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

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

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

Infrastructure for All

Watch an animation from ASLA’s “Designing Our Future: Sustainable Landscapes” online exhibition that explains how to transform transportation systems into multi-use infrastructure that serves everyone. Learn how communities can save money and improve the environment by redesigning their existing infrastructure.

Many cities have been designed around their transportation systems, to the detriment of their own people. Now, transportation infrastructure accounts for 20-40 percent of all urban land. Even in Washington, D.C., which has invested in a range of sustainable transportation options, streets, intersections, and alleys accounts for 22 percent of all land, and once you include parking spaces, that number easily reaches 30 percent. These systems have also enabled the growth of transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), which now account for 30 percent of all U.S. emissions. (Sources: Wikipedia, Washington D.C. Department of Transportation, and Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change,” Peter Calthorpe, Island Press)

New York, San Francisco, and other cities have pioneered programs to transform streets and parking spaces into mini-plazas or “parklets.” Parklets are safe, people-friendly environments that offer inviting café-style chairs and tables, benches, and trees and plants. These spaces, which can be created for less than $20,000, encourage people to get out of their cars, walk, and interact, which helps build the local economy. In San Francisco, one new parklet increased pedestrian foot traffic by 37 percent. Some cities are also prioritizing under-served populations. In a new program, New York City is finding old parking lots and other under-used areas in communities with low per capita open space and turning them into plazas.  (Sources: City of San Francisco Planning Department Pavement to Parks Program, San Francisco Great Streets Project, and NYC Plaza Program, New York City Department of Transportation)

Isolated underpasses, which are often spaces for crime, are found directly below highways. As some cities know, underpasses are diamonds in the rough, ripe for polishing. For example, the city of Toronto is reusing one of its highway underpasses to create a 2.5-acre park, connecting neighborhoods and creating valuable green space in the process. Communities are redesigning other forms of infrastructure, too. Across the U.S., 19,000 miles of abandoned rail lines have been transformed into more than 1,600 walking and bicycling trails through innovative “Rails to Trails” programs. Other cities have even transformed old water infrastructure, turning polluted waterways and toxic brownfields into new developments that spur economic growth. All of these approaches may be more environmentally sustainable than simply pulling down and disposing of old infrastructure. (Sources: Waterfront Toronto and Rails-to-Trails Conservancy)

Collaborating with the Public on Design

At the National Building Museum’s Intelligent Cities forum, Laura Solano, ASLA, principal at Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), explained the highly collaborative design process undertaken with local residents and the broader public in New York City to create the Brooklyn Bridge Park. In this session, there was also a broader discussion among urban planners and architects on how the public now participates in the design of buildings, parks and other public spaces, and the role of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in this process. Lastly, one innovative researcher explained how ICT is changing the way people use public spaces.

For Brooklyn Bridge Park, one of the major new public spaces in New York City, MVVA set up a community discussion center of sorts where designers were available every day from 2-6 in the afternoon for “one-to-one” conversations with local residents. In addition, on Saturdays, there were open sessions where people off the street could just come in. Given this park “really is a space for the local residents of the area,” the landscape architects were very concerned about gauging public response to the initial designs. In addition, a full 30-foot long model of the park was on view in Union Square so “people could walk around it and ask questions.”

The public review process led to design changes, “things we perhaps wouldn’t have thought of on our own.” Solano said “people came in with solid ideas on the activities that should be offered and safety,” and MVVA used those ideas to ensure the park “was attractive to an entire cross section of the neighborhood.” For example, the park is now “heavier on recreation.” Residents came to designers and said there was no space in the neighborhood for basketball so new courts were added. Also, some of the watefront recreation areas were expanded.

Maurice Cox, associate professor, University of Virginia School of Architecture, and former mayor of Charlottesville, Virginia, said that “the public really always knows best.” And once they are explained the possibilities and have time to review them, “they will chose the best options for you.” Engaging the public in design is also crucial to ensuring there is a “constituency for certain features and support for the designs.” Without these constituencies, the design fails.

According to Julie Eizenberg, an architect with Konig Eizenberg, “it’s not just about using public input to meet functional goals” but creating an “environment that has value and creates a sense of community.” Community input is then key to discerning and distilling that value.

A number of examples were used to hit home the point that designs made without public input almost always have issues. Nicholas de Monchaux, assistant professor of architecture and urban design, University of California, Berkeley, said “look at every university campus. The ugliest building will always be the one for the architectural school because the designer built it for himself.” In another example, he said Google actually commissioned 7 groups of architects to create designs for its new Silicon Valley headquarters. Out of those, employees picked and chose elements they liked and created a composite plan, which was also “a disaster.” He called for a more open “adaptive design” approach to organize the complexities in the design process.

Cox said ICTs played an important role in locating opportunities for infill development in spread-out Charlottesville and convincing the community to raise the height limit from 3 to 9 stories. “We used technology to facilitate the marketing of infill development to developers. For that, we really needed GPS.” Also, technology was used to “visualize what changes in the height limit” would do to the look of the city. In the end, the community changed the rules. “They made what was previously illegal legal.”

In terms of landscapes, Solano sees limits for technology. “Technology is really for the end run of information.” She said landscape are living systems and it’s difficult to get communities to grasp that. “Landscapes have to be constantly taken care of.” While technologies help enable water management systems, landscapes are based in biological and ecological sciences. “They are rooted in science and we need to create a place for that.” She also worried that maintenance budgets are often the first thing to be cut in broader park budgets because the public may not understand how these living systems need upkeep. Perhaps technologies can be used to better convey these ideas to the public and build support.

In a separate talk, Keith Hampton, assistant professor, Annenberg School of Communication, University of Pennsylvania, gave a fascinating presentation on how ICTs change how people use public spaces. His research in public spaces in New York City and Philadelphia has shown that 8 percent of park goers now use the Internet in those spaces, and these numbers are only expected to go up (given 18 percent use the Internet in cafes). Some of his main points: half of all the social benefits of technologies come using them in a certain place. For example, bloggers go to church more. As for using public spaces, 25 percent went to public spaces because there was WiFi available. Around 70 percent who previously visited a public space were more likely to visit again because of WiFi.

Book readers and laptop users are alike in that they are both “open to serendipitous interactions,” and they are much more open than mobile phone or game-using or ear-bud wearing visitors. Of the book or laptop users, 28 percent had some sort of interaction with others in public spaces. Interestingly, he found ICT users had more interactions in parks that have “fixed elements” like benches. There was less mingling for those users in parks like Bryant Park that offer movable cafe table and chairs.

Overall, Hampton found that “communities with more social interactions build on technology, and use them to become more social.” In contrast, disadvantaged communities with high levels of inequality “were less likely to have high levels local tie formation.” However, technology may be able to help remedy this. “ICTs make community possible in disadvantaged areas.” He pointed to Web site he’s been working on: iNeighbors, which now helps more than 1,000 neighborhoods better interact. Almost 10 million messages have been sent so far.

Image credit: Brooklyn Bridge Park model / NY Daily News

High Line Phase 2 Now Open

Eager anticipation has preceeded the opening of phase 2 of the High Line, which runs from West 20th street to 30th streets, bisecting 10th and 11th avenues in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. In a major success for the Friends of the Highline, the park’s founders, the new second segment designed by landscape architect James Corner, ASLA, and his firm, Field Operations, architects Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, and horticulturalist Piet Oudolf makes the High Line’s open park area now more than one mile long.

Beyond providing a walkable and beautiful respite for the residents of this area, the High Line has generated more than $2 billion in private investment in the neighborhood, reports The New York Times. The return on investment for the city is impressive given NYC government has only invested around $115 million in the park so far. In addition, some 8,000 construction jobs and 12,00 additional jobs in the neighborhood have been created. 

The new segment creates a rich array of experiences within its half-mile, 10 block length. Between 20th and 22nd streets, there’s a new “Chelsea Thicket” that appears after a prairie-like landscape that offers a “dense planting of flowering shrubs and small trees” and helps demarcate the edge of the new section (see image above). According to the Friends of High Line, the thicket includes species like “winterberry, redbud, and large American hollies” that provide endless variation all year. There’s also an “under-planting of low grasses, sedges, and shade-tolerant perennials [that] further emphasize the transition from grassland to thicket.”

At 23rd street, there’s a new lawn and steps. Working with the existing infrastructure, the designers used the wider segment, once comprised of an extra set of rail tracks for offloading cargo, to create a larger gathering space. The steps anchor a 4,900-square foot lawn. At its north end, the lawn lifts visitors a few feet into the air, offering them views of “Brooklyn to the east, and the Hudson River and New Jersey to the west.” Unlike the first section, which used Ipe, a rainforest hardwood, the new steps are made up of recycled teak.

Moving further north, there’s the “Philip A. and Lisa Maria Falcone Flyover” between West 25th and West 26th Streets. The Friends of the Highline say this “flyover creates a microclimate that once cultivated a dense grove of tall shrubs and trees. Now, a metal walkway rises eight feet above the High Line, allowing groundcover plants to blanket the undulating terrain below, and carrying visitors upward, into a canopy of sumac and magnolia trees.” At different spots, visitors can branch off the main path.  

At 26th street, there’s a “Viewing Spur,” a frame meant to recall the billboards that were once attached to the rail structures. “Now the frame enhances, rather than blocks, views of the city. Tall shrubs and trees flank the Viewing Spur’s frame, while a platform with wood benches invites visitors to sit and enjoy views of 10th Avenue and Chelsea.”

In the next three blocks between West 26th and West 29th Streets, there’s a new “Wildflower Field” featuring “hardy, drought-resistance grasses and wildflowers, and features a mix of species that ensures variation in blooms throughout the growing season.” In this section, famed horticulturalist and garden designer Piet Oudolf has been given room to experiment. 

As section two moves towards its endpoint at West 3oth, it begins to curve towards the Hudson River and the West Side Rail Yards, its ultimate destination. The pathway ends at the “30th Street Cut-Out,” a viewing platform so visitors can look down to the park infrastructure and street below.

Image credits: (1) Chelsea Thicket, (2) Lawn and Seating Steps, (3) Philip A. and Lisa Maria Falcone Flyover, (4) Viewing Spur, (5) Wildflower Field, (6) 30th Street Cut-Out / Iwan Baan, copyright 2011.

Interview with Nina-Marie Lister on Ecological Urbanism

Nina-Marie Lister, MCIP, RPP, Affiliate ASLA, is Associate Professor of Urban & Regional Planning at Ryerson University, and Visiting Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design (GSD). She is a contributor to
Ecological Urbanism and co-editor of The Ecosystem Approach: Complexity, Uncertainty and Managing for Sustainability. Lister recently served as the Professional Advisor to the ARC International Wildlife Crossing Infrastructure Design Competition

In Ecological Urbanism, you argue that ecology is now central to contemporary urban landscapes. How did this change occur? What must these new ecological landscapes accomplish to be successful?

There has been a paradigm shift in ecology over the last quarter century. As scientific research and published evidence on whole ecosystem function mounts, we’ve seen the paradigm of ecology move toward a more organic model of open-endedness, flexibility, resilience, and adaptation and away from a mechanistic model of stability and control. In other words, ecosystems are now understood to be open systems that behave in ways that are self-organizing and that are to some extent unpredictable. Change is built into living systems; they are characterized in part by uncertainty and dynamic change.

For decades high school biology and ecology has taught—and in some places, still teaches—that ecosystems gradually and steadily succeed into stable “climax” states from which they don’t move unless “disturbed.” An old growth forest is one of the classic examples usually given, in which the forest matures and then remains in that state permanently such that any disturbance from that state is considered an aberration. Yet we now know that change is not only built into these systems, but in some cases, an ecosystem is actually dependent on change. For example, fire-dependent forests contain tree species that require the extreme heat of fire to release and disperse seeds and to facilitate forest renewal—and sometimes, a shift in the complement of species. All ecosystems are constantly evolving and often in ways that are discontinuous and uneven. While some ecosystem states are perceived by us to be stable, this is not strict stability in a mathematical sense; it’s just our time-limited perception of stasis. The work of Canadian ecologist, C. S. “Buzz” Holling, pioneered this concept in terms of resource management. He called ecosystems “shifting steady-state mosaics” which means that stability is patchy, and it’s scalar; it’s not something that defines a whole system at any one point in time or space.

Much recent work in applied ecology has been about trying to understand what are those ecosystem states that we perceive as stable, and useful to us, such that we as humans want to encourage. This perspective rests on the recognition that we’re not outsiders to the ecosystem—we’re participants in its unfolding. Of course, we are designers as well. We shape the ecosystems in which we live—sometimes profoundly and irrevocably. This means that understanding the states in which an ecosystem appears to be stable is very important to being able to “steer” or guide it back to some recognizable, desirable, and resilient state after a sudden or surprising change. Most of this research has been focused on wilderness and large natural landscapes, although my own research and practice takes this work into urbanizing landscapes, where there are many applications for design.

Some of the classic examples of normal (yet often catastrophic) ecosystem change include forest fires, pest outbreaks, and significant storm events. These are taking on a new relevance today as we observe that the frequency and magnitude of storm events is increasing—a change which is being attributed to climate disruption. When major storm events happen (particularly in densely populated or urbanizing regions), they can push an ecosystem into a new state which might ultimately be inhospitable for certain species, resources, or people. Given the uncertainty inherent to ecosystems in this complex systems paradigm, coupled with the uncertainty around climate disruption, it’s likely necessary to change the way we are used to managing our ecosystems. In fact, what we really need to do is realize that we can’t efficiently or even effectively manage complex ecosystems at all—rather, what we can do is manage ourselves and our activities.

We can shift our focus from managing ecosystems from a principally economic perspective to managing human actions within ecosytems. We’ve already seen evidence of this change, beginning in the conservation movement in wilderness areas. For example, in the late 1980s, when Yellowstone National Park was ravaged by forest fires, the National Parks Service management approach still included a general fire suppression policy (although they had begun to allow small controlled burns in some National Parks since the 1970s). Forest ecologists have argued that it was the legacy of this policy and a century of fire suppression in the parks that essentially created a set of ecological conditions that allowed Yellowstone to burn at the scale and intensity that it did. Today we understand that it’s a better management practice to allow smaller, natural fires to burn more frequently—and in some cases, to prescribe and set small-scale controlled burns, even in urban areas. For example, prescribed burns take place annually in the Oak Savannah of Toronto’s High Park, which is a culturally and ecologically significant ecosystem. In this case, prescribed burns are used to maintain the Oak Savanndah, a transitional state in this ecosystem, which would eventually evolve to a closed canopy mixed forest without fire. Whether wild or urban, certain ecosystems are now recognized as adapted to and dependent on fire to renew, evolve and change.

A more timely and urban example of this paradigm shift in ecology and related management approaches can be seen in how we deal with floods. We can see this specifically through a gradual transition from flood control to flood management. At least a decade before the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, ecologists and hydrologists were warning that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ approach to flood control was effectively pushing the lower Mississippi basin towards a catastrophic threshold for change and potential collapse. Through a long-term policy of flood suppression, dyking and damming, coupled with the removal of coastal wetlands, and intensive settlement of the floodplains, the natural flood-adaptation mechanisms of the basin were comprised and impaired. When the big storm hit in 2005, we know that the devastation was catastrophic not only for the resources and the economy of the region, but for the lives of many of its most vulnerable citizens. In this very poignant example, it’s clear that traditional top-down or command-and-control engineering approaches to living systems don’t work. What is needed are more flexible, adaptive approaches to managing human activities and to designing within the systems that sustain us.

You quote Jane Amidon, a landscape architecture professor, who says, “The idea of nature has been remarried with the real thing, working ecologies.” What are some examples of this?

This is part of the paradigm shift that recognizes a productive working landscape is a model for a healthy, resilient ecology. Over the last 20 years, our conservation policies have focused less on ecosystem structure or objects of nature and more on function. So while we’ve always valued objects of nature, for example, charismatic wildlife and other iconic species that we want to protect, those are essentially structures. We’ve shifted our collective understanding at least in conservation management to recognize that ecological functions are now equally important but they’re less tangible and visible to people. Amidon’s reference to working ecologies reflects this contemporary thinking. I have often used the term “productive ecologies” to refer to working landscapes, or cultural-natural ecosystems that provide food, water, clean air, agricultural produce, raw materials for industry and so on. Making these functions visible, as opposed to just the objects or structures of nature, is a powerful way of communicating what an ecosystem does for us, and in turn, how we value those services.

For a designer, it’s a potent and revelatory act to be able to show how ecosystems work so that people then appreciate and participate in the unfolding and working of a landscape in which they are participants, not merely consumers. The increased use of green infrastructure in our cities is a good example in which people can see the functions of a working ecosystem—whether in green walls that stabilize an embankment, or green roofs that provide food, or bioswales that filter and slow stormwater runoff. By making these processes visible, we have the potential to make ecology directly relevant to our publics. But really smart green infrastructures that are instrumental to productive ecologies go a step further: they facilitate hands-on learning or they require citizen participation in the ecological function. For example, many wetland creation and restoration projects rely on community volunteers for planting and maintenance; urban bioswales and green streets rely on stewardship by the community to function properly; and urban agricultural projects engage youth to work with native plants, bees, or chickens, etc, and become ambassadors for the project through outreach and education. 

Green infrastructure is a practical way to understand working landscapes. As interest in local food continues to increase, we might think of food landscapes as a type of green infrastructure. Whether as vernacular community gardens or as a designed urban farm, or turning city parks into foraging landscapes with fruit and nut trees—these are all illustrations of our landscapes at work and in which people can and do participate. To my mind, this is a productive ecological urbanism.

You argue that brownfield sites, once stripped of layers of toxic soils, are often locations for new “hybrid ecologies.” What are some examples of those? Are these a good thing?

Brownfields by definition are former industrial or commercial sites which may be contaminated, and which are almost certainly abandoned, underused or disused. As such, these are sites with both liabilities and opportunities, and where ecological processes may be shaping the transformation of the site quite independently of human intervention. The very act of neglect opens a variety of ecological niches, exploited by plants, animals and people who use the site informally. Brownfields are often populated by co-evolving assemblies of introduced and native species which form new ecological communities—the kind that are usually associated with derelict lots, urban decay and the image of the shrinking city. But these hybrid ecologies can be useful. Weedy plants (both native and non-native) are able to rapidly colonize disturbed and moderately contaminated sites; they can often tolerate and metabolize toxic materials such that they begin to remediate the site. For example, Steven Handel, an ecologist at Rutgers, has done considerable research in restoring ecological functions to brownfields. While weedy sites maybe an eyesore to some, they are also a legitimate ecosystem in so far as they perform a variety of ecological functions such as stormwater infiltration and carbon sequestration in addition to pollution uptake, soil remediation, and so on. If we look at these functions as value-added services, brownfields take on a new importance as beneficial transitional sites in the urban landscape. We could see brownfields as hosts to ephemeral, hybrid ecologies that provide free services to the city while a site is awaiting a new use.

Interestingly, the environmental movement has become an inadvertent opponent of brownfield remediation using a hybridized ecological approach. A considerable portion of fast-growing, resilient but undesirable plants, commonly called “weeds,” are non-native. I would point out that Peter del Tredici, an ecologist at Harvard, has re-branded weeds as “wild urban plants,” alluding to their important role in the urban landscape. Not all non-native plants are invasive, but the unintended consequence of campaigns to eradicate non-native plants and to grow native species at all costs has been to overlook the potential benefits provided by non-natives in site remediation.

I want to emphasise that I am using the word “remediation” quite explicitly. I don’t like to use the word “restoration” in this context, because it’s rarely made clear what state we’re restoring towards and why. Restoration implies that a particular moment in an ecosystem’s evolutionary trajectory can be captured and preserved. But there is no pristine state in a world where the human animal is a participant in the ecosystems of which we’re evolved. The ecological restoration rhetoric has been over-simplified to the point where well-meaning citizen volunteers are pulling out any species that “don’t belong here.” There’s a xenophobic overtone to the language of restoration ecology that I find somewhat concerning. It’s not dissimilar to the language we use to describe people who “don’t belong”: non-natives, aliens, foreigners, exotics, intruders, etc.

So when I talk about hybridized ecologies in the context of remediating an urban place, I’m referring not only to repairing the physical ecological functions of an evolving ecosytem, but also at a higher level, to (re)mediating the metaphorical relationship between culture and nature. We don’t exist outside the ecosystem—we are born of it, we depend on it and we ought to design within it, with respect for both the culture and the nature of the place. Surely this would be a good thing.

The Evergreen Brickworks in Toronto is cited as a new model for an ecological urban landscape. Why is this project important? How does it present a new model for engaging the community? How is it different from any other nature discovery center?

The Evergreen Brickworks is unique for several reasons. It’s first and foremost a center for the discovery of culture and nature in the city. Neither domain is prioritized, and the synergy between culture and nature in an urban context is what makes the place and its programs unique. It also represents an unusual partnership and an innovative business model, at least in the Canadian context. Evergreen Brickworks is a $55 million dollar project that has been conceived, developed, and run entirely by a not-for-profit organization, with contributions from three levels of government and various corporate and philanthropic sponsors, and it’s built and operated on public land.

The project demonstrates integrated thinking and systems-oriented design—one we might say represents a tangible model for sustainability. I’d call it ecological urbanism in practice. Evergreen Brickworks features adaptive re-use of most of the heritage industrial buildings; the only new building is the LEED-Platinum Center for Green Cities which features a variety of state-of-the art green technologies. Together, the buildings and their programs have been designed to activate and curate a working, productive landscape in the heart of Canada’s largest city. The landscape is designed principally for education and the production of food—from farming to markets and kitchens. Programming focuses on cultural and biological diversity—from people to food to native plants—with a particular emphasis on children and youth-at-risk.

The Evergreen Brickworks breaks the mould of a “nature center” in a lot of ways: It’s geographically in the center of the city, it’s on public land, and it’s run by a not-for-profit. Its entire model of governance represents a social ecology that’s very different from the traditional, top-down government-run or philanthropic organizations. It’s very much a model of collaboration and partnership. As such, Evergreen Brickworks sets a precedent for the way in which we bring people and nature together in an urban landscape—and this is a productive, generative model that transcends the old dualism of “culture versus nature.”

In a recent talk at Dumbarton Oaks, you also introduced the idea of adaptive design, which involves building ecological functions into a landscape so it’s more resilient to climate change and other environmental impacts. The idea is to create landscapes that are “safe to fail” and can actually thrive with change. Please describe this idea. How can it work in practice?

Adaptive design is a term that I’ve used for some time now to describe an approach to planning and design that explicitly recognizes ecological systems. Design, planning, and management are all part of the same spectrum of activities in which we engage with our landscape and living ecology. The central notion of adaptive design is that if we understand that landscapes and their ecosystems are fundamentally dynamic, that they’re constantly changing, this means that there is an inherent amount of uncertainty in terms of how they behave. Within complex living systems we cannot predict with certainty and precision, no matter how much scientific evidence we have, exactly what will happen or when it will happen. For example, we know very well that certain areas are subject to seasonal flooding. We know that under a scenario of climate change, we can expect more flooding. So while we know that flooding is to some extent an inevitability, and that floods will happen, what we can’t say with certainty is exactly when those events will happen. The point is that ecosystem change is inevitable: it’s built into these living systems, but we can not predict with certainty how and when they’re going to change, or the extent of the change. One cynical response has been to say, “oh well, if we can’t predict what’s going to happen, then what’s the point of planning? We should just give up and adapt when disaster strikes.” This is the “passive adaptation” theory, and it’s a naive response which few of us would take seriously. Adaptive design, by contrast, is a more nuanced response that is based on understanding the history, context and trajectory of a living system, and the pressures that the system is facing.

Let’s return to the flood example. In a given river basin, we often understand very well where the 50 or 100 year flood level is and we zone people outside of susceptible flood plains. In flood-prone regions, people have tracked water levels for hundreds of years and often have a good idea of the scale and extent of inevitable floods. However, modern civil engineering has de-emphasized local knowledge at local scales and focused instead on large-scale efforts at flood control rather than management. Adaptive design is, in part, an approach that re-emphasizes local knowledge and knowledge at various temporal and spatial scales. For example, if we study an ecosystem at and across several scales (taking into account historical knowledge) we can begin to understand this system’s normal behaviour patterns and which of its ecological structures and functions help to return the system to the desirable state following a disturbance event, such as flooding. These structures and functions are said to build resiliency. Assembling this type of cross-scale knowledge about an ecosystem might be called a “resilience profile.”

Another important characteristic of adaptive design is that it ought to be safe-to-fail. We know that structural engineers must design bridges and buildings to be fail-safe (i.e. a collapse or structural failure would be unacceptable). But living systems differ in several important ways from mechanical and structural systems. We use the notion of “safe-to-fail” to recognize that living systems are different particularly in that they regularly undergo change events that move the system from one apparently stable state to another. The underlying idea is that if change is inevitable, then we ought to facilitate small-scale, manageable changes to happen without causing catastrophic failure.

In ecosystems which are adapted to fire or flood, the evidence suggests that it is more reasonable to facilitate, rather than (attempt to) prevent the disturbance from happening. So an adaptive design that is safe-to-fail in a flood-prone watershed, would rely on a proactive flood management approach based on a landscape design that facilitates regular safe flooding, rather than pre-empting any flooding and risking a catastrophic flood.

Adaptive design must necessarily reply on an evidence-based approach. I’ve asked my design colleagues to form research partnerships with ecological scientists so that we can track small-scale examples of ecological design and learn what happens under various change events. The idea is to learn from failure, and when we make mistakes, we do so safely, without long-term consequences. We need to scale back on the size of our plans in some cases, and most importantly, we need to design and conduct our interventions as rigorous, empirical, evidence-based experiments so that we can learn from them, track the data, understand how they respond to change events.

The lack of well designed wildlife crossings, has led to a 50 percent increase in collisions between wildlife and cars over the past 15 years in the U.S. Not only do these collisions take a huge toll of wildlife and people, but they cost the U.S. economy $8 billion a year. You advised the ARC Design Competition, which aimed to come up with a improved model for wildlife crossings. What are the next steps for the winning design by Michael Van Valkenburgh and HNTB? What is really needed to get these rolled out across the U.S. and Canada?

The ARC project was a challenging opportunity for me to link my previous research and field work in conservation biology with my more recent work in ecological design. The primary reason I took on the ARC project was to contribute to a long-term, high-level strategy of reconnecting the North American landscape. Our landscapes and the diverse habitats they contain are under threat as they are increasingly fragmented through expanding road networks. As cities spread laterally and blend into other cities, the road networks connecting these mega-regions are carrying more traffic, and they fragment the remaining wilderness landscapes. Wildlife populations soon become isolated and are forced to move across roads for feeding and breeding. The result is that we’re seeing a marked increase in collisions between motorists and wildlife.

Landscape architects are uniquely positioned to remediate this problem by designing new, “connective tissue” in the form of wildlife crossing infrastructure that must function structurally and ecologically, as habitat. On a continental scale, a network of crossing structures, both under and over roadways, can literally weave the landscape together.

Wildlife crossing structures present an interesting design challenge in that they must serve two clients: the human and the non-human. Of course, the wildlife client’s needs are less clear than the human clients’ needs. This necessitates considerable ecological research by the design team, usually with an ecologist or conservation biologist.

The short-term tangible goal for the ARC competition was to get a wildlife bridge built over the I-70 at Vail Pass which is a particularly problematic location for motorists and wildlife. This stretch of the I-70 has been studied extensively for over a decade, and the preliminary environmental impact study for the I-70 Corridor calls for a mitigation strategy. There is clear evidence that there is a need for crossing structure, and when you look at the data in terms of overall costs of vehicle-wildlife collisions to motorists and the state– from personal damages to auto repair to insurance claims and premium increases to road maintenance—it’s staggering to see that nothing is being done. The competition has helped to raise awareness of the costs of these collisions to both humans and wildlife. To date, we’ve had a very positive response to the competition by the public as well as the Governor and the local Congressman. We’re currently at work on an implementation strategy with a number of stakeholders in the region.

A longer-term goal of the competition is to bring wildlife crossing infrastructure into the mainstream of public awareness as a cost-effective and ecologically viable solution to the growing problem of vehicle-wildlife collisions. We are doing this in several ways now that the competition is over. In addition to working towards implementation of the winning design at Vail Pass in Colorado, we are also showcasing all five finalists’ design concepts around the country and at conferences and other events. The idea is to demonstrate a compelling diversity of design solutions for wildlife crossings and highlight these as a specific type of infrastructure. We are also promoting all the finalists’ designs to other U.S. states and Canadian provinces where a wider range of context-specific mitigation structures are needed. We see a tremendous opportunity for growth in this sector, where the problem is clearly identified, the costs of doing nothing are rising, and the solution is proven.

Another longer-term strategy of the competition is to engage the public in a higher-level discourse about the importance of landscape connectivity and the role that connected, living landscapes play in the health of the environment. A key part of this communication strategy is to develop a traveling educational and experiential exhibit that brings the wildlife crossings to the public in a personal way. We also want to be able to use the structures themselves as an engagement tool for citizens to understand the need for them. For example, we can use the structures as live monitoring sites around which schools could develop educational programming, and scientists can gather data for research. There are infrared cameras already installed at a number of crossing locations and while these are currently used for research purposes, they could also be linked to a live Web feed through which scientists, students, and the general public could track and observe various wildlife species in real-time. These cameras—or others installed specifically for this purpose on new structures—could  also be used to feed visual data to a mobile device, perhaps as an application for smartphones. These visual and interactive strategies have the added benefit of allowing people to become more engaged with a landscape that so far has been relatively invisible to an urban population traveling at 60 miles an hour along the interstate.

We do need a lot of public recognition and sustained attention to the problem of vehicle-wildlife collisions to get these structures accepted as viable solutions and into the mainstream of transportation infrastructure. Ted Zoli, a MacArthur “Genius Grant” Award winner in bridge engineering and the lead designer for the ARC winning team of HNTB and MVVA, has pointed out that the annual $8 billion USD cost of vehicle-wildlife collisions is several orders of magnitude more than the problem of bird strikes with aircraft. Yet, unlike the state Departments of Transportation, the FAA spends billions of dollars in research to avert a statistically minor problem. The point is that we have a very costly problem that is increasing, and for which we have a proven solution, and yet nothing is being done about it.

Indeed we know that crossing structures work. The ARC competition relied on an extensive body of peer-reviewed scientific evidence from both Canada and Europe. In particular, we designed the brief to reflect lessons learned from a decade of research on more than 20 crossing structures in Banff, Canada which served as the prototypes for the competition.

We also undertook a cost benefit analysis comparing the proposed bridge for the Vail Pass to existing structures in Banff which cost approximately $10 to $12 million USD. These are conventional highway bridge structures that have a simple overburden of soil and vegetation. In this respect they are over-engineered, and yet they are also designed for a highway that is two lanes smaller than the expansion proposed for the I-70. We know we can build these structures for considerably less than the Banff prototypes, and a key advantage of the hypar-vault system proposed by the HNTB+MVVA winning entry is that the structure can be made smaller or larger as necessary.

A primary objective of the competition was to bring the cost of crossing structures down. We also wanted to show how we can use new materials, or how we can reinvent common, easily available materials ways that offer more flexibility and adaptation to the various landscape contexts in which these structures might be deployed. The jury was impressed with the winning entry on all accounts, but in particular by the use of an old material in a new, cost-effective way: precast concrete is a familiar material, the technology is well understood. The hypar-vault modules are cost-effective. This is principally because there are over 400 pre-casters throughout North America so transportation costs of getting the modules to where they are needed is reduced. The jury noted that the benefit of using a familiar technology is that it is more likely to be accepted, even if in a new way. Once several of these structures are implemented, it’s more likely that we’ll see a willingness to experiment with different materials. This too was an objective of the competition, and several of the finalist teams developed innovative concepts using newer materials and engineering approaches, including cast-in-place thin-shell concrete, reclaimed beetle-killed timber, wood-core plastic laminate, resins and steel mesh.  In this way we can consider the ARC competition as the beginning of a new typology of infrastructure—and a new role for landscape architecture.

Instead of big theoretical approaches, you seem to say that any good ecological design has to be rooted in its natural place. How can landscape architects ensure they are doing this when they create these new ecological landscapes for people and wildlife in cities?

Throughout this conversation I keep coming back to the centrality of scale and context in ecology. Our cities are much larger than in the past, and more of us live in cities. So in a very real sense, our cities are landscapes with functioning ecologies, including both natural and cultural components. Making ecological context (or “place”) is central to all my work. Of course, this is not a new idea. It’s simply a timely emphasis on a very old idea. One that civilizations always understood when the ability to survive depended fundamentally on the ability to know an ecosystem intimately. Now that we’ve scaled up and supersized our cities, we’ve distanced ourselves from the ecological functions on which we ultimately but invisibly depend. The negative affects of this scaling are becoming clearer every day. But the good news is that landscape architects, ecologists and even some engineers (ok, many engineers) usually understand these ideas very well already. The fact that we are collaborating more than ever, finding creative synergies in our work, and taking on more complex projects are all good signs. We are seeing a more infrastructural and performative approach to landscape design, and there is growing recognition of the economic value and social benefits of ecologically-functioning landscapes. But I think we can work towards a more sophisticated ecological urbanism in a number of ways. Chief among them is to make our designs reveal and celebrate the complexity of the ecosystems that define and sustain us. I am an optimist, and I believe design has the power to cultivate a more ecologically literate and engaged citizenry.

Interview conducted by Jared Green.

Image credits: (1) Ecological Urbanism / Harvard Graduate School of Design, (2) Toronto High Park Controlled Burn / Torontoist, (3) Urban bioswale, Sherbourne Common, Toronto / WATERFRONToronto, 2010, (4) Evergreen Brickworks, Toronto / Nina-Marie Lister, (5) Hypar-Nature / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates and HNTB, (6) Wildlife Crossing App / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates and HNTB