Clippings to read, watch and listen

Archive for January 2011

Pruitt-Igoe Myth: an Urban History

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Written by James Thomas

10/01/2011 at 20:34

Posted in 001/ Archi Spatial

A Plain Man’s Guide

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Broadbent – A Plain Man’s Guide

Written by James Thomas

10/01/2011 at 20:12

Posted in 001/ Archi Spatial

Cloudy with a Chance of Certainty

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As part of the exhibition, ‘The Last Newspaper,’ at the New Museum.

Weather is important news. A Ford Foundation-sponsored 2006 survey found that people regard the weather as the news of greatest concern (followed by national and international events). The high demand for weather information is confirmed by a Pew Research Center study in which it ranks among the news categories of most interest consistently for the past three decades. Weather is even news that is highly sought after online. The Weather Channel’s http://www.weather.com is one of the top fifteen most visited sites, having about the same amount or more traffic than major sources of general news, like CNN, the New York Times, MSNBC, and the BBC.

But even though it is a matter of interest, weather reporting is rarely a matter of consequence. We are interested in knowing climatic conditions because they impact us directly. The weather personally affects what we wear, our commute, how the workday goes, and what we do on weekends; and being aware of what the weather will be let’s us plan accordingly. Yet, some would consider it not news at all because unlike the reporting of world affairs, politics, economics, the war or health, the daily reporting of weather isn’t information about events of great consequence. The reported facts are immediately relevant though they bear little significance on the larger course of human interactions. But that’s not to say that the weather itself is unimportant.

Although we spend a lot of time following weather news, there isn’t a lot of news about the consequences of weather. Only when meteorological pressures depart from slight fluctuations and approach extremes that potentially cause damage does weather reporting describe its collective impact. Yet, the weather greatly affects us everyday and our project, Cloudy With a Chance of Certainty, presents an ongoing report of the consequences of its unpredictability on cities. Weather influences the workings of cities, altering the flow of their traffic infrastructure, the use of their energy resources, and the productivity of their industries. Knowing what the weather will be helps cities to prepare for climatologic surprises and minimize disruption. However, even with advanced technological forecasting, the weather is uncertain and our hazy knowledge of the situation has meaningful urban costs as shown in the three display panels. Panel One provides the current temperature of twenty-four US cities. Panel Two represents short-term weather uncertainty expressed by the change in the daily closing price for Chicago Mercantile Exchange Weather Futures traded for each of the cities over one month, along with the sum of the difference between each city’s daily forecasted and actual temperature for one month. Panel Three provides a preliminary estimate of the cities’ GDP output based upon the affects of weather changes on utilities, communication, construction, manufacturing, wholesale trade, agriculture, mining, and ‘financial, insurance, and real estate’ sectors.

Credit: Jeffrey Inaba / C-Lab

Written by James Thomas

10/01/2011 at 19:41

Posted in 004/ Environment


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Written by James Thomas

09/01/2011 at 21:57

Posted in 000/ Reading

Reforestation of the Thames Estuary

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[Image: “The Dormant Workshop” by Tom Noonan, courtesy of the architect]. 

While studying at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London, recent graduate Tom Noonan produced a series of variably-sized hand-drawings to illustrate a fictional reforestation of the Thames estuary.

[Image: “Log Harvest 2041” by Tom Noonan, courtesy of the architect]. 

Stewarding, but also openly capitalizing on, this return of woodsy nature is the John Evelyn Institute of Arboreal Science, an imaginary trade organization (of which we will read more, below).

[Image: “Reforestation of the Thames Estuary” by Tom Noonan, courtesy of the architect]. 

The urban scenario thus outlined—imagining a “future timber and plantation industry” stretching “throughout London, and beyond”—is like something out of Roger Deakin’s extraordinary book Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees (previously described here) or even After London by Richard Jeffreys.

In that latter book, Jeffreys describes a thoroughly post-human London, as the ruined city is reconquered by forests, mudflats, aquatic grasses, and wild animals: “From an elevation, therefore,” Jeffreys writes, “there was nothing visible but endless forest and marsh. On the level ground and plains the view was limited to a short distance, because of the thickets and the saplings which had now become young trees… By degrees the trees of the vale seemed as it were to invade and march up the hills, and, as we see in our time, in many places the downs are hidden altogether with a stunted kind of forest.”

Noonan, in a clearly more domesticated sense—and it would have been interesting to see a more ambitious reforestation of all of southeast England in these images—has illustrated an economically useful version of Jeffreys’s eco-prophetic tale.

[Image: “Lecture Preparations” by Tom Noonan, courtesy of the architect].

From Noonan’s own project description:

    The reforestation of the Thames Estuary sees the transformation of a city and its environment, in a future where timber is to become the City’s main building resource. Forests and plantations established around the Thames Estuary provide the source for the world’s only truly renewable building material. The river Thames once again becomes a working river, transporting timber throughout the city.

It is within these economic circumstances that the John Evelyn Institute of Arboreal Science can establish itself, Noonan suggests:

    The John Evelyn Institute of Arboreal Scienc eat Deptford is the hub of this new industry. It is a centre for the development and promotion of the use of timber in the construction of London’s future architecture. Its primary aim is to reintroduce wood as a prominent material in construction. Through research, exploration and experimentation the Institute attempts to raise the visibility of wood for architects, engineers, the rest of the construction industry and public alike. Alongside programmes of education and learning, the landscape of the Institute houses the infrastructure required for the timber industry.
They are similar to an organization like a cross between TRADA and the Wooodland Trust, say. 


Image: “Urban Nature” by Tom Noonan, courtesy of the architect]. 

And the Institute requires, of course, its own architectural HQ.

[Image: “Timber Craft Workshop” by Tom Noonan, courtesy of the architect]. 

Noonan provides that, as well. He describes the Institute as “a landscape connecting Deptford with the river,” not quite a building at all. It is an “architecture that does not conform to the urban timeframe. Rather, its form and occupation is dependent on the cycles of nature.”

    The architecture is created slowly—its first years devoid of great activity, as plantations mature. The undercroft of the landscape is used for education and administration. The landscape above becomes an extension of the river bank, returning the privatised spaces of the Thames to the public realm. Gaps and cuts into the landscape offer glimpses into the monumental storage halls and workshops below, which eagerly anticipate the first log harvest. 2041 sees the arrival of the first harvest. The landscape and river burst in a flurry of theatrical activity, reminiscent of centuries before. As the plantations grow and spread, new architectures, infrastructures and environments arise throughout London and the banks of the Thames, and beyond.

The drawings are extraordinary, and worth exploring in more detail, and—while Noonan’s vision of London transformed into a working forest plantation would have benefitted from some additional documentation, such as maps*—it is a delirious one.

[Image: “Thames Revival” by Tom Noonan, courtesy of the architect]. 

Considering the ongoing overdose of urban agriculture imagery passing through the architecture world these days, it is refreshing simply to see someone hit a slightly different note: to explore urban forestry in an aesthetically powerful way and to envision a world in which the future structural promise of cultivated plantlife comes to shape the city.

Written by James Thomas

09/01/2011 at 21:21

Posted in 004/ Environment


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Urban Omnibus

From Brownfields to Greenfields: A Field Guide to Phytoremediation

by Kaja Kühl
November 10th, 2010

Underutilized or vacant space in the city can be a source of creative inspiration for urban agriculture, public parks, housing, community space, and the occasional mini-golf course. But prior to any contemplation of productive interventions into these sites, their environmental health and safety must be considered. Contaminated lots are known as brownfield sites, and the remediation necessary before development can take place is often a lengthy and expensive process. In PlaNYC, Mayor Bloomberg has identified brownfield remediation as a key initiative to the healthy development of New York, but urban designer Kaja Kühl (and her fellow researchers Lisa Brunie, Erik Facteau and Jay Tsai) was interested in finding smaller scale, cost-effective approaches to the problem. Here, Kühl presents A Field Guide to Phytoremediation, a handbook on how to remove contaminants from land using plants. Read on, and if you have property that might benefit from this approach, contact Kühl to help turn her research into action. -V.S.

Field Guide to Phytoremediation | Vacant Lots

According to the Department of City Planning’s most recent data, 7.1% of New York City’s land is vacant and, for the most part, underutilized. This is a rate much lower than the national average of 15% (in some cities the rate of vacant land is as high as 45%). However, taken together, these properties amount to approximately 11,000 acres of underutilized land — roughly the size of Manhattan (not counting streets). Imagine: across the five boroughs there is enough available land to fill Manhattan, with the potential to grow fresh food, create new parks or build affordable housing. But many of these vacant sites are potentially contaminated by previous industrial uses or leftover building materials, especially lead-based paint. Contamination and the potential health hazards to people who live, work or play on or near such sites become subject to oversight and regulation only in the event of a rezoning permitting residential uses. In those cases, a site receives an e-designation, which identifies it as potentially hazardous due to previous industrial uses. Once designated, site owners are obligated to submit to a process of site investigation and clean up.

50% of all vacant lots in New York City are smaller than 2,500sf and are owned by individuals.50% of all vacant lots in New York City are smaller than 2,500sf and are owned by individuals. Click to enlarge. 

In May of 2009, Mayor Bloomberg signed the New York City Brownfield and Community Revitalization Act, a milestone in the City’s commitment to cleaning up brownfields for productive reuse in accordance with PlaNYC. Citing the scarcity of land in New York City and the anticipated influx of one million new residents by 2030, PlaNYC identified the importance of cleanup and redevelopment of properties that are abandoned and underutilized due to the presence or perceived presence of contamination. As part of this effort, the City has created the Office of Environmental Remediation, which oversees the environmental review of brownfield sites and offers assistance to property owners on the path to a Green Property Certification and potential redevelopment.

50% of all vacant properties in the city are smaller than 2,500sf and individually owned. 80% are smaller than 5,000sf. Remediation, typically in the form of excavation of the contaminated soil, is costly, despite programs, assistance and grants now available. As a result, these small properties lie vacant for years, underutilized and toxic, their value further diminished by the appearance of abandonment and potential contamination.

Brownfields to Greenfields | A Field Guide to Phytoremediation

We created a Field Guide to Phytoremediation to illustrate how property owners can use these years to their advantage and initiate a slow but cost-effective clean-up process using nature as their ally to add 11,000 acres of productive, usable land to the City‘s healthy environment.

Phytoremediation is the use of plants to remove contaminants from the environment. By harnessing the natural capabilities of plants we can remediate toxic soils, groundwater, surface water, and sediments. Phytoremediation is a low-cost alternative to traditional brownfield clean-up. Instead of removing tons of toxic soil and filling the site with new clean soil, plants remove contaminants from the soil and store it within their plant tissue. In some cases, the plants themselves then have to be removed as hazardous waste, other plants break down the toxins and eliminate them altogether.

A Field Guide to PhytoremediationClick to enlarge. 

Contaminants successfully removed in field studies have included heavy metals, radionuclides, chlorinated solvents, petroleum hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), pesticides and explosives. In order to successfully remediate toxins in soil or water, the appropriate plant groups have to be planted and monitored. Different plants have different remediative qualities. Plants offer an aesthetic as well as an environmental value to the city beyond the phytoremediation process. Improved air quality and reduction of storm water run-off are among the additional benefits of planting on sites that would otherwise be underutilized until funding for soil removal becomes available.

The costs associated with remediating lead contamination on a 2,500sf lot through phytoextraction using Indian Mustard can be reduced to 10% of those using common methods of excavation and fill.The costs associated with remediating lead contamination on a 2,500sf lot through phytoextraction using Indian Mustard can be reduced to 10% of those using common methods of excavation and fill. 


The steps below describe a one-year process of testing, planting, monitoring and harvesting. Depending on the level of contamination, this cycle can be repeated for several years until levels of metal or PCBs in the soil reach the minimum recommended by the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation.

Collect a Soil Sample 1. COLLECT A SOIL SAMPLE
Gather soil samples by taking them from at least 4 different areas per every 400sf of space. Samples should come from approximately 6 inches below the surface and should not contain any gravel, grass, trash, etc. You can mix the samples to form a composite sample of your entire lot.
Send it to a Lab 2. SEND IT TO A LAB
Brooklyn College and Cornell University provide inexpensive soil testing services (approximately $30 for heavy metal tests). The NY State Department of Health also offers a list of certified professional labson its Wadsworth Center website. Fill a zip-lock bag with your soil and send it to the lab together with information about your site. You will get a report in about 2 weeks.
Create a Remediation Strategy 3. CREATE A REMEDIATION STRATEGY
From the test results, determine if and how you should remediate contaminants. See the chart at the end of this post to determine which plants would best help you clean up your lot and how many you will need.
Start Planting 4. START PLANTING
Most of the seeds you will need are sold online. Sow and germinate them in a small container and water them regularly. Transplant them to your site when they are about 3“ high and after the last spring frost. Manage them as garden plants and watch them grow.
Harvest and Re-plant 5. HARVEST AND RE-PLANT
After about fourteen weeks, your plants will be saturated with heavy metals, PCBs or other toxins. Harvest the entire plant, including the roots, stems and leaves, and repeat this growing cycle as often as climate permits.
Dispose as Hazardous Waste 6. DISPOSE AS HAZARDOUS WASTE
Some plants are hyperaccumulators. They store the toxins within their plant tissue and, after this process, will themselves be toxic. Check for the location of the Special Waste Drop-Off site in your borough and dispose of them as hazardous waste. Keep them away from children and animals.
Re-test your Soil 7. RE-TEST YOUR SOIL
At the end of the growing season, re-test the soil to track the improvements. You can also test the plant material if you are curious about the change. Depending on the level of contamination at the site, this planting process may have to be repeated over 2-3 years.
Get a Green Property Certificate 8. GET A GREEN PROPERTY CERTIFICATION
The New York City Office of Environmental Remediation, which oversees the City’s brownfield clean-up program, offers Green Property Certifications. This certificate signifies that a property has been investigated, cleaned, and is protective of both public health and the environment. To qualify, you can sign up for the NYC Brownfield Cleanup Program.


The table below gives examples of levels of acceptable soil contamination for certain recreational, residential or food production uses (as recommended by the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation) and suggests plant material most effective in remediating each contaminant.

A Field Guide to Phytoremediation 


We would love to help and put this research into action. So, whether you are an individual property owner or community group with little budget but plenty of energy and a vacant lot that might be contaminated, get in touch!


This project was originally submitted to the One Prize: From Mowing to Growing competition in May 2010. Lisa Brunie, Erik Facteau and Jay Tsai assisted in research for the field guide.


1. US Environmental Protection Agency. “Re: Contaminant Focus.” Contaminated Site: Clean-Up Information. US EPA Office of Superfund Remediation and Technology Innovation, Washington, DC, 7 Jan. 2010. Web. 22 Apr. 2010.
2. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. “Re: 375-6-8 Soil Cleanup Objective Tables.” Subpart 375-6: Remedial Program Soil Cleanup Objectives. NYS DEC, Albany, NY, 14 Dec. 2006. Web. 22 Apr. 2010.
3. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. “Re: Hyperaccumulators Table – 1 and 3.” Redirected from, Phytoremediation, Hyperaccumulators. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. San Francisco, CA, 14 Apr. 2010. Web 22 Apr. 2010.
4. U.S. EPA. 1996. Soil Screening Guidance: User‘s Guide. Office of Emergency and Remedial Response, Washington, DC. EPA/540/R95/128.
5. Schippers, R.R. & Mnzava, N.A. Brassica juncea (L.) Czern. [Internet] Record from Protabase. van der Vossen, H.A.M. & Mkamilo, G.S. (Editors). PROTA (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa / Ressources végétales de l’Afrique tropicale), Wageningen, Netherlands. 2007. Web. 22 Apr. 2010.
6. Duke, James A. Brassica juncea (L.) Czern. Handbook of Energy Crops. unpublished. Center for New Crops & Plant Products, Purdue University, 1983. Web. 22 Apr. 2010.
7. Shayler, Hannah, Murray McBride and Ellen Harrison. “Re: Guide to Soil Testing and Interpreting Results.” Cornell Waste Management Institute. Department of Crop & Soil Sciences, Ithaca, NY, 15 Apr. 2009. Web. 22 Apr. 2010.
8. Environmental Science Analytical Center. Soil Testing Brochure. Department of Geology, Brooklyn College, Web. 22 Apr. 2010.
9. Washington State Department of Ecology.  Dirt Alert – Soil Sampling Guidance for Owners, Operators and Employees of Small Properties Where Children Play. Publication #06-09-099. Olympia, WA, Sep. 1999. Web. 22 Apr. 2010.
10. New York City Department of City Planning (Land use summary, 2007)
11. Michael A. Pagano and Ann O’M. Bowman: Vacant Land in Cities, Brookings Institution Report, 2001


Kaja Kühl is an urban designer and principal of youarethecity, a research, design and planning practice interested in creating dialogue about the urban environment. She is an Adjunct Associate Professor at Columbia University.

The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.

Written by James Thomas

09/01/2011 at 21:12

Utopia London

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City of Sound

Via the director Tom Cordell, news of his new documentary Utopia London:

“The film observes the method and practise of the Modernist architects who rebuilt London after World War Two. It shows how they revolutionised life in the city in the wake of destruction from war and the poor living conditions inherited from the Industrial Revolution. This film is their story. Utopia London travels through the recent history of the city where the film maker grew up. He finds the architects who designed it and reunites them with the buildings they created.”

“These young idealists were once united around a vision of using science and art to create a city of equal citizens. Their architecture fused William Morris with urban high-rise; ancient parkland with concrete.”

“Utopia London examines the, social and political agendas of the time in which the city was rebuilt. The story goes on to explore how the meaning of these transformative buildings has been radically manipulated over subsequent decades. Inspired by the optimism of the past it poses the question; where do we go from here and now?”

I recently wrote about the book Nairn’s London, and this will do little to move me on from thinking about the old place, particularly as the UK’s architectural future seems potentially more depressing than ever. In this light, Cordell’s film is timely indeed, seeking to highlight the potential in progressive architecture with a social conscience, evidence of which is still just about visible, dotted around the UK, from Robin Hood Gardens to Park Hill, Brunswick to Barbican.



Written by James Thomas

09/01/2011 at 21:05

Posted in 003/ Space