How to Preserve Open Space

Given the cost and complexities involved in purchasing and setting aside green, open space, no one type of organization can go it alone. Local governments, land trusts, non-profits, and private sector developers must forge public-private partnerships (PPPs) to make the big deals happen that can preserve the natural character of places. In a session at the American Planning Association (APA) conference in Chicago, Richard Pruetz, Planning & Implementation Strategies; Ole Amundsen, The Conservation Fund; and Dr. Tom Daniels, University of Pennsylvania, explained how some communities have made PPPs work.

Pruetz said any good smart growth strategy has to include preservation. “Preservation promotes environmental quality, disaster mitigation, local food production, and compact communities.” One prime example of how to promote smart growth while setting aside land for the benefit of the entire community is the plan created by Marin County in California, which was developed in 2007 to guide “preservation and restore the natural environment.” The plan’s ambitious goals were entirely due to “the participation of non-profits.”

Back in the early ’70s, local non-profits like Save the Seashore and the Sierra Club started to agitate, asking policymakers, “will the last open space last?” They wanted to keep development out of Pt. Reyes seashore, the Golden Gate area, and other green belts and farmlands. With 500,000 signatures in their petitions the seashore groups won broad political support that turned into action. The government acquired 70,000 acres of the Pt. Reyes seashore in 1972, making it a “national seashore.” In the same vein, a collection of 65 or more non-profits, including the Nature Conservancy, Trust for Public Land, Sierra Club, formed a coalition to push for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. They also achieved their goals, with that area now one of the most beautiful and well-visited places on the west coast. Other campaigns worked to keep farmland and other green spaces undeveloped by partnering with private farmers’ groups and using private financing. The end result today: roughly 160,000 acres, or nearly one-half of Marin county, is “permanently preserved.”

In another example, Boulder, Colorado decided to keep to Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.’s original 1910 open space plan, which called for a green belt all the way around the city. FLO, Jr. had said “this is a wonderful place, don’t spoil it.” So in the ’60s, as development could have started to sprawl out, community debate led to a process of creating a open space plan. Local conservation groups persuaded the city government to “create urban growth boundaries.” To make this a reality, Boulder created an “open space bond,” which the voters approved. The bond required all community members, including the private sector, to pay for the privilege of not developing outside the growth zones. This way the community could still finance all the services it needed to provide without sprawling out. Now, Boulder uses those funds to acquire land and expand its great open space.

King County, Washington, the county around Seattle, provides another model, said Pruetz. There, King country government and the Trust for Public Land created a vision for protecting 500,000 acres from development. The non-profit, Forterra, which led a coalition of more than 100 businesses, non-profits, and government organizations, put on a sort of planning conference that was even more ambitious, calling for one million acres to be preserved. But shooting for the stars was a good plan: the end result was a plan to acquire 265,000 acres at a cost of $7 billion. Some $4 billion is to be financed through the transfer of development rights (TDR), which is a powerful tool for transferring development from protected areas to acceptable ones.

Pruetz called King County’s approach to TDRs the most successful in the country, in part because it also spurred the development of a “regional TDR alliance,” which enabled neighboring communities to join in a broader regional development vision. While most TDRs can only be used in the jurisdiction that creates them, in this regional group, TDRs can be used across jurisdictions in a TDR exchange. To date, King County has preserved nearly 142,000 acres of nature with its TDR program. The private sector also benefits in this innovative PPP scheme.

Amundsen then discussed how communities can work with land trusts like his, The Conservation Fund. He said land trusts, in contrast to other non-profits and government agencies, are highly “action oriented.” But still, land trusts need to partner with the government and private sector groups because “partnerships increase the odds of full plans and implementation.” The Conservation Fund has been active in communities across the U.S., including Nashville and Davidson county, where it helped create an open space plan that preserved a 27,000-acre natural area. Within this preserve, efforts are underway to clean the water in streams and restore the habitat for the native crayfish populations. A broader plan aims to set aside 1,500 acres for local food production and make Nashville a “leader in urban agriculture.” The private sector has largely bought into these goals as the whole community seems to understand that “creative people are a city’s brightest asset and they want a place where they can walk and breath clean air.”

Indianapolis is also seeking to preserve hundreds of thousands of acres for green infrastructure plans. These projects involve replanting river corridors with native plants and cleaning up streams so they can better function as stormwater management systems and natural habitat. All these projects have benefited from the Conservation Fund’s revolving loan trust fund. “Money is cheap. Now’s a good time to borrow money to buy land.”

Professor Daniels added that land trusts have only proliferated because the government, with $16 trillion in debt, can’t afford to buy up lots of land and set it aside as open space. They also grew up because “local planning was so bad,” so in many places they have become “proxy planners.” In the ’80s, there were about 400 land trusts; now there’s are about 1,200. Together, they’ve ensured that some 50 million acres has been preserved.

Daniels said PPPs are a smart way to go with land preservation because “there’s more money” and these deals “better respond to individual community’s needs.” In Lancaster county, Pennsylvania, where Daniels was planner and still lives, permanent growth boundaries were established to ensure the pastoral agricultural character of the area is preserved. Lancaster is home to the Amish, and all together the county’s farmers produce $1 billion in crops and livestock each year. In the late ’80s, Lancaster set up a farmland trust with a mix of local private and government money that preserved 25,000 acres of farmland and protected hundreds of farms from sprawling-out residential homes. Now, Lancaster is number-one in terms of locally operated farmland preservation, which means there will always be a long-term supply of farmland.

Also, more land is preserved each year than developed upon. While it took time, “the development community has made peace with this.” In the Warwick Township, developers buy TDRs to build on to increasingly dense communities. Interestingly, Daniels said “you have to pay for density, but only a nominal fee.”

Image credit: (1) Marin County / Frog City Cheese, (2)
Boulder Open Space / City of Boulder, Colorado\

Watch out High Line, Here Comes the Bloomingdale Trail

Based on a tour and then a closer look at the nearly-finished designs for Chicago’s Bloomingdale Trail, the 3-mile elevated rail park may give the High Line park in New York City a run for its money. The $91 million project co-designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Collins Engineers, local Chicago artist Frances Whitehead, and others will transform an abandoned freight rail line into a wonderful, green, public-art filled elevated park for both walkers and bicyclists. What makes the park really different from the High Line? It’s in a residential area on the west side of Chicago and it’s much lower to the ground (around 18 feet high on average). There will be a set of six ramps leading up to the Trail from streets and another six from nearby parks, in effect creating seamless access between the old rail-line and the greater green tissue of the four neighborhoods it transects. In contrast, the High Line is in a dense commercial area, much higher off the ground, and only accessible via stairs and elevators.

During a tour of the Trail organized by the American Planning Association (APA), Jamie Simone, who is managing the Bloomingdale Project at the Trust for Public Land (TPL), said the park will have two paths. One will be a 14-feet-wide trail with a “soft shoulder, and landscaping, water fountains, and benches.” The other will be a meandering “nature path, an informal space for exploration.” In a unique arrangement with the city of Chicago, TPL is actually coralling all the local non-profits, city agencies, donors, and railroad companies involved. The organization, which usually functions simply as a land trust, is also becoming the “agent” that manages the park over the long-term.

The story of the Bloomingdale Trail starts around 100 years ago, with the Great Fire, which is “the beginning of so many things in Chicago,” said Ben Helphand, Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail. After the fire, the city gave the Canadian Pacific Railroad permission to build a railroad, but over time the neighborhood around the line became “very dense,” so “there were lots of crashes.” Helphand said “people were losing limbs every other day,” so a coalition of groups came together to demand that “something be done.” A city ordinance was passed that forced the rail company to raise the line, with earthen embankments on the sides. The line continued to be used through the ’70s and ’80s, at least until factories began to move out with the decline of manufacturing in the Midwest. By the ’90s, the rail line was largely silent. The result: “within a couple of seasons, a dense little forest appeared.” The prairie also came back, with snakes, frogs, birds, and other animals making their home on the long path. Helphand said he stumbled upon the Trail not soon after and “fell in love with it.”


In the early ’00s, the city began an open space plan. Through input from lots of local organizations, the city discovered that Logan Square, one of the neighborhoods the Trail runs through, had the second least amount of green space of any neighborhood in Chicago. A community planning process struggled to find new opportunities. They were focused on creating community gardens or skateboard parks until someone recommended the Bloomingdale Trail. So, fast-forwarding, in 2004, the Friends of Bloomingdale Trail was formed and the City Council gave the go-ahead to turn the elevated line into a park.

At the first stop in the tour at Walsh Park, which forms the eastern-most end of the Trail, Gia Biagi, Chicago Parks District, said the Trail isn’t just a linear park, but part of a broader system. “How long it takes you to get to the Trail and access it is as important as the park itself.” Her goal is to remove impediments that will limit use. So the Trust and the city together are demolishing some nearby buildings, and totally revamping Walsh Park, taking down part of the embankment that separates the Trail from the ground plane and adding ADA-accessible paths that will slope from the ground up into the elevated park. Walsh Park will also get a new performance space and skate park to draw people in.

All of these fantastic ideas for Walsh Park and the other “access parks” came out of a preliminary comprehensive planning process, which resulted in a rich framework plan. Simone said that process wrapped up about a year ago, after lots of public feedback. Neighbors of the Trail were really concerned about “how to protect pedestrians” with all the bicyclists. The design team found that given the Trail is only 3-miles long, there won’t be people racing, but the designers still added in pit-stops at access points so people can pause before entering the main trail stream. “It’s really now just about trail etiquette,” said Simone, who said a public education campaign about how to bike with people will be launched with the park opening.

As the bus moved around the Trail, we caught glimpses of the existing infrastructure, which is crumbling in spots, but in pretty good shape and largely structurally sound. Simone said that in phase two of the planning and design process, which just wrapped up, “we decided we’re going to accept it as it is and not clean it up too much.” She asked, “who would want to see cleaned-up ruins in Rome?” The Trail is Chicago’s Roman ruin, so the cosmetic issues will be left alone, while the structural issues will be addressed, really for safety reasons.


On top of the trail, the two paths and soft landscape architecture will provide a vivid contrast with the public art installations. Frances Whitehead, the artist involved in the design process, created a map where “art would exist and then worked with the landscape architect and engineers” to make sure the structures and landscape would hold large pieces. From the get-go, Whitehead was integrated into the design process, not just an add-on at the end. Simone said this was also necessary because some of the art requires water and electricity so all that infrastructure had to be planned out early on.

At the western-most end point of the Trail, Angel Ysaguirre, Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, City of Chicago, said the artist commissioning process was “very fast.” Whitehead shepherded a commissioning process and a panel of artists selected the final work. There will be a whole set of permanent installations as well as some spaces for rotating outdoor galleries. One piece will leverage research done on the Trail about climate change, displaying the data collected in artful ways. Others will make use of spaces without natural light by adding in light and noise art. Materials taken from the site during reconstruction — cement and dirt — will be available to artists for reuse.

Perhaps the only dismaying parts of the tour was that many of the 100-plus murals lining the Trail infrastructure are going to go, largely because of the construction process. Some of them are really amazing. Ysaguirre said through the Bloomingdale Trail work, the city of Chicago has actually had to rethink its “mural policies.” It now views them as “temporary pieces of art” that aren’t meant to be there long-term, largely, perhaps because they are difficult to maintain in Chicago’s harsh weather. Still, efforts are being made to spare some, as they are a mark of the existing community and are really valuable in themselves.

At the end of the multi-hour tour, Simone said there has been “no community opposition to the plans or designs.” Some neighbors are concerned about privacy so trellises with vines will be set up in some areas to block views from the Trail into apartments. Rail lighting will also point down to the bottom of paths so there will be “minimal light pollution.”

One of the best things about the new park, said Kathy Dickhut, Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Housing and Economic Development, is that it will be “grounded to the earth. People on top of the Trail can have conversations with people on the ground.”

Dogs will be allowed. The park will be open from 6am to 11pm to allow bicyclists to use the trail during their daily commutes. The park’s crowd will change slowly during the day.

Before the bare-bones trail opens in fall 2014 (Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s deadline), there’s a ton of stuff to do. Parts of the site are contaminated and require environmental remediation, so soils will need to be dealt with. In one spot, the Trail structure will actually be elevated with new bridges put in in order to let trucks pass underneath (currently, the clearance is very low and our bus had to go all the way around the Trail).

A number of existing bridges and other structural components will need to be repaired. Then, all the ramps will need to be built along with the new public spaces in the access parks. Much of this work will continue over the next few years, long after the park opens next fall.

Explore the framework plan and see more designs.

Image credits:(1) Bloomingdale Trail aerial view / David Schalliol, (2-3) Bloomingdale Trail / Jared Green, ASLA, (4) Walsh Park design / Bloomingdale Trail Framework Plan, (5) Bloomingdale Trail bike and pedestrian path /  Bloomingdale Trail Framework Plan, (6-7) Bloomingdale Trail / Jared Green, ASLA, (8) Bloomingdale Trail access ramp /  Bloomingdale Trail Framework Plan, (9) Bloomingdale Trail nature path /  Bloomingdale Trail Framework Plan, (10) Bloomingdale Trail bridge /  Bloomingdale Trail Framework Plan.

Green Infrastructure: A Landscape Approach

Green infrastructure is starting to mean different things to different people, said David Rouse, ASLA, a landscape architect and planner at Wallace, Roberts & Todd (WRT) during a session at the American Planning Association (APA) conference in Chicago. Rouse was there with Theresa Schwarz, Kent State Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative; Karen Walz, Strategic Community Solutions; and Ignacio Bunster-Ossa, FASLA, a landscape architect with WRT, who together co-authored a new book published by APA called Green Infrastructure: A Landscape Approach.

There are really two definitions of green infrastructure. One is an inter-connected network of green open spaces that provide a range of ecosystem services — from clean air and water to wildlife habitat and carbon sinks. The other is a more limited one promoted by the E.P.A.: small-scale green systems designed to be urban stormwater management infrastructure. In either definition, green infrastructure is about bringing together “natural and built environments” and using the “landscape as infrastructure,” said Rouse.

Beyond getting the definitions right, Bunster-Ossa said the purpose of the book was to make sure these important concepts weren’t mired in the ugly debates about landscape urbanism, which has become a loaded term for many new urbanists, smart growth advocates, and others promoting increased density. He said “there’s been too much fighting over that, so here’s a way to clearly define the benefits of these systems.”

For Rouse, green infrastructure can improve our health, particularly our mental health, by making places more green and walkable. Think of green spaces and how they are much better to walk through than treeless, concrete environments. Those greener spaces are also safer. As research is proving, greener spaces have less crime, particularly domestic violence. The presence of greenery can also boost children’s education performance as well as the cognitive ability of adults.

Given the multiple benefits of green infrastructure, it should be understood using terms like “multifunctionality, connectivity, habitability, resiliency, and identity,” along with “return on investment.” Rouse said these principles can be applied at green infrastructure projects at all scales.

Here are some lessons from the experts who’ve tried to apply green infrastructure at the landscape scale (these are also case studies in the book):

Put the Green Before Grey

Schwarz said “cities in transition” sounds better than a “shrinking” city, which is what Cleveland is. Cleveland has lost half of its population so it has surplus real estate. Vacancies are everywhere “but not aggregated.” In total, Cleveland has about 20,000 vacant homes over 3,000 acres of land.

So the city has created a new plan to redevelop in strategic places, keeping density in key areas while using cleared areas for green infrastructure to handle stormwater. The city is now demolishing huge chunks of the vacant homes, adding about 120 acres of cleared land every year.

Much of these cleared surfaces can be used for infiltration, but a plan was first needed first target existing watersheds and understand the soils. Schwarz said soil surveys of Cleveland found there many types of soils, but really only the sandiest ones allow for infiltration. Other soils may appear fine but were actually heavily contaminated from industrial use.

In many cases, finding the original watershed was also tricky: So many indigenous waterways were buried underground to make way for some earlier development. Schwarz’s team worked on identifying the “headways” of rivers and culverted streams, seeing them as the best places to bring back vegetation to deal with stormwater. At the neighborhood scale, riparian corridors are planned as well.

While all of this sounds great, the E.P.A. was really forcing Cleveland to do all this work. The aging combined stormwater and sewer system in the city means there are 126 combined sewer overflows (CSOs) into Lake Erie each year, dumping some 4.5 billion gallons of runoff and waste. The E.P.A. is forcing the city to spend $3 billion as part of a “consent decree” to address the issue. While her group is pushing forward with green infrastructure mapping, Schwarz said, unfortunately, much of this money is going towards hard grey infrastructure — “seven really big deep tunnels” — with only some $42 million available for green infrastructure. “This is expected to handle around 44 million gallons of runoff, not much out of 4.5 billion gallons.”

Schwarz said the green infrastructure would have been more effective if “the green was designed first, before the grey.” Still, her group and others are pushing the city to make the best of it and add green infrastructure along the strategic reinvestment zones, the highly-trafficked corridors, making those “sustainable patterns of development” even more attractive. She’s also making sure the city applies a “green infrastructure decision making framework,” so that when land becomes vacant it can quickly be evaluated by the city to determine if it’s best used for redevelopment or green infrastructure.

Look for the Long-term and Large-scale

According to Walz, the North Texas region, which encompasses Dallas and a number of other cities, is the 4th largest metropolitan region in the U.S. The area has a “strong economy” so there’s been rapid population growth. In 2000, the area had 5.3 million. Double that is expected by 2050. Within the region, efforts are underway to let the Trinity River meander through Dallas, taking it out of its levees, and preserve and expand green infrastructure. Broader visions, including Vision North Texas, Trinity River Common Vision, and others, aim to “create regional thinking, but local implementation” on green infrastructure.

To make the local implementation part happen, Walz worked with the local community using “green printing” and integrated stormwater management (ISWM) approaches, a kind of mapping process to gauge what the local values are, where green infrastructure opportunities are, and find the places where the values and opportunities co-join to create “triple bottom line benefits.”

For Walz, the lessons learned were that “landscape shapes development. This is a concept we used to understand.” She said her public process has helped people understand how to “combine a landscape analysis with local residents’ values, so that in the future the landscape can actually shape development patterns.” Through public input, the community could find out which areas it values the most and preserve. She said those watersheds and natural areas that the community deemed to have the highest value were also “the same assets that will them create a more sustainable and distinctive community.”

She added that planning at the regional scale creates more benefits for communities. “Green landscapes, natural systems don’t end at the city limits.” Forming those partnerships that cross city lines helps create the broader regional vision.

To craft that vision, multiple disciplines should be be involved. “While that brings challenges, there are also great rewards.”

Lastly, Walz said “look for the long-term and large-scale” opportunities. (It’s also clear that the lingo or terminology around green infrastructure may get in the way when trying to reach a community. Walz said “these green infrastructure approaches are valuable regardless of what they’re called.”)

Create Local Connections to Green Infrastructure

WRT is working on a massive project in Louisville, Kentucky — the Parklands of Floyd’s Fork. At the edge of the city, four parks, each named for a tributary to the waterway, will protect some 3,700 acres along a prime watershed, helping to create a green edge around a city sprawling out.

Bunster-Ossa said he approached the green infrastructure aspects of the project using the “principle of connectivity.” Also important were creating a real local identity for the green infrastructure systems. While the proposed designs offer lots of ecosystem service benefits (approximately $18 million worth, said Bunster-Ossa), it’s really about creating a place people that people can connect to.

Bunster-Ossa introduced another example WRT worked on with Margie Ruddick, ASLA, this time in a highly urban environment: the new 1.5-acre, $45 million Queens Plaza park, which uses plants while also protecting pedestrians in a dangerous intersection, “making green infrastructure visible.” Sidewalks were dug up to form barriers that prevent pedestrians from jaywalking, while rain gardens provide a respite from the urban jungle. The park is viewed as such a useful amenity that Jet Blue recently put its new headquarters a few blocks away.

Bunster-Ossa said nearby buildings weren’t excluded from discussion about the new park. With green infrastructure, you can “flow from the interior of buildings to parks to wateryways, all the way to the region.” Now there’s landscape-scale thinking.

Read the book.

Image credit: (1) APA Books, (2) Demolishing vacant buildings in East Cleveland / Cuyahoga Land Bank, (3) Vacant land in Cleveland / Urban Current, (4) Trinity River / Trinity River Project, (5-6) Floyd’s Fork / WRT, (7) Queens Plaza / Margie Ruddick, WRT.

Warren Byrd: How to Be a Landscape Architect

Throughout March, the University of Virginia School of Architecture has celebrated the work of local landscape architecture firm Nelson Byrd Woltz (NBWLA) and its recently published book Garden Park Community Farm. The celebration kicked off with a lecture by Warren Byrd, FASLA, former student and faculty member. He explained his life-long “meandering with purpose,” starting as a curious boy with a sketchbook, through his 25-year journey founding the firm, and its expansion into one of the most well-respected practices in the country.

It’s a unique occasion for a landscape architecture program to honor the lifetime achievements of a designer who has been personally tied to the school throughout his career. For me, as one of the program’s students, it was an opportunity to better understand my program and profession and glean insights from a lifetime of dedicated teaching and practice. As a professor for more than 25 years, Byrd had several lessons to impart on future landscape architects. These are the ones that I took with me:

Lesson #1: Live your Values

Byrd said he has been given the opportunity to do three of life’s most important things: “to teach, to parent, and to plant trees.” These three values permeated not only his talk, but also his roles as husband, father, educator, and designer.

As a teacher at UVA, Byrd stressed the value of plant knowledge and the importance of planted form as a foundation for landscape architecture. Students of his recall many hours treking around Charlottesville and the Blue Ridge mountains, drawing and memorizing native plants in their indigenous environments. Similarly, in the lecture, he reminded us to “think of plants from the beginning” and showcased an incredible array of plant uses in NBWLA’s work, a characteristic that has become a hallmark of the firm.

As a father, Byrd displayed a moving devotion to his wife Susan and his daughter Susanna. However, his notion of family did not stop there. He emphasized that all of NBWLA’s work, at the core, is about families—from the firm’s family, the families of visitors that visit sites, and the families of plants and animals considered in the designs.

As a planter of trees, Byrd noted not just the significance of planted form, but also reminded us of how lucky landscape architects are to devote their careers to improving the world through its own natural beauty and systems. It’s important, as we go through our daily lives, projects, and careers, not to lose touch with this unique gift and responsibility that we have been given.


Lesson #2: Be humble

His talk also reminded me of the importance of staying humble. Even though he was a founding partner and leader of the firm for over 25 years, at every opportune moment, he attributed his success and the success of the firm to the people around him—his partner Thomas Woltz, NBWLA’s staff of designers, his wife Susan, clients, and visitors of his sites. This was a reminder that no project is the work or vision of a single person, but they all require a dedicated team to come to fruition.

Lesson #3: Draw

The last lesson Byrd imparted during his talk was to draw. Every day. Draw to understand how something works or fits together. Draw thoughts and ideas. Draw to see the world differently. Draw to aid memory. He said that “you never know when your mind will bring up something from the past, and drawing helps you remember better.”

He emphasized drawing as a tool—both for understanding what is and for creating what could be. And this also touched at the heart of his design philosophy. Drawing requires one to be still and observe. He stated: “preparation in design is about listening and learning.” Drawing requires distillation. The “best designed places share a simplicity of purpose and expression—they express just a few salient qualities.” Lastly, drawing requires both logical understanding and an intuition for how that can be expressed.

He noted that the best design work is a combination of what is rational and intuitive.

The works highlighted in Garden Park Community Farm —from the Dell at the Univeristy of Virginia to the City Garden in St. Louis—are all manifestations of these lessons. Much more than just a compilation of successful design projects, it’s a testament to Byrd’s career dedicated to teaching, parenting, and planting trees.

Harriett Jameson is a student at the University of Virginia, pursuing a dual masters degree in Urban and Environmental Planning and Landscape Architecture 

Image credits: (1) Garden Park Community Farm / Princeton Architectural Press, (2-3) The Dell at University of Virginia / Nelson Byrd Woltz

Making Sure Smart Also Means Equitable

With the rise of “smart growth” approaches to urban development, which promote dense, walkable urban centers as an alternative to sprawl, there are questions about whether smart growth is actually equitable. Those compact, walkable neighborhoods are in hot demand across the country so it costs more to live there. So this also means not everyone gets to reap all the health benefits from living in a walkable community. In gentrifying neighborhoods, the issue is further compounded. People who lived in these communities and got to walk everywhere are being pushed out because they can’t afford the rising rents and property taxes. They are instead being shunted to the suburbs, the growing place for the poor in the U.S. There, many of the poor can’t afford cars so they are even more affected: they’ve lost their community, ability to walk around and get exercise, and can’t get to work easily. At the American Planning Association (APA) conference in Chicago, a group of really-smart smart growth advocates, David Dixon, Goody Clancy; Dena Belzer, Strategic Economics; and F. Kaid Benfield, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and The Atlantic Cities blogger, took a hard look at these issues.

Dixon painted a pretty gloomy portrait of inequality in the U.S., arguing that it’s just going to get worse given how the U.S. economy is now set up. While manufacturing’s share of the total economy has grown 50 percent over the past decades, the share of jobs in manufacturing has fallen by 30 percent. Manufacturing is becoming much more efficient, which means fewer middle class jobs. At the same time, 60 percent of employers demand educators workers, those with at least a college degree. But by 2020, only 40 percent will find those workers. More and more college students aren’t completing their programs due to rising education costs. “This is a built-in engine for greater economic fragmentation and increased inequality.” Dixon added that the middle tier of workers will be “lucky to stay in place” over the coming decades.

At the same time, demographics are also changing so that there’s a greater demand for walkable neighborhoods. Married couples with children are less than 25 percent of the population now. Singles or couples now make up 62 percent of the country. “Non-traditional households outnumber traditional families.” These different families want different places to live. “In the ’90s, it was about golf courses, escaping from work, homogeneity. In 2012, it’s about walkability, transit, diversity, and living near work. Sustainability is also important.” Moving toward 2030, there will be a “tectonic shift in values, with the majority of people in cities as opposed to suburbs.”

Where are all those people who want to live in dense, walkable environments going to go? For Dixon and the others on the panel, they are most likely going to displace the people already living in cities. “In fact, people are already being displaced at a rapid rate.”

In Brooklyn, Dixon explained how that city has two of the country’s fastest gentrifying neighborhoods. There, “the cost of a good walkscore means poverty has moved to the suburbs.” Housing nearer to transit is expensive, but housing further out that requires more transportation is even more expensive. Some 40 percent of low-income people can’t afford a car “so moving to a suburb is a catastrophe.” Beyond that, pushing these people to the suburbs is condemning them to a less healthy life.

For Belzer, who is an economist, the big issue in the ’90s was “dumb growth or suburban sprawl.” The response was to try to save farmland and preserve open space. The Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) pushed for “traditional neighborhood development,” really new cities that replicated old ones with their dense, compact, mixed-use neighborhoods. In the ’00s, the issue became how distant housing was from transit and employment centers and rising greenhouse gas emissions. To combat these trends while also improving health, advocates began to push for urban infill and “transit-oriented development.”

Now, according to a recent Brookings Institution report, for the first time in nine decades, major cities had more population growth than their combined suburbs. This means that white flight is certainly over: in fact, the opposite trend is now at work.

Belzer said gentrification is certainly happening but not uniformly everywhere. She argued that the only way to prevent widespread negative impacts of gentrification is for “smart growth advocates and equity advocates” to join forces and become “community advocates.” These community advocates can then force infill growth. So what do these community advocates need to make happen? She said they must make “social investing central to any physical planning strategy.” Healthcare, daycare, and food banks are important. “Every $1 invested in childhood education can return 4-5 times in social value.” Another priority must be preserving and even adding to the stock of affordable housing, particularly in places where high income households are coming in. If done right, affordable housing can even boost property values. She added that communities need to diversify their sources of income. “You can’t just rely on hipsters coming in to finance urban amenities.”

Benfield complained about the gloomy picture painted by Dixon, saying that many low-income communities may not be rich, but are rich in culture, leadership, possibility. Restoring or revitalization these communities is really the smartest growth strategy. To prove this, NRDC has been working with the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) to help disinvested communities. Applying the LEED for Neighborhood Development (ND) rating system, which Benfield co-created, communities can think through the issues. LEED-ND is unlike LEED because it focuses on the broader context of development, not just inside the building. With its point system, LEED-ND incentivizes walkability, affordability, diversity, and density. “It’s about the green management of systems, the totality of the environmental performance.”

Codman Square, Boston, is an example of one of these rich low-income places. It’s an area that has faced disinvestment, but a new transit station has brought new possibilities. The area, Benfield said, is highly walkable, even pleasant, but “if you look closely, you see elements of decay.” There are brownfields, abandoned properties; other buildings aren’t in good shape. Working with local leaders and LISC, Benfield came in and helped them apply LEED-ND as a planning tool in a two-day charrette to “see the opportunities.” He made a point of applauding two local leaders — Larry, who runs a “net-zero” car body shop that we wants to put a green roof on, and Paul, who runs the Boston Project, a faith-based ministry that aims to restore older, disinvested neighborhoods. Part of his home is a community drop-in center.

Benfield found that the community would achieve a low-level certification as it is now. There were also a lot of “maybe” points that could be achieved. These were what intrigued Benfield the most. To get those points and also make some real gains, the community has decided to “redesign New England avenue corridor, making it much more dense and green; conduct deep energy retrofits; create a new eco-innovation district; and go for LEED-ND certification.” (see a fascinating set of posts by Benfield on Codman at NRDC’s site).

Dixon outlined some other positive examples of smart growth in depressed urban areas. He described how efforts are underway to tear down Claiborne, a freeway running through Treme, New Orleans, and replace with a boulevard. At the center of the effort is a plan to use the amazing local culture to fight gentrification and improve neighborhood cohesion. Local groups are using the deep-rooted culture of Treme to build “human capital” that can have economic benefits. In Minneapolis, Juxtaposition Arts is building social capital in an effort to rebuild the neighborhood.

Also, Baltimore is undertaking a project to avoid the harsh effects of gentrification and create more “equitable density.” There, the goal is to encourage people to stay as density rises. “Otherwise, something has got to give, and it’s usually the poor people.” Dixon said Baltimore will probably need three-times its existing density to “keep existing people.”

Image credit: Codman Square / Kaid Benfield, NRDC

Temporary Can Still Be Valuable

Richard Florida, the innovative thinker about cities, once said that economic development is about the hundreds and thousands of small things done at the local level. In a few examples of those small things that together have a big impact, Marisa Novara, Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC), brought out a set of fascinating temporary projects that show how to make vibrant, valuable places in the left-over spaces in between buildings, in all those vacant, abandoned lots that dot cities. At the American Planning Association (APA) conference in Chicago, winners of MPC’s “Placemaking Chicago” contest explained their approaches to DIY urbanism.

Novara learned that rehabilitating buildings “takes a long time. There are lots of professionals involved. Lots of financing is needed.” So, given all the hassle, there must be better options. Novara said that “just because there’s a vacant space, it doesn’t mean there has to be a building there.” She believes that those space in between buildings, particularly those with iffy property ownership situations, can be used as temporary public spaces. “Temporary can still be valuable.”

To find out how communities in the broader Chicagoland are using spaces in a temporary fashion, her group launched a contest. Submissions could be projects that just popped-up over a weekend, or could be semi-permanent. Some 46 entries were received, with the majority from Chicago. Navaro said the broad categories of projects sent in were vacant building transformations, “vacant concrete transformations,” programming, and community gardens / farms. A jury picked winning projects, while more than 11,000 public voters picked the people’s choice award.

One project turned a vacant Border’s store into a writers’ workshop and local gallery. Another turned vacant concrete into a parklet. Lots and lots of community gardens were created. Interestingly, Novara said some went “far beyond getting together to grow vegetables. There was a continuum of engagement.” A few examples were explored in detail, by the actual people who put together the gardens.

Avers Community Garden 

Karen Trout said the Avers Community Garden (see video above), which received an honorable mention in the competition, has transformed an “impoverished neighborhood.” In a dead-end street filled with lots of “bad activities,” Trout and her group reclaimed the block with a new community space cherished by all its neighbors. The church-owned space had been vacant for more than 20 years. Exploring how to purchase the space, Trout found there was no one to be found so they “ventured out with the idea that if we turn the space into something productive, perhaps we can own it later.” This is because Chicago actually has a program that turns over vacant land to people who maintain it and use it productively. Her team found a fence on Craigslist, added flower beds, and a track for bikes for the neighborhood’s kids. Removing garbage, they also added mulch, a pavilion, and picnic tables. The space is now used for “parties, family get-togethers, and gardening.” A wall was painted with the text, “Something good grows in the ‘Hood.” Trout said the idea behind the sign, and really the garden overall, was to “reclaim the space with positive energy. This helps displace all the negative energy.”

An adorable local middle schooler, Deanna Shields, showed a photo of herself playing and said “this was me 6 years ago.” Last summer, she became one of the guidance counselors, helped in the garden, and took training classes. She took compost and planting workshops (8 hour classes). She made the point that “children don’t like to see vacant unproductive spaces either.”

Laura Michel, Lawndale Christian Health Center, another garden founder, said the community garden has gotten a lot of positive attention from other blocks in the neighborhood. “Everyone wants to know about it.” But, perhaps counter-intuitively, once the garden got into the press, including local TV, “bad activities,” including drug dealing and late-night trysts, started to happen in the garden. To fight criminals in the garden, the whole block came out and met there for an emergency meeting in “the dark and rain.” Some 30-40 people decided to take turns watching the space, day and night. A fence donated by Home Depot also helped secure the space. Slowly, over time the neighborhood reclaimed the space, once again.

Altgeld Sawyer Corner Farm

The Altgeld Sawyer Corner Farm in Logan Square won the popular vote, said Margaret Hartmann, the force of nature behind the project. She said the lot had been vacant for 30 years, but found that the owner was open to using the space for art and food (at least, until he moves to Florida, which he threatens to do every year). Hartmann said the organic food movement is great but “not everyone can afford to go to Whole Foods.” So to access to healthy foods, they decided to create a “corner” garden because they believe every community should have  a corner garden like they have a corner store. Opening the garden also boosted the amount of  public green space in a place with nearly the lowest per-capita green space in Chicago. Bringing in local activists and artists, Hartmann’s team created big sweeping forms — berms — along with raised planting beds to avoid the lead in the existing soils. They purposefully left it “open access,” without fences, so anyone in the neighborhood can gain entry.

The garden itself has evolved over time. Gardeners grow vegetables collectively, which are then turned over to the local food pantry. Herb gardens are available to all, because “Whole Foods charges a ridiculous prices for herbs.” There’s an educational program for kids, with treasure hunts to “find the sunflowers.” Their goal is to bridge “social, cultural, generational gaps.”

Brienne Callahan, a co-creator of Altgeld farm, said gang activity was a big problem in the neighborhood in the past, but the garden has helped end the problem, at least in their block. Citing the “broken windows” theory of crime prevention, which posits that “if something doesn’t look well cared for, people won’t care about it,” she said adding green space people do care about has made the community safer. “It’s open 24 hours a day and there are no drug dealers there.” Still, the neighborhood, which has one of the hottest real estate markets in the U.S., is gentrifying, so there are other issues: rents are rising and a growing share of the community faces daily food insecurity.

Since winning the popular vote, there’s been rapid growth in the number of volunteers, particularly among those 6-8 blocks from the garden, and the team is scaling up and starting other temporary gardens on other sites (some of which they hope will become permanent). In another garden they’ve set up, they are exploring a new model: gardeners get to grow vegetables in one plot for themselves if they also grow one for the food pantry.

Climb, Jump, Leap, Imagine

This amazing project won best in show from MPC. This is because this model really should be replicated in as many other places as possible. According to Stephanie Morris, a local high school student who was involved in putting it together, “we got to use power tools.” Smiling, she said, “we built a table.” Stephanie wasn’t alone in this work. A team of middle and high school girls were collected by Katherine Darnstadt, a Chicago architect and urban designer, and set loose on the community to gather feedback about what to do about an abandoned, derelict lot between some buildings in south side Chicago. Morris said “lots of people gave opinions. Hundreds of people gave input on slips of paper.”

Based on the community feedback, Darnstadt and the girls decided to create a playground called “Switzerland in Chicago,” a peaceful, “neutral” space where everyone can come. “It’s a place where people can relax.” In a community with a lot of drugs and violence, more neutral spaces are what’s needed. The girls used their “science and math skills” to create the playground design, with mountain peaks made of rope, and decks around the site. “Someone gave us $20 dollars so we decided to do a fundraiser.” The girls eventually brought in $250 for new benches. Morris said this was quite a feat since “people in this neighborhood have to hustle to make $2 a day.”

Once the neighborhood saw that the girls were out there designing and building something, word got around. Harold, a local out-of-work carpenter, provided advice, while the aptly named Big Ron “helped with the muscle work.” Roy helped “because he could.”

Darnstadt said the project helped change perceptions about what youth can do. “Teenage girls with power tools can do that.” Given the sight of girls asking for feedback on a vacant lot must have seemed so wild, the project stimulated a lot of community engagement and got many participating in the design process. Darnstadt laughed and said “wherever there are girls that age, there are boys.” The boys later brought it men to help. Given “there were all sorts of egos, with people aged 13 to 80 participating, everyone became a great psychologist.” The “soft sell” from the girls worked, with the labor done by the community. The result: a fantastic space built to withstand Chicago’s winters and that can be easily moved to a new abandoned lot.

Just to note: Darnstadt actually put her girls through an intensive two-week urban design “bootcamp,” with courses in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, public health, and design-build. Each day, a different professional came in and explained their role in the design process, starting with a researcher and moving all the way through the process. Darnstadt also recommended using IDEO’s Human centered design toolkit to teach “empathy and how to capture authentic input.”

In Quebec City, the Rivers Return to the People

Cities around the world with any sort of waterfront or riverfront have been revitalizing these places, which are often saddled with polluted ports and factories, creating vibrant community spaces and recreational areas in the process. But cities vary in their ability to take advantage of their water. Some cities have flush budgets while others don’t. Some cities can tap great local planning and design talent while others must import this talent, which can be expensive. At a session at the American Planning Association (APA) conference in Chicago, Peter Murphy, Ville de Quebec, explained how Quebec City has been lucky enough to use some $250 million in federal, provincial, and local funds and tap an amazing set of local planners, landscape architects, and architects to transform its riverfront for its 400th anniversary.

Murphy said Quebec City was the only walled city north of Mexico. It’s the “cradle of French culture in North America.” But perhaps it’s most defining characteristic is its rivers, which have shaped its evolution. Quebec actually means “the place where the river narrows.” In its early history, the city came into being to transport lumber, which was moved from ports down its rivers. Quebec City provided much of the wood for Britain’s warships during the “Napoleonic blockade.” The lumber economy led to vast fortunes, with the estates of lumber barons coming in, all with river views.

Beginning around 1800, industrial development took off in Quebec City, with the riverfronts playing a critical role in this move towards the machine age. Over 200 years, development was mostly centered in the Quebec City limits, but beginning in the 21st century, the city began to sprawl out. “Development could no longer be accommodated by the riverfronts.” But by the mid-20th century, the riverfront had also become a place for recreation, at least in parts. Beaches were used for swimming, at least until the water pollution got so bad people could no longer go in.

In 2002, Quebec City was swallowed up by its surrounding areas, a “forced amalgamation process” that swelled its population from around 150,000 to more than 516,000. There was also a 6-fold increase in land area. So Quebec City decided to use this as an opportunity, creating a new “integrated planning process” and a new master plan, “Green, Blue, White,” to “rethink public space and parks and trails” in the expanded city. To get funding, projects had to have widespread public support and be found in diverse neighborhoods.

Murphy went through a slew of great projects, but highlighted here are just a few. Along Parc de la Plage Jacques Cartier, a 1.5 mile-long walkway, that was previously an access road, a new contemporary art wall was put in that commemorates the colonial presence, the early French settlers. A public walkway done by a local landscape architect uses both formal and informal spaces, featuring lighting, benches, and pavilions. There are framed views at different spots.

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In another part of the riverfront, the Samuel de-Champlain promenade transformed a 4-lane highway into pedestrian and bicycle-friendly parkway. The highway along the riverfront had previously cut off access to the water, like so many other riverfront highways in other cities. The existing road was narrowed by nearly 30 feet, with lanes removed, and made windy, to slow it down, turning it into a parkway. Some 1,200 trees were added along with thousands of shrubs. Picnic areas and soccer fields were added. Murphy said “the redesign was an instant success and quickly appropriated by the public.”


For the St. Michael Church, which sits on top of one of the best vantage points to see all of Quebec City, the city identified the need to revamp the sight lines so that there’s a better view of the church and river views. The terrace was redesigned with great sensitivity. The city team and designers decided to improve bicycling access, bury utility lines in some streets leading to the church (to remove visual obstacles), and open up the “visual connections.” The project “restored the views,” while updating the site and making it more accessible.

Other projects: the new Beauport Bay recreation area, one of the most ambitious projects, also had a “rocky start” but but “finished nicely,” with a new landscape that takes advantage of the site’s great winds. People visit for kite-flying and wind surfing. The St. Charles River corridor, a new 30-kilometer-long linear park, offers a network of bridges and boardwalks. Concrete walls originally added along the riverfront were removed in favor of low-maintenance native plants. “The re-naturalization has led to new wildlife habitat.” Pointe-Aux-Gerves (Hare Point) changed from a highly polluted brownfield, with contaminated soils down 13 feet deep, to a new green neighborhood. The really costly remediation and redevelopment project was done with private sector partners.

While all the redevelopment work mentioned was viewed as successes, he said there were also failures. The Old Port Agora, which is right below old Quebec, was to get a new plaza. The existing metal benches needed repair. The plaza felt isolated, underused. While the planning process, led by a 20-30 member committee, had moved forward successfully with the other sites mentioned, here it ran into the “Save the Agora from Drowning,” a local social activist group, which objected to the urban design plans put forward. He said the “vast majority of the city supported the design proposals,” yet some 100,o00 emails came in against the plan. Murphy said designs had to change midstream. The result: a “cutting-edge site from a technical point of view,” with bold native plant landscape and separate bicycling and pedestrian access, but an underused space. Apparently, this isn’t due to the design though: the port authority hasn’t been able to find an operator for the new outdoor stage they created. Murphy said this has been a “planning failure. It’s a beautifully landscaped dead space.” (To note: Cirque Du Soleil is expected to move to the area for a set of free summer shows, potentially transforming the place into the lively space it was designed to be.)

pic_04_full (1)

The city now has a new riverfront along its 10-kilometer-long Eastern side, with more pieces coming in along the west. With all the places to go, the city is also focused on “programming” these spaces, particularly for seniors. As Murphy noted, Canada is the second fastest aging society on Earth, behind Japan. So “we need to not only add years to our life, but life to our years.”

Explore all of Quebec City’s revitalized parks and gardens.

Image credits: (1) Walled City / Vagabond Dish, (2) Parc de la Plage Jacques Cartier / Trip Advisor, (3) Samuel de-Champlain promenade / Trekearth, (4) Samuel de-Champlain promenade / ArchDaily, (5) Old Port Agora / Agora 

Transit for Everyone

For the daily subway, rail, or bus rider, accessibility is a huge issue. A public transit system is detested if it’s difficult to use, then people simply stop using it (unless they have no other options). This is equally true for those walking or biking to mass transit. Given some $50-60 billion is spent each year in the U.S. on transportation infrastructure, getting access right makes smart economic sense, too. In a session at the American Planning Association (APA) conference in Chicago, transportation planners Daniel Goodman and Roswell Eldridge, Toole Design Group, Adrienne Smith-Reiman, City of Boston, and Matthew Zych, Washington D.C. Metropolitan Transit Authority (WMATA), explained how to create better systems for people accessing on foot or bike and overcome the obstacles that can undermine a transit system.

With gas costing more, Americans are driving less. According to research cited by Goodman, in 2009, there were 24 percent more bike trips than in 2001. Similarly, people walked to their destination 16 percent more frequently. Public transit ridership is up a whopping 40 percent over the same period.

While all these trends are positive, there are also some growing challenges. Using North Carolina as example, Goodman said baby boomers are aging and soon masses of “older people will need alternative forms of transportation,” taxing already strained systems. Obesity rates are skyrocketing, especially among children who don’t walk to school in the same numbers as before, perhaps a sign that too many car-centric communities lack adequate sidewalks. There are also social justice issues: Many communities focus on improving access to rail and subways, but fail to do the same for buses. Different demographics use different types of transit. Finally, while many communities see public transit as a way to “catalyze economic development” and create places, there are new fiscal realities. Budgets are tight almost everywhere.

In a few different cities, the presenters outlined how smart planning and design can truly make a difference though, maximizing existing investments in transit systems by improving how pedestrians and bicyclists access these networks.

In Boston, explained Smith-Reiman, Connect Historic Boston, a program in its early planning stages, aims to make all the historic National Park Service sites in downtown Boston and Charlestown more easily accessible to tourists and locals. Downtown Boston can be intimidating, with its mess of tiny streets and lack of signage. “Tourists are terrified they’ll get lost.” To encourage navigation and “discovery” of the area, the National Park Service, City of Boston, and an array of local organizations are trying to understand the current problems and deal with them. Tourists can get around via the T, ferries, water taxis, trolleys, or Hubway, the local bikeshare system, so there are lots of options. However, a tourist can get out of the T line one block from Faneuil Hall and not know they are anywhere near it and totally miss it. One project will “reactivate” the spaces around the station, making transit to historic sites easier.

The goal for the team is a set of “tear sheets,” or guidelines that can guide preliminary design improvements. Also in the works is a “comprehensive physical and digital wayfinding plan,” that can result in a “kit of parts” that can be distributed to all the different city agencies involved. Beyond these projects, Connect Historic Boston will use street art, a transportation quest (a kind of game), along with transportation-related curricula for kids (a kind of urban design 101), and web sites to show people how to access the area.

In  Durham, North Carolina, a pilot study for the department of transportation yielded new guidelines and design for bus stops. Eldridge at Toole Design explained that many bus stops don’t have adequate sidewalk connections, offer shelter or any amenities, or “address passengers’ needs.” He said far too many bus stops have no sidewalks, forcing riders into the street, or seating, which is why you see garbage cans turned upside down (they’ve been turned into benches). In this pilot, the goal was to improve three bus corridors — targeting the conditions at bus stops, access to stops, and the crossings near stops.


While designing a new approach is central to these fixes, getting all the different government agencies that deal with aspects of the system is also important. One agency is in charge of plotting where stops are, while another deals with the streets, and yet another is in charge of sidewalks. With all these different groups involved, there were “conflicting standards and policies” that had to be addressed. With a shared vision, the different agencies were able to reconcile all the conflicting approaches.

With revised policies and aligned organizations in place, the team then conducted a user survey, getting the best data out of “on-board intercepts.” Eldridge said rich input from riders is key if you are going to create a “customer-oriented system.” (We wish all public transit systems would take his sage advice). Through the survey, they found that 74 percent were using the bus to go to work or home, 16 percent were going shopping, and 10 percent were going to school. Some 84 percent of riders didn’t own a car. Their issues were safety, access, and comfort. To improve safety, riders wanted more lighting at bus stops and shelters. To  improve access, they wanted sidewalks they could use and stops free of utility poles and other impediments. To make waiting more comfortable, riders wanted shelters with seating.

Once the issues had been identified, the next step was surveying the system to identify where fixes could be made. Problem stops and crossings were identified and prioritized for revamps. Given budgets are tight, only $5 million could be spent on access improvements. But still, now there’s a model in place that all vendors building bus stops must replicate for new stops.

To improve pedestrian and bicycle access for D.C.’s Metro system, which is the second largest subway system in the U.S. with more than 80 stations, it’s important to understand capacity, said Zych. “Is there enough capacity? Are stations too crowded? Is there enough bicycle parking? Are there sidewalks?” As important as capacity is convenience. “Are there buildings, rivers, or freeways in the way?” Stations have to be in people’s sight lines as well.

D.C.’s Metro has some 750,000 trips a day. The city’s 1,500 buses get 450,000 trips daily. Paratransit gets another 8,000 trips. During the AM peak where some 250,000 trips happen, 37 percent walk to the Metro, 26 percent park and ride, 24 percent take the bus to a station, and only 1 percent bike to a station. Given D.C. wants to get the share of bicycle commuters up to 2 percent by 2020 — meaning some 7,000 trips — the system needs to improve its bicycle access while also making it still easier for pedestrians.

Zych said there are system-wide goals but stations have different issues. A bicycle census in the district found that bike riders live in certain neighborhoods, so some stations will need ample bicycle parking while others won’t at all. Then, there’s the issue of where to put bicycle parking racks? Metro had to go out and “personally survey” stations to find spots.

Some $25 million in pedestrian and bicycle access improvements were identified, but only $7 million in financing was available, so again, tough decisions had to be made about priorities. Asking a set of stakeholders what their priorities were, the Metro team found that “60 percent want improved safety and security.” So safer crossings were created for some stations, separating vehicles from pedestrians. In other projects, new raised sidewalks were created to further improve safety. For bicycle security, one station created a new “bike & ride,” an enclosed, limited access space for “members only.” Bicyclists would have to sign up and become members to gain access to the secure space at the Metro station, which includes cameras and lighting. Also worth noting: the Metro team found that the upside-down U-shaped bicycle racks were the “most secure.”


Another innovation: some stairs were retrofitted so there was a bike channel along the side. This means no more lugging bicycles up stairs. Bicyclists can simply roll it up the incline while walking up the stairs.

Eldridge encouraged planners and designers in other communities to “piggyback” on existing transportation projects and get in early to add in pedestrian and bicycle access improvements. Given the Federal government only requires that 1 percent of transportation project funds go to bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, those interested in access clearly have to get creative — in creating access and finding money to do it.

Image credit: (1) D.C. Metro bicycle parking / Urban Indy, (2) Durham bus stop / Toole Design Group, (3) D.C. Metro bicycle parking / Urban Indy

Delve into Africa’s Cultural Landscapes

The Great Zimbabwe / Wikipedia, Vinz, FAL

Sub-Saharan Africa‘s deeply rich and diverse cultural landscapes will finally get their due at Dumbarton Oaks in May. In an upcoming symposium, scholars from around the world will spend two days on the “oldest inhabited landscape” on Earth, a part of the world that offers a “staggering range of geographies, cultures, histories, and patterns of settlement.” According to the landscape and garden studies program at Dumbarton Oaks, the symposium will focus on “what we know – or think we know – about pre-colonial landscapes; how they were read and misread in the colonial era; and how they are being reinterpreted in the present for various purposes, including conservation, economic development, education, and the creation of national identity.”

Many lifetimes could be spent trying to understand the cultural landscapes among these 49 countries that together have a population of more than 800 million. For landscape designers and historians, the range of interests can be matched with the diversity of sites: “World Heritage sites such as the Great Zimbabwe, or Djenne or Timbuktu in Mali; massive earthworks and palace grounds in Benin; anthropogenic forests and forest shrines; contested wildlife parks and ecological reserves; village compounds and seemingly chaotic contemporary urban settlements; and official and unofficial memorials to the struggle against colonialism.” To be added, hopefully, is some kind of discussion on urban cultural landscapes, the parks and plazas that create a sense of place in Africa’s growing cities, and the challenges of preserving historic landscapes in an era of rapid urbanization and population growth.

Timbuktu / Patheos

Just a few of the speakers include Suzanne Preston Blier, Professor of Fine Arts and of African and African American Studies, Harvard University; Lazare Eloundou, an architect and urban planner with UNESCO World Heritage Center; Jeremy Foster, an architect, landscape architect, and cultural geographer at Cornell University; Ikem Okoye, Associate Professor of Art History, University of Delaware; Innocent Pikirayi, University of Pretoria, among others. See a full list of speakers and what they will talk about. (Also, check out a fascinating past talk by Blier on cosmology and pathways in Yoruban landscapes).

Register now for the symposium on May 10-11 for $60 ($40 for students).

Separately, a new resource worth highlighting is Landscape Architecture for Humanity, a brand-new blog started by Ryan Aldrich, a landscape architect in New Zealand. Already posted are a number of interesting opportunities for landscape architects to give their time and expertise in places like post-Hurricane Sandy, New York, and Papua New Guinea. There are interviews and videos with designers aiming for “positive social impact.”

Flower Power: The Phipps Conservatory’s New Center for Sustainable Landscapes


Heralded as one of the Earth’s greenest buildings, the Center for Sustainable Landscapes (CSL) is the latest addition to the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Housed in a Victorian-era glasshouse presented to the city by industrialist Henry Phipps in 1893, the gardens have always strived to lead the country in “green gardening.” Since transforming into a non-profit, Phipps has also been dedicated to building sustainable facilities, including the first LEED-certified visitor center in a public garden; a new tropical forest conservatory, which is the most energy efficient in the world; and the first production greenhouses to be LEED certified, achieving the highest rating of Platinum. Richard V. Piacentini, the Executive Director of Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, recently visited New York City to discuss the garden’s role in the future of sustainable architecture and living.


The primary drive behind the Center for Sustainable Landscapes, as Piacentini puts it, is to function “as elegantly and efficiently as a flower.” While the merits of this approach can be questioned, the pure essentials of this poetic gesture are there. The building serves to use every drop of water that lands on its surface and is technically constructed to physically react to various elements of nature. Phipps decided to pursue all three of the highest green architecture and landscape standards: the Living Building Challenge, LEED Platinum, and Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES®) 4-star certification. Meeting these standards is “extremely intense,” as Piacentini put it, but is part of the “Phipps philosophy” that he feels is necessary to retain Phipps’ reputation as stewards of the earth.


The Living Building Challenge is a philosophy, advocacy tool, and certification program that addresses development at all scales. The seven performance areas are comprised Site, Water, Energy, Health, Materials, Equity and Beauty. These goals, as well as those laid out by SITES and LEED were mainly met in conjunction with one another. The CSL is designed to interact with its surroundings as a vital part of its daily operation. As one of the original 150 pilot projects of SITES, it features a “restorative landscape, highlighting native plants and a permaculture demonstration rooftop garden.” Other site features include a stormwater lagoon, a solar powered water distillation system, five rain gardens, porous paving and constructed wetlands that use plants and natural processes to clean wastewater.

Some 14 geothermal wells, earth tubes, locally sourced material and solar orientation are just a handful of the features that make this construction so well executed. However, in obtaining points for LEED certification, Piacentini was not satisfied with simply scoring. After having discussed the virtues of the CSL, Piacentini nearly forgot to add one of his most proud achievements of the project. In line with the idea of locally sourced materials, Phipps decided that all of the labor, design, and execution would come from locally sourced talent. Phipps looked within Pennsylvania to select the lead design team. The architect, the Design Alliance, is from Pittsburgh and the landscape architect, Andropogon Associates, hails from Philadelphia.

After the selection of local horticulturists, permaculturists, engineers, contractors and architects, a number of design charettes ensued with representatives of the Phipps organization. The idea of the charettes was to produce a dialogue among the talented pool of professionals selected to work on the project. The result: today, the CSL offers demonstration gardens, environmental education, interpretive signage, interactive kiosks, a green gallery, classrooms, and various outdoor environs for visitors and staff to enjoy. These ideas were products of the early discussions between the designers and, according to Piacentini, are at the “core of [the Phipps] philosophy.”


“A facilitated, integrative design approach” is how Phipps approaches the challenges of building in today’s environment. “The CSL is the ultimate expression of our systems-based way of thinking and acting, to blur the lines between the built and natural environments.”

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: Phipps Center for Sustainable Landscapes / Alexander Denmarsh Photography