Line came a wave of high-rise development, causing property values and rents to explode in the surrounding area. The rapid change that came in Chelsea has some Queens residents nervous. Will the QueensWay lead to new development that displaces existing residents? The speakers said no.

The surrounding neighborhoods enjoy a relatively high rate of home ownership and residential zoning laws allow for only one or two family homes. While they hope the flow of people along the linear park will invigorate existing businesses, they don’t expect it to significantly change the demographics of the neighborhoods.

“New York has for a long time been a leader in the transformation of leftover and non-traditional spaces” said Andy Stone, with TPL. This project promises to be another in this lineage, but perhaps without the gentrifying effects.

This guest post is by Chella Strong, Assoc. ASLA, a recent master’s of landscape architecture graduate, Harvard University Graduate School of Design. 

ASLA Announces 2017 Professional and Student Awards Call for Entries

ASLA 2016 Professional General Design Honor Award. Grand Teton National Park Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center, Swift Company / Nic Lehoux
ASLA 2016 Professional General Design Honor Award. Grand Teton National Park Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center, Swift Company / Nic Lehoux

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) announces its calls for entries for the 2017 Professional and Student Awards, the world’s most prestigious juried landscape architecture competition. Each year, the ASLA Professional Awards honor the best in landscape architecture from around the globe, while the ASLA Student Awards give us a glimpse into the future of the profession.

Award-winning submissions will be featured in Landscape Architecture Magazine and in many other design and construction industry and general-interest media. Award recipients, their clients and student advisors also will be honored at the awards presentation ceremony during the ASLA Annual Meeting and EXPO in Los Angeles, October 20-23, 2017. Award-winning submissions will also be featured in a video presentation at the ceremony and on the awards website following the event.

The prestige of the ASLA awards programs relies on the high-caliber juries that are convened each year to review submissions. Members of this year’s professional awards jury are:

  • Elizabeth Miller, FASLA, chair, National Capital Planning Commission, Washington, D.C.
  • Diane Jones Allen, ASLA, DesignJones LLC, New Orleans
  • Maureen Alonso, U.S. General Services Administration, Washington, D.C.
  • James Brasuell, Planetizen, Los Angeles
  • James Lord, ASLA, Surfacedesign Inc., San Francisco
  • Janet Rosenberg, FASLA, Janet Rosenberg Studio, Toronto, Ontario
  • Glen Schmidt, FASLA, Schmidt Design Group Inc., San Diego
  • Todd Wichman, FASLA, Stantec, St. Paul, Minn.
  • Barbara Wyatt, ASLA, National Park Service, Washington, D.C.

Joining the jury for the selection of the Research Category will be M. Elen Deming, ASLA, University of Illinois, Champaign, Ill., on behalf of the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) and Charlene LeBleu, FASLA, Auburn University, Auburn, Ala., on behalf of the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture (CELA).

Members of the student awards jury are:

  • Barbara Swift, FASLA, chair, Swift Company llc, Seattle
  • Michael Albert, ASLA, Design Workshop, Aspen, Colo.
  • Meg Calkins, FASLA, Ball State University, Muncie, Ind.
  • Mark Focht, FASLA, New York City Parks & Recreation, New York
  • Robert Page, FASLA, Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation, Boston
  • James Richards, FASLA, Townscape Inc., Fort Worth, Texas
  • Roberto Rovira, ASLA, Florida International University, Studio Roberto Rovira, Miami
  • Meghan Stromberg, American Planning Association, Chicago
  • Mercedes Ward, ASLA, New York City Parks and Recreation, Flushing, N.Y.

Both the ASLA Professional and Student awards feature five categories: General Design; Residential Design; Analysis and Planning; Communications; and Research. The Professional Awards also include The Landmark Award, while the Student Awards include the Student Community Service Award and Student Collaboration categories.

Entry submissions and payment must be received by April 17, 2017 for ASLA Professional Awards and May 15, 2017 for ASLA Student Awards.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (January 16 – 31)

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From mall to park in Meriden, Connecticut / Clem Kasinskas

One Connecticut Town Swaps a Derelict Mall for a 14.4-acre, Community-Centered Green Space The Architect’s Newspaper, 1/17/17
“However, in Meriden, Connecticut, a town located halfway between New Haven and Hartford, city leaders took an alternate route: transforming a former mall into a resilient 14.4-acre park.”

Building Type: Long Road to the Arts District’s First Park The Los Angeles Times, 1/19/17
“This is the story of one of those moments. It’s also the story of how Los Angeles, after decades of largely ignoring its civic realm, is struggling to relearn the art of designing public space.”

James Corner Field Operations and nARCHITECTS Team Up to Revamp 10-acre Park in the Heart of ClevelandThe Architect’s Newspaper, 1/25/17
“Cleveland’s downtown is more welcoming thanks to a civic space replacing a formerly traffic-choked intersection.”

10 Brilliant Designs Revealed for New Holocaust Memorial in LondonArchitizer, 1/27/17
“No memorial or museum for the Holocaust will ever be able to bear the weight of or bring justice to the subject it represents, but nonetheless, thousands of built structures around the world have risen over time in a noble attempt to bring honor to the lives lost in some of history’s greatest atrocities.”

Landscape Designers Named for Obama Presidential CenterThe Chicago Tribune, 1/30/17
“The Obama Foundation on Monday named a team of landscape architects for the Obama Presidential Center, to be led by the designer of Chicago’s 606 trail and Maggie Daley Park.”

The Highway Hit List CityLab, 1/31/17
“The U.S. has no shortage of urban interstates ripe for removal, and some tear-downs are already underway. But planners should tread carefully when “reconnecting” neighborhoods.”

Parks Without Borders: Creating a Seamless Public Realm

Rocky Run Park / Flickr
Rocky Run Park, Arlington, Virginia / Flickr

“Parks are not islands that exist in isolation, they are connected to streets, sidewalks, and public spaces,” said NYC parks commissioner Mitchell Silver. “It’s our goal to create a seamless public realm for New York City.” The Parks Without Borders discussion series kicked off last week to a standing-room only crowd in Central Park’s Arsenal gallery. The enthusiasm generated by the Parks Without Borders summit held last spring inspired Silver to build the momentum with a series of shorter discussions. For this one, park leaders from three different cities, each with a uniquely successful park system, were invited to address the question: How can innovative park planning create a more seamless public realm?

Every day, 25,000 people go to work at the Pentagon, and the majority of these people live in Arlington, Virginia. How has a county that is both transit-oriented and a D.C. bedroom community come to have the 4th best park system in America? Jane Rudolph, director of the parks and recreation department for Arlington, uses a collaboration approach to find new spaces for parks and create a more seamless public realm. This approach allows the department to not only create new parks, but also encourage their cultural and spatial integration into an increasingly dense and diverse town. Joining forces with developers, the school district and local universities have enabled the Arlington parks system to expand and flourish, fitting new parks into areas not originally planned for such. These partnerships have lead to successful recreational spaces, such as Rocky Run Park (see image above).

Unlike Arlington, a county planned with a dearth of open space, Minneapolis is a city blessed with the structure that fosters an exceptional parks system, for two reasons: there is an abundance of natural resources, and Horace Cleveland, a forward-thinking landscape architect, developed an early master plan of the city during an industrial boom. Because of Cleveland, 70 percent of the land abutting the city’s 22 lakes remains public open space. Consequently, the people of Minneapolis are serious about their parks. The parks system’s trails are used so heavily by commuters that Jayne Miller, superintendent of Minneapolis parks and recreation board, says “We get calls if the trails aren’t cleared [of snow] by 6am.”

The challenge becomes how to keep playing this vital role in the lives of its citizens, addressing the needs of an increasingly diverse, younger, and more international population. One of the strategies is to provide safe space for low income and at-risk youth, introducing them to the parks through gardening, employment programs, and environmental education. In terms of creating and improving spaces, Minneapolis recently finished a new 4.2-acre park, Downtown East Commons, which used to be a parking lot, and they now have the country’s first public natural filtration swimming pool in Webber Park.

Webber Park / Star Tribune
Webber Park / Star Tribune

Like many American cities, Philadelphia experienced a significant drop in population between 1960 and 2000 when industry left, resulting in drastic cuts in the tax revenue. Public spaces were hit hard. As the population climbed again in the 2000s, the city scrambled to improve the facilities, starting with Center City. As a result, a number of beautiful and iconic public spaces, such as Spruce Street Harbor Park, Dilworth Park, and the Schuylkill River trail, were recently created.

“The real question remains: can we replicate the success we had in Center City” in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods of Philadelphia?, asked new commissioner of Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Kathryn Ott Lovell. To ensure they are able to create a more seamless public realm and re-integrate forgotten parks into the fabric of the city, the department is using two strategies. The short term strategy is enliven all open space, regardless of its condition, with pop-up events, such as traveling the beer garden Parks on Tap. The longer term strategy is to invest a half a billion dollars in civic infrastructure, with a focus on the parks hit hardest by disinvestment.

Parks on Tap at Powers Park / Parks on Tap
Parks on Tap at Powers Park / Parks on Tap

As the discussion drew to a close, Lynn Kelly, executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, said, “If this doesn’t leave you with the impression that parks are as necessary to cities as sewers, roads, and schools, I don’t know what else will. Parks are a city’s soul.”

This guest post is by Chella Strong, Assoc. ASLA, a recent master’s of landscape architecture graduate, Harvard University Graduate School of Design. 

Book Review: NACTO Global Street Design Guide

NACTO Global Street Design Guide / Island Press
NACTO Global Street Design Guide / Island Press

The Global Street Design Guide is the latest in a series of publications from the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) that re-imagines our urban streets as more multi-dimensional, aesthetic, efficient, safe and enjoyable spaces. The Global Street Design Guide uncovers what works in cities around the world, the cities that are trying to use streets for place making and city building. This invaluable guide brings together extremely useful information and metrics that can assist city administrations, urban designers, planners, landscape architects, and the public in forging new directions in street design. That said, this guide really needs to target city administrations and their engineering departments if it is to truly become an effective, transformative tool.

There still is a formidable battle going on out there between those who see streets as the domain of the automobile and those who don’t. For many cities, this polarized view has become extreme, perhaps, ironically, more so in progressive cities that have tried hard to integrate alternate forms of transportation and uses into the existing network. This guide can help make the case for multi-modal or, as otherwise known, complete streets.

Global Street Design Guide / NACTO
Global Street Design Guide / NACTO
Simple, clear plan diagrams communicating instantly the accommodation of people moving that could be achieved when a shift from a car oriented to multi-modal street is pursued / NACTO
Simple, clear plan diagrams communicating instantly the accommodation of people moving that could be achieved when a shift from a car oriented to multi-modal street is pursued / NACTO

Because many cities have differing standards, customs, and uses for their streets, this book cannot serve as a template for a specific design (nor do I think it’s intended to be). However, this guide contains all the background data, standards, and dimensions needed to help any designer build a layered, competent, and thorough street design in any part of the world. At the very least, it will help in reducing the guess work and sometimes incorrect assumptions that many designers make when it comes to how streets really work.

My own experiences in China highlight that streets there are very different than from those in Western countries. For example, it is not uncommon, along both major and secondary streets, to see commercial frontages, with widened pedestrian areas planned as public places, be partially or wholly taken over by parking. This parking then disrupts pedestrian flows and the ability to use streets as public spaces. Designers must deal with this reality and patiently try to transform practices.

In China, city planners typically set broad goals for better street design, but decisions to proceed one way or the other are made at a political level, then filter back down to the administrative level, before becoming a part of the design parameters of most streetscape projects. Nonetheless, things are changing. I can see the information in this book as being extremely helpful with developing strategic opening salvos during the preliminary stages of large scale streetscape projects in cities where I currently practice.

Additionally, the practical dimensional information in the guide should be well received by city planners in Asia, where in most cities Western urban design ideas are held in high regard. Because the information contained in this book has been guided by some of the world’s leading thinkers on city building, transportation, and open space design, it becomes an even more potent and convincing arrow in the urban design quiver.

There is a chapter on phasing and interim strategies that I found particularly compelling, since from experience, this is indeed a good way to build consensus with nervous or skeptical stakeholders.

I appreciate the book’s graphic style. The many illustrative drawings include diagrams, plans, sections and well-modeled, 3-D birds’ eye views. They are unadorned, factual, simple, and clear.

3D models, bird's eye view / NACTO
3D models, bird’s eye view / NACTO

Clear, concise sectional geometry options and how they respond the various user needs. This type of tool could be helpful when deciding which geometries could serve a particular project best.

Clear, concise sectional geometry options and how they respond the various user needs. This type of tool could be helpful when deciding which geometries could serve a particular project best / NACTO
Diagrams / NACTO

But I also found a few faults with the book. Including many global urban case studies is helpful and informative. However, from my own experience, there are many more good examples out there. Appreciating that a book like this simply cannot feature them all, perhaps a more comprehensive listing of lesser known, but exemplary global examples could be included in the next edition. Readers could then search more on their own.

The overall quality of the photographs is somewhat lacking. They could have perhaps been better placed, higher quality, and more impactful. In some cases they just didn’t seem like the right shot to communicate the idea. A few of the two page spreads register rather poorly along the spine margin resulting in some of the information irritatingly obscured.

All in all, the NACTO Global Street Design Guide should finds its way onto the shelves of all design and planning firms responsible for improving urban streets, regardless of where they practice. As important, it should also be in the hands of politicians, administrators, and engineers who collectively are very much in control of the direction our cities are heading.

Greg Smallenberg, FASLA, is a principal at PFS Studio, a global planning, urban design, and landscape architecture firm based in Vancouver, Canada. In addition to his North American and European work, he often undertakes large-scale planning, design and streetscape projects in Asia with Conglian Landscape Architecture and Planning Shanghai Ltd., a strategically allied joint enterprise with offices in Shanghai, Ningbo and Guangzhou, China.

Trump Orchestrates Major Shift on Climate and Environment

President Trump in the oval office / CNN
President Trump in the oval office / CNN

In the final weeks of his administration, President Obama made some important progress on the climate and environment. Unfortunately, much of that forward momentum is expected to be undone as the Trump administration, with its focus on rolling back environmental regulations and expanding fossil fuel extraction, begins to implement its policies. In his fourth day in office, President Trump has signed an order to revisit President Obama’s decision on Keystone XL, now allowing the 1,110-mile pipeline — which would transfer oil from the highly-polluting tar sands in Alberta, Canada, down to the Gulf of Mexico — to possibly move forward, along with the Dakota Access pipeline, the source of major protests among Native Americans. His administration also removed content on climate change from the White House website. Amid a profound shift in focus, scientists have found that 2016 was the hottest recorded year on record and the third record-breaking year in a row.

To recap what President Obama accomplished in his final days before leaving office: He transferred $500 million to the UN-managed Green Climate Fund, bringing the total U.S. transfers to date to $1 billion. Increased financial support from wealthy, developed countries for mitigation and adaptation programs in developing countries was seen as critical to gaining the political support of developing countries for the Paris climate agreement. As part of the negotiated settlement, the U.S. committed to transfer $3 billion to the fund. The Trump administration has not said whether it will follow-through on this important international obligation and send the remaining $2 billion.

President Obama made it more difficult for future administrations to allow for offshore oil or gas extraction in the Arctic and Atlantic. The Washington Post reports: “Obama used a little-known law called the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to protect large portions of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas in the Arctic and a string of canyons in the Atlantic stretching from Massachusetts to Virginia. In addition to a five-year moratorium already in place in the Atlantic, removing the canyons from drilling puts much of the eastern seaboard off limits to oil exploration even if companies develop plans to operate around them.” Simultaneously with Obama’s announcement, Canada proclaimed a ban on offshore drilling in its waters. It’s not clear whether President Trump has the powers to rescind Obama’s move, but Congress can undo the action if they have the votes.

Lastly, in the final days of his administration, President Obama sent a powerful message on conservation, vastly expanding the number of protected monuments. According to NPR, Obama set aside 1.35 million acres of land in southeast Utah as the Bears Ears National Monument. In addition, he created the Gold Butte National Monument, which will protect 300,000 acres in southwest Nevada. In a first, these protected areas will be managed collaboratively with Indian tribes. Many state officials were angered by the move, as more than 80 percent of land in Nevada and 65 percent of land in Utah is owned by the federal government. Over his two administrations, Obama created or expanded upon 34 national monuments. The New York Times writes that President Obama has protected more than 533 million acres of federal monuments, more than any other president.

As President Trump takes power, the domestic debate over climate change and the economic impact of environmental regulations — mostly, it seems, narrowly focused on the impact on  fossil fuel industries — has reached a fever pitch. Trump’s nominees to lead administration departments have been testifying on Capitol Hill and they have made a range of statements.

Uniformly, there was acknowledgement that climate change is happening, and that humanity has played some role in that change. However, other statements seemingly downplayed climate change as an issue, conveyed that it may be difficult to make progress on the climate without hurting economic growth, or bolstered the position that climate change is not settled science, that there are still too many unknowns. None of the nominees echoed Trump’s early position that climate change is Chinese-sponsored or a hoax though, a statement from which he seems to have back-tracked. But also none committed to any serious action.

It’s important to note the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which brings together all the world’s leading climate scientists, has found “it’s extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.” Also, some 97 percent of climate scientists agree that climate change is real and humanity is fundamentally behind the change.

Secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson, former CEO of ExxonMobil, said “the risk of climate change does exist” and “action should be taken.” However, he also seemed to back track a bit when he stated: “the increase in greenhouse gas in the atmosphere is having an effect. Our ability to predict that effect is very limited.” He reiterated his previously-stated support for a revenue-neutral carbon tax and also argued the U.S. must continue to play a role in global negotiations on the climate.

Secretary of energy nominee and former Texas governor Rick Perry said the climate is changing and “some of it is caused by man-made activities.” He added that “the question is how we address it in a thoughtful way that doesn’t compromise economic growth.” In response to concerns about a questionnaire, which was sent to energy department climate scientists by the Trump transition team in an effort to identify those who worked on international climate negotiations, Perry said he had no part in that, and “I am going to protect the men and women of the scientific community from anyone who would attack them. I will be an advocate (for the programs) … but I’m not sure I’m going to be 1,000 percent successful.” According to The Washington Post, during Perry’s tenure, Texas became the “nation’s leading wind energy state.” But at the same time, he also oversaw a great expansion in oil and gas exploration.

Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke, nominee for secretary of the department of interior, admitted that climate change is “indisputable” and humans are influencing the climate, but he also said: “I think where there’s debate on it is what that influence is, what can we do about it.” The department of interior has a potentially major impact on the U.S. fight against climate change, as it oversees public lands that can be used for oil, coal, and gas extraction. Zinke has issued statements supporting the expansion of energy production on federal lands, including renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. One positive: Zinke is seen by some as an advocate on conservation. He has repeatedly supported the Land and Water Conservation Fund, opposed efforts to sell off federal lands, and, siding with Democrats, been a proponent of “land banking.” He also made some positive statements about the National Park Service, arguing that President Trump’s plans to spend a trillion on infrastructure should also include $12.5 billion to deal with the back-log of maintenance for national parks.

According to CNN, in his hearing to be confirmed as head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt, former attorney general of Oklahoma, said: “Science tells us the climate is changing and human activity in some matter impacts that change. The ability to measure and pursue the degree and the extent of that impact and what to do about it are subject to continuing debate and dialogue.” Through his position in Oklahoma, Pruitt sued the EPA 13 times, charging the agency with over-reaching in its efforts to regulate national carbon emissions. He also received some $300,000 in contributions from oil and gas companies. Under aggressive questioning by Senator Bernie Sanders and other democrats, Pruitt acknowledged the EPA indeed has an”obligation” to regulate carbon emissions. Time magazine argues this may signal the Trump administration will not try to overturn the EPA’s finding that it’s obligated to regulate carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act. In fact, if Trump’s EPA seeks to undo Obama’s clean power plan, they will need to first come up with a replacement.

While Trump scales back the Obama administration’s climate and environmental ambitions, other countries are trying to pick up the slack and provide leadership. While Europe has long provided important role on the climate and environment, China has stepped up. On the Paris climate accords, President Xi Jinping recently said “all signatories should stick to it instead of walking away from it, as this is a responsibility we must assume for future generations.” China has halted development of over 100 major coal plants and pledged to invest $360 billion in renewable energy by 2020. According to Bloomberg, China is already the world’s top investor in renewable energy, at $86 billion per year, more than a third higher than levels in the U.S.

Watch Now: Inside the Landscape Architect’s Studio

Each year at the ASLA Annual Meeting, some of the world’s top landscape architects and designers explain themselves in front of audiences of hundreds. These designers give in-depth presentations, explaining the logic behind their designs and their latest projects. Now, ASLA has made these presentations available online for free. From the ASLA 2016 Annual Meeting in Chicago, you can watch more than 6 hours of videos:

Inside the LA Studio with DesignJones (see video above)

Join speakers Diane Jones Allen and Austin Allen as they discuss their years of professional and academic practice. They will share their experiences pursuing environmental justice projects, ground up approaches to planning and design, intricately linking Research and practice on all projects regardless of scale, and unique approaches to community outreach regarding critical social and infrastructure urbanism problems.

Watch Austin Allen, ASLA, associate professor, Robert Reich School of Landscape Architecture, LSU, New Orleans; Diane Jones Allen, ASLA, principal landscape architect, DesignJones.  Moderated by Jennifer Reut, senior editor, Landscape Architecture Magazine.

Inside the LA Studio with Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

The leaders at MVVA see new projects as more than just business. Each design is an opportunity to challenge our assumptions, learn through experimentation, and grow both individually and collectively. In this session we will use case studies to explore the value of teaching and learning through practice as means to achieve design excellence.

Watch Chris Donohue, ASLA; Scott Streeb, ASLA, landscape designer; Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, President and CEO; and Andy Wisniewski, ASLA, senior designer, all with Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc. Moderated by Shannon Nichol, FASLA, founding partner, Gustafson Guthrie Nichol.

Inside the LA Studio with Oehme, van Sweden & Associates

An award-winning practice, OvS has garnered international recognition for pioneering a systemic approach to sustainable design. The firm’s body of work illustrates what is possible when art, science, and environmental sensitivity equally drive the design process. Now, under its second generation of leadership, the partners will discuss the firm’s continued innovation.

Watch Sheila A. Brady, FASLA, vice President, principal; Lisa E. Delplace, ASLA, CEO + principal; and Eric Groft, FASLA, principal, Oehme, van Sweden & Associates. Moderated by Charles A. Birnbaum, FASLA, president/CEO, The Cultural Landscape Foundation.

Inside the LA Studio with Rana Creek Design

Rana Creek is a renowned ecological design firm specializing in landscape architecture, environmental planning, native plant propagation, landscape construction, and habitat restoration. This diverse team believes passionately in the mission to design and build landscapes that connect people, places, culture, and ecology.

Watch Blake Jopling, ASLA, project manager + designer; Marta Kephart, vice president and COO; Sina Yousefi, design associate; and Matthew P. Yurus, ASLA, principal landscape architect; and Paul Kephart, ASLA, ecologist, all with Rana Creek Living Architecture. Moderated by José Alminana, FASLA, principal, Andropogon Associates.