What does irrigation-free look like six years later?

The first irrigation-free landscape six years later, with no supplemental irrigation since the fall of 2012
The first irrigation-free landscape six years later, with no supplemental irrigation since the fall of 2012

It’s hard to say what you first notice when you see the irrigation-free landscape now after six years of being in the ground. Perhaps that everything looks huge and full and not at all tired or half-dead or all the things people were worried might happen when we proposed the idea seven years ago. The little bluestems (Schizachyrium scoparium) have self-sown with abandon, as have the pale purple coneflowers (Echinacea pallida) and butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa). The Golden Spirit smokebush (Continus coggygria ‘Golden Spirit’) looks almost otherworldly in its stature and form – no doubt loving the gravelly, crummy soil we planted it in. Some extremely tall perennials have also appeared in the landscape, and, for the life of us, we can’t figure out what they are, but once they’ve bloomed the mystery should be solved. The pathways are less perceptible than they were before – in part because of how big the grasses have gotten, but also because they need a good weeding (we learned early on how much certain self-sowing plants loved the gravel as a growing medium). But all in all, we think most would call the landscape a success if they saw it – and the bees and butterflies think so too, as they have very much found an ideal foraging spot within it. And how exciting it’s been to see the landscape take on a life of its own since it isn’t tethered to an irrigation system. So maybe that’s what you sense most when you see it now: a freedom and exuberance that can only be found within a landscape that is given a little license to do what it wants.

John Kamp


prairieform, project weeds, new work
Plants emerging through concrete. Photo courtesy of Ugly Angel.

Our newest landscape-installation project will be focusing on weeds and will seek to involve anyone and everyone in the project’s evolution and data-collection process. You may follow the progress of the project on Twitter via hashtag projectweeds. We are partnering up with two Swedes and one Minneapolitan on the project in order to create a robust multidisciplinary team. The team thus far consists of Bj√∂rn Wallsten, Anna Maria Larson, Shannon Farrell, and, of course, us.

In other big and exciting news, we are moving to San Francisco and the Bay Area starting this May.

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

Density, diversity, and markets

minneapolis, density, markets, urban design, transit

A new streetcar line in Minneapolis looks well on its way toward approval, and construction has begun on a new central station where five rail lines (some completed, some underway, some planned) will converge. And controversy over the preferred route for the Southwest Light Rail continues to bubble and boil over. Discussion and debate have naturally flowed forth. At the core of the debate is the recurring urban theme of the 21st century: How do you make the city competitive on both a national and a global scale? And how do you attract and keep new residents? A recent argument was made that transit and a more urban environment were what young people sought as amenities and incentives to live somewhere, and thus they could help make the city competitive. While true, we must argue that the diversity and robustness of markets play an equal if not greater role in helping the city maintain its competitive edge and attracting a broad cross-section of people who are in it for the long haul. And that market diversity can only come with increased population density.

Dense, diverse concentrations of people in urban areas translate into diverse constituencies of buying power. Manhattan is a logical example of this phenomenon. Despite high commercial rents and an increasing presence of chain retail, the island is still populated with large numbers of smaller independent businesses, oftentimes highly specialized, highly niche-oriented businesses. The only way that this is possible is that the island’s density and diversity allow for critical masses of specific, niche-oriented consumer groups. So, for example, there are enough people both within access to and who have a fondness for a Hungarian bakery on the Upper West Side that the bakery can manage to compete with the numerous other bakeries – including chain bakeries – in the city. Likewise there are enough people within access to and who have a fondness for Japanese baked goods to keep a small Japanese bakery in the East Village going strong. Bolstering these businesses even further are influxes of capital from both foreign investors, foreign consumers, and in some cases those who divide their time between New York and another city abroad. These extra boosts of capital can only emerge within cities that attract a broad cross-section of people at high densities.

In the case of Minneapolis, the city is, save its downtown core, by and large a low-density city. It has also been heretofore a relatively inexpensive city as compared with other cities it is often compared to – Seattle, and Portland, to name a couple. While the relatively inexpensive nature of the city can allow businesses to set up shop with low overhead, it cannot solve the problem of small, relatively un-diverse markets. As such, low overhead means little to a niche-oriented business if the necessary revenue from niche consumer markets is not there. And this is the conundrum that Minneapolis currently faces. Yes, we can hope that people will move to MInneapolis for its high quality of life, for its expanding rail system, for its unbelievable amounts of greenspace, but they will not all be able stay in Minneapolis if the population density and the corresponding diverse markets to support them are not there.

We could be content to argue that niche-market businesses are not needed in Minneapolis and thus who cares? We’ve got our nice concentration of white-collar employers, and this is enough. This attitude would be a mistake. The city is fast falling behind when it comes to supporting and fostering innovation, in large part because of small, limited markets. Innovators and entrepreneurs seek out cities with actual markets for their innovations, and markets that are robust enough to allow their businesses to flourish for the long haul, not simply those that provide a dose of cash here and there for a flash-in-the-pan one-off product. We can speak directly from our own experience in this case, having had to expand our reach to Los Angeles to capture a larger market for our work, a market that would otherwise be too small if we only worked in Minneapolis, despite the city being a lovely place to live, ride your bike, and so on.

In a day and age when American cities are no longer all the same and when cities are actually competing with each other for residents, capital, and jobs, Minneapolis needs to get serious about density and markets and understand that its hope that young people will move here and stay for the long haul will only be a pipe dream if the markets aren’t there to sustain their employment and entrepreneurial endeavors on a long-term, enduring level.

John Kamp