ASLA Communications Internship, Summer 2014

Tanner Spring Park, Portland / Atelier Dreiseitl and GreenWorks

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) seeks a full-time summer intern for an exciting project: The Landscape Architect’s Guide to Sustainable Portland. This Web site, which will include both mobile-friendly version and a more robust online exhibition, will feature both well-known and up-and-coming landscape architects discussing what makes Portland such a livable, sustainable city. The Web site, which is modeled after the first guides in the series on Washington, D.C. and Boston, is expected to launch in fall 2014.

The site will be a guide to both sustainable landscapes and design-thinking. The goal of the project is to both educate locals and visitors who come to Portland about how landscape architects create sustainable places. Landscape architects will delve into the site plans, design details, interesting historic features, and sustainable design features. The guide will feature sustainable design at all scales, from parks to rain gardens, green streets to green roofs.


The summer intern will be expected to work full-time on this project from June through August.

The intern will research and write fact sheets about the sustainable landscapes, using historical records and available books and Web sites; manage photographs, including securing any stock photos and image credits; coordinate outreach materials to ASLA members and aid in social media promotion; and directly interact with a number of leading landscape architects to gather their feedback on given sites and edit the text for publication.

Interns will also have the opportunity to attend educational and networking events at the National Building Museum, Harvard University’s Dumbarton Oaks, and other museums and think tanks in Washington, D.C. and write articles for ASLA publications, including The Dirt blog and LAND newsletter. Other projects may come up as well.


Current enrollment in a Master’s or PhD program in landscape architecture.

Excellent writing skills. The intern must be able to write clearly for a general audience.

Excellent photographic composition and editing skills. Ability to use a SLR camera.

Proven research skills and ability to quickly evaluate the quality and relevance of many different types of Web resources.

Excellent interpersonal skills and ability to interact graciously with busy designers.

Working knowledge of Photoshop, Google Maps, and Microsoft Office suite.

Knowledge of Portland’s ecological systems and history of sustainable design a plus.

How to Apply:

Please send cover letter, CV, one writing sample (no more than 3 pages), and two photography examples (JPEGs, no more than 1MB each), to by end of day, Friday, March 21.

Phone interviews will be conducted with finalists the week of March 24 and selection will be made the following week.

The internship pays a stipend of $3,500. ASLA can also work with the interns to attain academic credit for the internship.

ASLA offers a flexible work schedule but the intern must be at ASLA’s national headquarters, which is conveniently located in downtown Washington, D.C., one block north of the Gallery Place/Chinatown Metro Station on the Red, Yellow, and Green Lines. Learn more about ASLA’s green roof.

New Conceptual Gardens for Summer

Afterburn / Civilian Projects

Once again, the jury for the International Garden Festival, has picked some intriguing contemporary garden projects. Six new landscapes will appear during the festival, which is held at Reford Gardens, next to the Les Jardins de Métis in Quebec, from May through September. Nearly 300 proposals were submitted by 700 designers from 30 countries.

Afterburn by Civilian Projects, a Brooklyn-based art and architecture studio, features charred trees outlined in a grid formation (see image above). Civilian Projects describe the work as a “post-apocalyptic experience that allows visitors to see how nature renews by itself after a fire and how she manages to heal damaged landscapes.” One team member, Ksenia Kagner, is from landscape architecture firm James Corner Field Operations.

For Cone Garden, a team of designers from Livescape, which hails from Seoul, South Korea, have stuck orange construction cones upside-down into the earth. The cones will be filled with soil, becoming planters. Some cones will become seating. Others will “transit messages to passers-by.” For these designers, the cones represent “the never-ending construction, de-construction, and re-construction of our environment.”

Cone Garden / Livescape

Canadian artists and designers Julia Jamrozik and Coryn Kempster have created Line Garden, a responsive environment that will change based on user movement through the space. The garden features police tape, twined into new patterns. The team enjoys investigating “everyday urban situations and re-presenting them to be experienced anew.”

Line Garden / Julia Jamrozik and Coryn Kempster

In Méristème, a plant cell is blown up into a geodesic-dome-like formation people can enter. The piece is meant to remind us of the importance of plant life to human society. This installation was created by Châssi, a team from Montreal, Canada.

Méristème / Châssi

Orange Secret by landscape architecture firm Nomad Studio from New York City is meant to play with our perception of open and closed spaces. A wooden wall provides a slit for viewing the garden, which prominently features all plants that bloom orange.

Orange Secret / Nomad Studio

Lastly, the excellent Rotunda by Spanish designers at City Laboratory, will feature a black steel basin meant to slowly collect water, leaves, pollen over the summer. This accumulation will provide food for birds and insects, leading to the development of “new life in the garden.”

Rotunda / City Laboratory

Since the festival started in 2000, 140 gardens have been exhibited at Les Jardins de Métis in Quebec. Check out these new ones from May 31 to September 28. See more images at DesignBoom.

EPA’s New Stormwater Calculator, Updated for Climate Change

ASLA 2011 Analysis and Planning Honor Award. GreenPlan Philadelphia / Wallace, Roberts & Todd (WRT)

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently updated its national stormwater calculator, which estimates the amount of rainwater and runoff from any site in the U.S., to reflect best estimates on future climate change. The EPA writes: “the calculator now includes changes in seasonal precipitation levels, the effects of more frequent high-intensity storms, and changes in evaporation rates based on validated Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) climate change scenarios.” The first iteration of the calculator just covered soils conditions, slope, land cover, and historical rainfall records.

The goal is help developers, planners, and landscape architects understand how to best adapt our water management systems for a changing future. The new EPA administrator, Gina McCarthy, said: “climate change threatens our health, our economy, and our environment. As part of the President’s Climate Action Plan, this tool will help us better prepare for climate impacts by helping build safer, sustainable, and more resilient water infrastructure.”

The calculator software, which can be downloaded for free, enables users to discover how green infrastructure can reduce stormwater runoff. According to the EPA, the calculator first accesses several databases that offer soil, topography, rainfall, and evaporation information for any given site. Users then plug-in info about a site’s land cover and finally determines which types of green infrastructure they would like to use. Options include rain harvesting; rain gardens; green roofs; street planters; infiltration basins, or porous pavement.

The EPA says it’s best to develop a range of results using different assumptions about “percent of impervious surface, soil type, sizing of green infrastructure, as well as historical weather and future climate change scenarios” in order to comprehensive.

Download the new calculator.

In other green infrastructure news: The EPA announced five universities have received a $1 million grant to study urban green infrastructure practices in Philadelphia. These include Swarthmore College, Temple University, University of New Hampshire, University of Pennsylvania, and Villanova University. Researchers from these universities will collaborate closely with the Philadelphia Water Department.

Bob Perciasepe, EPA deputy administrator, said: “this pilot project with Philadelphia’s Green City, Clean Waters program will help us yield results and gain knowledge to help apply these practices in cities from coast to coast. And, these results can be increasing green spaces, creating jobs, saving energy and reducing urban heat island effects that contribute to climate change.”

Explore the EPA’s green infrastructure initiatives as well as ASLA’s resources.

Competition Aims to Combat World’s Dead Zones

Tulane University is offering a $1 million prize to the team who comes up with the best solution for combating hypoxia-affected waters, the dead zones in the world’s lakes and oceans. Hypoxia is the oxygen depletion in water bodies caused by “excessive amounts of river-borne fertilizers and other nutrients.” Tulane’s grand challenge is a response to President Obama’s call for universities and philanthropies to step up and pursue innovative solutions to our most pressing environmental problems.

While the Gulf of Mexico is famous for its growing dead zone, the issue is increasingly global, writes Tulane. All over the world’s oceans and lakes, “nutrient enrichment can jeopardize the future of estuaries and coastal wetlands that depend on freshwater and sediment delivery for stability and persistence.”

Dead zones not only have an impact on the environment but also the economy. These unproductive areas “destabilize the businesses, families and communities that are sustained by fisheries.”

Phyllis Taylor, head of the Patrick F. Taylor foundation, who put up the million, said: “I believe a market based solution which rewards innovation and risk taking has the potential to create a sustainable and significant new technology for addressing hypoxia.”

Cristin Dorgelo, assistant director for Grand Challenges in the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, said: “Prizes have led to breakthroughs ranging from Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight to new approaches to cleaning up oil spills.”

This is a great challenge because finding a solution clearly won’t be easy: “Solutions must meet a suite of simultaneous and sometimes conflicting needs – from protecting water resources and near-shore ecosystems to ensuring the capacity and vitality of agricultural productivity.”

The university writes that the prize will be awarded to a “testable, scaled and marketable operating model that significantly, efficiently and cost effectively reduces hypoxia.”

Landscape architects and planners should join interdisciplinary teams and enter the competition. They can help create the solutions that keep agricultural and stormwater runoff out of rivers and combat the dead zones.

Another competition for landscape architects: At the European Biennial of Landscape Architecture in Barcelona in October, one landscape created in the last five years will win the Rosa Barba European Landscape Prize, which comes with €15,000. Submit projects before April 11, 2014.

Bringing Nature Home

Mark Simmons sets fires. He uses prescribed fires as a technique for land management to improve the ecological health of a system. These fires are carefully plotted and designed to self-extinguish. They are employed to control brush, which could feed wildfires, and selectively remove invasive species and restore native ones. Simmons is the director of the ecosystem design group at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at The University of Texas. His team engages in scientific research, sustainable design, and environmental consulting.

American Indians on the plains also set fires. They used controlled burning to both attract and drive game, get rid of ticks, and harvest lizards and insects. Simmons says this practice demonstrates that they had a mutually influential relationship with nature. They melded the landscape and in turn were melded by it.

Americans today are found in different landscapes. We primarily occupy landscapes like suburban strip mall parking lots, which Simmons believes are dysfunctional and polluting. If these landscapes are melding us, then they may be adversely affecting our health and behavior. He believes that providing more green spaces could control epidemics like childhood obesity and ADHD.

In order to combat environmental and social hazards, Simmons wants to bring nature back into the built environment using ecological design. He envisions an “eco-metropolis” in which we keep, fix, and build using “nature’s technologies.” Simmons believes these approaches can inform techniques for land management and restoration, as well as the research and design of greenroofs and walls, rain gardens, sustainable lawns, and ecological roadsides.

Our current situation is about maintaing an “industrial, not ecological, system on life support,” Turf grass covers 40 million acres of land in the U.S., with 20 million acres just residential lawns. This landscape requires 580 million gallons of gasoline and up to 60 percent of urban fresh water to maintain. Desert communities have begun banning lawns out of necessity. Simmons finds gravel lots and other available alternatives lacking in both functionality and aesthetic quality. He is promoting alternatives that are sustainable, useful, and desirable.

Simmons grew up mowing his family’s lawn in England with a push mower. His dad no longer needs to mow because the lawn is now a multi-species landscape that has evolved into a stable ecological system that maintains itself. Inspired by this discovery, Simmons and his team created a biodiverse lawn made up of five native species that only has to be mowed two to three times a year and does not require pesticides or herbicides. There are eight acres planted at the George W. Bush Presidential Library. Simmons calls this “ecology 101 applied to landscape architecture.”

Landscapes like Simmons’s lawn that deploy nature’s technologies can perform critical functions like carbon sequestration, low level ozone absorption, and stormwater management.

Grasslands in fact provide the most efficient means of carbon sequestration. They absorb less carbon dioxide than boreal forests, but because they have evolved with fire and grazing, they store 95 percent of it below ground as insurance. In contrast, trees store carbon dioxide above ground in their trunks, branches, and leaves and release it back into the atmosphere when they die. In grasslands, when the roots die, the carbon melds with the physical and chemical structure of the soil and can be held there for hundreds of thousands of years.

These landscapes are also desirable. Simmons shares several examples of their success and growing popularity. Residents of a suburban tract in Austin, Texas liked the prairie that was planted along the perimeter so much that they requested it be continued through their yards. A homeowner who wanted a meadow constructed on his roof is so pleased with the result that he supports the idea of creating a preserve of the Texas blackland prairie ecosystem on roofs and along roadsides.

Simmons demonstrates that we can use nature differently. He encourages us to preserve nature but also feel liberated and empowered to use it more like we would engineering. “Nature’s technology is free and it’s waiting. All we have to do is bring nature home.”

This guest post is by Shannon Leahy, Master’s of Landscape Architecture graduate, University of Pennsylvania, and former ASLA summer intern.

From Coast to Coast, Landscape Architects Serve the Public

The ASLA public awareness campaign launched the Year of Public Service (YPS) in 2013 for two reasons. First, the campaign encouraged ASLA members to ramp up existing pro-bono efforts. Second, ASLA wanted to highlight the great service projects already done by landscape architects across the country.

A year later, the YPS blog boasts nearly 50 projects, with more still trickling in. Just a few examples: in the past year, landscape architects have created a new scenic trail plan; designed a healing, sensory garden; built a butterfly and bird habitat; and launched a community space, all for deserving communities.

A New Vision for the Great Shasta Rail Trail

Many projects, like the Great Shasta Rail Trail (GSRT), took advantage of longstanding relationships between ASLA chapters and the National Park Service Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance Program. See the video above.

The vision for the project was to develop an 80-mile scenic, multi-use trail along the existing rail bed between the towns of McCloud and Burney, near Mt. Shasta, California. The workshop addressed the project’s many design challenges while generating concepts that can be used to communicate with the public.

 A New Sensory Garden for Outside the Box

The Indiana Chapter of ASLA designed and installed a sensory garden for a non-profit, Outside the Box (OTB). Located on the north side of Indianapolis, OTB is a provider of day, employment, and art services to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. OTB views their 200 patrons as capable individuals who can enrich their own lives through contributions to their community.

The chapter’s public service committee visited OTB to observe a typical day while meeting staff and participants, and decided to host a design charrette for a new sensory garden. Last April, Indiana ASLA held a one-day work session during National Landscape Architecture Month.

Sensory Garden construction / Indiana ASLA
Sensory Garden / Indiana ASLA

ASLA Indiana voted to provide maintenance funds to OTB to keep the garden looking beautiful year after year.

A New Butterfly and Bird Habitat for Southside Elementary School

Also featured on the blog are many member submissions. Michael Gilkey, ASLA, was integral to establishing an edible garden along with a bird and butterfly garden in Sarasota, Florida. He even lead kindergarten classes in the creation of their own shoebox butterfly gardens.

Southside Elementary Eco-Garden Co-Chair Emily Morgan helps a third grade class release their own hatched monarch into the newly certified butterfly and bird habitat garden / Michael A. Gilkey, Inc.

When the garden team of the Southside elementary school approached Gilkey about the dire need to redo the front school façade, he volunteered his time and designs to create a butterfly and bird habitat garden that would welcome students and parents into the historic building. The garden was planted in early 2013, and is now considered a certified wildlife habitat.

A New Community Space in Athens

Thanks to the students who attended LABash 2013, an annual landscape architecture student symposium, Athens-area Habitat for Humanity created a new community space at The Foundation, an apartment complex, in an area once riddled with crime. Athens Habitat bought The Foundation property, renovated the units, and created a haven for deserving families to call home.

The students who participated in this year’s LABash were encouraged to team up and submit a plan for a community space in a quick-fire competition organized by the University of Georgia Center for Community Design and Preservation. At least 60 students from 18 universities competed.

The submissions were judged by a panel of experts comprised of sponsors, UGA faculty, Habitat staff, and Tom Tavella, FASLA past-ASLA president. The competition allowed students to gain real design experience, while strengthening ties between UGA and Athens businesses and nonprofits. Once the winning teams were chosen, construction commenced.

Winning design / UGA LABash 2013 Facebook Page

ASLA’s chapters, members, and students are making the country a better place, but this is nothing new. Many landscape architects do pro-bono projects every year. This campaign just highlighted those efforts. See all YPS projects.

This guest post is by Phil Stamper-Halpin, ASLA PR and Communications Coordinator

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

MoMA Sculpture Garden / Flickr – La Citta Vita

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

MoMA’s Proposal for Sculpture Garden Pleases and RilesThe New York Times, 2/4/14
“’It’s a ludicrous idea,’ said the landscape architect Michael R. Van Valkenburgh. ‘They fail to understand what’s brilliant about the garden and what makes it great — this cloistered isolation.’”

Green MachineThe Architect’s Newspaper, 2/11/14
“The 24,000-square-foot, $18 million plaza, which Diller, Scofidio + Renfro is planning with Oakland-based Hood Design Studio, will extend from Grand Avenue with a grove of 100-year-old Olive trees, interspersed with crushed stone paving, flowering groundcover, and tree stump tables.”

UK Floods Crisis: How Do You Stop Flooding?International Business Times, 2/11/14
“With areas of the UK experiencing the worst flooding in years, attention has been turned to how it can be prevented or alleviated.”

Is the MoMA Sculpture Garden Doomed?Architect, 2/12/14
“If MoMA throws open its garden, what could happen? How do stewards of cultural landscapes, whether an individual site (like the garden), a larger site (like New York’s High Line), or a much, much larger site (like the City of Savannah) manage the visitor experience, which ranges from restorative contemplation to active stimulation?”

Feature> City of Designerly LoveThe Architect’s Newspaper, 2/14/14
“It would be hard to imagine the city’s great landscaped thoroughfare, Benjamin Franklin Parkway, without the influence of Penn faculty, from Cret who helped design the boulevard to Venturi and Scott Brown and Olin.”

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

DesignIntelligence 2014 Landscape Architecture Program Rankings


DesignIntelligence recently announced its 2014 landscape architecture graduate and undergraduate program rankings. For the first time since 2007, Pennsylvania State University came in at the top of undergraduate landscape architecture programs, unseating long-time leader Louisiana State University. For the tenth year, Harvard University came in as the best graduate program in the annual survey conducted by DesignIntelligence on behalf of the Design Futures Council.

Detailed rankings are available in the 14th edition of America’s Best Architecture & Design Schools, which assesses program rankings and education trends in architecture, landscape architecture, interior design, and industrial design.

Respondents from nearly 800 “professional practice” organizations (up nearly double over last year) answered questions about how well prepared graduates are from different undergraduate and graduate programs. Some 74 percent said they “very satisfied” or “satisfied” with the state of landscape architecture education in the U.S., down from 80 percent last year. Some 64 percent found that graduating students had an “adequate understanding” of biology, biodiversity, and environmental degradation, also slightly down. Some 60 percent thought their firms benefited from the new ideas about sustainability that recent graduates brought with them.

This year, the top five emerging concerns by practitioners are:

    Sustainability / Climate Change (58 percent)
    Maintaining Design Quality (50 percent)
    Integrated Design (42 percent)
    Urbanization (35 percent)
    Retaining Quality Staff in Design Practices (31 percent)

Interestingly, sustainability / climate change became the top issue by far this year, a change over the past few years.

DesignIntelligence asks us to only list the top five schools for each program. To see the top fifteen rankings for each category, purchase the report.

Bachelor of Landscape Architecture Degree Rankings:

1) Pennsylvania State University
2) Louisiana State University
3) Purdue University
4) California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo
5) University of Georgia

Master of Landscape Architecture Degree Rankings:

1) Harvard University
2) Kansas State University
3) Louisiana State University
4) University of Pennsylvania
5) Cornell University

An additional deans and chairs survey asked leaders of 63 landscape architecture academic programs about the top programs and the issues they find significant. According to 82 percent of the professors surveyed, the design profession’s biggest concern is climate change / sustainability, while another 66 percent said urbanization and 42 percent said globalization. The percentage identifying those issues has only increased over the past few years.

Among the biggest changes to curricula in the last 5 years: some 68 percent thought it was the greater “emphasis on interdisciplinary collaboration and integrated practice,” while 58 percent thought it was the increased focus on sustainable design.

For the third year, DesignIntelligence surveyed 679 landscape architecture students to gauge their satisfaction with the programs covered. Students were most satisfied at University of Pennsylvania followed by those at Cornell University and then the University of Virginia.

To see the full responses from professors and students, purchase the report.

Check out the 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, and 2009 program rankings.

Lastly, a big round of applause to Dick Zweifel, FASLA, professor and associate dean of the College of Architecture and Environmental Design at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, who was listed as a DesignIntelligence top 30 most admired educators for 2014. “His consistency and vision have kept Cal Poly SLO among the best education programs in multidisciplinary design professions.”

Video: The Impact of Climate Change on Philadelphia’s Forest

Climate change will have an impact on our urban forests. The change in temperature and precipitation will shift the suitable habitat for virtually all tree species. Using West Philadelphia as a lens to examine these changes, this video not only explores the impacts of climate change but also how we can adapt the urban forest to the coming challenges.

During my three years studying landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, hardly anyone was interested in discussing climate change. Most people tuned out when I brought it up. I think it’s the issue of our time. In fact, it’s a big part of the reason I decided to study landscape architecture after the bottom fell out of professional photography market in 2008.

Someone I talked to recently compared being a landscape architect now to being an engineer at NASA in the ’60’s. And I agree, it’s the chance to work to solve one of the great challenges of our time. There is an unprecedented opportunity to have a real impact on cities of the 21st century and beyond.

Hurricane Sandy, sadly, changed the game. I lived in NYC for eight years before graduate school and when I told acquaintances that I was going to study landscape architecture, no one cared. I stopped in New York after the ASLA Annual Meeting in Boston last November and when I mentioned that my degree was in landscape architecture, everyone was all of sudden interested. Literally, some of the same people three years before who couldn’t be bothered, visibly showed interest and asked questions. Hurricane Sandy shattered New Yorkers’ comprehension of reality.

Unfortunately, most landscape architects have failed to realize the sheer potential of the situation. But that does not excuse us from being leaders and bringing our talents and skill sets to bear on the problem. Ignoring the problem will not make it go away, as much as I have wanted that at different points in my life.

One of my goals for this video was to bring climate change action down to a much more localized and manageable level. Part of the problem is the issues are so large and beyond human comprehension that it’s almost impossible to think about how one person can do anything. I intentionally avoid grand solutions and instead proffer ideas, like planting adapted trees today. These are things any concerned citizen can do.

We need to start connecting the ideas and possible solutions of climate change from the stratosphere to the ground of everyday existence.

This guest post op-ed is by Barrett Doherty, a recent Master’s of landscape architecture graduate, University of Pennsylvania, and professional photographer.

Jan Gehl: The City Is Big

How to Study Public Life / Island Press

“I graduated at the first worst point in city planning,” said Jan Gehl, the famed urban designer, at a crowd of hundreds at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. The 1960s were the era “when the architect was big and the city was small.” Eventually, Gehl, who is trained as an architect, saw the light. He married a psychologist, who asked him, “why do architects hate people so much?” He soon realized there was a great “void of knowledge” about how to create buildings and public spaces people actually want to inhabit. So for the past 40 years, Gehl has picked up where activist and author Jane Jacobs left off, and “studied the life of the city in the way same a traffic engineer studies the flow of traffic.” This Danish architect is now appropriately small and the city is big.

Gehl’s six books, many of which are viewed as seminal reads in urban design, have been translated into 28 languages. “They are even in Chinese,” he added, but considering many Chinese cities have not taken up his lessons about creating cities for people, “perhaps they haven’t had time to read them yet,” he laughed. He wasn’t singling out the Chinese for special criticism though. “It really took us about 50 years for the West to really read and absorb Jane Jacob’s messages.”

Two Destructive Paradigms

Over the past 50 years, we’ve had two major paradigms, said Gehl. While Modern city planning ideas were first conceived in the 1920s, with Le Corbusier and his “Contemporary City,” which would be filled with freeways and gargantuan skyscrapers, it wasn’t until the 1960s when they were first implemented. Then, “planners started laying out cities from the airplane.” They would go up in helicopters to “get the full site view.” Modern architects and landscape architects followed their lead, so no one “looked after the people scale anymore.” Gehl calls this the “Brasilia syndrome:” the “city looks fantastic from the air, but is shit on the ground.”

Brasilia Modernist City / Skyscraper City

Unfortunately, the Brasilia model has not breathed its last gasp yet. China is creating Brasilias everywhere. Dubai is creating “bird shit architecture, just a collection of funny buildings. They hope they can just plop these down and a city will form around them. This doesn’t happen.”

Dubai / Dubai Dhow blog

The other paradigm is the “car-centric city, or the car invasion.” People in cities have been pushed out in favor of creating an environment for cars. “This is a landscape of cheap gasoline.” This landscape almost took over lower Manhattan as Robert Moses sought to bulldoze Soho, the West Village, and parts of Chinatown to create huge freeway off-ramps and high-rises. Only Jacobs, with her “ceaseless” efforts, was able to stop him. She taught us that “if the Modernists and motorists dominated cities, they will become dead places.” She taught us “we must look at how people use cities to understand how to shape them.”

A New Paradigm

It was only taken us 50 years to process Jacob’s messages, but people now want “lively, attractive, safe, sustainable, healthy cities.” Through new research, “we now know the relative importance of rich public life, its value for democracy, public inclusion, and our happiness.” Successful cities are “people-oriented and smaller scale.” This is because “the greatest attraction of cities is other people.”

Cities where people can walk, bike, and use public transportation are better for people, too. “The cheap petroleum society has major health risks. Lack of daily physical exercise is worse than smoking.” Gehl’s goal is to “move people naturally through city design.” Investment in this design pays for itself: “We save on health costs.”

Gehl said Copenhagen, Denmark, has successfully moved from a “traffic place to a people place.” In the 1960s, the city took car traffic out of its main street. This effort coincided with the publication of Jacob’s book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Gehl said since then Copenhagen has “improved every day” — and continues to do so, with its new goal of becoming the best city in the world for people (and bicyclists) by 2025. The city is accomplishing this through “distinctly people-oriented policies” created by the city’s office of public life. Bicycling rates have doubled over 10 years, and now 37 percent commute to work every day by bike, in comparison with just 27 percent by car. In fact, the issue now is “serious congestion on bike lanes.”

Melbourne is another city that has thrown off the shackles of the car. “The city started out with traffic ridden streets.” The downtown was deemed the “donut” because there was nothing in the center. “It was a useless city center.” Now, there has been a “transformation, and it’s one of the nicest cities in Australia, Asia — even the world. It’s an Australian Paris.” Downtown, daytime foot traffic has increased 40 percent and nighttime traffic, 100 percent. There are now Copenhagen-style bike lanes, which use parked cars to protect bicyclists. Sydney has also become a better place for people, transforming itself with new bicycle infrastructure.

People-sized street in Melbourne / Buytaert

Amazingly, Moscow is also making great progress. After they hired Gehl Architects, they have made great gains in returning the sidewalks to the people, at least downtown. “We are trying to humanize the city in a place inundated with cars, where the car is king.” Gehl said post-communism, Muscovites felt it was their god-given right to drive and park anywhere. “For a few years, this worked OK and then it didn’t.” Now, Gehl laughed, “if you park your car in the wrong place, it will be sent to Siberia.” He said the “transformation has been a miracle. There are now routes for people, which were nonexistent before.”

Moscow pedestrians / Gehl Architects

In the U.S., New York City is doing the most to “discourage commuting by car and increasing the use of subway, biking, and walking to get around.” NYC has also put in “more bicycle lanes in five years than Copenhagen has in 50 years.” Closing Times Square to car traffic has been a “huge success,” and a “fantastic influence on other cities,” because “if you can make it in New York City, you can make it anywhere.” Gehl really hopes more pedestrian malls will open where there was gridlock across the U.S.

Times Square Pedestrian Plaza / Project for Public Spaces

Studying People in Cities

After the success of Cities of People, Gehl and co-author Birgitte Svarre just released How to Study Public Life, which outlines the “field of public life studies.” Here, Svarre took the stage and explained how the field came about. “People knew something was missing in the suburbs but they didn’t know what. They didn’t know how to grasp the issues. There would be greenery and air but no life. Researchers had to start from scratch and treat the city as a lab. They had to go out and learn how to really experience a place.”

Early on, Gehl would go sit in a well-loved square in Italy, spending the whole day studying how people used the space. He found that “people prefer to stand at the edges.” Using that lesson, she asked us to think of all those awkward public spaces that have no edges. Are they human scale?

Gehl and others’ research on public space sits on the shoulders of many others. “William Whyte, Clare Cooper Marcus, Donald Appleyard, Peter Bosselmann, Allan Jacobs, and Fred Kent all tried to figure out the tools for researching public space.” These researchers were part of various schools, which Svarre defined as the Berkeley, New York, or Copenhagen schools.

Svarre said “we know a lot today” because of these people, and their analytical methods still hold water. While new technologies and big data have increased the capacity to collect and analyze data, old-school “observational studies,” which are “cheap and easy to do,” are still important. “Otherwise, you just have lots of data, and then what do you do with that? You can’t replace being there, capturing the nuances.” Svarre said perhaps “we’ve gone from complex back to simple.”

Gehl made a point about how a simple observation can reveal much. When one woman who worked at the Danish embassy in Vietnam went to Copenhagen, she told Gehl, “wow, there are so many children.” Gehl was surprised she said that because Denmark is actually shrinking and can’t even maintain its own population. What this woman witnessed was that every parent who had a child brought them out “because it was safe for them to be out.” In contrast, in Vietnam, which actually has a baby boom, “it’s difficult to see children anywhere because it’s not safe for them in the traffic.”

Parents in Copenhagen actually get their children on bicycles as early as age four, letting them bike to school. Some 30 percent of families in the city also have “family bikes,” in which all the kids pile in. Gehl said “good, safe bike lanes were a condition for all of this.” Furthermore, this really shows that “if there are many children in the city, it’s a sign of a good quality of life and livability. Same with older people and the handicapped.”

Danish bicyclist with kids / The Times (UK)

Read Gehl and Svarre’s latest book, How to Study Public Life, and check out an interview with Gehl.