Review: NACTO’s Transit Street Design Guide

Transit Street Design Guide / Island Press
Transit Street Design Guide / Island Press

The new Transit Street Design Guide, the third in a series by the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), is a must-have reference manual for city and transportation planners, engineers, urban designers, and landscape architects involved in the design of streets. These books, which include Urban Bikeway Design Guide and Urban Street Design Guide, formulate a new approach to the design of our public rights-of-way, not only as transportation corridors but as important spaces for city life.

Street and highway design has been dominated by civil engineering technical manuals, namely American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO)’s Policy on Geometric Design of Highways and Streets — otherwise known as the “Green Book” — along with the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). These together form the core documents that state, county, and city transportation departments have relied upon as street design criteria for the last half century.

However, in the past few decades — as automobile transportation peaked, personal vehicle miles traveled per day soared, and congestion increased, resulting in wasted time and productivity — officials in some of our larger cities moved towards more productive forms of transportation, using transit street designs not seen in AASHTO or MUTCD. An emerging movement coincided with three city planning trajectories: 1) “smart growth” — compact, mixed use development, centered on high-capacity transit stations in a pattern that favors walking and bicycling; 2) the renaissance of America’s downtowns as desirable places to live, work, recreate, shop, and enjoy culture; and 3), enhanced or new transit to city centers.

Because downtowns use existing developments and rights-of-way, this spawned new ways of thinking about not only moving people in urban streets but also how street space is a part of civic open space. Street space offers a great opportunity: In my home town of Portland, Oregon, streets occupy over 45 percent of the land area downtown.

The stage was then set for a new transportation movement. NACTO was formed in 1996 as a coalition of city departments of transportation for 22 of the nation’s largest cities and now includes 17 affiliate cities. NACTO gained legitimacy in the industry and stimulated a more multi-modal outlook in AASHTO and MUTCD’s guides. In turn, NACTO refers back to AASHTO and MUTCD manuals for more detailed technical criteria.

Transit Street Design Guide is a reference manual so it’s not necessary to read from cover to cover in one sitting, but it’s ordered in a way to easily find the topic you want to explore and go directly to that section. This has been the format of all the books in NACTO series and their free, complementary websites. The book offers advice on choices, how to interpret specific recommended criteria (critical, recommended, and optional, for example), and clear references back to other technical manuals.

In the introduction, NACTO lays down six key principles for innovative thinking. For example, one principle is “growth without congestion,” which calls for “serving more people in less space” and “making transit trips faster on streets with high travel demand.” The other five principles set the stage for creating richer street places, providing better service and mobility for the whole city, ensuring safety, and generating economic benefits from reliable travel choices. NACTO also explains why transit reliability matters, and the components of design and service that create reliability.

Chapters explore transit streets, stations and stops, station and stop elements, transit lanes and transit ways, and intersections. These are all organized with the principles that underlie all street designs and should be kept in mind as a landscape architects and engineers make decisions. These are then followed by a description of the different contexts for design. Clear paragraph headings — such as application, benefits, considerations, critical, recommended, and optional — make it easy to choose a design for further analysis.

These segments typically include one to two-page spreads for each design type featuring outstanding illustrated graphics. Simple line drawings are in birds-eye perspective with color tone and numbered legend symbols. User-friendly illustrations are complemented by photos of the design types built in cities across the country.

An example of the birds-eye illustrations. In this case, paired parallel transitways / NACTO
An example of the birds-eye illustrations. In this case, paired parallel transitways / NACTO

A bonus chapter on transit system strategies peeks into the world of transit system planning and includes sections on systems, ranging from multi-hub (a series of inter-modal transfer stations where passengers change to another line); grid network (great for cities with consistent grid street patterns and distributed destinations); radial network (great for cities with strong downtowns), with benefits and considerations noted. Again, great graphics are used to help a lay-person grasp these concepts.

Example of the excellent graphics. In this case, a menu of different bus stop configurations / NACTO
Example of the excellent graphics. In this case, a menu of different bus stop configurations / NACTO

The last segment — performance measures — is particularly important. For decades, the traffic capacity of streets and intersections was the primary performance measure for street design, and the results of these measurements trumped all other concerns. The book advocates a holistic approach called “Measure the Whole Street” — as in, average person capacity per lane space, safety, public space and social life, health, sustainability, and economic productivity as additional performance measures.

A very graphic way of understanding how person-trip capacity (the number of people moving through a lane space) changes dramatically between your mode choice: auto, bicycle, local bus, express bus and light rail / NACTO
A very graphic way of understanding how person-trip capacity (the number of people moving through a lane space) changes dramatically between your mode choice: auto, bicycle, local bus, express bus and light rail / NACTO

One quibble with the guide: in the double-page birds-eye perspectives of transit street types, the caption lists street width in parentheses. This is typically, but not always, the curb-to-curb dimension. Because overall street width from building face to building face is so critical in total street design, I would have listed both curb-to-curb and building face-to-building face widths so the reader would know at a glance what the sidewalk widths are. You can uncover those missing dimensions in other detailed segments, but it’s important to list total street space.

If you are new to the NACTO series but genuinely interested in 21st century street transportation and street design, get all three books. They are worth the investment. If you’re already a NACTO fan, add this book to your library.

Going forward, street design must increase circulation for all transit modes, improve economic vitality and safety, and result in great placemaking — places that promote community identity, health, and well-being.

Brian McCarter, FASLA, AICP, is principal urban designer at ZGF Architects based in Portland, Oregon. He has 30 years of experience creating urban street designs in Chicago, San Francisco, Denver, Seattle, Calgary, Boise, and, notably, the Portland Mall Revitalization, an ASLA 2011 Professional General Design Award of Excellence winner.

Preparing for a Changing Climate

Gold Coast, Australia, beach erosion /
Gold Coast, Australia, beach erosion /

As the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) formulates a new approach to our changing world, its Board of Trustees sought to learn what other major design associations are doing to both mitigate and adapt to climate change. At ASLA’s mid-year meeting, representatives from the Urban Land Institute (ULI), American Institute of Architects (AIA), American Planning Association (APA), and American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) explained how they are helping their collective membership, which totals hundreds of thousands, face the new challenges.

Serene Marshall, executive director of ULI’s center for sustainability, said their goal is to reduce carbon emissions from buildings — which consume about 40 percent of global energy and produce around the same amount of emissions — by 50 percent by 2030. Strategies that will help include: greater building energy efficiency, education for building tenants on energy consumption, distributed local energy systems, transit-oriented development, urban green areas that help increase the acceptance of density, and local sustainable food production. At the same time, ULI wants to increase the resilience of communities to “floods, fire, droughts, and increased heat.” Developers need to “avoid the unmanageable effects of climate change while managing the unavoidable.” A major part of this involves changing “where they build real estate.”

“Water will be for the 21st century what oil was for the 20th century,” said Jason Jordan, director of policy, APA. Up until now, “water has been too compartmentalized in the planning process.” But Jordan said some forward-thinking communities are already planning for the expected problems that will come with having “too much or too little or too polluted water.” APA has partnered with the Dutch government’s water experts, creating a working group that will lead to a new policy guide for “how to live with water.” APA’s second focus area is planning for hazard mitigation competence at the local level, and they are working with National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to create local standards. Lastly, APA is also focused on creating new models for public engagement and how to “better address social equity issues.”

“If we deal with climate change in isolation, we are not going get to where we need to,” said Joel Mills, director of AIA’s Center for Communities by Design. “1.4 million people are moving to cities around the world each week. Climate change is directly connected with urbanization.” But he also added that there is no one-size-fits-all urban climate solution. For example, “Austin has doubled in population while Detroit is fighting its way back.” To come up with solutions, communities must create their own dialogues based in collaborative approaches. In addition, AIA has signed on to the Architecture 2030 Challenge, which calls for all buildings to be carbon neutral by 2030. And the group has joined the national multi-sector partnership on resilience in the built environment.

“Today’s design criteria and codes are built on the weather of the past — this is the challenge,” said Dick Wright, with ASCE’s committee on the adaptation to a changing climate, which also recently released a comprehensive report on adapting infrastructure to the future. “The challenge is how to deal with uncertainties in the underlying climate data.” ASCE is promoting the use of the “observational method,” a “learn-as-you-go process for a life-cycle 50-100 years out.” Engineers now need to ask themselves “what is most probable scenario in 50 years and design for that, while also providing for the extremes.” As an example, the Lossan railroad, which runs along the coast from Los Angeles to San Diego, is set on pre-cast concrete piers that can be shifted 5-feet up as needed. The piers were constructed to be “deliberately durable to extreme exposures.” Wright concluded: “we’ve reached the end of handbook design — you can’t put in numbers and spit something out. Engineers must use ingenuity and imagination in dealing with uncertainty and adapting to future conditions.”

ASLA President Chad Danos, FASLA, asked how can planning and design organizations actually impact climate policy?

Mills said “every mayor is very interested in this issue,” and working bottom-up from the local level could result in a “grassroots movement.” For Marshall, it was those mayors who created the local actions and political room for the international climate change agreement reached in Paris last December. “The mayors made it easy for the national leaders.” Both Marshall and Jordan said avoiding the “ideology” of climate change was important. Marshall said, “it’s better to just go to communities and ask, ‘do you have flood, drought, or air pollution problems?'”

Jordan thinks a successful strategy for changing climate policy will need to “refocus the discussion and get away from the polarizing dynamics.” The business sector, particularly real estate developers and insurance companies, may help create a “bottom-line approach that will have impact. Capital markets will drive change due to the vulnerability of some assets.”

Most seemed to agree that “policy change will not happen on Capitol Hill,” but will be the result of many state and local efforts.

Also, all agreed that cities and smaller communities only continue to build in vulnerable areas along coasts. As sea levels rise, this is increasingly untenable. Jordan said: “We need to take a hard look at where we are subsidizing risky developments. An honest conversation is needed. That’s in the public interest.”

University Landscapes Teach, Too

University of Virginia campus / Perfect Soccer Recruit
University of Virginia campus / Perfect Soccer Recruit

“Landscapes have long been essential to the transfer of knowledge,” said Daniel Bluestone, a professor of history, art, and architecture at Boston University at Dumbarton Oaks’ symposium on landscape and the academy. In ancient Greece, “Hippocrates taught the art of medicine under a tree. And in China, there has been a tradition of educational landscapes, including the book garden.” Fast forward to the founding of some early colleges and universities in the United States, and we see the beginning of a “distinctly American type of educational landscape,” with gardens, arboreta, and designed views. Early American university campuses were designed to “train the eye to outside beauty,” create a long-lasting appreciation for nature, and build important values like self-reliance. Today, some of those American universities are now at the forefront of education about sustainability and resilience. “University landscapes can create a profound connection with the ecology of our world. We need students who understand climate change. A university can make these issues manifest in the landscape.”

The symposium covered vast ground; here are highlights from some of the campus landscapes discussed:

The University of Virginia: This model American campus was laid out by president Thomas Jefferson in the early 1800s. He envisioned a central mall surrounded by buildings, with “spaces for learning intended to promote the stewardship of knowledge, an academical village,” explained Bluestone. The idea was to give people “space to develop a sense of where they were” — in this case, the Virginia landscape, which was central to the original campus and became a sort of living learning lab, in today’s lingo, “where students could reflect on their place in the greater ecological scheme of things.” It was also a productive landscape: students would pass by kitchen gardens and know where their food came from. (The image below is of Jefferson’s kitchen garden at Monticello, but it perhaps gives an idea of what those would have looked like).

Vegetable garden at Monticello / UVA Green Dining
Vegetable garden at Monticello / UVA Green Dining

Harvard University: Joseph Claghorn, a fellow at Leibniz University in Hannover, Germany, gave a sweeping tour of Harvard Yard through the ages, arguing that the shift away from the grand Elm tree monoculture of Harvard Yard to a more diverse, resilient tree canopy, under the guidance of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, is mirrored in shift away from being a white, elitist college to a more diverse one. (However, one could also argue that only elite institutions like Harvard can afford to be so resilient). Claghorn traces the evolution of Harvard Yard over the years, explaining that there had been three waves of Elm deaths before the move diverse planting scheme was created, which still features the stunning Elm roof but also includes blooming yellow woods and many other species.

Harvard Yard / Harvard Magazine
Harvard Yard / Harvard Magazine

Harvard, the oldest institution of higher learning in the U.S., has largely had an organic evolution over the past 375 years. In the beginning, there was no masterplan for the campus. By the 1720s, the college had settled on an “open quadrangle, not cloistered like Oxford.” Claghorn says this distinction is important: In the United Kingdom, the ancient universities of Oxford and Cambridge had roots in monasteries — they were isolated, exclusive places for learning — but Harvard, in its early years at least, was open and directly linked with the Cambridge Commons, which “reflected the mutual dependence between college and town.” By the early 1800s, however, the college had become a university, with multiple schools, and become “largely segregated from the neighboring working-class community.”

Original Harvard Yard / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates
Original Harvard Yard / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

The epitome of this segregation was the addition of a church on Harvard’s campus, which meant students no longer ventured into Cambridge to worship with their neighbors. Gates were added to further separate the campus. Those gates were later used to the defensive advantage of student protestors in the 1960s and 70s. In the past few decades, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates began to diversify the campus landscape, as the Elms were infected by Dutch Elm disease. Today, some subsidiary spaces even have apple trees — a far cry from the totality of the Elms. Diversity and resilience is now increasingly depicted through the campus landscape.

U.S. Military Academy at West Point: John Dean Davis, who is studying for his Ph.D at Harvard, delved into the landscape of the oldest continual military installation in the country. The early campus experience for the male cadets was “drudgery punctuated by moments enjoying nature.” The sprawling campus in upstate New York allowed for “roaming in the Hudson River valley.” In the early 1900s, the Olmsted brothers created a masterplan that featured an “active plane,” a vast central lawn, and the preservation of forested watersheds. Today, the active plane where marching drills were once held now contains sports field and a helipad. And instead of free immersions in the wilderness of the military reservation, cadets are bound in mediated REI-like experiences in controlled natural settings. Enjoyment of wild nature has been tamed in favor of safety and discipline.

West point campus / West
West point campus / West

Vassar College: In contrast with West Point, Vassar, the first endowed women’s college in the U.S., incorporated landscape exploration into the actual curriculum, said Karen Van Lengen, professor of architecture, University of Virginia. The campus in Poughkeepsie, New York, was separated from the town. Its ambitious landscape plan evolved incrementally over time, but was crafted to have “an effect on the students.” Some of the first women ecologists in the country led classes featuring the campus landscape. Each class at Vassar also contributed to the development of the landscape by planting trees. “Tree day was an important ceremony.” It grew to become a “nocturnal, cult-like event, with dances and poetry.” Commencements even involve constructed, ceremonial views of trees. Today, Vassar remains a “leading institution for environmental studies and uses its campus to teach about ecology and conservation.”

Vassar College Commencement / Webner House blog
Vassar College Commencement / Webner House blog

John Beardsley, director of the landscape program at Dumbarton Oaks, remarked how the landscape of Vassar was designed to encourage independent thinking, while West Point’s emphasized the collective, despite moments of freedom in nature.

Duke University: Mark Hough, FASLA, university landscape architect at Duke, and Linda Jewell, FASLA, a just-retired professor from the University of California Berkeley, explained the history of this picturesque campus in Durham, North Carolina, and the unique role it plays as both public garden and educational institution. From the beginning, Duke had “Ivy envy,” explained Hough. That resulted in massive investments by the Duke family, one of the wealthiest in the south, in creating a campus that “looked like it was carved out of pristine nature.” Today, the campus is wrestling with how to integrate more contemporary landscape architecture into the historic campus, and manage a $1 billion building campaign that will result in new projects by West 8, Reed Hilderbrand, and Stephen Stimson Associates.

Last year, the university’s Sarah P. Duke Gardens received over 300,000 visitors, explained Jewell. Considered the highlight of the campus, the gardens feature a designed pond — that is beautiful but also manages stormwater — and “exuberant flora.” In 2007, the gardens got the first full time director, who was put in “take it to the next level.” While the gardens clearly attract lots of visitors, they are also designed for the students. WiFi is now accessible to enable “passive study.” And then there’s the trickier student interactions to manage. Hough explained that “it has become a social ritual to have sex in the gardens before you graduate.” He laughed, “you can’t take the students out of the campus.”

Sarah P. Duke Gardens / Panorama Point
Sarah P. Duke Gardens / Panorama Point

Hough explained how students’ deep concern about sustainability led Duke to LEED-certify all their buildings in the early 00s and resulted in a shift away from manicured gardens to more ecological ones. A severe drought in 2007 also led Duke to reduce its dependence on the municipal water system, with a 12-acre pond that Warren Byrd, FASLA, Nelson Byrd Woltz, unearthed and turned into a campus nature park, adding some 40,000 native plants. The new ecological landscape, which just opened last year, saves the university 100 million gallons in water use a year. Hough said this new landscape is an example of how Duke is “blurring the lines between infrastructure, student life, ecology, and engineering” while still making places that are “as beautiful as possible.”

Duke Pond / Mark Hough
Duke Pond / Mark Hough

Jewell said in the past five years, she has witnessed a huge increase in awareness about the role campus landscapes can play in sustainability. A simple question like, “do we have too much grass?” has “opened the door” to much broader conversations.

How to Teach Landscape Architecture to High School Students

Cooper Hewitt Teen Design Summit / Jared Green
Cooper Hewitt Teen Design Summit / Jared Green

“I wish I had this opportunity when I was your age to meet all these amazing designers,” said Caroline Baumann, director of the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, at the start of the High School Design Summit in Washington, D.C., where 200 D.C. public high school students got to learn from national design award winners from all disciplines. Out of the whole group, about 25 students were put into small groups of four and asked to try out landscape architecture, practicing both design thinking and collaboration. Students were given a variety of prototyping materials, including straws, paper, and wire, to create models based on challenges. Students were asked to either create a healthy outdoor park or a space that would benefit their neighborhood in just 45 minutes. As they raced to create their prototypes, national design award winning-landscape architects hovered, critiqued, and offered guidance.

As the landscape architects interacted with the students, I asked them what they thought about the state of high school design education. Margie Ruddick, ASLA, author of Wild by Design, who won the national design award in 2013, said “landscape architecture, and design in general, needs to be better integrated into the curricula. Design is a part of life and it needs to be better included in our educational system.” She said with the lack of opportunities to explore the world of design, “too many kids don’t even know they are designers.” She was one of those kids: as a high school student she was “completely bored working in 2D; I wanted to be in 3D!” But there were few opportunities for her to express herself using models.

Shane Coen, FASLA, Coen + Partners, who won the design award in 2015, said U.S. undergraduate enrollment in landscape architecture is falling, in large part because there is so little awareness of the profession in high schools. He believes the mission of every landscape architect should be go to a high school and show students what it’s about. Coen said “when I go to talk to high school students, they don’t even know what landscape architecture is and what a powerful, broad field it is. That’s a serious issue.”

And Mary Margaret Jones, FASLA, senior principal at Hargreaves Associates, which just won this year’s award, said “high school education for landscape architecture is non-existent. The biggest concern is these students never make it to a university program. We just aren’t getting the numbers we need. I’ve spoken to people at the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture (CELA), and they see a crisis coming. Employers are also having a hard time hiring and they are searching all the time.” Jones also said landscape architecture must become more diverse. She added it was actually First Lady Michelle Obama’s idea to bring together the D.C. public school students and the design winners — “I couldn’t agree more with this approach.”

For some additional perspective, Halima Johnson, who runs teen programs at the Cooper Hewitt, said: “high school students in general don’t know landscape architecture is a thing. But landscape architecture isn’t the only design field with this problem. They also don’t understand interaction design or product design.” She said it’s important to keep it simple and “lead them to it.” For example, a good design challenge is asking them to design a park or outdoor space “before actually explaining to them this is a discipline.”

Many of the students got into it. Watching the student groups busy constructing their models, Ruddick commented that “some groups are on fire and some are stuck.” With some groups, “there is a clear leader who catalyzes the design process, and then the others who are deferential.” She said in the real world, it’s not much different: “there always has to be one design lead, even in a collaborative process. Otherwise, you can get lost and get design by committee.” The design leader “has to have the ability to let the process play out and not get freaked out but channel things without steamrolling.” Jones, also helping the teams, largely concurred: “there were some students who just dove in. They were natural design leaders.” But she said “someone started and then that gave others the ability to start, too.”

And both smiled when they saw some teams were struggling with competing design visions. Jones joked: “wow, that never happens in the real world.”

One team, seen in the image up top, ended up creating a set of cascading pools. As Big Daddy Sal, one student, explained, “there’s a kiddie pool, an intermediate pool, with a slide, and then an advanced pool that can only be reached by a 100-foot ladder. You can just chill up there. There’s also a hot tub for older people.”

Deshala, a local high school student, said her team created “a cool-kids spot, with a pool and an area where they can just sit on the grass.” Her team purposefully designed a space that would provide shade.

Cooper Hewitt Teen Design Summit / Jared Green
Cooper Hewitt Teen Design Summit / Jared Green

One team created a giant hammock, covered in solar panels that power a spinning umbrella upon which multimedia is projected. They were also focused on providing shade. “There’s a special area just for pets, too.”

Cooper Hewitt Teen Design Summit / Jared Green
Cooper Hewitt Teen Design Summit / Jared Green

Marcus, another student, explained that their team created an outdoor coffee shop, with palm trees.

Cooper Hewitt Teen Design Summit / Jared Green
Cooper Hewitt Teen Design Summit / Jared Green

And, lastly, one team created a “Bad Girls Club playhouse, a sanctuary for anyone who is a girl to express themselves emotionally and physically.” The team went outside the toolkit provided the Cooper Hewitt, using the light from a cell phone to illuminate the model.

Cooper Hewitt Teen Design Summit / Jared Green
Cooper Hewitt Teen Design Summit / Jared Green
Cooper Hewitt Teen Design Summit / Jared Green
Cooper Hewitt Teen Design Summit / Jared Green

As David Skorton, president of the Smithsonian, said later in the day, “design is an optimistic endeavor.” And perhaps for some of these students, the day made them more optimistic that they too can use design to solve our problems. Perhaps some will even consider a new path.

Thomas Rainer: There Are No Mulch Circles in the Forest

Planting in a Post-Wild World / Timber Press
Planting in a Post-Wild World / Timber Press

Instead of laying down a layer of mulch to separate plants, let native plants grow into beautiful, layered masses, said Thomas Rainer, ASLA, co-author of Planting in a Post-Wild World, at the Potomac Chapter of ASLA Gala in Washington, D.C. Rainer believes it’s possible to both boost biodiversity and achieve beauty through the use of “designed plant communities.” It’s possible to avoid creating a “weedy-looking mess,” but still harness the “adaptive ability of plants.” In fact, only by taking this approach can landscape architects and designers “reconstruct natural habitats in our cities,” which Rainer thinks should be their goal for the 21st century.

In the near future, Rainer sees a largely urban world dealing with the challenges of a changing climate. In the era of Anthropocene, there may be less pristine nature, which leaves cities and suburbs as a primary place to restore and reclaim ecosystems. “The loss of nature may represent a new beginning: an opportunity to re-wild our cities.” Rainer sees a future where skyscrapers have meadows, water treatment plants have wetlands, and highways are ecological.

So what’s holding all of this back? Rainer in part blames landscape architects and designers who are still pushing “formalistic arrangement of plants,” increasingly an anachronism in our world of biodiversity loss.

In a brief tour of landscape architecture history, Rainer explained that plants have long been used to “express order,” starting with the classical and French traditions. There was a pause in this approach with the English, pictureseque, naturalistic landscape style, which allowed for greater diversity of plant species. But that style lost favor amid the renewed formalism of Modernist landscape design, which “still dominates — with its mono-cultures of walls, carpets, stripes, and grids.” Modern formalism hasn’t been good for ecology. And while Rainer thinks that formalism may still have a place, more biodiversity must be introduced within this style.

All of those striking Modernist landscapes, and their contemporary variations, have had a “high impact on critters.” Birds rely on insects that rely on specific native plants. If you remove the plants from the equation, the whole ecosystem collapses. Today, “the lack of plant diversity is a real problem.” A way to introduce more diversity is through designed plant communities, which are “complex, adaptive systems” that require little maintenance. This new planting paradigm represents a shift from the Modernist approach of “plant as object” to a focus on “the power of systems.”

Designed plant communities / Thomas Rainer and Claudia West
Designed plant communities / Thomas Rainer and Claudia West

If landscape architects and designers are worried how all this will look, Rainer points out that the High Line, with its wild yet artfully-curated sets of plants, is one of the biggest draws in New York City. Rainer thinks this is because “there is nostalgia for the lost wild spaces,” and people want to see them in cities. But beyond the beauty of Piet Oudolf’s planting schemes on the High Line, those plant communities are also more resilient because they are more diverse. Oudolf let the plants “naturally interact.”

ASLA 2013 Professional General Design Honor Award. High Line, Part 2 / Iwan Baan
ASLA 2013 Professional General Design Honor Award. High Line, Part 2 / Iwan Baan
ASLA 2013 Professional General Design Honor Award. High Line, Part 2 / Mercer Country Master Gardeners
ASLA 2013 Professional General Design Honor Award. High Line, Part 2 / Mercer Country Master Gardeners

Sadly, too many landscape architects and designers still want to “mass, group, and separate” plants, instead of allowing the plants to interact. One recent LEED Platinum building achieved all its site-related credits by planting the plaza out front with just one native plant, which seems to completely miss the point. There, “plants were treated like a piece of furniture.” But in the wild, “plants are social and react to changes in their network. If you take them out of their network, they lose functionality and resilience.”

As an example of the resilience of nature, Rainer pointed to a strip outside his house in Arlington, Virginia, which gets inundated with salt in the winter and dog pee year round, but has a diverse, inter-mingled mass of 26 different “weed” species.

Hell strip in Arlington, VA / A Way to
Plant strip in Arlington, VA / A Way to

Too many landscape architects and designers also bring in generic soils and mulch, to ensure that “anything will grow there,” as opposed to using available local resources to plant layered native communities, which really act as “green mulch.” As Rainer notes, “you won’t find mulch circles in the forest.”

Rainer said bringing in too much soil and mulch runs counter to increasing biodiversity. “It’s actually the lack of abundance of resources that leads to increased diversity. If you look at landscapes with a great deal of infertility like desert landscapes, that’s where you’ll see diversity, and a harmony of plants adapted to place.”

Sonoran desert plant communities / Gateway to Sedona
Sonoran desert plant communities / Gateway to Sedona

Biodiversity can look designed and be beautiful. “We can reach a new intersection between ecology and horticulture. We can combine the best of the ecological plant traditions with the pleasing dynamics of aesthetic formalism. We can avoid weedy messes, but also let plant communities self-seed and move around.”

The Legacy of Jacques Simon

Image 1 / caption
“Champ Dessiné” mown agricultural field by Jacques Simon / Teresa Gali-Izard

Jacques Simon is a name unfamiliar to most landscape architects in the U.S. However, he influenced a generation of designers in Europe. A French practitioner who studied fine arts in Montreal, then landscape architecture at the School of Versailles, he was also broadly, though informally, educated through his rural upbringing and lifelong personal engagement with wild and agricultural landscapes. Given this education and background, Simon eluded categorization. Working at the edges of the discipline, he blurred boundaries between land art and ecological design, carefully-staged interventions and traditional farming practices, and play and technical experimentation. He added elements of surprise and delight to familiar landscapes, inspired people to take a closer look at their surroundings and see the potential for play and creativity in the everyday.

Though I never had the privilege of meeting Simon, I have learned about his work from Teresa Gali-Izard, International ASLA, former chair of landscape architecture at the University of Virginia (UVA) and principal of Arquitectura Agronomia. In 1992, as a recent university graduate, Gali-Izard took a road trip “pilgrimage” to France to meet the man whose work she had long admired from afar. That meeting with Simon marked the start of a deep friendship that lasted until Simon’s death in September 2015. After three years as a student of Gali-Izard at UVA, I am now beginning to understand how strongly her pedagogy has been shaped by Simon’s ethic and appreciate his influence on the profession I am about to enter.

Most of Simon’s written work has yet to be translated into English. However, his drawings, built work, and recorded interviews offer some insight for those whom French might be a barrier. He was a prolific thinker. His sketches, studies, and notes flood over 60 sketchbooks. His projects ranged in scale, from urban playgrounds to regional-scale parks. He played, wrote, and acted, gathered people together, and appropriated media and tools necessary to carry out his visions. In 1990, the French government awarded him the first Grand Prix du Paysage for his contributions to the development of ideas and concepts in the field of landscape architecture. In 2006, he received the Grand Prix National du Paysage for his design of the Parc de la Deule in Lille, France.

Parc de la Deule, Lille / Teresa Gali-Izard
Parc de la Deule, Lille / Teresa Gali-Izard

I recently came upon a video interview that captures Simon’s spirit, as he leads us through his work at the Parc de la Deule:

Explaining the 400-hectare park that follows a 17 kilometer stretch of the Deule Canal, Simon walks along, pushing aside branches that hang over the path. Kneeling down, he pulls up blades of grass that he uses as drawing tools, illustrating the ideas that shaped the park. A series of perpendicular walkways of vegetation extend through the park, linking the canal and park-land to the surrounding villages, farm fields, and forest. Simon pauses in front of a field with a tunnel of sculpturally-arched willows to explain:

“I like working with the hearth, with mankind and its diversity. This diversity gives us teardrops, commas, curves and the like. They intertwine, double back, twist around. People discover things differently here than in an open field. Everything is linear, rectangular, then suddenly something surprises them. That’s important.”

Simon worked with dynamic processes, forging relationships between plants, soil, and materials that evolve long after their initial construction. He was a choreographer of vegetation, intervening with sensitive, formal edits that considered growth cycles, morphology, seasonality, and cultural use. Community participation was vital to his process of maintaining and caring for designed landscapes. In Parc de la Deule, Simon invited friends and children to stage small theater productions on site, building papier mache gnome puppets who “spoke for the forest.” His projects remind us how imagination and play can free us from cultural constraints and help us to know a site intimately.

Simon passed away in September 2015, but his legacy lives on. Every April, in his playful and hospitable spirit, Gali-Izard invites the landscape architecture department to her home to celebrate his birthday. Students and faculty gather to share a meal and hear her recount stories from her lifelong friendship with him. As we sit cross-legged on the floor, flipping through page after page of his drawings, we can’t help but think of how our own practice and creativity might unfold.

Jacques Simon journals / Teresa Gali-Izard
Jacques Simon’s sketch books / Teresa Gali-Izard
Jacques Simon journal / Teresa Gali-Izard
People and trees, Simon’s sketch book / Teresa Gali-Izard

Though Simon has passed on, we can only hope that all of us will remember to play a little more, touch and experience the materials we are charged to work with, and not feel too tied to convention as we leave academia and enter the world of practice.

This guest post is by Amanda Silvana Coen, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, University of Virginia.

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

Adriaan Geuze at Governor’s Island  / The New Yorker, Illustration by Eda Akaltun

From Tahrir to Tiananmen, ‘City Squares’ Can’t Escape Their History – NPR, 5/1/16
“From Mexico City’s Zócalo to Rome’s Piazza Navona, public squares have always been a vibrant part of urban life. After visiting Italy a few years back, editor Catie Marron began thinking about the different roles these public spaces have played.”

Google Launches New Views of Houston Parks The Houston Chronicle, 5/3/16
“Although much of the Houston Parks Board’s Bayou Greenways 2020 project is still being developed, you now can take a virtual tour of the massive hike and bike trail system from anywhere in the world. The tour was created through a partnership with Google, which today launched Street View images of more than 80 Texas attractions via its Google Maps application.”

Revisiting the Constructed Edens of Roberto Burle Marx The New York Times, 5/12/16
“You get back to Eden by preserving what exists of the original, or by creating new versions of your own. Roberto Burle Marx, the great Brazilian landscape architect, did both.”

French Landscape Firm Wins Pershing Square Competition with Call for ‘Radical Flatness’The Los Angeles Times, 5/12/16
“The newest plan to remake downtown L.A.’s Pershing Square is elegantly simple. If only the same could be said for the process that will now be required to get it approved, paid for, and built.”

The Ups and Downs of Vertical Gardens The National, 5/13/16
“Vertical gardens, or living walls, are springing up across the UAE, as innovative new technologies, coupled with increased horticultural understanding, have expanded the potential design permutations of this living art form.”

Play Ground The New Yorker, May 2016 Issue
“The landscape architect Adriaan Geuze hopped onto the grass, cupping his hands to his ears. ‘You can hear a million insects,’ he said, in his vowelly Dutch accent.”

From Landscape to Ecological Urbanism

Landscape as Urbanism / Princeton University Press
Landscape as Urbanism / Princeton University Press

Charles Waldheim, Affiliate ASLA, chair of the landscape architecture department at Harvard Graduate School of Design, is moving away from the “original assertions and ideological charge of landscape urbanism,” a controversial theory he has shaped and promoted. Instead, in his new book, Landscape as Urbanism: A General Theory, Waldheim takes a broader view, arguing that landscape architecture is the design discipline best positioned to create more sustainable cities through “ecological urbanism.” Our cities are increasingly complex, and a systems-based approach is needed to sort through all the inter-relationships. In our multi-layered urban world, what better organizing tool can there be than the underlying ecology of a city?

Much of the design press seems to agree with Waldheim. The Architect’s Newspaper, CityLab, and other planning and design publications have expanded their coverage of landscape architecture, with the latest urban ecological plans, parks, and plazas now getting as much attention as major new buildings. And we are starting to see these ideas percolate into mainstream media as well. In a new profile of West 8 founder and landscape architect Adriaan Geuze, ASLA, and his work at Governor’s Island in New York City, The New Yorker wrote: “parks have become the new architecture stars, perfectly suited for our green and community-seeking age.” There is a growing awareness of the value of ecological landscapes, in all forms, in our cities.

Waldheim’s book is not written for the general public. The writing can be tricky, but the book is rich in bold ideas. He has a thought-provoking take on the twinned history of planning and landscape architecture, and how these disciplines have shifted roles in a few major cities over the past few decades. He increasingly sees contemporary urban planners as “rushing into document design,” and focused on “managing public relations, legislative processes, and community interests,” while landscape architects bring the sweeping, layered ecological visions and make them happen. “In many instances, landscape design strategies precede planning. In many of these projects, ecological understandings inform urban order, and design agency propels a process through a complex hybridization of land use, environmental stewardship, public participation, and design culture. Often in these projects, a previously extant planning regime is rendered redundant through a design competition, donor bequest, or community consensus.”

In ArchDaily, Waldheim lists 12 projects he thinks are examples of this trend, and in his book, he holds up New York City, with its High Line, Chicago, with its Millennium Park, and, finally, Toronto, with its ambitious set of Waterfront Toronto parks, as prime examples of a landscape and ecology-first approach to city-making. Waldheim argues that these big, landscape architect-led projects are a sign that “landscape architects are the urbanists of our age.” However, Waldheim doesn’t go into any detail about the leadership, planning and regulatory frameworks, or local cultures that enabled these projects to happen in the first place. For Waldheim, the role of the landscape architect is increasingly paramount.

One of the most interesting chapters looks at the history of the term “landscape architect.” Waldheim argues that with landscape architect’s increasingly ambitious urban and ecological scope, the term doesn’t do justice. He reveals, though, that this debate has been ongoing since the late-1800s, at least among the leaders of the field. Frederick Law Olmsted particularly disliked the term landscape architect and “longed for a new term to stand for the ‘sylvan art.'” Olmsted was quoted: “landscape is not a good word, Architecture is not; the combination is not. Gardening is worse.” Waldheim writes that Olmsted wanted a better English translation of the French terms that “more adequately captured the subtleties of the new art of urban order.” And, interestingly, many of the founders of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), which was formed in 1899, also “chafed” at the title landscape architect, including ASLA’s only woman founder, Beatrix Farrand. Waldheim floats the possible translation of the French and Spanish conception of architecte-paysagiste as “landscapist” and presents it as a more relevant title for an evolving profession.

Towards the end of Landscape as Urbanism, Waldheim moves away from the West and sees the future of landscape architecture in Asia, personified in the unique role Kongjian Yu, FASLA, founder of Turenscape, plays in China. “Yu represents a historical singularity and is arguably the most important landscape architect practicing in China today.” Yu plays the role in China that Olmsted once played here in the U.S. but perhaps on an even broader scale. (And through omission, Waldheim seems to say there is basically no one of his stature in our country practicing today). “Yu has leveraged this unique historical position to lobby Chinese political elites, most notably national leadership and mayors, for the adoption of Western-style ecological planning practices at the metropolitan, provincial, and even national scales.” Through this effort, his lectures to China’s Conference of Mayors, and his influential publications, Yu has “effectively articulated a scientifically-informed ecological planning agenda at the national scale.” Yu’s advocacy culminated in a recent project: a Chinese National Ecological Security Plan. Waldheim sees this as the epitome of the positive role landscape architects can play in shaping a more sustainable, ecological urban future. And Yu and others’ “ecological urbanism” may surpass the more limited landscape urbanism approach in earning followers.

Waldheim concludes that an “ecological approach to urbanism promises to render a more precise and delimited focus on ecology as a model and medium for design. This has the dual benefit of avoiding some of landscape’s luggage, whole rebooting the now two-decades-old intellectual agenda of landscape urbanism.” Ecological urbanism opens up a whole new set of opportunities. “Increased calls for environmental remediation, ecological health, and biodiversity suggest the potential for re-imagining urban futures.” What an exciting idea: marrying ecological health with good design for both humanity and other species in our cities.

E.O. Wilson Calls for Preserving Half of the Earth

Half Earth / Liveright
Half Earth / Liveright

In his latest book, Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, famed biologist and author E.O. Wilson makes the case for both preserving and restoring half of the Earth, which he believes is possible if we set aside some of the richest places of biodiversity on land and in the oceans. These arks can protect up to 85 percent of all current life as the planet’s human population continues to grow from the current 7 billion to an expected maximum of 11 billion in coming decades. He believes humans have a moral obligation to be stewards of the millions of species that also call the planet home. And if we do not undertake such an ambitious conservation effort now, there could be potentially massive negative impacts for us, too. He reminds us that human survival is dependent on the survival of millions of other species, some of which are very tiny and not well understood.

Wilson is highly critical of our current approach to the environment. “We are still too greedy, shortsighted, and divided into warring tribes to make wise, long-term decisions. Much of the time we behave like a troop of apes quarreling over a fruit tree. As one consequence, we are changing the atmosphere and climate away from conditions best for our bodies and minds, making things a lot more difficult for our descendants.”

He seems shocked by humans’ collective thoughtlessness, which has severely affected other life forms as well. “We are unnecessarily destroying a large part of the rest of life. Imagine! Hundreds of millions of years in making, and we’re extinguishing Earth’s biodiversity as though species of the world are no better than weeds and kitchen vermin. Do we have no shame?”

Wilson concurs with other leading scientists that the planet is now facing its sixth great wave of extinction, largely thanks to us. While the conservation movement has essentially kept the patient — in this case, the world’s most critical ecosystems — on life support, the “heroic efforts” of both public and private-funded organizations haven’t been enough. Extinction rates are about 1,000 times higher than normal. Furthermore, according to a 2010 survey of two hundred experts on vertebrate land animals that analyzed the status of 25,000 known species, a fifth of these species are threatened with extinction and only a fifth have been stabilized due to conservation efforts. Wilson writes, “We might be inclined to say to the conservationists, ‘Congratulations. You have extended life, but not by much.'”

Oceanic ecosystems, which are still little understood, are even worse off, because vast swathes of the open seas aren’t managed by any one country. The result is a primary example of the “tragedy of the commons” in which “blue water, belonging to no one, is subject to no regulations whatsoever, save that established by international negotiation,” and, as a result, is plundered by all. “For generations, all marine waters, variously protected to some degree or not at all, have suffered over-harvesting of edible species. The downward spiral has been hastened by habitat destruction, spread of invasive species, pollution with toxins, and eutrophication from excess nutrient runoff.”

In Half-Earth, Wilson finally responds to those who see some glimmer of potential in the new Anthropocene, our current planetary epoch shaped by man. Their vision is of a planet made up of “novel ecosystems,” successfully managed to serve humans and perhaps some beneficial “nature,” but now degraded to its base functioning as “ecosystem services.” Their approach is a response to the failures of the conservation movement. It’s also rooted in their belief that “pristine nature no longer exists, and true wildernesses survive only as a figment of the imagination.”

Wilson says some practical ideas have come out of this “new conservation movement,” like managing nature parks and reserves in a way that helps meet the needs of people, too. However, he is scathing in his critique of the clique of writers, restoration ecologists, conservation biologists, and designers promoting this vision, accusing them of great ignorance of how ecosystems actually function. “It is been my impression that those most uncaring and prone to be dismissive of the wild lands and the magnificent biodiversity these lands still shelter are quite often the same people who had the least personal experience with either. I think it relevant to quote the great explorer-naturalist Alexander von Humboldt on this subject, as true in his time as it is in ours: ‘the most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those who have not viewed the world.'”

To save biodiversity, scientists, policymakers, planners, landscape architects and designers, and the general public must “understand how species interact with one another to form ecosystems.” Yet, Wilson says our current state of knowledge about ecology is “so poor as to limit this effort.”

In light of this general ignorance about ecology, he instead calls for protecting the “best places in the biosphere,” polling 18 international conservation experts to select those areas that can act as the few protected arks of life on earth. He writes that if these places can be protected and restored, “a great deal of Earth’s biodiversity can be saved.” In the U.S., these places include the redwood forests of California; the Longleaf pine savanna of the American South; and the Madrean pine-oak woodlands.

Furthermore, Wilson calls for the world’s scientists to accelerate efforts to map and make more easily accessible the Earth’s biodiversity. Some efforts are already underway. For example, multiple universities and research institutes have come together to create the Biodiversity Heritage Library, which will eventually hold more than 500 million records. There’s also the Encyclopedia of Life, a web site that describes some 1.4 million species, or more than 50 percent of known species. Other projects include the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, Map of Life, USA National Phenology Network, AntWiki, FishBase, and GenBank, which catalogues DNA sequences. Wilson sees a future where snippets of DNA sequences of mitochondrial genes can be typed into a search engine and the results would spit out likely species. To collect all this natural data, Wilson also calls for greater respect and support for the world’s naturalists — the professional or amateur collectors of specimens out in the wild.

Wilson concludes the book with his call to action: greater respect for the almost unfathomable complexity of our ecosystems, which he argues are even more complicated than the human brain. “If the approximately one billion years of evolution it took for the single-celled bacteria and archaea on our planet to evolve into more complex life forms were added, it is possible to sense how delicate our birthplace is, how complicated those parts of the ecosystem that shelter each species are, and how intricate and intertwined are the nonlinear interactions of the species.” Destroying this complexity in favor of short-term economic gains is a recipe for “self-inflicted disaster.”

Maximum diversity equals maximum level of stability. This is in fact the essence of resilience, Wilson reminds us. An Anthropecene in which a much more circumscribed designed nature is managed to deliver humans various ecosystem services is a “large and dangerous gamble.” Only restoration to natural ecosystems will bring back that complexity, even if baselines are hard to establish.

In today’s world of novel ecosystems, re-establishing baselines will be hard but also deeply rewarding work. The process involves “dealing with fascinating challenges deserving combined research in biodiversity, paleontology, and ecology. This will be one of the challenges met as parks and reserves are made centers of research and education around the world.”

Coupled with protecting and restoring half of the Earth, Wilson calls for higher-intensity and more sustainable development, which he believes is increasingly possible. Given our current constraints and the expected population boom, “the pathway of economic evolution will be set by growth that is increasingly intensive and less extensive.” And what will be the root of this new pattern of sustainable growth? Wilson believes it will be “contained in the linkages between biology, nanotechnology, and robotics.” Our planet’s rich biodiversity together with ever-advancing human technology will be the foundations of future growth and prosperity.

More Parks Let the Dogs Out

Overton Bark fence / Overton Park
Overton Bark fence / Overton Park

Canine lovers everywhere are bow-wowing over new data from The Trust for Public Land (TPL): dog parks have grown 4 percent since 2015 and a whopping 89 percent since 2007. The cities with the most dog parks per resident are Henderson, Nevada; Portland, Oregon; Norfolk, Virginia; Las Vegas, Nevada; and Madison, Wisconsin. TPL released these findings and other numbers in their 2016 City Parks Facts report.

Peter Harnik, Hon. ASLA, director of the center for city park excellence at TPL, said: “Americans love dogs, and parks increasingly reflect that people want places for them to get outside and take their dogs with them.” Furthermore, “nearly every big city now has at least one dedicated dog park, often with a name that reflects the creativity and exuberance of the movement. Fort Worth pups play at Fort Woof, Memphis pets frolic at Overton Bark, Dallas dogs run at My Best Friend’s Park, and Atlanta pooches scamper at Freedom Barkway.”

All of those Fifis and Rexes have owners who are doing good work for parks overall. Abby Martin, associate director of the center, said “dog owners have been some of the most vocal advocates for parks. They’ve hit the streets to make the case for park funding ballot measures, especially when new dog parks are included in the funding plan.”

Off-leash dog-friendly areas can certainly enliven a park. “People walk their dogs from before dawn to late at night, and all that foot (and paw) traffic goes a long way to making other visitors feel safe.”

What does this mean for landscape architects and designers who may be asked to design these spaces? Martin said any well-designed dog park should work for both dogs and their caretakers. “When dogs are playing, their people need a place to sit. The best dog parks have benches and amenities for humans, too.”

Washington Square Park, NYC Dog Run / Curbed NYC
Washington Square Park, NYC Dog Run / Curbed NYC

But she added that “successful off-leash areas also require careful planning. Dogs and young children may not mix well, so playgrounds and dog runs should be separated as well.” (Also, we would add that dog parks should be designed to sustainably cleanse themselves in order to keep them from smelling like a big doggie bathroom).

Overton Barkway /
Freedom Barkway, Atlanta / Atlanta Town Paper
ASLA 2014 Professional General Design Honor Award. Hunter's Point South Waterfront Park / Copyright Albert Vecerka/ESTO
ASLA 2014 Professional General Design Honor Award. Hunter’s Point South Waterfront Park / Copyright Albert Vecerka/ESTO

For Brad Weston, president and chief merchant at Petco, this data confirms what his firm has been seeing as well. “With pet ownership on the rise across all demographics, it’s no surprise that dog parks, particularly those in urban areas, are on the rise. As pet parents become more in tune with the physical, mental, social and emotional needs of their pets, we expect to see communities embrace even more pet-friendly amenities in the future.”

2016 City Parks Facts is a comprehensive update on the state of parks in the nation’s 100 largest cities, and includes data on “how city park systems serve their citizens, including acreage, park access, specific recreational facilities, division between designed and natural lands, and much more.”

Some other findings:

Spending trends are heading in a positive direction, if data on all 100 parks is aggregated. Total spending on parks and recreation in the 100 largest cities reached almost $7 billion in 2015; in the 93 cities that reported data, spending was up nearly 9 percent over the prior year, with operating spending up 3.9 percent to nearly $5 billion and capital spending spending up 23 percent to $1.95 billion. In 2015, the best-funded city park systems were Seattle, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Washington, D.C., and St. Louis, while the lowest-funded departments were in Detroit; Stockton, California; Newark, New Jersey; Pittsburgh, and Glendale, Arizona, some of the poorest cities in the country.

Other interesting numbers: skate parks are up 6 percent in 2015 and 27 percent over the past five years. They are particularly big out West, with the top three skate park-friendly cites being Chula Vista and Sacramento in California and Henderson, in Nevada.

Explore the full report.