Interview with Mikyoung Kim on How to Design for Our Hybridized Lives

Mikyoung Kim, FASLA / Chris Baker

Mikyoung Kim, FASLA, is an award-winning landscape architect and founder of Mikyoung Kim Design.

Interview conducted at the ASLA 2017 Annual Meeting in Los Angeles.

A recent study found 85 percent of parents allow their children under the age of six to use technology at home, despite concerns that too much time with phones, tablets, and computers cuts into their time playing outside. Another study found one-third of all children worldwide spend less than 30 minutes a day outside and half spend less than an hour a day outside, which is lower than the average amount a prison inmate spends outdoors. Meanwhile, childhood obesity rates throughout the developed world have skyrocketed. Now one in five children in the U.S. are obese. What can landscape architects do to combat these trends?

We all spend too much time on our digital toys! When I see a group of teens walking down the street together and texting other friends, I have to admit I feel confused. But lately I’ve been trying to be more optimistic about the role of technology in our lives. I think it’s clear that technology has some benefits for kids—they have access to information quickly and they can connect easily to a wider group of friends. With my son, he’s able to find really obscure musical composition events for teens in Boston in a way he wouldn’t have been able to do before. So, there are real benefits with technology.

Do phones disconnect us from the natural world? Probably, I think. There are lots of studies that say, yes, it does. But I don’t want to be too nostalgic. I think we have to accept that the world has changed. We live a hybridized life.

Just recently, we went to see the redwoods in Northern California, Max had no desire to pull out his phone when we were hiking even though on the car ride there he was texting with friends. It’s really about how compelling a place is.

Young people these days are very nimble. They’re able to toggle between two worlds and use technology to help them better understand the world that they inhabit. As landscape architects, we must embrace the fact that people live in both digital and analog worlds.

But there’s clearly a connection between childhood obesity and technology. As landscape architects, we can help municipalities and cities plan their neighborhoods better because it’s the daily rituals that really matter.

Instead of focusing on large centralized parks, it’s important for us to also advocate for a more atomized green neighborhood plan where kids can walk through a pocket park, a neighborhood park, every day, or even twice a day.

For the Chicago Botanic Garden, you designed the five-acre Regenstein Learning Campus, which features grass-covered mounds, a waterway channel, willow tunnels, nature play, and discovery gardens. How do you define nature play? And how do you design a space that will really encourage it?

The Chicago Botanic Gardens is an amazing place for families and kids. When we first started working on the project, the Botanic Garden was interested in creating a place that went beyond just visual beauty and encouraged multi-sensory engagement. They wanted to create gardens that encourage kids to touch things; places where the leaves rustle in a way that really encourages listening. Through this process of engagement in a multi-sensory garden, children learn something about natural processes.

ASLA 2017 Professional General Design Honor Award. Chicago Botanic Garden: The Regenstein Learning Campus. Mikyoung Kim Design and Jacobs Ryan Associates / Kate Joyce

As I’ve said, I think “nature” is a pretty loaded word. I’m not sure that anything near Chicago is really “natural” anymore. Instead, what we did was to try to capture and abstract natural systems.

Programming was also very important to the Botanic Garden. We engaged the community to create complex and layered programming for visitors of all ages; from toddlers to seniors. We also worked closely with the design team to create an integrated inside/outside classroom experience.

You have said that your design for the campus also encouraged “inquiry-focused learning.” Can you explain what that is? And why it was important to encourage?

I’ve been interested in this since the beginning of my practice. How do we teach kids through hands-on learning?

We work with kids to understand how we can make playgrounds and landscapes that move away from the homogeneity of off-the-shelf playground equipment, and encourage hands-on learning- this encourages kids to ask questions.

We’re interested in etching deep memories. I’m very opportunistic about creating these places for children-especially in the city — you have to be. We work with families and try to find these moments — in pocket parks or pop up parks.

I am not necessarily concerned about kids and their interaction or lack of interaction with the natural world, but more with the kind of digital and analog worlds we’re making for them. For example, the homogeneity of playgrounds is a real issue. You can go to Omaha or Boston and see the same play equipment. The games they play have answers already defined by some adult somewhere. Even with Legos. When I was a kid, you would spill out like a whole bunch of Legos and then create your own world. Now you know you’re making a boat at the end. And kids love it. I know they do, but I really feel, as a landscape architect, that we need to create places that highlight open ended experiences, places that encourage children to be inquisitive and creative.

Having said that, all we can do as landscape architects is to strive to create environments that engender inquiry. “Imagination” should be a verb, right?

Maybe the answer is that we should try to create landscapes that are more open-ended, that allow for the imagination to thrive for children and adults. Adults need to play as well; they need to be able to find different interpretations in the landscapes we create.

You said the land forms you designed applied the “concept of the dignity of risk,” which is such an interesting phrase. Can you explain what you mean? And why is it important to incorporate that into designed nature play areas?

Too much of our built environment is designed from a place of fear. I understand there are concerns with litigation, but this is an idea that our client emphasized at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

We discussed different ways of bringing kids up to various elevations as a way of encouraging discovery play– we studied tree houses and land forms which would allow kids to move up and down and run around.

ASLA 2017 Professional General Design Honor Award. Chicago Botanic Garden: The Regenstein Learning Campus. Mikyoung Kim Design and Jacobs Ryan Associates / Kate Joyce

The only constraint the Botanic Garden had was that the landscape had to be accessible to all kids. In all of our work, we’re trying to create landscapes that allow for kids to understand the range of what their body can do but also challenge them to discover new things.

You brought nature play indoors, too, at the Crown Sky Garden at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago. You transformed 11,000 square feet space on their 11th floor into an interactive engaging healing garden for ailing and recovering children and their families. The space is designed to offer access to light and plants, reduce stress and boost physical activity, while offering a safe space for children with compromised immune systems. How did you design the space to protect patients’ immune systems?

We met with families, caregivers, and patients for days and just tried to understand what was important to them. The difference between this garden and some of the other healing gardens we’ve designed is that this was the only garden they had. Within this singular garden, we had to pack in a lot of aspiration and hope.

Working on these healthcare projects, I’ve learned to be a better listener. I remember that as we were working through this project, President Obama talked about the empathy deficit. I think as a landscape architect I always strive to be more empathetic and really hear people’s stories — and learn how that can help me better understand their aspirations and needs.

We had to make a decision while we were working on this project, as all these requirements emerged. Each time we said — “Well, we want water. We want to hear the sound of trickling water” — they would present evidence that if we did that, a certain population at the hospital could contract Legionnaires’ disease. We decided we wanted a garden that was accessible to everybody.

When I interview patients, I’ll go to their bedside and meet them. It’s the most fragile patients, especially in pediatric hospitals, who need these gardens the most. So, the last thing we wanted is a sign that said, “patients with these kinds of immune deficiencies are not allowed in the garden.”

We had to put aside our preconceived notions of what healing gardens are and really start to abstract nature in order to create this indoor experience for these families and patients.

ASLA 2013 Professional General Design Honor Award. The Crown Sky Garden: Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. Mikyoung Kim Design / George Heinrich Photography

At the Crown Sky Garden, it was the client who actually saw in us the possibility of merging our arts background and our ability to creatively innovate with materials with our interest with kids. We learned we had a way of transforming the landscape that’s artistic, but also compassionate.

ASLA 2013 Professional General Design Honor Award. The Crown Sky Garden: Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. Mikyoung Kim Design / George Heinrich Photography

With ubiquitous technology increasingly winning the competition for attention, how does nature play need to evolve, or perhaps co-evolve with technology? Do landscapes need to be designed to be resilient to technological or cultural change?

Kids find their own hybrid definition of digital and analog play. They’re able to easily text friends in the car while playing some video game and then go into the park and put the phone in their pocket and run around and climb a tree. I don’t think one necessarily precludes the other.

We need green spaces that are more accessible, but what’s more important today than ever before is creating something compelling in a park that will draw kids there. I have yet to see technology in the landscape advanced enough to compete with technology a teen has in their phone.

However, merging technologies into the landscape itself so that our landscapes become a large video game is something I don’t buy. Our technology is just not advanced enough. Kids are incredibly smart. They’ll look at that and say, “Well, that’s lame,” you know?

Throughout our design process at the Crown Sky Garden, we worked closely with different constituents. We worked with families and patients and brought two options. We brought an option that used more natural materials, and then we brought in a design that had more innovative materials — materials people hadn’t seen before — more contemporary materials built in innovative ways. I’d say 99-percent of kids were drawn to those. They said, “Cool, that’s amazing. I’ve never seen that before.”

ASLA 2013 Professional General Design Honor Award. The Crown Sky Garden: Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. Mikyoung Kim Design / George Heinrich Photography

Innovative materials draw kids. They ask a lot of questions: “What is this? How is it made?” They really wanted something that was more open-ended and unique — something that was beautiful, interesting, strange, and vibrant. Maybe there is something to this.

Lastly, you’re known for your truly-innovative explorations with materials. For example, you’ve created wave forms out of stone for the Alexander Art Plaza in West Palm Beach. And you have sculpted metal in many of your projects. You seem to enjoy transforming the properties of materials. Nothing appears static. What is your creative process for approaching materials?

Like kids these days, we approach the process in a hybrid fashion. We use both analog and digital tools. Personally, I love technology. It’s really transformed the kind of landscapes we can make. It’s allowed us to inhabit our landscapes in ways that I could never do when I started my practice. I love being able to walk through the landscapes we make in Rhino.

Alexander Art Plaza in West Palm Beach. Mikyoung Kim Design / Robin Hill
Alexander Art Plaza in West Palm Beach. Mikyoung Kim Design / Mark La Rosa

But then I’m also a little suspicious of those beautiful but singular perspectives that have emerged from these rendering technologies; that’s not how our perception works. In one minute, our eye can see 3,000 different perspectives. In singular perspectives, we tend to pick the hero shot and neglect the shots that don’t look at great. For us, we use walk-throughs to say, “well, this spot doesn’t look so great. Let’s try to work on it further.” The fluidity and kinetic qualities that you talked about in some of our work comes from this technology.

We’ve been talking about community engagement and being empathetic. For us an empathetic community allows for us to find new ways of designing. it just helps make our work richer.

And meeting with people also builds trust. It builds trust between us and our client groups. Our clients often have very high expectations — they are patients in a hospital, developers who are building very high-end developments, etc. Through our process, they enter a shared design space with us; one that is a collective experience that hopefully yields a unique landscape in the end.

New Technologies Promise to Upend the Design Process

A spectrum of new augmented, virtual, and mixed-reality technologies promise to fundamentally change how landscape architects and designers plan, design, collaborate, construct, and manage projects. At the ASLA 2017 Annual Meeting in Los Angeles, Matthew Wilkins, ASLA, KTU+A Planning and Landscape Architecture; David Leonard, ASLA, Parsons; and Ryan Deane, ASLA, the Slam Collaborative argued that of all these new technologies, perhaps mixed-reality technologies, like the HoloLens, may have the greatest potential to change how designers work.

Augmented reality (AR) comprises technologies that layer location-based data on existing reality. Pokemon Go, the popular game that had thousands out searching their neighborhood for pikachus, is a prime example. Virtual reality (VR) is an “immersive interaction” using 360 video, explained Leonard. 360 videos can take the form of games, animations, or videos of the real world.

In contrast, mixed reality, or hybrid reality, is about “merging virtual and real worlds so you can interact with the world in real-time.” This technology enables a landscape architect to don glasses and create a SketchUp model overlaid on the scene they are looking at in real time, all with the swipe of their hands or pinch of their fingers. Other designers nearby or on the other side of the globe can join in and collaborate as well.

According to Leonard, “creating a hologram of a design on-site is where things are going. The technology won’t stop until that happens.” He also warned that “other professions will dominate this technology fast if landscape architects don’t get on board.”

Within these virtual worlds, landscape architects can appear as avatars, working together or with engineers or construction managers to “create SketchUp models, make changes to design parameters, or solve issues.” Working together in a virtual model, “they can get a sense of the size and scale of objects.”

Leonard noted that the HoloLens is still “first generation, with a limited field of view. It’s like looking at a little pane, so it’s not fully immersive at this point.” Magic Leap, Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson’s new media company, is expected to take mixed-reality up a notch, given they’ve already raised $1.9 billion in funding.

Leonard went through many of the leading hardware and software options for AR, VR, and mixed reality, but noted “these technologies are just now coming out of their infancy.”

On the software front, Leonard discussed the benefits and drawbacks of AR Media for augmented reality, which costs $300 and uses geo-reference tracking technology so you can mark designs and data in real-world locations.

For virtual reality, he then discussed Lumen RT, which is “integrated into a lot of software and offers moderately-high-end quality, with a plant factory that enables you to make your own plants;” Fuzor 2018, which is “widely used in the construction and design industry, very powerful, and allows you to do ‘drag and drop rendering'”; Revit Live, which is “easy to navigate but doesn’t offer animations of designs”; and Autodesk 3DS Max, which offers “superior rendering, but is challenging to work with.”

For mixed-reality, Leonard mentioned SketchUp for HoloLens.

On the hardware front, for virtual reality, there’s Google cardboard glasses, which are cheap but have major latency issues that can cause fatigue; Samsung Gear VR, which cost around $100 and offers much better quality than the cardboard lens; Oculus Rift, which goes for $399 and is “very high quality;” HTC Vive, which is similar to Oculus Rift; and the just-announced Oculus Go, which will have a “high-resolution LCD screen and no cables or phones — the video will be accessed via WiFi.”

As for bringing these technologies into a design studio, Deane called for “assuming the start-up costs internally — don’t charge clients for this.” But then, moving forward, these technologies can be used to “reassure clients.” And, of course, firm CFOs will say “don’t do it for free.”

Wilkins demonstrated how KTU+A is already using these technologies, creating models, which are then rendered in virtual reality. As part of engagement, community groups are now reviewing proposals using headsets before they are designed and built.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (August 16 – 31)

file-20170518-2399-1jnobbn
Top: The Rio Grande in eastern Ciudad Juarez today. Bottom: The same site envisioned 10 years from now / Gabriel Diaz Montemayor

Green Roofs Are Getting a Big Trial in Hoboken Next City, 8/18/17
“The movement toward green building and sustainability-minded development is at an odd crossroads. On one hand, some progressive cities have made regulation strides toward more energy-efficient and less environmentally harmful building practices, while a viable industry has grown up around green construction and roofing materials.”

Here’s A Better Vision For the US-Mexico Border: Make the Rio Grande Grand Again The Conversation, 8/22/17
“The United States and Mexico have shared their current international border for nearly 170 years. Today they cooperate at multiple levels on issues that affect the border region, although you would not know it from the divisive rhetoric that we hear in both countries.”

The Pre-Oscar Snub The Huffington Post, 8/23/17
“Well, it’s not Oscar season but we already have one of the biggest snubs of the year. It’s pioneering Modernist landscape architect Dan Kiley in the recent motion picture Columbus.”

Technology Brings New Level of Comfort to Outdoor Living The Atlanta Journal Constitution, 8/26/17
“As technology becomes more weather-friendly, there’s a growing number of ways to transform the space around your home into outdoor hot spots.”

‘Project Birdland’ Transforms Francis Scott Key Elementary/Middle School The Baltimore Sun, 8/27/17
“School doesn’t start for another week, but 6-year-old Kyle Schuller spent Sunday afternoon running around in front of Francis Scott Key Elementary/Middle School. The soon-to-be first-grader watered some freshly planted shrubs in a “habitat lab” that will soon welcome him and other students to school each day.”

Landscape Architects as Futurists

Delivery robot / Starship Technologies

We learn about landscape architecture through a study of context. Technical courses teach students to see the physical characteristics of a site. We learn to identify slope, follow the point of steepest grade in a trail of mud following a rainstorm, identify ecosystems. Theoretical courses teach students to see the intangible qualities of a site — the implications of design decisions upon usability. We learn about the exciting but unpredictable ways a site may develop and come to be used differently than originally intended.

Forward-thinking landscape architecture practice usually involves re-combining the physical and intangible characteristics of a site. Excellent waterfront and post-industrial redevelopment landscape projects have inspired a generation of landscape architects. “What can this become?” is the question that sets most of us on fire.

We imagine a behemoth dump as a park, breathing life back into a great metropolis. A concrete drainage channel transforms into a living waterway, mixed-use development, and microbreweries springing up like eddies along its length. Disused utility easements become oases for habitat in the most unexpected of urban places. We have also seen an increasing amount of “futuristic” landscapes, with high-tech features, such as interactive light or water, app-enabled components, and more.

But what of the impact of new technologies in our built environment? We have anticipated autonomous vehicles for some time (to little effect in our design decisions), but what of the possibilities of autonomous delivery vehicles, or average urban dweller navigating their day with the aid of a reality-enhancing headset, or the convenience/intrusion of biometric scanning as an Apple Pay-inspired method of negotiating daily life?

Without the human element, landscape architecture is not landscape architecture. Yet humans do not remain static and are now in the process of technology-assisted development. In light of these impending realities, what can landscape architects do to maintain an edge on the design of public spaces?

As a profession of such varied talents and individual specialties, there is a place for landscape architects as futurists. There exist landscape architects as ecologists, living systems designers, food system engineers, and health care amenity designers. Leafing through the ASLA annual meeting presentations is enough to inspire the most dispirited of practitioners with new possibilities.

A “futurist” is “a person who studies the future in order to help people understand, anticipate, prepare for and gain advantage from coming changes,” writes the Association of Professional Futurists (APF). This should resonate with landscape architects.

Whether we study the condition of a breakwater and local weather patterns in order to recommend an appropriate intervention or recommend a green roof or living system at an urban development project to address the urban heat island effect, we are in essence studying current conditions and predicting future trends in order to help people prepare for and gain advantage from coming changes.

A recent string of articles caught my eye. First, from an article on CNBC, April 21st, 2017: Robots are Now Delivering Food in San Francisco. Next, on Eater, May 17th, 2017: San Francisco Declares War on Food Delivery Robots. Also from May 17th, 2017, this time on technology blog Wired: San Francisco Tries to Ban Delivery Robots Before they Flatten Someone’s Toes.

The first article reports the San Francisco robots in question are run by a company called Marble, founded to re-think the “last mile” of the delivery supply chain. Their solution is meant as a step toward relieving vehicular and courier snarls during the final stage of delivery of small packages and items. The article goes on to refer to companies, such as Amazon, Alphabet, and Uber, which have also been investing this facet of the supply chain.

Following initial roll-out of the automated delivery system there was an offended backlash that follows an unanticipated offense, with calls to ban these small robots. The Eater article pegs the issue as one of insufficient policy paired with infrastructure. San Francisco city supervisor Norman Yee told them: “Our streets and our sidewalks are made for people, not robots. This is consistent with how we operate in the city, where we don’t allow bikes or skateboards on sidewalks.” When asked if he thought robots could safely run in a bike lane, Yee agreed it was something to think about: “Maybe in the future there will be robot lanes.”

It’s true that progress in urban policy integrating “last mile” delivery robots across the United States and internationally is being driven by robot companies that lead planning and policy initiatives, which can then result in a narrow definition of a municipality’s approved specifications that apply exclusively to that company’s product.

But the uproar was strange for a few reasons. First, given the city’s location adjacent to Silicon Valley, San Francisco residents and managers should not be unprepared for the introduction of automated systems to perform mundane tasks. Starwood Aloft hotels have been using a mobile automated system to delivery sundry items such as toiletries to hotel guests since 2014. Silicon Valley company Knightscope manufactures security robots which have been roaming buildings and industrial complexes in the Bay area for at least a year prior to deployment of Marble’s food delivery robots.

Second, as a dense West coast city with progressive urban development policies, it is surprising that San Francisco is resisting the benefits of a potentially-advantageous technological advancement. Delivery robots, especially when automated to follow given paths and arrive at specific locations (very possible using satellite mapping technology), represent a potential solution to a number of traffic headaches. The narrow streets of historic cities are often clogged by delivery trucks, a trend which is on the rise. Millennials in particular continue to invest in the convenience of home-delivered groceries, meal plans, clothing sampling services, and Amazon Prime for everything else.

This human behavior pattern has consequences for the health and function of our cities, and the policy and design response must adjust itself dynamically to accommodate such trends.

It is common in conversations with landscape architects and planners to arrive at mutual agreement about the antiquated views of traffic congestion wherein the cyclical solution is to simply add more lanes. Many praise the benefits of multi-modal transportation planning, transit-oriented development, and walkable complete streets to create healthier cities.

We must ask, however, if these views are becoming as antiquated as the automotive-focused interventions we disparage. Don’t we have technologies that can work now, complementing evolving human behavior, to produce a healthier system?

The landscape architect as futurist may be any of us of different professional specialties. We are, at heart, a profession made up of practitioners who study variations of environmental context and human influence. We have the opportunity to look to the future in order to help people understand, anticipate, prepare for and gain advantage from coming changes.

Our lifetimes will see dynamic shifts in the way humans co-evolve with technology. It is time for landscape architects to look creatively upon these changes, and ask with a futurist’s eye: what can this become?

This guest op-ed is by Alison Kelly, ASLA, LEED AP ND, a landscape designer at O’Dell Engineering in Modesto, California. She has presented on culture, landscape, and learning at the Society for Applied Anthropology national conference and the Children’s Outdoor Environments professional practice network (PPN) at the ASLA Annual Meeting.

Book Review: Seeing The Better City

Seeing the Better City / Island Press

In her book The Eye Is a Door, landscape architecture professor Anne Whiston Spirn, FASLA, contemplates the ubiquity of the digital camera. “Never have so many people owned cameras,” and never have images been disbursed so widely.  “Our world is being recorded,” Spirn writes. “But to what end?”

Author Charles Wolfe proposes an end in his new book Seeing the Better City. And that end, suggests this environmental and land-use lawyer, is the improvement of urban environments. The first job of the book, a how-to guide on maintaining a photographic diary, is to answer the obvious question: what role do photographs play in improving cities?

Every day, Wolfe writes, people living in cities encounter changing skylines and neighborhoods. They often have strong opinions on those changes. Oral arguments are made and editorials are written advising on what changes should be made, and often these arguments lack even the most basic visual aid of a photograph. Perhaps the term “multi-family housing” conjures a specific image in your head. But if assessing whether a multi-family unit belongs in your neighborhood, you’d have an advantage if you could view precedents.

Still, there’s a gulf between taking photos and improving cities. How does one apply what can be gleaned from photographs to the world of decision makers and developers? Wolfe offers several case studies of projects that make use of community photography to inform civic debates.

WALKscope in Denver has users submit photos of sidewalk quality, obstructions, amenities, and maps those observations. California King Tides invites users to submit photos of the sea taken at high tide to spread awareness about sea-level rise. Beyond these novel uses of photos, the simple incorporation of photos into presentations that inform civic decisions would greatly improve the decision-making process, Wolfe argues.

As a guide for becoming a better observer, Seeing the Better City is highly successful. Wolfe provides a structured template for an urban diary, but invites readers to construct their own.

As for actually shooting photos, Wolfe eschews prescribing techniques in favor of offering basic guidelines. He draws upon well-regarded photographers such as Ansel Adams and other visual thinkers. Diarists should know to make a photo, not just take one. Light is critical, as is where one stands. People are more critical still. Visit locations multiple times; light changes, but so do uses, the presence of people and animals, and small details such as litter. Juxtaposing the old and new can be interesting, if a bit derivative. Juxtaposing form, material, and use can yield rich photos.

seeing-the-better-city-2
Google Street View can be very useful for discussing elements of the urban environment, Charles Wolfe suggests. / Google Street View

Wolfe wants us to ask ourselves: what is being evaluated through our lens? Wolfe provides 10 parameters for seeing the city. The relation of building to street, standards for roads and signage, and the role of nature are just a few.

Wolfe also suggests activities for inaugurating a diary, such as visiting your five favorite neighborhoods and recording the sights and sounds you encounter, filming your next bike ride, or writing a couple paragraphs about your morning commute.

Many people effectively keep an urban diary without realizing it. The next step is to organize one’s thoughts and photos, reflect on them, and build off them.

Scattered through Seeing the Better City are Wolfe’s anecdotes on his own diary keeping. His observations often demonstrate a deep knowledge of urban policy and land-use issues. Your observations may not, at least initially. But at the very least, urban diaries expand the diarist’s understanding of their city, and that’s enough to start the process of improvement.

Use Video to Tell the Story of Landscape Architecture

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Opportunity to Reinvent Infrastructure

Self-driving Uber in Pittsburgh / The Washington Post
Self-driving Uber in Pittsburgh / The Washington Post

With President-elect Trump coming into office vowing to raise $1 trillion for infrastructure, many cities and states see a potential bonanza for high-speed rail development, bridge and highway repair, and, hopefully, urban transportation networks. As former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell noted at The Atlantic‘s summit on infrastructure, the Republican agenda is to let localities decide — and that should hold true for their infrastructure priorities as well, even if it means bike lanes, which a number of Republican Congressional lawmakers have come out against. At the summit, experts called for using this investment opportunity to create smarter, more resilient infrastructure, unleash new technologies, and move to more equitable approaches for long-term financing.

Brendan Shane, regional director at C40 Cities, argues that with any new federal infrastructure investment, there is an opportunity to make infrastructure low-carbon and resilient. Complete green streets enable all forms of travel, but especially climate-friendly ones like walking and biking. The national energy grid is woefully outdated and could be updated to be more energy-efficient. Water systems could be made more cost-effective and resilient through the use of green infrastructure. However, he cautioned that “$1 trillion won’t go very far. Los Angeles just approved $120 billion in projects, and that was just one city.”

Improving resilience is the primary focus of Norfolk, Virginia, said Christine Morris, the chief resilience officer of this coastal city. Norfolk, which hosts the largest naval base in the U.S., just finalized its Vision 2100, which creates a road map for resilience and adaptation to both land subsidence and flooding from sea level rise. She said “resilient cities don’t wait for someone to save them, they move forward and find partners.”

Morris was optimistic the department of defense and federal government will continue to invest in making the base and the city that houses it more resilient. Norfolk plans on creating a layered system of defenses with wetlands, green infrastructure, berms, and gates. “The federal government wants to keep and protect national assets.”

Gabe Klein, co-author of Start-up City: Inspiring Public and Private Entrepreneuriship, Getting Projects Done, and Having Fun, and Niki Christoff, head of government affairs for Uber, called for using new technologies to improve urban transportation infrastructure. Klein said the department of transportation’s smart cities challenge was brilliant at leveraging $40 million in prize money to create “$500 million in strategic planning” on how to use technology to reduce congestion and pollution and improve safety and efficiency. 

He said second-tier cities like Pittsburgh — the site of Uber’s self-driving ride-share experiments — are great places to test new transportation technologies, “as they can get things done faster.” 

Klein sees a mix of driven and autonomous vehicles for “a long time,” with a painful transition period over the next 20 years. Eventually, with the explosion of automated ride-share vehicles, 90 percent of cars in dense urban cores will go away, freeing up space for housing and parks.

Christoff noted that one of the biggest obstacles for automated vehicles are potholes, which cause confusion for the computers. She said Uber may eventually share the data automated vehicles collect on potholes with local transportation departments. If they are fixed, it would be a win-win for the private and public sectors. 

Klein said cities can also turn to the public for help in fixing potholes, asking them to identify and submit information. In D.C., when he was transportation commissioner, he created Pot-hole-palooza, a crowd-sourcing effort, and then sent out an “auto pothole killer.”

While Trump aims to use some mix of private and public funds for infrastructure, there was discussion on what happens long-term after the money has been spent. The federal gas tax hasn’t been increased since the 1972. One innovative model piloted by Oregon last year finances road and highway investment through a usage fee, a tax for miles traveled, instead of the usual federal gas tax. Some 5,000 cars participated in the pilot.

Instead of privileging the low-gas use of hybrid vehicles, the system, which involves adding a small USB-like device into cars’ speedometers, treats all miles traveled the same. “It’s more equitable, and the payment system is transparent. At the end of the month, you receive a bill like you do for water or cell phone service,” explained Richard Geddes, with the American Enterprise Institute. As part of the scheme, there are rebates for any gas taxes. 

In a poll from last year, Oregonians were split on the idea of replacing the federal gas tax with a mileage based approach. Still, the idea of charging vehicle owners based on how much they actually use and wear down roads seems more direct, understandable, and fair. 

Experience Underpass Park in Virtual Reality

ASLA 2016 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Underpass Park /
ASLA 2016 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Underpass Park /

Experience Virtual Reality! Immerse yourself in Toronto’s Underpass Park, which won the ASLA 2016 Professional Award of Excellence. Take an exciting journey through this unique park found under a highway underpass, guided by landscape architect Greg Smallenberg, FASLA, principal at PFS Studio.

Viewing Options

Option 1: Watch a 360 Video on YouTube

If you are on your phone reading this page, simply click on this URL and watch it in your YouTube mobile or tablet app: https://youtu.be/IUr2g5rabaU

(Please note that this video will not work on your mobile browser.)

Be sure to turn around while watching so you can see all angles of the park!

YouTube 360 on mobile / YouTube
YouTube 360 on mobile / YouTube

Or if you are on a desktop computer, go to https://youtu.be/IUr2g5rabaU using your Chrome browser. Use the sphere icon to navigate through the park!

Option 2: Watch a 3D 360 Video on Samsung Gear VR

If you own a Samsung Gear VR headset and compatible Samsung phone, go to Samsung Gear via the Oculus App and search for “Underpass Park” or “ASLA” to find our video.

Samsung Gear VR / Samsung
Samsung Gear VR / Samsung

Why Underpass Park?

ASLA selected Underpass Park because it won the ASLA 2016 Professional Award of Excellence. Less than 1 percent of all award submissions receive this honor.

Our esteemed jury, made up of leaders in the field, described Underpass Park this way: “A terrific project. It’s wonderful to see a solution where you embrace the marginalized groups and design a space that doesn’t displace them, but creates an environment for them. All the right tools were used in a creative and dynamic way to create an energetic space that kids love.”

The award also highlights Underpass Park because it’s a prominent example of reusing abandoned, derelict space. These spaces litter cities and represent so much untapped potential. Toronto shows the way forward for the rest of the world’s cities. This award says that even underpasses can become great parks. It’s my hope that other cities will follow suit. New York City, Miami, and other cities are now looking at their underpasses now, too.

Why Virtual Reality?

We are increasingly in an image and video-driven world. With video, you can pack in even more information about a work of landscape architecture, much more than you can in simply a photo or text. With video, you can get a sense of the sight, sound, and “feel” of a place. You can see people interacting with the design, bringing it to life. Virtual reality takes video to the next level: as you move your phone or VR headset, you control your experience in the landscape. It more closely mimics the experience of exploring a place in person. In part, it recreates that sense of discovery one gets in real life.

Why did ASLA make this VR film?

We are always looking for more effective ways to promote the value of landscape architecture to society. Virtual reality has proven to be a powerful tool for explaining how the places people love – like Underpass Park – are designed experiences. Virtual reality allows us to educate the public about landscape design in a more compelling way.

We have multiple goals with the video: We hope to use the video to promote the potential of virtual reality among the landscape architecture community, which totals approximately 25,000 design professionals in the U.S. and Canada. We also hope to use the video to explain the incredible value of landscape architecture to the public, and the ability of landscape architects to turn an unloved place like an underpass into a beloved community park.

We also hope community groups or local advocates can make use of it for their own goals. For example, when we were filming the video, we met a family visiting from Buffalo, New York. The mother of the child who was skateboarding there said it was a “no brainer to put a skatepark under an underpass.” She immediately got that the space was accessible when it’s raining or snowing because it’s covered. Ideally, this video will become a tool for her to promote the idea of an Underpass Park in Buffalo. We hope it can become an advocacy tool.

Why should landscape architects use VR?

Virtual Reality is a powerful tool for landscape architects, architects, planners, and developers – really anyone involved in designing our built and natural environments. In the example of Underpass Park: many will never have the opportunity to visit the park in person, but with our video, they can get a good sense of what’s it like to be there.

For landscape architecture firms, this is an excellent way to really show clients that a place they’ve designed works – that people enjoy hanging out there, that kids love playing there, that people are drawn to events there.

Underpass Park in Virtual Reality / ASLA
Underpass Park in Virtual Reality / ASLA

ASLA VR Film Credits

Producer: American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA)
Production Company: DimensionGate, Toronto
Director: Ian Tuason
Director of Photography: Jon Riera
Narrator: Greg Smallenberg, FASLA, principal, PFS Studio
Camera Assistant: Mark Valino
Post Production: Connor Illsley
Skateboarders: Cris Fonseca and Dan Everson

Sorting Through Contemporary Landscape Architecture

thinking-the-contemporary-landscape
Thinking the Contemporary Landscape / Princeton Architectural Press

Thinking the Contemporary Landscape, a new collection of essays edited by EHTZ professors Chistophe Girot and Dora Imhof takes on the considerable task of creating a unified understanding of landscape. The essays’ takeaways don’t quite paint as cohesive a picture as the editors suggest. But if the rational and the poetic in landscape are to be reconciled, as the editors insist they must be, this scattershot approach seems as good as any.

Several of the essays deal with the critical issue of place, and how design might enhance rather than obscure it. Girot, in his essay, points to the trend of homogenized ecological design as a missed opportunity to enter a dialogue with the local context. An increased reliance on 2D mapping techniques is to blame for this, Girot argues. An alternative? 3D, of course. Girot is an effective pitchman for the point cloud and the specificity it allows designers to access. Still, it seems too convenient to blame out-of-the-box designs on one set of tools or methods. Girot himself describes these ecological designs as a trend. And as trends are by nature fleeting, perhaps the fear of homogenization has outgrown its actual threat.

In her essay, Allesandre Ponte at the University of Montreal suggests the mapping craze Girot refers to might be a sign of insecurity on the part of designers who find themselves groping around a dark and ever-expanding room of ecology, territory, and culture. The multitude of ways designers can approach sites could come as a relief to some but also induce further “paralysis by analysis” in others.

A meditation by Kathryn Gustafson, ASLA, on model-making weaves together interesting personal anecdotes to make a valid criticism of 3D technologies. Rhino and Grasshopper are a necessity but don’t confer good landscape sense. One trusts Gustafson writes from experience when she shares that a designer cannot explore a landscape with just a keyboard and mouse. “Where are you?” Gustafson prods. “What are you truly experiencing? This is the only thing, for me, that really matters.”

It’s possible to get the impression from some contemporary landscape architects that the greatest transgression a designer can make is neglecting aesthetics in the pursuit of ecological function. Reading of people drowning in the streets of Beijing due to urban flooding, one can forgive Kongjian Yu, FASLA, this offense in his deployment of urban sponges. “Healing the ecological system at the national scale needs simple, replicable, and inexpensive solutions, not self-indulgent ornamental design or artistic form,” writes Yu. Of course, Turenscape’s Qunli Stormwater Park is staggering in its messy functionality. Yu shares its origins as well as the genesis of Turenscape in one of the book’s more personable essays. It’s organized as a guide, with steps such as “Do not Try to Influence the Experts,” and “Make a Proposal to the Prime Minister.”

The book’s most successful essays tell stories. Yu’s falls into this category, as does Susann Ahn and Regine Keller’s delightful essay on nature and imitation. Conceiving of nature as a construct can be extremely liberating. But what happens when that conception runs up against cultural expectation? Designers buckle and imitative natures get built. “The question remains whether, and when, the imitation will render the original meaningless.”

Science Lab Protected by Ingenious Wave Landscape

MAX IV laboratory / Snohetta
MAX IV laboratory / Snohetta

In Lund, a city in southern Sweden, the MAX IV Laboratory houses a synchrotron, a giant particle accelerator. Unfortunately, scientists there found the facility was buffeted by ground vibrations from a nearby highway. They discovered even the smallest vibrations could throw off their precise studies. Instead of finding a new site, the lab decided to use smart landscape design to create a solution. Working with Fojab Architects, landscape architects with Danish multidisciplinary design firm Snohetta created a 19-hectare park that absorbs vibrations while creating public space, a constructed meadow land, that also captures stormwater.

On their web site, Snohetta writes that ground vibrations are “commonly created by wavelengths between 10 to 40 meters in height and follow the surface of the ground.” If a landscape is flat, their models showed, vibrations could reach the laboratory. But experiments with different types of wave topography found that certain forms could actually absorb the vibrations.

Snohetta used the software program Grasshopper to model the effects of vibrations, defined at 10 to 40 meters at an amplitude of 4.5 meters, on their site.  The primary lab building had to be a circle. But they decided to twist and raise it, creating a “dynamic shape based on the Möbius strip,” which is a surface with one side and one boundary. And then they went further, creating a sort of Möbius volume. Landscape wave forms radiate out in a pattern that breaks up incoming vibrations. According to Snohetta, “the more chaotic combinations of waves, the better.”

Model / Snohetta
Model / Snohetta

To build this intricate landscape, Snohetta uploaded the 3D model directly into to the GPS systems guiding the bulldozers who carved the shapes. For the firm, it was like “having a giant 3D printer producing the project on a 1:1 scale.”

MAX IV laboratory  / © Mikal Schlosser
MAX IV laboratory / © Mikal Schlosser

On top of blocking the vibrations, the designers also brought a sustainable design approach — soil was cut on site and then filled in elsewhere to create the waves. They argue this will help ensure the site can return to agricultural use if the synchrotron is no longer used.

The waves also help channel stormwater into ponds designed to accommodate both 1-year and 100-year rain events.

MAX IV laboratory / © Mikal Schlosser
MAX IV laboratory / © Mikal Schlosser

And throughout the park, there are native meadow grasses, planted from seeds gathered at a nearby nature reserve. The lab will bring in sheep to help manage the grasses.

MAX IV laboratory / © mikal schlosser
MAX IV laboratory / © mikal schlosser

Even though the location looks fairly suburban, there is also ample bike parking for lab employees and visitors.

MAX IV laboratory / Snohetta
MAX IV laboratory / Snohetta

See larger images at DesignBoom.