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.
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.
Regular readers of the blog know of my long-time passions of both Vegitecture and Hidden Hydrology, which both dovetail nicely into the larger themes of Landscape+Urbanism. While the L+U blog has been relatively intermittent, I’ve been hard at work developing a new website and blog for the Hidden Hydrology project. The goal is to culminate the work in some form of publication, but regardless, it seemed time to focus on that element in it’s own. I’m also giving a talk at the Washington ASLA conference in Spokane later this month (April 21), so excited to share more to a broader audience. Simply put, the project is summarized as:
“Exploring lost rivers, buried creeks & disappeared streams. Connecting historic ecology + the modern metropolis.”
A bit longer summary gives some context for the endeavor: “At the basic level, hidden hydrology is the buried, piped and disappeared waterways that flow under our urban areas. Development has driven underground these surface streams that used to weave through our cities – and with them we’ve lost the connection to natural systems, and robust ecological habitat that urban waterways can provide. Beyond just focusing on pure daylighting and restoration, the exploration, mapping, and study of hidden hydrology offers new ways to conceptualize a range of interventions that reconnect us to our history and offer glimpses of solutions for the future. It’s a broader concept of ‘restoration’ that looks through lenses of art, landscape architecture, urban ecology, and planning to define ways to celebrate, connect and regenerate our places.”
The second section are links to many of the resources available, including precedents, projects, and resources from around the globe. While linking to the other pages, I’m also providing links to some of the posts, including a diverse mix from Rome to London, San Francisco to Lexington, Kentucky. The range of projects isn’t limited to projects, but encompasses art, mapping, poetry, literature, dance, stream daylighting, films, community engagement, and history.
A couple of highlights, including the project “Ghost Arroyos” in San Francisco:
The third is an ongoing exploration of themes in a more expanded format, the site is built aroud a blog that has delved into some of the resources, and projects, but also allows for some rumination and coverage of original project work. Of the 25 or so posts to date, many have covered cities and projects, expanding to case studies and deeper investigations. These include projects inspired by hidden hydrology (such as Town Branch Commons in Lexington, top below), as well as historical maps and photos referenced in a literary context (Iain Sinclair’s ‘Swimming to Heaven’), and more in depth historical ecological studies (San Francisco Estuary Institute) to show a few.
The diversity is what surprised me, to different tendrils which weave beyond just mapping but into a multitude of subjects. An early post on the site, is illustrative of this concept, and is still one of my favorites, focused on the novel by Ben H. Winters, Underground Airlines and it’s use of the hidden hydrology of Indianapolis to tell a futuristic narrative of modern day slavery.
An excerpt from the novel explains this in a bit more detail.
“I cleared the trailer park and passed a jumble of picnic benches and playground equipment and stepped carefully down the slope of the ravine and swung the heavy beam of my flashlight along the creek. Now it was clear, with the water swollen by the rains, the direction the brown water was still flowing. The black mouth in the base of the shallow hill was an entrance, not an exit. This low little trickle of mud water was a kind of rivulet, a poor cousin of a creek, and this spot behind the motor court is where some long-ago engineer had diverted it. The creek was called Pogue’s Run. I’d found it on the map. I’d looked up the story. This small waterway was discovered at the turn of the century – the eighteenth turning into the nineteenth — discovered and named and recorded, penciled in on early maps, when the city was not yet a city — when it was a gathering of huts, a stopping place on the way to other places. The small river was inconvenient for the city fathers and the grid they’d drawn. So they did just as Mama Walker said: they ran it underground.”
The fourth, which is more of a long-term is projects, is still in nascent stage, but offers the potential to showcase original work around Hidden Hydrology, specifically in Portland and Seattle, but encompassing some other miscellany as well. Currently it highlights some early presentations, as well as base-mapping of the Cadastral Survey for each city, the springboard for further analysis.
The Mississippi maps inspired me to use some of the documentations to animate the changing course of the river within the valley over the last 4000 years. These more
There’s a ton of great information out there, yet it’s an area of study that seems relatively untapped and full of potential. If you’d like to contribute, know of some great case studies, and have the bug for historical maps, and how these can inform ecological design today, give a shout. In the interim, check out the site and follow @hiddenhydrology on Twitter.
And stay tuned for some more explorations here at L+U related to urban ecology and habitat, and more posts on some recent vegitecture, as I am working on some related projects and doing some more focused research in these realms.
“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.
“Lost Man Creek is a miniature forest. But rather than growing naturally and of its own accord, this undulating landscape populated by some 4,000 Dawn Redwoods is a recreation. Artist Spencer Finch partnered with the Save the Redwoods League to identify a 790-acre section of the protected Redwood National Park in California. Significantly scaling down the topography and tree canopy heights, he reimagined this corner of the California forest for MetroTech at a 1:100 scale. While the original trees range from 98 to 380 feet – taller than the buildings that surround the plaza – the trees in the installation are just one to four feet in height.”
images from Public Art Fund, photos by Timothy Schenck
We’ve heard of many plants that have phytoremediative qualities, that is, the properties that can absorb and neutralize toxic substances in soils. For all the versatility of hemp, I hadn’t thought of it as possessing that ability until I read recent post on Roads and Kingdoms entitled Hemp and Change. The crux of the story is one of pollution and the potential for Hemp as one of those plants that can aid in cleaning up our dirty messes.
The Italian town Taranto in Puglia, which like many areas had a rich agricultural and gastronomic history, specifically cheeses and other dairy products. A large steel plant was constructed nearby in the 1960s, which was led to degradation of air and soil that led to conditions where animals were no longer fit for consumption. There are also indications that the residents have and continue to suffer from ill effects of the plant.
The issue is that the plant serves as the major source of jobs, so it’s a double-edged sword where residents are both in need of the economic benefit but suffer from the ill effects. The plant owners were later charged with a number of crimes for the health and environmental issues, but beyond the legal culpability, there still remains the need for a viable clean-up of the sites, which is often too expensive and long term.
Thus phytoremediation provides a viable strategy for clean up of the toxic sites, with the potential to restore Taranto back to it’s agricultural glory. A group called CanaPuglia and their founder Claudio Natile, who describes hemp and its use as a continuation of an Italian tradition.
“Hemp was a major Italian agricultural crop for hundreds of years. In the 1950s, the country was the second-largest hemp producer in the world after the Soviet Union. Italian hemp seeds provided some of the most resistant fibers, which were turned into clothing. However, with industrialization and the advent of synthetic fibers such as nylon, hemp started to disappear.”
They’ve planted 300 hectares of low THC hemp, which is also harvested to make a range of products, further providing economic vitality and helping to pay for the cleanup. In this case, the toxicity doesn’t persist in the fibers, so it can be used, however there could be toxicity in the seeds so the hemp is not sold for food consumption. The article doesn’t get too far into how hemp is working for pollution reduction, but offered a few links to explore.
According to the Huffington Post, in addition to hemp being a low-input and easy to grow plant, it “…was used at Chernobyl to harmlessly extract toxins and pollutants from the soil and groundwater. Hemp actually absorbs CO2 while it grows through natural photosynthesis, making it carbon-negative from the get-go.”
The use a variety of plants for phytoremediation of toxic sites, including Brassicas, corn, tobacco, sunflowers and trees, to name a few, all are viable methods to uptake and capture pollutants. The site explains that “ Phytoremediation is a process that takes advantage of the fact that green plants can extract and concentrate certain elements within their ecosystem. For example, some plants can grow in metal-laden soils, extract certain metals through their root systems, and accumulate them in their tissues without being damaged. In this way, pollutants are either removed from the soil and groundwater or rendered harmless. “
The use of hemp is explained in a bit more detail “In 1998, Phytotech, along with Consolidated Growers and Processors (CGP) and the Ukraine’s Institute of Bast Crops, planted industrial hemp, Cannabis sp., for the purpose of removing contaminants near the Chernobyl site.” The uptake of pollutants at Chernobyl included cesium and strontium, which was bio-accumlated in root structures at high concentrations. While some toxins are broken down in soil and plants, high-grade elements like radioactive waste are pulled from soils into plants, so there is obviously the issue of proper and safe removal of this biomass after this process has taken place.
One interesting link on the larger concept is from the United Nations Enviornment Programme, a site called “Phytoremediation: An Environmentally Sound Technology for Pollution Prevention, Control and Remediation. ” which does offer a primer on the topic. Contrasting it with traditional remediation, the site explains: “Remediation of contaminated sites using conventional practices, such as ‘pump-and-treat’ and ‘dig-and-dump’ techniques, is often expensive, has limited potential, and is usually only applicable to small areas. Additionally, these conventional approaches to remediation often make the soil infertile and unsuitable for agriculture and other uses by destroying the microenvironment. Hence there is the need to develop and apply alternative, environmentally sound technologies (ESTs), taking into account the probable end use of the site once it has been remediated.”
The process happens in multiple ways, but essentially has two methods – the first is breaking down and degrading organic pollutants; the second is to trap metals or non-organics so they cannot move to other animals or areas. The roots are the main source of phytoremediation, being in contact with pollutants directly through the extensive below-grade surface area. When areas of contamination are deeper, trees are often used where their more extensive rooting systems can go further down than herbacous plants and shrubs. There are also cases where water can be pumped from below grade and then treated on the surface using plants.
As the above graphic shows, there are many methods at work with the phytoremediation process, many of which are working on the ‘soil-root’ interface. There are a number of compounds released by the plants, “root exudates” that activate microorganisms that can extract, stablilize, degrade and stimulate toxics. This changes the bioavaiability of the toxins through, as the UNEP site states “changes in soil characteristcs, release of organic substances, changes in chemical composition, and /or increase in plant-assisted microbial activity.”
There are over 30,000 sites in the US that require hazardous waste treatment, and many more worldwide. While many plants that are viable for phytoremediation are available, many of these cannot be used for consumption because of issues with possible contamination. Hemp is perhaps one to consider as the fiber used can still be processed into useful, saleable products, that could potentially fund the cleanup as well. As marijuana legality relaxes somewhat, it may be more possible to use this plant to make our world a cleaner place.
Really like this experimental project (spotted on a post on Architects Newspaper) by Interactive Architecture Lab. Called Hortum machina, B it’s a “rolling ecological exoskeleton” in the shape of a geodesic dome, the “half garden, half machine” hybrid is able to move through the environment using plant electro-physiology to drive the machine. The idea of plant intelligence is worthy of a much more expansive post, but the execution here is quite brilliant.
“Electro-physiological sensing of the state of individual plants collectively and democratically controls decision-making of the orientation of the structure and its mobility. In the near future context of driverless cars, autonomous flying vehicles, and seemingly endless other forms of intelligent robotics co-habiting our built environment. Hortum machina B is a speculative urban cyber-gardener.”
You get a feel for the scale of it here, which is part of the beauty. The idea that these are larger than life, which gives them added presence.
There’s some more detailed ‘making of’ description, which delves into the prototyping, and further exploring the engineering and programming.
The controls are programmed using Arduino, a scalable and programmable platform for hardware and software to make interactive objects. Click on the screen capture below, and you can see the communication of ‘getting messages’ from the plant things like temperature, vibrations, humidity, lighting – and then being able to use that ‘intelligence’ for driving actions.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
If you read it let me know what you thing. Got some ideas or thoughts. Let me know.
An interesting link via the A/N Blog on a game development from the Plethora Project called Block’Hood. Taking a cue from SimCity, this game explores simulation at a bit finer grain. From their site:
“Block’hood is a neighborhood-building simulator that celebrates the diversity and experimentation of cities. You will have full access to 90+ building blocks to combine and create unique neighborhoods, and discover the hidden inhabitants of each combination. The game will embark in a story of ecology, understanding how resources are needed to unlock new configurations and allow prosperous neighborhoods. You will need to avoid the decay of your city block by making sure each unit doesn’t run out of resources.”
As seen from the images, a modular system of building and site elements can be arrayed in a variety of configurations. Rather than just compositional, the inputs and outputs of each must be in alignment to create good relationships, as well as avoid negative interactions.
The complexity offers a glimpse into the delicate balance of urban ecology and systems in terms of optimization of resources… making it part ecology, part building systems science. As noted on the site: “Each Block you create has Inputs and Outputs. For Example, a tree might need water to create oxygen, and a shop might need consumers to create money. By understanding how each block is dependent on other blocks, you can create a productive network. Make sure to optimize your production and generate abundant resources. The game has 20+ resources that are specific to every block, so the amount of relations are enormous!”
Once in motion, the interplay between blocks starts to create synergies or begin to decay, so fine-tuning iterations and removing blocks before they create a chain reaction that influences the rest of the City. The scalability of the system lends itself to small experimentation and different game play modes allow for free play (Sandbox) or more structured challenges and puzzles.
While any game or simulation is a necessary abstraction of the true complexity of interactions, I’m struck by the simplicity of design with a lot of hidden web of interactions, plus the aesthetics of the game are engaging. I am looking forward to giving it a go and seeing how it works in action. Early access is available on Steam, and you can find out more info via this video:
A recent post from CityLab delves into an on-going. Entitled ‘Are ‘Treescrapers the Future of Dense Urban Living?’, explores the concept beyond the fantastical and thinks about this type of work in terms of reality and the more pragamatic elements. Weird Dune references about Passive House designers (?) aside, having some critical evaluation the points that were brought up by the architect in the story are valid.
I do think that the focus of the comments maybe relied a bit too much on the particular type of work (i.e. hyper efficient building envelope). If you see everything through the lens of Passive House, and energy envelopes and embodied energy for structural upgrades, you may miss the trees and the forest.
Admittedly, I am both a supporter and critic of the idea, which I’ve been referring to as Vegitecture (not Treescraping, for hopefully obvious reasons) for some time now. Beyond being an aesthetic choice which has strong biophilic connections, there’s ecological and even, yes, energy considerations with integrating vegetation into buildings. It’s definitely a key strategy for a less building centric idea of passive heating and cooling, which has to me has always included vegetation surrounding structures as part of the equation – using evergreen vegetation to block colder winter winds and shade for cooling and deciduous to provide summer shading and opening up during winter for additional heating/sun after leaf drop. That diagram I think i first say in first year intro to landscape architecture.
Of course everything comes at a cost, so an accounting of cost to benefit is necessary, but that cost also much include other items in the ledger, like health benefits of access to nature, additional passive cooling and heating benefits that could be integrated with exterior and interior system integration. The opportunity is to make these projects work and think of new ways to better integrate them into the buildings in artful and functional ways.
I’ve discussed typologies before, and it’s interesting to see the evolution of the types, from building integrated living walls above, to terrace planters, roofs decks, more traditional green roofs, and much more. The possibilities in photoshop, alas, are endless. But in reality, there are some additional considerations, all of which should be taken into account. Some more images of green on buildings – nothing new here on this blog. More at the original post on CityLab as well
And these definitely trend towards the fantastic, which is part of the reconciliation between what can actually work and what looks cool in a rendering. So, yes, that involves messy practicalities the additional structural loading, and how to incorporate thermal breaks, and many others like how to maintain vegetation, how to irrigation, issues of wind uplift, leaf litter, structural capacity, and many more. Great discussions, and necessary ones, as we grow and evolve the concept.
I’ve mentioned a few times on Twitter, I have had an on-going interest in game design as a medium, but also in relation to the potential synergistic overlaps between the technology/techniques with landscape architecture and urbanism practice. The most obvious connection has to do with visual representation, as the ability to create engaging site and building environments is clearly , but there are some interesting opportunities for educational tools, user experience, ecological and urban modeling, scenario building, and iterative design.
Growing up with gaming, a trio of interactions early in college defined the concept and hooked me into the potential in an interesting way – even 20+ years ago. The first was a game my sister and i were obsessed with, Myst. Building on the word-based computer games from the 80’s like Adventureland and Pirate Adventure, Myst came out in 1991 and provided a graphical environment (that at the time was incredible) along with a mystery and things that needed to be observed and unlocked.
The interactivity and lack of linear timeline, which included puzzles and problem solving was great for some obsessive teens, but showed that games didn’t have to be either violent or proscriptive. The follow-up Riven in 1997 had better graphics and another story.
The second was for a urban planning class, we were giving a quarter long Sim City game simulation and discussed progress in class, as a way to explore ideas. Those of the certain age will appreciate the 2D top down version of Sim City, as we were doing this initially in 1993:
The scenarios allowed us to employ principles of urban simulation, think through the concepts, and then starting the clock and see how things evolved, or more likely devolved. To use this for class was transformative. The graphics have come a long way, indeed, since then, as this recent Sim City graphic below shows, with the more prototypical 3D Axonometric we think of with the game.
The technology seems akin now to some of the less game and more GIS specific tools for scenario-building in programs like ESRI’s City Engine (more on that that and GeoDesign here). On the flip side of the Sim City was geeky kid favorite Doom, the immersive and ultraviolent 3D game that literally and figuratively blew away gamers at the time.
In addition to an addictive, networked game play, there was an added feature of a back end tool to create worlds Doom Builder – which paired a bit of Dungeons and Dragons graph paper mapping with rudimentary 3D graphic world creation. The difference of course is, once done with the creation, you could play your creation.
THE SOPHISTICATED BEAUTY OF GAMES
It’s easy to dismiss gaming as a medium for geek culture with little relevance to the lofty ambitions of the architecture/urbanism endeavor. But there’s a lot more to it that shooting thing and bloddy violence. As shown above, there’s potential for wonder and problem solving, urban planning education, world building, and yes, lots of bloody violence. Guess it’s a good metaphor for life, right?
But, the ubiquity and size of gaming culture goes beyond a few teen to twenty-somethings playing violent FPS games. The size of the industry is worth billions. And that revenue is diverse. The demographic for the prototypical first person shooter is probably more focused, but there are men & women, young and old, across races that participate in some what in gaming culture.
The few recent games that have blown me away recently provide some context. First, the simplicity and beauty of Monument Valley – as probably first seen on House of Cards, which in addition to fictional presidents, appeals to designers and architects (especially those with a fondness for Escher), with atmospheric graphics and more literally puzzles to solve. The games are challenging enough to engage but not so hard as to frustrate. It’s a lot of magic.
Shifting gears to more modern FPS games, one of the first games i discovered in recent years was Bioshock Infinite, a much hyped and controversial game that wove through a fictional universe of a floating city of Columbia on a quest of sorts. Atmospheric and with a great, detailed backstory, the legend that the game exists within is compelling. The graphics complements the narrative with quasi-realism and a fuzzy, dream like quality.
The predecessor Bioshock also had an amazingly creative environment, which in converse to Columbia City was the underwater city of Rapture lending to a more moody and claustrophobic emotional state.
Both of the Bioshock games are, as well, incredibly violent, which takes away somewhat from the exploration and appreciation of scenery, but makes for some excitement.
A beautiful game in terms of the subtle environment is the graphic but non-shooting murder mystery, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. The player wanders through a landscape and abandoned town to find clues and unlock the secret of what happened. It’s emotional and you feel it, the scenery and soundscape lending to the drama.
As images, these don’t do justice to the feeling you get from these environments, which have subtle motion and great mixing of ambient sounds. For anyone new or interested in gaming, who wants to experience what a well crafted, non-shooter, modern game can be, this would be a good one. I included a video so you can see the experience:
For me it’s not a stretch to jump from these narrative stories to having the ability to explore a project site or potential design. I see the above image of the rail tracks, and immediately it evokes a simulation of exploring the High Line, both before and after construction. And not just exploring, but interacting, seeing motion and complexity. With simple visual cues This game evokes that feeling.
Finally, a more recent game released in installments is Life is Strange, which follows a third person graphic adventure of a teenage girl in an odd Oregon town. She is able to unlock events by rewinding time, which allows you to make different decisions and see how that impacts outcomes.
Check out here for more on the plotline, but the graphics again reinforce the mood. It also offers a slighly different game interaction, with a sketchy white line graphic that appears when something is of note either on the object or as subtle cues. I also love in this case there’s a proto-realism – it’s got a tinge of cartoon to it, but is also brilliant at capturing mood and the mundane.
The sophistication of these games in terms of environments, aesthetics, and narrative draw you in. There’s not a feeling of immersion, although i’d love to see some of the graphics in a VR rig, but your are 100% immersed in both the story, and, when it doesn’t get in the way, the graphical interface, also known as the HUD, or human user interface. It’s a big deal, this interface, and millions have probably been spent on making it seamless. While specialized controls and rigs are used, they are available to a few. For most, there’s simple touch or mouse input, whereas the line between the user and environment is very distinct.
A game, of course, is a constructed world with a narrative already baked in. And there are likely many more examples out there that make the point that games can be both defined broadly and offer a very close connection to the world building of landscape architecture and urbanism. While it’s possible to offer free movement and discovery in these games, in the end there’s a series of tasks, events, actions required to move from start to finish. It’d be a dull game indeed where you just walked around in an environment with no purpose.
That said, the approach may be different, and the way the environments are used may also vary, but the fact is that these games give visual examples 1) constructed worlds, 2) the ability to freely explore these worlds, 3) animated objects that also exist in these worlds, and 4) a measure of emotion and mood that is derived from real environments and landscapes. In this way, they become similar to visualization in a design medium. Thinking of this less as a narrative
There are many tools out there focused on game development, all of which blend tools for creating environments, coding behaviors, and developing user interface. The one I’ve spent the most amount of time working with is Unreal Engine, which is amazingly, now a free to use suite of tools (with a royalty structure set up to capture revenue). An example of the tool in an architectural setting, is the Unreal Paris, a video tour that came out a year ago, showing a highly photorealistic scene done in Unreal Engine, which shows the level of detail that is typically available in static rendering now being employed in a space that is both fully 3d and fully interactive.
It’s a bigger stretch to expand this beyond the enclosed architectural space, and delve into the landscape. The complexity of materials and motions in the entire apartment is probably less than a single tree, thus, to me, this is the holy grail. The seemingly large gap between architectural rendering and landscape is immense. However, this is changing. To see the potential of the technology, Epic Games did a very impressive video on their ‘Kite Demo’ seen below.
It’s a really nice animation, akin to a Pixar movie, with some stunning visuals. The part that’s not evident is that this environment is a fully realized world, which you could right now, dive into and be able to explore every square inch, through multiple platforms from game systems and virtual reality rigs. The concept that it’s not just a static, linear progression, but an actual, virtual world, is the wow moment. Because, as a landscape, while not perfect, it’s head and shoulders about anything i’ve seen in 3D landscape architectural visualization. The level of detail and size of this world gives you a taste of the potential for landscape to be transformed by these tools.
While the demo itself is impressive, if you want to dig into the specifics, there’s a longer demo from GDC 2015 that goes in-depth in some of the technology uses to create the demo assets and put them all together. It’s geeky, it’s technical, and it’s amazing.
As shown, there’s a strong visual component to this type of work that fits nicely into landscape architecture production, but it’s interesting to think of some uses that expand the notion and potential for exploration and movement. The potential for specificity, as you see with the second more detailed video, isn’t relegated to a generic library of materials, but can be augmented with a range of scanning and capture tools, such as detailed photogrammetry that yields highly realistic assets.
There’s a healthy competition between game engines, with Unity competing with Unreal Engine for pros and amateurs alike, with companies adapting or creating their own engines to fit, and a range of other free and adaptable tools based on what you like and your goals. As i mentioned, i spent time with Unreal Engine mostly, but all of them have pros and cons (in terms of horsepower, learning curves, etc) – and technology is vital to this as i found out, as i could do some basic world creation and programming, but soon found my older desktop puttering with the high graphic demands. Be forewarned, this doesn’t just open up on your current machine and go, there’s potentially an investment of time (in training) and resources (in techology) to fully unlock the potential.
The beauty of all of these systems (which are all similar in features with some variations) isn’t just the end result. The high graphic quality and immersive end result that is nimble enough to run in real time is seen in the game examples above. The tools are very sophisticated, with the ability to import and manipulate 3d assets from other worlds, create new assets, locate and building ‘levels’ in game parlance. With libraries of elements and compatibility with other programs like Maya, Mudbox, etc. (SketchUp is pretty tough to get to work though).
The back-end is where there’s a lot of beauty, with the scripting language and programming adding the dimension of interactivity to the environments. As you see below, the Unreal Engine uses a feature called Blueprint, which is a scripting environment that is based on automation of the C++ code, and is useful for non-programmers to be able to literally connect the dots on to create triggers, interactions, events, and other ‘life’ to the scenes. At a simplest level, you can take an object and give it action, such as the ability to turn on a light when a character gets within a certain distance, or to trigger sounds, or have other character’s act. Any action can be scripted in a non-linear, interactive way to create sophisticated environments.
And the specific elements for rigging characters, which can be added as main characters, either people that you can interact with, or imbuing more lively entourage into a scene.
Admittedly there’s some lag in the quality of these, as we’re far from life-life, but they are much improved. Call it more Pixar than reality but with a lot of interesting gestures, facial controls, and the ability for lifelike actions.
In relation to landscape, another worth discussing is Speedtree, who creates cross platform vegetation for gaming as well as film (hell, they just won an Oscar!). The tools allow customization of every aspect of trees, both in off the shelf libraries (which i’ve used) and a custom editor to create any type of vegetation (which I haven’t used, but is compelling). Gone are the days of cartoony vegetation, and the sophistication of the algorithms allow these to render in high quality and even incorporate wind, lead drop, and more w/o draining graphic resources (as also discussed above in the Unreal GDC video), something that high poly count vegetation seems to persistently be problematic.
Jumping out a scale to the overall terrain, the ability to create specific context is key to creation of these realistic environments. One that i used a bit is World Machine, a terrain modelling program that allows you to import topography from existing digital elevation models (DEMs) as well as to create custom features, and integrate geologic phenomena such as slides, erosion from wind and water, and other features.
These help by providing distant terrain that interacts with the other more close up assets along with sophisticated ‘level of detail’ or LOD settings that provide realistic close up information, including motion, then slowly stepping down resolution in levels, as the view gets further away. The addition of atmosphere and really amazing lighting tools, adds to the perspective focusing and gives depth as well as life to scenes. This allows for efficient use of computing resources to but the action where its most needed. The results are simple but stunning.
Another one i that i learned about more recently is Lumion, which we use at my office. I’ve seen some of the renderings but haven’t dove into using it myself, but it seems to integrate with much of what other game engines do, and perhaps more seamlessly. It is based on game engine technology, but has the added advantage of being focused on architectural visualization with tools to integrate directly with industry standard Revit.
A short video shows how it works.
And some of the results:
So as you seen, even in this short snapshot, there are a ton of resources, and many more i don’t know about of haven’t covered. This brain dump of a lot of ideas that definitely could use more exploration, but i wanted to close out the thought by giving some context on why i think all this, geekery aside, matters. The takeaway is that there is a ton of potential to disrupt and expand practice, if we can expand methods of visualization and adopt some of these techniques. On that note, a few thoughts that are worth further exploration:
Immersive technology, utilizing controller and VR rigs to allow clients and users to experience the design in a number of ways, while also allowing designers opportunities to fine-tune spatial relationships and test environments.
Rules based ecological scenarios, which allow for natural processes (vegetative colonization, competition, dispersal) that provides simulations of open-ended landscape concepts.
Topical games to create better understanding of system interactions and engage larger populations, such as stormwater, infrastructure, climate change.
Have thoughts and other examples and stories, or know of folks in the industry working and using these tools? Let me know.