A Love of Common Things

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Dallas Museum of Art by Dan Kiley / Alan Ward, TCLF

In a lecture at the National Building Museum on the legacy of Modern landscape architect Dan Kiley, Gary Hilderbrand, FASLA, one of the founders of landscape architecture firm Reed Hilderbrand, said of Kiley, “we share a love of order, a disdain of ornament, a love of common things — the field, the hedgerow, the tree canopy. Like him, I want to return these all to glory.” Introduced by Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, head of The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF), who connected Hilderbrand to the rich Modern traditions of Kiley, the focus of a new exhibition organized by TCLF at NBM, Hilderbrand talked about both Kiley’s projects and his own, illuminating some parellels between their work in interesting ways.

For Hilderbrand, Kiley was part of the movement that steered landscape architecture away from its traditional focus on the garden. Kiley, and his fellow students Garrett Eckbo and James Rose, displaced the garden, suggesting that teaching gardens to graduate students was “disagreeably aristocratic and irrelevant.” They all felt a “greater urgency for public landscapes, the infrastructure for urbanization.” Whether their aim was explicit or not, “they caused the garden to vanish for a long time.” (Except, as Hilderbrand noted later, perhaps Kiley never fully vanquished the garden, returning to it with many small gardens and his famous Miller Garden, which created a “singular sense of modern living.”)

A Modernist, Kiley wanted to distill landscapes into their core elements, removing any excess. “He loved ordinary things like the field and the forest canopy, and he made them extraordinary.” As an example, Hilderbrand showed Kiley’s Dallas Museum of Art, with its stark rows of trees (see image above). “For Kiley, it was totally natural to plant trees in rows; it wasn’t contrived. How can that be? It’s because it’s natural for humans to plant trees in rows, like orchards, so the trees can be more easily grown, watered, pruned, and harvested. Planting in a grid is then the most natural thing.”

Kiley used Modern techniques to create a paired-down yet also heightened sense of nature. Another site, Fountain Place in Dallas is “like being in a cypress forest; it smells and feels like a forest. It’s truly remarkable.”

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Fountain Place, Dallas / Alan Ward, TCLF

The influence of Kiley can be seen in Reed Hilderbrand’s own thoughtful, minimalist projects, with their focus on the essential. Hilderbrand gave the crowd of more than 200 a tour of four sites:

The Central Park Wharf in Boston is about taking infrastructure and creating an “inhabitable landscape, a work of living architecture.” For Reed Hilderbrand, the challenge was, “how do we make the surface of this park feel alive?”

To create that feeling that the Wharf park is alive, they had to build “below ground-infrastructure.” Hilderbrand used an apt metaphor here: “You can’t create a great meal without a great staff in the kitchen.” A structure was put in place to hold up the ground and seating areas. A medium of soil, with drains that form a trellis-like system, maintain precise amounts of moisture for the 25 oak trees planted. “Sensors let us know if the trees are getting enough water.”

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ASLA 2011 Professional General Design Honor Award. Central Wharf Park / Reed Hilderbrand

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This complex system made simple really worked: the trees, which were planted large, experienced a phenomenal 10 feet of growth since they were put in the ground.

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ASLA 2011 Professional General Design Honor Award. Central Wharf Park / Reed Hilderbrand

Central Park Wharf is now “instantly recognizable for its cover canopy, with lights wired through the trees.”

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ASLA 2011 Professional General Design Honor Award. Central Wharf Park / Charles Mayer Photography

A second project, restoring the landscape around Philip Johnson’s Beck House in Texas, and then re-connecting it to the home, was challenging because the “landscape was highly degraded, a jungle, really.” But then, Reed Hilderbrand can see the “opportunity in anything.” The Beck House is a grand building in the vein of Johnson’s Lincoln Center. What was difficult was finding a way to make this fantastic home part of its surrounding landscape.

Hilderbrand said they ended up being critical of Johnson’s approach to the landscape, which was to cut it off and make it a source of panoramic views only. Their team brought trees into Johnson’s blank arcade, reduced the height of retaining walls, and built a flight of low, grassy stairs to pull the entrance outside of the building. The overall effect is to better root the building in its surrounding landscape, making it feel more like a piece of the place than disengaged from its environment.

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ASLA 2011 Professional Residential Design Honor Award. Beyond Pictorial: Revising Philip Johnson’s Monumental Beck House / Alan Ward

They then restored the creek and bridge, editing out invasive plants and trees, and set a series of long white planks that brought a further sense of order to the estate’s grounds.

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ASLA 2011 Professional Residential Design Honor Award. Beyond Pictorial: Revising Philip Johnson’s Monumental Beck House / Reed Hilderbrand

Hilderbrand then took us to Marshcourt, a historic manor by Sir Edwin Luytens in England, where his firm is reintegrating the surrounding chalk landscape back into the place. The buildings’ walls are made of chalk and flint. The nearby chalk quarry proved to be an inspiration for what Reed Hilderbrand did: create the sense that once is driving through a “cut of chalk,” then going through a “door,” upon which you open up into the copse. “The contractors thought we were out of our minds compacting chalk into steep slopes.” But the effect is worth it: the meadows planted on top of the slopes are beautiful.

Lastly, Old Quarry, a project on the Long Island Sound in southern Connecticut, tells the story of finding order in an old stone quarry. Paths are like jetties. Footpaths were created across paths of rocks. Reed Hilderbrand used a simple, coastal plant palette. Hilderbrand said this project took four years, and was like being a “kid in a sandbox.” Stone masons actually spent two years on site, forming the stone into patterns. “This was definitely a luxury.”

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ASLA 2012 Professional Residential Design Honor Award. Reordering Old Quarry / Charles Mayer Photography

According to Hilderbrand, all these examples prove that “a landscape architect never begins from scratch. We always begin with a story, maybe centuries of stories.” And those stories may not necessarily need to be understood by those seeing them. “Whether the experience is rational or emotional, we don’t have to understand everything behind a landscape.”

The Architecture of Trees

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all photos by Hannah Barefoot

“Trees appear to be too complicated if we don’t have the key. I will give you the key to trees,” Francis Hallé

Renowned botanists, Francis Hallé and Peter Del Tredici, came to the University of Virginia (UVA) to teach landscape architecture students about the architecture of trees. Hallé is a professor emeritus at the University of Montpellier II, where he studies tropical rainforests. UVA landscape architecture chair Teresa Gali-Izard, International ASLA, introduced him as a botanist, biologist, artist, and poet. Del Tredici is a botanist and research scientist at Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum and professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. His research includes wild urban plants and plant morphology.

As the first workshop on Saturday afternoon began, Hallé defined plant architecture through 22 known models of tree growth and morphology. We learned how certain logic plays out in the growth of a tree. The diagrammatic quality of his drawings demonstrated growth habits and the potential for reiteration, which refers to a tree’s response to damage with the redirection of nutrients. Hallé developed concepts of reiteration and tree adaptability, explaining how these capabilities formed out of tree evolution.

Hallé insists the key to understanding trees lies in the difference between unitarian and modular models. Unitarian trees have ancient methods of reproduction – they are consistent and symmetrical throughout their entire life. When a unitarian tree is pruned, the plant lacks the means to reproduce from the cut. Modular trees work in a more complex way – as the tree grows the branches create a dendritic pattern. When a modular tree is pruned, the tree responds through reiteration. A modular tree is adaptable because it can reproduce more modules of the original tree form throughout the canopy.

Full of ideas on how to draw, plant, understand trees, students and faculty set out in the rain to draw and study trees on the grounds of UVA. We looked at specific instances of reiteration in action: tree collars, water sprouts, fluid tree growth dynamics, and grafting.

The following morning we walked to the side of Carter’s Mountain along the Monticello Trail. We lingered with certain plants: eastern white pine, devil’s walking stick, tulip poplar, eastern redbud, and an oak. We encountered visible reiteration in the forest surrounding Monticello.

“Wood is plastic,” Francis Hallé; “Trees have fluid dynamics,” Peter Del Tredici

Peter Del Tredici then discussed biological functions in architectural models of trees. Discussion of meristems (the tissue in plants enabling regenerative growth) and the fluid dynamics of trees informed Del Tredici’s examples of tree adaptability. Images of trees growing through chain link fences, massive tropical tree buttresses, or trees converting dead internal cambium into soil for new growth all demonstrated the ability of trees to change and succeed within taxing environments.

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Our final group workshop gathered into a large informal critique of the work UVA landscape architecture students completed as part of courses on planted form and function. The work included axonometric drawings of plant communities in Virginia, specific and general examinations of plant architecture, and some experiments in representing representation types of planted forms (hedge, alleé, windbreak). While we discussed methods of drawing plant architecture with Hallé and Del Tredici, other questions at the intersection of botany, design, and preservation arose.

As landscape architects and students, we know tree maintenance is a critical part of design. Though Hallé insists cutting a limb of a tree is “like cutting the leg of your dog,” we pondered the reasons for pruning a tree. Gali-Izard and UVA professor Julie Bargmann wondered about the role of the landscape architect’s role in pruning: “I love trees. I want to touch them,” and “Why can’t I be the lightning strike?”

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We talked about the cultural implications of cutting a tree, as well as pollarding, hedging, or training trees. Though no ethical conclusion emerged from the conversation, Hallé said it well, “to prune a tree you must have a very strong reason.”

This guest post is by Hannah Barefoot, Master’s of Landscape Architecture candidate, University of Virginia

Uncovering a Wild Garden’s Past

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American beech grove, Dumbarton Oaks Park / Jim Osen Photography

Unlike the 16 acres of formal gardens at Washington, D.C.’s Dumbarton Oaks, there are no remaining plans for Dumbarton Oaks Park, the wild garden that is its complement. Perhaps Beatrix Farrand, one of the most prominent landscape architects of the 20th century, laid out most of the design in response to the larger scale of the landscape and wilder conditions of the lower 27-acre parcel? But how does one know? And how does one restore and rehabilitate a landscape without the plan of the original designer?

One must read the traces that remain. As the cultural landscape report written by the National Park Service in 1999 describes, what remains at Dumbarton Oaks Park is rich enough to suggest the journey Farrand created.

There is a manipulated watercourse with 18 weirs, which harness the water flow through the park as well as create a rich sensory experience.

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Dumbarton Oaks Park / Jared Green

There is a path system that meanders the visitor though forest, stream, and meadow, creating a circuit of experience.

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Dumbarton Oaks Park path / Jared Green

There are the remains of stone-garden follies, which once provided shade and a moment to reflect on the land, the past, and the future.

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Dumbarton Oaks Park / Jared Green

In one circuit through the park, a visitor can experience all of these landscape moments. It’s a living work of art that provides a different journey for each visitor. Dumbarton Oaks Park is a living canvas upon which the light can change many times in one day.

Farrand designed landscapes and gardens with the deep understanding that they were not static but living, breathing, changing environments. She was capable of reading a site and creating a design that evolved from that understanding.

She was a self-taught master of proportion, texture, and horticultural form. At Princeton University, where she worked for 28 years, she mastered the simple elegance of a quadrangle with the use of vertical plant material, and panels of grass to keep the space open and defined by the edges of the buildings meeting the ground plane.

Dumbarton Oaks Park is a treasure because of this landscape architect’s vision. Farrand, though she was a founding member of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), was overlooked for many of the public park commissions in the first part of the century because she was a woman. Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., Jens Jensen, and others were selected instead. But it is our great fortune that her only remaining wild garden now belongs to us all.

And so it is with great respect of Farrand’s mastery that we work to reveal the design of this urban wilderness garden. We work within a framework of design that exists, while balancing the current site conditions, such as soil erosion and compaction and invasive plants.

In our signature project area, the removals of invasive trees, shrubs, and vines has opened up the sweeping views a visitor now experiences once he or she walks through the entrance gates. Here we see the beech grove stone wall after we enter…

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American beech grove wall, before restoration / Ann Aldrich, Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy
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American beech grove wall, during restoration / Ann Aldrich, Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy

…and, then, through the American Beech Grove…

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American beech grove, before restoration / Ann Aldrich, Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy
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American beech grove, after restoration / Ann Aldrich, Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy

…and up to the Northern Woodland in the distance.

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Bridge hollow, before restoration / Ann Aldrich, Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy
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Bridge hollow, during restoration / Ann Aldrich, Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy

From bridge to bridge, one can now see the stream course running towards its wild neighbor, Rock Creek. The breathtaking scale of this silver-trunked grove of trees is made evident.

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Dumbarton Oaks Park Signature Project / Jim Osen Photography

Our efforts on a small scale are no less important. The recent replanting of a Black Gum tree in an existing tree pit notched into the Dumbarton Oaks wall will once again mark the entrance with its commanding trunk.

Farrand’s use of human-scale landscape markers to suggest a path, an intersection, or a view was highly attuned. They are still in evidence. From the human-scaled path — edged with stone and drifts of herbaceous planting or from under the cover of a wood arbor — Farrand developed views out to the larger landscapes beyond, such as the meadow and woods. Farrand carefully orchestrated the experience as one moved through the park.

To be successful in the restoration of this wild garden we must keep in the forefront of our minds the landscape scale and the human scale simultaneously. Farrand left us this legacy as a guide.

This guest post is by Liza Gilbert, ASLA, chair of the Signature Committee, Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy.

An Escalator to Opportunity

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Colombia’s decades of civil war displaced hundreds of thousands of people. Fleeing the countryside, they arrived in the cities like Medellin, only to discover a brutal world ruled by drug lords. Until drug kingpin Pablo Escobar was killed in 1993, the residents of Communa Trece, a community on a steep slope about a mile from the central valley of Medellin, faced incredible violence. In the early 90s, there were more than 6,000 murders per year. “Escobar corrupted Medellin. He turned kids into contract killers. Everyone wanted a motorcycle and a gun,” said Carlos Mesa, a guide with Las Buseticas, in a tour organized through the UN-Habitat’s World Urban Forum.

Years after Escobar’s death, the city’s mayors began a program of reconciliation with the former drug lords, turning them into local civic leaders. The settlements themselves changed from illegal to legal, as the city brought in clean water and made properties legitimate with official deeds. To create a sense that those living on the slopes were also citizens of Medellin, the city financed training and education targeted at the poor. And, importantly, the city began making major investments in infrastructure and urban design, like an incredible 300-foot long escalator built right into the hill, which helped give the residents of Commua Trece the sense that their lives matter, too.

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Communa Trece really started to take shape in the 1970s and 80s, said Mesa. The area is highly geologically-unstable, offering a high-risk of landslide. Homes were originally made of tin, wood, and cardboard; now, they are made of bricks. At first, the city government didn’t pay attention to this illegal settlement taking shape. “They had other priorities.”

But beginning with Mayor Sergio Fajardo in the early 00s, the city began to take notice, initiating a program of reconciliation with the gang leaders, as “many already had strong leadership skills,” said Mesa. As security improved, whole neighborhoods became legal. If a resident of a shanty wanted access to social services, they needed to have their residence surveyed to make sure it was safe, and, then, if so, it was officially formalized and legalized. In many cases, these homes were then brought into the electricity and water grid. Mesa said some houses were removed because they were found to be built on highly unstable lots.

To improve the quality of life in some of the steepest areas, EDU, the city’s urban development organization, initiated a range of projects, spending tens of millions, including $8 million on the new escalator for one of the steepest slopes. Working with Japanese engineers, the city of Medellin wanted to design a singular form of access for one of the most forgotten parts of the city.

Mesa said before the escalator started running, residents had to climb the equivalent of a 30-story building to get home; that’s nearly half an hour of stair climbing. Their commute into the city and back could take more than two and half hours in total. For the elderly or infirm, this was simply impossible. As a result, “some people hadn’t been downtown in 15 years.” With the escalator and connecting subway, the ride downtown now takes about 45 minutes, opening up lots of job opportunities.

The escalator is broken into six segments and takes residents up 300 feet in about 6 minutes. Given most of the neighborhoods’ 12,000 residents had never ridden an escalator, the city offered free training, busing people into shopping malls so they could try them out. Mesa said “some people were very worried about the escalators prior to testing them.”

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To construct the escalator, the city first had to build a road. A 800-meter-long cement trail now runs in a loop through the hills. It’s open only to pedestrian, bicyclists, and motorcyclists. Santiago Mesa Arango, a representative with EDU, said this was just the first phase. The loop will soon connect other neighborhoods, itself a major accomplishment considering it used to be fatal to cross some neighborhood lines. While gang violence and drugs are still a problem, they are much less so than in the 90s.

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Along the road, new shops have popped up to serve all the foot traffic. There are other great amenities for the community, too. A trash heap is now an excellent playground, with a satisfyingly-steep slide built into the slope.

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Above the slide is a playground and exercise area.

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Throughout these new public spaces are some wild public art, created by local artists.

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Today, 17 young people from the community work on the escalator, as engineers and a maintenance crew. One young man we met, George, who goes by G-al, is also a singer. He told us, “lots of tourists come here to see the transformation. There are many artists here who have so much talent. Now, we get to show them who we are.”

How Can Cities Improve Their Resilience?

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Thames barrier, London / The Greenwich Phantom

“Urban resilience can be defined as the capacity of the system of cities to survive, adapt, and grow no matter what acute shocks occur,” said Judith Rodin, president of The Rockefeller Foundation at the World Urban Forum in Medellin, Colombia. “There have always been shocks throughout history, but, today, they are different — with globalization, climate change, and the immense scale and pace of shocks.” Rodin said shocks are occurring in cities based in increasingly fragile ecosystems, which puts people at unprecedented risk.

On Medellin, which is increasingly viewed as a model of a sustainable city, Rodin said the city’s ability to innovate and incorporate new ideas about its infrastructure shows that it’s becoming a more resilient city. “Medellin was trapped in a cycle of violence and mass incarceration, but it had the capacity to think differently.” Medellin’s city leadership worked on connecting its poor, isolated communities through new transit, libraries, and parks, bringing them into the mainstream. She said this was critical because the poor and vulnerable are the ones who are always most impacted.

Perhaps Rodin’s central point was that “we can’t always predict or prevent catastrophes, but we can control the physical and spiritual damage. It’s not just about how a city operates on its best days, but whether it can operate on its worst.”

So how can cities become more resilient? They have to make “an up-front investment.” While those up-front investments in resilience can be expensive, they can create jobs and improve social cohesion. Improving resilience is not just a task for the public sector either. “Businesses have self interest in becoming involved, too.” Rodin pointed to a World Bank study that argued 25 percent of all businesses that fail after a major disruption don’t reopen.

New technology may also provide hope. “Look at the advances in 3D-printing, which enable us to print parts when distribution systems break down, or on-site manufacturing of emergency shelters.”

To bolster the ability of cities to adapt to changing circumstances, the Rockefeller Foundation announced it will dedicate $100 million to its new 100 Resilient Cities program. By increasing the focus on resilience among 100 world cities, the foundation hopes to create a market for resilient products and services, so more companies have an incentive to serve this market. Cities can use the foundation’s funds to find chief resilient officers, who will be charged with creating a city-wide resilience strategy.

Other global experts also weighed in on the move towards urban resilience. Katherine Vines, C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, which includes 40 of the 50 largest cities in the world, said mega-cities face a “huge job adapting to climate change, shocks, and chronic stresses.” A recent report by the group found that 82 percent of C40 cites are already dedicating staff and funds to urban resilience, including early warning systems and emergency preparedness, and green infrastructure systems, like green roofs and permeable pavements, in order to cool cities and deal with flooding.

As an example, she point to Rio de Janeiro, where Mayor Eduardo Paes is implementing a robust resilience strategy, with an emergency response center, long-term climate risk assessment, and actual construction work to improve slope support and drainage. And there’s also a real human component to the efforts: “Part of the emergency warning system will involve training local nurses.” Vines also mentioned an innovative new “rains app” from the city of Sao Paulo, which enables local residents to see their risk of summertime flooding in real time.

And then Stefan Denig, Siemens Sustainable City program, offered some scary data. Due to flooding in the 1950s, London spent $8 billion on its huge Thames barrier. Over the next few decades, London only had use the gates twice. However, in the past decade, the city had use the gates 40 times. It’s expected the city will soon need to use the gates up to 30 times per year.

While heavy infrastructure like London’s Thames barrier are critical, unfortunately, not all cities can afford the expense. Denig said Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam would need a 170-kilometer-long dam to really protect itself but “no one has the money for that,” so they have to use other approaches.

Resilience will then cost money, which is difficult given cities face so many competing demands for limited funds. What costs is creating redundant systems. For example, London’s subway, the tube, has its own power generation system in case the city’s system fails. “This is high cost and used rarely.”

The Rebirth of Medellin

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Medellin Metro station / Jared Green

“The turning point in our city’s history was the killing of Pablo Escobar,” said Alexander Velez, our guide during a tour of Medellin, organized by UN-Habitat during the World Urban Forum. Escobar, the most notorious drug dealer of the century, was estimated to be worth some $25 billion by the time he was killed by Colombian police forces in 1993. At his height, he controlled some 80 percent of the world’s cocaine market. According to Velez, his impact on Medellin was deeply poisonous. The gangs he controlled ruled the slums surrounding the valley of Medellin without mercy. It was dangerous to even cross neighborhood lines. Thousands of innocent people were murdered each year.

The other turning point, said Velez, was the creation of Medellin’s extensive Metro system, the first leg of which was launched in 1996. After Escobar died, the gangs were co-opted, and security began to improve, the people of Medellin discovered they could travel safely to other parts of the city. Soon, the city’s total transformation began to take root. And it only continues.

We drive along the Medellin River, a thin, polluted channel lined in concrete and surrounded by train lines and highways that cuts through the heart of the city. Velez explains that a new park will soon be built around the river. “We will bring back nature and undo the pollution. There will be pedestrian walkways, bicycle lanes. The highways will be buried.” Velez said there was an international design competition for the restoration and redevelopment project, which Latitud Taller de Ciudad y Arquitectura, a local firm, just won. The first segment will cost $300 million. Eventually, the park will extend 44 kilometers, said Velez.

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Parque Botánico Río Medellín by Latitud Taller de Ciudad y Arquitectura. Winner of the Design Competition for Medellín River Park.

The restoration of the Medellin River is just another example of how the city’s leadership is focused on improving social equity, stitching the poor and rich parts of the cities together.

This transformation is even seen in El Poblado, the wealthiest part of the city. Velez explained that this was the first place the Spanish colonialists settled in 1616. “They didn’t find gold but did find water so they stayed.” Over the centuries, the area evolved into a place where the very rich kept their country homes. In the early 20th century, there were extensive estates. One example of this is the Castle, the estate of José Tobón Uribe, who died just after he built the place in the 1930s. The castle was modeled after a Gothic castle in Loire, France. Later in the 1940s, textile magnate Diego Echavarría Misas bought the castle and then turned it into a museum.

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The Castle Museum / Jared Green

Even the richest area is now more accessible, said Velez. While the very wealthy still live in the area, along with the Mayor of Medellin and other celebrities, El Poblado is also now the neighborhood of the upper middle class. The main square, El Poblado square, where the Spanish first landed, has become a spot for locals to take a break. Gorgeous old trees provide a welcome canopy.

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El Poblado Square / Jared Green

And winding through the district is a stream that has been restored, forming the backbone of a new linear park, which opened in 2003.

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Linear park in El Poblado / Jared Green

Surprising cafes and bars appear at the edges of the park, providing another respite in a city filled with greenery.

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Small cafe space near the linear park in El Poblado / Jared Green

Heading towards the city center, Velez explains the city’s “partial plans,” an ambitious urban revitalization program aimed at improving the quality of life for residents and business owners. He said this plan will eventually result in 100,000 new, “non-subsidized” apartments. “The partial plans will bring life to areas that are industrialized. Before, they were places for the homeless and illegal drugs. Now, there will be residential apartment complexes, hotels, and hospitals.”

We could see the metamorphosis in one industrial area, with the opening of the Museum of Modern Art in an abandoned, 1930s-era steel mill. A $12 million addition is coming in behind the existing building.

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Museum of Modern Art, Medellin / Jared Green

And, again, Medellin surprises with its parks. Colombian endorphin-addicts could be seen tossing medicine balls in Parque líneal Ciudad del Río, the funky, urban park covered in street art, adjacent to the museum.

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Parque líneal Ciudad del Río / Wiki Colombia

As we gaze at the new museum, we stand right in the middle of Medellin’s budding system of bicycle infrastructure. While the lanes still seem a bit disconnected, the better ones are up on the sidewalks, away from the parked cars and traffic. Velez said “the network is not yet integrated, but the city is working on it.”

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Bicycle Lane in Medellin / Jared Green

These lanes also serve the new bicycle share system, which Velez said the city has been running for the past three years. If residents show an ID and credit card, they can use the bikes for free. Velez said there are 800 free bikes, and the system will soon scale up to nearly 1,100.

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Bike share system in Medellin / Jared Green

All of those must be put to use on Sundays, when much of the city’s streets no longer become accessible to cars, opening up into a bonanza for two-wheelers.

Throughout the city, one is struck by the small design details, too. Velez took us to Plaza Botero, which features the largest collection of local Medellin artist Fernando Botero’s outdoor sculptures.

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Plaza Botero / Jared Green

While the sculptures are stunning, the comfortable, human-scale streetscape competes for your attention, as well as the urban furniture that can be found throughout the downtown. This is a city designed for all — with places to stroll and sit. It’s the careful attention to these details that make Medellin feel so welcoming.

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Plaza Botero Pedestrian Mall / Jared Green
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Street chairs / Jared Green

The tour then headed to the northern end of the city, which has been hit hardest by poverty and violence, and, therefore, has seen the greatest transformation. Our first stop is the Ruta N complex, the center of Medellin’s efforts to lure innovative companies to participate in the city’s rebirth. Velez said it’s an innovation center that includes a lab and offices for the local Hewlett Packard center. The building features an innovative green wall system and reuses all water.

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Ruta N / Jared Green

Tropical gardens surrounding the building collect rainwater and cool the plaza and building.

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Ruta N garden / Jared Green

Next to Ruta N are a set of new parks that demonstrate the core of the city’s transition into a more equal place, at least in terms of access to beautiful public spaces. As Velez has explained, since the early 00s, the city, along with the foundation of the Empresas Publicas de Medellin (EPM), the all-encompassing public utility, have financed a wonderful program of “library-parks,” which combine places for learning, exploration, and play, with well-maintained green, public spaces. There are nine library-parks in “deprived areas.” One of these is the Park of Wishes, which was designed in 2003 by architect Felipe Uribe de Bedout, who also created the now-famous Barefoot Park, and features the city’s biggest music school. Facing the school is the city’s planetarium, which has a giant projector screen for outdoor films on one of its walls. The park offers fun “echo chambers” in the shape of moons.

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Wish Park / Jared Green

Right along side the Park of Wishes is Park Explora, which has the largest aquarium in Colombia in its extensive grounds. In the spirit of equality, “high income people pay to visit the aquarium, while low-income people just need to show their electricity bill to get in for free.”

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Park Explora / Jared Green

“Together, these two parks offer the poorest access to music, astronomy, and nature — education, which is what they need,” said Velez. “All these new amenities will help the city continue to grow in a sustainable way.”

Cutting the Super Block Down to Size

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Yuelai Eco-city / Calthorpe Associates

Urbanization in China is the single biggest human migration in history. To accomodate the millions coming in from the countryside each year, China’s cities are tearing down their old human-scale, socially-rich neighborhoods, with their meandering, bicycle-friendly streets, and putting in highways and incredibly isolating towers set amid vacant-feeling “super blocks.” These are places only Le Corbusier could have loved. Or at least that’s the image some see in the West. At the World Urban Forum in Medellin, Colombia, a group of innovative Chinese urban planners explain how some of the latest “eco-cities” as well as design interventions in existing cities may help some Chinese mayors see the wisdom of sustainable urban development and taking those super-blocks down to size.

Dongquan He, with the Energy Foundation, said China now has more than 660 cities, with 20,000 more towns under construction. Over the next 25 years, 400 million more Chinese will move into cities. And by 2050, China will be 75 percent urban.

As China grows at incredible rates, its cities have created very wide streets that connect super blocks. “These have just a single function, moving from A to B. You really have to use a car to get around.” These planning decisions have also resulted in signficant environmental damage. The air in so many Chinese cities is basically unbreathable because cars have been let loose. He said: “China’s development problem is the super block.”

The Energy Foundation has come up with a whole set of criteria to explain urban sustainability to China’s mayors. The principles are well considered: places should be walkable; bicycling should be prioritized; networks of streets should be dense; public transit should be high-quality; developments should be mixed-use; and parking should be regulated.

To test these idea, He and his team became involved in a new thousand-hectare eco-city in Yuelai, Chongquing, one of the country’s mega-cities (see image above). He’s group worked with Calthorpe Asssociates and the eco-city developers to preserve the existing landscape. “We didn’t violate the natural systems.” They then created a plan that reduced the size of the average Chinese super block, allocating density near transit, creating small town-centers with public space every 500 meters, and also smaller grid spaces that fit high-rise, mid-rise. and low-rise buildings together in a dense, walkable street network. Parks and greenways connect people to the harbor, and a custom-designed streetcar system will also improve mobility. But He admitted that with this kind of huge development, “it’s hard to created the small spaces people like.” Indeed, in these images, the blocks still look a bit super.

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Yuelai Eco-city / Calthorpe Associates

Yang Liu with the China Sustainable Transportation Center outlined his organization’s work with the Chenggong New Town, in Kunming, which is in China’s southwest. He and his team are tackling “super blocks that didn’t feel safe crossing.” They helped increase the road network density by narrowing the streets and sidewalks considerably to improve the human fabric. Development is also now clustered around transit stations.

For EMBARQ China’s director, Haitao Zhang, the aim is to transform Qingdao, a major city in the northeast, through his Qingdao Low-carbon Sustainable Transportation study. Zhang has worked on reconnecting land use and transportation planning, putting stations where there is demand, and breaking the siloed approach to the problems of sprawl in the local government. EMBARQ is also planning a slew of “small-scale urban interventions” to improve the streetscape, turning super blocks into outdoor cafes and pedestrian-friendly plazas.

To learn more about the state of China’s cities, see a new report presented by Shi Na, with UN Habitat and the Urban Planning Society in China.

Cities Can Undo Inequality If They Start Planning

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Slums and high-rises in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil / Christian Science Monitor

“If a city has no structure, there will be inequality,” said Joan Clos, head of the UN Human Settlements Program (UN-Habitat) during the opening days of the World Urban Forum in Medellin, Colombia. Clos, the former mayor of Barcelona, said far too often cities in the developing world appear to have been built with a total disregard for organizational structure. These cities have set themselves up for massive social unrest.

Across the developing (and developed) worlds, there has been “metastatic growth,” much like a cancerous tumor eating its way through healthy tissue. This is because “urban growth has been developer-driven. High-rises and shopping malls are placed at random, creating disaggregation and then segregation.” This segregation happens because “low-income people are absent in developers’ considerations. Developers don’t make any money off of them.”

To avoid social unrest in increasingly unequal cities, Clos said “we need to start planning public spaces again.” Developers must learn to work within the frameworks set by planners. He added that pretty master plans are not urban planning. “If the first thing you see from a developer are renderings with all the houses filled in, then there has been no public input.”

Looking at the state of global urbanization — 80 percent of the world will be living in cities by 2050 — Clos is “flabbergasted.” He sees all the social splintering and fragmentation that is to come if there isn’t a new global investment in fair planning.

Echoing his remarks, a number of urban leaders from around the world explained how they are working towards more socially-cohesive cities.

Rossyln Greef with the city of Johannesburg, South Africa, showed a wowing video of their new “corridors of freedom” initiative, which aims to create a new spatial plan that will undo the segregation built into the city with apartheid.

Johannesburg’s corridors of freedom are really high-density, mixed-use developments along bus-rapid transit (BRT) corridors. The city’s goal is to reduce commuting costs for the city’s poor, so they are targeting those areas first.

She said: “We are moving from a deliberately exclusionary framework to an inclusive one. We are getting rid of racial segregation through planning. It’s a huge challenge.”

Ali Mandanipour, a professor at Newcastle University in the UK, pointed to the 2006 strategic plan from the city of Antwerp in Belgium as a model for how to reconnect a city and envisage a more equitable future. He also highlighted Bogota, Colombia’s huge investment in the planning and design of public spaces, which are all wheelchair accessible.

Mandanipour said “public spaces are key breathing spaces that make cities more attractive for people and investors.” However, he also cautioned, that new parks and plazas can become a tool for gentrification and exclusion if their construction pushes the poor out. “Spatial linkages must connect with existing social linkages.”

The United States has had a long history of segregation and social inequality, said Lisa Rice, with the National Fair Housing Alliance. She said the fair housing laws passed in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. helped eliminate housing discrimination and advanced social cohesion but segregation persists. Detroit, Washington, D.C. and Chicago are all “hyper-segregated,” which fuels disparities in access to education, healthcare, transportation, and food. “Detroit has huge food deserts. There are no supermarkets within the city limits. You have to drive to the suburbs.” In the U.S., her organization and others are trying to “stave off predatory lending in low-income areas.”

For the minister in charge of urban development in Argentina, Daniel Chain, the words of Pope Francis are worth heeding:”If a society abandons parts of itself, it will have no peace of mind. Inequality leads to violence because, at its essence, it’s unfair.” In Buenos Aires, Chain helped undo the damage caused by the red-lining that occurred in neighborhoods near one highway, helping to bring them back to life. The city has also undergone an intensive program of building new theatres, schools, libraries in its southern areas, its poorest sections. Chain said “poor people who live right next to the wealthy receive a slap in the face, a blow to their dignity.” It’s a “true confrontation” Buenos Aires is trying to limit.

And Jean-Marie Kazadi, head of urban development for the Katanga province in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) talked about the immense challenges in starting to plan communities where there has been no planning to date due to persistent civil war. Beyond war, the cities of Katanga must deal with the legacy of the harsh Belgian colonialism, which, he said, the DRC government just perpetuated after independence. “We must keep people at the center of our concerns.”

Medellin’s Social Innovation

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Parque de la luces / Medellin culture department

This year, Medellin, the second largest city in Colombia, is the host of the UN-Habitat’s World Urban Forum, which attracts more than 15,000 urban leaders from around the world. This is a huge accomplishment for a city that had the highest number of homicides in the world just a decade ago. Now, Anibal Gaviria Correa, the Mayor of Medellin says, the city is not even in the top 50 ranking of dangerous cities. How did Medellin turn it around to win the title of the world’s most innovative city? The answer is complex — and the city continues to face many challenges — but the mayor said its amazing progress is really due to “social, not technological, innovation.”

Medellin (which is pronounced Medejin) is the largest city in the Antioquia province. The city, which is nestled in a valley some 5,000 feet up, had a population of around 250,000 in the 1940s. With “informal expansion,” the population exploded to 2.4 million by 2011. Without a plan, slums took root in undesirable locations along the slopes surrounding prime real estate in the valley. People from the countryside moved there to flee the civil war, only to find that a landslide could take away their home in an instant. Pushed up the slopes, these newly urbanized people experienced major displacement, resentment, and, later, incredible violence, fueled in part by drug lord Pablo Escobar and the many drug gangs.

Mayor Correa called 1990 to 2000 the decade of violence. Across the country, 48,000 people were murdered, with Medellin accounting for more than 20 percent of those deaths. Correa said it was no coincidence that during this decade Medellin had areas of extreme poverty and high inequality. In a clear warning to other developing world cities seeing their slums expand, he said violence and inequality are deeply connected.

To climb out of that dark place, the city’s leadership began to create a “structure for public participation” designed to bring all residents into a planning process, even in the midst of Colombia’s ongoing civil war. Three successive mayoral administrations continued the same good policies, creating momentum for the city’s long-term vision, which is to become a “city of life,” with a high-quality public transportation system, parks, and libraries accessible to all.

Empresas de Services Publico (EPM), a public-private utility that provides power, water, sewage, sanitation, and other services to the city also played an important part in making the dream become real. EPM provides hundreds of millions to the city each year, supporting the development of iconic projects like the subway, but also the extended Metro plus system, which includes a cable car that now provides connectivity to slums on the north side of the city.

On the Metro system, which is now the largest public transportation system in Colombia, Mayor Correa said “there is a real pride of the Metro, a culture of respect when you are in this space.”

The city has also financed fantastic “library-parks,” which offer both green space and a place to read. Here is the park for the Spanish Library in the hills of Santo Domingo, which used to be so dangerous the police would not even venture there.

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Parque de Biblioteca Espana / Bomb Magazine

Two new pieces of green under development include an extensive new riverfront park system, which will provide people with acccess to the Medellin river that cuts through the center of the city, and a greenway system, which will provide a “green belt” around the city, helping to reduce landslides and flooding for the poor communities along the steep slopes and perhaps pause sprawl.

Mayor Correa said green spaces are needed for both ethical and aesthetic reasons. If parks are found in all neighborhoods — rich or poor — they improve the ethical make-up of the city. Public green spaces provide “the civic realm where people can become citizens. It’s where everyone can be equal.” Parks also provide urban beauty, which Mayor Correa said is also “necessary for urban coexistence.”

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Parque Explora / Medellin 2009 blog

Another important symbol of how the city is addressing persistent inequality: new day care centers. Mayor Correa said 80,000 children have accessed these new facilities, where they get free meals and a place to play, and their parents get an opportunity to go out and work. The city’s goal is to provide 100,000 children services through 20 centers. At the other end of the educational spectrum, the city is planning two new universities that will serve low-income populations in the city. Mayor Correa wants those young people working in new innovation districts.

The mayor said Medellin still has a long way to go. The city is still far too unequal, even though it’s a bit more equal than other cities in Colombia. (Unfortunately, this is not saying that much, given Colombia is one of the more unequal countries in Latin America, itself the most unequal continent on earth).

After Mayor Correa spoke, UN-Habitat invited experts from around the world to comment on whether Medellin can really serve as a model for other cities.

Swedish Ambassador to Colombia Marie Andersson de Frutos said Medellin is a replicable model because it city government has really worked as a team with the private sector and non-profits. Medellin shows “there is no quick fix. Prescriptions can’t come from a doctor, they have to come from the whole hospital.”

Jose Carrera, Development Bank of Latin America, said Medellin correctly identified that violence was tied to inequality. The city made a great move removing one key aspect of inequality in providing clean drinking water for the whole city, rich or poor. However, he added Medellin, like many others in Latin America, still needs to do a better job of creating new jobs for unemployed youth, which face double the unemployment rates of adults just at a time when they should be most productive.

David Sims, a partner with urban design firm Gehl Architects, applauded Medellin for “incorporating terms like love, trust, equality, and pride” in its new city charter. He said these concepts are difficult to measure but vital goals. Sims said Medellin has learned that true innovation comes from “different people meeting each other and having a conversation.” He also thought the city was doing a great job of focusing on the small things that matter — how people get to work, how they live. “There is a great balance here between the tangible (the physical infrastructure) and the intangibles (the culture).”

New UN Report: World Is Ill-Prepared for Climate Change

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Dry river bed. Darcha, India / Wikipedia

In the second in a series of new reports, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said the impacts of climate change are already being felt in every continent and every ocean, and the effects will only worsen as greenhouse gas emissions enter the atmosphere at an accelerated rate. Also, while some countries have started adaptation planning in earnest, the world, according to a global coalition of scientists, is largely “ill-prepared for risks from a changing climate.” The 300 scientists from 70 countries who wrote the report were assisted by 430-plus contributing authors and another 1,700 expert reviewers.

The report, Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, outlines the impacts of climate change thus far, the future risks, and opportunities to reduce those risks. The report focuses in on the “vulnerable people, industries, and ecosystems around the world.”

According to The New York Times, the report itemizes immense environmental change: “ice caps are melting, sea ice in the Arctic is collapsing, water supplies are coming under stress, heat waves and heavy rains are intensifying, coral reefs are dying, and fish and many other creatures are migrating toward the poles or in some cases going extinct.” And it emphasizes that these changes are happening now. For example, in the American West, mountain snowpack is declining, threatening drinking water supplies. And coastal erosion due is increasingly widespread.

Environmental changes will have a certain impact on people. Communities everywhere are vulnerable but often for different reasons. “Climate change often interacts with other stresses to increase risk.”

According to the report’s scientists, climate change is now affecting “agriculture and people’s livelihoods.” For example, a coastal community may not only face sea level rise but their fishing-based economy will see dramatically decreased yields with ocean acidification. Inland tropical communities not only face increased heat and reduced water supplies, but food production will become more challenging.

Across the board, the report states that in the coming decades, “climate-change impacts are projected to slow down economic growth, make poverty reduction more difficult, further erode food security, and prolong existing and create new poverty traps, the latter particularly in urban areas and emerging hotspots of hunger.”

But it may not be all doom and gloom, at least for those communities with enough money to adapt. Chris Field, Carnegie Institute for Science and co-chair of the report, said: “We definitely face challenges, but understanding those challenges and tackling them creatively can make climate-change adaptation an important way to help build a more vibrant world in the near-term and beyond.”

The report found that an increasing number of governments and major corporations are initiating far-reaching adaptation adaptation plans. As an example, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) will spend $2 billion on its Rebuild by Design program. And coastal cities like New York are taking a hard look at their infrastructure. The New York Times reports that Consolidated Edison, the power utility in NY, will spend $1 billion to storm-proof its systems.

While wealthier countries have opportunities to adapt, poorer ones may not. The World Bank estimates that developing countries need $100 billion in assistance from wealthier ones to better bear the brunt of the effects. Climate change could create massive food insecurity, increasing hunger in places already vulnerable to food shortages.

Further explore the key findings through these useful infographics. The third in the series of reports will be released in April, with the final synthesis report in October 2014.

Also, see new web-based resources recently released by the Obama administration, including a set of apps to help U.S. communities adapt, as well as new tools from the World Bank for developing countries.