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Archive for the ‘Cities’ Category

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Dr. Robert Zarr leads a hike through a park in Washington, D.C. / Diana Bowen and National Park Service

For more LA in the News, check out LAND, ASLA’s newsletter. If you see others you’d like included, please email us at info@asla.org.

The Music City’s New Urbanism: The Nine Projects Leading Nashville’s Transformation – The Architect’s Newspaper, 7/2/14
“New riverfront parks are transforming Nashville’s connection to the Cumberland River, bikeshare docks have appeared around downtown, bus rapid transit is in the works, and the city’s tallest tower is set to rise. And that’s just the start of it. Take a look at the city’s dramatic transformation and a peek at where it’s headed.”

America’s Leading Design Cities – CityLab, 7/8/14
“Where are the key clusters and geographic centers of design in America? Which are its leading design cities?”

How Chinese Urbanism Is Transforming African Cities Metropolis Magazine, 7/8/14
“The factory of the world has a new export: urbanism. More and more Chinese-made buildings, infrastructure, and urban districts are sprouting up across Africa, and this development is changing the face of the continent’s cities.”

To Make Children Healthier, a Doctor Prescribes a Trip to the Park – NPR, 7/14/14
“About 40 percent of Zarr’s young patients are overweight or obese, which has led the doctor to come up with ways to give them very specific recommendations for physical activity. And that has meant mapping out all of the parks in the District of Columbia — 380 parks so far.”

AILA Launches the Program for Australia’s First Landscape Architecture Festival – World Landscape Architecture, 7/15/14
“The festival to be held in Brisbane from 16th to 18th of October to explore, define and forecast Landscape Architecture from differing perspectives. The Festival program includes exhibition, walks, self-guided walks, a research forum and conference.”

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All photographs from the book Ciphers, cropped / Copyright Christoph Gielen

In his compelling new book Ciphers, Christoph Gielen shows us the amazing shapes of suburbs, which he captures while hanging out of a helicopter. Gielen’s goal is to use his aerial photography to show us how “off-kilter” our sprawled-out communities have become. He hopes to “trigger a re-evaluation of our built environment, to ask: what kind of development can be considered sustainable?”

The physical forms of these communities in Florida, Arizona, Texas, and California and overseas in Scotland, Germany, and China are otherworldly in themselves. The photographs titles are equally as abstract, mostly marked as Untitled or perhaps simply the development’s name, like Sterling Ridge or Eden Prairie, which are themselves ironic, given how divorced they are from their environment. The photographs of these places, taken together, truly are ciphers, in that they help us understand the underlying logic, the code that shaped these sprawled-out places.

The photographs show us that when a community is totally detached from its surroundings, all kinds of forms are possible. In his introduction, Geoff Manaugh, long-time editor of BLDGBLOG, says “the suburbs are, in a sense, intensely original settlement patterns tiled over the landscape in ways our species could never have anticipated. We are living amid geometry, post-terrestrial screens between ourselves and the planet we walk upon.”

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Gielen tells Manaugh that many of these communities, being so separated from their surrounding nature, are “absolutely self-contained.” Many of them are “not changing any more.” In particular, Manaugh describes the Sun Belt suburbs as “static, crystalline, and inorganic.” He adds, “Indeed, many of these streets frame retirement communities: places to move to once you’ve already been what you’ve set out to be. This isn’t sprawl, properly speaking. They are locations in their own right, spatial endpoints of certain journeys.”

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In another essay in the book, Susannah Sayler and Edward Morris, co-founders of The Canary Project, describe why these places are so bad for the environment. They point to arguments eloquently made by Kongjian Yu, FASLA, president of Turenscape. In an ASLA interview they quote from, Yu says: “We’ve misunderstood what it means to be developed. We need to develop a new system, a new vernacular to express the changing relationship between land and people…It should address the issue of survival, not pleasure making, or ornament. It should be for survival, because we are now, as human beings, at the edge of survival.”

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According to Sayler and Morris, Yu sees survival-based planning and development as fundamentally based in “ecological awareness and environmental ethics.” Yu begins all of his projects with an aerial analysis. He looks for the “ecological infrastructure that will guide urban development.” Yu defines ecological infrastructure as the “structural landscape network composed of critical landscape elements and spatial patterns.” In other words, Sayler and Morris write, “everything that was ignored in the developments that Gielen highlights in this book.”

Galina Tachieva, a partner at Duany, Plater-Zyberk and author of the Sprawl Repair Manual, says the photos illustrate how we are now stuck using a model that doesn’t work. “Such communities do not live up to the promise of an idyllic suburban alternative to the stress and hardship of dense city life — but have failed economically,  socially, and ecologically. Yet planning practice in the United States continues to promote and subsidize this type of settlement pattern through codes and policies that would make building traditional cities and towns illegal today. These trends are perpetuated despite what we know about more efficient use of land, energy, and water.”

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Tachieva argues, “the time has come to switch from auto-dependent and single-use monocultures to complete, human-scale communities.” Our only option, she says, is to “repair the worst excesses of sprawl — to find ways to restructure and redefine as much of it as possible into livable and robust neighborhoods.” This can happen by introducing new transit options, reconfiguring suburban blocks into denser ones, transforming dead malls into new town centers, and converting vacant sprawled-out communities back into open spaces and farmland. Sprawled-out places can devolve or shrink back.

Following the lead of developers and elected officials, the urban planning and design professions really enabled these kinds of developments to happen. Solving suburban sprawl — really, fixing the mess we created — will then require a long-term, collective effort. And, for some, these places may not even be seen as a problem. As a recent article from The Washington Post explains, liberals see dense urban environments as the answer, while conservatives are fine with their McMansions set within the endless sprawl.

Explore the book.

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Blue Urbanism / Island Press

Timothy Beatley, professor of sustainable communities at the University of Virginia, has done it again. His excellent book from a few years ago, Biophilic Cities: Integrating Nature into Urban Design and Planning, has been followed-up by an equally well-written and persuasive new one, Blue Urbanism: Exploring Connections between Cities and Oceans. In this book, Beatley expands his purview beyond the “green urbanism” of Biophilic Cities to the vast oceans that make up 70 percent of the face of the Earth and contain 97 percent of its water. While he still argues that cities must integrate green — really ecological design principles at all levels — into dense urban environments, he cautions that cities can’t ignore oceans and marine environments. He admits that he basically left out oceans in Biophic Cities. He certainly makes up for it in this book, which argues that we also have biophilic connections to the oceanscape, and that connection is essential to building a more “complementary, mutually sustainable relationship between city and ocean.”

It seems much of the inspiration for Blue Urbanism came out of a fortuitous experience Beatley had in Perth, Australia. There, he witnessed how “urbanites, under the right circumstances, can take on ocean conservation.” A real estate developer wanted to build a massive hotel resort along the coast facing the vulnerable Ningaloo Reef. The spot proposed was apparently the “worst location for preserving marine biodiversity.” Beatley was amazed by the collective sense of outrage, manifested in everything from bumper stickers to rallies and letter writing campaigns. Under pressure, the state’s premier (similar to a U.S. governor) shut down the plans. Beatley says “this story has stayed with me as a remarkable example of how urbanites, even those hundreds of kilometers away, can care for and advocate on behalf of the ocean world.”

The trick is turning all those good feelings about oceans — and the charismatic sea creatures we all love: whales, sea turtles, sea stars, to name a few — into real urban policies and plans that protect oceans. Beatley points to a few examples of local governments that have taken the lead, from San Francisco, with its ban on plastic bags; to Hong Kong, with its burgeoning movement to stop the consumption of shark fins; to Wellington, New Zealand, which has forged a deep and sustainable connection with its coastal environment. Still, Beatley thinks most cities can go much further than they are now, creating “blue belts,” to protect ocean spaces in the same way cities create designated “green belts” on land.

The world’s oceans — and their rich coastal zones — are in dire need of protection. While ocean diversity is important in its own right, our protection of it is really self-interested. This is because our “urban future and ocean world are intimately connected in numerous ways.” The world’s oceans are major carbon sinks, soaking up 2 billion tons of CO2 annually. Ocean related jobs total 350 million worldwide. Seafood generates $108 billion in economic value, while eco-tourism to reefs creates another $9 billion alone. We also get energy from the ocean — in the form of undersea oil deposits, and, hopefully, in the future, more offshore wind farms. Beatley says offshore wind farms could provide today’s energy needs four times over, if we were smart. Oceans are also our main transportation channels. But all of these interactions with our oceans must be done in a more considered, sustainable fashion to prevent more of what Beatley calls “ocean sprawl,” which negatively impact the “integrity of ocean ecosystems.”

Ocean sprawl has had terrible impacts. Those huge gyres — garbage patches — will continue to grow for the next 500 years, even if we stop putting any plastic in the ocean right now. Coal-burning power plants send huge amounts of mercury into the oceans. Here’s just one scary stat Beatley cites: “A recently released United Nations Environment Program report documents a doubling of mercury levels in the top 100 meters (300 feet) of ocean water over the past 100 years.” Then, there are events like the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Too many cities don’t understand their connection to oceans. Beatley explains how a number of local non-profits are trying to change that. In Seattle, a group called Beach Naturalists is helping locals understand the magic of their coastline. “The program trains several hundred volunteer naturalists in the ecology and life found in the intertidal zone, and these volunteers patrol the city’s parks to help people understand more about life in tidal pools.” And then there’s the group called LA Waterkeeper, which aims to build awareness of the massive kelp forests just off the coast of Los Angeles. Did anyone know they were there?

Returning to Wellington, New Zealand, Beatley explains how that city has “created a new marine reserve on one of its shores, a marine education center providing children and adults alike the chance to touch and see marine organisms, the world’s first marine bioblitz (engaging the citizens in the recording of marine biodiversity), and a powerful new vision of its ‘blue belt,’ a complement to its historic and prized greenbelt system.” Imagine if New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco — and all the major coastal cities around the world — took their marine environments as seriously as Wellington does, and actually extended the marine world into the city.

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Dive instructor with sea stars in the Wellington harbor / Mark Coote

In a few sections of the book, Beatley dives into what blue urbanism looks like. Of interest to planners, architects, and landscape architects, he outlines how the “redesign of buildings and public spaces to foster resilience to climate change and rising ocean levels” can also extend “urban spatial planning and conservation into marine environments.” He points to innovative examples in Singapore, Rotterdam, Toronto, and Oslo.

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ASLA 2009 Professional General Design Honor Award. Spadina Wavedeck, Toronto, Ontario, Canada / West 8 + DTAH

Read Blue Urbanism and check out the review of Beatley’s earlier book, Biophilic Cities.

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1. Bikes at Intersection

Bikers at intersection / Heb @ Wikimedia Commons

Investing in bicycle infrastructure is good for people and cities

For urban cycling advocates, investing in bicycle infrastructure can help undo the damage of decades of bad decisions, which have left too many places with a car-centric transportation system. The thinking — which was perfectly expressed by Copenhagen bicycle ambassador Mikael Colville-Anderson during his recent TED talk — is: “Bicycling is the most potent medicine we possess … for designing livable cities.”

Advocates say designing for bikes will yield broader benefits, making our cities healthier places to live. Shifting from motor vehicle based transportation to cycling produces multiple wins for cities: reduced greenhouse emissions and traffic congestion, and gains in air quality, fitness, and the economy.

Biking can also be a very efficient mode of transportation, especially in highly dense environments. The You Are Here project  from the Social Computing Group at the MIT Media Lab recently released a series of interactive maps enabling users to determine the best mode of transportation from various locations in eleven cities: walking, bicycling, public transit, or driving. As an example, they looked at Manhattan and found that outside short-range distances, where walking is fastest, biking often wins out for most locations leaving from midtown.

2. Manhattan Transportation

From midtown Manhattan, 49.7% of the city is reached fastest by bike, 33.8% by public transit, and 16.2% by car / You Are Here project via vox.com

Cycling is not without its risks. Good design can help mitigate them.

Bikers face an uneven match with cars and trucks, should an accident occur. The good news is designers and planners have found many ways to mitigate these risks through good design and increased awareness. Best practices, such as those listed in the NACTO Urban Bikeway Design Guide, have been implemented across the country with much success. A popular recent video from urban planner and designer Nick Falbo adapts a promising Dutch design solution for the continually sticky issue of intersections – still one of the more dangerous places for cyclists. And, in general, the more cyclists on the road, the safer conditions are for all cyclists. In its first year of operation, with estimated 8.75 million trips, New York City’s Citi Bike bike-share program has seen zero fatalities and just 25 visits to the emergency room. Capital BikeShare in D.C. also has yet to see any fatalities after several years in operation.

3. Protected Intersection

Protected intersection / Nick Falbo

Fewer solutions have been determined for the longer-term risk of increased exposure to air pollution. While the overall health benefits still appear to outweigh the risks, urban cyclists can inhale significant amounts of pollutants from nearby motor vehicles.

Suggestions for decreasing this risk — taking quieter back-routes, biking during off times (especially in the morning since ozone peaks in the afternoon), avoiding intersections, and wearing a respiratory mask — tend to place the burden on cyclists. They are also not much use to urban commuters and portray cycling as niche and unsafe, an issue at the core of Colville-Andersen’s TED talk. The bicycle ambassador, who is opposed to wearing helmets — he claims the science is split on their effectiveness and government mandates on helmet-wearing have tended to suppress rather than increase biking — would almost certainly not approve of the suggestion that cyclists wear face masks. (His arguments on helmets and the culture of fear are interesting and worth a watch).

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A necessary health precaution? / Totobobo

A new study from the Harvard School of Public Health that compared exposure to air pollution — specifically “black carbon” and nitrogen dioxide — on bike lanes adjacent to traffic versus bike paths separated from traffic may offer guidance for designers, planners, and officials. In Boston, the study found exposure was impacted less by time of day or traffic congestion levels and more by proximity of cyclists to the traffic itself and the presence of greenery. Cyclists on the green bike paths separated from vehicular traffic saw the least exposure, an effect increased both by distance from cars and by the green buffers.

The study’s most significant case study focused on the bike path along Sturrow Drive, a major parkway along the Charles River, 100-feet away from the road and separated by a row of trees. There, fewer intersections reduced exposure, and trees both pushed fumes up and away from the path and collected particulate matter on their leaves.

Green buffers can be easily integrated into the existing urban fabric. Doing so will help keep cyclists safe and healthy, but all citizens will reap the benefits.

5. Protected Bike Path

Protected bike path / Paul Krueger via Flickr

Yoshi Silverstein is the ASLA 2014 communications intern. He is a Masters in Landscape Architecture candidate at the University of Maryland. He focuses on landscape experience and outdoor learning environments.

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Empty lot next to mowed lot, New Orleans / Jared Green

At the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) conference in New Orleans, the focus was on change — and how change will impact cities’ search for social equality. Much of urban infrastructure will need to be bolstered to survive a range of shifts: population booms or busts, economic growth or stagnation, and climate change and increasingly frequent natural disasters. But as cities adapt to these changing social, economic and climatic circumstances, are the most vulnerable being heard? When cities bounce back from all kinds of disasters, are all communities in the city, both rich and poor, equally as resilient?

Jeff Hebert, executive director of the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA), said, at its peak in 1960, New Orleans had a population of 630,000. After Hurricane Katrina, the “costliest natural disaster in U.S. history,” the population fell to 220,000. Now, it’s up to 369,000, still way off its peak. “We’ve been losing population for decades. Pre-existing patterns just tend to reinforce themselves in the aftermath of a disaster.” Since 1960, the population has grown in the suburbs while the core has lost density. By 2004, the number of vacant parcels was around 20-30,000. Detroit or Cleveland have a similar amount.

New Orleans is found along the banks of the Mississippi River. Land at the edges of the river is actually highest, as it has slowly accumulated there over thousands of years. Beyond these high points along the river, the city’s geography dips, forming a bowl. The French Quarter and other historic settlements are all found on high ground, meaning they are really just a few feet above sea level. Many low-Income communities like the lower 9th ward are under sea level. These neighborhoods were made possible by a pump system invented by the city. “We started building in swamps, exacerbating other environmental issues. Maybe our ancestors had it right building just on high ground.”

After Katrina struck, some 34 affected coastal parishes and New Orleans began to receive assistance through the federal Road Home Homeowner Assistance Program. As “there was no comprehensive plan, the feds took a piecemeal, local approach.” On a one-by-one basis, people could either come back to their old houses and received funds to rebuild, or got funds to rebuild somewhere else. Some 130,000 people got $8.9 billion in grants through this program. The result: “They left us with a patchwork of land.”

NORA was handed all the leftover, empty lots. They have gotten the inventory down from 5,000 to around half that. “Most of the remaining inventory is on lower ground. Some of those neighborhoods came back and others didn’t.”

So NORA initiated an innovative adaptation program for many low-income areas, with “green infrastructure, lot stabilization, alternative maintenance, and two technical assistance programs: growing green and growing home.” Hebert said these programs are about “connecting with the community about local stormwater and beautifying neighborhoods through great landscape design.”

Getting many locals in the poorer parts of the city to buy into empty lots as stormwater management systems has been tricky. “We have to change what is seen as a black eye into something beautiful that increases the quality of life and property values.” A big part of the campaign is educating many who have been there for generations about hydrology and geology. At least New Orleans is focusing on how everyone must adapt.

Roberta Feldman, an architectural activist and founder of the UIC City Design Center, then discussed how “urban redevelopment screws people,” particularly in cities like Chicago. Cities must be more sensitive to existing populations as they make way for new ones. She said Chicago’s latest housing plan will create “high-density, high-price public housing that is not socially just or cost effective.” Instead of redeveloping existing public housing complexes, the city often just tears them down and asks the poor living there to move into apartments somewhere else in the city or join in a public mixed use development. The problem is their existing community has been dismantled, “and these residents don’t want to move.” These efforts are also not cost-effective, Feldman argued, because creating new housing invariably costs much more per square foot than simply revamping older buildings. If the city had used the money more wisely, more public housing could have been developed. “The housing authority could have renovated 25,000 units for the same price as 9,000 new units.”

Cecilia Martinez, recently head of the UN-Habitat in New York, said “we must blame architects for much of the mess” we face trying to adapt cities to change. “They assume a lot. By World War II, they had initiated the Modern City movement and assumed the car would re-organize the city. Because of the car, we had super-blocks, so no one walks anymore. They said ‘let’s do low density. Let’s put towers in the middle of gardens.’” Graphed on top of this car-based system is a developer-led system, which marginalizes the poor. As a result, “Latin America is either super-highways and super-blocks or slums.” Martinez said this urban model is clearly broken because some 800 million people live in slums without access to public spaces. “While New York City, one of the world’s wealthiest cities, is comprised of some 60 percent public space — when you add in streets, parks, and plazas — the slums in Kenya have maybe 1 percent public space.” To enable everyone to adapt, “we need to focus on walking and biking, public spaces, and mixed social structures.”

“In all of the world’s deltas, large changes are taking place,” said Han Meyer, a professor at Delft University in the Netherlands who offered a broader framework for adaptation. The problem is these deltas and other coastal areas are the site of much of the world’s urbanization. There are multiple dynamics happening at once. “There are the dynamics of the natural environment. One thousand years of land-water relations change. The way deltas carry sediment changes over time. These changes have been caused by climate change since the Ice Age, and the process has been ongoing for a long time. Then, there’s the societal use of the delta. Dynamic land-uses plus nature means a very complex system that will continue to change. We need to be able to adapt both types of environments. They are at different frequencies, rhythms. The problem is nature has a different time scale for change than societies.” So his answer for how to adapt to change: “There can be no final plans. We can only build different scenarios. “

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Queens Plaza / Margie Ruddick

Design responses to New York City’s tangled infrastructure, both instant and painstaking, were the subject of a conversation between “design patron” Janette Sadik-Kahn and landscape designer Margie Ruddick, ASLA. Sadik-Kahn is best known for her recently completed tenure as commissioner of New York City’s department of transportation (DOT) under Mayor Bloomberg. Ruddick, as designer of a complex re-imagining of New York’s Queens Plaza, has been one of the beneficiaries of that design-conscious administration’s patronage. Both speakers, winners of 2013 National Design Awards from the event’s sponsor, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, turned a retrospective eye on their recent work in urban infrastructure. The last eight or so years, both speakers claimed, marks a sea change in New York City’s infrastructure and design culture, as design innovations marked a turn from privileging cars and drivers to supporting the comfort and mobility of pedestrians and cyclists.

Ruddick focused on the painstaking work of transforming the complex site of Queens Plaza from gateway and transit hub “morass” into a green refuge in a span of ten years (see image above). Ruddick argued that what was radical in 2006 has become mainstream today: the idea that urban infrastructure can operate aesthetically and ecologically is accepted in a way that was unthinkable when the project began.

Sadik-Kahn reviewed a series of pilot programs for city streets that were rapidly implemented and subsequently institutionalized under her tenure. Where previously streets encouraged speeding, visual clutter, and cycling accidents, these interventions have struck a new balance. Sadik-Kahn spoke of the city’s “new vocabulary” of designs for bike lanes, pedestrian plazas, benches, and green infrastructure. After years of “suspended animation,” the DOT showed that it was possible to change the DNA of city streets.

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Before and After: St Nicholas Ave & Amsterdam Ave / NYC DOT

Looming large over the discussion was the role of patronage and leadership in guiding better design for cities. Now that Bloomberg is gone, what might happen in New York? And who can spearhead similar changes in other cities?

For Ruddick, Queens Plaza, a complex and multi-agency project, was an object lesson in the importance of having a design process and the need to maintain a strong design vision, integrate performance, and avoid design by committee. But the story of her failure to implement a water filtration system across three jurisdictions without talking to the right people demonstrated that politics trumps design. The designer must have a firm hand, but they can’t make the project whole without the “fiat of the person at the top.”

Sadik-Kahn, one of those people at the top, emphasized the necessity of acting quickly, harnessing innovation. And as for the future of sustainable cities, it lies in selling mayors on the value of design as an economic development strategy and hoping for a “global competition of who can be greener.” Citing cities that have followed New York’s example — including Los Angeles, Portland, Oregon and Mexico City — Sadik-Kahn’s new role is to export New York’s “new vocabulary,” as codified in the Urban Street Design Guide, worldwide.

This guest post is by Mariana Mogilevich, PhD, assistant professor, metropolitan studies program, New York University.

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Thames barrier, London / The Greenwich Phantom

“Urban resilience can be defined as the capacity of the system of cities to survive, adapt, and grow no matter what acute shocks occur,” said Judith Rodin, president of The Rockefeller Foundation at the World Urban Forum in Medellin, Colombia. “There have always been shocks throughout history, but, today, they are different — with globalization, climate change, and the immense scale and pace of shocks.” Rodin said shocks are occurring in cities based in increasingly fragile ecosystems, which puts people at unprecedented risk.

On Medellin, which is increasingly viewed as a model of a sustainable city, Rodin said the city’s ability to innovate and incorporate new ideas about its infrastructure shows that it’s becoming a more resilient city. “Medellin was trapped in a cycle of violence and mass incarceration, but it had the capacity to think differently.” Medellin’s city leadership worked on connecting its poor, isolated communities through new transit, libraries, and parks, bringing them into the mainstream. She said this was critical because the poor and vulnerable are the ones who are always most impacted.

Perhaps Rodin’s central point was that “we can’t always predict or prevent catastrophes, but we can control the physical and spiritual damage. It’s not just about how a city operates on its best days, but whether it can operate on its worst.”

So how can cities become more resilient? They have to make “an up-front investment.” While those up-front investments in resilience can be expensive, they can create jobs and improve social cohesion. Improving resilience is not just a task for the public sector either. “Businesses have self interest in becoming involved, too.” Rodin pointed to a World Bank study that argued 25 percent of all businesses that fail after a major disruption don’t reopen.

New technology may also provide hope. “Look at the advances in 3D-printing, which enable us to print parts when distribution systems break down, or on-site manufacturing of emergency shelters.”

To bolster the ability of cities to adapt to changing circumstances, the Rockefeller Foundation announced it will dedicate $100 million to its new 100 Resilient Cities program. By increasing the focus on resilience among 100 world cities, the foundation hopes to create a market for resilient products and services, so more companies have an incentive to serve this market. Cities can use the foundation’s funds to find chief resilient officers, who will be charged with creating a city-wide resilience strategy.

Other global experts also weighed in on the move towards urban resilience. Katherine Vines, C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, which includes 40 of the 50 largest cities in the world, said mega-cities face a “huge job adapting to climate change, shocks, and chronic stresses.” A recent report by the group found that 82 percent of C40 cites are already dedicating staff and funds to urban resilience, including early warning systems and emergency preparedness, and green infrastructure systems, like green roofs and permeable pavements, in order to cool cities and deal with flooding.

As an example, she point to Rio de Janeiro, where Mayor Eduardo Paes is implementing a robust resilience strategy, with an emergency response center, long-term climate risk assessment, and actual construction work to improve slope support and drainage. And there’s also a real human component to the efforts: “Part of the emergency warning system will involve training local nurses.” Vines also mentioned an innovative new “rains app” from the city of Sao Paulo, which enables local residents to see their risk of summertime flooding in real time.

And then Stefan Denig, Siemens Sustainable City program, offered some scary data. Due to flooding in the 1950s, London spent $8 billion on its huge Thames barrier. Over the next few decades, London only had use the gates twice. However, in the past decade, the city had use the gates 40 times. It’s expected the city will soon need to use the gates up to 30 times per year.

While heavy infrastructure like London’s Thames barrier are critical, unfortunately, not all cities can afford the expense. Denig said Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam would need a 170-kilometer-long dam to really protect itself but “no one has the money for that,” so they have to use other approaches.

Resilience will then cost money, which is difficult given cities face so many competing demands for limited funds. What costs is creating redundant systems. For example, London’s subway, the tube, has its own power generation system in case the city’s system fails. “This is high cost and used rarely.”

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On the Benthemsquare in Rotterdam, Dutch landscape architecture firm De Urbanisten has finally achieved what they set out to do seven years ago: create a water park for the community fed entirely by storm water. Instead of hiding runoff in underground pipes and cisterns, the square has been designed to make water the main feature. The designers say this is the world’s first “water square.”

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Watersquare Benthemplein / De Urbanisten

Storm water is channeled through stainless steel gutters into three basins. Two shallow ones collect water whenever it rains, while another deeper basin is reserved for overflows from heavier storms. To help people understand what will flood or not, everything that can flood is painted in shades of blue.

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Watersquare Benthemplein / Millad Pallesh

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Watersquare Benthemplein / Millad Pallesh

And all that transports water is shiny metal.

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Watersquare Benthemplein / Millad Pallesh

In summer, if there is flooding, the main basin could become a pond. If it’s not gunked up with oily residue and leaves, perhaps kids will be playing there. In winter, maybe there’s ice-skating. At least, this is the vision of the designers and community. (Apparently, this is OK in Rotterdam, unlike in the U.S. where there would be lawsuits galore).

The designers came up with the concept in collaboration with students and teachers from Zadkine college and the Graphic Lyceum; members of the adjacent church, a nearby youth theater, and gym; and locals from the Agniese neighborhood of Rotterdam.

The say over the course of three public workshops, “we discussed possible uses, desired atmospheres, and how the storm water can influence the square. All agreed: the water square should be a dynamic place for young people, lots of space for play and lingering, but also have nice, green intimate places. And what about the water? This had to be excitingly visible while running over the square. Detours obligatory! The enthusiasm of the participants helped us to make a very positive design.”

The park doesn’t just work only when it’s raining. When it’s dry, the deep basin is a “true sports pit” as well as a sort of urban theater where people can see and be seen.

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Watersquare Benthemplein / Ossip Van Duivenbode

De Urbanisten also interposes the basins and walkways with green infrastructure made up of trees, grasses, and flowers, all “self-irrigated.”

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Watersquare Benthemplein / Millad Pallesh

See more images of Water Square and other water square concepts, and learn more about the innovative ways in which the Dutch manage water and create community assets.

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MoMA Sculpture Garden / Flickr – La Citta Vita

For more LA in the News, check out LAND, ASLA’s newsletter. If you see others you’d like included, please email us at info@asla.org.

MoMA’s Proposal for Sculpture Garden Pleases and RilesThe New York Times, 2/4/14
“’It’s a ludicrous idea,’ said the landscape architect Michael R. Van Valkenburgh. ‘They fail to understand what’s brilliant about the garden and what makes it great — this cloistered isolation.’”

Green MachineThe Architect’s Newspaper, 2/11/14
“The 24,000-square-foot, $18 million plaza, which Diller, Scofidio + Renfro is planning with Oakland-based Hood Design Studio, will extend from Grand Avenue with a grove of 100-year-old Olive trees, interspersed with crushed stone paving, flowering groundcover, and tree stump tables.”

UK Floods Crisis: How Do You Stop Flooding?International Business Times, 2/11/14
“With areas of the UK experiencing the worst flooding in years, attention has been turned to how it can be prevented or alleviated.”

Is the MoMA Sculpture Garden Doomed?Architect, 2/12/14
“If MoMA throws open its garden, what could happen? How do stewards of cultural landscapes, whether an individual site (like the garden), a larger site (like New York’s High Line), or a much, much larger site (like the City of Savannah) manage the visitor experience, which ranges from restorative contemplation to active stimulation?”

Feature> City of Designerly LoveThe Architect’s Newspaper, 2/14/14
“It would be hard to imagine the city’s great landscaped thoroughfare, Benjamin Franklin Parkway, without the influence of Penn faculty, from Cret who helped design the boulevard to Venturi and Scott Brown and Olin.”

These articles were compiled by Phil Stamper-Halpin, ASLA Public Relations and Communications Coordinator

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How to Study Public Life / Island Press

“I graduated at the first worst point in city planning,” said Jan Gehl, the famed urban designer, at a crowd of hundreds at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. The 1960s were the era “when the architect was big and the city was small.” Eventually, Gehl, who is trained as an architect, saw the light. He married a psychologist, who asked him, “why do architects hate people so much?” He soon realized there was a great “void of knowledge” about how to create buildings and public spaces people actually want to inhabit. So for the past 40 years, Gehl has picked up where activist and author Jane Jacobs left off, and “studied the life of the city in the way same a traffic engineer studies the flow of traffic.” This Danish architect is now appropriately small and the city is big.

Gehl’s six books, many of which are viewed as seminal reads in urban design, have been translated into 28 languages. “They are even in Chinese,” he added, but considering many Chinese cities have not taken up his lessons about creating cities for people, “perhaps they haven’t had time to read them yet,” he laughed. He wasn’t singling out the Chinese for special criticism though. “It really took us about 50 years for the West to really read and absorb Jane Jacob’s messages.”

Two Destructive Paradigms

Over the past 50 years, we’ve had two major paradigms, said Gehl. While Modern city planning ideas were first conceived in the 1920s, with Le Corbusier and his “Contemporary City,” which would be filled with freeways and gargantuan skyscrapers, it wasn’t until the 1960s when they were first implemented. Then, “planners started laying out cities from the airplane.” They would go up in helicopters to “get the full site view.” Modern architects and landscape architects followed their lead, so no one “looked after the people scale anymore.” Gehl calls this the “Brasilia syndrome:” the “city looks fantastic from the air, but is shit on the ground.”

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Brasilia Modernist City / Skyscraper City

Unfortunately, the Brasilia model has not breathed its last gasp yet. China is creating Brasilias everywhere. Dubai is creating “bird shit architecture, just a collection of funny buildings. They hope they can just plop these down and a city will form around them. This doesn’t happen.”

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Dubai / Dubai Dhow blog

The other paradigm is the “car-centric city, or the car invasion.” People in cities have been pushed out in favor of creating an environment for cars. “This is a landscape of cheap gasoline.” This landscape almost took over lower Manhattan as Robert Moses sought to bulldoze Soho, the West Village, and parts of Chinatown to create huge freeway off-ramps and high-rises. Only Jacobs, with her “ceaseless” efforts, was able to stop him. She taught us that “if the Modernists and motorists dominated cities, they will become dead places.” She taught us “we must look at how people use cities to understand how to shape them.”

A New Paradigm

It was only taken us 50 years to process Jacob’s messages, but people now want “lively, attractive, safe, sustainable, healthy cities.” Through new research, “we now know the relative importance of rich public life, its value for democracy, public inclusion, and our happiness.” Successful cities are “people-oriented and smaller scale.” This is because “the greatest attraction of cities is other people.”

Cities where people can walk, bike, and use public transportation are better for people, too. “The cheap petroleum society has major health risks. Lack of daily physical exercise is worse than smoking.” Gehl’s goal is to “move people naturally through city design.” Investment in this design pays for itself: “We save on health costs.”

Gehl said Copenhagen, Denmark, has successfully moved from a “traffic place to a people place.” In the 1960s, the city took car traffic out of its main street. This effort coincided with the publication of Jacob’s book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Gehl said since then Copenhagen has “improved every day” — and continues to do so, with its new goal of becoming the best city in the world for people (and bicyclists) by 2025. The city is accomplishing this through “distinctly people-oriented policies” created by the city’s office of public life. Bicycling rates have doubled over 10 years, and now 37 percent commute to work every day by bike, in comparison with just 27 percent by car. In fact, the issue now is “serious congestion on bike lanes.”

Melbourne is another city that has thrown off the shackles of the car. “The city started out with traffic ridden streets.” The downtown was deemed the “donut” because there was nothing in the center. “It was a useless city center.” Now, there has been a “transformation, and it’s one of the nicest cities in Australia, Asia — even the world. It’s an Australian Paris.” Downtown, daytime foot traffic has increased 40 percent and nighttime traffic, 100 percent. There are now Copenhagen-style bike lanes, which use parked cars to protect bicyclists. Sydney has also become a better place for people, transforming itself with new bicycle infrastructure.

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People-sized street in Melbourne / Buytaert

Amazingly, Moscow is also making great progress. After they hired Gehl Architects, they have made great gains in returning the sidewalks to the people, at least downtown. “We are trying to humanize the city in a place inundated with cars, where the car is king.” Gehl said post-communism, Muscovites felt it was their god-given right to drive and park anywhere. “For a few years, this worked OK and then it didn’t.” Now, Gehl laughed, “if you park your car in the wrong place, it will be sent to Siberia.” He said the “transformation has been a miracle. There are now routes for people, which were nonexistent before.”

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Moscow pedestrians / Gehl Architects

In the U.S., New York City is doing the most to “discourage commuting by car and increasing the use of subway, biking, and walking to get around.” NYC has also put in “more bicycle lanes in five years than Copenhagen has in 50 years.” Closing Times Square to car traffic has been a “huge success,” and a “fantastic influence on other cities,” because “if you can make it in New York City, you can make it anywhere.” Gehl really hopes more pedestrian malls will open where there was gridlock across the U.S.

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Times Square Pedestrian Plaza / Project for Public Spaces

Studying People in Cities

After the success of Cities of People, Gehl and co-author Birgitte Svarre just released How to Study Public Life, which outlines the “field of public life studies.” Here, Svarre took the stage and explained how the field came about. “People knew something was missing in the suburbs but they didn’t know what. They didn’t know how to grasp the issues. There would be greenery and air but no life. Researchers had to start from scratch and treat the city as a lab. They had to go out and learn how to really experience a place.”

Early on, Gehl would go sit in a well-loved square in Italy, spending the whole day studying how people used the space. He found that “people prefer to stand at the edges.” Using that lesson, she asked us to think of all those awkward public spaces that have no edges. Are they human scale?

Gehl and others’ research on public space sits on the shoulders of many others. “William Whyte, Clare Cooper Marcus, Donald Appleyard, Peter Bosselmann, Allan Jacobs, and Fred Kent all tried to figure out the tools for researching public space.” These researchers were part of various schools, which Svarre defined as the Berkeley, New York, or Copenhagen schools.

Svarre said “we know a lot today” because of these people, and their analytical methods still hold water. While new technologies and big data have increased the capacity to collect and analyze data, old-school “observational studies,” which are “cheap and easy to do,” are still important. “Otherwise, you just have lots of data, and then what do you do with that? You can’t replace being there, capturing the nuances.” Svarre said perhaps “we’ve gone from complex back to simple.”

Gehl made a point about how a simple observation can reveal much. When one woman who worked at the Danish embassy in Vietnam went to Copenhagen, she told Gehl, “wow, there are so many children.” Gehl was surprised she said that because Denmark is actually shrinking and can’t even maintain its own population. What this woman witnessed was that every parent who had a child brought them out “because it was safe for them to be out.” In contrast, in Vietnam, which actually has a baby boom, “it’s difficult to see children anywhere because it’s not safe for them in the traffic.”

Parents in Copenhagen actually get their children on bicycles as early as age four, letting them bike to school. Some 30 percent of families in the city also have “family bikes,” in which all the kids pile in. Gehl said “good, safe bike lanes were a condition for all of this.” Furthermore, this really shows that “if there are many children in the city, it’s a sign of a good quality of life and livability. Same with older people and the handicapped.”

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Danish bicyclist with kids / The Times (UK)

Read Gehl and Svarre’s latest book, How to Study Public Life, and check out an interview with Gehl.

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