Soon We’ll Be Able to Swim in the Chicago River

Chicago River / Pinterest

Take a dip in the Chicago River? Those familiar with its history might think twice.

The Chicago River has a notoriously waste-filled past. Originally, the 150-mile-long waterway was used to fuel booming industry in the Midwest city. Little attention was paid to its environmental and civic value. By the turn of the century, it was contaminated with sewage and factory waste. When a storm cause the Chicago River to overflow, it would spill into Lake Michigan, the source of the city’s drinking water, posing such an acute risk to residents’ health that in 1900 the city turned it around, reverse-engineering its flow and diverting wastewater away from Lake Michigan and out of the region to the Mississippi. The reversal was crucial to protecting thousands of Chicagoans a year from waterborne diseases like typhoid and cholera.

By 1930, after legal complaints from cities downstream, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered Chicago to address the pollution problem. Since then, efforts have been ongoing to clean up the waterway. Recently, the city has stepped up those efforts again with hopes of increase activity along and in the river, including swimming.

In 2015, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Metropolitan Planning Council announced the Great Rivers Chicago effort, a city-wide “visioning process” to develop a long-term plan to clean up and reintegrate into city life the three rivers of the Chicago system – the Chicago, Calumet, and Des Plaines Rivers.

The vision, released last year, lays out a series of goals that aim to make the river “inviting, productive and living” with benchmarks at 2020, 2030, and 2040. Ultimately, the city wants to draw more people to a river front that’s safer and more engaging with improve water quality.

And by 2030, they hope to make the river swimmable.

But despite reversing the Chicago River, the city’s combined sewage and stormwater system is still inundated during large storm events and can overflow into the rivers, canals, and Lake Michigan. According to The Chicago Tribune, 18.2 billion gallons of pollution entered the river last year. Chicago plans to eliminate the system’s overflows through green infrastructure and  completing the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan, known as the Deep Tunnel project, which started in 1975 and the city hopes to complete by 2029.

For recreation purposes, the rivers need to achieve the “primary contact” water quality standards set for them by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2011, which would allow for safe swimming, paddling, and fishing.

Each year, 1.5 million Chicagoans and tourists flock to the popular Riverwalk, a 1.25 mile pedestrian walkway that runs from Lake Shore Drive to Lake Street on the south bank of the Chicago River in the city’s downtown. A new $108-million segment designed by the landscape architecture firm Sasaki, Ross Barney Architects, and Collins Engineers that just saw its official opening has generated even more interest in the river.

Chicago Riverwalk / Sasaki
Chicago Riverwalk / Sasaki
Chicago Riverwalk / Sasaki

Paddling is already happening on the river. And a floating museum, or barge-turned moveable entertainment center, which launched this week, will travel along the Chicago River through August, eventually landing at Navy Pier.

New cleanup efforts are happening right alongside all the activity. Last month, the city tested a trash skimmer to collect garbage pooling along the Riverwalk. According to The Chicago Tribune, the floating dumpster is an $11,000 pilot program running through the fall that “sucks in the bacteria-laden water and uses a mesh screen to catch oil pollutants and floating garbage.”

Some residents are ready to take the plunge now, but getting much of the public past the initial “ew factor” of swimming in infamously-polluted waters may take time. Regardless, beyond swimmable urban waterways, this aspiring scheme could offer a unique way of looking at a role of a river can play in connecting a city.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (February 16 – 28)

Chicago’s Martin Luther King Drive transformed by driverless cars / The Driverless City Project and Illinois Institute of Technology, via The Chicago Tribune

Driverless Cars Could Change Urban LandscapeThe Chicago Tribune, 2/17/17
“If self-driving cars lead to a significant drop in the number of vehicles on the road, parking garages could be turned into apartments or stores. Curbside parking could be converted into rainwater-collecting bio swales that help prevent sewers from backing up. Roads would narrow. Sidewalks would widen.”

Wastelands Reborn CityLab, 2/17/17
“As my colleague Laura Bliss explores in her story about New York’s Freshkills Park, some of the best parts of certain metropolitan areas are literally built on dumps. There’s a whole genre of these parks, from César Chávez Park in Berkeley to the Tiffit Nature Reserve in Buffalo.”

Ten Finalist Teams Named for U.K. National Holocaust Memorial Competition The Architect’s Newspaper, 2/23/17
“The UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation has announced its shortlist of ten teams to design the new National Holocaust Memorial and Learning Center in Victoria Tower Gardens, adjacent the Palace of Westminster and in the heart of London.”

Planners Across America: McDermid Manages New Oklahoma Land Rush Planetizen, 2/27/17
“Planning Department Director Aubrey McDermid discusses planning’s role in the Oklahoma City’s ongoing reinvestment and revitalization.”

Pershing Park and the World War I Memorial: Moving Beyond an Accumulation of Pieces The Huffington Post, 2/27/17
“One of the most important parks on the most significant stretch of America’s Main Street – Pennsylvania Avenue between the U.S. Capitol and the White House, known as the Pennsylvania Avenue National Historic Site – remains under threat.”

The Factory as Forest

Georgia forest / Wikipedia
Georgia forest / Wikipedia

“Our goal is to achieve zero negative environmental impacts by 2020,” said Erin Meezan, vice president at Interface, an innovative producer of carpets and textiles, at Greenbuild in Los Angeles. But as the firm nears its goal, it’s now pursuing an even more ambitious vision — the “factory as forest,” in which their manufacturing facilities become positive contributors to the environment, providing as much ecosystem service benefits as their surrounding landscape.

This astonishing vision comes from Interface’s deceased founder Ray Anderson and Janine Benyus, whose firm, Biomimicry 3.8, is advising them. Benyus’ guiding idea: “When the forest and the city are functionally indistinguishable, then we know we’ve embedded sustainability.” To achieve this, she calls for using biomimetic design strategies that “consciously emulate nature’s designs.” This is because nature, with 3.8 billion years of evolution, has “already solved most challenges.”

Interface plans to move past their current model, which includes “reducing negative impacts to zero; using recycled, closed-loop materials; producing low-carbon products; and creating a sustainable supply chain” — goals akmost any firm would view as almost unreachable accomplishments.

Under their new model post-2020, they intend to go beyond simply doing no-harm and become a positive contributor to the environment and society through their manufacturing.

For example, they have reached out to fishing communities in Philippines to set up centers were used, torn nylon fishing nets can be collected. Interface will then recycle and incorporate these into their products. “Communities negatively impacted by ghost nets will be paid to collect nets for us,” creating rippling benefits beyond the product.

Nicole Miller, managing director at Biomimicry 3.8, further explained how her firm will help Interface redesign their facilities to be restorative entities that mimic nearby ecosystems. She said there are three primary ways to integrate this novel approach: first, by “changing the company’s mindset and setting an ambitious north star”; second, using the surrounding ecosystems as a reference to set performance goals; and, third, by developing design concepts rooted in specific site details. “The ecological habitats next door become the guidance benchmarks.”

To redesign Interface’s factory in LaGrange, Georgia, they must understand the surrounding reference ecosystem they will measure performance against — the Southern Outer Piedmont ecosystem. Miller said Biomimicry 3.8 will carefully examine all aspects of how this ecosystem functions in order to set measurable goals. They will look at the amounts of carbon sequestered, water stored and purified, sediment retained, pollination supported, pollution detoxified, biodiversity supported, and soil fertility enhanced by the system.

“Ecological services are the entry point.” But Miller’s team will then further dig into the metrics to inform the design. For example, should a manufacturing facility really mimic the carbon functions of a forest, which releases carbon in some months and sequesters more in other months?

In the future, Interface want to bring this ecosystem-driven approach to design into the product themselves too: they seek to create products that sequester carbon, that require them to pull carbon out of the atmosphere to produce the material.

Also in this session: James Connelly, director of the living product challenge at the International Living Future Institute announced some of the first few products that have been certified as having restorative social and environmental effects, such as office furniture by HumanScale, which has no toxic chemicals and was created through 100 percent renewable energy, as well as new skateboards and sunglasses by Bureo, which are made of plastics harvested from the ocean. His group is now working with Patagonia to create a “restorative supply chain.”

The Politics of Green Infrastructure in D.C.

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Combined sewer overflow point, Anacostia, D.C. / Chesapeake Bay.net

While the Potomac and the Anacostia Rivers gave birth to the District of Columbia, they have suffered years of contamination from raw sewage, which spill into the rivers when the aging combined sewer and stormwater infrastructure overflows. To address this issue, in 2010 the District initiated the DC Clean Rivers Project (DCCR) and began constructing massive underground tunnels that will convey contaminated runoff into the Blue Plains wastewater treatment facility. While a deep-bore tunneling machine affectionately named Lady Bird digs its way 100 feet each day at great expense, D.C. is now finally able to move forward with a more cost-effective green infrastructure plan, like New York City and Philadelphia. A new agreement with the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Justice (DOJ) finalized in May allows DC Water, the city’s water utility, to remove one of the proposed tunnels and instead invest in turning hundreds of acres of impervious surfaces into green, absorbent ones. However, it appears not everyone will benefit equally from the new green infrastructure plan.

Under the new consent decree with the EPA and DOJ, DC Water eliminated the previously-planned underground tunnel for Rock Creek and will instead build green infrastructure that covers 365 acres. Phases of this work will start soon and the whole plan will be complete by 2030.

DC Clean Rivers Project Plan in 2010 / DC Water
DC Clean Rivers Project Plan in 2010 / DC Water
New Clean Rivers Project Plan in 2015 / DC Water
New Clean Rivers Project Plan in 2015 / DC Water

The neighborhoods of Columbia Heights, Takoma, Petworth, and others surrounding the Rock Creek watershed will get rain gardens, bioswales, porous pavement, and green roofs designed to capture and clean runoff, replacing the originally-planned tunnel. Near Georgetown, there will still be a tunnel but gravity, rather than an energy-intensive pumping station, will passively transfer water to the wastewater treatment plant, explains CityLab. That stretch will also get some new green infrastructure.

However, as some local activists who attended a recent briefing at the National Building Museum made clear, there are deep concerns about whether the new green infrastructure approach will benefit the Anacostia River communities any time soon. Over the years, the Anacostia, which is considered one of the most polluted waterways in the nation, has borne the bulk of environmental abuse. This is why DC Water made creating a new tunnel to address the Anaocostia River’s problems the highest priority. However, the community won’t see the benefits until at least 2022 when the new tunnel finally opens. Then, it’s expected to remove about 98 percent of the river’s pollution, making it potentially clean enough to swim in.

Meanwhile, along the Anacostia’s 8 miles, combined sewer overflows continue to occur in 17 different places, reports CityLab. So, according to these activists, the new plan has raised some environmental justice issues: it’s about who reaps the many benefits of green infrastructure first, and who gains the most long-term.

This desire for green infrastructure isn’t simply about cleaner rivers. Green infrastructure creates additional green space for the neighborhoods, reduces the heat-island effect, and improves air quality while creating jobs and increasing property values. The discrepancy in property values and income levels between the neighborhoods that will receive these benefits sooner and those that will receive a mostly-grey infrastructure fix is clear.

Despite the fears that green infrastructure can lead to gentrification, many argue that access to green infrastructure empowers communities and further marginalizes those without it. Even with the slow progress of the Anacostia tunnel, green infrastructure projects should be started sooner along the Anacostia. There are so many opportunities.

For example, along Buzzard’s Point in Southwest D.C., there are opportunities to create a new waterfront promenade that can also capture runoff with natural systems. Vacant houses in the area could also be turned into stormwater cisterns or redeveloped as parks. But, as of now, the only real plans are to create a new D.C. United soccer stadium there, which will only increase impervious surfaces, unless green infrastructure is better integrated into the design. With new incentives, green streets and roofs could spread throughout these neighborhoods, too.

A green roof that was installed over an existing drinking water reservoir located at Fort Reno as part of the Clean Rivers Project / American Academy of Environmental Engineers and Scientists
A green roof that was installed over an existing drinking water reservoir located at Fort Reno as part of the Clean Rivers Project / American Academy of Environmental Engineers and Scientists

The new 11th Street Bridge Park will help restore the Anacostia River ecosystems, but this project is still many years away. The new South Capitol street corridor project will bring some green infrastructure to the Anacostia area as well, but perhaps not enough. DC Water, which has been pushing for its new green infrastructure approach for years, has limited resources to fulfill its mission, and the tunnel and green infrastructure plan are great expenses. It certainly wants to bring more green infrastructure to the District, but, hopefully, these green infrastructure opportunities can be widespread so everyone benefits equally.

Brightwater: A Model of 21st Century Infrastructure

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Brightwater / Jared Green

Imagine a wastewater treatment facility where people get married, amid 40-acres of restored salmon habitat with designed ponds and wetlands. It sounds far-fetched but it’s reality in Snohomish County, Washington, near the border with King County, about an hour northeast from downtown Seattle. In a tour of the Brightwater facility during the American Planning Association (APA) conference by Michael Popiwny, the landscape architect who managed this $1 billion project for the King County government, we learn how wastewater treatment plants can become assets instead of drains on communities and the environment. The key to success was an interdisciplinary management, design, and construction team that was highly responsive to community feedback and deeply sensitive to environmental concerns. Plus, Brightwater was paid for by growth in the region. As new people are attracted to the quality of life the Seattle area offers, they move in and pay a $4,000 – $8,000 sewer hook-up fee. “The fact that new people were paying for the system helped us to sell it to the community.”

Brightwater, a 15-year endeavor that began operations in 2011, is a wastewater treatment facility, environmental education and community center, and ecological system rolled into one. It’s a 114-acre site, nestled in a wealthy residential area, with some 70 acres of trails and parks open to the public. There are 13 miles of underground conveyance pipes that direct wastewater to the plant. When it reaches the plant, the wastewater is cleaned through the largest membrane bioreactor system in North America, which makes the water 70 percent cleaner than conventional approaches. It is then sent out through a 600-foot-deep outfall pipe a mile out into the Puget sound. Excess materials are turned into “loop,” a biosolid that is sold to local farms and orchards at very low cost.

However, this description of the system doesn’t do justice the experience of being at Brightwater. Popiwny explained the critical role excellent design played in “selling this place to the community.” He said, “we realized that this place needed to be beautiful. We need it to be very well designed.” Just siting the project won King and Snohomish counties, along with CHM2Hill and Environmental Design Associates, an ASLA 2005 Professional Analysis and Planning award. Then, engineers with CHM2Hill and landscape architects with Hargreaves Associates and Mithun along with restoration ecologists and conservation biologists came together in an interdisciplinary design team to create a welcoming place that actually restored the ecological function of the landscape, turning into a place that aids salmon in their annual migration.

Popiwny briefly described the design and construction process: “We had separate contracts for the engineering and design teams. We needed the strongest engineering team and the strongest landscape architecture team. The teams completed their work separately and then we combined their efforts in the final design. Internally, we had an engineer lead the engineering team, and I led the design team. It’s important that you set up competitions for top notch talent in each category and then give them equal status.”

As the deep processing facilities were dug out of the landscape, the excess soil was turned into “decorative, geometric landforms,” by Hargreaves Associates. “These landforms alone took thousands of trucks off the highway, saved lots of carbon,” explained Popiwny.

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On the way to the North 40 acres, Brightwater / Jared Green

Amid these landforms in the “north 40 acres” is an elaborate system of forests, meadows, raingardens, wetlands, and ponds that hold and clean rainwater before directing it to the streams salmon use. What was once an auto depot is now a place that provides great environmental benefits.

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Restored forested habitat / Jared Green

The process of restoring the habitat and turning into a publicly-accessible park was complex, involving stream and wetland biologists, who guided ecological decisions, and landscape architects with Hargreaves. The team used 15 different types of rocks to create two different stream corridors that empty into ponds where salmon rest on their uphill climb to the places where they spawn. “The result is something similar to the original stream.”

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Restored stream / Jared Green

To restore the forested wetland, the Brightwater team made it an environmental education and community outreach project. Kids from the area helped plant over 20,000 native willows. “Native willows are easy for children to plant. We had about 4-6 busloads of kids from the surrounding area per week.” This effort really helped create community buy-in and grow a sense of greater investment in the success of the project.

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Forested wetland / Jared Green

As you walk out of the park and into the environmental education center, which was designed and built to a LEED Platinum level, you can see how an open-minded couple would actually want to host a wedding here. Popiwny laughed and said one comment he read about the onsite wedding online was, “it’s today — get with it!” There are pleasing views of the green infrastructure. One of the larger buildings is also a frequent host for local non-profits and community meetings.

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Environmental education center / Jared Green

All of this is a result of efforts to stave off protracted lawsuits that would have delayed the project from the beginning. The parkland, environmental education and community centers, were all part of the $149 million set aside as part of the “mitigation budget.” According to Popiwny, “budgeting this kind of work upfront meant saving money over the long run.” However, the Brightwater project was still sued by local sewer districts who argued that the project “spent too much on mitigation.” The state supreme court eventually sided with Brightwater. Popiwny said “lawsuits are an inevitable part of large projects.”

Now the challenges to projects like Brightwater are “often in the guise of environmental protection.” But Popiwny just sees this as part of the broader system of checks in a democratic system. “There needs to be multiple checks as these projects can affect communities. The region benefited from the opposition to the project as it pushed us towards a higher performance, but it also made it more expensive.” The Brightwater team included other forms of technical fail-safe systems, like multiple, isolated ponds to separate acid or bases if there was an overflow or accident caused by an earthquake, and engineering all pipes and systems to withstand high levels of seismic activity.

As we walk out of the environmental education center, which features flexible classrooms for groups of all ages and enables a range of hands-on learning about the water cycle, we head to the facility itself, which is strangely odorless. “There are three levels of odor control.”

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Brightwater wastewater treatment plant / Jared Green

Spread throughout the site is public art, as the project was part of the state’s 1 percent for art program. Climbing up a stairwell to the spot where the millions of gallons of cleaned water is sent out to the sound, there is artist Jane Tsong’s poem, which actively blesses the elements of the plant (air, water, biosolids) as “they depart from the treatment process and continue their life cycle into the natural world.”

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Poems by Jane Tsong / Jared Green
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Poems by Jane Tsong / Jared Green

Popiwny said the facility staff particularly connect with these poems, as it is reminder of how meaningful their work really is.

The “Mountain of Crap” Becomes a Park

Chrysanthemums grow at the base of Mount Hariya, a former landfill / Latz+Partners
Chrysanthemums grow at the base of Mount Hariya, a former landfill / Latz+Partners

The “Mountain of Crap,” the nickname for Hiriya landfill, and Freshkills share more than just evocative names. They are also two of the most outstanding examples of landscape transformation, in this case, urban landfills that have become parks – Ariel Sharon Park, outside of Tel Aviv, Israel and Freshkills Park, in Staten Island, New York.

Both were the wastelands of their respective cities. They began receiving garbage over 60 years ago, and closed at nearly the same time – Hiriya in 1999 and Freshkills in 2001. When complete, Ariel Sharon Park – like Freshkills – will be roughly three times the size of Central Park. The two parks signed a “twin parks” agreement last year to share information and plan cooperatively. Leaders from both parks will also present at April’s Greater & Greener Urban Parks Conference in San Francisco.

While much is known about Freshkills, less is known about the history of Ariel Sharon Park, at least in the U.S. Hiriya landfill is some 200-feet-high given because it sits on 25 million tons of waste. The landfill is located directly under the flight paths to Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Airport. As massive flocks of birds swarming Hiriya caused a few too many close-misses and toxic runoff leached into streams adjacent to the landfill, public outcry to close the landfill grew.

By its final year of operation in 1998, Hiriya was receiving 3,000 tons of household waste per day. In 1999, it became a transfer station, and rehabilitation plans began in 2001. But even as park development move forward, the site continues waste operations. Municipal and agricultural waste is sorted and transferred at a large recycling center that captures methane from organic waste in anaerobic biogas digesters. The facility captures enough methane to power the entire recycling facility and sell back excess electricity to the Tel Aviv grid.

Anaerobic Biogas Digesters / Chris Tackett
Anaerobic Biogas Digesters / Chris Tackett

As much as 80 percent of incoming waste is reportedly recycled or reused by the Arrow Bio management company.

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Waste transfer & recycling station / Yoshi Silverstein

An environmental education center near the recycling facilities features landfill-derived art from sponsored competitions alongside other interpretive resources.

Landfill art in the environmental education center / Yoshi Silverstein
Landfill art in the environmental education center / Yoshi Silverstein

As a first step, landscape architect Peter Latz, who is famous for Landscape Park Duisborg-Nord in Germany, designed an innovative “bio-plastic” layer covered with gravel and a meter of soil to protect wildflowers and vegetation from the underlying methane and other contaminants. Rainwater collection pools between the bio-plastic and soil layers will provide a source for the irrigation system for trees.

"Mount" Hariya Landfill / Latz+Partners
“Mount” Hariya Landfill / Latz+Partners
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Water collection pool during construction / Yoshi Silverstein

Because it lies in the Ben-Gurion flyway and is in the center of the road connecting Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and the road connecting Tel Aviv to Haifa, the area is ill-suited for housing, even without the landfill. So in addition to the mountain capping the landfill itself, surrounding agricultural fields and waterways are being developed as wildlife habitat with man-made ponds, which will be accessible via bike and walking trails.

Pergola with views of Tel Aviv / Jessica Steinberg-Times of Israel
Pergola with views of Tel Aviv / Jessica Steinberg-Times of Israel

The paths winding through orchards, agricultural terraces, and native plantings will be laid on beds of recycled material. A lake and re-directed water systems will help alleviate flooding issues for South Tel Aviv and Holon, and a promenade and 50,000-seat amphitheater will draw people. Laura Starr, ASLA, Starr Whitehouse Landscape Architects, led the initial international planning and design charette to create a vision for the park.

See a brief video outlining this vision:

Hiriya took its name from the former Arab village, al-Hariya, whose residents were evacuated prior to the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. While its counterpart, Jaffa Landfill Park, designed by Braudo-Maoz Landscape Architecture of Tel Aviv, Israel, used the removal of a landfill and reconstruction of a seashore to ameliorate a painful past and serve as a springboard for social discourse, it’s unclear whether designs for the park include any official acknowledgement of Hiriya’s pre-landfill history.

What cannot be hidden is Hiriya’s mountain of crap. If all goes as planned, though, it will serve as a beacon for environmental restoration.

Yoshi Silverstein, Associate ASLA, is founder of Mitsui Design.

What Is a Wasteland?

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Waste Music Festival / Title Magazine

According to Mariana Mogilevich and Curt Gambetta, Princeton University Mellon Initiative, “the production of waste and the production of space go hand in hand.” As landscape architects, architects, and urban designers remake our cities, waste is created too. Moving this waste shapes our urban landscape. Putting all this waste somewhere often means the creation of segregated urban wastelands.

As Mogilevich and Gambetta explain though, “despite waste’s centrality to the design and imagination of cities, it is today understood as a largely technical problem about the management of its disappearance.” On March 7 at Princeton University, they will assemble a diverse group to look the opportunities in spaces “designed as waste or wasted.”

Sessions will explore questions like: “What is a wasteland, and what role does design play in its definition and reclamation? What is the relationship between wasteland improvement and social and economic transformation?”

Speakers include landscape historians, architects, geographers, urban designers, anthropologists, and artists.

Along with the symposium, the team has put together a new exhibition called Tracing Waste, which looks at “artistic works that trace the movement of trash and sewage.” The exhibition runs from February 23 to March 13.

The symposium on March 7 is free and open to the public.

And here’s a symposium for landscape architects interested in cutting-edge modeling technologies: Simulating Natures at the University of Pennsylvania, March 19-20. The organizers ask: “how can we better engage the invisible biotic and abiotic interactions and flows that exist outside of human creation but can only be understood through our systems of representation?” Speakers include Bradley Cantrell, ASLA, Harvard University; James Corner, ASLA, Field Operations; and Alex Felson, ASLA, Yale University, among others.

Dredge Design

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Jamaica Bay / Drudge Design Collaborative

To dredge simply means to scoop up sediment, often underwater, and move it to another location. While this process is often associated with moving contaminated soils to a place where they can be safely capped, today, dredging is also increasingly about harnessing natural processes to create new landforms and ecological systems. New “dredge landscapes,” designed systems, offer opportunities for ecological restoration, said Brett Milligan, ASLA, Dredge Research Collaborative, at the ASLA 2014 Annual Meeting in Denver.

Sediment is dynamic and dramatically differs from place to place. Studying the natural flow of sediment in rivers and deltas, we can begin to understand how the movement of sediment can be “choreographed” to achieve ecological goals. However, given sediment flow happens within complex ecosystems impacted by human activities, like the deepening of channels for large ships, using dredge to create new landscapes is a highly complicated process.

As an example, Milligan pointed to efforts to dredge sediment into new landforms that can support wetlands in Jamaica Bay in New York. At current rates, “the wetlands will totally disappear in 10 years. Water regimes have changed due to stormwater runoff and deeper shipping channels.” While efforts are underway to rebuild the low-lying islands that can support wetlands in the bay, he asked how dredge can be used to restore a natural environment “where everything has changed?”

According to Hugh Roberts, Arcadis, we must “design with nature” when dredging, and a changing nature at that. Coastal land loss plus sea level rise means using dredged sediment to create wetland habitat is incredibly complex, hence the need for his job, numeric modeling lead. Wetlands require multiple flushings of water per day and they only exist at sea level, so there are “narrower number of places where they can survive. It’s a fine balance.”

In the Mississippi River delta, Roberts has been working on the White Delta diversion project, which aims to create the most efficient interventions for spreading out sediment in the widest possible fan from the river into the delta. Flow paths are dredged to enable the reconstitution of sediment far into the delta plains. All of this is part of an effort to undo the built system of containing the river, which looks like “a plumbing diagram,” in favor of letting the river flow and deposit sediment where it’s most needed, ecologically.

Roberts also pointed to the innovative Sand Engine project in the Netherlands as a great example of how dredging can work with nature. The Dutch have created a “changing land form that distributes sand along the Dutch coast.” They have placed large “nourishment mounds.” Nature then “spreads out the sand where it needs to.”

This process is the opposite of the conventional approach of pumping sand directly onto eroding beaches, an approach often called botoxing beaches. Like botox, this pumping approach only works for so long before the beach needs to be re-sanded.

The Sand Engine, Roberts says, is about “increasing resilience through nature.” Models, like the ones he creates, can help nature optimize its efforts. Today, one can see the Sand Engine has actually resulted in “natural dune formations” and the return of endangered plant species.

Zandmotor vlucht-30 10-01-2012 foto: Rijkswaterstaat/Joop van Houdt
Dutch Sand Engine / Topos Magazine

Milligan said up to 45 gigatons of earth is dredged per year, about 30 tons per person in the U.S. According to engineer and dredger Chris Dols, Great Lakes Dredge and Dock, there are a number of different dredging technologies. There’s the cutter suction dredge, which turns mud underwater into a slurry then moved through massive hydraulic pumps. Then there’s hopper dredging, which involves using a mobile dredging vessels that vacuums up material then stores it within the boat only to be sprayed or pumped to other locations. Both can be used to support restoring ecosystems.

Sean Burkholder, ASLA, a landscape architecture professor at University at Buffalo, wants landscape architects to see dredging as a real design opportunity. Today, in the Great Lakes region, only 25 percent of sediment is reused; the rest is dumped on land or sent out to sea. Instead of treating contaminated sediment as merely waste that needs to be moved and capped, contaminants can be separated out, leaving material to create new dredge landscapes. “We can use this material more creatively in our own work.”

Also, existing dredged landscapes can become environmental education opportunities. These landscapes are typically near cities. “We can create access and interpretation for legacy sites.”

For those interested in learning more about dredge landscapes, Milligan organizes DredgeFest every year.

ASLA Year of Public Service: What Are You Doing?

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2013 is the Year of Public Service at ASLA. The goal is to highlight the wide-reaching public service activities performed by landscape architects and advocate for a deeper commitment by all to community service. ASLA invites current members to submit 2013 projects. Selected projects will be highlighted in the campaign’s Web site and outreach materials. Descriptions, quotes, and multimedia content may be used – with proper credit – on the YPS2013 web site, blog and The Understory Facebook page. Here are three recent public service projects just submitted by ASLA members:

Melissa Evans, ASLA: Members in Arkansas coordinated a one-day charrette as part of the year of public service to determine the best location, size, and form of a green wall to be installed this year at the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks. The garden received a donation for a green wall and reached out to ASLA for help. The landscape architects involved in this charrette were able to use their expertise to design two potential green wall installations for potential installation later this year.

The first solution is elegant and simple, allowing the garden staff to implement the design as soon as their schedule permits. The charrette team provided a section, elevation and a perspective view of the proposed wall design. This particular design would be integrated into the entrance to the event room at the garden with two small green walls situated at the edge of the covered entry.

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The second wall design is larger in scale and would be constructed north of the butterfly house and west of the garden shed.  It consists of two sweeping walls with the path between.  Designers provided a perspective view of this wall and will continue to work on more detailed drawings in the next few weeks.

Kim Douglas, ASLA, Philadelphia University: In West Allegheny, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia University landscape architecture and architecture students presented design concepts for a neighborhood to a group of interested government officials. Among the attendees were Councilman Curtis Jones; Richard Redding, Director of Comprehensive Planning Division at Philadelphia City Planning Commission; SEPTA officials; ward leaders of the West Allegheny neighborhood; and community members.

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The students outlined design initiatives for sites in the neighborhood that ranged from a new community center to redesigning Allegheny Avenue. All the initiatives were part of a bigger planning effort in the studio to treat the neighborhood as an EcoDistrict. The concept illustrates the opportunities for shared resources, performance goals and measures that “scale up” the sustainability initiatives. The designs all considered the need for a comprehensive framework plan that provided opportunities for shared stormwater, waste and energy management, healthy food options, economic endeavors, open space and park systems as well as social gathering spaces, all at the grass-root level.

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The students’ work gathered quite a bit of attention from the city agencies as well as private developers and community organizations. Among the initiatives being explored based on the student work are a retrofit of a bus turnaround that includes rain gardens, permeable paving, new street furniture and lighting; a new gateway park that provides farmers markets, gathering areas, stormwater mitigation and signage;  and a streetscape design for Allegheny Avenue including bike lanes, stormwater bump-outs, street trees, seating, bus shelters and pocket parks. All of these initiatives have prompted City agencies to work together to pool resources and expertise.

This project illustrates the University’s commitment to its neighbor, the West Allegheny community, as well as the City of Philadelphia, to use its knowledge and expertise to help with the many issues of urban areas. We are also providing our students with hands on learning for “real work with real people with real impact.”

Lastly, a project started in 2009 is finally being completed during the year of public service. Brian Templeton, ASLA: In the Spring of 2009 design students in the landscape architecture department at Mississippi State University developed concepts for the re-development of the Oktibbeha County Heritage Museum’s site. The result of the effort was a refined 5-phase plan which could be designed and implemented over several years by students.

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The plan had three overall goals: improve the museum’s landscape to create a community-wide amenity; implement sustainable site and stormwater management techniques to create a regional model for good site design practices; and provide hands-on design-build opportunities for landscape architecture students.

Two of the efforts were multi-disciplinary efforts where landscape architecture students worked with graphic design and architecture students to work in a real world working environment. In total, the efforts have involved six separate landscape architecture classes, two graphic design classes, and an architecture studio.

The five phases of the site’s development called for a rain garden, a sand filter and outdoor amphitheater, a new entryway and porch, a cistern and educational kiosks, and a green roof pavilion.

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Over the past four years the projects have received 3 major design awards, raised over $50,000 in private donations, and been described in dozens of publications. Though this project has run for many years, the final construction phase will be completed during the year of public service.

Learn more about the year of public service and submit your project today.

Image credits: (1-2) Melissa Evans, ASLA (3-4) Kim Douglas, ASLA (5-6) Cory Gallo, ASLA.

Multidisciplinary Team Wins AECOM’s Urban SOS Competition

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At AIA New York’s Center for Architecture, finalists for a student design competition took on a new audience: the public. Urban SOS, a student competition sponsored by AECOM and hosted by AIA NY, offered the chance for three remaining teams to present their design solutions in front of judges, the president of AECOM, and the curious residents of NYC. Three teams who focused on vastly different places — a slum in Nairobi, Kenya; a Mexican-American border site near Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, Texas; and a slum in Bogotá, Colombia — waited impatiently to take the stage and give their final pitch. An energy filled the room as the audience crammed in the space, all of whom knew what was at stake for the victor: $5,000 and $25,000 towards the realization of the work. Unslumming Kibera, a multifaceted proposal for Kibera in Nairobi was awarded the grand prize.

Urban SOS: An Open Ideas Student Competition is AECOM’s seventh annual student competition aimed at fostering conceptual thinking around important global themes. The charge to the students is to be as creative and diverse with the make-up of their teams, ideas, and processes in order to formulate truly original projects. This year’s theme, Frontiers, aims at finding today’s borders, be they economic, social, cultural, physical or any combination. Students choose their own site through a framework of self-guiding principles of what constitutes a “border” and then begin a site-specific investigation. The investigation (and the proposal) would then be judged against the ethos set forth by each team.

In keeping with AECOM’s belief that “urban challenges are best met when multiple disciplines are at the table,” Unslumming Kibera took home the Moleskin trophy (oh, and $5,000). The four students came from a wide range of backgrounds and coalesced to present a robust, energetic, well-researched proposal to create a new type of multi-use community space in Kibera, which has a population of more than one million. Kibera, which is covered in detail in this excellent article from The Economist, is an “informal, neglected” settlement, but a place that is also full of life and provides a vital economic function in Nairobi. It’s home to many of the low-income workers (often migrants) who provide services to Nairobi’s burgeoning middle class. But, within this place, there’s no legal system of land rights. There’s also no legal electrical or sanitation system. The goals of the design team were to examine how a site in Kibera could “provide flood protection, enhance commercial activity, maximize constructed open space, and reuse ‘waste’ materials.”

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The students had met while interning in Kibera the previous summer and teamed up at the announcement of AECOM’s student competition. Team members include design MBA student Adam Broidy (California College of the Arts), landscape architecture student Jack Campbell Clause (Leeds Metropolitan University), development studies student Jamilla Harper (University of Nairobi) and urban planning student April Schneider (University of Illinois Chicago). The group had clearly worked hard on their presentation, a succinct and concise narrative of Kibera’s conditions and first-hand photo documentation of the students engaged in the community.

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Donna Walcavage, FASLA, principal, design planning, AECOM and one of the judges, reiterated the AECOM mission and how it was met by the successful team. “The finalists looked at how best to engage very complex problems and come up with a dynamic process in terms of urban solutions.” Adding, “their proposal is extremely community-based. They hit all of the essentials of cities: community, economic, and social exchange.” Bill Hanway, executive vice president, AECOM, said in a statement that “Unslumming Kibera best illustrated a solution driven from the team’s personal experience in that community. The heart of an informal community, no matter how small, becomes the inspirational driver for change.”

The work of the other two finalists is also worth exploring. Green Terraces, in its physical essence, is a low-tech terrace and house system to be built and set into the irregular landscape of the Bogotán slumscape. Its guiding purposes however, are many. The two Colombian students, Guillermo Umana (Macquarie University) and Juan Camilo Pinzon (Universidad de los Andes), tackled the devastating and endemic issues of their home country: poverty, displacement and landslides, which made for a monumental design effort. The team succeeded with their analysis of the site and the conditions that hold weight on the border of Ciudad Boliviar and Socha. An animation of the analysis was certainly a nice touch as the students demonstrated a command of presentation technology. However, the framework of their problem may have been too ambitious.

The structure proposed didn’t address all of the issues presented by the students. There was an ambiguity in the house-terrace system that was emphasized in the ambiguity of the model and section. Much of the presentation focused on the hazards of landslides and the unemployment factor of the area, but the proposal made only timid strides at correcting these issues. One juror explained her hesitation about the hillside structure. “Inexpensive housing is not always a good idea…It’s like building an inexpensive bridge.”

Sara Navrady’s (Delft University of Technology) focus was on the Mexican border community of Hueço Bolson between Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas. The Rio Bravo, the physical border between the two towns, suffers from problems common all over the world. Industrialization of the river has caused severe ecological and environmental damage, not to mention the sharp decline of the region’s population. Navrady’s solution embraces one of the area’s most pressing problems: sewage. The construction of wetlands as a complement to the Rio Bravo, would engage two of the critical issues — water quality and open space availability. The heart of the proposal is a constructed wetlands that would have the capacity to treat the dwindling water resource, which are predicted to be in extreme shortage in 2015. The wetland would also provide a public amenity worthy of attracting a greater population of residents.

Sewage Ecologies/Economies was also a strong proposal. Navrady had previous experience with the site but essentially drafted the proposal in a short time frame leading up to the submission by herself. The presentation was masterfully crafted and crystal clear. Her solution was a precise declaration of objectives and a linear narrative of phasing. One juror commented on its clarity. She “wished our politicians could speak to problems the way Sara does.” However, in the end, as diverse the solution and valiant the effort was, Sewage Ecologies/Economies was a team of one.

The jury included Bill Hanway, executive vice president, buildings places, AECOM; Donna Walcavage and Chris Choa, principals, design planning, AECOM; Rick Bell, FAIA, executive director at the Center for Architecture; Galia Solomonoff, founder and creative director, Solomonoff Architecture Studio and assistant professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation; and Alexandra Hardiman, director of mobile products at The New York Times.

This guest post is by Tyler Silvestro, a master’s of landscape architecture candidate at the City College of New York (CUNY) and writer for The Architect’s Newspaper.

Image credits: (1-2) Unslumming Kibera, (3) Winners / Stacy Sideris