Can a video game help bring landscape architecture to the masses?
According to Deirdre Quarnstrom: absolutely.
Quarnstrom is the general manager for Microsoft’s Minecraft Education program, which promotes the popular video game’s use as an educational tool. She is also a director at Block by Block, a nonprofit partnership between Microsoft, Minecraft-creators Mojang Studios, and the United Nations that uses Minecraft to broaden community engagement around public spaces in the developing world.
At the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, Quarnstrom was joined by Lauren Schmitt, ASLA, and Anaheim parks manager Pamela Galera, ASLA, to discuss how landscape architects can use Minecraft to expand and deepen the community engagement process.
Minecraft was first released in 2009, and since then has sold 150 million copies worldwide. The game allows users to create, modify, and explore 3D landscapes constructed out of one meter blocks. According to a 2016 article in the New York Times, it is the third most-selling game in history, behind only Tetris and Nintendo’s Wii Sports.
“Minecraft is a game, but at its core, it’s also a really powerful building tool,” Quarnstrom said. “Because it is blocky and not precise, it becomes a very accessible way for people to start building.”
Quarnstrom pointed out that many non-professionals find it difficult to understand how two-dimensional drawings translate into three-dimensional space. Minecraft helps bridge that gap, and in doing so, allows more people to participate in the design process.
“In the developing world, we find that the planning processes are often dominated by men,” Quarnstrom explained. Block by Block facilitates community engagement sessions using Minecraft to reach those usually excluded from those conversations, especially children, women, and the elderly.
These engagement sessions are not confined to a screen. Participants use site visits to contextualize the study area and then hold brainstorming sessions to discuss their ideas and address challenges. It’s only after those steps that the teams begin to develop their designs in Minecraft.
At the end of the workshop, the participants present their designs and rank ideas. Those blocky Minecraft designs are then handed off to professionals, who use them to develop buildable projects. Block by Block funds construction and works with local officials to ensure they are maintained after construction. According to Quarnstrom, Block by Block has successfully completed 75 projects in 30 countries.
When Minecon, an annual Minecraft convention with 15,000 attendees, was slated to come to Anaheim, California, Quarnstrom was struck with an idea. Why not bring the same process for a project in the festival’s host city?
As it turns out, the timing was perfect. “When we were approached by Block by Block, we were in design on the upper half of the Anaheim River Walk, and there was an opportunity for a children’s playground,” said Galera, Anaheim parks manager and landscape architect.
“We wanted this playground to be cool; we wanted it to be something very special.”
Galera and her team have used other tools for community outreach in the past, including open houses, pop-up meetings, and craft sessions building model playgrounds with ordinary materials like cups, straws, and string.
Galera worked closely with Block by Block to bring neighborhood children into the design and planning process for the new playground. They first created a basemap of the project site in Minecraft, which was loaded onto laptops for the participants to work on.
They then gave the participating children a “crash course in urban design” so that they could understand the project’s constraints and limitations. Finally, the children worked in groups to develop their ideas and build their models in Minecraft.
The playground they designed is now under construction.
“For opening day, when we have our dedication, we’ll have the children out there and celebrate their contributions,” Galera said. There will also be a mural painted on a wall at the back of the park that will permanently commemorate the children’s involvement in the process.
Galera sees Minecraft not just as a tool for community engagement, but also as a way for landscape architects to engage with children about the profession and expose them to landscape architecture as a potential career path. In the case of the Anaheim project, she said that many of the participants were children of migrant farmworkers for whom the experience may have been their first encounter with landscape architecture.
“This is our challenge as landscape architects: our profession is nature-based, but it’s also people-based. We have to evolve to make sure our profession continues. This is just another tool. We shouldn’t be afraid of it; we should embrace it.”
If you are on your phone reading this page, simply click on this URL and watch it in your YouTube mobile app: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nQ2geeXMThI (please note that this video will not work in your mobile browser)
Be sure to turn around while watching so you can see all angles of the park!
Use the sphere icon to navigate through the park! Note: the 360 video will not work in Firefox or Internet Explorer.
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 “Brooklyn Bridge Park” or “ASLA” to find our video.
Why Brooklyn Bridge Park?
ASLA selected Brooklyn Bridge Park because it won the ASLA 2018 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Less than one percent of all award submissions receive this honor.
Our esteemed jury, made up of leaders in the field, described Brooklyn Bridge Park this way: “The plan allows for and encourages different experiences in the different spaces, from being wide open and being fully engaged with the people around you to intimate, forested places. It’s remarkable.”
The award also highlights Brooklyn Bridge Park because it’s a prominent example of how to transform abandoned post-industrial waterfronts into spaces for people and wildlife. These spaces litter cities and represent so much untapped potential.
Why Virtual Reality?
The communications world is increasingly image- and video-driven. 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?
Virtual reality has proven to be a powerful tool for explaining how the places people love – like Brooklyn Bridge Park – are designed experiences. Virtual reality can educate the public about landscape design in a compelling way.
The video has multiple goals: promote the potential of virtual reality among the landscape architecture community, which totals approximately 25,000 design professionals in the U.S. and Canada; explain the incredible value of landscape architecture to the public; and demonstrate the ability of landscape architects to turn an unloved place like a cut-off, post-industrial waterfront into a beloved community park.
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 Brooklyn Bridge 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.
ASLA VR Film Credits
Producer: American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA)
Production Company: DimensionGate, Toronto
Director: Ian Tuason
Director of Photography: Ian Tuason
Production Assistants: Ward Kamel and Idil Eryurekli
Narrator: Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, President and CEO, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates Inc.
Post Production: Callum Wilkin Gillies
Thank you to Jamie Warren and Onika Selby at Brooklyn Bridge Park for making this all come together. At Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc, we appreciate the kind assistance of Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, Hilary Archer, Jane Lee, and Lucy Mutz.
The Senses: Design Beyond Vision, a new book from designers and curators Ellen Lupton and Andrea Lipps, is a compelling survey of the emerging field of sensory design. The book accompanies an interactive exhibit of the same name by the authors on display at the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum through October 28th. While The Senses is not quite the manifesto for multi-sensory design practice its authors claim it to be, the book captures the poetics and science of sensory design and in doing so conveys some useful lessons for landscape architects.
Sensory design’s historically-narrow application has broadened as our own understanding of the senses has gained sophistication. Add to that the potential of emerging technologies to create and augment sensory experiences, along with the urgent need for more inclusive design, and you have the swell in popular attention the field is currently experiencing.
It’s worthwhile to ask whether, as landscape architects, we are guilty of treating hearing, taste, scent, and touch as second-class senses. Put to any landscape architect that the senses other than sight are important and you’re likely get a nod of agreement. What isn’t as clear is whether this acknowledgment commonly manifests in our design work.
Sensory experience commands greater consideration in landscape architecture than most design fields, and so landscape architects are better attuned to their designs’ effect on the senses. But we often conceive of and deploy landscape architecture as a palliative to harsher environments than rich sensory environments in and of themselves. As to how we might improve and innovate in this regard, The Senses offers some inspiration.
The first step is to bring to sensory design the same level of critical thought brought to visual and spatial design. What are the qualities of an environment where all five senses have been weighted equally in the design process, not simply manufactured under “the tyranny of the eye”?
The Senses features an interesting case study in San Francisco’s LightHouse for the Blind and Visually impaired. There, light and space are maximized, materials are chosen for their acoustic properties over their appearance, and details such as tapered handrails and textured steps are integral elements, not tacked-on details.
One recurring practice among The Senses’ featured designers that has an application for landscape is layering. Layering allows for the creation of environments rich with hierarchy and nuance.
Snarkitecture’s undulating wallpaper, Topographies, is one example, as is the Rich Willing Brilliant Studio’s attitude towards lighting. According to these designers, sound, smell, light, flavors, and texture can be layered to form thresholds and barriers, ceilings and corridors. If this seems architectural, that’s intentional. Perfumer Christophe Laudamiel stresses the multi-dimensional quality scents take on when layered and allowed to develop volume. Laudamiel is a master of evoking landscapes with his scents, such as meadows dense with wildflowers and the Bosporus Strait.
If there’s one project in the book the offers a more grounded idea of how landscape architecture and sensory design can interface, it is Tactile City. Expanding on existing tactile paving systems, Tactile City illustrates how streetscapes can be designed to benefit the visually impaired. Highly-textured paving tiles can signal features of the environment to someone relying on a walking stick. Indications of street furniture, bus stops, or construction can be imprinted in the landscape. “Sensory design can shape the beauty and function of a place – and address dangers and obstacles,” the authors write.
Much of the exhibition and book is concerned with new technologies: The Scent Player, emitting smells instead of music, or a device that converts reverberations against the skin into dialogue for the deaf. These technologies, while not immediately translatable to landscape architecture, underscore the fluid nature of our senses. The authors do an excellent job of conveying how senses feed and play off of one another. Sights can trigger smells can trigger tastes, with past experience setting some of the rules for these exchanges.
Experience of the landscape should engage all of our senses. Sensory design is about maximizing that experience and making sure others of differing abilities can as well. The Senses is a worthwhile read for landscape architects wanting to pursue these goals.
Edward Tufte, the world’s best known information designer, said Charles-Joseph Minard’s statistical map of Napolean’s 1812 invasion and then retreat from Russia was the greatest information graphic ever made.
Born in Dijon, France in 1871, Minard spent his career as a civil engineer, with much of it as an inspector of transportation infrastructure. It’s only in retirement that he was able to delve into his passion for the visual representations of statistics.
Minard’s engineering education and career deeply informed his approach to statistical maps. He had a “general appreciation of fact-based scientific practice, which tends to value empirical evidence over abstract reasoning and intuition.” His graphics were driven by the desire to best enable the “systematic gathering and evaluation of facts.”
But for a man so interested in scientific precision, there is also real beauty to his visualizations, with their “clean and minimalist aesthetics.” Rendgen argues that experts know a Minard visualization when they see one: “Not only are they refined in every detail of their rendering, including the lines, the dotting, the hachure, and the concise labeling, they also have a very ‘modern’ appeal to them.” He was then not only a engineer and statistician but also a designer.
Before Facebook created the Like button, Minard perfected a number of essential and elegant infographic elements that are now core to our global visual vocabulary.
For example, starting in 1845, Minard perfected the use of proportional circles on maps to indicate the amount of certain goods or populations in any given place.
Minard is also know for his simplistic yet also precise “flow maps” that indicate overall traffic volumes of goods or people over territories. Minard expected his detail-minded viewers to carefully examine his maps, perhaps even with a ruler, so he drew the flow intervals or widths to be exact to the millimeter. For example, in the graphic below, Minard visualized the tremendous decline in cotton imports (the blue band) from the U.S. to Europe during the American Civil War to the tons.
The flow maps had to be both accurate and easy-to-understand: they were designed to help traffic engineers “predict demand on existing or projected routes,” or policymakers understand the bigger picture and make necessary policy, tax, or regulatory changes.
As Minard honed his craft over the years, Rendgen says his work only improved. “He gradually developed an understanding of the intricacies of integrating many different flows into one coherent representation and continually worked on avoiding clutter in his multi-flow representations.”
During his lifetime, Minard’s visual innovations were immediately and widely copied because they were so intuitive. His legacy is found in nearly every data visualization we see today. And the Minard system is perhaps needed more than ever before — to wade through the ever-growing sea of data and see clearly what it all means.
Autonomous vehicles, augmented reality, smart cities, the internet of things – these and other emerging technologies will require wireless connectivity, and lots of it. In response, wireless service providers are working to bolster their wireless networks by deploying low-power miniature antennas called small cells, which supplement larger cell towers and can deliver lightning-fast 5G service.
Small cells might seem innocuous enough. They are, after all, much smaller than a standard cell tower. However, because their range is limited, small cells must be deployed in dense networks to provide continuous service. By some estimates, providers will need to install small cells every 250 to 300 feet to provide adequate coverage. And since each provider has their own network, full scale deployment of small cell infrastructure could result in the installation on thousands of new antennas on city streets and rights-of-way.
Bello indicated that small cell infrastructure could, in many cases, be mounted on existing infrastructure such as telephone poles, street lights, or bus stops. Still, the sheer number of antennas required all but guarantees the deployment of small cells will have a visual impact on the public realm.
“I want to underscore that the implementation of this technology could result in thousands of small cell antennas and related equipment across the city, and it may result in several per block,” said Bello.
Small cells could result in “impacts to our viewsheds, historic character, access and circulation, and potential for more streetscape clutter.”
The Washington, D.C. department of transportation (DDOT) – the agency with permitting jurisdiction for right-of-way infrastructure – has already entered into master license agreements with multiple cell service providers for small cell deployment on DC streets.
Bello said that the NCPC is working with DDOT, along with a number of other agencies, to develop design guidelines for this new infrastructure.
“The guidelines will address various aspects of placement and design, including general design specification, spacing between small cell poles, distance from tree boxes and root systems, accessibility, the number of poles per block, and the poles design and finish.”
Public comments indicated that, for some residents, these guidelines may not be enough. Georgetown ANC Commissioner Joe Gibbons and Citizens Association of Georgetown board member Elsa Santoyo both voiced concern about the impact of small cells could have on the historic character of Georgetown and urged that small cell installations be subjected to a formal design review process, something not required by DDOT’s existing agreement with service providers.
DDOT manager Kathryn Roos said her agency’s agreement with service providers did not preclude such oversight. “The master license agreement is explicit in saying that the small cell companies must get whatever approval that is needed.”
“DDOT’s role in this is really as a facilitator. We saw that this was a particularly sensitive program, and so we reached out to our partners at NCPC, CFA, and SHPO (State Historic Preservation Office) to help facilitate a conversation.”
CFA Commissioner Toni Griffin pushed back against that characterization of DDOT’s role: “To the extent this can be viewed as privately-operated public infrastructure, I think we’re going to need a public owner and advocate — and not just a facilitator.”
In other jurisdictions, legal battles have broken out between state and local governments over who has the right to decide how cell service providers can deploy small cell technology – and how much they have to pay for the right to do so on publicly controlled rights-of-way.
The federal government has also begun to take note of the issue. Earlier this summer, Senator John Thune (R-SD) introduced the STREAMLINE Small Cell Deployment Act (S. 3157), which would require local agencies to process small cell applications within 60 to 90 days and limit the amount that municipalities can charge service providers for the use of the public right of way. And in March, the the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to adopted rules intended to reduce regulatory hurdle to small cell deployment.
Local leaders, for their part, have argued that local regulations are not a major obstacle to deployment. In a letter to the FCC ahead of the commission’s March meeting, three dozen mayors and local leaders insisted that “our communities strongly desire more options for high quality internet access, and we are happy to work collaboratively with any Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that are willing to provide such opportunities. However, our residents and businesses appropriately balk at the placement of a 100-foot monopole on their lawn with no recourse, or to having their local government’s hands tied when it comes to the public recovering just compensation for the use of the public’s right of way.”
At the CFA meeting, Commissioner Griffin envisioned a more creative approach to the issue. “Maybe we should ask the service providers to sponsor a design competition to help us bring more voices to the table and solve the problem. Design guidelines will get us some of the way, but not all the way.”
Over four days of the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) in Savannah, Georgia, autonomous vehicle (AV) optimists and pessimists presented their hopes and fears about the coming technology-driven transportation revolution. AVs can either increase speed and efficiency and reduce transportation costs, or create more congestion and sprawl, kill off public transit, and increase transportation inequities. AVs will be coming in the next few years, or won’t be seen in most places for a few decades. AV ride share companies like Uber, Waymo, and Lyft only have our best interests at heart, or they are self-serving and want to remake streets to optimize for AVs, to the detriment of other modes of transit. AV companies can be given a long leash and work with state or local governments in partnership, or these companies need to be closely regulated.
Amid the broad debate by planners, landscape architects, architects, and traffic engineers that happened across multiple sessions, possible benefits and dangers of AVs became clear, as did the shape of solutions to possible problems.
Gerry Tierney, director of Perkin + Will’s Smart Mobility Lab, thinks AVs will enable cities to create narrower car lane widths — just 8 feet instead of the usual 10 or 12. AVs are expected to communicate with each other to increase efficiency and speed, forming a platoon. With this scenario, “headway between vehicles will be shortened, increasing the capacity of streets by two or three times.”
Tierney thinks we can give that extra road space created by AV platoons over to the public realm. “We can create new mixed-use lanes for bikes, e-bikes, scooters, and e-scooters, along with widened sidewalks, and green infrastructure.”
In an analysis of San Francisco’s streets, Tierney found that green space in transportation networks could be increased by 42 percent with the reduced lanes for AVs, spreading 1.3 Golden Gate Park’s amount of greenery throughout city streets.
Car companies will soon offer subscription services so that car ownership — and the number of cars on the road — will decrease. Today, the average car is only used 4-5 percent of the time. With subscription services for AVs, utilization rates will increase to 96 percent. “Fleet size can be reduced but carry the same number of people.”
AVs could be parked in towers, reducing the need for homeowners to purchase a parking lot, which can add 24 percent to the cost of a unit in a city like San Francisco. Parking will plummet, freeing up space for Amazon deliveries and reducing congestion.
According to transportation planner Patrick Seigman, some 80 percent of the cost of taxis are the driver. As such, AV rideshare “taxis” — like Uber or Lyft — will cause the “cost of taxis to plummet.” With buses and trains powered by autonomous technologies, the cost of transit could also further decrease.
Autonomous rapid transit (ART) could further increase road capacity. Tierney imagines 20-seat shuttles on dedicated lanes. Siegman pointed to self-driving shuttles now in use in Switzerland and Las Vegas, which have a top speed of 25 miles per hour. Instead of a driver, they have a conductor who can only push a stop button.
Peter Calthorpe, a leading planner, said that “autonomous vehicles will mean death for cities.” He said single-passenger ride share travel 35 percent more miles than regular vehicles, and AV shared taxis can be expected to travel 30-60 percent more miles, and AV single taxis, 50-90 percent more miles. “Dedicated lanes for AVs will only increase sprawl as private vehicles travel farther.” Furthermore, given speed is of the essence, “people won’t share — there’s no time advantage to sharing.” With AVs, “vehicle miles traveled will double and roads will become impassable.”
Tierney worried that AVs could create a “two class system” — those with access to AVs and those without. “We could imagine people playing video games in a Mercedes Benz subscription AV while those who can’t afford are then starved of transit options.”
Architect and urban design Kevin Klinkenberg, said in Savannah, Georgia, Uber and Lyfts can be expensive if you aren’t just taking a short trip downtown. “Even if AVs cut the cost by half, there is still a large section of the population who won’t be able to afford them.”
Transit rides are already subsidized and are losing money in many places; AVs can therefore put further pressure on strapped transit systems, speeding up the killing of routes.
He also wondered who will pay for all the beautiful, green, multi-modal, AV-optimized streets, so often seen in renderings? “With AVs, where will the money come from?” Most cities are already completely strapped and can’t fix potholes on time.
Christopher Fornash, a transportation engineer with Nelson/Nygaard, thinks it will be 20-30 years before we see “pervasive autonomy.” He imagines autonomous cars, buses, and trains, with inter-connections. But Tierney wonders where pedestrians will go in this system? “If you have AV through-ports for efficiency, how does a pedestrian cross the street? I hope not bridges.”
Fornash worries that AV companies have already pre-empted city regulation of AVs, because in 10 states, “it’s too late, city right of ways are now in state control. AV companies now have the ability to use streets on their own terms.”
According to Klinkenberg, the transportation system is controlled by a small number of engineers, policymakers, and companies. “It’s not open to political or economic feedback. There will be the same result if you add AV to the mix. We’re just swapping new technology into the same system.”
Tierney said it’s important for planners and policymakers to “design around community values and prioritize road access. We need to reverse engineer these systems and design for what we want. There is an opportunity to reclaim cities from the car.”
Alex Engel, program manager with National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), which just released the smart Blueprint for Autonomous Vehicles, said “we can’t let the private sector dominate the conversation about AVs. We need to produce public policies that shape outcomes. We need to use good data and code the curb.”
Calthorpe called for instead investing in autonomous rapid transit (ART), like bus rapid transit (BRT) but with more nimble vehicles, which is already up and running in Zhuzhou, China. “If ART have dedicated lanes, autonomous vans or buses could be 30 percent faster than BRT and cost 80 percent less because there would be no drivers.”
Siegman calls for restoring control of streets back to local areas, giving cities and communities the right to “charge right prices for curb access and parking, and driving on streets.”
As an example, he pointed to San Francisco airport, which now charges taxis and ride share a $7.60 fee for accessing the curb for drop-offs and pick-ups in the most convenient zone, but half the price for access to a less convenient spot at the top of a garage.
Cities could charge riders of AVs for pick-ups and drop-offs in order to finance equitable access to public transit, including low-cost ART, and green street improvements.
According to Christophe Girot, point clouds instill panic in politicians and architects. They reveal and expose a city from all vantages, enabling one to move behind, around, and through the whole spectrum of the built environment. The backsides of buildings, a filthy alleyway, a secret roof garden—all are equal opportunity to the virtual visitor. Though this technology has been available for ten years, the only city whose entirety exists as a point-cloud model is Zürich, Switzerland. And why is that? “It’s not the cost or the big data,” says Girot, “but the fear of being unveiled.”
Girot, who is professor and chair of landscape architecture at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), spoke at the college of environmental design at University of California at Berkeley on large-scale landscape design and modelling, investigating topological methods, and experimenting with new media.
The potential of his point-cloud modelling has been written about; this new vein of visualization is one which Girot is known for advancing. Though Girot did discuss the technology in his work, at this talk, he set point cloud models in the context of siting, clearing, and planting—components of the process inherent to landscape design, which centered his talk on the particularities of a site.
At the ETH, Girot and his team have garnered attention for point-cloud modelling of projects at the territorial scale. The technology is also relevant at the human scale, owing to the level of detail that it elucidates.
A precise engineering technology that is now used for modelling, the point-cloud model creates a depiction of the site by congregating billions of pixel points, all of which carry position information gleaned by drones, Lidar, and 3D-scanning.
As a viewer moves through the model, the minute points slowly push by you in a way that is less like you’re walking through the space than like you have become the camera floating through it, seemingly any detail available for close observation.
By sharing an abundance of information, the models evoke what it is like to be in a place. In spite of appearances, Girot asserts these models counter the “tech-y,” “plan-y,” and mapping-focused vein that dominates contemporary landscape architecture by bringing focus to the site.
For instance, Girot shared a series of garden models from Kyoto, which were created to illuminate the aural, visual, and textural qualities of each site (see video above and image below).
Interestingly, Girot calls the models “still-lifes.” This telling moniker illustrates what Girot wants the viewer to cull from the scene: the emphasis on detail, the attention to the haptic, and the ability to know the infinite variations of texture.
Beyond the capacities of the still-life—and equally important to Girot—is the model’s ability to disclose the place’s ambient sound. All of these details accumulate to a highly accurate version of the site’s sensory experience.
There are implications for the designer in point-cloud modelling: The information captured in a half-days’ worth of 3D-scanning can yield an infinite number of drawings and simulations that explain the site. “This is a mode of empowerment,” he said.
The exposure of so much detail can offer clarity, and can also uncloak the hidden—that which is concealed intentionally or not. And while he remarked that he did not want to mention politics, his insinuations about the power of this technology were made clear.
This guest post is by Grace Mitchell, Student ASLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture candidate, University of California at Berkeley.
“The Mississippi River is now an engineered system, so we are responsible for it,” said Bradley Cantrell, ASLA, chair of the landscape architecture department at the University of Virginia, at a lecture hosted by Landscape Architecture Magazine (LAM) at the Center for Landscape Architecture in Washington, D.C. The river has essentially been re-designed to serve as a conduit of goods and to protect human settlements from flooding. As civil engineers control and manipulate ecological systems for human ends, Cantrell argues landscape architects should be at the table. By creating models and simulations that mimic how natural systems function, landscape architects can get a better understanding of ecological complexity and help steer the future design of nature.
Cantrell’s work seems to be inspired as much by Ian McHarg’s influential book Design with Nature as it is by the Mississippi River Basin Model, a 61-acre hydraulic model set within a 200-acre model of the Mississippi River watershed, which was developed from the 1940s to 1960 and in operation until the 1970s near Clinton, Mississippi. Viewing the vast model from watchtowers, visitors could “collectively view and understand the river as a system.” Engineers could also get a better understanding of how the river behaved. They could tweak valves and pipes to re-create real-world fluvial events. This is instance where the “model could serve as a guide.”
At Harvard University Graduate School of Design (GSD), Cantrell created innovative simulations using foam board, plywood, different forms of sand and sediment, and water. Rigging them up with a slew of sensors that measured water flow and sediment accumulation, Cantrell and his students “built physical diagrams that explain how natural fluvial processes occur.” Cantrell was careful to note that “these were only a form of projection, a publicity piece, really. We didn’t build the perfect model of nature. There is no more truth in them than formal models.”
But Cantrell thinks that even with the clear limitations, these models serve an important purpose: “we can let them inform design and generate new systems. Creating simulations is an act of design itself. We are creating an artificial reality that we can learn from, and then we can choose how we apply it to reality — in order to control or interact with the physical world.”
Responsive Landscapes, a book Cantrell co-authored with Justine Holzman and published in 2015, identified what models and simulations can accomplish:
Elucidate: “We can bring out features that are beyond human senses. We can create different forms of sensing.”
Compress: “We can compress the world around us — not only the physical but also the temporal world.”
Shift contexts: “We can displace context, taking experiences and manufacturing them somewhere else.”
Connect: “We can create direct connections — worm holes.”
Modify: “We can change our relationship with the world.”
Working with graduate students at Harvard GSD, Cantrell created advanced simulations that mimic natural fluvial processes. Some were later turned into point-cloud models and further visualized through software. Loaded with sensors, models had a dashboard that enabled real-time monitoring and interaction.
Why do all of this? Cantrell said civil engineers are already creating models and simulations of natural processes, but to be able to participate in the development of these massive, constructed systems for managing nature, landscape architects must have access to the same tools. “To have a conversation with engineers — that’s really the most important part.” Within that conversation, landscape architects can then “be creative and drive new design pathways.”
While Cantrell admitted all of this is in the “speculative and very beginning stages,” and the models he is working with today may be “nascent and naive,” in the near future, models and simulations can be tuned against data collected from sensors in real landscapes, thereby creating a constant feedback loop between model and the real-world.
When that happens, landscape architects can then become more ambitious, engaging with even larger systems. Landscape architects can find new opportunities to design with nature — to harness intrinsic natural processes to direct the flow of water and process of sedimentation and land-forming. “We can use waste streams to create new land. We can use ecological systems to reconstitute the landscape itself. And we can manage the landscape in real-time.”
While all of this is exciting, engineering ecosystems — which are among the most complex systems on Earth — may generate unintended consequences. One can imagine the need for prudence in applying any model or simulation, which are simplification tools, to the real world. In addition, as more of nature becomes less natural and more designed, constructed, and maintained, questions of management and ownership arise. Who will own the designed ecosystems of the future? Who will we decide how they should be used?
The world’s cities are growing at a rapid pace. By 2030, nearly 70 percent of people will live in urban areas. Cities not only face immense challenges related to climate change, migration, mobility, infrastructure, equity, and security, but are also dealing with the problems associated with scaling up to meet rapid growth.
So how can cities better plan for future challenges and growth? Dr. Blair Ruble, distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, tried to answer that question by illustrating ways cities are grappling with the new reality, in a discussion at the World Affairs Council in San Francisco, which was moderated by Gordon Feller, founder of Meeting of the Minds, a non-profit network focused on cities.
First, Ruble said, growth must be accommodated through the right framework. “We have a very good example in our own country. In 1811, a bunch of commissioners sat down and planned a grid for an empty island of Manhattan. They created a framework, and that’s the mode we need to get into when we talk about the future of cities.”
But the amount of future planning needed is incredible. “When you think about a billion people and limited resources in the context of a planet struggling with climate change and migration, you realize this is an enormous challenge,” he said.
A silver lining might be where the growth is happening. In the U.S., where the population will be 400 million by 2050, most growth will occur in secondary cities. “Mega-cities have actually kind of plateaued,” Ruble said. “Most of the growth in cities right now is taking place in so-called medium cities of 5 to 10 million people.” Mid-sized cities’ manageable population size leaves an opportunity for more thoughtful development and policies that can enable sustainable urban growth.
As an example, Ruble pointed to future settlement planning in the Central Asian country of Kazakstan, as well as efforts to retrofit existing infrastructure in Africa and South America. Cities there have enabled government services to be available in self-built neighborhoods.
In addition to integrating a growing number of people, cities are grappling with a massive flow of data. Ruble said unless cities focus on the human component of data collection, they can be caught up in collecting data for data’s sake.
“The actual numbers are not the end themselves,” Ruble said. “Cities don’t just exist to generate data for analysts to play with. Connected to each information point is a human being.”
Issues of inequality should be front and center in any discussion of urban challenges.
Take Toronto, and Canada more broadly. There is generally a more multicultural definition of citizenship than in the U.S. Still, racial inequality persists. Ruble pointed to a 2017 survey on the state of the Black population in Toronto showing 72 percent of respondents between ages 20 and 40 who identified as Black had been stopped by police; and data shows Blacks are “much more likely to be shot by police” than any other group.
“To address that problem, you can use all the technology you want, but if you don’t begin to get real about the limitations of your own vision of multiculturalism, the technology isn’t going to help.”
Flexible urban systems will be key to recognizing challenges and issues as they arise and adjusting course. “Urban success is not a noun, it’s a verb,” Ruble said.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.