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Vietnam Veterans Memorial / Slideshare.net

“Memorials are transitional spaces, which can reduce post-traumatic stress disorder,” said Martin Holland, a professor of landscape architecture at Clemson University, at the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) conference in Los Angeles. “They are holding environments where people can approach, touch, and see losses in a secure setting.” Using two examples — the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. and the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma — Holland showed how touch is used as a design strategy to commemorate loss.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which opened in 1982, was designed by architect Maya Lin who won the national design competition. It consists of a long black granite wall in an open V shape. The wall is a timeline, with the 58,300 dead listed in chronological, not alphabetical order. This enabled a “social ordering of the space,” so visitors could find the name of their loved ones by the year of the conflict.

The names of the fallen soldiers are etched in the wall, which enable rubbings that create “haptic memories.” Lin thought that “our primary sense was touch, so she used this as a design strategy.”

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Rubbing of a name on the wall / Wikipedia

“Material culture is also used to express grief.” People leave flowers, teddy bears, and other objects to commemorate their loved ones. Flowers are often inserted in the wall itself. “It’s a palimpsest that changes as people engage with it.” All the left objects are periodically swept from the site and archived.

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Objects left at the memorial / U.S. Department of Defense

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial set an important precedent for many other memorials, including the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum in Oklahoma City. In 1995, a bombing orchestrated by American terrorists brought down a federal office building, killing 168 people and wounding another 680. The blast destroyed or damaged more than 340 buildings in a 16 block radius. Holland explained that approximately one-sixth of all Oklahoma City residents knew someone who died or were affected by the blast, so “for them, it’s a local tragedy.”

Holland explained that just three days after the bombing, local officials were talking about the need to create a memorial. Over the following years, in one of the “most democratized memorial design processes ever,” local officials used surveys and public meetings to gauge what people wanted. The most popular answers were “healing, peace, hope.”

In 1997, Berlin-based architects Hans and Torrey Butzer won the Oklahoma City Memorial design competition. While Hans is German, Torrey is from Oklahoma and had a connection with the city and site. They created a memorial that enabled people to touch and interact with objects that commemorated the victims. The memorial has become “the most visited tourist site in Oklahoma City.”

Visitors can enter through the Gates of Time. The bomb went off at 9:02. The first gate is marked with the time 9:01, which represents the “last moment of peace,” while the gate at the other end of the park is marked 9:03, which represents the “first moments of recovery.” Holland argued that the gates “intentionally slow you down, which increases haptic memory.”

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Gates of Time / Oklahoma City National Memorial

One of the few trees that survived the blast now has a honored place in the memorial, where it has thrived. The space around the tree is a major gathering space because it’s the “only place with shade.” Nearby in the memorial, in a place enshrouded in trees, is where Timothy McVeigh parked his bomb-laden car. Holland said this was another example of turning the horrific into the healing.

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Survivor Tree / Flickr

Each of the 168 victims is memorialized in a chair, which glow from within at night. The chairs for the children victims are smaller. After the official ceremony that opened the park in 2000, victims’ loved ones began decorating the chairs, leaving photographs and mementos. What is particularly sad is the “adults remember the children always as children,” but there are no photographs of them, for some reason, only toys.

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Oklahoma City National Memorial / Federal News Radio

Like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, all non-perishable materials are periodically collected and archived, which then becomes available for viewing at the museum, except some of the excess teddy bears left at the memorial have been sent overseas to kids in need.

The chairs and the process of leaving mementos are another touch experience that help visitors deal with loss.

Holland argued that some people have called these mementos “kitsch and consumerist,” but he wonders if that doesn’t reflect some “class bias?”

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Horizon at ocean / Yoga Buds Buzz

“Beautiful natural places restore our ability to concentrate. But what about sacred places?,” asked South Dakota State University landscape architecture professor Donald Burger, ASLA, at the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) conference in Los Angeles. “Is there a difference between a sacred and a beautiful place?”

Burger uses Margaret Somerville’s definition of sacred, as described in her book, The Ethical Imagination. The feeling of sacred is the “complex interaction of knowing ourselves, relating to others, appreciating our place in the great web of life, and seeing ourselves as part of the earth, stars, universe, and cosmos.” Being in a sacred landscape makes us “less selfish,” and can help us understand “our role in the greater scheme of things.”

Which natural landscape features most factor into a sacred experience? To find out, Burger interviewed 70 people, asking them where they had experiences of sacredness. Almost all people chose “mountain top views, the place where the ocean meets the horizon, or where the prairie meets the horizon.” It seemed to Burger these places create a sense of “infinite scale, continuing forever.”

In the second phase of his study, Burger asked people to rate 120 photographs on a scale of 1-10 in terms of “which landscapes most facilitated a sacred experience.” And to see if there is a difference between sacredness and beauty, he also asked them to rate them all in terms of which they preferred, or thought were most beautiful, and then compared the top 15 for each category. The people who rated the photographs said they had a hard time differentiating between beauty and sacredness. “It was difficult to judge slides on sacredness but discard them for beauty.”

Burger explained that there are four factors of preference: coherence, legibility, complexity, and mystery. “Sacred photographs are high in coherence and legibility, but low in complexity and mystery levels are mixed.” Furthermore, sacred slides often have “remarkable lighting conditions, with clouds, sunsets, mist or fog, and a mix of light and dark.”

Then, three groups of people, more than 250 in total, were purposefully stressed out, using the standard psychological tests. One control group was shown a regular set of photos, while another looked at the preferred or beautiful photographs, and a third viewed the sacred photographs. “The beautiful and sacred slides really had the same restorative effect. In fact, they left happier than when they came in.”

Burger concluded that perhaps sacredness and beauty are the same. “Maybe beauty gives us a better appreciation of our context. Maybe beauty and sacredness are a matter of semantics and the same thing.”

But he also said the perception of sacredness has an impact, because it shapes the types of landscapes “we want to emulate and also preserve.” A sacred experience “shapes the decisions we make because we sense they have an impact on things, the greater system beyond ourselves.”

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Fractals / Mikyoung Kim Design

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

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

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

ChonGae Canal Source Point Park: Sunken Stone Garden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Farrar Pond Residence

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

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

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

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

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

140 West Plaza: Exhale

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

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

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Exhale / Mikyoung Kim Design

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

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Exhale / Mikyoung Kim Design

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Central Park, New York City / Drive the District

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Blind person in a park / The Lighthouse

The blind are far from a monolithic group. There are those who are congenitally blind, meaning they had no eye sight at birth, and then there are those who became blind later in life. These two categories of blind people may navigate the built environment a bit differently. Describing a very small study of how congenitally-blind and late-blind people navigate a shopping district and an urban park in Izmir, Turkey, Fehmi Dogan, professor of architecture at the Izmir Institute of Technology, presented some interesting observations at the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) conference in Los Angeles.

Congenitally-blind people may more easily access their other senses, like touch, smell, and hearing, while late-blind people may more easily use their memory to navigate. In general, the blind were most aware of sound and least aware of temperature changes. Both groups preferred navigating the busy streets, with all their obstacles, to the park. For the blind overall, the city is a truly “multi-sensory phenomenon.”

Of the seven participants (4 men and 3 women), the mean age was 28. Each uses a white cane or “eye stick” to get around. “They all have a self-sustaining life and are good travelers,” added Dogan. Each participant was sent through a set of trials for 6 hours, walking a 900-meter-path either through a busy commercial district or a park, each with a range of obstacles to confront.

Researchers walked the paths with them the first go-around and then they walked it again alone and were asked to describe important reference points, including whether they used their memory or a sense (touch, smell, or hearing) to navigate. These reference points, which totaled in the hundreds, were then examined in greater detail. Dogan emphasized that this study is in “no way generalizable or conclusive,” but merely observational.

In the shopping district, the congenitally blind were especially attuned to all the sensory experiences on the course. Even the congenitally blind can see light and dark. “They followed the echo of the sun.” They also closely read air movements, so they could sense when they had reached a crosswalk or intersection because the air flow changed.

Dogan read from some of the blind participants’ own references. The sound of high heels clicking on a sidewalk helped one subject orient themselves. They used echos to identify the streets on three sides. Another listened for the time it took for a bird to leave the ground and alight on a building roof, which allowed them to calculate the roof’s height.

For some, texture was significant. They followed the drain inlets in streets. “On straight walks, they needed to use the inlets to create a line to follow.”

And among the congenitally blind, the sense of smell was most used. They were able to plot themselves based on the smell of coffee, corn, even new clothes. However, smell can easily change with air movement.

For the late blind, all these other senses were also used, but they could more easily use their memory to determine where they were. One remembered that when they heard street sellers, they turned to reach the end point. They could tell they were near the street sellers when they hear the sound of paper bills. “Late blind didn’t comment on touch.”

For both the congenitally blind and late-blind, the park was more challenging. “It all smelled like grass. It was much harder to navigate because it was so homogenous.” All participants felt more safe and comfortable in the shopping district, despite all of its obstacles. “This is because they could ask questions when people were around them.”

Dogan said for the blind, “spatial experiences are understood more if they are multi-dimensional.”

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Aga Khan Park / Darren Calabrese, The Globe and Mail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sunlight penetrates into basement of new Center for Landscape Architecture / Gensler

While LEED is nearly a household name, not everyone has heard of WELL, the first building standard for human health and wellness. Used for an office, LEED looks at environmental sustainability, but WELL is focused exclusively on the health of employees, whose salaries account for the vast majority of the total cost of any commercial building. The new rating system, which was just released last fall by the International Well Building Institute, is in its pilot testing phase, but already a number of companies and organizations are jumping on board. The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), which is transforming its 20-year-old Washington, D.C. headquarters into a state-of-the-art Center for Landscape Architecture, will aim for both LEED Platinum and WELL Silver in its renovation.

At an event in Washington, D.C., Whitney Austin Gray, International Well Building Institute, said WELL will help architects “design out health problems.” Like others, she believes the built environment has a major impact on health, mostly a negative one. Chronic diseases — like obesity and stress — are in large part created by poor environments that encourage sitting and eating fattening foods, and limit walking and access to nature. As a result, “planners, architects, landscape architects have a bigger impact on our health than physicians.”

As Nathan Stodola, also with the Institute, explained, the new system, which is being tested in everything from residential to commercial to restaurant environments, has 7 categories, with 102 features, and 450 requirements. Categories include air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, and mind. WELL seeks to create indoor building environments that “create habitats for life.” The prerequisites and credits are based on “best empirical research and practices.”

Gray provided a brief run-down of each of the seven categories as they relate to offices:

Air: Indoor air quality and building materials are deeply linked. “There are about 75,000 chemicals in existence. About 7,000 have been tested by the Environmental Protection Agency, and a further 700 are known to be carcinogenic.” While it’s hard to establish a causal relationship between exposure to a chemical and cancer, “we can look at the chemicals in a environment we don’t know the impact of and take precautions.” WELL calls for both strict air quality testing and details on the materials of all products used in the building.

Water: While there is source treatment of water in the U.S., urban water infrastructure is eroding and outdated building pipes can be problematic. “There is great misuse of water in infrastructure.” WELL aims to get all heavy metals out of the water coming into a building and moving through it. For some buildings, that will mean completely redoing the pipes.

Nourishment: “We need to create full health for employees, which means staff cafeterias or caterers don’t serve fried foods.” Gray also talked about making smart use of “choice architecture.” For example, cafeteria managers can put healthy food front and center and make it more difficult to get to the M&Ms. “We have to make it easy to do the healthy thing.”

Light: “We are concerned with circadian rhythm issues. Humans are meant to be exposed to light; its how our organs function and repair themselves.” Gray said there are studies showing that shift workers who don’t have access to daylight have higher rates of some cancers. “Light is not optional, but far too often it’s a privilege.” Already, some $63 billion in company losses can be associated with poor work performance due to sleep deprivation, which can be tied to issues with the circadian rhythm.

Fitness: “Employees need to be active throughout the day.” To accomplish this, employers must realize not all environments are for everyone. “It’s not ideal for employees to be sitting 8 hours a day. Going to the gym for half an hour in the morning it’s going to help.” Wider staircases can help as well as using “choice architecture” to force people to circulate.

Comfort: This is about everything from acoustics to temperatures to ergonomics and even smell. If any of these things are off, they can cause stress.

Mind: “Buildings need to incorporate beauty and equity.” Employees should have access to everything from spaces for respite to progressive travel policies to paid volunteer work opportunities, in the effort to restore productivity and improve wellness.

Already, efforts to achieve WELL are shaping the overall design of the new ASLA headquarters. For example, ASLA is cutting a hole through its roof, putting in a light well with a sunbeamer that will intensify and direct light all the way into the basement level so all employees benefit (see image above).

But putting all WELL asks for into practice may prove to be a challenging but fun puzzle, said Gensler architect Katie Mesia, who explained how LEED rewards buildings for reducing energy use and therefore lighting use, while WELL calls for having “light on your face and in your eyes” at all times to restore the natural circadian rhythm. She said this will be tricky to reconcile the competing requirements, but one possible solution will be to use blue lights, which have a healthier color temperature under cabinets and in task lighting, leaving out ceiling lights all together.

Another challenge relates to water: D.C.’s water standards are about 4 times lower than what WELL wants. “The standard here is not good.” A water filtration system would need to be added to ASLA’s building, but the existing mechanical system doesn’t have space for UV light or carbon filters. Replacing the existing system may be cost-prohibitive.

But Mesia is optimistic she can find solutions with ASLA: “they are a special, progressive client. I’m getting into the heart of their business, and they have opened and exposed all of that.” Plus, using LEED and WELL in combination has meant the challenge is really just “choosing between multiple healthy solutions.”

Learn how to donate and help build ASLA’s new Center for Landscape Architecture.

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Los Angeles River in a concrete channel / Climate Resolve

“We can consider rivers as city-making landscapes,” said Thaisa Way, ASLA, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Washington and organizer of a two-day conference on river cities at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. “In river cities, rivers are the agents, offering opportunities for food, transportation, and water, but also liabilities, like drought and flooding.” Each river city has a dynamic relationship with its river, so communities that depend on them must always strive to improve their adaptability and resilience. “Rivers can be beneficial or terrifying.” In the era of climate change, river cities, with their often creative responses to a changing environment, offer lessons.

Here are brief summaries of the talks by the few selected to speak at the conference. Way said more than 180 landscape architects, academics, urban planners, and others submitted proposals but just 13 were selected. Way argued this is a sign of the enormous interest in this new field of study. First are stories from the U.S. and then South America, Europe, and South Asia.

Los Angeles, California, and the Los Angeles River: Vittoria Di Palma and Alexander Robinson, ASLA, both professors at University of Southern California, took us on a history tour of the Los Angeles River. It has always been a “small stream that sometimes turns into a raging torrent during ‘rain events.'” After Spanish settlers discovered Los Angeles and then settled there, they plotted out a system of fields separated by inter-connected canals called zanjas. “The city itself was configured by the water supply.” While the San Madre river was seen as the “idealized, perfected river,” its close relative, the Los Angeles River, never seemed able to behave itself, as it was prone to flooding.

As Los Angeles grew and more farmers came, the desire for predictable water led the city government to begin major efforts to control the once-fluid, complex Los Angeles River starting in the early 1910s, and it was soon fully entombed in a concrete channel by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (see image above). By the middle of the 20th century, there was nostalgia for the wild river that had been lost, with poets and artists “creating a vision of its rebirth.” But as Di Palma said, “these were idealized visions. People were afraid when it behaved naturally and accepted and loved it when it acted as it should.”

In the 1990s, Los Angelenos began to think about how to add parks to the banks of the still channelized Los Angeles River. In 1997, a new master plan was created out of this vision, and by 2005, landscape architecture firms Mia Lehrer + Associates, Civitas Inc., and Wenk Associates created a revitalization master plan for the city government, exploring the “full potential of the 32-mile-stretch of the river in the city.” The plan included ecological restoration along with flood control strategies, designs for new bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, along with development opportunities.

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ASLA 2009 Professional Analysis and Planning Honor Award. Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan, Los Angeles, California / Mia Lehrer + Associates/ Civitas, Inc./ Wenk Associate

Re-enter the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which now has a new mission of ecological restoration and undoing the damage it had done to urban rivers generations before. Following a set of complex studies, featuring an algorithm that examines the per-unit habitat benefits of various ecological restoration approaches, the Corps moved forward with the “alternative 20″ proposal, under great political pressure, including from the White House. That proposal is not the most cost-effective according to the calculations, but it provided what the city government and local non-profits, with their broader urban revitalization goals for the river corridor, more of what they wanted.

The negotiations with the city were complicated. “Congress doesn’t fund the Corps to do urban revitalization. They are not going to pay for a High Line. Everything must support ecological restoration.” The Corps has agreed to work with the city so their effort to restore the river ecology synchs up with the city’s efforts to provide recreation opportunities. But the bottom line is “the Los Angeles River can’t flood again. The compromise is we need to keep people safe and restore the river to health.”

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers: The Allegheny River comes right into the city, said Ray Gastil, head of planning for Pittsburgh. “It’s not a sacred river.” When Pittsburgh was the heart of steel manufacturing in the U.S. in the early 1900s, the rivers flowing through Pittsburgh were so toxic they were actually poisoning the population. This is because they were not only used as industrial infrastructure but also as a dump for sewage. When 620 died in a typhoid outbreak, the city started to get serious about improving their water quality, which they realized was linked with the health of the river. “Finding the causal links between water and disease took a long time to figure out.”

By the 1920s, the legacy of steel manufacturing was beginning to take its toll. “The city began to realize that the deleterious effects on the air and water were not sustainable.” In 1923, some local organizations began arguing that “the riverfront should be a shared benefit and workers need a place to recreate,” but there was no public space, because the land was just too valuable for industrial use. A plan was created to set aside some parks that were to be publicly owned. From the 1920s to 1950s, the point where the Ohio River meets the city was turned into a park, and then, from the 1970s to the 00s, bike trails came, along with the rise of adaptive reuse projects and a new waterfront tech park. Heinz Field, a huge stadium, was set right on the waterfront, with one side open to the Allegheny. Cut to 2015, and the city is still working on the Three River Parks plan, created in 2001, which has created 13 miles of inter-connected green space and trails and spurred $4 billion in riverfront development, and harks back to early 20th century plans to make the waterfront publicly accessible.

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Allegheny Riverfront Park / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

A new master plan by Perkins Eastman will turn a 170-acre post-industrial plot on the Allegheny riverfront into a mixed-use development that will also preserve some of the old steel mills. But for the most part, Pittsburgh’s mill past has been erased. “There are no romantic feelings about their role in the city. Pittsburgh wants to move away from being a city of smoke.”

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Allegheny Riverfront Vision Plan / Perkins Eastman

San Antonio, Texas, and the San Antonio River: David Malda, ASLA, a landscape architect with Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, said San Antonio has long struggled with either an excess or total lack of water. Like a young Los Angeles, early San Antonio had a series of canals, called acequias, that sustainably conveyed water to farmers. By 1910, the acequias were largely replaced by wells, which eventually took their toll on the groundwater. The San Antonio River’s flow was negatively impacted, to the point where the city had to install multiple pumps to move river water into the city. But, also, during heavy storms, the system caused flooding. In 1921, 50 people lost their lives due to flooding along the San Antonio River.

Instead of paving over the river and turning it into a channel for sewage, which many wanted to do, local architect Robert Hugman proposed constructing a cut-off channel, a loop, that people could walk in a circle downtown. In the 1930s, work began in earnest on the 2.5-mile-long San Antonio Riverwalk, which slowly became what it is today over the following decades. “San Antonio invented the idea. They could have a piece of a river without the risk.” Paths, which visitors had to step down to river level to visit, were designed to be intentionally narrow.

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San Antonio Riverwalk / The Flast List

Over the years, the Riverwalk loop itself was expanded, including a naturalistic segment in the 1960s, another segment in the late 80s, and a final one that opened in 2011. Also, additional underground infrastructure that redirects excess water out of the loop was constructed to ensure the Riverwalk would not become a danger during floods.

At the edge of the Riverwalk loop, Gustafson Guthrie Nichol is designing a new civic park downtown, which will revamp a site cleared for the 1968 Hemisfair, a broader urban renewal effort. The new park will refer to the original great plains and coastal plains ecosystems that once characterized this area, and feature a network of acequias that refer to the original system of water infrastructure. Malda made the case for doing deep historical analysis before undertaking a landscape architecture project. “It’s not nostalgic but strategic. We need to understand how the park will fit into the greater pattern. We can then do creative reconstruction from a landscape narrative that draws people and places through time.”

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Civic park at the Hemisfair / Gustafson Guthrie Nichol

In South America: São Paulo, Brazil, and River Headwaters: Cornell University landscape architecture professors Brian Davis and Amelia Jensen argue that rivers form a new borderland within the Brazilian mega-city São Paulo, which is on a high plateau that also serves as the headwaters for multiple rivers. As the city expanded and the population moved down from flood-proof hills, more communities took root along riverbanks. Rivers have been largely channelized, as the goal has been to move flooding water through the city as fast as possible.

But that approach had failed, so the state government created a set of piscinão, large water detention basins that are meant to “act as a solution for flooding.” While the state built these piscinão, it’s not clear who maintains them. Today, there are “jurisdictional ambiguities” at the borders where city and rivers meet. Many piscinão are filled with sewage and trash, and have become major sources of complaints by those unfortunate enough to live near them. A few have been well-tended by the local communities, planted with trees, so they form multi-use community infrastructure: parks when rivers run low, and detention basins during severe rain events.

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Piscinão Guarau, Sao Paulo / Encalso

In Europe: the Lyon, France, and the Rhône and Saône Rivers: These two rivers converge forming a peninsula in the heart of this 2,000-year-old metropolis, explained Michael Miller, a historian at the University of Miami. This makes for city with “two left banks and two right banks.” It also makes Lyon a true river city. “It’s ‘riverness’ is connected with the city.” Miller explained how the city has since its days as a Roman center in Gaul wrapped itself around the rivers. However, over time the confluence has changed. “Islands were joined together to form the peninsula, extending the size of the city. This was done for beauty and function.” Trees line river-facing promenades, even those prone to flooding.

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Lyon, France in 1860. Adolphe Rouargue – Archiv “Deutschland und die Welt” / Wikipedia

In South Asia: Allahabad, India, and the Yamana and Ganges Rivers: In Uttar Pradesh, India, the Hindu mecca Allahabad is a source of fascination for Columbia University architectural historian Anthony Acciavatti, author of Ganges Water Machine. Allahabad, which sits at the meeting points of the Ganges and Yamana Rivers, is always responding to seasonal change; it’s a “dynamic agropolis,” an agricultural economy deeply dependent on the monsoon and the shape-shifting rivers as they shrink and flood. Acciavatti has been mapping the fluvial changes over a decade, documenting the soft edges of the rivers with GPS and panoramic photos and creating handsome maps out of his data.

He is also tracking the shift from centralized water management to a decentralized one involving small tube wells that pull straight from groundwater, and the impact of this on the form of the city. He eventually wants to create a sort of hybrid atlas and almanac, a “dynamic atlas that would explain how the conditions of people, weather, and infrastructure interact, and how this interaction changes.”

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Ganges River Machine / ArchDaily


Shahjahanabad, India, and the Yamana River
: Jyoti Pandey Sharma, a professor of architecture at Deenbandhu Chhotu Ram University of Science and Technology, explained how “Agra wasn’t cutting it” for Mughal Emperor Shahjahan in the 17th century, so he moved his capital down river, creating Shahjahanabad, in the Delhi Triangle. Shahjahanabad became the “seat of sovereignty and the caliphate; it was the epicenter of supreme power and religion.” In this city, the Qila was the embodiment of imperial authority. It was the “celestial ruler’s landscape,” with elaborate architecture set in prescribed formations, while just outside, the river was wild. Access to the city’s riverfront was largely democratic, but in front of the Qila, it was restricted. The river, at least symbolically, was tamed to serve the needs of the emperor. Water from the Yamana River flowed into a series of canals brought into the capital. River water provided “thermal comfort, and visual, tactile, and auditory pleasure.”

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Shahjanahabad / Kamit.jp

By the time the British took over in the 1800s, the perception of the river changed. It became “an agent of discord” and a source of malaria. Shahjahanabad was no longer a picturesque river city. Today, the Yamana is a river of “human filth and pollution.”

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Red Hook Community Emergency Readiness / Ready Red Hook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The BIG U / Rebuild by Design

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

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

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

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Tactical Urbanism / Island Press

Tactical Urbanism: Short-term Action for Long-term Change, a new book by urban planners Mike Lydon and Anthony Garcia is the first book to really organize all the small fixes that seem to have spontaneously sprung up in so many communities in a way that everyone can understand. These fixes — some temporary and others long-term — aim to address common problems in communities today, often in streets and public spaces: a lack of safe sidewalks or crosswalks; the absence of clear signage; the dearth of neighborhood parks and plazas, and, more broadly, the lack of community connection and solidarity. Shedding its perception as an illegal or “guerrilla” approach, tactical urbanism is becoming a method of choice for innovative local governments, developers, or non-profits as well. What one learns from the book is that it’s now an approach happening everywhere, not just in New York City, with its transformation of Times Square and other car-only places into pedestrian plazas, or San Francisco, with its Pavement to Parks program, which led to the explosive growth of parklets everywhere. These types of small, yet potent interventions are going mainstream because they work — at least at fixing some problems.

As Lydon and Garcia explain in a great overview that provides deep historical context, “tactical urbanism” isn’t new. Since humans have lived together, they have been involved in city-making. The first urban street in Khoirokoitia, on the island of Cyprus, built sometime around 7,000 BCE, was 600 feet long and connected residents and merchants at different elevations, through a series of steps and walkways. “Without any formal, overarching government structure, Khoirokoita’s reidents were not only responsible for the creation and maintenance of the street. They understood its importance for the survival of the village.”

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Khoirokoita, Cyprus / Ophelia2 via Wikimedia Commons, courtesy of Island Press

Leaping forward thousands of years, Lydon and Garcia explain the woonerf, Dutch for “living yard,” which came out of a local citizen’s action in the Dutch city of Delft to slow down car traffic in a residential area. The residents tore up the street themselves in the middle of the night so cars would be forced to more carefully navigate their neighborhood. Their streets then became safe for bicycling, playing, and walking — not just a through-lane for cars. At first, the municipal government ignored the woonerf, but, seeing it succeed and spread as a model, they decided to advocate for it. In 1976, the Dutch parliament passed regulations incorporating woonerven into the national streets code. The authors identify many other planning, landscape architectural, and architectural innovations that sprouted up and spread — like the urban grid itself.

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Dutch woonerf / Dick van Veen

Lydon and Garcia do an excellent job of defining what tactical urbanism is and isn’t, and the various forms it takes. As they define it today, tactical urbanism is a “an approach to neighborhood building using short-term, low-cost, and scalable interventions and policies.” For citizens, “it allows the immediate reclamation, redesign, or reprogramming of public space. For developers or entrepreneurs, it provides a means of collecting design intelligence from the market they intend to serve. For advocacy organizations, it’s a way to show what is possible to garner public and political support. And for government, it’s a way to put best practices into, well, practice — and quickly!” Tactical urbanism efforts are largely targeted at “vacant lots, empty storefronts, overly wide streets, highway underpasses, surface parking lots, and other under-used public spaces.”

The authors differentiate tactical urbanism from all the other related terms that have, well, popped-up, too — “Do-It-Yourself (DIY) urbanism, pop-up urbanism, user-generated urbanism, insurgent urbanism, guerilla urbanism, and urban hacking.” They argue that “not all DIY urbanisms efforts are tactical, and not all tactical urbanism initiatives are DIY.” For example, yarnbombing, eye-bombing, and other fun, eye-catching DIY artistic happenings in the public realm can’t be considered tactical because most “usually aren’t intended to instigate long term change;” they are instead “opportunistic placemaking.”

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Yarnbombed tree / Made in slant

And they explain how not all tactical urbanist projects are illegal, carried out in the middle of the night (although many still are). Tactics run along a spectrum ranging from unsanctioned to sanctioned.

On the unsanctioned end are projects like Build a Better Block, by Streetscape Collaborative and landscape architecture firm SWA Group, which won an ASLA 2011 Professional Communications Honor Award. This first project transformed an urban street in Dallas, Texas, just for a day. “An entire block was restructured and transformed by placing new rows of street trees and a ‘median’ created of shrubs. The new open spaces created by these trees accommodated café seating and areas for vendors to sell their wares.” It gave the community a glimpse into what a more people-friendly street would do for their community. The model quickly spread to many other cities, showing many what’s possible.

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ASLA 2011 Professional Communications Honor Award. Build a Better Block / Jason Roberts, David Thompson

In the middle of the spectrum are initiatives like Park(ing) Day, which was founded by landscape architecture firm Rebar and conceived by landscape architect John Bela, ASLA, and has become a truly global movement. Each Park(ing) Day, residents turn parking spaces into pint-sized parks, highlighting not only how so much of our streets are given over to cars, but also all the other potential productive uses these spaces offer. This past year, more than 1,000 parking spaces were turned into mini-parks.

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Park(ing) Day, Onward State

And Park(ing) Day showed one responsive city, San Francisco, that people are demanding more out of their streets, which resulted in the city government making a policy shift. On the sanctioned end: the San Francisco city government created a permanent Pavement to Parks program, which has resulted in more than 50 parklets. As John King, urban critic for The San Francisco Chronicle, points out, though, five years on, not all parklets have been successful: “They are as varied and problematic as the city itself.” Still, the parklet model has since spread to many other major cities, including Vancouver.

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San Francisco Parklet / Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates

One of the only criticisms of this thoughtful, informative book is there is no candid assessment of where tactical urbanism has gone wrong. What would have been useful is a few examples of where tactical urbanism projects have failed and what can be learned from their mistakes. Surely, not all projects are the result of supportive, inclusive coalitions (what about the naysayers in every community? Are they just left out?) Not all bottom-up community improvements are beloved. Not all parklets are well-used. Not everyone likes food trucks crowding out storefront businesses. Pop-up vegetable gardens that aren’t well maintained can quickly become eyesores, or, worse, attract rodents. No matter how well-intentioned, too few contemporary projects have shown signs of successfully spurring long-term permanent change, but perhaps it’s too soon to tell.

Also, in his intro Garcia speaks to “how dysfunctional the public planning process has become.” He describes the arduous process of creating a more progressive zoning code in Miami, Florida. “The project had gone through hundreds of public meetings and was significantly better than its predecessors, yet was still attacked for being drafted behind closed doors.” He goes on about the “dozens of land-use attorneys, developers, and lobbyists” and how “the approval meetings were a dizzying circus of opposition.” He concludes that “I began to see small-scale changes as part of the answer to the stalled momentum of large projects.”

While everyone who has been involved in the depths of a bruising multi-year battle can agree with this, urban planners, developers, and landscape architects need to continue to fight the big fights for those large-scale, transformational projects, too. Lawsuits and well-funded opposition are just part of the territory these days with any major project where there are winners and losers; it’s part of the democratic process.

As Lydon and Garcia make very clear throughout, tactical urbanism can’t solve all problems. These projects are really about building community sustainability, empowering neighborhoods to push for pedestrian-friendly improvements. Community building can lead to new coalitions that yield real improvements in quality of life and replicable models that spread. The methodology for bottom-up empowerment and change is valid.

But it’s not clear whether all efforts can be replicated everywhere. Times Square’s revamp as a pedestrian plaza, which seemed more like a top-down project, is the result of a unique set of factors, like smart, willing leadership. Will other cities follow NYC’s lead? Furthermore, can these efforts help solve our cities’ most intractable problems?

Planners and landscape architects — really, everyone shaping the built environment– need to continue to push for the comprehensive plans that improve walkability on the broad scale; grand, permanent parks that yield big environmental and social returns; complex multi-use infrastructure; and mixed-use developments that can enable “live, work, play,” all of those major investments that can grow and sustain livable communities, while also experimenting at the small scale. We are in the era of lawsuits and opposition.

Read the book.

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