Quick snapshot of an interesting immersive technology project Tree from MIT Media Lab, which blends technology and nature to provide a unique experience:
“Tree is a virtual experience that transforms you into a rainforest tree. With your arms as branches and body as the trunk, you experience the tree’s growth from a seedling into its fullest form and witness its fate firsthand. … With precisely controlled physical elements including vibration, heat, fan, and body haptics, the team created a fully immersive virtual reality storytelling tool, where the audience no longer watches but is transformed into a new identity, a giant tree in the Peruvian rainforest. “
The technology blurs the line between visualization and VR, with an interesting concept of haptic response driven through a variety of technologies. As mentioned on the site, “The body experience is crucial for establishing a body ownership illusion instead of restricting the experience to the visual world. We aim to have the audience not just see, but feel and believe “being” a tree.”
It’s fascinating to see the various components that create this experience. A breakdown below (I added links so you can link to some of the technology): “Our hyper-realistic whole body haptic experience used Subpac, a pair of customized vibration oversleeves with six local points and a vibrating floor powered by four based transducers. Technicolor’s Scott Gershin designed multi-track bass audio for each part of the body, so that the audience could feel the disturbance of a forest fire as well as a bird landing on a branch. There are also additional physical elements, including an air mover for a breath of wind and heaters as the final fire threat. The whole tactile experience is controlled by Max/MSP and Arduino, while communicating with the Unreal Engine through OSC. The physical experience was precisely synced with the visual experience inside the Oculus. We went through various iterations to match the virtual visual details with the intensity, texture, and timing of physical experience.”
The specialized technology means that it isn’t broadly available, but requires a specialized environment, so you need to be in place to get the full expeirence. The initial launch was done “In collaboration with The Rainforest Alliance, during the Sundance Film Festival, we gave each audience member a seed inside an envelop with a number on it. They can use their emails and that number to log in to the “participants” section of the Tree website to stay updated on the project. The team utilizes virtual, mixed, and actual reality to tap into positive social change and explore the human experience.”
For a less immersive taste, check out this video for some visuals of the project and process – Tree from Fluid Interfaces on Vimeo.
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.”
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.”
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:
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.
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.”
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.
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.
“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.”
Excited to see the announcement of a new global design ideas competition from LA+ Journal, entitled Imagination.
“Paradisiacal, utopian, dystopian, heterotopian – islands hold an especially enigmatic and beguiling place in our geographical imagination. Existing in juxtaposition to what’s around them, islands are figures of otherness and difference. Differentiated from their contexts and as much myth as reality, islands have their own rules, their own stories, their own characters, their own ecologies, and their own forms.”
This design ideas competition asks you to create a new island. You can locate it anywhere in the world, program it any way you want, and give it any form you can imagine. The jury consists of Richard Weller, James Corner, Marion Weiss, Matthew Gandy, Javier Arpa and Mark Kingwell, and prize pool is $10,000 plus feature publication in the special issue of LA+.
The announcement Google Earth Timelapse has created a bit of a stir, with a number of videos exploring landscape change of natural and urban systems. From their site:
“Timelapse is a global, zoomable video that lets you see how the Earth has changed over the past 32 years. It is made from 33 cloud-free annual mosaics, one for each year from 1984 to 2016, which are made interactively explorable by Carnegie Mellon University CREATE Lab’s Time Machine library, a technology for creating and viewing zoomable and pannable timelapses over space and time.”
I’m a bit disappointed with the resolution – as it is not able to zoom in to a district level at a scale that provides appropriate level of detail. That may be surmountable by using Google Earth Engine and delving into the API and programming tools.
There’s also a series of Datasets that are available from the Google Earth Engine that would be interesting to explore also, including maps for aerial imagery, geophysical data, climate/weather and demographics.
I used the Timelapse Tour Editor to quickly make a few maps of Seattle and Portland – with an eye towards For Seattle, I wanted to focus on the development of South Lake Union, where Amazon and other development has been most pronounced in the past decade or so. It shows how much redevelopment has occurred there, as well as throughout the downtown core (mostly visible with white roofs).
These are better by clicking the title and viewing in full size, as the grain for urban areas is pretty bad.
For Portland, I wanted to zoom in on the inner Southeast area, around Division Street, which was been subject to a fair amount of density in recent years. The inability to zoom into that level of detail makes this a bit less instructive, but does show the level of development north of downtown, and across the river the ‘fingers’ of density on transit mixed-use streets (which is what provides for vibrant, walkable urban neighborhoods that make Portland, well… Portland.
An interesting link via the A/N Blog on a game development from the Plethora Project called Block’Hood. Taking a cue from SimCity, this game explores simulation at a bit finer grain. From their site:
“Block’hood is a neighborhood-building simulator that celebrates the diversity and experimentation of cities. You will have full access to 90+ building blocks to combine and create unique neighborhoods, and discover the hidden inhabitants of each combination. The game will embark in a story of ecology, understanding how resources are needed to unlock new configurations and allow prosperous neighborhoods. You will need to avoid the decay of your city block by making sure each unit doesn’t run out of resources.”
As seen from the images, a modular system of building and site elements can be arrayed in a variety of configurations. Rather than just compositional, the inputs and outputs of each must be in alignment to create good relationships, as well as avoid negative interactions.
The complexity offers a glimpse into the delicate balance of urban ecology and systems in terms of optimization of resources… making it part ecology, part building systems science. As noted on the site: “Each Block you create has Inputs and Outputs. For Example, a tree might need water to create oxygen, and a shop might need consumers to create money. By understanding how each block is dependent on other blocks, you can create a productive network. Make sure to optimize your production and generate abundant resources. The game has 20+ resources that are specific to every block, so the amount of relations are enormous!”
Once in motion, the interplay between blocks starts to create synergies or begin to decay, so fine-tuning iterations and removing blocks before they create a chain reaction that influences the rest of the City. The scalability of the system lends itself to small experimentation and different game play modes allow for free play (Sandbox) or more structured challenges and puzzles.
While any game or simulation is a necessary abstraction of the true complexity of interactions, I’m struck by the simplicity of design with a lot of hidden web of interactions, plus the aesthetics of the game are engaging. I am looking forward to giving it a go and seeing how it works in action. Early access is available on Steam, and you can find out more info via this video:
I’ve mentioned a few times on Twitter, I have had an on-going interest in game design as a medium, but also in relation to the potential synergistic overlaps between the technology/techniques with landscape architecture and urbanism practice. The most obvious connection has to do with visual representation, as the ability to create engaging site and building environments is clearly , but there are some interesting opportunities for educational tools, user experience, ecological and urban modeling, scenario building, and iterative design.
Growing up with gaming, a trio of interactions early in college defined the concept and hooked me into the potential in an interesting way – even 20+ years ago. The first was a game my sister and i were obsessed with, Myst. Building on the word-based computer games from the 80’s like Adventureland and Pirate Adventure, Myst came out in 1991 and provided a graphical environment (that at the time was incredible) along with a mystery and things that needed to be observed and unlocked.
The interactivity and lack of linear timeline, which included puzzles and problem solving was great for some obsessive teens, but showed that games didn’t have to be either violent or proscriptive. The follow-up Riven in 1997 had better graphics and another story.
The second was for a urban planning class, we were giving a quarter long Sim City game simulation and discussed progress in class, as a way to explore ideas. Those of the certain age will appreciate the 2D top down version of Sim City, as we were doing this initially in 1993:
The scenarios allowed us to employ principles of urban simulation, think through the concepts, and then starting the clock and see how things evolved, or more likely devolved. To use this for class was transformative. The graphics have come a long way, indeed, since then, as this recent Sim City graphic below shows, with the more prototypical 3D Axonometric we think of with the game.
The technology seems akin now to some of the less game and more GIS specific tools for scenario-building in programs like ESRI’s City Engine (more on that that and GeoDesign here). On the flip side of the Sim City was geeky kid favorite Doom, the immersive and ultraviolent 3D game that literally and figuratively blew away gamers at the time.
In addition to an addictive, networked game play, there was an added feature of a back end tool to create worlds Doom Builder – which paired a bit of Dungeons and Dragons graph paper mapping with rudimentary 3D graphic world creation. The difference of course is, once done with the creation, you could play your creation.
THE SOPHISTICATED BEAUTY OF GAMES
It’s easy to dismiss gaming as a medium for geek culture with little relevance to the lofty ambitions of the architecture/urbanism endeavor. But there’s a lot more to it that shooting thing and bloddy violence. As shown above, there’s potential for wonder and problem solving, urban planning education, world building, and yes, lots of bloody violence. Guess it’s a good metaphor for life, right?
But, the ubiquity and size of gaming culture goes beyond a few teen to twenty-somethings playing violent FPS games. The size of the industry is worth billions. And that revenue is diverse. The demographic for the prototypical first person shooter is probably more focused, but there are men & women, young and old, across races that participate in some what in gaming culture.
The few recent games that have blown me away recently provide some context. First, the simplicity and beauty of Monument Valley – as probably first seen on House of Cards, which in addition to fictional presidents, appeals to designers and architects (especially those with a fondness for Escher), with atmospheric graphics and more literally puzzles to solve. The games are challenging enough to engage but not so hard as to frustrate. It’s a lot of magic.
Shifting gears to more modern FPS games, one of the first games i discovered in recent years was Bioshock Infinite, a much hyped and controversial game that wove through a fictional universe of a floating city of Columbia on a quest of sorts. Atmospheric and with a great, detailed backstory, the legend that the game exists within is compelling. The graphics complements the narrative with quasi-realism and a fuzzy, dream like quality.
The predecessor Bioshock also had an amazingly creative environment, which in converse to Columbia City was the underwater city of Rapture lending to a more moody and claustrophobic emotional state.
Both of the Bioshock games are, as well, incredibly violent, which takes away somewhat from the exploration and appreciation of scenery, but makes for some excitement.
A beautiful game in terms of the subtle environment is the graphic but non-shooting murder mystery, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. The player wanders through a landscape and abandoned town to find clues and unlock the secret of what happened. It’s emotional and you feel it, the scenery and soundscape lending to the drama.
As images, these don’t do justice to the feeling you get from these environments, which have subtle motion and great mixing of ambient sounds. For anyone new or interested in gaming, who wants to experience what a well crafted, non-shooter, modern game can be, this would be a good one. I included a video so you can see the experience:
For me it’s not a stretch to jump from these narrative stories to having the ability to explore a project site or potential design. I see the above image of the rail tracks, and immediately it evokes a simulation of exploring the High Line, both before and after construction. And not just exploring, but interacting, seeing motion and complexity. With simple visual cues This game evokes that feeling.
Finally, a more recent game released in installments is Life is Strange, which follows a third person graphic adventure of a teenage girl in an odd Oregon town. She is able to unlock events by rewinding time, which allows you to make different decisions and see how that impacts outcomes.
Check out here for more on the plotline, but the graphics again reinforce the mood. It also offers a slighly different game interaction, with a sketchy white line graphic that appears when something is of note either on the object or as subtle cues. I also love in this case there’s a proto-realism – it’s got a tinge of cartoon to it, but is also brilliant at capturing mood and the mundane.
The sophistication of these games in terms of environments, aesthetics, and narrative draw you in. There’s not a feeling of immersion, although i’d love to see some of the graphics in a VR rig, but your are 100% immersed in both the story, and, when it doesn’t get in the way, the graphical interface, also known as the HUD, or human user interface. It’s a big deal, this interface, and millions have probably been spent on making it seamless. While specialized controls and rigs are used, they are available to a few. For most, there’s simple touch or mouse input, whereas the line between the user and environment is very distinct.
A game, of course, is a constructed world with a narrative already baked in. And there are likely many more examples out there that make the point that games can be both defined broadly and offer a very close connection to the world building of landscape architecture and urbanism. While it’s possible to offer free movement and discovery in these games, in the end there’s a series of tasks, events, actions required to move from start to finish. It’d be a dull game indeed where you just walked around in an environment with no purpose.
That said, the approach may be different, and the way the environments are used may also vary, but the fact is that these games give visual examples 1) constructed worlds, 2) the ability to freely explore these worlds, 3) animated objects that also exist in these worlds, and 4) a measure of emotion and mood that is derived from real environments and landscapes. In this way, they become similar to visualization in a design medium. Thinking of this less as a narrative
There are many tools out there focused on game development, all of which blend tools for creating environments, coding behaviors, and developing user interface. The one I’ve spent the most amount of time working with is Unreal Engine, which is amazingly, now a free to use suite of tools (with a royalty structure set up to capture revenue). An example of the tool in an architectural setting, is the Unreal Paris, a video tour that came out a year ago, showing a highly photorealistic scene done in Unreal Engine, which shows the level of detail that is typically available in static rendering now being employed in a space that is both fully 3d and fully interactive.
It’s a bigger stretch to expand this beyond the enclosed architectural space, and delve into the landscape. The complexity of materials and motions in the entire apartment is probably less than a single tree, thus, to me, this is the holy grail. The seemingly large gap between architectural rendering and landscape is immense. However, this is changing. To see the potential of the technology, Epic Games did a very impressive video on their ‘Kite Demo’ seen below.
It’s a really nice animation, akin to a Pixar movie, with some stunning visuals. The part that’s not evident is that this environment is a fully realized world, which you could right now, dive into and be able to explore every square inch, through multiple platforms from game systems and virtual reality rigs. The concept that it’s not just a static, linear progression, but an actual, virtual world, is the wow moment. Because, as a landscape, while not perfect, it’s head and shoulders about anything i’ve seen in 3D landscape architectural visualization. The level of detail and size of this world gives you a taste of the potential for landscape to be transformed by these tools.
While the demo itself is impressive, if you want to dig into the specifics, there’s a longer demo from GDC 2015 that goes in-depth in some of the technology uses to create the demo assets and put them all together. It’s geeky, it’s technical, and it’s amazing.
As shown, there’s a strong visual component to this type of work that fits nicely into landscape architecture production, but it’s interesting to think of some uses that expand the notion and potential for exploration and movement. The potential for specificity, as you see with the second more detailed video, isn’t relegated to a generic library of materials, but can be augmented with a range of scanning and capture tools, such as detailed photogrammetry that yields highly realistic assets.
There’s a healthy competition between game engines, with Unity competing with Unreal Engine for pros and amateurs alike, with companies adapting or creating their own engines to fit, and a range of other free and adaptable tools based on what you like and your goals. As i mentioned, i spent time with Unreal Engine mostly, but all of them have pros and cons (in terms of horsepower, learning curves, etc) – and technology is vital to this as i found out, as i could do some basic world creation and programming, but soon found my older desktop puttering with the high graphic demands. Be forewarned, this doesn’t just open up on your current machine and go, there’s potentially an investment of time (in training) and resources (in techology) to fully unlock the potential.
The beauty of all of these systems (which are all similar in features with some variations) isn’t just the end result. The high graphic quality and immersive end result that is nimble enough to run in real time is seen in the game examples above. The tools are very sophisticated, with the ability to import and manipulate 3d assets from other worlds, create new assets, locate and building ‘levels’ in game parlance. With libraries of elements and compatibility with other programs like Maya, Mudbox, etc. (SketchUp is pretty tough to get to work though).
The back-end is where there’s a lot of beauty, with the scripting language and programming adding the dimension of interactivity to the environments. As you see below, the Unreal Engine uses a feature called Blueprint, which is a scripting environment that is based on automation of the C++ code, and is useful for non-programmers to be able to literally connect the dots on to create triggers, interactions, events, and other ‘life’ to the scenes. At a simplest level, you can take an object and give it action, such as the ability to turn on a light when a character gets within a certain distance, or to trigger sounds, or have other character’s act. Any action can be scripted in a non-linear, interactive way to create sophisticated environments.
And the specific elements for rigging characters, which can be added as main characters, either people that you can interact with, or imbuing more lively entourage into a scene.
Admittedly there’s some lag in the quality of these, as we’re far from life-life, but they are much improved. Call it more Pixar than reality but with a lot of interesting gestures, facial controls, and the ability for lifelike actions.
In relation to landscape, another worth discussing is Speedtree, who creates cross platform vegetation for gaming as well as film (hell, they just won an Oscar!). The tools allow customization of every aspect of trees, both in off the shelf libraries (which i’ve used) and a custom editor to create any type of vegetation (which I haven’t used, but is compelling). Gone are the days of cartoony vegetation, and the sophistication of the algorithms allow these to render in high quality and even incorporate wind, lead drop, and more w/o draining graphic resources (as also discussed above in the Unreal GDC video), something that high poly count vegetation seems to persistently be problematic.
Jumping out a scale to the overall terrain, the ability to create specific context is key to creation of these realistic environments. One that i used a bit is World Machine, a terrain modelling program that allows you to import topography from existing digital elevation models (DEMs) as well as to create custom features, and integrate geologic phenomena such as slides, erosion from wind and water, and other features.
These help by providing distant terrain that interacts with the other more close up assets along with sophisticated ‘level of detail’ or LOD settings that provide realistic close up information, including motion, then slowly stepping down resolution in levels, as the view gets further away. The addition of atmosphere and really amazing lighting tools, adds to the perspective focusing and gives depth as well as life to scenes. This allows for efficient use of computing resources to but the action where its most needed. The results are simple but stunning.
Another one i that i learned about more recently is Lumion, which we use at my office. I’ve seen some of the renderings but haven’t dove into using it myself, but it seems to integrate with much of what other game engines do, and perhaps more seamlessly. It is based on game engine technology, but has the added advantage of being focused on architectural visualization with tools to integrate directly with industry standard Revit.
A short video shows how it works.
And some of the results:
So as you seen, even in this short snapshot, there are a ton of resources, and many more i don’t know about of haven’t covered. This brain dump of a lot of ideas that definitely could use more exploration, but i wanted to close out the thought by giving some context on why i think all this, geekery aside, matters. The takeaway is that there is a ton of potential to disrupt and expand practice, if we can expand methods of visualization and adopt some of these techniques. On that note, a few thoughts that are worth further exploration:
Immersive technology, utilizing controller and VR rigs to allow clients and users to experience the design in a number of ways, while also allowing designers opportunities to fine-tune spatial relationships and test environments.
Rules based ecological scenarios, which allow for natural processes (vegetative colonization, competition, dispersal) that provides simulations of open-ended landscape concepts.
Topical games to create better understanding of system interactions and engage larger populations, such as stormwater, infrastructure, climate change.
Have thoughts and other examples and stories, or know of folks in the industry working and using these tools? Let me know.
Azure Magazine shows off some ideas from Toronto-based Lateral Office on the concept of camp (outdoor, not kitsch) as part of the Chicago Architecture Biennial. Through simple model, diagram and illustration (which are fabulously monochromatic, btw) they outline a proposal of modern outdoor [not necessarily recreational] living.
A short description:
“Co-founders Mason White and Lola Sheppard considered architecture at its most basic form – in the wild – to dream up Make Camp, a series of five concepts responding to the particulars of varied terrains. Installed at the Chicago Cultural Center as scale models on a 3.6-by-4.3-metre landform, they display modern ideas for campsites. Ideas presented include zero-footprint, suspended tenting; a high-tech experience; and a completely off-grid style. Each proposal is accompanied by a user manual, which describes the recommended gear, season, territory and camper for the approach.”
I’m happy to be able to share some information on Geodesign from mapping and visualization rock-star Nadia Amoroso. I’ve really enjoyed following her work over the years, and did a thorough exploration of her amazing book The Exposed City: Mapping the Urban Invisibles, back in 2010 (here) and also posted about her work on Data Appeal, a mapping and visualization software tool for making map landscapes in 2011. On my list is to check out her most recent book, Representing Landscapes: Digital, (2015 – Foreword by James Corner) which looks at the cutting edge visual techniques for graphic communication focused specifically on landscape architecture.
Nadia is still hard at work in the mapping and visualization realms – and let me know of some of the work she’s been doing around Geodesign, particularly employing some new digital mapping tools that greater expand this potential. The following post includes a good overview of Geodesign and it’s potential to application in Urban Design and Landscape Architecture contexts. Enjoy!
Geodesign Concept and its Solution Platform for Urban Design and Landscape Architecture
GIS (Geographic Information Systems) is important part of the urban planning and urban design process. GIS has often been associated with science, and not so much on design. Geodesign offers to shake up the notion of GIS. Geodesign provides a design framework and supporting technology for design professionals to leverage geographic information, resulting in designs that more closely follow site and natural systems. 
Geodesign is a new way of thinking about the design process, utilizing site data with software such as a GIS (Geographic Information System) to create urban or landscape designs. The Wikipedia’s entry on Geodesign states that ” Geodesign is a set of techniques and enabling technologies for planning built and natural environments in an integrated process, including project conceptualization, analysis, design specification, stakeholder participation and collaboration, design creation, simulation, and evaluation (among other stages). “
Michael Flaxman, former MIT Professor and CEO of Geodesign Technologies, states that “Geodesign is a design and planning method which tightly couples the creation of design proposals with impact simulations informed by geographic contexts.” 
Professor Carl Steinitz, Professor of Landscape Architecture and Planning, Emeritus, brought to the limelight the geodesign framework for landscape architects and designers of the built environment, by posing a series of fundamental questions that as designers of the built environment, should think about and address. Refer to the “Geodesign Framework- by Carl Steinitz” for the summary of questions.
ESRI Inc, (the global mapping and GIS company, based in Redlands California), has created a geodesign solution platform (suite of software) that is specifically tailored for the landscape architecture and urban design industries, in order to make strategic urban designs and landscape plans.
Jack Dangermond, the founder and President of Esri, studied landscape architecture at Harvard’s GSD. He has tapped into his landscape architecture roots and is revolutionizing the concept of geodesign for landscape architecture, architecture, planning and urban design fields. Dangermond claims that, “Geodesign is about integrating geographic knowledge with the spatial design process…..design with nature, or geodesign, is our next evolutionary step.”
Esri now hosts an annual Geodesign Summit where landscape architects, architects, academics, urban and transportation planners, and leading though leaders in the industry come together to learn and share their experiences on how the geodesign technology solution platform is being used to make and create smarter cities and sustainable landscapes.
Technology wise, think of CAD, BIM, GIS all in one. Esri offers a suite of software from 2D mapping to 3D modeling as part of the Geodesign solutions, which combines sketching and modeling tools with the power of data, GIS and high quality renderings. The Geodesign Platform includes mainly the following suite of applications:
GeoPlanner for ArcGIS, which is a web-based, easy to use sketching and mapping tool to design scenarios. It leverages geo-based dataand supports all the steps of land-based planning and urban design. This includes sketching and designing scenarios (design alternatives), understanding the impact of your designs, perform site and spatial analysis and compare alternative designs.
ArcGIS Pro which is a robust desktop application which render and process data faster than ever. The software allows you to design and edit your concepts in 2D and 3D with multiple view ports. You can perform 3d site analysis like wind analysis, shade/ shadow analysis, circulation patterns, density, view-shed analysis. Designers can add realistic trees, buildings and infrastructures quickly.
CityEngine which is a 3D modeling software which leverages parametric modeling and geo-based data to create evidence-based city and landscape designs. CityEngine creates high quality renderings. CityEngine allows you to import your urban design proposals within existing built urban context in CityEngine. Using parametric and rule procedures, the landscape architect can create, change and test mass modeling to comply with zoning regulations; test shadow area; create detailed streetscapes and create quality public realm It offers intuitive and effective tools for façade and landscape texturing, adding landscape elements and various tree species. CityEngine provides perspective correction to capture the right views. CityEngine is integrated with ArcGIS.
All these tools provide real-time feedback on your changing design concepts.
Geodesign combines site and nature “with design by providing designers with robust tools that support rapid evaluation of design alternatives against the impacts of those designs. Geodesign infuses design with a blend of science- and value-based information to help designers, planners, and stakeholders make better-informed decisions….[the geodesign platform] offers geospatial modeling, impact simulations, and real-time feedback to facilitate holistic designs and smart decisions.”
The Esri’s Geodesign Platform is a critical toolkit for urban design and landscape architecture, as a means to make smart design decisions.
I recently gave a talk at the great annual conference Urban Ecology Research Consortium of Portland/Vancouver (UERC), which focuses on ” advance the state of the science of urban ecosystems and improve our understanding of them”. I was really excited to be chosen to present (i had done a poster presentation in past years), and it seemed a great way to introduce the Hidden Hydrology of Portland and what work has been done to date.
Much of this has been covered on the L+U blog – but there’s new ideas worth exploration, and some new momentum to realize some of the site-specific installations discussed here. A short visual recap:
My first experience with the concept was stumbling over the ‘Disappearing Streams’ map produced by Metro. Not sure of the vintage – but I remember seeing this easily in the late 1990s, and it’s stuck with me for years. Not actual streams but modeled topography generating basins – the concept is pretty simple – show what streams existed, and highlight those buried, piped, channeled in red, which is predominately on the inner east side and downtown.
A bit of digging yields a great set of maps, the Cadastral Survey of 1852 provides amazing detail of a nascent Portland, with stream corridors like Tanner Creek still intact running through downtown Portland, and other ecological resources (wetlands, lakes) as well as trails and early city grid (seen to the right)
A few folks share this passion, such as David James Duncan, who talks of disappeared streams in his book ‘My Story as Told by Water’ (2002) and historical account from folks like fellow Tanner Creek nerd Tracy Prince, who has authored some great accounts of the areas in Goose Hollow and Slabtown, evoking origins of place names, connections to hidden creeks, and tying this together with the rich history of Portland’s development.
Many layers interact in painting the picture of hidden hydrology. Photos are another great resource – with historic scenes of sewer creating, as well as floods and other historical events.
Beyond the Cadastral Survey, a wealth of maps exist, ranging from the mid 1850s through today – which paint a temporal portrait of the path of waterways over time – such as Tanner Creek, here shown still in existence in 1866.
And through an illustrative Aerial Lithograph here in 1870 – again showing the Tanner Creek drainage from the West Hills through the north portion of downtown.
Using these tools we can start to craft maps that take the historical and overlaying information – in this case a composite of Cadastral survey mapping, amended with other information, notes, and annotations – a layered history in map format. These could easily be hosted online (a future plan) for additional input and integration with stories, photos, experience.
The process of extracting this information from the survey – shown here in a few steps – involves 1) referencing the historical layers, 2) adding streams and other water bodies, 3) adding additional info such as wetlands and other topographic featueres, and 4) georeferencing and overlaying the historic with the current day mapping. A reverse map regression that allows us to create an interesting connection between then and now.
Because the Cadastral survey is based on the Public Land Survey System (PLSS) – the township, section, range geometry (see the faint orange lines in the map above allow the historic and modern to overlap with reasonable fidelity through cartographic rectification. The maps then, overlaid with GIS data – then digitized into shapefiles with linked data – start to allow us to provide some more detailed analysis – such as for instance, correlating basement flooding in proximity to old streams?
The second part of the talk focused on interventions – as the maps are compelling, but the ability to use them for actions are key, both in terms of expanding the validity of our interventions, but also to connect folks everyday to their hidden nature.
My colleague Matt Burlin and I have been talking about tours of the Hidden Hydrology for some time – so recently took the field maps for Tanner Creek and traced them from up towards the headwaters near Washington Park Zoo, down through the west hills and through downtown.
There are portions that still exist – albeit in a somewhat degraded form – but the visceral thrill of seeing this stream was compelling – The immersion in the sounds and experiences of these remnants is worth further visits.
And as you get to the urban sections, the natural remnants make way to a creek completely hidden – save a subtle topographic cue and some cultural interventions of markers and Tanner Springs Park, before getting to the current outfall location in the Willamette, near Centennial Mills.
How do we interact with that which is hidden, bringing lost layers of history back to the surface. Some great art installations provide inspirations that could be applied to hidden hydrology, for instance the Freen The Billboards project (which used fixed viewfinders to overlay images on billboards)…
Could be applied in zones to allow one to click through a series of images that show the stages of current, mapping, routing, and location of historical waterways – in this case a simple illustration of how this would work for Tanner Creek.
And drawing from the functional aspects of utility locates with the community artistry of intersection repair…
…one could imagine a meandering Tanner Creek weaving its way through downtown and northwest Portland streets, taking the idea of a couple of markers in the sidewalk to a much higher level of engaging and awareness in the underlying historical systems.
Thinking beyond a map or a kiosk with some informational interpretation, the array of interventions together provide multiple ways to engage, and coupled with technology could yield self-guided walking tours, vivid sound maps, and immerse multi-media experiences.
On a larger scale, the idea of Hidden Hydrology inspires thinking about community and our connections to each other. The concept of Neighborsheds, which i coined in the mid 2000s and presented at the ASLA National Conference about – involves using these natural drainages to redefine neighborhood boundaries. By rethinking political or cultural boundaries defined outside of natural systems, we can reconnect to our place in new ways. This knowledge is perceptual on one hand – but can engage folks in shared commitment – because if you’re in the neighborshed, all of your actions become innately connected in you cumulative impact downstream.
Finally, for me the concept of the Hidden Hydrology is tied to the larger ecological history. There is no better project to illustrate this that the Mannahatta Project (read more on a post here) which in it’s broader incarnation as The Welikia Project, takes the notion of historic mapping and blends field observations of biotic and abiotic factors in a rich and illustrative composite that is both rigorous and compelling.
My call to action, to create this detailed historical ecology for Portland, blending historical mapping with history, archaeology, anthropology, ecology, and other disciplines to paint a vivid picture of this historical ecology.
Beyond being fodder for art and culture, defining neighborsheds, or ways of engaging in urban exploration and wayfinding – there are some key opportunities available with this information. This can be inspiration for design interventions, can guide decisions about habitat, ecology, water, runoff, vegetation, and other factors, not in a general sense but in a block by block, historical watershed and stream basin scale.
The overlay and congruency with the hidden streams and our subsurface pipe systems is no accident – each are governed by system conditions of gravity. One is surficial and the other is hidden, so opportunities for making adjustments to the gray systems can be augmented with opportunities to use the green systems – with potentials for daylighting, integration of green stormwater infrastructure, and replication of pre-development hydrology. These decisions aren’t just based on current conditions (i.e. paved, permeable, landcover), but can be guided by understanding and modelling the pre-development hydrology – the best guide to how a particular basin wants to act by referencing how it worked before we altered it.
Finally, the concept of a pre-development metric is used for many things – to set stormwater management goals, to measure runoff in site and basin scales, and to set targets for sustainability for ecodistricts and other planning scale efforts. The return to the ‘native forest’ is a generalization of the pre-development condition, and also becomes a technological construct. Rather than pre-development condition, let’s thing of historical ecological function, which begins to not just provide us with numbers to meet, but also blends the vegetated, the ecological, the habitat, the cultural with the historic sounds, smells, textures, and colors the historical places before we forever altered them.
We won’t restore these to their natural state in all but a few selected places, but if we can restore, through metaphor, interaction, and intervention, the experience of these places, blended artfully with what they are now – places to live, shop, play – we reveal these hidden layers of inspiration to the urban experience.
A short video of the presentation is in development – and a longer follow-up, brownbag session is in the works – so look out for details.