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The following news articles are geared toward students and other professionals.
Landscape Architecture
Using Healthy Soils to Manage Stormwater Print E-mail
Friday, 16 November 2012 11:58

In cities, healthy soils could be a powerful tool for managing stormwater, but unfortunately the status-quo is compacted, degraded soil covered in asphalt, said Zolna Russell, ASLA, Floura Teer Landscape Architects, and Stu Schwartz, Center for Environmental Research and Education, at the 2012 Greenbuild conference in San Francisco. Outlining novel techniques — “subsoiling,” which involves the use of agricultural de-compaction machinery, along with adding “soil amendments,” otherwise known as compost – Russell and Schwartz made the case for rebuilding the ecosystem function of soils in urban areas and creating new opportunities to manage stormwater through the ground itself. They also noted that the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) would provide credit for approaches like these that boost soil health.

According to Russell, the ecosystem services of soils play a large part in determing the quality of our landscapes. Healthy soils provide water absorption, groundwater recharge, food for plants, habitat for decomposers, and sequester carbon. Without healthy soil, stormwater management needs to be accomplished through green infrastructure techniques that rely more heavily on plants.

Soils can be evaluated along many lines. Their “biology, fertility, and structure,” which are all inter-related, are key to soil quality. Russell said “bugs, microbes, roots, naturally occuring chemicals all work together to affect the structure.” Zooming down to dirt-level, healthy soils have “open spaces” that let oxygen flow and water to infiltrate. Infiltration, unfortunately, works less well as we move from a forest to an urban environment. In the dense urban core, there’s often less interflow and groundwater recharge, even if there are parks and street trees.

The fact is then that ”green in our urban environments doesn’t necessarily mean the system functions.” Lawns, for example, have the “bulk density of cement,” which actually prevents root penetration and plant health. In contrast, “deep, rich soils with long roots are a sign of a functioning landscape.”

So, given soil is so crucial to our ecosystems, why is it abused so much? She said unfortunately the common landscape architecture practice was to strip top soil and sell it, stockpile soils for later use in berms (degrading it in the process), amend old soils with compost, or import new soils, releasing lots of carbon in the process through hauling new soils in from other areas. In many of these human interactions with soil, soils are basically compacted, which means the essential ecological and hydrologic functions have been removed.

Schwartz said typical road building projects involve stripping vegetation, removing top soils, grading, and then compacting soil to form roads, foundations, and berms. Then, the “landscape is put back on top at the end.” The “engineered topography” — the earthern berm — is where all that valuable topsoil goes. While these berms can be useful sound and visual barriers, it’s a “wholesale disruption of the soil.”

Residential developments are often just as bad, leaving “material formerly known as soil” in their wake. Thin layers of turf are rolled out over the degraded soil, meaning that the lawn will need lots of fertilizers and water to live — as there will be no soil for the grass roots to grow into. With heavy rains, this thin veneer of grass provides no help in capturing rainwater, so there’s lots of runoff. “Modern practices are totally decoupled from the function of the landscape.” Schwartz went on to say that rain gardens in residential areas are basically useless if all the soils are damaged.

Instead of impoverishing soils and then adding asphalt on top, Schwartz said developers could use permeable pavers or pavements. But then, while those systems can help infiltrate water, the soils underneath still need to be in good enough shape to soak up the water. “It has to be a whole system.”

To address the challenges of soil quality in urban and suburban areas, a novel practice, subsoiling, may be the way to go. This practice involves adapting agricultural techniques to highly disturbed soils. In agricultural fields, farmers have long used decompactors to “reliably increase their crop yields.” Once the soil has been ripped, “soil amendments” or compost can be added to restore landscape function.

While the decompactors themselves looks like “medieval equipment,” with large hooks at the end of tractors, they are necessary for creating a deep enough rip. Schwartz outlined a pilot study his organization has done at a school in Baltimore, Maryland. Using a ”5-bladed parabolic ripper” and adding 3-inches of ”vegetated organic compost,” creating a 2-to-1 soil to compost ratio with a 9-inch depth of incorporation, his team is demonstrating a “new practice.” Schwartz showed photos clearly demonstrating how the new soils and lawn on top better handle stormwater and require no chemical fertilizer. A standard thin veneer of grass nearby flooded when it rained, while the ripped and decompacted soils with turf simply absorbed the water. The grass was deep and rich and even hard to get one’s hands into, whereas the standard lawn was patchy and fillled with weeds.

But not every site will be ideally suited to subsoiling. Russell said some sites may not have space for the equipment or be the appropriate size. She said some ideal early adopters would be long-term land holders like the U.S. department of defense, transportation department, or highway administrations. Sensitive watersheds would also be ideal spots for healthier soils that can absorb water. Other potential adopters include urban sites like schools or parks. She said athletic fields could also be a possibility, but recompaction could happen there. Some sites may also not work because of tree roots, utility lines, or naturally poor soils (for example, you can’t really aerate heavy clay soils). She noted that with these systems, “no one size fits all.”

Russell and Schwartz said for subsoiling to work an integrated design process must be used, bringing in all contractors early on in the process. Maintenance practices also need to be figured out in the beginning and their costs factored into project scopes. Russell said she’s seen too many projects put in thousands of dollars worth of plants, only to see them die because the soil wasn’t providing the right support. So including measures that maintain long-term soil health is need for the system to pay for itself. She said keeping soils healthy over the long-term also means you don’t have to create retention ponds or lay down pipe infrastructure. There’s no need for fertilizer, irrigation. Still, to achieve those benefits, landscape architects should factor in maintenance over the long haul.

To maintain this new sustainable design practice, there then needs to be lots of testing throughout the design and build process. At the beginning of the project, there should be soil testing and aftewards, too. Doing research will also help landscape architects and engineers get regulatory approval. In many communities, these practices may be illegal.

Demand for landscapes with hydrologic function is only growing. In many cities, the demand is driven by the need to meet local stormwater regulations, which call for managing stormwater on site or paying a hefty fine. The goal is to get local policymakers and designers to see healthy soils as a ”cost effective stormwater management technique.” Schwartz said: “we really want this to go mainstream.”

Image credit: ASLA 2010 Professional Residential Design Award. San Francisco Residence. Lutsko Associates, Landscape / image copyright Marion Brenner

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Canadian Firefighters Memorial | Ottawa Canada | PLANT Architect Inc Print E-mail
Friday, 16 November 2012 05:03
Image Credit | Linda Matta The Canadian Firefighters Memorial officially opened on September 9, in Ottawa, Canada. Located at the site of the capital’s devastating fire of 1900, this urban-planning memorial ensemble was collaboratively designed by PLANT Architect Inc. and Canadian visual artist and novelist Douglas Coupland. The team won the national competition hosted by the [...] → READ MORE Add a comment
Canadian Firefighters Memorial | Ottawa Canada | PLANT Architect Inc Print E-mail
Friday, 16 November 2012 05:03
Image Credit | Linda Matta The Canadian Firefighters Memorial officially opened on September 9, in Ottawa, Canada. Located at the site of the capital’s devastating fire of 1900, this urban-planning memorial ensemble was collaboratively designed by PLANT Architect Inc. and Canadian visual artist and novelist Douglas Coupland. The team won the national competition hosted by the [...] → READ MORE Add a comment
Canadian Firefighters Memorial by PLANT Architect Print E-mail
Friday, 16 November 2012 01:45

Architects / Designers: PLANT Architect Inc. in collaboration with Douglas Coupland
Location: Ottawa, Canada
Client: … ...Read the rest

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This Public Art Can Revolutionize Urban Planning Print E-mail
Thursday, 15 November 2012 11:47

Candy Chang, a daring young urban planner, artist, and graphic designer, said “small interventions” in the public realm can lead to bigger, smarter ones, at the 2012 Greenbuild conference in San Francisco. Increasingly well-known for her informational public art projects around the U.S., Chang walked the crowd through her latest works, which aim to improve community self-organization and empowerment, and create a feeling of a shared experience in neighborhoods that are “giant hotels of passing neighbors,” urban places with little civic realm. Chang’s work may also provide the model for 21st century community visioning; her amazing web sites may offer a new way forward for gauging demand for planning initiatives.

While many designers aim to “transform cities through art and design,” Chang, a TED Fellow, may actually be doing it. Chang said her role model was gardener / architect Joseph Paxton, who was the first person in England to grow giant lily pads, the biggest flowering plants in the world. Amazed by the support structures — the veins — of the lily pad leaves, Paxton would actually put his young daughter on top of them to test how much weight they could hold. “He then somehow borrowed 5 or 6 other people’s kids and also put them on the pads,” discovering that these highly flexible structures can hold incredible amounts of weight. His discovery then pushed him into making experimental greenhouse structures, which translated into the famous Crystal Palace in the London Expo of 1851. For his discovery of the inherent powers of ribbing structures, he won a knighthood.

Chang said Paxton’s sense of curiosity, his love of learning, helped him break down barriers. Disciplines, as we have defined them today, didn’t seem to matter. In the same vein, Chang is also trying to break down barriers between design professions, studying architecture, graphic design, and urban planning to create a new hybrid approach to solve the complex problems facing communities.

For her, many local urban communities lack information about how their own communities are run and decisions are made, so, in turn, their communities often don’t reflect their needs and desires. Chang believes that “local communication tools are an infrastructure system” as important as water, energy, or transportation. Communications infrastructure is about providing access to information and building platforms for sharing information that everyone can use. With these tools, “more residents can self-organize, and more communities can have places that reflect their values.”

Studying at Columbia University and later working as a graphic designer at The New York Times, Chang was stunned by the colorful, informal nature of the public realm in New York City. Lamp posts are bulletin boards. Fliers – for lost dogs, band performances, job opportunities – are informal information sharing systems, which she studied for her thesis project. Chang was also interested in how these physical manifestations of informal information sharing work together with online forums. She made the point that “it’s hard to reach an entire neighborhood online” so you do need some sort of physical connection.

One of Chang’s first projects was “Post-It Notes for Neighbors,” which enabled residents to detail the amount they spend for their apartments in neighborhoods throughout New York City. Another early project for GOOD magazine created a cut-out “Can I Borrow?” tag to hang on neighbor’s doors, which enables neighbors to communicate with each other without bothering each other at inconvenient times. In New Orleans, where she lives, she covered vacant storefronts in rows of vinyl ”I Wish This Was” stickers and markers, which enable residents to outline their dreams for the space. Systematically documenting these wishful notes, she finds what’s actually in demand in neighborhoods, from fresh produce and farmers’s markets, to restaurants and liquor stores. She’s now been playing with the “I Wish This Was” concept, using a wide range of media, including digital billboards in a central plaza in Minneapolis.

A more ambitious web-based project financed by Tulane University and the Rockefeller Foundation called Neighborland.com enables residents to “self-organize around shared ideas.” Users can add their own ideas for the neighborhood or simply select “Me, too,” building steam for initiatives. She said apps like these are critical because too often in public planning meetings, a “few voices drown out everyone else” or the same 10 people show up. In New Orleans, Neighborland initiatives have led to spontaneous night markets in vacant lots and other bottom-up happenings.

A wonderful project in Fairbanks, Alaska, helped the community reimagine the future for its tallest building, which has also been abandoned for the past 10 years. The Polaris building got a new sign, ”Looking for Love Again, which is a beacon of love” on a derelict space. Residents were invited to use chalk to write in their memories of the place and their hopes. She said the project shows how “meaningful cities are in our lives, and the value of introspection in public places.”

Her most famous project maybe the walls asking residents to say what they want to do ”Before I Die.” In New Orleans, the first wall received hundreds of responses in just a day. Now there are 50 walls around the country. “Before I Die” was inspired by the death of one of Chang’s loved ones. The death set her on a journey to think about the nature of death and enabled her to “not caught get up with the little things in life.” “Thinking about death clarifies life.” The walls, she said, now reflect “the hopes and dreams of communities.”

Another new project in Las Vegas plays with that city’s tagline, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” Her “Confessions,” inspired by Catholic confessionals and Japanese Shinto prayer markers, which are usually hung in trees, asks residents and visitors to make their private secrets public. She said this project helps build a “safe place in the community,” yet is still a mix of “catharsis and voyeurism.”

Returning to Paxton, Chang said there’s great value in “serendipidity,” and following small ideas so they become huge, world-changing ones. With wisdom beyond her years, she said: “the world becomes far more rewarding when you look beyond what you are searching for.”

Image credit: ASLA 2012 Residential Design Honor Award. Urban Spring, San Francisco. Bionic / Bionic.

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