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Archive for the ‘Ecosystem Services’ Category

Mark Simmons sets fires. He uses prescribed fires as a technique for land management to improve the ecological health of a system. These fires are carefully plotted and designed to self-extinguish. They are employed to control brush, which could feed wildfires, and selectively remove invasive species and restore native ones. Simmons is the director of the ecosystem design group at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at The University of Texas. His team engages in scientific research, sustainable design, and environmental consulting.

American Indians on the plains also set fires. They used controlled burning to both attract and drive game, get rid of ticks, and harvest lizards and insects. Simmons says this practice demonstrates that they had a mutually influential relationship with nature. They melded the landscape and in turn were melded by it.

Americans today are found in different landscapes. We primarily occupy landscapes like suburban strip mall parking lots, which Simmons believes are dysfunctional and polluting. If these landscapes are melding us, then they may be adversely affecting our health and behavior. He believes that providing more green spaces could control epidemics like childhood obesity and ADHD.

In order to combat environmental and social hazards, Simmons wants to bring nature back into the built environment using ecological design. He envisions an “eco-metropolis” in which we keep, fix, and build using “nature’s technologies.” Simmons believes these approaches can inform techniques for land management and restoration, as well as the research and design of greenroofs and walls, rain gardens, sustainable lawns, and ecological roadsides.

Our current situation is about maintaing an “industrial, not ecological, system on life support,” Turf grass covers 40 million acres of land in the U.S., with 20 million acres just residential lawns. This landscape requires 580 million gallons of gasoline and up to 60 percent of urban fresh water to maintain. Desert communities have begun banning lawns out of necessity. Simmons finds gravel lots and other available alternatives lacking in both functionality and aesthetic quality. He is promoting alternatives that are sustainable, useful, and desirable.

Simmons grew up mowing his family’s lawn in England with a push mower. His dad no longer needs to mow because the lawn is now a multi-species landscape that has evolved into a stable ecological system that maintains itself. Inspired by this discovery, Simmons and his team created a biodiverse lawn made up of five native species that only has to be mowed two to three times a year and does not require pesticides or herbicides. There are eight acres planted at the George W. Bush Presidential Library. Simmons calls this “ecology 101 applied to landscape architecture.”

Landscapes like Simmons’s lawn that deploy nature’s technologies can perform critical functions like carbon sequestration, low level ozone absorption, and stormwater management.

Grasslands in fact provide the most efficient means of carbon sequestration. They absorb less carbon dioxide than boreal forests, but because they have evolved with fire and grazing, they store 95 percent of it below ground as insurance. In contrast, trees store carbon dioxide above ground in their trunks, branches, and leaves and release it back into the atmosphere when they die. In grasslands, when the roots die, the carbon melds with the physical and chemical structure of the soil and can be held there for hundreds of thousands of years.

These landscapes are also desirable. Simmons shares several examples of their success and growing popularity. Residents of a suburban tract in Austin, Texas liked the prairie that was planted along the perimeter so much that they requested it be continued through their yards. A homeowner who wanted a meadow constructed on his roof is so pleased with the result that he supports the idea of creating a preserve of the Texas blackland prairie ecosystem on roofs and along roadsides.

Simmons demonstrates that we can use nature differently. He encourages us to preserve nature but also feel liberated and empowered to use it more like we would engineering. “Nature’s technology is free and it’s waiting. All we have to do is bring nature home.”

This guest post is by Shannon Leahy, Master’s of Landscape Architecture graduate, University of Pennsylvania, and former ASLA summer intern.

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In a session at the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) conference in Madison, Wisconsin, ecologist John Munro worried that SER is moving away from its focus on practical, on-the-ground, ecological restoration projects in favor of more passive, “academic research on restoration ecology.” Pointing to Temple University’s landscape architecture and horticulture program, which features the first ever-accredited concentration in ecological restoration, he said the focus must remain on “doing rather than studying.” His fear is that many restoration ecologists can no longer “see the forest for the statistics.”

The solution, according to Munro, is to boost ecological site design education in both landscape architecture and ecology degree programs. Landscape architects and restoration ecologists must understand “specifications, logistics, sequencing, planning. This can’t be handed to other professions.” A landscape architect in Philadelphia discussed the ecological issues landscape architects must increasingly know about. A landscape architect professor and graduates from the Temple program then discussed their innovative program and what they are doing with what they’ve learned.

Landscape Architects Need Ecological Know-How

According to Emily McCoy, ASLA, Andropogon, “landscape architects are finally beginning to take seriously the idea of measuring ecosystem function.” They are also beginning to “take the best scientific information and apply them to landscape design.” This is challenging because landscape architects are not trained in statistics so can’t truly understand landscape function. This means they need to work with restoration ecologists or environmental designers.

Andropogon, one of the most cutting-edge landscape architecture firms in terms of sustainable design, has actually created an “integrative research department” to help incorporate the latest research into their practice. “We are focused on collecting adaptive feedback. We want to apply the latest data on landscape performance.” The firm is doing this because they believe all the new research can support their mission of improving the “health, safety, and welfare of people.” Andropogon thinks “urban environments can positively contribute to our health.”

McCoy identified a number of research areas where Andropogon says they need help from restoration ecologists or landscape architects trained in ecology. They are soils and soil biology (here, they are interested in “how what’s under the ground affects what’s above the ground”); habitat (“how do we define this?”); native plants (“can they succeed on green roofs?”); climate change; urban heat islands; assisted migration; and plant provenance and ecotypes. They need this kind of research for their sustainable landscape projects, like the green roof for the new U.S. Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, D.C., which features native plant communities and now attracts wildlife (see image above).

She also said the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES), a kind of “LEED for Landscapes,” will further boost demand for ecological research services among all landscape architects. “SITES asks what is the habitat value? How do you measure performance of plants and soils in man-made landscapes?” Right now, data on ecosystem services provided by urban landscapes is largely unavailable.

Learning How to Do Ecological Restoration

Mary Myers, FASLA, professor of landscape architecture at Temple University, said Temple has the only accredited landscape architecture program with a concentration in ecological restoration. She defined landscape architecture as an “environmentally-focused profession whose mission is to promote environmental balance and human well-being through sustainable design.”

To get similar programs going in other landscape architecture departments, she advised academic program chairs to “build lateral support within and out universities, get other environmental design schools on campus involved, and bring in expert outside advisers.” At Temple, Myers brought in Andropogon Associates, BioHabitats, and Mark Focht, FASLA, first deputy commissioner, Philadelphia Parks and Recreation.

To build the case for the new program, which she did as chair of the landscape architecture and horticulture department, she pointed to U.S. Labor and ASLA reports outlining booming job growth for landscape architecture and ecological restoration, along with a U.S. News and World Report article that said ecological restoration is a growing field.

Myer’s program applies ecosystem design. There are modules on woodlands and wetlands, with classes on technical engineering and ecosystem design spread throughout. The third year has a special “public lands module,” and a capstone project in the field. Myers made a point of emphasizing how important “graphic communication” was in the curriculum, too, which was accredited by LAAB in 2013.
LARC9995Captone Design schedule SP12.xlsx

How Temple University Students Approach Ecological Restoration

A group of Temple University graduates as well as current students then discussed how they are approaching ecological restoration in their work and studies. Sara Street, Construction Specialties, Inc. (C/S), a Temple University landscape architecture and ecological restoration graduate, described C/S’s efforts in designing a sustainable corporate campus for their sales office in Muncy, Pennsylvania. Located on the west branch of the Susquehanna River, the corporate campus is an industrially-zoned site in a region with a long history of human habitation. The campus’s new design includes stormwater capture and reuse, a reintroduction of native plants (including a native vegetation propagation facility), and a new trail system. Street described how the project will serve as an educational facility for local school children, teaching them about ecological restoration.

Street stressed the need for a quantifiable, objective method for judging ecological restoration projects. C/S’s new campus will be highly monitored over time. As landscape architecture and ecological restoration projects become more intertwined, Street expressed optimism for the development of new standardized system of sustainability scorecards.

Patricia Kemper, Master of Landscape Architecture Candidate, Temple University, then discussed the integration of landscape architecture and ecological restoration. She cited several built examples, including the James Clarkson Environmental Discovery Center in White Lake Township, Michigan. Completed in 2008, the project – a recipient of an ASLA 2008 Professional General Design Honor Award – involved a large-scale ecological restoration effort. MSI Design led a multidisciplinary team to accomplish this task, which required the reintroduction of 170 native plant species, the preservation of existing wetlands and woodlands, and a new ecologically-managed stormwater system. Furthermore, an underwater plexiglass classroom entices school children to learn about the aquatic ecology of the site. By merging landscape architecture and ecological restoration, the design of the James Clarkson Environmental Discover Center benefits both wildlife and the public.

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Kemper followed her case studies with the results of a survey of universities with master programs in landscape architecture. Respondents were asked questions regarding the role of ecological restoration education in their landscape architecture programs. She found that while landscape students are getting exposed to the concepts of ecological restoration, they are not typically being taught nuts and bolts of ecological restoration practice. More emphasis on ecological restoration in landscape architecture education is needed.

Sue Ann Alleger, who graduated with a Master’s of Landscape Architecture degree from Temple University, then reiterating the importance of dual training in landscape architecture and ecological restoration. Alleger outlined how pressures from widespread urbanization, population expansion, and climate change are disrupting environmental systems. In this context, she felt ecological restoration should play a part in any landscape design. She described how ecological restoration is coupled with design projects at Temple University, from inventory to analysis, concept, and final plan. For example, design projects can involve an extensive site inventory of quantitative and qualitative data, which is plotted and compared to a reference model.

According to Alleger, this kind of technical rigor extends to every stage of a design project at Temple University, integrating ecological science with design at all points. Whether or not Temple’s model of merging landscape architecture and ecological restoration becomes more widespread, further collaboration between these two disciplines will be increasingly important as ecological performance is demanded of our landscapes.

This post is by Jared Green, Editor, The Dirt, and Ben Wellington, Master’s of Landscape architecture graduate, Louisiana State University and ASLA 2012 summer intern.

Image credits: (1) U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters Green Roof / Rooflite (2) Andrew Hayes. Capstone Restoration Design Project / Temple University, (3) ASLA 2008 Professional General Design Honor Award. James Clarkson Environmental Discovery Center. MSI Design / Image credit: MSI, Ellen Puckett Photography, Justin Maconochie Photography

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Few of the world’s ecosystems have been left untouched by humans. While we can restore many ecosystems damaged by people to their historic function, some may be beyond repair and have become “novel ecosystems.” According to experts at the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) conference in Madison, Wisconsin, some 36 percent of the globe’s ecosystems are now novel, meaning that more are now novel than wild. Some goods news though: the maximum extent of novelty, around 50 percent, was reached around 100 years ago. The percentage of novel ecosystems has actually gone down with more intensive agricultural practices that take up less land.

Novel Ecosystems and Shifting Values

Ecologist Eric Higgs, University of Victoria, put novel systems in a broader context. Walking through Southern Vancouver Island, he has seen many invasive species from elsewhere, but has been puzzled about what to do. There’s a limited amount of energy for pulling out every invasive plant species, particularly in areas totally over-run. Even if plants are removed, “the system will revert back immediately” to a state of invasion. At the global level, land use and climate shifts, invasive plant invasions, nitrogen deposition, and cultural changes mean a constant struggle against novelty.

In a new book Higgs and others published, Novel Ecosystems: Intervening in the New Ecological World Order, a model has been created to understand what kind of ecosystems we have today. There are “historical ecosystems,” which have had no change; “hybrid ecosystems,” which have “reversible changes;” and now “novel ecosystems,” where the changes are irreversible. Novel ecosystems are characterized by a “difference in ecosystem composition, structure, and function.” They have a “persistent self-organization,” even if they were created by humans. “They have a practical condition of irreversibility.”

Restoration ecologists mostly work in the area of hybrid ecosystems, trying to restore them to historical ones. While this work is important, Higgs argues that “we have to have flexible goals in some systems.” For example, he pointed to the typical “landscape mosaic” found in exurban or peri-urban areas. There, the landscape is often segmented into hybrid and novel systems. And there, restoration ecologists have to “restore and intervene responsibly.”

In the face of this overwhelming struggle against novelty, there has been a shift in values among society. Years ago, restoration ecologists wanted to restore ecosystems to their “historic fidelity” as much as possible. Now, ecologists, scientists, and landscape architects discuss the value of novel ecosystems’ services, which to some extent are plant-agnostic.

Perhaps reflecting the shift in values, Higgs said “ecosystem services can be achieved in different ecosystems,” meaning that novel systems, no matter how different they are from historic ones, still have some value. Still, Higgs cautioned against those who think novel ecosystems are somehow beneficial, and the way to go in the future. This view point has been promoted by a number of scientists, and articulated well by Emma Marris, author of Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, and others in a recent New York Times op-ed. Higgs thinks this point of view is a bit dangerous, as the Anthropocene, the globe as managed by man, could raise problems with biological diversity. “We have to be careful.”

He said all the debate about novel ecosystems and ecosystem services may prove fruitful though. The old model of ecological restoration was “history as template, single trajectory, and an emphasis on structural composition.” The new model, which he deemed “ecological restoration 2.0,” calls for “history as a guide, multiple trajectories, processional emphasis, and pragmatic goals.” Expectations are diminishing on one hand, while “possibilities are enlarged” with novel systems. “Novel ecosystems can bolster restoration goals for systems in rapid change.”

Planet Now More Novel Than Wild

Mike Perring, University of Western Australia, seeks to quantify the extent of novel ecosystems across the globe. He said “novelty is not new,” so he’s trying to figure out the current and historical extent and how things have changed over time.

Perring and his team have used “proxies” such as land-use maps and population counts. Areas used by humans and close-by areas not used are basically novel. In addition, areas previously used but no longer used, areas where there was “population in the past,” will sometimes still be novel.

While there are different land-use models, Perring estimated that a vast amount of the globe has been converted for human use, meaning about 36 percent of the world’s ecosystems are novel. Excluding the ice-covered parts of the planet, this means that more of the planet is novel than wild.

According to the models Perring used, there has been lots of change over the past 250-500 years. “The wild has been going down over time.” But the good news may be the novel is going down, too. The maximum amount of novelty, around 50 percent, was hit around 100 years ago. Novelty has gone down as humans have cultivated land more intensively.

Perring wondered whether we have reached irreversible thresholds of novelty or not, as well. With ozone, carbon dioxide, and acidification levels changing with climate shifts, there are definite implications for ecosystems.

Novelty in the Era of Climate Change

According to Brian Starzomski, University of Victoria, all ecosystems, even novel ones, are rapidly changing with climate shifts. “You basically need to move 110 meters per year to follow your climate.” Climate shifts are expected to only accelerate, further exacerbating challenges related to novel ecosystem management.

Starzomski asked, “How do we adapt to and manage ecosystems that we have never experienced before?” Ecosystem restoration must also change as the climate does. As an example, he discussed the Jasper National Park in the Canadian Rockies, where leading-edge peripheral populations are losing their range due to climate change. Also, the Garry Oak ecosystems along the Pacific Northwest are experiencing “novel conditions” that challenge restoration paradigms. He said in Canada, nine national parks “no longer contain their original climate conditions.”

The Challenge of Measuring What’s New

Finally, ecologist Jim Harris discussed how difficult it is to measure novel ecosystems, given “no two ecosystems are identical.” He added that “finding the degradation symbol may not be obvious.” An ecosystem may appear fine on the surface, but the hydrological systems may be shutting down because of subtle shifts in groundwater, or the soil compositions may be changing. In addition, some systems are extremely challenging to pin down. “Some exhibit multiple stable states.”

To measure novel ecosystems, one must look at reference sites. But how many do scientists need to look at to be sure? Without enough examples, restoration ecologists can end up with “rigid prescriptions that produce fragile systems, or worse, landscape collapse.”

In dealing with novel ecosystems, landscape architects and restoration ecologists need a “big team,” with lots of data on species and human populations. Subtle surveys collecting lots of on-the-ground information are really critical. “We can’t just deal with simple approaches like numbers and arrangements. With ecosystem services, there is a lot to measure here.”

Image credits: Novel Ecosystem in Hawaii / Image credit: Emma Marris, ASLA Interview.

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The Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES™) has announced eight new projects that have achieved certification under the nation’s most comprehensive rating system for the sustainable design, construction, and maintenance of built landscapes. These projects, as part of a group of 150 projects participating in an extensive, two-year pilot program, have applied the 2009 SITES guidelines and met the requirements for pilot certification.

The newly certified projects are Blue Hole Regional Park in Wimberley, Texas; Harris County WCID 132’s Water Conservation Center in Spring, Texas; American University School for International Service in Washington, D.C.; Bat Cave Draw and Visitor’s Center at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, N.M.; Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center at Mesa Verde National Park, Colo.; George “Doc” Cavalliere Park in Scottsdale, Az.; the National Renewable Energy Laboratory Research Support Facility in Golden, Colo. and Scenic Hudson’s Long Dock Park in Beacon, N.Y.

SITES is a partnership of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center of The University of Texas at Austin and the United States Botanic Garden. SITES was created to fill a critical need for guidelines and recognition of sustainable landscapes based on their planning, design, construction and maintenance. The voluntary, national rating system and set of performance benchmarks applies to sites with or without buildings.

“The effort and time these projects have spent to field test SITES 2009 guidelines and ensure their site is sustainable is commendable and has been a tremendous resource for informing the development of the SITES v2 Rating System, which will be released later this fall,” said SITES Director Danielle Pieranunzi.

Since June 2010, pilot projects have been testing the 2009 rating system created by dozens of the country’s leading sustainability experts, scientists and design professionals. The diverse projects represent various types, sizes, and locations as well as budgets. There are now a total of 23 certified pilot projects with more projects continuing to pursue pilot certification until the end of 2014.

A new rating system, SITES v2, will be published this fall, using information gained through the pilot project certification process. The projects certified up to that point will have qualified under the 2009 rating system. It includes 15 prerequisites and 51 additional, flexible credits that add up to 250 points. The credits address areas such as soil restoration, use of recycled materials and land maintenance approaches. Projects can achieve one through four stars by amassing 40, 50, 60 or 80 percent of the 250 points.

The eight newly certified projects each incorporate sustainable features and practices and have received ratings listed below:

Blue Hole Regional Park, One Star, Wimberley, Texas (see image above). A beloved local swimming hole degraded by overuse was transformed into an environmentally sustainable regional park in the Texas Hill Country. The park seeks to strike a balance between preservation of the site and recreational and educational opportunities for users. Sustainable landscape strategies include managing storm- water through the use of rain gardens and cisterns, irrigating recreational fields with treated effluent, minimizing impervious surfaces, protecting trees and endangered species habitat and restoring shoreline. New vegetation is primarily native plantings, and the park features on-site composting.

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Harris County Water Conservation and Improvement District (WCID) 132’s Water Conservation and Demonstration Center, One Star, Houston, Texas. As Texas struggles with water shortages, WCID 132 created a community outreach project dedicated to showing alternative methods for reducing stormwater runoff and demand for potable water. This project transformed an under-used public campus into a series of gardens that educate residents on sustainable water use and landscape strategies. Features illustrate efficient water conservation, stormwater management, and soil-centered practices. Paths and planting areas were built with locally salvaged and reused materials.

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American University School for International Service, Two Stars, Washington, D.C. This entrance plaza is a gathering place for students and faculty that is integrated with a LEED® Gold building to manage 100 percent of stormwater on the site and, as a result, needs no irrigation. The site features a Korean garden with adapted plants, an edible herb garden, an apiary and regional materials. The university has a zero-waste policy that includes recycling and composting landscape clippings and debris and coffee grounds from the student- run coffee shop inside.

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Bat Cave Draw and Visitor’s Center, Two Stars, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, N.M. After finding contaminants from parking lot runoff, including motor oil and antifreeze, in cavern pools, Carlsbad Caverns National Park removed the existing parking area and rehabilitated it to a natural state using vegetation native to the park. All native plants used for the project were grown nearby from locally-genetic stock, and additional work was done to collect and treat runoff from the new parking areas. The park near Carlsbad, N.M., was one of several parks that participated in a National Park Service pilot program to develop monitoring standards for re-vegetation.

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Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center
, Two Stars, Mesa Verde National Park, Co. The site-sensitive landscape design surrounding the center reflects the national park’s mission to educate the public about the archeological, biological and physical resources of the park and their interconnectivity. Stormwater from the site is directed through vegetated swales and retention ponds, and the area was re-vegetated with a mix of native and drought tolerant species, meanwhile addressing concerns about wildfires. The site produces 95 percent of its energy from on-site renewable energy sources and uses locally-quarried stone. The building has earned a LEED® Platinum certification.

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George “Doc” Cavalliere Park
, Three Stars, Scottsdale, Ariz. A primary strategy for the park, located on 34 acres of rugged desert terrain, was preserving and restoring its natural resources. The design uses 100 percent native plants, and all existing native trees, cacti and plant communities were preserved in place or salvaged and re-used onsite to restore desert upland and riparian plant communities. The park also incorporates a regional on-site stormwater management system. Other strategies include rainwater collection, permeable paving in parking areas and driveways, high efficiency LED lighting, net-zero energy consumption using a grid-tied 24 kilowatt solar photovoltaic system, and exclusive use of high-content recycled steel without industrial finishes.

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National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) Research Support Facility, Three Stars, Golden, Co. This federal research laboratory, a former National Guard training facility, consists of a 327-acre government research campus. The Research Support Facility, one of the newest campus additions, has achieved LEED Platinum certification for its innovative building design. The landscape framework for this net-zero energy facility includes establishing natural drainage for stormwater, minimizing impacts on local habitats, protecting habitat through conservation easements, providing hiking trails for staff and community members, using porous paving surfaces, restoring existing prairie and arroyo site features, using on-site  materials for the construction of retaining walls and installing energy efficient lighting. Regional materials and high recycled content were emphasized in the selection of site materials and furnishings.

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Scenic Hudson Long Dock Park
, Three Stars, Beacon, N.Y. This project transformed a 14-acre property on the Hudson River from a degraded, post-industrial brownfield into a major waterfront park that realizes themes of recovery, remediation, reuse and re-engagement. The project returned public access to the river, remediated contaminated soils, rehabilitated degraded wetlands, re-used found materials in innovative ways and restored ecological diversity to upland, wetland and intertidal zones. Features include decks and docks popular with anglers; ADA-accessible paths; areas for picnicking, river gazing, dog-walking, and Frisbee tossing; a kayak pavilion and an outdoor classroom.

Image credits: (1) Blue Hole Regional Park / Tim Campbell, Design Workshop, (2) Harris County Water Conservation and Improvement District (WCID) 132’s Water Conservation and Demonstration Center / Ken Fraser, (3) American University School of International Service / Paul Davis, (4) Bat Cave Draw and Visitor’s Center / NPS, (5) Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center / NPS, (6) George “Doc” Cavalliere Park / Chris Brown, Floor Associates, (7) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) Research Support Facility / Robb Williamson, courtesy of RNL, (8) Scenic Hudson Long Dock Park / Reed Hilderbrand LLC

 

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Green infrastructure is starting to mean different things to different people, said David Rouse, ASLA, a landscape architect and planner at Wallace, Roberts & Todd (WRT) during a session at the American Planning Association (APA) conference in Chicago. Rouse was there with Theresa Schwarz, Kent State Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative; Karen Walz, Strategic Community Solutions; and Ignacio Bunster-Ossa, FASLA, a landscape architect with WRT, who together co-authored a new book published by APA called Green Infrastructure: A Landscape Approach.

There are really two definitions of green infrastructure. One is an inter-connected network of green open spaces that provide a range of ecosystem services — from clean air and water to wildlife habitat and carbon sinks. The other is a more limited one promoted by the E.P.A.: small-scale green systems designed to be urban stormwater management infrastructure. In either definition, green infrastructure is about bringing together “natural and built environments” and using the “landscape as infrastructure,” said Rouse.

Beyond getting the definitions right, Bunster-Ossa said the purpose of the book was to make sure these important concepts weren’t mired in the ugly debates about landscape urbanism, which has become a loaded term for many new urbanists, smart growth advocates, and others promoting increased density. He said “there’s been too much fighting over that, so here’s a way to clearly define the benefits of these systems.”

For Rouse, green infrastructure can improve our health, particularly our mental health, by making places more green and walkable. Think of green spaces and how they are much better to walk through than treeless, concrete environments. Those greener spaces are also safer. As research is proving, greener spaces have less crime, particularly domestic violence. The presence of greenery can also boost children’s education performance as well as the cognitive ability of adults.

Given the multiple benefits of green infrastructure, it should be understood using terms like “multifunctionality, connectivity, habitability, resiliency, and identity,” along with “return on investment.” Rouse said these principles can be applied at green infrastructure projects at all scales.

Here are some lessons from the experts who’ve tried to apply green infrastructure at the landscape scale (these are also case studies in the book):

Put the Green Before Grey

Schwarz said “cities in transition” sounds better than a “shrinking” city, which is what Cleveland is. Cleveland has lost half of its population so it has surplus real estate. Vacancies are everywhere “but not aggregated.” In total, Cleveland has about 20,000 vacant homes over 3,000 acres of land.

So the city has created a new plan to redevelop in strategic places, keeping density in key areas while using cleared areas for green infrastructure to handle stormwater. The city is now demolishing huge chunks of the vacant homes, adding about 120 acres of cleared land every year.

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Much of these cleared surfaces can be used for infiltration, but a plan was first needed first target existing watersheds and understand the soils. Schwarz said soil surveys of Cleveland found there many types of soils, but really only the sandiest ones allow for infiltration. Other soils may appear fine but were actually heavily contaminated from industrial use.

In many cases, finding the original watershed was also tricky: So many indigenous waterways were buried underground to make way for some earlier development. Schwarz’s team worked on identifying the “headways” of rivers and culverted streams, seeing them as the best places to bring back vegetation to deal with stormwater. At the neighborhood scale, riparian corridors are planned as well.

While all of this sounds great, the E.P.A. was really forcing Cleveland to do all this work. The aging combined stormwater and sewer system in the city means there are 126 combined sewer overflows (CSOs) into Lake Erie each year, dumping some 4.5 billion gallons of runoff and waste. The E.P.A. is forcing the city to spend $3 billion as part of a “consent decree” to address the issue. While her group is pushing forward with green infrastructure mapping, Schwarz said, unfortunately, much of this money is going towards hard grey infrastructure — “seven really big deep tunnels” — with only some $42 million available for green infrastructure. “This is expected to handle around 44 million gallons of runoff, not much out of 4.5 billion gallons.”

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Schwarz said the green infrastructure would have been more effective if “the green was designed first, before the grey.” Still, her group and others are pushing the city to make the best of it and add green infrastructure along the strategic reinvestment zones, the highly-trafficked corridors, making those “sustainable patterns of development” even more attractive. She’s also making sure the city applies a “green infrastructure decision making framework,” so that when land becomes vacant it can quickly be evaluated by the city to determine if it’s best used for redevelopment or green infrastructure.

Look for the Long-term and Large-scale

According to Walz, the North Texas region, which encompasses Dallas and a number of other cities, is the 4th largest metropolitan region in the U.S. The area has a “strong economy” so there’s been rapid population growth. In 2000, the area had 5.3 million. Double that is expected by 2050. Within the region, efforts are underway to let the Trinity River meander through Dallas, taking it out of its levees, and preserve and expand green infrastructure. Broader visions, including Vision North Texas, Trinity River Common Vision, and others, aim to “create regional thinking, but local implementation” on green infrastructure.

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To make the local implementation part happen, Walz worked with the local community using “green printing” and integrated stormwater management (ISWM) approaches, a kind of mapping process to gauge what the local values are, where green infrastructure opportunities are, and find the places where the values and opportunities co-join to create “triple bottom line benefits.”

For Walz, the lessons learned were that “landscape shapes development. This is a concept we used to understand.” She said her public process has helped people understand how to “combine a landscape analysis with local residents’ values, so that in the future the landscape can actually shape development patterns.” Through public input, the community could find out which areas it values the most and preserve. She said those watersheds and natural areas that the community deemed to have the highest value were also “the same assets that will them create a more sustainable and distinctive community.”

She added that planning at the regional scale creates more benefits for communities. “Green landscapes, natural systems don’t end at the city limits.” Forming those partnerships that cross city lines helps create the broader regional vision.

To craft that vision, multiple disciplines should be be involved. “While that brings challenges, there are also great rewards.”

Lastly, Walz said “look for the long-term and large-scale” opportunities. (It’s also clear that the lingo or terminology around green infrastructure may get in the way when trying to reach a community. Walz said “these green infrastructure approaches are valuable regardless of what they’re called.”)

Create Local Connections to Green Infrastructure

WRT is working on a massive project in Louisville, Kentucky — the Parklands of Floyd’s Fork. At the edge of the city, four parks, each named for a tributary to the waterway, will protect some 3,700 acres along a prime watershed, helping to create a green edge around a city sprawling out.

Bunster-Ossa said he approached the green infrastructure aspects of the project using the “principle of connectivity.” Also important were creating a real local identity for the green infrastructure systems. While the proposed designs offer lots of ecosystem service benefits (approximately $18 million worth, said Bunster-Ossa), it’s really about creating a place people that people can connect to.

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Bunster-Ossa introduced another example WRT worked on with Margie Ruddick, ASLA, this time in a highly urban environment: the new 1.5-acre, $45 million Queens Plaza park, which uses plants while also protecting pedestrians in a dangerous intersection, “making green infrastructure visible.” Sidewalks were dug up to form barriers that prevent pedestrians from jaywalking, while rain gardens provide a respite from the urban jungle. The park is viewed as such a useful amenity that Jet Blue recently put its new headquarters a few blocks away.

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Bunster-Ossa said nearby buildings weren’t excluded from discussion about the new park. With green infrastructure, you can “flow from the interior of buildings to parks to wateryways, all the way to the region.” Now there’s landscape-scale thinking.

Read the book.

Image credit: (1) APA Books, (2) Demolishing vacant buildings in East Cleveland / Cuyahoga Land Bank, (3) Vacant land in Cleveland / Urban Current, (4) Trinity River / Trinity River Project, (5-6) Floyd’s Fork / WRT, (7) Queens Plaza / Margie Ruddick, WRT.

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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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Now that we have become an urban species, we are compelled to harness urban ecosystems to improve sustainability and human health and strengthen our relationship to the natural world. But are ecological functions really being prioritized? Are we investing enough in ecosystem services in our cities? Is green infrastructure — such as green roofs, living walls, water sensitive designs and natural green space — as widely used as it could be? If not, what’s holding us up?

A short, 3-minute YouTube video gives a brief introduction to urban ecology and presents a case for collaborative, ecological urban design, which could create a more optimistic future for our cities and planet.

To gauge how opinions vary by culture and discipline, you are also invited to participate in a short 10-question survey that seeks to answer: how can we do better as professionals? Analysis of the survey data will be available later this year.

Take the survey.

Also, check out a live chat with us through the upcoming Green Roof Virtual Summit, February 18th and March 6th.

This guest post is by Mark Simmons, PhD, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin and Christine Thuring (Chlorophyllocity) from the University of Sheffield.

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The Dutch have a complex, inescapable relationship with water, which makes them virtual experts in water management, said Chase Rynd, head of the National Building Museum. The ambassador from the Netherlands, Rudolf Bekink, agreed that water has played a huge part in shaping the culture and institutions of his country. Interestingly, though, for a people who are so deeply confident about their system of dykes and sea walls that there is no flood insurance or evacuation plans in place, New Orleans really scared the country. Bekink asked, “Are we as safe as we believe?” To see if they are, the Dutch government recently formed a new Delta Commission. The first was put in place after a flood in the early 50s, which killed nearly 2,000 people. The new commission has found that “with a modest amount of investment, the Dutch don’t have to move to Germany,” as Al Gore once jokingly said (to the endless irritation of the Dutch). To hear about how the Dutch have managed water — and how their strategies and tools have changed over the years to address new threats — journalist Tracy Metz, Delta commission member and co-author of Sweet & Salt: The Dutch and Water, gave a talk at the National Building Museum.

American-Dutch Metz said public interest in water issues has only grown over the years, with the rise of “extreme water — water that is either too much or too little.” Her main point was that the rise of extreme water presents “new threats but also opportunities,” particularly, if we are, like the Dutch, “more adaptable, flexible, and resilient, if we use water to improve our cities and communities.” And while centuries of Dutch innovation in managing water can’t be easily copied and pasted into other countries’ environments, their “thinking can.” Their approaches can translate into local solutions that fit.

The Dutch have been “building in their soggy little delta since they settled there.” Dyke building has always been an intensive process. Instead of adding landfill and pushing water out with new land forms, the Dutch have actually been pumping water out. Dykes give the country shape. They can be viewed as “inert, passive piles of dirt,” but also as having a “shaping effect.” Whether you find them boring or not, “they have a story to tell. Dykes are Dutch landscape poetry.”

Through World War II and after, the system of dykes the Dutch relied on had received little maintenance. As a result, in 1953, dykes burst in 50 different places at once. The result is that 1,835 people + 1 died. The “+1″ is the young, unnamed child who drowned in her mother’s arms along with her mother. There are memorials everywhere to them. Some 700,000 people lost their homes and more than 1 million animals died. The Dutch vowed never again. Their answer to the flooding was “hard, concrete solutions.” Huge dams and sluices went in, which amazingly separate out salt and fresh (or sweet) water. As boats move into position, “salt water is sucked out and fresh water moves in,” and then gates open, letting the ships pass. “There’s an amazing intelligence in these systems, a domination of nature,” said Metz. New sea walls were constructed to protect against storm surges. Each arm of the massive sea gates protecting Rotterdam is longer than the Eiffel Tower.

But with the rising ecological cost of these hard systems and the new threat of climate change, the Dutch began to shift their thinking. Metz said water infrastructure now has to have multiple functions. There are lots of examples of how “dykes are becoming parks, roads. They are no longer stand-alone empty objects.” The new Dutch approach incorporates water measures into the design of public amenities. That new way of thinking has spread to building, urban, and landscape design. For buildings, Metz showed a series of slightly futuristic renderings of floating homes, but also said in some places they are becoming a reality.

In Amsterdam, a new neighborhood now features a dense village of 75 floating homes. Parking spaces for the floating homes were simply moved inland and attached to homes with landscapes.

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More fantastic ideas envision a whole floating city. While these designs may not be realistic, “they show where the creative visions are for the future.”

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At the urban scale, Rotterdam is looking into rolling out “water squares,” which are hollowed-out basins designed to capture and store rainwater. Designed by Dutch urban design firm De Urbanisten, these public squares would transform from playgrounds into water retention basins. In summer, if there is flooding, they could form mini-lakes kids could play in. In winter, mini-ice skating rinks. Metz, said “this looks a bit kinky and utopian,” but in reality, “how many would you actually need to deal with flooding?”

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In another example, she point to a canal where there is a walking promenade and an interior green space that is designed to accommodate floods. In one photo, a pedestrian bridge span simply cuts off halfway, as one end is submerged water on purpose. It was designed that way to show people not to go to the area when it’s wet.

Another fantastical idea would use a “super dyke,” a model created in Japan. The super dyke is “flat and long” because with earthquakes in Japan, they can’t be built tall. The super dyke is a public pool also designed to prevent flooding.

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At the broader landscape scale, Metz said “the urgent threat is not rising sea levels, but increased fresh water flow from the Alps.” A new $2 billion EU program, Room for the River, is about giving the rivers room to move and expand. In one example, a new brand of river was created. If there’s flooding, water flows into this new man-made river space. Islands form between the natural and man-made rivers. Metz showed images of undulating rivers guided by massive land berms. “The idea is to catch and slow down the river in the landscape.”

An another approach is to use sand to block up water flow in certain areas. Instead of adding tons of sand to beaches — only to see the sand washed out to sea again — the Dutch have been studying currents and dumping millions of cubic feet of sand upstream. “This way you don’t have to decide where to take the sand. Nature decides where to take it.” The Dutch are closely monitoring to see where the sand ends up and adjusting. But in another example of multi-use infrastructure, the new sand forms have been a paradise for surfers. They are now a heavily trafficked recreation area now, too.

But not everyone is convinced of these new ecological approaches. Part of Room for the River calls for lowering dykes and creating spillover zones, or spillways. Spillways are being put in areas with low populations to ‘reduce lawsuits.”

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Still, some communities don’t want to leave their homes so they are “banding together” to create “built mounds.” On the mounds, they can “farm without disturbance.” They will now be little islands in a sea of water, but together.

Even with all the innovative thinking and high levels of spending on water management, Metz still raised a note of caution about the Dutch preventive approach. Dykes are currently under-maintained, but “people seem blissfully unaware that they are even there.” With over 60 percent of GDP under sea level, Metz worries that the investment in dyke maintenance has not kept up with the amount of value the dykes actually protect now. There’s still no flood insurance (because the cost of disaster would be more than any company could bear) or evacuation plans (except for animals). This is because of the innate faith in the system. “The Dutch aren’t scared of disasters. The responsibility has been outsourced to government and engineers.”

But it sounds like New Orleans scared at least some in the Dutch government out of a complacency, which was why the second Delta commission was formed. Collectively reaching for a solution, Metz said the Dutch government has now passed almost all the recommendations from the commission, created a new government position — a non-political minister for the delta, and put $800 million a year towards Delta fund prevention measures.

Metz said the Dutch go for these types of national solutions because they see water as a collective issue, while Americans think they’re own their own. The Dutch are geared towards prevention, spending nearly $1 billion a year on maintenance. “The U.S. just thinks things will happen, then they will repair.” The damage of Hurricane Sandy cost upward of $50 billion. “Was that a good use of money?”

To respond to Metz’s presentation and bring a U.S. context, Kathy Poole, a U.S.-based landscape architect, said the Netherlands have had “no choice to do what they’ve done. Unfortunately, the U.S. doesn’t recognize that it doesn’t have a choice.” Poole said that “water is not part of the American imagination. The U.S. has tons of land.” With limited developer timelines, there’s “no vision” for a long-term water management approach. “Within the government, there’s limited competency.” The “federal system is anti-collaboration.” She also thought that “Americans are spoiled, and not willing to give up things up. If I presented to developers the idea of separating parking spaces from homes (as was found in the Dutch floating village), I’d lose the contract.” She said innovative ideas like water squares also wouldn’t fly here given all the health regulations surrounding water and public spaces. Here, if water fountain water can be touched, it’s been disinfected to the max.

Metz agreed that the U.S. has a lot of work to do to become water-resilient. Just getting all the buildings in New York City to move their HVAC equipment and servers out of basements will be a “huge task” costing billions. Like the Netherlands, the U.S. will need a system of “green and grey infrastructure,” which could also save money in infrastructure costs over time.

Indeed, New York City and other northeastern cities (Philadelphia, Washington, D.C.) have begun making significant investments in green infrastructure to boost the resiliency of their hard, grey infrastructure and decentralize water management. Governor Andrew Cuomo recently announced a plan to create even more, spending $400 million to buy out homeowners in flood plains, leaving “some places just for nature.” According to NBM curator Chrysanthe Broikos, who is putting together a new NBM exhibition called Designing Against Disaster, set to open next year, “this is crucial because the federal government has subsidized building in the flood plain.” While the flood insurance system has been revised somewhat, new rules are needed to create more natural buffers and leave some area free of development.

Poole also thought bold new thinking was required, which would translate into “more malleable designs that could change over time.” “We need to design differently, to adapt over time – to both climate and economic changes.” As an ecological designer, she said she’s used to “seeing ecological systems change.” The same “core patterns can be applied to the built environment to improve adaptability.” She added that this is “not biomimicry, which I have real issues with,” but building in true resiliency.

As to whether countries should centralize all their water infrastructure in the form of sea walls or totally decentralize in the form of green infrastructure, everyone seemed to think both approaches are needed. Poole said “you can’t centralize everything, but also can’t disperse everything.” Some infrastructure begs for centralization. It would be stupid to have small local sewage plants, as no one wants those in their backyard. But back-ups are really what’s necessary. “That’s the reason to diversify.”

Americans, Poole said, need to see “sea water as infrastructure.” But the only Americans who understand that are farmers, who “constantly use water as a system.” Water is ultimately related to our security, and “eventually will be a national security issue” if the U.S. runs out of water and needs to import water from Mexico to grow crops.

Read Tracy Metz and Maartje van den Heuvel’s fascinating book, Sweet & Salt: Water and the Dutch.

Image credits: (1) Sweet and Salt cover photo by Han Singels, 2005, (2) Floating housing / Marlies Rohmer, (3) Floating city / DeltaSync, (4-7) Water Squares / De Urbanisten, (8) Superdyke / De Urbanisten, (9) Expected Flow of Water

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Lakiya Culley, an administrative assistant at the U.S. State Department and mother of three, just moved into one of the most innovative, energy-efficient houses in the U.S. In Deanwood, a working class, primarily African-American neighborhood of Washington, D.C. that has recently struggled with foreclosures, Culley is now the proud owner of Empowerhouse, a home designed using “passive house” technologies by students at the New School and Stevens Institute of Technology. The home wasn’t just built from scratch though: it came out of the Solar Decathlon design competition, which was held on the National Mall in 2011. Developed in partnership with Habitat for Humanity and the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development, the house marks “the first time in the Solar Decathlon’s history” that a team partnered with civic and government organizations to make a house a reality in the District.

After some criticism that Solar Decathlon homes were getting out-of-control-pricey to build and therefore weren’t realistic real-world models, the organizers added a “affordability” category in which teams could earn points. Empowerhouse scored really high in that category in comparison with a home from Germany, which cost upwards of $2 million. In fact, according to a spokesperson at New School, each unit of the actual Empowerhouse in Deanwood (there are two apartments in the mini-complex) cost just $250,000, making it affordable in that neighborhood. The model has been such a hit that six more are being planned for Ivy City, another inner-city neighborhood in the District.

This “net-zero” home itself is a marvel. The home produces all its own energy needs and consumes 90 percent less energy for heating and cooling than the conventional home. The bright, bold exterior lights up the whole block.

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But the fine exterior and healthy, light-filled interior built out of sustainable, recycled materials shouldn’t distract from the great landscape architecture components, which were integrated into the project from the beginning, said Professor Laura Briggs, faculty lead of the project, at the New School. As Briggs explained, the home is designed to capture all rainwater that hits it and surrounding homes.

Each unit has terraces with green roofs and small plots for urban agriculture that are designed to capture some water.

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In the rear of the building is a rain garden that captures any rainwater that escapes from the roof gardens. On top of that, each unit has its own underground cistern, where rainwater is collected and then used to water the property.

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The integrated system also synchs up with the front and sides of the home. There’s the District’s first residential green street, a deep trough filled with dirt and plants designed to soak up street runoff and deal with the oily pollutants that the runoff collects on streets.

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At the sides of the house, the parking space is actually made up permeable pavers that allow stormwater to sink into the underlying soils.

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In terms of social sustainability, the piece so often left out of the puzzle, both the homes and landscape were co-designed with the community. Students met with community members, local organizations, and Culley, the owner, in a series of design charrettes. The result of all that outreach and collaboration will be more projects in the neighborhood, including a new community “learning garden.”

The project then is not only a powerful model for how to bring sustainable, affordable, community-based housing to the District, but also how to create real stormwater management solutions that address the truly local environmental problems: the heavy runoff that impacts the already polluted rivers.

Another benefit of the project worth noting: Habitat for Humanity now knows how to build out these passive house homes in a low-cost way.

While the house was built by volunteers from Habitat for Humanity, all of the landscape work was done with a few amazing local organizations: Groundwork Anacostia and D.C. Greenworks.

Image credits:(1) Lakiya Cullen and sons / Martin Seck, (2) Empowerhouse / Martin Seck, (3) Roof terrace / Sarah Garrity, (4) Rain Garden / Ashley Hartzell, (5) Green Street / Ashley Hartzell, (6) Permeable Pavers / Ashley Hartzell

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That’s at least one definition of this innovative practice, explained Jillian Hovey, the Toronto-based head of Sustainable Living Network at the 2012 Greenbuild in San Francisco. Another possible definition: “a holistic design methodology to access the intelligence of natural ecosystems.” Really, the goal of the ever-growing tribe of permaculturists is to “co-create with nature.” Permacultural projects include organic food, edible landscaping, forest farming, and other small forms of urban agriculture.

Hovey said one of the central tenets of permaculture is regenerative design. While sustainable design involves simply mitigating the negative impacts of humans on the planet, regenerative design goes beyond and seeks to create a “positive role for people on earth.” Practitioners of permaculture seek to merge landscape, people, and technology to create “food, shelter, and energy.” Hovey said it’s a “philosphical approach to land use” in which “intricately conducted ecosystems, consciously designed” are put to work. (Still, she said some critics argue that, in these permacultural systems, humans are at the center of the regenerative effort, so the approach is still too human-centric, and doesn’t truly benefit “life in all forms,” as permaculturalists say they do).

Bill Mollison, the Australian founder of the movement, wrote Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual, back in the 1980s. Early permaculturalists  in Australia wondered whether it could actually be replicated in other places, but they decided that other temperate climates could make the systems work. So a slew of Australian books came out, followed by American and European guides. Recent how-to literature includes Designing and Maintaining Your Edible Landscapes Naturally and Edible Forest Gardens.

Standing on Greenbuild’s oddest “dog-bone”-shaped center stage, Hovey walked in circles showing off photographs of permaculture projects being designed and built. One practitioner she showed, Austrian outlier Sepp Holzer, is well-known for his “crater gardens,” stepped, terraced landscapes, which involve moving earth to dig out gardens, creating more surface area for agriculture and microclimates for different plants.

Holzer was recently brought in by Hovey’s group to help build a stepped crater garden at a school in Detroit. With the use of a translator, Holzer communicated to the bulldozer operator to create a set of steep walls out of the earth, adding in wood joints made of out sticks to “increase the productive edges.” Wood was also put in so that it decomposed and made richer soils. Once the area was seeded, straw was put on top. As Hovey described, “nature hates bare soil. Weeds happen when soil is left bare.”

The project, and others like it, demonstrate how “nature can be used as a model.” Hovey said permaculturalists use a design process wherein “everything is connected, every function should be supported by multiple elements, and every element should serve multiple functions.” This type of design process “builds in redundancy and resiliency.”

Permacultural design also enables feedback to be incorporated throughout the process. “This is a cyclical, iterative, spiral approach.” This kind of approach allows permaculturalists to “eliminate pollution.” While waste is abundant in nature — because it produces so much — pollution is not. Pollution is the “concentration of waste to such a degree that nature can’t handle it.” Interestingly, Hovey said lawns are a form of pollution because they “suppress existing ecosystems.”

Hovey went into great detail on the benefits of compost (if done right, it shouldn’t smell), along with the application of permaculture in parks, small urban plots, and even windowsills. 

Closing with a thoughtful take on regenerative design, Hovey argued that if these systems are designed to be self-sustaining, “the agricultural output is theoretically unlimited.” And if designers understand “ecological succession,” these landscapes can be “self-maintaining and even replicating.” Hence, permaculture as a state of permanent agriculture.

Check out Sepp Holzer’s book on permaculture at the small-scale.

Image credit: Powell Street Promenade, San Francisco / Hood Design / image copyright Marion Brenner and Beth Amann

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