Djenne: An Evolving Cultural Landscape

Who manages a cultural landscape that has global importance? Does the United Nations have final say or the local community? It turns out a complex web of interests shape these evolving cultural landscapes, particularly if people still live there and they aren’t just outdoor museums. In a fascinating session at Dumbarton Oaks’ latest conference on cultural landscapes in Sub Saharan Africa, Charlotte Joy, an anthropologist at University of London, delved into Mali’s convoluted history with UNESCO World Heritage program and one local community’s efforts to preserve a cultural landscape people still call home.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was formed with the rest of the UN System in the mid-1940s. Its philosophy, said Joy, was always to “foster inter-cultural dialogue through education.” The idea behind the organization was to “construct peace in the minds of men,” not just through disarmament and economic development. The thinking was if cultures could better understand each other, they would go to war with each other less.

In 1972, after years of debate about what constitutes significant cultural value and the best ways to preserve the sites that embody it, UNESCO’s member states signed the World Heritage Convention and, six years later, formed the first World Heritage List. Today, the list, which includes some 962 sites, is seen as a critical tool for spreading knowledge about cultures. The current list includes some 745 cultural sites and 188 natural ones. Some 157 are combined cultural and natural sites. According to Joy, Africa has just 86 sites, mostly in the natural category. Just to note: Cultural landscapes are a special sub-set of world heritage sites. Within this group, there are “clearly defined, organically evolved, and associative” cultural landscapes.

Mali, a country in the north west corner of Sub-Saharan Africa, is home to four sites, two of which – Timbuktu and the Tomb of Askia – are critically threatened. In March of last year, a coup was started by an army officer, who was unhappy with the government response to a Tuareg rebellion. Soon after, the coup leaders attacked government sites in Bamako. Then, fighting with the Tuareg, who had partnered with an Al Qaeda affiliate, dramatically escalated. At one point, the Tuareg actually took control of Timbuktu, but they were soon repelled by French military forces, who have intervened in the conflict. Joy made a point of saying that Tuareg rebellions are nothing new in Mali, and have been happening at least since 1916. “There have been a large number of rebellions. Tuaregs are fighting for recognition, land, and self-definition.”

Mali’s economy has been devastated by both the conflict and the international community’s effective isolation of the new Malian leadership. Tourists aren’t coming to visit Mali’s amazing cultural sites because governments are listing the sites as unsafe. This is in part because many don’t have any formal communications with the new government.

Culture has always been big economic driver there. Joy said the cultural ministry even created a detailed “cultural map” of the country, with each region’s distinct art, music, and earth works. But all that amazing cultural heritage isn’t just for tourists: While there are many world music festivals that attract European tourists, local roots program radio stations and TV documentaries attract a wide domestic audience. Way before UNESCO created its list, “Mali was secure in its rich cultural heritage. This has always been a cultural landscape.”

In the relatively safe city of Djenne, south of Timbuktu, there is the UNESCO site Old Town. UNESCO put Djenne on the list because it’s an “authentic cityscape,” its “architectural whole is viewed as iconic.” Joy said “UNESCO loves Djenne because its African, monumental, and architectural.”

But she said the bounded lines of UNESCO’s definition of the Old Town don’t tell the true story of cultural heritage in Djenne. “For locals, it’s always been about Djenne and its surrounding landscape.” Gardens around the old town are used for growing food, while cattle herders move their animals and farmers grow rice. “Djenne can then be conceptualized as a formal cultural landscape,” not just as a set of old buildings.

Djenne has always had political value to Mali’s leaders. The founders of Mali pointed to it as “evidence of the democratic roots of Mali.” Interestingly, it began as a non-Islamic civilization, even though there are many Muslims who live there now. Its cultural value has shifted over time, at least for the locals who live there. Archeological sites within the old town are now off limits to the locals who have lived there for generations.

Age-old building techniques and materials have also changed, for the worst. Square bricks were introduced by the French, changing the traditional building construction techniques. “Before, masons in Djenne used round, cylindrical bricks.” Joy said the masons think the new bricks are inferior to the old.

The mud used to cover the buildings, which has its own special chemistry, has changed over the years. Before, corn husks were worked into the mud to strengthen it. Now, those corn husks have to actually be imported at great expense from other parts of Africa. The river from which the mud came from used to be rich in fish. Dead fish bones added necessary elements to the mud. With the loss of fish stock, “they now make poorer clay.”

Before, all able-bodied men and kids came out to help apply a fresh coat of mud to the mosque and other buildings in an annual rite. But with increased regulation, created by UNESCO, locals weren’t allowed to do it for a period of time because layers of recent mud forms were deemed to be out of compliance with the original forms. UNESCO asked the old town’s elders and masons to remove mud to go back to original design. “For five years, locals couldn’t apply the mud.” The community is back at work applying mud to the facades once again this year, or at least when the town elders decide it has reached the right consistency.

Joy said “there has to be a balance between regulating a place and actually living in it.” In effect, outside regulation can really interfere with locals’ ability to preserve their own cultural heritage, severing them from their cultural landscapes. She wondered how a cultural landscape that people live in can be trapped in time, particularly a time hundreds of years in the past. “People can’t live the same way indefinitely.” Also, can Djenne really ever be made to stay the same, “given the aquifers have changed, acid rain has affected the buildings, rice husks are now imported?”

She believes international organizations have an “ethical imperative to understand how people relate to a landscape” and adjust based on how that relationship changes over time. Joy also believes UNESCO missed the boat in terms of defining the cultural boundaries of the city. “The heritage is really found in the edge, in the periphery. What’s important is the symbolic relationship between the old town and the surrounding landscape.”

Other presentations explored the challenges of cultural landscape heritage management in Sub-Saharan Africa. Innocent Pikirayi, University of Pretoria, South Africa, described UNESCO World Heritage Site Great Zimbabwe in Zimbabwe as a “power-scape,” a contested political terrain. “There have been so many meanings projected on to this place.” Today, it’s officially a “sacred, protected site.” But in reality this means the local community who could actually support its upkeep has been barred from using the site as a spiritual landscape.

Early settlers, from 900 – 1450 AD, brought the population of the Great Zimbabwe area to around 18-20,000, which made it “comparable in size to pre-industrial London.” Beginning in the 1550s, the civilization that created the site began to decline, as it lost out to other civilizations in the gold trade. For hundreds of years, the site was “largely silent, abandoned,” until it was “discovered” by Europeans. With Cecil Rhodes and the rise of European settlers in Rhodesia (the European name for what is now Zimbabwe), the site’s history was “appropriated and falsified.” Then, with the rise of African nationalism “there was a purge of European scientific archeology,” in favor of making Great Zimbabwe a “national symbol.” Long-time dictator Robert Mugabe has “manipulated the past for political gain.”

The end result, said Pikirayi, is this vital place has actually lost its “sacredness” because the “spirit of the place is now inaccessible to the local community.” Some locals believe the gods are upset by this, which is why there are now “bush fires and other natural disasters.”

Maano Ramutsindela, University of Cape Town, South Africa, then discussed “how regions translate into cultural landscapes.” He described how regions, which share geographic, political, economic, and cultural characteristics, make up Sub-Saharan Africa. In Mali, for example, these “cultural regions actually define the landscape.” Cultural regions also mingle with natural habitats, creating interesting “human-environmental relationships,” such as migratory routes. Today, he is looking at Peace Parks, those inter-border zones that transect political boundaries. The idea is to create regional national parks that aren’t separated by borders, given animals don’t know whether they are in Mozambique, Tanzania, or South Africa. Conservation then creates new layers in these regional cultural landscapes.

Image credits: (1) Djenne market / Wikipedia, (2) Mosque in Djenne / Bensozia, (3) Applying mud to mosque in Djenne / Key Africa, (4) Djenne fisherman / Flickr.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (May 5 – 18)

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

7 Jobs that Make the World a Better PlacePatch Network, 5/8/13

“4. Landscape architect: According to the American Society of Landscape Architects, these workers analyze, plan, design, manage and nurture natural and built environments.”
Note: This was reused from an older AOL Jobs story, but has recently been seen in nearly 50 local Patch Newsletters over the last two weeks.

Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch Given New LifeMother Nature Network, 5/9/13
“Prince, 16, Paris, 15, and Blanket, 12, reportedly visited the site two years ago and were heartbroken to find it so neglected. The three immediately made plans to rescue the site, hiring gardeners, landscape architects and contractors to shore up dilapidated structures and grounds.”

Outdoor ‘Fire Features’ are This Year’s Must-have for HomeownersThe Republic, 5/13/13
“A recent survey by the American Society of Landscape Architects reflects that demand. Among outdoor design features expected to be most popular this year, 95.8 percent of survey respondents rated fireplaces and fire pits highly. The only feature that ranked higher: Backyard grills.”

Landscape Designer Margie Ruddick Brings a New Meaning to Green DesignSmithsonian Magazine, 5/17/13
“Last week, Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum announced that Ruddick would be one of this year’s ten recipients of a 2013 National Design Award, hers for landscape architecture. We caught up with her via e-mail after the announcement to ask her about her work. Below, she tells us more about her award-winning ‘green’ approach to design, why it is important and what it will mean for the future of architecture.”

Landscape Architecture Should Come Sooner, Not Later in DesignThe State Journal, 5/16/13
“The practice of landscape architecture is perceived by many as the last step in making the exterior of a building look attractive. Typically, clients and owners will wait until the completion of a building or residence to call in a landscape architect to consult on planting ideas, patios, lighting and possibly swimming pools.”

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

Image credit: Urban Garden Room by Margie Ruddick, ASLA / Image credit: Sam Oberlander. Smithsonian Magazine

Nearly Unknown in the West: Sub-Saharan Africa’s Cultural Landscapes

According to Professor Ikem Stanley Okoye, University of Delaware, “there has been no scholarly work that explores African landscapes that doesn’t somehow implicate the Europeans.” That statement may be less true given a recent conference on cultural landscapes in Sub-Saharan Africa at Dumbarton Oaks. Organized by John Beardsley, the head of landscape and garden studies there, the two-day symposium was designed to contribute to a growing African understanding of their own landscapes, including pre-colonial landscapes and how perceptions of these landscapes were altered during the era of colonialism. Speakers also examined how landscapes are intimately linked with cultural and political identities today.

Beardsley said Africa has an amazing range of “biotic zones,” filled with elephants, lions, or, as conservationists like to call them, “charismatic mega-fauna.” Beyond the wildlife though, Sub-Saharan Africa is also the “oldest inhabited landscape, the cradle of human species.” With thousands of years of history, the cultural landscapes that make up the region are equally as rich and diverse, if unknown in the West.

Below are snippets from the provocative presentations that asked us to really think when we look at Sub-Saharan African landscapes:

Is the Field of Garden and Landscape Studies Racist?

Grey Gundaker, Dittman professor of anthropology and African Studies at the College of William & Mary, said a review of garden and landscape studies survey literature over the past 40 years yielded only three articles on Sub-Saharan Africa, and those were the briefest of mentions. She said this was a prime example of how to “talk around something.” Basically, “African landscapes have been omitted.” She thinks that’s because African landscapes are loaded with the negative history of slavery, the guilt associated with that. But perhaps too often they are still treated as this “baseline upon which the superiority of the West rests” and not seen as having much value in themselves.

In garden and landscape studies, “blackness is a special case of ‘other.'” African landscapes are not only marginalized but perhaps the most marginalized. For example, she noted how Western garden and landscape survey books, which cover all styles of designed landscapes, will include some mention of Japanese zen gardens, along with perhaps some mention of Egypt, “the paler umbrella of the Middle East,” but Africa is the “unspeakable word.” The message: “Africans haven’t designed anything of real value.” If African landscapes are mentioned, “the agents, the designers are European. Africans are welcome to resist what Europeans do to them but they don’t bring things out themselves.” Gundaker argued that there’s a “legacy of embedded racism” that plagues garden and landscape studies to this day.

Gundaker said the practice of landscape architecture appeared in 18th century Europe around the same time as the appearance of Hegel and Voltaire. “The emergence of landscape architecture and all these other scientific ideas happened at the same time.” Unfortunately, that time also marked the escalation of the slave trade, with more than 6 million Africans taken from their continent. She said the gory truth was that many of the most beautiful gardens in Europe were actually paid for with money from the slave trade. She said it’s “no accident then that garden and landscape studies excluded Africa.”

With the fading of the slave trade, the European economic system had to diversify or die, so the next focus was on “resources that could be extracted from Africa.” To make those resources – and the natural landscapes they were found in – more easily extractable, they had to be disparaged or degraded, so, again, Gundaker argues, African cultural landscapes were also devalued.

As a result, in the major garden and landscape survey books created over the past 50 years, like The Landscape of Man, the “overt exclusionary discourses” didn’t even pass historians’ minds. The “genius of an artist’s discovery” was made primary, not their inspirations. As an example, she showed an image of Roberto Burle Marx’s famous Copacabana boardwalk. This was seen as the original vision of a Modernist master. Little known was those fractal patterns were lifted from African dresses Burle Marx had seen on his trips to Africa. In the same way, “scholars of Modernism never highlighted African forms.”

Indeed, to be deemed successful, a design must be viewed as having linear forms and “be Euclidian” in its precision. The cosmological landscapes of pre-literate, pre-industrial Sub-Saharan African societies were left out, even though they were incredibly complex abstract ideas expressed in landscape form. The default garden template in the West became “contemplative and meditative.” Africa’s great spiritual, and even practical, productive urban agriculture landscapes were omitted. While specialists have long focused on specific African landscapes, the survey books used to teach generations of Western landscape architects and designers simply bypassed all of this.

Can We Learn to Read the African Landscape?

Suzanne Preston Blier, Professor of Fine Arts, African, and African American Studies, Harvard University, who gave a fascinating talk on Yoruban landscapes at Dumbarton Oaks a few years ago, then tried to show the crowd how to actually read Sub-Saharan African landscapes, without being clouded by European colonial perceptions of these places. Blier said African landscapes require “new modes of reading. What you don’t see is often what’s most important.” She explored some “iconic models,” the idea of materials, and then African landscape shapes, like the cone, fence, square, and circle.

One iconic Sub-Saharan African model is the trap, which can really be anything that captures or holds something. Traps can be seen as indigenous African art. The model of a trap, Blier showed, plays out in a range of forms — from water vessels to fishing nets to homes where people live.

Another value is autochthony, or being indigenous. Blier said many African communities “honor those who were there first,” by creating principles and rights associated with ancestry. So much African art then includes images of game, because they provide sustenance, but also because they were there first, they are ancestors to be honored.

She showed images of how different African cultures honor ancestors. In the Ife area of Nigeria, religious ceremonies involve creating a hole in the ground, so as to communicate with ancestors directly. There, ancestors are also buried under floors, so earthen buildings aren’t just homes but also tombs. “It’s about connecting present to past.” In Igbo areas of Nigeria, elaborate costumes offer ways to act out important messages to ancestors. These ceremonies aren’t mindless traditions: “There is great creativity in how ancestors are presented.”

Africans closely engage the earth. When Blier was living in a Nigeria village, she couldn’t understand why African women were using such small brooms, leaning all the way down to sweep the village clear of bugs and detritus. She asked them, “why didn’t you use a long broom so you don’t have to stoop?” She laughed, adding that she soon discovered the practice was about “engaging with the earth up close.” Earthen arts, like drawings, are widespread.

Time plays a different role in African landscapes. In many African languages she said, “the past and present are the same word.” What does that mean in practice for African landscape architecture? The future will be like the past, in an endless cycle.

She said in contrast with the West, hard and soft is reversed in Sub-Saharan Africa. “Hard” buildings, made of mud or wood, are designed to fade back into nature and be constantly remade, while “soft” vegetation is what stays and even thrives. In Ghana, for example, African urban planners planted trees first and then built markets around them. In another example of the perceived permanence of nature: Africa was the first to domesticate nature, to grow millet, rice, and cut lumber. In the West, it’s the buildings that are designed to stay somewhat longer, and the vegetation is controlled, set upon.

African forms are distinctive landscape elements, too. Blier says some scholars believe the pyramids in Egypt were actually a variation of the earlier African cone form. The cone shows itself in so many things there, in the shape of termite hills, the salt stored in a market, and shrines.

Fences are critical. There are living fences made of trees or bushes. Ancient African cities have city walls and trenches of all types of sizes. “Their purposes and forms vary.” Lastly, there are also “human fences” that form for ceremony. Groups interlock arms, creating smaller exclusive spaces.

Location is important, as it is just about anywhere on earth. In one community, “the most powerful people are in the lowest area” because it’s closer to water. In one kingdom, the king lived on top of a hill, because his view was all encompassing. “Observation was power.” In still other communities, Africans created some of the first hill-side terrace villages and farming systems.

In comments after the session, Hitesh Mehta, FASLA, a Kenyan professor and landscape architect, said back in the colonial era, “landscapes only existed if white people saw them. Blackness was basically deleted. It’s like nothing south of Egypt existed.” He added that in the eyes of European colonialists, works of global heritage like the Great Zimbabwe “couldn’t have been created by ancient black people. They were too intelligent.”

While perceptions have dramatically changed for the better, “the spiritual aspect of African landscapes is still hard to understand in the West.” Works of landscape architecture in Sub-Saharan Africa are largely set up for “spiritual reasons.”

Image credit: (1) Mapungubwe Hill National Park, South Africa / Wikipedia, (2) Arab Slave Traders along the Ruvuma River / Wikipedia, (3) Copacabana Boardwalk by Roberto Burle Marx / The Traveling Isle, (4) Igbo mask dancers performing during the Onwa Asaa festival, Ugwuoba village, Nigeria / Smithsonian Institution Collection Archives, (5) Termite Hill of the Savannah / Travel Blog, (6) Cone tower of the Great Zimbabwe / Wikipedia

Margie Ruddick Takes Home National Design Award

The Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum announced that Margie Ruddick, ASLA, won the National Design Award for landscape architecture. The National Design Awards were launched at the White House in 2000 to honor “lasting achievement in American design.” The annual awards program celebrates “design as a vital humanistic tool in shaping the world, and seeks to increase national awareness of the impact of design through education initiatives.”

The Cooper-Hewitt writes that Ruddick is “recognized for her pioneering, environmental approach to urban landscape design, forging a design language that integrates ecology, urban planning, and culture.” Over the past 25 years, Ruddick has made real the “idea of nature in the city.” In fact, she was once fined by a judge in Philadelphia for bringing a bit too much nature to her East Mount Airy yard. (see an amusing New York Times article).

Ruddick works both at home and overseas. Her best-known, recent U.S. work includes Queens Plaza in New York. In this plaza’s transformational design, she writes on her web site, “stormwater, wind, sun and habitat merge within an urban infrastructure to create a more sustainable vision of urban life.” (learn more about the project in this Wall Street Journal article).

Her international work includes the Shillim Retreat in India, which she is still involved in as a board member.

She’s also known for the Living Water Park, the first ecological park in China. The park is designed to use biological systems to clean polluted water.

She’s not new to winning awards: She received the 2002 Lewis Mumford Award from Architects Designers and Planners for Social Responsibility and the 2006 Rachel Carson Women in Conservation Award from the National Audubon Society, which recognizes “visionary women whose contributions, talent, and energy have advanced conservation and environmental education locally and on a global scale.”

Ruddick was born in Montreal and raised in NYC. She graduated from Bowdoin College and Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design (GSD). From 1988 up until 2004, she ran her own practice. Then, she became a partner at Philadelphia-based planning and landscape architecture firm WRT. In 2007, she started working on projects independently again, in addition to writing, lecturing, and teaching. A few year later, she worked with Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, as a ecological design consultant on Brooklyn Bridge Park. She has also taught at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, University of Pennsylvania, Parsons School of Design, and Schumacher College in England.

See lots more photos of her projects.

If you want to explore previous winners: Chris Reed, ASLA, and his firm Stoss won last year and Gustafson Guthrie Nichol the year before.

Image credits: (1) Jason Andrews / Wall Street Journal, (2) Queens Plaza / Marpillero Pollack. Courtesy Smithsonian Cooper Hewitt National Design  Museum. National Design Awards. (3) Shillim Retreat / Courtesy Smithsonian Cooper Hewitt National Design  Museum. National Design Awards.

In the Wake of Hurricane Sandy, Design a More Resilient Rockaway

Rockaway, Queens, a low-lying area in New York City, was hit hard by Hurricane Sandy, so a fascinating new design competition seeks to create a more resilient and sustainable form of development for this vulnerable area, and, really, others like it in New York City and other coastal cities. FAR ROC [For a Resilient Rockaway] is a design competition that will delve into “innovative strategies for the planning, design and construction” of a more resilient place at Arverne East, an 80+ acre site on the Rockaway Peninsula. Their ambitious goal: new best practices for development in waterfront areas.

The conference organizers, which include the NYC Department of Housing and Development, AIA NY, and others, write that finding a new approach will be tricky, given many argue that some flood-prone areas should really be left undeveloped. “Costly damage to buildings, roads, and utility systems by the storm raises the controversial question of whether areas of particular geographic vulnerability should be rebuilt, maintained and defended, or simply abandoned.”

Averne Avenue is located in FEMA Special Flood Hazard Area Zone A section of the Rockaways, a place that “experienced significant storm surge inundation” during the storm. Within the 80+ acre location at Averne East, the jury will be looking for imaginative yet practical designs for a “comprehensive, mixed-use, mixed-income, sustainable and storm-resilient community that will meet the new physical and regulatory challenges of waterfront development while maintaining a balance between innovation and affordability. Proposed solutions should promote new housing, employment, and recreational opportunities for area residents and visitors from throughout the region.”

To be specific, landscape architects and other design professionals proposing new design solutions will need to work with 1,500 units of housing, with a mix of low to mid-rise buildings; up to 500,000 square feet of commercial / recreational space; a 35 acre nature preserve; a 9 acre dune preserve; and 3.3 acres minimum of active and/or passive open space.

They add: “The project must incorporate all new infrastructure [roadways, water mains, sanitary and storm sewers, utilities, smart grids, etc.] and both active and passive landscaped open space on the site bordering the Atlantic Ocean waterfront. Proposals should emphasize sustainability and resiliency but present a quality, marketable, and constructable project.”

Once submissions are received, the jury, which includes landscape architect and ecologist Alex Felson, ASLA, will select four finalists. These finalists will each be provided with $30,000 to further flush out their concepts. The winner, who will be announced before the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, will receive an additional $30,000.

Submit your concepts by June 14.

Another design competition worth exploring: Washington, D.C.’s water utility, DC Water, just launched a $1 million green infrastructure competition to help the District fix its combined sewer overflow (CSO) problems. Green infrastructure projects can include green roofs, rain gardens, rain barrels, and pervious pavements, removing impervious surfaces, and using other natural means to capture and infiltrate rain water. They are targeting the Potomac and Rock Creek drainage areas in D.C.

They write: “This challenge will serve as a model to support DC Water’s proposal to conduct a large-scale, multi-million dollar demonstration project in the Potomac and Rock Creek sewersheds” and also help them “evaluate the feasibility of using green practices, in place of or in conjunction with ‘gray’ engineering solutions.”

Image credit: Rockaway, Queens / FAR ROC

Wilderness South of Chicago: Beauty Amid Industry

The Calumet region surrounds Chicago and includes Lake Calumet and the Calumet river system. Here, an amazing alliance of nearly 270 organizations, which have banded together under the name Chicago Wilderness, are working towards improving green infrastructure, creating access to nature for children, devising plans for mitigating and adapting to climate change, and preserving and restoring wildlife habitat. In a full-day tour organized for the American Planning Association (APA) conference by The Field Museum, one of Chicago Wilderness’ members and one of the world’s great natural history museums, pockets of nature were uncovered amid the industrial suburbs and bleak, isolated public housing communities far south of Chicago. The tour was led by Mark Bouman, Chicago Field Director; Laurel Ross, Urban Conservation Director; Alaka Wali, curator of North American anthropology; and Doug Stotz, Senior Conservation Ecologist at The Field Museum.

Green Infrastructure in the Burbs

The first stop on the tour was Blue Island, Illinois, a “free standing industrial community” of 25,000 spread over 45 square miles, where city leaders are working with Chicago Wilderness to protect green infrastructure. There, the “stormwater management issue is huge,” said Mary Poulson, community relations director for Blue Island. Currently, the community can’t deal with the issue well, but aims to use “distributed reservoirs and green infrastructure” to handle the problem. To address the broader challenge of water management across the region, the community has joined with 33 other municipalities in the area to create the South Suburban Green Infrastructure Vision.

The town is also working on creating a “more sustainable watershed” around its Midlothian Creek, which runs through part of the community. Part of this effort is to “protect fragmented natural areas.” While they may not be impressive to look at, “they are valuable” from a stormwater management point of view. They are also valuable habitat. Stotz said this place attracts “early bird migrants.”

To make this green infrastructure more accessible to the community, a new bicycle trail will be going in along the creek. In another part of town we saw a boat launch.


Planning efforts were supported by workshops around geography and green infrastructure, which led to a map down to the parcel level. One result is that residential areas are now included in these plans. The city encourages homeowners to install rain barrels. To date, more than 1,000 have been installed and there’s now a waiting list. The city government is pushing for the use of native plants in favor of lawns. Connected with all this green work is an economic development planning process that was started by the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) a few years ago.

Learning about Nature in a Restored Landscape

The Beaubien Woods have been set aside for environmental education purposes, not recreation, but that hasn’t stopped locals from Altgeld Gardens public housing, where President Obama got his start in community organizing, from fishing at the Little Calumet River that runs through the area. At its peak, the housing project had 10,000 people living in more than 2,000 units. Now, there are around 2,500 people in this extremely isolated community. Much of the housing seemed to be falling apart. There seemed to be few shops or services nearby. On top of the isolation and limited opportunities, there are also major odor issues caused by the nearby plants that deal with sewage. “Methane gas is a big problem here,” said Bouman.

The 135-acre Beaubien Woods, which is made up of prairie, woodland and wetland habitats, is part of Cook County’s forest district, which makes up around 11 percent of the total land area. Over the last twenty years, the site has undergone intensive ecological restoration. The site is beautiful. There’s woodlands, a river, and rolling hills in the background. Interestingly, those hills are actually covered garbage dumps, so the woods themselves form the hole in the “toxic donut,” said Bouman.

While the river is so polluted that pamphlets are distributed outlining the dangers of eating fish caught there, Ross said that the river is actually stocked with fish by the Illinois department of natural resources so they are “relatively OK to eat given they aren’t there long.”

Stotz said the site is really rich bird habitat. The area attracts more than 180 bird species, perhaps because there are 209 species of native plants. The local Afro Birders group uses the landscape to teach kids from Altgeld and other communities how to spot different types of birds. The Field Museum along with the Calumet Stewardship Initiative are also doing “place-based kids education” to teach locals about “where they are living and connect them to their landscape.” There are volunteer days organized for removing invasive species and cleaning and restoring the ecosystem. Each June, there’s a “family-friendly free nature festival.” Wali said “African Americans are as concerned about preserving nature as any other group of people, perhaps even more than others.”

Getting out in Front of Climate Change

Chicago has created a climate change action plan, but it’s not for nature, said Stotz, so Chicago Wilderness has done their own plan that addresses the possible impacts to local flora and fauna. They created a “biodiversity recovery plan,” which aims to restore nature in the region to make it more resilient and create a network of green and blue corridors to help species migrate.

The organizations involved have been collecting observations about what has changed. For example, the prairie burn season is now “much, much longer,” said Ross, because it’s gotten warmer. She said this opens up windows of opportunity because “there’s less snow on the ground. Things green up earlier.” Communities don’t burn prairies in the summer anyway because it just adds to the “ozone and particulate matter,” which is already high in hotter months. Prairies, just to explain, are “adapted to fire.” Native Americans burned these ecosystems to drive out wild game during hunting. Now, these landscape need to be periodically burnt to maintain their health. Burning also keeps woody invasive plants out. “These are landscapes by fire.”

The Field Museum and other Chicago Wilderness partners are also looking at “carbon storage in protected areas.” Stotz said there are a variety of projects underway to measure the carbon stored in above-ground trees, but more work is needed to measure the carbon storage value of herbaceous plants as well as carbon in soils.

One goal of the alliance is to engage the local community in climate planning and natural restoration work. Wali said they used an “asset mapping” approach, which is a methodology created by urban planners, to discover “the strength of individuals and their capacities” in the communities involved and create a climate community action toolkit local organizations can themselves use to spur action. In six communities, “we mapped the social strengths, including churches, local gardens, and other networks — the intangibles,” to see how to form bottom-up support networks for biodiversity preservation. This approach is needed because “we have to take an integrated view of nature.”

While the communities that will support these natural areas all depend on industrial work for their livelihoods, the process also showed “these people care about nature.”  Their asset mapping work has shown the group that “there are interesting local environmental practices.” People are “actively recycling” even though there are no formal recycling programs. “Junkeros, local recyclers in the latino community, tap their kinship networks to recycle materials.”

Now, the toolkit, which was actually financed with a $100,000 grant by Boeing, is being used by local organizations to tap their networks.

Restoring Nature to Health

Perhaps saving the best for last, the Field Museum scientists then took us to the Powderhorn Prairie Nature Preserve, a deeply rich landscape where prairie, woodland, and oak savannah ecosystems meet. Just a few miles from skyscraper-sized oil refineries owned by BP, there are undulating dunes and swales create a set of “niche habitats.” Bouman said this is the “most biodiverse site in Chicago.”

A recent Bioblitz, an intensive biological survey that involves counting as many species as possible in a 24 hour period, yielded more than 250 species. “This is a rich edge area,” said Stotz. A volunteer program helped bring the area back.

Invasive plants and shrubs were crowding out the rare native species, including Illinois’ only native cactus.

Ross said there was an intensive “reseeding process” to restore the fragile prairie grasses. Then, they were set on fire to remove the invasive plants.

The hydrology of the site was also restored, undoing the damage from nearby drainage projects.

The ecological restoration brought up many questions, said Ross. “Can the damage be undone? What should we restore to?” She said ecological restoration is “creative, challenging work. No one size fits all. You have to know the local areas intimately.”

Stotz said the effort was important. “These are just little patches, but there are worthwhile things here. That’s why I do this.” Nature is amazingly resilient but sometimes just needs a hand.

Image credits: Jared Green / ASLA

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (April 21 – May 4)

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

An Architectural Reflection of George W. BushThe Atlantic Cities, 4/25/13

“The 15-acre landscape park is a particularly fitting tribute to a president who always seemed most at ease bushwhacking in the woods around his Crawford ranch. Again, the Bushes (and landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh) bend their will to the land, with native prairie grasses, seasonal wildflowers, and a Texas rose garden.”

Seattle’s Free Food ExperimentNational Geographic, 4/29/13

“On Beacon Hill, just south of central Seattle, landscape developers and a few affordable-food advocates are building an edible food forest. Everything grown in the area, from the tree canopies to the roots, will be edible. And it’ll be open around the clock to anyone who wants to come and pick some fresh blueberries or pears. In its first phase, the farm will be 1.5 acres. But if it’s successful, the public land it’ll sit on—currently owned by Seattle Public Utilities—will be able to accommodate 5.5 more acres of growth.”

Coming to a Rooftop Near YouThe Boston Globe, 4/30/13

“Landscape architect Lauren Mandel has been studying the urban ag movement for the past four years. In her new book, ‘Eat Up: The Inside Scoop on Rooftop Agriculture’ (New Society Publishers), she identifies eight North American cities — Chicago, New York, and San Francisco, among them — that have been leading the way in high-rise urban farming.”

EuropaCity is a (Fantasy) Underground Green Town TGDaily, 5/1/13

“Under the carpet of green vegetation on the roof, the designers have sketched out what they consider a sustainable, densely packed urban environment. However, all workers and visitors will have plenty of access to the outdoor roof area, which will include recreational areas, hiking paths and urban farms. The green roof will also be high enough to see spectacular views of Paris in the distance.”

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

Image credit: Recover Green Roofs / The Boston Globe

In the Pacific Northwest, Native American Communities Plan for Climate Change

While we’ve heard a lot about the transformational climate change adaptation plans of New York City, Boston, and San Francisco, and other big coastal cities, small coastal communities are also creating bold plans for how to handle tidal surges, rising sea levels, and temperature changes. If they are smart, they are also figuring out what sustainable development opportunities can arise out of their adaptation efforts, too. At the American Planning Association (APA) conference in Chicago, Edwin Knight, Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, Camano Island, Washington; and Sean Keithly and Steve Moddemeyer, both at Collinswoerman, discussed how the Swinomish Tribe on Camano Island, a small Native American community on the Puget Sound, has taken up the twin challenges of climate change adaptation planning and sustainable development.

Knight said an examination of 650,000 years of Antartic ice data shows that “carbon dioxide emissions are going off the chart. We are currently exceeding our worst-case scenarios.” Temperatures are expected to become hotter than anything for the past 100,000 years. In this century, we can expect a 3-8 degree Fahrenheit rise in temperatures. Rising tides are also expected. In the Seattle area, they are planning for a 3-feet rise this century.

According to Knight, “changes are going to happen regardless of how much we cut carbon dioxide emissions now.” Those changes vary locally. Depending on where a community is, they could face “floods, cold snaps, heat waves, or droughts.” The big worry is that “change could come faster than we think.”

Knight said the primary fear in the Camano Island Swinomish Tribal community is “a tidal surge on top of a high tide,” which would utterly overwhelm the town’s dikes. Currently, the storm surge barriers are about 5 feet above sea level. With a tidal surge, waters could easily rise 8 feet. But even by increasing the height of the dikes, “how long can we expect protection?” Building, say, a 12-foot dike is also not a viable solution because it would be prohibitively expensive.

For a small community with limited resources like Camano Island, the challenge then becomes how to do sustainable development in the face of climate change. “There are many disciplines involved. There are complex issues in changing circumstances. Funding sources are hard to tap. There are long time frames.”

Camano Island is a rural coastal community of about 3,000. They have forested uplands, agricultural lands, and lots of residential areas, but the hub of economic activity is around the coasts, which are increasingly under threat. A few years ago, a storm surge that breached their dike system wrecked havoc. To protect against the next surge, the community secured about $400,000 in funds to conduct a climate change adaptation plan. Some 80 percent of the funds came from the federal government while 20 percent came from the tribe.

During the first year, the tribe focused on conducting an “impact assessment, scoping the strategy.” The analysis included a review of “climate data,” creating an inventory of “vulnerabilities,” which yielded a “risk zone map.” The second year focused on creating a set of recommendations and an action plan for the whole community. The plan had to account for immediate and long-term threats, sustainable development, regional access (including plans for what would happen if connections to the mainland were severed), and long-term levee maintenance.

Keithly at Collinswoerman said his team used a “values-based approach” to create the long-term development plan for the island. “Cultural values underscored everything.” The plan presents “site development opportunities” along with a master plan for future development. The team looked at residential areas along with relatively underused agriculture areas. The waterfront was a key focus area. The island is also set up for recreation so they looked at possible impacts on their key sources of tourism dollars: kayaking, wetland walks, and other eco-tourism. Beyond the natural landscape, the planning team looked at all the buildings and how to make them more resilient.

An original plan included “transition zones,” a new concept that would move coastal buildings from the land to the water through the use of pylons or even floating structures. “This is pro-active sea level rise adaptation.” Development would now be “water based, sustainable over time.” There were ideas for a floating hotel or eco-lodge as a centerpiece. Unfortunately, while the Corps of Engineers gives “some considerations for sea level rise,” water-dependent buildings still can’t be done “under current regulations.” Keithly said “a marina is OK, but proactive adaptation isn’t.” The “regulatory norms are unfortunately pretty impractical.”

So an updated plan was crafted for a mixed-use waterfront with multiple quadrants, organized based on how far they were from the water. Old sites would be raised with soils, while a new mixed-use development would also be elevated. “There will be large flex office space to bring in new commercial tenants.” Hopefully, the floating building plans will eventually be approved, too, but in the interim, a planned eco-lodge and cabins will be designed with the highest sustainable building standards.

Moddemeyer at Collinswoerman said the end goal of the planning effort was to really bring out what the Swinomish already know. They have been living off the land sustainably for thousands of years. They have gone through many cycles of “exploiting and conserving their resources,” and historically planned for “change instead of continuity.”

Their smart plan reflects this understanding of nature’s cycles, and now goes beyond climate change: it’s a tool for dealing with all sorts of variability. Improving the resiliency of the community and built environment is viewed as the primary way to deal with all this. “We need semi-autonomous systems that nest in broader systems. We need networked but independent nodes.”

Explore the Swinomish climate plan.

Image credit: Swinomish Canoe Journey / Mary Evitt. LA Conner News Weekly

Kim Mathews’ Cinderella Stories

In a lecture at the National Building Museum (NBM), Kim Mathews, RLA, ASLA, a founding principal of Mathews Nielsen, discussed resiliency and renewal through her firm’s “Cinderella projects.” The lecture was hosted in celebration of National Landscape Architecture Month (NLAM) and as part of NBM’s Smart Growth lecture series.

“Many of our projects are, in fact, true Cinderella stories,” Mathews explained. “They are stories of perseverance, adaptation, and sometimes just plain good luck. They are landscapes that have been working all their life, often forgotten or out of view of the general public, but given the opportunity to be re-imagined.”

The presentation featured five Cinderella stories, all located in New York City riverfronts, and focus on the physical connections to the community. Here are three of the five projects:

Hunts Point Landing

Hunts Point Landing is one of twenty projects in New York City’s South Bronx Greenway master plan initiative. Mathews Nielsen is leading this major, multi-year planning and design effort. The master plan provides practical strategies for greening the Bronx, environmentally and financially. Hunts Points Landing provides new connections to the river for community residents as well as a host of waterfront activities.

Once a fully paved industrial site overlooking the river, Hunts Point Landing was transformed and now offers panoramic views (see image above). “The circulation and topography within the site were calibrated to ensure that a visitor sees the water and is led to the shoreline upon entering the park,” Mathews exlpained.

Leading to the river, the site transitions smoothly between urban and natural environments. At one end of the park, the Hunts Point extension connects to the greenway. There are sidewalks to enter into the park, the fish market, and some parking. The pathway into the park smoothly becomes more densely populated with trees, grasses, and other native plants, leading into the restored shoreline with natural wetland and tidal pools.

Weehawken Waterfront Park

Located just north of the Lincoln Tunnel in Hudson County, New Jersey, this 12-acre park is the new public centerpiece of the Weehawken restored riverfront. Previously, this area was rail yard and industrial park, a gray, desolate piece of the public esplanade around the river.

The township wanted the park to become a living environment that enables active recreation by visitors. It’s a challenge to identify locations for large play fields within waterfront settings, but Mathews explained that “through careful design, we were able to locate the large fields along the water’s edge, while keeping the sweeping views to the river.”

The fields and courts are now embedded within the landscape. Additionally, the park features a rolling terrain with high points, sloping lawns, wildflower meadows, and grassy berms. For many who live in the area, this is the only available place for play.


Shoelace Park Master Plan

In Shoelace Park, the natural line of the river was straightened due to a now inactive roadway, leaving the Bronx River more susceptible to flooding. Also, nearly 40 percent of the park flows through a 100-year flood plain. In this new master plan, the Bronx River, with both soft and armored edges, will now meander through a revitalized Shoelace Park.

Through a public design workshop, the firm and the Bronx River Alliance were able to identify what features were necessary to turn this park into a community landmark. The features desired by the community would then be combined with water management systems. Key components would include a play area, vegetated swales, and a large, 17-foot promenade with a shared pedestrian lane and two bike and skating lanes.


These case studies show how to renew communities with sustainable strategies. “These are urban edges that have come a bit unraveled, but through smart design and perseverance, they have been stitched back together.”

Listen to the full recording and see more images from Mathews’ presentation.

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

Image credits: (1) Hunts Point Landing / Mathews Nielsen, (2) Weehawken Waterfront Park / Mathews Nielsen, (3) Shoelace Park / Mathews Nielsen

Interview with Kevin Shanley on Protecting Our Coasts

Kevin Shanley, FASLA, is CEO of SWA Group and a long-time resident of Houston.

You were recently in Washington, D.C. speaking at the Renewable Natural Resources Foundation on improving the resiliency of our coasts in an effort to protect them from increasingly damaging storms and sea-level rise brought on by climate change. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, this is an issue on the minds of just about everybody who lives on the coast. What were the lessons of this disaster?

There are several lessons. There are real-world lessons and then “should-be” lessons. The real-world lesson is that everybody is at risk. These storms don’t just happen to Florida or Bangladesh. They can hit New York City. The storm could have hit Washington, D.C., with disastrous results. We’re not ready.

The other lesson we need to learn is quite important: we forget really quickly. Katrina happened, now eight years ago. Some structural changes were made to the levee system, but all of the really great plans to re-build New Orleans as a more sustainable community, a better community, a more integrated community came to nothing. In Houston in 2008, Hurricane Ike was a near miss. The SSPEED Center at Rice University is involved with this and has been working to make sure we don’t forget what happened with Ike. If Ike had come in, it would have been a disaster ten-fold Katrina. It didn’t, so we were lucky. It swerved about sixty miles to the east and it literally wiped the Bolivar Peninsula clean, virtually every structure on the peninsula was gone. It went up Chambers County, an agricultural community, and created huge damage, but relatively light because there’s nobody there, which is a lesson to learn.

The challenge after Sandy is to ask ourselves what’s the next thing that’s going to distract everybody? In 2001, Houston was hit not with a hurricane but with a really amazing tropical storm called Allison. It dumped thirty inches of rain in twenty-four hours. It flooded seventy-five thousand homes and ninety five thousand cars. It was an amazing flood. It actually tracked all the way up to Canada. Post-Allison, many good things started to happen and a number actually did happen. There were bigger policy changes and changes that many of us were working on, but then in September 2001, guess what happened? The national attention, the local attention, everybody’s attention totally changed and a lot of policy-changing momentum was lost.

So will there be a diversion from Sandy? Yes. North Korea is percolating, and, now we’re focused on whether or not something terrible will happen there?” As is the case with media and big events, each successive one diverts energy and intellectual focus from the present problem—in this case, Hurricane Sandy. Sandy will be forgotten in the national attention, and unfortunately at the local level, attention might diminish as well. While there will be some good policy people working at it, and the number of people personally affected won’t forget, our national focus on Sandy will fade. In some respects, the recovery is amazing. The human species is amazingly resilient. The Bolivar Peninsula was wiped clean. Today, you wouldn’t know it. People have rebuilt right there in exactly the same place. It’s phenomenal. The key is finding a way to rebuild strategically and learn lessons from these disasters to shape our future plans. We also need to find a way to take a long-term view on many of these problems.

The New York Times reported that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo wants to spend $400 million to buy up homes in New York City, demolish them, and then preserve the flood-prone land as undeveloped coastline. The idea is to spend some big bucks to turn some coastal areas into wetland or parkland. Does this approach make sense? Can this model be realistically scaled-up elsewhere in the U.S.? What are the alternatives?

It’s a potentially very powerful tool. Speaking globally, the British and Dutch have been at it for decades. It’s called “managed retreat.” It’s about getting out of harm’s way. FEMA has been funding buyouts like that for a while now. It’s a really good program to remove the most at-risk structures, particularly federally-insured structures that time after time are repeat sinks for federal flood insurance claims.

What needs to be thought about, however, if you’re talking about scaling it up, is how to replace the economic value of the development that’s being removed from harm’s way. It’s about the loss of tax revenue. There are sales taxes based on the occupants, all kinds of revenue to the community. This revenue pays for schools, sewer systems, security, and all of the other things that we take for granted in government. Coastal real estate is expensive because it’s attractive. If you take that out of the equation, you’ve got to be ready to think how to replace that. That’s the challenge facing all of us. Great ecological strategies need to be considered economically, and vice versa.

New York City seems to be seriously considering using “soft” green infrastructure instead of “hard” infrastructure, like hugely expensive seawalls, to protect against another disaster. In a recent Metropolis magazine piece, Susannah Drake, ASLA, ASLA NY Chapter president, described soft infrastructure as “transforming the waterfront from a definitive boundary into a subtly graded band.” The Dutch are already moving ahead with this kind of infrastructure, having seen the ecological damage caused by hard infrastructure. Will American policymakers ever buy into this?

Soft green infrastructure along coastal fringe areas can play a really important role in restoring ecological functions to our coastlines. Our coastlines have been severely degraded from an ecological performance standpoint. Green infrastructure as protection for urban areas needs really serious science and engineering studies to figure out the effectiveness of the interventions across different scenarios. Just how effective is a coastal marsh of several hundred yards wide? We’re not talking about miles wide. We’re talking probably several hundred yards or hundreds of feet. What is the benefit to, say, Manhattan? How does that compare to other strategies? Can we take a blended approach to soften our edges and create redundant and resilient strategies?

I’ve seen some beautiful renderings of the edge of Manhattan as it could be. There would be dramatic changes in ecological performance and a transformation in public perception about the city as a green place. There are a lot of wonderful aspects to this. But from a surge and hurricane risk-protection standpoint, we need to be careful not to set up false expectations. To what extent do coastal marshes protect us when a surge comes in that is 15 or 20 feet above those marshes? The green infrastructure could impede the wave action and the movement of the water or even exacerbate the run-up of a surge in shallow waters. The Gulf Coast of the North American continent has a long, shallow coastal run-up, which tends to exacerbate wind-driven surge.

We need to ask specific questions about where the benefits are. We need to ask our scientists, engineers, policymakers, and economists if we are looking at increased sea-level rise rates that are projected to be about a meter every 100 years (three feet every 100 years). Also, rising water levels drown coastal marshes. That’s what has happened in the Galveston Bay complex. Because of subsidence caused by groundwater withdrawal, we lost square miles of emergent coastal marsh. The bottom dropped out and it drowned the marshes. How does this progression work? One can say, “Well, the marsh will just march inland.” Well, will it? Does the actual geography allow it to just march inward? Will there be a period where there’s nothing and then it has to get above a small bluff elevation? Those are important questions to ask if we’re talking about putting really significant resources into this green infrastructure approach to improving coastal resiliency.

Respected scientists argue that sea levels could rise four feet by 2100. If any of the recent hurricanes to hit the U.S. had occurred at higher sea levels, the damages would have been that much more extensive and costly to repair. What are you hearing about seal level rise? How does this change the timeline for action on improving coastal resiliency?

Sea level rise is like watching the hour hand move. We are like grammar school students: the hour hand doesn’t seem to move during class. Our time horizons are measured in just a few years at best. If we’re forward-thinking, we might think out 10 years. The meaningful impacts of sea level rise, the really serious impacts are happening right now, but this is a process that’s been going on for thousands of years, millennia, actually millions of years.

Are anthropomorphic forces going to increase the rate of change? It’s a really good question and there are certainly many scientists who think that the burning of all this fossil fuel is increasing carbon dioxide, which is increasing the temperature of the globe, which is melting the icecap and raising sea levels. Will public policymakers be able to think out beyond a year or even 10 years to 100-year thresholds? The dialogue is there, but I don’t see it coming down to meet real public policy changes yet.

There are outliers in the predictive scientific community who suggest the possibility that if the Greenland icecap, which is the big gorilla in the room, increased its rate of melt or disintegrated due to some threshold that we’re not sure about, sea levels could rise very rapidly within an individual’s lifetime. It could be a disaster. Would we be prepared for that? Absolutely not. As somebody who thinks about public policy, I think we should be running scenarios. We are uncertain as to the disposition of our climate and sea levels. When you’re not sure of something you should be thinking about different scenarios. You should be thinking “Well, what if it’s only three feet in 100 years? What do I need to do? But what if it’s six feet? What if it’s 10 meters, 30 feet, in 100 years? What should I do?” This dialogue should be occurring so that if the natural world presents us with an existential challenge at least some part of the community has been grappling with it and may have some appropriate paths to take.

You’ve been a long-time advocate for using natural systems to deal with water. In a recent article in The Huffington Post you write that Houston and other cities along the Galveston Bay rely on “antiquated storm-protection techniques and land practices doomed to repeated failures.” What’s needed are “policy shifts rooted in a natural systems-approach that work with nature’s tremendous forces.” What’s holding back these policy shifts? Where are the biggest obstacles at the federal and local levels?  

The biggest obstacle is the lack of public awareness. FEMA creates flood-risk maps or flood insurance rate maps. In the coastal areas of North America they are woefully inadequate. FEMA realizes that and they’re in the process of updating them. In our region we haven’t seen the updates. We’re waiting with bated breath. We’re not sure we’ll entirely agree with their characterization of risk. Large swaths of the community rely on this public information to advise them about the level of risk. They look at the maps and say “I’m not at risk,” whereas actual surge models being prepared show huge areas are at risk. So, first there has to be clear science that determines what defines the level of risk.

Second, there needs to be clear communication about the risks. That can be through things like flood insurance rate maps, but it also needs to be through public education and policy. There needs to be clear disclosure on every real estate transaction. There was an effort in the Clear Lake City area, which is in the Houston metro region where NASA’s Johnson Space Center is located. They actually put up signs, little colored pylons, that indicated “This is the water level for a category four storm. This is the water level for a category five storm.” These little pylons were 10 feet tall and very clear. You see it there and you would wonder, “Gee, should I buy a house here?” or certainly “Gee, should I make sure I renew my flood insurance?” A local politician, at the behest of the real estate community, insisted they be taken down.

Beyond research you’ve also made these natural systems work in real-world landscapes. The Buffalo Bayou Promenade in Houston really set the example for how to turn a trash-soaked eyesore into a beautiful piece of parkland that also supports flood control. Houston seems to really understand the value of this kind of multi-use infrastructure. What led to the changes in Houston’s approach to its waterways and green space?

Houston is just beginning to learn the value of its waterfront real estate and for Houston it’s the value of our rivers and streams (we call them bayous).

A lot of cities around the country are actually way ahead of Houston in having recognized that value, whether it’s a coastal waterfront or a river waterfront. In Houston, the new riverfront has been the result of years of work by lots of individuals, non-profit organizations, and government agencies. Each main bayou in the city has its own citizen advocacy organizations. Some of them are fairly significant and have permanent staff, whereas others  are purely volunteer citizen groups. There have been willing ears in the public agencies. More recently, there has been support at an elected official-level, including a very supportive mayor right now. That’s very encouraging. But we have a long ways to go. We’re just starting on this effort. We have 2,000 miles of open stream channels in Harris County alone, so we’re just beginning.

You’ve done a lot of work in China. What is your impression about how they are approaching coastal resiliency? Is there a uniquely Chinese approach to these issues that we can learn from in the West?

The universe of what’s going on in China is amazing. You might think “Ah, Beijing controls everything. They can tell everyone what to do.” Well, it actually doesn’t work like that. The local government officials can have a surprising amount of independence and resistance to federal or provincial policies. There’s that normal political friction that happens between different units of government. Good policies are being generated at the federal level, at the Beijing level; good policies are being generated at provincial levels. Good policies and projects are being implemented at local municipal levels. That’s exciting news.

The country is doing great wetlands restoration projects. Wetland parks are all the rage across China. Kongjian Yu, FASLA, principal at Turenscape and professor at Beijing University, probably has a dozen wetland parks on his desk in his office at any given time. We’re working on a number of them. It puts to shame anything we’re doing here. On the other hand, one has to balance that against the unbelievable rate of urbanization and its impact on the environment in China. It’s maybe only a drop in the bucket toward mitigating the impacts of urbanization that are going on right now.

The good thing is they’re very interested in the topic. The people that we work with, which is a very self-selected group who are willing to pay a foreign consultant to come and advise them, are already interested. I have a biased view… I could paint this rosy picture of China because we go over there and we are talking to people that share our environmental values. But there are many who don’t share those values and that are in business just like in any country anywhere in the world. They’re just trying to add value and sell that value and profit and move on to the next project.

You take the whole climate issue in China. China’s doing some of the most progressive carbon-capture energy production in the world. For a while, they were the largest producer of solar cells. They’re the largest producer of wind generating equipment. There are all these sort of extremes of what they are doing. Yet in the global sense, they’re producing more carbon dioxide than anybody on a more rapid basis. They’re increasing their carbon and energy footprints. They’re still below us on a per-capita basis, but they’re working very hard to catch up to our own huge footprints. So you will find a really mixed bag in China.

What can we learn from China? We ought to be studying what they are doing right and trying to learn from their successes. To the extent they’re interested in partnering so they can learn from us, we ought to be sharing those solutions with them. It’s a wild ride, like a rollercoaster, and one who’s end we can’t see from our vantage point.

Image credits: (1) Kevin Shanley, FASLA / SWA Group, (2) Hurricane Ike damage at the Bolivar Peninsula / Bryan Carlile, Beck Geodetix, (3) Galveston Texas Galveston Island State Park near the gulf of Mexico / Chris Cornwell. Flickr, (4) ASLA 2009 General Design Award of Excellence. Buffalo Bayou Promenade. SWA Group / Bill Tatham, (5) Fuyang Waterfront Park / SWA Group