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Archive for the ‘Design Practice’ Category

This winter and spring, I will be posting a series on two projects I’m working on – a public health/neighborhood environment survey that I am very excited about and a studio class that I am teaching. The study area for the research and teaching are roughly the same, so there should be quite a bit of overlap. Together, both efforts allow me a rare opportunity: immersion in a set of related topics and, in this case, they are my favorites!

First a bit on the studio class. The subject, broadly, is urban transformation. By studying our home city, Syracuse, New York, the students and I will be examining forces that have and are transforming Syracuse. I’m casting Syracuse as “Everycity” – a unique place, yes, but with a set of opportunities and challenges that are fairly universal (for sure they are common to medium-sized cities and Rust Belt cities). The students will be studying the city as a whole and then shifting to a neighborhood scale. It is the neighborhood unit/scale where, I think, the lessons learned (including such lessons as how to study a city) are most transferable to other locations (i.e., all cities are composed of an array of neighborhoods). An archival search into historical records will set the stage for spatial analyses using geographic information systems: physical and biological environmental features, demographics, economic conditions, and so forth. And what shall we do with this information? Two things. First, students are charged with “telling a story” about urban transformation in Syracuse through a set of graphic representations depicting trends over time, especially the evolution of urban infrastructure and employment since 1890. This exploration will take half of the semester. The second outcome will be a project with a neighborhood group – yes, a “real” project. We have a small grant to help a neighborhood and its elementary school create a plan for its grounds, including an adjacent public park. The neighborhood might be called “disadvantaged,” so the question of how urban transformation might take place in this setting is one we will be exploring. I call it “shaping the public realm,” the intersection of design and planning. One word for this work? Fun!

The research project is worthy of a post of its own. For now, I will say that it is an interdisciplinary research project (team of 12 – medical researchers, sociologists, public health expert, and landscape architects) funded by a seed grant, by definition exploratory. Our team decided to bridge disciplinary boundaries with a survey research project. I, happily, am the lead. What are we doing? The grant was for diabetes research; our survey is aimed at gathering information for the design of diabetes awareness/prevention programs in disadvantaged neighborhoods. The central focus: relationship between health and neighborhood conditions, including social cohesion. We are attempting to conduct a simple random survey, in-home and by appointment, in a single neighborhood in Syracuse, the Southwest Neighborhood. Our survey takes 30 minutes, and we are providing a $20 gift card to respondents as an incentive for participation. The best part so far? My field survey team – five neighborhood residents paired with five graduate students, all trained to conduct human subjects research (CITI). Amazing group of people, and they are all loving it! The respondents seem pretty happy so far too. Now to get a random sample of sufficient size! More fun for winter days ahead.

I am lucky, lucky to have my days filled with such satisfying work. My plan is to post regularly over the coming months as the studio work and research project have their own “transformations”/evolutions. Stay tuned.

 

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Earlier this month, the Pritzker Prize jury declined to retroactively include architect Denise Scott Brown in the 1991 award given to her husband and design partner, Robert Venturi. The jury’s action came in response to a petition created by two Harvard design students. An award-winning planning blog in my hometown, Smart City Memphis, used the occasion to remind readers about the last downtown plan that Brown worked on – the plan Downtown Memphis from 1986-87. In a post titled, Cobwebs Greeted Prestigious Downtown Plan, Tom Jones of Smart City Memphis relates the discouraging side of long-range planning as revealed by Brown’s experience in Memphis:

Downtown Memphis became the canvas for her firm’s last plan of its kind, primarily because they were losing money on them.

If it was her swan song, it was a magnificent one.  The Center City Development Plan was released in 1987 and its erudition, insights and recommendations were captured in the most impressive report ever delivered to Memphis.  There were about 20 volumes [!! emphasis added] replete with drawings, thoughtful insights, and provocative and solid recommendations.  As an associate with Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, respected Memphis architect James Williamson – now an associate professor of architecture at University of Memphis – was a vital part of the team that developed the downtown plan and was instrumental in weighing options.

Unfortunately, the ambitious and impressive plan was largely ignored.  Instead of funding the summary volume that would lay out next steps and implementation, the Center City Commission took that money and paid for yet another redesign of Court Square Park.  It was also a time of leadership transition at Center City Commission and a time when government and developers were largely unreceptive to a scholarly approach to the future of downtown, instead of quick fixes like festival market places.  The failure of Memphis to embrace the plan was another factor in her firm’s decision to end planning of this kind.

Jones goes on to evaluate why the plan floundered.

It’s likely that her work was doomed from the beginning.  Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates selected by a one-vote margin.  Developer-friendly representatives on the selection committee supported a firm whose trademark was festival marketplaces.  The other half of the committee was people more interested in the urban fabric and the historic character of downtown.  At the end of the selection process, the votes were divided down the middle, and the deciding vote was cast by the chair of the selection committee.

In retrospect, while the plan was excellent, its impact and import were undermined by lack of support by some key downtown interests.  They criticized Ms. Scott Brown’s style, her approach to planning, the extensive public input process, and her openness in public discussions.

As one of these people said at the time, “we could have had a festival marketplace but instead we got a lot of preservationist talk.”  Over time, they would be proven wrong as festival marketplaces opened with banners and fanfare and closed some years later.  The public wanted authenticity and governments and downtown agencies were delivering up artificially contrived shopping arcades.

A video of Denise Scott Brown discussing the Memphis plan:

In Her Own Words

 

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smithsonian-photo-contest-naturalworld-light-ice-nathan-carlsen

This photograph by Nathan Carlsen is a finalist in the 10th Annual Smithsonian Magazine Photo Contest. Carlsen calls it a “man-made ice geyser,” created by a water pipe that is “bled” every year to keep it from freezing. Carlsen had the idea of putting LED lights into the center of the ice mass and then shooting this picture. Syracuse does not stay cold for as long as Duluth, Minnesota, home of the ice geyser, but surely we could achieve some interesting landscape effects with ice and snow??

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child in magnolia tree Memphis

This enchanting image was taken by a staff photographer, Alan Spearman, in my hometown newspaper, the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Alan is also an award-winning documentary filmmaker. It has been a couple of decades since I lived in Memphis, but hometowns always have a pull on your heart, don’t they? In this case, it is a poignant, even painful, pull on my heart. I discovered Alan’s work on a chance visit back in January to the Commercial Appeal’s website. I have been haunted, in particular, by the film As I Am which won a “Top 12 of 2012” Vimeo award among other awards. If you follow the link above, be sure to scroll to the bottom for the video of the tree, April, and her friend, Faith.

Landscape plays a prominent role in Am I Am. It is a landscape of poverty that lies just south of Downtown Memphis. It would be easy to produce a film of Memphis downtown revitalization that would prompt envy among city planners and urban designers (perhaps). There is nothing to envy about the world that Alan Spearman depicts. Urban poverty in the U.S. is not really acknowledged, but it occupies a significant footprint in every American city. From my perch in academia, I cannot help but see another incongruity – the fact that “urban ecology,” “ecosystem services,” and other concepts are the fodder for academic inquiry, but what actually constitutes urban open space are places just like the neighborhood depicted in this film. Cuts through the hood. What should happen at the intersection of “sustainable urbanism” and environmental justice? What is our duty to these landscapes, these neighborhoods, these people?

Alan Spearman gives us a gift, an insight into the lives of people that the middle and upper classes never encounter, even if they live nearby (and they do). Landscape architects, city planners, urban designers, urban ecologists, and other professionals who claim the city as their subject also need to grapple with the issues raised in this film, IMHO.

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Skimming an article on biomimicry in the NY Times today revealed the usual eye-candy approach to the subject. Beautiful structures inspired by natural forms with claims to greatness, but little more. Two parts of the article, though, are worth noting. Located near the end, it would be easy to overlook these passages. The first references Skygrove (image below), the highrise concept that won first place in MOMA’s Rising Currents competition.

Daniel Williams, a practicing architect in Seattle who specializes in sustainable waterfront design, noted that Hurricanes Andrew and Katrina obliterated nearby mangrove forests in Florida. The trees’ adaptive strategies, like their tendency to clump together and utilize all of the land around them, could be more worthy of emulation than the shape of their roots, he suggsted (sic).

We should look at the ecology and botany and how the tree is functioning, rather than just copying its form,” [emphasis added] Mr. Williams said.

The really funny part, IMHO, are these lines:

When it comes to functioning optimally despite extreme weather, the octopus could be the ultimate model. Rafe Sagarin, a marine ecologist and the author of “Learning from the Octopus,” said a physical readiness to adapt, combined with a thoughtful approach to sudden change, gives the cephalopod its edge.

The octopus has this really strong, powerful brain,” [emphasis added] Dr. Sagarin said. “It’s thoughtful and can plan but also adapts in an automatic way.”

The octopus’ combination of quick and measured thinking could inform coastal cities’ approach to climate change, he said. While government must respond quickly in emergency weather situations, people on the ground can provide the other half of the octopus approach: carefully considered, long-term solutions.

“All these amazing minds out there aren’t activated for certain problems,” Dr. Sagarin said. “But if you can reactivate them, you get the aspects of adaptable systems.”

It is not clear if Sarah Amandolare, the author, meant to be funny, but concluding that the best biomimicry might come from modeling ourselves after another animal with a big brain is just that. Her words are a call for crowd-sourcing really, capitalizing on the multitude of ideas that could come from an informed citizenry, and coupling that with good urban planning.

In other words, the more people who are invested in creating to solutions to climate change, the better. But first, the public needs access to detailed information and hazard maps depicting sea-level rise.

A functional federal government would help too!

Skygrove

Skygrove

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It’s the holiday season – and I’m sitting in the mall, blogging. Somehow I feel unique… but probably not unique, though, in waiting. In the Architect’s Newspaper, Alan G. Brake writes of the ascendance of landscape architecture. Brake hits on a few themes that fit this blog well – relationships between landscape architects and architects, planners as well as the rise of urbanism as a focus of the profession. Generally, I think landscape architects are too fixated on boosterism – and we love to highlight such praise – but I’m inclined to agree with Brake here. And I hope the profession rises to the opportunities before us. Ascendency, yes.

Landscape architecture’s dynamism, however, also points to certain weaknesses in contemporary architecture and planning. Architecture has been caught in a kind of hangover from the pre-crash years. Much of the profession, not to mention architectural education, is still too obsessed with architecture-as-object. The rise of tactical urbanism is a reaction to this, and also often involves landscape-based projects. Planning seems even more stuck. Too afraid to engage with design—following the failures of much of modernist planning—planners have either buried their noses in policy or retreated into colored-pencil-clichés of urbanism that seem dated. Landscape architects have stepped into that vacuum.

For the public, my hunch is that landscape architects offer something that architects typically do not. Parks and gardens have always engaged our Edenic fantasies. In a world under strain these places must also do considerable work, absorbing stormwater, filtering air pollution, and providing refuge in an increasingly urbanized world. Landscape architects are offering redemptive visions for neglected, damaged, and underutilized places. Environmental problems may seem overwhelming and insurmountable. But landscape architects offer solutions to improve our roofs, our blocks, our neighborhoods, a nearby waterway, or the city at large. If that sounds patronizing, it’s not meant to be. In the absence of aggressive federal (let alone global) environmental action to address the myriad of challenges we face, these interventions take on a critical, if piecemeal, significance.

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Location of Praxis in Landscape Architecture readers since March 2012

In order by numbers of page views: United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Turkey, Australia, Philippines, India, France, Malaysia, Germany, South Africa, Republic of Korea, Italy, Netherlands, New Zealand, Finland, Jordan, Greece, Mexico, Hong Kong, Brazil, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Belgium, Poland, Israel, Indonesia, Thailand, United Arab Emirates, Croatia, Sweden, Armenia, Serbia, Singapore, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Norway, Chile, Saudia Arabia, Taiwan, Denmark, Russian Federation, Lithuania,Ireland, Ukraine, Switzerland, Austria, Moldova, Japan, Guatemala, Slovenia, Columbia, Uruguay, Hungary, Viet Nam, Cyprus, Namibia, Peru, Bahamas, Nicaragua, Sri Lanka, Uganda, China, Slovakia, Kenya, Cayman Islands, Czech Republic, Mali, Argentina, Puerto Rico, Barbados, Ecuador, Angola, Togo, Albania, Malawi, Honduras, Bulgaria, Libya, Georgia, Nigeria, Algeria, Qatar, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Laos, Oman, Lebanon, Dominican Republic, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bolivia.

So this begs the question: what’s up Venezuela, Paraguay, Guyana, Kazakhstan (and most of the other -stans), Madagascar, and others I’m missing? I think, for one thing, a Spanish language version would be a good thing! And, perhaps, a return to more frequent posting.

 

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