Use Video to Tell the Story of Landscape Architecture

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Opportunity to Reinvent Infrastructure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Experience Underpass Park in Virtual Reality

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

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

Viewing Options

Option 1: Watch a 360 Video on YouTube

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Samsung Gear VR / Samsung
Samsung Gear VR / Samsung

Why Underpass Park?

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

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

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

Why Virtual Reality?

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

Why did ASLA make this VR film?

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

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

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

Why should landscape architects use VR?

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

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

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

ASLA VR Film Credits

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

Sorting Through Contemporary Landscape Architecture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Science Lab Protected by Ingenious Wave Landscape

MAX IV laboratory / Snohetta
MAX IV laboratory / Snohetta

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

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

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

Model / Snohetta
Model / Snohetta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MAX IV laboratory / Snohetta
MAX IV laboratory / Snohetta

See larger images at DesignBoom.

The New Landscape Declaration: Perspective and Critique (Part 2)

LandscapeDeclarationLogo
New Landscape Declaration / LAF

The second day of the Landscape Architecture Foundation‘s New Landscape Declaration:  Summit on Landscape Architecture and the Future offered critical responses to the 23 declarations delivered on the first day of the event and looked ahead to the next 50 years. Afternoon sessions were divided into five panels, each representing a different aspect of landscape architecture: academic practice, private practice, public practice, capacity building organizations, and emerging voices. Each panelist gave a short talk before engaging in a group discussion, addressing audience-sourced questions, and offering perspectives on what needs to be achieved over the next 50 years:

Academic practice: Maintain the value of the “long view”

“Academics combine teaching, scholarship, and service” while “taking the long view: looking back, then to now, and forward,” argued University of Illinois professor Elen Deming, ASLA, moderator of the first panel. The panel largely resisted responding to the more-urgent cries for action from the first days’ declarations, with Jacky Bowring, professor at Lincoln University, cautioning, “there is power and danger in the language we use.”

The academicians saw the future of landscape as both cultural art and applied science. While Anu Mathur, ASLA, professor at the University of Pennsylvania, championed “design as a field of inquiry” in which “design tools and techniques are our academic science,” Susan Herrington, ASLA, professor at the University of British Columbia, reminded the largely-professional audience that design schools “do not train scientists,” citing long hours in the studio. Yet a question from the audience concerning the rising costs of education revealed that a lack of scientific rigor in landscape architectural research limits access to external funding that could help lower escalating costs.

Bradley Cantrell studio testing responsive hydrologic systems at the GSD / David J Klein
Bradley Cantrell studio testing responsive hydrologic systems at the GSD / David J Klein

Julia Czerniak, ASLA, professor at Syracuse University, spoke to the power of design writing and criticism in spreading ideas. Other panelists noted the academy’s global reach comes from the increasingly international students it recruits and where schools build partnerships.

Anita Berrizbeitia, ASLA, professor and chair of landscape architecture at Harvard University, delivered four points the panel saw as critical to the future of academic practice: 1) commit to frameworks of learning, 2) avoid binaries and ideologies, 3) encourage student thinking and action, 4) increase diversity and range of students.

Private practice: Lead through collaboration and deep expertise

The private practice panel was moderated by Laura Solano, ASLA, principal at Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), who emphasized that practitioners deal with the challenges of not only serving clients and achieving design excellence, but most also “run profitable businesses, all without harming the earth.” In their contribution toward a new declaration, the practice panel called for firms to become increasingly adaptable and gain deeper expertise.

Joe Brown, FASLA, consulting advisor at AECOM, insisted that “practices must respond to students’ ambitious ideals.” He later added that larger firms can act as teaching institutions as well, helping students achieve their new ideas. Thomas Balsey, FASLA, founder of Thomas Balsley Associates, agreed that in private practice, “a commitment to growth and evolution” can come from being open to what students bring. Through internships and the induction of recent graduates, Balsley offered ”student-led seminars” as a bridge between the ideas of the academy and the constraints of contemporary practice. Kathryn Gustafson, FASLA, founding principal at Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, claimed “education in firms will be the biggest draw in future private practice.”

The panel addressed the importance of having both deep expertise and leadership skills as landscape architects manage complex, collaborative projects. Mark Johnson, FASLA, co-founder of Civitas, noted that being a leader isn’t just about being a “good generalist, but also an expert.” Balsley, who saw collaboration as the key for smaller firms to get big commissions, elaborated: “you need preparation and dedication to being an expert to be capable of collaborating.” Or as Gustafson put it, “to let landscape lead, you have to be the smartest person in the room;” but also be pro-active: “know your experts and demand what you need from them.”

Centennial park master plan, Tennessee / Gustafson Guthrie Nichol
Centennial park master plan, Tennessee / Gustafson Guthrie Nichol

Adding a more critical voice to the private practice panel was Keith Bowers, FASLA, founder and principal at BioHabitats. Noting he is often on the other side of these collaborations, providing ecological design services, Bowers re-asserted the importance of private landscape practices to lead by “turning around political and financial institutions.” He emphasized the importance of sticking to your environmental values and having “conviction, spirit, and humility in everything you do.”

Public practice: Change policy to achieve impact

Mia Lehrer, FASLA, president of Mia Lehrer + Associates, led the public practice panel, which advocated for their important role in “defending and expanding” landscape’s role, all the while “creating places of experience that stick with people throughout their lifetime.” Acknowledging the stigma of bureaucracy, Nette Compton, ASLA, senior director of ParkCentral and City Park Development at the Trust for Public Land, said to “young professionals: you can get a lot done at a young age;” her own rise in the New York City parks department being but one example.

Joking that landscape architects are a “shade-loving species,” Mark Focht, FASLA, former ASLA president and senior official in Philadelphia’s parks department, joined others on the panel in suggesting landscape architects must “push themselves out there” into positions of power and “demand design excellence for under-served communities.” This point was affirmed by Deborah Marton, executive director of New York Restoration Project, who noted that “private dollars rarely go into low-income places.”

Going one step further was Christian Gabriel, ASLA, national design director of landscape architecture for U.S. General Services Administration, who encouraged landscape architects to be “infiltrators and insurgents,” using policy as a mechanism to deliver action. Citing his involvement in the Obama administration’s efforts to restore pollinators to health, Gabriel thinks re-conceptualizing policy through ecosystem services “is where our greatest future and capacity lies.”

Pete V. Domenici U.S. Courthouse sustainable landscape for pollinators / Hilltop Landscape architects
Pete V. Domenici U.S. Courthouse sustainable landscape for pollinators / Rios Clementi Hale

Picking up on the Beth Meyer’s keynote speech and Martha Schwartz’s declaration from the first day of the LAF Summit, Edward Garza, CEO Zane Garway and former mayor of San Antonio, challenged landscape architects to “embrace the political world” and even to run for mayor.

Capacity organizations: Design a path to increased diversity

As demonstrated by the summit itself, capacity organizations like LAF play a crucial role in forging the future of landscape architecture. Having heard all the declarations and much of the audience and Q & A, the panel, which included representatives from the LAF, American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), International Federation of Landscape Architecture (IFLA), Public Architecture, and the Urban Land Institute (ULI), acknowledged how important diversity is to the future of the profession. Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, executive vice president and CEO of ASLA, announced a multi-organizational effort entitled Mirroring the Nation, which is meant to attract and support more minorities to the profession, so that “our profession might better mirror the population it serves.”

The panel also called for landscape architects to have more impact on a global level. Leading the cause was Raquel Penalosa, ASLA, who is using her position as President of IFLA Americas, to “work globally in the service of localities. We must be humble and listen” closely to what communities want. And IFLA president Kathryn Moore said the world’s tens of thousands of landscape architects can have more impact by forming an “interdisciplinary vision” based in “common values,” particularly given the field is one of the fastest growing worldwide.

LAF President Barbara Deutsch, FASLA, and Somerville debated a bit on whether a “new narrative” was needed to achieve greater public awareness, with Deutsch calling for an entirely new set of messages, and Somerville arguing that “we are making progress with our current messages among some groups — like the older, wealthier, and better educated — but need to better reach diverse audiences. We need to get the messages out where they need to be.”

Emerging voices: Promote the next generation

With the help of Lucinda Sanders, FASLA, CEO of OLIN, the emerging voices panel assembled a group of recent LAF Olmsted scholars. An appropriate ending to a summit on “the future of landscape architecture,” these future leaders each wrote their own declarations, which they then presented to the 700-plus crowd.

Leading off was a 2015 University Olmsted scholar Joanna Karaman, Student ASLA. Now working as a landscape designer at OLIN, Karaman challenged landscape architects to “be honest about how we represent what we build.” Her work in time-based media (Karaman is also working on a film about and for the LAF Summit) seeks to bring power to the profession through the use of videos that can make more accessible the volatility and transformational potential of landscapes.

Following Karaman was Nina Chase, ASLA, senior project manager at Riverlife in Pittsburgh, who advocated for “capitalizing on the resurgence of fun” through short-term pop-up projects that can serve as prototypes and catalyze public participation. Embracing the mantra of “test before you invest,” Chase suggested that developing projects incrementally is both good for creating fun, but also for building resilience to climate change.

Scott Irvine, a 2015 University Olmsted scholar from the University of Manitoba, delivered a message from the Canadian plains, cautioning that landscape architects should beware of “becoming overly urban,” and that too often now, “regionalism stops at the edge of the city itself.” Another caution was issued by Timothy Mollette-Parks, ASLA, associate principal at Mithun, who argued that “landscape can’t be formulaic, and we must not lose our dedication as designers.”

Wrapping up the panel was the 2016 National Olmsted scholar, Azzurra Cox, Student ASLA, a recent graduate from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, who called for landscape architects to engage in what she calls “critical ethnography: design as a humanist, political, and narrative act.”

This guest post is by Nate Wooten, Student ASLA, 2016 master’s of landscape architecture graduate, University of Pennsylvania School of Design.

What Problem Would You Solve with $100 Million?

The MacArthur Foundation, creators of the “genius” grant, have just launched 100&Change, a competition for a single $100 million grant that can make “measurable progress towards solving a significant problem.” The MacArthur Foundation seeks a bold proposal with a charitable purpose focused on any critical issue facing people, places, or the environment. Proposals must be “meaningful, verifiable, durable, and feasible.” The goal is to identify issues that are solvable.

The MacArthur Foundation expects to receive applications mostly focused on domestic American issues, but they welcome international proposals as well.

Cecilia Conrad, MacArthur’s managing director leading the competition, told The Washington Post that the grant competition is designed to inspire more creative problem solving. “We believe there are solutions to problems out there that $100 million might be able to make significant headway or unlock resources, and we want to hear what those are. By focusing on solutions, we can inspire people to focus on problems that can be solved, and we just have to roll up our sleeves and get to it.”

Register your proposal by September 2, 2016. According to the foundation, semi-finalists will be announced in December and finalists in the summer of 2017. The foundation’s board of directors will pick the winner.

In other competition news: AECOM, the Van Alen Institute, and 100 Resilient Cities have announced the latest Urban SOS, an annual student competition. Fair Share will explore the principles of the “sharing economy,” and how it can be applied to “support more equitable access to resources, improve the built environment, and enrich the quality of life of urban residents.” Fair Share is looking for multidisciplinary teams of students “to create a new generation of digital innovations combined with physical design strategies to improve how cities provide housing, open space, transportation, jobs, care, and many other services and resources.” Register by June 14 and submit proposals by September 12, 2016. Winners will receive $15,000 and up to $25,000 in services to support the implementation of the winning concept.

Can Technology Save Our Crumbling Infrastructure?

Mississippi collapsed bridge / Wikipedia
Mississippi collapsed bridge / Wikipedia

“The infrastructural situation in the U.S. is bad,” said Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kantor at SXSW Interactive in Austin, Texas. Traffic causes “5.5 billion of hours or about $70 billion of lost productivity, costs 2.9 billion gallons of fuel, and increases our healthcare costs by $45 billion each year.” About a quarter of American bridges are crumbling and structurally obsolete; and we hear horror stories nearly every month of another major collapse.

“But technology is the big hope.” Kantor argued that embedded sensors can be used to make roads and cars smarter so they can relay traffic reports in real time, identify structural issues and report them, and reduce traffic collisions and fatalities, which also cost the U.S. hundreds of billions each year.

Embedded sensor / Embedded computing.com
Embedded street sensor / Embedded computing.com

And autonomous vehicles, ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft, on-demand mobility apps like Ridescout, as well as parking apps, could reduce the inefficiency of traffic. With so little investment in actual structures and asphalt, technology is seen as one cost-effective way to lengthen the life of our crumbling transportation system.

San Francisco parking app / San Francisco Chronicle
San Francisco city government’s parking app / San Francisco Chronicle

What is holding back this safer, more efficient future? For Kantor, the problem is “very silo-ed governments, from the federal to local level.” What’s instead needed is a “whole ecosystem approach, connecting across systems.”

And that’s what the U.S. department of transportation (DOT) is now attempting with its Smart City Challenge, which will give up to $50 million to one city to become the “country’s first city to fully integrate innovative technologies – self-driving cars, connected vehicles, and smart sensors – into their transportation network.”

At SXSW, DOT announced the finalists: Portland, Oregon; Kansas City, Kansas; Columbus, Ohio; San Francisco, California; Denver, Colorado; Austin, Texas; and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. DOT will work with these cities to refine their plans before announcing a winner.

Mark Dowd, senior advisor at DOT, said the “car has caused disconnection in communities; but technology can reconnect communities. We can’t build our way out of our current problems. We are leaning hard on the technology piece.”

Dowd said big cities have the resources to start their own high-tech, integrated transportation programs, but “urbanization only increases pressure on mid-sized cities that can’t build their way out of the problem or attract the tech talent they need,” so they can only benefit from the involvement of the DOT.

DOT was surprised by the incredible demand for these funds. Some 78 cities sent in applications. “There is a hunger for a new way of doing things.” But $50 million only meets a slim share of that demand.

The question for Kantor is “who is going to pay for new infrastructure?, ” smart or otherwise. The only way forward may be an increase in the gas tax, which is seen as a third-rail in American politics. But perhaps a tax gas increase could happen if it’s tied to local fixes that benefit commuters and result in a measurable reduction in fatalities. “Over 36,000 people every year die on the roads, and their deaths are preventable.”

The Drones Are Coming

Drones / South Park
Drones / South Park

There are expected to be 20 million unmanned aerial vehicles or drones in the U.S. by 2020, according to Lisa Ellman, who ran drone policy under the Obama administration. At SXSW Interactive in Austin, Texas, Ellman painted a rosy portrait of a future filled with drones carrying out useful tasks like delivering packages, conducting routine crop dusting on agricultural fields, inspecting oil and gas pipelines, taking aerial photography, and even monitoring endangered wildlife. Meanwhile, the reality is many states and municipalities have restricted or outright banned these flying robots from going anywhere near people due to real safety and privacy concerns. A man in Kentucky recently shot down a drone hovering over his home, claiming the air space above his home was his property. This incident and others raise questions about how to regulate our air space for drones.

Ellman said the domestic market for drones would likely reach $13 billion by 2018 and $110 billion by 2025. But even with these huge projections, the U.S. may be falling behind other countries. “In Japan, for example, already 85 percent of crop dusting is done by drones.”

The U.S. is falling behind because Americans still have major concerns. Two examples of this can be seen in popular culture — In Modern Family, there is a hilarious moment when everyone tries to take down a drone hovering over the family yard, and in South Park, drones are put to particularly egregious use.

These satires of the dangers of these vehicles aren’t far off from Americans’ perceptions. Some 59 percent of Americans have concerns about privacy with drones, while 40 percent think they present a safety issue. To address these fears, Ellman thinks drone manufacturers need to do a “hearts and minds campaign — given they have a real PR problem” despite new regulations.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently released proposed rules for the hobby and commercial use of drones. Hobbyists must register their drones, which must be less than 55 pounds and fly less than 100 miles per hour. They can’t go higher than 500 feet and must be flown away from people and cities. “Drone operators must maintain a constant view of the drone at all times.” Furthermore, drone operators can’t fly within 5 miles of an airport.

Commercial operators must apply for a license. So far, there have been about 10,000 applications for licenses, with 4,000 granted. “Most of the early licenses went to Hollywood film producers.” Others have been granted to urban planning, landscape architecture, and other design firms to do aerial studies. Ellman called this approach a “band-aid before a final rule is released.”

Ellman said proposed rules severely limit the potential of drones, because they “need to be able to fly over congested areas and not be in visual sight lines” if we want them to “inspect oil and gas pipelines” or monitor the health of a forest.

She thinks one way to address these safety concerns is a new technology called geo-fencing, which enable operators and owners to pre-set GPS parameters that prevent drones from entering sensitive areas. Another set of new technologies could enable drones to better communicate with other flying vehicles and planes to avoid collisions.

But Ellman admitted getting over the safety concerns — a drone crashing into an airplane or a person — will be hard work. “There have been near misses with drones and aircraft caused by some irresponsible pilots.” For her, the answer is another “public campaign,” and “some enforcement to make examples of these bad actors.”

And privacy remains an issue. “Our homes are our castles and we need to have control over our personal life. There is a fear that drones could spy on us in our backyards.” And so a “privacy campaign is needed,” more than new laws and ordinances. Existing privacy laws already cover the action of any potential “creep,” and additional laws banning drones are really just “playing into people’s fears.” However, many states and cities disagree with her: “In 2015, there were 168 pieces of drone legislation. And in 2016, 33 states considered new rules, while 22 cities passed ordinances.”

Drones raise questions about airspace ownership as well. Our property rights extend above our home, but “only to a certain point.” Under American law, “we own the air rights above our property up to 83 feet, but not past 400 feet. What about the space in between?” The drone shot down by that man in Kentucky was flying 200 feet over his property. “Is that private or public air space? It’s a fascinating question.”

Ellman’s focus was entirely on the interaction of drones with people — what was missing from her analysis was drones’ potential impact on nature. How will drones impact wildlife, like migrating birds? Already, the police in Amsterdam, Netherlands, have trained eagles to take down illegal drones. While an eagle may likely be able to beat any good-sized drone, can other birds defend themselves? The noise from swarms of drones, which Amazon would like to see corralled into airborne highways, could also negatively impact all sorts of wildlife. More research is needed before millions of these are unleashed on our remaining natural world.

A Vision for Smarter Public Spaces

Smarter public spaces / Arup
LQD WiFi / frog

Some designers and engineers want to bring high-speed Wi-Fi to as many public parks and plazas as possible. But instead of expanding the style of the unobtrusive yet freely-available Wi-Fi found in New York City’s Bryant Park, they want to make a statement with advertisement-laden towers that appear to be about 15-feet tall and could be used to charge your phone or access useful neighborhood information via a high-tech interface, a sort of modern-day bulletin board. Their thinking is these towers will act as beacons to attract visitors, who can interact with them 24-7. In a session at SXSW Interactive in Austin, Texas, Randy Ramusack, founder of LQD Wifi, Daniel Holtzman with frog, and Francesca Birks with Arup discussed this possible vision of “smarter public spaces” created through LQD’s Palo.

Computing has rapidly evolved over the past few decades. Mainframes found in big data centers have morphed into hand-held mobile devices supported by cloud-based data services. “But the cloud is not helping communities,” asserted Ramusack. “More neighborhood information is needed to boost community interaction.”

He explained that when he picks up one of those free neighborhood newspapers to find out what’s going on in the part of New York City he lives in, he goes to more local events. So what if a glowing tower in the park showed you ads about those events, or even pushed you notifications as you walked by?

And LQD Palo could also address more basic equity issues. Vast number of people in cities still don’t have Internet access at home. In New York City, about a third of the population does without. What if these people could go to this interactive kiosk to do basic job searches? This is what Ramusack envisions for the future.

The interaction with these smart towers will also need to be two-way, said Holtzman, with frog, which designed the Palo. He thinks the high-speed connectivity these towers offer can only “further enhance the social activities that already happen in public spaces.” But others may say that it will only drive people to spend more time on their devices, sitting alone yet together, which is now a sad but common sight in so many public spaces.

Holtzman said these interactive kiosks need to be urban and contemporary but also customizable so they fit the feel of a city and perhaps the public park or plaza they inhabit. He even sees them doing well on streets or in malls and college campuses. Advertisements would be needed to finance the systems, which can’t be cheap. According to Ramusack, “targeted advertisements are viewed as less annoying, so Palo needs to display ads relevant to the places they are in.”

There are also security and privacy issues that will have to be addressed. Today, Wi-Fi hotspots are dangerous zones for transferring personal data. But Ramusack was optimistic these issues can be fixed and thinks implementing these high-profile devices would be a huge win for any city’s mayor. “Tech can make you look good. Wi-Fi gets you re-elected.” Old pay phones are already becoming Wi-Fi hubs, at least in New York City. Link NYC will replace 7,500 pay phone booth with free Wi-Fi stations, local phone calls, and phone charging.

Palo may be better suited for the streets than the middle of Central Park. Who wants to see large flashing ads in the middle of their peaceful respite from the city? Likely no one. But they could be a draw if well-incorporated into plazas and put near existing park facilities, like perhaps the bathrooms.