Study area for The Vortex competition, UVA. Charlottesville US 29 corridor / Charlottesville Tomorrow.org
This winter at the University of Virginia School of Architecture, graduate and undergraduate students from each of the school’s four disciplines — Landscape Architecture, Architecture, Urban and Environmental Planning, and Architectural History — participated in the invigorating third annual all-school design competition, appropriately named “The Vortex.” The event provides students exposure to design competitions, fosters interdisciplinary collaboration, and engages the local community in high-stakes urban design projects.
In previous years, the Vortex focused on large-scale landscape and infrastructure issues, including bridging connections to the local Belmont neighborhood and re-imagining the link between Downtown Charlottesville and the Rivanna River. This year, students re-imagined Charlottesville’s US Route 29 corridor, the main transportation artery bisecting the city and providing an economic locus. This ten-mile commercial corridor, which connects Charlottesville to its airport and major metropolitan areas beyond, is also the source of a host of traffic, safety, and development problems.
While 29 has been the topic of debate among Charlottesville and Albemarle County government entities for decades, its future remains unknown. Students were challenged to envision US 29 not as a place for automobiles traveling at 45 miles per hour, but for pedestrians walking at 2 miles per hour. As opposed to focusing solely on the ease of the commuter, the teams considered a more intelligent road design that accommodated alternative modes of transportation, such as walking, biking, and public transportation.
Each year the Vortex competition invites a renowned designer to partake in the event and lead project critiques. This year’s invited guest was Xaveer de Geyter, founding principal of Belgian firm XDGA, a landscape and urban design practice in Europe. De Geyter’s lecture on the first day of the competition provided a framework for the event, encouraging students to consider issues of density, mixed-use, architecture, public space, time and transportation. De Geyter’s book, After-Sprawl: Research on the Contemporary City, and much of his design work “analyze how urban sprawl is growing throughout Western Europe, creating a diffuse urbanization confronted to the compact urban tradition of the old continent.” He said: “I am very much interested in not so much how architecture or urbanism should be but to have a very good look at what exists,” said De Geyter.
To kick-off the event, a panel of officials from local news, government, environmental and economic development agencies discussed the corridor – its history, challenges, and opportunities.
Some of the questions that emerged from this conversation that guided students’ thinking included: How does a city grow without compromising qualities of life aspects of preservation and evolution? How can the corridor serve as both a commercial boulevard and a U.S. highway? What type and degree of density is necessary along the corridor? What design will allow for connectivity both across and along the corridor, and how can it accommodate multi-modal transportation? How does one minimize negative environmental impacts?
Students were encouraged not to feel constrained by realistic limitations of the project, but instead to explore all possibilities. “They won’t come to pass exactly as you play them out, but you’re pushing the envelope,” said Neil Williamson, president of the Free Enterprise Forum, a nonprofit organization that analyzes local government policy and monitors more than 100 boards and commissions in Central Virginia.
Following this introduction, approximately three hundred students and faculty members strapped in neon yellow construction vests went on a five-mile excursion along the entire corridor. Accompanied by police escorts and the local press, including NBC 29 and The Daily Progress, the journey began at the intersection of Emmett Street and Ivy Road and concluded at the bridge where the Rivanna River crosses under US 29.
Students and faculty walk the project’s entire 5 mile stretch / Sanjay Suchak
Following the walk, students broke into teams and launched into an energetic week of collaborative design. The school’s intensive competition culminated in a public presentation of each team’s vision for US 29 in Charlottesville’s Carver Recreation Center. Students presented their boards and models to de Geyter, the architecture school faculty, fellow students, and the public.
Student teams collaborating on their design proposals / UVA
Students present their work to the public / Charlottesville Tomorrow
The winner of both the student and public awards was the project entitled “Resi[dense]city.” The proposal focused on “housing density, efficient transportation, economic growth, and interactive culture,” which intended to create “dense, mixed-use communities at nodes along US 29.” The team sought “to stitch together the corridor that currently acts as a boundary, rather than a means of connection.”
Resi[dense] City / Silvia Stefi – Student
The group that took home the competition’s biggest prize, the Xaveer de Geyter Award, as well as the faculty award, was called “Generative Urbanism.” The design focused on re-imagining US 29 “as the generator, pipeline, and lifeblood of the Charlottesville and Central Virginia region” that uses a “light rail system at current grade, maximizing spatial, visual, and auditory comfort for the pedestrian.” The design aimed to “create a central core that harnesses wind, solar, water, geothermal and kinetic energy.”
Generative Urbanism / Chad Miller
All told, the Vortex competition helped to catalyze conversation and re-invigorate creative thinking among the students and entire community around the exciting potential of this corridor in Charlottesville.
This guest post by Chad Miller and Matt Scarnaty, Master’s of Landscape Architecture Candidates, University of Virginia
The plaza is laid out as a unifying urban space for Bavnehøj Arena, Bavnehøj Child Care Center and Bavnehøj Public Bath, as well as the local soccer fields. Traffic, parking and plaza are clearly separated in a way that makes movement in the area simple and natural whether you arrive by bike, on foot or by car.
Indian woman cooks with efficient cook stove / Global Education
Terry Tamminen, CEO of 7th Generation advisors, polled about two thousand climate scientists at the National Council on Science and the Environment (NCSE) in Washington, D.C., asking them to raise their hands if they were optimistic or negative about the prospects of our ability to halt climate change. The optimists won, but only very slightly. In a session that explored the reasons for optimism, experts from the government, non-profit, and private sectors discussed some positive developments in the global fight against climate change.
Clay Nesler, Johnson Controls International, said one lesson learned from the recent meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, was that all the world’s business leaders “want to do something about climate change.” They are looking for “new innovations in business models, financing. It’s not just about technology.”
Under President Obama’s leadership, the U.S. federal government is “beginning to up its game,” said Nesler, but city governments are further out ahead still. The positive involvement of the government at all levels is critical because they “set the standards and create demand.” Nesler gave a shout-out to Boston’s government for its ground-breaking building performance disclosure program. Now, Boston’s large and medium buildings must make annual reports of their water and energy usage. He said it’s crazy that people “buy buildings without knowing whether they are efficient or not.” This is a prime example of an “innovative policy” needed to move the private sector to action.
“In the early 2000s, I was almost fired for talking about climate change,” said Dr. Richard Jackson, speaking of his days as director of environmental health at the Centers for Disease Control. Jackson, who is now a professor at University of California Los Angeles, said things have changed since then, given health advocates are increasingly leading the charge on climate action.
As an example, he pointed to California’s climate legislation (AB 32), and how the efforts to overturn it (Prop 23) were in turn defeated in part through the involvement of the medical and public health communities. “There was a huge shift in public opinion against Prop 23 as the health community pointed out the negative air impacts of climate change. CO2 is really another form of air pollution.” He said, everyone, including poor voters, were more “worried about their future health,” than any of the supposed negative economic impacts of the bill. Now that the climate legislation is law in California, Jackson said some 25 percent of the revenue earned from its cap and trade system is going to poor communities. “They bear the biggest burden of climate impacts.” The lesson: in the broader debate about climate change, “we really need health people stepping up.”
Boston is successfully acting on climate change because its better communicating the dangers, said Brian Swett, chief environment officer, City of Boston. “We are translating science speak into sidewalk speak to drive behavioral change.” For example, he said “natural hazard preparedness” works much better when communicating with the lay person than “climate change adaptation.”
The city is starting to measure how much carbon it puts out through its innovative building performance disclosure program. “We’re making the system competitive. People keep score.” The city is taking all this performance data and doing something about it, too. It’s now partnering with private sector developers to implement measures that will cut emissions by 25 percent by 2020. He said this first 25 percent cut in emissions is relatively easy to achieve in a “top-down” fashion, but the next leg, reducing emissions by 80 percent by 2050, will only be achieved through “bottom-up behavioral change.” The city plans a new awareness campaign to seed the ground-up efforts.
Lastly, a perspective from the developing world: “South Asia is a recipient of climate change created elsewhere,” said Priya Shyamsundar, South Asian Network for Development and Environmental Economics, but, increasingly, the area is also a contributor. She said there are solutions to climate change in place like India, but they are complex — and must integrate adaptation with mitigation. She said studying the behavior of locals is important when examining global efforts to limit climate change. For example, while the United Nations’s REDD program, which pays money to developing countries to leave trees standing, is a global mechanism, its success is dependent on how it interacts with local communities. We are now studying “what communities will give up to keep their forests. We are piloting, learning by doing.”
She also pointed to global efforts to reduce the use of wood-burning cook stoves, which create black carbon and kill millions of women and children each year by dirtying indoor air. Her organization is challenging ingrained local behavior that prevents the uptake of healthier filters and more efficient stoves. “Why are these filters not accepted?” She said one has to look at a woman’s power in a family. If it’s low, she is less likely to get a filter. She said studies of behavior can lead to more effective messaging, and perhaps lead to broader societal change, like the amazing growth of cell phone use by poor farmers, who can now get text updates of weather data.
Pete V. Domenici U.S. Courthouse Sustainable Landscape Renovation, Albuquerque, New Mexico / Robert Reck
The Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES™) has certified new landscapes at a federal courthouse in New Mexico; an elementary school and campus plaza in Washington, D.C.; and an urban plaza in Washington state. The four projects certified by the nation’s most comprehensive rating system for sustainable landscapes are: Albuquerque’s Pete V. Domenici U.S. Courthouse, which received a two star certification; Brent Elementary School in Washington, D.C., which received one star; Square 80 Plaza at The George Washington University, also in D.C. with one star; and East Bay Public Plaza in Olympia, Washington, with one star.
“It is exciting to see a growing number of projects across the country that have applied an integrative design process to meet rigorous sustainability guidelines, while finding ways to address urgent environmental and social challenges,” said SITES Program Director Danielle Pieranunzi, who is based at the Wildflower Center. “We are thrilled to certify these four new projects that truly exemplify the breadth of approaches to sustainable site design and development.”
The newly certified projects applied the 2009 SITES Guidelines and Performance Benchmarks and met the requirements for pilot certification. There are now 30 landscape projects at universities, businesses and public spaces that have achieved this recognition. The SITES rating system was created by dozens of the country’s leading sustainability experts, scientists and design professionals.
The four newly certified projects each incorporate sustainable features that were evaluated using a rating system with certification levels of one to four stars. These landscape projects include the following sustainable features:
Pete V. Domenici United States Courthouse Sustainable Landscape Renovation, Two Stars, Rios Clementi Hale Studios, Albuquerque, N.M. (see image above). This federal courthouse is the first project constructed by the General Services Administration to achieve SITES certification. Originally constructed in 1998, the underused hardscape plazas, overwatered lawns and faulty water feature of the existing courthouse exemplified resource inefficiency, disconnection from its environment, and distance from the public. The landscape renovation reconceives the site as a cohesive park-like landscape rooted within the rich cultural, climatic and hydrological fabric of the Rio Grande Basin. Innovative strategies include the selective removal and re-use of excess concrete paving to create seat wall terraces that direct site stormwater into a series of native habitat rain gardens. The project creates a bold landscape and dignified setting for court operations while enhancing the efficiency and sustainable operations through improved water management, decreased energy use and increased urban habitat.
Brent Elementary Schoolyard Greening, One Star, Sustainable Life Designs, Washington, D.C. Located five blocks from the nation’s Capitol, this greyfield site with asphalt-dominated grounds was transformed into a sustainable landscape that educates students, parents, and neighborhood residents about green infrastructure. Improvements include the removal of 1,600 square feet of asphalt and the installation of pollinator gardens, stormwater management features, new play equipment, and 7,000 square feet of outdoor classrooms to enhance outdoor play and learning that were achieved through numerous volunteer hours. The stormwater management features include a rain garden, rain barrel, and bio-retention swale. A formerly trash-strewn space behind the school building is now an “urban canyon” that helps manage stormwater and provides native habitat.
Brent Elementary Schoolyard Greening / Michael Lucy
Square 80 Plaza at The George Washington University, One Star, Studio 39 Landscape Architecture, Washington, D.C. The Square 80 Plaza project converted an existing parking lot into a park that creates pedestrian connections and open space at an urban university campus. The project retains 100 percent of its stormwater runoff on site through the use of biofiltration planters, permeable paving, hardscape diversion through use of small channels, and the collection of site water into a system of inter-connected cisterns. All plants used on the site are native and adapted species, and all water used for irrigation and the sculptural water feature is fed by the rainwater collected in the cistern, which uses no potable water.
Square 80 at George Washington University / Studio 39
East Bay Public Plaza, One Star, Robert W. Droll Landscape Architect, Olympia, Washington. East Bay Public Plaza is a vibrant public urban space located in the Puget Sound region that showcases the benefits of reclaimed water and the efforts of the LOTT Alliance, an Olympia-based wastewater treatment company. The former brownfield includes new educational elements such as discovery markers, interactive stream features, a series of interpretive panels, and a ground plane timeline that playfully charts the past, present and future of reclaimed water to inspire and inform visitors.
East Bay Public Plaza / Kelly Carson
Based on the experiences of many of the pilot projects, a refined set of guidelines and rating system, SITES v2, will incorporate additional recommendations from technical experts. This updated version of the 2009 SITES rating system will be published and available for distribution and use by the general public in 2014.