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Olmsted Scholar Feature: Climate, Water, and Infrastructure Resiliency in Phoenix

By Ashley Brenden, 2013 University Olmsted Scholar

My pH20enix Design Thesis Project evolved from current discourse on infrastructure resiliency and a United Nations report that predicts that by 2025 two out of every three people in the world will be facing water shortages. The project postulates that current trends in global climate change are likely to continue with increasing occurrences of ecological, social and economic disasters. It also asserts that global water shortage will be the largest and most far reaching ecological, social and economic disaster that humans have faced. The basis of the project lies in a clear stance that our current infrastructure is not designed to meet the increasing demands placed on our social and environmental systems. In order to withstand inevitable natural and manmade disasters, we must, as designers, be forward thinking, utilizing a hybrid of design sensibility, aesthetic appreciation, and scientific thought.

ph2oenix03Implementation was represented graphically for 8 prototypical situations along the urban canal structures.

My thesis project investigates the interrelationships of climate, water, and the urban form in Phoenix, Arizona and the implications for decision making under uncertainty. It envisions ways that Phoenix can transform into a sustainable urban model for addressing water scarcity. Progress towards sustainability of our urban environments requires careful examination of the effectiveness of dated jurisdictional and normative planning tools in dealing with contemporary urbanization concerns. By crafting zoning and policies that are more oriented towards the natural environment, we can promote a more integrated and responsive infrastructure.

The project proposes a decentralized water infrastructure configuration that makes use of existing natural and manmade infrastructure. By coupling small-scale, site-specific, decentralized water techniques with a larger-scale, integrative, above-ground canal structure a cyclical system is created that contributes to a stable environmental equilibrium. The theoretical design suggests a cyclical system in which water that is pulled into the municipal system from the Rio Salado and from Maricopa County ground sources be used, recycled, remediated and returned to the system in quantities equal to what was extracted. Site scale techniques such as water demand reduction and rainwater harvesting contribute to lower overall extraction rates.

Above-ground water canal systems that run from North Mountain to South Mountain reintroduce the natural hydrology, while collecting municipal building wastewater along the way. The system also provides microclimatic environments for social and ecological niches along its path. The canals are joined at the Rio Salado where the water is then returned to the natural circulation process, re-establishing the natural ecological habitat along the river.

ph2oenix02Canal use and program establishment were created by using an infrastructure prototype development tool and an infrastructure adjacency matrix.

The project goal was not to propose a complete solution to water shortage within the Sonoran Desert, but rather to initiate a discussion on ways to transform one of the world’s least sustainable cities into one that is a model of sustainability and resilience. The project asks “How do we design our cities to meet the needs of an increasing population in an increasingly volatile system?” and “How do we become more resilient?”.

Ashley received her Master of Landscape Architecture degree from the Arizona State University Design School in May. She currently works in Seattle as a Landscape Designer for Mithun.

Olmsted Scholar Feature: Ocean Planning to Advance New York's Renewable Energy Frontier

By Liz Podowski, 2013 University Olmsted Scholar

New York State is planning for a sustainable energy future — a future that addresses the causes of climate change, diversifies and modernizes the State’s energy system, and expands the renewable energy frontier from land into the ocean. Currently, the ocean provides a vast, untapped source of renewable energy, with winds that are stronger and steadier than land-based wind.

windspeedsWinds over the ocean are stronger and steadier than over the land.

With millions of people living in ocean-front counties, offshore wind is an almost inevitable resource for New York to develop. However, wind energy development in the U.S. has historically focused entirely on land due to past technological constraints. To ensure that New York State responsibly and efficiently takes advantage of this resource as it becomes increasingly accessible, the New York Department of State (NYDOS) is spearheading a planning process in a nearly 16,000 square mile swath of the Atlantic Ocean.

Ocean planning is significantly different from land use planning. First, all ocean lands are held in public trust and are managed by either the state or federal government, depending on distance from shore. The freedom to navigate these “open seas” is a deeply-held value among mariners and poses an inherent challenge to siting permanently-fixed structures, like wind turbines. Second, the ocean environment is dynamic, multidimensional, and largely unknown. At first glance, the ocean may appear to be a homogenous sheet of blue water. But a closer look reveals seabirds foraging above and below the surface, marine mammals migrating large distances, delicate corals colonizing the ocean floor, fishing vessels pulling nets through the water column, and shipping vessels transporting goods from port to port. Even physical characteristics are highly variable, whether vertically with depth or horizontally with currents and weather patterns. Taken together, this complexity necessitates a planning approach that seeks compatibilities among uses and resources (as opposed to zoning, which often discreetly separates them).

oceanuses-sm(1) New York’s offshore planning area (NYDOS). (2) Scientific exploration of Northeast U.S. Canyons (NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program). (3) Maritime industry (NYDOS). (4) New York Community Conversations (NYDOS). (5) Gulls off the coast of New York (NEFSC/NOAA Northeast Fisheries Observer Program). (6) Deep-sea corals (NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program). (7) North Atlantic Right Whales (NOAA).

NYDOS is developing a collaborative framework to proactively document and analyze existing uses and resources within this busy, complex, public place. Rather than conduct costly field studies of the entire area, NYDOS relies on the iterative aggregation and analysis of existing datasets to better understand the spatial and temporal distribution of ocean uses and resources. Partnerships are critical to this innovative process. Staff collaborated with federal, regional, state, local, and public stakeholders to synthesize, analyze, and translate extensive (and often disparate) datasets. For example, NYDOS organized a series of participatory mapping events with Long Island residents to better understand the type and location of recreational ocean uses — from surfing to wildlife viewing. This information is included in the New York Offshore Atlantic Ocean Study released in July.

Over the course of the next few months, NYDOS will further investigate the potential compatibility of offshore wind projects with ocean uses and resources throughout the development lifecycle — from site surveys to decommissioning. These “compatibility analyses” are critical to ensuring the success of future wind energy projects, as well as the continued viability of the ocean economy and the health of the ocean ecosystem.

Liz Podowski is a NOAA Coastal Management Fellow working with the New York Department of State in the Office of Planning and Development. She received an MLA from the University of Oregon in June 2013.

Olmsted Scholar Feature: Transportation Discrimination and a Call to Change

By Dayton Crites, 2013 University Olmsted Scholar

In the last decade, the number of Americans choosing to pedal to work on a bicycle has risen by 61.6%. For a variety of reasons, our transportation options and desires are shifting. Yet as more Americans find reasons to abandon the car as their primary mode of transportation, they find themselves in a built environment that is ill suited to their choice.

Take my town of Austin Texas, which is renowned for its progressive attitude and recent growth in bicycle and pedestrian related infrastructure. Kudos to the city leaders for building a bicycle and pedestrian bridge spanning Lady Bird Lake and for significantly expanding the central bicycle network in recent years. Yet when one third of all 2012 traffic fatalities within Austin city limits involve a pedestrain or cyclist, and pedestrian and cyclists form approximately 2% of Austin road users, the ability of our designs to protect anyone who isn’t driving a car seems fundamentally flawed.

bike-laneThose that do not drive a car are not limited to the wild bicycle messenger and sweating triathlete riding through traffic — over 9% of American households do not even own a car. The official Landscape Architect Registration Examination (LARE) tests our ability as landscape architects to ensure the health, safety and welfare of those who will occupy our designs. If that is the true test of a professional landscape architect, our profession must begin to do more than just put bicycle lanes and wide sidewalks in our sections, plans, and renderings. We need to protect all road users and provide them a safe route to their destination.

Sometimes a bicycle lane or path isn’t enough. Austin’s 4th Street carries a separated pathway built west of and underneath I-35, Texas’ fourth most congested highway, which divides east from west Austin. As one approaches the highway, the two lane pathway dissolves into a faded crosswalk generally ignored by three lanes of 55 mph traffic. The cars have no requirement to stop, and it is up to the cyclist or pedestrian to gauge their movement and dart across the road. The only safety warnings afforded these travelers is the yellow diamond sign emblazoned with a bicycle silhouette, similar to the protection afforded deer on mountain roads. The signs indicate to drivers that unfortunately, there are unpredictable creatures — be it deer or cyclists — crossing the road, and drivers should try to avoid hitting one.

As designers of the built world, we have a responsibility to our profession and the future inhabitants of our landscapes to design places that take into account the needs of all users, and do not place convenience of vehicular transport over human health and safety.  It is clear that providing equal access for all road users is a complex problem that is not easily solved, but it does not mean we should ignore it, or that it cannot be solved.

Before the advent of the macadam road base, not many people would have thought it feasible that nearly all populated corners of the globe would be connected through a stone-like and resilient web of roadways, allowing personal locomotion across thousands of miles of then-wilderness. It may seem far-fetched, but we can build a better transportation solution. From localized actions like lowering speed limits where pedestrians cross I-35 in Texas, to broad steps like lobbying and advocating for a more balanced transportation budget, we can build a better world, and we must.

Dayton Crites received his MLA from Utah State University in 2013 and now works for Design Workshop in Austin, Texas, where he enjoys a peaceful daily bicycle commute and a collaborative and dynamic office. Professionally, he is working to further Design Workshop’s Legacy Design® processes through advanced GIS analyses and context sensitive designs.

Olmsted Scholar Feature: Streets -- Dwelling Place for the Common Good

By Dustin Smith, 2013 University Olmsted Scholar

The estranged relationship with the street exhibited by the modern man’s frivolous attempts at engaging it for means other than conveyance has largely meant the abandonment of American public life. Contemporary placemaking ideologies that imagine there can be infinite deconstruction and reorganization of the basic typological inventory of urban elements have been equally damaging regarding the role of the street as a public place and the street grid as a continuum of public space. This is disconcerting for the common good, which requires a public realm to bind us all together in the realization of a shared sense of dwelling. 

settlement-patternsHistoric versus Modern settlement pattern. Graphic reproduced by author from Stephen Marshall’s Streets and Patterns.

My ensuing thesis investigation explored the degenerative role of the street in the public sphere of urban American landscapes, a causation of the dogmas and aims of Modernist design, planning, and management of the land. While the study’s methodology involved the critical examination of prominent theorists, an examination of phenomenological, morphological, and social factors related to the form and function of urban streets and the street grid was conducted in Annapolis, Maryland. The idea was to document a series of personal observations, narratives, photographs and diagrams to grapple with the everyday visual cues, patterns, and social evidence of streets reflective of the common good; in other words, the commitment to a life shared with others.

annapolisHistoric Annapolis offers an urban pattern unique to colonial American town and city planning. Its resilience against urbanization coupled with a civic structure cognizant of place-making values related to the ancient notion of the polis and civitas made Annapolis an ideal setting to explore the public character of urban streets. An urban setting may not be suitable for all people, but there was once a time when our towns and cities were made to connect people to important civic structures. The “City on the Severn” is a charming example of such planning, and of people who valued its ideal.

annapolis-gridThe beauty of Annapolis’ streets begins with its grid, a plan that finds its inspiration in the European ideals of Baroque planning. Atop central Annapolis are two great circles, the State Circle and the Church Circle, and from them a grid of diagonally radiating streets laid over the naturally falling topography offers dramatic visual axes and vistas. The natural limit of the Annapolis peninsula has controlled the expansion of the grid outward, creating a cozily dense block structure with greater ease of walkability and comprehension of the street’s connections to public places.

The town possesses a strong urban character and visual unity, which results from a diverse range of street typologies, each uniquely identified by architectural elements, pedestrian sidewalk space, and a heterogeneous mix of mature trees. And while they reflect the charming aesthetic tale of time passed, it is the unwavering love and use of these streets by citizens that make them so much more exciting.

If we are to ever move out from beneath the shadows and plumes of automobiles back towards an urban form rich with picturesque scenes of streets enacted by the swinging hands and feet of people changing postures and the fleeting shapes and colors of faces, garments, and produce, we should be cognizant of our quick abandonment of the patterns and devices that make places like Annapolis great.

In May, Dustin Smith graduated from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. He is now a designer at Rhodeside & Harwell, Inc. in Alexandria, Virginia, where he continues to explore and draw upon his passion for great streets in professional practice.

Olmsted Scholar Feature: Case Studies in Multifunctional Infrastructure

By Zachary Barker, 2013 National Olmsted Scholar Finalist

There are few places in the world where infrastructure is more vital to human existence than in the Netherlands. The country sits at the northwest corner of the Great European Plain, and almost two-thirds of the country is at or below sea level. Over centuries, controlling water along rivers and the North Sea have allowed the Dutch to methodically reclaim land, first for farming and later for settlement. Dikes, levees, dams and other infrastructure have become fundamental parts of the Dutch landscape.

Amsterdam, as the urban core of the Netherlands, offers several different transit typologies, including elevated train tracks, underground metro, at-grade trams, multi-modal streets, and urban highways. This infrastructure has had a drastic impact on its surroundings. I traveled to Amsterdam in the fall of my senior year and spent three months documenting the benefits and complexities of three case study locations that reflect a synergistic approach to landscape, infrastructure, and civic space. The case studies included a hybrid office space, a linear park, and an intricate stormwater management system.

Tussen de Bogen, the hybrid office space, translates to “Between the Arches” in English. The translation is quite literal, as the site is located under the arches of an elevated rail corridor on the northwest side of Amsterdam. Approximately 250,000 people a day travel over the offices below on their way to or from Centraal Station. The site exemplifies how transit infrastructure can contribute to the densification of an urban environment instead of dispersing density, the usual scenario.


churchill-500wChurchill-laan, the linear park case study, illustrates how transit infrastructure can create public space in a dense and historic urban environment. The site is surrounded by transportation infrastructure on all sides, but still manages to be a highly utilized public space.

The intricate stormwater management case study is located in Rietlandpark, a submerged tram station. Rietlandpark Station is designed to decentralize stormwater management issues by holding excess water under its platforms. The station is an example of how landscape infrastructure can abate stress on traditional infrastructure systems.


From the three case studies, I came to understand and appreciate the value that flexibility, decentralization, and multidimensionality can bring to an infrastructure project. These Dutch sites are in stark contrast to many American infrastructure projects of the mid- to late 20th Century that were engineered primarily to serve vehicles. The trend for contemporary landscape infrastructure is to become decentralized and multimodal. Multifunctional infrastructure conserves land, shares the financial load of its development, restores damaged natural ecologies, reinforces healthy transit options, and provides public access to vital open space. I think that landscape architects are uniquely poised to expand this trend because the infrastructure challenges of today call for sophisticated systems thinking in which landscape architects are trained and tested.

Zachary Barker received a BLA from The State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry in May, graduating with honors. His thesis Dutchscape: Analyzing Landscape Infrastructure in Amsterdam, The Netherlands was selected as the university-wide Honors Thesis Prize winner for 2013. Zach is working as a landscape designer at LRSLAstudio in Philadelphia.