A Cost-Effective Way to Treat Depression: Greening Vacant Lots

Before: An empty lot in Philadelphia / JAMA Open Network
After: A Green lot in Philadelphia / JAMA Open Network

A tree, some grass, a low wooden fence, regular maintenance. With these basic elements, an unloved, vacant lot can be transformed from being a visual blight and drain on a community into a powerful booster of mental health.

According to a new study by five doctors at the University of Pennsylvania, residents of low-income communities in Philadelphia who saw their vacant lots greened by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society experienced “significant decreases” in feelings of depression and worthlessness. And this positive change happened for just $1,500 per lot.

For lead author Dr. Eugenia South and her co-authors, this is a clear indication that the physical environment impacts our mental health. And planning and design offers a cost-effective way to fight mental illness in light of the sky-rocketing costs of doctor and emergency room visits and drug prescriptions.

In many low-income communities, vacant and dilapidated spaces are “unavoidable conditions that residents encounter every day, making the very existence of these spaces a constant source of stress.” Furthermore, these neighborhoods with vacant lots, trash, and “lack of quality infrastructure such as sidewalks and parks, are associated with depression and are factors that that may explain the persistent prevalence of mental illness.”

Conversely, neighborhoods that feel cared for — that are well-maintained, free of trash and run-down lots, and offer access to green spaces — are associated with “improved mental health outcomes, including less depression, anxiety, and stress.”

This means that cleaning up empty lots in low-income communities can potentially buffer the negative mental impacts of living in a low-income neighborhood.

Some 541 vacant lots were studied in the trial. One third of these lots were greened; one third just had their trash cleaned up; and one third experienced no change. The researchers only included lots that were less than 5,500 square feet, had significant blight — “illegal dumping, abandoned cars, and/or unmanaged vegetation” — and been abandoned by their owners.

Lots in the study / JAMA Open Network

Each lot selected for greening underwent a “standard, reproducible process” that involved “removing trash and debris, grading the land, planting new grass and a small number of trees, installing a low wooden perimeter fence with openings, and performing regular maintenance.” Cleaned-up lots saw their their garbage removed; they were also mowed and given regular maintenance.

Some 342 people who lived in neighborhoods near these lots agreed to have their mental health assessed both before and after the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society intervened. After choosing an address closest to the lots, teams of researchers fanned out across Philly, selecting participants at random, who were given $25 to complete a survey that took 40 minutes on average.

“Participants were asked to indicated how often they felt nervous, hopeless, restless, depressed, that everything was an effort, and worthless using the following scale: all of the time, most of the time, more than half the time, less than half the time, some of the time, or no time.”

South and her co-authors contend that greening lots was associated with a “significant reduction in feeling depressed and worthless as well as a non-significant reduction in overall self-reported poor mental health.” The trash clean-up alone didn’t lead to any reduction in negative feelings.

In Philly, greening a lot cost just $1,500 and required around $180 in maintenance a year. In other cities and communities with significant amounts of blight, that amount would likely be a lot less.

Beyond the mental health gains, greening lots can increase “community cohesion, social capital, and collective efficacy.” Given the many associated benefits, greening lots in low-income communities is a no-brainer.

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

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Ella Fitzgerald Park, Detroit / Spackman Mossop Michaels

A High Line for Houston? Texas Medical Center News, 8/1/18
“Landscape architect James Corner will bring his vision to TMC3’s Helix Park.”

San Francisco’s Imposing Transit Center Ready to Roll at Last The San Francisco Chronicle, 8/6/18
“For the past decade, the transit center that will replace San Francisco’s Transbay Terminal has been the subject of grand plans and political controversies, struggles to stay on schedule and squabbles over costs.”

How a New Park Fits Detroit’s Plan to Bring Its Neighborhoods Back CityLab, 8/7/18
“The reuse of over a dozen vacant lots in the Fitzgerald neighborhood illustrates the city’s holistic approach to redevelopment outside of downtown.”

Saying Goodbye to the Godfather of Gas Works Park Crosscut, 8/7/18
“Richard Haag, a leader in the fight against unchecked urban development, has died.”

Transforming Tulsa, Starting with a Park The New York Times, 8/10/18
“The Olmsted-style transformation of 66 acres in the central city is now Gathering Place, a much-anticipated $465 million park that opens Sept. 8 as one of the largest and most ambitious public parks ever created with private funds — and the latest example of deep-pocketed citizens rebuilding cities through projects they perceive to be in the public good.”

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

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Aerial view of Hunters Point South’s ‘Peninsula’ / Bill Tatham / SWA/balsley

Abandoned Industrial Landscape Transformed into New Waterfront Park in NYC Designboom, 7/17/18
“New York has welcomed a waterfront park at hunter’s point south, a mixed-use development in long island city.”

A Mile High and 20,000 Acres Deep: How Denver’s Parks Make Growth Livable Next City, 7/19/18
“Meanwhile, advocates for open space, from elected officials, non-profit leaders, both public and private sector champions, have been busily developing strategies for Denver’s great, enduring and largely unsung hero — the parks system.”

Transforming Stormwater from a Nuisance to a Necessity Pacific Standard, 7/20/18
“A conversation with Morgan Shimabuku about municipal stormwater leaders, overcoming barriers, and how better use of stormwater can increase climate change resilience.”

Perkins+Will Architect: Atlanta Should Tap Potential of Chattahoochee, Freedom ParkCurbed Atlanta, 7/27/18
“In an op-ed, landscape pro with the firm behind the Beltline asserts: We can transform Atlanta’s identity from one of standstill traffic to a network of green.”

24,000 Documents Detailing Life of Landscape Architect Frederick Law Olmsted Now Available Online Smithsonian, 7/31/18
“When 19th-century landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted was 14 years old, his natural affinity for the rural New England outdoors took a dangerous turn when a brush with poison sumac left him half-blinded.”

New Study: Technology Undermines the Restorative Benefits of Nature

Laptop user in a park / istockphoto

We experience “soft fascination” with nature when we sit on a park bench and let our mind wander, taking in the trees and flowers, noticing birds and squirrels, feeling the breeze. This gentle decompression in nature is actually critical to helping us restore our ability to pay attention. We need breaks where our minds can just go slack and subconsciously take in the complexity of the natural world. Researchers are still trying to figure out the ideal “dose” of this green medicine, but benefits have been seen with just 10 minutes.

New research argues those breaks in nature only help if we put down our laptops and other devices. A recent study published in Environment and Behavior contends that using laptops, smartphones, and other technologies while sitting on that park bench undoes all the good attention-boosting benefits of nature.

Attention is an important resource not to be wasted. We need the capacity to pay attention to make our way through our busy lives. According to the study’s authors — Bin Jiang, with the University of Hong Kong; Rose Schmillen, a landscape designer; and William C. Sullivan, ASLA, professor of landscape architecture at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign — “a person who cannot focus his or her attention is likely to miss important details and have trouble remembering details. Compared with someone who is not mentally fatigued, a person with low attention functioning is more likely to be irritable, have trouble with self-management, struggle to resist temptations, and miss subtle social cues. When a person is mentally fatigued, he or she is less effective in pursuing goals and interacting with others. A person with depleted attention is more likely to say or do things he/she might regret later, which can affect relationships, work performance, and even personal goals such as losing weight or saving money.”

In their experiment, Bin, Schmillen, and Sullivan set 81 participants (50 women and 31 men), aged 17 to 35, in a few environments to test their theory on how a laptop “substantially counteracts the attention enhancement effects of green spaces.”

After doing 10 minutes of taxing cognitive testing — 5 minutes of subtraction exercises and 5 minutes of memorization indoors — participants were asked to take a 15-minute break. But they were given four different types of breaks: participants either sat in a “barren” outdoor space or a green space filled with trees.

Examples of barren spaces where participants took a break / Environment and Behavior
Examples of green spaces where participants took a break / Environment and Behavior

Some were given a laptop and asked to use them for “non-work” related leisure activities, such as social media, news sites, YouTube, blogs, online games, or shopping. Those given a laptop were asked to “sit on a fixed chair or bench in the shade to maintain a comfortable temperature and to reduce screen glare.” Others didn’t get a laptop. After the break, their ability to pay attention was tested again.

The experiment found “the only condition that produced an increase of attentional functioning was a green setting in which the participants didn’t have a laptop.” The authors believe this confirms the attention-boosting benefits of nature are “undermined by the use of an electronic device.” In an email, Sullivan confirmed the effect of a smartphone or tablet would be “identical” to the laptop.

Top line indicates improvement in attention functioning after a break in a green space without a laptop / Environment and Behavior

For Sullivan and the other authors, this means policymakers, planners, landscape architects and designers need to ensure green spaces are close-by and easily accessible from dense environments, especially workplaces, educational institutions, and hospitals — places where people’s attention is constantly taxed and where nature’s restorative benefits are even more critical.

Landscape architects and designers also need to up their game and create green spaces that can divert our attention from our addictive devices.

Sullivan told me: “The findings here present a challenge for landscape architects. In the past, it was enough to design and build nature-rich cities — just by being in such places, people would get a range of health benefits. But with the ubiquitous use of mobile devices, one of the most important benefits of being in nature-rich urban space might be lost. The challenge is to create even more engaging landscapes — landscapes that encourage people to put their phones down and be in the moment.” Those attention-sustaining features could include “moving water, wildlife, fire, or other natural elements that move and change.”

Controversial WWI Memorial Charts Narrow Path Forward

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Aerial view of the approved conceptual design for the National WWI Memorial at Pershing Park / World War I Centennial Commission

In a circumscribed win for backers of a new national World War I memorial at the site of Pershing Park in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) unanimously granted their support to the latest conceptual design for the memorial at their July 19 meeting.

The revised proposal was presented by David Rubin, ASLA, principal of Land Collective, who joined the World War I Centennial Commission (WWICC) design team in 2017. Other members of the team include architect Joe Weishaar, GWWO, and sculptor Sabin Howard.

The project has generated controversy due to its location at Pershing Park, which was designed by ASLA medal recipient M. Paul Friedberg, FASLA. The park, which opened in 1981, has fallen into disrepair in recent years as maintenance funds have been cut.

The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) and others have argued the park has historic value and should be rehabilitated as part of any memorial construction, arguing that the park can accommodate new memorial elements without fundamentally altering Friedberg’s original design. The National Park Service (NPS), which operates the park, determined in 2016 the park was eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, calling it “an exceptional example of a landscape design of the modern period.”

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Pershing Park (looking south) / Image courtesy of M. Paul Friedberg & Partners, via The Cultural Landscape Foundation

Backers of the new memorial have pointed to their Congressional mandate, which specifically designates Pershing Park as the site for a national WWI memorial, and have argued that preservation concerns should not take priority over an act of Congress. They have also emphasized that WWI is the only major conflict whose veterans are not memorialized in the nation’s capital.

The approved design concept retains a previously-proposed sculptural wall on the western edge of the park as the memorial’s signature element. The wall would be freestanding and placed in the western end of the park’s original pool, which is currently inoperable. The wall would incorporate cascading water features, referring to the original design’s waterfall at the western edge of the pool.

The proposal also calls for a paved viewing platform to be constructed in the center of the existing pool area, which Rubin said could also be used for events and commemorations. In the concept presented to CFA, the platform would substantially reduce the size and alter the shape of the original pool.

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Perspective view of the proposed viewing platform / World War I Centennial Commission

In granting their support, CFA asked the design team to continue to refine elements of design, including the sculptural wall, the function of the site of an existing unused kiosk on the northeast corner of the site, and the layout of the proposed viewing platform.

Overall, however, CFA was persuaded by the WWICC proposal. “For the first time, the client and designers have talked about the memorial and the park as a whole and understand that the impact of the sculptural wall will be enriched by the spatial sequence through the park,” said CFA vice chairman Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA.

The initial design for the memorial was selected in 2015 by competition. The winning proposal, “The Weight of Sacrifice,” was submitted by architect Joe Weishaar and sculptor Sabin Howard. It called for replacing Pershing Park’s sunken pool with a flat lawn enclosed on three sides by bronze walls engraved with memorial text and figurative sculptures in bas relief.

In selecting the winning proposal, the jury described it as “elegant and absolute,” praising its simplicity.

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The original proposal by Joe Weishaar would have replaced the central pool with a turf panel, enclosed on three sides by bronze walls / World War I Centennial Commission

The competition jury originally included Laurie Olin, FASLA. However, Olin resigned from the jury before the competition began after learning that Pershing Park could be threatened. Olin told Politico earlier this year that he does not support the project.

The WWICC had hoped the new park would be completed in time for the 100th anniversary of the Armistice this coming November. However, approvals for the design have proven difficult to secure because of concerns over the impact on Pershing Park.

In his remarks at the July meeting, TCLF president Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, opposed the option presented by the WWICC design team and instead urged CFA to support an alternative that would place sculptural elements “in-the-round” at the current site of the unused kiosk. That proposal was also supported by Oehme van Sweden, who revised the planting plan for the site with Freidberg in the 1980s, and former ASLA president Darwina Neal, FASLA.

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Perspective view of the “in-the-round” alternative favored by The Cultural Landscape Foundation / World War I Centennial Commission

Neal argued in a written statement that “such a ‘sculpture in the round’ in the kiosk location could seamlessly be added to the existing park.”

However, CFA rejected this alternative in favor of the memorial design team’s preferred configuration, which they felt struck an appropriate balance between Friedberg’s original design and the new memorial elements. “I’m convinced that the wall will not destroy the integrity of this landscape, but in fact will reinterpret it,” said Meyer.

CFA commissioner Edward Dunson agreed: “This is still Friedberg’s space as far as I’m concerned; it just has a different interpretation, and I feel comfort in that.”

“I don’t believe that strict—emphasis on strict—preservation of the original design is more important than the congressional decision to designate the entirety of Pershing Park as a memorial,” said Alex Krieger, a CFA commissioner. “I’m not persuaded that everything about the original design has to be preserved, and therefore the memorial needs to take second standing. I think they must take equivalent standing.”

In an email, Rubin said that “with the approval of a preferred option by the CFA, we have met a significant milestone in the realization of a comprehensive design for the memorial,” but “there are still many design exercises moving forward.”

The WWICC design team will need to resolve the outstanding issues identified by CFA and present a more detailed proposal as well as clear a revised design with other regulatory agencies, including the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) al, before they can begin construction.

New Mariposa Grove Protects Fragile Giant Sequoia Ecosystem

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Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias / Mithun

In the not too distant past, you could park a car in the midst of the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum) at California’s Yosemite National Park. That is no longer possible thanks to a recently-completed $40 million restoration by the National Park Service (NPS) in partnership with the Yosemite Conservancy and Seattle-based multidisciplinary design firm Mithun.

Now, visitors park at a newly constructed, 300-vehicle-capacity terminal two miles away and take a shuttle bus to a main entry plaza at the lower grove.

“Before, it used to be a pass-through area. People didn’t even really notice it,” says Mithun senior associate Christian Runge, ASLA, about the restored lower grove. “They saw a couple of big trees, but it wasn’t a place. Now, it’s the centerpiece of the whole project.”

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Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias / Susan Olmsted

This transformation didn’t happen for its own sake. Years of heavy visitor traffic and poor planning took their toll on the storied trees, raising alarm about their future health.

The giant sequoia, which grows to approximately 300-feet high and can live for thousands of years, is an endangered species. This tree occupies a narrow ecological niche only 260-miles-wide on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains and requires specific environmental conditions to thrive. The Mariposa Grove is one of the few places on earth where the sequoia is able to reseed on its own.

“The Sequoias exist on the western slopes of the Sierras at a certain elevation, which is essentially at the rain-snow transitional zone,” says Runge. “If you go much lower, it’s all rain; if you go much higher, it’s all snow. That feeds the hydrology of these mountain wetland stream systems, which the sequoias tend to cluster closely around.”

“So, restoring hydrology and improving the natural hydrologic flow in the grove was really an important piece of the restoration puzzle.”

To achieve this, the design team removed the existing network of asphalt roads and paths, which were interfering with the grove’s natural drainage patterns.

One road that connected the lower and upper groves crossed streams and wetlands approximately 30 times, says Runge. “Those culverts were anywhere between 50-60 years old, and a lot of them weren’t even functioning anymore.”

In the place of asphalt and culverts, Mithun designed a series of elevated boardwalks and trails that allow for a variety of visitor experiences and do not interfere with the delicate hydrology needed to sustain the sequoias.

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New paths and boardwalks have replaced asphalt roads in the lower grove / Susan Olmsted

“If we keep those streams running and hope for the best with snowmelt, then we can imagine those populations will continue to be stable and hopefully grow into mature trees,” Runge says.

However, that outcome is not guaranteed. Giant sequoias are threatened by the effects of climate change, which could reduce the amount of groundwater available to the trees and make it more difficult for seedlings to survive.

Runge acknowledges that in the face of such forces, there is only so much that the project can accomplish.

“The best thing we can really do is improve and maintain the processes that keep the sequoias as healthy as possible in order to provide as much resilience as possible,” says Runge. “Improving those processes was really the focus of the restoration.”

Ensuring the survival of the Mariposa grove also required changes to the visitor experience. In addition to restoring groundwater hydrology, the elevated boardwalks also keep visitors at a distance from the trees in the grove’s most heavily trafficked areas.

“People want to get up close to them. It’s just a human, intuitive thing that you want to be able to do,” Runge says. But, “if everyone did that, there would be too much damage to the tree.”

Instead, Mithun created a series of loops that become progressively less contained as they lead further from the main entry plaza. “Each loop takes you further out and is closer to a wilderness experience. If you want to go up into the upper grove, that’s something that can only really be hiked into.”

In addition to the new trails, enhancements to the visitor experience include a new visitor center and comfort stations designed by Mithun architects Brendan Connolly and Susan Olmsted, ASLA.

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Rendering of the new shuttle bus terminal / Mithun

While the design language and material choices were in some way constrained by the need to work within the rustic National Park aesthetic of stone and timber, Runge says the design team found room for creativity in the details.

“We didn’t argue about modern versus historic, but we did push for quality detailing and structural systems, thinking through stonework, and trying to understand what the Works Progress Administration (WPA)-era standards were in reality versus just giving the impression of something being historic. Making something that is durable, long-lasting, and in some sense beautiful was the key goal for us both in terms of the architectural elements and site elements, like the boardwalk.”

For Runge, striking this balance between ecology and the visitor experience defined Mithun’s approach to the project. “Ultimately, I feel like we got there,” he says. “It feels like a transformed place.”

To Survive Climate Change, Coastal Cities Need Strong Communities

Extreme Cities / Sierra Club

Ashley Dawson, author of Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change believes cities, which now hold 70 percent of the world’s population, are “ground zero” for climate change. This is because they contribute the largest amount of greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere and are also the most vulnerable to rising sea levels. Mega cities, which are mostly found in coastal areas, are not “adequately prepared for the floods that will increasingly menace their shores.” Instead, the pursuit of development-as-usual — with the seemingly-unending growth of luxury condos and insulated “live work play” communities — means many coastal cities have effectively stuck their heads in the sand. Efforts to bolster cities’ protections through resilient planning and design have largely been superficial and won’t protect the most vulnerable.

Despite the warning signs of impacts to come, like Hurricane Sandy in the Tri-state region, cities remain focused on growth, growth, growth. Dawson cites the economist David Harvey, who argues that a “‘healthy’ capitalist economy must expand at annual rate of 3 percent. If it ceases to do so, it goes into crisis, as it did in 2008.”

In our capitalist system, continuous growth has resulted in great gains, so the world is now “awash with ‘surplus liquity'” or excess capital. And all of that money needs a place to go: “Capital has turned to the city, where fixed plots of land promise to increase in value as more of the world’s population migrates to urban centers. Real-estate speculation provides a way for economies to grow as production declines. In other words, the city is a growth machine, and speculative real estate development functions as a sink for surplus capital. Sixty percent of global wealth today is invested in real estate.”

The resulting real estate boom, and rise in housing costs, can be seen everywhere from New York City to Rio de Janeiro, from Los Angeles to Shanghai. And for Dawson, it’s no accident that coastal cities are also the starting point for mass movements fighting inequality, like Occupy Wall Street, which began in NYC’s Zuccotti Park with its call to heed the “99 percent,” and the mass protests that began in Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park.

Over-development in coastal cities has caused other problems beyond increasing social tensions and inequities. Market forces are driving development to “produce greater risk, vulnerability, and environmental disasters.” Cities are not only wrecking their immediate environments, but also causing deforestation, with their demand for commodities, and climate change, with their incredible heating and cooling needs, urban industries, and inefficient transportation systems. “As Mike Davis outs it, ‘city life is rapidly destroying the ecological niche — Holocene climate stability — which made its evolution into complexity possible.”

The “luxury city” — the most-elite slice of urban life — is even more destructive. In New York City, high-end condos are the most polluting. “In a report entitled Elite Emissions, the Climate Works for All coalition notes that ‘a mere two percent of the city’s one million buildings use 45 percent of all the city’s energy.”

While he sprinkles in cases from Jakarta, New Orleans, Rotterdam, and other cities, Dawson mostly focuses on New York City, where he examines how the city’s leadership and communities have responded to increased vulnerability to climate change. He is largely critical of governmental efforts, but sees hope in how local community groups have formed to devise solutions, like the Sandy Regional Assembly, an alliance of forty groups that came together in the wake of Hurricane Sandy to create a more equitable city-wide resilience strategy.

He is particularly critical of PlaNYC, a comprehensive planning effort by the administration of mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2007 to address climate change. It’s described as “an effort to promote an urban sustainability fix, a solution to capitalism’s periodic crises of accumulation that combines rampant real estate speculation with a variety of enticing yet relatively superficial greening initiatives.”

While the Bloomberg administration pushed for emissions reductions through PlaNYC — largely through energy-efficient buildings and switching from coal to natural gas — it also promoted waterfront development at a massive scale in Lower Manhattan, far west side, and in Brooklyn neighborhoods like Williamsburg, DUMBO, Red Hook, Gowanus, and Coney Island. All this waterfront development had the unfortunate side effect of making coastal communities even more vulnerable.

Dawson argues that in reality, a serious climate plan “would involve moving people and buildings out of flood zones,” an approach the Bloomberg administration opposed as it ran counter to their “ambitious — and lucrative — plans for developing the city’s nearly 600 miles of waterfront.” Others called for the city to buy up waterfront property in order to prevent development — reserving these spaces as green buffers, which also failed to occur.

In later chapters, Dawson describes how environmental “blowback” is already having a major impact on coastal cities. As the estuaries upon which coastal megacities are built are being destroyed, it’s becoming even clearer the vital ecological role those underlying systems play.

Natural systems that once served as critical buffers to storm surges — like Jamaica Bay in Queens, New York — are degrading. And he argues “the transformation of devalued landscapes like Jamaica Bay’s marshes has also exposed nearby residents to even greater risk.” While restoration efforts are underway, there is no guarantee of success given the conditions of the area are shifting so fast with climate change.

In a chapter entitled “the Jargon of Resilience,” Dawson warns against the “utopian hopes of modern architects and urban planners,” particularly those associated with the Rebuild by Design program initiated by the Rockefeller Foundation, because they create a “false sense of security, leading people to build up risk in fundamentally unsustainable sites.”

He argues projects that came out of Rebuild by Design effort, like the Big U in Lower Manhattan, which will use parks made of berms and flood gates to protect the financial district and other neighborhoods, “actually increase risk rather than diminishing it.” Furthermore, the BIG U will just displace water to other places: “Where will the water that the BIG U turns aside go? It is likely to end up in adjacent communities with large poor populations such as Red Hook, where Hurricane Sandy hit public housing particularly hard.”

Dawson appreciates the ecological logic of the much-celebrated Living Breakwaters project by SCAPE Landscape Architecture but argues that it “confronts a number of intractable environmental problems that are likely to make it unsustainable in the long term.”

Dawson’s essential critique is that too much of the climate adaptation and resilience efforts of city governments in New York City and elsewhere have been top-down, without much real community input. He believes truly equitable resilience planning can only come if strong local communities make their voices heard. Socially-resilient communities can demand “radical adaptation” — “new forms of collective, democratic planning.” Empowered, informed communities can figure out the resilient plans and designs they need to protect themselves. And only these communities can survive the next storm and rebuild.

Waking up to the new realities requires getting a clear view of the risks — and even increasing exposure to them. For Dawson, landscape architects like Kate Orff, ASLA, founder of SCAPE, and educators like University of Pennslvania landscape architecture professor Anuradha Matur, and Harvard University planner Dilip da Cunha potentially have the answers, with their call for “soft” defenses that would buffer communities from storms but also be visible and integrated into the ecosystems of the coastal city.

The mega-city of the near future can build “more permeable borders, allowing for natural flux and for the flourishing of inter-tidal habitats such as wetlands and marshes.” This vision will require a re-balancing between city and nature, a retreat from high-risk areas, along with an end to luxury development on waterfronts.

Videos: ASLA 2018 Diversity Summit

The Color of Landscape Architecture presented by Richard Jones, ASLA, President of Mahan Rykiel Associates.

Since 2013, the American Society of Landscape Architects has convened an annual Diversity Summit with the goal of developing a deeper understanding of how landscape architecture can better represent the communities and people it serves.

On June 22-24, ASLA hosted the 2018 Diversity Summit at the ASLA Center for Landscape Architecture in Washington, D.C. For this year’s summit, five professionals from the 2017 Diversity SuperSummit were invited back, and nine new participants were selected from a call for interest to add valuable input to discussions and resource development.

ASLA 2018 Diversity Summit participants / EPNAC.com

The goals of the 2018 Diversity Summit were to review benchmarks prioritized from the 2017 Diversity SuperSummit and create opportunities for participants to research and workshop resources for ASLA’s career discovery and diversity program.

Review of 2017-2018 work plan and 2017 Diversity SuperSummit priority survey, presented by Shawn Balon, ASLA, career discovery and diversity manager at ASLA.

Throughout the weekend, participants offered ideas for the development of two resources that can assist professionals in implementing diversity and inclusion practices into business strategies and help ASLA National and ASLA Chapters create programs to reach youth and communities.

Discussions at ASLA 2018 Diversity Summit / EPNAC.com
Discussions at ASLA 2018 Diversity Summit / EPNAC.com
Discussions at ASLA 2018 Diversity Summit / EPNAC.com

Read more about the ASLA 2018 Diversity Summit report — in this summary or the full report. Feedback from summit participants will serve as an actionable guide for the ASLA career discovery and diversity manager for the upcoming year.

Also, explore resources from the past six years of Diversity Summits, including handouts, videos, presentations, news articles, and reports.

This post is by Dan Li, Student ASLA, education programs summer intern at the American Society of Landscape Architects.

Ambitious Parks Aim to Transform Oklahoma’s Cities

Scissortail Park, Oklahoma City / Hargreaves Associates
The Gathering Place / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

In Oklahoma City and Tulsa, massive, city-changing riverfront parks will open over the coming year. In Oklahoma City, Hargreaves Associates is now building the 70-acre, $130-million Scissortail Park to revitalize its downtown. In Tulsa, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA) is building the 100-acre, $485 million Gathering Place designed to bridge the racial divide and bring reconciliation. Oklahoma’s smart urban leadership — former OKC Mayor Mick Cornett and current Mayor of Tulsa GT Bynum — know big city parks can transform a city. At the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA), the mayors outlined how these parks came about and what these spaces are expected to accomplish.

Scissortail Park in OKC

Scissortail Park is the city’s response to the removal of the Interstate highway that once cut through downtown. With its relocation five blocks south, a large space opened up. “We knew it was a one time and forever opportunity,” said Cornett, former Mayor of Oklahoma City and now Republican candidate for Governor of Oklahoma.

Scissortail Park, Oklahoma City / Hargreaves Associates

With funds from OKC’s innovative MAP3 program, which has brought in hundreds of millions for public space improvements through a penny sales tax, the leadership of the city, over multiple mayors, were able to implement a 20-year plan for transforming downtown, including new sidewalks and bicycle infrastructure, streetcars, a convention center, and grand central park. In this conservative state, the modest sales tax ensured no debt was generated by the public projects. “We built as we collected the money.”

Cornett said “25 years ago, downtown was terrible.” Today, the transformation is already apparent: the downtown is walkable and bikable, the streetcar and park are coming in, and designs for a new convention center were just approved.

Cornett sees Scissortail Park, which is expected to open next year, primarily as an economic development tool. New retail, commercial, and residential buildings will form a mixed-use neighborhood, with affordable housing, surrounding the park. The city aims to “re-populate the urban core” in order to fight sprawl and bring more people down to the Oklahoma River.

Scissortail Park, Oklahoma City / Hargreaves Associates

Models for Scissortail are Millennium Park in Chicago and Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York City. OKC’s leadership and a citizens’ advisory group went to visit these parks to see what they could learn. Then, they worked with Hargreaves Associates to customize the park. The citizens advisory group “came up with most aspects of the park.” Cornett believes this is how it should work: “the Mayor’s job is to create the framework and organize financing; the public does the details.”

Cornett emphasized that in today’s digital world, “you can’t have enough citizens’ involvement. We created the most inclusive process you can imagine.” But still there were complaints about a lack of transparency.

The land for the park is owned by the city, but Scissortail will be operated by a non-profit. The city will provide the non-profit a subsidy in its first few years, but the support will drop off as private sponsorships increase. “It’s the Central Park Conservancy model. We hope to quickly get to zero city financing.”

And he noted that Hargreaves Associates principal Mary Margaret Jones, FASLA, promised him they wouldn’t build something OKC “couldn’t afford to operate.”

Sources of revenue are built into the park. Low-maintenance native plants are being incorporated. Dirt from a large lake carved into Scissortail was used to build a hill, saving money.

Scissortail Park, Oklahoma City / Hargreaves Associates

The Gathering Place in Tulsa

Tulsa, the second largest city in Oklahoma, has a “challenging history around race.” In 1921, the city experienced the “worst race riot in the country’s history” — some 300 African Americans were killed. Tulsa has been a segregated city ever since.

Mayor Bynum said years of “honest conversation helped change the dynamics about unofficial segregation and created greater understanding.” Latinos, who now make up 15 percent of the population, were also brought into the city-wide conversation about the future.

That dialogue led to new questions: “What draws people together? How can we pull people out of their bubbles?” The city’s leadership heard from the people: an ambitious park was the answer.

Space for a unity park appeared along the Arkansas River in one of Tulsa’s wealthiest neighborhoods. The large estates of private homes were purchased and merged to form the basis for a new landscape. Apartment complexes on the site were bought, then demolished. Dozens of donors and philanthropists came together to make it happen.

The resulting park — the Gathering Place — will be the “largest gift park in any city in US history,” said Mayor Bynum. By “gift park,” Bynum means it was entirely financed with private donations. Half of the $485 million goes to capital investment, while the other half is for an endowment for long-term operations and maintenance. The park will be free to all.

The Gathering Place / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

In contrast to Scissortail Park, the Gathering Place will be designed to “socialize people in Tulsa” — it primarily has a cultural and social mission. But Bynum admitted Tulsa already sees this as a major tourist draw, attracting some one million visitors annually, and he’s worried whether the transportation and hotel infrastructure can keep pace.

“Exhaustive public participation,” including input gathered from over 100 town hall meetings, fed the planning and design of the park. “Scale models, created at no lack of expense, were set up in various places around the city, and we asked for feedback.” Tulsans went into 3-D tents so they could experience the park.

The Gathering Place will offer some 60 miles of trails, connecting the park to the Arkansas River and the rest of the city. MVVA designed land bridges to cover Riverside Drive, a major commuter route, helping to instill the sense of “being in the outdoors.” The bridges will “muffle vehicle noise pollution.” The problem now, Mayor Bynum said, is “everyone in Tulsa wants a land bridge — and they cost about $30 million a pop.”

The Gathering Place / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates
The Gathering Place / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

MVVA is also building a lake in the river corridor and a bridge that will connect the Gathering Place to the west bank of the river.

At the opening in early September, The Roots will play a free concert. “They appeal to all parts of the city, but particularly the younger crowd.” Mayor Bynum said achieving multi-racial buy-in is critical to the park’s success: “Will the park be fully embraced by everyone?” The city seeks to ensure that’s the case.

The city has been organizing tours of the park with school kids from every district. “The kids then go home and tell their parents about the park and how they met other kids there they’ve never interacted with before.” With the Gathering Place, the city seeks to change — to break down segregation and create a more diverse and resilient Tulsa.

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

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Miami Beach / Lorraine Boogich, Architectural Digest

The Van Alen Institute, in Partnership with the New Yorker, Explores Climate Change in Miami Architectural Digest, 7/3/18
“The results are visible,” says landscape architect Jennifer Bolstad of the effects of climate change on Miami. “Even if people say they don’t believe in climate change, they believe in an octopus in the middle of their street.”

10 Streets That Changed America Curbed, 7/5/18
“Americans define their homes in many different ways, but few parts of the landscape capture the culture of a city or the rhythm of daily life better than a signature street.”

How to Design a Wildlife-Friendly City Undark, 7/5/18
“Whether it’s giving endangered species a break or providing our children with a firsthand look at nature, the benefits of biodiversity are bountiful.”

S.F.’s Long-Awaited Salesforce Transit Center Sets Opening Date for Aug. 12 The San Francisco Chronicle, 7/10/18
“Eight years after its predecessor was demolished and 17 years after planning began, San Francisco’s new transit center has an official opening date.”

Pier 3 at Brooklyn Bridge Park Is Now Open, Making the Parkland 90% Complete Architect’s Newspaper, 7/11/18
“Another five acres of permanent green space was added to New York City yesterday with the opening of Pier 3 in Brooklyn Bridge Park. Now 90 percent complete, the beloved, 85-acre waterfront parkland designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates is almost finished after nearly 20 years in the making.”