Today’s academic experience prepares architecture students to design sustainably in some ways, but leaves them hideously unprepared in others. Let’s look at the hits and misses (and how to fix the misses) through the Original Green lens. This post is part of the new Twitter phenomenon: #letsblogoff. The home page lists each week’s “idea worth blogging about.” This week, it’s “Are today’s college graduates ready for the working world?” That’s incredibly broad, so this post narrows the question to architecture and sustainability.
During early Original Green lectures several years ago, people looked at me like I was crazy when I proposed that nourishability was the first foundation of sustainable places. Today, the idea is gaining firm traction in many quarters. Andrés Duany has become arguably the top thought leader on the issue. I’ve worked as a team member with Andrés’ firm (DPZ) on the three projects that pushed these ideas the furthest forward: Sky, Southlands, and Schooner Bay. Because this set of ideas is evolving so quickly, it’s no surprise that it has not yet been included as part of the curriculum in schools of architecture and planning. But let’s hope that changes quickly.
Here’s where the divide begins: schools sympathetic to the New Urbanism teach principles for creating places accessible by a range of options, especially including walking and biking. The top tier of New Urbanism-friendly schools includes the University of Miami (where Andrés’ wife and partner, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk is Dean,) the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment, the University of Notre Dame, and Andrews University. Each of these schools have what could only be described as a full-bore New Urbanist curriculum. There are a growing number of other schools around the world which are sympathetic to the New Urbanism. These, too, teach principles of accessible places.
Many other schools of architecture, however, are either tacitly or openly hostile to the New Urbanism. Many of these schools are afflicted with a malady I call “Freeway Envy.” The symptoms include a strong affinity for movement. Advanced cases of Freeway Envy result in buildings nearly eaten up with ramps, stairs, escalators, elevators, and other means of zooming around, so that one might wonder if anyone ever sits down in these buildings. This infatuation with movement, unfortunately, all too often holds mechanical movement as its highest ideal, so its proponents are far more likely to design car-friendly places than pedestrian-friendly places.
Schools with New Urbanist curricula or at least New Urbanist sympathies can usually be depended upon to teach principles that allow graduates to design places where you can get a range of daily services within walking distance. Here, the divide with schools antagonistic to the New Urbanism isn’t so great, but it still exists. Why? Serviceable places are functionally messy places, with everything from houses to apartments to townhouses on the residential side to coffee shops, groceries, hardware stores, pharmacies, offices, and any number of other businesses. Architecture, meanwhile, has for nearly a century had strong affinity for all things clean and simple... and the more serviceable a place becomes, the less clean and simple it tends to be.
Securability goes hand-in-hand with great urbanism on several counts. The closer buildings come to aligning with each other and pulling up to a frontage line, the easier it is to create a securable block against the inevitable times in an uncertain future that are more spooky than today. Here, the divide is clear: schools that teach New Urbanism teach the creation of the street wall. In great urbanism, the first responsibility of a building is to help create urban space. Anti-New Urbanist schools tend to focus on buildings as objects, where each building screams “look at me.” Buildings as objects rarely contribute to a securable place.
This is the big one. Most schools of architecture leave their graduates grotesquely incapable of designing buildings that can be loved. And if buildings can’t be loved, they won’t last. This means the academy is churning out graduates incapable of designing sustainably. The only remedy is years of self-education after graduation.
The problem, however, goes deeper than just the inability to design lovable buildings. Instead, many schools instill a strong prejudice against designing buildings that can be loved. Such design is scorned as “saccharine,” “nostalgia,” “kitsch,” “banal,” and the like. By the end of the second year of architecture school, most students wouldn’t dare consider designing such a building. The problem has gotten so ridiculous that today, there are efforts to “educate” the public on the fact that they need to learn to love ugly buildings.
Which schools do best and worst here? The “best list” shrinks notably here. While it generally follows the New Urbanism divide, there are a number of schools sympathetic to New Urbanism that are decidedly more frigid to the idea of lovable buildings. The issue of lovability appears to be the toughest nut to crack.
Serious durability has largely vanished from architecture today. When I was in school, our building technology professor opined that we should “design the building to last at least as long as the mortgage because the owner will be really angry if the building is uninhabitable before it’s paid off.” How ridiculous a standard is that?
It might seem like this is an issue of budgets or expediency. In reality, architecture should shoulder a part of the blame for at least two reasons: An architectural culture that celebrates modernity and newness is generally incompatible with keeping things for a long time. Also, the profession has been moonstruck with all things thin and spindly for most of the past century, Brutalism and a few similar moments excepted. Thin and spindly things obviously have less margin of error to sacrifice to the inevitable corrosion of time before they become unusable.
There is hope, as the issue continues to build traction in sustainability discussions. I’ll be one of the speakers at the University of Notre Dame’s symposium on Durability in Construction in October, for example.
Flexibility isn’t even on the radar screen in most schools of architecture. Instead, the academy is far too often the purveyor of something I call the “Tyranny of the Program.” Great effort is expended in making the architecture fit hand-in-glove with the program.
Unfortunately for this approach, the program is the most overrated thing in architecture. If a building is lovable and durable, it’s likely to be used for something other than its programmed use for 90% or more of its life. We should, therefore, focus on designing a good building rather than a good deli or a good post office because some of the uses the building may one day house haven’t even been imagined yet.
Here’s the one place where the academy does a decent, if partial, job of preparing its graduates for the real world. Some schools now have a high focus on the design of carbon-neutral buildings, or “net-zero” buildings. Problem is, this focus usually doesn’t extend beyond the property line, so it’s actually bogus. It doesn’t matter how many green points your building gets if you have to drive everywhere in order to inhabit it.
Another fault of the academy’s current efforts to make building design more frugal is that it’s usually a perfect example of Gizmo Green, which is the erroneous belief that with better equipment and better materials, we can achieve sustainability. It just isn’t so, and for a number of reasons. Gizmo Green measures are the first to fall at budget-cutting time, whereas natural frugality measures often just rearrange what you’re already building for better effect. And Gizmo Green creates all sorts of propositions that simply don’t pass the smell test.
The Bottom Line
The Original Green lens makes it quite clear that most schools of architecture don’t get a passing grade when it comes to preparing their students to design in a truly sustainable manner. The biggest (but by no means completely accurate) predictor is an institution’s tolerance or embrace of the New Urbanism.
I’m hopeful there will be progress soon. But for all of us that have graduated or will graduate before that happens in our schools, there is a remedy: self-education. There are a number of institutions that are filling many of the gaps. Check them out. Take their classes. Read their books. But most of all, learn how to really see, and how to ask yourself the hard questions, and then not give up on those questions until you’ve someday figured them out.
Note: If any of the images above are useful to you, they’re available at high resolution for printing or download on my Zenfolio site. Just click on the image and it’ll take you there. All of these images were shot on a very cold day at Yale last winter. Here are some of the other participating blogs in today’s #Letsblogoff:
Veronika Miller @modenus Modenus.com
Paul Anater @paul_anater kitchenandresidentialdesign.com
Rufus Dogg @dogwalkblog DogWalkBlog
Becky Shankle @ecomod eco-modernism.com
Bob Borson @bobborson lifeofanarchitect.com
Bonnie Harris @waxgirl333 Wax Marketing
Tim Elmore @TimElmore growingleaders.com
Nick Lovelady @cupboards cupboardsonline.com
Tamara Dalton @tammyjdalton tamaradalton.net
Sean Lintow, Sr. @SLSconstruction sls-construction.com
Amy Good @Splintergirl Amy's Blog
Richard Holschuh @concretedetail Concrete Detail
Tim Bogan @TimBogan Windbag International
Hollie Holcombe @GreenRascal Rascal Design
Cindy FrewenWuellner @Urbanverse Urbanverse
I’m @stevemouzon, FWIW.
Wednesday, August 25, 2010 - 04:34 PM
Cindy Frewen Wuellner
Steve: OUCH! In one post, you summarized a myriad of ills by arch schools. Freeway envy, that's priceless. Your clarity is dazzling. Actually I imagine that students in any architecture school get some CNU principles from some profs, and not from other profs. In other words, the school itself does not have a new urbanist mission. With the exception of a few schools you named, they leave that message to the individual teachers. Two elements of design seem to me to be no longer in debate: green and urbanism. You address both. Schools should have these as part of their mission; I cannot imagine how good design can ignore either one. The one concept that is as you say "toughest nut to crack" is lovability. I suspect that you and I would agree 90% of the time, and perhaps disagree on others. Aesthetics are a matter of preferences, and yes, its the area of most controversy and attention for architects. Is lovability reserved for traditional design? That would be concerning to me since I believe we need to express our era and push aesthetic boundaries. I agree that many design experiments have failed to be lovable (many have been simply poorly concieved and/or executed, the problem w/ most housing.) Others have amazed, broadened our perspectives, and been quite lovable and awe-inspiring. I dont all of want my architecture too comfortable. Steve, I am so happy you posted in the blog off again, it's a marvelous idea. You write beautifully, your ideas are thoughtful, informative, and provocative, and of course I love the arch slant and photos. Cindy @urbanverse
Wednesday, August 25, 2010 - 09:02 PM
Thanks so much for these comments, Cindy! From what I've observed, you're exactly right about most schools and their profs. As for green and urbanism, I agree that these issues should no longer be in debate, but I've seen academic environments where they are. The reason is because both sustainability and urbanism require certain things of architecture, and these things are seen in some circles as constraints. For example, I was a guest juror at Yale a couple years ago, and had one exchange with Peter Eisenman where I was advocating for a more urbanistic response, and he thundered "NOTHING should limit my freedom of expression!" The project was in London. I asked the student "where's the London-ness in this?" Peter shot back "There is no such thing as London-ness!" I asked him "If I blindfolded you and flew you into central London or central Rome and took off the blindfold, could you tell the difference?" "Of course," he said. "Then how can there be no such thing as London-ness?" But I digress...
As for the issue of lovability, I'm advocating for something deeper than style or fashion. I believe that if we can get at the real essence of our humanity, and the things that we're hardwired to resonate with, then we're getting close to understanding lovability. Right now, its mechanics are not understood very well at all.
Here's what we do know: recent studies have shown that within minutes of birth, infants will, when shown two images where one is a human face and the other is a random arrangement of eyes, noses, and mouths, gravitate to the face. This carries through to architecture, as well-loved buildings predictably are proportioned and arranged, both vertically and horizontally, to reflect the form of the human body.
Other things have been shown to resonate with humans through time and across cultures as well. One of the more mysterious aspects, and one that I'm trying to get my mind around, is the factor of regional appropriateness. Someone from Beaufort, South Carolina might go to Tuscany and fall in love with a Tuscan farmhouse. But building a Tuscan farmhouse in Beaufort would look as ridiculous as building a Low Country cottage in Pienza. Why is that? We need to dig into this one.
Wednesday, August 25, 2010 - 09:51 PM
Cindy Frewen Wuellner
Hello Steve: That's exactly my experience with arch schools. Yr so right, many are still arguing about the issues of green and urban design, which is such a waste. Peter Eisenman - excellent proof. You gave a smart answer, very clear. It's a paradigm difference, isnt it? he could not even imagine what you were saying. no gestalt switch.
Yes, regionalism is part of architectural and urban character, no doubt. Its a palatte, a vocabulary. A skillful designer can express with these elements as clearly as an author uses words. Not necessarily traditional forms but definitely of that particular place. At least that's architecture I love. true to place and time, the users, and the designer, a rich convergence.
One other idea - you said flexibility is difficult for arch schools even still. that may be one of the greenest things that we can do. We were taught that even in the 1970s. Now you have me thinking, we have lost that value. whew, it is disappointing. Well, our profession is on the wrong side of that argument too. I am sure we are still relevant, but we are struggling, no doubt, with the weight of old paradigms. We need more clear conversations and ideas like yours. then we can discuss that last 5%, yes? those are conversations I welcome. Cindy @urbanverse
Chicago’s new Greenway Self-Park illustrates the problems created by the Gizmo Green approach better than anything I’ve seen recently. Gizmo Green, of course, is the proposition that we can be green just by using better equipment and better materials. It lies at the heart of most discussions on sustainability today.
Gizmo Green fits perfectly into the industrially-fueled Consuming Economy we’ve built over the past 85 years or so, and which I contrasted in this post with the Conserving Economy that true sustainability should be built upon. Gizmo Green is a perfect fit for the Consuming Economy because it’s something that someone else designs, another “someone else” manufactures, and that we buy and consume. So all of the sustainable aspects are things that someone else provides, removing responsibility from us and putting it on someone else... our only responsibility is to be consumers, which is exactly how the Consuming Economy thrives. But consumption lies at the heart of the problem. The removal of our responsibility combined with the necessity of consumption creates the Gizmo Green Conundrum: How can we say we’re sustainable if that sustainability is based on us consuming more stuff and not needing to live differently ourselves?
Let’s get back to Greenway, which is a parking garage in Chicago’s River North. Here’s what its website says that it provides:
* energy-generating wind turbines
* local and sustainable building materials
* a green roof and rainwater cisterns for irrigation
* high-efficiency glass
* recycling programs
* energy-efficient lighting
* programs to encourage the use of energy efficient vehicles
* electric car charging stations
* air quality initiatives
* tips for Greener Living in the lobbies
* Zipcar and I-Go car sharing vehicles
How is it possible not to applaud all this? Well... err... the one point on “high-efficiency glass” seems pointless since it’s an open-air structure, so why do you need efficient glass? But other than that, how can we not applaud Greenway? Using Gizmo Green standards, applause is the only rational thing to do.
But somehow, something doesn’t feel right. A “sustainable parking deck.” Oh, really? But if Gizmo Green is our only lens, then the answer it produces is “Yes, a sustainable parking deck... and it’s a real champ, too.” So give it the LEED rating. But let’s look at it through the Original Green lens and see what it looks like now:
It may be a bit of a stretch at first to ask a parking garage to help nourish the people who live in the neighborhood, but hey, the site says the building has a green roof, so why not use that green roof to raise something edible? I know, I know, vegetables are heavier than the inedible stuff normally planted on a green roof, but this is a parking deck, so chances are good they have enough structure to handle the difference.
Here’s where the serious problems begin. Try as I might, I couldn’t find any good images of the way this parking deck meets the street. Because I haven’t been to Chicago since it was completed, I don’t have any of my own, either. But from what you can tell on the images that are out there, it seems like it’s a parking deck all the way to the ground. That’s a problem on several counts. One is the fact that the closer a blank wall comes to extending a full city block, the closer it gets to killing walkability. Pedestrians are easily bored, and nothing is more boring than a blank wall, except for maybe a parking lot. In this case, we have a blank glass wall with a parking lot behind... so it’s a boredom double whammy.
Here’s the even bigger problem: that which you encourage is that which you’re likely to get more of, whereas that which you discourage is that which you’re likely to get less of. Building parking decks, therefore, encourages driving. Is it better to have parking decks than to have acres and acres of surface parking lots? Of course. Nothing except rampant crime saps the energy of a city like losing block after block to surface parking lots. But is it even better to encourage people to take transit into a city as intense as Chicago? Without a doubt. Because that intensity suffers for every foot of street frontage given over to parking decks.
Greenway almost completely misses the boat here. Liner shops on the first level would not only enliven the street and solve the boring wall problem above, but would also provide some of the daily services of life to people living nearby. Liner buildings need not be very deep. 18’ is plenty; some liner shops are 12’ deep or less. Ideally, the liner would extend the full height of the building, with loft apartments above, but at the very least, the ground floor should certainly be lined with shops.
Few things make a place more securable than putting “eyes on the street,” in the words of Jane Jacobs. Greenway’s contribution here is essentially zero, whereas had the deck been lined with shops and loft apartments, many people would be watching the street, contributing to the security of the neighborhood. Liner buildings should be standard on parking decks built anywhere in an urban setting today. They just make sense.
OK, I’ll admit it... I’ve been a gizmo fan all my life. And the thought of watching those big wind turbines turning on the corner of the building sounds like fun. But like all gizmos, once the new wears off, the thrill is gone... which is another reason why gizmos, while they are a part of life, should not BE our life.
But is this building lovable? That’s a different question. Humans resonate with forms that reflect them, almost from the moment of birth. But this building is faceless, with a blank glass wall. It’s not brutally ugly, but would anyone consider Greenway to be lovable?
If a building can be loved, then it needs to be durable enough to endure long into the future. I haven’t visited the building yet... I’m a speaker at the Traditional Building Exhibition & Conference there in October, so I’ll check it out then. But in general, sheathing a building in glass doesn’t give one a lot of confidence that it’ll still be there several centuries from now. How many other exterior wall materials break so easily?
This is a tough one. If a building is lovable and durable, then it needs to be flexible enough to be used for many things over time because a building that lasts several centuries will likely be used for its programmed use for only a small percentage of its life. But what about a parking deck? What else can you use a parking deck for? Maybe a set for a creepy movie? That’s the most enduring cultural image of a parking deck: a place to get shot, or blown up, or other really bad stuff.
Think about this: what to do with them after cars? Are parking decks destined for the wrecking ball once gas gets too expensive to drive? What else would you use them for? I don’t have an answer here, but it certainly makes me think that parking decks don’t pass the Flexible Building test.
Greenway’s website, Facebook page, and Twitter stream all make a big deal about the building’s energy efficiency. And that’s good. But it’s not like the building is heated or cooled, right? So the energy use issues should be lighting and ventilation.
By day, these should be fairly easy to achieve naturally. Even with a liner building, there are ways to naturally ventilate and daylight the building. Look at any of the old buildings in Chicago (or anywhere, for that matter,) and you’ll see that they’re composed of thin wings so that all parts of the building are near an outside wall. How would you do that with a parking deck? Especially one with liner buildings on the streets? The most obvious solution is an O-shaped building with single bay (double-loaded, of course) of parking surrounding a light court in the middle. Go from floor to floor with a circular ramp, and all the floors can be flat so the building can be easily repurposed for other uses in the future.
That’s just what comes immediately to mind. I’m confident in the creativity of my architect colleagues. I’m certain they will produce many and better solutions... so long as they’re seeing it through the Original Green lens rather than they Gizmo Green lens they’re currently looking through.
Tuesday, August 17, 2010 - 12:40 PM
It's interesting that the parking garage would have a glass facade. An enclosed garage requires exhaust fans to exhaust out carbon monoxide fumes. Doesn't that add to the energy consumption?
Tuesday, August 17, 2010 - 08:10 PM
Cindy Frewen Wuellner
Steve, fantastic post. Excellent example of how to apply your Original Green principles. Gizmo Green, indeed. well said, Cindy @urbanverse
Wednesday, August 18, 2010 - 11:11 AM
Michael, it's a glass wall made of offset panels, so that it breathes but sorta blocks the view of the cars.
Thanks, Cindy! I'm thinking of trying this approach with other notable buildings... amazing the difference between the lenses!
Thursday, August 19, 2010 - 08:46 PM
If there is enough distance between the decks or floors, the structure could be fitted out as a real building when the cars abandon it. However, there is rarely enough room between decks to do this.
Sunday, August 22, 2010 - 03:05 PM
Exactly, Ken... that's the other half of the floor plate formula that I didn't mention: make the plates flat, AND make the floor-to-floor tall enough to use for other things later.
Americans have endured the Poverty of Large for far too long; it’s time to return to the Luxury of Small. That’s my son Sam above, a newly-graduated chef from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, cooking in the kitchen of our tiny condo on South Beach. It’s a far cry from this house, which is where he and his brother David were raised:
It was four times as large as our condo. It sat on one acre of land which was designed to be a self-sufficient homestead. I described it in some detail in this post on the Trouble with Consumption. We made all sorts of sacrifices to finish the house, and were never able to really finish it out the way we would have liked because the square footage stretched our budget to the limit.
Fast-forward twenty years. Our condo is 747 square feet, as opposed to the 3,000 square feet of the big house. The countertops are soapstone instead of the big house’s cheapest possible white ceramic tile on plywood. The kitchen walls are pleated stainless steel instead of the sheetrock of the big house. I could go on, but you get the idea. Did we suddenly hit the lottery? Not at all. The reason we were able to finish the condo out so much better was because there simply wasn’t that much of it. Because everything was smaller, everything could be better. Small is the new luxury. Without being this much smaller, we’d have never lived in a place this much better.
America’s Urge for Big in recent decades is in many ways responsible for the Meltdown. There were other factors, of course, but consider this: Just before the Meltdown, the average American house size had grown to over double what it was at the end of World War II. Yet the average household size had shrunk to almost half what it was at the end of the war. In spite of the fact that half as many people were inhabiting houses twice as large, we still had so much excess stuff that didn’t fit that we’d made the mini-storage industry a $17 billion/year business!
Let that sink in a minute. The cost of storing all that over-consumption had grown so large that the mini-storage industry had grown larger than the entire movie industry! And these weren’t the things we needed, either... they were the things we really didn’t need... otherwise, why would they be in storage?
All that over-consumption came at a great price. Once, buildings were built for the ages. At the Meltdown, construction quality had become so shoddy that pieces of houses could regularly be found falling off in the driveway in less than ten years! We had become a nation of throw-away buildings and throw-away places. Obviously, we can never become sustainable if we keep throwing stuff away like this.
Houses that were too big contributed directly to the throw-away building culture. How? Houses that have to be built as cheaply as possible because they’re being built as large as possible aren’t really worth saving. And so when the too-big maintenance bill on the too-big house hits too soon because it was built too cheaply to last very long, the easy answer is to discard it and start over somewhere else. And so the throw-away cycle continues.
Do this test: Drive around town randomly. Stop every five minutes and look to your left (or right... it doesn’t matter.) If the building is a house, chances are its age is less than forty years. If it’s a Wal-Mart, on the other hand, chances are its age is less than fifteen years. You’ve probably noticed that people live longer than forty years most of the time. This means that on average, we’re burdening the American public with building more than one house per lifetime, and re-building their retail several times in a lifetime.
We simply must lay down the burden of over-building, because it has become too heavy for America to bear. Let’s unburden ourselves by building smaller, so that we can afford build to last once again. Because we can’t build to last if we build too big. Build big or build well... that’s the choice. We cannot afford not to build well anymore. This has become increasingly obvious recently. I blogged about it a year ago, and many of the lessons we learned fostering the Katrina Cottages movement have led to all sorts of cool ways of building smaller and smarter.
Our Outdoor Living Room
Here’s one really cool thing you can do to reduce the size of your house: build outdoor rooms. They’re not only much less expensive to build per square foot, but they have a hidden benefit as well that you might not have realized: If your outdoor rooms are enticing enough that you spend a lot of time outdoors, you become acclimated to the local environment and need less conditioning when you return indoors.
Creatures of the A/C might say “I could never do that.” I was once one of you. But then I moved to Miami, where I spend lots of time outdoors walking, and in my garden. I can accurately say that I’ve never been outdoors here in the shade and with a breeze when I’ve ever been uncomfortable. And this is in a town where the basketball team is named the “Heat.” Creatures of the A/C come down here and suffer, sweating profusely all the time. But not me. My garden and my walkable town have taken care of that... I’m Living in Season. Build small and well, and build outdoor rooms... this is where real sustainability begins.
PS: This blog post was written in response to a new phenomenon on Twitter: the #blogoff. I heard about it from architect Cindy Frewen Wuellner, PhD, FAIA, (@urbanverse on Twitter) who has a really cool blog on Posterous.
Wednesday, August 11, 2010 - 11:58 PM
Cindy Frewen Wuellner
Steve: this is a beautiful, informative, right on post on smaller living!!! I am so happy that you contributed. Never too late for brilliant ideas!
Thursday, August 12, 2010 - 12:30 AM
Thanks so much, Cindy! Not sure yet where the #blogoff idea originated, but I'll keep up with the topic next time... great idea! Anyone who blogs should follow this hashtag.
Thursday, August 12, 2010 - 04:59 AM
Steve, this is brilliant.
Thursday, August 12, 2010 - 07:15 AM
Steve, the #blogoff was the brainchild of Veronika Miller at http://www.modenus.com @modenus and a group of us just kinda ran with it informally! We blog on a variety of topics as an exercise to stretch our brains, knock us out of our niche just a little and attract bloggers who may be better experts on the topics we choose. Follow @dogwalkblog @paul_anater and @modenus if you are intrigued about the #blogoff idea and want to jump into the fray on the next go-around. Nice piece! Thoughtfully done. Like the difference between enjoying a well prepared Tapas vs an all-you-can eat buffet.
I've added you to the end of my post at http://rshrk.us/574
Thursday, August 12, 2010 - 08:35 AM
I'm a resident of Orlando and am a slave to a/c but when I go to Lake Worth (adjacent to Palm Beach on the south side, I love to dine "al fresco" at such eateries as Havana Hideaway where there is a breeze and shade and fans and no a/c! Extremely comfortable plus great food!
Thursday, August 12, 2010 - 10:36 AM
Steve, Love it--quality over quantity. Michael Pollan on food: "PAy More. Eat Less," but your condo is not tiny! by New York standards, it is palacious, as is my NYC co-op apartment. What you do have that is wonderful is all that outdoor space that is gorgeous as well as shared. Shared is the new Small!
Thursday, August 12, 2010 - 10:38 AM
PS. And: Public parks are the new backyard!
Thursday, August 12, 2010 - 11:09 AM
Thanks, DogWalkBlog! I've just followed everyone you mentioned... looking forward to the next round of #blogoff And Nancy, you're exactly right... matter of fact, that'll be an upcoming blog post: why public parks are better back yards than the back yard!
Thursday, August 12, 2010 - 12:43 PM
Love the article Steve. The rooms photographed are so lovely that they make the living smaller concept doubly enticing. In my office, several of us have adopted the 6 item only work wardrobe. With fewer choices, getting ready is a snap. The clothing pair down has reminded me of how I really don't need so much stuff. Fewer, better made, more responsibly purchased. In the end, more stuff seems to steal away more time. Also, good article in NYT this week, you may have seen it.
Thursday, August 12, 2010 - 03:20 PM
You are right, Mary Beth. Too much stuff is really such a burden! Living in a tropical beach community, our lifestyle is so casual. And we love it! Some call it the "flip-flop lifestyle" and that is really it! Just simple! Great points here Steve! But I do have to add that good design adds a lot to the small footprint. Every inch has to have a purpose and everything a place. Small space, Big living.
Thursday, August 12, 2010 - 04:06 PM
Great Post Steve!
Friday, August 13, 2010 - 11:57 AM
Vaughan & I do fine living in an 780 square foot house that includes a small art studio. We're planning to add to it, but for work space, not living space; it's nearly impossible to do pottery and jewelry on a productive professional level in 120 square feet.
I agree completely that pushing the thermostat up makes life in FLorida more comfortable overall. I sped a lot of time outside, and barely preak a sweat if it's below 90. A/C set at 80 makes a cool night (mid 70's) feel wonderful, and we can shut down the cooling.
Friday, August 13, 2010 - 04:57 PM
MaryBeth, I hadn't seen the NYT article... thanks! As for the 6-item wardrobe... let's see... shirt, pants, 2 socks, 2 shoes... guess that means going commando! ;-) Which actually is a cool way to go here on South Beach!
Frank, that's my experience exactly... a warmer thermostat is an inoculation against feeling hot because you condition yourself. Many times, if I'm working from home, I simply open the windows, cut on the ceiling fan, and let the breeze blow through. Even in August (at least some of the days.)
Saturday, August 14, 2010 - 03:32 PM
Oh, I wasn't very clear. 6 articles of clothing-not counting shoes, underthings, and accessories. And, we've kinda cheated. This is only for work. Appartently there is a group who limited their entire wardrobe (work & play) to 6 items. Funny NyT article about a woman who resorted to mowing the lawn in flowered pajamas! It's been fun! Strange thing is no one really does notice if you wear the same skirt for a whole week! We're 2 weeks into a month long experiment. It's been an enormous time saver. And, I find that I actually look a little more creative and put together because I am wearing scarves and different accessories.
Saturday, August 14, 2010 - 10:58 PM
Got it... that makes sense. I do something similar. I wear black pants and t-shirts, so I can pack really light for travel. If you dress differently every day, then most people feel compelled to back a different outfit for every day. But I can always do laundry, so I don't usually pack more than 3-4 shirts no matter how long I'll be traveling. That also means I never have to check luggage. Even traveling to Europe, it's nothing but carry-ons for me.
Urban forestry has lots of useful information to offer, but there is a big lie at the heart of the majority of the work of urban forestry which threatens to discredit the entire discipline if anybody will call their hand on it. It’s the Root Zone Myth.
As with any myth, there is some kernel of embedded truth. In the case of the Root Zone Myth, it’s the fact that, left alone in a field, a tree’s roots will spread about as far as its drip line, which is the outer limit of its leaves. So if the tree’s limbs and leaves were 40 feet in diameter, its root system would be, too. Now, the urban foresters are saying that’s not good enough; a tree’s root system actually extends 2-1/2 times as far as the drip line. So for that tree with a 40-foot canopy, the roots actually extend to a 100-foot diameter.
Left alone in a field, this is generally true for many species of trees. But in town, it’s a myth. Nearly every discussion with an urban forester begins with their declaration that we need to protect the drip line, and that no hard surfaces (paving, sidewalks, etc.) can be permitted within the root zone. They say that if you plant trees near paving, the tree will be “stunted,” or “dwarfed.” Do the trees in the image above look serious stunted to you? But look... paving gets to within 3 or 4 feet of their trunks all around them! How can this be? The urban foresters claim that this is impossible, but I took the picture myself in Charleston, and I can vouch for the fact that it is indeed real.
The Root Zone Myth becomes the Grand Lie of Urban Forestry because the urban foresters really should know better, but they keep repeating the Root Zone Myth while totally ignoring the urban context.
How do they get away with this? They start by telling stories of trees that have had intrusions into their root zones, and parts of the trees have died in response. The stories are true. But what they’re not telling you is that these are old established trees. Of course they’ll be stressed and drop some leaves when a significant portion of their roots are destroyed! But the trees in question are the new ones that they want to prevent you from planting along the street, or in the medians of avenues or boulevards. According to many of them, the tree will only grow as large as the unrestricted area for root growth.
I was in an audience last night where an urban forester and his city and county planner colleagues made all of these allegations, and more. On the one hand, they were alleging that tree roots don’t grow under paving. On the other hand, they were complaining that tree roots that grow under sidewalks buck the sidewalks up over the years. You can’t have it both ways, guys!
Let’s look at it this way. If, as they said, tree roots don’t grow under paving, and the tree canopy will only grow as large as the roots, then canopy streets would be impossible, because if the branches won’t go further than the roots and the roots won’t go under the street, then the branches would never grow over the street. But the best canopy street in Miami Beach is Meridian, which is pictured here, and which was only a few blocks from the room in which we were sitting as they made these allegations!
I don’t know precisely where the roots of the trees in this picture are going, but the branches are clearly going far out over the paving. And this is exactly the sort of street that the urban foresters are saying can’t be done. Worse, if they have their way, they won’t allow you to build it this way. Rather, they’re looking for super-wide swales where the trees are far back from the pavement. Do we really want to outlaw these sorts of streets?
Here’s another question: what does any of this have to do with sustainability? In a hot and humid climate, it’s very important to be able to shade the sidewalk as soon as possible so that it’s more comfortable to walk there. Walkability, as this blog has said many times, is essential to sustainability because a place isn’t green if people have to drive everywhere, no matter how many green points you get for the buildings.
Placing trees far back from the sidewalk in oversized swales may delay shade on the sidewalk for several years, transforming what should have been a pleasant walk into concrete that seems hot enough to cook an egg.
The bottom line is that the Grand Lie of Urban Forestry doesn’t just dismiss canopy streets, which are typically the most beautiful streets in town. It also helps to make the neighborhood far less green by inhibiting walking, which is one of the foundations of sustainable places.
To the urban foresters: With all due respect, you guys really need to dispense with the Grand Lie. It’s destroying your credibility with those of us who choose to observe real life conditions, and to think about what we’ve seen. Because what we’ve seen makes shambles of your Grand Lie. Just walk around town. Just about any neighborhood built before World War II will do, because before then, we knew how to build excellent urban streets, and how to plant the street trees. Observe those trees, and how they live in an urban setting. A city is not an open field. You guys could do a lot of good with all the things you know about trees if you’d just get rid of the Grand Lie and apply all of your knowledge to the urban setting.
To really get this started in the right direction, you might consider changing the name of your discipline from “Urban Forestry” to something else. Why? Because there aren’t many forests in the city. That may be the core of your problem: you’re confused about your own identity, and you’re acting more like a forester than an urbanist. Forestry happens in the forest. Urbanism happens in the city. Call yourselves Urban Tree Managers or something... I don’t really care, so long as you let us build great streets and sustainable places again.
Tuesday, August 3, 2010 - 03:39 PM
Thanks for articulating this important point. If you've ever endured a rezoning in your attempt to build a walkable community, you'll appreciate the crucial impact tree setbacks have on the developer's ability to create great outdoor spaces. Tree ordinances are another form of creeping BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything) legislation which have the horrible, unintended consequence of encouraging sprawl. Could we have built a single one of America's 20 most beautiful cities if the original developers had been subject to tree setback ordinances?
Tuesday, August 3, 2010 - 03:47 PM
Yep. I've run into the very same roadblock. And yet it's just another case of the specialist who can't see the forest through the trees (pun intended). They envisage a perfect scenario in nature and then attempt to impose it in an urban environment and voila - suburbanism. The same can be said for the macro forest "experts" from American Forests et al who are developing those tree loss maps in every city in the country and arguing that we need to stop development because of the loss of tree. Should the better approach be the planned "reforestation" of the urban areas with urban trees. Beaufort, SC and Charleston, SC are both great examples of a ecological system that has adapted well to human habitation and maintained superb canopies (including when viewed from the air) against the standards of the modern urban forester.
Tuesday, August 3, 2010 - 05:09 PM
It's the sidewalks and sewer pipes that get stunted. Wouldn't it great if we could control trees just put putting sidewalks around them?
Wednesday, August 4, 2010 - 08:36 AM
Tree roots compete for space and research confirms they can grow well outside the canopy dripline. Not all roots are the same. Feeder roots in the top 6-12” of soil take up water and nutrients. Long tensile roots function like ropes that help hold up a tent. Buttress-like roots form a base of support. Roots only grow as deep as the soil profile provides a media that allows oxygen penetration and water availability, usually between 3’-5’.
Your photographs show large trees growing in small openings, often with superficial roots along the surface--not the normal condition. The pavement in all the photos looks relatively new, evidence of tax dollars spent to replace sidewalks that were cracked by tree roots seeking space?
In Gainesville, Florida, we have 50% canopy coverage. We say we are “A City in a Forest” and as a result have comparatively low utility rates, shelter from storm force winds and the many other benefits trees confer. On Gainesville development projects, the surface requirement for trees is 140 sq ft with a minimum width of 9’and soil that can support plant growth to a depth of 3’. A required site meeting prior to landscaping is for inspecting the soil and explaining the importance of planting Florida Grade #1 trees. New subdivisions must have “tree lawns” between curb and sidewalk of 8’ in diameter. I’ve been the City Arborist for 22 years and believe the future urban forest will be abundant, with minimal infrastructure damage from tree roots.
“New urbanist” developers who recognize the importance of trees and actually listen for the reasoning behind the regulations are creating neighborhoods that will have shade. Those who reason that new trees only need a small amount of space because old preserved trees can survive in 5’ diameter openings are building projects that will ultimately disappoint. If the new trees live and grow well, their roots will disrupt pavement (tax dollars) and possibly the new owners of the building. If they don’t live, the community suffers all the losses that go with an inhospitable environment.
Those whose mission is assuring a healthy tree canopy for urban areas have various job titles, but we band together under the concept of urban forestry. I think your understanding is shallow. Planting trees is easy. Having them grow to maturity in an urban setting is very challenging. Urban foresters have developed a variety of solutions to meet these challenges, but it takes real effort to understand them.
Wednesday, August 4, 2010 - 10:16 AM
"Do the trees in the image above look serious stunted to you? But look... paving gets to within 3 or 4 feet of their trunks all around them! How can this be?"
Live oaks are unique in their capacity to occupy all T-zones. The majestic live oaks in and around Charleston College have patches of garden courtyards and other landscape areas proximate to them (and within the root zone). The soils in and around Charleston tend towards a sandy loam, and the brick walkways are often semi-pervious (on a sand setting bed). All of these streetscape features mitigate the suffocation of the root zone under the asphalt street.
Consequently, trenching along the walks and green would likely imperil these trees. I've seen it happen on hundreds of sites; it ain't pretty.
Wednesday, August 4, 2010 - 10:38 AM
yet another example
Steve: I have added a link with another example that points again to the fallacy of the Urban Forester's arguments. Keep chipping away!
Wednesday, August 4, 2010 - 11:01 AM
David Moore, Forestry Manager
This is the first time I have been confronted with this particular issue, but the debate about street trees and their planting space can take almost unlimited forms. One major factor this author did not bring up is tree species, as certain tree species can take to a street tree pit better than others due to their varying tolerances to compaction, flooding, drought, inherent to each species. For instance, if all we ever needed to plant were London planes, then we could probably get away with 3' by 3' holes in the cement and just wait for the tree to push through all its constrictions over time. Meanwhile, a tree that is more sensitive to compaction, like a white oak, cannot grow in a tree pit no matter how large you make it. A group that really has it figured out is Casey Trees from Washington DC.
Feel free to glance through here, you will get the 'scoop' on soil volume and how that relates to tree health, and also learn of innovative engineering methods of expanding the root space below ground while keeping the sidewalk legit on the surface. You can expand root space below by excavating around the pit and replacing the fill with Cornell University Structural Soil (which is basically jagged pebbles that allow for roots to grow through them), or by connecting street tree pits underground so the trees all share the same soil volume. Combine this with permeable bricks or pavement over the 'underground' root space and it blends perfectly into the landscape and you have a great design solution!
Sidenote: Trees and people can coexist beautifully in the urban environment, but most of our misconceptions of urban trees usually start with an assumption based on our experiences with other types of city infrastructure that are much less dynamic than a large woody long-lived compartmentalizing perennial :)
-David Moore, Forestry Manger
New York Restoration Project email@example.com
Tree_Space_Design_highres.pdf 4.6 MB
Wednesday, August 4, 2010 - 03:57 PM
I'm all for new urbanism. I love those tree-lined streets, too. I understand what new urbanists are trying to do with street trees. But I have a feeling that those nice tree-lined streets in the pictures were once even nicer. The trees probably once had a lot more room. A lot of streets have been widened or the sidewalks have been moved or added. The streets may have even been gravel roads at one point. New developments use modern paving and probably have lower standards for the amount of space trees need. Maybe some research needs to be done on what these tree-lined streets were originally like. No one wants dead street trees.
Saturday, August 7, 2010 - 02:16 AM
I think this is a very worth while topic and thank Steve for bringing it to us. Although I can see many sides to this conversation the simple fact is that not all municipalities view this equally and policy varies from place to place. Last year I was working as a landscape designer in Orlando, FL where new trees require spacing on the upper end of the size requirements. I now work in construction management in New York and witness saw cutting of 5'x7'6" rectangles out of existing sidewalks with a min. 4' of excavation and spec soil back-fill to make way for new street trees. After a couple successful growing seasons, these new tree pits are given a granite paver treatment along the perimeter further reducing the surface area by roughly 8" all around. I honestly am not sure why these pavers are added but I have noted that in a majority of the cases, older trees with this treatment demonstrate that the roots will buckle the pavers and general stop there, thus minimizing damage to the actual paved sidewalk.
I guess only time will tell, but I truly believe that these trees (for the most part) will survive. Of course there are MANY other factors besides tree pit size that will determine the success rate in these intensely urban environments. From soil compaction and canine contamination (which is why I'm a fan of tree grates and pit guards) to vandalism and plain arborcide, you would be surprised at how many people tell me "I DO NOT WANT THIS TREE!" (which could be another very useful discussion).
In the end the NYC Urban Foresters have either done their homework and "get it" or are taking a huge gamble in order to implement one of Mayor Bloomberg's PlaNYC initiatives (a million trees don't come cheap: www.milliontreesnyc.org). Either way, I am glad to be a part of the greening of one of the great global cities and look forward to seeing the outcome.
Saturday, August 7, 2010 - 12:20 PM
Steve, you are correct in that many trees planted a long time ago are big and healthy. You probably agree that most of those trees are growing in residential areas with more open space and not in highly urbanized areas. Engineering standards were likely different at those locations when those trees were planted meaning that soils were less compacted and better penetrable by roots than they are these days. This means that roots of those older trees are probably growing a little farther than just in the tree pit.
There are big differences between soils in regards to compactability, nutrient and water availability etc, sands are better penetrable (even compacted) than clays, for example. Plus, different tree species tolerate different conditions. It is therefore a bad idea to generalize. As you said, walk around with open eyes and look at trees that are growing in highly urbanized areas. If it were as you say all those trees should be growing just as fast and healthy as trees in the woods. Look at the pavement around those trees as well. Are these trees really healthy and big without growing out of their tree pit? How many start cracking pavement? Is that what we want? Trees probably wouldn't do that if the conditions withing the tree pit were adequate to support growth. Plus, trees are oftentimes removed if they crack gray infrastructure. That's not sustainable either because we'd have to start from scratch.
There is a big difference between trees that are planted in small cutouts and large trees whose roots are cut to build a street or building. Cutting roots is always a bad idea, even though it's oftentimes unavoidable.
As David said, there are many designs available to increase available/penetrable soil volume to improve tree growth thus you can plant trees closer to a sidewalk and provide shading somewhat soon. The better the conditions the faster the tree will grow so if you decide to plant a tree in a small cutout with poor soil quality you will have to wait a bit until you get some benefits. I'm sure you have seen the many large parking lots with small and unhealthy trees growing in small cutouts. They are trying to grow trees in unsuitable conditions. Those trees will probably never be big enough shade your car.
Tuesday, August 10, 2010 - 10:08 AM
Alert reader Eddie Suarez sent this link to a photo of a tree that refused to take no for an answer.
Thursday, August 12, 2010 - 12:45 AM
Wow, this is great!! Exactly what I was hoping for... lots of thoughtful commentary and resources. From my shallow understanding, here are a few comments:
A. Interrupted sidewalks aren't the end of the world. Miami Beach handles them very well by grinding down the high lip... and Miami Beach isn't the world beacon of municipal efficiency. Rather, they're right down there with typical American cities, working to figure things out as they go along. So there may be better solutions... but this one isn't bad.
B. My original post makes no mention of species. That's what I was hoping those with a deeper understanding of trees might contribute, and they did... thanks! Special thanks to David Moore for the resources he posted. Much appreciated!
C. Most of the images I posted were from Charleston, south of Market Street, where the buildings almost certainly are older than the trees. Or if not, they were the same age. Because these buildings were built in a city, it's extremely unlikely that the trees originally grew along a dirt road. So what you're seeing isn't likely so far from their centuries-earlier condition. If you have photos from the mid-19th century, please post them and prove me wrong! Let's all learn something in this discussion.
D. As for ideal conditions, this is the big point of the post: growing trees in an urban setting isn't ideal, but this isn't a toggle switch... it isn't ideal-or-nothing. Rather, urban trees can grow to very serviceable size in less-than-ideal settings. And that's OK. I've been called a tree-hugger many times, but in reality, I've never observed that a tree has the same capacity for love and affection as a puppy or a person... so I don't have reservations about planting trees in places where they might be less "happy" than in a forest.
Monday, August 16, 2010 - 04:46 PM
To me, it's less about trying to cram trees everywhere in order to make the places we want. Its more about making the places we want and making them suitable for trees. We do not spend the time or money to build proper growing environments for urban trees. Giving the trees "space" is not always the only answer, and that seems to be your argument. We can design fantastic soil volumes under the pavement that will allow many trees to thrive and give us those "great places" we all so badly desire. If we simply add more trees without fixing the problem below the paving, we will only be disappointed by dead or pathetic trees that provide little or no value to the place.
Another very important part of this is tree species. We really need to find out what the best trees for urban plantings are for our location….and that may not line up with a designer’s (or forester’s) favorite species list. Locally, our city forester has outlawed Planetree/Sycamore as a street tree. Really? It is a bit messy and not without problems, but it is one of our best street tree species. Great trees in an open lawn are not always the best species for the street, but few designers or foresters seem to understand this.
On a side note, I wanted to know what the best street trees species for my city was so I asked 17 local arborist, foresters, nurseryman and educators to numerically rate each tree (378 species/cultivars). I they averaged out their ratings and developed this list. Go to www.gouldevans.com, and click on “Planning/Landscape Architecture” to see the list.
Monday, August 16, 2010 - 07:01 PM
Thanks, Robert! You're clearly correct that the planting details have to be right for the tree to flourish in an urban environment. It's also a fact that many places are downright unwalkable in the heat of summer with no shade. Try walking around downtown Dallas in July, for example. So in places where it regularly gets 90° or warmer, I'd suggest that shade is pretty much a prerequisite of walkability. So lets get the details and the species right so that we can provide the walkability that is an essential building-block of sustainability.
Friday, August 20, 2010 - 12:56 PM
There is no doubt that trees are key to walkability. I have also been arguing that point for a long time. I would also agree that a stunted ugly tree is usually better than no tree at all. We need to get the spacial form of the street and building setback correct, and add the trees to the mix to make it feel “right”. We just usually spend no time understanding trees. I have seen great places built, then they place the wrong tree in a pathetic hole. No one cared enough to find out how to do it right and what tree species would give them the best long term success.
One reason I think 99.9% of the population does not understand why street trees are important is because our cars are too perfect of an isolation chamber. I live in first-tier older suburb and drive most places. My car is an old roadster. No top, no AC and primitive by today’s standards. What is does, is allow me to experience some of what a pedestrian experiences. Things like heat, shade, odors/fragrances and many other things. It allows me to experience the spacial definition of the street…or lack of it. It’s not quite like walking, but it helps me understand what works and what doesn’t much better than a traditional automobile.
Trees are the one element that really improves the experience of my drive. If I am in a newer expansive suburb where the trees are too far to experience, I really hate the drive. If I am on a road with a superb tree canopy over the travel lane, I really enjoy the drive. If you want to show a client what is good or bad about r.o.w. design, put them in a primitive roadster (any convertible might do) and drive them around. Walking is better, but time might not allow for it.
Sunday, August 22, 2010 - 03:37 PM
"One reason I think 99.9% of the population does not understand why street trees are important is because our cars are too perfect of an isolation chamber"
Precisely, Robert! Our lack of tolerance of anything other than perfect conditions precludes a sustainable range of conditions. This really is central to sustainability. On the other hand, we'll never bridge the gap between our perfect isolation chambers and the really brutal conditions on treeless Dallas streets in summertime, for example, or dark-roofed houses with 8' ceilings. So what really must happen is that we've gotta make each environment, whether indoor or outdoor, as comfortable as possible using natural measures. Only if that happens do we have a real chance of people becoming conditioned enough to the local environment to leave their isolation chambers and the near-perfect conditions inside them.
Friday, November 5, 2010 - 07:59 AM
Danny Burbage, Urban Forester, Charleston
Rather than calling urban foresters liars and suggesting that we change the name of our profession, I wish you had taken the time to contact one of us who is nurturing large trees in confined urban spaces. We are working very hard to educate others in the field on how to strike the proper balance between much needed large shade trees and the tight confines of our cities. I would have been happy to meet with you while you were in Charleston. You do yourself and others a disservice by painting with such a broad and uninformed stroke.
Danny Burbage, Urban Forester, City of Charleston, SC
Friday, November 5, 2010 - 08:53 AM
There are countlless urban foresters across the country that are quiet aware of the root zone reality and the differences between particular species growth patterns in open fields vs. city streets. The variables are all over the map which makes growing large trees in urban areas such a complex challenge. Your suggestion to rename the urban forestry profession is off base and ignores the science and research that has gone into this profession for the past 50 years or so. It is "forestry in the city " in that we try and grow and design forest plants into our urban areas. Your comment ..."Nearly every discussion with an urban forester begins with their declaration that we need to protect the drip line, and that no hard surfaces (paving, sidewalks, etc.) can be permitted within the root zone. "... seems a bit off base. I've known and deliberated with many UF's and I don't think that this is where the majority are coming from. Sure it would be nice to protect the root zone, but arborsits and UF's know this is the ideal and reality is something much different.
Tom Knowles, Certified Arborsit
Board Memebr - TreesSC