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Archive for the ‘Public Spaces’ Category

Broadway and Flushing Ave under the JMZ subway lines / Krisanne Johnson for the Design Trust for Public Space

Broadway and Flushing Ave under the JMZ subway lines / Krisanne Johnson for the Design Trust for Public Space

During the early and mid-twentieth century, New York City constructed a massive transportation system, layering elevated highways, subway tracks, and rail lines to create the complicated web we are familiar with today. While this network has undoubtedly contributed to NYC’s physical and economic growth, it has also provided an untapped public asset: 700 miles of unused space (nearly four times the size of Central Park) beneath the city’s elevated transportation infrastructure.

In a comprehensive new report resulting from a two-year-long study, the Design Trust for Public Space and NYC Department of Transportation (NYC DOT) highlight sustainable ways to rethink these residual spaces. Addressing complex problems such as noise, safety, and lighting, the new study builds off of the success of the Design Trust’s 2002 study, Reclaiming the High Line (“the study that catalyzed efforts to save and reprogram the decommissioned rail line”). The result is a comprehensive document intended to inspire public and private investment in some of the city’s most neglected public spaces.

In an introductory essay that discusses New York’s elevated railways (or “els”), Thomas Campanella, an associate professor in Cornell University’s city and regional planning department, frames the importance of the study, stating: “The demesne of the elevated— I’ll call it “el-space” here— is neither tranquil nor serene, but it’s not without poetry. The root of its allure is the close juxtaposition of human life and heavy industrial infrastructure.”

Going Home Near Bloomingdales, 1946 / Lionel S. Reiss via the Collection of The New York Historical Society

Going Home Near Bloomingdales, 1946 / Lionel S. Reiss via the Collection of The New York Historical Society

In many ways, the elevated railroad is a relic of an age before zoning when people, especially the poor, were forced to live in hazardously close proximity to the factories where they worked. And while the els remains popular today — particularly in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx — Campanella claims that the fact that el-space “is almost universally described as dark and oppressive is an inaccurate cliché.” The quality of light beneath elevated tracks can be “exquisite” and the sense of enclosure created by the columns “yields an effect reminiscent of an avenue of mature trees … a kind of sturdy steampunk Elm Street.” Such sentiments are the first inklings of design inspiration the study provides.

Third Avenue Elevated Railway at 18th Street in 1942 / Marjorie Collins via The Design Trust for Public Space

Third Avenue Elevated Railway at 18th Street in 1942 / Marjorie Collins via The Design Trust for Public Space

Focusing in on elevated train lines rather than elevated highways, which are more relevant in other U.S. cities, the Design Trust for Public Space first assessed the inventory of existing el-space to identity opportunities and constraints. Surprisingly, these opportunities and constraints have largely remained unchanged since the 1960s when Jane Jacobs called attention to them in her seminal book, The Life and Death of Great American Cities. These physical structures divide low-incomes neighborhoods and produce noise, darkness, and dirt; on the other hand, the els have also brought people, commerce and cultural vibrancy to these areas. The call is the same now as it was then: Reconnect communities divided and affected by elevated infrastructure and turn these el-spaces into a positive resource.

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Map of Elevated Transit Infrastructure in New York City / The Design Trust for Public Space

So, in 2014, 146 year after the construction of the first el, is NYC any closer to reclaiming these spaces? The study explores the potential uses of el-spaces from site strategies to their associated policies, relying heavily on research and case studies from across the country to inspire designers, planners, and policymakers to action. The good news is that many of these spaces are already being reclaimed for a variety of public uses. Potential uses highlighted in the study include:

Environmental Sustainability

In Flushing, Queens, the Highway Outfall Landscape Detention (HOLD) System, invented by DLANDstudio, uses a low-cost, flexible, plant-based system to collect and filter stormwater from drainpipes on the elevated highways that run through Flushing Meadows Corona Park. This system absorbs and filters pollutants such as oil, heavy metals, and grease out of the water that drain off of the elevated highways, leading to cleaner runoff entering the city’s waterways. The system’s ability to retain water during heavy rain events also helps reduce flooding.

Highway Outfall Landscape Detention (HOLD) Systems to collect and filter storm water from highway scuppers / dlandstudio

Highway Outfall Landscape Detention (HOLD) Systems to collect and filter storm water from highway scuppers / dlandstudio

Parks

In 2002, the redesign of Queens Plaza was one of the first comprehensive el-space improvement projects in New York City. A group of designers and engineers was selected to transform Queens Plaza into Dutch Kills Green, a new park with well-lit green pathways in the heart of the Long Island City commercial district. In an article for Urban Omnibus, the project’s landscape architect, Margie Ruddick, ASLA, says that “rather than using a harsh, urban language, we tried to find a language through which lushness and beauty could coexist with the hard edge of infrastructure. The linear landscape of medians and streetscape meet in Dutch Kills Green, and this convergence, for me, challenges the notion of an urban park because its surroundings are so inhospitable. This juxtaposition would have seemed inappropriate several years ago. But these days it’s becoming more prevalent.”

Dutch Kills Green / The Design Trust for Public Space

Dutch Kills Green / The Design Trust for Public Space

Markets

In 2011, the New York City Economic Development Council (NYCEDC) and the City Council combined forces to modernize underutilized market space, add new retail space, and construct a kitchen incubator underneath the Park Avenue elevated train station between 115th and 116th Streets in El Barrio. Despite significant public investment in the area, “the new La Marqueta has struggled to attract visitors and retain retailers.” Yet just a block north of La Marqueta at 116th Street, salsa dancers have congregated under the tracks every Saturday evening in the summer months for years. In an attempt to revive the informal spirit the market once had, City Council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito launched La Marqueta Reto (La Marqueta Reblooms) in 2014, an initiative to bring street vendors, a farmers market, and other community events back into the space.

Children sit in front of the entrance of La Marqueta, in East Harlem / Epoch Times

Children sit in front of the entrance of La Marqueta, in East Harlem / Epoch Times

Transportation

Before New Lots Triangle Plaza in East New York, Brooklyn, was completed in 2011, subway riders exited from the train onto a narrow sidewalk with minimal protection from oncoming traffic. NYC Department of Transportation worked with the New Lots Avenue Triangle Merchants Association to join an 800-foot traffic triangle with nearby sidewalks and the exit of the three elevated train lines to create a 3,800-square-foot public space that is protected from traffic by decorative planters. According to the NYC DOT, the plaza has made the area safer for pedestrians and created “an immediate impact on business by encouraging pedestrians to linger longer in the area and visit businesses, boosting the local economy.”

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New Lots Triangle Park / Streetsblog NYC

In a dense city like New York, residual spaces under elevated transportation infrastructure can no longer be an afterthought — and these spaces in NYC are only a small piece of the more than 7,000 miles available for reclamation in cities across the country. The Design Trust for Public Space report further emphasizes the need for adaptive reuse of these spaces, looking at the infrastructure that gets us from point a to point b and creating a much-needed public space as point c.

Purchase the report.

Several years ago ASLA created an animation to introduce people to the concept of reusing transportation infrastructure as public spaces, including underpass parks. The video, which is a part of Designing Our Future: Sustainable Landscapes, a project funded by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), can be viewed below:

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ASLA 2009 Professional General Design Honor Award. HtO Park by Claud Cormier and Associates, Janet Rosenberg and Studio and Hariri Pontarini Architects / Niel Fox

With the cultural and ecological context of Toronto established in part one, the second half of The Cultural Landscape Foundation’s (TCLF) Leading with Landscape symposium asked landscape architects to offer perspectives on their efforts to create a more resilient city. Conference co-organizer Jane Amidon, ASLA, professor, Northeastern University, pointed to the ingredients that could be used to make Toronto a model for the rest of the continent: the city’s ravine network, the vibrant waterfront, the breadth of public space, the high-profile place-making, and the committed design community that believes investing in landscape architecture can transform Toronto for the better.

A number of landscape architects working in Toronto described landscape architecture projects shaping the city:

Claude Cormier, ASLA, principal, Claude Cormier + Associes Inc., presented the HtO waterfront, which his firm produced in partnership with Janet Rosenberg and Studio (see image above). The designs draw inspiration from Toronto’s industrial past, but also refer to the work of painter Georges Seurat as they incorporate contemporary ideas of form and use. The undeniable pop sensibility of Cormier’s designs creates iconic landscape moments. The development that followed these waterfront parks has been tremendous and is a testament to the power of landscape architecture.

Marc Ryan, principal of Toronto-based Public Work, presented the evolution of development from the Lake Ontario waterfront to the Don River and, now, the active port lands to the west. Ryan’s analysis showed how a collaborative spirit can be created through an extensive public process. The resulting exercise produced new landscapes that allow for the city and port to connect.

Elizabeth Silver, a landscape architect with Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), spoke of the firm’s recent work at Corktown Common, a park in the West Dons Land neighborhood, that shows how landscape architecture can boost resilience and attract people at the same time: the Common provides 16 acres of flood absorption at the mouth of the Don while the recreational portion of the site offers adventure playgrounds amid a constructed stormwater-fed wetland. The park is in part a response to the city hosting the upcoming Pan Am Games; but as the area around the park develops, it will become a community anchor in itself.

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Corktown Common / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

Bruce Kuwabara, a leading Canadian architect and partner at KPMB Architects, noted how the past decade has led to many high-quality public spaces. He provoked the audience to imagine what “leading with landscapes” actually means and think about Toronto as an evolving city that can serve as a model of this landscape-forward development.

Adriaan Geuze, International ASLA, principal, West 8 Urban Design & Landscape Architecture, provided a deeply personal presentation outlining his process of distilling a Canadian or Torontonian culture into the physical design. Geuze spoke of the urban renaissance currently underway in Toronto and noted that it’s primarily landscape architecture that is improving livability and spurring investment. He emphasized that the profession should not divorce itself from the social needs and responsibilities of city-building.

Geoff Cape, CEO of Evergreen Brick Works, a community environmental center, showed examples of landscape-forward projects and spoke of the often difficult process of letting landscape architects lead projects. Most importantly, Cape focused on the unique opportunities the ravine system offers, connecting with the 1.8 million-acre greenbelt surrounding the greater Toronto area and expressing Toronto’s evolving identity. Cape challenged attendees to construct sophisticated partnerships that can bring ideas to fruition and look at governance and partnerships through a creative lens.

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Evergreen Brick Works / Tom Arban Photography

As the last panelist of the day, Thomas Woltz, FASLA, principal of Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects (NBW), reinforced the conference’s overarching goals by presenting examples of funding models and public-private partnerships drawn from two projects by NBW and two precedent-setting ones by other landscape architects and organizations. Throughout his presentation, Woltz highlighted the vitality and richness that emerges when engaging in a process that considers landscape and the city within larger contexts – ecological, historical, cultural, and agricultural. And he challenged the profession to “get smarter about speaking about numbers and convincing a city council that they will, in the long-term, see the benefits of these systems.”

In closing, Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, founder and president of TCLF, reinforced the idea that urban park design and construction should aspire to offer a holistic urban design and management solution, create new cultural narratives, and embed positive values within the fabric of cities. Referring to the current debate on the future of the Gardiner Expressway, Birnbaum urged landscape architects to engage, speak out, aspire to make a difference, and act as leaders at this critical moment in the renaissance of the city.

Leading with Landscape brought together a community around the common mission of improving Toronto through landscape. And, more broadly, it brought landscape architecture to the forefront of the conversation in city building. The appearance of Mayor Tory and chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat elevated the importance of a strategic, systems-based design approach to the city.

This guest post is by Tim Popa, Communications Director, Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architecture.

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Miller’s Court in Baltimore, Maryland / Courtesy of Billy Michels via Metropolis

Miller’s Court in Baltimore, Maryland / Billy Michels via Metropolis

From a pool of applicants from 40 communities in 26 states, Miller’s Court in Baltimore was awarded the Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence (RBA) gold medal and a $50,000 prize. Four other projects were awarded silver medals and $10,000 each.

Since 1987, the biennial award has recognized “urban places distinguished by quality design and contributions to the social, economic, and communal vitality of our nation’s cities.” The 2013 gold medal was awarded to Inspiration Kitchens in Garfield Park, Chicago.

This year’s winning project, Miller’s Court, is a “renovation of a vacant historic tin can manufacturing building, into an affordable and supportive living and working environment for school teachers and education-focused non-profits.” Located in an economically and culturally diverse neighborhood near Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus, the project, which was conceived and developed by Seawall Development Company with Mark, Thomas Architects, was completed in 2009.

The LEED Gold-certified complex includes “40 rental apartments and 30,000 square feet of office space and shared meeting rooms with contemporary, loft-like interiors.” Other features include a teacher resource center and a cooperatively owned independent café, which has become a popular meeting place for teachers, tenants and even President Obama, who visited in January.

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Miller’s Court / Seawall Development Corporation

One of the project’s crowning achievements is generating additional investment in the surrounding community. At the urging of several building residents, Seawall purchased and renovated 30 vacant neighboring houses to create Miller’s Square. Baltimore public school teachers and police officers are eligible for $25,000 grants toward homes there. Read more about the project in Metropolis.

Renovated row houses at Miller’s Square / Courtesy of the Bruner Foundation

Renovated row houses at Miller’s Square /
Bruner Foundation

Four other projects were recognized with silver medals and $10,000 each:

Located in the center of downtown Greenville, South Carolina, Falls Park on the Reedy is an urban oasis thanks to the transformation of a forgotten 40-foot tall waterfall and overgrown river valley into a 26-acre park. Development of the park, which opened in 2006, included replacing a four-lane vehicular bridge built directly over the falls with a pedestrian suspension bridge designed by Rosales+Partners. The bridge appears to float above the river, offering a dramatic overlook of the falls. Learn more about this project at Metropolis.

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Falls Park on the Reedy in Greenville, South Carolina / Rosales+Partners via Metropolis

Grand Rapids Downtown Market is a new public space in one of West Michigan’s most challenged neighborhoods. The market “promotes local food producers, entrepreneurship, and education about nutrition and healthy lifestyles” by linking urban communities with the 13,000 farms in 11 surrounding counties and attracting a diversity of customers to the southern edge of downtown Grand Rapids. The state-of-the-art facility, designed by Hugh A. Boyd Architects, is the first LEED Gold–certified public market in the country. Learn more about the market at Metropolis.

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Grand Rapids Downtown Market / Grand Rapids Downtown Market

Quixote Village, in Olympia, Washington, is a two-acre community of tiny houses that provides “permanent, supportive housing for homeless adults, including people suffering from mental illness and physical disabilities and recovering from addiction.” Since its completion in December 2013, Quixote Village has attracted the attention of many interested in tiny houses including nonprofits and private developers, as well as The New York Times. Learn more about the project at Metropolis.

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Tiny house in Quixote Village / Courtesy of Jeremy Bittermann for The New York Times

Located three miles south of downtown Cleveland, Uptown District is the “redevelopment of a corridor that links surrounding neighborhoods with art, educational, and healthcare institutions, producing outdoor gathering spaces, retail shops and restaurants, student and market-rate housing, and public transit connections in the process.” The development has transformed two previously underused city blocks between two of the city’s most iconic cultural institutions into a “community gateway.” Learn more about the project at Metropolis.

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Uptown District in Cleveland, OH / Stanley Saitowitz, Natoma Architects Inc. via Metropolis

The 2015 RBA selection committee included: Mayor Mark Stodola, Little Rock, Arkansas; Rebecca L. Flora, Sustainable Practices Leader, Ecology & Environment, Inc.; Larry Kearns, Principal, Wheeler Kearns Architects; India Pierce Lee, Program Director, Cleveland Foundation; Mia Lehrer, FASLA, President, Mia Lehrer + Associates; James Stockard, Lecturer in Housing, Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Learn more: A blog series on Metropolis’ web site is chronicling the 2015 RBA process and case studies of the winning projects.

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Central Park Conservancy sign in Central Park Park, NYC / Sallanscorner.wordpress.com

In an age of ample private wealth and an increasingly constrained public sector, a number of American cities have become dependent on privately funded conservancies to maintain and refurbish their public parks. A new report by Peter Harnik, Hon. ASLA, and Abby Martin from The Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence explores the rise of such city park conservancies — private organizations that use donations to rebuild, renovate, and, in some cases, maintain some of the most iconic parks in the country. Interspersed with examples from 41 conservancy organizations that have a collective experience record of nearly 750 years, the study serves as a how-to guide for building successful relationships between city governments and urban park conservancies.

While many park-support organizations exist throughout the country, including friends-of-parks groups and business improvement districts, the study defines a conservancy as a “private, nonprofit park-benefit organization that raises money independent of the city and spends it under a plan of action mutually agreed upon by the government.” Throughout the study, Harnik and Martin maintain that the key to this relationship is that the land remains the city’s and the city retains ultimate authority over everything that happens there.

New York’s Central Park Conservancy, which was founded in 1980, is generally considered the catalyst for the conservancy movement. Following a nationwide recession in the 1970s which severely damaged NYC’s already declining parks department, NYC Mayor Ed Koch and parks commissioner Gordon Davis appointed Betsy Barlow Rogers as Central Park Administrator. Rogers created a revolutionary public-private partnership that would bring private money and expertise together with the City of New York to restore Central Park. The study contends that to this day, New York has used conservancies more so than any other city and continues to provide lessons for other public-private partnerships.

Since the formation of the Central Park Conservancy, urban park conservancies have become a favored tool for revitalizing many parks across the country (about 50 percent of major cities have at least one). However, the strength of the study is that is does not gloss over the inevitable conflicts that arise when trying to build a successful public-private relationship, nor does it consider conservancy support as the panacea for urban park management. As was the case with the Central Park Conservancy, most conservancies are founded to restore dilapidated historic parks and address shortcomings in governmental funding. Yet, this can often create an ideological conflict.

For every person that is skeptical of government, there is another who is skeptical of increasing private control over public space. While many city governments often lose the capacity to maintain a park’s programs and amenities without private support, putting too much responsibility in the hands of a conservancy can lead community members to suspect a park is becoming completely privatized. For example, civil right attorney Larry Krasner, who defended a group of Occupy Wall Street protestors, states, “I think there is a trend of analogizing public space to shopping malls. I think a lot of people view that as a sad state of affairs. It seems to indicate that government is insufficiently funded or not able to provide services we used to take for granted.” The study is upfront and honest about the challenges these conflicting mentalities can create for restoring, maintaining, and improving urban parks.

Among these challenges, there are two that conservancy-supported parks appear to face time and again: Maintenance and safety. According to the study, finding the money to cover basic maintenance costs can be a challenge – often the challenge – for conservancies and city governments alike. While big capital projects are more flashy and attract private donations, maintenance is less sexy. For this, Harnik and Martin offer one thoughtful solution inspired by the Central Park Conservancy: Have conservancies build in “a long-term maintenance fee to the initial budget of each capital project – an upfront gift that becomes a permanent trust fund.” Such a solution ensures that the maintenance of donor-attracting capital projects does not fall solely on the city government’s shoulders.

The issue of maintaining public safety is slightly more complicated. The study provides several examples, including Piedmont Park in Atlanta and Civic Center Park in Denver, where public-private arrangements have gone awry in the wake of public safety concerns that discourage donors and visitors. While the Civic Center Conservancy stepped up programming and the Mayor of Denver allocated more money for policing and security after a 2013 shooting, specific suggestions for dealing with urban crime and public safety generally fall outside the scope of the study.

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Civic Center Park, Denver, CO / John Hill/World-Architects

Though the conservancy-based approach to urban park management is still emerging, the study could have benefited from more examples of conservancies that were formed hand-in-hand with brand new green spaces. Of course, private organizations that are formed in response to governmental shortcomings will face unique challenges and conflicts, but what if these relationships were established at a park’s inception? The study cites this approach as a growing trend but gives few examples to support or deny its success.

Ultimately, the report serves as a comprehensive guide for philanthropists and mayors, as well as bureaucrats and board members, who wish to create and maintain successful partnerships that benefit our urban green spaces. For the rest of us, the study provides a reminder that the free parks we often take for granted are hardly free.

Read the full report and also check out Trust for Public Land’s new City Park Facts 2015, which has tons of data on the top 100 park systems in the country.

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Adults and children with autism experience the world much differently than we do, so why don’t we design homes, parks, and neighborhoods with them in mind? To do this, designers need to take into account the diverse range of experiences for people with autism spectrum disorder, who now account for more than 1 percent of the population. It truly is a spectrum of disorders. As Sherry Ahrentzen, professor of housing studies at the University of Florida and co-author of the upcoming book, At Home with Autism: Designing for the Spectrum, explained at the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) conference in Los Angeles, “if you know one person with autism, you really know just one person with autism.”

Autism spectrum disorder is a “psychological, cognitive disorder that creates intellectual and mood disabilities.” People with autism have a “blend of cognitive strengths and weaknesses.” In general, they have the capacity for “detailed thinking, expansive long-term thinking, and examining complex patterns.” But they have problems with “understanding social nuances, filtering stimuli, and planning daily living.”

However, Ahrentzen argues that “autism isn’t just a medical condition, it’s also a cultural one.” To help people with autism, “we must first acknowledge the diversity of human conditions.” To do this, we must understand that “disability is really a social construction. We create environments that enable or disable people.”

Kim Steele, director of urban and health initiatives at the elemental group, co-author of At Home with Autism, has a daughter with autism. In her effort to create a more empathetic environment for her, Steele seems to have truly learned what it means to have autism. Steele and Ahrentzen also interviewed many people with autism to better understand how they experience the environment and to create design guidelines that will improve their quality of life:

“People with autism focus on details, not global perspective. A fleck of white on a shirt, a flickering light, a noise command attention. Their default is too many details.” While this focus may work well for some types of work that are repetitive and require attention to detail, “it can be a huge problem, as too much input is stressful.” For example, Steele’s daughter will flap and rock to help refocus attention into something more manageable. “Outside, in the neighborhood, she will fall on the ground and collapse when the details are too much.”

To alleviate the stress from all this stimuli, planners, landscape architects, and architects need to make the built environment “more predictable and familiar,” perhaps simpler. For example, for most of us, the “kitchen is a place to prepare food, socialize, and eat.” For those with autism, “it must be a place to prepare food only, you eat and socialize somewhere else.” In another example, Steele explained how hallways can only be seen as conduits. They are not places to stop and talk. “Multi-functional spaces are not acceptable. The meaning is environments is very specific.” To help those with autism, designers must create places that “create transparency through spatial sequences and smooth transitions between uses.”

Those with autism have various levels of receptivity to the environment, so creating quiet, safe spaces with high-quality lighting is important, too. “Some display hyper-receptivity. This means they may have a problem with noise.” For one person with autism they spoke to, “the noise was so disorientating, she couldn’t find her body in space.” However, in contrast, some people with autism experience “hypo-receptivity, meaning they are under responsive to stimuli.” Steele’s daughter has this issue. “She can touch a hot stove burner and not realize she is burning herself. She can scald herself in the shower and not know it.”

Outside the home, smaller spaces with fewer details may be better. For example, those with autism avoid big box stores. “The acoustics and lighting are bad.” According to one person with autism they interviewed, they only go to small shops, which are more manageable.

For landscape architects, those with autism will want residential landscapes and public gardens and parks that are “controlled environments they view as safe.” They will also want “things you can lift, engage with.” They like swings and “almost universally love to swim.” In fact, those with autism will be “drawn to water in all forms,” which can also be dangerous. “Designers will need to create safe swimming pools.” But Steele also cautioned that hyper-receptive people will be overwhelmed with “gardens with too many different plants.”

Eve Edelstein, New School of Architecture & Design, said that “moving through any environment involves the same plastic part of our brains.” Edelstein, a leader in the emerging field of “neuro-architecture,” argues that design guidelines for indoors then relate to outdoors, too. “What we learn works for hospitals will also work in gardens. It’s about brain function in space.” She added that what will be good for those with autism will also work for those with a range of other disabilities, like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Edelstein believes the journey from theory and design guidelines to actual practice in the world at large will be a “tough one.” An interdisciplinary design approach is a must for any project that will be more soothing to those dealing with the constant onslaught of too many details.

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Fractals / Mikyoung Kim Design

“This is the image that sits above my computer screen. It’s a fractal form, which explains how we work. Within fractals, there are similar forms but at different scales. The molecular scale and broad scale work together as a whole. Fractals are a system. You can’t draw an outline of a fractal and fill it in, or create a bottom-up modular system and put one together. Fractals are about the overarching structure,” said Mikyoung Kim, FASLA, head of her namesake landscape architecture firm, in a lecture at the National Building Museum.

Fractals relate to her creative process. Just as at the broad scale — or the aerial view — you can see human behavior patterns, at the molecular scale, she is thinking of “one person, and their multi-sensory experience within that place.” However, having said all of that, Kim also believes that landscape architects “can’t predict how a public space will be used and allow for flexibility.”

Kim described a few projects that show her attention to both the broad and human scales, and how they fit together into a system:

ChonGae Canal Source Point Park: Sunken Stone Garden

She won an international design competition to create the ChonGae Canal Source Point Park, with its Sunken Stone Garden in Seoul, South Korea. For Kim, it was a great experience working there, as she is a Korean American born in Hartford, Connecticut. She discovered that Seoul has 22 million people, which is about half the population of South Korea as a whole. It’s 8 times denser than NYC, with 16,000 people per square mile.

The 7-mile-long ChonGae Canal was once a river that collected water from surrounding mountains. The river was one of the reasons Seoul became the capital of Korea in the late 1300s. Over the decades, it became a conduit for wastewater and raw sewage. “By the early 1960s, it had become a symbol of poverty, and so dangerous that you couldn’t even touch the water.” It was eventually covered over with an elevated highway, dividing the city.

The Seoul government took down the highway and decided to open up the river again. They brought day light back to the corridor and improved the water quality to class 2 level, which was really difficult. The new river corridor park had to handle monsoons and 100-year storms. “But, really, it was about bringing back national pride.”

Kim worked with the international team restoring the river, but focused on one piece: a stone garden at the source point. With this project, Kim realized landscape architecture can have significant political impact. This landscape has caused the city to rethink its relationship with the water, and changed perceptions about what’s possible with public space.

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ASLA 2009 Professional Awards General Design Award. ChonGae Canal Source Point Park: Sunken Stone Garden / Taeoh Kim

Also, the landscape itself is politically charged. In the era of the optimistic “Sunshine Policy” just a few years ago, when South Korean leaders thought reunification with North Korea was imminent, the ChonGae Canal Source Point Park was to be the site of the reunification ceremony.

There are ceremonial aspects of the landscape: Kim set 9 stones to represent the 9 provinces of Korea as a whole. The stones represent the “collective effort of this urban park, adding a layer of cultural significance.” Beyond the cultural aspect, Kim says the park, which has been visited by 20 million people since its opening, has led to $600 million in private sector development along the river corridor.

Through the Sunken Stone Garden, Kim came to the conclusion that the “most successful projects are ones where we don’t have to hire a photographer. If we can find lots of photos through Pinterest, Facebook, Flickr, we’ve been successful. Successful public spaces are canvases with a design language and character, but can embrace different kind of activity and discovery.”

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ChonGae Canal Source Point Park: Sunken Stone Garden / Mikyoung Kim Design

Farrar Pond Residence

Kim said she does very little residential work, but she created a 3-acre landscape in Lincoln, Massachusetts, which links to Walden Pond. The clients had but one requirement: no lawn, but an outdoor space were the kids and dogs can run. They ended up deciding there would be no imperious surfaces on the property.

“The big star of show is this CorTen fence structure that contains the dogs. Our client was really two German Shephards.” The fence is designed to just keep these particular dogs in. Kim’s team measured the dogs from shoulder to shoulder to determine what the width of the fence openings should be. A dachshund that visited was able to slip right through. The fence was welded on site, so it fits the regraded landscape “like a glove.”

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ASLA 2007 Professional Residential Design Honor Award. Farrar Pond Residence / Mikyoung Kim Design

On the ground are lilac bluestone pavers and granite stepping stones. As her client said, “it looks like the void of fences have fallen out to create this pattern.”

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ASLA 2007 Professional Residential Design Honor Award. Farrar Pond Residence / Mikyoung Kim Design

140 West Plaza: Exhale

“We like smaller cities where we can make an even bigger impact.” In Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a “charming, historic university town, ” Kim worked with local developers to create a master plan for a new downtown park. Kim and her team concurrently looked at circulation, including bicycle infrastructure, plazas, and stormwater. They found that the mixed use developments were creating lots of surface stormwater run-off.

So Kim created a brilliant solution called Exhale. Instead of storing the run-off in gardens, she convinced them to exhale the cleansed runoff through an artful misting system. “If there is no extraneous water from the site, there is no mist.” Kim choreographed the experience, creating a score of sorts, with light and mist, which grows and dies back. “It’s like the sculpture is breathing.”

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Exhale / Mikyoung Kim Design

At night, Exhale is a magnet, particularly in the hotter months when the mist is on, as it reduces temperatures by 10 degrees. “Kids are willing to get soaking wet. They run and around and engage it.”

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Exhale / Mikyoung Kim Design

The Crown Sky Garden: Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago

“I’ve always really been into healthcare. And now, healthcare is interested in us. Every facility wants a garden, which is much different from 20 years ago.” Still, at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, Kim felt pressure to deliver. “We were taking 8,000 square feet out of a vertical hospital to build a garden instead of a new MRI center. How does that equal out?” While she said her husband, who is a doctor, would take issue with the statement that “gardens heal people,” gardens do “transform our bodies in ways that can’t hurt. Within 3-5 minutes, it has been proven that gardens normalize blood pressure, heart activity, muscle tension, and brain electrical activity.”

In this healing garden on the 11th floor, there were enormous constraints. Given so many young patients there have weak immune systems or just had surgery, they couldn’t be exposed to organic materials like soil or plants. There have been cases of people catching Legionnaire’s Disease from fountains, so water features were out, too.

Kim and her colleagues finally convinced the hospital to allow bamboo in raised planters that patients wouldn’t be able to access. The soil that holds them is 98 percent inorganic. “Basically, the only thing that will grow in soil like that are weeds, and bamboo is a lovely weed.” The hospital staff have committed to putting a tarp on the bamboo and spraying them three times a year to keep them clean.

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ASLA 2013 Professional General Design Honor Award. The Crown Sky Garden: Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago / George Heinrich Photography

To get around the fact that no open water could be allowed, Kim created water features that bubble up through marble. And a fallen tree, which Frederick Law Olmsted planted in a park in Chicago more than 100 years ago, was reclaimed and turned into wonderfully tactile benches and interactive art pieces. Sealed together with resin and lit from within, the tree sculptures also feature kids’ hand prints, which when touched, activate sounds of water.

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ASLA 2013 Professional General Design Honor Award. The Crown Sky Garden: Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago / Mikyoung Kim Design

Learn more about Mikyoung Kim’s new projects, like 888 Boylston in Boston, at her web site.

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Central Park, New York City / Drive the District

There has been a boom in studies demonstrating the health benefits of spending time in nature, or even just looking at nature. But a group of ambitious landscape architects and psychologists are actually trying to determine how to prescribe a “nature pill.” The big remaining questions are: What dose of nature exposure is needed to achieve maximum mental and physical health benefits (how long and how frequently)? And what form of nature works best? In a talk at the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) conference in Los Angeles, MaryCarol Hunter, ASLA, a landscape architect and ecologist at the University of Michigan, described her efforts to create the guidelines for landscape designs that can lead to the greatest impact.

Hunter and her team examined 44 people over 8 weeks. She asked them to go out and immerse themselves in urban natural environments at least 2.5 times per week for a minimum of 10 minutes. Using a custom-designed smartphone app, these people walked or sat in nature and then answered questions about their mental well-being, both before being exposed to nature and then after. They were asked to record the types of landscapes they saw, the weather, and then take photographs of their preferred views, “scenes they were drawn to, that gave them that ‘ahhhh’ feeling.” As the walked and recorded their thoughts, the app also tracked their location.

The early results show that the “nature pill works.” Among all participants, they reported significantly less stress, an increased ability to focus, and increased satisfaction with their mood and energy levels after being exposed to nature. But Hunter admitted that “self-reported data is viewed as worthless; people want physical proof,” so before and after the nature exposure, they also studied participants’ cortisol levels, a physical indicator of stress, which correlated with the self-reported responses more than 60 percent of the time. She said this shows the data is largely credible.

Hunter said it’s still too soon to tell what the optimal dose of the nature pill is, but even just “10 minutes is effective.” While the data is still being analyzed, Hunter and her colleagues also found that “there was no correlation between weather and the restorative effects.” There were greater restorative effects in residential landscapes or small parks. In fact, the benefits seemed to be greater in “small, enclosed spaces,” but this could also be a function of how the participants’ neighborhoods were set-up. It’s not clear whether large parks were actually nearby those studied.

The definition of nature was loose, so, in the next stages of the research, Hunter is trying to define it more specifically. For example, vegetation, hills, rivers, or large bodies of water can all be considered nature, so she began a process of listing all the physical attributes defining the environment to find out which have the most restorative benefits. She categorized the 470 photographs study participants took through the app with 60 attributes, covering factors like naturalness, complexity, structural coherence, form, proportion, openness, access, and engagement. There were some 23 structural attributes, like “horizontal line, skyline, or canyon form,” 13 contextual attributes, and another 30 landscape attributes.

Now that there are a set of photographs with clear attributes, Hunter can begin testing theories. For example, Roger Ulrich, who is perhaps the most celebrated health and nature researcher, posited that symmetries, repeated elements, and focal points helped stress recovery more than other forms. Using the categorized photographs, she can begin to see whether this is true.

Hunter hopes to have her exciting findings ready to present at the ASLA Annual Meeting in Chicago in November. “We are still working on deciphering the nature pill.” Her eventual goal is to create a methodology that can be replicated all over the world, given other cultures have such a different appreciation of nature. “Other researchers can use the procedure but adapt specifics.”

Here are brief summaries of other fascinating health and nature studies at EDRA:

Dongying Li, a landscape architecture PhD student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, examined whether exposure to nature for high school students improved their ability to deal with stress. She tracked 150 high school students in Illinois with GPS devices and asked them to keep an active diary each night. Li also collected various mood-related data every day. In her exploration of a new “time/space model,” she found that simply estimating the level of use of green spaces in an area based on proximity to those spaces doesn’t really work. Students with three-hour windows of opportunity who could have accessed green spaces often didn’t in reality. “Potential versus realized exposure can be different.” For Li, the take-home message was “design green spaces that are walking distance. Parks in neighborhoods may not be enough.” William Sullivan, ASLA, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who is doing much of the exciting research on nature and health, added that “nature needs to be at every doorstep. We don’t know where people will wander.”

Jane Buxton, a PhD student in regional planning at University of Massachusetts at Amherst, conducted a novel study to find out whether increased tree canopy influences people’s preferences for urban density. She found that “trees will help people accept density.” Buxton showed 24 photographs, some of which were manipulated to incorporate more trees, to 70 residents of Worcester, Massachusetts, the second largest city in New England, asking them to circle the choices that “best describe where you want to live.” The highest preference was for single-family homes set in a rich tree canopy; the lowest preference was for apartments close to street with a lack of trees. Greening made a difference. In almost all cases, the scores went up as more trees were added. She concluded that “there is a tension between higher density and what people actually want: single-family homes. Trees can ameliorate that tension up to a point.” She also believes that “people will need to chose higher density if it’s going to work. It can’t be seen as something that will be forced on people.”

Pongsakorn “Tum” Suppakitpaisarn, a PhD student in landscape architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Bin Jiang, a professor at the University of Hong Kong, want to figure out if people’s preferred landscapes reduce stress. Preference, as defined, is “spontaneous, aesthetic,” but also about survival. Suppakitpaisarn showed slides of a winding open path in a park versus a dark hallway through a crumbling building, explaining how most everyone will prefer the open path, because it appears less dangerous. There’s a reason for that preference: it’s about survival. Through a set of studies, he stressed people out by asking them do math and perform in a job interview in front of unresponsive, unhelpful people and then asked them to watch nature videos and rank their preferences for the green scenes, which aided in stress recovery. He found that preference predicts stress recovery in women but “we’re not sure about men.” Why should we care? “Stress is expensive to measure, with all the physiological measurement equipment, but preference is easy to measure.”

Sara Hadavi, a research associate at the University of Michigan, looked at various types of green spaces in 3,400 acres of Chicago. Using mail-in surveys and on-the-street-interviews, she got 434 people to respond to her questions about nearby nature and well-being. Hadavi found that “open lawns with trees had a positive effect on well-being, even if they aren’t used. Just knowing that they are there is enough to inspire satisfaction with public spaces, which in turn improves well-being.” She said this kind of information is important for planners and landscape architects who may think the only measure of success for a public space is direct use. But she added if city leaders really want to boost well-being, landscape architects should create spaces where people can socialize and then encourage them to visit through lots of programs. Hadavi called for more widespread use of “user-oriented design, which will have better outcomes than designer-oriented design.”

Eva Silveirinha de Oliveira, a landscape architect and researcher at Open Space in Scotland, is testing out a new environmental audit tool on woodlands. “Urban woodlands are part of green infrastructure systems, but their quality varies. They are not usually managed or maintained in Scotland.” Sending out two trained landscape architects, she completed 18 audits, and found the tool works in helping us to “get a sense of whether a place will attract or repel us.” She said the views of the urban woodlands among the landscape architects and the locals she surveyed who live near them were different though. “Landscape architects recorded much lower ratings than the community.” Like Hadavi, Silveirinha de Oliveira found that people valued nearby nature even if they didn’t use it.

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Aga Khan Park / Darren Calabrese, The Globe and Mail

Minneapolis, St. Paul Tie for Title of Best City ParksThe Star Tribune, 5/20/15
“For the third straight year, Minneapolis has been judged to have the best city parks in the country. But this year, it’s sharing that distinction with a familiar rival: St. Paul.”

We Are What We Landscape Psychology Today, 5/21/15
“What messages do we see in a lawn? Some scholars believe that the attraction is primal. Lush green foliage requires water and so do we. Perhaps the visage of a lawn with shrubs and trees gives us comfort because it signals that we can survive in this place.”

Toronto Receives New Addition to Cultural Mosaic: The Aga Khan Park Global News, 5/26/15
“The 6.8 hectare urban park is the newest part of a complex that also hosts The Aga Khan Museum and The Ismaili Centre.  Both of those buildings were opened to much fanfare eight months ago.  Together they complete a project that broke ground five years ago on the site of the former Bata Shoe headquarters.”

The $6.5 Billion, 20-Year Plan to Transform an American CityFast Company, 5/26/15
“That’s an audacious 20-year plan by Rochester, the Minnesota state government, the Mayo Clinic, and their private partners to spend more than $6.5 billion on a kind of real-life version of SimCity, designed to turn Rochester into a global biotech hub, and double its population in the process.”

The City Feeding the City: Urban Orchard Bears Fruit – The Australian Financial Review, 5/28/15
“Green space, on its own, is definitely worth adding to a cityscape. But a green space that is used to grow food is even better.”

Why Aga Khan Park Risks Becoming a White Elephant The Globe and Mail, 5/28/15
“Will the delights of this place eventually outweigh its disadvantages? Let’s hope so, because this rich museum and its gracious park bear many of the characteristics of a white elephant.”

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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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Red Hook Community Emergency Readiness / Ready Red Hook

When I think about climate change, I like to look at a photo of my daughter and her two dear friends—not just because of their sweet smiles, but because the photo offers an important clue to how we can design cities to thrive in uncertain times. We don’t know exactly how climate change will play out, but two things are clear: Parts of our cities are in for severe stress. And we will have to get through it together.

Back when this picture was taken, I thought of the riverfront of New York City as a place to play; I often took my daughter and her friends down to the repurposed docks for concerts and picnics. That was before Superstorm Sandy slammed into the city and the East River busted its banks. That storm refined my thinking about life with climate change.

We had it radically easier than thousands of other New Yorkers—we only lost power for four days. But we shared with them a sense of uncertainty: When will lights come back on? What system might conk out next?

And now there is a larger sense of uncertainty about the future. Climate change has become a part of our lives, and we’re likely to face a series of crises: storms that whip our coasts and droughts that parch our heartland—though we don’t know when, or where, or how severely. It’s this constant uncertainty that we will have to address in our urban designs.

We do know that, in times of crisis, friends and neighbors can play a vital role in helping each other cope. Like many New Yorkers, we did what we could after Superstorm Sandy—donating supplies to families in the Rockaways, and dropping off food at the public housing community down the block.

Urban design can support that kind of community spirit, by bolstering connections among neighbors. The peninsula community of Red Hook, in Brooklyn, responded to Sandy this way. The community plans to raise the usable space of waterfront buildings above street level, creating new space beneath those buildings for people to gather, get help, and simply socialize. (My daughter, who was six at the time, had offered a similar idea, but then she listens to me daydream a lot.)

In uncertain times, urban design should make public places more flexible, more reassuring, and more public. This is in tune with the history of urban experimentation. Cities are places where unlike-minded people share limited space. Their innovations—parks, skyscrapers, farmers’ markets, Foursquare–result from experiments that tried to squeeze maximum benefit from a crowded place.

Even big-budget projects are trying to design in human connections to manage uncertainty. For example, the federal Rebuild by Design process commissioned design teams to work with neighborhoods on ways to make Northeastern cities’ coasts less vulnerable to storm surge. The “BIG U,” the project that drew the biggest plug of funding, is underway, creating a series of berms and slopes that serve as public parks while blunting wave action.

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The BIG U / Rebuild by Design

If this plan succeeds, the water will be something to explore and adore, not something to fear. And if the fear quotient goes down and the sense of public comity goes up, perhaps people will be more willing to invest the dollars—and make the hard choices—necessary to face an unstable climate.

And if that’s right, then decades from now people can take pictures on the scenic bluffs overlooking the East River. And perhaps those pictures will show kids with the same peaceful confidence that comes from knowing you can count on your friends and neighbors.

This guest post is by Alec Appelbaum who writes about how urban design can help cities cope with the stresses of climate change. He teaches at Pratt Institute and runs a teen urban-design curriculum called AllBeforeUs.

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