Archive for the ‘Sustainable Transportation’ Category

John Thackara / Uros Abram

John Thackara / Uros Abram

British writer and philosopher John Thackara, author of How to Thrive in the Next Economy, believes changes in the global society and economy now allow people to address environmental problems at a “bio-regional” scale. At the ASLA 2015 Annual Meeting in Chicago, he described the growth of bio-regional models that use social networks to create new forms of economic gain with significant environmental benefits. This transition to a bio-regional approach is already happening in a few sectors:


The local food movement is creating a shift of economic resources that has beneficial environmental impacts. To scale this local approach up the regional level, countries should take a “food commons approach.”

In a food commons, food distribution and retail are owned by a trust and governed by local stakeholders who manage the commons. This approach better connects local resources, so communities are able “to do things locally currently not done locally.”

Thackara looks to Denmark, where the Danish Food Cluster, founded in 2013, has facilitated regional collaboration between food companies in central Denmark. He argued that in this system, “improving the connections of an economic network is at the heart of its environmental impact.”

The three principles of a successful food commons / The Food Commons

The three principles of a successful food commons / The Food Commons


In order to better connect cities to their resource-rich countrysides, we need to reconsider how we get around, Thackara said. In Vienna, Austria, the idea of collaborative regional mobility has led to the Cargo Bike Collaborative, a donation-based bike sharing service that allows people to transport goods in a low-cost, sustainable way.

The idea of mobility as a fee-based service also has promise. While sharing mobility through services like Uber and Lyft is currently being “told in the language of hipsters in London, New York City, and Washington D.C. with not much attention to the environmental story,” Thackara said, the concept could be re-purposed at a regional scale in order to make transportation more sustainable. “Pay-per-use” frameworks could allow regions to save money on infrastructure in the long run. He said: “one calls upon all of these bits on infrastructure so you don’t necessarily need a car or as many roads at the bio-regional scale.”

A regional example: The Greenhorns, a non-profit organization run by young farmers, sailed a schooner filled with 11 tons of crops from Maine to Boston in August 2015.

The route of the Greenhorn's Maine Sail Freight / The Greenhorns

The route of the Greenhorn’s Maine Sail Freight / The Greenhorns

Lastly, Thackara said we need to combine expanded regional networks with “an absolute militant search for answers.” This requires building a global knowledge network all people can access. Prototypes and maps mean nothing if people around the world cannot learn from them. “We need to build a story that gives meaning and purpose to young people. It must be more than a story that is just something we tell to each other around a campfire, but grounds for action.”

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Driverless vehicle highway / Natalia Beard, SWA Group

Driverless vehicle highway diet / Natalia Beard, SWA Group

Imagine a future with autonomous vehicles, ordered through a subscription service, shuttling passengers safely to any destination at up to 130 miles per hour. Now think about what this means for our streets and highways, parking infrastructure, public spaces, and even the organization of our communities. At SXSW Eco in Austin, Texas, Kinder Baumgardner, ASLA, president of landscape and urban design firm SWA Group, took us through a wild thought experiment, showing us what a driverless future could look like. He believes the majority of travel will be autonomous by 2050, with huge implications for our built environment.

According to Baumgardner, there are 1.2 billion cars in the world today, and that number is expected to grow to 2 billion by 2030 as automobile ownership surges in China and India. All of these drivers spend about 30 percent of their time looking for parking, which means about 1 billion miles annually. The U.S. alone has a billion parking spaces, and, together, they take up an area the size of Puerto Rico. As the number of cars grows, so has the number of fatal accidents. This year, 1.24 million people lost their lives in crashes, and the fatalities in places like the Middle East, where they drive really fast, are growing quickly. Autonomous vehicles could not only dramatically reduce the number of cars and, therefore, parking spaces but also make automotive travel much safer.

Baumgardner started thinking about what a future with autonomous vehicles would look like when SWA Group began working with Texan officials on ways to accommodate a bulked-up Interstate 45, which will expand to take up a whopping 26 lanes by 2050. Texas’ department of transportation needs to be able to move a million cars through every day.

He thinks the majority of travel will be autonomous in coming decades, potentially making Houston’s extra infrastructure unnecessary. Some 85 million driverless cars are expected to be sold by 2035. One of Tesla’s cars is already nearly autonomous. “It’s about when this will happen, not if.”

The move to fully autonomous vehicles will happen in steps, much like full adoption of the elevator took many years. “The elevator was viewed as dangerous at first, but then they put in a call box, alarm, and safety switch” and people’s fears were eased. In the same way, driverless cars could first include steering wheels and other controls and then slowly phase those out.

We heard a positive vision of robotic cars. People will no longer own cars but simply subscribe to car subscription services. There could be different rates for single vehicles or vans, high-end vehicles or modest ones. Users could also modify their subscription based on use — someone could hire a convertible for a ride to the beach or a truck when moving.

Driverless cars will be more fuel efficient, as they won’t need to park — they’ll simply drop you off and then pick up another customer or return to some charging station.

Autonomous vehicles will sense and even communicate with each other and therefore perhaps need their own lanes separate from human-driven cars, which will be viewed as more dangerous. They will then be able to reach speeds of up to 130 miles per hour (210 kilometers per hour) because congestion can be managed and accidents automatically avoided. Cars will also be able to share neighborhood streets with pedestrians and bicyclists better because they will sense any movement and slow down.

Driverless vehicles / Natalia Beard, SWA Group

Driverless vehicles / Natalia Beard, SWA Group

In cities, autonomous vehicles could result in the rise of multiple downtowns, a series of walkable hubs. “Cars will drive you from place to place where you can then walk around.” Robotic cars could even integrate with services like Foursquare, which map where your friends are, to automatically take you places.

Due to the reduced number of cars, there will be many opportunities to transform the built environment. “What happens to the land freed up? 22-lane highways can be reduced to 8.” All those extra lanes on the sides of now-too-wide highways could be transformed into green corridors, providing habitat for pollinators like butterflies and birds. In places, “it could be rough, untended nature” or designed “sponge-like spaces” that absorb water.

Driverless highway of the future / Natalia Beard, SWA Group

Driverless highway of the future / Natalia Beard, SWA Group

Parking structures could become flexible spaces for apartments or even artists’ studios.

Parking garage of the future / Natalia Beard, SWA Group

Parking garage of the future / Natalia Beard, SWA Group

And parking lots could become public spaces like parks or markets.

Parking lot transformed into a market space / Natalia Beard, SWA Group

Parking lot transformed into a market space / Natalia Beard, SWA Group

Baumgardner wondered what driverless cars mean for the suburbs. “Will we see the rise of walkable sprawl?” As autonomous vehicles minimize the need for cars, suburban communities will now be even more expansive on foot and need to reinvest in building sidewalks, bicycle lanes, and trail systems. As for the typical suburban forms, “cul-de-sacs can become the space for temporary pools or community centers.” And garages, now without cars, could become the new front porch, opening up to create a more lively streetscape.

One question from the audience: Will autonomous vehicles be affordable? Will we need public autonomous vehicle systems? Baumgardner sees “different systems for different income levels. For lower income users, safety and security will be most important. Entrepreneurs could create shared systems. Or local governments could subsidize use. This will definitely need planning.”

And the transition to driverless cars and trucks will not be without major challenges. Baumgardner sees a new era of messy transportation coming, with a mix of autonomous and non-autonomous vehicles duking it out. And he wonders whether the shift to autonomous vehicles can happen everywhere. For example, in India, where cars share road space with elephants, the transition will be much slower.

But in the developed world, there will still be lots of opportunities to integrate autonomous vehicles with other high-speed transportation systems, like the Hyperloop now in early stages of development.

In another talk at the conference, Dirk Ahlborn, CEO of JumpStartFund, and now Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, outlined how he and his colleagues are responding to Tesla founder Elon Musk’s call to create a “hyperloop,” a system of “reduced-pressure” tubes that would pull passengers in capsule cars through at speeds up to 750 miles per hour (1,200 kilometers per hour). Ahlborn sees a network of tubes high up on pylons, which will make them earthquake proof. “It will be the safest ride possible. No humans will be involved.” A network of tubes will then connect cities across the U.S. and world. But Ahlborn admitted local access to the Hyperloop stations is a problem that still needs to be worked out. If it’s not convenient to get to the stations, people won’t use it.


Hyperloop / Hyperloop Transportation Technologies

Like the vision for autonomous vehicles, which first appeared at the Futurama exhibit at the New York World’s Fair in 1939, the one for traveling through vacuum tubes is an old one, too. In 1904, a Swiss company filed a patent for such travel. Now, that dream may soon be realized. Prototypes are being built and tested in the Quay Valley, halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. A 5-mile stretch is expected to open by 2018.

So much faith that our technologies will only improve.

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parking day

ASLA PARK(ing) Day, Washington, D.C. / ASLA

On September 18, landscape architects and other designers celebrated PARK(ing) Day. Founded in 2005 by landscape architecture firm Rebar, PARK(ing) Day is an annual event in which metered parking spaces are transformed into miniature parks, or parklets, for the day. The event demonstrates the value of designed public spaces, even ones just 130 square feet. PARK(ing) Day also shows just how much of our shared space has been taken over by cars — about 30 percent of the total surface of our built environment — and how many of those spaces could instead be used to strengthen local communities.

ASLA asked landscape architects to share how they transformed a parking space with #ASLAPD on social media. Here are a few highlights:

The theme of Mahan Rykiel Associates’ parklet in Baltimore was “Back to Basics.” The firm simply created a parklet for the public to use as they pleased, exemplifying how flexible urban public space can be. The firm used the parklet for yoga in the morning, a place to eat for lunch around noon, and a game of cornhole in the afternoon.

Mahan Rykiel Associates, Inc. celebrates PARK(ing) Day with some cornhole / Mahan Rykiel Associates, Inc.

Mahan Rykiel Associates, Inc. celebrates PARK(ing) Day with games / Mahan Rykiel Associates, Inc.

The landscape architecture and horticulture department at Temple University in Philadelphia and volunteers, including local architects, landscape architects, horticulturalists, artists, and citizens, created a two-day parklet in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. This space offered live music, story time for kids, and other activities. This parklet, and the hundreds of others across the country, brought communities together, showing the countless uses made possible through welcoming public space.

Story time on PARK(ing) Day / PARKing for People

Story time on PARK(ing) Day / PARKing for People

Other parklets sought to raise awareness of environmental issues. SWA’s parklet in Houston educated the public on importance of urban pollinators, like honeybees, bats, and butterflies. Part of 13 parklets that took up an entire block, SWA’s space featured pollinator-themed benches, educational signs, and pollinator-friendly plants.

SWA Group's Houston PARK(ing) Day urban pollinators parklet / SWA Group

SWA Group’s Houston PARK(ing) Day urban pollinators parklet / SWA Group

In Los Angeles, Rios Clementi Hale Studio illustrated the benefits of capturing stormwater, which is vitally important in the midst of California’s historic drought. Their team calculated a single parking spot could capture 1,344 gallons of water annually. To put that figure into perspective for the public, the firm created a cloud of balloons above the space that showed the amount of water required for a daily task — 105 gallons for five load of laundry, 30 gallons for one bath, etc.

Photo: Rios Clementi Hale Studios

A single parking space could collect 1,344 gallons of water annually / Rios Clementi Hale Studios

Landscape architecture students from the University of New Mexico created a space that visualized the effects of climate change — melting polar ice, and rising sea levels. Students suspended blocks of ice in their parklet that melted throughout the day.

Blocks of ice to demonstrate climate change / University of New Mexico School of Architecture and Planning

Blocks of ice to demonstrate climate change / University of New Mexico School of Architecture and Planning

To see more PARK(ing) Day parklets, check out our #ASLAPD Tagboard.

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VPUU-project, Khayelitsha, Cape Town, South Africa, 2012 / KKH.se

VPUU-project, Khayelitsha, Cape Town, South Africa, 2012 / KKH.se

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which were created through an open, global process over the past two years, will be adopted by United Nations member states later this week. The 17 goals, with their 169 targets, will guide nations towards a more sustainable pattern of development that favors diverse life on Earth. Global transformation on multiple levels is the end goal.

Establishing a transformational agenda for 2015 to 2030, the SDGs begin with a compelling vision statement:

“We envisage a world in which every country enjoys sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth and decent work for all. A world in which consumption and production patterns and use of all natural resources – from air to land, from rivers, lakes and aquifers to oceans and seas – are sustainable. One in which democracy, good governance and the rule of law as well as an enabling environment at national and international levels, are essential for sustainable development, including sustained and inclusive economic growth, social development, environmental protection and the eradication of poverty and hunger. One in which development and the application of technology are climate-sensitive, respect biodiversity and are resilient. One in which humanity lives in harmony with nature and in which wildlife and other living species are protected.”

It’s impressive that the world’s 200-plus nations, through a UN process fostering peace and mutual respect, can articulate a global agenda for working together. As the document explains, “never before have world leaders pledged common action and endeavor across such a broad and universal policy agenda.”

Learning more about the SDGs is worth the time of landscape architects. We can help the world make progress in solving the inter-connected problems we collectively face.

Let’s back up a minute and recall that sustainability was defined in 1987 as achieving a long-term balance between three equal pillars — economy, society, and the environment. The publication of Our Common Future, also known as the Brundtland Report, coined the term “sustainable development” and popularized these pillars. To be sustainable today, a consideration of these three pillars is central. (In my own landscape preservation work, I favor a model that also integrates culture, which permeates all the facets of sustainability and plays a role in whether we can achieve inclusivity, equity, and justice). Then, in 2000, world leaders agreed to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which laid out 8 goals for the world to pursue from 2000 to 2015. And then, at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2012, all countries agreed to create a new set of sustainable development goals to pick up where the MDGs left off.

A landscape architect looking at how to work towards the new SDGs might focus on goal 13, which deals with climate action, goal 14, which focuses on life below water, and goal 15, which looks at life on land, but looking deeper at all the goals and their specific targets helps us to understand how we can contribute as individuals and collectively to the many other important goals and targets as well.

Landscape architects can contribute to reaching goal 2 — which seeks to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture” — by working with agricultural communities to increase the productivity of small farms and create better access to markets, as detailed in target 2.3. Landscape architects can also help communities create sustainable and resilient agricultural practices, maintain ecosystems, and strengthen the capacity to respond to climate change, as detailed in target 2.4.

In goal 3, which calls on governments to “ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all ages,” we find target 3.6, which aims to “halve the number of global deaths and injuries for road traffic accidents.” Landscape architects are already working on designing better intersections, green complete streets, and multi-modal corridors that contribution to achieving this important target.

ASLA and each of us its members can contribute to goal 4 — which calls on nations to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” — by teaching everyone about sustainable development and how to become global citizens who act from that awareness and commitment in their daily lives.

Goal 6, which calls on nations to “ensure the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all,” is perhaps the most direction contribution to the goals made by landscape architects. We can help reach global goals on water quality, including protecting water resources, counteracting pollution, and restoring water-related ecosystems, which are included in targets 6.3, 6.5, and 6.6.

ASLA 2014 Professional General Design Honor Award. Slow Down: Liupanshui Minghu Wetland Park, Turenscape / Kongjian Yu

ASLA 2014 Professional General Design Honor Award. Slow Down: Liupanshui Minghu Wetland Park, Turenscape / Kongjian Yu

What about goal 7, which calls on nations to “ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all?” Target 7.2 asks that countries, “by 2030, increase substantially the share of renewable energy in the global mix.” I have had the opportunity to site two solar arrays. Other landscape architects can then certainly become engaged in growing the share of renewable energy.


Shelburne Farms, Shelburne, Vermont, a 1,400-acre National Historic Landmark, installs solar array / Patricia O’Donnell

Or perhaps consider the important target 8.4 that seeks to “improve progressively, through 2030, global resource efficiency in consumption and production and endeavor to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation, in accordance with the 10-year framework of programs on sustainable consumption and production, with developed countries taking the lead.” This decoupling process will result in better quality landscapes that provide ecosystem services.

Addressing goal 11 — “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” — is well within the realm of landscape architecture. And many of us are already helping to achieve target 11.7, which seeks to provide universal access that is safe and inclusive, to public green spaces. Landscape architects can play a role in achieving target 11.2, which seeks to create more sustainable urban transportation systems, and target 11.7.a, which aims to “support  positive  economic,  social  and  environmental  links  between  urban,  peri-urban  and  rural  areas  by strengthening national and regional development planning.” Cities, which are expected to contain 75 percent of the world’s people by 2030, are fertile ground for the skills of landscape architects working collaboratively with other planning and design professionals.

ASLA 2012 Professional General Design Honor Award. Lafayette Greens: Urban Agriculture, Urban Fabric, Urban Sustainability, Detroit, Michigan, Kenneth Weikal Landscape Architecture / Beth Hagenbuch

ASLA 2012 Professional General Design Honor Award. Lafayette Greens: Urban Agriculture, Urban Fabric, Urban Sustainability, Detroit, Michigan, Kenneth Weikal Landscape Architecture / Beth Hagenbuch

The last goal — goal 17, which calls for nations to “strengthen  the  means  of  implementation  and  revitalize  the  global  partnership  for  sustainable development”– is a fitting capstone to this ambitious effort. Cooperation is needed to build momentum and create measurable change toward a thriving Earth, with all its diverse life forms and resources.

The overarching goal is to halt and then reverse the degradation of the Earth. I urge you to learn about these goals and apply your skills as a landscape architect toward achieving these goals from now through 2030. Registering SDG initiatives is one way to join this pivotal movement toward a sustainable planet.

This guest post is by Patricia M. O’Donnell, FASLA, AICP, principal of Heritage Landscapes LLC, preservation landscape architects and planners. She is committed to sustainable living and using heritage as a platform for a vibrant today and tomorrow in her work and volunteer activities. 

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Urban sprawl in an arid landscape near Near the Central Valley, California / EcoLibrary

Urban sprawl in an arid landscape near near the Central Valley, California / EcoLibrary

Not only does sprawl increase the distance between people’s homes and jobs, a new study by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate found that it also costs the American economy more than $1 trillion annually. These costs include increased spending on infrastructure, public services, and vehicles. The most sprawled-out American cities spend an average of $750 on infrastructure per person each year, while the least sprawled cities spend closer to $500. Compared with smart growth communities, which are denser, walkable developments, sprawl typically increases per capita land consumption 60-80 percent and motor vehicle travel by 20-60 percent.

The study found that sprawl also affects about two-thirds of city expenses, “by requiring longer road and utility lines, and increasing travel distances needed for policing, emergency response, and garbage collection.” Some of the largest costs are associated with city government vehicle travel.

According to the study, much of Americans’ preference for sprawl is rooted in underlying social and economic factors — “such as the perceived safety, affordability, public school quality, prestige and financial security of suburban neighborhoods” — rather than the physical features of sprawl. The 2013 U.S. National Association of Realtors’ community preference survey found that most Americans prefer single-family homes and place a high value on privacy. However, interestingly, they also desire the convenience of walkable, mixed-use communities with shorter commutes and convenient access to public services found in cities. As the U.S. continues to grow and urbanize, cities will have to expand to accommodate new people but also reconcile these conflicting desires.

Looking to the future, the study defines three categories of cities that will each need to address sprawl differently:

Unconstrained Cities

Unconstrained cities, such as most American and African cities are surrounded by “an abundant supply of lower-value lands” and have room for significant expansion. According to the study, these cities should maintain strong downtowns surrounded by higher-density neighborhoods with diverse, affordable housing options. Excessive vehicle use should be discouraged by creating streets that include adequate sidewalks and crosswalks, bike infrastructure, and bus systems.

A 2010 study found that Baton Rouge, Louisiana is the most sprawling urbanized area in the U.S.

A 2010 study found that Baton Rouge, Louisiana is the most sprawling urbanized area in the U.S. / NOLA.com

Semi-constrained Cities

Semi-constrained cities, mostly found in Europe and Asia, have a limited ability to expand. These cities should expand through a combination of infill development and modest expansion along major transportation corridors. New housing should consist of townhouses and mid-rise multi-family housing, which can reduce the costs of sprawl. Similar transportation policies to those suggested for unconstrained cities, which can help further discourage car use, should also be implemented in semi-constrained cities.

Constrained Cities

Constrained cities are those that cannot significantly expand, such as city-states like Singapore and Hong Kong. In these cities, most new housing will be multi-family, and fewer households will own cars. These cities require strong policies that improve livability in dense neighborhoods, including: “well-designed streets that accommodate diverse activities; adequate public green space; building designs that maximize fresh air, privacy, and private outdoor space; transport policies that favor space-efficient modes; and restrictions on motor vehicle ownership and use, particularly internal combustion vehicles.” Seoul has already demonstrated that with good planning, high density neighborhoods can offer a good quality of life.

A dense urban neighborhood in Singapore / NUSdeltares

A dense neighborhood in Singapore / NUSdeltares

Developing cities in Asia and Africa are poised to establish more sustainable transport and land use development patterns, avoiding the mistakes made by the U.S. Although sprawl-related costs may appear to lower in developing countries — due to lower incomes and land prices — their share of household and government budgets, and their relative impacts on economic development, are greater. Emerging cities must implement policy reforms that result in better walking and cycling conditions. Improving public transit services in developing country cities is particularly important.

The study maintains that in order “to increase economic productivity, improve public health, and protect the environment,” dense, urban neighborhoods need to be considered just as safe, convenient, and attractive as their suburban counterparts. In all types of cities, ensuring that neighborhoods are livable and cohesive is crucial. Designing attractive, multi-functional streets and public parks and providing high-quality public services are all major components of reaching this goal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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"Roads Were Not Built for Cars" by Carlton Reid / Island Press

“Roads Were Not Built for Cars” by Carlton Reid / Island Press

Many people assume roads became the way they are today because of the rise of automobiles. In Roads Were Not Built for Cars, Carlton Reid explains that infrastructure for bicycles, tricycles, and more were the precursors to the later transportation system dominated by automobiles. Cycling enthusiasts will enjoy learning about the influence of early cyclists on roadway development. But while Reid spends much of his time on cycling, he is also careful to examine the history of roads as thoroughfares, transportation networks, public spaces, as well as the roles they have played in broader trends.

For the typical reader, though, Reid’s arguments would be more usefully condensed into a long-form article in, say, The Atlantic or The New Yorker. Even for someone like me — who is more interested than the average bear in cycling, infrastructure, and urban planning — the amount of detail became tedious. Unless you’re a cycling history and policy aficionado, you probably won’t be sitting down to read this book cover to cover. For students, researchers, practitioners, and those interested in the history of infrastructure, however, it’s a worthwhile reference. Many will recognize historical figures like Carl Benz and Henry Ford among the automobile makers who, to varying degrees, got their start in the world of cycling. Others who are technically-minded will appreciate learning the difference between streets made of cobble and sett, asphalt and tarmac, tar and bitumen.

Carl Benz’s first automobile factory used technology and manufacturing processes adapted directly from cycle manufacturing / Island Press

Early automobile technology utilized cycle tech like the knuckle hinge, allowing for better steering and handling / Island Press

Early automobile technology used cycle tech like the knuckle hinge, allowing for better steering and handling / Island Press

Reid being a Londoner, the book is biased towards London, with parallel sections examining historical developments in the U.S. But his explanation of how roadways first started out as public space but then began to be carved in spaces that are “mine” or “yours” and how this process led to unproductive roadway behaviors, laws, and planning and design resonates anywhere. “Roads were not built for cars,” writes Reid. “Nor were they built for bicycles. They were not built for sulkies, or steam engines, or any form of wheeled vehicle. Roads were not built for horses, either. Roads were built for pedestrians.” You know, people.

Early illustrations already showed conflict zones between cyclists and motorists / Island Press

Early cyclists came mostly from the upper class / Island Press

Early cyclists came mostly from the upper class / Island Press

Not that those with power wanted it that way. Reid notes how wide roads were not built just for cars, but to increase the ability to “control” social gatherings and protests. “Air circulation for health [was important] but crowd control was a major impetus. Narrow roads can be used for throwing up barricades. The use of compacted crushed stone instead of setts, or tarred-wooden blocks, reduced the availability of ready-made missiles and fire starters.”

It’s fascinating to read about how the public associated independence with cycles and, later, automobiles, while railways were viewed as faster but restrictive. “Cyclists and, later, motorists would complain about the fixed schedules of railways, citing a lack of independence.” Reid doesn’t mention Russia much, but, for what’s it’s worth, this sentiment was shared by Russian thinkers as well. For example, Tolstoy had a deep discomfort with trains, feeling they brought an unwanted pre-destinationism (see Anna Karenina which, spoiler alert, involves a train and doesn’t end well).

Contrast this with a passage quoted from a 1896 New York Evening Post editorial on bicycles: “As a social revolutionizer, it has never had an equal. It has changed completely many of the most ordinary processes and methods of social life. It is the great leveler, for not till all Americans got on bicycles was the great American principle that every man is just as good as any other man, and generally a little better, fully realized. All are on equal terms, all are happier than ever before.”

Early debates about whether to merge all traffic into one system of streets, or separate them out mirror the debate today: “The widest and grandest path of them all — the Coney Island Cycle Path in New York — was loved by many cyclists, but not all. Some refused to ride on it, believing that such dedicated routes, while superior to the rutted roads of the day, would become the only ways open to cyclists. They feared being restricted to a small number of recreational bicycle ways, and banned from all other roads. Many in the wider Good Roads movement wanted cyclists to keep fighting for the improvement of all roads, and not be diverted by improvements to just part of the highway.”

Separate cycle paths or fully integrate them with roadways" The debate continues . . . / Island Press

“Coo, look — There’s a cyclist!” Separate cycle paths or fully integrate them with roadways?” The debate continues / Island Press

And anti-cyclists like The Washington Post‘s Courtland Milloy, whose 2014 tirade against “bicyclist bullies” is also mentioned in the book, might find solace in knowing that “scorchers, cyclists with arched backs and grim ‘bicycle faces,’ who treated the Queen’s Highway as their own — and woe betide anyone who got in their way” — were as much a problem a century and a half ago as they can be today.

There are other interesting tidbits. For example, Broadway in New York City was originally the “Wickquasgeck Trail,” stamped into the brush of Mannahatta by Native American tribes people. US Highway 12 began as the Great Sauk Trail, named after the Sauk people’s hunting trail, originally trodden down by buffalo, with paleontological evidence that it was first blazed by migrating mastodons. And “motorists driving today between Washington, D.C. and Detroit are following a route padded out 10,000 year ago by now-extinct megafauna.”

In the end, the big takeaway is that with the resurgence of cycling and changes in public perception about our auto-centric lifestyles, cars are not the way of the future, especially for dense cities. “Motor cars came to dominate our lives not by design but by stealth. Few predicted the motor car’s eventual dominance and it’s reasonable to assume that the same inability to accurately predict the future afflicts us, too. Cars ‘will become redundant in cities,’ something that’s already ‘happening organically’ because cars ‘cannot be fully enjoyed or used to potential'”, says Britain’s Automobile Association. As Reid notes, “Today, cars in ‘rush hour’ London creep along at 9 miles per hour, an average speed not much greater than capable of horse-drawn carriages in the 19th century. Some progress!”

What new, fascinating future for public roadways might await us just around the bend?

Yoshi Silverstein, Associate ASLA, is the founder of Mitsui Design and director of the Jewish outdoor, food, and environmental education fellowship at Hazon, the country’s leading Jewish environmental organization. 

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

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

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

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

Block Size

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

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

shanghai 2

A street for pedestrians in Shanghai / Jamie Sinz


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

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

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

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

Vehicle Lane Width

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

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

Access to Destinations

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

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

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

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

Population Density

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

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

Street in Jiyugaoka,Tokyo

Street in Jiyugaoka, Tokyo / Cozyroom_mimi (Flickr)

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

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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.


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


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


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


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.”


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

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

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

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

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

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

We urge you to:

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

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

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

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

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