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Monthly Archives: December 2015

Blue Ridge Parkway-04

Roads and landscape

The road in the landscape is a  multi-faceted subject, as we could read in the previous posts by Gerdy Verschuure and Steffen Nijhuis. Driving as a means to experience the landscape is one of these aspects, which sometimes has been exalted to an art in itself.

When traveling through the United States, one of the greatest experiences is the travel itself: driving days on end through expansive landscapes on roads straight as an arrow where the landscape morphology permits, or following the contours of the natural landscape where it doesn’t. This fall I fulfilled a long since wish: driving the Blue Ridge Parkway. Starting from the northernmost tip, we drove south for two days, zigzagging from breath-taking view to breath-taking view, until a flat tire forced us to return to the inhabited world.

 

Blue Ridge Parkway-07

Parkways

The tradition of building parkways goes back a long way, to one of the godfathers of landscape architecture. When Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux had created Prospect Park in 1868, they felt that, although the park was recognized as a magnificent natural reserve, it lacked any corresponding system of roads leading to it. So they created the Eastern Park-Way, the first parkway. Parkways – wide avenues, with a differentiation in lanes for pedestrians, horse riders and carriages, supported by planting – were not quite parks in themselves, but not just streets either, and became known as ‘ribbon parks’. In Olmsteds days the car did not play a big role yet, but in the following decades, when mass-production of automobiles made motorised traffic widely available, the idea that one could enjoy nature while driving on the road remained an issue. Half a century later the concept of the urban parkway was extended to the scale of the country, by creating grand scenic parkways – roads across the land leading into the wilderness, allowing independent journeys into National Parks which were previously accessible by public transport only.

 

Blue Ridge Parkway-02

 

 

The Blue Ridge Parkway

One of the first scenic parkways to be built was the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia and North Carolina. It runs between Shenandoah National Park and the Great Smokey Mountains National Park – a distance of 469 miles. Stretching across the peaks of the Appalachian Mountains range, it was designed to respond to the contours of the land. It was designed and constructed in sections: as land was purchased by the states, rights-of-way were approved and contracts secured through the Bureau of Public Roads. Construction began in 1935, and when work halted due to the outbreak of World War II, some 170 miles were complete. In the 1950s construction resumed, and by 1968 the parkway was complete, except for a 7.7-mile stretch. It was not until this section was completed in 1987 that the Blue Ridge Parkway fully opened, 52 years after the project began.

Essential for the experience of the parkway are its rest-stops, positioned at a bend in the road which opens up to an unexpected wide view, or just before a tunnel, which as an impressive feat of engineering, is considered a worthwhile view in itself.

As befits a true National Park the Blue Ridge Parkway received its own sign, expressing the value ascribed to what is basically just a road. The sign highlights a remarkable landscape architectural aspect, repeated over the full length of the road: often the forest is cut away to allow for the view, leaving one last tree standing, creating depth in the perspective and anchoring the viewer to the place in relation to the horizon.

 

Nature experience  

While the urban parkway introduced the benefits of nature to the city, the ever-present problem of cross-traffic managed to erode the ideals of a continuous passage in nature. The creation of national parkways allowed for a complete removal of the parkway from any reference to urban contexts. In the design of the parkways, infrastructural space is considered a valuable territory on its own, carefully choreographed in the landscape, interconnecting parks and park areas into a coherent system, in such a way that motorists could enjoy nature while in transit. More than just a feat of engineering, these infrastructural lines can be seen as a cultural phenomenon where movement is the motor of a physical and visual experience.

 

References

Engle, R.L. (2006) The Greatest Single Feature… A Sky-Line Drive. 75 years of Mountaintop Motorway. Luray, VA: Shenandoah National Parks Association.

Zapatka, C. (1995). The American Landscape. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

Routes are important operative structures in landscape architecture because they play a crucial role in mediating or facilitating the use and reception of (designed) landscapes. Routes are the ‘silent guides of the stroller’ and facilitate the primordial act of walking as an aesthetic and social practice. The shape of a walk refers not only to the formal aspects of routing such as the tracing and gradient of the routes, but also to the landscape space as people perceive it. This perceptual space indicates the visual reality, the sensorial experience that emerges only by bodily movement and is affected by topological, physical, social, and psychological conditions. The psychologist Kurt Lewin proposed in 1934 the term Hodological Space to describe these factual conditions a person is faced with on its way (‘Hodos’, a Greek word meaning ‘way’). The psychogeographical maps of Guy Debord in the 1950’s and Hans Dieter Schaal in the late 1970’s are inspiring attempts to visualize perceptual space.

 

Psychogeographical mapping of hodological space (drawing by Hans Dieter Schaal, 1978)

Mapping hodological space (drawing by Hans Dieter Schaal, 1978)

 

Visual perception and kinaesthesia

The shape of a walk as a concept connects visual perception to the ‘sense of movement’ or kinaesthesia. In traditional Asian culture it is common to link visual perception with movement as exemplified by the Chinese character for ‘to see’ 見 in which the upper part symbolises the eye 目and the lower part symbolises the feet of a person 儿. Kinaesthetic experience involves several sensory channels for an active participation with the spatial environment. The brain integrates information from proprioception and the vestibular system into its overall sense of body position, movement, and acceleration, which is important for spatial orientation as described by the neuroscientist Alain Berthoz.

Bodily sensation and muscle movement are thus closely related to visual perception. As James Gibson elaborates in his seminal work ‘The ecological approach to visual perception’: “Locomotion is guided by visual perception. Not only does it depend on perception but perception depends on locomotion inasmuch as a moving point of observation is necessary for any adequate acquaintance with the environment. So we must perceive in order to move, but we must also move in order to perceive.” The shape of a walk is therefore determined by a kinaesthetic experience of the designed landscape where visual perception is inherently connected to one’s abilities and possibilities for movement offered by the design.

 

Bodily sensation and muscle movement are closely related to visual perception (photos by Eadweard Muybridge, 1887)

Bodily sensation and muscle movement are closely related to visual perception (photos by Eadweard Muybridge, 1887)

 

Walking as field of study in landscape architecture

The shape of the walk is thus of crucial importance in landscape architecture because it is not possible to perceive space without movement of the eye, head and body. It determines the tactile and kinaesthetic experience and is the means to organise the visual logic of a site by directing the individual’s gaze at views or focal points and their sequence. From this follows that the shape of a walk is an important unifying and structural principle in landscape design and the discovery of landscape from past to present. According to the garden theorist and historian Erik A. de Jong it must be considered the hinge that steered more than anything else the changing options for use, experience, and design and contributed fundamentally to both personal and cultural developments.

From this perspective the shape of a walk becomes a highly relevant field of study in landscape architecture. Not only in the sense that it addresses the phenomenological dimensions of landscape as proposed by the sociologist Lucius Burckhardt with his Science of Strolling (called: Strollology or Promenadology), or that it offers an alternative approach to landscape design that integrates intense space perception, encourages intuition and supports organization as elaborated by landscape architects such as Henrik Schultz and Günther Voght. The shape of a walk is also an important container of design knowledge available for systematic exploration, description and classification. It is an invaluable source of design principles that effectively shape the relation between formal space (‘space of coordinates’) and perceptual space. Studying the shape of a walk can help landscape architects to get a grip on space as perceived from eye-level, kinaesthetic aspects, wayfinding, and the phenomenology of landscape in order to become tools for landscape design.

GIS-based analysis of the shape of the walk at Stourhead Landscape garden combining height gradient, visible features and light and shade along the route (analysis by Steffen Nijhuis, 2015)

GIS-based analysis of the shape of the walk at Stourhead Landscape garden combining height gradient, visible features and light and shade along the route (analysis by Steffen Nijhuis, 2015)

The material as discussed above is excerpted from: Nijhuis, S. (2015) GIS-based landscape design research. Stourhead landscape garden as a case study. Delft, A+BE. http://dx.doi.org/10.7480/abe.2015.13 or http://repository.tudelft.nl/view/ir/uuid:74854bbb-1843-4b73-9214-040e8c64384c/

Middagterallee in Dieren (G.Verschuure-Stuip, 2015)

During the last six month, the discussion on the cutting off trees next to Dutch N-roads, provincial roads, was intensified. It started as a ‘soft’ rule in the ‘Handboek Wegontwerp 2013’ which was published by the knowledge platform CROW, which stated that a tree should be planted away from the road for at least four and a half meters. But it escalated in a question list and discussion on ‘dangerous’ provincial roads by the ANWB (which actually was filled in by only a small group of its members). Many of these ‘dangerous’ roads are flanked by rows of old trees or these roads are in the midst of natural reserved areas. It was argumented that these roads and especially the trees next to it are leading to more injuries and deaths by car accidents. A group called ‘Knights of Trees’ (Bomenridders) collected –with success- many thousands of signatures of worried people, fearing the cutting of trees on large scale in the province of South Holland. But this fear is not over yet!

Cutting Trees a Solution?

No doubt that every death or traffic injury is one to many and this should be prevented. Traffic safety is of great importance to us all. But the question rises if downing rows of trees, even 200 or 300 years old trees, is the solution? Of course, it is very pitiful when a car loses control and crashes against a tree. But what would be the consequences if, because all trees in the middle of the road (parkway) were cut off, a troubled car is ending up at the other side of the road facing the oncoming vehicles? What would happen if a group of biking youngsters on the biking lane next to the road would be driven over because of the lack of a row of trees to safeguard them? Is it not the displacement of another problem? Is the basis of the traffic problems this long row of beautiful trees or do we need to take a closer look at specific, dangerous spots? And is the tree, which is standing on the same spot in all cases the most guilty party or do other factors, not at the least the way people drive, play a much more decisive role? The research of the ANWB didn’t answered all of these questions in their story.

The beauty of a avenue flanked with trees. Fonteinenallee in Renkum (G.Verschuure-Stuip, 2015)

Ecology and Environmental Issues

Traffic safety is one of the users arguments. But there are many more arguments not to cut off trees, which should be taken into account every time when is decided if a tree should be cut off or not. First and foremost, trees play a crucial role in the ecology and environmental issues of an area. Trees contribute of course in the production of oxygen (trees are most effective when they are a little older), are cooling the air in the summer and reduce wind and storms and make people more relaxed. Next to this, trees are housing birds, bats and other animals and smaller plants. And they have a function in reducing noise and fine dust, humans bad ‘habits’. Although the ecological and value cannot be named in euro’s, images of the thick smog of Beijing show how things can go wrong with fine dust. Next to this, world leaders- we- have decided this weekend, that our planet should not heat up more than ‘really less than 2 degrees’ in the future. We need all the help –however small- to make it to our climate goal targets and every tree is helping.

Identity and Cultural History

Trees are contributing to the regional landscape identity and cultural history of the place and this should be an argument in the discussion as well. Because trees, individually planted or in rows, which we call avenues or alleys, are part of the history of our cultural landscapes. They play an essential role in the character and identity and branding of a specific area. Many people are thinking now, so what? But landscapes with incensed avenues and forests, like on the boarders of the Veluwe, are being appreciated higher than open, flat landscapes with few trees by tourists, visitors and owners. And happy tourists and visitors are drinking more coffee and tea, staying overnight and shop and therefore, contribute to local economy. And this is leading to more functions for residents and higher house prices, which was shown in the clear graphics and numbers in the ‘Gemeenteatlas 2015’.

And the beauty is not only in the presence, but also in its size, which cannot be restored easily and quickly. When a part of the city is restored, like Utrecht is doing, the process will take 10-15 years. If an old tree needs to be replaced with another rather big one, it takes much more effort to do so. In the Netherlands there is a saying; Tree big, planter dead! (Boom groot, plantertje dood!).

Lost Beauty

Meanwhile, many trees and avenues have lost so much quality already. Recent research at the chair of Landscape Architecture at Delft University of Technology shows figures on the avenues in the Renkum community, a municipality on the boarders of the Veluwe. Over the past 140 years the presence of avenues diminished heavily. While Renkum had 140 different avenues or alleys in 1870, only 40% of these avenues were still intact in 2013. The quality of these avenues has diminished even further. While in 1870 65% of the avenues were still intact, in 2013 only 20% of the avenues were still in good condition. These are just a few numbers of what has happened, but you can already imagine how the appearance and quality of this area has been altered by the loss of the previously present avenues.

Future Driving

The timing is so to say a little wry in this period of time, when specialists are testing systems for cars to drive safely on roads in a ‘super-cruise control mode’ on long distances, which we saw on the news a couple of month ago.So, trees cannot drive cars, but people can. Let’s find specific solutions in which cars can drive safely and trees can stand next to the side of the road.

Hereby, I want to thank Lotte Dijkstra, Karen Cubells, Michiel Pouderoijen en Frits van Loon for their contribution to the blog.

More readings and links:

- Blog of Piet Vollaard ‘Kappen met kappen’ on Archined (11-11-2015): https://www.archined.nl/2015/11/kappen-met-kappen/

- Knights of Trees, site of Rotterdam: www.bomenridders.nl and site to the IJsselsteijnse Knight of Trees: http://www.bomenridders-ijsselstein.nl/dreigende-bomenkap-langs-provinciale-wegen/

- Manual of CROW: http://www.crow.nl/vakgebieden/verkeer-en-vervoer/wegontwerp/vraag-en-antwoord?page=1&searchsort=sco

- Research on the Changing Quality of Lanes in Renkum by C.M. Dijkstra, K. Cubells Guillen, G. Verschuure-Stuip will be published soon.

The interest in public spaces has always been in the focus of researchers and practitioners of urban design1. As we can see from the book Public Spaces Urban Places (Carmona et al., 2010) they can be approached from various dimensions: morphological, perceptual, visual, social, functional, and temporal. For many reasons, public spaces are very important for cities and therefore for urban designers, though in this particular blog we will tackle its societal dimension.

Square as a setting of formal and informal social life
It was just a week before the terrorist attacks when I visited Place de la Republique in Paris. This square, the largest in the city, has always had a special meaning for Parisians, as a place where citizens come to relax, enjoy, rest or play. Throughout history, citizens gathered there for public displays of both joy and grief, where they shared good and bad moments and where they voiced their opinions or fought for their ideas. Place de la Republique is a true agora and a part of public realm that reflects democracy and solidarity, the need to be together and share with fellow citizens.

Having spent quite a lot of time in Paris over the last few years I have visited many of its public spaces, some only once and others several times. It is always good to see places again as they change, or we change, or the circumstances change (weather, season or the time of day) so we can always discover something we haven’t seen before. For twenty years I would just pass by the Place de la Republique and observe it from the car; this time I decided to visit it and see how the square looks after it was renovated in 2013.

Before going there I read a short blog published in Topos magazine (Blog 10.07.2014.; www.toposmagazine.com/place-de-la-republique-paris, last visited 30.11.2015)
“Due to its exceptional size (120 meters by nearly 300 meters), its symbolic dimension as a representative public statement and its location in the city, the Place de la République occupies a special place in the international hub that is Paris. The redevelopment of the square by TVK – Pierre Alain Trévelo and Antoine Viger-Kohler together with Areal Landscape Architecture and Martha Schwartz Partners is based on the concept of an open space with multiple urban uses. The creation of the concourse marks the return of calm in an airy, uncluttered, two-hectare space. The new square, now skirted by motor traffic, creates a large-scale landscape and becomes an urban resource, available and adaptable for different uses. The statue of Marianne, the reflective pool, the ­pavilion and the rows of trees form a strong axis. All these ­elements contribute to both the interpretation of unitary materials in a perennial and contemporary manner and multiple ­explorations creating different urban ambiances.” These original drawings and photos of the Place were also there and can still be found on the website of the TVK office. Having read this, I expected to see a lively and cozy square full of people having lunch or walking in fresh air during lunch break.

Photos TVK Architectes Urbanistes Trévelo & Viger-Kohler, 2013 (TVK website)

Well, none of my expectations were fulfilled (As Saramago says, one whosows expectations harvests disappointments, but well, we are all only human). Arriving at the Place this is what I saw:

Place de la Republique on Monday 2 November, around 13h (photos A. Tisma)

The day I visited was gray and cold, around lunchtime. Homeless people, few others passing and looking at them, sad, depressive. Well, the savvy observer could argue, it was November, Monday, not good weather, what did you expect? But then still, the traces of deterioration and low maintenance everywhere, the pavilion burned in the fire was closed, the fountain disappeared. Although the materials that were chosen for the design of the square were massive, robust and looked sustainable, look at the details in the photos below, after only three years the benches are so damaged that I was wondering why and how this could happen?

Left: photo by TVK, 2013. Right: photo by Tisma, 2015

Was it a design problem or social problem or something else? I was planning to investigate this a bit and write the blog about that when suddenly on Saturday morning 14 November my friends woke me up phoning, skyping, and sending messages on Facebook to ask whether my family in Paris was OK. In the following days the media was full of these photos from the Place da la Republique.

Place de la Republique on November 14, 2015 (various media)

As in January this year, again this November the importance of the square scaled up from Paris to the whole world, symbolizing the place of people who plead for peace and freedom, and show their resistance to aggression.

Design versus function
Next year, we will be celebrating the hundredth year of the birth of Jane Jacobs, who probably never thought of terrorism when she wrote about city parks and sidewalks saying that they “mean nothing divorced from their practical, tangible uses, and hence they mean nothing divorced from the tangible effects on them – for good or for ill – of the city districts and uses touching them” (Jacobs, 1961). The relationship between the design of a place and its use is the subject of many scientific and professional discourses (Carmona et al, 2010; Tisma and Jokovi, 2007). In the discussion of recommendations for the design of green open spaces in Dutch towns and cities, Van Ewijk (1999) says, “There is an essential difference between the potential environment (what the designer wants it to be) and the effective environment (what the users actually do with it)”.

By looking at these photos during one month I started to understand that the Place de la Republique has many different faces and that the pressure and amount of people it has to sustain in extreme situations overcome the capacity and materials the designers had in mind. Originally designed for leisure purposes this place just couldn’t bear that pressure. Have designers forgot about this fact, or we only design for pleasure, is it not possible to merge both programs in one square? Or are we ignorant and superficial when we make judgments about places on only scarce number of visits, which seems to be common practice? Yes we are using many desk analyses, methods and tools to understand a place, but how much of its nature do we still miss?

La Fin
This is how the Place de la Republique looks today, the day I am writing this blog.

5_01_nbcPhoto by BBC, 30 November 2015

Thousands of shoes — including a pair from the pope — were arranged at the Place de la Republique to represent activists who could not participate due to the ban on large gatherings. Organizers said they had collected more than 11,000 pairs of shoes.
http://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/global-climate-march-record-numbers-turn-out-climate-protests-n470836 (visited 30 November, 2015)

There is no conclusion and no message in this blog, just an end in the (sometimes irritating) style of a new French novel or film, which opens the themes to think about, that can lead anywhere, as uncontrollable as urban life itself.

Notes

  1. Here are for example two organizations which have been involved in research and practice of public space development for many years: Project for Public Spaces organization and OpenSpace research center.

References

Carmona, M., Tiesdell, S., Heath, T. and Oc, T. (2010). Public places, urban spaces: The dimensions of urban design. Routledge: Taylor and Francis Group.

Jacobs, J., 1992. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Originally published in 1961. New York, Vintage Books.

José Saramago, 2011. The Elephant’s Journey

Tisma, A. and Jokövi, M. (2007): The new Dutch parks: relation between form and use. Journal of Landscape Architecture no.4 pp.18-29 (http://atisma.home.xs4all.nl/JOLA article.pdf)

Van Ewijk, D. (1999). Grip op Groen. The Hague, VNG Uitgeverij.