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.

Most Popular Dirt Posts of 2016

India’s water crisis / National Geographic
India’s water crisis / National Geographic

As we look forward to covering new stories on the built and natural environments this year, here’s a look back at the 10 most popular Dirt posts of 2016. Extensive coverage of the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF)’s New Landscape Declaration attracted the greatest interest. Thought provoking op-eds on the summit from University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) landscape architecture department chair Richard Weller, ASLA, and UPenn graduate student Billy Fleming, Student ASLA, were also widely read. (Speaking of which, The Dirt is always looking for original op-eds, particularly from member landscape architects, designers, and planners. If interested, please email us at info@asla.org).

Also worth noting: innovative examples of ecological and biophilic design, along with the latest research on the health benefits of nature, drew readers. 

1) The New Landscape Declaration: Visions for the Next 50 Years

Over the next 50 years, landscape architects must coordinate their actions globally to fight climate change, help communities adapt to a changing world, bring artful and sustainable parks and open spaces to every community rich or poor, preserve cultural landscape heritage, and sustain all forms of life on Earth. These were the central messages that came out the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF)‘s New Landscape Declaration: Summit on Landscape Architecture and the Future in Philadelphia, which was attended by over 700 landscape architects.

2) Has Landscape Architecture Failed?

In 1966, Campbell Miller, Grady Clay, Ian McHarg, Charles Hammond, George Patton, and John Simonds marched to the steps of Independence Hall in Philadelphia and declared that an age of environmental crisis was upon us and that the profession of landscape architecture was key to solving it.

3) 10 Parks That Changed America

PBS will broadcast a new documentary, 10 Parks That Changed America, on April 12th. Produced by WTTW in Chicago and featuring Geoffrey Baer, the show identifies the 10 most influential urban parks in the country, from the era of America’s early settlers to the present day.

4) Biophilic Cities Lead the Way to Urban Sustainability

“We need density but we also need connections to nature,” said University of Virginia professor Timothy Beatley, at an event at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) to celebrate D.C.’s successful inclusion in the Biophilic Cities Network, a group of leading cities pushing for rich, nature-filled experiences in daily urban life.

5) 15 of the Best Instagram Accounts for Landscape Architects

Instagram is a great way to get inspired, but there are over 500 million active accounts, so who should you follow? For landscape architects, fresh ideas can be found from following other landscape architects, but also those outside the field: artists, technologists, illustrators, and designers.

6) It’s Time to Get Political

Social justice. Environmental stewardship. Enduring aesthetic beauty. An expanded role for landscape architects. These were the predominant themes in the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF)’s Summit on Landscape Architecture and the Future at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

7) Thomas Rainer: There Are No Mulch Circles in the Forest

Instead of laying down a layer of mulch to separate plants, let native plants grow into beautiful, layered masses, said Thomas Rainer, ASLA, co-author of Planting in a Post-Wild World, at the Potomac Chapter of ASLA Gala in Washington, D.C. Rainer believes it’s possible to both boost biodiversity and achieve beauty through the use of “designed plant communities.”

8) Best Books of 2016

There were so many great books this year that honing in on just ten favorites was too challenging. Whether you are looking for a unique book to give as a gift or one for yourself to delve into, we have some options. Here’s The Dirt‘s top 15 books of 2016, our picks for the best on the environment, cities, and landscape.

9) We Must Better Communicate the Health Benefits of Nature

While landscape architects, arborists, and park advocates, and an increasing number of mayors, planners, and public health officials, understand the presence of nearby nature in cities to be central to human health and well-being, the public seems to think of tree-lined streets, trails, and parks as “nice, but not necessary, add-ons,” according to a new report commissioned by the TKF Foundation and conducted by the FrameWorks Institute, a non-partisan research organization.

10) New Research: Students Learn Better in Classrooms with Views of Trees
What if what is outside a school’s windows is as critical to learning as what’s inside the building? A fascinating new study of high school students in central Illinois found that students with a view of trees were able to recover their ability to pay attention and bounce back from stress more rapidly than those who looked out on a parking lot or had no windows.

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

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Buffalo Bayou Park, Houston / Tom Fox, SWA Group via Curbed

Mapping the Urban Tree Canopy in Major CitiesCityLab, 1/4/17
“MIT’s Treepedia reveals where the streets are greenest, and which ones could use more work.”

Just for Three Weeks, Cars Will Make Way for People on Biscayne Boulevard Downtown Miami Herald, 1/5/17
“Biscayne Green aims to make the city friendlier for pedestrians by temporarily transforming parking lots into parks in Downtown Miami.”

7 Ugly Urban Underpasses Now Functioning as Public Parks Curbed, 1/9/17
“When Manhattan’s High Line opened on the west side in 2009, locals and visitors alike flocked to the revitalized railroad trestle to marvel at its transformation into a gorgeous and walkable park.’

Governor Cuomo Announces 750-mile Empire State Trail across New York StateCurbed New York, 1/10/17
“Imagine a trail that connects the metropolises, small towns, historic landmarks, and parks of New York State—and know that it’s not far off.”

Paris Mayor Unveils Plan for New Citywide Electric Tramway and Pedestrianized Streets The Architect’s Newspaper, 1/11/17
“Over the past few months, Paris Mayor Anne Hildago has rolled out her plans to reduce the number of private cars in the French capital by half.”

Book Review: Nature and Cities

Nature and Cities / Lincoln Institute of Land Policy
Nature and Cities / Lincoln Institute of Land Policy

It’s been 20 years since the publication of Ecological Design and Planning, the collection of essays that established ecological design as the defining innovation of 20th century landscape architecture. Not only has this mode of design informed all thinking about landscape since Ian McHarg first championed it, but designs eschewing this approach have risked irrelevance.

The ensuing two decades since Ecological Design and Planning’s publication have seen two major global changes. First, climate change has emerged as a force that will shape our future. Second, cities have grown to such an extent that their populations account for half of the Earth’s total. The world has not stood still, but, as Nature and Cities: The Ecological Imperative of Urban Planning demonstrates, neither has landscape architecture.

Nature and Cities, edited by Frederick Steiner, FASLA, George Thompson, and Armando Carbonell, was intended to be Ecological Design and Planning’s successor, Steiner said. It follows a similar formula: A collection of essays from both well-established and up-and-coming landscape architects with big ideas and projects that showcase them.

Steiner believes Nature and Cities can entice readers outside the fields of landscape and planning, despite its niche topic. The book is handsome and visually rich, and the essays are warmer than they are academic. They vary in subject matter. Richard Weller, ASLA, examines urban forms and formation; Kate Orff, ASLA, and Kongjian Yu, FASLA, explore aqueous landscape design. Several of the most thought-provoking essays make valiant attempts at applying to design our growing understanding of systems, resilience, and the myth of ecological equilibrium.

If these issues don’t interest you, you can use the book to check in on the state of the “landscape architecture: science or art” debate. Nature and Cities offers several worthy contributions to it. Of course, it’s not a question of either or, but as James Corner, ASLA, writes in his essay, there’s a tendency to allow science to govern our designs to the exclusion of the subjective and aesthetic. In our current design atmosphere, improvisation and beauty strain under the yoke of performance metrics. Corner argues that more honest applications of biophilic design would incorporate the errant, much as real ecosystems do, as a means of enrichment.

The Mill River Park and Greenway, ASLA 2015 Professional General Design Honor Award. An example of the successful introduction of nature into a city's fabric / Nature and Cities, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy
The Mill River Park and Greenway, ASLA 2015 Professional General Design Honor Award. An example of the successful introduction of nature into a city’s fabric / Nature and Cities, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy

Let’s not forget metrics are good for business, Laurie Olin, FASLA, points out in his essay. And if you can put an exclamation point on those metrics with a beautiful design, all the better. His firm accomplished this with a designed marsh on Yale’s campus. Students enjoyed it so much they added fish, leading to a richer ecosystem and indirectly saving the purchase of an additional 1.8 million liters of water per year. Social buy-in can occur when sustainable design is made evident.

“The more I understand the dynamics associated with global climate change and urbanization, the more I want to make sense of it all with other human beings,” writes Kristina Hill, Affiliate ASLA, in her essay. It’s for this reason, Hill argues, that designers should create aesthetic experiences that address this rapid and destabilizing change. Rising sea levels and water scarcity can be frightening, but new aesthetic experiences can help us better understand those threats.

Part of Nature and Cities’ purpose, Steiner said, is to showcase the contributions that landscape architects have made to our cities and environment. “When Susannah Drake, ASLA, and her colleagues want to clean up the Gowanus Canal, that’s heroic,” Steiner said, referring to her essay. “And that they’ve made as much progress as they have is quite remarkable.”

gowanus-sponge-park
Gowanus Canal Sponge Park / DLANDstudio

Sizable ambition certainly shines through the successes touted in the book, but reading about them, one wonders if these efforts are adequate in scope to the environmental challenges we face. Adequate or not, isn’t it great that landscape architecture has something to say about it all?

Read the book.

A Smart Streetscape for a High-Tech Corridor

Kendall Square, before / Klopfer Martin Design Group
Kendall Square, before / Klopfer Martin Design Group
Kendall Square, after / Jared Steinmark
Kendall Square, after / Christian Phillips Photography

Kendall Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is the center of technological innovation on the East Coast. But you would have never known it walking the broken-down, dated, 1980s-era brick streets. Home to MIT, Google, Microsoft, and many other start-ups, Kendall Square needed a new look that reflects the cutting-edge thinking happening in the buildings lining Main Street. But Cambridge, a historic district, also has a highly restrictive, limited palette of materials to chose from.

Working with real estate developers, the university, and other entities, a team led by local landscape architects with Klopfer Martin Design Group and engineers at HDR came up with an inventive solution, taking the standard Cambridge brick, concrete, lighting and building materials and coming up with something entirely new. The results are as innovative as anything created by the techies who work along the street.

As Kendall Square has experienced rapid growth over the past few decades, it also had to better “perform as an inter-modal transportation hub,” said Kaki Martin, ASLA, a principal with Klopfer Martin. The high-tech firms and university alike wanted easier inter-connections among the subway station and sidewalks, bike lanes and bikeshare system, and corporate shuttles and buses.

“Increased commercial development with lots of food establishments also meant that the streetscape had to not only reflected the character of the place, accommodate increased inter-modal transportation, but also become a place to not just move through, but also to linger and eat, meet up and gather.”

The design team removed the central median with “dated flag poles” to give more room for bike lanes.

Kendall Square / Christian Phillips Photography
Kendall Square / Christian Phillips Photography

Along the streets, new spaces were created for “furnishings, bus shelters, farmer’s market tents.” Scattered around major entry points are more contemporary benches, pre-cast concrete star-shaped benches, and unique bike racks that came out of a competition organized by the city’s % for art program.

Kendall Square / Christian Phillips Photography
Kendall Square / Christian Phillips Photography
Kendall Square / Jared Steinmark
Kendall Square / Jared Steinmark

A custom cover and bench was created for an “immovable vent pipe” the subway system needs.

Kendall Square / Christian Phillips Photography
Kendall Square / Christian Phillips Photography

Klopfer Martin layered in double rows of trees in order to create “spatial structure.”

Kendall Square / Jared Steinmark
Kendall Square / Jared Steinmark

The most interesting part of the project is the new palette of bricks. Klopfer Martin worked with the city’s brick supplier to create “custom palettes of varying percentages of the darkest and lightest bricks in the city’s standard mix,” set within 10 feet-by-10-feet swatches.

As Martin explained, “we went with a pixelated pattern for its techy connotation, and because there was no preciousness to the pattern.”

Kendall Square / Christian Phillips Photography
Kendall Square / Christian Phillips Photography

Furthermore, the random pattern is very low maintenance. “When the head of the Department of Public Works asked me how I would feel when a gas line repair comes through the brick and messed it up, we said, ‘it didn’t matter.’  The brick could just be put down again without concern, because it’s about the percentages between darker and lighter bricks in a 10-foot-by-10-foot zone, not about a specific pattern.”

Use Video to Tell the Story of Landscape Architecture

Landscape architecture is well behind the curve of using video to distinguish itself in the digital age, a trend I don’t see changing anytime soon. However, the opportunity is there for the taking. And if you don’t watch out, other design professions will seize the moment before landscape architects do. We’ve already had Architecture School, a Sundance TV miniseries, but that was six years ago and not much has been offered up since. But mark my words, it’s coming, and this is precisely where my own passions have intersected in recent years.

As a landscape architecture graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley, I opted to make a documentary film for my capstone thesis instead of creating a landscape design. I was interested in hearing what people on the street had to say about an urban design project going on right under their feet. I completed the 25-minute long documentary This Is Market Street about San Francisco’s Better Market Street Project, a multi-million dollar streetscape project that will eventually replace 2.2 miles of San Francisco’s most prominent thoroughfare.

An issue that stuck with me was the danger posed by car traffic to pedestrians in a walkable city like San Francisco. The pedestrian advocacy group Walk San Francisco, which helped me promote the documentary, has been at the forefront of advocating for a safer, more walkable San Francisco since 1998. Last year, they commissioned me to create a public service announcement about Safe Streets for Seniors, and I jumped at the chance to use film to talk about cities once again.

My team and I created a 3-minute long short film, There’s Always a Way, using stop-motion animation to tell the story of a young boy whose grandmother is killed at a busy crosswalk (see video at top). We built models reminiscent of design school projects, studied traffic design solutions, constructed tiny crosswalks, and even fabricated some angry drivers for good measure. The process was analog, with us cramped in a tiny studio for weeks of animating and inching model cars along painted roads, frame by frame. The response has been exciting and supportive. To my satisfaction, the video has encouraged a discussion about our lives and environments.

Stories are the tool missing from the landscape architecture, a field which intertwines with people’s daily lives. Stories can get lost in the policies, the plant lists, and the concept drawings. We should pause to hear stories more often, and, if so inspired, make some of our own.

This guest post is by Darryl Jones, ASLA, who recently worked at PWP Landscape Architecture in Berkeley, California, and is now a filmmaker based in Oakland, CA. More of his film work is available at darryljonesfilms.com.