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Archive for the ‘Green Infrastructure’ Category

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Vista Hermosa Park (met AB 1881 and LID requirements) / Mia Lehrer + Associates

For the past century, much of California has relied on an inherently fragile and unreliable imported water infrastructure. While the current crisis attracts the attention of the media and public, the environmental community and government have been actively pursuing solutions for decades. These efforts have resulted in long-term water conservation. For example, Los Angeles has seen a dramatic increase in population since the 1970’s, but water use has actually declined, with the largest drops in use during periods of drought and recession. Efforts are now focused on decreasing demand for imported water by increasing local supplies. A few weeks ago, we wrote about ways each of us as individuals can conserve water in our landscapes by copying nature and making choices appropriate to our local micro-climates and water availability. In addition to the smaller-scale decisions we make in our own landscapes, progressive state and local policies are helping California to better conserve its limited water resources.

Here are a few across the state:

Water Conservation in Landscaping Act of 2006 (AB 1881)
This Assembly Bill spurred the creation of the Model Water Efficient Landscape Ordinance, which established maximum allowed landscape water budgets and mandated low water-use plants and efficient irrigation strategies. AB 1881 encourages us to capture and retain on site stormwater and use recycled water. The ordinance also requires soil assessments, soil management plans, and landscape maintenance plans to accompany landscape plans submitted through municipal permit processes.

Urban Agriculture Incentive Zones (AB 551, in progress)
If passed, Assembly Bill 551 will incentivize the use of currently-vacant private land for urban agriculture. Private landowners could have their property assessed at a lower property tax rate — based on agricultural use rather than its market value — in exchange for ensuring its use for urban agriculture for 10 years. Increasing local agricultural production where recycled water is readily available can reduce water and energy use in food production and increase our cities’ self-sufficiency and resilience in the face of potential natural disasters.

In Southern California:

Recycled Water
The Los Angeles County Bureau of Sanitation and Orange County Water District (OCWD) began recycling water in the 1960s and 1970s, respectively, for groundwater recharge and non-potable uses — or uses other than for drinking, such as irrigation or industry. In 2008, the OCWD district began recharging its groundwater supplies with water treated to levels above drinking water standards for reuse as potable water. A big push to educate the public about the process and its benefits smoothed the transition. The district is now expanding production from 70 to 100 million gallons per day, or enough to supply nearly one-third of Orange County’s 3.1 million people. Los Angeles, which delayed their water recycling efforts for drinking water after negative PR alarmed the public, is now planning to expand their recycled water program, including groundwater recharge, by 2035.

In Los Angeles:

Proposition O (2004)
Los Angeles voters overwhelmingly passed Prop O to use $500 million to fund projects to:
•    Protect rivers, lakes, beaches, and the ocean;
•    Conserve and protect drinking water and other water sources;
•    Reduce flooding and use neighborhood parks to decrease polluted runoff;
•    Capture, clean up, and reuse stormwater.

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Peck Canyon Park, San Pedro (funded with Prop 0 funds ) / Mia Lehrer + Associates

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Los Angeles Zoo Parking Lot bio-infiltration, funded by Prop 0 / Mia Lehrer + Associates

Low Impact Development Ordinance (2012)
Los Angeles’ LID Ordinance ensures that new and redevelopment projects recharge groundwater aquifers to increase future water supply; protect water quality downstream; reduce flood risk by keeping rainwater on site; remove nutrients, bacteria, and metals from stormwater runoff; and reduce and slow water that runs off of properties during storms.

But there is still much more we can do. Caroline Mini, who wrote her PhD dissertation at the University of California last year, shows how urban residential water use in Los Angeles is largely determined by income. Wealthier neighborhoods on average use three times more water than poorer neighborhoods. This is despite the fact that most wealthier neighborhoods inhabit tree-covered hillsides with ample available soil moisture, while less fortunate residents occupy dryer, flatter, and less shaded areas. Better-off communities have the opportunity to use their wealth to establish well-designed, resource-efficient, and beautiful landscapes that will become models in water conservation. And cities and counties have the opportunity to create green infrastructure projects that add tree canopy and increase permeability to regain the sponge quality of soil in those low-land neighborhoods that will benefit most.

Agriculture accounts for 80 percent water of the used by people in our state. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Pacific Institute published an issue brief last year illustrating the massive water conservation potential that could come from more efficient agricultural practices. Just using the most up-to-date irrigation technologies and applying only the amount of water crops need could reduce agricultural water use by 17-22 percent. In 1975, Masanobu Fukuoka wrote The One-Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming, describing dry rice farming techniques that matched or out-produced his most productive neighbors. This poetic story about working with nature instead of against it to grow successive crops with little effort is more relevant than ever today.

More thoughtful planning for both rural agricultural and urban water use is needed. We can determine which crops and farming methods best serve our regional and exported food needs while further conserving water. We can advance urban water efficiency plans, which could generate savings that can negate the current deficit, while creating greener, more resilient and self-reliant cities.

This guest post is by Mia Lehrer, FASLA, founder of Mia Lehrer + Associates, and Claire Latané, ASLA, senior associate, Mia Lehrer + Associates.

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Even the playground will look natural / Photo: Nelson Byrd Woltz, The Houston Chronicle

Master plan for Memorial Park, Houston / Photo: Nelson Byrd Woltz, The Houston Chronicle

Council OKs Plan to Reimagine City’s Marquee Green SpaceThe Houston Chronicle, 4/1/15
“The joggers, hikers, cyclists, equestrians and ballplayers who use Memorial Park will see the city’s marquee green space reborn over the next two decades, a process furthered with the Houston City Council’s unanimous approval Wednesday of a new master plan for the park.”

Beijing to Upgrade Green Belts to Combat PM2.5People’s Daily, China, 4/2/15
“This year, Beijing plans to upgrade some of the city’s green belts with plants that have strong dust retention ability, in an effort to combat PM2.5 and improve air quality. Eighteen types of plants have been selected for the trial program.”

In Chicago, Parks Are on the Upswing  – Grist, 4/8/15
“For three decades, residents begged for a verdant space where their children might play or where they could sit for a brief reprieve. Finally, weary of waiting for the Chicago Park District to cobble together such a site, they chose to do it themselves.”

California is Naturally Brown and Beautiful. Why Are Our Yards Green? – The Los Angeles Times, 4/9/15
“A few years ago, my wife and I decided to replace the mangy bit of lawn in front of our house with drought-tolerant dymondia, which was supposed to spread into an interconnected ground cover. Less water, no mowing, I thought. Easy call. But the dymondia struggled, and seemed to ebb in the hot summer and flow in the cooler, wetter winter.”

Hargreaves Presents Four “Approaches” to Downtown East Commons – The Star Tribune, 4/9/15
“Landscape architecture firm Hargreaves Associates for the first time revealed images for The Commons, a future park in downtown Minneapolis shouldering high expectations from the public for recreation and commercial growth in the area.”

Water Management Key for Urban Planning The Korea Herald, 4/10/15
“As water, life’s most critical resource, becomes scarce, strategic and advanced water management is emerging as a key policy task for cities. Cities in Denmark are spearheading the best practices in prioritizing water management in their urban planning policy development.”

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Native plants at private residence in Los Angeles / Tom Lamb Photography

California is a big state. To offer water saving techniques, we first need to understand the state’s unique climates and ecosystems. In broad terms, we have South Coast, South Inland, North Coast, Central Coast, Central Valley, mountain and desert climates. The Sunset Western Garden Book divides our state into 17 planting zones according to factors such as elevation, temperatures, and coastal influence. In Southern California alone, we have the Mediterranean South Coast region, the semi-arid Inland Empire, and the dry Mohave and Sonora Deserts. In our mild climates where almost anything grows if you just add water, we have spoiled ourselves into depending on imported water with an uncertain future. Now we have to adapt to rely on locally-available sources.

This is tough but doable in Los Angeles when we get an average 14 inches of rain a year. It’s tougher during the current drought when it can rain an average of just 5 inches per year. While many areas rely on harvested rainwater, we have only one rainy season in Los Angeles and it falls in the winter. That means any rainwater we store needs to last through seven months of hotter and hotter temperatures.

In addition to our climate challenges, urban Los Angeles is covered by impervious surfaces that create heat islands and interrupt groundwater recharge. But in a state where residences use nearly half of urban water — and landscapes consume over half of single-family home water use — there is a lot we can still do to save water through residential landscape design:

Copy nature: In nature, creeks and streams collect rain that falls on the mountains and hillsides. Trees and vegetation soak up the water, shade the soil, and drop leaves that decompose to become habitat, a protective layer of mulch, and eventually soil. The soil acts like a sponge, holding water for long enough periods of time for native plants to make it through the summer. You can mimic nature at home by reducing impermeable surfaces, grading to keep rainwater on site, planting climate-appropriate shade trees and plants, and adding a thick layer of mulch to conserve soil moisture.

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Shade trees at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum’s Nature Gardens / Mia Lehrer + Associates

Choose beneficial plants: Plant things that feed you or provide habitat for birds and beneficial insects, especially pollinators. Our food crops, whether at home or in the Central Valley, depend on bees to bear food. Choose plants that are adapted to your area’s climatic conditions. Check out the principles of permaculture and companion planting to encourage a healthy garden ecology. Test plants and look around your neighborhood to see what works with little care before planning your entire garden.

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Garden with plants for pollinators at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum’s Nature Garden / Mia Lehrer + Associates

Check your technology: If you have an irrigation system, check it for leaks and for overwatering. Look for rebates to convert older systems to more efficient drip irrigation or microspray systems. Install a rain gauge to stop the system when it rains. Research your plants’ water needs and check your timer or controller to make sure you aren’t over watering, which is shockingly common. If you are, wean your plants down to a less frequent watering schedule. Reuse your greywater in the landscape. Water from the washing machine or shower is a great way to irrigate fruit trees, water-loving shade trees, and small lawn areas for children and pets. Experts can install systems that direct the water from your shower or laundry through a filter and into the garden. Hire an expert or understand the requirements for managing greywater safely.

To sum up, here are our recommendations:

Work your soil for porosity.

Grade your garden to hold water.

Plant shade trees. Choose trees wisely.

Source local materials.

Incorporate regionally-appropriate vegetation.

Include edibles and plants for pollinators.

Check your pipes for leaks.

Employ state-of-the-art technology and irrigation products.

Investigate rain barrels, greywater re-use, and old methods of irrigation, like clay pots or “ollas.”

Minimize lawn to areas that are really used for play.

Think long-term. Know a plant’s mature size and make sure it won’t outgrow the space.

Garden without chemicals to preserve water quality.

Design matters. Use an expert or research design strategies to delineate space.

Live lighter on the land.

Find out more at your local cooperative extension, arboretum, botanical garden, water district, or from the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) or U.S. Forest Service.

This guest post is by Mia Lehrer, FASLA, founder of Mia Lehrer + Associates, and Claire Latané, ASLA, senior associate, Mia Lehrer + Associates.

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U.S. Federal Office Building, Two Stars, U.S. GSA with Atkins Global, Miramar, Florida / SITES

The Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES™) has certified a dozen sustainable landscapes across the country for meeting rigorous standards for environmental design and performance, bringing the total number of certified projects to 46. These 12 landscapes include a historic Maryland house, a pocket park in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, and a public children’s garden in Austin, Texas.

“Americans can directly address major environmental challenges we face today – diminishing water supplies, climate change, pollution and loss of wildlife habitat – by how they design and manage landscapes where they live, work and play,” said Susan Rieff, executive director of The University of Texas at Austin’s Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. “The SITES program approach, now increasingly adopted by landscape architects, designers and others, provides a practical blueprint for creating healthy landscapes, and recognizes exemplary projects to inspire others.”

These 12 projects are the last to be certified using a 2009 pilot version of the SITES Rating System. They join 34 others that have achieved certification for voluntarily applying the SITES system to incorporate sustainability into their planning, design, construction and maintenance. Each project received a rating from one to four stars. SITES, which is a collaboration of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), The Wildflower Center, and the United States Botanic Garden, has now certified projects in 20 states.

The pilot program has informed the June 2014 release of the SITES v2 Rating System and Reference Guide. Negotiations are underway with the Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI) to provide project certification to the requirements of the SITES v2 Rating System and a related professional credentialing program.

The 12 most recently certified projects include:

Anacostia Watershed Society Headquarters, Three Stars, Anacostia Watershed Society, Bladensburg, Maryland. This landscape on .35 acres surrounds the historic George Washington House (circa 1752). The building now serves as headquarters for the Anacostia Watershed Society, which developed a public demonstration of practical, aesthetic ways to address the flow, collection, and management of stormwater runoff from the site. Year of adjacent road realignments that raised the grades of surrounding land had created poor drainage patterns throughout the site. With the help of volunteers, interns, staff, and local business donations, the society was able to install permeable paving, a rainwater cistern, brick and dry-stream channels, and rain gardens. The project demonstrates how sustainable stormwater management can be successfully incorporated within historic sites challenged with a limited budget and very restrictive site constraints.

Evans Parkway Neighborhood Park, Three Stars, OCULUS – Landscape Architecture, Silver Spring, Maryland. The expansion of this neighborhood park with the addition of a vacant lot provided the impetus for developing a more natural treatment of park surfaces and restoring a 300 linear foot section of a concrete-lined stream channel. This rehabilitated stream is a model for future naturalization efforts within Montgomery County. The renovated park also includes an informal play field and lawn areas, playground, a picnic area and shade structure, loop walking trails, a pedestrian bridge with riparian overlook area, contemplative seating areas, interactive public artwork, interpretive displays, connections to regional bikeway and public transit systems, natural meadow areas, and shady woodland areas.

Boeddeker Park, Two Stars, The Trust for Public Land, San Francisco, California. This one-acre park developed by The Trust for Public Land and San Francisco Recreation and Parks provides the largest open space in San Francisco’s poorest, most dense and diverse neighborhood. What had been an undesirable, unsafe area for 50,000 nearby residents has become an inviting space that is open daily. The pocket park includes a state-of-the-art clubhouse, walking path, adult fitness equipment, children’s play area, lawn and plazas for community gatherings and a garden. Sustainable systems were prioritized from the start and are integrated throughout the site. Project partners conducted extensive community outreach at nearby senior and youth centers and elsewhere, and worked closely with local community partners to ensure a safe park that provides programs and activities for all ages. Key design and programming decisions were made through these community forums. The result is a model of civic engagement, inspiration, resource conservation, and adaptability.

Hempstead Plains Interpretive Center, Two Stars, RGR Landscape Architecture & Architecture PLLC, Garden City, New York. This is the only naturally occurring prairie east of the Allegheny Mountains. The design and development of HPIC – a low-impact building and site – in a heavily developed suburban area, secures the integrity of the parcel as a natural preserve and historic landmark. In addition, the Plains are located on the Nassau Community College campus and near several universities, providing classes with a learning lab about native prairie habitats and sustainable techniques and an experience for general visitors interested in experiencing prairie life. An entrance through native plantings leads to the new visitor’s center topped with a green roof; open and closed classrooms are provided. Handicapped-accessible and stabilized-soil trails lead to the natural paths in the native prairie. A cistern helps reduce the need for potable water. Solar energy provides power and the building is completely “off the grid.”

Luci and Ian Family Garden at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Two Stars, W. G. Smith Design, Austin, Texas. This garden showcases Texas native plants and landscapes while offering a unique, beautiful space for children and families to appreciate nature through exploration and to learn about plants, wildlife and water, and sustainable landscape design elements. The 4.5-acre space features more than 180 native Texas plant species and interactive features such as a nectar garden, a wildlife blind and pond, a “stumpery” made for tree climbing, and an area for building structures from natural materials. Sustainable practices are part of the fabric of the garden, and include plants that were salvaged pre-construction and replanted, and a rainwater harvesting system and rain gardens to demonstrate water conservation. Locally-sourced pecan shells and crushed recycled glass are among the mulches. Stone harvested on site is used in features such as two caves, and non-potable water feeds a waterfall flowing into a recirculating creek with fish and tadpoles.

U.S. Federal Office Building, Two Stars, U.S. GSA with Atkins Global, Miramar, Florida. This new building houses a key federal agency on a secure campus that includes a parking garage with a green wall and solar panels, pond and other sustainable features on a site that minimizes impacts and harmonizes the landscape with the nearby Florida Everglades. The site design incorporates wetlands throughout the project and in interior and exterior courtyards. These wetlands are visible from within the building. A jogging path occurs around the reconstructed wetlands and there are locations for gathering and relaxation. Structures are made of locally sourced materials with high-recycled content and FSC-certified wood. Native and adaptive plant species occur site wide, creating a sustainable native plant community on aesthetically appealing grounds. The grounds also provide water-quality treatment for the project area.

Environmental Laboratory for Sustainability and Ecological Education, One Star, Alrie Middlebrook, San Jose, California. This former concrete parking lot in downtown San Jose has become a shared garden space used for educational purposes. The tenants include a sustainable landscaping company, The California Native Garden Foundation and its nursery, and an on-site aquaponics farm. The Environmental Laboratory is used to teach schools how to build a sustainable garden education program and showcases a healthy land-use model. The site demonstrates urban food technologies such as vertical food towers, pallet gardens, composting, and gardening with perennial food plants. Drought-tolerant native plants reduce water use and provide wildlife habitat, restore soils and more. Drip irrigation is used for plantings, and water is reused through greywater systems. Many landscape components are made with recycled or reused material. The goal of ELSEE is to have this type of garden model adopted by 10,000 California schools by 2020.

HELIX Environmental Planning Inc. Headquarters, One Star, HELIX Environmental Planning Inc., La Mesa, California. Landscape conversion of the environmental planning firm’s headquarters entailed the conversion of the landscape to a more regionally appropriate one. The project reduced potable water use for irrigation through rainwater harvesting and the use of native plants, and created a more usable outdoor space for employees, which has increased social interaction and supported healthy activities. The project is unique because it used the expertise of HELIX’s own employees in designing and implementing water-conserving and low-maintenance landscapes.

New Orleans Festival and Recreation Complex, One Star, Torre Design Consortium, New Orleans, Louisiana. A 55-acre abandoned golf course in New Orleans City Park was re-purposed to provide a public space, in conjunction with a Community Development Block Grant. Community input led to opportunities for exercise and outdoor play, and gathering spaces for families, schools, and formal events. The project includes four multi-sport fields, a one-mile walking/biking path, a workout area with adult and child exercise equipment, a large constructed wetland area with meditation paths and a boardwalk, a playground, and a large “Reunion Pavilion” for seating, eating, and socializing. Many oak and cypress trees were retained for shade and enjoyment.

Perot Museum of Nature and Science, One Star, Talley Associates, Dallas, Texas. This 4.7-acre site on a former industrial brownfield is just north of downtown Dallas and west of the Arts District. An elevated freeway determines the site’s southern boundary and is among nearby constraints. The project dovetails with the museum’s primary mission of working to “Inspire minds through nature and science.” To achieve this, the site design was conceived as an abstraction of several native Texas landscape environments that are seamlessly integrated with the building’s architecture that covers much of the space. Starting at the southeast corner of the site, the podium structure of the building was planned to incorporate a vegetated roof system. The roof features plantings that depict different regions of Texas’ ecology: West Texas Caliche, Upland Prairie, Blackland Prairie and East Texas Forests/Wetlands.

Swaner EcoCenter, One Star, CRSA, Park City, Utah. The EcoCenter provides visitors a starting point to experience the 1,200-acre Swaner Preserve, both of which are overseen by Utah State University. The preserve and building serve as places for teaching environmental science. Visitors also hike, bird watch and pursue other nature activities on site. The EcoCenter building demonstrates sustainable features such as solar panels and a cistern for rainwater collection that eliminates potable water use for irrigation and for flushing toilets. Visitors can also learn about an innovative boardwalk that minimized disturbance to land around the piers. Rather than using metal helical piers that produce such damage, these are made from salvaged trestle wood preserved by sitting in the Great Salt Lake for decades. Other approaches included selecting sustainable materials for outdoor seating, bike racks, and pathway pavers.

Tuthill Corporate Headquarters Campus, One Star, Conservation Design Forum, Burr Ridge, Illinois.  The campus provides a workplace environment that honors the human psyche and improves the environment. The building was established on a minimal footprint and oriented to allow employees to easily access a pond/wetland and view it while indoors. Rainwater is collected and directed from the roof to the landscape. The entire site, except for the building footprint, pavement and small Buffalo grass turf edge, has been restored to hardy, native plant species obtained locally wherever possible. Locally sourced limestone was used in a terrace and patio that creates an authentic connection of the building to the local landscape. Invasive species have been removed, allowing the restoration of native grassland prairie and wetland fringe. The restored or recreated on-site landscaping and other elements virtually eliminate surface stormwater runoff and localized flooding.

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Pollinator Pathway One (Before and After Planting), 2011 / © Sarah Bergmann

EcoDistrict planning and design can accelerate local efforts to improve sustainability. EcoDistricts offer a framework through which communities can discuss, prioritize, and enact initiatives that address climate change — by providing clean energy, conserving wildlife habitat, and encouraging low-impact development — and also social equity. If more neighborhoods begin to adopt the EcoDistrict model — wherein a range of partner organizations work in concert — we could see stronger bottom-up pushes toward city-wide sustainability.

Since 2011, the Capitol Hill EcoDistrict in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, which is funded by the Bullitt Foundation and led by Capitol Hill Housing, has sought to improve the sustainability of the community and the equity of its constituents. This EcoDistrict is partnering with the Seattle 2030 District, a high-performance business district in downtown Seattle, that aims to reduce carbon emissions 50 percent by 2030. In 2015, Seattle’s City Council formally passed a resolution recognizing the EcoDistrict.

In the past few years, the EcoDistrict has made progress: Capitol Hill Housing and Seattle City Light started the first community solar project on an affordable housing building in Washington State. Participants in this program can “subscribe” to receive the benefits of solar via the systems built and maintained by Seattle City Light on the rooftop of the new Capitol Hill Housing, the Holiday Apartments, which houses 88 new apartments for low-income families, artist spaces, two theaters, various community organizations, and street-level retail spaces.

Also, innovative building projects are being encouraged to update the city’s outdated land-use code, using a process of design review. As an example, The Bullitt Center helped launch the city’s Living Building pilot program.

The EcoDistrict aims to address urban ecosystem fragmentation and the loss of tree canopy and open space. To do this, Capitol Hill Housing is partnering with interdisciplinary designer Sarah Bergmann to create the second certified Pollinator Pathway in the U.S. Each Pollinator Pathway connects two or more green spaces, following a set of scientific criteria, and is created through commission or partnership.

Bergmann’s first project, Pollinator Pathway One — a mile-long, 12-foot wide landscape first developed seven years ago — connects Seattle University’s campus with Nora’s Woods, a small forested area a mile away, through a series of connected gardens (see image above). The second project, Pollinator Pathway Two, will run through the heart of the Capitol Hill EcoDistrict and will connect two Olmsted-designed parks and Seattle University.

More knowledge sharing among EcoDistricts around the country will help lead to a more replicable model. Already, a few high-profile EcoDistricts are joining together: In 2014, the Portland, Oregon-based EcoDistrict organization launched a program called Target Cities, a two-year partnership with ten projects across eight North American cities.

This guest post is by Katy Scherrer, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, University of Washington.

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President Obama signs executive order, “Planning for Federal Sustainability in the Next Decade.” / Jacquelyn Martin/AP

On March 19, President Obama signed a new executive order titled “Planning for Federal Sustainability in the Next Decade,” which will guide federal agencies toward more sustainable government operations. From planning for resiliency in the face of natural disasters and climate change to implementing more stringent stormwater management practices, the order addresses many aspects of landscape architecture and community planning. Reaching the order’s targets will then require federal agencies to collaborate with thought leaders in both professions, as well as state and local governments, to seek out and implement industry best practices.

The prominence the new executive order places on the sustainable design and management of federal facilities means the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) — as the civilian government’s primary landlord — has not only the great responsibility, but also the great opportunity to increase its role as a government leader in sustainability.

GSA has previously proven its appetite for innovation in sustainable building technologies through programs such as The Green Proving Ground, which uses the size and variety of the agency’s real estate portfolio to test nascent technologies for large-scale commercial viability. That same size and variety will be valuable as GSA and other federal agencies tackle challenges, such as the following:

  • installing green infrastructure on federal properties to manage stormwater and wastewater;
  • reducing the use of water for irrigation and industrial purposes;
  • ensuring that a percentage of existing federal buildings and all planned federal buildings achieve energy net-zero and strive for water net-zero;
  • promoting sustainable commuting through locating federal facilities near public transit; and
  • incorporating climate change preparedness and resilience into planning for new facilities and renovations of existing facilities, and into facility management practices.

Read the full text of the executive order and GSA Acting Administrator Denise Turner Roth’s response to the order.

This guest post is by Karen Handsfield, AICP, LEED AP, an urban planner and policy analyst with the Urban Development Program for the U.S. General Service Administration’s Office of Chief Architect in Washington, D.C. and Christian Gabriel, ASLA, RLA, National Design Director for Landscape Architecture for the U.S. General Service Administration’s Office of Chief Architect in Washington, D.C.

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Russell Square, London / Ali Amir Moayed.com

“Just as all parts of an ecosystem must be healthy if the system is going to work,” an environment for people — a “people habitat” — must have “homes, shops, businesses, and an environment that fit in a harmonious way,” said urban thinker and author F. Kaid Benfield at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. For the past 50 years, “we have not been living in harmony with our environment.” To undo the damage, Benfield proposes a wiser approach, set out in his new book People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities. He covered a few ways to achieve these healthy environments in his talk:

Focus on Regions and Neighborhoods, Not Cities: Regions, Benfield argues, actually define the way we live today. Cities extend far beyond their jurisdictional boundaries. For example, “the functional region of Atlanta is 12 times the size of the city of Atlanta.” Only city governments and cartographers care about boundaries. “The environment, commerce, transportation, and people all cross borders.”

Neighborhoods, at the other end of the spectrum, are the center of people habitats and the agents of change on the ground, as they are where people spend much of their time.

Create Walkable Places: “Americans don’t walk much, and I don’t blame them.” Among a list of 20 plus developed countries, America ranks dead last in the amount they walk. Just 26 percent of Americans want often or sometimes. In 1969, Benfield says 48 percent of children walked to school; in 2009, it’s just 13 percent. There’s are many reasons for this, but the built environment is a major culprit.

Think of all those cul-de-sac neighborhoods designed for cars, or strip malls without sidewalks or crosswalks. There, people take their own lives into their hands going out for a walk. Why don’t kids walk anymore? It’s because so many suburban schools are now “bigger than Disneyland,” isolated and disconnected. Showing photos of the typical suburban school, Benfield wondered if it was a school, mall, or prison.

The death of walking has had negative ripple effects as well: It’s no surprise that places where you cannot walk face an epidemic of obesity. “Weight-related diseases are connected to a lack of walkable environments.” Today, many states’ obesity rates top 30 percent.

Integrate Nature into Cities: Benfield believes in the power of urban parks, particularly small neighborhood parks, to improve the health of a community. As an example, he pointed to Russell Square park in London (see image above), which is “big enough so you known you are in nature, but small enough so you know you are in a city.” He strongly believes that “bringing the function and beauty of nature into a neighborhood” has many positive benefits, including a boost in our health and well-being. “When we are immersed in nature, our blood pressure goes down and our mental acuity increases.”

Consider the Whole System of Energy Use and Emissions: “What is called green development in many places really isn’t green.” When examining the sustainability of a residential development, for example, we need to look at that development’s energy use and carbon expenditures vs. the amount of energy used and carbon expended by transportation getting to and from that place.

Using Prairie Ridge, a “net-zero development” outside Chicago, Benfield showed how the use of the term “net-zero” there is a misnomer because the community failed to consider the whole system of energy use and carbon emissions. While the development may produce as much energy as it consumes, its residents are expending huge amounts of energy and creating a lot of pollution getting there. This is because Prairie Ridge’s Walk score is literally zero. “It’s next to a corn field.” Residents of Prairie Ridge expend four times the amount of carbon as those in downtown Chicago.

For city after city, Benfield showed how different the carbon profile of people can be depending on where they live. “If you are living on the fringe of a city, you are driving longer distances.” In contrast, people living downtown are putting far less carbon into the atmosphere getting around.

Preserve the “Continuity of Places”: “If a place has a sense of continuity, it has a calming, reassuring effect.” In contrast, a place without it can be jarring, “disorientating.” Places treated with respect are the result of a slow accrual of layers, carefully thought out so they fit into a harmonious whole. These kinds of places spur “cultural engagement,” they invite us to “use our imaginations.” And they are the places with the most “civic vitality.” They are mixed-use and feature building of different sizes and ages.

On a related theme, Benfield argued that preserving the continuity of old buildings is also important: “the greenest building is the one already built.” Even replacing an inefficient older building filled with embedded energy with a new “green building” means starting at zero with carbon emissions. “It will take years for the new building to make up for the carbon emissions.” Benfield argued that “we have forgotten about the energy efficiency of thick old walls, solar orientation, windows, air, the basic principles. Now, it’s about gizmo green.”

Take Advantage of the Future Trends Here Now: “The future will be different from the past.” To be successful, communities need to take advantage of some emerging trends. First, cities are sprawling less today. “Greenfield development peaked in the 90s.” Second, Millennials prefer to live in the core of cities twice as much as other generations. Some 2/3 want walkable places, even in suburbs. “They value density, connectivity, and convenient access to jobs.” Third, people are driving less. The vehicle miles traveled per person per year has been falling since 2005 and staying down. Today, 46 percent of 18-year-olds don’t have a driver’s license. The miles driven by 16-34-year-olds has also fallen 40 percent in the past decade. Lastly, among all generations, bicycle use is up 24 percent and walking 16 percent.

Invest in Lovable Places: “People will take care of places they love, which makes them sustainable” (read more on this). Lovable places can be complex, like Quincy Market in Boston, or simple, like a small street cafe in Barcelona. They can be old or modern, but lovable places — like the French Quarter in New Orleans — always have culture. While many in the smart growth movement have focused solely on density and connectivity, Benfield argued that these projects ultimately fail because “they are not great places.” Great places need green spaces to attract people. “We can have both compact development and green spaces together. We can have it both ways.”

Read People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities.

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Taxis submerged in nine feet of water during Hurricane Sandy / Alan Blumberg

Taxis submerged during Hurricane Sandy / AP Photo/Charles Sykes

Fifty percent of Americans live in coastal cities now threatened by extreme storms brought on by climate change, said AIA NY President Tomas Rossant at a recent event sponsored by ASLA NY and AIA NY at the Center for Architecture in New York City. Architects, landscape architects, urban designers, and engineers need to collaborate to save our coastal cities. As ASLA NY Chapter President Jennifer Nitzky, ASLA, argued, “effective resilience planning takes great collaboration.”

Kicking-off the event, Stevens Institute of Technology professor Alan Blumberg and urban designer and professor Alexandros Washburn, Affil. ASLA, showcased their work at the new Center for Coastal Resilience and Urban Excellence (CRUX) modeling interactions of “water on cities and cities on water.” Blumberg hopes these models — if well communicated to the public — can help us better prepare for the next Sandy.

Communicating what we know is vital. One of the main issues during Sandy was researchers could predict where water would enter urban locations, but had trouble communicating this information to the public in advance. In Hoboken, New Jersey, which thought it was protected from the Hudson River swells, water would ultimately enter from the south and north. In one dramatic example, taxi companies seeking to evacuate to drier ground moved from an area where water would rise three feet to an area that would ultimately be submerged in nine feet of water, information Blumberg says he could have told them.

Can we use new technologies to communicate all the data we have? What if we could check our Google Maps before a storm to see predicted conditions for a location and an overlay showing the range of water levels in street view?

Flood level predictions via Google Maps? / CRUX

Flood level predictions via Google Maps? / CRUX

Washburn described the hybrid fluid-solid modeling he and Blumberg have been working on at CRUX. To date, software for fluid modeling and solid architectural modeling have existed in separate worlds. At CRUX, they seek to create hybrid “surf and turf” modeling programs to understand “how water affects the city and how the city affects the water, as well as ways to bring in data whether from fluid hydrological systems or topography and buildings to make the models comprehensible, accurate, and plausible.”

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“Surf and Turf” hybrid models would integrate fluid modeling software with architectural software / Alex Washburn / CRUX

Such models take grid-based software for fluid modeling and attempting to create fully three-dimensional grids. But such modeling needs to focus on specific locations since creating such grids requires tremendous computational power. Researchers need to understand where the hot spots are in the first place, then direct modeling efforts there. But Washburn believes things are looking bright with this technology: “Ten years ago, we couldn’t even come close to modeling of this type. Now, we are at the edge of being able to define the problem and finding the solution.”

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Grid mesh models are used to simulate fluid dynamics / CRUX

Urban designer Walter Meyer, ASLA, founding partner, Local Office Landscape Architecture, presented several projects seeking to implement innovative and effective approaches to resilient coastal design. Meyer described the process of what Local Office calls “forensic ecology” to assess existing “nature-based features.”

Meyer showed how wetlands could be used for “wave storage” and absorb water and energy from incoming waves.  The type of wetland, however, is critical. Herbaceous wetlands, in one study, showed only a 13 percent effect on wave energy from storm surge, whereas woody wetlands, such as afforested mangroves in India, had a 50 percent effect on surge attenuation.

Meyer also showed how sand dunes are really “root” dunes and suggested ways to “horizontally turbo-charge” these dune structures to get similar functionality in narrow spaces such as the Rockaways.

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“Forensic ecology” applied to several situations / Local Office

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Planted “double” dunes “horizontally turbocharge” ecological functionality in narrow spaces / Local Office

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Proposed planted coastal dunes in the Rockaways / Local Office

Beyond wetlands and dunes, manipulating underwater topography could also have an impact on coastal resilience. Meyer used forensic ecology to explain how “Hudson Canyon,” a gully in the sea floor just off the Rockaways in New York, correlated to hot spots of wave energy that caused further erosion. Such findings suggest that topography could be used to focus wave energy on particular hot spots of heavy impact on the coastline where more intensive infrastructure might be built to cost-effectively mitigate storm damage.

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Wave energy channeled by the “Hudson Canyon” at the Rockaways / Local Office

How can projects that use these novel approaches take root? Anthony Ciorra, US Army Corps of Engineers NY district chief of coastal restoration and special projects branch, said the Army Corps’ has its hands tied to a great extent as it awaits funding approvals and marching orders from Congress, but there has been a shift in culture there in recent years. Ongoing studies are exploring more sustainable and adaptable solutions, and the Corps is trying to integrate resiliency thinking into its projects. That said, for the Army Corps financial feasibility is primary and “recreation is secondary . . . any project must first show that risk reduction choices equal a cost benefit.”

The best approach, agreed on in theory by all presenters, is to find ways to collaborate regionally, across state lines and beyond election cycles. “Nothing happens in the city without aligning money, politics, and design,” said Washburn, recalling something he learned while working with US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynahan. “And if you can’t hold them together through an election cycle, it falls apart.”

Washburn added that “nothing will help speed our preparation for the next storm more than our ability to make decisions better at the federal and state level and do something that America as a nation was not set up to do, which is to have politicians work regionally.”

Yoshi Silverstein, Associate ASLA, is founder and lead designer-educator at Mitsui Design, focusing on landscape experience and connection to place. He was the ASLA summer 2014 communications intern.

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Schuylkill River Dog Park / FSRP.org

“Many people think parks are easy, but parks are one of the hardest things for governments to do because of the physical and human aspects,” explained Peter Harnik, Hon. ASLA, director of The Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence, while introducing a panel of experts at the New Partners for Smart Growth conference in Baltimore. The complex undertaking of how to best to create and maintain parks — for both governments and non-profits — is a thread that connected all speakers.

Mark A. Focht, FASLA, first deputy commissioner of Philadelphia Parks and Recreation and former president of ASLA, gave an overview of the amazing progress made in Philadelphia’s expansive park system over the past few years. Some 80 percent of the city’s residents are already meeting Mayor Michael Nutter’s “goal of everyone being within a ten-minute walk away from a park.” Examples of recently built green spaces and amenities that help the parks department to reach all city residents include Paine’s Park, a skate park and public space; the Schuylkill River Dog Park; and the Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk.

As part of Philadelphia’s innovative, 25-year Green City Clean Waters plan, the parks department has also “made strategic investments to stabilize, improve, and green existing recreation centers and playgrounds.” It also is implementing green infrastructure for innovative stormwater management in existing neighborhood parks and bringing “high-quality amenities” like trail systems to communities.

Baltimore residents Stephanie Murdock and Jennifer Robinson described how non-profits — not the city government — are leading a resurgence in Baltimore’s parks, helping to make the city more livable. Murdock, the president of Skatepark of Baltimore, talked about her non-profit’s ten-year journey to build a public, concrete, destination skatepark in Baltimore. The first phase – a 5,000 square-feet concrete bowl — was completed last May in Roosevelt Park, a late-nineteenth century park in the Hampden neighborhood.

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Skatepark of Baltimore / Explore Baltimore County

“For a young person in Baltimore to have a place where they can be free, that’s huge,” said Murdock. She told the audience the skatepark will soon add more “shade, seating, walkways, and restrooms” so that all members of the community can enjoy the space.

Robinson, the director of Friends of Patterson Park, another park in southeast Baltimore, said her non-profit’s efforts showed her that “parks become very personal for the people who use them.” Her non-profit is transforming the once-neglected Patterson Park, an Olmsted-designed space, into the city’s “best backyard.”

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Patterson Park / Patterson Park

The group’s involvement began with the renovation of the park’s historic pagoda, which had fallen into disrepair. Today, the group ensures the park remains “a green space for all sorts of users” through community events and programs. The group is now “looking at a formal conservancy model that will elevate the friends’ role in management of the park.”

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At the New Partners for Smart Growth conference in Baltimore, a panel of experts called for using green infrastructure to make communities “climate smart,” which can also boost their resilience to natural disasters.

According to Breece Robertson, the Trust for Public Land’s geographic information systems (GIS) director, climate-smart cities use green infrastructure in four ways (see a brief video above). They create “safe, interconnected opportunities to walk or bike; cool down the city by planting trees and creating parks; absorb stormwater to save energy and recharge aquifers; and protect cities through green shorelines.”

In a pilot study with New York City government, Columbia University, and Drexel University on how to use green infrastructure to protect New York City’s waterfront, the team created a GIS data tool to model priorities. According to Robertson, the models found that “green buffers really do improve resilience.”

Pete Wiley, an economist with the NOAA’s office for coastal management, spoke about a post-Hurricane Sandy assessment of the restoration of living shorelines in New York and New Jersey. According to Wiley, one of the challenges is communities and policymakers “think about restoring what was” because they only regard a “narrow range of benefits based on a specific issue.”

Instead, policymakers must “consider the full range of the benefits for all restoration options.” For instance, more resilient coastal designs that apply green infrastructure can provide a range of benefits, including “recreation, carbon sequestration, storm surge protection, and wildlife habitats.”

Hilarie Sorensen, an educator with Minnesota Sea Grant, described how Duluth, Minnesota is assessing how to use green infrastructure in the wake of a massive storm. Th city, which is located in the Great Lakes Basin, suffered from an estimated $100 million in damages after a catastrophic flash flood hit the region in 2012. The organization selected a 4,400-acre site called Chester Creek for an economic assessment of using a green infrastructure approach, because “it had sustained the most damage from the flood and discharged into Lake Superior.”

A cost-benefit analysis explored the use of green infrastructure to reach 76-acre-feet of water storage, with the goal of a 20 percent reduction in peak discharge for a 100-year storm event. The researchers walked through green infrastructure options and selected the “most viable” during meetings with the local NOAA team. They then worked with the local planning department to “preserve existing green spaces and wetlands.” They “calculated the square footage of roofs” and identified potential “green or blue roofs;” they also examined “tax-forfeited properties to preserve parcels of land.” The group received a $250,000 Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grant in 2014 to fund restoration projects that also support green infrastructure.

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