Farm the Rooftops

In many cities, rooftops that can handle the soil, water, and plant loads are being put to productive use, attacking food insecurity and building communities in the process, said Leigh Whittinghill, Michigan State University, at the Green Roofs for Healthy Cities conference in Philadelphia. Still, there are some major barriers preventing more widespread rooftop farming, namely just finding enough low-cost, structually-sound roofs to plant; obstructive municipal zoning; and issues with “managing fertility.” There are also challenges with fertilizer runoff and economic profitability.

Rooftop Agriculture Isn’t Easy

Ben Flanner, the founder of the Brooklyn Grange, a 40,000 square foot rooftop farm in NYC that grew 15,000 pounds of produce last year, said it took a while to find a “landlord with guts.” He struggled, cold-calling lots of building owners. “The big issue was finding a space we could afford,” given urban agriculture quickly becomes un-economic if rents are more than $1 per square foot. Flanner understands that building are worth millions so some landlords would be worrying about possible damage. “But it’s about risk and return.” With more successful projects, the risks will go down, and so will the costs.

“Educating the local building department is really important,” said Brendan Shea, Recover Green Roofs, who just worked on adding a 1,500 square foot rooftop herb and vegetable garden to a restaurant. “It’s about building permitting agencies and making them feel comfortable, that we aren’t damaging the building.”

Mark Morrison, FASLA, Mark Morrison Landscape Architecture, who did his first green roof in Moscow in the 1970s and works on lots of diverse rooftop spaces (restaurants, hospitals, and community gardens), said the issues relate to policy. “We need policy changes.” He pointed to his Visionaire greenroof project in Battery Park City, where there’s a “strong authority” that didn’t want to see plants on roofs, so he had to make design changes to hide the roof produce. Keith Agoada, Urban-ag, agreed, adding that “commercial farming is often illegal.” Rooftop farmers often need “special use permits” to get around out-dated regulations meant to encourage densification by keeping farmers out of the city. There are also complications with adding greenhouses on roofs, which are “technically another floor,” so farmers need “legal and design workarounds.”

There are structural challenges as well: Brad Rowe, Michigan State University, says roofs can only grow so much in 5-inches of soil, largely because they can only handle so much weight. For Lisa Goode, Goode Green, who designed Eagle Street Farms in NYC, roof weight and waterproofing are major issues. Morrison said “structural engineers” are then very important to the process of evaluating a roof. Engineers can either evaluate roof load by finding the average load over a roof or just identifying a capped load for every square foot. The second option prevents designers from creating deeper 24-inch areas for fruit trees. “If you find an engineer who won’t provide an average range over the roof, find a different engineer,” said Morrison, with a wink.

Managing Soil Fertility

Keeping the soils healthy and productive may be challenging. Rooftop structural soils are different from ground-bed soils, argued Shea. “The media doesn’t hold compost well.” Furthermore, some structured roof soils may “not be ideal for growing vegetables.”

Meanwhile, at the Brooklyn Grange, where there’s 10 inches of soil, “every inch counts,” but some 300 square feet is dedicated to composting made up of leaf scraps, coffee grounds, wood shavings. Flanner said their next roof farm will have a freight elevator, which will be used to bring up manure.

Both Goode and Shea mentioned that it’s also particularly hard to maintain high levels of nutrients after rain, not to mention that fertilizer-rich runoff can present problems. Goode said “with rooftop farms, it’s very hard to keep nutrients in the soil.”

Morrison thought that laying out the garden the right way was key to maximizing fertility. “If you are gardening in small areas, it doesn’t have to be aesthetically pleasing. You can over-maximize.”

Agoada said the tricky part is finding local waste streams and managing fertilizers with small amounts of space. He explored hydroponic solutions, including liquid nutrient sources, as well as agriculture / aquaculture combined systems that continually reuse the whole cycle of resources and nothing is wasted. “It would be good to even include animals on the roof.”

Dealing with Runoff

It turns out that urban farms don’t store all stormwater and have runoff problems, which can be made worse through the use of fertilizers. On the Brooklyn Grange, a new bioswale will be added to the roof, which will be compared to another area that simply has a drain.

Morrison said “I don’t love extensive roofs,” which are made up of shallow sedum layers. “Haven’t we seen sedum done before?” With deeper pits, up to 4-inchs for tomatoes, farmers can grow anything that can be eaten. Those deeper, “volumetric” soils may also hold more water better. Futhermore, the addition of bioretention or permeable pavement systems to urban farms could also help capture and cleanse farm runoff.

Economic Profitability and Social Value

Low profitability is associated with high social value, argued Goode. Projects like Eagle Street Farm, which are a “hub of education and interest,” are unique. “There’s no rent, or profit sharing. What is sold supports the project.” She added that “farming is a tough numbers game. It’s a tough sell, but educating children in cities about how food is grown is worth any size project.”

The Brooklyn Grange is moving ahead profitably and even expanding because it’s big and efficient. Flanner said “it does require significant scale. You have to figure out how many square feet you need. Then you have to be really scrappy.” For example, the Grange has a beehive, totes, jaring. “We monetize social capital.” Given products are sold locally, they also save by excluding packaging. “That’s 10 cents per unit that we don’t have to spend.” Bicycles are used to distribute rooftop food grown locally, which makes us “cheaper than rural distribution, with their trucks, fuel, and labor costs.”

Rowe at Michigan State University thinks the economics of rooftop farms only make sense in dense environments like NYC. “It doesn’t make sense in Detroit where there’s lots of available open space.” There, he said farmers, protect against vandalism by guarding their spaces.

Another model for economic profitability may be to go high-tech. “With high-tech hydroponics, farmers growing herbs, grasses can do well,” said Agoada. With these sytems, it’s important to create a large enough space, also to recoup the “soft costs.” “Economies of scale are very important. You still need the same staff for a small space.” Also, cutting out the middle man is a way to improve profits. At farmers’ markets, rooftop farmers can sell their produce directly, and turn basic products like basil, which may go for $2.25 a bunch, into pesto, which can easily go for $5.00 a container. “This is a way to add dollars without adding cost.”

Agoada made an interesting argument when asked whether rooftop farm businesses should donate a share of their produce to food banks. He basically said no, arguing that a share of pre-tax profit can be given to a cause but the role of the commercial rooftop farmer is to maximize profits, selling heads of high-end lettuce for $2.50 a pop. Socially-focused non-profits need to be the ones that can spread access to low-cost produce, combatting food deserts in the process.

Maximizing Yields

“We are constantly experimenting with planting schemes,” said Flanner. Tomatoes, herbs, and lettuces are set within rows but large spaces, the areas between rows, are also used. “We utilize every square foot.” Instead of calculating yields monthly, the Brooklyn Grange just calculates aggregates at the end of the year.

The grange maximizes vertical growing, mixing taller and shorter plants. “The challenge is time and efficiency. If crops are all over the place, they are harder to harvest.” He said some mixes that work very well are tomatoes with basil.

Scaling Up

“We’ve gotten feedback from restaurants. The quality of our rooftop produce is on par with those grown at conventional farms,” said Flanner. Another competitive advantage: rooftop farm produce is really fresh, particularly when it’s delivered to the restaurant the same day it’s picked. So, for commercial rooftop and non-profit producers doing things correctly, there’s no quality issue preventing rooftop farming from scaling up.

But Agoada thinks the future of rooftop farming is tied to subsidies. “Green roofs get lots of subsidies” and rooftop farms should get them, too. If cities like NYC, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and elsewhere are serious about rooftop farming, they will need to incentivize their development. 

There are also more ambitious concepts being considered: Parking garages with millions of rooftop square feet could be ideal places for farms. Agoada’s consulting firm did a study evaluating the potential of parking garages in San Francisco. In another idea, the roofs of big box stores could be transformed into productive food landscapes. The roofs could be leased out to local farmers, and then the produce could be bought back by the stores. One audience member said roofs in D.C. will soon be growing medical marijuana. Inner-city school and hospital rooftops could also be ideal places for non-profit organizations.  

Image credit: (1) Brooklyn Grange / Cyrus Dowlatshahi, (2) Brooklyn Grange / Brooklyn Grange

How to Integrate Design

Living systems, including green infrastructure systems like green roofs, are infinitely complex. “They mimic nature so will grow and thrive. Designing these systems, though, requires an integrated design process,” said David Yocca, FASLA, Conservation Design Forum, at the Green Roofs for Healthy Cities conference in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Landscape architects, architects, and green roof product manufacturers discussed the challenges in making an integrated design process work and actually translate into systems-based designs. 

Integrated design breaks down silos between professions and brings multiple designers, expert consultants, contractors, and product manufacturers together to mesh design requirements together at the beginning of a project and then co-implement the project throughout the process. Integrated design processes enable “systems thinking” and create projects that hit multiple benefits at once. Think of Philadelphia’s many city agencies coming together to create the city’s ground-breaking open space and green infrastructure strategy (see earlier post) or a landscape architect and architect together designing a man-made wetland that harvests rainwater coming off a nearby building.

The Barriers to Integrated Design

Jose Alminana, FASLA, Andropogon, said there are two levels of barriers preventing more widespread use of integrated design processes: individual and external. At the individual or professional level, education is the obstacle. Designers and manufacturers have areas of expertise and some are “narrowly focused.” Others, like landscape architects, argued Alminana, have an “integrative perspective” and traits more apt to bringing together diverse experts to achieve sustainable designs. External factors include budget limitations or an unimaginative client.

Still, many forward-thinking landscape architects and architects who could be practicing this way but aren’t because “that’s doing something outside the norm.” “Delegated design is what’s practiced today, not integrated design. However, we have a moral imperative to practice this.” Steve Moddemeyer, Principal, Collins Woerman, agreed, arguing that “we need to look across silos.”

Making the Public Case

So how can landscape architects put integrated design into practice? Yocca thinks landscape architects must get at the people in power and the clients. “We have to reach bankers and policymakers. It’s about changing the views of those in leadership positions.” Pointing to the benefits of getting the benefits of integrated design into the heads of policymakers, he said Philadelphia’s “broad water-based approach to retrofitting infrastructure” prevented lots of money being thrown at wasteful “single-use solution.” 

How can designers make the public case for integrated design? Moddemeyer argued that Wall Street is “excited by things that are not relevant to the rest of the world. We don’t have a resilient economic system so look what happened. It’s taking longer and longer to recover from recessions and the recoveries are increasingly jobless.” This lack of resiliency is manifested at multiple scales. But, he believes, it doesn’t have to be this way. Instead, there could be a more positive message about how cost-efficient and resilient infrastructure systems can be formed out of working and designing together in an integrated process, which could then form the basis for a more resilient economy and society.

Municipal by-laws are also holding up integrated design projects, said Ron Schwendinger, President, Architek. In many communities, rainwater harvesting, blackwater recycling, and other progressive practices are still banned, so their benefits, which are often drawn out only through systems-driven projects, are often lost. He added that his biggest obstacle integrating rainwater and building wastewater recycling systems into green roofs is the “plumbing inspector, who doesn’t understand it and so it not comfortable with it.”

Does Integrated Design Cost More?

Schwendinger thinks that there is a general lack of understanding about integrated design projects: “They cost less but the perception is that they are more expensive. The perception of cost is out of line with actual cost.” However, Aliminana thinks that integrated design processes do actually cost more. “Delegated design is about absolutely mimimal investment so being integrative does cost more.”

Alminana added that the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES), LEED, and other rating systems, which are basically “crutches,” can help though, because they expose the true costs of doing things improperly, but also the costs and benefits of doing things well. “These systems force designers to measure performance and value benefits.” SITES, in particular, lends itself to integrated design approaches and outlining the many benefits that can then be quantified, offsetting any higher costs.

There are other aspects of integrated design with cost implications: An audience member from William McDonough + Partners remarked that the ever-increasing specialization of consultants made integrated design expensive. With 20 consultants on a project, a client may not understand why so many need to be involved to make a systems-based project work. Another from KieranTimberlake added that “consultants have to be pushed a lot. There has to be someone there to make them accountable.”

Yocca also added that “there’s the time value of money.” Some clients don’t want to “start the meter” until they are almost at the construction phase, which shows how little the design process up front is valued. To remedy this kind of problem, Shwendinger called for “flattening the process” from the get-go, and bringing in the client so they can “see all the players as an integral part of the process.”

How the Process Works in Real Projects

Paul Kephart, President, Rana Creek, described a $3.1 billion hospital project he worked on for Southern Health, a healthcare provider. The client used “Toyota management methods. It was completely flat, integrated process, which meant we all had to be at the table. Sometimes this was a great opportunity.” Other times, it was pretty dull.

The client was informed by a core committee that involved the client. “The owner was there at every decision tree.” In addition, all the design professionals, consultants, and contractors pooled their risks so if there were cost over-runs, that would eat into their share of the profits. “For a project of that size, a 10 percent creep can be a lot of money so contractors had to work with each other from the beginning.” There were lots of “what if, then” conversations. Kephart also discussed how co-locating contractors on site can yield efficiencies, even though that’s not always possible.

Alminana used an integrated design process to create the sustainable landscape at the Center for Sustainable Landscapes in Pittsburgh. He said a “very enlightened client,” who believes “green building is cheaper” over the long-term, was critical to making that work. Using passive-solar building strategies, the client was looking at the 100 horizon for the landscape as well. “There was a significant investment in systems, integrative thinking.” As a result, the systems in the site “can’t be pulled apart.”

On another project with KieranTimberlake for Sidwell Friends, a private school in Washington, D.C., integrated design processes helped unearth the true costs and benefits of using a green roof, in discussions at the beginning of the project. “The client really wondered whether the green roof was the cheapest solution,” said Alminana. So his firm went through the calculations with the integrated design team and found that a green roof “proved to be the most cost-effective way to manage the water that fell on the roof (as opposed to additional underground basins) and channel runoff to the landscape below.” However, he said in another project that a 2-acre green roof was just too costly so instead they used a white roof to reduce the local urban heat island effect and a rooftop catchment system to collect rainwater to irrigate the site.

Integrated Design and Hard-to-Quantify Benefits

What is the economic value of habitat connectivity? Designing green roofs as a by-way for migratory birds runs counter to a “cost-driven approach,” said Kephart. These ecosystem service values, however, were important to him and his design team so habitat elements were added into one project at low cost. He added that “we won’t value these things until we don’t have them anymore.” Perhaps integrated design approaches can help here though: LEED is now adding in points for buildings that prevent bird collisions. SITES also provides lots of credits for restoring native plants and creating wildlife habitat.

On another project, Kephart put green roofs on 10 buildings near intact butterfly habitat. “We added butterfly host plants on the green roofs. Now, they are being used by endangered species.” He said E.P.A. mandates on habitat restoration can enable push designers to simulate habitat on green roofs.

Yocca saw another potential benefit of bringing biodiveristy in through integrated design processes: local eco-tourism. “Instead of traveling far away to see natural beauty, there could be biodiversity, eco-tourism in cities.” Moddemeyer pointed to examples of this in Stockholm that “are place for people, nature, or both. The areas of overlap are exciting.”

Another fantastic idea: Turn big-box store roofs into widlife habitats. “This could help some companies with marketing. We just need successful demonstrations.” Many agreed, arguing that Target could change their prototype “A,B,C,D” buildings, and instead of using “throw-away architecture,” could actually use their massive roofscapes to provide real spaces for nature.

Image credit: Sidwell Friends School Wetland / Andropogon Associates

Interview with Emma Marris, Author of Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World

Emma Marris is author of Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World and has also written for Nature. Read her op-ed on the Anthropocene in The New York Times.

In your new book, Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Nature World, you argue that “we are already running the whole Earth, whether we admit or not.” You say this calls for a new definition of nature beyond “pristine wilderness,” which no longer exists and hasn’t for some time. How must nature be defined now?

I struggled with that definition in the book, since much of my argument is about enlarging nature to include more kinds of things and places beyond pristine wilderness, from backyard birds to city parks to farms. But one risks proposing a definition that is so inclusive that pretty much everything is nature. My own personal take is that impermeable surfaces, like roads and (non-green) roofs are not nature. But obviously, a park with some paved paths is still nature at the scale of the park.

I am not sure we need a rigorous and watertight definition. We know nature when we see it, because we respond to it. At any rate, there’s a lot more of it out there outside of designated nature reserves than inside.

You also argue that the “ecosystems that look the most pristine are perhaps the least likely to be truly wild.” So what are wild landscapes? Where are they now?

We have an expectation that ecosystems that look the most like they did in the past will be the most wild. But with climate change and all the other changes humans are making to planet Earth, keeping systems looking like they did in 1491 or 1770 or 1882 requires more and more management. Thus, if your definition of wild is that humans are not in control, the wildness of places like Yellowstone is declining even as their superficial appearance remains the same. Meanwhile, abandoned, marginal lands chock-a-block with exotic species, weed species and–occasionally–broken cars and appliances are some of the only truly unmanaged landscapes left. Here, species that humans moved around are adapting to the changing Earth and creating new ecosystems. Ecologists like to call these places “novel ecosystems,” but I think that undersells the fundamental dynamism of all ecosystems, which are all novel on one time scale or another. I like to call these places “the new wild” and I find them really exciting.

You say climate change adaptation has been a dirty word in environmentalist circles. How are current approaches to ecological restoration exacerbating or alleviating climate-caused changes in landscapes?

Novel ecosystems are often discussed as good starting points for restoration or design projects that aren’t going to aim for a historical baseline. I think that’s a smart strategy. But I also hope we leave some of them alone to see how they will naturally adapt to the changing climate. We can learn a lot from these places.

More traditional modes of restoration, bringing back native species and reconstructing historical ecosystems, aren’t a bad idea, per se. But the more the climate changes, the less perfectly adapted these historical assemblages will be to current conditions. It isn’t just a matter of planting a few plants from the next USDA hardiness zone down, either. Some places will see thresholds crossed, where fire or water regimes fundamentally change, and then trying to recreate old systems really just won’t work.

Recently, I was talking to some Nature Conservancy scientists about their work trying to protect and restore watersheds in the Southwest in drier and more combustible times. I asked them if there were any pines that were more fire and drought tolerant than the pines that grow in the region. They said that yes, there were some in Mexico that did better in hotter, drier conditions. I suggested they plant a few of those and they just looked at me like I had suggested something offensive and unthinkable. Native plants are great, but live plants from a few hundred miles away are, to me anyway, better than charred native stumps.

Why is assisted species migration still so controversial, given, in some instances, gardeners, farmers, and landscape architects have been doing this for thousands of years?

The difference has to do with this wilderness fixation. If we move a plant and place it in a garden, a farm, a timber plantation or a city park, no one seems to mind. But if we do this in a place that we’ve mentally categorized as “wilderness,” then it is suddenly unthinkable because the only possible correct state for that place is that (usually mythical) day before the first person–or first European, often and even more vexingly–arrived. It is as if our culture has placed all our guilt and all our ideas about a fall from Eden and all this other baggage about nature in these carefully demarcated areas. Outside, anything goes and no natural value is recognized. Inside, the rules are very strict–counter-productively strict–and value is intense and spiritual. Obviously, I am generalizing here. There are certainly shades of gray and varying opinions.

You say there’s a “very well entrenched” culture of fighting invasive species. However, globally, it’s quite rare for introduced species to cause native species’ extinctions. In addition, some ecologists are now moving past this either-or duality and see a new reality beyond native or invasive: novel ecosystems. How are they changing the concept of native and invasive? How extensive are they? What are their benefits?

I sort of defined them a couple of questions ago, but a more formal definition is actually on the way, in a forthcoming volume on the subject edited by University of Western Australia restoration ecologist Richard Hobbs, Carol Hall, a Victoria, British Columbia-based environmental consultant, and University of Victoria philosopher Eric Higgs. The book will answer all these questions more rigorously than I can, but the short answer is that they are brand new ecosystems assembled in the wake of humanity’s actions, but not actively managed by them. They are very extensive, but because of their marginal nature often overlooked. Their benefits include nearly all of the benefits to humanity of more historical ecosystems: carbon sequestration, erosion control, water filtration, habitat for species, you name it. They are even sometimes quite lovely. But, yeah, they are mostly made up of exotics, so they are not given much love.

In that forthcoming book, I co-author a little sidebar that suggests that the concept “novel ecosystem” won’t necessarily be with us that long–just long enough for us to learn to see these spaces and for us to accept the extent of changes to “traditional” ecosystems. Eventually, I think we might divide up systems by whether they are actively managed or not, and neither of them will be pristine, untouched wilderness. So we won’t need the term.

Beyond novel ecosystems, there are also designer ecosystems, man-made systems that may actually perform better than purely natural systems. But is this idea really new? Isn’t Central Park a designer ecosystem, in that it may perform better than some natural systems? Isn’t this what landscape architects often create?  

Yep. And I think landscape architecture is in many ways way ahead of ecology and restoration ecology on this. I suppose the difference is that ecologists are now talking about doing Central Park-like things in places that, last year, they hoped to restore to some kind of simulacrum of untouched virgin wilderness. So the new thing here is maybe using the techniques of landscape architecture in places labeled as “nature” or “wilderness.” But it is all semantics, no? The plants and animals don’t know if they are in a park or and arboretum or a federal designated wilderness. They just live.

Lastly, you discuss the work of restoration ecologists but largely leave landscape architects out of the story. Since Olmsted and the early landscape architects who focused on the U.S. national park system, landscape architects have been creating man-made landscapes that sustain natural processes yet also evolve. What are some projects by landscape architects that particularly interest you, that are perhaps indicative of trends you discuss?

The simple reason landscape architecture wasn’t featured more in the book is that my day job for six years was writing about ecology for the journal Nature, so that’s the world I was steeped in. I am just now learning more about the exciting and parallel developments in landscape architecture. I like the idea I heard recently from Diana Balmori about how parks should be long and skinny and thread through the city as a part of it, rather than big blocks of separateness. I like that; it seems potentially more inclusive and more harmonizing of city and nature than the block model.

Another project I love is in my hometown of Seattle, the Pollinator Pathway, which connects two parks with pollinator-friendly gardens in parking strips.

Obviously, these kinds of things aren’t going to single-handedly save the planet. We need major systematic changes in how we use resources, we need better laws and regulations, we need to stop sprawl and mindless development. But I think that bringing nature to the city, in particular, can not only bring beauty and surprise to our lives but can build support for those big, difficult societal changes. Why would you vote for nature if you think that it only exists in large national parks that you can’t afford to go visit? Nature should be a familiar friend from the neighborhood, not a place you watch rich people ski and hike in on TV.

Interview conducted by Jared Green

Image credits: (1) Bloomsbury Press, (2) Novel ecosystem in Hawaii / Emma Marris, (3) Novel ecosystem in Hawaii / Emma Marris, (4) The New Farmingham Canal Greenway /Balmori Associates, (5) Seattle Pollinator Pathway / Copyright Kelly Brenner. Metropolitan Field Guide

Interview with Elizabeth Mossop on How Landscape Architects Can Protect New Orleans

Elizabeth Mossop, ASLA, is professor of landscape architecture and former director of the Robert Reich School of Landscape Architecture at Louisiana State University. Mossop is also a principal at Spackman, Mossop + Michaels, which has won numerous ASLA professional analysis and planning awards. 

Since becoming the director of the School of Landscape Architecture at Louisiana State University (LSU), you focused on bringing the delta region back after Hurricane Katrina. You’re on the board of LSU’s Coastal Sustainability Studio, which features a great mix of scientists, engineers, and designers focused on designing more sustainable systems and increasing resiliency within the region. One project you’re involved in, Bayou Bienvenue, calls for restoring the critical wetland forests that once protected the city. Other ecologists have noted that the Yucatan Region of Mexico recently fared much better when confronted with major storms because they left their mangroves in place. In the case of new Orleans, manmade infrastructure took the place of wetlands and ended up failing, causing the loss of life and destruction of communities. What challenges are you running up against in your efforts to bring back wetlands as coastal protection? What will it take to actually make this happen?

The destruction of the coast is a process that’s been in place for a long time, partly because of the loss of sediment from the Mississippi Delta, but also because of the real lack of regulation and the impact of the oil and gas industry throughout the whole Gulf Coast. At this point, it’s probably not a matter of being able to restore the coast or halt coastal erosion but really a question of thinking in a much more strategic way about how to balance out the demands of settlement against the sort of investment that’s needed to really make intelligent protection in the future. In other words, what will it take to make resilient communities sustainable in this very dynamic landscape? This would include strategies for retreat in some instances, as well as strategies for armoring or defense in others, and strategies so settlements can accept periods of flooding. A whole range of place- and community-specific solutions are required that integrate urban development strategies with real understanding of natural processes and dynamic change.

Working with the Coastal Sustainability Studio has been interesting in this context because of its multidisciplinary approach, bringing together scientists and engineers with designers. At the regional scale, we have looked at new strategies for river diversions in order to increase the deposition of sediment for land-building. This is an enormously productive direction for future work, trying to harness the power of the river for restoration, as well as combining this with broad-scale restoration of the indigenous coastal swamp and marshland communities.

However, the impediments to this type of approach are myriad. On the one hand, at the federal level, there is the Army Corps of Engineers with tremendous resources and power but an entrenched culture of traditional engineering and a very limited focus. From the state’s perspective, there is little appetite for the kind of integrated strategic planning and investment required for long-term conservation and development strategies. The hurdles are significant, but it’s enormously valuable to simply try to put alternatives out there and make information publicly available as a means of trying to influence the discourse.

While New Orleans rebuilds, we must also be prepared for the next, perhaps inevitable, storm. How can natural systems be used in preparation for the next storm event? What can landscape architects do to help the city and others like it bolster their preparations?

Landscape architects are uniquely placed to help cities prepare for natural hazards and mitigate their impacts. Certainly, we need to look at restoration and strengthening those natural systems that historically have provided really significant protection. In the case of New Orleans, the value of marshlands and cypress swamps, particularly to the east and south of the city, are incalculable.

As you know, one of the things that happens in storm events is a massive loss of canopy. We know a lot more now about the effectiveness of different species in terms of resilience to storms. On that smaller scale inside the city, re-planting of canopy can be fine-tuned with this knowledge to be more resilient. It’s really just thinking about a more integrated approach to storm protection and the design of everything in this city, from streets to water infrastructure, and how to make these systems more robust. For example, we can look at the technical design of road pavements that will be more resilient to inundation. A lot could be done to allow the city, which is very sparsely settled now, to absorb and hold a lot of water, mitigate against flooding, and take the pressure off the drainage and pumping systems. This could be achieved through the design of new parks and open space in combination with water and road infrastructure.

One of your award-winning projects, Scout Island, a 62-acre site located within City Park in the heart of New Orleans, was a wilderness preserve and bird-watchers’ paradise before Hurricane Katrina. In your effort to restore the area, you’re tagging and removing exotic species, giving the chance for the native ecosystem to come back. Why is restoring the native ecosystem so important for the park’s long-term survival? Will these native species fare better in another major storm?

I’m not certain indigenous species are necessarily any more resilient to storm damage, but this is really about a much longer-term strategy for the park. This area is one of the few even partly natural areas anywhere in the city and provides an incredibly significant resource both as habitat, particularly to migratory birds, but also a really significant educational resource, especially for schools and programs for inner-city kids and the general public. The potential is there for educational activity and nature-based recreation to become even more significant. Although City Park is enormous, this is a significant area of land within the park, and the only area which performs this nature education and adventure role. The other aspect of this is the restoration of the indigenous forest, restoring its biodiversity and preventing the site from becoming completely dominated by a monoculture of Chinese tallow, which is what our current work aims to prevent.

New Orleans also suffers from toxic, lead-ridden soils. Mel Chin, artist and provocateur, has launched his Operation Paydirt and Fundred Dollar Bill projects to help raise national awareness of the soils issue in New Orleans. He says $300 million will be needed to clean up the lead, but he says it’s worth it given that “30 percent of the population is poisoned before they reach adulthood.” What would be the most cost-effective way to translate this vision into action using the brownfield lots within the city? What role can landscape architects play?

Funny you should ask because my firm worked with Mel Chin on that project for a long time and I would love to see it come to fruition. He basically had three teams: an art team, a science team, and we were the implementation team, working with Dan Etheridge (of Meffert Etheridge environmental consultants). Julie Bargmann of Dirt Studio had also worked on the earliest stages of that project with Mel and helped him think through how the idea could play out in an urban landscape by creating a series of park/depots at different scales. We then took on the task of trying to figure out how to develop an implementation strategy for the city. Our approach was to use it as a tool for urban revitalization, obviously as a means of getting the contaminated soil out of those residential neighborhoods, but also as a way of participating in the process of economic revitalization for these areas. The statistics on the effects of lead contamination in New Orleans are frightening.

Our proposal involved creating a central manufacturing and distribution center for the city to distribute Mississippi sediment and manufacture soil using large-scale green waste composting. The idea was also to maximize local job training and creation. There would also be a series of resource depots strategically located on vacant land throughout the city. These demonstration sites would provide materials and training to homeowners as well as resources for urban greening generally. As the lead mitigation was completed in the surrounding neighborhoods, the sites would transition into other uses as parks, urban farms, and campuses. We had started talking to some of the more entrepreneurial people in New Orleans, who are involved in metropolitan scale distribution systems and were also looking at identifying suitable depot sites. At his point, we just need the $300 million and we’re ready to go.

Another one of your award-winning projects focused on creating an urban farm and community center for the local Vietnamese community in New Orleans, including community gardens and commercial farming plots, market pavilions, play areas, sports fields, recycling center and a major water collection and management system.  How is the project going? Do you also see this as a model for how to reuse some areas of New Orleans and the broader region

That project has hit some real roadblocks in terms of its implementation. There are certain complications with the site and its ownership and also with the permitting of it, so that it seems to have gone into a holding pattern. The Vietnamese community is currently investigating the possibility of using a different site. So, the project is eminently fundable and very highly developed at this point, but not actually moving forward. But it has so much potential for the eastern part of the city. Particularly with the elderly population of the neighborhood, you have a huge workforce of incredibly highly-motivated, highly-skilled farmers and gardeners. A lot of people are talking about community gardening and farming and small-scale agriculture as an opportunity for all this vacant land in New Orleans but in this location, we’ve actually got the workforce ready to go. You just look at the neutral ground or the median strip or whatever in their neighborhood; they’re gardening all of that already. 

I think what makes that project so interesting as a model is the different layers of use. It’s very much about passing those farming and gardening traditions from the original immigrant generation to the young people in that community today. There are also real opportunities for them to get together and boost up the entrepreneurial component of the project. That’s also why it’s really interesting on a regional scale because it’s got so much potential with the market and food processing components to really create jobs and provide structure for a whole lot of small-scale economic activity, which the city needs desperately. It really does provide an interesting model for economic activity, productive landscape, community focus, recreation, and model environmental practices that can go together in different combinations for projects all over that region.

Through your firm, you’re working on Dwyer Canal, a project that would turn a drainage easement into a social space while also addressing local flooding issues. Do green infrastructure projects need to be designed first as social spaces or as stormwater management systems? Through the design process, how do you insure you hit all needs: social, environmental, economic?

This was a project funded for the local community organization. Their interest was really water management as the area suffers flooding on a regular basis. The project moved fairly slowly and had an extensive process of community engagement with meetings, workshops, and other activities. The site is an open corridor with a ditch in the middle. The community had an image from an earlier planning study showing the canal covered over and a path down the middle of the easement. We were coming at this from the point of view of thinking how to make this mitigate the flooding, make the water course into an asset, and turn it into the centerpiece of an open space project. Like many of these issues in New Orleans, nobody really understood what was happening with the water and the engineering. We were working with the engineers, Intutition and Logic from St. Louis, who did a real detective piece of work to find out what was happening. In fact, the situation in terms of the flooding was completely different from the way anybody understood it in the neighborhood or at the Sewerage and Water Board.

What has been really interesting over time was that the community group and the steering committee have been very involved in the process. We had spent a lot of time talking with them about the technical issues of the drainage, which they now completely understand and own. Through that process of negotiation, we came up with a hybrid scheme, which keeps the drainage channel open, and uses a whole series of artificial wetlands and detention basins to slow down the water and clean it, but we also have public facilities on either side of major pedestrian links that cover the water course for substantial areas, making them very easy, safe, and visible.

In this instance, the community members are now the project’s strongest advocates. They understand better what is happening than the people who are empowered to make those decisions. We really hope to see something very positive move forward out of this process.

Lastly, moving downstream from these cities on the delta, the Gulf of Mexico is one of the world’s most polluted bodies of water on Earth, in large part due to shipping activity and runoff from the communities in the region. A comprehensive green infrastructure approach could help reduce the amount of oil and chemical-laden runoff from moving towards the water. What kind of broad-based green infrastructure solution would you propose to deal with Gulf water pollution?

The real impacts on water quality come from upstream, as well as from the Gulf region, and so what is needed is a federal initiative to address the whole of the catchment. Currently there are both incentives and regulation to try and control polluted runoff into the Mississippi, but the nature and scale of the problem mean that the measures are too fragmented and not effective in preventing the problems. There are so many different organizations involved it is difficult to even share common language on the issues. It is also difficult to target the measures specifically at the most problematic polluting areas.

We think the most effective solution would be for the federal government to purchase land in key locations, where pollution is worst and hydro-geological conditions are most favorable, and create massive wetland buffers to prevent pollution entering the river. These wetland buffers could potentially be designed to perform other functions as well, harnessing excess nutrients for the production of algae, timber, fish and other aquatic species.

Interview conducted by Jared Green.

Image credits: (1) Elizabeth Mossop / Spackman Mossop + Michaels, (2) Scout Island Strategic Plan, New Orleans, LA / Spackman Mossop + Michaels, (3) New Orleans Lead Concentrations by Neighborhood / Operation Paydirt and Fundred Dollar Bills, (4) Viet Village Urban Farm, New Orleans, LA / Spackman Mossop + Michaels, (5) Dwyer Canal / Spackman Mossop + Michaels, (6) Coastal Wetlands /

Making Healthy Places: Designing and Building for Health, Well-being, and Sustainability

Here are but three of the somber statistics found in the new book: Making Healthy Places: Designing and Building for Health, Well-being, and Sustainability:

  • Two out of every three American adults twenty years or older are overweight or obese (Flegal, 2010).
  • Since 2000, antidepressants have become the most prescribed medication in the United States (Olfson and Marcus, 2009).
  • In 2007, 16 percent of the United State’s gross domestic product – $2.3 trillion – was spent on health care (Orszag and Ellis, 2007).

This book by Dr. Andrew L. Dannenberg, Dr. Howard Frumkin, and Dr. Richard J. Jackson, and over 50 contributing authors illuminates the connection between how communities are designed and built and the impact on physical, mental, social, environmental, and economic well-being. As noted in the preface, “Nations of the twenty-first century are caught up in a perfect storm of intersecting health, environmental, and economic challenges: escalating health care and social costs, environmental threats from resource depletion and climate change, economic impacts associated with the ‘end of oil’ and an aging population and workforce, and an inadequate educational approach that rests on and perpetuates silos of knowledge and disciplines.”

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Here are four of the many positive findings offered by the editors:

  • Green settings have the capacity to alleviate mental fatigue and help restore a person’s capacity to pay attention.
  • Places that encourage physical activity can both prevent and treat depression.
  • Contact with nature can improve health; this effect is supported by both theory and empirical research.
  • Built environment design that improves the quality of life for one population often does so for many populations.

This 370-page book contains 27 extensively footnoted chapters organized in five sections: Introduction; The Impact of Community Design on Health; Diagnosing and Healing Our Built Environment; Strategies for Healthy Places: A Toolbox and Looking Outward; and Looking Ahead.

Each chapter begins with a bulleted list of learning outcomes and a brief introduction, which serves to illustrate the chapter with real world examples, such as the comparison between a vibrant and diverse food economy in Center City, Philadelphia and the “deserts” of its disadvantaged neighborhoods (Chapter 3); a child’s improved health after moving into an apartment renovated using green and healthy housing principles (Chapter 11); and the residents of El Sereno, California, and their successful advocacy for the development of a twenty-acre park (Chapter 19).

The book is an extensive, sometimes exhausting, overview of many related topics. The challenges it presents are sobering. The solutions it envisions are exciting. Landscape architecture is present throughout. Some may find it a “heavy lift” given its length and, in some instances, highly technical nature. But it is all there, providing landscape architects, architects, and planners with tools and strategies to think about how the built environment impacts our physical, mental, social, environmental, and economic well-being.

Read the book.

This guest post is by Mark A. Focht, FASLA, First Deputy Commissioner, Parks & Facilities, Philadelphia Parks & Recreation

Image credit: Island Press

Bench Innovations in NYC

Both practicing and student architects are exploring intriguing new bench forms in New York City. In some cases, the goal is to provide benches that offer a range of benefits: multi-use infrastructure at the sidewalk-scale. In another case, the idea is to build a flexible, ergonomic model that can be scaled-up at low-cost.  

The Architect’s Newspaper focuses in on “subway vent benches” that offer seating and flood control. As a response to the floods that inundated the N and R lines in 2007, putting them out of service, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Department of Transportation teamed up to create a new “streetscape element with some wit and whimsy” that could protect the subway against debilitating flooding. Rogers Marvel Architects decided to raise the edge of the subway vents, protecting them from flood water while creating undulating waves of slates that are tall enough to sit on. The forms are also modular: “There are three typical grates designed for specific water overflow depths. They can be combined in a left- or right-hand fashion to create the continuous surface over the structural grates below.”

A similar project by Grimshaw provides flood control solution, but this time adds in both bicycle racks and bench seating. Grimshaw says they incorporate both “with an intent on maximising transparency with minimal impact on New York’s busy sidewalks. The design was engineered to be robust and to withstand significant vehicle loads. The furniture components are secured with tamper proof fixings and are fabricated from a higher grade of stainless steel, meeting NYCT durability standards and minimising ongoing maintenance.”

Both projects won AIANY design awards.

Now in the realm of prototype: How to create low-cost seating that can hold up to the elements but also meet the ergonomic needs of a city filled with people of lots of different shapes and sizes? To explore this problem, Columbia University graduate students created an urban bench inspired by “kinetic Slinkies and reverberating see-saws.” Costing just $1,000 and built by 10 students using nearly 1,000 pieces, the bench now creates a “continuous landscape, each seating condition designed according to existing ergonomic profiles in order to maximize comfort and functionality.” The project was also used to test “the limits and capabilities of digital fabrication.”

The students at Columbia write: “The scalability of the joint system and design together creates a truly parametric system in which its use is not only for aesthetics, but for construction, functionality, and comfort as well.” The bench could definitely work, but the person sitting on the other side will need to play well.

Image credits: Undulating Bench / Rogers Marvel Architects, (2) WTA Bench / Grimshaw, (3-5) Polymorphic / Charlie Able, Alexis Burson, Ivy Chan, Jennifer Chang, Aaron Harris, Trevor Hollyn-Taub, Brian Lee, Eliza Montgomery, Vernon Roether, and David Zhai, Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation.