While LEED is nearly a household name, not everyone has heard of WELL, the first building standard for human health and wellness. Used for an office, LEED looks at environmental sustainability, but WELL is focused exclusively on the health of employees, whose salaries account for the vast majority of the total cost of any commercial building. The new rating system, which was just released last fall by the International Well Building Institute, is in its pilot testing phase, but already a number of companies and organizations are jumping on board. The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), which is transforming its 20-year-old Washington, D.C. headquarters into a state-of-the-art Center for Landscape Architecture, will aim for both LEED Platinum and WELL Silver in its renovation.
At an event in Washington, D.C., Whitney Austin Gray, International Well Building Institute, said WELL will help architects “design out health problems.” Like others, she believes the built environment has a major impact on health, mostly a negative one. Chronic diseases — like obesity and stress — are in large part created by poor environments that encourage sitting and eating fattening foods, and limit walking and access to nature. As a result, “planners, architects, landscape architects have a bigger impact on our health than physicians.”
As Nathan Stodola, also with the Institute, explained, the new system, which is being tested in everything from residential to commercial to restaurant environments, has 7 categories, with 102 features, and 450 requirements. Categories include air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, and mind. WELL seeks to create indoor building environments that “create habitats for life.” The prerequisites and credits are based on “best empirical research and practices.”
Gray provided a brief run-down of each of the seven categories as they relate to offices:
Air: Indoor air quality and building materials are deeply linked. “There are about 75,000 chemicals in existence. About 7,000 have been tested by the Environmental Protection Agency, and a further 700 are known to be carcinogenic.” While it’s hard to establish a causal relationship between exposure to a chemical and cancer, “we can look at the chemicals in a environment we don’t know the impact of and take precautions.” WELL calls for both strict air quality testing and details on the materials of all products used in the building.
Water: While there is source treatment of water in the U.S., urban water infrastructure is eroding and outdated building pipes can be problematic. “There is great misuse of water in infrastructure.” WELL aims to get all heavy metals out of the water coming into a building and moving through it. For some buildings, that will mean completely redoing the pipes.
Nourishment: “We need to create full health for employees, which means staff cafeterias or caterers don’t serve fried foods.” Gray also talked about making smart use of “choice architecture.” For example, cafeteria managers can put healthy food front and center and make it more difficult to get to the M&Ms. “We have to make it easy to do the healthy thing.”
Light: “We are concerned with circadian rhythm issues. Humans are meant to be exposed to light; its how our organs function and repair themselves.” Gray said there are studies showing that shift workers who don’t have access to daylight have higher rates of some cancers. “Light is not optional, but far too often it’s a privilege.” Already, some $63 billion in company losses can be associated with poor work performance due to sleep deprivation, which can be tied to issues with the circadian rhythm.
Fitness: “Employees need to be active throughout the day.” To accomplish this, employers must realize not all environments are for everyone. “It’s not ideal for employees to be sitting 8 hours a day. Going to the gym for half an hour in the morning it’s going to help.” Wider staircases can help as well as using “choice architecture” to force people to circulate.
Comfort: This is about everything from acoustics to temperatures to ergonomics and even smell. If any of these things are off, they can cause stress.
Mind: “Buildings need to incorporate beauty and equity.” Employees should have access to everything from spaces for respite to progressive travel policies to paid volunteer work opportunities, in the effort to restore productivity and improve wellness.
Already, efforts to achieve WELL are shaping the overall design of the new ASLA headquarters. For example, ASLA is cutting a hole through its roof, putting in a light well with a sunbeamer that will intensify and direct light all the way into the basement level so all employees benefit (see image above).
But putting all WELL asks for into practice may prove to be a challenging but fun puzzle, said Gensler architect Katie Mesia, who explained how LEED rewards buildings for reducing energy use and therefore lighting use, while WELL calls for having “light on your face and in your eyes” at all times to restore the natural circadian rhythm. She said this will be tricky to reconcile the competing requirements, but one possible solution will be to use blue lights, which have a healthier color temperature under cabinets and in task lighting, leaving out ceiling lights all together.
Another challenge relates to water: D.C.’s water standards are about 4 times lower than what WELL wants. “The standard here is not good.” A water filtration system would need to be added to ASLA’s building, but the existing mechanical system doesn’t have space for UV light or carbon filters. Replacing the existing system may be cost-prohibitive.
But Mesia is optimistic she can find solutions with ASLA: “they are a special, progressive client. I’m getting into the heart of their business, and they have opened and exposed all of that.” Plus, using LEED and WELL in combination has meant the challenge is really just “choosing between multiple healthy solutions.”
“We can consider rivers as city-making landscapes,” said Thaisa Way, ASLA, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Washington and organizer of a two-day conference on river cities at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. “In river cities, rivers are the agents, offering opportunities for food, transportation, and water, but also liabilities, like drought and flooding.” Each river city has a dynamic relationship with its river, so communities that depend on them must always strive to improve their adaptability and resilience. “Rivers can be beneficial or terrifying.” In the era of climate change, river cities, with their often creative responses to a changing environment, offer lessons.
Here are brief summaries of the talks by the few selected to speak at the conference. Way said more than 180 landscape architects, academics, urban planners, and others submitted proposals but just 13 were selected. Way argued this is a sign of the enormous interest in this new field of study. First are stories from the U.S. and then South America, Europe, and South Asia.
Los Angeles, California, and the Los Angeles River: Vittoria Di Palma and Alexander Robinson, ASLA, both professors at University of Southern California, took us on a history tour of the Los Angeles River. It has always been a “small stream that sometimes turns into a raging torrent during ‘rain events.'” After Spanish settlers discovered Los Angeles and then settled there, they plotted out a system of fields separated by inter-connected canals called zanjas. “The city itself was configured by the water supply.” While the San Madre river was seen as the “idealized, perfected river,” its close relative, the Los Angeles River, never seemed able to behave itself, as it was prone to flooding.
As Los Angeles grew and more farmers came, the desire for predictable water led the city government to begin major efforts to control the once-fluid, complex Los Angeles River starting in the early 1910s, and it was soon fully entombed in a concrete channel by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (see image above). By the middle of the 20th century, there was nostalgia for the wild river that had been lost, with poets and artists “creating a vision of its rebirth.” But as Di Palma said, “these were idealized visions. People were afraid when it behaved naturally and accepted and loved it when it acted as it should.”
In the 1990s, Los Angelenos began to think about how to add parks to the banks of the still channelized Los Angeles River. In 1997, a new master plan was created out of this vision, and by 2005, landscape architecture firms Mia Lehrer + Associates, Civitas Inc., and Wenk Associates created a revitalization master plan for the city government, exploring the “full potential of the 32-mile-stretch of the river in the city.” The plan included ecological restoration along with flood control strategies, designs for new bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, along with development opportunities.
Re-enter the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which now has a new mission of ecological restoration and undoing the damage it had done to urban rivers generations before. Following a set of complex studies, featuring an algorithm that examines the per-unit habitat benefits of various ecological restoration approaches, the Corps moved forward with the “alternative 20” proposal, under great political pressure, including from the White House. That proposal is not the most cost-effective according to the calculations, but it provided what the city government and local non-profits, with their broader urban revitalization goals for the river corridor, more of what they wanted.
The negotiations with the city were complicated. “Congress doesn’t fund the Corps to do urban revitalization. They are not going to pay for a High Line. Everything must support ecological restoration.” The Corps has agreed to work with the city so their effort to restore the river ecology synchs up with the city’s efforts to provide recreation opportunities. But the bottom line is “the Los Angeles River can’t flood again. The compromise is we need to keep people safe and restore the river to health.”
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers: The Allegheny River comes right into the city, said Ray Gastil, head of planning for Pittsburgh. “It’s not a sacred river.” When Pittsburgh was the heart of steel manufacturing in the U.S. in the early 1900s, the rivers flowing through Pittsburgh were so toxic they were actually poisoning the population. This is because they were not only used as industrial infrastructure but also as a dump for sewage. When 620 died in a typhoid outbreak, the city started to get serious about improving their water quality, which they realized was linked with the health of the river. “Finding the causal links between water and disease took a long time to figure out.”
By the 1920s, the legacy of steel manufacturing was beginning to take its toll. “The city began to realize that the deleterious effects on the air and water were not sustainable.” In 1923, some local organizations began arguing that “the riverfront should be a shared benefit and workers need a place to recreate,” but there was no public space, because the land was just too valuable for industrial use. A plan was created to set aside some parks that were to be publicly owned. From the 1920s to 1950s, the point where the Ohio River meets the city was turned into a park, and then, from the 1970s to the 00s, bike trails came, along with the rise of adaptive reuse projects and a new waterfront tech park. Heinz Field, a huge stadium, was set right on the waterfront, with one side open to the Allegheny. Cut to 2015, and the city is still working on the Three River Parks plan, created in 2001, which has created 13 miles of inter-connected green space and trails and spurred $4 billion in riverfront development, and harks back to early 20th century plans to make the waterfront publicly accessible.
A new master plan by Perkins Eastman will turn a 170-acre post-industrial plot on the Allegheny riverfront into a mixed-use development that will also preserve some of the old steel mills. But for the most part, Pittsburgh’s mill past has been erased. “There are no romantic feelings about their role in the city. Pittsburgh wants to move away from being a city of smoke.”
San Antonio, Texas, and the San Antonio River: David Malda, ASLA, a landscape architect with Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, said San Antonio has long struggled with either an excess or total lack of water. Like a young Los Angeles, early San Antonio had a series of canals, called acequias, that sustainably conveyed water to farmers. By 1910, the acequias were largely replaced by wells, which eventually took their toll on the groundwater. The San Antonio River’s flow was negatively impacted, to the point where the city had to install multiple pumps to move river water into the city. But, also, during heavy storms, the system caused flooding. In 1921, 50 people lost their lives due to flooding along the San Antonio River.
Instead of paving over the river and turning it into a channel for sewage, which many wanted to do, local architect Robert Hugman proposed constructing a cut-off channel, a loop, that people could walk in a circle downtown. In the 1930s, work began in earnest on the 2.5-mile-long San Antonio Riverwalk, which slowly became what it is today over the following decades. “San Antonio invented the idea. They could have a piece of a river without the risk.” Paths, which visitors had to step down to river level to visit, were designed to be intentionally narrow.
Over the years, the Riverwalk loop itself was expanded, including a naturalistic segment in the 1960s, another segment in the late 80s, and a final one that opened in 2011. Also, additional underground infrastructure that redirects excess water out of the loop was constructed to ensure the Riverwalk would not become a danger during floods.
At the edge of the Riverwalk loop, Gustafson Guthrie Nichol is designing a new civic park downtown, which will revamp a site cleared for the 1968 Hemisfair, a broader urban renewal effort. The new park will refer to the original great plains and coastal plains ecosystems that once characterized this area, and feature a network of acequias that refer to the original system of water infrastructure. Malda made the case for doing deep historical analysis before undertaking a landscape architecture project. “It’s not nostalgic but strategic. We need to understand how the park will fit into the greater pattern. We can then do creative reconstruction from a landscape narrative that draws people and places through time.”
In South America: São Paulo, Brazil, and River Headwaters: Cornell University landscape architecture professors Brian Davis and Amelia Jensen argue that rivers form a new borderland within the Brazilian mega-city São Paulo, which is on a high plateau that also serves as the headwaters for multiple rivers. As the city expanded and the population moved down from flood-proof hills, more communities took root along riverbanks. Rivers have been largely channelized, as the goal has been to move flooding water through the city as fast as possible.
But that approach had failed, so the state government created a set of piscinão, large water detention basins that are meant to “act as a solution for flooding.” While the state built these piscinão, it’s not clear who maintains them. Today, there are “jurisdictional ambiguities” at the borders where city and rivers meet. Many piscinão are filled with sewage and trash, and have become major sources of complaints by those unfortunate enough to live near them. A few have been well-tended by the local communities, planted with trees, so they form multi-use community infrastructure: parks when rivers run low, and detention basins during severe rain events.
In Europe: the Lyon, France, and the Rhône and Saône Rivers: These two rivers converge forming a peninsula in the heart of this 2,000-year-old metropolis, explained Michael Miller, a historian at the University of Miami. This makes for city with “two left banks and two right banks.” It also makes Lyon a true river city. “It’s ‘riverness’ is connected with the city.” Miller explained how the city has since its days as a Roman center in Gaul wrapped itself around the rivers. However, over time the confluence has changed. “Islands were joined together to form the peninsula, extending the size of the city. This was done for beauty and function.” Trees line river-facing promenades, even those prone to flooding.
In South Asia: Allahabad, India, and theYamana and Ganges Rivers: In Uttar Pradesh, India, the Hindu mecca Allahabad is a source of fascination for Columbia University architectural historian Anthony Acciavatti, author of Ganges Water Machine. Allahabad, which sits at the meeting points of the Ganges and Yamana Rivers, is always responding to seasonal change; it’s a “dynamic agropolis,” an agricultural economy deeply dependent on the monsoon and the shape-shifting rivers as they shrink and flood. Acciavatti has been mapping the fluvial changes over a decade, documenting the soft edges of the rivers with GPS and panoramic photos and creating handsome maps out of his data.
He is also tracking the shift from centralized water management to a decentralized one involving small tube wells that pull straight from groundwater, and the impact of this on the form of the city. He eventually wants to create a sort of hybrid atlas and almanac, a “dynamic atlas that would explain how the conditions of people, weather, and infrastructure interact, and how this interaction changes.”
Shahjahanabad, India, and the Yamana River: Jyoti Pandey Sharma, a professor of architecture at Deenbandhu Chhotu Ram University of Science and Technology, explained how “Agra wasn’t cutting it” for Mughal Emperor Shahjahan in the 17th century, so he moved his capital down river, creating Shahjahanabad, in the Delhi Triangle. Shahjahanabad became the “seat of sovereignty and the caliphate; it was the epicenter of supreme power and religion.” In this city, the Qila was the embodiment of imperial authority. It was the “celestial ruler’s landscape,” with elaborate architecture set in prescribed formations, while just outside, the river was wild. Access to the city’s riverfront was largely democratic, but in front of the Qila, it was restricted. The river, at least symbolically, was tamed to serve the needs of the emperor. Water from the Yamana River flowed into a series of canals brought into the capital. River water provided “thermal comfort, and visual, tactile, and auditory pleasure.”
By the time the British took over in the 1800s, the perception of the river changed. It became “an agent of discord” and a source of malaria. Shahjahanabad was no longer a picturesque river city. Today, the Yamana is a river of “human filth and pollution.”
When I think about climate change, I like to look at a photo of my daughter and her two dear friends—not just because of their sweet smiles, but because the photo offers an important clue to how we can design cities to thrive in uncertain times. We don’t know exactly how climate change will play out, but two things are clear: Parts of our cities are in for severe stress. And we will have to get through it together.
Back when this picture was taken, I thought of the riverfront of New York City as a place to play; I often took my daughter and her friends down to the repurposed docks for concerts and picnics. That was before Superstorm Sandy slammed into the city and the East River busted its banks. That storm refined my thinking about life with climate change.
We had it radically easier than thousands of other New Yorkers—we only lost power for four days. But we shared with them a sense of uncertainty: When will lights come back on? What system might conk out next?
And now there is a larger sense of uncertainty about the future. Climate change has become a part of our lives, and we’re likely to face a series of crises: storms that whip our coasts and droughts that parch our heartland—though we don’t know when, or where, or how severely. It’s this constant uncertainty that we will have to address in our urban designs.
We do know that, in times of crisis, friends and neighbors can play a vital role in helping each other cope. Like many New Yorkers, we did what we could after Superstorm Sandy—donating supplies to families in the Rockaways, and dropping off food at the public housing community down the block.
Urban design can support that kind of community spirit, by bolstering connections among neighbors. The peninsula community of Red Hook, in Brooklyn, responded to Sandy this way. The community plans to raise the usable space of waterfront buildings above street level, creating new space beneath those buildings for people to gather, get help, and simply socialize. (My daughter, who was six at the time, had offered a similar idea, but then she listens to me daydream a lot.)
In uncertain times, urban design should make public places more flexible, more reassuring, and more public. This is in tune with the history of urban experimentation. Cities are places where unlike-minded people share limited space. Their innovations—parks, skyscrapers, farmers’ markets, Foursquare–result from experiments that tried to squeeze maximum benefit from a crowded place.
Even big-budget projects are trying to design in human connections to manage uncertainty. For example, the federal Rebuild by Design process commissioned design teams to work with neighborhoods on ways to make Northeastern cities’ coasts less vulnerable to storm surge. The “BIG U,” the project that drew the biggest plug of funding, is underway, creating a series of berms and slopes that serve as public parks while blunting wave action.
If this plan succeeds, the water will be something to explore and adore, not something to fear. And if the fear quotient goes down and the sense of public comity goes up, perhaps people will be more willing to invest the dollars—and make the hard choices—necessary to face an unstable climate.
And if that’s right, then decades from now people can take pictures on the scenic bluffs overlooking the East River. And perhaps those pictures will show kids with the same peaceful confidence that comes from knowing you can count on your friends and neighbors.
This guest post is by Alec Appelbaum who writes about how urban design can help cities cope with the stresses of climate change. He teaches at Pratt Institute and runs a teen urban-design curriculum called AllBeforeUs.
Tactical Urbanism: Short-term Action for Long-term Change, a new book by urban planners Mike Lydon and Anthony Garcia is the first book to really organize all the small fixes that seem to have spontaneously sprung up in so many communities in a way that everyone can understand. These fixes — some temporary and others long-term — aim to address common problems in communities today, often in streets and public spaces: a lack of safe sidewalks or crosswalks; the absence of clear signage; the dearth of neighborhood parks and plazas, and, more broadly, the lack of community connection and solidarity. Shedding its perception as an illegal or “guerrilla” approach, tactical urbanism is becoming a method of choice for innovative local governments, developers, or non-profits as well. What one learns from the book is that it’s now an approach happening everywhere, not just in New York City, with its transformation of Times Square and other car-only places into pedestrian plazas, or San Francisco, with its Pavement to Parks program, which led to the explosive growth of parklets everywhere. These types of small, yet potent interventions are going mainstream because they work — at least at fixing some problems.
As Lydon and Garcia explain in a great overview that provides deep historical context, “tactical urbanism” isn’t new. Since humans have lived together, they have been involved in city-making. The first urban street in Khoirokoitia, on the island of Cyprus, built sometime around 7,000 BCE, was 600 feet long and connected residents and merchants at different elevations, through a series of steps and walkways. “Without any formal, overarching government structure, Khoirokoita’s reidents were not only responsible for the creation and maintenance of the street. They understood its importance for the survival of the village.”
Leaping forward thousands of years, Lydon and Garcia explain the woonerf, Dutch for “living yard,” which came out of a local citizen’s action in the Dutch city of Delft to slow down car traffic in a residential area. The residents tore up the street themselves in the middle of the night so cars would be forced to more carefully navigate their neighborhood. Their streets then became safe for bicycling, playing, and walking — not just a through-lane for cars. At first, the municipal government ignored the woonerf, but, seeing it succeed and spread as a model, they decided to advocate for it. In 1976, the Dutch parliament passed regulations incorporating woonerven into the national streets code. The authors identify many other planning, landscape architectural, and architectural innovations that sprouted up and spread — like the urban grid itself.
Lydon and Garcia do an excellent job of defining what tactical urbanism is and isn’t, and the various forms it takes. As they define it today, tactical urbanism is a “an approach to neighborhood building using short-term, low-cost, and scalable interventions and policies.” For citizens, “it allows the immediate reclamation, redesign, or reprogramming of public space. For developers or entrepreneurs, it provides a means of collecting design intelligence from the market they intend to serve. For advocacy organizations, it’s a way to show what is possible to garner public and political support. And for government, it’s a way to put best practices into, well, practice — and quickly!” Tactical urbanism efforts are largely targeted at “vacant lots, empty storefronts, overly wide streets, highway underpasses, surface parking lots, and other under-used public spaces.”
The authors differentiate tactical urbanism from all the other related terms that have, well, popped-up, too — “Do-It-Yourself (DIY) urbanism, pop-up urbanism, user-generated urbanism, insurgent urbanism, guerilla urbanism, and urban hacking.” They argue that “not all DIY urbanisms efforts are tactical, and not all tactical urbanism initiatives are DIY.” For example, yarnbombing, eye-bombing, and other fun, eye-catching DIY artistic happenings in the public realm can’t be considered tactical because most “usually aren’t intended to instigate long term change;” they are instead “opportunistic placemaking.”
And they explain how not all tactical urbanist projects are illegal, carried out in the middle of the night (although many still are). Tactics run along a spectrum ranging from unsanctioned to sanctioned.
On the unsanctioned end are projects like Build a Better Block, by Streetscape Collaborative and landscape architecture firm SWA Group, which won an ASLA 2011 Professional Communications Honor Award. This first project transformed an urban street in Dallas, Texas, just for a day. “An entire block was restructured and transformed by placing new rows of street trees and a ‘median’ created of shrubs. The new open spaces created by these trees accommodated café seating and areas for vendors to sell their wares.” It gave the community a glimpse into what a more people-friendly street would do for their community. The model quickly spread to many other cities, showing many what’s possible.
In the middle of the spectrum are initiatives like Park(ing) Day, which was founded by landscape architecture firm Rebar and conceived by landscape architect John Bela, ASLA, and has become a truly global movement. Each Park(ing) Day, residents turn parking spaces into pint-sized parks, highlighting not only how so much of our streets are given over to cars, but also all the other potential productive uses these spaces offer. This past year, more than 1,000 parking spaces were turned into mini-parks.
And Park(ing) Day showed one responsive city, San Francisco, that people are demanding more out of their streets, which resulted in the city government making a policy shift. On the sanctioned end: the San Francisco city government created a permanent Pavement to Parks program, which has resulted in more than 50 parklets. As John King, urban critic for The San Francisco Chronicle, points out, though, five years on, not all parklets have been successful: “They are as varied and problematic as the city itself.” Still, the parklet model has since spread to many other major cities, including Vancouver.
One of the only criticisms of this thoughtful, informative book is there is no candid assessment of where tactical urbanism has gone wrong. What would have been useful is a few examples of where tactical urbanism projects have failed and what can be learned from their mistakes. Surely, not all projects are the result of supportive, inclusive coalitions (what about the naysayers in every community? Are they just left out?) Not all bottom-up community improvements are beloved. Not all parklets are well-used. Not everyone likes food trucks crowding out storefront businesses. Pop-up vegetable gardens that aren’t well maintained can quickly become eyesores, or, worse, attract rodents. No matter how well-intentioned, too few contemporary projects have shown signs of successfully spurring long-term permanent change, but perhaps it’s too soon to tell.
Also, in his intro Garcia speaks to “how dysfunctional the public planning process has become.” He describes the arduous process of creating a more progressive zoning code in Miami, Florida. “The project had gone through hundreds of public meetings and was significantly better than its predecessors, yet was still attacked for being drafted behind closed doors.” He goes on about the “dozens of land-use attorneys, developers, and lobbyists” and how “the approval meetings were a dizzying circus of opposition.” He concludes that “I began to see small-scale changes as part of the answer to the stalled momentum of large projects.”
While everyone who has been involved in the depths of a bruising multi-year battle can agree with this, urban planners, developers, and landscape architects need to continue to fight the big fights for those large-scale, transformational projects, too. Lawsuits and well-funded opposition are just part of the territory these days with any major project where there are winners and losers; it’s part of the democratic process.
As Lydon and Garcia make very clear throughout, tactical urbanism can’t solve all problems. These projects are really about building community sustainability, empowering neighborhoods to push for pedestrian-friendly improvements. Community building can lead to new coalitions that yield real improvements in quality of life and replicable models that spread. The methodology for bottom-up empowerment and change is valid.
But it’s not clear whether all efforts can be replicated everywhere. Times Square’s revamp as a pedestrian plaza, which seemed more like a top-down project, is the result of a unique set of factors, like smart, willing leadership. Will other cities follow NYC’s lead? Furthermore, can these efforts help solve our cities’ most intractable problems?
Planners and landscape architects — really, everyone shaping the built environment– need to continue to push for the comprehensive plans that improve walkability on the broad scale; grand, permanent parks that yield big environmental and social returns; complex multi-use infrastructure; and mixed-use developments that can enable “live, work, play,” all of those major investments that can grow and sustain livable communities, while also experimenting at the small scale. We are in the era of lawsuits and opposition.
“What gives you hope that a sustainable future is possible?” In Designed for the Future: 80 Practical Ideas for a Sustainable World, Jared Green — the same Green who edits this blog, and, full disclosure, was my boss when I was a communications intern at ASLA — offers 80 thought-provoking and frequently inspiring answers to this question from landscape architects, urban planners, architects, journalists, artists, and environmental leaders in the U.S. and beyond. The book’s tone is highly conversational and reflects the voices of the book’s contributors. Each passage is the result of an interview with Green, who serves largely as curator for this reading experience.
To those in the field, the names are like a who’s who of respected leaders in these professions. But while professionals will certainly enjoy it, this book is aimed squarely at the public, as it’s as scrubbed-free of design jargon as possible and offered in bite-size pieces easy to pick up for a few minutes at a time or read entirely through on a weekend afternoon.
It’s largely successful in this aspect, capturing the essence of the ideas at the core of each real world example without losing the reader in technical terms and excess detail. However, in a few cases, the description is so sparse as to leave uncertain exactly what the project is about.
Some of the projects feature new technologies applied in innovative ways. Lighting designer Leni Schwendinger, now with Arup, is inspired by Illuminate, a three-year research program in six European countries showing the way to the future of light-emitting diode (LED) lighting in public spaces. The study examined not only at energy savings and carbon reductions, but also the quality of light in terms of brightness, color temperature, and color rendition (whether the object illuminated looks true to life). It’s the artificial nature of these latter qualities that tend to sway many designers away from LEDs, despite their energy savings, but this study shows they are being improved, and LEDs may soon be able to use “intelligent controls to create malleable lighting” in our parks, plazas, and museums.
Jonsara Ruth, a professor at The New School / Parsons, discusses Mushroom Board from the firm Ecovative, a product that uses mycelium, the “roots” of mushrooms, to literally grow an organic Styrofoam replacement. Styrofoam is an incredibly polluting material, but Mushroom Board, a cutting-edge use of bioengineered materials that can be grown to almost any shape and size, is completely biodegradable. Imagine appliances coming packed in Mushroom Board or homes insulated with mushroom in the walls instead of spray-in foam.
Many projects feature materials and infrastructures from the past that have been given new life to serve contemporary needs. Landscape architect Thomas Woltz, FASLA, Nelson Byrd Woltz, describes how Braddock, Pennsylvania, is in the process of transforming much of its abandoned and toxic industrial lands, re-envisioning them as a place for urban farming and healthy community initiatives.
And Peter Harnik, Hon. ASLA, director, Center for City Park Excellence, Trust for Public Land, describes how Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis is a railway that has been converted into one of the most successful trails for cyclists and pedestrians. Built in a trench to not interfere with auto traffic, it’s a delight for its users who can go for long stretches without having to negotiate intersections and vehicle conflicts.
One overarching theme is the need to further connect social, environmental, aesthetic, and economic benefits that have been considered for too long in isolation. For decades, we’ve known, in theory, that achieving quadruple-bottom line benefits is essential for sustainability. These existing projects show how multiple benefits can be achieved in the real world, and the positive impact they can have on communities and the environment.
Green offers a lovely quote in his introduction from science fiction writer William Gibson: “The future is already here, but it’s just not evenly distributed.” Environmental advocacy and action can so easily just focus on the negative or emphasize only the compromise and sacrifice necessary for “saving the planet.” The examples in Designed for the Future show that not only is our future not all doom and gloom, but there’s plenty to be excited about here and now. The future is here. Now let’s start spreading today’s successes around as widely as possible.
Over the past few years, AARP has become a much more vocal advocate in Washington, D.C. for walkable, affordable communities for seniors, and, well, everyone, but they have recently put the full weight of their 38-million-member organization behind livability, with their new Livable Communities Index, which was announced at the American Planning Association conference in Seattle. Given how powerful AARP is on Capitol Hill and in state legislatures around the country, this is a boost for all of us focused on reducing the real social, economic, and health costs of car-dependent, sprawled-out communities. At all levels, AARP is pushing for policies that support aging in place, which is what their research tells them 80 percent of seniors want to do.
AARP argues that a livable community has “affordable and appropriate housing, supportive community features and services, and adequate mobility options, which together facilitate personal independence and engagement of residents in civic and social life.” Furthermore, a livable community is a place where “please can get to go where they want to go, living comfortably and in good health, and being able to remain active and engaged.” With this new focus on livable communities, AARP argues that what is good for older Americans is for good for all. For example, a recent report produced by Smart Growth America, with AARP and ASLA, called Dangerous by Design examined how the lack of safe sidewalks in so many communities has lead to the unnecessary deaths of 47,000 both young and older Americans. Good sidewalks benefit everyone.
The new livability index, which measures communities capacity to offer these elements, is rooted in a national survey of 4,500 Americans 50-plus, which found that older Americans want the following things the most: a strengthened police presence, improved schools, more walkable streets, better transportation options for seniors and the disabled, and more high quality parks. Using the survey responses, a team of experts selected 60 factors across seven categories — housing, neighborhood, transportation, environment, health, engagement, and opportunity — to create the index, which weighs data from 50 sources.
This result is an easy-to-use tool that enables anyone to plug in an address or zip code to determine how livable their community is. According to AARP, the average community scores a 50. When I typed in my neighborhood in Washington, D.C., it got a score of 60, barely in the green or livable section. My neighborhood scored poorly on a few metrics, like the number of days with bad air quality and heavy street-level car pollution, the lack of affordable housing, and the high rates of inequality. After exploring the metrics, users can look into whether their neighborhood or community has policies that improve livability. For example, for my neighborhood, the index reported that there are no local housing accessibility or affordability laws. Urban planners, landscape architects, and policymakers can further customize the tool, weighing some factors more heavily than others.
AARP also released their list of the 10 most livable neighborhoods, and 30 most livable cities in the country, separated into large, medium, and small-sized cities. For their respective categories, the top cities are San Francisco, California (70); Madison, Wisconsin (68); and La Crosse, Wisconsin (70). Running a number of their top-ranked neighborhoods through the index, it appears that a top score is around 70. As AARP says in their video above, almost every community has a ways to go to meet their definition of livable.
Imagine a wastewater treatment facility where people get married, amid 40-acres of restored salmon habitat with designed ponds and wetlands. It sounds far-fetched but it’s reality in Snohomish County, Washington, near the border with King County, about an hour northeast from downtown Seattle. In a tour of the Brightwater facility during the American Planning Association (APA) conference by Michael Popiwny, the landscape architect who managed this $1 billion project for the King County government, we learn how wastewater treatment plants can become assets instead of drains on communities and the environment. The key to success was an interdisciplinary management, design, and construction team that was highly responsive to community feedback and deeply sensitive to environmental concerns. Plus, Brightwater was paid for by growth in the region. As new people are attracted to the quality of life the Seattle area offers, they move in and pay a $4,000 – $8,000 sewer hook-up fee. “The fact that new people were paying for the system helped us to sell it to the community.”
Brightwater, a 15-year endeavor that began operations in 2011, is a wastewater treatment facility, environmental education and community center, and ecological system rolled into one. It’s a 114-acre site, nestled in a wealthy residential area, with some 70 acres of trails and parks open to the public. There are 13 miles of underground conveyance pipes that direct wastewater to the plant. When it reaches the plant, the wastewater is cleaned through the largest membrane bioreactor system in North America, which makes the water 70 percent cleaner than conventional approaches. It is then sent out through a 600-foot-deep outfall pipe a mile out into the Puget sound. Excess materials are turned into “loop,” a biosolid that is sold to local farms and orchards at very low cost.
However, this description of the system doesn’t do justice the experience of being at Brightwater. Popiwny explained the critical role excellent design played in “selling this place to the community.” He said, “we realized that this place needed to be beautiful. We need it to be very well designed.” Just siting the project won King and Snohomish counties, along with CHM2Hill and Environmental Design Associates, an ASLA 2005 Professional Analysis and Planning award. Then, engineers with CHM2Hill and landscape architects with Hargreaves Associates and Mithun along with restoration ecologists and conservation biologists came together in an interdisciplinary design team to create a welcoming place that actually restored the ecological function of the landscape, turning into a place that aids salmon in their annual migration.
Popiwny briefly described the design and construction process: “We had separate contracts for the engineering and design teams. We needed the strongest engineering team and the strongest landscape architecture team. The teams completed their work separately and then we combined their efforts in the final design. Internally, we had an engineer lead the engineering team, and I led the design team. It’s important that you set up competitions for top notch talent in each category and then give them equal status.”
As the deep processing facilities were dug out of the landscape, the excess soil was turned into “decorative, geometric landforms,” by Hargreaves Associates. “These landforms alone took thousands of trucks off the highway, saved lots of carbon,” explained Popiwny.
Amid these landforms in the “north 40 acres” is an elaborate system of forests, meadows, raingardens, wetlands, and ponds that hold and clean rainwater before directing it to the streams salmon use. What was once an auto depot is now a place that provides great environmental benefits.
The process of restoring the habitat and turning into a publicly-accessible park was complex, involving stream and wetland biologists, who guided ecological decisions, and landscape architects with Hargreaves. The team used 15 different types of rocks to create two different stream corridors that empty into ponds where salmon rest on their uphill climb to the places where they spawn. “The result is something similar to the original stream.”
To restore the forested wetland, the Brightwater team made it an environmental education and community outreach project. Kids from the area helped plant over 20,000 native willows. “Native willows are easy for children to plant. We had about 4-6 busloads of kids from the surrounding area per week.” This effort really helped create community buy-in and grow a sense of greater investment in the success of the project.
As you walk out of the park and into the environmental education center, which was designed and built to a LEED Platinum level, you can see how an open-minded couple would actually want to host a wedding here. Popiwny laughed and said one comment he read about the onsite wedding online was, “it’s today — get with it!” There are pleasing views of the green infrastructure. One of the larger buildings is also a frequent host for local non-profits and community meetings.
All of this is a result of efforts to stave off protracted lawsuits that would have delayed the project from the beginning. The parkland, environmental education and community centers, were all part of the $149 million set aside as part of the “mitigation budget.” According to Popiwny, “budgeting this kind of work upfront meant saving money over the long run.” However, the Brightwater project was still sued by local sewer districts who argued that the project “spent too much on mitigation.” The state supreme court eventually sided with Brightwater. Popiwny said “lawsuits are an inevitable part of large projects.”
Now the challenges to projects like Brightwater are “often in the guise of environmental protection.” But Popiwny just sees this as part of the broader system of checks in a democratic system. “There needs to be multiple checks as these projects can affect communities. The region benefited from the opposition to the project as it pushed us towards a higher performance, but it also made it more expensive.” The Brightwater team included other forms of technical fail-safe systems, like multiple, isolated ponds to separate acid or bases if there was an overflow or accident caused by an earthquake, and engineering all pipes and systems to withstand high levels of seismic activity.
As we walk out of the environmental education center, which features flexible classrooms for groups of all ages and enables a range of hands-on learning about the water cycle, we head to the facility itself, which is strangely odorless. “There are three levels of odor control.”
Spread throughout the site is public art, as the project was part of the state’s 1 percent for art program. Climbing up a stairwell to the spot where the millions of gallons of cleaned water is sent out to the sound, there is artist Jane Tsong’s poem, which actively blesses the elements of the plant (air, water, biosolids) as “they depart from the treatment process and continue their life cycle into the natural world.”
Popiwny said the facility staff particularly connect with these poems, as it is reminder of how meaningful their work really is.
Amid Drought, The West Is No Place For a Lawn, As Nevada Has Learned – The Los Angeles Times, 5/1/15
“When Gov. Jerry Brown ordered that California rip up 50 million square feet of lawns to conserve water amid the West’s deadening drought, the Golden State gasped. Meanwhile, the Silver State yawned. Desert denizens have already been there and done that — since 1999, in fact.”
Sprawling Wetland Structures by HHD_FUN Host Chinese Horticultural Show– Dezeen Magazine, 5/5/15
“Beijing-based architecture studio HHD_FUN undertook two landscape architecture projects on the vast 23,000-square-metre site in Qingdao, a region in the eastern Chinese Shandong Province. The site was part of the International Horticultural Exposition, which was held between April and October last year.”
An Architectural Tour of … Parklets? – The San Francisco Chronicle, 5/6/15
“Say what you like about Parklets — and there are detractors as well as devotees — they are now an established part of the scenery not only in San Francisco, but beyond.”
New Plan Would Revamp Heart of Downtown– The Baltimore Sun, 5/12/15
”New designs for McKeldin Plaza would fuse the brick space to the Inner Harbor promenade, transforming one of the busiest and most prominent intersections in the city into a 2.8-acre park, with grassy slopes and a curtain-like translucent fountain.”
Seattle has long been an innovator in layering built and natural infrastructure so the two more fully complement each other. Over the past few decades, the city has taken advantage of all that rain so ever-present greenery seems to equal — if not dominate — the roads, bridges, and buildings. While locals may want even more parks, for someone just visiting the city the first time, Seattle exclaimed Pacific Northwest first and then city. Perhaps it’s the dramatic mountains, with their views carefully preserved from so many places in the city, or the water that is never far away. Or how trees and plants seem to be found everywhere they possibly can be. In the second in a series of posts on how Seattle has integrated built and natural infrastructure, we look at the Seattle Art Museum Olympic Sculpture Park by interdisciplinary design firm Weiss/Manfredi, with Charles Anderson Landscape Architecture, in downtown. Here is an example of how an incredibly difficult site with hardcore infrastructure needs — it must accommodate a railroad line, four-lane street, riverfront bike lane, and sea wall — was made a true destination with the addition of an inviting green public space that is a showcase for both art and the natural splendor of Seattle.
According to Julie Parrett, ASLA, a landscape architect who worked with Charles Anderson Landscape Architecture during the project and gave a tour of it for the American Planning Association (APA) conference, the site where the Seattle Art Museum built their park was owned by Union Oil Company of California up until 1999. When the museum was looking to expand their existing facility, developers were on their way to grabbing the property to turn into more apartments. At the 11th hour, $1 million was raised by Jon Shirley, a benefactor made wealthy by his role in Microsoft, and his wife Mary, to secure the land for a new sculpture park. They also created a $25 million operations and maintenance fund for the park in the beginning, so it would be “private but for public use.”
Still, it took nearly 10 years and much expense for this widely popular destination and neighborhood park to happen. The 8.5 acres of land were purchased for $20 million. Given the site was once a depot for train cars carrying oil, the clean up of the toxic soils cost another $5 million. For such a challenging site, the design and construction totaled $40 million.
The park’s M-shaped-path smartly invites exploration but also hides some of the limitations of the space. Upon first visiting, you are conveyed down to a striking rusted steel art work by Richard Serra, accessible via grassy stair-step terraces or a meandering trail — or drawn down across the first diagonal of the M to the grand vista of the bay and mountains. Those terraces double as an amphitheater for cultural events, with the Serra piece serving as a backdrop.
As you cross the first diagonal of the M, you begin to notice a slight change in elevation crossing over the four-lane street below. Again, it’s amazing how the views, landscape, and art together conspire to distract your eye from the transportation infrastructure below. Perhaps the experience would be different if the street was packed with cars. The time of day we visited, there were hardly any.
As you continue across the other diagonal of the M, you come across seating arranged for viewing the spectacular scenery.
Then, as you progress down over the rail line towards the waterfront, the experience changes again. Blasted with salty air, you make your way across the bike lanes to the railings facing the Elliott Bay and the 350-foot-long revamped sea wall that doubles as specially-constructed juvenile salmon habitat. Plants there were designed to accommodate for sea water inundation but otherwise Parrett said the site was not “designed for rising tides.”
The Seattle Art Museum is not kidding about maintenance. There was literally no trash to be found anywhere. The waterfront was free of any refuse, except for driftwood that is allowed to naturally accumulate in the built inlet that is then removed annually. At the constructed beach, Parrett explained that the riprap had been set there before, but the underwater slope was orchestrated so that “it would maintain itself.”
For Parrett, the fact that there is a open beach and wildlife habitat in the sculpture park is worth highlighting. “This is a museum that took on an ecological agenda.”
She explained the great obstacles the design and construction team faced in realizing the park:
First, the team learned the 350-feet-long sea wall had to be replaced or repaired. The museum found that fully replacing the wall, which has to hold back tidal changes of 13 feet each day, could easily cost $50-80 million. “Paying this amount would have shut down the project,” so instead, the team looked to stabilize the wall while creating habitat for juvenile salmon. Salmon, which you hear about with regular frequency in Seattle, are endangered, but much effort is made to ensure they too benefit from the infrastructure primarily made for people. As Seattle city government senior planner Patrice Carol, the APA tour organizer, explained, “when we are doing anything in Seattle that impacts the water, we are dealing with the Endangered Species Act.”
The design team used in fill-in ballast to create nooks and crannies — a “habitat bench” — that small salmon can swim into without getting picked off by predators. Salmon come out of the Puget Sound and return to the freshwater lakes and streams were they were born to spawn. Young salmon then go back the way their progenitors came.
As Parrett, explained, “the bench has been hugely successful and has become a demonstration project.” It also just cost $5.5 million for the new sea wall and habitat combination, and because it involved salmon, the team was able to leverage federal funds.
Second, the site is a brownfield. Given its past history as part of Union Oil’s operations, 117,000 tons of contaminated soils had to be removed. And 300,000 cubic yards of new soil was brought in, much of it from 8 blocks away where there was a development. Still, with the underlying toxic asphalt, the designers could only dig down 3 feet in areas. Art, particularly the heavy pieces, had to be carefully placed to ensure they didn’t spark leakages. “There is still ongoing monitoring.”
Third, the development of the park required removing the last of Seattle’s beloved waterfront streetcar infrastructure. As Parrett explained, “this almost derailed the project.” The streetcar line has been replaced by a two-way bicycle track that was heavily used the day we were out.
Lastly, cleaning all stormwater runoff heading down the slope into the bay meant designing wetlands to store water from the site in key spots and slowly release it, which attracts the bugs salmon like to eat. The site was designed to feature almost an entirely native plant palette, “with every tree and plant hand selected,” so no pesticides would be needed. But the primary challenge turns out to be controlling “runoff” from dogs doing their business on the lawns, no matter how cute they may be.
Parrett explained how there are security guards always present to ward off dog owners that don’t obey signs, and the museum periodically rope off parts of the landscape to let it recover. “But we must use fish compost to keep the lawns alive.”
“Seattle has been about human intervention in the natural landscape, setting heavy engineering in a bucolic setting,” said John Owen, partner with Makers architecture and urban design, during a tour organized by the American Planning Association (APA) for their conference in this northwest city. In the first of a series of posts about how Seattle layers nature and infrastructure, we’ll look at a few examples of this from Seattle’s history — from the early Olmstedian park system to the Hiram. M. Chittenden Locks, and, more recently, the Gas Works Park.
Owen said Seattle’s Olmsted Brothers-designed park system is one of the “most well-preserved in the world.” According to the Seattle parks and recreation department, the city commissioned the landscape architects the Olmsted Brothers, sons of Frederick Law Olmsted, to create a comprehensive plan to link green spaces, playgrounds, and vistas through a 20-mile green boulevard. The Olmsted brothers continued their work on the plan, designing and implementing pieces, through the 1930s.
We arrive at Volunteer Park, one of the jewels in the Olmsted system. There, Owen showed us how nature and infrastructure were first integrated to such great effect. The park’s meandering paths, towering trees, and lush gardens provide not only a frame for the views, but also the charismatic water management infrastructure — a water tower and high-pressure reservoir. As Lyle Bicknell, principal urban designer, Seattle department of planning and development, explained, “It was Olmstedian to make infrastructure beautiful.” The reservoir no longer serves its original purpose, but the water tower still does. Some have even floated the idea of turning the empty reservoir into a skatepark, which would be fantastic.
A later visit to the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks (known locally as the Ballard Locks) made clear that Seattle continued to invest in civic infrastructure. Construction began on this complex system for moving ships from Lake Washington and Lake Union to the Puget Sound in 1911, and the first ships passed through in 1916. To get to the locks, a visitor walks through 7 acres of gorgeous gardens designed by U.S. Corps of Engineers landscape architect Carl S. English Jr., who spent more than 40 years planting the gardens with more than 500 species and 1,500 varieties of plants from around the world.
The combination of gardens and heavy ship infrastructure is somehow seamless, and feels futuristic, despite the fact that it’s nearly 100 years old.
The lock keepers I spoke to exhibited great pride in the infrastructure, which runs 24 x 7, 365 days a year. Boats come in and out all day and night, as valves raise and lower water levels, keeping fresh and sea water separate. A legacy of the City Beautiful movement, the locks are a prime example of how nature and the built environment can complement each other in a timeless way.
Lastly, a visit to Gas Works Park capped the journey. The Seattle parks department explains how this site on Lake Union was cleared in the early 1900s to make way for a plant to process gas from coal, which then ran for nearly 50 years, spewing chemicals into the air and lake. When natural gas began to be imported in large amounts in the 1950s, the plant became obsolete, so the site was acquired to become a park by the city in the early 1960s.
Seattle landscape architect Richard Haag, FASLA, turned this into a game-changing park in the early 70s, using a then-cutting-edge approach of phytoremediation to leach out some of the toxic chemicals in the soil and restore the landscape. Further work in the 1980s mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.) involved removing and capping soils, and stripping the groundwater under the site of benzene using a process called “air sparging.”
Haag made the visitor’s approach to the industrial infrastructure a fascinating exploration, with a winding entry way that parallels a series of concrete gates. The path invites you to circle the old Gas Works, taking it in from all angles.
As you get closer to the intricate and intriguing central relic, you realize it’s fenced off to prevent people from climbing on it and perhaps further covering it in graffiti. Within the fences, nature has once again taken root.
You can then walk to the top of Kite Hill, a giant mound of earth that Haag constructed behind the park with rubble and also topped with a sundial. Kite Hill is currently being covered with an additional layer of soil and grass to prevent re-contamination by environmental remediation work being done along the Lake Union waterfront.
The path leads to picnic tables along the waterfront, and a “play barn,” where the old refinery infrastructure has been turned into a mecca for kids. This area was somewhat down on its heels, as it’s clearly been well-visited and loved for decades but needs some maintenance.
Gas Works Park opened in 1975 and soon thereafter it was award ASLA’s professional design of excellence award. As the awards jury noted, Haag’s Gas Works Park is “a remarkably original and attractive example of how to reclaim a seemingly hopeless and obsolete industrial installation. Instead of being destroyed or disguised, it has been transformed into a lighthearted environment. A project of historical significance for the community.”
And in The New York Times, Paul Goldberger wrote, “The park represents a complete reversal from a period when industrial monuments were regarded, even by preservationists, as ugly intrusions on the landscape, to a time when such structures as the gas works are recognized for their potential ability to enhance the urban experience.” Indeed, in 2013, the park was finally added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Seattle has found novel ways to re-balance the relationship between built and natural infrastructure. And with projects like the Seattle Art Museum Olympic Sculpture Park, it continues to lead the way towards a more sustainable relationship between the two.