Sensing the infrascape

Since 2013, I’ve acquired and deployed a range of environmental sensors. My initial plans for the data were to define baseline environmental (which ended up being beyond my means). Finally figured out how to merge my inner Maker with my infrastructural fascination by using environmental data streams in interactive design elements that poetically reveal hidden flows and changes or creates immersive experiences.

This concept – researching how revealing environmental conditions and technological flows along infrastructural pipes and wire in situ can generate awareness to inspire behavior change with public, combines several of my research interests and is the focus of my fall 2017 sabbatical project .

So what sensors and data loggers do I have?


First online in 2013, my Onset HOBO U30 data logger is configured to collect ETo data (1@air temp/humidity, 2@ ground temp, 2@soil moisture, 1@net radiation, 1@wind speed, just missing a rain gauge) on my patio. This entry-level research-grade suite of sensors and the data logger cost about $3,000, and serves as my reference to calibrate the other sensors as needed. The U30 has the ability to control two relays and to send an alarm signal that can trigger other microcontrollers. But Onset has created a proprietary ecosystem with limited customization possible (and haven’t found anybody trying to hack them yet).


Seeeduino Stalker v2.3

About the size of a deck of cards, the Stalker v2.3, an ATmega328P Arduino compatible wireless sensor node packaged with a 0.5 watt PV panel and LiPo battery, supporting a range of sensors and networking options. This was the microcontroller used by the students in my LA301L studio in 2014, so I now have 5 of them, a ZigBee (XBee) wireless mesh networking shield (a low energy version of wifi, that I haven’t gotten to work), a Bee GPS card, two Grove Dust Sensors, a 8×8 LED matrix, a 10 LED bar, and several other sensors.


Image from SeeedStudio

Smart Citizen Kit

I got on board the kickstart campaign for a Smart Citizen Kit and ran into some difficulties deploying it. Instead of real-time streaming data via wifi to, it has been sitting in a box since I ripped the USB jack off the board (the 3D printed enclosure is too small!). This was after I used the wrong settings while configuring it and lost the ability to communicate to it via USB, which Acrobotic kindly fixed by reburning the bootloader.

Teensy 3.6

For 2017’s sabbatical project, I’m getting a $30 Teensy 3.6, an Arduino compatible development board featuring a much faster processor (32-bit 180 MHz ARM Cortex-M4 processor) and loaded with 256kb RAM plus all sorts of goodies (specs). It is powerful enough to drive thousands of LED pixels (or hundreds of animation frames), yet only 2.5 inches long!

Check out:

I’ve also been eying getting 2 or more Feather M0 with RFM95 LoRa Radio – 900MHz if I need wireless networking abilities – as the LoRA protocol is supposed to be simpler to implement then ZigBee and they have a much longer range.

Recharge City

My entry for the Dry Futures Competition in the Pragmatic category.

Recharge_City_Page_12 400

Recharge City evaluates pragmatic options for recharging the groundwater in Los Angeles County by recycling the 502 million gallons of water that is dumped by Hyperion Treatment Plant and the Joint Water Pollution Control Plant into the Pacific each day. This is enough water to quench the thirst of 5 1/2 million people.

To identify plausible sites for recharge, this project undertook a holistic mapping of the water infrastructure for the metropolis – ultimately collecting data from over 50 local, state, and federal agencies.

Recycling water is a necessity for Southern California to survive, so how can this massive infrastructure project to close the water loop create a better city for us to live in?

RechargeCity_entry [22mb rasterized pdf]

Recharge City Submission_flat-optimized [35mb pdf]

After the Aqueduct in the news!

It’s been a very busy fall and winter above and beyond my usual teaching load at Cal Poly Pomona. Just got back from presenting at #CELA2015 on DisplayScapes and organizing a panel on DIY sensing in Landscape Architecture design studios (with Lucia Phinney, Allison Lassiter, and Brad Cantrell) this past week, and creating a new 200 square feet sequence of Aqueduct Futures maps and drawings. These are on display at After the Aqueduct (curated by Kim Stringfellow) at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions through April 12, 2015. Excited to share some of the press (LATimes, KCET, and LAM) coverage of the exhibit!

Christopher Knight reviews After the Aqueduct in the LA TImes:

A detail of Peter Bo Rappmund’s “Psychohydrography” video (2010). (Christopher Knight / Los Angeles Times)

California is not in danger of running out of water in the next year or two, but the climate-change situation is going from bad to worse as we enter the fourth year of drought. At Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, “After the Aqueduct” looks at one big piece of the state’s water puzzle.

Organized by artist Kim Stringfellow, the show includes works by half a dozen artists and designers that focus on the century-old hydraulic water conveyance system meandering more than 200 miles from the Sierra Nevada to Southern California.

Much of the display is documentary, such as a series of charts produced by Barry Lehrman and Cal Poly Pomona students – to date, more than 120 of them – who are mapping complicated land-use issues for the school’s Aqueduct Futures program. I would describe the charts as visually dry, although the pun threatens to distract from the seriousness of the task. Continue reading

Xochimilco in Los Angeles

The creator of a toy-filled folk-art garden near downtown LA, Charles Ray Walker, has died. ‘Bamboo Charlie’ as he was known, created a uniquely personal landscape similar to the Islands of Dolls in Xochimilco, Mexico City. His garden is the latest contribution to Southern California’s folk art legacy that includes: Rhodia’s Watts Tower, Grandma Prisby’s Bottle Village, Noah Purifoy’s Outdoor Museum, Rubel’s Castle, Salvation Mountain, and Alan Kimble Fahey’ recently razed ‘Phonehedge West’.

Let’s hope that Bamboo Charlie’s garden quickly finds a benefactor and guardian to preserve it’s unique character.

Xochimilco in Los Angeles


LAtimes Continue reading

Aqueduct Futures – Fall 2012 Studios

This post is a place holder for the detailed description of LA301L and LA401L at Cal Poly Pomona for Fall 2012. These studios are focusing on the Los Angeles Aqueduct as we approach the centennial to it’s opening on November 5, 1913, where William Mulholland famously said: ‘There it is. Take it.’

source: LATimes

301L Aqueduct Futures

This studio will map and analyze the Los Angeles Aqueduct and its associated landscape, identifying sites to design interpretive landscapes that celebrates the Aqueduct’s legacy in developing Southern California, while also addresses the social and environmental impacts caused by transferring water from Owens Valley to Los Angeles.

401L – Lehrman: Aqueduct Futures

Will explore the future of the Los Angeles Aqueduct and how it shaped the development of California.  Projects will develop speculative forms of water conveyance, water purification, water harvesting, watershed/habitat restoration, and energy production along the 230-mile long Los Angeles Aqueduct right of way that also provide for habitat and cultural uses.

Bibliographics references here.


LA Aqueduct Bibliography 2012

I revisited the LA Aqueduct for a grant proposal related to the upcoming centennial of it’s opening (stay tuned), and started updating my earlier bibliography. My methodology was searching via google scholar, and cal poly’s library. Items in bold are seminal books and essential reading about the LA Aqueduct. The links take you to the most recent edition of the book.

(all images by HAER/Library of Congress.)







Alabama Gates

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Renewable Energy Art – Horst Glaesker

Horst Glaesker paints wind turbines. Not pictures of wind turbines, but entire 100m tall turbines in psychedelic colors that are more akin to dazzle camouflage than to art. Gotta admit, I’m pretty skeptical about ‘aero-art‘ actually being art (even when subscribing to the definition of art being whatever somebody calls art).

Maybe it’s just a case of cultural mistranslation of Glaesker’s Tutonic style. But these color schemes and geographic patterns won’t win any over any opponents to wind development. I would also hazard to guess that the paint job won’t prevent any bird strikes either.

via inhabitat

Climate Change Infographic of the Day

Instead of fighting carbon emissions that threaten to undermine our economy, a group of scientists have looked at the benefits of curbing ozone precursors and black carbon.

image caption:

National benefits of the CH4 plus BC measures versus the reference scenario. Circle areas are proportional to values for (A and B) climate change, (C and D) human health (values for population over age 30), and (E and F) agriculture. Surface temperature changes are from the GISS-E2-S simulation. Health, agriculture, and atmospheric forcing impacts are based on the average of GISS and ECHAM concentration changes and are for 2030 and beyond. Uncertainties are ~60% for global mean temperatures, with national scale uncertainties likely greater, ~60% for atmospheric forcing, ~70% for health, and roughly –70%/+100% for crops [see (7) for factors included in uncertainties, most of which are systematic for atmospheric forcing, health, and agriculture so that much smaller differences between regions are still significant]. Interactive versions providing values for each country are at, whereas alternate presentations of these data are in fig. S5 and table S5.

The benefits of controlling methane and soot emissions turned out to be considerable. Largely thanks to reduced methane emissions, global warming by 2050 would be reduced by about half a degree; global warming so far has amounted to about 0.8°C. The additional controls also ensure that the low-carbon scenario holds warming below the danger level of 2°C of warming, at least for the next 60 years. Methane controls would also keep ozone low enough to avoid annual crop losses of 30 million to 135 million metric tons in 2030

The drop in outdoor air pollution, due largely to soot emission reductions, would avoid 700,000 to 4.7 million premature deaths each year. Indoors, more than one-third of a million lives would be saved annually in India and China alone. A total of at least a million lives saved a year compares with the 600,000 premature deaths from tuberculosis expected in 2030 or the 2.1 million deaths due to traffic accidents. – from Richard A. Kerr discussing Shindell et al…


Shindell, Drew, et al.2012. Simultaneously Mitigating Near-Term Climate Change and Improving Human Health and Food Security, Science January 2012: Vol. 335 no. 6065 pp. 183-189 DOI: 10.1126/science.1210026

Via the NYtimes, see also for the editorial analysis.

See also

Jungle Gyms of the Past

Playgrounds have lost a sense of imagination since the lawyers got involved, resulting in boredom and lack of use (plus their style can be best described as a pastiche mixed together by a committee). There is a burgeoning renaissance of high-design returning to playgrounds (such as recent parks by Van Valkenburg in NYC or the ‘Rollercoaster Walkway’ in Germany – though these seem more for adults than kids).

Jungle Gyms date back to 1923 and were a feature of progressive k-12 education. Now most risky play activities has been regulated out of existence for younger children – so there is a documented loss of self-assurance and an increased fear of heights. Risky play is essential for development per  Dr. Sandseter:

  • exploring heights,
  • experiencing high speed,
  • handling dangerous tools,
  • being near dangerous elements (like water or fire),
  • rough-and-tumble play (like wrestling), and
  • wandering alone away from adult supervision.

“Climbing equipment needs to be high enough, or else it will be too boring in the long run,” Dr. Sandseter said. “Children approach thrills and risks in a progressive manner, and very few children would try to climb to the highest point for the first time they climb. The best thing is to let children encounter these challenges from an early age, and they will then progressively learn to master them through their play over the years.” 

… “There is no clear evidence that playground safety measures have lowered the average risk on playgrounds,” said David Ball, a professor of risk management at Middlesex University in London. He noted that the risk of some injuries, like long fractures of the arm, actually increased after the introduction of softer surfaces on playgrounds in Britain and Australia.

“This sounds counterintuitive, but it shouldn’t, because it is a common phenomenon,” Dr. Ball said. “If children and parents believe they are in an environment which is safer than it actually is, they will take more risks. An argument against softer surfacing is that children think it is safe, but because they don’t understand its properties, they overrate its performance.” – nytimes

As the father of a 3 1/2 y.o., I wish he could experience the playgrounds of the ’70s that formed the core of my childhood. I’m willing to trade a few bumps, bruises, and perhaps a broken bone or two to help build his character and physical development – especially since most of these play structures required imagination to use.  The rest of this post is a few of the cool play structures worthy of celebration and having in your neighborhood!

Swiss cheese

OH Newton Falls - Playground

[anybody know who designed these pre-cast concrete pieces?]


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map of the day – US Routes system

by (c) Cameron Booth, an earlier version of just the interstates is here.

I have to say that without a doubt, this is the most complex network that I have yet attempted. Not only are there far more numbered routes than in the Interstate system, but there are also historical extensions and branches of many routes to consider. In some cases, numbers that were used once were reused in different parts of the country (see U.S. 48, which has been used for three completely separate roads!). I have attempted to show these historical roads as thinner route lines “behind” the main network, including the most famous U.S. highway of all – Route 66, which gets special treatment, being solid black in colour.

 Originally spotted by Quilian Riano in the Economist

astronomic urbanism

With forty miles between the Sun to Pluto (Presque Isle and Houlton) and recently expanded beyond to Eris(!) another 40 miles further, the Maine Solar System Model (MSSM) resides in Aroostook County in Northern Maine at the scale of 1:93,000,000.  It serves as both an educational tool and tourist destination/local point of pride.  Just another piece of astronomic urbanism, one of dozens large-scale solar system models around the planet that are changing our cultural landscape.

Astronomic Urbanism

Beyond the hoped for economic gains of tourism, these astronomic models seem focused on educating local residents. Since most acts of good citizenry require scientific literacy, these large-scale models do (indirectly) inspire community building.  So unlike Corner/Waldheim/Mostafavi/Reed’s theory of landscape urbanism, astronomic urbanism is more about image and knowledge, than creating places. It is also interesting to note that most efforts in astronomic urbanism are really astronomic ruralism, with only a few examples of architectural expression like the Ericcson/Globe Arena in the Swedish Solar System [below].

the MSSM

The MSSM Sun

Housed in the Museum/Folsom Hall of the Presque Isle campus of the University of Maine, the sun is the only indoor piece of the model – the planets are mounted on 10′ tall poles along Route 1 (except Pluto).

MSSM Mercury

MSSM Venus

MSSM Earth

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Books – summer 2011

As I pack up my UMN office, there are piles of books that are worth sharing, before they go into a box. Here are just a few of them in no particular order:

Heat Islands: Understanding and Mitigating Heat in Urban Areas

by Lisa Gartland (Earthscan 2008)

This is a well researched and comprehensive book that explores methods of shrinking the urban heat island. It’s worth noting that Gartland provides the best explanation of albedo and emissivity I’ve yet to encounter. Where the book falls short, is it doesn’t consider going against the status quo of development and engineering practices (i.e. increasing density, or narrower streets), instead just discusses using different low albedo/pervious materials and the usual fixes.

Biophilic Cities: Integrating Nature into Urban Design and Planning

by Timothy Beatley (Island Press  2011)

A slim volume that lays out the philosophical case for creating living cities. Doesn’t get bogged down in the technical details or process, and occasionally falls into thinking that biomimicry or a pretty garden equals a fully functioning and resilient ecosystem. Overall a good introduction to the concepts of eco-cities.

Addicted to Energy: A venture capitalist’s perspective on how to save our economy and our climate

by Elton Sherwin (Energy House 2010)

Unique among the dozens of big picture saving the planet books I’ve read over the last two years. The book is framed as a letter to a governor, which allows for discussion of policy and regulations at the state level. The author also uses examples from his personal life to keep the book from becoming too dry. Very well researched, and a good introduction for business minded folks that need the economic case made for changing their own/corporate behaviors.

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Fracture Critical Sewershed

There was a four-alarm fire last week at one of my favorite examples of multifunctional infrastructure: NYC’s North River Wastewater Treatment Plant/Riverbank State Park. The fire damaged five engines that power the pumps that circulate the sewage, through the treatment process, so 120 million gallons of untreated sewage are being dumped into the Hudson and Bronx Rivers till the plant is back up and running. The plant serves a sewershed of 6,030 acres, home to almost 600,000 folks.

Because NYC has a Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) system, the untreated sewage was discharged from 56 outfalls. If NYC had a more modern seperate storm sewer and sanitary sewer system, the untreated discharge would have been concentrated just at the plant creating a more severe local impact. This is one of those rare cases where having an obsolete CSO infrastructure may be reducing the environmental impacts by increasing the dilution of the sewage.

BTW: the treatment plant plinth was designed by Phillip Johnson in the 1960s!

map of outfalls and closed beaches impacted by the fire Continue reading