“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.
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.
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.”
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”
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. “
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.
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.
I recently gave a talk at the great annual conference Urban Ecology Research Consortium of Portland/Vancouver (UERC), which focuses on ” advance the state of the science of urban ecosystems and improve our understanding of them”. I was really excited to be chosen to present (i had done a poster presentation in past years), and it seemed a great way to introduce the Hidden Hydrology of Portland and what work has been done to date.
Much of this has been covered on the L+U blog – but there’s new ideas worth exploration, and some new momentum to realize some of the site-specific installations discussed here. A short visual recap:
My first experience with the concept was stumbling over the ‘Disappearing Streams’ map produced by Metro. Not sure of the vintage – but I remember seeing this easily in the late 1990s, and it’s stuck with me for years. Not actual streams but modeled topography generating basins – the concept is pretty simple – show what streams existed, and highlight those buried, piped, channeled in red, which is predominately on the inner east side and downtown.
A bit of digging yields a great set of maps, the Cadastral Survey of 1852 provides amazing detail of a nascent Portland, with stream corridors like Tanner Creek still intact running through downtown Portland, and other ecological resources (wetlands, lakes) as well as trails and early city grid (seen to the right)
A few folks share this passion, such as David James Duncan, who talks of disappeared streams in his book ‘My Story as Told by Water’ (2002) and historical account from folks like fellow Tanner Creek nerd Tracy Prince, who has authored some great accounts of the areas in Goose Hollow and Slabtown, evoking origins of place names, connections to hidden creeks, and tying this together with the rich history of Portland’s development.
Many layers interact in painting the picture of hidden hydrology. Photos are another great resource – with historic scenes of sewer creating, as well as floods and other historical events.
Beyond the Cadastral Survey, a wealth of maps exist, ranging from the mid 1850s through today – which paint a temporal portrait of the path of waterways over time – such as Tanner Creek, here shown still in existence in 1866.
And through an illustrative Aerial Lithograph here in 1870 – again showing the Tanner Creek drainage from the West Hills through the north portion of downtown.
Using these tools we can start to craft maps that take the historical and overlaying information – in this case a composite of Cadastral survey mapping, amended with other information, notes, and annotations – a layered history in map format. These could easily be hosted online (a future plan) for additional input and integration with stories, photos, experience.
The process of extracting this information from the survey – shown here in a few steps – involves 1) referencing the historical layers, 2) adding streams and other water bodies, 3) adding additional info such as wetlands and other topographic featueres, and 4) georeferencing and overlaying the historic with the current day mapping. A reverse map regression that allows us to create an interesting connection between then and now.
Because the Cadastral survey is based on the Public Land Survey System (PLSS) – the township, section, range geometry (see the faint orange lines in the map above allow the historic and modern to overlap with reasonable fidelity through cartographic rectification. The maps then, overlaid with GIS data – then digitized into shapefiles with linked data – start to allow us to provide some more detailed analysis – such as for instance, correlating basement flooding in proximity to old streams?
The second part of the talk focused on interventions – as the maps are compelling, but the ability to use them for actions are key, both in terms of expanding the validity of our interventions, but also to connect folks everyday to their hidden nature.
My colleague Matt Burlin and I have been talking about tours of the Hidden Hydrology for some time – so recently took the field maps for Tanner Creek and traced them from up towards the headwaters near Washington Park Zoo, down through the west hills and through downtown.
There are portions that still exist – albeit in a somewhat degraded form – but the visceral thrill of seeing this stream was compelling – The immersion in the sounds and experiences of these remnants is worth further visits.
And as you get to the urban sections, the natural remnants make way to a creek completely hidden – save a subtle topographic cue and some cultural interventions of markers and Tanner Springs Park, before getting to the current outfall location in the Willamette, near Centennial Mills.
How do we interact with that which is hidden, bringing lost layers of history back to the surface. Some great art installations provide inspirations that could be applied to hidden hydrology, for instance the Freen The Billboards project (which used fixed viewfinders to overlay images on billboards)…
Could be applied in zones to allow one to click through a series of images that show the stages of current, mapping, routing, and location of historical waterways – in this case a simple illustration of how this would work for Tanner Creek.
And drawing from the functional aspects of utility locates with the community artistry of intersection repair…
…one could imagine a meandering Tanner Creek weaving its way through downtown and northwest Portland streets, taking the idea of a couple of markers in the sidewalk to a much higher level of engaging and awareness in the underlying historical systems.
Thinking beyond a map or a kiosk with some informational interpretation, the array of interventions together provide multiple ways to engage, and coupled with technology could yield self-guided walking tours, vivid sound maps, and immerse multi-media experiences.
On a larger scale, the idea of Hidden Hydrology inspires thinking about community and our connections to each other. The concept of Neighborsheds, which i coined in the mid 2000s and presented at the ASLA National Conference about – involves using these natural drainages to redefine neighborhood boundaries. By rethinking political or cultural boundaries defined outside of natural systems, we can reconnect to our place in new ways. This knowledge is perceptual on one hand – but can engage folks in shared commitment – because if you’re in the neighborshed, all of your actions become innately connected in you cumulative impact downstream.
Finally, for me the concept of the Hidden Hydrology is tied to the larger ecological history. There is no better project to illustrate this that the Mannahatta Project (read more on a post here) which in it’s broader incarnation as The Welikia Project, takes the notion of historic mapping and blends field observations of biotic and abiotic factors in a rich and illustrative composite that is both rigorous and compelling.
My call to action, to create this detailed historical ecology for Portland, blending historical mapping with history, archaeology, anthropology, ecology, and other disciplines to paint a vivid picture of this historical ecology.
Beyond being fodder for art and culture, defining neighborsheds, or ways of engaging in urban exploration and wayfinding – there are some key opportunities available with this information. This can be inspiration for design interventions, can guide decisions about habitat, ecology, water, runoff, vegetation, and other factors, not in a general sense but in a block by block, historical watershed and stream basin scale.
The overlay and congruency with the hidden streams and our subsurface pipe systems is no accident – each are governed by system conditions of gravity. One is surficial and the other is hidden, so opportunities for making adjustments to the gray systems can be augmented with opportunities to use the green systems – with potentials for daylighting, integration of green stormwater infrastructure, and replication of pre-development hydrology. These decisions aren’t just based on current conditions (i.e. paved, permeable, landcover), but can be guided by understanding and modelling the pre-development hydrology – the best guide to how a particular basin wants to act by referencing how it worked before we altered it.
Finally, the concept of a pre-development metric is used for many things – to set stormwater management goals, to measure runoff in site and basin scales, and to set targets for sustainability for ecodistricts and other planning scale efforts. The return to the ‘native forest’ is a generalization of the pre-development condition, and also becomes a technological construct. Rather than pre-development condition, let’s thing of historical ecological function, which begins to not just provide us with numbers to meet, but also blends the vegetated, the ecological, the habitat, the cultural with the historic sounds, smells, textures, and colors the historical places before we forever altered them.
We won’t restore these to their natural state in all but a few selected places, but if we can restore, through metaphor, interaction, and intervention, the experience of these places, blended artfully with what they are now – places to live, shop, play – we reveal these hidden layers of inspiration to the urban experience.
A short video of the presentation is in development – and a longer follow-up, brownbag session is in the works – so look out for details.
A project of note that made the rounds over the past month resonated with the concept of Hidden Hydrology. The project ‘Ghost Arroyos‘, proposed as part of the Market Street Prototyping Festival paints the town blue, in a sense. I definitely like this idea, as we’ve discussed doing a similar exploration of Portland’s Tanner Creek.
“Every city has invisible histories embedded within its landscape. This project, “Ghost Arroyos” seeks to reveal the forgotten waterways of San Francisco through a simple, but powerful intervention. Situated between 7th and 9th street, the project will abstractly mark the footprint of Hayes Creek onto the urban surface. Visitors to the festival will be invited to trace the extent of the waterway while listening to a curated recording of hydrological soundscapes and oral histories”
Sounds much like the hidden hydrology proposals – and i’m curious to see it happen and what hurdles need to be overcome in implementation. Also, the soundscapes and oral histories are an interesting concept – that we’ve been exploring as well, so lots of great alignment to draw from.
Upper Yosemite Creek Daylighting
In digging into this project a bit, there was also a link to a proposed actual creek daylighting being proposed by the City of San Francisco is the Upper Yosemite Creek.
From the site: “The Upper Yosemite Creek Daylighting project will daylight the ephemeral historic Yosemite Creek to manage flows from 110 acres of McLaren Park. The creek will flow along the northern edge of McLaren Park from Yosemite marsh through Louis Sutter Playground and along the southern edge of University Mound Reservoir. The project will feature a creek channel to convey stormwater and alleviate localized flooding issues as well as storage and infiltration facilities. This project is the first creek daylighting project initiated by the City and will reintroduce natural habitat and provide opportunities for community learning and beautification.”
The reports are worth checking out – as it’s an interesting concept. The new ‘creek’ is a hybrid, while daylighting, the configuration, as seen above, interfaces with the built environment in a somewhat orderly manner and starts to look more like green stormwater infrastructure than natural waterways. This mediating between what was and the ‘functional’ aspects of the restoration is worth further exploration.
Two great examples from San Francisco on hidden hydrology in action.
Last week, I had the honor recently of presenting at a conference with one of my idols of landscape architecture, Anne Whiston Spirn. Aside from stimulating conversation, she presented the old and new of her work from The Granite Garden through her ongoing work on the Mill Creek Project in Philadelphia, i was reminded of the tenets of persistence and the need to not work behind the scenes, but to continue to strive outwardly to make ecologically driven, research based, green and livable cities. As many know that is inspired in me through work with water and watersheds, but also storytelling and ways to make evident that which is lost or merely hidden. That inspiration comes many sources, but very much from the work of Ms. Spirn.
To capture my work and continue it in some form – i transferred some posts from the early days of my firm back in 2010 that formed the foundation of an ongoing work that is gaining more momentum in recent weeks, and worthy of a dusting off. Partially as the blog is an archive of work and things i want to capture and remember – partially it is an opportunity to rework and re-frame these issues in a new time with some new energy. Some folks will have seen this before in various forms – to others this might be new. Over the next few days, i will repost some of the inspirations, starting today with the introduction – followed by some origins gleaned from others through the readings and explorations. In all, it the various threads of this perpetually wandering generalist may be coming together to form a web, and with luck and work, a tapestry.
Hidden Hydrology – Portland Series Introduction
Originally published on Terra Fluxus – 12/21/2010
In the next year, TERRA.fluxus will be initiating a multi-phase project to explore the Hidden Hydrology of the city of Portland as the main research activity for the near future. I have been fascinated with this since my first glimpse of the Disappeared Streams map published by Metro (will get my hands on one soon and give a glimpse) and it’s eventual configuration into a 2006 ASLA Presentation on ‘Neighborsheds for Stormwater Management‘ as an preliminary exploration of the concept. The particular Metro map highlighted ‘historic’ streams that had been buried and piped through development of the City of Portland over the course of the last 150 plus years, showing existing as blue and those ‘disappeared’ in red. While many westside creeks still ran free, the entire eastside was vivid red, long covered by roads, industrial buildings, houses, parks, and more. While the methodology on that particular map was suspect (relying more on topographic analysis than hydrological markers), there are plenty of sources for historic waterways in maps, photos, and on-site investigation.
Thus the focus of the project, utilizing multiple sources to gain a more complete understanding of the underlying hydrological history of the area, with an aim towards using this information both in traditional planning and design manners, but also as the touchstone for a series of speculative works.
Portland, of course, has always been, and still is, a river city. We live around waterways and bridge lifts, and relying on water for our recreation and port traffic, as well as giving us the overall image of our city. Tucked along the banks of the Willamette and its confluence with the Columbia, the history of water mirrors the history of urbanization, from the initial settlement patterns and grids of the 1850s up to modern conditions. The early, or ‘pre-development’ snapshot is best captured in this compilation map of the 1852 Cadastral Survey, which was created right after the incorporation of Portland as a city in 1851. This map, and others (a great collection of which can be found at the Bureau of Environmental Services site), will play parts in analysis throughout the project.
You can spend hours looking at this map, and placing the vision of this early city compared to it’s eventual form. While Portland’s rivers and streams are beautiful – they are also highly troubled, with dual issues of industrial pollution and combined sewer overflows working in tandem to create issues for native fish (and people), landing many of our major waterways on lists of the most polluted rivers. The idea of hidden hydrology is evident not in the still visible (although they are intimately connected), but those ‘urban’ waterways that over the years have changed from open streams and creeks to become piped as ‘infrastructure systems’ to deal with expanding growth of the metropolis. Thus we look at the slow erasure of natural topography and hydrology at work in a political sphere, and begin to see what remains of this palimpsest.
The most urban example is found in Tanner Creek, the historic downtown river that wound through downtown for over fifty years, remaining intact (in form if not in quality) through urbanization, as seen in this 1881 illustration looking at downtown towards the northeast.
The proximity of this creek to development (and the Tannery) led to pollution and sanitation issues downstream, so as with many urban creeks, a period of modernization happened, in this case the 1917 implementation of the Tanner Creek Sewer project. This forever buried the main stem of this historic creek through the heart of downtown in brick vault sewer (many of which are still functioning, or have recently been replaced).
While the historic are interesting in their own right (and there are ample sources of material to digest so more to come on this), the interaction of the new and old is both dynamic and informative. Moving to the Southeast Quadrant, we can isolate the more detailed Cadastral maps (the survey developed the township, section geometry used today, thus giving us the ability to overlay old and new with a measure of precision). The coverage through the 1850s and 60s is quite extensive, and will be useful when reconciled with the existing GIS coordinate systems. An inverted version of the original survey maps gives an indication of their density of information. The study area will be in the upper right hand quadrant of this township scale map.
A series of maps utilize GIS layering along with historical mapping underlayment to create a modern ‘routing’ for a stream in the lower Taggart basin. First a section of the historical map (1852) was analyzed for hydrologic features (river, stream, wetland, etc.) based on the map features present at the time of the survey. These are accented to show their location for referencing to other maps.
The topography and street grid are overlaid to show the relationship of water features to current configurations. The addition of hillshade allows for fine-tuning of hydrological features to match remnant topographic that has not been leveled or erased through development.
Following this, the combined ‘hybrid’ map is reconciled into a workable base that is accurate to the historical location of ‘urban streams’ as well as current urban form. Additional layers are added, and the iterations of analyses are only limited by time and usefulness. Groundwater, soils, historical aerial photos, vacant lands, floodplains, and vegetative cover are just a few that spring to mind from glancing at Metro’s stock of layers. I am also already other gathering data for a planned comparison with BES Subwatersheds, which mirror directly the configuration of subsurface pipe infrastructure that replaced these open channels sometime in the last 100+ years. While our technology allows us to perform feats unbelievable to the 19th century Portander in lifting, pumping, and moving materials, there is still an inherent consistency and efficiency of using gravity to move water and waste that still makes these historic systems relevant as blueprints for existing conditions.
The other idea is to use this information for potential projects and interventions – looking opportunistically at the relationship of these systems over time and space. To kick of this aspect, the next phase of analysis for this area will also be to ‘ground-truth’ the map hybrids – through a series of documented urban explorations (in the spirit of the Center for Land Use Interpretation perhaps?), along with further refinement, historical research, and analysis throughout 2011.
Since reading Janine Benyus’ book Biomimicry back in 1997, I’ve been simultaneously fascinated and frustrated by the conceptual positioning and posturing of the proponents of biomimicry. Don’t get me wrong, i think the idea of biomimicry has much potential in design, particularly product invention, industrial design, and architecture. What i have a hard time wrapping my brain around is how to differentiate biomimicry (emulating nature’s processes for application to objects – products, buildings, etc.) with the seemingly similar ecological design (emulating nature’s processes for application to the landscape). The former is a new and exciting field or inquiry that can expand our thinking about solving problems. The latter is an older and exciting field that continues to expand our thinking about solving problems.
I often struggle with the inherent conflict in determining the specifics applications in a landscape setting. Beyond the idea that ‘everything is nature’, we’re talking about a broader idea of applicability to the practice of landscape architect that includes context. The goal of landscape architecture is broad, but the tools we use, and the products we create, are often so closely aligned as to blur the boundaries between agency and ecology. The continuum of built work goes from the very natural (restoration) to the very urban (plazas), and means we construct everything from systems to objects, and often, much of both simulateously.
It’s hard to separate process from product, and the use of living elements in designs (rather than static materials) complicates this further. It’s hard also to separate scope – as the milieu of landscape is vast and sometimes all-encompassing. This dilemma is perhaps less of an issue in the very urban, but as we expand sites to provide multiple overlapping functions of ecology and utility, it becomes harder to, particularly as we get into restoration. The on-going discussions about the pastoral mimicry of Olmsted (and Picturesque English Gardens) that was highly constructed, such as Central Park (below) or the Back Bay Fens (above) and is now mistaken for ‘nature’ as elaborated by Spirn (and covered in an old essay of mine here).
This isn’t to say that biomimicry is not relevant to the profession and context of the landscape. To me it’s a given, but the language to explain the connection is still escaping my grasp. It is more of a stretch to say ‘I used biomimicry to determine the natural flow patterns of this site’ rather than ‘I used biomimicry to make glue inspired by the gooey outer layer of a slug’. One to me is clearly biomimicry (nature process inspires biological approach to product design). The difference i think is that the leap from natural precedent to ‘product’ is easier than from natural precedent to natural analog as landscape. The natural flow patterns of the site are there for the revealing and part of good site context/analysis, and looking to historical origins for inspiration is just good design (or competent design i should say). Restoration, if that is the goal of a site, uses other models and precedents of successful healthy waterways, functions, vegetation. It is a form is mimicry in a sense, but isn’t that was all landscape architecture is? Or is it not mimicking nature when your output IS that same nature?
I’m also not saying that the proponents of biomimicry don’t willfully admit this nuance, but it’s often the case as someone positioning this ‘new’ and ‘improved’ process as some improved methodology, when in fact it’s not new or improved. I dug up some info that seems relevant for some context in furthering this understanding. Per the Biomimicry 3.8 website.
“Biomimicry is an innovation method that seeks sustainable solutions by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies, e.g., a solar cell inspired by a leaf. The goal is to create products, processes, and policies—new ways of living—that are well-adapted to life on earth over the long haul.”
The 3.8 stands for the “more than 3.8 billion years that life has been adapting and evolving to changing conditions on the planet since the very first life forms emerged.” The other informational website from Biomimicry 3.8 is AskNature, which, according to the site, is an “online inspiration source for the biomimicry community. Think of it as your home habitat—whether you’re a biologist who wants to share what you know about an amazing organism, or a designer, architect, engineer, or chemist looking for planet-friendly solutions. AskNature is where biology and design cross-pollinate, so bio-inspired breakthroughs can be born.”
The looking to our long history for ideas and inspiration is great. The difficulty for me is resolving the idea of looking to nature for process and patterns (which has been happening for milennia and is inherent in site observation, i.e. genius loci) to this ‘new’ science of emulation (which to me is what designers have also been doing for milennia using nature as model). The proponents of biomimicry have done a reasonably good job of communicating the concept and some of it’s limitations. They’ve also done a great job of marketing what are age-old concepts into a ‘new’ discipline or approach (or at least a money-making endeavor).
Benyus has a Primer on Biomimicry with some more concrete discussion and examples, as well as connections to other disciplines and movements. The language of learning from nature and humility are good reminders to think outside our anthropocentric viewpoint. As mentioned:
“The core idea is that nature has already solved many of the problems we are grappling with: energy, food production, climate control, benign chemistry, transportation, collaboration, and more.”
As we look for inspiration and ‘new mentors’ to guide us, we can bring in other methodologies (such as Cradle to Cradle design or Living Building Challenge), and that all of the interwoven theories are complementary. The difference in emulation vs. copying is mentioned as well by Benyus: “Biomimics may study a spider to learn about sensing, fiber manufacturing, adhesion, or tensegrity, but we are not actually trying to recreate the spider. What we’re trying to emulate are the design principles and living lessons of the spider.” Again, this brings up context – as in landscape the system and materials are the product of the design – so it’s more difficult to reconcile this, because we are actually trying to recreate the spider in that case.
There are three levels that are mentioned as well, which is instructive. The first is mimicking of natural form. The second is to mimic natural process, or how something is made. The final level is to mimic natural ecosystems, which brings in the larger context and connections with other systems. The end result is essentially a determination of fitness, where the outcome is more self-sustaining and regenerative that other options.
Other distinctions are made between biomimicry and the subjects of bio-utilization (harvesting and using biological products) and bio-assisted technologies (which “involve domesticating an organism to accomplish a function”). Biomimicy is to consult, not to co-opt, and to contribute to, in the words of Wes Jackson, “a deepening conversation with the organism.” The concept of precedent is vital as well, and acknowledged by Benyus in the primer.
“…biomimicry was not new to the human species; in fact there was a time when our very survival depended on noticing and mimicking successful organisms… this latest appearance of biomimicry is not an invention, it’s a remembering.”
There’s a history of this work past the indigenous, to include designers like da Vinci, Frank Lloyd Wright, Frei Otto, Gaudi, Olmsted, and Bucky Fuller. The lack of a coherent body of scholarship and study meant this was singular geniuses working in isolation, one-off cases rather than movements. The goal and the desire now is consolidation of thought, framing biomimicry as a force and cultural meme. It is also relevant and perhaps more appropriately interwoven into landscape architecture and urbanism because it deals with many of the same issues, namely the nature/culture dialogue.
One specific element that i remember loving from the original book, is the concept of perennial agriculture (a la Wes Jackson), and the ability to ‘grow food like a prairie.’ This makes a lot of sense and is exciting as a biomimicry project – and perhaps has analogs in landscape architecture through outputs like permaculture that can be applied to provide productive sites and more self-sustaining plant palettes. Other examples, such as the Nature’s Strategies for Managing Stormwater in the Willamette Valley: Genius of Place Project Report provide more context for this – but in execution don’t really capture (or at least only scratch the surface of) what the potential is. I’m going to post separately on this report later, but it’s instructive on the gaps between determining ‘functions’ that exist in nature and translating them into solutions – rather than just employing them.
One case from the workshop was the function of downed wood, and the function that it provides for water management. If you study the function, as seen the diagram from the report below, you get a good sense of what’s happening in nature as a baseline.
There was a perceptual disconnect between the idea of adapting this to a new thing (perhaps a in situ filter using the ideas of long-hollow cells) rather than just justifying why we would place or keep in place downed wood as part of a design. there’s no need to mimic something when it’s possible to use the actual thing – which is again part of the issue of applicability in landscape settings. The conversation spun around this (let’s place wood in cities) but was harded to get to new ideas generated from the discussion. You probably won’t propose laying dead wood laying around an urban plaza… but perhaps you could add the additional storage and transport potential into a bio-inspired piece of site furniture.
To say that we’re trying to mimick the function of the pre-development condition, in this case temperate rainforest. If that’s the case, is it biomimicry to look to the function of a forest for evaporation, infiltration, etc. and try to capture this – much as is done in pre-/post- engineering calculations? Would the concept of say, a green street bioretention facility be ‘biomimicry’ for using a wetland metaphor in an urban context? Does a green wall mimic a vegetated cliff face to provide shading and cooling?
I think the direct connection of biomimicry to landscape architecture is the next step – so finding case studies specific to the scale and context appropriate to our work. The root of bios (life) and mimesis (imitation) is a simple analogy that can be integrated into a number of processes – so i think the issue is that the concept has now become the brand (as things will go). So maybe it’s just semantics and we’re all, as landscape architects or bio-inspired designers, scientists, inventors and engineers, biomimics?
Short blurb from Sustainable Business Oregon on a new ‘EcoTrack‘ for the light rail expansion in Portland.
“The vegetated trackway, which aims to reduce stormwater runoff, is among the first such efforts in the U.S. It will adorn a station at Southwest Lincoln Street and Third Avenue near the Portland State University campus.
The installation “will provide a colorful carpet of low-growing plants along 200 feet of light rail line,” according to the transit agency. The technique is common in Europe and consists of one-inch thick mats that contain various species of sedum, which are a hardy low-maintenance vegetation.”
An upcoming lecture by Anne Whiston Spirn entitled Restoring an Urban Watershed: Ecology, Equity, and Design will be happening on Monday, January 23rd, from Noon to 1pm at the Portland Building, 1120 SW Fifth Avenue – Second Floor, Room C. The brownbag is free and open to all. Here’s a synopsis.
The West Philadelphia Landscape Project is a landmark of urban design, watershed management, environmental and design education, and community engagement. Anne Whiston Spirn, who has directed the project for 25 years, will describe the story of the restoration of the Mill Creek watershed as a model for how to unite ecology, design, and community engagement to address social and environmental problems in low-income communities. Anne will also discuss her book, Daring to Look: Dorothea Lange’s Photographs and Reports from the Field. Anne Whiston Spirn is an award-winning author and distinguished landscape architect, photographer, teacher, and scholar whose work is devoted to promoting life-sustaining communities.
Sponsored by: Urban Greenspaces Institute Audubon Society of Portland Portland Bureau of Environmental Services Portland Office of Healthy Working Rivers.
“In 1730 Queen Charlotte ordered the damming of the Westbourne River as part of a general redevelopment of Hyde Park and Kennsington Gardens by Charles Bridgeman. The Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park is the remnant of the Westbourne River which since 1850 has been diverted into a culvert and runs into the Thames near Chelsea. “The Serpentine Lake was one of the earliest artificial lakes designed to appear natural” and was widely imitated. The Long Water because of its relatively undisturbed nature is a significant wildlife habitat.”
The current imagery shows the modern configuration, which is interesting as it has maintained a similar configuration through time, but also doesn’t have the undulating crenelations of a more ‘organic’ river that would probably pass for naturalism in modern form.
:: image via Google Earth
Some images of the site as is currently configured, which is both integrated into it’s urban context but also maintaining a natural appearance.
While there are probably hundreds of examples similar to this, and the fact that the site is mostly contained with a park (with a purely formal goal, versus ecological) – keeps it some distance from an engagement in the urban form and a viable idea of landscape or ecological urbanism.
It did remind me of what I think is a very good example of 19th Century work/precedent of landscape urbanism, Olmsted’s restoration and naturalization of Boston’s Back Bay Fens – a landscape that, as part of the Emerald Necklace, as a historically engineered construct, is today considered a natural and ecologically functioning natural area that the City was built around. In fact the inverse is true, as the space was massively designed and engineered, with the subsequent urban areas building up around the space. As seen from the pattern of Olmsted’s plan in 1887, the Back Bay fens is a naturalistic work of landscape architecture, but also a feat of engineering that mitigated flooding in the area.
And the current urban pattern, showing the infilling of urban areas around the ‘open space’ in the subsequent 130 years (yet remaining remarkably intact). Building up of the urban density around this ‘constructed landscape’ is striking, especially in contrast to the bucolic beginnings.
:: image via Google Earth
And some additional information and text from an MIT architecture class site ‘The Site Through Time‘ – showing the historical evolution of the park – emerging from the marshy landfill that constituted the majority of the Boston area (see more on the urban expansion through landfilling here).
While it is easy to consider this an ‘extension of nature’ it is clear this is a constructed urban landscape, and that after time it is hard to see this historical ecology without some digging – as it is perceived as nature. A great site as part of the David Rumsey collection overlays a number of historical maps (there should be one of these for every city), which show the Back Bay area in different configurations (but the same scale and view) prior to and after 1887, which show the marsh, early landfill, evolution, and eventual implementation of the Olmsted plan (years 1856, 1874, and 1897)
More on this one soon (in particular proto-landscape urbanism qualities of this historical work in providing a landscape framework for urbanism). It is telling that most people consider this ‘nature’, similarly to the very constructed Central Park and other naturalistic parks of the 19th Century. It is more specifically artificial ecologies as urban infrastructure – a novel concept well over a century removed.
I’ve used this example before, in an article from a few years back (Winter 2006) called ‘Creating Nature‘ (links to a PDF published in the ASLA Oregon journal ORegonland – article starts on pg. 4). For anyone interested in more detail, check out one of the essays in William Cronon’s sporadicallyengaging ‘Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature‘, specifically Anne Whiston Spirn’s great essay ‘Constructing Nature‘ which mentions this project and others by Olmsted using similar naturalistic tendencies. But for it’s picturesque aesthetics of a century ago, it sounds a lot like landscape (or ecological) urbanism to me:
“Boston’s Fens and Riverway were built over nearly two decades, (1880s – 1890s) as an urban ‘wilderness,’ the first attempt anywhere, so far as I know, to construct a wetland. These projects, built on the site of tidal flats and floodplains fouled by sewage and industrial effluent, were designed to purify water and protect adjacent land from flooding. They also incorporated an interceptor sewer, a parkway, and Boston’s first streetcar line; together, they formed a landscape system designed to accommodate the movement of people, the flow of water, and the removal of wastes. This skeleton of park, road, sewer, and public transit structured the growing city and its suburbs.” (Spirn quoted in Cronon, 1996, p.104)
It was bound to happen, but a nice walk for some coffee showed the new ‘orderly frames’ for the previously unruly green street planters along Burnside Street. Some updated images displaying what is quickly becoming ‘stock’ in the local green street planting arsenal – (c) Jason King | Landscape+Urbanism.
I’m really intrigued by the planters that have captured the existing street trees.
My guess is it is a compromise between impacting the tree roots with excavation, versus impacts to the root zone via additional water. They are all columnar red maples, and the majority of runoff directly on them is from small sidewalk inlets – so seems as if the wet feet may not be so much of an issue.
The neatness of the planting array keeps it from being monochromatic, there is an additional species or two thrown in here or there, particularly in larger areas without trees, and there is a slight differential in height in texture, but they just seem a bit tired at this point. Maybe the novelty of the green street has worn off – not in function, but that they aren’t special anymore, which maybe is OK?. While still visible, is it preferable to have green infrastructure stick out, or is it acceptable, through ubiquity, for these to involve somewhat into the same invisible infrastructure. Being common is a good sign, and that’s why the ‘feral’ varieties were interesting: I kind of liked them in their wild form…
Another interesting shot was the excavation of some of the new planters on the south side of the street (still under construction, I can tell from the wonderful odor of black tar in the air). The subsurface condition of a stormwater planter is always fascinating, as what you see on the surface is rarely what is doing the heavy lifting for retention and infiltration.