Archive for the ‘Sustainable Cities’ Category

Parking Gardens

Sunday, June 26th, 2011

Parking lots make great settings for film noirs—I’ll give them that. But they’re bad for the environment. Their extensive paved and impervious surfaces bake in the sun, exacerbating the urban heat island effect. Virtually all the rain that falls on them is funneled into storm sewers, polluting local waterways. And they’re some of the ugliest places on the planet.

Public gardens are leading the way to greener parking lots—parking gardens—with plantings that absorb rain and prevent runoff and solar arrays that produce energy while providing shade. (more…)

Landscape For Life

Saturday, June 25th, 2011

You’ve heard me sing the praises of the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES), the country’s first rating system for landscapes that make ecological sense. SITES, which provides technical metrics for landscape professionals striving to go green, sets sustainability standards for landscapes the way LEED does for buildings. Landscape For Life, a collaborative project of the U.S. Botanic Garden and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, is the new homeowner version of SITES. Landscape For Life makes it possible for anyone to create a sustainable garden. (In the interest of full disclosure: I worked with the USBG and the Wildflower Center to develop the content for the Landscape For Life website and print materials.) Stay tuned, because further enhancements, such as interactive features and a souped-up design, are in the works.

Here’s my “Growing Greener” column on Landscape For Life that appeared in Public Garden magazine, the flagship publication of the American Public Gardens Association, Vol. 25 No. 3. In my “Growing Greener” columns I answer sustainability-related questions from public garden staff. (more…)

Dickson Despommier Does it Again

Tuesday, August 25th, 2009

You gotta give it to Dickson Despommier—he’s certainly persistent. The professor of public health at Columbia University has been pushing the concept of vertical farming in cities for the past several years, and he made his pitch again in Sunday’s New York Times. He even tossed in a few stats on the economics of growing food in urban highrises to counter the arguments of skeptics. You can find my previous takes on vertical agriculture here,  here, and here.

Vertical Vegetecture

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

It remains to be seen whether vertical farming in cities is feasible economically, but it’s sure inspiring a growing number of architects. You’ll find a thumbnail history of the sky farm, as well as 16 different designs, at Dornob. Two of my favorites—complete with stunning renderings—are Eric Ellingsen’s and Dickson Despommier’s Pyramid Farm, and Vincent Callebaut’s Dragonfly Farm.

Full Employment for Gardeners

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2009

So, how long do you think it’ll take for many of the American households growing their first food garden this year to decide a) it’s a lot more work than they bargained for, b) they’re losing the battle with cutworms and weevils, and c) they need help? Former NPR correspondent Ketzel Levine and other laid off garden scribes may want to steal a page (and a business plan) from the two women in Portland who launched Your Backyard Farmer, a sort of urban CSA, to transform small city lots strewn with last year’s toys, overgrown flower beds, and compacted grass into productive miniature farms.

After conferring with prospective clients about their needs and favorite veggies (there’s even a downloadable pdf on Your Backyard Farmer’s website with a list of edibles for families to choose from), the two build raised beds and healthy soil, plant, and make weekly trips to tend and harvest. Every week, clients come home to find a basket of freshly picked, organically grown produce waiting at their back door.

As CSAs go, the service isn’t cheap—planting and tending a garden capable of producing enough produce for a family of three reportedly cost $1,575 last year—but those wishing to economize can opt instead for hands-on lessons on running a backyard farm for about $100 a month.

Biomorphic Skyscrapers

Monday, February 16th, 2009

According to the U.N., half the world’s population already lives in urban areas, and about 70 percent will be city dwellers by 2050. What kind of structures can accommodate all these people while promoting human and environmental health and creativity? An increasing number of architects are looking to plants to find solutions.

The population of tropical cities in particular is expected to skyrocket. Inspired by the densely layered life forms found in tropical rainforests, among the most biodiverse natural communities on the planet, TROPICOOL@KL envisions mushroom-like skyscrapers punctuating Kuala Lumpur’s skyline. These highrise structures, which look as much like the Coney Island Parachute Jump as they do mushrooms, mimic the five layers found in tropical rainforests: the overstory, the canopy, the understory, the shrub layer, and the forest floor. Solar panels in their circular tops provide energy, just like the photosynthesizing leaves that comprise a rainforest canopy. Scattered throughout the branches of the self-sustaining, off-the-grid skyscrapers are apartments modeled after vernacular Malaysian dwellings. 

Intended for Manhattan’s currently semi-industrial Hudson Yards area, which runs roughly from West 42nd Street south to West 30th Street and from Eighth Avenue west to the Hudson River, Eric Vergne’s unfortunately named Dystopian Farm is a skyscraper that combines spaces for housing, markets, and food production. Vergne says he modeled his design after the cellular structure of ferns, and that the building will use biomorphic systems such as aeroponics to meet the food demands of a growing urban population.

Although vertical farming in cities has inspired the design world, some skeptics have claimed it makes no sense financially because urban real estate is too expensive. Our current economic mess, however, just may create a window of opportunity for such visionary projects. In the words of Stanford economist Paul Romer, “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”

Edible L.A.

Tuesday, February 10th, 2009

An edible rooftop garden prototype on a residential building in Los Angeles is planted with fruit trees, vines, herbs, and vegetables that will be tended and used by residents and the chefs at the well-known ground floor restaurant, Blue Velvet. 

Grass-Lined Railways = What?

Tuesday, January 27th, 2009

You know the term “green” has become almost meaningless when Inhabitat extolls Europe’s lawn-lined railways as paragons of green design. Have they gone bonkers, or has Scotts become a major advertiser? Granted, the color green is welcome relief from monotonous expanses of concrete and asphalt. And it’s true that vegetated railway lines can help keep cities cool and manage storm water runoff (although how well lawn does this is debatable). But what about the energy consumed by mowing? Are fertilizing and irrigation required? I’d be all for it if native short-grass ecosystems were being seeded in along railways, but Inhabitat is lauding countless acres of manicured turf.

More Green Cities

Monday, January 19th, 2009

While I’ve been off for the past three weeks celebrating the holidays and doing site visits for a public garden project I’m working on, news of the following green city plans has been reported, courtesy of Inhabitat

For a neighborhood of Gothenburg, Sweden, currently covered with parking lots and football fields, comes this plan for a “garden block” nestled beneath a series of green roofs shaped like undulating hills. These green roofs insulate the buildings below while absorbing rainfall that can be purified for household use. The project also includes space for community cultivation of fruits and vegetables.

Meanwhile, outside of Milan is a planned development of high-rises with stacked planted terraces surrounding a large municipal park. The complex will be completely self-contained, with schools, sporting facilities, and a shopping center, saving energy by reducing the distance residents will need to travel in the course of their daily lives. Photovoltaic panels will help shade sunny windows while generating electricity, and solar water heaters will also slash energy use.

Green Walls or Greenwash?

Tuesday, December 16th, 2008

I admit it—I’m as seduced by the idea of verdant buildings as the next plant nut. On a purely aesthetic level, structures with living walls are a major improvement over the granite and glass monoliths that rise from the typical cityscape like enormous gravestones. But before we fall head over heels for green walls it’s worth asking whether they’re all they’re cracked up to be. Do they really, as touted, help insulate buildings, filter particulates from polluted city air, counteract the urban heat island effect, and create habitat for insects and spiders? Or are they just a green veneer, a 21st-century version of the fussy millwork that decorated Victorian buildings? Or worse, do they actually eat up more resources than they save? 

Even the green-minded bloggers at Treehugger and Inhabitat have been drooling over the latest designs, Daniel Libeskind’s 900-foot New York Tower, an upscale residential skyscraper with a section of glass curtain wall cut away to accommodate vegetated balconies, and Rotterdam-based MVRDV’s cluster of cone-like structures with concentric rings of boxwood-lined terraces intended for a new city south of Seoul. From a biological point of view, only one of the “11 Buildings Wrapped in Gorgeous Green and Living Walls” in this glowing review is interesting—Sharp & Diamond’s 50-square-meter green wall of wildflowers, ferns, and ground covers at the Vancouver Aquarium that seems to be based on plant associations found on cliffs, scree slopes, and other natural analogs. (If you haven’t seen it, take a look at The Urban Cliff Revolution, which suggests that these natural habitats have a lot in common with skyscrapers and other features of the modern city, and can serve as “habitat templates” for green walls and roofs.)

But what about the carbon footprint of the growing media used to create green walls, and any fertilizers used to sustain the plants? Is irrigation required? If so, is there an integrated graywater system in which used water from sinks, dishwashers, and other sources is cleansed by the plants and growing medium and piped back into the building to flush toilets? In short, do the environmental benefits of green walls outweigh the costs? I’d love to see some hard data.