Rethinking the American front yard: a workshop

Photo of Levittown, with front yards
It is high time we rethought the front yard space

If you are interested in both the history and evolution of the American front yard and rethinking how we design and use this historically purely aesthetic space, please join us for an interactive and collaborative workshop on April 20 @ 1:00 p.m. at the machinaloci space in South Berkeley. Co-led by James Rojas of Place It!, Trena Noval and Ann Wettrich of Fieldworks Collaborative, and Carol Mancke of machinaloci.

To RSVP, click here.

Botanical wonders of Alcatraz

One of the endless plant oddities and delights growing wild on the island of Alcatraz
One of the endless plant oddities and delights growing wild on the island of Alcatraz

Hear the name “Alcatraz” and one most often thinks of criminals swimming across the San Francisco Bay to potential freedom after a horrid extended stay in one of the country’s most notorious prisons. While obviously the prison has long been closed and the island is now a national park and tourist destination, what many still don’t realize is that the island is positively brimming with plants and gardens.

When the prison was still functioning, both prisoners and workers alike tended to gardens around the island. Some of these gardens have been restored, while others have been allowed to become wild again. Yet, rather than try and restore the island back to what it had been pre-settler, the Park Service is allowing these plants to do what they want to do – creeping over crumbling walls, populating rugged hillsides, and in general fixing a toehold on an island of tough conditions and no source of fresh water. At this point, the plants are as much a part of the cultural history of the island as the buildings themselves and the waves of people and animals that have inhabited it.

To find out more about how you can go on a docent-led tour of the gardens and wild spaces of Alcatraz, click here.

Long-term learning from a landscape

What is so fascinating about this documentary on Southern California’s Descanso Gardens is that it really traces the evolution of our understanding as a culture of nature, ecology, and gardening. And this evolution can be seen through what the Gardens have prioritized and modified over the years – such as moving water-loving camelias (the early cornerstone of the Gardens) away from the live oaks (which hate summer water), and an increasing focus on water conservation and habitat landscaping. The documentary even weaves in the ugly history of Japanese internment, its connection to the Gardens, and how that story, once buried, is now told very openly.

And there will be bros: on densification and permanence


New development in Lyn-Lake, photo courtesy of Steve Barone

Two recent articles have called attention to ads along the sides of under-construction residential buildings going up in Uptown that seem to indicate an increased neighborhood cultural turn towards bro-dom. One says, “I don’t remember her name, but her apartment. . .”; the other, “Don’t get hitched until you enjoy your year at LIME” (shown above). Conversation has invariably turned towards how disgusting and bro-y the ads are, and thus, how disgusting and bro-y the neighborhood is (and has been) becoming. However, what strikes us as of greater importance, and what is at the core of these ads, is what they say about densifying American urban neighborhoods circa 2013: they risk becoming temporary urban playgrounds with a transient, constantly turning-over population of people who are doing “the city thing” for a year before they graduate to a lower-density locale. And this phenomenon poses a particular challenge for us as planners and designers and city-lovers: How do we make these densifying neighborhoods enduring urban places people invest in, and not simply the transient playgrounds they are fast becoming?

At the core of this problem is that we as a nation are in somewhat uncharted urban waters. Designing, building, and maintaining low-density urban and suburban neighborhoods has been the de facto American norm for quite some time, and we have gotten quite good at it. In our efforts to pursue and perfect this low-density development model we have neglected and nearly forgotten the nuanced body of city-building knowledge required to create more enduring, dense urban environments. As such, we are virtually having to start over. How do you create denser urban neighborhoods of residents who are there for the long-haul? The answers most certainly lie in streets, sidewalks, schools, culture, trees, transit, economics, dwelling units with sound-proof walls. . . and then some. But in what combinations? At what scales? There is a whole host of fine-grained neighborhood-building elements we are only beginning to rediscover, explore, and ponder. As such, we are in the infancy stages of urban redensification, and for the time being we know that, at least, there will be bros.

John Kamp