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

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

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

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

Also, innovative building projects are being encouraged to update the city’s outdated land-use code, using a process of design review.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Patricia Arquette / E! Online

Actress Patricia Arquette spoke passionately about closing the gender pay gap during her acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actress during the Academy Awards on Sunday night. An uneven playing field exists in a number of professions, including the architecture and engineering occupations—women in these fields earn 82 percent of what men make, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s 2014 averages, which are based on median weekly earnings of full-time wage and salary workers.

The Wall Street Journal used the 2014 data to show that in only two professions do women match or exceed men’s weekly earnings—health practitioner support technologists and technicians (100 percent) and stock clerks and order fillers (102 percent). A gap exists in every other occupation. Among full-time workers, women earn 82.5 percent of male salaries. Women working in construction earn 91.3 percent of male salaries; women in legal professions earn 56.7 percent, the biggest gap.

Discrimination plays a role in the gender wage gap, according to the National Women’s Law Center. The center cites a 2007 study by labor economists Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn, which showed that 41 percent of the wage gap remains unexplained even after examining the effects of occupation, industry, work experience, union status, race, and educational attainment. This indicates that discrimination plays a sizable role in the gap.

The 2012 median pay for landscape architects was $64,180, slightly less than the $66,380 earned by architects, surveyors, and cartographers, says the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. No information about possible salary differences between male and female landscape architects was provided by the bureau.

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Commuters at Grand Central Station, NYC / CBS Local

In a reversal of recent trends, job growth is now faster in city centers than outlying suburban areas, according to a new report from City Observatory, a Portland-based think tank. According to their analysis, from 2002 to 2007, “job decentralization” — that is, the growth of jobs in suburbs — was in full force. During that time, city centers, which are defined as the central business district and a three-mile circle around the district, saw annual growth of just 0.1 percent, with growth in outlying areas “10 times as fast.” From 2007 to 2011, that trend was reversed, writes Joe Cortright. “The 41 metropolitan areas for which we have comparable data showed a 0.5 percent per year growth in city center employment and a 0.1 percent decrease in employment in the periphery.”

Cortright says city center job growth isn’t universally higher than in the suburbs but trends are moving in that direction. “While only 7 city centers outperformed their surrounding metros in the 2002-07 period, 21 outperformed the periphery in 2007-11.” Today, there is still sprawling suburban job growth in places like Houston, Kansas City, and Las Vegas, and other metropolitan regions.

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City Report / City Laboratory

The Upshot at The New York Times writes that this kind of analysis adds needed depth to job figures. While we often focus on the total number of new jobs created, “the location of jobs is just as important — including for making decisions about employment, housing and transportation policies.”

It’s also worth noting that “the vast majority of jobs are still outside city centers.” The New York Times writes that jobs have been slowly moving to the suburbs since the beginning of the 20th century. “By the 1950s, most lived in suburbs and commuted to work in cities. In the decades that followed, employers decamped to the suburbs, too. By 1996, only 16 percent of metro area jobs were within a three-mile radius of downtowns, according to the economists Edward Glaeser and Matthew Kahn.”

But a number of trends have been at work to reduce suburban job growth. First, the recession hit the suburbs harder than cities. “Industries based outside cities, like construction and manufacturing, were hit much harder than urban ones like business services. Jobs disappeared everywhere, but more rapidly outside cities.” Second, people are increasingly finding cities attractive places to live again. “People increasingly desire to live, work, shop and play in the same place, and to commute shorter distances — particularly the young and educated, who are the most coveted employees. So in many cities, both policy makers and employers have been trying to make living and working there more attractive.” Third, “cities are also better able to hold on to jobs than they were before.”

Cortright concludes: “Our analysis of the industrial composition of this data suggests that city centers are both benefiting from a continuing shift to the kinds of industries that have historically preferred more centralized locations, and are also more competitive for jobs within industries. All of these changes are masked by the disruption of the Great Recession. While some of this effect is undoubtedly tied to the economic cycle, there are a number of longer-term, structural reasons to be optimistic about city center job growth.”

For example, he writes that young, well-educated adults are increasingly moving to city centers. And there is stronger demand for living near work in city centers. City centers are growing as “centers of consumption” — places for restaurants, nightlife, and entertainment. High-paying jobs in financial and professional services, education and healthcare remain in city centers. Entrepreneurs continue to prefer city center locations. Rising gas prices have meant lower spending in suburbs, where people drive more, and perhaps fewer jobs in those areas as a result.

Still, the worry is that the city center job growth will not benefit everyone equally. As The Upshot writes, “The jobs in the heart of cities tend to be highly skilled and high-paying ones, in industries like finance and tech. Working-class jobs, like retail or construction, are more likely to be suburban. So with the recent growth of downtown jobs, the risk is that cities will continue to become havens for the wealthy and inaccessible to the middle and working classes.”

Read the full report and see a useful table that outlines each metropolitan area’s job growth.

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Living Breakwaters / SCAPE Landscape Architecture with Parsons Brinckerhoff, Dr. Philip Orton / Stevens Institute of Technology, Ocean & Coastal Consultants, SeArc Ecological Consulting, LOT-EK, MTWTF, The Harbor School and Paul Greenberg

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, “HUD didn’t want to move at the speed of government” in its effort to create more resilient coastal designs in New York and New Jersey, said Marion McFadden, deputy assistant secretary at HUD, at an event at the American Institute of Architects (AIA). To avoid this, HUD decided to partner with non-profits and universities running the Rebuild by Design competition as well as the Rockefeller Foundation, which underwrote the competition. Using a little-known feature of the America Competes Act, HUD used the competition to spur government innovation. And it continues to do so, with its newest $1 billion competition for local resilience.

From the get-go, the intensely-collaborative Rebuild by Design competition was different from other design competitions. Usually, there is just one winner, but with Rebuild by Design, a total of six projects received $930 million in funds. According to Scott Davis, a senior adviser at HUD, “each team was competing against the standard. There were 10 places, 10 problems.”

The competition set-up was tough because of the “compressed time frame and raw emotions. It was a really difficult design environment.”

Each design team was either led by an architect or landscape architect and purposefully structured to be multi-disciplinary, with planners, engineers, ecologists, scientists, and communication specialists included. Davis said, “we brought tons of resources to these teams, including workshops at universities that covered all the latest research.”

Designers were immersed in the latest climate science and asked to create elaborate cost-benefit analyses as well as meet with community groups hundreds of times.  It was also important for the design teams to be able to “know how to conceive of their efforts in economic terms. It may be boring, but it’s vital for policymakers.” The solutions that ended up being financed made the best case for how to meet a range of social, ecological, and economic requirements.

McFadden said the teams worked with a high level of uncertainty, given HUD was never sure if the $930 million was even going to be allocated. “But we learned that people can live with uncertainty if they have their hearts in it.”

Now, projects are starting to be implemented in phases, over the next 5-8 years. HUD’s funds are really meant as a kick starter, as they won’t pay for the entire projects, which must now be carried forward by the local governments tasked with coming up with action plans to be sent to HUD.

Based on the success of Rebuild by Design, HUD has now launched a new $1 billion competition to finance resilience open to state and local governments declared disaster areas in the past few years. Davis said, “we are asking cities and states to rethink from scratch and emphasize planning.” HUD is once again partnering with the Rockefeller Foundation and its resilience academies as well as local non-profits.

Davis said with its latest competition, HUD will be again be promoting the innovative use of green infrastructure in its efforts to improve local resilience to disasters. Where relevant, “we will maximize the role of green infrastructure.”

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Bus rapid transit, Jiangsu Province, China / Scania Group

The answer is a resounding yes, said Felipe Calderón, former president of Mexico and chair of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, who spoke at the Transforming Transportation conference in Washington, D.C. The economy and the climate are intrinsically connected and so are their problems. Today, those problems are low growth and climate change. But, in the future, higher, more productive growth could be linked with more stable climatic and ecological systems.

To create that new model for development, Calderón and Nicholas Stern, a renowned climate expert from the UK, have assembled an impressive team, with many mayors, two Nobel Prize winners, business leaders, and hundreds of institutions and research partners around the world. The commission’s goal is to create an action plan for environmentally and economically-sustainable development, which can inform the creation of the new UN Sustainable Development Goals, now being hashed out, and move government and business leaders to make more effective investments for the future.

Calderón believes three systems need to shift over time: energy, land-use, and cities.

On energy, Calderón says we must “decouple economic growth from carbon emissions.” He said the “cost of renewable energy is dropping rapidly. Solar power is now 80 percent cheaper than it was 8 years ago.” He also pointed to successful energy efficiency programs in Mexico, where over 2 million old refrigerators were swapped out for more efficient models in just 3 years.

As for land-use, which accounts for 20-25 percent of global emissions, the challenges are severe. “We need to produce 70 percent more calories over the next 20 years, meeting an expanding population’s food needs on the same surface we have now. We need a new green revolution but one that protects the environment. We must also recover degraded ecosystems.”

The city, one of our most complex systems, also needs to change. “In the next 15 years, one billion people will come to cities.” To accommodate all those new urbanites, the world will need a “Washington, D.C. every month for 5 years.” Calderón called for “connected, compact, and coordinated cities.” The cost of sprawl is just too high: In the U.S., the loss productivity of sprawl is estimate to be around $724 billion a year, if we account for public and private born costs.

To hit home the high costs of inefficiency, Calderón compared Atlanta with Barcelona, two cities with around the same population, about 2.5 million. Atlanta covers 4,280 square kilometers and each person emits about 7.5 tons of carbon per year. Barcelona covers just 162 square kilometers and each of its residents only emits about 0.7 tons of carbon.

Given it’s so hard to change old cities, “we need to create new cities right,” which is why his commission recommends aiming efforts at “emerging cities in the developing world,” where all the future urban growth will be. And what’s key to creating these connected, compact, and coordinated cities of the future? Smart transportation systems.

There are many reasons to invest in better urban transportation. In Beijing alone, the cost of congestion and pollution equals 4 percent of that city’s GDP. Air pollution does untold damage on urbanites’ health, with millions of deaths worldwide from bad air. Sprawl also “promotes inequality.” Calderón said people without a car are paying for the privilege of those who have a car. Instead, cities could invest in bus rapid transit (BRT), which “promotes equality and inclusion” and is far cheaper than subway systems.

Calderón’s commission believes the only way to support positive change in these areas is to create “better growth.” The drivers of this will be improved natural resource efficiency, labor reforms, and infrastructure investment. Over the next 15 years, the world will spend $90 trillion on energy, land-use, and cities. “We can use that money to invest in a new model with low carbon emissions and better quality growth.”

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Anne Whiston Spirn, FASLA, is a professor of landscape architecture and urban planning at MIT. Her most recent book is
The Eye is a Door: Landscape, Photography, and the Art of Discovery (2014). She is also the author of The Granite Garden (1984 ASLA President’s Award of Excellence), The Language of Landscape (1988), and Daring to Look: Dorothea Lange’s Photographs and Reports from the Field (2011 ASLA Honor Award). The Web site www.annewhistonspirn.com is a gateway to her work and activities.

This interview was conducted at the ASLA 2014 Annual Meeting in Denver.  

This year is the 30th anniversary of your book, The Granite Garden, which argued that cities are part of nature and should be designed with nature. Since 1984, how much progress have we made? Where are we still going wrong?

We’ve made enormous progress, particularly with water. Ironically, we’ve done less well on climate and air quality. I say ironically because there’s so much awareness of climate change these days. There’s been a lot of attention paid to design proposals aimed at adapting to rising sea levels, but less to the enormous potential that the design of cities holds for reducing the factors that contribute to climate change in the first place. We need to truly reimagine the way we design cities.

Scientists and engineers are focused on technical solutions, social scientists on policy. And that’s where the public debate is focused. We designers and planners are not getting our message across as well as we should.

On the other hand, it’s a tremendous challenge for us to keep up with the latest and best scientific knowledge that would directly affect the way we design. We’re awash in information. You can’t expect a practitioner to stay abreast of all this literature, which is why we at MIT are proposing to do a monograph series on knowledge related to the urban natural environment — air, earth, water, ecosystems — and make that bridge to design. These monographs would be authored by teams of designers and scientists.

We hope to make these available at no cost, to anyone in the world. We hope that they’ll be valuable to scientists too, because most scientists don’t really know how their discoveries apply to design and planning. We are seeking funds to start with urban climate and air quality and then do our next monograph on water.

My hope is that this will prompt new experimentation and research that will give landscape architects the information we need. Right now, scientists develop their research agendas for their own purposes, mainly to document, record, and predict, but not to alter the world or make it more beautiful.

Thirty years ago, there was a sharp divide between proponents of ecological design and landscape as an art form. Examples of urban design that were both ecologically functional and artful were few and far between. I wrote “The Poetics of City and Nature: Toward a New Aesthetic for Urban Design” in 1988 and my book, The Language of Landscape, to argue for design that fuses ecology and art. Others made that argument, too. Now we have many great models of artful ecological design. So that’s another area where we have made real progress.

What do you think of the theoretical discussions born out of your book: ecological urbanism and landscape urbanism?

They’re very important in several ways. Both movements have appealed to architects, and that’s really important. Green infrastructure is something that landscape architects have been talking about for many decades, but architects weren’t thinking in those terms. Landscape urbanism and ecological urbanism were deliberately aimed to capture that audience. And that’s good. On the other hand, some proponents have claimed their approach is radically new, which it is not, and have ignored the contributions of many others to both theory and practice. Certain built projects have captured the public imagination, but for the most part, the landscape urbanism and ecological urbanism literature has been aimed at the design disciplines, not the larger public. There is a need for publications that are valuable to  designers and planners and are also challenging, interesting, and enlightening to a broader audience.

I first set out to accomplish that with The Granite Garden. It probably took me an extra 3-4 years to write the book because I had to learn how to write to this larger audience, use no jargon, and explain the concepts in a way that wouldn’t be boring to my professional colleagues but at the same time would be engaging to the public. I learned the power of that approach when The Granite Garden was reviewed in The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, and then abroad. It was picked up so widely because it was published as a book for a general audience, not solely as a professional text.

Landscape architects are not doing a good enough job at reaching that broader audience.

You say some things have improved; some haven’t. How would you change the way we’re communicating today? What’s the best way to reach the public?

The Web and electronic publishing have opened up powerful new opportunities. Twenty years ago, in 1995, the West Philadelphia Landscape Project Web site was in the works. Within two years, we’d had millions of visitors to the Web site, from 90 countries. This is the extraordinary power of the Web. I maintain several web sites, all geared to both a professional and a general audience, related to my research, writing, and teaching.

At AnneWhistonSpirn.com, I make available all of my writings except my books. I retain copyright and distribution rights to my articles, and so I can make them free for download on my web site. All of my courses have been online since 1996. They’re all available at no cost.

I’ve been part of the open-access movement before there was an open-access movement. I’ve always wanted to reach the broadest possible audience. There’s no single way to reach the public, but we shouldn’t dumb things down. We can engage both professionals and the public, if we go beyond the PR stuff and really try to reach the public in a serious way. As my editor would say, “Anne, your readers are not like your students. They don’t have to read. They can go get a beer and put down your book and never pick it up again, so you have to keep them engaged. You have a duty to your reader.”

E-publishing affords new ways to expand readership. With its many color photographs, a print edition of my new book, The Eye Is a Door: Landscape, Photography, and the Art of Discovery, would have been priced beyond the reach of many readers. To make it affordable, I composed and published it as an e-book.

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The Eye Is a Door / Anne Whiston Spirn

New e-book editions of The Granite Garden and The Language of Landscape will be published later this year. You will be able to read them in two ways: through verbal text (with links to images and captions) or as an essay of images and captions (with links to the book’s text). I envision this as a new kind of reading experience.

Looking at innovation today, what do you see 30 years ahead?

In the epilogue to The Granite Garden, I imagined two visions of the future: the infernal city and the celestial city. A lot of what I envisioned then is now commonplace. On the other hand, much has happened that I did not imagine. A lot can change in 30 years. Just think: the original Macintosh, the first personal computer with a mouse and graphic interface, was released in January 1984, the same month as The Granite Garden.

Today, we have the Internet and social media. Our phones can collect and upload all kinds of data. We’ve got crowd sourcing of data. 30 years down the pike, clothing, and vehicles that gather data will be commonplace. We’re going to be overwhelmed with data, so we need to be even smarter about figuring out what this data means and how to use it.

Climate change and the gross disparities in economic means and access to education and employment across the world are threatening the human species. They’re equally threatening, and social upheavals can only get worse as disparities in income and opportunities continue to get wider. Many people won’t have anything to lose. They won’t have a stake in society.

For the past 30 years, since I wrote The Granite Garden, I’ve focused on restoring the natural environment of cities at the same time as rebuilding inner-city communities and educating and empowering young people who don’t have access to a high-quality education that will set them up for having a stake in society. Those are areas where I’ll continue to devote my efforts.

What has the last 30 years of your work with the West Philadelphia Landscape Project taught you about achieving social justice through environmental action in cities?

The West Philadelphia Landscape Project, which builds on work I did in Boston from 1984 to 86, has been an investigation into how to improve environmental equality and social equity at the same time. There are obstacles, but  I’ve learned that it’s not difficult to conceptualize issues and mobilize people. Then it’s just a matter of lining up the resources and getting the administrative framework in place. It’s possible. There are many great examples. In Philadelphia alone, there are many, from the Urban Tree Connection at the grassroots to the city government’s Green City Clean Waters program.

Designers are optimistic. People don’t go into landscape architecture to create a worse world or even to maintain the status quo. We are in this business because we want to make the world a better place. I’m really worried, but I also believe we can do it. It’s possible.

Much of your writing and photography has been focused on learning how to “read” a landscape. What do you mean by this phrase? How is that different from seeing a landscape?

It’s like the difference between merely looking at a picture and understanding how it was constructed and what it means. Landscapes are full of stories. There are natural histories: stories about how a place came to be in terms of its geology, climate, and plants. There are also political stories and folk stories and stories about memory and worship. People’s gardens hold their own stories. In shaping landscape, individuals and societies express  their values, beliefs, and ideas. All these stories are embedded in landscape, and they can be read.

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Glen Loy, Scotland / Anne Whiston Spirn

Landscape literacy – the ability to read and tell such stories – is fundamental to being a landscape architect. I wrote my book The Language of Landscape because I realized that lack of fluency in the language of landscape was a barrier to more fluent and functional design, more expressive design, more eloquent design.

The West Philadelphia Landscape Project was a laboratory for working out ideas about the language of landscape and landscape literacy. It was extraordinary working with 12- and 13-year-olds in  Mill Creek, a low-income African-American neighborhood in West Philly, as they learned how to read that landscape.

So what was the best way to teach these kids landscape literacy?

Their neighborhood was called Mill Creek, but there wasn’t any creek you could see. My students showed them old maps, photographs, and other kinds of documents that described the neighborhood  at different historical periods from pre-colonial times to the present. Each week was a different period. Gradually, they came to understand through looking and investigating these old maps, newspaper articles, and planning documents that there was once this creek, Mill Creek. They found out that it was buried in a sewer and that there were cave-ins over the sewer. That’s where a lot of the vacant lands were, including in blocks  right around the school. The creek literally flowed right alongside where the school is located.

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Buried Floodplain in Mill Creek, West Philadelphia / Anne Whiston Spirn

The children also learned about socioeconomic issues of the 1930s and political decisions that led banks to stop lending money for small businesses and home mortgages in their neighborhood. And they came to understand that their neighborhood today is the result of all these things that happened in the past.

Then they took the historical maps and went out to compare them with the present neighborhood and discovered: “Oh, my goodness, this huge vacant lot block was once six blocks, and there were houses here,” and, “Oh, my gosh, there’s a fire hydrant in the middle of these woods that grew up on these lots.” It really turned their whole attitude about their neighborhood around.

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Learning Landscape Literacy at Sulzberger Middle School / Anne Whiston Spirn

Before learning to read its history, the children didn’t believe their neighborhood could ever change. When my students  had asked them how they would like to see their neighborhood in the future, they  had said, “Nothing’s going to change.” They were very cynical. After learning about its history, they began to say, “The neighborhood could change. It hasn’t always been the way it is. It could change in the future. Why couldn’t it? We know how it’s changed in the past.” Using that knowledge, what kinds of policies and actions could lead to change in the present?

About that time, I started reading Paulo Freire, who was a Brazilian community organizer. He developed literacy programs, for adults in poor, informal settlements in Brazilian cities. His findings about verbal literacy were exactly the same findings I was having in landscape literacy. He found that the most effective way to teach literacy was to collect oral histories of older people in the community, put them into text, and then teach people to read from those texts of the oral histories of their place.

So these kids were learning to read from the primary documents about their own neighborhood. The landscape itself became a primary document. They then became ambassadors. As a 12-13-year-old, to know more than the adults know is tremendously empowering. They went home and told their parents, “Guess what? This happened here and that happened there. See where that vacant land is? There was a creek there.” This is landscape literacy.

If I were working with those kids today, I’d also have them out taking photographs. My new book, The Eye Is a Door: Landscape, Photography, and the Art of Discovery, is a guide for using the camera as a tool to discover the stories that landscapes hold. Through photography, I want to inspire people to look deeply at the surface of things and beyond to the stories landscapes tell, the processes that shape human lives and communities and the earth itself. To pick up a camera and use it to see, think, and discover.

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Wilmington Waterfront Park, Los Angeles / AEC Cafe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Empire State Building, Earth Day / Inga’s Angle blog

Achieving sustainability requires more than just enacting forward-thinking legislation—it also requires compliance with laws and regulations. This was the message of Gina Bocra, chief sustainability officer; Emily Hoffman, director of energy code compliance; and Holly Savoia, director of sustainability enforcement, all with the New York City government, as they spoke at this year’s GreenBuild conference in New Orleans.

The three work for New York City’s department of buildings’ sustainability unit, one of the largest of its kind in the country. Informally known as “NYC’s Green SWAT Team,” the panelists and their staff are charged with helping the city meet its goal of reducing greenhouse emissions by 30 percent by 2030. They have a tremendous task, as nearly three quarters of NYC’s greenhouse gas emissions comes from the building sector.

The city’s groundbreaking Greener, Greater Buildings Plan, which was enacted in December 2009, is actually composed of four laws that address benchmarking, energy codes, audits and retro-commissioning, and lighting and submetering. [To further explain, retro-commissioning is a whole-building systems-based approach to improving an existing building’s performance.] These laws have to be enforced to be effective. “We provide some incentives, but we also hold the stick,” said Bocra. “We focus on fines and violations, but the goal is compliance.”

According to Hoffman, in January 2014 the unit began inspecting all new and renovated buildings for energy efficiency. A sustainability plan examiner reviews the energy code, and an inspection team, which may include third party inspectors, ensures the building is meeting the code as it is being built. So far, inspectors have looked at 2,600 new building applications, 4,500 major alterations applications, and 60,000 minor alterations applications.

Hoffman said the inspectors often encounter a “mind boggling” number of documentation and administrative errors and other technical issues. For instance, the square footage of areas don’t add up, or the U-factors (showing how part of a building conducts heat) are thrown in without any supporting documentation. As a result, Crain’s New York reported that nine out of ten commercial and residential projects fail on their first try to get their applications approved.

According to Savoia, sustainability inspectors make objections after comprehensive review. Half of submissions were returned last year due to “minor” issues, including missing owner signatures and improperly filled out forms. However, the unit is having an incredibly positive effect: compliance with local laws governing annual benchmarking of energy use, energy audits, and retro-commissioning increased from 76 percent in 2011 to 84 percent in 2012.

Hoffman acknowledged that “the energy code is really complex. There are different paths to compliance for residential and commercial buildings. It’s really difficult to understand this stuff, and so we have to provide more education.”

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All photos courtesy of Line Ramstad

“Do no harm.” These are the words echoed again and again by Line Ramstad, the Norwegian-born designer who since 2009 has lived and worked in a refugee camp in a disputed zone near the border of Thailand and Burma. She sees her unique position as Norwegian woman living and working with the Karen migrants as a strength, explaining, “it is nice to travel in between, to be the bridge.” Ramstad spoke at the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture.

Ramstad studied anthropology and geography before eventually receiving a master of landscape architecture. After five years of traditional practice, Ramstad traveled with two other Norwegians to the border with the intention of using their design background to aid in development work, eventually designing and building an orphanage. When her partners returned to Norway, Ramstad stayed and founded her current design/build architecture practice, Gyaw Gyaw, with three Karen migrants.

Ramstad describes the current situation of the Karen migrants as one with few options. Possessing no official papers, the Karen have few job prospects and live largely in refugee camps. We learn about their history on Gyaw Gyaw’s website: “the Karen people are the second biggest ethnic group in Burma. Exactly how many are unknown. After World War II, Burma was granted independence from the British invasion that had lasted for 62 years. The Karen people had been loyal to the British and fought with the alliance during the war. Among other minorities, they were now promised their own state, and Kaw Thoo Lei (The Land without Evil) was founded, but the Karen people never got sovereignty of the area.”

Gyaw Gyaw, which means “slowly, step by step,” designs and builds with an ethic of sustainability. Their built work consists largely of dormitories, schools, wells and playgrounds, and frequently incorporates partnerships with local NGOs and design firms. Ramstad thinks their work creates opportunities to promote democracy and encourage self-governance, both within the organization in the camps at large. Karens learn how to design and construct buildings together and this knowledge will remain with their people.

While the organization does not accept volunteers, they do offer an annual workshop in which visitors are encouraged to participate. They only accept funds that allow them to do the work in a way that is consistent with their small-scale and specific mission; their annual budget is only $60,000.

Gyaw Gyaw builds using “traditional materials and techniques used in more innovative and sustainable ways.” Ramstad emphasizes the importance of function above all else. She speaks eloquently about the constraints of cost and material that allow the work to be driven largely by climate and environment. “It’s very liberating to not have such choice of materials.” The organization rarely works with maps or drawings, a rarity in today’s highly technical architectural world. But Gyaw Gyaw also pays attention to the details, as Ramstad takes pride in her colleague Phillipa’s innovation in crafting elegant bamboo screens. Gyaw Gyaw also carefully observes how people use these spaces: Ramstad and her colleagues live close to these buildings and as a result their design process extends to a post-occupancy analysis of the daily life of their work.

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When asked about her landscape background and her current architecture work, Ramstad readily admits her weakness in construction knowledge, for which she relies heavily on her Karen colleagues. She describes her strength in “cultural and landscape adaptation,” explaining that “to be an architect is to have an open approach to the physical space around us.”

Through events like UVA’s lecture and international design conferences, Ramstad has begun to articulate and share Gyaw Gyaw’s ethos. Ramstad co-authored In Search of a Process: Laufen Manifesto for a Humane Design Culture, which states: “We speak out to define an alternative position. We must produce spaces that counter exploitation, control and alienation, whether in urban or rural landscapes. With all our expertise, creativity and power, we need to contribute more dynamically and consequentially to the global quest for equality.”

Ramstad’s visit instigated a broader discussion within the classrooms and studios at UVA. Some students and professors raised questions about the relevance of her work, as it’s particular to a region in Southeast Asia. However, Gyaw Gyaw’s process resonated with many students who are interested in participatory design.

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As design students, we often conduct site research from afar, making our best attempt at understanding place through online research and limited site-visits. Ramstad’s work shows us another type of design model, one that relies on an intimate understanding of place, and the people who inhabit it, as essential drivers of the design process. Ramstad’s approach came across as both refreshingly personal and intentionally limited. For her, community engagement is paramount in the design process.

In every stage of this process, Ramstad and Gyaw Gyaw call for “small steps” and making absolutely sure that if one’s intention is to do good work, that one truly does “no harm.”
 
This guest post by Jenna Harris, Master of Landscape Architecture Candidate, University of Virginia

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