CITIES: Rome, Warsaw, Chicago, Hamburg

CITIES is an ongoing series about urban design, green practices and cultural affairs in the world’s cities.

European Green Capitals

EUROPE’S GREEN CAPITALS:  Vitoria-Gasteiz in Spain’s Basque Country– an eight-century-old city with 240,000 residents– may be off the beaten path of the Bilbao tourist circuit. This year, however, the city is enjoying special recognition as the European Green Capital of 2012, an initiative started in 2010 by the European Commission to highlight cities that excel in green practices. Coming in January, the French city of Nantes, with a metro area population of 600,000, will take up the mantle for 2013. Time Magazine called Nantes “the most livable city in Europe” for its beautiful location on the Loire River not far from the Atlantic Coast. Each of the cities selected for the Green Capitals initiative (Stockholm was inaugural capital in 2010, Hamburg, Germany, in 2011) has to compete for the year-long designation by demonstrating its commitment and innovations on green practices that address the environmental challenges of urban areas. Denmark’s most populous city, Copenhagen (pop 541,000) has been selected as the 2014 European Green Capital for its urban planning and design process, the North Harbor project that is a “green lab” for eco-technologies and its bicycle-friendly transit policies. Eight cities are now in contention for the 2015 title.

WARSAW’S AMAZING ROOF GARDEN: Landscape architect Irena Bajerska designed one of Warsaw’s most enjoyed attractions – a roof garden for the Biblioteka Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego (BUW) or the Warsaw University Library, itself a wondrously interesting building.

Warsaw University Library’s Roof Garden

The two garden sections covering some 17,000 square meters (one hectare) are linked by a fountain of cascading water. There’s a deck that allows visitors – both students and the public – a sweeping view of the city and the Vistula River which is spanned by the Świętokrzyski Bridge. You can even look inside the library through the glass roof and special windows.

Conceived as a series of separate, but joined garden spaces with distinctive colors, forms and scents, the roof garden has sloped areas that vary from 0 to2% and pitched areas up to 100%. The expansive library building (opened 1999) is actually two buildings covered with a
glass roof. It is designed to offer private areas for students and ample public access through its central core. A must-see for green roof devotees (includes panoramas).

ROME –NO PIZZA ON THE PIAZZA: City fathers are upset that people lounging around famed fountains and steps to eat or hang out are detracting from the Eternal City’s decorum. A new ordinance this month being enforced by police to keep campers from unrolling their bedpacks, is also targeting visitors or residents who bring their sandwich or gelato to the Spanish Steps or the Trevi Fountain for a restful break. The ordinance, which includes fines up to $650 for violators, is intended to protect monuments with “particular historic,artistic, architectonic and cultural value.” You’d better resist walking around the Colesseum with that slice of pizza. Venice and Florence have also instituted measures tokeep visitors from hanging out on steps for a nap or bite to eat.

NEW YORK’S CENTRAL PARK is a gift to every resident who endures a cramped, fourth-floor walk-up or an hour-long underground commute from Queens. This week, Central Park itself got a gift–- the largest in its 150-year history — $100 million, and possibly the single largest gift ever made to any public park.

Balcony Bridge Central Park

Balcony Bridge Central Park

First, thanks go to landscape architects Fredrick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who won the competition in the 1850’s  to create  a European-inspired park that is one of the world’s most-used public spaces. Second, a tip of the hat to the Central Park Conservancy, which over the past 30 years has restored “nearly every one of the park’s 843 acres, welcoming an astonishing 40 million visitors annually.” Finally, hedge fund manager John Paulson (who bet against subprime mortgages and made a fortune before the housing market collapsed)  made the nine-figure gift: $50 million to the Conservancy’s endowment and an additional $50 million for capital improvements. Born and raised in Queens, Paulson uses the park in all four seasons and has longstanding family ties to the place. “Every piece of our man-made park, including its 130 acres of woodlands, seven water bodies, 21 playgrounds and 55 historic monuments, requires preservation and maintenance,” says the Conservancy. That $100 million will do nicely.

HAMBURG/ POWERED BY ALGAE: A consortium led by

Algae powered house/Courtesy Splitterwerk

Algae powered house/Courtesy Splitterwerk

Splitterwerk Architects is building a house powered by algae for Hamburg, Germany’s International Building Exhibition through 2013. Louvered panels will contain living microalgae that is harvested and used to generate the power for the net-zero house. The BIQ test house, scheduled for completion in March, is the first with a “bio-adaptive” façade system. (It also will provide shade for its residents.)  BIQ is designed by Splitterwerk Architects, in collaboration with Colt International, Arup, and Strategic Science Consult of Germany. Arup led the design research for the façade and came up with the bioreactor in consultation with SSC of Germany. Scientists and engineers will evaluate the building as a model for future projects.

CHICAGO CULTURAL PLAN: Some 40,000 Chicagoans had a role in the development of the city’s  2012 Cultural Plan, which is a road map to the future of arts as cultural and economic generators, as well as the centerpiece in Chicago’s reputation as a world travel destination. The plan looks at everything from garage bands to symphony orchestra, ballet to hip hop, high literature to poetry slams – in other words, the rich diversity that is Chicago’s architectural, arts and humanities legacy. Check out the full report or the executive summary.