Increasing Public Transport Use with Smart Campaigns

Marketing efforts by public transportation systems are vastly outspent by those of the major automobile companies, which spend billions each year to attract new customers, says EMBARQ, a transportation think tank. In a new report, the group says worldwide advertising and marketing efforts among the automobile sector as a whole total $21 billion. General Motors alone spent $3.2 billion in one year. All these investments aimed at attracting new customers help increase car sales, but also boost congestion, carbon dioxide emissions, and air pollution, while working against broader public transportation use and more sustainable urban transportation systems. This is especially true in developing countries: Growing middle classes in these countries are increasingly drawn to car ownership. In Brazil, the number of privately-owned vehicles doubled to 2.6 million in 2010, and in India, there’s been a 20-fold increase. 

To fight these trends, EMBARQ says public transportation systems must not forget about branding, marketing, and advertising and using smart, creative, cost-efficient campaigns targeted at increasing and maintaining ridership. Transit agencies must focus their efforts on how to “attract new users that currently use private transport, such as cars and motorcycles; retain existing public transport users who might feel compelled to buy a private vehicle; and secure political and financial support from government officials.” EMBARQ’s report covers how to use tactics widely used in the private and non-profit sectors to focus on brand and identity; user education, information systems, and feedback tools, including online engagement; marketing campaigns; public relations; and internal and external communications. While public transport users determine whether to use a system based on its “reliability, frequent service, safety and cleanliness, service hours, and costs and structures,” public transport systems still need to do branding, marketing, and communications to increase and maintain ridership.  

On branding, EMBARQ says “to create a successful brand, then, a public transport system should start by defining its core values. Most public transport systems strive for a brand that clearly presents their services as modern, efficient, rapid, reliable, convenient, comfortable and safe.” The report further differentiates between different types of branding issues, from creating a new service to remedying issues with a highly unpopular service to unifying disparate services under one banner. They also advise against using some loaded, unpopular words: “Another way of avoiding the stigma often associated with traditional bus transport is to not use the term ‘bus’ in the new system’s name.”

Getting internal ducks in a row helps create a unified public message about a public transportation service. “In 2009, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) in Washington, D.C. resurrected a discarded plan to build streetcar lines that would crisscross the city. To build high-level support within the government for the project, DDOT created a well-designed ‘Action Agenda,’ setting out clear goals and milestones for the streetcar system. This strong internal communications tool gave life to a forgotten project lost within the bureaucracy, indicated the city’s commitment to the plan and created a common point of reference for all employees and politicians, including the mayor and city council members, to understand the department’s priorities. The first streetcar line is under construction and the surrounding residential and commercial development has begun to take off.”

User education prior to the launch of a new service is critical: “Citizens who consider riding public transport, particularly those who have the option to drive, can be deterred by the unfamiliarity of a system —where it goes, the fare collection, the boarding process — basically every aspect of using it. Agencies can overcome this hurdle with extensive user education, particularly prior to the opening of a new line.” In an example of successful user education, Johannesburg prepared its citizens for the launch of Rea Vaya, a bus rapid transist (BRT) system by “setting up a kiosk in a major mall near a future route in Soweto to educate the public and give them an opportunity to ask questions.”

Information about the system needs to be clear and uniform. As an example, EMBARQ points to Transport for London (TfL), the agency that oversees the British capital’s buses, trains and roads, which has taken a “rigorous and systematic approach to user information. Part of what makes TfL so successful is that it adheres to strict design guidelines across its transport network.” Design rules govern TfL’s “interchange facilities” and helped produce efficient, usable, intuitive, and high-quality signage and information kiosks.  

Urban transportation policymakers and design professionals may also be interested in additional areas on how to tailor marketing, control a transit agency’s messaging and “story,” generate and respond to user feedback, and use the Web and social media to reach broader audiences. A number of high-performing public transport systems may already be doing many of these things, but the best practice models are worth reviewing.

Read the report

Image credit: Legible London Wayfinding map / Dexigner

How to Do It: Create a Plan to Transform Red Fields into Green Fields

Los Angeles has beaches and mountains, but the City of Angels is not known for its parks and public spaces. Granted, there are several large open spaces on the outskirts of the city – typically in those places that were too steep or flood-prone for development, and there are a number of small and mid-sized parks that serve urban residents. However, much of the urban core is nearly devoid of public green space. In a city as car-dependent and traffic-clogged as Los Angeles, this means that most residents lack sufficient park access. This problem is not easily solved, as the opportunity has long passed to set aside large tracts of land for park development in the manner of New York’s Central Park. If large parks are out, can pocket parks fill the gap?

While few large tracts of undeveloped land exist in Los Angeles, small opportunities are scattered throughout the urban fabric in the form of “red fields” – vacant, for-sale, foreclosed, or underutilized lots and buildings, many of which are victims of the poor economy. These red fields are typically only ¼ acre in size. In our recent graduate project, “Red Fields to Green Fields: Los Angeles,” we looked at the possibility of transforming these small parcels into a network of “green fields” that together could have an enormous impact on the social, economic, and environmental quality of life for Los Angeles. 

Not surprisingly, lack of urban green space typically coincides with a lack of economic resources. In Los Angeles, around three fourths of the City, over three million people, live within an area that is considered economically disadvantaged. (In this case, economically disadvantaged is defined as having an annual household income that is less than 80 percent of the statewide annual median household income, as per California Proposition 84: The Safe Drinking Water, Water Quality and Supply, Flood Control, River and Coastal Protection Bond Act of 2006.) Nearly all of these places have less than three acres of park space per thousand people, and many of them have less than one acre per thousand people. We mapped these areas, and then looked at their land use patterns and population densities in order to choose three sample neighborhoods that represent the diversity of urban conditions one might find there.

Then we hit the pavement. Red fields are a shifting mosaic of properties with various ownerships and conditions, and the only way to grasp their reality is to see them on the ground. We drove and walked the streets of our study neighborhoods and catalogued each vacant lot, for-sale and derelict property, and dormant parking lot we could see. Although we started with a listing of for-sale commercial and industrial properties from a real estate data company, we quickly found that the number of red fields on the ground far exceeded any available data.  This is partly due to our broad definition of red fields, but it could also be because the real estate market is causing owners and banks to sit on properties until prospects improve. In the mean time, red fields contribute to urban blight and bring down the values of surrounding properties and neighborhoods. By purchasing red fields and converting them to green space, cities can help turn the economy around: capital tied up in real estate can be freed for re-investment, property values can be improved, and jobs can be created in green space development. 

What would a green field look like? We developed four broad categories of green fields: urban agriculture, community, recreation, and ecology. These reach beyond traditional understandings of parks, to include functions that improve the quality of urban life in various ways. For example, urban agriculture green fields can provide healthy food options and increase food security in inner city neighborhoods that lack supermarkets. Community green fields can strengthen community ties that lead to economic opportunities, greater participation and reduced crime. Recreation green fields can improve physical and mental health through exercise and stress reduction, as well as provide much-needed places for play. Ecological green fields can reduce flooding and improve water quality, clean the air, restore native habitat, and increase opportunities for inner-city people to connect to nature.

We then created mathematical models using GIS software to match the red fields we found with the four green field categories. The resulting maps showed what each site was capable and suitable for, based on various site characteristics such as size, slope, sun, accessibility, zoning, etc. These maps give a general sense of the potential distribution of different green field types, and could be used as a tool for planning. However, as red fields can be a moving target, more detailed analysis would be needed at the time of implementation, and community participation would be essential. 

By averaging the amount of red fields we found in our three diverse neighborhoods and extrapolating that figure to the park-poor and economically disadvantaged communities of Los Angeles, we found that approximately 2,200 green fields with a total combined area of around 1,100 acres could be created. This is greater than the area of Central Park or Golden Gate Park. However, because green fields would be small and numerous, and infused throughout the areas of the City with the most need and least access to green space, we anticipate that they could have an even greater impact on quality of life than a singular large park. Creating green fields within walking distance of every neighborhood could permanently change the image of Los Angeles and the lives of Angelenos by helping to transform under-served neighborhoods into thriving communities.

What could Red Fields to Green Fields do in your city? 

This guest post is by Dakotah Bertsch, Student ASLA, Red Fields to Green Fields: Los Angeles 606 Team, 606 Studio, Department of Landscape Architecture, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.

Image credit: (1) Los Angeles Red Field / R2GLA 606 Team, (2) Los Angeles Red Field / R2GLA 606 Team, (3) Local productive landscape concept / Abby Jones, R2GLA 606 Team, (4) Farmers Market concept / Mike Boucher, R2GLA 606 Team

Designing a Built Environment Resilient to Climate Change

Buildings, landscapes, infrastructure, and even entire cities can be designed to be more resilient to climate, environmental, and population changes, argued a high-profile panel at the American Institute of Architects (AIA) D.C.’s Design D.C. conference. Green technologies and practices have come a long way. Smart policymakers and designers are now applying these tools, figuring out ways to leverage existing systems to serve multiple purposes, learning from their mistakes, and adapting. 

Green Innovations at All Scales

James Russell, architecture critic for Bloomberg and author of The Agile City, argues that green models already exist. Kroon Hall, the building for the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies at Yale University, an exemplary green building, is almost carbon neutral. The building uses “dozen of tactics including photovoltaic arrays on its roof, geothermal power systems, and window louvers” to reduce energy use by two-thirds over a conventional building. Some 50 percent of the savings were through increased energy efficiency (at 2.4 percent of the total costs) and an additional 25 percent of the savings were due to solar power (at 2.7 percent of total costs). Overall, the building reduced its carbon footprint by more than 62 percent. Russell said this shows that “conservation is the most powerful force, it’s not about renewables.” Other building innovations include Unilever’s new headquarters, which is mostly daylit, and the Federal Building in San Francisco, which doesn’t use air conditioning systems, opting for windows instead.

Moving up to the neighborhood scale, Dockside Green in Victoria (Vancouver Island) is an example of a net-zero community, and a star of the new LEED for Neighborhood Development (LEED-ND) rating system, which just completed its pilot testing phase. The community uses a “gasification boiler” to create clean energy. For Russell, this project demonstrates that “there are huge opportunities where infrastructure, community, and buildings meet.”

At the urban scale, Russell’s says it’s critical for cities to focus on increasing their agility. “Agile” cites are places that are “pro-active and anticipate the future.” These cities “question habits, breakdown barriers, and are entrepreneurial.” Cities become more agile and are best positioned to deal with climate change when they focus on “incremental changes, resiliency, adaptive human networks, and building well-being and wealth simultaneously.” He believes innovation in these areas can come from all sectors, particularly the non-profit sector. As an example, he pointed to non-profits like Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation, which is creating green buildings in New Orleans. He added that “the way real estate finance works,” developers may actually serve as obstacles for cities seeking to become more agile. 

A few other urban innovations that increase resiliency and enable cities to better adapt to climate change include Amsterdam’s bike parking stations (“here in the U.S. we haven’t even figured out how to connect transit nodes”); the new pedestrian plazas in NYC’s Times Square (see earlier post); bus rapid transit (see earlier post); and complete streets. Lastly, Hafen City in Hamburg was cited as a model for how to create “safe pedestrian areas” in flood-prone areas. The new community features large doors and escape zones. “More cities will need to consider systems like these.”

Infrastructure Should Serve Multiple Purposes

In her upcoming book on Infrastructural Ecologies, Hillary Brown, Fellow, Institute for Urban Systems, CUNY, Principal, New Civic Works, argues that post-industrial public works must “reduce fossil fuel dependency, be multi-purpose, co-located with other infrastructure, align or leverage with natural systems, withstand the stresses of climate change, exchange nutrients or energy flows, and respect social contexts.” Co-locating infrastructure helps ensure that infrastructure become “multi-functional facilities.”

Brown had a number of fascinating examples of infrastructure that serves multiple purposes. For example, New York City’s new 2nd avenue subway is expected to create energy when the trains brake. Queens Plaza by Margie Ruddick, ASLA, provides transportation infrastructure while managing stormwater. Ken Smith, ASLA, is working on a new water treatment facility, which will be covered in a green roof that will also serve as a golf course, combining water management and recreation uses. In another example, a new power plant designed by BIG will also function as a ski slope. These are examples of infrastructure that many communities may actually want in their backyards.

Given these uncertain economic times, there is “still major resistance to spending large expenditures on infrastructure.”  However, Brown thinks there are great opportunities for “imaginative” public works projects. Communities can no longer “build expensive single purpose systems,” but develop infrastructure that can solve multiple problems at once. She thinks that developing countries that don’t have a lot of expensive infrastructure in place may even be at an advantage and can “leapfrog to more multi-use systems.” In addition, in the short-term, communities can invest in more “distributed back-up systems at smaller scales” to increase resiliency in case of the failure of “central systems.”

Washington, D.C. Wants to Be Greenest (and Most Resilient)

For Harriet Tregoning, D.C.’s head of planning, becoming one of the greenest cities in the U.S. seems to be a mission. Starting in January 2012, all non-residential buildings over 50,000 square feet will need to be LEED Silver or reach an Energy Star rating of 75. To date, the city has 187 LEED-certified buildings,with another 600 in the works. In addition, there are now seven LEED-ND pilot projects within the district. The city is number one in terms of LEED-certified square footage. Tregoning said the city has purposefully “set the bar high so people will rush to meet the goals,” even though “LEED is not the end all be all.”

In addition, the city now has one million square feet of green roofs and is now thinking about how some roofs can be allocated for food production. Green roofs are a key piece of the city’s green infrastructure plans. However, the question of whether to use green infrastructure or more underground pipes and tanks to address stormwater seems to have been answered in favor of more hard infrastructure at least for the time being. The city plans to use “football field-sized drills” to create new water tunnels. Tregoning seems to think this was the wrong way to go: “green infrastructure provides multiple benefits. Bioswales, rain gardens, tree boxes, green streets and alleys all provide habitat, increase livability, and offer green spaces that are amenities.” Another important benefit: green infrastructure “creates a lot of local jobs.” Some of these ideas may be tested out more fully in the new Southwest Eco-District being planned.

The district’s bike share network is also the largest in the country. There are now 1,100 bikes in circulation accessible via 114 stations, with 25 more stations being opened this summer and another 40 in the fall. There are 14,000 bike share users. She believes these shared bikes act like a “gateway drug” for purchasing a bike. “I’ve personally seen bike share users get to stations only to find that there are no bikes left.” Those bike share users may eventually go buy their own bike, helping to not only drive up local bike sales but increase the number of commuters getting to and from work every day by bike. “It’s about creating infrastructure that changes norms.”

Tregoning thinks the city has also been smart about learning from its mistakes. For example, during planning for a new transit-friendly Columbia Heights shopping center, the city created far too many underground parking spaces, which now sit unused. “It was an expensive mistake but we learned from contracting empty spaces.” These mistakes may even be critical to ensuring new innovative ideas don’t become “creative exceptions” but help guide the development of new norms. In other words, experimentation among urban policymakers helps create a set of new, more sustainable rules to follow, and enables a continuous cycle of “planning for adaptation.” Brown added that in some cities, underground parking spaces are already being designed to be multi-use systems that allow for water storage in case of flooding.

Image credit: Dockside Green, Vancouver / GOOD magazine

Bus Shelter in Philly Gets a Mini-Green Roof

A new demonstration project by the Philadelphia Department of Water shows that a green roof can pop up in the unlikeliest places, even on top of a bus shelter. While the 60-square-foot mini-green roof captures just a few gallons of water a day, it’s located at a key junction at 15th and Market streets, one of the city’s busiest corners. This is on purpose. The green roof is designed to be a showcase and public education tool.

The $10,000 green roof, made possible through a donation by Roofmeadow, a local green roof business, features a downward spout so bus shelter users can actually see if water comes out during a rainstorm.

Deputy Mayor Rina Cutler told The Philadelphia Inquirer: “There are 10.5 acres of green roofs in Philadelphia, but they’re all on the tops of buildings. We want to try to bring it down to ground level to show every little bit of hardscape can be transformed into green space.” Tiffany Ledesma Groll, the project’s coordinator, hopes the initiative will also inspire homeowners. “A lot of the green roofs that are really fabulous and gorgeous are on high-rises. We thought it would be fun to bring it down to eye level.” The city will put up posters displaying links to a Web site so people can go learn how they can help sustainably manage the city’s stormwater.

Philadelphia surely ranks in the top five in terms of total acreage of green roofs, with 10.5 acres currently in place and another 11 acres under development. Chris Crockett, acting deputy commissioner of environmental services for the Water Department, said: “Every acre manages or eliminates roughly a million gallons of storm-water runoff a year in the city.”  He added that the current stock of green roofs could manage stormwater to fill a swimming pool the size of a city block with 5.5 feet of water.

Green roofs are a key component in Philadelphia’s $2 billion green infrastructure program (see earlier post), which just won state approval. In fact, green roofs are a highly cost effective way to deal with the stormwater that often overwhelms the city’s aging underground combined water and sewer system. The problem is real: When a heavy storm hits, the system backs up raw sewage and road dirt into streams and people’s basements, causing health problems.

Learn more about “Green City, Clean Waters,” Philadelphia Water Department’s bold program to use green infrastructure to manage stormwater and a map of all the projects now underway. Also, check out progress in the city’s overall sustainability plan, “GreenWorks Philadelphia.”

Image credits: Philadelphia Department of Water, Office of Watersheds

Legacy of the Cold War: Germany’s Green Belt

After the split between West and East Germany, Communist planners in the east worked out a 870-mile border fence that moved from the Baltic Sea through Bavaria. On the East German side, the actual border control system started 5 kilometers from the real border, writes Christian Schwagerl, a Der Spiegel writer, in Yale Environment 360. There needed to be room for a “first line of control, followed by runs for guard dogs. Then came fences with touch-sensitive alarms, sandy strips to detect footprints, guard towers, minefields, bunkers with automated guns, and — finally — the ultimate fence or wall, behind which lay the forbidden land of West Germany.” Now, with the Cold War over for some twenty years, efforts are underway to preserve the relatively pure nature that took form between the antagonists and expand this “Green Belt” into the backbone of a bold new ecological corridor running throughout Europe.

Friends of the Earth and other conservation groups have joined with German federal and state governments to turn this former “Death Strip,” where escaping Communists were shot, into one of the “world’s most unusual nature preserves.” Schwagerl says the belt is between 30 and a few hundreds meters wide. While not expansive, biologists view the site as ecologically valuable because it was a “safe haven for rare wildlife and plants” for so many years while development occurred on either side of the old borders.

Dieter Leupold, a biologist with Friends of Earth, said: “The European otter, which is endangered throughout Germany, really likes the ditches that were meant to stop vehicles from crossing. We have black storks, moor frogs, white-tailed eagles — basically you can meet the Red List of endangered species here.” In fact, to date, more than 1,000 species from Germany’s Red List of endangered species were identified in the area by teams of volunteer ornithologists, entomologists, botanists, and other biologists. 

Now, the idea is to not only continue to preserve the habitat for endangered species within this Green Belt but also connect 20 large protected areas around the old border into a “continuous, pan-European nature preserve stretching from northern Finland to the Black Sea along the route of the former Iron Curtain” so that migratory species can move more easily. Within Germany, the Federal Agency for Conservation has come up with a proposal for the German piece of the system: a national network of ecological corridors branching off the Green Belt. Many of these reserves are also pretty big: the Harz National Park covers more 25,000 hectares (62,000 acres), while the Schaalsee Lake region features a “15,000-hectare landscape of moors, fens, forests, and meadowlands.”

To ensure the network functions as an ecological corridor for migrating species, a plan for long-term economic sustainability needs to be put in place. According to Schwagerl, much of the land was purchased by the German government, but parts of the area have already been privatized to compensate people for property expropriated by the communists. Political support for the Green Belt is solid, with most German parties seeing the preserve as an environmental success. Even so, Schwagerl says what’s important is to make “the Green Belt truly sustainable, which means spinning off income and opportunities for the people living alongside it, in an area beset by high unemployment and an exodus of the young.” For now, that means encouraging neighboring communities to earn income from ecotourism and birdwatching.

He says major upcoming work includes “turning as many sites as possible into formally designated protected areas and closing the 200 kilometers of gaps in the Green Belt.” With the federal government, the Friends of the Earth are trying to buy up much of the remaining private land to use for conservation. Inevitable conflicts with local farmers’ and business groups are expected.

Read the article

Also, check out the 155-mile-long demilitarized zone in the Korean peninsula, an inadvertant border zone park. In this case, where there’s no peace, nature has also thrived. See an interview with environmental journalist Caroline Fraser, who makes a clear case for valuing and preserving “trans-boundary” parks as ecological corridors.

Image credits: Green Belt / Wikipedia Commons

Interview with Congresswoman Donna Edwards

Congresswoman Donna Edwards represents the 4th Congressional District of Maryland.

We’ve all heard in the news how flooding has ravaged southern communities. However, there’s been little discussion of how green infrastructure could help mitigate the impact of natural storms. What is your case for using green infrastructure to address flooding?

The case is straightforward. We know that using green infrastructure is the best, most cost-effective way to address flooding because green infrastructure relies on the natural environment to manage stormwater. Specifically, using urban flood plains that provide repositories for flood water prevents storm and flood water runoff and provides additional green space for communities. This is the type of innovative development the Green Infrastructure for Clean Water Act (H.R. 2030) aims to enhance and incentivize.

Your proposed legislation would incentivize the use of green infrastructure. Are the issues in urban, suburban, and rural communities different? Do all types of communities benefit?

Yes, absolutely. The issues vary by region, which is the reason that H.R. 2030 would establish up to five regional Centers of Excellence for green infrastructure in the United States. The centers would be charged with conducting research on green infrastructure relevant to the geographic region where the center is located. Communities would then receive training and technical assistance on how to implement the best green infrastructure management practices.

In one town, Edmonston, the mayor and town council created a model green street using E.P.A. recovery funds. The new green infrastructure system helps the town manage the run-off that used to lead to massive flooding and damages. What was the key to their success? Beyond the new stormwater management infrastructure, what economic and social benefits have Edmonston gained from the green street?

I am excited about the Edmonston success story – it’s a small town success in my Congressional District. The two keys to Edmonston’s success were grant assistance and a commitment to building a sustainable community. Due to stormwater runoff, Edmonston had flooded four times in the previous decade. For a community of just 1,300 people, this was unsustainable. At a cost of $1.3 million, Edmonston’s green street brought good jobs, sustainable flood control, low-cost LED streetlights, and quality of life improvements for residents. Importantly, Edmonston now pays just $3,000 dollars a year to maintain their green street, as opposed to the hundreds of thousands of dollars they were forced to pay when the town flooded. These benefits are real, proving that the right investments in green infrastructure can benefit communities across our country.

What is another example of green infrastructure in other communities? What were the benefits?

California provides another great example of the benefits of green infrastructure on a much larger scale. The Sun Valley Watershed is an alternative to a $42 million concrete drain to eliminate flooding in the Sun Valley. With funding from 20 state and federal agencies, the multi-purpose project returned $100 million in savings in recaptured water, cleaner air, and reduced waste hauling. Contrasting this with the Edmonston example captures the expansive benefits of green infrastructure – from aiding small communities to reinventing vast infrastructure projects.

Cities with old stormwater infrastructure pipes like Philadelphia and New York City are developing green infrastructure plans. More and more cities view green infrastructure as a relatively low-cost way to add stormwater management capacity without building out more expensive, underground, and centralized systems. Philadelphia has led the way in creating a $1.6 billion, 20-year green infrastructure plan that would be funded by local fees on water run-off. Do you think this fee-based approach is the way forward?

I think it’s important to enable city, state, and local governments to figure out ways to design, build, and fund green infrastructure initiatives. At the federal level, our job as legislators is to incentivize the green infrastructure, enhance current techniques, and develop best practices for future opportunities and varied approaches in varied communities.

Green infrastructure has been unfairly labeled a liberal cause. Why is this? Has there been errors in how it’s been positioned?

Well, I think the reality is a tendency to associate the word “green” with the word “liberal,” but the truth is that disasters from stormwater occur all over the country and across all ideologies. The facts of green infrastructure are not political. The example of Edmonston is testament to how we can combine smart economic development with sound environmental stewardship. I believe that the more communities like Edmonston benefit from green infrastructure, the less politicized the issue will be.

Lastly, what can landscape architects, who are major supporters of green infrastructure, do to support your legislation? What else can landscape architects do in their own communities?

Landscape architects are in the position to discuss green infrastructure with authority and expertise but without bias. It’s important to use that platform to educate communities about the wide ranging benefits of green infrastructure for our environment and our economy. Landscape architects can educate the public and elected officials across ideological lines. 

Interview conducted by Jared Green.

Image credits: (1) Office of Donna Edwards, (2)  Town of Edmonston Green Street / Edmonston

Solving the Real Estate Crisis with Parks

Mike Messner, the investment fund manager, is the primary force behind the budding “Red fields to Green fields” movement, which has been picked up by more than 10 major cities in the U.S. The basic idea is to transform toxic real estate into parks, elevating nearby property values, and turning a downward spiral of economic stagnation and disinvestment into a positive, self-reinforcing trend of new growth. As Messner noted in a conference he organized with City Parks Alliance on Capitol Hill, “parks and trees are great. I do like them. However, these are secondary to good investments.” And investing in transforming red fields into parks makes smart economic sense these days (see earlier post).

“The U.S. caused this real estate crisis with its housing policy. There were no down payment requirements, easy credit, and lots of capital moving into non-performing assets.” As a result, the federal government had to move in with $10 trillion in investments and recovery programs (“real estate backstopping”) to hold off further economic decline. To counter this trend, surplus land must be redeveloped as green space. Cities large or small can use green spaces as an “economic multiplier” that not only creates green infrastructure but also helps developers get developing again. “Parks can help unlock the real estate market.” Also, tearing down underperforming, vacant housing can create wealth. “Land without buildings are still assets.” If real estate entrepreneurs and parks managers collaborate on identifying opportunities, these types of program could not only lead to a “stock market explosion” but also make communities more livable.

Many cities like Denver, Phoenix, Houston, Detroit, Los Angeles see great value in this idea, but this is largely because it’s not new. In fact, many cities have already experimented with these approaches before, just not at the scale Messner proposes. According to Chris Nevitt, President, Denver City Council, the city of Denver has found that parks put in over old brownfield sites can power economic development. In the South Platte river area of downtown Denver, 20 years ago “there was some of the crappiest real estate along with abandoned railroad switching yards. Really, this was the worst real estate in the city.” To resuscitate the local economy, Denver replaced a 5-mile strip in this area with a park. “Now 20 years later, this is among the most expensive real estate.” Nevitt sees this as a “proof of concept” for red fields to green fields.

The National Park Service is also behind the idea, having gotten on board three years ago when Messner first started presenting his vision. Mickey Fearn, Deputy Director, National Park Service, says there are no large spaces left to set aside as park land in the U.S. so the “next bold parks project” similar to the ones undertaken by President Roosevelt and the Olmsted brothers could be aggregating smaller spaces into inter-connected parks and using abandoned brownfield lots to fill out these spaces.

However, Fearn noted that while the concept holds great merit, proponents of this model must also focus on gaining support from the public. In Seattle, Paul Allen, one of Microsoft’s founders, planned to donate a massive amount of land to the city to create a new Seattle Commons, a park in the middle of the city. But advocacy against the effort, which convinced “poor and low middle class residents” that this was a “boondoggle,” led to the initiative’s defeat in a referendum. “This goes to show the importance of community organization.” The communities around the redfields need to buy into the projects. Fearn thinks selling these projects as green jobs creators for local communities is the way to go.

A number of cities outlined how they would use some relatively big sums (multiple billions) to convert derelict properties into high performing green spaces. Kevin Carvati, Redfields to Greenfields Research Director, Georgia Tech Research Institute, argued that a $5 billion investment within the perimeter of Atlanta’s Beltline could create 2,850 acres of new parks and reserve 13,000 acres for green infrastructure systems, stabilize land values, return liquidity to local banks, and create 70,000 green jobs. In one example, he showed how a 100-acre shopping mall site could be demolished for around $5 million and turned into a park, doubling an initial $30 million investment in the project.

In Detroit, which has had a 50 percent population drop and now has 33 percent unemployed, 27 percent obese, and 33 percent below the poverty line, 40 square miles of vacant properties within their city limits are being viewed as an opportunity. While 6-7 percent of this spread-out city is parkland, the greenways are not connected, limiting their positive impact, said Sandra Yu, Build Up Detroit and Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice. A 70-mile system of greenways is being planned to create green spaces at key transit nodes, adding a network of biking lanes. These greenways would also offset pressure on aging water pipes, acting as green infrastructure.

Detroit has had some successes: Campus Martius Park, a 2.6-acre park downtown, which cost some $20 million, draws over one million people a year. “This shows the huge impact of open public space,” said Yu. More of these types of revitalization projects using the redfield to greenfield concept are underway: The Globe Trading Center, a huge abandoned industrial building is being gutted and transformed into an “indoor adventure center”, while a nearby area will be turned into a new park, at a cost of $34 million. Also in the works is a new “Motown Music Heritage Park.” However, the city still faces real challenges. Efforts to pull down and environmentally remediate the old Packard Plant, a nearly 40-acre site within the city limits, would cost $25 million. The unfortunate part is that the city could make the $25 million back through selling the site’s reusable materials but they just don’t have the funds up front so the site stays in disrepair, a blight on the community.

Houston is trying to apply the red field to green field concept to its ongoing expansion of its park network through Brays Bayou. Trent Rondot, Houston Parks Board, sees “thousands of properties” that offer an opportunity for 10,000 acres of parks. A $5.4 billion investment could result in a $8.5 billion total economic impact and 50,000 jobs. In Los Angeles, Green L.A. Coalition worked with landscape architecture students from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, to locate opportunities within the city, finding that 1,100 acres of lots around half an acre in size were available for redevelopment into park land. In one example, an empty lot was transformed into a community garden, plaza for a farmer’s market, and outdoor classroom. While L.A. does have a lot of park space, it has it in the wrong places: More than 70 percent of the city’s residents don’t have a local park nearby.

Image credit: Confluence Park, South Platte River. Denver / Snap Man. Flickr

The Power of NASA’s Landsat

Why should the U.S. continue to invest $2 billion a year in earth monitoring satellites? According to speakers at the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies and its Alliance for Earth Observations, real-time environmental data collected from NASA’s Landsat is crucial to managing climate change and other natural disasters such as the ones that happened in Japan and Haiti over the course of the year. Space-based environmental monitoring infrastructure is also needed to track deforestation rates in the world’s rainforests and gauge environmental damages from oilspills and other man-made catastrophes.

To spread real-time environmental images around the world, Fernando Echavarria, Office of Space & Advanced Technology, U.S. State Department, said the U.S. government has been adopted an “open data” policy that has proven to be a challenge to other countries, even those in the E.U. In practice, this has meant making all U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) satellite-collected environmental imagery freely available via NASA’s Landsat, a tool that has been accessed nearly 4 million times worldwide in the last 6 months.  

The U.S. is also working through development organizations to help countries in the Middle East set up their own environmental data monitoring operations. In Egypt, Echavarria said the issue was clearly freshwater and energy has been focused on tracking changing flows. There’s also a focus on “geospatial data for cities.” Echavarria thinks this is smart because “if you are going to do sustainable development, you need to be focused on where the people are: cities.”

For Marty Spitzer, World Wildlife Fund (WWF), accessing satellite data is crucial to establishing a baseline for ecosystem restoration. “We need to understand the baseline conditions, and watch the changes over time in order to restore an ecosystem to its former glory.” Satellites are important because many of these domains are simply too vast and hard to navigate on the ground.

National Geographic, which has been involved in mapping the earth for more than 100 years, is focused on using imagery to tell the story of planetary change. Frank Biasi, Director, Digital Maps and Atlases, National Geographic Maps, said National Geographic and other conservation organizations first “establish an inventory, map a place out, and evaluate how species relate to each other. Next, we assess the threats to those ecosystems. Then, we plan and design actions to sustain those threatened resources. Finally, we do those conservation actions, whether its managing resources or prescribing fires.” However, on the ground, the availability of data is “still patchy” for field work so National Geographic is hoping for newer tools to track water resources.  

“Collecting all this data is one thing, but getting useful information in a useable format for policymakers is another,” said Kit Batten, climate change coordinator at USAID. She said it’s the role of scientists in government to intepret scientific data clearly for policymakers. However, many scientists don’t even know where to start when communicating the complexities of climate science and navigating the D.C. political minefield. Spitzer agreed, arguing that during his time at the House Science Committee, “you couldn’t put 85 percent of scientists in front my boss” (the committee chairperson).

Perhaps, even more depressing, is another idea Spitzer brought up. He said he initially thought “most people were rational and wanted more data. Who would say no to more information?” However, in some cases, some elected officials “don’t want to know more” because that knowledge will negatively impact the interests of their supporters. “I’ve seen that again and again.”

Despite the controversy over climate change and ongoing debate on how to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, he said the U.S. is still the number one investor globally in climate change data, more so than all other countries. This earth satellite capability must be maintained in order to improve the “resolution” and ability to track changes over time. Echavarria added: “We don’t want other countries taking this role from us. This is a gift to the world.”

Also, check out ESRI’s free landsat “Change Matters” tool, which shows how any place on the globe looked in 1975 and 2000.

Image credit: South America vegetation cover change 1975 – 2000. Landsat / ESRI

Nigel Peake: “The Land Is Made from Many Small Parts”

Nigel Peake, a multi-talented watercolor artist and architect, has created a new book, In the Wilds, which documents his close examination of the Irish countryside. In his introduction, Peake writes that the “land is made from many small parts. The hills, flats, and valleys made up of colors and shapes.” On top of these natural shapes are man-made structures, some already decayed, and the field, which encompasses “the patterns and natural occurences that happen within it.”

Growing up in Ireland, Peake writes that “open spaces and nature were all I knew for years.” While he has lived in cities for years and enjoys their “noises and colors,” he’s always drawn back to the country. There, in his youth, “the tallest objects around me were the nearby trees and the distant mountains.” Now, he finds the “scale of nature is very different from the built environment; it does not overly concern itself with the human hand. The land is cultivated as fields, and sometimes the bigger rocks are removed from them so that they can be called gardens.” Here are some of his hay bales:

Still, he seems to enjoy shaping nature, acting as a landscape architect, “having that wonderful experience of creating a path where none existed before.” Also, interacting with nature he finds that “closer I go to the objects, the more I would see their hidden structures and textures.”

While he’s no naturalist, his beautiful, intricate drawings show a close examination of his surroundings. He writes: “I cannot identify the name of every bird song, type of tree, or field condition, but I do have an appreciation and inherent joy of the things around me.”

Peake provides illustrations for a range of publications and has worked with major clients like Hermes, the Royal Horticultural Society, Habitat, and Dwell magazine.

Read the book and check out his Web site.

Also, if you like Peake’s work, you may also want to check out a recent book on artist Maria Kalman: Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World).

Image credit: In the Wilds / Nigel Peake. Princeton Architectural Press

Design a New Park in Santiago, Chile

The Chilean National Department of Sports has launched “Parque de la Ciudadanía Competition,” an international design competition for a 64-acre sustainable park in Santiago. The park will create an “urban image and landscape for the site of the national stadium,” and will need to be completed before the South American ODESUR games in 2014.  

According to the competition organizers, the goal of the project is to “generate a park open to the people, integrated with its surrounding lower income neighborhoods, and capable of integrating the sports venues located within the site.” In addition, the new park must also provide opportunities for local residents to engage in sports and recreation. 

The winning design must have a “unique image and identity linked with the site’s history and landscape and respond to the new demands and trends of the 21 century; integrate with the urban fabric, linking the site of the National Stadium to the city and surrounding neighborhoods; enhance and facilitate recreational and sporting activities, improving the use of sports facilities and encouraging open space recreation; and [provide open spaces] for social integration, improving the quality of life for surrounding communities.”

The park must also be sustainable and actually improve the environmental conditions of Santiago. Within their proposals, landscape architects will need to define an “environmental management” and maintenance program to ensure park sustainability.

Teams of landscape architects or architects can submit proposals for free. Three shortlisted teams will receive $43,000 to develop proposals, and the winning team will receive a commission of $587,000.

Learn more about the competition in English or Spanish and submit entries before August 25.

Image credit: National Stadium, Santiago, Chile / Ohio State University