All posts in Sustainability
How green are Apple’s carbon-sequestering trees really?
Imminent Urban Commons
Alejandro Zaera-Polo: Urban planners must rethink how they approach cities
Since the eighteenth century when the Western world became human-centered, humankind has not ceased to evolve, and so too has the very concept of the human. In 1933, Le Corbusier and a few other members of the CIAM issued The Athens Charter, a document aimed at orchestrating the emerging technologies of the built environment into a proposal for the future of cities. A classification of human activities became the vertebral spine of this proposal, structured around four urban functions: work, residence, leisure, and transport. This functional classification has structured urban planning policies ever since, but its human-centered approach appears now to be unable to address the problems of our age.
As the world’s population rapidly expands, the need for architects’ engagement in the industrial and infrastructural realm becomes increasingly urgent. Yet, with the exception of a few cases, architects remain conspicuously absent from the conception, design, and implementation of such projects. WHY ARCHITECTS? Today architects play a minor role in the design of industrial and infrastructural projects. Yet this was not always the case. The history of modern architecture, intricately tied to the rise of industrialization from the mid-18th century on, is rife with architects’ contributions to the industrial realm. Innovative creations such as Thomas Pritchard’s Iron Bridge at Coalbrookdale, England (1775–1779)—often cited as the first single-span cast-iron structure—purportedly set the stage for later developments, including Walter Gropius and Adolf Meyer’s seemingly weightless Faguswerke factory in Alfeld on Leine, Germany (1911–1912), which is hailed as an embodiment of an early 20th-century industrial aesthetic. Likewise, across the Atlantic Ocean, Albert Kahn utilized reinforced concrete to design a series of wide-span automotive plants, ideal environments for the efficient assembly-line production, or Taylorization, for which Henry Ford’s factories became known. These are but a few of the many architects who worked on industrial architecture alongside businessmen and engineers in the early 20th century. In the years following World War II and as the global economy moved toward recovery in the 1950s and 1960s, architects continued their involvement with industrial projects. The United States saw architects such as Eero Saarinen and the firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) engaged in industrial work, notably with their contributions to the burgeoning industrial campus complex type. In Europe, architects such as Angelo Mangiarotti in Italy, Fritz Haller in Switzerland, and Norman Foster in England began enlisting prefabricated modular building systems, which allowed vast, flexible, open-span factories to accommodate a variety of manufacturing setups. These prefab systems, which could be erected more quickly and more economically than previous industrial buildings, became a widespread alternative to individually designed factories. Not surprisingly, the building owners’ desire to cut costs coupled with the efficiency of prefabricated modular systems to steadily eclipse the architect’s role in industrial building design. Mass production and “industrialized systems” hastened the rapid construction of many different building types during this period. Simultaneously, seeing fewer opportunities for creativity in such “mundane” or “ugly” work, architects turned their attention away from industrial and infrastructural projects. Additionally, the growth of other disciplines gave rise to engineers and project managers, who legitimately claimed to be able to produce buildings rather than “design” them, further undermining the role of the architect. Despite the shift to service- and knowledge-oriented industries in the latter 20th and early 21st centuries, a time marked by the emergence of widespread economic and ecological changes, architects’ contributions to these building types have remained conspicuously absent. Yet this need not be the case. Architects bring much to the conception and creation of such projects, beginning with a holistic approach that extends beyond functionality to embrace the physical, social, and environmental issues that affect each project. By virtue of education and experience, architects hone the ability to devise creative spatial configurations to address real-world problems. Furthermore, architects are trained to design not just for the present, but for the future ways in which buildings may be used. This skill in particular figures prominently into our contemporary landscape, where in many cases a building’s physical presence may long outlive its initial purpose. And, as numerous examples in our past and present demonstrate, such industrial buildings do not have to be ugly. The past few decades saw a minor eruption in the adaptation of redundant existing industrial buildings and large-scale infrastructures for public use. Projects like the Tate Modern (England, Herzog & de Meuron) and the Hamburg Philharmonic (Germany, Herzog & de Meuron); the Rosario Museum of Contemporary Art (Argentina, Ermete de Lorenzi); the Zollverein Power Station (Germany, Rem Koolhaas’s Office for Metropolitan Architecture, B.ll and Krabel); the High Line (United States, Diller Scofido + Renfro); the Contemporary Jewish Museum (United States, Studio Libeskind); and the Modern Museum of Malm. (Sweden, Tham & Videg.rd Arkitekter) have captured the public imagination and become new architectural touchstones. Note that many of these readapted structures exist in developed areas that have transformed from industrial to service societies (a cycle likely to repeat in the future). In addition, these projects involve not only the reuse of materials, but also a respect for the old while infusing the new. They are complex projects that encourage cultural interactions and multiple programs in spaces previously conceived for singular functions and occupied by only a few individuals. These buildings and structures were initially created to serve a specific use; yet through architectural interventions, they have been successfully repurposed as cultural icons. Architects introduced unique skills and perspectives to these transformational projects, all largely well received. In turn, these adaptations have bolstered their architects’ reputations. We believe that architects can add similar value to, and likewise benefit from, the design of industrial and infrastructural projects. In particular, we are focused onWaste-to-Energy (WtE) facilities, which are much needed in both developing and developed societies. Along with global population growth and increased urbanization comes an exponential rise in the production of solid waste. In 2012, urban populations generated roughly 1.3 billion tons of solid waste. By 2025, the World Bank estimates that this number will likely increase to 2.2 billion tons. How do we address this mounting volume of waste? This question becomes all the more pressing when we consider that landfills—currently (and historically) the most prevalent means of waste disposal—are quickly becoming less plausible due to space restrictions, environmental concerns, mandates to close existing sites, and legislation that prevents the creation of new landfills. Waste-to-Energy facilities offer a proven and increasingly attractive solution for dealing with solid waste. Indeed, far from the pollution-spewing industrial behemoths of yore, WtE plants are an environmentally conscious option for coping with garbage. Strategically placed near or within urban areas, WtE plants can generate alternative energy for local use and eliminate the need to transport waste to rural areas or across state lines, thus reducing travel-related emissions. And as we will later discuss in detail, WtE infrastructure offers a range of beneficial possibilities for future development, including opportunities to develop hybrid programs that positively impact their communities. Such innovative arrangements are already in operation in Sweden, recognized as a leader in WtE use, as well as other countries. WHY WASTE-TO-ENERGY? There is little doubt that, as the world’s population grows, local WtE infrastructure will be increasingly needed in cities. As densities increase and consumption patterns change, WtE will continue to emerge as an acceptable and affordable source of renewable energy alongside a portfolio of other sources, such as solar, wind, and biomass. As additional WtE infrastructure is conceived and constructed, architects’ involvement will help ensure the best functional, social, and aesthetic results. Indeed, a handful of high-profile architects, including Bjarke Ingels and Zaha Hadid, have recently engaged in WtE projects, signaling a shift in thought regarding the desirability of and value generated by architects’ involvement in such projects. With these ideas in mind, we selected WtE facilities as a means to re-engage architects and interdisciplinary design with industrial buildings and infrastructure. We conducted design research on novel and effective ways to rethink the relationship of architecture and waste—a (re)planned obsolescence. THE WASTE MANAGEMENT HIERARCHY The Waste Management Hierarchy is an internationally recognized ranking of the various waste management practices in the order from most to least preferred with respect to greenhouse gas emissions. Priority is given towards the prevention and reuse of waste followed by recycling, energy recovery, and disposal. Energy recovery from the combustion of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) is a critical component to this hierarchy because it diverts and ultimately decreases the total volume of waste that would have otherwise been destined for landfills. The WtE Design Lab chose to narrow the focus of design speculation around the method combustion—as opposed to pyrolysis and gasification—because it is the most widely implemented. Ranked a tier above natural gas but just below solar photovoltaic, the energy produced by this renewable energy source has a reduced carbon emission record—as compared to petroleum and coal—by offsetting the need for energy from fossil fuel sources and reducing methane generation from landfills.
New York Values
NYCHA’s new guidelines for rehabilitation of public housing push for sustainability and preservation
Who knew the launch of a document about putting new rooftops on old buildings, raising boilers above flood levels, and updating kitchens and bathrooms in municipal housing would be the East Coast elite’s hottest ticket in town? The release of New York City Public Housing Authority’s Design Guidelines for Rehabilitation of Residential Buildings had to turn away dozens of attendees to its January 12th panel packing three stories at the AIA’s Center for Architecture.
Part of the reason for the overflow crowd may be the sheer number of partners, collaborators, and offices involved. Led by the agency’s Office of Design, the Design Guidelines implicated its Capital Projects and Energy & Sustainability divisions, affordable housing developer Enterprise Community Partners (ECP), the AIA’s Design for Aging and Housing Committees, participants in NYCHA’s Design Excellence program, including Andrew Bernheimer, Domingo Gonzalez, and Claire Weisz, and dozens of maintenance staff members and residents.
Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellow Jae Shin served as embedded coordinator of many of these conversations within the agency and co-edited the guidelines. “She really helped facilitate a lot of the internal discussions that we had with our various groups at NYCHA as well as external partners,” said Bruce Eisenberg, deputy director of NYCHA’s Office of Design, who spearheaded the project. “We really wanted to make it a very interactive process.”
Produced in collaboration with ECP and supported by a $100,000 grant from Deutsche Bank, the Design Guidelines belong to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s NextGeneration NYCHA, a 10-year agenda to ensure the long-term viability and sustainability of America’s largest and most successful public housing agency.
“This will impact all of our capital projects,” Eisenberg said. “We have a five-year plan of scheduled projects, and so we really wanted to raise the bar of design in how we execute them. This is a roadmap to enable us to do that.” It has implications for a vast and practically unending scope of work. If fully funded, renovation of NYCHA projects, which comprise 2,500 acres in 328 complexes containing 125,000 units and serving more than 400,000 residents, would require $17 billion in current capital costs. Allocations over the next three years amount to $784.4 million from the city’s budget.
In some parts, the Design Guidelines formalize the standards employed in recent capital projects, such as the exterior lighting installed at Castle Hill and Butler Houses in the Bronx, which replaces the dim yellow light of old with nearly 1,000 bright and energy-efficient LED fixtures to improve public safety. In other outdoor areas, the guidelines aim to reduce metal fencing around grass and add amenities to create more active and healthy spaces. They take cues from the guidelines set forth by the Center For Active Design, while encouraging visual sight lines. In-progress projects like KPF and Olin’s landscapes for Red Hook Houses—funded as part of the post-Sandy $3 billion FEMA recovery grant—indicate a High Line–like attention to detail.
“We’re starting to be more aspirational in that area,” Eisenberg said. “We’re looking to make our open spaces more attractive and useful to our residents and the community at large.”
NYCHA’s push toward environmental sustainability nudges projects to install subsurface infiltration systems, sidewalk bioswales, and porous pavers rather than asphalt to limit stormwater overflow and heat sinks. Pilot projects in Bronx River Houses, Hope Gardens, and Seth Low Houses will slow stormwater, while the Edenwald Houses in the Bronx will contain the city’s largest green infrastructure installation. For other areas vulnerable to stormwater rise, the guidelines recommend concrete retaining walls to double as seating, like the floodwalls as wood-clad benches by Nelligan White Architects in Baruch Houses below the Williamsburg Bridge.
At Sotomayor Houses, NYCHA will begin installing the new standards for kitchens and bathrooms later this year, expanding cabinet space and adding accessible grab bars and sinks. That is, after the roofing is done: Mayor de Blasio has dedicated $100 million annually to roofs alone for the next two years, recently supplemented by another $1 billion over 10 years. Upgrading the troublesome low- or no-slope roofs of its modern-era buildings is NYCHA’s biggest capital projects burden.
The Design Guidelines’ release landed on the same day as nomination hearings for Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, adding a collective spirit of defiance to talk of preserving the country’s largest public housing agency. The De Blasio administration vows to press on, regardless of the new administration’s priorities, which appear to involve gutting all federal agencies the President’s cronies cannot use for profiteering.
“We have a 10-year strategic plan NextGeneration NYCHA that’s not a kitchen sink plan; it’s very specific, and we’re moving forward,” said Rasmia Kirmani-Frye, director of NYCHA’s Office for Public/Private Partnerships and president of newly formed Fund for Public Housing nonprofit, which coordinated privatesector grants for the guidelines. “We don’t know what the policy priorities will be, but we know what New Yorkers’ priorities are, so we are moving forward with that plan, because it’s the best investment in public housing in New York City.”
From Broadacre to Agronica
Charles Waldheim on the “profound implications” on urban farming for cities today
This article appeared as "Notes Towards a History of Agrarian Urbanism" in urbanNext, and was first published in Bracket 1 [on Farming], 2010.
$1.2 billion eco-friendly district will rise in Reno, Nevada
Architect and developer Don J Clark Group and landscape architects Office of Cheryl Barton (OCB) are currently at work on the initial phases of the world’s first high desert biome eco-district, West 2nd District, a new $1.2 billion purpose-built neighborhood in the heart of downtown Reno, Nevada.
The project proposes taking over a series of underutilized lots in order to jumpstart an ecologically driven neighborhood containing 1,900 housing units, 450,000 square feet of office space, and 250,000 square feet of retail space. The nearly 30-building district will provide needed market-rate and workforce housing as well, with 20 percent of rental units available as affordable housing for those who qualify.
The construction of a new district—bounded along its southern edge by the Truckee River, a tributary to Pyramid Lake and Lake Tahoe—also represents a special opportunity to connect Reno to nature more efficiently than piecemeal implementation would. OCB is looking to integrate the district’s street life with the surrounding natural habitat in biome-specific ways. “We are very interested in the authenticity of the landscape and in bringing the larger ecology into the city,” Cheryl Barton said. Barton aims to plant over 300 trees across the 17-acre site; the firm aims to establish and expand a sense of pedestrian comfort on the street by reducing heat-island effect. OCB is also embedding expanses of vertical and horizontal gardens throughout the plan, including on rooftops. Barton explained further: “We are taking an artistic approach to the paseo design—there will be broad, shallow channels [embedded in the paseos] that can be used for patio seating regularly and, during the rainy season, can collect water.”
The district will be fully integrated with regard to stormwater sequestration and wastewater treatment, and will also employ a variety of digital tools to monitor and control these adaptive systems. For Barton, the relationship between these technical components and her efforts to make Reno’s streetscapes more bearable are two sides of the same coin. “Landscapes are a system like any other: It’s all about understanding the climate, the water, the soil, and the connectivity of that system, and bringing that understanding into the public realm.”
One hope is that the West 2nd District can feed Reno’s booming technology industry. Reno is affordable—and a 45-minute flight from Silicon Valley—so it is absorbing regional economic and population growth. Tesla operates its Gigafactory in Sparks, Nevada, just outside Reno, and Apple operates cloud-computing servers in the area as well.
The influx of technology-related capital is a boon for Reno, and continued investment will likely fuel the continued growth of West 2nd. “We are focusing on a lot of categories,” said Don Clark, “from being an eco-district to pursuing LEED accreditation to focusing on walkable communities and complete streets—and are ultimately making a new, next-generation, integrated section of a city.”
Can Tampa undo its Post-War planning mistakes while embracing its environment? This competition explored how.
The (Re) Stitch Tampa project was initially conceptualized during 2010 around the advent of the announcement of what was to be the first high-speed rail line in the U.S. The Obama Administration had just announced as part of its “New” New Deal program that the region was to receive $1.2 billion in federal monies earmarked for the construction of a high-speed rail line along the Tampa-Orlando corridor. The program was reminiscent of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s WPA program, during the great Depression, where the federal government funded large-scale public infrastructural projects with the intent of jump-starting the economy. In Florida, such projects included the Rural Electrification Program of rural farms, running wire to over 54,000 farms, and the development of much of the Florida State Park System.  Plan Tampa, a post-war coastal American city, was reeling from the worst recession since the great Depression. Arguably, it was also located in one of the regions the greatest impacted in the country by the 2008 economic bust and mortgage crisis. The region had developed around car privileging infrastructures and an economy predicated principally on real estate and its speculative practices. The real-estate bubble had burst hard here, where real-estate speculation and flipping were part of the main sources of the economy. It was not uncommon, beginning in 2007 and continuing onwards, to see hand-crafted signs dotting the on and off ramps of Tampa’s highway infrastructures and byways of the city advertising short-sale, foreclosed houses, or offering flat-out cash for houses. “We buy up houses-$50,000.00 each and 3 for…”  By 2011, however, this “New” New Deal in the form of high-speed rail infrastructure had been squashed, and the $1.2 billion of federal monies returned to the federal government. The stymying of the project had been largely due to the prevailing anti-smart and, arguably, anti-urban politics which did not support the funding of public transportation. This was even despite the efforts of mayors in the six cities who would be positively impacted by the high-speed rail system, who self-organized at a local-regional level to accept the federal monies, although in the end they were not able to do so. The aggregated land for the high-speed rail station in Tampa was also left vacant, left to return back to nature. Therein existed other such aggregated plots of land or “land-banking” which had occurred at the height of the real-estate boom, such as on the north end of the Riverwalk, the northern anchor of the competition project site, where the developer had acquired and aggregated land and had then, subsequently, gone bankrupt. The Trolley Barn-Armature Works lay in decay, as a relic of the post-industrial landscape, and the former affluent trolley-car suburb and trolley system which was one of the most successful in the U.S. before it was ripped-up and replaced by the roads of the predominant automobile culture. This aggregated lot lay in urban decay; the ecology and the biodiversity returning back to it and recovering the site’s natural landscape. This urban aggregate added to the 50% of surface parking, as well as to the additional vacancies in the downtown core. The focus of the competition brief shifted, at this moment, to a critical re-thinking of the ebbs and flows of circulation and movement throughout the city, and how these might contribute to a more sustainable development and ecological practices. The competition brief posed the question, how might the re-calibrating of infrastructure serve as an opportunity to re-choreograph the flows and the movements of people and habitat to and from its natural lifeline running through the city, and how might it bring the River into the city? Paradoxically, the recession and the mortgage crisis with its foreclosures, vacancies, and halted development, had actually provided an opportunity to take stock, as well as to critically reassess a legacy during the 20th century of largely unsustainable building and development practices and seemingly unlimited growth, much of which was eating up valuable wetlands and ecologically sensitive lands. Unsustainable land development practices had been catalyzed by the rationalization of the pumping system. Dredging, as well as the canalization of swamplands pushed by real-estate speculation and tourism, had largely trashed the natural environment and its ecologies. Further, the invention of air conditioning had perpetuated the development of housing typologies divorced from their natural systems and local ecologies, dissimilar to Florida’s earlier vernacular housing typologies, such as the Florida Dogtrot. The Dogtrot’s design was more integrated with passive design strategies, such as breezeways as well as the natural Florida landscape. The competition also prompted a re-thinking of the current oppositional relationship of the city to its water, as well as the potential to re-stitch, re-cover and re-claim the landscape of the Post-War Coastal American City through Ecologies. Tampa—the Beginnings of the Post-War Coastal American City Unlike their counterparts to the North, the Sunbelt coastal cities of the south, including Tampa, did not experience the same overarching opposition to the top-down urban renewal planning practices of the 1950s, largely inspired by the Modernist City. During the 1960s, freeway revolts occurred in many American cities, opposing the byproducts of the 1958 Federal Highway Act, which included cutting highway infrastructure through swathes of the city in order to expedite commuters out to the suburbs. The post-war suburbs had been federally subsidized in the form of inexpensive mortgages to returning war vets from World War Two. Jane Jacobs, author of the seminal text, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, successfully organized her community to oppose and subsequently defeat Robert Moses’ attempt to bulldoze part of the West Village in New York City with a cross-town expressway infrastructure. Further, grassroots community opposition to urban renewal projects and the bulldozing of Boston’s historic West End and Scollay Square, as well as New York City’s Penn Station, lay the groundwork for the bottom-up preservation movement of cities and their historic fabric beginning in the 1950s. It also ushered in the establishment of the National Park Service in the U.S. Tampa’s period of urban renewal happened later, in the 1960s and 70s. Unlike their northern counterparts, many of the community leaders in the districts designated for urban renewal actually embraced it, as opposed to attempting to fight it, such as in Tampa’s Ybor City. As Tampa historian Emanuel Leto writes, “these projects were also motivated, in part, by racial divisions within urban communities, and the desire for segregation in districts and enclaves of the city.” The erasure of one such community known as “the Scrub,” was one of the three major urban renewal projects carried out by Tampa in the 1960s as part of the Federal Urban Renewal program. Its name came from its natural landscape, referring to the territory outside of the protected Fort Brooke boundary which was settled by white settlers, and referred to the small brush-like vegetation of scrub and Florida brush. The area was settled by freed African-American slaves and the neighborhood had a vibrant music scene, including Ray Charles and Ella Fitzgerald. The inhabitants were relocated to public housing and the city became largely zoned as single use as part of the CBD (Central Business District), with highway infrastructure cutting through the urban fabric, carrying people out to the suburbs in the wetlands and the reclaimed swamplands, which lay beyond a middle landscape of trolley suburbs, largely vacated. Tampa as the Ecological City Prior to the period of urban renewal which radically transformed the urban space and fabric of Tampa, the settlement of the area had a much more intrinsic relationship to the landscape and its natural ecologies, living more symbiotically with the Tampa Bay natural estuary. Historical natural atlases and guides of Tampa from the turn of the 20th century boasted in their descriptions of Tampa’s natural landscape, as well as its estuary. “People came from miles around to eat the fish and oysters out of the Tampa Bay.” Such sites as Sulphur Springs, located further north up the Hillsborough River were, in fact, natural springs where people came from afar for their natural healing powers. Other sites of intrigue included an alligator farm adjacent to the natural spring. The site became contaminated and trashed in the middle part of the 20th century, however, although ecological remediation and recovery is currently being undertaken in the area by the City. Competition Brief The competition brief is premised on a critique of the failings of the post-war American City, the prevailing traces and conditions of which can be seen in Tampa. The brief also calls for resilient design strategies, which address its coastal location, as well as the re-articulation of its land-water edge between the city and the water. It proposes possible design strategies, which might begin to de-construct, de-engineer, as well as to de-laminate the previous infrastructures that are part of the legacy of these predominantly short-sited planning strategies. The competition framed a re-thinking and re-programming, as well as the re-articulation and re-consideration of the possible occupation of infrastructures operating at a large-scale. (Re)stitch Tampa serves as a research platform. The publication serves as a useful toolkit and handbook for disseminating design strategies which both design for resiliency, as well as addressing the conditions which are resultant from the failings of the policies around the post-war American city, and their unintended consequences. Designers are trained to be strategic, innovative and tactical in design, as well as having the ability to synthesize multi-scalar systems, and to conceptualize multiple scenarios for different conditions. The brief also encouraged designers to work across a spectrum of design scales, while addressing issues of recovering a landscape. Arguably, the state of Florida and its coastal cities will be some of those the worst impacted in the U.S. by sea level rise and climate change. Whereas human settlement and inhabitation in these locations initially co-existed in a much more symbiotic relationship with their natural landscapes and ecologies, the natural geography of this territory writ-large has been significantly impacted and altered by a manufactured landscape. Design strategies can also build on new modes of design representation, employing mapping as a process of design research. The competition brief challenged designers to develop schemes addressing the perceived failings of the post-war American city, offering solutions for the vacancies from previous failed urban renewal programs, and the ensuing urban decay and flight from the city. Perhaps, most importantly, it is the ability of design to act in a milieu not possessing the political will or agency to address the pressing issues of sea-level rise and climate change in coastal cities. The schemes should offer design strategies, which lie in more symbiotic relationships between city and nature, including the Hillsborough River and the Tampa Bay and its estuary. It should be noted, however, that recent trends currently show, in fact, the population to be actually increasing as migration flows of the Baby Boomer retirement generation move to Sunbelt coastal cities seeking warmer climates and cheaper housing prices than those available in the North.