Los Angeles Isn’t London, and Other Things that are Wrong with California


Recently I was browsing Imgur and came across a set of images depicting the current drought conditions in California.

Lake Oroville, July 2011. From Imgur.com

Lake Oroville in 2014. From Imgur.com

When I looked through the comments, I saw a few gems:

“See this?…See this? This is why I think lawns should be illegal in drought areas. You want a lawn? Move to East…”

“Hey let’s build golf courses in the desert!”

“A**holes need to realize that lush green lawns work in the SE, not SW. Sauce: I’m a f***ing city planner.”

Which reminded me of something that bothers me about California: that 38 million people live in an area that can probably sustainably support something more like one million, and lawns are just one example of cultural artifacts that have made it to California that were based on an entirely different climate. Let me explain:Isnt-01Well, yes, but so what? Well, some cultural features, including the lawn and the detached home, are cultural aspects that arose in England, partially because of its climate, and got appropriated to California in such a way that the environment had to be altered to support it.

The lawn became popular among the English nobility in the late Middle Ages. It arose there because England’s wet weather and moderate temperatures made it ideal for keeping grass green without the need to water, and because before the invention of the mower in 1830 one needed an army of peasants to trim the lawn with scythes. The lawn quickly dispersed to Ireland, France, and the Low Countries, other places with a suitable climate.

When the lawn hopped the pond with the earliest English colonizers of the Americas, it fared decently in the Northeast, which despite having a humid continental climate rather than England’s oceanic, still had sufficient rain and temperatures, although the winters were usually cold enough for the grass to go dormant. Some New England towns had lawns that were commonly owned and maintained, leading to the New England Common. But at this point the lawn could barely even survive in the American South, where higher temperatures made it too warm to keep the grass from turning brown.

The lawnmower was what made the lawn accessible to the land-owning middle class. They became more common with the implementation of the 40-hour work week, and lawn care was promoted as a form of relaxation during the Depression. It was only through irrigation that the lawn was able to leave the Northeast, and even then, only due to massive inputs of fertilizer that it was able to take root in the arid soils of the American Southwest.

Let’s take a closer look at climate. Here is a map of the oceanic climate, where the lawn originated:

From Wikipedia.org

These climates are most present in northern Europe, southern Chile and Argentina, southeast Australia, and New Zealand. It is truly barely present in North America, only making an appearance on the wet coasts of the Pacific Northwest around Seattle and Vancouver. Notably, it is not present in California. Let’s look at California’s climate map:

From weathersandiego.blogspot.com

The most densely inhabited parts of California are mostly within the semi-arid (BSh, BSk), desert (BWh, BWk), and Mediterranean (Csa, Csb) climate zones. Where in the world can we find those?

From Wikipedia.org

From Wikipedia.org

The Mediterranean climate, unsurprisingly, covers much of the Mediterranean, and as far east as Iran. Desert climates, largely uninhabited, cover much of northern Africa, the Middle East, central Asia, and Australia. Semi-arid climates generally ring the desert areas. So maybe a Mediterranean or Middle-Eastern home might be a better model for California. How would that compare to the English-based model of today?Houses-01

Traditional Mediterranean and Arab cultures both used courtyard houses. Exterior walls in these cultures were often plain or even drab, with much more of the focus being on the interior courtyard. By having a smaller landscaped area and using native plants rather than ones introduced from a wetter climate, a household could cut its water use dramatically. The courtyard house also takes advantage of microclimates, shared walls, shading, and the solar chimney effect to naturally ventilate the house and use less energy than the detached home.

An Arab-influenced courtyard in Spain. From 200words-a-day.com

There are many issues facing California: over-development in both the housing and agriculture industries; over-reliance on cars for transportation; and despite their issues, an ever-increasing demand from new residents for housing and services. But one way they can begin to address issues related to water use and sustainability is to adopt a climatically appropriate housing model. Los Angeles isn’t London, so why should it build houses and lawns as if it was?

Floating Village Planned for London


From fastcoexist.com

As a follow-up to my last post, I recently foundĀ this story about London’s plans to develop an underutilized part of the Docklands as a floating village, along with other new development. London’s housing prices are some of the highest in the world, and with that much demand and that little space, you need to come up with some creative solutions. I’m interested to see how this development goes and look forward to watching it grow.

Canals, Houseboats, and Urban Design on the Water


My wife is a professional writer and blogger, and on her recommendation I would like to welcome any new readers. My last post really blew up and was featured on Gizmodo, several Curbed sites (although Seattle‘s was very nice, Philadelphia‘s was probably my favorite), and many others. If you’re here because of that article, hello and welcome! I blog mostly about urban design, sometimes about articles I’ve read or cities I’ve visited, but mostly about weird, loosely-constructed ideas that I take well past their logical conclusion. I hope you enjoy as I continue this trend. Now, on with the show!

Canals were built in the world’s earliest civilizations as a way to control flood waters and irrigate land. Later canals were built for overland transportation. Major cities of the mercantile age, such as Venice and Amsterdam, have entire networks of canals. Later, during the industrial age, transportation canal networks sprung up in the industrial cities of England such as Birmingham and Manchester, and in early industrial towns in the United States, such as Lowell, Massachusetts. But when it became cheaper to move goods overland via train than via canal, the latter stopped being built, and many of the existing canals in cities like New York and Boston were filled in and paved over (this is the story of just about any place called “Canal Street”). And while canals were still built for international shipping, irrigation, and, later, for rich people in Florida to be able to park their yacht in their backyard, the urban canal network was no more.

Urban Canals-01Personally, I find canals very appealing. They allow people to get closer to the water, create opportunities for alternative transportation and recreation, and also make for great urban design opportunities. This is probably why I tried to shoehorn them into urban design projects I worked on in Boston and Rio de Janeiro. The thing is, the urban canal networks were a product of their time. They were needed in order to drain land for development and to provide networks for merchants and industrialists to move their goods. But recently, I’ve been thinking: while the goods-moving ability of canals is overshadowed by modern freight delivery methods, they still work for draining water, and in the future, we’re going to have a lot more water to drain.

Sea LevelCutting canal networks would allow for some inundation while protecting prioritized areas. It would also allow more options for carbon-free travel. Imagine kayaking to work, or instead of carpooling, taking a canoe. It could provide another way to right-size overly wide streets. Imagine taking a four-lane road down to two for cars with two for boats in the middle. And maybe being closer to the water would let people create a greater connection with the water and what they have to do to care for it. For example, I love Philadelphia, but it is the dirtiest place I’ve ever lived, mostly because the citizens just don’t take care of it. A new canal system in Philly would initially require constant cleaning just to keep it unencumbered. But hopefully over time people would want to keep them clean and would want to make better use of them, and maybe we could become like Stockholm, where people have a strong connection to their water and where they keep it clean enough to swim in.

Broad St FinalHowever, a few canals versus an incoming ocean will only do so much. That’s why, in the Dutch village of Maasbommel, a group called Dura Vermeer built 50 floating houses. The houses sit on a hollow concrete foundation that floats. This allows it to rise above flood waters. The houses are attached to two mooring posts, which allow them to move vertically while staying in the same spot horizontally. Flexible conduits allow the houses to receive utilities regardless of the water level.

From ft.com

If you look at these things, they’re basically part on land, part on water. But there are other floating structures with mooring posts that don’t need to be on land at all:

Houseboats Ah, yes, houseboats, home to hippies and people who insist on calling it a galley when they know darn well it’s just a kitchen. But houseboats are often much more adaptive than their land-based cousins. They can rise and fall with the tides or with flood waters. Not all, but many are actually maneuverable, so you can move to a whole new location in the same house. They are often smaller and use less energy than houses on land, and when arranged along both sides of a pier they create these great, intimate little alleys on the water. Although many still exhibit the sort of self-built hippie style for which they are known, newer ones are being built that reflect contemporary architecture.

Lake UnionThe problem with houseboats today is that they are usually built around a single pier connected to the land and not to other piers. This means that to walk from one pier to the next, even if it is right behind yours, you have to walk up onto the land and then over to the next pier. In that way, they actually function like cul-de-sacs, and not like a traditional urban grid.

Cul-de-sacsBut there’s no reason that you couldn’t have connecting piers, creating a pedestrian-friendly network on the water. Take the Center for Wooden Boats on Lake Union. Their several buildings and platforms are connected by piers which fully enclose buildings and water alike, with boats all along even enclosed parts of the piers.

CWB-01“That’s great, Munson,” you might be thinking, “but I was really excited about that kayaking to work thing earlier, and how would I do that if my houseboat were in one of those enclosed areas?” Well, you could design connecting piers that were raised above the water level, allowing traffic to pass underneath. But I think that a more effective way would be to have drawbridges.

From heatherwick.com

This one in London is quite nice, but they could of course be simpler. A small enough bridge with a counterweight attached could simply be lifted by pedestrians rather than having machinery do the work. The bridges would be down under normal circumstances to allow pedestrian movement, and whenever a new houseboat comes in or there is a delivery boat or something, the draw bridge could briefly go up. These systems of flexible utilities, houseboats, and connecting piers could create entire floating neighborhoods. But this sort of new infrastructure development would cost a lot of money, driving up the price of this sort of a development. It might only make sense in areas with extremely high real estate costs. So where would it be worth the money?

NYCSF-01There are places in this world where land prices are so high that it becomes a major barrier to development. But who says you have to build houses on land?

And these neighborhoods don’t have to just have houses. Other land uses already exist on the water. Istanbul has restaurant boats on the Bosphorus, and the United States Navy regularly sets up offices on barges if landside space is tight. And speaking of the Navy, aircraft carriers are the perfect example of working on the sea, since they are essentially giant floating repair shops for planes.

There would be issues to address with this type of development. There’s a reason there aren’t large houseboat communities on the East Coast like there are on the West, and that is hurricanes. I’m not sure how you would protect this type of development from them, although I’d be open to suggestions. Tsunamis are another concern. Since tsunami waves grow taller once they hit shallow water, moving these neighborhoods further out to sea could address that, but at that point you would be driving up the cost of extending utilities. It would take a lot to make these places fully autonomous from land-based utilities, although if you want to get creative with solar panels and composting toilets, the sky is the limit. And, at least in the United States, you would have to get it approved by the Army Corps of Engineers, who has jurisdiction over navigable waterways. But, as opposed to the floating cities ideas that some people (mostly architects) propose, these strategies could be implemented slowly, one at a time, over a long time frame. So get out there, dig a canal, build yourself a houseboat, and laugh heartily at the rising seas.

A Brief History of Skyscrapers


A while ago I was reading this post about optimal building height by Elliott Ruzicka, and I thought I’d riff on it a little bit.

Graphic-02

Home is where the work is: the case for an urban design revolution


A potential layout for a “workhome.” From theworkhome.com.

Pretty much every day, I commute two hours to work, work in a regular office, have lunch at a coffee shop, and commute two hours home. But today was a special day. I had a meeting closer to home in the morning, then made a site visit for a project in town, and spent the rest of the day working from home on a project I had available on my home computer. It’s nice to work from your couch, listening to music sans headphones, and being home when my wife gets back from her office.

The truth is, a lot more people are working this way than ever before. This post from The Conversation discusses the continued growth of working from home. Despite the growth in telecommuting, and the long history of people living and working in the same place, buildings today aren’t built with this sort of use in mind. Because of this, the London-based Workhome Project has conducted research and design into how to create a modern “workhome.” There are a variety of factors that determine what kind of workhome would be best for a certain situation: work/home balance; degrees of separation between functions; and how many people will use the workspace. They even have SketchUp models of some of the designs for you to get a better idea of how they look and feel. It’s a great resource for anyone thinking of creating a space for themselves or a few others to work at or near home.

“Farmscraper” masterplan concept created for Shenzhen, China : TreeHugger


Vincent Callebaut Architects’ “farmscraper” complex in Shenzhen. From Treehugger.com.

In this post, Kimberly Mok of Treehugger describes what may be one of the most fully-formed proposal for what has long been little more than an architecture school assignment: the vertical farm. Vincent Callebaut Architects for Shenzhen, China, would be a mixed-use project that would be oriented to take greatest advantage of sunlight and would get all of its power from integrated wind power and photovoltaics.

I’ve long wondered where the demand for a vertical farm actually is, and I think that is why right now it is mostly the purview of architects and not farmers or developers. I think right now in most cities there is just enough demand for community gardens, not a large-scale operation like this. I wonder if anyone other than a heavily Statist government like China would even be able to staff it. I could be wrong: maybe all we need is one good demonstration project, and then vertical farms will start going up the world over. But until that time, I think, like the arcologies of old, the vertical farm will not make it from the rendering to real life.

Middle Eastern City Reduces Heat by 10 Degrees Through Passive Cooling : TreeHugger


This post from Sami Grover details some of the work that Masdar City has done to be a sustainable city. In a desert city, cooling is very important: in the video, Naser Marzooqi, a facilities manager at Masdar City, says that nearby Abu Dhabi spends a huge amount of money on cooling, while passive solar design in Masdar City lowers the temperature by ten degrees. What I think is interesting is that many of these techniques are just scaled up versions of traditional building practices in the Middle East; narrow streets create shade, and the orientation of the entire city to the sun maximizes shade. Even the 45 meter “wind tower” is a scaling up of traditional malqaf. There are great books our there, such as The Barefoot Architect, which can tell you how to use traditional techniques from across the world to passively heat or cool a design.

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