New Video: ASLA Advocates for Change

Last week, ASLA leadership landed on Capitol Hill for their annual advocacy day. More than 150 ASLA leaders met with Senators and Congressional representatives to talk about the issues that matter most to landscape architects (see video above about ASLA’s advocacy work).

During the day, ASLA advocates heard from Representative Thomas Petri, who is a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and chairman of the Subcommittee on Highways and Transit. This subcommittee oversees highways, recreation trails, pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, and Safe Routes to Schools projects.

Representative Petri said Congress is in the beginning stages of reauthorizing a 5-6 year transportation bill. He said these longer-term bills are important because they set the stage for “long-term planning and investment by the private sector.” Representative Petri said he gets many calls from companies asking him “what to plan for.” Right now, federal transportation investments are only being planned one to two years out, through extensions, which means private sector may be holding back on spending on infrastructure.

Unfortunately, there will be winners and losers with the new bill. Representative Petri said “only 68 percent of the current programs can be financed. We have to come up with new revenue or scale back.” The federal government uses a gas tax to finance transportation infrastructure work. Now the federal gas tax is 18.4 cents a gallon, “not a lot.” Getting a gas tax hike through Congress may be difficult to achieve. States are confronting the same challenge. Some states like Virginia have even eliminated gas taxes, while others like Wyoming are raising theirs dramatically.

Representative Petri said a broad coalition is needed on the Hill to ensure the transportation bill “aims for the highest common denominator instead of the lowest.” The U.S. should aspire to have a excellent transportation system again, instead of crumbling highways that earn a D+ from the American Society of Civil Engineers. Representative Petri mentioned Lady Bird Johnson’s “roadside enhancement” program, which happens year after year, as a great example. “We now have some beautiful parkways, even in urban areas.”

Investment in mass transit can also support the right kind of urban growth. Representative Petri said that once a urban area reaches a certain size, it must “grow up instead of out.” To finance the process of growing up, Representative Petri said the federal government must fund urban mass transit projects that lead to greater density, or at least kick-start their development. “Federal commitments can help cities and states secure Wall St. financing.” Petri also called for keeping “street improvements,” those “transportation enhancements” that were the subject of so much debate last year.

And while there will be tradeoffs in the new bill — not everyone will win — “we must work together to achieve a balance.” Let’s just hope that balance means a lean towards more investment in the pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure so many communities need. As Representative Petri argued at the end, “there are great prospects for improving the system, while also making it more livable, beautiful, and human-scale.”

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, (3) Lancaster County / Lancaster Online

ASLA Event: Learn about Green Infrastructure

To celebrate High Performance Building Week, the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) is hosting a Congressional green roof reception and tour. Policymakers, design professionals, local media, and interested members of the public are encouraged attend.

In a presentation, ASLA CEO / Executive VP Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, will be covering the economic and environmental benefits of green roofs and green infrastructure. Somerville will explain how green infrastructure is a less expensive solution for controlling stormwater runoff, conserves water and improves water quality, reduces the urban heat island effect, lowers building energy use, improves air quality, stores carbon, and creates biohabitat.

The event is part of an annual set of discussions and tours organized by the High-Performance Buildings Caucus Coalition, a private sector group that works with the High-Performance Buildings Caucus of the U.S. Congress to showcase best practices in building and site design. The Congressional Caucus is focused on increasing awareness among policymakers about the “major impact buildings have on our health, safety and welfare and the opportunities to design, construct and operate high-performance buildings.”

When: Thursday, May 16, 2013, 6:00 pm – 8:00 pm

Where: ASLA Headquarters’ Rooftop, 636 Eye Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20001

RSVP at by Friday, May 10th.

For questions or more information, please contact Roxanne Blackwell, Director, Federal Goverment Affairs, ASLA, at or 202-216-2334

This is a widely-attended event so attendance is permissible under both the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate rules.

Image credit: ASLA Green Roof / ASLA

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.

What Is the Most Critical Issue Designers Don’t Even Know Exists?

According to the heads of the major built-environment design organizations, the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), the American Institute of Architects (AIA), and the American Planning Association (APA), it’s water. Water is going to become increasingly scarce. It’s particularly a problem in the United States as many of the highest growth areas are in parts of the country that are already stressed with water shortages. Worldwide, countries are struggling with diminishing ground water resources and some are even worried about water wars. Mitchell Silver, the outstanding (and unfortunately outgoing) president of APA, said “water is going to make oil look minor league.” This insight and a slew of others were offered up in a session among the three presidents at the American Planning Association (APA) conference in Chicago. Each talked about the big issues for designers.


Up first to speak was Mark Focht, FASLA, upcoming president, who was filling in for Tom Tavella, FASLA, the current president. Focht said ASLA, which was founded in 1899 and now has more than 15,000 members, has always made advocacy on Capitol Hill a priority. The focus of the next few years will be pushing for land and water conservation, community parks, a national complete streets program, more federal support for green infrastructure, and benefits for small businesses. He noted that most landscape architecture firms are small businesses.

ASLA is active in all of these areas, but been especially focused on green infrastructure. Banking on Green, a report ASLA recently co-authored with a set of environment and water organizations, seeks to boost the case for using green infrastructure approaches — green roofs and streets, bioswales, tree pits, and parks — to manage stormwater. Focht said this was near and dear to his heart, too. He is first deputy commissioner of Philadelphia’s Parks and Recreation, and worked on the “first E.P.A.-approved plan for managing stormwater with green infrastructure.” Philadelphia is a true innovator in this approach.

Focht said landscape architects are also focused on protecting licensure. Currently, all 50 states require landscape architects to be licensed to practice but there are some states that are threatening to roll back these licensure requirements with “sunset reviews.” ASLA in D.C. and local chapters are doing state-level advocacy to prevent this.

For many years in a row, the ASLA Board of Trustees has also made public awareness a priority, given that there is still a lack of understanding out there about what landscape architects actually do. So, a public awareness campaign was launched, resulting in more than 600 local events organized by landscape architects. During these events, landscape architects reached out to the public, explaining their value. Focht laughed, adding that this proves that “landscape architects aren’t the shade loving species” many think they are. Additional events will be held this year, along with projects conducted as part of the Year of Public Service. “Right now, 49 chapters have committed to leading and documenting events.”

Lastly, launching the Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES®) rating system, the first rating system for landscapes, is a major focus. ASLA, the U.S. Botanic Garden, and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin are the three key partners behind SITES. In total, some 1,500 comments have been received about the rating system during its public comment phase, with only 50 percent of those coming from landscape architects. Focht said ideas came in from all types of designers, planners, and policymakers, which ultimately makes SITES more usable for more of the world. Now that the pilot testing phase is complete and the first projects are becoming certified, discussions are underway with the Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI) to handle certification of SITES projects from here on.


Jeffrey Potter, former AIA president, said AIA, which was founded in 1857, has largely bounced back from the recession and now has 80,000 members. Some 55 percent of licensed architects in the U.S. are members. The average age of members is 52, which may increasingly be a problem, he noted. AIA is trying to become the “global institute of architects,” with a growing focus on the big issues facing the world. But there are some who dispute the move in this direction. Potter said a big chunk of the membership is “issues-based and progressive like ASLA and APA members, but another set says ‘your job is to advocate for my business and make me successful.'” Potter said the challenge was to be both “a big tent across the world for all the issues we need to focus on” and an organization that can “maintain a narrow focus” on job growth.

Potter said the architecture practice was in a state of transformation. He said the world is struggling with how to create “place-based knowledge in a digital era.” In the past, “knowledge was linear. You read a book from start to finish. Now, we are in the networked age, with bits of knowledge here and there across the Web.” Potter believes this networked age will be a “great advantage for designers” because they already think and work in a networked manner. In this new world, architects are increasingly focused on “high performance places, public health, and disaster mitigation.”

To spur the growth of high-performance places, AIA has supported the launch of the International Green Construction Code (IGCC). The goal there is to create a “regulatory framework for new and existing buildings, establishing minimum green requirements for buildings and complementing voluntary rating systems.” The idea is to offer up a model code that localities can plug in encourage more rapid growth in green buildings. Beyond IGCC, AIA has also officially signed on to Ed Mazria’s Architecture 2030 initiative, with its AIA 2030. To better use the built environment to improve public health, AIA has started the American Design for Public Health Initiative with Dr. Richard Jackson, the pioneer in this field. Working with M.I.T. and other universities, AIA will ramp up efforts on how to design more healthy communities. To strengthen communities’ capacity to handle disasters, which seem to be happening more frequently, local AIA chapters and regional groups are forging new partnerships with local governments.


With 40,000 members in 90 countries, APA is concerned about global issues like climate change, population growth, urbanization, and suburbanization but also focusing on U.S. communities. In the 21st century, Mitchell Silver, APA president, said, America is “greying and browning and single-family households are rising.” In the U.S., “people are getting older, living longer, increasingly diverse and multicultural, and one in five are disabled.” By 2050, a majority of households will be single people. By 2043, there will be no majority race. All of these demographic changes mean huge changes for the built environment. As such, the market will change and so will demand.

APA, following its code of ethics, is interested in making sure the next wave of communities that spring up to meet this new demand will be “sustaining places,” that “protect public health, safety, and welfare” of the people living there. APA was formed in 1909 to combat the negative public health impacts that came with living in cities. “People were dying because they lived in cities.” New York City was filled with slums not much different from the ones in New Delhi today. “More than 100,000 people lived in one square mile in lower Manhattan.” Back then, water-borne illnesses were the preventable diseases that had to be tackled. But today, Silver said, it’s cancer and heart disease, the diseases that come from eating too much and not getting enough exercise, the diseases of suburbia. Silver said at our current rates, “half of the country will be obese in 20 years.” So APA is increasingly focused on healthy planning.

To improve safety of the built environment, APA wants to ensure “people don’t die from unsafe buildings.” So planners are focused on ensuring building codes protect people. Silver said buildings built before World War II (pre-war) were “basically sound,” but post-war buildings are “lower quality.” In 50 years, then, what will happen to these less-safe buildings, particularly with the rise of extreme weather? This challenge is only compounded by the twin growing threats of climate change and more natural disasters.

The future then is about “comprehensive planning” to ensure communities are more “adaptable and resilient” to changes, whether they are due to population growth, water shortages, economic change, climate shifts, or natural disasters. Unfortunately, not every community agrees this is needed. APA is increasingly fighting “Agenda 21 myths,” and those who believe that planning is a form of UN-driven top-down control. A movement that seems like an off-shoot of the rabid Tea Partiers, the anti-Agenda 21 crowd has actually succeeded in rolling-back planning efforts in some states. One community actually just recently threw out all its building codes. “There are now no architectural standards there.” Silver said “80 percent of the public actually supports planning. The subset of people who oppose it are driven by ideology.”

To combat this “anti-planning backlash,” Silver said APA has to get out front and convince the public about “the value of planning and how its in the public interest.” Silver and APA CEO Paul Farmer both complimented ASLA on its public awareness campaign (Farmer called it “brilliant”), arguing that planners also need to take to the streets to boost awareness of the value of planners.

One audience member asked all three heads of the organizations what they would tell President Obama if they had the chance to sit down and meet with him. Focht said he would “make the case for green infrastructure and clean water. I would tell President Obama that the E.P.A. is doing great work on this but to become even more flexible, broad-minded, and push their boundaries. I would tell him to continue to make those investments.” Potter said unlike designers, realtors and home builders have real “brute force” on Capitol Hill so they can “really push an issue through.” So, “I would focus on the issues, not turf. I think there should be a greater focus on our national infrastructure. Working with engineers, this should be our priority.” For Silver, a meeting with Obama would give him the opportunity to say “the U.S. needs to pay for the true cost of a gallon of gas.” Obama also needs to find a way to “get dollars straight to mayors and bypass the state-level wrangling over dollars.” Mayors “have shovel-ready projects and know how to get things done.”

There was some discussion about how ASLA, AIA, and APA could formalize their alliance and possibly add in engineers to their group, to strengthen their voice on Capitol Hill.

Another audience member said if Obama was smart he’d create a national design review panel with the heads of the design organizations, so that every federal policy and major built-environment project went thorough design review before it went forward. This is actually not a crazy idea: Denmark has just such a system. Focht said, in fact, Philadelphia just set up such a review panel after the city rewrote its comprehensive and zoning plan. Let’s hope this idea gains steam.

Image credit: Water shortages in Western U.S. / University of Texas

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (April 7 – April 20)

The Dirt has initiated a new bi-weekly feature highlighting news stories from around the Web on landscape architecture. For more LA in the News, check out LAND, ASLA’s newsletter. If you see others you’d like included, please email us at

Set Your Sights on SitesRecreation Management, 4/9/13

“… the advances taking place in landscape architecture right now are no less monumental. The past few years have brought changes that promise to reinvent planned outdoor spaces over the next few decades, in ways as transformative as the ones that took place more than a century ago. Here are a few important developments that herald a new golden age for landscape architects and the projects they’re working on.”

Great Design in the Great OutdoorsInteriors & Sources, 4/9/13

“According to a recent survey by the American Society of Landscape Architects, outdoor living spaces—defined as kitchens and entertainment spaces—were ranked at the top of the list of growing trends among American homeowners.”

Edible AestheticsThe Dispatch, 4/15/13

“Sanders began incorporating edible landscaping techniques into his limited growing area. The techniques Sanders began incorporating have been popular in more densely populated urban areas for a number of years but have since spread to residential suburbs and beyond. The basic premise of all these techniques is ensuring every pot, every flowerbed, every window sill box, is planted with something that is not only visually appealing, but can also be eaten.”

On this Earth Day, a Greener City Could be Just a Bike Ride AwaySt. Louis Post-Dispatch, 4/22/13

In an editorial piece from ASLA President Thomas R. Tavella: “The city of St. Louis is truly on the way to becoming ‘Historically & Dynamically Sustainable,’ as the motto for the city’s sustainability plan suggests. Through careful crafting and consideration, many believe that this plan, formally adopted just over three months ago, may be one of the most impactful decisions made by the city.”

What Exactly Does a Landscape Architect Do?National Building Museum

“Landscape architecture encompasses the design of almost anything under the sky. Think of iconic places like Boston’s Emerald Necklace and the FDR Memorial in Washington, D.C. But also consider your downtown square, your local park, or even your own backyard. Green roofs, urban farms, and corporate campuses—all define landscape architecture.”

These articles were compiled by Phil Stamper, ASLA Public Relations and Communications Coordinator

Image credit: Edible Aesthetics / Micah Green. Dispatch Staff

Year of Public Service Comes to Alaska

2013 is the Year of Public Service at ASLA. The goal is to highlight the public service activities performed by landscape architects and advocate for a deeper commitment to community service by all. ASLA invites current members to submit 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 web site, blog and The Understory Facebook page. Here are two recent public service projects, performed as part of the ASLA’s partnership with the National Park Service Rivers and Trails Conservation Assistance Program. These projects were recently submitted by Heather Rice, NPS-RTCA & Jonny Hayes, ASLA, ASLA’s Alaska Chapter.

Kachemak Bay Water Trail (KBWT): ASLA Alaska Chapter members Jonny Hayes, ASLA, and Mark Kimerer, ASLA, have been actively engaged in this project from its inception, working in tandem with the KBWT Steering Committee, National Park Service Rivers and Trails Conservation Assistance Program, and City of Homer.

Hayes and Kimerer began the trail branding process by working with a special committee of KBWT to facilitate and generate logo concepts. The pair worked with the committee during the process to refine the selected concept and produce a final logo that has been used extensively to promote the water trail vision, which will serve as a basis to guide future marketing efforts. Hayes and Kimerer have continued to lend their expertise to assist the Steering Committee to identify water trail branding options, develop a site inventory review form, evaluate potential launch sites, and prepare an RFP for the design and build of a water trail web site.

In April, Hayes will be leading a planning and programming design charrette with key stakeholders and the City of Homer to begin the design and permitting of the Kachemak Bay Water Trail launch in Homer, with a similar effort to take place in Seldovia at a later date.

Palmer Bike Park: The Palmer Bike Park, in Palmer, Alaska, is envisioned as a place where cyclists of any ability can hone their biking skills so they can enjoy all types of terrain. Cyclists of all ages will be able to learn how to bike safely and have fun. At the park, they will gain the confidence they need to ride their bikes anywhere, from sidewalks to roadway bike lanes to back country mountain bike trails.

To help move this project forward, Eric Morey, ASLA, Alaska Chapter, and Luanne Urfer, ASLA, Washington Chapter, collaborated with the the National Park Service Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance Program. They volunteered a generous amount of their time and expertise as participants in every part of the planning and early concept development process, including crafting the initial vision and building community support.

Viewed as stepping stones toward the larger Palmer Bike Park, smaller neighborhood parks and bike pump parks are also being developed to encourage kids and families to get outside and play. The goal is to create a constituency for the bike park. In the Wilson Neighborhood Park, Morey, Urfer, and Zach Babb, ASLA, Alaska Chapter, put kids’ dreams to paper during the 2012 Wilson Neighborhood Park design charrette. Thanks to these ASLA members’ colorful conceptual drawings, the City of Palmer approved funding for design and engineering and the community now looks forward to construction beginning this summer. With continued support from ASLA – and the community – the Palmer Bike Park is sure to be a success soon.

Image credits: Heather Rice, NPS-RTCA & Jonny Hayes, ASLA

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

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