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When Littering Can Be Good

March 5, 2015

If you’re an urban dweller, you’ve seen them all over the place: spilling out from full trashcans, buried in snow piles, on the edge of a river bank, and in the hands of many. They’re identifiable often by the logo placed prominently on the side. They’re disposable coffee cups. And we use a LOT of them. Americans alone drink 400 million cups of coffee a day. The guy who invented the Keurig even publicly admitted the guilt he felt over the amount of waste generated by users of the machine.

So what can be done? Why not turn a disposable product into something that would be good for the world. That’s the idea behind Reduce. Reuse. Grow. which is raising funds on kickstarter for a decomposable coffee cup embedded with seeds of native flowers and plants. As a coffee drinker, and as an avid styrofoam-hater, I have to say I’m a fan.

Shanghai’s Ecological Infrastructure: Houtan Park

October 16, 2014

The Huangpu river cuts through Shanghai, and is one of China’s most polluted waterways. It was in the news recently when people found agricultural waste (read: dead pigs) floating down the river. But there is good news, too. People are working to reverse this pollution and it’s coming in the form of public parks.

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Turenscape built Houtan park in Shanghai as a restorative, water-purifying, public space on a brownfield of a former industrial site. Terraced levels with plantings help decontaminate the water as it descends along a linear band of constructed wetland on the Huangpu riverfront. Treated water (up to 500,000 gallons a day) can be used for non-potable uses.

turenscape 1

The park also acts as flood protection. Where a slowing degrading concrete flood buffer was limited in its protection, the replacement riprap allows native vegetation to grow and strengthen the riverbanks against future flooding and erosion. I love the intersection of public engagement, environment restoration and design.

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images via Turenscape

Revealing Just How Thirsty California Has Become

September 7, 2014

More than 80% of California is currently in extreme drought. You may have heard of the dropping reservoirs, or the fines for those engaging in the viral Ice Bucket Challenge in what’s being called ‘drought shaming‘, but this collection of maps gives a powerful visual overview of how the landscape has, and is, changing. 


Urban Mobility: How We Move Through Cities

July 13, 2014

The aggregate of information collected by the app Human, designed to promote wellness and exercise, has been transformed into visualizations that provide an interesting look at how we move through cities.

So what does 7.5 million miles of tracked activity look like? It’s pretty cool. See all city data here.

Starting with my home city of Boston, it’s not that surprising to see that we’re above average in walking as compared to the international average; it’s a very walkable city, including most of Cambridge (which consistently ranks high in walkability studies).


The map looks pretty similar to an aerial, highlighting Boston proper, beacon hill, the back bay and areas along the river as some of the most heavily used by pedestrians (also, runners and cyclists).

Other cities, like the notoriously car-centric Los Angeles, look entirely different when looking at the maps generated from walking data vs. car.



The maps also provide a quick look at the organization of each city, from the cities organized on a grid to those that seem to radiate out from a city center (compare NYC’s biking patterns and Paris).



Perhaps one of my favorite parts of the visualization, is watching the travel patterns by time of day.


TED Talk: How Public Spaces Make Cities Work

April 28, 2014

“Cities are fundamentally about people.”  –Amanda Burden

When immersed in the design of a city, building, or place, it can be easy to focus on the smaller details without realizing that most of the time we’re designing for people. For each other. To make a space or place, that fosters some aspect of the human experience: joy, learning, wonder, and a million more. I think that’s one of my favorite takeaways from Amanda Burden’s TED talk “How Public Spaces Make Cities Work” which looks at public space (particularly in New York) and the role it plays in shaping life in the city.

In my own experience, I’ve made pretty deliberate choices about where I live, work and travel based on the availability of public space. As many of my friends and family know, I’m pretty head over heels in love with my neighborhood. The public library, just down the street, is set back from the street with a huge public lawn used four seasons a year — from snowmen building to summer picnics and frisbee. My running route takes me along a path by the river flanked by trees. The public space in front of city hall is my go-to lunch spot with co-workers and people watching with friends after work. The things I love about where I live and work can mostly be attributed to public space.

What do you love about your community? Where’s your nearest public park?

WarkaWater Towers

March 31, 2014

While there are some really interesting projects and organizations working to get clean, fresh water to parts of rural Africa, I love the WarkaWater towers for their simplicity in concept and design. Arturo Vittori and Andreas Vogler of Architecture and Vision developed the structures for water collection and named them after the Warka, an endangered species of wild fig tree native to Ethiopia.

Fog present in the mountainous regions of Ethiopia is captured as condensation in the 30′ tall WarkaWater towers, which are capable of collecting up to 25 gallons of fresh water a day. Each tower is built with two sections: the framework which is usually built from stalks or juncus or bamboo, and an internal mesh of nylon and polypropylene fibers. Condensation follows the mesh down into the basket structure and into a basin at the bottom of the structure.


Each tower can be made from local materials (any sort of reed for the framework, and mesh for the interior element) and constructed within about a week with a team of four people. In addition to capturing water and providing a much need resource, the towers are designed to function as social hubs as well, cultivating and strengthening community much as the Warka trees do by providing shade and fruit.




photos via Architecture and Vision


A Year Later: ReBuild by Design

November 4, 2013

Just about a year after Superstorm Sandy landed on the east coast causing an estimated $50 billion in damages, a project called ReBuild by Design is entering its second stage to help guide us towards recovery. An initiative of Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, the design competition is soliciting ideas to increase resiliency across the Sandy-affected region. The first part of the competition was just completed; each team presented several opportunities in a public forum based on a three month research and analysis period. From this feedback, each will narrow the focus to one idea and work with stakeholders and communities to develop the design solution. The final proposals will be evaluated in March, and winning teams will receive funding for implementation with disaster recovery grants.


The proposals range widely. One that stood out to me include the team of MIT + ZUS + URBANISTEN, which imagines resiliency districts at the edges of flood zones. Looking at a range of data, the team discovered that flood zones at river deltas are particularly vulnerable in that those areas often contain critical infrastructure, sacrificed ecosystem services and polluted land. As the team points out “39 of the 52 liquid fuel storage terminals in the NY/NJ area are located within the flood plain and these contain 80% of the total area fuel. 75% of the net annual generation comes from 27 power stations that are in flood zones.” With 2.5 million people living in the flood zone in NYC and greater New Jersey, it makes sense to focus on this fragile areas, particularly with the pressures of development as the urban population grows.

Another that I thought was interesting was from OMA: it looks at a comprehensive approach for Hoboken, one that merges infrastructure, landscape, policy and drainage solutions. It includes a greenway around the city that would function as city-wide drainage via the pumphouses, and using the city’s canals for water storage and recreation.Image

Many of the proposed solutions offer a new view of looking at urban spaces, one that precludes private development from the shoreline and flood-prone areas in favor of community protection. I also love that most of these solutions embrace the inevitability of change; hard infrastructure won’t keep the water out for long, we have to work with the probability of extreme weather and design something that is as flexible and adaptable as possible.

Many more design opportunities can be found here.

images via OMA.

SR Sandy Project

August 24, 2013

Stefan Rurak of Brooklyn-based SR Furniture has initiated a project called the SR Sandy Project to reuse debris from the storm. After salvaging a sugar maple, he began making pendants, and is now building stools like the ones below and taking custom furniture orders. A portion of the proceeds all go to the Mayor’s Fund to help with the relief effort.



I’m also particularly fond of this table, made from reclaimed wood from a New York water tower.


Imageall images via SR

Mt. Everest’s Pollution Problem

June 24, 2013


photo via Martin Edstrom

It’s been just sixty years since the first ascent up the venerable Mt. Everest, but during that time, things have shifted dramatically: It’s no longer just the climbers that face danger, but the Himalayan ecosystem as well. With greater numbers of visitors to the mountain and hundreds of climbers every season, comes accumulating waste and pollution. 


image via

Climbers clog passes like the Hillary Step (shown below), some waiting as long as two hours before they can continue to the summit.


As climbers ascend, roughly 50 tons of trash is discarded every year including oxygen tanks, food packaging, climbing equipment, and human waste. 


Thankfully, people behind projects like Saving Mount Everest are working to draw attention to this growing pollution problem and to begin to put clean up efforts and plans in place. Waste bins, toilets, and a must-sign Code of Conduct for climbers are just some of the ways the project hopes to keep the mountain cleaner. In 2011 alone, team members brought 8 tons of garbage off the mountain. 


It’s a tricky balance between the tourism and money Mt. Everest brings into the local economy, and sustaining the environment and ecosystem that draws people to the place to begin with.

Incredible timelapse shows changing planet

May 19, 2013

Using Landsat satellite data, Google Earth has compiled global timelapse GIFs of our planet to show how it has changed over the past 29 years. From looking at the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest to the drying of the Aral Sea to the urban growth of Las Vegas, these are fascinating compilations of data that visualize our impact on the planet. My only wish is that you could slow it down a little bit more.

aral sea 1985Aral Sea 1985

Aral sea 2012Aral Sea 2012

To get a better sense of how much growth and change has occurred over the past 29 years, watch these. And imagine what we would see if we had satellite imagery from the past hundred or even thousand years. The coolest part is you can search anywhere in the world and watch a timelapse!