Do Curves Matter?

Curved path in Central Park, New York City / Wikipedia

Why do images of nature have such a positive impact on us? Is it the colors? The patterns? Or the shapes? At the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) conference in New Orleans, Hessam Ghamari, a graduate student in environmental design at Texas Tech University, is trying to figure out the impact of contours on our brain behavior. Ghamari and his colleagues have explored the reaction to both sharp and curved as they relate to objects, architectural interiors and exteriors, and landscapes. As part of the experiment, they also tested to see whether prepping people to think they were in a hospital had an any impact on their response to the shapes.

Ghamari said Texas Tech won a grant to review all the neuroscience literature related to nature. They were particularly interested in one study from Harvard University researchers, who showed different behavioral responses to sharp and curved objects. They found that “sharp objects created a feeling of threat. People disliked them on a primal level.” Ghamari said, “that was a big a-ha moment, but they were only looking at objects. What about three-dimensional environments?”

Texas Tech put 36 adults in an fMRI machine to test their “behavioral responses and neural activations” to sharp, balanced, and curved objects, architectural interiors and exteriors, and landscapes. There were three sets of participants: one group was in their 20s, another in their 40s, and the last in their 60s. Stock images were selected if they were extreme representations of sharp or curved or a mix. Participants were shown multiple versions of tons of image, in black and white, high frequency, low frequency, or as a sketch. Each participant got to see each image for just 2 seconds. They were given two clickers — one to indicate like and one to express dislike.

Participants were then put through a pre-screening anxiety test. In the priming session, they listened to “hospital sounds” and were shown images of a hospital.

Ghamari said when asked — so when they provided voluntary responses — people preferred curved in all categories. For landscape, a whopping 80 percent pressed the like button. “Curves are just more pleasing.” (That’s something Frederick Law Olmsted and other landscape architects figured out ages ago).

At the same time, the researchers created a brain map that was an average for each category. They looked for any change in activation in the amygdala, which handles emotions and fear. The found that with objects and landscapes, the response of people’s amygdalas were consistent with the Harvard University findings: sharp objects create a sense of danger. However, with interior and exterior architecture, the amygdala was activated more when there were images of contours. This was a strange inconsistency, at least when dealing with architecture as participants were thinking about a hospital.

In a follow-up survey done without the priming, there was a “significant difference in participants’ judgements.” As Ghamari explained, “the expectation of what a hospital should look like created a different response. Context makes a difference.” More research is coming on what shapes people prefer in different contexts, which seems important.

In another presentation, we learned from Cherif Amor, chair of interior design at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar, that in learning environments, “warm color light is least satisfactory for those with ADHD.” Students with attention deficit issues preferred cool whites or natural daylight. He and his colleagues determined this because “cognitive areas were most activated with cool white light.”

Amor said “neuroscience is a beautiful field. How we behave is an environmental paradigm. Why we behave is a neuroscientific paradigm.” One doubtful audience member said, “the only thing this study proves is that people have brains.”

A Democratic Approach to Therapeutic Gardens

Fisher House / My Life So Far blog

“Democratic design is inclusive, affordable, functional, usable, practical, non-stigmatizing, accessible, attainable, and aesthetically pleasing,” said Naomi Sachs, ASLA, landscape architect and founder of the Therapeutic Landscapes Network, at the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) conference in New Orleans. Furthermore, democratic design is “responsive to both ecological and community needs. It grows up from the community.” A democratic design process is then fully collaborative, including all stakeholders, but with a focus on those least acknowledged.

Sachs’ colleagues presented a few interesting examples that illustrate the idea of democratic design for therapeutic gardens:

Daniel Winterbottom, FASLA, a landscape architect and professor at the University of Washington; Amy Wagenfeld, a occupational therapist; along with students from the landscape architecture department at the University of Washington, designed a new healing garden for Fisher House, a facility at the Veteran’s Affairs hospital in Puget Sound for loved ones of those undergoing intensive surgery.

Unfortunately, the garden is found in a parking lot, within a sea of cars. On top of that, the original garden had “poor way-finding, so you felt a loss of control as you entered the place,” said Wagenfeld. It was a place where you have “very little say over your environment.” Most visitors are also coming from rural areas to the city so “they already feel a sense of displacement.”

Winterbottom said he and his students conducted intensive research, using focus groups, games, simulations. Guests of Fisher House were shown different photos and asked their preferences. They were asked to rank designs. Others simply sketched their ideas.

The new garden, which was then designed and built based on the guests’ feedback in just 10 weeks, features vegetable and fruit plants, “creating a domestic feeling.” Given many people are there for months, “we wanted to bring an icon of home — the kitchen garden.” Emphasizing the democratic aspects of the design, the team created multiple types of planting beds. There are those for people who want to sit and those for who want to stand. There’s even a wheelchair-accessible one. Visitors can plant whatever they want, too.

There’s a new children’s play area. “The kid’s area is kid-sized.” There’s a walking trail that loops around the garden, too. “The goal is to deal with the whole family,” said Winterbottom.

The designers created a fully wheelchair-accessible rain garden that treats water falling on the site. Within this area, there is a sculpture that is about “mending broken hearts and bodies, bringing them together.”

Fisher House / Lyon Landscape Architects

The new garden is set up so that people can interact or just be by themselves. “There are a range of spaces, so you can find your own appropriate one.” Wagenfeld said it’s widely used. “There’s a sense of escape in the garden.”

According to Winterbottom, some of the challenges creating the garden were eliciting participation among guests, who were all going through some emotionally taxing times. The design team was also really young. “With young designers, it’s all about them, not about other people.” Lastly, perhaps the biggest challenge was some long-time staff members, “who often berated patients” and thought they knew what the visitors wanted, when in fact they did not.

In another example, we learn about Nikkei Manor, an assisted living facility for Japanese Americans of the internment camp generation in Seattle. Many residents of the manor feel a sense of “displacement, loneliness, abandonment, and loss of identity” when they move into assisted care, said Wagenfeld.

The original idea was to create a Japanese garden, said Winterbottom, but “to even touch a Japanese garden, you need about 10-20 years of experience. To design one, you need to find a master.” So he and 17 landscape architecture students created a Pacific Northwest-style Japanese garden for just $75,000 in just one semester.

Every space in the garden is easily visible, as many residents have dementia. There are railings everywhere — both for security and exercise.

Nikkei Manor garden / Daniel Winterbottom

Wagenfeld said the space has “active flexibility, with a stage for performances.” The garden uses “universal design principles to create a sense of familiarity.” It’s also a popular spot for neighborhood gatherings. (see more images).

Really, it sounds like democratic design is just good design.

In New Orleans, a Delicate Balancing Act

Site of new NOCCA urban farm / Jared Green

“A city-wide approach to dealing with water has failed in New Orleans. We must now go neighborhood by neighborhood,” said Wes Michaels, ASLA, a partner at Spackman Mossop and Michaels (SMM), a landscape architecture firm. To address the challenges of water, “we must be tactical, strategic, nuanced, and very culturally sensitive, as New Orleans has one of the highest percentages of native-born residents. We have to focus on the ecological but also the cultural. We must create a balancing act between the two. Any ecologically-designed landscape must also work for the community.” In a wide-ranging afternoon tour of the city nearly 10 years after Hurricane Katrina, Michaels showed how his firm and others are helping the city achieve that delicate balancing act.

Our first stop is the new urban farm for the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA), an innovative high school that musicians Wynton Marsalis and Harry Connick, Jr. attended. In four unused lots dotted with iron pilings (see image above), SMM is creating Press Street Gardens, which will enable NOCCA students to learn about urban agriculture and produce green vegetables for the local “farm to table movement.”

Press Street Gardens rendering / Spackman Mossop and Michaels

Michaels told me this kind of project is one of the few large-scale landscape developments moving forward in New Orleans these days (most others are trapped in a variety of morasses). “We must work at the small-scale and in-between places in this city. But we can still do really meaningful projects with low budgets.” He argued that, in a way, New Orleans has benefited from its lack of money. “The city didn’t have money to rebuild itself over and over again as other cities have.” So what you get is all that old character that draws million of tourists every year.

As we left Bywater and drove over to the Lower 9th Ward, the scene of so much turmoil ten years ago as the community was completely inundated by the failure of New Orleans’ water infrastructure, Michaels said “large-scale planning for the Lower 9th Ward broke down for historical, political reasons. Post-Katrina, there was the ‘Green Dot’ plan, a planning project that envisioned turning the lowest parts of the city into parks and green infrastructure to deal with excess stormwater. Well, the people who actually lived under this big green dot freaked out. There are some sensitive cultural issues. So the broad landscape approach was lost. But we must still deal with the stormwater problems.”

The new strategy from the New Orleans Development Authority (NORA) is to turn many of the thousands of abandoned parcels in the city into a useful green infrastructure system that also works culturally. The problem, Michaels said, is an empty lot filled with vegetation may provide a useful role in dealing with stormwater and providing wildlife habitat, but “there are negative connotations with places that aren’t taken care of. It’s like the Broken Window Syndrome.” The answer may be to create places that are “ecologically robust but have cues to care. We need to find a landscape language that gets people to value these places, instead of seeing them as ‘other’ in their cultural understanding of their neighborhood.”

To that end, a new effort by NORA will attempt to organize empty lots into a green infrastructure network that can test cultural perceptions.

Location of test lots / Spackman Mossop and Michaels

The Louisiana State University (LSU) Urban Landscape Lab is working with NORA to experiment with 23 lots, which will range from managed forest to meadows to some hybrid in between those, a “wildflower lawn.” The goal will be to see how intensively these need to be maintained and “how these lots function in these neighborhoods.”

Test empty lot / Jared Green

There will be low fences around the empty lots to see if they create the perceptual cue that these places are being maintained. An MLA student will be doing a two-year study, interviewing everyone around the test lots. “We’ll see how the community responds.” Michaels is cautiously optimistic that the community will be OK with managed nature “if we do it on purpose. But who knows? If they are left unmowed, people complain and then the city comes in and mows. I’m hoping that if we can show these places are cared for, maybe others will want them.”

Michaels explained that NORA also created the Growing Home program, which incentivized people who own properties next to empty lots to purchase that lot for just $4-5,000. To help sell this to the community, SMM created overlays for the web site to show how people could “build landscape credits” needed to keep ownership. NORA would refund them on the cost of materials used. Some 800 lots were turned into useful places — vegetable gardens, children’s play areas, workshops, or just places to relax.

Growing Home example in Lower 9th Ward / Jared Green

We then move onto a part of Lower 9th Ward made famous by Brad Pitt and his Make It Right Foundation, which has financed the development of green residences for those affected by Katrina. A slew of big-name architects have come in to create some very architecture-y buildings. Mixed in all these buildings is a new park that NORA, LSU’s Urban Landscape Lab, SMM, Make It Right, and Common Ground got together. There are test beds for stormwater management, including a wetland demonstration garden.

Make It Right Foundation community park wetland demonstration / Jared Green
Make It Right Foundation community park wetland demonstration project / Jared Green

Amid all the pieces that deal with stormwater are some nice spots to sit and chill.

Make It Right Foundation community park / Jared Green

Our tour then took us to where the balance between culture and ecology truly broke down. We stop at the new viewing platform created by LSU professor Austin Allen and his landscape architecture students, the University of Colorado at Denver, and community members. Once you get up to the top of the deck, you are momentarily stunned by the view of Bayou Bienvenue — a broad expanse of a “ghost swamp,” a dead Cypress forest, killed by salt water.

Bayou Bienvenue / Jared Green

As you read the educational materials on the deck, you learn that one million acres of wetlands and forests have been lost around the Mississippi River. Wetlands are a natural buffer. “The energy in storms is dissipated by wetlands. They create friction. If a wetland is lost, it becomes open water, which only adds to a storm’s power,” Michaels explained.

As Louisiana has spent $13-14 billion rebuilding New Orlean’s pumping stations — protecting them from being destroyed themselves as they were during Katrina — the city continues its careful balancing act between the cultural and ecological. Underneath it all, creating even more challenges, the city is sinking, perhaps at an accelerated rate.

Adaptation for All

Empty lot next to mowed lot, New Orleans / Jared Green

At the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) conference in New Orleans, the focus was on change — and how change will impact cities’ search for social equality. Much of urban infrastructure will need to be bolstered to survive a range of shifts: population booms or busts, economic growth or stagnation, and climate change and increasingly frequent natural disasters. But as cities adapt to these changing social, economic and climatic circumstances, are the most vulnerable being heard? When cities bounce back from all kinds of disasters, are all communities in the city, both rich and poor, equally as resilient?

Jeff Hebert, executive director of the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA), said, at its peak in 1960, New Orleans had a population of 630,000. After Hurricane Katrina, the “costliest natural disaster in U.S. history,” the population fell to 220,000. Now, it’s up to 369,000, still way off its peak. “We’ve been losing population for decades. Pre-existing patterns just tend to reinforce themselves in the aftermath of a disaster.” Since 1960, the population has grown in the suburbs while the core has lost density. By 2004, the number of vacant parcels was around 20-30,000. Detroit or Cleveland have a similar amount.

New Orleans is found along the banks of the Mississippi River. Land at the edges of the river is actually highest, as it has slowly accumulated there over thousands of years. Beyond these high points along the river, the city’s geography dips, forming a bowl. The French Quarter and other historic settlements are all found on high ground, meaning they are really just a few feet above sea level. Many low-Income communities like the lower 9th ward are under sea level. These neighborhoods were made possible by a pump system invented by the city. “We started building in swamps, exacerbating other environmental issues. Maybe our ancestors had it right building just on high ground.”

After Katrina struck, some 34 affected coastal parishes and New Orleans began to receive assistance through the federal Road Home Homeowner Assistance Program. As “there was no comprehensive plan, the feds took a piecemeal, local approach.” On a one-by-one basis, people could either come back to their old houses and received funds to rebuild, or got funds to rebuild somewhere else. Some 130,000 people got $8.9 billion in grants through this program. The result: “They left us with a patchwork of land.”

NORA was handed all the leftover, empty lots. They have gotten the inventory down from 5,000 to around half that. “Most of the remaining inventory is on lower ground. Some of those neighborhoods came back and others didn’t.”

So NORA initiated an innovative adaptation program for many low-income areas, with “green infrastructure, lot stabilization, alternative maintenance, and two technical assistance programs: growing green and growing home.” Hebert said these programs are about “connecting with the community about local stormwater and beautifying neighborhoods through great landscape design.”

Getting many locals in the poorer parts of the city to buy into empty lots as stormwater management systems has been tricky. “We have to change what is seen as a black eye into something beautiful that increases the quality of life and property values.” A big part of the campaign is educating many who have been there for generations about hydrology and geology. At least New Orleans is focusing on how everyone must adapt.

Roberta Feldman, an architectural activist and founder of the UIC City Design Center, then discussed how “urban redevelopment screws people,” particularly in cities like Chicago. Cities must be more sensitive to existing populations as they make way for new ones. She said Chicago’s latest housing plan will create “high-density, high-price public housing that is not socially just or cost effective.” Instead of redeveloping existing public housing complexes, the city often just tears them down and asks the poor living there to move into apartments somewhere else in the city or join in a public mixed use development. The problem is their existing community has been dismantled, “and these residents don’t want to move.” These efforts are also not cost-effective, Feldman argued, because creating new housing invariably costs much more per square foot than simply revamping older buildings. If the city had used the money more wisely, more public housing could have been developed. “The housing authority could have renovated 25,000 units for the same price as 9,000 new units.”

Cecilia Martinez, recently head of the UN-Habitat in New York, said “we must blame architects for much of the mess” we face trying to adapt cities to change. “They assume a lot. By World War II, they had initiated the Modern City movement and assumed the car would re-organize the city. Because of the car, we had super-blocks, so no one walks anymore. They said ‘let’s do low density. Let’s put towers in the middle of gardens.'” Graphed on top of this car-based system is a developer-led system, which marginalizes the poor. As a result, “Latin America is either super-highways and super-blocks or slums.” Martinez said this urban model is clearly broken because some 800 million people live in slums without access to public spaces. “While New York City, one of the world’s wealthiest cities, is comprised of some 60 percent public space — when you add in streets, parks, and plazas — the slums in Kenya have maybe 1 percent public space.” To enable everyone to adapt, “we need to focus on walking and biking, public spaces, and mixed social structures.”

“In all of the world’s deltas, large changes are taking place,” said Han Meyer, a professor at Delft University in the Netherlands who offered a broader framework for adaptation. The problem is these deltas and other coastal areas are the site of much of the world’s urbanization. There are multiple dynamics happening at once. “There are the dynamics of the natural environment. One thousand years of land-water relations change. The way deltas carry sediment changes over time. These changes have been caused by climate change since the Ice Age, and the process has been ongoing for a long time. Then, there’s the societal use of the delta. Dynamic land-uses plus nature means a very complex system that will continue to change. We need to be able to adapt both types of environments. They are at different frequencies, rhythms. The problem is nature has a different time scale for change than societies.” So his answer for how to adapt to change: “There can be no final plans. We can only build different scenarios. “

Nature Is But Another Name for Health

ASLA 2012 General Design Honor Award. Arizona State University Polytechnic Campus — New Academic Complex by Ten Eyck Landscape Architects / Bill Timmeman

“We are trying to figure out precisely what types of nature provide the most health benefits,” said William Sullivan, ASLA, a landscape architecture professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, at the Environmental Design Research Assocation (EDRA) conference in New Orleans. The eventual goal is to be able to prescribe doses of nature, or specific activities in nature, to help with a range of illnesses. But we have a long way to go before we can get to this point. “We are just at the beginning of the research. We are moving in the direction of more specificity.” Sometime in the future, designers of all kinds will have guidelines that explain the best ways to reap the positive effects of nature. “But today — although we have good evidence that exposure to green landscapes is good for you — we can’t say if you design something this way, people will live four years longer.”

Sullivan brought together a unique group of researchers to explore the latest science and show the rest of us where all of this is going. A few graduate students at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign presented their data-based findings about the effects of nature on our own cognition and stress levels:

Dr. Bin Jiang said research shows “acute, chronic stress will lead to disease and death.” Stress has been directly linked with a number of the leading causes of death, including heart disease, diabetes, and suicide. In his study, Jiang examined how much stress recovery can be achieved through views of green streets. A group of people from the Midwest were alternatively stressed — by being asked to do complex math rapidly in front of a group or give a speech — and then shown images of nature. They were exposed to ten videos, with ten different levels of tree canopies, ranging from 2 percent up to 62 percent tree cover. These guinea pigs were surveyed to see how stressed they felt and then their physiological responses were also examined. Researchers took saliva samples to test for cortisol levels and tested their skin conductance, finger temperatures, blood volume pulse, and heart responses.

According to the surveys, increasingly green scenes improved stress recovery by 250 percent. But the actual physiological stress recovery rate — as measured by all the devices — was improved by just 55 percent. This shows that “we are prone to believing the narrative about nature.” Jiang concluded that “there is a positive, linear relationship between tree cover and self-reported stress recovery, and a curvilinear association between objective stress recovery and tree cover.” This means physiologically, there’s a peak tree canopy level and then it declines. According to Jiang, the optimal tree cover rate is 30-40 percent. But Sullivan interjected, “every tree matters. More of these kinds of studies need to be conducted on all types of nature: parks, bioswales, rain gardens, etc.”

Dongying Li presented an excellent study on high school landscapes and academic performance. There is an understanding that views of green spaces out of windows may benefit students. “Access to nature has been correlated with lower stress and higher attentional function.” But Li wanted to see if she could find a causal relationship between views of nature out a window and performance. Three sets of students were randomly assigned to be tested in a room with no windows, a room with a barren view of rooftops, and then a room with a green, leafy view. The results: green views significantly improved attention, while barren or no views had no impact. Li added that “the effect of the window view is greatest during the subjects’ rest period, not during their stress period. The window view also affects stress recovery. Students with views of green spaces recovered from the stress of classroom assignments considerably faster than their peers who had been assigned to classrooms without windows or those with views to built spaces.” She said the effect is not just from the green color but from the actual content of the landscape.

Sullivan said this makes the case for bringing trees closer to classrooms. “Somehow there’s a meme out there that if there are windows with some to look at, students will be distracted. This study shows that’s the farthest from the truth. We have spent hundreds of millions to boost academic performance in high schools and the results of programs like DARE are now clear: it has had zero impact. Simple interventions like putting in windows and designing campus landscapes to include many opportunities to have green views could significantly improve performance.” There’s a reason, it seems, those Ivy League schools are so leafy.

Finally, Chun-Yen Chang, Professor of Landscape Architecture at National Taiwan University, presented more amazing research, this time looking at the brain’s response to images of nature. In Taiwan, thirteen subjects suffered through being in an fMRI machine for hours at a time, exposed to urban scenes and then images of mountains, forest, and water. With images of the urban landscape, “all parts of the brain were active,” while fewer sections were active during the nature scenes. Here, we can introduce a novel word, at least for me: voxel, which is a measure of how busy a brain is. Chang said when we see a traffic jam spreading for miles with cars honking, our voxels are around 180,000. Meanwhile, a forest scene accounts for less than 100 voxels. And a beach scene even less: 28 voxels. Our brains respond to urban and natural scenes incredibly differently. If we have 180,000 voxels going, how many more can be used? What happens when we are at 180,000 voxels too long?

At one point, a participant asked, “If you know you have something to do later that’s stressful, can we immunize ourselves by going earlier into nature? Can we then recover from stress faster?” Chang said “attentional fatigue and stress are two different things. If we have something cognitively demanding to do, it’s good to spend time in green spaces. But there’s no evidence we can immunize ourselves from stress with nature.” Sullivan concurred, saying “there’s evidence that going to green spaces improves cognition for later. And if we have that evidence, we can then incorporate this into our discussion of the benefits of green infrastructure.” Instead of just focusing on the stormwater management benefits of green infrastructure, “what if we could prove green infrastructure can also boost innovation and creativity?”

And one more future area of inquiry: “Do the most ecologically-healthy landscapes result in the healthiest people?” Sullivan said this will be an important research area, as “we have to be smart about how we configure these natural places. An ecologically-healthy place could have snakes and spiders, which will end up scaring people away. We have a responsibility to create a healthy ecosystem but we can’t create stress and anxiety about being in nature.”

Explore all these research studies.

Obama Administration Will Reduce Pollution from Coal Plants by 30%

Coal power plant / Wikipedia

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) just announced historic new rules that will cut carbon dioxide emissions from U.S. coal power plants by 30 percent by 2030. Amazingly, the country’s 1,600 power plants together account for nearly 40 percent of total U.S. emissions. Of these, there are still some 600 coal-powered plants running. And aging coal plants (their average age is 42) account for a disproportionate share of total emissions from the power sector. The EPA, which is acting through its authority under the Clean Air Act, will now open the rules for public comment. Once that process is complete, they intend to give states flexibility to act. The New York Times says President Obama’s new rules are one of the “strongest actions ever taken by the United States government to fight climate change.”

States will be given some leeway to design their own programs to cut emissions. “Rather than immediately shutting down coal plants, states would be allowed to reduce emissions by making changes across their electricity systems — by installing new wind and solar generation or energy-efficiency technology, and by starting or joining state and regional ‘cap and trade’ programs, in which states agree to cap carbon pollution and buy and sell permits to pollute.” This is a sensible approach as the energy mix varies widely state by state, with some states naturals for some types of renewable energy, but others not.

Environmental groups cheer the new regulations, but the U.S. Chamber of Commerce released a report stating the rules could lower the gross domestic product by $50 billion annually. Nobel Prize winning-economist Paul Krugman took apart that report in a recent op-ed. Krugman writes: “So what the Chamber of Commerce is actually saying is that we can take dramatic steps on climate — steps that would transform international negotiations, setting the stage for global action — while reducing our incomes by only one-fifth of 1 percent. That’s cheap!”

While the debate over economic costs and benefits — particularly for coal-producing states — will continue, it’s becoming clear the regulations may boost the health of Americans. In fact, President Obama made a point of calling the American Lung Association while new EPA administrator Gina McCarthy announced the new effort. The Obama administration argues that in its first year the new limits will cut the number of asthma attacks by 100,000 and heart attacks by 2,100. According to The Washington Post, the EPA also estimates “the new rules will cut traditional air pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and soot by 25 percent…yielding a public health benefit of between $55 billion to $93 billion when it is fully implemented, with 2,700 to 6,600 premature deaths avoided and 140,000 to 150,000 asthma attacks a year avoided.”

Carbon dioxide doesn’t cause lung or heart issues by itself, but when it spews out of coal-powered plants, it comes with soot, chemicals, and particulate matter. Targeting carbon dioxide from coal is then a smart way to tackle these other pollutants as well. A study by researchers in New York City found that during days with “high levels of ozone and air pollution, hospital admissions for respiratory problems rose about 20 percent.” Already some 25 million Americans suffer from asthma, including 6.5 million children.

This is not President Obama’s first effort to reduce emissions. New vehicle emission standards for cars and light trucks produced between 2012 and 2025 will cut 6 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions. The new rules for coal power plants will remove another 500 million metric tons annually, says The Washington Post.

Rebuild by Design Winners Announced

U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Shaun Donovan

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Shaun Donovan announced six projects will receive $920 million through HUD’s Rebuild by Design competition. HUD will give the funds to New York, New Jersey, and New York City to further develop these projects, which are designed to make the Hurricane Sandy-affected region more resilient.

The competition was created out of President Obama’s Hurricane Sandy rebuilding taskforce as a way to dramatically improve the “physical, ecological, and economic resilience of coastal areas.” According to HUD, the design competition “created coalitions with local and regional stakeholders to develop locally-responsive proposals.”

The funds will finance additional planning, the design of innovative flood protection systems made of berms and wetlands, as well as a built reef.

The winning projects are led by multidisciplinary teams comprised of landscape architects, architects, engineers, ecologists, artists, and others. The projects are diverse, spread throughout the region. Funding looks evenly split between New York and New Jersey:

  • The BIG U (East River Park), Manhattan — The BIG Team ($335 million)
  • Living with the Bay (Slow Streams), Nassau County, Long Island — The Interboro Team ($125 million)
  • New Meadowlands, Little Ferry, Moonachie, Carlstadt, Teterboro — MIT CAU+ZUS+URBANISTEN ($150 million)
  • Resist, Delay, Store, Discharge, Hoboken, Weehawken, Jersey City — OMA ($230 million)
  • Lifelines, Hunts Point, South Bronx — PennDesign/OLIN ($20 million)
  • Living Breakwaters, Tottenville, Staten Island — SCAPE/Landscape Architecture ($60 million)

HUD writes: “The winning proposals come from teams representing some of the best planning, design, and engineering talent in the world. These inventive proposals are a blueprint for how communities can maximize resilience as they rebuild and recover from major disasters. These ideas will serve as a model for how we can mitigate the effects of climate change and natural disasters in communities throughout the Sandy region, the United States, and the world.”

Secretary Donovan, said Rebuild by Design could have a powerful ripple effect: “It’s my hope that Rebuild by Design will inspire other public-private partnerships to spur innovation and resilience.”

U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, New York, said, “Are there going to be other storms like Sandy? Yes. Will we be better prepared for them because of Rebuild by Design? Absolutely.”

And Dr. Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, who helped finance the design competition and has been a major force behind the new push for resilience, said the competition harnesses “creative minds of every stripe to break the models and construct innovative and creative ways to build for our future.” Indeed, HUD is spending $60 million for the first large-scale experiments with creating reefs that can act as tide-surge mitigators.

More details on the winning proposals:

The BIG U (East River Park), Manhattan — The BIG Team

The BIG team, which includes landscape architecture firm Starr Whitehouse, aims to protect ten continuous miles of low-lying Manhattan, “an incredibly dense, vibrant, and vulnerable urban area.” Funds will be used to used to create a “bridging berm” at the East River Park along the Lower East Side. “The bridging berm provides robust vertical protection for the Lower East Side from future storm surge and rising sea levels. The berm also offers pleasant, accessible routes into the park, with many unprogrammed spots for resting, socializing, and enjoying views of the park and river. Both the berms and bridges will be wide and planted with a diverse selection of salt tolerant trees, shrubs, and perennials to create a resilient urban habitat.”

Resist, Delay, Store, Discharge, Hoboken, Weehawken, Jersey City — OMA

The OMA team, which includes landscape architecture firm Balmori Associates, will protect all of the Hoboken waterfront and parts of Weehawken and Jersey City. The project “deploys programmed hard infrastructure and soft landscape for coastal defense (resist); policy recommendations, guidelines, and urban infrastructure to slow rainwater runoff (delay); a circuit of interconnected green infrastructure to store and direct excess rainwater (store); and water pumps and alternative routes to support drainage (discharge). The objectives are to manage water for both severe storms and long-term growth; enable reasonable flood insurance premiums through the potential redrawing of the FEMA flood zone following completion; and deliver co-benefits that enhance the cities and the region.”

Living with the Bay (Slow Streams), Nassau County, Long Island — The Interboro Team

The Interboro team, which includes H+N+S Landscape Architects, will develop a comprehensive resiliency plan for Nassau County’s South Shore. “The areas around Southern Nassau’s north-south tributaries are threatened both by surge water flooding and storm water inundation. The proposal will address these threats through a set of interconnected interventions, transforming the Mill River into a green-blue corridor that stores and filters water, provides public space, and creates room for new urban development. These river corridor improvements will also address other challenges such water quality, ecological recovery, and aquifer recharge.”

New Meadowlands, Little Ferry, Moonachie, Carlstadt, Teterboro — MIT CAU+ZUS+URBANISTEN

The first phase of the New Meadowlands proposal will focus on Little Ferry, Moonachie, Carlstadt, and Teterboro. “By integrating transportation, ecology, and development, the project transforms the Meadowlands basin to address a wide spectrum of risks, while providing civic amenities, and creating opportunities for new redevelopment. The project includes the creation of additional wetlands and a multi-purpose berm that will provide flood protection to the many residents of the community damaged by Sandy flooding.”

Living Breakwaters, Tottenville, Staten Island — SCAPE/Landscape Architecture

The SCAPE team aims to “reduce risk, revive ecologies, and connect educators and local students to the shoreline, inspiring a new generation of harbor stewards and a more resilient region over time.” One fascinating component of the project: an “in-water solution will reduce wave action and erosion, lowering risk from heavy storms by designing ‘reef street’ micropockets of habitat complexity to host finfish, shellfish, and lobsters.”

Lifelines, Hunts Point, South Bronx — PennDesign/OLIN

PennDesign/OLIN is taking a multi-faceted approach to protecting Hunts Point, the hub of the region’s food supply chain and one of the poorest communities in the country. “The PennDesign/OLIN proposal sets out four strategies: integrated and adaptable flood protection systems to safeguard the whole neighborhood and create public amenities along the Hunts Point waterfront; leadership efforts to build capacity for social resilience; a marine emergency supply chain to enhance the waterways as critical infrastructure; and cleanways to improve air quality.”

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

Hedge Two-Way Mirror Walkabout by Dan Graham / Metropolitan Museum of Art via The Architect’s Newspaper

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

Grand Dames of the GardensThe New York Times, 5/16/14
“There are two major gardens here designed by this first generation of important female landscape architects: the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden created by Beatrix Farrand in 1916 and the 15 acres of Benenson Ornamental Conifers, its core by Marian Coffin in 1949.”

Chelsea Flower Show: The Pop-up Gardens Refreshing City CentersThe Financial Times, 5/16/14
“For Deborah Nagan, the Fringe is where ‘people from vastly different spheres of design are united by their love of plants.’ Nagan is a busy landscape architect, but her playfulness and purpose is visible to everyone looking out from a No. 3 bus from Brixton to London Bridge: hers is the only front garden which displays tomatoes entwined around elegant architectural structures.”

Artistic Landscape Architecture Brings a Sense of BelongingThe San Francisco Chronicle, 5/17/14
“When five of the nation’s leading landscape architects gathered before their peers last weekend in Berkeley, the projects they discussed were located in Massachusetts and Minnesota, China and Spain.”

The Energetic City: Design Trust Calls on Designers to Create Connected Public SpaceThe Architect’s Newspaper, 5/21/14
“The Design Trust has launched pivotal projects before, like their Five Borough Farm that is helping to redefine urban agriculture in New York City. This time, the group is seeking new ideas for public space and, according to a statement, “develop new forms of connectivity among the diverse people, systems, and built, natural, and digital environments of New York City.”

Dan Graham’s Rooftop Pavilion at the Metropolitan Museum Reflects on Public SpaceThe Architect’s Newspaper, 5/29/14
“One of the great gifts bestowed on New York in the summer is the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s roof garden. You are thrust into Olmsted’s Central Park from a promontory surrounded by the perimeter skyline on all sides.”

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