The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) has decided to adopt the Sustainable Sites Initiative™(SITES®) certification program for GSA’s capital construction program. The GSA determined the incorporation of SITES — which provides a focus on ecological services and sustainability beyond a building’s envelope and also possesses the ability to be applied independently or coupled with LEED certification — offers a highly effective and efficient way to compel environmental performance.

This decision has been memorialized in the 2016 version of our Facilities Standards for the Public Buildings Service (P-100) document, which establishes design standards and criteria for new buildings, infrastructural projects, major and minor alterations, and work in historic structures for the Public Buildings Service (PBS) of the GSA. This document contains both policy and technical criteria used in the programming, design, and documentation of GSA buildings and facilities.

The GSA is an independent agency of the U.S. government whose mission is to deliver the best value in real estate, acquisition, and technology services to government and the American people. The agency’s Public Buildings Service is one of the largest and most diversified public real estate organizations in the world. Its portfolio consists of 376.9 million rentable square feet in 8,721 active assets across the United States, in all 50 states, 6 U.S. territories, and the District of Columbia.

This guest post is by Christian Gabriel, ASLA, national design director for landscape architecture, U.S. General Services Administration.

Can Technology Save Our Crumbling Infrastructure?

Mississippi collapsed bridge / Wikipedia
Mississippi collapsed bridge / Wikipedia

“The infrastructural situation in the U.S. is bad,” said Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kantor at SXSW Interactive in Austin, Texas. Traffic causes “5.5 billion of hours or about $70 billion of lost productivity, costs 2.9 billion gallons of fuel, and increases our healthcare costs by $45 billion each year.” About a quarter of American bridges are crumbling and structurally obsolete; and we hear horror stories nearly every month of another major collapse.

“But technology is the big hope.” Kantor argued that embedded sensors can be used to make roads and cars smarter so they can relay traffic reports in real time, identify structural issues and report them, and reduce traffic collisions and fatalities, which also cost the U.S. hundreds of billions each year.

Embedded sensor / Embedded
Embedded street sensor / Embedded

And autonomous vehicles, ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft, on-demand mobility apps like Ridescout, as well as parking apps, could reduce the inefficiency of traffic. With so little investment in actual structures and asphalt, technology is seen as one cost-effective way to lengthen the life of our crumbling transportation system.

San Francisco parking app / San Francisco Chronicle
San Francisco city government’s parking app / San Francisco Chronicle

What is holding back this safer, more efficient future? For Kantor, the problem is “very silo-ed governments, from the federal to local level.” What’s instead needed is a “whole ecosystem approach, connecting across systems.”

And that’s what the U.S. department of transportation (DOT) is now attempting with its Smart City Challenge, which will give up to $50 million to one city to become the “country’s first city to fully integrate innovative technologies – self-driving cars, connected vehicles, and smart sensors – into their transportation network.”

At SXSW, DOT announced the finalists: Portland, Oregon; Kansas City, Kansas; Columbus, Ohio; San Francisco, California; Denver, Colorado; Austin, Texas; and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. DOT will work with these cities to refine their plans before announcing a winner.

Mark Dowd, senior advisor at DOT, said the “car has caused disconnection in communities; but technology can reconnect communities. We can’t build our way out of our current problems. We are leaning hard on the technology piece.”

Dowd said big cities have the resources to start their own high-tech, integrated transportation programs, but “urbanization only increases pressure on mid-sized cities that can’t build their way out of the problem or attract the tech talent they need,” so they can only benefit from the involvement of the DOT.

DOT was surprised by the incredible demand for these funds. Some 78 cities sent in applications. “There is a hunger for a new way of doing things.” But $50 million only meets a slim share of that demand.

The question for Kantor is “who is going to pay for new infrastructure?, ” smart or otherwise. The only way forward may be an increase in the gas tax, which is seen as a third-rail in American politics. But perhaps a tax gas increase could happen if it’s tied to local fixes that benefit commuters and result in a measurable reduction in fatalities. “Over 36,000 people every year die on the roads, and their deaths are preventable.”

Interview with Thaisa Way on 10 Parks That Changed America

Thaisa Way, ASLA / Thaisa Way
Thaisa Way, ASLA / Thaisa Way

Thaisa Way, ASLA, is associate professor of landscape architecture at the University of Washington and author of The Landscape Architecture of Richard Haag: From Modern Space to Urban Ecological Design.

You were an expert adviser to PBS’s new show, 10 Parks That Changed America, which airs nationwide on April 12. The 10 parks the producers selected include, in chronological order: the squares of Savannah, Georgia; Fairmount Park in Philadelphia; Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Central Park in New York City; Chicago’s Neighborhood Parks; The Riverwalk in San Antonio in Texas; Overton Park in Memphis, Tennessee; Freeway Park in Seattle, Washington; Gas Works Park in Seattle, Washington; and, finally, the High Line in New York City.

Looking at these 10 parks that changed America, what story do they tell? What are the through-lines from the 1700s to today?

It’s a pretty concise story. It’s the evolution of our use of public space; the evolving definitions of what the public realm is. The film starts with the squares of Savannah, Georgia that were designed for an ideal town that was supposed to be based on equanimity and justice. Community life would be centered around public parks. We can move all the way through to Central Park in New York City, essentially the first public park. Then, you get into Gas Works Park and Freeway Park in Seattle, which use urban infrastructure to create new kinds of public realms. We could argue the High Line in New York City is yet another definition of the public realm — the alternative use of former infrastructure for the public.

If you could identify just one park that you think has the most impactful legacy, which would you choose?

I hate that question! There’s never one. But if you are making me, I would start with Savannah and its vision of an ideal town. Savannah is so important because those public squares came out of the founders’ original ideas of equality for everyone. The public realm reflected that, at least until they introduced slavery decades after the founding of the city.

Ogelthorpe plan of Savannah, Georgia / Wikipedia
Ogelthorpe plan of Savannah, Georgia / Wikipedia

Before Savannah, those kinds of landscapes only belonged to the royalty or the rich. The idea that public squares would be at the center of a democratic, or seemingly democratic space, is really critical.

Savannah Square, Savannah, Georgia /
Savannah Square, Savannah, Georgia /

I like choosing Savannah because everybody else would choose Central Park. And, yes, Central Park is really important, but I argue for Savannah because it establishes a language about democratic space that is critical to this long story. Plus, it will annoy people.

There a number of parks you wanted to see included but just didn’t make the cut. Which other parks did you really make a case for?

I tried really hard for the Lurie Garden for a very specific reason: it introduced the idea of a garden in the city, the garden as part of the public realm, which is different than a botanical garden or a park. Lurie Garden is why the High Line could come into existence the way that it did. Lurie Garden made us see the public realm differently.

ASLA 2008 Professional General Design Honor Award. Lurie Garden, Chicago / Mark Tomaras
ASLA 2008 Professional General Design Honor Award. Lurie Garden, Chicago / Mark Tomaras

The other one I argued for was Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis, one of the adoptions of streets as public space or public park, which was another important move.

In your mind, which parks should have been cut?

The High Line didn’t need to be included. It’s the hottest thing in the market right now, but we’ve seen it. Other important parks made the High Line possible. Also, unfortunately, James Corner, ASLA, the landscape architect behind the project, didn’t make the time for the interview, so we only heard from Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, the architects on the project.

I’m not convinced the Riverwalk in San Antonio, which has a wonderful and fascinating history, has had the same effect of some of the other parks featured.

You must have lobbied for Gas Works Park given you teach landscape architecture at the University of Washington and your recent book, The Landscape Architecture of Richard Haag: From Modern Space to Urban Ecological Design. What was your argument for including Gas Works? Did you have to persuade people?

I lobbied for Seattle’s Gas Works Park and also Freeway Park. All but one of the show’s advisers mentioned both those parks, so that was more of a clincher than any of my arguments.

I lobbied for Gas Works Park because it changed the way we saw our toxic urban sites. Before Gas Works, we took toxic soil and dumped it into some poor neighborhood’s landfill. After Gas Works Park, we decided we had to deal with it on site. We had to keep the memory of previous historical decisions in the landscape, such as industry, even if we may not love that history. That opened up the door to the way we deal with cities today.  The way we think about cities and infrastructure today is a legacy of Gas Works. It’s critically important, even internationally.

Gas Works Park / Richard Haag Associates
Gas Works Park / Richard Haag Associates

Freeway Park didn’t have as big of an effect, but it was a whole new way of thinking about infrastructure. In the long run, it’s going to have more impact, it has just taken longer to do that.

Freeway Park, Seattle / Thaisa Way
Freeway Park, Seattle / Thaisa Way

All the parks featured in the solved major social, public health, and environmental problems. Are today’s parks solving our new, immense challenges — climate change, biodiversity loss, inequality, and falling democratic participation?

For the most part, no. Europeans are pushing those boundaries more than we are for a whole number of reasons. One is, frankly, the immigration crisis.

There are individual projects that are beginning to do that but on the whole, but we are still too stuck in the idea that parks are about grass, trees, and masses of people. This is the Project for Public Spaces approach to parks, which is if there are a lot of people — doesn’t matter who — then it’s successful. What’s needed is a re-evaluation of the public realm to serve immigrant and under-served communities and adapt to climate change.

We haven’t addressed these challenges because landscape architects haven’t been willing. There are a number of landscape architects who are talking about these issues. But our public realm is not invested in by the government, people, and patrons, so there are significant obstacles. Only some landscape architects are willing to truly go out on a limb and really argue for some of the dramatic things that we need to consider. That’s the challenge ahead of us.

Frankly, the challenge also is in pedagogy — it’s a challenge for our universities. How do we prepare students to make that argument without making them irrelevant? You can’t jump too far because then you just sound like you’re barking up a tree. Landscape architects have to be able to deal with the reality and persuade civic governments to invest in public space. Sadly, that’s a tough sell these days.

I was at a conference for the last two days in Italy, which was called Urban Landscape as Challenge. Two former heads of Italian Parliament were at this meeting. Both of them had design backgrounds. They were talking about the importance of the public realm and landscape architecture. I want to challenge you to think of a single politician who comes from a design background and spends their time arguing for the design of public realm in the States. What I’d love to do is train more of our landscape architecture students to consider going into politics. How’s that for a challenge?

There’s so many types of public space innovations featured in the show. They reflected cutting-edge thinking at their time. But through their success, they also created models that could be copied and even become commonplace. So, imagine 50 to 100 years in the future. What park innovation has not been created that will become mainstream in our distant future?

Okay, I do not have my silver ball, but here are a couple of ideas.

First, parks are going to become places of climate adaptation, like Mill Race Park by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, which can deal with floods, or they are going to be explicitly designed to provide shade. As the climate changes, we’re going to have to deal with water retention and different biodiversity criteria, too. We’ve begun to address these issues, but we can’t until we get more public investment. Landscape architects, ecologists, and climate change scientists are doing this, but their efforts are going to become more profound and challenging to the status quo.

Second, I don’t know what it will look like, but the sharing economy will play a larger role in the public realm. All of these semi-capitalist, semi-sharing firms like Uber, Airbnb, and others, will engage public spaces. There could be virtual markets that become places where you come and display your wares, but in more of a bartering system. Streets are going to become public spaces for all kinds of commerce. I saw this sitting in Rome, where the streets have all sorts of pop-up stuff happening.

Third, we’re going to see other definitions of public space and uses that grow from diversity and immigration. In the 19th century, there were lots of small city parks in New York City. One of the struggles for the New York City government was to get immigrants to use the parks the way they thought they should be used. Immigrants would come in and use it the way they wanted to use it. The city government would then come in and clean it up. We’re going to see more spaces for immigrants and diverse communities, as well as displaced and homeless populations — places made through their own vision of public space. It’s going to look different. Every space isn’t going to be for everyone. These places will not be about serving the most number of people. It’s going to be about serving the locals in multiple ways. They might be places for alternative agriculture or other food production, or a place for communal cooking and eating.

We’re going to see different kinds of public spaces that will continue the evolution we see in 10 Parks That Changed America, from Savannah to the High Line. Just as Savannah couldn’t imagine the High Line or Gas Works Park, there are things now we can’t imagine.

Apply Now: ASLA Summer Internship

ASLA 2015 General Design Honor Award. Perez Art Museum Miami: Resiliency by Design. ArquitectonicaGEO / Elaine Mills, ArquitectonicaGEO
ASLA 2015 General Design Honor Award. Perez Art Museum Miami: Resiliency by Design. ArquitectonicaGEO / Elaine Mills, ArquitectonicaGEO

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) seeks a full-time summer communications intern. The intern will research and create a new guide to resilient landscapes and write weekly posts on landscape architecture and related topics for The Dirt blog.


The intern will be expected to work full-time from June through August.

The intern will research and create a comprehensive guide to resilient landscape planning and design.

The intern will also create original content for The Dirt.

The intern will attend ASLA’s annual diversity summit weekend and write a report on the proceedings.

The intern will also have the opportunity to attend educational and networking events at the National Building Museum, Harvard University’s Dumbarton Oaks, and other museums and think tanks in Washington, D.C. Other communications projects may come up as well.


Current enrollment in a Master’s program in landscape architecture.

Excellent writing skills. The intern must be able to write clearly for a general audience.

Excellent photographic composition and editing skills.

Proven research skills and ability to quickly evaluate the quality and relevance of many different types of Web resources.

Excellent interpersonal skills and ability to interact graciously with busy staff members and outside experts.

Working knowledge of Photoshop, Google Maps, and Microsoft Office suite.

How to Apply:

Please send cover letter, CV, two writing samples (no more than 2 pages each) to by end of day, Friday, April 15. Please add “Summer Internship” in the e-mail subject line.

Phone interviews will be conducted with finalists the week of April 18 and selection will be made the following week.

The 10-week internship offers a $4,000 stipend. ASLA can also work with the intern to attain academic credit for the internship.

ASLA offers a flexible work schedule but the intern must be at ASLA’s national headquarters, which is conveniently located in downtown Washington, D.C., one block north of the Gallery Place/Chinatown Metro Station on the Red, Yellow, and Green Lines. Learn more about ASLA’s green roof.

The Drones Are Coming

Drones / South Park
Drones / South Park

There are expected to be 20 million unmanned aerial vehicles or drones in the U.S. by 2020, according to Lisa Ellman, who ran drone policy under the Obama administration. At SXSW Interactive in Austin, Texas, Ellman painted a rosy portrait of a future filled with drones carrying out useful tasks like delivering packages, conducting routine crop dusting on agricultural fields, inspecting oil and gas pipelines, taking aerial photography, and even monitoring endangered wildlife. Meanwhile, the reality is many states and municipalities have restricted or outright banned these flying robots from going anywhere near people due to real safety and privacy concerns. A man in Kentucky recently shot down a drone hovering over his home, claiming the air space above his home was his property. This incident and others raise questions about how to regulate our air space for drones.

Ellman said the domestic market for drones would likely reach $13 billion by 2018 and $110 billion by 2025. But even with these huge projections, the U.S. may be falling behind other countries. “In Japan, for example, already 85 percent of crop dusting is done by drones.”

The U.S. is falling behind because Americans still have major concerns. Two examples of this can be seen in popular culture — In Modern Family, there is a hilarious moment when everyone tries to take down a drone hovering over the family yard, and in South Park, drones are put to particularly egregious use.

These satires of the dangers of these vehicles aren’t far off from Americans’ perceptions. Some 59 percent of Americans have concerns about privacy with drones, while 40 percent think they present a safety issue. To address these fears, Ellman thinks drone manufacturers need to do a “hearts and minds campaign — given they have a real PR problem” despite new regulations.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently released proposed rules for the hobby and commercial use of drones. Hobbyists must register their drones, which must be less than 55 pounds and fly less than 100 miles per hour. They can’t go higher than 500 feet and must be flown away from people and cities. “Drone operators must maintain a constant view of the drone at all times.” Furthermore, drone operators can’t fly within 5 miles of an airport.

Commercial operators must apply for a license. So far, there have been about 10,000 applications for licenses, with 4,000 granted. “Most of the early licenses went to Hollywood film producers.” Others have been granted to urban planning, landscape architecture, and other design firms to do aerial studies. Ellman called this approach a “band-aid before a final rule is released.”

Ellman said proposed rules severely limit the potential of drones, because they “need to be able to fly over congested areas and not be in visual sight lines” if we want them to “inspect oil and gas pipelines” or monitor the health of a forest.

She thinks one way to address these safety concerns is a new technology called geo-fencing, which enable operators and owners to pre-set GPS parameters that prevent drones from entering sensitive areas. Another set of new technologies could enable drones to better communicate with other flying vehicles and planes to avoid collisions.

But Ellman admitted getting over the safety concerns — a drone crashing into an airplane or a person — will be hard work. “There have been near misses with drones and aircraft caused by some irresponsible pilots.” For her, the answer is another “public campaign,” and “some enforcement to make examples of these bad actors.”

And privacy remains an issue. “Our homes are our castles and we need to have control over our personal life. There is a fear that drones could spy on us in our backyards.” And so a “privacy campaign is needed,” more than new laws and ordinances. Existing privacy laws already cover the action of any potential “creep,” and additional laws banning drones are really just “playing into people’s fears.” However, many states and cities disagree with her: “In 2015, there were 168 pieces of drone legislation. And in 2016, 33 states considered new rules, while 22 cities passed ordinances.”

Drones raise questions about airspace ownership as well. Our property rights extend above our home, but “only to a certain point.” Under American law, “we own the air rights above our property up to 83 feet, but not past 400 feet. What about the space in between?” The drone shot down by that man in Kentucky was flying 200 feet over his property. “Is that private or public air space? It’s a fascinating question.”

Ellman’s focus was entirely on the interaction of drones with people — what was missing from her analysis was drones’ potential impact on nature. How will drones impact wildlife, like migrating birds? Already, the police in Amsterdam, Netherlands, have trained eagles to take down illegal drones. While an eagle may likely be able to beat any good-sized drone, can other birds defend themselves? The noise from swarms of drones, which Amazon would like to see corralled into airborne highways, could also negatively impact all sorts of wildlife. More research is needed before millions of these are unleashed on our remaining natural world.