Author Archives: Emma Patton

Lighting: A Balance Between Safety and Human-Centric Design

Street lights are changing the cities we live in. Photo credit: Shutterstock.

Smart cities are implementing more minimalist LED street lamps, meaning greater cost-efficiency and brighter lights. However, some planners question what a brighter city will mean for humans and the ecosystem. While the Smart City movement is arriving with an arsenal of LED lamps, Florida’s Sanibel Island shuts off lights to protect the environment.

The Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge—located in the city of Sanibel—has been praised for its eco-friendly planning. Because nearly all of the island’s artificial light shuts off at sundown, the wildlife refuge fades into the darkness of the Gulf Coast each night, accentuating the starry skies, protecting turtles from bioluminescent sand, and making it easy for residents to hit their REM-cycle stride. Now, some planners are asking: instead of adding lights, should other cities be following Sanibel’s example?

Smart city technology is drastically changing the way cities are illuminated. LED street lamps are beacons of blue light, the same kind of light that comes from our computer screens and can affect the quality of our sleep. Light pollution can also cause harm to several species of birds, turtles, and insects, and researchers are pointing out the additional qualitative loss that comes with the loss of true darkness—an inability to experience the night sky. The Guardian reported that in 1994, an earthquake in Los Angeles led to a power outage and, subsequently, numerous phone calls to the Griffith Observatory regarding the “strange sky.” The callers were viewing the stars.

While some are pointing to the negative ecological effects of light pollution and calling for a more “natural” way of lighting streets, not everyone is on board with creating cityscapes that coordinate with our circadian rhythms. One study of residents in Spain found that white LED lights make residents feel safer at night, meaning removing the feeling of safety—whether connected to actual safety or not—could be politically contentious. Additionally, studies conducted on the correlation between safety and lighting have resulted in different conclusions in different cities. Removal of night-time lighting in cities such as Atlanta, Milwaukee, Kansas City, and Fort Worth could be detrimental to the safety of residents, according to the study.

Planners could debate for years on how to best implement street lighting, but the technological curve is moving faster than they are. Before we know it, LED lights will be covering our streets in the name of “Smart Cities”; places like Los Angeles, New York, and Houston have already implemented blue-light LEDs. Planners and residents must deal with the consequences, and perhaps consider adding melatonin supplements to their grocery list.

Sources: The Washington PostCityLabThe GuardianPlanetizenInstitute for Local Self-RelianceSleep ResolutionsMetropolis Magazine


NYSID Highlights Historic Advertisements

An advertisement displays Yale Burge’s love for antiques and oriental decor.

The New York School of Interior Design recently debuted a selection of four images that allow users to unearth the historic advertisements from Yale Burge, an interior-design pioneer of the past century.

Yale Burge was known for his innovative popularization of the “French country look,” often replicating the aesthetics of European antiques. A partner at the Burge-Donghia design firm and owner of an antique store, Burge was a leading interior designer up until his death in 1972. Burge’s antique store on the Upper East Side of New York City was open for decades; it only recently closed in 2013.

While a full-fledged French country style like Burge’s may not be making a comeback anytime soon, antiques are on trend—especially with pops of color like the rich tones Burge loved to use. Get inspired by browsing the selection of advertisements here.

Sources: The New York Times, The NYSID Online CollectionElle Decor, Design Curial

NYSID Photos Showcase Women’s History

Sheila Chapine (middle) stands amongst other faculty and administration at the New York School of Interior Design in ca. 1955. Photo credit: New York School of Interior Design.

Interior design was an emerging field at the turn of the 20th century, and many of its first practitioners were women. Accordingly, many of the images in the New York School of Interior Design’s (NYSID) centennial album document women who dominated the design world, built their own businesses and became published authors.

One such woman was Sheila Chapine. Born in Ontario in 1918, Chapine later attended NYSID, one of New York’s most prestigious interior design schools. She went on to graduate in 1940 and become a registrar and lecturer of color for 45 years. Chapine also worked as a career counselor and events planner during her time at NYSID as well as volunteering at the Lenox Hill Neighborhood House and St. James’ Church. 

Though interior design may have been originally viewed as “decorating” , and therefore a socially acceptable career path for women in the 1900s, interior design has proven to be one of the most important professions of the century because many people spend the majority of their life inside buildings and the design of a room can have great psychological and physical impacts on inhabitants.

For more photos of women who changed the world through design, check out the NYSID Flickr collection here.

Sources: The New York School of Interior Design, The New York Times, Research Gate,

New York School of Interior Design Debuts New Online Catalog

Taken from the NYSID online archive, the page of Vogue in 1953 features an article on Major Tom Lee, who had an apprenticeship at “R.H. Macy of New York” before handling the display of a Christmas show at Rockefeller Center and an interwoven display at the New York World Fair.

The New York School of Interior Design recently expanded their online database to include a finding tool for users to search through their centennial collection. The “Archives & Special Collections” online archives catalog  allows users to identify the material they wish to consult before setting up an appointment to see the collection in person. The historic archive is composed of decades-old photographs, architectural sketches, news articles and memorabilia that date back to the early 1900s. The school first launched their image collection back in 2013, in expectation of the centennial debut of the archive; finally, it has arrived.

The purpose of creating the NYSID Institutional Archives was to document the history and evolution of the interior design profession. Similarly, Interior Design Special Collections material showcases the interior design work of designers, design firms and publications over the years. The stories these photos capture range from local historic preservation to hospitality projects.

Because the school was founded in 1916, the institution has access to photos that document not only the historical value of interior design but also related to the disciplines of business, fashion, urban studies, and anthropology. The New York School of Design special collections are open to the public by appointment.

Sources: The New York School of Interior Design

Building in Downtown Austin Scheduled to Implode

Photo credit: James Rambin.

The implosion of the Ashbel Smith Hall building will interrupt the mellow, Sunday-morning mood this weekend in downtown Austin. Traffic near Lavaca and Sixth Street is expected to be more congested than usual due to the demolition occurring in the early morning hours. Typically, demolitions provoke protest from citizens who are sentimentally attached to the building, but no one seems too upset about the leveling of Ashbel Smith Hall.

“We don’t always need to clutch our pearls when something old downtown comes up for demolition,” wrote James Rambin, author of an online realty blog. Rambin compared the building to a toaster, deriding its boxy shape and two small roof vents poking out the top.

Once used by The University of Texas as office space after being built in the 1970s, the building’s Brutalist architecture juts out among a skyline of shiny, new skyscrapers. The City of Austin Historic Landmark Commission provided a dismal assessment of the structure’s contribution to the life of the city:

“The building does not appear to possess architectural distinction. […] The building does not possess a unique location, physical characteristic, or significant feature that contributes to the character, image, or cultural identity of the city, the neighborhood, or a particular demographic group. […] The property is not a significant natural or designed landscape with artistic, aesthetic, cultural, or historical value to the city.” —City of Austin Historic Landmark Commission, September 25, 2017

The building must be imploded to mitigate the negative effects of demolition on the surrounding area and to speed up the process. After being demolished, developer Trammell Crow plans to build a 37-story tower with office, restaurant and retail uses, costing $1.6 million per year to rent.

Sources: Austin American Statesman, Towers,

California to Launch Fleet of Autonomous Vehicles

Currently, all autonomous vehicles in California must have a human in the passenger seat, but not for long. Autonomous vehicles will be truly autonomous starting April 2, when a human safety-net will no longer be required by California’s Department of Motor Vehicles. In addition, in January, Waymo, a Google-affiliated company, debuted one of the first autonomous ride-sharing services in Arizona.  

Some question the ethical implications for a world with autonomous vehicles. For example, if a driverless car detects a tree branch, it could stop abruptly to avoid swerving outside of the lines, but hitting the breaks could cause a pile-up behind the driverless car. Others wonder whether the cars will truly be able to adapt to traffic in real-time conditions.

To the relief of some citizens, California’s new regulation requires a person to be operating the autonomous vehicles remotely, and companies are required to report how many times a human has to take over for the car. Waymo’s track record is pretty good; the company’s robot cars have traveled over 300,000 miles and remote drivers only intervened 63 times.

While a couple of accidents involving autonomous cars have been reported, the fault did not belong to the driverless vehicle, and the vehicles did not belong to Waymo. Accidents will happen, though, and when they do, who will take the responsibility? One suggested solution is an “ethical knob,” or a button that passengers can switch from complete self-preservation to self-sacrifice, or to an impartial setting. However, if everyone chooses to be impartial, the ethics knob is pointless.

It’s too early to know how autonomous vehicle issues will play out legally or even ethically, but cities in Arizona, California, and possibly even the City of Austin are emerging as leaders in the ride-sharing field. To check out the autonomous vehicle craze yourself, be on the lookout for prototype-driverless shuttles picking up passengers in Austin during South by Southwest.

Sources: New Scientist, The Atlantic, BBC, The Texas Standard, The Verge, Waymo


Vacant Lots to Garden Plots: Restoring Urban Biodiversity

Many homes in Baltimore are being demolished due to high vacancy rates. Ecologist Chris Swann uses the empty lots to plant wildflowers. Photo Credit: Patrick Semansky, Associated Press.

As urbanism pervades the world, open spaces and the biodiversity they provide are beginning to dwindle. Curtailing sprawl is often touted as an answer to protecting biodiversity outside the city, but Chris Swann wants to also protect the biodiversity within the existing urban context.

Swann—an ecologist and professor from the University of Maryland—studies what plant species work best for ecosystems in urban spaces and, in a recent experiment, he sprinkled wildflower seeds across vacant lots. He is specifically looking for plants that can survive in the soil of recently demolished homes in Baltimore, where vacancies are on the rise. Though the lots are only “temporary prairies” because they will likely be redeveloped soon, Swann hopes the boost in plant life will reduce runoff and attract other organisms. Swann’s project is uniquely scientific; not many have studied what works to restore balance to a city’s ecosystem. Other cities have begun utilizing small plots of land for gardens or mini parks, despite the lack of research surrounding what they should be planting.

Yet, all green spaces are not created equal. Providing more green space in an urban landscape can not only pose an ecological challenge but also economic and equity challenges. Property values increase near parks and open spaces, oftentimes inducing a development surge that brings a risk of gentrification. Laying the groundwork for a fully furnished park is a costly endeavor for the city; the City of Minneapolis cited the cost of a park as $481,333. In contrast, one of the cheapest types of wildflower seeds costs just $231 per acre.

Swann’s experiment to seed wildflowers in vacant lots will not only help answer the question, “what do we plant” but also “can we afford it?” If wildflowers grow well in infertile soil, they could become a means for urban biodiversity that is more economical and thus, more equitable. Creating prairies in vacant lots could prove a small step towards creating a better habitat for all creatures residing in urban contexts.

Sources: CityLab, City of Minneapolis, Holland Wildflower Farm, University of California at Berkeley

Building Inter-generational Communities: The Tiny House for Older Adults

Keeping up with the needs of a large home can be difficult for seniors. In fact, providing smaller, more manageable spaces for older adults could be the difference between entering a care facility or maintaining independence. Bill Thomas, a renowned geriatrician, created a tiny home for older adults that he says prolongs independence and counters ageism.

The first Minka-style tiny home for older adults stands on the University of Southern Indiana’s campus in Evansville, IN, where 67 percent of the population are under 50 years old. Although the house was built for older people, the structure appears very modern. The modular design provides residents with both affordability and accessibility; because of the compact and interchangeable parts, the home can adapt to people with different needs or disabilities. The home costs just $75,000 to build.

No one lives in the first tiny home currently; it serves as a prototype. Thomas hopes that the homes inspired by the prototype will one day will serve to keep elders integrated in society, instead of segregating them in nursing homes. It’s no secret that Baby Boomers and Millennials have wildly different worldviews, and both can be quick to blame the other for social problems. In a time of increasing political polarization, mixing of different generations may be exactly what our cities need; a tiny home village for older adults on a college campus could be a great start to humanizing the people often seen as the other’s enemy.

Sources: American Fact Finder, NPR, Changing Aging, Minka

If Ebenezer Howard Had an Apartment Today

Image Credit: Carina Romano

Ebenezer Howard, the urban planner known for Garden City Movement, desired for city-dwellers to leave the slums of the inner-urban area and experience the clean air of a rural space. His ideals were focused on improving city-life, but his philosophy has arguably impacted the interior design strategies of today, as evidenced by Liz Sparacio’s loft apartment.

Natural light radiates from the windows in Liz’s living room, illuminating the tall ceilings and rustic brick walls of what was once a textile factory in Philadelphia. While the large windows and the brilliant view of the Philly skyline harken to the outside, it is Liz’s aesthetic choices that evoke the natural world and its potential for human engagement. Her loft includes not only dozens of plants, but art and spatial design echoing the activities that take place outside—namely, hanging one’s legs off of a wooden tree swing. Just as Howard advocated for activity centers in cities, Liz has intentionally created mini “activity centers” in her home.

In Garden Cities of To-morrow, Howard writes, “human society and the beauty of nature are meant to be enjoyed together.” If he were here today, perhaps he would beckon the beauty of nature into our homes instead of beckoning the people out. Perhaps a houseplant (or two) or a space with natural light pays homage to the man who desired an integration of landscape and human interaction.

Sources: Garden Cities of To-morrow, Apartment Therapy