Friday, October 29, 2010

Feral Green Streets (Tamed)

It was bound to happen, but a nice walk for some coffee showed the new 'orderly frames' for the previously unruly green street planters along Burnside Street.  Some updated images displaying what is quickly becoming 'stock' in the local green street planting arsenal -  (c) Jason King | Landscape+Urbanism.

I'm really intrigued by the planters that have captured the existing street trees.


My guess is it is a compromise between impacting the tree roots with excavation, versus impacts to the root zone via additional water.  They are all columnar red maples, and the majority of runoff directly on them is from small sidewalk inlets - so seems as if the wet feet may not be so much of an issue.

The neatness of the planting array keeps it from being monochromatic, there is an additional species or two thrown in here or there, particularly in larger areas without trees, and there is a slight differential in height in texture, but they just seem a bit tired at this point.  Maybe the novelty of the green street has worn off - not in function, but that they aren't special anymore, which maybe is OK?.  While still visible, is it preferable to have green infrastructure stick out, or is it acceptable, through ubiquity, for these to involve somewhat into the same invisible infrastructure.  Being common is a good sign, and that's why the 'feral' varieties were interesting:  I kind of liked them in their wild form...

Another interesting shot was the excavation of some of the new planters on the south side of the street (still under construction, I can tell from the wonderful odor of black tar in the air).  The subsurface condition of a stormwater planter is always fascinating, as what you see on the surface is rarely what is doing the heavy lifting for retention and infiltration.

NOW Urbanism

In the spirit of the variety of urbanism - some upcoming events from University of Washington in Seattle as part of the Now Urbanism: City Making in the 21st Century and Beyond - a year long interdisciplinary series of speakers around the concept of the modern city.  Thanks to Thaisa Way from UW for the heads up... I hope to make it to the Nov. 18 event, which should be a great dialogue from a couple of different, but inspiring, thinkers Randy Hester and Chris Reed.

November 17: Environmental Urbanism: Design With Ecological Democracy @ Architecture 147 [Public Lecture]
Randolph T. Hester, Landscape Architecture, University of California, Berkeley

November 18: Environmental Urbanism: Ecological Design For Healthy Cities 
(What does it mean to envision a healthy city - one that nurtures both people and the environment? Environmental Urbanism acknowledges and embraces the relationships between people and their material surroundings. This session will explicitly consider how the human processes of city making involve an ongoing negotiation with various non-human elements-- soils, water, atmosphere, and animals. By considering the intended and unintended effects of urbanization, our goal is to better understand how and to what extent we can intentionally shape future urban landscapes.  Speakers include:

  • Chris Reed, STOSS, Boston
  • Randolph T. Hester, Landscape Architecture, University of California, Berkeley
  • Howard Frumkin, Dean, UW School of Public Health
  • Panel Moderated by Peter Steinbrueck, Steinbrueck Urban Strategies
Additional dates of events can be found on their website and include a number of upcoming events of interest in the next year.
  • Informal Urbanism: Slum Cities and Global Health (January 13, 2011)
  • Transcultural Urbanism: Immigrant Cities (February 11, 2011)
  • Generosity of Cities: Arts, Humanities, and the City (March 10, 2011)
  • Next Eco-Cities (April 7, 2011) 
  • Towards Just Cities (May 5, 2011) 
  • The University and the City (May 26, 2011)

More on Ecological Urbanism

A recent post regarding Ellen Dunham-Jones talk in Vancouver highlighted the stance of new urbanism not just on landscape urbanism but on ecological urbanism.  Some notes via one of the attendees from - highlights a major disconnect between understanding and rhetoric - particularly that ecological urbanism is focused on some idea of 'city in nature' suburbia - or in others words, more 'sprawl in a pretty green dress'.  From the  Planning Picture blog, Tim Barton gives a synopsis of the talk:

"According to Dunham-Jones, while new urbanists like to plan through good design, ecological urbanists don’t. They prefer to set something in motion and see what happens. Kind of more ecology in the city, but it also seems to be more lower density suburbia where, although surrounded by hills and other natural landscapes, most people would still have to drive everywhere."
To which most would answer: Huh? and those under 35 would say: WTF?  How does one interpret ecological urbanism in this way, other than as a knee-jerk reaction that isn't addressing the actual theories of ecological urbanism, but equating it with a new methodology for ecologically-oriented sprawl?  I'll chalk it up to a lack of understanding of the nuances of EU, such as LU theories (much as those opponents of NU don't have a full understanding of the specifics in making arguments against).  I don't see, as other do, these as direct attacks on the concept of new urbanism, but as a reaction to neo-traditional urban form as an ends, not a means.  The sprawling suburbs is not the goal of any of these methodologies.  To say so is total bullshit.

:: image via Light Rail Now

Much as Michael Mehaffy previously discussed in relation to landscape urbanism, New Urbanist Dunham-Jones has a stake in the argument - mostly in holding on to the conceptual turf they have gained as a strong and organized collective movement.  I get what they are both saying... which holds true to the essence of NU ideology - plan every detail so nothing is left to chance, based on sound principles from good precedents.  Flux, therefore, is the enemyof deterministic design - but this same flux is the essence of the historical precedence that the new urbanists draw from in reinforcing their .  The principles didn't just happen and then go away, but accreted over time and experimentation, and reworking, and change of cities over millenia.  It's how this is heavy-handedly applied that seems the conceptual break.

:: Poundbury - image via Wikipedia

While laudable as a theoretical proposition - it's impossible to do this for anything of a significant scale, much something with the complexity of cities.  While planners set wide ranging, relativistic and somewhat spatial frameworks, designers (particularly architects and engineers, but the nature of their scope) are pre-disposed to want to control every aspect of every system, component, assembly, and material, along with the final end form.  Landscape architects perhaps fall in the middle, as we have the control-specific aspects of architects with the necessity for letting things evolve due to the nature of our primary materials, plants.

For someone with a goal of 'Retrofitting Suburbia' (a very important goal as well, but one with, at least in this context, a very New Urbanist aura to it) Dunham-Jones of all people, through the research on the book case studies, should be able to glean from ecological urbanism that it isn't at all about dispersed suburbia but is about a rejection of hyper-determinism, for lack of a better term.  Suburbia will not be retrofitted en masse, both due to economics and the slowness of change.  It will happen through strategic insertions and manipulations that will have ripple effects of new housing and commercial uses.  Thus it is a variation of the 'set it in motion' ideology, but in a much more strategic sense that looks at catalysts versus entire elements of reformulation (ala urban renewal).

The concept isn't just 'new' versus 'ecological' or 'landscape' in terms of urbanism.  It's putting down our egos and admitting that we don't have all the answers from day one (or two, or 100).  It is evolving from a deterministic stance to planning (a neo-utopian approach to designing every aspect of cities) to one that allows for a more process oriented approach (designing the frameworks for cities to evolve and adjusting them periodically).  It's not a question of density, as the same general approach using characteristics gleaned from LU/NU/EU can produce both neo-agrarian, elitist, rural sprawl or hyper-urban, vibrant, city densities in equal measure.  

An urban scale intervention of deterministic new urbanism is bound to fail, just due to the massive number of variables at play.  While these may be controlled in a development, there is a point where we reach the capacity of the designer to account for the complexity of a truly diverse city and any will quickly be overcome  with the task.  On the flip side, just setting things is motion and 'seeing what happens' is bound to fail as well if just left to it's own devices.  A good indication of this result is suburban sprawl (particularly in areas with softer planning regulations) or mishmash urban redevelopment.  Letting the market decide (with minimal direction or governmental intervention) what is best has led to vast dispersion of cities and significant environmental degredation.  It has also led to many great examples of density, safe and walkable communities, mixed use and income cities, and a range of inventive cases of urban ecological restoration.  But, in sum, the former is well out-pacing the much more desirable latter.

While removing this degree of hyper-determinism from the process takes some leap of faith, it isn't an all-or-nothing scenario (i.e. a leap off a cliff) but rather a less scary need for confidence in our ability to set positive frameworks, evaluate, and adjust accordingly in mid-flight (i.e. base jumping).  Cities aren't buildings, and thus shouldn't be approached with the same formula of absolute determinism.  While no architect in their right mind would leave basic foundational structures to chance, there has been more willingness to embrace change, evolution of materials, adaptability of floor plans, varied uses, which can react to changing economic and usage characteristics - saving a building from not just having to be torn down when times change.  This is also a necessity as the innate durability of buildings and infrastructure will extend long past the era where societal change makes them irrelevant - making adaptability even more important as we don't want to be left with useless dinosaurs from another age.

:: Fresh Kills - images via Metropolis

Ecological urbanism to me isn't prescriptive of any type of city, or a blank plea for more open space.  Rather, it addresses the city as an organism and collection of organisms and processes acting in concert, interrelated and interdependent.  Much as the ecologist looks at the structure of an ecosystem and determines approaches to adjusting and modifying systems, the urbanist can take the cues from the ecologist in holistic systems thinking towards cities.  For instance, and massively simplified, the field of community ecology, via Wikipedia, looks at "...distribution, abundance, demography, and interactions between coexisting populations."  Is that not a viable approach to a theory of urbanism?  Is it less valid that the Charter of the New Urbanism?  Can it provide necessary structure while allowing for fluidity and change?  Are there viable elements, such as ecotones, that provide a foundation for macro-scale interventions.

To sum up, the post did mention that Dunham-Jones "...did acknowledge that new urbanists can learn something from the less planned, more spontaneous places that seem to be so popular." which is echoed in Duany's recent call to learn from landscape urbanist theories and approaches.  Unfortuantely, the examples mentioned are boiled these down to fun, but small scale interventions like Parking DayBuilding a Better Block, determining temporary use for spaces like in Pop-Up cities, or through more socially oriented community activities like the very cool 'Pie Day'.  

:: image via Pop-Up City

These are, however, considered adjuncts to real city building, with a connotation that these are 'fun additions of spontaneity', but not valid overall approaches urbanism.  While it would be great to learn how to capture these, there are also rules to doing so, because cities must be 'planned through good design' and  that means leaving things to chance is not allowed..   Hyper-determinism is a thing of the past, and whatever the approach, there must be more flexibility in process and product when dealing with the complexity of cities.  I believe that everyone is looking for the same result - health people, healthy cities, healthy planet.  LU and EU, in overlapping and independent ways, are methods of investigating how we can utilize a different set of precedents and methods, and a radically different approach to the process - to get to what I believe is our shared goal.  

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

New York City's Amphibious Heritage

Via the always interesting Strange Maps, a utopian proposal from the early 20th Century for New York City with current parallels of either the practical Dutch examples of land reclamation or the ridiculous Dubai examples of artificial islands.  Immediately making me think of Robert Grosvenor proposal for 'Floating Manhattan' - This 1911 proposal by Dr. T. Kennard Thompson entitled 'A Really Greater New York' poses a large scale land reclamation of New York and the surrounding areas - adding 50 square miles of land to the metropolitan area.

:: image via Strange Maps

Some additional explanation:
"...proposed to expand New York into its adjacent waters for a grand total of 50 square miles. Thomson was neither a lightweight nor a crackpot. As a consulting engineer and urban planner for the City of New York, he had been involved in the construction of numerous bridges and over 20 of New York's early skyscrapers, specialising in their foundations, designing pneumatic caissons. It was the versatility of these caissons that would lead Dr Thomson to envisage a much wider application for them. In August of 1916, he wrote an article in Popular Science, advocating 'A Really Greater New York'."
For a full picture of the concept, check out the full post, but in a nutshell, my favorite part was the new proboscis attached to the end of Manhattan ('New Manhattan') - retaining a New York/New Jersey split.  Think of the cost-benefit of this (ecosystem health and environmental impact aside) were it built 100 years ago.

:: image via Strange Maps

This isn't to say that Manhattan, and many other cities around the world haven't expanded their footprint in less dramatic ways through landfilling, edging slowly into the adjacent lands.  Is it such a crazy proposition, thinking of the value of land in Manhattan and other densely developed (and land-locked) cities, is it such as strange idea?  Boston is a great example of a city built on fill, not by spreading inland,  but by capturing significant amounts of land within the Charles River basin and Harbor areas.

:: image via Crusoe Graphics

Or instead of giving this over to building, how about restoration of the areas where we've destroyed the margins through industrialization.  We could add, through land-filling, wide vegetated buffers for open space and restoration of coastal ecosystems engineered specifically for recreation, habitat, and riparian health - strips for phytoremediation between city and river - buffers for us and to remedy or ills.  While difficult to generate using existing built up edge conditions, this new process of reclamation of riparian corridors, although artificial (a la P-REX), would be a hybrid ecology that may work versus a traditional, reactive, natural methodology.

:: image via Als Dream Journal

Botanical Neurobiology

A TED Talk on Plant Intelligence by Italian botanist Stefano Mancuso will leave you on the edge of your seat and asking all sorts of questions of both your house-plants and about the wide-ranging implications for landscapes.  Mancuso operates the International Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology in Italy.  

brief synopsis of the talk:  "Does the Boston fern you're dutifully misting each morning appreciate your care? Or can the spreading oak in your local park take umbrage at the kids climbing its knotted branches? Not likely, says Italian researcher Stefano Mancuso, but that doesn't mean that these same living organisms aren't capable of incredibly sophisticated and dynamic forms of awareness and communication.

From his laboratory near Florence, Mancuso and his team explore how plants communicate, or "signal," with each other, using a complex internal analysis system to find nutrients, spread their species and even defend themselves against predators. Their research continues to transform our view of plants from simple organisms to complex ecological structures and communities that can gather, process and -- most incredibly -- share important information."

Some more on Plant Intelligence:  Smarty Plants

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Wilderness Downtown

I have in the past alluded to the 'Soundtrack of Spaces' linking music to our physical environment.  I know most people have amused themselves with this video experiment, but I finally found myself engaging with the Arcade Fire's interactive video 'The Wilderness Downtown' - perhaps a literal interpretation of the space/music connection.  The narrative film, which juxtaposes an address (in particular, the home where you grew up) with the song 'We Used to Wait' off the recent release - 'The Suburbs'.

The interactive film, by Chris Milk, provides an interactive journey using footage along with Google aerial and street views to provide a 'story' based on a familiar location from one's childhood.  In this case, it's a quasi-suburb in Minot, North Dakota, where I spent a good portion of my childhood in my post- air force brat youth.  While, it is virtually impossible to capture the narrative in stills, but here goes - which takes the viewer through the stages of running, locating in the neighborhood, discovery, and inevitably transformation. Whatever address you choose - just try it (although you must have the latest versions of Safari or Chrome for performance).



You find youself transfixed to the images, both to find out what is coming next, but also to catch a glimpse of the house, the yard, the street you grew up on.  It's a fascinating interpretation of the song, which After a brief pause, there's an interlude of interactivity, where you are prompted to write a postcard to yourself as a young person - as you contemplate the meaning of the lyrics (which much as cities, spaces, and childhood memories, are innately personal).   From the first verse:

But by the time we met
The times had already changed
So I never wrote a letter
I never took my true heart
I never wrote it down
So when the lights cut out
I was left standing in the wilderness downtown

And then the transformation of the place to the 'wilderness' begins, with an eruption of vegetation emerging from the streets, bursting forth in vegetal violence.  It's not imbued with a great amount of depth, other than the regret of youth and the inevitability of change - simplified in verse.

So what does this mean?  Without overdramatizing it, and not to cop out on the narrative implications (well sort of), but it means different things to different people.  It might be an impressive demo for Google, or maybe a mark of the creativity of an inventive Indie band trying to differentiate from the growing Indie masses.  I think it's more a question of representation and context - an anthem, given a flexible visual, for the conceptual framework of 'The Suburbs' in which the artists sing about.

It infuses the music, and why not the video - personalizing the alienation of suburban experience, wishing for something as dramatic as foliar anarchy - not a beanstalk to climb, but just for a short break from the boredom and monotony of the place.  The interesting aspect, brilliantly rendered in the snippets of video, is that the theme is somewhat universal - as the tone of the song and the moody visuals lead one, even if set in downtown Manahattan, to a suburban experience in need of transformation.  That's the power of music as a soundtrack for spaces, and that's kind of the point.

Landscape Performance Series

Interesting link to the Landscape Architecture Foundation's new resource - the Landscape Performance Series - which is sort of an adjust to the Sustainable Sites Initiative which is "...designed to fill a critical gap in the marketplace and make the concept of “Landscape Performance” and its contribution to sustainability as well known as “Building Performance” is today. The LPS is not a rating system, but rather a hub that brings together information and innovations from research, professional practice and student work in the form of case study briefs, benefits toolkit, factoid library, and scholarly works.

As someone who is adamant that our profession attain a much higher level of rigor in determining the efficacy of designs, this is a great new addition.  The projects are interesting, cover a wide range of landscape typologies, and offer data that is not available in typical media 'puff-pieces' or even more technical papers.  A typical case study includes a number of interesting features.  For instance, a look at the great Seattle project, the Thornton Creek Water Quality Channel, provides an overview, sustainable features, challenges/solutions, cost comparisons, lessons learned, and project team.

:: image via LAF

While the data is more expansive, we still have a long way to get really good information that can not just validate projects but can also drive future design solutions.  Information on cost, performance, and technical data is still anecdotal - not saying it doesn't exist, but that it either hasn't been studied, or hasn't been released.  The issue with data and research is always not the results, but the methodology and transferability to future projects.  Every landscape architect should study the Case Study Method for an approach to post-occupancy evaluation, particularly Mark Francis' article in Landscape Journal, that should become the foundation of every project - not just those with innovative features or with funding to provide necessary data.  

:: image via LAF

From a design perspective, we need greater access to available research.  I've had an interesting (and wonderful) opportunity to have access to the research library resources of a major university, and it has been amazing to see all of the data out there that has not trickled down to the design community in a meaningful way - even when you are actively searching for this information.  Take for instance the state of research in Green Roof technology, which in common access is limited to minimal, local, or specialized data on soils, plants, and benefits.  

:: image via

A very quick survey of some recent literature yielded international data on building heat flux, growing media for stormwater retention, water quality and building insulation, energy performance, plant establishment, habitat function, cost/benefit through life-cycle assessment, economic value, innovative structural techniques and systems, and heat island mitigation.  In addition, there are technical studies that offer innovative modelling techniques that provide macro-scale, not just site specific data, about the benefits of sustainable strategies, including green roofing.

:: image via Inhabitat

Aside from anecdotal, feel good stories about ephemeral or vague benefits, these offer tangible examples of research that can lead to better design and implementation.  While all of these research studies are not immediately transferable, many are, and it highlights the need for designers, even those not doing research, to be more involved in the creation of research agendas that will actually lead to better solutions.  It's not an either/or scenario - but one where we much work together if we are to make our landscapes more viable, but also give ourselves the tools to measure and evaluate them.  I commend the LAF for their work - and encourage others in the landscape architecture community to support and expand this work.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Patch, Mosaic, Corridor

While urbanization and sprawl into every nook and cranny of the ecosystem has left large habitat patches in North American relatively difficult to attain, a post by Treehugger shows that the less dense South American continent has the potential to provide a large mosaic of territory for the native Panther - Jaguar onca - (aka Jaguar) through patches of larger areas connected through corridors.  The maps are dynamic, showing a macro-scale mapping between Central and South America.  (all images via Panthera)

The idea of a Corridor Initative, aims at providing the connectivity of these disconnected patches:  " linking core jaguar populations within the human landscape from northern Argentina to Mexico, preserving their genetic integrity so jaguars can live in the wild forever. Through multilateral partnerships, government support, and local buy-in, Panthera is the driving force behind this unique initiative, ensuring safe passage for the majestic and mysterious jaguar across its entire range."

The Landscape Analysis Lab offers shared mapping data of a range of habitats for large cats, although the scale is a bit large to make any generalizations.  Much like many species, we can see a marked decline in range due to fragmentation of habitat.  There are some more detail maps that show a smaller-scale landscape and connectivity corridors between larger patches of habitat.

While large predators are less common in patches in the United States, it would be fascinating to see this sort of macro-geographical analysis for the Western Grey Wolf, or even the less expansive ranges for our local Cougar, or even the more daring and urbane Coyote, which has become more prevalent in urban areas as their habitat and natural food sources are depleted.  Maybe instead of trying to figure out how to kill them or keep them from eating pets, we could come up with a regional solution that keeps the interactions between humans and wildlife to a minimum.

Landscape+Urbanism: Large Print Edition

Apologies for the random post:  Through some unknown glitch, the formatting of some recent posts has been defaulting to both large print and strange spacing.  I have not been doing anything different, but it is making me suspect that the AARP has hacked into my code and removed the default font size giving me a Goldilocks dilemma without a 'just right' value.   While the reader may not care, it really bugs the shit out of me, so this may result in some tweaks to the layout - which was due for an adjustment anyway.

Through some unknown glitch, the formatting of some recent posts has been defaulting to both large print and strange spacing.  I have not been doing anything different, but it is making me suspect that the AARP has hacked into my code.   While the reader may not care, it really bugs the shit out of me, so this may result in some tweaks to the layout - which was due for an adjustment anyway.

Through some unknown glitch, the formatting of some recent posts has been defaulting to both large print and strange spacing.  I have not been doing anything different, but it is making me suspect that the AARP has hacked into my code.   While the reader may not care, it really bugs the shit out of me, so this may result in some tweaks to the layout - which was due for an adjustment anyway.

Through some unknown glitch, the formatting of some recent posts has been defaulting to both large print and strange spacing.  I have not been doing anything different, but it is making me suspect that the AARP has hacked into my code.   While the reader may not care, it really bugs the shit out of me, so this may result in some tweaks to the layout - which was due for an adjustment anyway.

Know Thy Annotations...

I'm really pleased to be able to present a snapshot of the bibliographical evidence related to the existing literature.  While not a complete and total view, this gives hints into some of the theoretical unpinnings of the theory of Landscape Urbanism, which could aid many of the discussions and dispel (or reinforce) some of the misconceptions flying about regarding what LU is, what it has accomplished, and where it is going.  Call it a public service, at the very least, it summarizes the points of view and offer a point of debate and discussion (versus uninformed knee-jerk reactions and snarky pot-shots) related to the panoply of  "Urbanisms" out there.  We're all in this discussion, and it's not about being right, it's about moving forward.  Thoughts, comments, ideas - welcome.

This list and summary was compiled by a couple of my friends and colleagues here in Portland - Allison Duncan (PhD Candidate, Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning, Portland State University, and Ethan Seltzer (Professor, Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning, Portland State University,  Thanks to them both for letting me share this great resource that was completed in June of 2010.

:: Download a PDF of the full Annotated Bibliography - (100 Kb File)

What is Landscape Urbanism?

  • Landscape urbanism is a response to the limited understanding or portrayal of project and site context currently employed by both architects and landscape architects. It is also a notion put forth strategically by landscape architects as a means for differentiating their profession among the design professions, particularly architecture, and in response to the superficial role landscape architects increasingly find themselves in.
  • Paradoxically, landscape architects have not generally latched on to this movement as strongly as architects.
  • Landscape urbanism is a catch phrase for a range of concepts all reflecting a desire for more flexibility and ecological sensibility than is currently incorporated in design and planning.
  • Landscape urbanism appears, at heart, to have a fondness for infrastructure and a desire to incorporate this infrastructure into design without resorting to superficially “shrub it up”.\
  • The theory and language are in some cases intentionally vague such that the concept serves as a thought exercise instead of something which is actually implementable.
  • There is value in arguing the theoretical niceties of landscape urbanism — this dialog digs into the role exterior spaces play in connecting urban fabric while countering the dominant role architecture has played for many years in defining and structuring urban design.
  • Many authors define it as a shift from the urban “building block” of architecture to the “structuring medium” of landscape.
  • Possibly one of the most fascinating aspects of landscape urbanism is its inclusion of indeterminacy into the design process. Spaces can be too programmed and attempting to leave some flexibility in a design is both interesting and potentially pragmatic in the face of uncertainty.
  • Landscape urbanism fundamentally draws attention to context. More to the point, what it demands is the inclusion of landscape in all its forms – built, vernacular, natural, etc. – as the basis for understanding the forces shaping projects and to which projects must respond. In this respect, landscape urbanism promotes an understanding of places and projects based on an ecology that includes people and what they do and have done in the same frame as a comprehensive view of the natural world.

Thought leaders:
People who actively write about the theories of landscape urbanism—not those who are cited as writing the foundational pieces which contribute to the theory of landscape urbanism:
  • James Corner
  • Stan Allen
  • Alex Wall
  • Charles Waldheim
People who have contributed the most descriptive and actionable/practicable writings about landscape urbanism:
  • Chris Reed
  • Christopher Gray
  • Peter Connolly
  • Richard Weller
  • Jusick Koh

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Reading List: Small Spaces

A new release that arrived from Princeton Architectural Press 'Small Scale' advertises 'Creative Solutions for Better City Living' which is a lofty goal.  It immediately made me think of niche DIY magazines like Ready-Made  for people with pent up creativity just bursting with ideas if they only had some direction or money.  When I read the preliminary text, I was interested to see this ideology of projects for good in action.  Instead I just enjoyed some cool projects and some great photos.

The authors, partners at Moscow Linn Architects discuss the intent early on, alluding to the range of projects " places to contemplate, to find reprieve from urban intrusions, and to facilitate social interaction', building on many urban precedents of site design and artistic intervention.  The include their own project, which I remember seeing from a few years back - the Zipcar Dispenser for dense urban mobility in the text. (Wait a second, they slipped three of their projects into the fold - wait... four!)  Perhaps this first one is one of the more interesting additions to the book - one with a story of reuse and necessity in an urban context - sort of right along the lines of the intent of the book.

Seen above, the project which looked at transforming a ship-repair container into a new sports venue - reminiscent of the work of LTL and indicative of a more strategic positioning of space melded with community need.  This seems to set the stage for a sort of investigative approach that one would think continues throughout the volume, one maybe better suited for speculative-only projects, which seem more suited to ideology without being watered down in reality.

Thus, with these precedents in hand, it's a bit of a strange ride through sections like 'Service', 'Insight' or 'Delight' which sort of organize the snapshots of the projects into a systemic view.  It reads somewhat like a blog, with short descriptions and an array of photos, giving one a taste, and if the interest is piqued, the ability to find out more.  I ended up enjoying it more by picking and choosing, often at random intervals* and came across some gems, such as 'In Pursuit of Freedom' from Local Projects -  a multi-media installation focused on elements of historic urbanism.

Many are ones that have been seen before, like the 'Parti Wall' from Boston, which I so artfully referred to in the past as 'hanging bath mats' (but in reality is pretty cool) as a temporary installation of vertical urban void space.  

And others like StossLU's outdoor romper room 'Safe Zone' a temporary installation utilizing recycled rubber play surfacing material - definitely fit the essence of small-scale.

The solutions also range from the artistic such as the sculptural 'Maximilian's Schell' (below-top) by Ball-Nogues Studio or the whimiscal 'White Noise White Light (below-bottom) by Howeler + Yoon that consisted of a simple activated array of led lights in a plaza space - which some wonderful results.

Literally 1 to 3 pages per project, these are just vignettes, partially in response to getting a wide cross section of content, but perhaps more evidently as there probably isn't a lot of substance (or anything that would be palatable to read) with these projects.  That is not to say they are simplistic in design elegance, just that they are simple to explain.  One of my favorites (and I think the ideal for a book like this) is the simple Temporary Event Complex for TBA Festival, done by Portland firm BOORA - using scaffold and construction fencing to create an ephemeral pavilion of sorts.  Anyone who saw this knows the photos don't do it justice.

Oddly enough there were a few really strange additions (both in scope and scale) - such as the High Line (also due to it's photogenic quality, is on the cover shot) and other larger projects like the Ecoboulevard in Vallencia, , and a few others that don't seem to fit the mold - and are tough to document in a few pages.  Both great projects, I just don't see how they fit the intent of the book, but don't dwell on this too much.  It wasn't terribly hard to endure 200-300 words of any one project - and it works sort of a book length Pecha Kucha.

I so appreciate an opportunity to show off some of the cool graphics for The High Line - so of course I will.  But much like the rest of the book, the addition of this project shows a schizophrenia on what the focus really is about.  Is it small interventions or creative insertions into urban fabric?  Simple, affordable, expensive, artistic, functional?  All of these typologies were included, so, even as I was enjoying the book, I couldn't actually tell what the agenda was, and what exactly was trying to be accomplished.  Not that books really need that agenda, but just don't put it in the title.

A great collection of interesting projects with great imagery and simple descriptions is a good book on its own.  I think the overarching hyperbole of 'Creative Solutions for Better City Living' maybe sounded good as a marketing strategy, but falls flat in execution - especially for a set of project profiles that costs $34.95.  The act of 'improving the lives of city dwellers' and 'addressing problems specific to urban life', as noted in the introduction, is noble.  But it is not the contribution of this collection of projects.  If this were the sum total of those efforts at making better cities, then god help us all.

More commentary from Urban Lab Global Cities and the always irreverent faslanyc