Wednesday, July 31, 2013

TweetCity: Building London Using Real Time Feeds.

What if London’s buildings grew according to the amount of data they generate? Stephan Hügel and Flora Roumpani two of PhD students from The Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, University College London, have been working on a system to read in twitter data to CityEngine and link the geo locations to building outlines.

The video below is the first step in an approach to visualizing an urban landscape using the objects that already exist in it; instead of abstract swirling points, bars, and artifacts hovering in the sky, the buildings themselves become the medium by which the data generated in and around them are made visible:

The application uses the Twitter API, and visualizes results in 3D, similarly to the known London Twitter map by UrbanTick, developed using the data collector created by Steven Gray, in an attempt to create a new urban landscape. This work though is a first attempt to bring real-time data feeds directly into 3D GIS and 3D cities and visualize them using a different view.

As Stephan wrote: "What if London's buildings grew according to the amount of data they generate?". There is currently a big emphasis on BIM and data management, with a clear focus on sustainability and social infrastructure. However, there is very little information on how and if this process affects the way the built environment grows and evolves. Of course this project does not aim to address such questions, but to demonstrate new ways of augmenting already existing spatial data.

The application was built entirely in ESRI CityEngine, as it offers a range of 3D visualization techniques which relate to the urban environment. CityEngine allows the generation of forms using simple "rules". In this case, the project collects real-time tweet feeds, aggregates them by a custom discrete zone system and by default, visualizes them as building heights. CityEngine provides the key-advantage of allowing the automatic storing of spatially geolocated data directly on a shapefile, augmenting GIS with live information and update the visualization real-time. That is why this application, can work with different basemaps, such as a land use map, wards, or even roads. At the moment, the script stores the number of total tweets for any discrete zone and keeps track of time and date.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Natural Swimming Ponds Ditch the Chemicals

This gorgeous swimming pool isn’t a typical chlorine-filled watering hole–it’s actually a natural swimming pond that relies on plants to filter the water. (Don’t worry, you’re not swimming among the plants and stepping in squishy mud; the plant regeneration area is kept separate from the swimming area.) Even if you already have a swimming pool, you can enjoy the benefits of a chemical-free pond and relaxing natural environment using the structure you already have with a few design changes

Natural swimming ponds are already quite popular in Europe and are gaining interest in the US. Companies like Clear Water Revival (UK) and Total Habitat (US) can help you design your perfect dream pond, or revamp the pool you already have. The cost of new natural ponds versus conventional swimming pools is said to be comparable, but maintenance costs for a chemical-free pool will be much lower. (Just think of the increased health benefits as an added bonus.)

A natural pond is usually larger than a normal pool to accommodate the plants, rocks, and natural vegetation that comprise the filter zone (separate from the designated swimming area). Once water filters through the plant zone, it is then pumped through a UV filter to ensure maximum cleanliness and aeration. Typically, natural ponds have a waterfall to pump water back into the swimming area. Design and shape options are endless.

Whereas a conventional pool is little more than a concrete tub, a natural pond is a landscape centerpiece that will enhance the value of your home and quality of your life. What could be more beautiful than that?

Friday, July 5, 2013

James Corner Unveils Design for Overhaul of Chicago's Navy Pier

On the Boards: JBC is proud to be a part of this exciting project with the Field Operations team.

As it stands now, Chicago's Navy Pier is a cluttered, over-commercialized tourist trap that juts out into Lake Michigan. But a new redesign of the pier, unveiled by James Corner Field Operations—the firm behind New York's much-celebrated High Line—and nArchitects, calls for the transformation of Navy Pier into a lush urban park. Due to budgetary constraints, the updated plan is significantly scaled back from the plan outlined by Corner last year, but it promises to open up the pier and make it more inviting, providing sweeping views of the lake and city skyline.

Perhaps the biggest addition to the pier will be a large, curved staircase that will be flanked by a “wave wall,” providing unobstructed views of Lake Michigan and the Chicago skyline. “It will be like the Spanish Steps in Rome,” Corner told the Chicago Tribune. There is nothing remotely similar to the Spanish Steps in Navy Pier’s current formation; it’s difficult to see much of anything from the pier because the main walkways are crowded with concessions, and it’s often surrounded by large boats. Those boats will also be moved to provide clear views.

The grand staircase should at the very least provide a nice seating area from which to look out on the city and the lake. In addition to the grand staircase and wave wall, the overhaul will include plenty of new plantings throughout the pier. A new fountain for kids to splash around in, which will be transformed into an ice skating rink, will also be added. Future phases could include upgrades to the Crystal Garden, and landscape enhancements on the western side of the park. Construction is expected to begin this fall, and the first phase should be completed by summer 2015.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Detroit’s Vacant Lots Provide “Natural Laboratory” for Studying Soil Processes

By Mary Makarushka

Urban soils have long presented a challenge to the soil scientist. Many heavily urbanized sites have been repeatedly excavated, admixed, cut, filled, and graded over to the point where they look like dirt and debris mixed up in a blender and pressed with a giant trash compactor. When there’s seemingly no rhyme or reason to a site, the soils can be difficult to map and their study may call for some unconventional approaches.

In Detroit, however, soil scientist and geologist Jeffrey L. Howard is finding that some of the city’s vacant lots and demolition do provide a surprising “natural laboratory” for studying certain processes involved in soil formation, particularly the weathering of rocky and mineral objects within the soil layers.
Howard has been analyzing soil pits in the heart of the Motor City since the early 1990s, when he first dug an experimental pit on the site of a demolished building a few blocks away from his office at Wayne State University. Despite the urban setting, he was surprised to notice the similarity between the chunks of mortar and iron nails weathering there and the rocky and mineral materials that undergo oxidation, leaching, erosion, and other weathering processes in naturally occurring soils.

But unlike with natural soils, which may develop over thousands of years, Howard can date the processes in his “natural laboratory” much more narrowly by digging at sites where a dated cornerstone or other historical record can tell him exactly how long those processes have been taking place. “With an urban soil, we know what ‘time zero’ is,” Howard says. “We don’t know that as well in nature.” If he’s working on a vacant lot where the building was demolished in 1969, for example, “that’s when the soil started to form.”
Geologically, Detroit is an ancient lakebed atop 15 stories worth of glacial till, but as a city, its “time zero” begins in 1701, when Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac secured the area for France by building Fort Pontchartrain beside the strait joining Lakes Erie and Huron. By 1950, it was a city of 1.85 million, a world leader from the Industrial Revolution through World War II at building everything from ships to railroad cars to automobiles to B-24 bombers. Today, thanks in part to a shriveled urban job market and a robust network of freeways leading out to the suburbs, the population has become outwardly mobile, with more than 5 million living in the greater metropolitan area while the city itself has shrunk to around 700,000.
This dramatic contraction has left thousands of surplus houses, abandoned factories, empty office buildings, and crumbling landmarks in its wake. Though the downtown boasts new casinos and sports arenas, an estimated 40 square miles of city land is now vacant—nearly 30 percent of the city’s total area—and every year more buildings are marked for demolition than the city budget can absorb. Pheasants, opossums, and wild turkeys are reportedly making their homes in what once were back yards, and the current mayor has set a goal of taking down 10,000 houses during his term.

Soils Display Surprising Order

Having vast tracts of vacant land is a problem for Detroit as a city, but it does give Howard many suitable research sites. He and his team have dug soil pits in anonymous corner lots off Woodward Avenue as well as at some of Detroit’s most cherished and iconic locations, including the Michigan Central train station and the Brewster–Douglass housing complex, once home to Motown legends Smokey Robinson, the Supremes, and the Temptations.

It was here that Howard first discovered that not only could he find urban pits that weren’t chaotic, but that some pits displayed orderly sequences of distinct soil layers, just as he would expect to find in a non-urban environment. “We saw that when we dug our first pit at the Brewster projects,” Howard says. “I thought, wow, this is kind of cool.” Then it happened again and again in one pit after another: “I thought, this can’t be right. I mean, it can’t be this consistent in downtown Detroit.”

Using the alphabetical system that soil scientists use to describe soil layers, or “horizons,” Howard’s derelict building sites often display an A horizon (the dark, uppermost layer colloquially called “topsoil”), and below that, in the subsoils, a C horizon developed in the layer of fill material that was brought in to help level the site and ready it for future construction. Under that layer, Howard then typically finds another A and C horizon of the buried native soil.

Finding those orderly layers meant that Howard could develop an “urban chronosequence” for each site. A chronosequence is a series of related soils whose properties differ primarily as a result of age. This proved interesting because while the sites were consistent in terms of having soil layers, variations in other factors—such as age, location, precipitation, contaminants, and the amount and composition of the fill materials—made the layers themselves very different from site to site.

Train Station Soils Yield Interesting Results

Michigan Central Station was the city’s main railroad terminal from 1913 on. Built as a Beaux Arts triumph of marble-walled waiting rooms with grand vaulted ceilings, it was for 75 years many peoples’ first experience of Detroit. Though today its interior is stripped of every salable material and its 18-story tower is a showcase of broken windows, it still inspires tremendous civic affection and ambitious plans for its restoration.

In the summer of 2011, Jeff Howard joined Wayne State archaeologist Tom Killion on a dig in Roosevelt Park, where acres of formal gardens once spread like a welcome mat in front of the train station. Hundreds of wooden houses from the 1860s and 1870s were demolished to make way first for the station and then a few years later, for the park, and Killion’s class dug numerous test pits in search of archaeological artifacts, foundation walls, and other landmarks.

At 27 cm, the topsoil is extraordinarily thick, extremely dark in color, and dense with worm casts. More surprising, the first layer of subsoil is colored a deep red but is not clay. The mystery lessens when the archaeologists uncover a buried sprinkler system date-stamped “1916.”

“It’s like a tropical soil in terms of probably the amount of water they were putting on it,” Howard says. “That’s why it’s got this humongous A horizon.” The well-watered site was full of 19th-century wrought-iron nails, which oxidized and lent a rusty color to the subsoil. Many natural soils and subsoils have a reddish color due to the presence of iron oxides—think of the red clay of Georgia—but those iron oxides are not the result of rusting nails.

The team digs easily through the disintegrating cement and mortar that has also leached into the subsoil layers. Calcium carbonate is present in natural soils, too—particularly in dry areas, like the American West, where it tends to result from the weathering of substances like limestone or chalk, not from disintegrating cement, as at these urban sites.

As for the deep black color of the topsoil, Howard is investigating whether it could be tinted by soot from the coal that once powered the railroads and heated people’s homes and blackened the city’s stone facades. That’s why Howard calls these urban soil sites a “natural laboratory.” “We have a chance to look at weathering processes, which are natural, with a chronosequence that we can really date,” he says.
Besides being able to run a clock on natural weathering processes, Howard says, “We’re also looking at weathering reactions involving things that you don’t normally see in soils and we don’t know anything about.” A good example is some peculiar artifacts that come out of the train station site, one of which appears at first to be a lumpy rock about the size of a hand, but at the center of which they discover an iron nail—a wrought-iron nail that has undergone pedocementation. Iron leached out from it into the soil and then was oxidized, cementing the sandy soil around the nail.

The people who installed the sprinkler system and tended the garden “manipulated the conditions,” he says. “They didn’t know that’s what they were doing, but scientifically, now we’re able to see something that we otherwise wouldn’t have seen. And that’s huge.”

Soil Artifacts May Have Beneficial Effect on Health

Howard’s research also suggests that some of that underground construction debris may actually be having a beneficial effect in certain polluted soils. Detroit’s industrial heritage has left its soils—like those of many cities—contaminated with lead and other heavy metals, from coal burning, smelting, lead paint, and leaded gasoline.

Although lead paint and leaded gas have been discontinued and the numbers of children with lead poisoning has been dropping since the 1960s, urban lead contamination remains a public health hazard. A 2010 report on the Detroit public school system found that nearly 60 percent of 39,199 children tested had a history of lead poisoning (lead levels of 10 micrograms/deciliter of blood or more).

One ongoing source of lead exposure is contaminated particles from windblown topsoil or demolition dust that can be tracked into homes from yards and sidewalks and be incorporated into household dust. Moreover, there is a flourishing urban farm and garden movement in Detroit, with many people eager to grow their own food. Drifting contaminated soils can settle on the leaves of vegetables and other plants.
This contamination—and research into possible soil remediation strategies—is of great concern to Howard. In a paper in Environmental Pollution in 2011 (with Dorota Olszewska), he noted that both calcium carbonate and iron oxide—by-products of the weathering of cement and iron nails, respectively—act as immobilizing agents for lead. They chemically combine with lead and prevent it from leaching into groundwater or being ingested in dust. “Lead loves carbonate. Lead loves weathered iron,” Howard says. “Maybe we should be leaving these artifacts in the soil because maybe it would be beneficial from the standpoint of immobilizing the lead.”