Our ecological practices tend to lag behind our ecological understanding. We know, for instance, the unmitigated release of greenhouse gasses destabilizes the climate, yet we’re slow to act on this knowledge. This can be frustrating. But often it benefits a cause to stop and reflect on what is known. This can help bring our knowledge and actions into alignment. Landscape Architecture Theory: An Ecological Approach by Texas A&M University emeritus professor Michael Murphy, ASLA, does exactly this, codifying what landscape architecture knows, so that thoughts and actions may one day be on the same page.
So what does landscape architecture know? More than you might realize. Landscape Architecture Theory is intended as a sort of textbook, so Murphy does his best to cover a lot of ground in relatively few pages. The reader is first introduced to terms like landscape, architecture, and design, as well as the importance of the cultural vantage point from which we view landscape. (Landscape is a tract of land, yes, but also a commodity). The rest of the book is divided into two parts covering substantive and procedural theory. The former “describes the knowledge used to frame and inform design interventions.” The latter gets at how that knowledge is applied.
The result of this approach is an instructional, highly-narrative book that strikes on the fundamentals while stepping lightly through complex subjects. Within a matter of pages, the reader is acquainted with the human propensity for resource extraction inefficiency, the prospect-refuge theory, and a systems approach to landscape. And, surprisingly, the progression feels quite natural.
This distillation of a huge number of important ideas into a quick and coherent format is the blueprint for a go-to book. Landscape Architecture Theory is eminently useful and widely applicable. It’s difficult to recall another book that serves as a primer on the behavioral dimensions of space, traffic circulation, and hydrologic dynamics, among other subjects. There is not a single landscape architecture student who wouldn’t benefit from reading this book cover to cover, and general readers will appreciate its simple and direct treatment of even widely understood subjects.
Murphy outlines the knowledge that can help us reach goals. Here, he gets abstract, proposing landscape architecture’s purpose is “to change, with each new design, our concepts about how to learn from and reform the ordinary landscapes that shape and inspire our daily lives.” Experimental and innovative design, underpinned by theory, is what moves landscape architecture forward. But while designs may take on extravagant forms, the purpose of landscape architecture remains humble: to benefit “the streets, parks, neighborhoods, schools, shops, offices, and factories where people work and play each day of their lives.”
“We are still in the early stages of forming a coherent theory of landscape architecture,” Murphy cautions. Despite the impressive body of knowledge contained between its two covers, design excellence won’t be achieved by all those designers who read Landscape Architecture Theory. As Murphy acknowledges, one of the main challenges in achieving design excellence is the body of knowledge informing landscape architecture keeps growing while each design success pushes the bar for excellence higher. Viewed in a certain way, that’s a very exciting prospect.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) organized a three-day conference on climate and health. As the Trump administration took power, the conference was abruptly cancelled. So former Vice President Al Gore and his Climate Reality Project, former President Jimmy Carter, the American Public Health Association (APHA), public health expert Dr. Howard Frumkin, and others stepped in to fill the gap, putting on a one-day summit at the Carter Center in Atlanta last week. ASLA signed on as a member of the summit’s partnership circle, along with the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the U.S. Green Building Council. In Atlanta, Gore kicked off the conference by arguing that “too little attention is being paid to the health consequences of climate change.” And focusing on coming health impacts could be a more compelling way to persuade the public that more action is needed now. We couldn’t agree more.
“We are now using the open sky as a sewer,” Gore said. The billions of tons of carbon emissions spewed into the atmosphere have a warming effect equal to exploding 400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs every day. If unabated, the warming effect of all of this pollution will not only lead to ecological catastrophe, but a “medical emergency.” If we continue on a “business as usual” scenario, which could eventually warm the planet by 8-12 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, there will be dire implications for human health.
Gore and leading scientists discussed key areas where climate change is expected to cause major human health impacts (due to time constraints, they left out discussing animal and plant health). Here below are the first four impacts; part 2 will have the rest:
Infectious Diseases: “Tropical diseases are on the move. With air travel, they can spread more easily, but with climate change, there are new areas where diseases can become endemic.” As regions warm, diseases like Zika, Chikungunya, West Nile, Dengue Fever, malaria, and others spread by mosquitoes, can take root. Many regions not currently affected by these diseases — places thought to be north of the “mosquito line” — should worry and become better prepared. Also, average global humidity is 4-5 percent higher than 30 years ago, and those numbers are only expected to increase. With higher humidity and heat, mosquitoes speed up their reproductive and metabolic rates, which means there are more mosquitoes biting more.
In India, “there were 39 million cases of Dengue fever per year.” Last year, a park in Tokyo was closed due a Dengue Fever outbreak. And in central China, “malaria has re-emerged” for the first time in ages.
The spread of the Zika virus in the U.S,, which the CDC considers a health emergency, has already affected Puerto Rico, Miami-Dade county, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. And many scientists, Gore said, “suspect it’s now spreading up and down the Gulf Coast.” For most people, Zika causes relatively mild symptoms, such as a rash, fever, joint pain, and eye aches, for about a week and then clears up. For pregnant women, there are serious implications — the virus can cause miscarriages or fetal microcephaly and other birth defects.
Ticks, which are already vectors for disease transmission, are also moving north. “Virtually 100 percent of Canada will be within tick range in a few decades.” And we’ll also see new species — like snails — become vectors for transmissions.
Moving onto to other worrying scenarios, Gore said “runoff from increased flooding or extreme precipitation events will damage our water supplies.” With higher temperatures and more frequent storms, we will see the spread of cholera and other water-borne diseases. According to Dr. Glenn Morris, University of Florida, who conducts research on emerging infectious diseases, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, some 50 percent of the water supply in Haiti was contaminated by cholera.
Vibrio aquatic pathogens, which infect shorelines and also make oysters and other shellfish very dangerous to eat, are also spreading. Morris, said “vibrios are extremely temperature sensitive and every one degree temperature increase can encourage their spread.” Already, the number of cases in the north Atlantic is increasing.
Morris said even slight temperature gains can increase disease transmission. “Climate change opens up new ecological niches for pathogens. These are the unexpected consequences when people play with the environment.”
Heat Stress: While flooding from storms and heavy rains is the extreme weather event that kills the most number of people worldwide, heat stress is the biggest killer in the United States, according to Gore. Mortality rates increase by 4 percent during heat waves, which are more dangerous for the elderly, children, athletes, outdoor workers, socially-isolated people, urban dwellers, the homeless, the poor, and communities of color.
For the past 17 years, the planet has just been getting warmer and warmer. Dr. Kim Knowlton, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University, said 2016 was the hottest year on record, beating 2015, which at that time was the hottest year on record. Currently, New York City has about 670-1,300 heat deaths per year, with 65,000 heat emergencies. Dr. Jonathan Patz, University of Wisconsin, said New York City can expect triple the number of extreme heat days (up to 39 days) by 2045. Correspondingly, Dr. Knowlton anticipates heat deaths to also triple.
More broadly, higher temperatures mean reduced productivity. Outdoor workers experiencing heat stress can’t work. Knowlton said with higher temperatures, the “U.S. could see a reduction in economic output of $2 trillion; by 2100, a 20 percent drop in GDP from extreme heat.”
Many places are reaching all time highs, too, Gore explained. India hit an all-time high of 123 Fahrenheit last summer, and Sydney recently reached 117 Fahrenheit. In Iran, a city hit 165 Fahrenheit, with the heat index, in 2015. What makes this all worse: “night-time temperatures are also increasing, so there is no relief.”
Gore said in these conditions “no human can be outside for more than a few hours.” The projections show that vast swathes of the Middle East and North Africa are on track to reach some of these temperatures on a regular basis. “Areas of the planet could no longer be habitable. They could become beyond the limit of human survival. Mecca and Medina are in this zone.”
Dr. Knowlton said it’s time to take into consideration the health impacts of the world’s energy choices. Moving to renewable energies now may still result in a 3-4 degree planetary temperature increase, which will be “manageable,” while a 10-15 degree increase, under current fossil fuel-driven scenarios, would be “catastrophic.”
Because of air pollution, the life expectancy of those living in northern China has been cut by 5.5 years. In Henan province, it’s estimated that air pollution takes the lives of 4,000 people a day. Pollution in Beijing, China’s capital city, has reached near “unlivable levels.” It’s not just China experiencing deadly air pollution though. New studies show that 99.5 percent of Indians breathe unhealthy air, as do 94 percent of Nigerians. According to one analysis, Tehran, the capital of Iran, was rated as having the world’s worst air.
Some sources of energy are dirtier than others. For example, deaths from coal-related pollution are higher than pollution from other sources. Gore said “coal creates $216 billion in health costs per year.” (Furthermore, coal burning is heavily damaging in other ways. Mercury, which is a co-pollutant that comes out of coal, has tripled in the world’s oceans. Some 16 percent of China’s cropland is also contaminated with it).
Dr. Patrick Kinney, Boston University, said “air pollution should be at the center of the discussion on health and climate.” Warmer temperatures make smog worse, as it increases the negative impacts of ozone and strong oxidant gases. Kinney also said areas impacted by wildfire, which are expected to double with climate change, will also increase harmful smoke inhalation.
Allergens: Another form of natural air pollution that will get worse: pollen, which is expected to triple in many areas by 2040. In areas with Ragweed, there will be an increase in pollen load by 320 percent by 2100.
Kinney said that in New York City, “pollen season is now coming earlier. That’s bad news for people with asthma and allergies.”
Gore and leading scientists discussed key areas where climate change is expected to cause major human health impacts (due to time constraints, they left out discussing animal and plant health). In the first part, we covered the first four — infectious diseases, heat stress, air pollution, and allergens; here, below, are the rest:
Mental Health: Gore said except for Dr. Lise Van Susteren, with the Center for Health and the Global Environment, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, few seem to be studying the mental health impacts of climate change.
Dr. Van Susteren gave perhaps the most powerful speech of the conference, as so much of what she said hasn’t been in the spotlight before. She said the most negative weather impacts of climate change — flooding, storms — result not only in injuries and property loss, but a sense of displacement, which leaves an incredible “emotional toll.”
Shifts in temperatures also have a mental health impact. In higher temperatures, studies have found, there is a “40 percent increase in conflict, and 14 percent jump in conflict between groups.” There is increased unrest among all ethnic groups. She imagined a future with higher temperatures and more refugees resulting in increased conflict worldwide.
And in societies facing an influx of refugees, there has been a “sharp turn to the far right.” In a time of peril, “people regress and give up on their values.” In a state of anger and aggression, “systems can be easily overwhelmed. Faith in government can fail.”
More deeply, she wondered what happens to people’s unconscious psychological states when “the place they call home goes away,” when they can’t return to a place that has been irreversibly changed. She argued that the “fear, anger, sorrow, and trauma” of that experience can “push people to the breaking point” and result in “abuse, drugs, and violence.” She said more and more communities are experiencing this type of nostalgia for lost, damaged lands.
Furthermore, we will feel the loss of the natural world. With some scientists estimating that 30-50 percent of species could go extinct in the coming decades, “we will lose that the awe and wonder we get from biodiversity. The cost is our souls.”
Many people not currently directly impacted by climate change yet may still have “climate anxieties.” A group of climate Cassandras see “future disasters coming,” which takes a psychological toll. She point to children in Australia who are having a hard time focusing due to fears associated with drought and climate change. It has become so common it’s considered a new condition. In a startling statement, she then equated climate change with child abuse, and burning fossil fuels with aggression that puts people in harm’s way.
Food: Important food crops are heat sensitive. Each day corn is above 84 degrees Fahrenheit, there is a 0.7 percent loss in yield, Gore explained. With wheat, there is a 20 percent drop with a 1 degree increase. All those crops also need water, which is becoming increasingly scarce in many places. And another little known effect of rising carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the reduction of nutrient levels in important grains. Zinc, copper, magnesium levels drop by 10 percent of more in common grains as CO2 levels rise, Gore said. This bodes ill for the world’s poor who rely on these grains for these nutrients and can’t afford supplements.
Dr. Samuel Myers, an expert on climate and food at Harvard University, took a step back to look at the big picture. He said “food demand is the highest in history, but climate change is affecting all food systems, threatening the quality, quantity of food and where it’s produced.” Some scientists have posited climate change could have a helpful fertilizing effect by raising temperatures and humidity, but the positive impact will be “smaller than thought,” and be likely far outweighed by the negative impacts.
With rising temperatures, the tropics can expect a 15-25 percent drop in yields. On top of that, more heat is “incompatible with long outdoor labor.” Fisheries peaked about a decade ago and their capacity is falling about 1 percent a year. Fisheries will also now move further towards the north and south poles. Water scarcity threatens livestock. With all these changes, Myers predicts the world will become increasingly dependent on food trade. This hits the poor the hardest, as they are “most susceptible to food price shocks.”
Crops will have less nutritional value. A group of scientists around the world have been growing 41 cultivars over 10 years in open-field conditions, but have been circling them in a ring of carbon dioxide at the levels of 550 parts per million (ppm), which is the level expected in 50 years. The scientists found that with all C3 crops, which include beans, rice, wheat, potatoes, there has been a drop in iron and zinc values along with protein levels. “These deficiencies are already a huge problem today in the world’s population. The effect of climate change may be that 200 million more people will have a new onset of zinc deficiency, and 1 billion people will have an existing deficiency exacerbated. There will be a similar effect with iron and protein, particularly in Africa and South Asia.”
Myers argued said just a decade ago, “scientists didn’t know that food would have less nutritional value. These complex unknown effects are worrying.”
People feel happier, healthier, and more social when they engage with nature. Their cognitive abilities go up and stress levels go down. So why is nature so often thought to be found only “out there” in the wilderness, or perhaps suburbia? For Timothy Beatley, a professor at the University of Virginia, nature should be found everywhere, but especially in cities. Cities must remain dense and walkable, but they can be unique, memorable places only when they merge with nature. If well planned and designed, a city’s forests, waterfronts, parks, gardens, and streets can make out-sized contributions to the health and well-being of everyone who lives there. In his latest excellent book, the Handbook of Biophilic City Planning & Design, Beatley brings together all the established science, the important case studies, the innovative code and design practices from around the world in one place. Even if you think you already know a lot about how best to incorporate nature into cities, there will be some interesting new facets in this book for you to explore.
Some 54 percent of the world’s population now lives in cities, some 4 billion people. That number is expected to reach 70 percent by 2050. As more of the world goes urban, we have a fundamental task ahead: to make the world’s cities ecologically-rich and emotionally satisfying. As Beatley puts it, we must use the “power of nature” to improve the experience of city life. As has been laid out elsewhere, increased amounts of urban nature and improved access to it can boost happiness, creativity, and cognitive abilities, reduce stress and crime, make communities wealthier and more social and resilient. Study after study demonstrate these benefits.
But Beatley unearths fascinating examples like the Mappiness Project in the UK. More than 60,000 Brits out and about in their daily lives were pinged by an iPhone app that asked them at random times to indicate how happy they were. Responses were then geo-coded to locations, with their relevant natural features. The study found “people are happiest when they are in nature. This is one of the main conclusions of the project.”
He also details the many ways cities can create room for nature. While creating connections to waterfronts and planting more trees are no-brainers, he calls for “an integrated, multi-scalar approach,” in which biophilic experiences are embedded at “interconnected scales and levels.” Biophilic encounters reinforce each other, and as they accumulate, the benefits increase. On a daily basis, people experience “doses” of urban nature in different ways — on their porch, walking down the street, on a park bench — and together these make up their overall “urban nature diet.” He recommends spending time a park or greenspace at least once a week, but the science is still out on what that ideal amount of time is. Beatley argues for direct contact in outdoor settings, like sitting under a tree, over indirect exposure to nature, like found in indoor environments or natural history museums.
Beatley has long held up a few cities as model biophilic cities, but he goes into more detail about what they offer. He explores Singapore’s sky-bridges that course through forests and vertical gardens set in skyscrapers, and Wellington’s comprehensive efforts to bring back bird song by restoring habitat and its pioneering launch of the world’s first marine bioblitz.
But he also includes lesser-known success stories, like Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where 3,000 vacant parcels are being re-imagined as gardens and urban farms, and San Francisco’s Please Touch community garden, designed so the blind and visually impaired so can also have a multi-sensory nature experience.
We then get to the nitty-gritty of how to make biophilic cities happen — through smart policies, thoughtful urban planning regulations, and breakthrough designs. There are 80 pages of interesting examples, with many works of landscape architecture, including Paley Park in New York City, designed by landscape architect Robert L. Zion, which he rightfully identifies as a unique multi-sensory experience that demonstrates the “power of water.” With its 20-foot-tall fountain, this tiny park, at just one-tenth of an acre, demonstrates the incredible potential of small, left-over urban spaces.
So many other projects are worth reading about — like the Aqua in Chicago, which is a bird-friendly skyscraper; the Philadelphia Orchard Project, which plants fruit trees in poor communities; Milkweeds for Monarchs in St. Louis, which incentivized citizens to plant hundreds of gardens for threatened Monarch butterflies; the Healthy Harbor Initiative in Baltimore, which is taking steps to achieve a swimmable, fishable harbor by 2020; the Vertical Forest, a residential tower in Milan, Italy, which extends trees upwards through 27 stories; and the 54-acre Qiaoyuan Park in Tianjin, China, which repairs a damaged ecosystem while storing stormwater and creating wildlife habitat.
Beatley concludes with a few thoughts that resonated with me about how the whole biophilic cities movement needs to evolve. As we green cities, we must aim to achieve a “just biophilia” in which everyone benefits. Given study after study demonstrate that access to nature can improve and even lengthen lives, it’s deeply unfair that not every community gets to have the healing benefits of nature. Plus, we must also must figure out how to reach an increasingly technology-fixated public, who are often interacting with nature through their phone’s camera. He promotes Sue Thomas’ book Technobiophilia, which argues we can better foster connections to nature through cyber-parks — real parks that leverage the Internet.