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Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

Global Biocapacity / Global Footprint Network

Humanity is placing inordinate demands on nature, and it just keeps getting worse. In 2000, humanity had exceeded its “ecological budget” by October. This year, “Earth Overshoot Day” was August 13, according to the Global Footprint Network, a California-based environmental think tank. Earth Overshoot Day marks the moment “when humanity’s annual demands on nature exceed what Earth can regenerate that year.” This is yet another wake-up call that sustainable global development hasn’t taken root despite two decades of effort. Humanity currently needs 1.6 Earths to cover what we take from nature each year.

Global Footprint Network doesn’t quantify how the accumulated deficits have impacted the long-term ecological health of the planet, but they say they are a cause for alarm. “It is not clear whether a sustained level of overuse is possible without significantly damaging long-term biocapacity, with consequent impacts on consumption and population growth.” In other words, damaging Earth’s long-term capacity to provide ecosystem services could result in lower levels of overall services, and that means fewer crops, fish, trees, and less fresh water.

The biggest cause of the overshoot is, of course, skyrocketing carbon emissions, which demand that nature sequester carbon at far higher rates than is possible. The group says that carbon sequestration make up more than half of the total demand on nature. Other demands take the form of energy, fishing, timber and paper production, food and fiber, and settlements.

Global Footprint Network includes settlements because they believe once land has been developed, its basic ecological functions have essentially been made “non-productive.” While sustainable design practices can help make even developed land restore some its original ecological productivity, the group is largely correct because these practices are still not widespread. Estimates put the total share of green buildings worldwide at just a few percentage points, if that, and there is no data on worldwide sustainable designed landscapes.

The costs of “ecological overspending” are also clear. As carbon dioxide levels exceed the Earth’s absorptive capabilities, the excess enters the atmosphere, warming it. On the ground, the ongoing struggle between the expansion of human settlements and expanding agricultural production results in deforestation, soil erosion, biodiversity loss, and reductions in fresh water availability. Cropland, grazing land, and developed land all tax nature’s ecological carrying capacity as they reduce its regenerative abilities. “All these demands compete for space. As more is being demanded for food and timber products, fewer productive areas are available to absorb carbon from fossil fuel.”

The think tank offers a smart interactive map that shows each country’s per capita biocapacity alongside its ecological footprint, measured in global hectares (there’s also an alphabetical list of all countries). Biocapacity per person is calculated each year based on a range of factors, including ecosystem management approaches; agricultural practices, including fertilizer use and irrigation; ecosystem degradation; population growth; and weather. And ecological footprint per person is calculated according to the amounts being consumed and production efficiency standards.

According to these charts, the biocapacity of the U.S. has been falling while the ecological footprint, with periodic jumps up and down, has largely held steady. But this really means that the deficit between the available biocapacity and the U.S.’s ecological footprint is only growing. China’s biocapacity has largely held steady, while it’s ecological footprint has exploded beginning around 2000, only expanding the gap. Japan now requires 5.5 Japans to support one actual Japan each year: Its biocapacity continues to shrink while its ecological footprint has only increased. But, interestingly, with the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia’s biocapacity has actually grown dramatically — one of the few positive environment outcomes from that oil and gas exporter — while its ecological footprint shrank but is now creeping up again.

How many countries 2015 v4

National biocapacity / Global Footprint Network

As part of the interactive map, the organization lists all the countries that are a “biocapacity reserve,” meaning they produce materials and consume resources far below the levels that tax nature’s abilities. These are mostly developing countries in Africa, South America, and the Middle East, along with developing countries with huge environmental bounties like Brazil.

Biocapacity Reserve / Global Footprint Network

And then, also the countries that have biocapacity deficits, meaning they consume and produce far more than their natural environments can sustain. These countries are wealthy, urbanized countries like Singapore, Japan, and Israel.

Biocapacity Deficit / Global Footprint Network

These compelling tools demonstrate what many environmentalist believe — that the Earth’s ledger is out of balance. As the famed biologist E.O. Wilson wrote in The Future of Life, one of his best books, “the constraints of the biosphere are fixed.” This means that either the earth’s biocapacity needs to be increased, or human consumption and production need to be decreased to reach a sustainable balance.

Already, the Earth has 7 billion people, with the numbers just growing each year. E.O. Wilson and other scientists have pointed to the number 10 billion as the ultimate maximum capacity. While techno-utopians believe there will be a new green revolution that will only increase the productivity of agriculture, what about the never-ending growth of grazing animals? They are not ecological assets. Wilson argues that “if everyone agreed to become vegetarian, leaving little or nothing for livestock, the present 1.4 billion hectares of arable land (3.5 billion acres) would support about 10 billion people.”

And what about forests? What new approaches can increase forests’ capacity beyond a commitment to protecting them and planting more trees? A new special report in Science argues that the world’s major forest biomes are struggling despite the best efforts of dedicated forestry officials around the world.

Global Footprint Network experts see the rise of renewable energy sources like wind and solar as one of the most positive steps in helping to keep every country in its ecological budget.

Explore the interactive map and learn more at Global Footprint Network.

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The Los Angeles River / The Architect's Newspaper

The Los Angeles River / The Architect’s Newspaper

Red Rocks, Conservation Corps Camp Named National Historic Landmark The Denver Post, 8/4/15
“Red Rocks Park and the camp that housed the men who built its world-famous amphitheater have been awarded national historic landmark status.”

Brooklyn Sites Get $2.6 Million to Undo Hurricane Sandy’s Toll ­– The New York Times, 8/5/15
“Hurricane Sandy isn’t over yet. Historical sites around New York City are among the many places where — nearly three years later — damage caused by the storm has yet to be fixed or cleared.”

Architect Frank Gehry is Helping L.A. With Its Los Angeles River Master Plan, But Secrecy Troubles SomeThe Los Angeles Times, 8/7/15
“Architect Frank Gehry is working with city officials to draft a new master plan for the redevelopment of the Los Angeles River, bringing the avant-garde sensibilities of one of the world’s best-known artistic celebrities to the struggle to remake 51 miles of the Los Angeles Basin’s largely desolate central waterway.”

150 Years Ago, Olmsted Released His Historic Yosemite ReportWBUR, 8/7/15
“Sunday marks the 150th anniversary of the first reading of Olmsted’s historic report, “Yosemite and the Mariposa Grove.” It’s largely credited with providing the basis for the creation of Yosemite National Park.”

Frank Gehry Agreed to Make Over the L.A. River — With One Big Condition – The Los Angeles Times, 8/9/15
“Frank Gehry and the Los Angeles River: It’s a combination that makes zero sense (if you’re looking strictly at Gehry’s resume) and follows a natural logic (if you think about the interest the architect’s work has long shown in L.A.’s linear infrastructure and its overlooked, harder-to-love corners).”

Frank Gehry, Not a Landscape Architect, Will Help Re-Work L.A. River. Why? – The Los Angeles Times, 8/11/15
“While Frank Gehry, who will draft the master plan for the redevelopment of the Los Angeles River, is certainly one of the most talented and revolutionary architects of our time, Mayor Eric Garcetti’s comparison of him to the greatest landscape architect in North America — and yes, this is a separate credentialed profession — is nearsighted.”

Into the Current The Architect’s Newspaper, 8/12/15
“News that Gehry Partners is at work on a new master plan of the Los Angeles River took Angelenos by surprise late last week. While some had heard rumors for weeks, others were caught off guard by the somewhat strange combination.”

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Conservation for Cities: How to Plan & Build Natural Infrastructure by Robert McDonald / Island Press

Conservation for Cities: How to Plan & Build Natural Infrastructure by Robert McDonald / Island Press

In my first year studying for a landscape architecture degree, our textbook for a course on environmental resources was thick, heavy, and weighed down in page upon page of extraneous jargon that obscured the portions that were legitimately interesting and useful. It’s too bad Conservation for Cities: How to Plan & Build Natural Infrastructure, by Robert McDonald, wasn’t around. Even at a quarter the length, it provides exponentially more value – not only for professionals and students in landscape architecture, engineering, planning, and the like, but also city officials, community leaders, and anyone interested in the benefits of integrating natural infrastructure into our cities.

“The twenty-first century will be the fastest period of urban growth in human history,” says McDonald, who is also senior scientist for sustainable land use at the Nature Conservancy. Will this lead to a dystopian end of nature, as predicted by some conservationists? Or will we build cities that exist in co-harmony with nature? “If the city’s plans [to integrate natural infrastructure] are conducted, what is the cumulative effect? What will the city look like? What will it feel like to live in this greener, more resilient city?”

While these are some questions we can only fully answer in the future, McDonald gives us a practical manual for getting there. McDonald’s approach – using conservation for cities – is the product of a framework rooted in the concept of ecosystem services, the many benefits nature can provide us. This is in contrast to conservation in cities, which refers to protecting biodiversity in areas or urban growth; and conservation by cities, the act of making cities more efficient in resource-use and expenditure. Conservation for cities “aims to figure out how to use nature to make the lives of those in cities better. Rather than focusing on how to protect nature from cities, this book is about how to protect nature for cities.”

Approaches to conservation - in, by, and for cities / Island Press

Approaches to conservation – in, by, and for cities / Island Press

City leaders make decisions based on qualitative and quantitative assessments and then implement strategies, which then must be tracked for success or failure. McDonald spends the core of the book going over mapping, valuation, assessment, implementation, and monitoring methods for ten key areas of ecosystem benefits, each with its own chapter: drinking water protection; stormwater; floodwater; coastal protection; shade; air purification; aesthetic value; recreation value and physical health; parks and mental health; and the value of biodiversity in cities.

When possible, McDonald refers to specific formulas, models, software, and other tools that have proven the most successful. For the more casual reader, these technical details are easy to skim. For the professional looking for practical approaches, these details will likely be useful. It’s also worth noting here that the graphics in this pre-publication proof are somewhat sparse, and tend towards the schematic. Additional footnotes, photographs, and illustrations may be included in the finished book.

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Schematic illustrations demonstrate evapotranspiration with and without natural infrastucture / Island Press

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 Beach profiles for sandy shores in a temperate climates versus coastal mangroves in tropical habitats, and the effect on tides and storm surge  / Island Press

Despite the proficient use of market valuation processes, economic indicators, and the like for assessing ecosystem services, McDonald also understands that the value of nature is simply beyond human measures. While professionals and advocates for natural infrastructure are also likely to appreciate the inherent value of nature, that value is difficult to use as an argument against grey infrastructure approaches. Value is calculated in fairly strict black and white economic terms these days.

McDonald uses the “dry and academic” term ecosystem services “because it is standard in the field now, and it makes clear the economic value of nature’s benefits. But [he hopes that] the reader haven’t lost sight of the fact that always behind ecosystem services are people’s lives.”

It’s McDonald’s hope that “rather than completely bending nature to our will, we could bend our will to match nature’s pathways, at least a little bit. The science of ecosystem services gives us some of the crucial tools to follow these other pathways, if we have the love to follow them.”

For those who feel the love, Conservation for Cities offers a compelling trail head to these pathways of the future. I kept thinking I might use that old environmental resources textbook as a resource one day. This year, I finally donated it to make room on the shelf for other books. Conservation for Cities, however, is likely to stay there for quite some time.

Yoshi Silverstein, Associate ASLA, is the founder of Mitsui Design and director of the Jewish outdoor, food, and environmental education fellowship at Hazon, the country’s leading Jewish environmental organization. 

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User ratings for Park Row, New York, NY / Liz Camuti

User ratings for Park Row, New York, NY / Liz Camuti

Most smartphone map apps give you several direct routes to get from Point A to Point B, but the quickest or most convenient path isn’t always the most enjoyable. Those interested in finding the most beautiful, walkable route to their destination can now try Walkonomics. The app, created by United Kingdom programmer Adam Davies, allows users to find more beautiful paths through seven cities across the globe using both open and crowd-sourced city data.

Walkability-related data and apps have existed for a number of years. Websites like Walk Score rate individual addresses based on a number between 0 and 100, telling you how walkable or car-dependent an area is. But according to CityLab, Walk Score has yet to incorporate “more fine-grained and diverse data about the quality of the pedestrian experience.”

Walkonomics attempts to provide just that. Not only does this free iOS and Android app allow people to check the pedestrian-friendliness of most streets in Central London, Paris, New York, San Francisco, Toronto, Buenos Aires, and Glasgow, but it also allows them to chose either the quickest or most beautiful routes between destinations in these cities.

The app provides star rankings for eight different categories of pedestrian-friendliness: road safety; easy to cross; pavement/sidewalk; hilliness; navigation; fear of crime; “smart & beautiful;” and “fun & relaxing.” These ratings are generated from open data including street widths, traffic levels, crime statistics, pedestrian accidents, and even how many trees are on each street. Visitors and  residents can provide additional ratings for each of these criteria as they walk down streets in their neighborhood, as well as geo-referenced photos.

As I tested the app, I found that certain elements are not as user-friendly as existing ones in Google Maps. For example, typing in the name of a location rather than a specific address, which typically works pretty accurately in other mapping apps, is a bit of a struggle with Walkonomics, which requires your location or a very specific address if you’re not navigating to a famous landmark.

Though I am not a native New Yorker, I also found it strange that the most beautiful route between two New York City locations took me around Central Park, while the fastest route took me almost directly through the park. Is a stroll down a tree-lined street truly more beautiful than a walk through a park? This raises the question: how does Walkonomics actually quantify the most beautiful route, when what makes something beautiful is subjective. Furthermore, it’s unclear how Walkonomics, which is intended for urban streets, incorporates parks. Perhaps, the app could benefit from more crowd-sourcing and input from people who really know these streets (Most streets in New York only have one user rating). Davies said he also has plans to provide more options, like the safest and cleanest routes, which are more easily quantified.

The most beautiful route from 186 W 80th Street to the Plaza Hotel as determined by the Walkonomics app  / Liz Camuti

The most beautiful route from 186 W 80th Street to the Plaza Hotel as determined by the Walkonomics app / Liz Camuti

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The fastest route from 186 W 80th Street to the Plaza Hotel as determined by the Walkonomics app / Liz Camuti

Despite the app’s shortcomings, Davies has certainly tapped into a real demand for walkable places. Also, studies have shown that walkable streets can boost retail sales by up to 80 percent. Research indicates walkable neighborhoods reduce obesity levels, carbon emissions, and crime, among other benefits. In fact, the benefits of walkable cities have become so widely known that many big businesses are choosing to move their headquarters back to more walkable locations.

If you live in one of the seven cities available on the app and have an extra five minutes in the morning, take Walkonomics for a spin. Not only could you end up feeling less stressed at the beginning of your workday, but you’ll have the opportunity to add to a growing data source designed to make cities a little bit more livable. And, hopefully, Walkonomics will in turn open up its own data, as it could be really useful to landscape architects, urban planners, and health researchers trying to figure out what makes one route more appealing than another.

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SuperPope Francis graffiti in Rome / NPR

Last month, Pope Francis released Care for Our Common Home, a powerful encyclical designed to build the moral case for improving the environment and fighting climate change. He calls the climate a “common good” and decries the “abuse” of the environment that supports all of humanity. The Vatican published the encyclical in advance of Pope Francis’ just-concluded tour of South America, his September tour of the U.S., and the critical UN climate change summit in Paris in December. At each stop in his South American tour, he made the case for environmentally and socially-responsible development, arguing that it’s the only way to save both the environment and help the poor. For example, in Ecuador, he said: “The goods of the Earth are meant for everyone, and however much someone may parade his property, it has a social mortgage.” Pope Francis join hands with the environmental movement, rallying the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics to pressure global leaders to act.

Pope Francis isn’t the first pope to weigh in on environmental issues. As he writes in the encyclical, Saint John Paul II “warned that human beings frequently seem ‘to see no other meaning in their natural environment than what serves for immediate use and consumption.'” And his immediate predecessor Benedict XVI also proposed “eliminating the structural causes of the dysfunctions of the world economy and correcting models of growth that have proved incapable of ensuring respect for the environment,” essentially calling for a new, sustainable approach to development.

However, Pope Francis goes further than his predecessors. He writes: “The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all.” He backs the scientific consensus that humans have caused climate change. He blames over-consumption and rampant capitalism for our predicament. “Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production, and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it.”

Pope Francis doesn’t just focus on climate change; he also addresses the health problems associated with pollution, the growth of non-biodegradable waste, the lack of fresh drinking water, the loss of biodiversity, and, finally, the “decline of human life and the breakdown in society” caused by environmental degradation.

He blames the lack of global action on the environment on money-driven self-interest and campaigns of disinformation led by special interests. “It is remarkable how weak international political responses have been. The failure of global summits on the environment make it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance. There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected.”

To create a sustainable long-term solution, Pope Francis calls for a new relationship between humanity and nature. As Naomi Klein writes in The New Yorker, it may be one of the most radical policy changes by a major religion ever.

Klein writes: “Challenging anthropocentrism is ho-hum stuff for ecologists, but it’s something else for the pinnacle of the Catholic Church. You don’t get much more human-centered than the persistent Judeo-Christian interpretation that God created the entire world specifically to serve Adam’s every need. As for the idea that we are part of a family with all other living beings, with the earth as our life-giving mother, that too is familiar to eco-ears. But from the Church? Replacing a maternal Earth with a Father God, and draining the natural world of its sacred power, were what stamping out paganism and animism were all about.”

She adds: “By asserting that nature has a value in and of itself, Francis is overturning centuries of theological interpretation that regarded the natural world with outright hostility—as a misery to be transcended and an ‘allurement’ to be resisted.”

Beyond the new understanding of nature as an ecological system is a renewed focus on the world’s poor. Pope Francis believes the rich have an obligation to aid the world’s poor, who will be most negatively impacted by climate change. This is the crux of the moral argument for action.

He writes: “We have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. Leaving an inhabitable planet to future generations is, first and foremost, up to us. The issue is one which dramatically affects us, for it has to do with the ultimate meaning of our earthly sojourn.”

To be Catholic now is to be an ecologist and activist. This can only be a step in the right direction.

But Pope Francis will face tough critics in the U.S., particularly in the U.S. Congress, where he has been invited to speak in September. Already Republican Presidential candidates Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio have dismissed his efforts, inviting him to “stay out of politics.”

It’s too soon to tell the impact of the encyclical and the Vatican’s broader efforts on climate change, but Professor Ottmar Edenhofer, chief economist of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, says in The Guardian that “you should never underestimate the soft power of moral arguments.”

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Honey bees foraging in almonds / UC Davis Department of Entomology

“We need solutions to the bee crisis,” said Laurie Davies Adams, head of the Pollinator Partnership, at a packed briefing on Capitol Hill, which was organized by her organization and the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA). The honey bee crisis Adams is deeply worried about is caused by the spread of colony collapse disorder, which has decimated hives across the U.S. Scientists say a combination of stressors is killing off honey bees, including the loss of the habitat they need for foraging, the widespread use of agricultural pesticides and fungicides, and disease. Other critical pollinators, like native bees, monarch butterflies, and bats, face similar challenges. While the destruction of these species is a cause of concern in itself, it’s also causing real fears among many of country’s farmers who rely on honey bees to pollinate their crops, at a cost of billions every year.

President and First Lady Obama have a “personal interest” in fixing the problem, said Adams. President Obama launched an inter-departmental task force that led to a new national strategy for honeybees and other pollinators, which was just released a few weeks ago. Adams called this the “most comprehensive blueprint for conservation in the 21st century.” But she cautioned that the federal government alone can’t solve this problem: it will take state and local governments, non-profit community groups, farmers, businesses, and homeowners, too. In fact, a key part of the effort will be to get people with any type of property to step up, which is the goal of the newly-launched Million Pollinator Garden Challenge. As Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, CEO of ASLA, added, landscape architects and designers also play a key role in turning landscapes at all scales into healthy habitats. “Restoring habitat for pollinators can happen even in very small patches.”

At the briefing, Anne Kinsinger, U.S. Geological Survey and one of the leaders in the presidential task force, said the group successfully brought together the many departments that can help — defense, transportation, education, and the General Services Administration (GSA). This task force, together with Reps. Alcee Hastings and Jeff Denham, have pushed for the Highway BEE Act, which would transform 17 million acres around highway right-of-ways into habitat for pollinators. For example, Interstate 35, which runs from Mexico from Canada, could be planted with milkweed, providing a source of nutrients for Monarch butterflies all along their migratory route.

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Interstate 35 / Wikipedia

Rep. Denham, who spoke at the briefing, said it would be a way to “beautify the highways while also creating a transportation system that supports healthy pollinators.” As of writing this post, the Highway BEE Act has passed the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. Next steps to make this law are getting the act through the full Senate and also moving it through the House of Representatives.

While the Highway BEE Act moves through the Hill, the national strategy has already made some important contributions. It pulled together 75 leading bee scientists to come up with a “research action plan.” There are now targets: reduce colony collapse disorder by 50 percent in 10 years. Increase Monarchs’ numbers from around 37 million today to 225 million in 5 years. Restore 7 million acres of pollinator habitat through public-private partnerships, to aid all kinds of pollinators. As Kinsinger explained, “you can’t separate European honey bees from the 4,000 native bees.” The GSA is also already revising its policies for 3,000 government facilities to include best-practice land management techniques.

Robert Sneickus, FASLA, national landscape architect with the USDA’s National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), which is charged with restoring vast public wildlife habitat, said pollinators are essential to 80 percent of flowering plants. In turn, the health of pollinators themselves are dependent on access to productive habitat. For Sneickus, what’s important is planting “winter cover crops” that will be green all winter so bees will have access to forage in all seasons as well as flowering annuals that come back year after year. Also, all types of landscapes should be planted for both pollinators and beauty. “If a landscape looks great, more people will want it.” He said landscape architects can create a “pollinator master plan” to restore even small patches and corridors as healthy, beautiful habitats.

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Pollinator Paradise Garden / Master Gardener Extension School

And then John Chandler, a fourth-generation California farmer and agriculture advocate, explained how honey bees are crucial to his farm, which grows almonds, peaches, plums, and nectarines. As bees continue to die off, the cost per hive continues to go up, reaching about $200 these days. Each acre of almonds, explained Chandler, needs about two hives, so just for one growing season Chandler will spend $350 million to cover his entire 800,000-acre farm. “It’s the single largest check to payout.”

“What are we doing as an industry?”, wondered Chandler. Beginning in the 70s, Blue Diamond almonds started to finance advanced bee research and then created some pamphlets for farmers. There were some common sense ideas: When bees are out pollinating during the day, farmers shouldn’t be spraying chemical pesticides or fungicides. Farms now do that spraying at night when bees have gone home to their hives. During spraying, all water sources are also covered up so they aren’t contaminated. Chandler said “bees are like us, they want clean, fresh water.”

But, clearly, even more is needed to restore pollinators to health. According to the speakers, a key piece of the puzzle is bringing back nutritious forage wherever possible. Let’s start with better integrating forage opportunities along highways. With today’s problems, we can’t afford single-use infrastructure anymore; a highway for both cars and pollinators makes more sense. And farmers could be given greater incentives to set aside parts of their farmland as forage, a strategy the UK government has been using for some time. Communities can turn their own thoroughfares into pollinator pathways. Just about any strip will work, given many pollinators have a multiple-mile foraging range, and, as Adams, explained, “if you plant it, they will find it.”

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Pollinator Pathway / Kim Smith Design

Lastly, everyone with a yard needs some plants for pollinators, too. Learn more at the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge.

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Central Park, New York City / Drive the District

There has been a boom in studies demonstrating the health benefits of spending time in nature, or even just looking at nature. But a group of ambitious landscape architects and psychologists are actually trying to determine how to prescribe a “nature pill.” The big remaining questions are: What dose of nature exposure is needed to achieve maximum mental and physical health benefits (how long and how frequently)? And what form of nature works best? In a talk at the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) conference in Los Angeles, MaryCarol Hunter, ASLA, a landscape architect and ecologist at the University of Michigan, described her efforts to create the guidelines for landscape designs that can lead to the greatest impact.

Hunter and her team examined 44 people over 8 weeks. She asked them to go out and immerse themselves in urban natural environments at least 2.5 times per week for a minimum of 10 minutes. Using a custom-designed smartphone app, these people walked or sat in nature and then answered questions about their mental well-being, both before being exposed to nature and then after. They were asked to record the types of landscapes they saw, the weather, and then take photographs of their preferred views, “scenes they were drawn to, that gave them that ‘ahhhh’ feeling.” As the walked and recorded their thoughts, the app also tracked their location.

The early results show that the “nature pill works.” Among all participants, they reported significantly less stress, an increased ability to focus, and increased satisfaction with their mood and energy levels after being exposed to nature. But Hunter admitted that “self-reported data is viewed as worthless; people want physical proof,” so before and after the nature exposure, they also studied participants’ cortisol levels, a physical indicator of stress, which correlated with the self-reported responses more than 60 percent of the time. She said this shows the data is largely credible.

Hunter said it’s still too soon to tell what the optimal dose of the nature pill is, but even just “10 minutes is effective.” While the data is still being analyzed, Hunter and her colleagues also found that “there was no correlation between weather and the restorative effects.” There were greater restorative effects in residential landscapes or small parks. In fact, the benefits seemed to be greater in “small, enclosed spaces,” but this could also be a function of how the participants’ neighborhoods were set-up. It’s not clear whether large parks were actually nearby those studied.

The definition of nature was loose, so, in the next stages of the research, Hunter is trying to define it more specifically. For example, vegetation, hills, rivers, or large bodies of water can all be considered nature, so she began a process of listing all the physical attributes defining the environment to find out which have the most restorative benefits. She categorized the 470 photographs study participants took through the app with 60 attributes, covering factors like naturalness, complexity, structural coherence, form, proportion, openness, access, and engagement. There were some 23 structural attributes, like “horizontal line, skyline, or canyon form,” 13 contextual attributes, and another 30 landscape attributes.

Now that there are a set of photographs with clear attributes, Hunter can begin testing theories. For example, Roger Ulrich, who is perhaps the most celebrated health and nature researcher, posited that symmetries, repeated elements, and focal points helped stress recovery more than other forms. Using the categorized photographs, she can begin to see whether this is true.

Hunter hopes to have her exciting findings ready to present at the ASLA Annual Meeting in Chicago in November. “We are still working on deciphering the nature pill.” Her eventual goal is to create a methodology that can be replicated all over the world, given other cultures have such a different appreciation of nature. “Other researchers can use the procedure but adapt specifics.”

Here are brief summaries of other fascinating health and nature studies at EDRA:

Dongying Li, a landscape architecture PhD student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, examined whether exposure to nature for high school students improved their ability to deal with stress. She tracked 150 high school students in Illinois with GPS devices and asked them to keep an active diary each night. Li also collected various mood-related data every day. In her exploration of a new “time/space model,” she found that simply estimating the level of use of green spaces in an area based on proximity to those spaces doesn’t really work. Students with three-hour windows of opportunity who could have accessed green spaces often didn’t in reality. “Potential versus realized exposure can be different.” For Li, the take-home message was “design green spaces that are walking distance. Parks in neighborhoods may not be enough.” William Sullivan, ASLA, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who is doing much of the exciting research on nature and health, added that “nature needs to be at every doorstep. We don’t know where people will wander.”

Jane Buxton, a PhD student in regional planning at University of Massachusetts at Amherst, conducted a novel study to find out whether increased tree canopy influences people’s preferences for urban density. She found that “trees will help people accept density.” Buxton showed 24 photographs, some of which were manipulated to incorporate more trees, to 70 residents of Worcester, Massachusetts, the second largest city in New England, asking them to circle the choices that “best describe where you want to live.” The highest preference was for single-family homes set in a rich tree canopy; the lowest preference was for apartments close to street with a lack of trees. Greening made a difference. In almost all cases, the scores went up as more trees were added. She concluded that “there is a tension between higher density and what people actually want: single-family homes. Trees can ameliorate that tension up to a point.” She also believes that “people will need to chose higher density if it’s going to work. It can’t be seen as something that will be forced on people.”

Pongsakorn “Tum” Suppakitpaisarn, a PhD student in landscape architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Bin Jiang, a professor at the University of Hong Kong, want to figure out if people’s preferred landscapes reduce stress. Preference, as defined, is “spontaneous, aesthetic,” but also about survival. Suppakitpaisarn showed slides of a winding open path in a park versus a dark hallway through a crumbling building, explaining how most everyone will prefer the open path, because it appears less dangerous. There’s a reason for that preference: it’s about survival. Through a set of studies, he stressed people out by asking them do math and perform in a job interview in front of unresponsive, unhelpful people and then asked them to watch nature videos and rank their preferences for the green scenes, which aided in stress recovery. He found that preference predicts stress recovery in women but “we’re not sure about men.” Why should we care? “Stress is expensive to measure, with all the physiological measurement equipment, but preference is easy to measure.”

Sara Hadavi, a research associate at the University of Michigan, looked at various types of green spaces in 3,400 acres of Chicago. Using mail-in surveys and on-the-street-interviews, she got 434 people to respond to her questions about nearby nature and well-being. Hadavi found that “open lawns with trees had a positive effect on well-being, even if they aren’t used. Just knowing that they are there is enough to inspire satisfaction with public spaces, which in turn improves well-being.” She said this kind of information is important for planners and landscape architects who may think the only measure of success for a public space is direct use. But she added if city leaders really want to boost well-being, landscape architects should create spaces where people can socialize and then encourage them to visit through lots of programs. Hadavi called for more widespread use of “user-oriented design, which will have better outcomes than designer-oriented design.”

Eva Silveirinha de Oliveira, a landscape architect and researcher at Open Space in Scotland, is testing out a new environmental audit tool on woodlands. “Urban woodlands are part of green infrastructure systems, but their quality varies. They are not usually managed or maintained in Scotland.” Sending out two trained landscape architects, she completed 18 audits, and found the tool works in helping us to “get a sense of whether a place will attract or repel us.” She said the views of the urban woodlands among the landscape architects and the locals she surveyed who live near them were different though. “Landscape architects recorded much lower ratings than the community.” Like Hadavi, Silveirinha de Oliveira found that people valued nearby nature even if they didn’t use it.

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Designed for the Future / Princeton Architectural Press

“What gives you hope that a sustainable future is possible?” In Designed for the Future: 80 Practical Ideas for a Sustainable World, Jared Green — the same Green who edits this blog, and, full disclosure, was my boss when I was a communications intern at ASLA — offers 80 thought-provoking and frequently inspiring answers to this question from landscape architects, urban planners, architects, journalists, artists, and environmental leaders in the U.S. and beyond. The book’s tone is highly conversational and reflects the voices of the book’s contributors. Each passage is the result of an interview with Green, who serves largely as curator for this reading experience.

To those in the field, the names are like a who’s who of respected leaders in these professions. But while professionals will certainly enjoy it, this book is aimed squarely at the public, as it’s as scrubbed-free of design jargon as possible and offered in bite-size pieces easy to pick up for a few minutes at a time or read entirely through on a weekend afternoon.

It’s largely successful in this aspect, capturing the essence of the ideas at the core of each real world example without losing the reader in technical terms and excess detail. However, in a few cases, the description is so sparse as to leave uncertain exactly what the project is about.

Some of the projects feature new technologies applied in innovative ways. Lighting designer Leni Schwendinger, now with Arup, is inspired by Illuminate, a three-year research program in six European countries showing the way to the future of light-emitting diode (LED) lighting in public spaces. The study examined not only at energy savings and carbon reductions, but also the quality of light in terms of brightness, color temperature, and color rendition (whether the object illuminated looks true to life). It’s the artificial nature of these latter qualities that tend to sway many designers away from LEDs, despite their energy savings, but this study shows they are being improved, and LEDs may soon be able to use “intelligent controls to create malleable lighting” in our parks, plazas, and museums.

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Luminance Map, Belfast / Guilio Antonutto

Jonsara Ruth, a professor at The New School / Parsons, discusses Mushroom Board from the firm Ecovative, a product that uses mycelium, the “roots” of mushrooms, to literally grow an organic Styrofoam replacement. Styrofoam is an incredibly polluting material, but Mushroom Board, a cutting-edge use of bioengineered materials that can be grown to almost any shape and size, is completely biodegradable. Imagine appliances coming packed in Mushroom Board or homes insulated with mushroom in the walls instead of spray-in foam.

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Mushroom Board by Ecovative / Jonsara Ruth

Many projects feature materials and infrastructures from the past that have been given new life to serve contemporary needs. Landscape architect Thomas Woltz, FASLA, Nelson Byrd Woltz, describes how Braddock, Pennsylvania, is in the process of transforming much of its abandoned and toxic industrial lands, re-envisioning them as a place for urban farming and healthy community initiatives.

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Braddock, Pennsylvania / Kristen Taylor, Creative Commons, Flickr

And Peter Harnik, Hon. ASLA, director, Center for City Park Excellence, Trust for Public Land, describes how Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis is a railway that has been converted into one of the most successful trails for cyclists and pedestrians. Built in a trench to not interfere with auto traffic, it’s a delight for its users who can go for long stretches without having to negotiate intersections and vehicle conflicts.

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Midtown Greenway, Minneapolis / Ed Kohler, Creative Commons, Flickr

One overarching theme is the need to further connect social, environmental, aesthetic, and economic benefits that have been considered for too long in isolation. For decades, we’ve known, in theory, that achieving quadruple-bottom line benefits is essential for sustainability. These existing projects show how multiple benefits can be achieved in the real world, and the positive impact they can have on communities and the environment.

Green offers a lovely quote in his introduction from science fiction writer William Gibson: “The future is already here, but it’s just not evenly distributed.” Environmental advocacy and action can so easily just focus on the negative or emphasize only the compromise and sacrifice necessary for “saving the planet.” The examples in Designed for the Future show that not only is our future not all doom and gloom, but there’s plenty to be excited about here and now. The future is here. Now let’s start spreading today’s successes around as widely as possible.

Read the book.

This guest post is by Yoshi Silverstein, Associate ASLA, founder and lead designer-educator at Mitsui Design.

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Brightwater / Jared Green

Imagine a wastewater treatment facility where people get married, amid 40-acres of restored salmon habitat with designed ponds and wetlands. It sounds far-fetched but it’s reality in Snohomish County, Washington, near the border with King County, about an hour northeast from downtown Seattle. In a tour of the Brightwater facility during the American Planning Association (APA) conference by Michael Popiwny, the landscape architect who managed this $1 billion project for the King County government, we learn how wastewater treatment plants can become assets instead of drains on communities and the environment. The key to success was an interdisciplinary management, design, and construction team that was highly responsive to community feedback and deeply sensitive to environmental concerns. Plus, Brightwater was paid for by growth in the region. As new people are attracted to the quality of life the Seattle area offers, they move in and pay a $4,000 – $8,000 sewer hook-up fee. “The fact that new people were paying for the system helped us to sell it to the community.”

Brightwater, a 15-year endeavor that began operations in 2011, is a wastewater treatment facility, environmental education and community center, and ecological system rolled into one. It’s a 114-acre site, nestled in a wealthy residential area, with some 70 acres of trails and parks open to the public. There are 13 miles of underground conveyance pipes that direct wastewater to the plant. When it reaches the plant, the wastewater is cleaned through the largest membrane bioreactor system in North America, which makes the water 70 percent cleaner than conventional approaches. It is then sent out through a 600-foot-deep outfall pipe a mile out into the Puget sound. Excess materials are turned into “loop,” a biosolid that is sold to local farms and orchards at very low cost.

However, this description of the system doesn’t do justice the experience of being at Brightwater. Popiwny explained the critical role excellent design played in “selling this place to the community.” He said, “we realized that this place needed to be beautiful. We need it to be very well designed.” Just siting the project won King and Snohomish counties, along with CHM2Hill and Environmental Design Associates, an ASLA 2005 Professional Analysis and Planning award. Then, engineers with CHM2Hill and landscape architects with Hargreaves Associates and Mithun along with restoration ecologists and conservation biologists came together in an interdisciplinary design team to create a welcoming place that actually restored the ecological function of the landscape, turning into a place that aids salmon in their annual migration.

Popiwny briefly described the design and construction process: “We had separate contracts for the engineering and design teams. We needed the strongest engineering team and the strongest landscape architecture team. The teams completed their work separately and then we combined their efforts in the final design. Internally, we had an engineer lead the engineering team, and I led the design team. It’s important that you set up competitions for top notch talent in each category and then give them equal status.”

As the deep processing facilities were dug out of the landscape, the excess soil was turned into “decorative, geometric landforms,” by Hargreaves Associates. “These landforms alone took thousands of trucks off the highway, saved lots of carbon,” explained Popiwny.

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On the way to the North 40 acres, Brightwater / Jared Green

Amid these landforms in the “north 40 acres” is an elaborate system of forests, meadows, raingardens, wetlands, and ponds that hold and clean rainwater before directing it to the streams salmon use. What was once an auto depot is now a place that provides great environmental benefits.

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Restored forested habitat / Jared Green

The process of restoring the habitat and turning into a publicly-accessible park was complex, involving stream and wetland biologists, who guided ecological decisions, and landscape architects with Hargreaves. The team used 15 different types of rocks to create two different stream corridors that empty into ponds where salmon rest on their uphill climb to the places where they spawn. “The result is something similar to the original stream.”

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Restored stream / Jared Green

To restore the forested wetland, the Brightwater team made it an environmental education and community outreach project. Kids from the area helped plant over 20,000 native willows. “Native willows are easy for children to plant. We had about 4-6 busloads of kids from the surrounding area per week.” This effort really helped create community buy-in and grow a sense of greater investment in the success of the project.

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Forested wetland / Jared Green

As you walk out of the park and into the environmental education center, which was designed and built to a LEED Platinum level, you can see how an open-minded couple would actually want to host a wedding here. Popiwny laughed and said one comment he read about the onsite wedding online was, “it’s today — get with it!” There are pleasing views of the green infrastructure. One of the larger buildings is also a frequent host for local non-profits and community meetings.

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Environmental education center / Jared Green

All of this is a result of efforts to stave off protracted lawsuits that would have delayed the project from the beginning. The parkland, environmental education and community centers, were all part of the $149 million set aside as part of the “mitigation budget.” According to Popiwny, “budgeting this kind of work upfront meant saving money over the long run.” However, the Brightwater project was still sued by local sewer districts who argued that the project “spent too much on mitigation.” The state supreme court eventually sided with Brightwater. Popiwny said “lawsuits are an inevitable part of large projects.”

Now the challenges to projects like Brightwater are “often in the guise of environmental protection.” But Popiwny just sees this as part of the broader system of checks in a democratic system. “There needs to be multiple checks as these projects can affect communities. The region benefited from the opposition to the project as it pushed us towards a higher performance, but it also made it more expensive.” The Brightwater team included other forms of technical fail-safe systems, like multiple, isolated ponds to separate acid or bases if there was an overflow or accident caused by an earthquake, and engineering all pipes and systems to withstand high levels of seismic activity.

As we walk out of the environmental education center, which features flexible classrooms for groups of all ages and enables a range of hands-on learning about the water cycle, we head to the facility itself, which is strangely odorless. “There are three levels of odor control.”

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Brightwater wastewater treatment plant / Jared Green

Spread throughout the site is public art, as the project was part of the state’s 1 percent for art program. Climbing up a stairwell to the spot where the millions of gallons of cleaned water is sent out to the sound, there is artist Jane Tsong’s poem, which actively blesses the elements of the plant (air, water, biosolids) as “they depart from the treatment process and continue their life cycle into the natural world.”

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Poems by Jane Tsong / Jared Green

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Poems by Jane Tsong / Jared Green

Popiwny said the facility staff particularly connect with these poems, as it is reminder of how meaningful their work really is.

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Heavenly Water Service Center / DuoCai Photography

Amid Drought, The West Is No Place For a Lawn, As Nevada Has LearnedThe Los Angeles Times, 5/1/15
“When Gov. Jerry Brown ordered that California rip up 50 million square feet of lawns to conserve water amid the West’s deadening drought, the Golden State gasped. Meanwhile, the Silver State yawned. Desert denizens have already been there and done that — since 1999, in fact.”

Sprawling Wetland Structures by HHD_FUN Host Chinese Horticultural Show Dezeen Magazine, 5/5/15
“Beijing-based architecture studio HHD_FUN undertook two landscape architecture projects on the vast 23,000-square-metre site in Qingdao, a region in the eastern Chinese Shandong Province. The site was part of the International Horticultural Exposition, which was held between April and October last year.”

An Architectural Tour of … Parklets?The San Francisco Chronicle, 5/6/15
“Say what you like about Parklets — and there are detractors as well as devotees — they are now an established part of the scenery not only in San Francisco, but beyond.”

New Plan Would Revamp Heart of Downtown – The Baltimore Sun, 5/12/15
”New designs for McKeldin Plaza would fuse the brick space to the Inner Harbor promenade, transforming one of the busiest and most prominent intersections in the city into a 2.8-acre park, with grassy slopes and a curtain-like translucent fountain.”

An Incredible Time-Capsule View of One Downtown’s DevelopmentThe Atlantic, 5/13/15
“Exactly 50 years ago, Fresno was celebrating the inspiring opening of Fulton Mall. Can tearing up a noted artistic zone be a path to civic success? City leaders say yes, while some of their citizens say no.”

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