International Competition Seeks Best Private Landscape Design

A new international design competition will award 15 thousand euros to the best sustainable residential landscapes anywhere in the world. The idea is to highlight projects that create a “contemporary dialogue between architecture, ecology and landscape” and serve as “places of inspiration and creation, as habitats that tell stories.”

Submissions, which have to have been created for private residential use sometime over the past 10 years, will be judged in terms of their “artistic and conceptual quality, ecological use of plants and materials, and organization of outdoor space.” The competition organizers emphasize that they are interested in spaces that offer a variety of uses. 

The organizers ask landscape architects, architects, artists, gardeners, garden owners from all countries to participate. Previous winners include Andrea Cochran, FASLA, in the U.S., Jonathan Bell/BBUK Studio Landscape Architects in the U.K., Landscape-Niwatan in Japan, and Cécile Daladier + Nicolas Soulier in France.

An international jury will decide which talented residential designers gets the 15 thousand euros in prizes. Submit your entries by June 4.

In other news, Kathryn Gustafson, ASLA, just became the third landscape architect since 1955 to receive the Arnold W. Brunner Architectural Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which bestows $5,000 on any architect (or landscape architect) who has made great contributions to the art of designing the built environment. Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, and Dan Kiley are the only two other landscape architects to have won this prestigious annual prize.

Image credit: 2007 ASLA Professional Residential Design Honor Award. Private Residence, San Francisco, California, Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture, San Francisco, California

D.C. Could Break the Mold with a New Bridge-Park

In Washington, D.C., the 1,600-foot long 11 street bridge over Anacostia River is being pulled down and redesigned because it’s structurally unsound. Part of the redesigned bridge will include a new “local bridge” with bicycle lanes and 16-feet wide sidewalks, offering stops to look out over the river. While this new local bridge alone is a great improvement, D.C. planners are thinking out whether to rebuild an additional span and spend tens of millions to design a new recreation park. The new park would bring physical form to Mayor Vincent Gray’s vision of bridging the racial and cultural divisions in the city and connecting the communities on either side of the river.

The new park won’t be like the High Line. It’s not found in a dense urban neighborhood but in the middle of a river, said Harriet Tregoning, Director of Planning, Washington, D.C. at a public hearing on the idea. Still, the early park concepts definitely seem inspired by the High Line and other parks that have reused transportation infrastructure to become exciting public spaces. Tregoning seems to love the “surprises” created at every turn of the High Line, a park that is “intensely used,” and hopes D.C.’s bridge-park could offer similarly vivid experiences. Other bridge-park projects that may also be inspiring D.C.: Walkway over the Hudson in Poughkeepsie is the longest elevated walkway in the world at 1.28 miles long, while Promenade Plantee provides a beautiful respite from Paris. In Nashville, there’s the Shelby Street Pedestrian Bridge, while Tennessee has Walnut Bridge and Little Rock, Arkansas, has the Junction Bridge.

On the possible park, Tregoning said “think of it as a linear house with lots of rooms,” with each room offering a different type of public space to a certain type of visitor. D.C. offered a bunch of early concepts. One vision, our favorite, is of a space filled with “active recreation” opportunities, with a climbing wall, ropes course, pole vaulting, skate park, or zip lines. Given the bridge is some 1,600 feet long, 5-6 more of these active zones could be included. Amid the outdoor adventure games, there could be stores like REI or Patagonia. Other visions for the park include an ecological park with an environmental education center, a public arts space with rotating sculptures, or a public event and exhibition space, or a combination of these.

These spaces could be made even more exciting (and accessible) if the new streetcar in the works ran through. Cafes could take shape on the bridge, or D.C.’s incredibly popular Truckeroo could even find a home base there. Who wouldn’t want a lobster roll while looking out over the city?

Residents and organizations at the public hearing also weighed in. Some of the comments: Maximize the views. Make sure the bridge has lots of vegetation and shade, which is critical to ensuring the elevated park doesn’t become a “heat sink” in D.C.’s blazing summers. Add trees to block out noise from the Interstate, which will be just a few lanes over. Add telescopes for star watching. Ask students to create the art that’s projected onto the infrastructure. Community participation and involving teens in the design was deemed crucial. 

Still, the downfall of the project could be the lack of access. Residents and workers from the Navy Yards development, which are expected to grow by 30,000 over the next few years, along with those from Poplar Point and Historic Anacostia, which are also expected to grow by a few thousand, will need to be able to easily access the bridge-park if it’s going to succeed. One big sticking point is the naval base, which limits access through its boardwalk to a short window during the day. This means if the gates are closed, residents would need to go all the way around the base to find an entrance. On the other side of the Anacostia, residents will need to wade through what looks like a scary set of transportation infrastructure to find a loop that will take them up to the park. There really needs to be safe, ADA-accessible, interesting paths leading up to the park on either side, in addition to elevators at either end of the structure.

As Tregoning said, there are, in fact, many design challenges with the bridge-park so once the “set of programs,” which will be decided by local residents, is in place, a design competition will be launched, with the hope of drawing national design talent. If financing can be worked out (the city is looking to foundations for help), this would be the perfect challenge for a landscape architect. Expect to hear more about the competition here in the coming months.

Add your thoughts. Should the bridge be rebuilt and turned into a recreation park? Or should all these great ideas just be implemented somewhere else?

Image credit: D.C. Planning Office

Restoration on the Edge

Brooklyn College recently played host to the mid-atlantic chapter of the Society for Ecological Restoration, providing space for a conference entitled “Restoration on the Edge.” The dialogue, which focused on the fragility, opportunity, and resiliency in changing ecosystems, was mostly centered around those of New York City. As restoration ecologists, biologists, landscape architects, and environmental engineers filled the seats to capacity, it was clear that the issues discussed affected a wide body of disciplines. And although Brooklyn College is home to wild parrots, an ecological wonder, it was the array of speakers who we came to see.

Tim Chambers, currently the Deputy Director of the Greenbelt Native Plant Center (GNPC) in Staten Island, spoke of ecological restoration in the context of urban agriculture and native seed production. The GNPC, which focuses much of its work on the collection and storage of native seeds in the tri-state region, believes in “land management.” Their mission is “small scale eco-regional seed production.” In their partnership with the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation, GNPC takes care not to disturb local ecologies. Restoration requires understanding existing natural systems and which systems are susceptible to degradation. Even in seed extraction one must respect nature and be really careful. Chambers assured the audience that “certain methods are deployed to randomize collection processes,” an imperative when “borrowing from nature.”

Erin English, a professional engineer with Natural Systems International, a subsidiary of Biohabitats, Inc., spoke of “living infrastructure.” English’s work focuses on the design of ecological wastewater, stormwater, and greywater management systems. In her opening comments she wondered whether stormwater can “inspire dance.” The answer was yes. She showed images of students interpretive-dancing upon the successful and sustainable stormwater/greywater system at Sidwell Middle School in D.C. Sidwell, a project led by landscape architects Andropogon Associates, shows how “the entire landscape is a living water cycle.” (see a case study)

The project also demonstrates a key aspect of English’s message that “decentralized wastewater treatment needs to be a closed-loop system.” The water cycle, as we imagine it diagrammatically, is a closed-loop system. But what happens when that system interacts with a “pollution bomb” such as farmland and agriculture? She believes that through design solutions, sometimes very “simple solutions” can prove to be very powerful and may inspire us to do more than dance.

In a lecture entitled, “The Theory and Practice of Seagrass Restoration: Lessons Learned over the Last 20 Years in New York,” habitat restoration specialist, Chris Pickerell discussed eelgrass (Zostera marina), a seagrass. According to Pickerell, “seagrass losses have been widespread and dramatic worldwide.” In areas where “sediment and water quality has dramatically changed,” such as New York Harbor, we have seen a major “paradigm shift.”

As far as ecological restoration is concerned, Pickerell acknowledged there has been a decent response. However, studies have indicated that a “large-scale loss of habitat has led to alternative stable states where natural re-establishment of native species may not be possible unless some minimum size or density thresholds are met.” Pickerell’s talk focused on lessons learned through restorative efforts and offered suggestions for creating more successful future ecological restoration efforts. Over those 20 years restoration ecologists have gained valuable experience relating to a number of factors, “ranging from site selection and planting method to timing that affect restoration success.”

The closing lecture was giving by Queens native soil scientist, Sally Brown. On ecological restoration, a science-based approach to the re-creation of past ecosystems, soil seem to be the perfect subject on which to end the day. Soil, whose “ecosystem services have enormous value,” has not seen the top layer of New York City’s surface in a long time. Brown spoke of the importance of soil as “a wonderful medium.” Soil, the eight-hundred pound gorilla in the room, was well-understood by the informed audience as a dwindling yet critical resource.

That is why it is so vital for landscape architects, engineers, and ecologists to “understand basic soil information.” Breaking down soil components, Brown clarified the organic material and elements needed to build up soil fertility. “Building soil is an artform,” she added. Basically, when it boils down to soil manufacturing, the “carbon-nitrogen ration of a compost is the most important factor.” A soil scientist from Queens talking about manufacturing urban soils? I want to hear more.

Although the data on our degraded environments seems catastrophic, the solutions offered by some of our regions’ most talented and dedicated restoration ecologists were inspiring. Understanding the dire state of our current ecosystems, I took away from the SER conference a renewed sense of duty as a steward of our environments and hope the message will spread.

This guest post is by Tyler Silvestro, a master’s degree candidate at the City College of New York (CUNY), and writer for The Architect’s Newspaper.  

Image credits: (1) Sidwell Friends School, Washington, D.C. / Andropogon Associates, (2) Eelgrass / Washington DNR

Rebuilding Infrastructure

After a full day dedicated to defining infrastructure and how we understand it, the Landscape Infrastructure conference at Harvard Graduate School of Design closed with an afternoon mega-panel examining landscape, infrastructure, and ecological systems. Eight speakers from the world of landscape architecture and engineering discussed their work. Introducing the panel, Chris Reed, ASLA, StoSS Landscape Urbanism asked how a shift in our understanding of ecology from static to dynamic systems has changed how designers work. Perhaps because so many concepts and techniques are new, many participants emphasized research, outlining new avenues to be explored in practice.

Water was the focus of many panelists’ work. Wendi Goldsmith, CEO of The Bioengineering Group, described how in New Orleans, the interdisciplinary group has attempted to “infiltrate” the Army Corps of Engineers, with the goal of making them “agents of sustainability.” The Army Corps’ shift in approach from storm protection to flood risk reduction emphasizes a combination of hard infrastructure, “soft solutions” (integrating landscape management), and community engagement. Goldsmith emphasized the value of multi-functionality in infrastructure investments, an approach also highlighted by Kevin Shanley, FASLA, and Ying-Yu Hung, ASLA, of SWA.

In equally flood-prone Houston, SWA has promoted multi-purpose programming. “We don’t have the money to do projects that are single-purpose infrastructure,” Shanley said, and described SWA’s work planning watersheds as infrastructure, with new parks that do triple-duty as stormwater collectors, recreation space, and wildlife habitats. Also, SWA’s Los Angeles office has been conducting exploratory research and external advocacy through a new research initiative with the University of Southern California.

Other speakers focused on the conflicts between urban development and the management of water. Arnavutkoy, a sector of Istanbul, poses fascinating and pressing challenges. Rapid and under-regulated development in the area is threatening its sensitive reservoirs, just as population growth is creating pressure for more water supply. Eduardo Rico and Enriqueta Llabres of Relational Urbanism emphasized how crucial political organization is to development in the area. 

Arguing that “more people can be better,” Dirk Sijmons of TU Delft and H+N+S Landscape Architects presented a proposal to bypass the dilemma between preservation and growth. New zoning around water basins and clearly defined uses can make borders legible and land more productive, protecting the water supply and providing space for recreation, “precision farming,” and new dwellings.

There were also different perspectives on infrastructure and ecology, emphasizing unusual points of view. Christophe Girot of the ETH wowed the audience with the results of his Landscape Visualization and Modeling Lab’s application of engineering equipment to model the landscape and transportation infrastructure of the Swiss Alps. Point cloud technology, a military tool, provides an astonishing 3-D electronic model of a region, “a beautiful image you can translate to pure topographical information.” The applications are as dizzying as the aesthetics. 

As opposed to the multi-point perspectives of this astonishing map/model, Peter Del Tredici sketched a plant’s eye view of infrastructure. Del Tredici, Senior Research Scientist at the Arnold Arboretum, discussed how plants interact with urban infrastructure. Road edges, highway salt, and acid precipitation are “huge selective forces that determine which plants grow where.” These emergent ecosystems are the realities that landscape architects must learn to work with. 

In fact, they are the “new normal,” Nina-Marie Lister, Affiliate ASLA, Associate Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at Ryerson University, concluded, suggesting that flexibility, adaptation, and resilience are the keywords that drive landscape infrastructure today. Rather than seeking a lost, static, “natural” state, functional ecosystems–familiar or not–are the goal.

This guest post is by Mariana Mogilevich, Ph.D. Candidate, Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Image credits: (1) 2009 ASLA Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Buffalo Bayou. SWA Group / Tom Fox, Rhett Rentrop,  (2) Arnavutkoy Drainage,, (3) Gotthard Project. ETH

Infrastructure as Lived Experience

It is emblematic of the scope and ambition of the recent Landscape Infrastructure conference at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design that organizer Pierre Belanger, ASLA, stated at the outset that an encyclopedic array of scholars and practitioners would “explore the future of infrastructure itself, the glue of urbanization” for the following 36 hours. In fact, the extremely dense proceedings transpired over the course of only 24 hours, but provided material that can be mulled over for years, as well as acted on immediately.

Belanger, Associate Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, is passionate about bringing landscape architecture to bear on problems of infrastructure.  Civil engineers have traditionally had a monopoly on the field, and the bond between infrastructure, engineering, and technology has thus far appeared unbreakable. But combining insights from urbanism, geography, and ecology, Belanger argues, landscape architects can bring a new approach to infrastructure to address the realities of the 21st century. The idea of “landscape infrastructure” seeks to supplement an existing emphasis on technology and economy with greater attention to the more fluid ecological and human dimensions of infrastructure.

To reinforce the cultural and human aspects of infrastructure and its intimate relationship with landscape, the conference opened with a keynote speech not by a designer or an engineer but by a cultural historian. Rosalind Williams, Dibner Professor of the History of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), spoke on the question of “infrastructure as lived experience,” emphasizing that contrary to our conventional association of infrastructure with bridges and dams, “infrastructure isn’t always that visible.” Williams illustrated this with a historical tour of infrastructure’s invisible geographies through the lens of the life and works of 19th century writer Robert Louis Stevenson.

We know Stevenson as the author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But Stevenson, educated as an engineer, became a writer and chronicler of the experience of infrastructure as it began to expand across the globe. Traveling roads, canals, and railroads from Scotland to San Francisco to Samoa, Stevenson gleaned early insights into the human and political dimensions of infrastructural technologies. 

Stevenson saw how Scottish Highlanders resisted the construction of lighthouses, which imperiled the livelihood they made from scavenging shipwrecks. He travelled with migrants who braved the journey from the United Kingdom to the American West and suffered the indignities of steamship passages and transcontinental railroads that made important physical connections for the transport of goods, but didn’t take human needs into account. Stevenson’s observations expose the nature of infrastructure’s effects on people.

Stevenson’s experiences, described at much greater length in Williams’ forthcoming book The Human Empire, point to several aspects of infrastructure, often critically overlooked, which designers would do well to take into account today. Williams emphasized first and foremost the question of lived experience, the civic and social dimensions of infrastructure, which designers can discover only by going out into the world, experiencing the landscape and the daily lives of those who inhabit it, much like the intrepid and empathetic Stevenson.

Williams raised a second crucial question of power and the organization of infrastructure, which has served geopolitical ends from nineteenth century colonialism to globalization today. Whom does infrastructure serve, and who makes the crucial decisions in its design and implementation? And perhaps most importantly, who will pay? 

For landscape architects wanting to get in on infrastructure, Williams provides the reminder that with the lack of public support for infrastructure in the United States, funding projects is a far greater challenge than organizing them.

This guest post is by Mariana Mogilevich, Ph.D. Candidate, Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Image credit: (1) Robert Louis Stevenson, Girolamo Nerli / Wikipedia, (2) The Amateur Emigrant,

Landscape: The New Infrastructure

Harvard University Graduate School of Design’s landscape architecture department has organized a two-day symposium that seeks to change the lens through which we look at infrastructure and cities. Instead of viewing infrastructure as simply the domain of civil engineers and transportation planners and something that needs to be centrally planned and administered, the focus will shift to the role many design disciplines can play and the power of ecological systems to address the many challenges facing cities, including climate change, carbon and nitrogen pollution, and migrating populations.

The conference will seek to first unearth and make clear sense out of all those complex systems: “Often found underground, or beyond the periphery of cities, the presence of urban infrastructure remains largely invisible until the precise moment at which it fails or breaks down.”

The organizers argue that all of this collapsing infrastructure means things may not have been well thought-out to begin with: “Recent events – from the sudden collapse of highway bridges, the rise and fall of water levels, the growing hazards of coastal storms and coastal eutrophication, the accumulating effects of carbon emissions, the surge in foreign oil prices and spike in food prices, the drop in credit markets, to the increase in population mobility and dispersal – are instigating a critical review of the basic foundation upon which urban economies depend on.”

The symposium will challenge the “technocratic role of engineers, transportation planners and policy makers who have profoundly shaped the urban environment that we move through and live in today.” The idea is to explore the work of “contemporary urbanists – ecologists, geographers, historians, designers, conservationists and social groups – who are rethinking the predominance of centralized infrastructures.”

So, where will the panelist go in their theoretical explorations? They’ll explore “landscape infrastructure,” examining the “landscape of technological hardware and biophysical software” that can be used to create more flexible and resilient cities.

The conference, which is organized by Pierre Belanger, ASLA, Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture, is free and open to the public on March 23-24 at Harvard’s Piper Auditorium.

Image credit: Harvard GSD

Bringing Nature to the Neighborhood

An ambitious project is taking shape in Louisville, Kentucky, a city of nearly three-quarters of a million. The Parklands of Floyds Fork, which won an ASLA planning and analysis award, will help expand Frederick Law Olmsted’s original vision for the community. Olmsted had created a series of parks and parkways just outside the edge the late 19th century city, in an effort to “bring nature to the neighborhoods.” Now that Louisville, a city with more than 100 parks totaling 12,000 acres, has been engulfed by development, the city is turning eastward to seek new green horizons. WRT, a Philadelphia-based landscape architecture firm, is working with their client, 21st Century Parks, a local non-profit, to develop a plan that adds some 4,000 acres of open space to a 20-mile length of bottomland in eastern Jefferson County. The firm says this $113 million project will create a green infrastructure framework to shape the expected future growth of the community and help the city create a more sustainable model for urban growth beyond the city limits.

The Parklands will be divided into four new parks, each with their own purpose and character. Beckley Creek Park, Pope Lick Park, Turkey Run Park and Broad Run Park will be linked by a braided system of passages, including a water trail on the creek (Floyds Fork), a park road, local roads, and a multipurpose trail corridor called the Louisville Loop. The Parklands will form one fifth of 100-mile length of the Louisville Loop, first proposed in WRT’s mid-1990’s plan for the regional open space network.

Beckeley Creek Park will offer the grand open space, a 23-acre “Egg Lawn,” with canoe launches into the ponds, along with lodges and picnic areas. Visitors can fish in those ponds, use the sports fields, or bring their kids to a “creekside playground and spray park.” Intriguingly, WRT is also building a “bark park.” Turkey Run Park will have “adventure programming” like zip lines and rope courses, along with rock climbing, while Broad Run Park will provide access to the waterfalls, springs, and wetlands.

The master plan calls for reserving 80 percent of the 4,000 acres for natural habitat. WRT actually broke down the zones and their environmental benefits for us:  

  • 2,000 acres of forestland will increase oxygenation and store CO2.
  • 400 acres of restored native meadowlands will provide habitat corridors and reduce the need for mowing (which gives off CO2 emissions)
  • 50 acres of restored wetlands will enhance habitat and improve water quality
  • 7 miles of restored streambanks will reduce erosion
  • 400 acres will be converted to support sustainable agriculture; no chemical use allowed.
  • All that protected habitat will provide home to 25 species of reptiles and amphibians; 40 species of fish; 20 species of freshwater mussels; 138 species of birds; 19 mammals; and 450 types of native plants, including endangered ones. 

The Parklands, says WRT, is the “next generation of open space outside of the city’s cherished Olmsted park system. The client and partners seized the chance to develop the 20-odd miles as more than a greenway – as a megapark that dwarfs even the ambitious dimensions of the city’s established Olmstedian system.”

Interestingly, the firm adds that this isn’t just about preserving ecosystems, but creating a system of green infrastructure at the largest scale and integrating people and nature into a more sustainable pattern of development. “The Parklands is not a preservation project – the client’s intent has been to place people in nature, and to proactively use open space as an agent in shaping future regional development on a county-wide scale.”

Their client, 21st Century Parks made the case. Dan Jones, head of the organization, told The Architect’s Newspaper the park will provide a new framework for development at the fringes of the city. While some may consider this expansive, not compact urban development, some ecological guidelines are already forming. Structures built along the new parklands must face the park and street trees have to be incorporated into the designs. Jones said: “A city has both a core and an edge. You can’t ignore the edge condition.”

The team is also looking to improve the standard subdivision model used in Louisville by creating a “model” community development in an “ailing, partially developed, adjacent subdivision” purchased by the group when real estate prices were low. These new model subdivisions are expected to be dense, offer high levels of connectivity, leverage the green infrastructure systems, and protect the natural habitat.

It’s good to see the project’s managers are starting to think out how to combine the benefits of both nature and density. As a number of landscape architects have argued, if you want people to live in dense urban areas, you need nature.

The first phase will be completed in 2013, with following phases finished by 2015. 

Explore the parkland and see the earlier master plan.

Image credits: (1-2) Parklands of Floyds Fork / WRT, (3) Parklands of Floyds Fork /Rendering by Bravura

Here Comes the High Line Part 3

What else can the amazing High Line team possibly do that they haven’t done before? It turns out the upcoming 3rd segment, the final stretch of the revamped historic freight rail line, which will run from 30th street through 34th street and wrap around the new Hudson Yards redevelopment project, will offer a performance space, an awesome new kids’ playspace, and more variations on the unique benches used throughout the park. The new segment, which also encompasses the “spur” that juts out at 30th street, is expected to open by 2014 at a cost of $90 million.

We’re seeing the concepts because Friends of the High Line Co-Founder Robert Hammond, New York City Parks & Recreation Commissioner Adrian Benepe, landscape architects from James Corner Field Operations and architects from Diller, Scofidio+Renfro just presented these at a community input meeting. The High Line crew says that work on the new Hudson Yards, which will offer more than 12 million square feet of new residential, office, and cultural space, will be closely coordinated with the 3rd piece.

The new segment High line will wrap around West Side Rail Yards, which is still used by Long Island Rail Road, but High Line visitors won’t be looking at the train depot. Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) has leased the property to the Related Companies, the developer of the Hudson Yards project, to develop a new platform over the rail yards that will provide the foundation for all that new mixed-use space. The firm will also cover 30 percent of the costs of the eastern part of the new segment. The jewelers Tiffany & Co just gave $5 million. To date, more than $38 million has been raised.

Starting from 30th street and moving north, there are some exciting new features in the works:

Where the High Line currently ends at 30th street, there will be a new “30th street passage” that passes through a future tower planned for the site. “The 70-foot-high passage will feature planting beds and balconies projecting toward West 30th Street and High Line to the south.”

Then, heading east, a new segment called the “10th avenue spur,” which extends to the intersection of 10th avenue and 30th street and was once used to connect the rail line to the upper-floor loading docks of the post office building, will become a vantage point to see all of Hudson Yard. The High Line team writes: “One of the design concepts for the Spur features amphitheater-style seating, creating a unique opportunity for performances or casual gatherings.”

Another concept turns the spur into an “open gathering space surrounded by dense plantings of wildflowers and grasses.”

Heading back north again along the east side, we’ll see more of Piet Oudolf’s gorgeous naturalistic planting designs.

Among all the plants, which mimic the original self-seeded wild urban landscape, the design team is playing with the “peel-up” benches that make such a strong design statement throughout the first two segments. The High Line team writes: “In the rail yards section of the High Line, the peel-up bench design will evolve into a new family of elements to offer seamless transitions from the walkway to more seating, play features, planters, and more.”

Moving north again, there’s another major design component: A new street level access point at 11th Avenue at 30th street, which will bring visitors up to the “lush plantings, groupings of bench seating, [and] a unique play feature for kids.”

Indeed, one of the coolest features is a new play space that uses the High Line infrastructure — the original beams and girders — to create a safe, rubber-coated, urban jungle gym. The High Line team may have to reserve blocks of time so adults can use, too (it looks way fun).

While all this work is happening, it seems the details on the very north and western ends of the High Line are still being worked out, so there will be an “interim” solution: a path that winds over the existing landscape. Here’s hoping perhaps some aspects of the interim solution will be kept in place.

Somehow preserving just a slice of the unbelievable landscape that took root may actually be an ideal end for this remarkable project, particularly if it includes some sort of environmental education component or becomes a botanical garden for wild urban plants. There’s much to learn about how nature can come back, even in the unlikeliest spots.

Read a recent interview with Hammond on the history of the High Line park.

Image credits: (1) High Line Segment 3 Map / Image from Google Maps. Courtesy of Friends of the High Line, (2) Rail Yards / Google Maps. Courtesy of Friends of the High Line, (3) 30th Street passage / James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, (4-5) 10th Avenue spur / James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, (6) Planting design / James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, (7) Peel-up bench variations / James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, (8) Street Level Access Point / James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, (9) Interim walkway / James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro

The Built Environment Is Broken

Dr. Richard Jackson, Professor and Chair of Environment Health Sciences, UCLA, said the built environment in the U.S. was designed in a way that is “fundamentally unhealthy” in a talk at the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington, D.C. The environment is now making it difficult for people to achieve well-being. It’s getting so bad that this generation growing up may be the first in American history that has “a shorter life span than their parents.” Communities have to be redesigned to “make us all healthier – young or old.”

Host of the new four-hour PBS series Designing Healthy Communities, author of the series’ companion book, and co-author of a more in-depth text book, Dr. Jackson knows what he’s talking about. Primary care doctors, he said, are now inundated with young, overweight, depressed patients. These kids are sent to weight loss programs, told not to watch TV, and drink less soda, but they can’t really lose any weight because “they have no place to walk.” So, “two months later” they are loaded up medications to deal with their weight, anxiety, depression at a cost of about $400 a month. This is the part the medical community is missing: “These are environmentally-induced diseases. The environment is rigged against kids, doctors, communities.”

Now, 18 percent of the U.S. economy goes to healthcare, which is more than the country spends on defense. Among developed countries, the U.S. now ranks 47th in terms of average life span. Meanwhile, Costa Rica, whose population has about the same life span as the U.S., spends seven times less per person than the U.S. While the U.S. life span rates have improved (30 years has been added over the past 110 years), only “five years can be attributed to the work of doctors.” The rest of the gains come from immunizations and “infrastructure” that helped defeat diseases like tuberculosis.

These days, the challenge is chronic disease caused by our shared environment: asthma, obesity, diabetes, along with mental disorders like anxiety and depression. Jackson, who (amazingly) lives in Los Angeles without a car, said “people are now appendages to their cars” so it’s no wonder these diseases have skyrocketed. People are isolated and communities are broken, largely because people now have car-centric lifestyles and there are no longer any real community spaces in the average suburban subdivision. The result: “Antidepressants have increased 400 percent over 20 years.” Jackson thinks this number shows how the power of community to undo depression has itself been totally undone. “For thousands of years, community has gotten us through depression. Unfortunately, we’ve unravelled our communities.” Jackson also said what landscape architects have always known: getting out and walking in green spaces is about as effective as antidepressants (that is, if people can get to them).

Dealing with diabetes now takes up 2 percent of the GDP of the country given that in many states almost 10 percent of the population has the disease. By 2050, that number is expected to grow to more than 20 percent. Obesity is another, well, big problem: In comparison with past generations, the average American is now 25 pounds heavier and the average kid, 14 pounds heavier. In some states, 30 percent of the population is severely obese. The problem is particularly depressing with kids, but, again, one can point directly at the built environment as a primary cause of the weight gain. “One generation ago, 2/3 of kids walked or biked to school. Now, it’s 1 in 8.” On top of that, the country subsidizes soy and corn products to be used in highly processed foods, but doesn’t do the same for fruits and vegetables. “In fact, if everyone at the surgeon general’s daily recommended amount of fruits and vegetables, the country would run out in three days. We just don’t have the produce available. This is why it’s so expensive.”

Jackson believes that every school should have a garden and every community should have a farmer’s market. Walkable green spaces should be used to fight mental health issues. Kids should live in walkable, bikeable areas so they can further their own “autonomous development.” Moving up in scale, cities can create active design guidelines like New York City has, and states can even incorporate healthy community designs into their planning efforts.

These health arguments are more powerful than the wonkier ones related to transportation financing or economic development, said Christopher Leinberger, a professor at the University of Michigan, smart growth developer, and writer for The Atlantic. Still, he thought it was odd that “public health people and nurses get these ideas,” but doctors still don’t. 

While many doctors need to be brought around, many communities may be realizing they can affect change on their own, and put pressure on elected officials and planners to do things differently. AARP certainly thinks so. The organization, said Amy Levner, who manages their mobility programs, is now focused on supporting local activists in improving quality of life for those over 50. Now active in the Complete Streets Coalition, AARP is financing “pedestrian audits” that help figure out the obstacles that prevent people from walking. For this group, one of the most powerful in D.C., it’s about improving quality of life for older people who are “past their driving years.” But what’s good for those older folks will be good for all.

Shannon Brownlee, Health program director, New America Foundation, said siloed policies have meant that policymakers haven’t realized all the end costs of their decisions. For example, subsidizing unhealthy foods just passes the costs onto people and the healthcare system. “We don’t think of the costs to health – on the other end.” Indeed, according to Leinberger, the problem just continues at the federal level. Few on Capitol Hill are thinking of the health or economic costs of the transportation bills now being considered, which simply push forward the same old model: 80 percent of funding for highways, and 20 percent for “alternative” transportation. Leinberger said that “alternative” financing, which sounds like something marginal, devious, actually covers “all transportation networks in cities,” things like pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure.

In the Senate, which is a “rural body” even though it’s run by Democrats, “most still refer to this as the highway bill.” Leinberger didn’t seem to be hoping for much, just that “transit-oriented development and mixed-use development is made legal. Currently, it’s illegal.” He also rang a hopeful tone by saying that the market will eventually succeed over dysfunctional Washington.

This is because there’s a 40-200 percent premium for walkable, well-designed communities. “The market desperately wants this. There’s 30 years of pent-up demand.” He said some 56 percent of the U.S. wants to live in these communities but maybe only 20 percent actually do. So even though the new transportation bill is actually “going the wrong way” by incentivizing more highways, the market will eventually “get what it wants,” overcoming any obstacles the federal government puts in the way.

See more of Dr. Jackson on PBS and check out his new books: Designing Healthy Communities and Making Healthy Places (also see a review of the 2nd book).  

Also, see ASLA’s resources on healthy and livable community design, including an animation explaining how landscape architects help undo the damages of car-centric environments: Designing for Active Living:

Where Are the World Heritage Landscapes in the U.S.?

The National Park Service (NPS) is seeking nominations for the U.S. World Heritage “tentative list,” which is then sent on to the UNESCO World Heritage Convention, the international organization that determines which sites go into the global list of culturally significant sites. The NPS may need help from landscape architects though, because there are so few designed landscapes and certainly none from the past hundred years in the current list of U.S. World Heritage sites or the tentative list now being considered.

Out of 936 sites worldwide, the U.S. has just 21 sites deemed crucial to global cultural heritage. Some argue this is because the U.S. has been in a fight with UNESCO since President Reagan pulled U.S. funding of the organization back in the 80s. A few years ago, funding was restored by President Bush but now it’s been pulled again given UNESCO recently gave membership to the Palestinian Authority. This means UNESCO has lost 22 percent of its annual funding and may not be up for considering U.S. sites.

Many of the 21 U.S. sites are national parks like Yellowstone National Park or Yosemite National Park. Native American sites like the Taos Pueblo and Mesa Verde are included. There are also a few historic sites like Independence Hall and Monticello and the University of Virginia campus. While UNESCO does actually include man-made landscapes of global significance, including early mining sites, none of the major designed landscapes from the past hundred years, like Central Park or Prospect Park, have even made it into the tentative list. In fact, the U.S. tenative list of 15 is loaded with eight different sites by Frank Lloyd Wright. While we’d love to see Falling Water on the list, along with the Great Serpent Mound in Ohio, one of the earliest man-made landscapes (see image above), why no designed landscapes from the past hundred years? Perhaps because there hasn’t been a concerted push for including some of the seminal park or public plaza models.

American landscape architects can create a public campaign to get a designed American landscape of global cultural significance into the list. To aid in this process, here are some steps below that can be taken before March 20:

To get onto the official UNESCO nominations list, which is voted on by a committee of countries, the site must be on the U.S.’s tentative list for at least a year so send in nominations now. Check out the National Park Service’s requirements for info on how to be added, along with UNESCO’s criteria for evaluating potential World Heritage sites.     

All comments the NPS receives will be summarized and provided to Interior department officials, who will also ask the advice of the Federal Interagency Panel for World Heritage before making any nominations. “The selection may include the following considerations: (i) How well the particular type of property (i.e., theme or region) is represented on the World Heritage List in both the United States and other nations; (ii) The balance between cultural and natural properties already on the List and those under consideration; (iii) Opportunities that the property affords for public visitation, interpretation, and education; (iv) Potential threats to the property’s integrity or its current state of preservation; (v) Likelihood of being able to complete a satisfactory nomination according to the timeline described above; and (vi) Other relevant factors, including the possible implications of non-payment of U.S. dues to UNESCO or the World Heritage Fund.”

Suggest your favorite cultural landscape or simply offer comments by March 20 by writing to Jonathan Putnam, Office of International Affairs, National Park Service, 1201 Eye Street NW., (0050). Washington, DC 20005 or by Email: Fax 202-371-1446.

Hopefully, U.S. funding to UNESCO will be worked out so U.S. sites actually have a chance of getting in.

Image credit: Great Serpent Mound, Ohio / Red and the Peanut Blog