The State of the Debate on Climate Change: The Worst That Could Happen

Flooding in Fells Point, Baltimore, 2003 / Reuters

“Sea level rise is a definite,” said Richard Alley, professor of geosciences at Pennsylvania State University, at a conference by the National Council on Science and the Environment (NCSE) in Washington, D.C. “There will also be significant heat impacts on agriculture,” particularly corn and rice production, given those crops are often grown in areas already a bit too hot for them. “The average summer will be hotter than we’ve ever seen. In the tropics, it may be too hot to work outside during the day.” And what’s the worst that could happen? Alley said “it could get so hot people could no longer live in the tropics. And sea level rise could wipe out territory where one-tenth of humanity now lives.” These are the “‘mights,’ the risks.”

To spur the globe to action on the climate, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is now finalizing its latest assessment report. To improve national efforts, the United States is also working on its new national assessment report. Katharine Jacobs, director, National Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions, University of Arizona, who is coordinating the creation of the national report, said the goal is not just to write a report by the federal government outlining its actions, but a multi-sector analysis that will “build a community of people who are working on these issues” at the federal, state, and local levels. While Congress is not expected to act on climate change anytime soon, there are tons of state and local initiatives underway that could be further connected and boosted.

Anthony Janetos, director, Pardee Center for the Study of Longer-range Future, Boston University, said these new reports will have a greater focus on adaptation, a shift in itself. “It’s not about adaptation in the future, it’s about efforts happening now.”

Virginia Burkett, chief scientist for climate and land use, U.S. Geological Survey, and a member of IPCC, said the last assessment report five years ago documented a one degree rise in temperature. In the upcoming report, the increase will grow to 1.5 degrees. She’s most worried about the “hot spots, places of most vulnerability, where people are not equipped to adapt.” She said in the tropical countries, “there are a number of people who can’t adapt.”

For Jack Kaye, associate director for research, Earth sciences division, NASA, the fear is “some little change” will lead to “tipping points, thresholds.” He’s looking to collect as much data as possible to “reduce uncertainties in models.” He added that while climate change may be “beyond anyone one of us, it’s not bigger than all of us.”

Some interesting thoughts in their wide-ranging discussion moderated by Richard Harris, science correspondent, NPR:

How Can We Factor People into Our Climate Models?

Jacobs said “the physics of climate change is quite simple, but adding human factors into the equation” makes it more complicated. “The intersections of the physics and our behavior is what’s complex.” As a result, she said there needs to be stronger partnerships between physical and social scientists.

Kaye agreed, adding that “we need to study human decision-making processes to understand the broader process of change.” The issue is “very few physical scientists are trained to do this.” The only way forward is to “underpin climate solutions in both physical and social sciences.”

On the positive side, “university students can now major in sustainability” at some schools, said Burkett. Some geospatial programs are also already merging physical and social science curricula, creating “future Earth” programs. Kaye said “things are morphing in that direction.”

The central idea here was articulated by Jacobs: “addressing climate change can’t just be the realm of scientists, but also something that involves society.”

How Can We Deal with Apathy among the Public?

Jacobs said it’s important to turn away from the U.S. Congress, a source of major frustration, and look at “state and local-level heroes.” There’s a lot of people out there who “really care.” If the general public is apathetic about climate change, “that shows there is an issue with how we are framing it.”

Harris at NPR said when he visited Stanford University, the president of the university told him “10 percent of students are dealing with climate change.” He added that students studying technology may feel differently, more positive.

What about Geo-engineering the Climate?

For Janetos, geo-engineering the climate is worth considering. “We all have home insurance. We make some kind of investments to achieve a future goal or guard against some outcome.” Perhaps, we also need to coming up with geo-engineering as a sort of insurance scheme for the planet, in case our collective efforts to limit emissions fail.

Kaye added that the “question is not going to go away soon,” so more questions need to be asked to reduce the uncertainties with intervening in the climate: “What could be the unintended consequences? What’s the viability?”

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (January 16 – 31)

For more LA in the News, check out LAND, ASLA’s newsletter. If you see others you’d like included, please email us at

Meet the Pioneers of Sustainable DesignForbes, 1/16/14
“In an in-depth interview with Douglas Smith, President of EDSA, a landscape architecture and urban design firm, we discussed their efforts for more than 50 years to create sustainable places to live, work, learn and play.”

If You Build It, She Will ComeThe Huffington Post Blog, 1/21/14
“Wilkus knows something about working with guys. As the founding principal of SiteWorks, a landscape architecture firm, she works in a testosterone-dominated field. She often walks into meetings of 20 people, she says, and is the only female present.”

A Life-saving Proposal for San Francisco’s SidewalksThe Architect’s Newspaper, 1/22/14
“Can better design save lives? That question is at the center of a proposal by Ogrydziak Prillinger Architects (OPA) to transform crosswalks along San Francisco’s Divisadero Street. The project, Sous Les Paves, originated in a GOOD design challenge by the Center for Architecture and Design. With help from AIA San Francisco, OPA partnered with local advocacy organization Walk San Francisco in a bid to improve pedestrian safety at street crossings.”

The Landscape Architecture Legacy of Dan Kiley Dexigner, 1/24/14
“The Landscape Architecture Legacy of Dan Kiley, on view at the National Building Museum from February 8 through May 18, 2014, will showcase a selection of newly commissioned photographs of projects by Dan Kiley, one of the most important and influential Modernist landscape architects of the 20th century.”

Best of Design Awards > LandscapeThe Architect’s Newspaper, 1/24/14
“On December 6, in New York City, six jurors convened to parse the merits of the more than 250 projects submitted to AN’s first annual Best of Design Awards.”

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

Image credit: Hunter’s Point South Waterfront Park by Thomas Balsley Associates and WeissManfredi / Albert Vecerka / Esto

David LaChapelle’s Toxic Landscapes

Once named the “Fellini of photography,” David LaChapelle has left his popular commercial work behind to return to his original fine art photography. In a new series called Land Scape, LaChapelle created handcrafted scale models of gas stations and refineries and photographed them with hundreds of LED lights. The work is an eerie look at the unsustainable landscape of today’s global, industrial oil production and distribution system.

In the exhibition catalog, Shana Dambrot writes: “The gas stations and refineries that populate iconic locations are staged as architectural avatars of a planet coping with the stresses of peak-oil — even as the buildings’ dazzling spectacle and retro-future aesthetic distracts from the dangers of their function.” To build these incredible models, LaChapelle used cardboard and recycled materials, like “tea canisters, hair curlers, and other by-products of our petroleum-based, disposability-obsessed culture.”

In the Refineries set (see images above and below), LaChapelle turns a made-up facility for processing gasoline into a luscious if toxic display. “While decoding the construction materials and contemplating the surroundings provides delight, what the artist would like us to remember are the decidedly un-magical consequences of what occurs in the refineries.” We are, Dambrot says, both captivated and repelled with these scenes, which were actually shot out in California’s desert.

The Gas Station series was photographed in the rainforests of Maui, where LaChapelle lives. In these, “the rain forest envelops the fueling stations, acting as an organic force that is both generative and destructive; it represents the source of fossil fuels, but it also has the power to re-engulf these man-made creations.” These gas stations are otherworldly but also all too common.

See full size images.
These works are on display at the Paul Kasmin Gallery in New York City until March 1.

Image credits: David LaChapelle

Vertical Gardens Grow up

Botanist and garden designer Patrick Blanc, who usually stays just a few stories off the ground with his densely-planted vertical gardens, is now moving higher and higher. Working with starchitect Jean Nouvel, Blanc has been sheathing two 380-feet-tall buildings in green. What once looked like a fanciful graduate school student’s thesis has now become reality: vertical gardens are now climbing up skyscrapers, too.

One Central Park, a residential tower in Sydney expected to open this winter, has plants and vines climbing up its glass facade. Blanc told Dezeen: “The building, together with my vertical garden, will be an architectural work floating in the air, with plants growing on the walls – it will create a very special result that will be very new to Sydney.”

The greenery is meant to extend the nearby park onto the buildings, creating a verdant district. According to The Architect’s Newspaper, “the lush green tapestry of the structure’s facade will be entwined with the foliage of the adjacent park in order to replicate the natural cliffs of the Blue Mountains, which are located in the Western part of Sydney.”

Some 190 native Australian species and 160 non-natives will cover more than 1,200 square feet from the 2nd to 33rd floors, or some 50 percent of the building’s exterior. The Architect’s Newspaper said this is possible because Blanc has perfected the use of “synthetic moss instead of soil for the growing medium.”

tells us that the building is specially designed to redirect light to parts of the vertical gardens. “The tallest tower features a large cantilever. On the underneath, there is a heliostat of motorised mirrors that direct sunlight down onto the surrounding gardens. After nightfall, the cantilever is used as a canvas for a LED light installation by artist Yann Kersalé.”

Those lucky enough to snag one of 624 apartments will be able to descend to the ground levels, where there are stores, restaurants, and some office space.

By using plants and natural sunlight throughout, the building cuts energy use and therefore greenhouse gas emissions.

Nouvel and Blanc are also now teaming up on another green skyscraper in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which appears to be even taller and more ambitious.

Fast forward sometime in the near future: Hopefully, this model has spread fast — not just for wealthy renters and owners, but for all urban tower dwellers.

Image credits: Atelier Jean Nouvel

Older Trees Absorb More Carbon

Humans’ growth spurts stop by late adolescence, but trees accelerate their growth and get bigger as they age. According to a global study by 38 international researchers published in Nature, these findings could have implications for how the world’s forests are managed to contain the ill-effects of climate change.

Nate Stephenson, the study’s lead author and a forest ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), said: “This finding contradicts the usual assumption that tree growth eventually declines as trees get older and bigger. It also means that big, old trees are better at absorbing carbon from the atmosphere than has been commonly assumed.”

Stephenson added, “in human terms, it is as if our growth just keeps accelerating after adolescence, instead of slowing down. By that measure, humans could weigh half a ton by middle age, and well over a ton at retirement.”

According to the USGS, a global team of researchers took measurements of more than 670,000 trees from more than 400 species across tropical, subtropical, and temperate regions in six continents. They used the same methods to calculate “the mass growth rates for each species” and then analyzed trends across all species. The study found that nearly 99 percent of trees accelerate growth rates as they age. “For most tree species, mass growth rate increases continuously with tree size — in some cases, large trees appear to be adding the carbon mass equivalent of an entire smaller tree each year.”

With their miraculous, ever-increasing growth rate, older trees are then better at adding weight faster than younger ones. The Guardian writes that an older trees can add up to 600 kilograms of weight each year. These older, faster-growing trees, account for a “disproportionately important role in forest growth.” For example, “trees of 100 centimeters in diameter in old-growth western U.S. forests comprised just 6 percent of trees, yet contributed 33 percent of the annual forest mass growth.” This is because older trees continue to add girth as well as branches and leaves. More leaves mean more carbon absorption.

However, as USGS noted, it’s important to not lose sight of the forest for the aged trees. The accelerated rate of carbon absorption by some older, larger trees doesn’t mean “a net increase in carbon storage for an entire forest.” As living systems, forests are constantly in a state of flux — and that’s a good thing. A mix of older and younger trees in a forest may help limit the amount of carbon returning the atmosphere at any given time from the death of older trees.

Adrian Das, a USGS coauthor, said: “old trees, after all, can die and lose carbon back into the atmosphere as they decompose. But our findings do suggest that while they are alive, large old trees play a disproportionately important role within a forest’s carbon dynamics. It is as if the star players on your favorite sports team were a bunch of 90-year-olds.”

Stephenson told The Christian Science Monitor that these findings would ideally lead to more effort put into saving old growth forests. “Maybe if environmental changes are hitting your biggest trees the hardest, this is sort of an added impetus to go: ‘Oh my gosh, we need to mitigate that.'” Doug Boucher, director of tropical forest and climate initiative at the Union of Concerned Scientists, added that “it reinforces the value of old-growth forests for the storage of carbon in the biosphere.”

One key take-away for local officials, planners, and design professionals: Do as much as you can to keep those old trees in place. It will be much harder to accomplish the same positive climate impact with younger trees.

Read the study.

Image credit: Old Tree by Andrew Danielsen / Fine Arts America

Bring out Your Best Ideas for Vacant Lots

Like so many other American cities, Louisville, Kentucky, must deal with thousands of vacant properties. The city government alone owns more than 450. To turn these vacant lots into assets, the city government and Vision Louisville have launched Lots of Possibility, an innovative design competition to transform blighted, abandoned spaces.

The city government tells us: “Vacant properties not only threaten the health, safety and vibrancy of a neighborhood – but they also are lost opportunities to create active places that strengthen neighborhoods.”

Individuals or teams can submit ideas for either permanent or temporary uses of city-owned lots. The city will select six finalists for each category and then two winners for each, which will receive seed funding.

The city government explains how the competition works for both categories:

Permanent projects (e.g., residential, commercial, institutional/civic, or other use that requires taking ownership of the lot)
Two winners in this category will receive ownership of the vacant lot proposed + $15,000 in seed funding to make the project happen. In this category, particular emphasis will be placed on making sure that the idea is not only creative, cost effective and able to be replicated, but also has the potential to be fully funded (assuming that additional funds beyond the prize package are needed.

Temporary/interim projects (e.g., do not involve a physical structure that will be difficult to remove; one to two year lease of the vacant lot acceptable)
This category is designed for proposals that identify innovative ways to repurpose vacant lots. Uses are not expected to be permanent at the outset, but rather to preserve the land for future potential development. Two winners in this category will receive a one year land lease (renewable for an additional year) + $4,000 in project funding. Please note that winners will be expected to maintain the lot, as well as restore the site, at the end of the lease.

The city has made 250 vacant lots available. “They are of varying sizes, shapes and locations.”

Learn more about the scale of Louisville’s vacant lot issue. Landscape architects: search and select a vacant lot before submitting a proposal. Ideas are due by February 24.

Another worthy design competition in Louisville seeks a design for a new children’s museum complex. Winners will take home $6,000. Register online by February 10.

Image credit: Vacant properties in Louisville / Preservation Louisville

Know a Great Place?

If you do, the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) wants to know, as it seeks submissions for its 16th annual Great Places awards. The organization is looking for work that “demonstrates how an understanding of the experience of place may be used to generate insightful design.” Winners have successfully combined “expertise in design, research, and practice” in a way that “contributes to the creation of dynamic, humane places that engage our attention and imagination.”

EDRA say great places are the result of an “interdisciplinary approach that is enduring, human-centered, sustainable, and concerned with the experiential relationship between people and their environment (built and natural) over time.”

The competition is really open to all: “Submissions are welcome from the full breadth of environmental design and related research activities, including architecture, landscape architecture, planning, urban design, interior design, lighting design, graphic design, place-based public art, environmental psychology, sociology, anthropology, geography, and the physical sciences.”

There are four awards categories: place design, place planning, place research, and the Great Places Book Prize.

In past years, a number of well-known contemporary landscape architecture designs, plans, projects have won Great Places awards. Last year, Gustafson Guthrie Nichol’s National Mall design competition entry, Unified Ground, won an award. In 2012, Escuela Ecologica Saludable Initiative: Parque Primaria Pitagoras, an innovative research project from University of Washington landscape architecture professor Benjamin Spencer, won. In earlier years, The Steel Yard Park by Kloper Martin Design Group, which also won an ASLA Professional Design Award, was deemed a great place as well.

Submissions are due by February 3.

Another competition that may be of interest to landscape architects: the Land Art Generator Initiative (LAGI) seeks entries for its 2014 ideas competition in Copenhagen. They invite “interdisciplinary teams from around the world to submit their ideas for what infrastructure art of sustainable cities looks like.” LAGI gives awards to the best ideas for “public art that provides utility-scale clean energy to the grid.” The top 50 submissions will be included in an exhibition and book.

Image credit: ASLA 2011 Professional General Design Honor Award. Steel Yard Park by Klopfer Martin Design Group / Annali Kiers

Interview with John Bela, Founder of Park(ing) Day

John Bela, ASLA, is a founding principal at Rebar. He is an urban designer and landscape architect focused on public space design. As Rebar, Bela created Park(ing) Day, The Panhandle Bandshell, The Civic Center Victory Garden, Parkcycle Swarm, and other projects. Bela teaches at the California College of Arts in San Francisco and University of California, Berkeley. This interview was conducted at the 2013 ASLA Annual Meeting in Boston

What is the adaptive metropolis, the title of a conference you recently co-curated at UC Berkeley? Does this already exist, or is this an ideal to aspire to?

It’s an ideal to aspire to. The conference, which is organized by UC Berkeley and Rebar, looked at emerging practices in built environment disciplines, such as open source design and public participation, new tools and instruments, new design approaches for flexible urbanism, and then some new ways of funding urban change such as crowdsourcing and crowd equity. We explored these emerging phenomena and then evaluated them according to a set of values we share with a lot of people in the built environment professions, such as livability, resilience, and social justice, social equity.

We ended up creating more questions than answers, but it’s the beginning of a dialogue. We’re carrying that dialogue forward with a new adaptive metropolis alliance, basically an association of practitioners who are doing this kind of work. We will continue the conversation in a more focused way with a series of salons and other events.

What is user-generated urbanism? How is this different from tactical urbanism and other buzzwords that have been floating out there? Can you provide some examples?

Tactical urbanism, DIY urbanism. There are a lot of buzzwords floating around out there. We came up with the term user-generated urbanism to capture the change happening in the built environment professions. In the same way that media and communication technologies have radically altered many industries, we feel like that same kind of change is occurring in planning and design, where the role of a designer is shifting from one who delivers the design products or services to one who’s more creating a platform, in some cases, for participation. The traditional authority of the designer has been deposed. Basically, the designer’s role is shifting to be one of a teacher, or cultivating platforms for participation. User-generated urbanism describes the synthesis of top-down and bottom-up practices engaged synergistically to cultivate greater participation. This synthesis help us achieve the goals we outline with the adaptive metropolis of resilience and social justice.

In 2005, you and your design partners designed to turn a parking space into a park for the day, launching Park(ing) Day, which nearly 10 years later is now a global movement. Amazingly, more than 1,000 parking spaces were transformed for Park(ing) Day just this year. Why do you think this idea spread? Has it translated into real changes in how cities address streets and public spaces?

The idea spread through the anachronism of the how-to manual we created for parking, which was a guerrilla art installation which enabled a one-off two hour design intervention. This one-off urban intervention became a global public participatory art and design project. This how-to manual, which is an example of open-source design, enabled the transformation from one-off thing into a meme. We intentionally created the code so anybody on the planet who has metered parking spaces can create one. Anyone can take the seed of the idea we created in San Francisco and recreate it in their own environment for their own purposes, their own values, their own kind of social and political agendas. It’s an interesting example of open source design.

We have attempted to guide or control the growth of the movement to avoid its over-commercialization. We have attempted to make it free, make it an act of generosity, as much as it has been about design firms or other businesses promoting their own business. There’s a fundamental value about making Park(ing) Day an act of human generosity. You’re setting up something for others to enjoy for free. That’s the ethos of the piece.

Has it translated into real changes in how cities address streets in public space? I think so. Park(ing) Day and other projects like that are examples of participatory design, what we call user-generated urbanism or tactual urbanism. Over the past decade, it has been fascinating to witness these projects being created and produced by not only artists and design activists, but now major city governments and planning entities in both the public and private sector around the world under the rubric of pilots and trials. The idea of a temporary urban intervention as a way to catalyze change and demonstrate new possibilities has really matured. It’s now being used again across many sectors, translating into real changes. In San Francisco, Park(ing) Day have now been absorbed into public policy framework, what’s called the Pavement to Parks program, run by the San Francisco Planning Department, and the creation of the Parklet Program.

You were involved in some of the first parklets in San Francisco with your modular Walket system. You’ve said these are a cost-effective way of creating public space for cash-strapped cities. However, I’ve talked with some people who are concerned that the temporary nature of these parklets could undermine investment in long-term parks and plazas. Do you think there’s a real trade-off?

Yes, that’s a problem. If you look at a traditional sidewalk widening project in many cities, that’s a multimillion dollar, multi-year project. It results in a well-built, generous investment. It represents a generous investment in the civic realm, and investment in infrastructure of the U.S. We don’t have the same set of values around creating public and civic spaces as other kind of industrialized nations do. We’ve fallen behind in terms of investing in our public realm.

Tactical urbanism projects in the U.S. are an effort to improve the public realm through public participation. I agree that temporary is not always a great replacement for greater investment in public space, in the civic resources of cities. However, the parklet program is different from a more traditional sidewalk widening program. Parklets can created highly-nuanced city-scapes. They really do an interesting job of representing the values, interests, and aesthetic sensibilities of the project sponsors. They lend this kind of richness, an informality to places, in a way that top-down city-led projects don’t.

You’re mobile parklet concept, Parkcycle, fascinated me. I love the idea of swarms of parks forming and reforming where needed. Was this just an idea, a concept to illustrate some sort of future? Or could you see Parkcycle actually being used? What was your motivation?

We actually created them. I collaborated with a group in Copenhagen called N55 and we actually built Parkcycle Swarm. We shipped it to Baku, Azerbaijan, in the context of a public art installation. We literally pedaled around these four mobile public parks and created a pedal-powered open source distribution system. The idea is you can deliver open space anywhere, when and where it’s needed. Multiple users could could come together to create their own mini parks working together, aggregating together to form a larger open space. It’s conceptual, but it’s actually taken form with this Parkcycle Swarm.

It’s fun, playful idea. It’s also about demonstrating new possibilities for landscape in terms of mobility, flexibility, and adaptation. I don’t know exactly where it’s going to lead. It’s certainly not a replacement for other investments in public space, but it adds a new dimension which is flexible, playful, and fun.

You’re are doing some interesting work on the East Coast with streetscape and public realm design guidelines for a 20 year revitalization effort in D.C.’s capitol riverfront area. How does this project reflect your ideas on the adaptive metropolis and user-generated urbanism?

We were brought onto a team led by AECOM to do the streetscape and public realm guidelines. Our role was to develop an early activation plan. In the case of many larger-scale developments, there’s a 10, 20, or 30 year time frame. There’s an increasing desire to take advantage of temporarily vacant spaces to insert new programs, to test spatial ideas, and to fulfill some unmet needs in the community prior to the full build-out of the project.

The old approach was a project is complete when the last brick of the final streetscape or building is complete. The new approach is more iterative, where you test ideas and use temporary programs to inform your longer term strategic thinking. Increasingly, this is an approach that’s being used in both the public and private sector under the rubric of early activation, or phase-zero projects, or what we sometimes call interim use and cultural activation. It’s a way of changing the way that people perceive a place prior to brick and mortar construction.

Lastly, please tell me about some other projects you aren’t working on but think are intriguing or inspiring. What projects excite you these days?

At the ASLA Annual Meeting, I went to a talk by Kate Orff, ASLA, at SCAPE Studio. I was surprised to hear how she is adopting some of the approaches we have at Rebar in terms of creating open source platforms for participation. Where our work diverted — and what I found extraordinarily interesting — was with her approach to the idea of distributed infrastructure and ecological infrastructure. She is exploring how we are going to solve the pressing environmental crises facing the globe today. Is it going to be through government-led top-down initiatives, or is there a role for user-generated or community-generated projects? Kate Orff’s work represented soft infrastructure versus hard infrastructure. She’s exploring how smaller groups and community members in partnership with government can solve really pressing problems, which is a different way of thinking in comparison with 20 or 30 years ago.

I’m really interested in work I’ve seen in Europe recently, especially the Urban Play Project in Koge, which is southeast of Copenhagen. There, a real estate developer has formed partnership with the small town of Koge. They’re testing the idea of culture as a driver of development.

Some of the most radical work in urban planning today is where people are literally abandoning the idea of a master plan and looking at other approaches that are more participatory, inclusive, and iterative. These experiments acknowledge that circumstances change over time. You can’t always predict what a site, or a community, or an environment is going to look and feel like, what its needs will be 20 years from now. There’s this urge to build in adaptive capacity. That’s what we mean by the adaptive metropolis.

Image credits: (1) John Bela / Rebar, (2) Park(ing) Day / Rebar, (3-4) Walket system in San Francisco / Rebar, (5) Parkcycle Swarm in Baku / Rebar, (6) Parkcycle swarm in San Francisco / Rebar, (7) Parkcycle Swarm meets Parklet / Rebar

Rina Cutler: Urban Transportation Change Maker

“When I retire I will write a book called, ‘you can’t make this sh*t up,” said Rina Cutler, deputy mayor for transportation and utilities, Philadelphia, at a National Complete Streets Coalition dinner in Washington, D.C. In a review of her experience serving seven mayors and governors, Cutler revealed the sometimes painful truths about pushing for positive change in urban transportation.

“Politicians respond to noise and money,” said Cutler. Advocacy organizations like the National Complete Streets Coalition, Smart Growth America, and ASLA, have made lots of noise about the value of complete streets, streets that safely serve all users (pedestrians, bicyclists, and car riders). As a result, on the 10th anniversary of the National Complete Streets Coalition, Roger Millar at Smart Growth America said 600 complete street policies have been adopted across the country.

The noise influenced transportation policy makers because it was the right noise. Cutler said city government traffic planners and engineers largely bought on to the complete streets approach because they saw it as a way to improve pedestrian safety. As she articulated, “in a city, everyone is a pedestrian.” The complete streets movement got a further boost when the “population of bicyclists increased,” and their safety on streets became a pressing issue.

While noise brings attention to issues, the hard art of making changes in urban transportation systems is another story. Cutler said she couldn’t step up to a microphone and say, “I want to change transportation mode-share.” She had to go about it more subtly, with a slew of pilot programs for which she didn’t need approval.

Before Michael Nutter was elected mayor of Philadelphia, “bike lanes were an abstract idea.” The idea of taking out a car lane for a bike lane wasn’t even a possibility. When she started to bring pilot lanes to residential areas, the press was all over it. “I’d say ‘bike’ and 400 reporters would show up.” Bike lane stories regularly appeared at the top of the local metro news. All that change ruffled feathers. “In Philadelphia, people will embrace change as long as it looks exactly the same when it’s done.”

In 2009, the city created its complete streets policy, then began taking car lanes out in favor of bike lanes in earnest. Cutler said in other cities, “this would be a day at the beach.” In Philadelphia, “everyone thought I was moving too fast, except for the bicyclists, who thought I was moving to slow.”

Before installation of the lanes, teams from her office would have to “knock on every door along every street with a new lane,” explaining the changes. Taxis initially thought the new bike lanes were specially for them, so “we had to send them a letter.” There was one compromise for car users: they were allowed to park in a bike lane to unload deliveries and such.

Further complicating issues for cities: urban transportation policy also sits within a greater context, the framework of state and federal transportation policies. Cutler said “federal, state, and city agendas are not always aligned. We need the right alignments in place.”

To encourage that to happen, she said “cities need to define their own agendas or someone else will.” Furthermore, that “urban agenda needs to the broader agenda of change.” She thinks this has happened within the Obama administration. “We’ve heard words we’ve never heard before – livability, walkability. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has been a phenomenal advocate for cities.” The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) has also been critical in promoting an urban transportation agenda. “It’s about cities doing it for themselves.” One of NACTO’s goals is to get more federal transportation straight to cities, bypassing state governments.

As for introducing further changes in urban transportation, Cutler said it’s important to be non-ideological. “I’m not pro-car or anti-car, I’m pro-mobility.” She added that she was “agnostic about how people move around. My job is to provide viable alternatives so you can decide.”

With a rapidly aging population – and young people who are increasingly forgoing the car — mobility is certain to transform, particularly in the areas surrounding cities. “Out in the suburbs, there is a quiet movement for change. People are realizing it’s not fun to be stuck in car-centric communities. But they are not yet committed to urban-style street fighting.” She said politicians will soon have to hear the voices of both the young and old when making transportation infrastructure decisions.

She also said the “language needs to change” when promoting more sustainable forms of transportation. “We need to be conscious about how we communicate about biking. Bicyclists can’t be portrayed as elitists who want to fly through the city wearing spandex.” The reality is “social equity is key” to successfully rolling out new bicycle infrastructure. “There are bicyclists who need to commute to work. It needs to be about how these things will impact local neighborhoods.”

All of Cutler’s hard-won experience will be needed as Philadelphia rolls out a new bike share system in 2014.

Image credit: Philadelphia Bike Lane / Green Philly blog

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (January 1 – 15)

For more LA in the News, check out LAND, ASLA’s newsletter. If you see others you’d like included, please email us at

Urban Nature: How to Foster Biodiversity in the World’s Citie
sYale e360, 1/6/14
“A few years ago in Baltimore County, Maryland, environmental staffers were reviewing a tree-planting proposal from a local citizens group. It called for five trees each of 13 different species, as if in an arboretum, on the grounds of an elementary school in a densely-populated neighborhood.”
What’s the Big Idea? Debating the Future of a Great Urban Park  – The Huffington Post Blog, 1/7/14
“This is an exciting time for landscape architects, urban planners, building architects, municipal officials and other professionals involved with urban parks – they’re being challenged and inspired to be more innovative, think more holistically and delve more deeply, for example, into the interplay between natural and cultural systems.”

Unveiled > Colorado Avenue Esplanade, The Architect’s Newspaper, 1/7/14
“The City of Santa Monica recently green-lighted construction on the $10.7 million Colorado Esplanade streetscape project, designed to improve public access to the Santa Monica Pier and provide pedestrian links from the soon-to-arrive Expo Light Rail line. Work will commence next year, and the light rail is scheduled to arrive by 2016.”

Is Horticulture a Withering Field?, The Philadelphia Inquirer, 1/7/14
“Coming from image-conscious professionals who prefer to gush about the beauty of flowers and the joys of growing vegetables, the words were downright shocking: ‘Horticulture is under siege.'”

Farm AidThe Architect’s Newspaper, 1/8/14
“In the name of urban renewal, Anaheim tore out most of its historic downtown decades ago. Where Orange, a neighboring town, restored its historic town center and parlayed it into a magnet for restaurants, shops, entertainment, and the local creative class, Anaheim replaced its historic center with a bland mix of modern office towers.”

Redesigning City Streets with a Mobile PhoneGOOD, 1/9/14
“Key to the Street is a cloud-based service that allows anyone with a mobile device to participate in the design of public spaces. The main focus is encouraging more people to walk—the cheapest and easiest way to improve one’s wellbeing.”

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

Image credit: Colorado Avenue Esplanade / Peter Walker and Associates