The Biophilic Design Movement Takes Shape (Part 1)

Buffalo Bayou Park playground, Houston, Texas / Mommy Nearest

While green infrastructure is needed to manage stormwater and cool the air in our cities, these systems, as currently designed, aren’t enough. In the future, they must also boost biodiversity and help forge richer connections between humans and nature, argued a set of policymakers, academics, planners, and landscape architects, who are part of the nascent biophilic design movement. At the Biophilic Leadership Summit, which was hosted at Serenbe, an agricultural community outside of Atlanta, and organized by the Biophilic Institute, the Biophilic Cities Project, and Serenbe founder Steven Nygren, the main themes of biophilic urban planning and design were explored in an effort to achieve greater definition. Much work, however, still needs to be done to codify, measure, and popularize the strategies discussed.

As Timothy Beatley, a professor at the University of Virginia and one of the central leaders of the movement has explained in his recent book, The Handbook of Biophilic City Planning & Design, 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.

The three-day summit mostly focused on the human side of the human-nature interactions fostered through biophilic design principles. What was missing was a discussion by ecologists and scientists on how biophilic planning and design actually benefits species, how to best measure a city’s biodiversity and human exposure to it, and therefore determine if a city is making real progress in their path to become more biophilic. Still, there were some valuable conversations.

One panel delved into strategies for improving connections to nature among children. Nygren said it has been nearly a decade since Richard Louv’s now-famous book, The Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, was published. What has happened since then and where do we need to go?

“There has been a huge amount of progress in the last 15 years. But on the negative side, the growth of children with health issues has been enormous,” argued Robin Moore, director of the Natural Learning Initiative. Indeed, today, one of out three children in America is overweight or obese because of poor diets and a lack of exercise. Children now spend seven hours in front of some sort of screen per day, and just 10 minutes in “unstructured outdoor play.”

Mikaela Randolph, director of cities and nature at the Children & Nature Network, was less positive to start, stating that not all children, or adults, enjoy nature to the same degree in their communities. In many underrepresented communities of color, there are fewer trees, playgrounds, and parks. “That’s an issue of life and death. Is that segment of the city going to live as long?” Studies have correlated tree cover and mortality rates, and the conclusions for those without daily access to nature in their communities are grim.

Moore said we must get serious about coming up with a strategy for incorporating nature into the places where children spend most of their day: schools, child care centers, and playgrounds. He called for targeting municipal, county, and state decision makers. “Changing the laws and codes is the next step.”

Furthermore, homeowners associations, which often just drop in standards created by a national organization, need to change their model, so communities can becomes “more nature and children focused,” argued Hayden Brooks, co-founder, Children in Nature Collaborative. Nygren agreed and said “developers know every rule for cars but don’t know the rules for pedestrians and kids. What if developers had to demonstrate a connection to nature?”

Randolph and Hayden explained how their organizations help local non-profits in a set of cities come together to maximize their impact. The Children & Nature Network, which partners with the National League of Cities, removes obstacles to “green school yards, early childhood education, out of school time, youth leadership, and park activation.” The Children in Nature Collaborative enables local planning processes. One successful result of their efforts is the Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights, which was just passed by the city council of Austin, Texas.

Their efforts also yielded one of the best ideas discussed at the conference: “green school parks,” which are about first involving communities in redeveloping and greening school yards and then making them accessible to the community outside school hours. “These places are then co-owned by the communities. They have access too.”

Lastly, Moore cautioned that while green infrastructure is great, “there needs to be places for kids in it.” He pointed to Buffalo Bayou in Houston, Texas, which was designed by landscape architects SWA Group, as a positive example of what to do. The entire park and flood mitigation system makes room for a nature playground. It’s on a steep site and periodically floods, but “it’s where we want it to be — embedded in the urban environment.”

Read part 2.

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

Chi
The Chicago Riverwalk / Christian Phillips

Sasaki Unveils Design for Sunqiao, a 100-Hectare Urban Farming District in Shanghai Arch Daily, 4/2/2017
“With nearly 24 million inhabitants to feed and a decline in the availability and quality of agricultural land, the Chinese megacity of Shanghai is set to realize the Sunqiao Urban Agricultural District, a 100-hectare masterplan designed by US-based firm Sasaki Associates.”

New Urban Parks and Public Spaces to See in 2017 Curbed, 4/3/2017
“The urban park, from well-manicured, small lots in residential neighborhoods to massive, city-defining landmarks such as Central Park, have long been centerpieces of city life. But in an age of climate change and evolving urban-planning concepts, parks are being viewed through many different lenses.”

Dallas Approves Construction of a New 3-acre Park in Former Downtown Parking Lot Arch Daily, 4/6/2017
“Joni Mitchell, Dallas has heard you. The City Council of Dallas has decided to un-pave a 3.2-acre parking lot—in place since 1921—and put up a paradise in the form of Pacific Plaza Park.”

Homeowners Want Their Landscapes to Stand Out on the Block Houston Chronicle, 4/7/17
“The backyard was once just about having trees, shrubs and annuals for pops of color. Today local landscape architects and designers say that stylish outdoor spaces are getting as much consideration as the homes they’re attached to.”

The 11th Street Bridge Park Isn’t Just a Vanity Project The Washingtonian, 4/12/17
“The 11th Street Bridge Park will physically connect both sides of the Anacostia River. It’s a 1,200-foot-long, pedestrian-only expanse that will let people stroll between Capitol Hill and Anacostia. The big question is whether it will socially connect them.”

You Should Care About Preserving This Lake Park BridgeMilwaukee Magazine, 4/12/17
“Do Milwaukeeans care about their Frederick Law Olmsted-designed parks and the current and potential value they offer? If the answer is yes, the debate about preserving the elegant Ravine Road Bridge in Lake Park deserves the attention of every concerned citizen.”

Chandigarh: Where Modernism Met India

Chandigarh Revealed / Princeton Architectural Press

Chandigarh, the capital city of the Indian states of Haryana and Punjab, was planned and designed in the 1950s and 60s by French-Swiss master architect Le Corbusier, along with architects Jane Drew, Pierre Jeanneret, and Maxwell Fry, and a host of Indian modernists. Envisioned by India’s founding prime minister Jawahar Lal Nehru, the planned city represented a break with India’s colonial past and embodied a distinctly-Indian form of modernism, rooted in post-independence values of democracy, socialism, secularism, and non-alignment. The city, and other planned modernist cities of the era, told the world India was on its way.

First planned and designed to accommodate some 500,000 people, today, more than a million people live in Chandigarh, as the city has expanded, and slums have taken over areas where the plan was never fully realized. Some 50 years later, Le Corbusier and Nehru’s city appears both glorious and derelict, visionary and an anachronism in Chandigarh Revealed, a fascinating new book by photographer and designer Shaun Flynn.

Chandigarh has been likened to Brasilia, the modernist capital city of Brazil planned and designed by architect Oscar Niemeyer. But whereas Brasilia hosts workers during the day and expels them at night, Chandigarh was designed to be a more livable city full-time, with a primary Capitol complex, and its Legislative Assembly as the focus; commercial districts; parks and plazas; educational, medical, and research institutions; and housing for tens of thousands of government workers.

Chandigarh legislative assembly / Images © Shaun Fynn, from Candigarh Revealed: Le Corbusier’s City Today by Shaun Fynn published by Princeton Architectural Press (2017)
Chandigarh legislative assembly interior / Images © Shaun Fynn, from Candigarh Revealed: Le Corbusier’s City Today by Shaun Fynn published by Princeton Architectural Press (2017)

Chandigarh’s plan is divided into 47 sectors, each 800 by 1,200 meters. Sectors 1-30 were created from 1951-1976, and sectors 31-57 were created from the 1960-1985. Until his death in 1965, Le Corbusier was still designing elements of the site. Flynn’s well-designed infographics really help explain his vision.

Flynn describes in his introduction how government housing is further broken into fourteen categories, each with variations, and “all built according to a hierarchy based on socioeconomic status.”

“The most desirable and lowest-density area are sectors 2-9, which are adjacent to the Capitol complex, while population density increases as the sectors recede from the mountains, the Capitol complex, and Sukhna Lake.” Even in the planned city, it’s all about location — in this case, the proximity to power.

But all buildings were made to a consistent level of quality and with the same attention to detail. Constructed out of concrete and brick, the most cost-effective and freely available local material, the buildings were designed to nest together into a broader plan. And even the smallest apartments — the minimum being 100 square meters — were designed by an architect with care, writes M.N. Sharma, an associate of Le Corbusier and chief architect of Chandigarh from 1965-1979.

According to numerous reports and surveys, the city today has one of the happiest and wealthiest populations in all of India, and the city itself is one of the cleanest. These achievements may be seen as a testament to the legacy of Nehru, Le Corbusier, and his colleagues.

But the state of ruin of many of the buildings can also be seen as a commentary on the lack of progress towards Nehru’s vision of a fully-modern India, with strong, centralized, and efficient government.

Architect Vikramaditya Prakash, who grew up in Chandigarh, writes in his essay about the complexities found in Chandigarh. By the 1970s, the vision of efficient government as embodied in the Capitol complex had died amid “the daily disintegration of the failing Nehruvian nation-state,” and “as endemic corruption, unemployment, and the bloated lethargy of the public sector slowly drained the lifeblood of the nation.”

Chandigarh / Images © Shaun Fynn, from Candigarh Revealed: Le Corbusier’s City Today by Shaun Fynn published by Princeton Architectural Press (2017)

However, in the midst of this national deterioration, “Chandigarh paradoxically prospered.” He writes: “As the rest of the cities of northern India descended into urban miasma, Chandigarh became a haven for the Punjabi elite because the city, particularly as its tree cover matured, offered an unparalleled quality of life.”

Flynn argues there is another narrative on Chandigarh worth exploring: planning, architecture, and nature. Le Corbusier focused on the “care of the mind and body,” which is reflected in not only the buildings, which are rich with Le Corbusier’s symbols and native religious forms, but also in the landscape.

Le Corbusier’s hand symbol on a building / Images © Shaun Fynn, from Candigarh Revealed: Le Corbusier’s City Today by Shaun Fynn published by Princeton Architectural Press (2017)

In his edict, Le Corbusier writes: “The city of Chandigarh is planned to human scale. It puts us in touch with the infinite cosmos and nature. It provides us with places and buildings for all human activities by which the citizens can live a full and harmonious life. Here the radiance of nature and heart are within our reach.”

Nature and architecture intermingle at Chandigarh / Images © Shaun Fynn, from Candigarh Revealed: Le Corbusier’s City Today by Shaun Fynn published by Princeton Architectural Press (2017)

In a transcript of an interview, Sharma concurs, arguing that “to take care of your mind and body, you need recreation so this is a city with open spaces. Old people can walk, children can run around, and then there are paths that are very peaceful. There are also large-scale gardens that many people thought were for the rich, and I told them, no, the Rose Garden is meant for poor people.”

Modernist planning and architecture comes together with parks and tree-lined streets to create a livable Modernism, a garden city for Indians.

From the book, however, it’s unclear how much of Chandigarh’s interesting landscape came from the original designers and how much accrued as new layers later.

Also, while Flynn shoots the buildings designed by Le Corbusier, Jeanneret, Drew, and Fry in a compelling way — giving us a real sense of what it’s like to be in these buildings, walk around them, or even be on top of them — he only gives us glimpses of civic and green spaces, and offers no photographs of people out enjoying the community’s tree-covered streets, parks, the celebrated Zakir Hussein Rose Garden, or the Rock Garden, which is estimated to have received some 12 million visitors.

Chandigarh rose garden / Wikipedia

Examining Flynn’s photographs, one must often look around the corners of buildings and imagine what these landscapes are like in totality.

View of Le Corbusier’s museum / Images © Shaun Fynn, from Candigarh Revealed: Le Corbusier’s City Today by Shaun Fynn published by Princeton Architectural Press (2017)

Le Corbusier was very focused on how buildings and nature must relate. In this book, one hopes for a clearer view of that central relationship.

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

Dominique Perrault reimagines the Île de la Cité in Paris / Dominique Perrault Architecture, ADAGP

Team Behind New York’s High Line Will Develop Plan for Georgetown C&O Canal DCist.com, 3/17/17
“Georgetown Heritage announced that urban design and landscape architecture firm James Corner Field Operations will take the lead on creating the ‘Georgetown Canal Plan,’ which will reimagine the neighborhood’s national park—its mile-long section of the Chesapeake and Ohio National Historical Park.

Dominique Perrault Reimagines the Île de la Cité in ParisThe Architect’s Newspaper, 3/22/17
“One of two islands in the Parisian Seine, the Île de la Cité is largely known to tourists as little more than the location of such popular destinations as the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Sainte Chapelle—a fate that belies the island’s 2,000-year history as the center of Paris.”

Dallas Set to Un-Pave a Parking Lot, and Put a Park Downtown with $15M Gift The Dallas Morning News, 3/22/17
“Dallas is now set to transform one of its ubiquitous downtown surface parking lots into a public green space.”

Savannah Redesign to Reshape Streets in Historic Southern City Curbed, 3/23/17
“EDSA, an international planning, landscape, and urban design firm, will be redesigning part of the streetscape of Savannah, Georgia, a Southern town known for its grid system and historic streets.”

Architect Predicts Oklahoma City’s Downtown Park Will Be ‘Transformative’ News OK, 3/27/17
“The designer of the MAPS 3 downtown park says it will change Oklahoma City.”

Homeowners Look to Landscaping for Personalization, Value-AddConstruction Dive, 3/29/17
“The volume of lower-cost outdoor renovation work suggests that owners are seeking to add value to their homes in the current seller’s market while making them livable for themselves in the meantime.”

Why New Englanders Are Going Wild for Fire PitsThe Boston Globe, 3/30/17
“Even though our summer season is short, New Englanders have embraced the concept of outdoor rooms, raising the bar with comfy seating, weatherproof rugs, and even artwork on their patios. Another California-born trend has recently made its way east: the fire pit.”

ASLA Outlines Infrastructure Priorities

Queens Plaza in Queens NYC, 2012 / Sam Oberter

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) urges policy makers and stakeholders to support an infrastructure plan that not only addresses today’s crumbling infrastructure, but also creates tomorrow’s resilient systems. ASLA recommends that the infrastructure plan includes the following:

Fixing Our Nation’s Water Infrastructure

ASLA 2014 Professional General Design Honor Award Recipient. Hunter’s Point South Waterfront Park. Thomas Balsley Associates and Weiss/Manfredi / Wade Zimmerman

Our nation’s deteriorating drinking water and wastewater systems require extensive maintenance and repairs—more than $655 billion in investments, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Less-costly green infrastructure solutions designed by landscape architects naturally absorb stormwater runoff—the major contributor to water pollution and unsafe drinking water.

ASLA urges policy makers to support a comprehensive infrastructure package that:

  • Increases funding for the Drinking Water and Clean Water State Revolving Funds. These funds provide critical resources to states, localities, and water systems to improve water treatment infrastructure and help implement green infrastructure projects.
  • Reinforces EPA’s green infrastructure and low-impact development programs and policies, such as the Green Infrastructure Collaborative, Soak Up the Rain, Campus Rainworks, G3, and others, which provide communities with tangible, cost-effective solutions to address water management needs.

Upgrading to a Multimodal Transportation Network

ASLA 2011 Professional General Design Award of Excellence Recipient. Portland Mall Revitalization. ZGF Architects LLP / ZGF Architects LLP

Our nation’s roads and bridges are crumbling and in need of repair. Using expert planning and design techniques, landscape architects are helping to create less costly, more convenient transportation systems that also include walking, bicycling, and public transportation options.

To meet the demands of today’s transportation users, ASLA urges policy makers to support a comprehensive infrastructure package that:

  • Supports active transportation programs, like the Transportation Alternatives Program, Safe Routes to School, and Recreational Trails programs. Together, these programs are providing much-needed, low-cost transportation options for individuals, families, and communities across the country.
  • Enhances the Transportation Infrastructure Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants program, which, with increased funding, will successfully assist more states and local communities with building multimodal projects that address congestion, improve safety, and expand economic opportunity.
  • Invests in transit and transit-oriented development to meet the growing demand for expanded public transportation and intercity passenger rail systems across the country. Transit-oriented development is also critical to jump-starting local economic development.

Recognizing Public Lands, Parks, and Recreation as Critical Infrastructure

America’s national resources / istockphoto

America’s natural infrastructure should be protected, preserved, and enhanced. Our public lands are also economic drivers and support critical jobs, tourism, and other economic development, yet there is a $12 billion deferred maintenance backlog of projects. Landscape architects design parks, trails, urban forests, and other open spaces that enhance communities and augment the value of other types of infrastructure.

ASLA urges policy makers to support an infrastructure plan that:

  • Invests in our nation’s public lands, including providing for construction, maintenance, and restoration projects at the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and U.S. Forest Service.
  • Increases funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which provides critical assistance to urban, suburban, and rural communities for local park projects. Community parks are essential infrastructure that address stormwater, air quality, heat island effect, and public health issues.
  • Bolsters USDA’s Urban and Community Forestry program, which focuses on the stewardship of communities’ natural infrastructure and resources.

Designing for Resilience

ASLA 2016 Ohio Chapter Award of Excellence Recipient. Scioto Greenways.
MKSK / Randall Schieber

Communities are increasingly faced with addressing hurricanes, tornadoes, severe flooding, wildfires, and other natural disasters. Landscape architects have the education, training, and tools to help these places rebuild homes, businesses, and critical infrastructure in a more resilient manner.

ASLA urges policy makers to support an infrastructure plan that:

  • Employs a sound planning and design process that incorporates disaster planning, which could greatly enhance a community’s resilience to extreme weather, sea-level rise, and other natural events.
  • Provides adequate funding to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to continue efforts that help communities adapt to and mitigate coastal hazards.
  • Expands the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Rebuild by Design competition for additional regions affected by natural disasters. The Rebuild by Design competition is a multistage planning and design competition that uses the expertise of multidisciplinary design teams to promote resilience in the Hurricane Sandy-affected region.

Also, see a PDF version of the proposal.

Let the Water Tell the Story: Leading with Landscape III Convenes in San Antonio

Brackenridge Park, San Antonio / SanAntonio.gov

San Antonio’s historic downtown is the main draw for a tourism industry with a $13 billion impact. The history is about as thick as it gets for a U.S. city, but the downtown’s commodification has taken a toll. For example, just up the steps from the Rainforest Café on the Riverwalk, the Alamo faces off with Ripley’s Believe It or Not and Madame Toussaud’s Waxworks. Follow the San Antonio river downstream for eight miles, though, and you encounter four modest, centuries-old missions in serene, almost rural settings. And if you follow the river three miles upstream, you find Brackenridge Park, a hard-working 343-acre city park packed with locals.

The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) held its third Leading with Landscape conference in San Antonio, and, unlike the first two iterations of the series in Toronto and Houston, the event focused on a single site — Brackenridge Park. Landscape architects and local leaders, including Mayor Ivy Taylor, focused on the park itself or presented examples relevant to the discussion of its past and future. More than 400 attendees were drawn to the Pearl Stable, a brick barn built in 1894 and converted to a theater.

Lynn Osborne Bobbit, executive director of the Brackenridge Park Conservancy, opened the conference by announcing the approval of a master plan for the park that was commissioned by the city and crafted by Rialto Studio. The first draft of the master plan faced stiff resistance around parking changes, the closing of interior roads, and fears that working-class people of color would lose access. This controversy was not discussed in detail during the conference, but was alluded to by City Council member Robert C. Treviño and others.

Brackenridge park planning process / Parks and Recreation San Antonio and City of San Antonio Transportation and Capital Improvements, Work5hop

Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, president and founder of TCLF, framed the conversation at the conference start. He said Brackenridge Park has not received the national attention it merits because it was not designed by a master. Frederick Law Olmsted did visit the site in 1857 before it became a park and wrote that the clear springs there that give rise to the San Antonio River “may be classed as the first water among the gems of the natural world.” After Olmsted’s visit, in the late nineteenth century, a private company pumped water uphill and out to the burgeoning city. When this system became obsolete, the owner, George Washington Brackenridge, donated the site, which accumulated uses piecemeal over time, like the zoo and Witte Museum. Informal uses, like Easter weekend camping, developed along the riverbanks as well.

The history goes much deeper, at least 11,000 years, as several speakers noted. Visitors have had the opportunity to observe archaeological digs unveiling ancient artifacts in the vicinity of the bike trails, zoo, Japanese Garden, natural history museum, playgrounds, cafes, pavilions, picnic tables, and parking lots.

Leading landscape architects had visited the park prior to the conference and carefully situated Brackenridge in a national context. Chris Reed, FASLA, founder of Stoss Landscape Urbanism, gave an overview of major projects around the country showing the resurgence of landscape design not just in the making of parks but in the shaping of cities. Gina Ford, ASLA, a principal and landscape architect in Sasaki’s Urban Studio, talked about how park edges matter, citing examples in New York and Houston to both define park edges and make them more porous. Brackenridge’s edge come in and out of focus, making its extent hard to understand.

Bob Harris, a partner at Lake|Flato Architects, spoke about plans for Confluence Park, where San Pedro Creek meets the San Antonio River near Mission Concepción. He noted the door-to-door outreach campaign that gained acceptance from an initially-skeptical neighboring community. A former industrial yard will be transformed into a park with a pavilion of massive concrete forms. In a similar vein, Kinder Baumgardner, ASLA, managing partner of SWA’s Houston office, gave an account of how difficult it can be to reconcile the varied demands of neighboring and regional park users.

Confluence Park forms / Lake|Flato Architects

Suzanne B. Scott, general manager of the San Antonio River Authority, talked about the decades-long effort it took to piece together land, permits, funding, community buy-in, and political support to create a continuous trail system stretching from the “Mission Reach” in the south, through downtown, to the conference site in the “Museum Reach,” which, with an awkward dogleg at US 281, ends at Brackenridge Park. The authority has expanded its vision to include creeks and key streets like the Broadway Cultural Corridor. David Adjaye’s design for the Pace Foundation expresses this ambition beautifully along San Pedro Creek.

Christine Ten Eyck, FASLA, shared her firm’s designs for a new entry sequence — a lush canyon of dripping vines — for the San Antonio Botanical Gardens adjacent to Brackenridge.

Doug Reed, FASLA, spoke about connection to community and a yearning for permanence, about emotion and deep time. Using maps and diagrams, he showed how Brackenridge is fragmented now, but has the potential to bring all these elements we yearn for together. He said Brackenridge does not fit neatly into any one park model and it may in fact be more like a national park than any city park.

The comparison to a national park echoed a point Birnbaum made at the start of the conference: Brackenridge Park should be part of a national heritage area that includes the missions and is connected by a narrative around water. The recent designation of the missions as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, he argues, missed an opportunity to raise the profile of the broader landscape and tell a story around the river.

San Antonio mission / PR Newswire

How, though, can Brackenridge Park be elevated as a national landmark without losing the authenticity that comes out of its “plop-and-drop” accumulation of uses? One recurring response from speakers was made very clearly by Vincent Michael, executive director of the San Antonio Conservation Society, who said the modern view of preservation is “process and community” more than restoring design integrity. The term “community,” as Baumgardner showed, is difficult to pin down. As for process, landscape architects often endure brutal criticism as they try to resolve different demands by layering uses.

A May 6 bond vote that would provide $21.5 million for Brackenridge Park will be a critical test of whether the newly-adopted master plan and heightened ambitions engendered by TCLF’s conference have been enough to move the process forward.

This guest post is by Raj Mankad, editor of Cite magazine at the Rice Design Alliance.

Book Review: Seeing The Better City

Seeing the Better City / Island Press

In her book The Eye Is a Door, landscape architecture professor Anne Whiston Spirn, FASLA, contemplates the ubiquity of the digital camera. “Never have so many people owned cameras,” and never have images been disbursed so widely.  “Our world is being recorded,” Spirn writes. “But to what end?”

Author Charles Wolfe proposes an end in his new book Seeing the Better City. And that end, suggests this environmental and land-use lawyer, is the improvement of urban environments. The first job of the book, a how-to guide on maintaining a photographic diary, is to answer the obvious question: what role do photographs play in improving cities?

Every day, Wolfe writes, people living in cities encounter changing skylines and neighborhoods. They often have strong opinions on those changes. Oral arguments are made and editorials are written advising on what changes should be made, and often these arguments lack even the most basic visual aid of a photograph. Perhaps the term “multi-family housing” conjures a specific image in your head. But if assessing whether a multi-family unit belongs in your neighborhood, you’d have an advantage if you could view precedents.

Still, there’s a gulf between taking photos and improving cities. How does one apply what can be gleaned from photographs to the world of decision makers and developers? Wolfe offers several case studies of projects that make use of community photography to inform civic debates.

WALKscope in Denver has users submit photos of sidewalk quality, obstructions, amenities, and maps those observations. California King Tides invites users to submit photos of the sea taken at high tide to spread awareness about sea-level rise. Beyond these novel uses of photos, the simple incorporation of photos into presentations that inform civic decisions would greatly improve the decision-making process, Wolfe argues.

As a guide for becoming a better observer, Seeing the Better City is highly successful. Wolfe provides a structured template for an urban diary, but invites readers to construct their own.

As for actually shooting photos, Wolfe eschews prescribing techniques in favor of offering basic guidelines. He draws upon well-regarded photographers such as Ansel Adams and other visual thinkers. Diarists should know to make a photo, not just take one. Light is critical, as is where one stands. People are more critical still. Visit locations multiple times; light changes, but so do uses, the presence of people and animals, and small details such as litter. Juxtaposing the old and new can be interesting, if a bit derivative. Juxtaposing form, material, and use can yield rich photos.

seeing-the-better-city-2
Google Street View can be very useful for discussing elements of the urban environment, Charles Wolfe suggests. / Google Street View

Wolfe wants us to ask ourselves: what is being evaluated through our lens? Wolfe provides 10 parameters for seeing the city. The relation of building to street, standards for roads and signage, and the role of nature are just a few.

Wolfe also suggests activities for inaugurating a diary, such as visiting your five favorite neighborhoods and recording the sights and sounds you encounter, filming your next bike ride, or writing a couple paragraphs about your morning commute.

Many people effectively keep an urban diary without realizing it. The next step is to organize one’s thoughts and photos, reflect on them, and build off them.

Scattered through Seeing the Better City are Wolfe’s anecdotes on his own diary keeping. His observations often demonstrate a deep knowledge of urban policy and land-use issues. Your observations may not, at least initially. But at the very least, urban diaries expand the diarist’s understanding of their city, and that’s enough to start the process of improvement.

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

Biscayne Green /  Modern Cities

Fuji Kindergarten | An Exploration of Space and Learning for Children Landscape Architect’s Network, 3/2/17
“Design is about hosting human life and activity. There are, however, projects that go beyond that, to actually shape human life and activity. Fuji Kindergarten is one of those projects. Given its educational purpose, it would be right to say that it shapes character and personality, as well.”

New Plans Revealed for Detroit’s East Riverfront Architect’s Newspaper, 3/2/17
“The Detroit RiverFront Conservancy (DRFC), the City of Detorit Planning & Development Department, and the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation (DEGC) announced the latest plans to expand Detroit’s riverfront land for public use.”

Five Competing Designs Revealed for Victims of Communism MemorialThe Ottawa Sun, 3/2/17
“The Department of Canadian Heritage Thursday revealed five competing designs for a relocated and drastically downsized Memorial to the Victims of Communism at the Garden of the Provinces and Territories on Wellington Street.”

Landscape Architecture Icons to Know Now: Cornelia Oberlander and Harriet Pattiso Curbed, 3/8/17
“Cornelia Oberlander and Harriet Pattison knew of each other long before they met: In a field with few female practitioners at the time, they were often told of “another” woman working in landscape architecture.”

In Chicago and Philadelphia, The Difference a Park Makes – The New York Times, 3/12/17
“From Philadelphia to Seattle, other American cities are also banking on parks and public spaces to drive social and economic progress.”

Miami’s Giant Pop Up Recreates Downtown Street Modern Cities, 3/13/17
“Temporary installation is the first attempt to showcase possible improvements that could transform Biscayne Boulevard in Downtown Miami into street rivaling the Embarcadero in San Francisco.”

Amur Leopards, Siberian Tigers Get New Sanctuary In China, Bigger Than YellowstoneInternational Business Times, 3/13/17
“”China has reportedly approved plans to create a national park in the northeast areas of Jilin and Heilongjiang that will span 5,600 square miles— about 60 percent bigger than Yellowstone National Park.”

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (February 16 – 28)

Chicago’s Martin Luther King Drive transformed by driverless cars / The Driverless City Project and Illinois Institute of Technology, via The Chicago Tribune

Driverless Cars Could Change Urban LandscapeThe Chicago Tribune, 2/17/17
“If self-driving cars lead to a significant drop in the number of vehicles on the road, parking garages could be turned into apartments or stores. Curbside parking could be converted into rainwater-collecting bio swales that help prevent sewers from backing up. Roads would narrow. Sidewalks would widen.”

Wastelands Reborn CityLab, 2/17/17
“As my colleague Laura Bliss explores in her story about New York’s Freshkills Park, some of the best parts of certain metropolitan areas are literally built on dumps. There’s a whole genre of these parks, from César Chávez Park in Berkeley to the Tiffit Nature Reserve in Buffalo.”

Ten Finalist Teams Named for U.K. National Holocaust Memorial Competition The Architect’s Newspaper, 2/23/17
“The UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation has announced its shortlist of ten teams to design the new National Holocaust Memorial and Learning Center in Victoria Tower Gardens, adjacent the Palace of Westminster and in the heart of London.”

Planners Across America: McDermid Manages New Oklahoma Land Rush Planetizen, 2/27/17
“Planning Department Director Aubrey McDermid discusses planning’s role in the Oklahoma City’s ongoing reinvestment and revitalization.”

Pershing Park and the World War I Memorial: Moving Beyond an Accumulation of Pieces The Huffington Post, 2/27/17
“One of the most important parks on the most significant stretch of America’s Main Street – Pennsylvania Avenue between the U.S. Capitol and the White House, known as the Pennsylvania Avenue National Historic Site – remains under threat.”

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

high17081_415899
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.”