Spaces for Nature in Cities and Attracting Success for the Neighborhood

Spaces for nature, whether it be in miniature or large scale, is integral to overall human well-being. This has been proven across many disciplines of the positive effects parks and green spaces have on the psycho-social aspect of an individual. But parks and spaces for nature are also proving to be successful and significant for cities as well. Regions and urban cores are working harder more than ever to make having nearby green space a reality for its residents. Why? Because having attractive public parks and green spaces can pay off financially, both in the short and long term.

Take the Highline Park in New York, for example. A reclaimed space that was originally a railroad track, is now home to one of the most famous parks in the United States. In 2011, it saw 3.7 million visitors—half of which were not local residents. Here’s the main driver: from 2003 – 2011, property values near the park increased 103 percent. Prior to the park’s implementation, nearby residential buildings were valued 8 percent below the overall median for Manhattan. This is a remarkable difference. Now I am not saying that every park should be a fabulous, world-renown destination just like The Highline. But the principle is there— to aim for a green space or park that gets people excited to visit and revisit, whether for recreational or social-cultural reasons.

Spaces for nature make cities great and even better neighborhoods. Not only because happy people make happy cities but because they can form a gravitational pull that attract other types of investments from the private (and public) sector that can benefit the neighborhood as a whole. Enjoyable parks provide a ‘staying’ power to local residents in and they also can have positive economic impacts on the city and surrounding neighborhood.

Keeping It In-House: On-site Lifecycles and Net-Neutral Housing

I’m flying from San Diego to Portland. I’m visiting home for 3 weeks before shipping out for graduate school with the intention of relaxing, unwinding, and prepping for two years of grinding away toward a Master’s degree. I strike up a conversation with my seatmate, David, and I learn that he’s working on a project to create “net-neutral housing.” Called “Earth Harmony Habitats,” these are homes that are completely disconnected from public utilities—they generate their own electricity, collect and filter their own potable water, process their grey water, and compost their organic waste. I get intrigued, I accidentally volunteer to help out, and two days later I find myself putting in 20-hours/week without pay during my 3-week vacation. Oops.

While a rest would have been nice, I begin to learn fascinating things: the design for water-recycling sun showers; solar-panels that collect and funnel rain water into storage tanks; how to use external vertical gardens as insulation. Lots of environmental innovation and technology that is exciting, compelling, and seemingly feasible.

I also learn about the problem—you’ve got to sell the concept of living in one of these things. Design constraints mean they aren’t the most conventionally “pretty” homes you’ve ever seen. They aren’t cheap to build and there’s no prior proof that they do, in fact, reliably collect sufficient water and generate sufficient electricity (despite emphatic assurances from the designer). And unless someone is already living a very “alternative”, eco-focused lifestyle, there are major behavioral and logistical adjustments required to thrive in this type of living space.

In reading through chapters in The Carbon Efficient City regarding “On-Site Life Cycles,” I was struck by the exciting nature of the innovation involved in David’s approach to a micro-version of these kinds of self-contained systems and how well they exemplify this principle. I was also struck by how, as discussed in the “Delight” chapter, the changes we need require significant cultural and behavioral shifts. They require value to be sufficient to warrant making these changes and enduring the transitional costs. Earth Harmony Habitats are a wonderful idea whose value isn’t yet sufficient for the vast majority of individuals and families in American society, even the most environmentally conscious among us.

It will (hopefully) be fun one day to tell future generations of a time where we just couldn’t make carbon efficient housing attractive enough for people to buy—and watch them laugh. Just as we struggle to comprehend an era without computers, telephones, or running water, they’ll wrestle with the notion that we and our predecessors weren’t willing to take simple, feasible steps to ensure the health and future of our planet. They’ll laugh because (hopefully) they will have succeeded where we’ve failed, and they will live in a world where sustainability isn’t a bonus—it’s a fundamental component of the way we shape the built environment around us.

Natural Right-of-Ways

What is possible by allowing nature to retake public right of ways

What would Seattle look like if we allowed streets to be recaptured by nature?

In 1985 Seattle designated and mapped its first Green Street into policy guidelines that marked the beginning of what could become an epic transformation in the way cities and nature interact and coexist. More than any other public space in Seattle, and pretty much every city in America, public streets account for the largest total area of public space. The function of most roads are extremely important to making sure a city is operating smoothly, yet there are many streets that could be replaced by permeable surfaces where plants can take root while still maintain their primary function. Just imagine continuous vegetation from yard to yard, where mosses, shrubs, and new trees could take root. Neighborhood streets could be extensions of gardens, with gravel pathways replacing sidewalk and little bridges over swales that help manage the cities storm water, placing it where is naturally belongs – in the water table. Granted, the cost of maintaining streets in Seattle is lower than in cities with fluctuating temperatures that freeze and thaw water, expanding small cracks into cavernous pot hole, but there are potential cost savings to not having to replace old streets.

These natural streets could be a place for opportunistic residents with green thumbs to take charge and express their gardening skills. The city has already been nudged to take advantage of the surplus of public space that is the street to make it a place for sitting, eating, drinking, and hanging out.  With legislation supporting pilot program like streeteries and parklets, there is an established interest in doing more with this public good. Some may argue that there is a maintenance issue with letting nature take back the streets, but letting nature do its thing is exactly what makes these street so interesting and biophilic. Imagine a city with trails instead of sidewalks, and gravel/grass instead of asphalt, where trees could grow healthier because of better root networks and fauna had routes to get around. Who knows, perhaps our future could be to live in both the city and the forest.

Image photoshoped by author to show possibility.

Awareness through Experience: Our National & State Parks

Easy access to National and State parks should be an essential component to combating climate change. Hurd and Hurd in The Carbon Efficient City point out that we should continue to invest in our national and state parks so that people have access to natural wilderness and untouched nature that we do not find in urban centers. I advocate that it is essential, because experiencing natural wilderness on the large scales that are found in national and state parks creates a sense of appreciation for the environment. This appreciation can grow into awareness that as climate change progresses the environment we value in national and state parks begins to dwindle.

As a child I remember visiting Glacier National Park and being told by a park ranger that the glaciers were melting with some potentially gone within the next thirty years. Hiking to the glaciers is a much different experience than reading about them or even seeing photos of them. This experience instills a deeper appreciation and realization that climate change has greater implications on such pristine pieces of nature.

Allowing children to experience these parks at a younger age can guide choices that are made later in life around not only protecting national and state parks, but also around choices that we know impact the greater environment through CO2 emissions. Making the connections between our everyday choices and the implications on the national and state parks is imperative. Obama’s Every Kid in a Park Initiative is an important step in this direction. This Initiative gives free admission to every 4th-grader and their family in America to all public lands starting this September. The initiative also includes revised educational pieces about our public lands for teachers. Taking this a step further the the 4th grade curriculum nation-wide could teach about the connection between climate change and national and state parks.

Diamonds in the Disposable Built Environment

I am personally a huge fan of retrofitting existing structures to preserve architectural character and the textures of building materials such as heavy timbers and old brick.  I also think that it is common sense that you should not tear down a perfectly good old building to build a new one the exact same size, that would just be wasteful.

However in most cities throughout the United States there are not really that many historic structures.  We are a very young country and built environment.  The west coast cities for example have only grown up over the last century with most of the growth was within the last 50 years.  Unfortunately most of the growth over the last 50 years was based on land intensive car culture and disposable use culture.  Anything built before these American cultural phases were the established, and still maintains it’s original integrity should be considered for historic preservation.  Most everything else was not built to last and has very little architectural appeal, as they were just boxes built as cheaply and quickly as possible.

In context of Seattle, of course Capital Hill, etc have buildings that need to be preserved, but these buildings are in thriving neighborhoods with pre-WWII history. Liz Dunn probably doesn’t spend much time along Aurora or Rainier Ave.  I do, not because I work on the street corner, but because I want to figure out how to repair the damage done over the last 50 years by irresponsible American cultural phases, also I couldn’t afford to buy a house on Capital Hill. I don’t see small infill or retrofit projects as a solution with the strength to fix a bigger picture problem, however they work in small scale areas like Columbia City.  But Aurora and Rainier are big mistakes that will need a considerable amount of erasing.  I just hope that the “correct” answers fill in the space of the previous mistakes.

Problems with Reuse in the Built Environment

When reading Ch. 5 about reducing and reusing in the Built Environment, I immediately began to think about the current NAIOP Challenge that our class is participating in. The challenge is based around the Original Rainier Brewery in Georgetown, a truly historically relevant and architecturally iconic structure representing the rich cultural history of Georgetown and the City of Seattle as a whole. While our team has striven since the beginning to utilize as much of the existing building in our proposal as possible, we have finally concluded that doing so is simply not feasible for the majority of the site. The largest impediment to our ability to reuse the existing structure in the way we had hoped (which was to literally redevelop the interior to modern day standards without adding on anything extra, and while attempting to maintain the original character of the building) is in fact the City of Seattle’s zoning regulations.

While some have argued that it is not the zoning of the site, but the cost of the structural alterations due to its historic landmark status that is the major impediment, we determined that this is likely not the case, as is evidenced by other historical buildings being more successfully preserved and reused than our own. The primary issue with the zoning of this site and its surrounding areas, is that it seeks to protect the industrial uses in the area, despite the opinions of the local community council who would love to see the Georgetown Triangle (as they refer to the area bordered by Airport Way, Corson Ave and Bailey St.) rezoned to allow more commercial and residential uses.

The rezoning of this area would have likely enabled us to protect and utilize the existing structure by raising the rental rate that could have been achieved in the area (due to less high impact uses nearby and a higher rate of agglomerative uses coming in around the site), compared to the cost of construction required by the reuse of the historical building. As it is, with the site surrounded by industrial uses with the exception of the thin “commercial core” along Airport Way, our projected rental rates are so low for almost all uses that only certain uses which in no way lend themselves to maintaining the historical character of the structure are viable on the site.

With that being said, it occurred to me that if the City of Seattle would enable an easier method for re-zoning of any historic site, and the surrounding area that directly affects the historic structure on said site, as a trade off for reusing as much of the structure as possible (say a minimum of 80%), it would likely enable developers to look at historically protected sites with more of an eye to preserving the past while building towards the future, instead of looking at them more as a parcel with some walls that need to be maintained.

Carbon Efficiency: Walkability and High Density

The chapters from The Carbon Efficient City, specifically on “Great Neighborhoods” remind me of a TED talk “The Walkable City”, delivered by Jeff Speck who is a city planner/urban designer, and the author of Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time. He brought up an interesting point in suburban sprawl, city density and how it is related to energy consumption. He argued that by establishing new suburban areas to ease the crowdedness of inner cities, it actually and inevitably increases energy consumption.

The first reason is because when sprawls are developed, one of the main infrastructures, particularly the highways, will either have to be newly constructed or widened accordingly. However, the underlying problem is that new suburban areas may only provide new residential locations but not the residents’ workplaces and enough amenities; they still commute to the inner cities to work and get the things they need.

Then the second reason becomes clearer. The consequence is that the automobile use increases; the convenience of having the new highways also means more personal vehicles. Commuters would have to spend more time in cars and rush through the traffic. Does suburban sprawl help in the reduction of energy use? Probably not.

Jeff went on and discussed how walkability and maintaining/increasing density could help reduce energy use which would lead to reduced carbon emissions. At the same time, it would pave the way for people to use other means of transport that are less energy dependant (walking and biking). I’d like to quote his statement that I found is thought-provoking; “we are a destructive species; if you love nature, the best thing you can do is stay the heck away from it and move to a city; the denser the better”. This may sound contradictory, but referring to him, the carbon mapping shows that denser cities perform better when measuring carbon per household.

Designing a walkable city has a lot of benefits. Driving less means more productivity as a result of less amount of time spent on roads. People would be able to recreate more in a variety of ways in the walkable city. They can exercise by walking and biking while getting to the destinations—possibly decreased cases of obesity and respiratory diseases due to fewer exhausts. Car crashes would also decrease.

By looking at Liz Dunn’s advocate for the concept of “urban grain” that engages the rethinking of strategic block-scapes. To optimize the use of the existing buildings and bring up the unique character of a neighborhood is promising in order to avoid total demolition.

In addition to the unban grain framework, one way to manage density is to consider street grid. The grid and block sizing plays an important role in determining if a city is walkable and socially, economically vibrant. “Street Area Calculator” is a way to measure. What’s interesting is that though having more streets (in response to having a lot of blocks) means more areas being devoted to more car use, having smaller city blocks actually allows for more building and street frontage. With the help from pedestrian-friendly sidewalks, the street frontage creates different commercial activities and therefore, more safety, as opposed to larger blocks that there normally are buildings with blank walls facing the road.

When speaking of density in cities, to some people (and including me), it may connote to something that is tight, unhealthy and unsafe. I used to picture all those descriptions myself. However, the fields of landscape architecture and urban design and planning has gotten me thinking that density is not always unpleasant especially when there are cities that urban density in fact has benefits. The important thing is that we can make it work socially and economically.