Lets get Dirty

We are the microbial systems and live in a microbial world,  our survival as individuals, communities and as a species depend on it ! In the movie “War of The Worlds”, Steven Spielberg attributed the success of humans in surviving the aliens invasion, to our immune systems evolutionary adaptation  to withstand our microbial environment. Heres a look at how this could impact our design thinking from The Dirt

Designing Cities for Healthier Microbiomes

Artistic rendering of the human microbiome / The Why Files

Humans are essentially super-organisms or holobionts made up of both human cells and those of micro-organisms, such as viruses, bacteria, archea, protists, and fungi. Researchers now know the human body hosts a comprehensive ecosystem, largely established by age three, in which non-human cells vastly outnumber human cells. The latest study from the American Academy of Microbiology estimates each human ecosystem contains around 100 trillion cells of micro-organisms and just 37 trillion human cells.

But while rainforest or prairie ecosystems are now well-understood, the human ecosystem is less so. As researchers make new discoveries, there is a growing group of scientists who argue our microbiomes are deeply connected with our physical and mental health. The increased number of prebiotics and probiotics supplements on the shelf in drug stores and supermarkets, and availability of fresh pickles and kimchi in local farmers markets, are perhaps testaments to this increasingly-widespread belief.

The question at the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) conference in Oklahoma City was: Can we design cities to better support our microbiomes and in turn our overall health?

Through urban farming and gardening — or just plain playing in the dirt — humans can also increase their exposure to healthy microbes found in soils. A group of scientists and advocates argue that greater exposure could help fight depression and anxiety and reduce rates of asthma and allergies in both kids and adults.

The incredible increase of allergies among Western populations may be caused by our “sterile, germ-free environments” that cause our immune systems to over-react to everything from nuts to mold and pollen. Dr. Brett Finlay and Marie-Claire Arrieta even wrote a book exploring this: Let Them Eat Dirt: Saving Your Child from an Over-sanitized World.

Wener said we have created cities that reflect our fear of bacteria; instead we must create microbial-inclusive cities that improve our health. “Most microbes in our bodies have co-evolved with us. They are important to our vital functions. The future of urban planning and design should support healthy microbes.”

As part of this vision, landscape architects could design parks and plazas to be filled with accessible garden plots and soil-based play areas that let both adults and kids get dirty. We could design for holobionts instead of just people, boosting the health of the collective urban microbiome in the process.

Wener’s colleage at NYU — Elizabeth Henaff — is leading much of this research. Learn about her artful experiments. Read this article from Michael Pollan in The New York Times outlining the connections between our microbiome and health, and this Q&A from The Guardian.

Read the full article

African Cities are Walking Cities, but are they Walkable?

From Walkonomics the real deal in African and other developing cities will be to accomplish the transition from walking because people have to, to walking because its the best way to get around, while in most South african cities its not – public transport is not safe, cheap or reliable hence the drive for private cars and use of mini-bus taxis. Does any young city dweller where not want his own car in order to be cool? 

If you’ve ever been in an East African city during rush hour, then you’ll know that African cities are walking cities.  In the rapidly urbanising capitals of Africa, walking is by far and away the most popular form of transport.  For instance over 60% of trips in Addis Ababa are made on foot, while just 9% of trips are made in a car and in Nairobi over 45% of people walk.  These are the kind of walking statistics that developed cities can only dream of: London struggles to get 20% of people to walk and in New York its between 10-20%.

Can a growing city keep people walking?

As a result, the current CO2 emissions of these cities are extremely low, with the vast majority of people either walking or using ‘ad-hoc’ public transport such as the small blue and white minibuses of Addis Ababa.  However most Urban Africans aren’t walking out of choice, but simply because they can’t afford to travel in any other way.  The real challenge facing urban governments in Africa is to maintain these high levels of walking as their cities grow at an incredible rate and Urban Africans start to earn enough to be able to afford to travel differently.

So walking is popular in Africa, but this isn’t because urban African streets are walking-friendly.  In fact quite the opposite: 63% of streets in Addis Ababa lack any pavements or sidewalks and crossings are rare.  Africans walk despite the un-walkable urban environment, not because of it.  Walking isn’t only difficult, its also very dangerous with 67% of road accidents involving pedestrians in Ethiopia’s capital.  Sadly this is the case in many developing countries, where road accidents are a growing epidemic and are expected to be the third biggest killer by 2020.

Walkable urban development

Faced with these huge challenges and opportunities the United Nations have recently pumped over $3 million into a project to kick-start sustainable transport in three African capital cities.  ’Sustainable transport in East African Cities‘ will support and fund improvements to walkability, bikeability and public transport in Nairobi, Addis Ababa and Kampala.  The project is built around creating Bus Rapid Transit systems (BRT) in each city, similar to schemes in Johannesburg andBogata.  BRT are low cost and efficient bus systems with dedicated ‘busways’ and high quality enclosed stations.  They provide the usability and capacity of other Mass Rapid Transit (like trams or subways) but at a fraction of the cost, making BRT an ideal option for developing cities.

As well as establishing BRT systems, the project will create more walkable and bikeable streets in each city, which will form a sustainable transport network. These improvements will include building more sidewalks, signalised crossing and improving road safety. It is hoped that by creating a holistic transport system now, each city can provide a sustainable alternative to the car-dependent development that has caused so many problems in western cities. Perhaps this will also mean that while East African cities continue to develop and grow richer, their citizens will still choose to embrace walking as the best way to move in the city.

Images courtesy of sameffron and carlosfpardo on Flickr.

Crime- and Poverty-Challenged Design – VPUU Khayelitsha Cape Town

A feature on an innovative approach to making informal and semi formal settlement s safe by intense public participation and a radical inclusionary approach is features in Gary Hustwit’s film,Urbanised post from  from Praxis in Landscape Architecture

Khayelitsha Township via The Guardian

How can designers improve the quality of life for residents of the poorest and most dangerous parts of cities? It is a daunting problem, and the temptation is either to say that the problem is too big or that a huge infusion of cash is needed to even get started. What if some of the problems of the poorest and dangerous places could be ameliorated, at least, by design that does not cost a fortune? The figure for total world population living in cities by 2050, cited in the Gary Hustwit film, Urbanized, is 75%! And 1/3 of those people will be living in slums. It’s time for creative thinking!

One of the many interviews with Gary Hustwit on Urbanized is found in Urban Omnibus. Hustwit describes a project in a township outside of Cape Town, South Africa that is striking in its success, both as participatory design and as a well-conceived, modestly priced solution to improving quality of life for area residents. In Hustwit’s words:

the idea of participatory design — of using the public as a design compass instead of just getting a reaction to projects that are already proposed — is not being employed as much as it might. It’s really inspiring when you see it happening and working, like the VPUU (which stands for Violence Prevention by Urban Upgrading) project in Khayelitsha in Cape Town

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Thinking about how we think about landscapes (via Per Square Mile)

Touched on here on two critical factors in both urban and rural landscape intervention – how we perceive what we see is not at first intuitive and designers need to have a framework for referencing what others perceive who are not trained in visual literacy and secondly – how far is the “natural landscape” actually “natural” if as it now seems , even ancient landscapes were modified by their nomadic inhabitants through fire and clearing to facilitate hunting and to assure security of views to prevent ambush etc.
Also interesting reference to early cognitive perception research of landscapes

Thinking about how we think about landscapes Take a look at the painting above. It’s one of Thomas Cole’s most famous works, commonly known as The Oxbow.¹ It’s got a little something for everyone. A twisted old tree. A menacing thunderstorm. Soaring cumulonimbus clouds. A spot of sunlight. A meandering river. Well manicured farm fields. I could go on and on. Part of the genius behind Cole’s Oxbow is that it appeals to various cognitive processes that draw us into a landscape. There have bee … Read More

via Per Square Mile

A Landscape Redone (via The Dirt)

This redesign of one-year old public landscape even before it was established leads to many questions, i.e. for who is the designer working: the client or the public?, to what extent did the client understand the design, and to what extent did the Landscape Architect respond to the clients needs – often it seems to me that our self appointed role as public culture arbiters is in conflict with the role we are employed in as designers.

A Landscape Redone Blair Kamin, architecture critic for The Chicago Tribune, said Chicago has greatly benefited from its recent high-profile landscape architecture commissions, including Lurie Garden in Millennium Park and the plaza at Trump International Hotel and Tower. While Lurie Garden created a "stylized prairie" in the midst of the city, the plaza evoked a "lush riverbank at the base of an enormous steel and glass skyscraper." Now, the Trump skyscraper's man … Read More

via The Dirt

The Long Road to Sustainable Cities (via The Dirt)

It seems that even with fragmented and partial approaches to sustainability it is possible for cities to achieve results that might contribute to long term resilience and it is encouraging to get published news of this, culture changes slowly and politicians who control the funds need proof that what is proposed will yield results as well as what not to do.

The Long Road to Sustainable Cities "Sustainability in America’s Cities: Creating the Green Metropolis," edited by Matthew Slavin, founder and Principal of Sustaingrϋp, is a collection of case studies that chart the progress of sustainable urban development in eight cities across the United States. The case studies explain how these cities have applied innovative strategies and invested in climate change mitigation and adaptation, clean energy, green buildings, sustainable transpor … Read More

via The Dirt

Designing a Built Environment Resilient to Climate Change (via The Dirt)

Resilience is rapidly taking over form sustainability as the currency of urban survival and should be the cornerstone of urban and landscape design, yet so much is about the environment and energy and not enough about average peoples contribution:

Designing a Built Environment Resilient to Climate Change Buildings, landscapes, infrastructure, and even entire cities can be designed to be more resilient to climate, environmental, and population changes, argued a high-profile panel at the American Institute of Architects (AIA) D.C.'s Design D.C. conference. Green technologies and practices have come a long way. Smart policymakers and designers are now applying these tools, figuring out ways to leverage existing systems to serve multiple purposes, le … Read More

via The Dirt

Landscape Architects Take the Lead in Remaking Cities (via The Dirt)

Positioning Landscape Architecture at eh forefront of the rebuilding of cities and recognizing the role of more than just parks is needed to actually make a difference to how our cities are constructed and used:

Landscape Architects Take the Lead in Remaking Cities Robert Campbell, architecture critic for The Boston Globe, argues that landscape architecture is no longer just about creating pretty gardens and preserving expanses of forests and rivers anymore, but about reclaiming abandoned urban spaces and transforming them into new public spaces. "Landscape architecture is changing fast. Landscape architects are invading the arenas once dominated by architects and city planners." More and more, landscape ar … Read More

via The Dirt

A New President’s Park South (via The Dirt)

Making high-use parks are nothing new to landscape architects, but making them serviceable and safe is still a challenging and little researched skill, especially here where the paranoia is at its highest..

A New President's Park South Today, the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) announced Rogers Marvel Architects has won a design competition for a new President's Park South, a 52-acre historic site located between the White House grounds and the Washington Monument. Redesigning President’s Park South, which is one of the most-visited landscapes in Washington, D.C., is a challenging brief for a designer. The site, which includes Sherman Park and the Ellipse, a number … Read More

via The Dirt

What Is an Intelligent City? (via The Dirt)

I’m not sure the question is correctly phrased because it would seem to me that only living beings can be intelligent – with all the digital tech in the world it still takes humans to design for humans as is here rightly stated

What Is an Intelligent City? A day-long forum at the National Building Museum sought to answer the question: What is an intelligent city? To guide the 350-plus attendees towards a working definition, leading policymakers, architects, landscape architects, planners, engineers and coders, and academics discussed the evolving relationships between information and communication technologies (ICTs), the built environment, and the people who make up cities. ICTs and Cities Ann Alt … Read More

via The Dirt