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.
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.
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.
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.
According to Tsinghua University, the 3D printed bridge costs just two-thirds the price of a bridge produced the conventional way.
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.
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.
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.”
For Luke Hegeman, a landscape architect and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)-certified UAV pilot, drones are a “design tool.”
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.
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.”
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.