Saudi Arabia Plots out a Sustainable Future

Solar power farm in Saudi Arabia /
Solar power farm in Saudi Arabia /

“If Saudi Arabia can do this, any place can,” said Anica Landreneau, director of sustainable consulting at multi-disciplinary design firm HOK, at SXSW Eco in Austin, Texas. The conservative Muslim country is planning a move away from oil towards clean energy and a shift away from totally car-centric communities to those that offer public transit and encourage walking and biking. Saudi Arabia realizes it must go green to survive.

Saudi Arabian government officials see peak oil coming by 2028, with exports declining precipitously after that. This is a major issue for the Saudi Arabian economy because oil accounts for 80 percent of total gross domestic product (GDP). In addition, Saudi Arabia, with a population of 28 million, expects to have 35 million more people by 2040. This means the country needs to further diversify its economy away from the oil industry, which offers relatively few jobs, while concentrating population growth in cities as soon as possible. Landreneau said Saudi leaders recognize that “the economy will collapse” if they don’t move to a more sustainable approach.

Working with Saudi Aramco, which is tasked with leading a country-wide plan for sustainability and a new mandatory energy efficiency policy, HOK created new urban plans, including zoning schemes and low-carbon transportation systems, all vital parts of a more sustainable approach. Landreneau and her team proposed a set of sustainable urban development best practices to improve diversity and increase density for mixed-use developments. Saudi Arabia’s cities are now in the process of bringing their zoning up to HOK’s standards.

While HOK found that a new, sustainable urban development strategy could save 50 percent of the energy consumption and carbon emissions from the built environment, Saudi Arabia really wants to transform their cities in order to improve quality of life, safety, affordability, and health. Health is a major focus because obesity rates are around 35 percent due to the car-centric environment and sedentary lifestyles in the kingdom. These numbers are even higher than those in the U.S.

HOK and Saudi planners laid out plans that take aim at cars, finding that “there could be a 30 percent reduction in emissions with public transit.” But to get there, even bus stops will need to provide shade and air conditioning for a country with summer temperatures that top 120 degrees, and be designed to separate the sexes.

And even with widely-available mass transit, reducing car use will be a real challenge. A typical family may own up to 5 cars, in part because subsidized gasoline is so cheap. “Getting them down to 2,3 or just 1 will take cultural change.” Nevermind other ways to reduce car use: “car sharing was laughed out of the room, and the idea of charging for parking was like culture shock.”

Contrary to popular perceptions, “Saudis will walk” and the younger generation may bicycle. Traditional neighborhoods have pathways that act as shortcuts, which Saudis often walk. And corniches — seaside promenades — can attract pedestrians. “Designing a beautiful public realm will get Saudis outside.” As for bicycling, “the young generation will contemplate it.”

Saudi Arabian cities also need comprehensive water management strategies. While the country is often dry, flash storms can overwhelm and create flooding problems. “Shared green spaces could handle runoff.” And on the flip side, dealing with water efficiency issues, Landreneau’s team told the government “not to develop landscapes that cannot be irrigated with what you have.”

A New Town Square for an Urbanizing Mesa

Mesa City Center / all images Colwell Shelor, West 8, and Weddle Gilmore

Colwell Shelor Landscape Architecture, West 8 Urban Design + Landscape Architecture, and Weddle Gilmore have won a design competition to create Mesa City Center, a new civic space destined to accelerate urbanization in Mesa, a city of more than 450,000 in the greater, sprawled-out suburban area surrounding Phoenix, Arizona. A major investment in making this part of the country more walkable, the new 19-acre town square will be a “catalyst for the next 100 years of urban growth in downtown Mesa,” argued Colwell Shelor, the lead landscape architects. The new downtown public spaces will be financed with park bonds, approved by voters in 2012. This project, like the new Klyde Warren Park in Dallas and the Newport Beach Civic Center in California, indicates that more heavily car-centric cities are making ambitious investments in high-quality public space, because people everywhere want these amenities and are willing to pay for them.

“Today, the site is a mix of parking lots and municipal buildings. When complete, Mesa City Center will feature a signature public space that will catalyze new development and enliven Mesa’s downtown core,” said Michele Shelor, ASLA, principal, Colwell Shelor. And from design partner West 8’s Jamie Maslyn Larson, ASLA, we hear: “Cities around the country have been shaped around their ‘village green’ or town square. These places are oases in the city. We started thinking, this is what Mesa wants — its own town square, but with a twist, so that it’s a place people from all over the state will revisit again and again.”

The new space is “characterized by generous spaces for flexible uses, inviting landscapes celebrating the Sonoran desert, and ground floor uses with public-oriented programs that draw people into and through Mesa City Center to Main Street, the Arts Center, Convention Center, and residential neighborhoods.”

The center piece of the design is a new events space that will both accommodate larger festivals along with weekly events like a farmer’s market, exercise classes, and movies in the park.

The new space features a unique copper shade structure with an “evaporative cooling tower,” which will “mitigate the dry, hot climate with added moisture and a consistent, cooling breeze.” According to Colwell Shelor, “similar constructions have been shown to drop air temperatures by fifteen to twenty degrees. The surface will also host a projection screen for performances and movie screenings.”

Part of the structure is set within a pool of water. In the renderings, this undulating form will also provide the frame for swings, making this a mecca for kids.

And the pool will become an ice-skating rink in winter.

An upper terrace will create have a more informal feel, with Sonoran Desert-themed gardens and smaller plazas.

A promenade will connect the plaza and upper terrace, with a path lined with seating and trees.


Sustainability is a focus. Allison Colwell, ASLA, a principal at Colwell Shelor, explained: “A guiding principle of the design is to incorporate sustainable measures into all aspects of the design so that the Mesa City Center will be a model for environmentally sensitive and energy-efficient development. A few of the strategies we will consider are adaptive reuse of existing buildings, an evaporative cooling tower, bio-retention planters, rainwater harvesting, solar power, use of grey water, and permeable paving.”

Furthermore, “the overarching landscape strategy is to use native plants as the backbone of different plant communities for seasonal beauty, diversity, and habitats, and to use stormwater and greywater to support these plant communities.”

City Hall itself may also contribute to the the sustainability of the overall design. The team proposes a 150 kW solar parasol over the roof, creating an inviting rooftop public space with great views.

The parasol will provide shade but also generate approximately 260,000 kWh/yr. power.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (November 15 – 30)

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LAND, ASLA’s newsletter. If you see others you’d like included, please email us at

Selling English Gardens to the AmericansThe Guardian, 11/21/13
“It’s all hands on deck setting up the show stand at the conference center. Each company sent their work out to the U.S. weeks before and the crates needed unpacking and putting on display, similar to a mini-Chelsea Flower show stand. We had also arranged to get plants from a local nursery to plant in the Italian Terrace pots to further beautify the exhibit. By lunchtime it was looking pretty amazing.”

Green Urbanism is the Future! Well, MaybePlanetizen, 11/24/13
“My guess is the glossy, beautifully photographed images showing built work designed by professionals attract the most attention. But for me, even though I appreciate design eye candy as much as anyone, my focus inevitably shifts to the planning and analysis category and, in particular, the student work, because it is here, in the unrealized work, that we catch a glimpse of where things are headed or, perhaps, should be headed.”

Landscape Architects “Could Enable Paradigm Shift” in Green Infrastructure Alternative to Thames Super SewerLandscape Institute, 11/24/13
“Following the recent successful adoption of green infrastructure (GI) measures in the U.S. city of Philadelphia, the ‘Clean Thames Now and Always’ campaign is proposing a similar combination of GI solutions, including porous asphalt on roads, living roofs and SuDs, as a cheaper and more effective alternative to the tunnel. And landscape architects, says the campaign’s founder Christian Sarrasin, ‘would be the enablers of this paradigm shift.’”

The Thanksgiving LandscapeMetropolis Magazine, 11/25/13
“As we prepare to sit down and stuff our collective faces, let’s take a little time to fill our brains before we fill our bellies. In preparation for the marathon shopping day that is Black Friday, Americans will spend Thursday carbo-loading with stuffing, biscuits, and pie alongside traditional turkey, gravy, and cranberry sauce. So, gather ’round the table, and feel free to share these Thanksgiving facts and figures with your family and friends.”

New York City’s Largest Solar Energy Installation to be built at Freshkills ParkWorld Landscape Architecture, 11/30/13
“The Mayor of New York recently announced that the city will install the largest solar energy installation in New York City at Freshkills Parks. The installation is set to power 2,000 homes and will increase the City’s current renewable energy capacity by 50 percent. The Administration is moving forward with steps to officially map an additional 1,500 acres of Freshkills into parkland, officially bringing the total for Freshkills Park to 2,200 acres and bringing total parkland in New York City to more than 30,000 acres for the first time in history.”

These articles were compiled by Phil Stamper, ASLA Public Relations and Communications Coordinator

Image credit: Pumpkins ready for harvest / Roemer pumpkin patch 

D.C. Wants to Be the Greenest City in the U.S.

At the Old Capitol Pump House, a restored building along the Anacostia River, Washington, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray announced the launch of the long-awaited Sustainable D.C. plan. The result of an amazing public outreach process that involved over 400 local green experts, more than 180 public meetings in front of 5,000 people, and 15 D.C. government departments and agencies, the plan is an attempt to make “D.C. the greenest, healthiest, and most livable city in the U.S.” by 2032.

Gray said D.C. is already a model for other cities. “We are what many cities hope to become.” For example, the district apparently already leads the nation in the number of green, healthy buildings, or LEED buildings, per capita. New schools must now reach the LEED Gold standard. But even more green buildings now seems to be the goal: the district has signed on to the National Better Buildings challenge, aiming for 20 percent energy efficiency improvements across all buildings by 2020. And they may be moving faster, getting 20 million square feet greener in 20 months. With the Sustainable DC Act of 2012 now signed into law, a new Property Assessment Clean Energy (PACE) program is underway, aimed at improving financing opportunities for greening commercial and multi-family housing.

The district wants to be greener looking, too (literally). There’s an accelerated tree planting campaign, with 6,400 slated to be planted this season alone. The goal is a 40 percent tree canopy, which would put D.C. in the top tier of major cities worldwide. Beyond trees, the city is implementing “high standard stormwater infrastructure investments.” For example, “we are now building more green roofs than anyone,” with 1.5 million square feet now in place. Green streets, like the first green alley built in Ward 7, are also being rolled out, with more potentially coming soon in Chinatown. Green infrastructure technologies may get a local boost, too, with the $4.5 million that has been dedicated to “innovative pilot projects.”

The district already has the biggest bike share network in the U.S., but “this may not be the case for long, as other cities are catching up.” The D.C. government now purchases 100 percent renewable energy. We have become a “number-one U.S. E.P.A. green power community.” All of this action has led to a 12 percent reduction in green house gas emissions over the past year.

Gray seemed to stress, however, that going green can’t just be the agenda of educated, liberal, white environmentalists. The diverse, multi-ethnic crowd seemed to underpin this point. “We need to focus on jobs, health, equity and diversity, and the climate.” So part of making D.C. more sustainable will involve “expanding access to affordable housing and economic development opportunities” for all, so that “we have one city.” Gray said: “We can’t push people out.”

The actual plan offers some 32 goals, 31 targets, and more than 140 proposed actions. Some goals are quite bold, like “a fishable, swimmable Anacostia River in a generation.” The Anacostia is currently one of the filthiest rivers in the U.S. Other goals: implement a zero-waste plan, with a 80 percent landfill diversion rate. Expand urban agriculture, with 20 more acres of land growing food, so that 75 percent of residents are within 1/4 mile of healthy, local produce. The city wants 1,000 new local renewable energy projects, with a dedicated wind farm for D.C. government operations.

Gray said “this is about nothing short than winning the future.” For a mayor still under federal investigation, Sustainable DC offers a positive way forward and certainly paints the city in a progressive light. As the mayor said, “who would have thought 10 years ago that we would have the biggest bike share network, 100 percent renewable energy for the district government, and 400 local people involved in crafting a new vision.”

But, as they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Pointed questions from the media at the launch event asked whether the mayor and city council will actually put the funds and government personnel behind this bold plan to “change our society.” In a telling comment, Gray said the District will need to wait to hear the results of the debate in Congress on “sequestration,” which could potentially result in billions being cut from the federal budget. Much of the district economy depends on federal government spending, which is why the mayor said the city must “diversify” into new sectors in his recent state of the district speech. In fact, much of the resurgence of the district in the past few years can be attributed to the new federal money pumped into the district (see a great New York Times article on this).

Perhaps Gray’s broader case is that Sustainable DC will help the district’s economy and people become more resilient to economic, environmental, and social shocks, and diversify into greener industries. This seems like smart local leadership that goes beyond the vagaries of federal spending. Grey also made a point of saying regardless of who is mayor in the future, the plan “reflects the interests of our community.” The plan goes beyond the mayor.

Still, it will be up to the D.C. government, private sector, and non-profit organizations to implement the plan at a very high standard. The race is on, considering many other top-tier cities have similar goals.

Read the Sustainable DC plan and also check out Becoming Greenest: Recommendations for a Sustainable D.C., ASLA’s 30-page report produced last year, which seems to have at least inspired a few of the District’s targets and actions.

Image credit: Diamond Teague Park, Washington D.C. Landscape Architecture Bureau /Allen Russ

Whole Foods’ “Conscious Capitalism”


Is “conscious capitalism” just a new buzzword or is it something truly different from the “instantaneous public relations hit” of corporate social responsibility efforts? In the mind of Kathy Loftus, global leader, sustainable engineering and energy management, Whole Foods, conscious capitalism is not just marketing, but reflects a “mission-driven approach” and commitment to long-term sustainability for people and the planet.

At a forum organized by The Atlantic magazine, Loftus said Whole Foods began 30 years ago, when it was called “Safer Way.” The goal was to improve the “health of communities” by selling products that weren’t created with fertilizers made of petroleum and chemicals. Interestingly, then as now, there wasn’t really a sustainability department at Whole Foods, but greening work was embedded into every team and process. “Our culture, our ethos is to follow these principles so it’s everywhere. It’s inside-out.”

Now, Whole Foods is a “shareholder-driven company” that proves you can do well and also do good. Indeed, Whole Foods does very well and is highly profitable. (There’s a reason why it’s called “Whole Paycheck.”) But Loftus seemed to argue that healthy food simply costs more because like renewable energy, the cost of environmental externalities are incorporated into the cost. Whole Foods purchases food from animals they know have been treated well. They buy products grown on lands treated well enough so they will be arable long-term. These environmental benefits are integrated into the cost. She said the only alternative is that you “can spend less on food now, but pay more for medicine later.”

But Derek Thompson, senior editor at The Atlantic, wondered how Whole Foods can continue to grow as a business when its products seem to be targeted at a liberal, affluent, urban and suburban market? Loftus said a program of increased productivity and energy efficiency has led to waste reduction and lower energy use. “IT, logistics improvements have helped us reduce costs,” opening new markets.

Whole Foods has also “worked closely with partners to reduce costs,” because unlike Walmart, it’s a small company and can’t shift the market on its own. With just 340 stores, in comparison with 4,000 Walmarts, Whole Foods has to “work with farms, partners, universities, and institutions.” In fact, the firm has issued a “declaration of inter-dependence.” It was perhaps the strength of the partner network that enabled Whole Foods to somewhat rapidly respond to fierce criticism by Michael Pollan and others that the company wasn’t providing enough local produce. Loftus said the Whole Foods leadership clearly saw it as a “problem” and started growing the network of local farmers it taps and the amount of local produce it offers in stores through a new “local producer loan program.”

The firm wants to be seen as a test-bed for new ideas. Product packaging is a clear target for innovation. “We can’t just recycle. We have to get to the source of the problem.” The firm now gives awards to suppliers who reduce waste and is looking at “cradle to cradle, life-cycle, and biomimicry analysis.”

Their North Atlantic region center now uses waste cooking oil for energy and electricity. “This helped us solve the waste issue and also helped reduce our dependence on a taxed local energy grid.” Solar power purchasing agreements are in place and there are exploratory efforts to determine the combination of rooftop solar and green roofs that works best. Here, Whole Foods could indeed become a leader in large stores by making their roof spaces productive, even creating rooftop farms local farmers could access. But what wasn’t discussed was whether these stores are designed to handle the additional roof load, or even whether, given the average lifespan of these buildings, the investment makes sense. While Whole Foods seems to embed themselves in high-end developments created by developers thinking longer-term, does the average Whole Foods building really last longer than Target stores’ 50-year max lifespan? It would be interesting to see the projections.

While some stores can hopefully be further greened, where they are placed is also a matter of concern. Many Whole Foods are in dense, walkable urban areas, but just as many require a car to get to. Driving long distance to purchase sustainable, local products may not make much sense. One audience member complained that a Whole Foods became part of a new development that cleared a greenfield site. Loftus’ response seemed to say that Whole Foods finds the trade-off between accessing customers where they are and sustainability to be a tough one, but customer demand (and financial considerations) seemed to win out in that instance and others.

On the positive PR-side, Whole Foods will be adding a store in Detroit, testing out a new model that will offer lower-cost products and a more limited selection that requires fewer staff. “This won’t be our flagship store but can be lean and focus on the right products. We can put these types of operations in other places.” This is a good deed because there are a “so many under-served populations in the U.S.”

Another panel explored what some other “sustainability and energy efficiency leaders” are doing in the marketplace. Beth Keck, who is Walmart’s senior director of sustainability, said because her customers live “paycheck to paycheck,” green simply has to be “integrated into the product so customers don’t have to make a choice between green and not-green.” She said fuel efficiency efforts alone have saved the firm $200 million. By improving efficiencies, the firm has “saved customers $1 billion on fresh fruits and vegetables.” In terms of waste improvements, some 80 percent of the humungous firm’s waste is now diverted from landfill. Still, there’s much to done. As Nestle’s Vice President for Sustainability, Michael Washburn said, post-consumer recycling rates in the U.S. were just 45 percent, whereas they are closer to 80 percent in Scandinavia. Of the 20 billion plastic water bottles Nestle produces each year in the U.S., some 70 percent go to landfill. Time to set much higher targets.

Image credits: Local Food Bee

A New Park Where There Was Once a Canal

Washington, D.C.’s Navy Yard has undergone an unbelievable transformation in the past few years. What was once an isolated naval base and seedy area made up of industrial buildings and strip clubs has become home to a real neighborhood — a mixed-use mecca composed of a new headquarters for the U.S. Department of Transportation and a residential and commercial complex, which is also a LEED-Neighborhood Development (ND) Gold project. The new complex, which is called the Yards, features a great new riverfront park by M. Paul Friedberg and innovative green streets by AECOM. These amenities are near a super-sustainable boat pier by local D.C. landscape architecture firm Landscape Architecture Bureau (LAB). Now, the neighborhood, which has seen an influx of upwardly-mobile urbanites, has the new “Canal Park,” a model neighborhood park by landscape architecture firm OLIN and architecture firm STUDIOS that has transformed a three-block brownfield into a simple yet enchanting space.

In recent years, the space was a drain on the neighborhood, a parking lot for buses. But way back when — before it was paved over in the 1870s — the place was part of the historic Washington City Canal, which connected the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers. According to OLIN, the new $20 million park is meant to evoke that historic waterway, with a “linear rain garden reminiscent of the canal, and three pavilions, which recall floating barges that were once common.”

Achieving the clear simplicity of the park clearly took a lot of effort. Lining the long, narrow park are lots of space for lounging on nice lawns, metal kinetic-feeling sculptures by David Hess, curved benches, and, in winter, an ice-skating rink.

The rink area is flanked by a cafe covered in publicly accessible green roof. The green roof features what must be a first: signs letting people know to curb their dogs around the sedum.

Underlying the space are some complex green infrastructure systems that help this place give back to the neighborhood on the environmental front. “Contaminated soils were replaced with a healthy growing medium and the native plant habitat was re-introduced.” A linear rain garden, which runs the length of the park, has signs saying “Water is reclaimed and recycled,” helping to explain its role to the visiting public. The rain gardens work together with deep tree pits and underground cisterns to collect, manage, and treat “almost all stormwater runoff on site” and from the neighboring blocks, some 1.5 million gallons of water each year. Treated, recycled water collected in the park is used to “satisfy up to 95 percent of the park’s water needs for fountains, irrigation, toilets and the ice skating path.”

Also, this truly-green park has 28 geothermal wells underground to provide a “highly-efficient energy supply for park utilities,” reducing park energy use by 37 percent. And the park is there to provide sustainable transport solutions for the broader neighborhood, too: it features the first electric vehicle charging stations this blogger has ever seen in person. Two stations with spaces for four cars (we think) can be accessed with a swipe of a credit card.

The wood structures in the park, which were designed by STUDIOS, feature “reclaimed and sustainably harvested wood from black locust trees.” Black Locust is a great alternative to unsustainable rainforest hardwoods like Ipe. The use of this wood in these pavilions is an excellent development really worth applauding.

Additional clear-plastic pavilions scattered at the edges of the park are opaque and both there and not there. They are apparently interactive “light cubes” that can display art and photography.

OLIN says programming will be ramped up to really maximize use of the new park. “The Canal Park Development Association, in partnership with the Capital Riverfront Business Improvement District, will host numerous events throughout the year, such as movies and concerts, holiday and seasonal festivals, farmers markets, art expositions, educational and environmental programming, storytelling events, and more.” The neighborhood clearly benefits.

Image credits: (1-3) OLIN, (4-5) Phil Stamper / ASLA, (6-7) OLIN

In D.C., New Eco-District Plans Unveiled

After two years of internal debate among 17 different federal agencies and the D.C. government, the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) released its long-awaited plans for a new Southwest Eco-District designed to undo the worst damage of the massive “urban renewal” projects inflicted on L’Enfant neighborhood over the past decades. Designed to transform the spooky, almost pedestrian-free area just south of the Mall into a highly sustainable, people-friendly cultural and business destination, the Eco-district plan means to take on many challenges at once. As Elizabeth Miller, ASLA, the intrepid landscape architect who is guiding the project, explained, this 110-acre, 15-square block project is meant to showcase “high performance buildings and landscapes” while creating space for 19,000 new federal workers and solving some of the worst pedestrian access problems.

At the beginning of the hearing today, NCPC Chairman L. Preston Bryant, Jr said the project can go a long way to “breathing new life into the city.” While the whole Eco-District may take 20 or 30 years to design and implement, “we have a once in a generation opportunity to make this happen.” He added that NCPC and its many federal partners are eager to move forward because there are some synergies that make the timing right: The Department of Energy (DOE) building is “coming to a lifecycle decision,” meaning that it’s ready to be torn down because it’s now highly inefficient in terms of energy and water use; the Southwest waterfront plans are moving forward, with $2 billion in private sector investment set; and the D.C. government-led Maryland Avenue redevelopment project is on its way.

Miller outlined a vision for an Eco-District that provokes the imagination, at least among sustainable designers. She said the new District will “capture, manage, and reuse water, energy, and waste” and work beyond a single building, leveraging clusters of buildings to create a new system. At the same time, the plan will take aim at the incredible lack of public access — the barriers, the highways, and grade changes — that keep people away, except for the federal workers that have to go there for work.

Diane Sullivan, sustainability planner for NCPC, said a sustainable mixed-use community will arise out of a set of new “guidelines, objectives” that will frame neighborhood development efforts and the creation of new environmental systems.

On developing the neighborhood, Sullivan said that a user survey of D.C. residents found that the lack of amenities was the overwhelming reason why people didn’t want to move down there or even hang out there. So the goal is create a new tree-lined 10th street (or L’Enfant Place) that can connect the Mall to the new Southwest waterfront development while also making that connection itself an exciting cultural destination, lined with 1.2 million square feet in new space for up to 5 new museums, along with farmers’ markets and other draws.

Better pedestrian access is also key to making all this work. In the new plans, Miller said Virginia and Maryland Avenues will re-appear, carving new paths through new buildings as park-like avenues for promenading. Sullivan said the new local street designs cutting up the mega-blocks are still being worked out. She asked, “which streets should be monumental? Which should be local?”

To better get those pedestrians — all those federal workers — to the area, a “better inter-modal system” will be put in place, with a revamped, solar roofed-L’Enfant station, offering both commuter rail and Metro. To ease pressure off Union Station, more commuter rail may be directed there somehow.

The saving grace of the scary L’Enfant Place now is the fountain in Dan Kiley’s Modern-era Benjamin Banneker park, with its dramatic overlook across the Washington Channel. Unfortunately, the rest of Kiley’s park was not well realized. With spaghetti loops of highways cutting through, it’s a matter of taking your life in your own hands to go from the park to the waterfront. In the new plans, Kiley’s park will be completely redone but the area will still serve as a monument to African American surveyor Banneker. The new, more sustainable park will more easily connect to the waterfront while providing a new visual identity for the “eco” part of the district.

Now, on the systems that will make the district more eco: First, many of the old federal buildings will go, getting a revamp so they meet the goals of Obama’s Executive Order 13514, which calls for federal agencies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, water and energy use. The ones that stay, like the famed Brutalist HUD building, will be updated to be more efficient.

Sullivan said the goal is to have “zero-net energy district as measured in carbon.” Pretty near impossible unless fully renewable power is the rule for the new Eco-District. Sullivan said solar PVs and solar thermal systems (for hot water) will be added to the roofs of the new buildings wherever possible, while ground-source heat will also be tapped. A central facility run by GSA, which runs on natural gas, will still be used (but that won’t get them to zero emissions).

Heading down towards the water, the freeway that cuts off the connection between Benjamin Banneker park and the waterfront will be capped with a new layer covered in solar panels.

For water, the goal is to reduce potable water use throughout the Eco-District by 70 percent and manage all stormwater where it falls. All building greywater will be reused while blackwater will go to the new anaerobic plant. Rainwater will be caught by acres of green roofs (including edible ones), green streets, trees, and planters. What isn’t caught will be funneled into cisterns underneath 10th street and used later. Green infrastructure is then clearly a central part of the strategy. Permeable areas overall are to grow to 35 percent, while the tree canopy is to reach 40 percent (a solid target). (Right now, the barren area has just 8 percent tree cover). While we didn’t hear anything substantive about creating a wildlife-friendly landscape designed to attract diverse species, we hope that’s in the works.

There are more ambitious goals for waste reductions: Some 75 percent of construction materials for the new buildings will be reused, and 80 percent of everyday waste will be diverted from the landfill. A composting program will be put in place, too.

So, how will this all actually work? Sullivan sees some government buildings first getting a light rehabilitation and then others will undergo a full rehabilitation. Three federal buildings will be “re-purposed” as major infill development begins. Then, big redevelopment will start over the freeway. At the same time, critical projects like a new Banneker park and a new 10th street landscape will begin next year.

What’s this all going to cost? Miller and Sullivan said an economic feasibility study only provided some high-level numbers, but they did say the federal government would make back its multibillion dollar investment over 20 years through reduced energy, water, and waste fees; increased revenues from private sector developers; and improved local tax gains.

While we hope this project is a sure thing, new governance structures and partnership and financing agreements will need to be worked out among all the partners, including the private sector developers who are key to making this all happen. Let’s hope this is not a protracted process. As the Eco-District gets moving, it can become an innovative showcase for how to revamp government hubs across the U.S.

Learn more about the bold plans. D.C. residents can attend a public hearing on the proposals on July 19. The comment period will be open for three months. Comments will be incorporated into a final plan ready to go by early 2013. By the end of next year, NCPC hopes to have design competitions launched for a new Banneker park and 10th street, its two priority public projects.

Image credit: ZGF Architects, courtesy of NCPC

Making an Ambitious Sustainability Plan a Reality

In the race to be greenest among the more progressive cities in the country, Washington, D.C. is no laggard. According to a recent Economist Intelligence Unit report, the city ranks eighth among all North American cities. Impressive as that is, D.C. still remains far behind top performers like San Francisco and Vancouver so the city government under Mayor Vincent Gray has initiated an ambitious new plan, SustainableDC, with the goal of becoming number one in a generation.

After months of public review sessions and advisory committee meetings (your blogger was involved in the climate change committee), Mayor Vincent Gray is trying to make many good ideas more concrete, turning them into regulations and laws. In a hearing held this week, seven bills were considered by the City Council, while two related to energy efficiency have already passed. Here’s a run-down of what Gray and his able team at the Planning office and District Department of the Environment (DDOE) are hoping move forward now.

Boosting Energy Efficiency:

The “Energy Efficiency Financing Amendment Act of 2012” would increase access to private capital for energy efficiency. The Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) pilot program, which is a “$30 million energy retrofit pilot backed by private capital,” would serve as the down payment on a $250 million program. New rules being proposed would enable water and stormwater infrastructure — what we assume to mean green roofs and the strategic use of trees for energy efficiency — to be eligible for PACE financing. This is really smart because as an ASLA animation demonstrates, green roofs and trees can be very effective at reducing energy consumption. The D.C. government says PACE could “inject hundreds of millions of dollars into the District economy each year,” creating tons of green jobs. Those incentives could also make the city greener, literally.

The “Clean and Affordable Energy Benchmarking Amendment Act of 2012” will establish a green building benchmarking program. “This program, one of the first of its type in the nation, requires disclosure of EnergyStar portfolio manager scores for all private buildings over 50,000 square feet.” Rolling out in 2012, the program will require “industry education support, data management, and enforcement” — efforts all geared towards improving D.C.’s already substantial progress on green buildings.

As noted above, the District has already passed two other measures related to energy efficiency. These are the “Low-Income Weatherization Plus Program Amendment Act of 2012,” which provides “essential weatherization services” to low-income District residents, and the “Heating System Repair, Replacement, or Tune-up Program Amendment Act of 2012,” which allows DDOE to restart a “successful program to repair, replace, or tune up heating systems and hot water heaters in low-income households.”

Spurring Renewable Energy Production:

The city seems to realize it needs to get more serious about removing the obstacles limiting renewable energy production, which has taken off elsewhere in the U.S. far faster. The “Renewable Energy Incentive Program Amendment Act of 2012” would allow the DDOE to continue to offer rebates to District businesses and residences that install renewable energy systems.

On the same front, separate from SustainableDC initiatives, the City Council also debated new measures to boost both residential and industrial-scale solar power and co-generation energy and heat plants (mostly geothermal systems) by making regulations clearer and reducing property taxes. The “Energy Innovation and Savings Amendment Act of 2012,” would enable excuse 3rd party vendors — the firms that provide low-cost financing and installation of renewable energy systems — from paying nearly 3.5 percent in property taxes. As Councilwoman Mary Cheh (and interim Chairwoman of the City Council) noted, “this may be needed to become more competitive with Maryland and level the playing field.” By giving up the extra taxes, more renewable energy investment could come, creating more valuable properties and therefore more property taxes. Right now, the District only has a few large-scale solar plants, totalling 5 mega-watts. Two of the biggest plants creating some 900 kilo-watts of power are on the campuses of American and Catholic universities.

Promoting Electric Vehicles: 

In the hearing we attended, we also heard how the City Council is considering bills that would give electric vehicles a fighting chance in the District, which is great news. So few cities have incentivized the development of electric vehicle (EV) infrastructure — the charging stations — really needed to make EVs a reality. NRG Energy’s EV-Go system, which is a subscription model that “reduces up-front costs,” could be a good fit for the District. The city seems to be responsive to that firm’s interest in rolling out charging stations and serious about removing any regulatory obstacles that could limit the range of sites.

Still, Cheh asked pointed questions about EV demand, the cost of these charging stations, and the fees each EV owner would need to pay to use the stations. The NRG representative said that “these stations would cost a fraction of the price of gasoline, about less than half.” To tap the “regional ecosystem,” the stations would be put along key routes for commuters, taking up spaces in shopping malls (“retail hosts”) and parking spaces along streets. Exciting stuff.

Protecting the Rivers:

Another bill would tax-exempt RiverSmart programs aimed at the conservation and protection of natural resources, which in turn protect the rivers. The city says residents need clarity on the “rebates, grants, subsidies, in-kind services, and other such incentives.”

A related program, the “Anacostia River Clean Up and Protection Fertilizer Amendment Act of 2012,” would specifically take aim at the fertilizers used by homeowners and businesses that dirty the District’s waterways, “accelerating the growth of algae and damaging aquatic ecosystems, fisheries, and water quality.” DDOE explains: “Algal blooms have a strong negative impact on fisheries, degrade fishing and boating activities, and harm tourism and property values. Controlling fertilizer use in general — and especially by reducing phosphorous and nitrogen use in fertilizers — will greatly aid the District to meet federal Clean Water Act requirements.” We have to see the details — for instance, will fertilizer use will actually be restricted? — but this may be long overdue considering the Anacostia still ranks as one of the filthiest waterways in the U.S.

Helping the Bees and Promoting Urban Agriculture:

Bees are in trouble so the District seems to be moving on this critical issue. In the “Sustainable Urban Agriculture Apiculture Act of 2012,” homeowners will now be allowed to legally raise honeyebees, which play a symbiotic role in home gardens and help produce fruit and vegetables in the District. All that wax and honey could help fuel the growth of new local industries, too.

Reducing Toxic Exposure Among Kids:

Lastly, the “Child-occupied Facility Healthy Air Amendment Act of 2012” says that “child-occupied facilities and dry-cleaning facilities that use perchloroethlyene or n-propyl bromide as a cleaning agent for clothes or other fabrics” can’t be in the same place. “The prohibition would extend through 2029, when perchloroethlyene will be outlawed in the District. The bill requires that owners of dry-cleaning facilities be educated about the dangers of perchloroethylene and n-propyl bromide, about their proper handling, and about less-toxic alternatives. The bill was drafted in response to an incident of serious PERC contamination next door to a District daycare center.”

Even if all of these measures pass the Council, D.C. will need to do much more to be number one. Hopefully this is just a good start.

Explore D.C.’s Sustainability vision and the legislative proposals before the council.

Also, check out an interesting article in The Architect’s Newspaper on recent urban planning innovations in D.C., like the Southwest eco-district.

Image credit: Rooftop Solar Installation / Eco-friend

With Gardens by the Bay, Singapore Aims to Become the “Botanical Capital of the World”

Singapore’s national flower is the orchid. So UK-based team Grant Associates, a landscape architecture firm, and Wilkinson Eyre, an architecture firm, decided to use the structure of this epiphytic plant to model their new $545 million, 54-hectare Gardens by the Bay project in that city-state’s Marina South Gardens, which is just the first piece of a much bigger project (two more gigantic garden parks are coming). The design team explains: “First, the garden takes root on a piece of new garden infrastructure and grows out towards the city. Leaves (earthworks) and roots (water, energy, communication systems) and shoots (paths, roads and links) create an integrated network across the space and beautiful flowers (feature/theme gardens) occur at key intersections or nodes.”

With this massive project, which was built on reclaimed, restored land, wealthy Singapore aims to become the “botanical capital of the world.” There are many elements (almost too many to go through), which include more than 225,000 plants. Just a few are new theme gardens that “showcase the best of tropical horticulture and garden artistry.” Within these gardens, there are multiple horticultural collections, including the “Heritage Gardens” and “World of Plants.”  

In the Heritage Gardens, there’s a range of garden collections that reflect the unique cultures that make up diverse Singapore, along with the city-state’s colonial heritage (It was a British base for many years). A new Malay Garden “tells the story of life in a traditional ‘kampong’ (village),” while the Indian Garden’s layout “echoes a traditional illustrated flower motif.” The Chinese Garden illustrates the role of gardens as places of “inspiration for writers, poets, and artists” — places of tranquility — in Chinese culture. The Colonial Garden tells the story of plants as “Engines of Empire,” featuring the many spices and other crops that served as a foundation for regional, British-controlled trade. 

The “World of Plants” Garden then showcases the rich plant biodiversity of Southeast Asia. There are gardens dedicated to ancient plants, fruits and flowers, trees, tropical palms, and the understory, which looks at the “forest root zone,” the plant species that make up the forest floor.

Perhaps the iconic element of the new super-park are the 18 “supertrees,” ranging from 25-50 meters high, which Grant Associates describe as a “fusion of nature, art, and technology.” These multifunctional engineered structures act like, well, trees, except they also create power for the park and light up at night. According to the design team, “they are at one level spectacular vertical gardens and landmark features, at another they are the environmental engines for the cooled conservatories, incorporating devices for water harvesting and storage, air intake, cooling and exhaust, photovoltaic arrays, and solar collectors.” 

During the daytime, the trees provide shelter and shade, like any tree. But at night, says Grant Associates, the trees “come alive with lighting and projected media that activate the city skyline.”  Built into the supertree line is a 128-meter aerial walkway. The biggest supertree has a bar, offering a treetop view to go with your cocktails. Grant Associates seem to say that they needed to get large trees up fast and couldn’t wait for real ones to grow: “Given the relatively short time span to create a garden from reclaimed land, the Supertrees provide an immediate scale and dimension to the Gardens while marrying the form and function of mature trees.” 

Working together with the outdoor gardens and supertrees are “cooled conservatories” that use “sustainable energy sources” (from the supertrees) to create new micro-climates indoors. “The Flower Dome replicates the cool-dry climate of Mediterranean and semi-arid sub-tropical regions such as South Africa and parts of Europe like Spain and Italy. The Cloud Forest Dome replicates the cool-moist climate found in tropical montane regions between 1,000 to 3,500 metres above sea level, such as Mt Kinabalu in Sabah, Malaysia, and high elevation areas in South America.” The Cloud Forest alone has some 130,000 plants.

Sounds like a lot of energy and air conditioning for those cooled conservatories. But Grant Associates argues that the “suite of technologies used” actually means about 30 percent energy savings on a conventional (if there is one?) climate-controlled conservatory. The design team used “spectrally selective glass and light sensor-operated shadings” to reduce solar heat gain and maximize sun exposure for the plants. There are more complex systems like “thermal stratification, an efficient de-humidification cooling process, and a Combined Heat Power (CHP) biomass steam turbine” to control the indoor climate and create electricity. 

As a final note, the signage by Thomas Mathews graphic design is really fun. The design team used the colors of the local Mangosteen fruit as the palette, with a dark purple as the unifying color.  

We would have liked to hear more from Grant Associates about how they will harvest Singapore’s heavy rainfall to water the garden year round. Will there be cisterns to store some of that water for drier periods? Also, there is little info about the biodiversity benefits they are expecting, beyond the plants. What kind of insects and birds can be supported by the new park?

Still, the gardens are expected to be a huge tourist draw. The Wall Street Journal writes that tickets will be $28 Singapore dolllars for tourists and $20 for locals. Restaurants, bands, bars will also help draw people in late into the night.

Image credits: (1) Grant Associates (2) Chinese Garden / Craig Sheppard Photography, (3-4) Supertrees / Robert Such Photography, (5-6) Cooled Conservatory / Craig Sheppard Photography, (7) Branding design / Thomas Mathews, (8) Signage / Craig Sheppard Photography

Can the U.S. Become Like Denmark?

The U.S. isn’t going to become like Denmark, which relies on wind power for 22 percent of its energy needs, anytime soon. In that sustainable northern European country, sometimes the total share of wind power even jumps up to 60-70 percent during really windy periods, said Willet Kempton, Professor, Center for Carbon-free Power Integration, University of Delaware, at a green energy forum organized by The Atlantic magazine. After nearly $100 billion in investment over the past few decades, wind power is still just nearing 4 percent of the total U.S. energy system and won’t get up to Denmark’s levels without a dramatic shift in how energy is created and distributed, added Michael O’Sullivan NextEra Energy Resources’ Senior Vice President. NextEra, one of the world’s largest solar and wind energy providers, has alone invested some $20 billion in U.S. wind power to date.

According to Martin Klepper, co-head of the energy and infrastructure projects group at law firm Skadden Arps, federal financing, which has totaled $20 billion, has also helped bring the cost of solar and wind power down. Solar is down from $4 a watt to around $1. There are similar trends for wind.

Just a few states really offer the opportunity for “utility-scale” wind power. The same goes for solar power. That’s because there are only a few states with enough wind and sun to justify the expense of rolling out the expensive transmission lines and systems that can store power when there’s no wind blowing or sun shining.

The price trends are positive so the share of renewables is slowly growing though. The U.S. is now in the process of installing some of the largest solar, solar thermal, and wind power installations anywhere in the world. However, China may be eating the U.S.’s lunch given the rapid way they are scaling up.

O’Sullivan didn’t seem scared by China’s great progress though. He said some 25-30 percent of the enormous wind capacity China has built isn’t “connected to the grid. It’s wind to nowhere.” While China is adding 50-100 mega watts each year, the U.S. has a more “mature regulatory environment.” Comparing China to the Wild Wild West, the U.S. 75 years ago, O’Sullivan said “there’s a simpler regulatory regime there.” Klepper said it’s amazing but in one day a new power plant can receive land, water, air permits and financing, whereas in the U.S. that process can take anywhere from 2-5 years and involve lots of risk. A number of those proposals fail to win approval, meaning all those consulting fees go down to the toilet.

Perhaps the main stumbling block to turning the U.S. into Denmark is the lack of a national smart grid and any hope of one in the near term. A national smart grid could help transmit wind power collected in the central great plain states (the windy core of the country) and quickly move it to other parts of the states. O’Sullivan said the policy and regulatory landscape among the 48 lower states is so different that there are almost “48 different countries.” Within that mess of regulations, there are some 500 utilities that “own some piece of the grid.” As a result, infrastructure investment has to be done state by state or maybe regionally. “The technology is the easy part. It can decades to permit infrastructure. This isn’t like the interstate system.” The policy and regulatory differences between states and lack of cross-border coordination are slowing the U.S. down in a big way.  

While the U.S. federal government and utilities have invested in research and development, it’s a fairly small number: a few billion. O’Sullivan said private equity and capital — see the energy entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley — are really driving the industry. They saw a “positive price signal from the federal government” and have gone for it.

What do all these firms now still need to boost wind production? Certainty that policies won’t change in the future so they can get busy building out these long-range projects. Klepper says the industry needs a federal renewable energy standard (see earlier post) and measures to reduce the cost of financing. Kempton would like policymakers to internalize the “externalities” in energy production, all the health and environmental costs that the public now covers. If the true cost of those were included in the price of energy, the story goes that the true benefits of wind and solar power will become clearer and the cost of these energy sources will be cheaper than dirty coal and oil.

Check out a map of American wind resources and explore the state of wind power generation in the U.S. In the midwest at least, farmers and communities could even benefit from wind farms.

Earlier in the day: Given much of Washington, D.C. now considers natural gas a clean energy, Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, a former geologist and fan of “clean coal,” made a multi-pronged defense of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” to improve extraction. Saying he’s been doing fracking projects since the early 1980s, he believes these projects can be safe and he knows very few instances where fracking has led to groundwater contamination or earthquakes. Still, earthquakes are “possible” if the fluids cause earth plates to slide. He said that “like any industrial process, it can be done well or sloppily.” To be sure damage doesn’t occur, Colorado has doubled its fines for any damage to the groundwater. “We have a zero tolerance” policy on water pollution. Gas is clearly big business in Colorado.

Image credit: Wind farm mixed in with a real farm in Kansas / Grit