Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

Bison in Yellowstone National Park / Yellowstone National Park

Bison in Yellowstone National Park / Yellowstone National Park

If it weren’t for us, bison and beavers might still roam Chicago, Illinois, the location of the ASLA 2015 Annual Meeting and Expo. The absence of these keystone species, which once provided important roles in the continental water cycle, represents a marked shift in ecosystem functioning. However, landscape architects and engineers from Andropogon Associates and Biohabitats are thinking about how to bring back the ecosystem services these species once provided in order to more sustainably manage water.

“We’re not bringing bison back to the edge of Chicago where they would have been, but looking at their functionality, the lessons that can be learned from them,” said Keith Bowers, FASLA, president of Biohabitats. “We need to ask ourselves how we can turn it around and be these species.”

One way to start this process is by “thinking like a watershed,” Bowers said. “How different would our water management systems be if our states were configured around our watersheds?,” he asked. While humans have made political boundaries irrespective of these watersheds, ecosystems – and their associated wildlife – simply don’t follow suit. The divide between human perception and ecological realities is ubiquitous. Just as an example, 73 percent of people polled in Baltimore, Maryland, do not believe they live in a watershed. This misconception is even more present in other parts of the country.

Thinking like beavers or bison in their native watersheds could provide solutions. Bison, for example, create holes, or “wallows,” in the ground that are perfect for collecting rainwater. Beavers also play a critical ecological role by building dams, which increase riparian habitat and can help store millions of gallons of water underground, among other benefits. Perhaps one way for California to adjust to drought would be to think more like these creative animals, “with their small, highly-distributed water management systems” that are more aligned with the functionality of a watershed. Their smart approach is the “the exact opposite of water engineering that happens in California,” said Erin English, a senior engineer at Biohabitats.

A beaver dam in Sonoma, California / Cheryl Reynolds

A beaver dam in Sonoma, California / Cheryl Reynolds

Thinking about how nature functions on the molecular level can also offer solutions said Jose Alminana, FASLA, a principal at Andropogon Associates. It’s at the molecular level “where life starts and where the future of the life on this planet will reside.”

Both Andropogon and Biohabitats have been leading the charge in designing landscapes that think like watersheds. The new U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington D.C. designed by Andropogon Associates and HOK was highlighted. This constructed landscape uses gravity and a set of planted terraces to move and cleanse water.

U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters / Taylor Lednum/GSA

U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters / Taylor Lednum/GSA

Mimicking nature’s functionality creates opportunities for more sustainable urban water management. Bowers said “we have to make that a priority.”

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Pollinator Garden / Celeste Ets-Hokin

Pollinator Garden / Celeste Ets-Hokin

The natural habitats of pollinators are increasingly fragmented. The overwhelming majority of American agricultural landscapes use chemical pesticides and fertilizers. These factors contribute to the declining health of bees. At the ASLA 2015 Annual Meeting in Chicago, Heather Holm, Holm Design and Consulting; Danielle Bilot, Associate ASLA, Kudela & Weinheimer; Laurie Davies, executive director of the Pollinator Partnership; and James Schmelzer, building operations and management, General Services Administration (GSA) showed how landscape architects and designers can better design for bees. As Holm explained, 81 percent of plants are pollinated by insects, birds, or mammals. Of those plants, 33 percent are food crops.

Most people’s idea of a pollinator is the honeybee, a domesticated insect integral to modern U.S. agriculture. Hives of these bees are shipped throughout the country, following the blooms of food crops. The plight of the honeybee has gotten a lot of attention in recent years. We have learned how we should support them through the thoughtful planting of bee-friendly plants, but less has been written about native bees, let alone the other pollinators.

We must not forget about other pollinators like native bees. North America boasts upwards of 4,000 native bee species, with 200-500 individual species per state. These native species are proven to be more efficient pollinators than the honeybee. As Bilot explained, 200 native bees have the efficiency of 10,000 honeybees. The difference is one of range: the larger the bee, the further they can travel to forage. The honeybee is able to travel a few miles from its hive to foraging opportunities, while the smaller native bee is only able to travel slightly under 1,000 feet. So this means native bees can accomplish more intensive pollination in a small area.

Native Sweat Bee / Ben Kolstad

Native Sweat Bee / Ben Kolstad

Designing for the smallest specialist bee to the larger generalist bee requires a thoughtful approach. Recognizing that “every urban center has at least 10 percent of its land use area dedicated to parking,” Bilot proposed a plan to connect rural and suburban foraging habitats of the native bees through urban parking lots. This would provide even the smallest bee with foraging opportunities through habitat corridors.

Pollinator median (before) / Danielle Bilot

Standard roadway median / Danielle Bilot


Pollinator-friendly median / Danielle Bilot

Pollinator-friendly median / Danielle Bilot

Adams urged all landscape architects and designers to incorporate pollinator-friendly designs “into everything you do.” The Pollinator Partnership has info for everyone from clients to designers, and all resources are free. As Adams said, there’s “a lot of good information out there. You don’t have to invent it, you just have to access it.”

Learning about the different pollinators in your community is the first step. Then, bring passion and commitment to creating a space for pollinators. Even small spaces can go a long way in bolstering declining populations of bees and butterflies, while helping to create healthy, sustainable, and beautiful communities for us, too.

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John Thackara / Uros Abram

John Thackara / Uros Abram

British writer and philosopher John Thackara, author of How to Thrive in the Next Economy, believes changes in the global society and economy now allow people to address environmental problems at a “bio-regional” scale. At the ASLA 2015 Annual Meeting in Chicago, he described the growth of bio-regional models that use social networks to create new forms of economic gain with significant environmental benefits. This transition to a bio-regional approach is already happening in a few sectors:


The local food movement is creating a shift of economic resources that has beneficial environmental impacts. To scale this local approach up the regional level, countries should take a “food commons approach.”

In a food commons, food distribution and retail are owned by a trust and governed by local stakeholders who manage the commons. This approach better connects local resources, so communities are able “to do things locally currently not done locally.”

Thackara looks to Denmark, where the Danish Food Cluster, founded in 2013, has facilitated regional collaboration between food companies in central Denmark. He argued that in this system, “improving the connections of an economic network is at the heart of its environmental impact.”

The three principles of a successful food commons / The Food Commons

The three principles of a successful food commons / The Food Commons


In order to better connect cities to their resource-rich countrysides, we need to reconsider how we get around, Thackara said. In Vienna, Austria, the idea of collaborative regional mobility has led to the Cargo Bike Collaborative, a donation-based bike sharing service that allows people to transport goods in a low-cost, sustainable way.

The idea of mobility as a fee-based service also has promise. While sharing mobility through services like Uber and Lyft is currently being “told in the language of hipsters in London, New York City, and Washington D.C. with not much attention to the environmental story,” Thackara said, the concept could be re-purposed at a regional scale in order to make transportation more sustainable. “Pay-per-use” frameworks could allow regions to save money on infrastructure in the long run. He said: “one calls upon all of these bits on infrastructure so you don’t necessarily need a car or as many roads at the bio-regional scale.”

A regional example: The Greenhorns, a non-profit organization run by young farmers, sailed a schooner filled with 11 tons of crops from Maine to Boston in August 2015.

The route of the Greenhorn's Maine Sail Freight / The Greenhorns

The route of the Greenhorn’s Maine Sail Freight / The Greenhorns

Lastly, Thackara said we need to combine expanded regional networks with “an absolute militant search for answers.” This requires building a global knowledge network all people can access. Prototypes and maps mean nothing if people around the world cannot learn from them. “We need to build a story that gives meaning and purpose to young people. It must be more than a story that is just something we tell to each other around a campfire, but grounds for action.”

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Freshwater Mussels / FWS

Freshwater mussels under consideration in Texas / FWS

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) is further complicating water management in the many states struck by drought. State water management bodies are increasingly coming into conflict with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), as these organizations add more species to the endangered species list. In a panel at SXSW Eco in Austin, Texas, Robert Gulley, Texas Office of the Comptroller Public Accounts; David Sunding, University of California at Berkeley; and Kathy Robb, Hunter & Williams, LLP, waded into the issues. The general consensus seemed to be: we need to take care of diverse species but a balance is needed. Also, underlying problems with federal and state water management laws and regulations make things all that much harder.

Texas: Freshwater Mussels and Long-term Water Planning

Texas is just now recovering from years of drought, but if “El Nino doesn’t come through, we’ll be right back to where we were,” said Gulley. In its last session, the Texas state legislature agreed to put $2 billion into a fund to finance long-term water banking projects, which run the full gamut of efforts to enhance the water supply. All sorts of new technologies and private public partnership models will be tested. The goal is to dramatically increase the amount of water stored by aquifers, boosting reserves for when times are dry. But as Gulley explained, the “Endangered Species Act can be an obstacle to long-range water planning.” He added that not all endangered species are found in surface water. It can get even more complicated because “new species can also impact groundwater resources.”

Between now and 2017, the FWS will decide on whether 57 species should be added to the endangered species list, which gives them all sorts of protections. “Upcoming, there are decisions alone on 11 types of freshwater mussels found in every watershed in the state.” Water use in the state is seasonal. “When we need to use it in the drought season is just the time when the mussels will need it. This is a significant threat to water availability.”

And while the FWS investigates whether to give a local jurisdiction a permit to use water, water treatment or use can be put on hold. As FWS consultation processes can go on for years, “the ongoing consequences can be severe.” As an example, Gulley pointed to the city of Abilene, Texas, whose water supply was “almost cut off” due to the drought. The city is in ongoing consultations with the FWS on the possible impact of pouring brine, which is an output of their treatment process for reusing brackish water, into the community’s rivers. They can’t do it yet because the brine could possibly impact two endangered species. “The process is still ongoing.” In the meantime, the city’s ability to reuse water and plan for back-up reuse systems is hamstrung.

California: A Water Management Crisis

For Sunding, an economist who consults with states on water resources, water conflicts around ESA are real and ongoing. California has just initiated a statewide 25 percent reduction in water use, with exemptions for farmers. While the measures will reduce wasteful water use for lawns, California, he argued, is having a “water management crisis, not a scarcity crisis.”

While the drought is “causing a massive dislocation for other species,” the state’s faulty water management system is causing “conflicts between humans and other species to come to the foreground.”

The majority of ESA conflicts in California occur when agricultural water users divert traditional sources of water because the one source they rely on has gone dry. Conflicts can also arise when new water infrastructure takes water out of existing water bodies in a way that affects water-based wildlife.

For example, the new multi-billion water infrastructure system being planned and created in Northern California will most likely lead the state to create alternative water supplies, which will then trigger FWS consultations. Northern California desperately needs to move forward with infrastructure planning to create new sources of water but ESA considerations will lengthen the process.

Obstacles Preventing Progress 

California, Texas, and other western and southwestern states’ struggle to balance the needs of humans and wildlife will only get worse as species migrate to find new sources of water. Gulley said states will need some flexibility to deal with this, “and need to be recognized by the FWS for developing voluntary action programs.” But underlying issues in water management also need to be addressed if a balance is going to be struck long term.

For example, Sunding said the problem with the water management system in Texas is the state doesn’t recognize “conjunctive management,” meaning that it regulates surface water and groundwater in the same place differently. “They need to be able to manage both resources together to create better outcomes.” In too many states, “arcane water rules don’t match up with the reality.”

In California, the question is “can we manage scarcity with smarter policies?” When water users pay the water bill, they are paying for water treatment and the pressurized flow of water from the plant to their tap. “They are not paying for the water itself. That’s a problem because we’re not thinking of its value to other people or species. Too much water is locked up in bad uses. Livestock, cotton, hay, and rice water use are all low value uses of water.”

And Kathy Robb argued that the entire 43-year-old Clean Water Act regulatory system is outdated, and a 2014 decision by the Supreme Court to clarify the meaning of “traditional, navigable waters” in the act to now include tributaries with seasonal or intermittent flow has led to a total upheaval of the American water management system. This decision meant that power plants, waste water treatment facilities, oil and gas companies, and other industrial water users will all need to get permits to access the thousands of streams and creeks once deemed private and now labeled official “waters of the U.S.A.” In Kansas alone, there are 32,000 such tributaries. And, already, a single power plant could wait nearly 3 years and spend $270,000 in fees to get a permit.

Robb said “water lawyers are suing everyone now,” with 14 jurisdictional district court cases pending. As of now, 27 states are moving forward with the new definition of navigable waters, while 13 states have refused. She added, “this is not a sustainable way of creating water policy in the U.S. We can do better.”

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Solar power farm in Saudi Arabia / Evwind.us

Solar power farm in Saudi Arabia / Evwind.us

“If Saudi Arabia can do this, any place can,” said Anica Landreneau, director of sustainable consulting at multi-disciplinary design firm HOK, at SXSW Eco in Austin, Texas. The conservative Muslim country is planning a move away from oil towards clean energy and a shift away from totally car-centric communities to those that offer public transit and encourage walking and biking. Saudi Arabia realizes it must go green to survive.

Saudi Arabian government officials see peak oil coming by 2028, with exports declining precipitously after that. This is a major issue for the Saudi Arabian economy because oil accounts for 80 percent of total gross domestic product (GDP). In addition, Saudi Arabia, with a population of 28 million, expects to have 35 million more people by 2040. This means the country needs to further diversify its economy away from the oil industry, which offers relatively few jobs, while concentrating population growth in cities as soon as possible. Landreneau said Saudi leaders recognize that “the economy will collapse” if they don’t move to a more sustainable approach.

Working with Saudi Aramco, which is tasked with leading a country-wide plan for sustainability and a new mandatory energy efficiency policy, HOK created new urban plans, including zoning schemes and low-carbon transportation systems, all vital parts of a more sustainable approach. Landreneau and her team proposed a set of sustainable urban development best practices to improve diversity and increase density for mixed-use developments. Saudi Arabia’s cities are now in the process of bringing their zoning up to HOK’s standards.

While HOK found that a new, sustainable urban development strategy could save 50 percent of the energy consumption and carbon emissions from the built environment, Saudi Arabia really wants to transform their cities in order to improve quality of life, safety, affordability, and health. Health is a major focus because obesity rates are around 35 percent due to the car-centric environment and sedentary lifestyles in the kingdom. These numbers are even higher than those in the U.S.

HOK and Saudi planners laid out plans that take aim at cars, finding that “there could be a 30 percent reduction in emissions with public transit.” But to get there, even bus stops will need to provide shade and air conditioning for a country with summer temperatures that top 120 degrees, and be designed to separate the sexes.

And even with widely-available mass transit, reducing car use will be a real challenge. A typical family may own up to 5 cars, in part because subsidized gasoline is so cheap. “Getting them down to 2,3 or just 1 will take cultural change.” Nevermind other ways to reduce car use: “car sharing was laughed out of the room, and the idea of charging for parking was like culture shock.”

Contrary to popular perceptions, “Saudis will walk” and the younger generation may bicycle. Traditional neighborhoods have pathways that act as shortcuts, which Saudis often walk. And corniches — seaside promenades — can attract pedestrians. “Designing a beautiful public realm will get Saudis outside.” As for bicycling, “the young generation will contemplate it.”

Saudi Arabian cities also need comprehensive water management strategies. While the country is often dry, flash storms can overwhelm and create flooding problems. “Shared green spaces could handle runoff.” And on the flip side, dealing with water efficiency issues, Landreneau’s team told the government “not to develop landscapes that cannot be irrigated with what you have.”

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Prairie grass roots / Puffin.creighton.edu

Prairie grass roots / Puffin.creighton.edu

Turning the conventional wisdom on its head, Janine Benyus, author of Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature and founder of the Biomimicry Institute, argued that carbon dioxide pollution in the atmosphere can become the source of a new, regenerative agricultural system at SXSW Eco in Austin, Texas. Instead of treating carbon dioxide emissions as a waste product that needs to be reduced, it can instead fuel our food production. We can mimic the functions of prairie ecosystems to store all of that excess CO2 and create a more sustainable food production system.

“Nature has no landfills; everything has a second life,” Benyus argued. Carbon dioxide is already the basis of a complex system of “upcycling” in nature. A tree absorbs carbon dioxide, sequestering it as it grows. When it dies, it’s decomposing trunk is taken over by fungi, which consume the carbon. This fungi is then eaten by voles, which are then eaten by owls, and on the cycle goes.

We can help nature improve its ability to bio-sequester carbon. “We can undertake carbon farming in nature’s image.” This requires moving towards “ecosystem-inspired agricultural practices,” or “biomimetic agriculture.”

She explained how monocultures — rows and rows of the same crops — strip the land of its ecosystem functions: its underlying ability to sequester carbon. “With tilling and the use of added chemicals in farming, we’ve lost the ability to store carbon deep in the soils.”

In contrast, in prairie ecosystems, where there are perennial grasses like wheat, plants store carbon deep in the soil through long roots, some that go as far as 20 feet deep. Prairie grasses evolved the ability to do this. In a fully-functioning prairie, bison and other grazers would prune grasses all the way down to the ground. To survive, these grasses had to store much of their energy (and carbon) way down in the roots. Sustainable agricultural practices that preserve perennials through the use of crop diversity could then not only produce food but also help us store the excess carbon in the atmosphere.

Restoring the natural ecosystem functions of grasslands, as well as forests, has other benefits. Scientists have found that plants work together in a natural “world wood web” to communicate and share resources underground, with the aid of “common mycorrhizal networks,” systems of fungi that are helpers of plants. These fungi colonize plant roots and aid in phosphorous, nitrogen and water absorption from the surrounding soil and then they form networks in between the plants. For example, under a forest floor, there is a web of life, “a chemical conversation” that leads to constant interchange. The conversation is about opportunities, like new resources, and threats, like insects. She explained how in a functioning ecosystem carbon stored in roots under a tree could end up being transferred to where it’s most needed, perhaps to a shrub a half a mile away. Mycorrhizal networks then increase the amount of carbon that can be stored exponentially.

In monocultures, this mycorrhizal communications network has been told “we don’t need you.” Tons of bags of phosphorous and nitrogen are dumped on fields each year. In these farmlands, the underground conversation is over. There is no longer any exchange of carbon, water, and nutrients, and the subterranean communications network dies. To recreate this natural of nutrient exchange and removal, industrial corn and wheat fields in the Midwest use poorly-designed drainage pipes to carry water and chemicals, which then make their way to the Mississippi River and out to the Gulf of Mexico, where they create enormous dead zones. That system is clearly not optimal.

Benyus thinks growing demand for organic food can help restore natural agriculture systems’ bio-sequestration function. Some 70 percent of produce is grown by small shareholders, who account for a third of humanity. These farmers in Africa, India, South America, and Southeast Asia have been largely left out of the “green revolution,” which involved Western aid agencies pushing large-scale industrial farming techniques on developing countries. According to Benyus, more and more large food manufacturers are contracting out with small-scale shareholders because industrial farms can’t keep up with demand. These farmers commonly support a diversity of crops, don’t grow monocultures that strip the soils, and therefore have less need for added chemicals. It’s important that these small shareholders keep doing things the way they have been, Benyus said. And the 6.8 billion acres of degraded industrial farmland on the planet provide an enormous opportunity. If that land was healed using sustainable farming techniques, the impact could be significant.

She also pointed to other biological technologies that could make product manufacturing and building construction more sustainable. “Bottom-up” bio-driven designs are creating a slew of new products. Firms like Blue Planet are developing plastics from carbon dioxide. She says that in the future products will not be shipped around the globe; designs will be the only thing distributed. “We can harvest the CO2, build the files, print the chemicals, and then return them to the printer (the Earth) at the end,” in a continuous cycle. Architectural product manufacturers are also experimenting with coral-inspired building materials that take form when you combine seawater and carbon dioxide. “These bottom-up techniques for design are very biomimetic.”

Biomimetic approaches could also be used to improve water efficiency. New filtering technologies that mimic aquaporins pull out pollutants by attraction rather than pushing them through a membrane that can easily get clogged. “Imagine a giant tea bag that with antibiotics jumping into it.” Gardeners and landscape architects are experimenting with bio-irrigators, plants that naturally redistribute water. “Some shrubs have both shallow and deep roots. They use the deep roots to push water far down into the soil where they bank it for later use. Then, when they need it, they pump it back up and distribute via shallow roots. These plants help each other. It’s a self-watering landscape.” Another firm in Australia has created a natural septic system based in soil profiles. In this system, clean water eventually percolates back up to the surface.

Benyus said these are the “elegant solutions” we need. Her new book, Ubiquity, will look at these solutions that “use life’s principles to guide social innovation.”

To learn more about this concept, check out Peter Byck’s film Carbonnation. See some short clips and related TED talks.

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"Grassroots Cactivism." the winner of the speculative category of the Dry Futures competition / Ali Chen via Archinect

“Grassroots Cactivism.” the winner of the speculative category of the Dry Futures competition / Ali Chen via Archinect

As the worst drought since the 1950s continues to take its toll in California, innovative solutions to alleviate the state’s water woes were recently chosen as winners of Archinect’s Dry Futures competition, which sought “imaginative, pragmatic, idealist, and perhaps dystopic” proposals. The jury chose three winners for each of the two categories: speculative projects that involve “future realities and technologies not yet imagined,” and pragmatic projects that can actually be implemented in the near term.

Speculative Winners

The first place winner of the speculative category was Grassroots Cactivism, which combines a cacti farm and wastewater treatment plant, by Ali Chen, a design assistant at Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG). Chen’s winning proposal would feature nopale cactus, “a drought tolerant plant that’s fit for both human and animal consumption, and remarkably, is able to effectively clean polluted water,” according to DesignBoom. The cacti would not only require far less water to grow than California’s almond and orchard farms, but the cactus’ inter pulp could be adapted as a low-tech solution for recycling waste water.


Nopale cacti would be used to treat wastewater on-site / Ali Chen via Archinect

According to the project description, the farm also aims to promote the use of nopale cacti as food and a sustainable lifestyle choice “by hosting an eco-resort marketed towards the health-conscious modern traveler, with cooking workshops, highly-rated fine dining, a water museum, and various resort amenities. The goal is to market the use of cacti in contemporary cuisine, grow awareness, provide funding for research, and slowly increase demand for a crop that can eventually replace other water-intensive forms of vegetable and fodder.”

Diagram explaining the multiple uses of nopale cacti in the project / Ali Chen via Archinect

Diagram explaining the multiple uses of nopale cacti in the project / Ali Chen via Archinect

The second and third place winners were Urban Swales: Subterranean Reservoir Network for Los Angeles by the Geofutures team at Rensselaer School of Architecture and Analogue Sustainability: The Climate Refugees of San Francisco by architect Rosa Prichard, respectively. Urban Swales imagines a series of excavations throughout Los Angeles that would collect stormwater run-off in micro-reservoirs that could then be stored and re-distributed to local communities, while also creating “urban caverns” for human and animal occupation. Analogue Sustainability would be an inhabited flood defense on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay that wraps around the island, housing those who have been displaced by flooding and sea level rise in the Bay.


Terraced landform and subterranean reservoirs envisioned in the Urban Swales project / Geofutures @ Rensselaer School of Architecture via Architnect

Rosa Prichard's "Analogue Sustainability: 'The Climate Refugees of San Francisco'" proposal / Rosa Prichard via Archinect

Rosa Prichard’s “Analogue Sustainability: ‘The Climate Refugees of San Francisco'” proposal / Rosa Prichard via Archinect

Pragmatic Winners

The first place winner of the pragmatic category is Liquifying Aquifers, a project by San Francisco-based designer Lujac Desautel. The project envisions multiple drains placed throughout the San Fernando Valley that drain back to the San Fernando Groundwater Basin, which are continually being over withdrawn “without any large-scale plan to replenish” it.


Rendering of Lujac Desautel’s “Liquifying Aquifers” proposal / Lujac Desautel via Archinect

Currently 165 gallons of water per second flow straight into the Pacific Ocean from the San Fernando Valley, rather than replenishing the aquifer sitting 40 feet below the surface. “Like a giant bathtub with a conglomerate of drains,” Liquifying Aquifers is a system of basins that could take root in urban areas, like easements and parking lots, providing community spaces that will also drain water back into the aquifer.


Diagram illustrating potential basin locations for water collection / Lujac Desautel via Archinect

The second place winner in the pragmatic category is Liquid Bank, by architect Juan Saez. Liquid Bank is a website and app that would offer users rewards and incentives that encourage them to use water responsibly. In exchange for developing water-saving habits, users would earn “aquos” that support water-related infrastructure projects in developing countries.

The award for third place in the pragmatic category went to Recharge City, a project by Barry Lehrman, an assistant professor at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. The project seeks to recycle the 502 million gallons of water that is dumped into the Pacific Ocean by Hyperion treatment plant and the Joint Water Pollution control plant in Los Angeles every day by identifying recharge sites throughout the city.

Potential aquifer recharge sites in Los Angeles / Barry Lehrman via Archinect

Potential aquifer recharge sites in Los Angeles / Barry Lehrman via Archinect

The inter-disciplinary jury for the competition included: Allison Arieff, former editor of Dwell and now head of Spur; Geoff Manaugh, founder of BLDGBLOG; Hadley and Peter Arnold, co-founders of the Arid Land Institute, NASA’s Jay Famiglietti; Charles Anderson, FASLA, Werk; and Colleen Tuite and Ian Quate, founders of the “experimental landscape architecture studio” Green as F*ck.

Learn more about the competition winners.

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african girls school

African girls in school / Girls Changing Africa, Batonga Blog

Later this week, the world’s leaders will meet at the United Nations to launch the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a set of ambitious goals and targets designed to get the world on a more sustainable future course. The SDGs pick up where the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which expire this year, left off. Much like Pope Francis’ encyclical, the SDGs call for a new approach that enables economic growth for everyone, not just the wealthy, greater environmental protection, and a more sustainable use of increasingly limited natural resources. The SDGs will create a path for the next 15 years, up until 2030. They are important in getting governments, non-profit organizations, and the socially-conscious private sector behind a common set of objectives.

The SDGs came out of an intensive two-year process involving negotiators from both developed and developing countries. Among the many goals, the SDGs call for ending poverty and hunger in all forms; improving health and well-being; achieving gender equality; sustainably managing fresh water resources; restoring terrestrial and ocean ecosystems; combating climate change; and making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable. The SDGs are said to more clearly reflect the input of developing countries than their predecessor, the MDGs.

Improved rights and educational opportunities for girls and women around the world, but particularly in least developed countries, is a major theme in the SDGs. As Jeffrey Sachs, head of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, explained at the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C. a few weeks ago, educating girls and women is key to a sustainable future. Sachs believes that future sustainability is only possible if population growth rates are reduced. The current world population is 7 billion. The total carrying capacity of the Earth is estimated to be around 10 billion. Over the past 50 years, Sub-Saharan Africa has grown from a hundred million to 1.1 billion today. If high fertility rates continue unabated, Africa will double its population by 2050 and eventually reach 4 billion, sending the world past its uppermost carrying capacity. Sachs argued that a sustainable future will be impossible if Sub-Saharan African women continue to have 5 children, which is the average today. Even a middle school education helps dramatically lower fertility rates, so educating African women and girls really is central to the fate of the planet.

The SDGs also seek to link economic growth that can yield benefits for all with greater resource efficiency and environment protection. As many world leaders are beginning to understand, long-term growth is impossible if there are no natural resources to underpin that growth. At the same event at the National Book Festival, world-famous biologist and author E.O. Wilson called for setting aside 50 percent of the surface of the Earth for conservation purposes, banking resources for wildlife and also future generations. Currently, only about 15 percent of the planet is protected from development. He said reaching 50 percent is possible if the vast middle of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans were protected from industrial fishing. Then, fish stocks, which are down to just 2 percent of their historic levels, will have a chance to recover for the long-term. In addition, Wilson called for everyone to become a vegetarian, arguing that the world’s one billion cows, which require so much land and water and have been a major driving force behind deforestation, are incompatible with the approaches needed to create a sustainable future on a planet with 10 billion people.

Earth’s resources are finite but economic growth needs to somehow continue to provide opportunities for the billions more soon to join us. While this seems like an incredible challenge, Wilson has faith in human ingenuity and technology. In agreement with SDG target 2.5, Wilson calls for diversifying crops away from the dozen or so that the world’s farmers primarily rely on today. He said there are potentially thousands of other crop plants that could provide greater nutrition and improved yield. And it’s important to keep these other crops as real options given climate change can wipe out yields for many of the crops we rely on today.

Urban leaders rejoiced that cities are the focus of a goal and whole slew of targets. World leaders now recognize that the world’s population is predominantly urban, with more than half of the world in cities, and the urban population is expected to hit 75 percent by 2050. These trends are a good thing. Those living in cities have lower per capita energy and water use and give off fewer carbon emissions than those living in suburbs or rural areas. However, issues abound in cities: Not every urbanite has access to safe drinking water, clean air, affordable housing, low-cost public transportation, or green spaces. One SDG target, 11.7, amazingly aims to provide “universal access to safe, inclusive, and accessible green and public spaces.” Creating a more sustainable plan for the world’s cities will be the focus of Habitat III, a major conference hosted by UN-Habitat in Quito, Ecuador, next year.

There are fears that the SDGs, with their sprawling 17 goals and 169 targets, are too idealistic and will not be as easy to achieve as the MDGs, which strategically targeted eight goals, and still came up short. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called the MDGs the “most successful anti-poverty campaign in history.” And according to The Financial Times, there was significant progress on achieving the MDGs since 2000, when they came into effect. “On paper, at least as far as the data can be relied upon, there has indeed been significant progress. Extreme poverty in developing countries has fallen from 47 per cent in 1990 to 14 per cent this year, while annual global deaths of children under five have halved to 6 million.” But China and India, development experts argue, were responsible for the bulk of the poverty reduction. Without China’s gains, the effect of the MDGs would be negligible, given Sub-Saharan African countries, which are the among the least developed places, missed their goals. For example, in the sub-continent, it will still take another decade for the child mortality rates to fall by the target of two-thirds.

And there are critics of the overall effort. William Easterly, professor of economics at New York University and long-time detractor of Western aid agencies, told The Financial Times: “The MDGs communicated a very wrong idea about how development happens: technocratic, patronizing, and magically free of politics. It’s not about western saviors, but homegrown efforts linked to a gradual extension of political freedom.” Furthermore, he added: “The SDGs are a mushy collection of platitudes that will fail on every dimension. They make me feel quite nostalgic for the MDGs.”

There are also concerns about whether governments can accurately measure and then track progress on all these squishy goals and targets. A UN working group is now devising the means of measuring all these items, but, according to the International Council for Science and International Social Science Council, “less than a third of the SDG goals were ‘well developed’, with some objectives not quantified and many containing contradictory trade-offs and unintended consequences.” Solid data is expensive and time-consuming to collect, particularly in less developed countries. For example, The Economist reports that only 74 countries out of the 193 currently have the capacity to track the SDGs’ nutrition targets. But perhaps the SDGs will spur more countries to boost investment in their statistical services to measure gaps between where they are and where they need to be, which can only be a good thing. New satellite, drone, and GPS technologies should be put to greater use.

Still, never has such an ambitious global agenda been put in place. Sachs told The Financial Times: “Whether it can work out is an open question. There is a sense that this is a sensible framework. I’m not saying a new dawn has broken, but at least governments are saying we need to try.”

Read Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

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A rendering of Heroic Food Farm/Ennead Architects/Ennead Lab, Slate.com

A rendering of Heroic Food Farm/Copyright Ennead Architects/Ennead Lab, Slate.com

The True Story of Kudzu, the Vine That Never Truly Ate the SouthSmithsonian Magazine, September 2015
“As s a young naturalist growing up in the Deep South, I feared kudzu. I’d walk an extra mile to avoid patches of it and the writhing knots of snakes that everyone said were breeding within.”

A Bucolic New York Farm Aims to Recruit Veterans to Help Fix the U.S. Farming Crisis Slate.com, 9/1/2015
“A 19-acre farm near Hudson, New York, is being reimagined as an agricultural training camp for veterans. Plans for the complex, unveiled last month, include eight compact housing units and a communal space designed to respect the character and landscape of an existing farm in the town of Claverack set among the rolling agricultural fields and mountains of the Hudson River Valley.”

Here’s How the High Line’s Landscape Architects Reenvision the Office Park Fast Company, 9/3/2015
“This playland comes courtesy of an ambitious plan from developer Liberty Property Trust and landscape architecture firm James Corner Field Operations to inject urban attributes into what’s usually thought of as a highly un-urban space.”

Unwelcome Mat Is Out at Some of New York’s Privately Owned Public Spaces – The New York Times, 9/7/2015
“Privately owned public spaces, or POPS, are a quintessential New York real estate amenity that grants building owners zoning bonuses if they open part of their properties to the public.”

Video: 606 Trail Opens in ChicagoUrban Land, 9/8/2015
“After more than a decade of planning, Chicago this June opened the first section of the trail, now known as The 606. An elevated railroad right-of-way converted to a pedestrian greenway, the 606 is a multi-functional park system that also includes a bike path and four neighborhood parks on the ground level along its 2.7-mile (4.5 km) stretch.”

AD Innovator: Mikyoung KimArchitectural Digest, 9/9/2015
“Sensory overload is a phrase you’re unlikely to hear from Mikyoung Kim. Experimenting with touch, sight, and sound, the Boston-based landscape architect has built her name creating immersive environments—from backyard oases to waterfront redevelopments—that spark curiosity and contemplation.”

Kate Orff: Translating Research into Action – ArchitectureAU, 9/14/2015
“Kate Orff is the founder and design director of Scape, a New York-based landscape architecture studio that combines research and practice to reimagine the ecological and cultural potential of the urban landscape.”

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The New Wild: Why Invasive Species Will be Nature’s Salvation / Beacon Press

Conservationists are becoming enemies of nature, according to a new book The New Wild: Why Invasive Species Will Be Nature’s Salvation by environmental journalist Fred Pearce. Drawing primarily on examples from the United Kingdom and remote islands across the world, the book challenges the long-held belief that keeping out non-native species and returning ecosystems to a pre-human state are the only ways to save nature as we know it. Calling this line of thinking unproductive at best, Pearce states that seeking only to conserve and protect endangered and weak species becomes a brake on evolution, a douser of adaptation. “If we want to assist nature to regenerate, we need to promote change, rather than hold it back,” he writes.

Though his criticism of traditional conservation perspectives that advocate for restoring ecosystems may appear controversial, Pearce isn’t pushing for an “anything goes” mentality, nor does he believe people should stop trying to save endangered species. Rather, he says it’s important to separate our emotional needs from the needs of the environment. “We have a legitimate need to curb excesses and a legitimate desire to protect what we like best. But we should be clear that when we do this, it is for ourselves and not for nature, whose needs are rather different.” With few, if any, pristine ecosystems left on earth, Pearce ultimately concludes we need to begin embracing a “new wild” that will be different from our old visions of the wild. This new kind of nature may include species that are foreign and unfamiliar, but it will be more resilient than ever before.

The first section of the book begins with stories of places where human-introduced species have thrived, often doing the ecosystem jobs that native species could not accomplish. One such place is Ascension Island in the tropical South Atlantic, which has an entirely synthetic cloud forest ecosystem that includes a mix of species shipped in by the British navy during the early- to mid-nineteenth century. The island, which is home to Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters, is now home to around three hundred introduced species of plants that “have bucked the standard theory that complexity emerges only through co-evolution.”

Green Mountain on Ascension Island / Shallow Marine Surveys Group

Green Mountain cloud forest on Ascension Island / Shallow Marine Surveys Group

Pearce then addresses the myths we have about conservation and alien species. He states that many conservationist’s attempts to “fix” nature have been almost comically unsuccessful. Billions of dollars have been spent trying to eliminate alien species, yet the failure rate for these project has been alarming. Of the 43 projects aimed at eradicating or controlling alien species in the Galapagos Islands – often considered the mecca for conservation research – only nine have been successful. Now the head of restoration at the Charles Darwin Research Station, Mark Gardener, has raised the white flag on eradicating aliens. “As scientists and conservationists, we need to recognize that we’ve failed. Galapagos will never be pristine,” he told Science magazine in 2011. If Galapagos, with its rich history of native species preservation, is moving in this direction, it is only a matter of time before other regions follow suit.

Visitors to the Galapagos Islands view the endangered Galapagos tortoise, one of the biggest tortoises in the world / GalapagosIslands.com

Visitors to the Galapagos Islands view the endangered Galapagos tortoise, one of the biggest tortoises in the world / GalapagosIslands.com

The last section of The New Wild is a call to action, presenting opportunities for remediating environmental damage caused by humans. The most compelling chapter of the book is the core of this section, in which Pearce discusses industrial sites as potential hot spots for biodiversity. Though few conservationists protest when industrial sites are built over, they often fail to recognize that these sites often support more scarce wild species than farmed land. According to Pearce, nature persists, even flourishes, in the most unlikely, most damaged, and apparently least natural environments. And experts throughout the book agree. “Brownfield sites are as important for biodiversity as ancient woodlands, yet we are encouraging people to build on them,” Matt Shardlow of the United Kingdom conservation organization Buglife says in the book. “It’s the combination of habitats that is so rare. There are very bare areas, basking places, short grasses … and bits of wetland. Trail-biking youths and illicit bonfires ensure that trees never take over. Feral urban Britain turns out to be a wildlife paradise.”

This knowledge that environments we perceive as the most unnatural and the most developed are actually some of the most ecologically-rich has the potential to completely turn our picture of nature on its head. We may have to rethink landscapes we may have previously considered nature, such as “pesticide-soaked” agricultural fields.

Though parts of the book are reminiscent of American journalist Emma Marris’ groundbreaking book the Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, The New Wild benefits from Pearce’s unique voice and his extensive experience as an environmental journalist. Pearce presents each of his arguments in such a persuasive way that it often becomes hard to imagine conclusions more logical than those he has come to. Though equally as readable and controversial as the Rambunctious Garden, The New Wild takes Marris’ arguments about creating hybrid ecosystems that combine wild nature and human management a step forward, offering concrete ways conservationists, restoration ecologists, and landscape architects can help the natural world adapt.

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