Landscape, People, Planning

Author Talk: The Nature of Urban Design

No Comments Posted on 03 February 2014 by Cecil Scheib

Alexandros Washburn

“You can be the greatest designer in the world, but if you can’t work under the pressure of politics, or don’t understand the need for a profit motive, you will accomplish nothing. Urban design changes things.” So says New York City’s former chief urban designer Alexandros Washburn at Urban Green’s sold-out author talk. Three billion people live in cities now – a number that will increase to five billion by 2030. Washburn guesses only about 30,000 of them have any clue about how to improve urban quality of life, perhaps the smallest ratio of experts to stakeholders of almost any human endeavor. We need more people working to make cities better. But having a great vision isn’t enough; for change to occur, politics and finance have to align with design.

Washburn’s heroes include Frederick Law Olmsted (who not only designed Central Park, but actually got it built), Jane Jacobs, and even the controversial Robert Moses. All these urbanists share something in common with the evening’s audience of green building devotees: they strove to leave our city better than they found it. Washburn said it’s a lesson he learned directly from a beloved boss, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who said about rebuilding Penn Station: “Make it inevitable.” The connection between the late, great NY Senator and NYC design was palpable, as Washburn paused and gathered himself after sharing personal memories from Moynihan’s funeral.

At his Red Hook home during Sandy, Washburn experienced firsthand how cities’ effects on the climate are coming back with a vengeance. And while some of his pictures of empty, waterlogged streets have an almost tranquil quality, he takes a darker view: “It makes you want to think of Venice. But it’s not like Venice, and it’s something we have to protect against.” There’ll be no retreat from climate change, just as New York showed no retreat when facing another citywide crisis caused by poor urban design: endemic disease in the 19th century. Just as this was solved by urban designers (and hygienists), we’ll do the same with climate change, he says. One exception: “Take the boiler out of the basement!”

Washburn says resiliency planning (like the work of the Building Resiliency Task Force) can be more than just a reaction to Sandy. New laws, buildings, and infrastructure “both reduce risk and offer an opportunity to improve civic life.” The changes to come can both strengthen and beautify our city, and provide other benefits as well. But there’s a management challenge.

Under our current complex system, it can take years from project conception to breaking ground – even longer if the project is really innovative. Will that work in the face of what’s coming? Washburn thinks not: “If climate change starts accelerating, we won’t have the luxury of a system that takes years to make well-considered changes. If we need change faster than our system can provide it, we are at risk of authoritarians. They will say we need it for the good of the city. I want to work on making the system faster while keeping it responsive and subtle.”

Washburn will now be undertaking this work at the Stevens Institute of Technology, and  he’s likely to find success motivating students there. Washburn has a unique talent to make the hidden underbelly of urban design a topic of vivid interest and beauty. Of course, not many speakers wax poetic about their favorite zoning law (he prefers the groundbreaking Zoning Resolution of 1916), so he doesn’t have a lot of competition!

Having seen him speak twice about his book, it’s clear his engagement with audiences about urban design goes deeper than just the strength of his personal interest. I was most moved by his description of how the High Line came to be. Proposed by unlikely champions and implemented by an even more unlikely coalition of private and public funds, he thinks Olmsted, Moses and Jacobs would all grudgingly endorse it, meaning politics, money, and design needs have probably been satisfied. Washburn is extraordinarily lucid in his description of the technical mechanism that allowed the High Line to happen in the face of opposition from owners of the land underneath the defunct railway, forever blocked from building their rightful five stories. The solution was air rights transfers, allowing those owners to sell the rights to build higher buildings a few blocks away and turning them “almost overnight from being enemies to friends of the High Line.”

As he drew the audience deeper into the tale of this almost-impossible urban miracle, a hushed silence fell over the room as Washburn reverently intoned the name of the design solution that solved the problem: “Special West Chelsea District Rezoning.” This phrase might have seemed esoteric or even comical in another venue. But this evening, they acquired new meaning, summing up all by themselves the sacrifice and success of those who had left their part of New York better than they found it.

Landscape, Making Buildings Resilient, Residential Buildings, Resiliency

Roundtable Recap
Sandy Successes Revealed

No Comments Posted on 21 August 2013 by Urban Green Council

At our Technical Roundtable on August 14, Ariella Rosenberg Maron (Happold Consulting) discussed the Sandy Success Stories Project, which features 19 case studies of buildings, locations and design features that proved to be resilient during Superstorm Sandy. The report was commissioned by a collaboration of civic organizations to investigate how and why some parts of New York and New Jersey were left relatively unscathed, and to inform policy makers that while the adoption of new resiliency measures is certainly needed, there are many valuable lessons to be taken away right now.

The case studies were divided into four categories: waterfront parks, beaches, building sites and citywide initiatives.

Brooklyn Bridge Park (BBP) and the Bronx River Parks (BRPs; Concrete Plant Park and Soundview Park) are three examples of resilient waterfront parks. BBP was designed to withstand sea level rises and has good drainage, with berms that are strategically placed to mitigate flood impacts and use salt-tolerant plants to encourage rapid drainage. The softened shoreline (rather than rigid waterfront walls) absorbed the waves during the storm and protected the buildings behind the park.

The BRPs were recently restored to the historic floodplain, and along with restored wetlands and strategic landscaping, the floodplain acted as a natural bowl, capturing much of the water and acting as a buffer to neighboring development.

The Beachside Bungalow Preservation Association in Far Rockaway established two sand dunes in the early 1990s to protect historic bungalows between Beach 24th and Beach 27th Street from storm events. The woody trees and shrubs provided wind protection and held the dunes together, and the double dune system meant there were two lines of defense against Sandy – the first dune was lost but the second dune stood strong and almost no damage to buildings behind the dunes occurred.

Also in the Rockaways, newer buildings in the Arverne by the Sea development were protected by a beachfront preserve, and had good stormwater management and concrete slab foundations.

The Lower East Side People’s Mutual Housing Association had disaster response plans on hand at their newer buildings in the LES, and boilers on the roofs to retain heating. The Solar 1 building had deep foundations, water and air tight construction, and elevated electrical wiring. The NYU Cogeneration Plant on Mercer Street was able to “island” or isolate itself from the Con Edison grid after the storm, and this meant the 22 NYU buildings connected to the Cogen Plant maintained electricity, heating and hot water.

City-wide initiatives such as the NYC Green Infrastructure Plan and the use of more sturdy alternative boardwalk materials also proved to be resilient.

Two key themes emerged from the Sandy Success Stories Project:

1.Initiatives to support sustainability have included resiliency; and

2. The incorporation of multiple mitigation measures ensured the best protection from Superstorm Sandy.

During the roundtable discussion, it was agreed that while sustainability (a long-term investment) and storm resiliency (the ability to bounce back quickly) are two separate concepts, they must go hand-in-hand when developing weather resilience policies.

Ariella reminded the roundtable of the importance of retaining a record of equipment information and insurance policies offsite (either at a physical storage place or in the cloud) as part of a disaster response plan, so that replacement parts can be ordered quickly. Ariella also shared her view that the biggest takeaway for her from the Sandy Success Stories Project was the increasingly important role of cogeneration facilities, and their ability to be used as a backup energy supply. With the exception of a few instances, renewable solar installations connected to the grid were not able to provide power during extended outages. But better inverters and connections to the utility can allow solar power to play a larger role in the future.

It’s clear that the Sandy Success Stories Project has provided many valuable insights and lessons that must inform future storm resiliency policies.


Climate Change, Construction, Landscape

Russell Unger Talks Birds & Architecture with Bruce Fowle

3 Comments Posted on 15 December 2010 by Rachel Schuder

Urban Green Council Executive Director Russell Unger recently spoke with Bruce Fowle, Founding Principal at FX FOWLE Architects about buildings and bird safety – an issue that has been important to Bruce for many years. Research by leading scientist Daniel Klem [PDF] estimates that at least 100 million and up to 1 billion birds are killed annually by collisions with buildings and other man-made structures in North America alone.

Russell Unger: How did you get involved in this subject?

Bruce Fowle: I would have to attribute most of it to my wife Marcia, who grew up in a birding family. She had been asking me for years what I was doing about all these birds that were killing themselves by colliding with glass – “what are you, Mr. Architect, doing about this?” So I had this guilt trip every time I put up a piece of glass. Then Marcia became Executive Director of New York City Audubon, where she then really put the pressure on. She has since served as President of the Board there and has written a book on birding in the New York City area.

I had spoken out on this issue and made myself known as somebody who was concerned about it from the architectural side, and was invited to speak at a Conference at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago in 2005 (Birds and Buildings). The conference was at IIT for the obvious reason that the original Mies van der Rohe buildings were killing birds by the thousands every year with all that glass; they were the first real all-glass or almost all-glass buildings in the U.S. This conference really kick-started the whole movement, which New York City Audubon picked up on and eventually led to the writing of the Birdsafe Building Guidelines under their auspices. Groups in Chicago and Toronto have made similar efforts.

RU: What’s the scope of the problem?

BF: Well, there’s a scientist–Daniel Klem at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania–who has been doing testing and analysis of this for probably 25 years. Based on rough calculations, he has concluded that a billion birds a year are killed in this country alone by colliding with buildings. Most of the birds that collide with glass tend to be the smaller songbird species – and a lot of these species are already endangered because of loss of habitat, climate change and so forth. Glass buildings are one more factor contributing to their demise.

There are three primary conditions that contribute to this problem: lights at night – which draw birds to buildings or other illuminated features during migration; transparency – when a bird sees daylight beyond or an illuminated tree it can roost on and thinks it can fly right through the glass; and reflectivity – when a bird sees sky or vegetation in the reflection from the glass and flies into it.

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London Olympic Park as Restorative Landscape

No Comments Posted on 05 April 2010 by Yetsuh Frank

George Hargreaves and the design team for the London 2012 Olympics site are using the opportunity of the games to regenerate the ecology of the Lea river.  The north London river and it’s many tributaries have suffered from 100 years or more of industrial use, including long stretches boxed into canals.  The regeneration project reintroduces the natural landforms of the river bank and includes the planting of some 300,000 native wetland plants.  This restored ecology will be the central component of the Olympic Park with further expansion planned post-Olympics that effectively stitches several north London communities together for the first time in a century.

Construction, Envisioning Low-Carbon Cities, Landscape, Planning, Transportation

Simply Urban

No Comments Posted on 15 February 2010 by Yetsuh Frank

While not overtly green, this inspiring project in Vancouver is a testament to the possibilities of small scale urban living.  When we talk about density, walkability and access to community services and public transportation most people immediately conjure images of Manhattan or Singapore.  But when your baseline is sprawling suburbs with none of the attributes listed above we can make huge improvements in our land use planning in this country with the sort of modestly scaled infill development featured in this article.

Commercial Buildings, Construction, Envisioning Low-Carbon Cities, Landscape

ASLA Launches Sustainable Landscape Case Study Site

No Comments Posted on 27 January 2010 by Yetsuh Frank

ASLA has developed a great web resource: Designing our Future: Sustainable Landscapes. The site includes a wide variety of inspiring case studies, from a clever $500 backyard renovation, the Crack Garden, to a 30 acre urban farm project in New Orleans featuring traditional Vietnamese fruits and vegetables.

Commercial Buildings, Construction, Energy, Landscape, Planning, Residential Buildings


No Comments Posted on 08 November 2009 by Yetsuh Frank

Charles Redell has a nice piece on Ecodistricts on the Sustainable Industries website.

It’s certainly true that we must continue to think beyond the property line with regard to green buildings. As Bill Reed and others are at frequent pains to point out, while working on any given scale you should go to whatever lengths are possible to consider the context of your project. Designing a highly resilient, healthy office? Your work is not done unless you have considered the whole building as a system, which precipitates consideration of the neighborhood, which requires an appreciation of the city as a whole, which can only be truly understood as part of a region . . . and onward and upward. Ecodistricts are an excellent tool for considering these larger scales, the ecology beyond our property lines.

Food, Landscape, Planning

Carolyn Steel at TED

No Comments Posted on 04 November 2009 by Yetsuh Frank

Carolyn SteelIf you missed Carolyn Steel’s presentation at our Master Class in May this year, or if you couldn’t make it to our incredible Hungry New York event that same week you can now get a snapshot of the subject, if not the events themselves: Carolyn Steel’s talk at the superfabulous TED conference in July is now available on their site, here.

Carolyn’s remarkable book, Hungry City, explores the way in which food networks shape the development of cities and asks how a better understanding of this relationship can positively effect the way we inhabit urban places in the future.

She acted as the principal facilitator of Hungry New York (named, obviously, in honor of her book), where we gathered more than 100 people from the green building and sustainable food communities for a sustainable meal at City Bakery.  Many of the purveyors whose foodstuffs we enjoyed spoke that evening about the differences between their local products and the items you might find at a supermarket chain, and about the challenges they face in what might best be described as the battle to provide local, sustainable food to our fair city.  Carolyn’s work brilliantly distills this complicated issue into something, err, digestible.  Take 15 minutes to watch this talk.  You won’t be disappointed.

© 2009 Urban Green Blog.