Geography students try their hands at urban planning, pitching "cool," energy-efficient ideas for Fort Douglas student housing and the Gateway District.
Geography professor Merrill Ridd BS'54 MS'60 is standing before a classroom of students and guests, grinning like a new father.
Ten weeks prior, Ridd had issued his class a challenge: using an interactive computer software program called CITYgreen, design an energy-efficient plan for new student housing on U property that was formerly part of Fort Douglas, and create a similar plan for two residential/commercial buildings set for a 2.5-acre parcel inside the city's Gateway District.
The U professor, a self-described "eclectic geographer," has spent 30-plus years as a planner, consultant, and researcher on forest, land, water, and urban issues involving satellite imaging. But he limited his input on this project, hoping instead to be surprised by his students' work at quarter's end.
Both he and the campus, city, and state officials invited to hear and gather ideas from the students' presentations are impressed with the students' accomplishments.
"I applaud you in what you've been able to do," Dick Hildreth, director of education for Red Butte Garden and Arboretum, told the class last spring. Professor Ridd concurred."This is a monumental achievement in 10 weeks," he said following the two-hour presentation. "The students have pushed CITYgreen to the limit. It hasn't been easy. There's been a lot of experimentation."
CITYgreen, created by the nonprofit, American Forests, is a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) tool that maps and examines the effects of vegetation on energy use, storm-water management, air quality, and wildlife in urban settings.
Essentially, trees and other vegetation not only make for "cooler" communities thus lowering energy costs but can help decrease pollution, recycle natural water supplies, and encourage urban wildlife habitats.
CITYgreen was developed to measure the effectiveness of a national program, Cool Communities, which is run through the U.S. Department of Energy. Cool Communities is managed locally by the Utah Office of Energy Services, with Salt Lake City and TreeUtah, a local nonprofit organization, as primary partners.
Proponents of the Cool Communities program seek ways of reducing "urban heat islands" pockets inside cities which retain heat more readily than nearby suburban locales through strategies to decrease electrical power consumption, heighten air and water quality, improve human comfort and health, and manage storm-water runoff.
Two years ago, the local Cool Communities office, along with the State Division of Air Quality, held a colloquium for U geography professors to gauge their interest in the CITYgreen software.
"We thought the department would be an excellent partner because of its expertise with GIS," says Camille Russell BS'94, Cool Communities program coordinator. "We wanted it to be educational from the very beginning."
Professor Ridd agreed to test the software, and a special section of Geography 593 was born.
Ridd's 10 students split into two groups; one examined the Fort Douglas project, and the other drew plans for the Bridge Project, a residential/commercial venture slated for the Gateway District on the west side of Salt Lake City. They were assisted by Meryl Redisch BS'96, director of TreeUtah.
By using the CITYgreen software, the graduate and undergraduate students discovered energy-saving options for planners at both locations, ranging from the best varieties of trees to plant, to natural coverings to use for window shading, to natural surfaces for parking lots.
The U's Fort Douglas project is a large-scale "living /learning" environment that will house about 2,400 students, twice as many as currently live on campus (see Continuum, Spring 1998.) Located on 50 acres surrounding historic Fort Douglas, the new residence halls and renovated officers' homes will also serve about 4,000 athletes participating in the 2002 Winter Olympics.
Part of the living/learning center includes an 11-acre rectangular tract just south of Officers' Circle where five of the residence halls will be built. It was for this new addition to campus that Ridd's students put CITYgreen to work.
Geography student Richard Warnick BS'98, head of the class' Fort Douglas team, says the experience was a challenging but rewarding one.
"We had a little bit of a problem in the beginning getting our data in order," says Warnick, who began graduate work in geography this fall. "I have no experience at all with urban planning, so it was a new thing for me."
Warnick and partners John McPhie, Harhmut Schuster, and Glade Sowards spent at least 60 hours using CITYgreen to determine optimal building, landscape, and open-space designs for the housing project.
They found that long north and south walls and windows would maximize daylight while reducing solar heat gain from the west during the summer, keeping the buildings cool. Overhangs or trellises would help prevent heat gain by shading windows and wall surfaces, while light-colored roofing and walls could reflect sunlight away from the buildings and reduce the need for air-conditioning.
They suggested planting trees, shrubs, and ground covers that need little or no irrigation, such as Austrian pines, bigtooth maples, fourwing saltbush, and buffalo grass. Rainfall could be used for irrigation, and a "grass pave" system perforated concrete blocks that allow for grass growth and water drainage could be used in the parking lots, reducing the impact on storm-drain facilities.
Anne Racer, director of facilities planning at the U, thought the students took a "very reasonable, realistic approach to the problem."
"Rather than concentrating on the 'ideal' and recommending an 'ideal' solution, they considered the needs necessary to provide housing with all of the requirements site design, views, pathways, historic aspects, and the like.
"I can't say the U will incorporate the recommendations in full, but many of the concepts conveyed are very good and will be considered and possibly incorporated, even if it is in a different way," she says.
Architect Jane Wright of Hanbury Evans Newill Vlattas of Norfolk, Va., says the students' storm water management suggestions are particularly insightful.
"The analysis of the designs is being considered as the project develops," says Wright, director of design for the Fort Douglas project. "The direction of the Fort Douglas master plan and the detail in the CITYgreen report radically improve the storm water conditions on this parcel of land."
In the Gateway District, students analyzed two buildings that will be built on a 2.5-acre parcel of land owned by Artspace Inc., a nonprofit organization that provides affordable housing and work space for artists and other community members.
Called the Bridge Project, the plan calls for two new, four-story buildings which will be mixed-use and mixed-income in nature, and which will contain housing, retail space, and offices for nonprofit organizations.
Team members Tom Denison, Gelcys Rodreguez, Janet Malek BA'96, Dan Moshin, Richard Wheeler, and Lori Zastrow used CITYgreen to examine the future aesthetic and functional aspects of the buildings including rooftop gardens, solar-daylighting, balcony recommendations, and water conservation plus vegetation and landscaping options.
Since the buildings will be in an urban neighborhood near 400 West and 200 South, the group saw rooftop gardens as a wise alternative to standard landscaping. Solar benches power rooftop lights, and a chain-link fence covered with vines allowed for a rooftop playground. At street level, overhangs added to the aesthetics of the building while providing shade. On west-facing walls, vine trellises erected a few inches away from the building created a cool air pocket, thus lowering air-conditioning costs by reducing air temperatures.
Motion-activated sinks, which turn off automatically when not in use, could reduce water waste, as would low-flow showerheads. Potential residents could also be required to take seminars which would teach them how to conserve water and energy and reduce waste, the students said.
Artist Stephen Goldsmith, president of Artspace, is excited about the students' ideas.
"We were very pleased that our project was of such interest that they chose to study it," he says. "Anytime people can add value to what we're trying to do, it's very helpful. Overall, I would say [the presentation] was very positive. The students were very, very thorough."
Both the student groups and the people they served reaped substantial benefits from the exercise, Ridd says. "The students got a heightened sense of interest in community-environmental planning," he says. "I believe that is the greatest return."
With increasing demands being placed on the Intermountain West's natural resources due to explosive population growth, seeking innovative ideas that preserve the environment while still allowing for development is an endeavor well worth charting in the future.
Copyright 1999 by The University of Utah Alumni Association