Sustainable Sites Initiative Selects 175 Pilot Projects

The Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES™) has selected 175 pilot projects to test a national rating system for sustainable landscape design, construction and maintenance.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture, New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward Sustainable Infrastructure Project and the Indianapolis Super Bowl Village join others that include educational centers, transportation corridors, industrial complexes and private residences in employing cutting-edge guidelines and performance benchmarks outlined in the SITES Rating System.

Launched in 2005, SITES represents a partnership of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at The University of Texas at Austin and the United States Botanic Garden to fill a critical gap in green design, construction and maintenance by creating voluntary guidelines and performance benchmarks for sustainable landscapes of all kinds, with or without buildings. The pilot program marks the next phase of SITES – putting to the test a rating system created by dozens of the country’s leading sustainability experts, scientists and design professionals, with public input from hundreds of individuals and dozens of organizations.

“We received hundreds of applications from an impressive array of federal agencies, international companies, major universities and non-profit organizations among many others to participate in the pilot program,” said ASLA Executive Vice President and CEO Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA. “The selected projects represent an elite group covering a diverse range of size, project type and geographic location.”

Located in 34 states along with Canada, Iceland and Spain, the pilot projects include corporate headquarters, botanic gardens, streetscapes, federal buildings and public parks that vary in scope from several thousand dollar budgets on less than one acre to multimillion dollar efforts affecting hundreds of acres. These projects will restore habitats, rehabilitate landfills, clean and store stormwater, lower the urban heat island effect, create outdoor educational opportunities at schools and reconnect neighborhoods to parks and public transportation.

“It’s exciting that many of these pilot projects – eight in every ten – will revitalize previously built landscapes,” said Susan Rieff, executive director of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. “We can address the serious environmental challenges the world faces in its existing communities by consciously redeveloping these spaces for ecological health as well as beauty.”

“Testing the rating system is critical to ensuring the validity and breadth of these guidelines and performance benchmarks, which have undergone four years of rigorous development,” said Holly H. Shimizu, executive director of the United States Botanic Garden. “The true value of this endeavor is that it offers improved landscape development practices so that we can maximize the essential benefits supplied by the natural world.”

The SITES Rating System includes 15 prerequisites and 51 different credits covering areas such as the initial site selection, water, soil, vegetation, materials, human health and well-being, construction and maintenance – adding up to a 250 point scale. The rating system recognizes levels of achievement by obtaining 40, 50, 60 or 80 percent of available points with one through four stars, respectively.

SITES will receive feedback from the pilot projects until June 2012 and revise the final rating system and reference guide for release in 2013.

Read descriptions of all 175 pilot projects listed by location.

Image credit: Super Bowl Village – Georgia Street Improvements. Indianapolis, Indiana. RATIO Architects, Crawford, Murphy & Tilly Inc., IEI – Infrastructure Engineering Inc., Heapy Engineering.

Isamu Noguchi’s California Scenario Garden

The Noguchi Museum in Long Island City, New York, has marked the thirtieth anniversary of famed modern artist Isamu Noguchi’s California Scenario with a new exhibition. The public garden, commissioned by developer and philanthropist Henry T. Segerstrom, is located in Costa Mesa, California. The exhibition explores the design of Noguchi’s garden through photographs, models, and video.

In 1979, Segerstrom asked Noguchi to design a public garden to enhance two office towers built on family land once used as a lima bean farm. While Segerstrom initially wanted a lush retreat, Noguchi instead created a simple stone plaza with a few green spaces. The Noguchi Museum writes that the artist first conceived the project as an “abstract metaphor for the state of California, from the Sierras, to the desert, to the woods. In addition to including redwoods and cacti, among other native plants, it encompasses a number of individual elements designed by the artist to evoke some of California’s salient characteristics.”

The garden features a crack filled with water and stones, which functions as a stream beginning at the thirty-foot-high sandstone triangle named “Water Source” and ending at “Water Use,” a granite wedge. “Forest Walk” takes visitors past a patch of California redwoods and “Desert Land” features a “symmetrical mound planted with a variety of cacti, agave, and other desert plants.” The sculpture “Spirit of the Lima Bean,” twelve-feet-high carved granite boulders, educates visitors about the earlier use of the site.

Segerstrom and Noguchi worked on the project for two years. Today, it’s a well-visited (and well-maintained) site open to all. In fact, Segerstrom “personally ensured” California Scenario was well-preserved over the long-term. 

The exhibition is open through October 24, 2010. Learn more about the garden and artist Noguchi’s stone and light sculpture, and furniture work.

Image credit:  (1) Aerial view of California Scenario. Courtesy Michio Noguchi ca. 1995 / The Noguchi Museum, New York, (2) California Scenario featuring Water Use (foreground), the Desert Land, and Water Source and Energy Fountain (far-ground), 1982. Courtesy Gary McKinnis / The Noguchi Museum, New York

Ford Foundation Invests in Metropolitan Areas

The New York Times
writes that the Ford Foundation will spend $200 million over five years on programs aimed at connecting cities and suburbs, with the end-goal of creating “cohesive metropolitan areas.” Investments will generate metropolitan plans that cut-across cities and suburbs, and also expand access to public transportation systems, affordable housing, and “regional land banks,” which can help redevelop urban brownfields. Current Ford Foundation grants focused on urban revitalization efforts alone will now also be directed towards building more integrated urban-surburban areas.

The foundation will encourage planning and collaboration across city, local, and county districts. This new metropolitan approach means blurring the lines between urban and suburban. George McCarthy, director of Metropolitan Opportunity at the Ford Foundation said: “We want to break down the walls that separate leaders who should be working together. We aim to unite policymakers and innovators from across the fields of transportation, housing and land use. When investments in these major systems are planned with an understanding of how they intersect and impact the lives of all people in a region, the result can be transformative.”

The foundation says the new funds will be catalytic. “The new funds will allow Ford to develop and significantly expand successful collaborations and policy innovations that it has supported in communities throughout the country, providing models that can be adopted and adapted in other metropolitan regions.”

The Ford Foundation will strategically target their investments in a few key metropolitan areas that can serve as broader models. Some example investments include:

  • “Transformative public transportation projects that connect residents to jobs and other opportunities, including the M1 rail in Detroit, the redevelopment of the Claiborne corridor in New Orleans, and the construction of 25 transit villages along BART in San Francisco’s Bay Area.
  • Innovative initiatives to create a stock of permanently affordable housing—in communities including New Orleans and the Bay Area. Through such market-based approaches as “shared equity” homeownership, families receiving a public subsidy to buy a home agree to share the equity they earn with government, which then makes those funds available to another family.
  • Programs in metropolitan Detroit; Flint, Michigan; and New Orleans; and other areas to create regional land bank authorities, which enable communities to revitalize blighted areas and increase quality housing opportunities. This includes funding for the Center for Community Progress, a new national resource center for communities that provides training and technical assistance for any metropolitan region that wants to develop its own land bank authority.”

Recently, the Ford Foundation also announced a $100 million commitment to create art spaces across the country, arguing that the arts can also be used to spur community and economic development, particularly in metropolitan areas. One group, the Minneapolis-based Artspace Projects, has already received a grant, and will create mixed-use developments offering low-cost housing for artists. The New York Times said this is the largest amount the foundation will have spent on the development and maintenance of arts facilities. Rocco Landesman, new Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, has also been selling design as an engine of economic growth in communities, using the slogan, “Art Works.”

Learn more about the Ford Foundation’s program.

Laying out a Path to a Climate-smart World

Marianne Fay, Chief Economist, Sustainable Development Network for the World Bank Group, discussed the 2010 World Development Report, a major report on climate change and developing countries at the National Building Museum. Fay said the World Bank is focused on climate change because of its enormous impact on the way countries grow, but also said it’s important to ask: What is the impact of development on climate?

The World Development Report argues that a “climate-smart” world is possible if we “act now, “act together,” and “act differently.” Fay said the World Bank is now using the term “climate-smart” because “climate resilient” is too passive. “The development paradigm needs to change. Inertia in the system needs to change by applying new ideas, policies / regulations and financing mechanisms.” New approaches will help countries adapt to climate change. Some countries may even have a comparative advantage and see opportunities with climate change, Fay said.

On the importance of “acting now,” Fay argued that the threat of climate change is “serious and immediate.” Using IPCC data from 2001 and then 2007, she showed how the risks of unique and threatening systems, extreme weather, and large-scale discontinuities are all growing. “We are already at 0.8C above pre-industrial temperatures. Stopping at 2.0C above pre-industrial levels, which is the best we can achieve, still puts us in the danger zone.”

Inertia on many fronts is holding back change. Inertia in the built environment is the result of costs (it costs to retrofit a building, street, or entire neighborhood). Inertia in the climate system relates to feasibility. In institutions and individual’s behavior, it’s due to a lack of “political momentum.” Inertia together with uncertainty creates a situation similar to “driving in the fog heading towards a cliff” but not knowing exactly when to stop. “So we need to take a precautionary approach.” For cities, Fay said how we design communities now will impact the climate up to 100 years in the future. Power plants, which are expensive to build, last 40-50 years, but their impacts are longer. Housing stock, which gets renewed at a rate of around 2 percent per year, also has a long-term impact. The potential long-term climate impact of any new built systems must be considered in advance.

On “acting together,” Fay said poor countries will bear 80 percent of the overall impact, but are responsible for only 1/3 of the total carbon stock in the atmosphere to date. This demonstrates the “deep unfairness of the issue.” She argued that relatively smaller changes in the developed world could create “space” for increased emissions in the developing world under a safe total cap. As an example, if American SUVs applied EU fuel efficiency standards (“which wouldn’t cause too much pain”), the emission reductions would cover growing emisisons from providing electricity to 1.6 billion Africans. Currently, only 25 percent of Africans have access to electricity.

Looking at a “marginal cost abatement curve” created by McKinsey & Company, which presents the climate change emissions reductions from a range of measures including energy efficiency, renewable energy, and carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), Fay said every country has both cheap and expensive options. “All the cheap options aren’t exclusively in the developing or developed worlds.” Across the board, energy efficiency is a low-hanging fruit, and relatively cheap to implement in comparison with carbon capture and sequestration schemes.

In order to “act differently,” countries need to tap every potential energy efficiency measure. “We should target the nega-watts in addition to the mega-watts.” Fay added that nuclear energy has a role to play despite people’s NIMBY concerns. Biomass needs lots of water and land and so isn’t feasible on a large-scale given the world population is expected to swell to nine billion by 2050. Renewables “are great but provide intermittent energy and are located far from where energy is used.” Fossil fuels will continue to be used, but carbon capture needs to be scaled up. Fay didn’t mention the enormous costs (in the billions) or potential environmental dangers involved in CCS processes. 

Increasing energy R&D and moving subsidies away from fossil fuels and towards wind, hydro and solar power are smart measures. “Right now, there’s only $15 billion in government energy R&D worldwide. This is equal to the amount the French spend on cheese each year, and Americans spend on pet food.” Private sector R&D investment is another estimated $60-70 billion per year.  “While innovative industries put in 8-15 percent of total revenue in R&D, energy businesses spend a total of 0.5 percent.” The energy business is “fossilized.” Additionally, of the $300 billion in energy subsidies, about half of that goes to fossil fuels. Inertia also seems to be built into the global energy production system.

The Copenhagen Accord (see earlier post) was viewed as a “disappointment by most,” but yielded an agreement to increase funds for climate change mitigation  and adaptation in developing countries to $30 billion. Unfortunately, the World Bank and other organizations estimate that some $275-300 billion is actually needed per year. “Some developing countries are so poor they can’t pay for mitigation themselves.” The World Bank hopes to leverage funds so developing countries can invest in clean energy like wind, solar, and hydroelectric, instead of coal plants. “We can then finance the difference in costs.” This will also help the Bank reduce those big new loans for new coal plants. A recent $3 billion loan for South Africa generated major controversy.

On the opposite scale, Fay pointed to some innovations at the local level. While the U.S. never ratified the Kyoto Accord, hundreds of cities, many of which are in the U.S., have signed on to Kyoto emissions reduction targets. In India, at the community level, “barefoot hydrologists” are using simple techniques to monitor underground water. Also, “remote sensing” technology can now be easily and widely deployed. Indeed, in a recent interview with Solutions, Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in economics, recently said the most effective climate change mitigation and adaptation work occurs at the local (not international) levels.

In the developed world, Fay called for increased press coverage on the negative impacts of climate change, and said marketing can help change people’s behavior. “Fifteen years ago, no one wore a seatbelt so in some cases marketing works.”

When asked about the economic and enviromental costs and benefits of retrofitting urban neighborhoods or cities wholesale to make them more energy efficient and livable, Fay could offer no positive or negative numbers on emissions. “The only cities getting redesigned on a major scale are in China. Democracy presents a real challenge to this type of work.” 

Meanwhile, World Changing pointed to recent numbers on larger-scale neighborhood energy efficiency programs. However, more research may be needed on the costs and benefits of LEED-ND-style neighborhood and urban redevelopment in terms of the climate. Hopefully, retrofitting for energy efficiency at the large-scale yields a net-gain for both people and the climate, especially over the long-term.

Check out the World Development Report 2010 and the World Bank’s blog on climate change and development.

Image credit: DPI Animation House / 2010 ASLA Honor Award. Park 20/20: A Cradle to Cradle Inspired Master Plan, Haarlemmermeer, Netherlands. William McDonough + Partners.

Calculating Sustainable Return on Investment

The U.S. Green Building Council’s 2010 Federal Summit focused on how green site and building practices can be used to implement President Obama’s new executive order (13514), which calls for all federal buildings to be net-zero by 2030 and the federal government to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) by 28 percent by 2020. 

Martha Johnson, administrator of the General Services Administration (GSA), said the U.S. government makes purchasing decisions that impact 350 million square feet per year, meaning its a “fulcrum for sustainable performance.” Johnson introduced the GSA’s zero environmental footprint (ZEF) initiative, which aims to eliminate the negative impact of the federal government on the environment. “This is our moonshot. It’s the right thing to do, but we need to take risks, innovate, and get out of our comfort zone.” Johnson added that the government is also now taking a cradle-to-cradle (C2C) approach so we create “design use and reuse cycles.” She also said the GSA has been incentivizing investment in “seeding new technologies,” such as more efficient roof-based solar panels.

USGBC CEO Rick Fedrizzi said the GSA’s zero environmental footprint (ZEF) initiative is a critical component to spreading green site and building best practices. He that across the U.S. one million square feet of building space is already being certified LEED every day. While environmentalists argue that this is “still a tiny amount, it’s still the largest demonstration project in U.S. history.”

Panelists at one session focused on calculating the costs and benefits of sustainable sites and buildings with a new accounting model: sustainable return on investment (SROI). Stephane Larocque, Principal Economist, HDR Architecture, said SROI is about determining the “triple bottom line.” To ensure all stakeholders buy into the SROI calculated by the model, HDR holds “public calculation sessions” to generate transparency.

Larocque outlined the main components of HDR’s model: benefits and costs. Benefits include cash benefits (reduced costs) and non-cash benefits (health, productivity, water, resiliency, safety, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and reduced air contanimants). Costs included capital, operating, maintenance and waste disposal. Once the model (which HDR developed as an excel spreadsheet) is integrated with a set of data on each factor, HDR creates a set of financial results,  financial + internal non-cash impacts, and financial + internal and external non-cash impacts. HDR said “it’s all about monetizing inputs, adding social and environmental factors, and using good data sources.”

To ensure they use good data sources, HDR does “meta-research analyses,” covering all known environmental and scientific research on a given social or environmental factor. As an example, HDR reviews all legitimate research studies with numbers on the economic benefits of green buildings on worker health, aggregates the data, and then selects a median number and range. To create a price on CO2 emissions that can be used in the model, a range of data types were considered. “We looked at financial insurance markets, Chicago carbon exchange, and E.U. carbon markets, willingness-to-pay surveys, and expert opinions.” HDR also looked at EPA state-by-state data on environmental pollutants per megawatt hour of energy. “We can create a probability curve around these values to generate an example cost of CO2 for our model.” Still, HDR enables a wide range of numbers to be plugged in. For instance, some people think climate change isn’t real, so they’d put the cost of one ton of carbon at zero. In comparison, the E.U. currently said the cost is around $75 per ton. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has listed $33 per ton in its TIGER challenge grants. 

In one recent project, a government hospital calculated the SROI of LEED silver vs. doing nothing. HDR monetized the external non-cash benefits of LEED silver and determined it would generate “more robust returns” than doing nothing. In another example, Johns Hopkins University determined that the financial return of its campus sustainability initiative was 11 percent, but once society’s perspective was added in, the return was 43 percent. “In this case, external benefits had to be added in to get grant money and gain Board approval for the campus greening project. SROI was used to prove environmental stewardship.”

Sustainable sites’ internal and external non-cash benefits were explored by applying the model to the army-run Ft. Belvoir Community Hospital, a landscape case study mentioned. Inside, the hospital focused on improving natural lighting and energy efficiency. Outside, the hospital invested in increasing access to nature through healing gardens, green roofs, and expanded green space. An overall integrated site design was used to improve patient recovery rates. One of the additional benefits: $40,000 in GHG emissions costs were saved per year. In a U.S. Marine’s hospital in Korea, pervious pavements and healing gardens were also added to both achieve financial success and increase the return on investment to Korean society as a whole. “Sustainable site benefits include CO2 and criteria air contaminants avoided.”

HDR concluded that many projects still use plain-old ROI, NPV or other methods, to determine project financing, which means a lot of sustainable projects don’t get built. Adding “environmental externalities” into any ROI model is crucial to increased investment in sustainability. 

The firm has gotten a wide range of support for the model, including a mention at the Clinton Climate Initiative, and Larocque said he will be developing a curriculum on the model with Harvard and Columbia universities. Unfortunately, HDR has yet to make the model (or data sets) available to all. Hopefully, checklists and assessment tools will be forthcoming.

Learn more about HDR’s approach in this powerpoint presentation.

Image credit: K. Duteil / ASLA 2006 General Design Honor Award. The Elizabeth & Nona Evans Restorative Garden Cleveland Botanical Garden, Cleveland, Ohio. Dirtworks

Sea Change 2030+ Ideas Competition

The Australian Institute of Landscape Architects [AILA] and its competition partners launched Sea Change 2030+, an international ideas competition designed to showcase ideas for planning, designing and managing for adaptation to urban sea level rise. The ideas competition site is Sydney Harbour, situated within the Parramatta River estuary. The competition seeks to engage designers, planners, universities, policy makers and community-based organizations.

The ideas competition seeks to:

  • Identify creative solutions for Sydney to adapt to incremental Sea Level Rise, using Sydney Harbour as a case study;
  • Foster dialogue on climate change planning between public, private, and community stakeholders in the landscape and urban design sector; and
  • Increase public awareness of the vulnerability of NSW coastlines and foreshores to the impacts of changing climate.

Entrants can choose their own spatial and planning scale. “For instance, you may choose to focus on a particular area of foreshore. Alternatively, you may address the ‘big picture’ of the total Sydney Harbour catchment system. Entrants can identify design options and strategies for new and/or existing shoreline architecture and other types of foreshore built forms.” Any or all of the following topics can be covered:

  • Human settlement– infrastructure, transport systems and shoreline buildings.
  • Open space systems – foreshores parks, public urban spaces and open space corridors.
  • Ecological systems – marine, estuarine, inter-tidal and foreshore habitats.

AILA writes: “Coastal settlements and infrastructure will be especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change including sea level rise, increased air and sea surface temperature, more frequent and intense storms, ocean acidification, and changes to rainfall and run-off. Sea level rise will cause greater coastal flooding, erosion, loss of wetlands and salt-water intrusion into freshwater sources, with impacts on infrastructure, coastal resources and existing coastal management programmes. The interface between the built and natural environments is an important part of human settlements in Australia. Developing effective adaptation responses will be critical in reducing the impacts of climate change and can deliver co-benefits such as increased energy or water efficiency.”

The ideas competition is open to all. Submissions will be grouped in three categories: multi-disciplinary professional and academic teams, primary and secondary school students, and non-government organisation focused on climate adaptation policy and strategy.  

Entries must be received by June 30, 2010. Winners will be announced July 22, 2010. Learn more and submit an entry.

Recreating Wildlife Habitat in Cities

During the Dumbarton Oaks symposium on “Designing Wildlife Habitats,” ecologists and landscape architects also explored challenges and opportunities with wildlife habitat restoration in urban areas, and the impact of climate change. Speakers offered more variations on the idea of ecological infrastructure, arguing that interdisciplinary design teams are needed to create these multi-use systems. Speakers also concluded that designers and scientists must work harder to tell stories that spark the imagination of the broader public. Otherwise, the value of biodiversity won’t be understood.

Nina-Marie Lister, Associate Professor of Urban and Regional Planning, Ryerson University, and Visiting Associate Professor, Harvard University Graduate School of Design, discussed the idea of “adaptive infrastructure,” which provides a landscape “network stategy.” The idea is that landscape is infrastructure and features edges, nodes, and bridges. Designers can use these landscape components to plan for “complex ecological interaction.” Landscape networking strategies relate to connecting habitat across scales. By building connecting habitat and building complex functions into the landscape, communities (and wildlife) can become more resilient to climate and other major changes.

Ecosystems are complex, diverse, resilient, and unpredictable. “Change is both discontinuous and gradual,” Lister said. Designing for biodiveristy means starting with small, “safe-to-fail” experimentations within larger landscapes. Evidence-based collaborative design practices should be used to figure out what works in a network.

Lister pointed to a few urban ecological infrastructure projects, including the Spadina Quay wetlands in Toronto, Lake Ontario Park master plan (designed by James Corner Field Operations), and Lower Dons master plan (designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh & Associates), as well as the Evergreen Brickworks, which have all restored wetlands. In the case of the Evergreen Brickworks project, the recreated wetland “brought nature, culture, and community together.” In total, Lister said, it’s about “innovation and discovery, food and community, natural and cultural heritage, and gardening and greening.” All projects also incorporate sustainability education into the visitor’s experience. 

On using a network strategy to increase habitat connectivity, Lister pointed to innovative wildlife crossings developed in Banff, Canada, which demonstrate the idea of “infrastructure as safe passage.” She showed great nightime videos of mama bears successfully leading their cubs across earth and grass passages constructed above highways, and explained: “it takes about three years for the crossing to take off. Animals need to know it’s going to stay there and then they test it, eventually using it.” She described how there is a threshhold width needed for large animals to cross a passage. Overpasses are also much more popular than underpasses in the animal kingdom.

Lister said climate change will only complicate habitat connectivity plans because migration patterns will change. She also pointed to a new design competition to build a better wildlife corridor structure. Learn more and submit an idea.

Steven Handel, Professor of Ecology, Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Natural Resources, Rutgers University, has worked on a number of innovative habitat restoration projects, including Fresh Kills Park in New York City, and the Orange County Great Park in Orange County, California. To prevent engineering successes but environmental disasters, which is the case when landfills have been turned into dull grass-covered wastelands, designers need to work closely with ecologists to restore habitats. However, on the flip-side, “high art gardens” are not restoration ecology.

Handel said he often uses the “ecosystem services” concept to sell the benefits of habitat restoration projects to city government officials. Habitat restoration projects provide a range of valuable ecosystem services, including the generation and preservation of soils, cycling and movement of nutrients, partial stabilization of climate, mitigation of droughts and floods, and purification of air and water. He thinks the sell is pretty easy: “You don’t have to sell public finance officials on this.”

For Fresh Kills Park, a massive 2,000-acre project that is restoring habitat on top of a huge landfill in Staten Island, Handel got creative. City dirt is usually “variable, compacted, polluted, and features a hydrophobic crust, higher soil temperatures, elevated PH levels, and restricted aeration.” So Handel and his team trucked in dirt from building excavation projects in Manhattan. The dirt was still good because it has been buried deep in Manhattan for ages. An added plus: they gave it away for free because they had to get rid of it. For composting materials needed to regrow plant life, Handel sourced yard waste from New Jersey, which they were also happy to give away.

New York City has relatively little funding available to restore 2,000 acres of Fresh Kills so Handel also employed nature to do much of his restoration work. Planting bushes with fleshy fruits (beach plum, blueberry, blackberry, wildrose) attracts birds who help spread the seeds cheaply. Ants are also the “landscape contractor” of the forest floor and are critical to spreading plant diversity. Handel also used seed trays, and clusters of plants, or “clustering nuclei,” to spread native plants. But Handel offered cautious advice: “You can’t get a naturalist site because you want it.” Nature works on its own schedule.

In the case of Orange County Great Park, a new park built out of an army air base, a 30-feet deep canyon will be constructed and include a “mosaic of habitats,” which will be “mixed-up,” because this is the safest thing to do.

Handel said it’s important in projects like these to determine the targets of ecological restoration. “What are you trying to restore? How far do you go back?” These types of questions are critical, particularly if a city puts up $50,000 to restore a space, “then everything is dead five years later. That’s what we’re worried about.”

To conclude, Handel argued that diverse habitats offer value by: supporting complex life histories; feeding sites through time; protecting species from predators/storms; and enabling change through the years. However, restoration ecology isn’t for the faint of heart. Handel said it’s not easy to do restoration. “Invasives are really hard to deal with.” Seed dispersal is difficult, particularly if the site is surrounded by degraded urban communities. Unfortunately, “we live in a fragmented world.” Climate change will only add additional complexity.

Kristina Hill, Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Landscape Architecture, University of Virginia, said cities throughout history have often been built on natural levees, and reside in spaces with basins and backslopes. Early cities also featured surface drainage systems — networks of canals, which still exist in Tehran, a city of 11-12 million. So, cities aren’t just “collections of buildings,” but are really all about diversity and gradients — “they have a set of internal richness.” The ecology of the the modern urban heat island is of great interest to Hill. Cities are always warmer than surrounding areas so they are the precursors of climate change. “Cities are at the edge of climate change.”

Hill says it’s more efficient for species migrating to escape climate change to move up in elevation as opposed to north. “Elevation gradients are very important.” Unfortunately, for many species there isn’t much room to move up anymore. Hill argues that climate change will yield suprising changes in the distribution of species and their traits. While some species may even benefit from climate change, they have to stay around long enough to reap those benefits.

Patches with northern aspects may act as corridors, stepping stones or “ladder rungs” within regional landscapes, providing a migration path for a range of species. Basic climate change wildlife habitat adaptation strategies include: maintain existing reserves; enlarge reserves northward; add high-elevation corridors; add riparian corridors, and “reduce matrix hostility.”

In Chicago, the are coyotes who are, in effect, trapped in the matrix. “Many coyotes in Illinois are disassociated from natural areas.” Hill showed images of coyotes showing up on subways, inside supermarket refrigerators, and other suprising places. In New Delhi, India during a recent drought, monkeys living in urban areas survived better than ones in outlying rural areas because there was more water available in the cities. In King County, Washington, human and crow populations have grown together because of the growth of dumpsters.  “Animals are becoming climate change refugees. Cities are becoming animal habitats.”

Things could be made much easier for wildlife migrating through urban areas. Exclosure fences and habitat corridors can help prevent roadkill. Green roofs can be designed to support migrating birds and other wildlife. “Telescoping swales” and green streets can reduce stormwater runoff so fish eggs don’t get flushed away during rainstorms. In Seattle, the SEA street, a model green street, helped reduce runoff by 97 percent. High Point, an affordable housing complex also in Seattle, also uses combined green / grey infrastructure to limit runoff. At a broader scale, London’s thousands of household gardens are actually creating an urban ecosystem. In Rotterdam, the Dutch are using natural sand banks, which function as habitat, to prepare coasts for climate change-driven sea level rise (see earlier post).

Hill said climate change may mean we may end up focusing on traits instead of species to sustain ecosystem functions. The ecological infrastructure systems needed to preserve species should be multi-use and designed by interdisciplinary teams to help build resiliency into urban environments.

Alex Felson, ASLA, Lecturer, School of Architecture and School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Yale University, said forging a partnership between ecologists and landscape architects on habitat restoration is challenging because “designers like to stay up all night, and ecologists like to get up at the crack of dawn.” For the past century, “we’ve been struggling about design and ecology.” As a result, integrating ecology and design into new “designer ecosystems” will be challenging, but also provide major opportunities.

Right now, Felson argued, “LEED has no design aesthetic.” Sustainability has not settled on a design aesthetic yet. “The messy, complex landscape” Yu Kongjian discussed may provide a model. But this model then needs to be turned into a design template that can be plugged in. “We need working design practices, scales of application, and ecological planning.” Furthermore, there’s a real challenge in conveying these ideas to the broader public: “biodiversity is still not widely understood, or even as understood as ecosystem services.” To combat a public lack of understanding, we need “narratives, stories we can tell.”

Felson pointed out the Sustainable Sites Initiative, but argued there are no credits for wildlife biodiversity in the new sustainable landscapes rating system. While SITES is not designed to be a wildlife biodiversity rating system, it still presents a real model for designing sustainable habitats, with restored soils, water systems, and native plants, which can then draw diverse species.

More discussion on this and other topics will definitely continue. Add your thoughts.

This is part three in a three-part series on the “Designing Wildlife Habitats” symposium held at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. Read part one, “Designing for the Full Range of Biodiversity” and part two, “Restoring the Balance between People and Nature Through Wildlife Habitat Design.”

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

Restoring the Balance between People and Nature through Wildlife Habitat Design

During the Dumbarton Oaks symposium on “Designing Wildlife Habitats,” a range of ecologists and landscape architects analyzed various aspects of the relationship between people and nature, and how these relationships take form in natural, managed, and even restored wildlife habitats. Speakers also explored cutting-edge thinking on “ecological infrastructure” and “human-nature interaction design,” ideas that can guide the future development of both designed landscapes and conservation systems.

Wildlife Habitat Design

Jane Carruthers, Professor, Deparment of History, University of South Africa, outlined the case of Pilanesberg, South Africa, a “ground-breaking” game reserve started in the 1970’s that created a wildlife conservation and eco-tourism model in marginal farmland. The designers guiding the creation of Pilanesberg believed that “wildlife must make money. The landscape must be productive and also used sustainably.” In addition, they rejected urban-based romantic ideas about nature in favor of prioritizing local culture and incorporating the community into the park’s functioning.

The park designers removed buildings and invasive species while, at the time, introducing native animal species. While species translocation was largely successful, there were problems with moving elephants into the park because delicate herd structures were disrupted by the addition of more young males. Cheetahs were also problematic because they “ate all the expensive species.” Carruthers said the park largely ended up reconstituting what was there, but the park managers still needed to “maintain the ecosystem by watching who’s eating how much.” The park’s overall longevity (and ultimate sustainability) is linked with the number of tourists who visit and number of people who are employed through the park.

Thomas Woltz, ASLA, Principal, Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architecture, explored how landscape architecture can encourage plant and wildlife biodiversity within “productive agricultural lands.” Woltz said agriculture can be “lethal” to plants and animals, given it often involves “pollution, chemicals, steroids, soil erosion, and large-scale machinery.” Agricultural landscapes often look “bleached and ironed,” with the tiny rippley places where biodiversity actually exists ripped out.

To illustrate his firm’s innovative restoration work, Woltz highlighted the Young Nick’s Head sheep farm project in New Zealand. “This is a devastated landscape that should be temperate rainforest. It should not look like Scotland.” Woltz and his team tried to combine the restoration of wildlife structures with sustainable agriculture and livestock. “We wanted to build value for the wildlife of the region.” The project involved retiring 20 percent of the farmland. With the improvement in habitat health, the sheep’s health also improved. Some 50-acres of wetland, including 20-acres of salt marsh wetlands, were re-created.

The team also included the local Maori community in the project. Maori first arrived in the area in 1,100 AD. A local Maori horticulturalist was involved in the reforestation, and the project financed a small Maori-run tree nurseries. So far, more than 500,000 of the Maori-grown trees have been replanted, recreating a forest in the process. To restore the original mix of wildlife, excluder fences were added, which prevent rats and weasels from eating rare seabird eggs. “We called the massive fence our eco-Christo.” To encourage birds to nest on the restored habitat, the team brought in nesting boxes, decoy birds, and played looped tapes of birds’ calls.

Woltz argued that manipulating the landscape was key to its preservation. “We tried to get all the ecosystem services we could out of it.” Instead of bleaching or ironing landscapes, it must be about “stitching, sowing, or weaving.” Learn more about the ASLA award-winning project, and check out an article by Elizabeth Meyer on the site in Harvard Design Magazine.

Stuart Green, Green & Dale Associates, is a landscape architect who used Alice Springs Desert Park, Central Australia to discuss how to best incorporate educational resources into wildlife habitats. Really, Green said, wildlife habitat is the educational resource. If indigenous communities are brought into the design process early, true collaboration can occur between conservation park designers and the local communities who value biodiversity (and can, in turn, teach it to visitors).

In Alice Springs, a 1,000 hectare park was created, which recreates the “biotic diversity” of the area. Working with the local Aborigines helped avoid disturbing sacred sites. “However, this was hard because they often wouldn’t tell us where they were.” Many Aborigines ended up employed in the park as tour guides because of their deep reverence for the local biodiversity. “The caterpillar is a creation figure.”

For one part of the park, more than 8-acres of red sand was trucked in. On top of the rehabilitated lands, more than 400 types of native plants were used to restore the ecosystem. Existing waterways were widened and new riverine systems were added. For some, salt was added to recreate natural salt bodies. Termite mounds and aviaries were integrated into ecosystem walk-throughs. “We also brought in parrots and kangaroos.” The idea is to give visitors a habitat immersion experience and education in conservation. David Attenborough visited and said “no museum or wildlife park can match it.”

Creating Infrastructure for Biodiversity

Joshua Ginsberg, Senior Vice President, Global Conservation Program, Wildlife Conservation Society, explored the impact of scale on the design of conservation strategies. Ginsberg said at the small-scale people relate to landscapes. In the conservation world, this means zoos. Small-scale interventions are relatively easy to replicate. But at the larger scale, there are issues. At that scale, “we are dealing with exploded zoos or fragmented landscapes.” Exploded zoo challenges relate to restoring diversity, intensive management, and the “amplification of nature.” Fragmented landscape issues can only be resolved through land-use changes and regional plans for returning the biodiversity functions to landscapes.

The issues are increasingly critical given only 15 percent of the world’s land is now untouched by humans. In the vast majority of the world in which humans and wildlife interact, species are threatened most by (in descending order of importance) climate change, roads and infrastructure, deforestation, fire, invasive species, exurban development, and hunting. “Climate change and road connectivity swamp all other issues, including human population growth.”

Designing for different species involves thinking through the scales they need. “Wild dogs, grizzly bears require the broadest scales; black bears can survive at the smallest.” Ginsberg pointed to the Krueger National Park in South Africa, which reintroduced a wild dog meta-population, and must keep reintroducing the species for it to survive at a large-scale in the wild. Ginsberg said wild dogs are special because they require enormous ranges (or scales) to survive.  Wild dogs went extinct in this area more than 100 years ago. At the cost of some $200,000, 100 wild dogs were translocated into the park. However, repeated reintroductions were needed given all the challenges the dogs faced. Even at the broadest scales, Ginsberg said, small-scale interventions are needed to keep individual species alive. Population-level management, land purchases, resettlment, anti-poaching measures, and translocation are all strategies to be considered.

In Thailand, 90 percent of the original forest cover has been cut down. To connect isolated natural preserves, natural corridors have also been created, enabling some species the scale they need. In the Russian Far East, tigers, another species requiring large-scale habitats, are moving north, demonstrating that “climate change is real.” To deal with tiger migration, Russia has implemented a plan to establish protected areas, manage the “matrix of species,” and create connectivity. Tigers are also now moving into China. “I’ve tried to convince the Chinese that they are just getting their tigers back instead of harbouring Russian tigers.” (Ginsberg also expressed cautious optimism in the World Bank’s Global Tiger Initiative, which has resulted in an end to World Bank financing of infrastructure projects that cut through tiger ranges. In September, 14 heads of state from nations with tiger ranges will meet in an attempt to “put wildlife at the center of planning.”)

Ginsberg concluded that a “landscape species” approach was needed. “Wildlife generate landscape patterns and use landscapes differently from people.” It’s important to pick 4-5 landscape species and track the causal chains. “You can’t just design for one species.” Titling the lands of indigenous peoples may actually aid in this type of landscape species conservation because it gives local communities more direct control over conservation. In addition, the scale of ownership is also important — small lots need to be aggregated to create scale.

To sum up, scale is important; animals have different scale needs; and humans operate at all scales, but their impacts change with scale. In the design process, it’s crucial to design at scale, determine what you are trying to conserve, collaborate, and recognize that species interact with human influence differently.

Yu Kongjian, International ASLA, Professor of Urban and Regional Planning, Peking University, and president of Turenscape: Yu explored the idea of integration across scales, and using “ecological infrastructure” to protect biodiversity. Yu said the earth is now an endangered species. China is almost completely a brownfield. Some 75 percent of China’s water is heavily polluted, and 50 percent of wetland habitat has been lost. Over 25,000 dams have been created in China, and the channelization of rivers has led to the destruction of most natural riverine systems. Over the past 30 years, Beijing has expanded almost 700 percent. “Virtually, the whole natural system in China has been destroyed.” Yu asked: How can we minimize the impact of development and urbanization? One answer may be ecological infrastructure.

In contrast with Ginsberg, Yu said ecological infrastructure, which is characterized as a “systems approach” to restoring the entire environment, is needed instead of a landscape species approach. Ecological infrastructure uses biological conservation patches, networks, and corridors to marry ecosystem services with infrastructure. An ecosystem services design approach involves planning for all types of services, including “provisioning,” and “regulating” natural services. Patches, networks, and corridors can then be used to save essential natural processes. This involves evaluating the sources, surface areas, and security patterns needed to protect various species.  For instance, “we can build ecological bridges to stop roadkill.”

On an aesthetic level, it means moving to “messy, complex landscapes” that embrace biodiversity. “We don’t need any more domesticated, pretty gardens.” In fact, Yu believes people should “embrace the messy.”

Professor Yu made a few key arguments:

  • “Make Friends with Floods:” We need to stop the channelization of rivers, analyze the flood process, and allow the landscape to be flooded. “Flooding generates lots of ecosystem services.”
  • Mimimize landscape intervention and maximize ecological returns.
  • Help nature to recover and let nature work. Yu cited his most recent work of “ecological surgery” at the Qinghuangdao Beach Restoration, an ASLA honor award winner (learn more about the project).
  • Go productive. As an example, Yu pointed to his firm’s work integrating actual agricultural systems into the Shenyang Agricultural University (learn more about the project).
  • Think of the landscape as a living system. Planning and landscape strategies can help maximize ecosystem services, but will also create habitat in the process.

Read an interview to learn more about Yu Kongjian’s work.

Professor Jianguo (Jack) Liu, Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability & University Distinguished Professor, Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability, Michigan State University: Professor Liu, one of the leading researchers on human-nature interactions, argued that many researchers are either exploring human impacts on nature, or nature’s impact on humans, but few are looking at the “feedback loop,” the reciprocal interactions. To examine these interactions, Liu and his colleagues devised the Coupled Human and Natural System (CHANS) approach.

Liu zoomed in one case he’s been focused on for some time: the Wolong Nature Reserve for Giant Pandas. Wolong is in southwest China, and is a natural panda habitat. It’s a protected site and includes a core habitat area, buffer zone, and transition zone where there are human settlements. Interestingly though, since the area was declared a natural reserve, more panda habitat has been destroyed. Liu went about trying to discover what was causing habitat destruction, and identified the growth of the number of households as a primary factor.

Since 1975, the number of people in the area has grown by 80 percent. However, the number of households has grown by 180 percent, meaning the average number of people per household has declined rapidly. Each household in the area has been collecting firewood and and producing agriculture, negatively impacting the panda habitat. “Homes, instead of people, impact environments.” Liu said “living alone is particularly bad for the environment,” because multi-person households create important environmental efficiencies. To go one step further, living with your parents is good for the environment, and divorce is really bad for the environment. CHAN analysis helped pinpoint the feedback loops between habitat, pandas, and people in the area.

To preserve panda habitat, they must also be connected. Liu called for expanded corridors between the 63 isolated panda preserves, which pandas can then use to find mates. To build up local support for Panda habitat preservation, people should be “paid for ecosystem services.” Payments are needed to get people to move out of panda habitat. Human populations should be concentrated.

Liu concluded that landscape architects should adopt a CHANS approach so the focus is not just on landscape, but “human-nature interaction.” The long-term ecological and socio-economic benefits must go beyond landscape.

This is part two in a three-part series on the “Designing Wildlife Habitats” symposium held at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. Read part one, “Designing for the Full Range of Biodiversity,” and part three, “Recreating Wildlife Habitat in Cities.”

Image credit: ASLA 2010 Honor Award, Orongo Station Conservation Master Plan, Poverty Bay, North Island, New Zealand. Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects

Designing for the Full Range of Biodiversity

Kicking-off a two-day symposium on “Designing Wildlife Habitats” at Dumbarton Oaks, John Beardsley, Director of Garden and Landscape Studies and convenor of the symposium, said landscape architecture has always had an “art camp” and an “ecology camp.” There are a few like “Frederick Law Olmsted, and, now Michael van Valkenburgh, FASLA, and Kongjian Yu, International ASLA, who straddle the two camps.” However, the ecological principles many landscape architects are applying to their habitat restoration projects may now be “outdated, or even misconstrued.” Increasingly, designers need to be mindful of the “full range” of biodiversity. Landscape architects, Beardsley argued, have been successful with plant diversity, but less so to date with other kinds of biodiversity.

As Beardsley outlined in the symposium brief (see earlier post), the world is now undergoing a new wave of extinctions. To preserve species, landscape architects will need to work with biologists, ecologists, and other scientists to recreate wildlife habitat. This will involve complex issues like “sizing and spacing habitat patches and ecosystems,” productive habitat creation, and restoration ecology. There may also be trade-offs between preservation and restoration.

Beardsley argued that culture and nature “shouldn’t be separate.” “Wildness can’t be separated from management and stewardship of the environment, or we can’t create an ethical and sustainable relationship.” Furthermore, while designing wildlife habitats, the science can’t be so artful that it’s no longer functional. The model must be “complex, adaptable,” and science can provide a set of parameters. 

Lastly, “we must ask why are we recreating habitat? Can these designs be agents of broader ecological change? Are we restoring for educational reasons, or to generate ecosystem services? Do we value diversity for its own sake?” There are a range of philosophical issues.

To root the conversation in cutting-edge science on biodiversity and ecosystems, and explore the concept of ecosystem services, Shahid Naeem, Professor of Ecology and Chair, Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology, Columbia University, provided an ecological framework. Naeem, author of a seminal book on ecosystem services,
said “nature is structured to govern the distribution of species.”

Biodiversity and ecosystem function (BEF) is a framework that enables us to understand how nature governs the multitude of species and their functions. Naeem said there are competing views on biodiversity function, including (1) every species is special, (2) nature is totally chaotic so we can’t tell, and (3) we can lose some species and still maintain appropriate levels of biodiversity. Naeem implied the idea of just discarding some species was a bit simplistic. He used an analogy: “Imagine knowing nothing about a car, and lifting up the hood and pulling out little pieces.” The car may still function for a period of time, but eventually the entire “car system” could break down. Ecosystems, in the same way, are complex machines with  inputs and wastes, processes and food chains that are difficult to understand. 

Species loss affects ecosystem function. Naeem said recent analyses demonstrate that “preserving as much biodiversity as possible” is the best path. To prove this, ecologists must “bring reality into the system,” and apply real world variables into their models. This involves taking managed or restored ecosystems to a higher-level of biodiversity function.

Getting to a higher-level of biodiversity function means addressing “ecological poverty.” Naeem argued that just as there are very few very rich people and many poor people, in nature, there are very few rare species and many common, poor ones. “It’s a lognormal distribution, not a bell curve.” Relating rare species to rich people, Naeem asked: why should we care about those very rare species if the vast majority are plentiful? “This is where the question of biodiversity lies.”

Most ecosystem functions are invisible, so, it’s actually the poor, invisible, “common” species that “we need to focus most of our attention on preserving.” Poor species are the ones that get out-competed. They have attributes of common species but changing conditions lead to changes in the ecosystem that adversely impact them. Naeem called for a campaign to “champion the rare, special, and poor.”

Naeem argued that humans have managed landscapes for a long time.  Even the American grassland, an iconic landscape, has borne human “mixing,” because the original grassland ecology disappeared long ago. The American prarie is more of an “American religion” than a natural system. “Native Americans were managing it eons ago.” So, there is a case that nature can be “disassembled,” broken down into essential components. “We can remix them. Monocultures can be remixed as polycultures, creating new ecosystems that have never existed before.” However, some still say the “soul of nature” is torn down when you start from scratch.

Ecosystem services may provide a way forward for preserving nature’s valuable and often invisible (at least to our eyes) biodiversity and ecosystem functions. Nature is estimated to provide some $38 trillion in services to humans per year, but all of this is largely provided for free. Naeem asked: “What if fungi could send us a bill? What is microbes could unionize? They are working all the time.” To take ecosystem service from a conceptual framework into reality, a price on carbon is needed so the true value of trees, fungi, microbes, and other natural services can be incorporated into existing natural resource markets.

This is part one in a three-part series on the “Designing Wildlife Habitat” symposium recently at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. Read part-two, “Restoring the Balance between People and Nature through Wildlife Habitat Design,” and part three, “Recreating Wildlife Habitat in Cities.”

Image credit: National Geographic

UN Climate Group Gets New Chief

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon appointed Christiana Figueres as the new executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), reports The Guardian. Figueres has been the head of Costa Rica’s negotiating team, and is the daughter of a former president of Costa Rica. She will replace Yvo de Boer, who will quit the post July 1. Some believe de Boer has left because developed and developing countries failed to reach an agreement in Copenhagen (see earlier post).

Figueres said: “There is no task that is more urgent, more compelling or more sacred than that of protecting the climate of our planet for our children and grandchildren.” Urgency will certainly be needed: Figueres will only have five months before before 193 nations meeting in Cancun, Mexico, in December for another attempt to reach a global, legally-binding agreement on greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). Some experts see only a first outline of a global agreement taking shape in Cancun, and no real binding agreement.

Given she’s coming from a developing country, Figueres may help bridge the deep divide between developing and developed countries. She can speak from a position of legitimacy — Costa Rica is a leader among developing world nations in pushing for reduced emissions, and is actually practicing what it preaches.  Costa Rica plans to be carbon-neutral by 2021. More than a quarter of its territory is covered in national parks and biological preserves. According to Reuters, trees now cover 51 percent of the country, a 10 percent increase over the last decade. Furthermore, the country generates 78 percent of its energy with hydroelectric power and another 18 percent by wind or geothermal power.

Wendel Trio, Greenpeace International climate policy coordinator, said: “Christiana Figueres has been lead negotiator for a country that aims to become carbon-neutral by 2021, the type of attitude we need on the global stage. We hope she can really engage all countries in a fast-moving dialogue to get agreement on a global deal that will save the world from dangerous climate change.”

Read the article

In other climate change news, The New York Times writes that the U.S. Senate has finally released a new 978-page climate and energy bill. “The bill’s overall goal is to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 17 percent (compared with 2005 levels) by 2020, and by 83 percent by 2050. The targets match those in a House bill passed last year and in the Obama administration’s announced policy goal.” The Senate will need to pass legislation complimentary to the House bill in order for climate and energy legislation to get to the President’s desk for signature.