Neighborhood Parks Play More Into Nature’s Hands– The Houston Chronicle, 11/18/15
“Nature-themed parks are becoming more prevalent in Houston’s master-planned communities as developers respond to demand from homebuyers for amenities centered on nature and healthy living.”
“How can we create a culture of health?,” asked Dr. Donald Schwartz, a director at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, at GreenBuild 2015 in Washington, D.C. In the U.S., there isn’t a culture of health, Schwartz argued, just increasing investments in healthcare, which isn’t the same thing. Health is “socially and environmentally-derived,” while healthcare relates to hospitals, therapies, technologies, and costs. Our expensive healthcare-centric approach is no longer working. “In life expectancy rankings for developed Western countries, we rank 15th out of 17 countries.” It’s clear that further investments in healthcare aren’t going to solve the problem. Instead, what’s needed is a transformation of the built environment, so everyone can benefit from walkable neighborhoods and live in healthy, sustainable homes. A new culture of health can only come out of a healthy built environment.
Up until age 75, Americans actually have among the worst life expectancy among the developed world. “The other 16 developed Western countries offer far more opportunities to have a better life.” But if we make it to age 95, “we have the best life expectancy.” This is because “50 percent of our healthcare budget last year went to the last year of life.” By investing in hospitals and technologies for the very old, we created a high-cost healthcare system that benefits a “slim slice of life.”
The U.S. spends much more than other developed Western countries on healthcare, topping out at 17 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) or about $3 trillion per year. “The disparity with other countries is huge.” And with our expensive, inefficient system, we are getting poor results as well. One-third of children are overweight or obese. 75 percent of young adults aren’t eligible for military service due to lack of education or health problems. One-half of all deaths are linked to chronic diseases, which is much higher than in other developed countries.
Higher and higher healthcare costs can’t be the only way forward. “We have to redefine health as more than hospitals and ambulances.” Echoing the U.S. Surgeon General, who called for every community to be walkable, Schwartz said the way to build a new culture of health is to ensure every neighborhood encourages activity and health. A new approach to the built environment is critical, because, otherwise, “our children could end up living shorter lives than us.”
To improve health, Americans need to “change the context.” Schwartz pointed to a study in which the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) randomly moved 4,600 families in public housing, asking some to stay where they were in poor neighborhoods, and some to move to new neighborhoods without poverty. They found that after 3 years, the “mental health for those who moved improved, and, after 10-15 years, they had lower levels of obesity and diabetes.” The study showed that “people got healthier when they were moved out of poor neighborhoods, even though they didn’t get wealthier.” Following up 20 years later, the researchers found that the low-income “children who had been moved and grew up in areas without poverty had higher lifetime earnings. Just being in a good environment at an early age resulted in higher incomes later on.”
Schwartz cited a few other studies that show how place is fundamental to health. But the question then becomes: what is it about a place that’s healthy or not? Schwartz said higher level of educational attainment in a given neighborhood is an important determinant of health. The structure of neighborhoods has a major impact: Communities with mixed-use developments that encourage walking, access to transit, proximity to places for employment, places to buy healthy foods are healthier. And housing is key. Research shows that “healthier housing improves the health of children.”
To further test this, the foundation is financing an experiment in inner-city Baltimore with local health care providers to retrofit homes for children with asthma. The idea is to test whether improvements in housing reduce asthma rates and lower healthcare costs. But Schwartz believes this experiment will just confirm what we already know. The relationship between better homes and health been already been made clear in the East Lake Meadows public housing project in Atlanta, Georgia. There, decrepit public housing was torn down and replaced with sustainable, healthy homes. No one was displaced — tenants came back after the renovation. The result was that “crime went down and student performance and employment went up.” All of this happened with an investment less than $200 million. “The only thing that changed was the housing.”
But Schwartz also argued that while these one-off projects are great, what’s really needed is a deeper planning approach. For example, the New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut Regional Plan, which is a highly influential regional planning framework, now has a health chapter, in part due to the foundation’s work. This can lead to more widespread efforts to reshape the built environment in the region to make it more walkable, with more healthy homes. And RWJF is now funding Urban Land Institute’s Health Corridors program, which aims to retrofit the unhealthiest thoroughfares filled with big-box stores that offer no opportunities for walking and biking, and make them healthier for the people who live near them. “It’s about finding a real estate redevelopment strategy.”
SITES was developed over 10 years by the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), the Lady Bird Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and U.S. Botanic Garden. In the past few years, hundreds of projects sought certification under the SITES pilot program; 46 projects achieved some level of certification. In 2015, GBCI announced that it would acquire SITES and now certify projects under SITES v2. Already more than 15 projects, including two iconic international projects, have registered for certification under SITES, and many more are expected in coming months.
Statter said that “parks and green spaces are now more important than ever,” and they can only be improved through the use of SITES in their design, construction, and operations. She also thinks that SITES will be beneficial with mixed-use developments with a landscape component and parking lots.
SITES has a number of key goals: it will “help create regenerative systems and foster resiliency; mitigate climate change and increase future resource supply; transform the marketplace for landscape-related products and services; and improve human health and well-being.” Jose Alminana, FASLA, a principal at Andropogon Associates and a leader in the development of the SITES rating system, concurred, saying that SITES is a useful tool for helping clients and designers “stitch together systems to improve a landscape’s ability to absorb change.”
SITES is based on a different logic than LEED, GBCI’s rating system for buildings: its approach is based in living systems. He said once a building, which is a static system, has been created it begins to deteriorate. But once a landscape, an ever-evolving living system, has been installed, it only begins to take off. “Landscapes can be regenerative.”
Given landscape architects and designers must not only design for people but also all sorts of other wildlife, a system-based approach is critical. “There are forms of life that have co-developed together. With landscapes, it’s not a set of individual elements. You can’t have plants without soils.”
SITES can also have broader impacts on the design process and marketplace. Statter said “projects will now need integrated design teams from the get-go. SITES is a tool for involving landscape architects and designers much earlier on in the design process.”
Alminana added that SITES will only increase the “transactional power” of landscape architects and designers. With SITES, they will now know the “carbon impact of all the materials they source. They can then demand that things are done in a low-carbon way.”
And once the U.S. and other countries move to a regulatory environment that taxes carbon, “landscapes will become invaluable.” When carbon becomes money, “it will be critical to actually monitor the systems in our landscapes.”
U.S. and international landscape architects and designers are encouraged to seek certification for their projects. SITES v2 uses LEED’s four-level certification system: certified, silver, gold, platinum. The rating system is free and the reference guide is available for a fee. Alminana said the “reference guide took over 10 years to develop. Everyone should get one and have fun with it.”
In the Plan of Chicago, Burnham’s approach was an “integration of landscape and architecture,” creating hybrid places infrastructural in nature. The three new Chicago parks and landscapes discussed in the session – Navy Pier Pierscape by James Corner Field Operations, Maggie Daley Park by MVVA, and the Chicago Riverwalk by Sasaki – are also hybrids. All required a high level of performance, a “contemporary green and sustainable design,” as Astheimer put it.
Ford called Chicago a “uniquely infrastructural city,” and the projects reflect this. The Navy Pier, built in 1916, has a direct line to Burnham’s plan, as it is the only pier he proposed that was actually created. The new pierscape reoriented the entrance to the pier, opening a “free and clear view of the lake” as you approach, while also changing the perception that the pier is disconnected from Chicago and too commercial.
The two other landscapes required building significant new infrastructure:
Maggie Daley Park required construction of a large park filled with activities, but also a naturalistic garden, all built over a parking garage. MVVA then unified “a complex site through topography” and created an “integration of ideas and programs” that resulted in a landscape to be enjoyed year round, providing opportunities for both play and relaxation.
The Riverwalk required that land literally be built on the river. For Ford, “creating a landscape on water” in a tight space was a challenge but by “knitting together” the existing walkways to create a continuous path, as well as creating new places for gathering, socializing, and recreation, the Riverwalk “allows the life of the city and the life of the river to interact.”
These new pieces of civic infrastructure can “get people out of their homes and into their community,” as Bird said. And while landscape architects and designers might not be able to change the world in as broad strokes as they may like, they can at least, as Ford put it, “create a comfortable bench for different people to engage with each other, to have a conversation they might not normally have.” It’s clear that since the days of Burnham, Chicago only continues to build on its legacy of creating and supporting large-scale civic and infrastructural improvements.
Nearly twenty years ago, world leaders met in Istanbul, Turkey, to discuss the fate of cities at UN-Habitat’s Habitat II conference. For Michael Cohen, director, Studley Graduate Program in International Affairs, The New School, who spoke at the Urban Thinkers Campus in New York City, that conference resulted in a interminable report that failed to solve the problems facing cities. But in a contrary view — Jan Peterson, Chair of Coordinating Council, Huairou Commission, said the Habitat II process gave a voice to hundreds of non-profit organizations from around the world for the first time and put “the world’s poor and women on the agenda. It was no longer just about academics and governments.” Now, twenty years later, the UN-Habitat is gearing up for another giant conference, Habitat III, which will convene in Quito, Ecuador in late October 2016. Just like Habitat II, there’s a risk the result will be an over-long report that will overwhelm all of governments, non-profits, and businesses’ goodwill to solve the most critical urban issues. But the process may also succeed in raising awareness of underserved urban populations and create a new consensus, a real vision for cities in the 21st century.
UN officials are hoping for nothing less than a total “rethink of the urban agenda.” The idea is to focus national policymakers’ attention on cities and get them to create new policy and regulatory frameworks that can help urbanites develop. UN Habitat wants to see greater global support for more sustainable urban planning and design, which is fantastic. However, none of this can happen without a better system of municipal finance. Cities need smarter investment if they are expected to grow in sustainable ways. Clearly, lots needs to be discussed with representatives from all sectors of the city.
There are many skeptics of these UN processes, too. At the meeting in New York City, Brent Toderain, Toderian UrbanWorks, a planning consultancy, said he has been a long-time critic of high-level international conversations. “These kinds of debates can actually be an unhelpful distraction. Just look at Agenda 21 and its impact in the U.S.” Too often at these big-profile summits, it’s “nations talk and cities act.” If an international dialogue is going to have any real impact, it must “be translated into action.”
Toderain sees five areas where action is needed:
First, every city — from Los Angeles to Nairobi — is “struggling with growth management.” In North America, Africa, South America, and Europe, there is unending sprawl. While sprawl may mean different things in the developing and developed worlds, it’s a problem everywhere.
Second, every city has an “infrastructure deficit, whether it’s providing water or WiFi.”
Third, traffic and mobility are a problem almost everywhere. “Whatever city you go to, it’s the first thing people want to talk about.” And it’s not an easy problem to fix. For example, while Medellin, Colombia, managed to “solve crime,” shutting down Pablo Escobar’s drug cartel, it still hasn’t been able to solve traffic. But there are lots of new solutions being tried as well. Paris and Stockholm are now experimenting with making their center cities totally car-free, a model that may spread to other cities.
Fourth, cities are all focused on improving public spaces. Pointing again to Medellin, he said that city has created remarkable and safe parks with free amenities for the poor, like museums and libraries. This signifies an amazing change there: “Twenty years ago, people were afraid to go out in public.”
Lastly, all cities are wrestling with equity and diversity issues. Cities may use different terms, but core issues relate to affordability, equal access, gentrification.
Ana Moreno, head of communications for UN-Habitat, said a new global discussion on cities is needed because “not all politicians are accountable, so people don’t know they have a voice and can participate in their own future.” In many countries, the private and non-profit sectors are getting together through a World Urban Campaign to provide feedback that will feed into the final report from the non-governmental sector at Habitat III. This feedback is being collected through Urban Thinkers Campuses and other meetings held around the world from now until next spring.
Each country is submitting an official national report that will feed into the governmental agreement at Habitat III. The U.S. has already submitted a draft National Report. U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) official Salin Geevarghese said HUD Secretary Julian Castro is leading that effort. The U.S. seeks to create a “broad, inclusive process” around key themes like housing for all, upward mobility, and improving resilience. He announced a set of regional public meetings designed to elevate the local conversation. “We want to surface local stories.”
If it weren’t for us, bison and beavers might still roam Chicago, Illinois, the location of the ASLA 2015 Annual Meeting and Expo. The absence of these keystone species, which once provided important roles in the continental water cycle, represents a marked shift in ecosystem functioning. However, landscape architects and engineers from Andropogon Associates and Biohabitats are thinking about how to bring back the ecosystem services these species once provided in order to more sustainably manage water.
“We’re not bringing bison back to the edge of Chicago where they would have been, but looking at their functionality, the lessons that can be learned from them,” said Keith Bowers, FASLA, president of Biohabitats. “We need to ask ourselves how we can turn it around and be these species.”
One way to start this process is by “thinking like a watershed,” Bowers said. “How different would our water management systems be if our states were configured around our watersheds?,” he asked. While humans have made political boundaries irrespective of these watersheds, ecosystems – and their associated wildlife – simply don’t follow suit. The divide between human perception and ecological realities is ubiquitous. Just as an example, 73 percent of people polled in Baltimore, Maryland, do not believe they live in a watershed. This misconception is even more present in other parts of the country.
Thinking like beavers or bison in their native watersheds could provide solutions. Bison, for example, create holes, or “wallows,” in the ground that are perfect for collecting rainwater. Beavers also play a critical ecological role by building dams, which increase riparian habitat and can help store millions of gallons of water underground, among other benefits. Perhaps one way for California to adjust to drought would be to think more like these creative animals, “with their small, highly-distributed water management systems” that are more aligned with the functionality of a watershed. Their smart approach is the “the exact opposite of water engineering that happens in California,” said Erin English, a senior engineer at Biohabitats.
Thinking about how nature functions on the molecular level can also offer solutions said Jose Alminana, FASLA, a principal at Andropogon Associates. It’s at the molecular level “where life starts and where the future of the life on this planet will reside.”
Both Andropogon and Biohabitats have been leading the charge in designing landscapes that think like watersheds. The new U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington D.C. designed by Andropogon Associates and HOK was highlighted. This constructed landscape uses gravity and a set of planted terraces to move and cleanse water.
Mimicking nature’s functionality creates opportunities for more sustainable urban water management. Bowers said “we have to make that a priority.”
“In this day and age, is a hybrid approach a panacea, a cure-all?” This question was posed by Paola Antonelli, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)’s senior curator of architecture and design, who was host of a recent salon at Harvard University Graduate School of Design (GSD), which brought together an unusual group of professionals, all who engage with hybrid approaches in their work. The event sparked a conversation that was in itself a hybrid of sorts, which I would venture to guess was one of Antonelli’s ambitions.
Unburdened by the limitations of a single disciplinary focus, the speakers were free to engage with each others’ work, asking questions, making suggestions, comparing and contrasting experiences. For the designers in the audience, mostly millennials who are not scandalized by the cross-pollination of disciplines, the conversation was provocative.
Antonelli began with a whirlwind presentation about all things hybrid today and its historical trajectory in both groups and individuals. She discussed its roots in biology, in which it is defined as the offspring of two different species, and then how this concept has been used in fields such as artificial intelligence, art, and industrial design.
She covered hybrid organizations that have corporate profit and public benefit, the inter-disciplinarity of universities, and the liminal space so many of us now inhabit between the physical and digital world. Throughout, she asked us to consider who defines people, projects, or spaces hybrids.
Elijah Anderson, a professor of sociology at Yale, then spoke about his research on cosmopolitan canopies, the “islands of civility in a sea of racial segregation” – hybrid spaces within cities in which people of all races and ethnic groups can intermingle with ease, like Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia (see above).
Next up was Eric de Broche des Combes, architect, graphic designer, and lecturer in landscape architecture at the GSD, who discussed the representation of landscapes in video games, a hybrid between the physical and digital realms. He maintained that “99 percent of the feelings you experience in video games are physiologically the same ones you experience in real life.”
Jane Fulton Suri, partner and chief creative officer at IDEO, a multi-disciplinary design firm, another practitioner of hybrid approaches, discussed how she has learned to manage hybrid teams. Her team recently made a machine that emits a single perfect bubble when your calendar says it’s time for a meeting. To get this team to work together, Suri used a variety of strategies, including nurturing mutually-admiring relationships, finding common ground through leveling activities, and iterating forms early in development to spark productive conversations.
Lastly, Alexa Clay, researcher, author of The Misfit Economy, defined her research interest as “where worlds collide.” As a personal experiment with hybrid approaches, she employs an alter-ego of an Amish woman who goes to tech conferences and asks the participants simple questions to raise consciousness about the rapid adoption of needless technologies.
Antonelli believes that “it’s the spaces that provoke and engender hybridity that are the most interesting.” Ultimately, in a time in which so many of the world’s problems — from climate change to geopolitical unrest — are issues that cross disciplinary boundaries, hybrid approaches used wisely can be indispensable.
This guest post is by Chella Strong, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, Harvard University Graduate School of Design.
The natural habitats of pollinators are increasingly fragmented. The overwhelming majority of American agricultural landscapes use chemical pesticides and fertilizers. These factors contribute to the declining health of bees. At the ASLA 2015 Annual Meeting in Chicago, Heather Holm, Holm Design and Consulting; Danielle Bilot, Associate ASLA, Kudela & Weinheimer; Laurie Davies, executive director of the Pollinator Partnership; and James Schmelzer, building operations and management, General Services Administration (GSA) showed how landscape architects and designers can better design for bees. As Holm explained, 81 percent of plants are pollinated by insects, birds, or mammals. Of those plants, 33 percent are food crops.
Most people’s idea of a pollinator is the honeybee, a domesticated insect integral to modern U.S. agriculture. Hives of these bees are shipped throughout the country, following the blooms of food crops. The plight of the honeybee has gotten a lot of attention in recent years. We have learned how we should support them through the thoughtful planting of bee-friendly plants, but less has been written about native bees, let alone the other pollinators.
We must not forget about other pollinators like native bees. North America boasts upwards of 4,000 native bee species, with 200-500 individual species per state. These native species are proven to be more efficient pollinators than the honeybee. As Bilot explained, 200 native bees have the efficiency of 10,000 honeybees. The difference is one of range: the larger the bee, the further they can travel to forage. The honeybee is able to travel a few miles from its hive to foraging opportunities, while the smaller native bee is only able to travel slightly under 1,000 feet. So this means native bees can accomplish more intensive pollination in a small area.
Designing for the smallest specialist bee to the larger generalist bee requires a thoughtful approach. Recognizing that “every urban center has at least 10 percent of its land use area dedicated to parking,” Bilot proposed a plan to connect rural and suburban foraging habitats of the native bees through urban parking lots. This would provide even the smallest bee with foraging opportunities through habitat corridors.
Adams urged all landscape architects and designers to incorporate pollinator-friendly designs “into everything you do.” The Pollinator Partnership has info for everyone from clients to designers, and all resources are free. As Adams said, there’s “a lot of good information out there. You don’t have to invent it, you just have to access it.”
Learning about the different pollinators in your community is the first step. Then, bring passion and commitment to creating a space for pollinators. Even small spaces can go a long way in bolstering declining populations of bees and butterflies, while helping to create healthy, sustainable, and beautiful communities for us, too.
British writer and philosopher John Thackara, author of How to Thrive in the Next Economy, believes changes in the global society and economy now allow people to address environmental problems at a “bio-regional” scale. At the ASLA 2015 Annual Meeting in Chicago, he described the growth of bio-regional models that use social networks to create new forms of economic gain with significant environmental benefits. This transition to a bio-regional approach is already happening in a few sectors:
The local food movement is creating a shift of economic resources that has beneficial environmental impacts. To scale this local approach up the regional level, countries should take a “food commons approach.”
In a food commons, food distribution and retail are owned by a trust and governed by local stakeholders who manage the commons. This approach better connects local resources, so communities are able “to do things locally currently not done locally.”
Thackara looks to Denmark, where the Danish Food Cluster, founded in 2013, has facilitated regional collaboration between food companies in central Denmark. He argued that in this system, “improving the connections of an economic network is at the heart of its environmental impact.”
In order to better connect cities to their resource-rich countrysides, we need to reconsider how we get around, Thackara said. In Vienna, Austria, the idea of collaborative regional mobility has led to the Cargo Bike Collaborative, a donation-based bike sharing service that allows people to transport goods in a low-cost, sustainable way.
The idea of mobility as a fee-based service also has promise. While sharing mobility through services like Uber and Lyft is currently being “told in the language of hipsters in London, New York City, and Washington D.C. with not much attention to the environmental story,” Thackara said, the concept could be re-purposed at a regional scale in order to make transportation more sustainable. “Pay-per-use” frameworks could allow regions to save money on infrastructure in the long run. He said: “one calls upon all of these bits on infrastructure so you don’t necessarily need a car or as many roads at the bio-regional scale.”
A regional example: The Greenhorns, a non-profit organization run by young farmers, sailed a schooner filled with 11 tons of crops from Maine to Boston in August 2015.
Lastly, Thackara said we need to combine expanded regional networks with “an absolute militant search for answers.” This requires building a global knowledge network all people can access. Prototypes and maps mean nothing if people around the world cannot learn from them. “We need to build a story that gives meaning and purpose to young people. It must be more than a story that is just something we tell to each other around a campfire, but grounds for action.”
Daniel Bennett on Landscape Architecture and Liveable Cities– The Fifth Estate, 11/5/15
“The Australian Institute of Landscape Architects’ newly appointed president Daniel Bennett aims to arm the organization’s members with sound economic arguments for the importance of landscape in achieving livable and sustainable cities.”
Rethinking Maintenance of Urban Trees– The Landscape Architecture News Feed, 11/9/15
“If you’re a municipal arborist, you probably got into the field of tree care because you love working with trees and you could make a modest living. You know that that in cities maintenance is the only way that trees get large – and that size matters when we talk about the kind of ecosystem services we want street trees to provide.”
Revamp Possible for Way Hong Kong’s Trees Are Handled– The South China Morning Post, 11/9/15
“The much criticized way in which the authorities handle the city’s trees could be in for a revamp when a newly commissioned study is released late next year, according to the government’s new chief landscaper.”
First Look at Ludlam Trail: A Green Dream amid Traffic-Clogged Southwest Miami– The Miami Herald, 11/10/15
“During Ludlam Trail Fall Fest, a community event held over the weekend at A.D. Barnes Park in southwest Miami, people of all ages biked the peak of a 12-foot high grassy hill, extending just over six miles in length, where the train tracks from Florida East Coast Railway used to lay.”