Archive for the ‘Health + Design’ Category

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 healthcare-centric approach is no longer working. “In life expectancy rankings for developed Western countries, we rank 15th out of 17 countries.” So it’s clear that further investments in healthcare aren’t going to solve the problem. What’s needed instead 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 get healthier, 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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Steven Nygren / Serenbe

Steven Nygren / Serenbe

Steven Nygren is the founder of Serenbe, which has won numerous awards, including the Urban Land Institute Inaugural Sustainability Award, the Atlanta Regional Commission Development of Excellence, and EarthCraft’s Development of the Year.

You founded Serenbe, a 1,000-acre community in the city of Chattahoochee Hills, which is 30 miles southwest of Atlanta, Georgia. In Serenbe, there are dense, walkable clusters of homes, shops, and businesses, even artists’ studios, modeled like English villages set within 40,000 acres of forest you helped protect. Can you briefly tell me the story of this community? What motivated you to create it?

It was a reaction. We purchased 60 acres in a historic farm in 1991 just on a weekend whim while on a drive to show our children farm animals. It seemed like a good investment. I wasn’t sure why we were doing it other than my wife and three daughters thought it was a great idea. To my amazement, every Friday when I got home, everyone was anxious to leave our big house with the pool, the media room, and all of the trappings, to go out to the country. Watching the difference in the children and our own family on those weekend times, I decided after three years to sell the company, sell the big house, and retreat to this rural area, right on the edge of Atlanta.

Seven years later, on a jog, a bulldozer was bulldozing the forest next to us. At that point, we owned 300 acres. We were fearful that the threat of development was coming. It turns out they were clearing it for a small runway for one of the neighbors. But that set me on the path of thinking what could happen.

At dinner one night when I shared my concerns with Ray Anderson, the founder of Interface Inc, who had been a good friend, he said, “Let’s bring the thought leaders in to talk about this.” So in September 2000, 24 people invited actually showed up — because of who Ray was — for a two-day conversation facilitated by the Rocky Mountain Institute, documented by Georgia Tech. At that point, I went into the session interested in how we could protect our own backyard, but I came out with an understanding of how serious the issues are. And you realize in September 2000, the first LEED building hadn’t been certified.

A lot of the things we take for granted today were way-over-the-edge thinking just a decade and-a-half ago. We began looking at what could be done. We decided that most models ended up being magnets for what they were trying to change. We set about to bring land owners together in a 40,000 acre area.

How did you and the other members of the Chattahoochee Hill Country Alliance achieve buy-in from local planners and policymakers to create Serenbe and the broader Chattahoochee Hill Country Community Plan, which protect 40,000 acres of nature from Atlanta’s ever-engulfing sprawl?

We realized we needed to create a larger vision than just buying land and trying to create a model. We brought everyone together over food. We invited the largest land owners to dinner, and after several cases of wine and several good dinners in our home, we thought we had buy-in. Next, we expanded the ring to get buy-in from owners representing 51 percent of the land.

That meeting would have reminded you of the worst zoning meeting you’ve ever sat through. Within an hour and-a-half, we had people calling each other names, even neighbors who had known each other through generations. So I realized that it was a much bigger issue. Half of the people who inherited land wanted the bulldozers to come because this meant payday, and the other half didn’t want the land touched. It was between the land speculators and us, who had found this paradise.

We put together some more research. I first reached out to a community leader who was also a property rights advocate to get agreement to come to another meeting. About ten minutes into the call, he said, “are we going to have that peach cobbler?” And so my wife kept baking and cooking and we kept calling meetings. Then, that proceeded into a public process with all the landowners, over 500. It was a two-year process. By late 2002, we passed the largest land use plan in recent history in metropolitan Atlanta, with 80 percent of the landowners paying dues into the organization we formed, with not one word of opposition. It was quite remarkable.

There has been a long history of utopian agricultural communities. Early communities in the U.S. and Europe came together for ideological reasons. They were anarchists seeking self-sufficiency, proto-communists or socialists seeking to bring social reform to serfs, and others farming to just improve human health and well-being. Some of the early communities in turn influenced Ebenezer Howard, who created his Garden City movement right before the turn of the 20th century. Where do you and Serenbe fit into this rich history?

When you look over time, you’ll see there has been a constant tension between rural and urban. But also each of these movements have responded to the issues of their time.

Serenbe certainly represents a turning point to counter Atlanta’s sprawl, which is terrible. Marie and I were urban people who believed we should develop where infrastructure exists. But at the point we got involved a decade and-a-half ago, over 70 percent of the development continued to be in greenfields. There were no good models.

Serenbe deals with the issues of our time: how do we create communities that connect urban and rural, the city and agriculture? I would like to think that history will look at Serenbe as part of a movement that returns development to responsible uses of resources in a balanced way.

The Serenbe community has a unique layout, with “serpentine omega forms.” What ideas guided the plan?

Phil Tabb worked with us as a consultant. He did his doctorate on the English village system and was also trained as a sacred geometrist through Keith Critchlow. We wanted to achieve a complete balance, very much what biomimicry pioneer Janine Benyus talks about. In nature, everything is balanced. But as developers, we don’t always respond to nature in a real way.

When Phil and I first started walking the land to understand the assets and restraints, we talked about the ridges for house clusters. We were thinking about the hill towns of Italy, where we both visited. Then when we came together for our first two-day design charrette. It became obvious that we wanted to save those ridges for public natural access. We could locate the density and the housing in the valleys, which brings you down. If you come into the valleys, you come by the streams. To really work with the streams, it became an omega — you had one crossing with the housing on each side of the stream. The omegas really emerged through our understanding of the land. The land spoke to us and and we saw where we could locate buildings with the least disturbance, and yet, really bring the land to life. At Serenbe, houses are nestled around the water, with this wonderful little stream down through the center. All the ridges have community paths.

Serenbe masterplan / Serenbe

Serenbe masterplan / Serenbe

Various movements claim Serenbe. We relate to each of these movements, such as the New Urbanists, the farm-to-table movement, the environmental movement. We are all of these things but we’re much more than any one of them. One of the areas where we differ with the New Urbanists is the grid. Our grid is pedestrian, not vehicular. There is a complete grid for pedestrians going across the streams and omegas, but our streets wander. We were really in the forefront of the movement to get people out walking, because at Serenbe you can usually walk to places in half the time that the road will take you around here.

In an interview with the journal Terrain, Ed McMahon, a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute, said “agriculture is the new golf.” The new desirable amenity is a well-maintained farm. The benefits of a community farm are food production, new revenue, and even tax breaks for preserving farmland. How do the residents of Serenbe pay for its 25-acre farm? How is the farm maintained?

When we started Serenbe, you really didn’t see farms integrated into a community. Ed was one of the early people that I turned to. The Urban Land Institute (ULI) had just released a study that said 92 percent of the people who bought golf course lots — at that premium bankers adore — played golf less than twice a year. They were buying the green space, the open space.

When I was trying to fund Serenbe, I would talk to the bankers, and say, “OK, if that’s true, wouldn’t people pay the same premium if not more to back up to a farm or a pasture?” There were no statistics to show that, so the financial community wouldn’t fund the development. The real estate community was dubious. So was Andres Duany, who didn’t think people would live that close to smelly farms. We are delighted that he is now a big supporter of this movement.

We were really pushing this idea of agricultural integration. We realized a lot of the negatives that “big ag” farms have. But a small organic farm is charming. We really pushed forward with these ideas, even though our land had been stripped of nutrients through the cotton monoculture, so it didn’t look like it could produce. Everyone said, “You’re nuts. You’re crazy.” But it seemed like such a core thing: if we were going to create a balanced, sustainable community, food was one of the critical things, along with energy and water.

Serenbe aerial view / Serenbe

Serenbe aerial view / Serenbe

Now, we operate Serenbe Farms as a teaching farm. I had initially decided we would be self-sustainable in five years. It was self-sustainable in three years. We 25 acres set aside and about half of that is under active cultivation, with cover crops on the other half. The farm supplies our three restaurants. We have a great CSA program for people outside Serenbe. There’s a farmer’s market on Saturdays.

We have a farmer hired on a base salary, and then they get a profit based on what they make. We have an intern house with four interns. The farmer makes a very nice salary and it’s profitable, and educational. So we’re growing farmers as well as crops.

Serenbe organic farm / Serenbe

Serenbe organic farm / Serenbe

Is a model like Serenbe only for the relatively well-off? Can you conceive of this model working for middle or working class communities?

Our model is essential for lower income groups. One of the critical problems in our educational system is that we’re not teaching people how to grow and prepare their own foods. It should be one of the basics of the education system and it’s just not. It takes very little land to grow all the foods you need for a family.

We’ve been able to demonstrate at Serenbe that with five acres, one member of a couple both working and paying for daycare can leave the workforce as we know it and actually tend the farm. That couple can have a higher quality of life. It’s essential thing that we have farmers in smaller lots growing local food.

Now, let’s talk about the labels organic and local. We’ve had to label these things because we’ve gotten so far away from the basics of 50 to 60 years ago. Then, we didn’t have organics, we had good nutrients. That’s what we have to get back to.

With our CSA program, a family of four can have all the vegetables they need for a week in the key growing seasons. How much does that cost a day? $4.80. That’s affordable. So this idea that fresh fruits and vegetables are not affordable is crazy.

Wholesome Wave is a fabulous program. Michel Nischan started five or six years ago. It’s one of the few programs that received increased funding in the recent Farm Bill by both Republicans and Democrats. For every dollar raised, the Farm Bill matches it by a dollar fifty. It’s for anyone on SNAP programs. If lower income folks are getting food assistance, they can turn $20 of credit into $50 dollars of fresh fruits and vegetables from a local farmer. This is stimulating the local agrarian economy, and getting fresh food into homes.

In Serenbe, sustainable homes are set close together in New Urbanist arrangements. The organic farm stores carbon. Water conservation is enabled through water-efficient appliances and green infrastructure. Waste water is treated through a natural system designed by landscape architects with Reed Hilderbrand. Yet, most of the 400 residents of your community drive to work in Atlanta, and the thousands of visitors you get each year also drive there. How does this balance out in terms of overall sustainability?

Serenbe development street / Serenbe

Serenbe development street / Serenbe


Serenbe's natural wastewater treatment system by Reed Hilderbrand / Serenbe

Serenbe’s natural wastewater treatment system by Reed Hilderbrand / Serenbe

The perceptions that everyone is driving out to work is mistaken. A recent survey we did showed that 70 percent of the people living at Serenbe worked all or part-time at home. We have moved away from the time when everyone arrives at a desk at 9 and leaves at 5. For some of our residents, the airport is their key means of transportation; they’re consultants or what have you.

We did also a survey asking if people drove more or less since moving to Serenbe. We found we’re just right on the edge of the same trends. When they lived in the city, everything seemed convenient, and so they were constantly going out for trips. In Serenbe, they’re more organized and they really don’t leave as much. With Amazon and so much e-commerce, we can live in a different way.

We are also creating jobs in our shops, restaurants, and other service sectors. People who already lived in the area around Serenbe were traveling great distances for jobs. We have created this entire local job force for people who are already living nearby. If you look at the net, we’re probably cutting down on trips.

The New York Times recently wrote about the country-wide growth of communities like Serenbe, which they call “agrihoods.” How can you explain their growth? But, also, given these communities are still far from mainstream, how do you explain their still limited appeal?

I believe that all trends begin and then grow. There is no way to walk through a threshold from no appeal to total appeal. When we put our first development in just 11 years ago, the idea of farming in a new community just didn’t exist. The fact that it’s even in the conversation a decade later means there’s a lot happening. But this is not a model in which the majority of Americans can live. That just isn’t feasible.

The broader movement that needs to happen is finding an authentic way to bring more food sources into our mainstream developments. At Serenbe, the crosswalks all have blueberry bushes.

Serenbe edible landscape / Serenbe

Serenbe edible landscape / Serenbe

Why shouldn’t that be happening in any urban area? Where we’re sitting here in Austin, why are these pots filled with ornamental plants that have no meaning? Why aren’t they full of herbs or something the kitchen can use? Our movement can help edibles integrate into our typical landscapes.

Finally, there’s an understanding that we need to daylight more of our stormwater. Wouldn’t it be incredible if all of our urban areas had these veins of bio-retention to capture our stormwater and beside those systems were edible landscapes? This is where I want to see us moving to.

The agrihood idea is the beginning of waking people up to the benefits of having food near where you live, but let’s integrate those ideas into mainstream communities.

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Redd on Salmon Street / Ecotrust

Redd on Salmon Street / Ecotrust

“Our agricultural system is broken,” said Nathan Kadish, managing director of Ecotrust Capital Partners, at SXSW Eco in Austin, Texas. Industrial farms today emit huge quantities of methane and carbon, use vast amounts of water, and are major sources of chemical runoff. To help fix the system, local producers who are committed to sustainable practices need to be given the opportunity to scale up and sell to the institutional food buyers that have multi-billion dollar annual budgets. Ecotrust, a well-known environmental non-profit based in Portland, aims to help those farmers with their ambitious Redd on Salmon Street project, expected to open in Portland in 2016. The project, which won SXSW’s Place by Design resilience competition, is being designed and built by OPSIS, Green Gables architecture, Base landscape architecture, and Walsh Construction Company.

As Ecotrust explains: “Portland is an international mecca for vibrant, seasonal food and artisan producers. But too often, developing food producers can’t move beyond niche products sold at high costs (to offset high distribution cost), afforded by only a small segment of the local community. The Redd will serve ‘ag in the middle,’ mid-size rural farmers, ranchers, and fishers who have outgrown direct-to-consumer channels, such as CSAs and farmers’ markets, and are looking to scale their business. The Redd will increase access to value-added producers, markets, and infrastructure (like warehousing, aggregation and distribution), a lack of which inhibits growth.”

The new Redd on Salmon Street will consist of a square-block 80,000-square-feet food production and distribution facility in the Central Eastside neighborhood of Portland. They are rehabilitating two buildings with the highest levels of sustainable design: the Marble, a former distribution hub, and the Foundry, an iron works plant from the early 20th century. During the design charrette, Kadish said, the EcoTrust team met with food buyers, farmers, ranchers, fisherman, and architects in order to design the space to offer lots of open space, but also a set of large and small agricultural facilities.

Redd on Salmon Street / Ecotrust Vimeo

Redd on Salmon Street / Ecotrust Vimeo

Some details from their website: “With over 20,000 square feet of warehouse space, the Marble building will serve as a cold storage, aggregation, packaging, and distribution center for the Redd, and also includes over 6,000 square feet of prime storefront and studio space for retail and ancillary businesses. Plans for the Foundry restoration include 16,000 square feet of food production space, including USDA-certified meat processing facilities and specially-equipped facilities for value-added grain production. In addition, eight smaller spaces are under design for small-scale on-site food production.”

Redd on Salmon Street / Ecotrust

Redd on Salmon Street / Ecotrust

As Kadish explained, Ecotrust wants to create a set of working spaces that can help create a “symbiotic ecosystem” with all the players involved, but with a focus on serving the needs of the institutional buyers, which serve hospitals and schools. “Redd will be demand-side driven, as opposed to a rural farm-side aggregator.” Already, the Northwest Food Buyers Alliance has been formed and gotten on board. Together, these food buyers provide 125,000 meals a day.

Kadish thinks the new agricultural campus will eventually employ 400 people, with 200 new jobs. The ripple effects in the broader agricultural economy could of course be much greater. And if Ecotrust succeeds, hopefully Redd will serve as a model to help other small-scale farmers move up the ladder.

A few other Place by Design competition finalists are worth noting: The Center for Sustainable Landscapes at Phipps Conservancy and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is one of the greenest buildings in the world, and one of the few to achieve LEED Platinum, the Living Building Challenge, and SITES 4-star certifications. Landscape architecture firm Andropogon Associates along with other designers participated in a two-year integrated design process to achieve this high standard.

In Beirut, Lebanon, local architect Adib Dada and his team are banding together with non-profits to create a plan for restoring the degraded Beirut River. Dada plans to use “biomimicry at the systems scale” with a set of green and “blue” streets, sponge parks, and green roofs to restore the river ecosystem to health.

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Proposal for the existing MPath near Brickell Backyard in Miami / James Corner Field Operations

Proposal for the existing MPath near Brickell Backyard in Miami / James Corner Field Operations

While the High Line sparked an international conversation about how to reuse elevated transportation infrastructure in our cities, planners and designers have become increasingly focused on what lies beneath these elevated highways, subway tracks, and rail lines. Across the U.S., cities are rethinking these residual spaces, which have long been underused and neglected. The Underline in Miami, Florida is one such project that seeks to transform the area beneath one of the city’s major elevated transportation systems: the MetroRail. Following a national design competition, James Corner Field Operations, the same firm that designed the High Line, was selected to transform the underused space into “the green spine for a future 250-mile-long network of bicycle and walking trails.”

Beating out 19 other firms in a competition held by Friends of the Underline, Field Operation’s design for the first segment of the Underline, which will be 10 miles long, will be the first transportation corridor in Miami-Dade County to integrate all modes of traffic. According to Friends of the Underline, “the Underline will connect to downtown and the Miami River Greenway on the north and to the proposed Ludlam Trail and the existing South Dade Trail on the south.”

Map of the proposed underline, with other existing and proposed trails / Friends of the Underline

Map of the proposed underline, with other existing and proposed trails / Friends of the Underline

In a public meeting on June 25, Corner identified four “character” zones that will be designed along the length of The Underline. “In the Brickell area, residents were focused on nature and play; in the Grove area, residents were interested in arts and crafts and cultural incubators; around the University of Miami, there was a focus on green tech and sustainability initiatives; and around South Miami and Dadeland, residents favored active recreation and health and fitness.”

Each of these zones will have specific “places” related to the interests of each group of residents. For example, underserved communities in Dadeland that don’t have access to parks for active recreation will get playing fields, playgrounds, and exercise areas within their zone of the Underline.

Rendering of the proposed Dadeland Trail Connection / James Corner Field Operations

Rendering of the proposed Dadeland Trail Connection / James Corner Field Operations

The Underline will also connect these different communities by making improvements that will attract them to the MPath, an off-road shared path for bikers and pedestrians that currently runs beneath the rail line. According to Isabel Castilla, a project manager at Field Operations, the new design plan calls for two adjacent paths: one dedicated for cycling and one for running and walking.

The plan aims to increase pedestrian and bicyclist safety along the MPath as well. According to Friends of the Underline, one of the biggest concerns when pursuing the project was user safety. “Currently the MPath, the bike path underneath MetroRail, has limited lighting or amenities, and needs wider and safer crosswalks. All of these, and other safety issues, are being addressed,” their website says.

Throughout the space, which will create more that one hundred acres of open space and restored natural habitats, existing vegetation will be used where possible. Elsewhere, Field Operations plans to use historically-occurring plants that will decrease the need for maintenance and minimize water usage, as the firm did on the High Line. “We envision a lot of native plantings that will only grow in a robust way and will bring other species with them, like birds and butterflies,” James Corner said in a video interview. These plantings will be divided into different ecosystems found throughout South Florida, such as pine rocklands, hardwood hammocks, and wet prairies.

The proposed Hammock Trail portion of the underline will feature species native to the Brickell hammock / James Corner Field Operations

The proposed Hammock Trail portion of the underline will feature species native to the Brickell hammock / James Corner Field Operations

Corner also discussed other proposed design elements  which focus on creating an experience that is “consistent, and unified and wholesome.” For example, Field Operations may decide to use “the distinctive graphic ‘U’ in The Underline logo … in the design of seating, trash receptacles, bike parking, etc.”

As part of a commitment to provide “a 10-mile canvas for artistic expression,” Friends of the Underline plans to allow public art on the existing MetroRail infrastructure. The project recently received a $200,000 grant from ArtPlace America’s 2015 national grant program, which will go toward public art installations created by recognized national and Miami-based artists. “The artwork along The Underline will reflect the unique characteristics of the major neighborhoods along the corridor,” said Meg Daly, founder of Friends of The Underline.

The proposed Grove Gallery, near the Coconut Grove Metrorail Station, will feature public art / James Corner Field Operations

The proposed Grove Gallery, near the Coconut Grove Metrorail Station, will feature public art / James Corner Field Operations

The masterplan for the project will be completed later this month. After approvals from various agencies, construction will begin on the two demonstration projects, first at Brickell in the fall of 2016 and then at University in 2017.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Institute for Forestry and Nature Research by Behnisch Architekten in the Netherlands / esb8fj.wordpress.com

Landscape architects are increasingly called upon to address the challenges of changing economic, demographic, and environmental conditions, all of which have a significant effect on the character and distribution of public health problems. One need look no further than this blog or ASLA’s guide to the health benefits of nature to grasp how the potential for using nature to improve our health excites both designers and academics alike. A recent article in The Dirt, What Dose of Nature Do We Need to Feel Better?, covered new research on the health benefits of nature and spurs me to write a comment about how we measure anyone’s responses to a “dose” of nature.

I work in public health research and focus on the contribution of biophilic design to human health and well-being. Biophilia is a term elevated by famed evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson. He defined it as an innate emotional attachment to and affinity for nature, and the design community has transformed that insight into an approach called biophilic design. In both indoor and outdoor environments, biophilic design is thought to support health and well-being through the use of natural features, materials, and settings that tap into deep-seated evolutionary preferences.

Through my work, I field questions from essentially three descending geological strata: The “leaf litter,” if you will, are the questions characterized by idle curiosity, such as: “I know intuitively that I feel better in natural environments, but what can research tell me about why?” The next layer of questions graduates to more granular humus and minerals: “What types of landscapes and specific design features support the range of outcomes (productivity, health, and well-being) that I see cited in the popular press?” But the bedrock questions relate to mechanisms (what constellation of design features work, for whom, and under what circumstances) and metrics of assessment (which biomarkers over what interval credibly link landscape exposure to desirable behavioral, psychological, and physiological responses?). These are the methods used to assess any other public health intervention at a population scale and, increasingly, they are applied to natural or “green” environments as well.

Careful readers ask questions of anything upheld as evidence-based or “true.” Most studies relating to the health benefits of nature don’t provide enough detail about landscape features and participants to delve too far beyond the leaf litter. Often, it’s as if the participants arrive in a green space as a blank slate, without the etchings of a lifetime of learning or even the residual dustings of the morning’s events. Large, statistically-significant populations can help us rise above individual differences in dose-response studies, but we are still missing many critical insights that might, in the future, allow us to tailor recommendations for healthy environments to individuals.

Popular interest in the use of biophilic design to bring nature, and natural design cues, into the built environment also introduces interesting bedrock questions about the affect of indoor priming on our responses to outdoor environments. Priming happens when we are exposed to a stimulus and that initial exposure colors our responses to subsequent stimuli. The effect of indoor environments on priming restoration isn’t well understood.

By way of example, a 2010 meta-analysis produced by Jo Barton and Jules Pretty looked at the benefits of exercise in green settings. They found that participants in research studies derived notable benefits from a relatively short period of exercise in nature, with diminishing but positive returns thereafter. Put another way, short exposures to green spaces — perhaps as small as 40 seconds, as detailed in a recent study of viewing green roofs from Australia — capitalize on the shift between where you’ve just come from and where you are. Our bodies and psyches adjust to exposure, just as they should, although the benefits continue to accrue after (what is essentially) neurobiological acclimatization.

Visions of healthier, more sustainable futures often include the use of biophilic design to bring the outside inside, softening the upwards of 90 percent of time we spend indoors. How then will our neurobiological resting states – and the conditions that provoke short-term restoration – shift? Is the research participant who steps out of a biophilic building effectively primed differently than the one who steps out of a more conventional office setting? If so, should the structure of nearby restorative landscapes change in response to the levels of biophilic design found in abutting buildings in order to reliably produce a restorative response?

It’s unclear if the future of health research even holds space for questions which are, effectively, not essential to human survival. If we allow ourselves the luxury to consider optimizing landscape design for human health and well-being, however, I believe we should pay more attention to the transitional spaces and mind states that often set the tenor of experience: the doorway, the window, the moment at which a vista assembles itself into an intelligible and pleasing frame.

Where we come from matters and, if we’re thoughtful about where we’ve just been, it will also change where we’re about to go.

This guest post is by Julia Kane Africa, program leader, Center for Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

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At a press conference to launch a new campaign for walkable communities, the U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said only half of Americans get enough physical activity to reduce their risk of heart disease and diabetes. Adults need 22 minutes of moderate activity each day, or about 150 minutes a week, at a minimum. But as mainstream health researchers and medical professionals are now realizing, half of the U.S. population may not be walking because they live in communities that actually physically prevent them from doing this. Over 30 percent of American communities can be considered unwalkable. And in these places, walking is not only a hassle — given it requires people to actually drive or take a bus to where they can get out and walk around — but it can also be dangerous. In 2013 alone, 4,700 pedestrians lost their lives due to collisions with cars, and since 2003, nearly 50,000 have.

Murthy explained that Americans have “lost the culture of physical activity.” This has led to a health crisis. Indeed, according to the National Institute of Health, two-thirds of Americans are now considered overweight, with one-third considered obese. About 5 percent of the population is considered morbidly obese. But for Murthy, this cultural shift away from physical activity is directly connected with the growing dearth of walkable places. And it’s particularly bad for seniors, people of color, and people with disabilities, who disproportionately live in unwalkable areas. “That’s a health equity issue, too.”

Furthermore, 7 out of 10 Americans die from preventable chronic diseases like diabetes, cancer, obesity, and heart disease. He added, “it turns out the most powerful way we can turn the tide on chronic disease is something we have been doing for millennia: That is walking.” He pointed to the public health department of a community in Indian River, Florida, that undertook an audit of the community’s streets and then completely revamped them to become walkable, complete streets. “95 percent of residents now spend time walking outside.”

And it’s not just about walking, but also rolling. Murthy called for all communities to be fully wheelchair accessible. As the wheelchair-bound Maryland state official Juliette Rizzo explained, “50 percent of Americans with disabilities don’t get enough exercise. And adults with disabilities are three times as likely to have chronic diseases.” For Rizzo, there are not many places where she can go exercise, and these kinds of gyms are expensive. “But rocking and rolling are always affordable.” Rizzo disabused people of the notion that people just sitting in their wheelchairs aren’t exercising as well. As she navigates a path, she herself is moving and shifting her body, pumping her arms.

Others lent their support at the press conference: Tyler Norris with Kaiser Permanente, a major healthcare provider, said their doctors now “prescribe walking.” He urged communities to leverage both public and private investments to create the infrastructure needed for walking and wheelchair rolling. Norris added that “walking is a right, not a privilege or luxury. All must be able to walk in their communities, and that means all.”

Carlos Monje, assistant secretary for transportation policy with the U.S. Department of Transportation, said the Highway Administration has created “more flexible” mobility standards that will enable local communities to better fund their sidewalk improvement projects. He said the U.S. Congress is still debating the massive surface transportation bill, with its important “transportation alternatives” programs, which is Congressional-speak for projects with sidewalks and bike lanes, and urged people to contact their representative to push for safer, more walkable streets.

And Kathy Smith, CEO of America Walks, said over 500 organizations across the country are doing important bottom-up work to make communities more walkable, often with annual budgets of less than $10,000. And some of these organizations encourage specific segments of the population to walk more. One example is GirlTrek, which builds support for walking as a healing process among African American women and girls. As GirlTrek co-founder Vanessa Criglar stated at the event, “African American girls in particular face barriers to walking.”

Murthy is following the lead of environmental health leader Dr. Richard Jackson, who has written many books and produced a PBS series to bring attention to the disconnect between public health goals and the built environment. It’s just too bad that the organizers of this important event at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services didn’t invite any representatives from the wide ranging fields involved in planning, designing, and implementing a safe, healthy transportation system. While we certainly applaud Surgeon General Murthy’s new campaign, the press conference featured many doctors, even representatives from the council of shopping malls, but not a single representative from the urban planning, development, landscape architecture, and transportation engineering fields, which will create the solutions so critically needed.

We must build strong partnerships between the public health and medical communities on one side and the planning and design worlds on the other to make sure this nationwide shift back to walking gets planned, designed, and built.

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