Archive for the ‘Sustainable Design’ Category

Regenerative Design Update

Monday, May 18th, 2009

So I’m back in New York, having seen enough redbuds in bloom on our cross-country trek to keep me happy for an entire lifetime. While I was gone, I heard from David Schaller, whose essay “Beyond Sustainability: From Scarcity to Abundance” has been a driving force for regenerative design. He’s now sustainable development administrator for the city of Tucson, and publishes a weekly newsletter called Sustainable Practices.

You know regenerative design is on the fast track when the annual meeting of the ASLA, to be held in Chicago in September, is titled “Beyond Sustainability: Regenerating Places and People.” “We’ve been anticipating public sentiment to turn to the need for sustaining the planet for many years,” wrote ASLA President Angela Dye in an email that arrived in my inbox this morning. “As landscape architects, we must go beyond, and aspire to adopt practices that not only sustain, but regenerate our ecosystems and restore diminishing biohabitats.”

Greenest of the Green

Wednesday, April 15th, 2009

Kudos to the Shangri La Botanical Gardens in Orange, Texas, whose new interpretive center has been chosen as one of the American Institute of Architects’ Top Ten Green Projects of 2009. The Orientation Center contains an exhibit hall, theater, interactive children’s garden, classroom and exhibition greenhouses, and a water demonstration garden that shows how plants filter pollution from water, as well as a café, garden store, volunteer center, and administrative spaces. There are also several “outbuildings,” including a Nature Discovery Lab and pavilion, outdoor classrooms, a bird blind, and a boat house, deep in a cypress swamp. You can find lots of information on the LEED Platinum facility, including photos, on the AIA website.

Slow Gardening

Wednesday, April 8th, 2009

Okay, so I’ve been slow to add my two cents on “Slow, Easy, Cheap, and Green,” the piece on Felder Rushing’s adorable brand of “slow gardening,” which appeared in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago. But slow is the name of the game, right?

If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth a look. Felder is a hoot. The self-described “lounge lizard,” who hosts a weekly radio show on Mississippi Public Radio, is the bad boy in the otherwise boring world of “garden communicators.” Picture Jerry Garcia with a pitchfork, kicking back among his plastic pink flamingos and recycled tire planters when not driving his “container garden on wheels,” a beat-up brown-and-white Ford F150 pick-up truck with a garden planted in the back. The effect is circa 1966 commune, with the sweet scent of Cannabis wafting through the air.

Felder is the leading proponent of slow gardening, which of course was inspired by the slow food movement. The idea is to stop stressing out about the lawn. Pass up Echinacea ‘Mac ‘n’ Cheese’ ($21.95 a pop), or anything “NEW!” from the White Flower Farm catalog. (“I’m not into the latest and greatest,” Felder told the Times reporter, speaking of the dowdy ornamentals like gladiolas and dusty miller that fill his garden.) Channel your inner Dale Chihuly by creating bottle trees with Bud Lite bottles from your last barbecue. Grow lettuce in pots, instead of in the ground, for easy maintenance. (Best line in the article: Felder’s quip that “lettuce is embarrassingly easy to grow. I grew some in a hanging basket last year. All it took was a squirt of vinaigrette, and I didn’t even have to bend over to eat it.”)

I was just warming up to this vision of the good life when, in a most unfortunate bit of timing, Rick Griffin, a local landscape architect who, we learn, helps Felder with garden design, arrives on the scene. According to the Times, “The men stood in the garden, debating a design element to fill space around an art installation made of three large glass circles.”

Oops. Maybe Felder’s idea of gardening isn’t so laid back after all. I mean, forget about the gladioli and the container garden on wheels. If you really want to slow down, plant a native wildflower meadow if you have sun, or some native woodland shrubs, wildflowers, and ferns if you have shade trees on your property, then let nature take care of most of the maintenance. To keep yourself out of trouble, plant some fruits and veggies, preferably in containers or raised beds, by your kitchen door. And/or some potted flowers by the patio to attract butterflies and other pollinators for free entertainment all summer long.

Tom and Nancy Need Our Help!

Friday, March 27th, 2009

Three cheers for Nancy Small and her husband, Tom! When they retired in 1996, the two indefatigable former English professors began turning their half-acre yard in Michigan into better habitat for wildlife. Three years later, they founded a chapter of Wild Ones, the organization that promotes native plants and natural landscaping, and a couple of years ago, they established the Michigan Climate Action Network. But now, says Nancy, who emailed me the other day, they’re stumped and hoping we can help them out:

“Neither Wild Ones nor the environmental movement as a whole,” she writes, “have had much success in getting people to tear out their lawns in order to put in native plants for wildlife (or to reduce carbon emissions), but it’s beginning to sound as if people can hardly wait to get rid of their lawns in order to grow their own food” (which, as she points out, is a lot more work, and harder work, than growing native plants!). So Nancy and Tom are trying to build on the work of Michigan State University researchers who have demonstrated how native wildflowers, by providing pollen, nectar, and shelter to the pollinators and other beneficial insects that are critical for healthy agricultural systems, can help farmers increase crop yields. They’re asking us to put on our thinking caps and help them come up with ways to use the current interest in organic, local, and homegrown food to promote the notion that food plants and native plants are essential partners in a healthy landscape.

I told Nancy that one way might be to use the growing number of farmers markets to spread the word through a “love local food?/ help a pollinator/ grow native plants” campaign. Heck, we might even be able to get Whole Foods, Wild Oats, and other natural foods markets to promote and sell native wildflowers instead of just the usual decapitated roses or tulips. So whaddaya think? Email me, and I’ll send your ideas (or even your words of encouragement) along to Tom and Nancy. 

When Not Buying Is the Most Powerful Impulse

Tuesday, March 24th, 2009

If you spend as much time perusing green blogs and websites as I do, you can’t help but have noticed how many of these sustainability-touting enterprises are predicated on the usual orgy of consumerism, albeit with a green face. I realize it’s hard to make a living off of electronic publishing, guys, but really, how many green buying guides, organic body butters, and 100 percent bamboo arm warmers does the world need?

A few weeks ago, when I linked to Lance Mannion’s entertaining rant on retooling our economy built on “the buying and selling of toys and gizmos and lots of other useless crap,” I wondered how we would make the transition to a sane and sustainable economy. I got a glimpse on Saturday when I read John Hockenberry’s Metropolis essay on where we find ourselves right now, when nonbuyers are driving the market and not making a purchase is the most powerful impulse in the global economy.

Since the 1950s, Hockenberry points out, design and marketing have been all about “creating aspirational narratives with the aim of getting people to make purchases.” Things clearly went berserk. Global capitalism became “a frenetic quest for personal identity through brands and objects, before finally turning into an extreme ideology of shopping as a form of geopolitical defense. When George W. Bush famously urged Americans in 2001 to buy in response to terrorism, the aspiration ceased to be personal; it became a full-fledged nationalistic ideology.”

But now the aspiration is to buy nothing, whether because we’re exhausted, fearful, or broke. So Hockenberry speculates about new narratives and new design strategies for a time when no product is the best product. Hints: “one-for-life” tools, tech gadgets that can be infinitely upgraded with a minimum purchase, and truly durable appliances whose external colors and textures can be cheaply personalized or updated.

Carbon Neutral Monday

Monday, March 23rd, 2009

I couldn’t care less if Angelina Jolie becomes the next octomom. I care a little bit more about the latest pictures of George Clooney, but not much. Yet every couple of months for years when I’d go get my hair done I’d still get sucked into consuming all the schlocky celebrity garbage in the magazines lying around the salon. This year, one of my New Year’s resolutions was to bring better reading with me to the beauty parlor. So for the next couple of days I’ll be blogging about a few of the things I read on Saturday when I went to get my hair cut.

To continue Friday’s burning question, I’ll start with Richard Conniff’s interesting piece in environment 360. Coniff uses the recent opening of Kroon Hall, the new home of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, as a jumping off point to ask whether it is feasible to achieve carbon neutrality, “the architectural Holy Grail in the age of global warming.” (At least architects acknowledge that this is the ultimate goal. Landscape designers haven’t even gotten to that point yet.) Ultimately, he concludes that it’s possible to get “damned close,” but even Yale will have to purchase offsets to mitigate the emissions they could not design out of the building.

Surprisingly, Coniff seems a bit miffed by the fact that the biggest carbon emission savings came not from “sexy new technologies” but rather from very traditional design strategies like orientation for passive solar heat gain, careful shading, and making the most of daylight. (Duh?) But he does a good job of pointing out how flaws in the U.S. Green Building Council’s current LEED system lead to “certified green” buildings that are anything but energy efficient (and therefore not even close to carbon neutral).

And he does a great job of exploding the myth that going green just doesn’t pay: “In practice, the green premium may add 2 to 10 percent to construction costs. But the green label added 10 percent to the sale price for Energy Star buildings and 31 percent for LEED certified buildings,” according to a recent University of Reading study.

Carbon Neutral Landscapes?

Saturday, March 21st, 2009

Listen to landscape architects and other members of the “green industry” these days and it’s apparent they think they’re addressing global climate change just by going to work in the morning. Gardeners think the same way. After all, growing plants is the essence of landscaping, and plants pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during photosynthesis. That makes gardening the ultimate green activity in an age of global warming fueled primarily by this greenhouse gas, right?

Um, wrong. From the choice of paving materials to the use of fertilizers and the amount of embodied energy involved in pumping and distributing water used for irrigation, gardens are part of the problem, not the solution to our climate woes. Is it possible to create landscapes that are carbon neutral or, even better, that function as “carbon sinks”? I explore this question here.

Let There Be (Solar) Light

Friday, March 6th, 2009

More good stuff for the garden in today’s Inhabitat—coming soon to your local Ikea, an entire line of solar-powered LED outdoor lights, including little table lights, pathway globes, and strings of paper lanterns in all kinds of cool shapes and colors. 

Sexy Cisterns

Thursday, March 5th, 2009

Collecting rainwater to use in your garden is a time-honored and easy way to do something good for yourself (lower water bills! a lusher, more productive landscape!) and the environment (less stress on public drinking water supplies! less storm water runoff!). Of late, designers have gotten us way beyond the typical 50-gallon plastic barrel covered with a film of mold, and Inhabitat has been doing a good job of acknowledging their efforts. A few of the more imaginative examples:

CISTA, a rainwater harvesting system designed for urban environments, consists of a tall, slender, 100-gallon tank surrounded by a planting frame. No-nonsense types can simply use it as a trellis for a flowering vine. More adventurous gardeners can turn it into a signature topiary.

The prototype Rainpod looks like a miniature municipal water tank topped with a Statue of Liberty-like crown that captures the precipitation. Propped up on three legs made of local timber, it stands a bit taller than a person so the water can be delivered gratis by gravity. The effect is funky cute, like a little UFO that’s landed in your yard.

If you’re looking for something a bit more traditional but still slick, take a look at the RainwaterHOG, a system of modular plastic tanks with a sleek profile.

Alice Waters to the Rescue

Friday, February 20th, 2009

Recommended reading: the op-ed piece in today’s New York Times by Alice Waters and colleague Katrina Heron. They describe how the USDA’s $9 billion-a-year school lunch program has become a way to distribute unhealthy high-fat commodity food—some of the same ingredients found in fast food—to our schools, and how the resulting meals routinely fail to meet basic nutritional standards. They recommend scrapping the program and starting from scratch, pointing out that advocacy groups like Better School Food have managed to work with local farmers to provide kids with healthy, fresh food.

Last night on the news, I watched Michelle Obama, continuing to make the rounds to various federal agencies, arrive at the USDA bearing a gift—a magnolia seedling propagated from a tree planted on the White House grounds by Andrew Jackson. She said she wanted it to grow in one of the new community gardens that will be created at every USDA facility worldwide. It was a nice gesture, but a missed opportunity. Imagine if MIchelle had brought a tomato or apple seedling instead and used the occasion to promote healthy, organically grown fruits and vegetables for the nation’s children—she is, after all, a former hospital administrator. Another good thing she could do is create a model organic garden at the White House to advance the movement for healthy food and healthy kids.