Category Archives: environmental

Walden, the game

I’m a bit tardy in posting about the 200th Anniversary of Thoreau’s birthday, which generated some great reading about the man, his adventuresthe pond, and his legacy.   I’m one of the camp that was highly influenced by early and often readings of Thoreau, and accept both the critical view of his life, while also appreciating the positives we can draw from these experiences, if not of a wilderness, of solitude and a form of self reliance.

One item that intrigued me was the mention of the game Walden, from the USC Game Innovation lab.  A blurb from their site gives the run-down on the game:   “Play as philosopher and naturalist Henry David Thoreau in his experiment in self-reliant living at Walden Pond. Live off the land, seek out the small wonders and beauties of the woods, and find balance between your need to survive and your desire to find inspiration.”

I like the idea of an open world game that connects to historical landscape, but also allows for a non-prescriptive experience.  The game intends for players to “follow in his footsteps, surviving in the woods by finding food and fuel and maintaining your shelter and clothing…. At the same time as you strive to survive off the land, you are encouraged to explore the beauty of the woods and the pond, which hold a promise of a sublime life beyond your basic needs.”  There are also opportunities to interact with the likes of Emerson, Horace Greeley, A. Bronson Alcott, and Louis Agassiz so there’s inevitably a history lesson or two.  Perhaps something transcendental?

A longer blurb from their site i think sums up the intention:

“There are many reasons why Thoreau’s work should be important to us today – from his core environmentalism, to his criticisms of the ways in which technologies change the speed and value of our lives, to his fundamental questioning of the role of government in society – all of which are as critical, if not more, than when he was writing. As the 200th anniversary of Thoreau’s birth approaches, the opportunity to relive his famous experiment in simple, self-reliant living in the form of an immersive game seems particularly relevant to those of us living in a world dominated by concerns about our relationship to nature, technology and governments. Walden, a game gives digital natives the opportunity to meet Thoreau’s ideas in a form that makes them interactive and immersive.

It is not our hope that the game would ever replace reading the book of Walden, or taking a lovely walk out doors, or getting closer to nature in any way. We hope the game is actually a path for more people to find their way back to Thoreau, and to nature, and to be inspired to think more deliberately about the choices they make about life and how to live it simply and wisely.”

Some press from Smithsonian and PC World offer some more context, and this YouTube video also gives a feel for the visuals.

Does it work as a game?  Does it reflect the spirit of Thoreau in the manner desired of the makers?   Well that’s the question.  I’ve not played it yet (although tempted), as summer in the Pacific Northwest for me is not prime game time (plenty of rainy winter for that), but curious is others have and what they think.

 

Urban Ecology Reading List 2: Landscape Ecology

URBAN ECOLOGY READING LIST – 2

Beyond some of the specific books focusing  on the science of Urban Ecology, there are subsets of literature that support this study.  This is the first of three posts to expand the reading list that investigate these other, related disciplinary alignments, including landscape ecology, the hybrid books on planning and design based on ecological systems, and finally, a set of formative literature on environmental planning & design I would consider part of the historical canon.

Landscape Ecology

Closely linked is the science of landscape ecology, which according to the International Association for Landscape Ecology is “…the study of spatial variation in landscapes at a variety of scales. It includes the biophysical and societal causes and consequences of landscape heterogeneity. Above all, it is broadly interdisciplinary.  
The conceptual and theoretical core of landscape ecology links natural sciences with related human disciplines. Landscape ecology can be portrayed by several of its core themes, including the spatial pattern or structure of landscapes, ranging from wilderness to cities, the relationship between pattern and process in landscapes, the relationship of human activity to landscape pattern, process and change, [and] the effect of scale and disturbance on the landscape.”

 


Foundation Papers in Landscape Ecology   Moss, Turner, Mladenoff, Weins (eds).  Columbia University Press, November 2006.

Landscape ecology focuses on spatial heterogeneity, or the idea that where things are and where they are in relation to other things can have important consequences for a wide range of phenomena. Landscape ecology integrates humans with natural ecosystems and brings a spatial perspective to such fields as natural resource management, conservation, and urban planning. The thirty-seven papers included in this volume present the origins and development of landscape ecology and encompass a variety of perspectives, approaches, and geographies. The editors begin with articles that illuminate the discipline’s diverse scientific foundations, such as L. S. Berg’s keystone paper outlining a geoecological analysis based on soil science, physical geography, and geology. Next they include selections exemplifying landscape ecologists’ growing awareness of spatial pattern, the different ways they incorporated scale into their work, the progression of landscape ecology from a qualitative to a quantitative discipline, and how concepts from landscape ecology have come to permeate ecological research and influence land-use policy, conservation practices, landscape architecture, and geography. Together these articles provide a solid introduction to what is now widely recognized as an important area of research and application that encourages new ways of thinking about natural and human-dominated ecosystems


Landscape Ecology, 1st ed.   Richard T.T. Forman & Michel Godron.  Wiley, February 1986.

This important new work–the first of its kind–focuses on the distribution patterns of landscape elements or ecosystems; the flows of animals, plants, energy, mineral nutrients and water; and the ecological changes in the landscape over time. Includes over 1,200 references from current ecology, geography, forestry, and wildlife biology literature.

 

 


Landscape Ecology in Theory and Practice: Pattern and Process, 2nd ed.   Monica G. Turner & Robert H. Gardner, Springer, November 2015  [original publication date 2003]

This work provides in-depth analysis of the origins of landscape ecology and its close alignment with the understanding of scale, the causes of landscape pattern, and the interactions of spatial pattern with a variety of ecological processes. The text covers the quantitative approaches that are applied widely in landscape studies, with emphasis on their appropriate use and interpretation.

The field of landscape ecology has grown rapidly during this period, its concepts and methods have matured, and the published literature has increased exponentially. Landscape research has enhanced understanding of the causes and consequences of spatial heterogeneity and how these vary with scale, and they have influenced the management of natural and human-dominated landscapes. Landscape ecology is now considered mainstream, and the approaches are widely used in many branches of ecology and are applied not only in terrestrial settings but also in aquatic and marine systems. In response to these rapid developments, an updated edition of Landscape Ecology in Theory and Practice provides a synthetic overview of landscape ecology, including its development, the methods and techniques that are employed, the major questions addressed, and the insights that have been gained.”


Landscape Ecology: Theory and Application, 2nd ed.  Zev Naveh & Arthur S. Lieberman, Springer, December 1993.

In the preface to the softcover edition of this book in 1989, we stated: Since the publication of the first edition of this book, landscape ecology has made great strides. It has overcome its continental isolation and has also established itself in the English-speaking world. By attracting both problem inquiry and problem-solving-oriented scientists with different cultural, academic, and profes­ sional backgrounds from all over the world, it has broadened not only its geo­ graphical but also its conceptual and methodological scopes. We are pleased to confirm in 1993 that the growth of landscape ecology continues, and to again express our gratification at the encouraging re­ sponse to this first English-language monograph on the subject and its contribution to these developments. As before, we feel special satisfac­ tion that it has reached not only the shelves of libraries and academic re­ searchers, but that it has also appealed to professional practitioners, teachers, and their students from industrialized and developing countries, embracing the broad range of fields related to landscape ecology in the natural sciences as well as in the humanities.


Land Mosaics: The ecology of landscapes and regions, 1st edition.  Richard T.T. Forman.  Cambridge Univ. Press, November 1995.

Animals, water, wind, and people flow at different rates according to spatial patterns common to almost all landscapes and regions. This up-to-date synthesis explores the ecology of heterogeneous land areas, where natural processes and human activities interact to produce an ever changing mosaic. The subject has great relevance to contemporary society and this book reflects the breadth of this importance: there are many ideas and applications for planning, conservation, design, management, sustainability and policy. Spatial solutions are provided for society’s land-use objectives. Students and professionals alike will be drawn by the attractive and informative illustrations, the conceptual synthesis, the wide international perspective, and the range of topics and research covered.


Learning Landscape Ecology: A Practical Guide to Concepts and Techniques, 2nd ed.  Sarah E. Gergel & Monica G. Turner (eds).  Springer, April 2017.

This title meets a great demand for training in spatial analysis tools accessible to a wide audience. Landscape ecology continues to grow as an exciting discipline with much to offer for solving pressing and emerging problems in environmental science. Much of the strength of landscape ecology lies in its ability to address challenges over large areas, over spatial and temporal scales at which decision-making often occurs. As the world tackles issues related to sustainability and global change, the need for this broad perspective has only increased. Furthermore, spatial data and spatial analysis (core methods in landscape ecology) are critical for analyzing land-cover changes world-wide. While spatial dynamics have long been fundamental to terrestrial conservation strategies, land management and reserve design, mapping and spatial themes are increasingly recognized as important for ecosystem management in aquatic, coastal and marine systems.

This second edition is purposefully more applied and international in its examples, approaches, perspectives and contributors. It includes new advances in quantifying landscape structure and connectivity (such as graph theory), as well as labs that incorporate the latest scientific understanding of ecosystem services, resilience, social-ecological landscapes, and even seascapes. Of course, as before, the exercises emphasize easy-to-use, widely available software.


Urban Landscape Ecology: Science, policy and practice (Routledge Studies in Urban Ecology)  Robert A. Francis, James D.A. Millington, Michael A. Chadwick (editors), Routledge, April 2016

The growth of cities poses ever-increasing challenges for the natural environment on which they impact and depend, not only within their boundaries but also in surrounding peri-urban areas. Landscape ecology – the study of interactions across space and time between the structure and function of physical, biological and cultural components of landscapes – has a pivotal role to play in identifying sustainable solutions.  This book brings together examples of research at the cutting edge of urban landscape ecology across multiple contexts that investigate the state, maintenance and restoration of healthy and functional natural environments across urban and peri-urban landscapes. An explicit focus is on urban landscapes in contrast to other books which have considered urban ecosystems and ecology without specific focus on spatial connections. It integrates research and perspectives from across academia, public and private practitioners of urban conservation, planning and design. It provides a much needed summary of current thinking on how urban landscapes can provide the foundation of sustained economic growth, prospering communities and personal well-being.

International Urban Wildlife Conference

In early June I was in San Diego for the 2017 International Urban Wildlife Conference.   This was my first time at this particular conference, and it was fascinating to experience the breadth of ideas, and the urban focus on wildlife.  It’s something that we as designers care about, but struggle with implementation that truly provides actual value.

This is predominately at conference with a science focus,  drawing from government, academia, and NGOs spanning policy, implementation, research, and more. As a participant, I definitely felt like a fish out of water in such a science-focused crowd, however, the opportunity to connect with scientists and researchers provides a unique context and some perspective (both ways) on how we can communicate better.

One highlight for me was the opening plenary by Nancy Grimm, a “Professor of Ecology in the School of Life Sciences and a Senior Sustainability Scientist at Arizona State University” who discussed the work around the Central Arizona-Phoenix Long Term Ecological Research (CAP LTER).

Aside from some of the work, she shared a model of socio-ecological systems, and the shift towards more human influence and impacts in their research.  “Our conceptual model illustrates our understanding of urban socio-ecological systems. In CAPIV we are focusing on urban infrastructure as a bridge between the biophysical and human/social components of the system. Urban infrastructure includes green, blue, turquoise, gray, and human/social infrastructures in the city”  Grimm also called on better collaboration between designers and scientists, which was a great way to kick the conference off.

Another interesting narrative told by a few speakers focused on the presence of large predators in cities, none more photogenic, or shall I say charismatic, megafauna.  The Southern California focus meant more than a few stories about P-22, the mountain lion currently living in Griffith Park in Los Angeles, and the tension between people who embrace urban predators and those that consider them a nuisance.

Multiple tracks included information on large mammals, coyotes, and new approaches to addressing human-wildlife interactions that are not just focused on negatives.  Certainly the theme of what habitat?” came up throughout, as the urban focus meant shared spaces between many species, which has positive benefits but also negatives, and guides much of the research in terms of adequate path size and connectivity and species specific interactions in fragmented urban areas.

This larger discussion were some interesting sessions on habitat connectivity and corridors, which included some interesting wildlife crossings, include a significant new project in Pima County, Arizona , near Tuscson, that took almost 30 years to be realized, showing the need for persistence.  The project included an overpass and underpass, seen under construction below:

The educational aspects and programs also occupied a good amount of the conference, with outreach and wildlife information, educational programs for children and schools, along with tracks on Citizen science, information sharing hubs, and collaboration.

The session I was part of was the final day, and was entitled “Dysfunctional urban biodiversity planning: Take home messages for (and from) ecologists and planners/designers.”  Convened by Mark Hostetler, from University of Florida it drew a multi-disciplinary panel of ecologists, planners, designers with a general focus on better communication, barriers and opportunities for how to achieve greater (and more frequent collaboration) .

In addition to Mark, who shared his online tool “Building for Birds”, speakers include Paige Warren from University of Massachusetts-Amherst, presenting on “Governing for Diversity”,  David Drake from University of Wisconsin-Madison discussing “Proactive Wildlife Management”, David Maddox from The Nature of Cities focusing on “Shared Values”, Jeffrey Brown from Rutgers University discussed “Optimal Sizes of Bird Habitat”.  From the planning side, Steve Hofstetter from Alachua County, Florida, gave perspective on Planning and Ecology, Travis Longcore from USC School of Architecture talked about “Corridors”, Sarah Jack Hinners from University of Utah elaborated on “Ways of Knowing/Doing” in interdisciplinary work, and from Kyushu Institute of Technology in Japan, Keitaro Ito discussed Collaborative Ecological Design.  You can get a feel for the conference as a whole, download the abstracts for more info here.

My talk was entitled “Crossing the Science/Design Divide”, and touched on a variety of topics include experiences working with ecologists, access to research, real vs. boutique outcomes, habitat pros and cons, and novel ecosystems.  The summary included some examples of firms and groups with high levels of integration and collaboration, such as Andropogon Research,  landscape ecology resources for designers, evidence-based design approaches borrowed from healthcare, more ecological integration into rating tools like SITES, and habitat-specific certification via Salmon Safe, to name a few.  I will post on something a bit more detailed about my session and some of the takeaways.

It’s heartening to see the shift to incorporation of social systems into ecological research, a vital component for truly integrated urban wildlife management.  Our session and others highlighted some great opportunities and continuing challenges we face in truly integrated habitat into planning and design in the urban realm.

Introducing Hidden Hydrology

Regular readers of the blog know of my long-time passions of both Vegitecture and Hidden Hydrology, which both dovetail nicely into the larger themes of Landscape+Urbanism.  While the L+U blog has been relatively intermittent, I’ve been hard at work developing a new website and blog for the Hidden Hydrology project. The goal is to culminate the work in some form of publication, but regardless, it seemed time to focus on that element in it’s own.  I’m also giving a talk at the Washington ASLA conference in Spokane later this month (April 21), so excited to share more to a broader audience.  Simply put, the project is summarized as:

“Exploring lost rivers, buried creeks & disappeared streams. Connecting historic ecology + the modern metropolis.”

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Without going into too much detail that may be gained by going to the site itself, the project is broken down into four sections.  The first section gives a quick overview of hidden hydrology and links to some of my original inspirations, including Anne Whiston Spirn and David James Duncan, along with an early, evocative map of Portland, along with the amazing historical ecology around the book Mannahatta.

A bit longer summary gives some context for the endeavor:  “At the basic level, hidden hydrology is the buried, piped and disappeared waterways that flow under our urban areas.  Development has driven underground these surface streams that used to weave through our cities – and with them we’ve lost the connection to natural systems, and robust ecological habitat that urban waterways can provide.  Beyond just focusing on pure daylighting and restoration, the exploration, mapping, and study of hidden hydrology offers new ways to conceptualize a range of interventions that reconnect us to our history and offer glimpses of solutions for the future.  It’s a broader concept of ‘restoration’ that looks through lenses of art, landscape architecture, urban ecology, and planning to define ways to celebrate, connect and regenerate our places.”

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The second section are links to many of the resources available, including precedents, projects, and resources from around the globe.  While linking to the other pages, I’m also providing links to some of the posts, including a diverse mix from Rome to London, San Francisco to Lexington, Kentucky.  The range of projects isn’t limited to projects, but encompasses art, mapping, poetry, literature, dance, stream daylighting, films, community engagement, and history.

A couple of highlights, including the project “Ghost Arroyos” in San Francisco:

Or the cool mapping work of David Ramos in DC at Imaginary Terrain.

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The third is an ongoing exploration of themes in a more expanded format, the site is built aroud a blog that has delved into some of the resources, and projects, but also allows for some rumination and coverage of original project work.   Of the 25 or so posts to date, many have covered cities and projects, expanding to case studies and deeper investigations.   These include projects inspired by hidden hydrology (such as Town Branch Commons in Lexington, top below), as well as historical maps and photos referenced in a literary context (Iain Sinclair’s ‘Swimming to Heaven’), and more in depth historical ecological studies (San Francisco Estuary Institute) to show a few.

1854 — The Corporation of London workmen repairing the Fleet sewer, south of Fleet street under the direction of Mr. W. Haywood. The sewers carried 87,000,000 gallon of water daily in 1854. — Image by © CORBIS

The diversity is what surprised me, to different tendrils which weave beyond just mapping but into a multitude of subjects.  An early post on the site, is illustrative of this concept, and is still one of my favorites, focused on the novel by Ben H. Winters, Underground Airlines and it’s use of the hidden hydrology of Indianapolis to tell a futuristic narrative of modern day slavery.

An excerpt from the novel explains this in a bit more detail.

“I cleared the trailer park and passed a jumble of picnic benches and playground equipment and stepped carefully down the slope of the ravine and swung the heavy beam of my flashlight along the creek.  Now it was clear, with the water swollen by the rains, the direction the brown water was still flowing.  The black mouth in the base of the shallow hill was an entrance, not an exit.  This low little trickle of mud water was a kind of rivulet, a poor cousin of a creek, and this spot behind the motor court is where some long-ago engineer had diverted it.
The creek was called Pogue’s Run. I’d found it on the map. I’d looked up the story.  This small waterway was discovered at the turn of the century – the eighteenth turning into the nineteenth — discovered and named and recorded, penciled in on early maps, when the city was not yet a city — when it was a gathering of huts, a stopping place on the way to other places.  The small river was inconvenient for the city fathers and the grid they’d drawn.  So they did just as Mama Walker said: they ran it underground.”

Beyond the fringes of hidden hydrology include some diversion into the very cool Atlas of Oblique Maps, a fascinating set of historical climate maps from the 1850s, and the ever popular Fisk maps of the evolution of changes to the Mississippi River.

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The fourth, which is more of a long-term is projects, is still in nascent stage, but offers the potential to showcase original work around Hidden Hydrology, specifically in Portland and Seattle, but encompassing some other miscellany as well.  Currently it highlights some early presentations, as well as base-mapping of the Cadastral Survey for each city, the springboard for further analysis.

The Mississippi maps inspired me to use some of the documentations to animate the changing course of the river within the valley over the last 4000 years.  These more

 

There’s a ton of great information out there, yet it’s an area of study that seems relatively untapped and full of potential.  If you’d like to contribute, know of some great case studies, and have the bug for historical maps, and how these can inform ecological design today, give a shout.  In the interim, check out the site and follow @hiddenhydrology on Twitter.

And stay tuned for some more explorations here at L+U related to urban ecology and habitat, and more posts on some recent vegitecture, as I am working on some related projects and doing some more focused research in these realms.

 

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Map Landscapes by Matthew Rangel

These are some amazing illustrations from Artist Matthew Rangel, that remind me both of old school map/diagrams from the 1800s, and the Taking Measures  James Corner’s Map Landscapes.  While much of the graphic conventions seem to hover around exploded axonometrics and collage photoshop, the ability of these sketchy images to depict landscapes in map and diagram offers inspiration for displaying complex systems.

Some description, via Socks Studio:

“His digital and analogical prints communicate his thoughtful explorations of mountainous territories made through cross-country hikes, interviews and pictures. Rangel’s works reveal how human beings shape and experience landscape, showing the contrast between the segmentation of a territory in different properties and its natural features.

The practice also reflects on different ages in the relationship between art and landscape, from romanticism to land art. Rangel’s production mixes traditional cartographic features, mostly sections and plans, with annotations, photographs and other drawings to produce narrative-rich and multilayered documents.”

All images © Matthew Rangel  – Thanks to link from Twitter @bmeyer56 – images via Socks Studio

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Snoqualmie Ice Circle

It’s been unseasonably cold this winter (in Pacific Northwest terms at least), and while my friends to the south in Portland dig out of their recent snowstorm, locally, there are some benefits, such as the amazing phenomenon of ice circles.  Captured by local photographer Kaylyn Messer,  from  North Bend, Washington,this one is a short distance away from Seattle, I’m hoping it stays cold through the weekend to venture out and see this in person.

 

From her blog:

“Ice Circles, or ice disks, are a natural phenomena where a thin layer of ice spins on top of flowing water.  I heard through a Facebook post about an ice circle spinning on the Middle Fork Snoqualmie River close to where I live so I decided to check it out.  I drove along the NF-5600 road peering over each bridge.  I was elated to see that the circle was still intact and spinning.  I spent the afternoon watching the slow rotations and listening to the murmurs of the ice.  A few notches of ice were broken from the nearly perfect circle.”

A video as well to give you a true feel for this interesting phenomenon.

Ice Circle spinning on Middle Fork Snoqualmie River from Kaylyn Messer on Vimeo.

 

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Water and Cities

Interesting exploration from Architect’s Newspaper from October covering a range of water specific projects and proposals in the urban realm.  A short description:

“For landscape architects today, urbanism and water go hand in hand. Whether dealing with issues of sea level rise, groundwater retention, or just plain old water supply infrastructure, landscape architects are working with scientists, engineers, and policy makers on increasingly bigger projects that encompass more external factors and larger networks of physical, biological, environmental, and political networks. We examine some of these water landscapes and how they relate to each other in the broader context of how resources and climate-related changes are being managed.”

The grid locates these twelve projects in the field, with poles ranging on one axis from Decadence to Survival and on the other pole from Not Enough to Too Much.  It’s a simple diagram that shows the complexity of water and the need for regional and adaptive solutions that address multiple problems but are also specific to place.  This spans climate change, drinking water, development, and ecology — balancing all of the variety of needs for livability, economy and social equity of which water is intertwined.  Check out the post for more detail, but a few highlights worthy of discussion.

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The issue of climate refugees is going to continually be more and more common in the news.  One such example is Shishmaref, Alaska who have “…asking whether it’s better to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or take arms against a sea of troubles to combat a looming climate change–driven disaster.”  While consultants have said they should stay, a recent vote went in favor or relocating the town, which is on an island in the Bering Straight, to the safer mainland, and they are looking for the $200 million necessary to do so.

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Miami is an example of a much more populated city dealing with climate issue, such as flooding and access to clean drinking water, even when the city continue to grow rapidly. “Miami’s real estate value continues to rise despite the chronic flooding risks on its waterfront. Even as local governments pour millions into tackling high tides and storm surges, deeper economic and infrastructural issues loom as threats to growth and prosperity.”

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Another interesting take on flooding, Chicago is looking at underground sand deposits that were built over, and still exist, to provide a unique resilience strategy.  “The challenge is immense—for Chicago, one inch of rainfall equals four billion gallons. Until recently Chicago’s answer to the problem has been an infrastructure project no less than epic—read costly—in scale. But one landscape architect is leading an effort to change how the city can unlock its hidden potential for storm water management”

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On the flip side, proposals for water scarcity are happening in Texas, through innovative methods of protecting supply, as well as creating controversy as cities in Wisconsin start asking to draw water from Lake Michigan.

And what review of water would be complete without some discussion of the contentious LA River, (banner image above) which is being tackled by multiple teams and has created some rifts in the design community, particularly that of putting Frank Gehry in charge of the latest public sceme.  One postive from the Gehry team (in addition to including a good mix of other disciplinares) that I’m curious about is the “L.A. River VR Experience, an initiative by media producers Camilla Andersson and Anders Hjemdahl at Pacific Virtual Reality and FoLAR… The project is currently in the final stages of production and features a VR tour along the entire LA River. “

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The work of Studio Gang to develop interdisciplinary solutions to ecological projects is interesting, and the work of UrbanLab also provides some context for water projects in China.

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Lots more, so check out all of these brief articles and the matrix of abundance and scarcity and decadence and survival is a unique frame to look at water solutions.  Finally, for more in-depth look at one of these projects, check out my post over at Hidden Hydrology to find out more on the Town Branch Commons project by SCAPE and the ‘daylighting’ of an urban waterway in Lexington, Kentucky.

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Images via ArchPaper

 

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Micro Landscape

An interesting take on landscape, spotted via Architect’s Newspaper.  Artist Spencer Finch has created a micro landscape installation called ‘Lost Man Creek’ for the Public Art Fund as part of a solo exhibition.

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Lost Man Creek is a miniature forest. But rather than growing naturally and of its own accord, this undulating landscape populated by some 4,000 Dawn Redwoods is a recreation. Artist Spencer Finch partnered with the Save the Redwoods League to identify a 790-acre section of the protected Redwood National Park in California. Significantly scaling down the topography and tree canopy heights, he reimagined this corner of the California forest for MetroTech at a 1:100 scale. While the original trees range from 98 to 380 feet – taller than the buildings that surround the plaza – the trees in the installation are just one to four feet in height.”

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images from Public Art Fund, photos by Timothy Schenck

Hemp to the Rescue

We’ve heard of many plants that have phytoremediative qualities, that is, the properties that can absorb and neutralize toxic substances in soils.   For all the versatility of hemp, I hadn’t thought of it as possessing that ability until I read recent post on Roads and Kingdoms entitled Hemp and Change.  The crux of the story is one of pollution and the potential for Hemp as one of those plants that can aid in cleaning up our dirty messes.

The Italian town Taranto in Puglia, which like many areas had a rich agricultural and gastronomic history, specifically cheeses and other dairy products.  A large steel plant was constructed nearby in the 1960s, which was led to degradation of air and soil that led to conditions where animals were no longer fit for consumption.  There are also indications that the residents have and continue to suffer from ill effects of the plant.

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:: image via Roads & Kingdoms

The issue is that the plant serves as the major source of jobs, so it’s a double-edged sword where residents are both in need of the economic benefit but suffer from the ill effects.  The plant owners were later charged with a number of crimes for the health and environmental issues, but beyond the legal culpability, there still remains the need for a viable clean-up of the sites, which is often too expensive and long term.

Thus phytoremediation provides a viable strategy for clean up of the toxic sites, with the potential to restore Taranto back to it’s agricultural glory.  A group called CanaPuglia and their founder Claudio Natile, who describes hemp and its use as a continuation of an Italian tradition.

“Hemp was a major Italian agricultural crop for hundreds of years. In the 1950s, the country was the second-largest hemp producer in the world after the Soviet Union. Italian hemp seeds provided some of the most resistant fibers, which were turned into clothing. However, with industrialization and the advent of synthetic fibers such as nylon, hemp started to disappear.”

They’ve planted 300 hectares of low THC hemp, which is also harvested to make a range of products, further providing economic vitality and helping to pay for the cleanup.  In this case, the toxicity doesn’t persist in the fibers, so it can be used, however there could be toxicity in the seeds so the hemp is not sold for food consumption.  The article doesn’t get too far into how hemp is working for pollution reduction, but offered a few links to explore.

According to the Huffington Post, in addition to hemp being a low-input and easy to grow plant, it “…was used at Chernobyl to harmlessly extract toxins and pollutants from the soil and groundwater. Hemp actually absorbs CO2 while it grows through natural photosynthesis, making it carbon-negative from the get-go.”

Commercial hemp, Darlingford, Manitoba, Canada.
Commercial hemp, Darlingford, Manitoba, Canada.

:: image via Huffington Post

The use a variety of plants for phytoremediation of toxic sites, including Brassicas, corn, tobacco, sunflowers and trees, to name a few, all are viable methods to uptake and capture pollutants.   The site explains that Phytoremediation is a process that takes advantage of the fact that green plants can extract and concentrate certain elements within their ecosystem. For example, some plants can grow in metal-laden soils, extract certain metals through their root systems, and accumulate them in their tissues without being damaged. In this way, pollutants are either removed from the soil and groundwater or rendered harmless.

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:: image via McGraw Hill – Botany Global Issues Map

The use of hemp is explained in a bit more detail “In 1998, Phytotech, along with Consolidated Growers and Processors (CGP) and the Ukraine’s Institute of Bast Crops, planted industrial hemp, Cannabis sp., for the purpose of removing contaminants near the Chernobyl site.”  The uptake of pollutants at Chernobyl included cesium and strontium, which was bio-accumlated in root structures at high concentrations.  While some toxins are broken down in soil and plants, high-grade elements like radioactive waste are pulled from soils into plants, so there is obviously the issue of proper and safe removal of this biomass after this process has taken place.

One interesting link on the larger concept is from the United Nations Enviornment Programme, a site called “Phytoremediation: An Environmentally Sound Technology for Pollution Prevention, Control and Remediation. ” which does offer a primer on the topic.  Contrasting it with traditional remediation, the site explains: “Remediation of contaminated sites using conventional practices, such as ‘pump-and-treat’ and ‘dig-and-dump’ techniques, is often expensive, has limited potential, and is usually only applicable to small areas. Additionally, these conventional approaches to remediation often make the soil infertile and unsuitable for agriculture and other uses by destroying the microenvironment. Hence there is the need to develop and apply alternative, environmentally sound technologies (ESTs), taking into account the probable end use of the site once it has been remediated.”

The process happens in multiple ways, but essentially has two methods – the first is breaking down and degrading organic pollutants; the second is to trap  metals or non-organics so they cannot move to other animals or areas.  The roots are the main source of phytoremediation, being in contact with pollutants directly through the extensive below-grade surface area.  When areas of contamination are deeper, trees are often used where their more extensive rooting systems can go further down than herbacous plants and shrubs.   There are also cases where water can be pumped from below grade and then treated on the surface using plants.

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:: image via Intech

As the above graphic shows, there are many methods at work with the phytoremediation process, many of which are working on the ‘soil-root’ interface.  There are a number of compounds released by the plants, “root exudates” that activate microorganisms that can extract, stablilize, degrade and stimulate toxics.  This changes the bioavaiability of the toxins through, as the UNEP site states “changes in soil characteristcs, release of organic substances, changes in chemical composition, and /or increase in plant-assisted microbial activity.”

There are over 30,000 sites in the US that require hazardous waste treatment, and many more worldwide.  While many plants that are viable for phytoremediation are available, many of these cannot be used for consumption because of issues with possible contamination. Hemp is perhaps one to consider as the fiber used can still be processed into useful, saleable products,  that could potentially fund the cleanup as well.  As marijuana legality relaxes somewhat, it may be more possible to use this plant to make our world a cleaner place.

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Austere Gardens

I received a little gem of a book from Oro Editions entitled Austere Gardens: Thoughts on Landscape, Restraint, & Attending.  Written by Marc Treib, the book (at a slim and image-heavy 100 pages) is a meditation of a sort.  Having been immersed in some much heavier reading recently, I sat down and absorbed (reveled in?) this book in one sitting, and it was a breath of fresh air in contrast to much more academic writing.

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The word garden means implies form-making, so Treib contrasts the Edenic model, which aims “… to surpass our given environment in abundance and delight,” in contrast to that of simple “…landscapes of reduction and compression,” (10) which embody the idea of the Austere.

From the publisher’s website, a bit of the background:

The word “austere,” as used in this essay, does not imply asceticism, but merely modesty and restraint. Austere landscapes may first appear devoid of interest if noticed at all. To those who do not look beyond their surfaces, these sites, and the world outside them, usually appear plain and uninteresting, or even lacking of the very properties by which we define a garden. But there are sensual, aesthetic, and even philosophical, pleasures to be gained from these seemingly dull fields should we attempt to appreciate them. These qualities, normally associated with abundance and complexity, may be found in a different way, and at a different level, in austere terrain.

Many of the examples used in the book come not from traditional landscape architecture, where formal quality is typically the main driver, but from environmental artists like Robert Smithson, Richard Long, Robert Irwin, and others.   The idea here is that austerity can emerge from both the unplanned, what Treib refers to as Traces, “the marks of human existence and its activities… result from wear, removal, and erosion.” (22) Artists use subtle clues but add the concept of Intent, or “considered action.” (24)

Using the example of Richard Long’s A Line Made By Walking where he “walked back and forth in a meadow until he had trampled a recognizable line in the grass…” with the intent to “…produce a trace to be apprehended aesthetically.” (24)

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::  image via Richard Long

Another example is Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field – seen below, which is the culmination of a long passage in the book that explores the idea of geometric patterning, constructed compositions such as grids, bands, figural fields – popularized by Peter Walker and inspired by the work of minimalist artists such as Frank Stella and Donald Judd.  The simplicity of Walkers work can be considered austere in a way, “landscapes appear primarily in lines, extruded vertically as places that define spaces or trace streaks across the terrain.  In their repetition they create visual rhythms, playing the individual element against the repetition of the field as an entirety.” (80)
This is one of the few times in the book where actual works of landscape architecture are discussed, owing to the fact that much work in the field is not ‘austere’ but more garden-like, perhaps?

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:: image via PWPLA

The result is described by Treib through the example of Edmund Burke’s “artificial sublime”, where he “suggested that a man-made creation of sufficient length and repetition might induce a similar effect…”  to that of the true sublime.  In De Maria’s work, this repetition is present but less distinct (perhaps due to the size and space in the landscape), where the steel poles “…fade into the landscape as the light changes or with any shifting in viewing position. The promenade through the field and the awareness of subtle changes in the surface, skies and the distance mesas equal in significance the precision of the stainless steel forest arranged mathematically.” (80)

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The idea of the connection of simple moves on the landscape that have been installed for functional reasons, such as hedgerows (and example from Jutland, Denmark below) which “make evident what to many had been only latent, with the rows of trees demarking the contours of the land.” (29) This hints at a powerful opportunity to mark space, as well as controlling wind and sunlight, that could be employed at large and small scales using very simple means.

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The influence of Japanese gardens, particularly the spare minimalism of the form and it’s simple palette, seen in Saiho-ji garden in Kyoto, the banner image above and repeated below.  For Treib, “Austerity does not always connote deprivation, however, but is user here to suggest a restriction in means.  Richness within austerity is a hallmark of Japanese visual culture, and pairing the words ‘austere’ and ‘beauty’ is no anomaly within its aesthetic thinking…”  He continues, “Austerity her lies in the acceptance – or adoption, if consciously made – of few prevailing materials, or even only one: in this case moss.  It also requires restraint. By restricting the palette to water, trees, and moss, one becomes more aware of each constituent element.” (17)

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A different Japanese form is the torii, or a gate without a fence, where it serves as a place-marker.  “Although one may physically pass through it, the gateway functions more as a sign and a mental stimulus… Figures like the torii gain presence from their contrast with the surroundings.” (46)

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Plenty more examples abound in the text, many that were new to me.  The simple tools of observation such as Trace, and the intervention using Intent, provides some interesting ways of looking at design in a new way.   Simple rules of Addition and Subtraction (Figure and Void) can be employed artistically in environmental art, but also give us opportunities to incorporate into more function-driven works on landscape architecture. The clues in the landscape (the ordinary and the functional) that are not explicity trying to capture the Eden-like garden of transcendence, but rather look to ways of making relevant austere spaces.

It’s interesting to note that, although often simple, it’s not just about removal (of materials, ornament, etc.) as Treib mentions was a possible flaw of modernist architecture where “simplicity was commonly achieved by elimination… what is experience close in is rarely greater that what can be seen at a distance.” Instead positing that: “Compression, in contrast to reduction, brings into seemingly simple surfaces and spaces constellations of details revealed only through movement and over time.” (63)

This can happen with erosion, patina, as well as playing on seasonality and light, even with few elements, as long as they are employed with the goals of experiential quality in mind.

It’s heartening to see a simple (austere) work that is so full of inspirations.  I’ve always been drawn to work of environmental artists, and this has reinforced the idea that there is much for designers to learn from to enliven their work.  The ordinary and functional landscapes also provide inspiration not just in development of contextual design, but in how they provide form and manipulate space and microclimate.

There’s also the biophilic and the concepts of inspirations of nature through biomimicry, which Treib mentions comes with an “economy of means”, with beehives, spider webs, birds nests and termite mounds representing “the transformation of minimal materials into an efficient and functional configuration.  Maximizing the minimal.” (91)

The book is a no-brainer, easy to access and inspiring on multiple levels. It will not make you work but will make you think.  About design.  About inspiration.  About purpose and what he calls Attending, or “in what way do we view, process, and evaluate what is before us?” (94)  As we focus on environmental sustainability as a means and an ends, Treib’s final words perhaps gives the reason to engage in the book: “Following the directives of environmental responsibility provides only the basis for our designs; an appreciation of the austere landscape can direct its making and enrich our experience of the garden that results.” (100)

All images via Oro Editions unless otherwise noted.

Marc Treib is a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, a practicing graphic designer, and a noted historian and critic of landscape and architecture. He has been published widely on modern and historical subjects in the United States, Japan, and Scandinavia. 

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