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Archive for the ‘Ecosystem Services’ Category

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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
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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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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