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Greening LA: A ‘green workforce’ collaboration builds in the metaverse and real life

Greening LA project in SketchUp

Collaborate, design, scale, and repeat! The Greening LA project brings together community colleges, universities, municipalities, and designers on a series of urban ecological pursuits to beautify LA. The first phase turned a deteriorated, leftover freeway space into a walking path and equitable community resource. More potent than its impact on Los Angeles’s communities is the project's ability to be replicated. Modular 3D components will be available for download, and a full-scale replica is living in the metaverse for anyone to see. Cities from Tokyo to Toronto, take note. 

Inspired by art, nature, and mathematics

People do walk in LA, and more should soon if Marcela Oliva has anything to say about it. She’s Greening LA’s project leader and has a deep pedigree as a U.S. Green Building Council-Los Angeles (USGBC-LA) board member and a professor of architecture and environmental design at Los Angeles Trade Technical College (LATTC). She teaches a curriculum focused on bridging the gap between natural and built environments. For architectural icons like Buckminster Fuller and Frank Lloyd Wright, geometry was the basic building block of nature. Their influence is ingrained in the imagination of the students of LATTC. Marcela’s students are often from diverse backgrounds and underserved communities. 

“I get engineers who have emigrated from China and can’t get back into their desired jobs but work as Uber drivers; a community college is a good option. At LATTC, we inspire students by showing how they can make a difference in their underserved communities through design. Learning becomes accessible and fun. We took away math classes and integrated them into architecture, a standout of our programs. Mathematical equations evolve into 3D models; the undulating geometrical shapes in nature take the form of sculptures, buildings, and pathways.”

The Greening LA pathway takes inspiration from nature’s geometric patterns.

The Greening LA pathway takes inspiration from nature’s geometric patterns. 

Preparedness meets opportunity

With a smidge of luck and much strategic planning, the Greening LA ‘dream team’ came together. The California Department of Transportation, Caltrans 7, was uniquely positioned to get a grant from Clean California Project and spearheaded the first phase of Greening LA. Caltrans brought together LATTC’s Architecture Program, LA Mayor Garcetti’s Careers by Design LA Program, the USGBC LA Urban Landscape Committee, Niles Foundation, LA County Supervisory District 1, LA County Metropolitan Transportation, City Council District 9, the Design One Group firm, and artist Álvaro Márquez. The interdisciplinary team is an example of a ‘green workforce’: a diverse network of talented visionaries working toward a more sustainable future. The team's flexibility is its strength; future project phases may involve other experts drawn from the community. 

For community, by community

The Greening LA project retrofits leftover spaces into beautiful and optimized green spaces.

The first project created a new transportation zone — a walkable pathway next to a busy freeway. Drought-tolerant landscaping along the path established a green oasis in a neighborhood dominated by concrete. 

The community can both maintain and learn from the project. ​Building Information Modeling (BIM) and Geospatial Information System (GIS) tools create a tenable, tech-smart landscape that gathers data on resources such as water, air, and closed-circle recyclable systems (materials can be used and then recycled for new processes). The multipurpose space can be used for urban farming, interactive art experiences, and as a teaching site for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art/Architecture, and Mathematics (STEAM).

Map of walking routes in LA (Jack Rendler, Director of Design, e7 Architecture Studio, Harvard GSD Thesis).

Maps of walking routes in LA (Jack Rendler, Director of Design, e7 Architecture Studio, Harvard GSD Thesis).

Location, location, location. Marcela created a map of LA, outlining walkable routes to food, gardens, transportation, and human connection — all the essentials for a thriving community. The multidisciplinary team chose the walking path’s location in an identified resource desert, as indicated by gaps in the map of walking routes. 

“The long-term goal is to ensure everyone has a space to feel safe within a 15-minute walk of their home. I’ve identified several areas that lacked these community hubs as places for Greening LA collaborations. The first project, the walking path, was placed in one of these resource deserts.” 

Pieces of Tovaangar modeled in SketchUp

Pieces of Tovaangar, by Artist Álvaro Márquez, modeled in SketchUp

A string of metal polygons stretches along the walking path’s fenced perimeter. Artist Álvaro Márquez designed the 150 ft long artwork, Pieces of Tovaangar, to mimic a map detailing the original ranchos of Los Angeles county. Álvaro draws attention to the complex displacement of people and space in the past, a history that has created hierarchies in social economics and urban areas in LA today. 

Students at LATTC and community members created the 3D model for the site in just seven weeks, with students developing abstract concepts into construction documents. They were encouraged to think modular so that fellow green enthusiasts could use the designs for future beautification projects. Clean, beautify, and create jobs is an essential motto of the Greening LA program. It elevates students and the communities they come from, which is closing the gap between differently advantaged groups. Now, these students who designed the walkway also have a real job to jot down on their resumes, increasing their chances of getting hired after graduation. 

Board of conceptual drawings and construction photos

Students, designers, and city stakeholders work together to move the walkway through design iterations and into construction. 

The resources you have

Using school funding and grant money to get adequate resources for students is like when you only have one knife of butter for a whole loaf of bread. The Greening LA team’s partnership is successful because it gives students access to design firms' technology, connections, and years of expertise. The students’ desire for change in their communities fuels designers' and city stakeholders' own desire to build Palaces for the People.  

A visual representation of how Greening LA fits into the Metaverse hub

A visual representation of how Greening LA fits into the Metaverse hub

Accessible technology is key to social action. Marcela uses the metaverse as a conduit to share ideas and inspire action in communities. Greening LA's geometric and modular designs will be available in SketchUp’s 3D Warehouse, and a full-scale replica of the site is in the metaverse. Greening LA exists in Nexus Terraforma, a developing sustainable metaverse design platform that supports geospatial design tools and integrates ecological data. Plans are underway to create a replica in video game engines. Think about the possibilities; no matter where you are, you could fly through and take inspiration from Greening LA. Marcela’s students use Epic Games’ visualization tool, Twinmotion, to produce videos of designs they’ve created. A game-changer for their workflow was when SketchUp fully integrated with Twinmotion last year. 

Students imported the SketchUp model of the urban greenspace into Nexus Terraforma to start developing gaming interactions.  

Students at LATTC use SketchUp because of its affordability. Plus, students on a budget can access free plugins for SketchUp to enhance their workflow. Don’t mistake ease-of-use for elementary modeling, says Marcela; it is incredibly accurate for construction. 

“Imagination can be limited by software. Why I love SketchUp is because of its creative potential. You don’t need to fuss around with your setting right away. Create, then scale and trace. When you are ready to move into the real world, you don’t sacrifice accuracy. We built the fencing for Greening LA all in 3D first, and it had a 1/16 tolerance.”

According to Marcela, the ease of biomimicry — the design practice that learns from strategies found in nature — in SketchUp is unparalleled. Biomimicry is essential for a project like Greening LA, a physical manifestation of the balance of the mind and connection to nature.

“Using other 3D modeling programs is like being handed the keys to a plane before you know how to drive. Instead, SketchUp says, here’s your rearview mirror, steering wheel, and the gas pedal; this is how you drive.”

Greening LA walkway in SketchUp.

Greening LA walkway in SketchUp.

Clean, beautify, and create jobs

Greening LA’s work has only just begun. More projects are on the horizon, including Watts Nature Walk, One Earth Game, Green Maker Spaces, USGBC LA Urban Landscape Metaverse Tool Kit for Green Spaces, and EPIC Grant Urban Interventions. Further installations will engrave Los Angeles as an example of a city that champions sustainable design and community participation. The city of the future is coming, and Marcela invites other cities to capitalize on the momentum — here we go! 

Want to accelerate action now? Marcela Oliva is presenting at USGBC’s My Green Building Conference 2022. She will be discussing Watts Nature Walk: An Innovating Design for Environment Community Benefit.

Add SketchUp to your design arsenal to access sustainable tools like PreDesign. Don’t have SketchUp? Check out SketchUp Studio for Higher Education for students, educators, and universities.

Aerial view of the Greening LA walkway in SketchUp.

Aerial view of the Greening LA walkway in SketchUp.