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Archive for the ‘Health + Design’ Category

ASLA 2015 Professional General Design Honor Award. Mill River Park and Greenway by OLIN / OLIN, Sahar Coston-Hardy

ASLA 2015 Professional General Design Honor Award. Mill River Park and Greenway by OLIN / OLIN, Sahar Coston-Hardy

While landscape architects, arborists, and park advocates, and an increasing number of mayors, planners, and public health officials understand the presence of nearby nature in cities to be central to human health and well-being, the public seems to think of tree-lined streets, trails, and parks as “nice, but not necessary, add-ons,” according to a new report commissioned by the TKF Foundation and conducted by the FrameWorks Institute, a non-partisan research organization. The report shows wide gaps in understanding between members of the public and experts on the health benefits of nature, the value of daily exposure to nature, how landscape design can enhance nature’s health and social benefits, and how the presence of green space and trees can boost neighborhood and, by extension, community connections. The members of the public surveyed also don’t perceive the typical differences in the amount of trees and parks available to wealthy and poorer urban neighborhoods and so don’t see it as a major equity issue. Urban nature is simply not a top priority. As one survey respondent said, “nature doesn’t pay the bills.” FrameWorks argues the best way to the public to demand more parks, trails, and green streets is to undertake a broad communications campaign to educate the public about the health benefits of nature.

FrameWorks interviewed 13 experts on urban nature in one-on-one sessions over multiple hours. Interviews with 52 members of the public were conducted across the country, with 20 in-depth dialogues along with 32 10-minute ones on the street. Interviewees were selected to be representative of the make-up of the country in terms of age, ethnicity, gender, residential location (inner city, outer-city, and rural areas up to three hours from the city), educational background, religious involvement, and political views. This is a small sample of the general public, but FrameWorks argues it’s enough to get a sense of the public’s “top of the mind” thinking about nature, cities, and health.

The experts and members of the public agreed on many things, and FrameWorks argues these areas of agreement are key starting points for creating a campaign that can increase public demand for more urban trees and green spaces:

First, nature is the root of human existence. Humans evolved from natural environments. FrameWorks says experts know this because their training is “firmly grounded in evolutionary biology,” but members of the public understand this, too.

Second, both the public and experts agree that nature sustains us. “Nature is the source of human sustenance,” said both groups, but members of the public tend to be more “consumerist in tenor and less attuned to the importance of biodiversity and linkages across ecosystems.” Consumerist because many of the respondents view nature as simply a source of food, wood and paper, etc — something to be consumed to meet human needs.

Third, cities are inherently stressful; they work against human well-being. Members of the public and experts agree that city life, with its fast pace, as well as “elevated levels of congestion, air pollution” and prevalence of concrete, can be “hard, cold, grey, and depressing.”

Fourth, feeling safe in nature boosts well-being. A quiet natural spot is seen by both members of the public and experts as a “respite from the stressors of modern urban life.” Places with lots of trees and water can provide “rest and positive distraction.” Nature is the opposite of our hectic urban life. Another key concept upon which to build greater understanding.

The gaps between members and the public are too numerous to list in full here, but here are main areas of divergence:

While experts view nature as central to human health and well-being, members of the public view it as a nice add-on and the absence of urban nature doesn’t rank among their top concerns. This may be because the members of the public surveyed don’t understand how time in nature reduces their stress, improves their ability to pay attention, or boosts their sense of well-being.

Experts understand that neighborhood access to trees and park space trends quite closely with income levels — wealthier neighborhoods typically have more of these natural assets than poorer ones, but members of the public are unaware of these different levels of access of nature. Experts also look to the broader return on investment these green spaces provide to tree and park-laden neighborhoods — in terms of increased safety, greater social cohesion and community connection, and improved health — while the public isn’t thinking in those terms. In particular, the community benefits of trees and green spaces are way off their radar.

Experts conceive of a whole range of innovative green infrastructure to deliver the health benefits of nature, but the members of public surveyed mostly thinks in terms of parks and walking or bike trails for recreation and exercise. According to the experts, natural infrastructure helps maximize daily exposures to nature, as exposure needs to be continuous for the benefits of small doses to accrue. But the public thinks of time in nature as a memorable one-off experience — a road trip to Yellowstone National Park, or a weekend hike on the Shenandoah Trail. Nature is a place to go to outside the city to recharge.

For experts, designed nature — realized through landscape architecture or garden design — has intrinsic value. They believe it’s still nature even if it’s managed, but the public largely sees nature “out there,” away from cities, as the most “salutary.” According to the experts, even a small urban garden can provide benefits, but members of the public don’t think these places offer a true break, only those places that truly remove them from their everyday urban life.

Lastly, the experts see the value of good design in public parks, but members of the public surveyed simply think in terms of quantity of green space. “For the public, design is largely a taken-for-granted feature.”

The question then for the many health, design, parks, and trails organizations working on these issues is: how best to communicate the health benefits of nearby urban nature to the public? How can we convince the broader public that spending time in a park, riding a bicycle on a tree-lined trail, or jogging along an urban forest path will have a “meaningful difference” in their health and this natural infrastructure can boost the broader health of the city? How can we convince them that nature in cities can be just as restorative as the nature “out there?”

The best proof may be the reality — well-designed urban parks are natural draws. But many argue that what’s needed is more research and more promotion of positive findings through the media and advocacy efforts directed at urban policymakers. ASLA created a guide to the Health Benefits of Nature, which collects the most credible research, and it has been immensely popular. But, clearly, more research studies are needed, which TKF and some universities and foundations are sponsoring, and more targeted communications campaigns are also needed to reach the urban public.

More promising small-sample research studies could also generate demand for a government-financed, large-scale, longitudinal study examining the impact of nature on all sorts of health mental and physical health issues. This kind of study, if it demonstrated positive results, could help bring the mainstream public health community on board, and, in turn, even more urban policymakers.

The good news is that many mayors and cities already get the value of access to nature, even in car-centric places like Houston, which is investing huge sums in new parks and trails. As momentum builds and more cities act, we can imagine a future where people in all of a city’s neighborhoods enjoy a daily nature outing because nature is everywhere, but this future will take lots more work to achieve.

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A Tree Campus, Rice University / Carol Ciarniello

A Tree Campus, Rice University / Carol Ciarniello

What if what is outside a school’s windows is as critical to learning as what’s inside the building? A fascinating new study of high school students in central Illinois found that students with a view of trees were able to recover their ability to pay attention and bounce back from stress more rapidly than those who looked out on a parking lot or had no windows. The researchers, William Sullivan, ASLA, professor of landscape architecture at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Dongying Li, a PhD student there, reported their findings in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning.

Sullivan and Li argue that “context impacts learning. It is well-documented, for instance, that physical characteristics of school environments, such as lighting, noise, indoor air quality and thermal comfort, building age and conditions all impact learning.” However, schools’ surrounding landscapes have been too long overlooked for their impact on learning, and it’s time to understand what campus greenery — or lack thereof — means for student performance. Research studies to date have had relatively small sample sizes. While these studies point to encouraging correlations or associations between improved student performance and access to nature on campus, Sullivan and Li argue that up until their study, no causal connections have been proven.

Looking at the effect of views of nature on both cognition and stress recovery, they test two theories: attention restoration theory and stress reduction theory. According to their report, attention restoration theory posits that “people use voluntary control to inhibit distractions and remain focused, and this capacity to remain focused fatigues over time.” But the theory also contends that even just a short period of time in nature (10 minutes or so) can renew our cognitive capacity to pay attention. Nature does this through its ability to engender “soft fascination” that doesn’t demand all of our attention, just enough to enliven us. Stress reduction theory looks at how nature supports psychological and physiological recovery, including lower blood pressure and levels of stress hormones.

In Sullivan and Li’s study, a third of the 94 students, equally male and female, were each randomly assigned to a classroom with either no windows, a window view looking out on a barren landscape, or a window view looking out over greenery. They were all put through about 30 minutes of classroom exercises. Their stress and cognitive states were tested in the beginning to set a baseline, at the end of the classroom activities, and then again after a 10 minute break after the activities. Researchers used both standard questionnaires to test stress and attention levels and various tools to measure their physiological responses to stress, including heart rates, body temperatures, and skin conductance.

After the students had completed 30 minutes of classroom activities, the researchers found the window views of greenery had no impact on students’ ability to pay attention or their stress levels. However, at the end of a 10 minute break after the activities, the researchers discovered those who had a green view bounced back, attention-wise, and became less stressed — this group “performed significantly better on standard tests of attention and showed significantly greater stress recovery than their peers who were assigned to classrooms without a green view.” They think this is because during the classroom activities the students were too busy focused on what they were learning. Only when students with green views had a chance to take a break was their “involuntary attention” engaged while looking out the window. Only then did they receive the restorative benefits of looking at the trees.

Sullivan and Li say they found a causal relationship: “green views produced better attentional functioning and stress recovery.” Furthermore, viewing nature helps both cognition and stress recovery, but through separate mental pathways. In other words, nature’s ability to help us recover our ability to pay attention has nothing to do with whether we are stressed out or not, but nature, separately, also helps us recover from stress. (To learn more about this aspect of their research, read the study).

Results of study / WIlliam Sullivan and Dongying Li

Results of study / WIlliam Sullivan and Dongying Li

What’s important for designers, school principals, and educational policymakers is that this is yet another promising study that points to the direct benefits of exposure to nature for students. Sullivan and Li argue that new schools, which are often placed at the “urban-rural fringe” need to be sited where there are a lot of existing trees, and, if that’s not possible, trees and shrubs need to be added. New schools should also be designed so they maximize views of trees and greenery from the inside; and existing schools retrofitted to improve the connection to nature. As Sullivan and Li argue, “architects should work to ensure every classroom has views of green space. Landscape architects should consider the location of classrooms, cafeteria, and hallway windows in the development of their campus design.”

These changes to schools could be more cost-effective than “most interventions aimed at relieving stress (e.g., emotional skill building, anger management, positive behavior programs). Placing trees and shrubs on the school ground is a modest, low-cost intervention that is likely to have long-lasting effects on generations of students.” Lots of schools encourage student environmental groups to engage in volunteer community service. Why not involve these students in the greening of their own campuses and teach them about the value of nature at the same time?

Kingsbridge International High School in the Bronx Garden Day / New York Daily News

Garden Day at Kingsbridge International High School in the Bronx, New York / New York Daily News

As with any study on the health benefits of nature with a relatively small sample size like this, there are priming issues. And Sullivan and Li acknowledge this: “one limitation is that we could not take into account students’ interactions, physical activities, and their immersive experiences out on the school ground during break, or their exposure to green space during physical education classes or after school. This limits the ecological validity of the findings.”

What’s needed is a large-scale, longitudinal, government-financed study that looks at the benefits of nature across all critical dimensions, but, until then, here is another study that points to the positive effects of nature on cognition and stress recovery, this time in an educational environment.

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Apps Survey / ASLA

Smartphone Apps Survey / ASLA

As we look forward to covering new stories on the built and natural environments this year, here’s a look back at the 10 most popular Dirt posts of 2015. The results of ASLA’s online survey, which asked landscape architects about their use of smartphone apps, were enduringly popular. On the technology front, readers also sought out an op-ed from Jordan Petersen, ASLA, on what drones will mean for planners and designers. (Speaking of which, The Dirt is always looking for original op-eds, particularly from member landscape architects, designers, and planners. If interested, please send us a note at info@asla.org).

Also worth highlighting: The Dirt‘s readers were very interested in the latest research on the health benefits of landscape architecture. We’ll post more on this exciting field of discovery in the coming year.

1) DesignIntelligence 2015 Landscape Architecture Program Rankings
Once again, Louisiana State University came in at the top of undergraduate landscape architecture programs. And for the 11th year, Harvard University came in as the best graduate program in the annual survey conducted by DesignIntelligence on behalf of the Design Futures Council.

2) Smartphone Apps for Landscape Architects: Useful Tools for Site Analysis and Design
In order to better understand what smartphone apps landscape architects use to conceptualize, design, and construct projects, ASLA recently surveyed practicing landscape architects, students, and university faculty from around the world.

3) What Dose of Nature Do We Need to Feel Better?
There has been a boom in studies demonstrating the health benefits of spending time in nature, or even just looking at nature. But a group of ambitious landscape architects and psychologists are actually trying to determine how to prescribe a “nature pill.”

4) Complete Streets Are a Bargain
Normal, Illinois, doesn’t sound like a typical spring break destination—but for me, it was the perfect getaway.

5) Doctor’s Orders: Go the Park
Pediatricians in Washington, D.C. are prescribing their patients a new type of medicine: parks.

6) A New Map of the World’s Ecosystems
A new, free, web-based tool from the US Geological Survey (USGS) and ESRI allows us to gain a better understanding of the ecological character of any place in the world.

7) Do Urban Growth Boundaries Work?
Urban growth boundaries are held up as one of the most effective tools for limiting sprawl. But do they actually constrain unplanned development?

8) Drones Will Elevate Urban Design
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently released long-awaited guidelines for commercial Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) or drones.

9) Smartphone Apps for Landscape Architects: Useful Tools for Construction and Presentation
In part two of this three part series, we continue to summarize the results of the survey, focusing on useful apps for constructing landscapes and presenting design ideas to colleagues and clients.

10) A Rare Look at the New U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters
This $646-million project is just the first in a series that will transform a mid-19th-century mental asylum, founded by social reformer Dorothea Dix, into the new headquarters for the Department of Homeland Security, of which the Coast Guard is a major piece.

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Sherbourne Commons /

Sherbourne Commons / ASLA 2013 General Design Honor Award. Sherbourne Common / Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg

A newly expanded and now mobile-friendly version of ASLA’s Designing Our Future: Sustainable Landscapes online exhibition highlights real-world examples of sustainable landscape design and its positive effects on the environment and quality of life. These spaces use natural systems to provide ecosystem services, transform untapped assets into vital community spaces, and create new economic opportunities — they ultimately provide significant environmental, social, and economic value.

Ten new case studies that range from a coastal ecological restoration project to a volunteer-run urban farm illustrate just what sustainable landscapes are and how they provide important benefits on a variety of scales. In the process, the case studies, written in clear, understandable language, also introduce users to what exactly landscape architects do.

The new case studies were carefully selected to show a diversity of landscape types and scales and reflect geographical diversity. There are now a total of 40 case studies.

New case studies include:

Burbank Water & Power Eco-campus, Burbank, California, a sustainable landscape for employees and visitors in the midst of a working power plant.

Drs. Julian and Raye Richardson Apartments, San Francisco, California, a safe and welcoming apartment complex, with beautiful design elements, for the chronically homeless.

Lafayette Greens, Detroit, Michigan, a volunteer-run urban farm in downtown Detroit where 800 pounds of fresh fruit and vegetables are grown every year.

Living Breakwaters, New York, New York, an innovative coastal ecological restoration project that won $60 million in the Rebuild by Design competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Pete V. Domenici U.S. Courthouse Sustainable Landscape Renovation, Albuquerque, New Mexico, an underused plaza that has become a model of sustainable landscape design in the desert.

Quarry Garden, Shanghai, China, a derelict, polluted quarry that was transformed into a garden visited by more than 3 million people in its first year.

Sherbourne Common, Toronto, Cananda, a multi-functional park and wastewater treatment plant that includes an underground Ultraviolet (UV) water purification system.

The Steel Yard, Providence, Rhode Island, an abandoned steel manufacturing facility that has become a beloved community arts space.

Sunnylands Center and Gardens, Rancho Mirage, California, an extension to the Annenberg Estate that captures every drop of stormwater, with some collected in underground cisterns for later use.

Woodland Discovery Playground, Memphis, Tennessee, an immersion in nature play for children that features surfaces made of recycled athletic shoes.

The Web site also 30 other case studies; 10 animations created by Daniel Tal, ASLA, using Google Sketchup; and companion sustainability education resources that enable users to explore sustainable design concepts in greater depth.

Designing Our Future: Sustainable Landscapes was originally made possible with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

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30:30 Landscape Architecture / Phaidon Press

30:30 Landscape Architecture / Phaidon Press

Looking for the perfect present? Or taking time off during the holidays to delve into the latest thinking on design, cities, and the environment? Well, The Dirt’s picks for the top ten books of 2015 are worth exploring:

30:30 Landscape Architecture (Phaidon Press, 2015)
Landscape architecture gets the Phaidon treatment in this appealing and innovative coffee table book by Meaghan Kombol. 30 of the world’s leading landscape architects and designers are paired with 30 up-and-coming ones. Well-known landscape architects featured include Kate Orff, ASLA, Mario Schjetnan, FASLA, Martha Schwartz, FASLA, Kongjian Yu, FASLA, and many others. 30:30‘s scope is truly international, with designers from over 20 countries.

The Age of Sustainable Development (Columbia University Press, 2015)
Columbia University professor Jeffrey Sachs, one of the world’s foremost experts on global development, makes complex, inter-connected issues understandable in this book that explores the future of the planet. E.O. Wilson writes: “Inspirational, encyclopedic in coverage, moving smoothly from discipline to discipline as though composed by multiple experts, the book explains why humanity must maintain sustainability as its highest priority — and outlines the best ways to do it.”

Artful Rainwater Design: Creative Ways to Manage Stormwater (Island Press, 2015)
As our climate becomes more unpredictable, finding better ways to manage stormwater is crucial to reducing floods. However, traditional stormwater management strategies can be unforgettable at best and unsightly at worst. In their new book, Pennsylvania State University professors Stuart Echols, ASLA, and Eliza Pennypacker, ASLA, prove that this doesn’t always have to be the case — it’s possible to effectively manage runoff without sacrificing aesthetics. Read the full review in The Dirt.

The Authentic Garden: Naturalistic and Contemporary Landscape Design (Monacelli Press, 2015)
Richard Hartlage, Affiliate ASLA, and Sandy Fischer, ASLA, founders of Land Morphology in Seattle, have put together a book of visual inspirations, showcasing 60 contemporary designs that feature “beauty for beauty’s sake.” Over 250 full-color photographs highlight the work of Andrea Cochran, FASLA, Raymond Jungles, FASLA, Christine Ten Eyck, FASLA, Michael Vergason, FASLA, and many others.

Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space (Verso)
Yale architecture professor and author Keller Easterling has written a fascinating book on infrastructure, and its role in setting the “hidden rules that structure the spaces around us.” Her book looks at the “emergent new powers controlling this space and show how they extend beyond the reach of government.” After reading Extrastatecraft, you aren’t likely to think the same way again about free trade zones, suburbs, or, really, any other standardized spatial form.

Frederick Law Olmsted: Plans and Views of Public Parks (The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted) (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015)
Charles Eliot Beveridge, PhD, Hon. ASLA, Lauren Meier, and Irene Mills bring together Olmsted’s plans and designs for seventy public parks, including Central Park, Prospect Park, the Buffalo Park and Parkway System, Washington Park and Jackson Park in Chicago, Boston’s “Emerald Necklace,” and Mount Royal in Montreal, Quebec. “It is a perfect gift for Olmsted aficionados.”

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (Knopf, 2015)
Author Andrea Wulf delves into the life of German scientist and adventurer Alexander von Humboldt, the “Einstein of the 19th century,” who discovered climate and vegetation zones, among many other natural phenomena. Humboldt also predicted climate change. “Arresting. . . . readable, thoughtful, and widely researched,” writes The New York Times Book Review.

The Landscape Architecture of Richard Haag: From Modern Space to Urban Ecological Design (University of Washington Press, 2015)
Thaïsa Way, ASLA, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Washington, places Haag’s nearly five decade-long career as a landscape architect, activist, and teacher in the context of “changes in the practice of landscape architecture.” Even at 90, Haag still continues to practice in Seattle. Though his work is not entirely finished, his legacy is well established. Read the full review in The Dirt.

Phyto: Principles and Resources for Site Remediation and Landscape Design (Routledge, 2015)
Harvard Graduate School of Design landscape architecture professor Niall Kirkwood, FASLA, and landscape architect Kate Kennen, ASLA, have created a smart and practical guide on how to incorporate phytoremediation, which involves using plants to absorb, remove, or mitigate pollutants, into the actual landscape design process. Kirkwood and Kennen show how to apply helpful plants in sites that are already toxic, but also how to “create projective planting designs with preventative phytotechnology abilities.” The thoughtful book layout and design enables learning, too.

Planting in a Post-Wild World (Timber Press, 2015)
Landscape architect Thomas Rainer, ASLA, and Claudia West, International ASLA, have written an accessible and creative guide to resilient planting design. Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home, said: “Rainer and West describe how to translate natural plant relationships and ecological patterns into aesthetically pleasing yet functional landscapes. With their advice we can change gardening from an adversarial relationship with nature to a collaborative one. Expertly researched, and rife with witty advice, this is the universal how-to guide to sustainable landscaping we have all been waiting for. A masterful accomplishment!”

Also, worth knowing: buying these books through The Dirt or ASLA’s bookstore benefits ASLA educational programs.

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Dr. James F. Palmer, FASLA / James Palmer

Dr. James F. Palmer, FASLA / James Palmer

James F. Palmer, PhD, PLA, FASLA, is the owner of Scenic Quality Consultants and senior landscape architect with T. J. Boyle Associates, both in Burlington, Vermont. He is professor emeritus at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. Explore his research. The interview was conducted at the ASLA 2015 Annual Meeting in Chicago.

It has been 50 years since the White House Conference on Natural Beauty took a hard look at the state of scenic America. What has happened to this country’s scenic assets since then?

Many of the most egregious activities are better hidden than they were 50 years ago. I am thinking of junk yards and dumps. Plus, many places now prohibit or restrict large signs and billboards. The public is much more likely to assert their right to pleasing visual surroundings, something that was less likely to happen 50 years ago. However, I am always surprised by how little organized support there is for protecting scenic quality.

The national park and environment movements both began to protect scenery, particularly the most spectacular scenery, but the environmental movement has moved their attention elsewhere in the past few decades.

The national park movement began with the establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1872. The Organic Act, which established the National Park Service (NPS), was passed in 1916. The purpose was to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” The NPS created coffee table books to popularize remote parks. This technique was latter used by the Sierra Club and others to protect the scenic environment; think building support for the Wilderness Act and establishing Redwoods National Park in the 1960s.

The American environmental movement began with the founding of the Sierra Club by John Muir in 1892. An iconic achievement of the environmental movement was the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, which directs the federal government to “assure for all Americans safe, healthful, productive, and aesthetically and culturally pleasing surroundings.”

Loss of scenery was used to advance both movements. However, the environmental movement today seems to largely ignore the importance of scenery to the vast majority of the public, unless they can use it for fundraising. While the environmental movement is still healthy, it’s less focused on protecting visual quality and more focused about climate change and biodiversity. We would have greater success addressing these issues if environmentalists recognized and responded to the public’s concerns about the scenic effects of the “solutions” being proposed, rather than dismissing them as unimportant.

You measure scenic quality. How is this done? What makes one place more scenic than another?

Scenery appreciation is a human perception. It can be measured by sampling people and asking them to evaluate scenes or simulations. Sample surveys of the public is a way to directly measure their appreciation. This approach is sufficiently effective that Western democracies commonly used polling to inform all sorts of government policies.

The landscape also has intrinsic qualities, such as topographic relief and land cover. These qualities can be used to predict visual quality. For example, this first image below is a landscape most Americans would agree is not scenic: an open field of asphalt visually enclosed by a shopping center, transmission lines, and trees.

T. J. Boyle Associates

T. J. Boyle Associates

This second image is obviously scenic, but the composition is actually similar to the first image. Here, there is an expanse of open water in the foreground, backed by natural woods and transmission structures.

T. J. Boyle Associates

T. J. Boyle Associates

This next image would be considered even more scenic by many people: open water backed by forested mountains.

T. J. Boyle Associates

T. J. Boyle Associates

In another example: these images have a similar composition, except the first image below has an pasture backed by a forested hill in fall color, while the second has a lake backed by a forested hill in fall color. They are both quite scenic, but water gives the view an extra boost.

T. J. Boyle Associates

T. J. Boyle Associates

 

T. J. Boyle Associates

T. J. Boyle Associates

You evaluate the negative impacts on scenic quality and how to mitigate those. What impacts on scenic beauty are you most often called in to deal with? What are the best ways to limit their impacts?

Now my work mostly deals with energy projects: wind, solar, and transmission lines. The most common ways to mitigate the visual impact of these projects are to hide them from view or reduce their visible contrast with the surroundings. This mostly involves contrasts in color, but also shape and texture. This is difficult to do with wind, so governments are exploring other ways to mitigate their impact on scenic assets, like fixing a blight somewhere else, or concentrating development in one area in return for protecting another area.

I cringe when I hear opposition groups call for less government, since only pro-active government planning will protect some landscapes as we fight to mitigate the worst impacts on scenery. Government planning is also needed to counteract the effects of climate change, but a great nation should be able to accomplish both goals.

What do you think of the new generation of digital billboards along highways?

They are terrible, but I am particularly worried about safety. They keep changing! Once, a glance gave you the message. Now there is a whole story to be followed. They are an attractive nuisance and should be banned from all roadways.

Digital Billboard in Tempe, Arizona / Scenic America

Digital Billboard in Tempe, Arizona / Scenic America

They offer the same potential for visual blight that billboards did originally. While one sign informing residents about community events may be acceptable, the cacophony of “free speech” simply destroys the sense of place valued by residents. There needs to be reasonable limits.

Nearly a decade ago you published a study on how to best reduce the negative impacts of clear-cutting on the natural beauty of forests. What were your main findings?

The White Mountain National Forest was interested in how size, intensity, and pattern of clear cut harvesting affected scenic value. A national forest is given an annual harvest target. The question is how best to meet that target: one very large clear cut, several modest clear cuts, many very small clear cuts, or selectively removing trees and not clear-cutting. It is important to understand that clear-cuts can be desirable because they create habitat that is important to wildlife that we value, like deer.

The study found that the most scenic views were those without any visibly-harvested areas. Scenic value took a big hit when they harvested 3 percent of the visible forest over a 25 year period. The next 3 percent further reduced scenic value, but not as much as that first 3 percent. Each additional increment of harvest intensity further reduces scenic value, until the point where 15 percent of the forest has been harvested—that was the sustainable-yield threshold.

As expected, large clear cuts reduce scenic quality, but the smallest clear cuts were almost as bad. It seems that 10 to 14 acres were the best sized openings for a given intensity of harvesting.

In another study, you examined residents’ perceptions of scenic quality in a town in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, finding that “more than half of the variation in scenic perceptions can be explained by spatial landscape metrics.” What does this mean?

Relatively simple landscape metrics of intrinsic attributes typically explain about half of our scenic perception. The presence of water almost always enhances scenic value. And natural-appearing areas, sometimes called “green space,” are generally preferred. People seem to prefer the interplay of land cover types—an open pasture bounded by a forested hill or a residential development integrated with a system of open spaces. This interplay is measured as edge density. Much of the variation in scenic value unexplained appears to be related to more social or personal factors.

The Cape Cod studies are interesting because they considered landscape perceptions of local residents over 20 years. One of the key findings was that though there were significant changes in the landscape and the population during this period, their perceptions of what made a scenic or not so scenic landscape remained pretty stable.

You have also said “it’s time to renew investigations of the link between visual landscape perceptions and our sense of well-being.” Where is this research today and where would you like it to go?

The visible landscape is linked to our perceptions of how well we think things are going. Landscape is the stage upon which we act out our lives. How our landscape looks informs us about what is appropriate to do in a particular place and time. For instance a street littered with trash and graffiti on the buildings might be considered as unsafe. When the trash and graffiti are removed and maybe some street plants are introduced, it is perceived as a place that is safer and being cared for.

Landscape also informs us of what is reasonably possible in the future. This is why the community visioning work of many landscape architecture firms and university programs is so important. Examples of organizations involved in this work are the Orton Family Foundation, the Dunn Foundation, and Scenic America.

My professional practice is primarily focused on scenic impact assessment, particularly of renewable energy projects. Here in New England, many people are upset by the introduction of commercial renewable energy projects into the rural landscape. But global climate change is going to have significant effects on this landscape, and many residents see commercial renewable energy projects as a positive change. All we really know right now is that they are often very visible.

It would be very helpful to decision makers if there was more scientific research about the general contribution of scenery or visual surroundings to the experience of all sorts of activities—commuting to work, casually looking out a window, as well as recreation activities like kayaking, hiking, or camping.

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East Lake Meadows public housing (pre-revitalization) / Atlanta Housing Authority

East Lake Meadows public housing (pre-revitalization) / Atlanta Housing Authority

East Lake (post-revitalization) / Atlanta Housing Authority

East Lake (post-revitalization) / Atlanta Housing Authority

“How can we create a culture of health?,” asked Dr. Donald Schwartz, a director at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, at GreenBuild 2015 in Washington, D.C. In the U.S., there isn’t a culture of health, Schwartz argued, just increasing investments in healthcare, which isn’t the same thing. Health is “socially and environmentally-derived,” while healthcare relates to hospitals, therapies, technologies, and costs. Our expensive healthcare-centric approach is no longer working. “In life expectancy rankings for developed Western countries, we rank 15th out of 17 countries.” It’s clear that further investments in healthcare aren’t going to solve the problem. Instead, what’s needed is a transformation of the built environment, so everyone can benefit from walkable neighborhoods and live in healthy, sustainable homes. A new culture of health can only come out of a healthy built environment.

Up until age 75, Americans actually have among the worst life expectancy among the developed world. “The other 16 developed Western countries offer far more opportunities to have a better life.” But if we make it to age 95, “we have the best life expectancy.” This is because “50 percent of our healthcare budget last year went to the last year of life.” By investing in hospitals and technologies for the very old, we created a high-cost healthcare system that benefits a “slim slice of life.”

The U.S. spends much more than other developed Western countries on healthcare, topping out at 17 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) or about $3 trillion per year. “The disparity with other countries is huge.” And with our expensive, inefficient system, we are getting poor results as well. One-third of children are overweight or obese. 75 percent of young adults aren’t eligible for military service due to lack of education or health problems. One-half of all deaths are linked to chronic diseases, which is much higher than in other developed countries.

Higher and higher healthcare costs can’t be the only way forward. “We have to redefine health as more than hospitals and ambulances.” Echoing the U.S. Surgeon General, who called for every community to be walkable, Schwartz said the way to build a new culture of health is to ensure every neighborhood encourages activity and health. A new approach to the built environment is critical, because, otherwise, “our children could end up living shorter lives than us.”

To improve health, Americans need to “change the context.” Schwartz pointed to a study in which the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) randomly moved 4,600 families in public housing, asking some to stay where they were in poor neighborhoods, and some to move to new neighborhoods without poverty. They found that after 3 years, the “mental health for those who moved improved, and, after 10-15 years, they had lower levels of obesity and diabetes.” The study showed that “people got healthier when they were moved out of poor neighborhoods, even though they didn’t get wealthier.” Following up 20 years later, the researchers found that the low-income “children who had been moved and grew up in areas without poverty had higher lifetime earnings. Just being in a good environment at an early age resulted in higher incomes later on.”

Schwartz cited a few other studies that show how place is fundamental to health. But the question then becomes: what is it about a place that’s healthy or not? Schwartz said higher level of educational attainment in a given neighborhood is an important determinant of health. The structure of neighborhoods has a major impact: Communities with mixed-use developments that encourage walking, access to transit, proximity to places for employment, places to buy healthy foods are healthier. And housing is key. Research shows that “healthier housing improves the health of children.”

To further test this, the foundation is financing an experiment in inner-city Baltimore with local health care providers to retrofit homes for children with asthma. The idea is to test whether improvements in housing reduce asthma rates and lower healthcare costs. But Schwartz believes this experiment will just confirm what we already know. The relationship between better homes and health been already been made clear in the East Lake Meadows public housing project in Atlanta, Georgia. There, decrepit public housing was torn down and replaced with sustainable, healthy homes. No one was displaced — tenants came back after the renovation. The result was that “crime went down and student performance and employment went up.” All of this happened with an investment less than $200 million. “The only thing that changed was the housing.”

But Schwartz also argued that while these one-off projects are great, what’s really needed is a deeper planning approach. For example, the New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut Regional Plan, which is a highly influential regional planning framework, now has a health chapter, in part due to the foundation’s work. This can lead to more widespread efforts to reshape the built environment in the region to make it more walkable, with more healthy homes. And RWJF is now funding Urban Land Institute’s Health Corridors program, which aims to retrofit the unhealthiest thoroughfares filled with big-box stores that offer no opportunities for walking and biking, and make them healthier for the people who live near them. “It’s about finding a real estate redevelopment strategy.”

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Center for Sustainable Landscapes, Phipps Conservancy, SITES 4-stars / Phipps Conservancy

Center for Sustainable Landscapes, Phipps Conservancy, SITES 4-stars / Phipps Conservancy

At the GreenBuild 2015 conference in Washington, D.C., Jamie Statter, vice president of strategic partnerships for the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and the Green Business Certification Inc (GBCI), its credentialing arm, announced that Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) certification is now available for landscape projects worldwide. Also, some form of SITES credential, a “SITES AP,” will become available at some point in the future. Speaking to landscape architects and designers, she said “you will be able to differentiate yourself as a SITES professional in the marketplace.”

SITES was developed over 10 years by the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), the Lady Bird Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and U.S. Botanic Garden. In the past few years, hundreds of projects sought certification under the SITES pilot program; 46 projects achieved some level of certification. In 2015, GBCI announced that it would acquire SITES and now certify projects under SITES v2. Already more than 15 projects, including two iconic international projects, have registered for certification under SITES, and many more are expected in coming months.

Statter said that “parks and green spaces are now more important than ever,” and they can only be improved through the use of SITES in their design, construction, and operations. She also thinks that SITES will be beneficial with mixed-use developments with a landscape component and parking lots.

SITES has a number of key goals: it will “help create regenerative systems and foster resiliency; mitigate climate change and increase future resource supply; transform the marketplace for landscape-related products and services; and improve human health and well-being.” Jose Alminana, FASLA, a principal at Andropogon Associates and a leader in the development of the SITES rating system, concurred, saying that SITES is a useful tool for helping clients and designers “stitch together systems to improve a landscape’s ability to absorb change.”

SITES is based on a different logic than LEED, GBCI’s rating system for buildings: its approach is based in living systems. He said once a building, which is a static system, has been created it begins to deteriorate. But once a landscape, an ever-evolving living system, has been installed, it only begins to take off. “Landscapes can be regenerative.”

Given landscape architects and designers must not only design for people but also all sorts of other wildlife, a system-based approach is critical. “There are forms of life that have co-developed together. With landscapes, it’s not a set of individual elements. You can’t have plants without soils.”

SITES can also have broader impacts on the design process and marketplace. Statter said “projects will now need integrated design teams from the get-go. SITES is a tool for involving landscape architects and designers much earlier on in the design process.”

Alminana added that SITES will only increase the “transactional power” of landscape architects and designers. With SITES, they will now know the “carbon impact of all the materials they source. They can then demand that things are done in a low-carbon way.”

And once the U.S. and other countries move to a regulatory environment that taxes carbon, “landscapes will become invaluable.” When carbon becomes money, “it will be critical to actually monitor the systems in our landscapes.”

U.S. and international landscape architects and designers are encouraged to seek certification for their projects. SITES v2 uses LEED’s four-level certification system: certified, silver, gold, platinum. The rating system is free and the reference guide is available for a fee. Alminana said the “reference guide took over 10 years to develop. Everyone should get one and have fun with it.”

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Landscape attributes / MaryCarol Hunter

Landscape attributes / MaryCarol Hunter

“We know that exposure to nature enhances our well-being, but we know less about the specific features that create these positive effects,” said MaryCarol Hunter, ASLA, University of Michigan, at the ASLA 2015 Annual Meeting in Chicago. A set of fascinating studies by Hunter and Marc Berman, a psychologist and neuroscientist at the University of Chicago, are beginning to converge on what those feature are. The goal is to translate knowledge of these features into design guidelines landscape architects and other designers can apply. All of this research is happening under the rubric of the TKF Foundation, which has invested millions over the past two decades creating more than 130 small, healing parks and financing research studies on the health benefits of green spaces in dense, urban areas. The TKF Foundation wants to know: with increasingly limited space in cities for green space, how can we have the biggest impact?

Humans evolved in wild lands, but we mostly live in urban environments now. While we inherently connect with our ancestral landscapes, we are constantly exposed to cacophonous city life. Wild landscapes can’t be fully translated into urban environments, but “some elements can be transported to downtowns. We can get close to the effects of wild places,” said Hunter.

Exposure to Nature Improves Our Sense of Well-being and Ability to Focus 

First, we should look at some of the research Hunter and Berman are conducting to demonstrate the health benefits of nature. Hunter and her collaborators from many fields created a mobile-phone app that study subjects used to record their responses to nature and also photograph scenes of nature they connected with. This experiment is detailed in an earlier post, but the key finding so far is that just a 10 minute exposure to nature 2-3 times per week was “sufficient to produce restoration benefits.” Furthermore, subjects were most likely to experience the effect of this “nature pill” in a small urban park or residential yard instead of a large park. The findings from those using the app were confirmed by cortisol and saliva samples taken to measure the physiological effects of stress.

Marc Berman then described his own research at the University of Chicago. In one experiment, a set of subjects were asked to take a 2.5 mile walk, which took about 50 minutes, through a dense urban environment, and another set were asked to take another 2.5 mile walk through an arboretum. Subjects taking either path converged on a lab at the University of Chicago where they were put through the stressful “backward digit span” test of working memory, which Berman uses to measure capacity to concentrate or focus. The test involves reciting back a set of numbers in reverse. As number strings become longer, it becomes more mentally taxing to recite them backwards. Berman found that subjects who walked through the arboretum had a 20 percent improvement in working memory. A further study that showed subjects either photos of urban areas or nature scenes had a similar effect.

Elements of Nature that Boost Health Benefits 

Hunter and Berman both seek to zoom in on the specific elements of nature that create a sense of well-being and improve the ability to concentrate. But there are so many outstanding questions. Just consider the question: “why do trees have a beneficial effect?” Berman said possible answers could be: “they make places beautiful so we want to go out and exercise; they clean the air; they help us reach resting attention rates; or perhaps all of the above.” Now think of all the other elements of nature that need to be isolated and considered.

Still, Berman suspects that the effect of nature has something to do with the “soft fascination” it creates for us. “Nature captures our attention but not all of our attention. We can watch a waterfall, but our minds can wander and we can think about other things. In contrast, in Times Square, New York City, our minds can’t wander. There, we can’t daydream.”

Berman is creating a taxonomy of natural and urban image elements, coding them by brightness and color value, saturation, hue, and then calculating the standard deviation of these elements. He’s also analyzing the images’ “grey scale entropy,” removing all the color and just looking at the complexity of the content in the images. He said that “images of nature are more complex and therefore have a higher grey scale entropy.” He’s also evaluating images based on whether they have curved or straight edges. “Color, structure, and their interactions all matter.” Running all this data through an algorithm, Berman says he can predict “how natural we think a scene is. These preferences can be measured with 80-90 percent accuracy.”

Berman’s algorithm tells him that color has less of an effect on our perceptions of naturalness than whether there are straight or hard edges. This means that designers of all kinds can “mimic the edge-making of nature” and have some beneficial effect.

Hunter is doing her own taxonomy, too, because her goal is to “bring science into landscape architecture.” She is pulling the physical landscape attributes out of the photographs collected through her app study, categorizing them based on “naturalness, complexity, structural coherence, form, proportion, openness, access, safety, and engagement.”

While her analysis is ongoing and the full design guidelines aren’t ready yet, Hunter found through her research that “vibrancy” is something to maximize whenever possible. She defined vibrancy as “the interaction between the sky and the surface water or waxes of foliage, which creates a sparkle effect that engenders soft fascination.”

Maximizing vibrancy / MaryCarol Hunter

Maximizing vibrancy / MaryCarol Hunter

And framing — in which an object near the viewer partially obscures and also reveals what’s beyond — also creates a sense of safety and continuity and is a design element that should be incorporated in landscape architecture.

Example of framing / MaryCarol Hunter

Example of framing / MaryCarol Hunter

The Long View 

But these are really just starting points, as the full design guidelines are still forthcoming. And Hunter said there are many others also involved in this research, with some looking at the role sound plays in the health benefits of nature. An audience member wondered when they would look at tactile elements of nature and smell. Hunter said they were starting first with visual components but the goal is to broaden the reach to other senses.

Jay Graham, FASLA, Graham Landscape Architecture, and long-time adviser to the TKF Foundation, said their efforts will show how “scientific research can lead to more successful sanctuaries.” All the research — which also includes a study by Roger Ulrich of a healing garden created by Brian Bainnson, ASLA, at Legacy Emanuel Hospital in Portland, and another of a healing pathway by Jack Sullivan, FASLA, University of Maryland at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. — is due in 2018. Then, the TKF Foundation will promote these findings to the media, policymakers, and the broader public.

As Graham explained, the TKF Foundation seeks to educate the public about why small urban green spaces are important, because according to their internal research, “the public doesn’t comprehend the health benefits of nature.” Landscape architects then play a leading role, given they “bring nature into cities, and create spaces that show people the transformational effects.” The idea is if lots more of these evidence-based urban green spaces are created and the benefits of them are made clear through research, the public will demand even more of them.

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The Xixi Wetland Estate in Hangzhou is the latest housing project by David Chipperfield in China / Simon Menges, Wallpaper.com

The Xixi Wetland Estate in Hangzhou is the latest housing project by David Chipperfield in China / Simon Menges, Wallpaper.com

The Spiritual and Spectacular Meet at an Ultramodern Community Center in Connecticut The New York Times, 10/16/15
“A group of friends and neighbors thought that this area could use a new community center with a spiritual underpinning. So they built one. But Grace Farms, as the project is called, will never be mistaken for a modest Amish barn-raising. In this corner of Connecticut, budgets are less tight than elsewhere.”

Wild Gardens That Grew Out From WashingtonThe Washington Post, 10/19/15
“Washington doesn’t export a lot of aesthetic ideas, and the exceptions only prove the rule. Yes, the city can lay claim to the Washington Color School, more than a half-century ago, but that always feels a bit like the region’s claim to culinary fame, the crab cake: predictable, ubiquitous and uninspiring.”

Putting the Wilderness Back in Houston Arboretum The Houston Chronicle, 10/26/15
“The incessant hum of Loop 610 traffic permeates the western edge of the Houston Arboretum & Nature Center, like waves crashing on a beach. Just 75 feet from the state’s busiest freeway, rabbits scamper through the underbrush, purple beautyberries cling to the drooping canes of bright green plants and a dry, woodsy scent hangs in the air.”

Verdant Village: David Chipperfield Completes the Xixi Wetland Estate Wallpaper, 10/26/15
“For two thousand years, Hangzhou has been celebrated for its incomparable tableau of unruffled lakes at the foot of green hills, and ancient waterways lined with gardens, temples, and graceful buildings designed by a succession of dynasties enamored with the landscape.”

Landscape OperationsThe Architect’s Newspaper, 10/27/15
“An ongoing debate resurfaced at the Chicago Architecture Biennial. One critic in particular, Patrik Schumacher of Zaha Hadid Architects, criticized the curators, saying that it seems that “contemporary architecture [has] ceased to exist, the discipline’s guilt and bad conscience has sapped its vitality, and driven it to self-annihilation.”

America’s Green Giant The New York Review of Books, 11/15
“The nearly universal acclaim that greeted the High Line—the linear greenway built between 2006 and 2014 atop an abandoned elevated railway trestle on Manhattan’s lower west side—reconfirmed the transformative effect parks can have on the quality of urban life.”

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