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Balancing Water Conservation and Human Comfort in an Arid Region

By Kaylee Colter, MS Candidate in Applied Biological Sciences and Chris Martin, PhD, Professor, School of Letters and Sciences, Arizona State University

A successfully-designed sustainable landscape responds to the the particular objectives and constraints of a given project site. This summer, our Case Study Investigation (CSI) team evaluated three projects in arid regions where the primary regional concerns are extreme temperatures and limited availability of water. Due to the nature of these projects being publicly accessible (and publicly funded), it was particularly important for each project to create an enjoyable public space while being thoughtful about conserving resources.

Each project struck a different balance. The Civic Space Park in Phoenix, Arizona, was designed to maximize human comfort with less emphasis on water conservation. George “Doc” Cavalliere Park in Scottsdale, Arizona, balances local park needs for human comfort with water conservation, and the Domenici Courthouse in Albuquerque, New Mexico, was designed with water conservation as its highest priority. From our studies of these three unique projects it became apparent that trade-offs are sometimes necessary to optimize the delivery of ecosystem services.

csi-asu01L to R: Civic Space Park, George “Doc” Cavalliere Park, Pete V. Domenici US Courthouse (Photos by: Colter, Timmerman, Colter)

Phoenix Civic Space Park

Located in the heart of downtown Phoenix, Civic Space is a 2.5-acre public park designed to provide the community with a vibrant amenity within a high-density urban core. For the design team, the primary goal was microclimate mitigation of extreme urban desert heat. This was achieved by providing shade structures, large shade trees, and expansive turf grass lawns. Our investigations this summer included several different studies of park temperature patterns and the surrounding area. Shaded surfaces in the park at mid-day were an average of 12.7°F cooler than those without cover. While temperatures under shade were significantly lower than those without shade, our data also showed that turf grass lawns were also highly effective at providing cooler temperatures. The Park’s lawn areas were consistently an average of 25°F cooler during mid-day and at night than paved surfaces.

Large shade trees and turf grass lawns mitigate urban microclimates by high rates of evapotranspiration, and in arid regions require extensive irrigation. The design team considered strategies for reducing the park’s potable water use, but found that the amount of water that could be collected by a rain water harvesting system would only satisfy a small percentage of the landscape’s annual water demand, and in the end did not justify the cost of its installation and maintenance. 

George “Doc” Cavalliere Park

George “Doc” Cavalliere Park is a 34-acre public park tucked into the Sonoran Desert terrain of Scottsdale, Arizona. With several acres of undisturbed desert habitat on site it was important for the park to embrace the surrounding native desert habitat while also providing traditional park amenities that neighbors were eager to use. The initial design strategy was to consolidate the amenities by providing comfort with a large shade structure and limiting turf to two strategically-placed lawns.

During the park’s construction phase, however, it became apparent that the cost to maintain the two turf lawns would be a fiscal constraint for the City. The design team’s solution was to install an area of artificial turf for one lawn and delay installation of the second ‘natural’ lawn until funding was solidified. Luckily for our research team, the second turf lawn area was installed just prior to our data collection.

csi-asu02Mean patterns of daily air temperatures from June 19-22, 2014, under live desert tree shade, under structured shade, over turf grass and over bare soil in an open basin.

For most of the day, temperatures at the natural turf lawn were the coolest within the park. We also found that the cooler temper- atures and availability of irrigation water runoff increased wildlife activity around the natural turf lawn.

Artifical turf, on the other hand, can become an extremely hot surface; we recorded temperatures as high as 145°F at solar noon. In fact, the City of Scottsdale added an automated sprinkler system (operating during limited hours on the weekend) to cool the artificial turf surface, and it has become a popular play feature for the park.

The playground, one of the most used features of the park, was located directly under a large shade structure, which has been highly effective at creating consistently cooler temperatures there. 

Pete V. Domenici US Courthouse

Conservation of water resources was a primary sustainability goal for this sustainable landscape retrofit in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The pre-existing, turf-dominant, water-intensive landscape not only presented concerns over resource consumption, but also created many technical difficulties for facility management because much of the landscape was planted over structure. Lowering landscape water demand would also reduce long-term risk for damage to the underground parking structure.

The design achieves the goal of water conservation by lowering landscape water demand and supplementing landscape water supply. The turf grass lawn was replaced with a diverse mixture of native and drought-adapted species including, Mescal Agave, Mormon Tea, Apache Plume, Modesto Ash, Red Yucca, Pineleaf Penstemon, and Soaptree Yucca. These plants perform well when irrigated with an efficient drip system.

State regulations prevented the design team from collecting water in passive systems such as catchment basins, but they were able to collect runoff from the roof. A collection system was designed to capture water from the one-acre roof surface and store it in two underground storage tanks with a total capacity of 16,000 gallons. Due to the low water demand of the landscape, a rainwater collection system was a practical solution for this project.

Research Fellow Chris Martin and student Research Assistant Kaylee Colter are participating in LAF’s 2014 Case Study Investigation (CSI) program. They are working to evaluate and document the performance of three exemplary landscape projects in the Desert Southwest.

Setting the Place for the Future Workforce

By Cameron Rodman, MLA Candidate, University of Tennessee

For generations, designers, sociologists, economists, and geographers have sought to understand the importance and peculiarities of social spaces. Well-known studies have attempted to quantify and qualify the use of space, including William H. Whyte’s seminal The social life of small urban spaces. Previous findings and assumptions are now being challenged by the transition from a workplace saturated with Baby Boomers and replaced with Millennials and Gen X’ers. It is estimated that Baby Boomers will be replaced by Millennials by the year 2020 (Sullivan & Horwitz-Bennett, 2014).

With this in mind, designers are required to pay particularly close attention to the ways in which they design social spaces. The design of urban plazas, public and private parks, the workplace, and shared spaces all require a sociological paradigm reset. Marked differences exist in the way younger generations interact, are motivated to work, increase their productivity, and socialize.

This summer, our Case Study Investigation (CSI) research team is studying 1315 Peachtree Street, the Atlanta office of design firm Perkins + Will. The project includes two outdoor spaces — the ground-level terrace and fifth level terrace — which function as completely different social spaces and are used in a variety of ways.

csi-utenn011315 Peachtree's fifth floor terrace facilitates social interaction. (Image: Eduard Hueber)

The ground floor plaza is the primary entrance for all three of the building’s tenants: Perkins + Will, the Museum of Design Atlanta (MODA), and the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library. Since the building’s re-opening in 2011, the plaza has hosted numerous public and civic events, many of them organized by MODA. Other Midtown events, such as runs and festivals, often spill over into the plaza.

The fifth level terrace is a completely different animal. It has become a “third place,” a concept defined by Ray Oldenburg as an informal meeting place that facilitates and fosters broader, more creative interaction. It is a space where employees can interact and at the same time exist in privacy. The terrace contains many attributes that are believed to contribute to successful shared social spaces, including moveable furniture, variety of layout, views to landscape, and cleanliness (Sullivan & Horwitz-Bennett, 2014 & LaBarre, 2011).

Our CSI teams hopes to gain further insight about the fifth-level terrace and its impact on tenants. For now we can say that this open, well-lit setting allows for collaboration, time away from the desk to work, cross-fertilization of ideas, privacy, and social engagement — all of which are important for ensuring employee satisfaction, increased productivity, and value.

For further reading:

Research Fellow Brad Collett and student Research Assistants Cameron Rodman, Angelike Angelopoulos, Jessica Taylor Neary, and Luis Diego Venegas Brenes are participating in LAF’s 2014 Case Study Investigation (CSI) program and working to document the performance of three exemplary landscape projects in Atlanta and Chattanooga.

The Challenges of Landscape Design in Coastal South Florida

By Ebru Ozer, Assistant Professor, Landscape Architecture, College of Architecture + The Arts, Florida International University

Coastal South Florida is a harsh environment for plants and hardscape materials utilized in landscape design. The daily assault of salty air and intense sun can impair many landscape materials in a short period of time. Floods, tropical storms, hurricanes, and storm surges seasonally striking the region also threaten the longevity of designed landscapes and their overall performance. Landscape architects practicing in the region must choose their planting and materials palette wisely and also utilize proper techniques to ensure durability and the long-term survival of their designs.

csi-fiu01The FIU team takes tree measurements on Miami Beach's Lincoln Road Mall.

This harsh coastal environment is common to all three projects we have been studying through LAF’s Case Study Investigation (CSI) this summer: 1100 Block Streetscape of Lincoln Road Mall in Miami Beach, Nova Southeastern University Oceanographic Center in Dania Beach, and Pompano Beach Streetscape and Sand Dune Enhancement in Pompano Beach. Studying these projects gave us the opportunity to learn about the challenging design aspects of our local environment and also gain insight into techniques utilized by of our local landscape architecture firms. It has been a great educational experience for all of us and has increased our admiration for the designs.

Relying on native coastal vegetation was a clear and correct decision in all three projects. The use of native vegetation has lowered the costs of maintenance and irrigation on all of the projects that we examined. These landscapes are able to withstand the severe coastal conditions and will be more likely to bounce back after storms and hurricanes. Additionally, the reliance on natives has provided opportunities for wildlife to thrive in the city. We are looking to quantify this benefit through our analysis.

One of our projects, the 1100 Block Streetscape of Lincoln Road Mall, not only dealt with the local coastal issues, but also had to contend with a heavily urban environment, which can be difficult in its own right. The design included the installation of 30-40 foot native canopy trees (live oaks and bald cypresses) transplanted to the site. Providing shade was a crucial component of the success of this active public plaza. Installing mature trees immediately was important for creating a usable space. The reliance on native species has likely played a major role in the trees’ survival and adaptation to the new environment. Quantifying how users have benefited from the shade provided by the large trees is also a part of our study.

We are looking forward to sharing the final results of our CSI research in the near future.

Research Fellow Ebru Ozer and student Research Assistants Vanessa Alvarado and Greg Gonzalez are participating in LAF’s 2014 Case Study Investigation (CSI) program and working to document the performance of three exemplary landscape projects in coastal South Florida.

CSI: I Know a Guy (or Gal)...

By Michele Palmer, Lecturer, Department of Landscape Architecture, Cornell University

The true complexity of evaluating the perfomance of landscape architecture projects first became clear to me while attending the presentations about LAF’s Case Study Investigation (CSI) program at the 2014 CELA conference in Baltimore, and frankly I was a bit overwhelmed. But like any complex task, it seemed that breaking it down to separate tasks and knowing where to seek help was the key to making all of the work. My research assistant Muj Powell and I are not biologists, social scientists, civil engineers or soil scientists, but there was a good chance that we could find all of those disciplines and many more among my colleagues at Cornell University. As we sought out assistance, many of those conversations led to the statement “I know a guy”… or frequently a gal. 

The process of recruiting began when our team attended the client kick-off meeting for the Nevin Welcome Center case study at the Cornell Plantations. We were fortunate to have the University Landscape Architect, David Cutter, present with great enthusiasm for our project.  He listened to the discussion about the benefits and then suggested we meet with researchers he knew throughout the university who were studying various topics such as soil health, pollinators, the functioning of bio-retention filters, small mammal habitat and more. 

csi-cornell01Lauren McPhillps, graduate student in Biological and Environmental Enginnering, sets up water sampling.

Not all of these contacts proved to be fruitful, but those that have are enriching the experience and strengthening our research. It became clear in meeting these researchers that they were scientists. While we’re not, our broad, outwardly-focused training as landscape architects allows us to have intelligent conversations with a broad range of disciplines. We feel strongly that the collaborations are leading to solid case studies and new methodologies that can hopefully be applied to future case studies.

One such collaboration was conducted with Dr. Nina Bassuk who leads the Urban Horticulture Institute.  She and Professor Peter Trowbridge have been studying the benefits of improving planting soil with compost and mulch. A simple regime of initially improving soil with compost followed by annual mulching has been shown to have multiple benefits including at least doubling active carbon in soil, increasing sequestration potential as well as improving plant growth. Nina has helped us take soil samples which are currently being processed. Since many filter practice installations follow the same regime, we believe that we can extrapolate the potential benefits to other studies.  

Another soil scientist, Todd Walters, and graduate student Lauren McPhillps have been studying water quality basin function and conducting research on greenhouse gas emissions and anions at the Nevin Center and other locations on the campus. They have agreed to share their past research and conduct water quality sampling to see if the filter practices function as expected.

csi-cornell02Research Assistant Muj Powell talks surveys with Justin Kondrat, a horticulture intern at the Plantations.

We’ve had cross pollination among our projects as well. While discussing environmental benefit studies with Liz Walker of EcoVillage Inc., she mentioned Cornell Doctoral candidate Laura Russo, an EcoVillage resident who is studying bees as pollinators. Laura met with us to discuss strategies for conducting insect counts.

At the Plantations, staff have been remarkably helpful and led us to Director of Education, Sonja Skelly who has a background in social science and has been extremely helpful in critiquing our plan for surveying visitors. She had insights on how to get at the information we really want to know and how best to order questions. 

In a university the size of Cornell, it is virtually impossible to grasp the breadth of research being conducted, but these personal, word-of-mouth referrals have led us down paths we would not likely have considered, broadening our studies, increasing the rigor, and enriching the already rewarding experience of conducting the case studies.

Research Fellow Michele Palmer and student Research Assistant Muj Powell are participating in LAF’s 2014 Case Study Investigation (CSI) program. They are working to evaluate and document the performance of three exemplary landscape projects in Upstate New York.

Good Ol’ Sun-Fearing People and the Social Life of Cool Urban Spaces

By Justin Earl, MLA Candidate; Dylan Stewart, MLA; Ryan Brown, MLA Candidate; Taner R. Ozdil, PhD, Associate Professor; and James Richards, Associate Professor, Program in Landscape Architecture, School of Architecture, University of Texas at Arlington

You could say that the people in Texas welcome the summer with a healthy dose of dread. During the summer here, the sun is not your friend. Urbanites avoid outdoor activity during the hottest parts of the day, and every square foot of shade is a precious commodity.

Aversion to the summer sun and heat is one of the biggest hindrances to Texans buying into the possibility of successful outdoor urban spaces. Naysayers will tell you no one here wants to be outside in the summer unless they have to be. However, in recent years a few landscape architectural projects in Fort Worth and Dallas have taken direct aim at the challenge and have created public landscapes very sensitive to people’s needs for a cooling atmosphere during the hottest months.

This summer, our Case Study Investigation (CSI) research team, in partnership with two design firms (Michael Vergason Landscape Architects and SmithGroupJJR), is working to measure the benefits of two such projects. The team has been happy to find that there are a lot of undeterred folks out at the sites just having fun. While investigating the strong economic and environmental performance of the sites, the team is most keen on exploring  social life by surveying users’ opinions and spending several days mapping and recording on each site to determine what is attracting and retaining the people who utilize these spaces.

Sundance Square Plaza in Fort Worth was designed by Michael Vergason Landscape Architects and is the centerpiece of a downtown revitalization that has been going strong for the past 30 years. 32-foot-high sculptural umbrellas and a bosque of native Cedar Elms provide comfortable shade for sitting and people-watching, while a programmable play fountain and a wave fountain are magnets for energetic children. Al fresco dining for popular cafés on two sides of the plaza as well as a stage for performances draw plenty of visitors to contribute to the ‘sidewalk ballet.’ During our site observation days, we are closely tracking people’s activities on the plaza to understand where visitors seem to congregate and feel comfortable, while taking area temperature readings to determine how the microclimates of the plaza differ from other areas downtown.

csi-utaThe UT Arlington team enjoys the evening shade after a full day of observations at Sundance Square.

AT&T Performing Arts Center: Elaine and Charles Sammons Park, designed by SmithGroupJJR, is the central outdoor open space of the Dallas Arts District. It features the Winspear Opera House’s large protruding shade structure, which provides comfortable dappled shade near a water skin reflecting pool and swaying drifts of native and adapted ornamental grasses and wildflowers. While digital models for shadow studies are in the works, our team is conducting test runs of our observation strategies for the site. So far the most common activity for park users has been taking photographs of the park and the surrounding architecture, with length of stay on the site averaging 14.5 minutes. Of the people who stopped and took advantage of the plentiful seating options in the park, 100% sat in the shaded area.

Our team is working daily to research and document the environmental and economic benefits of the two sites while accumulating responses from our online surveys. We still have many hours of site observation to conduct over the next few weeks and look forward to discovering how both plazas respond to Texas’ summer climate and provide people with enjoyable outdoor environments. 

Research Fellows Taner R. Ozdil and James Richards and student Research Assistants Justin Earl, Dylan Stewart, and Ryan Brown are participating in LAF’s 2014 Case Study Investigation (CSI) program and working to document the performance of two exemplary landscape projects in hot, sunny Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas.