Archive for the ‘Policy and Regulation’ Category

brazil slums

Slums and high-rises in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil / Christian Science Monitor

“If a city has no structure, there will be inequality,” said Joan Clos, head of the UN Human Settlements Program (UN-Habitat) during the opening days of the World Urban Forum in Medellin, Colombia. Clos, the former mayor of Barcelona, said far too often cities in the developing world appear to have been built with a total disregard for organizational structure. These cities have set themselves up for massive social unrest.

Across the developing (and developed) worlds, there has been “metastatic growth,” much like a cancerous tumor eating its way through healthy tissue. This is because “urban growth has been developer-driven. High-rises and shopping malls are placed at random, creating disaggregation and then segregation.” This segregation happens because “low-income people are absent in developers’ considerations. Developers don’t make any money off of them.”

To avoid social unrest in increasingly unequal cities, Clos said “we need to start planning public spaces again.” Developers must learn to work within the frameworks set by planners. He added that pretty master plans are not urban planning. “If the first thing you see from a developer are renderings with all the houses filled in, then there has been no public input.”

Looking at the state of global urbanization — 80 percent of the world will be living in cities by 2050 — Clos is “flabbergasted.” He sees all the social splintering and fragmentation that is to come if there isn’t a new global investment in fair planning.

Echoing his remarks, a number of urban leaders from around the world explained how they are working towards more socially-cohesive cities.

Rossyln Greef with the city of Johannesburg, South Africa, showed a wowing video of their new “corridors of freedom” initiative, which aims to create a new spatial plan that will undo the segregation built into the city with apartheid.

Johannesburg’s corridors of freedom are really high-density, mixed-use developments along bus-rapid transit (BRT) corridors. The city’s goal is to reduce commuting costs for the city’s poor, so they are targeting those areas first.

She said: “We are moving from a deliberately exclusionary framework to an inclusive one. We are getting rid of racial segregation through planning. It’s a huge challenge.”

Ali Mandanipour, a professor at Newcastle University in the UK, pointed to the 2006 strategic plan from the city of Antwerp in Belgium as a model for how to reconnect a city and envisage a more equitable future. He also highlighted Bogota, Colombia’s huge investment in the planning and design of public spaces, which are all wheelchair accessible.

Mandanipour said “public spaces are key breathing spaces that make cities more attractive for people and investors.” However, he also cautioned, that new parks and plazas can become a tool for gentrification and exclusion if their construction pushes the poor out. “Spatial linkages must connect with existing social linkages.”

The United States has had a long history of segregation and social inequality, said Lisa Rice, with the National Fair Housing Alliance. She said the fair housing laws passed in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. helped eliminate housing discrimination and advanced social cohesion but segregation persists. Detroit, Washington, D.C. and Chicago are all “hyper-segregated,” which fuels disparities in access to education, healthcare, transportation, and food. “Detroit has huge food deserts. There are no supermarkets within the city limits. You have to drive to the suburbs.” In the U.S., her organization and others are trying to “stave off predatory lending in low-income areas.”

For the minister in charge of urban development in Argentina, Daniel Chain, the words of Pope Francis are worth heeding; “If a society abandons parts of itself, it will have no peace of mind. Inequality leads to violence because, at its essence, it’s unfair.” In Buenos Aires, Chain helped undo the damage caused by the red-lining that occurred in neighborhoods near one highway, helping to bring them back to life. The city has also undergone an intensive program of building new theatres, schools, libraries in its southern areas, its poorest sections. Chain said “poor people who live right next to the wealthy receive a slap in the face, a blow to their dignity.” It’s a “true confrontation” Buenos Aires is trying to limit.

And Jean-Marie Kazadi, head of urban development for the Katanga province in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) talked about the immense challenges in starting to plan communities where there has been no planning to date due to persistent civil war. Beyond war, the cities of Katanga must deal with the legacy of the harsh Belgian colonialism, which, he said, the DRC government just perpetuated after independence. “We must keep people at the center of our concerns.”

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Parque de la luces / Medellin culture department

This year, Medellin, the second largest city in Colombia, is the host of the UN-Habitat’s World Urban Forum, which attracts more than 15,000 urban leaders from around the world. This is a huge accomplishment for a city that had the highest number of homicides in the world just a decade ago. Now, Anibal Gaviria Correa, the Mayor of Medellin says, the city is not even in the top 50 ranking of dangerous cities. How did Medellin turn it around to win the title of the world’s most innovative city? The answer is complex — and the city continues to face many challenges — but the mayor said its amazing progress is really due to “social, not technological, innovation.”

Medellin (which is pronounced Medejin) is the largest city in the Antioquia province. The city, which is nestled in a valley some 5,000 feet up, had a population of around 250,000 in the 1940s. With “informal expansion,” the population exploded to 2.4 million by 2011. Without a plan, slums took root in undesirable locations along the slopes surrounding prime real estate in the valley. People from the countryside moved there to flee the civil war, only to find that a landslide could take away their home in an instant. Pushed up the slopes, these newly urbanized people experienced major displacement, resentment, and, later, incredible violence, fueled in part by drug lord Pablo Escobar and the many drug gangs.

Mayor Correa called 1990 to 2000 the decade of violence. Across the country, 48,000 people were murdered, with Medellin accounting for more than 20 percent of those deaths. Correa said it was no coincidence that during this decade Medellin had areas of extreme poverty and high inequality. In a clear warning to other developing world cities seeing their slums expand, he said violence and inequality are deeply connected.

To climb out of that dark place, the city’s leadership began to create a “structure for public participation” designed to bring all residents into a planning process, even in the midst of Colombia’s ongoing civil war. Three successive mayoral administrations continued the same good policies, creating momentum for the city’s long-term vision, which is to become a “city of life,” with a high-quality public transportation system, parks, and libraries accessible to all.

Empresas de Services Publico (EPM), a public-private utility that provides power, water, sewage, sanitation, and other services to the city also played an important part in making the dream become real. EPM provides hundreds of millions to the city each year, supporting the development of iconic projects like the subway, but also the extended Metro plus system, which includes a cable car that now provides connectivity to slums on the north side of the city.

On the Metro system, which is now the largest public transportation system in Colombia, Mayor Correa said “there is a real pride of the Metro, a culture of respect when you are in this space.”

The city has also financed fantastic “library-parks,” which offer both green space and a place to read. Here is the park for the Spanish Library in the hills of Santo Domingo, which used to be so dangerous the police would not even venture there.


Parque de Biblioteca Espana / Bomb Magazine

Two new pieces of green under development include an extensive new riverfront park system, which will provide people with acccess to the Medellin river that cuts through the center of the city, and a greenway system, which will provide a “green belt” around the city, helping to reduce landslides and flooding for the poor communities along the steep slopes and perhaps pause sprawl.

Mayor Correa said green spaces are needed for both ethical and aesthetic reasons. If parks are found in all neighborhoods — rich or poor — they improve the ethical make-up of the city. Public green spaces provide “the civic realm where people can become citizens. It’s where everyone can be equal.” Parks also provide urban beauty, which Mayor Correa said is also “necessary for urban coexistence.”

parque explora_new

Parque Explora / Medellin 2009 blog

Another important symbol of how the city is addressing persistent inequality: new day care centers. Mayor Correa said 80,000 children have accessed these new facilities, where they get free meals and a place to play, and their parents get an opportunity to go out and work. The city’s goal is to provide 100,000 children services through 20 centers. At the other end of the educational spectrum, the city is planning two new universities that will serve low-income populations in the city. Mayor Correa wants those young people working in new innovation districts.

The mayor said Medellin still has a long way to go. The city is still far too unequal, even though it’s a bit more equal than other cities in Colombia. (Unfortunately, this is not saying that much, given Colombia is one of the more unequal countries in Latin America, itself the most unequal continent on earth).

After Mayor Correa spoke, UN-Habitat invited experts from around the world to comment on whether Medellin can really serve as a model for other cities.

Swedish Ambassador to Colombia Marie Andersson de Frutos said Medellin is a replicable model because it city government has really worked as a team with the private sector and non-profits. Medellin shows “there is no quick fix. Prescriptions can’t come from a doctor, they have to come from the whole hospital.”

Jose Carrera, Development Bank of Latin America, said Medellin correctly identified that violence was tied to inequality. The city made a great move removing one key aspect of inequality in providing clean drinking water for the whole city, rich or poor. However, he added Medellin, like many others in Latin America, still needs to do a better job of creating new jobs for unemployed youth, which face double the unemployment rates of adults just at a time when they should be most productive.

David Sims, a partner with urban design firm Gehl Architects, applauded Medellin for “incorporating terms like love, trust, equality, and pride” in its new city charter. He said these concepts are difficult to measure but vital goals. Sims said Medellin has learned that true innovation comes from “different people meeting each other and having a conversation.” He also thought the city was doing a great job of focusing on the small things that matter — how people get to work, how they live. “There is a great balance here between the tangible — the physical infrastructure — and the intangibles, the culture.”

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People Habitat Communications

Influential blogger and advocate Kaid Benfield’s new book, People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities, argues that sustainable places are really just places people love. Think of those places where you most feel like yourself. Would you want anything to happen to them? We feel that way about certain places because they are “people habitats,” designed not for cars but for the every-day person walking or biking. They create an irreplaceable sense of community and are healthy for both people and the environment. Benfield points to many people habitats in the U.S. and abroad. As an example, New Orleans is highlighted because it’s rich in culture, design, and, perhaps most importantly, community.

Unfortunately, Benfield writes, too much of our country has been taken over by throw-away housing and nowhere “town centers” in sprawled-out developments. These are habitats designed for cars. In so many of these places, there’s no there there.  Even “smart growth” developments are too often lackluster, he argues. While they may be better than sprawl — with their emphasis on dense, walkable, transit-oriented development — they too often lack green space and any unique character that makes a place lovable.

At his book launch party, Benfield said he’s increasingly seeing the world through the eyes of a designer, and that’s apparent in many of these essays. He speaks to the power of design to create places that matter, particularly the ability of landscape architects to harness green infrastructure to make places more livable and design public spaces central to communities’ identity. The essay, “Cities Need Nature,” which explains why green infrastructure offers so many social and ecological benefits, is worth the price of the book alone. Here, Benfield shows he is no dogmatic New Urbanist; he really understands the value of design and nature.

Benfield also shows up how green-washing has been applied to sell communities as green when they are actually “brown.” He takes aim at the U.S. Green Building Council, and its certification of green buildings and even whole new developments only accessible via car. Debunking the marketing of one such “green” development out in the middle of nowhere, he asks, “how can you be ‘net-zero’ if you have to drive long distances to anything?” For Benfield, the greenest places are the older, revitalized ones, adding a new layer upon existing historic assets. He just worries that revitalization can have unintended consequences, namely gentrification. Benfield has spoken elsewhere about how equitable revitalization can happen.

Like public health experts Drs. Richard Jackson and Howard Frumkin, Benfield sees the deep connections between health and the built environment. He delves into both the negative health impacts of sprawl and the positive health impacts of dense yet nature-laden communities. In sprawled-out places without sidewalks, it’s no wonder people don’t walk, as it’s very dangerous. He uses data on pedestrian fatalities to show this. But he also includes new studies showing the positive side of the ledger: how walking, biking, and access to nature provides a range of mental and physical health benefits. He also gets a bit “woo-woo,” as he says, about describing the many spiritual benefits of beautiful places, explaining how living in a great place increases happiness.

So what makes a sustainable, livable community? Benfield explores the many tangibles and intangibles, arguing that creating these places is as much an art as a science. It’s not just about nature and design. While he offers evocative examples and the best available data, some clever but apt “tests” really help make his points. He asks: “Can a child comfortably walk to buy a popsicle and walk back home? Does the neighborhood attract kids walking door-to-door on Halloween? Can you meet most of your daily needs within a 20 minute walk or transit ride?” For one friend, the test is “is this place good enough that people want to vacation there?” And then there’s another interesting one: “how many drinking establishments are within walking distance?” Neighborhood bars and pubs, Benfield writes, are key “third places,” which aren’t work or home, but help create community. Sustainable, livable communities have so many layers.

Unlike other environmentalists, Benfield sees cities, and, really, the greater metropolitan regions in which cities sit, as a huge piece of the answer. Cities were once viewed as a place to escape from. Suburbs were the answer to oppressive social and environmental conditions. Today, mayors and planners increasingly understand that if we want people to live in denser, more sustainable communities, these places must be well-designed, lush with greenery, and trick-o-treater-friendly. Furthermore, metropolitan areas may provide the ideal people habitat, but they also concentrate development so our vital natural resources can be conserved. Making these places loveable is really central to a more sustainable future.

Read the book.

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“LEED is moving in the right direction, but there are not enough green buildings. We’ve brought the building market out of the 1970s, but need to move to the next level,” said Scott Horst, U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), at The Atlantic‘s Energy + Infrastructure forum in Washington, D.C. To move to that next level, which would involve dramatically increasing the global share of green buildings, LEED and the USGBC will have to fend off new threats, including the competing Green Globes green building rating system.

Horst said Green Globes, which was recently adopted by Oregon, sprung out of “LEED interest groups, the materials industry, which didn’t want to deal with the latest version of LEED, with its new, more stringent materials credits.” Horst said, “the chemical companies created this system.” USGBC, in a recent shift with version 4 of its rating system, wants building material manufacturers to declare all the chemical ingredients in their building products. Horst said “you should be able to look at the ingredients in a material and then chose which to use in your building, just like you can chose what food to put in your body.” Right now, “people can’t chose.”

The chemical companies, Horst contends, have financed a major campaign against LEED in the U.S. government, advocating against the rating system on Capitol Hill and in state legislatures. Horst said “chemical companies are putting huge amounts of lobbying dollars into fighting our system. They want to see it get beaten down.” Georgia, Mississippi, and other states have actually initiated efforts to ban LEED buildings.

Despite the controversy, Horst believes many government agencies and developers are sticking with LEED. Indeed, LEED just certified its 20,000th project, with another 60,000 in the pipeline. LEED continues to grow because it has the most “name recognition.” Horst said “tenants are demanding green buildings and they want to see a certification people recognize.”

On the technical side, Horst believes the global green building movement must further collaborate and create inter-changeable green building standards. While there’s definitely room for more than one system, there should be common standards so material manufacturers can more easily create parts that fit into different buildings around the world. “The more we aggregate, the easier it will be to create mix and match technologies.”

LEED, he said, also needs to better take into account Energy Star and other rating systems, allowing for “different scores for different areas.”

Increasingly, LEED is focused on long-term building performance. Amazingly, the energy that goes into the materials that make up a building equal about 100 years of that buildings’ energy use. Still, long-term energy use can be cut by focusing on continually rating a building while it’s actually operating, not just when it’s built. “We want to get to dynamic living green buildings.”

All of this will be needed if USGBC is to get any closer to its bold long-term vision: to create green buildings that function like trees, living systems responsive to their environments.

Image credit: ASLA 2013 Professional General Design Honor Award. Brooklyn Botanic Garden Visitors Center. HMWhite / Aaron Bocher

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“The big picture is we need $57 trillion of new infrastructure worldwide by 2040,” said Lee McIntire, chairman and CEO, CH2M Hill, at The Atlantic‘s annual Energy + Infrastructure summit in Washington, D.C. That number may seem huge, but McIntire said the global economy is expected to grow over the next 30 years from $70 trillion to $140 trillion if the world continues at the rate of 3.5 percent a year. “The economy will be twice as big as it is now.” Plus, the world will also have two billion more people by 2040, who will all need new sidewalks, bike lanes, roads, subways, and airports.

McIntire believes that “economic development precedes infrastructure development.” But the two are largely inter-connected. “We need enough money, will to produce jobs for 2 billion new people.” To create all of those new jobs, the world needs new infrastructure.

While developing countries in Asia and Africa are pushing full steam ahead with new infrastructure — and Europe continues to invest in infrastructure at high rates — the U.S. is falling further and further behind. “The U.S. just doesn’t have its act together.” The world averages 4 percent of GDP as investment in infrastructure each year. Europe continually puts down 5 percent annually. To fuel its rapid growth, China alone is investing 9 percent. Meanwhile, the U.S. invests just 2 percent in a good year.

President Obama made a huge to-do about investing $90 billion out of the $1 trillion stimulus from a few years ago in infrastructure. McIntire thought that was a bit of a joke considering China has spent $1 trillion in infrastructure through their recent stimulus. “The U.S. really bums me out.”

McIntire said the top ten investors in infrastructure can be found among the northern European countries. The next set of 10 is found in the Middle East and Asia. Then, the U.S. comes in in the 30s, around the same ranking as Chile and Slovenia. McIntire said for the U.S. to get its act together on infrastructure, “these projects really needs to be connected to jobs.” He called Obama’s effort the “three-inch stimulus,” as it was about “applying asphalt everywhere and filling in potholes.”

While national governments have mixed records, cities are pushing ahead and are now in the lead. “Cities are the hope for the future.” McIntire said 70 percent of the world’s population will live in cities by 2035. Smart cities, he added, are investing in greener districts with easy access to transportation and water infrastructure.

Water infrastructure will need to be a focus of targeted national and local investment, given “our old pipes lose about 30 percent of water through leakage.” McIntire said much of the world is so far behind in upgrading its water infrastructure because “it’s politically difficult to replace water pipes. It’s not very interesting work, and requires a long-term commitment” many mayors don’t seem to have.

For China especially, this will be a critical issue given it has 25 percent of the world’s population but just 8 percent of its fresh water. It’s also losing more and more of that water each year due to pollution.

In a separate panel on water conservation, Brendan FitzSimons, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF); John Schulz, AT&T; and Ed Osann, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), discussed efforts by AT&T and others in the telecommunications business in the U.S. to boost water conservation efforts. Telecommunications firms are major consumers of water, as they need cooling towers for their facilities. For AT&T alone, new water recycling programs could save 28 billion gallons of fresh water annually, said FitzSimons at EDF, who is partnering with AT&T on a new water-saving approach. He said “more companies will do the right thing as it also saves them money.”

Osann at NRDC said a broader water conservation effort was needed in the U.S., which would include new “pricing strategies, new technology, and outreach to consumers.” As an example, he said current water meters aren’t precise enough to pick up the drips from a leaky faucet. If consumers were charged for leakage, many more would invest in water-efficiency.

Osann also mentioned how the U.S. spent more than $1 billion on research and development (R&D) last year, but only about $20 million of that went to water efficiency R&D. Much more Is clearly needed. Indeed, one long-term goal of ASLA has been to create a new national research center for green infrastructure. He said more cities also need to focus on the water used in residential landscapes. “In the west, half or more water use goes to landscaping.”

Image credit: Complete street construction, Upper West Side, NYC / Streetsblog

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In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, “the U.S. needs to work on its long-term resiliency planning,” said Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Shaun Donovan, at The Atlantic’s Energy + Infrastructure forum in Washington, D.C. To give that effort a major boost, HUD launched the Hurricane Sandy Recovery Task Force, as well as the Rebuild by Design international design competition to find the “best architects, landscape architects, engineers” to create real-world models of climate-resilient design in Sandy-affected areas. HUD has some $2 billion to spend on the winning designs.

Rebuild by Design attracted 110 teams from 40 countries. After the initial set was reviewed, 10 teams were selected, offering nearly 45 projects. From there, 10 projects have been selected across the region impacted by Sandy to move to the final stage of the competition. The ten finalists can be explored in depth.

The teams who came up with the designs are all deeply multi-disciplinary. Each involves a major landscape architecture firm. Firms involved include Balmori Associates, Hargreaves Associates, H+N+S Landscape Architects, OLIN, SCAPE, Sasaki, Starr Whitehouse, and West 8.

HUD has made a point of creating a highly participatory review process. All the finalists had numerous sessions with community leaders, non-profits, and public to create their projects and then revise the final 10.

According to the Rebuild by Design web site, the next stage of the design competition will be “guided by the Municipal Art Society, Regional Plan Association and the Van Alen Institute. The teams will transform their chosen design opportunities to implementable and fundable design solutions. The partners will assist each team in setting up local coalitions that may comprised of government agencies, state and local officials, community stakeholders and experts where applicable. Those coalitions will work to engage the public as the teams refine their design solutions.”

Once workable projects are selected, HUD will finance the design and build out of a few projects, with additional financing from the private sector.

For Donovan, the results of the competition will help shape a new approach to resiliency planning and design in the era of climate change. [In addition to managing affordable housing, HUD handles long-term disaster recovery, while FEMA handles short-term emergency response.]

He said “this is real. We need to find out what we can do to protect our communities.”

He believes climate change can become a bipartisan issue, arguing that New Jersey governor Chris Christie is seriously looking at “how to build resiliency into our grids. There’s an enormous amount of cooperation and interest.”

Beyond Sandy, Donovan said much more work was needed to “update our national disaster recovery framework” and better coordinate national and local efforts. “Local government actually leads recovery.”

To further improve resiliency, Donovan called for looking to the Netherlands as well. He said “they have spent a lot of time on how to protect their communities.” Whether building a park or a sidewalk, resiliency there is embedded in every design.

Explore the 10 finalists and submit your comments.

Image credit:

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“Philadelphia has the first and only EPA-approved green infrastructure plan,” said Mark Focht, FASLA, first deputy commissioner, Philadelphia Parks & Recreation and ASLA President, at the Dupont Summit, a meeting of the Policy Studies Organization in Washington, D.C. He said Philadelphia even needs to “train the EPA on how to evaluate our plan,” which provides a cutting-edge, low-cost approach for dealing with his city’s stormwater run-off problems.

A grey infrastructure system was estimated to cost more than $6 billion. The green infrastructure plan Philly is moving forward with will only cost $1.2 billion over 25 years. Some $800 million of that will go directly to green infrastructure projects in the city, while $200 million will go to further strengthening the city’s water treatment plants. Another $200 is reserved for “adaptive management,” which will address “future technological changes.” Focht said even if future mayors tried to undo this 25-year plan, they can’t. The agreement, which he emphasized is “not a consent decree,” has been signed.

Green infrastructure provides many benefits beyond cost savings. There’s a “triple bottom line effect,” with multiple environmental, social, and economic benefits. On environmental benefits side alone, the potential payoff is massive. Focht said the greening plan could absorb or help the city avoid  some 1.5 billion pounds of carbon dioxide annually, which is equal to removing 3,400 cars off the road. “This number will compound each year.” With improved air quality due to all the new trees, green roofs, and parks, communities will benefit on the social or health side, as well. Focht estimated 20 deaths due to asthma will be avoided, and 250 fewer work or school days will be missed. Deaths due to excessive urban heat could also be cut by 250 over 20 years. Lastly, the economic benefits are also outstanding: the new greenery will increase property values by $390 million over 45 years, also boosting the property taxes the city takes in. In the short term, all those green roofs and parks need to be constructed, creating 250 local green jobs.

Focht said in contrast to grey infrastructure, green infrastructure creates a wider range of jobs, with more opportunities for convicts reentering society. “Grey infrastructure really just employs engineers.” Green infrastructure benefits are immediate across all levels, while grey infrastructure has a “different curve” to kick-in and starting paying back.

Philadelphia’s new plan is based on the “greened acre.” According to Focht, “one greened acre is equivalent to one inch of managed stormwater from one acre of impervious drainage area, or 27,158 gallons of stormwater.” There’s even a formula: GA = IC * Wd. The city decided to come up with the greened acre concept to help communicate with the public about their goals over the coming decades. Over the next 25 years, Philadelphia wants to convert 9,600 impervious acres into permeable greened ones. That means 34 percent of the city’s now impervious surface (or 15 square miles) will become permeable.  Greened acres can include rain gardens, trees, green roofs, permeable pavements, and green “bump-outs.”

To implement this bold vision, the Philadelphia water department has steered city investment in city-owned properties in a greener direction and set the standards for all new construction projects. There’s a green streets design manual that shows how permeable pavements should function. Focht said one street just put in had no drains. The water simply drains down into the permeable asphalt and the earth.

Strong new regulations will also move the private sector to act. “Water bills are now based on how much water you use and manage.” One site with huge amounts of paved areas saw their water bill shoot up from $400 a month to more than $2,500, while another with no paved surfaces saw their bill go from $4,700 to $100. Focht made a point of saying that “the new regulations are not a revenue generator.” But there are clearly winners and losers. “Losers include big box retailers, retail malls, and car dealerships.”

Focht said, if smart, a condo could put on a green roof and get its water bill to zero. To push buildings to go this route, the city is offering a range of grants and loans modeled after NYC’s program. “If a project increases the visibility of green infrastructure, it also gets more credits.”

For the parks department, the new green infrastructure plan is a bonanza, creating opportunities for lots of new multi-functional green spaces. The parks department is already racing ahead: One new playground is 92 percent permeable, with new permeable pavements and plants. As a big plus, the neighbors love the pavement because it also absorbs the sound of basketballs bouncing. Green schools are coming. There’s even a green homes program that provides small grants to volunteer, non-profit groups to teach homeowners how to capture their own runoff.

One exciting project, deemed the “big green project,” shows how these green infrastructure tactics can coalesce into larger systems. The new Kensington Creative + Performing Arts High School, which is LEED Platinum, has green roofs, rainwater cisterns, and an underground detention facility. Surrounding it is a newly permeable sports area, a “geothermal well field,” and tree trenches.

So how did Philadephia make this happen, forming a partnership among so many different city agencies when so many other cities have failed to accomplish this? Focht said a “strong mayor” was central, as well as “city-wide planning framework that enabled real partnerships.” Focht also mentioned how many people leading agencies now came up together through the ranks. When he and others were all middle managers at agencies, they formed an extra-curricular working group to discover how they could collaborative on green space, water management, and public health. Those efforts eventually bubbled up into Philadelphia’s 2009 GreenWorks plan.

Importantly, Focht said green infrastructure initiatives have retained public support because city officials have made a point of making “the same investment in every neighborhood,” rich or poor.

To learn more, download Focht’s full presentation (7MB) and also read a report ASLA co-wrote with a number of organizations, Banking on Green: How Green Infrastructure Saves Municipalities Money and Provides Economic Benefits Community-wide.

Image credits: (1-2)  7th and Washington / Philadephia Parks & Recreation, (3) Expanded tree pit / Philadelphia Water department, (4) Kensington High School / Paul Rider

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“Here at MIT, we have the infinite flexibility to innovate,” said MIT landscape architecture professor Alan Berger, in a tour of the new Center for Advanced Urbanism (CAU), an ambitious program that seeks real-world impact. Berger said the role of the new CAU, which includes 27 different planning, landscape architecture, architecture, and engineering professors from five different MIT schools, would be to challenge existing notions about urban development through research into what’s actually happening.

At MIT, almost every faculty has a lab. Some of those labs form together into centers. The goal of the centers is to get students and professors to share research, to force “everyone to find out what’s behind all those closed doors.” As such, each project the new CAU will take on will be a “full-blown collaboration between disciplines.”

Berger and architecture professor Alexander D’Hooge co-direct the CAU, rooting it in a set of clear principles. First, the projects the center will take on must have real-world sponsors and aim for real-world impacts. Second, each project will be collaborative from the get-go, with a mix of architecture, landscape architecture, engineering, and planning professors. “Everyone brings equal knowledge.” He even said one assistant director’s role will be to simply ensure that true collaboration happens between the disciplines, and “no one is a sub-contractor.” Berger said that’s needed because collaborating on research is “really hard, time consuming, and socially complicated.” (Berger is one of four research-focused professors of landscape architecture at MIT, a school that interestingly doesn’t offer any landscape architecture degrees, but is rightly famous for their world-class planning school.)

One of CAU’s first projects is a collaboration with the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the Clinton Global Initiative, on Health + Urbanism. Out of 40 cities first examined, some eight cities were further evaluated and then three cities finally selected to work with the center. The goal, said Berger, is to identify “real players” in each city, a local constituency that “can construct a new infrastructure that will change the health situation.” Los Angeles, Houston, and Atlanta, cities all facing exploding growth — and sprawl — are the cities moving to the next stage. Over the next decade, the CAU hopes to transform one of these cities, and their residents’ health performance.

What worries CAU and AIA is a “new wave of suburban explosion is coming.” He said already 67 percent of Americans aren’t lucky enough to live in that ideal “live, work, play” environment. Many people also chose suburbs because “there are better services, these places are closer to jobs, and they get a better deal, a bigger home.” Berger argued that the data shows “suburbs will continue to be a huge growth area, and no one is ready for this.”

Unfortunately, Berger sees this as inevitable because “too many cities don’t have land use controls.” While New York City, Seattle, and other cities have “hard controls, some 60 percent of cities don’t.” And the truth may be many people actually “want suburban development.”

As an example, he pointed to trends he and other researchers at MIT have examined in Chicago and its burbs. Between now and 2040, population growth within Chicago’s core will be 14 percent, and employment will increase 18 percent. However, within the broader Kendall county suburbs, population growth is expected to be 81 percent and employment growth, a whopping 173 percent.

He said a clear understanding of these kinds of future growth trends is crucial “if we are going to redirect landscape architects to places of urgency.” He sees his mission as “informing our discipline and enlisting practitioners” to focus on the real problems coming.

In the case of Atlanta, where he sees suburban growth exploding as well, he largely views the new, multi-billion-dollar Atlanta Beltline initiative as a misguided effort. “You have to look at where the jobs are being created, they are all out in the suburbs.” The Beltline, he fears, will do nothing to stop those trends. While the Beltline may provide a great way to walk or bike in Atlanta, Berger says the real health problems aren’t in that part of the city.

Furthermore, his research argues that “suburban development doesn’t cause obesity,” but that “more obese people chose to live in car-centric suburbs.” He said “we have to be careful about causality” when looking at large amounts of data. He added that there is a dearth of data on obesity, as hospitals don’t collect and report that information. In fact, data on diabetes is often used as an indicator of obesity. He also poked holes in recent data on obesity rates in New York City, saying that was collected through faulty “voluntary questionnaires.”

Berger questioned the whole notion as to whether cities are really healthier environments than suburbs, countering the messages promoted by so many public health and design organizations. He said “there are no silver bullets, each place has their own health context.” As an example, he pointed to one new “live, work, play” development put up next to a major interstate in Los Angeles, in an area with some of the worst air in America. While Los Angeles is trying to do right, the city planners and developers, in effect, made the health outcomes of the people living in that community even worse. “That’s what I mean by the fact that we need to find about the real issues and then design changes.” He said “we have to uncover those problems and then solve them.”

While AIA may have sponsored the report, Berger sees the focus on their new research, which has taken the form of a new report, Health + Urbanism, as fundamentally a problem for landscape architects. He said “evaluating problems at the broad scale of cities and their suburbs — and then finding solutions — is truly an Olmstedian undertaking.”

Image credit: Chicago sprawl / Urban research blog

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Entering the arena at Liacouras Center in Philadelphia, home to the Temple University Owls, 2013 Greenbuild attendees could see that this wasn’t going to be just a normal keynote. As U.S. Green Building Council President Rick Fedrizzi jogged onto the stage, stage lighting scanned the crowd and loud music filled the dome. Perhaps it was just the culmination of a long day of empowering sessions, or maybe the packed, 10,000-person arena, but the air was charged with anticipation. This night, said Fedrizzi, “Greenbuild had not just one, but two rock stars on display.”

The first rock star was, of course, Jon Bon Jovi, but the other was the Greenbuild 2013 keynote speaker, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Clinton, decked out all in green for the occasion, spoke of her longstanding relationship with Greenbuild and congratulated USGBC on their 20th anniversary. She praised USGBC and all attendees for their ability to start a movement that is changing the world. Clinton explained how it started with a simple idea: promote sustainability—do well and do good. “It was an idea that was so profoundly true, that I and others when we first heard about it, said ‘of course, that is exactly what we need to be doing.’”

“This is a great conference,” she continued, “because it brings together those of you who are in the cutting-edge from across industries, the country, and even the world.”

Within minutes, she delved into serious issues, such as energy security and economic growth. She explained how hard construction was hit during the recession. Government budget cuts have been holding back the growth from which the country could benefit. “Public investment in infrastructure has fallen to the lowest levels since World War II . . . so fewer schools are being built and renovated.”

Green construction and retrofitting, according to Clinton, provide answers to these problems. It will continue to create millions of jobs as well as spur growth and innovation, all as we lower our domestic energy consumption.

Retrofitting buildings is a key part of the Clinton Climate Initiative. According to Clinton, “[the foundation] works with the private and public sector in partnership to reduce carbon emissions, improve energy efficiency and spur more investments in green construction including some innovative financing tools.”

Her favorite example of this is the retrofit of the Empire State Building. “Think about that iconic building,” she prompts, with “2.8-million square feet of office space.”

It was an extensive task, Clinton explained, “improving windows, insulating radiators, updating lighting and temperature control systems.” As many as 275 jobs were created in those two years, and in the end, the building received LEED Gold Certification. “The retrofit reduced its annual energy consumption by 38 percent, worth roughly $4.4-million a year.”

Inevitably, the rumors of Clinton’s run for presidency in 2016 came up after someone in the crowd shouted “Hillary 2016!” The crowd seemed receptive to the idea—not surprising, as she had spent the last hour praising green building. “There are some hecklers, I would never,” Clinton paused to smirk, “say anything bad about.”

She spoke of politics briefly, but only about the need for unity on green building and climate change. She called for compromise:

“Everybody is concerned. It seems as though our partisan debates have been taken over by a small minority that doesn’t believe in compromise. We could never have formed our nation if every time there was a disagreement at Constitution Hall, people said ‘Well we’re leaving.’”

As Clinton, Fedrizzi and Michael Nutter, Mayor of Philadelphia, re-enforced in their speeches, America needs to take the lessons forged in Philadelphia so many years ago to further promote green building.

“What a democracy does is bring people together with very different experiences—and lots of times values and philosophies—but with the common understanding that no one has the truth. We are not a theocracy. We are not a dictatorship . . . we bring people together and we debate it out. We have to get back to doing that.”

Watch the full keynote.

This guest post is by Phil Stamper, ASLA PR and Communications Coordinator.

Image credit: Hillary Clinton / USGBC Vimeo

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Places in the Making, a new report from MIT’s department of urban studies and planning (DUSP), argues that the process of making a place is as important as the place itself. With this fresh take on “placemaking,” MIT planning and urban design professor Susan Silberberg, who teamed up with a few of her graduate students, along with Aaron Naparstek, the founder of Streetsblog, has written highly readable, well-organized report worth exploring.

Placemaking first appeared in the 1960s as a “reaction to auto-centric planning and bad public spaces.” In their intro, they write: “Place-making as we now know it can trace its roots back to the seminal works of urban thinkers like Jane Jacobs, Kevin Lynch and William Whyte, who, beginning in the 1960s, espoused a new way to understand, design and program public spaces by putting people and communities ahead of efficiency and aesthetics. Their philosophies, considered groundbreaking at the time, were in a way re-assertions of the people-centered town-planning principles that were forgotten during the hundred-year period of rapid industrialization, suburbanization, and urban renewal. Placemaking may come naturally to human societies, but something was lost along the way; communities were rendered powerless in the shadows of experts to shape their physical surroundings.”

Since the 1960s, place-making, as a discipline, has really “grown up.” Today, placemaking is a powerful tool for “enhancing quality of life and supporting collaborations that connect people and support local action.” Placemaking now includes “broader concerns about healthy living, social justice, community capacity-building, economic revitalization, childhood development, and a host of other issues facing residents, workers, and visitors in towns and cities large and small. In its contemporary form, placemaking ranges from the grassroots, one-day tactical urbanism of Park(ing) Day to a developer’s deliberate and decades-long transformation of a Denver neighborhood around the organizing principle of art.”

Over the past fifty years, the focus and form of place-making projects may have varied, but successful local initiatives have shared an emphasis on the “making” part of place-making. Silberberg writes: “Placemaking puts power back in the hands of the people. The most successful placemaking initiatives transcend the ‘place’ to forefront the ‘making,’ and the benefits for community can be substantial and long-lasting.”

But the MIT researchers also argue that it’s time to re-evaluate what has worked well — and not so well — in this approach over the past 50 years, and further understand the crucial role of process innovation in the creation of unique, community-sustaining places.

Through a set of case studies, Silberberg and her co-authors then show how positive change comes out of community-led processes aimed at transforming a physical space. “The research shows that, at the most basic level, the act of advocating for change, questioning regulations, finding funding, and mobilizing others to contribute their voices engages communities – and in engaging, leaves these communities better for it.”

The report outlines some key findings:

  • Process is equal to the outcome.
  • Placemaking creates a virtuous cycle.
  • Public places are never “finished.”
  • Temporary initiatives and tactical methods can be remarkably effective.
  • Placemaking is open-source.
  • Public/Private partnerships elevate what’s possible.

The 13 case studies cover both well-known successes like Bryant Park in New York City, Eastern Market in Detroit, and Guerrero Park in San Francisco and cutting-edge models like pop-up Better Block project in Dallas and StreetsAlive in Fargo and Moorhead. (The Better Block project, created by SWA Group, a landscape architecture firm, and StreetSpace Collaborative, recently won an ASLA professional design award).

In the Better Block example, we learn that temporary projects can have a significant impact and help both the community and local officials envision a new future for a place. The case shows that “city officials can use temporary zoning and transportation ‘grace periods,’ allowing placemakers to break regulations to explore permanent regulatory changes.” These grace periods are actually crucial for urban innovation. The San Francisco government has also used pilots to great effect.

Indeed, the MIT researchers seem to conclude that the key to success in placemaking is taking the risk to innovate in the making process. They argue that “the most successful projects seem to be those that can combine tactics that historically would have been kept separate.”

Read the report.

Image credit: ASLA 2011 Professional Design Awards. The Better Block Project. SWA Group and StreetSpace Collaborative / Image credit: Jason Roberts, David Thompson 

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