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Archive for the ‘Ecosystem Restoration’ Category

deer
The Calumet region surrounds Chicago and includes Lake Calumet and the Calumet river system. Here, an amazing alliance of nearly 270 organizations, which have banded together under the name Chicago Wilderness, are working towards improving green infrastructure, creating access to nature for children, devising plans for mitigating and adapting to climate change, and preserving and restoring wildlife habitat. In a full-day tour organized for the American Planning Association (APA) conference by The Field Museum, one of Chicago Wilderness’ members and one of the world’s great natural history museums, pockets of nature were uncovered amid the industrial suburbs and bleak, isolated public housing communities far south of Chicago. The tour was led by Mark Bouman, Chicago Field Director; Laurel Ross, Urban Conservation Director; Alaka Wali, curator of North American anthropology; and Doug Stotz, Senior Conservation Ecologist at The Field Museum.

Green Infrastructure in the Burbs

The first stop on the tour was Blue Island, Illinois, a “free standing industrial community” of 25,000 spread over 45 square miles, where city leaders are working with Chicago Wilderness to protect green infrastructure. There, the “stormwater management issue is huge,” said Mary Poulson, community relations director for Blue Island. Currently, the community can’t deal with the issue well, but aims to use “distributed reservoirs and green infrastructure” to handle the problem. To address the broader challenge of water management across the region, the community has joined with 33 other municipalities in the area to create the South Suburban Green Infrastructure Vision.

The town is also working on creating a “more sustainable watershed” around its Midlothian Creek, which runs through part of the community. Part of this effort is to “protect fragmented natural areas.” While they may not be impressive to look at, “they are valuable” from a stormwater management point of view. They are also valuable habitat. Stotz said this place attracts “early bird migrants.”

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To make this green infrastructure more accessible to the community, a new bicycle trail will be going in along the creek. In another part of town we saw a boat launch.

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Planning efforts were supported by workshops around geography and green infrastructure, which led to a map down to the parcel level. One result is that residential areas are now included in these plans. The city encourages homeowners to install rain barrels. To date, more than 1,000 have been installed and there’s now a waiting list. The city government is pushing for the use of native plants in favor of lawns. Connected with all this green work is an economic development planning process that was started by the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) a few years ago.

Learning about Nature in a Restored Landscape

The Beaubien Woods have been set aside for environmental education purposes, not recreation, but that hasn’t stopped locals from Altgeld Gardens public housing, where President Obama got his start in community organizing, from fishing at the Little Calumet River that runs through the area. At its peak, the housing project had 10,000 people living in more than 2,000 units. Now, there are around 2,500 people in this extremely isolated community. Much of the housing seemed to be falling apart. There seemed to be few shops or services nearby. On top of the isolation and limited opportunities, there are also major odor issues caused by the nearby plants that deal with sewage. “Methane gas is a big problem here,” said Bouman.

The 135-acre Beaubien Woods, which is made up of prairie, woodland and wetland habitats, is part of Cook County’s forest district, which makes up around 11 percent of the total land area. Over the last twenty years, the site has undergone intensive ecological restoration. The site is beautiful. There’s woodlands, a river, and rolling hills in the background. Interestingly, those hills are actually covered garbage dumps, so the woods themselves form the hole in the “toxic donut,” said Bouman.

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While the river is so polluted that pamphlets are distributed outlining the dangers of eating fish caught there, Ross said that the river is actually stocked with fish by the Illinois department of natural resources so they are “relatively OK to eat given they aren’t there long.”

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Stotz said the site is really rich bird habitat. The area attracts more than 180 bird species, perhaps because there are 209 species of native plants. The local Afro Birders group uses the landscape to teach kids from Altgeld and other communities how to spot different types of birds. The Field Museum along with the Calumet Stewardship Initiative are also doing “place-based kids education” to teach locals about “where they are living and connect them to their landscape.” There are volunteer days organized for removing invasive species and cleaning and restoring the ecosystem. Each June, there’s a “family-friendly free nature festival.” Wali said “African Americans are as concerned about preserving nature as any other group of people, perhaps even more than others.”

Getting out in Front of Climate Change

Chicago has created a climate change action plan, but it’s not for nature, said Stotz, so Chicago Wilderness has done their own plan that addresses the possible impacts to local flora and fauna. They created a “biodiversity recovery plan,” which aims to restore nature in the region to make it more resilient and create a network of green and blue corridors to help species migrate.

The organizations involved have been collecting observations about what has changed. For example, the prairie burn season is now “much, much longer,” said Ross, because it’s gotten warmer. She said this opens up windows of opportunity because “there’s less snow on the ground. Things green up earlier.” Communities don’t burn prairies in the summer anyway because it just adds to the “ozone and particulate matter,” which is already high in hotter months. Prairies, just to explain, are “adapted to fire.” Native Americans burned these ecosystems to drive out wild game during hunting. Now, these landscape need to be periodically burnt to maintain their health. Burning also keeps woody invasive plants out. “These are landscapes by fire.”

The Field Museum and other Chicago Wilderness partners are also looking at “carbon storage in protected areas.” Stotz said there are a variety of projects underway to measure the carbon stored in above-ground trees, but more work is needed to measure the carbon storage value of herbaceous plants as well as carbon in soils.

One goal of the alliance is to engage the local community in climate planning and natural restoration work. Wali said they used an “asset mapping” approach, which is a methodology created by urban planners, to discover “the strength of individuals and their capacities” in the communities involved and create a climate community action toolkit local organizations can themselves use to spur action. In six communities, “we mapped the social strengths, including churches, local gardens, and other networks — the intangibles,” to see how to form bottom-up support networks for biodiversity preservation. This approach is needed because “we have to take an integrated view of nature.”

While the communities that will support these natural areas all depend on industrial work for their livelihoods, the process also showed “these people care about nature.”  Their asset mapping work has shown the group that “there are interesting local environmental practices.” People are “actively recycling” even though there are no formal recycling programs. “Junkeros, local recyclers in the latino community, tap their kinship networks to recycle materials.”

Now, the toolkit, which was actually financed with a $100,000 grant by Boeing, is being used by local organizations to tap their networks.

Restoring Nature to Health

Perhaps saving the best for last, the Field Museum scientists then took us to the Powderhorn Prairie Nature Preserve, a deeply rich landscape where prairie, woodland, and oak savannah ecosystems meet. Just a few miles from skyscraper-sized oil refineries owned by BP, there are undulating dunes and swales create a set of “niche habitats.” Bouman said this is the “most biodiverse site in Chicago.”

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A recent Bioblitz, an intensive biological survey that involves counting as many species as possible in a 24 hour period, yielded more than 250 species. “This is a rich edge area,” said Stotz. A volunteer program helped bring the area back.

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Invasive plants and shrubs were crowding out the rare native species, including Illinois’ only native cactus.

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Ross said there was an intensive “reseeding process” to restore the fragile prairie grasses. Then, they were set on fire to remove the invasive plants.

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The hydrology of the site was also restored, undoing the damage from nearby drainage projects.

The ecological restoration brought up many questions, said Ross. “Can the damage be undone? What should we restore to?” She said ecological restoration is “creative, challenging work. No one size fits all. You have to know the local areas intimately.”

Stotz said the effort was important. “These are just little patches, but there are worthwhile things here. That’s why I do this.” Nature is amazingly resilient but sometimes just needs a hand.

Image credits: Jared Green / ASLA

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mexicocity
Can cities with decades, hundreds, or even thousands of years of history adapt to economic, population, and climate change? Can they renew themselves in the process? At the Innovative Metropolis conference organized by the Brookings Institution and Washington University in St. Louis, a few urban experts, Valente Souza, iQh; Alexandros Washburn, urban design chief, City of New York; and Seng Kuan, Sam Fox School, Washington University in St. Louis, explained the legacies that are shaping Mexico City, New York City, and Shanghai, three of the world’s biggest megalopolises, and the approaches they are taking to adapt, with varying degrees of success.

All cities have deep geographic, hydrologic, geological contexts, said Souza. Mexico City, set within a volcanic range, is seen by geologists as sitting upon a “great bowl of jello,” meaning it’s seismically insecure. Early settlers in Mexico City thousands of years ago knew the city’s terrain and natural characteristics, but modern Mexico City residents have forgotten them. “We have forgotten the memory of the space. The drawing has faded out. It needs to be redrawn.”

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Part of that redrawing is finding out what’s really there now. Souza has been looking at population in relation to landscape and found that people are living on ravines and other landscapes best left for stormwater management. Water then is a key line that needs to be redrawn, in large part because the “mental image now is of a flooded city.” Drawing a new picture, “why not use water to maintain the landscape?” To maximize Mexico City’s water resources instead of piping it out of the city, Souza’s organization has been mapping flood zones and creating forests in those places. To date, they’ve sequestered 4,000 acres for “mini-forests within the city.”

Mexico City is already working with people who live on the ravines critical to stormwater management, providing them with educational materials about where they live and asking them to participate in creating master plans on the new ecological functions for the city. Ultimately, this means some will need to move.

Souza added that with all the real estate investment in Mexico City, it’s important for the environment to have value, too. “We have to give value to forests, water.” To accomplish this, he’s creating a “geographical database” with tons of real data on ecological functions to prove to both policymakers and locals that some undeveloped or newly green places have enormous financial value in themselves. “This is a different approach to dealing with nature.”

Growing while maintaining and even strengthening ecological function should be a priority in every city. It seems to be in New York City, which has been adding great new parks within the city and along its shoreline. Washburn said urban design has proven to be a useful approach for managing this process. Urban design is defined as a “set of tools to change cities, techniques to address the form and function of cities.” Urban design tools include rules, plans, and pilot projects. In practice, urban design works at the “confluence of finance, politics, and design.”

According to Washburn, a few urban designers have shaped the history of New York City, and their legacy provides a framework for how the city may adapt in the future. They include Frederick Law Olmsted, the founder of the profession of landscape architecture, who provided an “oasis” in the city, with his world-famous Central Park. Washburn said “when the city commissioners laid out the grid in 1811, they didn’t include a park.” There were simply spaces for recreation at the water’s edge, which were quickly taken up with shipping docks. By putting a park in the middle of the grid and creating a respite in the middle of the city, “Olmsted changed everything.”

The second is Robert Moses, who, in the beginning of his career, accomplished a lot to “un-crowd” the city, adding parks and playgrounds, albeit in a dictatorial manner. The third urban designer with outsized influence: Jane Jacobs, who “organized, confronted, and then met (but didn’t defeat) Moses.” She was an “advocate for the fine grain of neighborhood.” Together, these two “established top down and bottom up planning” process represented in the land-use planning framework NYC uses for all new projects. “Over 7 months, both Moses and Jacobs’ approaches shape the review process for every project.”

Today, the legacy of these three can be found in new projects like the High Line, a project Washburn got behind early. Washburn said Jacobs would have approved because it “preserves the light and air of the neighborhood,” while Olmsted would have “been pleased because it’s like one of his Rambles in Central Park.” With $100 million in public funds, the High Line park has brought in $2 billion in private sector investment (perhaps something Moses would have appreciated).

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Washburn said NYC and other cities are now struggling with how to deal with environment: “Should it be protected from us or managed by us?” The answer may be moot, particularly given nature is now part of the city, and “we must adapt cities to climate change that has already occurred.” While the city is contemplating bold ideas like adding oyster reefs in the harbor to mitigate waves, thousands of acres of new wetlands, and monster-sized sea walls, there are also practical implications. “How do we create a legal framework for oyster-tecture? How do you do an environmental impact statement for that?”

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Lastly, in Shanghai, Seng said the city managers are taking the “Robert Moses approach.” The city’s “hierarchical structure” came out of European planning traditions. To adapt to an exploding population, the city is undergoing an amazing expansion under the “1966 network plan,” which calls for a “new center, nine cities, and 66 new towns,” all within Shanghai. To adapt, the metro system, already the world’s largest, is just trying to keep up. It now has 510 kilometers of track serving 8 million users a day. Some $30 billion USD has been put in to effectively double the network.

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Unfortunately, “Shanghai’s subway doesn’t actually complement the actual structure of the city.” Stations are far apart and far from population densities. The one-kilometer square blocks make navigating the city a challenge to begin with. Seng said Shanghai must further adapt to a changing city and growing population by updating its metro and other transportation system plans. But if the city does this, it will be with the Moses way.

Image credits: (1) Mexico City by satellite / Maps.com, (2) Mexico City slopes / The bicycle diaries. Symaniak, (3) High Line Chelsea Thicket / Guillaume Gaudet (4) Oystertecture in New York City / SCAPE, (5) Shanghai Metro expansion / The Transport Politic.

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ecologicaldesign
The author of Principles of Ecological Landscape Design, Travis Beck, ASLA, landscape and gardens project manager, New York Botanical Garden, offers a daunting proposition in his introduction: “From now on, the ecological function of our planet can only come from a network of preserved, restored, managed and constructed landscapes.” This is based on the premise that human interventions have substantially altered the natural balance of our ecosystem to the point where their ability to function will not endure without our conscious assistance. He continues: “To maintain the function of this network and the quality of life that it offers, we will have to change the way we think about landscape design.”  This call to arms sets the platform upon which the book is based — to integrate ecology into landscape design and address the mounting environmental crisis.

Beck defines an ecological landscape as a “designed landscape based on the science of ecology.” He further quantifies them as “constructed landscapes,” which may incorporate the restoration of a degraded ecological system, but do not seek to “put things back the way they were.” Rather, the goal is to apply our knowledge of nature to create high performance landscapes in which our design goals and natural processes coexist symbiotically.  The author advocates a change in landscape design within the context of environmental change (or impending crisis). This requires assessing landscapes based on a set of ecological and performative criteria.

The book presents a well-researched and scientific explanation of ecological concepts. Beck suggests theoretical approaches to ecological landscapes and offers case studies. In chapters on biogeography, plant selection, microclimates, plant populations, and natural competition within plant communities, the author distills what could have been volumes of technical data into clear explanations of key botanical processes that are critical to establishing symbiotic plant communities, one of the basic elements of a sustainable landscape. Going a step further, he provides general suggestions and guidelines for integrating these concepts into actual designs.

However, this is not a landscape manual with step-by-step instructions. The information is intended for experienced landscape architects, designers, and ecologists who can interpret and apply this data to infuse complex landscape designs with increased ecological value and biodiversity. The wealth of information presented provides a deeper understanding of plant function and community, from which the designer is then expected to make more informed decisions appropriate to the specific conditions of a particular project and site.

The chapters on the design and management of ecosystems and biodiversity present these broader topics clearly, while illustrating the critical link between them. Beck emphasizes that biodiversity is essential if landscapes are to provide increased ecological function. The chapter on soils is particularly relevant to the landscape architecture profession as consulting with a soil scientist is commonplace, if not the norm. He presents an in-depth breakdown of soil formation, properties, and criteria relative to landscape performance. Since soils are the foundation of all landscapes, the information in this chapter should be mandatory reading for all designers.

The final chapters delve into applied landscape ecology and creating landscapes in an era of change. By integrating ecological principles within design, landscapes can be high-performance and adaptable, qualities critical to sustaining an ecological balance sufficient to support the planet’s growing needs.

Overall, Beck provides clearly-presented science, ecological concepts and processes, and suggested strategies for implementation. These are not ready-made solutions but provide a solid foundation for designers to broaden their understanding of the ecological principles in nature that can be factored into landscape design.

If landscape architects are to expand their role in the design process and attain truly sustaining landscapes, the ideas in Principles of Ecological Landscape Design provide an additional layer of technical information to help us achieve those goals.

Read the book.

This guest post is by James Royce, ASLA, LEED AP, Principal, Studio2112 Landscape Architecture.

Image credit: Island Press

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freshkills
In a recent blog post, The New York Times‘ architecture critic Michael Kimmelman made a great case for what our friends at the 2,200-acre Freshkills park have been doing. He said that during Hurricane Sandy, the “Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island absorbed a critical part of the storm surge.” The park’s “hills and waterways spared nearby neighborhoods like Travis, Bulls Head, New Springville and Arden Heights from much worse flooding.”

Just ten years ago, the park was a huge waste dump, creating noxious odors for residents and serving as a drain on the community. Then, James Corner, ASLA, and his team at Field Operations, won an international design competition and transformed the park. The design team saw heaps of trash, contained under membrane layers, and then “imagined decades-long, evolving earthwork of different grasses, grown, cut and replanted, creating a rich new soil and landscape.” All of these bold visions are now happening.

Kimmelman eloquently outlines the park’s value: “Since its closing [as a waste facility], Fresh Kills has become a model for landfill reclamation around the world, having been transformed into a vast green space full of wildlife. Now it is also demonstrating the role of wetland buffers in battling rising waters.”

He thinks that the park’s success in reducing storm damage will not only help the cause of green infrastructure, which involves harmessing natural systems to manage stormwater, but will also show city regulators that they need to move faster in removing the last hurdles to opening the park to visitors. These “regulatory and financial hurdles, along with the usual bureaucratic conflicts, have stalled progress. The state environmental agency wants to make sure the site is safe, which makes sense. At the same time, the price tag — by some estimates, hundreds of millions of dollars — has clearly daunted city leaders and led officials to pursue a piecemeal transformation that could undo Mr. Corner’s concept.”

For an architecture critic, Kimmelman seems to understand that good landscape architecture that delivers many benefits costs money, and may have a bigger bang for the buck than architecture. With the “$4 billion (or more) that is being squandered on a new PATH station at the World Trade Center site for perhaps 50,000 commuters, the cost of Fresh Kills doesn’t sound quite so crazy. Now there’s word that the Metropolitan Transit Authority may need to spend $600 million to restore the South Ferry subway station, which opened just in 2009 and was flooded by the storm.”

Watch a great video Kimmelman did with Eloise Hirsh, administrator of Freshkills Park for the New York City Parks Department. Also, while it will be decades before the entire 2,200-acre park is completed, public park design work is well underway. Learn more about the designs taking shape.

Image credit: Freshkills Park / NYC Parks and Recreation

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In cities, healthy soils could be a powerful tool for managing stormwater, but unfortunately the status-quo is compacted, degraded soil covered in asphalt, said Zolna Russell, ASLA, Floura Teer Landscape Architects, and Stu Schwartz, Center for Environmental Research and Education, at the 2012 Greenbuild conference in San Francisco. Outlining novel techniques — “subsoiling,” which involves the use of agricultural de-compaction machinery, along with adding “soil amendments,” otherwise known as compost – Russell and Schwartz made the case for rebuilding the ecosystem function of soils in urban areas and creating new opportunities to manage stormwater through the ground itself. They also noted that the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) would provide credit for approaches like these that boost soil health.

According to Russell, the ecosystem services of soils play a large part in determing the quality of our landscapes. Healthy soils provide water absorption, groundwater recharge, food for plants, habitat for decomposers, and sequester carbon. Without healthy soil, stormwater management needs to be accomplished through green infrastructure techniques that rely more heavily on plants.

Soils can be evaluated along many lines. Their “biology, fertility, and structure,” which are all inter-related, are key to soil quality. Russell said “bugs, microbes, roots, naturally occuring chemicals all work together to affect the structure.” Zooming down to dirt-level, healthy soils have “open spaces” that let oxygen flow and water to infiltrate. Infiltration, unfortunately, works less well as we move from a forest to an urban environment. In the dense urban core, there’s often less interflow and groundwater recharge, even if there are parks and street trees.

The fact is then that “green in our urban environments doesn’t necessarily mean the system functions.” Lawns, for example, have the “bulk density of cement,” which actually prevents root penetration and plant health. In contrast, “deep, rich soils with long roots are a sign of a functioning landscape.”

So, given soil is so crucial to our ecosystems, why is it abused so much? She said unfortunately the common landscape architecture practice was to strip top soil and sell it, stockpile soils for later use in berms (degrading it in the process), amend old soils with compost, or import new soils, releasing lots of carbon in the process through hauling new soils in from other areas. In many of these human interactions with soil, soils are basically compacted, which means the essential ecological and hydrologic functions have been removed.

Schwartz said typical road building projects involve stripping vegetation, removing top soils, grading, and then compacting soil to form roads, foundations, and berms. Then, the “landscape is put back on top at the end.” The “engineered topography” — the earthern berm — is where all that valuable topsoil goes. While these berms can be useful sound and visual barriers, it’s a “wholesale disruption of the soil.”

Residential developments are often just as bad, leaving “material formerly known as soil” in their wake. Thin layers of turf are rolled out over the degraded soil, meaning that the lawn will need lots of fertilizers and water to live — as there will be no soil for the grass roots to grow into. With heavy rains, this thin veneer of grass provides no help in capturing rainwater, so there’s lots of runoff. “Modern practices are totally decoupled from the function of the landscape.” Schwartz went on to say that rain gardens in residential areas are basically useless if all the soils are damaged.

Instead of impoverishing soils and then adding asphalt on top, Schwartz said developers could use permeable pavers or pavements. But then, while those systems can help infiltrate water, the soils underneath still need to be in good enough shape to soak up the water. “It has to be a whole system.”

To address the challenges of soil quality in urban and suburban areas, a novel practice, subsoiling, may be the way to go. This practice involves adapting agricultural techniques to highly disturbed soils. In agricultural fields, farmers have long used decompactors to “reliably increase their crop yields.” Once the soil has been ripped, “soil amendments” or compost can be added to restore landscape function.

While the decompactors themselves looks like “medieval equipment,” with large hooks at the end of tractors, they are necessary for creating a deep enough rip. Schwartz outlined a pilot study his organization has done at a school in Baltimore, Maryland. Using a “5-bladed parabolic ripper” and adding 3-inches of “vegetated organic compost,” creating a 2-to-1 soil to compost ratio with a 9-inch depth of incorporation, his team is demonstrating a “new practice.” Schwartz showed photos clearly demonstrating how the new soils and lawn on top better handle stormwater and require no chemical fertilizer. A standard thin veneer of grass nearby flooded when it rained, while the ripped and decompacted soils with turf simply absorbed the water. The grass was deep and rich and even hard to get one’s hands into, whereas the standard lawn was patchy and fillled with weeds.

But not every site will be ideally suited to subsoiling. Russell said some sites may not have space for the equipment or be the appropriate size. She said some ideal early adopters would be long-term land holders like the U.S. department of defense, transportation department, or highway administrations. Sensitive watersheds would also be ideal spots for healthier soils that can absorb water. Other potential adopters include urban sites like schools or parks. She said athletic fields could also be a possibility, but recompaction could happen there. Some sites may also not work because of tree roots, utility lines, or naturally poor soils (for example, you can’t really aerate heavy clay soils). She noted that with these systems, “no one size fits all.”

Russell and Schwartz said for subsoiling to work an integrated design process must be used, bringing in all contractors early on in the process. Maintenance practices also need to be figured out in the beginning and their costs factored into project scopes. Russell said she’s seen too many projects put in thousands of dollars worth of plants, only to see them die because the soil wasn’t providing the right support. So including measures that maintain long-term soil health is need for the system to pay for itself. She said keeping soils healthy over the long-term also means you don’t have to create retention ponds or lay down pipe infrastructure. There’s no need for fertilizer, irrigation. Still, to achieve those benefits, landscape architects should factor in maintenance over the long haul.

To maintain this new sustainable design practice, there then needs to be lots of testing throughout the design and build process. At the beginning of the project, there should be soil testing and aftewards, too. Doing research will also help landscape architects and engineers get regulatory approval. In many communities, these practices may be illegal.

Demand for landscapes with hydrologic function is only growing. In many cities, the demand is driven by the need to meet local stormwater regulations, which call for managing stormwater on site or paying a hefty fine. The goal is to get local policymakers and designers to see healthy soils as a “cost effective stormwater management technique.” Schwartz said: “we really want this to go mainstream.”

Image credit: ASLA 2010 Professional Residential Design Award. San Francisco Residence. Lutsko Associates, Landscape / image copyright Marion Brenner

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Watch a new animation from ASLA’s “Designing Our Future: Sustainable Landscapes” online exhibition that explains how to transform your property into a real wildlife habitat. Learn how native plants and designed structures provide what nature needs.

Wildlife habitat can be destroyed by development, farms, or mines; or degraded by invasive species, climate change, or pollution so it no longer supports native wildlife. Sprawl has increased the rate of habitat loss. One estimate says U.S. forest land the size of Pennsylvania will be consumed by expanding cities by 2050. But insects, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals still all need habitat: food, water, cover, and places to raise their young. Unfortunately, with sprawl, native wildlife now has fewer places to call home. (Sources: Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, Doug Tallamy, Timber Press, 2009; “Sustaining America’s Trees and Forests,” David J. Nowak, Susan M. Stein, Paula B. Randler, Eric J. Greenfield, Sara J. Comas, Mary A. Carr, and Ralph J. Alig, U.S. Forest Service; and “Habitat Loss,” National Wildlife Federation)

Many natural areas are now too small to sustain native species for long. The long-term survival of many species depends on recreating connections. Birds, turtles and reptiles, frogs and other amphibians, foxes, and other mammals all need safe passage through neighborhoods and places to raise their young within them. Corridors need to be protected where species are already using them. Wider, more continuous corridors work for a greater range of species. A recent study argues that organically-formed corridors are more successful than easements along a street or utility line. (Sources: Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, Doug Tallamy, Timber Press, 2009; “Interview with Kristina Hill, Ph.D., Affiliate ASLA,” American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) interview series; and “Designing Wildlife Corridors: Wildlife Need More Complex Travel Plans,” Science Daily, 2008.)

Habitat loss, and the corresponding loss of biodiversity, doesn’t have to continue. Communities can connect their properties into networks of attractive, wildlife-friendly neighborhoods, cities, and regions. Starting with homeowners’ properties, fragmented habitats can be rewoven together, creating neighborhoods that are not only healthier for wildlife but also for people. Many residential landscape architects are helping to stem the losses by creating beautiful neighborhoods that provide habitat for many species. (Sources: Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, Doug Tallamy, Timber Press, 2009; “Garden for Wildlife,” National Wildlife Federation; and Audubon At Home, Audubon Society)

Increased biodiversity has its own benefits: These landscapes maintain themselves without fertilizers or water that lawns need. Also, biodiverse residential landscapes are not only beautiful, but help families see the wonder of nature close to home. As scientists are now proving, just being out in nature, seeing plants, and hearing bird song reduces stress and improves mood. (Sources: Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES). “Research Shows Nature Helps with Stress,” The Dirt blog; “Does Looking at Nature Make People Nicer?,” The Dirt blog; and “The Restorative Effects of Nature in Cities,” The Dirt blog)

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Delivering the 2012 Howland Memorial Lecture at the University of Virginia School of Architecture, Kate Orff, ASLA, founding principal of SCAPE, discussed her recent work mapping the landscape dynamics of southern Louisiana in what she has deemed “Petrochemical America.” The design research project, published as a book in collaboration with photographer Richard Misrach, follows the petrochemical industry and the deep marks it has left on the landscape of the lower Mississippi region across seven chapters: oil, infrastructure, waste, displacement, ecology, food, and landscape.

Orff, a New-York based landscape architect and assistant professor at Columbia University, began the lecture pointing to a time line of fossil fuel use, emissions, and population, pausing to highlight our current moment, where crises in energy, climate, settlement and biodiversity are converging. Orff sees landscape as the space where patterns of fossil fuels use, production, and settlement intersect to produce these crises, and, in turn, the space where these interactions can begin to change. In Petrochemical America, she applies her view of landscape architecture as a way of understanding and intervening at micro-scales to produce macro-scale effects, to map the rich and complicated history of the southern Louisiana landscape.

Petrochemical America maps the cycles of petrochemical production and consumption, energy extraction and waste, in order to show how those cycles can break. Through mapping, we can begin to understand southern Louisiana and how it reached its current state of degraded wetlands, socioeconomic disparity, and petrochemical dependence. Orff points to geological, ecological and social processes and connections that go beyond the scales of our comprehension, and come to rest in the landscape of Cancer Alley, the infamous 100-mile stretch of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. With that comprehension, the application of a glossary of terms and solutions starts to piece together the ingredients for positive change, from grassroots organizations to public institutions to design options.

The method consists of intricate and layered maps and sections, which she calls “timescapes,” as well as diagrammatic presentations of different drawings on the same theme that pulls out flows and connections, across scales and systems. Misrach’s photographs, taken in 1998, are interwoven and interpreted within Orff’s drawings, serving as the “site” to analyze, sequence, and build into a narrative in her project. The photos are “grenades” or “Braille,” which she reads with a landscape architect’s eyes, appreciative of the beauty of a photograph of a pipeline running through a degraded bayou, but also outlining what’s in that pipe, how it got there, and where it’s going. For Orff, a landscape architect’s perspective is critical to these questions inherent in the photographs. This perspective allowed her to draw connections between the moment in time represented in Misrach’s image and the dynamics, natural and man-made, that produced those conditions.

One such series explores the complex and diverse ecological cycles and interactions of a healthy bayou, and arrives at the truncated, linear pathways, and declining biodiversity that characterize many of Louisiana’s bayous today. The effects of the loss of “looped and living” ecological systems in the bayou are traced outwards, from the contribution of these organisms, such as brown shrimp, oysters, and blue crabs to the economy and history of the region. In mapping “America’s wetland” at this pivotal moment, Orff is also looking at what may soon be lost from the region, with the erosion of the coastal wetlands, changing salt, and freshwater levels, and the fragility of these systems in a place where Deepwater Horizon is only one of many industrial accidents seen on a yearly basis.

In addition to representing the landscape within Cancer Alley, Orff tracks the ways that the conditions along the lower Mississippi cycle through the rest of America and the world, often returning to their place of origin, the Louisiana Delta. Whether it is in the form of fertilizers produced in factories along Cancer Alley only to return as agricultural run-off from the upper-Mississippi River watershed, or the industrial waste stored in the delta’s salt dome formations, the waste of Cancer Alley and of much of the country, they live in the Louisiana landscape. Beyond the waste we can see, she also explores the ways petrochemical products and by-products live in us, from the vitamins and household products we use all over the country to the exposure communities experience from living side-by-side with refineries. In both cases, there are consequences we still do not fully understand how to measure, control, or treat.

Orff concludes the book and her lecture with a map of the United States, expanding her analysis to understand how our national map is also being redrawn. She argues that we are all part of the problem, and that is inspiring, rather than defeating, since we are then all part of the solution. Hopefully, then, Petrochemical America can serve as a call to action to “consciously, creatively and collaboratively redraw the map” of the landscape we have made. In the “Glossary of Terms and Solutions for a Post-Petrochemical America,” scenarios for action and spotlights on organizations show how people are already taking charge of the map of Louisiana, providing a toolkit for leveraging Orff and Misrach’s analysis into action in the landscape.

Read the book.

This guest post is by Rachel Stevens, Student ASLA, Master of Landscape Architecture and Master of Urban and Environmental Planning candidate, University of Virginia.

Image credits: Petrochemical America / Aperture Books

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In a session on measuring regenerative design at the ASLA 2012 Annual Meeting, Danielle Pieranunzi, Affil. ASLA, LEED AP, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin; Joel Perkovich, ASLA, Phipps Conservatory & Botanical Gardens; Jose Almiñana, RLA, FASLA, Andropogon Associates; and Michael Takacs, ASLA, Civil & Environmental Consultants, Inc., discussed recent developments in the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) pilot program.

Pieranunzi began the session by describing the development of sustainable landscape metrics for the SITES rating system. Aiming to improve ecosystem services while bolstering natural systems that we typically view as free, the SITES program is envisioned as a stand-alone rating system, operating on a 250-point scale with 4 levels of certification. This certification system could be applied to projects ranging form small-scale residential sites to parks and streetscapes.

The 2-year pilot program, which ended last June, tested the program metrics on locations spread across the U.S. Of course, developing a landscape sustainability metric is not easy, and the SITES program must define measures for hydrology, soils, vegetation, and materials. The pilot program allowed for critical testing of these measures, which can now be adjusted and refined.

Perkovich discussed one pilot project: the Phipps Center for Sustainable Landscapes (CSL) in Pittsburgh. The CSL grounds are located on the 15-acre Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Garden campus. Opened in 1893, the initial plant collection for the conservatory came from the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The Phipps Conservatory touts itself as the world’s “greenest” public gardens and it was the first to become LEED certified.

The new CSL headquarters is on a 2.65-acre site, the former location of a City of Pittsburgh Department of Public Works salt storage facility. The new design includes a 24,350 square foot building and is designed to be net-zero energy and water. In fact, the building is expected to be 80 percent more energy efficient than a conventional building.

Almiñana explained CSL’s design. The integrated design process included nine months of design charrettes with the local community and local designers. This process established a need for the site to be both an extension of the Phipps campus and to fit into the larger landscape. Almiñana discussed how the design offers natural air circulation by connecting the building design into the site, zero-waste energy through the deployment of interventions to generate energy and moderate temperature, and net-zero water by exploring the potential of every site surface.

Takacs talked about the hydrological design of the CSL site. To achieve a 100 percent, net-zero water level, 100 percent of water on the site must be captured or reused. Therefore, the design used pervious paving, bioretention areas, an open water lagoon, underground storage, a green roof, and rain gardens to dramatically reduce runoff. This system even captures runoff from the upper campus Botanical Gardens, which requires a tremendous amount of water to function.

For sanitary water treatment, the CSL design uses an array of tools including a septic tank, constructed wetlands, sand filters, and a solar distillation system. By employing these treatment elements, the CSL site generally doesn’t release anything back into the public sewage system.

As more landscapes like the Phipps Center for Sustainable Landscapes are designed, built, and monitored, the more refined and sophisticated the SITES rating system will become. Each SITES project provides vital knowledge and creates incentives for the construction of future regenerative sites. The session ended with this thought: “What if every single act of design and construction made the world a better place?”

This guest post is by Ben Wellington, Student ASLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture Candidate, Louisiana State University and ASLA 2012 summer associate.

Image credits: (1, 3, 4, 6) Landscape Voice, (2, 5) Andropogon Associates

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New York City is certainly willing to pay top dollar for excellent design. A new $3 billion water treatment plant is taking shape in Van Cortlandt park in the Bronx. The Croton water treatment by Grimshaw Architects and Ken Smith Landscape Architects includes some $250 million in new buildings, plazas, wetlands and meadows, and a public golf driving range, which, amazingly, sits right on top of the plant. In a session at the 2012 ASLA Annual Meeting in Phoenix, Ken Smith, ASLA, Ken Smith Landscape Architects; David Burke, Grimshaw Architects; and Charles McKinney, Affiliate ASLA, City of New York, Department of Parks and Recreation, explained how the project is the result of NYC’s design, stormwater management, and parks policies. And while these numerous policies and design requirements were sometimes in conflict, said Smith, the design eventually succeeded because it cleverly integrated security and stormwater management features with public amenities.

McKinney explained that NYC’s government under Mayor Bloomberg has been consistently encouraging practices that create great design, but by necessity, not just out of big city ego. Mayor Bloomberg believes that design excellence yields better results, improves property values, and strengthens investor confidence. In reality, though, it’s about being able to pay the money required to achieve a range of goals, in the area of climate change, public parks, and stormwater management. Under Bloomberg’s PlaNYC, all of the city’s commissioners had to come up with new ways of doing things to accommodate the expected one million people that will move into the city over the next 20 years while also preparing for climate change. For the parks department, this meant holding themselves to the new goal of having every citizen within a 10 minute walk of a park and creating major new parks. An off-shoot of PlaNYC that also relates to the city’s parks is NYC’s bold green infrastructure plan, which helps the city achieve its new goals related to managing stormwater. The new multi-billion dollar green infrastructure plan is expected to decrease the amount of overflow rainwater that overcomes the city’s old combined sewer system by billions of gallons.

Other NYC initiatives help boost performance in different realms: the Active Design Guidelines combat obesity, the Street Design Guidelines encourage new forms of mobility, the High Performance Infrastructure Guidelines help create greener infrastructure systems, the High Performance Landscape Guidelines will help ensure the city’s parks are greener, and the Department of Design and Construction’s Design Excellence Program means projects will be selected on merit and quality instead of price. McKinney said through these programs “all city residents have benefited.” And in the case of the the Croton project, the design result is even “transcendent.”

NYC’s water conveyance system is as crucial to making the city what it is today as the elevator, said Smith, quoting Norval White’s book, New York: A Physical History. Together, the water system and elevators enabled NYC’s density. And while the grid was laid out in 1812, the water system from the 19th century really made the city work. Before, Smith said, there were “private water systems, primitive distribution systems.”

The Croton water treatment plant was built because of fears about the city’s water quality. The Croton watershed had been jeopardy due to naturally-occurring compounds, said Burke. After reviewing 14 possible sites, the city found that a spot in Van Cortlandt park would actually be the most cost-effective. After the city dithered on moving forward with the Bronx site, the federal government issued a mandate saying the facility had to be built. The federal government also said that while aspects of the park had to be uprooted during construction, all pieces had to be replaced after the plant went in. That meant eventually restoring the original golf course driving range found there.

The 9-acre-square plant is set below ground, up to 100 feet deep in some spots. Driving through sheer bedrock, the complex plant being created by infrastructure engineers will help the city purify the huge amount of water it uses daily, about 1.23 million gallons. Smith, the landscape architect designing all the landscape elements, said the roof of the plant was now in place, creating the largest green roof in the country.

Smith and Burke walked the crowd through the many challenges in knitting the design together while addressing all of NYC’s issues. One entrance to the facility needs to be highly secure, with space for car and truck X-ray machines, while other access points need to be easy, public. There had to be room for a chemical discharge station, which is used to funnel the chemicals needed to clean the water. All stormwater had to be captured on site, so there had to be a careful analysis of the terrain and existing riparian woodlots. The site also needed to channel or produce water for the golf range and native meadows and wetlands.


Smith outlined how an ingenious system of water conveyance was created that leveraged existing water flows. New bioswales and natural treatment systems were put in to help retain water and also channel it to a man-made lake. The NYC government said the project really had to be more of a landscape project than a building one so artistic integration of the buildings into the landscape was also a key issue. Burke, an architect, said “we had to blur the lines between landscape and building,” which for him was a learning experience.


Multiple schemes were batted around before everyone settled on a circular design that provides multiple benefits, said Smith. The round shape not only provides some coherence for the golf course but also obscured a reading of the invaluable plant underneath. Like the layers in a onion, the design provides 2-miles of gabioned, stone-clad, and core-ten steel walls in rings at different heights, each providing different functions. To block vehicular traffic, there are 3-feet high walls, while intruders on foot will be stopped by 10-feet sheer walls. Smith said the site design uses a moat, “a primitive military mechanism,” to solve contemporary challenges. The moat itself is filled with bioretention systems but really it’s there to enable dramatic grade shifts so the walls don’t seem too intrusive.

McKinney stepped in to add that the original design, well, wasn’t really a design at all, but an “engineering solution,” offering a big box in a park, which was “not a good thing.” Now, the design is a “landscape. This is the breakthrough.”

The public golf driving range also works with the moat. Golfers will send their ball out over the moat, while the roof itself will use a “Xmas tree” formation of targets to enable golfers at different skill levels to enjoy.



The green roof itself is inaccessible to the public. Smith said months of research went into making the sub-structures, which consist of many layers, work. Grades had to be carefully thought out, too, to ensure maintenance vehicles and ball collectors could get on the roof. Eventually, a bowl shaped was settled on for the course for aesthetic and technical reasons. Smith, who’s known for his deep appreciation of materials, described his examination of all the different foams, natural and artificial turfs, and soils he and the golf consultants tested at great length.

McKinney, Burke, and Smith all described lessons learned from the project. For Burke, the lead on the project, the learning curve working with such an interdisciplinary team was steep. Solving multiple challenges in a collaborative environment was new. “We worked with many consultant we don’t usually work with and had to learn their language.” Smith said working with some “retrograde engineers” who were part of the original team was a real problem, as they didn’t understand why a design team was coming in to design the stormwater management systems and green roof. He said infrastructural engineers are excellent at what they do, but “public space design is not in their skill set.”

One audience member seemed to wonder why this landscape architecture project was led by an architect, David Burke at Grimshaw, instead of the landscape architect, Ken Smith. Little known fact: under NYC’s design excellence program rules, projects like these can’t be led by a landscape architect. This is one of the only instances where this is the case among design excellence programs. Hopefully, as the central work of Smith on this project demonstrates, interdisciplinary projects can just as easily be led by a landscape architect as an architect. In fact, Burke seemed to say as much when he said it didn’t really matter who was the lead or sub-contractor in this effort, the effort was a deep collaboration between architect and landscape architect. Let’s hope the city starts to understand this, too.

Explore the project in depth.

Image credits: Grimshaw Architects and Ken Smith Workshop

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Larry Weaner, Larry Weaner Landscape Associates, argued that a designed meadow will fail unless you keep very closely to how nature herself designs these highly complex, competitive ecosystems. At the ASLA 2012 Annual Meeting in Phoenix, he said in these vital spaces “plants are slugging it out.” All that fierce competition yields endlessly interesting designs that can be augmented by bold flowers that clients prefer.

One central argument Weaner made was to “match the right plant to the habitat.” While adding compost and top soil can enable landscape and ecological designers to “use a wider palette of plants,” these types of rich soils will also invite in weeds. The plants that can tolerate horrible soils may also flop if they are put in rich soils they aren’t used to. They really just need the soils they have evolved to survive in.

With large designed meadows, Weaner also said to consider the impact of micro-habitats. Plants near forests or far, in the shade or sunlight, will respond differently, creating different zones within the fields of grasses and forbs.

To ensure the meadow becomes self-sustaining, stable, and actually functions as a natural system, Weaner said to use plant communities found in nature. He defined a plant community as a “group of plants that grow together and have complementary niches.” He said this is really the only way to go given these plant communities have evolved together over thousands of years and formed relationships that we know almost nothing about. “We know so very little about their interactions.” He added that if the plant communities are incomplete, invasives will get in an alter the system.

Human disturbances of these systems almost give opportunities for plants to enter the designed meadows. Weaner, a sort of plant-world Sherlock Holmes, described how he could tell exactly when a meadow was disturbed because of the presence of Black Eyed Susans, which opportunistically enter the mix when there are disturbances. He explained how those plants would eventually get pushed out of the functioning meadow once it had recovered.

Weaner eloquently spoke of the complex interplay between plants, how early or late stage, 1st, 2nd or 3rd year seedlings all work to create a symphony of plant life. But he was also pragmatic: “You can’t maintain acres of designed meadows if you don’t get the plant communities right.”

Steve Haines, Prairie Moon Nursery, outlined all the work that goes into designed meadow seed mixes. He argued that measuring seed quality per ounce wasn’t a good way to go because seeds obviously differ in size. His spreadsheets showing percentages of seeds that constitute a designed meadow were fascinating artifacts in themselves. Nature quantified.

A landscape architecture firm well-known for its knowledge of plants and work creating grassy native landscapes, Oehme Van Sweden, also presented some of its residential designed meadows. Eric Groft, ASLA, consciously creates transitions within his landscapes from man-made to natural zones, but, of course, he’s also designing the natural zones. In one project for a client along the Chesapeake Bay, Groft described how a coastal farm was totally remade as a meadow. After “wicking out” the residual herbicides and eradicating the “bad” plants, tens of thousands of new meadow plants that like wet conditions were planted. Groft noted that these “landscapes are always changing” so were also designed to evolve.

In another example, Groft walked the crowd through the creation of a meadow in a 100-acre horse farm in upstate New York. The well-off couple wanted different things: the wife, the horse lover, wanted more space for them, while the husband didn’t want to see paddocks all the time, but a more designed landscape. The compromise landscape has rough and manicured lawns, plus a new meadow created by Weaner. It’s a combination of the landscape and meadow worlds.

All speakers argued that creating meadows is both an art and a science, a joining of nature and man. Beyond the artistic considerations, though, meadows also provide rich habitat for bird and plant life, control erosion, and capture stormwater. Recreating these complex systems is clearly worth the time and expense.

Image credit: Oehme Van Sweden

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