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.”

Landscape attributes / MaryCarol Hunter

Landscape attributes / MaryCarol Hunter

“We know that exposure to nature enhances our well-being, but we know less about the specific features that create these positive effects,” said MaryCarol Hunter, ASLA, University of Michigan, at the ASLA 2015 Annual Meeting in Chicago. A set of fascinating studies by Hunter and Marc Berman, a psychologist and neuroscientist at the University of Chicago, are beginning to converge on what those feature are. The goal is to translate knowledge of these features into design guidelines landscape architects and other designers can apply. All of this research is happening under the rubric of the TKF Foundation, which has invested millions over the past two decades creating more than 130 small, healing parks and financing research studies on the health benefits of green spaces in dense, urban areas. The TKF Foundation wants to know: with increasingly limited space in cities for green space, how can we have the biggest impact?

Humans evolved in wild lands, but we mostly live in urban environments now. While we inherently connect with our ancestral landscapes, we are constantly exposed to cacophonous city life. Wild landscapes can’t be fully translated into urban environments, but “some elements can be transported to downtowns. We can get close to the effects of wild places,” said Hunter.

Exposure to Nature Improves Our Sense of Well-being and Ability to Focus 

First, we should look at some of the research Hunter and Berman are conducting to demonstrate the health benefits of nature. Hunter and her collaborators from many fields created a mobile-phone app that study subjects used to record their responses to nature and also photograph scenes of nature they connected with. This experiment is detailed in an earlier post, but the key finding so far is that just a 10 minute exposure to nature 2-3 times per week was “sufficient to produce restoration benefits.” Furthermore, subjects were most likely to experience the effect of this “nature pill” in a small urban park or residential yard instead of a large park. The findings from those using the app were confirmed by cortisol and saliva samples taken to measure the physiological effects of stress.

Marc Berman then described his own research at the University of Chicago. In one experiment, a set of subjects were asked to take a 2.5 mile walk, which took about 50 minutes, through a dense urban environment, and another set were asked to take another 2.5 mile walk through an arboretum. Subjects taking either path converged on a lab at the University of Chicago where they were put through the stressful “backward digit span” test of working memory, which Berman uses to measure capacity to concentrate or focus. The test involves reciting back a set of numbers in reverse. As number strings become longer, it becomes more mentally taxing to recite them backwards. Berman found that subjects who walked through the arboretum had a 20 percent improvement in working memory. A further study that showed subjects either photos of urban areas or nature scenes had a similar effect.

Elements of Nature that Boost Health Benefits 

Hunter and Berman both seek to zoom in on the specific elements of nature that create a sense of well-being and improve the ability to concentrate. But there are so many outstanding questions. Just consider the question: “why do trees have a beneficial effect?” Berman said possible answers could be: “they make places beautiful so we want to go out and exercise; they clean the air; they help us reach resting attention rates; or perhaps all of the above.” Now think of all the other elements of nature that need to be isolated and considered.

Still, Berman suspects that the effect of nature has something to do with the “soft fascination” it creates for us. “Nature captures our attention but not all of our attention. We can watch a waterfall, but our minds can wander and we can think about other things. In contrast, in Times Square, New York City, our minds can’t wander. There, we can’t daydream.”

Berman is creating a taxonomy of natural and urban image elements, coding them by brightness and color value, saturation, hue, and then calculating the standard deviation of these elements. He’s also analyzing the images’ “grey scale entropy,” removing all the color and just looking at the complexity of the content in the images. He said that “images of nature are more complex and therefore have a higher grey scale entropy.” He’s also evaluating images based on whether they have curved or straight edges. “Color, structure, and their interactions all matter.” Running all this data through an algorithm, Berman says he can predict “how natural we think a scene is. These preferences can be measured with 80-90 percent accuracy.”

Berman’s algorithm tells him that color has less of an effect on our perceptions of naturalness than whether there are straight or hard edges. This means that designers of all kinds can “mimic the edge-making of nature” and have some beneficial effect.

Hunter is doing her own taxonomy, too, because her goal is to “bring science into landscape architecture.” She is pulling the physical landscape attributes out of the photographs collected through her app study, categorizing them based on “naturalness, complexity, structural coherence, form, proportion, openness, access, safety, and engagement.”

While her analysis is ongoing and the full design guidelines aren’t ready yet, Hunter found through her research that “vibrancy” is something to maximize whenever possible. She defined vibrancy as “the interaction between the sky and the surface water or waxes of foliage, which creates a sparkle effect that engenders soft fascination.”

Maximizing vibrancy / MaryCarol Hunter

Maximizing vibrancy / MaryCarol Hunter

And framing — in which an object near the viewer partially obscures and also reveals what’s beyond — also creates a sense of safety and continuity and is a design element that should be incorporated in landscape architecture.

Example of framing / MaryCarol Hunter

Example of framing / MaryCarol Hunter

The Long View 

But these are really just starting points, as the full design guidelines are still forthcoming. And Hunter said there are many others also involved in this research, with some looking at the role sound plays in the health benefits of nature. An audience member wondered when they would look at tactile elements of nature and smell. Hunter said they were starting first with visual components but the goal is to broaden the reach to other senses.

Jay Graham, FASLA, Graham Landscape Architecture, and long-time adviser to the TKF Foundation, said their efforts will show how “scientific research can lead to more successful sanctuaries.” All the research — which also includes a study by Roger Ulrich of a healing garden created by Brian Bainnson, ASLA, at Legacy Emanuel Hospital in Portland, and another of a healing pathway by Jack Sullivan, FASLA, University of Maryland at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. — is due in 2018. Then, the TKF Foundation will promote these findings to the media, policymakers, and the broader public.

As Graham explained, the TKF Foundation seeks to educate the public about why small urban green spaces are important, because according to their internal research, “the public doesn’t comprehend the health benefits of nature.” Landscape architects then play a leading role, given they “bring nature into cities, and create spaces that show people the transformational effects.” The idea is if lots more of these evidence-based urban green spaces are created and the benefits of them are made clear through research, the public will demand even more of them.

Janine Benyus / Biomimicry 3.8

Janine Benyus / Biomimicry 3.8

Janine Benyus is the co-founder of Biomimcry 3.8 and the Biomimicry Institute. She is a biologist, innovation consultant, and author of six books, including Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, in which she named biomimicry, an emerging discipline that emulates nature’s designs and processes (e.g., solar cells that mimic leaves) to create a healthier, more sustainable planet.

Why design like nature? Why is nature’s approach necessarily the best?

Life has been on the planet for 3.8 billion years, and, in that time, it has learned what works and what lasts here on earth. That’s a long line of good ideas. Unprecedented longevity. What doesn’t work is recalled (made extinct), and what does work is optimized with each generation. Natural selection prizes those things that work best in place as well as those that create conditions conducive to life.

What we see now is a scant one percent of the species that have been on earth; they’re the best of the best. Their design solutions have been created in the context of our planet. They’re designed to tap the power of limits and make the most of opportunities—it’s a dance within the creative frame of what’s real. Organisms that tap the limits and opportunities of their habitat excel and get to stay there. This method creates context-shaped adaptations—technologies—that are earth savvy. We call this portfolio of adaptions “biological intelligence” for a reason, because there’s an embodied wisdom to these designs.

When you ask “why design using nature’s principles and patterns?” I think it comes down to this:  They just really work well on this planet in a no-regrets way. Unintended consequences?  Already shaken out of the system. I can’t think of a better model.

How has the biomimetic design movement evolved over the past few decades? Where did it start? How did you get here? What happened along the way?

In the last few years, biomimicry has moved from a meme to a movement. When I wrote Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature in ’97, the idea of looking to nature for innovation was just a faint signal in the literature. I found a few articles on leaf-inspired solar cells, prairie-inspired agriculture, spider silk and fibers, and ecology-inspired businesses, but these ideas were published in bizarre, seldom-read journals.

What I did in Biomimicry was notice that a nature-inspired approach to innovation was starting to stir, but it had no name! I baptized it biomimicry, and to my surprise, it proved to be a catchy meme. I expected the post-publication reaction that most science writers receive: profound silence. But instead, my phone started ringing off the hook. The first people who were really interested were architects. Then, a lot of companies called and said, “send biologists to our design table because we need solutions and we want to know how nature solves it.”

In 1998, Dr. Dayna Baumeister and I created this company of biologists (Biomimicry 3.8) that brings biological intelligence to innovators. We thought it was going to be about product design and engineering, which it is. We’ve created products with everyone from Boeing to Nike to Green Mountain Coffee Roasters to GE, General Mills, Interface, Procter & Gamble, and Kimberly-Clark. 250 clients. Lots of Fortune 50 companies now. We solve their toughest sustainability challenges and we train companies to practice biomimicry thinking.

But there was also interest in bringing biomimicry to the built world. Jane Jacobs was the first one who had me speak. She called me out of the blue. I had been a fan of The Death and Life of Great American Cities when I was in college, not because I was an urban planner, but because I was a writer, and her bell-clear essays taught me to write. When she called me, I was shocked because I assumed she had passed! But no—at 80-something, she had just read Biomimicry and was handing it out as Christmas presents. She was writing a new book with a “biomimic” as the main character. And then Bob Berkebile asked me to speak at the AIA Environment conference. And it just went from there. Clients like HOK and Gensler hired us, and we looked at how to apply biomimicry at the building, landscape, and all the way up to the city level.

In 2006, we created the non-profit Biomimicry Institute to get tools out to people and give people an opportunity to practice biomimicry through design challenges. Now we have AskNature.org, a global network of 31 hubs, and we’re on our 6th year of Global Design Challenges. Our latest challenge — food systems— attracted close to 2,000 people from 71 countries. Biomimicry’s gone from a meme to a movement because it just makes a lot of sense to people. It’s a whole new discipline debuting for the first time in universities, industries, and the zeitgeist, and that doesn’t happen very often.

People are now painting out the canvas of biomimicry. We’ve had engineering, architecture, city planning, computing, medicine, chemistry, robotics, product design, even finance using models from nature. Now it’s biomimicry for social innovation—management, leadership, and organizational design—that’s a new focus area.

What are the most exciting areas of biomimetic design and innovation today? What has the potential to be truly game changing?

You can’t talk about changing the game without first rescuing the game. Of the climate change mitigation strategies now being vetted, the ones that float to the top for us are two biomimetic ones.

The first strategy is bio-sequestration, which is figuring out how to get the carbon currently in the atmosphere stored in deep soil profiles. The way to do that isn’t through industrial agriculture or industrial forestry; it’s through ecosystem-inspired land use — farming and ranching and forestry in nature’s image. Ecosystems store carbon in spades and so do these emulations. I think the design principles involved in this bio-inspired land management are applicable to landscape architecture.

Landscape architects are already starting to create multi-functional landscapes. But people are going to ask a lot more of their green spaces, particularly in cities. They’re going to be looking for ways to pull carbon down. Because we’ve lost half of the carbon in our soils over the past 200 years, we’ve got this half-full bathtub that we can fill with carbon.

When you start looking at the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, they support nature-inspired mixed species agriculture or polycultures. They support agro-forestry—putting trees together with crops. They are starting to say one of the most promising tactics is rotational grazing—moving cows around the way buffalo used to roam in herds then move on. This process creates really deep-rooted grasses that place carbon way down into the soil, feeding the soil microbes and therefore storing carbon. This was seen as a wild-eyed approach when I first wrote about it. Now, it’s considered to be one of things we must do to reverse climate change, right alongside eliminating greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and moving to clean energy and wise energy use. Once we’ve stopped the madness of emissions, there’s still the final piece of the puzzle—pulling down what we already emitted.

Another biomimetic strategy is capturing carbon dioxide in useful products. We can now create carbon-storing concrete based on coral reef recipes, because corals have been storing CO2 in concrete-like reefs for a long time. We can use carbon “pollution” to create plastics that are 50 percent carbon dioxide. There are eight companies now mentioned by IPCC that take CO2 and store it in polymers, as well as concrete and building products, like the firm Blue Planet does. This year’s XPrize is called Carbon X. There will be $20 million available for teams who can take CO2 and turn it into useful products.

Now why is this process biomimetic? Plants turn CO2 into sugars, starches, cellulose. And that’s a trick. The reason we use CO2 in our fire extinguishers is that it doesn’t really react very well—it’s hard to turn it into something else. You either have to add lots of energy, or have a super enzyme to make CO2 hook up into long carbon polymer chains. But plants and corals and mollusks do it all day long. Suddenly, nature’s recipes for turning CO2 to stuff or fuel becomes essential in carbon dioxide sequestration. It’s classic biomimicry, and this time, it’s helping us reverse climate change, making use of the 200 years of our carbon exhalations.

Another area that excites me is this concept of the circular economy, the idea that instead of sending stuff to landfills, we can recoup and use materials, mimicking flows in the natural world. This comes at an auspicious time, because with 3D printing, manufacturing is about to come home, and it would be great to use local feedstocks. When print shops are on every retail corner, products won’t cross the globe but designs will. I’m excited because biomimetic structural blueprints are a great way to take common raw materials and make them functional. Life’s structures are very detailed in terms of their internal and external architecture. Think of animal shapes that reduce drag and shed water on the outside, but on the inside have this intricate cathedral of bone, strong but lightweight because of the design. 3D printers’ algorithms—generative design files—are increasingly going to come from biology.

One of the major optimizing technologies for buildings right now is a software called OptiStruct, which is based on a bone algorithm. The technology mimics how bones lay down material where it’s needed along lines of stress and take a material away from where it’s not needed. These bone algorithms are now seen in bridge and building beams, and they were used to lightweight Airbus’ new rib and wing assembly by 40 percent. Beyond shape, I think nature’s low-temperature, low-toxin chemistries are also going to be important—safe chemistry in the printer, and bio-inspired dis-assembly chemistries—so we can return products and print them into something else.

OptiStruct lattice structures for 3D Printing / Altair Corporation

OptiStruct lattice structures for 3D Printing / Altair Corporation

On AskNature.org, you have both animal and plant-based strategies. The plant-based ones are equally as fascinating. What are some key things plants can teach landscape architects about how to design?

Plants are star players in the water cycle, but there are things we are just now learning about them. A decade ago, climate scientists were trying to solve a conundrum. How is that rainforests still produce clouds above the trees in the dry season? Where are they finding moisture to transpire into clouds? It’s called hydraulic redistribution, and here’s how it works. A few shrubs in rainforests have deep tap roots and shallow roots. In the rainy season, the shallow roots soak up the rain and direct it down the taproot and out into deep soils, where it’s banked for later use. Come dry season, the reverse happens. The tap root draws the water up and releases it from the shallow roots so that other organisms in the forest can access it. Ten percent of all the rainfall in the amazon is redistributed in this way. I can see a time when landscape architects would plant a few “bio-irrigators” in their mixes, so that even in the dry season, water can be pulled from the soil vault, and then redistributed via shallow roots. It’s a self-irrigating landscape. I love that.

  Cloud over Peruvian segment of the Amazon rainforest / Wendeeholtcamp.com

Cloud over Peruvian segment of the Amazon rainforest / Wendeeholtcamp.com

Plants also show us how to extract water from the atmosphere. In the Namib Desert, plants comb moisture out of really dry areas that sometimes get some fog. Redwoods actually do it, too. A University of California at Berkeley researcher named Todd Dawson showed that a hundred foot redwood will gather the equivalent of four inches of rainfall from fog in a single night. The water condenses on its needles and drips down. That’s an enormous amount of water.

Welwitschia mirablis / Brilliant Botany

Welwitschia mirablis / Brilliant Botany

Plant-like water pulling, and the process of condensing of dew and channeling it down to the roots, could be transformed into engineered landscape solutions.

Plants are incredible in how they move water, too. They move water in very thin columns, like thin straws, through capillary action. You would think these straws go straight up the trunk of the tree, but that’s not what happens. In trees, the bundles of straws form a thin sleeve, a cylinder just under the bark. Some straws transfer sugars down to the roots (phloem), others transfer water up (xylem). Interestingly, these straws don’t go straight up and down; they wrap around the tree in a spiral from the base to the top. This means that if you lose one whole side of the root network—say it gets cut by construction equipment—the tree doesn’t die. If the straws went straight up from the roots, all the branches on the damaged left side of the tree would not be serviced with water. Thanks to the spiraling xylem, the water from the right-hand roots are swirled up and around to reach every branch. Now, that’s resilience.

And plants don’t have pier foundations; they have horizontal roots. There’s a new Engineering Research Center for Bio-mediated and Bio-inspired Geotechnics at Arizona State University, which just received several million dollars from the National Science Foundation. One of their projects is to better understand the way roots hold trees in place on steep hillsides in order to help them redesign low-impact foundations.

There’s a lot of brilliance in trees.

How can biomimicry be scaled up to the city level? What natural systems can we mimic to make our cities more efficient and livable?

The city is an exciting place for biomimicry. When our urban planning clients began to ask us: “how do you apply nature’s principles to the city?” We asked, in turn, “what does it mean for a city to function like an ecosystem?”

We decided that a biomimetic city should be functionally indistinguishable from the wildland next door. It should produce beneficial services just like the native ecosystem, because, after all, biomimicry is not about how it looks, it’s about how it functions. We started to look for nearby reference habitats that show us what would be growing here if we weren’t here. We found remnants of prairies or forests or wetlands that were relatively intact. We could measure how they’re performing today, not historically. What we measured are the things that matter most to people — they are called ecosystems services. They’re things like purifying water and storing water, retaining soils from erosion, supporting biodiversity and pollinators, managing pests, all these things forests and other natural systems do for us.

We focused not on economic values (though that could come later) but on quantities. How much carbon is being stored per acre per year? How much water is being stored in a storm? How much air and water are being purified? How many nutrients are cycled? How many degrees of cooling happen? How much soil is created? We use biological literature paired with GIS models to get those quantities on a per acre per year basis.

Then we say to the city managers and planners, or even people in the district or a block: here’s a new performance metric. Can your acre of development—buildings and sidewalks and streets and green landscapes combined—perform as well as the equivalent acre of wildland next door? We call them “ecological performance standards.” Now it’s not just a matter of providing ecosystem services in a metaphorical way—it’s a matter of meeting or exceeding local, measurable amounts. It’s an incredible, aspirational goal that we know is doable because it’s happening right next door. I like it because it’s locally relevant and because it gives communities a framework to design into. Once a visionary city signs off on these metrics, every design intervention–every green roof, every foot of permeable pavement, every self-watering landscape—would add up. Cumulative goodness. All by asking the question—how much should this city give back to the region around it?

Together, the city has a goal, and that can be met through retrofits or new build. Each building has a goal. The block has a goal. The district has a goal. Finally, we can see what all our design interventions do together. If we want a city that functions like a local ecosystem, this gives us a way to actually do it. Imagine a city achieving, and then celebrating, these milestones as a community.

For a project in Lavasa, India, we created ecological performance metrics for a new development southeast of Mumbai that will need to provide for five new urban villages with some 30,000 to 50,000 people. We worked with HOK to create a master plan but also a landscape master plan that can handle stormwater during the monsoon seasons, which cause a great deal of soil erosion. In a three month period, the area gets 27 feet of water, but in the Western Ghats forests next door, there is negligible erosion! The landscape architects at HOK were greatly excited by this challenge. They said they felt like they were back in school, up all night, researching how they could create a planting design that would result in 100 percent soil retention. We provided the ecosystem performance metrics, but the landscape architects came up with a plan to achieve it.

Lavasa Hill City, India / HOK

Lavasa Hill City, India / HOK

Returning to ecosystem-based agriculture, how much of our climate problem could be solved by storing carbon deep in the soils? What will it take to get to a more sustainable global agricultural system?

Just improving energy efficiency is not going to take out the carbon that’s currently in the air. That carbon will be there for centuries unless we find a way to recoup it, to “bring it back home,” as environmentalist Paul Hawken says. With Project Drawdown, he and his colleagues are modeling 100 possible strategies for mitigating climate change between now and 2045. The data is not all in, but it looks like the top 20 strategies are doing a lot of the work. Of that 20, bio-sequestration—deep roots driving carbon below the churn zone where it can stay put for centuries—is a large player. It’s not a silver bullet; it won’t replace slashing emissions or moving to clean energy, but it could be a big contributor to what we actually have to do, which is reverse climate change. The 2014 IPCC Framework for Policymakers was definitive: even if we cut emissions completely, we will still be dealing with the effects of climate change for centuries, if not millennia, unless we pull the carbon down.

I sense that large industrial farmers will only begin to store carbon when they have monetary incentives. Once a market for sequestering carbon dioxide appears, land management regimes may change.

But industrial farmers are not growing most of the food that the world eats. People don’t realize that 70 percent of the food eaten around the world is grown by a third of all humanity who are called smallholders. They farm on less than 5 acres, and often, by necessity, they are still growing organically—no purchased fertilizers or pesticides. The food and beverage industry is increasingly relying on these smallholders to provide the organic ingredients we crave. Suddenly, there’s a small group of intermediaries that could request healthy soil practices from their suppliers. And that’s where we as consumers come in.

If consumers asked the food and beverage industry to take a pledge that they would work with these smallholders to use not just organic practices, but biomimetic “carbon farming” techniques, we could have a huge impact. These industries could say, “we’ll buy from you if you practice biomimetic agriculture on your lands—the kind of ecosystem-inspired polyculture and plant/animal associations that lead to deep rooted species, a healthy soil microbiome, and long-term carbon storage.”

Carbon farming / Australia Department of Food and Agriculture

Carbon farming / Australia Department of Food and Agriculture

We’re already prescriptive about how our food is grown. We ask, “Does it contain GMOs? Does it contain hormones?” Years ago, I would never imagine we would be so discerning about the story of our food. Climate-friendly farming is just another layer of that. The push for this could come from consumers and from an economic market for carbon.

The countries attending the climate change summit in Paris this December will a certain quota to meet. They can cut more emissions and/or store more carbon. They will realize that improper land use—in agriculture, forestry, grazing, etc—is responsible for around one quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions. The transportation sector is only around 19 percent. When they start to look for where they can get the biggest bang for their buck, they might actually look to those industrial farmers and say, “In the next Farm Bill, we’re going to tie carbon targets to subsidies. What are you doing for carbon farming?”

So when I look at the mitigation landscape, I see biomimicry starring in some of the newest plans to draw down carbon: prairie-inspired agriculture, agroforestry, ungulate-inspired rotational grazing, and the whole realm of CO2 to useful products. We’re at the beginning of a quest to grab every carbon dioxide and methane molecule we can find. It’s going to happen in cities, too. Why not have Central Park get credit for carbon sequestration services and healthy soil creation? And besides being a vital contributor to reversing climate change, a generous city is just a better, healthier, more beautiful place to live. That’s why biomimicry at the systems level is looking so sensible—it’s just good, no-regrets design.

A drawing of Greenwave's 3D Ocean Farming system / Greenwave

A drawing of Greenwave’s 3D Ocean Farming system / Greenwave

Greenwave, a non-profit organization transforming the fishing industry, was recently awarded the Buckminster Fuller Institute (BFI)’s 2015 challenge, which comes with a $100,000 prize. Greenwave’s winning project is the “world’s first multi-species 3-D ocean farm,” a vertical underwater garden that aims “to restore ocean ecosystems and create jobs in coastal communities by transforming fishers into restorative ocean farmers,” according to BFI. Using simple infrastructure — seaweed, scallops, and mussels growing on floating ropes stacked above clam cages below — Greenwave’s founder Bren Smith has created a low-cost, sustainable system that can be easily replicated by farmers and fishers everywhere.

Drawing comparisons to last years’s BFI challenge winner, Living Breakwaters, the first large-scale experiment with “oyster-tecture” by SCAPE / Landscape Architecture, Smith’s innovative ocean farm was inspired by his time farming oysters in the Long Island Sound. “Here I was a young fisherman, pillaging the oceans in one of the most unsustainable forms of food production on the planet. Aquaculture was supposed to be the great answer to over-fishing, but it turned out to be just as destructive using new technologies. So I became an Oysterman,” Smith said in a Tedx talk.

After Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Irene destroyed 80 percent of his oyster crop, Smith began to re-envision his farm in order to rebuild it.

Now, a single underwater acre of Greenwave’s flagship farm on the Thimble Islands in New York’s Long Island Sound filters millions of gallons of ocean water each day, creates homes for marine and bird life, and absorbs nitrogen and carbon (the kelp in the farms sequester five times more carbon than land-based agriculture). With zero added inputs, the farm has the capacity to grow 10 tons of sea vegetables and 250,000 shellfish annually on a single acre.

“I went from farming 100 acres down to 20 acres as I began using the full water column. And now I’ve been growing a lot more food on the 20 acres than I was on the 100. Whereas aquaculture is obsessed with growing one thing in one place, we’re growing four kinds of shellfish, two kinds of sea weed, and salt from the 20 acres,” Smith said.

Greenwave will use the $100,000 award to train 25 new farmers on both the East and West coasts of the U.S. with the skills to implement Smith’s ocean farming model. Each of the new farmers “will receive start up grants, free seed, and two years of training and support,” Smith said. “Greenwave will also buy 80 percent of their crop for 5 years at triple the market rate.” The rest of the money will go toward research and development on “kelp-raised beef, and specialty food products.”

Since 2007, BFI has used its annual international competition to highlight paradigm-shifting designs that, in the words of the late Buckminster Fuller, “make the world work for 100 percent of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone.”

This is the second year in a row that the first place winner has “directly addressed urgent and complex issues related to our oceans: the impending collapse of marine ecosystems, the long-term effects of climate change on our coastal communities, and the economic catastrophe these communities are experiencing right now as a result,” said Elizabeth Thompson, executive director of BFI.

This year’s other finalists include:

Algae Systems is a new technology that uses native algae species to capture and treat wastewater. Powered by photosynthesis, the system produces renewable fuels and fertilizers as byproducts, at a lower cost per gallon that alternative wastewater treatment technologies.

The Community Architects Network is a regional network of “community architects and planners, engineers, young professionals, lecturers and academic institutes in Asian countries” that supports participatory design for community projects in 17 Asian countries. Projects include new housing developments, citywide upgrading, and recovery from natural disasters.

Hazel is a digital modeling tool produced by the Drylands Resilience Initiative, which, when completed, will assist arid communities in designing effective stormwater infrastructure.

Mahila Housing SEWA Trust (MHT) is an organization aimed at providing secure housing situations — including basic water and sanitation, as well as financial and legal advice — for poor women in four states of India.

A 2012 and 2014 finalist, the Nubian Vault Programme (AVN) trains people in five African countries in the Nubian Vault construction technique, a cheap and sustainable method for constructing homes from local materials.

Read more about Greenwave’s winning project and the runners-up.

“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.

Freshwater Mussels / FWS

Freshwater mussels under consideration in Texas / FWS

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) is further complicating water management in the many states struck by drought. State water management bodies are increasingly coming into conflict with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), as these organizations add more species to the endangered species list. In a panel at SXSW Eco in Austin, Texas, Robert Gulley, Texas Office of the Comptroller Public Accounts; David Sunding, University of California at Berkeley; and Kathy Robb, Hunter & Williams, LLP, waded into the issues. The general consensus seemed to be: we need to take care of diverse species but a balance is needed. Also, underlying problems with federal and state water management laws and regulations make things all that much harder.

Texas: Freshwater Mussels and Long-term Water Planning

Texas is just now recovering from years of drought, but if “El Nino doesn’t come through, we’ll be right back to where we were,” said Gulley. In its last session, the Texas state legislature agreed to put $2 billion into a fund to finance long-term water banking projects, which run the full gamut of efforts to enhance the water supply. All sorts of new technologies and private public partnership models will be tested. The goal is to dramatically increase the amount of water stored by aquifers, boosting reserves for when times are dry. But as Gulley explained, the “Endangered Species Act can be an obstacle to long-range water planning.” He added that not all endangered species are found in surface water. It can get even more complicated because “new species can also impact groundwater resources.”

Between now and 2017, the FWS will decide on whether 57 species should be added to the endangered species list, which gives them all sorts of protections. “Upcoming, there are decisions alone on 11 types of freshwater mussels found in every watershed in the state.” Water use in the state is seasonal. “When we need to use it in the drought season is just the time when the mussels will need it. This is a significant threat to water availability.”

And while the FWS investigates whether to give a local jurisdiction a permit to use water, water treatment or use can be put on hold. As FWS consultation processes can go on for years, “the ongoing consequences can be severe.” As an example, Gulley pointed to the city of Abilene, Texas, whose water supply was “almost cut off” due to the drought. The city is in ongoing consultations with the FWS on the possible impact of pouring brine, which is an output of their treatment process for reusing brackish water, into the community’s rivers. They can’t do it yet because the brine could possibly impact two endangered species. “The process is still ongoing.” In the meantime, the city’s ability to reuse water and plan for back-up reuse systems is hamstrung.

California: A Water Management Crisis

For Sunding, an economist who consults with states on water resources, water conflicts around ESA are real and ongoing. California has just initiated a statewide 25 percent reduction in water use, with exemptions for farmers. While the measures will reduce wasteful water use for lawns, California, he argued, is having a “water management crisis, not a scarcity crisis.”

While the drought is “causing a massive dislocation for other species,” the state’s faulty water management system is causing “conflicts between humans and other species to come to the foreground.”

The majority of ESA conflicts in California occur when agricultural water users divert traditional sources of water because the one source they rely on has gone dry. Conflicts can also arise when new water infrastructure takes water out of existing water bodies in a way that affects water-based wildlife.

For example, the new multi-billion water infrastructure system being planned and created in Northern California will most likely lead the state to create alternative water supplies, which will then trigger FWS consultations. Northern California desperately needs to move forward with infrastructure planning to create new sources of water but ESA considerations will lengthen the process.

Obstacles Preventing Progress 

California, Texas, and other western and southwestern states’ struggle to balance the needs of humans and wildlife will only get worse as species migrate to find new sources of water. Gulley said states will need some flexibility to deal with this, “and need to be recognized by the FWS for developing voluntary action programs.” But underlying issues in water management also need to be addressed if a balance is going to be struck long term.

For example, Sunding said the problem with the water management system in Texas is the state doesn’t recognize “conjunctive management,” meaning that it regulates surface water and groundwater in the same place differently. “They need to be able to manage both resources together to create better outcomes.” In too many states, “arcane water rules don’t match up with the reality.”

In California, the question is “can we manage scarcity with smarter policies?” When water users pay the water bill, they are paying for water treatment and the pressurized flow of water from the plant to their tap. “They are not paying for the water itself. That’s a problem because we’re not thinking of its value to other people or species. Too much water is locked up in bad uses. Livestock, cotton, hay, and rice water use are all low value uses of water.”

And Kathy Robb argued that the entire 43-year-old Clean Water Act regulatory system is outdated, and a 2014 decision by the Supreme Court to clarify the meaning of “traditional, navigable waters” in the act to now include tributaries with seasonal or intermittent flow has led to a total upheaval of the American water management system. This decision meant that power plants, waste water treatment facilities, oil and gas companies, and other industrial water users will all need to get permits to access the thousands of streams and creeks once deemed private and now labeled official “waters of the U.S.A.” In Kansas alone, there are 32,000 such tributaries. And, already, a single power plant could wait nearly 3 years and spend $270,000 in fees to get a permit.

Robb said “water lawyers are suing everyone now,” with 14 jurisdictional district court cases pending. As of now, 27 states are moving forward with the new definition of navigable waters, while 13 states have refused. She added, “this is not a sustainable way of creating water policy in the U.S. We can do better.”

The Xixi Wetland Estate in Hangzhou is the latest housing project by David Chipperfield in China / Simon Menges, Wallpaper.com

The Xixi Wetland Estate in Hangzhou is the latest housing project by David Chipperfield in China / Simon Menges, Wallpaper.com

The Spiritual and Spectacular Meet at an Ultramodern Community Center in Connecticut The New York Times, 10/16/15
“A group of friends and neighbors thought that this area could use a new community center with a spiritual underpinning. So they built one. But Grace Farms, as the project is called, will never be mistaken for a modest Amish barn-raising. In this corner of Connecticut, budgets are less tight than elsewhere.”

Wild Gardens That Grew Out From WashingtonThe Washington Post, 10/19/15
“Washington doesn’t export a lot of aesthetic ideas, and the exceptions only prove the rule. Yes, the city can lay claim to the Washington Color School, more than a half-century ago, but that always feels a bit like the region’s claim to culinary fame, the crab cake: predictable, ubiquitous and uninspiring.”

Putting the Wilderness Back in Houston Arboretum The Houston Chronicle, 10/26/15
“The incessant hum of Loop 610 traffic permeates the western edge of the Houston Arboretum & Nature Center, like waves crashing on a beach. Just 75 feet from the state’s busiest freeway, rabbits scamper through the underbrush, purple beautyberries cling to the drooping canes of bright green plants and a dry, woodsy scent hangs in the air.”

Verdant Village: David Chipperfield Completes the Xixi Wetland Estate Wallpaper, 10/26/15
“For two thousand years, Hangzhou has been celebrated for its incomparable tableau of unruffled lakes at the foot of green hills, and ancient waterways lined with gardens, temples, and graceful buildings designed by a succession of dynasties enamored with the landscape.”

Landscape OperationsThe Architect’s Newspaper, 10/27/15
“An ongoing debate resurfaced at the Chicago Architecture Biennial. One critic in particular, Patrik Schumacher of Zaha Hadid Architects, criticized the curators, saying that it seems that “contemporary architecture [has] ceased to exist, the discipline’s guilt and bad conscience has sapped its vitality, and driven it to self-annihilation.”

America’s Green Giant The New York Review of Books, 11/15
“The nearly universal acclaim that greeted the High Line—the linear greenway built between 2006 and 2014 atop an abandoned elevated railway trestle on Manhattan’s lower west side—reconfirmed the transformative effect parks can have on the quality of urban life.”

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.”

Rococo Chair / Tony Favarula

Rococo Chair / Tony Favarula

Can leaving the comfort zone push designers to re-imagine what is possible? Outside Design, an exhibition at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC)’s Sullivan Gallery, shows that the answer to this question is yes. During a talk at the gallery, Jonathan Solomon, director of architecture, interior architecture, and designed objects at SAIC, called for leaving the usual behind and “re-weirding the discipline of design,” which can allow designers and artists to innovate and move beyond disciplinary boundaries. The exhibition is part of the Chicago Architecture Biennial and features the work of five firms of artists and designers: Analog Media Lab (Urbana-Champaign, Illinois), Ants of the Prairie (Buffalo, New York), The Living and the Ali Brivanlou Lab (New York City), Species of Space (Chicago), and Sweet Water Foundation (Chicago). Solomon curated the gallery as a “series of laboratories.”

To re-weird design, as Solomon explains, designers must design outside of their wheelhouse. They have to explore ideas and processes that push both the design and themselves, and go beyond clients’ comfort levels. It may also call for designers to look outside — literally. Designers should see the “complexity of nature and ecology” as an inspiration for design and art, as well as a potential means to create a more sustainable future.

David Hays of Analog Media Lab describes their work as “purposeful, pragmatic, and playful” yet grounded in experimentation. Their Rococo Chair riffs on the floral designs of Rococo-era upholstery fabrics, replacing them with actual flowers sandwiched between clear plastic (see image above). However, these flowers aren’t sealed up; they are allowed to decay. The flowers in the chair are dynamic, making the “rococo image real.”

Moving up to the scale of the building, both Ants of the Prairie and The Living propose re-wierding building façades, integrating them with the natural world.

Whether we like it or not, animals and bugs live with us in and around our homes. How do we reveal and enhance this relationship? Joyce Hwang of Ants of the Prairie created her installation, Habitat Wall, as an “inhabitable living membrane.” Built of different types of wood, including salvaged and reclaimed pieces, and composed of a series of modules, Habitat Wall is a beautiful physical object, but also functions as nesting houses and ledges for bats and birds, allowing both people and creatures to live together.

Habitat Wall / Heidi Petersen

Habitat Wall / Heidi Petersen

Habitat Wall / Tony Favarula

Habitat Wall / Tony Favarula

Designing at the intersection of biology and architecture, David Benjamin of The Living works with biologist Ali Brivanlou to co-create a façade with nature. They designed Amphibious Envelope, a façade wherein the traditional double-paned glass is replaced with tanks filled with water, moss, frogs, and snails. As the oxygen levels in the wall lower, the frogs rise to the top of the water, triggering sensors which release air bubbles, thus re-oxygenating both the water and the air around the wall. The installation is both a “functional façade” and an “open-ended experiment” that allows for a more fluid relationship between the inside and outside.

Amphibious Envelope / Heidi Petersen

Amphibious Envelope / Heidi Petersen

Amphibious Envelope / Tony Favarula

Amphibious Envelope / Tony Favarula

And the process of re-weirding design can be expanded yet again to the scale of the public realm.

Eric Ellingsen of Species of Space plays with questions of language and people’s perception of public space. A book case built on an angle and a dream machine, a spinning strobe in a dark room that produces visual hallucinations, are a means to change our perception. Elison also is in the process of mapping poems of cities, to create a “physical manifestation of language and design.”

Dream Machine / Tony Favarula

Dream Machine / Tony Favarula

For Emmanual Pratt of Sweet Water Foundation (SWF), an ecosystem can be both a physical natural process and a network of people. SWF “transforms blight into life” through their internship model, which trains students in aquaponics and ultimately encourages them to create a “decentralized network of sharing.” The aquaponics ecosystem then becomes an ecosystem of community partners and users. Their installation, Aquapons, highlights the importance of a sustainable system.

Aquapons / Heidi Petersen

Aquapons / Heidi Petersen

Outside Design shows us how small changes in perception can yield interesting results. Designers owe it to themselves to look outside the usual design processes. Inspiration may come in the form of bats, frogs, or poetry. Everyone should be open to the opportunities “re-weirding” can provide.

A number of lectures exploring the ideas of Outside Design are scheduled through November. The exhibit runs through December 19.

This guest post is by Heidi Petersen, Associate ASLA.

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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