At Congress for New Urbanism, Debate Rages Over Autonomous Vehicles

Proposal for redesigning Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles / Perkins + Will, Nelson/Nygaard & Lyft

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.

Possible Benefits

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.”

How AVs could platoon / U.S. Department of Transportation

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.

NAVYA’s self-driving shuttle in Las Vegas / NAVYA

Possible Dangers

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.”

Possible Solutions

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.”

Autonomous rapid transit (ART) in China / VOC.com.cn

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.

Point Cloud Models Uncloak the Hidden

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).

Sampling Kyoto Gardens / Christophe Girot

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.

Is This the Future of Designing with Nature?

Responsive Landscapes / Routledge

“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.”

Mississippi River Basin Model / Atlas Obscura

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.

Fluid modeling table / The Architect’s Newspaper, courtesy Bradley Cantrell

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?

How Can Cities Best Plan for Future Growth?

Model of Manhattan’s grid / Pinterest

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.

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

Mikyoung Kim, FASLA / Chris Baker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Technologies Promise to Upend the Design Process

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For mixed-reality, Leonard mentioned SketchUp for HoloLens.

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

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

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

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

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Top: The Rio Grande in eastern Ciudad Juarez today. Bottom: The same site envisioned 10 years from now / Gabriel Diaz Montemayor

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

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

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

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

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

Landscape Architects as Futurists

Delivery robot / Starship Technologies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Seeing The Better City

Seeing the Better City / Island Press

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Use Video to Tell the Story of Landscape Architecture

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

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

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

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

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

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