Category Archives: planning

International Urban Wildlife Conference

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Introducing Hidden Hydrology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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Fantasy Island

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+.

Banner image: Gilligan’s island blueprint map by Mark Bennett image via The Nesting Game

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Google Timelapse

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. 

South Lake Union and Downtown Seattle

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.

Portland

Lots of fun exploration planned for this.

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Water and Cities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Images via ArchPaper

 

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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)

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‘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.

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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.

PA35: Going Live

I was really excited to receive the latest version of  Pamphlet Architecture, published by Princeton Architectural Press.  While I’ve not seen all of them, i do have at least a dozen, and they offer focused snapshots of theory and practice both as well as a longitudinal section of though spanning decades.  My first experience was PA15: War and Architecture featuring Lebbeus Woods, which i picked up as an undergrad and was blown away.  I’ve since picked up issues sporadically, including the great PA21: Situation Normal featuring the work of Lewis.Tsrumaki.Lewis (1998), PA23: Sites of Trauma with Johanna Saleh Dickson (2002),  PA28: Augmented Landscapes by Smout Allen (2007), and PA30: Coupling featuring work and thoughts by InfraNet Lab and Lateral Office (2011).

The most recent version, PA35: Going Live: From States to Systems, was published earlier in November, edited by Pierre Bélanger and featuring work from his design research arm opsys.

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I thought Bélanger’s  essay ‘Synthetic Surfaces’ in the Landscape Urbanism Reader, was interesting, and was interested to see the work as well from he and others around this topic.  For starters, some context, via the blurb snipped below on Amazon:

“”If landscape is more than milieu or environment, and encompasses a deterritorialized world, then it is the contested territory, hidden actor, and secret agent of the twentieth century. Stemming from the early work of some of the most influential landscape urbanists–Frank Lloyd Wright, Ludwig Hilberseimer, Benton MacKaye, Patrick Geddes–this mini manifesto explores underdeveloped patterns and unfinished processes of urbanization at the precise moment when environmentalism began to fail and ecology emerged between the 1970s and 80s. Informed by systems thinking from the modern atomic age, this slim silver pamphlet takes inspiration from Howard T. Odum’s big green book A Tropical Rain Forest and brings alive the voices of a group of influential thinkers to exhume a body of ideas buried in the fallout of the explosion of digitalism, urbanism and deconstructivism during the early 1990s. Catalyzed by Chernobyl’s nuclear reactor meltdown, a counter-modernity and neo-urbanism emerged from the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of South African Apartheid. What happened during this concentrated era and area of change–across design, from architecture to planning–is nothing short of revolutionary.” 

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The opening essays start provide some more context, and the crux is really what is said about the timing of the emergence of ecology in the 70s and 80s and how this is now fully integrated, after almost 50 years, into practice.  I do want to find a copy of Odum’s ‘A Tropical Rain Forest‘ after reading the introductory info – perhaps the biggest gem this small volume offers.

Readers should be warned, this is not a trifle, but a dense exploration with a number of unexplained references and jargon – the kind of stuff that makes people roll their eyes and dismiss academic posturing as oh so much BS.  Frankly the intro is probably one of the most annoying passages I’ve read in a while and the first sections were equally obtuse.  It evens out a bit as you continue, but coupled with way too small text and only black and white imagery, it’s a bit of a slog.  As in not enjoyable to read or engage in.

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So if you’re still with me – check out the diagrams, and maybe read a section or two.  When you get into them, are quite beautiful and the text has value – exploring some of the themes of landscape and infrastructure from Keller Easterling and Sanford Kwinter.  Go to well lit room, with a magnifying glass and a lot of coffee and have fun.

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I was initially put off by the reliance on only black and white imagery, as it seems anachronistic, more of a trope than a reason for its use in this particularly context.  But they work and the idea of communication that transcends color – in these densely packed montages attempt to communicate a ton of info – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.  Probably the best part of this volume – sometimes it’s amazing and you find yourself staring at a page for way too long.  If they were 2x as big it’d be even better.

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So as far as the takeaway for he at this point, I’m really intrigued by the graphics, and some of the experimentation.  While i was initially put off by the black at white imagery, as i mentioned, but after looking at it multiple times, and viewing digital images, it does have a quality that perhaps obscured by our typical splashes of color.

Even as a pamphlet – the writings, well, I feel would have benefited greatly from a tougher editor that reined in some of the language and obscure references.  I’ve read enough academic and dense writings that i can muddle through the most difficult, so  I definitely don’t need my hand held. But there were so many opportunities to add one small explanation of a concept, rather than just leave the reader hanging, or googling, to understand some obscure reference or word choice.  Belanger’s other writings didn’t seem so hard to parse.  This was exhausting.

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If you read it let me know what you thing.  Got some ideas or thoughts.  Let me know.

Game/Landscape

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.

ORIGINS

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

TOOLS

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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

FINAL THOUGHTS

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Rules based ecological scenarios, which allow for natural processes (vegetative colonization, competition, dispersal) that provides simulations of open-ended landscape concepts.
  3. 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.

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.”

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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.”  

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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.

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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.

Hidden Hydrology at UERC Conference

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:

Background

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.Slide2

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)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Map Making

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.

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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.

Animation of overlay process – (c) Jason King

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?

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Interventions: Tours

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.

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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.

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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.

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Interventions: Art

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)…

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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.

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Animation of ‘Viewfinder’ slide (c) Jason King

 

And drawing from the functional aspects of utility locates with the community artistry of intersection repair…

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…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.

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Image of Tanner Creek – Locate (c) Jason King

 

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.

Neighborhsheds

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.

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Urban Ecology

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.

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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.

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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.