In Queens, Broken Concrete Keeps Pedestrians Safe

With the Queens Plaza Bicycle and Pedestrian Landscape Improvement Project, the New York City Department of Planning and Economic Development Corporation are moving forward with efforts to redesign the streetscape of a dysfunctional part of Queens, New York, and revitalize JFK park. The urban design project, which includes landscape architect Margie Ruddick, ASLA, Wallace Roberts & Todd (WRT), Marpillero Pollak Architects, Leni Schwendinger, a light artist, among others, and will also involve the innovative reuse of materials from the construction site. One smart application of reused materials: broken concrete medians that cover approximately 14,000 square feet of “unusable space between lanes of traffic and in Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) maintenance areas,” says WRT. While this redesign can achieve a whole set of “goods” like increasing pedestrian and bicyclist safety and creating a more artful urban landscape, it’s also a real-life example of sustainable reconstruction in action.  

WRT says Queens Plaza is an “extremely busy” vehicular corridor that provides connections for 140,000 vehicles moving between Queensboro Bridge, Manhattan, Queens Plaza Boulevards North and South, Jackson Avenue, and other streets. The area is also dangerous: over a three year period, there were 23 accidents, mostly involving jaywalkers. This is six times the national average for urban streets. As a result, one of the key goals was to improve the “accessibility and functionality of the crosswalk and bicycle path systems.” Reused materials play a major role in this. 

According to Tobiah Horton, a landscape designer with WRT, the reused concrete medians “physically block passage across vehicle lanes and visually indicate to the pedestrian who is still safely on the sidewalk that it is impossible to cross.” In addition, the textured and irregular appearance of the medians, which can perceived as looking “scary or dangerous” actually make pedestrians safer. “With a perception of danger, here perceived in texture and irregularity – a heightened sense of awareness and care is created in the user. Paradoxically, what is smooth, clean and without remarkable characteristics actually creates a dangerous environment of speed and inattention.” 

Beyond calling attention to the dangers of crossing the street in such a busy area, these pieces of reused transportation infrastructure are also artful in a shabby chic kind of way, and may even resonate with the hardened pedestrians in this evolving neighborhood. Horton adds “keeping some traces of the old neighborhood in the new design comes to mean something for a neighborhood that is undergoing a rapid stage of change. Keeping the material in a relatively unprocessed or rough state allows for it to still be perceived as sidewalk, but with some suggestion of it as a demolition waste material. These lingering identities from the former use and the demolition process combine with the new identity as landscape element to suggest a way of looking at waste as resource with potential value and meaning.” 


Importantly, this technique shows that designers working on urban redevelopment projects can safely salvage and reuse materials on site in an efficient manner. Horton says approximately “1,000 CY of broken concrete was used, saving transportation, disposal, crushing costs and impacts. Our rough calculation suggests that approximately 1.7 Billion BTUs of embodied energy is conserved in the reuse of this material in a higher form than crushing for road base. Additionally, we estimate that a release of 60 tons of C02 (principally from cement production) was avoided by not installing a typical DOT median feature composed of new concrete and other new materials.” Moreover, those rough surfaces meant no energy was wasted polishing them up.

Also worth noting: given these medians are made up of broken concrete, they are also permeable. WRT didn’t provide info on whether these new medians will function as green infrastructure and use natural systems to manage stormwater, but they say the “the uplift of the sidewalk suggests the opening of the impermeable urban surface” and opportunities for “green space, permeability, and infiltration.” Perhaps that piece will be coming soon.

  
The project is expected to be completed by fall 2011. See an interview from Urban Omnibus with the project designers. Also, check out an ASLA animation that explores some of these concepts, “Building a Park Out of Waste.”

Image credits: WRT

Interview with Jaime Lerner


Beginning in 1971, Jaime Lerner was elected Mayor of Curitiba, re-elected two more times, and then served as Governor of Paraná, Brazil. Lerner has won a number of major awards for his transportation, design, and environmental work, including the United Nations Environment Award; the Prince Claus Award, given by the Netherlands; and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Architecture, given by the University of Virginia. In 2002, Lerner was elected president of the International Union of Architects. Lerner is principal of Jamie Lerner Associated Architects.

In your talk at a conference organized by The Economist, you argued that cities are the solution to climate change, not the problem. What is the case for this?

Well, my point of view is that there are many, many answers to what would be the best way to avoid climate change. A lot of people are talking about new materials. Or new sources of energy. Or wind turbines. Or recycling. They’re really important but not enough. Everything is very, very important, but not enough. When we realized that 75 percent of car emissions are related to the cities, we realized we can be more effective when we work with the concept of the city. It’s through cities that we can have better results.

When you were mayor of Curitiba, you devised a number of low-cost solutions that turned your city into a model green community where people also have incomes 60 percent higher than the Brazilian average. What kind of investments did you make in green space? What do you see as the relationship between livability and sustainability?

If you want creativity, cut one zero from your budget. If you want sustainability, cut two zeroes from your budget. And if you want solidarity, assume your identity and respect others’ diversity. There are three main issues that are becoming important, not only for your city, but for the whole of mankind. These relate to three key issues in cities: mobility, sustainability, and tolerance (or social diversity).

On infrastructure, there’s always the assumption that the government has to provide public transport. Every time we try to create a solution, we have to have a good equation of co-responsibility with the public. That means it’s not a question of money and it’s not a question of skill; it’s how do we organize your equation of co-responsibility?

For example, when I was governor we had to work hard to avoid reduce pollution in our bays. Of course, it’s very expensive to do environmental clean-up work and we didn’t have the money. Another region had taken out a huge loan from the World Bank, about $800 million. For us though, the question wasn’t about money; the question was about mentality. We didn’t have that money so we started to clean our bays through an agreement with fishermen. If the fisherman catches a fish, it belongs to him. If he catches garbage, we bought the garbage. If the day was not good for fishing, the fishermen went to fish garbage. The more garbage they catch, the cleaner the bays became. The cleaner the bay is, more fish they would have. It that’s kind of win-win solution we need. We need to work with low-cost solutions. And, of course, in public transport, we also organized a good equation of co-responsibility with the public.


Fisherman onshore collecting garbage. Image credit: Jaime Lerner Associated Architects

As mayor of Curitiba, you also created the world’s first bus rapid transit system (BRT), “Speedy Bus,” which works like a surface subway system but at far less cost. How did you come up with this highly sustainable transportation solution? How did you form the public-private partnership that made it cost-effective?

We didn’t have the money for a completely new fleet, which would have cost $300 million. What was the equation? What was the solution? We said to the private sector, private companies, we’ll invest in the itinerary as long as you invest in the fleet. We’ll get loans for the work on our side, for public works, for the itinerary if the private sector gets loans for the fleet. We paid them by kilometers and there are no subsidies. The system pays for itself. Now, there are more than 83 BRT systems around the world.


Curitiba Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) Stations. Image credit: Jaime Lerner Associated Architects

The problem is in many countries, government wants to invest in everything. That doesn’t work. I’ll give you an example. Why don’t we have a good system of transport in New York on the waterfront? This could be a very good approach for reducing congestion in the city’s bridges and tunnels. The city could have a very pleasant system of water public transport. But instead, the policymakers are holding it up, saying there are no passengers and we don’t want to invest in the fleet. First, they need to create a good partnership and create an attractive system, then they will have the passengers, and then they will have a low-cost solution. However, if don’t have passengers to make it feasible, it’s much more costly.

You also mentioned that many poor copies of your BRT are out there, and are actually setting back BRT as a transportation movement. What are other cities doing wrong? Who are the worst offenders? Why is it hard to get this system right?

BRT can’t be designed as a transportation solution. It has to be planned as a whole city. Why? Because the city is a structure of living, working, and leisure. Everything together. Transportation has to provide a structure for living and working together. It can’t just be a system of transport. You will just have a kind of commuting system, which is more difficult to make feasible. Cities always need to approach transportation as providing a structure for living and working. It’s not about living here and working in some other place. With that kind of approach, you will only use public transport twice daily, concentrated in just a few hours. If you have a system that works always and connects working and living activities, it’s more a city than just a corridor of public transport.

You were also known for innovations in the delivery of city services. One program to clean up dirty, narrow streets that were inaccessible to trash collectors gave residents bags of groceries or transit passes in return for their garbage. You decentralized garbage collection. How well did this program work? Have other cities taken up this approach?

It’s been working for more than 20 years in Curitiba. In many cities, there are places where it’s difficult to provide trucks access to collect garbage. In many cities, if the slums are on the hills or deep in valleys, they’re difficult to access. In these places, people are throwing away their garbage and polluting the streams. Their children are playing in polluted areas. In 1989, we started a program where we said, Okay, we’re going to buy your garbage as long as you put your garbage in a bag, and bring it to the trucks, where it’s more accessible. In two or three months, all these areas were clean, and these very low-income people had an additional source of income.

We also started a public education programs on the separation of garbage because we realized that we could transform one problem if we separated garbage in every household. We started teaching every child in every schools. Children taught their parents. Since then, Curitiba had the highest rate of separation of garbage in the world for more than 20 years. Around 60 or 70 percent of families are separating their garbage at home.

Now you have your own architecture and urban design firm and you are working with major city governments and private clients throughout the Americas. I saw you were designing a few projects that reuse transportation infrastructure and turn highways into elevated parks, much like the High Line. What kind of projects are you working on? How are you trying to reuse infrastructure?

Sustainability is an equation between what we save and what we waste. There are so many problems of mobility or integration of systems, but we have to work fast. If we understand the city as a structure of living, working, moving together, we can work more effectively. It’s very difficult to have a complete network of subways in many cities of the world. Even if I believe that the future is on the surface, my idea is not trying to prove which system is the best, but using what you have. For instance, in Sao Paolo, they have three subway lines. They are working on fourth line of the subway, with 84 percent of the trains are running on the surface. It’s the surface that has to operate better. At the same time, the suburb railroad is being improved.

The idea is to take advantage of the existing path of the suburb railroads and build above the rail a kind of linear park like the High Line. However, this linear park would link the whole city, where you can connect people of all income levels. In every place, you could have good public transport and you a huge park linking it all. Within this park, you could walk, bike, or take small electric car. That’s the idea that we presented for the city of Sao Paolo with the private sector and public sectors.


Sao Paulo elevated parks concept. Image credit: Jaime Lerner Associated Architects

Sometimes there’s an idea and it has to be improved. We have to understand that innovation is fast and leaves room for the idea to be improved. We’re trying to work fast in many cities and provide them with a good start. In other cases, we use “urban acupuncture.” These are small interventions that can provide new energy to the city, and provide assistance during the process of long-term planning, which has to take time. But we have to work fast.

At the street level, you’ve been experimenting with portable streets, which you say can enable vendors to set up easily anywhere, creating informal and spontaneous market street life. Why do we need this infrastructure?

Some places in some cities have become decayed. There’s no life. When that happens, it’s very difficult to bring back life because people don’t want to live in a place like that. However, the moment we bring street life, people will want to live there again. That’s why we designed the portable streets. On a Friday night, we can deliver a portable street and remove it Monday morning. We can put a whole street life in front of a university or any place, bringing street life back.


Interview conducted by Jared Green.

Portable Streets. Image credit: Jaime Lerner Associated Architects

Interview with Tim Duggan, Make It Right Foundation


Tim Duggan, ASLA, is a landscape architect with the Make It Right Foundation. Learn more about the foundation’s innovative, sustainable landscape architecture work and see their “Kit of Parts” (4MB).     

The Make It Right Foundation was started by Brad Pitt, who wanted to help the residents of the Lower 9th Ward rebuild their community in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Instead of rebuilding using conventional methods, Pitt asked William McDonough to apply his Cradle to Cradle approach to create a new set of sustainable homes. The primary goal is 150 affordable, green, and storm-resistant homes. How far has Make It Right progressed towards its goals?

Make It Right was founded by Brad Pitt, William McDonough + Partners, GRAFT, and Cherokee. At that point, they were a little discouraged by the progress in rebuilding the Lower 9th Ward. This was two years after Katrina. So they collectively decided that sustainability should be dedicated more towards folks that need it, that affordable sustainable houses could have a much bigger impact. We set the goal of 150 homes. Right now, around three years out from project conception, we have approximately 50 houses completed and 30 houses under construction, all of which are under the LEED Platinum umbrella. We decided to strive for and reach that level for every home. This current build of 30 homes will be wrapped up mid-to-late February. We are then going to go through another round of analysis and value engineering to see how we can increase the affordability even further, without taking anything out of the systems of the house, the neighborhood, or the landscape.

In addition to creating an affordable, sustainable, and safe set of homes, Make It Right also aims to re-conceive the role of landscape architecture in post-disaster rebuilding. A pilot of the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES), the Lower 9th Ward site aims to become an “innovative site sustainability platform.” What is this? How will the new site design model help mitigate against floods and storms while ecologically managing onsite water? How far along are you with these plans?

Because Make It Right is not a developer, we’re simply building individual homes for folks that lost their homes during Katrina. We didn’t have the luxury of doing a comprehensive master plan. We had to look at the individual residential lots to see how far we could push the envelope of sustainability while still making them socially and economically sustainable. That said, addressing the site sustainability at each and every house led us to a bigger opportunity with the city’s Department of Public Works. We have been developing extensive low impact development strategies such as pervious concrete, rain gardens, rain barrels, and sub-surface water storage. Our landscape gets 65-plus inches of rainfall a year and the city of New Orleans still spends several million dollars pumping water over the levy. Our goal is to create a series of streetscapes that would invest in the public realm as opposed to just simply adding in a bigger pipe and a bigger pump. 


Make It Right foundation volunteers install a rain garden. 
 
By doing those early studies we were able to create a design team consisting of William McDonough + Partners, Walter Hood, Siteworks Studio, Diane Jones, BNIM Architects, as well as Make It Right to create a series of demonstration projects that would allow the City of New Orleans to develop new standards towards stormwater management. In the first engineering attempt we did, the final design alleviated approximately 350,000 gallons of water hitting the storm systems and pumping stations for every rainfall event. That’s 350,000 gallons of water on an eight block pilot street demonstration project. When we were able to quantify the cost of a gallon pumping water as well as the savings of keeping it on site, it became very clear that it was an economically sustainable model for future development. That’s one of the important things that we do on both the houses and the sites — we don’t actually take the strategies out of the project, we figure out a way to make the strategies more affordable so that they can move forward. Ultimately, to answer your question, right now we are currently in the final construction document stage of the project. It’s currently expected to go out to bid in late February and break ground in April.

A key part of the site redevelopment work is creating new green streets within the neighborhood. The City of New Orleans has issued a contract with Make It Right to replace the streets in its area and has given your organization a $2.7 million community development block grant. The idea is to use this site as a test-bed for green stormwater management infrastructure. What are the goals of this green street test project? Will the city incentivize the spread of these practices if their benefits are proven?

We call it the Lower 9th Ward Sustainable Infrastructure Project (9MB file). We collaborated with the Public Works Department on pervious concrete and stormwater management. It was very much a collaborative effort between William McDonough + Partners, BNIM Architects, Walter Hood, Pete O’Shea with Siteworks, and Diane Jones to create a series of models that would address water quality and water quantity issues and monitoring systems for short-term and long-term understanding of impact. It would focus a great deal on local workforce capacity and development. The ultimate goal was to create a platform to develop green jobs opportunities in the city of New Orleans. Jobs are the most important thing right now in our current economy, but they’re very much a major factor in decision making in New Orleans.

Lower 9th Ward Sustainable Infrastructure Project

While these new programs are expected to have a significant environmental impact, what about their local economic and social impact? Have the new residents of the neighborhood and local community groups responded to the new sustainable site plans? What do they see as the key benefits of the improvements?

The residents of the Make It Right neighborhood are actually our biggest proponents. They immediately saw sustainability affecting their pocket books when their new utility bills came in at an average of $28 to $38, when historically they were $150 to $200. The idea that their economic sustainability is connected to their house is one we’ve tried to communicate, particularly as it relates to their taxes and the infrastructure within their environment.


Lower 9th Ward Make It Right Foundation resident.

We’re in a neighborhood that suffered great devastation.  In fact, it’s about 100 yards from where the original barge broke through the levy and so water is a very unique constraint here. We have been collectively building trust together and identified means to show the impact in a metric that everyone can understand. It’s a metric of reducing one gallon of water. The reduction of one gallon of water within the landscape and public right of way is expanding to several hundred thousand gallons. It now has an economic impact that is a win-win situation for all parties.

Looking beyond the planned 150 homes, your organization is also seeking to ensure the long term economic and social sustainability of the neighborhood. There are new green construction training programs, assistance for those purchasing the homes, and work with the Lower 9th Ward Stakeholders Coalition. However, your foundation says it needs five million to invest in community infrastructure and services, including a neighborhood store and permanent micro-farm. How did Make It Right determine that these were the priorities?  How will these programs help ensure that the future success of a community?

From the beginning, we have taken a collaborative, transparent approach that began with convening what’s now called the Lower 9th Ward Stakeholders Coalition, which is a group of community leaders, neighborhood association leaders, and local stakeholders. Everything we propose has gone through a review process and has received the comments of local stakeholders. Initially a local stakeholder instructed Make It Right to simply start building homes because they needed to bring back people into their neighborhood and that’s exactly what we did. Now, we’re seeing success and our trust and collaboration abilities are growing. The neighborhood has reached out and informed us that they’re looking at bigger and bigger partnership opportunities. A mixed-use development with a focus on a safe and healthy grocery store was one opportunity. One of those was also related to urban agriculture and addressing the issue of blight in New Orleans. The idea is to get productive use out of a lot that has been somewhat unproductive for the last few years. The last component that was proposed from the community was a better understanding of stormwater management in the wetlands landscape they live within. We’re just several blocks away from what’s called the Central Wetlands Unit that has been destroyed over the last 30 years by the petrochemical companies. These are the interior wetlands. Just recently the coastal wetland suffered from the BP oil spill.

Any development we may pursue both in and around the neighborhood has really been focused on developing those facets. At the same time, we’re also seeing this as a positive model that can be both innovative and replicable. We’re looking for other opportunities with like-minded initiatives outside of New Orleans.

Another idea is to expand the Make It Right affordable sustainable housing model to other ravaged communities in New Orleans and even other cities like Newark. Is the new site model also considered as a likely export to other communities?  How are those practices being designed and tested from the beginning for easy replication elsewhere?

We are currently developing a long-term strategic plan within the organization, but collectively we all feel that this model works. The model of public private development that we have created here in New Orleans is very much a replicable model across the country. With rising sea levels and climate change and the need to completely rethink the way we’re handling our housing, landscape, and infrastructure, we feel we’ve been very successful. There are quite a few cities that we would like to collaborate with and think could benefit from that collaboration.

Newark is the first site of a new collaboration — we partnered with Help USA, William McDonough + Partners, and GRAFT to create a 56-unit multifamily housing project that is mixed-use. More than 25 percent of its occupants are disabled veterans. The site program incorporates healing processes through innovative urban agriculture and horticultural therapy. There are also alternative energy and green roof technology components. The model is working so far. We should break ground by the end of January on the project and we’ll see where we can where else we can take this model.

Lastly, what has the experience shown you about the role landscape architects can play in post disaster reconstruction? What has worked well and less well while working as part of a broader integrated team in post-disaster New Orleans? What are the key lessons for other Hurricane Katrina reconstruction, and now oil spill cleanup work?

I’ve been in a unique situation — I came from working in the town of Greensburg, which was destroyed by a tornado, to coming down to New Orleans a few years after it was destroyed by Katrina, and then even given the opportunity to go Haiti a few times post-earthquake. I think the biggest lessons learned is to be proactive instead of reactive in those situations. There’s a fine line between emergency recovery and rebuilding. The other important idea is waste equals food. Figure out every opportunity where you can create things out of what was previously there before. In New Orleans, there has been an entire economy based around deconstruction and the reuse of salvage materials and several jobs created from that. There’s a similar economy working in Haiti.

But as they relate to the overall green building industry, I think landscape architects have an uncanny ability to know the means to the end of a project and to be able to assist and collaborate with all the folks that have historically not collaborated well. I think that if you have the ability to bring together a multidisciplinary team that can understand technical, social, and ecological ramifications, then you’re in a much better place, and you’re making much more informed decisions. Frankly, I think myself and other landscape architect colleagues working with Make It Right have been able to bridge those gaps and make it more of an intuitive process that leads to a much more informed sustainable solution. I’m very much a proponent of bringing landscape architects into post-disaster situations because it’s just what we’re taught. The process of our education and design is a collaborative one and it proved to be a very good foundation for my experiences in Greensburg, New Orleans, as well as Haiti.

Interview conducted by Jared Green.

Image credits: (1) Tim Duggan, (2) Make It Right Foundation, (3) Siteworks Studio, (4) Make It Right Foundation

Quantifying the Benefits of the Sustainable Sites Initiative


Barbara Deutsch, Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) and Jose Alminana, FASLA, and Tom Amoroso, Affiliate ASLA, of Andropogon Associates discussed how to quantify the ecosystem services provided by sustainable landscapes using the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) prerequisites and credits and other tools and calculators (see earlier post) in a session at the 2010 GreenBuild.

SITES and LAF’s Landscape Performance Series

According to Barbara Deutsch, LAF’s Landscape Performance Series aims to make “landscape performance as well understood as building performance” among design professionals and also complement SITES. To quantify all the benefits of SITES projects, landscape architects must use a “collaborative, integrated, systems-based approach,” design for natural processes and use natural resources, collect performance data, and continually measure benefits over time. (see earlier post)

She implied the usual landscape architecture project brief, which often just lists a “set of features,” is pretty useless. “We actually need solutions so we need to communicate the benefits of these features.” For landscape architects, Deutsch said it’s important to just start “defining and quantifying benefits now. If we are going to start investing in sustainability, we need to show value, a return on investment.”

Quantifying Benefits in the Design and Development Phase of a SITES Pilot Project

Jose Alminana and Tom Amoroso of Andropogon, a Philadelphia-based landscape architecture firm, discussed a case study that demonstrate how to both apply SITES prerequisites and credits to projects in the design and development phase, and quantify the value of ecosystem services. Alminana said “any landscape can provide ecosystem services. It’s about putting a price tag on the value nature provides.”

Shoemaker Green, a 3.5-acre open space used often used for athletic events on the campus of University of Pennsylvania, was highlighted as an example of how to start quantifying benefits early in the design and development phase. The project, a SITES pilot project, is a hub for urban redevelopment and part of new UPenn leadership’s plans for preserving its network of open space and redeveloping underperforming areas.

Andropogon’s design is also expected to earn the project some 80 percent of SITES credits, said Alminana. SITES prerequisites 1.5 and 1.6, which relate to sustainably siting, were easily met because the project designers are redeveloping a brownfield site that already serves an existing community. “The site is next to existing transportation networks and amenities. This project is in a dense area with links to pedestrian paths and open spaces,” said Amoroso. 

To meet prerequisite 2.1, which asks project designers to “complete a pre-design site assessment,” Andropogon did in-depth studies of the site’s existing soils, vegetation, hydrology, and materials. On soils, Amoroso found that the existing site soils were “urban fill soils,” but the reference soils were “alluvial, common to floodplain areas.” Other studies were done by testing “soil borings, percolation rates, and levels of organic matter.” Soils are important for vegetation and water.

To determine water management capabilities on site, the team studied the hydrology and modeled the “aspect” in 3-D to determine the slope and path of water and the sun across the site, which will help determine which plants can be used. An inventory of existing materials was also conducted to determine how unearthed materials can be reused in the site to ensure the site has “zero-waste.”

In the “pre-design assessment,” the team said they would win credits for 2.3, “engaging users and other stakeholders in site design” because the team has set up regular meetings with user groups, a project steering committee, and clients. “We brought in a general contractor for pre-construction support,” to help streamline the design review process.

Moving into the actual design, the project team is expecting to earn credits by preserving open space networks, reducing potable water use by 75 percent (credit 3.2), and addressing stormwater management on site (credit 3.5). To store stormwater on site, Andropogon used a system of “silva cells” and tree trenches, porous pavers, and raingardens to deal with the first inch of rainwater and a cistern as a water storage depot. Finally, for major flood events, there is infrastrucuture to direct water to the combined sewer system.

Alminana said the site “can deal with runoff from adjacent buildings and store up to 87,000 gallons per year,” which translates into real economic value for the university given Philadelphia now has high stormwater run-off fees calculated based on impervious surface areas. Amoroso added that “previously, 70 percent of the site was impervious. We will flip this to 70 percent pervious.”

The project can accrue credits for its soil management plan (credit 4.3), preservation and restoration of moved trees (credit 4.6), and use of recycled materials (credit 5.5). The team plans to mimize excavation, but where it’s inevitable, reuse broken up asphalt in the site structure and achieve zero-waste. This means lots of avoided expense taking materials to landfill, as well as avoided CO2 emissions.

Unfortunately, because urban soils don’t work with a lot of the sustainable vegetation and water systems, new soils will need to be trucked in though, perhaps adding to the project’s carbon footprint. While sustainable soils, water, and plants are crucial to any restorative landscape, project estimates for C02 emissions should be included in the mix of what’s tracked.

Calculating Gains in Construction Efficiency and Learning from Monitoring and Evaluation Results

The Salvation Army community center in central Philadelphia was used to explain how SITES construction credits work. The 11-acre site was redeveloped on a brownfield and now includes an integrated water management system. “For 2-year storm events, we calculated we reduced run-off by 99 percent, and for 100-year storm events, reduced run-off by 79 percent.”

The project would win all the credits for using recycled content (5.5) because reused concrete was integrated into the site. To achieve zero-waste, Alminana said you first need to create a plan for dealing with the materials in the beginning. “We focused on material sorting, upcycling and material placement in the site, and then backfill and grading and planting soil mixes.”

He said this approach worked, but it was “hard to quantify this benefit.” They eventually calculated they saved $300,000 in truck hauling fees. However, avoided CO2 emissions from material transportation wasn’t calculated.

Lastly, Alminana discussed Thomas Jefferson University’s Luebert Plaza, which is “basically a green roof over a parking lot,” in the context of SITES credit 9.1, which calls for “monitoring performance of sustainable design practices.” In this case, they found the soils weren’t working as planned. The plaza had to be watered twice a day to keep the grasses alive.

“We had to use soils that dry quickly so they don’t soak up too much water and put strain on the green roof structure. As a result, the root systems didn’t need to grow all the way down and the soil wasn’t balanced.” Tests showed that the there was too much bacteria and not enough fungi. The project team came up with a “customized organic composting tea” that “favors this species,” which helped reduce irrigation by 40 percent, eliminate chemical fertilizers, increase root growth, and limit compaction. Soils are key to the functioning of the site. “This demonstrates that beauty isn’t skin deep, but, in fact, you need to dig below the surface.”

Learn more at the Sustainable Sites Initiative.

Biophilia: “An Innate Emotional Affiliation with Nature”


Bill Browning, LEED AP, Terrapin / Bright Green LLC, Keith Bowers, ASLA, Biohabitats, and Carol Franklin, FASLA, Andropogon Associates covered developments in biophilic building and landscape design. Biophilia, as defined by the famed biologist E.O. Wilson, is “the innate emotional affiliation of human beings with other living organisms.” Some argue that biophilia is the result of “genetic memories.”

Browning said he first became interested in biophilia when examining case studies that showed that mail room workers became 6-16 percent more productive when they had access to sunlight. Another seminal 1984 study by Roger Ulrich found that patients recovering from surgery did much better viewing some trees and shrubs than those that just had a view of a brick wall. Additionally, those with views of nature took half the painkillers and made half as many nurses calls as the ones without the view. These results helped spur on the healing gardens movement, which has spread to many hospitals (but unfortunately, not all).

There are a number of ways people experience biophilia:

1) Nature in space: “This is obvious — it’s about bringing people into contact with nature,” said Browning. Flowers in an apartment, goldfish in a bowl, indoor plants, and outdoor courtyards are examples of “bringing nature to us.” However, nature really has to be outside to “grab our attention.” Plants moving in the wind grab people’s attention instantaneously because of the subtle shifts of plants’ fractal movement (see earlier post). “It may also be why we are so fascinated with fireplaces and light dancing on waves,” said Browning.

2) Natural Analogs: Ornamentation, patterns on or within buildings read like nature to us even if they are made out of stone.

3) Nature of the Space: “This is the most powerful and maybe the hardest to understand.” Humans are attracted to both prospect views (clear views of expanses) as well as the oppositive, refuges or close, tight safe spaces. Browning posited that people are trying to recreate the prospect views of the Savannah when they create lawns, parks, or golf courses (these are all natural analogs). “We feel comfortable in these spaces so we keep recreating.”

The idea is to use these all these ideas in landscape design. In addition, Keith Bowers, ASLA, said biophilia can inform big-picture work in landscape ecology, conservation biology, and restoration ecology. He said there’s an inherent human need for nature and universal design strategies, which can be used to create life-enhancing environments. Bowers pointed to large-scale restoration projects in South Carolina and the San Francisco Bay area to demonstrate how restored landscapes can provide intense biophilic reactions.

But there are also a range of challenges that are increasingly complicating ecological restoration work. “We are now in the largest period mass extinction in 65 million years — the Holocene Era.” According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s Red List, some 1/4 mammals, 1/8 birds, 1/3 conifers, and 1/3 amphibians face the threat of extinction. An additional 51 percent of reptiles, 52 percent of insects, and 73 percent of flowering plants are also on the unsafe list. Additional challenges include habitat fragmentation, top soil loss and nitrification, water shortages, invasive species, and climate change.

To create biophilic landscapes and address these challenges, landscape architects may need to restore for the future, not the past. “We need to create the original ecosystem plus its eventual trajectory.” In addition, the result may be “new novel ecosystems” that the planet has never seen before. However, Bowers noted that “all of this needs to be rooted in science — in biology, ecology” (see earlier post).

Carol Franklin, FASLA, said LEED has some major problems because it often results in “hideous” buildings and landscapes. By using LEED, designers sometimes “lose biophilia,” and create a non-living landscape. The Sustainable Sites Initiative is, in large part, landscape architects’ response to the issues they see with LEED. Overall though, it represents an attempt to find the metrics to define how a living landscape performs. “SITES sees landscapes as living systems.”

The Living Building Challenge (see earlier post), a rating system Franklin was particularly excited about, considers multiple scales, encourages retrofits (instead of new unsustainable development), and mandates that buildings provide beauty and inspiration. “LEED only give us a minute number of points for innovation,” while the Living Building Challenge seems to keep innovation at its core and call for bioregional approaches to design. “The Living Building Challenge encourage us to measure aliveness.”

As an example, Franklin pointed to the Rubinstein School of Natural Resources at the University of Vermont and the Center for Sustainable Landscape at Phipps Conservancy, two buildings and landscapes that met the Challenge’s goals of zero-energy, zero-water, and capturing all water on-site. In the case of a new landscape Andropogon Associates is working on at the Center for Sustainable Landscape, there will be stepped terraces providing a Savannah-like view for employees and visitors, zones of vegetation, and an engineered, regenerative landscape that will treat and circulate water. Jose Alimana, FASLA, (see an interview) said the detention basin for the water will be a “swimming pool, made naturally clean by the plants and soils.”

Image credit: Pine Forest / Flickr

Using Constructed Wetlands to Treat Wastewater


At the ASLA 2010 Annual Meeting, Carol Franklin, FASLA, a landscape architect with AndropogonJeff Speck, Hon. ASLA, an innovative smart growth planner, and engineers from the firm Natural System Utilities discussed the benefits of using constructed wetlands for wastewater treatment. Along the spectrum of decentralized wastewater treatment systems, there are fully-natural systems (often used in rural or suburban areas), engineered constructed wetland (used in denser suburban areas), and membrane biological reactors (reserved for high-density urban areas because of their high cost).

Natural Systems

Used in areas where there is ample land, natural systems feature constructed wetlands that are “mechanically simple, yet biologically complex,” said Paul Knowles of Natural System Utilities. These systems feature a basin of gravel through which wastewater flows, and encounters a natural system with “biological, physical and chemical conditions for purification.”  They are often planted with indigenous plant species to enhance biodiversity. Plants and bacteria, which are powered by the sun, break down pollutants and cleanse the wastewater. “Nature has already done a good job already,” so the only thing to do is harness natural systems.  

Constructed Wetlands

Engineered constructed wetlands often feature “mechanical aeration” to enhance their performance.  “Numerous processes are responsible for wastewater purification, including phytoremediation, microbiological mineralization, filtration by gravel and gravitational sedimentation. All components of the system have a role to play.” Knowles explained: “these are the kidneys of landscape.”

In one example of on-site wastewater treatment in a compact neighborhood, Jeff Speck, Hon. ASLA explained how wastewater flows out of household toilets and sinks into wetlands, then sand filtration systems. By this time, the water is about as high-quality as potable water, but “just to be safe, there is an additional mechanical filtration system” that uses UV to blast out any remaining pollutants. The water can then be reused to water landscapes or sent back to households for toilets. 

Carol Franklin, FASLA, also discussed the constructed wetland at Sidwell Friends school (see earlier post). In this green school for the sons and daughters of Washington, D.C.’s elite, there are two separate systems “that connect, but don’t interact”: a wastewater treatment system and stormwater runoff collection system. The wastewater treatment system runs toilet and sink water into a series of wetlands, where plants, soils (and sands) filter out pollutants so water can be reused to water roof plants and flush toilets. The wetland system is also educational: students can see and test the water quality throughout the wetland cleansing cycle.

Membranes and Biological Reactors

These rather expensive systems are often reserved for high-rise buildings in high-density urban areas. They are found in the basements of buildings, and are comprised of a series of tanks that filter out specific pollutants, and then push water towards a membrane filter. The Solaire building in Manhattan uses a bioreactor to recycle 25,000 gallons of wastewater each day to water gardens, flush toilets, and cool HVAC systems.

Speck concluded that these solutions can be “used at every scale and footprint.” The most cost-effective systems are spread-out — only four acres of wetland is needed to process the wastewater of 1,000 households. “These four acres can even be part of a park.” Additionally, spread-out systems require less up-front costs in comparison with bioreactors.

Another benefit: water in dry areas like Arizona and Texas is expensive for households. Pointing to a community in Arizona that uses a constructed wetland system, Speck said they are spending half as much on water in comparison with communities next door without these systems.

Also, these constructed wetlands can do more than treat wastewater. According to Knowles, they can deal with industrial effluents and be used in fisheries, agriculture/dairy facilities, mines (to deal with phosphate), landfills (to address leachate), and airports (to address runway runoff). “De-icers used on runways are particularly nasty. Buffalo airports’ runoff equals that of 50,000 people’s wastewater,” Knowles explained.

Image credit: Constructed Natural Wetland System / Wikipedia Commons

Philadelphia’s Cutting-edge Green Infrastructure Plan


More than a hundred years ago, Philadelphia set the standard for water and sanitation, creating one of the world’s first modern water management systems. To this day, tourists are still coming to view the more than 3,000 miles of underground water works. Now, Philadelphia Water Department’s Office of Watersheds may be leading the next generation of innovation in water infrastructure with its plans to roll-out an ambitious $1.6 billion green infrastructure plan, which would use rain gardens, green roofs, pervious pavements, and trees to recycle and reuse rainwater.  According to one study, “one inch of rain water hitting one acre of asphalt means 27,000 gallons of water” is going into the sewer. For a city like Philadelphia, that means billions of gallons are flooding its now aged water management system.

The green infrastructure proposal would turn 1/3 of the city’s impervious asphalt surface, or 4,000 acres, into absorptive green spaces. The goal is to move from grey to green infrastructure. Grey infrastructure includes “man-made single purpose systems.” Green infrastructure is defined as “man-made structures that mimic natural systems.” As an example, networks of man-made wetlands, restored flood plains, or infiltration basins would all qualify as green infrastructure. The benefits of such systems include: evaporation, transpiration, enhanced water quality, reduced erosion / sedimentation, and restoration. Some grey / green infrastructure feature integrated systems that create hybrid detention ponds or holding tanks, which are designed to slow water’s release into stormwater management systems.

Christine Knapp, PennFuture, said a green infrastructure plan is desperately needed to deal with Philly’s combined sewer system. (A combined sewer system doesn’t have separate infrastructure for stormwater and sewage). Because the city’s system is combined, when there’s heavy rain, more than 1/4 of homes and 1/3 of businesses experience sewage back-up and overflow. “That has a real economic impact on property and is a major health issue.” She added that the highest concentrations of impervious areas are also located in the poorest parts of town:


Options for fixing the overflow issue include: (1) separating the stormwater and sewage system, a solution “requiring billions,” which isn’t practical, (2) building more sewage holding tanks, which would be spread throughout the city, creating lots of NIMBY issues, or (3) green infrastructure, in which water would be captured on site. Interestingly, while the green infrastructure idea is the most innovative, it’s also the most cost-efficient. “The green infrastructure proposal is really a response to the city’s financial constraints,” Knapp said.

The Philadelphia city government already seems to be moving in the direction of green infrastructure. City rules declare that all new buildings must capture the first inch of water on site. The idea, Knapp says, is to “use stormwater to feed grass and trees instead of letting it rush into the sewer.” Recent additions to those rules ensure stormwater fees are now calculated based on size of impervious surfaces instead of the amount of water used (which has no relation to stormwater run-off).  “For a big warehouse downtown with lots of parking spaces, they could be looking at half a million in stormwater fees per year,” said Kate Houstoun, Director of Green Initiatives, Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia. The rules incentivize green roofs and yanking out parking lots in favor of man-made landscapes.

The new comprehensive green infrastructure proposal, which has yet to achieve EPA or Philadelphia city council approvals, would call for $1.6 billion in investment in these natural systems over a 20 year period. EPA approval would also give access to revolving green infrastructure funds. City council approval is needed for stormwater management rate changes on private property. The $1.6 billion, which would be collected through fees, private and public investment, would help “streets, schools, and all open spaces” be more pervious, added Knapp. (One study cited said regular park lawn is 80 percent as impervious as asphalt. “So, not all green spaces are actually pervious.”) In making their case, the city is calling for a triple-bottom line approach, aiming for: more green spaces, improved public health, and more green jobs.

The plan would also link up well with the recently launched Green Works Philadelphia plan, which calls for 300,000 new city trees by 2015.

Learn more in the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia’s report: Grey to Green: Jumpstarting  Private Investment in Green Stormwater Infrastructure.

This is part three in a three-part series on the “Good Jobs, Green Jobs” conference recently held in Washington, D.C. Read part one, Moving Towards a Green Economy, and part two, Rebuilding Communities through Brownfield Rehabilitation.

Image credit: (1) Green Infrastructure Digest (Hawkins Partners) / Grey to Green: Jumpstarting  Private Investment in Green Stormwater Infrastructure, (2) TreeVitalize / Grey to Green: Jumpstarting  Private Investment in Green Stormwater Infrastructure.