By tackling some of the most daunting problems of the city, landscape architects are rising to new prominence.
Elizabeth Padjen: The last time ArchitectureBoston devoted an entire issue to landscape architecture was in 2003; our roundtable discussion was titled “Burying Olmsted.” At that time, much of the buzz in the profession was focused on what might be called the artful landscape: landscape cum art installation. But the participants in that roundtable also mentioned Millennium Park in West Roxbury — where soil from the Big Dig was used to cap an old landfill — as an example of cutting-edge thinking about ecological landscapes, and they bemoaned the lack of attention such projects were receiving. It’s astonishing to see how the profession has changed in just seven years — not only in terms of the kinds of projects that are gaining wide recognition, but also in terms of a new focus and a new energy. Terms such as landscape urbanism, ecological urbanism, and agricultural urbanism are now commonplace and are even leaking into the public lexicon. One of our editorial board members recently stated, “Landscape is suddenly the most relevant player.” Let’s start by talking about this new excitement. Where does it come from?
David Gamble: More and more, the public recognizes the fragility of the environment — look at the recent floods in Nashville and the oil spill in the Gulf. Part of the landscape profession’s rise to the top is due to the general recognition by the public that landscapes are living organisms and that we need to think very carefully about how we inhabit our environment. This increase in consciousness has helped landscape architecture play a much larger role in the public’s eye than it might have otherwise.
Laura Solano: Landscape architects are especially skilled in understanding systems, and that’s why we are deeply involved in this search for an ecologically responsible life. It’s easy to say that this focus has suddenly boiled up, but in fact, it’s been a long time coming. Frederick Law Olmsted, in the 19th century, understood systems perfectly; his talents were multivalent: he was a civil engineer, a surveyor, and an author, as well as a landscape architect. In the early to mid-20th century, Jens Jensen and Aldo Leopold were writing about these issues, but there wasn’t an audience. And then Ian McHarg blew the doors open in 1969 by introducing the idea of ecological planning.
Wendi Goldsmith: Olmsted espoused the merit of Central Park long before other people ever imagined today’s development pressures. Yet he rallied people behind a vision and was very clear about doing it for reasons of air quality, exercise, civic interaction, and creating a shared space that would reinforce community. His design of Boston’s Emerald Necklace was intended to solve some very practical stormwater flooding management problems. Both projects place landscape architecture at the foundation of what we now call sustainable community design.
Shauna Gillies-Smith: The public has long understood that landscape architects work with living elements. But a recent and significant shift is that we are starting to realize that cities are also living organisms, so the systematic thinking that has been part of the landscape discipline is now being translated to new strategies for the urban condition as well.
Jill Desimini: And of course, landscape architects bring an understanding of people and the designed experience. That means they are skilled at making spaces that work for their inhabitants that also address the complexities of urban, ecological, and infrastructural systems.
Architecture and Landscape Architecture
Elizabeth Padjen: The tectonic plates of the design professions seem to be shifting. I wonder if the rise of landscape architecture means that something has changed in the ligatures that tie the professions together or if it’s evidence of fundamental differences in the ways that the disciplines respond to the challenges of the world today.
David Gamble: It’s partly because of the vacuum created by the departure of the architects. Architects haven’t been thinking about larger-scale connections and about relationships to key topographic and environmental conditions or special places in cities in which the landscape is really what’s most valued. Landscape architects have found a way to take over much of that territory by engaging themselves directly in those issues.
Jill Desimini: We like to think of projects as functioning in many ways — socially, economically, environmentally — apart from how they look. Of course, many architects do, too. But, having been trained in both architecture and landscape architecture, I would say there is a real difference in the complexity of the landscape medium and the ways in which landscape architects think about how various systems might come together. A good example is the project by Stoss for the Lower Don River in Toronto. A traditional urban-design approach might have considered the river as an entity to be squeezed into an urban fabric. Instead, Stoss asked, What does this kind of river need in order to function? The designers weren’t trying to adapt it to the city fabric and then figure out how to deal with the flooding that comes later. The challenge became how to structure the city and the neighborhood around the river. If you give the river the kind of mouth that it needs, if you understand that you’ll have fluctuating water levels, then you start to think in terms of different types of land use and you can start to develop a set of performance criteria both for the river and for the neighborhood and open spaces. Various elements start to work on multiple levels but also together in a unified, sustainable whole.
Laura Solano: The example of designing for fluctuating water levels underscores an important distinction between architecture and landscape architecture, which is that architecture usually doesn’t have to deal with something that is inherent to landscape: change, which is the driver for all natural systems, for better or worse. The arc of time and change are fundamentally different factors in the landscape design process.
The emphasis in landscape urbanism should be on the urbanism. Jill Desimini
Shauna Gillies-Smith: Something that makes landscape architecture particularly resonant right now is its verb-like quality, in comparison with some earlier, more architecture-oriented urban models, like New Urbanism — all very intelligent, but really about organizing a city or town around a more static structure. Contemporary landscape architecture is much more interested in the systems and the forces and the flows, so it is a more active approach toward designing landscapes and urban systems. As we start to re-recognize that we are connected to the larger ecological world, we realize we need a model that can respond to an ever-changing world, not just one in crisis.
Wendi Goldsmith: I think that’s right. The whole green design movement started with a focus on energy systems within the building: insulation and the efficiency of HVAC systems. And then, bit by bit, it grew to include water use, glazing, building positioning, which then evolved into new ideas about things like light and lighting, water conservation and reuse, and integrating graywater management with building plumbing. Fairly quickly, sustainable design started to bleed into the landscape and to encompass infrastructure, including power generation, and people began to understand that it’s not just about the building and what goes on inside it: We need to look at what goes on outside, on site, and what goes on beyond the site. Now we’re thinking about buildings in relation to the grid, to watersheds, and to water supplies. What I am observing is a new relationship, maybe eventually a new field, where science and engineering and landscape design all merge. Our society is just beginning to recognize the value in such an approach.
Urban Design and Landscape Architecture
Shauna Gillies-Smith: Landscape typologies have evolved to a fair degree, and landscape architects today feel that they can take on a much larger territory than was their traditional purview: designs for entire regions or decommissioned airports or large post-industrial sites or whole infrastructure projects. That’s by necessity, because landscape systems don’t end at the property line. I always have a hard time making the distinction between landscape architecture and urban design, probably because I’ve been trained in both fields, but I think that is one area where they are different: It’s very hard to put a circle around what defines a landscape.
Elizabeth Padjen: Is the landscape architect encroaching on the traditional turf of the urban designer? Do you envision the end of urban design as a discipline, perhaps being absorbed by landscape architecture?
Shauna Gillies-Smith: That could be a very politically dangerous idea to agree or disagree with, depending on your perspective. Clearly, both disciplines will continue to evolve. I just finished teaching what turned out to be a very exciting studio. It was called an urban design project, but it addressed landscape, ecology, and environmental dynamics. The project site was on a floodplain with a daily tidal fluctuation of about six feet; we also projected an additional rising water level of six feet over 100 years. So the students had to think simultaneously about accommodating fluctuating water levels and about creating urbanism. Typically, when we think of zoning, we think of it in a horizontal way, or as vertical envelopes of height limits. But the most critical aspect of this project was the first 10 feet of the city. The challenge was to design that sectional relationship intelligently, to foster a vibrant urban life on a ground plain that must accommodate so much natural variation.
Architects haven’t been thinking about larger-scale connections and relationships to topographic and environmental conditions. Landscape architects have found a way to take over much of that territory. David Gamble AIA, AICP
David Gamble: The design professions in general have done themselves a disservice in trying to delineate distinct territories and in believing that a project needs to begin with the urban planner, then go to the urban designer, then the architect, then the landscape architect, and so on. That type of linear thinking is one reason why we haven’t been able to foster strong interdisciplinary collaborations. Major design competitions around the world now tend to be dominated by teams including very diverse disciplines, such as landscape architects, planners, economists, and historic preservation architects, because there is so much interdisciplinary discussion that needs to occur when you look at complex urban areas. I do think that the architecture profession today has much greater respect for a landscape architect’s sense of process than it did a generation ago. The work I’m doing in China now as an architect is entirely in the service of a landscape-architecture firm that is planning large regions of the country. It’s a scenario that stems in part from the client’s intuitive understanding of the nature of their ecosystems and the desire to work with their natural settings, which requires the landscape architect’s understanding of geography and place.
Laura Solano: And that’s not an unusual scenario anymore. Clients are unbelievably sophisticated now, and they do their homework in terms of the composition of the teams they hire. In my office, we are the prime for about 80 percent of our work, big and small. Many of our teams have 12 or 15 consultants, often representing narrow areas of expertise: planners, architects, historians, ecologists, soil scientists, hydrologists, and biologists. Strong collaborations offer tremendous educational opportunities.
Elizabeth Padjen: Landscape urbanism is at least partly responsible for the profession’s new energy. What exactly does it mean?
Laura Solano: Charles Waldheim, who is now the chair of the department of landscape architecture at Harvard, coined the term. He has said: “Landscape urbanism describes a disciplinary realignment currently underway, in which landscape replaces architecture as the basic building block of contemporary urbanism.”
Elizabeth Padjen: That’s a shot across the bow. What are some examples?
Jill Desimini: I’d like to respond first by saying that at the core of landscape urbanism is the idea that looking at, understanding, and designing urban processes will lead to making a new kind of city that is capable both of self-regenerating and of changing the way we experience the place we live. The emphasis in landscape urbanism should be on the urbanism. With that in mind, I would point to Toronto, which has hired a number of landscape architects as leads for very big projects that are changing that city, especially the waterfront. These include West 8’s reconfiguration of the central waterfront, work by Field Operations on Lake Ontario Park, and the design by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates for the Lower Don Lands as a new metropolitan precinct. Landscape architects are also working on large projects in other cities. New York’s Freshkills Park project — the transformation of 2,200 acres of landfill on Staten Island into a new public park and urban habitat by Field Operations — is another example of an innovative approach to revitalizing and repurposing a piece of the urban fabric. The key now is to focus even more on the design of the city itself. Landscape urbanism positions landscape and landscape methods as a driver for urban infrastructural change.
David Gamble: Part of the momentum also comes from the shifting economics of cities. More and more cities over the last generation have been looking to old industrial sites or waterfronts as places to grow; large parks become the catalysts that drive economic redevelopment.
Elizabeth Padjen: But the idea of landscape, particularly in the form of public parks and open spaces, as a catalyst for development isn’t new. You can even find it codified in the 16th-century Spanish Laws of the Indies that was the basis for town planning in the Spanish colonies: put the square in the middle of the town and build out around it. What’s different?
Shauna Gillies-Smith: Landscape urbanism takes another approach — more profound in some ways — and looks at a larger force, a river, for example, as a generator of urban form and urban typology.
Jill Desimini: David is right that many cities are revitalizing industrial sites, and a lot of them are on waterfronts and thus have an ecological component. The difference is that landscape urbanism starts with looking at these sites in terms of the environmental systems that can serve as generators for the project.
Laura Solano: It’s about healing: taking derelict or brownfield sites and making them useful. We take a piece of land that nobody cares about any more, and turn it into something that people can identify as a place that has personal meaning and community value.
Shauna Gillies-Smith: I think it’s important to not conflate landscape and parks. It’s true that the idea of building a public park that is a catalyst for development is an old trick. But only part of landscape is parks. Part of it is plazas. Part of it is open space. And part of it is the system of stormwater management that gets built into our streets, into our yards, into our housing units. What is exciting about landscape urbanism is that it can define new types of space that not only accommodate ecological systems, but also define ways that we as individuals can relate to landscape and to ourselves in different ways.
Wendi Goldsmith: Not long ago, the words “landscape urbanism” would have sounded like an oxymoron. We worked on a project recently with Laura’s firm and with the architect Steve Holl that is a perfect example of this change in thinking. This project involves brownfields restoration, a large public-works facility including a major green-roof project, the preservation of some public open space, and programming that includes a significant public education and events component — all while making very tangible contributions to natural habitats in the south-central Connecticut region. It completely merges architecture and engineering and landscape architecture. I can’t think of any earlier examples in the US with the same level of interdisciplinary entanglement. The hydrology of the site accommodates these major functional components, but reverts the site back to its pre-development “water budget” in terms of its hydrological performance. So there’s this incredible melding of function and beauty and education that also transforms a stigmatized landscape into something that sets the stage for a new pattern of development in the region.
David Gamble: A number of design schools have been very strategic about raising the profile of landscape architecture within the school, which is reverberating within the field itself. More landscape-architecture programs are opening up, in part because some leaders in the profession are finding ways to excite a new generation of students who want to shape the physical environment. They’re raising the profile of the profession from within the academic community.
Elizabeth Padjen: Conversely, the schools must also be responding to a market interest.
Shauna Gillies-Smith: All of us who are in academia know that it’s the students who are really driving the sustainability agenda. No question about it. And that generation’s interest in the environment is one of the really big pushes behind recognizing, first of all, that our world isn’t static and, second, that we need to find a different way of working with it instead of against it.
Laura Solano: One of my students gave a presentation on a recent project in Korea that turned 600 acres of landfill into a park. The park ended up as a reflection of the trash pile: it was essentially a pyramid with the top cut off. This student’s discussion centered around what might have happened instead if a landscape architect had been involved from the beginning: there would have been a grading plan for placing trash, there would have been systems to promote decomposition, and the nearby wetlands would have been engineered to support a river watershed. These kinds of issues capture the attention of students; they know that there are huge problems to solve, and they know the answers lie in innovation.
Rose Kennedy Greenway
Elizabeth Padjen: Let’s say that, instead of having just been completed, the Greenway project is just now in the concept phase and the initial planning has been undertaken by a team of landscape urbanists. What are some of the substantive changes we’d be seeing?
Shauna Gillies-Smith: One obvious answer is that there would be a very clear, probably somewhat artful but potentially also didactic, approach to stormwater, so that one would actually see how water is moved and treated. We would probably also see some form of urban agriculture — not necessarily community gardens, but perhaps some form of urban foraging.
David Gamble: I suspect that the engineering for the tunnels would be done in the service of a much larger vision of connectivity and continuity. Whatever you think about whether or not there should be development along the Greenway, there is still a very painful sense that it is not as robust in its role as it should be.
It is important to recognize the significance of the constructed landscape. Most people think of landscape as the backyard garden or the national parks. Shauna Gillies-Smith ASLA
Jill Desimini: It could perform in so many different ways. It could even have a greater social or economic agenda. Right now, it’s very neutral, and there’s nothing very neutral about a landscape-urbanist vision.
Shauna Gillies-Smith: Thinking of it as a landscape in isolation — what you would do to decorate the top of the tunnel — is fundamentally not a landscape-urbanist approach. Thinking of the whole tunnel and the buildings along each edge in conjunction with the landscape, ecology, and the social program is much more appropriate to a landscape-urbanist approach.
Laura Solano: There have been so many disastrous tries at linking architecture and landscape along the Greenway; it suffers for a lack of integration. But I’m convinced that, over time, it’s going to be redone, because we know it’s not right. The Greenway Conservancy is doing some useful and valuable things, like organic maintenance and developing a tree farm to supply trees for the Greenway, but management can’t fix the things that are inherently wrong with it.
Wendi Goldsmith: This is a case where some of the most important concerns were put last on the list. Lots of people other than landscape architects, let alone landscape urbanists, were calling the shots. And so, many other aspects of the project crystallized before there was actually anything resembling a final program for how the Greenway would operate, or how it would look and function.
David Gamble: The Greenway has served a purpose of sorts. All across the country, cities are facing similar problems of deteriorating highways and infrastructure and are recognizing the value of trying, even at a smaller scale, to take advantage of new opportunities to reconnect their cities. Other cities will learn some lessons from what happened in Boston and try to do it in a more synthetic way.
Elizabeth Padjen: If we were to re-do the Greenway now, I suspect we would keep part of the superstructure of the old Artery and rework it as an artifact or walkway.
Laura Solano: I agree with you. There was something sublime about driving up over the city streets.
Shauna Gillies-Smith: That sublime quality is one of the appeals of New York’s High Line, along with a nostalgia for the big old industrial superstructure as you’re floating through the city. And the elements are beautiful: the furniture is beautiful, the planking is clever and smart, and the planting is rich and a strong contrast to the more controlled environment. There’s no question that the High Line would have influenced thinking about the opportunities for the Greenway.
Burying Olmsted, Again
Shauna Gillies-Smith: I want to re-visit the idea of burying Olmsted, because it is important to recognize the significance of the constructed landscape. Part of the interest for me in the High Line isn’t so much the aesthetic of it, although it’s an amazing place, but that it calls into question what landscape is, and it calls into question the naturalization of landscape. When most people think of landscape, they usually think of the backyard garden or the national-park backgrounds in TV ads for SUVs. But by recognizing that what we are creating in both our green spaces and our hard spaces is a constructed landscape, we are held to a different standard. Our roads are landscape: they are designed landscapes. Our sidewalks, our traffic medians, our rooftops are designed landscapes. We learn to ignore them. But there is a lot of economic and design investment in all of those elements. The importance of burying Olmsted is that we need to recognize that our landscape is completely constructed, and that consequently, both our landscape and our work as designers must be held accountable.
Working with water is a lot better than working against it.
In the space of four centuries, Boston has increased its land area by 39 times, from 1.2 square miles in 1630 to 48 square miles today. The entire area of the city is now 90 square miles, of which 54 percent is land and 46 percent water. Over the past century, the sea level has risen a little over 10 inches. By a conservative estimate, it will have risen a further 30 inches by 2100.
Why Does This Matter?
Boston, no less than Amsterdam, is a water city. In topography and climatology, as in history and culture, the past is prologue. If, as forecast, there is a significant rise in the level of the ocean, the expansionist narrative of the city’s development will be reversed so that by the year 2100, absent immediate and radical action, Bostonians will be revisiting the shoreline of the 1880s.
Boston, much like other coastal cities, has become increasingly aware of the challenges that sea-level rise poses for both existing and future development and the choices to be made — technical, economic, and social. In 2009, the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission held an international design competition for ideas responding to sea-level rise in San Francisco Bay and beyond. This year, the Museum of Modern Art and PS1 have joined forces to address the challenge of sea-level rise as it would affect New York City: project proposals by architects, artists, engineers, and others are the subject of a workshop and exhibition, Rising Currents. As stimulating as such events may be for ambitious designers, without political leadership, they are simply tinkering at the edge. To understand the gravity of the situation, imagine a replication of the inundation caused by Hurricane Katrina visited upon every coastal community in the United States. The tragedy of New Orleans in 2005 laid bare not only the vulnerability of the city’s physical infrastructure and its critical part in the economy of the nation, but also the social inequities sustained within that fragile crucible.
Facing the Facts
Published jointly by Allianz, a global financial services provider, and the World Wildlife Fund, Major Tipping Points in the Earth’s Climate System and Consequences for the Insurance Sector provides the most recent evaluation of the effects of climate change and the likely effects on the insurance industry. Combined sea-level rise is one of four critical areas addressed in the report, with a focus on exposed assets in port megacities and specifically those on the northeast coast of the United States.
The financial stakes for Boston are not trivial. Assuming low and high projections of a 20-to-26-inch rise in sea level by 2050 (by the time today’s infant is in mid-career), the report projects an “exposed risk” to property damage and consequential loss ranging from $409 billion to more than $460 billion (think of 20 Big Digs or half the cost of the Iraq war).
In trying to imagine how such a flood might look and feel in Boston, there is some instruction in looking back to the flooding of Paris in 1910. Weeks of heavy rain and swollen watercourses upstream caused the Seine to overflow its banks and submerge the city, including the Île de la Cité and Notre Dame. This had happened 250 years earlier, in 1658, but the difference in modern Paris was that the flood water found new conduits in the sewers laid by Haussman and in the recently constructed Metro lines. So in addition to filling the cellars, the floods permeated the underground infrastructure of the city, water gushing in at every orifice, issuing forth into major railway stations such as the Gare D’Orsay and bringing the city to a halt.
Transpose this scenario to Boston. A relatively modest 12-inch rise in sea level is projected to happen, at the latest, by 2046 and, at worst, by 2016, a mere six years from now. Combined with a stiff northeaster of some days’ duration, the waves of the Atlantic are likely to top the threshold of subway stations such as Aquarium and South Station and to rush down the access ramps of the Central Artery and the Tip O’Neill tunnel to Logan Airport. In most readers’ lifetimes, and within the space of a few hours, high tides, aided and abetted by a full moon and high winds, could drown the modern city of Boston in the bathtub of the Atlantic. The floods of February 1978 (the “Great Blizzard”) and October 1991 (the “Perfect Storm”) not only presage the magnitude of what can be expected, but as “extreme events” they are also predicted to occur with increasing frequency.
What Are the Choices?
There are two choices before us as a city and as a country: to do nothing (or too little, too late); or to do what has to be done, and fast. Contrary to the conclusions of the Tipping Points report, damage to property would in some sense be the least of our problems, the greater being social abandonment, as we have seen in New Orleans.
Consider the do-nothing or “proceed cautiously” approach. Absent government intervention, decisions will be left to individuals and corporations. Some may choose to ignore the warnings, some may take adaptive measures, and others may choose to move inland out of trouble. And some, the poor, will have no choice at all except to bear witness to a generation of disinvestment followed by a catastrophic failure of the infrastructure. In other words, to do nothing is to make an undemocratic and unjust choice. Every man for himself and let the devil take the hindmost is not a strategy — it would be an abdication of leadership and social justice.
This leaves us with having to do something and, if the facts are faced, doing it fast.
What Are Others Doing?
While other cities and metropolitan areas have already taken action, it is worth noting that they have also taken time to accomplish their goals. The most common form of protection is the flood barrier. The floating barriers of Venice will protect the lagoon from storm surges of up to 10 feet. With completion scheduled for 2012, the project has been 25 years in the making. London’s Thames Barrier was a mere 10-year project, completed in 1984 — but in response to the devastating floods of 1953. The Delta Works in the Netherlands is a series of 250 miles of dams, dikes, locks, and barriers started in 1950, accelerated after the same North Sea flooding of 1953, and completed in 1997.
If Bostonians want to preserve their quality of life for the next generation, they had better act now.
The Dutch Delta Commission Report of 2008 is a deeply impressive document outlining the next phase of that country’s defenses through the year 2100. The commission spells out and embraces principles of humanism and sustainability as fundamental values driving its recommendations, committing an average of $2 billion per year through the end of this century.
What Can Boston Do?
Climate scientists and actuaries have spelled out the probabilities and the consequences of sea-level rise for metropolitan Boston. Other port cities faced with similar challenges have shown us a range of strategies that are transferable to this city. We have learned from these examples that it takes a generation, say 35 years, to see a major civil project through from inception to completion. Within that span, by 2045, the water level of Boston Harbor will have risen somewhere between 12 and 36 inches. If, like the Dutch, Bostonians want to preserve and enhance the quality of life that they have enjoyed to bequeath to the next generation, then they had better act now.
Meeting this challenge requires forceful and visionary leadership at all levels of government to articulate a strategy that looks decades into the future. It is also clear that Boston cannot face this alone but must find common cause, nationally, with other coastal cities and towns.
We propose three parts to an effective strategy to “work together with water,” as the Dutch have put it:
Articulate the Vision. The crisis of sea-level rise obliges us to reexamine the value of the city as the crucible of our economy, our culture, and our community. While Boston may be a world center for medical research, the city is also a leader in social inequality. A vision for preemptive reconstruction is an oppor-tunity to right that wrong. In the words of Governor Winthrop, “the only way to avoid this shipwreck and provide for our posterity…we must be knit together in this work as one man.”
Establish the Scale. Antonio Di Mambro’s 1988 scheme for a protective harbor barrier running from Quincy to Winthrop is as important for establishing the scale and complexity of the response as it is for its physical vision. This multi-layered proposal combines a tidal-surge barrier, reconfigured harbor facility, transit line, highway, reclaimed land, and industrial, commercial, and residential redevelopment. It is an infrastructure that both protects the present and promotes the future.
Act Now. With a clear vision and a long-term goal, there are myriad actions that can be undertaken immediately: protect highway and subway entrances; raise the Harborwalk and create seawalls; establish an elevated datum for buildings; relocate electrical and mechanical equipment out of basements and above the flood levels; and develop storm-surge reservoirs with windmill pumping stations in the lowlands of the South Boston seaport.
The threat of sea-level rise is not immediate but it is urgent. The idea is not to respond to disaster but to preempt it. The challenge is not to succumb to fears (of inundation, decline, or increased taxes) but to see opportunities (of employment, urban revitalization, and social equity). Viewed with vision and discipline, sea-level rise presents the opportunity of a generation to refloat the city, its economy, and its people.
Who can argue with recycling? It’s sustainable, noble even. Yet, for most of us, the act of recycling is exactly like the act of disposing — except the bin colors are different. “The recycling” has come to mean a class of privileged rubbish, and recycling itself has come to represent only half of an idea: diverting trash from landfills. But a deeper understanding of sustainability — and a corresponding shift in our values — is now bringing attention to the other half of the idea: reuse. The design community — architects, industrial designers, fashion designers, landscape architects — has embraced the concept as a catalyst for creativity. The following six essays are reports from the design world illustrating small examples of this very big idea. They demonstrate that new attitudes about reuse influence not only what we recycle but how. Together, they suggest that we may be entering a new era of creative transformation.
The re-working of old clothes is hardly a new concept. Museum collections are full of 19th-century dresses that have been reconstructed multiple times to update them according to the latest fashion. Today, with the wealth of consumer goods at our fingertips and cutting-edge designers such as Thakoon at Target, we no longer have to worry about recycling our best garment. Indeed, the notion of “sustainable” seems out of place in a fashion system that is based on planned obsolescence, yet the trend for “new” garments using old materials continues to gain currency. Vogue now has a green issue and the Spring/Summer 2010 New York Fashion Week witnessed concurrent “Green Shows” for the first time, featuring eco-conscious designers.
Highlights from the Green Shows included the work of Susan Cianciolo, a New York City-based multimedia artist and designer who has been at the forefront of the re-purposed clothing movement since the mid-1990s. Cianciolo’s first collection in 1995 used recycled clothing and discarded scraps of fabric from the Chinatown factories, remade into edgy pieces with a deconstructed aesthetic. Cianciolo’s signature frayed hems and evident seaming reflect a deep-rooted commitment to the handmade, as do her do-it-yourself clothing kits. Since the conscious radicalism of her first RUN collection, Cianciolo has remained true to her mission. She still pulls clothing from her grandmother’s closet to screenprint and re-construct, breathing new life into a garment imbued with memories.
The design firm Alabama Chanin also links the present to the past, not only in the use of reclaimed textiles, but also in the reinvigoration of the Southern tradition of quiltmaking. Historically, American quilters used every scrap of fabric they could find, from flour sacks to the unraveled threads from red tobacco pouches. Founder Natalie Chanin continues in this vein, resurrecting the ubiquitous 20th-century garment — the cotton T-shirt — and turning it into fancifully embroidered and appliquéed skirts, dresses, and tops. Although the South’s once-vibrant cotton industry has long passed, the company also now sources cotton yardage that is “grown to sewn in the United States.”
Chanin is one of a number of contemporary designers who have published do-it-yourself books, testimony to the active and growing DIY movement. While some craftspeople feel that websites such as Etsy.com are a threat to the livelihood of academically trained designers, there are many who have embraced it, including the London-based design firm Junky Styling. Founded in 1997 by Annika Sanders and Kerry Seager, the designers transform vintage clothes into dramatic silhouettes. Junky Styling cunningly retains many of the details of the original garment — the closures, the cuffs, the collars — to create fashions that have a streetwise edge to them. With a nod to their English heritage, one can see connections to the doyenne of alternative design, Vivienne Westwood, as well as the punk look of the late 1970s, an earlier incarnation of the DIY aesthetic.
Junky Styling’s obvious use of vintage clothing differs from the design sensibility of Toronto-based Preloved, which finds inspiration in the garment’s textile. Founder Julia Greive started the business as a vintage clothing shop but changed her focus when head designer Peter Friesen came on board. Friesen skillfully deconstructs the original garment and completely transforms it, using sophisticated construction and inventive seaming. Each piece is comprised of two to five used garments that have been purchased in bulk from rag houses. Like Alabama Chanin, the design firm is eco-friendly to the core, hiring only local cutters and sewers. Preloved also exemplifies the future of remade fashion: an affordable, ready-to-wear line offering the customer a one-of-akind garment. It’s a prospect undreamed of without the imaginative reuse of old clothes.
Despite strong demand for sustainable products and materials in the United States, the amount of waste produced by the building industry remains staggering. Approximately 100 million tons per year — almost 40 percent of the entire municipal solid-waste stream — come from construction and demolition. While most of this waste could be recovered, material reuse remains limited, particularly at the commercial scale. In fact, LEED credits for material reuse are among the least sought after, with only 5 to 9 percent of all LEED certified projects having successfully received those credits.
A new tool may help to change that. The Design for Reuse Primer seeks to more clearly understand the obstacles impeding reuse and provide the design and construction industry with knowledge and tools that can help alleviate the barriers. Scheduled for release in mid-2010 as a Web-based resource, the Primer also aims to bridge the communication and knowledge gaps among the various players involved in the reuse process. Thus it is targeted to a broad audience, including designers, contractors, clients, and municipalities. The primary feature of the Primer will be a series of case studies that serve as guides to the reuse process. They will not only showcase the possibilities for reuse but also serve as models that readers can adapt to their own projects.
The Primer was developed by the San Francisco nonprofit Public Architecture, working with deconstruction and material reuse expert Brad Guy and various government agencies, and supported by a grant from the US Green Building Council. The research team has identified a diverse range of projects varying in size, location, type, budget, scope, and design intent for inclusion as case studies.
In addition to the case studies, the project website will provide a directory of resources connecting people to additional tools that can facilitate material reuse. The website is meant to be interactive, allowing users to contribute knowledge and engage in dialogue and allowing the project to continue to grow as a productive resource. Building codes, perceived environmental health and safety concerns, scheduling and storage constraints, the inertia of familiar methodologies — there are many challenges limiting the role of reuse in the design and construction industries. Yet increasing rates of material reuse can have profound positive environmental implications, affecting everything from energy consumption to landfill waste. The Design for Reuse Primer aims to stimulate the development of new systems and infrastructure to make reuse a more common component of a sustainable building strategy.
For as long as people have built, we have un-built, too. A thousand years ago, Europeans removed the physical traces of departed conquerors by repurposing Roman bricks for new construction. Viking shipbuilders reused choice timber in new vessels. The United States, colonized to supply its bounty of raw materials to Western Europe, has less experience with the concept of reuse. My father tells of moving to an old farmhouse in northern Vermont in the 1950s and finding in the barn a ball of string measuring three feet in diameter. And next to it, a shoebox that was filled with bits of string and labeled “String Too Short To Save.”
Today, the practice of reusing building materials is flourishing in a renaissance driven by environmental considerations as powerful as the economic motivations of the past. For Boston Building Resources (the new name, effective this spring, for the Building Materials Resource Center and the Boston Building Materials Co-op) and its Reuse Center, the financial advantages historically associated with salvage are on an equal footing with landfill diversion and embodied energy reduction. Aiming to make a positive community impact through the supply of economically accessible building materials, the Reuse Center offers a membership discount program for individuals with low to moderate incomes and for nonprofit organizations.
It was the oil crisis of the ’70s that compelled architect John Rowse to start sharing his expertise in building science and construction methods with his neighbors. In 1978, he founded the Boston Building Materials Co-op to provide homeowners with both an affordable source of insulation and training in weatherization techniques. Despite the subsequent drop in oil prices and dissipation of environmental awareness, the cooperative continued to thrive. Workshop space was added to enable members to make window repairs without investing in expensive tools, and in 1993 the Reuse Center was launched in two tractor-trailer containers on the site.
Word spread among local contractors and the trailers quickly filled with doors, windows, fixtures, and other materials diverted from landfills. Showrooms contributed new products such as lighting fixtures that were slow to sell. The less-than-ideal conditions of uninsulated trailers in blazing heat did not deter homeowners from doggedly sifting through the growing collection.
Recognizing the growing popularity of building material reuse, the staff eventually replaced their six trailers with the warehouse building that houses the Reuse Center today. In 2008, approximately 800 doors, 400 windows, and 50 kitchen-cabinet sets found new homes via the clean and orderly aisles of the Reuse Center. Boston Building Resources also sold more than 500 composters produced by the Massachusetts EPA and 250 rain barrels constructed of 55-gallon plastic containers that had been previously used for food storage. The unquestionable success of the organization demonstrates a demand for secondhand materials in good condition — and proof that more designers, contractors, and clients are following the advice of director Matthew St. Onge: “Think reuse before new.”
For more information, including donation guidelines, visit: www.bostonbuildingresources.org. For a directory of North American reuse centers, salvage yards, and deconstruction specialists, visit: www.bmra.org.
It may take a sociologist, or perhaps a psychologist, to one day explain the cultural puzzlement that is best described as the Modern Revival. Other architectural revivals have allowed a decent interval of at least a century to pass before dusting off pre-used forms and devices. But the current fascination with all things midcentury has barely skipped a generation. It’s the design equivalent of boomers and their kids all knowing the words to “Satisfaction.”
This fascination is especially evident in the growing interest in midcentury furniture. Although many of these designs have been in continual production, Dwell magazine (founded in 2000) and the national retailer Design Within Reach (founded in 1999) introduced names such as Breuer, Nelson, and Eames to a new, younger audience, while simultaneously demonstrating how their furniture could fit a 21st-century lifestyle.
They have also given momentum to what might sound like an oxymoron: vintage Modern. Jane Prentiss of Skinner, the venerable Boston auction house, first noticed the trend around 1990, when many of her clients — boomer professionals who were collecting fine arts and antiques — began to buy the original midcentury furniture they remembered from their childhoods for their own teenage and 20-something children. “Because they themselves enjoyed collecting,” she remembers, “they wanted to find something that their children would like, as a way of connecting with them.” Prentiss established Skinner’s 20th Century Design department at that time, which now runs at least two auctions a year (the next is March 27).
Retailer Normand Mainville noticed the interest, too, opening Machine Age in Boston’s Fort Point Channel area in 1991 to sell vintage Modern furniture; a large part of his business then was providing period props for the movie industry. Today, many of his customers are “visual people” — artists, architects, photographers; some are serious collectors, while others are young people just starting out. And competition has blossomed, both locally and nationally (not to mention regular listings on Craigslist).
So why the interest in used furniture? Why would someone buy an old Eames chair when they could buy a nice fresh new one? “Presence,” Mainville answers. His customers appreciate the authenticity and history of the furniture, as well as the sense that these pieces are often unique and more personal.
Cost can be a factor, too. While rare or unusual pieces can command impressive prices (such as the 1973 George Nakashima table that Prentiss recently sold for $213,000), some are less expensive than their new counterparts, and frequently less expensive than the goods sold by mass-market furniture retailers.
Prentiss casts the trend against a larger social context. Much of the furniture fits today’s informal lifestyles; young people especially embrace it as “theirs.” Buyers of all ages are attracted to the quality and craftsmanship, as well as the rarity of some materials such as woods that are no longer available. And, she notes, buying previously owned furniture is inherently sustainable.
As concerns about sustainability permeate our culture and influence our values, it’s hard not to wonder if vintage Modern furniture will serve as gateway antiques, introducing a new generation to a marketplace that currently bemoans the graying of its customer base. Prentiss notes that her department has brought new buyers to Skinner, who often branch out to other interests, most notably Native American and ethnographic objects, vintage jewelry, and American folk art.
Can New England antique furniture be far behind? Designed and handcrafted by local makers using local materials without oil-based synthetics or noxious off-gassing, recycled across generations, and often available at prices far less than any new furniture, these pieces embody the very essence of sustainable values. Buying a New Hampshire Chippendale tiger-maple desk might soon seem like a very modern idea.
In Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart popularized the concept of managed product lifecycles, changing how we think about the things we buy. Cradle to Cradle proposes a future where commerce achieves both economic prosperity and environmental responsibility by closing material loops. So-called “service systems” supply consumers with televisions, computers, and home appliances — by leasing in lieu of selling — and shift the burdens of maintenance and disposal back to the service provider. Goods that might otherwise be discarded are instead “remanufactured” — refurbished, reused, or recycled into new products. While conceptually appealing, in practice these systems sometimes struggle to find their feet.
Service systems are common in business-to-business (B2B) transactions where tax deductions on rental fees are often more appealing than acquiring depreciating assets like copiers and printers. Similar systems have struggled in household markets, where end-users value the concept of ownership and aren’t afforded the same tax advantages. Electrolux tried renting washing machines to homeowners in Sweden, charging on a per-wash-cycle basis; the units were reclaimed, refurbished, and resold at the end of the trial. It failed, as household consumers could buy comparable products at similar cost through various credit plans, allowing them to keep the product after the payments ended.
The “car sharing” company, Zipcar, has shown, however, that it is possible to reverse consumer sentiment. It capitalizes on the hassle and expense of owning a car in the city, turning nonownership into a desirable lifestyle choice, making it hip to Zip.
In Japan, where consumers pay high fees to dispose of appliances, manufacturers developed cooperative reclamation and recycling infrastructures in response to tightening legislation. Matsushita’s Eco Technology Centre went beyond recycling, by using the disassembly process as a diagnostic for new products. It assesses the ease of disassembly and recycling, and reports suggestions back to designers, so new units are easier to process.
Caterpillar and Xerox have led industry efforts to “design for loops.” Caterpillar’s highly profitable Remanufacturing Division inspects, cleans, rebuilds, repairs, recycles, and resells end-of-life machinery parts. To reclaim profitable volumes of material, it charges customers a deposit that as much as doubles the price of the part. The financial incentive of returning the product creates a reclamation rate of 93 percent, supporting the division’s $1 billion annual revenue.
Xerox has also been very successful in remanufacturing, claiming certain photocopiers have seven lives, with six diversions from landfill. Its B2B rental of reprographic equipment creates a controlled distribution of products, where Xerox can easily take back a unit at the end of its service contract. The company’s innovation is to design products specifically for disassembly and reuse of parts. Caterpillar and Xerox have both sought external expertise in remanufacturing, but found limited supporting research in business and design schools.
Despite some successes, the state of the service-system approach to commerce shows that, while altruistic and environmental motivations have created some convincing marketing stories, good intentions haven’t had enough leverage to warp the prevailing cradle-to-grave business paradigms into closed loops. The success of existing models has hinged on financial incentives, legal penalties, and the coincidental, idyllic conditions of niche markets to trigger innovative approaches to design and business. Perhaps both industry and government will take lessons from current leaders and propel mainstream business up the learning curve of a new economy. Until then, Cradle to Cradle’s concept of a self-sustaining industrial cycle will remain in its infancy.
What do 50 Cent, Bette Midler, Michael Pollan, and Mel King have in common?
A documented love for the transformative power of gardens.
Gardens offer one of the most elemental forms of reuse. Dead leaves and discarded coffee grounds become compost that help wrinkled, dry seeds sprout to shiny green life. Community gardens also recharge neighborhoods, transforming vacant lots and neglected parcels into well-tended places. The City of Boston has 150 community gardens, nearly all of them on properties that were once abandoned.
The practice of reusing vacant urban land for gardens began in the United States during the economic depression of 1893. The mayor of Detroit — a city particularly hard hit by the downfall of the railroad industry — asked owners of vacant land at the city’s periphery to allow the unemployed to grow potatoes. Other cities, including Boston, soon created similar “allotment” gardens of their own. As Sam Bass Warner outlines in To Dwell is To Garden, the presence of urban gardens ebbed and flowed from allotment gardens to schoolyard gardens to the “victory” gardens of WWI and WWII, and all were top-down, government-sponsored forms of philanthropy.
Today’s bottom-up, community-based approach began in the 1970s, “the child of new politics and abandoned city land,” in Warner’s words. The new politics grew from Civil Rights-era neighborhood activism, further fueled by the first Earth Day and then an energy crisis. The vacant land was a byproduct of the midcentury suburban exodus; even Boston’s population shrank by 20 percent in two decades, leaving behind hundreds of empty properties. In 1974, as a state representative, Boston activist Mel King sponsored legislation to allow gardeners to use vacant public land at no cost; in 1976, Mayor Kevin White channeled federal community-development block grant dollars into the creation of 20 gardens. Unimpressed by government management and wanting to be part of the planning process, a handful of individuals from different neighborhoods founded Boston Urban Gardeners (now the Boston Natural Areas Network) — a citizen-based advocacy coalition. Neighborhoods established gardens at an extraordinary rate: by 1982, there were 120 in Boston. In the midst of profound racial tensions and the busing crisis, boarded-up buildings and urban renewal, community gardens offered a place for people of any age or ethnicity to declare a hopeful attitude toward their city through the most humble of means, while providing affordable food and flowers in return. They still do.
What’s new now? Waiting lists to join Boston gardens have tripled in the past few years. There’s a hipness to 21st-century urban gardening. The graying ’70s activists, recent immigrants, and well-intentioned college students have been joined by locavores and Michael Pollan devotees, Martha Stewart/Patti Moreno do-it-yourself types, and Alice Waters wannabes. In the Great Recession of our day, those seeking cheaper alternatives to grocery-store produce have again taken up neighborhood gardening, as have (apparently) multi-millionaire rappers. In 2010, the community garden is once more a source of neighborhood renewal and a dynamic example of true common ground.
What else is different now? Green thumb or not, popular attitudes toward city living have changed. In part due to efforts like community gardens, urban neighborhoods are again a destination.