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Archive for the ‘Health + Design’ Category

wilmington

Wilmington Waterfront Park, Los Angeles / AEC Cafe

True sustainability is a three-legged stool, said Dr. Robert Bullard, one of the fathers of the environmental justice movement, at the ASLA 2014 Annual Meeting in Denver. It rests on environmental sustainability, economic sustainability, and equity. However, equity, Bullard believes, is still too often left out. This is a problem because “a community can’t be sustainable if it’s not equitable.”

It has been 30 years since the environmental justice movement in the U.S. was born out protests to stop a toxic landfill from being created in an African American community in Warren County, North Carolina. While there have been significant gains — “every state now has its own environmental justice movement” — there are still far too many inequities to address.

Bullard argued that place still matters a lot, and not in a good way. Where you live largely determines your health and well-being. “Zipcode is the most important predictor of someone’s health.”

Residents of wealthier and often whiter communities still lead longer, healthier lives. Bullard believes this is because these communities typically have  more trees. Bullard believes that “trees and inequality are linked. Parks and green space matter.”

But, unfortunately, “not all parks and green spaces are created equal.” Bullard pointed to a small park in a historic African American community in Norfolk, Virginia, settled in between two oil refineries. “If you stand there for 15 minutes, you will get a headache.”

Bullard has spent the past 30 plus years mapping social vulnerabilities across the country. He has identified “disaster hot spots,” areas of the country where are multiple overlapping high-risk factors. Perhaps not surprisingly, most of the many layers of high risk are in areas where there are higher levels of minorities: the south, southwest, and, especially, southeast of our country.

“There is still a Southern legacy of inequality. So it’s not a coincidence that the South is also the most environmentally degraded region of the nation.” Slide after unrelenting slide proved the worst health and environmental levels in the country are in the southeast, which makes the area least resilient to disasters.

Today, African Americans are still the most vulnerable group as well. “African Americans are 79 percent more likely to live where industrial pollution poses the greatest health danger.” In fact, in 2007, 56 percent of African Americans lived within 2 miles of a hazardous facility, and 69 percent live within 2 miles of two or more facilities. As a result, asthma rates for African Americans are 35 percent higher than for whites. “African Americans are 13 percent of the population but 26 percent of all asthma cases.”

For Bullard, this is a huge waste of resources. He estimated some $56 billion is spent per year dealing with asthma. “Imagine what we could spend $56 billion on?”

Bullard concluded that “addressing equity is a prerequisite to achieving sustainable and livable communities.” The gaps in health, parks and green space, and income are all inter-related.

“We need more landscape architects and planners, along with a few sociologists, in the room working on these issues.”

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higher

ASLA 2014 General Design Honor Award. Low Maintenance Eco-Campus: Vanke Research Center Shenzhen, China. Z + T Studio, Landscape Architecture/ Z + T Studio

In New Orleans, GreenBuild participants filled an auditorium to hear world-famous author and alternative medicine guru Deepak Chopra speak. He shared his road map for “higher health” and discussed practical ways to experience higher consciousness, transformation, and healing.

Chopra serves on the advisory board of Delos, a real estate development and research company that has developed the WELL Building Standard®, the first protocol of its kind to focus on human wellness in the built environment.

“I want you to have a sense of wonder over the mystery of your own being,” Chopra told the audience. He posed two of the “most important unsolved scientific questions,” namely: what the universe is made of? and what is the biological basis of consciousness?

These questions are important because “suffering happens when we don’t know the true nature of reality.” The universe is mostly “nothing, with only five percent made up of atoms.” It’s a “mysterious force holding your body together.”

The universe is also “consciousness and its contents,” and therefore, according to Chopra, “you are the localization of the entire universe.”

“This leads us to a very fundamental idea—you are the immediate environment, the room you’re in, the air you breathe,” added Chopra.

He cited the WELL Building Standard® as a means to connect people within the built environment and optimize their well being. He also described hospitals as “the next frontier in building standards” because creating “the right environment can improve the poor quality air, bad food, and anxiety” often found in healthcare environments.

Chopra ended his talk by leading a relaxing meditation. Once the audience opened their eyes, they gave him a standing ovation.

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balmori

11th Street Bridge Park Final Design Proposal / Balmori Associates / Cooper, Robertson & Partners

Six months ago, an exciting national design competition was launched for the 11th Street Bridge Park in Washington, D.C. Expected to cost upwards of $40 million, the new bridge park will run 900 feet over the foundation of an old freeway spanning the Anacostia River, connecting historic Capitol Hill and Anacostia neighborhoods and creating a new venue for “healthy recreation, environmental education, and the arts.” The organizers say this new park will benefit 80,000 people in the immediate neighborhoods and hundreds of thousands more throughout the district. It may also help boost efforts to further clean-up the sewage-filled Anacostia River, which is still unsafe to swim in, and restore more of the moribund river ecosystem.

Four design teams comprised of landscape architects, architects, and engineers have spent all summer creating new visions for this park, which will displayed publicly in multiple locations in the district over the next month. The four teams selected by the jury include:

  • Balmori Associates / Cooper, Robertson & Partners
  • OLIN / OMA
  • Stoss Landscape Urbanism / Höweler + Yoon Architecture
  • Wallace Roberts & Todd (WRT) / NEXT Architects / Magnusson Klemencic Associates

Scott Kratz, 11th Street Bridge Park Director, whose dedication is really what’s making this amazing park happen, said: “The variety among the different renderings is really quite remarkable. With these stunning and thoughtful designs, each team transformed community-inspired ideas into a Bridge Park that will quickly become a destination for residents and tourists alike.”

The designs propose creative solutions for solving tricky access problems. They all enable a mix of uses as well, with informal lawns and gathering spaces, restaurants, amphitheaters for events or concerts, playgrounds, and opportunities to just be immersed in the Anacostia River environment, which is slowly being restored. Each proposal also extends the experience past the bridge into the surrounding riverfronts, creating extensive parks, boardwalks, and boating facilities.

Here are brief accounts of each of the original proposals; titles link to the full exhibition boards:

Balmori Associates / Cooper, Robertson & Partners (see image above)

Balmori Associates and Cooper, Robertson & Partners aim to create a bridge park with a “clasp” at the center, one swelling biomorphic form that mirrors rounded shapes on either river bank. There are many reasons behind this form: “First and foremost, it creates a grand place where diverse communities can unite above the river and celebrate their shared interests. Second, its width creates the capacity to host great events and everyday life experiences simultaneously. Third, maximizing the distance that people can get from the existing 11th Street Bridge allows people to more fully engage and experience the edge of Bridge Park and the Anacostia River.”

Parts of the bridge would be open “apertures,” enabling people on the bridge a close-up view of the Anacostia River below. This design offers a new look at the local ecosystem, perhaps even an immersion in riparian nature. There are well thought-out connections between the proposed nature experience on the bridge and the surrounding communities as well.

OLIN / OMA

The OLIN and OMA team write: “Paths from each side of the river operate as springboards — sloped ramps that elevate visitors to look-out points to landmarks in either direction. Extending over the river, the Anacostia paths join to form a loop, embracing the path from the Navy Yard side and linking the opposing banks in a single gesture. The resulting form of the bridge creates an iconic encounter, an ‘X’ instantly recognizable as a new image for the river.”

Along the X-shaped park are a series of rectilinear rooms that separate out uses — from an amphitheater and public art park, to a restaurant and educational center. This team creates multiple levels, with an added upper deck where they propose an eye-catching waterfall. There is also a careful integration between the bridge and surrounding areas, with multiple human-scale paths leading from the riverfront on either side.

olin

11th Street Bridge Park Final Design Proposal / OLIN and OMA

Stoss Landscape Urbanism / Höweler + Yoon Architecture

Stoss Landscape Urbanism and Höweler + Yoon Architecture write: “Our proposal for the 11th Street Bridge Park puts in place a new crossing, one that establishes new connections across and to the Anacostia River and to the burgeoning and socially / culturally rich neighborhoods along its banks. The Crossing is a new place of convergence, of congregation, of cross-breeding. It is an incubator for social and community and civic life, and a model for building healthy bodies, healthy neighborhoods, and a healthy river environment.”

Their proposal offers a “flexible, adaptive” approach, with opportunities for healthy exercise and even food production spread throughout the new infrastructure. Their proposal has fewer defined zones; everything is mixed. This team makes a point of saying their proposal could be re-arranged depending on community input. Along the pier they propose new floating gardens accessible via angular decks that jut out into the Anacostia.

stoss

11th Street Bridge Park Final Design Proposal / Stoss Landscape Urbanism / Höweler + Yoon Architecture

Wallace Roberts & Todd (WRT) / NEXT Architects / Magnusson Klemencic Associates

Lastly, the WRT, Next, and Magnuson Klemencic team writes: “Anacostia Landing is the operative term that encapsulates the project goals. We take it to mean a great river park with a standout bridge, a place so distinctive that people will simply say “let’s go to the Anacostia!” anticipating hours of play, relaxation, eating, boating, learning about history, ecology and health; and otherwise enjoying art, theater, music, and performances on both sides of the river, gathering above it, or floating on its waters.”

They propose creating a “spiral and a funnel,” which will shape the structure of their bridge park and how visitors will access it. On one side, visitors will access the elevated park through a spiral staircase, taking them up into the upper decks. They will then move through the funnel into the expansive park, which offers lawns, an amphitheater, and a “fountain square” designed for kids. At the waterfront, they propose “curated ecologies,” with mussel beds to explore.

wrt

11th Street Bridge Park Final Design Proposal / Wallace Roberts & Todd (WRT) / NEXT Architects / Magnusson Klemencic Associates

Learn more about the final designs and then submit your vote, which will help the judges. The winning team will be announced on October 16.

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NACTO Urban Bikeway Design Guide, 2nd Edition / Island Press

NACTO Urban Bikeway Design Guide, 2nd Edition / Island Press

In the year 2000, the District of Columbia had three miles of bike lanes. Today, the district has roughly 80 miles of bike infrastructure, including the first lanes in historically underserved Ward 8. Many other U.S. cities have made similar investments. Bicycling Magazine’s top 50 bike friendly cities includes some unsurprising places at the top – Minneapolis, Portland, Boulder, Seattle – but also shows how cities such as Cleveland, Miami, and Baltimore have made important strides in the last several years to improve their bike systems. Several of these cities are members of the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), which has put out its best-selling Urban Bikeway Design Guide, first released in 2011, now with an updated second edition this year.

NACTO’s updated second edition is part of their “sustained commitment to making city streets safer for everyone using them.” Reformatted in an attractive hardcover with improved structure, it features photos, diagrams, and 3-D renderings of wide-ranging best practices in design for bike infrastructure. Also new is a chapter on bicycle boulevard planning and design. I particularly liked the handsome, debossed linen of the new hardcover, with its simple design and retro 1970s vibe.

Inside the cover, readers will find descriptions, information, and design guidance on various types of “treatments” — bike lanes, cycle tracks, intersections, signaling, signage and marking, and bicycle boulevards. Each treatment offers three levels of guidance:

  • Required: elements for which there is a strong consensus that the treatment cannot be implemented without.
  • Recommended: elements for which there is a strong consensus of added value.
  • Optional: elements that vary across cities and may add value depending on the situation.

Photographs show examples from cities around the country. The diagrams and renderings highlight important design recommendations for those looking to implement these solutions.

While the standard bike lane many likely think of is included, the design guide offers many alternatives that make biking safer and more efficient for pedestrians and drivers as well as bikers.

Two alternatives to the typical bike lane, which is defined here as a painted strip running parallel and adjacent to moving vehicle lanes, include:

The buffered bike lane, separated from cars by a few extra feet marked with painted strips.

Buffered bike lane / NACTO

Buffered bike lane (Seattle) / NACTO.

Or the cycle track, a lane nonadjacent to moving cars, which might be protected by parked cars, raised in elevation, or even moved alongside the pedestrian path on the sidewalk.

Protected cycle track (Chicago) / NACTO

Protected cycle track (Chicago) / NACTO

Raised cycle track (Cambridge) / NACTO

Raised cycle track (Cambridge) / NACTO

Over half of the guide is dedicated to design solutions for intersections, an area with high potential for conflict. Included in the guide’s recommendations for intersections are:

Combined bike turning lanes that help bikers and drivers navigate the mixing zone created when bikes approach an intersection and cars need to make a right turn.

Intersection approach / NACTO

Intersection approach / NACTO

Combined turning lane / NACTO

Combined turning lane / NACTO

Bike boxes – designated areas at the head of a traffic lane that provides bicyclists with a safe and visible way to get ahead of stopped traffic at a red light.

Bike box (Portland) / NACTO

Bike box (Portland) / NACTO

Signal phasing for traffic lights, which help to clarify when bicyclists should enter an intersection, and restrict vehicle movements.

signal-phasing

Hybrid beacon signal phasing (Portland) / NACTO

As mentioned, the reissue includes a new section on bike boulevards. These are multi-vehicular streets with low traffic and low speeds designed to prioritize bicycle travel. Creating these boulevards begins at the city planning level, analyzing which streets are appropriate and designing networks of boulevards to maximize accessibility. Signs and pavement marking designate the boulevards. Vehicular traffic is slowed through traffic calming measures such as raised crosswalks and intersections, speed humps, and “pinch points” where the street is narrowed through curb extensions or medians. Many of these measures can also easily include green infrastructure, part of the “green” and “complete” streets design standards.

Landscape architects, planners, and city officials should find this guide invaluable. Anyone who advocates for increasing bicycle infrastructure in our cities will find many useful tools for implementing best practice infrastructure. Notes and references listed in the back of the guide also offer a good starting point for those looking to get up to date with the literature on biking infrastructure. Many of the recommendations can be found on the NACTO website.

But if you’re someone like me who just likes to geek out on well-made diagrams and renderings, the new and improved Urban Bikeway Design Guide will gladly find a nice home on your bookshelf or coffee table.

Yoshi Silverstein is the ASLA 2014 communications intern. He is a Masters in Landscape Architecture candidate at the University of Maryland. He focuses on landscape experience and outdoor learning environments.

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ozone

Danica Lombardozzi / National Center for Atmospheric Research

Community Radio of Northern California asks: “What if you could look at the plants in your garden in order to learn if the air around you is clean or dirty?” Turns out the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado, enables us to do just that with their new ozone garden. There, the plants show a visible reaction when ozone reaches a certain level.

Ozone is an oxidant in our atmosphere that can be harmful to both people and plants. NASA, which also has an ozone garden for research, further explains: “One of the primary components of air quality is the amount of ozone found in the air we breathe (troposphere). While ozone in the upper atmosphere (stratosphere) protects life from harmful ultraviolet radiation, ozone in the lower atmosphere (troposphere) is a pollutant that damages plants and human lung tissue.” Surface-level ozone can reach dangerously high levels on hot, sunny days, causing create breathing problems, especially for children.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set the limit for humans at 75 parts per billion, but Community Radio writes that it’s considering lowering that level. Some plants start showing effects at 40 parts per billion.

NCAR’s test garden has four types of plants, which have been selected for their “sensitivity to ozone.” These include “milkweed, snap bean, potato and cutleaf coneflower.” When ozone begins to take its toll, Danica Lombardozzi, a postdoctoral researcher at NCAR, told Community Radio: “You start to see damage on the leaves. A bunch of little black spots.”

These plants are “like a canary in the coal mine,” said Lombardozzi. When the plants react to the ozone, some of the chlorophyll cells in the plant’s leaves die. “The effect isn’t instant, though – the leaf blackening depends on how long the ozone is in the air and how long the plants are exposed.” Typically, the worst ozone comes in later July and August.

As NASA explains in a comprehensive report about their bioindicator ozone garden, ozone could also be very bad news for the plant world, and, in turn, us. During high periods of ozone, there have been known negative impacts: “Ozone air pollution has been known since the late 1950s to cause significant injury and economic losses to many agricultural crops, herbaceous ornamentals, and native plants.” Forests could also be affected.

Here’s a guide on how to set up an ozone garden as a monitoring station. NASA also created a toolkit that explains how educators and middle school students can create their own ozone garden as a scientific learning exercise.

If you have kids or existing breathing problems and are concerned about ozone, you can also check out OzoneMatters.

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doctor

Dr. Robert Zarr leads a hike through a park in Washington, D.C. / Diana Bowen and National Park Service

For more LA in the News, check out LAND, ASLA’s newsletter. If you see others you’d like included, please email us at info@asla.org.

The Music City’s New Urbanism: The Nine Projects Leading Nashville’s Transformation – The Architect’s Newspaper, 7/2/14
“New riverfront parks are transforming Nashville’s connection to the Cumberland River, bikeshare docks have appeared around downtown, bus rapid transit is in the works, and the city’s tallest tower is set to rise. And that’s just the start of it. Take a look at the city’s dramatic transformation and a peek at where it’s headed.”

America’s Leading Design Cities – CityLab, 7/8/14
“Where are the key clusters and geographic centers of design in America? Which are its leading design cities?”

How Chinese Urbanism Is Transforming African Cities Metropolis Magazine, 7/8/14
“The factory of the world has a new export: urbanism. More and more Chinese-made buildings, infrastructure, and urban districts are sprouting up across Africa, and this development is changing the face of the continent’s cities.”

To Make Children Healthier, a Doctor Prescribes a Trip to the Park – NPR, 7/14/14
“About 40 percent of Zarr’s young patients are overweight or obese, which has led the doctor to come up with ways to give them very specific recommendations for physical activity. And that has meant mapping out all of the parks in the District of Columbia — 380 parks so far.”

AILA Launches the Program for Australia’s First Landscape Architecture Festival – World Landscape Architecture, 7/15/14
“The festival to be held in Brisbane from 16th to 18th of October to explore, define and forecast Landscape Architecture from differing perspectives. The Festival program includes exhibition, walks, self-guided walks, a research forum and conference.”

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1. Bikes at Intersection

Bikers at intersection / Heb @ Wikimedia Commons

Investing in bicycle infrastructure is good for people and cities

For urban cycling advocates, investing in bicycle infrastructure can help undo the damage of decades of bad decisions, which have left too many places with a car-centric transportation system. The thinking — which was perfectly expressed by Copenhagen bicycle ambassador Mikael Colville-Anderson during his recent TED talk — is: “Bicycling is the most potent medicine we possess … for designing livable cities.”

Advocates say designing for bikes will yield broader benefits, making our cities healthier places to live. Shifting from motor vehicle based transportation to cycling produces multiple wins for cities: reduced greenhouse emissions and traffic congestion, and gains in air quality, fitness, and the economy.

Biking can also be a very efficient mode of transportation, especially in highly dense environments. The You Are Here project  from the Social Computing Group at the MIT Media Lab recently released a series of interactive maps enabling users to determine the best mode of transportation from various locations in eleven cities: walking, bicycling, public transit, or driving. As an example, they looked at Manhattan and found that outside short-range distances, where walking is fastest, biking often wins out for most locations leaving from midtown.

2. Manhattan Transportation

From midtown Manhattan, 49.7% of the city is reached fastest by bike, 33.8% by public transit, and 16.2% by car / You Are Here project via vox.com

Cycling is not without its risks. Good design can help mitigate them.

Bikers face an uneven match with cars and trucks, should an accident occur. The good news is designers and planners have found many ways to mitigate these risks through good design and increased awareness. Best practices, such as those listed in the NACTO Urban Bikeway Design Guide, have been implemented across the country with much success. A popular recent video from urban planner and designer Nick Falbo adapts a promising Dutch design solution for the continually sticky issue of intersections – still one of the more dangerous places for cyclists. And, in general, the more cyclists on the road, the safer conditions are for all cyclists. In its first year of operation, with estimated 8.75 million trips, New York City’s Citi Bike bike-share program has seen zero fatalities and just 25 visits to the emergency room. Capital BikeShare in D.C. also has yet to see any fatalities after several years in operation.

3. Protected Intersection

Protected intersection / Nick Falbo

Fewer solutions have been determined for the longer-term risk of increased exposure to air pollution. While the overall health benefits still appear to outweigh the risks, urban cyclists can inhale significant amounts of pollutants from nearby motor vehicles.

Suggestions for decreasing this risk — taking quieter back-routes, biking during off times (especially in the morning since ozone peaks in the afternoon), avoiding intersections, and wearing a respiratory mask — tend to place the burden on cyclists. They are also not much use to urban commuters and portray cycling as niche and unsafe, an issue at the core of Colville-Andersen’s TED talk. The bicycle ambassador, who is opposed to wearing helmets — he claims the science is split on their effectiveness and government mandates on helmet-wearing have tended to suppress rather than increase biking — would almost certainly not approve of the suggestion that cyclists wear face masks. (His arguments on helmets and the culture of fear are interesting and worth a watch).

4. Face Mask

A necessary health precaution? / Totobobo

A new study from the Harvard School of Public Health that compared exposure to air pollution — specifically “black carbon” and nitrogen dioxide — on bike lanes adjacent to traffic versus bike paths separated from traffic may offer guidance for designers, planners, and officials. In Boston, the study found exposure was impacted less by time of day or traffic congestion levels and more by proximity of cyclists to the traffic itself and the presence of greenery. Cyclists on the green bike paths separated from vehicular traffic saw the least exposure, an effect increased both by distance from cars and by the green buffers.

The study’s most significant case study focused on the bike path along Sturrow Drive, a major parkway along the Charles River, 100-feet away from the road and separated by a row of trees. There, fewer intersections reduced exposure, and trees both pushed fumes up and away from the path and collected particulate matter on their leaves.

Green buffers can be easily integrated into the existing urban fabric. Doing so will help keep cyclists safe and healthy, but all citizens will reap the benefits.

5. Protected Bike Path

Protected bike path / Paul Krueger via Flickr

Yoshi Silverstein is the ASLA 2014 communications intern. He is a Masters in Landscape Architecture candidate at the University of Maryland. He focuses on landscape experience and outdoor learning environments.

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curves

Curved path in Central Park, New York City / Wikipedia

Why do images of nature have such a positive impact on us? Is it the colors? The patterns? Or the shapes? At the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) conference in New Orleans, Hessam Ghamari, a graduate student in environmental design at Texas Tech University, is trying to figure out the impact of contours on our brain behavior. Ghamari and his colleagues have explored the reaction to both sharp and curved as they relate to objects, architectural interiors and exteriors, and landscapes. As part of the experiment, they also tested to see whether prepping people to think they were in a hospital had an any impact on their response to the shapes.

Ghamari said Texas Tech won a grant to review all the neuroscience literature related to nature. They were particularly interested in one study from Harvard University researchers, who showed different behavioral responses to sharp and curved objects. They found that “sharp objects created a feeling of threat. People disliked them on a primal level.” Ghamari said, “that was a big a-ha moment, but they were only looking at objects. What about three-dimensional environments?”

Texas Tech put 36 adults in an fMRI machine to test their “behavioral responses and neural activations” to sharp, balanced, and curved objects, architectural interiors and exteriors, and landscapes. There were three sets of participants: one group was in their 20s, another in their 40s, and the last in their 60s. Stock images were selected if they were extreme representations of sharp or curved or a mix. Participants were shown multiple versions of tons of image, in black and white, high frequency, low frequency, or as a sketch. Each participant got to see each image for just 2 seconds. They were given two clickers — one to indicate like and one to express dislike.

Participants were then put through a pre-screening anxiety test. In the priming session, they listened to “hospital sounds” and were shown images of a hospital.

Ghamari said when asked — so when they provided voluntary responses — people preferred curved in all categories. For landscape, a whopping 80 percent pressed the like button. “Curves are just more pleasing.” (That’s something Frederick Law Olmsted and other landscape architects figured out ages ago).

At the same time, the researchers created a brain map that was an average for each category. They looked for any change in activation in the amygdala, which handles emotions and fear. The found that with objects and landscapes, the response of people’s amygdalas were consistent with the Harvard University findings: sharp objects create a sense of danger. However, with interior and exterior architecture, the amygdala was activated more when there were images of contours. This was a strange inconsistency, at least when dealing with architecture as participants were thinking about a hospital.

In a follow-up survey done without the priming, there was a “significant difference in participants’ judgements.” As Ghamari explained, “the expectation of what a hospital should look like created a different response. Context makes a difference.” More research is coming on what shapes people prefer in different contexts, which seems important.

In another presentation, we learned from Cherif Amor, chair of interior design at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar, that in learning environments, “warm color light is least satisfactory for those with ADHD.” Students with attention deficit issues preferred cool whites or natural daylight. He and his colleagues determined this because “cognitive areas were most activated with cool white light.”

Amor said “neuroscience is a beautiful field. How we behave is an environmental paradigm. Why we behave is a neuroscientific paradigm.” One doubtful audience member said, “the only thing this study proves is that people have brains.”

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Fisher House / My Life So Far blog

“Democratic design is inclusive, affordable, functional, usable, practical, non-stigmatizing, accessible, attainable, and aesthetically pleasing,” said Naomi Sachs, ASLA, landscape architect and founder of the Therapeutic Landscapes Network, at the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) conference in New Orleans. Furthermore, democratic design is “responsive to both ecological and community needs. It grows up from the community.” A democratic design process is then fully collaborative, including all stakeholders, but with a focus on those least acknowledged.

Sachs’ colleagues presented a few interesting examples that illustrate the idea of democratic design for therapeutic gardens:

Daniel Winterbottom, FASLA, a landscape architect and professor at the University of Washington; Amy Wagenfeld, a occupational therapist; along with students from the landscape architecture department at the University of Washington, designed a new healing garden for Fisher House, a facility at the Veteran’s Affairs hospital in Puget Sound for loved ones of those undergoing intensive surgery.

Unfortunately, the garden is found in a parking lot, within a sea of cars. On top of that, the original garden had “poor way-finding, so you felt a loss of control as you entered the place,” said Wagenfeld. It was a place where you have “very little say over your environment.” Most visitors are also coming from rural areas to the city so “they already feel a sense of displacement.”

Winterbottom said he and his students conducted intensive research, using focus groups, games, simulations. Guests of Fisher House were shown different photos and asked their preferences. They were asked to rank designs. Others simply sketched their ideas.

The new garden, which was then designed and built based on the guests’ feedback in just 10 weeks, features vegetable and fruit plants, “creating a domestic feeling.” Given many people are there for months, “we wanted to bring an icon of home — the kitchen garden.” Emphasizing the democratic aspects of the design, the team created multiple types of planting beds. There are those for people who want to sit and those for who want to stand. There’s even a wheelchair-accessible one. Visitors can plant whatever they want, too.

There’s a new children’s play area. “The kid’s area is kid-sized.” There’s a walking trail that loops around the garden, too. “The goal is to deal with the whole family,” said Winterbottom.

The designers created a fully wheelchair-accessible rain garden that treats water falling on the site. Within this area, there is a sculpture that is about “mending broken hearts and bodies, bringing them together.”

fisher1

Fisher House / Lyon Landscape Architects

The new garden is set up so that people can interact or just be by themselves. “There are a range of spaces, so you can find your own appropriate one.” Wagenfeld said it’s widely used. “There’s a sense of escape in the garden.”

According to Winterbottom, some of the challenges creating the garden were eliciting participation among guests, who were all going through some emotionally taxing times. The design team was also really young. “With young designers, it’s all about them, not about other people.” Lastly, perhaps the biggest challenge was some long-time staff members, “who often berated patients” and thought they knew what the visitors wanted, when in fact they did not.

In another example, we learn about Nikkei Manor, an assisted living facility for Japanese Americans of the internment camp generation in Seattle. Many residents of the manor feel a sense of “displacement, loneliness, abandonment, and loss of identity” when they move into assisted care, said Wagenfeld.

The original idea was to create a Japanese garden, said Winterbottom, but “to even touch a Japanese garden, you need about 10-20 years of experience. To design one, you need to find a master.” So he and 17 landscape architecture students created a Pacific Northwest-style Japanese garden for just $75,000 in just one semester.

Every space in the garden is easily visible, as many residents have dementia. There are railings everywhere — both for security and exercise.

nikkei

Nikkei Manor garden / Daniel Winterbottom

Wagenfeld said the space has “active flexibility, with a stage for performances.” The garden uses “universal design principles to create a sense of familiarity.” It’s also a popular spot for neighborhood gatherings. (see more images).

Really, it sounds like democratic design is just good design.

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arizona

ASLA 2012 General Design Honor Award. Arizona State University Polytechnic Campus — New Academic Complex by Ten Eyck Landscape Architects / Bill Timmeman

“We are trying to figure out precisely what types of nature provide the most health benefits,” said William Sullivan, ASLA, a landscape architecture professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, at the Environmental Design Research Assocation (EDRA) conference in New Orleans. The eventual goal is to be able to prescribe doses of nature, or specific activities in nature, to help with a range of illnesses. But we have a long way to go before we can get to this point. “We are just at the beginning of the research. We are moving in the direction of more specificity.” Sometime in the future, designers of all kinds will have guidelines that explain the best ways to reap the positive effects of nature. “But today — although we have good evidence that exposure to green landscapes is good for you — we can’t say if you design something this way, people will live four years longer.”

Sullivan brought together a unique group of researchers to explore the latest science and show the rest of us where all of this is going. A few graduate students at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign presented their data-based findings about the effects of nature on our own cognition and stress levels:

Dr. Bin Jiang said research shows “acute, chronic stress will lead to disease and death.” Stress has been directly linked with a number of the leading causes of death, including heart disease, diabetes, and suicide. In his study, Jiang examined how much stress recovery can be achieved through views of green streets. A group of people from the Midwest were alternatively stressed — by being asked to do complex math rapidly in front of a group or give a speech — and then shown images of nature. They were exposed to ten videos, with ten different levels of tree canopies, ranging from 2 percent up to 62 percent tree cover. These guinea pigs were surveyed to see how stressed they felt and then their physiological responses were also examined. Researchers took saliva samples to test for cortisol levels and tested their skin conductance, finger temperatures, blood volume pulse, and heart responses.

According to the surveys, increasingly green scenes improved stress recovery by 250 percent. But the actual physiological stress recovery rate — as measured by all the devices — was improved by just 55 percent. This shows that “we are prone to believing the narrative about nature.” Jiang concluded that “there is a positive, linear relationship between tree cover and self-reported stress recovery, and a curvilinear association between objective stress recovery and tree cover.” This means physiologically, there’s a peak tree canopy level and then it declines. According to Jiang, the optimal tree cover rate is 30-40 percent. But Sullivan interjected, “every tree matters. More of these kinds of studies need to be conducted on all types of nature: parks, bioswales, rain gardens, etc.”

Dongying Li presented an excellent study on high school landscapes and academic performance. There is an understanding that views of green spaces out of windows may benefit students. “Access to nature has been correlated with lower stress and higher attentional function.” But Li wanted to see if she could find a causal relationship between views of nature out a window and performance. Three sets of students were randomly assigned to be tested in a room with no windows, a room with a barren view of rooftops, and then a room with a green, leafy view. The results: green views significantly improved attention, while barren or no views had no impact. Li added that “the effect of the window view is greatest during the subjects’ rest period, not during their stress period. The window view also affects stress recovery. Students with views of green spaces recovered from the stress of classroom assignments considerably faster than their peers who had been assigned to classrooms without windows or those with views to built spaces.” She said the effect is not just from the green color but from the actual content of the landscape.

Sullivan said this makes the case for bringing trees closer to classrooms. “Somehow there’s a meme out there that if there are windows with some to look at, students will be distracted. This study shows that’s the farthest from the truth. We have spent hundreds of millions to boost academic performance in high schools and the results of programs like DARE are now clear: it has had zero impact. Simple interventions like putting in windows and designing campus landscapes to include many opportunities to have green views could significantly improve performance.” There’s a reason, it seems, those Ivy League schools are so leafy.

Finally, Chun-Yen Chang, Professor of Landscape Architecture at National Taiwan University, presented more amazing research, this time looking at the brain’s response to images of nature. In Taiwan, thirteen subjects suffered through being in an fMRI machine for hours at a time, exposed to urban scenes and then images of mountains, forest, and water. With images of the urban landscape, “all parts of the brain were active,” while fewer sections were active during the nature scenes. Here, we can introduce a novel word, at least for me: voxel, which is a measure of how busy a brain is. Chang said when we see a traffic jam spreading for miles with cars honking, our voxels are around 180,000. Meanwhile, a forest scene accounts for less than 100 voxels. And a beach scene even less: 28 voxels. Our brains respond to urban and natural scenes incredibly differently. If we have 180,000 voxels going, how many more can be used? What happens when we are at 180,000 voxels too long?

At one point, a participant asked, “If you know you have something to do later that’s stressful, can we immunize ourselves by going earlier into nature? Can we then recover from stress faster?” Chang said “attentional fatigue and stress are two different things. If we have something cognitively demanding to do, it’s good to spend time in green spaces. But there’s no evidence we can immunize ourselves from stress with nature.” Sullivan concurred, saying “there’s evidence that going to green spaces improves cognition for later. And if we have that evidence, we can then incorporate this into our discussion of the benefits of green infrastructure.” Instead of just focusing on the stormwater management benefits of green infrastructure, “what if we could prove green infrastructure can also boost innovation and creativity?”

And one more future area of inquiry: “Do the most ecologically-healthy landscapes result in the healthiest people?” Sullivan said this will be an important research area, as “we have to be smart about how we configure these natural places. An ecologically-healthy place could have snakes and spiders, which will end up scaring people away. We have a responsibility to create a healthy ecosystem but we can’t create stress and anxiety about being in nature.”

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