Emerging Landscape Architecture Leaders Tackle “Disorienting Dilemmas” (Part 1)

Rio Piedras watershed / Edmundo “Mundy” Colón Izquierdo

The Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF)‘s most recent class of innovation and leadership fellows spent the past year “unearthing assumptions and trying to find a path forward” through the “disorienting dilemmas” facing the world, explained Cindy Sanders, FASLA, CEO of OLIN, in the kick-off off LAF’s now annual symposium. Each fellow seeks to generate “ethically-motivated societal change,” which in the process required “personal transformation.” Over two days, this year’s six fellows delved into the results of their independent research and leadership building efforts, which were each supported by a $25,000 grant from LAF.

Edmundo “Mundy” Colón Izquierdo: Taking on the Army Corps of Engineers in Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico is an island of 3.2 million Americans. An unincorporated U.S. territory, it has a population larger than 20 U.S. states. The San Juan Estuary faces many challenges, including flooding, explained Edmundo “Mundy” Colón Izquierdo, Principal, ECo. Efforts by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to channelize the Rio Piedras, which spreads south from San Juan into the heart of the island, have brought up a complex set of issues related to “politics, economics, and flood conveyance.” Along its course, the river is both “polluted and biodiverse, near and inaccessible, beautiful and dangerous.” As a response to extreme flooding from Hurricane Maria, the Army Corps has allocated $1.5 billion to transform 9.5 miles of a “soft, natural river into a concrete, high-velocity channel” and insert five new bridges into the river landscape. “This shows a total disregard for climate change and environmental science” and also for the Army Corps own new nature-based engineering approach, Colón Izquierdo argued.

Rio Piedras / Edmundo “Mundy” Colón Izquierdo

To better advocate for a nature-based approach that can make Puerto Rico more resilient to flooding, Colón Izquierdo has joined with scientists, advocates, and scholars who created Alianza Por La Cuenca del Rio Piedras, guided by the message “el rio esta vivo,” or “the river is alive.” While taking on the Army Corps, a complex bureaucracy, is analogous to “David attempting to defeat Goliath,” Colón Izquierdo believes the effort is critical because the design is “many decades behind in its conception.” In fact, the design is from 1992 and environmental impact statement from 1993; the project was resuscitated after Hurricane Maria decimated the island and exposed the vulnerability of so many living in Puerto Rico’s floodplains. By organizing design charettes and educating the public about nature-based options to improving the safety and health of the river, Colón Izquierdo seeks to build capacity, find leverage, and “get a seat at the table” — and perhaps save other rivers in Puerto Rico from the same fate.

Rio Piedras design charrette / Edmundo “Mundy” Colón Izquierdo

Andrea Johnson: Imagining New Forms of Community-owned Renewable Energy

Sunset Park, Brooklyn / Andrea Johnson

Bounded at one side by the Bronx-Queens Expressway, the neighborhood of Sunset Park in Brooklyn includes a jail, mechanic shops, warehouses, and vacant land, explained Andrea Johnson, a visiting assistant professor at the Rhode Island School of Design. A maritime hub, the community is home to the Brooklyn Terminal, a massive industrial and commercial building that is now covered in a solar array cooperatively managed. This array got Johnson thinking about the hidden energy systems that comprise the community that can be re-imagined to provide “collective social value.”

When electricity demand in NYC increases, gas-driven peakers in Sunset Park start up, which contributes to the noxious air quality in the neighborhood, which includes mostly people of color. UPROSE, a community group, and other local organizations, have been trying to get the New York Power Authority to permanently close the peakers in favor of renewable energy, but the authority has only put them on stand by. Johnson said “decommissioning the peakers and replacing with publicly-owned renewable energy would lead to a more just and equitable energy system.” If decarbonization occurs through community-run renewable energy, then people in Sunset Park could benefit from electricity surges.

“There is a role for landscape architects here that needs to be seized. We can get ahead of the policy and innovate from how energy is perceived, stored, and used.” She analyzed and discovered 75 megawatts of energy could be generated on public rooftops in the community. “Back-up storage sources could then be spread across the public sphere.” Johnson and her students at CUNY have been imagining other new solutions that involve wind turbines, micro-grids, utility-scale batteries, a “gravity park” in which heavy blocks are raised to create kinetic energy that can be stored, and other systems that can both generate and store energy and serve as cleaner, more just forms of peakers.

Sunset Park renewable energy and storage concept / Andrea Johnson
Gravity Park concept / Andrea Johnson

Diego Bermúdez: A Comprehensive Plan for Protecting Bogotá’s Cultural Landscapes

The savanna of Bogotá / Diego Bermúdez

Bogotá, Colombia, is a city of 9 million people and continues to expand rapidly at its periphery. This sprawl threatens the historic Bogotá savanna, an important high-altitude wetland landscape. Diego Bermúdez, principal and partner, Bermúdez Arquitectos, in Bogotá, explained that 2,500 years ago, the area formed the vast floodplains of the Bogotá River and its many tributaries. Pre-Hispanic settlers, the indigenous Muisca people, who lived in small villages, built canals and berms to create flood-proof zones for growing food. “They lived amid 100,000 acres of wetlands and were amphibious people.”

When the Spanish arrived in the 17th century, they removed the Muisca and subdivided the land to scale up industrial food production. Farms were organized into grids, with protective canals, to increase yields. By the 1920s, the government created a water management district that was meant to preserve the irrigation systems. Those layers of water management history are now threatened by rampant sprawl and development into the savanna region. Bermúdez said the city’s population is expected to increase to 10.5 million in 2035 and reach upwards of 14 million by 2050.

Expected urban expansion into agricultural areas of Bogotá / Diego Bermúdez

To protect the savanna landscape, which grows 40 percent of the city’s food, Bermúdez proposes a strategy that first protects the historic canals, which are also hubs for biodiversity, including 200 species of birds. “Water management can be a tool for reimagining the future.” As he spent a year traveling to these agricultural communities and also meeting the developers who are urbanizing the area, he found “new hope,” because “people want to protect the water management system for flooding, biodiversity, and recreation.” Bermúdez has been working to connect the disparate players and layers of plans into a regional plan that can guide development away from the savanna, create protective zones for the historic agricultural landscapes, and further densify the core of Bogotá.

A new layered regional plan for Bogotá / Diego Bermúdez

Read part two on this year’s LAF fellows.

Utility-Scale Solar Energy Could Need Land the Size of Connecticut

Combining solar and ecological restoration at Purdue University, Indiana / Great Plains Institute

The U.S. is headed towards a renewable energy future. Over the coming decades, some mix of mostly wind and solar power will spread across the landscape. With the growing cost competitiveness of utility-scale solar power plants, we can expect 583 gigawatts to be in production by 2050. That’s ten times the current amount. At approximately 7 acres per megawatt, that means an area larger than the state of Connecticut could be used for solar energy production.

Through thoughtful planning and design, these future solar power plants can be well-integrated into communities and provide many co-benefits — water quality improvements, ecological restoration, and pollinator habitat, among many others. Renewable energy creates enormous opportunities for landscape architects and planners working in rural, suburban, and urban areas.

At the American Planning Association (APA)’s virtual national conference, Megan Day, a senior energy planner with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Colorado, said that utility-scale power plants, which are very large-scale solar facilities, are needed to achieve our climate and energy goals.

Utility-scale solar now accounts for 60-70 percent of all solar energy in the U.S. This is because the cost of energy from utility-scale solar is approximately “one third to one-fourth the cost of residential solar.” The market is further heading in the direction of big solar power facilities.

Daly said “these numbers don’t speak fully to value though.” Utility-scale solar creates far fewer green jobs than rooftop solar. 1 megawatt of clean energy could be generated through a single utility-scale power plant or approximately 100 rooftops. While the capital costs of the utility approach would be about $1 million less, there would also be much fewer local green jobs created. “This is because you need a lot more people to install 100 rooftop systems.” (Not to mention utilities offer fewer resilience benefits: Any centralized power plant can go down in a hurricane, storm, or wildfire).

Day said the vast majority of new solar power facilities use tracking systems that rotate photovoltaic (PV) panels to face the sun over the course of each day. While these tracking systems increase the amount of solar energy that can be captured, it also means these power plants require more space so as to avoid over-shadowing other tilting panels. “These panels cast shadows east west, so they need more land.” Combined with ecological site design that avoids existing wetlands, rivers, streams, and forests, these kinds of renewable energy power plants aren’t the most compact. “In fact, compact isn’t the best.”

The trend is for solar power facilities to go bigger and bigger. In 2010, she said, a large solar power plant had a 15 megawatt capacity. Today, there are 75-250 megawatt systems and even larger. “With more land, you can achieve greater economies of scale.”

Showing interactive models NREL can create through its fantastic State and Local Planning for Energy (SLOPE) tool, Day indicated where in the continental U.S. solar energy could be developed. If all land suitable for solar development was used, the country would have 59,000 times more energy than it consumes on an annual basis. “That gives you a sense of the incredible potential.” In contrast, if all suitable roofs in the U.S. were covered with PV panels, they would only meet 45 percent of energy needs.

While California and Texas are currently leaders in renewable power generation because they have invested in transmission capacity, many other states across the country can easily expand their solar energy capacity.

According to Sarah Davis, a planner who founded her own firm, “large-scale solar is coming” to every community. As the U.S. de-carbonizes its energy systems, there an opportunity for “authentic and meaningful community participation” in planning and designing a clean energy future.

Planning new utility-scale solar facilities involves typical development activities — incorporating developments into long-range comprehensive plans, creating enabling regulations, and permitting actual projects. These projects include utilities, developers, landowners, federal and state regulators, residents, and the end-users of the energy generated.

Using NREL’s SLOPE tool, Davis helps communities identify, at a county level, what areas would be ripe for solar development; what areas should be avoided because of existing cultural, scenic, or environmental resources; and where solar developments could provide the most co-benefits.

She outlined a few examples: In Butte county, California, Davis worked with stakeholders to create a vision statement that outlines a set of guiding principles and design and development guidelines. In Stearns, Minnesota, an agricultural community integrated renewable energy into the agricultural section of their comprehensive plan. “PVs need land and can use grazing areas.” But the new policies also required beneficial ground cover amid the solar facilities and enabled laying new transmission cables. And renewable energy planning can even be done in small rural communities. In Gold Hill, Colorado, she worked with an isolated community of 200-300 residents to devise a plan for a micro-grid and distributed household solar systems.

Another theme running through the session was the importance of maximizing the co-benefits of solar energy. Brian Ross, a vice president at the Great Plains Institute in Minnesota, made the case: “if sited and designed appropriately, large-scale solar can provide local benefits to communities. If you can restore watershed functions, diversify agriculture, or protect wildlife habitat and drinking water supplies, does it matter if it’s a solar farm?”

“Solar development is also development, and development means jobs, rents, and tax revenue,” Ross argued. The benefits of utility-scale solar development projects are increased local property tax incomes, increased local power generation, and reduced environmental and climate risks.

Communities should first figure out where to site their large-scale solar power facilities, then determine how the facility should function as a land use. “When planning and designing these projects, it’s important to look for synergies.” If there are valuable natural areas, watersheds, or scenic areas, “don’t put the solar developments in those places.” Instead, use solar farms as a way to fix existing environmental issues.

For example, in one Indiana agricultural community, nitrate run-off from farms was negatively impacting water quality, including groundwater recharge areas and the drinking water supply. The community decided to transform a 33-hectare area of contaminated farmland into land just used for solar power generation.

The new solar facility enabled the farmers to still earn income from the land while also reducing water quality impacts. This is a prime example of the co-benefits of utility-scale solar: “co-locating solar power plants with agriculture is a way to diversify farmers’ incomes and provide buffers for watersheds, including groundwater and surface water,” Ross said.

Solar power plants can not only just serve as buffers that reduce other impacts downstream, they can also be ecologically beneficial themselves. Acres of PV panels can be arranged amid native grassland restoration projects that can yield a three-fold increase in pollinators and a two-third increase in carbon sequestration through the landscape. Furthermore, these native grassland projects can increase sediment retention by 95 percent and water retention by 15 percent.

Engie solar, Vermont / courtesy of Fresh Energy, Rob Davis
Denison University, Ohio / courtesy of Fresh Energy, Rob Davis
Perdue solar headquarters / courtesy of Fresh Energy, Rob Davis

In Indiana, Purdue University’s extension programs worked with conservation, agriculture, and energy stakeholders to create state-wide standards for ground cover in solar power plants. This approach has been included in a model solar ordinance created by Indiana University and codified in an innovative ordinance that requires beneficial ground cover over the lifespan of a solar facility, which is 25 to 30 years. The ordinance ensures that solar energy developers just don’t plant once and then forget to maintain the landscape. Some solar power facilities are even in layering in sheep grazing, vegetable farming, and bee hives. Solar power plants can become multi-functional green infrastructure.

Most Popular DIRT Posts of 2019

Jewel Changi Airport / PWP Landscape Architecture, Safdie Architects

While we are always looking ahead to what’s new in the built and natural environments, it’s also valuable to look back at what grabbed our attention last year. Here’s a review of the 10 most popular DIRT posts of 2019.

Readers were most interested in how to plan and design universally-accessible landscapes; how communities are increasingly looking to landscape architecture as a solution for the climate crisis; examples of inventive multi-use infrastructure, like the Jewel Changi airport terminal in Singapore and Amager Bakke in Copenhagen; and the on-going debate about the changing roles of landscape architects and urban planners.

ASLA members: send us your original op-eds on topics that inspire you. And tell us about your new projects and research. Please email us at info@asla.org.

Singapore’s New Garden Airport

International airports are in fierce competition for passengers and regularly one-up each other with new wow-factor amenities, shops, and restaurants. But Singapore decided to raise its game by going another direction: a plant-filled haven, a gateway consistent with its moniker — “the city in a garden.” The result is an inventive model other airports should copy, if not in form, then certainly in spirit.

Landscape Architects Must Become Planners

Landscape architects need to become urban planners and work “upstream” in policy and regulatory processes to ensure public space leads urban placemaking efforts. That is the argument Michael Grove, ASLA, chair of landscape architecture, civil engineering, and ecology at Sasaki; Brian Jeneck, ASLA, director of planning at HOK; and Michael Johnson, ASLA, principal at SmithGroup made at the ASLA 2019 Conference on Landscape Architecture in Washington, D.C.

Book Review: The Architecture of Trees

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

Why Bicycling Has Flatlined

About 830,000 Americans biked to work in 2017, down from a high of 904,000 in 2014. Given communities large and small have made major investments in bicycle infrastructure — and bike share now seems ubiquitous — why haven’t the numbers of bike commuters dramatically increased?

Nature-based Solutions Are Our Best Defense Against Climate Impacts

Today in New York City, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres will convene the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit to, in his words, “hear about how we are going to stop the increase in emissions by 2020, and dramatically reduce emissions to reach net-zero emissions by mid-century.” This Summit comes on the heels of the Youth Climate Strike last week, and kicks off Climate Week in which people in New York and across the country will demand action to mitigate the ongoing climate crisis.

We Are Designing the Earth, Whether You Like it Or Not

This purpose of this article is to reflect on the Design with Nature Now exhibition that ran over this past summer at the Stuart Weitzman School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania. The exhibition marked the 50th anniversary of Ian McHarg’s 1969 tome Design with Nature and was curated by Fritz Steiner, FASLA, Karen M’Closkey, Billy Fleming, ASLA, Bill Whitaker, ASLA, and myself.

In Copenhagen, You Can Ski Down this Power Plant

Eight years ago Danish architect Bjarke Ingels came up with a fantastical idea — build a ski slope on top of a power plant. Well, now, it has actually happened — the $660 million Amager Bakke is preparing to welcome adventurous ski bunnies in Copenhagen. Known to locals as Copenhill, this cutting-edge renewable energy system converts waste into energy while giving sports lovers access to a 2,000-feet-long ski slope, a 295-feet-high climbing wall, and hiking and running paths. The project is the most visible demonstration yet of Copenhagen’s determination to become the world’s first carbon neutral city by 2025.

ASLA Publishes Guide to Universal Design

ASLA’s guide provides a comprehensive view of which communities are underserved by the built environment. It also offers a set of new universal design principles that address the needs of deaf or hard of hearing, blind or low vision, autistic, neurodevelopmentally and/or intellectually disabled, and mobility-disabled adults and children, as well as concerns for older adults. These include: accessible, comfortable, participatory, ecological, legible, multi-sensory, predictable, and walkable/traversable.

Faced with Climate Impacts, Communities Turn to Green Infrastructure

Climate change is causing seas to rise, flooding to worsen, and hurricanes and wildfires to become more destructive, all of which puts our infrastructure at greater risk. On top of that, America’s current infrastructure received a D+ grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) in their latest scorecard. Increased risk from climate events and the massive backlog of maintenance projects means that our infrastructure has never been more vulnerable.

Gallaudet University Designs for the Deaf Community, But Everyone Benefits

At Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., DeafSpace, a concept developed by campus architect Hansel Bauman, is now guiding the development of buildings and landscapes in order to better address the needs of the deaf and hard of hearing people, which also results in better spaces for everyone. Gallaudet University — the oldest university for the deaf community in the country and the only university in the world where all programs and services are designed with deaf and hard of hearing people in mind — is creating a new 2020 campus master plan that expands DeafSpace beyond the buildings and into the historic campus designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and the surrounding neighborhood.

Designing a Green New Deal

Environmentally beneficial transmission line easement / LOLA Landscape Architects, .FABRIC and STUDIO 1:1

Close to 1,400 attendees and several thousand online viewers watched the day-long Designing a Green New Deal conference hosted by the University of Pennsylvania, which brought together for the first time the policy experts and activists driving the Green New Deal (GND) with landscape architects, architects, and planners.

“It is really important to think about what it would mean to build out a GND,” said event co-host Billy Fleming, ASLA, Wilks Family Director of the Ian L. McHarg Center. “The policy experts didn’t have anybody that could help them think through what it would look like and how it would work.” Fleming hoped the event would spark a conversation between policy experts and designers about what kind of built work might arise from and hasten a GND, and how those projects could address both climate and social issues.

Some of the most inspiring ideas came during the event’s first session “Beyond Hagiography – Mining the New Deal Legacy.” Nick Pevzner, ASLA, senior lecturer of landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, presented speculative and built projects that put energy infrastructure to creative use and deploy renewable power in sensitive ways (see image at top).

“The GND implies a rapid expansion of renewable energy infrastructure,” Pevzner said. How and where this infrastructure might be situated in the landscape, and what co-benefits it may provide, are issues that landscape architects should be considering.

As Pevzner pointed out, conflicts are already arising between renewable energy infrastructure and existing land use. Landscape design and careful planning can help navigate those conflicts.

Landscape architect Kate Orff, ASLA, founder of SCAPE, who spoke at during the event’s “Bold Visions for a GND” panel, emphasized the ability of design workshops to spark policy. She asked attendees to think about ambitious projects that would transcend municipal and state boundaries, projects that would inspire “new, casual coalitions of self-interest,” and a stronger, greener federal mandate.

Among these ideas were a Mississippi River National Park, as well as a coastal “shore-way” featuring “equitable, managed retreat, investing in living shorelines, and stemming the collapse of coastal biodiversity.”

“We need to visualize and give form to this exciting, new, low-carbon landscape,” Orff said. But is a GND necessary to realize projects of such scope and ambition? Yes, Orff told me. “This kind of change requires federal, state, and local cooperation in ways that are currently elusive.”

Fleming agreed, saying “it’s impossible to imagine a world in which we’re able to take on challenges like climate change, climate justice, and social justice at the scale at which it is occurring without a GND. We’ve reached the limits of what we can do through the project-by-project, private firm-driven development of the world.”

One of the event speakers, Leah Stokes, assistant professor of political science at University of California at Santa Barbara, elaborated on the challenges of de-carbonizing the U.S. power sector with or without a legislative package as transformative as the one the GND implies.

“We’ve been living on borrowed time” in terms of our energy resources, Stokes said. The potential of hydro and nuclear power has for the moment been tapped. Wind and solar represent our best hope at de-carbonizing the power grid and transportation system. In order to do that, the U.S. will have to approximately triple its current capacity in the next 10-20 years, according to Stokes.

In other words, “we have to get really good at building stuff better and quickly,” Fleming said. Beyond projects that foster renewable energy or low-carbon modes of transportation, landscape architects have a role to play in ecological restoration, environmental justice, and social justice. Fleming pointed to the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative and the Emscher Landscape Park in Germany as projects that took on critical issues outside of energy, such a biodiversity and adaptive reuse of industrial land.

The Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative / Y2Y.net
Emscher Landscape Park / Latz+Partners

Architect Peggy Deamer, representing The Architecture Lobby, laid out several principles that designers can hold themselves to that are in line with the GND’s principles. “We have a say in what we build,” Deamer told the audience. “We need to build projects that aren’t just objects of capitalist consumption.” She also emphasized that project stakeholders are not just the owners, developers, or users of a project, but the environmental and social community in which a project sits.

Several other speakers echoed this sentiment, including Orff and Rhiana Gunn-Wright, policy director for New Consensus, who advised the designers in the room to “meet people where they are” in order to listen and share how planning and design can benefit their communities.

Fleming said he expects the conversation between policy experts like Gunn-Wright and design experts to continue, with the McHarg Center facilitating dialogue between greater numbers of design firms and GND policy experts.

Watch the full day-long event:

New ASLA Exhibition: Smart Policies for a Changing Climate

Smart Policies for a Changing Climate exhibition / EPNAC

Across the country, landscape architects are stepping up to face the growing global climate crisis head-on. In 2018, ASLA’s interdisciplinary Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change and Resilience issued a report that outlined policy recommendations and design best practices for creating resilient, sustainable communities.

The new Smart Policies for a Changing Climate Exhibition showcases 20 diverse case studies that illustrate the success these recommendations can have in harnessing natural systems, reducing carbon emissions, and improving communities’ resilience to climate change.

Some projects lower carbon emissions from transportation by improving access to bicycle lanes and sidewalks and limiting space for vehicles, like the Jackson Street Reconstruction Project in Saint Paul, Minnesota, by Toole Design Group.

Jackson Street Reconstruction, Saint Paul, Minnesota / Bruce Buckley Photography for Toole Design

Others show how we can restore natural systems and bring back biodiversity on previously-developed sites, like the Underwood Family Sonoran Landscape Laboratory in Tucson, Arizona by Ten Eyck Landscape Architects.

ASLA 2010 Professional Honor Award in General Design. Underwood Family Sonoran Landscape Laboratory in Tucson, Arizona. Ten Eyck Landscape Architects. / Bill Timmerman

Some projects show how cities can design to prepare for worst-case flooding scenarios using natural systems, like the Buffalo Bayou Promenade in Houston, Texas by SWA Group.

ASLA 2009 Professional Design Award of Excellence. Buffalo Bayou Promenade, Houston, Texas. SWA Group / Bill Tatham

Others integrate renewable energy facilities into communities, like the Solar Strand project in Buffalo, New York by Hood Design Studio.

Solar Strand project in Buffalo, New York. Hood Design Studio / Douglas Levere, University at Buffalo

The exhibition is free and open to the public at ASLA’s Center for Landscape Architecture (636 I Street NW, Washington, D.C., 20001) every weekday from 10am to 4pm EST (excluding holidays) through May 1, 2020.

ASLA Center for Landscape Architecture / ASLA

There is also an expanded companion to the exhibition at the website: climate.asla.org.

To put on the Smart Politics for a Changing Climate Exhibition, ASLA was awarded an Art Works Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. “These awards, reaching every corner of the United States, are a testament to the artistic richness and diversity in our country,” said Mary Anne Carter, acting chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. “Organizations such as the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) are giving people in their community the opportunity to learn, create, and be inspired.”

ASLA is also calling for the submissions of further case studies that show how landscape architects design for a changing climate. If you know of a project that fits the bill, please submit at the exhibition website.

In Copenhagen, You Can Ski Down This Power Plant

Copenhill / Rasmus Hjortshøj – COAST

Eight years ago Danish architect Bjarke Ingels came up with a fantastical idea — build a ski slope on top of a power plant. Well, now, it has actually happened — the $660 million Amager Bakke is preparing to welcome adventurous ski bunnies in Copenhagen. Known to locals as Copenhill, this cutting-edge renewable energy system converts waste into energy while giving sports lovers access to a 2,000-feet-long ski slope, a 295-feet-high climbing wall, and hiking and running paths. The project is the most visible demonstration yet of Copenhagen’s determination to become the world’s first carbon neutral city by 2025.

According to Babcock & Wilcox Vølund, the engineers of the power plant, Copenhill will convert 400,000 tons of waste each year into heat for 250,000 homes and energy for another 62,500 while producing zero toxic air pollution. Some 100,000 pounds of ash collected from the waste incineration process will be reused to build roads; and some 90 percent of the metals in the waste stream will be salvaged.

Two ski lifts take visitors up to the slope, which allows for all types of skiing — alpine and racing — along with snowblading and snowboarding. On the Copenhill website, one can already reserve a time to snow plow or slalom down the slopes for about $20 an hour. Visitors can also rent equipment, take a ski class, or join SKI365, the building’s ski club. The big plus: because the slope is built using specialized artificial turf, people will be able to ski up there year round.

Translating their website from Danish, it’s clear they’ve tried to design the space for everyone: “If you a beginner, a shark on skis, free-styler, fun skier, man, woman, boy, girl, thick, thin, tall or short, then you are part of the community. We have something for everyone. There are both red / black, blue, and green courses. In addition, there is also a slalom course, free-style park, and, of course, an area for the smallest.”

Copenhill / Rasmus Hjortshøj – COAST
Copenhill / Rasmus Hjortshøj – COAST
Copenhill / Rasmus Hjortshøj – COAST

For those who avoid skiing, there are freely-accessible paths sloping up a 5-35 percent grade where one can walk up or take a heart-pounding run. Bjarke Ingels’ firm BIG and landscape architects with SLA planted more than 30 trees in landscaped areas. There, Copenhill invites you to “take a picnic in the shrubbery or just enjoy the view on one of the reclining benches.” There’s also a club for these path enthusiasts — RUN365, with crossfit training options for members.

Copenhill landscape rendering / SLA

The facility replaces an older power plant, and the cost of building Copenhill is shared among the five municipalities who will sell Copenhill’s heat and power. But according to Bloomberg, the city government thinks it’s perhaps the tourism money — rather than the heat or power — that will end up offsetting a larger share of the cost of the new plant. Situated just 13 minutes from the airport, it will be hard for first-time visitors — particularly those with kids — to avoid making a stop.

In an interview, BIG told Inhabitat that the building is expected to blow steam rings at some point. The technology apparently works — they are now fine-tuning.

Copenhill / Rasmus Hjortshøj – COAST
Copenhill / Bjarke Ingels Group

See more images at DesignBoom and check out an interview we did with Ingels in 2011, where he discussed his bold ideas about merging buildings and landscapes.

Design Competition: Public Art That Produces Energy

Light Up, 1st Place Winner, LAGI 2018 Melbourne competition / LAGI

The inventive folks behind the Land Art Generator Initiative (LAGI) seek to make renewable energy beautiful. They want to integrate clean power sources into public art and the broader public realm, sending a powerful civic signal — that we can achieve a more sustainable commons and world.

For their competition this year, LAGI seeks a work of energy-producing art for a site within Masdar City, Abu Dhabi, a planned community designed by Foster and Partners in the United Arab Emirates. Masdar City is expected to be completed by 2025 and become home to some 50,000 people and 1,500 clean-tech and sustainable businesses.

According to LAGI, Masdar is the Arabic word for “source” — and in this case, refers to the sun, the source of power for the ambitious development. The city plans to get most of its energy from nearby solar facilities, which are being built with specialized solar panels that can survive sand storms. Masdar will also recycle some 80 percent of its water.

The competition is organized in partnership with the 24th World Energy Congress, which will host presentations of the 25 shortlisted finalists. Winners will receive $40,000 and the runner-up, $10,000. See the winners from last year’s competition in Melbourne, Australia.

Interdisciplinary teams can submit designs by May 12, 2019.

Another competition worth checking out: Gauja National Park, the largest national park in Latvia at some 917 square kilometers, seeks a new footbridge, a symbolic gateway to mark the park’s 45th anniversary. First place winners will receive $3,000. No professional qualifications are required. Submissions are due June 11, 2019.

Iceland Blends Renewable Energy into the Landscape

Icelandic landscape / Landsvirkjun

Iceland, a land of glaciers and volcanos found directly over the Mid-Atlantic ridge, is entirely powered by renewable energy. More than 70 percent of the country’s energy comes from hydro power, while the rest is from geothermal sources — the incredible heat found just below the surface caused by red-hot subterranean lava fields. As the millions of tourists who visit each year cause the country’s power needs to grow, Iceland is expanding its geothermal systems. In the face of intense public protests that these systems are marring the stunning landscape — not to mention the usual Not-In-My-Backyard (NIBMY) complaints — Landsvirkjun, the national power company of Iceland, created a new landscape policy designed to create a more harmonious relationship between land and energy. And landscape architect Björk Guðmundsdóttir took the initiative to make this all happen.

At the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, Guðmundsdóttir explained that when she started her multi-year effort, there wasn’t a single design guideline for renewable energy projects. Her task was to create a new national landscape policy for these systems, while being the only women — and landscape architect — working with a team of all-male engineers.

Her first step was to understand the geothermal energy system development process, the legal frameworks that shape energy production, and the broader energy policies. One important high-level Icelandic policy guided her work: energy systems “should operate in harmony with the landscape.”

She spent time finding the gaps in the renewable power plant operations that were “open to the influence of design.” Establishing a working group within Landsvirkjun, she ended up creating a process that brings design into every stage of the renewable energy project development process — from the early environmental and visual impact assessments to the design concept, detailed landscape plans, and maintenance approach.

Guðmundsdóttir said creating design guidelines required thinking through all the ways how development touches the landscape. For example, “do you require buildings to be white so they blend in with the snow that covers Iceland for much of the year? Or instead should they be a neutral color so they blend with the summer landscape, when there are the most numbers of tourists?”

Landsvirkjun eventually settled on a series of design guidelines — seemingly simple but with a positive impact on new projects — that also create new roles for landscape architects. Guidelines include: create projects in harmony with their surrounding landscape, including careful site selection to minimize impact and roads that follow the topography. Minimize cut and fills. Re-vegetate, re-forest, and restore the landscape. Re-use all natural surface materials. Orient pipelines, which must be on the surface due to the extreme heat found in some places just a few feet below the surface, so they blend in as much as possible. And design every power-related building to be multi-use.

Aðalheiður Atladóttir, with A2F Architects, showed how the new landscape policy is shaping their work on a geothermal power station — Hagonguvirkjun, near Hagongulon Lake in the center of the country — and associated worker housing and hotel.

Hagonguvirkjun / Landsvirkjun, A2Architects

A2F created a power plant with a warm, inviting restaurant and visitor center — its entire form mimics the glacier and mountain ranges in the background.

Hagonguvirkjun / Landsvirkjun, A2Architects

And nearby there is a building that is both housing for the plant workers and a hotel that features a spa and greenhouse — a “nice place to chill.” The team will build gabion walls from stones collected nearby, so the “building looks like it grew out of the landscape.”

Hagonguvirkjun / Landsvirkjun, A2Architects
Hagonguvirkjun / Landsvirkjun, A2Architects

To bring in some fresh thinking and expand the conversation with her engineer colleagues, Guðmundsdóttir partnered with SUNY Syracuse landscape architecture professor Matthew Potteiger and his graduate students, who spent a semester studying in Iceland. The Americans completed a two-week planning and conceptual design charette with Landvirkjun in the very-hot landscapes of Krafta in northern Iceland, where both the first geothermal power plants and the newest are found. The goal was to create a new interpretation system for a geothermal power plant for Icelanders and tourists.

Potteiger said interpreting the “landscape of geothermal power” was challenging because the unique geophysical forces at work under the ground and the surface engineering systems are equally enigmatic. Plus, there are sheep, who strangely only hang out in groups of three, randomly grazing amid all the “industrial sublime.”

Exploring the site and all its sensory experiences, Potteiger and his students proposed some inventive, small ways design can enhance the visitor experience. For example, plumes from the geothermal vents can be used to create “steam paths that act as a wayfinding device.” Once a geothermal well has gone cold and its equipment is removed, the original soil, stones, and vegetation could be returned to the site, which would create a marker revealed through stages of vegetative growth. And sheep, which are “heat-seeking devices who love to cuddle in winter,” could be given designed social spaces, protective structures along pipelines, so they can cuddle in style.

New Report: US Cities Already Feeling Impacts of Climate Change

Flooding from Hurricane Harvey in Port Arthur, Texas / Wikipedia, SC Coast Guard

According to a new report from the Alliance for a Sustainable Future, some 95 percent of 158 American cities surveyed have experienced a “change related to at least one climate impact in the past five years.” A vast majority of cities — some 76 percent — have seen more damage from heavy rain events or inland flooding. 65 percent saw greater impacts from heat waves; 51 percent noted changing drought conditions; and 18 percent stated that wildfires were growing more destructive. Some 5 percent of cities have relocated populations due to extreme weather.

The Alliance for a Sustainable Future, a joint effort of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES), polled some 158 small, medium, and large U.S. cities in both red and blue states that represent some 50 million Americans. The group presented their findings at an event at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco.

To address changing impacts, the report stated that 60 percent of cities have “launched or significantly expanded a climate initiative or policy in the past year.”

Most common climate-smart policies and programs include:

  • Bus transit (94 percent)
  • Bike lanes (92 percent)
  • Promoting bicycle commuting (81 percent)
  • Greenhouse gas emission tracking (75 percent)
  • Energy efficiency policies for existing municipal buildings (72 percent)
  • Routine energy audits for municipal buildings / operations (71 percent)
  • Energy efficiency policies for new municipal buildings (70 percent)
  • Purchasing renewable electricity for city operations (65 percent)

Some 83 percent of cities also seek to increase their partnerships with businesses in order to achieve their goals for renewable energy, building energy efficiency, and sustainable transportation.

At the event hosted by the U.S. Conference of Mayors and C2SE in San Francisco, C2SE president Bob Persciasepe, who was deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) during the Obama administration, said cities must dramatically scale up their partnerships with the private sector, especially given the absence of any meaningful federal action on climate change.

“From 1850 to 1999, we put 1,000 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. From 2000 to 2018, we put in 500 gigatons. We can only put in 300 more gigatons before we start to see catastrophic effects. That means we can put in 30 tons a year for the next 10 years. We don’t have much time. We must increase our ambitions. We must build more partnerships so we can go faster.”

Mayors then highlighted a few partnerships between city governments and businesses that demonstrate how to achieve a carbon-neutral economy and society:

Mayor Jackie Biskupski from Salt Lake City, Utah, explained how her city partnered with Rocky Mountain Power to create a plan for achieving 100 percent clean energy for all municipal operations, including Salt Lake City airport, by 2032. As part of their agreement the city, Rocky Mountain Power expanded their WattSmart communities program, which offers incentives and discounts for energy upgrades in homes and businesses, and promised to spend $10 million on electric vehicle infrastructure, including a new e-bus charging complex.

Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie said Iowan governments at all levels are partnering with MidAmerican Energy to achieve 100 percent renewable power for the entire state. The company has invested $7.5 billion in Iowan wind farms since 2004.

And Mayor John Mitchell from New Bedford, Massachusetts, said his old whaling city is now a port for the giant wind turbines that will soon be installed off the coasts of Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York. Vineyard Wind, a company established by Danish off-shore wind firms, is already using New Bedford to launch a $2.2 billion wind farm off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard with turbines approximately double the size of ones found on land.

Mayor Mitchell said the US offshore wind market is on the “cusp of a rapid expansion” and could potentially overtake the capacity installed in Europe’s North Sea. “Millions of square miles of the east coast have already been leased by renewable energy companies.” He also sees opportunities for state and local governments to partner with offshore wind companies in California, Hawaii, and elsewhere.

Unequal Progress in the Renewable Energy Transition

Solar powered electric buses in the United Kingdom / The Ecologist

Around the world, adoption of renewable energy is expanding rapidly, but progress within the energy field has been one-sided. The electricity sector has made much more progress than the building and transportation sectors in changing over to renewable energy, despite significant demand.

During an event for the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, Rana Adib, executive secretary of Ren21, an international non-profit association based in Paris, said the discrepancy comes down to an issue of ambition.

Many countries have power generation targets, but far fewer have set goals for increasing renewable energy in buildings and transportation systems. What’s more, targets set in the power sector have been more aggressive, with many countries aiming for 100 percent renewable power in their electricity systems.

Comparatively, goals set for buildings and transport have been more modest and less imaginative. Slow progress in these sectors is compounded by the significance of their energy footprint. Together, buildings and transport account for 80 percent of global energy demand.

2017 was an extraordinary year for renewable energy in the power sector. Total installed renewable energy capacity increased 9 percent over 2016 — the largest annual increase to date — and supplied over 26 percent of global electricity.

“It’s a no brainer to invest in renewable power,” she said, adding that investments in new renewable energy capacity were about three times that of new fossil fuels and have been driven by advances in solar photovoltaic (pv) and wind, which have far outpaced projected growth due to advances in policy, cost competiveness, storage technology, and grid integration.

According to REN21’s 2018 Global Status Report solar pv installed capacity “…nearly double those of wind power (in second place) — adding more net capacity than coal, natural gas and nuclear power combined.”

But where the power sector is making exponential gains, renewable energy progress in transportation and buildings lag far behind.

Electrifying transportation systems is the first step, then these systems can use renewable power. Last year, renewable energy accounted for only 3 percent of the energy share in transport, which currently relies largely on liquid biofuels, accounting for 90 percent of current energy. But electrification has gained traction through electric rail, shipping, and aviation systems and the expansion of electric vehicle sales.

Just over 10 percent of heating systems in buildings use renewable energy, and progress remains slow for renewables in cooling despite growing demand in the sector.

To achieve a total renewable energy transition, Adib said we need a systems approach that brings together all of the sectors.

Adib’s remarks kicked off a panel discussion on how to turn aspirations into reality. Speakers underscored the need to better collaborate and invite new voices to join the dialogue.

“The main thing is proper collaboration between the different layers in which we operate in,” said Lasse Bruun, the global head of energy transition at Climate Action Network (CAN). He said that people working to advance renewable energy need to work with non-profit organizations, cities, businesses, and community members.

He added: “it’s also because people still do not make the link between renewable energy and what happens in their own lives.”

Antonio Mozqueira, senior manager of climate change policy with the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Government, reiterated the importance of building awareness of the value of renewable energy in communities.

The ACT government aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2020 and a 100 percent renewable energy target by 2020 — the most ambitious targets set in Australia. Engaging people is essential to achieving these targets. To successfully change a community’s behavior, advocates for renewable systems have to present more desirable alternatives.

“If you have a public bus system that everyone hates you really have to address that. You have to look at how to make it more convenient and efficient.”

“How do you incentivize people so they’ll think about leaving the car at home or not buying that second car and take public transport? And if people are really so attached to their cars, how can we actually move them to the path of buying more efficient, fuel-efficient cars?”

Jens Neilsen, founder and CEO of World Climate LTD, said the solution won’t be found in just one part of the renewable energy arena. In addition to policy, he noted the need for cheaper storage.

And from an investment standpoint, subsidies in fossil fuels continue to outpace those for renewable energy. “To achieve the energy transition, you need a whole systems change.”

As we think critically about how to increase renewable energy use, we need to define the future we seek to create.

“Advancing environmental and social well-being is integrated with this energy transformation,” said Paulette Middleton, secretary of the board of directors of the International Solar Energy Society. “We have already gone over the tipping point.”