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Wooly Mammoth at Royal British Columbia Museum, Canada / A-Z Animals

Stewart Brand, who is perhaps best known for his book, Whole Earth Catalog, now runs the Long Now Foundation, which is focused on the next 10,000 years of human civilization. At the American Planning Association (APA) conference in Seattle, he called for a “planet-scale ecological restoration” over the next ten millennia, which can in part be accomplished by bringing back extinct mega-fauna like wooly mammoths. Over the past few thousands of years, the continental grasslands of the global north turned into tundra. To bring back the grasslands systems that co-evolved with wooly mammoths, scientists will need to first revive these ancient creatures using their DNA and the most cutting-edge biotechnology. Reborn grasslands would then be able to store massive amounts of carbon. The other part of this future Brand envisions: people will need to continue to crowd into cities, giving room for natural systems to be revitalized.

Healthy civilizations “balance man-made and natural infrastructures.” To get to a more healthy world, Brand says we must all become “ecological engineers,” like earthworms that aerate the soil, beavers that create dams, or Aldo Leopold, who restored the grasslands of Wisconsin and founded the field of conservation biology.

The problem with our civilization today is “we are not respecting nature’s rate of change.” Brand outlined the trends shaping the world as layers on top of each other forming a sort of onion, but with each layer moving at a different rate. Here are the moving layers listed in order from fastest to slowest: fashion, commerce, infrastructure, governance, culture, and, finally, nature. In this system, everything has its place and its own natural rate of change. If one gets out of synch, the system is violated. “For example, a too-fast rate of governance change can break the system. The U.S.S.R. moved fast with governance, violating commerce, nature, and the system self destructed.”

Brand believes when the fast parts (fashion, commerce, infrastructure) and the slow parts (governance, culture, nature) are in synch, we will have a more resilient system. Fast layers “propose, learn, absorb, discontinue, innovate, and get all the attention,” but slow layers “dispose, remember, integrate, continue, constrain, and have all the power.” In other words, “in cities, the fast layers dominate; but in the world, the slower layers dominate.” To achieve a lasting good, “we must take the long view,” nature’s view.

Cities and nature are in flux these days, as the relationship between the two is renegotiated. For example, there are now more than 2,000 coyotes in Chicago alone. And over 10,000 foxes in London. Brand pointed to Emma Marris’s Rambunctious Garden, Jim Sterba’s Nature Wars, and Fred Pierce’s The New Wild, as worthwhile new books that wade into these issues. The New Wild argues that “invasive species may be the key to nature’s salvation. We need to deal with the weird.”

As for climate change, Brand believes “it will keep things moving around.” He doesn’t see climate change causing more extinctions unless there are abrupt changes. After all, “species are constantly adjusting, eo-evolving with each other and other species. The ecological system is adjusting all the time.” Intervening in nature with biotechnology can help humans bring back useful or even beautiful species, like the passenger pigeon, and destroy dangerous diseases impacting critical species, like white nose syndrome in bats and avian malaria in birds. All of this will be part of our new role as “ecological engineers.”

Temple Baths, ArchDaily / Studio Octopi

Temple Baths by Studio Octopi / Arch Daily

Hermann Park’s Japanese Garden Serves As City Oasis The Houston Chronicle, 4/17/15
“Hermann Park’s Japanese Garden is a place where families flock to watch koi school in murky ponds, where couples rest under the trellis covered in leafy wisteria and where Houstonians steal away for quiet time in a natural setting.”

How the Drought Will Reshape Californian Landscape ArchitectureCurbed, 4/22/15
“California is dealing with a resource crisis that’s asking a West Coast accustomed to expansive growth and endless possibility to go against character and make do with less. The last time going dry has caused this much consternation was during Prohibition. Curbed spoke with four leading landscape architects to find out how their profession needs to adapt to a challenge with the potential to reshape the industry.”

‘The Landscape Architecture Legacy of Dan Kiley’ Review The Wall Street Journal, 4/22/15
“’The Landscape Architecture Legacy of Dan Kiley,’ an exhibition at the Center for Architecture, shows how modern landscapes often make a better case for modernism than the architecture itself.”

Studio Octopi Begins Crowdfunding Campaign for a Lido on London’s River Thames Arch Daily, 4/23/15
“London’s central waterway, the River Thames, has been a site of enormous interest from architects and urbanists in previous years. From a controversial garden bridge to discussions about how to appropriate what has been described as one of the city’s largest untapped public spaces, London-based practice Studio Octopi have now launched a Kickstarter campaign to help to realize their dream of creating ‘a new, natural, beautiful lido’ on its banks.”

Group Rallies to Save Cherished Spot at Children’s HospitalThe Boston Globe, 4/27/15
“Just ahead of a wrecking ball, a contingent of parents and caregivers want the city to bestow protective landmark status on Prouty Garden, a half-acre splash of green at the heart of Boston Children’s Hospital. It may be their last hope for preserving the emerald retreat.”

Three Finalists Chosen in National Design Competition to Improve Areas below the Main Avenue Bridge The Cleveland Plain Dealer, 4/28/15
“The nonprofit downtown development corporation announced on its website that it has winnowed a field of 51 landscape architecture firms to three finalists in a national competition to beautify the portion of the Flats beneath the Main Avenue Bridge.”

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A popular “food pod” in downtown Portland is across from one of the city’s administration buildings / Carol Mayer-Reed

As landscape architects and urban designers, we look for ways to create vitality in the spaces we design. In Portland, Oregon, street food has become a phenomenon, growing in popularity over the last ten years. The result has been a transformation of the public realm, as well as many privately-owned spaces in our downtown and neighborhoods. Our street food goes way beyond the hot dogs and roasted nuts commonly found on street corners in many cities; diverse food is served by more than 525 vendors operating throughout Portland.

The cuisine found on the street has become increasingly sophisticated and delicious, attracting a serious “foodie” audience, along with a hungry everyday lunch crowd looking for fresh air and convenience. Visitors can even tour the city based on the wide variety of street food they would like to sample, along with the environments they’d like to experience.

The creative entrepreneurship of food cart owners has shaped Portland’s character. The carts, which also form pods, make a positive, colorful contribution to the city’s sense of livability, promote social interaction, and support small businesses. After all, the presence of people gathering in places attracts more people.

The Evolution of Street Food: From Pushcarts to Food Pods

First, the evolution of food carts in Portland deserves some explanation; we must distinguish them from ubiquitous, roving food trucks. The city initially permitted a few vendors to offer snacks and light fare from portable pushcarts on public sidewalks and in Pioneer Square. These pushcarts, permitted and regulated through the bureau of transportation, are self-contained. Most of the limited food preparation is done off site in a licensed, commercial kitchen. Then we saw the growth of self-sufficient food trucks, with or without kitchens, which roam the city streets, tending not to be fixed in a particular location. Today, some of the most popular ones tweet their whereabouts to attract a following.

Over the past ten years, the use of private — not public — space accounted for the more recent explosion in food carts, which typically stay in one location. Entrepreneurs found a loophole: a vehicle on wheels does not have to pay systems development charges. Also, city zoning regulations and building codes do not apply to vehicles on wheels, although food preparation and handling remain regulated by the state and county heath departments, like all restaurants.

Far beyond sidewalk pushcarts, more versatile vehicles, such as travel and utility trailers, small panel trucks, and even recycled double-decker and school buses, have been retrofitted and tethered to utilities. These food carts feature more elaborate kitchens, with improved appliances and counter space, thereby allowing the more sophisticated cooking of increasingly skilled chefs.

Food carts, which can cost just $20,000 to $30,000 to set-up, enable start-up “mom and pop” businesses to inexpensively experiment with menus and gauge customer preferences without the larger risk of investment in a bricks-and-mortar establishment. A substantial number of vendors are family-run small businesses from racially diverse backgrounds. Food offerings range from the enduring to the pioneering, with offerings as diverse as tacos, burritos, and Thai food, as well as gourmet stuffed burgers, well-crafted hearty soups, BBQ, breakfast and dessert crepes, Belgian waffles, and Peruvian-style rotisserie chicken, many of which are available in a “Go Box” recyclable container. Some businesses evolve into permanent restaurants; some established restaurants now offer their fare via food carts.

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Food carts express their own individuality and culture / Carol Mayer-Reed

Parking lot owners enjoy substantially increased revenues over the simple daily rental of a space for a parked car, charging vendors about $550 per month in downtown and $300 in neighborhoods. Utilities are distributed from the interiors of the blocks. Some vendors rent two spaces to accommodate customer dining beneath wooden or fiberglass canopies, on decks or at counters tacked on the sides. Clusters of food carts are now deemed “food pods,” as they associate together in order to create more varied eating environments and amenities of a food court.

The Explosive Growth of Food Pods

Enough about the business of food carts and back to urban space: food pods have organically popped up everywhere in the city. About 40 are currently in operation, with some vendors licensed to serve beer and wine. Pods now front many block faces of streets in downtown surface parking lots. Micro-businesses crop up in parking garages or blank building frontages at sidewalk level. In one central business district location, food carts have lined the entire 200-by-200-foot block perimeter, appearing like a strip of miniature early Western storefronts or perhaps more accurately, a colorful carnival midway (see image at top).

Public safety is enhanced through this vibrancy, which yields a steady supply of customers. Adjacent parks, plazas, and building forecourts are now dotted with folks enjoying a variety of delectable lunches. The food pods are even encouraged to expand to transit stations. Put up some strings of colorful bare bulb lights and watch the ravenous bar crowds collect during the nighttime hours.

In neighborhoods, food pods overtake vacant lots and corner blocks in the commercial nodes. Increasingly sophisticated developers create pods among the hip restaurants and boutique shops. These developments provide increased outdoor dining amenities such as picnic tables, large umbrellas for rain or shine, fire pits, seasonal tents with space heaters, and porta-pots and restrooms in recycled cargo containers. Add Wi-Fi and suddenly these fragmented urban parcels are converted into animated focal points of commerce and community social gathering, complete with buskers on the street corners.

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A food pod in the Southeast Division neighborhood called Tidbit Food Farm and Garden boasts “super-cool food truckery and nick-nackery” / Carol Mayer-Reed

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Design elements such as repurposed steel scaffold structures help divide the common spaces from aisles and carry signage, banners, shade cloth, and festooned strings of light / Carol Mayer-Reed

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A vendor takes a break in a Southeast Division food pod / Carol Mayer-Reed


The Urban Design Debate

The debate, if there is one, lies in the visual appearance of the downtown’s high-rent district, given the temporal nature of the food cart structures and materials. While the vibrancy cannot be denied, the raw entrepreneurship and ad-hoc nature of the pods has resulted in an eclectic plastic-canopied, add-on visual stew. Day or night, most people will agree they are less unsightly than a full (or vacant) asphalt parking lot.

One could argue a new set of regulations should be imposed to organize, align, or govern materials, signage, lighting, and utility hookups. On the other hand, should the ingenuity of the vendors be stifled?

According to Food Cartology, Rethinking Urban Spaces as People Places, a 2008 study by the Urban Vitality Group, Portland “should allow the food carts to reflect design diversity.” In fact, “creativity in cart aesthetics should be encouraged, not limited, in order to allow vendors to creatively participate in the design of the urban fabric.”

Please know that Portland is a place where it’s arduous to gain design approval of bricks and mortar projects. Ironically, city planners, whose job it is to enforce the comprehensive downtown guidelines that support the city’s reputation as a high-quality, livable downtown, saunter across the street from their offices to enjoy a pungent pad Thai noodle dish or an aromatic Indian curry over basmati rice from the “food shack alley.”

Apparently citizens, including bureaucrats, vote with their lunch dollars in greater numbers than those who voice concerns over the visual character of this colorful chaos. Food pods have already yielded a number of positive economic and social benefits, including an increase in public safety and a sense of community.

This guest post is by Carol Mayer-Reed, FASLA, a landscape architect and partner with Mayer/Reed, Inc., a multi-disciplinary design firm based in downtown Portland, across the street from a lively food pod where she and her staff are regulars. She checks out Brett Burmeister’s website, www.foodcartsportland.com. Carol and Brett were contributors to Cartopia: Portland’s Food Cart Revolution, by Kelly Rodgers and Kelley Roy, published by RoyRodgers Press, 2010.

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Halden Prison, Norway / Katherine Cannella

“I was in the cafeteria of the Men’s Maximum Security Facility in Cranston, Rhode Island, to attend the graduation ceremony for education program participants. That morning, 16 men with life sentences received ‘Certificates for Apprentice Gardeners’ recognizing a year’s work in the prison yard garden. Seeing them stand up there with their certificates, peeking at the paper held within the black folders with gold trim, it was clear the garden had meaning for them.” – Katherine Cannella

Katherine Cannella, Assoc. ASLA, who graduated with a master’s of landscape architecture from the University of Virginia in 2014, won a traveling fellowship from UVA to study prison gardens. She wants to use landscape approaches to engage all members of the public, including those at the margins. Prison gardens offer an opportunity to create places to heal for those who must spend time outside of society.

In the summer of last year, Cannella visited ten prisons and one jail with participatory gardens across the United States and Europe, at both men’s and women’s institutions with a range of security levels. Some prison gardens are tucked in corners or between walls or fences. Others occupy prominent places, by the entry or bordering walkways. A few are found in fields.

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Halden Prison, Norway / Katherine Cannella

To prepare for each visit, she would copy plans and aerials into a sketchbook. These initial drawings provided a framework for quick annotations during the often brief time on site. She modeled her research methods on post-occupancy evaluations that included observational walks and interviews with users. While her movement throughout the facility and interaction with inmates was limited, her conversations led to a deeper understanding of the gardens.

Cannella began her conversations with inmates, officers, administrators, and garden program facilitators by asking, “What has your time in the garden meant to you?”

Speaking with inmates at places as diverse as the Men’s Max in Rhode Island and the Halden Prison in Norway, she discovered prison gardens serve many functions. They provide a sense of freedom; offer a comfortable place; supply fresh food for the prison kitchen; connect the prison and the surrounding community; create an aesthetic experience; provide a link with home; and serve as part of ecological network. Each prison is a “living institution,” with a profound impact on inmates who garden as well as the prison community as a whole.

Cannella documented the anatomy of these living institutions. Using site photos and observational drawings as well as layered axonometric drawings, Cannella showed the layout and spatial relationships of six of the sites.

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Detail of the 6,000 sq. ft. garden at Men’s Maximum Security Prison in Rhode Island / Katherine Cannella

In the end, she quoted Ann Whiston Spirn, FASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at MIT, who said, “The simple act of digging garden soil in preparation for spring planting triggers strong emotions: a sense of connection to the earth and the regeneration of life. It is an act of nurturance and an expression of faith in renewal.” The prison garden is a place of freedom and offers inmates purpose.

This guest post is by Jennifer Livingston, Student ASLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture candidate, University of Virginia.

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Parading floats at the Sambadrome / AP

As finalists for this year’s Wheelwright Prize gathered at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design (GSD) to present their research, Gia Wolff, the inaugural winner of the $100,000 traveling fellowship, returned after two years of funded research to give a lecture. The Brooklyn-based architect and GSD alumna won the prize for Floating City: The Community-based Architecture of Parade Floats. Her talk recast the famous Carnaval of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, as an allegory of the city itself.

When Wolff began her research, she knew very little about carnival traditions, or the infrastructure, culture, and community behind the spectacle. She learned that mapping a float’s route through the streets of Mangueira by drawing a set of precise arrows on an aerial photo wasn’t helping her figure things out. Carnaval “is off the map.” In the end, it’s not about getting the sequencing and choreography of floats in the Sambadrome, a linear stadium, exactly right–“it is not really about that, but everything else.”

The first surprising notion was that in Rio, carnival is not an event as much as a practice. Its duration and influence span more than a single show or the arena of a stadium. Wolff refers to this as the “cyclical nature of Carnaval.” It pervades the urban fabric and is deeply embedded in the culture. Preparations begin long before the performance. Samba schools practice the music and dance throughout the year and the Carnavalesco designs the floats months in advance. Costumes and floats are constructed in old warehouses, disguising the work up until the eleventh hour–no small task for a float the size of a building. In fact, the floats can’t take final form until they enter the parading ground of the Sambadrome. After months of rehearsal, the “perfect image of Carnaval” is fulfilled only during the parade. It is as if sneaking a peak would jinx the final picture.

The Samba schools also operate under a fierce system of competition. Wolff likens the organization of the schools to a soccer league. Three tiers with varying degrees of monetary and cultural capital all participate in the carnival with their respective floats. But while the first and second-tier schools parade in the Sambadrome designed by Oscar Niemeyer and built in 1984, the third tier moves through the streets, the original parading ground. This reminds the audience that the Sambadrome is little more than a glorified avenue, constructed and reserved for a single purpose and only a few days each year. The surprising permanence of this structure contradicts its relative temporary function as a street, and the otherwise pervasive nature of Carnaval.

But what really captured Wolff’s imagination were the immense and utterly spectacular floats, which set the whole parade into motion. It’s the float that drives the performance, draws the crowd, consumes much of the labor, and occupies the street. The Portuguese term for float is carro alegórico, “the allegorical car.” But she considered, “could it also be an allegory for the city itself?”

If not the city, perhaps its components. When floats “move through the city like mobile buildings,” the sheer size of the floats–in this case, some of the largest in the world–transform the exterior realm of a street into a new interior. These temporary structures are made with steel frame, wooden construction, and foam, all in the name of a thematic story, which the float, the carro alegórico, tells. The final transformational act, however, that makes the “allegorical car” into a live spectacle and truly gives scale to the construction is the addition of people.

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Carro alegórico carioca, a Brazilian “allegorical car” in Rio de Janeiro / Gia Wolff

We see an image of a large, crane-like machine lifting and lowering elaborately-dressed participants into position, to become part of the float itself. Even though the performers appeared grossly out of scale, they gave the float a dimension at the “unexpected architectural scale.” And then we see a short video clip from the Sambadrome that features a boat and rowers at the center of a large blue tarp. The tarp is suspended from the hips of the performers standing in dispersed perforations, and their coordinated hip-swaying is making waves in the sea. The objects represented are everyday objects, but Wolff promises, their performance transcends the urban scale. In this way, she observes, Carnaval presents “hyper-reality as a new sort of normal reality.”

This guest post is by Lara Mehling, Student ASLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture candidate, Harvard University Graduate School of Design

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Vista Hermosa Park (met AB 1881 and LID requirements) / Mia Lehrer + Associates

For the past century, much of California has relied on an inherently fragile and unreliable imported water infrastructure. While the current crisis attracts the attention of the media and public, the environmental community and government have been actively pursuing solutions for decades. These efforts have resulted in long-term water conservation. For example, Los Angeles has seen a dramatic increase in population since the 1970’s, but water use has actually declined, with the largest drops in use during periods of drought and recession. Efforts are now focused on decreasing demand for imported water by increasing local supplies. A few weeks ago, we wrote about ways each of us as individuals can conserve water in our landscapes by copying nature and making choices appropriate to our local micro-climates and water availability. In addition to the smaller-scale decisions we make in our own landscapes, progressive state and local policies are helping California to better conserve its limited water resources.

Here are a few across the state:

Water Conservation in Landscaping Act of 2006 (AB 1881)
This Assembly Bill spurred the creation of the Model Water Efficient Landscape Ordinance, which established maximum allowed landscape water budgets and mandated low water-use plants and efficient irrigation strategies. AB 1881 encourages us to capture and retain on site stormwater and use recycled water. The ordinance also requires soil assessments, soil management plans, and landscape maintenance plans to accompany landscape plans submitted through municipal permit processes.

Urban Agriculture Incentive Zones (AB 551, in progress)
If passed, Assembly Bill 551 will incentivize the use of currently-vacant private land for urban agriculture. Private landowners could have their property assessed at a lower property tax rate — based on agricultural use rather than its market value — in exchange for ensuring its use for urban agriculture for 10 years. Increasing local agricultural production where recycled water is readily available can reduce water and energy use in food production and increase our cities’ self-sufficiency and resilience in the face of potential natural disasters.

In Southern California:

Recycled Water
The Los Angeles County Bureau of Sanitation and Orange County Water District (OCWD) began recycling water in the 1960s and 1970s, respectively, for groundwater recharge and non-potable uses — or uses other than for drinking, such as irrigation or industry. In 2008, the OCWD district began recharging its groundwater supplies with water treated to levels above drinking water standards for reuse as potable water. A big push to educate the public about the process and its benefits smoothed the transition. The district is now expanding production from 70 to 100 million gallons per day, or enough to supply nearly one-third of Orange County’s 3.1 million people. Los Angeles, which delayed their water recycling efforts for drinking water after negative PR alarmed the public, is now planning to expand their recycled water program, including groundwater recharge, by 2035.

In Los Angeles:

Proposition O (2004)
Los Angeles voters overwhelmingly passed Prop O to use $500 million to fund projects to:
•    Protect rivers, lakes, beaches, and the ocean;
•    Conserve and protect drinking water and other water sources;
•    Reduce flooding and use neighborhood parks to decrease polluted runoff;
•    Capture, clean up, and reuse stormwater.

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Peck Canyon Park, San Pedro, funded with Prop 0 funds / Mia Lehrer + Associates

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Los Angeles Zoo Parking Lot bio-infiltration, funded by Prop 0 / Mia Lehrer + Associates

Low Impact Development Ordinance (2012)
Los Angeles’ LID Ordinance ensures that new and redevelopment projects recharge groundwater aquifers to increase future water supply; protect water quality downstream; reduce flood risk by keeping rainwater on site; remove nutrients, bacteria, and metals from stormwater runoff; and reduce and slow water that runs off of properties during storms.

But there is still much more we can do. Caroline Mini, who wrote her PhD dissertation at the University of California last year, shows how urban residential water use in Los Angeles is largely determined by income. Wealthier neighborhoods on average use three times more water than poorer neighborhoods. This is despite the fact that most wealthier neighborhoods inhabit tree-covered hillsides with ample available soil moisture, while less fortunate residents occupy dryer, flatter, and less shaded areas. Better-off communities have the opportunity to use their wealth to establish well-designed, resource-efficient, and beautiful landscapes that will become models in water conservation. And cities and counties have the opportunity to create green infrastructure projects that add tree canopy and increase permeability to regain the sponge quality of soil in those low-land neighborhoods that will benefit most.

Agriculture accounts for 80 percent water of the used by people in our state. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Pacific Institute published an issue brief last year illustrating the massive water conservation potential that could come from more efficient agricultural practices. Just using the most up-to-date irrigation technologies and applying only the amount of water crops need could reduce agricultural water use by 17-22 percent. In 1975, Masanobu Fukuoka wrote The One-Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming, describing dry rice farming techniques that matched or out-produced his most productive neighbors. This poetic story about working with nature instead of against it to grow successive crops with little effort is more relevant than ever today.

More thoughtful planning for both rural agricultural and urban water use is needed. We can determine which crops and farming methods best serve our regional and exported food needs while further conserving water. We can advance urban water efficiency plans, which could generate savings that can negate the current deficit, while creating greener, more resilient and self-reliant cities.

This guest post is by Mia Lehrer, FASLA, founder of Mia Lehrer + Associates, and Claire Latané, ASLA, senior associate, Mia Lehrer + Associates.

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Visitors to a National Park in West Virginia / WPublic Broadcasting

At the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C., U.S. Interior department Secretary Sally Jewell said national parks had their highest visitation rates ever in 2014, with more than 400 million visits, and those numbers are expected to only increase in the next year, after the launch of President Obama’s Every Kid in a Park program, which will eliminate park fees for every 4th grade kid and their family for a year. “This sends a message that parks are not just for wealthy white people, but for everyone.”

National parks contributed $26 billion directly to the economy last year, said Jewell. And a few years ago, the entire outdoor recreation economy — covering everything from tent purchases to ski rentals — was estimated to be valued at $646 billion, and responsible for 6.1 million jobs.

These numbers show how outdoor jobs aren’t just related to extractive industries, like fracking. “Communities can chose between jobs in the extractive and recreation and conservation industries. It’s just not about extraction.”

To preserve and grow the outdoor recreation economy, she called for a more thoughtful balance between conservation and development. She said one way to achieve this is “acting at the landscape level.” For example, depending on the site, a place may be “appropriate or inappropriate for development; there are certainly places that are too special to develop.” Landscape level planning, Jewell argued, can help create “long term health for both habitats and communities.”

Other speakers weighed in on the outdoor recreation economy:

Paul Smith, a venture capitalist, is behind a group called Conservation for Economic Growth, which argues that open spaces have a direct economic impact. “They have an economic value beyond their tourism value.” He pointed to how real estate with a view of the water or another open space is always worth more than properties without; how a higher-level floor in an apartment building is always worth more than one on a lower floor. “There’s a value to wonderful views.” Smith said the Commerce Department is expected to launch a study exploring open space’s value.

Margaret Walls, senior fellow, Resources for the Future, said with climate change, the scenic natural systems that also provide crucial ecosystem services are only going to be worth more. The gorgeous wetland that protects a community from storms, or that scenic river headwaters that improves water quality, will be worth more the more they are needed.

Cam Bresinger, NEMO Equipment, said “numbers are powerful” and should be used by progressive candidates to promote the outdoor recreation economy in legislatures. “Give them the data they can use to build the argument.” It should be that if a representative is from a part of the country where there are lots of ski resorts or hiking trails, it will be “inconceivable if they don’t mention this.”

Lastly, someone from the audience proposed more rigorous studies on the health benefits of nature. Specifically, he called for a National Institute of Health (NIH)-funded study comparing the benefits of drugs, therapy, or exposure to nature for veterans for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “Vets with severe PTSD could be given the opportunity to join the Conservation Corps, where we could study how well they respond to the medicinal effects of being out in nature.” One day, national parks could be considered part of our healthcare system, too.

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SXSW Eco light art installation / SXSW Eco

South by Southwest (SXSW) Eco, which has grown from a small off-shoot of the well-known SXSW music festival into a major sustainable design conference, is now looking for the “businesses, designs, and technologies that will drive global change” for its early October conference in Austin, Texas. SXSW Eco looks like the perfect place for landscape architects to present their innovative ideas, as this year the focus will be on architecture and the built environment; art and design; smart cities and transportation; and water and resources.

The conference organizers are looking for “content that inspires, educates, and informs, providing motivation as well as the tools to take action.” They want a real “diversity in perspective, opinion, and representation.” Furthermore, “self-promotion and advertorial presentations are not well-received.” Session proposals could include panels, workshops, debates, or any other creative format.

According to Forbes magazine, “creating that marketplace for exchange of ideas and progressive thinking is what South by Southwest Eco is all about.”

Submit your session proposals by May 1. Using the “PanelPicker” tool, the SXSW community will then vote on which sessions will make it into the conference.

For those just looking to attend some conferences and get some new ideas this spring or summer, here are a few of interest: Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) in Dallas, Texas (April 29 – May 2); Lightfair International in New York, NY (May 3 – 7); The Cultural Landscape Foundation’s Second Wave of Modernism III: Leading with Landscape in Toronto, Canada (May 21-24); International Federation of Landscape Architects (IFLA) World Congress in St. Petersburg and Moscow, Russia (June 7-15, 2015); and the Society for Ecological Restoration’s World Conference in Manchester, England (August 23 – 27).

See hundreds of upcoming conferences at ASLA’s continuously-updated free resource: Conferences for Landscape Architects.

Even the playground will look natural / Photo: Nelson Byrd Woltz, The Houston Chronicle

Master plan for Memorial Park, Houston / Photo: Nelson Byrd Woltz, The Houston Chronicle

Council OKs Plan to Reimagine City’s Marquee Green SpaceThe Houston Chronicle, 4/1/15
“The joggers, hikers, cyclists, equestrians and ballplayers who use Memorial Park will see the city’s marquee green space reborn over the next two decades, a process furthered with the Houston City Council’s unanimous approval Wednesday of a new master plan for the park.”

Beijing to Upgrade Green Belts to Combat PM2.5People’s Daily, China, 4/2/15
“This year, Beijing plans to upgrade some of the city’s green belts with plants that have strong dust retention ability, in an effort to combat PM2.5 and improve air quality. Eighteen types of plants have been selected for the trial program.”

In Chicago, Parks Are on the Upswing  – Grist, 4/8/15
“For three decades, residents begged for a verdant space where their children might play or where they could sit for a brief reprieve. Finally, weary of waiting for the Chicago Park District to cobble together such a site, they chose to do it themselves.”

California is Naturally Brown and Beautiful. Why Are Our Yards Green? – The Los Angeles Times, 4/9/15
“A few years ago, my wife and I decided to replace the mangy bit of lawn in front of our house with drought-tolerant dymondia, which was supposed to spread into an interconnected ground cover. Less water, no mowing, I thought. Easy call. But the dymondia struggled, and seemed to ebb in the hot summer and flow in the cooler, wetter winter.”

Hargreaves Presents Four “Approaches” to Downtown East Commons – The Star Tribune, 4/9/15
“Landscape architecture firm Hargreaves Associates for the first time revealed images for The Commons, a future park in downtown Minneapolis shouldering high expectations from the public for recreation and commercial growth in the area.”

Water Management Key for Urban Planning The Korea Herald, 4/10/15
“As water, life’s most critical resource, becomes scarce, strategic and advanced water management is emerging as a key policy task for cities. Cities in Denmark are spearheading the best practices in prioritizing water management in their urban planning policy development.”

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Native plants at private residence in Los Angeles / Tom Lamb Photography

California is a big state. To offer water saving techniques, we first need to understand the state’s unique climates and ecosystems. In broad terms, we have South Coast, South Inland, North Coast, Central Coast, Central Valley, mountain and desert climates. The Sunset Western Garden Book divides our state into 17 planting zones according to factors such as elevation, temperatures, and coastal influence. In Southern California alone, we have the Mediterranean South Coast region, the semi-arid Inland Empire, and the dry Mohave and Sonora Deserts. In our mild climates where almost anything grows if you just add water, we have spoiled ourselves into depending on imported water with an uncertain future. Now we have to adapt to rely on locally-available sources.

This is tough but doable in Los Angeles when we get an average 14 inches of rain a year. It’s tougher during the current drought when it can rain an average of just 5 inches per year. While many areas rely on harvested rainwater, we have only one rainy season in Los Angeles and it falls in the winter. That means any rainwater we store needs to last through seven months of hotter and hotter temperatures.

In addition to our climate challenges, urban Los Angeles is covered by impervious surfaces that create heat islands and interrupt groundwater recharge. But in a state where residences use nearly half of urban water — and landscapes consume over half of single-family home water use — there is a lot we can still do to save water through residential landscape design:

Copy nature: In nature, creeks and streams collect rain that falls on the mountains and hillsides. Trees and vegetation soak up the water, shade the soil, and drop leaves that decompose to become habitat, a protective layer of mulch, and eventually soil. The soil acts like a sponge, holding water for long enough periods of time for native plants to make it through the summer. You can mimic nature at home by reducing impermeable surfaces, grading to keep rainwater on site, planting climate-appropriate shade trees and plants, and adding a thick layer of mulch to conserve soil moisture.

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Shade trees at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum’s Nature Gardens / Mia Lehrer + Associates

Choose beneficial plants: Plant things that feed you or provide habitat for birds and beneficial insects, especially pollinators. Our food crops, whether at home or in the Central Valley, depend on bees to bear food. Choose plants that are adapted to your area’s climatic conditions. Check out the principles of permaculture and companion planting to encourage a healthy garden ecology. Test plants and look around your neighborhood to see what works with little care before planning your entire garden.

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Garden with plants for pollinators at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum’s Nature Garden / Mia Lehrer + Associates

Check your technology: If you have an irrigation system, check it for leaks and for overwatering. Look for rebates to convert older systems to more efficient drip irrigation or microspray systems. Install a rain gauge to stop the system when it rains. Research your plants’ water needs and check your timer or controller to make sure you aren’t over watering, which is shockingly common. If you are, wean your plants down to a less frequent watering schedule. Reuse your greywater in the landscape. Water from the washing machine or shower is a great way to irrigate fruit trees, water-loving shade trees, and small lawn areas for children and pets. Experts can install systems that direct the water from your shower or laundry through a filter and into the garden. Hire an expert or understand the requirements for managing greywater safely.

To sum up, here are our recommendations:

Work your soil for porosity.

Grade your garden to hold water.

Plant shade trees. Choose trees wisely.

Source local materials.

Incorporate regionally-appropriate vegetation.

Include edibles and plants for pollinators.

Check your pipes for leaks.

Employ state-of-the-art technology and irrigation products.

Investigate rain barrels, greywater re-use, and old methods of irrigation, like clay pots or “ollas.”

Minimize lawn to areas that are really used for play.

Think long-term. Know a plant’s mature size and make sure it won’t outgrow the space.

Garden without chemicals to preserve water quality.

Design matters. Use an expert or research design strategies to delineate space.

Live lighter on the land.

Find out more at your local cooperative extension, arboretum, botanical garden, water district, or from the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) or U.S. Forest Service.

This guest post is by Mia Lehrer, FASLA, founder of Mia Lehrer + Associates, and Claire Latané, ASLA, senior associate, Mia Lehrer + Associates.

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