Category Archives: Culture and Heritage

New York City’s Best Sustainable Parks

I knew this post was coming… I’ve had an increasing sense of nostalgia about my visit to NYC a few years ago and I need to purge.

I occupy a fascinating place in our industry in that I sit somewhere between architecture and engineering [in the old old days they used to be one in the same] – an architect by background, experienced in designing public places and assessing green buildings, and now immersed in consulting for sustainable buildings and community infrastructure. And I still feel that our industry celebrates our green buildings with only a secondary thought for the sustainability of the spaces between.

This culture is clearly changing and maturing, but part of my mission is to give it a little nudge along… if we don’t get good at creating sustainable and loved public places we’ll end up with high performance wastelands [what example just popped into your head?]

I was lucky enough to score 10 days in the Big Apple in 2010, and I was shocked. Shocked by how multi-layered, cultured and vibrant NYC is. I suppose I’d been conditioned by the media to expect something less, so my expectations were exceeded within a few hours of landing.

There are lots of surveys and polls around, but I have my own list of favourite public places & parks in NYC, and I’d like to share just a few of them. These are in order of the walk from Central Park down to Battery Park [sort of], with some brief notes on how they contribute to a sustainable community; [Note: most image sources are hotlinked through the image]

  1. Central Park; the green heart of NYC. Richly detailed, full of history, old trees, art and sculpture. Connects a bunch of attractions such as the Guggenheim, MOMA, Museum of Natural History & Hayden Planetarium, and Strawberry Fields to name but a few. This is NYC’s front and back yard and counterbalances the high density urban environment around it. Here I taught my wife to play chess in the Central Park Chess House. Priceless.The Central Park New York City_4
  2. Bryant Park; W42nd-5th Ave junction. A vibrant mini-version of central park, with hundreds of deck chairs, sports, rich flower gardens and high quality street furniture and finishes. This park really ebbs and flows with the seasons, including ice skating in winter. A great example of multi-layered community activities, interaction and people watching. 02 - Yoga - Photo by Bryant Park Corporation
  3. Madison Square Park; with the Flatiron building as a bookend, this is where I started to discover the sustainability programs underway in NYC at the time – cool public displays, sculptures, built examples of living sustainably. This park is full of art and sculpture – at the time there were 16 lifelike human silhouettes throughout the park and atop all of the surrounding buildings – incredibly engaging with the place and the architecture. Shake Shack also worth a visit…madison park
  4. High Line Park; I’ve heard mixed views on this – largely when someone else is trying to replicate what the High Line has done. Here’s the tip; it’s not replicable. It works because it responds uniquely to the site. This park is a vegetated and landscaped elevated rail line [the rails are still there] and a must visit. An elevated journey through the rooftops, the quality and detailing of the landscaping is top shelf and it activates an otherwise hard industrial environment. All kinds of businesses, eateries and stores are popping up here. A great example of adaptive and creative re-use that is re-binding a series of old neighbourhoods. Work with what you’ve got.high_line_new_york_t210611_ib14
  5. Washington Square Park; integral with the NY University neighbourhood – full of students, locals and tourists alike. Takes its place as an outdoor classroom and meeting place. The surrounding medium density streets are an eclectic mix of Uni, residences, small basement shops and cafes. We bought our first chess set here [after learning in Central Park : ). Public places are not just green spaces, they are people places and extensions of our buildings.Washington_square_park
  6. Trinity Church; if you manage to visit Zuccotti Park right next to Ground Zero, then Trinity Church’s graveyard, you can’t help but feel small and humbled. This graveyard has headstones going back to the 1700s, is beautifully planted, and is a drop of quietude amongst the hardcore financial district of NYC. Reminding us of our temporary employment is a good way to dust off complacency.trinity church nyc
  7. Bowling Green; I must admit I wasn’t a fan of this part of NYC – it doesn’t have the multi-use-residential-village atmosphere that the other park areas have, but this little park was fascinating to sit in and watch people unashamedly fondle the Charging Bull’s… er… did you catch that Swans game…? Public art, yet again, touchable and engaging. Even in a Bear market it’s still vital that our places and spaces provide a canvas for art and discourse.charging_bull3

So that’s a small list of my faves. All unique, but all bound by a commonality of great scale, activation, deliberately designed edges, no back-of-house areas, passive safety, and great art and culture. Difficult to design and get right from scratch, but these places give us a great head start.

And now I’ve convinced myself that I have to get back there to ‘further my studies’… could be a great green city tour in the making?


Weekend Challenge #11 – Why we Should Celebrate the Solstice

During this week at my son’s pre-school we had a Midwinter Festival to mark the winter solstice. The children were given candle-lanterns to carry on a walk through the park, they had a story around a campfire and were given gifts by their carers. The kids had a great time, but in all my life it was the first time I’d been part of a Midwinter ceremony. I must admit that I felt outside my comfort zone – which was great because it really got me thinking.

The Solstice represents the Earth’s maximum tilt relative to the Sun, meaning that we have the shortest day/longest night DownUnder, whilst the northern hemisphere has the longest day and shortest night.

The Midwinter ceremony marks a moment in the celestial calendar, when the clockwork of Earth & Sun reaches a particular tipping point, marking the end of one cycle and the start of another. It has nothing to do with a made-up Gregorian calendar or clocks or dates.

In ancient times and for thousands of years humans celebrated the winter solstice as Midwinter, the first day of winter, new year’s day [the year as reborn], Night of the Mothers and a multitude of other cultural interpretations. There was a deep connection between the Sun, the seasons, food production, spirituality and culture.


The Dunedin Midwinter Carnival. Check out the site [click image]

When I was researching the origins of the Midwinter Festival I landed on the Wikipedia page [as one does] which provides a great view of the world’s cultural ceremonies around Midwinter. I was amazed at how integral this day is with our religions, ceremonies and celebrations, gift giving and sharing – even if under another name, particularly around the christian Christmas period. Even Stonehenge was built to align with the Midwinter sunrise. Definitely worth a read.

So why should we celebrate the Solstice?

It’s a question of us being connected with Nature. It’s nowadays not difficult to find data showing a correlation between our increasing disconnect with Nature and our diminishing respect for and appreciation of it.

Marking dates like the Solstice connects us with our Earth, our Sun and the turning of the seasons. It makes us aware, at least for a moment, that we live within Nature’s cycle. I don’t think it hurts to get into this mind-set from time to time.

So this weekend’s challenge, should you choose to accept it, is to mark the Solstice in some way. Candlelit dinner, moonlit walk, bonfire, funny hats or a pagan goat dance… whatever you like, just don’t burn the house down. Mark the turning of Earth and the seasons with something a bit outside your comfort zone.

Monday Motivation #07 – Sustainability and The 5 Whys

If you’ve got children in your life you’ll know the true meaning of the ‘5 Whys’… it’s a management consulting term [Lean methodology] used to identify the root cause of something – ‘root cause analysis’. Children keep asking ‘why’ until they get to the true meaning or cause of something… they are intensely curious and naturally test everything around them in the search for the logical cause. Telling them ‘that’s just how they made it’ is asking for trouble.

image sourced from Meloni Coaching Solutions [no affiliation – just a good image!]

I’ve been wondering if we do this consistently enough in the sustainable development arena? When we use the 5 Whys [and yes it could be less or more than 5] we will often uncover a root aspiration that is not well reflected in the brief.

  1. Why do you want solar panels on this building? Because they are a green technology
  2. Why do you want a green technology? Because I want to present a green image for the project
  3. Why do you need a green image? Because I think it will help me attract and retain good staff
  4. Why is staff attraction and retention an issue? Because our staff turnover has been higher than we’d like
  5. Why has it been higher? Have you investigated? Yes – and lots of staff have complained that we’re not green enough.

… and there you have it – obviously a made-up [and simplistic] scenario – but we’ve identified a root cause to which there are numerous solutions rather than just one. Once we know the root cause we can re-plot the brief in a way that leads to a much better outcome for the client and the users. They will still get what they originally aspired to, but likely a whole lot more as well.

The link below takes you to a classic example of the 5 Whys – and explains how the width of a modern rocket booster, one of the most sophisticated pieces of machinery on earth, was derived from the width of a horse’s arse. And no I didn’t verify its truthfulness – it’s a good story that doesn’t need to be spoiled…


Of course we can’t take this approach with all clients – some have simply made up their mind and we’re best to just get on with it. But in my experience clients are always looking for maximum value, and no-one’s ever lost a commission for asking too many questions.

“In all affairs, it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.” – Bertrand Russell

Monday Motivation #05 – How Thinking Like a 5-Year-Old Can Save Us.

In the 1960s a guy call George Land conducted a ‘divergent thinking’ study with 1500 pre-schoolers – he asked them ‘how many uses does a paperclip have?’ They came up with literally hundreds, and 98% of them scored ‘genius’ levels at divergent thinking. 5 year olds aren’t distracted by ‘rules’, so they think freely. Who says a paper clip can’t be a mile high and touch the clouds?

Divergent thinking is the ability to come up with a multitude of answers to the one problem, rather than convergent thinking where there is only one answer [sound familiar? school perhaps?].

By the time they were 15 less than 10% had retained their ability to think divergently – ‘education’ had purged the remainder.

Albert Einstein was an average student at school, a day dreamer and impractical. He couldn’t even land a teaching job after school. But he was a divergent thinker. He dreamt of the possibilities.

In the field of sustainable development our ability to think divergently is critical. There is never only one answer to a problem – by its very nature, holistic design leads to a multiplicity of potential solutions. The art, therefore, is in our ability to weigh up all of the outcomes, the pros and cons and downstream consequences, and to make an informed judgement about which solution provides the best result at the time.

Rather than pouring our energy into seeking ‘the one answer’ when we are presented with a challenge, we need to forget what we know and free ourselves up, much like a 5-year-old who hasn’t yet been educated about why most of their solutions won’t work.

One or two of those crazy ideas might be just what the world needs.

The Taylor Square Rainbow Crossing – Why it Didn’t Survive

The Taylor Square rainbow crossing has been a hotly contested debate over public art, symbolism and community sentiment Vs traffic and road safety, bureaucracy and risk aversion.

Luke Orrock, Leanne Abbott, Alex Greenwich and Megan  Tordoff with daughters Tilda 4, and Nell 20mths.

To go: (left to right) Luke Orrock, Leanne Abbott, Alex Greenwich and Megan Tordoff with daughters Tilda, 4, and Nell, 20 months, at the rainbow crossing at Oxford Street. The crossing could be removed as early as Tuesday night. Photo: Peter Rae

The debate reached its conclusion even as I wrote this, with the pavement being ripped up last night [$30k cost to the ratepayers]. The reasoning for its removal? The crossing was so popular with locals and tourists that people were posing for photos on the crossing [which has pedestrian signals], apparently holding up traffic and ‘causing incidents’. So it’s been removed for the sake of safety.


I’m a big fan of the design process. In fact I have so much faith in design that I believe it can solve anything. And to ‘solve anything’ it goes without saying that everyone needs to be satisfied, simultaneously.

This is the green cities side of the issue – the community sentiment behind the crossing; it means something, it had already become a landmark [and landmarks are vital in livable cities], it records history and says something about how tolerant we are as a society. Thousands of members of our society have spoken up and said they wanted this to stay. That in itself means something. But I also get the safety thing – a new landmark is not worth putting people’s lives at risk.

So here’s my Top 6 of possible design solutions [yes I like options too] that might have allowed it to stay;

  1. Leave it alone. No-one has actually reported being hit by a car. Drivers could get used to it.
  2. Finish the job. Ever heard of a Woonerf? They’re shared streets where cars [which actually contain people too] and pedestrians co-exist. The cars just have to go slow and give way. I think motorists wouldn’t mind.
  3. Remove the cars, not the crossing. Some smart traffic engineering could deal with it.
  4. Scramble crossing.  We’ve already got these. Cars’ turn, then pedestrians’ turn. Give the sightseers a little more time on the road.
  5. Add lollipops. The person-operated type, like school crossings and construction sites. We get this, we’ve had lots of practice. Could probably find a volunteer or two to operate them too – in fact I’m betting people would pay to have a go! Council could turn a tidy profit.
  6. Add police. Move along son… the crossing is after all still a normal signalled crossing. They haven’t changed the colour of the little red man.

I could probably go on if I started workshopping this with other skill sets like traffic planners, urban designers and the like.

My point being, landmarks and public art are vital parts of sustainable cities. They embody a community or cultural idea [as this one did], they enliven a locale, they provide urban structure and form, and they mark a point in time which says something about who we are. They are critical to the genius loci of where we live.

These are the things that are priceless and difficult to achieve [in this case 35 years], and the community voice is a vital foundation for a sustainable city. The safety element had many possible solutions that could have been worked through, but only if there was collective will to do so. This one didn’t make it partly because the governance and stakeholder engagement process wasn’t successful – great intentions but foundations weren’t strong enough.

This one was just a false start, and history is full of them. I’m sure that by this time next year we’ll see it back, maybe adapted or moved, but back permanently. Sad story but there will be a great outcome from this.