ASLA Announces Year of Public Service

It’s time to bring all your good work to light. The ASLA public awareness campaign has made 2013 the Year of Public Service. The goal is to highlight the wide-reaching public service activities performed by landscape architects and advocate for a deeper commitment by all to community service. Learn more about the initiative on the new YPS2013 web site.

ASLA invites current members to submit 2013 projects. Selected projects will be highlighted in the campaign’s Web site and outreach materials. Descriptions, quotes, and multimedia content may be used – with proper credit – on the YPS2013 website, blog and The Understory Facebook page.

To kick off this initiative, ASLA President Tom Tavella, FASLA, Fuss & O’Neill, led a process of re-envisioning the many blocks around ASLA headquarters in Washington, D.C., creating a vision for a greener Chinatown.

In addition, the video above is from a recent design charrette for the Mack Road Streetcape. ASLA’s California Sierra Chapter helped establish a new direction for the Mack Road Partnership’s corridor improvement projects, addressing critical issues identified in community input sessions.

You can start your own project or reach out to your local ASLA Chapter and join an existing project. For a project you’ve started, simply go to the YPS2013 web site and click “Submit Project.” A pre-populated email will pop up, requesting information. Any project can be submitted in which an ASLA member, chapter, or firm with ASLA members provides landscape architecture services at no cost benefit the community in some way.

ASLA chapters can provide access to other projects, too. ASLA and the National Park Service Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance program have boosted their ongoing collaborative partnership to celebrate the Year of Public Service. Under this partnership, ASLA’s local chapters can volunteer in their communities to help NPS RTCA, providing technical assistance for such outdoor resources as trails, bike paths, and other recreational facilities. Review those identified for 2013 here.

Contact Phil Stamper at with any questions related to the Year of Public Service. Join the conversation on Twitter by using the hashtag #YPS2013.

Kongjian Yu: China’s Olmsted

Designed Ecologies: The Landscape Architecture of Kongjian Yu
, a new book on the ideas and work of Kongjian Yu, FASLA, put together by former Harvard Design Magazine editor William Saunders really enriches our understanding of a landscape architect many consider to be China’s Frederick Law Olmsted. Unlike some other design monographs, there’s a lot to read and understand here because Yu’s life has been so rich and his journey so interesting. Nestled among 21 case studies of projects by Yu and his firm Turenscape across China and the U.S. are a set of essays by leading Western landscape architecture practitioners and thinkers like Peter Walker, FASLA; Professor Frederick Steiner, FASLA, at University of Texas, Austin; Professor Kristina Hill, Affiliate ASLA, PhD, at the University of Berkeley; Harvard University landscape architecture department chair Charles Waldheim, Affiliate ASLA; and Dumbarton Oaks’ John Beardsley, who each examine an aspect of this world-changing designer and place Yu’s work and ideas in global contexts.

The most personal (and perhaps finest) article in the book is by Saunders himself. He interviews Yu, tracking his path from life in a small village to university in China to Harvard Graduate School of Design (where he did his PhD) to teaching and starting his own firm, which now has more than 600 employees. It’s an amazing story that Saunders relays beautifully. Yu was born in 1963, “growing up communally raising crops and livestock.” As a boy, Saunders writes, Yu saw his parents stripped of their dignity and possessions during the Great Cultural Revolution, which Mao Ze Dong unleashed on China in an effort to upend the traditional patterns in Chinese society and instill collectivism. Yu parents had been a “well-off, land-owning” family — exactly the kind of family Mao targeted. Saunders says seeing his family undone gave Yu a powerful ambition.

Coupled with this ambition was a deep love of nature. Within the poverty of rural China, there was also natural splendor. Yu grew up in a kind of Arcadia, with a “an enchanting forest and a fish-filled creek.” He spent his time away from his farming duties exploring nature. Over the years, he saw the forest cut down and the river totally polluted. “This explains the depth of his commitment to recreating and protecting natural abundance.” In fact, Yu is now one of the most potent advocates for the environment in China. Like Olmsted, he’s also a prolific writer, creating books aimed at convincing both policymakers and the public about the dangers of environmental degradation.

Yu beat incredible odds just to make it to high school. He had to overcome the political stigma associated with his family. Riding a water buffalo, tending his duties in the fields, Yu studied hard and passed the national entrance exam to get into high school. Then, he had to walk 6 miles to get to his high school and then back, each week. Yu moved from the bottom of the class to the top, eventually beating out 600 of his class mates to become the only one in his district to get into university. In comparison, getting into Harvard years later must have been a walk in the park.

At university in Beijing, Yu was a “country bumpkin,” but he quickly got over the shock and buckled down, learning how to speak and draw for the design courses he wanted to take. He ended up studying forestry and then completing a master’s degree in landscape architecture. With great English language skills, which opened many doors for him, he became a translator for a series of speeches by Carl Steinitz at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design (GSD). In 1992, he began the PhD program there. He once again felt like a bumpkin, having never interacted with computers. He became a GIS master. Upon graduation, he worked at SWA Group for two years in California before returning to China in 1997, where “his confidence and sense of personal mission emerged full blown.” Seeing how China was destroying its environment with its rapid urbanization, Yu started a firm and won his first design competition in 1999. More than ten years later, he has an amazing body of work, winning ASLA professional design awards year after year. He is now among the top tier of landscape architects in the world.


Yu’s work is based in a deep-rooted philosophy about nature and society. His essay, “The Big Foot Revolution,” explains how ornamental gardens are about as useful as binding a woman’s feet. These ornamental approaches were created by an urban elite that saw sophistication in a lack of functionality, in rebelling against nature’s “inherent goals of health, survival, and productivity.” Yu instead offers a new landscape aesthetic based in incorporating the rural, the messy, the functional landscape into the urban realm. Yu says he’s not opposed to beautiful art that doesn’t really have a productive function — like art, dance, or music — but “that in our resource-depleted and ecologically damaged and threatened era, the built environment must and will adapt a new aesthetic grounded in the appreciation of the beauty of productive, ecologically-supporting, survival-enhancing things.” This is revolutionary landscape architecture, rooted in part in Communist ideas about elevating practicality and productivity for the common good, even though, in practice, the Communists themselves were the ones who have wrecked havoc on nature (see the current state of nature in China, Russia, the former Soviet Union states, and North Korea).

The rural, peasant aesthetic is now center stage. “We need a new aesthetics of big feet — beautiful big feet.” Productive rural landscapes (like those productive big feet) are what’s needed to fight today’s problems. There are ecological reasons for doing this, too. Those old-school rural landscapes, while productive, are highly in tune with nature and reflect a farmer’s sense of balance with the environment.


Yu sees the extent of China’s massive urbanization as a form of excess, with all those big gaudy new buildings in Beijing as “meaninglessly wild forms with exotic grandeur.” China and the rest of the planet can’t afford things like these while “anthropogenic climate change” brings “additional floods, storms, droughts, and diseases, along with the extinction of many plant and animal species and other threats to survival.” Yu then translates this ethos into an ambitious, ecologically-minded program for remaking the whole of China, and guiding cities still in the wilds of explosive and often destructive development. This is because “the Chinese urban landscape must not repeat the mistakes of past European and American methods of city beautification.” Beautification for beautification’s sake alone is a crime in today’s world, with all our problems.

In other places, Yu remakes what is past its prime, degraded into new landscapes. This may involve remaking degraded environments into new ecologically-sound ones, but also making them publicly accessible so that people benefit, too. Yu was also one of the first in China to see the beauty in modern Chinese ruins — remaking a shipyard park built by the Communists into a park, creating an urban haven out of the revolution’s past.

His other projects certainly weave in aspects of Chinese culture, creating contemporary works that also feel classic, timeless.

The fine contributions by the Western practitioners and thinkers add another interesting layer to the book. Most zoom in on a few projects; others offer multifaceted critiques of Yu’s ideas and work. They all show how Yu was also inspired by ideas he found in the West, and how his work can be appreciated in a global context. Peter Walker writes that Yu “frequently integrates sculptural references in ways reminiscent of Andre Le Notre’s huge Baroque seventeenth century gardens, which were also based in agricultural images.” John Beardsley notes that “Yu’s approach might be challenging in any context. But in the West, there is a precedent for his messy aesthetics in the tradition of the wild garden, which date back to at least William Robinson. Moreover, there are contemporary designers with whom he shares some notions of nurtured wildness.” Frederick Steiner explains Yu’s equally important role as an educator in China, how his research to “identify nationwide ecological patterns with GIS technology” is rooted in work by Ian McHarg and other Americans in the 1990s to create a “prototype database for a US national ecological inventory,” which was based on an earlier effort by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.) in the 1970s. Kristina Hill, a fellow PhD student with Yu at Harvard GSD, delves into how landscape planner Carl Steinitz’s approach to spatial analysis also influenced Yu. “In Yu’s plans for metropolitan Beijing’s ecological infrastructure, several patterns emerge directly from Yu’s exposure to the ideas of Steinitz and [landscape ecologist Richard] Forman.” Other essays by Kelly Shannon, Peter Rowe, and Antje Stokman also examine his approaches to urban ecological design.

It’s Hill in the end who also writes that “Yu’s practice model and ideas have a historical analog in the exemplary writings and practices of Frederick Law Olmsted.” And as Charles Waldheim writes in the afterword, Yu takes on the mantle of publicly promoting a sophisticated approach to landscape planning at not a moment too soon: “The first generation of Chinese professionals trained in landscape ecology and planning in the United States now embody the greatest hope for the renewed relevance of of a tradition of planning that has all but been eclipsed in the United States.”

Read the book.

Image credits: Birkhauser Press

Is There a Secret Recipe for Successful Urban Development?

Doesn’t sound like it. Both developed and developing world cities are still struggling to get urban development right, said some of the world’s leading urban experts at the Transforming Transportation conference organized by the World Bank Group and the EMBARQ program of the World Resources Institute (WRI). Successes, failures, and the places in between were examined in a set of presentations and debates.

Mexico City may be in between — not quite a total failure or success. It’s struggling with intense population growth, rapidly diminishing natural resources, and falling water tables. While Mexican civilization has 3,000 years of experience with urbanization, unfortunately, for the most part, its capital, Mexico city, hasn’t applied that accumulated knowledge well in the 21st century, said Salvador Herrera, EMBARQ Mexico. The city has grown into a massive agglomeration, with multiple sprawled-out satellite cities forming at its edges. Some five million or more people in slums. Similar patterns are seen in other Mexican cities, as now 80 million of Mexico’s 110 million people have moved into its cities.

But the city is taking steps to deal with its problems, developing more transit-oriented development (TOD) patterns, with a Mexican twist. Right now, only “the rich enjoy TOD,” said Herrera. One new project aims to remedy that by creating TOD for low-income residents. A local developer and Danish urban design firm Gehl Architects created Casas Geo, which offers low-income housing units at a cost of around $28,000, a manageable sum for its residents, which make between $300 and $600 per month. There’s running water and electricity. Instead of parking lots in front of the homes, there’s a shared road-like public space with a set of central plazas that encourage more walking, hanging out, and less car driving (see image above). “There’s less interaction between car and people,” said Herrera. If people stay in the Casas communities, they drive less. Unfortunately, most have to commute for work and these homes are nowhere near existing transit. Still, this model seems to be a hit, given it accounts for some 20 percent of the 500,000 new home created in 2012.

The local government is also now working on expanding access to people-friendly, easily accessible, affordable places by creating a set of indicators to guide future development. These include “complete streets, mixed-use buildings, density, green homes, connections to public transportation, and more open space.” (Sadly, Herrera said the city has left parks out of its indicators because it can’t afford to create more parks with lots of greenery — “there isn’t enough water.”)

Henriette Vamberg, a principal at Gehl Architects, then gave a tour of one failure and one success. She explained how her boss, Jan Gehl, one of the world’s most admired urban designers, used to be just another architect, but married a psychologist who asked him, “why do architects hate people so much?” His thinking was transformed and he became one of leading proponents of human-centric urban design. His firm now works with cities around the world to figure out “how spaces either push people together or repel them.”

It sounds like Moscow is an example of a place designed to repel pedestrians. A mega-city of 15 million, it’s now in “complete flux after communism.” With increasing wealth, everyone has the “urge to own a car.” Vamberg said “it’s quite a beautiful city, with monuments and the river,” but it has been totally marred by “uncontrolled traffic.”

Cars now take over promenades. Trees have been cut down to make way for more streets. “The green bits are all gone.” All the flood zones are gone to create more lanes.

Now, the average street is a pedestrian nightmare. More than 90 percent of each street is for cars, with just 10 percent or less for people. Vamberg showed how each intersection has an underground crossing, which means the city isn’t accessible to anyone with disabilities. Also, where there are street-level crossings, green lights for pedestrians are few and far between. As a result, lots of people jaywalk. She even showed a photo of two kindergarten teachers jaywalking with their gaggle of kids, fed up at waiting 10 minutes for the light to change.

Working in Moscow was “hard, tough work.” In contrast, Melbourne is deemed a success. In the mid-90s, when Gehl Architects first examined the city, its downtown was characterized as an “empty, useless city center.” That has changed dramatically. Streets now make up 80 percent of the city’s public space. They have “gotten away from parks and city squares as the only forms of public space.” (The new Federation Square though is still viewed as the “heart of the new city.”)

Melbourne spent lots of time and money upgrading the “quality of the built environment.” Conventional pavement were taken out in favor of new local bluestone pavers.  In addition to the bluestone, the city is adding 50,000 trees annually. With all the street level improvements, the local economy is booming. Since the mid-90s, street-level cafes are up a whopping 275 percent. There’s 830 percent more residents living in apartments that jumped in number by more than 3,000 percent. Nighttime pedestrian traffic is up nearly 100 percent. “The public ambiance feels more lively. The city now has a a pulse, it feels very different from before.”

So what can more cities do to become a Melbourne, not a Moscow (or Mexico City)? For William Cobbett, Cities Alliance, more planners need to think ahead and actually anticipate future growth. Cobbett said the 1811 grid map of Manhattan may have been the last example of good, long-term planning — the city laid out future zones that were then filled in. “Now, it’s a matter of planning after the fact, which is good for design professionals (who have to come in fix things), but not for cities.” He said there’s far too much “planning in the breach,” particularly among second-tier developing world cities, which are growing the fastest.

For Eric Dumbaugh, Florida Atlantic University, getting to successful urban development patterns means ending the love affair with cars. He said in the U.S., it actually took many years for this fantasy “love affair” to take root. At first, cars weren’t a hit so car manufacturers financed a “radical, wholesale redesign of cities.” The ideas of efficiency — in terms of moving people through space in urban environments — was turned on its head to make way for car-based “transportation system performance.” Beginning in the 1930s, “pedestrians no longer owned streets anymore.” Car manufacturers pushed lawmakers to fine people who crossed the street in the wrong places and the term “jaywalking” was invented. Today, we are still following this outmoded approach: “In 1939, the Futurama exhibit at the World’s Fair basically basically mapped out the traffic regulations that still guide us.” Dumbaugh said Copenhagen (and now, New York City, which was viewed as copying Copenhagen) are moving away from the car with new pedestrian-only zones. The question is how can developing world cities move past the original mistakes of the U.S. and leap to Copenhagen?

Michael Kodransky, Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), thinks “parking is the lynchpin of sustainable urban development,” and something far too many cities fail to get right. There has to be enough parking to enable density and street life. ITDP is now working on a way to “codify” good urban development with a new set of indicators that can help “evaluate urban developments.” These will push for true TOD development. He said too many awards go to TOD projects where “there’s no one using transit.” In reality, many projects labeled TOD are “TOD adjacent.”

UN-Habitat, the UN organization entirely focused on cities, is also now “reviewing the grammar of cities” to learn what went wrong and create a “new paradigm for the 21st century.” Andre Dzikus, UN-Habitat, said it was important to set this new pattern fast because “the majority of the world’s cities haven’t been built yet.” A simple, pragmatic urban planning approach for the future would “see the street as public space.” For any city, it should be around 30-40 percent. As an example, in Nairobi, only 11 percent of the street is public space. “Density should also be increased.” There should be around 15,000 people per square mile. All land use should be mixed-use, with 40 percent dedicated to economic activity and a mix of upper-income and low-income housing.

While looking to the future, though, Vamberg said cities can also learn from the past. Basically no developed world city, except perhaps Copenhagen, escaped mistakenly adopting the U.S. car-centric model. Shifting gears may actually mean a return to the old ways. Dumbaugh said someone once asked Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, what she thought of “New Urbanism,” a planning approach that calls for tight grids and denser development patterns. She apparently replied, “well, how about good old urbanism?” The 20th century may just be a blip (albeit a particularly destructive one) in the 8,000 year record of humans creating cities for people.

Image credit:(1) Casas Geo / Zuonda, (2) Casas Geos / People Everywhere, (3) Moscow traffic / English Russia, (4) Moscow sidewalk and parking / Horroru, (5-6) Melbourne street life / Clare’s Cafe Chronicles

Multidisciplinary Team Wins AECOM’s Urban SOS Competition

At AIA New York’s Center for Architecture, finalists for a student design competition took on a new audience: the public. Urban SOS, a student competition sponsored by AECOM and hosted by AIA NY, offered the chance for three remaining teams to present their design solutions in front of judges, the president of AECOM, and the curious residents of NYC. Three teams who focused on vastly different places — a slum in Nairobi, Kenya; a Mexican-American border site near Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, Texas; and a slum in Bogotá, Colombia — waited impatiently to take the stage and give their final pitch. An energy filled the room as the audience crammed in the space, all of whom knew what was at stake for the victor: $5,000 and $25,000 towards the realization of the work. Unslumming Kibera, a multifaceted proposal for Kibera in Nairobi was awarded the grand prize.

Urban SOS: An Open Ideas Student Competition is AECOM’s seventh annual student competition aimed at fostering conceptual thinking around important global themes. The charge to the students is to be as creative and diverse with the make-up of their teams, ideas, and processes in order to formulate truly original projects. This year’s theme, Frontiers, aims at finding today’s borders, be they economic, social, cultural, physical or any combination. Students choose their own site through a framework of self-guiding principles of what constitutes a “border” and then begin a site-specific investigation. The investigation (and the proposal) would then be judged against the ethos set forth by each team.

In keeping with AECOM’s belief that “urban challenges are best met when multiple disciplines are at the table,” Unslumming Kibera took home the Moleskin trophy (oh, and $5,000). The four students came from a wide range of backgrounds and coalesced to present a robust, energetic, well-researched proposal to create a new type of multi-use community space in Kibera, which has a population of more than one million. Kibera, which is covered in detail in this excellent article from The Economist, is an “informal, neglected” settlement, but a place that is also full of life and provides a vital economic function in Nairobi. It’s home to many of the low-income workers (often migrants) who provide services to Nairobi’s burgeoning middle class. But, within this place, there’s no legal system of land rights. There’s also no legal electrical or sanitation system. The goals of the design team were to examine how a site in Kibera could “provide flood protection, enhance commercial activity, maximize constructed open space, and reuse ‘waste’ materials.”

The students had met while interning in Kibera the previous summer and teamed up at the announcement of AECOM’s student competition. Team members include design MBA student Adam Broidy (California College of the Arts), landscape architecture student Jack Campbell Clause (Leeds Metropolitan University), development studies student Jamilla Harper (University of Nairobi) and urban planning student April Schneider (University of Illinois Chicago). The group had clearly worked hard on their presentation, a succinct and concise narrative of Kibera’s conditions and first-hand photo documentation of the students engaged in the community.

Donna Walcavage, FASLA, principal, design planning, AECOM and one of the judges, reiterated the AECOM mission and how it was met by the successful team. “The finalists looked at how best to engage very complex problems and come up with a dynamic process in terms of urban solutions.” Adding, “their proposal is extremely community-based. They hit all of the essentials of cities: community, economic, and social exchange.” Bill Hanway, executive vice president, AECOM, said in a statement that “Unslumming Kibera best illustrated a solution driven from the team’s personal experience in that community. The heart of an informal community, no matter how small, becomes the inspirational driver for change.”

The work of the other two finalists is also worth exploring. Green Terraces, in its physical essence, is a low-tech terrace and house system to be built and set into the irregular landscape of the Bogotán slumscape. Its guiding purposes however, are many. The two Colombian students, Guillermo Umana (Macquarie University) and Juan Camilo Pinzon (Universidad de los Andes), tackled the devastating and endemic issues of their home country: poverty, displacement and landslides, which made for a monumental design effort. The team succeeded with their analysis of the site and the conditions that hold weight on the border of Ciudad Boliviar and Socha. An animation of the analysis was certainly a nice touch as the students demonstrated a command of presentation technology. However, the framework of their problem may have been too ambitious.

The structure proposed didn’t address all of the issues presented by the students. There was an ambiguity in the house-terrace system that was emphasized in the ambiguity of the model and section. Much of the presentation focused on the hazards of landslides and the unemployment factor of the area, but the proposal made only timid strides at correcting these issues. One juror explained her hesitation about the hillside structure. “Inexpensive housing is not always a good idea…It’s like building an inexpensive bridge.”

Sara Navrady’s (Delft University of Technology) focus was on the Mexican border community of Hueço Bolson between Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas. The Rio Bravo, the physical border between the two towns, suffers from problems common all over the world. Industrialization of the river has caused severe ecological and environmental damage, not to mention the sharp decline of the region’s population. Navrady’s solution embraces one of the area’s most pressing problems: sewage. The construction of wetlands as a complement to the Rio Bravo, would engage two of the critical issues — water quality and open space availability. The heart of the proposal is a constructed wetlands that would have the capacity to treat the dwindling water resource, which are predicted to be in extreme shortage in 2015. The wetland would also provide a public amenity worthy of attracting a greater population of residents.

Sewage Ecologies/Economies was also a strong proposal. Navrady had previous experience with the site but essentially drafted the proposal in a short time frame leading up to the submission by herself. The presentation was masterfully crafted and crystal clear. Her solution was a precise declaration of objectives and a linear narrative of phasing. One juror commented on its clarity. She “wished our politicians could speak to problems the way Sara does.” However, in the end, as diverse the solution and valiant the effort was, Sewage Ecologies/Economies was a team of one.

The jury included Bill Hanway, executive vice president, buildings places, AECOM; Donna Walcavage and Chris Choa, principals, design planning, AECOM; Rick Bell, FAIA, executive director at the Center for Architecture; Galia Solomonoff, founder and creative director, Solomonoff Architecture Studio and assistant professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation; and Alexandra Hardiman, director of mobile products at The New York Times.

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

Image credits: (1-2) Unslumming Kibera, (3) Winners / Stacy Sideris

Fighting Off the Car in Latin America

Curitiba, Brazil, and Bogota, Colombia are rightly famous for their world-changing bus rapid transit (BRT) systems and other urban transportation innovations, but other cities in Latin America are starting to give them a run for their money. Quito, Ecuador and Cali, Colombia, are now also becoming leaders in taking on the car in Latin America. At the Transforming Transportation conference organized by the World Bank and EMBARQ, Quito Mayor Augusto Barrera said nearly two-thirds of residents use public transit, while just 20 percent own cars. Buses and bike share systems are also well-used. Still, the explosive growth in car ownership presents a huge threat, so the city is continually updating and modernizing its public transit system to keep up.

Barrera said the 1999 global financial crisis depleted the savings accounts of many Ecuadorians so “cars are increasingly viewed as a safer, more tangible asset than bank accounts.” To combat growing car ownership, Barrera is changing regulations to create an integrated transit system, with metro, bus rapid transit (BRT) corridors, conventional buses, biking and pedestrian infrastructure all working together seamlessly. Agencies that used to be in control of different pieces are getting merged, so that the institutional barriers don’t hold up progress.

In Cali, Pilar Rodriguez, who works for MetroCali and also represents the Latin American Association of Public Transport (SIBRT), which includes members in 8 countries and 19 cities, public transit ridership is also going down and car ridership is going up, so it’s harder to convince policymakers to invest in public transit systems. “Unfortunately,” this means “the people using cars and taxis get more of the transportation budget.” Still, the city has some numbers many progressive U.S. cities would kill for: there, 40 percent of people ride public transit, 35 percent walk or use a bike, 7 percent take taxis, and 10 percent have cars.

To ensure the car share doesn’t grow further, “public transit needs constant improvement.” She said MIT, EMBARQ, and other international groups have been in Cali to help the city “modernize public transportation quality.” As a result, new bus system plans are in place to help reach 80 percent of the expected demand for public transport; right now, only 53 percent of the demand is being met. Additional aerial cable cars are going in to reach hard-to-reach populations on the slopes. New bikeways through the center of city will help move people out of cars.

Jorge Kogan, CAF,  argued that in these cities and elsewhere, leadership from the top is critical to integrating public transit systems and improving their quality. “Cities need to integrate authorities to achieve integration on the ground.” However, in too many cities, said Arturo Ardila Gomez, World Bank, clueless leaders let integrated transportation authorities fight bloody “modal wars,” with metro, BRT, and bike system contending for funds. “We can’t have competition between sustainable modes — it has to be between cars and all other forms of transportation.” So only leaders well versed in the issues of sustainable transportation can get everyone working together in an integrated system.

Rafael Acevado-Duanas, Inter-american Development Bank (IDB), said another major challenge was maintaining service quality while reaching poorer people without access, the “people who truly need these services to survive.” The poor in most cities in the world actually live the farthest from the “productive centers,” meaning their transportation costs are high and the time they spend commuting each day is long. Any integrated service that has connection times of more than 10 minutes isn’t working. More non-profits then need to be involved to make sure transportation systems work for everyone.

What no one mentioned was the value of building green infrastructure into these integrated public transit systems as well. Networks of trees, green streets, bioswales, and pocket parks could help forge connections to the transportation systems and make these cities more livable, too. Greenery can make that daily commute with all of those connections less painful. Let’s hope these Latin American innovators tackle those challenges next.

Image credit: Quito BRT trolleybus / Wikipedia

Sustainable Urban Transportation Is at the Heart of a Greener Future

By 2030, 60 percent of the world’s population will live in cities. To avoid an explosion of cars, which creates air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, congestion, and traffic deaths, new, more sustainable patterns of urban development are needed, with higher-density urban cores and “sustainable transportation systems at the heart of these places,” said Zanny Minton Beddoes, The Economist, before introducing World Bank Group President Dr. Jim Yong Kim and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg at this year’s Transforming Transportation conference, which was co-organized by the World Bank Group and the EMBARQ program of the World Resources Institute (WRI).

For the past 10 years, WRI has been hosting this conference, but this was the first time a World Bank president had ever attended, perhaps indicating that sustainable urban transportation is finally moving up in the list of priorities worldwide. Kim said that in his recent conversations with the incoming Chinese president he found that the new Chinese leadership is increasingly focused on “green growth,” and sees urbanization and sustainable transportation as central to their efforts. Beyond China, more of the world’s poorer countries are also focused on urban transportation, given “clean, effective public transit gives people an opportunity to have a job, a livelihood.” Kim thought that new public transit systems — from subways to bus rapid transit (BRT) to bicycle share systems — “provide jobs while bringing order to cities and helping to tackle climate change.”

Mayor Bloomberg, who also runs his Bloomberg Philanthropies and the C40 Cities: Climate Leadership Group, also offered a global perspective, arguing that traffic is now the 5th largest killer of people worldwide. In many cities, he added that car pollution (including carbon emissions) account for up to 80 percent of the total. In contrast with these global trends, Bloomberg said NYC now has the lowest level of traffic fatalities on record and cars now only contribute 20 percent of emissions (this is because buildings are the real source of emissions in the city). The mayor is increasingly focused on redesigning roads so they work for “people, not just cars.” All the modes — “bicycling, walking, trolleys, buses” — are now in the mix. Times Square was recently closed to traffic and has become a permanent pedestrian mall (see image above). The initiative, which cab drivers hated, has been a huge success. Foot traffic is way up. “Rents on the ground floor of buildings in Times Square are now up because more people visit.” Bloomberg told representatives of developing countries in the audience that investing in public transit and creating spaces for pedestrians is the way to go because “traffic hurts your economy.” But to create demand for these public systems and spaces, “cities need to make people feel like they will benefit.” To show the benefits in NYC, Bloomberg collects immense amounts of health data. He shows communities how being near highways, interstates “explains who gets asthma” and who will ultimately benefit from more sustainable forms of transportation.

Kim agreed with Bloomberg, his golf pal, arguing that cities are now the world’s biggest polluters and where “the battle will be fought” in the coming decades. The key challenge will be “improving the living conditions of the billions in the world’s mega-cities.” While cities themselves must make the hard decisions, the World Bank, he said, is here to provide policy advice and financing. Smart policies can have an impact. In Hong Kong, the number of cars doubled over the past few decades, creating significant air pollution problems. The city undertook policy changes and the number of cars were reduced by half. “It doesn’t have to be an expensive intervention. We can intervene to save lives.” Kim also agreed with Bloomberg’s approach: get data, see where problems are happening, and tackle the problem there.

On China, where car ownership has exploded, making it the country with the most number of cars, Bloomberg was less than positive. There, “the leadership is pursuing economic development at any cost. The environment is not part of the equation.” In front of a recent Congressional hearing, Bloomberg said one Republican congressman asked him why the U.S. should reduce its pollution and greenhouse gas emissions when China continues to pollute at a high rate. Bloomberg said that’s like asking, “why should we stop killing our own people when other countries are killing theirs?” Bloomberg said this was the “single stupidest thing I’ve heard.” The mayor thinks things will change in China because the middle class (and really every class), wants “water that isn’t yellow, traffic that moves, and air you can’t see.” For their part, the Chinese government needs to “be able to answer the demands of their people.” Increasingly, they are showing that they can do this. The next five year plan of the Communist Party calls for increasing renewable energy to 15 percent of the total, which will equal more energy than the UK uses in total. The World Bank president was more sanguine  on China. His experts are now working with the Chinese leadership to collect best practices, like Hangzhou’s bike share system, canal-based transportation systems, and BRT, to show the rest of the country how to do it.

Still, Bloomberg’s primary concern seemed to be the millions of people who die from bad air in cities and traffic fatalities worldwide every year. Once again advising mayors in developing countries, Bloomberg said the first step should be a “campaign aimed at the public, explaining how many people are getting killed by air pollution and congestion.” The key is to “build constituencies, build capacity, and then create laws.” Education was also seen as key. Educating kids in schools so they go home and tell their parents to ride helmets with their motor-scooters has proven effective. In Vietnam, traffic deaths are down 300 percent because people are riding with helmets now.

Being a true NYer, Bloomberg is a mayor with some strong opinions. He believes that “mayors can’t get help from national governments anywhere in the world.” At the local city levels, mayors want to get “national bureaucrats the hell away from their programs.” On climate change, national governments may be particularly useless. “They meet every 20 years and have done almost nothing.” Cities have made the most strides. “The federal governments of the world can give tax credits, loans, finance research, but cities are where you are actually going to get things done.” The role of the federal and state-level governments is to “move money around. They don’t understand the local level.” Mayors are “executives and decide who wins and who loses. That’s what we’re elected to do. Legislatures create programs that are not practical, designed to be implemented.”

The mayor added that what works in one city may not work in another, so sharing best practices has limited utility. “There are different political structures and institutions.” Ultimately, though, mayors can share personal experiences on trying to make change happen. “Mayors around the world have the same job. People want services but they don’t want to pay for them.” Kim thought that the World Bank can bring best practices to those poor developing countries that don’t have high levels of local expertise. Both Bloomberg and Kim agreed that the private sector, which accounts for 90 percent of all jobs, will be critical to taking on the big challenges facing cities. Kim said that urban transportation must help these businesses create jobs.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for cities will be addressing climate change. Cities will have to prepare for more extreme climate events like Hurricane Sandy, said Bloomberg. “These hurricanes are going to happen more often.” Sandy, which claimed 43 lives, destroyed more than 500 homes, and created billions in damages, was a sign that climate change is happening. “Storms get their energy from the oceans. More heat means more energy.” Beyond storms, floods and droughts are expected to affect food production, leading to more “food and water wars.” The environment is “clearly changing and global warming can’t be reversed.” Those urban transportation systems of the near future then also need to accommodate a shifting climate.

Image credit: Times Square Pedestrian Mall / Dtolman. Flickr

Bike Sharing Needs to Be a Part of Public Transit

Bike sharing became a surprising common theme throughout last week’s Transforming Transportation conference, which was co-hosted by EMBARQ and The World Bank and featured debates, panels, and lectures on the rise of sustainable urban transportation. Amit Bhatt, EMBARQ India, stood in front of a packed conference room to speak about the challenges he faced creating bike sharing programs in India. “If the cost outweighs the revenue,” he says as he scans the room, “how do you fund it?”

To say the least, bike sharing programs are expensive. A community can expect to spend $3,000 to $5,000 on a single bike in these programs, not including operations and management. These bikes are stronger than any mainstream bike one can find, but they are difficult to pitch to developing countries.

“India’s challenge is urbanization,” explains Bhatt.  “With urbanization comes higher motorization.” There are so many two-wheelers are on the streets now that there are as many reported accidents in India as there are vehicles.

In October 2011, Kerberon Automations launched ATCAG-Bikeshare in Bangalore, India. This has been one of the more successful attempts to bring bike sharing programs into India. This program has a similar functionality to Washington, D.C.’s Capital Bikeshare, using individual Smart Cards to unlock the bicycles.

Developing countries in Asia react well to successes in other Asian countries. Although there are successful programs in Europe and the Americas, it takes proven success in countries such as China and India to influence developing Asian countries to pursue these programs.

The volume of shared bicycles in China surpasses most, if not all other countries. According to Bhatt, the city of Hangzhou alone has 60,000 bicycles in their public bike system. For comparison, Paris’ Vélib’ has over 20,000 bicycles (see below) and Capital Bikeshare’s program has just 1,670.

“The Chinese program is innovative,” said Li Shanshan, Bike Sharing Program Manager of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP). Though it was originally copied from Paris, there are thousands of bikes at one station, with little more than a security guard and a turnstile in place to keep the program organized.

But the undeniable news is that cities around the world are starting to realize that it’s worth the expense. The panel agreed on many things throughout the day, but none more than that these bike sharing programs need to be considered a part of a public transit system.

According to Jeff Olson, Alta Planning + Design, the benefits of a bike sharing program outweigh the costs. “[One program] can bring around 200 more jobs,” he said. Among the other benefits are economic development, higher mobility, public health and safety.

Olson had the crowd imagine a fully-integrated transit system. One would be able to use the same fare card for buses, bikes, or the subway. When you look at bike sharing as part of the entire system, it’s easier to see the cost of bike sharing in a different light. Though it may be more than $3,000 per bike, what is the cost per passenger mile? What’s the cost when health benefits and traffic reduction is taken into account?

We don’t have all the data we need yet. That is because this is still a young industry.

“If I was asked to be on a panel for bike sharing three years ago,” Olson said, “I would have said no or had to spend [far too much] time explaining what bike sharing is.”

In the end, it’s nearly impossible to make a profit from these programs, according to the panelists. The benefit to these programs lies in reduced traffic and pollution from cars and two-wheelers; a happier, healthier community that can get from “Point A” to “Point B” as quickly as possible; and an improved economy with new jobs in the sustainable transportation field. Bike sharing may be in its infancy in many countries, but as long as it stays tied to public transit systems, it will be able to flourish.

This guest post is by Phil Stamper, ASLA Public Relations and Communications Coordinator.

Image credits: (1) Hangzhou Bike Share system / Wikipedia, (2) Velib Bike Share system / Wikipedia

Climate Change Is Already Affecting Americans

According to the draft report of the U.S. National Climate Assessment, released by the U.S. climate change research program, climate change is already affecting Americans. The 1,000-page report, which was written by 240 leading climate experts in the government and from universities, contends that certain types of weather events have become more frequent and intense — including “heat waves, heavy downpours, and, in some regions, floods and droughts.” Beyond weather changes, “sea levels are rising, oceans are becoming more acidic, and glaciers and arctic sea ice are melting.” One of the scarier statements in the report: “Because of the influence of human activities, the past climate is no longer a sufficient indicator of future conditions.”

Since 2000, U.S. law requires the group to release a report every four years. The last report was issued in 2009. No reports were done under the administration of George W. Bush. To put U.S. emissions in context, the U.S. accounts for around 20 percent of total global emissions. U.S. carbon emissions are actually down to a 20 year low, in large part due to the transition away from coal to natural gas. Despite the positive trends domestically, global emissions just keep increasing, with this past year the worst on record.

Interestingly, the authors admit that some effects of climate change could have positive benefits — such as longer growing seasons — but the vast majority of changes will be “disruptive to society,” because institutions and infrastructure have been designed for the “relatively stable climate of the past, not the changing one of the present and future.” Furthermore, natural ecosystems that we all rely on will be put under enormous stress.

The report confirms what many of us have noticed: that temperatures are getting hotter, year by year. “U.S. average temperature has increased by about 1.5°F since 1895; more than 80 percent of this 21 increase has occurred since 1980.” This past year was the hottest on record. And in 2011, a deadly heatwave swept across the U.S., with temperatures pushing 110F.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t like there will be much relief. After reading the report, The Guardian wrote that “future generations of Americans can expect to spend 25 days a year sweltering in temperatures above 100F (38C).” The report goes on to say overall temperatures will also rise, “with the next few decades projected to see another 2°F 26 to 4°F of warming in most areas.” There will also be less relief at night, as night-time temperatures also increase.

The health of many American is expected be affected. “Climate change will influence human health in many ways; some existing health threats will intensify, and new health threats will emerge. Some of the key drivers of health impacts include: increasingly frequent and intense extreme heat, which causes heat-related illnesses and deaths and over time, worsens drought and wildfire risks, and intensifies air pollution; increasingly frequent extreme precipitation and associated flooding that can lead to injuries and increases in marine and freshwater-borne disease; and rising sea levels that intensify coastal flooding and storm surge.”

The elderly, children, poor, and sick are particularly vulnerable. Still other populations are vulnerable simply because of where they are located. People in floodplains, coastal zones and some urban areas are threatened, along with those in the arid Southwest. The report seems to say climate change then has major implications for the health care system: “maintaining a robust public health infrastructure will be critical to managing the potential health impacts.”

Changes will have economic implications. As an example, industries that rely heavily on water, like agriculture, will have to make do with less of it: “Surface and groundwater supplies in many regions are already stressed by increasing demand for water as well as declining runoff and groundwater recharge. In many regions, climate change increases the likelihood of water shortages and competition for water among agricultural, municipal, and environmental uses.” Extreme heat is also expected to impact crops and livestock.

Infrastructure, particularly aging systems in coastal cities, will be hard-hit, given they are expected to be taxed by nature more often. As the report authors point out with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, infrastructure damage is already happening and the repairs are expensive. “Sea level rise and storm surges, in combination with the pattern of heavy development in coastal areas, are already resulting in damage to infrastructure such as roads, buildings, ports, and energy facilities.” As a result, landscape architects and others have been calling for increased use of green infrastructure systems to boost resiliency.

Nature herself will also change with the climate. “Climate change-driven perturbations to ecosystems that have direct human impacts include reduced water supply and quality, the loss of iconic species and landscapes, distorted rhythms of nature, and the potential for extreme events to eliminate the capacity of ecosystems to provide benefits.” 

Climate change, along with human-imposed changes to landscapes and ecosystems, makes those ecosystems more vulnerable to “damage from extreme events while at the same time reducing their natural capacity to modulate the impacts of such events.” The natural infrastructure systems we rely on, “salt marshes, reefs, mangrove forests, and barrier islands,” to defend coastal ecosystems and infrastructure, including roads and buildings,” are also being further weakened by “coastal development, erosion, and sea level rise.”

Furthermore, extreme weather events can degrade the effectiveness of crucial green infrastructure like wetlands, whether natural or man-made. “Floodplain wetlands, although greatly reduced from their historical extent, absorb floodwaters and reduce the effects of high flows on river-margin lands. Extreme weather events that produce sudden increases in water flow, often carrying debris and pollutants, can decrease the natural capacity of ecosystems to process pollutants.”

The report authors call for communities to “proactively prepare for climate change” and begin aggressive adaptation planning programs. Smart adaptation, of course, will also work to mitigate carbon emissions. Think of urban forests that not only cool and clean the air, but also store carbon.

Perhaps President Obama will get the report’s message, too. Current efforts by the administration were described as “not close to sufficient.” Obama has said that climate change is one of his top three priorities for his next administration. The president may even host a bipartisan summit at the White House early in his new term to launch a “national climate action strategy.” Apparently, Democrats in Congress will also try to pick up climate change legislation but focus it on efforts to strengthen coastal communities against future “superstorms,” reports The Guardian.

Read the executive summary or see the whole report to see how your region will be affected.

The draft version is open to public comment. The report is important, as it’s supposed to guide federal, state, and local efforts on climate change mitigation and adaptation. The voice of designers and planners of all kinds should be in the mix. Submit your ideas by April 12.

Image credit: NYC taxis submerged in floods /

Rural Communities Need Design Help, Too

The new Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design (CIRD), a partnership between the National Endowment for the Arts, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Project for Public Spaces, and other organizations, is looking for proposals from rural communities who need design help. According to the group, successful applications will receive a $7,000 grant and technical assistance valued at $35,000.

CIRD, which used to be called “Your Town,” helps rural communities with fewer than 50,000 people. Through facilitated design workshops, CIRD aims to “enhance the quality of life and economic vitality” of these places. The intensive two-day workshops bring together “local leaders, non-profits, and community organizations with a team of specialists in design, planning, and creative placemaking to address challenges like strengthening economies, enhancing rural character, leveraging cultural assets, and designing efficient housing and transportation systems.”

Since the program began in 1991, more than 60 workshops have been held across the U.S., resulting in a range of new projects like new public art and business improvement districts, new waterfront parks, and complete streets.

Communities will need to find $7,000 in matching funds to participate (cash or in-kind).

Submit a proposal by March 5.

Also, the American Architectural Foundation’s innovative Sustainable Cities Design Academy (SCDA) program is asking teams that represent public-private partnerships to apply to attend design workshops in D.C.  The program connects “project teams and multi-disciplinary sustainable design experts” in workshops that “help project teams advance their green infrastructure and community development goals.” See the kinds of communities SCDA has helped in the past few years.

Image credit: ASLA 2011 Residential Honor Award. A Farm at Little Compton. Michael Vergason Landscape Architects / Michael Thomas

Rethinking Our Relationship with Rivers


In 2011, the Mississippi River reached record levels. Massive floodgates had to be opened to divert water away from Baton Rouge and New Orleans, where the river rose to within feet of the tops of flood protection levees. Just one year later, droughts in the Midwest have dropped the river to a dangerously low level, threatening both the feasibility of freight transport and, due to rising salinity levels, the viability of New Orleans’s water supply. For the residents of Baton Rouge and New Orleans, however, the record flood of 2011 and low water of 2012 were barely perceptible events. After all, each city is largely divorced from the river, separated by the levee wall. The river has been engineered out of the daily lives of the people that live along it. Even more imperceptible is the massive environmental damage to the surrounding region that has resulted from human modifications to the river.

The Mississippi River is an extreme case of a condition facing many urban rivers, where engineering for the benefit of one use (typically commerce/industry) has come at the expense of other human and natural systems. A new book, River.Space.Design. by a team of European landscape architecture professors, says we must rethink our single-use, massively engineered rivers, offering multi-dimensional strategies for riverside design that benefit river ecology, improve flood protection, and expand human amenities. These strategies are laid out in the form of an extensive catalog that documents numerous design ideas abstracted from successful projects across Europe. These strategies for multi-functional river design are presented in a language that is intended to be comprehensible across a range of relevant disciplines: landscape architecture, ecological science, engineering, and planning. Indeed, the book states that it “can serve as a handbook for interdisciplinary teams and a basis for reaching mutual understanding.”

This design catalog forms the bulk of the first volume River.Space.Design. The book’s second volume consists of case studies documenting the sites from which the design catalog draws. The two-volume format is a unique and critical aspect of the book. Connected only by the book’s outer cover, these volumes are intended to be opened and used simultaneously: each design concept references relevant case studies and each case study references relevant design concepts.

’s meticulous organization and graphic design makes this cross referencing easy and natural. For instance, in the design catalog I read about the utility of floating islands in overcoming hard river edges. This entry references a case study in the second volume, which describes a project on the river Leine in Hanover, Germany. In this example, a private businessman has established a café floating on pontoons, accessed by a walkway bypassing the fortified bank of the river.

river3Being able to view this case study — documented through relevant maps, photographs, and narrative — while simultaneously viewing its abstracted design elements in the design catalog is incredibly useful. This format allows for a seamless transition between the conceptual and the concrete. Because we can clearly see the source of the design principles, they do not come across as prescriptive or limiting, but instead function as they should: a catalog of good ideas, derived from successful projects, that may have application in other projects.

With its clear language and impeccable organization and design, River.Space.Design. serves not only as a great resource for design ideas and examples, but also as a challenge to how we consider rivers in an urban context. The book does not view river design in terms of an idealized notion of what a river should be, but instead bases its strategies on dynamic river processes.

Dynamic river processes are not seen as something to repress or obscure, but instead as opportunities to enhance ecology, flood protection, and aesthetics. In the book’s introduction, the author writes, “What has been lacking up to date is an overview that presents the wide diversity of design possibilities for urban river spaces in a systematic and transferable way. This book aims to fill this gap and serve as a primer and reference for designers of urban spaces.” River.Space.Design. is absolutely successful in this regard and will hopefully inspire designers to find ways new ways to engage their community’s rivers.

Read the book.

This guest post is by Ben Wellington, Student ASLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture Candidate, Louisiana State University.

Image credits: (1) Birkhauser, (2-4) River.Space.Design