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.

Interview with Daniel Tal on the New Tech Landscape

Daniel Tal, ASLA
Daniel Tal, ASLA

Daniel Tal, ASLA, is a registered landscape architect with over 17 years of experience and a 3D modeling and visualization expert. He has authored two books: SketchUp for Site Design and Rendering in SketchUp. Tal runs a 3D modeling, visualization, and BIM studio for Stanley Consultants, a 1,000 person multi-disciplinary engineering firm and is the tech-editor at large for Landscape Architecture Magazine.

A few decades ago landscape architects weren’t working with complex software. Now that many software choices are available to landscape architects, how do these new technologies change what landscape architects do? What functions are now solely done through technology?

It has completely changed the way the profession functions. The expectation now is anyone out of school has to have some level of proficiency with AutoCAD, Photoshop and SketchUp, at a minimum. Knowing Rhino, 3Ds Max, GIS, and others is expected by some firms. It has become necessary to have some understanding of 3D modeling. This is even true for the landscape design industry.

Also, the workflow has changed. The nature of deadlines has changed because we’re so dependent now on technology. The ability for us to assess design and create revisions to design is remarkable. And among clients, expectations for how much we can change and incorporate have increased, whether it’s from a client overseas or a municipality in the United States.

And, of course, there’s the push for BIM, whatever that really means. I would encourage people to read the recent Building Information Modeling (BIM) for Dummies, which clearly explains the challenges landscape architects face in implementing BIM.

Are clients driving the use of these new technologies or landscape architects? Where is the demand for these new technologies coming from?

As consultants, our approach is client driven. The owners of offices recognize the benefit of being more competitive by having specialties in different software. And the expectation is landscape architects have to do it in a shorter amount of time.

Since the Great Recession, project budgets have gotten tighter and more competitive. Every edge matters. Keeping current matters. This means landscape architects will need to explore new technologies like Virtual Reality (VR) Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (drones), 3D printing and fabrication, in-house programming. Soon enough, clients will expect these skills.

How do new technologies support the development of sustainable landscapes? Do they ease the process of design and implementation?

In some cases they do. Environmental assessment or modeling companies are starting to consult with urban design companies, landscape architects, architects, or they have an energy modeler in-house.

Something like Revit and other BIM applications help an energy modeler understand the levels of impact a building or structure might have on a landscape. And we’re seeing and pushing new technologies which measure flows and water for sustainability.

You’ve authored a few books on SketchUp. What do you see as the principal benefits and drawbacks of SketchUp?

SketchUp has become a somewhat standard tool for many offices. It’s expected as part of most professionals toolkits. I know of firms who test SketchUp skills during interviews. It’s proven to allow for quick site modeling and renders. This technology enables the ability to spread the work load among production staff like other typical software like AutoCAD and Adobe products. As a design and assessment tool, it’s invaluable. It’s also pretty easy to learn and fast so it’s well suited for typical landscape architecture firm budgets.

Google SketchUp Rendering / Daniel Tal
Google SketchUp Rendering / Daniel Tal

But I also fear SketchUp is falling behind. Don’t get me wrong, it enjoys widespread adoption in the landscape architecture industry and others and it will be around for years to come. But there is a need to incorporate more powerful tools that are becoming standard in other 3D modeling applications, like the ability to import LiDar and laser scans, automated modeling, and the inclusion of GIS and similar data. For example, there is UNDET, which allows for the import of LiDar data into SketchUp. What an amazing tool! But the price is prohibitive at $3,000 vs. something like AutoDESK Recap 360, which is free.

SketchUp’s development philosophy is to let the user and developer community create these tools. This has been great, as there are many amazing SketchUp Extensions, but also challenging, as more robust tools should require the SketchUp teams direct development. We’ll see what happens. For right now SketchUp is here to stay, but my hope is we see the genuine inclusion of new, powerful tools.

SketchUp and other technologies enabled you to design at large scale. What is the relationship between these new technologies and various design philosophies? Are technologists drawn to certain design and urban planning philosophies?

That’s a very good question because there’s been a dialogue that perhaps we’re too quick to go create something visually in 3-D, or in some other program, without actually going in and assessing the design aspect or the real-world impact.

There is a bit of a lag because the excitement has been that “we can convey anything,” but at the same time, we need to make sure what we’re conveying is responsible and correct for community and resource management.

More important, 3D modeling has opened the door for more accurate and powerful simulations and site analysis without having to be at the location. This is an aspect of BIM used often for buildings, structures, and power plants. But now we are now able to simulate traffic patterns for complete streets and pedestrian movement, weather, fluid dynamics, and plant growth.

Furthermore, as more powerful computers become available, and the smart algorithms that come with artificial intelligence and drones become prevalent, we will see another shift in how we work with the landscape. It will inspire new ways to think and design.

Google SketchUp rendering / Daniel Tal
Google SketchUp rendering / Daniel Tal

Open source software is getting better at meeting the needs of design professionals. Can you discuss some of the pros and cons with these?

One example is Unreal Engine, which is free even for commercial use. It is a gaming engine now available for landscape architects and others to use for their work. As important, it works with the Oculus Rift VR glasses. Really powerful stuff but it does have a learning curve. Many tutorials are available online.

Having free, open source software is important, obviously. For me, there’s the spirit of just having something available that’s free for everyone. We’re finding people go out and explore these things by themselves. They don’t have to have a budget of several thousand dollars to buy software. They’re picking up new skills to better represent their ideas. And we’re actually seeing that more and more. Within our office, there are different people trying out different software, coming to the table in a forum and saying, “This is what I got, and by the way, it’s free, and this is how you use it.”

What are some basic practical steps every landscape architect can take to better incorporate technology into their design and implementation process?

People need to make sure they’re familiar with what’s out there, and at least have a basic understanding of how they’re affecting the profession and who is using them. Hiring IT experts familiar with the landscape architecture, architecture, and engineering fields can help. For example, John Hanson in Denver, Colorado, does IT for several firms. He consults and builds high powered but affordable computer systems, using VR and experiments with 3D printing. Similarly, some students coming out of school can offer guidance.

There is so much new technology it’s hard to keep up with. It used to be that you just had to know your lessons about how things come together in construction and how people design. Every office now needs somebody that’s technologically savvy and knows how computers and hardware work, what programs are out there, and even how to program custom code for existing programs. It’s about making sure you’ve got the edge.

What do these programs mean for hand drawing skills?

I did a survey with Rodney Benton, a student from Auburn University, in 2014 that found hand-drawing skills are very much alive and in use, with 70 percent of firms saying it was still part of their practice and something they looked for from perspective employees. Similar findings have come out of industry surveys.

Knowing how to design, create specifications, administer construction, and manage projects are still the keys to success. 3D is just another tool in the bucket of landscape architects.

Alan Ward’s Luminous Landscapes

Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts / copyright Alan Ward
Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts / copyright Alan Ward

“Someone once asked the nature photographer Ansel Adams, ‘why are there no people in your photographs?’,” said Susan Piedmont-Palladino, curator at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., at the opening of Luminous Landscapes, a new exhibition featuring the landscape photography of Alan Ward, FASLA, a principal at Sasaki Associates. “Adams replied that there are always two people in his photographs — the photographer and the viewer.” Piedmont-Palladino added that in Ward’s photography of landscape architecture, there is always a third unseen person: the landscape architect. The exhibition covers landscape works from before 1900, “before the profession of landscape architecture,” then the period from 1900 to World War II, and, lastly, post-war modern and contemporary landscapes.

Ward said photography is his second career, but his decades-long immersion in this art form is symbiotic with his day-job, which is planning and design. His first photograph, taken back in 1978 with 30 pounds of equipment, including an unwieldy tripod, was of Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts (see image above). The cemetery, which features prominently in the first part of the exhibition, opened in 1831, so it even predates Frederick Law Olmsted’s Central Park. It was one of the first picturesque Romantic landscapes in America, and Ward’s photograph similarly evokes that style’s wild feel.

The exhibition features Ward’s black and white photography, which he seems to prefer to color. As he explained, “color photography can just have too much information. Black and white helps simplify and also abstract the forms in the landscape designs.” Ward mostly takes his black and white photos in the early morning or late afternoon in order to capture the “very soft light and not over-expose.” He looks for ways to “put all the information together into a coherent image” and create a story of a landscape defined by both stark contrasts and subtle shifts of tone. Capturing all these complex layers, Ward says, is made possible through black and white, which is best at isolating the effect of light on the landscape.

Perugino view, early morning / copyright Alan Ward
Perugino view, early morning / copyright Alan Ward

Color photography, Ward added, is “often treated at face value, like reality.” But all photography, color or black and white, is highly manipulated to achieve correct tones and sought-after representations. All of photography plays with the idea of what is real. “Photography is not quite a lie, but not quite the truth. There is a lot of abstraction.”

Leaving the heavy camera behind in favor of a Canon Mach 2, Ward today contemplates the challenges of digital photography. The old camera forced photographers to be very deliberate in setting up shots, but now with a digital camera, “most take dozens of photographs and figure one will come out well,” he laughed. “Digital photography may diminish your looking and framing.” It’s important, Ward said, to continue to apply “rigorous seeing and visualization” when using a digital camera.

As we wander over to the last room filled with the modern and contemporary landscapes, we reach the photographs that made Ward so well-known among landscape architects — his shots of Dan Kiley’s Miller Garden in Columbus, Indiana. Because the garden wasn’t open to the public then, most designers only got to experience the site through Ward’s photographs. Seeing Ward’s consideration of the garden for the first time, I began to understand why so many contemporary landscape architects find the landscape so appealing. Kiley took traditional French garden forms, like allees of trees and rectilinear arrangement of hedges, and made them modern. But it’s Ward’s photographs of them, with his Modernist framing, that further “amplifies the design.”

Miller Garden / copyright Alan Ward
Miller Garden / copyright Alan Ward

Ward riffed on why photography can amplify the design in some landscapes and not others. He argued that Olmsted’s picturesque Central Park is so hard to shoot because the curved paths and vast meadows recede away from you, proving too elusive for the photographer to capture. The totality of the experience is somehow beyond representation. But modern landscape’s bold shapes and orthogonal forms seem to be only heightened by the framing of the photographer. “The bold use of geometry lends itself to powerful images.” Ward said that taking those photographs helped him understand what Kiley set out to achieve, and that understanding greatly influenced his own designs.

Piedmont-Palladino added later that one can see a great difference between architecture that predates photography and architecture from the era of photography, perhaps speaking to the influential role of photography in shaping our expectations of the built environment. Ward, who started out as an architecture student and first took photographs of buildings, said still to this day, the ideal architectural photograph shows sharp light cutting across a building facade — quite different from his “soft light” used to capture landscapes. Those shards of light are now often found in actual building designs; just look at Daniel Libeskind’s work.

One question the exhibition brought up: What is the role of fine black and white photography today? It can now be considered an ancient art form when compared with today’s iPhone and Instagram-generated ephemera. Piedmont-Palladino discussed the ubiquity of Apple’s new advertisements lauding the photographs taken with its latest iPhone, which make anonymous and interchangeable the person who actually made the image. She questioned whether the technology — the phone camera — mattered as much as the photographer, “the person with the great eye,” who makes the photograph possible. In the era of instant, throw-away photography, what happens to the appreciation of what Ward achieves?

Blue Steps (Birch Walk) / copyright Alan Ward
Blue Steps (Birch Walk) / copyright Alan Ward

And if black and white or even color photography doesn’t quite tell the truth, does another representational art form get us closer to the experience of a landscape? What about video, used more and more to convey both idealized and real landscapes? In the future, will we go to exhibitions of landscape video art, which can better capture landscape change and sound and may have new resonance in our multimedia world? Or will we continue to delve further into abstraction, with online collections of landscape Instagram or Vine works, just as there are now collections featuring animated GIFs from the 1990s?

The most reasonable conclusion may be that all media are “not quite the truth.” And, as Piedmont-Palladino said, “perhaps the truth isn’t what we are after.”

The exhibition runs through September 5. If not in the area, check out Ward’s book, American Designed Landscapes: A Photographic Interpretation.

Most Popular Dirt Posts of 2015

Apps Survey / ASLA
Smartphone Apps Survey / ASLA

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 info@asla.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.

2) Smartphone Apps for Landscape Architects: Useful Tools for Site Analysis and Design
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.

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.”

4) Complete Streets Are a Bargain
Normal, Illinois, doesn’t sound like a typical spring break destination—but for me, it was the perfect getaway.

5) Doctor’s Orders: Go the Park
Pediatricians in Washington, D.C. are prescribing their patients a new type of medicine: parks.

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.

9) Smartphone Apps for Landscape Architects: Useful Tools for Construction and Presentation
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.

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.

New Map Shows the Impact of Future Sea Level Rise

Sea level rise in New York City / Climate Central
Sea level rise in New York City / Climate Central

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.

Sea level rise in Los Angeles / Climate Central
Sea level rise in Los Angeles / Climate Central

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.

Sea Level Rise in Washington, D.C. / Climate Central
Sea Level Rise in Washington, D.C. / Climate Central

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.

A fascinating, complementary map is the Atlas of a Changing Planet, a “story map” from Esri. And for American users, the U.S. Historical Topographical Map Explorer, the result of a partnership between Esri and the U.S. Geological Survey, is a useful tool for calculating elevations.

What Landscape Architects Can Learn from Hollywood

How Green Was My Valley / Screen Shadows Group
How Green Was My Valley / Screen Shadows Group

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.”

Dead End / Toronto Film Society
Dead End / Toronto Film Society

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.”

Courthouse Square, used in Back to the Future / Thestudiotour.com
Courthouse Square, used in Back to the Future / Thestudiotour.com

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.”

Rear Window set / Hitchcock Zone
Rear Window set / Hitchcock Zone

A Whole Universe 

Powerful films are “world building; they create a sense of logic.” As an example, the wizard world of Harry Potter movies — and, now, in full reality at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando Resort in Florida — illustrate many of the principles Sullivan defined.

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.”

Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Florida / World for Travel
Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Florida / World for Travel

In the end, both great films and landscapes have a “strong story line.” To be successful, “films and landscapes need a strong narrative.”

John Thackara Looks to Bio-Regions

John Thackara / Uros Abram
John Thackara / Uros Abram

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:

Agriculture

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.”

The three principles of a successful food commons / The Food Commons
The three principles of a successful food commons / The Food Commons

Mobility 

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.

The route of the Greenhorn's Maine Sail Freight / The Greenhorns
The route of the Greenhorn’s Maine Sail Freight / The Greenhorns

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.”

A Hidden Waterway Is Found Through Podcast Tours

Headphones and maps set up for a Water Walk event in Lexington, Kentucky / Gena Wirth
Headphones and maps set up for a Water Walk event in Lexington, Kentucky / Gena Wirth

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.

Water walk tour / Gena Wirth, SCAPE
Water walk tour, Lexington, Kentucky / Gena Wirth, SCAPE

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.

Nels Rogers, 5, listens to the sound of Town Branch with Gena Wirth / Lexington-Herald Ledger
Nels Rogers, 5, listens to the sound of Town Branch with Gena Wirth / Lexington-Herald Ledger

The new tour also helps set the stage for the work SCAPE is doing in the city. The firm recently won an international design competition to design Town Branch Commons, a broader, long-term initiative advanced by the mayor and the Lexington DDA that will create a new linear public space downtown along the path of the karst water system of Town Branch. A number of other projects, including the construction of the Town Branch Trail, the Legacy Trail Development, and a remedial action plan as a result of an E.P.A. action on water pollution, are in the works.

SCAPE's winning design for Town Branch Commons / SCAPE / landscape architecture
SCAPE’s winning design for Town Branch Commons / SCAPE

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.”

Water walk tour / Gena Wirth, SCAPE
Water walk tour / Gena Wirth, SCAPE

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.

How Autonomous Vehicles Will Change the Built Environment

Driverless vehicle highway / Natalia Beard, SWA Group
Driverless vehicle highway diet / Natalia Beard, SWA Group

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.

Driverless vehicles / Natalia Beard, SWA Group
Driverless vehicles / Natalia Beard, SWA Group

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.

Driverless highway of the future / Natalia Beard, SWA Group
Driverless highway of the future / Natalia Beard, SWA Group

Parking structures could become flexible spaces for apartments or even artists’ studios.

Parking garage of the future / Natalia Beard, SWA Group
Parking garage of the future / Natalia Beard, SWA Group

And parking lots could become public spaces like parks or markets.

Parking lot transformed into a market space / Natalia Beard, SWA Group
Parking lot transformed into a market space / Natalia Beard, SWA Group

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.

hyperloop
Hyperloop / Hyperloop Transportation Technologies

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.

Placemeter Measures the Flow of People Through Urban Spaces

placemeter
Placemeter in Union Square, NYC / Placemeter

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.