Bacterial electricity and electric ecologies

The lead…

The world’s deep seafloors are dark and airless places, but vast swaths may pulse gently with energy conducted through a type of newly discovered bacteria that forms living electrical cables.

orange strands of the new Desulfobulbaceae stretch in a laboratory beaker between a reddish, oxygen-rich sediment layer and a dark, sulfurous, oxygen-depleted layer. via Nils Risgaard-Petersen

The possibilities…

With so much electricity being transferred, are other organisms tapping the lines? Might the Desulfobulbaceae be a power source for entire as-yet-unappreciated deep-sea microbial ecologies, which in turn shape some of the planet’s fundamental biogeochemical processes? That’s “an interesting possibility,” said Nielsen, but it’s still speculation.

More via Wired Science here


the “shifting steady-state mosaics” of ecological urbanism

The term “shifting steady-state mosaics” comes from an interview by Asla’s the DIRT (here) with Nina-Marie Lister on Ecological Urbanism. She is referencing the work of Canadian ecologist, C. S. “Buzz” Holling, who explored the concept in terms of resource management.

She goes on to talk about the benefits of green infrastructure. These include the obvious multi-use, landscape-ecology layers but also the importance of green infrastructure as a pedagogical tool. She is quoted “The increased use of green infrastructure in our cities is a good example in which people can see the functions of a working ecosystem… But really smart green infrastructures that are instrumental to productive ecologies go a step further: they facilitate hands-on learning or they require citizen participation in the ecological function.

For me it is that community participation which is key. These sorts of community design centered actions, they always seem to be so personally, driven though.

Lister argues for expanding the reach of  productive infrastructures to be mean not just ecological or ecosystems engineering but also “(re)mediating the metaphorical relationship between culture and nature.” through the development of hybrid civic centered ecologies.

The complex ecologies of diversion

Overseers of the eastern route, which is being built alongside an ancient waterway for barges called the Grand Canal, have found that the drinking water to be brought to Tianjin from the Yangtze is so polluted that 426 sewage treatment plants have to be built; water pollution control on the route takes up 44 percent of the $5 billion investment, according to Xinhua, the official news agency. The source water from the Han River on the middle route is cleaner. But the main channel will cross 205 rivers and streams in the industrial heartland of China before reaching Beijing.

The above factoid comes from a great NYT article on the South-North Water Diversion Project. It is interesting to note that such a huge percentage of the costs are the result of environmental degradation. One wonders whether more soft approaches (engineered wetlands or other forms of environmental engineering) could reduce cost or at least create additional values-added. Particularly when one considers that the 5$ presumably is the capital costs associated with building the treatment plants and doesn’t include the longer term costs (energy, capital etc) in running them over the life-time of the project. Moreover, it seems it makes the argument for the financial benefits of regulation clear. Especially, in such a “planned economy” as China.

The complexity of the project is then highlighted. In order to faciliatate certain aspects of the plan additional projects have to be launched. The result a series of diversions, each one creating it’s own network of dependent ecologies and failure points.

The diversion from the Han is necessitating more complex projects to raise water levels. One side diversion brings water from the Yangtze to the Han. Another would bring water from the Three Gorges reservoir to the Danjiangkou reservoir.

Fred and Rybczynski on the High Line

Monday, Fred Scharmen wrote Witold Rybczynski thinks Landscape Urbanism needs to get off of his lawn. and @quilian: I liked that he said the concrete planks were “neat”.

However, the article he was referring to was in Sunday’s New York Times. I worked this weekend so wasn’t able to read the Op-Ed by Witold until Monday night. I hadn’t even read (i guess) what Fred was referencing directly at the time I read his tweets. Though his take seemed to go with my general take on Rybczynski’s writing, which I would describe as occasionally old-school or kranky?

I will openly admit I have enjoyed many of Witold’s photo-features for Slate if only for their great images to text ratio…

I also think it is true though that Witold and a number of like minded critics do seem to have a somewhat “reality” based critique of the sorts of landscape urbanism trends of interest to the academics and many designers in the three main disciplines of landscape-architecture, architecture and planning. A bit of a “get off my lawn” tone or nostalgia?

Reading Witold Rybczynski’s piece Bringing the High Line Back To Earth though I found myself reflecting on some of his points. I also thought the image choice accompanying the piece interesting. It seems to me to raise one of two perspectives. One alludes to the almost Romantic-Victorian image of parks and urban landscapes as a parkland for strolling. Which could perhaps include the urban Modern flâneur if extended or re-conceived.

It is also a very non-urban, almost pastoral image. No urbanity to be found . Except on the underside as the hidden underbelly from which to escape? And domesticated. Very British. Nothing productive, either, genteel.

Yet Witold also makes two points in his piece that I found very persuasive.

First, he suggests that it would be difficult to replicate the success of the High Line or one of it’s original ancestors the Promenade Plantée in Paris. The reason he gives is that what makes those parks work is the way they let urban dwellers get a new perspective on their urbanity. It is the very density and post-urban simulation that makes them work. They allow the simple pastoral stroller to become instead an urban flâneur. This juxtaposition is key to what makes these parks a vital viable landscape. This would make it difficult for mid sized-or other-cities to hop on the new trend and spread the model virally. Most don’t have the density that makes the High Line visually appealing. Indeed Witold writes “unlike Olmsted’s parks, which were intended to provide a green escape from urban bustle, they both offer a new way of experiencing the city — from above. It is the unexpected views of surrounding buildings that make walking the High Line such a memorable experience. 

So how could one make this concept work in a less urbanized, dense city like Atlanta, Los Angles or St. Louis? Witold believes they wouldn’t. I think he is right if the model is based only on the sort of high-leisure of the more urbanized High Line. It would need to be a more mixed used, productive, generative and duplicative in terms of layering of modes of experience.

Finally, he argues that the “The High Line model is expensive, too. The first two phases cost $152 million; $44 million of this was raised from private and corporate sources, and the not-inconsiderable maintenance costs are to be covered partly by the city and partly by a proposed tax on local businesses“.

Totally agree. Similar to issues raised previously about Bryant Park or other more privatized-public landscapes.

Now, I am not suggesting that we should stop trying to convert post-industrial landscapes into other sorts of productive-leisure space. We should approach such efforts with caution though. Particularly given their often close link to real estate redevelopment projects and their high costs and privatized models of maintanance and development. I would rather see such efforts develop either out of a more public supported or communitarian model-low cost high labor-of praxis.

Moreover, as I have discussed before “Why not a park?” there are many places that need them. Although again the High Line model takes a fairly expensive, less infrastructural (dual-use approach) hifalutin form.

Cypress domes, H. Odum and soft engineering

Speaking of springs

At my Alachua County EPAC (Environmental Protection Advisory Committee) meeting last night, we received a presentation from Dr. Bob Knight about springs and springs protection. He currently serves as the Director of the Florida Springs Institute. Anyone who has lived in North Florida a length of time can’t help but be partial to the (it’s true declining) beauty of these natural wonders. We discussed a number of interesting issues. I had never before read up on the ecologist H. Odum for instance and the discussion touched on a range of concepts such as cypress domes, ecological restoration, biofilms, wetland creation and management. Dr. Knight is currently teaching the first and only course on Springs Ecology to be offered world wide. This graduate-level course is offered at the University of Florida’s Department of Environmental Engineering Sciences .

The institute is also on Facebook

Simply as a resident it has become obvious after 20 years living here that the springs are not what they used to be. Flows are down and nutrient loads up. The work of groups like Florida Springs Task Force or the Florida Springs Initiative have resulted in things like Florida Planning Toolbox which developed tools for springs protection planning. The Toolbox (read manual) was coincidentally developed by The Center for Urban and Environmental Solutions at Florida Atlantic University which has recently shut its doors as a direct result of the ongoing state budget reductions for higher education.

The causes and fixes for spring and aquifer degradation have been roughly known for decades. At least since the pioneering work of H. Odum at Silver Springs and his contributions to the fields of Ecological economics and Ecological engineering.  Odum founded the first and long running Howard T. Odum Center for Wetlands (CFW) at University of Florida.

Steps for protecting and restoring the springs and the underground aquifer range from on-going scientific research, biological and water quality monitoring, regulation and management, education and outreach, and landowner assistance and land acquisition projects.

A key factor in degrading spring health is simple. Too much water is being drawn from the aquifer and watersheds of North Florida. As Bob Knight made clear even the “green” city of Gainesville’s utility is a culprit in this, we need to get better at conservation.

Water usage and conservation is about reduction of use but also recharge enhancement and protection. It is here that concepts that Odum explored like ecological engineering are valuable. Things like engineered wetlands or Tertiary treatment of municipal wastewater by cypress domes. As Mark Brown (Department of Environmental Engineering Sciences, University of Florida, Gainesville) wrote in an 2005 essay entitled  Landscape restoration following phosphate mining: 30 years of co-evolution of science, industry and regulation the difficulties of wetland restoration require a shift in restoration research to the landscape scale. Such projects rely on ecological engineering and adaptive self-organizations and management practices.

This includes the sort of soft approaches so of interest today. John Thackara recently highlighted these sorts of approaches in Off-Grid Water, where he looked at strategies and resources for water conservation.

It’s a hard ask, but a transition from strictly engineered systems to ecological systems like rain gardens, surface wetlands, restored ponds, and daylighted streams does seem to be happening. The entire water economy is beginning to focus on

“softer” approaches in which closed loop water supply systems are configured, in an integrated fashion, to recover and recycle water and be net energy producers.

This soft approach though also extends more metaphorically towards “designing” through social practice or action. Developing things like working groups, co-ops and other community watershed focused efforts.

For more information check out Thinking big with whole-ecosystem studies and ecosystem restoration—a legacy of H.T. Odum which has a whole section titled 3.4. Whole-ecosystem wetland experiment in self-design (1992–2004) or download the SpringsTaskForceReport

What is a park?

So I wrote this for Archinect. It took longer than I wanted to write, but it’s done….

What is neat that I just noticed, is that if you search for landscape design or urban park design using Google news search right now, my interview with Gerdo is one of top choices.

Yeah me!


In the feature I discuss What is a Park – Landscape or Infrastructure with Gerdo Aquino of SWA Group.

A fruit focused urbanism?

Last spring, Fallen Fruit walked LACMA’s grounds with the City Culture columnist, pointing out what were then the seeds of gardens, as well as other provocations and contemplations. Settling down on the soft earth adjacent to work by the National Bitter Melon Council and DidierHess (of Materials & Applications fame), Burns, Viegener, and Young expanded on how, why, and what they do. Some highlights from the conversation include:

Ultimately, what the work of Fallen Fruit does is use fruit as a lens through which to explore the interaction of citizens with each other and their urban environment.

Dave Burns: “It’s also about creating different kinds of agency and different kinds of community. Collaborating with space is a lot of what we’re doing; and we’re asking citizens to be active in authoring where they live, and taking a particular neighborhood and transforming it.”

Matias Vieneger: “In the maps [we make], its really important to us that the locations are approximate. Because we really want people to walk down and know somewhere on the street is a peach tree – but where is it? And look at everything else before they find the peach tree. It’s a whole way of getting people to look at cities and neighborhoods in a way that they don’t usually do.”

More via Next American City’s City Culture blog (Part 1)

Matias Viegener: “One of the things we like to say is that you can’t wish away the problem. If the fruit is not harvested, it will attract rodents. So putting in a fruit tree establishes a certain obligation among the people who live nearby and these trees have to be taken care of by people or they shouldn’t exist.

And later in (Part 2)