Posts by millerjbrett

The small flag banners designed by ATLAS Lab in promotion of “Prototype to Permanent: Short Term Projects for Long Term Change”. Photo: ATLAS Lab Facebook page

The ASLA National Conference and Expo came to Los Angeles this year. It was my second year attending – last year’s event was an incredible opportunity, especially the educational sessions where attendees were invited to sit at the feet of masters of the profession to hear about their processes, muses, successes, as well as their struggles in every aspect of our field.

One particularly inspiring session was “Prototype to Permanent” – a discussion about temporary installations that made an impact on the community, and how they became – or were in the process of becoming – a permanent installation.

“Tactical Urbanism” has been coined to describe the global movement of small scale, short lived installations designed to improve the surrounding community or environment. In some instances these installations point out how a simply constructed solution can bring about a significant change.  Park(ing) Day is an example of such a transformation, altering a small space into a small park, and in doing so, leaving an impact upon the urban environment.

Another example cited happened in South Boston: After years of back and forth between the city and the community – with funds being available, then unavailable – the anticipation of the development of a new community space was palpable. A solution to offer the community a temporary public space at a lower cost than the master planned space was devised by the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority in partnership with a design firm. This temporary space was intended as a short term solution while funds were accruing for the long term project. However, after the Lawn on D was installed, the space took off as one of the most powerful public places in the South Boston area.

The authors of the book Tactical Urbanism presented countless examples of temporary projects that served as advocacy pilot projects – each eliminating meetings, cutting the red tape, and side-stepping bureaucracy to set up a quick inexpensive solution to draw attention, meet approval, and gather funding. An example cited was Manhattan’s Lower East Side community’s desire to develop the safety of roadways for cyclists and to create a comfortable public space through a median. A project began with paint and planters, then later developed into a pilot that evolved into a permanent plaza space.

Tactical Urbanist’s Guide to Materials is available as a free PDF download here.

One of the most powerful responses to these type of temporary sites occurs only after the project has expired and is removed.  When an temporary intervention that meets the needs of a community is created and accepted, a tremendous reaction happens when the installation is removed. The panel during this ASLA National Conference and Expo session noted this reaction is one of the most compelling reasons that cities and communities sought solutions to make these prototypes permanent.

The final thought we were left with at the conclusion of the panel was intended as encouragement for anyone feeling a compulsion to create a tactical urbanism project themselves…advice I believe applicable to most of our work as designers: not to focus on the installation or the project itself while creating, but to focus on the objective. And also to recognize the change a project can produce, no matter its simplicity or complexity. By observing the impact a project can produces upon the street, community, or environment, then comes an appreciation of the “short term action for long-term change” that defines tactical urbanism as a powerful tool to improve the landscape and community, one small section at a time.

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Summer has come to an end here in Los Angeles. Despite the unabated high temperatures, the days are becoming shorter. Gardeners are already planning the transition from the growing cycle of warm weather into the cooler autumn months in preparation to plant next year’s bounty. Vacation season has come to a close too, with students returning to school. In recognition of this seasonal transition, we’ll be focusing on a Back-to-School theme for September, specifically one from the perspective of the landscape architecture education and profession. We hope you’ll learn something from their lessons.

Photos: Brett Miller

Each year the American Society of Landscape Architects hosts an annual meeting and expo across numerous cities. Each host city showcases the local talents of our profession. But few are aware of a complementary program implemented for each host city known as the ASLA Legacy Project. In partnership with the ACE Mentorship Program, each host city selects a site (usually a park, school yard, or community center), then matches professionals with the community with the goal of providing a design service not normally available to that site.

This year the ASLA Annual Meeting/Expo is being hosted in Los Angeles. I had the opportunity to volunteer for a working session at the Santee Educational Complex, where I was invited to work with the students, and participate in a design charrette hosted at AHBE. The project’s goal is to bring some excitement and greenery to an otherwise gray and hard internal courtyard, currently the school’s primary communal outdoor space.

The process began with summer classes earlier this year. And during these classes, the Legacy Project Team engaged students for their input, inquiring about their views about the program, circulation, and any additional insights about the culture of Santee that could aid in the development of the design. Over several weeks, an updated plan was presented to students, inviting another round of input from the students. The team would reconvene at an office and continue to develop the plan, per student feedback.

Last Friday, I was invited to attend the working session with the students where three different schemes were presented. There were eight tables with students on stools circled around, and at each table a plan was accompanied with some markers and stickers. Students were invited to use the stickers to designate features they liked, while markers were used to cross out program elements they didn’t like. Comments were written in the margins – what to add or enhance. By the end of the session, all three plans were covered in color and stickers.

The next day the team was joined by students from Cal Poly and other local professionals at our office for a morning work session.  Together, we began the decision making process, combining the three schemes and feedback into a single plan, sketched onto trace paper. This plan was then offered to the Cal Poly students to take back to their computers to generate one final plan to present to the Santee students. The final plan proposes creating more shade and seating than is currently available, while also providing a lot more gathering opportunities for both large and small groups. A partnership with a local arts program to paint murals across the new space is also imagined for this site.

Teaming up with local vendors, non-profits, and the ASLA – the Legacy Project has turned out not to be just a hypothetical design exercise, but one that will be fully implemented, and in the process result in our team leaving our fingerprint on the community through design.

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Intact wetland in Cahoon Meadow in Sequoia National Park, shown unaffected by erosion gully after efforts of full ecosystem restoration. NPS photo

A little over a month ago, I read about ‘rewilding’, a term used by one of our summer interns in a post titled, Rewilding the Los Angeles River. This discussion compelled me to explore the word further to ascertain other instances of where rewilding is occurring.

The dictionary defines rewilding as:

rewilding – verb
gerund or present participle: rewilding
1.
restore (an area of land) to its natural uncultivated state (used especially with reference to the reintroduction of species of wild animal that have been driven out or exterminated).

This type of environmental effort strategized and executed by activists, non-profits, and even major international conservation organizations all seek to remove human interventions that prohibit natural ecosystems – ranging in regions from the Yukon, to Europe, to the grasslands of Africa – from establishing and existing. Nationally, rewilding efforts tend to focus on grader scales, like our National Parks and waterways, each with goals to remove infrastructure like roads and engineered water ways to encourage the redevelopment of natural systems.

The efforts of these “rewilders” are brilliant and necessary for the purpose of recovering our environment, but focus upon broad efforts executed on a macro scale. This made me wonder if there were other alternative and  appropriate ways to weave this concept into the urban fabric on a more intimate level. While efforts to remove roads in National Parks may reopen natural ecosystems for larger fauna and flora to flourish, what if smaller installations popped up across city streets, onto walls, or even across rooftops? What if we could revitalize patches of native plant materials and smaller habitats on a more limited scale to help recreate habitat to give birds and pollinators respite where concrete and asphalt currently rules?

Chicago City Hall Green Roof. CC BY-SA 3.0 photo by Tony the Tiger.

While such efforts would not encourage large mammals to work their way back into cities to cohabitate within our concrete and asphalt jungles, I do wonder what kinds of effects these interventions could provide smaller critters that share our urban cores. I believe these efforts would have a  huge residual benefit for humans as well: offering respite on hot summer days, providing educational opportunities, resulting in a reduction of the heat island effect, and even create water  improvement opportunities where storm water could be passively treated (e.g. the Zev Yaroslavsky L.A. River Greenway Trail).

At this moment the team at AHBE is exploring this idea of rewinding from a smaller context. Focusing on a single parking space, we’re imagining turning such an urban space into a micro ecosystem, and investigating what kind of observable metrics that unfold across such a small area. What kind of opportunities would this open up if two parking spaces on a block were dedicated to such micro ecosystem? What about three?

Image by AHBE

These interventions intentionally designed to rewild our urban landscape – as opposed to the sort of secondary effect that street trees or community gardens traditionally provide – could be an effective additional mechanism to weave environmentally impactful changes into future green streets and other eco-conscious development, all with the purpose of designing the cities of tomorrow with a healthier environment for all living creatures.

In 2005, San Francisco firm Rebar wanted to make a statement about the dwindling green space throughout their city.  They selected a metered parking space, acquired a simple bench, a roll of artificial turf, and a tree. There they paid the meter for 2 hours and set up their parklet. When the meter expired, they rolled up their park and went about their day.

The photo shown on the right was taken from across the street of Rebar’s parklet. It went viral, and when the correspondence started coming in from across the country, Park(ing) Day was born. For the past 12 years designers, artists, and activists have been taking to the streets on the third Friday in September to bring awareness to the public about much needed green space in the ever expanding world of asphalt and concrete.

In addition to green space, this has also provided an opportunity for advocacy about other hot topics affecting the communities and public realms across the world.  As landscape architects, this platform is usually taken on topics like water use, climate change, walkability, and urban design.

Photo: Brett Miller

My favorite aspect of Park(ing) Day is the role it plays in the community. Last year I organized the event at a train station, where we were able to bring commuters together in a space we had transformed from asphalt to green. The simple act of providing a communal green space in the midst of a parking lot provided commuters with an opportunity to come together and share a space. The impromptu parklet offered a space for people to sip their coffee and converse with someone they may have never met before, but shared a train daily.

Having an opportunity to set up these temporary parklets and provide this communal space offering social, environmental, and educational experiences for the community – even with something as simple as a parking space on a busy street in downtown Los Angeles – is what drives my passion for my profession. I’d encourage everyone to make it a point to seek out and visit a Park(ing) Day exhibit in your city.