To Become More Resilient, Boston Takes a “Landscape First” Approach

East Boston flood scenarios / Coastal Resilience Solutions for East Boston and Charlestown, Stoss

Instead of simply responding to catastrophe, Boston is getting out front on climate change. As part of its Climate Ready Boston plan, the city of 670,000 aims to act fast and protect two coastal neighborhoods most vulnerable to rising sea levels and storms: East Boston and Charlestown. New plans for these neighborhoods explain how a simple fix like creating a temporary flood wall at the coastal end of the East Boston Greenway, at a cost of just $100,000, would protect 4,300 residents, 70 businesses and critical infrastructure, and result in $17 million in benefits.

But perhaps the most important statement in the plan is: “more extensive measures combining green and gray infrastructure and new open space can be built and expanded over time to address risks from 1 percent annual chance floods with over 36 inches of sea level rise (by the 2070s).” In other words, landscape-based solutions are the answer for long-term protection and resilience. The plan calls for making $142-262 million of these investments over the next few decades, netting $644-751 million in benefits.

East Boston plan, near and long-term projects / Coastal Resilience Solutions for East Boston and Charlestown, Stoss
Charlestown plan, near and long-term projects / Coastal Resilience Solutions for East Boston and Charlestown, Stoss

An inter-departmental city government team lead the effort, which was conducted by engineers at Kleinfelder, landscape architects at Stoss landscape urbanism, and architects with ONE architecture. The district-level coastal resilience plan came out of the recently-completed Climate Ready Boston process and Imagine Boston 2030, the first comprehensive planning effort in 50 years, and resulted from the efforts of Boston Harbor Now and other non-profits.

In a phone interview, Chris Reed, ASLA, founder and principal at Stoss landscape urbanism, said East Boston and Charlestown were the focus of the first plans and conceptual designs in a series that will look at all vulnerable Boston neighborhoods. “The rationale was to look at the places that will flood first and also help disadvantaged neighborhoods threatened with displacement and gentrification.” An analysis of South Boston, including Seaport, is also underway, and more neighborhood analyses will be coming over the next few years.

Reed explained that Kleinfelder, Stoss, and ONE only proposed “flood control measures that have social, environmental, and economic benefits.” Flood control infrastructure takes the form of landscape berms, wildlife habitat, waterfront promenades, play areas, and strategic walls. Using evaluation criteria established in the report, the planning and design team settled on a layered approach with back-up defenses. In most instances, walls were minimized in favor of other kinds of multi-use infrastructure that enable access to and recreation on the waterfronts.

East Boston landing: a landscape-first approach / Coastal Resilience Solutions for East Boston and Charlestown, Stoss
Ryan playground in Charlestown / Coastal Resilience Solutions for East Boston and Charlestown, Stoss

The team also crafted a “development toolkit,” with new regulations to guide private developers and better leverage public-private infrastructure investments. For example, currently, new developments on the waterfront must have 50 percent open space. Reed explained that through new regulations, these open spaces can be better coordinated to maximize resilience. “The city can now gang up and locate protective open spaces strategically.” With the toolkit, the city can also now move beyond a “site by site approach” and scale up its resilient development efforts.

Recommendations are rooted in different flooding scenarios. Reed said the tricky part was “you can have a storm surge on top of sea level rise.” Instead of using outdated FEMA data, Boston is basing its analyses in modeling created by Woods Hole Group, University of Massachusetts Boston, and the Barr Foundation. Models project out to 2070, but purposefully stop there. “We just can’t project to 2100.”

Reed said funds have already been allocated to projects, including the coastal end of the East Boston Greenway and raising Border Street. But it’s not clear how Boston will pay for the billions it may actually need to spend on resilience, when all neighborhood analyses are said and done.

What is clear to Reed is that “there is an absolute need to address climate change.” And in our new age of resilience, what’s needed is a “landscape first strategy for city-making.”

In fact, Reed thinks these district-scale resilience plans return us to the era of Frederick Law Olmsted, when landscape served as a basis for urban planning. “People are re-discovering cities are part of the environment and impacted by nature and temperature change.”

Read the executive summary or full report (large PDF).

Infinite Suburbia

InfiniteSuburbia_cover

Until recently, our city’s margins were neglected by researchers. Precisely how much neglect seems to have corresponded with the margin’s distance from its urban core, the city’s beating heart and a real draw for analytical minds. But Infinite Suburbia, a mammoth collection of 52 essays edited by MIT landscape architecture professor Alan Berger, geographer Joel Kotkin, and environmental urbanist Celina Balderas Guzman, seeks to elevate the discourse on our suburbs. The compendium is the result of a yearlong study at MIT’s Center for Advanced Urbanism, and, like suburbia itself, is sprawling, often beautiful, and a bit relentless.

We have, over the last decade, heard repeatedly that the 21st century is the age of the city. But Infinite Suburbia’s editors rightly recognize the vast majority of people who have moved to cities do not populate the cores but rather the edges. In the United States, for example, 69 percent of the population lives in suburbs. Our edges are rapidly shifting and expanding, demanding meaningful evaluation.

Still, the term suburbia isn’t specific; it has a vagueness with which many of the essays engage. Historian Jon Teaford writes about the myth of the homogeneous suburb, noting that industrial suburbs differ from those pocketed with shopping malls or others that serve primarily as wealthy enclaves. The variety of activity present in suburbs today is as rich as the variety present in urban cores.

Espen Aukrust Hauglin and Janike Kampevold Larsen, professors of urbanism and landscape at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design, write about how in Norway, suburbia springs up in the pockets of limited spaces between geographical features. One clear example is the Grorud Valley. The valley’s history and geomorphology create a fabric of land use that contrasts with more traditional ideas of suburbia. In the valley, farmland, residential communities, and old mining infrastructure are adjacent to one another. Nature and recreation were large influences on the design of Norway’s satellite towns, so the path systems that gird these towns create a transition between the city and surrounding environment that enables recreation. Recent developments suggest that inner-city parks are gaining prominence in the valley, though.

Dr. Margaret Grose, landscape professor at the University of Melbourne, asks in her essay the pertinent question, “how can we design ecologically-richer suburbs?” It turns out biodiversity is not high on many planners lists of goals, if it’s considered at all. Grose suggests inverting the planning process so that ecological goals come first. Designing backwards through the planning stages and analysis can help give ecology its due in suburban design.

fowler california
A development in Fowler, California, shows how suburbs can be situated within the existing landscape fabric / Matthew Niederhauser and John Fitzgerald

The expansion of cities outwards in the last few decades and the resultant land use change has been both rapid and irreversible. As both editor and author of Infinite Suburbia, Berger investigates how planners in the past sought to “belt” suburbia with agrarian and recreational landscapes.

But with the clustering of cities into polycentric city-regions, greenbelts are being ask to function in new and peculiar ways. Rather than serving as a container for development, greenbelts can connect regions. Berger warns that they must be employed intelligently and compatibly with demands for growth, or they risk being ineffectual. For some examples of greenbelting done right, Berger recommends the Brussels capital region of Belgium as well as Hamburg, Germany.

Despite the potential ecological benefits of greenbelts or prioritizing biodiversity, experts still consider suburbia the most ecologically-destructive form of development. Consider the growth of the east coast megalopolis, a region defined decades ago by French geographer Jean Gottman, running from Washington, D.C. north to Boston. What habitat it hasn’t destroyed it has badly fragmented.

Alex Wall, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Virginia, asks in his essay what a counter-figure to this megalopolis might look like. While his essay doesn’t quite describe such a figure, it does make a strong argument for analyzing development at the regional scale in order to better understand the true ecological scope.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (January 1 – 15)

chi-obama09fall-ct0062726929-20180109 (1)
A view of the Obama Presidential Center campus shows a proposed promenade along the Lagoon at the east side of the campus with the Museum Building and the Museum of Science Industry beyond. / Obama Foundation

The Fraught Future of Monuments Co.Design, 1/2/18
“Let’s get this out of the way: Public space is, and always has been, political. Public spaces are the sites of protest–the places we exercise democracy.”

Dallas Is Finally Talking About Bicycles The Dallas Morning News, 1/2/18
“The other day, I once again found myself discussing dockless bike share. Someone said the only thing anyone in Dallas is talking about is bikes.”

Atlanta’s Piedmont Park Slated for $100 Million Expansion The Architect’s Newspaper, 1/2/18
“Late last month, Mayor Kasim Reed announced that the city will kick in $20 million to expand Piedmont Park and the Atlanta Botanical Gardens, which sit just east of the city’s Ansely Park neighborhood.”

Top Trends in Parks and Recreation for 2018National Recreation and Parks Association Blog, 1/8/18
“Several years ago, what started as a lighthearted look at new, interesting and even controversial trends in the field of parks and recreation for the coming year, has now become an annual New Year tradition.”

Can Oman Build a Better Planned City?CityLab, 1/10/18
“The petro-states of the Persian Gulf do not lack for outlandish and ambitious urban projects: See the man-made islands of Dubai, a supertall curved skyscraper in Kuwait, or the enormous clock tower in Mecca that’s the size of six Big Bens.”

An Obama Tower in an Olmsted Park? Yes, But Design Still Needs RefinementThe Chicago Tribune, 1/13/18
“During his White House years, Barack Obama did not shy away from big, provocative political issues. The aesthetic instincts of the former president, who once wanted to be an architect, are proving no different.”

New Film: The Life and Gardens of Beatrix Farrand

For Darwina Neal, FASLA, the first woman president of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), it made perfect sense that the inaugural Cultural Landscapes lecture at the National Building Museum — a lecture series Neal sponsored and created — would feature a new documentary on Beatrix Farrand, the only woman to be among the 11 founding members of ASLA. The 40-minute documentary was created by six-time Emmy Award-winning film maker Karyl Evans.

Beatrix Farrand, who was born in 1872 and passed away in 1959, designed over 200 landscape commissions over 50 years. The film features her most celebrated works, including Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C.; the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden at the New York Botanical Garden; and the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden in Bar Harbor, Maine.

According to Neal, Evans deeply researched “Farrand’s life and work — as many Farrand gardens are being rediscovered and restored — and visited over 50 Farrand garden-related sites from Maine to California and Washington, D.C. to photograph the gardens and talk with curators, scholars, professional gardeners, and volunteers.”

Evans also “conducted research at the Beatrix Farrand Archives at the University of California, Berkeley, where she discovered never-before-published materials now included in her film. The resulting documentary is an inspiring film about Beatrix Farrand’s challenging life and her stunning 50-year career as a landscape architect.”

Evans tells us this is the “first documentary ever created about the most successful female landscape architect in 20th century America.” It’s the story of “the daughter of one of American’s most elite families, and how her undeniable talent for garden design propels her onto the national stage.”

In the film, Evans interviewed the late Farrand scholar Diana Balmori, FASLA; landscape historian Judith Tankard; and landscape architect Shavaun Towers, FASLA.

Purchase the DVD or request a screening.

Also, Farrand was the subject of a two-day symposium at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. a few years ago. Read more from the series of lectures: Beatrix Farrand Gets a Fresh Look and In the Shadow of Farrand.

Book Review: Cityscapes of New Orleans

cityscapes cover smaller.jpg
LSU Press

Set Tulane University professor Richard Campanella down at any intersection in New Orleans, and he can likely deduce what economic, political, or environmental forces determined that street’s spatial qualities. This knowledge and much else has been inscribed in Campanella’s latest book, Cityscapes of New Orleans.

Cityscapes is a compendium of essays that examines New Orleans’ landscape through the lenses of design, planning, and history. It is more than a rote demonstration of knowledge, though. The book is an energetic engagement with Campanella’s two great passions: New Orleans and geography.

Geography, though it has taken a backseat in the landscape discourse, has the unsettling ability to illuminate the larger patterns and systems in which we’re embedded. Consider the work of Allen Gathman, a biology professor at SE Missouri State University. After the 2008 presidential election, Gathman took interest in a string of counties, arcing across the southeast United States, that Barack Obama had won. These blue counties, surrounded by a sea of red, coincided with the cotton belt of the antebellum south, and thus had a primarily black populace. And why was the soil in those counties so well-suited for cotton production? It is a loamy, alluvial soil, deposited by a cretaceous-era ocean, the coastline of which would roughly align with those same blue counties. Past, as they say, is prologue.

That is one example of the insight that geography affords; Cityscapes offers many such insights. Like Gathman, Campanella is interested in the “why behind the where.” Take Campanella’s investigation of New Orleans’ “accidental forest,” for instance. How did a 27-acre patch of remnant forest in the heart of Gentilly survive this long without being developed? A series of near-misses and happenstance, it turns out. But it’s a part of the tapestry of curiosities that add to the city’s character.

cityscapes graphic
Accidental forest

New Orleans’ larger geographic context is perhaps as interesting as the city itself, and Campanella devotes a section of the book to exploring aspects of New Orlean’s regional relationships. This includes a portrait of the “Ozone Belt,” a pinewood landscape upland of Lake Pontchartrain that city residents previously visited like a health retreat. Certain that the swamplands of Lake Pontchartrain were the source of miasmas and sickness in the city, New Orleans residents who could afford to would stay at therapeutic inns in the Ozone Belt and enjoy what they believed to be the curative properties of the pine’s effervescence.

Staying on the subject of swamps, Campanella also devotes several essays to how their presence and eventual draining impacted the city’s entire terrain. City-wide drainage began in the 1890s with the development of a sophisticated runoff system that funneled water into surrounding water bodies. The effect was “nothing short of revolutionary,” according to Campanella.

The result was the withdrawal of the swamplands and the migration of inhabitants into these areas. The unforeseen effect was soil subsidence, which triggered the collapse of certain built structures. Continued draining in the following century led to the subversion of in-ground infrastructure. “Topography matters,” Campanella writes.

Fog That Doesn’t Obscure

Fog Garden at the Fountain of the Fairs, Queens, NY / Quennell Rothschild & Partners

What can be done with a 10-acre series of three derelict reflecting pools in Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens, New York? Instead of restoring them at great expense, resulting in excessive water and energy use, landscape architects with New York-based Quennell Rothschild & Partners had an ingenious idea. Turn them into a amphitheater, water play space, and a “fog garden,” which will generate a four-foot-high field of fog, or if the NYC parks department so chooses, “waves of fog,” with a fraction of the water used by the typical splash park.

Fog Garden at the Fountain of the Fairs, Queens, NY / Quennell Rothschild & Partners

Mark Bunnell, ASLA, a partner with Quennell Rothschild, said their new design, which will replace the reflecting pool at the Fountain of the Fairs, respects the historic park’s existing layout and even enhances it with an Art Deco paving pattern. The Fountain of the Fairs occupies a central axis connecting the iconic Unisphere with the Fountain of the Planets, created for the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs.

1939 World’s Fair / Pinterest
1939 World’s Fair / Pinterest

The fog will be created by 500 nozzles spread through the 300-foot-long and 50-foot-wide (17,300 square feet) space, set in a 1.7-acre garden. In a system Quennell Rothschild designed with Delta Fountains, there are nine pumps that enable the park managers to control the nozzles, so that the fog can appear like a field or roll-down in waves. Each nozzle emits approximately 3 gallons per hour, but not all are in use at any given time.

The fog will only reach four feet off the ground. If there are any concerns about safety or transparency, “they can use the waves,” creating gaps in the mist. The fog will also dissipate quickly, barring “atmospheric conditions.”

Alongside the fog garden, Quennell Rothschild is replacing “massed Yew trees” with a landscape of grasses, low evergreens, and maples that will open up views.

Fog Garden at the Fountain of the Fairs, Queens, NY / Quennell Rothschild & Partners

Later phases will turn the segment of the reflecting pool east of the fog garden into an amphitheater and then, farthest east, into a water playground.

Fountain of the Fairs, Queens, NY / Quennell Rothschild & Partners

Construction on the $4.3 million garden begins in April.

Most Popular DIRT Posts of 2017

DesignIntelligence

As we look forward to covering new stories on the built and natural environments this year, here’s a look back at the 10 most popular DIRT posts of 2017. Coverage of conferences, including the American Planning Association (APA), Greenbuild, Earth Optimism Summit, and Biophilic Leadership Summit, attracted the greatest interest. And news on the health benefits of nature and the fate of Modernist landscapes were widely read.

Always worth mentioning: We are looking for original op-eds, particularly from member landscape architects, designers, and planners, on topics that inspire you. If interested, please email us at info@asla.org.

1) DesignIntelligence 2017 Landscape Architecture Program Rankings

DesignIntelligence recently announced its 2017 landscape architecture graduate and undergraduate program rankings. For the third year in a row, Louisiana State University (LSU) was deemed the best undergraduate landscape architecture program. And for the 13th consecutive year, Harvard University retained its dominance as the best graduate program, in the annual survey conducted by DesignIntelligence on behalf of the Design Futures Council.

2) Best Podcasts for Landscape Architects

Over the past decade, podcasts have emerged as a popular storytelling platform and captivating way to learn more about the world around us.
Podcasts offer a source of inspiration for designers exploring other disciplines and seeking fresh perspective within their own. For landscape architects, podcasts reveal new opportunities and ways of thinking about the way we design space.

3) New Ruralism: Solutions for Struggling Small Towns

New Urbanism is a well-known movement that aims to create more walkable communities. Less known is New Ruralism, which is focused on the preservation and enhancement of rural communities beyond the edge of metropolitan regions. Small towns now part of this nascent movement seek to define themselves on their own terms, not just in relation to nearby cities. These towns are more than “just food sheds for metro areas,” explained Peg Hough, Vermont, planner and environmental advocate with Community-resilience.org, at the American Planning Association (APA) annual conference in New York City. Representatives from three northeastern states — Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire — explained how the principles of New Ruralism can help suffering communities.

4) Harnessing the Power of Nature to Improve Our Cities

People feel happier, healthier, and more social when they engage with nature. Their cognitive abilities go up and stress levels go down. So why is nature so often thought to be found only “out there” in the wilderness, or perhaps suburbia? For Timothy Beatley, a professor at the University of Virginia, nature should be found everywhere, but especially in cities. Cities must remain dense and walkable, but they can be unique, memorable places only when they merge with nature. If well planned and designed, a city’s forests, waterfronts, parks, gardens, and streets can make out-sized contributions to the health and well-being of everyone who lives there. In his latest excellent book, the Handbook of Biophilic City Planning & Design, Beatley brings together all the established science, the important case studies, the innovative code and design practices from around the world in one place. Even if you think you already know a lot about how best to incorporate nature into cities, there will be some interesting new facets in this book for you to explore.

5) Serenbe’s New Wellness District Features a Food Forest

Deep in the woods southwest of Atlanta, Serenbe is a unique designed community — a mixed-use development, with clusters of villages comprised of townhouses and apartments fueled by solar panels and heated and cooled by geothermal systems, and vast open spaces with organic farms, natural waste water treatment systems, and preserved forests. A leader in the “agrihood” movement, which calls for agriculture-centric community development, Serenbe is now moving into wellness with its new development called Mado.

6) What We Still Don’t Know about the Health Benefits of Nature

We know that connecting with nature is good for us, but there are still many questions that need to be answered through more credible scientific research: What is the ideal “dose” of nature? What health conditions do these doses actually help with? Does duration and frequency of dose matter? How long do the benefits last? Does who you are and where you live impact how beneficial exposure to nature will be? And how does technology help or interfere with our connection to nature?

7) Are Modernist Landscapes Worth Saving?

As our cities evolve, and what people want from their public spaces changes, should Modernist parks, plazas, and streets be saved? For lovers of Modernism, the answer is always yes. But, in reality, if the public, and their representatives, choose to keep these spaces, many will need to better respond to contemporary expectations. The question then is how can they be “respectfully honored and adapted?,” asked Brad McKee, editor of Landscape Architecture Magazine, in an event at the National Building Museum at Washington, D.C.

8) The Biophilic Design Movement Takes Shape (Part 1)

While green infrastructure is needed to manage stormwater and cool the air in our cities, these systems, as currently designed, aren’t enough. In the future, they must also boost biodiversity and help forge richer connections between humans and nature, argued a set of policymakers, academics, planners, and landscape architects, who are part of the nascent biophilic design movement. At the Biophilic Leadership Summit, which was hosted at Serenbe, an agricultural community outside of Atlanta, and organized by the Biophilic Institute, the Biophilic Cities Project, and Serenbe founder Steven Nygren, the main themes of biophilic urban planning and design were explored in an effort to achieve greater definition. Much work, however, still needs to be done to codify, measure, and popularize the strategies discussed.

9) Lessons Learned from the First Generation of Net-zero Communities

The first generation of net-zero communities, which were designed to add no carbon to the atmosphere, are entering their second decade. Beddington Zero Energy Development (BedZED) in London is about 15 years old now; and the first phase of Dockside Green in Victoria, Canada, is now 10 years old. In a session at the 2017 Greenbuild in Boston, Steven Dulmage with Urban Equation and Justin Downey at RNWL outlined lessons learned from these early sustainable communities and how they informed second-generation developments, such as Zibi in Ottawa, Canada, and Hazelwood Green in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

10) Reasons to Be Optimistic about the Future of the Environment (Part 1)

“It’s easy to be cynical or pessimistic” about the the state of the global environment, said David J. Skorton, secretary of the Smithsonian, at the opening of the Earth Optimism Summit in Washington, D.C. “We’re not blind to the realities, but if organizations and individuals work together, obstacles can be overcome.” Over three days, an audience of 1,400 heard one inspiring environmental success story after another. While no one forgot that climate change, biodiversity loss, and ecosystem degradation have created a global environmental emergency, there was a concerted effort to change the narrative — from one of relentless anger and despair to one of progress and a cautious optimism about the future. The goal was to highlight was is working today and figure out the ways to replicate and scale up successes.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (December 16 – 31)

dfbb8cfa7
A resident walking at the Cottages at Hickory Crossing, Dallas / Skylar Fike, via CityLab

Halprin’s Heritage Park Plaza in Texas Will Receive Complete Restoration The Architect’s Newspaper, 12/19/17
“Landscape architect Lawrence Halprin loved cities, so it was only fitting that his cliffside Fort Worth, Texas, commission, Heritage Park Plaza (HPP), was the first-ever item on the National Register of Historic Places designated solely as landscape architecture.”

Preparing Trees to Go From Green Pastures to the Concrete Jungle The Washington Post, 12/19/17
“The rolling hills of the Casey Tree Farm in Clarke County, Va., seem a million miles and a distant age from the real estate bustle of the District of Columbia and its constant reinvention, but these pastures offer the city future relief in a climate-changing century.”

Urban Planning Has a Sexism ProblemNext City, 12/19/17
“Take a moment to look around you. Really look. See the city — the streets, the buildings, the spaces between them — and realize for a moment that virtually everything you see has been designed and shaped by men.”

Community Leaders Skeptical About New Obama Center Garage DesignThe Chicago Tribune, 12/21/17
“A revised design for the Obama Presidential Center’s controversial parking garage is getting a thumbs-down from some community leaders who attended a closed-door meeting at which the plan was unveiled.”

Good Design Is a Public Good CityLab, 12/26/17
“If you asked 100 random people or even 100 designers, ‘What is design?’ you would get approximately that many different answers. In the most positive sense, this explains the pervasiveness of designers working in and touching every imaginable aspect of our lives.”

Miami Puts It All on the Line with New Park Project Travel Weekly, 12/27/17
“When Miami unveils the first three of its 10 planned linear miles of parks and trails in 2020, the Underline will join the ranks of New York’s Highline, Atlanta’s Beltline, Houston’s Buffalo Bayou and Chicago’s 606.”

ASLA Announces Call for Nominations for 2018 Honors

ASLA Honors medals at the 2017 President’s Dinner / ASLA

The call for nominations is open for the 2018 ASLA Honors. These prestigious awards recognize individuals and organizations for their lifetime achievements and notable contributions to the profession of landscape architecture.

Honors include:

The ASLA Medal
The ASLA Design Medal
The Community Service Awards
The Jot D. Carpenter Teaching Medal
The LaGasse Medals
The Landscape Architecture Firm Award
The Landscape Architecture Medal of Excellence
The Olmsted Medal

Nominations are also open for Honorary ASLA memberships. Honorary ASLA memberships recognize persons other than landscape architects whose achievements of national or international significance or influence have provided notable service to the profession of landscape architecture.

The deadline for all nominations is January 30, 2018.

Any ASLA professional member or ASLA chapter may submit nominations for ASLA honors, and the process is very simple. Nominations will be reviewed by the Executive Committee and forwarded with recommendation to the Board of Trustees for action at the spring meeting in April.

Green Heart: First Major Clinical Study to Examine the Health Impact of Trees

Tree in parking area under “Spaghetti Junction” near corner of 8th and Main St. Louisville KY/ Randy Olson

Louisville, Kentucky, has some of the worst air in the country. Given the city is a transit hub, tens of thousands of planes, trucks, and trains pass through the city each year, not to mention all the cars. Louisville is also an industrial center where chemicals are manufactured. Heart disease, strokes, asthma and other conditions caused by excessive pollution are found at very high levels. Last year, the city received a failing grade from the American Lung Association in its annual report.

In order to see if trees can help combat the negative health impacts of the city’s deadly air pollution, University of Louisville Medical Center, the Nature Conservancy, Hyphae Design Laboratory and other organizations are coming together in the Green Heart project, the first clinical trial where “nature is the pharmaceutical.”

According to the Nature Conservancy, “this ambitious effort will conduct a first-of-its-kind medical study by planting trees in strategic locations across a cluster of Louisville neighborhoods and observing precisely how they impact residents’ health.” The study is financed by the National Institutes of Health and Louisville-based philanthropies.

Dr. Aruni Bhatnagar at the University of Louisville Medical Center and his colleagues, who essentially created the field of “environmental cardiology,” are doing a controlled experiment to test the impact of nature, as if it was a drug, on a neighborhood scale.

The challenge is “a neighborhood is not a laboratory, where variables are easily controlled. And this project would be far beyond the scale of prior research that identified connections between neighborhood greenness and health.”

Bhatnagar said: “there has never been a rigorous scientific study that quantified the health effects of urban greening. This will be the first attempt to understand, is nature a viable, replicable therapy?”

This past October, the project has its official launch, with a community workshop and the start of baseline data collection. “Temperatures, particulate matter levels, volatile organic compounds in the air will all be tracked by a network of more than 50 passive air monitors as well as more elaborate monitoring arrays mounted on towers and even an electric car.”

Starting next fall, some 8,000 trees, shrubs, and other plants will be planted in South Louisville, according to a map devised by the Nature Conservancy, based in data on where likely impacts will the greatest benefit. As has been noted, trees catch small particulate matter in their leaves, reducing nearby air pollution by a third in some cases; and, if planted near highways, they can act as a buffer, reducing pollution by up to 60 percent.

The Green Heart project is now recruiting 700 neighborhood residents to “participate in several rounds of medical tests, tracking the residual evidence of air pollution in their blood and urine.”

The Nature Conservancy writes that “different chemical signals will be monitored, including the presence of cortisol and adrenaline that are produced when the body is under stress. Participants’ physiological reactions to air pollution will be studied over five years, because some compounds appear within hours of exposure while others take months or years to emerge.” Residents are essentially “human environmental monitors,” said Ray Yeager, PhD, a researcher with the University of Louisville Medical Center lab.

At the end of the five year study, the researchers will have a set of data on residents’ health — looking at both before and after the trees were planted, and, for comparison’s sake, data from people who live nearby but didn’t get new trees. It will be interesting to see if five years is enough to test the benefits of trees — newly-planted, young trees would appear to have less capacity to catch particulate matter and serve as buffers than mature, fully-grown trees with broad canopies.

Unhealthy air is estimated to claim 4 million lives a year. If Dr. Bhatnagar and his colleagues discover medical benefits from the strategic tree placements, the results of this study could result in a new public health model that can help reduce urban pollution-related deaths. Yeager is confident: “what we learn in Louisville is going to affect people all over the world.”

If benefits are proven, the study could also positively affect Louisville, reducing health inequities. The Nature Conservancy refers to data showing that life expectancy in the “leafy suburbs” of the city is 13 years longer than in South and West Louisville neighborhoods with lower incomes and less access to nature, proving once again that “zip code is a reliable indicator of health.”

If the results show positive benefits from trees, the city government should first address inequities and partner with local community groups to build robust tree canopies in the neighborhoods that lack them. With solid data, the city could also further invest in the existing urban forest, which loses about 55,000 trees every year.

Read the full article at The Nature Conservancy.