Landscape Architects and Their Clients Tackle SITES

We often hear from landscape architects about the cutting-edge sustainable design practices they are bringing to their latest Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES®)-certified works, but we rarely hear from their clients. In a session at the ASLA 2013 Annual Meeting in Boston organized by Liz Guthrie, ASLA, professional practice manager at ASLA, landscape architects and their clients together discussed their motivation to become certified Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) projects, the challenges involved in working with this new 200-point rating system, and the lessons learned.

Why a Sustainable Landscape?

For Richard Piacentini, Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, the goal was to apply “systems-thinking” to their new Center for Sustainable Landscapes, which received the first four-star rating from SITES (see image above). “We wanted to know how we could truly integrate the building and landscape.”

He said too many buildings are “completely isolated nature.” This is a real problem because humans now spend about 80 percent of their lives in buildings of some kind. With the new center designed by landscape architecture firm Andropogon Associates, “nature is now not that far away.”

In the Bronx, Hunts Point Landing, a two-star SITES-certified landscape developed by the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) and designed by Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects, shows how a “dead-end” in an isolated and unhealthy neighborhood can be turned into a park, said Kate Van Tassel, NYCEDC. The park is meant to ameliorate some of the health problems in the community, which has some of the highest rates of asthma and obesity in New York City.

The new Hunts Point Landing took shape on the site of an old coal gasification plant. Van Tassel said this little bit of “green space amid industry is very important.” To boost neighborhood health, NYDEC wanted a sustainable park. Old local materials were re-used within the park. Stones from a nearby bridge taken down were turned into blocks to sit on. The waterfront park helped “transform the shoreline into a recreation area.”

In the case of Taylor Residence in Chester, Pennsylvania, Margot Taylor, ASLA, is both the client and landscape architect. Taylor wanted to create a public demonstration project for sustainable landscape best practices on her own property. Her property includes wood systems and meadows. Ecological systems were re-established, with a focus made on soil and plant health. The landscape, which used to be a farm, now “directs, holds, absorbs, and cleans water.” She now has hundreds of people, including lots of school groups, touring the landscape each year.

One of Taylor’s goals in the move to a sustainable residential landscape was to reduce annual maintenance. She wants to get maintenance down to 55 hours a year. She has also “completely gotten mowing out of the system.”

Representing both himself and his client, Hunter Beckham, ASLA, SWT Design, described the design of the Novus International campus in St. Charles, Missouri. He said a “huge number of stakeholders” were involved in creating a sustainable campus, which was designed to yield many benefits for both employees and the environment. There’s a productive, edible landscape: a vegetable garden with bee-friendly plants. There are two bee blocks that provide home to seven different local species. In the first year, the landscape yielded 65 pounds of honey.

This vegetated garden terrace is accessible via a walking loop that circles the entire campus. The loop enables both employees and visitors to take a break from the office and get out in nature. Within the landscape, an old concrete-lined water detention pit was turned into a natural water habitat that manages stormwater and attracts a wide range of wildlife, including snakes.

What Were the Challenges?

For Jose Alminana, FASLA, a principal at Andropogon and one of the guiding forces behind SITES, the benefits far outweighed the challenges. He said achieving 4-stars for the Phipps’ Center for Sustainable Landscapes was no small feat, but perhaps made possible by the fact that “we started with no site.” The design team then had “complete control over the materials used,” which helped them improve site performance and earn points under SITES.

Still, “procuring the sand-based soils was a challenge, given the firms involved in fracking are very interested in applying the same soils to sites where they are extracting gas.” Separately, he added that it was “hard to change the plant palette to accommodate the new soil pH.”

For Signe Nielsen, FASLA, SITES seemed to be an exercise in frustration. She said there were three categories of SITES credits that deeply-urban brownfield sites like Hunts Point Landing “couldn’t take advantage of,” so the project could only get two stars.

She said she couldn’t preserve existing soils and vegetation because “they were highly contaminated.” There was “no structure to adaptively reuse,” so points couldn’t be gotten there either. Lastly, there were no “cultural resources to reuse or enhance.”

She added that working with public authorities, in effect, means “limited opportunities for integrated site design teams,” as many local governments don’t incentivize such groups.

More broadly, she thought that achieving many of the credits related to “recycled content materials will be challenging given the landscape industry has very few competitive vendors in this field.”

Urban public projects may have a challenge earning maintenance points as well, as the landscape architecture firms creating these projects often have “no control over future maintenance.” A firm could create a detail maintenance manual for a park, but then that’s it.

Taylor said working with a historic farm was a challenge in itself. The native vegetation had been stripped and topsoil eroded or compacted. The solution was to “rebuild healthy soil and native plant communities appropriate for different micro-climates.” SITES, she said, “didn’t want to give credits for the landscape’s past use as pastureland.”

She certainly ended up getting credits, though, for the 27 tons of barn stone she cut up and re-purposed on site by hand. “I lost about 15 pounds shifting all that stone out of the dirt.” Still, she thinks she needs to find a “smarter way to manage materials that were unearthed.”

What Lessons Were Learned?

Alminana believes that “integrated design is really the key” to achieving a return on investment for your clients and site performance. “SITES really puts an emphasis on this.” He said, unfortunately, this approach is still not “happening among a majority of the profession or in the public sector.”

Directing himself to those who complain they haven’t earned enough points for their projects using SITES, he said “if you are only focused on points, you are missing the point.”

Nielsen believes SITES can have a potent impact, given “metrics are crucial” and SITES really forces landscape architects to collect data and measure themselves against benchmarks. She said putting all that time into collecting metrics was worth the effort because it helps “clients understand the value of our work.” Landscape architects can measure how well they’ve “reduced noise, saved water, and reused materials.” Beckham reiterated how valuable SITES is as a “framework for accountability.”

Taylor learned that it’s important to “integrate a long-term land management perspective from the beginning,” something that SITES promotes.

The landscape architects all hoped that governments — both local and national — will get moving on incorporating SITES guidelines into their request for proposals (RFPs), which can also help push the landscape materials industry to provide more sustainable options. It will be a back-and-forth process to make SITES more mainstream: landscape architects, and their clients, must push for change among providers of landscape materials, but the market must also provide opportunities to enable that change.

Image credits: (1) Phipps’ Center for Sustainable Landscapes / Denmarsh Photography, (2) Hunts Point Landing / Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architecture, (3) Taylor Residence / Mark Gormel, (4) Novus International / SWT Design

More Paver Power

Landscape architects in Europe are doing really innovative things with pavers, perhaps more so than in the United States. Some recent contemporary urban plaza projects from Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and Barcelona show the amazing visual effects that can be achieved with bold paving patterns.

In a barren lot where there used to be a railway station, just west of Amsterdam’s city center, LANDLAB created Funenpark, a new courtyard for a residential complex. The standard Dutch courtyard, which usually has separate streets, pavement, parking and front and back-gardens, instead gets a contemporary take, created as one “continuous, luxurious” place. This Dutch landscape architecture firm purposefully kept things simple in order to create a distinct space residents and passers-by can easily wander through.

To achieve this, the firm writes in Landezine, “we designed an intensive network of paths made of two specially designed pentagonal concrete paving stones in three shades of grey. These were laid down in a random fashion which resulted in a directionless, rugged pattern that looks like an unidirectional stretched fishnet from above.” The green parts of their landscape also really make the pavers pop. Among the grass are scattered groups of Robinia pseudoacacia and odd daffodils.

In Copenhagen, a busy downtown shopping street gets a contemporary update. A long, curved street set in the “labyrinthine medievel city center,” Købmagergade shopping street uses “strong materials such as natural stone” in a few different colors to create a “harmonious appearance,” writes Karres en Brands and Polyform in Landezine.

There are reasons behind the use of different colors: “The layout of the three squares is varied, just as their historical situation and their location in the city are varied. On the Kultorvet the dark – almost black – paving pattern of the stone is inspired by the 18th century coal trade. On the rather more peaceful Hauser Plads square, the exciting grass play mounds form a green oasis in the urban fabric. At night, the Trinitatis Church square with its famous observatory Rundetårn is transformed by artificial lighting into an enormous starry sky. The three squares are diverse in colour, from dark coal to bright stars: ‘From Kultorvet to the Milky Way’.”


Finally, Passeig de St. Joan boulevard, a project in Barcelona, makes wonderful use of grass and pavers together to create a stunning visual effect. The boulevard was first laid in 1859. Over the years, it began to fall apart, creating accessibility problems. In remodeling the street, the Barcelona city government also wanted to revitalize Ciutadella Park, a set of small urban parks alongside it.

In Landezine, landscape architects with Spanish firm Lola Domènech write that they first re-organized the pedestrian routes. “Some 17m of pavement have been organized so that 6m are allocated to a pedestrian pavement, while the remaining 11m under the rows of trees are for recreational uses (benches, children’s play areas and bar terraces). As part of the new layout, the two-way 4m bicycle lane is physically segregated, protected and signposted, located in the middle of the road.”

Together with the new street, the park was revamped to be more sustainable. The use of pavers and vegetation works together in the park to aid in stormwater management. “In order to guarantee the sustainability of this new layout, we needed to ensure proper drainage of the subsoil and take on the challenge of incorporating a mixed pavement system in the tree-lined zone. The treatment of the soil with mixed pavements and the automatic watering system that uses phreatic water are key to ensuring substrata drainage that will guarantee the survival of the vegetation. The incorporation of local shrubs to this tree lined zone will contribute to enriching subsoil biodiversity.”

Different pavers are also associated with different human uses: “The pedestrian section the pavement is made of ‘Panot’ paving slabs (typical ensanche paving), while, in the recreational zones, a new prefabricated pavement with draining joints was laid down.”

See more interesting uses of pavers in Europe.

Image credits: (1) Funenpark / Anne ten Ham, (2) Funenpark / Jeroen Musch, (3)  Funenpark / Anne ten Ham, (4) Købmagergade shopping street / copyright Ty Stange, (5-6) Købmagergade shopping street / KBP, (7-10) Passeig de St. Joan, Barcelona / Lola Domènech

Flower Power: The Phipps Conservatory’s New Center for Sustainable Landscapes


Heralded as one of the Earth’s greenest buildings, the Center for Sustainable Landscapes (CSL) is the latest addition to the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Housed in a Victorian-era glasshouse presented to the city by industrialist Henry Phipps in 1893, the gardens have always strived to lead the country in “green gardening.” Since transforming into a non-profit, Phipps has also been dedicated to building sustainable facilities, including the first LEED-certified visitor center in a public garden; a new tropical forest conservatory, which is the most energy efficient in the world; and the first production greenhouses to be LEED certified, achieving the highest rating of Platinum. Richard V. Piacentini, the Executive Director of Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, recently visited New York City to discuss the garden’s role in the future of sustainable architecture and living.


The primary drive behind the Center for Sustainable Landscapes, as Piacentini puts it, is to function “as elegantly and efficiently as a flower.” While the merits of this approach can be questioned, the pure essentials of this poetic gesture are there. The building serves to use every drop of water that lands on its surface and is technically constructed to physically react to various elements of nature. Phipps decided to pursue all three of the highest green architecture and landscape standards: the Living Building Challenge, LEED Platinum, and Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES®) 4-star certification. Meeting these standards is “extremely intense,” as Piacentini put it, but is part of the “Phipps philosophy” that he feels is necessary to retain Phipps’ reputation as stewards of the earth.


The Living Building Challenge is a philosophy, advocacy tool, and certification program that addresses development at all scales. The seven performance areas are comprised Site, Water, Energy, Health, Materials, Equity and Beauty. These goals, as well as those laid out by SITES and LEED were mainly met in conjunction with one another. The CSL is designed to interact with its surroundings as a vital part of its daily operation. As one of the original 150 pilot projects of SITES, it features a “restorative landscape, highlighting native plants and a permaculture demonstration rooftop garden.” Other site features include a stormwater lagoon, a solar powered water distillation system, five rain gardens, porous paving and constructed wetlands that use plants and natural processes to clean wastewater.

Some 14 geothermal wells, earth tubes, locally sourced material and solar orientation are just a handful of the features that make this construction so well executed. However, in obtaining points for LEED certification, Piacentini was not satisfied with simply scoring. After having discussed the virtues of the CSL, Piacentini nearly forgot to add one of his most proud achievements of the project. In line with the idea of locally sourced materials, Phipps decided that all of the labor, design, and execution would come from locally sourced talent. Phipps looked within Pennsylvania to select the lead design team. The architect, the Design Alliance, is from Pittsburgh and the landscape architect, Andropogon Associates, hails from Philadelphia.

After the selection of local horticulturists, permaculturists, engineers, contractors and architects, a number of design charettes ensued with representatives of the Phipps organization. The idea of the charettes was to produce a dialogue among the talented pool of professionals selected to work on the project. The result: today, the CSL offers demonstration gardens, environmental education, interpretive signage, interactive kiosks, a green gallery, classrooms, and various outdoor environs for visitors and staff to enjoy. These ideas were products of the early discussions between the designers and, according to Piacentini, are at the “core of [the Phipps] philosophy.”


“A facilitated, integrative design approach” is how Phipps approaches the challenges of building in today’s environment. “The CSL is the ultimate expression of our systems-based way of thinking and acting, to blur the lines between the built and natural environments.”

This guest post is by Tyler Silvestro, a master’s of landscape architecture candidate at the City College of New York (CUNY) and writer for
The Architect’s Newspaper.

Image credits: Phipps Center for Sustainable Landscapes / Alexander Denmarsh Photography

Bench Innovations in Boston

“Public seating sets the scene for chance encounters, people watching, connecting with nature, or just taking a break.” Indeed, public spaces without seating can seem pretty uninviting. To create an iconic bench or “street seat” for the Fort Point Channel area in South Boston, Design Boston invited all types of designers from around the world to submit concepts to their Street Seats Design Challenge. Nearly 170 concepts came in from 23 countries. Just 20 made it to the semi-final round. According to the organizers, the goal of the competition is to create a “sense of livability” in a pretty rugged urban area, while also being “socially and environmentally conscious.”

Judges chose the semi-finalists that best the design criteria: “innovation, durability, sustainability, aesthetics, and comfort.” Also, benches needed to be designed so they aren’t bolted to the ground.

The ones who made it to this round were clearly inspired by the rich marine and nautical history of the Fort Point Channel. Boston is trying to turn the whole area into its “Innovation District,” so many designs also pushed the boundaries of the typical park bench. Most concepts seemed to use sustainable or reused materials. Here are a few particularly unique ideas among the 20 semi-finalists:

The “Wa” Chair by Katsuya Arai. (see video above)

Arai writes that “wa” means harmony in Japanese. “I applied this concept to form the bench.” Made of marine plywood, which was selected because it’s pliable, sturdy and water and fungal resistant, the serene Wa bench provides opportunities for individuals or families to sit together. There’s even a path through it for animals.

Knot Bench by Joseph Chun Jr., Natalie Fizer, Sutton Murray, Emily Stevenson at Pillow Culture.

This interesting design takes its cues from the “rich marine and nautical history of the Fort Point Channel that ocean-going vessels once populated.” Their bench is made up of “tied, snarled, and knotted” P.E.T. plastic rope. There are different seating heights for tall and short people and kids, all built into one bench. Looks fun to sit on, but all it would take is one tourist to spill one ice-cream cone in there to really goop it up though. Hopefully it’s designed to be cleaned easily.

Negative / Positive by Matt Trimble, Haik Tokatlyan, Jared Steinmark, Bob Williamson at Radlab.

The RadLab team says their bench is made up of the city’s “infrastructural refuse”: wood, concrete, and steel. “Deposited layer by layer, the bench is a response to the geomorphological conditions that make and shape the land surrounding Boston.” Thought-provoking seating with lots of layers.

The Wharf Bench by Jesse Shaw at Currey and Company

This elegant bench would use reclaimed pillars from the Fort Point Channel piers. The use of just three pillars is symbolic, playing homage to the “three pillars” that supported the development of Boston. Shaw also says the design is purposefully open because people “feel free to communicate with each other when their chests are at a 45 degree angle to each other.”

Arbortecture by Teddy Slowik at Novatona

In the same vein, Arbortecture also reuses local materials, in this case fallen urban trees, to make a lovely bench. Applying an adhesive enables Slowik to create a simple yet comfortable-looking form.

Park Bar by Ryan Pierson and Sally Zheng at Syracuse University.

Another simple yet really family-friendly form made out of reused materials allows people to sit, eat a snack, and catch views of the water.

Cleat by Sarah Burley, Tyler Dawson , Cale Kaufman, Tai Geng, Blake Morton, Colton Sanford at Western Washington University.

This team lets their refined design speak for itself. Using a cleat as a model, it immediately brings the area’s nautical history to life, makes a bold statement, and looks like an inviting place to sit.

See all 20 semi-finalists’ bench concepts.

All semi-finalists get a $750 grant from the Design Museum Boston and sponsors to fabricate a life-size bench by April 27. Then, the 20 benches will be on display for people to test out. The winners will get $5,000.

Before then, check out all Street Seats entries at Factory 63 (63 Melcher Street, Boston, MA).

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

Interview with Jeff Stein on Soleri’s Model Sustainable City

Jeff Stein, AIA, is president of the Cosanti Foundation. Stein has taught at Harvard University Graduate School of Design (GSD), Wentworth Institute, and was dean of Boston Architectural College for seven years. He attended his first building workshop at Arcosanti in 1975.

Arcosanti is a living, experimental laboratory for the “arcology” theories of Italian architect, Paolo Soleri, who recently won the National Design Award for Lifetime Achievement. Arcology, a literal joining of the words architecture and ecology, calls for a new alternative to today’s “hyperconsumption,” a self-reliant urban system that functions like a super-organism. How are the theories of arcology working out in practice out here in the desert at Arcosanti?

They’re working out really well but at a very small level. Arcosanti, some 42 years after it first was begun in 1970, is just a tiny fragment of what it intends to become — a town for a few thousand people. Right now, we’re at a population of a little less than 100. It’s pretty easy at that small scale to join architecture and ecology, but we have in mind some bigger ideas. While they certainly come from Paolo Soleri, they also come from Henry David Thoreau.

Before I moved to Arcosanti this past year, my wife and I lived near Walden Pond for about a decade. The contrast between that place and this is pretty interesting, but the ideas that Thoreau and Soleri both have had are pretty congruous. Thoreau said, “Give me a wildness no civilization can endure,” which isn’t quite what we’re after exactly, but you could understand his attitude back then. There is wildness that no civilization can endure. Instead what we’re after is trying to create the beginnings of a civilization that wildness can endure.

Here at Arcosanti we’re only building on a few acres of a 4,000 acre land preserve. Some 3,985 of those acres are intended to remain wild. While at the center there isn’t a group of hermits but a lively cultural center. Arcosanti is meant for a few thousand people– not just as retirees living in apartments who have to drive 20 miles for groceries — but a living, working community whose architecture is gaining some light and heat in the wintertime and shading itself in the summertime, and whose solar greenhouses are recycling organic waste and growing food for the population and producing heat energy to power the town itself.

You mentioned that the entire Arcosanti site is settled within an invaluable cultural landscape, including ancient pueblo dwellings and rock drawings. How does this historic landscape shape what you are practicing here today?

It’s a fascinating and historic landscape, one that has been populated for thousands of years, and yet there’s almost no trace of the population of literally thousands of people, who over many, many years, have lived on this same spot where we’re sitting right now for this interview. It’s always been that way. I’m thinking now of a Spanish gentleman explorer, Alvar de Vaca, whose gallion was washed ashore near Galveston, Texas, around 1528. He and two of his companions walked around Texas. They went up into New Mexico back down to the Rio Grande in Mexico, between 1528 and 1536. They were never on their own by themselves ever in those eight years. They were always on well-trodden paths. There were trails. They were always well taken care of by people in villages and communities that they happened upon. It was an entirely settled landscape, and yet there’s almost no trace of those settlers at this time– only another 500 years later.

We’re trying to be cognizant of the historic landscape and preserve almost all of it. We can find out some things about the people who lived here before based on the little amount of ruins and petroglyphs and signs of their civilization that are still here, but we’re also somewhat trying to use them as a model for behavior. We’re not paving everything over with concrete and asphalt, and we’re not pumping all the oil out or digging all the coal out or transforming the landscape, except in a very tiny place where the center of this urban experiment, Arcosanti, is meant to be constructed.

Arcosanti uses just 25 acres of its 4,000-acre compound. The idea is to show visitors how a compact community looks when it lives in a landscape, but doesn’t sprawl out or take it over. The built Arcosanti site is 15 acres, with much of that landscaped. How does the landscape architecture reflect the theories of arcology? What are the benefits of the landscape you use?

The built landscape here is a working landscape. It’s not meant just to be viewed or walked through in a passive sort of way, but really functions, and relates to the buildings that it surrounds. The buildings are all about connection. Many of them have pretty rigorous curved shapes, and even some of them are in the form of the apse, a quarter of a sphere that when facing south, can shade itself in the summertime, and gather light and heat from the low winter sun. That curved form provides a really interesting social space in which people can experience each other. They can see each other work, people walking by. All these buildings at Arcosanti are about connecting people to each other and to a place.

The landscape architecture here isn’t trying as it has to do in many cities to soften the hard-edge built landscape or humanize it in some way. It is actually an outgrowth of it. A couple generations ago, Frank Lloyd Wright worked very hard in blurring the distinctions between inside and outside of his buildings. Even in his most modest houses, the Usonian houses, he would do things like drop a glass wall directly into a flower bed. The glass would extend to a foundation underneath the flower bed, but there are flowers growing inside. A big overhang would extend maybe six feet from the line of that glass wall so it was hard to tell if you were inside or outside. The landscape was making its way into the building, and yet your experience was making its way out of it. Paolo Soleri, the founder of Arcosanti, spent a year and a half working with Frank Lloyd Wright and took some of those interesting ideas away from his time with Wright.

The apse is attempting to construct a building that doesn’t separate you from your surroundings. The way it doesn’t do that is the fourth wall of the building is nonexistent. The apse provides shelter in which you can do most of your living and working out of doors year round in this climate: 3,700 feet, American Southwest. It works with the sun and seasons. The surrounding landscape becomes a part of your actual living space. You feel connected to the living things that are part of the landscape and to the landforms that have drawn you to this place.

Where we touch the earth with our architecture and landscape architecture, we really transform it into this urban condition of Arcosanti, but, otherwise, we’re leaving it alone entirely so that historic landscape that surrounds this place is in its natural form. Just lately, a film crew from Canada was here doing a piece from Canadian television about nature deficit disorder among young people in Western civilization. It’s a real and interesting issue in which young people aren’t outdoors, or if they are, they’re in this gridded rectilinear urban environment in which they don’t get a sense of seasons, plant life, or the patterns that nature provides. Back with Alvar de Vaca in Galveston, Texas, nature had always been the home of humans. We’re trying to rediscover what that means for us in miniaturized, densely-populated urban conditions that integrate nature and nature’s patterns into the living space.

The dense urban core also includes some fascinating public spaces– amphitheaters, plazas, streets, and gardens. How has Soleri and his designers approached the landscape architecture in the denser, more trafficked areas?

In the denser areas, there are moments where there are native plants growing right in front of somebody’s doorstep or trees that are grown for shade or for their fruit here and pretty well-tended, but, otherwise, it’s the desert areas or hardscape. In the tradition of an Italian hill town in which there aren’t streets and roads and parking lots within the populated townscape, there are pedestrian paths and stairways and sidewalks that are going through, but they’re hardscaped.

You can sit down almost anywhere. The walls of buildings are often designed so that they function as outdoor bleachers. The roofs of most buildings are accessible and you can get on top of them. There’s a little bit of roof gardening going on, but we don’t really have any substantial green roofs at Arcosanti yet. We have quite a few places that are earth-sheltered. We do harvest all the rainwater from our roofs. They slope at a really slight angle so that water can run off into cisterns. We use that for landscape watering.

Since the 1970s, the city has only grown. In fact, it seems to be constantly evolving with a whole new set of projects just this year. Can you talk about the new “greenhouse apron” prototype? How does this help the community reach its goals related to food production?

Arcosanti is in a really interesting landscape: the high desert of central Arizona at about 3,700 feet elevation, just on the edge of the Sonora Desert. It’s interesting in that about 2.5 billion people on the earth live in desert landscapes. That’s the first interesting thing. The second one is that while we’re the water planet, it appears that we’re becoming the desert planet pretty quickly, too, in that one third of all the deserts in the world have happened since 1900, mostly as a result of deforestation and overgrazing and humans drawing down water tables.

When we get to solve a problem for Arcosanti, we’re solving it for quite a large segment of the earth’s population. One of those problems is growing food in a desert. They call it a desert for a reason. We only get 15 inches of rainfall a year here at Arcosanti. It’s beautiful, there are canyons; there are flat plains. It looks like you could just plow that with a tractor, and start growing corn. In fact, you can’t do anything of the sort.

We’ve turned to greenhouses, an architectural solution for growing food. You don’t have to have thousands of acres of cropland out there to produce food for thousands of people. You can grow it very intensively in solar greenhouses, and in that case, it’s grown right on the doorstep of the town itself. The people who are, essentially, the farmers can be part of the town. They don’t have to live by their acreage, and because of the intensive style of tending the horticulture, you don’t need a lot of chemicals, insecticides, fertilizers.

You’re not only growing food, but you’re producing warm air in these greenhouses. You’ve probably noticed this no matter where you are, air under glass like under a skylight tends to get really warm when the sunshine’s on it. That’s what happens in solar greenhouses, too. If you don’t need hot air in the town directly, you can duct it off by opening some vents at the top of a sloping greenhouse, but, otherwise, you keep your vents closed and have that air come, and flow to warm up the infrastructure of the town itself.

We have a couple of small solar greenhouses attached to buildings here. One of them is attached to my apartment, and I can just open a little door in the bottom of my living room wall in the wintertime and this wonderfully fresh 120-degree air from plants and from the sun comes wafting into the apartment. It’s fragrant because plants are flowering, it is oxygenated because of the plants, and moist because the plants are transpiring moisture. Everybody should have this experience, but moisture is the main thing here. You can grow plants in a greenhouse, and as the plants transpire their moisture, it doesn’t get lost in the desert air, but it condenses again onto the greenhouse glass and can be recycled.

More ambitious project initiatives are also in the works. The “critical mass” master plan calls for the ability to house 500 people full-time in this landscape and running the community. Vertical garden walls will be added to new residential complexes, while greenhouses would create new micro-climates that will enable more self-sufficiency in all seasons. What’s the big future vision for Arcosanti? Where do you see it in 25 years?

You can do all the planning that you want, and we, certainly, are doing all the planning that we want to here on a daily basis at Arcosanti, but in the end, it’s conjecture. It’s dependent on so many outside forces. We’re not self-sufficient in terms of food growing, book publishing, clothes-making, or financial status here at Arcosanti. We have bootstrapped this entire project so far over 42 years by educational initiatives– the construction workshops, tourism, lectures, demonstrations, and the making of the famous Soleri wind bells as part of the economy here. We’re constantly looking for ways to expand the economy and for not only philanthropists, but for investors to become a part of the project. We have partners now among a series of colleges and universities that are doing projects involved with the notion of what if? What if Arcosanti became a global educational resource about sustainability, urban design, and landscape? Or what if it just turned out to be a Soleri museum? Or what if it became the corporate headquarters for something like Google?

There are design departments in a couple of different colleges in the U.S. and in Europe working with us on business plans and infrastructure design for those scenarios, but my own plan is for Arcosanti to continue its growth to become really a global educational resource and a national educational resource, too. I would like to start from the spark of Arcosanti a national discussion among American children and their parents about how cities should be designed — about how landscape architecture should actually work in urban areas, what it means to live in a city, and what it means to have wildness in the landscape outside of cities, too.

There’s a lot of talk about getting higher mileage for cars. Hybrid cars get maybe up to 50 miles per gallon– whoopee– but even so, the entire transportation sector of the U.S. only takes up a quarter of all the energy use in this country. Another quarter’s in manufacturing, mostly because we’ve sent much of our manufacturing to other countries, China included.

Half of all the energy use in America is used in buildings– in constructing them in the first place, but mostly in running them — heating, cooling, lighting them. So if you look up from your computer right now and look around you wherever you’re sitting in this country, you’re seeing obsolete buildings– buildings that we can no longer afford to support in terms of their energy use, and we certainly can’t afford to build many more of them. Yet, almost no one in the country, and certainly none of our politicians, is talking about any of this as an issue. It seems to us here at Arcosanti that it’s the main issue: how we design buildings, how they’re integrated into their landscapes, how cities are designed, not just for energy efficiency, of course, but for real sustainability at all levels of income. We use about one-sixth of the electricity at Arcosanti that most institutions of our size use. As a result, that’s five-sixths of electricity that we don’t have to pay for because we just don’t use it. We don’t have cars within our community.

ASLA is having a conference in Phoenix. Phoenix has around 4.5 million people, with almost 3 million cars in the 900 square miles that is the city. Imagine that each car costs $20,000, which is actually a conservative figure, but let’s imagine that. This means that people in Phoenix are paying $60 billion just to be able to drive to work, school, grocery store, doctor’s appointments, and that’s not just once in a lifetime. It’s every five to 10 years because these cars are renewed. It’s a huge transfer of wealth from almost every individual to a few car companies. That’s not even counting the amount of money that’s spent on roads, parking lots, gasoline, and all of that. Sixty percent of urban land in Phoenix is car-related.

If we’re able to change how we think about cities and cars as we hope to by sparking debate that begins here at Arcosanti, then there might be serious income available to build some truly wonderful things, and to live the kinds of wonderful lives that we’re just not able to live now because the patterns of our cities are so archaic.   

Interview conducted by Jared Green.

Image credits: (1) Jeff Stein / Jared Green, (2) Arcosanti / Cosanti Foundation, (3-4) Arcosanti Historic Landscape / Jared Green, (5) Arcosanti apse / Cosanti Foundation, (6) Arcosanti step seating / Jared Green, (7) Arcosanti “greenhouse apron” / Cosanti Foundation

Breathing New Life into Old Materials

Italian designer Marco Stefanelli is breathing new life into old pieces of wood and stone for his Brecce collection of sustainable indoor and outdoor lighting. Cast-off sawmill byproducts, left-over firewood, or broken concrete building parts are embedded with resin and long-lasting LEDs so they glow from within.

On his blog, Stefanelli writes about the idea of material reuse, or hand-made cradle to cradle manufacturing: “The idea that generates my new work is transforming a generally one-shot productive process (just think of wood and stone) into a serial one.”

Stefanelli emphasizes that he’s looking for materials seemingly on their last legs, turning what everyone views as waste products into something useful and beautiful: “In order to realize Brecce’s project I wanted to take inspiration from natural objects that in some ways have reached their final step in the life cycle. They are sawmill’s outlets, pieces of urban architecture, logs carried by the river, firewood…”

For his pieces, the “formwork” is made of wood or stone but divided into multiple segments. Resin is the middle layer that keeps the work together.

Stefanelli wrote: “I’ve tried to give these pieces a second chance, tempting the light to come out from the material and amplify the sensory experience.”

See more images at This is Colossal.

Image credits: Marco Stefanelli

Everybody Wants a High Line

With the success of the High Line park in New York City, it seems almost every city now wants one. Toronto has long been batting around ideas for its Gardiner expressway, while Los Angeles is trying to dream up the money for new parks to cap old freeways. Philadelphia is moving forward with reusing parts of its old rail infrastructure at the Reading Viaduct, while Chicago has already created plans for its own High Line: the Bloomingdale Trail. Now, London wants to get in on the game, with the launch of a new international design competition to create some ideas for a British High Line.

Sponsored by the The Landscape Institute, Garden Museum, and the Mayor of London, A High Line for London: Green Infrastructure ideas competition for a new London landscape is clearly inspired by NYC’s recent success story, which they argue “transcended the commonly-accepted role of urban parks to become one of the world’s most popular landmark.”

Still, they say they don’t want to copy the High Line exactly: “The judges are looking for proposals which similarly engage communities with green infrastructure. Green infrastructure is the network of open and green spaces, including features like green roofs, designed and managed to provide benefits such as flood management, urban cooling, green transport links and ecological connectivity – an approach which can have a huge and exciting impact on the way in which we live in the capital.”

Judges include High Line founders Joshua David and Robert Hammond; landscape architects Kim Wilkie and Johanna Gibbons; Matthew Pencharz, Environment Advisor to the Mayor of London; and Dr Penelope Curtis, Director of Tate Britain.

The winning team will get £2,500 and the runner-up £500 as prize money. The finalists will also be displayed in the Garden Museum.

Submit your ideas by September 14, 2012.

Also, read more about the “real” High Line effect in a recent op-ed in The Huffington Post by The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) president, Charles Birnbaum, FASLA. Birnbaum says that instead of trying to copy the High Line in an effort to spur economic development and boost tourism, cities should understand that a unique set of circumstances led to the High Line in Chelsea. “In fact, the ‘High Line effect’ should be viewed more broadly as a holistic approach to urban design that suggests how to transform existing urban landscapes to meet contemporary needs. The High Line was almost magically reawakened by a team of landscape architects, architects, horticulturalists, engineers and others, led by James Corner Field Operations. What really happened there is, first and foremost, a triumph of historic preservation and design.”

Image credit: High Line. 2010 ASLA Professional General Design Award / copyright Iwan Baan.

New Park in Singapore Shows What Rivers Can Do

Singapore is heavily dependent on Malaysia for its water supply but is now creating new sustainable parks designed to reduce its reliance, said Herbert Dreiseitl, International ASLA, Atelier Dreiseitl, at the Greater & Greener: Reimagining Parks for 21st Century Cities, a conference in New York City. As an example, his amazing new 62-acre Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park recreates nature, transforming a 2.7-kilometer concrete-channel lined river into a 3-kilometer natural meandering system. At the same time, the new system slows down and stores some of the rainfall that hits the city-state. The park is a model for how cities can transform outmoded, broken systems into natural systems.

Singapore has to import so much water because all its hard surfaces funnel water straight into the ocean. In the tropical heat, much is also lost to evaporation. “They can’t keep their water they have.” To address these problems, the city-state has created a new strategic master plan to reduce reliance on Malaysia and capture more of its own water for reuse. The new plan, which includes water guidelines Dreiseitl created for the Singaporean government, focuses on “collecting, slowing down, and storing rainwater.”

A central catchement — the Kallang River — is part of the larger system providing drinking water to the city-state. In the past, the river was actually set within a concrete channel in many key places so in heavy monsoons it would flood and then evaporate.

Dreiseitl convinced the government to let the river escape its concrete channel and meander through the park, turning an “old-fashioned park and canal” into green infrastructure system that teaches the community about how nature actually works. The new system is actually a lot safer — the previous concrete channel actually killed many residents who were playing soccer down there when flash flooding struck.

In Dreiseitl’s cutting-edge approach, the “blue and green are integrated.” To achieve this, he has to convince the city departments that handled water and parks to abandon their siloed approaches and better communicate with each other. “Now, territories, finances, and maintenance overlap.”

To make this seismic change happen, Dreiseitl said he had to get the Singaporean government to trust his new approach, so he actually used his own design fee to create a test site. Exploring 12 different “bioengineering techniques,” Dreiseitl commissioned a set of in-depth hydraulic and materials studies. He was floored by how “crazy” the plants grow in Singapore so he had to adjust his models based on plant growth. He figured out what kinds of soil conditions would ensure slope stability in those temperatures. Lastly, he invested heavily in training the construction workers. “We couldn’t just show them pretty drawings of the new systems because they had no experience with these systems. We had to train them.”

With the approval of the government in place, Dreiseitl moved towards creating a new stream while the river was still flowing. In a feat of sequenced engineering, Dreiseitl managed to re-engineer soils, add bio-engineered plant systems along with trees, break up the existing concrete channel and reuse the rubble to stabilize the entire system — all while the river was still running. No artificial fertilizers were added. All materials on site were reused. In fact, some of the excess rubble was used to create a new hill, a look-out point over the park.

Importantly, the new system actually works. Dreiseitl said the new river “can hold lots of capacity and cuts in half the peak floods.” The new, cleansing biotope digest pollutants and creates oxygen in millions of gallons of river water each day. Some of the cleansed river water is diverted and reused in the watery playscapes. Before the water touches people, it’s further cleansed by a UV radiation filter. “It’s not only a purification system, but also a beautiful garden.”

The German landscape architect said for the project to work Singaporean officials just needed to be “learn how to behave with risk.” They had wanted to put a fence around the meandering river to keep people out of the flood plain, but Dreiseitl threatened to quit over that, arguing that it would not only ruin the design but break the human connection to the natural system. Instead, Dreiseitl’s team worked with the government to create an “amazing” early warning system, with towers that flash lights and use loudspeakers to make announcements in 6 languages so people can still sit down there but get early warnings when the river is going to overflow.

He thinks this kind of experience with nature in Singapore, the “most artificial of cities,” is critical. In Singapore, everyone “lives in of air-conditioning. They use underground subways and go to underground shopping centers” to escape the heat. As a result, much of the population is cut-off from nature. He said kids are particularly blown away by the wildlife in Bishan. Since the park was redesigned, biodiversity is up 30 percent. There are now 59 species of birds, including sea eagles, and 23 kinds of dragonflies.

To add proof to a recent U.S. National Park Service report that being near a wildlife preserve raises property values, Dreiseitl said the nearby apartments are up 48 percent in value since the park opened. To laughter, he added, “I should have bought a place before it opened.”

Dreiseitl believes that to implement such a game-changing system landscape architects need to have a “strong, logical argument.” Designers “must convince with a narrative.” There has to be inter-disciplinary planning with engineers and architects to capture all the benefits. He also said climate change can be a “engine” for convincing clients to move forward with new models like these. “In the past, cities thought water was a problem to get rid of, but with climate change we need to focus on water security and reuse all water.”

Read an interview with Dreiseitl on designing with water.

Image credits: Atelier Dreiseitl

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