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Archive for the ‘Ecosystem Services’ Category


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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President Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney didn’t discuss climate change once during the three presidential debates. However, Hurricane Sandy, with the immense loss of life and $50 billion in damages it caused, seemed to once again raise the specter of climate change, at least for Americans. With the storm and Mayor Bloomberg’s last-minute endorsement of President Obama — largely because he felt Obama would better address climate change — the issue was put back on the national agenda. In fact, the deadly storm, along with Bloomberg’s endorsement, seemed to single handedly raise the profile of the climate, at least in political circles, after it had taken a back-seat for many years.

Following Bloomberg, Governor Cuomo then quickly made the following statement: “climate change is a reality. Given the frequency of these extreme weather situations we have had, for us to sit here today and say this is once in a generation and it’s not going to happen again, I think would be shortsighted.” Then, just a few days ago, Senate Majority leader Harry Reid also noted that Americans want Congress to focus on climate change legislation again.

So, did climate change actually contribute to the ferocity of Hurricane Sandy? According to The New York Times‘ well-respected Green blog, climate scientists won’t know exactly if that’s the case for a few months, but initial signs point to yes. Interviewing a few leading climate scientists, the blog writes: “A likely contributor to the intensity of Sandy, they said, was that surface temperatures in the western Atlantic Ocean were remarkably high just ahead of the storm — in places, about five degrees Fahrenheit higher than normal for this time of year. In fact, part of the ocean was warmer than it would normally be in September, when accumulated summer heat tends to peak.”

The Atlantic came out with an even bolder statement, arguing that “there’s no question that climate change made Sandy stronger.” This is because climate change has led to rising sea levels, so even more damaging waves when the ocean hit the land. They write: “According to sea level expert Ben Strauss of Climate Central, the sea level in the New York harbor today is 15 inches higher than it was in 1880. Now, to be sure, not all of that is due global warming—land has also been subsiding. Strauss estimates that climate change—which causes sea level rise both through the melting of land-based ice, and through thermal expansion of warm ocean water—is responsible for just over half, or eight inches, of the total.” Still, those 8 inches caused a lot more damage.

With the incredible destruction in New Jersey and New York, talk is now heating up about how to invest billions to make cities and coastal communities climate resilient and protect them from future storms. The innovative ideas of Dland studio to create wetlands around the city and landscape architect Kate Orff, ASLA, SCAPE, to mitigate storms with man-made oyster reefs were even just featured in a cover story in The New York Times, while the case for using green infrastructure to deal with heavy rain has now gotten more attention thanks to Kaid Benfield’s excellent piece. However, will policymakers now see the value of putting natural systems in place to address flooding and storm risks, or will New York City and others invest in expensive, “hard” infrastructure like sea walls that often fail to do the job of protecting people and property?

A 2009 report by the Army Corps of Engineer and Port Authority of New York and New Jersey looked at the feasibility of recreating 18,000 acres of tidal wetlands “on the margins of the islands and the coastline, [which] act like sponges, slowing and baffling tidal forces,” to replace the massive sea walls, which had actually taken the place of the original 300,000-acre wetlands in the outer boroughs of New York City. The problem the engineers were looking at: sea walls don’t actually function that well when protecting areas below sea level (see New Orleans and Katrina). The original perceived benefit of the sea walls was that they would enable more land to be developed closer to the water.

A proposal by Dland Studio and Architecture Research Office would put a set of wetlands around lower Manhattan and we would hope all the other boroughs. The New York Times writes: “To prevent incursions by water, Mr. Cassell and his planners imagined ringing Lower Manhattan with a grassy network of land-based parks accompanied by watery patches of wetlands and tidal salt marshes. At Battery Park, for instance, the marshes would weave through a series of breakwater islands made of geo-textile tubes and covered with marine plantings. On the Lower East Side of the island, Mr. Cassell and his team envisioned extending Manhattan by a block or two — with additional landfill — to create space for another new park and a salt marsh.” A complementary set of green streets would also boost absorptive capacity within the city.

Another exciting proposal by Orff would use oysters to create decentralized storm mitigation infrastructure in the low-lying Buttermilk Channel and Gowanus Bay that swelled and severely flooded some neighborhoods during the storm. Orff’s argument is that “the era of big infrastructure is over” and needs to be neighborhood-centric and actually embedded into daily life. The New York Times writes: “Ms. Orff’s proposal [...] envisions a system of artificial reefs in the channel and the bay built out of rocks, shells and fuzzy rope that is intended to nurture the growth of oysters (she calls them ‘nature’s wave attenuators’).” The reefs would also help clean the water: each oyster purifies an amazing 50 gallons of water a day. Students at a local NYC school have also picked up on the oysters idea and area doing their own experiments to see how they would work.

Any of the nature-based solutions outlined seem as worthy of future study as multibillion dollar sea walls. New York City and other communities may even be able to leverage existing green infrastructure programs, ramping them up to deal with heavier water flow, while becoming more resilient across the board. All that added green space would improve other critical environment, social, and health outcomes.

In a New York Daily News op-ed, noted writer on cities Richard Florida, argues that resiliency needs to be built into all systems in New York City, New Jersey, and elsewhere by decentralizing and naturalizing infrastructure. To protect themselves from extreme weather events, New York City “must bolster its resiliency by creating a less centralized power grid with more built-in redundancy, passing regulations that discourage development on floodplains and encourage the restoration of barrier islands and wetlands that can buffer surges and developing technology that facilitates crowdsourcing of critical information.”

The New York Times recently hosted a comprehensive online debate on whether New York City should really invest the billions needed to build sea walls like London has. Apparently, Mayor Bloomberg argues that the investment will not be worth it, as it will not protect the whole city, while Governor Cuomo is pushing for a sea wall-based solution. What’s important is that all areas of NYC, rich and poor, benefit equally from any protection measures. Beyond New York City, smaller coastal cities like Atlantic City, which got hit very hard, must also invest in climate adaptation measures that benefit all in the community.

Hopefully, landscape architects will be part of the ongoing debate about how to adapt in a socially-sustainable manner and develop the out-of-the-box solutions that may prove to be the most sensible.

To learn more about how green and other “soft” natural infrastructure could work, check out ASLA’s animation, Leveraging the Landscape to Manage Water, and resource guides on green infrastructure and climate change adaptation.

Image credit: Dland Studio and Architecture Research Office

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“Everyday exposure to trees enhances your health now and promotes health across your entire lifespan,” said Dr. William Sullivan, Ph.D., a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, at a conference on the Washington, D.C. region’s urban tree canopy organized by Casey Trees. Some 150 urban forestry policymakers, experts, and designers heard Sullivan make the striking argument that the social and psychological benefits of trees and other greenery may even eclipse their ecological benefits. Research, based in real data, is now clearly demonstrating that exposure to trees brings people together, reduces crime, and lowers stress. Furthermore, trees are even a matter of life and death — their presence is a predictor of death rates for many.

Given that social ties are a predictor of our health and well-being, we need healthy, strong ties across our lifetimes. “Social ties are what glues us together. And people with stronger social ties have better health outcomes.” Sullivan outlined how social support buffers stress hormones, reduces blood pressure, increases chances of adopting healthy patterns, all of which lead to reduced mortality and morbidity rates and healthier lives.

In case the audience didn’t understand what he meant by social ties, Sullivan laid it all out. Social ties involves people getting together to see each other. There’s a progression in human relations. At first, there’s nodding, then smiling, then chatting. “Some people you chat with become friends.” Strong social ties involve those people we rely on. Weak social ties though are also hugely important. But social tie formation isn’t just dependent on how social you are, your environment also plays a large role. Sullivan pointed to a standard example of a sprawled out bedroom community and explained how these places reduce social tie formation, while green landscapes, streets improve these crucial ties.

To back up his points on the role of trees in boosting socialization, Sullivan pointed to a number of research studies, including a few of his own undertaken in public housing complexes in Chicago. He said these facilities are the “perfect place to research the effects of landscape on health” because there are people living in similar conditions but with varying levels of tree canopy. There are areas with no trees, some areas with up to 7 courtyard trees, and others that look out on dense forest. In his examination, Sullivan found that at Robert Taylor homes, “any trees mattered a lot” in terms of how many people were outside socializing. “Smaller spaces with trees were a big predictor of people hanging out.” Doing “real science,” Sullivan and his team interviewed  more than 140 people and found that the presence of trees had an impact on socialization with nearby neighbors and creating a local sense of community.

As a side-note, Sullivan also looked at trees and crime in the public housing complexes. His argument was that given trees encourage people to get outside and socialize, doesn’t that also mean that there are more eyes on the street and neighbors can then shush away bad guys? Using police and F.B.I. archival crime data over the past 2 years, Sullivan found that there was 52 percent less crime in high-tree density areas. Crime, however, could have moved on to more barren, treeless areas.

There are other research studies that demonstrate the powerful impact of trees on health, particularly for those with lower income. Pointing to a study by Mitchell and Popham in The Lancet in 2008, which offers up “empirical evidence” of some 40 million people in the United Kingdom, Sullivan said there is a relationship between lifespan and trees, particularly for medium and low-income residents. For medium income group, the presence of trees means they “are less likely to die.” For low-income residents, green spaces means they are “much less likely to die.” Interestingly, for high-income residents, there was no direct relationship. “The density of vegetation had no impact.” So Sullivan said what blew away even the assembled tree experts: “trees are a predictor of death rates. Trees are about life and death.” This study brings up issues related to equity and justice. The disparities between high and low-income people are dramatically reduced by the “power of living in a green neighborhood filled with trees.”

But stress, which is a contributor to early death, really takes its toll on almost everyone these days. Sullivan said stress impacts the central nervous system by flooding it with hormones. While it “sharpens your focus, it also shuts down digestion and prepares you for emergencies.” In today’s world, filled with commutes, kids, jobs, people suffer from “chronic stress, which is a disease.” Chronic stress leads to immune system repression, hypertension, damage to nerve cells, and insulin resistance. MacArthur studies have found that stress also leads to “impulsive actions, reduced cognitive function, increased cardiac diseases and mortality.” Unfortunately, “we have designed a society that gives us long term stress.”

To test whether a “dose of nature” has any impact on stress, Sullivan said researchers found 300 people who live in standard sprawled-out communities in the Midwest and brought them into labs. They were given a cortisol test when they got into the lab, then asked to give a 5-minute speech about their dream job (“highly stressful”) or asked to subtract 16 from a range of huge numbers (“people hate this”), and then their cortisol was tested again. But some of these poor guinea pigs were shown a 5-minute video of green street scenes and tested again. Sullivan said the study found a “curved linear relationship,” with the presence of trees in the video reducing cortisol.

To sum up, Sullivan argued that “living without trees has a significant cost.” He said the location of trees also really matters. While “big central parks matter, they are not enough. Too many people live in barren landscapes. A 30-40 percent tree cover adds a lot to health. We need trees at every doorstep.”

Explore Dr. Sullivan’s exciting research.

Image credit: Robert Taylor Homes, Chicago / University of Illinois at Chicago

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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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Singapore is heavily dependent on Malaysia for its water supply but is now creating new sustainable parks designed to reduce its reliance, said Herbert Dreiseitl, International ASLA, Atelier Dreiseitl, at the Greater & Greener: Reimagining Parks for 21st Century Cities, a conference in New York City. As an example, his amazing new 62-acre Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park recreates nature, transforming a 2.7-kilometer concrete-channel lined river into a 3-kilometer natural meandering system. At the same time, the new system slows down and stores some of the rainfall that hits the city-state. The park is a model for how cities can transform outmoded, broken systems into natural systems.

Singapore has to import so much water because all its hard surfaces funnel water straight into the ocean. In the tropical heat, much is also lost to evaporation. “They can’t keep their water they have.” To address these problems, the city-state has created a new strategic master plan to reduce reliance on Malaysia and capture more of its own water for reuse. The new plan, which includes water guidelines Dreiseitl created for the Singaporean government, focuses on “collecting, slowing down, and storing rainwater.”

A central catchement — the Kallang River — is part of the larger system providing drinking water to the city-state. In the past, the river was actually set within a concrete channel in many key places so in heavy monsoons it would flood and then evaporate.

Dreiseitl convinced the government to let the river escape its concrete channel and meander through the park, turning an “old-fashioned park and canal” into green infrastructure system that teaches the community about how nature actually works. The new system is actually a lot safer — the previous concrete channel actually killed many residents who were playing soccer down there when flash flooding struck.


In Dreiseitl’s cutting-edge approach, the “blue and green are integrated.” To achieve this, he has to convince the city departments that handled water and parks to abandon their siloed approaches and better communicate with each other. “Now, territories, finances, and maintenance overlap.”

To make this seismic change happen, Dreiseitl said he had to get the Singaporean government to trust his new approach, so he actually used his own design fee to create a test site. Exploring 12 different “bioengineering techniques,” Dreiseitl commissioned a set of in-depth hydraulic and materials studies. He was floored by how “crazy” the plants grow in Singapore so he had to adjust his models based on plant growth. He figured out what kinds of soil conditions would ensure slope stability in those temperatures. Lastly, he invested heavily in training the construction workers. “We couldn’t just show them pretty drawings of the new systems because they had no experience with these systems. We had to train them.”

With the approval of the government in place, Dreiseitl moved towards creating a new stream while the river was still flowing. In a feat of sequenced engineering, Dreiseitl managed to re-engineer soils, add bio-engineered plant systems along with trees, break up the existing concrete channel and reuse the rubble to stabilize the entire system — all while the river was still running. No artificial fertilizers were added. All materials on site were reused. In fact, some of the excess rubble was used to create a new hill, a look-out point over the park.


Importantly, the new system actually works. Dreiseitl said the new river “can hold lots of capacity and cuts in half the peak floods.” The new, cleansing biotope digest pollutants and creates oxygen in millions of gallons of river water each day. Some of the cleansed river water is diverted and reused in the watery playscapes. Before the water touches people, it’s further cleansed by a UV radiation filter. “It’s not only a purification system, but also a beautiful garden.”


The German landscape architect said for the project to work Singaporean officials just needed to be “learn how to behave with risk.” They had wanted to put a fence around the meandering river to keep people out of the flood plain, but Dreiseitl threatened to quit over that, arguing that it would not only ruin the design but break the human connection to the natural system. Instead, Dreiseitl’s team worked with the government to create an “amazing” early warning system, with towers that flash lights and use loudspeakers to make announcements in 6 languages so people can still sit down there but get early warnings when the river is going to overflow.

He thinks this kind of experience with nature in Singapore, the “most artificial of cities,” is critical. In Singapore, everyone “lives in of air-conditioning. They use underground subways and go to underground shopping centers” to escape the heat. As a result, much of the population is cut-off from nature. He said kids are particularly blown away by the wildlife in Bishan. Since the park was redesigned, biodiversity is up 30 percent. There are now 59 species of birds, including sea eagles, and 23 kinds of dragonflies.


To add proof to a recent U.S. National Park Service report that being near a wildlife preserve raises property values, Dreiseitl said the nearby apartments are up 48 percent in value since the park opened. To laughter, he added, “I should have bought a place before it opened.”

Dreiseitl believes that to implement such a game-changing system landscape architects need to have a “strong, logical argument.” Designers “must convince with a narrative.” There has to be inter-disciplinary planning with engineers and architects to capture all the benefits. He also said climate change can be a “engine” for convincing clients to move forward with new models like these. “In the past, cities thought water was a problem to get rid of, but with climate change we need to focus on water security and reuse all water.”

Read an interview with Dreiseitl on designing with water.

Image credits: Atelier Dreiseitl

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At Greater & Greener: Reimagining Parks for 21st Century Cities, a conference in New York City hosted by the City Parks Alliance, Nate Berg, a staff writer for The Atlantic Cities moderated a session that explored approaches for dealing with vacant urban land. Through sensitive design, a number of panelists who are working around the world explained, vacant sites can become catalyze positive change.

According to Tamar Shapiro, Senior Director of Urban and Social Policy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States,  Germany has undertaken a number of successful strategies for dealing with vacancies stemming from deindustrialization in Germany.

The City of Leipzig, located in eastern Germany, (seen above) experienced a complete industrial collapse after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Rapid suburbanization and migration to the west led to a drastic loss of population, resulting in massive vacancy rates across the city. In 2000, Leipzig had an overall vacancy rate of 20 percent, and many neighborhoods had vacancy rates of over 50 percent.

To address these vacancies, Leipzig employed a strategy where the city would enter into 10-year contracts with property owners to temporarily reuse vacant land as green space. Citing numerous examples, Shapiro made the point that while temporary, these green spaces were carefully designed and strategically located. She argued that in order for a park to help turn a neighborhood around, it cannot simply be a lawn. Instead, the park must be professionally designed. By heavily investing in the design of these parks, Leipzig has seen dramatic reinvestment in many of its urban neighborhoods.

Heather McMann, Executive Director of Groundwork Lawrence, spoke about her organization’s efforts to improve the City of Lawrence, Massachusetts. Vibrant but economically distressed, Lawrence has long been a gateway community. Most recently it has been a destination for immigrants from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Once a thriving mill town, de-industrialization has left Lawrence with significant vacant properties. McMann described how Groundwork Lawrence led to the development of the Spicket River Greenway Plan, “helping the community achieve the dual goals of riverfront restoration and neighborhood revitalization.”


Several components of the greenway have been successfully built so far, including the redevelopment of an abandoned mill site as Dr. Nina Scarito Park. McMann explained the success of these projects depended on extensive collaboration with multiple community and governmental organizations.

Walter Meyer, Founding Principal of Local Office Landscape and Urban Design, spoke about his work on Parque del Litoral, in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico. Given the river was turned into a concrete channel and the creek buried, this urban waterfront site contained seven stormsewer outfalls that sent the city’s runoff and sewage directly into the Caribbean Sea. To address these issues, Local Office analyzed virgin rivers in undeveloped areas of northeastern Puerto Rico. Meyer described how this exercise was not about nostalgia; instead, their goal was to replicate the performance of these virgin rivers in an urban context. Local Office observed several critical river systems such as meandering curves, tree roots, and dunes. Applied to Parque del Litoral, Local Office’s design employs an extensive system of terraced plantings (filled with phytoremediating plants that remove toxins) to filter stormwater, protected by a new system of dunes. Developed as part of the preparation for Mayaguez’s hosting of the 2010 Central American Games, many elements of Parque del Litoral are designed to be repurposed and reused. For instance, parking areas for the Central American Games can be converted into a variety of uses including garden plots, sports facilities, and playgrounds.


Meyer also discussed his work on Miami Grand Central Park. Located on the old Miami Heat Arena site, the park is built on a 2 – 3 year lease and is therefore a potentially temporary use. The park is designed for maximum flexibility, allowing program to change quickly to generate revenue. Meyer described how it can contain a farmers market in the morning, accept overflow parking during the day, and host film screenings and concerts at night. Designed to be inexpensively built and maintained, the park utilizes a rainwater collection system for irrigation. Despite its temporary nature, the park has been the site of numerous concerts and social events, and is already starting to have a transformational effect on its surrounding neighborhood.


Throughout all the presentations, the benefits of temporary uses came up repeatedly. Tamar Shapiro explained that short-term leases and temporary uses allow for real flexibility, a critical quality in areas where the futures of vacant lots are unclear. As demonstrated in Leipzig and Miami, these potentially temporary parks can provide tremendous benefits to their communities, even if they are not necessarily permanent works.

This guest post is by Benjamin Wellington, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, Louisiana State University, and ASLA 2012 summer intern.

Image credits: (1) City of Leipzig / Permaculture and Regenerative Design News, (2) Groundwork Lawrence / Hammer + Walsh Design Inc, (3-4) Local Office Landscape and Urban Design

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In Urban Composition: Developing Community through Design, Professor Mark C. Childs, who teaches architecture at the University of New Mexico, declares that “settlements are not just the sums of their parts; their poetry and vitality comes from their collective composition – the interactions among multiple designs.” In other words, it’s the way multiple individually-designed pieces work together that leads to the overall success of a place. These pieces include buildings, parks, streets, and works of public art. Each of these components is individually crafted by an architect, landscape architect, or artist.

Childs argues that good urban design occurs through a concinnity of these components. He defines concinnity as “the skillful and harmonious adaptation or fitting together of parts to craft a whole.” He writes “great places emerge from the concinnity of incremental acts of design. Existing work frames new projects, which in turn inspire future works.” Each designed element should innovate while still drawing from the existing cultural, environmental, and physical context. In this way, the components of a city can be individually interesting and part of a coherent larger whole.

Childs describes these individual acts of design as falling within a design hierarchy. He gives the example of a building, which is located on a lot, which is part of a block, which is part of a larger pattern of blocks and streets, which is in turn influenced by the topography of the city. Each of these layers becomes progressively permanent: a building is more likely to change than the lot boundaries, which are less permanent than the underlying topography. Additionally, a building creates new spaces for interior design, from the division of rooms to the arrangement of furniture. These layers of design define how different design professions interact with each other. The interactions between multiple designers operating at different scales leads to a rich urban composition. However, the precise distinctions within this design hierarchy aren’t always clear. Childs writes, “when do architects place buildings in landscapes versus landscape architects place designs around buildings?”

Childs mentions public works, projects that “have a principal goal of providing a collective good or service to a catchment or district.” These projects, frequently known as urban infrastructure, influence the built form that falls within them. “By providing a public utility and structuring a district,” Childs writes, “public works create a pattern of niches for various built species.” As an example, ecological systems that provide services – including biodiversity, flood control, and stormwater filtration — can be considered collective goods. Because these goods are delivered to us through landscape design, our landscapes can be viewed as infrastructure. In the same way that a road layout influences how buildings are shaped, landscape infrastructure frames and guides our built forms. 

The growing awareness of the importance of urban ecology and the increasingly blurred distinction between the natural and built environments raise questions on landscape architecture’s position within the hierarchy of urban design. Isn’t ecological infrastructure now playing a larger role in making our cities more unique, boosting the role of landscape architects in the process?

While Urban Composition tends to be architecturally oriented, it’s an interesting read for any urban designer. Childs effectively communicates the ways designers need to consider the context of their designs, as well as their professional roles, in order to contribute to a successful urban composition. After all, the greatness of a city doesn’t depend on its individual buildings or parks, but on how those components work together.

Read the book.

This guest post is by Benjamin Wellington, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, Louisiana State University, and ASLA 2012 summer intern.

Image credit: Princeton Architectural Press

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Designing the Sustainable Site: Integrated Design Strategies for Small-Scale Sites and Residential Landscapes by Heather Venhaus, who worked on the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) guidelines and benchmarks at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin, provides a broad overview of sustainable landscapes from concept to implementation.

Venhaus cites the common definition of sustainability as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Brundtland 1987). She further describes sustainability as a recognition of the interdependency of the environment, human health, and the economy. Venhaus argues that sustainable landscapes need to be regenerative, not only easing environmental damage but actively reversing it. In order for a design to be regenerative, we cannot simply add sustainable elements to the end of a conventional design. Instead, ecological systems must be integrated into every step of the design process. For this reason, Venhaus has written a book that is aimed not only at landscape architects but also planners, architects, contractors, and home gardeners.

Designing the Sustainable Site is a broad introduction to a variety of concepts and tools, most of which will be quite familiar to landscape architects. The book discusses, among other things, how to assemble multi-disciplinary design teams, write construction documents, conduct site analysis, and formulate maintenance plans. The remaining bulk of the book is devoted to “Sustainable Solutions,” which mostly reads as an overview of current sustainable design technologies. These chapters cover techniques for addressing air pollution, water pollution, flooding, water conservation, invasive species, and loss of biodiversity.

Experienced landscape architects are not necessarily Venhaus’s target audience. Instead, Designing the Sustainable Site could be an introductory textbook for students of planning, architecture, or landscape architecture. In many ways, this book looks and reads like a textbook: it’s full of diagrams that are clear, legible, but uninspiring. More successful than the diagrams are the extensive, photographically-documented case studies of residential sustainable design. These case studies begin to communicate the aesthetic potential of sustainable design, lending the book a bit of graphic interest.

By stressing the importance of integrative design – working sustainability into all aspects of a project – Venhaus makes it clear that sustainability falls across multiple disciplines. While the concepts presented in this book may be obvious to landscape architects, unfortunately they may be news to other design professionals and much of the public. By specifically addressing residential landscapes and small-scale sites, Venhaus moves sustainability out of the exclusive domain of landscape architects and into the hands of anyone involved in the design and building process, including all those prospective clients.  

Read the book.

This guest post is by Benjamin Wellington, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, Louisiana State University, and ASLA 2012 summer intern.

Image credit: Wiley & Sons

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Peter Del Tredici’s Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast serves not only as an absorbing field guide to spontaneous urban plants but also as a razor-sharp critique of how we value urban plants in general. In clear, jargon-free language, Del Tredici lays out his challenge to our ecological assumptions in the book’s introduction. He describes how we have a tendency to negatively judge plants that grow without human intention. Indeed, most of the plants described in this book are traditionally dismissed as weeds. Furthermore, we negatively judge plants based on their place of origin, labeling non-native species as “invasive.” Del Tredici argues that by automatically tagging these spontaneous urban plants as ecologically harmful, we ignore their potential benefits.

The entire concept of native and non-native becomes complicated when we consider the reality of urban conditions. Del Tredici challenges the notion that native plants can always be restored in urban landscapes, writing “(1) most urban land has been totally transformed from what it once was; (2) the climate conditions that the original flora was adapted to no longer exist; and (3) most urban habitats are strictly human creations with no natural analogs and no indigenous flora.” Cities represent entirely new conditions that native species are not necessarily adapted to. For this reason, native plants often require extensive human management to survive. Accordingly, Del Tredici dismisses the concept of urban ecological restoration as “really just gardening dressed up to look like ecology.” Instead, the plants that thrive in cities are already evolutionarily adapted for harsh conditions. Because they grow in cities without human input, they are, in a sense, the natural urban flora. These species can deliver significant benefits to urban ecosystems and should not be disregarded. For example, these species reduce the urban heat island effect, protect against erosion, stabilize stream banks, manage stormwater, create wildlife habitat, produce oxygen, and store carbon.

By challenging the way we value urban plans, the book forces us to reconsider how we design our urban landscapes. For this reason, the book is of particular relevance to landscape architects, though it is not specifically written for them. Discussions of sustainability frequently involve the use of native species, but how sustainable is a landscape that requires frequent maintenance? After all, plants that grow and flourish without human intervention are, by definition, sustainable.

Del Tredici touches on some landscape strategies that utilize spontaneous vegetation. These strategies involve the employment of selective editing – the targeted removal of certain undesirable species – to guide spontaneous plant growth to a desired result. He brings up the possibility of the spontaneously generated green roofs, high-performance urban meadows, and ecologically beneficial lawn alternatives. The design implications for spontaneous vegetation are vast and far beyond the scope of this book. For instance, spontaneous vegetation could be a tool for inexpensively transforming vacant urban areas into ecologically and socially beneficial spaces. Old industrial cities such as Detroit and Buffalo already grapple with the phenomenon of the “urban prairie.” Can these maligned spaces be turned into assets? Of course, any strategy utilizing spontaneous vegetation would need to fully address issues of safety, health and aesthetics. In New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward, a post-Katrina proliferation of spontaneous vegetation is generally seen as a threat to the neighborhood’s viability. Is there a way we can selectively edit this vegetation to benefit, instead of threaten, the neighborhood?

Del Tredici follows his eloquent 30-page introduction with the bulk of the book: a 300-page field guide to spontaneous urban plants. Each species gets a full page of text and a full page of images; by giving these plants visibility, he makes them impossible to ignore. Significantly, in addition to basic identification and habitat preference, each plant is described in terms of its positive ecological and cultural significance. These descriptions make the field guide an entertaining read and elevate it far beyond a simple tool for plant identification. Del Tredici deliberately omits any negative ecological qualities that these plants may have; the book aims to challenge our perceptions of these plants, not necessarily provide a balanced perspective.

By refusing to address any negative ecological consequences of these species, the book does lose some of its utility to landscape designers. While hinting at the potential of spontaneous urban species in landscape design, it does not work as a guide to their use. Similarly, while the book does bring up the strategy of selectively editing plant species, it does not describe how to kill them. While this information is useful and necessary, it is beyond the scope of the book. Written for a general audience, Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast is not intended as a guide to designing with spontaneous vegetation. Instead, it serves both as an eye-opening guide to plants often overlooked, and as a challenge to our notions of nature and the way we determine the value of plants.

In a culture where any alternative to the lawn can be controversial, we need to change the perception of wild greenery before we can design with it. Del Tredici strives “to teach people how to identify the plants that are growing in urban areas, and to counter the widespread perception that these plants are ecologically harmful or useless and should be eliminated.” In this aim, he resoundingly succeeds.

Read the book.

This guest post is by Benjamin Wellington, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, Louisiana State University, and ASLA 2012 summer intern.

Image credit: Comstock Pub Assoc

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Who knew that wildlife refuges are actually “economic engines” in disguise? A recent study by North Carolina State University researchers for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that metro-area homes near wildlife refuges are worth more than those farther away from these havens. The report surveyed homes in urban areas near refuges in the Northeast, Southeast, and California-Nevada region. The report didn’t include the Southwest because reserves there tend to be too far from dense, urban cores.

While many developers have known for some time that being near to open space somewhat improves property values – with natural parks and woodlands providing the most value – perhaps it’s less known that wildlife refuges have a greater impact. According to The New York Times’ Green blog, “for homes that are less than a half-mile from a wildlife refuge and within eight miles of an urban center, property values were 7 to 9 percent higher on average in the Southeast and 4 to 5 percent higher in the Northeast. In the California-Nevada area, such homes were worth 3 to 6 percent more.” This is far higher than the average 2.8 percent increase in property value associated with simply being near open space. 

In many neighborhoods, this isn’t chump change. The 36 refuges the researchers examined were found to increase local property values by a whopping $300 million, meaning benefits for both homeowners and local communities’ tax offices. So, really, the case may be made that wildlife refuges actually pay for themselves.

The New York Times writes that this report may be defense against House Republicans who “would like to see federal lands sold off to raise money and to encourage development.” Perhaps it’s just a matter of better making the case with real data to everyone.

As part of the effort, the Fish and Wildlife Service will update its analysis of the economic impacts of refuges in terms of tourist spending. One of their studies found that “34.8 million visits to American wildlife refuges in fiscal 2006 generated $1.7 billion in sales, nearly 27,000 jobs and $542.8 million in employment income in regional economies.” 

Trust-worthy data can help establish the understanding that wildlife refuges not only provide critical value for migrating and often endangered species but also help people and communities. While landscape architects and other working in environmental design and ecological restoration understand the inherent biological value of wildlife reserves, in many communities facing huge budget crunches, the economic case must also be made for investing in places just for wildlife, whether they are natural sites, restored ones, or even designed from scratch.

Read the report.

Image credit: ASLA 2008 General Design Honor Award. Gannett/USA Today Headquarters, McLean, Virginia / Michael Vergason Landscape Architects, Ltd., Alexandria, Virginia

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