Thursday, November 29, 2007

For the Love of Trees

A number of articles in the past few days about the purposeful and sometimes not-so-purposeful changes we are making to our lovely local flora. The first article, from the Seattle Times - Nov. 27: "Trees giving bizarre clues to climate change" talks about trees as an early warning system to climate change by providing indicators in the form of increased cone production. The article mostly talked with childlike glee about the Wind River Canopy Crane (pictured below) which allows researchers to hoist themselves high into canopies to conduct scientific experiments.

There are specific plants that have been seen to bloom earlier in the spring, due to climate changes. These changes are harder to detect in trees, but scientists are finding new signs. In addition to increased cone production, bud production is a possible sign of impacts climate change may have, causing potential earlier budding due to higher temperatures earlier in the season. Global warming also will potentially increase fires and insect infestations. Research has also shown that older forest sequester huge amounts of carbon, and that removal would cause a imbalance in the carbon impact that would take years to correct. Yeah for old-growth. Also mentioned is a plan for a National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) which would provide much needed additional data for a variety of ecological systems.

This follows nicely with other recent reports about widespread climate change and the adjustment of USDA Hardiness zones, and the Impacts to Local ecosystems. I'm personally looking forward to Portland area getting to USDA hardiness zone 8 or 9, which could bring in some additional plants to a palette that is frankly getting a little stale...

On a more direct note, the first of two in the Oregonian, from Nov. 28, entitled: "Experts aiming to build a better biofuel tree" addresses a favorite plant topic - genetic engineering... North Carolina State University researchers are developing trees with reduced amounts of lignin, which although useful in providing structural stability to trees, is detrimential in turning cellulose into into biofuels. While energy sources from plants are admirable, making the leap from crops to trees is another matter. Also, robbing trees of the very structural fabric of which they depend seems cruel, on the likes of the 'Boneless Chicken Farm' from the Far Side cartoon:

Aside from the functional aspects, it strikes to the heart of our association with trees as a more mythical and special type of plant. From the article:

"The general public is not going to look at trees at this point as a row crop," said Susan McCord, executive director of the Institute of Forest Biotechnology in Raleigh, N.C. "The same is true of foresters. The people who go into that work, they love trees. They view them very differently than a row of corn."

The second, somewhat more noble article, "Scientists grow new lease on life for majestic trees" features selective cloning of old-growth redwood trees in California in efforts to restore forests throughout the world. By using techniques that are common to plant propagation for centuries, the trees are virtually identical to the original... creating, in the words of one of William Libby, "...reliability and control you don't have with seedlings." The nonprofit called the Champion Tree Project International is working to clone significant trees around the world - including Methuselah (pictured below), a bristlecone pine thought to be the oldest tree in the world at a ripe 4,700 years.

Both of these articles outline approaches to manipulation of trees to suit our needs, whether they be veiled in a search for alternative fuel sources, or protection and perpetuation of natural treasures. While both sides evoke an understandable ethical dilemma, there is a very sharp distinction between the two. Cloning, which is a widely used technique to reproduce plants, is a far cry from manipulating the innate genetic structure of plants. On one hand, to clone a plant to save and restore it is noble. On the other, it is a slippery slope between protection for good reasons, and creation of some freakish plant zoo of significant trees - especially when it gives us the ability to replace things we should be saving - giving us more creedence to continue to harm the environment because we can replace what is damaged in the process.

On the flip side, genetic engineering to alter the very structure of a plant for our own rampant energy consumption needs, by ridding it of its natural protection against damage and pests, is crossing a line. Is it because of the difference of a 'crop' vs. a tree being that of an annual vs. a perennial - something less sacrificial? Plant modification is significant with cultivated varieties, but there is no strong stance from the landscape industry on the perils/merits of genetic engineering. Do we turn the other cheek when it grows plants that are hardy, bloom longer, with brightly colored blossoms? Or do we stop due to a distaste for the entire idea of genetic modification due mostly to it's unknown consequences?

Or, if a limp, lignin-free tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound?

Very Urban Agriculture

An interesting story - Going Agro, from BLDGBLOG via Dwell... Overall, it is regarding the meshing of agriculture and building - definitely a blending of landscape and architecture in inventive ways.

(photo from BLDGBLOG - via Knafo Kilmor Architects - see their site for more info)

This concept brings up some interesting future scenarios of the need for multi-functional landscape interventions, which will most likely occupy space on/in buildings, as open space is reduced. While there will always be a need for nature, in the form of terra firma, recent dialogue regarding Peak Oil has offered many compelling arguments related to our need to reform a variety of processes, a significant one being food production.

The City of Portland recently commissioned a report entitled 'Descending the Oil Peak: Navigating the Transition from Oil and Natural Gas' - prepared by the Peak Oil Task Force. While hinting at a possibility of anarchist doom and gloom, it is a relatively straightforward approach to preparing ourselves for the possibility of severe changes in lifestyle due to our current reliance on fossil fuels. The recommendations, which to their credit includes a call to 'Act Big, Act Now', even though estimates range from 10-40 years before impacts will be felt, span Transportation and Land Use, Food and Agriculture, Economic Impacts, and Impacts to Public and Social Services.

There were a couple of interesting points, both in a shift to more local economies and agricultural systems, and the ways in which we develop and inhabit land. As a conceptual strategy to move us towards more thoughtful planning, including more density, better mass transit, public spaces, mixed use centers so people can live near work, and on... pretty much the sustainable urbanist princples in a nutshell. Will Peak Oil cause us to come to our senses?

From an urban agriculture perspective, the interesting aspects include a shift to more old fashioned technologies and the need for a re-education of the masses on ideas such as growing food, canning, preservation. How will these educational strategies shift building, in such a way as the modern and designerly agenda shown above, or more of a return to nature strategy that involves us getting our hands dirty, learning how to grow things, and getting satisfaction out of battling slugs with beer, and picking warm cherry tomatoes from the vine. Hopefully both?

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Modes of Representation

Back to Integrating Habitats... and the need for graphic representation techniques that are up to the challenges of representing time-based processes in viable ways. There are two polar opposites on the continuum - one is traditional graphic representation techniques, involving the ubiquitous rendered site plan, sketches, and such. The other is the deconstructed graphic that is both illegible and frustrating - or as i just heard - i am paraphrasing: inaccessible because it is essentially visual masturbation that only speaks to a select few in the intellectual realms. (this statement was specifically directed towards Alan Berger, but could nonetheless apply a fair number of folks when it comes down to it).

Representation is also tied closely with writing, which i'm interested in exploring further. I have slogged through some dense reading (and subsequent dense graphics) and am constantly amazed at the intellectual rigor of most writers on the subject of Landscape Urbanism. A part of me also yearns for a complex yet simplified style such a J.B. Jackson. Is the complexity necessary to convey the depth of concepts? Or is it a variant form - verbal masturbation - to elevate the writer to a higher plane of credibility?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Reading List: The World Without Us

I recently finished 'The World Without Us' by Alan Weisman. While not exactly what i imagined when i started reading, it definitely was captivating enough in terms of a compelling future vision of life. The nutshell is that life is for some unforeseen reason, mysteriously vanished from the earth. Or i should say, human life, that is.

:: book cover image via The World Without Us

Everything else is left to frolic and adapt to the environment that is left in our wake. Certain areas and species heal and adapt, others degenerate due to lack of human intervention, and others - well, they either degrade over millenia (plastics, nuclear materials), or await the unfortunate small mammal that stumbles upon them (underground vaults for volatile gases, nuclear waste). While painting a picture around some of the less touched spaces in the world (ancient Polish forests, for instance) and providing some real visions of deterioration (New York City devolving into nature) - what was lacking was a real picture of what this means.

My question, why write the book? Is it a plausible future to envision? Perhaps, but is it motivated by a need to teach us something. Maybe, but the conclusion, which took me totally by surprise, was a plug for population control. While a large proponent of this concept from way back college reading of the family Ehrlich, I failed to see the connection to the idea of us all being gone.

:: Photo of a flooded City of Jafaa via Naked in Nuhaka
So my summary conclusion is that for all of us to disappear would be bad - due to the instability that would create via our technologies. The other conclusion is that we must reduce the amount of people that are here, or, some portion of us (a lot) should disappear, but enough should remain to man the controls. With impending Peak Oil, global warming, and other looming catastrophes, will this rationale be the one that finally leads us to an awakening to slow down our inevitable decline... or will be laugh at the vision of new york and the world degenerating, ala 'The Day After Tommorrow'. Guess we'll find out.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Cradle to Cradle Development

The Greenbridge Development in Chapel Hill, North Carolina is on the docket for Christmas vacation, is of course, a trip to see the first Cradle-to-Cradle (C2C) development in the US, created by William McDonough. The website is vague on how this meetings C2C goals, but does give some indication of the overall project goals, which i'm guessing, is to be the showcase project for MBDC and yet another certification system.

:: Photo via IndyWeek

The following quote was excerpted from the Greenbridge Development site:

"A hallmark of modern construction is the use of innovative building techniques and materials. Greenbridge takes this one step further by building with innovative GREEN TECHNOLOGY. All of the condo's most essential utilities will work in ways rarely seen in conventional housing. Heating, cooling, water, electricity will all be run by Green Technology. When green technology is incorporated into a structure, the average utility costs are decreased by 50% - according to the U.S. Department of Energy. In addition, green buildings require less maintenance and repair, and promote better health among occupants. However, green buildings don't just benefit the individual, they benefit our society at large by reducing the environmental impact of a structure."

Additionally, the site listed multiple reasons for C2C development that will be remedied with this project:

@ Buildings consume more than 35% of all energy and more than 65% of all electricity used in the United States. In NC, almost two-thirds of our electricity is produced from burning coal, which pollutes our air and water and fills our atmosphere with greenhouse gases, resulting in global

@ Each day five billion gallons of potable water is used in buildings solely to flush toilets. A typical North American commercial construction project generates 2.5 pounds of solid waste per square foot of complete floor space.

@ Conventional development transforms forests and fields from natural, biologically-diverse habitats to hardscape that is impervious and devoid of biodiversity "

:: Photo from CoolTownStudios

So how does one develop a cradle-to-cradle development versus a product? Looking at the concept of C2C, that would mean that the entire development meets the goals. Also, aside from roof terrace/ecoroof, it would interesting to see how the landscape is intertwined with the concepts. More to come, post x-mas, i'm sure...

Reading List: Center 14, On Landscape Urbanism

I just received this copy of Center 14: On Landscape Urbanism, and have yet to delve into it in great depth due to the current Integrating Habitats Competition that i've been working on.

:: Link to Center 14 via Amazon

The interesting fact of the book is its scope, ranging from some of the initial pre-landscape urbanism thinkers that have paved the way to current theory (Ian McHarg, Pierce Lewis, Anne Whiston Spirn, to name a few), along with the typical cast of characters (Corner, Waldheim, Allen, etc.) that have become synonymous with the landscape urbanism movement. The goal, aside from comprehensiveness, is to provide a summary textbook format for teaching as well. This is a great companion to the steadily increasing library for landscape urbanism reading.


This is set up to be my clearinghouse of musings on Landscape Urbanism, Landscape Architecture, and Planning, Design and related subjects. I'm not really planning on this for public consumption, rather an electronic journal of things that interest me, a chance to write more often, and an outlet for thoughts. But if perchance someone happens to stop by, welcome and feel free to contribute/comment.

My interest in landscape urbanism as a specific topic has been relatively recent, but upon discussion and further investigation, i realized that many ideas that i have been interested in over the years have threads in common with landscape urbanist theory, and really struck me as a vital theoretical outlet. My interests in general are diverse, so my guess is that the content will wander, but a concept like landscape urbanism seems to have enough breadth to accomodate a perpetual generalist.

So onward...