Neil DeGrasse Tyson: Cosmic Light and the City

Sun Triangle, NYC / Flickr

The urban heat island effect, which causes cities to be 2-8 degrees warmer than nearby rural areas, is just one example of how the thermodynamics of cosmic light affect our built environment. As sunlight hits tar roofs and asphalt streets, it warms them. But as astrophysicist and best-selling author Neil DeGrasse Tyson explained at the 2017 Greenbuild in Boston, we can use green and white roofs to increase light reflection and reduce heat absorption. With a better understanding of the nature of light, we can make our cities not only more energy efficient, but also much more dynamic places.

For example, Tyson pointed to the Sun Triangle, a sculpture in a sunken plaza in front of the McGraw-Hill Building at 1221 Avenue of the Americas in New York City, created by Athelstan Spilhaus, a geophysicist and meteorologist (see image above). On solstices and equinoxes, different legs of the triangle line up exactly with solar noon. The Sun Triangle got Tyson thinking about “the city’s structure and form and how it interacts with the sun’s path.” This art work, he said, connects us to the beyond — the greater universe.

The Sun Triangle made Tyson think about the ancient Stone Henge, where the head stone was designed to perfectly align with the summer solstice on June 21. Tyson realized this Henge light also exists amid the grid of Manhattan. He calculated the exact day and time twice a year the sunset would pour down the avenues of Manhattan, flooding north and south sides of all streets with light. “It’s the sun at infinity — where parallel lines meet, and every street is illuminated simultaneously.” Since Tyson discovered and promoted Manhattan Henge, it has become a phenomenon, drawing hordes of people. “It has slowly gotten out of control,” he laughed.

Buildings can take advantage of the fascinating properties of light. In NYC’s Grand Central Station, curlicue wrought-iron grills on the windows create a giant pinhole camera that projects an image of the surface of the sun into the building. “These aren’t just circles of light; they are actually images of the sun. You can see the sunspots moving across the floor.”

Sun hitting Grand Central Station / Fine Art America

The Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York City, which Tyson leads, also uses light to powerful effect, telling the story of our solar system. The planetarium is in a large sphere encased in a glass box. The sphere is a scale model of the sun, with the planets in our system revolving around it. “We used architecture to tell the story.” At night, the illuminated planetarium “calls to you, reaching beyond itself.”

Hayden planetarium / Flickr

Tyson admitted the planetarium has gotten criticism from some groups who claim it creates noxious light pollution. Tyson shot back that New York City, with its tight grid of tall buildings, is actually much darker when viewed from the night sky than sprawled-out places. “Suburbs everywhere have street lights. In Manhattan, the light from these are hidden by buildings.” Tyson noted that Tucson, Arizona, which is trying to reduce its light pollution both for birds and astrophysicists at the nearby Steward Observatory, “lead the world in dark sky legislation.”

Looking to the future, Tyson believes we can tap the unlimited energy of light from the sun to power our civilization. He called for more visionary thinking about the cities of tomorrow, bringing back the big dreams of the World’s Fair of the 1960s. We must look beyond to the universe to be more sustainable at home.

Lessons Learned from the First Generation of Net-Zero Communities

BedZED / Wikipedia

The first generation of net-zero communities, which were designed to add no carbon to the atmosphere, are entering their second decade. Beddington Zero Energy Development (BedZED) in London is about 15 years old now; and the first phase of Dockside Green in Victoria, Canada, is now 10 years old. In a session at the 2017 Greenbuild in Boston, Steven Dulmage with Urban Equation and Justin Downey at RNWL outlined lessons learned from these early sustainable communities and how they informed second-generation developments, such as Zibi in Ottawa, Canada, and Hazelwood Green in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

According to Dulmage, BedZED, which has 82 homes, “didn’t hit net-zero carbon projections.” While the project successfully reduced emissions from transportation — as more residents walk, bike, or take mass transit — the biomass plant built onsite didn’t work out. It ran for a few years and then was discontinued. “It wasn’t economic to run, so they converted to gas. The business case for the biomass plant wasn’t well-thought through.”

Dockside Green in British Columbia, which has 26 buildings that house 2,500 people, was “built up at the front end during the recession, which was very painful for the developers,” explained Downey. While the developers used a phased approach to development, Downey seemed to say the roll-out of those phases was too aggressive. “They didn’t wait for absorption,” meaning they didn’t build to the pace of tenants buying apartments.

Dockside Green / Times Colonist

Also mentioned: One Brighton in the UK, built in 2009, was the first major development built using the One Planet Living framework. While the development reduced carbon emissions by 70 percent in comparison with the average neighborhood development, that’s not 100 percent. Still, homes there sell for a 10 percent premium over comparable real estate because of their inherent sustainability and resale value. There are also other benefits: residents who move there sell their cars as they can walk and bike everywhere. No cars means much less spent on transportation and fewer carbon emissions.

One Brighton / Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

The latest generation of net-zero communities have learned from these first models and may have greater success reaching environmental goals.

Hazelwood Green in Pittsburgh, which is now under development and will transform 178-acres of old industrial property along the Mononogahela River, could achieve net-zero by using onsite renewable energy for 40 percent of energy needs and a “geothermal field” connected to the river for the rest, explained Downey. “It’s a smart design concept — the ambient geothermal loop and renewable technologies can get us to 100 percent.”

Mill 19 at Hazelwood Green / Business Journals

The Zibi in Ottawa, another community now in development, is using very ambitious sustainability goals to “find synergies among stakeholders,” Dulmage said. While developers are often conservative and “reluctant to invest in sustainability strategies, ” at Zibi, “sustainability is instead used as an alignment tool to reduce risk.” The developers are pursuing a thermal distribution pipeline using waste heat from a nearby Ottawa Hydro facility, with a 50/50 split on the cost and savings for the system between the district energy company at Zibi and the utility. The developers are also using “values-based procurement.”

Zibi, Ottawa / Zibi

As for the future of net-zero communities, Downey sees developers now dictating hard energy performance requirements. For example, in a recent RFP for a new building, Hunter College put in a 100 kwh per square meter performance target.

The conclusion seemed to be getting net-zero, or, really, near net-zero communities, right is still a challenge, but a worthy one given “we can only add 600 more gigatons to the atmosphere before the planet hits dangerous levels of warming. We are going to max out emissions by 2025.”

Sadly, the public may or may not care about these numbers. But if these developments are sold from a human health and happiness perspective, they may be more likely to succeed. The average BedZED resident knows 19 of their neighbors, which is four times the UK average, said Dulmage. On that front alone, this early sustainable development sets a model all its successors should follow.

To Build a Green Economy, We Need a Green Workforce

LEED Lab at Catholic University / US Green Building Council

If we want to make the shift to a green economy this century, then we need the workforce with the skills to get us there. If we want to address the crisis of climate change and accelerate our path to future sustainability and resilience, those working in green industries today and in the future continually need new knowledge and skills. At the 2017 Greenbuild in Boston, green building industry education experts discussed employment trends, changes now occurring in higher and vocational education, and what future workplace skills will be needed.

According to Charles Vescoso, American Technical Publishers, in the U.S. renewable energy jobs are now at nearly 800,000 and growing 12 times as fast as other jobs; and there will be 3.3 million jobs in the green building industry by 2018, supporting a $190 billion industry. (In an earlier session, U.S. Green Building Council [USGBC] president Mahesh Ramanujam said the entire “LEED economy,” which includes all employment associated with LEED-certified buildings, now tops 8.4 million jobs and has resulted in $550 billion in investment).

Catholic University architecture professor Patricia Andrasik said universities have been driven to reconsider their missions to meet the market’s demand for employees with practical skills in sustainability and to address climate change, the global ecological crisis, and rising inequality.

In terms of teaching sustainability, Andrasik said there are now even more disciplines involved, with greater interdisciplinary collaboration. Sustainability is now intrinsic to the study of engineering, architecture, landscape architecture, public health, urban planning, real estate, finance, business, policy, and many scientific fields. Because the innovations are coming so fast, Andrasik said curricula are essentially being re-written every year.

Andrasik herself runs the LEED Lab at Catholic University, which offers “applied sustainability education.” Students install and test green building energy meters, read data logs, study dashboards. They are being taught how to “track performance and find mistakes” in operational green buildings, and developing skills in green building management. The course, which was developed in conjunction with the U.S. Green Building Council, is now being used by 25 universities.

Institutions of higher education are also now making even stronger commitments to turn their campuses into showcases of sustainability, using best management practices. Following the birth of the environmental and sustainability movement in the 1970s, universities began staffing up for sustainability in the 1980s and 90s. In the 00s, there was a bump in hiring professionals who can maintain increasingly complex green building systems, but it was really from 2008-2012, as university’s academic priorities evolved to address climate change, where Andrasik saw the greatest jump. “Campus operations are now aligned with academics — efficiency has been driven to a new level.”

Vescoso said outside higher education, in the world of vocational training, there is also a shift towards blending classroom education on sustainability with field training. With these programs, which aim to train building and landscape-related technology installers, technicians, and maintainers, “the focus is now on why we do things a certain way; before it was just how to do something.” For example, the Net Zero Plus Electrical Training Institute in California is a net-zero building that is also a classroom, where students learn about the science and also get hands-on experience with solar panels, micro-grids, and other technologies.

Beyond all the new knowledge and job-related skills, there is also a need for new workplace skills. For Elaine Aye, with Green Building Services, employees in fast-moving green industries need to be “adaptive, independent, collaborative, creative, innovative, and self-directed” in pursuing the triple bottom line: economic, social, and environmental benefits.

Multiple decades into her own career, Aye explained how she has gotten four certifications in the past decade in order to stay up to date. “I have to keep my mind alert and learn to adapt.” And she said more employees are like her and demand training through in person or online tools so they can continually improve their own skills.

The workplace itself is also constantly changing: it’s now “the most diverse ever,” in terms of age, social and cultural differences, and educational backgrounds.

Buckminster Fuller’s Influence Continues to Grow

“To make the world work for 100 percent of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or disadvantage of anyone.” This is the ethos that drove the work of Buckminster Fuller, an influential 20th century designer, engineer, and inventor. Every year since 2008, the Buckminster Fuller Insititute has awarded a $100,000 prize to an especially-promising organization or individual embodying Fuller’s systems thinking and “comprehensive, anticipatory design science.” So far, the award has provided ten projects — including landscape architect Kate Orff’s Living Breakwaters — with the extra push in both publicity and funds to advance in scale, complexity, and ambition.

Past winners were prompted by moderators such as Andrew Revkin, senior reporter at ProPublica, and Susan Szenazy, publisher and editor-in-chief of Metropolis magazine, to reflect on the evolution of their winning projects and discussed systemic approaches to the challenges of our time.

The 2107 winner is Bhungroo, from the Gujarat state of India (see video above). Bhungroo, which means “straw” or “hollow pipe” in Gujarati, is a simple, inexpensive system that enables farmers to capture and store water during peak monsoon season and then retrieve the water during the dry season. The invention allows female farmers below the poverty line to be self-sufficient year round, breaking free from cycles of debt and repression.

The organization also fosters a model of collective ownership over the stored water among the farmers. The co-founder Biplab Ketan Paul described the selflessness and “golden hearts” of the women farmers he works with as what inspires and sustains the project. When asked about the experience of winning the prize, he beamed and said, “We’re still in a dream.”

The idea for ecological design pioneer John Todd’s project, which won in 2008, came from close contact with ecological and economic crisis. He had been hired by a foundation to study ecological impacts of mountaintop removal and valley-fill mining in Appalachia, but, he said, “my colleagues and I became so horribly depressed at the scale of the devastation that we actually couldn’t function.” He changed course to find a regenerative, solutions-oriented approach, and his winning project — The Challenge of Appalachia — was born.

Todd’s solution — which aims to help Appalachian communities, boost the economy, and support the ecosystem — is a model for long-range biodiversity and socio-economic stability tailored to the region. When asked what an urban application of the same principles might look like, Todd said the surfaces of buildings have enormous potential as substrate for “all kinds of living systems that purify air, treat sewage, and generate foods.”

The Challenge of Appalachia / Buckminster Fuller Institute

The 2013 winner, Ecovative, a bio-materials company, manifests the Fuller maxim, “to change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” Ecovative’s goal is to end the use of plastic and styrofoam packaging materials made from fossil fuels, replacing them with materials made from fungus that are fire retardant, self-healing, and decompose after use. Ecovative grows these materials in their facilities in New York state. The mycelia lifecycle depends on a local supply chain — the materials are derived from metabolizing agricultural waste such as cornstalks or straw, which would have otherwise been discarded.

With the funds from the prize, the company focused on democratizing the technology with grow-it-yourself kits. Gavin McIntyre, co-founder and chief scientist, quickly learned the company must appeal to more than just a customer’s ethical impulses. “I really wish people would buy things just because they are green and good for the planet, but, unfortunately, that doesn’t happen. We must be able to provide additional cost savings and value.” Their pursuit seems to be going well, as, in just one year, the company was able to displace 1.6 million pounds of plastic from the supply chain.

Ecovative packaging materials / Greener Package

Paying homage to Fuller’s emphasis on holistic approaches, the final panel of the day looked at the social implications of the work the winners do.

“Global inequality was not an accident, it was created by design.” said Greg Watson, director of policy and systems design at the Schumacher Center for New Economics. “We have been trained to think this is the real world. But the real world is what we create.”

The winners are a “beacon of hope and powerful counterpoint to the intellectual bankruptcy that threatens humanity’s continuous voyage aboard spaceship Earth. Gaia will survive our insults, and it’s really up to us to ensure that we continue to ride.”

This guest post is by Chella Strong, Assoc. ASLA, landscape designer at SWA/Balsley in New York City.

Interview with Mark Rios on Los Angeles’ Ambitious Sustainability Plan

Mark Rios, FASLA / Jim Simmons

Mark Rios, FASLA, FAIA, is founding principal, and architect and landscape architect at Rios Clementi Hale Studios in Los Angeles.

This interview was conducted at the ASLA 2017 Annual Meeting in Los Angeles.

In 2015, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti launched the city’s ambitious 20-year sustainability plan, which calls for increasing water conservation, generating renewable energy, achieving zero waste, investing in mass transit, and revitalizing the Los Angeles River watershed. Two years later, the city has already made great progress, but some of the big goals seem perhaps out of reach. For example, one is to reduce the urban heat island effect more than any other city in the U.S. — three degrees just within two decades. Currently, Los Angeles is about 40 percent rooftops and 20 percent roads. A new cool roof ordinance requires reflective roofs on new development and there are also tests underway to create cool pavement. The city also has goals to increase the tree canopy, and 18,000 trees were planted in 2016. Do you think these strategies are enough?

Our mayor is pretty incredible with his ability to articulate a road map towards being more sustainable. For a long time, landscape architects have been the voice for being thoughtful about water, drainage, and stormwater runoff. We’re happy to hear our political system is now actually enforcing, documenting, and requiring measures to manage water and fight the urban heat island effect. We can be strong advocates, but it’s sometimes hard to convince our clients of something that is more expensive. Now developers are being asked to step up to the table through enforceable obligations. As a community, landscape architects are happy about these efforts and really support the Mayor’s road map.

Los Angeles has already reduced per capita water use by 20 percent, meeting the 2017 goals. Eventual goal is 25 percent by 2035. In the city’s green building code, there are now water budgets for landscape irrigation, new incentives to remove turf in favor of residential gardens, and free recycled water deliveries for landscape use, along with millions for green street projects. Do these water goals go far enough? What else could be done?

This is a tough question for Los Angeles, because we always talk about the physical landscape, but the cultural landscape is also important. The whole dream of the backyard and the lawn is part of our culture. It’s really a culture that was described in the ‘50s and ‘60s through movies. In Hollywood, everybody had a front yard and backyard. The lawn was the default landscape.

We’ve made great progress to collectively redefine what the aspirational landscape is — it may no longer be a lawn and palm tree. It may be the beauty of the Santa Monica Mountains. Our native landscape has this inherent appropriateness and generates an emotional connection. We have been working really hard to replace the lawn. And if we can achieve that, it will be a huge step towards achieving these ambitious water goals. We’ve been irrigating grass for the last 50 years. We really need to change cultural expectations.

By 2035, L.A. seeks to add more transit infrastructure than any other city. The city seeks to pair this infrastructure with transit-oriented development. The plan calls for expanding zoning capacity and key transit nodes. How do you see progress going on that front?

Everybody in L.A. is really excited about this plan. We just moved our office to the Expo line. We’re right at the Crenshaw Station stop, and the Crenshaw Station is going to be the line that links LAX, our airport, with LACMA and Hollywood.

Rios Clementi Hale Studio’s offices along Exposition are adjacent to the Expo line, just steps from the station where the Expo light rail line will intersect with the forthcoming Crenshaw line / Jim Simmons

L.A. has been really behind in public transportation. Everyone is excited about the multiple new lines being built. We don’t have enough mass transit. Transit oriented developments are certainly going to change the face of the city, because they include higher-density floor area ratios (FARs), which help support new village neighborhoods. These developments will make the city more walkable and livable, because people will have these mini-centers around each station.

Looking ahead to 2035, the potential change created by autonomous or driverless vehicles is just wild. I went to a event sponsored by the Mayor’s office, where I was so proud to hear them conducting research on how our city form could change if we maximize transportation systems with driverless cars. Some of the predictions and studies on how L.A. could change are really astounding. We’re talking about maybe taking one freeway lane offline or creating green spaces by potentially eliminating a road lane. Can we transform them into greenways? Can we decommission parking lots because we don’t have much need for cars to be parked for eight hours while somebody is at work? Autonomous vehicles will change the character of Los Angeles.

By 2035, Los Angeles also wants all trips made by walking, biking, or transit to be 50 percent, up from 26 percent today. Measure M, a ballot measure that passed with 70 percent of the vote, will use a half-penny tax to raise $120 billion over the next 40 years for mass transit and bikeway projects. Los Angeles also launched a regional integrated bike share system plan and has set up more than 65 stations and a thousand bikes. Do you think this vision will come together? Will Angelenos bike share to the subway? Will the complete street infrastructure be there? I’ve heard there are neighborhoods that still don’t have sidewalks, let alone bike lanes.

There is great potential to achieve these goals. The basic urban form of Los Angeles are these village centers. We have a very disperse urban pattern. If you look at Boston and other cities, there’s a symmetrical layout, a center city with suburbs. We have a dozen or two dozen village communities between downtown and the West Side. As people are encouraged to use bikes and walk more, the village form of land use will help realize that.

The city also wants to ensure that 75 percent of Angelenos live within half a mile of a park by 2035. The past seven years the city has added more than 35 parks covering 16,000 acres, including your firm’s Grand Park downtown, which brought much-needed green space. Is the city on track for this ambitious goal? Does the 50 Parks L.A. Initiative, which assists underserved communities, have enough funds? How can the city ensure everyone benefits equally?

Los Angeles has a disparity in terms of where parks are located. There are some well-served communities and some underserved ones.

Grand Park, downtown Los Angeles / Wikipedia
Grand Park, downtown Los Angeles / Happenings in DTLA

East L.A. and South Central do not have the kind of park density that they do in the Valley or other locations. It’s really hard for the city to acquire new land and buy space for parks. The problem is if you have a park desert, how do you find space there?

There have been examples of decommissioning public space and having communities take over ownership, at least as far as park development. For example, weird pieces of land next to freeways and other kinds of public spaces can be decommissioned and given to community groups. It’s a way of creating parks in neighborhoods without empty spaces.

There are also ambitious efforts underway with the L.A. River, and the plan Mayor Garcetti calls restoring 11 miles of the river, making accessible all 32 miles in the city by 2035. What do you want to see happen? How can the city ensure the revitalization doesn’t create a new High Line and become an agent of gentrification?

The L.A. River is on everybody’s mind. People have been working passionately on it for a long time. The first goal is to make it a great circulation system for biking and moving through these different regions. Any new projects along the river have to build in bike lanes and pedestrian walkways along the river. What’s important right now is zoning that allows for greater density along the river. If we can create more dense villages along the L.A. River, then we’ll see a built-in park system for these villages and good connective tissue besides the roadway network.

The transformation of the former Lincoln Heights Jail and surrounding area would create the Lincoln Heights Makers District, an area anchored around the Los Angeles River and the historic complex, using the river frontage to create a broad promenade that stitches together new and historic buildings with the river / rendering by Kilograph, courtesy Rios Clementi Hale Studios

There’s a whole contigency who wants to return the L.A. River to a natural form, a landscaped waterway. In some places, it may be possible and still maintain the flood capacity, but I don’t think it needs to be done everywhere. I look at the land art movement. They had very architectural spaces that were really beautiful to experience. We need a whole series of solutions over the course of the river that also address the hydrological issue of maintaining the flood protection system. It doesn’t need to be all the same.

Gentrification is a big problem. Think of all the residential communities around the L.A. River that are going to suffer, because it has historically been viewed as an industrial landscape. Now, it’s going to transform into this positive, landscape-driven set of places. All the communities currently around it may be pushed out, so how we mandate keeping existing people in place through affordable options is going to be essential.

With your firm’s work at the Pete V. Domenici U.S. Courthouse in Albuquerque, New Mexico, your firm has demonstrated its commitment to sustainable design. The project was an early Sustainable SITES™ Initiative (SITES®) pilot project. So looking big picture, how can a sustainable, ecological landscape approach like you demonstrated in that project be applied to Los Angeles? What would an ecological Los Angeles in 2035 look like?

The most important thing that we learned with the Domenici project and the SITES® program is the critical need for documentation and ongoing monitoring, so you can really understand how a landscape is performing seasonally and over time. If we remove lawns and instead use native plants across the city, it’s going to cut down on irrigation.

The Pete V. Domenici Federal Courthouse in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The site employs the ancient tradition of harvesting rainwater for irrigation by using a system based on Pueblo drainage canals called acequias. / Robert Reck

Landscape architects need to become more proficient at quantifying every drop of water and being able to predict how new landscapes will perform. It’s our responsibility to go back and monitor landscapes, so that we have a database and can understand how water is being used.

It’s Time to Measure the Performance of Landscapes

Coast Guard headquarters, Washington, D.C. / GSA

How can landscape architects ensure the spaces they design perform they way they were intended? Landscape architects need site commissioning to accurately determine the performance and impact of their designs.

Site commissioning is the process by which performance standards are established, then measured and verified overtime. The topic has been gaining traction within the field and was the focus of a discussion at the ASLA Annual Meeting in Los Angeles put together by Jose Alminana, FASLA, principal at Andropogon Associates; Christian Gabriel, ASLA, national design director of landscape architecture at the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA); Lauren Mandel, ASLA, landscape architect and integrated researcher at Andropogon; and Maureen Alonso, regional horticulturalist with the U.S. GSA National Capital.

The discussion comes on the heels of a comprehensive new report released this summer by the GSA with Andropogon that makes the case for site commissioning. 

“This is something long overdue — it’s a logical follow up to the kinds of values and capacity we expect to obtain from the work that we do — the impact our profession can really have on the systems on which we all depend,” Alminana said.

Currently, buildings are analyzed and commissioned to ensure the quality and function of a project. “Landscapes, if they are going to play that kind of role, also need to be commissioned,” Alminana said. “But it gets complicated, because its not about moving parts and on and off switches. It’s about life, and life that is always evolving and changing.”

Site commissioning pushes the integration of building systems and site systems and establishes a role for the landscape architect early on in the project. Alminana said designers need to first define the goals and objectives of the project and the standards they are trying to meet. The expected environmental and economic benefits of a landscape project need to be clear, and there needs to be metrics to measure performance in achieving those benefits.

“There has been, over the past few decades, an interest in developing site-responsive projects, but there is less definitive knowledge as to what we are actually achieving, how we set our goals, and how we factor processes into broader project delivery methods in design and construction,” Gabriel said.

“The time has come to reinvest in our own processes,” he said, adding that site commissioning could result in a paradigm shift in the field, “and a return to landscape as prime method for conceptualizing new opportunities.”

Mandel explained the process of developing the report, which included learning from case studies of commissioned projects or those with robust site monitoring. One example is the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts by Reed Hilderbrand, which commissioned a complex hydrological system.

ASLA 2015 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Clark Art Institute, Reed Hilderbrand / Tucker Bair

“Site commissioning offers strong triple bottom-line benefits,” she said, listing social benefits, like worker productivity; environmental benefits, like stormwater management; as well as financial benefits, like fewer construction errors.

“What we also learned in our research is these benefits are intertwined,” Mandel said. “So when you start to pull out these benefits, like efficient site management, what also gets pulled in is stormwater management and wildlife habitat.”

Alonso underscored a critical need for a continuous management within the site commissioning process to ensure performance and maintenance of the landscape. Project turnover is another instance where communication and management continuity are crucial.

Alonso said metrics the GSA gathers on projects “make the business case for landscapes we are building.”

Best Podcasts for Landscape Architects

And the best way to listen


Over the past decade, podcasts have emerged as a popular storytelling platform and captivating way to learn more about the world around us.

Podcasts offer a source of inspiration for designers exploring other disciplines and seeking fresh perspective within their own. For landscape architects, podcasts reveal new opportunities and ways of thinking about the way we design space.

The podcasts on this list seeks to capture the range of topics that influence the field — from interviews with leading landscape architects, to stories on cities, urban planning, communities, and sustainability, as well as insight from creative people in other professions.

All of these podcasts are available on iTunes and Stitcher

99% Invisible: Roman Mars and his team at 99% Invisible pull together seemingly disparate pieces of information to weave compelling stories of why things are the way they are. While not landscape-specific, this podcast is a must-listen for anyone interested in places, people, and design.

Recommended episodes: “Making Up Ground” is all about cities built on constructed land and the modern day implications of reclamation. 22 minutes

American Planning Association: The APA produces a series of podcasts that focus on everything from the people behind plans, to disruptive transportation technologies, to planning for public health and for public space. Together, the podcasts offer a good way to keep up with all things planning.

Recommended episode: In “Planning for Parks in Washington D.C.’s NoMa,” APA’s Mike Johnson interviews Robin-Eve Jasper and Stacie West, who are shaping the future of a D.C. neighborhood where, in an era of rapid development, almost no land was set aside for public parks. 23 minutes

Design Matters: If you’re in the design world and don’t know who Debbie Millman is, this podcast is a great introduction. Her podcast, Design Matters, has been around since podcasts about design have been a thing. She has interviewed influential people from a multitude of creative industries. Their stories are inspiring for designers in any field.

Recommended episode: Interview with architect Pierluigi Serraino about what creative people have in common. 28 minutes

Infinite Earth Radio: This weekly podcast explores solutions for a more sustainable world. Hosts Mike Hancox and Vernice Miller-Travis interview people — from government officials to local entrepreneurs — who are working to advance more equitable, resilient communities.

Recommended episode: “Bottom Up Water Solutions” talks about freshwater, keeping our streams clean, and smart growth in the face of climate change. 28 minutes

The Landscape Architect Podcast: This podcast, which is focused on landscape architecture, broadens the discourse within the profession by talking to leaders from all areas of the field. Host Michael Todoran with co-host Margaret Gerhart hold candid discussions with professionals in landscape architecture, as well as writers, researchers, and innovative thinkers influencing the future of the profession.

Recommended episode: “Feng Shui & Landscape Architecture” discusses movement and the environment with landscape architect Shelley Sparks as she analyzes Feng Shui for homes, business, and gardens. 53 minutes

Placemakers: Slate is a major hub for podcasts, and their Placemakers is a story-driven show about urban design and planning. Host Rebecca Sheir and the producers at Slate explore how innovative communities are tackling environmental and social issues.

Recommended episode: “The Greatest Misallocation of Resources in the History of the World” is an episode about an agricultural approach to tackling suburban sprawl. 29 minutes

Roots of Design: This podcast is by landscape architects for landscape architects. Produced by the New York Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), hosts Frank Varro and a variety of co-hosts discuss the breadth of opportunity in the profession through interviews with leaders in the field. It fills a crucial need for a landscape architecture-exclusive podcast and raises awareness of an often misunderstood field.

Recommended episode: Their first, “The Birth of Central Park and Landscape Architecture,” is a great place to start — and really any number of their interviews thereafter. 13 minutes

The Urbanist: For a global perspective, listen to Monocle’s The Urbanist. Host Andrew Tuck covers everything from urban policy to environmentalism to art. This podcast packs a variety of topics in each 30-minute episode, providing a well-rounded but thorough update on urban developments each week.

Recommended episode: “River crossing” on how rivers and bridges can both connect and divide urban areas. 26 minutes

What did I miss? Comment below and share your favorite podcasts.

D.C. Becoming More Sustainable, But Not Everyone Benefits

Pennsylvania Avenue bike lane / Over the Bars in Wisconsin

It has been four years since Washington, D.C. released its ambitious sustainability plan, which called for cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent; increasing the share of trips made via walking, biking or transit to 75 percent; and making 100 percent of the district’s waterways fishable and swimmable — all by 2032. Since then, the district government has accomplished 72 percent of the things it set out to do. And it has made solid progress on the toughest goals. Already, greenhouse gas emissions are down 24 percent, based on 2006 levels, despite four consecutive years of economic and population growth.

At the launch event of Sustainable DC 2.0, district department of the environment and energy director Tommy Wells, outlined the top 10 achievements made by the city since 2013:

#10: Over 100 partners have pledged to help reach the Sustainable DC goals, including all universities in the district and nearly 100 embassies.

#9: The city now have 80 miles of bike lanes and 420 Capitol bike share stations. Some 16.7 percent of the populace now walks or bikes to work. D.C. is tied with Boston for 4th place in this regard, but Wells is confident D.C. will eventually beat Beantown. “I mean, we have much better weather.”

#8: The East Capitol Urban Farm, a three-acre facility that offers access to healthy food and job training. The district has a total of eight urban farms, more than 60 community gardens, and 120-plus school gardens. These efforts and others have helped make 82 percent of the district population food secure.

#7: A new zero waste plan. A comprehensive study now underway will help the city reduces its waste output, which is where the Economist Intelligence Unit said D.C. need to show the greatest progress five years ago. Wells said there are now composting facilities in every ward.

#6: District sustainability awards. Each year, the district government honors those who are leading partners in the effort to achieve the city’s goals. In 2016, American University, Atlas Brew Works, Compost Cab, and others won.

#5: The district now has the most energy star-certified buildings and the most LEED buildings  in the nation on a per capita basis. And for the first time, D.C.’s new comprehensive plan includes a sustainability section.

#4: D.C. is ahead of its goals in planting enough trees to reach a 40 percent tree canopy by 2032. The District is now at 38 percent, up 2 percent in the past year when 14,000 trees were planted, which together would cover 800 football fields or two National Malls. Wells gave a shout-out to Casey Trees, ASLA, and American University for helping to accelerate progress.

#3: The Anacostia River is now cleaner than it has been in years, in part due to the 2.7 million square feet of green roofs that help keep stormwater out of the river. Wells was confident the Anacostia can be swimmable and fishable by 2032, “maybe even 2025.”

#2: Sustainable DC ambassadors and volunteers. The district department of energy and the environment has trained over 125 people to go out into their communities and help make the case for sustainability.

#1: D.C. now gets 125,000 megawatts hours from regional wind power sources and 11 megawatts from rooftop solar facilities. 100 percent of D.C. government is now powered by renewable sources. The goal is for 50 percent of the entire district to be powered by wind and solar by 2032; the city’s now at 13.6 percent.

While D.C.’s renewable energy goals take us in the right direction, Hawaii has announced it will aim for 100 percent renewable energy, and Vermont, 75 percent. Portland, Oregon, also recently announced its intention to reach 100 percent renewable. Maybe it’s time for D.C. to up its game a bit?

In a panel after Wells’ announcement, Greater Greater Washington founder David Alpert moderated a panel with former D.C. planning director Harriet Tregoning, Nature Conservancy urban conservation director Khalil Kettering, and Black Women Bike founder Veronica O. Davis, exploring how sustainability relates to resilience, inclusiveness, and health and well-being, and where D.C. needs to go next.

Tregoning said a key issue was D.C. and other big cities are no longer “producing middle class jobs; they are just creating jobs at the high-end — knowledge workers — or at the low-end in restaurants or retail.” She has a plan to resolve this: “If 5 percent of D.C. buildings were retrofitted each year, that would create more middle class jobs and grow the housing and construction economy.” Efforts like these are needed more than ever, particularly given the U.S. shed 89,000 retail jobs since the beginning of the year, and cities like D.C. are “automating the low-end jobs that used to be done by people.”

Davis focused on the need more thoughtful inclusiveness efforts, arguing that educational programs aimed at encouraging African Americans in Ward 7 and 8 to use Capitol bike share have been patronizing. “We’ve been doing bike share for years. It’s called: ‘Let me hold your bike while you go into the store.'” She also said training and education on sustainability isn’t needed in many instances, because African American residents in D.C. are really already living in a sustainable manner, walking or biking to work, or using the Metro.

And Kettering zoomed out to look at the systems-scale, arguing that when looking at sustainability, cities need to look at human health and well-being, housing, and transportation together. The relationship between all of the elements that go into sustainability are “constantly evolving. There are layers of issues and benefits” changing in tandem.

D.C. still has many challenges to overcome in its effort to become truly sustainable. According to a recent report, it’s the 17th most segregated city in the country. In 2013, some 18.9 percent of the population lived below the poverty line, putting D.C. among the top six states and territories of the country with the highest concentrations of poverty. And the poverty rate east of the Anacostia got even worse after the recession.

For Tregoning, the problem is that the federal government, even prior to the Trump administration, has told basically told cities “you are on your own,” so there is even “less federal support.” Given the market “doesn’t create fairness and equity,” cities have to be deliberate in creating policies that can. Mayor Muriel Bowser has increased investments in affordable housing, but some argue the city’s efforts don’t go far enough.

Ending poverty on the east side of the Anacostia will take a sustainability plan that delivers on new green jobs. Sustainability and equality must be considered two sides of the same coin.

Good Design Is Sustainable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ASLA Announces 2017 Professional and Student Awards Call for Entries

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

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

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

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

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

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

Members of the student awards jury are:

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

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

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