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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

african girls school

African girls in school / Girls Changing Africa, Batonga Blog

Later this week, the world’s leaders will meet at the United Nations to launch the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a set of ambitious goals and targets designed to get the world on a more sustainable future course. The SDGs pick up where the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which expire this year, left off. Much like Pope Francis’ encyclical, the SDGs call for a new approach that enables economic growth for everyone, not just the wealthy, greater environmental protection, and a more sustainable use of increasingly limited natural resources. The SDGs will create a path for the next 15 years, up until 2030. They are important in getting governments, non-profit organizations, and the socially-conscious private sector behind a common set of objectives.

The SDGs came out of an intensive two-year process involving negotiators from both developed and developing countries. Among the many goals, the SDGs call for ending poverty and hunger in all forms; improving health and well-being; achieving gender equality; sustainably managing fresh water resources; restoring terrestrial and ocean ecosystems; combating climate change; and making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable. The SDGs are said to more clearly reflect the input of developing countries than their predecessor, the MDGs.

Improved rights and educational opportunities for girls and women around the world, but particularly in least developed countries, is a major theme in the SDGs. As Jeffrey Sachs, head of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, explained at the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C. a few weeks ago, educating girls and women is key to a sustainable future. Sachs believes that future sustainability is only possible if population growth rates are reduced. The current world population is 7 billion. The total carrying capacity of the Earth is estimated to be around 10 billion. Over the past 50 years, Sub-Saharan Africa has grown from a hundred million to 1.1 billion today. If high fertility rates continue unabated, Africa will double its population by 2050 and eventually reach 4 billion, sending the world past its uppermost carrying capacity. Sachs argued that a sustainable future will be impossible if Sub-Saharan African women continue to have 5 children, which is the average today. Even a middle school education helps dramatically lower fertility rates, so educating African women and girls really is central to the fate of the planet.

The SDGs also seek to link economic growth that can yield benefits for all with greater resource efficiency and environment protection. As many world leaders are beginning to understand, long-term growth is impossible if there are no natural resources to underpin that growth. At the same event at the National Book Festival, world-famous biologist and author E.O. Wilson called for setting aside 50 percent of the surface of the Earth for conservation purposes, banking resources for wildlife and also future generations. Currently, only about 15 percent of the planet is protected from development. He said reaching 50 percent is possible if the vast middle of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans were protected from industrial fishing. Then, fish stocks, which are down to just 2 percent of their historic levels, will have a chance to recover for the long-term. In addition, Wilson called for everyone to become a vegetarian, arguing that the world’s one billion cows, which require so much land and water and have been a major driving force behind deforestation, are incompatible with the approaches needed to create a sustainable future on a planet with 10 billion people.

Earth’s resources are finite but economic growth needs to somehow continue to provide opportunities for the billions more soon to join us. While this seems like an incredible challenge, Wilson has faith in human ingenuity and technology. In agreement with SDG target 2.5, Wilson calls for diversifying crops away from the dozen or so that the world’s farmers primarily rely on today. He said there are potentially thousands of other crop plants that could provide greater nutrition and improved yield. And it’s important to keep these other crops as real options given climate change can wipe out yields for many of the crops we rely on today.

Urban leaders rejoiced that cities are the focus of a goal and whole slew of targets. World leaders now recognize that the world’s population is predominantly urban, with more than half of the world in cities, and the urban population is expected to hit 75 percent by 2050. These trends are a good thing. Those living in cities have lower per capita energy and water use and give off fewer carbon emissions than those living in suburbs or rural areas. However, issues abound in cities: Not every urbanite has access to safe drinking water, clean air, affordable housing, low-cost public transportation, or green spaces. One SDG target, 11.7, amazingly aims to provide “universal access to safe, inclusive, and accessible green and public spaces.” Creating a more sustainable plan for the world’s cities will be the focus of Habitat III, a major conference hosted by UN-Habitat in Quito, Ecuador, next year.

There are fears that the SDGs, with their sprawling 17 goals and 169 targets, are too idealistic and will not be as easy to achieve as the MDGs, which strategically targeted eight goals, and still came up short. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called the MDGs the “most successful anti-poverty campaign in history.” And according to The Financial Times, there was significant progress on achieving the MDGs since 2000, when they came into effect. “On paper, at least as far as the data can be relied upon, there has indeed been significant progress. Extreme poverty in developing countries has fallen from 47 per cent in 1990 to 14 per cent this year, while annual global deaths of children under five have halved to 6 million.” But China and India, development experts argue, were responsible for the bulk of the poverty reduction. Without China’s gains, the effect of the MDGs would be negligible, given Sub-Saharan African countries, which are the among the least developed places, missed their goals. For example, in the sub-continent, it will still take another decade for the child mortality rates to fall by the target of two-thirds.

And there are critics of the overall effort. William Easterly, professor of economics at New York University and long-time detractor of Western aid agencies, told The Financial Times: “The MDGs communicated a very wrong idea about how development happens: technocratic, patronizing, and magically free of politics. It’s not about western saviors, but homegrown efforts linked to a gradual extension of political freedom.” Furthermore, he added: “The SDGs are a mushy collection of platitudes that will fail on every dimension. They make me feel quite nostalgic for the MDGs.”

There are also concerns about whether governments can accurately measure and then track progress on all these squishy goals and targets. A UN working group is now devising the means of measuring all these items, but, according to the International Council for Science and International Social Science Council, “less than a third of the SDG goals were ‘well developed’, with some objectives not quantified and many containing contradictory trade-offs and unintended consequences.” Solid data is expensive and time-consuming to collect, particularly in less developed countries. For example, The Economist reports that only 74 countries out of the 193 currently have the capacity to track the SDGs’ nutrition targets. But perhaps the SDGs will spur more countries to boost investment in their statistical services to measure gaps between where they are and where they need to be, which can only be a good thing. New satellite, drone, and GPS technologies should be put to greater use.

Still, never has such an ambitious global agenda been put in place. Sachs told The Financial Times: “Whether it can work out is an open question. There is a sense that this is a sensible framework. I’m not saying a new dawn has broken, but at least governments are saying we need to try.”

Read Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unconstrained Cities

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

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

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

Semi-constrained Cities

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

Constrained Cities

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

A dense urban neighborhood in Singapore / NUSdeltares

A dense neighborhood in Singapore / NUSdeltares

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

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


Mein Garten Headquarters, Hanoi, Vietnam / © Vu Xuan Son via ArchDaily

Mein Garten, a landscape architecture and horticultural design firm based in Hanoi, Vietnam, decided to create a new headquarters to showcase its work. With local architects at Studio 102, they created a green haven that merges architecture and nature, creating a free-flow between indoor and outdoor environments. Mein Garten wanted to create an office as open to nature as possible, not only to boost employee health but also their creativity. The offices rely on natural ventilation and lighting most of the time.

According to ArchDaily, Mein Garten found a vacant house in the Cau Giay district. Instead of turning it into the usual “closed, air-conditioned standard office,” they thought it had the potential to become a new kind of work space. Using simple wood structures, paint, and plants also kept the “cost of the renovation very low.”

The architects took out some walls, creating open spaces that bring fresh air and light into the work spaces. These open spaces were then filled with plants. Mein Garten writes: “There is no boundary between the inside and the outside. Plants are everywhere: in the garden, in the semi-open space, on the ground floor, first floor, on the roof, the walls.” The effect is reminiscent of Indian modern architect B.V. Doshi’s “vernacular architecture,” as seen at his Indian Institute of Management Bangalore campus.

As visitors enter the building, they are invited to step over a concrete pathway that appears to float in the water. A series of rafters covers the walkway, providing shade. At the facing wall, there is a basic green wall structure that provides a home for potted plants.


Mein Garten Headquarters, Hanoi, Vietnam / © Vu Xuan Son via ArchDaily

Moving into the lobby, there’s an inviting courtyard with seating and views of the showroom.


Mein Garten Headquarters, Hanoi, Vietnam / © Vu Xuan Son via ArchDaily

Within the offices, employees look out on another interior patio. There’s a spot to sit with a colleague and take in the lush plant life. As Mein Garten explains, “this office bring people closer to nature, closer to each other, and makes them work more effectively.”

Mein Garten Headquartes, Hanoi, Vietnam / © Vu Xuan Son via ArchDaily

Mein Garten Headquarters, Hanoi, Vietnam / © Vu Xuan Son via ArchDaily

In the back, at the employee entrance, plants are allowed to climb up the rafters, so employees on the upper floors looking out their windows also get a green view.

Mein Garten Headquartes, Hanoi, Vietnam / © Vu Xuan Son via ArchDaily

Mein Garten Headquarters, Hanoi, Vietnam / © Vu Xuan Son via ArchDaily

Mein Garten’s approach is smart and sustainable in a tropical climate like Vietnam’s. While it’s often hot and humid, there are cooler, wet seasons, too. And these seasonal changes are reflected in the office. “Day by day, season by season, the plants continue to grow and change, giving the office a new look. This office, therefore, is not just a built object. It is living, like an organism.”

See more photos at ArchDaily.

Also, check out Fast Company‘s 2015 Innovation by Design awards.


Placemeter in Union Square, NYC / Placemeter

Cities are increasingly loaded up with technology. Sensors now enable managers of urban water and sewage infrastructure to spot leaks as they happen. Meter maids no longer have to tromp around all day looking for violators — with new video and analytical tools, transportation departments can locate parking offenders in real-time. Cites prone to flooding now have robust-technology-enabled early warning systems. Ubiquitous security cameras can lead to rapid arrests. And smart phone apps enable citizens to report potholes and other problems in the urban environment as they find them. Many technologies aim to improve the responsiveness or resilience of city services. And while many of these new systems are sold as an easy, all-encompassing solution, like any software, they are high maintenance. Smart city technologies certainly can’t fix all of a city’s problems, particularly deep-seated structural issues like inequality and displacement.

But one technology that could actually live up to some of the hype is Placemeter, which aims to provide an “accurate, flexible, and continuous measurement of how people and vehicles move about your city.” Stumbling upon the technology at the Smart Cities Week in Washington, D.C., I was mesmerized by the little red dots moving through an urban plaza. I discovered that each red dot is a person walking through the plaza in real-time. Seen above is a view of people moving through Union Square in New York City, a place Placemeter says it’s collecting data on and offering for free via their website.

Josh Gershon with Placemeter explained how his firm’s technology can use either existing video feeds or their own sensors, which will be available in October of this year, to turn video into data that can be analyzed with a dashboard. Their software looks for certain shapes in the video feed — cars, trucks, pedestrian, bicyclist — and records their numbers along with path and speed. Placemeter anonymizes all the data so people only appear as dots.

As Gershon explained, Placemeter views the retail sector as a primary market for their tools. While stores almost always collect numbers on how many people entered and bought something, few understand “all the customers they missed and why.” Retailers could use Placemeter to see if various advertisements, window fronts, sounds, or even scents work in attracting people into retail environments.

In the same way, architects could use the technology to see how people navigate building entrances. And landscape architects could use Placemeter to conduct pre- and post-occupancy surveys of their designed landscapes and find opportunities for improvements based on pedestrian flow. Transportation officials could spot congestion and blockages and create remedies, or find out how bicyclists are actually getting around (many aren’t using the bike lanes). Developers and city government clients could find out if their expensive investments in planning and design worked out as they hoped. Given software like Placemeter can be scaled up to the city-scale, planners could even get a sense of broader use patterns.

Still, it’s still important to actually sit, watch, and analyze people using a public space. William Whyte in The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces and, more recently, Jan Gehl in Cities for People make the case for taking the time to really understand all the nuances of how different kinds of people use a park, plaza, or street. While Placemeter provides useful aggregate data in real-time, it can’t tell who’s older and needs to find a bench, who’s young and wants to play in the water, or who is really busy and looking for the shortest route from A to B. Perhaps both a qualitative and quantitative approach together can provide some new insights that yield better urban design.


Pershing Square Park / Snipview

Pershing Square Park is Los Angeles’ oldest park. First opened in 1867 as St. Vincent’s Park, in 1870 it was officially renamed Los Angeles Park. Over the decades, the park underwent numerous revisions. In 1886, a dedicated bandstand pavilion was created, making it a public space for concerts. In the interim years, various statues were added. In 1910, architect John Parkinson redesigned the park, adding a fountain. After World War I, the park was renamed Pershing Park in honor of General John Joseph Pershing. In the 1920s and 30s, tropical plants were added, creating zones of greenery. Then, in 1994, a $14.5-million renovation by Mexican architect and landscape architect Ricardo Legorreta and American landscape architect Laurie Olin, FASLA, was completed. The bright, boxy post-modern design, which is in place today, notably features a 10-story purple bell tower, fountain, and small enclaves of trees. And today, AEG corporation, which created the massive Staples Center and L.A. Live spaces in downtown Los Angeles, has sponsored a new design competition to remake the 5-acre space once again.

According to the competition organizers, a new park is needed for a new downtown Los Angeles booming after decades of decline. The organizers says the transformation of the area is due to the city’s “adaptive reuse ordinance,” which has allowed developers to transform great old buildings in the historic core of downtown into commercial and residential space. Nearby, cool kids of all ages congregate at the Ace Hotel. And the Grand Central Market is now drawing others beyond the Latino community who have historically made up the district. Hotels and shops have popped up to serve both tourists and new waves of locals who have moved in. In 2000, downtown Los Angeles’ population was a mere 20,000; by 2010, it had doubled to 40,000.

Other city-wide efforts create impetus for a new downtown central square. Los Angeles is building a streetcar network that will make downtown even more accessible; Los Angeles City Councilmember José Huizar has launched “Bringing Back Broadway,” which aims to revitalize this historic avenue; and the ongoing Los Angeles River revitalization efforts continue.

According to The Architect’s Newspaper, the effort to create a new Pershing Square grew out of a task force established by Councilmember Huizar, who led a team with local designers, developers, and policymakers such as Macarlane Partners, Gensler, NBBJ, JFM Development, LA Recreation & Parks, and the Urban Land Institute. These taskforce members have already pledged support for a redesign. “MacFarlane Partners, which is developing 99,000 square-foot site overlooking the square, pledged $1 million pledge to seed Pershing Square Renew. The Department of Recreation and Parks earmarked $1 million for ‘immediate future for infrastructure improvements and amenities.'”

The goal is to create a dog-friendly community space with “less concrete and more green space” that can be used safely both day and night. They call for “tearing down the walls, ripping up the concrete, and planting more trees.” We would add there should be more easily-accessible public restrooms. When we visited the park during a conference this spring, much of it smelled like a urinal.

One big challenge will be figuring out how to keep the parking under Pershing Square Park accessible. Ramps for cars suck up a lot of space today, creating an unfortunate pedestrian experience that needs to be navigated on the north side of the park.


Pershing Square Park / Snipview

Councilmember Huizar is putting a great emphasis on public input at every stage of the design process. Project for Public Spaces, which have been highly critical of the existing park, led public public workshops this spring. The competition web site also enables residents to submit comments.

Letter of interest are due September 25, followed by a request for qualifications in October. Final designs will be open for public and jury review in February next year. A revamped Pershing Square park is expected to open by 2020.

For a contrary view, read a piece in the L.A. Weekly: Let’s Keep Downtown Los Angeles’ Pershing Park Weird.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A rendering of Heroic Food Farm/Ennead Architects/Ennead Lab, Slate.com

A rendering of Heroic Food Farm/Copyright Ennead Architects/Ennead Lab, Slate.com

The True Story of Kudzu, the Vine That Never Truly Ate the SouthSmithsonian Magazine, September 2015
“As s a young naturalist growing up in the Deep South, I feared kudzu. I’d walk an extra mile to avoid patches of it and the writhing knots of snakes that everyone said were breeding within.”

A Bucolic New York Farm Aims to Recruit Veterans to Help Fix the U.S. Farming Crisis Slate.com, 9/1/2015
“A 19-acre farm near Hudson, New York, is being reimagined as an agricultural training camp for veterans. Plans for the complex, unveiled last month, include eight compact housing units and a communal space designed to respect the character and landscape of an existing farm in the town of Claverack set among the rolling agricultural fields and mountains of the Hudson River Valley.”

Here’s How the High Line’s Landscape Architects Reenvision the Office Park Fast Company, 9/3/2015
“This playland comes courtesy of an ambitious plan from developer Liberty Property Trust and landscape architecture firm James Corner Field Operations to inject urban attributes into what’s usually thought of as a highly un-urban space.”

Unwelcome Mat Is Out at Some of New York’s Privately Owned Public Spaces – The New York Times, 9/7/2015
“Privately owned public spaces, or POPS, are a quintessential New York real estate amenity that grants building owners zoning bonuses if they open part of their properties to the public.”

Video: 606 Trail Opens in ChicagoUrban Land, 9/8/2015
“After more than a decade of planning, Chicago this June opened the first section of the trail, now known as The 606. An elevated railroad right-of-way converted to a pedestrian greenway, the 606 is a multi-functional park system that also includes a bike path and four neighborhood parks on the ground level along its 2.7-mile (4.5 km) stretch.”

AD Innovator: Mikyoung KimArchitectural Digest, 9/9/2015
“Sensory overload is a phrase you’re unlikely to hear from Mikyoung Kim. Experimenting with touch, sight, and sound, the Boston-based landscape architect has built her name creating immersive environments—from backyard oases to waterfront redevelopments—that spark curiosity and contemplation.”

Kate Orff: Translating Research into Action – ArchitectureAU, 9/14/2015
“Kate Orff is the founder and design director of Scape, a New York-based landscape architecture studio that combines research and practice to reimagine the ecological and cultural potential of the urban landscape.”


Institute for Forestry and Nature Research by Behnisch Architekten in the Netherlands / esb8fj.wordpress.com

Landscape architects are increasingly called upon to address the challenges of changing economic, demographic, and environmental conditions, all of which have a significant effect on the character and distribution of public health problems. One need look no further than this blog or ASLA’s guide to the health benefits of nature to grasp how the potential for using nature to improve our health excites both designers and academics alike. A recent article in The Dirt, What Dose of Nature Do We Need to Feel Better?, covered new research on the health benefits of nature and spurs me to write a comment about how we measure anyone’s responses to a “dose” of nature.

I work in public health research and focus on the contribution of biophilic design to human health and well-being. Biophilia is a term elevated by famed evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson. He defined it as an innate emotional attachment to and affinity for nature, and the design community has transformed that insight into an approach called biophilic design. In both indoor and outdoor environments, biophilic design is thought to support health and well-being through the use of natural features, materials, and settings that tap into deep-seated evolutionary preferences.

Through my work, I field questions from essentially three descending geological strata: The “leaf litter,” if you will, are the questions characterized by idle curiosity, such as: “I know intuitively that I feel better in natural environments, but what can research tell me about why?” The next layer of questions graduates to more granular humus and minerals: “What types of landscapes and specific design features support the range of outcomes (productivity, health, and well-being) that I see cited in the popular press?” But the bedrock questions relate to mechanisms (what constellation of design features work, for whom, and under what circumstances) and metrics of assessment (which biomarkers over what interval credibly link landscape exposure to desirable behavioral, psychological, and physiological responses?). These are the methods used to assess any other public health intervention at a population scale and, increasingly, they are applied to natural or “green” environments as well.

Careful readers ask questions of anything upheld as evidence-based or “true.” Most studies relating to the health benefits of nature don’t provide enough detail about landscape features and participants to delve too far beyond the leaf litter. Often, it’s as if the participants arrive in a green space as a blank slate, without the etchings of a lifetime of learning or even the residual dustings of the morning’s events. Large, statistically-significant populations can help us rise above individual differences in dose-response studies, but we are still missing many critical insights that might, in the future, allow us to tailor recommendations for healthy environments to individuals.

Popular interest in the use of biophilic design to bring nature, and natural design cues, into the built environment also introduces interesting bedrock questions about the affect of indoor priming on our responses to outdoor environments. Priming happens when we are exposed to a stimulus and that initial exposure colors our responses to subsequent stimuli. The effect of indoor environments on priming restoration isn’t well understood.

By way of example, a 2010 meta-analysis produced by Jo Barton and Jules Pretty looked at the benefits of exercise in green settings. They found that participants in research studies derived notable benefits from a relatively short period of exercise in nature, with diminishing but positive returns thereafter. Put another way, short exposures to green spaces — perhaps as small as 40 seconds, as detailed in a recent study of viewing green roofs from Australia — capitalize on the shift between where you’ve just come from and where you are. Our bodies and psyches adjust to exposure, just as they should, although the benefits continue to accrue after (what is essentially) neurobiological acclimatization.

Visions of healthier, more sustainable futures often include the use of biophilic design to bring the outside inside, softening the upwards of 90 percent of time we spend indoors. How then will our neurobiological resting states – and the conditions that provoke short-term restoration – shift? Is the research participant who steps out of a biophilic building effectively primed differently than the one who steps out of a more conventional office setting? If so, should the structure of nearby restorative landscapes change in response to the levels of biophilic design found in abutting buildings in order to reliably produce a restorative response?

It’s unclear if the future of health research even holds space for questions which are, effectively, not essential to human survival. If we allow ourselves the luxury to consider optimizing landscape design for human health and well-being, however, I believe we should pay more attention to the transitional spaces and mind states that often set the tenor of experience: the doorway, the window, the moment at which a vista assembles itself into an intelligible and pleasing frame.

Where we come from matters and, if we’re thoughtful about where we’ve just been, it will also change where we’re about to go.

This guest post is by Julia Kane Africa, program leader, Center for Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

At a press conference to launch a new campaign for walkable communities, the U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said only half of Americans get enough physical activity to reduce their risk of heart disease and diabetes. Adults need 22 minutes of moderate activity each day, or about 150 minutes a week, at a minimum. But as mainstream health researchers and medical professionals are now realizing, half of the U.S. population may not be walking because they live in communities that actually physically prevent them from doing this. Over 30 percent of American communities can be considered unwalkable. And in these places, walking is not only a hassle — given it requires people to actually drive or take a bus to where they can get out and walk around — but it can also be dangerous. In 2013 alone, 4,700 pedestrians lost their lives due to collisions with cars, and since 2003, nearly 50,000 have.

Murthy explained that Americans have “lost the culture of physical activity.” This has led to a health crisis. Indeed, according to the National Institute of Health, two-thirds of Americans are now considered overweight, with one-third considered obese. About 5 percent of the population is considered morbidly obese. But for Murthy, this cultural shift away from physical activity is directly connected with the growing dearth of walkable places. And it’s particularly bad for seniors, people of color, and people with disabilities, who disproportionately live in unwalkable areas. “That’s a health equity issue, too.”

Furthermore, 7 out of 10 Americans die from preventable chronic diseases like diabetes, cancer, obesity, and heart disease. He added, “it turns out the most powerful way we can turn the tide on chronic disease is something we have been doing for millennia: That is walking.” He pointed to the public health department of a community in Indian River, Florida, that undertook an audit of the community’s streets and then completely revamped them to become walkable, complete streets. “95 percent of residents now spend time walking outside.”

And it’s not just about walking, but also rolling. Murthy called for all communities to be fully wheelchair accessible. As the wheelchair-bound Maryland state official Juliette Rizzo explained, “50 percent of Americans with disabilities don’t get enough exercise. And adults with disabilities are three times as likely to have chronic diseases.” For Rizzo, there are not many places where she can go exercise, and these kinds of gyms are expensive. “But rocking and rolling are always affordable.” Rizzo disabused people of the notion that people just sitting in their wheelchairs aren’t exercising as well. As she navigates a path, she herself is moving and shifting her body, pumping her arms.

Others lent their support at the press conference: Tyler Norris with Kaiser Permanente, a major healthcare provider, said their doctors now “prescribe walking.” He urged communities to leverage both public and private investments to create the infrastructure needed for walking and wheelchair rolling. Norris added that “walking is a right, not a privilege or luxury. All must be able to walk in their communities, and that means all.”

Carlos Monje, assistant secretary for transportation policy with the U.S. Department of Transportation, said the Highway Administration has created “more flexible” mobility standards that will enable local communities to better fund their sidewalk improvement projects. He said the U.S. Congress is still debating the massive surface transportation bill, with its important “transportation alternatives” programs, which is Congressional-speak for projects with sidewalks and bike lanes, and urged people to contact their representative to push for safer, more walkable streets.

And Kathy Smith, CEO of America Walks, said over 500 organizations across the country are doing important bottom-up work to make communities more walkable, often with annual budgets of less than $10,000. And some of these organizations encourage specific segments of the population to walk more. One example is GirlTrek, which builds support for walking as a healing process among African American women and girls. As GirlTrek co-founder Vanessa Criglar stated at the event, “African American girls in particular face barriers to walking.”

Murthy is following the lead of environmental health leader Dr. Richard Jackson, who has written many books and produced a PBS series to bring attention to the disconnect between public health goals and the built environment. It’s just too bad that the organizers of this important event at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services didn’t invite any representatives from the wide ranging fields involved in planning, designing, and implementing a safe, healthy transportation system. While we certainly applaud Surgeon General Murthy’s new campaign, the press conference featured many doctors, even representatives from the council of shopping malls, but not a single representative from the urban planning, development, landscape architecture, and transportation engineering fields, which will create the solutions so critically needed.

We must build strong partnerships between the public health and medical communities on one side and the planning and design worlds on the other to make sure this nationwide shift back to walking gets planned, designed, and built.


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