Remake Los Angeles’ Oldest Park

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Pershing Square Park / Snipview

Pershing Square Park is Los Angeles’ oldest park. First opened in 1867 as St. Vincent’s Park, in 1870 it was officially renamed Los Angeles Park. Over the decades, the park underwent numerous revisions. In 1886, a dedicated bandstand pavilion was created, making it a public space for concerts. In the interim years, various statues were added. In 1910, architect John Parkinson redesigned the park, adding a fountain. After World War I, the park was renamed Pershing Park in honor of General John Joseph Pershing. In the 1920s and 30s, tropical plants were added, creating zones of greenery. Then, in 1994, a $14.5-million renovation by Mexican architect and landscape architect Ricardo Legorreta and American landscape architect Laurie Olin, FASLA, was completed. The bright, boxy post-modern design, which is in place today, notably features a 10-story purple bell tower, fountain, and small enclaves of trees. And today, AEG corporation, which created the massive Staples Center and L.A. Live spaces in downtown Los Angeles, has sponsored a new design competition to remake the 5-acre space once again.

According to the competition organizers, a new park is needed for a new downtown Los Angeles booming after decades of decline. The organizers says the transformation of the area is due to the city’s “adaptive reuse ordinance,” which has allowed developers to transform great old buildings in the historic core of downtown into commercial and residential space. Nearby, cool kids of all ages congregate at the Ace Hotel. And the Grand Central Market is now drawing others beyond the Latino community who have historically made up the district. Hotels and shops have popped up to serve both tourists and new waves of locals who have moved in. In 2000, downtown Los Angeles’ population was a mere 20,000; by 2010, it had doubled to 40,000.

Other city-wide efforts create impetus for a new downtown central square. Los Angeles is building a streetcar network that will make downtown even more accessible; Los Angeles City Councilmember José Huizar has launched “Bringing Back Broadway,” which aims to revitalize this historic avenue; and the ongoing Los Angeles River revitalization efforts continue.

According to The Architect’s Newspaper, the effort to create a new Pershing Square grew out of a task force established by Councilmember Huizar, who led a team with local designers, developers, and policymakers such as Macarlane Partners, Gensler, NBBJ, JFM Development, LA Recreation & Parks, and the Urban Land Institute. These taskforce members have already pledged support for a redesign. “MacFarlane Partners, which is developing 99,000 square-foot site overlooking the square, pledged $1 million pledge to seed Pershing Square Renew. The Department of Recreation and Parks earmarked $1 million for ‘immediate future for infrastructure improvements and amenities.'”

The goal is to create a dog-friendly community space with “less concrete and more green space” that can be used safely both day and night. They call for “tearing down the walls, ripping up the concrete, and planting more trees.” We would add there should be more easily-accessible public restrooms. When we visited the park during a conference this spring, much of it smelled like a urinal.

One big challenge will be figuring out how to keep the parking under Pershing Square Park accessible. Ramps for cars suck up a lot of space today, creating an unfortunate pedestrian experience that needs to be navigated on the north side of the park.

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Pershing Square Park / Snipview

Councilmember Huizar is putting a great emphasis on public input at every stage of the design process. Project for Public Spaces, which have been highly critical of the existing park, led public public workshops this spring. The competition web site also enables residents to submit comments.

Letter of interest are due September 25, followed by a request for qualifications in October. Final designs will be open for public and jury review in February next year. A revamped Pershing Square park is expected to open by 2020.

For a contrary view, read a piece in the L.A. Weekly: Let’s Keep Downtown Los Angeles’ Pershing Park Weird.

James Corner Field Operations Will Design Miami’s Underline

Proposal for the existing MPath near Brickell Backyard in Miami / James Corner Field Operations
Proposal for the existing MPath near Brickell Backyard in Miami / James Corner Field Operations

While the High Line sparked an international conversation about how to reuse elevated transportation infrastructure in our cities, planners and designers have become increasingly focused on what lies beneath these elevated highways, subway tracks, and rail lines. Across the U.S., cities are rethinking these residual spaces, which have long been underused and neglected. The Underline in Miami, Florida is one such project that seeks to transform the area beneath one of the city’s major elevated transportation systems: the MetroRail. Following a national design competition, James Corner Field Operations, the same firm that designed the High Line, was selected to transform the underused space into “the green spine for a future 250-mile-long network of bicycle and walking trails.”

Beating out 19 other firms in a competition held by Friends of the Underline, Field Operation’s design for the first segment of the Underline, which will be 10 miles long, will be the first transportation corridor in Miami-Dade County to integrate all modes of traffic. According to Friends of the Underline, “the Underline will connect to downtown and the Miami River Greenway on the north and to the proposed Ludlam Trail and the existing South Dade Trail on the south.”

Map of the proposed underline, with other existing and proposed trails / Friends of the Underline
Map of the proposed underline, with other existing and proposed trails / Friends of the Underline

In a public meeting on June 25, Corner identified four “character” zones that will be designed along the length of The Underline. “In the Brickell area, residents were focused on nature and play; in the Grove area, residents were interested in arts and crafts and cultural incubators; around the University of Miami, there was a focus on green tech and sustainability initiatives; and around South Miami and Dadeland, residents favored active recreation and health and fitness.”

Each of these zones will have specific “places” related to the interests of each group of residents. For example, underserved communities in Dadeland that don’t have access to parks for active recreation will get playing fields, playgrounds, and exercise areas within their zone of the Underline.

Rendering of the proposed Dadeland Trail Connection / James Corner Field Operations
Rendering of the proposed Dadeland Trail Connection / James Corner Field Operations

The Underline will also connect these different communities by making improvements that will attract them to the MPath, an off-road shared path for bikers and pedestrians that currently runs beneath the rail line. According to Isabel Castilla, a project manager at Field Operations, the new design plan calls for two adjacent paths: one dedicated for cycling and one for running and walking.

The plan aims to increase pedestrian and bicyclist safety along the MPath as well. According to Friends of the Underline, one of the biggest concerns when pursuing the project was user safety. “Currently the MPath, the bike path underneath MetroRail, has limited lighting or amenities, and needs wider and safer crosswalks. All of these, and other safety issues, are being addressed,” their website says.

Throughout the space, which will create more that one hundred acres of open space and restored natural habitats, existing vegetation will be used where possible. Elsewhere, Field Operations plans to use historically-occurring plants that will decrease the need for maintenance and minimize water usage, as the firm did on the High Line. “We envision a lot of native plantings that will only grow in a robust way and will bring other species with them, like birds and butterflies,” James Corner said in a video interview. These plantings will be divided into different ecosystems found throughout South Florida, such as pine rocklands, hardwood hammocks, and wet prairies.

The proposed Hammock Trail portion of the underline will feature species native to the Brickell hammock / James Corner Field Operations
The proposed Hammock Trail portion of the underline will feature species native to the Brickell hammock / James Corner Field Operations

Corner also discussed other proposed design elements  which focus on creating an experience that is “consistent, and unified and wholesome.” For example, Field Operations may decide to use “the distinctive graphic ‘U’ in The Underline logo … in the design of seating, trash receptacles, bike parking, etc.”

As part of a commitment to provide “a 10-mile canvas for artistic expression,” Friends of the Underline plans to allow public art on the existing MetroRail infrastructure. The project recently received a $200,000 grant from ArtPlace America’s 2015 national grant program, which will go toward public art installations created by recognized national and Miami-based artists. “The artwork along The Underline will reflect the unique characteristics of the major neighborhoods along the corridor,” said Meg Daly, founder of Friends of The Underline.

The proposed Grove Gallery, near the Coconut Grove Metrorail Station, will feature public art / James Corner Field Operations
The proposed Grove Gallery, near the Coconut Grove Metrorail Station, will feature public art / James Corner Field Operations

The masterplan for the project will be completed later this month. After approvals from various agencies, construction will begin on the two demonstration projects, first at Brickell in the fall of 2016 and then at University in 2017.

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

A rendering of Heroic Food Farm/Ennead Architects/Ennead Lab, Slate.com
A rendering of Heroic Food Farm/Copyright Ennead Architects/Ennead Lab, Slate.com

The True Story of Kudzu, the Vine That Never Truly Ate the SouthSmithsonian Magazine, September 2015
“As s a young naturalist growing up in the Deep South, I feared kudzu. I’d walk an extra mile to avoid patches of it and the writhing knots of snakes that everyone said were breeding within.”

A Bucolic New York Farm Aims to Recruit Veterans to Help Fix the U.S. Farming Crisis Slate.com, 9/1/2015
“A 19-acre farm near Hudson, New York, is being reimagined as an agricultural training camp for veterans. Plans for the complex, unveiled last month, include eight compact housing units and a communal space designed to respect the character and landscape of an existing farm in the town of Claverack set among the rolling agricultural fields and mountains of the Hudson River Valley.”

Here’s How the High Line’s Landscape Architects Reenvision the Office Park Fast Company, 9/3/2015
“This playland comes courtesy of an ambitious plan from developer Liberty Property Trust and landscape architecture firm James Corner Field Operations to inject urban attributes into what’s usually thought of as a highly un-urban space.”

Unwelcome Mat Is Out at Some of New York’s Privately Owned Public Spaces – The New York Times, 9/7/2015
“Privately owned public spaces, or POPS, are a quintessential New York real estate amenity that grants building owners zoning bonuses if they open part of their properties to the public.”

Video: 606 Trail Opens in ChicagoUrban Land, 9/8/2015
“After more than a decade of planning, Chicago this June opened the first section of the trail, now known as The 606. An elevated railroad right-of-way converted to a pedestrian greenway, the 606 is a multi-functional park system that also includes a bike path and four neighborhood parks on the ground level along its 2.7-mile (4.5 km) stretch.”

AD Innovator: Mikyoung KimArchitectural Digest, 9/9/2015
“Sensory overload is a phrase you’re unlikely to hear from Mikyoung Kim. Experimenting with touch, sight, and sound, the Boston-based landscape architect has built her name creating immersive environments—from backyard oases to waterfront redevelopments—that spark curiosity and contemplation.”

Kate Orff: Translating Research into Action – ArchitectureAU, 9/14/2015
“Kate Orff is the founder and design director of Scape, a New York-based landscape architecture studio that combines research and practice to reimagine the ecological and cultural potential of the urban landscape.”

An Underlying Issue: Priming in Studies on the Health Benefits of Nature

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Institute for Forestry and Nature Research by Behnisch Architekten in the Netherlands / esb8fj.wordpress.com

Landscape architects are increasingly called upon to address the challenges of changing economic, demographic, and environmental conditions, all of which have a significant effect on the character and distribution of public health problems. One need look no further than this blog or ASLA’s guide to the health benefits of nature to grasp how the potential for using nature to improve our health excites both designers and academics alike. A recent article in The Dirt, What Dose of Nature Do We Need to Feel Better?, covered new research on the health benefits of nature and spurs me to write a comment about how we measure anyone’s responses to a “dose” of nature.

I work in public health research and focus on the contribution of biophilic design to human health and well-being. Biophilia is a term elevated by famed evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson. He defined it as an innate emotional attachment to and affinity for nature, and the design community has transformed that insight into an approach called biophilic design. In both indoor and outdoor environments, biophilic design is thought to support health and well-being through the use of natural features, materials, and settings that tap into deep-seated evolutionary preferences.

Through my work, I field questions from essentially three descending geological strata: The “leaf litter,” if you will, are the questions characterized by idle curiosity, such as: “I know intuitively that I feel better in natural environments, but what can research tell me about why?” The next layer of questions graduates to more granular humus and minerals: “What types of landscapes and specific design features support the range of outcomes (productivity, health, and well-being) that I see cited in the popular press?” But the bedrock questions relate to mechanisms (what constellation of design features work, for whom, and under what circumstances) and metrics of assessment (which biomarkers over what interval credibly link landscape exposure to desirable behavioral, psychological, and physiological responses?). These are the methods used to assess any other public health intervention at a population scale and, increasingly, they are applied to natural or “green” environments as well.

Careful readers ask questions of anything upheld as evidence-based or “true.” Most studies relating to the health benefits of nature don’t provide enough detail about landscape features and participants to delve too far beyond the leaf litter. Often, it’s as if the participants arrive in a green space as a blank slate, without the etchings of a lifetime of learning or even the residual dustings of the morning’s events. Large, statistically-significant populations can help us rise above individual differences in dose-response studies, but we are still missing many critical insights that might, in the future, allow us to tailor recommendations for healthy environments to individuals.

Popular interest in the use of biophilic design to bring nature, and natural design cues, into the built environment also introduces interesting bedrock questions about the affect of indoor priming on our responses to outdoor environments. Priming happens when we are exposed to a stimulus and that initial exposure colors our responses to subsequent stimuli. The effect of indoor environments on priming restoration isn’t well understood.

By way of example, a 2010 meta-analysis produced by Jo Barton and Jules Pretty looked at the benefits of exercise in green settings. They found that participants in research studies derived notable benefits from a relatively short period of exercise in nature, with diminishing but positive returns thereafter. Put another way, short exposures to green spaces — perhaps as small as 40 seconds, as detailed in a recent study of viewing green roofs from Australia — capitalize on the shift between where you’ve just come from and where you are. Our bodies and psyches adjust to exposure, just as they should, although the benefits continue to accrue after (what is essentially) neurobiological acclimatization.

Visions of healthier, more sustainable futures often include the use of biophilic design to bring the outside inside, softening the upwards of 90 percent of time we spend indoors. How then will our neurobiological resting states – and the conditions that provoke short-term restoration – shift? Is the research participant who steps out of a biophilic building effectively primed differently than the one who steps out of a more conventional office setting? If so, should the structure of nearby restorative landscapes change in response to the levels of biophilic design found in abutting buildings in order to reliably produce a restorative response?

It’s unclear if the future of health research even holds space for questions which are, effectively, not essential to human survival. If we allow ourselves the luxury to consider optimizing landscape design for human health and well-being, however, I believe we should pay more attention to the transitional spaces and mind states that often set the tenor of experience: the doorway, the window, the moment at which a vista assembles itself into an intelligible and pleasing frame.

Where we come from matters and, if we’re thoughtful about where we’ve just been, it will also change where we’re about to go.

This guest post is by Julia Kane Africa, program leader, Center for Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

U.S. Surgeon General: Every Community Needs to Be Walkable

At a press conference to launch a new campaign for walkable communities, the U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said only half of Americans get enough physical activity to reduce their risk of heart disease and diabetes. Adults need 22 minutes of moderate activity each day, or about 150 minutes a week, at a minimum. But as mainstream health researchers and medical professionals are now realizing, half of the U.S. population may not be walking because they live in communities that actually physically prevent them from doing this. Over 30 percent of American communities can be considered unwalkable. And in these places, walking is not only a hassle — given it requires people to actually drive or take a bus to where they can get out and walk around — but it can also be dangerous. In 2013 alone, 4,700 pedestrians lost their lives due to collisions with cars, and since 2003, nearly 50,000 have.

Murthy explained that Americans have “lost the culture of physical activity.” This has led to a health crisis. Indeed, according to the National Institute of Health, two-thirds of Americans are now considered overweight, with one-third considered obese. About 5 percent of the population is considered morbidly obese. But for Murthy, this cultural shift away from physical activity is directly connected with the growing dearth of walkable places. And it’s particularly bad for seniors, people of color, and people with disabilities, who disproportionately live in unwalkable areas. “That’s a health equity issue, too.”

Furthermore, 7 out of 10 Americans die from preventable chronic diseases like diabetes, cancer, obesity, and heart disease. He added, “it turns out the most powerful way we can turn the tide on chronic disease is something we have been doing for millennia: That is walking.” He pointed to the public health department of a community in Indian River, Florida, that undertook an audit of the community’s streets and then completely revamped them to become walkable, complete streets. “95 percent of residents now spend time walking outside.”

And it’s not just about walking, but also rolling. Murthy called for all communities to be fully wheelchair accessible. As the wheelchair-bound Maryland state official Juliette Rizzo explained, “50 percent of Americans with disabilities don’t get enough exercise. And adults with disabilities are three times as likely to have chronic diseases.” For Rizzo, there are not many places where she can go exercise, and these kinds of gyms are expensive. “But rocking and rolling are always affordable.” Rizzo disabused people of the notion that people just sitting in their wheelchairs aren’t exercising as well. As she navigates a path, she herself is moving and shifting her body, pumping her arms.

Others lent their support at the press conference: Tyler Norris with Kaiser Permanente, a major healthcare provider, said their doctors now “prescribe walking.” He urged communities to leverage both public and private investments to create the infrastructure needed for walking and wheelchair rolling. Norris added that “walking is a right, not a privilege or luxury. All must be able to walk in their communities, and that means all.”

Carlos Monje, assistant secretary for transportation policy with the U.S. Department of Transportation, said the Highway Administration has created “more flexible” mobility standards that will enable local communities to better fund their sidewalk improvement projects. He said the U.S. Congress is still debating the massive surface transportation bill, with its important “transportation alternatives” programs, which is Congressional-speak for projects with sidewalks and bike lanes, and urged people to contact their representative to push for safer, more walkable streets.

And Kathy Smith, CEO of America Walks, said over 500 organizations across the country are doing important bottom-up work to make communities more walkable, often with annual budgets of less than $10,000. And some of these organizations encourage specific segments of the population to walk more. One example is GirlTrek, which builds support for walking as a healing process among African American women and girls. As GirlTrek co-founder Vanessa Criglar stated at the event, “African American girls in particular face barriers to walking.”

Murthy is following the lead of environmental health leader Dr. Richard Jackson, who has written many books and produced a PBS series to bring attention to the disconnect between public health goals and the built environment. It’s just too bad that the organizers of this important event at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services didn’t invite any representatives from the wide ranging fields involved in planning, designing, and implementing a safe, healthy transportation system. While we certainly applaud Surgeon General Murthy’s new campaign, the press conference featured many doctors, even representatives from the council of shopping malls, but not a single representative from the urban planning, development, landscape architecture, and transportation engineering fields, which will create the solutions so critically needed.

We must build strong partnerships between the public health and medical communities on one side and the planning and design worlds on the other to make sure this nationwide shift back to walking gets planned, designed, and built.

Why Invasive Species Will Save Nature

The New Wild: Why Invasive Species Will be Nature’s Salvation / Beacon Press

Conservationists are becoming enemies of nature, according to a new book The New Wild: Why Invasive Species Will Be Nature’s Salvation by environmental journalist Fred Pearce. Drawing primarily on examples from the United Kingdom and remote islands across the world, the book challenges the long-held belief that keeping out non-native species and returning ecosystems to a pre-human state are the only ways to save nature as we know it. Calling this line of thinking unproductive at best, Pearce states that seeking only to conserve and protect endangered and weak species becomes a brake on evolution, a douser of adaptation. “If we want to assist nature to regenerate, we need to promote change, rather than hold it back,” he writes.

Though his criticism of traditional conservation perspectives that advocate for restoring ecosystems may appear controversial, Pearce isn’t pushing for an “anything goes” mentality, nor does he believe people should stop trying to save endangered species. Rather, he says it’s important to separate our emotional needs from the needs of the environment. “We have a legitimate need to curb excesses and a legitimate desire to protect what we like best. But we should be clear that when we do this, it is for ourselves and not for nature, whose needs are rather different.” With few, if any, pristine ecosystems left on earth, Pearce ultimately concludes we need to begin embracing a “new wild” that will be different from our old visions of the wild. This new kind of nature may include species that are foreign and unfamiliar, but it will be more resilient than ever before.

The first section of the book begins with stories of places where human-introduced species have thrived, often doing the ecosystem jobs that native species could not accomplish. One such place is Ascension Island in the tropical South Atlantic, which has an entirely synthetic cloud forest ecosystem that includes a mix of species shipped in by the British navy during the early- to mid-nineteenth century. The island, which is home to Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters, is now home to around three hundred introduced species of plants that “have bucked the standard theory that complexity emerges only through co-evolution.”

Green Mountain on Ascension Island / Shallow Marine Surveys Group
Green Mountain cloud forest on Ascension Island / Shallow Marine Surveys Group

Pearce then addresses the myths we have about conservation and alien species. He states that many conservationist’s attempts to “fix” nature have been almost comically unsuccessful. Billions of dollars have been spent trying to eliminate alien species, yet the failure rate for these project has been alarming. Of the 43 projects aimed at eradicating or controlling alien species in the Galapagos Islands – often considered the mecca for conservation research – only nine have been successful. Now the head of restoration at the Charles Darwin Research Station, Mark Gardener, has raised the white flag on eradicating aliens. “As scientists and conservationists, we need to recognize that we’ve failed. Galapagos will never be pristine,” he told Science magazine in 2011. If Galapagos, with its rich history of native species preservation, is moving in this direction, it is only a matter of time before other regions follow suit.

Visitors to the Galapagos Islands view the endangered Galapagos tortoise, one of the biggest tortoises in the world / GalapagosIslands.com
Visitors to the Galapagos Islands view the endangered Galapagos tortoise, one of the biggest tortoises in the world / GalapagosIslands.com

The last section of The New Wild is a call to action, presenting opportunities for remediating environmental damage caused by humans. The most compelling chapter of the book is the core of this section, in which Pearce discusses industrial sites as potential hot spots for biodiversity. Though few conservationists protest when industrial sites are built over, they often fail to recognize that these sites often support more scarce wild species than farmed land. According to Pearce, nature persists, even flourishes, in the most unlikely, most damaged, and apparently least natural environments. And experts throughout the book agree. “Brownfield sites are as important for biodiversity as ancient woodlands, yet we are encouraging people to build on them,” Matt Shardlow of the United Kingdom conservation organization Buglife says in the book. “It’s the combination of habitats that is so rare. There are very bare areas, basking places, short grasses … and bits of wetland. Trail-biking youths and illicit bonfires ensure that trees never take over. Feral urban Britain turns out to be a wildlife paradise.”

This knowledge that environments we perceive as the most unnatural and the most developed are actually some of the most ecologically-rich has the potential to completely turn our picture of nature on its head. We may have to rethink landscapes we may have previously considered nature, such as “pesticide-soaked” agricultural fields.

Though parts of the book are reminiscent of American journalist Emma Marris’ groundbreaking book the Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, The New Wild benefits from Pearce’s unique voice and his extensive experience as an environmental journalist. Pearce presents each of his arguments in such a persuasive way that it often becomes hard to imagine conclusions more logical than those he has come to. Though equally as readable and controversial as the Rambunctious Garden, The New Wild takes Marris’ arguments about creating hybrid ecosystems that combine wild nature and human management a step forward, offering concrete ways conservationists, restoration ecologists, and landscape architects can help the natural world adapt.

New Estimate: Earth Has 3 Trillion Trees

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Russian boreal forest biome / Frangrantica

A new study published in the journal Nature claims that a previous satellite-based estimate of the total number of trees on Earth was off by a large margin. Instead of the 400 billion trees previously thought to exist on the planet, there are an estimated 3 trillion. Almost half of these trees are found in tropical and subtropical forests, another quarter of all trees are found in boreal biomes, the vasts forests of Russia and North America, and about 20 percent are in temperate biomes found in Europe, Asia, and the United States.

Humans have had an “overwhelming effect” on trees. Since the beginning of civilization, about 3 trillion trees have been cut down, said the study’s lead researcher Thomas Crowther at Yale University, in an interview with The Guardian. And the high rate of destruction continues, with about 15 billion trees lost each year due to deforestation and the expansion of farmland. In fact, another new study from Global Forest Watch says that 46 million acres of forests were lost just in 2014. The majority of the destruction is in Russia, the United States, Canada, Brazil, and Indonesia, as it has been for more than a decade. But according to Mongabay, an environmental news site, the Democratic Republic of Congo just jumped to near the top of the list this year, as this Sub-Saharan African country lost 1 million hectares of forest.

Crowther and his team found that Russia has the most number of trees, with 640 billion, followed by Canada with 318 billion, and Brazil, with 300 billion. The United States has around 220 billion, while China has 140 billion.

The scientists used nearly a half-million ground-based sensors on every continent, except for Antarctica, to generate a tree map. Tree density estimates were linked with GIS data and other spatial, topographical, and climactic attributes, as well as land use patterns to come up with more detailed estimates.

Crowther and the other researchers conducted the study to create a real baseline for tree planting efforts. They wanted to see whether the Billion Tree Campaign and the many urban million tree campaigns can have any real impact. Crowther told The Guardian that “the message remains that a billion trees is still a huge contribution. I was concerned that providing them [such tree-planting efforts] with this final information might deter efforts and make people go ‘okay, planting a million trees is pointless’ but actually we got the opposite response.” The are efforts underway to even create a global trillion-tree campaign.

As cities ramp up their million-tree campaigns, the discussion has turned where to plant them, so everyone benefits from their health benefits equally. Living in a neighborhood with a lot of trees has shown to boost health and well-being, and some studies have even linked tree coverage with mortality rates. Doctors in Washington, D.C. are now prescribing time in the park to further test the benefits.

A new interactive tool Trees and Health App, created by researchers at Portland State University (PSU) and financed by the U.S. Forest Service, enables urban planners, non-profits, and landscape architects to plot out where trees can have the biggest health impact.

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Portland Tree map / Trees and Health App

The tool’s approach to data collection and analysis was first developed in Portland, where the team used nearly 150 street-level sensors to measure pollution levels, and then determine how trees reduce the impact of pollution and therefore respiratory problems like asthma. Vivek Shandas, one of PSU researcher, told Smithsonian magazine, “We found that upward of 14 percent of the pollutants are improved by local neighborhood trees and that the kind of trees does matter. Portland is highly coniferous and those [trees] almost act like scrubbers in the summer, but deciduous trees are becoming more dominant in urban landscapes.”

Right now, 13 cities are available for analysis through the tool, but the team plans to add many more. Explore the app.

Silicon Valley Reinvents the Mall

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The Hills at Vallco / Rafael Viñoly and OLIN

As malls die off around the country, and more people shop online, new shopping center models are desperately needed. In Silicon Valley, the source of so much game-changing innovation, the mall appears to be the next format to get a reboot. “Starchitect” Rafael Viñoly and landscape architects at OLIN are transforming Cupertino’s struggling mall into the 50-acre Hills at Vallco, a hybrid retail, commercial, and residential hub, all covered in what they promise will be the “world’s largest green roof.” The 30-acre green roof, which will function as both community park and nature preserve, will offer 3.8 miles of “walking and jogging trails, meadows, vineyards, orchards and organic gardens, children’s play areas and a refuge for native species of plants and birds,” writes the Sand Hill Property company, the developers of the $3 billion project.

The Silicon Valley Business Journal says the unique design came out of extensive community engagement, as developers hosted 20 public meetings and received more than 3,000 ideas through their web site. Reed Moulds, Sand Hill managing director, told The San Jose Mercury News: “There will be nothing like it when we are done. We believe its community focus will make this a remarkable place to live, work, dine, play, learn and recreate.”

At ground level, the developers aim to create from scratch an “entertainment-driven downtown,” writes the Silicon Valley Business Journal. A 15-block street grid will carve out spaces for two new 3-acre “town squares,” which will offer outdoor movie nights and farmers markets, surrounded by a mix of stores and restaurants selling “local and organic food.”

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The Hills at Vallco / Rafael Viñoly and OLIN
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The Hills at Vallco / Rafael Viñoly and OLIN

Surrounding these squares will be 625,000 square feet of entertainment and retail space, as well as 2 million square feet of office space, reports The San Jose Mercury News. There will also be 680 apartments at market rate, with 120 set aside as affordable housing or apartments for seniors. The idea behind the mix is that the office space will bring in traffic during the daytime, while those living in the apartments will be active there on weekends.

The $300-million-dollar green roof will be accessed via a set of slopes and bridges that will take residents and visitors up to the expanse covered in trails, farms, and playgrounds. According to The San Jose Mercury News, OLIN will use recycled water to irrigate the landscape, which will feature native and drought-tolerant plants.

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The Hills at Vallco / Rafael Viñoly and OLIN
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The Hills at Vallco / Rafael Viñoly and OLIN
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The Hills at Vallco / Rafael Viñoly and OLIN

The developers are aiming for LEED Platinum for the entire development. A mix of sidewalks, bike lanes, and trails may help to reduce car use in the development, probably to the extent other dense mixed-use developments in suburbia have. It will be up to the city of Cupertino, with its lame walk score of 45, to extend the pedestrian infrastructure into a real network.

To sweeten the deal, the developers will build a new $40-million-dollar elementary school as well as an innovation center, an “incubator,” for high school students.

The Hills at Vallco will still have to compete with the nearby Stanford Shopping Center in Palo Alto and Westfield Valley Fair in San Jose, which is perhaps why there are so many extraordinary features. But with Google’s new Mountain View headquarters, with its massive glass dome that will result in its own temperature-controlled climate, and Apple’s giant ring-shaped headquarters, with its ten thousand parking spaces, in development just a few miles away, the developers are betting they can make the Hills at Vallco a magnet for decades to come.

Design a New Hub for Deaf Culture

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Gallaudet University campus / Gallaudet University

Gallaudet University, the only liberal arts university in the world that teaches its students in both English and American Sign Language, has launched an international design competition to remake its 99-acre campus in Washington, D.C. into a hub for deaf culture. According to the university, design teams will be challenged “to rethink the sensory experience of the campus through the deaf perspective.” The $60 million project also aims to create a new campus gateway and “redefine the university’s urban edge as a vibrant, mixed-used creative and cultural district.”

University officials believe Gallaudet is leading an “emerging renaissance known as Deaf Gain: a paradigm shift that switches the emphasis from hearing loss to the cultural, creative and cognitive gains of deaf ways of being in the world.” To enable this paradigm shift, they are starting with their own campus, redesigning it using “DeafSpace,” design guidelines created by deaf campus architect Hansel Bauman.

gallaudet
Gallaudet University campus / Gallaudet University

These guidelines better enable visual communication among the deaf. Gallaudet explains: “When deaf people congregate the group customarily works together to rearrange furnishings into a ‘conversation circle’ to allow clear sight lines so everyone can participate in the visual conversation. Gatherings often begin with participants adjusting window shades, lighting and seating to optimize conditions for visual communication that minimize eyestrain. These practical acts of making a DeafSpace are long-held cultural traditions that, while never-before formally recognized, are the basic elements of an architectural expression unique to deaf experiences.”

Bauman goes into more detail:

While the university has already been remaking its buildings according to the new guidelines, the campus revitalization will be the first time they have been applied to the public realm, addressing spatial arrangements, wayfinding, and lighting conditions outside. The guidelines will be applied to the campus, including the 14-acre historic core designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in 1866.

Gallaudet is looking for multidisciplinary teams, including landscape architects, architects, and specialists in human behavior, performing and fine arts, communication technology, wayfinding and engineering disciplines, among others. First-stage competitors need to express interest by October 1. Second stage finalists will each receive a $50,000 honorarium to participate in a colloquium, design charrette, and generate designs for a public exhibition. Winners will be announced by February 2016.

Another fascinating opportunity: the Burning Man festival is looking for designs for “individual elements, conforming city plans, and non-conforming city plans” for its 2017 temporary city in Nevada’s Black Rock desert. Burning Man values like “radical inclusion and de-commodification” need to be represented. Given Burning Man just keeps getting bigger, more than 70,000 people are expected for the 2017 happening. As with past Burning Mans, the goal is to leave no trace when the city comes down. Designs are due to the Black Rock Ministry of Urban Planning by December 31, 2015.

Doctor’s Orders: Go to the Park

Dr. Maria Cristi Rueda and Dr. Robert Zarr with a young patient holding a copy of her park prescription / HealthIT Buzz
Dr. Maria Cristi Rueda and Dr. Robert Zarr with a young patient holding a copy of her park prescription / HealthIT Buzz

Pediatricians in Washington, D.C. are prescribing their patients a new type of medicine: parks. Presenting on the success of DC Park RX, a new community health initiative, at a conference organized by Casey Trees, Dr. Robert Zarr, the founder and director of the program, said that many doctors have started to recognize the positive impact nature has on many health conditions. “Nature clearly shows an effect on your health in terms of prevention. So you may not have a diagnosis yet, but if you’re headed that way, you can certainly turn that around by spending more time outside,” Zarr said.

DC Park RX created a searchable online database of parks, identifying 350 green spaces in the district. Every park gets a one-page summary that makes it simple for both healthcare providers and patients to find a nearby park. “If a child was obese and really liked to play basketball, a doctor can very quickly go through the parks in the database in about 5 seconds, find a park with basketball courts, and print it out for them with directions for how to get there. They get the information to them right then and there,” Zarr said. Doctors are able to integrate the database right into their workflow with patients’ charts, just as they would any other prescription.

Unity Health Care pediatrician María Rueda-González shows a patient a park near her home / The Washington Post by Kate Patterson
Unity Health Care pediatrician María Rueda-González shows a patient a park near her home / Kate Patterson, The Washington Post.

According to The Washington Post, it is hard to say how many people are currently using the public database, but at “Unity Health Care, which serves 100,000 District residents, 180 providers with access to the system have made 720 prescriptions.” Zarr said that preliminary data indicates that children who have been prescribed time in the park are getting an additional 22 minutes per week of physical activity, and are spending 6 more days per year at a park for at least 30 minutes, results he finds encouraging for such a small program.

Parks are now being recognized as critical to medically treating chronic disease. “100 million Americans suffer from chronic disease and being overweight or obese contributes to chronic disease. Chronic disease results in decreased quality of life and ultimately in premature death, but spending time in a natural environment increases physical activity, hence decreasing the risk of obesity and chronic disease,” Zarr said.

Dr. Robert Zarr leads a hike through a park in Washington, D.C. / National Park Service by Diana Bowen
Dr. Robert Zarr leads a hike through a park in Washington, D.C.
/ Diana Bowen, National Park Service

Though Park Rx is one of the first programs to give doctors a tool to prescribe parks, the idea that doing physical activity in nature offers health benefits is hardly new. Many studies have now made the connection. For example, research published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine in 2008 indicated that children who are active outdoors are less prone to obesity than their peers who spend hours inside in front of their TVs and computers.

With rates of depression at an all-time high, doctors are also using DC Park Rx to treat mental health illness. “Spending all of you time inside is not good for your mental health,” Zarr said. “Common diagnoses of mental illnesses — most, if not all of them, can be ameliorated by being outside.” In 2009, Dutch researchers found that living close to parks, “or at least near many trees, can have far reaching mental health benefits for people. In turn, living in places without parks or trees, especially if you are young or poor, can have major negative impacts.”

However, Zarr noted that he doesn’t expect parks to be the cure for every patient. “Sometimes a patient just isn’t there yet,” he said. “We don’t prescribe a park to every patient, but when they are ready we will.” For patients suffering from chronic disease, or are on the verge of developing a chronic disease, prescribing increased access to nature as part of an integrated treatment plan poses few risks and offers plenty of benefits.

Zarr is currently trying to find a way to expand DC Park Rx across the entire city and improve the functionality of the database to make it more like “Yelp for parks.” He has also been given the go ahead to further research and compile the biometric data he is accumulating, which will hopefully indicate a link between patients who have been prescribed parks and a decrease in their Body mass indexes (BMIs), blood pressure, and symptoms of depression. And with a stronger base of evidence for the health benefits of nature, it is only a matter of time before more doctors add to their prescription pads an Rx for outdoor activity.