An Urban Farm in Detroit Aims for Profit

Penrose market garden / Jared Green
Penrose market garden / Jared Green

In the Penrose neighborhood of Detroit, two landscape architects, partners in business and life, are testing out a new for-profit model: the market garden. While Detroit has acres of non-profit-run farms growing fresh fruit and vegetables that are then donated to communities, Ken Weikal, ASLA, and Beth Hagenbuch, ASLA, who run GrowTown, want to show the residents of this poor community in Detroit and elsewhere that anyone can apply an intensive, efficient farming method to one-third of an acre, grow high-value produce in all four seasons, and make $50,000 – $70,000 a year.

But their market garden model is really just one component of a more ambitious plan they are leading in the community, with support from the Kresge Foundation, non-profits, affordable housing developers Sam Thomas and Cynthia and Joe Solaka, to create a “garden district.”

Penrose covers some 200 acres and about 335 homes, of which 10 percent are vacant. The area GrowTown and the developers are focused on, the Penrose Village housing community, comprises some 30 acres. The average income in the area is around $10,000 – $30,000 and some 26 – 37 percent live below the poverty line. Before GrowTown, a neighborhood design studio, got involved, there were few public spaces.

In 2013, GrowTown worked with school groups and architect Steve Flum to create a park, with neighborhood kids co-designing the layout and design of the space and the featured element: a serpent.

Penrose art park / Jared Green
Penrose art park / Jared Green

Across the street, the landscape architects worked with the kids to create a maze in the overgrown grasses of the empty lot, teaching them about history of these land puzzles in the process.

Penrose maze / Ken Weikal
Penrose maze / Ken Weikal

In both 2007 and 2013, sets of 30-plus affordable housing units were developed. Along with the later set of housing came a new farmhouse, a town meeting hall, which is right next to the demonstration market garden. There, Hagenbuch tends to her micro-greens every day, educating locals about how this intensive system works, and working alongside the Arab American and Caldean Council (AAC), which is also using the farm to educate the residents of Penrose about nutrition.

The farm will eventually be run independently by local farmers, but, in the meantime, Hagenbuch and Weikal are working hard to prove the four-season intensive growing model themselves, documenting all of their learning for a new toolkit funded by Kresge.

The tunnel house is open to the air in the spring and summer when it grows micro-greens, which sell great locally because they don’t travel well; tomatoes; and other high-value produce. In fall and winter, an extra layer of plastic is added to the top and the sides are closed up. Then, the mix changes to beets, kale, and swiss chard, which will grow in a Detroit winter, but at a slower rate.

Penrose market garden / Jared Green
Penrose market garden / Jared Green

Outside the tunnel house there are additional plots cultivated in warmer months. Future garden elements will include orchards, rows of berry bushes, and fruit-covered trellises.

Penrose market garden / Jared Green
Penrose market garden / Jared Green
Penrose market garden / Jared Green
Penrose market garden / Jared Green

For now, Hagenbuch sells her produce at local farmers’ markets, saying it’s too challenging to meet the stringent demands of restaurants’ timelines. While she earns hundreds per batch of micro-greens, she admitted that “it’s hard work to make money at this. You have to be very business-like about it.”

Micro-greens / Jared Green
Micro-greens / Jared Green

Weikal and Hagenbuch have a vision for these market farms taking root in a network in Penrose, creating a new kind of agricultural urban community. Weikal said: “If we had 10 of these market farms in Penrose, that’s a half million of year being generated in this community.”

They also think locals will buy the produce. “People want fresh food right in their neighborhood; they want to buy food from their neighbors,” said Weikal.

Still, they agree that there are some real obstacles, like a lack of understanding of their intensive SPIN farming method and a lack of commitment to these techniques. Furthermore, to really make this system work, farmers will need some fairly expensive equipment, like a walk-in cooler to store produce before market; a quick-green harvester, which enables growers to do 4 hours of micro-green harvesting in 5 minutes; and a flame weeder, which is needed to ensure weeds don’t sneak into empty plots. “There are some upfront costs associated with a tricked-out market garden,” Weikal explained. But all of this will be covered in the toolkit they are developing, and, hopefully, some loans or incentives can be offered to make these expenses less of a burden to new market farmers.

Weikal said that what they are trying to accomplish isn’t new. “In the 1880s, Paris had super-high density farms in the city. In the 20th century, during wars or disaster, many cities went to intensive farming. Today, in Cuba and Asia, a lot of food is grown in cities.” But he added that, “here in Detroit, where food is grown for social justice, the idea of farming for profit makes some people uncomfortable. ‘Is it inclusive?,’ they ask.”

But Hagenbuch and Weikal are thinking about long-term economic sustainability and a time when many of the foundations and non-profits have moved on to another city.

Duany: The Promise of Suburbia Has Been Betrayed

The transect / PlaceMakers
The transect / PlaceMakers

“The promise of suburbia — to live in nature amid the easy flow of cars — has been betrayed. Sprawl is not sustainable; its growth chokes on itself,” argued architect and urban planner Andrés Duany at the Congress for New Urbanism in Detroit.

Duany calls for using New Urbanism, an approach he and others have promoted for the past few decades, in order to “preserve nature.” New Urbanist developments can preserve nature because they can “make cities places people love to live in,” so they stop moving to the suburbs, contributing to sprawl. New Urbanist communities, he argues, are also inherently healthy and just, because there people “walk, so they don’t get fat,” and “you don’t need a car to get around.” In contrast, car-based communities are “un-just,” because the old can’t drive cars and the poor can’t afford them. Some 50 million Americans don’t have cars.

New Urbanism can also result in a more balanced relationship with nature. “In Europe, they had to integrate with nature. In contrast, in America, our relationship with the wilderness has been adversarial.” But Duany argues that if we use his model of the transect, which shows how cities can become denser as they move from untrammeled nature on the peripheries to dense urban cores, “we can bring nature into the city. Wildlife habitat can be assigned everywhere. The transect is also for bringing nature in.”

Sprawl, Duany argued, is rooted in a dendritic, inefficient, car-based system that must be overthrown with a new grid-based, walkable system. Furthermore, it’s one system or the other: “sprawl and new urbanism are incompatible and can’t be intermixed.”

Unfortunately, the “enemy” — sprawl — is backed by a range of “powerful” forces. There are “whole professions, like traffic engineers, who are vested in this system.” The solution is to provide these “administrators” with a new set of guidelines they can manage. “They just want to administer something. Let’s just change the manual, and then we can change what they administer.”

He envisions New Urbanist communities in which there are multiple choices that coincide with human nature, and the stages of life. These communities have a dense core that can sustain nightlife, which is critical for young people, “whose job it is to date and mate.” Once they’ve mated, they find a starter home, perhaps just out of the core. As they grown older and wealthier, they move closer to the periphery, where they have a larger house immersed in nature. Then, when they retire, they move back into a smaller apartment in the urban core.

Furthermore, human nature is to form hierarchies, and New Urbanist communities simply enable that basic tendency. “We can break up communities into wealthy mansions, mid-range, and low-range housing.” But for Duany, the key is they all live near each other in walkable communities, which enables a local economy, e.g. the maid and nanny live walking distance from the mansions. Duany is also all for allowing people to chose whether they want to live in a homogeneous or diverse community.

Duany said New Urbanists have enabled these kinds of neighborhoods by participating in writing the U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD)’s Hope VI standards, which enabled 270,000 units of affordable housing to be added in a subtle way to mixed-income communities. “We can integrate but keep the housing for the poor to 10-20 percent.”

He concluded that 30-60 percent of Americans want to live in New Urbanist developments where this kind of set-up is possible. “We just need to level the playing field to let the market operate.” In these communities, “life is better; people are more satisfied.”

F. Kaid Benfield, senior advisor to PlaceMakers, and author of the great book People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities, followed Duany, making many of the arguments outlined in his book. However, he further emphasized the need to better “integrate nature into the urban fabric,” perhaps going beyond what Duany and the New Urbanist’s transect offers. “We need nature inside cities, the kind that fits well.” For Benfield, that largely means mid-size (8 acres or less) and pocket parks, along with lots of trees, green complete streets, and all other forms of small-scale green infrastructure. As an example of a perfect-sized park, he pointed to Russell Square in London, “which is a great size — just small enough to reach but large enough to escape in.”

While landscape architects and designers may find some things to agree with here, what was left out of this discussion was the idea of cities as ecosystems. University of Virginia professor and author Tim Beatley, with his biophilic urbanism, shows that dense, walkable cities like Singapore and Wellington, New Zealand, can also be more biodiverse and create those rich connections to nature that sustain life for many species, even in cities.

Detroit Halts Its Decline

 

Detroit's Revival / The Bell Towers
Detroit’s Revival / The Bell Towers

In Detroit, Michigan, there has been 50 years of continuous population decline. But that decline finally stopped this year, said Detroit mayor Michael Duggan, to rousing applause, at the Congress for New Urbanism, which met this year in this resurgent rust-belt city. In the 1950s, the city topped 1.8 million people. Last year, it slid to a new low of 677,000 but is now holding steady. A model of the car-centric city, Detroit tops 142 square miles; it can fit San Francisco, Boston, and Manhattan within its boundaries. Some 400,000 single family homes had been built within the city limits, because “every car factory worker could afford one.” Now thousands of vacant buildings and lots litter neighborhoods.

The decline of manufacturing coupled with “racist policies” eventually inflicted their toll. Banks red-lined whole swaths of the city, going as far as even building a four-foot wall in one community at 8 Mile and Wyoming to ensure “African Americans would not be allowed to buy homes past there.” After years of injustice, what followed were destructive riots that tore the city apart and further accelerated white flight to the suburbs. By the end of the 60s, “us versus them politics had taken over.”

Today, Mayor Duggan, the first white man elected mayor of the majority-African American city since the mid-70s, with 90 percent of the vote, said the city is “open to everyone, black or white, gay or straight.” The city is moving beyond the divisions of the past with a new agenda that focuses on improving services for everyone and concentrating development in order to create an “authentic Detroit” urban experience.

Duggan said one of the first things he fixed was all the streetlights. Instead of burnt out bulbs, all of Detroit’s streets are now lit at night. He also ensured that ambulances, which used to arrive up to an hour after a resident called 911, now make it in 8 minutes, which is less than the required average time.

Given the wealthy suburbs of Detroit still offer a great draw, “we can’t compete with them.”  Instead, Detroit must offer a new urban experience by leveraging “the tight urban grids” and building in more density. “We want to create more 20-minute neighborhoods” using light-rail, transit-oriented development, and the riverfront. Duggan recruited Maurice Cox, who was planning director for New Orleans and Alexandria, Virginia, to lead these efforts. With Cox, Duggan wants to create an “authentic Detroit experience” that can pull people in from the suburbs and elsewhere.

Duggan also wants to spread the benefits beyond downtown. “We have an enormous responsibility to make sure every neighborhood has a future.”

Carol Coletta, senior fellow at the Kresge Foundation, which has been committed to supporting the city’s resurgence for years, said that as Detroit rebounds, there are already concerns about gentrification. But she argued that “there are a lot of people in Detroit who wouldn’t mind a little gentrification if it results in new houses and shops.”

Coletta pointed to a number of studies, arguing that communities actually must gentrify, given the alternative is often a “slow, often-unnoticed deterioration.” Once that decline sets in, it’s nearly impossible for the community to rebound. “Only 105 communities out of the 1,100 deemed high poverty in 1970 have rebounded over the past 40 years.” And today, there are now 3,000 high-poverty communities, and the number of poor have grown from 2 million to 4 million. “Over the past 40 years, we’ve tripled the number of poor communities and doubled the number of poor, which is an abysmal record.”

To ensure “more poor communities don’t displace poor people with their lack of opportunities,” we need to use “government incentives, foundation funds, and market forces” to increase investment without displacement. “Mixed-income communities are the goal because they increase life outcomes.”

However, moving the poor to wealthier communities in order to create mixed-income places is “slow and expensive.” Instead, she called for a special effort to “ensure low-income neighborhoods benefit new people coming in and to create incentives to get the wealthy to move to poor areas.” With equitable gentrification, “we can accelerate the benefits and share them.” Coletta also called for dramatically increasing the supply of affordable housing in these gentrifying neighborhoods, beyond what Portland, Oregon, and New York City, have accomplished, and called an end to the “just green enough” movement, which calls for adding new parks and other amenities to poor areas, but not any that are so nice they will raise property values.

“The ‘just green enough’ idea is craziness born of real frustration. We need more quality neighborhoods, not less. We need new parks, libraries, trails, gardens, and re-imagined community infrastructure in places that offer good options at all price points. Equity is not about being opposed to thriving, appealing cities. That’s actually central to equity.”

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

waterfall-olafur-eliasson-versailles-installation-art-france-anders-sune-berg_dezeen_1568_3
A towering waterfall appears to fall from midair into the Grand Canal at the Palace of Versailles / Dezeen

The Forgotten Space Under this Sao Paulo Highway Will Become a Hanging Garden and ParkCo.Exist, 6/2/16
“When an elevated highway was built in the middle of downtown São Paulo in 1971, the city said it was attempting to improve traffic. Instead, congestion got worse. The two-mile stretch of road, called Minhocão (‘Big Worm’) is now one of the most polluted parts of a city where smog kills thousands of people a year.”

DLANDstudio Launches Phase 1 Design for Rails-to-Trails QueensWayThe Architect’s Newspaper, 6/2/16
“After years of debate over what to do with the 60-year old abandoned Rockaway Long Island Railroad (LIRR), the coalition has been moving toward the goal of converting 3.5 miles of the railroad—which extends from Rego Park to Ozone Park—into a park similar to the High Line.”

A Look at Apple’s Insanely Ambitious Tree-Planting Plans for Its New Spaceship Campus  – Venturebeat, 6/4/16
“While construction crews work furiously to finish Apple’s mammoth new headquarters in Cupertino this year, another critical piece of the campus’ design is taking shape 100 miles to the east.”

Olafur Eliasson Installs Giant Waterfall at Palace of VersaillesDezeen, 6/6/16
“A towering waterfall appears to fall from midair into the Grand Canal at the Palace of Versailles as part of Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson’s latest exhibition (+ slideshow).”

Design Team Led by Mia Lehrer Picked for New Downtown L.A. Park The Los Angeles Times, 6/9/16
“A group led by landscape architecture firm Mia Lehrer & Associates has won a design competition for the 2-acre park, on the site of a former state office building adjacent to Grand Park at the foot of City Hall, city officials announced Thursday.”

His Landscape Designs Take an Artist’s (Quirky) VisionThe Los Angeles Times, 6/10/16
“If there were a competition for tackling out-of-the-ordinary landscaping projects, Mitch Kalamian, a landscape designer, would be on auto entry.”

Sensory, Universally Accessible Playground Designed for Chanticleer Park The Santa Cruz Sentinel, 6/12/16
“The Santa Cruz Playground Project and Santa Cruz County Department of Parks, Open Space, and Cultural Services revealed designs Sunday for a $4 million wheelchair-accessible playground planned for Chanticleer Park in Live Oak.”

Parks + Community = Innovation

parks2
Parks Without Borders – Before / NYC Parks and Recreation
Parks Without Borders / NYC Parks and Recreation
Parks Without Borders  – After / NYC Parks and Recreation

How can communities become more deeply involved in the process of creating parks? How can parks reflect communities’ best vision of themselves? Exciting projects that answer these questions were discussed at the Trust for Public Land’s recent conference on the “nature of communities.”

Communities’ desire for improved park access can result in simple yet effective innovations. Mitchell Silver, the new parks and recreation commissioner in New York City, is piloting a new approach — Parks Without Borders — that aims to remove physical barriers, like chain-link fences, from the city’s parks. The parks and recreation department asked residents which parks would benefit most from improved accessibility. Some 6,000 New Yorkers responded with 692 parks and then 8 parks in all boroughs were selected to test the concept. In these pilots, the parks department will soon test out more accessible entrances, signage, and edges, and better incorporate park-adjacent spaces into parks. As Silver explained, Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of Central Park, said that “the sidewalk next to the park is actually the outer edge of the park.” 150 years later the NYC parks department is taking these words to heart to remove barriers to parks in communities that want greater openness and equity.

Once communities empower themselves, they can also create parks that no designer could make. For Adrian Benepe, Hon. ASLA, former NYC parks and recreation commissioner and now a senior executive at the Trust for Public Land, “cooperative, community-based processes can lead to new and rejuvenated parks” that break down barriers and also reflect local arts and culture. As an example, he pointed the QueensWay in Queens, New York, “the people’s High Line,” which will eventually run through the most “diverse community on the planet,” where some 100 different ethnic groups will line the route. Trust for Public Land, DLANDstudio Architecture & Landscape Architecture, and others are working with the Friends of the QueensWay and the communities to turn 3.5 miles of abandoned railroad track into a “cultural greenway, in addition to a system of green infrastructure.

QueensWay plan / Friends of QueensWay
QueensWay plan / Friends of QueensWay

In Richmond, California, a poor community of about 15,000 just north of Oakland, there is a high level of gun violence; “in fact, it’s the 7th most dangerous community in the U.S,” said Toody Maher, the founder of Pogo Park. The city plopped down $300,000 worth of playground equipment in a local park, which locals then “tagged” with spray paint and tried to burn down. Where others would throw up their hands, Maher saw an opportunity to design a new park with the community. “We realized we needed to build the park from the inside out. Instead of just hiring a landscape architect, the community built a 3D model, actually measuring out in the space what they wanted. ” With a $2 million grant from the state parks department, Maher and the Pogo Park neighborhood steering committee hired neighbors of the park to build it, even hiring local graffiti artists to become park artists. “Pogo Park is community-designed, built, and installed. It’s now a green oasis that radiates change out. Everyone wants to live near the park.”

Pogo Park / Richie Unterberger
Pogo Park / Richie Unterberger

Jennifer Toy, ASLA, co-founder of Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI), walked us through another bottom-up community park project in North Shore, California, farm country in the Coachella Valley. Toy spent about a year just listening in the community, a 3,400-person ghost town “on the periphery of the periphery,” a place at the edge of the shrinking Salton Sea, which reeks of decaying fish. While the town received some financing to create a small 1/8-acre park, Toy learned that park didn’t meet their needs, so the community and her team co-developed a plan for a 5-acre park over the course of some 150 open meetings over multiple years. The result of all this community building is a park design that features “a shaded pavilion, a restroom/bike shop building, soccer field, skate plaza, sport court, playground, walking paths, and native plantings.” The park is expected to open later this year.

North Shore design concept / KDI
North Shore design concept / KDI

Lastly, artists can also act as agents of innovation in communities and get people to see themselves in a new light. Streets, another form of public space, can become linear parks that connect people. Seitu Jones, an artist based in St. Paul, Minnesota, creates artistic interventions around the food system. He believes any artist working in a community “must leave it more beautiful than they found it.” With Create, which launched in 2015, Jones made St. Paul more beautiful by creating a temporary half-mile-long public space in the middle of a street, featuring a half-mile-long table with healthy foods. It took some two years for Jones to reach out to all the communities, bring them to the table, and get the approvals to shut down the street.

Create, St. Paul / Walker Art Center
Create, St. Paul / Walker Art Center

Jones brought diverse communities “who had forgotten how to cook” together to learn and share.

A Vision for Equitable Community Development

Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Mural, Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green

In the 1960s, amid rampant gang violence, drug crime, and white flight, Arthur Hall, a dancer and choreographer, created the Ile Ife Black Humanitarian Center in the poor and mostly African American community of Fairchild-Hartranft in north Philadelphia. The center successfully taught black culture, art, dance, and music in a safe space for decades. Then, in the 1980s, Lily Yeh, an art professor at the Philadelphia School of Fine Arts, got involved and grew the center into a neighborhood arts and cultural hub, the internationally-renowned Village of Arts & Humanities, which now teaches over 400 local students art, advocacy, and leadership after school every day.

Aviva Kapust, the current executive director of the Village, gave a tour of the project during the Trust for Public Land’s recent conference called the Nature of Communities. As we spent the morning walking through the network of 15 parks and plazas, which total some 15,000 square feet across multiple city blocks, Kapust explained that the Village’s public spaces have become “designated safe zones in the neighborhood.” While there is still high levels of crime in this part of Germantown, “it doesn’t happen here.” And while nearby painted houses are often “tagged” by local artists, who leave their unique signature, the murals that oversee the public spaces never are.

Yeh and the surrounding community slowly transformed vacant lots into public parks and plazas. Kapust said Yeh had no idea how to create a park, so she engaged the neighborhood kids, who then brought in their families. “Together, they undertook a process of co-creation,” learning as they went how to plant trees, mold cement benches, set sidewalks, create mosaics — building community all the while.

Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Village Heart, Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green

Kapust believes the space works so well because it “imports symbols from other cultures and projects then back out again.”

But the imagery Yeh selected also purposefully “signals guardianship.” Angels oversee pathways; spirit animals watch over the public spaces. “There is an intentional mesh of spiritual messages into something universal.”

Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Mural, Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green

Yeh just started building these spaces without city government permission, but now they actually own the parks and plazas, which brings its own set of challenges, including financial liability. And simply maintaining the spaces — not developing them — costs some $70,000 per year.

Meditation Park, which was created in the early 90s, is something Gaudi would have loved. A river is formed through mosaic tiles. Colors reflect the Islamic and West African cultures found in the neighborhood. James “Big Man” Maxton, a former drug addict, became the village’s long-time operations director and mosaic artist. The result of his work and many other volunteers is a “beautiful plaza, like something you would happen upon in Barcelona.”

Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Meditation Garden, Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Meditation Garden, Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Meditation Garden, Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Meditation Garden, Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green

A few doors down, Magical Garden is in the process of being revamped as a “natural habitat for urban wildlife.” Annuals are being replaced with perennials, and there will be natural stormwater management systems. Next door is a quarter-acre urban farm with permaculture plots, a solar-powered aquaponic system, and outdoor pizza oven, where culinary education and demonstrations are held.

Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Magical Garden, Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green

Memorial Park, once a vacant lot, honors those who have died in the neighborhood to drug violence or addiction or lost their lives in the Vietnam War. The now-shuttered neighborhood high school had the highest number of alumni to die in Vietnam than any other school — some 64 students. Dream totems, made with a West African artist, invite visitors to remember.

Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Memorial Garden, Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green

Interestingly, not all the parks have been successful. Some of the ones farthest away from the village center are underused. Lion’s Park, for example, may be divested as it has become an “overgrown hazard,” said Kapust.

Lion's Park, Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Lion’s Park, Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green

As gentrification creeps north, can there be a positive future for this unique arts and cultural neighborhood? Kapust says the Village is looking 25-30 years ahead and trying to figure out whether they should use “arts and culture to generate community economic development, or aim for community economic development, using arts as a tool; they are two separate things.” She added that whatever plays out, “we want to keep the needs of the people in this neighborhood at the forefront.”

Kapust wants to reach out to equitable developers as well, taking them a vision and plan for maintaining the character of the community. “The theory is 100 families is a manageable group. We could support those 100 families with jobs and their own homes for 100 years.” Those 100 families, who would take up about 5 blocks, can then maintain the neighborhood culture, support local shops, and create leverage. “It’s basically socialism,” Kapust laughed, or at least an expanded neighborhood cooperative. To make this happen, a workable financing model needs to be connected to the right non-profit developer.

Biophilic Cities Lead the Way to Urban Sustainability

“We need density but we also need connections to nature,” said University of Virginia professor Timothy Beatley, at an event at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) to celebrate D.C.’s successful inclusion in the Biophilic Cities Network, a group of leading cities pushing for rich, nature-filled experiences in daily urban life.

Beatley launched the network only a few years ago, but it already seems to have taken off. Building on the impact of his important books, Green Urbanism, Biophilic Cities, and Blue Urbanism, the network is designed to improve knowledge-sharing among cities who seek to merge the built and natural environments. Leading environmental cities — such as Singapore; Portland; San Francisco; Wellington, New Zealand; and now, Washington, D.C. — have joined, and another 20-30 cities are now exploring signing on.

Beatley explained how biophilic cities forge deeper, more meaningful connections to nature, which in turn increases social connections and community resilience. He then highlighted some biophilic urban innovations:

Singapore (see video at top) is now putting “nature at the heart of its planning and design process.” Singapore’s official tagline used to be “garden city,” but now it’s “the city in a garden.” The idea, Beatley explained, is “not to visit a garden but to live in it; not to visit a park, but to live in it.” To realize this concept, Singapore has issued a landscape replacement policy that ensures any greenery removed through the process of developing a lot be replaced on the building eventually found there. In reality, though, developers, architects, and landscape architects have doubled or tripled the amount of original green footprint in buildings’ structures through the use of sky gardens. “There is now a competition among developers to see who can add more green.” The city has also built nearly 300 kilometers of park connectors to create deeper connections between parks and neighborhoods.

Parkroyal on Pickering by WOHA and Tierra Design / Dezeen
Parkroyal on Pickering by WOHA / Dezeen

Melbourne, Australia, has pledged to double its tree canopy by 2040. “They are re-imagining the idea of the city in a forest. It’s a multi-scale investment in nature — from the rooftop to the bio-region and everywhere in between.” Individual trees are now being registered and made accessible via GIS maps. To further boost engagement, locals can also email love notes to a tree and the trees will write a note back.

The City of Melbourne’s Urban Forest Strategy. Image by Anton Malishev / ArchitectureAU
The City of Melbourne’s Urban Forest Strategy. Image by Anton Malishev / ArchitectureAU

A number of cities are forging deeper connections to urban wildlife, too. In Bangalore, there’s the Slender Loris project that engages citizen scientists in noctural journeys through the city to meet these shy creatures. Austin, Texas has gone completely batty, in a good way. Underneath Congress Bridge, millions of bat fly out at dusk during the warmer months to feed. Above and below the bridge, people gather to watch the amazing exoduses and sometime-murmurations. “There are now bat-watching dinner cruises.”

In St. Louis, there’s Milkweeds for Monarchs, which has resulted in 250 new butterfly gardens. San Francisco will soon mandate the use of bird-friendly building facades. And in Wellington, city officials are investing in predator-proof fencing in many areas with the goal of “bringing birdsong back.”

“Biophilic experiences are multi-sensory. Animal sounds can re-animate our cities. People want more nature; they want to hear birdsong in their neigborhoods,” said Beatley.

Stella Tarnay, co-founder of Biophilic DC, wants D.C. to become even more nature-filled. Her group will monitor new city projects to ensure they actually integrate greenery and boost biodiversity. For example, in Adams Morgan, plans are underway to remake the Marie Reed Learning Center with a set of green roofs and gardens, but it will be important to guarantee none of those great landscape plans get cut at the last minute for budgetary reasons.

Also in the works: building more support for the city’s wildlife action plan through expanded environmental education programs. As Maribeth DeLorenzo, deputy director of D.C.’s urban sustainability administration, explained, “there are now 270 species of birds in the district, 70 species of fish, 32 species of mammals, and hundreds of species of invertebrates.” But greater awareness is needed of these species — along with the biodiversity benefits of a clean and ecologically-healthy Anacostia River and the district goal of achieving a 40 percent tree canopy by 2032.

What Problem Would You Solve with $100 Million?

The MacArthur Foundation, creators of the “genius” grant, have just launched 100&Change, a competition for a single $100 million grant that can make “measurable progress towards solving a significant problem.” The MacArthur Foundation seeks a bold proposal with a charitable purpose focused on any critical issue facing people, places, or the environment. Proposals must be “meaningful, verifiable, durable, and feasible.” The goal is to identify issues that are solvable.

The MacArthur Foundation expects to receive applications mostly focused on domestic American issues, but they welcome international proposals as well.

Cecilia Conrad, MacArthur’s managing director leading the competition, told The Washington Post that the grant competition is designed to inspire more creative problem solving. “We believe there are solutions to problems out there that $100 million might be able to make significant headway or unlock resources, and we want to hear what those are. By focusing on solutions, we can inspire people to focus on problems that can be solved, and we just have to roll up our sleeves and get to it.”

Register your proposal by September 2, 2016. According to the foundation, semi-finalists will be announced in December and finalists in the summer of 2017. The foundation’s board of directors will pick the winner.

In other competition news: AECOM, the Van Alen Institute, and 100 Resilient Cities have announced the latest Urban SOS, an annual student competition. Fair Share will explore the principles of the “sharing economy,” and how it can be applied to “support more equitable access to resources, improve the built environment, and enrich the quality of life of urban residents.” Fair Share is looking for multidisciplinary teams of students “to create a new generation of digital innovations combined with physical design strategies to improve how cities provide housing, open space, transportation, jobs, care, and many other services and resources.” Register by June 14 and submit proposals by September 12, 2016. Winners will receive $15,000 and up to $25,000 in services to support the implementation of the winning concept.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (May 16 – 31)

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NYC park overhaul / Chang W. Lee, The New York Times

Meet the Garden Designer Who Transformed Rio de Janeiro Wired, 5/18/16
“’You can’t talk about Rio de Janeiro without talking about Burle Marx,’ says Claudia Nahson, a curator at the Jewish Museum in New York City. ‘He shaped the city with public works.’”

The Hudson River Will Soon Have New Look as Construction Begins on Thomas Heatherwick’s Pier 55 Architectural Digest, 5/19/16
“The look of New York City’s waterfront—all 520 miles of it—has been steadily changing over the past few decades, with gritty industrial strips being transformed into recreational landscapes.”

Sites of Demolished Detroit Homes Used to Soak Up Water The Detroit News, 5/19/16
“But Detroit’s water department and Land Bank Authority as well as the University of Michigan turned four vacant city lots into gardens designed to corral stormwater.”

Park Designer Brought People to St. Paul’s Riversides The Washington Times, 5/23/16
“Driving down St. Paul’s Shepard Road, Jody Martinez glances to her left: houses. And to her right: the parks she’s been designing for nearly 40 years. Beyond that, the river; always the river.”

Overhauling 8 Parks, New York Seeks to Create More Inviting Spaces The New York Times, 5/24/16
“On Tuesday, the city announced that eight parks will undergo ambitious face-lifts that are about more than just rehabilitation — it is a plan that represents an evolution, officials said, in New York’s approach to parks by making these public spaces blend better and be more welcoming to their neighborhoods.”

The National Parks Have Never Been More PopularFiveThirtyEight, 5/25/16
“As the National Park Service prepares to celebrate its centennial in August, the national parks have never been more popular.”

The Best Landscape Designs Don’t Require Hours of Watering and Maintenance The Washington Post, 5/26/16
“Pity the poor yard. It receives constant care and attention during the spring and summer, but let a few dry spells or heavy downpours mar its beauty and efficiency and suddenly it’s the bad guy.”