The Explosive Growth of Bus Rapid Transit

Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) existed in just a few cities twenty years ago but has quickly turned into a viable solution for the massive transportation challenges facing cities. With more than half of the world now living in cities and total global population expected to reach nine billion, perhaps more cities should be looking at how to include BRT, a relatively cheap, sustainable, and flexible transportation option in comparison with building more highway overpasses and underground metro systems.

Dario Hidalgo with EMBARQ, the sustainable transportation think tank at the World Resources Institute (WRI), kicked off a session at Transforming Transportation 2011 by explaining that 120 cities now have BRT with bus corridors. Worldwide, there are now 200 dedicated bus corridors running over 4,000 kilometers. These networks have 7,000 stations, providing stops for 30,000 buses. Each day, 27 million people, or about one percent of the global urban population, is now riding BRT. Los Angeles, the site of one of the few major BRT systems in the U.S., is in the lead in terms of number of kilometers covered, but falls behind when considering the number of residents using the system each day. Both China and India are seeing exploding growth in BRT ridership.

In addition, more cities are catching on — more than 15 cities started BRT operations in 2010, representing 13 per cent growth over 2009. Another seven cities are expanding their systems, 49 cities have BRT under construction, and 31 are starting to plan out new systems. Still, with the rapid expansion of BRT, there are growing issues as well, including “rushed implementation, tight financial planning, high occupancy rates, deterioration of infrastructure, and fare system fragmentation.”

BRT Expands Across the Developing World

Walter Hook, head of the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy (ITDP), outlined some of the better designed BRT in developing countries as well as those facing challenges.

In Guangzhou, China, the BRT is a “hybrid full-featured direct service” system that carries some 800,000 passengers each day. Combined with a set of walkable, bikeable paths along the BRT stations, the system “has totally transformed the way the city feels.” The system is very smart: Existing municipal bus lines can rapidly enter and exit the dedicated BRT lane, which enables the city to leverage existing municipal “feeder” bus networks. Stations along the BRT route are off-set so there’s “more right of way.” In addition, BRT is integrated with the undeground metro system — “there’s a seamless network” and “no transfer penalty.”

In contrast with Guangzhou’s system, TransJakarta, the BRT in Indonesia’s largest city, has had some teething pains. The buses run on clean natural gas (CNG), but the CNG refueling depots were placed way off the BRT paths, creating lots of logistical issues that raised the cost of running the network. While CNG was used to address Jakarta’s air quality issues, Hook says it’s important to deal with the “logistical problems” first when trying to reach environmental goals. In addition, lane enforcement in Jakarta has been “lax” in many places, meaning cars and bikes have taken over the lanes dedicated to rapid bus.

In Ahmedabad, India, there’s a 30 kilometer long system that serves 50,000 each day. It has all the features of BRT but includes new “squared roundabouts” that have been tricky because they require faster timing with traffic lights if only BRT is going to use them.

In Johannesburg, South Africa, Rea Vaya, Sub-Saharan Africa’s first BRT, is off to a solid start. Created in advance of the FIFA World Cup soccer tournament, Rea Vaya has “world class stations” and European buses. There are also plans to implement express and limited stop services, only possible because the city’s BRT infrastructure has multiple dedicated lanes. In addition, in some areas, stations were plopped down in the middle of one way streets, which was “very bold,” but they’ve largely worked.

Still, rolling out that city’s BRT system wasn’t easy. “There were regulatory and institutional issues,” largely due to the number of taxi associations involved and their ongoing wars with each other. “The taxi wars have led to a number of deaths.” One result of all of this has been revised certification processes for the city’s cabs, with the goal of making it easier to track cabs and deny some access to new BRT paths. This has been controversial because while denying cabs access to some routes is needed to preserve demand for BRT, it also means a loss of revenue for cab drivers. To address the cab drivers’ losses, the city had to spend extra, an almost 30-40 percent premium, to get the BRT in place.

Bogota’s Model BRT

Bogota’s BRT, TransMilenio, has been going for more than ten years now. There are 1.7 million daily trips but still “lots of politics” around BRT in the city, said the system’s general manager, Fernando Paez, largely because they’ve meant removing car lanes. The network is now 52 miles in length and will soon reach 72 miles. That’s just the first few phases — more than eight phases are planned. The city’s BRT has one control center, 1,215 buses and 515 feeder buses. More than a quarter of all bus trips in the city are now on TransMilenio’s dedicated lanes.

Interestingly, Paez said there were some two million square meters of public plazas and parks along the BRT network. When asked, Paez said the BRT network and plazas were developed together as part of an “integrated design strategy.” The adjacent parks and plazas help drive BRT usage. Research has been done on per capita usage of the public spaces around the BRT stations. In addition, Paez said they now have a “green street” pilot project along one of the lines to test how they can leverage the BRT infrastructure for stormwater management.

Overall, there have been many upsides — economic development, an increased sense of civicness caused by the positive identity of the BRT, and improved safety and security. However, Paez said the city still needs to do more to “consolidate opportunities in urban development” offered by the BRT. Also, the city needs to increase the number of buses to deal with high occupancy rates, and address traffic control through feeder buses, an issue caused by congestion.

Implementing BRT in “Challenging Situations”

Colin Brader, a consultant for the World Bank, reviewed some challenges in implementing the BRT in Lagos, Nigeria and other cities like Jakarta and Johannesburg. He explained that “all have BRT in place so have been successful.” However, getting each system live “involved significant institutional or regulatory changes,” quite a bit of compromise, and flexibility so systems could “evolve to optimize and meet changing demands.”

Lagos residents previously faced horrendous travel conditions: Public buses had “variable fares,” passengers were subjected to “violence and intimidation,” and on top of that, there were “multiple transfer points.” A 12 kilometer ride could take 2-3 hours, certainly not unheard of in many big developing world cities like Bangkok. “Users want safety, security, and reliability” and the city largely gave them what they wanted. All major local politicians in the city got behind the concept, seeing it as a “people’s project,” and a massive consultation helped “depoliticize the implementation.”

Now Lagos’ BRT, which runs at 13 km per hour, has “dramatically improved” the lives of 170,000 people each day at a cost of $1.4 million per kilometer. In addition, it also exemplifies gender-sensitive design. Before the addition of queues, only the strongest could push their way aboard. “Women appreciated the imposition of the queuing systems.”

In a separate session, there was discussion on the need to collect better transportation data worldwide in order to build the case for more sustainable transportation options. While almost all countries have pretty good international air and rail travel data, very few have solid local data on walking, biking, or transit, which is crucial to putting funds behind more sustainable, low-cost urban options. Given good data is often at the foundation of good policy, more funds should be allocated to gathering and sharing data and even getting existing pockets of local data moved up to the national and international levels, enabling comparisons in the process.

One group, the Partnership on Sustainable Low-Carbon Transport, is calling for “Global Transportation Intelligence.” The Inter-American Development Bank also called for a set of urban “observatories” that can track transportation usage in cities and help inform sustainable transportation investments. As Sanjiv Lohia, Ministry of Urban Development in India, said, “instead of gazing at the stars, these observatories should be rooted at the ground level” where there is still so much unknown about human travel behavior.

Image credit: TransMilenio, Bogota / Fast Company

Designing for Active Living

Watch an animation from ASLA’s Designing Our Future: Sustainable Landscapes online exhibition that explains how to transform a car-centric community into one that enables active living. Learn how designing communities for walking, biking, and increased social interaction in open green spaces improves health:

According to the Center for City Park Excellence at the Trust for Public Land, almost half of all Americans get less than the recommended amount of physical activity, and more than a third don’t get in any leisure-time physical activity at all. Dr. Richard Jackson, former head of the Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Environmental Health and now Professor at UCLA, adds that this overall lack of physical activity, along with Americans’ taste for fatty, unhealthy foods, has helped turn obesity into a “common cause epidemic” in the U.S. Furthermore, the cost of healthcare in the U.S., which now ranks as the most obese nation on earth, has reached 17 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). What’s the cause of this increasingly expensive health epidemic? – Some answers can be found in the built environment. Communities are often planned and built to enable constant car use, creating a “deep-rooted structural issue” impossible to remedy with medicines alone. (Source: Center for City Park Excellence Trust for Public Land and “Dr. Richard Jackson: “We are No Longer Creating Wellbeing,” The Dirt, ASLA General Session, October 2010 )

“Designing for Active Living” is a new approach to community design that aims to design communities for all users, not just those driving in cars. Even older communities are retrofitting infrastructure to provide multiple transportation options and easier access to outdoor activities, improving health in the process. Designing for Active Living involves creating safe access to transit; “Complete Streets,” which offer wider sidewalks and bike lanes; bike share networks and stations; community trail networks; parks with exercise equipment; and community gardens — anything that gets people outdoors. In fact, new research demonstrates just being outside provides physical and mental health benefits. Interacting with nature improves cognitive ability, provides a range of social benefits (like making people nicer), and shortens rehabilitation times among those recovering from illnesses. (Source: “Nature Makes Us More Caring,” University of Rochester, Marc Berman, Marc, John Jonides, and Stephen Kaplan, “The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting with Nature,” Psychological Science, Volume 19, Number 12, 2008 and “Dr. Richard Jackson: “We are No Longer Creating Wellbeing,” The Dirt

Improving access to outdoor activities not only provides physical and mental health benefits for the residents of these communities but also creates environmental and economic value. Complete streets are lined with trees, which clean air, reduce asthma rates during hotter months, and mitigate the urban heat island effect. More walking and biking means fewer car trips and less carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere. Community gardens can be designed to increase local biodiversity, creating food sources for people as well as bees and bird species. Health communities also provide economic benefits: homes in walkable areas are worth more. According to a study by CEO for Cities, a “one-point increase in a community’s Walk Score rating was associated with an increase in value ranging from $700 to $3,000, depending on the market.  The gains were larger in denser, urban areas like Chicago and San Francisco.” (Source: Walking the Walk: How Walkability Raises Home Values in U.S. Cities)

Better Crossing Design Can Reduce Collisions between Wildlife and People

The ARC International Wildlife Crossing Infrastructure Design Competition, the first international competition of its kind, says collisions between wildlife and cars in the U.S. have increased by 50 percent in the past 15 years. Not only do these collisions take a huge toll on both wildlife and people, but they also cost the U.S. some $8 billion per year. To create a new wildlife crossing model that can enable animals with extensive migratory ranges — like bears, wolves, and lynxes — to better coexist with people, ARC asked designers to submit concepts that allow for safe mobility for a variety of species along separate but integrated transportation networks (see earlier post). Out of some 36 concepts submitted from teams worldwide, the design concept devised by HNTB and Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates was unanimously judged to be the best for its cost-effective approach using “ordinary materials, such as concrete, in an extraordinary way.”

“HNTB+MVVA’s design is cost-effective, modular, easy to construct, provides greater material control, and uses a unique built-in drainage system,” says the ARC competition. Nina-Marie Lister, the ARC competition advisor and professor at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada, adds: “The jury chose this design because it is not only feasible, but because it has the capacity to transform what we think of as possible – a novel design solution to a growing problem that could serve as a model for the world.”

New research shows that wildlife crossings do actually reduce collisions between wildlife and cars. ARC points to a study done in Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada, which demonstrated that a “series of 22 underpasses and two overpasses has resulted in an 80 percent reduction in total wildlife fatalities because wildlife was allowed to roam free uninterrupted of human transportation. As a result, there have been approximately 240,000 crossings (and counting) of 11 species of large mammals, including wolf, grizzly bear, elk, lynx, mountain lion, and moose across these paths.” 

The HNTB+MVVA design features a single span across a highway; there’s no central pier. “This single span is a unique feature that will provide a much safer experience for drivers by creating a more open experience.” The winning team’s design is innovative because it’s approximately four times wider than other crossing structures and includes fences that guide different types of wildlife across through safe passages. “This provides an ideal setting to accommodate wildlife movement and a diversity of habitats on top of the bridge.” The design was also judged to be among the more sustainable and low-cost options with its use of pre-fit modular concrete pieces.

The next step will be to implement the design somewhere in Colorado. The design competition’s site is West Vail Pass on I-70 in Colorado, about 90 miles west of Denver. The site was selected from a range of candidates. HNTB and Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates received prize money and a preferential position for an upcoming state-financed wildlife crossing project on a site yet to be determined in the state. 

Clearly, there are numerous opportunities to deploy this solution, saving the lives of wildlife, which almost invariably die in these traffic accidents, and drivers in the process. Crafting a public-private financing model for the widespread roll-out of these overpasses should be a priority.

Learn more about the winning design concept, and explore ideas discussed in a conference on wildlife habitat and crossing design held last year.

Image credits: HNTB and Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc.

Revitalizing Communities with Parks

Watch an animation from ASLA’s Designing Our Future: Sustainable Landscapes online exhibition that explains how to revitalize an under-served urban community with a new park. See how communities without green space can thrive when provided with valuable space for social interaction:

Many U.S. cities don’t offer equal access to green space. For example, Los Angeles has 23,000 acres of parks, which puts the city in the top 15 in terms of total green space, but much of this parkland is near the mountains so most of the city’s low-income, inner-city communities don’t have any parks at all. Peter Harnik, director, Center for City Park Excellence at the Trust for Public Land, says in reality 3.8 million residents of L.A. are too far from “a park to use one easily, conveniently, or frequently.” Similarly, in New York City, high-quality parkland is found in greater abundance in wealthier districts, while low-income communities don’t enjoy the same access. More than half of the city’s 59 community board districts were found to have less than 1.5 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents. A University of Chicago study found that communities with lower incomes, higher poverty rates, and higher proportions of racial and ethnic minorities also had the “fewest opportunities for community-level physical activity.” Lack of green space is then not just about unfairness, it’s about health. Low-income communities may have higher rates of health problems like obesity and asthma in large part because they don’t have parks. 
(Source: “Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities,” Peter Harnik, Island Press, 2010 and  “Healthy Parks, Healthy Communities: Addressing Health Disparities and Park Inequalities through Public Financing of Playgrounds, and Other Physical Activity Settings,” Trust for Public Land, Policy Brief, November 2005)

New parks can sprout up in the unlikeliest places. Low-income, inner-city communities are characterized by hardscapes – asphalt surfaces. When a community organizes and creates a plan for a new park, local governments can respond and purchase asphalt-covered areas like parking lots and transform them into public community parks. The average neighborhood park can run into the millions, but including a park budget in the initial master plan helps ensure local governments will finance it, and even partner with developers, local foundations, or conservancies to get it built. These types of projects can also come about if they are part of broader public-private urban redevelopment schemes aimed at providing housing, improving access to transit, and investing in the local environment. Transportation infrastructure like boulevards, rail lines, and trails can be expanded, greened, and designed to become easily-accessible parks. In addition, even landfills, rooftops, reservoirs, and cemeteries can be turned into parks. 
(Source:“Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities,” Peter Harnik, Island Press, 2010) 

Park design needs to be compelling so people visit and forge community ties there. Parks that are designed for local residents and include them in the design process often do the best. New York City’s famed Central Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, and Bryant Park, designed by Laurie Olin, FASLA, are two examples of great community parks designed for people. The 843-acre Central Park has many “functional areas,” including game fields, gardens, skating rinks, a boating lake, and winding paths that offer “dozens and dozens of different kinds and moments of experience “ says Sarah Goldhagen, architecture critic for The New Republic. Bryant Park’s movable café table and chairs set under a rich tree canopy and spread around a central lawn enable people to easily form groups or stay on their own. The park is now viewed as a model for how public places can facilitate human interaction. Human interaction isn’t just needed to make a popular and sustainable park, new research demonstrates that people with strong community ties also live longer healthier lives. Parks provide the space for communities to form.
(Source: “Goldhagen: ‘Democracies Need Physical Spaces,” The Dirt and “Bowling Alone,” Robert Putnam)

Also, check out sustainability education resources on urban parks.

Turning Toxic Real Estate into Parks

Michael Messner, a Wall Street investment manager, sees enormous social, environmental, and even financial value in turning vacant lots and distressed properties into new green parks. In a recent op-ed in The Washington Post, Messner argues that “parks and managed green space are vital pieces of urban infrastructure that not only improve the quality of life for millions of people but also drive economic growth.”

Frederick Law Olmsted, America’s great landscape architect, figured this out first 150 years ago, when he first drained a swamp to make Central Park, elevating nearby property values. Messner says an initial $13 million investment in the site led to an “astounding $209 million increase in just 17 years” (see more on the economic value of Central Park and parks, more generally). In a similar vein, more than 200,000 acres of vacant retail, office and industrial space, along with massive underused residential real estate stock, could be “acquired by a parks agency or by public-private partnerships, which would then begin demolition, park design and construction, putting people to work immediately. More jobs would come as the improved areas attracted development.”

This sort of large-scale WPA-like project is crucial, Messner argues, because the glut of distressed properties is currently serving as a major “drag on our communities and the economy and threatens to topple even more banks that hold mortgages on these ‘toxic assets.'” In addition, this type of broad-based “scaling-back” and redevelopment isn’t unknown: “The railroads, which had many miles of underused track to maintain, pulled up 55 percent of their tracks in the past 60 years to increase profitability, enabling the creation of 19,000 linear miles of ‘rails-to-trails’ parks. Pittsburgh, realizing that the steel industry was never coming back, tore down riverfront steel mills and replaced them with an attractive mix of parks and office space. In Michigan, Flint and Detroit are finding ways to ‘bank’ land as open space.”

The only way out of the long-term problem is to then get the government to engage and also incentivize the reuse of property to create broader environmental, social, and financial value. “Instead of buying mortgage-backed securities, why couldn’t the Fed buy excess developed real estate to be held as green space through ‘land-backed securities’? Why couldn’t the FDIC give some of the useless properties it obtains through bank closures to land banks or nonprofit organizations? With the right financing structure, philanthropic entrepreneurs could use leverage to remake America just as some of our bad developers used easy bank financing to help create the excesses.” Also, tax incentives could be used to “encourage banks and landlords to donate land and encourage wealthy individuals and corporations to buy conservation tax credits.”

Messner has certainly been putting his money where his mouth is, funding the Redfields to Greenfields initiative at Georgia Tech along with the PBS documentary, “The Olmsted Legacy” (see earlier post).

Read the article. Also, see the presentation Messner and his team gave to help win some early administration support for the increasingly broad-based Redfields to Greenfields partnership, which already includes a number of organizations like the Trust for Public Land and the Urban Land Institute.  

Image credit: Brownfield construction site / SRW

Interview with Tim Duggan, Make It Right Foundation

Tim Duggan, ASLA, is a landscape architect with the Make It Right Foundation. Learn more about the foundation’s innovative, sustainable landscape architecture work and see their “Kit of Parts” (4MB).     

The Make It Right Foundation was started by Brad Pitt, who wanted to help the residents of the Lower 9th Ward rebuild their community in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Instead of rebuilding using conventional methods, Pitt asked William McDonough to apply his Cradle to Cradle approach to create a new set of sustainable homes. The primary goal is 150 affordable, green, and storm-resistant homes. How far has Make It Right progressed towards its goals?

Make It Right was founded by Brad Pitt, William McDonough + Partners, GRAFT, and Cherokee. At that point, they were a little discouraged by the progress in rebuilding the Lower 9th Ward. This was two years after Katrina. So they collectively decided that sustainability should be dedicated more towards folks that need it, that affordable sustainable houses could have a much bigger impact. We set the goal of 150 homes. Right now, around three years out from project conception, we have approximately 50 houses completed and 30 houses under construction, all of which are under the LEED Platinum umbrella. We decided to strive for and reach that level for every home. This current build of 30 homes will be wrapped up mid-to-late February. We are then going to go through another round of analysis and value engineering to see how we can increase the affordability even further, without taking anything out of the systems of the house, the neighborhood, or the landscape.

In addition to creating an affordable, sustainable, and safe set of homes, Make It Right also aims to re-conceive the role of landscape architecture in post-disaster rebuilding. A pilot of the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES), the Lower 9th Ward site aims to become an “innovative site sustainability platform.” What is this? How will the new site design model help mitigate against floods and storms while ecologically managing onsite water? How far along are you with these plans?

Because Make It Right is not a developer, we’re simply building individual homes for folks that lost their homes during Katrina. We didn’t have the luxury of doing a comprehensive master plan. We had to look at the individual residential lots to see how far we could push the envelope of sustainability while still making them socially and economically sustainable. That said, addressing the site sustainability at each and every house led us to a bigger opportunity with the city’s Department of Public Works. We have been developing extensive low impact development strategies such as pervious concrete, rain gardens, rain barrels, and sub-surface water storage. Our landscape gets 65-plus inches of rainfall a year and the city of New Orleans still spends several million dollars pumping water over the levy. Our goal is to create a series of streetscapes that would invest in the public realm as opposed to just simply adding in a bigger pipe and a bigger pump. 

Make It Right foundation volunteers install a rain garden. 
By doing those early studies we were able to create a design team consisting of William McDonough + Partners, Walter Hood, Siteworks Studio, Diane Jones, BNIM Architects, as well as Make It Right to create a series of demonstration projects that would allow the City of New Orleans to develop new standards towards stormwater management. In the first engineering attempt we did, the final design alleviated approximately 350,000 gallons of water hitting the storm systems and pumping stations for every rainfall event. That’s 350,000 gallons of water on an eight block pilot street demonstration project. When we were able to quantify the cost of a gallon pumping water as well as the savings of keeping it on site, it became very clear that it was an economically sustainable model for future development. That’s one of the important things that we do on both the houses and the sites — we don’t actually take the strategies out of the project, we figure out a way to make the strategies more affordable so that they can move forward. Ultimately, to answer your question, right now we are currently in the final construction document stage of the project. It’s currently expected to go out to bid in late February and break ground in April.

A key part of the site redevelopment work is creating new green streets within the neighborhood. The City of New Orleans has issued a contract with Make It Right to replace the streets in its area and has given your organization a $2.7 million community development block grant. The idea is to use this site as a test-bed for green stormwater management infrastructure. What are the goals of this green street test project? Will the city incentivize the spread of these practices if their benefits are proven?

We call it the Lower 9th Ward Sustainable Infrastructure Project (9MB file). We collaborated with the Public Works Department on pervious concrete and stormwater management. It was very much a collaborative effort between William McDonough + Partners, BNIM Architects, Walter Hood, Pete O’Shea with Siteworks, and Diane Jones to create a series of models that would address water quality and water quantity issues and monitoring systems for short-term and long-term understanding of impact. It would focus a great deal on local workforce capacity and development. The ultimate goal was to create a platform to develop green jobs opportunities in the city of New Orleans. Jobs are the most important thing right now in our current economy, but they’re very much a major factor in decision making in New Orleans.

Lower 9th Ward Sustainable Infrastructure Project

While these new programs are expected to have a significant environmental impact, what about their local economic and social impact? Have the new residents of the neighborhood and local community groups responded to the new sustainable site plans? What do they see as the key benefits of the improvements?

The residents of the Make It Right neighborhood are actually our biggest proponents. They immediately saw sustainability affecting their pocket books when their new utility bills came in at an average of $28 to $38, when historically they were $150 to $200. The idea that their economic sustainability is connected to their house is one we’ve tried to communicate, particularly as it relates to their taxes and the infrastructure within their environment.

Lower 9th Ward Make It Right Foundation resident.

We’re in a neighborhood that suffered great devastation.  In fact, it’s about 100 yards from where the original barge broke through the levy and so water is a very unique constraint here. We have been collectively building trust together and identified means to show the impact in a metric that everyone can understand. It’s a metric of reducing one gallon of water. The reduction of one gallon of water within the landscape and public right of way is expanding to several hundred thousand gallons. It now has an economic impact that is a win-win situation for all parties.

Looking beyond the planned 150 homes, your organization is also seeking to ensure the long term economic and social sustainability of the neighborhood. There are new green construction training programs, assistance for those purchasing the homes, and work with the Lower 9th Ward Stakeholders Coalition. However, your foundation says it needs five million to invest in community infrastructure and services, including a neighborhood store and permanent micro-farm. How did Make It Right determine that these were the priorities?  How will these programs help ensure that the future success of a community?

From the beginning, we have taken a collaborative, transparent approach that began with convening what’s now called the Lower 9th Ward Stakeholders Coalition, which is a group of community leaders, neighborhood association leaders, and local stakeholders. Everything we propose has gone through a review process and has received the comments of local stakeholders. Initially a local stakeholder instructed Make It Right to simply start building homes because they needed to bring back people into their neighborhood and that’s exactly what we did. Now, we’re seeing success and our trust and collaboration abilities are growing. The neighborhood has reached out and informed us that they’re looking at bigger and bigger partnership opportunities. A mixed-use development with a focus on a safe and healthy grocery store was one opportunity. One of those was also related to urban agriculture and addressing the issue of blight in New Orleans. The idea is to get productive use out of a lot that has been somewhat unproductive for the last few years. The last component that was proposed from the community was a better understanding of stormwater management in the wetlands landscape they live within. We’re just several blocks away from what’s called the Central Wetlands Unit that has been destroyed over the last 30 years by the petrochemical companies. These are the interior wetlands. Just recently the coastal wetland suffered from the BP oil spill.

Any development we may pursue both in and around the neighborhood has really been focused on developing those facets. At the same time, we’re also seeing this as a positive model that can be both innovative and replicable. We’re looking for other opportunities with like-minded initiatives outside of New Orleans.

Another idea is to expand the Make It Right affordable sustainable housing model to other ravaged communities in New Orleans and even other cities like Newark. Is the new site model also considered as a likely export to other communities?  How are those practices being designed and tested from the beginning for easy replication elsewhere?

We are currently developing a long-term strategic plan within the organization, but collectively we all feel that this model works. The model of public private development that we have created here in New Orleans is very much a replicable model across the country. With rising sea levels and climate change and the need to completely rethink the way we’re handling our housing, landscape, and infrastructure, we feel we’ve been very successful. There are quite a few cities that we would like to collaborate with and think could benefit from that collaboration.

Newark is the first site of a new collaboration — we partnered with Help USA, William McDonough + Partners, and GRAFT to create a 56-unit multifamily housing project that is mixed-use. More than 25 percent of its occupants are disabled veterans. The site program incorporates healing processes through innovative urban agriculture and horticultural therapy. There are also alternative energy and green roof technology components. The model is working so far. We should break ground by the end of January on the project and we’ll see where we can where else we can take this model.

Lastly, what has the experience shown you about the role landscape architects can play in post disaster reconstruction? What has worked well and less well while working as part of a broader integrated team in post-disaster New Orleans? What are the key lessons for other Hurricane Katrina reconstruction, and now oil spill cleanup work?

I’ve been in a unique situation — I came from working in the town of Greensburg, which was destroyed by a tornado, to coming down to New Orleans a few years after it was destroyed by Katrina, and then even given the opportunity to go Haiti a few times post-earthquake. I think the biggest lessons learned is to be proactive instead of reactive in those situations. There’s a fine line between emergency recovery and rebuilding. The other important idea is waste equals food. Figure out every opportunity where you can create things out of what was previously there before. In New Orleans, there has been an entire economy based around deconstruction and the reuse of salvage materials and several jobs created from that. There’s a similar economy working in Haiti.

But as they relate to the overall green building industry, I think landscape architects have an uncanny ability to know the means to the end of a project and to be able to assist and collaborate with all the folks that have historically not collaborated well. I think that if you have the ability to bring together a multidisciplinary team that can understand technical, social, and ecological ramifications, then you’re in a much better place, and you’re making much more informed decisions. Frankly, I think myself and other landscape architect colleagues working with Make It Right have been able to bridge those gaps and make it more of an intuitive process that leads to a much more informed sustainable solution. I’m very much a proponent of bringing landscape architects into post-disaster situations because it’s just what we’re taught. The process of our education and design is a collaborative one and it proved to be a very good foundation for my experiences in Greensburg, New Orleans, as well as Haiti.

Interview conducted by Jared Green.

Image credits: (1) Tim Duggan, (2) Make It Right Foundation, (3) Siteworks Studio, (4) Make It Right Foundation

Leveraging the Landscape to Manage Water

Watch an animation from ASLA’s Designing Our Future: Sustainable Landscapes online exhibition that explains how green infrastructure systems effectively manage stormwater. See how green roofs, bioretention systems, and permeable pavements actually work:

According to a report from the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia, one inch of rainwater hitting one acre of asphalt over an hour yields 27,000 gallons of water. In many communities, this water flows into combined stormwater / sewer systems, which channel both sewage and rainwater together through underground pipes to central treatment facilities. Storms can quickly overrun these combined systems, leading to flooding with pollutant-laden water and even backed up sewage. In fact, in many older cities like Philadelphia, basements can flood with excrement during major storms, creating major public health issues in the process.

The term “Green infrastructure” is used to describe how networks of natural ecosystems also function as crucial community infrastructure, providing ecosystem services and improving environmental sustainability. In the context of managing stormwater, green infrastructure can be defined as man-made systems that mimic natural approaches. Green roofs, bioswales, bioretention ponds, and permeable pavements are a few key examples of local green infrastructure, and all work by turning hard asphalt surfaces into green, absorbent ones. For example, Green roofs can retain 40-60 percent of stormwater hitting rooftops. Bioswales and retention ponds can absorb water and channel or hold excess run-off, cleansing pollutants in the process. However, even just adding extra trees, which consume lots of water, can help. Evergreens and conifers were found to intercept 35 percent of water hitting them.

Adding in green infrastructure systems is not only good for managing water, but also good for communities. Green infrastructure can lower air temperatures, which is crucial in cities facing the Urban Heat Island effect. Green roofs can double-up as roof-top parks, farms, and natural habitats for wildlife, providing a range of benefits. Chicago alone has seven million square feet of green roofs, which are often filled with native plants. For communities facing tight budgets, green infrastructure systems are also the most cost-effective way to manage stormwater when compared with rebuilding crumbling underground pipes. Philadelphia, which charges homeowners and local companies for their runoff, is now considering $1.6 billion plan to use natural systems to alleviate its major stormwater management problems. 

Sources: Grey to Green: Jumpstarting Private Investment in Green Stormwater Infrastructure, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and The Vancouver Sun.

Also, check out sustainability education resources on green infrastructure.

Witold Rybczynski: Demand Creates Cities, Not Ideas

Witold Rybczynski, author of numerous acclaimed books on the built environment, including most recently, Makeshift Metropolis: Ideas About Cities, spoke at the kick-off of the National Building Museum’s Intelligent Cities program on the past and future of cities. After giving the audience a tour of big urban ideas of the past, he argued that “demand-side pressures have forged the shape of American cities, not the grand visions of designers.” In fact, in the cases when big visions have had influence — like Le Corbusier’s Radiant City, which set the model for inner-city housing communities, the impact has almost always been negative. To address the challenges of the future — climate change, limited water resources, and environmental degradation — urban infrastructure “may have to undergo dramatic changes” but the city of the future will largely look like today’s cities. In fact, Rybcyznski warned against creating bold new models like Masdar, U.A.E, to address critical environmental issues when so much of today’s cities work so well. 

Once, the romantic idea of the city was that “it needed a great plan, which could show the population’s ambitions.” By the turn of the 20th century, however, Americans had gotten very lazy and city planning became “a pragmatic effort about creating real estate.” City planning was “no longer an artform.” Soon though, a few architects and landscape architects started to look at the second rate cities in the U.S. and think about how to change things.

The City Beautiful movement, popularized by Charles Mulford Robinson, was focused on the idea of organizing the city and “turning it into an aesthetic experience.” The World Columbian Expo, seen by 20 million Americans, showed that a city could be planned.  The McMillan plan for the National Mall along with the Burnham plan for the City of Chicago also helped launch the City Beautiful movement. “These set the stage — cities could be the result of a movement.”

Another influential designer-led movement, the Garden City, which was the “Congress of New Urbanism of its time,” was orchestrated by Ebenezer Howard. Howard saw Frederick Law Olmsted’s Riverside community in Chicago, one of the first planned suburbs and which became the model for high-end suburbs everywhere, as “a city that’s not a city” because it featured lots of green, open space. Rybczynski also pointed to the Forest Hill Gardens in Queens as another example of an “urban suburb” that was excellent because there was a union in the vision of the architect, landscape architect, and developer. This movement spread throughout Europe — “almost all European languages have some term for Garden City.”

The Radiant City, Le Corbusier’s vision of a community filled with skyscrapers but no streets, just parkland, was a “radical vision.” Europeans largely scoffed at the idea, but novelty-loving Americans took to the ideas. One of the more positive examples is the Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town on the lower east side of Manhattan, but all those dehumanizing inner-city public housing units were also the realization of that vision. Another architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, created his vision, Broadacre City, which “was an extremely radical proposal,” an idealized city that has no edge or centers. Frank Lloyd Wright thought this would happen with the rise of the automobile — Americans would spread out and seek space, and no longer need cities anymore. In effect, he was describing a vision of sprawl, which is “exactly what has happened.”

To combat these ideas, Jane Jacobs came up with her idea of the downtown in the seminal Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jacobs repudiated the Garden City and City Beautiful, and especially hated the Radiant City. She put streets back at the heart of the city and proved that cities are the result of “many individuals each making decisions.” Her theory was almost “anarchist,” not liberal or progressive, but her values of “density, mixed-use, street life, choice, diversity, and age” were proven to be the right ones.

Rybcyznski believes Jacobs is still largely correct, but there are ideas within each of the earlier movements that still have merit and exist today. The City Beautiful movement led to the creation of beautiful buildings like Washington D.C.’s Union Station, and even the new Gehry-designed Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. The Garden City movement has been successful — many modern suburbs use those concepts as a model. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre city has been realized in “uncentered urbanism.” Even Jane Jacobs’ beloved Greenwich Village can now be found replicated in downtown Reston, Virginia, and other dense, mixed-use developments “that she would have hated.”

The past 30 years have been spent recovering from the “disasters of modernism” initiated in the 1950’s and 60’s. “Highways, pedestrian malls, and housing projects” were all horrible ideas and are now being torn down. “This has been a repairing time, not a time of grand visions.” Rybczynski thinks the only successful developments have been urban waterfront redevelopment projects that feature water, streets, parks, infill, density, mixed-uses, conservation, and shopping. He cited the Yards project along the D.C. waterfront and Michael Van Valkenburgh’s Brooklyn Bridge Park as two successes. He emphasized the growing importance of parks, which were seen as outdated and even Victorian in the 1950’s and 60’s, but have undergone a renaissance recently. “Every city is now adding significant park space.” Again, reiterating his theme about demand creating cities, he says parks are expanding again because people nowadays seek a connection with nature and a place to exercise.

In the future, Rybczynski thinks successful projects must be public-private partnerships. Using the example of the Brooklyn Bridge Park, he said private development helped finance the new pier-based parks. He said these partnerships are increasingly crucial because “public bodies are bad at development. They think they know best but they don’t listen to demand, only their own visions of what people need.” Developers in turn “are not good at connecting their projects with everything else.” Public bodies can help play a “guiding, connecting role,” but developers are good at finding out what people want. “A new division of labor” must be created.

To conclude, people live in cities not because of their efficiencies or “intelligence,” but because other people are there. “It’s about professional and personal contact, meeting lots of other people, and choice in physical experiences.”

Read Makeshift Metropolis: Ideas About Cities and also check out Rybczynski’s highly-regarded book on Frederick Law Olmsted, A Clearing in the Distance.

Image credit: Brooklyn Bridge Park / Alex Maclean

Nature is Dead: Long Live Design

Reprinted from the newly redesigned Landscape Architecture Magazine (LAM). Read a free copy of the January issue.

In recent months, landscape architecture has gained a good bit of attention from an ongoing debate over the notion of landscape urbanism between a vocal critic, Andrés Duany, and its promoters at Harvard University. So the design world is publicly acknowledging the increasing value of landscape architects. But step for a moment outside our design bubble and take stock in the low awareness of landscape architecture among consumers.

Perhaps this is partially because of the West’s philosophical view of nature as primordial. But primordial nature is dead, at least for most of the inhabited world. Nature—as consumers imagine it to be—is a controlled environment influenced by generations of politicians, landscape architects, and planners. The average visitor to Yellowstone doesn’t recognize the role that landscape architects have played in their experience—they assume it was providential. If we seek recognition and political capital, then there is a responsibility for greater legibility in landscape design work. To secure political capital, landscape architects need to articulate clear, contemporary, and relevant design ideas.

Our situation is not helped by the mass retailers that supply the majority of landscape materials to consumers. Regardless of where you are in this country, I guarantee your “neighborhood” Home Depot has a full stock of boxwood, roses, and sod—even in Santa Fe, New Mexico. As a result, consumers place little value on locally native plant species and are confused about what constitutes nature. Indeed, the local Earth Day festival near my home in Reno, Nevada, is held in a rose garden. How can we expect laypersons spending the afternoon at Crissy Field in San Francisco to recognize the talent that went into imagining that space and not to assume it has been this way for eternity, especially when the only expression they relate with designed outdoor spaces originates from European designs of boxwood, roses, and sod?

It’s not just the consumer model that is broken. The cultural preference for lush lawns influences public and commercial landscapes as well. We can no longer make excuses for contributing to the expansive panoramas of water-hogging landscapes. It is our responsibility to educate clients and provide artful solutions that meet their needs in ways that do no further harm to our environment. My firm, SWA Group, recently redesigned the campus for a university in a major Mexican city. After persuading the client of the appropriateness of a native planting palette and a design that incorporated the natural systems of the site, we found there were no local wholesale plant suppliers who could provide native species.

This year, several ASLA award-winning projects were expertly rooted in context. Most notably, the Shanghai Houtan Park and the High Line plainly reveal themselves as products of the design elite. However, in the same Landscape Architecture issue that featured the best work among us—with all of these projects’ staggering imagery—the magazine cover depicted an ambiguous reflected hillside in a pond of water with the silly metaphor for the 2010 award winners as a “Watershed of Innovation.” To be recognized among elite designers, we owe it to our profession to step above the clichés. The residential project profiled in the same issue in “Under the Texan Sun” is skillfully crafted, but Tuscan gardens in Texas do not represent our profession’s culture of ideas. Are these the impressions we want to project to the public? Will we recruit the best and brightest design talent when our leading publication is giving off such mixed messages?

Landscape urbanism proponents are making clear the opportunity for our greater role in designing urban environments. But let’s not lose sight of the opportunity we have neglected, namely, building a recognizable brand for our profession. There is a new wave of public interest in environmental responsibility, in outdoor living spaces, in community, in recreation and alternative transportation, in gardening and growing in general. We need to advocate for a greater appreciation of our natural and designed landscapes and the differences between them. We need to educate our clients and the public about the functions of natural systems and the importance of indigenous materials. We need to lobby young people to consider landscape architecture as a career path. We are all responsible for our profession’s status. When our work is so relevant to contemporary culture, what excuse do we have for being invisible?

René Bihan is Managing Principal of SWA Group’s San Francisco Office.

From Industrial Wasteland to Community Park

Watch an animation from ASLA’s online exhibition, Designing Our Future: Sustainable Landscapes, that explains how to turn a toxic industrial wasteland into a vibrant local park. See how damaged landscapes are restored through bioremediation and redesign:

Brownfields are abandoned, environmentally-contaminated industrial or commercial sites. People who come into frequent contact with the leftover solvents, cleaners, and oil found on these sites often develop major health issues. In addition, the chemicals found in brownfields contaminate soils and often leak directly into underground water resources. Degraded parts of some major U.S. cities contain up to 1,000 brownfields per square mile.

Bioremediation involves using plants, fungi, or soil microbes to clean up toxic brownfields. Some types of deep-rooted plants can even be used to remove toxic metals from the soil. One example is Thlaspi Caerulescens, commonly known as Alpine Pennycress. According to Cornell University researchers, a normal plant can only store about 100 parts per million (ppm) zinc and 1 ppm cadmium. Thlaspi can store up to 30,000 ppm zinc and 1,500 ppm cadmium in its shoots without being negatively affected. In fact, these types of plants thrive while restoring the brownfield to its natural state.

Cleaning up these sites is not only good for the environment, but also helps create economically-strong, healthy communities. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.) says brownfield clean-ups can increase nearby residential property values by 2 to 3 percent. Healthy buildings, schools, and parks have taken shape on redeveloped brownfields. Formerly poisonous sites can even turn into valuable community green space: the new Olympic Park in London, Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York City, and Toronto’s new park network are coming in over hectares of previously bombed-out, toxic sites.

Sources: Maryland Commission on Environmental Justice and Sustainable Communities, U.S. Department of Agrilculture, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Also, check out sustainability education resources on brownfield restoration / ecosystem rehabilitation.