The Edible City

Watch a new animation from ASLA’s “Designing Our Future: Sustainable Landscapes” online exhibition that shows how to turn a conventional community into an edible city. Learn how to transform unproductive spaces into agricultural landscapes that help fight obesity and reduce food deserts:

According to the United Nations, some one-fourth of all agricultural land is seriously degraded. As a result, people are now turning to untapped urban land. In fact, some 800 million people a year worldwide are practicing urban agriculture. Beyond creating green spaces, urban agriculture may aid those who don’t have secure access to food. In the U.S. alone, some 49 million Americans experience food insecurity and another 23 million live in food deserts where there is little fresh produce or public space. To fight insecurity, many Americans, even those in poorer areas, are taking food production into their own hands: Some 38 percent of households or 41 million people grew vegetables, fruits, or herbs on their property. (Sources: Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations; RUAF Foundation and Feeding America; “Urban Agriculture: Practices to Improve Cities,” Mia Lehrer and Maya Dunne, UrbanLand, Urban Land Institute )

While growing food breaks the law in many U.S. cities, innovators like New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and smaller cities like Madison, Wisconsin, are now changing regulations to accommodate the growing numbers of urban farmers. In those communities, many types of private and public spaces — front and backyards, courtyards in multi-family complexes, abandoned lots, and building rooftops — can now be legally transformed from unproductive spaces into low-cost sources of nutrition. In Washington, D.C and Portland, homeowners can even lease out their yards to local organizations and reap the benefits. In Cleveland and Detroit, abandoned lots owned by the city are leased at almost zero cost to farmers if they promise to grow things on them. In Chicago, the rooftop of one youth center was redesigned as a farm and now produces 1,000 pounds of organic produce each year while teaching urban kids where food comes from. (Sources: Backyard Farmer; DC City Farmer; Rooftop Haven for Urban Agriculture, Designing Our Future: Sustainable Landscapes, ASLA / Gary Comer Youth Center, Chicago, Illinois; and “Keeping Urban Farmers Safe,” The Dirt, ASLA)

Commercial urban farmers are also starting to make money on rooftops. In New York City, the Brooklyn Grange, a 40,000 square foot farm, grew some 15,000 pounds last year. Underutilized spaces can be leased out for around $1 a square foot, creating enough financial incentive for urban farmers to take root. Another great idea being considered: big-box stores could lease out their massive rooftops to farmers, and then purchase the food there to re-sell. However, many landscape architects argue that for these new urban agriculture projects to really work, they need to be knit together into a network. Produce grown in neighborhoods can be distributed via farmers’ markets, shops, coops, food banks, even mobile storefronts. With local networks in place, nearby suburban farms can also participate, finding new markets and creating a more healthy food system in the process. (Sources: “Farm the Rooftops,” The Dirt, ASLA and “Urban Agriculture: Practices to Improve Cities,” Mia Lehrer and Maya Dunne, UrbanLand, Urban Land Institute)

Help Restore One of Farrand’s Masterpieces

“A precious area of the city has been neglected for too long,” said Italian Ambassador Claudio Bisogniero, about Dumbarton Oaks Park, a 1920’s style “naturalistic” landscape designed by one of the foremost American woman landscape architects, Beatrix Farrand. Bisogniero said all embassies that line the 27-acre park, the northwest D.C. communities that ring it, and even greater Washington, D.C. must play a part in restoring this “jewel.”

Restoration work is already underway, in partnership with the National Park Service, which has jurisdiction over this site and the surrounding Rock Creek Park. Over a year, said Tara Morrison, Superintendent, Rock Creek Park, “weed warriors have been at work.” They are working hard towards removing all invasive species (and there are a lot). Neighboring embassies are also being brought into the conversation about how to use green infrastructure to manage more stormwater outside the park so it doesn’t just flow in.

Rebecca Trafton, President, Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy, has been amazing at getting volunteers involved. Larry Weaner, a landscape ecologist, and Biohabitats, a landscape restoration firm, have volunteered their expertise to come up with an ecological restoration plan. The Conservancy team is also getting support from the National Park Foundation in “strategic planning, capacity building,” which can “provide a foundation of support for our restoration work.”

An initial step is to clear the invasive plants. Next, a 2-acre piece of the park will be “restored to ecological health and historic design intent” at a cost of around $75,000. New interpretive signs will be added. Future restoration work will then be done in a piece-meal fashion. We have to have a “sustainable, maintainable process for restoration,” said Trafton.

Ann Aldrich, Executive Director of the Conservancy, asked the audience of local officials, landscape architects, and residents to imagine “5 years from now, when there’s a restored beech grove, terrace, wildflower meadows, gardens free of weeds, and repaired dams and waterfalls with stable stream banks, and a reconstructed arbor with stone benches.”

The Conservancy team is clearly inspired by Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, who started the Central Park Conservancy in New York City and is now the president of the Foundation for Landscape Studies. Rogers, who’s written many books on landscape architecture, explained how the Central Park team spent three years developing a comprehensive plan for restoring Central Park, which was critical to ensuring that “we avoided a scatter-shot approach.”

She said Central Park is the “quintessence of romantic landscape design,” and like a symphonic work has motifs but they take the form of woods, soils, and streams. Central Park also shows how landscape architects can “fuse nature and engineering into a great work of landscape art.” The great feat of engineering was separating traffic so that pedestrians could flow over carriages and now cars and trucks.

Before her conservancy got started in the early 80s, Central Park was in pretty bad shape, with 50,000 square feet of graffiti, eroded slopes, trashed ponds, shattered lights, and bombed-out buildings. The systematic survey led to an action plan with lots of different pieces that could be financed separately. She said her group made sure “not to restore anything unless we had the funds to maintain it.” So fundraising was really the other critical piece beyond having a comprehensive restoration plan and solid team.

Regardless of how well-loved the restored Central Park is now, “place is still tenuous,” meaning that if a new mayor came in who no longer valued Central Park and wanted to discontinue the public-private partnership, the park could once again fall to pieces. With a warning for all communities and their parks, Rogers said “we live in troubling times.” The beauty of a park today is no guarantee of the future.

For those in the D.C. area, learn more about how you can volunteer or help finance the restoration of Dumbarton Oaks Park.

Image credit: Dumbarton Oaks Park / The Georgetown Metropolitan

In a Harsh Economic Climate, New Opportunities for Designers

The three presidents of the major design organizations shaping the built environment — the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), American Institute of Architects (AIA), and American Planning Association (APA) — discussed the challenges facing the design professions as well as the opportunities at the American Planning Association (APA) conference in Los Angeles. They also outlined paths for the future direction of their organizations.

ASLA: “Adversity can make us fearless.”

Susan Hatchell, FASLA, president of ASLA, who said she often works with planners, designs parks, sustainable transportation infrastructure, and recreation areas in North Carolina. She believes that while the professions are facing severe economic conditions, there’s “opportunity in adversity.” She presented numbers showing how “really long periods of economic growth often come after periods of recession.” In this climate, “adversity can make us fearless” for when the next round of growth comes.  

There are a number of key opportunities for landscape architects. Population growth, expected to be 9 percent in the U.S., will lead to new work for landscape architects. Hatchell said: “These people will need to live somewhere. Many more communities will be looking for ‘live, work, play’ experiences.” The rise of the millennial generation, which is more “collaborative, technologically-advanced and socially-engaged,” along with the aging of the baby boomers, will mean new types of public spaces and housing development will be in demand. “Baby boomers will redefine old age and will need new types of housing, transportation, and recreation. They aren’t going to go lying down.”

Urbanization, which is a trend not only in the U.S. but around the world, will create opportunities for new public spaces and urban design work. “Cities are an emerging market for landscape architects.” Transportation currently sucks up 19 percent of people’s incomes on average. This expense is increasingly a burden for low-income residents who, like many other groups, are demanding public transportation systems. The demand for more sustainable transportation system will only grow as gas prices rise.

Landscape architects also have a major role to play in transforming the built environment into an enabler of good health. “Currently 66 percent of the population is overweight or obese, and by 2015, 75 percent will be.” Hatchell added that this health crisis is not only very damaging to our collective health, but also very expensive, with $117 billion being spent on diabetes and obesity-related conditions annually.

Turning redfields, underperforming real estate, into greenfields is another growth area. Hatchell said $700 billion in loans still have to “go negative” before 2014. These unproductive assets can be bought cheap and redeveloped as green space. As an example, she said some 40 “dead malls” are now revitalization projects.

Lastly, green infrastructure offers great opportunities. NYC is investing $1.5 billion in green infrastructure systems over the next 20 years, which is still much cheaper than the $2.9 billion they would needed to have spend on old grey infrastructure, sewage and stormwater conveyance pipes and other things made of concrete. Philadelphia also has a $2 billion 20 year plan in the works.

On unemployment among landscape architects, which Hatchell said was a serious issue, she said ASLA is seeing some positive trends. However, too few landscape firms, even the ones that are doing well, are hiring. She encouraged young out of work LAs to “stay in the game” by volunteering on projects and networking.

She discussed how ASLA, with 16,000 members in the U.S. and abroad, has launched a public awareness campaign to highlight the value of landscape architects. “It’s important that people understand what we do.”

In addition, there was a common theme running through all presentations: the need to improve collaboration among landscape architects, planners, and architects. Hatchell said: “It takes a village to make a good design. We all need to be at the table. When we come together, with our greater collective numbers, we can succeed.” In her mind, landscape architects play a central role in making this collaboration work and “weave together engineering and architecture using the foundation and guidelines provided by planners.”

AIA: “We need to better tell our story, how architecture improves our lives.”

AIA President Jeffrey Potter, FAIA, said he’s “passionate about communicating the value of design to the public,” while also improving the perception of architects among the public. With 75,000 members, AIA is more than “just a pin, an accreditation you can wear.” The organization has 18 regional components and 284 local chapters, with 23 “communities of knowledge.” An office with 200 staff is led by Robert Ivy, former editor of Architectural Record.

“Architects are under siege by competitors,” said Potter. And “the economic unpleasantness hit us hard.” On top of this, the “transition to the digital world has been costly for firms.” The BIM approach requires heavy up-front investment by architects. But for Potter the major challenge is the “deterioration of our culture. Beauty seems to no longer matter.”

Potter said architects may be to blame for some of their predicament, in part, because “of our jargon and tendency to look inward.” The membership, overall, seems to be of two minds on how to move forward. “About one half want to become the prominent master builder of the past. But the master builder model went out in the 14th century. The other half of the membership wants to the master collaborator.” Potter sees greater collaboration with planners and landscape architects as the only real way forward.

A major focus is getting emerging professionals jobs. Young architects starting out are being bludgeoned by the recession, which “may never have left the design fields,” but it’s important that “young people stay in our community.” Other key programs focus on disaster-resilient designs and rolling out green building codes worldwide.

AIA is also now working on a “repositioning initiative” because “we are unhappy” about how the public perceives us. “The public doesn’t understand what we do. We need to better tell our stories and demonstrate how architecture improves our lives.”

APA: “Multidisciplinary teams lead to better, richer designs.”

For Mitchell Silver, AICP, it’s a shame that landscape architecture and planning went in different directions back in 1909; they used to be the same thing. Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., the son of the designer of Central Park and the father of landscape architecture, wanted “cities to be more efficient, attractive, livable, and less chaotic.” So landscape architects began to focus on the physical form of cities while planners moved towards spatial form and the policy and regulatory side of things. Still, he said, “our professions have a common DNA,” rooted in “scientific efficiency, civic beauty, and social equity.”

The APA, with its 40,000 members worldwide, is now very focused on sustainability and climate change. Another major focus is on “sustaining places.” Taskforces were set up in this area, yielding 8 new principles. APA wants to enhance the “value of comprehensive plans,” (possibly by looking into certification for them), and creating quality spaces for the long-term. A new “rebuilding America” initiative created recommendations to strengthen the ” place-making” focus of the organization.

Pointing to the successful Mayor’s Institute of City Design (MICD), a group Silver is involved in, he said “multidisciplinary teams” now need to be the way to go with projects of all scales. They are necessary because they “lead to better, richer designs.” Silver, who is the director of planning for the City of Raleigh, now forces his planning department to work in multidisciplinary teams and issues RFPs that demand those teams. He said, while planners can offer the vision and “plan for experiences that we want people to have,” it’s landscape architects and architects “who are critical to creating that experience.”

Still, Silver sees planners as providing broad leadership among the design professions. APA’s key goals are to “lead America to a more just and sustainable future, while growing the next generation of leaders.” On collaboration, Silver reiterated the points made by Hatchell, arguing that “we need to reforge our partnerships.”

All presidents said their organizations “don’t have jobs to hand out,” but are working hard (in unison) on Capitol Hill to save programs that create work for design professionals, while also creating opportunities at the state and local levels. Silver liked the idea of moving past the state-level bottle-necks and getting the federal government to provide funds directly to cities, who have many “shovel-ready projects.”

Depending on who you talk to, it’s the worst time to get a design degree, or, perhaps, the best given the growing number of problems that will require a design professional to fix. Plus, all the heads of the organizations seemed to believe the economy will come back.

Image credit: ASLA 2011 General Design Honor Award. Citygarden, St. Louis / Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects

Playa Vista Overcomes Its Obstacles

Once mired in litigation and always fraught with controversy, Playa Vista, a 1,000-plus acre wetland, residential community, and commercial development in western Los Angeles, may now be considered a success story. While parts of the 3-mile-long by 1.5-mile-wide site are still in contention, Playa Vista’s combined parklands, residential community, and commercial district certainly offers an improvement on the usual Los Angeles model: sprawl on steroids. Sure, residents still need to drive to this publicly-accessible yet privately maintained community, but once there, cars are hidden in underground parking lots and residents can walk on nice sidewalks, bike, go to cafes, walk their dog, or chill in one of the many parks. Film and multimedia studio employees in the commercial sector can walk to the site’s central park or even hike a trail along the ridgeline. And at a tour of the site during the conference of the American Planning Association, bicyclists were even seen carrying trays of coffee, making their way to studios.  

Playa Vista’s innovative master plan was created in the 1990s by OLIN, a leading urban and landscape design firm, and other firms. There were a few major segments in the plan: a protected wetland, central park, multiple residential communities, and a commercial area, which houses Howard Hughes’ old aircraft facilities, structures that are mostly protected under California’s historic preservation rules. Then Playa Vista Capital and the Trust for Public Land worked off that plan to create an updated master plan that sets aside some 70 percent of the land as open space. 

Indeed, they may have had to set aside a big chunk as protected nature. A major share of the site is one of the last remaining wetlands in California and lies within the coastal zone. Also, lawsuits in the mid-80s prevented an earlier development team from damaging the Ballona wetlands so Playa Vista Capital decided to hand this piece over to the state. Preserving this area was a great thing though: the wetlands are lush, but could be further improved if the state moves forward with a major restoration project that will take out the narrow concrete lining parts of the river in favor of a meandering natural system. That’s still being debated between a number of local organizations and the state.

There’s some forward-thinking green infrastructure systems here that connects the development to the greater ecological system of the area. A 51-acre riparian corridor and reconstructed marsh (see image above) was designed by Friends of the Ballona Wetland, Psomas & Associates, landscape architecture firm Collaborative West, and Erik Streaker, a water quality expert, to cleanse and manage the development’s stormwater and connect with the wetlands. Already, the new marsh has brought in 100+ plus birds, including an endangered species. A new central park by the Michael Maltzan Architects and the Office of James Burnett is already in place to welcome the second residential segment, the new “Village,” now underway (moving forward only after more lawsuits were finally settled after they went to the State Supreme Court). Maltzan’s park provides a sustainable, multi-functional public space bridging the residential and commercial sides, which is also now under development.

First conceived as a New Urbanist community, given its tight density, multi-family housing complexes, and use of street grids, the first residential community diverges from that rigid model in a few key ways. There’s lots of affordable housing units. Diverse parks and street landscapes play a central role in making the community, a two-square mile development, seem a bit less like the creepy community in the Truman Show. According to Mark Huffman, Playa Vista Capital, the landscape architecture was central to making Playa Vista work so well. There are 17 acres of “active parks” and another 12 acres of “passive recreation” set within distinct park districts, with a “concert” park, “fountain” park, and others.

Streets, which have bicycle lanes, each have their own plant-based identities. “We want people to be able to find their own street,” said Huffman. Some of the buildings do look very similar to each other, even though many architects worked on the different buildings within the complex. Huffman added that 50 percent of all plants are native and drought tolerant, but some “did better than others,” with some trees felled by mites.

An innovative homeowners fee finances the upkeep of the landscapes, green infrastructure, and much of the community work. Given some 3,200 residences have been purchased, meaning some 6,000 people are living in these two square miles, the fees must not be onerous. In fact, one of the selling points of the fees may be that they help ensure the community keeps close watch over the initiatives that make this development more environmentally and socially-sound than others in Los Angeles. While the marsh is self-sustaining, said Huffman, fees are needed to cover all the permits and regulatory reporting and control the cattails in the marsh and corridor. The cattails, which are the heart of the constructed wetland system that remove pollutants from the water, often grow too wild so they have to be pruned back. Fees also help finance programs for the community, including widening the 4-lane street right out front of the development, and new computer labs for nearby schools.

Throughout, there are other sensitive ways of dealing with water. All the parks are watered with recycled water provided by automated systems. A new wetland “discovery” park designed by Levin & Associates still isn’t quite open to the public because the groups involved first need to finalize the details on the non-profit that will run the site, but that also promises to educate the public about the critical importance of water and wetlands.

While the development isn’t really the “Live, Work, Play” development it’s sold as — given most of its residents still face a long car ride to their workplaces — the commercial district isn’t too far for those lucky ones that live nearby, perhaps a 10-15 bicycle ride. The commercial side, which is run by The Ratvokich Company, offers very nice reuse of historic buildings. The Hercules Campus is named after the Hercules, the wooden plane Howard Hughes created in World War II and was deemed the “Spruce Goose” by the press. Hercules was built in the old hangers now leased out by Ratkovich to movie studios. (We had to sign a non-disclosure agreement so can’t talk about the new Hollywood movie being produced there).

The beautiful, gargantuan hangers from the 1940s are actually made entirely of wood, like large boats turned upside down. There are molded, glued wood beams that tower 72 feet and provide the frame of the structures. New tenants coming in to use other buildings for “production support” include Google, with its new YouTube channel; social media marketing; and multimedia production studios. In Los Angeles, buildings can be zoned for “production support,” which is different from plain-old office space.

Milan Ratvokich, one of the developers, seemed bemused by what “creative professionals” like in these old buildings — the cavernous loft spaces and the old, authentic materials — but clearly “saw a place with a lot of opportunities.” Designed by a sensitive interior designer, the old spaces, one of which includes an old vault Hughes kept his plane designs in, could be amazing new creative spaces for movie and Web workers.

Ratvokich proves that they are at the cutting-edge of development: They are not only looking at bringing in a new hydrogen-powered fuel cell to serve as a generator for a cluster of buildings, but also working to preserve the 100-year old Sycamore trees that line the old 1940’s Hughes offices.

Image credits: (1) Ballona Marsh / Friends of the Ballona Wetlands. Lisa Fimiani (2) Central Park, Michael Maltzan Architects / Iwan Baan copyright, (3-4) Playa Vista Concert Park and Spyglass Park / Playa Vista Capital, (5) Playa Vista streetscape / Debra Berman and Pat Kandel Real Estate, (6) Ballona Wetland Park / Friends of Ballona Wetland, (7) Howard Hughes’ “Spruce Goose” aircraft hangar, Playa Vista / The Wall Street Journal, (8-10) Buildings at Hercules Campus / The Ratvokich Company.

How Does a Community Become a Gay Mecca?

In his now seminal book, The Rise of the Creative Class, Richard Florida used rankings on diversity, bohemia, and openness to gay people to show how creative types — the people who create value out of nothing but their innovative ideas and designs — are attracted to cities that are open-minded, liberal, and gay-friendly. In a session at the American Planning Association conference in Los Angeles, city officials from two communities on the The Advocate magazine’s gayest cities index explained how small, seemingly random communities have become “gayest” and boosted economic development in the process.

Thomas Eddington, with Park City, Utah, which The Advocate said is the gayest city in the U.S., said some 3.8 percent of Americans (or around 9 million) are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, making this group the second smallest minority, right after American Indians. However, he said the data is at best a “guestimate” because the U.S. census doesn’t ask single residents about their sexuality. Now, there are about 650,000 same-sex couples in the U.S., and about 20 percent are raising children.

In the past, gay communities “congregated and created their own place.” A few examples come to mind: Provincetown, Massachusetts; Greenwich Village, New York; The Castro, San Francisco; and West Hollywood, California. However, in their recent list, The Advocate pushes these well-known locales further down in favor of smaller communities many haven’t heard of, largely through of their use of “qualitative factors, not real numbers.” Eddington thought that while The Advocate exercise was far from scientific, it may indicate that “gay is changing.”

Well-known gay neigborhoods all have liberal, tolerant populations that feature “coffeeshops, bars, cafes” in high-density mixed-use areas with lots of housing. They are often near universities. For gays and straights alike, “these are cool areas so economic development has often followed.” However, now, people are looking for “urban sophistication without urban gentrification.” As more of the country becomes tolerant, “gay people in Kansas can just go to Kansas City, they don’t need to go to D.C., New York City, or San Francisco.” 

As GLBT groups go mainstream, they may be diverging from the traditional gay areas, “going to places where people didn’t expect.” GLBT populations may be “assimilating more than we thought.” Still, Eddington thought that wherever these groups go, “community is still important.” And where the gay population lands, more educated, minority, and other creative populations often soon follow, “creating new centers of growth.”

One example is Wilton Manors in Florida. Hedi Shafran, who leads community outreach efforts in that city, said this “all-American small town has become the 2nd gayest city in the U.S,” using The Advocate’s approach. There are about 140 same-sex couples per 1,000, with an overall population of 11,863. She said that makes Wilton Manor very high on the list in terms of per-capita couples, but it’s total gay population is still very small in comparison with Ft. Lauderdale (the gayest mid-sized city), and D.C. (the gayest state).

Wilton Manors didn’t achieve its position through “gay gentrification, but through displacement.” In the 1990s, a number of factors came together to bring in gay populations: a growing affordable housing stock freed up by an aging population; a great location near the beach and Miami; attractive Florida-style homes; and economic opportunity. Shafran said local zoning changes combined with real estate investment basically triggered the gay migration.

In the 1920s, Wilton Manors was billed as a “upscale resort community.” It never really became that. A hurricane came through, the market crashed, and many of the dreams of the town’s founders went down the tubes. The town was almost exclusively white in a sea of Florida’s diverse population. There were even rumours of local KKK groups in action and “charges of homophobia.” Shafran said: “This place didn’t become a gay mecca because it was accepting.”

One community, Victoria Park, had become a “gay ghetto,” but “non-gays moved in because of the concentration of amenities.” The result was very steep rents, so gay people moved down the road into the more affordable Wilton Manors. There, after the community started to take root, the main strip was rezoned as a “arts and entertainment district.” Developers basically told the city council, “we can turn this into a gay mecca.” The city council, said Shafran, gave the thumbs-up as long as there were “no fortune tellers, no nudity, and no porn.” They said “this can’t become a seedy part of town.”

One result was booming commercial rents. In the arts & entertainment district, and the new transit-oriented development (TOD) that recently expanded the area, occupancy rates hit 100 percent and per square footage lease rates went from $8 to $32. The major increases in property values then increased city revenue, which was then funneled back into 10 new parks and other amenities. Shafran said “through gay-straight alliances, an old park was updated with gay money.” There has also been increased diversity. The town is now only 71 percent white, with a large number of Haitian immigrants moving in as well.

She said a really mixed town still has its own challenges though. The population is decreasing, particularly the share of the population under 18. While many of the businesses, which have names like “GaySha Sushi,” are popular among the gay residents, “we’ve heard that when straight people see a rainbow flag, they think it means ‘Don’t come in. You’re not welcome here.'” There are limited cross-cultural or really any cultural activities. Undoing a local zoning ban, a porn shop has opened (and it’s run by straight men). As rents increase in Wilton Manors, there has also been “gay suburban migration.”

So, one message was that while open, tolerant places do attract gay communities, which in turn help to bring in creative professionals, other minorities, and economic development, it’s really smart zoning that helped grow Wilton Manors. Shafran said arts & entertainment districts, business incubators, and film studio zoning all help build the foundation.

Image credit: Wilton Manors / Wilton Manors Real Estate

The Case for a National Academy of Environmental Design

At the national conference of the American Planning Association, Fritz Steiner, FASLA, Dean of the School of Architecture, University of Texas, Austin, and one of the forces behind the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES), Dr. Nisha Botchwey, Associate Professor, School of City and Regional Planning, Georgia Tech University, and Michael Monti, Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture, made the case for the National Academy of Environmental Design (NAED), a new organization they hope will become the equivalent of the National Academy of Sciences or the National Institute of Health (NIH), but for planners, landscape architects, architects, industrial and interior designers, and construction professionals. Steiner said this wasn’t a crazy idea given the NIH was actually created pretty recently.

A robust NAED would help improve the visibility of the professions that are responsible for the design of our built environment among policymakers in Washington, D.C. The organization could be a boon for academics — membership would be valuable to promotion. A NAED could also raise lots of money from the government and foundations to get new research supporting “evidence-based design” out to the many thousand design professionals worldwide, bolstering the credibility of designers in the process.

Some of the goals of NAED: “promote the flourishing of individuals, communities, and the natural world” through environmentally-sustainable design; improve cooperation with federal and state governments; and organize cross-disciplinary research around critical environmental, social, and economic challenges like disaster-proofing communities or using the built environment to fight obesity and diabetes (instead of enabling the spread of these epidemics). The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), American Planning Association (APA), and American Institute of Architects (AIA) each have two members in the new governing steering committee, and a research committee is now being led by MIT planning professor James Wescoat, Jr.

Steiner said a whole host of symposia has already been held, with more in the works. One on the potential for “water wars” in Florida in the near future held at the University of Florida looked at how design professionals can influence public water consumption, design communities resilient to changes in water availability, and also create systems that meet the “aesthetics” communities want. Others focused on SITES and “disaster resilient design.” The goal of these events are to match design professionals with experts from other fields, including public health specialists, while drawing in key government agencies. Monti said: “these symposia include lots of charrettes, co-creation. They help in the translation between the professions.”

One exciting research project of the still-forming NAED was a research symposium on green design and public health. Botchwey said “changing behavior alone is not enough to combat childhood obesity. Environmental factors influence when, where, and how much people eat and drink and how physically active they are.” A pretty powerful statement. She added that school facilities are one of the most critical platforms for creating healthier lifestyles, given some 25 percent of the U.S. population is now in school.

Their day-long event, which was co-developed with the U.S. Green Building Council’s Center for Green Schools as well as the National Collaborative on Childhood Obesity Research (NCCOR), examined all scales — from the neighborhood to the building to the actual school yard and grounds, right down to the cafeteria — to see how schools could become healthier places, physically.

“Translation” seems to be the critical piece. For example, public health researchers and landscape architects, who could do so much exciting research together to determine which kinds of designs are most effective at improving health, don’t speak the same language or use the same methodologies or tools. Translation is always needed.

One way to collaborate would be to develop “place-based research reflecting what’s happening, and who’s involved in it,” said Monti. These case studies can then lead to evidence, which would help bolster “evidence-based practice” among more designers. Botchwey added that design professionals may actually need to become multi-lingual, too, speaking the language of public health researchers and others to be heard.

Image credit: ASLA 2011 General Design Honor Award. City of Greensburg Main Street Streetscape, Greensburg, KS  / BNIM and Farad Assassi

A Landscape Neutra Would Have Loved

The lucky couple who gets to live in Kun 2, a Richard Neutra house in the hills of Los Angeles, have it made. Views sweep across the entire city from the living and bedrooms, and now there’s an elegant work of residential landscape architecture to go with the home that also solves contemporary challenges. Lisa Gimmy, ASLA, a landscape architect who specializes in the design of Modern landscapes, actually improved the work of one of the premier Modern architects, said Noel Vernon, ASLA, Associate Dean and Professor of Landscape Architecture, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, while introducing the Garden Dialogue event organized by The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF). Vernon said the new landscape, which was recently featured in the TCLF conference organized at the Museum of Modern Art, “builds on the indoor-outdoor relationship Neutra loved.”

The landscape architecture project came out of a landslide that covered six feet of one corner of the house and their car, said one of the owners. The couple quickly commissioned an engineer to create plans for a retaining wall but found it lacking. A 20-foot diagonal wall would have cut through the back of the property, messing with the careful lines Neutra spent so much time creating.

So Gimmy came in and devised a set of wall configurations with a civil and structural engineer to make the wall work better with the house. The result looked like it should always have been there. A tiered wall slowly steps down, providing a hidden space for recycling and compost bins, while also becoming home to new plants, including the alien Black Rose (or Zwartkop). Next to what must be one of the most attractive retaining walls, there are also spaces for two cars.

The retaining wall led to other projects. A regraded driveway offers a smoother ride on concrete set in a grid format. A new pathway in the rear of the house is set amid a bamboo garden and agave, which creates a “textural contrast.” A rolling wave-like mini-lawn made of Korean grass is a cap for a wall of granite boulders hand-carved by a local mason. There’s also a new deck leading out from the living room so elegant Neutra would have loved it, too.

Gimmy really studied Neutra’s work to see what he did with landscapes in his other projects, but then worked with clients and conditions of the site to forge her own new course that is still respectful of Neutra’s work. She wanted to make sure the landscape enhanced the amazing views. Her attention to detail results in a sense of comfort and pleasure as you walk around the site. For example, the deck in the front of the house would be scary if one looked over the edge down the steep hills. Her solution: a set of rosemary hedges that have grown up to “give us comfort being out there.”

TCLF has more Garden Dialogues coming along across the country this summer. At just $35 for an in-depth multi-hour tour with the owner and landscape architect, these are a steal. Also, check out their free and educational What’s Out There events coming to Washington, D.C. and New York.

Image credits: Deniz Durmuz

You Can’t Fool Mother Nature but You Can Understand Her

James Urban, FASLA, noted soil and tree expert, recently gave his talk, You Cannot Fool Mother Nature but You Can Understand Her, at the Arsenal in New York City. Urban is a prolific writer and lecturer on the subject of tree planting and the conditions needed to improve tree performance in urban environments. Urban focused his talk on “eight simple ideas,” all basic steps to yield more productive growth in urban trees. The ideas were driven home by a slideshow containing images from his recent award-winning planting guide and bookshelf mainstay, Up By Roots: Healthy Soils and Trees in the Built Environment. It was refreshing to know that the lecture did not fall on deaf ears as heads of the NYC Parks Department, the ASLA NY Chapter, and New York Restoration Project were all in attendance. If anyone needs to hear Urban’s talk, it would be them.

To Urban, planting trees is “all about the science.” Take a walk down your street and notice the adolescent trees stuffed into the recently curb-cut sidewalk. According to Urban, that is our fatal mistake. “We try all the time [to fool nature] but we never win.” The space below the ground is competing with other urban systems: stormwater structures, utilities, urban compaction systems. These obstacles severely hinder the performance of those adolescent trees, many of which were not even properly selected in the first place. Urban shared his understanding of this paradigm: “Once we have a hypothesis, we tend to give extra weight to any information that supports that hypothesis.” To Urban, this kind of thinking leads to many street trees being planted incorrectly.

Over the past thirty years, Urban has been instrumental in the development of both structural soils and structural cells for use under sidewalk pavement. However, his message has remained and his eight guiding principles to planting trees have as well:

1. Trees need dirt!
2. Plant trees that are native to their urban ecosystem.
3. Can you resolve the conflict between the politics of trees and the planting of trees?
4. There is no free lunch.
5. Get just one tree right.
6. More soil volume please.
7. Harvest stormwater.
8. Improve the nursery stock.

1. Trees need dirt!
According to Urban, New York is actually a relatively easy place to grow trees. To become a functional, mature tree in an urban environment, a tree needs between 800 and 1,200 cubic feet of “good-quality loam soil.” Urban believes that New York City has the space but not the soil.

2. Plant trees that are native to their urban ecosystem.
To further understand this concept the audience was pushed to buy Peter Del Tredici’s, Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast: A Field Guide. No longer are we harking back to the Manahatta planting plan for advice on what to plant on Queens Boulevard. Urban, the consummate pioneer of the urban environment tried to incite the crowd. “Let’s get into it and start figuring it out!” Urban also warned us that in ten years or less we will all be calling nurseries to purchase Ailanthus.

3. Can you resolve the conflict between the politics of trees and the planting of trees?
Urban took this opportunity to speak of the role of the arborist. Currently, certification is relatively easy to obtain. However, as the profession of arborists progresses it needs “serious restrictions.” Making certification more difficult to acquire would promote the profession, putting them on the political map. Arborists could then better join broader political discussions and highlight the importance of trees.

4. There is no free lunch.
Here Urban stressed the idea of compost. His example that “two tons of raw wood only produces one ton of compost” is telling in that he believes there is room to explore this area. He further explains this idea by bashing “the hot item right now,” Bio-Char. After describing Bio-Char as “really bad,” he lightened the assault by clarifying that “it is only good for small amounts of soil.” I wonder if this “simple idea” was an idea at all, or an excuse to diminish the popularity of the charcoal-based soil amendment.

5. Get just one tree right.
In a checklist for tree design, one requirement is to understand the root area index (RAI), the calculation determining the correlation between the root and the surface area. To explain this, Urban used an image of a wine glass standing on a dinner plate. The dinner plate, representing the soil volume and the wine glass base, the trunk flare, are basic visuals of how simple a successful planting can be.

6. More soil please.
Again Urban stressed the importance of understanding soils and the surroundings. Soil can be understood as the community of vegetated and urban systems surrounding the planting site. Urban explained the efficiency of his structural cells compared to that of constructed soils (Cu soils). One attendee, an expert and supplier of Cu soils, vehemently disagreed. He argued that the structural rock matrix that makes up the load bearing component of Cu soils do not inversely affect the performance of tree roots as Urban suggested. Not wanting to get into a fight over the success of his inventions, Urban explained, “I’m almost done with the Cu slide…actually, I’ve been done with the Cu slide since 2003.”

7. Harvest stormwater.
“When designing systems it’s important to allow nature to guide us in protecting our natural systems from floatables, hydrocarbons, chemical pollutants, and runoff toxins.” In the green infrastructure overhaul of New York City, large trees will play an important role in the solution and have the ability to “store and process massive amounts of stormwater both in their roots and leaves.”

8. Improve nursery stock.
Nursery stock, in the age of the New York City’s Million Trees Project, have become a hot topic. Tree growth can be determined before a tree is even planted if a basic understanding of the stock is obtained. There are many issues concerning healthy plant growth at nurseries. Proper limbing, pruning, watering, drainage, sunlight, soil volume, and basic organization are all things to consider when visiting a nursery for healthy plants. However, the number one issue is container plants. “We need to stop buying container trees. It’s an unfixable problem!” The girdling of roots has no remedy and their trees have no chance of reaching their potential.

Much of what James Urban discussed in his lecture seems to touch on the ideas of publicity. Yes, the science of tree planting is essential to success but so are “politics.” Urban reiterated this idea by empowering key figures in the crowd.”The Parks Department, the City of New York, and New York Restoration Project need to put pressure on nurseries!” It’s Urban’s hope that New York City will become the benchmark for intelligent street tree planting.

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 credit: Silva Cell / Deeproot

A New Town for Khayelitsha

South Africa’s apartheid regime deliberately designed cities to divide communities, creating a legacy of poverty, racial fragmentation, and criminal behaviour. Cape Town is no different from other South African cities, and the impacts of apartheid’s legacy are apparent in Khayelitsha, a Cape Town settlement where only 52 percent of residents are “economically active.” Furthermore, the town must deal with a challenging environmental and planning legacy: In locating the settlement on the Cape Flats sand dunes, barely above the water table and in a winter wetland, the apartheid regime shaped a community around water detention ponds. For most of the year they laid vacant and were well-suited to criminal behaviour.

Studies have found a relationship between crime and unemployment. High levels of unemployment result in high levels of crime. It therefore follows that with almost half the community employed, crime will be high.

The Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading Program (VPUU), a partnership between the City of Cape Town and the German Development Bank, adopted criminologist C. Ray Jeffrey’s Crime Prevention Through Urban Upgrade approach, which is based in the belief that “proper design and the effective use of the built environment will lead to a reduction in the incidence of crime and the fear of crime.” Khayelitsha’s design intervention seeks to respond to the community’s needs — by creating children’s play areas but also a social development fund that looks into women’s empowerment projects.

Community workshops were held to understand perceptions of crime and to identify where criminal behaviour was prevalent. High-crime areas were then mapped and layered with existing uses and movement patterns to create a framework. A pedestrian area, high trafficked, yet undefined, connecting the Khayelitsha train station and the Khuyasa Centre was identified as the most affected area.

Both new landscape architecture and architecture were used to create safer, more positive environments. Defining the spaces, adding hard landscapes, and then creating buildings with elevated viewpoints helped expose criminal activity and consequently reduce it.

Small shops on the ground floor generate foot traffic round the clock, while homes on the upper floors provide eyes on the walkway below. Towers animate the otherwise flat roofscape, orientating and guiding inhabitants towards the safe walkway.

The landscape design reinforces these routes and offers pedestrian-scaled elements such as low walls, planters with seating, bollards, and trees. Materials vary, but notably include the use of calcrete, which is removed from foundation excavations. Smooth floor finishes eliminate hazards and facilitate the movement of people away from potentially dangerous situations.

Simple landscape construction technologies were used so that the community could participate and the project could improve their skills.

Community workshops, attended mostly by women, explored their experiences with crime. Images created were then turned into mosaics and added onto litter bins. The personal, colorful results diversify the hard landscape material palette while giving the community an opportunity for creative expression.

The sports fields, one turf, the other gravel, have replaced a detention pond previously used for dumping bodies. These well-used facilities offer almost constant activity. According to the project landscape architect Tarna Klitzner, resident soccer teams are reluctant to share their facilities with a neighbouring club, which is sign of a healthy sense of ownership.

Rundown areas create the impression that they are not owned by the community, a phenomenon known as the “broken window syndrome.” Conversely, well-maintained areas are viewed as high risk to criminals and are therefore avoided. As such, the project team identified maintenance as key to establishing safe environments so, as part of their work, community management structures are being set up, funded by a budget generated through the rental of community facilities.

For South Africans, exposure to crime is a part of our lives. Staggeringly, 56 percent of Khayelitsha inhabitants are afraid to leave their homes during the day and 90 percent are afraid to leave their homes after dark. For those whose homes are small and shared by large families, the public realm could offer welcome additional living space, but fear is confining them indoors. In a documentary recently screened, an earlier VPUU (Harare) project was said to reduce crime by 40 percent. It can only be hoped that these statistics will translate into tangible results for the Khayelitsha community. This project is a welcome reminder that it’s never too late to have hope in the power of design.

Learn more about what Cape Town is doing to strengthen its communities through design.

This guest post is by Tamsin Faragher, a landscape architect who lives in Cape Town and works for the Western Cape Government’s Regeneration Program, bringing heart back into the city.

Image credit: (1-4) Tamsin Faragher, (5-6) Tarna Klitzner

Banking on Green

A new report looks at the most cost-effective options for managing polluted runoff and protecting clean water, and finds that green infrastructure solutions save taxpayer money and provide community benefits by managing stormwater where it falls.

Released by the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), American Rivers, the Water Environment Federation (WEF), and ECONorthwest, Banking on Green: How Green Infrastructure Saves Municipalities Money and Provides Economic Benefits Community-wide, is a response to the need to further quantify the economic benefits of green infrastructure.

“For many decades, landscape architects have been helping communities large and small manage their stormwater with innovative green infrastructure solutions such as green roofs, rain gardens, bioswales, and pervious pavements,” said Nancy Somerville, Executive Vice President of the American Society of Landscape Architects. “The case studies and the cost analysis in this white paper clearly demonstrate that green infrastructure techniques are proven and cost effective at managing stormwater, preventing flooding, improving water quality, and promoting public health. Landscape architects will continue to implement these projects in more and more neighborhoods across the country.”

The report’s top findings:

  • Not only does green infrastructure cost less, but these practices can further reduce costs of treating large amounts of polluted runoff.
  • Green infrastructure can help municipalities reduce energy expenses.
  • Green infrastructure can reduce flooding and related flood damage.
  • Green infrastructure improves public health — it reduces bacteria and pollution in rivers and streams, preventing gastrointestinal illnesses in swimmers and boaters.

The report features case studies from cities saving money and enjoying the other benefits of green infrastructure. For example, New York City’s plan to reduce combined sewage overflows will save an estimated $1.5 billion over 20 years by incorporating green infrastructure rather than relying solely on traditional gray infrastructure like massive pipes. In Louisiana, a high school in Baton Rouge spent $110,000 on bioswales and a rain garden to reduce flooding rather than the $500,000 it would have cost to re-pipe the site.

Read the reportsee an overview of the ASLA case studies that provide the data for the report, and explore 450+ case studies.

Image credit: American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), American Rivers, the Water Environment Federation (WEF), and ECONorthwest