Monday, April 26, 2010

Bonus Post!- Bring me the sunflower so that I might transplant it into burning fields of alkali...

As part of the mammoth discussion on The Infrastructural City we've got a little bonus post today to contribute.  We encourage you to check out the posts at mammoth, freeassociationdesign, dpr barcelona and the other blogs taking part.  Barry Lehrman of infrascape design- the author of this week's chapter in The Infrastructural City- is of special note this week, as he is posting tons of great info and backstory on how he came up with the ideas and research that culminated in this week's chapter.

The most striking passage in the Owen's Lake chapter is this:

"Once natural, California is now thoroughly artificial.  Perversely, only in places as heavily regulated and mechanized as Owens Lake is there any semblance of what the territory might have been like before settlers arrived.  In a strange gift, Los Angeles has preserved the open rural landscape of Owens Valley, re-creating the void where by all right we shouldn't expect to find it."

This realization is fundamental to understanding this type of landscape and, in a twisted way, puts Owens Lake in the same class as landscapes like the site of the Chernobyl accident and the Korean De-militarized Zone.  In areas so contested, so degraded that no human inhabitants will venture there, new super-resilient ecologies can finally find space to establish themselves.  

And yet these places hold a magnetism for us because we have done that.  We might say they places are degraded.  But that is a value judgment (which Varnelis warns against- LA will not abide our judgments, evidently).  For the organisms flourishing there now- at Owens Lake it is brine flies and microbes- it is an improved place.  But we get to make value judgements; that's how we changed Owens Lake in the first place.
[William Vollman:  "Shall we go explore the waterways of 
Southern California together?  What...?  No?]

At FASLANYC, we believe that places like this are best approached and understood through mythology.  In the book introduction, Varnelis states that "infrastructure is the only theology that really took hold in the American West."  And he's right.  Infrastructure is a theology; better yet a mythology- a repository for cultural beliefs and aspirations wherein the landscape itself is personified and becomes an actor in a dialectical relationship with the culture, informing it and being formed by it.

On that note, TS Eliot's The Wasteland springs to mind.  It was crafted around the time that Los Angeles began drinking Owen's Lake, and though it sprang out of the decimation and disillusion found in Western Europe after the Great War it is relevant here because it elucidates the complex and fragmented morass that we have made of our greatest ambitions (for a good explanation why, see Nick Mount's recent lecture on the topic on Big Ideas, the Canadian equivalent of TED talks).  John Ralston Saul offers insight into the complexities of bigness in the Americas (specifically Canada) here, which might also be useful.

But to bring it even closer to home, it seems best to jump back into William T. Vollman's latest macabre offering- IMPERIAL- to better understand the theology of Southern California.  It's fascinating and boring, weighty and full of mirth, and it offers a detailed look into the deceptions and ambitions, the work and the lies that made the American West, or at least Southern California.  So I've pulled some quotes, and I'll let him take it from here:

- Once upon a time, which is to say on Saturday, June 22, 1901, the Imperial Press and Farmer, in vast dark letters which march vertically down the front page, partially occluding the boxed and centered notice, WATER IN THE TOWN OF IMPERIAL.  Tuesday, May 15, 1901, the headgates of the Imperial canal were opened:  WATER IS HERE

- ... and yet, in the end, what word could be more American than "Imperial"?  Half a century after Emerson's hymn to possession, a successful senatorial candidate advises us:  There are many things to be done- canals to be dug, railways to be laid, forests to be felled, cities to be built, unviolated fields to be tilled, priceless markets to be won, ships to be launched, people to be saved, civilization to be proclaimed, and the flag of liberty flung to the eager air of every sea.

- With our magnificent water system (the pure fresh water coming from the mountains of Wyoming) and with our unparalleled drainage, which carries all undesirable matter toward the Salton sink, we need have no fear that our lands will not become better and better as the years go by.

- It is the destiny of every considerable stream in the west to become an irrigating ditch- Mary Austin, 1903

- A certain philosopher asserts that a space is something that has been made room for, something that is cleared and free, namely within a boundary.  A boundary is not that at which something stops, but as the Greeks recognized, the boundary is that from which something begins its presencing.

- The Los Angeles River was the greatest attraction.  It was a beautiful, limpid little stream, with willows on its banks... That recollection is furnished by none other than William Mulholland, soon to be Riverine Emperor of South California.

- Ten thousand people from the east have been brought to California during the past two weeks by the railroads, on colonists tickets... It is predicted by the railroad companies, that this influx will continue.
The railroad companies, God bless them, are correct.  (Good thing Los Angeles has secured options on the Owens river water, amounting to about 25,000 inches.)

-  He went on:  But when I get too close to people, they always want me to do it their way.  And then it looks like I want to do it my way.  And most of the times, their way is right.  But I still like to do it my way.

-  Don't worry; that funny taste is temporary.  The Los Angeles aqueduct will carry ten times as much water as all the famous aqueducts of Rome combined.

- Bring me the sunflower so that I might transplant it into burning fields of alkali... - Eugenio Montale, before 1982.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

On Agencies , Part IV- The Future

This week marks the end of our 4 part series on agencies. Our general lethargy combined with the enjoyable spring weather have limited this to a cursory survey (our interested readers' thoughtful comments notwithstanding). Nonetheless, we hope to offer some thoughts and insights today about the future of public agencies, the works they will be executing, and the methods for doing so. Prior posts have focused in on what we consider key issues- the role of innovation and profit; public/private partnerships in funding, maintenance, and design; time and institutional memory. In addition, any comments, corrections, or pithy bon mots are more than welcome as our perspective is limited to a myopic and opinionated take on the agencies in New York City.

Public agencies are the traditional means for executing public works in the US and there is a need today for new public works because of the economic crisis and environmental imperatives. Given that, how will the role of the agency evolve, and how will landscape practice inform and be influenced by this evolution?

Future Infrastructure

Varnelis states: "What makes our moment distinct is that the remedy of creating a new infrastructure or using new technology to surmount breakdowns is no longer an option."

Belanger states (once again): “In stark contrast to the 20th century paradigm of speed, the effects of future transformation will be slow and subtle, requiring the active and sustained engagement of long-term, opportunistic partnerships that bridge the private and public sectors”

Varnelis is wrong, and Belanger is telling a half-truth. Infrastructure is a modern concept, and it has historically only been thought about in one way- economies of scale as seen in the New Deal civil engineering project and its progeny (public works have another history, one as old as civilization). Infrastructure of the future will no longer take it's cues solely from the civil/army engineer; rather, infrastructure is bifurcating- the civil engineering standard will exist alongside a new paradigm, one influenced by concepts from the late 20th century fields of software engineering and ecology. This new paradigm- a mycorrhizal infrastructure- will be characterized by works that are small, highly specific, and built by agglomeration.  It will take the shape of hi-tech urban informatics and lo-fi landscapes, temporary strategies and stabilization wedges, seasonal interventions long-term lifescapes.
[agricultural mounds, built by ancient Amazonian peoples
profiled recently in Wired]

This mycorrhizal infrastructure will work together with the larger, slower, civil infrastructures, adapting them to optimum efficiency in local environments, small enough to be intelligible to inhabitants yet resilient enough to withstand the violent upheavals of market crashes, social unrest, and climate change. Just as mycorrhiza adapt to each specific plant and its environment enabling the plant to take in nutrients that their own roots cannot, so these new infrastructures will build on the existing systems, adapting them to local conditions, and accessing resources that were previously disregarded.

The importance of resilience has come to the forefront recently in the debates about both the environmental and economic crises. Manuel de Landa gives a good breakdown of this principle in A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History. In it he states:

“while economies of scale and economies of agglomeration, as forms of positive feedback, both promote growth, only the latter endows firms with the resilience and adaptability needed to cope with adverse economic conditions”.

This resilient infrastructure will be both fast and slow, big and small, hard and soft, networked and planned (and whatever other antonyms people are trying to make into infrastructure buzzwords). It will require new methods of private practice and new partnerships between newly effective public agencies (NEW! NEW!! NEW!!!). To get there, we’ll look to the two fields that were most radically innovative in the last thirty years of the 20th Century- ecology and computing software.

Agencies will need to become more agile, faster, and capable of sharing jurisdiction (always a difficult task because with jurisdiction comes funding). In the New York Times this week, there was a write up regarding a new NYC DOT project (our favorite agency, though far from perfect). A community board leader was talking about the community feedback period for the proposed project and stated, “Please complain right now, or within the next few weeks... This is not your father’s D.O.T. This agency says they do something and they do it.” This ability to marshal resources, gather information, and then implement small, localized decisions will be necessary for agencies to effect change.

[mycorrhiza mycelium, enlarged 500 times]

There is currently some sharing of jurisdiction between the agencies in public space. For example, in city parks, the DOT maintains the lighting and occasionally creates park-like places within road right-of-ways. But that is a piss poor effort. Considering that part of the very foundation of public parks was a direct link to improving the health and sanitation of the population, it is absurd that there is no crossover between the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) and the DEP and the Sanitation Department (DOS). Agencies in the future will form novel partnerships to handle specific situations. DOS facilities with their giant sand pyramids and phalanx of trucks rolling out into snowy nights will become a seasonal programming element in some public spaces, a delightful peek into the machines and the people that keep cities rolling. This type of project will enhance citizens’ understanding and appreciation of these functions, and increase transparency. Key to this development, invested and intelligent landscape architects (among others) will work in these agencies to make this happen.

In addition, agencies will become better at changing, at forming alliances with interested citizen groups, ngo’s, and private firms. Earlier we touched on this topic and noted that these partnerships are starting to spread to the design work of public works. And this development holds great promise, the chance to expand the values considered during the design of the construction process.

[a canal farm in Vietnam (I think.-disclaimer, I lost the link
and couldn't be bothered to find it again)]

Design the Construction Process, Too.

Currently the construction process for public works is left largely up to the contractor and their interpretation of public agencies’ “boiler plate” legal specifications. In these specifications, standard legal guidelines are laid down concerning the safety of workers and residents in the vicinity of the project. The contractor then interprets these while trying to spend the least amount of money possible. No concern is given to the effect on the public experience and the result often sucks.

A major component of construction projects is dealing with the unknown despite a designers’ best laid plans; more so in urban environments where the ground plane conceals hundreds of years of different interventions layered on and cutting through the iterations of prior generations. This complexity during the construction process can be seen as a difficulty, but designers should work to repurpose it as an opportunity, and agencies are the ones that can make this happen. Public works including sewers, roads, and parks- not to mention the new forms that are coming about- are all constantly reconstructed (roughly once a generation). Dealing with the complexities of urban public works often stretches construction times across several years. During this time the space is a dead zone in the urban fabric due to the plywood sheets that come right up to the sidewalk and block all views into the space. That this is a dead zone is a real disservice when you consider that, in fact, fascinating urban processes are going on behind that chain link-and-plywood curtain: the driving of piles, earthmoving, erosion control constructions, concrete pouring. Whether or not a community wants to see the various works occurring will depend on the community, but it should be considered and designed, especially since the construction period can easily last several years (a significant percentage of the life of the project).

Agencies have the [sic] agency to make this happen, and there is already a precedent. Any project that will affect pedestrian and vehicular movement in NYC must provide an MPT plan (maintenance and protection of traffic) for approval by the DOT. While utterly utilitarian- focused only on movement vectors and cost- this mechanism should be expanded further. The most lovely example of this that immediately springs to mind is the big red balloon at the Great Park in Orange County. At Fresh Kills the DPR runs guided bus tours. These parks are large enough to lend themselves to this type of sanctioned exploration. But this idea should also be applied to the smaller projects, too. Any person that has craned their neck walking down a street that is being opened up and repaired, hoping for a glimpse inside into the spaghetti bowl of conduit, pipes, and footings knows the opportunity afforded by a slight shift in mentality here, one more towards transparency- literally and metaphorically.

To do their part, private practitioners should be bringing on contractors as consultants. Paying a small percentage of the design fees to an appropriate contractor for their feedback and ideas about construction and staging methods would be invaluable. It would enable the designer to create a project that facilitates construction and is a community amenity during the process. Major private projects already have this, as construction management consultants are hired, often at the beginning of construction documentation to provide this type of insight. However, this rarely happens in the public realm. Designers need to respect the construction process and recognize that it is inherently cool; building things, making a mark, seeing a city or neighborhood execute some needed project- that is a process of great symbolic, educational, and entertainment power.

[would you rather see this or guys working hard with cool
machines, land being regraded, piles being driven? 
At least you'd know what was making all that racket.]
 Construct a Compelling Narrative
 In our recent interview, Kate Orff of Scape Studio emphasized the importance of "constructing a compelling narrative about the environment" and how we are currently not very good at it. There is currently a lack in either ability or interest to construct a compelling narrative about the environment. This is must change. More landscape architects must learn to construct narratives (whether through mapping, writing, tweeting, or whatever) in order to influence public policy and opinion. To illustrate this, there are two shining examples that we should look to: Olmsted, and modern day scientists.

Frederick Law Olmsted was a journalist, a traveler, and a high level bureaucrat. He helped found The Nation. He was the Secretary General for the United States Sanitary Commission (which became the Red Cross). He wasn’t a trained designer. Vaux was the trained designer. But Olmsted, through his writing, his political connections, and his ability to construct a compelling narrative was able to guide political and public opinion and fundamentally changed the way we think about our cities. He was also a good designer.

In our times, scientists are far out in front of designers in constructing a compelling narrative. Despite the recent dust-up involving the IPCC, a serious groundswell has taken place within scientific communities in contributing their work to the public discourse (otherwise dominated by infotainment histrionics and political calculations) about the issues facing our society today. Starting with folks like badass entomologist E.O. Wilson and ecologist C.S. Holling in the 80’s, scientists have gotten after all forms of print and digital media, staying up late in to the night to publish their nerdy ideas and critical findings in everyday language, with humor and sincerity, in blogs, online journals, and magazines like Scientific American and Seed. Landscape architects in that time have generally taken our cue from architects, preferring to insist upon our relevance using pretentious hyperbole and esoteric design-speak and appealing to elites for a head-pat. There have been a couple in the field, including Kristina Hill and Joan Naussauer, who are prolific and write plainly about contemporary issues. Not coincidentally, they are landscape architects closely aligned with scientific professionals.

Research will be a major part of the effort and ability to construct this narrative, as it has been within the scientific community.  Recently profiled on mammoth is the latest development in P-Rex's work on the Pontine Marsh project.  Regarding this recent develpment, Alan Berger of P-Rex states “... if you do good research, you can change the type of project that is done.”  Landscape architecture will become more adept at doing and interpreting quantitative research that can inform public opinion and policy regarding the new public works.

Agencies’ role in this effort is significant and obvious. As major public figures, the agency heads are able to influence public opinion and become lightning rods for criticism and support. Their policy decisions influence funding and direction private practitioners‘ take. Additionally, their role in publishing information for the public record is critical in informing the work of academics, and to a lesser degree private professionals.

One serious issue concerning agencies is their tendency to maintain any problem to which they are the solution. This fact introduces an inertia into the system, the ability of the agencies to change themselves, to grow and shrink as is appropriate. This institutional inertia toward self-preservation instead of public service contributes to the mistrust of government agencies and the programs and funding needed for major public works. It is also a part of the public narrative, and will be addressed.


City agencies will continue to be invaluable because of the institutional memory offered by a bureaucracy and the protection from market vagaries that comes with a public mandate. They will have to become more agile and more transparent. New partnerships and more institutional transparency will help create a more informed discussion and invested constituency concerned with our nation’s public works. More projects will be less capital-intensive, less about start-dates and completion, less about jurisdiction. Smaller projects will build off of partnerships between agencies, public and private partnerships, and will be a community amenity in all stages, including construction.

Boundaries between agencies themselves and between the public will become blurred; less like divisions and more like membranes. And infrastructure will become more like mycorrhiza- small, highly specific, and built by agglomeration.
[EO Wilson knows; it's not that hard to write if you
have something to say]

Saturday, April 17, 2010

On Agencies, Part III- Time

Time is a central part of the discourse surrounding infrastructure. The scale of traditional infrastructural works- bridges, dams, roads, sewers- has always commanded a heavy price in terms of time and capital. But today's infrastructure is different animal, a nasty beast. Kazys Varnelis states,

"In our analysis, these infrastructures form the basis of the contemporary city, but they are vastly different from the infrastructures of old. Rather than being executed in conformance with the outline of a plan, they are networked, hypercomplex systems produced by technology, laws, political pressures, disciplinary desires, environmental constraints and myriad other pressures, tied together with feedback mechanisms."
[a landscape architect, after the singularity]

Into this scene, landscape architecture has thrust its nose, proposing that the "landscape" approach is the most appropriate methodology for conceptualizing "infrastructure" and "urbanism". Folks like Chris Reed and Alan Berger and Waldheim have developed some heady rhetoric to convince you of this idea (and I must admit- I'm all in. It's worked on me as much as anything can work on my dark and withered mind). We now have plans for new projects; decentralized, phased, adaptable, dispersed. And we have voluntarily expanded the temporal scale of infrastructure interventions by an order of magnitude. Pierre Belanger notes in his essay Landscape as Infrastructure:

“In stark contrast to the 20th century paradigm of speed, the effects of future transformation will be slow and subtle, requiring the active and sustained engagement of long-term, opportunistic partnerships that bridge the private and public sectors”

So now, there are real commissions coming out of these legwork done in the 90's and 00's by the above mentioned, among others. James Corner Field Operations (great name, by the way, way cooler than simply Field Operations) is now working on a 30-year project to remake the Fresh Kills landfill into a public park and has just signed up for a 25-year project on the Atlanta Beltway. If one assumes that those projects will run into a proportional amount of funding, political, and environmental delays that such large, contested projects typically confront, they are more likely to take 35-50 years to complete. Unless the singularity takes place by then, James Corner is unlikely to see their completion.

In other news, noted urbanist/architect Ken Greenberg just resigned from the much publicized Toronto Don Lands project, according to the Toronto Star. He tendered a letter of resignation stating, among other things, that:

"In light of the decision that has been made to proceed with a version of the Sports Complex that fails to integrate with the Plan for the Lower Don Lands I feel I have no choice but to regretfully resign from my involvement with this project. "

Good for him. He is a good designer and is likely trying to keep the project from being utterly controlled by developer or agency interests. It may be a way of advocating for some altruistic vision for the Don Lands, or a way of protecting his brand (likely a combination, since there is a symbiosis there). Nonetheless, these two examples of major landscape/urban projects featuring prominent practitioners throws in to relief a very important issue regarding agencies, and that is the issue of time.

In the case of Greenberg and the Don Lands, his resignation is likely to cause some measure of public outcry and debate, and in that specific example it may lead to a concession from the city to build athletic facilities that "integrate with the Plan for the Lower Don Lands ". In this case, the designer holds some sway by his ability to control or guide the public perception of the project and its politics thanks to his reputation and rhetoric (and that seems a good thing in this case). But he is still gone from the project.

With James Corner Field Operations, the logistics of committing a single private studio to a 30 or 40-year project are overwhelming.  What if that project is not moving for five years because of a recession or lack of political will?  What if James just doesn't feel like pursuing it any more 20 years in because he likes the thrill of flying all over the world lecturing and the adrenaline rush of winning big competitions, not the disciplined tedium of navigating an utterly frustrating morass of city, state, and federal agencies along with community groups and stakeholders?  Seriously, the list of stakeholders for Fresh Kills is something like 40 long, with everyone from the EPA to the local Boy Scouts on there. They are doing a good job now, but 20 years in? I know I'm not up to that. Screw that; there's fishing to be done, world cup's to watch, bike rides to take.

Public agencies, on the other hand, are staffed and funded for as long as they maintain a mandate. They have serious limitations, but the whims or beliefs (or life span) of a sole proprietor is not one of them. Their bureaucratic hierarchy also enables the key mechanism for negotiating the issue of time- institutional memory.

Institutional memory is (according to, uhh, wikipedia): a collective set of facts, concepts, experiences and know-how held by a group of people. As it transcends the individual, it requires the ongoing transmission of these memories between members of this group. Elements of institutional memory may be found in corporations, professional groups, government bodies, religious groups, academic collaborations and by extension in entire cultures.

Of course, private practice design firms have some degree of institutional memory as well- a set of details, a particular approach derived from a historical portfolio of work- but they traditionally rely disproportionately on one or a few individuals who found the practice. This personality, this variability and individualism is one of the wonderful things about private design practices. It is one of the biproduct-benefits of being in a "good" design firm versus a corporation or large engineering firm. However, if we want to get into infrastructural design, we must develop mechanisms for institutional memory in this setting. Agencies are essentially tailored to emphasize just that (among a few other things) and for that reason they have historically been trusted with the long-term, large-scale implementation of our public works.

One of the first ways that jumps to mind is the creation of wiki's within firms or centered around certain projects and involving all firms (as well as potentially community members or interested stakeholders). Wiki's are one way of sharing information and ideas that maintains the agility and mobility that makes private firms so valuable, in a way that establishes the institutional memory that can enable small firms to overcome the limitations of relying so heavily on one individual during a 30-year project.

An interesting example of an architectural wiki is taking shape over on To hear them describe it, architizer is "a new way for architects to interact, show their work, and find clients. It is an open community created by architects for architects. One architectural project has dozens of contributors, from the intern who made the conceptual models to the construction administrator. A project on Architizer links all members of the architectural community." Organizations supporting and guiding these projects have been creating blogs and websites for years. Perhaps there are other examples or methods out there.

But if we are going to take on large landscape projects this decade, which Monsieur Pierre thinks are going to be slow and take a long time (and we agree), then we must be innovative about devising new mechanisms for creating and maintaining institutional memory. Otherwise, it will stay the purview of agencies. 30 years is a long, hard road in real life, despite the fact that it's easy to draw as a 4-phase diagram in Illustrator.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

On Agencies, Part II: Public-Private Partnerships

This week in our ongoing four-part examination of municipal agencies we are profiling some NYC examples of public-private partnerships in the capital funding, design, and maintenance of public space in the hopes of noting some lessons learned and examining some future possibilities for mutually beneficial partnerships. Last week's discussion brought up interesting questions and suggestions about the role of innovation in public space and public infrastructure and how those dual aims were furthered through public agencies, points which we hope will influence this week’s post.

[holy lord, that is one "successful" park- Bryant Park
during a movie screening]

The most time-tested methods for public-private partnership in New York City's public spaces are for funding the capital investment and maintenance of public spaces. These came to predominate around the same period of time- the 1970's and 1980's. They were indicative of the empty municipal coffers of 1970's New York and reflected a general attitude- the city was no longer willing to completely underwrite a fully public park system.


Specific to the maintenance of public space, these types of partnerships range from the glamorous and gentrified- Bryant Park and Battery Park City, to name a few- to the mundane and humble community gardens maintained by community groups throughout the city. Bryant Park, in particular, is a good example because of its high profile, long history, and because it is generally seen as a success.

Bryant Park, formerly Reservoir Square, was renamed in 1884 in honor of writer William Cullen Bryant. Architecture Magazine noted in 1934 that the park was considered a danger zone in the city and this was partially attributed to the elevated rail running alongside of it. Robert Moses reconstructed it to little avail, and it was still seen as a derelict place until the Rockefeller Brothers got involved in the 1970's and formed the Bryan Park Restoration Corporation (read Christine Boyer's essay "Cities for Sale" to learn more about the Rockefeller boys during this time period).

In the late 80's that wonderful Hannah/Olin reconstructed the park once again, this time with new entrances to enhance visibility, reconstructed gardens and 2 restaurants and 4 kiosks. These were intended to fund the maintenance of the park. The Urban Land Institute (whose primary focus is the economic aspect of public space) sang its praises, and the business community loved it so much that they now shut it down for 2 prime weeks each year to host the private and exclusive Fashion Week.
[you don't like that Bryant Park is our park this week?
F#@* you, we're glamorous!]

That said, the park is also able to offer a wealth of free entertainment programming- movies in the park in the summer, free ice skating in the winter, concerts and orchestra performances, and occasional live screenings of Yankees games, all at no cost to the city. The exclusivity of fashion week is insulting to the poor and the ugly, such as ourselves here at FASLANYC. Nonetheless, the park’s offerings of beautiful plantings, monuments, views of the surrounding architecture, and constant delightful programming are tough to denigrate, even for curmudgeons such as ourselves.

This model seems to work well at Bryant Park, with civic-minded residents, workers, and business owners as constituents. However, the problems arising from the pressure for exclusive private events, an initiative that this model enables, give rise to serious questions concerning the appropriateness of widespread application of this public-private model for the maintenance of public space.

Capital Investment

Public-private partnerships in the capital funding of projects became widespread in this same period in New York City and are now commonplace (see the questionable proposals along the Williamsburg waterfront in Brooklyn, some of which are finished, or the in-progress Brooklyn Bridge Park by MVVA). One prominent example is Riverside Park South by Thomas Balsley Associates.

Riverside, funded by Donald Trump as a developer concession for the right to construct his banal residential towers on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, is an integration of social activity through riverbank reconstruction on the sight of an old industrial shipping yard. The variety of activities integrated with subtle and intelligible aesthetic experiences along the edge of the Hudson River stand in stark contrast to the clusterfuck of chaos being built further south as part of the Hudson River Park.

The park is maintained by the Department of Parks and Recreation in the city. Trump’s residential towers stand behind the park, located on the other side of the imposing elevated West Side Highway. The drawback with this model, one discussed by historian Ethan Carr regarding the planning of MVVA’s Brooklyn Bridge Park, is that the programming and form of the public space can be heavily influenced by the developer, turning the supposedly public space into a “front yard” amenity for their new, gentrifying development. At Riverside Park South weak connections to the larger park enhance these fears. The presence of a Dept of Sanitation truck storage lot to the south, a steep grade change connecting to Olmsted’s Riverside Park to the north, and the elevated highway and steep slope between the adjacent neighborhood and the park make it difficult to access unless you live nearby or happen to bike up and down the west side occasionally. Further phases are planned that are meant to enhance these connections and the variety of unique experiences does draw park users, but the park does not fully allay these fears as it currently exists.
[Riverside Park South, the highway and residential towers]

The savvy with which many developers are able to negotiate these agreements- huge banal towers that will gentrify neighborhoods and possibly displace current residents in exchange for a beautiful public space that serves primarily to enhance the marketing efforts of their project- give cause for concern any time one of these partnerships is planned. In this case in particular, all involved parties must place an emphasis on programming that accommodates and attracts a wealth of users, not just future tenants, and on important connections to the larger community. This has occurred at Riverside Park South, and even there it has serious drawbacks (just see the comments at the above link).


The last form of public-private partnership, one in its nascent stages, is in the design of a public space. This is precisely the type of work going on at Fresh Kills and is one of the reasons that work is so interesting. In fact, this past Wednesday there was a joint presentation of the design of the “South Park” to the community. South Park is the first of the five parks within Fresh Kills to be constructed and we had hoped to be able to go to the presentation and report to our seven readers. However, the early arrival of Spring necessitates that bike rides and beer-drinking take precedence over sitting in a jewish community center with Staten Islanders listening to FO’s and DPR’s reps stammer through photomontages and “dynamic urban flow diagrams” or whatever. Sorry.

Nonetheless, the Prospect Park Alliance is one such partnership that has been at work for 20 years now. I will let them explain the way they work:

In partnership with the City of New York and the community, the Prospect Park Alliance restores, develops, and operates Prospect Park for the enjoyment of all by caring for the natural environment, preserving historic design, and serving the public through facilities and programs.

The Alliance was formed in 1987 to restore the Park after years of budget cuts and a steady deterioration of both its natural areas and usage. By supplementing the Park’s basic operating budget with private funds, the Alliance has initiated a large array of capital projects and community programs. The Alliance has boosted public awareness of the crucial role parks play in the urban environment, while gaining support from donors and volunteers for the restoration projects that have brought Prospect Park back to prominence.

In the most exciting of their current initiatives, they are currently moving to restore the lake shoreline that was bastardized by Robert Moses (that guy again? Jesus!) in the 60’s with his hideous ice skating rink built on fill dirt which was excavated for the adjacent expansive parking lot. The Alliance is working as some kind of murky client-designer-agency in conjunction with the Department of Parks and Rec and New York architect Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.
[the skating center will be visually integrated into the

[the outdoor rink will become an interactive fountain during
the spring, summer, and fall months]

The new project will restore the landscape to Olmsted and Vaux’ original design a process that has already begun. The ground plane will rise up to cover one side and the roof of the building, and it’s open facade will contain two rinks, one indoor and one outdoor, which will convert to a roller rink and fountain, respectively, the other nine months out the year (the current rink is an unusable eyesore those 9 months).

The private nature of the Alliance allows them to hire architects of the quality (read, “cost”) of Williams and Tsien and their public nature gives them a mandate to maintain community programs, lends them the weight of a public agency, and eases some of the financial burdens of maintenance. In addition, they are able to draw on the agency’s ability and knowledge for negotiating with other agencies, construction methods and costs, and maintenance regimes.

In the case of Fresh Kills, the relationship is undoubtedly different, though some of these strengths will be similar. This relatively new type of partnership is also perhaps the most promising. An agency will have an open-ended and vested interest in the project, as opposed to a private firm which is simply under a contract.  The private firm can provide particular methods and ideas for programming, design, and construction they learn by working outside of the particular municipal context. It is short-sighted to bemoan the intrusion of private interests into public space, in our opinion. In fact, it is beneficial to get residents and businesses interested and involved and for them to organize in order to affect change. This taking of responsibility is exactly what is needed. But it must be balanced against the negatives wrought by the influence of moneyed interests and exclusive groups, both of which inevitably exert pressure on any space that is seen as a community resource.

At least that’s how it seems to us.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

On Agencies, Part I- History, Innovation, and Profit

This month, in light of the landscape and infrastructure discourse swirling around the profession like so much muddy water, we here at FASLANYC thought it timely to undertake a series of posts on government agencies.

Contemporary infrastructure is dynamic, shifting rapidly according to chaotic economic, ecologic, and technological forces. It is also currently in utter disrepair or inadequate as designed. Into this roiling river the allied professions of landscape design have flung themselves, serving to stir the pot and offer up innovative and appropriate solutions to contemporary issues of urbanizing cities, climate changes, industrial contamination, and environmental justice, among others.
[the Watts Barr power station, built by the
Tennessee Valley Authority]

However, our professional discourse should not remain limited to new theoretical and practical solutions to ever-changing problems (and we have many of them; some good, some great, some pitiful). Given that we must now address the above issues and acknowledging that we have what Kate Orff calls "a dearth in the ability to create a compelling narrative about the environment", our discourse must find new ways of implementing these solutions. Including, perhaps, getting the hell out of the way.

To that end, we will examine the predominant historical model for building infrastructure- the Agency- through four different themes. It is our hope to put forth some points and leave room for lots of dissent or furthering of specific ideas or general thoughts with examples from all over the globe (including regions where public work is not stigmatized to the extent that it is here).

This week’s post is a bit more of an intro before diving into some more theoretical topics and interesting hybrids, trends, and conceptual models for research, design, and implementation. The weekly topics are as follows:

Part I (April 4th)- History: Innovation and Profit
Part II (April 11th)- Public/Private Partnerships: Funding, Maintenance, and Design
Part III (April 18th)- Time
Part IV (April 25th)- The Future

[I apologize for the long and asinine intro.]


Governmental departments in New York City are agencies whose commissioners are appointed by the mayor. Local agencies are a relatively new institution, coinciding roughly with the codification and subsequent proliferation of infrastructures across the landscape of the United States in the early 20th century. They famously multiplied during the New Deal and have continued to form in response to specific environmental, economic, or infrastructural issues in the present day.

They have proven to be relatively short-lived and agile; forming, growing or being sublimated or dissolved as their specific mandate expires or begins to be addressed according to another set of criteria (trace the history of the various agencies in charge of city parks here, or the history of transit departments here).

They typically have a well-defined mandate and jurisdiction, much to the consternation of the private consultants contracted by the city, and often are allocated a capital budget as well as maintenance and operations budget.

City agencies have a reputation for being conservative, highly-politicized, and inefficient. However, this is due to the fact that they are compared in the popular imagination to the most effective and renowned private practices. The fact is, the majority of private practitioners of design and engineering are actually extremely boring, bad and conservative as well, maybe more so.

Few private business models incorporate innovation and experimentation, preferring instead immediate efficiency and short-term profit. Admittedly, the best known and most discussed firms often do build in some method for experimenting. Usually, in the case of design firms, it is simply working the salaried staff until they whither. City agencies operate according to another paradigm, for better and worse. The innovative programs of the New York City Department of Transportation including the Summer Streets, Sustainable Streets, and Green Light for Midtown are much celebrated. The Department of Parks also has a number of interesting and little-known programs up an running, including the Staten Island Greenbelt Native Plant Center, the Green Roof Experiment Site on Roosevelt Island, and their collaboration with Field Operations and the Department of Sanitation at Fresh Kills Park. In addition, it was the Parks Department that was the first to take the initiative now being copied by the DOT when they began the reconstruction of Broadway into pedestrian space at Union Square in the 1980’s.
[civil servant and DPR maverick John Robilotti explains
his latest green roof experiments on Roosevelt Island]

[some are flourishing]

[these, less so; and that's the beauty part]

City agencies are able to allocate a small portion of their budgets for relative and specific experimentation that has previously been studied and proposed by researchers in the interest of the public good.  This is due to the fact that public agencies, while charged with using the public's money effectively, are not driven by the desire for profit (though power is another issue).


City agencies in New York currently develop and pursue policies according to the precepts of the far-reaching plaNYC, a strategy that many private firms have been slower to adopt. While public agencies are political and therefore can only implement well-vetted initiatives, the motive of profit is not a part of their mandate. This is an important point to consider as many contemporary private practitioners are making a push to become integral to the building and remaking of the nation’s infrastructures: Do we really want profit to be a part of the equation?

The profit motive is a double-edged sword with very good and very bad outcomes depending on the situation. We should carefully consider this risks before we pay Jimmy Corner and Charley Waldheim millions to remake our infrastructure. The push for profit creates pressure to lower the quality, finding that base level that the client- be it a shopper at Wal Mart or the Department of Defense- will accept. In addition, the push for efficiency can, in the long term, undermine the chance for creativity and innovation.

The most well established model for privatization of public works can be found in our defense budget. Companies like Halliburton, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Blackwater are multi-billion dollar multinational corporations specializing in the design and manufacture of various defense services, systems, machines, and infrastructures. Their record of innovation is notable and we could certainly stand to learn from the beneficial aspects of that model. However, the introduction of profit motive into the defense industry has obviously given rise to many controversial and questionable issues, a result that is inevitable with so much money and power involved. The remaking of our nation’s infrastructure involves way more money.

The city agency model, with researchers and politicians informing policy and private consultants and contractors implementing specific designs, to be maintained, grown, or built upon by in-house services works well, but not well enough. It has historically proven to be both adaptable and powerful while averting complications that arise with the drive to make profit.  However, they are also bureaucratic, often inefficient and distorted by power issues involving questions of politics and jurisdiction. 

The relationship between innovation and profit is complex.  The late-capitalist assumption that the profit motive spurs innovation is a gross over-simplification, and at times the effect is deliterious on innovation.  We should examine and reinvigorate our models and methods of cooperation to design, fund, and implement the vast new public works that are needed to deal with the socio-ecological issues of our day.

A thanks to reader Nam for his ongoing thoughts on the subject.