Archive for the ‘Urban Redevelopment’ Category

An aerial view of Yanweizhou Park, which opened in 2014 and won the World Landscape of the Year prize for 2015. / City Lab

An aerial view of Yanweizhou Park, which opened in 2014 and won the World Landscape of the Year prize for 2015. / CityLab

Why a More Naturalistic Outlook Is the Future of Garden Design Architectural Digest, 11/18/15
“A new book explores trends in contemporary landscape architecture that are rooted in the past.”

Neighborhood Parks Play More Into Nature’s Hands The Houston Chronicle, 11/18/15
“Nature-themed parks are becoming more prevalent in Houston’s master-planned communities as developers respond to demand from homebuyers for amenities centered on nature and healthy living.”

Why China Wants to Build Something Called “Sponge Cities”Citylab, 11/23/15
“China’s central government has an ambitious green infrastructure plan. But will the results live up to the rhetoric?”

Plan for Fremont Park Overhaul Slated for Glendale City Council Consideration – The Los Angeles Times, 11/24/15
“Fremont Park — Glendale’s oldest park — is poised for a major overhaul that will include a new community building, soccer field and pickleball courts after a big push from local fans of the sport popular among middle-aged adults and seniors.”

Public Outcry Continues Over Chao Phraya PromenadeThe Bangkok Post, 11/25/15
“Civic groups and academics renewed their opposition to the Chao Phraya promenade project at a seminar on Wednesday, calling for the expensive plan to be reviewed.”

Green Walls The Guardian, 11/28/15
“Sometimes called living walls, green facades, bio walls, eco walls or vertical gardens, green walls are a dynamic way to green a vertical built surface.”

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

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

East Lake (post-revitalization) / Atlanta Housing Authority

East Lake (post-revitalization) / Atlanta Housing Authority

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Center for Sustainable Landscapes, Phipps Conservancy, SITES 4-stars / Phipps Conservancy

Center for Sustainable Landscapes, Phipps Conservancy, SITES 4-stars / Phipps Conservancy

At the GreenBuild 2015 conference in Washington, D.C., Jamie Statter, vice president of strategic partnerships for the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and the Green Business Certification Inc (GBCI), its credentialing arm, announced that Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) certification is now available for landscape projects worldwide. Also, some form of SITES credential, a “SITES AP,” will become available at some point in the future. Speaking to landscape architects and designers, she said “you will be able to differentiate yourself as a SITES professional in the marketplace.”

SITES was developed over 10 years by the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), the Lady Bird Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and U.S. Botanic Garden. In the past few years, hundreds of projects sought certification under the SITES pilot program; 46 projects achieved some level of certification. In 2015, GBCI announced that it would acquire SITES and now certify projects under SITES v2. Already more than 15 projects, including two iconic international projects, have registered for certification under SITES, and many more are expected in coming months.

Statter said that “parks and green spaces are now more important than ever,” and they can only be improved through the use of SITES in their design, construction, and operations. She also thinks that SITES will be beneficial with mixed-use developments with a landscape component and parking lots.

SITES has a number of key goals: it will “help create regenerative systems and foster resiliency; mitigate climate change and increase future resource supply; transform the marketplace for landscape-related products and services; and improve human health and well-being.” Jose Alminana, FASLA, a principal at Andropogon Associates and a leader in the development of the SITES rating system, concurred, saying that SITES is a useful tool for helping clients and designers “stitch together systems to improve a landscape’s ability to absorb change.”

SITES is based on a different logic than LEED, GBCI’s rating system for buildings: its approach is based in living systems. He said once a building, which is a static system, has been created it begins to deteriorate. But once a landscape, an ever-evolving living system, has been installed, it only begins to take off. “Landscapes can be regenerative.”

Given landscape architects and designers must not only design for people but also all sorts of other wildlife, a system-based approach is critical. “There are forms of life that have co-developed together. With landscapes, it’s not a set of individual elements. You can’t have plants without soils.”

SITES can also have broader impacts on the design process and marketplace. Statter said “projects will now need integrated design teams from the get-go. SITES is a tool for involving landscape architects and designers much earlier on in the design process.”

Alminana added that SITES will only increase the “transactional power” of landscape architects and designers. With SITES, they will now know the “carbon impact of all the materials they source. They can then demand that things are done in a low-carbon way.”

And once the U.S. and other countries move to a regulatory environment that taxes carbon, “landscapes will become invaluable.” When carbon becomes money, “it will be critical to actually monitor the systems in our landscapes.”

U.S. and international landscape architects and designers are encouraged to seek certification for their projects. SITES v2 uses LEED’s four-level certification system: certified, silver, gold, platinum. The rating system is free and the reference guide is available for a fee. Alminana said the “reference guide took over 10 years to develop. Everyone should get one and have fun with it.”

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The City We Need / UN Habitat

The City We Need / UN Habitat

Nearly twenty years ago, world leaders met in Istanbul, Turkey, to discuss the fate of cities at UN-Habitat’s Habitat II conference. For Michael Cohen, director, Studley Graduate Program in International Affairs, The New School, who spoke at the Urban Thinkers Campus in New York City, that conference resulted in a interminable report that failed to solve the problems facing cities. But in a contrary view — Jan Peterson, Chair of Coordinating Council, Huairou Commission, said the Habitat II process gave a voice to hundreds of non-profit organizations from around the world for the first time and put “the world’s poor and women on the agenda. It was no longer just about academics and governments.” Now, twenty years later, the UN-Habitat is gearing up for another giant conference, Habitat III, which will convene in Quito, Ecuador in late October 2016. Just like Habitat II, there’s a risk the result will be an over-long report that will overwhelm all of governments, non-profits, and businesses’ goodwill to solve the most critical urban issues. But the process may also succeed in raising awareness of underserved urban populations and create a new consensus, a real vision for cities in the 21st century.

UN officials are hoping for nothing less than a total “rethink of the urban agenda.” The idea is to focus national policymakers’ attention on cities and get them to create new policy and regulatory frameworks that can help urbanites develop. UN Habitat wants to see greater global support for more sustainable urban planning and design, which is fantastic. However, none of this can happen without a better system of municipal finance. Cities need smarter investment if they are expected to grow in sustainable ways. Clearly, lots needs to be discussed with representatives from all sectors of the city.

There are many skeptics of these UN processes, too. At the meeting in New York City, Brent Toderain, Toderian UrbanWorks, a planning consultancy, said he has been a long-time critic of high-level international conversations. “These kinds of debates can actually be an unhelpful distraction. Just look at Agenda 21 and its impact in the U.S.” Too often at these big-profile summits, it’s “nations talk and cities act.” If an international dialogue is going to have any real impact, it must “be translated into action.”

Toderain sees five areas where action is needed:

First, every city — from Los Angeles to Nairobi — is “struggling with growth management.” In North America, Africa, South America, and Europe, there is unending sprawl. While sprawl may mean different things in the developing and developed worlds, it’s a problem everywhere.

Second, every city has an “infrastructure deficit, whether it’s providing water or WiFi.”

Third, traffic and mobility are a problem almost everywhere. “Whatever city you go to, it’s the first thing people want to talk about.” And it’s not an easy problem to fix. For example, while Medellin, Colombia, managed to “solve crime,” shutting down Pablo Escobar’s drug cartel, it still hasn’t been able to solve traffic. But there are lots of new solutions being tried as well. Paris and Stockholm are now experimenting with making their center cities totally car-free, a model that may spread to other cities.

Fourth, cities are all focused on improving public spaces. Pointing again to Medellin, he said that city has created remarkable and safe parks with free amenities for the poor, like museums and libraries. This signifies an amazing change there: “Twenty years ago, people were afraid to go out in public.”

Lastly, all cities are wrestling with equity and diversity issues. Cities may use different terms, but core issues relate to affordability, equal access, gentrification.

Ana Moreno, head of communications for UN-Habitat, said a new global discussion on cities is needed because “not all politicians are accountable, so people don’t know they have a voice and can participate in their own future.” In many countries, the private and non-profit sectors are getting together through a World Urban Campaign to provide feedback that will feed into the final report from the non-governmental sector at Habitat III. This feedback is being collected through Urban Thinkers Campuses and other meetings held around the world from now until next spring.

Each country is submitting an official national report that will feed into the governmental agreement at Habitat III. The U.S. has already submitted a draft National Report. U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) official Salin Geevarghese said HUD Secretary Julian Castro is leading that effort. The U.S. seeks to create a “broad, inclusive process” around key themes like housing for all, upward mobility, and improving resilience. He announced a set of regional public meetings designed to elevate the local conversation. “We want to surface local stories.”

The world is already more than half urban, and heading to two-thirds urban by 2050, but it’s not clear all national policymakers know this. Landscape architects and all other kinds of urban designers need to get involved. Write UN Habitat directly to see if they can join a constituent group of the General Assembly of Partners, which is collecting together all the feedback from the non-profit and private sectors. In the U.S., join in regional HUD meetings as they are announced in coming months. Planners can also submit comments via the American Planning Association (APA).

Also, check out up-to-the minute coverage of the process at Citiscope.

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Newtown Creek Nature Walk / Quennell Rothschild & Partners

Newtown Creek Nature Walk / Quennell Rothschild & Partners

Gentrification replaces diversity with homogenized people and places. This process has “rippling social and cultural effects,” said Winifred Curran, a professor at DePaul University at the ASLA 2015 Annual Meeting in Chicago. There are many reasons why gentrification has been happening across American cities — and the process may prove nearly unstoppable — but there are ways landscape architects and other designers can ensure they don’t further contribute to the problem. Instead of creating “shiny new parks” that spur on redevelopment, they can work with existing communities to design public spaces that are “just green enough” and celebrate a community’s diversity. Landscape architecture firms can create internal ethical policies to ensure they are supporting diversity rather than supplanting it through designed spaces produced in a fundamentally non-democratic way.

The most damaging effect of gentrification is displacement, which can affect cultures, industries, and people alike, said Curran. “Ethnic communities and manufacturing factories can be pushed out, and low-income communities left out of the democratic process.” Gentrification results in higher property values, eventual upgrading or homogenization of the environment, and the privatization of public spaces.

One big problem, Curran said, is that city policymakers and planners are in effect encouraging gentrification, with results that exclude existing populations. “Cities love higher property values, which means higher taxes.” In many cities, urban policies have been put in place to grow the tax base. This often involves tearing down what is there in favor of new condo towers that all look alike. And to generate appeal for these new buildings, city leaders use public private partnerships to create and manage public spaces. “These public-private partnerships create landscapes without a democratic process. They may look better, but they aren’t democratic.”

City leaders may also be pursuing a process of “environmental gentrification.” Under the rubric of becoming more sustainable, city planners and developers are investing in new parks and rails-to-trails projects to “sell upgraded neighborhoods.” Sadly, this may put many long-term residents of neighborhoods in the unfortunate position of not supporting a much-needed park because it could cause displacement. The fears are real, Curran said.

For example, the High Line in New York City has raised nearby property values by 103 percent. But Curran says “here, landscape architecture is not the problem, but the symptom” of a deeper condition. “The High Line is the physical expression of an underlying system — it couldn’t have happened without rezoning, and it was only accomplished with lots of private money.” The result is that Chelsea today has just two discrete populations — those who make less than $30,000 annually and live in the few remaining public housing blocks, or those who make well over $100,000 a year. In reality, this means the lower-income people still in Chelsea have to do their grocery shopping out in New Jersey, because they can’t afford the prices in their own neighborhood.

And in Chicago, housing along the Bloomingdale Trail, now called the 606, which cuts through multiple residential neighborhoods, including a number actively fighting gentrification, has seen “a spike in value after the trail opened.” The trail was financed by the Trust for Public Land and the Chicago city government. The Trust for Public Land, Curran argued, was “not responsive to the democratic process. And now they direct any local concerns about raising rents and property values to the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, which has no power or resources. The association pushes for property tax caps, but gets nowhere.” Between the “city and the Trust for Public Land, the community has no place to go.”

For Curran, the solution for communities may be to “just green enough.” She pointed to the Newtown Creek Nature Walk in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, designed by Quenell Rothschild & Partners, as an example of a “community-driven” improvement that improves access to the water while providing new public space. Greenpoint is gentrifying but the existing Polish community has forged partnerships with newcomers, in part by educating them about the history of the toxic creek, which is a Superfund site. While the creek is still highly poisonous, “the community can at least still get down to the waterfront, where they can see any pollution violations from nearby factories.” But it’s strictly no-frills: there are “no cafes or boat launches. It’s not so green that it’s desirable. The area is still a functioning manufacturing district that just accomplished some greening.”

Newtown Creek Nature Walk / Gowanus Lounge

Newtown Creek Nature Walk / Gowanus Lounge

Dan Pitera, University of Detroit and the Detroit Collaborative Design Center, echoed many of these ideas, but talked about what Detroit is now doing to slow gentrification, which is already happening in some areas. His Detroit Collaborative Design Center only works in communities where they have been invited. In some communities they’ve been active for more than 10 years.

He differentiated between participation and engagement, arguing that participation is project-based and episodic while engagement is systemic and long-term. He said landscape architects and designers need to take the long view and truly engage all community members when working in places dealing with gentrification, building relationships and spending the time to understand the local history and context. He opposes design charrettes, thinking there are no “single solutions,” only dialogues that are part of a broader process. And he urged designers to be careful with their language, understanding that the meaning of terms can change depend on one’s frame of reference.

At the beginning of the talk, Kathleen King, Associate ASLA, a landscape architect with Design Workshop, outlined her fears about whether she is inadvertently contributing to the process of gentrification through a park project she is working on in the Latino community of Elyria Swansea in Denver. Perhaps the most direct response to those concerns came from Jennifer Wolch, a professor of urban planning at the University of California Berkeley, who told her and other landscape architects assembled that firms “need to think through for themselves whether to come into a process cold when things have already been decided. It’s important to understand the history, context, and look upstream at the organizations that promulgate or repress discourses, and who will benefit or not from a project.”

The reality is that many landscape architecture firms “can’t actually practice in 80 places at once if they truly want to do this well. Don’t parachute in. Accumulate knowledge about a place.”

Wolch also supports the “just green enough” approach, which can go a long ways to helping a community meet its needs without making it too appealing to outsiders. She called for “appropriate design and high quality materials that resonate with the community,” but told landscape architects to avoid “‘bright shiny object’ designs that trigger adjulation.” As an example, she pointed to Augustus F. Hawkins Nature Park in Los Angeles, a well-designed park that improves quality of life but without contributing to gentrification.

Augustus F. Hawkins Nature Park / Where do the children play Los Angeles

Augustus F. Hawkins Nature Park / Where do the children play Los Angeles

Landscape architecture firms, she said, need to develop a set of ethical principles and policies, which can be helpful to both firms and clients. “Establish expectations. Find out what you are willing to do or not. Be prepared to walk away.”

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“Urbanization stirs up all kinds of emotions about rights and inhumane conditions, but we decided to take a scientific approach to discover the scope of it,” said Anthony Flint, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, at the Urban Thinkers Campus, an event organized by the Municipal Arts Society (MAS), New School, University of Pennsylvania, Next City, Citiscope, and 15 other organizations in advance of UN-Habitat’s conference on the New Urban Agenda in Quito, Ecuador, next year. To make better sense of the historic rate of urbanization, the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy put together an open and accessible Atlas of Urban Expansion covering 120 cities, with data from historical maps, censuses, and satellites that quantify urban growth from 1900 to 2000. For 30 cities, the Institute went as far back as 1800. Working with Schlomo Angel of the Urbanization Project at the New York University Stern School of Business, they then turned the data into a set of mesmerizing visualizations.

The visualizations show all cities exploding from humble beginnings into engulfing megalopolises. The rate of urban expansion, particularly over the past three decades, has been incredible, with millions of rural migrants moving into cities in Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America.

Watching visualization after visualization, it’s clear that Geoffrey West, a scientist with the Santa Fe Institute, was correct when he said cities are like vast organisms that grow based on their own metabolic rate. Consuming vast quantities of resources — land, water, minerals — they expand until there are no more resources, and then will perhaps shrink and die.

Some of the urban forms expand in a somewhat orderly manner, Flint said. In these cases, growth has been corralled into corridors and grids in a more sustainable way.

However, the cities of the developing world look like metastasizing cancers simultaneously reaching out in all directions, unless some part of the growth is hemmed in by mountains or a river.

Flint said the data and visualizations show that “we need to be realistic about urban land. Cities have to plan ahead in terms of what they will need in 50 years. Even at high densities, we’ll still need a lot of land.”

The next steps for the Institute are to overlay new data layers, so they can further define the character of urban expansion — for example, deciphering whether an area is a slum or not based on the formations of the settlement. They also want to figure out which areas of the city are affordable, but that will require “boots on the ground.”

And for the upcoming UN-Habitat meeting in Quito, which will create a New Urban Agenda, a 20-year development plan for the world’s cities, the Institute wants to create a “projected urban growth atlas,” that will show how the expansion of cities will look over coming decades.

This is a crucial undertaking because by 2050, the world population will hit 9 billion and some 6 billion of those people will live in cities. As Flint said, “60 percent of the cities that will exist in 2050 don’t exist now.” But unless steps are taken to design future cities better — planning ahead for grids, transportation systems, parks, and open space — many billions of people will still be living in slums with few rights in inhumane conditions.

Watch all 30 visualizations and read the report, Making Room for a Planet of Cities.

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Solar power farm in Saudi Arabia / Evwind.us

Solar power farm in Saudi Arabia / Evwind.us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Steven Nygren / Serenbe

Steven Nygren / Serenbe

Steven Nygren is the founder of Serenbe, which has won numerous awards, including the Urban Land Institute Inaugural Sustainability Award, the Atlanta Regional Commission Development of Excellence, and EarthCraft’s Development of the Year.

You founded Serenbe, a 1,000-acre community in the city of Chattahoochee Hills, which is 30 miles southwest of Atlanta, Georgia. In Serenbe, there are dense, walkable clusters of homes, shops, and businesses, even artists’ studios, modeled like English villages set within 40,000 acres of forest you helped protect. Can you briefly tell me the story of this community? What motivated you to create it?

It was a reaction. We purchased 60 acres in a historic farm in 1991 just on a weekend whim while on a drive to show our children farm animals. It seemed like a good investment. I wasn’t sure why we were doing it other than my wife and three daughters thought it was a great idea. To my amazement, every Friday when I got home, everyone was anxious to leave our big house with the pool, the media room, and all of the trappings, to go out to the country. Watching the difference in the children and our own family on those weekend times, I decided after three years to sell the company, sell the big house, and retreat to this rural area, right on the edge of Atlanta.

Seven years later, on a jog, a bulldozer was bulldozing the forest next to us. At that point, we owned 300 acres. We were fearful that the threat of development was coming. It turns out they were clearing it for a small runway for one of the neighbors. But that set me on the path of thinking what could happen.

At dinner one night when I shared my concerns with Ray Anderson, the founder of Interface Inc, who had been a good friend, he said, “Let’s bring the thought leaders in to talk about this.” So in September 2000, 24 people invited actually showed up — because of who Ray was — for a two-day conversation facilitated by the Rocky Mountain Institute, documented by Georgia Tech. At that point, I went into the session interested in how we could protect our own backyard, but I came out with an understanding of how serious the issues are. And you realize in September 2000, the first LEED building hadn’t been certified.

A lot of the things we take for granted today were way-over-the-edge thinking just a decade and-a-half ago. We began looking at what could be done. We decided that most models ended up being magnets for what they were trying to change. We set about to bring land owners together in a 40,000 acre area.

How did you and the other members of the Chattahoochee Hill Country Alliance achieve buy-in from local planners and policymakers to create Serenbe and the broader Chattahoochee Hill Country Community Plan, which protect 40,000 acres of nature from Atlanta’s ever-engulfing sprawl?

We realized we needed to create a larger vision than just buying land and trying to create a model. We brought everyone together over food. We invited the largest land owners to dinner, and after several cases of wine and several good dinners in our home, we thought we had buy-in. Next, we expanded the ring to get buy-in from owners representing 51 percent of the land.

That meeting would have reminded you of the worst zoning meeting you’ve ever sat through. Within an hour and-a-half, we had people calling each other names, even neighbors who had known each other through generations. So I realized that it was a much bigger issue. Half of the people who inherited land wanted the bulldozers to come because this meant payday, and the other half didn’t want the land touched. It was between the land speculators and us, who had found this paradise.

We put together some more research. I first reached out to a community leader who was also a property rights advocate to get agreement to come to another meeting. About ten minutes into the call, he said, “are we going to have that peach cobbler?” And so my wife kept baking and cooking and we kept calling meetings. Then, that proceeded into a public process with all the landowners, over 500. It was a two-year process. By late 2002, we passed the largest land use plan in recent history in metropolitan Atlanta, with 80 percent of the landowners paying dues into the organization we formed, with not one word of opposition. It was quite remarkable.

There has been a long history of utopian agricultural communities. Early communities in the U.S. and Europe came together for ideological reasons. They were anarchists seeking self-sufficiency, proto-communists or socialists seeking to bring social reform to serfs, and others farming to just improve human health and well-being. Some of the early communities in turn influenced Ebenezer Howard, who created his Garden City movement right before the turn of the 20th century. Where do you and Serenbe fit into this rich history?

When you look over time, you’ll see there has been a constant tension between rural and urban. But also each of these movements have responded to the issues of their time.

Serenbe certainly represents a turning point to counter Atlanta’s sprawl, which is terrible. Marie and I were urban people who believed we should develop where infrastructure exists. But at the point we got involved a decade and-a-half ago, over 70 percent of the development continued to be in greenfields. There were no good models.

Serenbe deals with the issues of our time: how do we create communities that connect urban and rural, the city and agriculture? I would like to think that history will look at Serenbe as part of a movement that returns development to responsible uses of resources in a balanced way.

The Serenbe community has a unique layout, with “serpentine omega forms.” What ideas guided the plan?

Phil Tabb worked with us as a consultant. He did his doctorate on the English village system and was also trained as a sacred geometrist through Keith Critchlow. We wanted to achieve a complete balance, very much what biomimicry pioneer Janine Benyus talks about. In nature, everything is balanced. But as developers, we don’t always respond to nature in a real way.

When Phil and I first started walking the land to understand the assets and restraints, we talked about the ridges for house clusters. We were thinking about the hill towns of Italy, where we both visited. Then when we came together for our first two-day design charrette. It became obvious that we wanted to save those ridges for public natural access. We could locate the density and the housing in the valleys, which brings you down. If you come into the valleys, you come by the streams. To really work with the streams, it became an omega — you had one crossing with the housing on each side of the stream. The omegas really emerged through our understanding of the land. The land spoke to us and and we saw where we could locate buildings with the least disturbance, and yet, really bring the land to life. At Serenbe, houses are nestled around the water, with this wonderful little stream down through the center. All the ridges have community paths.

Serenbe masterplan / Serenbe

Serenbe masterplan / Serenbe

Various movements claim Serenbe. We relate to each of these movements, such as the New Urbanists, the farm-to-table movement, the environmental movement. We are all of these things but we’re much more than any one of them. One of the areas where we differ with the New Urbanists is the grid. Our grid is pedestrian, not vehicular. There is a complete grid for pedestrians going across the streams and omegas, but our streets wander. We were really in the forefront of the movement to get people out walking, because at Serenbe you can usually walk to places in half the time that the road will take you around here.

In an interview with the journal Terrain, Ed McMahon, a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute, said “agriculture is the new golf.” The new desirable amenity is a well-maintained farm. The benefits of a community farm are food production, new revenue, and even tax breaks for preserving farmland. How do the residents of Serenbe pay for its 25-acre farm? How is the farm maintained?

When we started Serenbe, you really didn’t see farms integrated into a community. Ed was one of the early people that I turned to. The Urban Land Institute (ULI) had just released a study that said 92 percent of the people who bought golf course lots — at that premium bankers adore — played golf less than twice a year. They were buying the green space, the open space.

When I was trying to fund Serenbe, I would talk to the bankers, and say, “OK, if that’s true, wouldn’t people pay the same premium if not more to back up to a farm or a pasture?” There were no statistics to show that, so the financial community wouldn’t fund the development. The real estate community was dubious. So was Andres Duany, who didn’t think people would live that close to smelly farms. We are delighted that he is now a big supporter of this movement.

We were really pushing this idea of agricultural integration. We realized a lot of the negatives that “big ag” farms have. But a small organic farm is charming. We really pushed forward with these ideas, even though our land had been stripped of nutrients through the cotton monoculture, so it didn’t look like it could produce. Everyone said, “You’re nuts. You’re crazy.” But it seemed like such a core thing: if we were going to create a balanced, sustainable community, food was one of the critical things, along with energy and water.

Serenbe aerial view / Serenbe

Serenbe aerial view / Serenbe

Now, we operate Serenbe Farms as a teaching farm. I had initially decided we would be self-sustainable in five years. It was self-sustainable in three years. We 25 acres set aside and about half of that is under active cultivation, with cover crops on the other half. The farm supplies our three restaurants. We have a great CSA program for people outside Serenbe. There’s a farmer’s market on Saturdays.

We have a farmer hired on a base salary, and then they get a profit based on what they make. We have an intern house with four interns. The farmer makes a very nice salary and it’s profitable, and educational. So we’re growing farmers as well as crops.

Serenbe organic farm / Serenbe

Serenbe organic farm / Serenbe

Is a model like Serenbe only for the relatively well-off? Can you conceive of this model working for middle or working class communities?

Our model is essential for lower income groups. One of the critical problems in our educational system is that we’re not teaching people how to grow and prepare their own foods. It should be one of the basics of the education system and it’s just not. It takes very little land to grow all the foods you need for a family.

We’ve been able to demonstrate at Serenbe that with five acres, one member of a couple both working and paying for daycare can leave the workforce as we know it and actually tend the farm. That couple can have a higher quality of life. It’s essential thing that we have farmers in smaller lots growing local food.

Now, let’s talk about the labels organic and local. We’ve had to label these things because we’ve gotten so far away from the basics of 50 to 60 years ago. Then, we didn’t have organics, we had good nutrients. That’s what we have to get back to.

With our CSA program, a family of four can have all the vegetables they need for a week in the key growing seasons. How much does that cost a day? $4.80. That’s affordable. So this idea that fresh fruits and vegetables are not affordable is crazy.

Wholesome Wave is a fabulous program. Michel Nischan started five or six years ago. It’s one of the few programs that received increased funding in the recent Farm Bill by both Republicans and Democrats. For every dollar raised, the Farm Bill matches it by a dollar fifty. It’s for anyone on SNAP programs. If lower income folks are getting food assistance, they can turn $20 of credit into $50 dollars of fresh fruits and vegetables from a local farmer. This is stimulating the local agrarian economy, and getting fresh food into homes.

In Serenbe, sustainable homes are set close together in New Urbanist arrangements. The organic farm stores carbon. Water conservation is enabled through water-efficient appliances and green infrastructure. Waste water is treated through a natural system designed by landscape architects with Reed Hilderbrand. Yet, most of the 400 residents of your community drive to work in Atlanta, and the thousands of visitors you get each year also drive there. How does this balance out in terms of overall sustainability?

Serenbe development street / Serenbe

Serenbe development street / Serenbe


Serenbe's natural wastewater treatment system by Reed Hilderbrand / Serenbe

Serenbe’s natural wastewater treatment system by Reed Hilderbrand / Serenbe

The perceptions that everyone is driving out to work is mistaken. A recent survey we did showed that 70 percent of the people living at Serenbe worked all or part-time at home. We have moved away from the time when everyone arrives at a desk at 9 and leaves at 5. For some of our residents, the airport is their key means of transportation; they’re consultants or what have you.

We did also a survey asking if people drove more or less since moving to Serenbe. We found we’re just right on the edge of the same trends. When they lived in the city, everything seemed convenient, and so they were constantly going out for trips. In Serenbe, they’re more organized and they really don’t leave as much. With Amazon and so much e-commerce, we can live in a different way.

We are also creating jobs in our shops, restaurants, and other service sectors. People who already lived in the area around Serenbe were traveling great distances for jobs. We have created this entire local job force for people who are already living nearby. If you look at the net, we’re probably cutting down on trips.

The New York Times recently wrote about the country-wide growth of communities like Serenbe, which they call “agrihoods.” How can you explain their growth? But, also, given these communities are still far from mainstream, how do you explain their still limited appeal?

I believe that all trends begin and then grow. There is no way to walk through a threshold from no appeal to total appeal. When we put our first development in just 11 years ago, the idea of farming in a new community just didn’t exist. The fact that it’s even in the conversation a decade later means there’s a lot happening. But this is not a model in which the majority of Americans can live. That just isn’t feasible.

The broader movement that needs to happen is finding an authentic way to bring more food sources into our mainstream developments. At Serenbe, the crosswalks all have blueberry bushes.

Serenbe edible landscape / Serenbe

Serenbe edible landscape / Serenbe

Why shouldn’t that be happening in any urban area? Where we’re sitting here in Austin, why are these pots filled with ornamental plants that have no meaning? Why aren’t they full of herbs or something the kitchen can use? Our movement can help edibles integrate into our typical landscapes.

Finally, there’s an understanding that we need to daylight more of our stormwater. Wouldn’t it be incredible if all of our urban areas had these veins of bio-retention to capture our stormwater and beside those systems were edible landscapes? This is where I want to see us moving to.

The agrihood idea is the beginning of waking people up to the benefits of having food near where you live, but let’s integrate those ideas into mainstream communities.

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Headphones and maps set up for a Water Walk event in Lexington, Kentucky / Gena Wirth

Headphones and maps set up for a Water Walk event in Lexington, Kentucky / Gena Wirth

How can you get people to appreciate the invisible features of their hometown? A team led by SCAPE/Landscape Architecture and MTWTF is currently conducting a unique multi-media design experiment that aims to find out by focusing on an often-forgotten but significant culvert in Lexington, Kentucky. The Town Branch Water Walk, created for the Lexington Downtown Development Authority (DDA), is a podcast-guided one-hour walking tour of downtown Lexington’s Town Branch Creek, a long-buried hidden waterway. To further enlighten users of the podcast tours, SCAPE created a set of topographical tables that show what they will explore.

Water walk tour / Gena Wirth, SCAPE

Water walk tour, Lexington, Kentucky / Gena Wirth, SCAPE

The water walk, which can be completed in under an hour, is intended to transform the way Lexingtonians interpret their everyday landscape by revealing what exists underground: karst geology and hydrology. For those who may not know, karst is formed from the “dissolution of soluble rocks such as limestone, dolomite, and gypsum” and takes shape as underground drainage systems, with caves and sinkholes.

Lexington was founded on the Town Branch –  a karst stream — but over time this landscape has been covered over and “put out of sight, out of mind.” The tour follows the creek downstream from its headwaters on a busy highway to where it daylights in a parking lot behind the University of Kentucky’s Rupp Arena.

“The Water Walk creates links between the urban areas Lexingtonians inhabit and the rural Bluegrass region that shapes the identity of the city and region. Karst is Lexington’s hidden secret – the water that flows through this limestone bedrock is rumored to make the bluegrass grow taller, the horses’ bones grow stronger, and the bourbon taste better,” said Gena Wirth, ASLA, a principal at SCAPE.

The set of 3-minute long podcasts are modeled off of Safari 7, a self-guided tour of urban wildlife on New York City’s 7 subway. The podcasts include interviews with local experts on topics ranging from “Lexington’s green infrastructure projects to the complicated nature of Kentucky’s karst-defined hydrology.”

The free podcast and walking tour model was chosen because it can reach multiple audiences who might not typically seek out information on water quality or stormwater management. The team is also working with local schools to integrate the podcasts into the middle school science and social studies curricula.

Nels Rogers, 5, listens to the sound of Town Branch with Gena Wirth / Lexington-Herald Ledger

Nels Rogers, 5, listens to the sound of Town Branch with Gena Wirth / Lexington-Herald Ledger

The new tour also helps set the stage for the work SCAPE is doing in the city. The firm recently won an international design competition to design Town Branch Commons, a broader, long-term initiative advanced by the mayor and the Lexington DDA that will create a new linear public space downtown along the path of the karst water system of Town Branch. A number of other projects, including the construction of the Town Branch Trail, the Legacy Trail Development, and a remedial action plan as a result of an E.P.A. action on water pollution, are in the works.

SCAPE's winning design for Town Branch Commons / SCAPE / landscape architecture

SCAPE’s winning design for Town Branch Commons / SCAPE

SCAPE thinks more landscape architects should go multi-media when trying to communicate with the public. “We firmly believe in the power of systemic vision, but we also believe that visions need to be accompanied by face-to-face communication and design (or podcast-to-ear!).”

Wirth thinks these approaches can create new connections with the environment: “On the ground experience is invaluable – getting out into a new environment, occupying a familiar space in an unfamiliar space, or hearing a podcast describe the trickling stream below your feet transforms the way you experience a place and understand its potential. Landscape architects work to reveal and enhance environmental systems within urban areas, and the podcast walking tour is another way to combat inertia and catalyze appreciation and change. As designers, we need to expand our toolkit and explore more diverse techniques for speaking directly to people about the quality and potential of their built environment.”

Water walk tour / Gena Wirth, SCAPE

Water walk tour / Gena Wirth, SCAPE

So far, the Lexington DDA has hosted one of three Water Walk events. Vine Street was open to pedestrian and bike traffic to allow people to take the walk. A new Water Walk website was recently launched, and listening stations are becoming available for public use at destinations downtown.

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Mothership / O.N.E. Detroit

Mothership / O.N.E. Detroit

Anya Sirota, an artist, was perusing Bon Marche, a famous bookstore in Paris, and discovered a whole section on Detroit, filled with mostly “ruin porn” books. In its decline, Detroit, she said, is one of the most “imagined cities in the world.” And it’s now connected with stories of great loss and lament — it went from a city of 2 million to 680,000.

The story is either “this terrible neglect, or perhaps a DIY gestalt — young, talented, non-conventional types can come here and make a new life, create an alternative lifestyle.” To appeal to that DIY audience, Detroit has also become the “scenic backdrop for the marketing of the authenticity of products.”

As Sirota explained at SXSW Eco in Austin, Texas, she decided to go to the city and see for herself. She ended up partnering with some local African American designers, artists, and activists to write a new story. Sirota calls what she eventually helped create “generative cultural infrastructure.” She believes it’s different from the usual “placemaking” experiences, which have become too “institutionalized” for her tastes.

Sirota called for new thinking about Detroit. Instead of treating Detroit as a “shrinking city,” how about relabeling it a “shifting city?” From the perspective of the African American community who have lived there for decades, the city hasn’t really shrunk — it has expanded.

She also questioned whether the city is really post-industrial. The massive, often illegal, process of recycling Detroit’s abandoned buildings is part of an international industrial economy. “As building development has boomed in China, the rate of deconstruction in Detroit has also increased. It’s a city fully embedded in industrial processes. Those scrappy, metals workers are just not considered part of the formal economy.”

But she really got to work when she saw that remnants of Motown were on the verge of being destroyed for good. Detroit’s city government had initiated a blight remediation program with the goal of tearing down abandoned, decrepit houses. They partnered with Data Driven Detroit and Loveland Technologies to create Motor City Mapping, a website and app that enabled surveyors to examine thousands of damaged empty homes that need to be dealt with. “The survey looked at all structures in the landscape. After 15 minutes of training, surveyors post photos and evaluate the properties.” But it turns out some famous African American clubs where Motown started were added to the list for demolition. Sirota said these technology-enabled surveyors had no clue about the history of many of the places they were evaluating. “That’s not fair.”

Sirota eventually met up with Bryce Detroit, a local record producer, who “uses entertainment arts to create media that project African American identity.” Through his work, he has gotten involved with the climate justice and social justice movements, but he doesn’t call himself an activist. “The community calls me an activist though.”

Bryce Detroit in Mothership / O.N.E. Detroit

Bryce Detroit in the Mothership / O.N.E. Detroit

Together, Detroit and Sirota and many others came together to form the O.N.E. Mile project in Detroit’s North End, which is home to legendary musical venues like Phelps’ Lounge along the Oakland Avenue artery in Paradise Valley. What was once the hub of a “30-year Motown music economy” had become derelict, targeted for demolition. For Detroit and Sirota, this was incredibly sad. “There was no marker of the extraordinary history of the music here that impacted the world.” Instead, “someone used an app for 15 minutes and decided this place didn’t fit into the vision of the new city.”

Detroit, Sirota, and many others started to revitalize some spaces along a one mile stretch of Oakland Avenue. A part of the Oakland Avenue Artists Coalition, a collection of artists, industrial designers, and architects, they created a vision for a new arts corridor that will undo the blight. New gardens appeared in empty lots. Buildings were turned into makeshift galleries and meeting spaces. “We rehabilitated a garage, really without permission.” There, they launched the Mothership, a mobile DJ unit, which comes with smoke machines (see above).

And for the grand opening of the rehabilitated space, 12 original members of Parliament Funkadelic, the legendary funk band who created the original “Holy Mothership” in the 70s, played a free concert. Some 700 people from the neighborhood turned up.

This collective is constantly “prototyping, programming,” creating new “experimental music and catalyzing the development of new organizations.” They branded the Mothership, with local artists creating t-shirts and earrings. They created a new magazine. As Detroit explained, “we wanted it to be beautiful all the way, with the highest possible production values.” There are pop-up shops were no money is exchanged; it’s all barter. There’s now a North End Urban Expressions Art Festival to showcase local talent.

North End Urban Expressions Art Festival / Oakland Avenue Artists Collective

North End Urban Expressions Art Festival / Oakland Avenue Artists Collective

North End Urban Expressions Art Festival / Oakland Avenue Artists Collective

North End Urban Expressions Art Festival / Oakland Avenue Artists Collective

Sirota said this all constitutes a new model for community revitalization. In the usual placemaking process, community groups, she said, have to work with foundation’s funding cycles. But the problem is they can’t “create complex cultural products in 18 months. Foundations really need to revisit that.” With their bottom-up approach, “there was true collaboration across disciplines. The cultural products were produced locally — not overlaid. This makes it sustainable and self-generating.”

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