Bolivia Expected to Protect Rights of Nature

Bolivia is expected to pass the world’s first comprehensive law to protect the rights of nature, granting all nature equal rights to humans. According to The Guardian, the new “Law of Mother Earth” would lead to “radical new conservation and social measures” designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and pollution, and hem in “mega-projects.” Nature would get 11 new rights, including the “right to life and to exist; the right to continue vital cycles and processes free from human alteration; the right to pure water and clean air; the right to balance; the right not to be polluted; and the right to not have cellular structure modified or genetically altered.” Lastly, nature would also be protected from being “affected by mega-infrastructure and development projects that affect the balance of ecosystems and the local inhabitant communities.”

The Guardian says the new law has been influenced by a “a resurgent indigenous Andean spiritual world view which places the environment and the earth deity known as the Pachamama at the centre of all life.” The law is also part of a complete rethink of the Bolivian legal system, which resulted from constitutional change in 2009. If enacted, the government will create a new “ministry of mother earth” and appoint an ombudsman. Communities will also have “new legal powers to monitor and control polluting industries.”

The law may be a backlash against the widespread environmental damage caused by tin, silver, and gold mining industries. Undarico Pinto, leader of the Confederación Sindical Única de Trabajadores Campesinos de Bolivia, a 3.5-million member social movement, helped draft the law in an effort to improve Bolivia’s legal weapons against pollution from firms digging up and processing these minerals. He told The Guardian: “it will make industry more transparent. It will allow people to regulate industry at national, regional and local levels.”

Balancing the needs of nature and local indigenous peoples along with the demands of macro-economic development will be tricky. Mining leads to heavy water and air pollution, degrading ecosystems and creating health issues for affected local populations. However, the country earns $500m (£305m) a year from mining companies, which equals one third of the country’s foreign currency. To make the situation more challenging for Bolivia, climate change will soon have a direct impact on the lives residents there given that most of the country’s glaciers are expected to melt within 20 years, leaving much of the population of La Paz without drinking water. The country’s leaders are gearing for mass migration.

Wired magazine notes that the idea of protecting the rights of nature has also been bandied around in the U.S. As early as the 1970’s, one law professor introduced the idea that nature could be legally treated as a person, just as a ship or a company is. Building on this idea, Bolivia may begin to associate values beyond spiritual to these core rights of nature. Just as when a person who has an intrinsic set of rights has been injured, they are expected to receive a settlement for any loss or damages, nature (and its beneficiaries among the Bolivian people) could be reimbursed for any ecological damage in the future. The concept of ecosystem services could be used to provide an important economic framework to help Bolivians preserve, manage, and sustainably use nature’s benefits, and establish the financial value of these rights of nature.

Over the long-term, the key may be to move the economy towards more sustainable economic activities and invest in training so more Bolivians can join greener industries. Following through with new, more stringent laws that specifically take aim at industries that pollute or destroy the environment will also be needed.  

In other news, The Economist put the Anthropocene, a concept long-discussed among scientists, on its cover. The idea is that humans in a relatively short time frame (if considered in terms of the history of the planet) have actually altered core planetary functions. “From their trawlers scraping the floors of the seas to their dams impounding sediment by the gigatonne, from their stripping of forests to their irrigation of farms, from their mile-deep mines to their melting of glaciers, humans are bringing about an age of planetary change.”

Image credit: Iténez protected area, Bolivian-Brazilian border / WWF

Reinventing Public Place in NYC: Brooklyn Bridge Park

Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) hosted a symposium at the unlikely location of the open-air Tobacco Warehouse under the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, part of the 85-acre Brooklyn Bridge Park, designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA. The half-day affair was organized to celebrate the completion of the first phase of the park through a series of lectures and discussions, and despite some uncooperative spring weather, gave participants an opportunity to tour the park with Van Valkenburgh and the core members of his team. Convened by GSD dean Mohsen Mostafavi along with Charles Waldheim, Chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture, the symposium was not just an opening for the park and a celebration of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates‘ work, but served as an inauguration of Van Valkenburgh into the canon of great American landscape architects. For the Brooklyn Bridge Park is the crown jewel of a 25-year academic and professional career in which Van Valkenburgh has earned every honor and accolade available to the profession, and has cemented his position as, in the words of Charles Waldheim, “the dean of American landscape architects.”

In addition to landing the commission to design the Brooklyn Bridge Park, MVVA has recently won two of the most important competitions for large urban parks in North America: the Lower Don Lands in Toronto and the park at the foot of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. The work of landscape architects in the context of these large urban parks is evidence of what Waldheim claims is “a renaissance in landscape architecture.” The Brooklyn Bridge Park is not only important as one of the largest new urban parks being built in North America, but as the epitome of the evolution of landscape architecture practice over the course of the last 100 years. As Van Valkenburgh described it in his opening lecture, the Brooklyn Bridge Park is neither one of the large-scale romantic garden and parks of the 19th century, later accused by some as being “anti-urban,” nor one of the self-contained art-pieces and urban baubles that resulted from the 70’s and 80’s era of public space-making. Rather, the Brooklyn Bridge Park can be considered to be as an urban project as much as it can be considered a park, and in this sense it represents the promise of a transformation in landscape architecture practice that began in the 1990’s, and which is epitomized in the career and practice of Van Valkenburgh himself. 

Dean Moshen Mostafavi remarked that 20 years ago it was difficult to find landscape projects that operated on the urban scale and had such a direct impact on cities and citizens. Now, however, landscape architects have taken up this charge, especially in how landscape deals with urbanization and the creation of public space. Projects like the Brooklyn Bridge Park speak to the way in which this urban consciousness dates back to the origins of the discipline in the 19th century at Harvard, when, as Waldheim said: “landscape architecture practice was conceived as both a professional activity but also an academic discipline that could directly address the social and environmental challenges of the urban age.” Now, when the focus of that urban age has turned to our transition to a post-industrial city, landscape architects are positioned to address the particular changes to urban form that this transition has created. This is evident in these large urban parks where landscape strategies are deployed not merely for the purposes of scenography or a picturesque escape, but as a way of engaging the large-scale and horizontal spread of these post-industrial sites, as Mostafavi pointed out, “reclaiming the post-industrial landscape for the city.”

Van Valkenburgh characterized the origins of the Brooklyn Bridge Park. The size and shape of the piers that make up the majority of the park resulted from changes in the shipping industry around the middle of the 20th century, but the containerization revolution just a few decades later resulted in their abandonment. The original proposal by the New York Port Authority for a massive housing development was rejected and a period of full-press local advocacy later resulted in the subsequent master plan for a park on this site. The City and State of New York formed a partnership to finance the construction of the park, but political changes in the recent era of park management required a new public-private model to be adopted to finance its ongoing operations and maintenance. 

Van Valkenburgh put the changing paradigm of park building within the history of landscape architecture in the United States. As the Robert Moses era came to a close, it became obvious that the massive expansion of parkland under his reign could not be sustained without matching expansions in maintenance budgets, resulting in the neglected and dangerous condition of the city’s parks in the 1970’s. In the subsequent era of austerity and downsizing, landscape architecture practice shifted to the creation of “contained” parks and public spaces driven by a more patronage-oriented model. The result was more “boutique” and art-driven practices that MVVA was both a product and a part of. Recently, landscape architecture has returned to the larger scale, as the overall landscape of the city has been re-discovered, and as parks are seen not so much as an “escape from the city” but as an “escape in the city.” This return is marked by a shift in the way that the new parks seek to engage the urban landscape, embracing the waterfronts and urban fragments that surround them, rather than framing them in a picturesque distance. 

Anita Berrizbeitia, a current GSD professor and editor of “Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates: Reconstructing Urban Landscapes,” a recent retrospective of MVVA’s work, noted that Van Valkenburgh’s own practice has followed pace with these changes in the discipline, but has not lost its ability to work across multiple scales and project types. In fact, part of the success of the Brooklyn Bridge Park is its incorporation of small-scale elements and intimate moments within the larger landscapes along its 1.3 mile long spread. 

Van Valkenburgh framed the design of the project itself largely in terms of the urban problems that large parks of this kind often face. Planning a park that touches many neighborhoods and tries to stitch together the fragmented pattern of the city requires the involvement of many stakeholders. In this case, that resulted in an expansion of the project scope to include Pier 6, as well as in the phased project schedule. In addition, the problem of locating a park in a post-industrial landscape with few points of entry resulted in the incorporation of smaller “neighborhood parks” at these entries as focused moments of intensity. Finally, the necessity of using a public-private development model and the need to create a revenue stream to fund the operations resulted in parts of site being sectioned off for development. The navigation of the approvals process through multiple regulatory agencies required compromise and constant revision, a process more typical of large urban projects, but in this case landscape became a medium to reconcile these multiple scales and audiences.

The post-industrial landscape, featuring often difficult and complex conditions, requires the landscape architect to create a new aesthetic that can engage old and new across multiple scales. At the Brooklyn Bridge Park, the problem of dealing with microclimates unique to the waterfront site and noise from the BQE resulted in the utilization of large earthworks to shield the park and create protected pockets of calm. In addition, the rectilinear shape of the piers and potential monotony of the larger scale drove the design of the meandering path that unites the entire park as well as the strategy of carefully choreographing the edge conditions along the waterfront. These all became the drivers of a landscape strategy that is somehow appropriate to the genre, rather than relying on traditional methods of scenography or attempts to achieve conventional notions of beauty. Finally, the question of what is “natural” in the post-industrial landscape of the Brooklyn waterfront, where the land itself is completely artificial (constructed on either piles or fill), urges the landscape architect to embrace the artifice of their practice and reveal its instrumentality, while simultaneously engaging new ecological processes to mitigate the existing conditions.

The aesthetics of sustainability becomes critical in an era when parks are asked to do more than just act as decoration for the city or as a refuge from its ills, but rather must engage with the urban condition and mitigate its impacts. This imperative for the park to embrace sustainable design strategies also asks the landscape architect to be innovative in their use of materials and methods (using recycled timber, reusing granite slabs, rainwater harvesting), but also to find an aesthetic expression for them. This resulted in a planting strategy where the embrace of “non-native” species and the creation of microclimates were inspired by ecology’s shift from a “climax / equilibrium” model to a “succession” model. This is evidence of an emerging ecological aesthetic, where the landscape architect must work with the given conditions and base their design on the availability of materials and appropriateness of processes to achieve a more beautiful and sustainable whole. 

Van Valkenburgh’s presentation and the panel discussion that followed continued to touch on many aspects of how his practice and this project are representative of the state of contemporary landscape practice today. But the central lesson of this study of Brooklyn Bridge Park is that any new large urban park is expected to do more work than parks in the past. More and more, these urban parks are seen as instruments of change rather than mere acts of beautification or means to escape their object: the city.

This guest post is by Chris Roach, recent Master’s of Urban Planning and Design (MAUD) graduate, Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD).

Image credits: (1) Etienne Frossard, copyright 2010, (2) Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), (3) Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), (4) Julienne Schaer, copyright 2010.

New Pier Park in Philadelphia “Packs a Wallop”

In The Philadelphia Enquirer, Marilyn Jordan Taylor, dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, said the new one-acre, 540-foot long, $6.5 million pier park designed by James Corner Field Operations “packs a wallop” and changes the “central Delaware riverfront from an overlooked backwater into the front door to our city and region.” Formerly called “Municipal Pier 11,” the renamed “Race Street Pier” was first built in 1896 on multiple levels that served different functions: the lower level provided infrastructure for shipping while the top deck was used off and on recreationally. To retain the site’s past, Field Operations also split the new park into two levels. There’s an upper level with a “sky promenade” and a lower level for social gatherings. 

Jordan, who is the chairwoman of the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, the nonprofit that manged the transformation of the riverfront, said the new pier park signals that the bottom-up, citizen-led and PennPraxis-facilitated master planning process the city just went through to redesign its riverfront largely works. Also, the Race Street pier provides a model for how to develop other old piers. “Indeed, the pier provides a catalyst for spurring high-quality development on nearby parcels. We know from cities across the country that high-quality public spaces spur private development, and the pier’s thoughtful design should raise the bar for developers along the riverfront to create a new neighborhood that follows best practices for pedestrian-friendly, green, sustainable, urban architecture.” Other projects underway will also improve connectivity to the waterfront and create more parks (see earlier post). 

Inga Saffron, architecture critic for The Philadelphia Inquirer, who gave the park a rave review, started with its connectivity with the rest of the city. “The park is easily accessible from Center City and the adjacent neighborhoods by foot, bike, and car (although the transit options aren’t so good). When visitors arrive, they can enter the park from a real urban sidewalk on a real urban street. As they proceed along the 540-foot pier, the powerful design ensures that they are thoroughly immersed in the experience of being on the river.”

The park itself “feels far more spacious than its diminutive size would suggest. The designers manage to squeeze in a boardwalk, a lawn, a small amphitheater, a bosque of trees, meandering paths, and plenty of benches by manipulating the surface topography.” James Corner, ASLA, Field Operations’ founder, explained to Saffron that the park functions like a “natural landscape. The pier contains multiple ecosystems.”

Corner and Field Operations associate Lisa Tziona Switkin organized the pier on a diagonal. “A row of 25-foot-tall swamp oaks, which were acquired as surplus from the ground zero memorial project in New York, marks that diagonal line, which also serves to exaggerate the perspective and draw the eye toward the water.” In addition, the varied landscape “creates intimate nooks, such as the amphitheater steps at the far end of the pier, where visitors can kick back with a book, a beach blanket, or a laptop. Equipped with Wi-Fi, this is a 21st-century park where people can come to be alone and together at the same time.”

While the High Line (Field Operations’ major New York City project) was criticized for its widespread use of Ipe, a hardwood harvested from rainforests, the Race Street Pier introduces Trex, a “sustainable synthetic decking material made out of reclaimed plastic and wood,” says Plan Philly. It’s not clear what kind of wood the benches and rails are made of though. In addition, more than 10,250 individual 4-inch pots of “shade-tolerant grasses and perennials” were planted in steel planters. The lighting design also presents a more sustainable option: Embedded into the paving are “200 LED solar light blocks.”

Learn more about the park and see more images.

Image credits: Race Street Pier Park / Plan Philly

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

Piet Oudolf Sees Landscapes in Landscapes

Piet Oudolf, the Dutch garden designer and leader of the “new perennial” movement has a new book out: Landscapes in Landscapes. In his complex, endlessly interesting landscapes, Oudolf says he prizes form and texture as much as color. He almost exclusively uses perennials, which he values for their “beauty throughout their natural life cycle.” Requiring little maintenance, his naturally sustainable landscapes, which feature drought-resistant plants, evolve over time. As Charles Waldheim, chair of the landscape architecture department at Harvard University Graduate School of Design (GSD), wrote in The New York Times, “he’s gotten away from the soft pornography of the flower. He’s interested in the life cycle, how plant material ages over the course of a year.”

“Landscape in Landscapes” moves from small to large scale, covering 23 private and public gardens. Created with graphic designer Irma Boom, the book features full-color photos with unique insets showing the name, color, and proportion of various plants used within his landscapes, enabling readers to get a sense of these gardens in different dimensions. Mimimal yet informative text by garden writer Noel Kingsbury is there to just introduce the gardens. These photos can be enjoyed on their own.

Barcelona Garden, a sustainable garden for a residence in Barcelona, is, at 1,000 square meters, one of his smaller pieces. “The style is firmly naturalistic, in that the elements of local natural landscapes – the low shrubs and grasses – are featured. Irrigation is intended to be minimal, so each plant was selected for its drought tolerance.”

Bury Court in Surrey was his first work in Britain. “For many, it was the first time they had seen Oudolf’s dark color combinations: bronze foilage and mysterious deep-red flowers – in summer. A still-greater innovation was the creation of a gravel garden.” Over the years, Oudolf has returned to add a number of “contrasting elements.” The result is a highly influential garden: “Since then, this stylized meadow look and combination, along with other dark blends, has become quite fashionable with British gardeners.”

Enkoping, Sweden is the site of Oudolf’s first large-scale public commision: Dream Park. Totalling 4,000 square meters, Dream Park features Oudolf’s structured hedges, which he uses to offset the “informality of the perennials.” Kingsbury writes: “Oudolf also took the idea of monocultural blocks and extended it to perennials. Of course, using blocks of perennials is common, but Oudolf took the idea further than usual by selecting one variety – or very similar cultivars of one variety – to create a single dramatic feature.” He would use this site as experiment and replicate the approach in Chicago’s Lurie Garden.

Moving through a number of larger private residential gardens and other public comissions, readers then get to the High Line Park. In the introduction, Peter Hammond, one of the founders of the High Line, says Oudolf’s varied landscapes are a primary factor behind the success of this popular park. He writes “the range and complexity of Piet’s plantings give visitors reasons to come back again and again. Week after week, month after month, there are lessons in discovery.” Kingsbury elaborates: “The design of the planted areas emphasizes the feel of spontaneity — feathered paving makes it look as if the plants are actually beginning to cover the concrete. The design allows a planting pattern where open meadow dissolves into half-open woodland, then into a fuller woodland area of dense, small trees with underplanting to envelop the visitor more fully as the length of the park is traversed.”

The book ends with even larger landscapes, including Battery Park garden in New York City, the Trentham Estate in the UK, and a private residential landscape on Nantucket.

From the small to large scales, the use of native perennials means these beautiful spaces are also habitats for insects and birds.
Check out the book

Image credits: (1) Monacelli Press, (2) Bury Court / Dave Levy. Flickr, (3) Dreampark / Anya Andreyeva. Flickr, (4) High Line Park / Metropolis Magazine

Lang Baumann’s Art Transforms Public Spaces

Sabina Lang and Daniel Baumann are a pair of Swiss artists who have formed a “multidisciplinary studio” to create a variety of bold and playful public art installations. In the typical Swiss ski town of Vercorin, Lang Baumann transformed an intersection into Street Painting #5. The 100 by 60 meter art piece was created using “road marking paint.”

In a group of projects focused on “spielfeld” or fields, the duo invites communities to rethink the possibilities of public sporting facilities. Bold curves painted on concrete and then covered with ice make this useable rink, Spielfeld #4 (Patinoire), a bold graphic statement.

Lang Baumann’s pieces are found all across Europe. In a more playful example, Dreamgames, the chalk lines within Dynamo Kiev stadium in the Ukraine were redrawn. “The project was realized on the occasion of the first, and perhaps only, art exhibition inside this stadium.”

Lastly, in Warsaw, Poland, Lang Baumann created a sort of ghost soccer field floating in a lake, a quiet and elegant contemporary art installation. Spielfeld #5 (Boisko) is made up of aluminum soccer goal posts, wood, styrofoam, and sand.

Check out other projects from Lang Baumann.

Image credits: (1) Street painting #5 / Robert Hofer. Sion, (2) Street painting #5 / Robert Hofer. Sion, (3) Spielfeld #4 (Patinoire) / Lang Baumann, (4) Dreamgames / Lang Baumann, (5) Spielfeld #5 (Boisko) / Lang Baumann

New CDC Community Focuses on Health Impact Assessments

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has launched a free Community of Practice for planners, landscape architects, architects, and other design professionals conducting health impact assessments (HIA). According to CDC, the mission of their new Web site is to “increase the use of HIA to inform policy decisions that shape the built environment and make healthy lifestyle choices easy choices.” The health organization wants membership to be broad based because “those working in design, architecture, engineering, and planning fields play a critical role in developing and promoting healthy communities.”

CDC’s PhConnect Web site provides members with opportunities to network with other researchers and practitioners, post discussions, events, and announcements, as well as collaborate on documents. Some key goals include “developing and supporting HIA best practices, lessons learned, and standards for conducting an HIA.”

HIA is a relatively new process but more practitioners are looking to apply these methods. Clearly, the CDC wants an interdisciplinary set of policymakers, health and design professionals to contribute to this burgeoning field and share their ideas, reports, and projects.

To become a member, go to the Web site and click on “join now” if you are not already a member of phConnect. Members can then search by community to find the “Health Impact Assessment CoP.” Membership is free and open to all. 

Learn more about how health impact assessments (HIA) can be used in landscape architecture projects. Also, check out ASLA’s sustainability toolkit on social models.

Image credit: ASLA 2010 Professional Honor Award. Tianjin Qiaoyuan Park: The Adaptation Palettes. Turenscape and Peking University Graduate School of Landscape Architecture / Cao Yang

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