CITIES: Havana, Venice, Moscow, Bristol, DC, etc

Avon Gorge, Bristol England Photo by Chris Bahn

Ballooning over Avon Gorge, Bristol England Photo by Chris Bahn

CITIES tackles a bunch of “B” words this month with a view to urban design, architecture, culture and sustainability  in Mexico City, Moscow, Havana, Paris,  Seattle, New York, Venice and elsewhere.

Come back soon: We are adding a few more B’s– Bouloi (rue de). Baa-baa black sheep. Brownstone. Bags (plastic), Battling Billionaire Brothers. ‘Burbs, Bay Bridge, Bertolozzi.

Robert Ricart's map of Bristol

Robert Ricart’s map of Bristol

Bristol (England) Built around the River Avon, near neighbor to the historic cities of Bath and Gloucester, Bristol  is being heralded as a 21st-century European Green Capital, with the Green Capital award for 2015.  England’s sixth-most populous city (400,000+)  will get an entire year to celebrate and present its ideas to the public and professionals in energy and sustainability. Bristol competed against 7 other European cities for the 2015 title. Judges were especially impressed by community efforts in transportation, energy efficiency and renewable energy that have improved air quality. It has an enthusiastic bicycling community – the number of cyclists has doubled in recent years and is predicted to double again by 2020. See Bristol’s winning proposal

The Green European Capital “encourage[s] cities to improve the quality of life by systematically taking the environment into account in urban planning and management.” Recipients since the 2010 start-up include Stockholm, Hamburg, Vitoria Gasteiz (Sp.) and Nantes (France). Copenhagen is being honored in 2014.  Read more about European Green Capitals. (Ricart, whose city map is above left, was the common clerk of Bristol from 1478 to 1506.)

South Park - one of 6 Olmsted parks in Buffalo

One of 6 Olmsted parks in Buffalo

Buffalo (NY)  Billed as the largest garden tour in America – July 27-28 (Sat/Sun) – and it’s free, Garden Walk Buffalo features some 380 gardens on a self-guided walking tour that is organized in clusters within a 3-mile radius. There are gardens attached to Civil War-era cottages, homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and McKim Mead & White, “secret houses” that you cannot see from the street, as well as parkways and traffic circles laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted, America’s first landscape architect.  In case you forgot, Olmsted developed the first urban park and parkway system 135 years ago in Buffalo; today the parks are used by 2 million residents and visitors every year. Here is a city that relishes history and tradition (plenty of patina in those gardens) as well as funky eclectic style – think artwork, sculptures, grates, mirrors and more. You’ll need a sensible pair of shoes and lots of caffeine for the two day event.  For details and maps

Botanical Gardens– Brooklyn and Bronx:  New Yorkers are blessed to have two of the world’s great botanical gardens, each notable in its own way for collections, research and as a place of repose (New Yorkers sought out the gardens after the events of 9/11). This spring, both institutions are celebrating native plant gardens, newly created or expanded with an “ecogeographic” approach.

Native Flora Garden, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Brooklyn NY

Native Flora Garden, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Brooklyn NY

At the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the reopened two-acre Native Flora Garden has been expanded by an acre as part of the BBG’s masterplan for a new century. Species propagated from seed collected in the wild over a five-year period by hort professionals and scientists, focus on the New York metropolitan region and closely match the garden’s research interests in the region. One unique feature:  the only pine barrens habitat (of southern New Jersey and eastern Long Island) in any public garden is recreated here in the native garden.  For a detailed look  and review in New York Times.

Splendid water feature in the Native Flower Garden at New York Botanical Garden

Splendid water feature  is 230-feet long, in the Native Plant Garden at New York Botanical Garden

In the Bronx, at The New York Botanical Garden a new Native Plant Garden made its debut in May, on the site where the wife of Nathanial Britton (the garden’s founding director) created a haven for native flowering plants. This $15-million project is a towering accomplishment  in interpreting flora of the Northeast — reaching westward to the edge of the Great Plains, and from southern Virginia to southern Canada. It incorporates shaded woodlands, glades, meadow and wetlands, with 400 species carefully selected by the curators – a total of 100,000 plants on 3.5 acres, with trees, wildflowers, ferns and grasses. Video tour with landscape architect/curator and others. See the interactive map

This is a garden to see in all seasons—and to enjoy as it matures. A central water feature is fed by a 50,000-gallon cistern that relies on storm water cleansed through a wetland. Designed by Sheila A. Brady of  Oehme, van Sweden & Associates with the garden’s curator, Joanna Payne. New York Times review and a slide show.

An 11-foot-tall architectural model (The Encyclopedic Palace) by Marino Auriti, a self-taught Italian-American artist

An 11-foot-tall architectural model (The Encyclopedic Palace) by Marino Auriti. Courtesy of baibakoart projects

Biennale (Venice)    All’s fair in love and art at the Venice Biennale, the art-world event that transforms the city of islands into an indoor-outdoor kunsthalle.  The 55th Biennale will attract thousands in the months-long citywide exhibition (through Nov. 24). An 11-foot-tall architectural model (The Encyclopedic Palace, 1930) by Marino Auriti, a self-taught Italian-American  artist, is the centerpiece of the eponymous main show  – some 158 artists spread out over two sites – the Arsenale and the Giardini (a garden). There are pavilions, one each for 88 countries (Angola, Iraq, Chile, Bahamas, and, surprise, the Vatican.) Plus some 50 other collateral events.  So much art, so many places to visit—a city transformed if only for a few months.  Biennale web site. The backstory and a New York Times review.

Paris Plages Courtesy of the Mayor's Office

Paris Plages Courtesy of the Mayor’s Office

Beach Paris is transformed every summer (since 2002) with Paris Plages, a month-long free celebration of sun, sand, swimming, beach volleyball, kayaking and other pursuits of summer life. Brainchild of Paris Mayor Bertrand  Delanoë,  Paris Plages runs daily from July 18 to August 20, 8:00 a.m. to midnight. Scope out a lawn chair or pool, go kayaking or check out the scene in three locations: on the right bank of the Seine stretching from the Louvre  to the Pont de Sully; along a stretch of the southern part of the River near the Port de la Gare station, and along the canal called the “Bassin de la Villette” (near metro Jaures/Stalingrad), in northeastern Paris. Details

Velib in Paris is the largest bikeshare program in Europe.  Photo courtesy of wiki commons.

Velib in Paris is the largest bikeshare program in Europe. Photo courtesy of wiki commons.

Bike share/bicycles  Moscow, Austin, New York, and DC all aspire to successful bikeshare (read rental programs) that gets people onto bikes for errands and short hops. In NYC’s latest developments, 6,000 bikes were delivered in May to 300 bike kiosks parts of the city (Central Park and below, selected areas of Brooklyn).  Read the backstory. The kvetching was almost immediate: streets and sidewalks “too narrow” or incompatible with the “character” of tony downtown neighborhoods for the storage stands; fear of litigation if bikers don’t wear helmets; bikes are faililing or need repairs.  (Unbelievably, the city held 159 public meetings to discuss the bikeshare program before it was implemented and got 10,000 suggestions for station locations. (It’s NY after all.) The Moscow version is more modest: 32 mobile, solar-powered docking stations and at least 220 bikes, with more to come. (It’s a program in conjunction with the Bank of Moscow.) Others also rely on a leading sponsor:  New York’s is CitiBank, London’s sponsor is Barclay’s.

The DC program is popular, but business owners in downtown say the city’s bikelanes are hurting their business – no curbside parking and trucks cannot pull curbside for deliveries. Time Magazine blogger Patrick Walsh (lives in NY) says, “Bikeshare is all about being convenient at the margin…If you can’t be sure that you’re going to be able to rent one of the bikes, because the system is glitchy and often entire stations just don’t work, or if you’re worried that the stations near your destination won’t accept returns, then all that convenience simply disappears.” Check out the 10 best cities to bike in. Of course Amsterdam is #1.

For Amsterdammers, rental’s not the thing: Their quandary is where to park (drivers, sound familiar?) the city’s estimated 880,000 bikes (pop is 800,000). City elders are now looking at building new racks in “hot spots” and improving bicycle infrastructure at a cost of $135 million in the next twenty years. Now bikes are chained and propped everywhere! (Read fascinating Amsterdam story and comments)

Bulldozers are transforming rural China — razing dynasties-old villages and farms to make way for the consuming class – some 250 million people who will become city dwellers. Is this social engineering in the extreme, asks New York Times reporter Ian Johnson. Past policy allowed small landholders to keep their plots as a part of social stability This approach seems bent on obliterating small landholdings. “So large is the scale that the number of brand-new Chinese city dwellers will approach the total urban population of the United States — in a country already bursting with megacities.” Read the story 

Banyan Tree Lijiang China

Banyan Tree Lijiang China

Counterpoint: There’s more demand  than ever in China for  luxury brand hotels –in Shanghai, Beijing,  Lijiang, Shenzhen and Tianjin (pop 10 million), as well as second tier-cities such as Shangxi – for wealthy Chinese and business travelers who want some respite. One executive notes he would rather pay $3000 a night to stay in the new Banyan Tree Lijiang, with its view of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, than bunk in Old Town at one-fourth the cost. Read real estate/hotel story.

Bacardi Building, Havana

Bacardi Building, Havana

Bacardi (Building) in the Old Havana district is an Art Deco masterpiece, built in 1930.  The amusing details include bronze bats (see the finial atop the building) that are the logo of Bacardi Rum. The World Congress of the International Coalition of Art Deco Societies (what a name!) converged on Havana in March to gawk and tour the extraordinary array of buildings– apartment houses, theaters, cinemas, hospitals and office buildings. (See our link below to a good slide show.) A first step: create a registry of Cuban Art Deco architecture. Second step: Apply  pressure (worldwide) to have some of the structures landmarked and funds made available to keep them from crumbling!  This is an incredible architectural-cultural heritage that is endangered — and is worth saving. Read the back story. See the slide show.


Design for Amazon's new Seattle campus. Credit NBBJ

Design for Amazon’s new Seattle campus. Credit NBBJ

Biosphere (Seattle)’s  new high-rise complex planned for Seattle’s  Denny Triangle will have three freestanding glass and steel domes – biospheres – with workspace, controlled climate, trees and plants, totaling 65,000 square feet for its employees. The spheres will be at the heart of a site planned to include (ho-hum)  three 37-story towers (some 3.3 million square feet), making it the largest development ever built in downtown. Intended to give some “spark” to the overall project, the domes vary in size: the largest 130-feet in diameter, the smallest about 80 feet, ranging in height from 80 to 95 feet. Each biosphere will be five stories, with work, meeting, dining and other facilities.

Amazon is planning botanical zones in each sphere that feature mature, high-altitude trees from around the world.  Temperature and humidity will be controlled to maintain optimal conditions for the plantings. It’s not clear whether any part of the biospheres will be public, other than some planned retail at each end. Architectural firm NBBS says the intention is to make the biopsheres LEED™ Gold certified. Not everyone is convinced of the need for buildings that end up with more trees inside than were outdoors on the site.  Read full story.

Bajo Puentes (Under Bridges) Vacant lots beneath Mexico City’s overpasses and freeways are being converted into outdoor cafes, places for shopping and playgrounds.  These are places that normally accumulate trash (no doubt of that in the US) or are makeshift dwelling places for people without homes.

Bajo Puentes site in Mexico City

Bajo Puentes site in Mexico City

“These were spaces that generated no benefit and had been illegally appropriated as dumping grounds for trash or as homeless campsites,” said Eduardo Aguilar, an urban planner who helped design the program. “They were spaces that cost the city to maintain and were a drain on resources.”  The government grants concessions to private developers who fix up the sites and charge below-market rates for the space. There is a formula for the land use: open space (50%) that includes play areas and picnic tables, commercial and office(!) is 30%, and remaining 20% for parking. Spaces have outdoor lighting, electricity, running water and bathrooms. More and more people come to take advantage of the eateries and retail. That promotes safety and all sorts of new possibilities for small businesses that otherwise could not afford a location.  Read the whole story.

Retractable bollards. Courtesy of Wiki Commons.

Retractable bollards. Courtesy of Wiki Commons.

Bollards: Washington DC is a city of monuments, heroic sculptures and…bollards. What are they? The ubiquitous embedded posts of stone or heavy metal that corral traffic and prevent unwanted vehicles from arriving on the front steps of the city’s ceremonial and historic places (the Capitol, US Supreme Court, and other landmarks) where the nation’s business gets done. And yes, there are plenty of bollards in more prosaic places, such as embassies and TV stations. In Europe, bollards in an “old town” area can trip up tourist drivers by preventing them from entering, or be retracted to allow festivals and parades to flow. Some bollards actually work well as part of urban design – others are atrocious. “They’re actually quite substantial,” says Witold Rybczynski, an emeritus professor of urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania and a bollard expert, who is interviewed in this public radio story. “And they make much more visual impact in the city because they’re relatively close together and they’re quite big.” This audio piece includes a pictorial essay of bollards out and about the nation’s capital.

Bollards in Washington DC. Courtesy of Lauren Ober.

Bollards in Washington DC. Courtesy of Lauren Ober.

More B’s to come – stop back.