Posts by Yiran Wang

our-farm-garden

All photos: Yiran Wang

Last week I went back home to Beijing to visit my parents. To my surprise, I came home to discover they’ve become obsessed with a new hobby: urban agriculture. Yes, they’re farming, renting a piece of farm land with a couple of friends. Together, they’ve laid out vegetable plots to tend. They’re already on their second round of harvesting!

“Escape the cities, harvest the days,” said my father.

They’ve come to enjoy the labor, tying up luffa stems and watering their pepper plants, even though they need to drive almost an hour every other day to get out of the huge city.

my-mom-picking-cowpea

“It is a trend! You know our friend…she and her family spent millions and bought a big house on the perimeter of the city so that they could farm their own land!” explained my mom, trying to convince me they were not alone in this unexpected urge to grow things.

A day's harvest from my parents' garden.

A day’s harvest from my parents’ garden.

To show them my support I told my parents that landscape architects are vocal proponents of community gardens, edible gardens, and other outdoor spaces set aside to allow plants to grow.

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“Those ‘modernized’ Americans like artisan farming?!” exclaimed my dad, doubtful about the idea of affluent and modern Americans returning to the land.

But whatever thoughts he had about this idea of rural pursuits was soon eclipsed by his desire to disappear back into the “jungle” of their garden. Soon, I could only hear his voice from somewhere behind a curtain of cucumbers plants.

“This cures the ‘urban disease’!”

parkingday

Back when I was still in school, I remember discovering an unexpected installation of benches and potted plants – all constructed from paper and fabric – placed within the dean’s parking spot outside the architecture building.

“Is this a practical joke?” I asked my friend. You never knew whether something like this was an intended art piece or simply a practical joke someone made coming from our architecture school.

“It’s Park(ing) Day today, ” exclaimed my friend. This was the first time I had ever heard of this strange new “festival”.

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I soon learned Park(ing) Day is an annual urban experiment where celebrants reclaim metered parking spaces across the city. Started in 2005 and begun by Rebar, a group of activist artists in San Francisco, Park(ing) Day was conceived to convert meter parking spot across the city into temporary installation pocket parks as the embodiment of the group’s manifesto to reclaim public open space for the greater good of the city.  The idea was quickly embraced by the citizens of San Francisco, tapping into the population’s desire for a better urban life experience.  “Park(ing) Day”  became officially recognized as the third Friday of September, first across the States, and now spreading across the whole globe.

As landscape architects we would not dare miss the opportunity to participate in such a celebration of creative community reimagining and the promotion of improving the city for pedestrian. Back to 2007, AHBE participated in our first Park(ing) Day with a matrix of sunflowers set “growing” from the top of  traffic cones. In 2011, we converted a metered spot with our own goat petting zoo. Then in 2012, we constructed the “Parkside Confessionals”, an installation inviting people to share their thoughts and tie them onto tree branches for all to read.

And in 2013 we worked in association with  Perkins + Will, Altoon Partners, Glumac, John A Martin & Associates to create a temporary amphitheater within a meter parking spot along Grand Avenue, complete with live music, aka the “GrandVision”.

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Tomorrow we’ll be celebrating this year’s Park(ing) Day again. Many creative groups are planning to take over a meter parking and create temporary parks for all to experience and enjoy. Registered locations are listed online here, offering a fun way to spend your lunch break and offer a glimpse of a city not defined by the presence of cars, but people, plants, and creativity.

And last, but not least: don’t forget to check out our park(ing) spot tomorrow too!

Photo by Yiran Wang

Photo by Yiran Wang

There’s something I’ve always wondered about since moving to Los Angeles: Why are there so many palm trees in Los Angeles?

Many people – especially those not originally from California – might assume that palm trees are native to Los Angeles. These palms are practically synonymous with the city. However, among all these palms found across Southern California, there is only one native species:  Washingtonia filifera (aka the California Desert Palm).

The frond of Washingtonia filifera. Creative Commons photo by Atirador.

The frond of Washingtonia filifera. Creative Commons photo by Atirador.

“There are 2,500 species of palms worldwide, with 11 native to North America. The largest of these, and the only palm tree native to western North America, is the California fan palm. It is also known as the desert palm and the California Washingtonia.” – California Fan Palm – DesertUSA

An old postcard of the Southern Pacific Los Angeles Arcade Depot

An old postcard of the Southern Pacific Los Angeles Arcade Depot

Therefore, almost all of the ubiquitous fan palms growing along streets, the date palms surrounding our most luxurious hotels, and the countless palms growing in front and backyards across Los Angeles all arrived from elsewhere.

The very first palm in the state was planted in the mid-18th century in San Diego by Spanish missionaries as religious symbols. After that, other immigrants from Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere brought in different varieties of palm seeds. And along with the trend of exoticism promoted by Orientalism in the mid-19th century, Victorians planted numerous palm trees across Los Angeles in an attempt to recreate the Far East.

Furthermore, the Victorian planted rows of palms along roads or in front of grand buildings, their presence representing productivity, piety, and exoticism. Later in the 1800s, when the Southern Pacific Los Angeles Arcade Station opened at Fourth and Alameda, there was a huge Washington fan palm deliberately transplanted right outside the entrance. The formidable plant was to represent Southern California’s salubrious landscape, welcoming travelers  to the Eden in the desert.

Plaque commemorating the Arcade Depot Palm as the "Mute witness to the growth of Los Angeles". Both plaque and Arcade Palm are situated in front of the LA Memorial Coliseum.

A plaque commemorating the Arcade Depot Palm as the “Mute witness to the growth of Los Angeles”. Both plaque and Arcade Palm are situated in front of the LA Memorial Coliseum.

Sadly, it seems the era of the palm trees in Los Angeles may be coming to an end. Populations of palms are dwindling due to fungal disease, age, urban pollution, and the effects of the drought. Beyond that, “palm thieves” have actually targeted and removed the highly desirable plants for profit (valued upwards of $40,000!). City leaders have proposed replacing the stolen or deceased palms with a California native: the oak tree.

These palm trees weren’t the only plants introduced by migrating populations. Schinus molle, the California pepper tree, is another introduced variety still commonly found growing across Southern California. The story of its introduction, proliferation, and eventual replacement by palm trees across LA warrants its own future post…

Photo: Yiran Wang

Photo: Yiran Wang

During one of my USC studio classes, my instructor Alexander Robinson asked our class to take a look at the cut section of a red cabbage. He directed our gaze to this common vegetable to take note of the fascinating and intricate pattern hidden within, a fractal.

A fractal is a geometric pattern evolved from one statistical character and grown into a complicated structure through repetition. This magical geometry is found everywhere in nature: in plant leaves, lighting, mountain ranges, streams, and as I discovered after cutting a cabbage in half, in some of our food as well.

Image: CC0 Public Domain

Image: CC0 Public Domain

In a fractal system, certain patterns repeat through different scales, and as the structure evolves in continuity these basic patterns lead to an immense structure of chaotic complexity. In landscape design fractals exist also; functional public landscape project contain repetitive patterns of self growing nature with ties to the general context of the site as a whole. A landscape architect’s mind always shift between different scales – as big as the global ecological environment and as small as one person. Or even a single plant. We always seek to discover a core pattern or language embedded in elements across all scales to communicate  “the big concept”, whether it be the orientation of paving materials echoing circulation needs, or planting choices responding to the programming of the site.

The mathematical characteristics of a fractal pattern has inspired a great many urban design  methodologies. And with the aid of modern computing technology, it is no surprise what machines tell us about our future cities: unpleasant and dystopian patterns made up of unlimited repeating dwelling cells. We might have already started upon this path.  However, in time a truly perfect fractal system may generate into a form complex chaos still following the basic pattern at the cellular level. The future might not be as “simple” as the machine could imagine, but as complex as human mind could design.

typical LA neighborhood
When my grandparents came to Los Angeles to attend my graduation two years ago, they continually complained about the American neighborhoods. These complaints came as a surprise, as my grandparents would often remark, “Nothing compares to a single house with frontyard and backyard”. They had plenty of complaints:

“You cannot take a walk outside after dinner!”
”Why there is no convenient store within your neighborhood? What ?! A supermarket of 5 minutes drive?!”
“Where is your community security people?”
“ This is unacceptable!”

typical Chinese community design

A typical Chinese residential community design.

Thinking about my neighborhood in Beijing – a big gated community with tons of people dwelling in high towers, all connected by wide expanses of public space – I do understand and agree to some extent with my grandparents’ criticisms of Los Angeles. Back in China every morning and evening, my mom walks my two dogs within the gated community, a trip that can take up to 2 hours just to navigate through all the pocket parks. I used to wake up early on weekends due to the loud music that accompanied the activities of morning dancing and exercising groups nearby.

With modern Chinese metropolitan cities operating under the duress of growing population density, residential tower communities reaching upward seem to be the only solution. A few months ago the Chinese government issued a statement declaring the end of constructing gated communities, causing more urban troubles. But I do see some interesting effects resulting from building upward rather than outward, especially the appearance of wide open landscape.

Le-Corbusier-A-City-of-Towers1Towers can accommodate for more people in a smaller footprint, leaving more ground level space for urban ecology and transit access, a basic concept from Le Corbusier’s assumptive urban planning scheme [right]. Such urban layout works well for certain types of residential projects, such as student housing, industrial parks, residential community, etc. Reviewing the urban planning changes, it’s easy to imagine the application here in Los Angeles where we could reclaim public spaces to improve communities.

The illustration below might seem idealistic or perhaps even “delusional” – a conceptual exploration overlooking political, social and economic issues. But even so, the idea of denser and larger developments with multi-level buildings (earthquake-safe, of course)  is worth exploring for all the benefits of incorporating more open landscape connecting multiple residential parcels instead of developing small parcels separately, with vacant spaces converted into community gardens. Los Angeles will always struggle to find opportunities for developing large open spaces for the community, but perhaps we can integrate numerous smaller open spaces to connect neighbors to neighborhood as they’re doing in China today.

A “Delusional” reimagining of Century City, with a Chinese residential towers and open public spaces connecting the buildings together. Image by Yiran Wang.

A “Delusional” reimagining of Century City, with a Chinese residential towers and open public spaces connecting the buildings together. Image by Yiran Wang.