Sunday, November 29, 2009

Dos Años

Just a quick not to say thanks to everyone who has followed, commented, supported, linked and read the blog over the past two years. With an unofficial million + pageviews and another almost half-million visits, the experience has far exceeded my expectations (which frankly were minimal).

:: image via business card tips

As usual, the page will evolve over time, and there should be some interesting adjustments in focus and content in 2010 as my professional career and constantly continues to evolve and interests mutate and diversify as will happen. Stay tuned and thanks again all!

Friday, November 27, 2009

WPA 2.0 Student Finalists

As a follow-up to the previous post, the student award finalists were announced as well, including a few of the notables images from some of the entries.

“R_Ignite” was designed by four graduate students of the Manchester School of Architecture – Peter Millar, Jamie Potter, Andy Wilde and Stuart Wheeler. This proposal revitalizes port cities and greens the shipwrecking industry through the addition of recycling and social activities."

:: image via Bustler

“Aquaculture Canal_New Orleans,” by Fadi Masoud, a Landscape Architecture student at the University of Toronto, envisions the New Orleans’ Industrial Canal as productive infrastructure for flood control and aquaculture. The jury noted that the winning submissions were ideal as a pair, representing the range of innovative ideas relevant to WPA 2.0."

:: image via Bustler

Additional finalists included:

St Viaduct: Polytechnic HighSchool & Transportation Center; Studio Three - Douglas Segulja - Parsons School of Constructed Environments

Fluctuating Freeway Ecologies; The Crop - Gary Garcia . Marc Yeber . Iris Tsai . Xiaoye Zhang - USC School of Architecture

urban ConAgraculture; Dale Luebbert - University of Nebraska

Cash for Clunkers = Bike Sharing for Chicago; M-Squared - Matt Moore IIT

Topographic Infrastructure: Hollywood Freeway Central Park; YMeng; Meng Yang; USC School of Architecture

Just the names themselves sound intriguing, and there will undoubtedly be some additional images of the rest of the student winners down the line a bit, so stay tuned. Amazing work and great to see the interdisciplinary nature of infrastructure realized with a mix of architecture and landscape architecture student's getting honored. I hope to follow up with some thoughts (beyond this simple rehashing on the words and images) in due time.

WPA 2.0 Winners

[post corrected on 12.13.09]

I have been remiss in posting about the WPA 2.0 competition beyond this initial post way back when... it's been exciting to see both the professional and student awards coming together into a fabulous compilation on information on the reinvention of public infrastructure. So alas, it w
as time to capture at least a portion of the great ideas that came from the submittals.

Carbon T.A.P // Tunnel Algae Park
The grand prize winner of the competition was: "... the brainchild of PORT architects Andrew Moddrell and Christopher Marcinkoski of Chicago and New York. The proposal uses algae pontoons to capture mobile-source carbon-dioxide emissions along New York City’s transportation arteries and employ them in bio-fuel production, creating an urban park with structured wetlands, aquatic and avian habitat, recreation amenities, as well as high speed bike lanes and public promenades. The jury... was unanimous in its decision, citing two primary qualities: The floating, carbon-capturing bridge between Brooklyn and Manhattan would be a visible marker for the tunnel hidden below, and the periodic rotation of the parkway across the river had the power to reshape the image of the city."

:: images via Bustler

There is also a video of the winner here:

The remainder of the finalists are captured on the WPA site (provided by competition sponsor cityLAB), from this post on Bustler. The other five finalist entries are found below:

"Through the development of integrated, ecologically sensitive, and aesthetically compelling architecture, this proposal seeks to turn the often mechanistic infrastructural system of LA - in this case, the waterworks - into an interactive and sensory series of public nodes. As mist platforms/light rail stations, urban beaches, energy producing water treatment plants, solar-panel encased water towers, pools, and aquatic parking lots, these water-based landscapes become organizational moments for community building."

:: images via Bustler

Local Code / Real Estates
"Tapping into the Department of Public Works catalogue of San Francisco's "unaccepted streets" (those no longer maintained by the city and hence neglected and often impassable), this proposal utilizes various computer models and statistical data to determine and propose new public, park-based uses for these interstitial spaces. Over 1600 of these sites are available, a selection of which are analyzed for the proposal in terms of elevation and topography, microclimate, soil type, hydrology, population density and demographics, economics, crime, and existing networks to determine the most parametrically appropriate transformation of use."

:: images via Bustler

Coupling Infrastructures: Water Economies/Ecologies
"This proposal focuses on America’s impending water crisis, particularly in cities in the southwest where growth is high and water availability is limited, by rethinking water use, distribution, and storage. Using the Salton Sea as a model site, the proposal envisions “converting the Sea back to its recreational use while allowing multiple economic opportunities for the production of water, salt, and more efficient greenhouses.” Here “infrastructure [becomes] an extension of nature.” Island pods provide for salt harvesting, recreation, and new animal habitats."

:: images via Bustler

Border Wall as Infrastructure
“[T]here exists far more potential in a construction project that is estimated to cost up to $1,325.75 per linear foot.” Recognizing the high cost, limited effectiveness and unintended natural consequences of the new, multi-layered US/Mexico border wall (disruption of animal habitats, diversion of water runoff that has caused new flooding in nearby towns), this proposal names 30 alternatives (covering nearly the whole of the Mexican alphabet, literally from Aqueduct wall to Zen wall) that might better combat the energy crisis, risk of death from dehydration, disruption of animal habitat, loss of vegetation, negative labor relations, missing creative vision and lack of cross-cultural appreciation likely in the government sponsored version."

:: images via Bustler

1,000,000,000 Global Water Refugees
"Combining the rust belts’ loss of population with its abundance of fresh water, this proposal outlines a strategy for redensification of under-utilized post-industrial landscapes (parts of Milwaukee, Buffalo, Detroit, Chicago, and Cleveland) by relocating populations threatened by water scarcity."

:: images via Bustler

Urban Farming Video

The illustrious Will Allen, via City Farmer:

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Urban Crude

One the most fascinating passages of the book 'The Infrastructural City' was the chapter on oil production that still existed in a variety of forms throughout the urban form. The fabulous Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) has done some investigations, which are captured on a post in the Places portion of the Design Observer site.

:: image via Places

"Los Angeles is the most urban oil field, where the industry operates in cracks, corners, and edges, hidden behind fences, and camouflaged into architecture, pulling oil out from under our feet. . . . Los Angeles is an active laboratory for how to extract oil from a developed city, something more likely to occur as the world urbanizes. Generally considered unsightly, dirty, and smelly, the oil industry has had to develop defenses against the rising value of the land and the encroachment of housing and retail. Sound muffling technology, visual barriers, and the concentration of wells into smaller areas, using directional drilling techniques to access fields through diagonal and horizontal wells, are all technologies developed here."

One aspect beyond the mere existence of these in the city, but also interesting was the methods of hiding this infrastructure within the urban form. One of these is the Venoco Oil Field Tower, which is " urban drilling and work-over tower is clad in soundproof insulation, decorated during the permitting process".

:: image via Places

Or the Breitburn Energy’s Cardiff Well Site which has the "...drilling and work-over derrick is concealed within a tower which vaguely alludes to synagogue architecture."

:: image via Places

A slideshow offers many more images in typical CLUI style. It brings to mind the ideas mentioned in the recent post on Subnature, where we want the pure urbanism, but are often forced to incorporate some of the messiness of natural resources and industrialism in our cities - and what that leads us to come up with for ideas.

As We Found Them... As We Leave Them

A provocative image found in an email from the local Audubon Society email offers the visual of 'As We Found Them... As We Leave Them', a Jay “Ding” Darling cartoon from 1923, as a statement about the state of our rivers in the face of urbanization.

The reason for the email was an upcoming hearing on the Willamette River in Portland. The text:

"On Wednesday, December 16th at 630 pm Portland City Council will hold its first hearing on the North Reach River Plan. This is a unique opportunity to reverse more than a century of degradation in the Willamette River as it passes through Portland. The North Reach stretches 11 miles from the Fremont Bridge to the Confluence with the Columbia River. It is one of the most degraded stretches of river in the United States.

The North Reach Plan is the City's first major update to the zoning code and design guidelines for this stretch of River since 1987. The Plan took more than two years to develop and proposes more than $500 million in new infrastructure to support river industries and new trail alignments that will provide the public with greater access to the river. The Plan also proposes critical new strategies to protect and restore habitat in the North Reach. Specifically the plan proposes the following:

• Environmental Zoning to provide baseline protections for the most important riparian and upland resources;
• A system of 21 permanently protected restoration sites designed to allow listed salmon and steelhead to safely pass through the North Reach;
• A funding structure that requires industry to fully mitigate to replace existing habitat that is eliminated in the course of development and a small additional fee which will go towards supporting habitat improvement in the North Reach.

We expect strong industry opposition to this plan. Industry has been arguing to eliminate environmental regulations on industrial properties and to gut the proposed funding mechanisms. If they have their way, the regulations established under the new River Plan would be even weaker than the regulations that we have today---the regulations that have already allowed the North Reach to become the most degraded stretch of river in Oregon.

Get out and protect the rivers in Portland people. Questions can be directed to Audubon via Conservation Director Bob Sallinger.

Reading List: Subnature

Another book that engaged me on my hiatus from blogging is one I picked up on somewhat of a whim as it looked like a fascinating read. I wasn't disappointed, as 'Subnature: Architecture's Other Environments" by David Gissen, quickly became impossible to put down. The reason? It really tackles some interesting terrain that is definitely at the fringes of architecture and landscape, which typically addresses the realms purity and order, whether in terms of materials or the messy nature in cities.

To quickly summarize the main components of subnatures, these include: dankness, smoke, gas, exhaust, dust, puddles, mud, debris, weeds, insects, pigeons, and crowds.

The idea of subnature comes from a hierarchy between the supernatural (above nature) and the natural (our current world view), to include this subset of nature in which existence seems difficult if not impossible. Definitely not the standard fare of typical books on architecture, particularly in our current fascination with new space-age materials and technologies to solve problems, while only a minor
ity instead looking at context, natural materiality and process. Gissen's main thesis is we can capture the essence of these subnatures, we may, "...arrive at a truly radical and alternative concept of what environment means."

:: grotto - image via symphonies naturelles

This is specifically engaging, as the evolution of the book, as explained by Gissen in the introduction, is that this information collected here was the residual ephemera from a more focused study an architecture and nature, including a range of historical and contemporary source material from a wide range of sources. While the main academic pursuit of 'natural architecture' is perfe
ctly relevant, (his dissertation included an 'exploration of nature in modern NYC buildings in the 70s) - the leftovers make for a much more interested concept.

So why is the subnature so interesting, specifically in the context of architecture and urbanism? Gissen mentions some of this context: "I draw on architectural and urban design theorists' key texts and contemporary practicioners' recent design to examine how both grou
ps envision peripheral and often denigrated forms of nature..." In essence, it's not just a historical look at unconsidered materials, but a way of looking at the natural processes in a new way. This is perhaps more authentic than many of the explorations and misuse of the word 'ecologies' (or landscape for that matter) in modern parlance, which takes a much broader (and cleaner) cultural view of interactions between organisms and environments.

:: mud - image via ridgeway

There is some precedence for this realm of inquiry, including a few mentioned in the book. These include Antoine Picon's ideas of anxious landscapes, Gilles Clement's writing on the third landscape, and Francois Roche's (from R&Sie(n))
term corrupted biotopes - all of which explore postindustrial landscapes, debris, polluted ecologies, damaged nature. This coincides with some of our recent fascination with the dirty - including a focus on brownfields, post-industrial landscapes, vacant lands, air/water pollution, and other non traditional sites.

This is also why it is interesting to landscape architecture, as it is a clear refutation of the hermetic condition of pure architecture (i.e. a finished product offering refuge from 'outside'), and the desire to apply this condition to that of landscape, which is constantly in flux and infused with these subnatures. Is our desire to fight against these subnatural forces to create order in the garden, or is a more nuanced ecological approach to understand not just the base forces (geological, hydrological, meteorological) and understand the influence and opportunity of the subnatural forces at work.

Gissen frames this in practical terms as a means to achieving true 'sustainability'. The book "...offers an alternative vision to those contemporary municipalities, developers, and architects who seek to remake cities and buildings through the parameters of a more natural framework based on sustainable principles. Subnature also offers an alternative to the emerging vitalist discourse on 'flow' as the dominant effect of nature in architecture." Juxtaposed between the functionalism of the green building movement which "... advance a seemingly neo-Victorian and neo-Haussmannite vision of urbanism in many global cities... [which] often entails the utilization of nature as an instrument that cleans the world, increased productivity and efficiency, and transforms our existing natural relationship, while advancing the social sphere that exists." (p.23)

While not a specific critique of the green movement, it's more a re-engagement in some of the messiness that ensues from our working in nature and specifically subnature either directly or metaphorically. As mentioned, "Subnatures will not save us from our inequities, but its inherently alienating character enables us to consider how more comforting forms and dynamic images of nature are often used to reproduce existing forms of power in society." This is reflected in equity disparities of the rich being able to afford 'green' and the poor still being marginalized and left to reside with the leftover subnatures.

The final distinction is also made between the concept of reconnecting with nature, included in books like Earth Architecture, and one of my favorites The Granite Garden, and pretty much the crux of many of the projects that venture in new forms of habitat creation (such as PHREE Urba
nism), Animal Architecture, or much of the Veg.itectural featured on a regular basis. The photoshopped vegetated visuals versus the messy reality is sometimes difficult to reconcile, perhaps due to the subnatural forces at work. Similarly, Gissen distances the concept from the new theories in architecture that embrace material weathering from Mostafavi & Leatherbarrow, showing that "...evironments appear as fixed and stable systems relative to a dramatically changing architecture object." Weathering and veg.itecture have similarities in expression to date, as it is difficult to choose one or the other - wild process here but not here.

The book itself is visually rich, and is very readable - making it a good book for a range of audiences. While potentially veering into either the overly historicist or the overly theoretical, Gissen toes the line with a certain grace that shows adequate historical background but also modern applicability. The historical is the common jumping off point and ranges within the confines of a coherent thought process (say versus the content schizophrenia of BLDG BLOG)... but is no less interesting.

For instance a 1568 image (in the chapter on dankness) by Philibert de l'Orme showing the idea of a 'builder emerging from a dark cave to become an architect', a metaphor from the transformation from the subnatural realm to the natural.

:: image via Freemason Collection

Additional interesting ideas include the necessity of tobacco smoke in the authenitic experience of Philip Johnson's Glass House, Peter and Alison Smithson's work with rubble at the Robin Hood Gardens, the British Beehive, and countless examples both verbal and visual. Many of these are architectural in nature, but many transcend to include urban spaces or particularly landscape context, making (or blurring) the connection between the three and their various influences due to subnatural forces is a key aspect - beyond just the exploration of the forces themselves.

From the epilogue: "...perhaps this hypothetical architect considers these strange forms of nature as a material endemic to architecture and cities, as opposed to an aberration that must be consolidated, removed or dismissed. He or she is not only engaged with the realities of the modern world but with the social processes that surround architecture, urbanism, and history. To rid cities of subnature negates aspects of urbanity while advancing a narrow concept of architecture's proper environment. By seeing only these things that are useful to a building's program, an architect dismisses key aspects of contemporary urban life."

For me the conceptual and contextual framework of the argument is the most interesting component of the book. It is necessary to include modern interpretations of the application or
engagement of these subnatures, but for the most part these seemed somewhat less relevant, taking away from the overall impact of the argument. Perhaps this had to do with an amount of technological intervention sometimes required to achieve a balance with subnatures, more of forcing versus working with these processes. The examples are interesting, and definitely worth exploring (and many of them have appeared on the blogs throughout the recent couple of years). A typical example, for instance, is found in the category of exhaust. The B_mu tower by R&Sie(n) incorporates the exhaust of Bangkok into the form of the project, adding an element to the skin of the building that is responsive to the immediate context.

:: images via new territories

Read and see a full overview here.

"Bangkok is a very dusty gray and luminous city.The pollution cloud, CO2 residue, filters and standardizes the light with only gray spectral frequencies.Over 50 different words could be used to describe the tones and the touching aspects of the absence of color: “luminous, vaporous, pheromonal, hideous, shaded, transpiring, cottony, rugged, dirty, hazy, suffocating, hairy…” The dust dresses the city and her biotope, even going so far as to modify the climate. Within this fog of specs and particles, Bangkok becomes the melting pot of hypertrophic human activity with convulsing with exchanges of energy, where visibility becomes its greatest charm. At the antipodes of the canons of modern urbanism and its panoply of instruments lies, the city of Bangkok, ectoplasmic, super fluid to quote Kipnis. "

"She is conceived in between aleatory rhizomes where the arborescent growth is at the same time a factor of her transformation and her operational mode.The project for the future museum B-mu feeds off of the climatic opposition between the urban environment’s protuberant energy and the indoor subdued and subject to the museum conditioning procedures (white cube). We are talking here of two distinct geometric structures: one is Euclidian, globalization incased, where cultural merchandises are circulated in an aseptic and deteritorialized universe, and the other typology, plunged in a intoxicating urban chaos."

:: images via new territories

This look at old/new in tandem is really interesting, and illustrated the books simple beauty. To focus on one or the other exclusively would have made for a focused but somewhat less vibrant read. The beauty is also that it is so topical and necessary within the framework of our modern discussions of green building: "When we talk of architecture engaging with the environment, very often we mean to say that architecture is harmonizing with, or open to, some aspect of an uncorrupted nature. An architecture that engages with the environment usually incorporates or mimics the mechanics of trees, sunlight, water, and wind; whether developing a country house or a skyscraper, the architect attempts to work the form, program, and system of the building into a mutually beneficial relationship with the environment... But as this book has demonstrated, the environment is much more than the nature we often image to be in some prehuman and pristine form; it is composed of subnatures produced by social, political, and architectural processes and concepts. Unlike the natural environment, we cannot possibly imagine a subnatural environment generated by, nor found within, a nonhuman world. Subnatures force us to confront the implicit nonsocial character of nature, as it is invoked in discussions of architecture and the environment." (p.211)

While virtually impossible to adequately cover all of the content of this book in a short post, I'm hoping to expand some of the notions of these subnatures, so look forward to some additional posting around these concepts, weaving in some of Gissen's information and project examples and some other writings.

Stay tuned, and definitely get a copy of this book for reading and re-browsing. Fascinating stuff.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Can I get a 'Hell Yeah!'

From AnArchitecture, quoting an article from Inside PR.

I actually hate billable hours. Don’t get me wrong – I like working – I really like bringing in the money.. but I just don’t like tracking every minute of my time – especially when it comes to multi-tasking and working on more than one thing, or often a lot of things at once. I also think billable hours aren’t a good measure of the value people bring based on experience but may just take an hour to create. I know the reason why there are billable hours and why we need to track our time and profitability but I wish there was a better model.” source

Portland Grid, revisited

The question of the efficacy of the grid system is continually interesting, and there have been some interesting conversations about this with a range of folks locally. Another resource to throw some information into this discussion is the recently released background documents in support of the Portland Plan. One worth checking out for any Portland-phile is the segment on Urban Form (it's a large file, so this is a link to all of the background reports).

Scrolling through it, I found this interesting two page study on block typologies, which mentions the ubiquitous 200' square blocks:

:: image via Portland Plan

From page 37-38 of the Urban Form document: "A city’s structure of streets and blocks serves as its urban DNA, shaping its development long into the future. While Downtown Portland’s system of compact 200' by 200' blocks is sometimes seen as Portland’s fundamental pattern, it covers only a small part of the city. As will be summarized in this chapter, Portland includes a diverse and varied range of urban patterns. These examples highlight the wide range of block structures found in Portland (they are not intended to represent what is typical or most common)."

This couple of pages continues to outline a range of variations, also giving an average size and location that they commonly appear within the city. The grid obviously starts to stretch in some areas, turning into a rectangular grid with one elongated side and the inclusion of alleys in some areas. These are bisected by some of the anomalous items like diagonal streets. There is also a larger retangular block size as growth sprawls out into Northeast and East Portland.

:: image via Portland Plan

The square and rectangular blocks degrade in a number of ways, including some neighborhoods that have a more diagonal grid that creates triangular blocks and open spaces. Subsequent iterations include more curvilinear blocks are rectangular grid but with undulating curves, and some more organic layouts that may or may not have been influenced by topography.

:: image via Portland Plan

As you can see, there is definitely an evolution away from the small grid, which is mostly located in the City Center and inner eastside. It's also interesting to see the changes and experimentation that happened as the city moves outward from the center. But wait, there's more... another set of typologies to augment these patterns that offers some more typologies, including the very archetypal Ladd's Addition, an beautiful oddity for sure, as well as plain ol' curvy sprawl. It's a fascinating study.

:: click to enlarge - via Portland Plan

These patterns aren't necessarily the all-encompassing group, but it does outline a vocabulary of almost 20 varieties that range from the prototypical 200x200 block. I spent a couple of days in San Francisco this past week, working on a project, and it was interesting to contrast a small grid with a comparably large one, particularly at a pedestrian scale. It was a block-by-block decision whether this made one or the other more successful - but it wasn't a particular winner either way. Along that line, check out my colleague Brett Milligan and a couple of posts on his Free Association Design blog about the grid and a case study of vertical subterranean structure from Guanajuato.

More to come on the comparisons, for sure and definitely more on the Portland Plan and associated documentation. For those interested, check out the latest community involvement dates to see where the Plan is going...

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Living Buildings 2.0

Early last week, on the heels of the Sustainable Sites Initiative updated system launch, the International Living Building Institute offered the updated version of the Living Building Challenge, v2.0 - which offers a comprehensive building rating system for not just green, but regenerative buildings.

:: image via ilbi

The new system offers a much more robust system that incorporates local food production, expands the notion of sites and access to nature, limits gated communities and incorporates a number of other equity issues. The other major difference is that the results of certification are based on the end result, not the planned result as is standard in many projects. This is part of the reason there is not an officially designated Living Building to date - but many are in various stages of development around the world - on the race to be the first. I'm excited to take a look and see these new changes.

While I'm happy to see the expanded scope, I'm a bit disappointed that they didn't continue to move forward with the separate Living Sites and Infrastructure Challenge - but instead incorporated these ideas into v2.0 of the LBC. Combining sites and buildings makes a lot of sense and the LBCv2.0 integrates the two in a much needed way that is lacking in the majority of system approaches. As a way of measuring landscape projects, it's often hard to remove the building from site scale projects (thus they are not even ratable) - making the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SSI) the only viable game in town as a purely site-specific system.

There's plenty of rating systems out there, so time will tell the overall relevance and reach - but they tend to fall into two categories. Those in the first category attempt to respond the complexity and cost of LEED by offering a more accessible, yet watered down rating that has less impact, and thus less relevance. LEED remains the industry standard, but for those who want to push the boundaries of green beyond mere sustainability, there is luckily these alternatives out there. As LEED inches forward at a conservative snails pace by incrementally incorporated somewhat minor updates and additions to new versions, I foresee SSI and the Living Building Challenge filling some of the vacuum.

They may not gain the same market share as LEED - but will truly define what regenerative design will be for both buildings and sites - something that cannot happen now that LEED has become the defacto standard and is driven by market forces as much as a green agenda.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Size Does Matter, or Not

An interesting article in Planetizen called "Beloved and Abandoned: A Platting Named Portland" investigates one of the unique, frustrating and beloved quirks of Portland. This is, our slicework of 200 foot square blocks... making for a lot of roads, and development of tiny blocks. It's our burden to bear. The article is a fascinating ride - so check it out.

:: all images via Planetizen

The authors discuss the 'Hippodamian' grid, which is an interesting way of saying square, and relate it to current urban design theory and practice. "Current planning literature brims with references to "the grid" in juxtaposition with curvilinear and dendrite conventional suburban layouts. The "grid" as a network concept has been widely accepted and is now regarded as a superior geometry for laying out greenfield and infill sites."

There is also the reference to the success of Portland directly related to these small blocks, which I'd disagree with (as the authors soon do). I'd say Portland succeeds in spite of this phenomenon, and the issues pervade - as is shown with a reference to successful urban grids, mostly those of the non-square ilk. "Urbanists and romanticists have expressed equally strong sentiments about Paris, London, Barcelona, Curitiba, Amsterdam and Venice. Of the six, only Barcelona adopted the Hippodamian grid in 1859 for its vast expansion, and Venice, without a classic grid, is the preeminent pedestrian haven, yet neither city matches the urbanist’s praise for Portland. Whatever the mix of reasons, Portland dominates the American planners' imagination feelings and talk. Disentangling this intangible realm can be an elusive goal; grounds and figures on the other hand may produce tangible results."

A grid alone is not the recipe for success, and in practice there are few pure iterations of the grid, with zigs, zags, curvy spots, the axial geometry of Ladds addition, and many other quirks. As a fan of the grid for wayfinding and layout, there's something to be said for the rigorous adherance to the formality, which much theory has been laid out in curvy, suburban blah. Some support of the grid: "The degree of connectivity of the street network could count as another practical reason. 'Network', by definition, is a set of linked components, whether a spider-net, a fishnet, or the Internet - all networks connect. What distinguishes them is the manner, geometry and frequency of connection: leaf, tree, blood vessels, telephone and web networks are dendrite, hierarchical (fractal) but fishnets are not. Portland’s is a dense fishnet with nodes at every 200 feet, which produce 360 intersections per square mile -- the highest ratio in America, and 3 to 5 times higher than current developments. For example, older and newer areas in Toronto, typical of most cities, range from 72 to 119 intersections per square mile in suburbs and 163 to 190 in older areas with a grid. As connectivity rose in importance as a planning principle, Portland’s grid emerges as a supreme example.

Coupled with connectivity, its rectilinear geometry is indisputably more advantageous for navigation on foot, car or bike than any alternatives. Visitors often feel lost and disoriented in medieval towns and in contemporary suburbs and this feeling leads to anxiety and even fear and a sense that all is not well."

The grid is rightly stated as derived by speculators for maximum corner lots - not in the grand plan of some more model communities. The fact is, again, that the grid can improve or degrade the urban environment, as the authors mention, but success is not inherently depending on that as the only criteria. "Evidently, Portland’s founders either understood little about infrastructure costs or judged them irrelevant; a judgment that no planner, developer or municipality today would take at face value. When economic efficiency matters, Portland’s grid fails the grade."

In a theoretical sense only. There's comments from Sitte and Duany on the lack of art in the grid... but really is urban planning about art? Is curvy and artistic more successful in an urban context? I doubt it. Anyway, the fact that our grid, much like the national grid system, is overlaid on a extant topography in somewhat irresponsible ways have led to issues with erasure and negative impact on natural hydrologic patterns, which only bend when topography and streams are too steep or significant to pipe, grade, and cover over. Also, the sheer amount of street paving is significant, as our small blocks lead to significantly more stormwater impacts. This however, has been the genesis for innovative strategies such as green streets to combat this - sort of making a silk purse out of a bad grid.

While it may be easy to ignore progress in combating our bad grid, it's again a pointless thought exercise (these adaptions in the following paragraph are the lifeblood of modern urbanism, as we can't recreate what has already been created). Thus, it's interesting to think of ways of refuting the present by showing how the past is flawed:
"The ordinary impression on the ground that the Portland grid 'works' in contemporary traffic conditions is casually taken as a sign of suitability. This view obscures an entire century of engineered physical, mechanical and management adaptations which are overlaid on the 1866 platting. Remove these (in a thought experiment) and imagine the outcome. Clearly, an ill-suited geometry is made to work with interventions such as dividing lines, medians, traffic signs, traffic lights, directional signs, bollards, street widening, one-ways, traffic circles or roundabouts and many others."

I think that's called adapting to change, but then again, it's a thought experiment, so fun nonetheless. As the authors conclude:
"For reasons of land efficiency, infrastructure cost, municipal expenses, rainwater management, traffic safety and flow, and the demand for increased pedestrian share of public space, the praised, pure Portland platting will likely not find new followers. Portland will remain a adored and beloved by urbanists, but her Hippodamian grid layout seems destined for the archives, abandoned as a good idea of a byegone era. This transcendence leaves urbanists, who seek to regenerate a contemporary urban pattern that is as pure, complete and systematic, looking for alternatives: ones which excite the same first blush of adoration and delight and lead to a deep abiding love, but also hold up to intense scrutiny of their economic, social and environmental performance."

I agree with the main tenets of their thesis (and it's a great notion and read) and frankly think the grid is a pain in the ass, but it's one of those theoretical arguments that really doesn't mean much in terms of modern urbanism, particularly in a city that plans things to death and beyond. Few if any new cities are built from scratch with no existing contextual framework - so maybe in the few new communities, a particular utopian grid system can be applied - probably modeled after the latest New Urbanist theory. It'd be interesting to imagine a re-thinking of the 'Hippodamian' grid being retrofit, as is, into something else in Portland - elongated, filled in, abstracted into a more pure and reasonable pattern, with streets removed to be open spaces, bikeways, and other green infrastructural systems. But the question is moot, a thought experiment if you will, and like it or not we are stuck with our pattern.

We deal with it, we plan around it. We love its street/building staccato chatter back and forth, with our 360 intersections per square mile, and we curse the stop sign hovering on your bike every 200 feet, waiting for that car to come zipping by take you out. It makes life exciting. But, in general it doesn't mean much, and isn't as derogatory to a high quality public realm as implied. Portland isn't to be copied for urban form, and really shouldn't be degraded for a grid system that was done without regard. We're known for for innovation and foresight in policy, transportation, stormwater management, and other factors. Many of these come from the very problems that arise from our back-assward small grids. But it works, because sometimes a grid is just a grid.

Big Box Surplus Space

One of the major 'big ideas' of our Integrating Habitats competition, or the idea of reinventing suburbia in general, is the reduced parking need over time - and what to do with the leftover paved areas. An article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution shows this idea isn't merely peak oil induced futurism, but a more current reality. From the article: "Ever think a Home Depot parking lot is too sprawling and vacant? Home Depot does, too. 'A number of stores have barren asphalt, and it’s not in anyone’s best interest to leave it sitting there,' said Mike LaFerle, Home Depot’s vice president of real estate."

:: image via ajc

It's not a surprise, when at least 1/3 of all the properties for big box stores are for parking and many stores downsizing or at least getting much less traffic, that valuable land starts looking desirable. Continuing: "But Home Depot has land, and lots of it. In its most recent annual report, the company said it owns 89 percent of its 2,274 stores chainwide (including stores in Canada, Mexico and Puerto Rico). That’s 212 million square feet of real estate — not including parking lots and garden sales areas. The value of Home Depot’s land assets totaled $8.3 billion, the report said, and building assets are $17 billion."

What might this mean in terms of area? "Few big box stores have as much parking as a Home Depot, he noted. Home Depot typically buys about 12 to 15 acres per store, he said, at an average cost of $500,000 per acre. He estimated Home Depot could sell the acreage for about that much, and raise tens of millions of dollars with the asset sales."

At 2000 stores, that's between up to 30,000 square feet of pavement ready for repurposing in full or in part.

Oddly enough (or perhaps not surprising) the ideas of how to reuse these spaces, mostly with more of the same (in a smaller variety): "Despite the general retail slowdown, chains that are still expanding — such as Chick-fil-A, Arby’s and El Pollo Loco — may jump at the chance to be near a Home Depot store, he said. “It’s a good strategy,” he said. “It’s no different from a power center anchored by a Target or Kohl’s, with small tenants like Sally Beauty Supply as a co-tenant.”

:: the cat box? - image via lowering the bar

Or as I mentioned in an email recently. That's like cleaning all the dogshit out of the backyard, then dumping the catbox in a pile in the front yard... or something like that :)

Sunday, November 8, 2009

PlastiCity FantastiCity

The fabulous RMIT based journal KERB has recently announced a new competition called PlastiCity FantastiCity, to envision a new urbanism. From the site: "The competition re-envisions city systems to explore fantastical opportunities that enable groundbreaking and fun projects which shake the design world. A multi-disciplinary approach is encouraged though not required and we are sure that with help from you and your site we can hit our target audience."

The most telling idea of what the competition is about is through the definitions of the two terms - both mashups/portmanteaux with some interesting ideas:


1. The theory that a space’s most beautiful quality can often be the way in which it is continually made by those who inhabit it.
2. The projection of a speculative world into a pragmatic application.

FanstastiCity (pro-noun)

1. A world of limitless possibilities.
2. The city that exists in your mind, living in your wildest dreams and your most peculiar sketches.

Look forward to seeing the results - and definitely considering an entry. It's nice to see amidst many of the pseudo-seriousness of the competition scene something to embrace the crazy, outlandish, and fantastic.
Also, stay tuned for my coverage of the previous issue of Kerb 17, which literally amazed me with a series of essays on 'Is LA Dead?', a take on the future of the profession from a range of sources.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Sustainable Sites - Update

From some sneak peeks of the latest update to the Sustainable Sites Initiative (more from L+U here), I was both excited about the next iteration and establishment of more rigorous set of criteria, and a bit curious how it was going to maintain some of the necessary distance, inclusivity and poetry that is lacking in many other site rating systems. I'm not sure how I feel about the new split between the guidelines and the 'case' for sustainable sites

The full text from the Sustainable Sites website:

"The Sustainable Sites Initiative: Guidelines and Performance Benchmarks 2009 is the product of more than four years of work by a diverse group of experts in soils, hydrology, vegetation, materials and human health and well-being. It is expanded and updated from the Guidelines and Performance Benchmarks –Draft 2008, which was released in November 2008. The Initiative developed criteria for sustainable land practices that will enable built landscapes to support natural ecological functions by protecting existing ecosystems and regenerating ecological capacity where it has been lost. This report focuses on measuring and rewarding a project that protects, restores and regenerates ecosystem services – benefits provided by natural ecosystems such as cleaning air and water, climate regulation and human health benefits.

The Guidelines and Performance Benchmarks 2009 includes a rating system for the credits which the pilot process will test for refinement before a formal release to the market place. The Rating System contains 15 prerequisites and 51 credits that cover all stages of the site development process from site selection to landscape maintenance. If you are interested in becoming a pilot project to test this Rating System, please apply here. Feedback from the pilot projects will be used to create a reference guide which will provide suggestions on how projects achieved the sustainability goals of specific credits.

The companion document titled The Case for Sustainable Landscapes provides a set of arguments—economic, environmental, and social—for the adoption of sustainable land practices, additional background on the science behind the performance criteria in the guidelines and performance benchmarks, the purpose and principles of the Sustainable Sites Initiative, and a sampling of some of the case studies the Initiative has followed."

It's great to see a site-specific system taking shape, and can't wait to see it begin to permeate the discussion of true sustainability and green building - and addition long-lacking in the current dialogue. For a bit of additional info, check out this short presentation 'Landscapes Give Back' which makes a case for the role of landscape in this discussion. More to come.

More to come after I have a chance to take a look at the updated documents. Additionally, the concept of What is a Sustainable Site will be a common theme in the next year, as the Oregon ASLA embarks on a number of events, discussions, workshops, and symposia around this idea.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Elements of Urban Agriculture

I had the opportunity today to see a presentation by local urban agriculture guru Marc Boucher-Colbert (the man behind the Rocket Restaurant rooftop garden here in Portland). Instead of focusing directly on rooftops, he outlined a broad version of urban agriculture through an investigation of a range of possible strategies for our cities. This is all information investigated at length at times here on L+U and Veg.itecture, but I thought it apt to summarize the ideas from the lecture, as they provide a great overview and were a really inspiring collection of ideas woven together into a strategy.

1. Guerilla Gardening
The starting point of the discussion took a look at the thriving guerrilla gardening movement worldwide as a quick response to the bland and life-less environment we exist within in our urban areas. Both safe anarchy and also, via Wikipedia... "political gardening, a form of direct action, primarily practiced by environmentalists. It is related to land rights, land reform, and permaculture. Activists take over ("squat") an abandoned piece of land which they do not own to grow crops or plants. Guerrilla gardeners believe in re-considering land ownership in order to reclaim land from perceived neglect or misuse and assign a new purpose to it."

:: image via Wikipedia

:: seed bombs - image via itwasme

A side-note of the discussion dealt with the production of seed bombs (or the less provocative 'seed balls') as a way of simply and efficiently distributing plant life to our streets, vacant lots, and other left-over spaces. Again via Wikipedia: "A seed bomb is a compressed clod of soil containing live vegetation that may be thrown or dropped onto a terrain to be modified. The term "seed grenade" was first used by Liz Christy in 1973 when she started the "Green Guerillas". The first seed grenades were made from condoms filled with local wildflower seeds, water and fertilizer." As a fledgling guerrilla gardener myself, it's pretty damn cool and quite liberating. Give it a try.

2. Front & Backyard Gardening
The idea of front and backyard gardens isn't a new idea (don't tell Fritz Haeg) but have become a cause celebre for re-occupation of our urban and suburban spaces. Call them Victory Gardens, or Edible Estates, or hell, call them 'this is the only place I can find good sun in my yard' - this isn't a new idea come back, but rather something that has always existed and has now re-emerged as a vibrant movement. Growing vegetables at your home is the ultimate in local food, and also engages people in exercise, meditation, and a range of other benefits - making it both a productive activity and a hobby worthy of your time.

:: image via The Blue Marble

Marc explained that while the idea of taking back the lawn is laudable, there is a grim reality to the concept of agri-buisiness, summed up in the following fact: of 'food' grown in the US, 1.5% is fruits and vegetables, while the other 98.5% consists of grain and oilseed, which any reader of Michael Pollan will know goes to meat production, biofuels, various corn products and other detached food we consume in many ways. This led to another new figure in the story - of Stan Cox, who works with one of my heroes, Wes Jackson at The Land Institute, reinventing corporate agriculture through a new model of perennial production based on the tallgrass prairie ecosystems.

:: Perennial Agriculture - image via The Land Institute

The other models beyond reoccupying the land you have is the sub-economy that include yard sharing or other means that leverage open land with the energy and desire of those to garden. By taking the land of folks that have surplus, or don't have the time to garden places like Your Backyard Farmer or Hyperlocavore offer a range of options to use land in cities for productive uses. Again this trend can also go beyond just gardening to include other trends such as backyard chickens, pygmy goats (great for blackberries) or other trends suitable for urban locales.

:: Backyard Chickens - image via Flicker (zbar)

3. Community Gardens
Another vital aspect of both food production and urban life is the community garden, where the interactions between people are just as important as the growing of vegetables. The idea of a range of programs, including those run by the city (such as in Portland), cooperatives, and other models. While a large part of the eventual urban agriculture puzzle, many communities are currently dealing with huge demand and a lack of funding to provide more supply. While the need to fund these programs will continue, there is also a need to look beyond the plots to a larger picture of gardening in cities.

:: image via The Daily Green

The overall conceptual framework of community gardening can be found at the resource-rich site for the American Community Gardening Association (ACGA) which provides information on starting and maintaining community gardens throughout the country. As Marc pointed out, much of the training and education for the ACGA is focuses on engaging community resources and partnerships - taking the tack that is you build community, this is lead to a thriving garden - and you can figure out the training of food production and other added services later.

:: food preservation - image via Eat. Drink. Better

Finally, the idea of subsistence and market farms, or a combination of the two, offers a range of opportunities to offer gardening, community, and the ability to make money through the use of these sites in cities - offering for green job creation. Also, included in the idea of community gardening and education is the value-added ideas of food preservation, chickens raising, small animals, beekeeping, and other more agriculturally related ideas to round out the potential for urban ag.

4. School Gardens
While encompassing a range of institutional gardens such as hospitals, prisons, and other urban uses, school gardens provide a unique opportunity to provide food and education, as well as utilizing large amounts of available land. Modeled after the ground-breaking Edible Schoolyards" program in Berkeley started by chef Alice Waters " create and sustain an organic garden and landscape that is wholly integrated into the school’s curriculum, culture, and food program." which has been copied around the country in many locations.

:: image via Edible Schoolyard

A local project that provides a bridge for schools and food in Portland has been taken on by the fantastic local non-profit Ecotrust called the Farm to School program, which: "...enable schools to feature healthy, locally sourced products in their cafeterias, incorporate nutrition-based curriculum in all academic disciplines, and provide students with experiential agriculture and food-based learning opportunities, from farm visits to gardening, cooking, composting, and recycling." These connections between food and school continue to offer many possibilities in cities throughout the world.

5. Rooftop Gardens
Covered in detail on the web, the idea of rooftop gardens is definitely a love of Boucher-Colbert, who installed the project on the Rocket (now the Noble Rot) which has become a model project that gets a lot of comments for the kiddie-pool planters, (an inspiration from Joe Ebenezer from Chicago - read about him here) as a low-cost planter alternative and using it as a test for production techniques which are used in the restaurant one floor below.

:: Boucher-Colbert atop the Noble Rot - image via City Farmer

Obviously there are some limitations to rooftops, and difficulties with gardening due to wind, temperatures and other issues. As we provide incentives for more eco- and green roofs atop buildings, growing vegetables will become a continually growing trend as urban land costs make terrestrial farming a less financially viable proposition.

6. Vacant Lands
The use of vacant lands for farming is definitely a hot topic in areas like Detroit, but even in a number of locations like Oakland, which recently identified 1200 sites available for farming - or Montreal, which has implemented permanent agricultural zones that are protected from development - consisting of almost 4% of the Cities total land.

The focus in Portland is on the much discussed and somewhat disappointing implementation of the Diggable City project in 2004-05 which looked at city-owned lands as possible opportunities for establishing: "... an inventory of vacant, publicly-owned land in the Portland area, and to start a conversation about how that land might be used to support urban agricultural activities." The large number of sites have over time been whittled down to a few - and little has been done on any of this pilot projects - even though hundreds of brownfields, vacant lands, and other opportunities still exist.

:: Portland Vacant Land - image via Diggable City

7. Green Building
The integration of agriculture in green building is definitely making strides, as certain points for LEED ND, and potentially other systems can be achieved through the addition of garden plots of agricultural land. This allows for more multi-functional landscaping that includes productivity and use, which was difficult at times to reconcile with green buildings due to added water use and lack of totally native and adapted plantings. Our next task is to develop more year-round, lower maintenance permaculture-based planting that meet aesthetic and functional goals long-term.

Another aspect which spans this category and the next is the concept of Building Integrated Sustainable Agriculture (BISA), which begins to work with walls, rooftops, and other spaces to integrate food production in buildings. This also begins to expand beyond this to using waste heat and water from buildings to heat greenhouses and extend growing seasons to increase productivity. Examples abound, including Mithun's concept urban agriculture project (using the Living Building principles) as well as older examples like Eli Zabar's rooftop garden in Manhattan, to name a few.

:: Mithun's Vertical Farm - image via Treehugger

:: Zabars Vinegar Factory - image via Vison for our Cities

The concept also begins to looks at other agriculture products like chickens, bees, aqua- and hydroponics to maximize space and maintenance as well as blend systems together into closed-loop systems that treat waste as food for other phases of the system.

8. Vertical Farming
Picking up on the threads popularized by Dickson Despommier, the idea of the BISA mentioned in green building is now blown up into the full-fledged phenomenon of vertical farming, which is exciting but needs some serious thought as to the viability of how this actually works and what the economic and social implications are. Boucher-Colbert was interested but skeptical, as there seem much more obvious low-hanging fruit (pardon the pun) to look at first - but as density and food security become more important, all the options must be on the table.

:: Vertical Farming - image via Vertical Farm

In closing, the eight concepts here span a wide range of possible agricultural interventions in our urban environment for getting to the root of food in our cities. It goes beyond production to include community, interaction, and a range of benefits such as habitat, beauty, and cooling - making the mix as important as the individual ideas. Peak Oil will warrant a close look at cities and a re-thinking of what we eat, where it comes from, and how much transportation is used to get it from farm to fork. So, as we transform from city-dwellers that keep nature and farming outside of the city to those that integrating food production into our spaces and daily lives - these tools provide a valuable arsenal for making the 21st century city a vibrant, healthy, and productive environment for all.