Landscape Architects Use Drones to Collect Geospatial Data in the Galápagos

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Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) collected elevation data / PEG Office of Landscape + Architecture

Accurate geospatial data is needed to plan and design coastal resilience efforts. Landscape architects use elevation representations to understand flooding, storm surges, and sea level rise. But what happens when there is no unified elevation data?

Karen M’Closkey, ASLA, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania, discovered this was the case for the Galápagos Islands during a studio she conducted exploring the island chain. Together with Keith VanDerSys, her partner at PEG Office of Landscape + Architecture and the director of digital media at the University of Pennsylvania, the duo contacted INOCAR, the Ecuadorian oceanography agency, about the lack of data.

Ultimately, INOCAR requested help in creating the data and digital models for the community and designers. To sort out the technological and engineering challenges of the project, Michael Luegering, senior associate at Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, and Michael Tantala, adjunct professor at The City College of New York, were brought onto the team.

The Galápagos, while typically considered first and foremost a biodiversity hotspot, is also home to some 34,000 residents living on four islands.

A growing ecotourism industry over the last forty years has resulted in the “Galápagos Paradox” — the advertised pristine wilderness of the archipelago increases the flow of goods and people into the chain of islands, resulting in greater pressures on the naturalized world and labor demands to maintain it. Furthermore, revenue from ecotourism is used to fund and protect the national parks, limiting the amount of public funding for the local population and infrastructure. To aid urban growth planning, PEG decided to create detailed 3D models of the town’s waterfront.

Data collection began in the town of Puerrto Baquerizo Moreno, located on the island of San Cristóbal, which has the second highest population and only fresh water source in the Galápagos and is the location of Charles Darwin’s first landing.

There, PEG noted that “water demand and building have increased dramatically, causing major challenges in water management.” Accurate accurate topographic and bathymetric, or underwater topographic data, was needed to propose solutions.

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UAV Surveyed data of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno / PEG Office of Landscape + Architecture

Puerto Basquerizo Moreno is continuing to expand upland without regard for the impact it is having on the town’s water management. PEG identified four principles to guide urban growth for the town: prioritize mixed development over the recent trend towards single family homes; offer flexible multi-use community space within the development blocks of the urban fabric; work with existing water flow patterns and areas with significant vegetation within the urban fabric; and, lastly, bring the natural beauty of the national park into the urban environment through a connective ravine setback.

These principles were developed to help protect existing open spaces within the urban fabric. The geospatial data collected was used to communicate the value of the principles to local community members and INOCAR officials as they craft future development plans for the area.

PEG’s hope is this landscape framework offers a “vital social and ecological resource” for local leaders, one that will encourage development that avoids low-lying areas.

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Multispectral UAV Surveying of / PEG Office of Landscape + Architecture

PEG established a vertical datum against which tide levels can be accurately and consistently measured, as well as topographic and bathymetric models of the town. INOCAR had a water level gauge at this location, but its measurements were not tied to a unified vertical datum, making it impossible to compare with the other gauges in the archipelago or globally.

Off-the-shelf drones were used to run Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) surveys of the areas shoreline and ravines. UAVs offer data capturing precision down to a centimeter, far superior to Digital Elevation Models (DEMs) produced by satellites. The drone is measured against pre-determined ground control points scattered throughout town to achieve this high level of resolution. The ground points were established with GPS/GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System) survey equipment.

Overlapping data points helped further ensure the accuracy of each data point collected, which can then be aggregated into a high density point cloud and turned into a digital model of the topography and bathymetry of the region.

In fall 2019, PEG delivered this model to INOCAR, which will be instrumental in modeling past and future storm surges and seas-level rise and planning tsunami scenarios.

PEG plans to return to Santa Cruz, the most populous island in the archipelago, to complete the surveying process of the area surrounding the remaining two tidal gauges.

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Point cloud data produced from UAV Surveys / PEG Office of Landscape + Architecture

Climate change will increasingly threaten coastal communities in the global south. Digital models based in accurate geospatial data is paramount to helping these communities become more resilient. With the democratization of drone technology, landscape architects can play a larger role in creating needed geospatial data sets, rather than just consuming them.

The Pandemic Is Accelerating the Shift to E-Commerce

Hub and spoke distribution network in Cincinnatti, Ohio / Rick Stein

Amazon and other e-commerce sites have seen record sales in the past few months. Brick-and-mortar stores are closing at higher rates. The transition to online and omni-channel retail will change how shopping areas are planned and designed. During a session at the American Planning Association’s National Planning Conference @ Home, a group of planners outlined how this shift to e-commerce may play out.

According to Rick Stein, an urban planner and founder of Urban Decision Group, there have been 30,000 store closures in the past five years. In just the first few months of 2020, 2,000 more stores have shut their doors, with another 15,000 expected this year.

While recent closures are due to the pandemic, the underlying issue is “U.S. retail is overbuilt.”

Comparing retail space per capita in the U.S., Canada, Australia, UK, France, and elsewhere, the U.S. tops the charts with 24 square feet of retail space per capita and $14,614 in per capita sales annually. While incomes have increased 11 percent since 2009, the amount Americans spent shopping each year has increased by 37 percent in the same time frame.

Stein outlined four types of brick-and-mortar shopping centers, which total 6.2 billion square feet of retail space and generate $2 trillion in revenue annually: strip malls, neighborhood centers, community centers, and malls. There are 70,000 strip malls, which account for $300 billion in revenue; 32,000 neighborhood centers that total $750 billion; 10,000 community centers that generate $620 billion in sales; and 1,200 remaining malls, which are “rapidly shrinking” as a retail type, that account for $325 billion in retail sales.

In-store retail sales in the U.S. have been declining since the early 2000s, with sales now less than $325 per square foot. The pandemic is accelerating this decline in sales. “Some 60-70 percent of retail stores are now closed,” with an estimated $1 trillion in lost revenue.

Most shopping centers were built in the suburbs because land was cheap. But within suburbia, there are different levels of risk.

Stein argued that locally-owned shopping centers — the community and neighborhood centers — are likely more stable. Malls, which are mostly owned by large corporations, are at greater risk of closure.

E-commerce, which increased by 25 just last year to reach 12 percent of all sales, is now putting pressure on all types of purely brick-and-mortar retail stores. Large grocery stores aren’t safe either: e-commerce now also accounts for 8 percent of all grocery sales.

In the future, “the winners will be omni-channel retailers, which are not purely e-commerce,” Stein argued. Stores like Target and Walmart that successfully leverage brick-and-mortar with e-commerce are the new model other stores need to follow.

Stein sees more retailers like Kohl’s partnering with Amazon as distribution and return centers. These brick-and-mortar stores can leverage their prime locations in local markets to become part of a “hub and spoke” distribution system that makes it easier for customers to pick up or return purchases (see image above). More relationships will form to maximize the benefits of the “last mile” — being close to the consumer.

Stores within a 10 minute drive in Columbus, Ohio / Rick Stein

Stein surveyed some 500 retailers from mid-March to mid-April and found that 80 percent will be moving to an online or omni-channel approach. Included in the survey responses was some bleak news: “40 percent of apparel retail may never re-open. And 1 in 5 restaurants may never re-open.”

“30 percent of what is purchased online is returned. 15 percent of what is purchased never makes it into customers’ hands. What does this mean for local traffic?,” asked Lisa Nisenson, a vice president at WGI, an engineering and transportation consultancy. “Deliveries have spiked. Will this stick?”

She thinks the pandemic will lead to changes in how goods are transported, bought, and sold. With social distancing, now is the time for technology-based delivery companies to perfect their approach. Many are ramping up tests to facilitate same-day delivery in more places across the country.

Proposed delivery solutions for rural, suburban, and urban areas are different. There are cargo bikes and terrestrial delivery drones of all sizes for dense urban areas, vans that can launch drones in suburban residential communities, and aerial drones for long-range delivery of medical supplies in rural areas.

Drones launch from roof of a Mercedes van / Daimler AG

The delivery model is also changing. In the past, goods moved from the factory to the distributor to the store where consumers made purchases. With the expanding same day delivery model that calls for a highly-local approach to distribution, goods are moving from the distributor to either stores or local sorting centers that then enable in-store picket, local deliveries, or access to delivery lockers, like you find with Amazon lockers in Whole Foods stores. Goods distribution is moving closer to where consumers are.

Flexible delivery model / WGI

That model could further evolve if there is growth in the use of autonomous delivery drones. Distributors and warehouses will become even more local. Niesenson even envisions “micro-warehouses” in neighborhoods.

Drones now a part of the delivery mix / WGI

The configuration of all those retail hubs with acres of parking has become outdated. “Dwell times in stores could drop from 40 minutes to 2 minutes,” really just enough time for picking up or returning items. “Or if the store also has a coffee shop, dwell times could increase to 1.5 hours.” What is clear is that these retail hubs needed to be redesigned to become more flexible and allow for a higher number of consumers visiting for a few minutes to handle pick ups and returns.

According to Jason Sudy, national lead on transportation technology planning at HDR, many companies are trying to expand the use of aerial and terrestrial autonomous drones for deliveries.

Wing, an aerial drone company of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, has partnered with Walgreens to deliver medications to customers in Virginia. They have seen a surge in drone deliveries since the COVID-19 crisis began. The drone drops packages in backyards, so only lightweight deliveries under 5-10 pounds are allowed. At The Villages, a retirement community near Orlando, Florida, UPS and CVS are also testing drone deliveries of medications. To apply the technology in rural areas, the company Zipline is running long-range drones in Ghana that can make deliveries of up to 70 pounds.

WIng and Walgreens partner on drone delivery / Walgreens
Zipline drone launch / Wikipedia

Sudy imagines parts of streets and neighborhoods reconfigured for aerial drone launch zones, and new permits to allow vans to launch drones into suburban neighborhoods.

Demand for deliveries by terrestrial drones could mean re-imagining how space on streets is allocated. “Are drones deployed from the public right of way or private property?” There are many zoning (and privacy) implications.

Solutions will need to be crafted for different types of communities — rural, suburban, or urban — creating new work for planners, transportation engineers, urban designers, and landscape architects.

Given autonomous drones are continuously collecting data about their surroundings, they need to be integrated into the built environment in a way that protects privacy.

In the Q&A, discussion veered towards Main Streets and downtown shopping districts. Stein believes that “Main Streets will have a tough time over the next 18 months until a vaccine is discovered, but over the long-term, they will be extremely important. Main Street retail is most likely to survive this great disruption.”

Nisenson added that with the rise of online deliveries, people will crave “experiential retail” that offers more meaningful and social shopping experiences. With so many people seeking community and connection, stores that offer a safe coffee shop or outdoor social space may be ahead of the curve.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (May 1-15)

Field Day campers / Jonathon Geels

A Virtual Landscape Architecture Camp Introduces Girls to Careers They Didn’t Even Know Existed — 05/13/20, Next City
“The eight-week camp covers key concepts in landscape architecture, from the meaning of ‘place’ to interpreting information about the environment, understanding the ways that different people use spaces, and the early stages of the design process.”

How the Virus May Change Your Next Home — 05/12/20, The New York Times
“After spending so much time indoors, having access to fresh air and nature at home is likely to become a priority.”

BIM in Landscape Architecture: Scenarios, Possibilities and Breakthroughs 05/11/20, ArchDaily
“For professional landscape designers, a greater effort is needed to understand how to behave within this new universe of intelligent modeling and how to contribute, through landscape architecture projects, to the multidisciplinarity that BIM brings.”

Architect of Sweden’s No-lockdown Strategy Insists It Will Pay Off – 05/07/20, The Financial Times
“Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s state epidemiologist who devised the no-lockdown approach, estimated that 40 per cent of people in the capital, Stockholm, would be immune to Covid-19 by the end of May, giving the country an advantage against a virus that ‘we’re going to have to live with for a very long time.'”

A Schoolyard Fence Proposal for Greenwich Village Raises Questions about Creeping Privatization — 05/05/20, The Architect’s Newspaper
“To screen or not to screen? That was the question before New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) on April 28, when panel members reviewed a seemingly innocuous proposal to permanently alter a chain-link fence surrounding a schoolyard in Greenwich Village.”

How Life in Our Cities Will Look After the Coronavirus Pandemic — 05/03/20, Foreign Policy
“The pandemic is transforming urban life. We asked 12 leading global experts in urban planning, policy, history, and health for their predictions.”

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (November 16 – 30)

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View down Main Street USA at Disneyland / Photo Credit: Roman Eugeniusz [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Walter Hood Digs DeepArchitectural Digest, 11/18/19
“The Oakland, California–based landscape designer, fresh off a string of prestigious design prize wins, has an approach that embraces the eccentricities of people and place.”

Podcast: Culture and Race Within Landscape ArchitectureAuthentic F&F, 11/18/19
“Listen to Ujijji discuss how she aims to promote change through landscape architecture, urban design, and an awareness of African American history across landscapes.”

10 Questions: Napa Landscape Architect Makes The Outside Look Sharp – Napa Valley Register, 11/19/19
“Susan Heiken said one of the best things about being a landscape architect is that “you are always learning something new.”

New Renderings Show 72,600-square-foot Public Park Coming to Brooklyn’s Pacific Park Development – 6sqft, 11/19/19
“Developer TF Cornerstone this week released new renderings for two sites within Brooklyn’s long-delayed Pacific Park development that have yet to break ground: 615 and 595 Dean Street.”

Dreaming Up Disneyland – The New York Times, 11/25/19
“Those who knew Walt Disney often described him as an uncomplicated man of conventional 20th-century sensibilities: a lover of model trains, farm animals, lunch-wagon food, hard work, evening belts of scotch and endless Chesterfield cigarettes. One of his rituals upon coming home from his movie studio was feeding his poodle, Duchess, a cold frankfurter, or “wienie,” by leading her from room to room while throwing pieces on the floor.”

Prospect Park Tackles Toxic Algae Blooms With Nature-Based Technology – Gothamist, 11/26/19
“For years people have walked by NYC’s urban lakes and ponds without knowing what the green stuff in the water really is. But dog owners in Prospect Park may know all too well: It’s toxic algae bloom.”

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

Boston City Hall renovation / Sasaki
Boston City Hall renovation / Sasaki

Sasaki Is Redesigning City Hall Plaza for the MassesBoston Magazine, 8/21/19
“The design firm’s Kate Tooke and Christine Dunn talk revamping Boston City Hall Plaza.”

A Santa Monica Backyard Is Remade for Outdoor EntertainingThe Los Angeles Times, 8/22/19
“Landscape architect Joseph Marek’s clients made do with their Santa Monica backyard for six years, but eventually they decided that previous owners’ “improvements” just didn’t fit their lifestyle.”

The Hoosier Gardener: Jensen Landscape Restoration Garners Landmarks’ Award The Indianapolis Star, 8/23/19
“Indiana Landmarks recently recognized one of Indianapolis’ most hidden treasures, the Jens Jensen-designed garden at Marian University.”

Landscape Architect Uses Video Game Development Software to Rethink Digital Landscapes The Star, 8/23/19
“The digital world of video games has changed over time thanks to architects and their expertise in spatial design and designing 3D environments. Digital model building are skillsets architects use every day, so who better to help design these digital worlds?”

The New Orleans Museum of Art Flaunts Its Waterside Sculpture Garden The Architect’s Newspaper, 8/26/19
“The Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden, which adjoins the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA), reopened this summer after a major expansion.”

Philadelphia Galleries: Penn Celebrates Landscape Architect and Beloved Professor The Philadelphia Inquirer, 8/28/19
“Ian McHarg (1920-2001), the Scottish-born landscape architect, founder of the University of Pennsylvania’s landscape architecture department, and magnetic professor there is considered the dean of ecological land-use planning.”

5G Is Coming to a Street Near You

Small cell installation on top of a street light in Charlotte, North Carolina / Crown Castle

5G wireless data networks are coming, but there still are important questions about their equitable implementation and energy consumption and their implications for our data privacy. Both the complexities and promises of 5G were discussed by Federal Communications Commission (FCC) commissioner Geoffrey Starks and senior vice president of public policy for Samsung John Godfrey in The Transformative Power of 5G, a panel at Transformable: Cities, a Washington Post Live event exploring how technology is altering cities.

A 5G network looks a lot different than previous cell service infrastructure. Rather than 200-foot-tall towers scattered throughout a large area, 5G will need small cell towers placed frequently in order fully carry its data capacity. Some estimates claim a small cell tower will need to be placed every 500 feet to achieve maximum bandwidth.

The increase in data capacity and speed is related to the bandwidth of the frequency used to carry wireless data. Without drilling into the technical details of the different spectra, there are three frequency bands being proposed: low, medium, and high. The low bandwidth can travel the farthest distance and pass through trees and some other obstacles, but has the lowest data rate. Conversely, the high band can only travel shorter distance, but carries the most data. Optimized networks use all three spectra.

5G towers can be easily attached to existing infrastructure, like street lights in cities, but can be intrusive in neighborhoods and implausible in rural areas due to the distance between properties. Commissioner Starks was sensitive to the disparity, concerned that “those with much are getting more while everyone else is left behind.” He went on to cite an FCC report stating 19 million Americans do not have access to broadband, let alone 4G.

Godfrey echoed this concern, but added that low band was going to be rolled-out across the U.S. and it is uncertain if the medium and high frequency will be as widespread in rural areas as it will be in urban areas. Both panelists agreed that all three bandwidths will be necessary to realize a 5G network as advertised.

The FCC, the government agency responsible for regulating radio, television, and telephone companies in the U.S., put forth rules limiting the price local governments could charge telecom companies to $270 per small cell installation. Furthermore, they required local municipalities to approve or deny new build requests within 60 days. Both of these changes prompted 24 cities to file three law suits against the FCC, which are currently working their way through the courts.

While the lawsuits are pending, local governments have to comply with the FCC’s 5G streamlining plan. In Washington D.C., where regulatory boards oversee changes to the built environment, there was push back on the design of the small cells. For cities without regulatory boards, 5G is coming, and it is coming fast.

Both Godfrey and Commissioner Sparks said the experience you will have with your phone will be different in five years time. Godfrey expanded the changes beyond phones to include any number of Internet of Things (IoT) devices, including “every cow in a dairy herd,” to laughs from the crowd. But it wasn’t a joke: in the UK, dairy cows have 5G collars, collecting biofeedback data and relaying it to milking robots.

Real-time feedback is possible with 5G, paving the way for autonomous vehicles and increasingly data intensive objects. Commissioner Starks is concerned about what this means for future data privacy: “The amount of data that is coursing through these devices is something we are going to be intentional about — how data is handled, managed, and secured.”

Starks’ privacy concern and Godfrey’s enthusiasm about 5G as a potential for innovation revolve around the IoT, and the enormous amount of data these products use and produce. Both panelists expected to see an explosion of new connected products, such as smart refrigerators and wearable devices, as 5G becomes widespread.

The coming tsunami of data will inundate data centers, creating the demand for more, a point not mentioned by either panelist. Data centers now contribute 0.3 percent of greenhouse emissions, but the entire network of information and communications technology (ICT) accounts for 2 percent of global emissions, the equivalent of the airline industry.

While data centers account for only a small portion of the total emissions, nearly all of their growth has been within the past decade and is expected to exponentially increase. Some models predict data centers could account for 20 percent of the world’s energy consumption by the time a child born today becomes a teen.

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Transformer Station outside Google data center in The Dalles, Oregon / Wikipedia

Many tech giants are aware of this, and have promised to use renewable energy to power their data centers. In a 2017 report on how green internet companies are, Greenpeace found Google uses 66 percent clean energy, Facebook uses 76 percent, while Amazon and Netflix use 43 percent.

Companies are making strides to keep their commitment to clean power in the face of incredible data growth. Hopefully, they can outpace the predicted tripling of their energy consumption in the next decade.

The Absent Hand: A Memoir and Critique of Contemporary American Suburbia

The Absent Hand / Counterpoint Press

The Absent Hand: Reimagining our American Landscape by writer Suzannah Lessard is part memoir, part examination of the American cultural landscape. Lessard offers a unique and necessary perspective on the deterioration of our society’s connection to the landscape, manifested most prominently in the book as sprawl.

Lessard is an aficionado of sprawl. It transfixes and confounds her, creating a special tension. The reader can feel Lessard’s urge to aptly describe sprawl’s features, sometimes manufacturing new words when the right ones aren’t there. The right words are there often enough, though: schizoid, edgeless, and excrescent attached themselves to places like Rosslyn, Virginia, and King of Prussia, Pennsylvania.

This struggle to read and relay the suburban landscape is part of Absent Hand’s larger theme: as technology collapses space, context is lost, and with it the ability to understand our place and purpose. Machiavelli explains to his readers in The Prince that to best view a mountain, one must descend to the valley. Context offers the promise of objective evaluation and control.

So what happens when a force such as sprawl saps context from our landscape or climate change outstrips our capacity to solve it? Bad things, you can imagine. Lessard views a cohesive landscape as cultural glue. Without it, there is no common geography to bind inhabitants. Suburbia gets experienced as “individual, customary routes.” And climate change continues its own destabilizing course.

Technology has historically been the primary instigator of this anti-contextualizing process. Lessard points to its impact on war and labor. The Internet has siphoned people from mills and farms into the same offices in front of monitors that bring us everywhere and nowhere. Our relatively recent fascination with industrial and pastoral relics like warehouses and barns is no coincidence, Lessard argues.

Those relics suggest to us a tangible link between our work and our landscape. Modern work has a weak relationship to territory and leaves no such physical imprint (its infrastructure being another story).

Most of these insights dominate the second half of the book. Lessard’s anecdotes and experiences living and traveling, mainly in the Washington, D.C.-Boston corridor, populate much of the first.

Her opinions are never watery, but neither are her introspection and self-critique. I’m a product of suburbia, and her descriptions of it renewed its mystery to me. As a current resident of Lessard’s old neighborhood in Brooklyn, I found she captured well the charm of the ubiquitous brownstones.

Still, it’s fair to wonder if Lessard’s worries are just fear of modernity. There’s a healthy amount of technophobia expressed in Absent Hand, and Lessard’s outward refusal of nostalgia for bygone landscapes is undercut by her own more elegiac descriptions of said landscapes.

And yes, it’s a familiar trope to fear the encroachment of McMansions, as Lessard seems to. But it’s also highly relatable. The only thing scarier than sprawl’s idiosyncrasies is its sameness.

Still, I imagine Lessard would be amused to learn, as I recently did, that critics initially panned brownstone homes for their uniformity.

Robots Produce World’s Longest 3D-Printed Concrete Bridge

3D printed concrete bridge / JCDA

During the Sui dynasty, it took a decade for master craftsman Li Chun to build the Anji stone bridge in southern Hebei province. Some 1,400 years later, Tsinghua University robotics professor Xu Weiguo copied the structure in just 19 days, with the assistance of robots 3D printing in concrete. The resulting engineering marvel — an 86-feet-long, 12-feet-wide bridge in the Boashan district of Shanghai — uses a single load-bearing arch, just like Anji.

3D printed concrete bridge / JCDA

Robotic arms swung back and forth for some 450 hours, fulfilling the demands of their algorithms. The robots were programmed to follow separate models of the arch structure, fence, and deck, yielding some 176 uniquely-shaped pieces, which were then slotted into place.

Robots burning midnight oil 3D printing / JCDA

The hyper-real, curvilinear, machine asthetic of many 3D modeled objects is also found in this bridge. On the deck, a brain coral pattern filled with fine stones add some warmth, bringing the feel of traditional Chinese garden path.

3D printed concrete bridge / JCDA

According to Tsinghua University, the 3D printed bridge costs just two-thirds the price of a bridge produced the conventional way.

Robots at work on the 3D printed concrete bridge / JCDA

Professor Xu and his team at the Tsinghua University School of Architecture’s Zoina Land Joint Research Center for Digital Architecture (JCDA) tested the bridge design using a 1:4 scale model to ensure it would bear the weight of pedestrians. And for extra safety, they built in a real-time monitoring system. Wires and sensors embedded throughout the structure send a constant stream of data on the performance of the bridge.

ArchDaily notes the world’s first 3D printed steel bridge just debuted in The Netherlands, and Columbia Unversity has been experimenting with 3D printing timber lookalikes. Like other sectors, construction may soon become more automated.

Maximizing the Potential of Drones

Phantom drone / Wikipedia

Drones can do much more than take pretty aerial pictures. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) can be used to analyze site conditions over time, offering a deeper understanding of change. Drones can also play a role in actually planning and designing landscapes.

In a session at the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting & EXPO in Philadelphia, Christopher Sherwin, ASLA, Surface Design; Brett Milligan, assistant professor of landscape architecture and environmental design at University of California at Davis, Luke Hegeman, ASLA, MODUS Collective; and Emily Schlickman, ASLA, SWA Group explained how they are maximizing the potential of drones to understand climate and ecological change and design and evaluate projects.

Sherwin provided a brief overview of drones. In the early 1900s, the inventor Nikola Tesla envisioned a “wireless unmanned aerial system.” In the 1940s, a “crude unmanned drone” was developed. Later in the 1960s, radio-controlled planes became a favorite of hobbyists around the globe. In 1995, the US military unleashed the missile-armed predator drone — a true “leap in technology.” In 2006, the US government devised the first flight guidelines for drone pilots, known as Rule 107. And then a year later, the launch of the iPhone led to the birth of an app-guided drone. And in 2013, the Phantom One drone, featuring sensors linked to GoPro cameras, was released.

To test one of the latest drones with cameras and sensors, Sherwin found a spot at Lundy Lake, just south of Lake Tahoe in California. Sherwin wanted to use the drone to better understand how the tree canopy was shifting with climate change. The drone covered the same flight path a number of times, providing high-quality footage at a 1-meter resolution, which is better than aerial satellites. Sherwin mapped a patch of landscape, including individual tree species and the under story, creating a rich, data-dense photogrammetry. And over time, the photogrammetry was able to show “where change was occurring.”

That is until we was arrested for trespassing and his drone was confiscated. Sherwin had used an app called AVMap, which is supposed to let drone pilots know where it is legal to fly. But the data hadn’t been updated. The result: “my research is on hold. No word yet on a permit.” But he was able to get his drone back. That was the first tip in the session: don’t get arrested.

Brett Milligan, one of the founders of the Dredge Research Collaborative, is using drones to aid the ecological restoration of dunes in the Antioch shoreline, along the San Joaquin River in California. Plants are being grown in the dunes to prevent further erosion. He used drones to monitor the rate of re-colonization by the vegetation, creating a point-cloud or photogrammetry model. He put in a set of “ground control points” — stakes tied with a bright orange material in the dunes — that serve as static reference points in a changing dune landscape. Once he got the video data he was hoping for, he and his students used that to “model results with physical CNC models in wind tunnels,” so as to try to create a more accurate model for how wind impacts dune restoration. Milligan said drones “add new value to field work. The drone draws you in; it doesn’t distance you.”

Brett Milligan using a drone / UC Davis

For Luke Hegeman, a landscape architect and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)-certified UAV pilot, drones are a “design tool.”

Model created with drone footage / MODUS Collaborative

At Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), he created a project called “mixed reality city,” with his own self-built drone. Mixed media goes beyond augmented reality as it includes a true mixing of different realities; the technology enables a real-time relationship between real-world and designed layers. (In a session last year, a number of landscape architects and technologists foresaw this as the future of design).

Hegeman said drones can help create powerful mixed media experiences that help “visualize potential future outcomes.” He envisioned combining drone video feeds with visualized data from network of sensors buried in the ground. Running simulations, vast landscapes could be designed with real-time information.

And Emily Schlickman with SWA Group explained how her firm’s XL Research and Innovation Lab uses drones for a variety of purposes. UAVs have been used to gather information and document conditions before planning and design process have begun. Drones were also used to survey site damage to Buffalo Bayou park in Houston in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, which dumped 40 inches of rain in four days. In that case, the drone was crucial, because surveying the site, which was largely inaccessible after the floods, would have been unsafe. And drones have been used by SWA to monitor construction progress.

As part of a Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) case study on Hunters Point South park in Queens, New York, conducted with Pennsylvania State University, SWA is analyzing the performance of this resilient waterfront park. Footage from drones taken throughout the day is being stitched together into a “video fly through” that shows “occupation and usage patterns.”

Hunters Point South park / Jonnu Singleton, SWA Group

Algorithms programming machine learning systems track the movement of people through the site. And heat maps show where people congregate throughout the day. “It’s a taste of what this technology is capable of.”

Building Real-World Community with Minecraft

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A park designed using the popular video game Minecraft / UN Habitat

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.

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Traditional 2D representational techniques may be difficult for non-practitioners to understand / UN Habitat

“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.

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A Block by Block participant presents her design / UN Habitat

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.

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Participants work in teams to develop their designs / Pamela Galera

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.”