Building Green and Healthy Places for Learning

Almost one in five Americans are housed in schools for the better part of each day, but many of these schools offer toxic environments with poor daylight and are sited in far-off places, which means they are both unhealthy learning environments and contribute to sprawl (or unhealthy communities). Creating green and healthy schools which are in walkable, bikeable neighborhoods is key to increasing test scores and graduating children who can be future stewards of the environment. But how do we build green schools? This question and others were asked during the National Building Museum’s latest “For the Greener Good” discussion on green schools.

Joanne Silberner, Health Correspondent, National Public Radio, moderated a panel featuring Dr. Howard Frumkin, Director, National Center for Environmental Health / Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Steve Turckes, Director of K-12 Educational Facilities Group, Perkins+Will, and Glenn Cummings, Deputy Assistant Secretary, U.S. Department of Education.  

Defining green schools

According to Steve Turckes, Perkins + Will, sustainability was best defined by the Brundtland Report: it means meeting the need of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. While sustainable design isn’t unique to schools, green schools must have lower energy and water usage, daylighting, and up-to-date mechanical systems. To be sustainable, these schools must also be sited in walkable environments.

Green schools should also teach sustainability and incorporate their green building features into the curriculum. “The school should be used as a tool to teach students these issues. A well-designed school can be an encyclopedia.”

Glenn Cummings, Deputy Assistant Secretary, U.S. Department of Education, concurred that the physical elements of a building are important, but, more importantly, green schools can help students “make the connections between the impact of their personal choices and the environment.” Green schools can create environments conducive to learning while also serving as an instructional tool. “For instance, through maximizing solar orientation, you can teach ecology, meteorology, climatology — students can learn about science.”

“Green + healthy is the real sweet spot,” said Dr. Howard Frumkin, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While many buildings are green, some may not be healthy — you want to have both. People need physical activity to be healthy. 

Using data to make the case

Frumkin said you can look at the rates of teacher and student absenteeism, asthma or other sicknesses, as well as test performance metrics and disciplinary problems at green and non-green schools. There’s positive “outcome data” out there, which can also be reviewed along with cost data. “Hopefully, once schools see this data, going green will just seem like good business sense.”

On cost, Turckes referred to Greg Katz’s data (see earlier post), which shows the cost premium of any green building at around two percent. “However, that data is now four years old. Right now, we think there is no extra cost to building green. With the extra energy savings and health benefits, the question is why wouldn’t you do it?”

Obstacles preventing their growth

It seems amazing, but according to Cummings, 14 million children go to school each day in “outright dangerous” schools. As you see in Washington, D.C. before the school term starts, schools scramble to “remedy buildings so they will be legal to occupy.” The U.S. has hundreds of thousands of school buildings, many of which were created up to 50 years ago. “The real challenge is retrofitting older buildings so they can be turned into green buildings.”

Turckes said the vast majority of those older buildings haven’t benefitted from newer technologies. “There have been huge advances in building technologies.” But still, many older buildings are mold-infested and feature outmoded air ventilation systems.

On the positive side, he said it’s possible to revamp an older school. “We just figured out how to integrate an energy-efficient system into a vintage 1960’s school.” 

The perception of the higher cost of green schools may present an obstacle. “There is no extra cost to sustainable design — it’s embedded, a form-driver. We use integrated interdisciplinary teams to do sustainable design up front, thereby removing inefficiences and saving costs.” However, with tight budgets, some schools still see commissioning agent and U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) accreditation costs as a burden. To fight this: Turckes says some schools use the sustainable design process, but go green without getting the certificate.

On top of these challenges, local governments sometimes make it difficult for themselves. “Budget structures can create obstacles to green buildings — maintenance and operations are often in two separate pots.”

Addressing critical health problems

If a school can’t afford to retrofit, Frumkin said, they can replace toxic cleaning supplies, ensure they are keeping HVAC maintenance up-to-date, and continually discard art / science lab chemicals. “With budget cuts, sloppiness can set in.” To prevent this sloppiness, Frumkin recommended the E.P.A.’s school audit tools. “Greeing a school doesn’t have to cost a fortune. Safer cleaning materials and doormats so students can wipe their feet at the entrances of school buildings can help keep toxins out.”

Frumkin also said educational workers — teachers, administrators, janitors — face enormous occupational hazards working in these older schools. On the positive side though, he said, there were some good studies looking at these workers and showing the positive effects of moving to green schools.”They are an easy population to study because they stay in buildings for a long time.”

Designing a healthy environment

In terms of student health, siting schools in walkable neighborhoods is key to fighting obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Sedentary lifestyles set a bad example. Frumkin added, “unfortunately, now a small minority of children walk or bike to school. This didn’t used to be the case.”

To remedy this, schools basically need Smart Growth neighborhoods, with high levels of connectivity, inter-connected grid-like networks of streets, careful intersection engineering, roads with traffic calming measures, and dedicated lanes for children to walk to school. “Sidewalks and paths need to be safe for children.”

Frumkin added changes are needed to the built environment, policy, and behavior. He cited Safe Routes to Schools, and No Child Left Inside, two major movements, as very positive.  He also called for high fructose-drinks and vending machines to be removed from schools.

The future of sustainability

Turckes said all buildings need to be carbon neutral or net-zero in the near future. “This is where we need to get.” He cited the Architecture 2030 campaign. The U.S. in particular needs to get its act together. “We have 5 percent of the world’s population, but use 25 percent of its resources. This needs to be dramatically improved.”

Cummings said sustainability curriculum needs to be further incorporated into schools so the U.S. can scale up for the green jobs of the future. (see earlier post). One audience member noted, however, that even if sustainability is on teachers’ radars, it’s often not included in “No Child Left Inside”-mandated tests, so it gets bumped.

In terms of the future of health and sustainability, “the recently passed health reform package will lead to a new focus on the prevention of illness,” Frumkin said. “Green buildings, sustainable neighborhoods, healthy lifestyles — my dream is to marry all these together.” In the future, he said, perhaps health specialists will also be involved in green building design from the beginning.

Image credit: 2010 Professional Honor Award, General Design. Nueva School, Hillsborough, CA U.S.A. Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture, San Francisco, U.S.A.

Global Topiary

The Telegragh (UK) created a slideshow of topiary around the world, showing examples of  literary, religious, geometric, spiral, animal, and other fantastic designs from France, UK, Germany, Italy, and (as seen above), Thailand.

Topiary relates to the art of clipping trees, shrubs and sub-shrubs to create sculptures. According to Wikipedia, the word derives from the Latin word for an “ornamental landscape gardener, topiarius, creator of topia or ‘places’.” In many cases, trees are sculpted with shears, taking shape over time. In others, wire cages are used to guide plants into sculpture. A range of plants and vines can be incorporated.

Wikipedia says the first topiaries were Roman. “Pliny’s Natural History and the epigram-writer Martial both credit Cneius Matius Calvena, in the circle of Julius Caesar, with introducing the first topiary to Roman gardens. Pliny the Younger describes in a letter the elaborate figures of animals, inscriptions and cyphers and obelisks in clipped greens at his Tuscan villa. Within the atrium of a Roman house or villa, a place that had formerly been quite plain, the art of the topiarius produced a miniature landscape (topos).”

See the slideshow and more topiaries.

Scaling up Green Infrastructure

Green infrastructure has been widely discussed as a solution for taking pressure off of outdated stormwater systems. Through natural technologies like green roofs, rain gardens, bioswales and green road medians, green infrastructure can absorb and filter excess water at the source, in effect, decentralizing stormwater management. Green infrastructure can also reduce the costs of water treatment because these natural systems reduce water flow, remove toxins, and recharge groundwater supplies.

At an ASLA-organized advocacy event, Becky Hammer, a lawyer with the water team of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), outlined a recent legislative proposal gaining support on Capitol Hill, “The Green Infrastructure for Water Act,” which would help take green infrastructure methods from theory to practice. As Hammer explained, “at the Washington, D.C. headquarters of the E.P.A., they like green infrastructure in theory.” However, in reality, there are a range of obstacles preventing expanded use of these technologies.

Representative Donna Edwards (D-MD) is the lead sponsor of the green infrastructure legislation, which would ramp up the use of green roofs, rain gardens, and “constructed restorations of green spaces” for stormwater management through $350 million in annual funding. The proposal would expand the use of green infrastructure to clean water.

Hammer said “these systems not only take stress off old infrastructure systems (many of which are combined sewer / water systems) but also save money and create jobs.” Additionally, all those working green infrastructural spaces have potential dual uses — some can also function as parks (see earlier post) or green spaces that reduce the urban heat island effect. The idea is to both integrate green infrastructure into communities and make these systems more visible so people understand the natural processes.  

There are three key components:

Centers of Excellence: $25 million would go to 3-5 centers dedicated to green infrastructure research. The centers would be housed at universities across the country. “Right now, there are great pilot projects, but no centralized knowledge base so many designers have to recreate the wheel when doing green infrastructure projects,” Hammer argued.

E.P.A. grants: Some $300 million in grants would be awarded by the E.P.A. to state or local governments or local water authorities to design or implement green infrastructure projects. Designing projects could include the creation of portfolio standards. The legislation would target low-income or disadvantaged communities as well as those with combined sewer / water treatment infrastructure. The idea is that green infrastructure would not only reduce the cost of stormwater management, but also create amenities for underserved communities.

New E.P.A. Office of Green Infrastructure: A new office of green infrastructure would be created and staffed under the E.P.A.’s Water office. “Right now, the E.P.A. has one person full-time dedicated to green infrastructure. She’s great, but we need more people.” The new E.P.A. office would receive $25 million in funding.

Hammer outlined a few key obstacles to expanding the use of green infrastructure for stormwater management:

  • Lack of centralized information on green infrastructure and stormwater managment best practices.
  • Local regulatory barriers. “In some municipalities, you can’t plant trees right next to roads or use pervious pavement materials. We need to change that.”
  • Lack of E.P.A. acceptance and guidance. “While E.P.A. headquarters supports green infrastructure, the regional field offices have a lot of power over local permitting and other regulatory decisions.”

In selling the economic benefits, Hammer said green infrastructure should be viewed as an infrastructure investment. “These approaches mean lower stormwater feed-in levels and reduced amounts of water going into water treatment facilities. Also, green infrastructure projects designed as appealing green spaces lift neighboring property values and can lead to energy savings.” What many don’t realize is that those massive water treatment facilities use tons of energy.

To learn more, check out green infrastructure resources, including research studies, projects, and government reports.

Image credit: 2010 Professional Honor Award, General Design. Underwood Family Sonoran Landscape Laboratory, Tucson, AZ USA. Ten Eyck Landscape Architects, Inc., Phoenix USA

ASLA Announces 2010 Professional Awards

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) announced the winners of the 2010 Professional Awards, representing the best in landscape architecture around the world in the categories of general design, residential design, analysis and planning, research and communication.

The jury considered 618 entries – the largest number in ASLA history – from 20 countries around the world, selecting 49 projects for distinction.

The awards ceremony will take place on Monday, September 13, at 12 noon during the ASLA Annual Meeting and EXPO in Washington, D.C.

View the full list of award winning projects.

Image credit: 2010 Professional Award of Excellence. Shanghai Houtan Park: Landscape as a  Living System, Shanghai, China. Turenscape, China and Peking University Graduate School of Landscape Architecture


Master Plan for Governors Island Unveiled

Dutch Landscape architecture firm West 8, working together with Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Rogers Marvel, has released the master plan for Governors Island, a 172-acre island off the southern tip of Manhattan. The first phase of the master plan details the roll-out of 2.2 miles of waterfront promenades and a new 40-acre park. The new design features artificially-created hills that focus attention on the park’s center, as well as a “hammock grove,” a grotto-like shelter, athletic fields and marshlands, writes the The New York Times. The New York City government has allocated more than $40 million in funds to the new plan, but will need to raise more than $220 million for future phases of development. Control of the island recently passed from New York state to the city, enabling Mayor Bloomberg’s plans for the island to move forward.

The Governors Island master plan includes the development of a new ferry landing area and shaded lawn overlooking the Lower Manhattan skyline. According to Fast Company, a man-made canyon will also create framed views of the Statue of Liberty. The entire master plan call for a network of promenades to circle the entire island, but the first phase will cover only the northern half. Walking along the promenade, visitors will get views of everything from the Statue of Liberty to Brooklyn Heights.  

In the future stages of development, pathways will lead further south through sloping lawns, leading to the hammock grove. Nicolai Ouroussoff, architecture critic for The New York Times, describes the area: “Scores of hammocks will be suspended in a forest of oak and birch trees. In a rendering that shows the hammocks sagging under the weight of people napping inside them, they bring to mind human-size cocoons.” Also, under development is a new cafe designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro at the water’s edge. “A lawn expands out onto the building’s roof, where visitors will be able to climb down through a large hole into a grotto-like shelter open to the water.”

The southern end of the island will feature man-made marshes and tidal basins. “A raised concrete walkway wraps around the marshes at the tip of the island, so that visitors should feel as if the edge of the land were dissolving around them. To add to the sensory experience, [Adriaan] Geuze [of West 8] plans to plant the area with strong-smelling plants, like sea asparagus and lavender.” The marshes may be designed as “green” or “soft” infrastructure, providing a natural system to accomodate sea level rises that threaten New York City. Geuze of West 8 seems very focused on climate change and incorporating adaptation schemes into his designs (see earlier post). 

Ourossoff says the site’s building plans are still in flux. New York University is exploring adding dormitories and classroom space. There’s also discussion about luxury hotels or a conference center.

He also contends that while Mayor Bloomberg’s ambitious park plans are “democratic” and will benefit many New Yorkers, they also end up raising property values of buildings nearby, accelerating gentrification. “Sitting in the middle of the harbor, [Governors Island] ought to be accessible to working-class families from Staten Island and the Lower East Side of Manhattan, as well as to wealthier downtowners and Red Hook’s bourgeois bohemians. The nature of the developments that flank the park will be critical to determining whether the island feels as if it belongs to all of them, or just to those few who can afford to pay for its upkeep.”

Despite the equity issues that will need to be addressed, Ouroussoff concludes that the new park, together with Michael Van Valkenburgh’s new set of parks along the Brooklyn waterfront (see earlier post), mean a “shift in the character of the city’s park system as a whole that is as revolutionary as Robert Moses’ early public works projects or Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s Central Park.”

Read the article and see a slideshow of renderings of the new Governors Island. Also, learn more about the upcoming changes to the Island’s governance with its move from New York State to city control.

In other Governors Island news, Ann Ha and Behrang Behin’s “Living Pavilion” won the City of Dreams Pavilion competition sponsored by FIGMENT, the Emerging New York Architect Committee (ENYA) of the American Institute of Architects New York Chapter (AIANY), and the Structural Engineers Association of New York (SEAoNY). The winning project will be assembled on Governors Island this spring, and will be open to the public from June 6 through October 3. “Living Pavilion is a low‐tech, zero‐impact structure that employs reclaimed milk crates as the framework for growing a planted green wall surface.”

Image credit: West 8; Rogers Marvel Architects; Diller Scofodio & Renfro; Mathews Nielsen; Urban Design +

Water Battery Enables Tree Growth in Dry Regions

In 2003, Dutch businessman Pieter Hoff formed AquaPro, a firm which launched the “Groasis Waterboxx,” a device designed to enable trees and crops to grow in the driest parts of the earth. According to The New York Times’ Green Inc blog, the waterboxx, a kind of tree “water battery,” is about the size of a car tire and made from polypropylene. An opening at the center of the box provides a space for a plant or tree to germinate and grow. The ultimate motivation for the device: worldwide reforestation, even in the most difficult and driest terrains. Planting trees can help create jobs, combat erosion, and mitigate the effects of climate change in developing countries.

With water scarce in many of the driest areas of the world, tapping groundwater to irrigate young trees can create major consequences for communities who rely on small amounts of water. Hoff told Green Inc using groundwater to grow crops and trees doesn’t make sense. “Not only are traditional irrigation techniques inefficient because most of the water is lost to evaporation, […] but water can be easily captured from the atmosphere to grow just about anything.”

The box captures both rainwater and condensation. Water is then collected in a space under the cover, preventing evaporation. The system is designed to help younger vulnerable seedlings get started in harsh growing environments. The box can then be picked up and applied elsewhere. “A wick inside taps into the ground beneath the box and drips a small amount of water to the plant’s root system each day. Once the plant or tree has taken root on its own, reaching a water source sometimes several meters below, the box can then be removed and used again to start another plant or tree.” 

AquaPro says their device enables farmers to plant trees or bushes in eroded areas, deserts, or other places where irrigation is impossible. “In moderate climates the Groasis waterboxx causes 15 to 30% faster growth and thus more biomass.”

Hoff tested the device in the Sahara desert in Morocco for three years. Trees planted during the summer survived, demonstrating average growth of more than 90 percent in their first year.  AquaPro says “tests have shown that the trees, after the Groasis waterboxx is removed, continue to survive.” Just 10 percent of a small test group planted without the boxes lived on. Green Inc. adds that more trials are planned for 25 sites in eight countries. 

The boxes are designed to be environmentally and economically sustainable. Under development are new prototypes that will decompose over time, releasing nutrients into the soil. To create a sustainable business model, Hoff plans to offer a “nonexclusive, free license”  to anyone who wants to build and distribute the device, asking for a royalty in return. To ensure his target audience — the world’s poorest, can afford the box, he wants to keep costs at a minimum and make the devices available through microfinance plans. Hoff told Green Inc: “My ideal is that the device is available to everybody, everywhere and my focus is to create a business model that enables the world’s poor to buy the box.”

Read the article and learn more about “Waterboxx”

Image credit: AquaPro

Earth Day Focus: Get Plastic out of the Oceans

For the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, organizations around the world are sponsoring events, new publications, and programs. In the U.S., the Earth Day Network is organizing two full days of events on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. on April 24th and 25th. See updated coverage of Earth Day at Google.

Perhaps one focus on Earth Day should be creating a plan to address the massive garbage patches in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. According to an article in The Huffington Post, “Our Plastic Ocean Turns Forty,” there are now “continent-sized bowls of plastic soup” floating in the oceans. The Pacific Garbage patch, just one of eleven major gyres, says Ocean Trust Film, “covers an area approximating ten million square miles, […] roughly the size of Texas.  It contains approximately 3.5 million tons of trash, including shoes, toys, bags, pacifiers, wrappers, toothbrushes, and bottles too numerous to count.  First discovered in 1988, the size of the patch has roughly doubled in the last five years.”

Plastics in sea water attract bacteria and absorb polychlorinated biphenyls. Continual wave energy breaks plastics into tiny plastic components eaten by fish, which are then eaten by people. In other cases, the garbage that hasn’t been broken down also causes major problems for sea life. On this year’s Earth day, a whale found dead off the coast of Seattle was found to have more than “50 gallons in volume, from hand towels, surgical gloves, duct tape to sweat pants” in its stomach. The local news station’s Web site says the whale was feeding off the coast. 

The Huffington Post argues that Earth Day launched a real movement. In the U.S. alone in 1970, more than 20 million people participated in Earth Day events. However, since then, plastic production has only exploded. “Use of single-use disposable plastic and plastic pollution grew exponentially. The plastics industry stepped on the gas, hired lobbyists and marketers and did their thing. Profits from plastics soared. Life became more ‘convenient’.” In return for convenience, we’ve gotten massive garbage patches.

Some scientists are working on alternatives to plastics.  While recycling can lead to reuse of many plastics, they can only be down-cycled, and fossil-fuel-based break apart after continual recycling. There aren’t currently any “cradle to grave” fossil-fuel based plastics. Wikipedia lists a range of bioplastics or organic plastics derived from renewable biomass sources, such as vegetable oil, corn, or various starches. However, many of these new technologies haven’t scaled up so the costs remain high.

Regulatory or legislative action on plastic waste products may be part of the solution. In the world of technology, the EU’s WEEE-ROHS system has helped ensure hazardous elements in electronic products are captured and reused. The European Union describes the system: “The legislation provides for the creation of collection schemes where consumers return their used e-waste free of charge. The objective of these schemes is to increase the recycling and/or re-use of such products. It also requires heavy metals such as lead, mercury, cadmium, and hexavalent chromium and flame retardants such as polybrominated biphenyls (PBB) or polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE) to be substituted by safer alternatives.” The EU is also exploring expanding WEEE-ROHS so it can tackle the “fast increasing waste stream of such products.” Perhaps a similar system is needed so that fossil-fuel-based plastic components are designed to be fully recycled, and any waste biproducts are addressed early in the design and manufacturing process. 

There has also been a move towards turning waste into energy through incineration. If plastic and other wastes can’t be recycled, perhaps they can produce new energy. The New York Times describes Denmark’s cutting-edge incinerator technology and its benefits: “Far cleaner than conventional incinerators, this new type of plant converts local trash into heat and electricity. Dozens of filters catch pollutants, from mercury to dioxin, that would have emerged from its smokestack only a decade ago. In that time, such plants have become both the mainstay of garbage disposal and a crucial fuel source across Denmark, from wealthy exurbs like Horsholm to Copenhagen’s downtown area. Their use has not only reduced the country’s energy costs and reliance on oil and gas, but also benefited the environment, diminishing the use of landfills and cutting carbon dioxide emissions. The plants run so cleanly that many times more dioxin is now released from home fireplaces and backyard barbecues than from incineration.”

Across Europe, there are now 400 of these plants turning garbage into energy. Most of these are located in Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands. While incineration has taken off across the European Union, inefficient, methane gas-producing landfills still remain popular in the U.S. A country of 300 million people, the U.S. has less than 90 incinerator plants, even though the E.P.A. now classifies burned waste as a renewable energy eligible for subsidies.

To limit demand for plastic, there are legislative and regulatory efforts to reduce use of plastic bags and other common applications. In Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and other U.S. cities, there are now taxes on plastic bags (see earlier post). Some countries, like China, Russia, Uganda, Ireland and South Africa, have announced total bans on plastic bags. However, this needs to occur worldwide to get plastic materials out of oceans. According to The Times of India, around 500 billion plastic bags are used worldwide. India’s plastic waste alone is around 4.5 million tonnes a year. This is the result of every day use: 10 to 12 plastic bags are used each day by every Indian household.

Lastly, some designers are trying to turn those massive ocean garbage patches into resources. Rotterdam’s WHIM Architecture came up with an impractical but interesting idea — “Recycled Island,” a plan to turn those continent-sized floating garbage patches into habitable islands. Good magazine writes: “the island would be built out of the muck already out there polluting the Pacific, which would clean the ocean of the debris and also put that waste to use. Ridiculous, yes. Impossible, probably.” But can floating ocean garbage be turned into a resource (perhaps, even a renewable energy source)?

Add your thoughts. How would you address plastic supply and demand?

Also, check out Ocean Trust, a group working with the producers of “Super Size Me,” to create a documentary on the Pacific Garbage Patch.

Image credit: Ocean Trust Film

The Value of Urban Parks

The U.S. House Urban Caucus’ Urban Parks Taskforce organized a briefing on urban parks and their role in creating green spaces which can revitalize neighborhoods, improve health, and create jobs. Parks also play a major role in fighting childhood obesity, providing safe and healthy places to play. Caucus members heard from Joe Hughes, Professor, Georgia Institute of Technology; Susan Wachter, Professor of Financial Management, Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania; Eddie George, ASLA, former NFL player and landscape architect; and Salin Geevarghese, Senior Advisor, Office of Sustainable Housing & Communities, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The National Recreation and Parks Association (NRPA) and ASLA played key roles in putting the panel together.

Introducing the briefing, Representative Chaka Fattah (PA), who is chair of the caucus, said a new consensus is forming among the administration and legislative branch: urban parks can’t be separated from broader urban revitalization efforts.

Representative Albio Sires (NJ), sponsor of the Urban Revitalization and Livable Communities Act (HR 3734), which now has 114 House co-sponsors, said when he arrived from Cuba in his youth, local parks were his refuge. In his community, parks provide a crucial space for working class families and a foundation for “important social structures.”

Sires said parks need to enable both “passive” activities (sun-bathing, dog walking, or sitting and reading the newspaper) and “active” activities (frisbee-throwing, jogging, touch football). “What’s active, what’s passive — we need to plan these out and integrate into park design.” In addition to the health benefits, he argued that parks are crucial to economic revitalization. “If you fix up a park, you’ll see the houses nearby get fixed up. Businesses come back.”  

However, Sires said small city mayors still need to continually hunt for funds wherever they can get them, “pulling a little from here and a little from there,” to get their local park projects off the ground. To increase the federal funds that can be used for park investment, he led the development of the Urban Revitalization and Livable Communities Act.

The panelists made arguments for increasing investment in urban parks:

Joe Hughes, Professor, Georgia Institute of Technology: After studying the role parks can play in resolving the real estate crisis, Hughes found that under-performing commercial real estate in urban areas could be transformed into urban parks. Vacant properties, if turned into parks, become productive assets, instead of economic drains on local communities. “Parks play a role in market restoration, value creation, job creation, green space development, and neighborhood stabilization.”

In the case of Atlanta, which has had a high rate of bank failures, a five billion investment in transforming underperforming real estate into urban parks could create 100,000 new jobs. Additionally, the plan could yield higher property values (and, therefore, higher tax revenue). To make his case, Hughes pointed to a study that shows homes less than 1,000 feet from a park are worth 11 percent more than other homes. “Parks are critical drivers of economic development. We should be thinking at a big scale about how to transform our urban core.”

Susan Wachter, Professor of Financial Management, Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania: “Parks help create communities of lasting value,” which Wachter says is the true measure of neighborhood sustainability. “Parks bring nature to the city, create safe spaces, enable social interaction, sequester carbon.” Most importantly, Wachter added, parks can create environmentally and economically resilient communities.

She cited a “before and after event” study done in Philadelphia that isolated the effects of investments in various forms of green infrastructure. The return on investment (ROI) was high for homes near the improvements. Planting trees raised nearby property’s value by 10 percent. Improved streetscapes yielded up to 28 percent gains. While residing next to a vacant lot dropped property values by 20 percent, stabilizing the empty lot led to a 17 percent increase. Being located within a business improvement district (BID) improved property values by 30 percent. “Planting trees alone can help create a virtous cycle of reinvestment.”

Eddie George, ASLA, former NFL player and landscape architect: “I am all about healthy people and healthy spaces.” George said parks are linked to economic development, combat the urban heat island effect, and provide critical stormwater management services. In Columbus, Ohio, George’s firm is revitalizing the downtown, pulling down a vacant 9-acre shopping mall. “The City Center Mall outlived its usefulness. It was designed as a fortress and cut off connectivity. The demise of the mall led to increased disinvestment in the area.”

The new 9-acre park George is designing in the mall’s place, Columbus Commons, will tranform the space into a sort of Millennium Park for the city. The park, which will open in 2011, will offer mixed-use spaces and ground-level retail. There will be green roofs on parking garages.

George argued that maintaining parks will cost local governments. “Many cities can’t afford this, but we need to invest.”

Salin Geevarghese, Senior Advisor, Office of Sustainable Housing & Communities, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD): Geevarghese said the issues were all interconnected. “People don’t see these things as separate and don’t live these things separately.” As a result, EPA, HUD, and the Department of Transportation forged a partnership on sustainable communities (see earlier post) to deal with the cross-cutting issues related to transportation, green space, and housing. 

Echoing arguments made by Ron Sims, Deputy Secretary of HUD (see earlier post), Geevarghese said where you live, “your zip code,” can predict how healthy you are, how educated you are. “How can we disentangle that?” He thinks that community ownership is intimately linked with community safety, and requires investment in community infrastructure, including parks.

Also, Geevarghese thinks the concept of green jobs need to be reformulated to include parks and recreation, or “conservation,” jobs. 

The panelists agreed on a range of other points:

  • The federal government should be involved in local urban parks because they are just another form of infrastructure. Historically, the federal government has invested in infrastructure to get the country out of severe economic downturns.
  • Green infrastructure is not just about environmental sustainability, but also about creating communities of value, and reversing disinvestment in urban cores.
  • The private sector needs to be more involved in urban park financing and development.
  • Non-profits also need to be at the table. Representative Chaka Fattah said foundations have played a “energizing role” in revitalizing parts of Philadelphia.
  • At the regional and even local levels, the transaction costs involved in getting everyone to the table are high.
  • Local leaders need to understand parks have economic benefits. George said “it’s not just about spending more money. Park projects are an investment.”

Learn more about the legislation

Image credit: Columbus Commons / Eddie George, EDGE

Restoring Mughal Landscapes

The Dumbarton Oaks Garden and Landscape Studies Program, which is affiliated with Harvard University, organized a lecture on the restoration of two of the most important Mughal empire landscapes — Humayun’s Tomb in New Delhi, and the Bagh-e Babur in Kabul, both UNESCO World Heritage sites. The Aga Khan Trust for Culture, an Islamic philanthropy, has spent the last few years undoing the damage caused by colonization and, more recently, urbanization. Ratish Nanda, an Indian architect, who organized the restoration work, said the threats to cultural heritage are real. “Right now, no historically relevant Mughal Garden exists in Pakistan today.” Restoring Mughal landscapes means creating a plan for sustainability and addressing the economic and social factors that support cultural landscapes.

Aga Khan’s Cultural Trust believes gardens are a part of modern life, and need to better integrated into contemporary society. In India, Mali, Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, there are key examples of Mughal garden art that need to be preserved. One park that was recently restored in Egypt now “brings more visitors than the Great Pyramids.”

Mughal landscapes originated in Persepolis, Iran, in 7BC. Inspired by Koranic descriptions of paradise, the gardens attempted to offer visual representations of heaven.

Humayun’s Tomb, New Delhi: The tomb of Humayun, one of the Mughal emperors, predates the Taj Mahal by two centuries. This site in New Delhi is one of the densest set of Muslim buildings in the world. During the era when the tomb was built, it was auspicious to be buried near saints. Given a Sufi saint is buried in the area, Humayun decided to create his tomb there as well.

The site is imbued with colonial history. After the failed Indian Uprising in the mid 180o’s, the last Mughal emperor and his sons fled to Humayun’s Tomb. Once the British put down the uprising, which Indians view as the first major step in their independence movement, they brought the emperor out of the tomb and exiled him to Rangoon, Burma, while executing his three young sons.

Soon more and more Brits were coming over to see the site of Mughal’s final defeat. So the local colonial administration decided to turn Humayun’s Tomb into a tourist site. To demonstrate their mastery over the Mughals, the British intervened in the landscape design, replacing the Islamic landscape design with English country gardens.

Since then, there have been four efforts to restore the gardens to their original Mughal design, yet each successive effort ended up doing more damage by moving water channels and altering the original design.

In 1999, Aga Khan’s trust completed an MOU with the Indian government to restore the site to its original design. Nanda said the site “had been beautified, but not restored.” Excavating the site, the trust found the early fountains. They recreated almost 180 groundwater recharge pits, dug out wells, and restored the rainwater system. Lemon, lime, and hibiscus plants were brought back. All sandstone used was hand-chiseled.

Bagh-e Babur, Kabul: In Kabul, the tomb of the Babur, the original emperor of the Mughal empire, was created in 1508. It’s been the site of numerous battles in contemporary Afghan history. Nanda said when he first visited the site in a few years ago, he was dismayed at the degradation of the place Babur wished to be buried. Recently, the garden had been the site of a battle between two warlords. “It looked like a madman has shot bullets into every wall and every tree.”

Restoring the tomb and gardens created opportunities for employment. “The great thing about conservation work is that it involves lots of jobs.” They first rebuilt the walls surrounding the site — this involved creating almost a mile of mud walls by hand.

The gardens were then restored to their original design. Nanda said this is “cutting-edge restoration,” and won the approval of UNESCO. While the restoration doesn’t represent the original tomb and garden, “it represents the original intent.”

Like other orchards in the region, the garden is broken into a grid and features zones with different types of fruit plants — cherries, apricots and quinces now grow in the gardens, drawing some 15-20 thousand people for picnics each Friday.

Nanda said the restoration work on both sites is incomplete. Aga Khan believes the sites need to be integrated into the communities through education, training and job programs, so they can stand on their own and survive long-term. There are plans to make Humayun’s Tomb in New Delhi accessible to more New Delhi residents, particularly students. The Bagh-e Babur now has events spaces and an adjacent pool that earn revenue to pay for the garden’s upkeep. Every business associated with the gardens must be included in economic sustainabilty plans if the restoration is to take hold, Nanda argues.

The trust has more projects coming in New Delhi. Plans are underway to turn a New Delhi British tree nursery into a 70-acre publicly-accessible arboretum. “Right now, it’s still a government tree nursery, and there’s no public access.” The goal is to turn it into an educational park. A landscape master planning process underway will restore the original New Delhi habitat.

Read more about Humayun’s Tomb and Bagh-e Babur.

Image credit: Humayun’s Tomb, New Delhi / Mitesh Vasa Blog

From Open Sewers to Scenic Waterways

writes that Indian architect Manit Rastogi wants to transform New Delhi’s 350-kilometer network of “filth-filled, age-old drains” into scenic waterways lined with walkways and bicycle infrastructure. Rastogi believes using bio-remediation technologies, the dirty streams that feed household sewage into the River Yamuna could be turned into green infrastructure.

According to CNN, New Delhi, a city of 17 million, uses nullahs, a centuries-old system of channels, as stormwater management systems. However, recently, the nullahs have been inefficiently transporting untreated waste. Given that almost five million residents walk to work each day, often passing the nullahs, the stink makes commutes unhealthy and unbearable. Additionally, there’s no housing near the channels because of the smell, creating missed opportunities for housing in a city in need of new apartments.

Rastogi sees renovating the nullahs as an opportunity to apply green infrastructure. He has identified three locations as sites for experiments. Using bio-remediation technologies, enzymes can be used to attack contaminants. “We can treat sewage at its source with the help of mini-equipment before it flows into the nullahs,” Rastogi said.

While the enzymes are breaking down the sewage and cleaning the water, tracts around the channels can be turned into “landscaped passages.” Rastogi said: “The city will then be interconnected with an eco-friendly and safe transport network.” Given the network is already some 350-km long, the system could really become city-wide multi-use infrastructure.

Rastogi identified the main challenge preventing this from occuring: the local bureaucracy. “The main challenge of a project like this surprisingly is not funding, it’s not technology either. The main problem that a project like this faces is a multiplicity of agencies and the fact that our city has no CEO, the fact that there is no one person accountable for the city of Delhi.”

Read the article and see a brief video. Also, check out Rastogi’s Delhi Nullah Web Site.

Image credit: Delhi