Davidya Kasperzyk, AIA, is an architect and physical planner based in Seattle whose practice has attempted to balance human development with habitat conservation. Projects that Davidya has undertaken include Waterfront 2020 (an ecologically wise strategic plan for the central waterfront), and the award-winning “Missing Link of the Burke-Gilman Trail” implementation study. V1 Magazine editor, Matt Ball, spoke with Davidya about the integrated design process and the technology involved in bioregional planning, and how projects such as these are gaining wider acceptance and urgency.
Vector1: I note that you coined the term ‘bioregional planning.’ It has excellent connotations for a balance between nature and manmade elements. How do you define it?
Kasperzyk: It’s a real basic idea about planning with nature that a lot of people have attempted to frame. My quote is, “Design that conceives human civilization as integral with our natural habitat.” The way that I apply this to my practice is well suited to GIS because it’s a McHargian (from the famous Landscape Architect Ian McHarg) framework. In all of my town, neighborhood and regional planning works, I’m looking for an understanding of real ecological frameworks that need to be conserved, or even reactivated to inspire the project.
I think that historically societies inherently understood that society was keyed to a functioning ecosystem. So I’m trying to reinsert that as “Criteria One” in any planning study. I think it’s been partially applied through environmental impact statements and critical area ordinances and zoning as a criteria. But I think that society, using GIS, has the opportunity to really start identifying in detail the frameworks of a functioning ecology as the basis for future design.
Civilization has to work with the frameworks, finding and understanding the dynamics of any particular place. I think the level of detail is really critical here too. I think we have to get beyond satellite data to ground truth data.
Vector1: I notice that you have you have studied GIS. Do you utilize GIS in your planning practice.
Kasperzyk: Absolutely, and I wish I was more of a practitioner. Most recently I’ve been working with Matt Stevenson at Core GIS. He’s been working here with me, the Nature Conservancy and the Cascade Land Conservancy. He’s an urban planner who has a great knowledge and affinity for natural resources.
Vector1: You’ve been working on a lot of large-scale projects that obviously have a GIS component, and I wonder if you could outline how the different tools fit together. What tools are you using to do that large-scale planning, and with what inputs?
Kasperzyk: The level of detail all depends on the budget. Most projects are not funded well enough for any original work. One project that I was involved in was a prototype much like the National Biological Survey could have/should have been. I was one of the founding board members, and then president for two years, of a project called the Seattle Urban Nature Project.
We had a benefactor, a philanthropist that funded a project that ground truth mapped and then put into an ArcInfo database all the public lands of Seattle by biological type at three levels of detail: ground plane, mid canopy, and canopy. We created the Atlas of Public Lands in Seattle that we published in 2001. Since that time it’s become the basis of the work plan for Seattle Parks Department and their ecological restoration strategies for rehabilitation within their forests and parks. It’s a great resource.
In that project we went from rough ortho photos and we created biological SWAT teams. We had two teams of two that went out and ground truthed every bit of these biomes for 7,800 acres. Our hand maps were then verified and rectified to the ortho photos and then whole maps were developed. We have a really strong biological basis for these maps, and then from there we’ve done work with a number of specific locations. We have gone in and developed vegetation management plans and specific unified restoration strategies.
The Seattle Urban Nature was a $1.5 million dollar project for just the mapping component. That was a really applied project, but most projects are less well funded and need to be quicker and less detailed. As designers we need to provide our best site analysis given the information we can find, and make design decisions that reflect our “read” of the local ecology.
Vector1: Can you give some examples of smaller less funded projects?
Kasperzyk: For other smaller budgeted projects we do a whole lot of combined databases to create base maps with which we try to do planning. A recent project that I just completed was a concept plan for a town center for Birch Bay, Washington. Core GIS and Whatcom Counties GIS staff created base maps of an unincorporated growth area in Whatcom County right near the Canadian border in a little community called Birch Bay. The town has been a historical recreational community, literally trailer parks on the sea, that has been rediscovered, probably for about the third time.
Rising along this very large bay are a number of very uninformed projects, literally putting seven and eight story buildings in the hundred-year flood plain. This development is not guided by any natural understanding of that place. So my team was brought in by Whatcom County.
We identified a more natural town center site, and an ecological framework of four different kinds of ecological elements – an intact upland wetland forest area, the flood plain and the riparian system that fed it, the Terrell Creek riparian system that emerges along the Bay, and then the bay shore and near shore environment.
Recognizing those four primary ecosystem types we tried to visualize the community growing from its present population of 1,600 to 16,000 people over the next 40 years. We showed where development could happen in a way that kept that ecological framework intact, and I think we were very successful. It was a huge leap forward for the community to be able to look at that. In so many ways the ecosystem framework becomes the star of the design. We connected the areas through parks, conservation areas, trails systems and oriented development to these natural elements.
Vector1: How did you communicate your findings?
Kasperzyk: Besides having the natural resource layers in our database which delineated the critical resource areas, we draped the orthophotos over the site topography for perspective imagery. We used Photoshop clips to place visualizations of the characteristic development densities within the existing community. We found comparable images of residential and commercial projects that had the density we thought possible. We showed what a new neighborhood might look like, where a commercial area would fit and what it would look like. We also developed design guidelines for these commercial areas that were driven by a strong low-impact ethic.
We went very far towards zero impact development as a criteria. We suggested responsibility for native waters and native species on every site, and projected how that would grow over time. Our aim was a much more organic and well-conceived community.
We displayed the existing snapshot of 2007 alongside the future community snapshot of 2047 side by side, both in planned views and in an aerial oblique. That presentation was very critical I think. Allowing the local citizens, developers and government officials to see and compare plans gave them an understanding of the potential of creating this ecological framework and the benefits of designating the right place to do development.
Vector1: I think it’s great that you gave them a view of what the area could look like in 40 years.
Kasperzyk: Right, it made for dramatic images. But it also in many ways demonstrated the quality of the connective ecological frameworks and how important it is to come up with some ways of conserving those properties.
The whole area is very wet with about a 100-acre wetland forest. It has a clay layer down about ten, twelve feet that used to be a riparian corridor coming down from Mount Baker. Mount Baker’s roughly 60 miles away, and twelve thousand years ago this area was filled with volcanic outfall all the way to the sea.
Almost everything out there is a wetland, so you have to prioritize the characteristics of the wetland as far as the broader functions. GIS linked to ground truth mapping of species, corings of the sediment, and all the accumulated data of the area, really starts to create a map to the future by understanding the past.
Vector1: Is there any interface of this data with the architects and designers at the building or neighborhood level?
Kasperzyk: A long time ago I had some intrigueing conversations with the founder of Criterion, the software index package. I was trying to create a matrix of qualities of sustainability, and I think there are a number of software tools that are trying to do that now. Basically it’s an attempt to model the text elements of the Leadership and Energy Environment Design (LEED) program.
They have a LEED for Neighborhood Development program coming soon, and I’m on the corresponding committee for that. There are a lot of people working on what sustainability means at the neighborhood level. Clearly there’s an important opportunity there for software to help model such things as the effects of street width and rooftop characteristics on localized water treatment and permeability.
By quantifying those things, I think it could become a huge tool to help policy makers make decisions and set policies that support sustainable goals. There’s always a concern from my architecture training that any time you put together a matrix it’s really critical how you weight things.
I had a discussion the other night with a developer, and she was saying that LEED really comes up short in embodied energy in historic buildings. They don’t weigh it accurately in terms of replacing a three-foot masonry wall of a historical building with a ten-inch steel wall building. They’re not even close to giving adequate value to keeping that wall, reinforcing it, and then going forward with something that’s already in place.
I don’t know if you’ve been to Barcelona but in many European communities there’s a lot more value given to existing buildings, historical buildings. So they have this great dance going with very modern, abstract elements basically dancing with historic buildings. So there’s going to be a real creative tension there as far as coming to put a GIS or a quantified system, a weighted system, for deciding what’s the right thing to do for sustainability. Designers want to be creative, even if there is a “system” put in place someone like myself would always want to be able to show a “better idea” for a specific site. It’s the classic science vs. art conundrum. Base the design on ecological/sustainable principle, but not in a rigid manner. Let there be an element that enters into a critical wetland, for drama and interpretive reasons, but design it to respect that native place.
Advanced designers will most often want to be able to play with existing structures, whereas often you’ll get a developer who will want to scarify the site because that’s the cheapest way according to their “contemporary economics” as opposed to a more complex reading of a site and development.
Vector1: Do you anticipate that there might be a central repository within a city, say a city planning office, that would use a collaborative model-based tool as the nexus for all these different ideas?
Kasperzyk: Well, Google Earth is close to being a world repository at this point. I’m seeing so many people using their ortho photos and building maps within Google Earth as a quick form like the 1040 A EZ tax form.
I don’t know where the funds would come from to get a more accurate base map, but it would be natural for developers to have a central repository to understand the soils, history, understand the existing buildings, property lines, water, all those things that can be mapped. In most cases, this data is there to be put together. Some have attempted to do bioregional mapping which brings socio-cultural elements more prominently into understanding a place.
Vector1: The collaboration between disciplines is also an important element with sustainable development. In your projects you seem to set up teams that represent a number of different disciplines.
Kasperzyk: The core of my business has been multi-disciplinary collaboration. For me it’s fun because I have that diverse background. I’ve worked for a structural engineer, studied ecosystems and natural resources at a graduate level, then architecture and regional planning at a graduate level, so it comes really natural to me. I’m also married to a landscape architect.
The interplay of disciplines is just a natural way of thinking about things. Life is complex and so the ability of professionals to be able to communicate between disciplines is absolutely a primary criteria for work in the future.
Vector1: According to my research, I feel that you have had a unique multi-disciplinary approach on your projects. Are you finding other organizations that are interested in emulating this approach?
Kasperzyk: It’s almost becoming the norm here in the Northwest. The rhetoric of sustainability and team collaboration have been applied. Here in the Northwest this approach has been strong for ten to twenty years. My experience is that firms are embracing it, and it has really become part of the culture. Most of the large firms that I know have mixed urban design, architecture, landscape design staffs. Colleagues in civil and structural engineering have also been working together for a long time. So, I think it’s become very common. I’m not certain that that is true in other places, there might be multi-disciplinary teams but with a strict hierarchy, and design gets passed from one to the other without true collaborative thought.
Vector1: No. I live in Colorado and am not far from Boulder, and I would guess that the Boulder mentality would be somewhat in line with that thinking. But I wouldn’t say that this would necessarily be true in many other parts of the state, and certainly not out further east.
Kasperzyk: In certain places the transportation engineers rule, and the money goes to transportation projects primarily. And thinking about how the funds are spent, it seems like it’s seven out of ten parts goes towards bridges, roads, sewers, storm water – that’s where the big bucks are.
Often the engineering firms that lead on those projects haven’t had to respond to architecture, urban design or landscape values. I think that’s changing. I would suspect that’s changing everywhere around groundwater issues. And I think that sustainable design theory is really bringing energy efficiency and future transportation efficiencies right to the forefront.
Can we and will we be able to continue transportation in the same pattern with individual carbon-based movement? It’s very expensive. When it was cheap it was very liberating and a fun mode of movement. Can we transform and change the trajectory of air quality, carbon emissions, and energy use over time. We’ll find out I guess.
Vector1: I live in the Stapleton development, which is a large-scale sustainable community at the site of the old airport in Denver. One of my fascinations is that in such a short timeframe you can really remediate the landscape and get back to a much more natural environment.
Kasperzyk: This planet is quite the wonder. It’s ability to resuscitate, rehabilitate itself is pretty strong. But there really are those nasty tipping points, and we just have to wise up. It comes back to a basic bioregional theory, that is much more about local culture, local place. I think the economics of it all are all starting to make sense, that local culture just has so many inherent qualities. Clearly, one of those qualities is being able to touch and be part of nature yourself. Like your new Stapleton neighborhood is attempting to become.
I’m part of a local non-profit called Groundswell Northwest, and in my Ballard community of Seattle, we have funded ten new parks and habitats in the past ten years. The parks are at the edges on the ocean, interior ravines, small pea patches, green streets, a city commons, and a number of pocket parks. These areas have created an incredible difference in our community.
People are walking the streets, the pedestrian movement is at least three to four times what it was 15 years ago. You can walk into the neighborhood business district here, there are restaurants and theaters and parks now within walking distance. One of our criteria was that there would be a park within every arterial quadrant so that kids and elders don’t have to cross an arterial to get to a park. And we’re accomplishing that.
I think this access to nature makes communities more recognizable. People know each other, they see each other in the street. So there’s inherent safety in that, as well as the ability to walk and/or bike over to the inland sea about ten blocks away. There are gullies nearby that I can go and get lost in, lose the city altogether. I think that’s a part of community that people want. If we can start helping people see that in their community also, then I think it’s going to happen everywhere.
I think that’s the way that we have to start conceiving of ourselves, with long 40 to 100 year visionary timelines (and a 40,000 year backstory). They’re important to start thinking about to give people hope about what might be. And also give them a flight path with the next steps we can take. What can we do tangibly in our lifetimes that will help reframe this community?
Vector1: Our publication is very GIS-centric, but we realize that we need to engage some more multi-disciplinary players. The thoughts and ideas of bioregional planning fit neatly into what we’re trying to promote, and we’re hoping to push some GIS practitioners into this thinking as well.
Kasperzyk: We have to. Hopefully the new national administration will immediately refinance the National Biological Study. We need the whole world mapped and ground truthed so that we can make some intelligent decisions.
To teach people to do biological mapping is one of the green works that I think we need to do as a country and maybe as the world. Basically there’s a whole job line there, a whole life and career around mapping, understanding local and regional ecosystems, having that be the basis for policy. And then the actualization of those policies around restoration – having all of our waters connect, having our forests restored and having the prairies revitalized – remediation of whatever the natural elements are that are authentic to a location.
The key to bioregionalism to me is that we need to become native to our place, wherever that place is. We need to become local citizens. We need to understand where we are – what are the ecological criteria and who our tribe is. It really could be fun.
|Ecology and Design: Frameworks for Learning
Johnson and Hill; Island Press 2002