As we look forward to covering new stories on the built and natural environments this year, here’s a look back at the 10 most popular Dirt posts of 2015. The results of ASLA’s online survey, which asked landscape architects about their use of smartphone apps, were enduringly popular. On the technology front, readers also sought out an op-ed from Jordan Petersen, ASLA, on what drones will mean for planners and designers. (Speaking of which, The Dirt is always looking for original op-eds, particularly from member landscape architects, designers, and planners. If interested, please send us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org).
Also worth highlighting: The Dirt‘s readers were very interested in the latest research on the health benefits of landscape architecture. We’ll post more on this exciting field of discovery in the coming year.
1) DesignIntelligence 2015 Landscape Architecture Program Rankings Once again, Louisiana State University came in at the top of undergraduate landscape architecture programs. And for the 11th year, Harvard University came in as the best graduate program in the annual survey conducted by DesignIntelligence on behalf of the Design Futures Council.
3) What Dose of Nature Do We Need to Feel Better? There has been a boom in studies demonstrating the health benefits of spending time in nature, or even just looking at nature. But a group of ambitious landscape architects and psychologists are actually trying to determine how to prescribe a “nature pill.”
6) A New Map of the World’s Ecosystems
A new, free, web-based tool from the US Geological Survey (USGS) and ESRI allows us to gain a better understanding of the ecological character of any place in the world.
7) Do Urban Growth Boundaries Work?
Urban growth boundaries are held up as one of the most effective tools for limiting sprawl. But do they actually constrain unplanned development?
8) Drones Will Elevate Urban Design
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently released long-awaited guidelines for commercial Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) or drones.
10) A Rare Look at the New U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters
This $646-million project is just the first in a series that will transform a mid-19th-century mental asylum, founded by social reformer Dorothea Dix, into the new headquarters for the Department of Homeland Security, of which the Coast Guard is a major piece.
World leaders have begun to get serious about fighting climate change, but we still face the incredible risk of a rising sea in this century and far into the future. According to Climate Central, a research organization, a 4-degree Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) global temperature increase, which is our current path, could result in sea level rise that would submerge land where 470 – 760 million people now live. If the world’s governments actually meet the declared goal of the UN climate summit in Paris and reduce and draw down carbon emissions, keeping the world to a 2 Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) temperature increase, 130 million would need to evacuate over coming decades. To understand how serious this could be, here’s some perspective: 4 million Syrians have fled their homeland since their civil war began in 2011, with 380,000 making their way to Europe this year. Imagine millions more on the move each year, all over the world, and the political, social, and environmental effects of this migration.
In a new report, Climate Central finds that Asia, with large populations on coasts, will be hardest hit. “China, the world’s leading carbon emitter, leads the world, too, in coastal risk, with 145 million people living on land ultimately threatened by rising seas if emission levels are not reduced. China has the most to gain from limiting warming to 2°C, which would cut the total to 64 million. Twelve other nations each have more than 10 million people living on land at risk, led by India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Japan.” And the U.S. could experience huge impacts, too, with land for 25 million underwater. Major parts of coastal cities like New York City, Boston, Miami, Los Angeles, and San Francisco; river cities like Chicago and Washington, D.C.; and smaller coastal and river communities could be submerged.
The Surging Seas Risk Zone Map, their latest interactive map, shows in startling detail what that flooding could look like, foot by foot, with a 2 degree Celsius increase. The map, which was relaunched last November to extend the coverage from the U.S. to the whole world, is designed to help policymakers and planners better plan coastal resilience efforts.
Plugging in New York City brought up a map showing the relative impact of inundation, ranging from 1 to 10 feet. As one moves up the scale in sea level rise, parts of lower Manhattan are submerged, and LaGuardia airport in Queens is totally underwater (see map above). A rising East River would flood highly populated parts of Brooklyn as well, and New Jersey would become a patchwork of islands.
In Los Angeles, almost all of the coastal communities, including ecological preserves, are completely submerged.
Looking at Washington, D.C., one could see the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers expanding beyond their banks, putting much of the Tidal Basin, East Potomac Park, the Navy Yard, and parts of the National Mall underwater. Reagan National Airport could also need to close some runways.
And an even scarier map shows side-by-side comparisons for any mapped point, with both a 2 degree Celsius and 4 degree rise.
Sea level rise will be incremental and long-term. They write: “carbon emissions this century can lock in these projected threats, but the associated sea level rise is expected to play out over a longer period, likely centuries.” To date, the seas have risen approximately 8 inches.
The data in the map is based on research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S. According to Climate Central, these are just median projections — meaning real sea level rise could equally be higher or lower.
Hollywood studio backlots in southern California have been used to build whole worlds for the big screen for decades. While technologies have changed over time, the principles set designers use to create movie magic seems to be largely the same. Chip Sullivan, ASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of California at Berkeley, author, and self-professed wanna-be film director, revealed how they do it and what landscape architects can learn from their approach at the ASLA 2015 Annual Meeting in Chicago. Why learn from Hollywood? Because they are “creating the landscapes we all want to be in.”
Classic Hollywood set designs have created:
An Illusion of Depth
Movie set designers have long used visual tricks to create an “illusion of depth.” In the beginning of the 20th century, George Melies, one of the first “screen magicians,” would create matte background paintings on glass. And in the following decades, background paintings were continued to be used to create fake scenery. The first 10 feet was reserved for actors and objects, whereas the rest was just painting. The way you can tell, said Sullivan, is that the camera angle would shift every 2 seconds. This is because at “3 seconds, we can detect a fake.” Still, these elaborate set paintings received the “same amount of effort as Renaissance paintings.”
For popular mid-century films set on the South Seas, designers even transformed a Southern Californian backlot into an oceanic scene. To achieve this effect, they would dam a creek and use huge mirrors to create an infinite landscape.
Set designers also created “hammerhead streetscapes” that looked full-scale but weren’t. “The bottom floors were 20 percent shorter and the top floors 30 percent shorter.” And in How Green Was My Valley, designers actually built smaller buildings in the background, using smaller people, too (see image above). Depth was created this way to save money.
A Multiplicity of Views
Designers devised a “multiplicity of views” in amazingly small sets, adding to the depth and richness. For the 1937 film Dead End, a “socially-realist film set in the slums of an urban waterfront,”a miniature city was created through the smart layering of space. While the movie was supposed to show the dangers of slum life, Sullivan said it only clear “how much fun it was to be a dead-end kid.”
The designers of the classic science-fiction noir Blade Runner also used layering to create a sense of a complete dystopian world set 500 years in the future. “The claustrophobic effect of tightness was created by layering modern elements over the past.”
A Sense of Mystery
Movie sets’ urban and small town streetscapes almost never have right angles. Instead, dynamic angles are employed to create a “sense of mystery, a pinwheel effect.” View of town squares are a bit off center, which is a “human way to know scale.”
Dynamic angles also mean that film makers can create dramatic moments of “hide and reveal.” When there are dynamic angles, you see places in film that you can’t go, which spurs interest. Sullivan said great Japanese garden designers are masters of creating this effect.
A Sense of Drama
Portals create drama. “An arch dramatizes transition from one space to another.”
Moving from prospects to refuge also creates drama. As humans, we are innately attracted to vistas that give us a broad view but we also seek places safe from predators. Sullivan pointed to the “edge of the forest” as not only an important design element but a place of drama. “Back to Shakespeare, the truth was always revealed in the forest.”
A Feeling of Community
“We have a deep-seated need for community.” This need is met in film through the use of small-town public squares. Sullivan pointed to the role of the town square in Back to the Future. It’s central — “it pulls the whole film together.” Sullivan argued this town square is “archetypal and reflective of how we want to live.”
Other films use a “mosaic of facades to create a rich, connected urban fabric.” Copying New York City, film designers mix facades to create a rich visual feast. “They create a lively urban fabric that’s full of people and exciting scenarios.” An example of this is the always-fascinating, urban interior courtyard Hitchcock created for Rear Window. Great movies “recreate the spaces where we want to be. That’s why we go see the movies.”
Sullivan said Harry Potter World, a realization of a movie landscape, “puts drama everywhere, creates illusion and hide-and-seek moments, and features a mosaic of facades that have larger foregrounds.”
In the end, both great films and landscapes have a “strong story line.” To be successful, “films and landscapes need a strong narrative.”
British writer and philosopher John Thackara, author of How to Thrive in the Next Economy, believes changes in the global society and economy now allow people to address environmental problems at a “bio-regional” scale. At the ASLA 2015 Annual Meeting in Chicago, he described the growth of bio-regional models that use social networks to create new forms of economic gain with significant environmental benefits. This transition to a bio-regional approach is already happening in a few sectors:
The local food movement is creating a shift of economic resources that has beneficial environmental impacts. To scale this local approach up the regional level, countries should take a “food commons approach.”
In a food commons, food distribution and retail are owned by a trust and governed by local stakeholders who manage the commons. This approach better connects local resources, so communities are able “to do things locally currently not done locally.”
Thackara looks to Denmark, where the Danish Food Cluster, founded in 2013, has facilitated regional collaboration between food companies in central Denmark. He argued that in this system, “improving the connections of an economic network is at the heart of its environmental impact.”
In order to better connect cities to their resource-rich countrysides, we need to reconsider how we get around, Thackara said. In Vienna, Austria, the idea of collaborative regional mobility has led to the Cargo Bike Collaborative, a donation-based bike sharing service that allows people to transport goods in a low-cost, sustainable way.
The idea of mobility as a fee-based service also has promise. While sharing mobility through services like Uber and Lyft is currently being “told in the language of hipsters in London, New York City, and Washington D.C. with not much attention to the environmental story,” Thackara said, the concept could be re-purposed at a regional scale in order to make transportation more sustainable. “Pay-per-use” frameworks could allow regions to save money on infrastructure in the long run. He said: “one calls upon all of these bits on infrastructure so you don’t necessarily need a car or as many roads at the bio-regional scale.”
A regional example: The Greenhorns, a non-profit organization run by young farmers, sailed a schooner filled with 11 tons of crops from Maine to Boston in August 2015.
Lastly, Thackara said we need to combine expanded regional networks with “an absolute militant search for answers.” This requires building a global knowledge network all people can access. Prototypes and maps mean nothing if people around the world cannot learn from them. “We need to build a story that gives meaning and purpose to young people. It must be more than a story that is just something we tell to each other around a campfire, but grounds for action.”
How can you get people to appreciate the invisible features of their hometown? A team led by SCAPE/Landscape Architecture and MTWTF is currently conducting a unique multi-media design experiment that aims to find out by focusing on an often-forgotten but significant culvert in Lexington, Kentucky. The Town Branch Water Walk, created for the Lexington Downtown Development Authority (DDA), is a podcast-guided one-hour walking tour of downtown Lexington’s Town Branch Creek, a long-buried hidden waterway. To further enlighten users of the podcast tours, SCAPE created a set of topographical tables that show what they will explore.
The water walk, which can be completed in under an hour, is intended to transform the way Lexingtonians interpret their everyday landscape by revealing what exists underground: karst geology and hydrology. For those who may not know, karst is formed from the “dissolution of soluble rocks such as limestone, dolomite, and gypsum” and takes shape as underground drainage systems, with caves and sinkholes.
Lexington was founded on the Town Branch – a karst stream — but over time this landscape has been covered over and “put out of sight, out of mind.” The tour follows the creek downstream from its headwaters on a busy highway to where it daylights in a parking lot behind the University of Kentucky’s Rupp Arena.
“The Water Walk creates links between the urban areas Lexingtonians inhabit and the rural Bluegrass region that shapes the identity of the city and region. Karst is Lexington’s hidden secret – the water that flows through this limestone bedrock is rumored to make the bluegrass grow taller, the horses’ bones grow stronger, and the bourbon taste better,” said Gena Wirth, ASLA, a principal at SCAPE.
The set of 3-minute long podcasts are modeled off of Safari 7, a self-guided tour of urban wildlife on New York City’s 7 subway. The podcasts include interviews with local experts on topics ranging from “Lexington’s green infrastructure projects to the complicated nature of Kentucky’s karst-defined hydrology.”
The free podcast and walking tour model was chosen because it can reach multiple audiences who might not typically seek out information on water quality or stormwater management. The team is also working with local schools to integrate the podcasts into the middle school science and social studies curricula.
SCAPE thinks more landscape architects should go multi-media when trying to communicate with the public. “We firmly believe in the power of systemic vision, but we also believe that visions need to be accompanied by face-to-face communication and design (or podcast-to-ear!).”
Wirth thinks these approaches can create new connections with the environment: “On the ground experience is invaluable – getting out into a new environment, occupying a familiar space in an unfamiliar space, or hearing a podcast describe the trickling stream below your feet transforms the way you experience a place and understand its potential. Landscape architects work to reveal and enhance environmental systems within urban areas, and the podcast walking tour is another way to combat inertia and catalyze appreciation and change. As designers, we need to expand our toolkit and explore more diverse techniques for speaking directly to people about the quality and potential of their built environment.”
So far, the Lexington DDA has hosted one of three Water Walk events. Vine Street was open to pedestrian and bike traffic to allow people to take the walk. A new Water Walk website was recently launched, and listening stations are becoming available for public use at destinations downtown.
Imagine a future with autonomous vehicles, ordered through a subscription service, shuttling passengers safely to any destination at up to 130 miles per hour. Now think about what this means for our streets and highways, parking infrastructure, public spaces, and even the organization of our communities. At SXSW Eco in Austin, Texas, Kinder Baumgardner, ASLA, president of landscape and urban design firm SWA Group, took us through a wild thought experiment, showing us what a driverless future could look like. He believes the majority of travel will be autonomous by 2050, with huge implications for our built environment.
According to Baumgardner, there are 1.2 billion cars in the world today, and that number is expected to grow to 2 billion by 2030 as automobile ownership surges in China and India. All of these drivers spend about 30 percent of their time looking for parking, which means about 1 billion miles annually. The U.S. alone has a billion parking spaces, and, together, they take up an area the size of Puerto Rico. As the number of cars grows, so has the number of fatal accidents. This year, 1.24 million people lost their lives in crashes, and the fatalities in places like the Middle East, where they drive really fast, are growing quickly. Autonomous vehicles could not only dramatically reduce the number of cars and, therefore, parking spaces but also make automotive travel much safer.
Baumgardner started thinking about what a future with autonomous vehicles would look like when SWA Group began working with Texan officials on ways to accommodate a bulked-up Interstate 45, which will expand to take up a whopping 26 lanes by 2050. Texas’ department of transportation needs to be able to move a million cars through every day.
He thinks the majority of travel will be autonomous in coming decades, potentially making Houston’s extra infrastructure unnecessary. Some 85 million driverless cars are expected to be sold by 2035. One of Tesla’s cars is already nearly autonomous. “It’s about when this will happen, not if.”
The move to fully autonomous vehicles will happen in steps, much like full adoption of the elevator took many years. “The elevator was viewed as dangerous at first, but then they put in a call box, alarm, and safety switch” and people’s fears were eased. In the same way, driverless cars could first include steering wheels and other controls and then slowly phase those out.
We heard a positive vision of robotic cars. People will no longer own cars but simply subscribe to car subscription services. There could be different rates for single vehicles or vans, high-end vehicles or modest ones. Users could also modify their subscription based on use — someone could hire a convertible for a ride to the beach or a truck when moving.
Driverless cars will be more fuel efficient, as they won’t need to park — they’ll simply drop you off and then pick up another customer or return to some charging station.
Autonomous vehicles will sense and even communicate with each other and therefore perhaps need their own lanes separate from human-driven cars, which will be viewed as more dangerous. They will then be able to reach speeds of up to 130 miles per hour (210 kilometers per hour) because congestion can be managed and accidents automatically avoided. Cars will also be able to share neighborhood streets with pedestrians and bicyclists better because they will sense any movement and slow down.
In cities, autonomous vehicles could result in the rise of multiple downtowns, a series of walkable hubs. “Cars will drive you from place to place where you can then walk around.” Robotic cars could even integrate with services like Foursquare, which map where your friends are, to automatically take you places.
Due to the reduced number of cars, there will be many opportunities to transform the built environment. “What happens to the land freed up? 22-lane highways can be reduced to 8.” All those extra lanes on the sides of now-too-wide highways could be transformed into green corridors, providing habitat for pollinators like butterflies and birds. In places, “it could be rough, untended nature” or designed “sponge-like spaces” that absorb water.
Parking structures could become flexible spaces for apartments or even artists’ studios.
And parking lots could become public spaces like parks or markets.
Baumgardner wondered what driverless cars mean for the suburbs. “Will we see the rise of walkable sprawl?” As autonomous vehicles minimize the need for cars, suburban communities will now be even more expansive on foot and need to reinvest in building sidewalks, bicycle lanes, and trail systems. As for the typical suburban forms, “cul-de-sacs can become the space for temporary pools or community centers.” And garages, now without cars, could become the new front porch, opening up to create a more lively streetscape.
One question from the audience: Will autonomous vehicles be affordable? Will we need public autonomous vehicle systems? Baumgardner sees “different systems for different income levels. For lower income users, safety and security will be most important. Entrepreneurs could create shared systems. Or local governments could subsidize use. This will definitely need planning.”
And the transition to driverless cars and trucks will not be without major challenges. Baumgardner sees a new era of messy transportation coming, with a mix of autonomous and non-autonomous vehicles duking it out. And he wonders whether the shift to autonomous vehicles can happen everywhere. For example, in India, where cars share road space with elephants, the transition will be much slower.
But in the developed world, there will still be lots of opportunities to integrate autonomous vehicles with other high-speed transportation systems, like the Hyperloop now in early stages of development.
In another talk at the conference, Dirk Ahlborn, CEO of JumpStartFund, and now Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, outlined how he and his colleagues are responding to Tesla founder Elon Musk’s call to create a “hyperloop,” a system of “reduced-pressure” tubes that would pull passengers in capsule cars through at speeds up to 750 miles per hour (1,200 kilometers per hour). Ahlborn sees a network of tubes high up on pylons, which will make them earthquake proof. “It will be the safest ride possible. No humans will be involved.” A network of tubes will then connect cities across the U.S. and world. But Ahlborn admitted local access to the Hyperloop stations is a problem that still needs to be worked out. If it’s not convenient to get to the stations, people won’t use it.
Like the vision for autonomous vehicles, which first appeared at the Futurama exhibit at the New York World’s Fair in 1939, the one for traveling through vacuum tubes is an old one, too. In 1904, a Swiss company filed a patent for such travel. Now, that dream may soon be realized. Prototypes are being built and tested in the Quay Valley, halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. A 5-mile stretch is expected to open by 2018.
So much faith that our technologies will only improve.
Cities are increasingly loaded up with technology. Sensors now enable managers of urban water and sewage infrastructure to spot leaks as they happen. Meter maids no longer have to tromp around all day looking for violators — with new video and analytical tools, transportation departments can locate parking offenders in real-time. Cites prone to flooding now have robust-technology-enabled early warning systems. Ubiquitous security cameras can lead to rapid arrests. And smart phone apps enable citizens to report potholes and other problems in the urban environment as they find them. Many technologies aim to improve the responsiveness or resilience of city services. And while many of these new systems are sold as an easy, all-encompassing solution, like any software, they are high maintenance. Smart city technologies certainly can’t fix all of a city’s problems, particularly deep-seated structural issues like inequality and displacement.
But one technology that could actually live up to some of the hype is Placemeter, which aims to provide an “accurate, flexible, and continuous measurement of how people and vehicles move about your city.” Stumbling upon the technology at the Smart Cities Week in Washington, D.C., I was mesmerized by the little red dots moving through an urban plaza. I discovered that each red dot is a person walking through the plaza in real-time. Seen above is a view of people moving through Union Square in New York City, a place Placemeter says it’s collecting data on and offering for free via their website.
Josh Gershon with Placemeter explained how his firm’s technology can use either existing video feeds or their own sensors, which will be available in October of this year, to turn video into data that can be analyzed with a dashboard. Their software looks for certain shapes in the video feed — cars, trucks, pedestrian, bicyclist — and records their numbers along with path and speed. Placemeter anonymizes all the data so people only appear as dots.
As Gershon explained, Placemeter views the retail sector as a primary market for their tools. While stores almost always collect numbers on how many people entered and bought something, few understand “all the customers they missed and why.” Retailers could use Placemeter to see if various advertisements, window fronts, sounds, or even scents work in attracting people into retail environments.
In the same way, architects could use the technology to see how people navigate building entrances. And landscape architects could use Placemeter to conduct pre- and post-occupancy surveys of their designed landscapes and find opportunities for improvements based on pedestrian flow. Transportation officials could spot congestion and blockages and create remedies, or find out how bicyclists are actually getting around (many aren’t using the bike lanes). Developers and city government clients could find out if their expensive investments in planning and design worked out as they hoped. Given software like Placemeter can be scaled up to the city-scale, planners could even get a sense of broader use patterns.
Still, it’s still important to actually sit, watch, and analyze people using a public space. William Whyte in The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces and, more recently, Jan Gehl in Cities for People make the case for taking the time to really understand all the nuances of how different kinds of people use a park, plaza, or street. While Placemeter provides useful aggregate data in real-time, it can’t tell who’s older and needs to find a bench, who’s young and wants to play in the water, or who is really busy and looking for the shortest route from A to B. Perhaps both a qualitative and quantitative approach together can provide some new insights that yield better urban design.
A new study published in the journal Nature claims that a previous satellite-based estimate of the total number of trees on Earth was off by a large margin. Instead of the 400 billion trees previously thought to exist on the planet, there are an estimated 3 trillion. Almost half of these trees are found in tropical and subtropical forests, another quarter of all trees are found in boreal biomes, the vasts forests of Russia and North America, and about 20 percent are in temperate biomes found in Europe, Asia, and the United States.
Humans have had an “overwhelming effect” on trees. Since the beginning of civilization, about 3 trillion trees have been cut down, said the study’s lead researcher Thomas Crowther at Yale University, in an interview with The Guardian. And the high rate of destruction continues, with about 15 billion trees lost each year due to deforestation and the expansion of farmland. In fact, another new study from Global Forest Watch says that 46 million acres of forests were lost just in 2014. The majority of the destruction is in Russia, the United States, Canada, Brazil, and Indonesia, as it has been for more than a decade. But according to Mongabay, an environmental news site, the Democratic Republic of Congo just jumped to near the top of the list this year, as this Sub-Saharan African country lost 1 million hectares of forest.
Crowther and his team found that Russia has the most number of trees, with 640 billion, followed by Canada with 318 billion, and Brazil, with 300 billion. The United States has around 220 billion, while China has 140 billion.
The scientists used nearly a half-million ground-based sensors on every continent, except for Antarctica, to generate a tree map. Tree density estimates were linked with GIS data and other spatial, topographical, and climactic attributes, as well as land use patterns to come up with more detailed estimates.
Crowther and the other researchers conducted the study to create a real baseline for tree planting efforts. They wanted to see whether the Billion Tree Campaign and the many urban million tree campaigns can have any real impact. Crowther told The Guardian that “the message remains that a billion trees is still a huge contribution. I was concerned that providing them [such tree-planting efforts] with this final information might deter efforts and make people go ‘okay, planting a million trees is pointless’ but actually we got the opposite response.” The are efforts underway to even create a global trillion-tree campaign.
A new interactive tool Trees and Health App, created by researchers at Portland State University (PSU) and financed by the U.S. Forest Service, enables urban planners, non-profits, and landscape architects to plot out where trees can have the biggest health impact.
The tool’s approach to data collection and analysis was first developed in Portland, where the team used nearly 150 street-level sensors to measure pollution levels, and then determine how trees reduce the impact of pollution and therefore respiratory problems like asthma. Vivek Shandas, one of PSU researcher, told Smithsonian magazine, “We found that upward of 14 percent of the pollutants are improved by local neighborhood trees and that the kind of trees does matter. Portland is highly coniferous and those [trees] almost act like scrubbers in the summer, but deciduous trees are becoming more dominant in urban landscapes.”
Right now, 13 cities are available for analysis through the tool, but the team plans to add many more. Explore the app.
In addition to asking respondents which smartphone apps they used, we also asked which apps they wished were available. As can be expected, we got a range of responses. Some wishes were practical and offer real opportunities for entrepreneurial app developers, while others were perhaps fantastical, given the technology isn’t there yet and won’t be for a while. Here are some of the most desired kinds of apps that don’t yet exist:
Landscape architects are hurting for better plant apps; these are the most wished-for apps by far. While some respondents said they used apps like Dirr’s Tree and Shrub Finder or Leafsnap, others mused about how much easier their lives would be if they could simply “take a photo of a tree and the app could identify it,” or if there was “an app that could size a tree from a photo.” Several respondents expressed a need for plant apps that focused on “right plant, right place,” and include sun and shade analysis of sites to help guide planting design. Still others simply want a more comprehensive identification app that shows the “form of a plant, rather than just its flower or leaf.”
One thing is for certain: many landscape architects are looking for an app that will quickly identify a plant in any region in the world, and tell them where to put it. That’s not a small order, but we’ll see what the future holds.
Topography and Grading
The next most-desired category of apps relate to topography and grading. “I would be interested in an app that visualizes and makes available GIS data for soil type, site history, zoning, flood levels, etc., in a navigable interface. This would be used less for data manipulation and more for overviews on site visits,” one respondent said.
Other respondents were especially interested in an app that could use GPS data to give topography and elevation data for a given landscape or build a topographical map based on the existing grade of a user’s location. Ideally, this app would also be able to export info to AutoCAD, RhinoTerrain, and GoogleEarth.
“I would like an app that would allow you to create material palette collages that combine site furniture, planting, and paving and other materials for your project and be able to export the layers to Photoshop,” one respondent said. Some sort of collage app that would allow users to put together different images into a single palette and export for presentation was one of the more popular responses.
Perhaps an app like PhotoGrid (free; ios / android) that allows users to design layouts and create photo collages would fill this gap. But a similar app specifically geared toward landscape architects with a variety of material and plant stock images (with an option for users to upload their own photos) would likely be more widely used.
Several respondents were looking for a smartphone app that would provide them with American Disability Act (ADA) and construction standards on their mobile devices. One respondent pointed to the book Time-Saver Standards for Landscape Architecture by Charles Harris, FASLA, and Nicholas Dines, FASLA, and said a “similar app version would be very helpful.” While many respondents said they typically find this information through search engines, others would prefer to have a reference guide on the go.
One respondent suggested LandCalc (free; android), an app that can calculate and convert soil, mulch and stone volumes, as well as calculate slope and the amount of plant material needed for a given space. While this may be helpful for some landscape architects, an app that goes a little bit further as a mobile reference for construction standards would help.
What’s an App?
Lastly, a small but significant number of respondents are reluctant to jump on the smartphone bandwagon. “Apparently people are using apps,” one respondent wrote in. Several others reported that they don’t yet have a smartphone.
While owning a smartphone is by no means necessary for practicing landscape architecture, our survey indicates that the wide range of smartphone apps available for landscape architects is already changing the way they design and build.
In order to better understand what smartphone apps landscape architects use to conceptualize, design, and construct projects, ASLA recently surveyed practicing landscape architects, students, and university faculty from around the world and received more than 150 responses. In part two of this three part series, we continue to summarize the results of the survey, focusing on useful apps for constructing landscapes and presenting design ideas to colleagues and clients.
Nearly 50 percent of respondents use a smartphone app during the construction process for all or most projects, while 40 percent of respondents said they never or rarely use an app for this phase of a landscape project. 67 percent said they discovered the app on their own, while 18 percent said their firm encouraged them to use it. 7 percent were encourage to use it by a construction or engineering firm and others were informed about these apps through web searches.
The most popular apps for construction identified by respondents:
1. AutoCAD 360 (free; ios / android): AutoCAD 360 is a drawing and drafting app that allows you to view, edit, and share AutoCAD drawings. You can upload and open 2D and 3D DWG drawings from email and view all aspects of the file during the construction process. You can also draw and edit shapes, as well as move, rotate, and scale objects just as you would in the desktop version of AutoCAD.
2. Newforma Plans (free ios): Newformas Plans is an app that eliminates the need to carry paper plans around a jobsite. This app allows you to upload current project plans to the NewForma desktop platform and access them automatically through your iPad. You can then view, markup, and email documents while in the field.
Some other interesting apps respondents suggested:
PlanGrid (free; ios / android): PlanGrid is a construction app that allows users to upload PDF drawings to plangrid.com and then sync to their smartphones and tablets. Users can then markup and annotate drawings from the field, as well as take progress photos and pin them to the construction documents. Any markups and annotations made in the app can be shared with everyone who has access to the documents.
Bluebeam Revu ($9.99 ios): Bluebeam Revu is another app that lets you access and markup PDFs on the go. The app allows you to add comments, images, symbols, and multimedia as markups that can be saved as custom markups for future reuse. In addition to these markup features, the app has a feature that allows you to verify length, area, perimeter, and other measurements in a blueprint. Using a cloud-based platform, Revu also allows you to collaborate with colleagues in real time on the same document.
Theodolite ($3.99 ios): Theodolite is a viewfinding app that uses your smartphone’s camera, compass, and GPS to create geo-tagged photos, screenshots, and movies with one app. Not only can you stamp geographical data and notes directly onto photos and movies for later reference but you can also view your location on a map and share your position with your team through a “team tracking” feature.
What Apps Do You Use When Presenting a Project?
Some 52 percent of respondents said they use a smartphone app for presenting all or most projects, while 28 percent of respondents said they never or rarely do. 66 percent said they discovered the app on their own, while 22 percent said their firm encouraged them to use it.
The most popular apps for presentation identified by respondents:
1. Dropbox (free; ios / android): The Dropbox app allows you to store your photos, documents, videos, and other files to the cloud or send large files that might not send via email directly to others. With this app, you can create and edit Microsoft Office documents from your smartphone or tablet, or even back up photos and videos to the cloud automatically.
2. Keynote ($9.99 ios): Keynote allows users to create presentations with animated charts and transitions on their iPod or iPad. Presentations can be built from 30 Apple-designed themes and slide layouts, animations, fonts, and style options to make presentations more dynamic.
3. Adobe Acrobat Reader (free; ios): Adobe Acrobat Reader is the smartphone version of the popular desktop application, with many of the same features. The app allows you to quickly open PDF documents from email or the web and make comments on PDFs using sticky notes and drawing tools. You can also quickly fill out forms by typing text into fillable field or e-sign documents with your finger.
4. Microsoft PowerPoint (free; ios / android): The Microsoft PowerPoint app has the familiar look and feel of the desktop version of PowerPoint and allows you to create, view, and edit presentations from your smartphone or tablet. When you edit a presentation on an app, the content and formatting remain the same across all of your devices and you can work with other simultaneously on the same presentation from different platforms.
Some other interesting apps respondents suggested:
uPad 3 ($5.99 ios): uPad turns your smartphone or tablet into a handwritten note-taking device. The app will only recognize a special touch pen, eliminating the chance that your hand or fingers will interfere with writing. uPad allows you to annotate PDF files and presentations quickly and easily and share annotated documents with any application that can read an image of PDF.
iAnnotate ($9.99 ios; free android): The iAnnotate app is a popular app for reading, marking up, and sharing PDFs, Word Documents, PowerPoint Documents, and image files. Users can choose from a variety of tools to annotate documents such as a pen, highlighter, typewriters, stamp, and many more. Users can also add, delete, and rearrange pages in documents, then compress annotations to prevent modification.