E.O. Wilson’s Love Letter to Parks


E.O. Wilson, one of the world’s great biologists and a Pulitzer prize-winning author on the natural world, made a case for preserving and investing in the restoration of urban parks at the 70th anniversary of Dumbarton Oaks Park in Georgetown. Designed by renowned landscape architect Beatrix Farrand, the only woman among the founding members of ASLA, the 27-acre park has both formal and natural spaces, including meadows, gardens, dams, bridges and 18 waterfalls. Wilson said Farrand was a “splendid landscape architect.”

Wilson asked, “What is the value of a park within the limits of a city?” Garden woodlands like Dumbarton Oaks Park are valuable in themselves because they are often habitats for very rare endemic species. However, for people, they also offer “intricate pathways for opening up our minds to art, aesthetics, ecology, wildlife, natural successions.” Parks exist, in fact, in the “realm of the mind. We all make parks our own. They belong to us each individually. There’s a proprietorship we all feel.” He added that “parks are a home. There’s a sense of permanent familiarity.” There, we find a “sense of place but what is that?”

He believes this hard-to-describe sense of place is “a solid feeling based in a sense of history, a deep history of the land, unchanged over thousands of years.” Parks create this feeling because they are “the natural world and show us that life preceeded us.” Wilson, who spent a few of his early years catching insects in the District’s Rock Creek Park, went on to say that parks are a “magic well. The more we draw from them, the more there is to draw. They are part personal memory, part nature, part cultural metaphor.” 


National parks, which he said must be saved from proposed funding cuts, can be cultivated or non-cultivated and include native and non-native plants but this mix, in fact, provides the perfect opportunity for an “outdoor lab.” Urban parks today “aren’t studied in this way” but will be with the “growth in the importance of ecology and population.” He believes treating parks as urban labs is needed to educate the public on biodivesity. Already some parks are undertaking inventories of their species, and turning the collection and documentation process into a fun outings by organizing Bioblitzes. Bioblitzes are “treasure hunts” used to find as many species as possible in an area in 24 hours. Wilson, who helped popularize the Bioblitz movement, said the “practice has spread all over the country and to 18 other countries.”

Finally, he asked, “why do we love parks and cultivated gardens?” The idea of nature is often “expressed beautifully in music, arts, and literature.” Nature “excites the imagination,” a process psychologists increasingly understand. In fact, this intense reaction of people to nature may be innate. Biophilia, a term Wilson coined to describe the “intrinsic attraction people feel towards nature,” is now being taken up by “students of landscape architecture” (see earlier post). He described how humans in different countries all like high open spaces they can look down upon and being close to water. “People will pay any price for property” that fits those qualities. 

As for Dumbarton Oaks Park, which Dodge Thompson, National Gallery of Art, called a “cultural landscape treasure” and an “eden in the midst of the city,” its conservancy is starting a “vision charrette” in October. The process is expected to guide a complete ecological restoration to “recraft the park in a environmentally sustainable way,” said Rebecca Trafton, president of the Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy. She said Farrand believed the park demonstrated the “educational and civilizing influence of beauty.” That beauty must be maintained, but issues like invasives, graffiti, worn-out trails, and broken stormwater management systems must also be carefully addressed. 

Visit E.O. Wilson’s new Encyclopedia of Life project, which aims to document all the world’s 10 million or more species online. Also, check out Dumbarton Oaks Park when next in D.C.

Image credit: Dumbarton Oaks Park / James Blair, Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy

Interview with Joyce Lee, NYC Active Design Program


Joyce Lee, AIA, LEED AP, is the Director of the Active Design Program at the City of New York Department of Design and Construction. Download NYC’s Active Design Guidelines for free. Contact Joyce about submitting landscape architecture case studies at adgleadership@ddc.nyc.gov

In a recent talk, Dr. Richard Jackson, former head of the National Center for Environmental Health at the CDC, said there are “deep-rooted structural issues with the built environment that are creating epidemics of obesity, diabetes, and depression.” How will New York City’s new Active Design Guidelines solve these major problems?

We take the message of health practitioners very seriously and have started re-visiting the way we plan, design, and build. “Deep-rooted” is true — we subscribe to a culture of design and planning.

Our Commissioner, David J. Burney, had the vision of creating best practices through a set of design guidelines based in research and evidence.

Active design addresses both outdoor and indoor environments. The guidelines have chapters on health and the built environment, urban design and building design strategies, and synergies with sustainable design and universal design. Working together across sectors and disciplines, with the collaboration of landscape architects, we think we have a fighting chance to solve these major problems.

When many people think of New York City, they think of busy, rushed walkers and subway riders. But we see from the guidelines that the real picture is quite different and major parts of the city are stuck in their cars and facing the same epidemics as the rest of the country. How do the obesity and diabetes rates differ across the city? Do these rates closely correlate with location or income?

Our central business districts are often congested like those in any other world city. Not only does congestion create a loss of productivity but we also now know it impacts health in several dimensions. Just as obesity affects different states in the country, the obesity and diabetes rates differ in neighborhoods across New York City. Socioeconomics and access to parks and recreation, transit, healthy food all have roles to play.


We often talk about design tools. One of the most important tools for me working with health professionals is the actual obesity map of New York City. Subsequently, I’ve seen similar maps for Washington, D.C. and other communities. They tell a compelling story of how we have to tailor active design to different neighborhoods. Access to active transportation and recreation vary. By understanding these local factors, we can think about whether parks should have more active vs. passive areas or whether schools should use their rooftops differently.   

The unifying factor, though, could be the streets because they connect neighborhoods. We already know that streets could be safer by design. There are graphic examples of traffic island design, curb cut considerations, and bicycle infrastructure in the guidelines. Additional references can be found in DOT’s Street Design Manual, also published during the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The guidelines say there is great overlap between active, sustainable, and universal design. Today, a well-designed park like the High Line is expected to meet the requirements of all three disciplines. What’s the direct connection between active design and sustainability?

Yes, the High Line on the westside overlooking the waterfront is a prime example. Active design often reduces our carbon footprint. If you walk the length of the High Line, you save yourself a subway ride, let alone a car trip. Even though we do not yet have a study, one can imagine the mental health benefits taking in the views and landscape design.


In the LEED for Neighborhood Development (LEED-ND) rating system, active design is pervasive in credits such as bicycle network and storage, walkable streets, access to recreation facilities and tree-lined and shaded streets. Shading from trees and energy savings have direct correlations. In New York City’s streets, you can find sidewalk installations with bicycle parking, seating, and a raised grating for subway stormwater management all in one.


Another direct connection we have created is the LEED Innovation Credit for Physical Activity, which was used in projects like the Department of Design and Construction (DDC)’s Riverside Health Center and an affordable housing project in the Bronx, Via Verde, which is expected to be certified LEED Gold by the U.S. Green Building Council. The goal is to reduce TV time by creating active recreation areas, and reducing elevator use by encouraging stairs.

The guidelines are voluntary. Is the goal to make these approaches mandatory for new projects in NYC and across the U.S.? What do you see as the pluses and minuses with integrating these recommendations into community landscape codes?

The guidelines were only launched in 2010. The positive feedback is very encouraging. We are fortunate to be able to apply them immediately to projects in New York City and beyond. New York City can advance the objectives of the guidelines in other communities by merely demonstrating its commitment. 

It may be a little early to discuss the pros and cons of integration with community landscape codes as we are receiving feedback from each project and still working with designers and policy makers. The lessons learned from a portfolio of projects will undoubtedly be the best guide to our next steps. Recommendations for pilot projects from landscape architects are welcome.

Working with the health department and using CDC funds, your department is now helping other cities adapt the guidelines to their own scenarios. Major cities like San Diego, Miami, and Boston along with smaller cities like Birmingham have already signed-on. Are the challenges facing larger and smaller cities trying to incorporate active design approaches different?

We are very early in the process and certainly understand scales matter. One major achievement of the guidelines has been to start a dialogue on active design in municipalities of all sizes. While larger cities have more resources, smaller cities can move policies faster. Think of all the towns and cities that have bicycle lanes already.

Based on the feedback to date, we also see the need for guidelines for suburban and rural communities and are looking for resources to implement this next phase. Another consideration is the different climates in the country. You pointed out geographically diverse cities. Outdoor summer and winter play are especially important to growing children and we have to be mindful of the settings and temperature conditions. Devising active transportation and recreation opportunities for indoors and outdoors, adults and children, are parallel goals that we are pursuing. Easy and affordable access is key.


The guideline’s urban design checklist starts at the broad scale. For example, the guidelines call for mixed land-uses; putting homes and workplaces near green spaces, recreation areas, and supermarkets; facilitating easy connections with a variety of transportation networks; and designing open spaces. However, these types of fixes can be expensive for smaller communities that have already sunk a lot of money into their infrastructure. How can communities retrofit themselves for active living in a low-cost way?

The guidelines are principles-based because we know that adaptations in different communities are important over time. Collaborations with planning and transportation departments is highly encouraged because the opportunity for large-scale change is critical to improving public health. Bringing active design and health into the conversation during zoning, transportation boards, and commissions meetings could be catalytic.

While planning efforts like those in the DCP’s Bicycle Master Plan and the Waterfront Comprehensive Plan in our city are very effective, active design can also be integrated in a variety of retrofit projects. We are seeing the success of new green streets and pedestrian plazas.


Another low cost strategy is turning passive outdoor space into active space. Childhood obesity is now a national conversation. Even with incremental changes in every project, they become permanent opportunities for people to become active. Fortunately, population health is measured over time.


Getting down to the nitty-gritty of street design, the guidelines also make specific recommendations for street calming, pedestrian pathway design, street-level programs like cafes and public art, and bicycle infrastructure. Can you name a couple active living design strategies you think landscape architects must look out for?

While there are specific recommendations, the guidelines are not meant to be prescriptive and we welcome the creativity of landscape architects in what you term street-level programs. We offer ample illustrations of what works well in New York City. 

Landscape architects can bring active living design strategies to a focus in many areas. For example, playground and natural and walking trail design are fertile grounds for further exploration. Bicycle trails and lanes are opportunities to collaborate with transportation engineers and planners. Waterfront park design is a growing field for landscape architects. These projects revitalize communities. Well-designed campuses filled with native plants provide a wonderful incentive for walking. Step streets and Safe Route to Schools projects offer similar active design potential. Green roofs encourage rethinking of the space on top of buildings. Gardening and urban agriculture, popular topics for many communities, are next steps that we are exploring now. These are just a few ways to promote physical activity. I look forward to collecting additional best practice examples from landscape architects in the future.

Also, at the end of April, I am participating in the MillionTreesNYC Planting Day with DDC volunteers to help advance Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC initiatives. Hopefully, landscape architects can catalyze the growth of similar local programs elsewhere and further promote active living and sustainability.

Interview conducted by Jared Green.

Image credits: (1) Active Design Guidelines / City of New York Department of Design and Construction, (2) Obesity rate maps / Active Design Guidelines, (3) High Line Park, New York City / Iwan Baan, (4) MTA Bike Rack by Grimshaw Architects / Municipal Arts Society of New York, (5) Public School 64, Queens. Thomas Balsley Associates, (6) Times Square Pedestrian Plaza / NYC Department of Transportation, (7) Queens Botanical Garden Sustainable Landscape / Conservation Design Forum, Elmhurst, Illinois

The Many Benefits of Public Art


According to Linda Slodki, Mt. Airy Art Garage, the arts are a highly cost-effective way of driving economic revitalization in urban areas. However, the arts not only spur economic development but also “shape our consciousness, create a collective attitude, inspire, remake behavior, and reduce stress.” In a session at the national Brownfields conference, both public artists and arts policymakers discussed how this process works.

Art Has Intrinsic and Instrumental Value

Gary Steuer, Philadelphia’s chief cultural officer, said the arts industries are deeply connected with economic development in his city. However, there’s still a raging debate over whether art has more intrinsic or instrumental value. Intrinsic value relates to the aesthetic value of any work of art, its own value as a piece of individual expression. Instrumental value relates to the ability of art to educate, create jobs, increase real estate value, build citizens, increase tourism, and provide other benefits.

While in 19th century France the argument was “art for art’s sake” because “art can’t support any political or social agendas,” Steuer says most artists working in the city today think “art can do both: provide aesthetic value and change the world.”

As an example, Steuer pointed to MASS MoCA, a 13-acre site in North Adams, Massachusetts. An unused building was turned into a space for “huge art installations.” MASS MoCa has had a “transformative effect on its community.” The building also houses creative design businesses like Web design firms. The museum itself has attracted 100,000 visitors, contributed $15 million to the local economy, and increased local property values by $14 million. In another example, Steuer explained how the Brooklyn Art Museum draws in half a million visitors a year and has helped preserve a multi-cultural neighborhood filled with old buildings. In addition, both of these projects had positive benefits without kickstarting gentrification.

Future Farmers Use the Land to Create Art

Amy Franceschini, an artist with Future Farmers, explained how her group reintroduced the concept of Victory gardens in front of San Francisco’s City Hall (image at top). Victory gardens were an initiative of the U.S. defense department during World War II designed to improve the self-sufficiency of the U.S. population. Families were encouraged to grow food in back lots or yards. Furthermore, President Roosevelt’s WPA put a lot of great artists to work creating “printed propaganda.” Franceschini believes “the imagery was key to the success of the project.”

To get their own massive public art project going in a major civic space, Future Farmers created their own imagery and tools. Their logo was a “pogo-stick shovel.” They designed a fun wheel-barrow bike. Seed banks were created for San Francisco’s distinct micro-climates. An online garden registry was created. With a $60,000 grant from the city, they also created a set of test plots throughout the city, which included raised beds, seeds, and water. In addition to educating residents about self-sufficiency, urban farming, and American history, one tangible result of this project was a directive that formalized the city’s committment to urban agriculture. Also, the art project brought in lots of visitors to City Hall.

In Philadelphia, Future Farmers has just launched an innovative project called Soil Kitchen. Given the building the team used is near a scultpure of Don Quixote, Franceschini decided to add a windmill on top of the building. Within the building, Future Farmers set up a soup kitchen for local residents. In a sort of interactive art piece, residents get free soup if they deliver a soil sample. Soil samples will be tested for contaminants and then plotted along a map of the city. The goal is to get thousands of samples to determine a broader soil remediation plan in the city.


Mel Chin Makes Fundreds

Mel Chin, public artist and provocateur, leapt to the stage at the conference, ripped off a staid suit to show an undercover miltary uniform, and brought out a large shovel. Leading the crowd in a marching cadence, he sang about his Operation Paydirt and Fundreds Dollar Bill project.

Chin said New Orleans was a “disaster before it was a disaster” because its soils were the most contaminated in the country. Extremely high levels of lead meant that “more than 30 percent of the population was poisoned before they reached adulthood.” He found that $300 million would clean up the city’s soils but he quickly realized getting a hold of those funds from the federal government was going to be very difficult.

Chin decided to create a public art project that would raise awareness about the dangers of soil contaminants and the need to remedy the soil problems in New Orleans. With a revamped biofuel-run armored truck, Chin travels to communities and schools around the country, asking students to create their own Fundred Dollar Bill. His goal is to create millions of these (he already has more than 350,000). Chin said “because we don’t have the funds, we must create something just as valuable as money. Human creativity is worth more than $300 million.”


Within communities, he’s created “safe houses”, buildings with fake bank vault exteriors. Using guards, a safe house stores some 10,000 Fundred dollar bills. Schools gather the community, waiting for the safe house to be opened, only for the kids to discover they need to create their own Fundred once they get inside. The armored truck also drove these bills to Philadephia, the site of the original U.S. Mint. His ultimate goal is to send these to Congress to get them to act on soil health. After coming to D.C., these bills will be added to the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Museum. Chin said they may end up at either the American History Museum or Hirshhorn.


Chin sees himself as merely a conduit or channel for collective action, not a clever conceptual artist. “Intense collaboration is the only way to get something done. I play a subservient role. I am just a delivery guy.” Given he’s too old to be an emerging artist, he believes he may be “submerging.”

Learn more about the Fundred Dollar Bill project and see a slideshow.

Image credit: (1) MASS MoCA / More Intelligent Life, (2) San Francisco City Hall Victory Garden / National Empowerment Network, (3) Soil Kitchen / Future Farmers, (4) Fundreds / Arts USA, (5) Fundred Safe House / Good Magazine

Interview with Jan Gehl


Jan Gehl, an architect and urban designer, is principal of Gehl Architects – Urban Quality Consultants, based in Copenhagen. Gehl has worked with a number of cities, including Copenhagen, London, New York City, and Guangzhou on how to become more people friendly. His most recent book is
Cities for People.

In your new book Cities for People, you say that the way cities have been planned and developed dramatically changed over the past few years, much for the worse. What happened to many cities? What went wrong?

The big change in paradigms happened around 1960. At that time, we had a modernist ideology but we didn’t use it very much because we were still adding small units to existing cities. It’s only when cities took off and planning really went up in scale and there was a rapid expansion of cities did the modernist principles become applied in practice. That meant that we were able to mass produce big buildings that could fill the whole landscape.

At the same time, planning took off as a profession. They took off in airplane so they could organize the new optics of the big city. Typically on a big model, you push around with the optics until bingo you had something that looks like some wonderful composition. Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, is a great example. From the air it’s very interesting. It’s interesting for a bird or eagle. From the helicopter view, it has got wonderful districts with sharp and precise government buildings and residential buildings. However, nobody spent three minutes to think about what Brasilia would look like at the eye level. That was typical — planners were to look after the plan, the architects were to look after the buildings. With modernism, they were free of the context of the city. They placed it on open lands surrounded by grass. Nobody was responsible for looking after the people who were to move in these new structures.

You would think that the landscape architects were the ones. At least they were down at eye level and were moving around. But as far as I’m concerned, some landscape architects have done great jobs for people, but most of the work is not great, just silly benches. They’re more occupied with plans and form. There’s a general pursuit of form in the area of architecture and also in the profession of landscape architecture. So, what really happened was that the eye level stuff were handled by the traffic engineers. They are the ones who mostly shaped our environments in our cities.

I sum up that in 50 years nobody has systematically looked after a good urban habitat for Homo sapiens. We have written very few books about it. There’s been very little research done. We definitely know more about good habitats for mountain gorillas, Siberian tigers, or panda bears than we do know about a good urban habitat for Homo sapiens. Nobody has taken an interest. If you look at the planning schools, you will find they don’t have a systematic education around the people scale and the small stuff. Look at the architecture school, are there any psychologists, sociologists, or doctors? No. They have a little bit of insight but then they go on making their funny perfume bottles. The landscape architects, maybe they are the nicest. I always felt, visiting landscape schools, that they had a nicer atmosphere. They were closer to the ground. But still the education concerning people is very weak if nonexistent. 

You argue that caring for people in the city is central to achieving “lively, safe, sustainable and healthy cities.” What are the best ways cities can care for their people?

It is my very firm point of view that if we take a more systematic approach and take these “cities for people” more seriously we will find that the cities would be considerably more friendly, livable, and lively because people will be in these cities more. We will find that the cities will become more attractive because the scale will be smaller and the pace and noise is lowered. The cities would be dominated by other people, which is the most interesting thing in our lives. They would be safer because if people are using a city it will be safer. They would be more sustainable because suddenly it’d be much easier to make cities where we can have a good quality public transportation system, where we can walk in style and dignity to and from the station day and night in safety and have a good time doing it. A good public transportation and a good public rail, they’re brothers and sisters. Finally, and this may be the most important thing, we would have natural activity built into the day.

In many countries, a world has been organized where you don’t have to move at all. In the old days, most of us had manual work. We had to shovel or brick lay or paint or plow the whole day. Now the great majority in the Western world is sitting throughout the day, sitting in the morning, sitting on the transport, sitting during work, sitting on the transport and sitting in the evening, tired and looking at television. In this way there is no natural activity built into the day. You have to set aside special fitness time. Some do but most don’t. That is why cities like Copenhagen, Melbourne, Sydney, New York and Vancouver now have a specific policy. These cities will do whatever they can to invite people to walk and bicycle as much as possible in the course of their daily activities. Only one hour of moderate exercise like walking for half an hour to work and half an hour back, or bicycling, can give you an extra seven years of life. If people will please start to move around themselves again, it will also give a much lower health bill to society.


To facilitate this, we can do a number of things. We can simply make sure that car parking lots are far away from where you have to go and there are many stairs in front of you instead of many escalators. There’s a number of things we can do to make a bicycle system really efficient — like in Copenhagen — so we hardly consider taking the car. I have a car and it could easily be three weeks where I don’t touch it because it’s smarter to walk, bicycle or take the bus or metro to most destinations. It’s only when I have to go out in the country then the car starts to be smart. This is a new type of city which is becoming more and more prominent because more and more city councils are deciding to do this. In Copenhagen, where they put all the expenses into a big computer, they are analyzing the cost of a person bicycling for one kilometer for society vs. the cost of a guy doing the same in a car. They found that every time there was a bicyclist doing a kilometer, the society picked up a quarter of a dollar and every time the same distance was driven in a car, society lost 16 cents.

You talk about how important it is to design for the human dimension or scale (not the building scale) and how critical our senses are in experiencing cities. What is the human scale? How can landscape architects make sure they’re incorporating this approach into their work?

Ah, that’s easy because I use about 30 or 40 pages in my book to painstakingly detail what human scale is and how you can find out about it. It is of course based on Homo sapiens, the speed with which we move, the way we move, how our limbs are organized, how our movement system, how our senses are geared to our being a walking animal, and are geared to see everything horizontally. We see everything horizontally but we see very little up and a little bit more down. We can see when we communicate with people, we have a very, very precise system. If it’s intimate, we are at a close distance. If I was to tell you about a big sad story I just had with one of my grandchildren, I would lean over and it would be very personal. If it’s sort of more common, we have the public, the social distance where we yak, yak, yak, and do interviews on landscape architecture. Then we have the public distance which is the distance between the priest and his congregation, teacher, pupil, whatever. We have a number of distances which are part of our instincts and upbringing.


We have been through all this evolution over all these millions of years. We are basically Homo sapiens with the same body worldwide. I’ve been able to expand my studies, which started in Italy and Scandinavia, to Bangladesh, India, China and the Middle East, and South America, where you will find all the basics are the same. If people are waiting for a bus, they will all the time stand with arm’s length between them until the bus comes because that’s part of the body, that’s part of the body whether you are Catholic or Muslim or whether it’s hot or cold. There are a number of rules that are basics that come from the body. I really have the feeling that in all cities where we feel really comfortable they correspond very nicely to the body. I can go to Venice and suddenly I relax, “ah, this is for me.” I could go to Portofino, I could go to Greek Islands, I could go to a number of places designed before the second world war, before the cars really blew the scale.

In this scale story, I have something that I call the five kilometer an hour scale. If we are to walk at five kilometers an hour, things have to be close so we can see them. There has to be frequent interesting things to see for it to be a nice walk. If you are in a car going 60 kilometer per hour, everything is blown up, the signs are blown up and there has to be something with great intervals for it to be a little bit exciting. If you, as a person, are out in a 60 kilometer per hour environment, you have the most boring time in your life. I do think that architects, landscape architects, and planners have gotten confused about scale. They constantly confuse car scale with people scale. Sometimes they make a mix, but most of the time they make car scale and say, look, there’s a sidewalk, people can walk here. What’s the problem? That is not at all exciting.

Which cities are getting the human scale right? Which did the worst job over the last 50 years? Which early offenders are doing the best at undoing the damage?

We do know now that it’s very difficult to undo damage. During the ’60s, European countries built social housing in big hig-rise buildings found on blocks based on modernist ideas. They had enough grass and tap water but they had nothing else. No squares or streets, maybe a playground far away. They had to go down from the 13th floor to play and, when they’re finished playing, go up again. Not easy, not easy. Many of these have become disasters. They are now occupied by the families with least resources and the most problems. They are a big problem area in England, Holland, Scandinavia, and Germany. Going in and improving them is quite difficult.

To fix this mess in the no man’s land between the buildings, they tried to articulate it very tightly so there will be allotment gardens. This is your garden. There will be areas for teenagers and younger children but also they use all the space to build new row houses. There will be a higher density. There are now some people living on the ground floor who can look for bicycle thieves and muggers and all the problems that go with all these problem-families being concentrated.

Also, I’ve been involved with some new towns where they were promised a fantastic urban environment and they just got the normal concrete desert. Again, it’s very expensive when they have invested all the money to come and change all the doors out on the sunny side, move the cafes away from the north and into the sun and south, and put all the benches up against the walls when they have systematically placed benches six meter from any back support. Of course, it’s much more comfortable to sit against a warm wall than sit without a back lean six meter out. So we talk about these cases where one has to parachute the little scale in: build pavilions, small gardens, and intimate spaces. We have this tendency today to over-scale everything in the public realm. We make far too many greens, boulevards, streets, roof terraces and promenades for fewer and fewer people in these new areas.

What are the unique challenges facing cities in the developing world? What are some examples of smart investments emerging cities can make in transportation, parks and street space?

In my book I end up by saying that it’s very well to take the cars out of Broadway on Times Square and make a nice space there. It’s very nice that we can turn Melbourne around and they would have a jolly good time in Melbourne with 15,000 café seats. But the real problem in all this is that people have not been properly taken care of for a long period because no profession has been responsible for making sure that happened. Everybody thought they knew about or that somebody else was doing it. This has been bad for Western cities, our city centers, our suburbs, our new districts, but it’s even worse now in the fast developing cities in the third world, where more and more cars or motorcycles are coming in each day, where people are being more and more suppressed, and their living conditions are falling. Livability is plunging while the economy may be going up. Of course, with this fast expansion, that’s where the major concerns should be.

I have no fast answers but luckily there are a number of people there who have done marvelous things. Jaime Lerner, the former mayor of Curitiba, has done this with bus rapid transit (BRT) in Curitiba and the former mayor of Bogota, Enrique Penalosa, has done with this parks, sidewalks, and the bicycle system. So, some of the things are being done in a few places. It’s lovely, wonderful that somebody has the strength to do it. Those models really showed the way. Now there are so many copying them.

A city’s edge, particularly the lower floors of a building, has a decisive influence on life in the city space. What’s the difference between hard and soft edges? Why are soft edges so important?

The hard edges are easy to define. If you have a blank wall or just glass, maybe black glass or whatever, you can, as a human being, do nothing and there’s no interest. The words “soft edge” mean a façade where a lot of things happen. It could be many doors, niches, or the vegetable seller putting out his tomatoes on the street. Soft edges could be the front yard where the kids are playing and grandma is sitting knitting just behind the hedge. We have found, of course, the ground floor is where the communication between building inside and outside occurs. That’s what you see. So if the ground floor is rich, the city is rich and it doesn’t matter what you do further up. Ralph Erskine said always make the ground floor very rich, use all the money on the ground floor, it doesn’t matter what’s further up because nobody sees that.

In my book, I point to several popular shopping streets where they have a shop every five meters, which coincides with the stimuli humans need every five seconds. If you walk at normal speed and there is a new door and a new exhibition every four, five, six meters, that will be just the ideal stimulation for your senses. But it also keeps room for one door and three meter of selling area. We have done some research in Copenhagen that compared a stretch of bad or dead façades with active, lively façades. There was was seven times more activity on that sidewalk. There was the same stream of pedestrians, but suddenly they stopped, looked, went in and out, and started to speak in mobile phones, and parked their bicycles.


You point to the world famous Piazza del Campo in Sienna, Italy, as a “100 percent place,” a model of how to design for the human scale. What is it about this 700 year old plaza that works so well? Are there are any modern parks and plazas that work equally as well?

If you take that the toolbox in the back of my book, you will find there are 12 quality criteria. If you go to Sienna you will find that all of them are carefully observed.


I know a number of new ones where they have also carefully observed them. In Copenhagen we have a place called Sankt Hans Square. In Norway they have a square in a new development called Aker Brygge. I do think that quite a few of them would be observed in the central square in Portland.

I know of one place where out of 12 they have blown 13. That’s about the worst place I know. In this place, there are people in great numbers. It’s an important rail junction and there’s a shopping mall. What people hit that square, they run as fast as they can from the metro over to the shopping mall and then back again. They are in the square an average of 22 seconds. So, with the quality of the space you offer, you influence what people do enormously.

Lastly, your book includes a great toolbox with dos and don’ts that every landscape architect should know. If you could magically fix just one of your don’ts everywhere, which would you choose?

How the building lands is the most important of all issues. It’s all about how the land falls. Also, very few (and closed) doors, along with sleek corporate surfaces, are also a big don’t. Communities need to offer little gardens, groceries and children playing. The battle for quality is won in the small scale. This is even more true where the buildings touch the city.

Interview conducted by Jared Green

Image credits: (1) Island Press, (2) Brasilia, (3) Melbourne Federation Square, (4) Social Distances, (5) Example of soft edges, (6) Piazza del Campo, Sienna, Italy / Gehl Architects

Robert Irwin on the Mechanics of Experience


Robert Irwin was the keynote speaker at the Parsons conference, “Aftertaste 2011: Immaterial Environments,” this past weekend. His lecture, “On the Nature of Abstraction,” was a meditation on the “mechanics of experience.” Sitting on a simple stool with his typical sunglasses (he has glaucoma) and baseball cap, Irwin begins the lecture by claiming to be dumfounded by the praise that was lavished by Jonsara Ruth and Sanford Kwinter who handled his introductions. Irwin then began an hour of speaking and drawing which was both humble in presentation and humbling in clarity and power. 

On the chalkboard wall behind him he writes the following list:

Sentient Being              Cognitive Self
Immaterial                      Material
Visceral                           Cerebral
Perception                      Conception
Feelings                          Thinking
Beauty                            Truth
Actual                              Factual

Irwin explores Edward Husserl‘s “phenomenological reduction.” He recalls the simple optical trick most of us have experienced — there is a red triangle which we concentrate on and, when it’s removed, there is a green after-image. Irwin says the green is more brilliant to us because the red is “coded.” We understand red and don’t need to actively engage in its perception. The green is brilliant because it’s “phenomenologically experienced in a direct manner.” It’s the relationship and tension between the experience of the sentient being and the cognitive self that is a miracle for Irwin. “What more could an artist or human want than to examine the complexity and richness in this tension and use this inquiry to ask how the world is constructed and also how can it be otherwise?” There’s no answer, but it’s a beautiful conundrum. 

The history of abstraction in modern art is one of “phenomenal abstraction.” Irwin shows a slide pairing the painting The Coronation of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David with White on White by Russian artist Kazimir Malevich, explaining that during a hundred years we moved from a pictorial, recognizable approach to the “nature of seeing” to dealing with a “desert of pure feelings,” as Malevich would later claim. This is a fascinating history. 



Irwin then highlights the progression through to Piet Mondrian’s work, in which we see a very linear, gradual movement from pictorial work into that of pure energy. This is not an exercise in abstraction, but an observation about the nature of seeing. Modern art had witnessed almost the end of the pictorial and arrived at the world of pure relations. Mies’ famous dictum “less is more” was actually “Less is more, only when less is the sum total of more.” This is a world of relationships. It’s a pursuit of stripping experience down to its essence. Unfortunately, as a style in the hands of everyday practitioners, it became a “vacuous style and died.” It takes a meditation over a long period of time to understand things; it takes a hands-on approach for intense pursuit. 

The ability to create so much power with less really is a reflection of the power of a human being and the act of seeing. Irwin now describes his meditation over a long period of time, describing how he spent two years moving lines on paintings up or down by a quarter of an inch to try and find how this small act reorganized the whole painting (see image at top). These line paintings gave way to the “dot” paintings which Irwin claimed was the best thing he had done in his life at that point. This field of pure energy was a work that the “eye couldn’t solve and thus the eye was caught up in the continuous process of looking.” 

Despite the personal satisfaction in these paintings, Irwin was now confronted with the frame. He had succeeded in painting a work that had no subject and no mark, but was structured and contained in a frame. This frame had never been questioned in the history of painting, but was in direct contrast to the way we experience the world. “There are no frames in the world.” 

This brings Irwin to his continual focus – the mechanics of experience and how all perception is subjective. The world is not given to us, we actively construct it. We construct it by valuing certain things over others in our perceptive system. We notice some things and not others. In this sense, perception is the foundation of ecology. “What we place a value on we let into our lives and care for.” Think of the language describing the desert: desolate and solitary. This language was written by early pioneers who were homesick for wet landscapes and this language came back and created policy and structured cultural values. (This idea was actually offered by Dean Bill Morrish in the roundtable discussion, but fits Irwin’s long standing interest in the capacity for pure experience in the desert.) 

Irwin concludes his lecture by claiming that “art in public places is bullshit. It’s just another form of graffiti.” For an artist working the world, the question is simply: “Does it work?” Irwin also ends by wondering aloud whether “we will we honor the ecology of our world and value it” or just screw it up like we have been doing? Both of these questions come back to our experiences in the world. As designers of public and private space, we are charged with revealing and honoring this relationship.

Check out some of Irwin’s recent work.

This guest post is by Andrew Zientek, RLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture (MLA) II candidate, Harvard GSD. 

Image credits (1) Robert Irwin / Transformational Tools Energy and Mind, (2) Jacques-Louis David, The Coronation of Napoleon / Wikipedia, (3) Suprematist Composition: White on White, Kazimir Malevich / MOMA.org

Ecosystems: Forever Changing


At a conference organized by the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER), Kathy Poole, ASLA, a landscape architect and urban designer who focuses on “ecological infrastructure,” argued that ecosystems are “forever changing and emerging” because people are intimately linked with their evolution. Instead of thinking of “new types of ecosystems,” Poole believes it’s more useful to look to the past given “nothing new has been happening.” Also, for older projects and ecosystems, “the data sets are so much better and richer.”

Looking to the past, Poole said the Emerald Necklace, Frederick Law Olmsted’s masterpiece park in Boston, was not an ecological restoration project but it did provide many critical ecosystem services. Before the creation of the Emerald Necklace, Boston was suffering from cholera outbreaks due to improper sewage treatment. Human waste was spilling out of the city’s combined sewage and water management systems and washing up on Boston’s shores. “The carrying capacity of the city’s water infrastructure was overwhelmed.”

Olmsted was tasked with creating a park that also doubled as green infrastructure. The park needed to help solve the city’s water management problems. However, Olmsted didn’t use the site to restore “anything.” There were no native plants. Given the salinity of the soils, “native plants wouldn’t have worked anyway.” In addition, the eventual underground water conduit system put in place bypassed the Back Bay Fens, which is why “the landscape works at all.” Poole said the system “was technically sophisticated but not a natural solution.” She added, “millions of people living tightly together in one urban area isn’t natural” so how could the infrastructure solution be “natural”? In these man-made urban environments, the systems are what matters.

Olmsted only planned for the water management, health, and aesthetic components of the Emerald Necklace. “He did look at soil formation but not at biodiversity.” Aesthetics was a primary focus, “perhaps it was the focus too much. There was no thinking about the trajectory of the ecology put in place there.” Nowadays, Poole added, landscape architects have to be “much more rigorous about initial goals and objectives” for ecological restoration.

When restoring a site now, Poole asks herself a number of questions:

  • How can we keep from degrading things further?
  • What ecological functions can I preserve?
  • What eco-types can I define?

In a project at the 2,600-acre Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in the Chesapeake Bay region, Poole is creating a new ecological system for the Mathias Lab building. The project, which the Smithsonian calls “the machine in the garden,” will integrate “experimental wetland pools” into the landscape. These pools will serve multiple functions — they will be test beds for Smithsonian researchers; serve as public education tools; recycle water; nourish nearby native plant meadows; and manage stormwater onsite. “This is a highly calibrated system because they need to be able to do experiments with it.” (As a practical tip for landscape architects working in an era of limited budgets, Poole added that “making your project part of the building means it will be harder to cut.”)

Poole argues that humans, as a species, are “selfish, ignorant, and oppressive” but not invasive. People are inherently a part of ecosystems – intrinsically “native.” As a result, there isn’t any “pristine” nature free of human influence. “People are running the show. We have to leave moralism aside.”

Having said that, Poole said she has “walked away from projects that wreck havoc on the environment.” Getting political, Pooled added that we can’t all be “Saint Al Gore, nor do I want to be, but we do have to ask scientists what to do before we try to restore an environment.”

Poole said in the future landscape architects and restoration ecologist must use “more robust adaptation strategies.” However, in the end, the decision to do this kind of work needs to be made by communities. “It’s a social problem.” What we really need is “brave people who can create new environments without moralism, with science, and with adaptation strategies.”

Image credit: The Emerald Necklace, Boston / Flickr

Restoration Ecologists Must Focus on New Challenges


During a talk at a Society of Ecological Restoration (SER) conference, Alex Felson, ASLA, an Assistant Professor at Yale University and practicing landscape architect, argued that demand for the skills of restoration ecologists is only going to increase as more governments focus on how best to adapt to urbanization and climate change. However, many restoration ecologists aren’t addressing these burgeoning challenges and are trapped in “traditional practices,” like getting degraded ecosystems to work again, which is “understandable” given they have “their hands full enough just with this work.” Furthermore, these ecologists are at a disadvantage because much of their work is research-intensive and “site-specific.” Still, restoration ecologists need to think more broadly and consider how restoration work can serve “science, climate adaptation, and the public good” if they are going to remain relevant and solve today’s pressing environment and social issues.

To serve the public well, restored urban landscapes must be both sanctuaries and public landscapes. However, Felson said there’s “no happy medium.” A restoration project can be a wildlife habitat (an oasis). It can feature bridges over the habitat to improve public access, which would raise infrastructure costs, or it can simply be an open access park, which may mean negative impacts on the restored environment. As an example of one balance that was reached, Felson discussed the recent Presidio Trust afforestation project, which involved creating a new seed bank and trying to strike a balance between ecological and recreation requirements. He also pointed to Michael Van Valkenburg Associates’ Brooklyn Bridge Park, which has both open parks and new constructed wetlands. However, he asked, “How functional is that system?”

Felson argued that restoration ecologists and landscape architects work with imperfect knowledge, but urban spaces provide a range of opportunities for “constructing nature.” The line between public space and restored habitat is blurring. Urban ecosystem functions can now be the focus. “We can rethink urban watersheds in terms of the function of the city.” In addition, all those current public landscapes serve as opportunities for “embedding restoration.”

Felson said artful representations of nature are needed to get people to care about a site’s natural qualities. However, this type of nature need not be conventional. Indeed, he made a plug for the “aesthetics of experimentation.” Parks can be a “collection of patches,” separate lots spread through a neighborhood. Parking lots can be “replicated wetlands.” A collage aesthetic can be used, like a prairie shifting over time. “In fact, the idea of an ecological system as a collage has influenced many artists over the years.”

With James Corner Field Operations, Felson experimented with creating a small prairie on the new section of the High Line Park in New York City. In a sort of urban experiment, Felson set fire to the prairie grasses in the same way farmers would do controlled burns on real prairies. Working with Ken Smith Workshop, Felson also created a design for East River planters in New York City, which would create a pier that also acted like a food chain, “a catalytic food web.” There are also opportunities for “experimentaiton” with climate change adaptation. In Connecticut, he’s working on a coastal resiliency project with The Nature Conservancy to “collaboratively develop restoration projects through adaptation.”

New York City is investing in ecological research in its Million Trees NYC program. As a director of the ecological research program, Felson is helping to incorporate cutting-edge ecological research into the largest urban forestry project in the U.S. He’s struggling with questions like: How can we set up ecological research in a public environment? He’s using plots or clusters set in the landscape to test the performance of a variety of tree and shrub combinations. The innovative NYC government views its million tree campaign as a way to test the impact of different types of replanted nature to see which has the best impact on biodiversity.

Still, when recreating nature in urban spaces, it’s not clear to Felson whether the “naturalist aesthetic” is the way to go. “Naturalist design lays out complexity; it looks like nature.” Playing devil’s advocate, he wondered whether these sites actually function like nature though?

Image credit: Presidio Forest / eWallpaper

How to Recreate a Waterbird Habitat


At a conference organized by the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER), Michael Erwin, a Research Professor and Wildlife Biologist at the University of Virginia, described how he’s leading the massive $450 million Poplar Island restoration project that is creating critical waterbird nesting grounds on islands in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay. Lost to erosion and rising water levels, the islands are being restored, even re-created, at great expense in order to save valuable species in a threatened ecosystem.

The Chesapeake Bay is in “dire straits,” says Erwin. Increased pollution has caused nitrogen levels to go through the roof. With climate change, islands are rapidly disappearing, which has had an impact on native species populations and diversity. On Watts Island alone, a 35 percent loss in island territory has resulted in a 65 percent species loss. Ducks are down 62 percent, laughing gulls down 72 percent.

To restore the waterbird population on the 1,550-acre Poplar Island, an island that was fast disappearing, Erwin said there were “hundreds of meetings” to determine the “suite of species” to be selected for repopulation. To create a safe location for the species, new granite rock walls were brought in on barges. These walls provide a solid frame for adding new soil, beach sands, and 550 acres of wetlands. “The goal is restore, but it’s as much a creation as restoration site. We are creating new wetlands.”

The U.S. government required that uncontaminated soils be brought to Poplar Island. This means materials couldn’t get shipped from excavated brownfield sites in Baltimore. He said it’s a good thing “$450 million will buy you a lot of new soil.” Heavy machinery-dredged sludge is now pumped into the site. The sludge, which he described as “chocolate mousse,” is cleaner yet easy for construction workers to get stuck in. New sand was also shipped in.

A wide range of tern species have returned, but monitoring showed that their numbers dipped in the past few years. This fall in the tern population was due to early invaders, foxes and owls, which threatened nesting grounds. Erwin said some foxes had been “disposed of,” but owls may be more challenging. “Which is worse – a fox or owl?,” he wondered. In addition, diamondback terrapins also like it there.


Restoration “takes a long time.” The project is expected to take some 10-20 years. Still, the bay’s residents remain fascinated and the project’s public education campaign has yielded successes: locals, bird watchers, and conservationists are flocking to the island to witness the ongoing restoration. It’s gotten to the point where the project had to buy a bus.

Learn more about how to take a tour.

Image credit: (1) Poplar Island restoration / University of Maryland, Center for Environmental Science, (2) Poplar Island tern / Trailpixie on Flickr

The Rise of Novel Ecosystems


Novel ecosystems are new combinations of species and result from the influence of people, said Marilyn Jordan, Senior Conservation Scientist, The Nature Conservancy at a conference organized by the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER). Starting in the 1700’s, classic “biomes” started to reflect human changes. Now, more than half of natural wilderness has been impacted by people, with just 22 percent of the original wild left relatively untouched. Within this new human-dominated globe, some 37 percent of all ecosystems are novel. These could be former agriculture sites or new forms of urban ecosystems. In terms of biodiversity, this has meant a shift from native to non-native. For land-use, this process has meant a shift from functional uses for nature to simply ornamental ones. Both these trends need to stop and be rolled back.

To ensure people can continue to use nature for common benefit and gain from nature’s many ecosystem services, genes found in nature’s diversity must be maintained. Genetic richness is also needed for climate change — future adaptations can’t happen without a wide gene pool. As Jordan put it bluntly, “you can’t evolve if you’re dead.” Conservationists, however, are still debating whether it’s important to “save the stage and lose the actors” or focus on the “place, which is more important than any species there.” Instead, Jordan thinks it’s about ecosystem stability and productivity. 

Ecosystems are fragile. She explained that an ecosystem is like a plane. “If you start taking parts of out of the plane, it may continue to fly, but eventually it will crash.” Ecosystems all have breakpoints. “We can remove species but when we hit a certain point, there’s a rapid decline.” For example, many insect species – even “generalists” – are able to eat only a few plant species. If the native plants they rely on are pushed out of the way by non-native invasives, the insect species die. Looked at another way: in its native range, one plant may support 170 species, but outside its normal range, only supports five species. In ecosystems where 90 percent is non-native, there is no functioning food web left. Jordan says “butterflies can’t be supported by non-native species.” In these instances where native habitat has been taken over by non-native invasives, “we may need thousands of years to return to previous levels of diversity.”

To prevent ecosystem change, restoration ecologists focus on “early detection and rapid response.” To manage inevitable change, they focus on “eradication, containment, exclusion, and suppression.” Managing involves creating refuges for native species and genotypes. In these instances, “we’ll have to accept novel ecosystems.” Still, Jordan argued for not giving up. “We can take an ecosystem-level approach” or a wide view of restoration. “Eventually, this means we’ll need to manage that complex matrix though.”

Residential homes are a central part of novel ecosystems and homeowners can take some positive action on their own in the near-term. She made a pitch to homeowners: shrink lawns, remove non-native plants in favor of native ones, and leave leaf litter, which is habitat for bugs. These steps are actually crucial because lawns now make up more habitat in the U.S. than native land. Furthermore, to make novel ecosystems more amenable to biodiversity, “we actually need to make it illegal to sell non-native invasives” in the residential landscape marketplace.

Image credit: Example of sustainable residential design with use of native plants. ASLA 2008 Residential Design Honor Award, San Juan Island Residence, San Juan Islands, Washington. Paul Broadhurst & Associates, Seattle, Washington

The Brave New World of Ecological Restoration


At a Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) conference entitled, “Brave New World: Working with Emerging Ecosystems,” Jack Sullivan, FASLA, Professor and coordinator of the new landscape architecture program at the University of Maryland College Park, said ongoing deforestation and urbanization is actually a “war on nature.” Furthermore, any attempt to restore nature that has been taken over by development can’t rely on the “natural history of a site” for guidance. These “post-traumatic” landscapes have been altered too much. Ecological restorationists and landscape architects, who are at the “front lines” of the battle and are the “heroes in this brave new world,” must take better advantage of ecological research in order to restore nature. To date, a restoration approach based in ecological research has often come into conflict with the “big D” design approach to a site. The end goal shouldn’t be a place “that could be anywhere so you don’t know where you are.” A restored landscape must reflect a careful examination of the site and its natural history.

One of the front lines of this war for ecological restoration are “novel ecosystems,” which are “ecosystems that have purposefully emerged because of the presence of people,” said Margaret Palmer, Director of the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory and Professor at University of Maryland. Novel ecosystems beg questions: How do they work ecologically? Should we restore them to a more natural state? Maybe they should be left as is?

As an example, Palmer pointed to attempts at ecological restoration that have gone awry: channelized rivers that were restored and ended up turning into muddy, non-functional ditches. In other cases, large-scale power dams, which are huge interventions in natural riverine systems, are actually blocking the spread of non-native species, so keeping them in some places could be a good thing. In addition, some ecological restorationists have tried to restore to some vision of nature that didn’t really exist in an environment. Referring to well-regarded research on smaller mill dams, Palmer said once mill dams were removed on one site, new natural channels added didn’t work. Instead, “threaded channels” like a wetland were the correct application of nature. 

We live in a “human-dominated world” but nature is constantly changing. “Rivers and streams are actually fixed in a state of change.” In another example, Palmer said fisheries have a changing baseline, having been depleted over time. Relating this to a forest, Palmer asked, “at what point do we chose a baseline?”

“Reference” sites are even declining. “Should we use least-impacted reference sites instead?” She argued that this approach “makes you feel like you are giving up on restoring nature.”

So “how do we restore nature if the world is changing and we can’t go back in time?” One way to restore a stream is to look at flow records, the “historical natural flow regime.” This, in fact, should be “embedded in any stream restoration.” In addition, restoration ecologists can design a channel based on what “we think it will be like,” and calculate slope, depth, and scale based on estimated flow. “This hydrologic and geo-morphologic model for change is extremely complex and multi-variate though.”

Palmer argued that restoration is “big business” these days. Lots of state and municipal governments are investing in restoring nature. In these efforts, the priority has been conservation; then “passive restoration,” or removing obstacles; then “active restoration,” like creating a new wetland from scratch; and finally, creating “designer ecosystems” – creating a wholesale new stream where there was none before. 

She concluded “maybe it’s not possible to keep everything we want. We can restore certain ecosystem service functions.” (Unless, that is, those certain functions can’t even be supported in degraded environments). In these cases, communities need to decide what is the priority, and ask “What services do we want from rivers? Communities can chose the ones they want and decide on a process to get that.” Restoration ecologists and landscape architects can then “manipulate ecological processess and biophysical structures to get services back.” Given tight budgets, communities must first make priorities when restoring nature.

Image credit: ASLA 2009 Professional Analysis & Planning Honor Award. Brays Bayou Greenway Framework, SWA Group