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Archive for the ‘Policy and Regulation’ Category

ASLA 2010 Professional General Design Award. Park 20 / 20, A Cradle to Cradle Inspired Master Plan by William McDonough + Partners / DPI Animation House

ASLA 2010 Professional General Design Award. Park 20 / 20, A Cradle to Cradle Inspired Master Plan by William McDonough + Partners / DPI Animation House

More than 70 percent of Europe’s population lives in cities, and that number is expected to grow to 80 percent by 2050. As European cities further densify, they must find new solutions to ever-worsening problems, like congestion, pollution, and poverty. To stay ahead of these challenges, cities must remain the nexus of innovation. This the goal of the European Commission (EC)’s Urban Innovative Actions program, which seeks bold projects that can push forward innovation in urban planning and design throughout the Union. Projects, which must be submitted by an urban government with a population of at least 50,000 people, can receive up to €5 million over three years. From now through 2020, the EC will be offering €372 million for these urban experiments.

In the program’s inaugural year, the Commission seeks projects that focus on renewable energy, the integration of migrants and refugees into European society, jobs and skills development, and urban poverty.

To be considered, projects must “not be part of your normal activities,” the EC tells city governments. In fact, the projects must be something experimental, never before implemented in Europe. Innovation accounts for 40 percent of scoring. Projects must also show that they have real multi-stakeholder partnerships; a clear plan for measuring results; a scalable and replicable approach; and a solid strategy for implementation, with a realistic budget.

A general lack of urban experimentation is why the EC created the program. As the EC explains, “many urban planners and authorities have proposed new and innovative ideas, but these solutions are not always put into practice. One of the reasons is that urban authorities are reluctant to use their own financial resources to fund ideas that are new, unproven, and hence risky. Budget constraints therefore limit the capacities of urban authorities for experimentation.”

The Commission hopes to identify those city governments with the “imagination to design, prototype, test and eventually scale-up novelties that citizens and users would perceive as having an added value, therefore providing a wider, if not completely new, market for them.”

While there will surely be some failed experiments, it’s an exciting chance to test new approaches that can have lasting impact and spread far beyond Europe’s borders. The rest of the world’s cities can only benefit from the EC’s ambitious investment in the future.

Urban governments should submit proposals by March 31.

Another convention-buster is the annual Buckminister Fuller Challenge, “socially-responsible design’s highest award,” which seeks original submissions from multi-disciplinary teams of designers, planners, artists, and scientists. In 2014, SCAPE landscape architecture won the $100,000 prize for their innovative Living Breakwaters, an oyster reef restoration project. This year, for the first time, the Buckminster Fuller Institute (BFI) will also offer a separate student award. Submissions are due March 1.

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Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana / Lacamo.org

Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana / Lacamo.org

Five cities, both large and small, and eight states were winners of the first-ever National Disaster Resilience Competition (NDRC), which was organized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Rockefeller Foundation. Communities impacted by major disasters in the past few years will receive $1 billion to develop “resilient infrastructure and housing projects.” While many projects boost resilience for coastal or river communities, there are also inland projects that aim to protect communities against fire and flooding. A majority of the projects include multi-use green infrastructure — systems that both provide flood prevention and control and public green spaces. Winning projects also focus on transit, housing, and jobs. Some 40 communities submitted proposals.

In a conference call, HUD Secretary Julian Castro said this investment in resilience will help communities become “safer, stronger, and richer” as they adapt to climate change, which is the “great challenge of the 21st century.” The past few years, he said, have seen “extreme and devastating drought, wildfires, flooding, and tornadoes.” And with 2015 now just confirmed as the hottest year on record, extreme climate events will only get worse.

Here’s a brief overview of the state and city winners, organized by the amounts they won:

States:

Virginia: $120,549,000 for the Ohio Creek Watershed and Coastal Resilience Laboratory and Accelerator Center, which will develop “distributed green infrastructure projects, such as rain barrels and gardens, and combine them with coastal shoreline development to address flooding due to storm surge and torrential rains.”

Iowa: $96,887,177 for the Iowa Watershed Approach, an innovative program, which seeks to create local “watershed management authorities” that will assess hydrological and watershed conditions and create management plans for a more sustainable agricultural system.

Louisiana: $92,629,249 for its Louisiana Strategic Adaptations for Future Environments Program, which aims to protect coastal wetlands, retrofit communities threatened by flooding, and reshape high-ground areas. The funds will also help a tribal community on Isle de Jean Charles–whose land has submerged by an amazing 98 percent since 1955–move to a new location.

California: $70,359,459 to pilot its Community and Watershed Resilience program in Tuolumne county, which was hit by wildfires in 2013. The program aims to create a environmentally and economically sustainable model for forest and watershed health that can be rolled out across the state.

Connecticut: $54,277,359 for a pilot program in the city of Bridgeport to test the state’s broader Connecticut Connections Coastal Resilience Plan, which seeks to connect “economically-isolated” coastal communities through a mix of green and gray infrastructure.

Tennessee: $44,502,374 for the state’s Rural by Nature, a federal, state, and local initiative to create resilient rural communities along the Mississippi River, which will restore two miles of degraded floodplain.

New York: $35,800,000 for public housing resiliency pilot projects throughout the state, which will test efforts to build resilience into low-income multi-family housing.

New Jersey: $15,000,000 for a regional resilience planning grant program, which will help local communities create their own plans to address their vulnerability to flooding.

Cities:

New York City: $176,000,000 for coastal resilience in Lower Manhattan and efforts to protect public housing projects.

New Orleans: $141,260,569 for the city’s first-ever Resilience District in Gentilly, which will include coastal restoration, new parks and green streets, and workforce development initiatives.

Minot, North Dakota: $74,340,770 for an integrated approach to manage climate change and flooding.

Shelby County, Tennessee: $60,445,163 for its Greenprint for Resilience program, which will build a connective set of green infrastructure projects to increase protection against future flooding while creating trails and recreation areas.

Springfield, Massachusetts: $17,056,880 for an Urban Watershed Resilience Zone, which will focus on jobs, restoring affordable housing, and the creation of a new distributed heat and power plant in the event of a grid failure.

Green infrastructure, which involves using designed natural systems to provide a range of ecosystem services, is a primary area of investment, said Harriet Tregoning, who leads resilience efforts at HUD. “Lots of the projects feature green infrastructure. But we used a benefit-cost analysis to ensure that green infrastructure offers more than one benefit–not just stormwater management.” As Tregoning explained, HUD encouraged the project teams to come up with ways that “green infrastructure for stormwater managment or flood control could double as a park or greenway, bicycle or walking path.” The goal is to “capture all the social co-benefits.”

Christian Gabriel, ASLA national design director for landscape architecture at the General Services Administration (GSA) and one of the evaluators of the proposals, argued that the process also encouraged new approaches to deal with these complex, multi-faceted problems: “Great planning and design necessarily cross political and geographic jurisdictions. When multi-purpose projects are conceived from inception as trans-disciplinary, they more effectively act as force multipliers in communities.”

He added that the “competition asked proposers to not only provide compelling physical solutions but also propose new working relationships and create resilient models for collaborative work between governments and civil society.”

While the $1 billion is a drop in the bucket in terms of what’s needed, NDRC is an important expansion of the Rebuild by Design competition, which dedicated $920 million to improve the resilience of the communities hit hardest by Hurricane Sandy, as it may show this competitive financing model can work nationally as well. The NDRC involved some 25 federal agencies, including 100 experts, and it took 16 months to review the proposals and select the winners. What’s needed in the future is a scaled-up annual process, which is something we hope the next administration will take up.

Many more communities need help with resilience, or there will soon be more Isle de Jean Charles, more looking for a new home.

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Paris climate deal / The New Yorker

Paris climate deal / The New Yorker

After two weeks of intense negotiations at a UN summit in Paris, leaders of 195 countries reached an historic agreement to limit the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing the atmosphere to warm. The agreement creates a new bottom-up infrastructure for managing carbon emissions, with each country pledging emissions reductions targets and agreeing to regular, transparent reporting of their successes or failures in meeting them. The new framework will use global peer pressure: Countries that fail to meet their commitments will be named and shamed in a global setting. But while the new agreement calls for limiting the rise in global temperatures to no more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), it’s not clear that this essentially voluntary approach to managing emissions will work. For this ambitious yet necessary goal to be achieved, global emissions must peak by 2030 and the world needs to be net-zero by 2050. The accumulated carbon in the atmosphere then needs be drawn down so it doesn’t continue to warm the planet far into the future.

The world’s temperatures have already increased 1 degree Celsius since the Industrial Revolution. The current commitments of the world’s governments from now through 2020 now only make up half of the further decrease in emissions needed to stave off scientists’ doomsday scenarios. But under the new framework, countries will only take stock every 5 years, revising their earlier pledges, and ratcheting up their emissions reductions targets. In reality, this means an almost-constant campaign to bring pressure on leading emitters to further reduce their emissions, explains Bill McKibben, a critic of the deal, in an op-ed in The New York Times. He argues that, “what this means is that we need to build the movement even bigger in the coming years, so that the Paris agreement turns into a floor and not a ceiling for action.”

Still, many commentators argue the Paris agreement is critical because it sent the loudest and clearest signal yet to financial and energy companies that the shift to clean energy, like wind and solar power, must occur more rapidly. The countries that signed the Paris climate agreement are now all on record stating their support for the transition away from fossil fuels. But now the hard part comes with translating this positive sentiment into policy and regulatory changes that will shift the energy mix. Fossil fuels still overwhelmingly dominate worldwide. The New York Times reports that “fossil fuels, including coal, oil and gas, now make up about 80 percent of the world’s energy mix. The combined stock value of the world’s coal, oil and gas companies is about $5 trillion. By comparison, stocks related to renewable energy are valued at about $300 billion, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, a research firm.” And to add, fossil fuels get about $550 billion in subsidies each year.

Former NASA scientist James Hansen, one of the first to raise the red flag about climate change, dismissed the agreement, and its potential impact on the energy sector. “It’s a fraud, really, a fake,” he told The Guardian. “There is no action, just promises. As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will be continued to be burned.” Hansen argues that what’s needed in the near term is a global carbon tax to speed up the shift to a global clean energy economy.

Bill Gates, now the world’s leading philanthropist, instead argues that many more billions of investment in clean energy technology research is needed to orchestrate this shift. He believes that current technologies can’t solve our current energy problems, but more advanced technologies are needed. Gates, along with Richard Branson of Virgin and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, have created a new multi-billion-dollar fund for research into clean energy technologies; and the U.S. and other countries have announced they will increase clean energy research to $20 billion by 2020.

Other critics pointed to the lack of guaranteed financial support for the poorest countries in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, which will be hit hardest and need billions to adapt. There was a new requirement in the non-binding agreement that developed countries would deliver $100 billion in support to developing countries by 2020, but often these promises fail to materialize. And the agreement may do nothing to stop the potential rise of coal in India. If India chooses coal over solar and wind, it could be a deal breaker for the planet.

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

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

East Lake (post-revitalization) / Atlanta Housing Authority

East Lake (post-revitalization) / Atlanta Housing Authority

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Solar power farm in Saudi Arabia / Evwind.us

Solar power farm in Saudi Arabia / Evwind.us

“If Saudi Arabia can do this, any place can,” said Anica Landreneau, director of sustainable consulting at multi-disciplinary design firm HOK, at SXSW Eco in Austin, Texas. The conservative Muslim country is planning a move away from oil towards clean energy and a shift away from totally car-centric communities to those that offer public transit and encourage walking and biking. Saudi Arabia realizes it must go green to survive.

Saudi Arabian government officials see peak oil coming by 2028, with exports declining precipitously after that. This is a major issue for the Saudi Arabian economy because oil accounts for 80 percent of total gross domestic product (GDP). In addition, Saudi Arabia, with a population of 28 million, expects to have 35 million more people by 2040. This means the country needs to further diversify its economy away from the oil industry, which offers relatively few jobs, while concentrating population growth in cities as soon as possible. Landreneau said Saudi leaders recognize that “the economy will collapse” if they don’t move to a more sustainable approach.

Working with Saudi Aramco, which is tasked with leading a country-wide plan for sustainability and a new mandatory energy efficiency policy, HOK created new urban plans, including zoning schemes and low-carbon transportation systems, all vital parts of a more sustainable approach. Landreneau and her team proposed a set of sustainable urban development best practices to improve diversity and increase density for mixed-use developments. Saudi Arabia’s cities are now in the process of bringing their zoning up to HOK’s standards.

While HOK found that a new, sustainable urban development strategy could save 50 percent of the energy consumption and carbon emissions from the built environment, Saudi Arabia really wants to transform their cities in order to improve quality of life, safety, affordability, and health. Health is a major focus because obesity rates are around 35 percent due to the car-centric environment and sedentary lifestyles in the kingdom. These numbers are even higher than those in the U.S.

HOK and Saudi planners laid out plans that take aim at cars, finding that “there could be a 30 percent reduction in emissions with public transit.” But to get there, even bus stops will need to provide shade and air conditioning for a country with summer temperatures that top 120 degrees, and be designed to separate the sexes.

And even with widely-available mass transit, reducing car use will be a real challenge. A typical family may own up to 5 cars, in part because subsidized gasoline is so cheap. “Getting them down to 2,3 or just 1 will take cultural change.” Nevermind other ways to reduce car use: “car sharing was laughed out of the room, and the idea of charging for parking was like culture shock.”

Contrary to popular perceptions, “Saudis will walk” and the younger generation may bicycle. Traditional neighborhoods have pathways that act as shortcuts, which Saudis often walk. And corniches — seaside promenades — can attract pedestrians. “Designing a beautiful public realm will get Saudis outside.” As for bicycling, “the young generation will contemplate it.”

Saudi Arabian cities also need comprehensive water management strategies. While the country is often dry, flash storms can overwhelm and create flooding problems. “Shared green spaces could handle runoff.” And on the flip side, dealing with water efficiency issues, Landreneau’s team told the government “not to develop landscapes that cannot be irrigated with what you have.”

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Curb cut and ramp / CSE Landscape Architects

Curb cut and ramp / CSE Landscape Architects

“Where you live in America has become a proxy for opportunity, and we have to do something about that,” said Angela Glover Blackwell, the founder and CEO of PolicyLink, a research and advocacy organization dedicated to advancing economic and social equity, at a lecture at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design (GSD). What can help is creating more “communities of opportunity.” One of PolicyLink’s goals is to “lift up what works,” which involves supporting local organizations that help create these communities.

“It took me a long time to realize that my personal story had anything to do with my work,” said Blackwell.

Blackwell grew up in one of these communities of opportunity. Although she was raised in the African American part of segregated St. Louis, it was deeply nurturing. The neighborhood was filled with family homes. The residents were exclusively African-American but diverse in income and educational background. Her family’s physician lived just down the block, giving them easy access to healthcare. The teachers at the neighborhood school were community members. Blackwell and her brothers were able to walk to school every day because the school was close to their home. The strength of her community acted as a buffer against the harsh sting of racism and segregation.

“I now go to neighborhoods that are all black and poor and I see none of that,” she said.

Blackwell then explained why we need to create more communities of opportunity today:

First: By 2044, no one ethnicity will be a majority; there will be a majority of different minorities. So “we have to invest in people of color because if they don’t become the middle class in this country, there will be no vast, stable middle class.”

Second: helping the most vulnerable helps everyone. Blackwell used curb cuts and ramps, which make it safe and accessible for people to move between a sidewalk and street, to make her point:

“Curb cuts are now in every city across this country. They are there because people with disabilities advocated for them. But how many times have you been pushing a baby carriage and been so happy you didn’t have to pick up that contraption? How many times have you, like me, been pulling a suitcase and you were able to make that train? But I bet you didn’t know this: those curb cuts have saved lives. Those curb cuts oriented people to go to the corner to cross the street safely. You were supposed to go the corner, but the curb cuts tell you exactly where to go. They are an example of how when you solve problems for the most vulnerable, you solve them for everybody.”

Blackwell’s talk ended on a hopeful note. “I have been doing this work for a long time now, since the 1970s, and I see now there is a ripeness for the change that I have never seen before.”

This guest post is by Chella Strong, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

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african girls school

African girls in school / Girls Changing Africa, Batonga Blog

Later this week, the world’s leaders will meet at the United Nations to launch the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a set of ambitious goals and targets designed to get the world on a more sustainable future course. The SDGs pick up where the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which expire this year, left off. Much like Pope Francis’ encyclical, the SDGs call for a new approach that enables economic growth for everyone, not just the wealthy, greater environmental protection, and a more sustainable use of increasingly limited natural resources. The SDGs will create a path for the next 15 years, up until 2030. They are important in getting governments, non-profit organizations, and the socially-conscious private sector behind a common set of objectives.

The SDGs came out of an intensive two-year process involving negotiators from both developed and developing countries. Among the many goals, the SDGs call for ending poverty and hunger in all forms; improving health and well-being; achieving gender equality; sustainably managing fresh water resources; restoring terrestrial and ocean ecosystems; combating climate change; and making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable. The SDGs are said to more clearly reflect the input of developing countries than their predecessor, the MDGs.

Improved rights and educational opportunities for girls and women around the world, but particularly in least developed countries, is a major theme in the SDGs. As Jeffrey Sachs, head of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, explained at the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C. a few weeks ago, educating girls and women is key to a sustainable future. Sachs believes that future sustainability is only possible if population growth rates are reduced. The current world population is 7 billion. The total carrying capacity of the Earth is estimated to be around 10 billion. Over the past 50 years, Sub-Saharan Africa has grown from a hundred million to 1.1 billion today. If high fertility rates continue unabated, Africa will double its population by 2050 and eventually reach 4 billion, sending the world past its uppermost carrying capacity. Sachs argued that a sustainable future will be impossible if Sub-Saharan African women continue to have 5 children, which is the average today. Even a middle school education helps dramatically lower fertility rates, so educating African women and girls really is central to the fate of the planet.

The SDGs also seek to link economic growth that can yield benefits for all with greater resource efficiency and environment protection. As many world leaders are beginning to understand, long-term growth is impossible if there are no natural resources to underpin that growth. At the same event at the National Book Festival, world-famous biologist and author E.O. Wilson called for setting aside 50 percent of the surface of the Earth for conservation purposes, banking resources for wildlife and also future generations. Currently, only about 15 percent of the planet is protected from development. He said reaching 50 percent is possible if the vast middle of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans were protected from industrial fishing. Then, fish stocks, which are down to just 2 percent of their historic levels, will have a chance to recover for the long-term. In addition, Wilson called for everyone to become a vegetarian, arguing that the world’s one billion cows, which require so much land and water and have been a major driving force behind deforestation, are incompatible with the approaches needed to create a sustainable future on a planet with 10 billion people.

Earth’s resources are finite but economic growth needs to somehow continue to provide opportunities for the billions more soon to join us. While this seems like an incredible challenge, Wilson has faith in human ingenuity and technology. In agreement with SDG target 2.5, Wilson calls for diversifying crops away from the dozen or so that the world’s farmers primarily rely on today. He said there are potentially thousands of other crop plants that could provide greater nutrition and improved yield. And it’s important to keep these other crops as real options given climate change can wipe out yields for many of the crops we rely on today.

Urban leaders rejoiced that cities are the focus of a goal and whole slew of targets. World leaders now recognize that the world’s population is predominantly urban, with more than half of the world in cities, and the urban population is expected to hit 75 percent by 2050. These trends are a good thing. Those living in cities have lower per capita energy and water use and give off fewer carbon emissions than those living in suburbs or rural areas. However, issues abound in cities: Not every urbanite has access to safe drinking water, clean air, affordable housing, low-cost public transportation, or green spaces. One SDG target, 11.7, amazingly aims to provide “universal access to safe, inclusive, and accessible green and public spaces.” Creating a more sustainable plan for the world’s cities will be the focus of Habitat III, a major conference hosted by UN-Habitat in Quito, Ecuador, next year.

There are fears that the SDGs, with their sprawling 17 goals and 169 targets, are too idealistic and will not be as easy to achieve as the MDGs, which strategically targeted eight goals, and still came up short. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called the MDGs the “most successful anti-poverty campaign in history.” And according to The Financial Times, there was significant progress on achieving the MDGs since 2000, when they came into effect. “On paper, at least as far as the data can be relied upon, there has indeed been significant progress. Extreme poverty in developing countries has fallen from 47 per cent in 1990 to 14 per cent this year, while annual global deaths of children under five have halved to 6 million.” But China and India, development experts argue, were responsible for the bulk of the poverty reduction. Without China’s gains, the effect of the MDGs would be negligible, given Sub-Saharan African countries, which are the among the least developed places, missed their goals. For example, in the sub-continent, it will still take another decade for the child mortality rates to fall by the target of two-thirds.

And there are critics of the overall effort. William Easterly, professor of economics at New York University and long-time detractor of Western aid agencies, told The Financial Times: “The MDGs communicated a very wrong idea about how development happens: technocratic, patronizing, and magically free of politics. It’s not about western saviors, but homegrown efforts linked to a gradual extension of political freedom.” Furthermore, he added: “The SDGs are a mushy collection of platitudes that will fail on every dimension. They make me feel quite nostalgic for the MDGs.”

There are also concerns about whether governments can accurately measure and then track progress on all these squishy goals and targets. A UN working group is now devising the means of measuring all these items, but, according to the International Council for Science and International Social Science Council, “less than a third of the SDG goals were ‘well developed’, with some objectives not quantified and many containing contradictory trade-offs and unintended consequences.” Solid data is expensive and time-consuming to collect, particularly in less developed countries. For example, The Economist reports that only 74 countries out of the 193 currently have the capacity to track the SDGs’ nutrition targets. But perhaps the SDGs will spur more countries to boost investment in their statistical services to measure gaps between where they are and where they need to be, which can only be a good thing. New satellite, drone, and GPS technologies should be put to greater use.

Still, never has such an ambitious global agenda been put in place. Sachs told The Financial Times: “Whether it can work out is an open question. There is a sense that this is a sensible framework. I’m not saying a new dawn has broken, but at least governments are saying we need to try.”

Read Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

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Cities Safer by Design, a report by the World Resources Institute

Cities Safer by Design, a report by the World Resources Institute / WRI

Globally, 1.24 million people are killed in traffic accidents every year, with more than 90 percent of these deaths occurring in low and middle-income countries. Traffic-related incidents are the eighth-leading cause of death worldwide, and the number-one leading cause of death for those between the ages of 15-29. A response to the United Nations’ declaration to create a “Decade of Action” on improving traffic safety, Cities Safer by Design, a new report by the World Resources Institute (WRI) Ross Center for Sustainable Cities, offers urban design best practices and real-world case studies both developed and developing world cities can use to put an end to traffic deaths and injuries.

Cities Safer by Design presents five basic urban design elements that create safer travel environments: block size, connectivity, lane width, access, and population density.

Block Size

Safe urban design is about reducing motor vehicle speeds. The faster a driver goes, the more difficult it is for him or her to avoid hitting a pedestrian in their path. Due to less frequent interruptions, larger blocks allow vehicles to accelerate more freely. More junctions mean more places where cars must stop and pedestrians can cross. According to the report, to improve safety and walkability, blocks should be 75-150 meters long. If blocks are any larger than 200 meters, mid-block pass-throughs with signals or raised crossings should be added every 100-150 meters.

Smaller block sizes have been successfully implemented in central areas of Shanghai, such as Xin Tian Di, to create more walkable neighborhoods. More Chinese cities that had mistakenly built “super blocks” are starting to apply the same approach.

shanghai 2

A street for pedestrians in Shanghai / Jamie Sinz

Connectivity

The report recommends increasing connectivity to multiples modes of transit in order to decrease travel distances and improve access to destinations. Creating multiple routes for pedestrians and cyclists also helps disperse traffic, discourage car use, and reduce travel time.

Mexico City has also created walkable urban landscapes around its Metrobús bus rapid transit (BRT) system that enables safe bicycle and pedestrian access.

Bikers and BRT passengers outside of the Mexico City Metrobus / EMBARQ by  Alejandro Luna

Bikers and BRT passengers outside of the Mexico City Metrobus / EMBARQ by Alejandro Luna

Vehicle Lane Width

The amount of a street devoted to vehicles shapes the amount of street available for pedestrian crossings, bike lanes, parking lanes, and landscape curb extensions. Reducing street widths creates a safer pedestrian experience because they shorten pedestrian crossing distance and exposure to cars and also slow traffic by “increasing drivers’ perception of impediments.” Again, slower traffic mitigates the potential severity of crashes.

According to the report, evidence from Mexico City shows that as the maximum pedestrian crossing distance at an intersection increases by 1 meter, the frequency of pedestrian crashes increase by up to 3 percent. Other studies highlighted in the report show the most significant relationship to injury crashes is street width and street curvature. As street width widens, crashes per mile per year increase exponentially.

Access to Destinations

Neighborhoods should be designed to include transit, parks, schools, and stores within walking distance, which is defined as 0.5-kilometers. Having a variety of destinations in neighborhood clusters encourages people to meet close to home, decreasing the need for vehicular travel and improving overall safety.

In the Coyoacan neighborhood of Mexico City, the prevalence of shops and public spaces encourage walking while discouraging vehicular traffic. Recalling an earlier area before sprawl took over the city, Coyoacan’s cobbled streets lead to garden plazas where street vendors gather.

Santa Catalina Plaza and Church located on Avenida Sosa in the Coyoacan borough of Mexico City / Thelmadatter

Santa Catalina Plaza and Church located on Avenida Sosa in the Coyoacan borough of Mexico City / Thelmadatter

Population Density

A 2009 study cited in the report found that for an increase in density of 100 persons per square mile, there was a 6 percent reduction in injurious crashes and a 5 percent reduction in all crashes after controlling for vehicle miles traveled, street connectivity, and land use. In contrast to more sprawling cities, high-density cities not only reduce the need for vehicle travel, but also reduce the need for their associated infrastructure, such as roads and sewers.

Tokyo has successfully developed high-density mixed-use neighborhoods near rail and bus stations. According to the report, Tokyo has a traffic fatality rate of 1.3 per 100,000 residents. Compare this rate to Atlanta, Georgia, one of the most sprawled-out cities in the U.S., which has 9.7 traffic fatalities per 100,000 residents.

Street in Jiyugaoka,Tokyo

Street in Jiyugaoka, Tokyo / Cozyroom_mimi (Flickr)

With the percentage of the world’s population living in cities expected to hit 70 percent by 2030, reducing traffic fatalities from unsafe streets should be a priority. Safer streets also increase the quality of life for urbanites, particularly for those in developing countries. WRI’s report shows policymakers, urban designers and planners, and landscape architects what works: designing for pedestrian safety means improving urban health and sustainability overall.

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Mia Lehrer, FASLA, advocates for Silverlake Reservoir / Mia Lehrer Associates

We work in a small, but timely profession. Our potential to impact the neighborhoods, communities, and cities where we work is huge. Though landscape architecture professionals make up just a small fraction of the design field, ours is the work that is the first to be seen. Ours is the work that brings function and beauty to parks, plazas, campuses, institutions, and transportation corridors. Ours is a profession that blends the power of design with ecological principals and environmental justice. And because we are few and far between, we have to advocate for what we know.

The responsibility is on us to make our voices heard, not for our own betterment, but for the sake of our communities.

Public awareness is growing around a range of big issues, from humanity’s need for nature to improve our health, to watersheds, drought, and climate change. And yet, those in our profession most able to speak intelligently on these issues, to guide our communities towards thoughtful solutions, remain silent too often.

Those who fill the void may be knowledgeable in some respects, but often they simply have a good sound bite. The media won’t know to ask a landscape architect for a solution, suggestion, or comment if they don’t know what landscape architects can do. And most of them don’t.

We need to educate our media, politicians, and the public on the issues we care most about. In addition to keeping each other informed about lessons learned from the field, landscape architects need to write letters to the editor, speak at city council meetings and land-use committee meetings, and join non-profit boards and advisory groups. We need to present ideas to civic groups, garden clubs, and parent groups. And we’re not talking about advocating for the profession: we’re talking about advocating for our quality of life.

We urge you to:

  • Advocate for regionally and micro climate-appropriate design that minimizes resource use while maximizing benefits;
  • Speak out to conserve existing habitat and create new parks, wildlife habitats, and greenway corridors;
  • Call for nature playgrounds and natural systems in our schools, parks, and institutions to increase human access to nature and its physical, mental, and educational benefits;
  • Ask for more flexible policies to support rainwater capture, graywater reuse, and recycled water use and reduce unnecessary use of potable water;
  • Fight to ban plastic materials, such as bags, bottles, furnishings, and grass, to stop the incessant addition of toxins into our oceans and food chain;
  • Advocate for more transit and pedestrian and bicycle options and mixing land uses to cut our need for automobiles;
  • Specify local, non-toxic, reclaimed, and reclaimable natural materials;
  • Educate the public about the need to design with plants that provide food for pollinators and people.

Our firm is widely known in Los Angeles, and beyond, for being vocal. We go to public meetings about water conservation, school sites, citizen science, agriculture, forests, and the Los Angeles River. We go to lectures about climate change, drought, food deserts, park poverty, water quality, and environmental justice. We listen, form opinions, speak and write. We get our voices heard.

We might annoy you. And that’s okay. Because we believe we can make a difference in where we live and how we live to make a better future for all of us. And we hope you do, too.

This guest op-ed is by Mia Lehrer + Associates, an internationally-known, award-winning firm made up of landscape architects, urban designers, environmental planners, and a team of multidisciplinary designers based in Los Angeles. Read their recent op-ed in The Los Angeles Times.

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Los Angeles River in a concrete channel / Climate Resolve

“We can consider rivers as city-making landscapes,” said Thaisa Way, ASLA, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Washington and organizer of a two-day conference on river cities at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. “In river cities, rivers are the agents, offering opportunities for food, transportation, and water, but also liabilities, like drought and flooding.” Each river city has a dynamic relationship with its river, so communities that depend on them must always strive to improve their adaptability and resilience. “Rivers can be beneficial or terrifying.” In the era of climate change, river cities, with their often creative responses to a changing environment, offer lessons.

Here are brief summaries of the talks by the few selected to speak at the conference. Way said more than 180 landscape architects, academics, urban planners, and others submitted proposals but just 13 were selected. Way argued this is a sign of the enormous interest in this new field of study. First are stories from the U.S. and then South America, Europe, and South Asia.

Los Angeles, California, and the Los Angeles River: Vittoria Di Palma and Alexander Robinson, ASLA, both professors at University of Southern California, took us on a history tour of the Los Angeles River. It has always been a “small stream that sometimes turns into a raging torrent during ‘rain events.'” After Spanish settlers discovered Los Angeles and then settled there, they plotted out a system of fields separated by inter-connected canals called zanjas. “The city itself was configured by the water supply.” While the San Madre river was seen as the “idealized, perfected river,” its close relative, the Los Angeles River, never seemed able to behave itself, as it was prone to flooding.

As Los Angeles grew and more farmers came, the desire for predictable water led the city government to begin major efforts to control the once-fluid, complex Los Angeles River starting in the early 1910s, and it was soon fully entombed in a concrete channel by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (see image above). By the middle of the 20th century, there was nostalgia for the wild river that had been lost, with poets and artists “creating a vision of its rebirth.” But as Di Palma said, “these were idealized visions. People were afraid when it behaved naturally and accepted and loved it when it acted as it should.”

In the 1990s, Los Angelenos began to think about how to add parks to the banks of the still channelized Los Angeles River. In 1997, a new master plan was created out of this vision, and by 2005, landscape architecture firms Mia Lehrer + Associates, Civitas Inc., and Wenk Associates created a revitalization master plan for the city government, exploring the “full potential of the 32-mile-stretch of the river in the city.” The plan included ecological restoration along with flood control strategies, designs for new bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, along with development opportunities.

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ASLA 2009 Professional Analysis and Planning Honor Award. Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan, Los Angeles, California / Mia Lehrer + Associates/ Civitas, Inc./ Wenk Associate

Re-enter the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which now has a new mission of ecological restoration and undoing the damage it had done to urban rivers generations before. Following a set of complex studies, featuring an algorithm that examines the per-unit habitat benefits of various ecological restoration approaches, the Corps moved forward with the “alternative 20” proposal, under great political pressure, including from the White House. That proposal is not the most cost-effective according to the calculations, but it provided what the city government and local non-profits, with their broader urban revitalization goals for the river corridor, more of what they wanted.

The negotiations with the city were complicated. “Congress doesn’t fund the Corps to do urban revitalization. They are not going to pay for a High Line. Everything must support ecological restoration.” The Corps has agreed to work with the city so their effort to restore the river ecology synchs up with the city’s efforts to provide recreation opportunities. But the bottom line is “the Los Angeles River can’t flood again. The compromise is we need to keep people safe and restore the river to health.”

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers: The Allegheny River comes right into the city, said Ray Gastil, head of planning for Pittsburgh. “It’s not a sacred river.” When Pittsburgh was the heart of steel manufacturing in the U.S. in the early 1900s, the rivers flowing through Pittsburgh were so toxic they were actually poisoning the population. This is because they were not only used as industrial infrastructure but also as a dump for sewage. When 620 died in a typhoid outbreak, the city started to get serious about improving their water quality, which they realized was linked with the health of the river. “Finding the causal links between water and disease took a long time to figure out.”

By the 1920s, the legacy of steel manufacturing was beginning to take its toll. “The city began to realize that the deleterious effects on the air and water were not sustainable.” In 1923, some local organizations began arguing that “the riverfront should be a shared benefit and workers need a place to recreate,” but there was no public space, because the land was just too valuable for industrial use. A plan was created to set aside some parks that were to be publicly owned. From the 1920s to 1950s, the point where the Ohio River meets the city was turned into a park, and then, from the 1970s to the 00s, bike trails came, along with the rise of adaptive reuse projects and a new waterfront tech park. Heinz Field, a huge stadium, was set right on the waterfront, with one side open to the Allegheny. Cut to 2015, and the city is still working on the Three River Parks plan, created in 2001, which has created 13 miles of inter-connected green space and trails and spurred $4 billion in riverfront development, and harks back to early 20th century plans to make the waterfront publicly accessible.

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Allegheny Riverfront Park / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

A new master plan by Perkins Eastman will turn a 170-acre post-industrial plot on the Allegheny riverfront into a mixed-use development that will also preserve some of the old steel mills. But for the most part, Pittsburgh’s mill past has been erased. “There are no romantic feelings about their role in the city. Pittsburgh wants to move away from being a city of smoke.”

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Allegheny Riverfront Vision Plan / Perkins Eastman

San Antonio, Texas, and the San Antonio River: David Malda, ASLA, a landscape architect with Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, said San Antonio has long struggled with either an excess or total lack of water. Like a young Los Angeles, early San Antonio had a series of canals, called acequias, that sustainably conveyed water to farmers. By 1910, the acequias were largely replaced by wells, which eventually took their toll on the groundwater. The San Antonio River’s flow was negatively impacted, to the point where the city had to install multiple pumps to move river water into the city. But, also, during heavy storms, the system caused flooding. In 1921, 50 people lost their lives due to flooding along the San Antonio River.

Instead of paving over the river and turning it into a channel for sewage, which many wanted to do, local architect Robert Hugman proposed constructing a cut-off channel, a loop, that people could walk in a circle downtown. In the 1930s, work began in earnest on the 2.5-mile-long San Antonio Riverwalk, which slowly became what it is today over the following decades. “San Antonio invented the idea. They could have a piece of a river without the risk.” Paths, which visitors had to step down to river level to visit, were designed to be intentionally narrow.

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San Antonio Riverwalk / The Flast List

Over the years, the Riverwalk loop itself was expanded, including a naturalistic segment in the 1960s, another segment in the late 80s, and a final one that opened in 2011. Also, additional underground infrastructure that redirects excess water out of the loop was constructed to ensure the Riverwalk would not become a danger during floods.

At the edge of the Riverwalk loop, Gustafson Guthrie Nichol is designing a new civic park downtown, which will revamp a site cleared for the 1968 Hemisfair, a broader urban renewal effort. The new park will refer to the original great plains and coastal plains ecosystems that once characterized this area, and feature a network of acequias that refer to the original system of water infrastructure. Malda made the case for doing deep historical analysis before undertaking a landscape architecture project. “It’s not nostalgic but strategic. We need to understand how the park will fit into the greater pattern. We can then do creative reconstruction from a landscape narrative that draws people and places through time.”

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Civic park at the Hemisfair / Gustafson Guthrie Nichol

In South America: São Paulo, Brazil, and River Headwaters: Cornell University landscape architecture professors Brian Davis and Amelia Jensen argue that rivers form a new borderland within the Brazilian mega-city São Paulo, which is on a high plateau that also serves as the headwaters for multiple rivers. As the city expanded and the population moved down from flood-proof hills, more communities took root along riverbanks. Rivers have been largely channelized, as the goal has been to move flooding water through the city as fast as possible.

But that approach had failed, so the state government created a set of piscinão, large water detention basins that are meant to “act as a solution for flooding.” While the state built these piscinão, it’s not clear who maintains them. Today, there are “jurisdictional ambiguities” at the borders where city and rivers meet. Many piscinão are filled with sewage and trash, and have become major sources of complaints by those unfortunate enough to live near them. A few have been well-tended by the local communities, planted with trees, so they form multi-use community infrastructure: parks when rivers run low, and detention basins during severe rain events.

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Piscinão Guarau, Sao Paulo / Encalso

In Europe: the Lyon, France, and the Rhône and Saône Rivers: These two rivers converge forming a peninsula in the heart of this 2,000-year-old metropolis, explained Michael Miller, a historian at the University of Miami. This makes for city with “two left banks and two right banks.” It also makes Lyon a true river city. “It’s ‘riverness’ is connected with the city.” Miller explained how the city has since its days as a Roman center in Gaul wrapped itself around the rivers. However, over time the confluence has changed. “Islands were joined together to form the peninsula, extending the size of the city. This was done for beauty and function.” Trees line river-facing promenades, even those prone to flooding.

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Lyon, France in 1860. Adolphe Rouargue – Archiv “Deutschland und die Welt” / Wikipedia

In South Asia: Allahabad, India, and the Yamana and Ganges Rivers: In Uttar Pradesh, India, the Hindu mecca Allahabad is a source of fascination for Columbia University architectural historian Anthony Acciavatti, author of Ganges Water Machine. Allahabad, which sits at the meeting points of the Ganges and Yamana Rivers, is always responding to seasonal change; it’s a “dynamic agropolis,” an agricultural economy deeply dependent on the monsoon and the shape-shifting rivers as they shrink and flood. Acciavatti has been mapping the fluvial changes over a decade, documenting the soft edges of the rivers with GPS and panoramic photos and creating handsome maps out of his data.

He is also tracking the shift from centralized water management to a decentralized one involving small tube wells that pull straight from groundwater, and the impact of this on the form of the city. He eventually wants to create a sort of hybrid atlas and almanac, a “dynamic atlas that would explain how the conditions of people, weather, and infrastructure interact, and how this interaction changes.”

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Ganges River Machine / ArchDaily


Shahjahanabad, India, and the Yamana River
: Jyoti Pandey Sharma, a professor of architecture at Deenbandhu Chhotu Ram University of Science and Technology, explained how “Agra wasn’t cutting it” for Mughal Emperor Shahjahan in the 17th century, so he moved his capital down river, creating Shahjahanabad, in the Delhi Triangle. Shahjahanabad became the “seat of sovereignty and the caliphate; it was the epicenter of supreme power and religion.” In this city, the Qila was the embodiment of imperial authority. It was the “celestial ruler’s landscape,” with elaborate architecture set in prescribed formations, while just outside, the river was wild. Access to the city’s riverfront was largely democratic, but in front of the Qila, it was restricted. The river, at least symbolically, was tamed to serve the needs of the emperor. Water from the Yamana River flowed into a series of canals brought into the capital. River water provided “thermal comfort, and visual, tactile, and auditory pleasure.”

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Shahjanahabad / Kamit.jp

By the time the British took over in the 1800s, the perception of the river changed. It became “an agent of discord” and a source of malaria. Shahjahanabad was no longer a picturesque river city. Today, the Yamana is a river of “human filth and pollution.”

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