Category Archives: parks

LA+ The Tyranny Issue

I’ve posted previously about the LA+ Journal, which has had previous issues focused on both Wild (reviewed here) and Pleasure in previous issues.  The current issue takes a radically different turn – with a focus on subjects around the broad concept of Tyranny.  Perhaps a strange topic for landscape architecture journal to tackle, and I had that reaction a bit myself, but it quickly became clear that tyranny is a much more radically complex idea than what comes to mind, and the social, economic, and spatial manifestations have direct relevance on urban spaces, their design, and their evolution.


“From the first utopian impulse of Plato’s Republic to today’s global border controls and public space surveillance systems, there has always been a tyrannical aspect to the organization of society and the regulation of its spaces. Tyranny takes many forms, from the rigid barriers of military zones to the subtle ways in which landscape is used to ‘naturalize’ power. What are these forms and how do they function at different scales, in different cultures, and at different times in history? How are designers and other disciplines complicit in the manifestation of these varying forms of tyranny and how have they been able to subvert such political and ideological structures?

LA+ TYRANNY asked contributors to consider how politics, ideology, and technology manifest in our landscapes and cities in ways that either advance or restrict individual and collective liberty.


The unique lens of tyranny is understood in recent cultural context early, in the essay ‘Blood on the Square’ by Steve Basson (8).  The concept of the square as free and ‘democratic space’ indicative of the historic connotation of the Greek Agora ‘political debate’ and at times the locus of “heroic protest” as seen in the US and abroad is contrasted with the square as a historical place for terror and exercising of oppression.  Examples of these public spaces being used for public executions, propaganda and military force, as well as new levels of surveillance through CCTV and policing and other means evokes dystopian visions of Bentham’s Panopticon and Orwellian visions of Big Brother.

The space, like any others, is available for both freedom and repression, and that a ‘pure’ public space is a myth.  As referenced by Foucault, the history of the public square as exceptional or positive is built on subjugated knowledge “…where historical contents have been buried or masked in order to preserve the privileged nature of a particular narrative.” (12)  The takeaway is that the square is not purely heroic, but is a ‘contested terrain’ and one that “… is virtuous and democratic but also grim and menacing.(13)  It also means that our power as designers is limited, because it is a dubious assumption that spatial organization could be employed to shape use in certain ways, and thus architecture and design “cannot create freedom in space” but rather from Foucault again:

“I do not think that there is anything functionally, by its very nature, absolutely liberating… the guarantee of freedom is freedom.” (13)

The theme brought up the previous essay is echoed in two subsequent writings.  First, Gandy’s “The Glare of Modernity” (15) explores some of the power dynamic through the tyranny of lighting, which has been employed as a “means of intimidation and control,” and has now become synonymous with ‘safety’ to the detriment of livability and health through ubiquity.  From a political perspective, Chang Tai Hung’s “Tianamen Square: The Grand Political Theater of the Chinese Communist Party” (20) explores the history and spatial configuration of this enormous public space in Beijing. While ostensibly the ‘People’s Square’ the narrative is more relevant to use of propaganda and designed with a focus on spaces not of comfort (no trees, benches) but of immensity and political power, referencing the communist “…contempt for leisure activities of the bourgeois…” while also avoiding the potential for spaces to be “subversive gathering spaces.” (22)  The events there are then not people-driven, but “highly orchestrated” and a spatial equivalent of “a scripted text” (24) where those in power fear the unscripted.


A common theme arises around the activities of the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement where places like Tahrir Square in Cairo, and Zuccotti Park in New York became well known, among many others as significant places of occupation and protest.  Erik Swyngdouw’s exploration in “The Velvet Violence of Insurgent Architects” (27) looks at these places of political protest and the participants as “radical imagineers” of a new urban future that can include spatial policies of planning, architecture, urban design against powers that are averse to disturbance. (28) The concepts around the Right to the City movement (both formal and informal are realized in these “tactics of resistance” (29) and that these insurgent architects become designers of a sort:

“While staging equality in public squares is a vital moment, the process of transformation requires the slow but unstoppable production of new forms of spatialization quilted around materializing the claims of equality, freedom, solidarity.” (30)

Another reference to the Arab Spring is from Mona Abaza’s “Memory and Erasure”, (32) which looks again at Cairo, Egypt but through a different lens of public / political art complementing the occupation of public spaces.  The process of art being used as part of protest, and the subsequent painting over by authorities was a subtext of the larger power struggles happening within spaces throughout the cities.


Rodrigo Jose Firmino explores technology in his essay “Connected and Controlled: Surveillance, Security and Cities” (42) which looks at a more pernicious tyranny that effects most of us.  Expanding on Castells notion of the “informational city” with new technology and the Internet of Things, the essay posits a “Programmable City” where data is not just captured but utilized – taking advantage of the ubiquity and our reliance on smart technology to exert levels of control never before seen (with the exception of films like the Matrix and Minority Report). (44)

The appropriation of space by those in power through technology can also be utilized by the public who can be “empowered by the same kind of technologies that be used to destroy their liberties,” expanding on ideas of crowdsourcing, pop-up, or DIY cities.  (45)  Our living in the “maximum-surveillance society” means that these data are the most “powerful commodity in the informational smart city” (46) and become methods of control under the guise of safety, while also blurring lines between public and private spaces, ultimately concluding that Smart Cities perhaps lead more likely to dumb citizens.


Taking the idea presented above for appropriation of the tools of those in power to fight against that power, Stephen Graham’s “Countergeographies” (55) provides a framework for complementing the traditional methods of protest with new ideas of “Cartographic Experimentation”.  A number of examples are explored, falling into categories of Exposure, Juxtaposition, Appropriate, Jamming, Satire, and Collaboration, the essay provide multiple ideas of new ways of engagement that are more “emergent, fluid and pluralized.”  These experiments are useful but limited, as the author mentions, because of their lack of legitimacy – as art and activism versus being mainstream and political, but that a new wave of activists can adapt and expand them into the lexicon of more traditional forms of protest.

A historical path taken by Fionn Byrne in the essay “Operational Environment” (62) touches on some of the military roots of site design, including Le Notre and Vauban’s spatial reactions of “ballistic trajectories” (64) and the more modern appropriation by landscape architects and planners of military aerial imaging for analysis and ecological planning ala McHarg and modern GIS.  This reduction of landscape and environment to “quantifiable data” as referenced by Waldheim leads to a methodology for militaristic problem solving, where “The force of the military’s technological, informational, and industrial apparatus is being set upon the environment, reducing nature to both a resource as standing reserve on the one hand and a technological-controlled, environmentally managed set of ecosystems on the other.” (66)


A more site specific and compelling examination relevant to design in many was is the essay by Patrizia Violi in “Traumascapes: The Case of the 9/11 Memorial”. (70)   Taking one of the most visible examples of memorial in modern history as point of departure, Violi wonders the role of these places in “constructing, transmitting, and defining a collective memory,” and using the metaphor of memorial as text to show how

“historical memory is not something well defined once and for all, but rather something  that is changing continuously over time.  The actual events themselves are remembered differently, according to the different discourses, texts, images, symbols and gestures produced in relation to them.” (72)

Which is perhaps the dilemma of the legibility of any space, especially ones by which interpretation is a key element, telling a story requires framing (spatially and as a narrative) the elements of what are important, but also set up a sequence and path in which the story is told.  Using the 9/11 memorial and the chasms created by the designers are indicative of the idea of Index, as referenced to Charles Sanders Pierce, in which “…a sign that exhibits a direct, causal link to the actual event that produced the sign, and which the sign itself, in its turn, signifies.” In this way, using the voids of the towers and their “material traces of the past, with direct spatial links to it, and this endows them with a very unique type of meaning.” (73)

While the potential is there for connection of space and event, it is much to ask, the social and cultural functions of ‘trauma sites’ are more indistinct, as the author concludes: “We cannot expect a memorial to capture the complexity of an event of this magnitude, or account for the whole chain of events that follow the initial principal trauma” (75)

This is also echoed by Nicholas Pevzner in “Trees and Memory in Rwanda” (78) where he connects the forest and remnant trees as symbols of ecological devastation, war and economic disasters throughout the country.  In particular the unintended memorialization a the Umuwmu tree, a species of Ficus that were typically planted near houses and are sacred.  These lone trees and groves left now are reminders of houses burned down through strife, a subtle way of remembering past, “symbols of atonement as well as victimization” (81)  Another poignant example in the essay was the use of trees in conflict between the Israeli people (who plant pine forests on lands in attempts to claim land) and the Palestinians who plant olives to mark ownership.  The battle of lands plays out in Israeli’s bulldozing Olive groves, and Palestinians using arson to burn pine plantations.  Both stories show the role of landscape not as innocuous field of war, but as part of the strategy.


One of my favorite essays was an enlightening take on the structure of the refugee camp, ‘Emergency Landscapes’ by Jim Kennedy, (84) who is a shelter and reconstruction professional, and his experiences with informal settlements.  The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) establishes guidelines for these camps, but “neglect to take into account the rapidly evolving landscape built upon the camp by the inhabitants themselves, and the complex economies and social networks which expand into these landscapes.” (86) The quidelines themselves were designed for short term (natural disasters) but are insufficient to handle long(er) term occupations of many months or years, which is more common in areas where armed conflict makes early return impossible. So residents have taken the blueprint and using the “malleable materials” people “build barriers, food stalls, paths, roads” and other spaces.

This process is not always democratic or ad hoc, but is often used to create power dynamics with camps of the haves and have-nots, with processes that limit access, create walls and other enclosures to privatize spaces, and create better conditions for some at the expense of others.  Without an “idea of what is a good camp” the question of these longer-term occupations will always be fluid, and Kennedy sees a role for landscape architects in both analysis through observation and research of the morphology (shape), operations (use) and performance (good or not?) of these spaces, as well as to establish and “inform incremental, cumulative, and mosaic approaches.” (89)


‘The Rise of Stateless Space’ by Casey Lance-Brown (92) delves into the amorphous “pockets of absence… where the rule of law is questionable,” those “contested spatial zones [where] the normal laws and standards of protections no longer apply.” (94)   Using the examples of Border Patrol zones in Mexico, the focus of policing certain zones against smugglers, which moved illegal activities to more hostile and remote areas, which led to more deaths and also more extensive ecological destruction, disruption to wildlife, and other impacts.  Layers of “spatial ambiguity” (96) can be smaller scale or global, with DMZs and contested territories, but remind me of further readings on Heterotopias and Terrains Vague, that  expand these notions and provide interesting perspective on the role of the state and the variety of interactions with less control that are compelling to thing of in terms of emergent urbanism.


Some final essays I thought were less engaging, including a rather flat book review of ‘Architecture and Armed Conflict’ by Nick Mclintock (100) and  ‘The Tyranny of Speculative Urbanism’ by Christopher Marcinkoswki, (104) where he makes the case that tyranny exists in the development of speculative urbanization due to the exploitation of ‘vanity pursuits’ through real-estate developments.  Through examples, many from Africa, he shows that typically urbanization is often regarded in a positive frame as growth (good), however, it is used in nefarious ways in not really creating places of real worth but as a way to generate capital or to generate global competitiveness instead of addressing real issues that regions should be focusing on.  While it is clear that  urbanization is not neutral, this isn’t really new ground on which to tread, as criticism of misguided eco-cities has been kicking around for a while, and green inspired development for even longer.  In concept it is somewhat interesting, but the essay itself doesn’t really come together beyond a few examples, nor did it really elevate to the magnitude befitting the tyrannical.

On that same note, after reading the collective works, the closing essay ‘The Innocent Image’ (114) where Richard Weller offers a cranky argument about the overly photo-shopped project imagery, comes off as tired, and also doesn’t really fit the frame of this issue in terms of focus.  The tyranny of ‘Planet Photoshop’ doesn’t match that of the urgency that the rest of the journal holds.

The wide array of voices that are not typically part of landscape architecture discourse is perhaps the best part of the journal.  I kept a list as i was going, and the diversity includes geography, architecture history, humanities, sociology, urban management, semiotics, art, urbanism as well as landscape architecture, to name a few.  It’s a type of dialogue that is outside of the landscape architectural mainstream (with the exception of academia) and it’s good to get perspectives I’d equate more to a broader Urban Studies focus woven into LA discourse – reinforcing the plus of the LA+ brand.

A series of illustrations woven throughout the journal that explored a variety of topics in visual form – which although sometimes interesting, did little to add to the content in meaningful ways.  Aside from that, some may struggle to find the links to practice of landscape architecture, and there are definitely a few essays that maybe float to those fringes, but most included illuminate a multitude of perspectives beyond theory and provide solid fundamental issues relevant to practice.  And that is what a journal should do, ably demonstrated by LA+ as it has emerged, now the third issue, as a unique voice in the landscape architecture and urbanism discourse.   This one is a dense read, but compelling and relevant.

Go here to order your own copy today.

LA+ Journal

A fine addition to the ranks of landscape architecture journals that recently emerged is LA+, The Interdisciplinary Journal of Landscape Architecture, from the Penn.   From the website, the journal is billed as the “…the first truly interdisciplinary journal of landscape architecture. Within its pages you will hear not only from designers, but also from historians, artists, lawyers, psychologists, ecologists, planners, scientists, philosophers, and many more besides. Our aim at LA+ is to reveal connections and build collaborations between landscape architecture and other disciplines by exploring each issue’s theme from multiple perspectives.”


Interest piqued.  And they were nice enough to send me a copy of their inaugural issue, WILD which explores the concept of WILD and its role in design, large-scale habitat and species conservation, scientific research, the human psyche, and aesthetics.”  


Impressively curated and designed, this is a journal you keep around in your library long-term, for a follow-up read or to peruse the beautiful imagery.  As an introduction on the website, a short thesis on issue one:

“Wildness has long occupied a romantic and somewhat dormant position in the discussion of landscape theory and practice.  However, current initiatives aiming to “rewild” rural, urban, and suburban environments attest to its renewed significance.   It is no longer just a question of saving or protecting wilderness, but one of how we can design novel ecosystems that stimulate the emergence of new forms of biological and cultural diversity.”

The list of contributors is massive, and the breadth of topics ranges from the general, such as Mick Abbott’s ‘Practice of the Wild: A Rewilding of Landscape Architecture’, to the global, such as Richard Weller’s ‘World P-ark’, to the site-specific, like Mousseau & Moller’s ‘Landscape-Scale Consequences of Nuclear Disasters.”  I offered to do a review of the issue, and realized quickly that it was no simple task due to the amount of material contained within (which alas, i’m still reading with much enjoyment).

Thus, it is far more that can be elaborated on in terms of full reporting on every essay.  For that, order a copy and enjoy the density of information. Here’s a few snippets and thoughts of my own, in relation to landscape architecture practice and how the explorations of this concept seen through the interdisciplinary lens.


The concept of the wild is present in our conception of landscape architecture practice at many scales.  The vision of a global park (or Ark) as Richard Weller discusses, provides the context for connected ecological corridors that connect globally across countries and continents, providing a shared concept of our earth that hopefully transcends borders.  As mentioned, a north/south and east/west route “… could catalyze global cooperation and environmental investment to help augment connections between fragments along the way.” (16)

To look at the controversial and compelling issue of rewilding, as Adela Park does, is to investigate our core relationships about native-ness, genetic engineering, and our role in not just preserving, and enhancing but in recreating extinct systems as well as creating new natural systems.  The ability to connect or open up large swaths of land as wild spaces are tame in comparison to global examples like the Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands and the Pleistocene Park in Siberia, both of which plan the creation of lost landscapes left in a state of unmanagement.  As mentioned, “…landscapes such as Oostvaardersplassen – created almost entirely by scientists – embody the very indeterminacy and self-organizational potential that has been so much a part of recent landscape architecture discourse. “ (8)


The topic of wildlife and habitat is at play throughout, with the synergistic and conflicted relationships between humans and animals accentuated in multiple ways.  We want interaction with nature at a distance, such as the artistic wildlife viewing structure, the Reindeer Pavilion covered in Claire Fellman in ‘Watching Wild’.  We also want interaction through consumption as investigated in ‘The Taste of the New Wild’ by Orkan Telhan.

A popular strategy to engage the wild is through provision of wildlife crossings of busy roadways . as outlined by Nina-Marie Lister in ‘Xing: New Infrastructures for Landscape Connectivity,’ a movement growing in popularity worldwide and the knowledge of interdisciplinary approaches to what works is shaping the design of these systems.


The ability to predict and proactively engage with the ‘wild’ in this context, offers a new area of interest for designers and integrated teams.  As Lister mentions:

“By redesigning the road for two clients – animal and human – wildlife crossing infrastructure presents a timely opportunity to communicate both the problem and the solution to the public.  In this endeavor, landscape architecture has a significant new niche and a potent role role in designing safer roads with new infrastructures that are visible and legible, even beautiful.  Widespread deployment of this new typology of landscape infrastructure may ultimately change the way we move and live, and with this, reconnect landscapes and habitats through inspired design.” (50)

A specific topic of interest in our northwest fire season, it was interesting to read Steve Pyne’s essay ‘Firescaping’, which provides a meditation on fire as part of our ongoing landscape, and how to think differently about our relationship to fire, and the implications and opportunities of this in the context of global climate change.

As he mentions, “We can protect our built landscape where it abuts the wild… After all, our cities used to burn as often as their surroundings; now they don’t.  The same methods, adapted, can work along the fractal frontier of exurban settlement.” (97) With much of the west currently burning, the concept of wild does hit home with multiple meanings – directly related to design and management of landscapes.


As I mentioned, lots more content to devour, thus a full accounting of the contents of the first issue of LA+ would occupy multiple posts.  Look out for some follow-up on some topics of interest expanding upon these and other themes,  and if you’re interested, submit your work in their most recent call for papers.

And highly recommended to get a subscription to this to journal for topical, integrated ideas that shape the fabric of landscape architecture and urbanism.

The Death of the Cemetery?

It was interesting to see the multi-author story a few weeks back in the NY Times on “Too Many Bodies, Too Little Space,” which focused on the combination of traditional burial techniques and population booms making for shortage of cemetery real estate.  The following views of Washington Cemetery in Brooklyn show that New Yorkers take density seriously in all facets.



The debate section included a number of interesting voices, such as Christopher Coutts, a professor of urban and regional planning from Florida State University discusses rapid urbanization and the environmental impacts of cemeteries, including some staggering facts:

The resources that go into the ground every year associated with a typical cemetery burial translate into: enough wood to frame over 2,300 single-family homes; sufficient steel to erect almost 15 Eiffel Towers; nearly four times as much concrete as was used to build the Pentagon; and a volume of embalming fluid that would overflow an Olympic swimming pool.

This is predicating changes to our burial options, particularly cremation, stacking plots,  but even a space shot, for you meat puppets out there.  Many folks make reference to the more natural burial techniques, such as Oliver Peacock from the UKs Woodland Burials, who posits that “Instead of Urban Sprawl, Create a Forest” where burials take place in natural areas, and the group “plants a tree at each grave, creating a woodland, a wildlife sanctuary and a nature reserve.”  Charles Morris from the Green Burial Council International. expands this, saying, “Green burial also carries economic and spiritual benefits.”


Our transition from the use of cemeteries as a part of daily life to one that is moved to the margins is something worthy of exploration, as the cemeteries in our cities sometimes save remnant open space and habitat patches, but more often than not are continually overcrowding enclaves with mown grass that offers solace to the loved ones of the dead, but little else to the rest of the world.

Marc Jahr, author of a book i may check out “Deadville” which is about cemeteries around the globe, offers an interesting counterpoint, one that connects us with our mortality and history, and one that would be absent (perhaps?) without the reminders of cemeteries in our daily lives.

We need cemeteries. We could use the land for more profitable pursuits, but cemeteries save us from the fading of memory and history. They urge us to think about the lives that have been lived, in all their richness and mystery, and the lives that we lead. The physical space, the tombstones and mausoleums and stele satisfies a deeper communal need to remember and honor the past and remind us that our life’s moment is provisional and transient.

Many, including myself, can’t imagine Portland, for instance, without the amazing ‘Lone Fir Cemetery‘, (below) an 1850s era pioneer burial ground that does exactly what Jahr mentions above.  Even better – unlike many privatized open spaces, it is open and accessible to the community members, which comes with the occasional idiot vandal but also connects us to our community in new (old) ways.


Scarcity is an interesting thing – and as urban dwellers are asked to chose between the plot in the city (either a new one or protecting the old), or perhaps more density, more parks, more usable spaces – maybe the current residents may be in for relocation? That isn’t to say that we won’t still have urban cemeteries, but the changes will mean more conversations like this – replete with bad titles like ‘Grave Concerns’ and the like.

One idea may just be to reconnect with the use of these areas as viable places to live our lives, not just places to be once we’re gone.  Read the entire range of voices and let me know what you think.


Soundtrack for Spaces – Next Generation

I have discussed the concept  previous posts on the ‘Soundtrack for Spaces’, where I was making connections between physical locations in the landscape and the potential to imbue place with appropriate musical accompaniment.  These varied, but included looking at the Fleet Foxes as driving music in the Columbia River Gorge, the video customization for Arcade Fire’s ‘The Wilderness Downtown‘, and another video stitched together from Google Street View clips.

The ideas at the time were somewhat nascent, and sort of hinted at the concept of adaptable, location-specific music responsive to place.  This was reinforced by reading one of William Gibson’s latest novels called ‘Spook Country‘, which discusses the concept of ‘locative media‘ within the storyline, which means media that is delivered “directly to the user of a mobile device dependent upon their location.”  Another thread was a tale of games of location-specific ‘Urban Pacman‘ taking place in Portland – using the game-friendly layout of Ladd’s Addition as a container. 

:: image via Robot Mutant

An article from a few weeks back in the NY Times – “Central Park, the Soundtrack” takes this idea to an entirely new level.  Bluebrain, a musical duo have created.  The first of the series looked at the National Mall, and the second, of these ‘locational’ music pieces, ‘Listen to the Light’ provides an experiential soundtrack for Central Park.  From the Times article:

“As you walk, new musical themes hit you every 20 or 30 steps, as if they were emanating from statues, playgrounds, open spaces and landmarks… The themes layer over one another, growing in volume as you approach certain points on the map and fading out as you move away. It’s a musical Venn diagram placed over the landscape, and at any time you might have two dozen tracks playing in your ears, all meshing and colliding in surprising ways. The path you take determines what you hear, and the biggest problem with what the composers call a “location-aware album” is that you may get blisters on your feet trying to hear it all.”

The Venn diagram looks something like this, and the tracks reference GPS coordinates.  A diagram or map of the overlay of different musical phrases, from the Bluebrain site:

You can get a taste for the ‘classical’ inspired work as well.

Central Park (Listen to the Light) – A New Location Aware Album by BLUEBRAIN from BLUEBRAIN on Vimeo.

Definitely check out the slightly longer ‘making of’ video for “Listen to the Light” for more detail on the technical aspects.  It is somewhat difficult to assess whether the piece is a success or not, divorced from context, but that might be the point.  For those of us who have a constant soundtrack going through our head – which hits shuffle based on a word on a street sign or a sight of a sunset, it does lead one to think that there many possibilities that we are just scratching the surface.

Another interesting example mentioned in the article was GPS Beatmap: Planet as Control Surface, which uses location-specific positioning to mash-up musical phrases based on where you are. Check out a video of this in action here:

GPS Beatmap from Jesse Stiles on Vimeo.

It’s pretty exciting, even in these simple formats – and it isn’t difficult to envision new radio stations that are location-driven, where users can select a genre, plug in headphones, and participate in an immersive, place-based experience customized to their own particular 

For more, check out ASLA’s The Dirt post on Bluebrain here.

Siftings: 01.11.12

““All great art is born of the metropolis.” – Ezra Pound

 :: image via NY Times

A great little snapshot on urban serendipity from the NY Times that looks at the accidental ‘curation’ of spaces that the urban environment yields, such as the framed view from the subway to the Brooklyn Bridge.  Perhaps the uniformity of the grid is part of the magic, as the NYT also talks about the 200th Anniversary of the Manhattan Grid, along with the exhibition at the Museum of the City.  And speaking of paving here in Portland, local group Depave got some nice coverage on OPB for their continued work on rolling back pavement in the city.  As for making money on the urban agriculture and gardens – a study in Vancouver, BC finds that it is still a challenge to make a living wage farming, even in the city.  Perhaps we can lobby for urban farm subsidies?

:: image via Museum of the City

Nate Berg at the Atlantic Cities sums up Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne’s year-long project to explore his city through its literature, and some of his conclusions on where we stand.  As quoted in the Atlantic article:

““What the books have suggested to me,” Hawthorne argues, “is that we really don’t have – and need – a new framework for understanding the city at this moment in its history as it undergoes this transition.”

A review of his most recent reading of ‘Los Angeles Plaza: Sacred and Contested Space‘ can be found here – which is an interested exploration of the role of space, and the role of social status, on the way we interpret urban histories.  Related, and probably not big news, but people are less enamored with the suburbs, and are re-urbanizing, in this case, Philadelphia along with living in more dense types of housing. 

:: image via

More on Occupy, with the recent flurry of Global and US occupations bringing into question the ‘limits’ of how public spaces are.  As mentioned in the story:

“The Occupy Wall Street movement showed there are often limits to how long one can stay in the town square of a “free” state to express one’s opinion. Various kinds of force were used to get people out of New York’s Zuccotti Park.”

An interesting article from The Dirt on the $50 million!!!!! dollars of planning documents and designs for the Orange County Great Park, which has failed to yield much in terms of output.  It brings into question the time-scale on these massive endeavors, and how much needs to happen to create a ‘park’ in a traditional sense to satisfy some – while allowing space (and budgets) to evolve over decades.

:: image via The Dirt

Finally, a new competition from the Land Art Generator Initiative asks how renewable energy can be beautiful with a planned site at the Freshkills Park – which has a similar time-scale to the Great Park above.  And Freshkills may be an apt model for Mexico City, who is planning to close their massive landfill… And for the squeamish, a new report from the National Research Council changes the tune of reclaimed wastewater (aka toilet to tap) from a ‘option of last resort’ to a viable strategy that poses no more health risks than other sources.  Drink up!

Competition: Network Reset

An interesting new competition announced recently entitled Network Reset: Rethinking the Chicago Emerald Necklace, An international competition organized by MAS Studio & Chicago Architectural Club
which asks respondents: “…to look at the urban scale and propose a framework for the entire boulevard system as well as provide answers and visualize the interventions at a smaller scale that can directly impact its potential users. Through images, diagrams and drawings we want to know what are those soft or hard, big or small, temporary or permanent interventions that can reactivate and reset the Boulevard System of Chicago.”

I’m a little perplexed by the new trend of competitions that have a 30 day turnaround between announcement and due date – as it seems to.  Still – I’m intrigued, as it seems to be an interesting problem worth pursuing.  Registration is open, and entries due February 21 – so get moving now.

Coyote Urban

A few weeks back, on my way home I spotted in my neighborhood a lone coyote crossing busy 33rd Avenue just north of Fremont.  While urban coyotes are not necessarily that out of the ordinary (such as the adventurous multi-modal coyote that boarded MAX light rail a few years back) but the neighborhood I live is not in proximity to large patches of habitat – even though as you can see from the breakdown of the grid, it is adjacent to the Alameda Ridge – which is not necessarily known as a significant habitat corridor.

:: image via OPB

Our neighborhood newsletter jogged my memory, as I was only half convinced that it had actually been a coyote I spotted.  Turns out, it’s not odd, and this particular guy seems wary, but mostly unafraid of humans.  Some info from the Portland Audubon Society offers some context to the sightings:

“Coyotes have lived in Northeast Portland’s Alameda Neighborhood for years. Audubon periodically receives reports from neighbors who have observed a coyote hunting mice at dawn in Wilshire Park or stealthily slinking down a neighborhood street as night approaches. It is no surprise that coyotes are there — coyotes, an animal that Navajo sheepherders once referred to as “God’s Dog,” have established themselves in neighborhoods across Portland just as they have established themselves in cities across North America. Although they are often observed alone, coyotes are pack animals and a pack will establish a territory over an area that can cover several kilometers. Normally they are shy and secretive, and neighbors often do not even realize that they are around.”

The map below shows a shot of the neighborhood – the spotting occurred around the center of the map – to the southwest of Wilshire Park – the rectangular green space in the upper right quadrant which is about two blocks from our house.

I typically imagine a large(r) predator needing more significant habitat patches, but as mentioned in some factoids from Audubon, coyotes are particularly adaptable and “have demonstrated an ability to survive in the most urbanized environments in cities across North America. Most urban coyotes go about their lives without ever raising awareness of their presence among their human neighbors.”

:: image via KATU

The coyotes in Alameda are somewhat interesting and have elicited some very Portland-like responses, such as this elementary school project.  It’s curious – as I wonder how these aren’t spotted, and where they live, as they obviously don’t travel to less inhabited places.  Due mostly to fear from residents, removal is sometimes recommended – but for the most part it’s an issue of humans and wildlife living together, as the coyotes seem to be here to stay:

“There will likely always be coyotes in the Alameda Neighborhood. New coyotes quickly replace coyotes that have been removed. The only real question is whether human residents will make changes that minimize conflicts with these wild dogs. Kudos to the Alameda residents for responding to their wild neighbors with a balance of caution, appreciation, and most importantly, proactive efforts to address potential conflicts.”

In addition to some more coverage on OPB, there’s also a short news blurb from local station KGW.

City Concealed: Staten Island

I previously featured a video from the online video series “The City Concealed” produced by Thirteen, a project of New York station WNET.  The series offers glimpses into some of the terrain vague of the metropolis by: “…exploring the unseen corners of New York. Visit the places you don’t know exist, locations you can’t get into, or maybe don’t even want to. Each installment unearths New York’s rich history in the city’s hidden remains and overlooked spaces.” 

The alerted me to a recent video on the Staten Island Greenbelt, which is 2,800 acres of passive natural area and more traditional parkland, a short distance from Manhattan.

A bit of context from a location map shows the full extent of this agglomerated green zone slicing through the center of the island.

A close up shows some of the detail of the connected areas and the juxtaposition of the active and passive elements.

The proximity to Fresh Kills Park is obviously not lost on the potential for expanded greenbelt potential, connecting the southwestern portions to the new park, extending to the western shore of the island.

A quick tour of the recent videos has some great finds, including this one exploring the abandoned Hincliffe Stadium in Paterson, New Jersey and how it is slowly being enveloped by vegetation, and efforts to save this historic resource.

The City Concealed video series explores historical locations around New York City that are either off-limits to the general public, or are otherwise difficult or impossible to see. The City Concealed, now in its third season, is part of THIRTEEN.ORG’s original online video offerings for New Yorkers.

Destinations of the nine upcoming episodes include New York’s last Greek Synagogue in the LES; the decommissioned Ridgewood Reservoir; the abandoned Ft. Tilden in The Rockaways; the closed-off High Bridge, plus a few more.

THIRTEEN is owned by the New York public media company WNET.ORG.

The Digital Canopy (Expanded)

It’s intriguing that Google Earth 6 has started populating the virtual ‘planet’ with 3-Dimensional trees, which together with buildings and terrain offer the opportunity for some reasonable representation of exterior sites.  Right now, only a few cities have been added in selected cities and natural areas:

“I think we can all agree that our planet without trees would be a pretty desolate place. Besides the ever-important task of providing us with the oxygen we breathe, trees are an integral part of the landscape around us. In Google Earth, while we and our users have been busy populating the globe with many thousands of 3D building models, trees have been rather hard to come by. All that is changing with Google Earth 6, which includes beautifully detailed, 3D models for dozens of species of trees, from the Japanese Maple to the East African Cordia to my personal favorite, the cacao tree. While we’ve just gotten started planting trees in Google Earth, we already have more than 80 million trees in places such as Athens, Berlin, Chicago, New York City, San Francisco and Tokyo. Through our Google Earth Outreach program, we’ve also been working with organizations including the Green Belt Movement in Africa, the Amazon Conservation Team in Brazil and CONABIO in Mexico to model our planet’s threatened forests.”

A short video from Google, particularly regarding their concept for showing specific species of trees to promote understanding and great conservation.

The problem, of course, is the rendering of trees, which is so often problematic in digital formats as to be more distracting than useful.  The trees are somewhat abstracted, due to the need to provide simple shapes lower memory usage.  (UPDATE: the images previously shown were from the old version of Google Earth – so I have no provided a comparison with these and a city that has the new Google Earth 6 Trees  – thanks to Damian @ World Landscape Architect for the heads up on this).  All images are exports from the Pro version.

Digital Trees (A Comparison)
A contextual overview is somewhat interesting, for instance, Central Park in New York City (which does not have the new trees yet) looks surprisingly robust with the old trees.

Central Park

The new trees – in this case from San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, show a more homogenous and subtle patterning of the canopy, a bit more realistic in the inability to see separate trees, and the lack of repetition.
Golden Gate Park

The distant views at eye level are interesting to provide context for the adjacent buildings, something missing in the sterility of the 3D google earth buildings.  From a flattened view, the Central Park trees do provide a foreground to the adjacent urban edges.
Central Park

Standing in a similar field looking outward, there seems to be a bit more depth in the new 3D trees, and the rendering of individual tree components is more noticeable (maybe it’s just the lighter trunks?).  There’s obviously less density surrounding Golden Gate park, but the foreground/background relationship of the distant hillside is pretty effective (now when is the Weather on Google Earth going to be perceptible on the ground-level view, which might make the sky look a bit more real).
Golden Gate Park

The whole thing falls apart for the old trees, similar to many other attempted representations of vegetation, at a close-up scale. You can see the X-shaped geometry of the trees (a common way of providing lo-res 3D vegetation) start to give up their individual facets and look a bit strange.
Central Park

While the new 3D trees are an improvement, as you can see a better approximation of the trunk and canopy as well as a distinction between varieties of species.  As anyone that’s worked in Sketchup knows, the search for good approximations of trees is a difficult task to find good representations of trees to match diversity of real vegetation.  I think some Google Earth to actual photo matching shots would be interesting to show the differences and see how close these have come to true representation.
Golden Gate Park

An interesting first attempt (check out all of the cities with trees here), but one that still needs a lot of work.  Talking with folks that do a lot of 3D rendering, landscape is always a difficult aspect for a couple of reasons.  The overall complexity of a tree, for instance, is immense – even when compared to a building (which is typically more uniform in shape and is covered with ‘flat’ materials.  
The Problems of Rendering Trees.
Thinking of a tree as a complex system – there’s a infinite branching system of components – trunk, branch, stem, leaf, bud, flower – radiating in 3 dimensions in an ordered, yet flexible paths.  A beautifully rendered tree is a masterpiece, but one that takes a lot of time and memory to accomplish and is a mere snapshot in time of one species, of a certain age, and at a certain time of year.
:: image via Peter Guthrie
Even with the perfect specimen, there are many other factors at work – which in essence requires each one to be slightly different, as well as the ability to capture form at different ages.  Take into account a changing canopy over the 4 seasons – often representing with spring leaf out, coloration, summer full foliage, fall color and leaf drop, and winter branching – and that adds another complex variable to the equation.  A bit simpler for evergreen species, but just think of the number of species of trees that exist in any particular city.  Thus attempts to simplify often create trees which are somewhat cartoony approximations of the real thing.  It boggles the mind – just think what it does to the CPU.
:: Revit Trees – image via YellowBryk
Finally, trees are but one aspect of the landscape – and unless you are living in a park from the picturesque era, most are juxtaposed with a layered structure from overstory, understory, shrubs, and groundcover – especially when viewed from a close-in site scale.  There are programs available that will allow for this complexity – but how many project budgets do you think have this built in, or how many firms have the technological capabilities and personnel to do this type of work. This dilemma becomes evident in the eventual jump from the 3D to more 2D forms of rendering (predominately Photoshop) which allows a snapshot to take on a much richer palette, with less time and expertise – to more accurately render vegetation.  These are relegated to a one-shot image, and lose the potential for fly-throughs and other 3D tools for representation.  The search, alas, continues – for the perfect set of tools.


I warn the reader that my take on the recent NOWurbanism lecture featuring Chris Reed, Randy Hester and Howard Frumkin may be skewed by a really bad cold and the influence of massive doses of cold medicine, along with spilling an entire water bottle inside my bag that literally muddied my notes into a semi-decipherable pulpy mess.  As all histories are individual, this will be my reading of the nights events (and I fear I will not do them justice).  But then again, perhaps this is the perfect storm of dissociation in which to warp and skew the voices into a coherent narrative.

I was really excited to hear from Reed, Principal at Boston-based Stoss Landscape Urbanism and adjunct associate professor of landscape architecture at Harvard GSD.  As recipient of the 2010 Topos International  Landscape Award, “…in recognition of the “theoretical and practical impulses the firm provides to the advancement of landscape architecture and urbanism as dynamic and open-ended systems.”  As a practitioner who embraces the project-oriented aspects of landscape urbanism, I think Reed is unique in straddling the line between theory and praxis – and approach that is often attempted, but rarely done in a legible way.  I was keenly focused on finding out the methods for achieving this balance.


The bulk of Thursday’s time was given to Reed’s lecture entitled ‘Ecology Agency Urbanism’ in which he frames landscape and ecology in a context beyond the current concepts of ‘sustainability’ and ‘LEED’, arguing for the ‘agency of ecology’ that is not used as a palliative but as an instigator.  In our search for a positive performative approach, we often rely on the crutches of simple definitions or rating systems, which move towards luke-warm, incremental changes, but not paradigm shifts.

Some History

Reed first frames some of the historical elements of ecology as it relates to planning and design, mentioning Ian McHarg‘s ecological assessments (inventory, mapping, overlay) and giving value systems to data to use for design and planning-based decision-making.  While acknowledged as important in elevating the discussion, there is also the flip side of criticism’s of this objectivty and quantification of processes, alluding to the lack of a cultural lens in which to perform interventions with this information.  The most interesting idea, according to Reed, from McHargian theory was that of ‘propinquity’, an innate acknowledgement of the proximity, but also the kinship of the environment and it’s actors – aligning the needs of the people with that of the surrounding ecological landscape.

:: image via Gardenvisit

He follows this with the next phase of landscape ecology, best expressed in the work of Richard TT. Forman which “catalyze the emergence of urban-region ecology and planning“, using the concepts of matrices, interconnections, and networks to express exchange of materials.  The major contribution of this is the visual, using mapping to acknowledge not a static ecological system, but to facilitate flows that observe an active and dynamic nature.   On a practical front, Reed mentions the work of Richard Haag and George Hargreaves as innovative early examples of built projects using these environmental dynamics as generators of form under the mantle of landscape architecture.  The realizations contributed to a conceptual shift of ecology from the static (equilibrium theory) to one that included fluctuations in response to disturbance and change.

:: Louisville Waterfront Park (Hargreaves) – image via Hargreaves Associates

The final phase came in some of the early large scale landscape competitions, such as Downsview Park in 1999, which featured time as part of the design brief.  All of the entires worked time into the solutions, which laid some foundations of modern landscape urbanism theories of indeterminancy.  Not the finalist, but of interest was the proposal from James Corner and Stan Allen, “Emergent Ecologies, which is described on the Downsview site: “The framework consists of an overlay of two complimentary organizational systems: circuit ecologies and throughflow ecologies. These systems seed the site with potential. Others will fill it in over time. We do not predict or determine outcomes; we simply guide or steer flows of matter and information.”

Four Tendencies
The next section discussed the ‘Four Tendencies’ that have emerged into a set of typologies of ecological systems, summarized by Reed here (and hopefully captured in some sense of legibility):

1. Structured Ecologies:  Active habits of plant growth, water movement, habitat use – manipulated over time in response to change, factoring in resiliency and incorporating landscape as a dynamic field.

2. Analog Ecologies: Use ecological elements to achieve non-biological products, epitomized in the work of Ned Kahn and Chuck Hoberman.

3. Hybrid Ecologies:  Responsive design systems that tap into large scale system dynamics, including human and non-human interaction in space.

4. Curated Ecologies:  Structured interactions with dynamics over time, not under specific control, but poked and prodded – designers role shifts as project demands.

The work evolved from the Harvard GSD, particularly the work of Nina-Marie Lister, for a May 2010 event ‘Critical Ecologies’ which synthesized the historical and current practices of biology, horticulture, and anthropology as antecedents to design.  (need to find out more on what happened here, as it sounds like a great event with some amazing speakers.

Work of StossLU

In the next part, Reed explained some of the work of Stoss, to give a physical reality to some of the ideas of open-endedness and concepts in action. To provide a framework for these approaches, these were intermixed within a number of larger ideas.

Thicken the Surface:
Using the concept of multiple uses and meanings for land, imbued with both form and performance – but not strictly in a sculptural sense.  This best expressed in Riverside Park, in New Bedford, Massachusetts, an eco-park that elaborates the performance aspects of topography, with formal sculptural qualities as a result of the underlying processes.


:: Riverside Park – images via stossLU

Draw on Local Practices:  
The project mentioned was the Competition for the Herinneringspark in regional West Flanders, Belgium, which used ephemeral interventions over large spaces for this historical WW II site – specifically focusing on agricultural cycles to highlight specific forms.  (sorry, couldn’t track down any pics on this one)

Flexible Spaces for Social Interaction:
Using the Erie Street Plaza in Milwaukee, Wisconsin as an example, mentioning the patterning of materials (lawn and pavement) and the interplay as a randomized surface that allows for a flexibility of uses.  The other aspect of interest was the connection to the water table and the fluctuating levels of moisture and the use of steam to melt portions of the snow for year-round use.

:: Erie Street Plaza – image via Architect’s Newspaper

Open Ended Design:
The garden festival in Grand-Metis, Quebec is the example for open-ended design, ‘Safe Zone’ was designed with simple materials in new forms, for a flexibility of uses… a play area, but not prescriptive, rather a safe and injury free surface for experimentation and adaptable play (one as Reed mentions, kids get intuitively, but adults take time to adapt to)…

:: images via playscapes
(more pics here on L+U)

Civic Scale:
A more expansive explanation included the concepts of civic scale, expanding some of the more ephemeral and small-scale interventions into significant projects in urban areas.  One example Reed noted was the Fox Riverfront in Green Bay, Wisconsin, which is built above a sheetpile walll, and required the manipulations of various surfaces to accomodate a range of spaces.  The stepped benches form seats and chaise lounges, reacting to the different heights of the subsurface conditions.

:: image via Minnesota Public Radio

The overall site also responds to the flooding conditions that come up and over the bulkhead, creating a reactivated civic space while simultaneously incorporating a functional piece of civic infrastructure.

:: image via National Design Awards

Engaging/Recalibrating Infrastructure
The representative project for this concept was the controversial (locally) competition for capping the Mt.Tabor Reservoirs in Portland.  Stoss’s concept was one of the more innovative, blending a new ecology while creating a social spaces.

:: image via National Design Awards

An Integrated Project: Lower Don Lands

A larger example of a project was the competition for the Waterfront and Lower Don River area in Toronto, Canada, which Reed explained in a bit more detail.  The concept (the competition eventually won by MVVA) by Stoss offers a chance to provide an integrated approach, with a goal towards both restoration of the Lower Don River and the subsequent urbanization.  This river first, city second does resonate with the landscape urbanism principles of new form-making driven by landscape/ecological processes.

:: image via The Torontoist

The condition of the existing 90 degree bend of the river, and the need for a more modulated river/lake interface required designing a river, which had both a performative and aesthetic requirement.  This involved a couple of what Reed refers to as principles and flexible tactics:

1. Amplify the Interface: between the river ecosystem and the restored estuary
2. Hybridize the Parts: changes between armored and porous materials, restoring the marsh condition and then letting the ecological systems take over, which provides flood control while creating spaces for urban activities.
3. Modify the Harbor Wall:   establishing a vocabulary of marshes and channels, which form courtyards as catalysts with flexible programs.
4. Unique Building Typologies: Flexibility of form, and flow of landscape across spits and islands, then up the faces of the buildings – green machines.

:: image via The Torontoist

:: image via Penn Design

As Reed mentioned, this provides an example of using ecologies as generative forces (agencies), which as seen from the above examples provides a snapshot into the conceptual framework that is applied to projects at a variety of scales.  Be sure to check out the full range of project work on the Stoss website and get more information on some of these projects mentioned.

Stay tuned for a synopsis of the Panel Discussion coming in a separate post.
Thanks to all the great folks at UW, as well as Chris, Howard, Randy, and Peter for the great after lecture discussions and dialogue.

NOTE: Anyone in attendance wanting to clarify, contest, or expand any of these thoughts, feel free to comment.  Look forward to hearing more.