Using Nature to Reinvent Cities

Dan Kaplan, who runs the urban design practice for FXFOWLE, argued for integrating innovative green designs into buildings and streets at a session at the National Building Museum. To reinvent cities, planners, landscape architects, and architects can create “regenerative places” that provide multiple benefits.

The two major U.S. development models – Orange County, California, and New York City – present two extremes. In terms of carbon dioxide emissions, the Orange County model is highly polluting: each single family home spews 44,000 lbs of CO2 and each car adds another 20,000 lbs of C02 into the atmosphere every year. In comparison, the average New Yorkers’ home adds 17,000 lbs into the atmosphere and riding the subway every day just adds 7 lbs of C02 annually. 

The debate over how to live has gone on for many years, Kaplan said. Ebenezer Howard came up with the concept of the Garden City, and created his “three magnets” diagram that outlined the forces shaping peoples’ demand for living spaces. Kaplan said a key question asked by Howard was: “Where will people go?” In the end, “they will live somewhere they find attractive,” and Howard’s hybrid “town-country” model became the most desirable, attractive model.

However, Kaplan believes that while this town-country model, otherwise known as suburbia, has ruled as a development pattern, it may be fading as the de-facto model. “People thought suburbia would be the best of both worlds – nature and the city. In reality, it may be the worst of both worlds.” To create a more “naturalized” version of the city, urban policymakers and designers need to “integrate an expansion of nature within the city.” While this vision competes with the many other urban design ideas out there, and also overlaps with some existing theories (ecological urbanism, landscape urbanism), Kaplan says his ideas focuses explicitly on the “regenerative effects” of nature.

For example, FXFOWLE is working on a new 180,000 square foot palliative care center for the HealthCare Chaplaincy, a non-profit health organization, along the East River  in Manhattan (see image above). The building will curve or “butterfly out” so patients in the 108-room assisted living facility, who are all facing fatal illnesses, can get views of the river. The LEED Platinum building’s exterior is sheathed in a combination of vegetated and passive cooling ledges, and solar panels. The vegetation cleans the air circulating up from F.D.R. expressway and provides the structure of the facade. “The landscape architects we worked with basically made the walls out of planting material.” Kaplan said the building, which uses half the energy of a standard building of its size, proves that “vegetative facades” will become the norm. “Integrating nature into a vertical building is an up and coming approach.” In addition, for patients, “this will be the last room they have on earth.” The idea is that nature should be used to enhance their wellbeing as much as possible.

At a larger scale, FXFOWLE is partnering with landscape architecture firm Starr Whitehouse to reconfigure Water Street in downtown Manhattan so it better integrates nature and offers a more people-friendly environment. “The current street level is an absymal place.” There are 8 acres of privately owned public space separated into 20 underused plazas along Water Street running from Battery Park to Fulton Street, but “they are diffuse, not well-designed.” Redistributing the public space, creating a new boulevard, strengthening the connection to the water, and redesiging the public ground floor spaces to enhance street life will help turn Water Street into a sustainable, regenerative urban space.

Right now, Water Street has “too much street.” It’s 60 feet wide. Much of that space will be taken up by new street trees, bike lanes, and wider sidewalks with benches and amenities. The entire project, which is being financed by NYC Planning Department streetscape improvement funds and the private storefront owners, is expected to cost just $7-9 million. Also, Wall Street, which now ends up at the river as a sort of “service exit” will become a “hybrid street” and public space with water features and a farmer’s market. To deal with all the blank, negative facades, Kaplan said FXFOWLE and Starr Whitehouse will encourage storefront owners to create “art, display, or green walls” where they can’t convince owners to create new stores, coffee shops, or other storefront space. In addition, lighting will be a focus, with the “canopy of trees lit at night.”

To conclude, Kaplan quoted William Whyte who said “we design human ecosystems whether we acknowledge this or not.” Given that, it’s “best to design these ecosystems intentionally.” Agreed, but perhaps in the future, New York City will also direct some of their streetscape funds towards outer-borough, lower-income neighborhoods with abysmal street corridors.

Image credits: (1) HealthCare Chaplaincy / FXFOWLE, (2) Howard’s Three Magnets / Tomorrow’s Garden City, (3) Water Street Redesign / Starr Whitehouse and FXFOWLE, (4) Wall Street redesign / Starr Whitehouse and FXFOWLE

Interview with Lyanda Lynn Haupt, Author of “Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness”

Lyanda Lynn Haupt is an award-winning author, speaker, and naturalist based in Seattle. Her latest book,
Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness, which David Sedaris called “completely charming and informative,” received the 2010 Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award. Haupt blogs at The Tangled Nest.

Your new book, Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness, is all about the relationship between people and crows in urban areas. You say it’s a bit strained on both sides. How have the issues changed over the years?

In urban places, crow populations tend to echo human populations. This means that the more concrete we make, and the more humans we make (these tend to go hand in hand), the more crows there will be among us. Just 50 years ago in Seattle, where I live, it was a big deal to see 20 crows in one place. Now, of course, there are autumn roosts in the thousands, and nearly all of us cross paths with numbers of crows every day. It’s funny to hear people say, “Where did all these crows come from?” as if their presence is some kind of sudden surprise, instead of the slow-growing outcome of years of urban planning (or lack of it) in which native habitat was chopped to bits, impervious surfaces reigned, and botanical structure was dramatically simplified. Very few native birds and creatures can survive in such places, but the adaptable, omnivorous, highly intelligent crow can.

We are all now living in Crow Planet, a place characterized by the spread of “crow-ness.” What is crow-ness? What does it say about urban ecosystems and the role people play in nature?

“Crow-ness” is the ubiquitous presence of a large, native bird right in the heart of urban places. It speaks deeply to the fact that the way we create our homes and neighborhoods—both in terms of structure and personal habits– has a lot (not everything, but a lot) to do with determining the nonhuman species that can live among us, and how we might flourish together. The title of my book is Crow Planet, which has two interrelated meanings. On the one hand, it refers to a planet (our planet) on which native biodiversity is deeply threatened, and the rich variety of species is being replaced by a few dominant, successful species—species such as crows. At the same time, “Crow Planet” invokes the idea that no matter where we dwell and no matter how urban our homes, we are implicated in wildlife, and we are informed and enlivened by the presence of native, wild creatures—again, creatures such as crows. We navigate our daily lives in light of both these truths.

New research shows that crows can recognize individual people and once someone makes it on to a crow’s shit list, it’s impossible to get off it. Are crows the only birds with this ability to recognize people? What other unique cognitive capabilities do they have?

This is actually a really fun study out of the University of Washington. The crows on campus hated the students who had trapped and banded them, and they wanted to figure out how the crows recognized them afterwards—was it their face, their gait, their tattoos? So they put caveman masks on the birdbanders, and later, students who had not banded birds wore the same mask and strolled around the places the banded birds hang out. The crows went crazy, scolding and divebombing the caveman mask wearers. So it seemed the crows recognized their faces. For a control (just to make sure the crows weren’t recognizing masked individuals in general) they put Dick Cheney masks on the non-banders, and the crows left them completely alone (yes, in this case Dick Cheney got to be the good guy!). I still wonder whether crows use other clues in recognizing individuals. It seems that they can pick out people they don’t like from a long ways away—maybe they can recognize us by our faces, but also by other cues, just as we can recognize people we know well from afar, through a sort of gestalt.

Other birds, including some species not normally considered to be particularly intelligent, like pigeons, can recognize individual people (every city park has a resident pigeon feeder, and the birds recognize them from a long ways off). And of course we know that our dogs and cats, and presumably their wild kin can recognize individual humans. I suspect that while not all animals can do it, many many can. 

Obviously crows hate people who trap and band them, but the main reason they decide to dislike us is they perceive us to be venturing too close to their nest or chicks, in which case they will vocally scold us, and maybe even bodily divebomb our heads. This habit is seasonal, and it makes sense—we are big mammals, many of us hate crows, and crows have very large nests and loud young that are difficult to hide (smaller birds that can hide their nests don’t need to resort to such bold tactics). Crows are not “mean,” they are simply protective parents, and as soon as the years hatchlings are grown, the crows will usually calm down. As you say, sometimes crows will keep you on their “shit list” forever, but often, if you behave, they’ll eventually leave you in peace. During nesting season, try to avoid crow nests, or appear uninterested in them. And if the crows still hate you, you can always try wearing a Dick Cheney mask. 

Crows may be the most common wild native beings that humans regularly see. However, are they truly wild given their close interaction with people and dependence on human waste for food? In their dependence on human systems, how do crows compromise to accommodate us?

If you believe that “wild” is some romanticized state that involves a lack of human presence, then crows might not seem very wild. But of course they are a native species, not introduced, not escaped from domestic stock. They are free to leave cities, and are entirely autonomous beings. They would not die without us. I consider them to be entirely wild. They have, however, adapted well to human presence—avoiding us just enough to feel safe nesting among us, while reaping the benefits of city life:  french fries; gardens full of fruit, seedlings, and worms; fresh roadkill. And because most bird species cannot tolerate urban conditions, crows reap all of these benefits with very little competition.

There are compromises from the crow side—cars are dangerous, especially for naïve hatch-year birds, and many of them die on the streets; city food is not as healthy as suburban/rural food, and some researchers believe that this may actually decrease crow longevity; and it appears that things like traffic, noise, and general urban hustle-bustle may stress crow nervous systems in the same ways they stress humans.

You say most of us, unwittingly, live in a zoopolis, a multi-layered place where the city meets the zoo, an overlap of human and animal geographies. How then can landscape architects design cities so that humans and different animal species can better co-exist? Do we even want to design cities so they are more livable for species like crows?

Oh, we definitely don’t want more crows! The role of the landscape architect in creating cities livable to creatures in the more-than-human world involves the opposite—working to structure human habitations that are more hospitable to a greater variety of native animals, and less hospitable to species such as crows. There is no one way to do this. For decades the wisdom from conservation biology has involved the preservation of large forest fragments—the bigger the better, and this was viewed as the most important thing. And it’s true—leaving remaining woodlands undisturbed is essential. But we’re learning that there are other elements at play—when we decrease impervious surfaces, increase the number of trees (especially native trees, including conifers where appropriate), and work to create a multilayered botanical structure, more native forest birds turn up, even in urban places.

So we can go from city neighborhoods that host mainly crows, starlings, pigeons, house sparrows, robins, and flickers (the most common urban woodpecker), to places that also support birds that can flourish alongside human habitation, when attention is paid to their requirements: migratory warblers, various thrushes, Western or scarlet tanagers, downy or hairy woodpeckers, and others. But of course it’s complicated—treed areas may be more spread out, and sprawling human neighborhoods can be more damaging to sensitive native species than smaller areas of urban density, even if this means sacrificing trees. Nothing is straightforward.

We’ve also heard cases of coyotes making parts of Chicago a core component of their ranges. How can we better manage relationships with other wild species entering into the urban realm?

With as much intelligence and grace as we can muster. I believe strongly that our human lives our enriched by the privilege of living in proximity with healthy, wild animals (this is actually the subject of my next book). Problems come when there is direct contact between humans or our pets, and coyotes (opossums, raccoons…). The key is to minimize potential conflicts by creating cities in which wild mammals can find a place, while not attracting them close to our homes. Keep an eye on birdfeeders—if they are bringing rats and raccoons at night, then they might not be worth it. Pet food, which attracts opossums, rats, raccoons, and even coyotes, should not be left out at night—nor should our pets. Garbage cans should have tight, fitted lids. When wild mammals become habituated to human homes, seeing them as a food source they are entitled to, they can become bold, and potentially more aggressive–that’s when wildlife biologists start to worry. But here is another role for urban planners and architects—cities can plan for edges and botanical structures that accommodate the needs of wildlife, while minimizing contact with humans.

Lastly, you say some people may fear crows as harbingers of death. Why is this case given they have some of the most complex social groups, like those of elephants, dolphins, and primates?

The association between crows and death runs deep—we see it in art and mythology across times and cultures. This makes sense—part of the crow diet is based in scavenging, so we see crows eating dead animals. These days, this is usually roadkill, and it is actually an ecological service in cities, where there is little soil in which dead animals can decompose. But some still find it unsettling. Long ago in human-crow history, things were much worse. Before the Civil War, when removal of bodies during war time was not at all efficient, crows turned up after battles, and during the plague they also ate bodies put out in the village streets, which of course would have been terribly disturbing. Even though we don’t see such things today, the cultural baggage is difficult to shake. And of course, crows are a large, dark, shadowy presence—the symbolic associations with our perception of death are heavy.

Curiously, like only the most intelligent animals, crows appear to have a strong awareness of the death of another crow in their own social or familial circle, and there are hundreds of anecdotal reports of “crow funerals,” where birds gather around the body of a fallen crow in utter silence. This is unknown in other bird species, and speaks to the tremendous complexity of the crow mind and social structure. There is still much to learn from observing these complex birds in our daily lives. 

Interview conducted by Jared Green.

Image credit: (1) Crow Planet / Little, Brown and Company, (2) Crow divebombing /  Dr. Pat. Flickr, (3) Urban crows eating garbage / Crafty Green Poet, (4) ASLA 2008 General Design Honor Award. Lagoon Park: Living at the Edge of Wilderness, Santa Barbara, California. Van Atta Associates, Inc., Santa Barbara, California

How to Design a Bicycle City

Washington, D.C. has moved from the bottom of the rankings to being a top 10 bicycle-friendly city in just ten years. A group of experts, including Jim Sebastian, Washington, D.C. Department of Transportation, Jennifer Toole, ASLA, Toole Design Group, and Shane Farthing, Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) explained how the city did it at an event at the National Building Museum.

The Benefits of Bicycling

“Why invest in bicycle infrastructure?,” asked Jim Sebastian, D.C. Department of Transportation. An eight mile car ride puts 15 pounds of air pollution into the atmosphere while the same bicycle trip creates no emissions. Bicyclists help reduce congestion. They create economic benefits. A district study found the biking industry contributed $24 million to the D.C. economy just through jobs for bike store employees. In addition, bicycle parking spots mean more customers can access storefronts. The health benefits are also well-known. In the district, 55 percent of residents are overweight or obese. “Leisurely bicycling burns 300 calories per hour. You also don’t have to go somewhere to exercise. It can just be part of your routine.”

In 2002, just 2.2 percent of D.C. residents commuted via bicycle. In 2009, that’s up to 3.3 percent, which puts D.C. in eighth place among all U.S. cities. Just in the past few years, with the growth of bike share programs, there’s been explosive growth. From 2007 to 2010, there’s been an 80 percent increase in bicycling riding. Furthermore, while the corresponding growth in bicycle traffic has lead to an increase in traffic accidents, these have occurred at a far lower rate. Sebastian argued that this shows “if you put in bike lanes, they will come.”

Getting to 50 Miles of Bicycle Lanes

In 2000, the city had just three miles of bicycle lanes, no bicycle infrastructure coordinator, and a severely outdated bicycle plan from the late 1970’s. That year, at a National Building Museum event, the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) issued a call to action to then Mayor Anthony Williams, who responded that the city would create 50 miles of bicycle lanes and more than 500 parking spaces and racks. Now, ten years later, said Sebastian, the city has those 50 miles of lanes in place and there are another 10 miles in the works through trails planned throughout the city. More than 100 racks have been added each year, making a total of 1,600 racks since 2000. There’s also a new dedicated bicycle parking station at Union Station (see image above). In addition, in 2008, the city launched a initial exploratory bike sharing program, which was then relaunched as a formalized program in 2010. The program is now the largest in the U.S.

Sebastian added that the district has been experimenting with innovative lanes (15th street and Pennsylvania Avenue), integrating bicycle networks into other plans, and connecting bicycle infrastructure into existing transit networks. As a result, bicycle to metro station connections have increased 60 percent between 2002 and 2007.

Designing the Infrastructure

Jennifer Toole, ASLA, a landscape architect who is the lead designer of D.C.’s bike network, said she started with the “easy stuff first.” In this case, these were the streets that had additional capacity. “We went stealing space all over the city.” Toole said this “worked well for the first 50 miles.” However, it’s now becoming harder because space has become limited.

New dedicated bicycle lanes that are somewhat separated and protected from car traffic have dramatically increased ridership by 18-20 percent and brought many new types of riders on the road. “There are now riders heading to metro stops and more women, older folks.”

The “cycle track contra flow” bicycle lanes set up on 15th street northwest increased the number of bicyclists by 40 percent, the number of sidewalk riders by 12 percent, and the number of people riding the wrong way by 14 percent. Upon further study, Toole said, “intercept surveys showed that people liked these lanes but wanted them to be two-way” so the test site was altered.

Pennsylvania Avenue is another innovative bicycle infrastructure test site. There was a lot of excess available space in the street. “It had eight lanes like a highway.” So Toole and the district decided to remove some car lanes and add a center bicycle lane. “This location caused the least number of conflicts.” In this area, Toole is testing out a “bike box, which positions bicyclists to make turns before cars, giving them a head start.”

Toole said there are still many issues. For example, “the connectivity of the network needs to be the focus in the future.” While Toole said it’s not uncommon for new networks to suffer from connectivity problems given that “networks don’t immediately come connected,” this next phase of expansion and connectivity “won’t be as easy.” She said the city should explore adding colors to lanes like many cities do. “The use of color is more expensive but other cities have used color in interesting ways.” Green, which is the preferred color, should be used in locations where conflicts occur. The district should also invest more in “traffic calming measures,” which can really help in one-way side streets. Lastly, the city should come up with a plan for integrating bicycle and green stormwater management infrastructure together into one system. Other cities like Portland have used curved areas as locations for bioswales. 

Responding to Bicyclists’ Needs 

WABA Executive Director Shane Farthing said D.C. residents were demanding a bike-friendly city and his organization’s job was to get them political support. WABA’s goals was “more people on bikes more safely.” He said the organization grows only as bike infrastructure grow. It’s not “build it and they will come. It’s more like build it and they will come and demand more and more improvements” (and become a WABA member).

Overall, Farthing believes “whether your focus is on decreasing greenhouse gas emissions or not, bicycles need to be an option and a safe one in D.C.” Recently, WABA has focused on membership outreach in areas of the city where new bicycle lanes are being planned, a new bicycle ambassador program, and investing in learning-to-ride programs in inner-city areas. He thinks the new bike share system will only increase ridership because these new bikes and stations make “bicycling more visible. You can look out your car window and see someone on one of those and think I can do that, too.” 

He added that bicycles may even be more predictable than cars or the metro and therefore a greater benefit to low-income workers. “Many hourly workers can’t afford subway problems or the expense of owning a car.” (He didn’t mention what happens if your bicycle has a flat though).

WABA’s members, who were out in force at the event, also want more indoor bicycle parking and showers. The district is already hard at work updating building zoning codes to meet the needs of the district’s growing population of bicyclists.

Image credits: (1) Union Station bicycle station / Beyond D.C., (2) D.C. bike share station / City Parks Blog, (3) 15th street bike lanes / Elvert Barnes. Flickr, (4) Pennsylvania Avenue bike lane / Adam Fagen. Flickr